A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The hot Santa Ana winds are blowing in Los Angeles. 83 degrees Fahrenheit it was yesterday, producing that sandy feeling in the eyes – the kind of weather that Raymond Chandler wrote made meek little wives eye the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. So it’s strange to talk to friends in freezing New York, or the hoar frosted UK. But on Sunday my live reading group (the Santa Monica chapter of the Southwest division of the Jane Austen Society, to be specific), drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, where we sat on a deck directly over the blue waves, in a house belonging to a former Disney animation executive. We ate chicken tamales and talked about Ngaio Marsh’s provincial New Zealand admiration for her fictional Lampreys.
My own coping mechanism for a life spent always feeling slightly displaced and unreal in Los Angeles, has been, for decades, to pore over Jane Austen’s every sentence, and finally to render her the ultimate betrayal by writing sequels to her novels. That, in the infinite connectedness of internet life, is how I turned up on the book foxes’ radar, when they were kind enough to contemplate my Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma. But with the hot winds prickling my eyes and my three tortoiseshell kittens driving their claws restlessly into my scalp, I have not energy to summon up even the faintest image of a corner in Hampshire.
Instead, I will tell you a true tale of Hollywood and books. In 1924 my grandmother came to Hollywood as Story Editor for Universal Pictures. She called herself Onoto Watanna when she was pretending to be Japanese in order to publicize her best selling romance novels with titles like A Japanese Nightingale and The Wooing of Wistaria. (She was more prosaically known as Winnifred Eaton, when she was passing for white.) For eight years she churned out screenplays, and a few made it to the Silver Screen: Shanghai Lady was one, and Mississippi Gambler with Edward G. Robinson was another. She valiantly battled the white male powers of the Hollywood studios, who assigned her mostly to B movies with exotic themes (Mexicans, Gypsies, French, Indian, you name it). When Hollywood had ground her down and spit her out, she was thankful to retire to Calgary with a rich husband.
Her son, my father Paul Eaton Reeve, a Greenwich Village poet and unregenerate alcoholic, did some script reading for the studios whenever his indomitable mother was able to get him occasional work. (Her motto – though not his – might have been that mantra of Louisa May Alcott’s, “Work is my salvation and I will celebrate it.”) Years later, after both were long in their graves, in a completely unrelated move, I, then a young single mother and Jewish New Yorker, came out West and took up my 30-year career as a book reader and story analyst for the studios. My own son has put in time reading scripts too. Thus we are four generations of family members working in studio story departments, over a more than 80-year period. This is I believe unique, yet the perspective it provides seems to have (again quoting Chandler), no more than the depth of a paper cup.
In an ironic twist, I read all my grandmother’s own screenplays in the University of Calgary research library, while writing her biography (Onoto Watanna, University of Illinois Press, 2001). And I could see, poignantly, that she had by no means led the glamorous life in Hollywood. The hundreds of rapidly typed faded carbon copy scripts were testament to her desperate struggle to survive on her own as a woman in Hollywood. And a half Chinese woman at that; she was undoubtedly the first Asian American woman to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, though I don’t suppose anyone noticed it back then, so cunning was she in her shifting camouflage.
I haven’t led a glamorous life either. I’ve read a lot – was first reader on such movies as Rocky, Blade Runner, Terminator, Moonstruck, and strings of others I can’t even try to remember; more recently I worked on the Harry Potter Lexicon trial. The primary result has been to render me functionally unable to read modern fiction for pleasure, unless it’s set in the past. I’ve devoted myself mainly to reading women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries…seldom anything later than the Provincial Lady or the Mitfords, with plenty of soothing forays into English children’s literature. I’m not a book scout, and can’t read manuscripts people send me, yet there are books that still make it past my desert-wind dried-out eyes jaded by “The Industry,” and delight my soul. What does a studio story analyst look for in reading books to recommend them for movies? Short answer: it comes down to good old gut instinct. And it’s remarkable how little the process and criteria have changed in eighty years.
Diana Birchall works as a story analyst at Warner Bros. Studios and is the author of Onoto Watanna (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, both from SourceBooks, 2008.
Her blog is called Light, Bright and Sparkling, and for the past month it has been slavishly devoted to the three young pussycats, Pindar, Catullus, and Martial. (Girls.)