Thursday, August 03, 2006

About Harry, Carrie, Garp and the Match Girl

See only link for image.

The following post is light on links . These are titans of publishing. You can find their works yourself, if you don't already own one or twenty. Last night's reading at Radio City Music Hall was star-studded, I can tell you. Afterwards, there were fans clustered outside the stage door hoping for a picture. I'm not used to seeing authors treated like rock stars- outside of scifi and comic cons- so it was wild.

We were seated way up in the highest balcony, the 3rd mezzanine, but in the very front row (AA) on the extreme stage-left side where the arc of the balcony curves forward. The slightly dizzy-making but awesome impression was of floating in space, in front of and above all everyone - like a speaking senator from Star Wars - and we were unobstructed in our view of the seats, the stage and the enormous vault of the hall around us. Thanks to the four huge video screens backing and flanking the stage, as well as my trusty opera glasses for whatever the cameras didn't focus upon, I had a terrific vantage point. I assume, if you've read this blog at all, you know I'm a geek. Read on and feel affirmed in that judgement.

There was a slick video montage intro with music to make the authors look ubercool. Then, our evening's line-up included Whoopi Goldberg introducing the event, Tim Robbins introducing Stephen King with a funny bit about how much Scrimshaw, Stimsink, Scrankcram had meant to people. Stanley Tucci introduced John Irving, and Kathy Bates introduced J.K. Rowling, thanking her for getting children reading about places "Google does not go." A friend who attended last night said Kathy Bates introduced King for them, Andre Brauer (update: sp apologies, Braugher) introduced John Irving, and Jon Stewart introduced J.K. Rowling. After each night's readings, Soledad O'Brien moderated a question and answer session.

The readings were wonderful. Stephen King started with his hilariously vomitous short story about a blueberry pie-eating contest, The Revenge of Lardass Hogan from a short story collection called Different Seasons. That tale was adapted for use in the movie Stand by Me.

John Irving read a section about casting the Christmas pageant from A Prayer for Owen Meany. Perhaps he had to develop this voice himself to write the character, but his scratchy falsetto for Owen was fantastically funny on its own. I wonder how this scene might've read to me on the page, because I was almost crying with laughter at Owen's relentless repetition of his concerns. "What about the turtledoves?" Sometimes repetition in text makes me want to skim, but in person, Lou Costello had a million ways to ask Bud Abbot "Who's On First?" to keep juicing the comedy though they'd each look the same in print. That's just an aside, though. Irving was excellent.

J.K. Rowling read a section from #6: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a flashback where Dumbledore goes to the orphanage where Tom Riddle (who will later be Voldemort) has lived for the 11 years since his birth, and Big D tells the matron he's got a spot for Tom at Hogwarts. It's a good choice because there's a large female part in Mrs. Cole, and Rowling did some funny wheezing dialect with the gin-soaked caretaker of the foundlings.

I don't know if all the attendant celebrities had kids they wanted to get comp'd inside, or whether they're legit fans themselves, but it was something to behold. Last night, called forward for the Q-&-A was another notable author, Salman Rushdie, and his nine year-old son who was a little too shy to grab the mic himself. J.K. Rowling, unlike the other authors reading, was under constant badgering to expose her upcoming storyline, and she opined it might not be quite fair to have someone asking questions who was so gifted with figuring plots. Rushdie Sr. deferred to his son, saying modestly (or perhaps truthfully in his opinion) that one of the two gents before her was gifted with plot divination, but not himself. I'll use the quote of his question from Publisher's Lunch, because it sounds right and I wasn't transcribing. There were Lots of publishing industry type there. In fact, sitting just behind us were some industry pros from a competitor (I think they said arch-nemesis) of Scholastic, Rowling's publisher who co-sponsored the event. From today's P's L:

In the question-and-answer session, Rowling worked hard to respond politely without giving anything away though well-aimed questions did elicit a couple of morsels. One audience member wanted to know why Aunt Petunia blushes when told she'll only have Harry on her hands for one more summer, and Rowling made it clear that "there's more to Aunt Petunia than meets the eye."

But the toughest questioning (and harshest answer) came from Salman Rushdie, theoretically speaking on behalf of his nine-year-old son standing next to him, who theorized that Dumbledore's death in book six was "a ruse." The essential question, he (and others) asked: "Is Snape good or bad? In our opinion, everything else follows from it."

Rowling replied, "I see I have to be more clear about this.... Dumbledore is definitely dead.... All of you need to move through the five stages of grief."

I didn't find her reply harsh, especially since earlier in the evening, she'd already said not to expect "Dumbledore to do a Gandalf." She also wryly noted that after the stage of denial which she was trying to help along might come the stage of anger and she was worried about that. When another very nice nine year-old from New Jersey had earlier read his long, sincere question basically asserting similar points to prove Dumbledore couldn't really be dead, she seemed genuinely upset for him, and was very self-deprecating about the mess she was making for readers. She also said that she was still making changes as she wrote, characters with terminal fates were being swapped, and she'd even thought of a new title in the shower earlier. But the ending's been written since 1990, and that last chapter won't change.

She made an off-handed reference to the flack she's gotten from some Satancentric Christians, the kind that don't like Halloween either, and I think that's a pity, but can't please everyone. They can read something else. However, she's been resolute that children should know bad things happen that can't be reversed. I respect her for it, as I happen to agree and as it comes from the strongest tradition of storytelling for children. For everyone really. It's not the gooey treacle happy-kitten stories that last, it's the horrible ones with children at serious risk. I think it's because they communicate something we understand as essentially real in a safer forum, and that impact of learning a truth is ineradicable.

(I still remember when I realized a negative number and the minus sign were interchangeable, and I didn't need to minus a positive number. My 7th grade algebra teacher said regardless of how weird it sounded, one day it would just pop into our heads making sense, and it did. I remeber the pop of other emotional and personal truths, too, from The Velveteen Rabbit, The Little Match Girl, and The Little Tin Soldier. Sadness and betrayal, often without rescue or amelioration. Scary then, but I absorbed them. They're very comforting now. Why else do people sing the blues?

I believe Rowling's said before, and I believe from my own experience, that children know when they're being soft-soaped, so to speak. I think a little more exposure to conceptual horror and lasting consequences couldn't hurt. Instead, today's kids get scenarios of excruciatingly graphic violence where no one worth caring about is actually hurt or supposed to do anything but laugh maniacally at the damage they cause. The victims are most often not even human. Acclimating kids to view gore emotionlessly and to expect action without consequences is what's really twisted to me, not the occasional wrenching of the heart that comes with loving and losing, something which remains very much part of the fullness of being human.

No comments: