Funny Butt and the Seven Old Ladies
20 May 2002
Good morning, good morning. I have learned how to measure inseam this morning (though I haven't done it yet), and so some lucky custom jeans place will be hearing from me soon. And perhaps again later if they aren't custom enough, but that's an issue for another day.
Yesterday I read the best book about fruit flies. No, really, it was good. Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner, about the work of Seymour Benzer. Very, very interesting book. I swear I don't usually care about fruit flies, but this was definitely cool, highly recommended. Some of the best science writing I've read in awhile. I picked it up because Weiner had a related short essay in the Gleick-edited science writing volume I was reading awhile ago. Good stuff.
I also finished Death Qualified -- funny how some stories can be dated so clearly. This one was very clearly very early 1990s, from the presence of chaos theory in the murder mystery and from the way it was handled. That's not a criticism -- it was still a good book. But very clearly a product of its times, in a way that was perfectly all right. Now I'm reading The Forgetting, subtitled Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic. It's not nearly as well-done as Time, Love, Memory, but it's still a pretty competent piece of writing. I think that it's much harder to satisfy people with the style of writing you use when you write nonfiction about Alzheimer's than when you write it about fruit flies. You walk the line between being cheaply melodramatic and being coldly unfeeling. It's got to be hard to do. It's hard enough to do in fiction, where you can easily have different characters reacting in different ways. Point being: I expect The Forgetting to be less of a general-recommendation book than Time, Love, Memory.
I've spent all of the last day singing the song about the seven old ladies. Having jeans problems made me think of Michael's song, inherited from his parents: "I'm in the nude for love. Throw back the sheets and thrill me. Funny but --" "Don't call me 'Funny Butt!'" Which got me onto other classics from Mr. and Mrs. Mac (Michael's parents), including the one about the seven old ladies locked in the lavat'ry. "Oh, dear, what can the matter be, seven old ladies locked in the lavat'ry, they were there from Sunday to Saturday, nobody knew they were there." And so on. My mother got the funniest look on her face when she heard Mike and me singing this: "So that's what Barb [Mrs. Mac] is teaching you. Hmm." But her favorite terrorist sings that one, so I guess it's all right.
The jokes about my mom's favorite terrorist just aren't funny like they used to be. It started when my parents stumbled upon an IRA meeting, and it went from there.
So yesterday I got an amazing amount of work done on the Not The Moose Book, including major work on the outline thereof. What I did was take pieces of the book and do timelines for each of them. Now I've been merging those timelines into the general outline. Wow, is this helpful. I no longer have big chunks of space labeled "more Uusi-Sampo work done here." I know what people are doing to/with the Uusi-Sampo and why. I have scenes for everything. It's very cool.
(I know, I know, what the heck is the Uusi-Sampo? Well, the Sampo is a slightly mysterious and immensely powerful object in the Kalevala, and Uusi means "new." Right now if I had to give this thing a "real" title, it would probably be Sampo. I don't think that's a good title, and I'll be combing the pages for another. It's just that all of the other titles that might be appropriate so far have seemed to actively convey the wrong message, whereas for people unfamiliar with the Kalevala, Sampo would convey no message at all except "funny word title." Only I don't really like those.)
With past books, I didn't have to do this. But past books were smaller, less complex, fewer characters, fewer plotlines. With Fortress, I could pretty much use the initial outline, scribbled upon notebook paper -- it was not that hard a book, and I knew the shape of it from the very beginning. With The Grey Road, I had a calendar, with the scenes written in the squares in very small (but quite legible) writing. And with Reprogramming, I had an outline on the computer, like the one for the Not The Moose Book, only it was maybe three and a half, four pages long. This one is now eight. I don't think it should be longer than nine before I'm done.
If that means that the NTMB is over twice as long as Reprogramming, I shall cry. But I don't think that's what it means. I think it means that I'm putting more subtle things in this outline, the sorts of things that can be handled in a line or two of dialog as well as in a line or two of outline. I'm also putting in things like where the characters in their progress towards some mental or emotional state, and that doesn't get any dialog at all sometimes, just permeates the rest of the action and dialog.
I have more to do on this yet, but I'm absolutely gleeful about it. It's lovely. I can do this, and I can do it much more quickly now. This was work I needed to do, even though it didn't directly add to the word count. (Sometimes I'm bad at things that don't directly add to the word count, in drafting stages.) One of the side effects, though, is that everything else on my "to do" list looks kind of silly and minor. Order jeans? Send people their wedding presents? Get the apartment office to fix our mailbox? Oh, whatever, I've got a book to write!
I feel like this is where the movie, were my life a movie, would go into a montage of me typing and typing and scribbling and scribbling, wandering out to the mailbox to check (and finding nothing, repeatedly, until the end of the montage, when fame and fortune came my way), with occasional silliness on the part of people around me to demonstrate their wacky love. Oh, and probably shots of me leaving the mop in a bucket of water with the kitchen floor half-mopped so that I could stand on one leg at the keyboard and type the next scene. Which would be really Hollywood, except that I do that sometimes.
Anyway. Another side effect is that I've realized I've got myself a small dilemma. I've got a fairly character who's a British government employee in Finland, a member of MI6. And I have the feeling that given his age, social class, occupation, etc., he would be a bit of a racist. Probably more than a bit. Which is not so much an issue when he's dealing with the Finns, but I have the feeling that he would have extremely limited patience with the Saami. He popped into my head informing one of the other characters that sure, the Saami were technically white, but they were "hardly better than wogs, eh?" Which is just bad. On the other hand, having him tra la la'ing through the middle scenes of the book and treating the Saami like they're human beings is just not very real. They live in bark huts and migrate with their reindeer's feeding patterns, and I just don't think the low-to-average member of His Majesty's Government, circa 1950, was going to be particularly sympathetic to that way of life.
However. He's not a major character. And this isn't a big issue in my book -- it's a book with Brits and Scandophile Americans, set in Finland. There's a Russian and a Latvian and some Norwegians, Icelanders, and Faroese. (Faroese is, too, a word, stupid spellchecker!) So in general, some ethnic conflicts may come up very minorly, but it's not a book that deals a good deal with racism. (Thank God. It deals enough with other things that I'm not sure I could cram one more Major Issue in.) So I'm not sure whether to work around this minor character's realistic reactions to the Saami or to include them. I think his reactions to the Saami will have to go in. The only question is whether they end up referencing his feelings about other cultures outside the European mainstream or not, I think. Either way, this guy isn't a nice person. I'm just not sure what's "necessary" for making him a real character in his milieu.
This is something that does bother me about the way ethnic slurs are handled by people who don't use them themselves, lately. "The n-word" has privileged status, because everybody in this country knows what the n-word is. But when I referred to a four-letter k-word ethnic slur back in February, there were some people who didn't know what I was talking about. (And glory be for that.) And if I had said that my minor character would have compared the Saami to "Indian people he likely would have called a three-letter w-word," I'm pretty sure a few of you would have gone, "Huh? Three-letter w-word?" But the result is that it looks like it's worse to use "the n-word" than other ethnic slurs. And I don't really think it is. The attitude should not be, "Oh, sure, insult the Jews and the Indians, but for heaven's sake leave the black folks alone!" Thing is, there's really no way to fix this, except to try to get other ethnic slurs used more often so that people are more generally familiar with them even in oblique reference, and I really don't think that's what we want. It's certainly not what I want.
Maybe I should write about Chinese people from now on. At least then when they're offensive, it's colorful.
Okay, well, I have a book to write now. And later, of course.
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