Susanne Dunlap

Archive for the ‘Random thoughts’ Category

Signs and symbols, messages and meaning

In Random thoughts, The writing life on April 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Lately I’ve been reading James Gleick’s important book, The Information. Before I launch into my observations about it I have to say that anyone thoughtful who lives in our world must, I repeat, must, read it. I don’t say that often. Books are generally a matter of taste, and something I like might seem silly or stupid or unimportant to someone else. But in this case, whatever your feelings about non-fiction, I urge you to make an exception.

Why do I feel this way? Because Gleick pieces together the elements of communication and meaning that we, as a species, have evolved over time, and reveals a continuum, a trajectory, that makes sense of so many things.

He starts with the language of African drums, progresses through the way that written language changed everything about how human beings thought of the world, to an examination of the early steps that identified information as something that can be measured and analyzed. Simple concepts, like the blossoming elegraph wires in the nineteenth century being described as a “net-work” traversing the landscape, suddenly make sense of our immensely fast and complicated way of interrelating to each other through words and encoded electronic impulses.

The very fact that I’m able to write this, now, as I sit in a lovely restaurant in Dumbo, Brooklyn (Superfine, if you want to know) simply wouldn’t have been possible without all those trailblazers and their sometimes outlandish, abortive attempts to make the next great thing, to find ways to send messages faster. For instance: the very idea of standardized time depended on faster communications. Not to mention the concept of a weather report! Imagine when weather was something that simply happened suddenly, without warning, with no relation to any nearby place. Or when time was dependent only on the local moments that defined it: when the sun was at its highest point defining the noon hour. Would it surprise you to know that no one minded much about that until standardized time was essential to ensure that trains didn’t collide?

I’m not going to summarize the entire book, but as a historical novelist as well as a normal human being, I find all these matters extraordinarily important.

So, read the book. You won’t be sorry you spent the time


The Elevator Pitch

In Random thoughts, The writing industry, The writing life on March 30, 2011 at 11:32 am

Recently I’ve had to tell a lot of strangers what my upcoming book, In the Shadow of the Lamp, is about. I’ve got a reasonable, one-to-two-line pitch that gives a rough idea of what to expect:

A young parlormaid in Victorian London loses her position, and stows away to go with Florence Nightingale and her nurses to the Crimea, where she learns to nurse wounded soldiers and falls in love—with two different men.

This morning, a friend’s Facebook post directed me to this article by the ever intelligent Laura Miller in She discusses the potentially conflicting skill sets of great writing and first-rate self-promotion. Her examples are the recent bits of big news in the publishing world: Amanda Hocking’s 4-book, $2 million contract with St. Martin’s, and Barry Eisler turning down a $500k deal with the same publisher and deciding to self publish.

Those issues have been thoroughly explored in the various book media and on many blogs, my personal favorite being Nathan Bransford’s. What I started thinking about in the middle of the night was how the great authors of the classics might face the daunting publishing world of today, and give an elevator pitch for their books.

This is not a novel (excuse the deliberate pun) idea: I think I’ve read some fanciful pitches before. But with recent discussions, it somehow seems more relevant. Some authors might be good at it: The ever-commercially minded Dickens, for instance. But as I thought about my favorite classic novels, I had a really hard time coming up with selling lines that I thought might actually appeal to publishers—or even the reading public—today.

Here are a few of my attempts:

An unhappily married woman falls in love with a dashing officer, losing her sense of self and abandoning her social circle, and ultimately destroying everything she holds dear. (Anna Karenina)

A young man is encouraged to count on his inheritance to bring him a better life—without any guarantee that he’ll get that inheritance in the end—and makes a series of bad choices. (Great Expectations)

A woman with fragile health remembers her youth while she prepares to give a party, and a parallel tragedy of a shell-shocked WWI soldier plays itself out at the same time. (Mrs. Dalloway)

So, those are not sparkling and witty. What they do is demonstrate to me how difficult it is to distill the essence of a work of literature in a few sentences. I’m reminded of a famous Woody Allen quote (paraphrased here): “I decided to read War and Peace. It’s about war, and peace.”

Got any good elevator pitches for your favorite classic novels? Let’s see if we can make one or two of them appealing to today’s market! And then, let’s appreciate that promotion and writing are two different things, both necessary to either traditional or self publishing in this current world.

Jane Eyre and I

In Books I have read, Historical Fiction, Random thoughts on March 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm

I don’t even remember when I first read Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s sweeping novel of tormented love and fierce individuality. I remember more clearly reading Virginia Woolf’s assessment, in which she takes Bronte to task for being so polemical in her feminism—a view shared by some modern feminist authors.

I also don’t remember when I first saw a movie adaptation of the novel. It was certainly before my high school drama teacher had us watch the version with George C. Scott and Susannah York (I recall not liking it very much, not because of Scott, but because Susannah York didn’t fit my image of Jane). I think I must have had the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version in my mind, with its black and white gothic atmosphere, where Elizabeth Taylor plays the uncredited role of Helen Burns and a frothy Margaret O’Brien is the ward Adele.

But the adaptation I am most familiar with is the BBC series from 1983, with Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clark. This multi-part series is the most complete of any made to date, incorporating both the typhoid epidemic at Lowood and the character of the good principal, Miss Temple. It also fills out the relationships (a little fantastic and coincidental, but nonetheless part of the original novel) between St. John and his sisters and John Eyre of Madeira.

I enjoy that adaptation so much that I own it on DVD and rewatch it periodically. It always satisfies me.

But the siren song of a new adaptation, with the entrancing Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre, was too much to resist. As part of my preparation for this movie, I re-read the novel

(something I had not done for a very long time). I fell in love with it all over again, I must say. Bronte’s ability to delineate characters, the confessional tone of the first-person narration that sounds surprisingly modern despite a few telling details of style and grammar, the quality of Jane herself as a passionate, well-rounded, principled individual—these are just some of the things that make Bronte’s novel deserve its place in the canon. And doubtless, they are also a big part of the reason filmmakers try again and again to capture the brooding essence of the novel on screen.

Jane Eyre is a sprawling work of great emotional and moral complexity. It is not easily contained in a two-hour time slot. Although it lacks some of the cinematographic atmosphere of other adaptations, that’s why the lengthy BBC version is so successful. That, and the casting of the mouse-like but spunky Zelah Clark as Jane. And despite his critics, I think Timothy Dalton does a pretty good job as Mr. Rochester, a little too handsome though he is.

I was hoping that the director of the latest version, Cary Fukunaga, would discover some magical way to distill the essence of the story, even though I knew she would have to make choices that would eliminate some key scenes and themes in the novel.

The Welles/Fontaine version is hard to beat for choosing the bits that would most successfully translate into a feature-length film. No wonder, with a screenplay by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley. The school was ironed out into something completely inhuman, of course: it’s hard to include the sympathetic Miss Temple in a shortened version. The addition of a scene where Jane and Helen, as punishment, must parade around in the rain at night carrying flatirons was pure theater. And events are a little rearranged, but not annoyingly so. The filming is gorgeous, the lighting very atmospheric. Peggy Ann Garner as young Jane is fabulous. In addition, the balance of scenes of Jane’s youth and her maturity works, somehow.

Jane’s tenure as a teacher at Lowood is eliminated, and she goes directly from the end of her education to her position as governess—a thoughtful excision, I think.

The music is old-Hollywood dramatic, and hearing it fills me with nostalgia. The director emphasizes the darkness of the story, of course. And that is my primary complaint about all the 2-hour film adaptations. The Jane of the novel has wit and humor and a strong sense of self, with a generally positive outlook, despite the events that have darkened her life. These are qualities that are lost in every feature adaptation I have watched, including the latest one.

I won’t talk about the authenticity of the costumes in the 1943 version. Costume dramas were a very different matter then. There seems to have been an established “period” frock, worn for just about every film set in the 19th century. Fontaine is rather self-effacing and brooding, and perhaps a little too pretty for Jane. On the other hand, I may be one of the few who actually likes Welles in the role of Rochester.

Thornfield looks like the castle of the wicked witch of the west, an impression that is reinforced by the resemblance to Margaret Hamilton of the actress who plays Grace Poole. (And I’m thankful they got a real singer to perform for Blanche Ingram, even if it was unbelievably operatic—the voice in the recent version was positively painful.) The advent of Mason occurs earlier than in the novel, as well, exactly as it was in Fukunaga’s interpretation. Although this omits the scene where Rochester poses as a gypsy, it’s an understandable foreshortening, in my view.

The chemistry between Welles and Fontaine is palpable, which makes the accelerated timeframe somehow more believable. Several of those with whom I’ve discussed the Fukunaga version have pointed out that there isn’t much chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender. She seems far too young and girlish for the depth of passion necessary, although Jane in the novel is only 19.

The biggest changes in the story of the Welles/Fontaine version are the inclusion of a scene where Rochester puts Blanche off, and the complete omission of the episode where Jane runs away and is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters, eventually discovering that she is an heiress. Instead, she returns to Gateshead and Bessie, and—as with Blanche—Hollywood decided that Mrs. Reed had to be less evil, and stages a rapprochement on her deathbed. After her death, Jane actually starts to write a letter asking to be taken back as a teacher at Lowood. On a predictably dark and stormy night she hears Edward’s voice and races back to Thornfield, discovering the burned-out mansion and her now-blind lover.

Although the cuts in the story are broader and more drastic in the old version, what it achieves is a measure of space to develop Jane and Edward’s relationship, to make their intense, ill-fated love believable.

For the sake of those who have not yet seen the Fukunaga version, I won’t detail how the plot is manipulated. But the director tried to include more of the story elements, and in the process—for me, at any rate—hurried through emotional content so that ultimately, the movie feels a little empty.

And yet, I’m glad someone tried again to capture the magic of this remarkable novel on film. If nothing more, it only proves the enduring power of the written word, and how it works on an individual’s imagination to create an impression that’s different for each of us.