Homer Simpson’s Hands

There is a key character named Homer Simpson in Nathanael West’s 1939 Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.

Yes, d’oh, a name familiar to most.

 

Did Matt Groening name his Homer after West’s original? The information is somewhat contradictory, though Groening did state in interviews that he lifted the name from West’s novel. However, Groening’s father was also named Homer (Matt’s younger sisters were named Lisa and Maggie, not coincidentally), and he has stated in other interviews that the name was derived from his dear old dad. 

My guess is that both reports are true — influences and inspirations often arrive in layers, filtering in from a variety of sources. 

I recall reading Nathanael West as a very young man: A Cool Million, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust. He made a strong impression at the time, an original mind with an absurdist’s sense of satire. He was wickedly funny and intensely dark about the human condition. That appealed to me, too. 

I recently went back and reread those books, some 40 years later. My feeling is that if you read a book at a much earlier time in your life, it’s like you’ve never read it at all. That is, the reader’s perspective has been so transformed that it’s like encountering a brand new book (even though, of course, the book hasn’t changed a bit). The relationship between text-and-reader is made anew. 

While I enjoyed reading West again, and still consider myself very much a fan, there were passages that haven’t aged well. This is true of a depressing number of books, as we know. Time is not always kind. Values change. We’ve learned some things along the way. There’s an unsettling streak of misogyny here and there. Perhaps a function of the time, a flaw in West himself, or just part of his eviscerating, take-no-prisoners satire. He’s tough on everybody. Rape comes up: the word, the desire, the act. As a social satirist, West doesn’t judge, just presents. Those are not comfortable sections to read. Am I being too sensitive? Well, to be honest, that’s not a complaint, too sensitive, I often receive. In any event, West seems neglected today. 

Let’s call his work problematic and leave it at that for now. Others can sort out where West fits in the canon. (The Modern Library ranks Locust at  #73 in its list of the 100 Best Novels.)

Mostly, I want to highlight Homer Simpson’s amazing hands.

Here’s a snippet from possibly my favorite passage in all of West’s work. He provides us with some genius descriptions of this awkward, ill-at-ease, deeply repressed character who seems almost detached from his own hands:

“He lay stretched out on the bed, collecting his senses and testing the different parts of his body. Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water.

He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.”

I can still remember encountering that section decades ago, that bizarre disconnection from his own body — a powerful metaphor for a character’s discomfort in his own skin, his own vibrating self.

He carried his hands into the bathroom.

God, that’s brilliant.

Nathanael West.

I confess that I’m pretty sure I tried to rip that off somewhere along the line, the idea of carrying one’s hands into the next room, etc., but I can’t for the life of me remember where it might appear. A Jigsaw Jones mystery for 2nd-grade readers? I don’t exactly recall. If I did borrow it, or quietly paid tribute to it — and I certainly hope I did — I had forgotten the source material at the time. It was just that remarkable idea lodged in my skull from a nearly-forgotten book.

Hands as strange aquatic animals.

The first time I read The Day of the Locusts, the animated Homer Simpson did not yet exist. It wasn’t until I came back to it that I realized, Oh, wow, Homer Simpson! I guess that’s where Groening got it.

“The Day of the Locust” was also a 1975 film starring Donald Sutherland (as Homer), Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith, and other fine actors. I’m going to rent it on Amazon Prime sometime soon. Sadly, Nathanael West’s promising career was cut short at the age of 37, when he died in a car crash just one short year after the publication of Locust

A tragedy that his work prepared us for.

 

 

 

That Person Is a Gift

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #312: Follow-Up Questions After a Zoom Visit

Ye Olde Fan Mail Wednesday has been quiet of late for an assortment of reasons, including summer — all exaggerated by Covid. This past week I thoroughly enjoyed a  Zoom visit with 6th-graders who all read Bystander over the summer. The class was impressive, prepared, and focused. A pleasure all around. At the end of the visit, we still hadn’t gotten to all the questions. I agreed to answer the remaining questions via email. 

Here are the questions . . .

Good morning! I hope you had a great weekend. Here are some follow up questions from my students. Thank you again!

1. After Upstander, will you consider making a trequal?
2. Do you see yourself in any of the characters and why?

3. Is there anything you would want to change about the book? 

4. Do any of the characters/events relate to an event/thing that happened to you/others.
-aa
5. Do you get unmotivated when writing books? If so, how do you get motivated again.? 
6. When Griffin and David were talking in the book, were they able to connect because of any similar or shared experiences?
Thank you so much.
Alex

I replied . . .

I want to begin by thanking you for that Zoom visit the other day. I don’t often get the opportunity to do a deep dive on my books, and it’s a pleasure to talk thoughtfully about the art & craft & intentions that go into a work of fiction. 
We ran out of time and you still had a few questions. Let’s do this.
Would I consider writing another sequel to Bystander? Yes, if the market was there —- meaning if my publisher believed it was worth putting out, i.e., that they’d make money doing so. With Upstander, I began by thinking of it not as a “longer” story, but as a “larger” one. A bigger canvas. Everyone has stories. By focusing on Mary’s story, it gave me a glimpse into how to enlarge the canvas even further to accommodate future narratives. If there’s another book in the world of this middle school, I think it should be about Griffin. Honestly, I think Upstander has to sell enough to encourage my publisher, Macmillan, to keep going with it. I don’t control that stuff, I can only put it out into the universe and hope that readers will find my books in a crowded, cluttered world. 
Do I see myself in any of the characters? Well, yeah, sure. The writer Eudora Welty had a good line about this. She said, “In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves.; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about —- these become our characters and go to make our plots.” I really couldn’t say it better than that. There’s a part of me in every character, each one grew out of me. But as I’ve developed as a writer, across many years, I’ve learned to give those characters the space to be Not-Me, Not-Jimmy, and become their own fictional selves.
Would I like to change anything about the book? No, not really. Which is not to suggest that I think it’s flawless. Far from it. But I’ve learned to let it go, allow it to exist as it exists, and move forward. I don’t linger and look back too often. I did like how with Upstander I was able to add a new wrinkle to the ending, Eric’s wish for his father in the stands. While his exact wish doesn’t come true (at least so far, in the written record), now there is at least someone there for him, cheering. It pleases me when the two books “talk” to each other.
Do events/characters relate to specific events in my life? Yes and no. I mean, yes, of course, it all grows from my life experiences. For example: I was once mugged in NYC and when the thieves handed back my wallet —- sans money, of course —- I actually said, “Thank you.” What a well-mannered dope! I took that emotion and gave it to Eric on the basketball court, when Griffin returned his ball. But, again, this is important: readers seem to want to be able to trace these direct lines from real life to fiction. But I think when you are fully successful with a fictional story, those sources become obscured, more hidden, the lines disappear, and the characters operate fully in their own fictional world. 
Do I get unmotivated? Oh, yes, it’s a recurring problem. Sometime the problem is the idea, that I’m not ready to write it, or that my idea lacks layers, depth: something, in short, is missing. Another problem for me is audience. That nagging doubt that no one really cares whether I write another book or not. And I guess the answer to that is . . . so what. I’ll do it anyway. I’ll create something for the sake of the story, for the satisfaction of making something and putting it out into the world. Something that nobody else in the world could make. Would I love to be super popular, the worth breathless in anticipation for my next book? I think so, yeah. But in the absence of that, somehow I still have to keep going, keep writing. Write the poem, paint the picture, sing the song. There’s joy there, and happiness, and personal fulfillment —- regardless of audience or “acclaim” or awards or any outside approval. I find that to write requires a gathering of energy, enthusiasm. When that’s not there, the writing doesn’t go well. Sadly, I don’t know how to bottle it.
Regarding David and Griffin, that’s an interesting question. How were they able to connect? To be honest, I don’t think that I examined their relationship that deeply. To me, I saw it as Griffin, the manipulator, using David for his own purposes. David was a puppet on strings. As to why David allowed this to happen, I think it goes back to his desperate longing to fit in, for approval at almost any cost. That’s a dangerous place to be, the quality that made him vulnerable. And because Griffin is such a smart, perceptive guy, he recognized that vulnerability in David and used it.
Ah, I think that covers it. I just wrote almost a thousand words to you guys. You are probably sleeping already! Forgive me, I realize that I replied with a high-level of sophistication. I’d probably answer much in the same way to college freshman. I figure you are smart and should be treated that way. Have a good school year — and if any of you read Upstander, please feel free to write and let me know. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
My best, 
James Preller
For Zoom visits,
educators and reading groups
may contact me directly
at Jamespreller@aol.com.
-NOT

A Word from the Author

 

 

Grabbed a bench after a five-hour hike in the Catskills . . . and pointed up. A beautiful day, inspiring and revitalizing.

A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR JAN CARR: Celebrating Her New Picture Book & Recalling the Good Old Days at Scholastic (1980s)

In this interview with author Jan Carr, I wanted to celebrate her new picture book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates!, illustrated by Juana Medina. But I confess that I mostly wanted to catch up with an old friend. We shared some time together at Scholastic in the 80s. It was a time of great change in publishing — and we were just getting started.

 

Jan, it’s so nice get reacquainted with you. We first met back in 1985, I believe. I was a newly-hired junior copywriter at Scholastic pulling down $11,500 a year and you were . . . I don’t know exactly what you were.

I was an Associate Editor in the book group, first on Lucky Book Club, and later in trade books. At that time, the clubs published some of their own books.

Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky at that time, right? Maybe it was always true, but there was a real changing of the guard taking place at that time at Scholastic. Those older, wiser, more experienced editors working side-by-side with much younger people and their new-fangled ways.

Yes, Eva was editor of Lucky. And she herself had gotten her start under the famous Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, founding editor of Lucky.

Craig Walker used to tell Beatrice stories, truly from a quieter age in children’s publishing. I remember starting at Scholastic when we didn’t yet have computers. I had a typewriter and about six bottles of Wite- Out. After a few months, I was learning about MS-DOS and floppy disks.

Oy, those typewriters. I was a hopeless typist.

So was that your dream at the time? Children’s books? I seem to recall . . . leg warmers. Maybe I was mistaken, but I had the sense that you were an aspirational dancer.

Leg warmers? Ha! In true 80s style, they were probably ripped. When I left Scholastic at the end of the day, I’d zip off to ballet class, but since I hadn’t started studying until I was an adult, there was no chance of a professional career. But I definitely loved, and continue to love, kids’ books, and literature in general. I’d been taking a writing class, and trying my hand at fiction, and was also writing articles about theater and dance for Stagebill, Playbill, and other arts publications. One weekend, I’d been assigned an article about someone –- Martha Clarke? I spent the whole weekend researching in the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and writing the article. On Monday morning, I arrived at Scholastic feeling proud, and showed it to Regina Griffin, who immediately corrected some fact I’d gotten wrong. And I remember feeling deflated. When you write about the arts in NYC, you’re writing for a wildly knowledgeable audience. Regina and I ended up working together later as editor and writer when she moved to Holiday House, and she acquired some of my picture books.

Those were very happy days at Scholastic. There was a certain amount of looseness and creativity. When I wasn’t busy counting all that money I was earning — my rent was $200 a month for a railroad apartment in Brooklyn that I shared with two other slobs guys — I would sometimes look around at all the creative young people in the room. Just a lot sharp, caring, creative people carving their own path in the world of children’s books. Ellen Miles, Phoebe Yeh, Holly Kowitt, Bethany Buck, Brenda Bowen . . . a lot of them with big jobs still today . . . Hey, wait a minute. Was I the only young, male heterosexual on all three floors of that 730 Broadway office?!

You, Greg Holch, and R.L. Stine!

Old “Jovial Bob” Stine was a little before my time. And he wasn’t exactly young — even back then. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Dropped into obscurity, poor fella.

I hope he’s still jovial.

Photo taken from a 2003 reunion gathering. Many of these faces were at Scholastic during the late 80s. JP not present. So, yeah, maybe a Diverse Books movement was a necessary idea!

 

I love your characterization of the people, sharp and creative. I recently had dinner with Holly Kowitt and we were talking about that very thing, that we were so lucky to be in a place that gave us a bit of creative room, both professionally and otherwise.

Holly was the funniest person in that building. I’m so glad to see that she’s putting out books that feature her twisted humor and illustrative talent. I’m a huge fan, love her. Holly had a basement apartment on East 7th next door to those great Ukranian dive bars. When asked to describe where she lived, Holly would often say, “You probably urinated on my bedroom window at 3:00 in the morning.” Ah, New York in the mid-80s!

       

Scholastic tolerated and was accepting of a range of employees, including those of us who were a little more oddball or out of the mold. Before Scholastic, I’d worked at Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) and it was similarly accepting. At CTW, some of the assistants were aspiring actors, and on days they had auditions, they used to come to the office wearing curlers. It was a more forgiving time.

That was another fertile training ground for future children’s authors and illustrators. Susan Hood, Deborah Kovacs. There must be dozens.

So, so many!

Can you tell me any stories from the Scholastic days?

This isn’t strictly publishing related, but it definitely fits with your description of the atmosphere of “looseness and creativity.” I had a birthday one year, and I hadn’t yet told my Scholastic friends that I’d recently started dating someone. So Holly and others, for fun, placed a personal ad in the Village Voice to get me dates. It described me as wearing red high tops or something. When the responses started pouring in, we tacked those hard copy letters up on the outside of the cubicles, dividing them into categories: Cream of the Crop, Fat Chance, etc. And every day, everyone would file by to read the letters and see if there were any new ones. We were curating an evolving exhibit! I remember one incarcerated guy who responded and charmed us all by introducing himself saying: “I live in a big house with a big yard.”

Hilarious.

I think I remember people adding Post-It notes with comments? So it was kind of performance art-y? Musta been cuz we were in the East Village.

One of my favorite stories features Ed Monagle, who was a chief financial officer instrumental in helping to turn the company around in the 80s and early 90s along with the leadership of Barbara Marcus, Jean Feiwel, Dick Spaulding and Dick Krinsely. Ed was a sweet man, very kind, but, you know, a numbers person. Not really a book guy. Well, I moved upstate in 1990 and started freelancing. One day Ed stopped me with some advice: “Jimmy, you know what you gotta do. You need to make up a character like Clifford the Big Red Dog. I see the royalty checks we send out to Norman Bridwell twice a year. He’s not complaining, let me tell you. That’s what you need to do. I mean, come on: he’s a dog, he’s big, he’s red. How hard can it be?”

Ha ha, so how hard can it be? And why haven’t you and I come up with a Clifford-level idea? Ooh, I just had a cringe memory involving another Scholastic book that was popular at the time, not nearly as popular as Clifford, but the art was simple and bold. One day, we got final art in, but it was so simple and rudimentary that I thought it was sketches, so I fed it through the copy machine to make copies. Whoops. I was just lucky that the final art didn’t rip!

We recently saw the passing of Dick Robinson, President and CEO of Scholastic. The end of an era. Did you feel a pang at the news? Dick was a guy who, whenever he saw me in the elevator, would ask: “How are you, Jim? Writing lots of copy?”

I know DR had a reputation for knowing all of his employees, but once, when I got a promotion, he announced it in a group of others, and it was very clear to me he had absolutely no idea who this Jan Carr from the Book Group was.

Don’t feel too bad, all the mail room workers certainly knew who you were — all those love letters from the Big House!

But I have another funny story about that promotion, which wasn’t actually a promotion. I was moving from book clubs to trade books, but staying at my title, Associate Editor.

Same glorious cubicle?

Of course. And when Craig Walker heard, he stopped me in the hallway, and fixed me with one of his signature sly smiles that signaled he was about to zing one at you, and said, “Jan! I want to congratulate you on that incredible lateral move!”

Craig, sigh. I still get teary thinking about him. That warm pressure behind the eyes.

Scholastic, 1986.

We all miss the one and only Craig. This is a good spot to recall the editorial meeting where he actually pitched the idea for The Magic School Bus series to Jean Feiwel. I was there! I was witness! In editorial meetings, we’d all perk up when it was Craig’s turn to present because he was so entertaining, even when he was proposing something as ordinary as a classic tale for the 8×8 paperback picture book line. He could make me laugh just by saying, “And then, of course, the fox eats the Gingerbread Boy!”

I wasn’t in those meetings, since I was in the marketing department, but Craig and I ate lunch together 2-3 times a week. Hilarity ensued. 

And as for historically significant editorial meetings, I also remember being at the one where The Baby-Sitters Club was proposed.

And you thought to yourself, “Yeah, that’ll never fly.”

Obviously I had no idea it heralded the arrival of the phenomenon that would be BSC!

That’s how Scholastic worked at its best. One random book with “babysitter” in the title did exceptionally well on a Lucky Book Club offering. So Jean Feiwel zeroed in on that word and said, “Let’s create a series.” Then Jean was smart enough to give the idea to Ann M. Martin and get out of the way. 

That’s right, Ann did an amazing job.

So, please, catch me up. Have you stayed in children’s books all this time?

I have. Though I’ve had various side jobs. Some of my additional work has been kid-book related – work-for-hire novelizations, ghostwriting for series. Interestingly, on my original projects, I’ve ended up working with a number of the people I met when we all worked together at Scholastic. Andrea Cascardi, now of Transatlantic Agency, is my agent. And years ago, when she was an editor at Hyperion, Andrea acquired my very first original picture book, Dark Day, Light Night, illustrated by James Ransome. And the editor of my latest picture book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates!, was Phoebe Yeh. I think you’ve ended up working with some Scholastic folks, too?

Most of them won’t return my emails. There’s been legal action. These editors play fast and loose with the term “stalker.”

The squeaky wheel gets the book contract.

Today we’re celebrating your most recent book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates! Where did this book begin for you? I mean, what was your initial idea?

I’d read that the sun was 4.6 billion years old, and I thought, that star deserves a birthday party! What if the planets in the solar system planned one in appreciation? This book is, of course, in the category of informational fiction, not non-fiction. So though I had to understand the facts, and get them right, I also got to anthropomorphize the planets and give them speech balloons, and build a story around them. Sometimes, when I read about astronomy, it seems vast and complicated. Do young readers ever feel that way? I thought it might help to make the story cozy, limit it to our solar system. In certain ways, our solar system is not unlike a family. And the personality traits ascribed to the planets might help readers remember some of the facts. Jupiter? He’s a bulky braggadocio. Because he’s the biggest planet, a gas giant!

Yes, I was proud to see that you were able to work a fart joke into the book.

I put it in for you, Jimmy. And for all the fart-joke lovers out there.

To be clear, I don’t believe anyone has ever farted in one of my books. Or burped. My characters do projectile vomit from time to time. That’s been known to happen. Always hilarious, the gushing firehouse of spew. So, hey, Pluto didn’t get an invite to the party?

He did get an invite, but he’s at the kids’ table. Is Pluto a planet? There’s still disagreement. One of the challenges of writing about the solar system is that the information is always changing and shifting, and will continue to do so after the book gets published. After this manuscript was acquired, astronomers discovered more moons for both Jupiter and Saturn. And since that information figured prominently in the story, I not only had to update the numbers, I also had to fiddle with the story. Thankfully, that happened before publication. But that’s the challenge when you’re dealing with non- fiction content. Years ago, I wrote a book about punctuation, Greedy Apostrophe: A Cautionary Tale. Regina was my editor and she corrected one of my punctuation facts in her notes. I challenged her and referred her to Chicago Manual of Style. But she pointed out that a newer edition had recently been published. So even punctuation rules change!

Uh-oh, let’s hope that Regina never comes across this blog! We’re a little lax with typos and minor errors here at James Preller Corporate. Tell me, Jan. When you wrote Star, did you have a vision for how in the world someone would illustrate it? Or did you just think, “Not my problem!”

I love to envision the art, and love seeing the list of illustrators the art director and editor come up with, being invited into their conversation. I usually have confidence in their ultimate choice, since they have so much more experience pairing manuscripts with illustrators. And I was ecstatic with the choice of Juana Medina for Star, since I’m a huge fan of her Juana & Lucas books. She’s a charming writer as well as illustrator.

Who were the writers — or the books — that you most admired early on? For myself, I still think my sense of a picture book comes from those early years. Writers like Arnold Lobel and James Marshall, Ruth Krauss, Bernard Waber, Vera Williams. So many.

I have so many favorites. I feel so much affection for kids’ books old and new. You have to love a form to write it. You know what amuses me? How picture book fashion has changed over time. Books are now spare, very little text. But some of the old ones have full pages of very tightly packed text. For instance, Mike Mulligan and The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. I only recently realized that the author of Country Bunny, DuBose Heyward, was also the book writer for “Porgy and Bess.” I mean, Wow! Country Bunny has so much heart, and was ahead of its time in pushing forward a mom of 21 for an important, high-profile job –- Easter Bunny! Lots of illustrators have fun sprinkling their books with “Easter eggs,” but that book has actual Easter eggs!

I miss the longer texts. The role of the writer feels diminished. Picture books have gotten younger, with fewer words. I wonder how someone like William Steig would manage in today’s climate.

I know. I see the beauty of the spare, airy texts, but as a writer I like words. And I know that when I was a young reader, that’s how I acquired my love of language, from the rich texts I was reading.

What’s up next for you?

Something really fun! But I can’t announce it yet. I hate it when people say that, don’t you? But I have to. Because… Publishing made me do it! What’s up next for you?

Thanks for asking. I have a middle-grade novel coming up with Macmillan (just need to, you know, actually get it done), some work with the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure people, and an upcoming series with Scholastic, “Exit 13,” which I’m thinking of as a mix between Stephen King, “Schitt’s Creek,” and “Stranger Things.” I also keep writing picture book manuscripts that no one wants to publish. Just because!

Ooh, those all sound great! Exit 13 sounds amazing!

We shall see. It’s my first book with Scholastic in more than 10 years, so a coming home for me. Thanks for your time, Jan. I guess I’m getting at the age when nostalgia tugs at my sleeve. I’ve enjoyed being back in touch with you. Here’s to many more books in your future.

Thank you, Jimmy. It’s a pleasure to have this conversation, and so fun to be back in touch. Here’s to many books in your future, too! Thanks for the interview!