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Novelist Christine Bell

Novelist Christine Bell

Translating Stories

Christine Bell has this attractive knack for hooding her eyes and slipping a sly, sideways glance at you while she speaks. There’s a hypnotic, lilting quality to her voice that infuses even idle banter with import, with a suggestion of greater meaning and deeper feelings beneath the surface. Her mien is gentle, even when she expresses her regret for the way her acclaimed second novel, The Perez Family, was recently translated into film.

“I know the current sound-bite is, ‘Selling your book to Hollywood is like selling your child to a pimp,’ ” she says. “I don’t think that’s what happened to The Perez Family, but I am disappointed in the film. Of course, I realize there’s no way to separate myself and the book from the film. As I’m watching it, I’m thinking, ‘Wait. That doesn’t happen next.’ And there are a lot of technical twists and turns. For example, I know that this street in the movie doesn’t connect with that street. A person who dies in the book doesn’t die in the movie; in fact, that person isn’t even shot. And that was a major part, you know—who lives and who dies.

“I know it’s not my job to like it. I don’t have the necessary distance, and I might never have that distance. I don’t think I’m stoic, but I am a writer, and I understand enough—or maybe I don’t—to know that I’m not a film director. It’s not what I do, and that’s all right with me.

“The director is Indian/African, and a woman, Mira Nair, that I respect very much. Still, I think the film was beautifully acted and horribly miscast, because except for two characters, there were no Hispanics in the lead roles. Alfred Molina had the role Raul Julia was originally supposed to have, and he is British and Spanish. But I had trouble seeing Marisa Tomei as my Earth Goddess—as Dottie. Just the same, a Cuban woman who was the technical director for the film said she was glad there weren’t just Hispanic people starring in it, because she feels that the immigration story is a U.S. story. It’s larger than Marielitos and Cubans. And for me, it was, because this story also relates to my Irish ancestry and to what my own ancestors must have endured.”

Indeed, critics have praised The Perez Family precisely because its scope builds upon and then extends beyond its narrow Miami setting during the Mariel boatlifts. In some ways, the story’s procession from Cuba and Miami into the realm of what the New York Times calls the “mythic, archetypal” is as uncanny and random as Bell’s own path to becoming a novelist.

“I knew by eighth grade that I was going to be a poet,” she says, reminiscing a bit. “I grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., and went to parochial school there and went to Mercy College in New York, where I got a degree in English literature. And it took me until way past college—selling lingerie, working as a nurse’s aide, then working as an EKG tech, and becoming a certified cardiovascular technologist—to realize that I was not going to make a living as a poet.” With a laugh, and the suspicion of a sigh of relief, Bell pauses. “Being a novelist was my fall-back,” she continues. “But I’m glad it found me, because I think in some ways that I’m a better novelist than I am a poet.

“My first published book is Saint. It’s now in its fourth printing, and it’s my publishing claim to fame. It was rejected a dozen times by agents and 72 times by publishers. Finally, a small press in Florida, Pineapple Press, picked it up, and then HarperCollins picked it up from there, and now Norton has it. It’s been translated into who-knows-how-many languages, but it’s my publishing claim to fame because of all those rejections. The Perez Family was only rejected five times, and now that seems very strange. Did something go wrong? Why did they want it so soon?”

Bell’s latest book is a collection of short stories, The Seven-Year Atomic Make-Over Guide. “The title story refers to the fact that every seven years all the atoms in your body have been replaced by new atoms; and this is a make-over guide for that transition.

“What I’ve tried to do in this group of short stories is to have each one have a different voice—and, except for one, they’re all in first person. One of the things I like about writing is I can be an elderly black man on a Bahama island or a young thief or Elvis Presley’s midwife or an elderly Greek woman in a nursing home. That part of storytelling is enjoyable to me. I like Halloween; I like costumes; I like masks. I don’t see myself hiding as much as I see myself being able to express different points of view. That’s my job, to do that translating.

“What I mean is that sometimes the characters make decisions for me. They tell me what their roles are and what they are supposed to be doing. It’s not cliché to say so at all, because it happens. And the first time it happens to you, even though you’ve heard other people talk about it, it’s very scary. As an English major, I was taught to translate what I was reading. But as a writer, I really do feel like a go-between between the story and the page. The ability to get out of the way is a tough thing to learn, but I look at it this way: I spend three to five years writing a book. If I don’t give up that control, I’m not going to learn anything in that five years, and I’ll just be bored out of my mind.”

From a cozy perch overlooking East Nashville’s Shelby Park, Bell continues to write and listen and learn while raising 4-year-old daughter Maeve with her songwriter husband Frank Thornton. Predictably perhaps, this storyteller seems to prefer an oblique correspondence with her muse, a fact that may well account as much for her sly peripheral gaze as for the delightful twists of her tales and her whimsical insights into character.

“I’m working on a mystery set in the 1920s,” she explains. “I’ve never written a mystery before, but I love to read ’em. I’m seeing how it goes. No one dies until page 174, so obviously I’m not going by the formula; but this being my fourth book, I’m a lot more comfortable not knowing what I’m doing.”

Signs and events

Robin Hood & Barry Parker, The Tennesseans: A People Revisited, 2-4 p.m. Dec. 20 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers They’re ba-a-a-ck, and just in time for Christmas. Intrepid Chattanoogans Robin Hood and Barry Parker have compiled a reprise rendition of the former’s stunning photographs interleaved with the latter’s essays and commentary. Hood is Tennessee’s patron purveyor of those big, juicy images of rolling hills and tumble-down barns; he won a Pulitzer Prize for his trouble in 1977. Lately, he has collaborated with Parker to form Parker Hood Press, which released this follow-on performance to the duo’s earlier The Tennesseans: A People and Their Land.

Bob Carlisle, Butterfly Kisses, 4-5:30 p.m. Dec. 21 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers Multimedia is the only way to go, of course, so it comes as no surprise that songwriter Carlisle’s out-of-nowhere chart-topper “Butterfly Kisses” has become a children’s book. It’s illustrated by Sally Huss, and it amplifies on the sweet-song sentiments that transformed Carlisle’s private birthday gift of a song for his 16-year-old daughter into a very public overnight success.

Willie Morris, Are You Old Enough to Read This Book?—The Real Truth About Mid-life, 6 p.m. Jan. 8 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers For a book that seems to promise world enough and time to all readers approaching “the Big 5-0,” Willie Morris has agreed to serve in the cadre of its pitchmen. Actually, he is but one of a long list of contributors whose interviews and essays range willy-nilly over the landscape of middle age. There’s chat from Arthur Miller and Carl Sagan, advice from Dr. Ruth and Larry King. John Updike, Susan Cheever, and, yes, Willie himself hold forth as well. Subjects range from the aging process to work, retirement, and the search for new beginnings.

Also to note: James B. Johnston reads & signs Exile: Poems of an Irish Immigrant, 2 p.m. Jan. 10 at Barnes & Noble Booksellers; Darkhorse Theater cast members read from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, 7 p.m. Jan. 15 at Bookstar.

Reel life

Vincent LoBrutto, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (Donald I. Fine Books, 579 pp.) The current dilemma of contemporary biography is that writers either speculate too much about their subject’s motives or thoughts, or they don’t try to guess at all. The former approach results in a presumptuous embarrassment, while the latter yields a dull collection of facts. Unfortunately, Vincent LoBrutto’s biography of director Stanley Kubrick falls into the latter category.

LoBrutto gives us the facts, based upon plenty of interviews with the technicians and actors who worked with Kubrick. There are also lots of details about the technical innovations in the films, but we still don’t get to know Kubrick. LoBrutto tells us, for example, that Kubrick’s films reveal a cynical, pessimistic view of human nature, but he doesn’t explain how the director got that way.

Nor does he address Kubrick’s treatment of women in his films. It would be fascinating to know how a man happily married to an accomplished painter (Christiane Kubrick), and the proud father of three daughters, could produce the disturbing misogynistic portraits of women in Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and even Barry Lyndon. LoBrutto mentions women’s discomfort with A Clockwork Orange—even the consistently supportive Christiane Kubrick disliked it—but he never explores this issue.

One of the fundamental problems with this biography lies in LoBrutto’s own interest and expertise in cinematic techniques, rather than in his subject’s psychological makeup. While film technicians will learn a lot about Kubrick’s working methods and innovations, general readers will still know little about what makes Kubrick an obsessive, secretive, misanthropic genius.

Complicating matters is the fact that LoBrutto does not realize he has produced a psychologically shallow biography: He claims in his prologue that he will reveal the man behind the myth, but he doesn’t. If anything, this book only reinforces Kubrick’s public image—that of an obsessive genius who makes actors do take after take. In the section on the making of Barry Lyndon, the actor Steven Berkoff recounts how Kubrick made him repeat a scene for 25 takes! And in his discussion of The Shining, the author explains how Kubrick made Jack Nicholson repeat some of the most trivial scenes 80 times. In the end, not only does LoBrutto fail to dispel Kubrick’s myth, he doesn’t even bother to guess at the reasons behind the director’s compulsive behavior.

LoBrutto contacted Kubrick for his help and permission in writing this volume, and while Kubrick offered no help, he created no hindrances either. Thus, the biographer had to rely on past interviews and on firsthand accounts from actors and crew members. That gives us a lot of people’s impressions of Kubrick, but LoBrutto never ventures beyond these; he simply recounts the obvious characteristics that most critics have ascribed to the director.

Along with his total lack of insight, LoBrutto’s lackluster prose makes his heavy tome more of a chore than a pleasure to read. There’s no thematic organization, so the reader encounters a lot of repetition of basic facts, but without any meaningful elaboration. The biography is full of one-sentence paragraphs that indicate a lack of developed ideas, not an individual style. Unlike Barry Paris, a film writer and the biographer of actresses Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo, LoBrutto cannot make his monumental collection of facts about an interesting person come to life.

To be fair, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography contains an impressive amount of research and facts about one of this century’s most important film directors. It will be an important source of information for Kubrick fans and for film scholars, but it is not the key to Kubrick’s dark and brilliant mind. This may be the first biography of Kubrick; it is not, however, the definitive one.—Elaine Phillips

The dog-eared page

“Perchance, fair lady, thou dost think me unduly vexed by the sorrowful state of thine quarters,” I said to my mother as I ran the vacuum cleaner over the living room carpet she was inherently too lazy to bother with. “These foul specks, the evidence of life itself, have sullied not only thine shag-tempered mat but also thine character.... Be there not garments to launder and iron free of turbulence?... Get thee to thine work, damnable lady, and quickly before the products of thine very loins raise their collected fists in a spirit born of rage and indignation, forcibly coaxing the last breath from the foul chamber of thine vain and upright throat.”—David Sedaris, “The Drama Bug,” from Naked (Little, Brown, 1997)

“Electric telegraphy must have greatly diminished the number of letters, for new improvements now permitted the sender to correspond directly with the addressee.... Quotations of countless stocks on the international market were automatically inscribed on dials utilized by the Exchanges.... Further, photographic telegraphy...permitted transmission of the facsimile of any form of writing or illustration.”—Jules Verne, from The Lost Novel—Paris in the Twentieth Century (Ballantine Books, 1996; originally composed in 1863) f"ZapfDingbats"

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