Saturday, October 17, 2009

In Praise of Amy Tan and San Francisco's Literary Life

Published: October 17, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — The event to honor the novelist Amy Tan at the Herbst Theater here on Wednesday night was supposed to be in the spirit of a roast. But the organizers couldn’t quite call it that — “a braising,” they suggested instead — and the speakers had a hard time saying anything terribly mean, even in jest. The running joke concerned Ms. Tan’s ordinarily placid demeanor, which was attributed to her husband’s sexual prowess.

Maybe the occasion could have been spiced up by a little of Don Rickles at the Friars Club, but this is San Francisco literary life in a nutshell — not the sex part, necessarily, but a willingness to honor and an unwillingness to undermine. You could probably find mean-spirited, competitive writers here, the kind who make literature a blood sport and the literary life a conniving enterprise and a purely mercenary pursuit. But not without a serious hunt, and certainly not this past week, as the city’s writers — and, notably, its readers — celebrated the 10th anniversary of the book lovers’ festival known as Litquake with dozens of readings, panel discussions and other events (including the braising of Ms. Tan). It all culminated in Saturday’s edition of Lit Crawl, the annually overcrowded word-and-drink fest in city bars.

It was, over all, a pep rally, an emblem really of the school spirit that San Francisco literary life has established in the last decade or so. And though the city has a venerable history in letters, the community of writers has never been as, well, communitylike as it is today. Like the thriving theater culture in Chicago, which coalesced around a few key companies and created an important center for the art form without becoming a rival to New York City as a center for theater commerce, so San Francisco’s writers have come to recognize and trumpet the idea that this city prizes their craft, its solitary difficulty and what can emerge from it, even though there isn’t much of a publishing industry here.

A few recent landmarks: Fifteen years ago Po Bronson, Ethan Watters and Ethan Canin founded the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a collective that now provides work space for 33 fiction and nonfiction writers who not only support one another but give well-attended writing classes and readings all over the city.

Eleven years ago Dave Eggers founded McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal that has grown into what is perhaps the city’s signature publishing house, producing books and a monthly magazine, The Believer. And in 2002 Porchlight, a series of storytelling evenings based on the model of the Moth in New York City, took root and became a staple of the literary scene.

Further, the writerly population of the Bay Area is continuously replenished by the Stanford University creative writing program, whose annual Wallace Stegner Fellowships provide health insurance, tuition and a living stipend of $26,000 per year for two years to 10 emerging writers. And all of this is actively supported by the city’s fine bookstores, where hundreds of readings, classes and other events are offered every year and where readers return the enthusiasm. Remarkably, more than half of the city’s book sales are recorded by independent stores. The national figure is around 10 percent.

“It’s not like New York, where you have a lot of publishers, editors and agents around,” said Stephen Elliott, the author of the memoir “The Adderall Diaries.” “You go to a writer event there, and that’s who you see. Here you go, and it’s all writers.”

This, perhaps more than anything, contributes to the collective attitude that the tide raises all boats, and indeed, as a couple of hundred writers honored Ms. Tan on Wednesday, there seemed enough honor to go around.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ms. Tan, 57, is of course the author of five novels, including “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” that reveal her as a surgeon of mother-daughter relations. A former business writer, she’s also a faux dominatrix, playing that role as a backup singer in the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-writer band that includes Stephen King, Dave Barry and Scott Turow, whose occasional gigs raise money for literacy programs.

She was teased for all these things, gently, probably too gently, by the writers Ben Fong-Torres, who has known Ms. Tan since her business writing days and was the evening’s master of ceremonies — “I’ve known Amy since before she became Chinese again” — Armistead Maupin, Rabih Alameddine and others.

And the writer Andrew Sean Greer gave her credit for his first homosexual experience, which he said occurred in college after a dorm-room study partner pulled out “The Joy Luck Club.” He then stripped off his coat and shirt to reveal a silver-sequined vest and, accompanied by an onstage band, sang an original composition: “Amy Tan,” he snarled musically, “made me a gay man!”

The high points of the evening focused on arts other than literature. It opened with a stunning demonstration of Chinese lion dancing and ended with several classic rock songs performed by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, giving everyone of a certain age in the audience a thrilling nostalgic frisson. A friend, Barry Humphries, in the garb of the perpetually self-involved Dame Edna, checked in via video, declaring she’d recently discovered that she was half Chinese and had begun eating Chinese food with one chopstick and a fork.

Ms. Tan, clutching Bombo, one of her Yorkies, acknowledged her accolades with the flustered gratitude of an Oscar winner. She was introduced by Mr. Maupin, who said to the roomful of writers, “She embodies what’s most important about this city, what we love about it.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Amy Tan Tribute/Roast October 14

Litquake’s third annual Barbary Coast Award for contribution to the Bay Area literary community is presented to Amy Tan, international bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and member of the all-author band Rock Bottom Remainders. Join us for this highly entertaining tribute-roast with special guests Rabih Alameddine, Sam Barry, mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, Ben Fong-Torres, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Andrew Sean Greer, Michael Krasny, Armistead Maupin, Roger McGuinn, Elaine Petrocelli and of course, Amy Tan. Music by Los Train Wreck. Book sales and signing to follow.

Wednesday, October 14, 8 pm
Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue at McAllister Street, San Francisco
(415) 392-4400
Admission: $25 general, $75 includes post-event reception

Tickets available at City Box Office.

Here’s a quote we love from a 2005 interview with Amy in the Guardian.

“I accept that probably for the rest of my life I will be identified with The Joy Luck Club — I will always be introduced as the author of the Joy Luck Club. On my tombstone — if I wanted a tombstone, which I don’t — it would say ‘Author of The Joy Luck Club.‘ That’s fine. I hope that I continue to write my best book with each book that I write. I am very lucky that that happened to me.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Preserving Our Queer History

Alan Poul
Posted: October 6, 2009 04:15 PM

The remarks below were delivered by Alan Poul upon receiving the Legacy Award at Wednesday night's (9/30) benefit for the Outfest Legacy Project at the Directors Guild of America. Outfest is Los Angeles' Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the Legacy Project is dedicated to the preservation and archiving of LGBT material. Poul was introduced by Laura Linney, with whom he worked on the three miniseries based on Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" books.

Laura Linney and I first worked together on the original "Tales of the City" miniseries in 1993. It was a magical experience -- we were a close knit group, creating a labor of love on a limited budget, and never imagining that anyone would greet our affectionate adaptation of Armistead Maupin's beloved novel with anything other than open arms and bonhomie. Boy, were we wrong.

It's impossible to watch "Tales of the City" today without finding it as generous and life-affirming as we intended it. So it's hard to imagine the firestorm of controversy that greeted our airing on PBS in January, 1994. 1994--not that long ago. Before we even aired, we were officially denounced on the floor of the state legislatures of Georgia, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. A bomb threat in Chattanooga Tennessee emptied the local PBS affiliate so there was no one left to run the show. Donald Wildmon (remember him?) and his American Family Association sent a 12-minute VHS (remember VHS?) to every member of Congress that was a mash-up of all the supposedly-offensive moments in the show, including every snippet of same-sex affection, every mention of the words "tits," "bitch," and "ass," and Mona's famous "crotch crotch crotch" tirade at her ad agency. Actually, I wish I could find it and post it on YouTube; it's pretty hilarious.

This would all be a sweet introductory anecdote, except that in the ensuing months, PBS cravenly withdrew from financing the sequel, "Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City," to which they had already publicly committed. It took three years of tireless effort to resuscitate "More Tales," which was finally rescued by Showtime. The point: corporations and the media are big cowards, and a handful of noisy reactionaries can cause real damage. Sound familiar? This is not news, but it's always applicable. Progress is ephemeral and subject to setbacks, but an archive is forever.

That's why we're here tonight. And we don't even have that long a history of LGBT imagery to protect. So what we have, we need to protect ferociously.

I was struck by the cover story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. In it, Benoit Denizet-Lewis chronicles the coming-out stories of middle school children in middle-America -- 14 and 15-year-olds in Oklahoma and Michigan -- and their fearlessness in announcing their sexual identity to parents and peers, even when many of them are not yet sexually active. Of course the Internet is the key component here: think you're a total misfit? Search and click on a link, and whoa! there's another person just like you. (I could have used that.)

But let's not underestimate the potency of complex narrative images, of LGBT lives portrayed with depth, with artistry, and with authenticity, in empowering and legitimizing young people to accept themselves.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing. My generation remembers desperately searching for images that would speak to the desires we were aware of from such an early age, and coming up with nothing -- at least, nothing that didn't end with Shirley MacLaine hanging herself. On television, we had to apply our own private decoder rings to relationships that hinted at something more than mere friendship -- to Felix and Oscar, to Laverne and Shirley, to the Skipper and Gilligan, with the Professor as an occasional third. It wasn't until I hit my teens in the seventies that genuine homoerotic images began to surface, and the first ones I saw were burned into my eyelids -- the Peter Finch/Murray Head kiss in "Sunday Bloody Sunday," at which my suburban Philadelphia audience recoiled in disgust; the careful, sweet embrace of two English boarding school students in Lindsay Anderson's "If....", the mutual groping of Barbara Hershey that Richard Thomas and Bruce Davison so enjoyed in "Last Summer."

These images were an inspiration and a life raft for me, and I want to protect them forever, even if they won't mean anything to most 13-year-olds today. There is a connection between the bravery it takes to come out, at any age, and our responsibility to preserve and restore LGBT imagery wherever we find it. It might not be direct -- it's unlikely that a self-doubting, tortured 13-year-old is going to find the strength to come out by watching "Sunday Bloody Sunday," or even "Parting Glances." But there's a link, and as we know, links are how we get our information these days. Link to link to link, we are creating a context for our visual and narrative history where until recently there was none. Somewhere there's a 13-year-old who'll appreciate these films, and I want him or her to have that access. That's why we archive.

My history with Outfest is long and happy. I joined the board in 1996, during a period when the festival was beginning its transition from a smaller, activist-oriented gathering to the huge, inclusive, industry-friendly celebration it has become. During my tenure, we saw the first great flowering of gay independent cinema, here and abroad, and Outfest films from those years include such landmarks as Lukas Moodysson's "Show Me Love," Tommy O'Haver's "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," David Moreton's "Edge of Seventeen," Douglas Keeve's "Unzipped," John Greyson's "Lilies," Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's "Party Monster," Jeff Dupre's "Out of the Past," Michael Cuesta's "L.I.E.," Sandi Dubowski's "Trembling Before G-d," Cheryl Dunye's "The Watermelon Woman," and many others that have gone on to become classics -- and not just gay classics at that. I'm so proud of that list.

Our board helped shape Outfest, but even more, Outfest shaped my consciousness of what Los Angeles can be. More than any prior event, Outfest brought together the very diverse and often segregated LGBT communities of L.A. under one roof and gave us a chance to look at each other, to enjoy the same entertainment, to laugh and cry together, and to realize our combined strength. In a city that seems custom-designed for isolation and cliquishness, that was no mean feat.

I am currently developing a pilot for HBO, together with Carolyn Strauss, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, John Hoffman, and Peggy Healey, based on the famous Ann Bannon novels of the 1950's. These were lesbian pulp fiction paperbacks, surprisingly popular in their day, with titles like "Odd Girl Out" and "Women in the Shadows." In doing research for the period, we are constantly hampered by the paucity of filmed material. Every frame of what exists must be preserved, and it's part of the mission of the Legacy Project, in managing the fabled One Foundation archives and other private archives which comprise home movies and other personal materials, that is so crucial in this area. Once this stuff decomposes, it's gone, and so is our history.

The word "legacy" is fraught with self-importance, but let's consider what it really means. A legacy is, simply, that which is handed down. Our own legacy, 50 years from now, is likely to consist largely of the narrative content that we are creating now, in our time. Yes, reality TV is full of fully-drawn gay characters, but, as everyone knows, reality doesn't repeat well. 50 years from now it's unlikely people will be watching the exploits of Christian Siriano. For better or worse, narrative fiction has the edge on shelf life. It's the record of the context of our times which we consciously create. "Milk" will last forever. "Brokeback" will last forever. Richard Hatch will not.

About ten years ago there was an optimistic feeling among many of us that mainstream Hollywood was going to take on the mantle of telling LGBT stories, so there seemed more resistance among young LGBT filmmakers to be so relentlessly banging pots and pans about being queer. Why can't we just make fun films, they'd say, or genre films, or scary films like every straight white male successful filmmaker? It's an honorable impulse, and even a sign of progress I suppose, but the truth is things aren't turning out that way. LGBT characters of genuine texture and depth are on the decline in features and television, and unless we stir things up, our "legacy" of this new century will be that we went back to being the best friends and fastidious bosses of more important characters. So to all the aspiring filmmakers here, I say, yeah, you do have to bang some pots and pans. Go be queer. Nobody else will do it for you.

I make images for a living, images that are part of stories. So of course I have a vested interest in the concept that these images might stick around a while. I want to thank Outfest, and the Legacy Project, for taking on that concept, for linking the past to the present to the future, and for believing in our continuity.

Read more at:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Psychologist headed to prison

South Bend Tribune - South Bend, Ind.
Date:     Oct 3, 2009

A Plymouth child psychologist has received a 13-month federal prison sentence for health care fraud.

Marc Allen Zackheim pleaded guilty to defrauding Indiana Medicaid of $137,000 over three years by fabricating diagnoses and attaching those diagnoses to the medical records of his juvenile patients.

The U.S. attorney for northern Indiana had asked Judge Robert L. Miller Jr. for a 21-month sentence, while Zackheim's attorney, Martin Kus, asked the judge to consider home detention.

Miller fined Zackheim $4,000, and ordered him and his business, Associates in Clinical Psychology P.C., to repay the state the $137,000.

Zackheim must report for prison Dec. 1.

Webmaster's note:  Marc Allen Zackheim is the husband of Victoria Fraginals Zackheim, the woman whose fraudulent invention of an ailing child inspired Armistead's novel, The Night Listener.

click here for a related article

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Laura Linney talks to Greg In Hollywood about her breakthrough role on “Tales of the City”

By Greg Hernandez on Oct 1, 2009

Before she was a three-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee for You Can Count on Me, Kinsey and The Savages, Laura Linney was Mary Ann Singleton in the classic Tales of the City miniseries and its two sequels.

Mary Ann really was the anchor of these productions based on the novels by Armistead Maupin. Tales was a ratings sensation when it aired on PBS in January 1994 but also hugely controversial because of its gay themes, nudity, and illicit drug use.

I just loved it!

So what a thrill it was to meet Miss Linney at last night’s Outfest Legacy Awards honoring her Tales producer Alan Poul. When he convinced her to take on the role of Mary Ann, Linney was already an established New York theater actress but had only a few small previous screen credits.

“Thank God I wasn’t aware of what a beloved character that was or I would have been completely intimidated,” she said. “I was really lucky to fall into job and the people were wonderful and they are people who I have remained friends with for 20 years now.”

After Tales of the City aired, Linney began landing big roles in such movies as Primal Fear, The Truman Show and Congo.

But she returned to the role of Mary Ann in 1998’s More Tales of the City which was done by Showtime after PBS backed out due to the controversy over the first miniseries. Then in 2001, the year after her first Oscar nod for You Can Count on Me, Linney starred as Mary Ann again in Showtime’s Further Tales of the City.

“It was just fantastic writing about fantastic people, people who loved each other and I adored it,” she said. “I knew when I was making it that it would be very special.”

Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Billy Campbell and Barbara Garrick were in all three miniseries but some key roles were recast after the original production for various reasons including the key role of Michael “Mouse” Tolliver. Marcus D’Amico originated the role before it was taken over by Paul Hopkins.

Since Mouse was such good friends with Mary Ann, I actually asked Laura which Michael she preferred!

“I loved them both,” she said diplomatically. “They were both different.”

With all of the roles she’s had on television (she won every award in sight for the John Adams miniseries), in feature films and in her Tony Award-nominated stage career, I wondered where the role of Mary Ann Singleton ranked among it all.

Linney did not hesitate: “It’s my favorite job, hands down. It was the first time I was on something from beginning to end, I had a lot of responsibility, I met people who I still feel so privileged to know. It was a great, great magical job.”