Just published: My Three Suicides: A Success Story...

Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Black like Me" – and him too: The parallel trails of John Howard Griffin and Ray Sprigle

Paperback cover for 20th printing
John Howard Griffin (born June 16, 1920) is famous for doing something that today sounds almost like a Candid Camera stunt: in 1959 he shaved his head and dyed his skin dark brown and then went through the South wearing a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase. He wondered if folks, simply on the basis of his skin color, would perceive him as a "Negro." And if the good citizens down there in New Orleans, Hattiesburg, Biloxi, and Montgomery did think he was a Negro, how would they treat him?
As you might imagine, not well. Jim Crow buses. "Colored" drinking fountains. "Whites Only" bathrooms, restaurants, churches, sidewalks, movie seats, hotels, park benches, and service. Obey or die. Fellow Negroes, seeing how confused and naive he was about southern customs, did all they could to shield this traveling stranger. One thing they could not protect him from, however, was the notorious "hate stare" beamed at him every time he said hello and dared to look at a white person.
Thirty days was about all Griffin could stand. The constant fear and disrespect put a rage in him he doubted he could control. He let the dye wear off and resumed his white identity. He'd gathered plenty of data from his semi-scientific experiment. He published his first reports in Sepia magazine, his sponsor.
Paperback cover for the non-subtle reader

Clamor and furor soon followed. Time magazine did a piece about him. He was interviewed on the Mike Wallace and Dave Garroway TVshows. His book, "Black Like Me," was published in 1961 and became a best seller. Also, a (mediocre) movie was released in 1964.
Now entrenched in the curriculum of many high schools and colleges, "Black Like Me" is considered to be a valuable tool for teaching American history and encouraging students to develop empathy for persons of color. African-Americans, by and large, see the book as a good book for white people to read. They're already living the experience, they say, so it's not news to them. Nonetheless, it has not been out of print since.
You have to wonder, though, what kind of man undertakes such an experiment? He was not a college prankster. He was 39-years-old, married, with children. A Texan. Some clues can be found in his past.
As a Texas teen he was awarded a scholarship to study music and literature in France, where he graduated from Poitiers University. Germany invaded France while he was there. Griffin took a quick study of medicine and joined the French Resistance as a medic at the French seaport of Saint-Nazaire. While there he also helped smuggle Austrian Jews to safety. Informed that the Nazis had put his name on their Kill List, he escaped back to America. In the States he immediately joined the Army Air Force and served for 39 months in the South Pacific. On one of his assignments he served as the only Caucasian on the Solomon Islands, charged with studying local culture. On his next assignment he was in combat when an explosion blinded him.
Back in the states, he began writing, despite his visual handicap.In 1952 he converted to Catholicism and became a lay Carmelite. In 1953 he married and fathered four children. In 1957 his vision suddenly, spontaneously, returned. Intensely philosophical and spiritual by now, he decided to undertake his experiment with skin color. After his book was published, praise and controversy followed. He was even lynched in effigy. In 1964, Griffin, along with John F. Kennedy was awarded a Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award by the Davenport (Iowa) Catholic Interracial Council. Griffin's book will likely remain a classic of American
sociological literature.
           Strangely though, John Howard Griffin was not the first American journalist to darken his skin and travel though the South to write about Jim Crow. For years, Ray Sprigle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had worn disguises and worked undercover, using the pseudonym James Crawford. He'd infiltrated coal mines, black market meat sellers, and state mental hospitals. In 1948, after browning his skin, he journeyed through Florida, Georgia and the Mississippi Delta. His series was titled, "I was a Negro in the South for 30 Days," and it ran in the Post-Gazette for 21 days. Throughout the series he wrote that, a black man's, "rights of citizenship ran only as far as the nearest white man said they did." The series was syndicated to 15 other newspapers, but appeared not at all in the South. In 1949 a book version of his experiences was published under the title, "In the Land of Jim Crow."
So, why is Griffin's book highly touted and Sprigle's hardly known? Several factors seem to be at work. For one, the United States was not ready to discuss racial prejudice, especially of the legal kind, in 1949. For another, television had not emerged as a means of publicizing an event or trend or idea. Griffin's sales were boosted enormously by the Time magazine story and his Dave Garroway & Mike Wallace TV show appearances.

Furthermore, though Sprigle's book is the superior work of journalism, compared to Griffin's, the latter's work reads like a novel or memoir. It is easier to identify with, since anyone can imagine what it might be like to look in the mirror and be alienated from his own image. Even its title, "Black like Me," provokes curiosity in a way that the objective-sounding "In the Land of Jim Crow" does not.

So, two men, similar journeys, similar tactics, similar trials, but one's book is still read today and the other's is a historical footnote. Sprigle was ahead of his time, but Griffin caught the rising wave of the future.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Last night for 99-cent prices on all my Kindle books

Sunday evening coming on.

Last night to enjoy any/all of my Amazon e-Book titles for only 99cents. 

I'll change back to exorbitant tomorrow.

Buy here, click these words

Monday, June 1, 2015

A little pricing experiment with my Kindle books

Hello. Welcome to my writing blog. 

I'm curious to know what will happen if I change all my Kindle book prices to 99 cents. 

So I did. 

On Amazon. 

I'll try it for a week and see what the results are.

 Every little Kindle sale seems to matter a lot in my Kindle Top-100 rankings. 

So, I hope you try it and like it. 

All yours, HG    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_12?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=hugh+gilmore&sprefix=hugh+gilmore%2Caps%2C130

"Goodnight Moon": Another children's classic written by an unhappy former child

Margaret Wise Brown superimposed on a copy of her most famous book

Once upon a time a girl named Margaret grew up to be a lady who wrote the greatest children's book ever. It's called Goodnight Moon. One day when she was a grown-up, Margaret kicked up her heels – just to show how lively she was – and almost at once fell dead.
         Her full name was Margaret Wise Brown and she was in Nice, France, on a book promotion tour. She had to enter a hospital for surgery. Most accounts say it was for appendicitis. The operation went well. In fact, when the doctor came around to see her, she stood up and did a quick cancan-style leg-kick to show him she hadn't lost her athletic vigor. That was typical of her. This time, however, the sudden exertion loosed a blood clot that went right to her heart and killed her within minutes. She was 42.
         Only 42. But she had written more than a hundred children's books besides Goodnight Moon, including her "Noisy Book" series – published under the pen name of Golden MacDonald. She had collaborated well with illustrators, including Clement Hurd, Ruth Krauss, and Garth Williams. Though she was popular, she didn't earn much in royalties during her lifetime.
         In fact, one of her biographers, Leonard S. Marcus, ("Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon" 1992), says the executors of her will in 1957 valued her 79 published titles at $17,530. (Goodnight Moon at only $500.) Since then, however, those values have risen amazingly. Goodnight Moon alone now sells about a million copies a year. (Her other big seller is 1942s –  The Runaway Bunny – also illustrated by Clement Hurd.)  
         But earnings provide only one measure of a book's worth. Many people feel no children's bedtime book is more pleasurable to read aloud than Goodnight Moon. It contains only 146 words, a number that belies its intoxicating charms and sweet, soothing rhythms. They invite a loving tone of voice. Add Clement Hurd's pictures and Brown's wit to the slow charm of hearing your own voice grown soft at the end of the day ... well, only magic can happen. There is no finer bliss. Goodnight Moon is now enchanting its third generation of devoted readers.
         Which once again shows how strange the world of children's book writers can be. So many of them did not enjoy their own childhoods. Quite a few never had children. Many did not particularly like children, not in the aggregate at any rate. Analysts say that writing children's books seems to be a way for them to correct their own imbalanced and unhappy early lives.
          Margaret Wise Brown was born to a well-off family in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 1910. But her parents divorced. She was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. She later boarded at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA and later at Hollins College in Virginia. She was beautiful, athletic and popular. After college she taught at the Bank Street School in New York and later went into publishing, working as an editor for many years while writing her books.
         According to those who knew her well she retained a playful, childlike enthusiasm all her life, to the point of tiring and occasionally exasperating those who knew her. To use a contemporary expression, she never seemed to "come down." She was in and out of psychiatric therapy all her life and, though bubbly, filled with self-doubt. Her attractiveness made her quite sought after by various suitors and would-be swains. At the time she died she was engaged to James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr.
         The person with whom she experienced the major love of her life, however, was "Michael Strange" – the pen name of John Barrymore's ex-wife, Blanche Oelrichs. Their love affair is said to have begun as a mentoring relationship (Oelrichs was 20 years older), but turned into a deep, but mutually exhausting, co-habitation. Blanche Oelrichs/Michael Strange died of leukemia in 1950.
         The final twist to the story behind Goodnight Moon lies in this story reported by the Wall Street Journal: every copy sold brings royalties to Brown's named heir, Albert Edward Clarke III. He was only nine-years-old, the son of a friend of Brown's, when she bequeathed the copyrights for all her writings to him. Valued at only $500.00 originally, the Goodnight Moon copyright alone brought Clarke millions of dollars over the years. According to everyone who's weighed in on this man, he squandered nearly all of it. He was said to be a frequently violent drug abuser who committed crimes for which he was jailed. The money seemed to have brought him little happiness.

         What's more: he once said that his favorite Margaret Wise Brown book was not Goodnight Moon, but Pussy Willow.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

He gripped on “Reservoir Dogs” and produced “Lost in Translation,” but can he still impress his old teacher ?

Ross Katz, director of the newly released comedy, “Adult Beginners,” was my student when he was in high school. Where other kids saw a book’s ideas as potential test questions, he saw celestial explosions that might guide his life. He was one of the most enthusiastic learners I ever had the pleasure to teach. 

Now that he’s a moviemaker, though, I wondered if he still retained his love for books and ideas. I emailed him and asked.

Shortly after Ross graduated from Haverford High School in Havertown, PA, he moved to Hollywood and lucked into being a grip for Quentin Tarentino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” After several more pay-your-dues jobs, he became a co-producer of HBOs “The Laramie Project.” (2000). Esteem soon followed. He went on to receive Academy Award nominations for co-producing “In the Bedroom” (2001) and “Lost in Translation” (2003). After that he lived in Paris for a year, producing “Marie Antoinette” (2006).
            Like everyone with artistic dreams, Ross wanted to direct. He got his first chance (including screenplay co-credit) with an HBO drama, starring Kevin Bacon, called “Taking Chance” (2009) Directing “Adult Beginners marks his entry to commercially released, movie theater film. Next year the film he’s currently “cutting,” “The Choice,” based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, will be released.
             That’s all wonderful, of course, but I wanted to know if he’s still that person who seemed enthralled by new ideas. Did he still have that “dreamer” quality? Was his life still about questing?
Here’s part of the conversation we had:
Were you much of a reader when you were young?
You know, it’s kind of crazy. Reading is an enormous part of my life because, among other things, it’s how I find my projects. But, I’ve always struggled at reading. It’s hard for me. I’m a slow reader and often have to re-read what I’ve read – it’s something I’ve had to deal with since I was a kid. If I’m not absolutely enthralled by what I’m reading, it goes slowly for me.

What was the most memorable book of your youth?
I would have to say a book that you gave me, “The King of the Confessors,” really has stayed with me. (HG: A true story of the breakneck competition among the powerful art museums of the world to authenticate and acquire a unique tenth-century ivory cross.) It was like a real life “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I researched possibly making a movie of it years ago, but found that Thomas Hoving did not want to license the rights.

What book do you most wish someone you know well, or love, would read?
“Giovanni’s Room” – an all-time favorite of mine.

Are you a re-reader of books you've enjoyed?
I don’t re-read a lot, but when I do it’s usually Jane Austen.

Living in New York, do you have room for a personal library? Are there any books that have to come with you, no matter where you live?
Laugh. Out. Loud. Are you crazy?  Who can afford a room with a personal library??? Sadly, I don’t.  All my books are digital these days, but for a few personal copies of things with sentimental meaning to me.

Any favorite authors, ones whose new book you must get and read right away?
My favorite authors are dead. James Baldwin would be at the top of the list.

Do you collect books in any genre, or author?
I don’t collect.  I’m a digital guy. I actually – blasphemous I know – prefer reading on my iPad.

Is reading part of every day for you?
Yes.  I mainly read for work – to find new movies. Lately, I’ve been reading screenplays. Lots and lots of screenplays. The only way I will ever get a movie off the ground is by going into intense reading periods. 

Is any of your reading pleasure reading? Or do you tend to choose things to read because they might make a good movie? 
I guess it’s a bit sad, but I generally choose things to read that might make a good movie.  Just not enough hours in the day for “pleasure reading.” I’m always visualizing what I read, trying to figure out what will translate as cinema.

Many of your films deal with important social issues. Is that a necessity for you to become involved in a project?
I love making socially relevant films. But, equally, I must admit that I like making entertainments that aren’t necessarily social-change movies. I like a balance. I never want to repeat myself, so I’m always looking to jump genres.
I primarily read to find stories I want to tell. The films I’ve made have come from books or short stories, and have been original ideas. Mostly, though, my personal work has been based on either some real event or a book.  

What’s the process like?
The first part of the process for me is to find something that speaks to me. If I lived in a world where money was no object and financing a movie was easy, I’d be trying to make “Giovanni’s Room” into a movie. That book changed me. It spoke to me on so many levels. But, that’s a tough one to get made in our world today.  
So, I tend to read tons of screenplays, but I also devour books, short stories, and articles. I also see lots of documentaries.
And, I’m a genre-jumper.  For instance, I’m right now making “The Choice.”  It’s a love story based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. The core of the book, and its beautiful, flawed, messy characters, was something I related to.  At the same time, I’m developing a sophisticated horror movie, because I love that genre too.

And Ross’s final quote to his ex-teacher: As you can see, I’m still driven to tell stories. I’m on an endless search to find the ones that express who I am, or convey something about humanity that I  – and an audience – can connect to.

 A terrific Interview with Ross on the topic “The Movies that Changed My Life” can be found online at http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-movies-that-changed-my-life-adult-beginners-director-ross-katz-