While writing my new novel, ONE MORE SEAT AT THE ROUND TABLE, I spoke to two actors who'd performed in The Phantom of the Opera (which recently closed) at The Majestic Theatre in New York. The actors kindly described the backstage area of the Majestic where Camelot debuted in 1960, and each explained how to find the stage door, hidden in a service alley off West 45th Street. (This in itself seemed unique because the front entrance to the Majestic is on West 44th.) The stage door alley is actually home to three theaters: the Golden, The Bernard Jacobs, and the Majestic, and it's hard to find even if you've been told what to look for. As I got close to finishing my book, I wanted to see the stage door for myself, so on a quick trip to Manhattan, my husband and I crept through two grey industrial doors, a stone's throw from Eighth Avenue, and found the exterior door to the alley. It was locked, but a few theater personnel were entering and kindly allowed us inside. There's a long narrow corridor that features the Majestic's emergency exit, but if you walk straight you eventually find the stage door, painted red. I could easily picture the stars of Camelot making their way through this alley which is spartanesque. But theater people love the grit as much as the glamor, and they probably enjoyed their trek to the stage door as much as I loved getting a glimpse of it.
UNSYNCHRONIZED PASSIONS: A BLOG
A week after President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, the nation's grief-stricken First Lady gave an interview to Theodore White for the December 6 issue of LIFE Magazine. Jacqueline Kennedy compared her husband's ideals to Arthur, the king of Camelot, as portrayed in the eponymous Broadway musical. And since Camelot became the symbol of the Kennedy years, it's worth repeating how the two became entwined as my new novel, ONE MORE SEAT AT THE ROUND TABLE, makes its way in the publishing world.
As a student, John F. Kennedy attended Choate and Harvard with Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist of Camelot and other Broadway hits, so when Mrs. Kennedy told Theodore White that her husband liked to unwind by listening to Camelot's cast album, she knew of their relationship. Coincidentally, Lerner's show was having its second out-of-town engagement at the Shubert Theatre in Boston when the city's native son (and the state's junior senator) was elected president. Camelot presently left Boston and opened in New York on December 3, 1960.
Though the cast album sold well, the producers—author Alan Lerner, composer Frederick Loewe, and director Moss Hart—knew the show was in trouble long before Kennedy's Inauguration on January 20, 1961. Box office sales slumped despite the talents of its stellar cast (Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Roddy McDowall and newcomer Robert Goulet), and rumors were rife that Camelot would close by spring. So how did this almost-flop win the affection of President and Mrs. Kennedy, the latter a savvy supporter of the arts?
The answer lies in Alan Lerner's commitment to the peace and justice message of his book, a theme that now seems far ahead of its time. Camelot, based on T.H. White's novel The Once and Future King, was a musical about a visionary monarch who longed to civilize his brutal medieval society. Arthur slowly replaced "might is right" with "might for right" and established a Round Table where knights voted ethical codes of behavior into law. His progress ended when his best friend Sir Lancelot and his queen Guenevere were accused of treason, inciting a war that destroyed his civilization. Yet in Lerner's book, the king believed his achievements would be remembered, and at the finale he sang these iconic words that deeply moved President Kennedy:
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
Though the New York critics were even less excited by Lerner's book than their colleagues in Toronto and Boston, millions of Americans watched scenes from Camelot on the Ed Sullivan Show on March 19, 1961. The next morning there were lines at the aptly named Majestic Theatre and the show, dubbed "Gotterdammerung without laughs" in Canada, became a Broadway hit. It ran 873 performances, closing January 5, 1963.
As John F. Kennedy pursued his reelection campaign that same year, the first touring versions of Camelot made their way across America, allowing millions more theatergoers to see the show. Then on November 22, 1963, the country was forever changed when the president was killed in Dallas. Days later, Mrs. Kennedy explained to Theodore White that her husband had spent his sickly youth reading about the knights of Arthur's Round Table. "For Jack, history was full of heroes," she said. "And if it made him this way, if it made him see the heroes, maybe other little boys will see…Jack had this hero idea of history, the idealistic view." And she repeated those stirring last lines of Camelot to Mr. White.
The very first person I contacted about this project four years ago was "the keeper of the Annie Oakley flame," Bess Edwards, Miss Oakley's great-niece who lived in Michigan. Ms. Edwards, who died earlier this year, graciously chatted with me by phone and told me that when her grandfather (Annie's brother, John H. Moses) saw the musical "Annie Get Your Gun," he cried all the way home. He felt her portrayal in the show was much too coarse and nothing like the woman he knew. Ms. Edwards' grandpa was in conflict with his famous sister for many years, because he insisted their family name was "Moses," even though Mosey was the name inscribed on their father's tombstone in Mendenhall Cemetery, Yorkville. (Annie may have spelled the name Mozee, but she was essentially closer to its origins than John. ) It was Bess Edwards who took the time and considerable effort to end the controversy, once and for all. She wrote a wonderful essay about her search--see below.
Several years ago I drove from Silver Spring, Maryland, to see Annie's retirement home in Cambridge, Maryland, on Hambrooks Bay, the only house she owned that is still standing. Then in July 2013 I visited the Garst Museum in Greenville, the nearest city to Annie's birthplace in Willowdell (formerly Woodland), Ohio. I met the gracious, knowledgeable chairman of the Annie Oakley Center Foundation, Eileen Litchfield, and saw key artifacts from Annie's life including one of her many traveling trunks (pictured above). I visited the field where Annie's birthplace used to be, property once owned by the Swallow family of Darke County; I also saw the site of Annie's girlhood house in North Star, Ohio, marked by a boulder that is the only extant part of the her mother's property--Annie's mom was Susan Mosey Brumbaugh Shaw (nee Wise). I made a pilgrimage to the former Zemer-Broderick boarding house where Annie died at 227 East Third Street in Greenville, the former Fred Grote house where her funeral was held at 801 East Main in Greenville, and Brock Cemetery near Versailles, Ohio, where Annie and her husband Frank Butler are buried side by side. The rumor is that Annie's ashes were buried in Frank's casket when the two of them were laid to rest on Thanksgiving Day, 1926, some 51 years from their first shooting match at the German Gun Club in Cincinnati on Thanksgiving, 1875. (I believe that was the day Frank fell in love with Annie "at first shot.")
Each of these experiences was vital to my understanding of this midwestern genius who became America's first superstar. Unless I'd seen some of the woods (some extant) where Annie learned to shoot and walked the main street of Greenville where she took her extra quail to G.A. Katzenberger's, the grocers who sent her game to hotels and restaurants, I don't think I'd have a clue to the woman's life or psychology.
Three summers ago I added a new piece to the puzzle to the woman who was Phoebe Ann Mosey Butler. I visited the NRA's National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, to see Annie Oakley's F. Hambrusch shotgun, a gift from William F. Cody in 1890. It's a beauty, and while I was there I chatted with Doug Wicklund, senior curator, and Sylvia A. Schneider, administrative assistant, about a range of gun-related topics--from how to load a muzzle loader (Annie's first gun) to how much smoke a marksman in 1876 might have to endure during a match. Mr. Wicklund was a treasure trove of information and Ms. Schneider gave me additional details for research.
As of now, my book is zooming along. I feel a deep kinship with Annie who was born in 1860 and died in 1926. She was a woman of great strength and perseverance who endured poverty and physical abuse at the hands of a foster family (circa 1870-1872) but who became a legend. I believe she may be the greatest shooter the United States has ever produced--and maybe the world. She had a thorny relationship with her mentor and longtime boss, Buffalo Bill, who admired "Missy" but also felt concerned about her growing reputation; so concerned, in fact, he didn't show up for a match in Wimbledon when his company was playing in London during Queen Victoria's Jubilee Year (1887).
I look forward to finishing my book and sharing Annie's story with readers. I definitely hope my book will "hit the mark"...and I honestly think it will. And I'm grateful to the experts mentioned here who have encouraged me. I don't plan to let them down!
Two days later when I saw the leading ankle surgeon in D.C., I received surprising news. I'd given myself a spiral fracture requiring immediate repair. I had surgery the next morning and a day later I was home recuperating, sleeping on a hospital bed in my living room (since my bedroom is upstairs) and rolling around in a wheelchair since I was not adept at crutches.
I was amazed by my own upbeat reaction to this trauma. But quite honestly I felt I'd done it to myself by not taking a flashlight to the basement, and I felt incredibly grateful that I hadn't (a) died, (b) paralyzed myself, or (c) broken my arm and wrist too. Bottom line: I knew could sit in my wheelchair and write at the dining room table to my heart's content. And that's how I spent my summer.
By Labor Day I had completed half a novel in progress and done all the research for my third (planned) novel about sharpshooter Annie Oakley. So I made lemonade from lemons, and though I don't recommend breaking a leg to focus harder on writing, I was not in pain and I was given a golden opportunity to concentrate without the usual social distractions--lunches with friends or a vacation with my husband and daughter. For much of my recuperation, I didn't even have a television, which proved to be a good thing. It was my own version of a retreat in which reading and writing were my main activities.
As of today, the leg/ankle/foot are healing beautifully, and my second novel is coming along. Now if I could only persuade myself to walk down those basement stairs to the washing machine... Read More
Lindsay, you’re participating in Kindle’s free giveaway for CEL & ANNA on June 21 and June 22. What’s the benefit?
To reach new readers. I know authors who have been very, very pleased with the results of Kindle’s giveaway program.
You cleverly devised a way for people to enjoy virtual sex in the Middle Machine Age. How did you come up with the particulars?
Oh the challenges involved in writing that chapter! The emotional and physical responses of the partners had to be filtered through a complex technological process—a process I had to invent. No one in the history of the world has ever had sex the way my characters have sex. Had I thought it through beforehand, I wouldn’t have set the bar that high. Readers have told me that the virtual sex chapter (“Bed of Stars”) works. This amazes me.
Some readers call CEL & ANNA a fantasy; others call it dystopian fiction. And still others describe it as science fiction. Where do you see the novel in terms of genre?
I see CEL & ANNA as science fiction with a romantic twist.
Your book features a computer who “ascends” to consciousness. You’ve written an article about artificial intelligence for Huff Post. Do you think computers will ever gain awareness of their surroundings and emotions?
Yes, I do. Some people predict doomsday when that happens. Others believe just the opposite: that the ascendancy of artificial intelligence will usher in a utopian world. I don’t buy either of those scenarios. I believe conscious computers will find life to be as much of a muddle as we do. Some may turn to religion or spirituality, an idea that fascinates me.
Lindsay, what was your main challenge in crafting a story about a world that exists solely in your imagination?
Imaginary worlds have to be invented in every detail. How is a Middle Machine Age apartment furnished? What do the cars look like? (Do they have cars?) When you go to a restaurant, what is on the menu? Also, everything you invent has to be simultaneously strange and recognizable.
What message do you want readers to take away from CEL & ANNA?
Life can deliver beautiful surprises.
You lovingly depict several “rebel outposts” in your book, some rural villages that fly beneath the radar of the totalitarian “Big Brother” society. Do these towns and their citizens represent the benefits of a free society?
The government doesn’t care whether these rebels live or die, which means they can pretty much live as they please as long as they stay nonthreatening. But their freedom comes with a high price tag. They do without many things the more docile classes of society take for granted.
If you could enter one scene in your novel and interact with your characters, which one would it be and why?
I would enter the final scene to give them a hug and say “well done.” Then we’d open a bottle of champagne.
I read you’re working on a sequel. Will Cel be a character? Can you offer some hints about the storyline?
The sequel introduces an entirely new race of beings: the Infimi, who live on the internet (now called networld). Middle Machine Age society is coming undone, and a war is brewing in networld. Cel will be back, with an even bigger role to play.
What kind of fiction do you enjoy reading? Have any authors influenced your artistic development?
I’ve been a fan of Russell Hoban ever since I found TURTLE DIARY in a used bookstore in Bethesda, Maryland. I love stories that bend reality—that suggest that our ordinary, familiar world is neither of those things. Shirley Jackson was good at reality-bending, too. An old favorite novel is Joyce Cary’s THE HORSE’S MOUTH. But my taste in fiction is inconsistent: I also like Evan S. Connell (MR. BRIDGE, MRS. BRIDGE), who is a master of realism. He wrote two terrific nonfiction books: THE WHITE LANTERN and A LONG DESIRE. They are about exploration and travel.
How do you juggle your editing career with writing fiction? Do you have a specific routine?
I write first thing in the morning and again in the late afternoon. The second session feeds off the first.
What advice would you give to others who may be thinking of publishing an indie novel?
Indie novels can be published cheaply and quickly, but they shouldn’t be. Self-publishing is hard work. It really is.
Who designed your book cover?
Dave Hunter, the Chicago-based graphic artist who designed the cover for THE VOICE I JUST HEARD. He got the look of CEL & ANNA exactly right. Self-publishing authors should look at his portfolio, and then they should hire him. To learn more, visit Dave's web site.
Please fill in the blank for the next question. “When I’m not writing, the place you’re likely to find me is…..”
The place you are likely to find me or the place I want to be? They aren’t the same. The place you are likely to find me is at home in western Pennsylvania. The place I want to be right now is western Scotland.
Lindsay, thanks so much for chatting with me. I love your novel!
Readers, you can discover more about this terrific book by visiting Lindsay's web site. To leave a comment, please scroll down. Thanks. Read More
If you're planning to see Theresa Rebeck's funny and disturbing "Seminar," now on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, prepare to be dazzled by Alan Rickman. The British actor doesn't often appear on the New York stage, and his mesmerizing performance is reason enough to see this comedy of manners about writing.
Theatergoers unfamiliar with the difficulty of placing fiction in "Tin House" or "The New Yorker," or the competitive nature of admission to Yaddo, the prestigious artist's colony, may not immediately grasp the stratospheric literary ambitions of four young writers (played with gusto and panache by Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O'Connell, and Hettienne Park) who have paid $5000 for the honor of having their work critiqued by Rickman's Leonard, a once-lionized author and editor with an acid tongue. But those who've taken a fiction-writing workshop may laugh at the play's dark humor while recognizing its hard truths.
Rebeck's opening conceit is that the students hand Leonard their work as he walks through the door for each session and he responds in less than a minute. In a real workshop, in my experience anyway, manuscripts are handed out a week ahead, so the professor and other workshop participants have time to read and assess their qualities before the class discussion.
The idea that anyone could read a page of a story or novel and glean its worth—and indeed predict the author's entire future—seems incredible, until you go home and think about the play and realize that work you've labored over for years may be similarly read and dismissed as soon as it hits the slush pile at most literary agencies. One successful author recently compared landing an agency contract to winning the lottery, because the odds of being signed are so low.
Yet despite the humiliation of being torn apart by Leonard's barbs, each writer in Rebeck's play becomes more committed to his or her craft, and Martin (Linklater) wins the brass ring of Leonard's praise and editorial savvy.
Like those four students, I've been criticized in workshops and lived to tell the tale. I've had my work dismissed by some agents and praised by others, and each time I went back to my writing room and asked the question, "Do I want to keep going?" The answer has always been the same: of course I do. Criticism is an opinion, and over time we learn to incorporate what's useful and discard what isn't, because everyone who reads our work can't like it. As time goes on and one matures as a writer, this realization feels liberating.
Some reviewers called Rebeck's comedy "slick," but I disagree. Her play gives a bird's-eye view of what all writers encounter when they expose their work to those who will judge its merits. But when Leonard reveals his personal Achilles Heel at the finale, I realized one other sterling truth: we're all in the same boat together. There's comfort in Rebeck's denouement, and inspiration, too.
It's my favorite opening in fiction, the first two lines of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" (1956), which I return to each December the way someone else might revisit O'Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" or Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." I introduced this 27-page story to my daughter when she was only five, reading aloud from the 1996 Modern Library edition, a slim blue volume that also includes "The Thanksgiving Visitor" (1968) and "One Christmas" (1982). This collection was out of print for a while, but it has been reissued. Read More
There are no easy answers to these questions except one: writers write. It's what I've known since childhood when I discovered my extreme delight in stringing words together. My desire to write has only increased with age, but now I also realize there's a responsibility that comes with the drive and, yes, talent. To be heard, writers need to say things worth reading...worth thinking about.
Today, however, as I draft my first-ever blog, I want to revel in the shimmering and amazing fact that I have endured. I've been rejected many, many times, and I'm still standing; I've been buffeted by the winds of literary change and I'm still working and hoping. Over time I have learned to heed the sage advice of comedian/philosopher, Andy Andrews, who tells us to, "Persist without exception."
I do, and I will. And I thank you for visiting me here and supporting my journey because without readers, a writer is neither happy nor complete. I'm grateful for your company on this leg of the trip. I hope we'll help each other persevere in meeting our separate goals. Read More