The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Early Literary Disasters

I decided I wanted to become a writer when I saw Richard Nixon resign the presidency on television. I was five. I was absolutely stunned when the BeowulfParents explained to me that someone else had written the words the president was saying and that they got paid for it. I thought it was the coolest job I could ever have, so I decided to start early.

I was convinced that I would be a bestselling author by the time I was 15. Clearly, I had to start working right away. Here, in roughly chronological order, are the unholy messes that I managed to churn out in the many years that followed before I was actually published.

The Ida Scripts:

The Ida Scripts
were a series of vignettes about an eight year old girl (since I was also eight and I had no concept of writing characters that weren’t me) named Ida, and her two best friends, Iris and Ivy (do you notice a trend?) The scenes were only one or two pages long and consisted of adventures such as “Ida Goes To The Store,” “Ida Does Her Homework,” and “Ida Watches TV.”

For some demented reason, I asked my third grade teacher (who hated—absolutely hated—me) if I could perform The Ida Scripts in class. She said no, which made BeowulfMom pay a visit to the school to chew out the teacher for “curtailing my creative outlet.” The teacher finally gave in.

BeowulfMom’s big mistake was that she didn’t ever actually read The Ida Scripts, and had no idea that the scene I decided to perform for the class was a morbid little number called “Ida Goes To The Morgue.”

I recruited six of my classmates to play dead bodies and two other brave souls to play Iris and Ivy. I, of course, played Ida (no fool, I). Halfway through the production of “Ida Goes To The Morgue,” two little girls began screaming in terror and the performance was cut short. After that, I wisely shelved The Ida Scripts and decided to write my first novel.

My Father, The Ghostbreaker:

I want to make it clear that I had this idea years before Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis did. My Father The Ghostbreaker revolved around the life of 12 year-old Marcia Cameron, whose father, an unassuming lawyer, takes up the hobby of ghostbreaking. Ghostbreaking, for the uninitiated, is the “science” of getting rid of ghosts using machinery.

The machinery in question was called, respectively, “the graph” (I still don’t know what it actually did), “the Vistaroid” (it gave out some kind of “spectral reading”) and a lot of other old-time computer-like things with switches and dials.

The Camerons lived in Los Angeles, and you’d be surprised how many ghosts there were there. I like to think that if it weren’t for Marcia’s crusading, vigilant dad, the entire town might have become a Hellmouth. Kind of like Chicago would be if it weren’t for Karl Kolchak.

I spent so much time writing and re-writing My Father The Ghostbreaker that eventually the movie Ghostbusters came out, and I spent a lot of time being furious. To this day I think they owe me.

Meredith Blackwell, Child Spy:

I was fascinated with spy movies as a child, largely because of my unrequited crush on Roger Moore (I was 12, he was 56—it wouldn’t have worked out). The plot of this novel concerned a high school freshman named Meredith Blackwell, whose world is turned upside down when the F.B.I. discovers drugs (gasp!) planted in her locker.

Somehow (and this was never made clear), Meredith ended up working for the F.B.I. to help them catch a kidnapper. Meredith masquerades as an “international ballet star” named Charlotte LaTruse (yuccchhhh) and the F.B.I. trains her as a “junior agent.”

The problem was, despite many hours of television, I had no idea how the F.B.I. actually worked. I therefore saw no problem with the ending, when Meredith actually gets kidnapped and manages to overpower the kidnapper with a bottle of Percodan. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

Years later, I had an actual F.B.I. agent read the draft and he laughed so hard I think he got a hernia.

Once A Spy:

Clearly not having learned anything from my Meredith Blackwell debacle, I launched a second spy novel featuring an agent named Travis Macy. Who Travis actually worked for remained vague, but it was some part of “the government.” Travis, who was really only a watered-down Sam Spade, was teamed with a female agent from a different agency who has the distinction of having by far the weirdest name I’ve ever come up with: Magnolia Symmetry.

Travis and Magnolia’s “mission” was to find out which country was stealing America’s nuclear warheads. Because I was (and still am) incredibly lazy about research, I conveniently glossed over all the technical parts (like the actual mission) and instead wrote scene after scene of Travis and Magnolia getting trapped in strange places in foreign countries. When last seen, they were in Nassau, in the middle of a monsoon.

Stacks Of Stock:

This one is so stupid it barely deserves an entry. It was about a young girl (again) becoming fascinated with the stock market and investing her life savings (seventy-two dollars!!) in the market. Not surprisingly, she got incredibly rich and it spawned a hideous sequel called The Millionaire Of Wall Street.

Once again, I realized about halfway in that I really had no concept of the real stock market and I ended up actually showing the manuscript to a real stockbroker. He was kind enough not to laugh at a 13 year-old girl, but he did advise me to “save my money” in case I was thinking of investing in real life.

The Last Robert:

The Last Robert was my one and only venture into surrealism, and wow, was it awful. It concerns twelve men, all named Robert, who get invited to a birthday party at “The Robert Building.” I guess the entire high-rise was populated with men named Robert.

In any case, once all the Roberts show up, poison gas is leaked through the vents and they all fall unconscious. One by one, they disappear. Chaos ensues as the remaining Roberts try desperately to figure out who is taking them.

The whole thing culminates with a bizarre trial scene (in the Robert Building) in which one of the Roberts is implicated and is then bizarrely shot through the window (presumably by a rogue Robert) and dies. The other Roberts then proceed to have a sort of hoe-down, and the novel mercifully ends.

(I actually gave this mess to my 10th grade English teacher to read. Not being the type to mince words, he told me it was terrible and wanted to know how I managed to win the Creative Writing award every damn year.)

Gone With The Wind And Back:

My sequel to Gone With The Wind, which conveniently leaves out Scarlett’s children, the Civil War, and the entire character of Rhett Butler. The only redeeming quality about it is that I learned how to write in a dialect.

Dickensian Nights:

This was actully an assignment given to me by my 12th grade English teacher, in which I had to re-write the ending of A Tale Of Two Cities. It actually turned out to be an easy assignment. There was a lot of blood, death, and decapitation, Lucie Manette runs off with Sydney Carton (hey, at least he has a job) and boring Charles Darnay is executed. My teacher thought this was so delightful that he made copies for the entire department.

Now, knowing all this…don’t you all wonder how I eventually managed to sell something? And continue to work in this field?

Even scarier…I’m about 160 pages into another novel. But that’s another story.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On Acting

I wish I could tell you what it’s like.

If you’ve never acted live onstage—if you’ve never felt that particular kind of adrenaline rush—it’s very, very hard to put it into words. I spent eight years of my life doing it, and I still can say with all honesty that the feeling I got when I was up there in front of a large, live audience was better than anything I’ve ever experienced. No drug, no food, no relationship could come close to it. This probably explains why I haven't had a date in seven years.

I started dabbling as young as six. Throughout elementary school, I would always find myself playing the lead role in school pageants, plays, and productions. The reasons for this were partly because I never shut up and absolutely loved being the center of attention, and also because I seemed to have no understanding of stage fright. I would do absolutely anything—sing, dance, fall down, whatever—as long as I had an audience.

I got serious when I was about fourteen and got accepted into an elite repertory group. The other actors in the group were really the first friends I ever had. I finally had met people who didn’t treat me as an outcast because of my intelligence and eccentricity, but instead embraced it and me. The experience I gained doing repertory shows in my early teens pretty much made the transition into the professional world a lot easier.

But it’s the repertory I really want to talk about, since they’re really responsible for my ensuing career, and I loved them so very much. I spent four years with them, and in that time I learned a lot about theatre and its bizarre customs.

Come, take my hand. Let me show you a little of that world.


The bathrobe tradition, I am told, was started by Rex Harrison in 1956 with My Fair Lady. Apparently, Rex, who was feuding with his wife at the time, would come to the theatre hours early in order to get away from her. He would then change into his bathrobe and wander around the theatre, bothering the technical people and the musicians.

In any case, my group embraced the bathrobe tradition wholeheartedly. The leads would arrive several hours before opening, put on our bathrobes, and generally make nuisances of ourselves until it was time to change into costume and go into makeup. The key thing was to always appear cool and unflappable, as if you did this sort of thing every day.


I can honestly say that in the four years I worked in repertory, I never had sex with anyone I was in a show with. Not that I wasn’t tempted, mind you—some of my leading men were almost unbelievably handsome and charming. I think what stopped me was—well, to be honest, what stopped me was that they didn’t seem to want to have sex with me, either.

I did, however, often come across other people having sex. The most common places for theatrical trysts were up in the flyspace (and God alone knows how they got up there with no ladders), the wardrobe room (usually using a pile of costumes for cushioning) and, weirdly, the hall. Eventually I got used to it. I would just storm right past the couple, eyes shielded, saying, “coming through, coming through…sorry, pardon me, sorry…” and let them go on with their snogging.

Purple Towels:

Michael Crawford is to blame for this one. In 1988, Michael gave an interview to New York Magazine in which he admitted that, in between acts of Phantom Of The Opera, he would actually take a nap with a purple towel. (“Ralph Lauren makes a lovely shade,” said Michael, “not too grape, not too mauve.”) There has been much discussion as to how Michael managed to actually fall asleep during the intermission (I, personally, always used the time to do vocal exercises), but the man did win a Tony Award, so I trust him. In any event, we often carted purple towels around with us backstage, in the hopes that we would also win a Tony.


While you’re walking around in your bathrobe with your towel, it’s a general practice to eat fruit. I always ate a nectarine. The logic here was that the acid in the fruit would break up any phlegm or mucus you might have in your throat that would impede your singing. If you didn’t like fruit, carrying around a mug of tea was equally acceptable.


The most common question I am asked about my theatre days is, “how on earth can you stand doing the exact same show every single night for months at a time?” I can completely understand this question. For most people who have normal jobs, the thought of having the exact same day over and over again—with identical dialogue and clothing—would make them take a header off the Chrysler Building.

But the thing with live theatre is, it’s actually different every night because the audience is different. It’s a completely different energy. After a while, you learn to “read” an audience and know what to expect. A Saturday night crowd, for example, is a lot different than a Friday night one (Friday night audiences have less energy). Matinee audiences sometimes drag. Around the holidays you get a lot of out-of-towners who are generally really enthusiastic.

The thing you have to watch out for, though, is to never lose your concentration. If your mind starts to wander, you face the very real danger of suddenly “waking up” in the middle of the show and having no idea where you are or which scene you’re in. This is especially terrifying if it’s in the middle of your big soliloquy.

Lead Disease:

Lead Disease is the term used when a lesser cast member, usually an extra or chorus person, develops powerful romantic feelings for the play’s leading lady and/or man, depending on their gender or sexual preference. It is a very private hell, and can lead to behavior such as gazing, twitching, vomiting, and staring at maps of their home towns until you get dizzy and pass out. Fortunately, Lead Disease usually goes away once you become a lead yourself and the position no longer awes you.

The polar opposite of Lead Disease is…

Intense Personal Hatred:

Like every other job in the world, theatre has its share of assholes. Chances are good you’ll be forced to act across from one. The best advice I can give here is to try like hell not to sock them in the jaw, and to invest in a dart-board on which you can put their head shot.

Opening Night Speeches:

This is when the leads, who have spent the last twelve weeks of rehearsal driving everyone crazy, give an enthusiastic pep-talk to the rest of the cast. Usually the director goes first (in which he thanks everyone), followed by the leading man (who makes a special point of thanking the director), then the leading lady. I was never able to make it through a single one without crying, which lead to the makeup people chasing me with eye-liner.

The First Nighter:

The opening night cast party, or “First Nighter,” is always held at a nearby hotel where there is plenty of dancing and drinking. If you’re a lead, you can show up either in street clothes or your bathrobe. Usually the director makes a toast, then gets completely bombed with the producer and choreographer. Cast members who have wanted to have sex since the first read-through go get rooms. At least one person ends up unconscious in the bathroom. Eventually, if you’re doing it right, someone will call the riot squad.

Do I miss it? Every day. I miss all my directors and my co-workers. I get excited when I see or hear that one of them has “made it.” And I wish like hell it had been me.

So, like I said…I wish I could tell you what it’s like.