Sunday, January 22, 2012

from others to demons

Yesterday, The Admirable Jo Walton Her Rail Journey Around the U.S. was in San Francisco. In the back room of the Borderlands bookstore's cafe annex she fulfilled the purpose of her travels by reading the tantalizing opening sections from the new softcover edition of Among Others and taking a Q&A session.

So much of interest was spoken by the author during the latter that I would feel infringing on her intellectual property rights were I to report too much of it. I think fair use will allow me two examples. She enunciated a credo of the intelligent fantasy reader by stating that if you want her to read your entirely realistic novel, you have to be a really good writer, and instanced Vikram Seth as meeting that standard. (On limited exposure, I endorse him too.) And she spoke of her creation of the fairies in Among Others. As Welsh herself, she considers Celtic mythology and lore part of her heritage, but so many authors, particularly American, have ground Celtic fairies down into cookie-cutter dust1 that she didn't feel she could use them. I consider this another instance of a principle I've had to repeat in discussions of movie adaptations: that the book is NOT "still on the shelf" but in the mind of the reader, and if the reader's mind has been polluted by a bad adaptation, so has the book; in this case the polluted book is the stream of traditional Celtic mythology.

Afterwards, a passel of us including the, and several other, author(s) adjourned for dinner at a boutique pizzeria and small-plates joint, hand-selected by Debbie Notkin for fitting several necessary criteria: only a five-block walk away, willing to accept a reservation for an expected influx of about 20 people plus or minus N, quiet enough so that we could hear ourselves talk over dinner2, and really good food. Several of us munched pancetta pizzas with caramelized onions, yum, and the carrot soup was said to be exquisite by those who had it.

I excused myself early to make my way up to Herbst for a performance of a stage adaptation of The Screwtape Letters, in town very briefly on tour. This condensed the book into a 90-minute show by selecting key sentences out of the letters and from "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", the latter of which was presented as prologue. After which, Screwtape retires to his study to dictate his successive letters addressed to the unfortunate junior tempter Wormwood. Though the moment when Screwtape transforms himself into a centipede is omitted, because the adapters couldn't figure out how to present it onstage, Screwtape's secretary Toadpipe, who completes that letter for him, is present in a form like unto a cross between Peter Jackson's Gollum and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, scribbling on paper and sending the letters up from hell in an industrial-revolution-style pneumatic tube, gesticulating and making various Serkis-like cat-barfing noises in response to Screwtape's observations, and miming assorted human characters as Screwtape describes them.

Screwtape himself, suave in a smoking jacket, is played by Max McLean (best known as an audio narrator of Christian books) in the vocal style of a slightly tipsy schoolmaster, more pedagogically crafty than sinisterly demonic, but less pedantic than John Cleese's reading of the book, with highly inflected mannerisms designed to deliver the oomph behind Lewis's satire. His voice was amplified with a body mike, and various amplified sound effects punctuate the production, particularly during Screwtape's paean to noise and cacophony. For a moment there it was a little too close to hell for me.

1. I guess that image, which is mine, not Jo's, is a mixed metaphor; sorry.
2. In fact it is quiet on hearing-impaired principle, as evidenced by the staff communicating in ASL, though they also have spoken English for customers who know not the other language.

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