JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner

JNT-CoverWith a little tweaking, Richard Marson’s tell-all biography of the late John Nathan-Turner could easily replace its subtitle with that of Peter Hook’s wonderful memoir on the Manchester club scene of the 1980s, The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club, as its subject’s tenure as producer of Doctor Who reads like a case study on how not to run a television series. Of greatest interest to Who fans will likely be the vast range of commentary Marson culled from program insiders, especially the insights from actors, directors, and writers of the classic series. Some of the heavy hitters include Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy, who played Doctors five through seven, along with the actors who played companions Ace, Peri, Mel, Tegan, Turlough, and Adric (Sophie Aldred, Nicola Bryant, Bonnie Langford, Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, and Matthew Waterhouse respectively). What emerges over the course of nearly 400 pages is a portrait of an ambitious, flawed, and ultimately tragic figure whose insecurities both fueled his success and led to his downfall.

The consensus, as far as Marson and those interviewed for the book are concerned, is that J N-T (as the producer was known) excelled at the art of spectacle. As soon as he took over as producer, he commissioned new titles for the show and an arguably catchier (for the times) version of the show’s trademark theme music. He’s also responsible for giving the Doctor a “uniform,” most noticeable in the question marks that started showing up in the Doctor’s costume during Tom Baker’s last season in the titular role. Along similar lines, the producer also did all he could to keep both the show and himself in the spotlight, including grabbing headlines by giving the Doctor new companions on a fairly regular basis and making himself a celebrity in his own right. One of N-T’s favorite poses involved pointing a finger in the face of any celebrity he was being photographed with, a move that insured he could never be cropped out of the picture.

J N-T’s intense focus on the marketing of his show, however, came at the expense of paying attention to its writing, and the book is full of commentary from writers, directors, and script editors who express frustration at the lack of direction they received under the producer’s tenure. Indeed, even as N-T pursued headlines and press coverage from British tabloids and Doctor Who fan magazines alike, the fans grew increasingly displeased with his work as producer and, at least in Great Britain, voiced their displeasure through the very channels N-T used to promote the show. The result was increasing paranoia on N-T’s part, a situation that wasn’t helped by the BBC’s waning interest in the show.

Tellingly, it turns out the BBC Enterprises (roughly speaking, the merchandising arm of the BBC, now known as BBC Worldwide) kept funneling money to the show to keep it in production even as ratings started to slip. Though fewer viewers were watching the show, sales of TARDIS key chains and toy sonic screwdrivers were bringing in plenty of cash — a lesson, Marson is quick to point out, not lost on contemporary producers of the program. Indeed, when one considers the plethora of Doctor Who toys currently on the market, there’s an argument to be made for the idea that the Doctor Who program exists at least partially to promote sales of Doctor Who merchandise and ensure the longevity of the Doctor Who brand.

In terms of style, Marson adopts a journalistic tone throughout much of his book but also offers his own opinions and analyses where warranted. A chapter on N-T’s sexual exploits and exploitations (title “Hanky Panky”) comes off as somewhat sensationalistic but is balanced out by the rest of the book. Despite his flaws — and they were apparently numerous — J N-T emerges from J N-T as a sympathetic figure whose desire for love and acceptance in all of their forms led to great heights and, tragically, greater lows.

 

The Intentional

Intentional CoverTo hear the mainstream media talk about them, you might guess that Millennials are a detached, directionless tribe, the unhappy, unmotivated result of giving those born between 1980 and 2000 everything they ever wanted and filling every moment of their lives with structured, highly regulated activities that left little room for free time, let alone play or imagination. This impression, however, turns out to be little more than a facile stereotype, and The Intentional takes every opportunity to debunk it.

Indeed, as the magazine’s founder, Kate Jenkins, writes in her letter from the editor, the journal aims to answer some big questions: “How can we find satisfaction as individuals? How can we best coexist? Where do we want to be going as a society?” Tackling all three of these issues, Colin D. Laursen offers a compelling think piece on moving from Washington DC to rural Missouri, an experience that gives the author an opportunity to draw parallels between country music and hip hop (not to mention the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement) while pondering (among other things) the relationship between poverty in the United States. Elsewhere in the magazine, Andrew Crosson presents a series of essays by various writers on travel and its sometimes unexpected ethical repercussions, and Alison Sher offers explores the ambivalence of living with one’s parents after college.

In addition to exploring issues germane not only to Millennials but to anyone interested in the intersection of art, politics, and culture, the magazine looks good and is a far cry from the photocopied single-staple disposable zines of my Gen X youth. Sharp as an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog, its full color printing allows the magazine showcase the art of painters Katherine Mann and Lisa Marie Thalhammer as well as the “speculative designs” of Thomas Thwaites, who is currently working on “a suit that simulates the experience of living as an elephant, complete with a prosthetic stomach that digests grass.” Though a photo of this project is (sadly) not included with the profile, a number of his other projects, including a toaster built entirely from raw materials, are on display.

Demonstrating, like The First Day and other journals of its ilk, that the printed (i.e. non-electronic) word is not only a viable proposition but one alive with possibility, The Intentional is required reading for anyone curious about what Millennials are really up to.

I’m in a Mood

My review of I’m in a Mood, the latest CD release from Scot Sax, is now up at The First Day.

Here’s an excerpt:

Musically, the opening tracks of I’m in a Mood call to mind a handful of my favorite Bob Dylan albums. The slide-guitar infused “Hate to Love” harkens back to Nashville Skyline, while bluesy numbers like “Sweaty Get Ready” and “Reflection in the Glass,” bounce playfully between Dylan’s 1975 classic Blood on the Tracks and his Blonde on Blonde from nearly a decade earlier. As with all of Dylan’s best work, the relatively spare production throughout Sax’s latest CD lends itself to a sense of candor and sincerity. To put it another way, listening to the CD is like catching Sax playing guitar on his back porch when he thinks no one is looking.

Read more at The First Day.

In a Mood Cover

What’s Your Poison? (an interview with Karen Lillis)

Karen Lillis selling books at her pop-up bookstand, Small Press Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Laura Zurowski

Karen Lillis selling books at her pop-up bookstand, Small Press Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Laura Zurowski

Last month I brought news of Small Press Roulette, a new service designed by Karen Lillis to add the element of chance to the business of connecting readers with small press books and journals. Personally, I love the idea. Confronted with the wide range of indie offerings that the 21st-century publishing world has to offer, it’s almost impossible to decide what to read next. Sure, it’s a bit of a gamble, but playing Small Press Roulette means I don’t have choose, which is a big deal for me because I’m the poster-child for indecision. Curious about Small Press Roulette, I placed an order (reviews to come!) and emailed Karen with a few questions…

How would you describe Small Press Pittsburgh?

Small Press Pittsburgh is an evolving small press showcase. It’s a bookstore that started out as a web resource. Right now it is four things: a pop-up street bookstand (in Pittsburgh) selling indie press books, zines, and journals; a curated bookstore service (“Small Press Roulette”) for small press readers everywhere; a web directory for literary Pittsburgh; and a Facebook page for Pittsburgh literary announcements.

The bookstand has a heavy emphasis on Pittsburgh authors and publishers, and browsers so far have been most excited by discovering Pittsburgh authors. With the bookstand, I’m interested in bringing the larger indie lit world to Pittsburgh, while also making Pittsburgh’s emerging authors (and publishers) better known to Pittsburgh readers (especially outside the lit scene). With the bookselling service, Small Press Roulette, I want to introduce the best of the underground small press to readers who aren’t over-familiar with the authors I’m sending them. There are more great writers than the ones who are getting all the hype. Or, sometimes a writer is getting the hype, but not in a wide enough area—they’re some city’s local celebrity while remaining a national secret.

The mission of Small Press Pittsburgh (in any form) has always been to promote small and micro- presses and make them more visible—easier to find for anyone who’s looking. It started with the web directory, creating listings for all the indie publishers of Pittsburgh. Now I guess I’m getting impatient—it’s not enough to passively promote. Now I’m willing to stand on the street with all those indie publishers’ books and talk to people until they buy one. “We’ve got fiction! We’ve got poetry! We’ve got graphic novels! What’s your poison?” I’m like a carnival barker once I smell a passerby who’s genuinely curious about the books.

Small Press Pittsburgh has also been interested in cross-fertilization from the start. One big aim of the website is to help writers and publishers from outside Pittsburgh who are planning book tours and readings—I want to demystify Pittsburgh’s reading venues and bookstores in order to bring outside readers here. Now I get to cross-fertilize readers and writers through the bookstand and the roulette bookselling. I get to sell Baltimore zines to New Orleans, Pittsburgh memoirs to New Jersey, Pittsburgh graphic novels to San Diego, and San Francisco fiction to Pittsburgh. And so on.

How long has it been in operation?

The website started in 2008, and expanded a few times. The Facebook announcement page has been around for a couple of years. The pop-up bookstand started in early July 2013, and Small Press Roulette began in late July 2013.

What gave you the idea to do it?

The website came about because I came to Pittsburgh and saw a small but vibrant, dedicated but balkanized literary scene. It seemed like the academics kept their distance from the underground writers, and the “literary” writers didn’t always associate with the zinesters or the slam poets. I was in library school when I created the website for a cataloging class. Thinking as a librarian, I wanted to show what a healthy literary scene Pittsburgh had by democratizing each facet. To a librarian, each of those literary scenes is equal. Whereas the people inside the scenes can be blinded by concerns of the ego: Worrying whether their scene has enough clout or convinced that their scene is so much better than the others.  As an outsider, I thought it would create a point of strength just to show how much was going on in Pittsburgh, to record it all in one place.

Evolving into the pop-up bookstand happened much more recently. I was inspired by a few different sources. I was following Mellow Pages Library really closely, a new small press library in Brooklyn. And I kept organizing Pittsburgh’s small presses to give me copies of their books, and I’d send them as library donations en masse. I’d label the packages “from Small Press Pittsburgh.” Next the Polish Hill Arts Fest was coming up, a street fair here where I had tabled as an author the previous year. The organizers were asking me to come back, but I wasn’t convinced it was worth it to sit there with my own novels. One of the organizers, Laura Zurowksi, knew about the packages I’d been sending to Mellow Pages. She suggested I could do the same thing—get books together from local publishers and showcase everyone’s, not just my own. I loved the idea, it made me excited about tabling again.

I think sometime after hearing about The Newsstand in Brooklyn, I bought a book/magazine rack, supposedly to augment table space at the arts fest. But as soon as I bought it I felt like I could sell books anywhere. Since then I’ve been popping up at events like gallery crawls—my next event is the grand opening of a library.

What are some challenges you face with the SPP bookstand?

Rain, wind, gravity. Every outdoor event has been under threat of severe thunderstorms. The first time we set up the bookstand, a good gust of wind came through and blew almost every book off the stand and onto the sidewalk. We clipped a trash bag to the back of the stand, which helped that dilemma. The physics of the bookstand itself is something I’m still working out—the “shelves” are very shallow, which is good for face-outs, but it’s easy for a book to start a domino effect. One book leans forward at the wrong angle, and in a few seconds, twenty books have fallen off. This is tedious because the books start to get damaged if they fall two or three times. Not terribly so, but visibly. It reminds me of another challenge—when the books are threatened by damage from falling or rain, it makes me see a very-low overhead operation (a lot of consignment books) as hundreds of dollars of stock I’m suddenly responsible for. Which is fine, as long as I adjust my thinking.

What do you enjoy about it?

I love connecting people to books. Readers love discovering new books, so I love watching people get curious, start to browse. I try to gauge how much book talk they do or don’t want. Some people want to be talked into a book, others feel like that’s condescending. Often it’s more like conversation between book lovers—”I loved X book for Y reason, you should check it out.” Other times it’s just describing the basics so it piques interest without sounding like arm-twisting. “This is a true crime novel about a group of misfits working on an underground newspaper.”

Part of the enjoyable work is behind the scenes—curating a selection of books I know are great reads, or interesting small press items. I want books I can stand up for, and book design that’s bold and eye-catching, books that feel good in your hand. There’s books that are good reads but that have terrible design—they’re too POD, they have terrible font or colors, or they’re way too stuffy looking. Some books have a cover so dull it screams, “I CAN BE SOLD AT A READING OF SYMPATHETIC PEOPLE BUT NOWHERE ELSE.” I don’t always have time to convince people what’s between the covers. There’s a brief window where my potential customers might stay interested in my bookstand or might keep walking on to wherever they were actually headed. I want books whose design suggests in a glance how urgent and interesting the content is. I want books whose design is half the sell.

What gave you the idea for Small Press Roulette?

The Polish Hill Arts Fest was a big event for the bookstand, and I had gathered a lot of books for it. There was a lot of anticipation. I was checking the weather, which was calling for 0% chance of rain—I kept checking all week and that’s what it said, over and over, “0% chance of rain.” We ended up having five excellent hours of selling books—our area was always busy with browsers—and then a deluge came out of nowhere. Hard rain for over an hour. The stands weren’t quite all the way under a tent, and I had overstock sitting on a lawn….It was very stressful getting the books put away quickly and unharmed, and it was really disappointing to be cut off from the best day yet for the bookstand.

The next morning I took the momentum of all the browsers and invented Small Press Roulette. I wanted a rain-proof way for people to have access to the books. But at the same time, I’m not interested in promoting the books individually on the internet. Why are readers going to enjoy my jpeg book cover over Amazon’s jpeg book cover, over Powell’s jpeg book cover? Internet book sales is a cutthroat game. People want the lowest price, or they want their go-to bookstore, or they want to buy direct from the author or the publisher. One bookseller can knock themselves out hyping a book online and the customer will still go to Amazon or Ebay looking for a lower price. I can’t compete with those things. But I knew I could try to harness the excitement that far-flung readers had expressed when the news first came out about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand. I think that the Kickstarter phenomenon has shown us that people want to support ideas they’re excited about, and the people behind those ideas. And publishers Richard Nash of Cursor/Red Lemonade and Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio have both talked about giving customers a chance to support the author or publisher at different price points or different levels of involvement. Readers want to be involved with the writer, but different readers will have different financial capacities. Some people want to be involved for $2 and others want to be involved for much more. Right now Small Press Roulette goes between $2 and $15, but I’m planning to expand it. I already had an order from a bookstore for $75.

What makes it fun?

Connecting people to books I think they would genuinely like thrills me. I sometimes do a lot of research when I get an order. In a way, it means I’m working as a Small Press Librarian for the first time. A lot of people think I am a working librarian because of the title of my blog, but library jobs are scarce in this economy. I’m trying to invent the small press library job I’m built for. This is like Reader’s Advisory meets bookselling.

Helping writers and books I believe in find readers who devour them is another thrill. I hate watching talented writers work hard to languish in obscurity.

Photo Credit: Robert Lee Bailey

Photo Credit: Robert Lee Bailey

Links of interest:

Twenty Four Hours Zine blog interview about the Small Press Pittsurgh bookstand: http://twentyfourhourszine.blogspot.com/2013/07/small-press-go-go-talking-with-karen.html

Gigantic Sequins interview about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand:

http://giganticsequins.com/spotlights-2/spotlight-karen-lillis/

Karen the Small Press Librarian blog:

http://karenslibraryblog.blogspot.com/

Small Press Pittsburgh website:

http://smallpresspittsburgh.wikispaces.com/

Small Press Roulette:

http://smallpresspittsburgh.wikispaces.com/Small+Press+Roulette

Small Press Roulette

Here’s a new game from Karen Lillis, a.k.a. Karen the Small Press Librarian: Small Press Roulette. Visit the Small Press Roulette page on Etsy, choose your price point and your basic genre, and Karen will send you a small press item from her indie press pop up bookstand, SMALL PRESS PITTSBURGH, that she thinks you might like. Many books are from Pittsburgh’s best authors or indie publishers, but Karen also has books, zines, and lit mags she’s carefully selected from other cities like SF, NYC, Baltimore, Chicago, LA, and more.

Karen Lillis rocks Pittsburgh with her pop-up small press book stand. Play Small Press Roulette and get one of the titles on her rack!

Karen Lillis rocks Pittsburgh with her pop-up small press book stand. Play Small Press Roulette and get one of the titles on her rack!

The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax

Wallace_AMAT_CVI’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who could read an entire book by David Foster Wallace, but I’ve always been intimidated by their sheer length–not to mention the density of their prose and the level of minute detail with which the author observes the world at large. But the good folk at Madras Press — the proceeds of whose books go to nonprofit organizations — have, with the publication of The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax made it possible for me and readers everywhere to boast without lies or exaggeration that they’ve read — not merely skimmed or glossed or hefted or otherwise demonstrated an awareness of — one of Wallace’s books. (Though, to be completely honest, it’s a slight exaggeration, as The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax is actually an excerpt from The Pale King, but who’s counting?)

In many ways, The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax reads like a cross between a tax manual and a latter-day version of Catcher in the Rye. Wallace’s reputedly preternatural attention to detail and minutia is on full display throughout the narrative, particularly since his narrator is afflicted with an odd combination of OCD and malaise that leads him to count every word he hears without ever really understanding what any of them mean. Indeed, this curious manifestation of OCD makes the narrator somewhat of an outsider — or a “wastoid,” in his own words — cut from a pattern highly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield.

Much of the narrative deals with the protagonist’s fraught relationship with his parents, a mother whose own personal and emotional issues make her ripe for consciousness-raising reawakening in the early 1970s, and a straight-laced father who wants nothing more than to see his son succeed through hard work and, for lack of a better phrase, the gumption he just doesn’t seem to have. His journey, then, is both personal and, in an odd way, spiritual, for as the narrator comes to grips with all of his own idiosyncrasies, a Damascene encounter with a substitute tax professor points the way to a new life for the narrator and a reconciliation of sorts with his father.

The above revelations, by the way, aren’t spoilers, as Wallace reveals nearly everything relevant to his plot very early in this 177-page book, a strategy that frees him to riff on all manner of topics and to philosophize ad infinitum about the nature of humanity in the final quarter of the twentieth-century. Engaging, quirky, and oddly spiritual, The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax makes for an excellent introduction to Wallace.

Note: All net proceeds from the sales of this book will benefit Granada House, a substance addiction-recovery facility in Boston MA. Residents of Granada House are provided a safe, stable environment in which to begin their substance-free lives, with supportive peers, counseling services, and a variety of integrative 12-Step programs.