THE AFFAIR: It’s About an Author. Really.

My latest television addiction is the Showtime series The Affair. True, the primary plot of the show, as the title indicates, concerns a relationship between two folks who are married, but not to each other. Each episode is divided into two thirty-minute 
he said/she said segments which usually (but not always) show the same events from the markedly different viewpoints of the two participants in a game of Jump the Fence, carried out in the resort town of Montauk on Long Island. Both of the main characters in The Affair are Americans portrayed by British actors Ruth Wilson and Dominic West. Wilson (the unforgettable Alice in Luther) plays the role of the troubled and complex Alison Lockhart, a Montauk “townie” waitress who has married into a family with deep roots in the community. She attracts the not-unwelcomed attention of Noah Solloway, who with his wife Helen and four children are spending the summer in Montauk with Helen’s parents, Bruce and Margaret Butler. Noah is played by West (he looks like a young(er) Gordon Lightfoot), who was Detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire.  Noah and Alison continue to happen upon each other (it’s a small island), one thing leads to another, and soon the disaffected Noah and the rumpled, damaged, but still-hot Alison are steaming up a local bed-and-breakfast, a vacant house, and various bodies of water. Yep, The Affair is about infidelity, for sure, but the plot elements also include a murder mystery, an island crime caper, and a few other things. What has really attracted my attention to the show (other than Ruth Wilson, of course) is that The Affair is about novel writing and authors.

How’s that? Noah  is a New York City public schoolteacher who, as The Affair opens, has recently published a mildly acclaimed but poorly selling novel, and he has a problem. As the saying goes, one has their whole life to write their first book and six months to write their second. While Noah doesn’t have writer’s block, he is not exactly inspired to write Number Two. What makes things worse is that Bruce, Noah’s father-in-law, is a wildly successful, well-known author whose literary work has earned him enough money to live next door to God. Bruce manages to effortlessly exude a smarmy confidence that he wears like a custom-tailored suit, particularly whenever his much less successful son-in-law is in the room. Bruce does so with facial expressions and pithy comments, among other things, and thus manages to convey the impression that he is three hundred pounds of horse manure jammed into a two hundred pound sack. He can do this while stating the truism that while everyone has one good book in them, they almost never have two, or on another occasion, telling Noah the secret of his excessive success. Bruce’s every move consists of helping Noah with one hand while belittling him with the other. Even when Bruce arranges an introduction and meeting with his agent for Noah, it’s a trap which, it is implied, will be sprung by the failure of Noah’s best efforts. Noah for his part is lacking in confidence and probably for good reason. There is, to note but one instance, a classic scene in one of the episodes where Noah has followed Alison to the town library on the pretext of “accidentally” running into her. He finds his book standing forlorn on a shelf as he lurks between the aisles. The library still uses the ink-stamp method of date-due notification; a quick glance at the inside front of his book tells Noah that no one has bothered to check it out. No words are necessary; the look on Noah’s face speaks volumes.

The Affair is a multi-layered drama, a cautionary tale about a man who gets what he thinks he wants — in a number of ways — only to find that having is not the same as wanting (as Mr. Spock pointed out in the “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek) and that some desires are better left unsatisfied (as Garth Brooks pontificated in the song “Unanswered Prayers”). In the case of The Affair, the dream, or at least one of them, is a published novel. The lesson of the series seems at this point to be that success is not a panacea for all of one’s ills, and that sometimes success is anything but

Enough of the gloom, however. What book, film, or television series concerning an author would you recommend to the rest of us? And yes, you’re allowed to mention Castle, or Murder, She Wrote.

For the Love of Horror & History

Jordan Dane

On Monday, my lovely TKZ blogmate Clare Langley-Hawthorne had a post called “Losing the Past” where she discussed the state of the historical. I must admit I’ve been intimidated from trying to write an historical. The research seemed daunting, not to mention the world building and dialogue challenges, but I’ve always loved classic literature set in a historical time period made into movies, like Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre. There is something very compelling about taking a peek into the past to see the cultures, classes, location settings, and period clothing. Whether in a book or on screen, it’s a beautiful escape to a different time and place. Historicals aren’t dying out, they’ve become the new black if they’re reimagined into something fresh.

Lately I’ve become enthralled by TV period pieces, especially if the writing and storytelling are solid and the visuals and world building are memorable. Shows that have pulled me in are: Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, BBC’s Ripper Street, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. I watch other shows for different elements towards my writing, but these shows have influenced me into crossing the line of my comfort zone. I firmly believe, for me, that I must seek out projects to push my perceived limits. I think I learn more about myself when I do it. The only limit to any writer is the limit of their own imagination.

So when I was recently asked to contribute to a time travel anthology (with an amazing group of authors), I accepted with great enthusiasm (even though it scared me). I accepted the challenge because of my love for these three shows and my desire to push my writer limits. I wanted to share these feature film quality shows with you to see if they stir your imaginings as writers for inventive plots, attention to detail on world building and research, and the fearlessness of the creative mind to combine ideas that may not connect easily.

Icabod with skullSLEEPY HOLLOW – The motto at Sleepy Hollow these days is “Embrace the Ridiculous.” Show creators and the talented writers have thrown together very unlikely elements to create what’s been called WTF TV. On paper, the pitch for the show would’ve sounded absurd – Washington Irving adaptations of Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle, mixed with Revelations in the Bible and the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse and historical conspiracies from the Revolutionary War. Icabod Crane is reimagined as a Revolutionary War hero and Revelations “witness” who arises from his secret grave at the same time as the Headless Horseman (aka Death) starts a killing rampage in the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow. The battle of good versus evil has found a home. Crazy, yet it works. The added touch of humor to this “man out of time” story makes Icabod a very endearing character. There’s tongue in cheek humor and the show is notably very ethnically blended. Sleepy Hollow is making history in more ways than its flashbacks.

Ripper SettingRIPPER STREET is set in Victorian London right after Jack the Ripper left his mark. Fear runs high that the monster will return. The shows are tightly written, very emotional, and there is great sensitivity to social issues of the time that reflect on those same issues today. Another thing I love about Ripper Street is the portrayal of early forensics and crime scene analysis. Many scenes are laughable (ie surgical operations done in the open without sterilization or proper care for infection) yet accurate for the time period. Costumes are stunning and the street settings are vivid with great care for detail.

Penny Dreadful BooksPENNY DREADFUL – The show title of Penny Dreadful comes from history, the name given to paper pamphlets filled with terrifying stories. Such stories (also known as Penny Blood, Penny Awful, & Penny Horrible) plus stage performances of the genre were the rage in London during the Victorian time period. They were printed on cheap pulp paper and aimed at working class adolescents. Fear abounded and made fertile ground for when Jack the Ripper wreaked havoc on the streets.

Cast 1Penny Dreadful is an homage to literary horror and classic monsters of the time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, etc. What I love about Penny Dreadful is the intense world building in every scene. The details of lush sets and gorgeous costuming and the use of practical literary monsters (not animated computer generate imagery). The horror is visceral.

Dr VicHere is Dr Victor Frankenstein slaving over his “creature” in secret. The scene where Victor lays eyes on his living creature (and the creature sees his creator for the first time) is an unforgettable moment where the viewer holds a breath to watch the touching intimacy. Everything about this show speaks to me of good writing, solid storytelling, and memorable characters in classic conflict. Visually stunning. It’s a feast for the eyes, mind, and heart.

For Discussion: What shows stir your writer imaginings? Have they ever influenced you to write a genre you’ve never tried before?