If I submitted a screenplay with recent events as its plot points, the story editor would write ‘strains credulity’ across the top in red ink.
But when I had an apartment in Brooklyn and was adjusting to the rhythms of those strange zoo animals called native New Yorkers, I learned the wisdom in some of their classic maxims. Don’t look up. If a car service isn’t worth going into overdraft for, what is? And always – always – move forward, even if that means sometimes you just gotta fuhgeddaboudit.
So, my gaze is fixed firmly on the future, one that will see me out and about in the world again. I’m done with sheet pan recipes in the New York Times; in fact, I’ve been done for weeks with the entire ‘Home’ section and its faux-cheerful ideas of what we can do this week with the remnants of our lives.
I watch like a kid’s face pressed against the candy store window as life returns to normal in the US – in particular, in New York and California, two of my favorite places – and I fantasize about museums, and live theatre, and beauty salons.
Life inches back open in Toronto, too, with restaurant patio meals and backyard visits with close friends. But, still, like many people, I’m restless. It’s been a long fifteen months; a rollercoaster of emotions large and small, expansive and petty. Who knew that gratitude and gripe could come out of the same mouth, seconds apart?
At night, my restlessness dreams of New York City.
London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.
― Dorothy Parker
Literary New York City is legendary. And pervasive. Difficult to think of another American city that has so drawn writers to live there, while simultaneously acting as the backdrop to novels, plays, music, and more.
Who hasn’t thought about Harlem in Toni Morrison’s Jazz or James Baldwin’s Go Tell it to the Mountain? Hunter S Thompson’s Paul Kemp drinking at the White Horse Tavern in The Rum Diary? Known New York as an inexhaustible space, like Paul Auster’s protagonist Quinn in The New York Trilogy?
It’s impossible to walk by, or in, the Chelsea Hotel without mental images of a Benny-addicted Jack Kerouac writing On The Road, William Burroughs penning Naked Lunch, Arthur C Clarke creating 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Dylan Thomas in Room 205 falling into the coma that would claim his life the next day.
The list of artists who lived in New York City is dizzying, including Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Jimi Hendrix, Thomas Wolfe, Madonna, Sid Vicious, and of course, Bob Dylan writing Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands there for his future wife Sara or Leonard Cohen’s famed rendezvous with Janis Joplin…
Where else but New York would an artist’s colony masquerading as a hotel be synonymous with so much of 20th century cultural history?
Also extraordinary are New York City’s literary institutions. The reading rooms at New York Public Library’s main branch on 5th. The building and collections of the Morgan Library (the café is great, too). The Strand, especially its rare books room. McNally Jackson Books in Soho. The annual antiquarian book fair at the Armory. The tremendous gift that is the 92nd Street Y cultural programs.
An extraordinary array of riches for the literary-inclined.
While I enjoyed The Frick’s virtual Cocktails with a Curator Fridays at 5 pm and The Met’s website audio tours, it’s a pale imitation of wandering the city for hours, museum-hopping on the Upper East side, a lunch of miso-glazed sea bass at Tao, walking along the High Line to get to the Whitney, dinner at Boucherie in the West Village, a performance out at BAM, late-night Glenfiddich at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy, before tucking the now aching legs up into bed, only to rise up the next morning and start all over on a stroll down to ABC Kitchen for some caffeine and maybe a little breakfast. . .
From being one of the hardest-hit Covid cities to one of the first to re-open, New York is – as always – ahead of the pack.
Pull Focus book tour plans (both live events and virtual) are gaining momentum! They so far include a Toronto launch in early September and other TO events through October, as well as US cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Portland, and others this fall.
The idea of physically seeing people again is both exciting and slightly terrifying. I might need remedial training on the art of making small talk, on not flinching when anyone comes near, and on activating those transverse abs so I can stand up for hours at a time (:
Grazie mille to all of you who so kindly pre-ordered the book. I really appreciated the notes and/or photos you sent. And if anything needs the link again 😉
“With bated breath, I fell deeper and deeper into the complex and intricate mystery so artfully created by Helen Walsh. Jane’s world felt both familiar and unlike one I’d ever seen before. Pull Focus is like a shot of adrenaline. With every page, you keep wanting more.”
– Deepa Mehta, film writer and director
“In the end, I couldn’t put this novel down. Pull Focus is a propulsive mystery of financial machinations, international malfeasance, and sexual impropriety, but it starts off deceptively, as a sardonic romp among film festival glitterati. The multi-talented woman at the heart of the whirlwind needs to smooth-talk arts board members, play tough with dangerous scoundrels, and manage all of this in the midst of romantic convulsions.”
— Antanas Sileika, author of Provisionally Yours
News & Gossips
I loved this NYT article about online play readings group cropping up, via Zoom, Skype or through Clubhouse.
Sometimes these groups involve professional actors looking to keep their chops sharp until the return of theatre. And other times, participants are just regular citizens, coming together to read classic plays, or new ones written by members.
Some professional theatres have gotten in on the amateur act. Two dozen or so theaters joined Plays at Home, which commissions playwrights to write and post short plays that people can perform.
“We realized that’s really how people fall in love with the arts, by participating in them,” Nell Bang-Jensen, Theater Horizon’s artistic director, said.
In BC, Boca Del Lupo launched a similar initiative, Plays2Perform@home, a box set of plays that can be ordered online and delivered to your home or picked up on Granville Island.
Boca del Lupo Artistic Director Sherry Yoon and Artistic Producer Jay Dodge started asking themselves the questions: what is the essence of theatre? How can we keep the ember burning for those who love performance as much as we do? They concluded that, “theatre is live, theatre is communion, theatre is something to be experienced together, in the flesh.”
I love this. So often we talk about the pivotal role the arts play in a society – a mirror, a reflection, a chronicler of our times. But for that to be true, then the arts must seem alive, and relevant and exciting for audiences. How better to guarantee that than to provide opportunities to participate?
We’ve all read about the continuing debate about what books deserve to be published, including Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish former Vice President Mike Pence’s upcoming memoir as well as Kellyanne Conway, against the wishes of many S&S employees.
Is this a freedom of expression issue or a fig leaf held up to defend decisions taken for financial reasons and which contradict the company’s stated anti-oppression efforts?
(BTW, this Politico article looks at what Trump affiliates are rumoured to have landed book deals versus those shopping around with no joy. And the parade of anti-Trump books continues, with Adam Schiff’s Midnight In Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy And Still Could (Oct 2021) and Martin Baron’s Collision Of Power: Trump, Bezos, And The Washington Post.)
There’s also been a lot of coverage about Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth being dropped by one publisher and picked up by another. This VOX article examines how publishing rallied around to protect Bailey, while this Washington Post article explores misogyny squared – a sympathetic biographer (Bailey) hand-picked to write the book by Roth himself, dutifully parroting negative attributes of Roth’s wife while facing charges of sexual grooming eighth graders.
It brings me back to being a 4th year UofT English Lit student, and being told by my professor, also the chair of the English department, that I should just drop the course after I criticized Norman Mailer for being misogynist. Obviously, he said, I just couldn’t understand Mailer.
In Canadian agenting news. . . Emmy Nordstrom Higdon joined The Rights Factory as an assistant agent, focusing on character-driven #OwnVoices projects. They were previously a bookseller, a blogger at Books Beyond Binaries, and a member of the planning team for the Festival of Literary Diversity.
Meanwhile Karmen Wells, formerly freelance screenplay and manuscript editor at Shelf Made Creative Services, joined the Rights Factory as associate agent for film and TV.
Over at Westwood Creative Artists, Bridgette Kam is moving from the rights department to become a literary associate, working with Jackie Kaiser and Hilary McMahon. Caroline Vassallo has been promoted to international rights associate and film/tv Associate. Briar Jones has joined as Office Manager.
Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this seventh issue of Letterbox, which will be monthly from now on. And please remember to share with your friends and network.