Today for Genre-Study Tuesday I’m very pleased to introduce Dr. Harrison Solow as my guest.
Dr. Solow’s writing awards include the Pushcart Prize for Literature (2008). She is published by Simon & Schuster, The University of California Press, Harper Collins, Carpe Articulum, AOL, Cinnamon Press, AGNI, The Pushcart Press and several others in the USA, Wales, Canada and England.
In addition to her own works, she writes for myriad cultural, educational, political and corporate organisations. More: http://redroom.com/member/harrison-solow/bio
Dr. Solow leads a fascinating life as a literary, entertainment industry and professional writer, researcher and university professor. She’s also the wife of Herbert Solow (former Head of Desilu Studios, Paramount Television and MGM Studio Head & Vice President of Worldwide Motion Picture and Television) and along with her own work in Hollywood, this lends even more opportunity for interesting facets to develop in her life. There are so many questions I’d like to ask but I’ve weeded them down to just a few of the things that interested me most.
The first topic I’d like to discuss is Liminality. Until I ran across the word in your bio materials in reference to your area of expertise, I’d never really paid attention to it. I’m not exactly sure what it means in relation to literature or your studies, but if I take a literal interpretation of liminal=threshold, certain types of themes come to mind especially concerning science fiction and fantasy:
· Literal doorways, portals
· Metaphorical thresholds representing opportunity for change of paradigm, being on the edge of great change
· Symbolic moving from one world to another, one phase to another, perhaps as sublimation, metamorphosis of characters from one kind to another
MW: How does liminality, or does it at all, apply to the genre of science fiction and fantasy?
HS: It does apply, to both science fiction and fantasy (which are generally regarded as separate genres), yes. Any step into a new world, whether imaginative or physical, is a liminal step by definition, both within the fictional world (or Matter) of the book, and outside that fiction, in a reader’s own world and her/his experience of reading.
Liminality is an enormous subject, very hard to contain in an interview – at least a readable one (!) It is a primary research area of mine and one of the two central themes of my PhD Dissertation, The Bendithion Chronicles. The concept was defined and applied in several ways in that document, but most emphatically in an exploration of the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Here is a brief quote from the introduction to the dissertation:
“The nature of the threshold, of the limen, is as I see it, not just a transitional point, significant only in the fact that it is crossed and left behind. For, although thresholds have historically been seen as mere stepping-stones into a larger or different world, particularly in the philosophical and anthropological literature in which the term ‘liminality’ originated, I would suggest that, in literature, this ambiguous passage through which the referent and thus significance pass into a manifest world, is by its nature, a corpus callosum between different hemispheres, disparate worlds, and divergent occasions. It is the only common denominator between I and Thou: a habitable corridor between fact and fiction, between logic and imagination, ‘between the idea and the reality…between the conception and the creation…between the potency and the existence.’ There falls, not Eliot’s Shadow, but light.
Imaginative literature, which includes but is not limited to fiction, is also sociological, philosophical, and at times theological or spiritual, commentary conveyed essentially through the creation of ‘other worlds.’ My research focuses on thresholds and enclosures, those discernible little boundaried worlds in literature and in life, both the impetus and consequence of rulebooks and imagination: catechisms, etiquettes, spaceships, fandoms, kingdoms, stardoms, academies, armies and art – the constructs of worldmakers, chosen peoples, if only chosen by themselves, and the borderlands that surround them.”
For a less philosophical, more personal definition of liminality, my short essay on Liminality is available here: http://redroom.com/member/harrison-solow/blog/the-whole-thing It touches on the relationship of a person to a place and to himself or herself – that metamorphosis you described above.
In its most literal sense, liminality is a constant for all of us. Because human life is nothing but change and development, we are often in liminal states, some positive and exciting, and others, as Matthew Arnold put it, “hovering between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born.”
Your account of what it was like when you moved to Wales for your research, before you learned the language and had learned to slow down to the pace of the village, reminds me of my experience moving to the rural Ozarks. People are friendly here in a reserved sort of way, but we are safe. My children are safe. The countryside is beautiful and speaks to my soul.
So much of my fiction is inspired by the deep connection I feel to Nature when I am here. I feel it also when I am in other places (but not everywhere).
MW: Do you feel the same anywhere you go, or do certain places, like Wales, invite you to gain a more intimate connection? Do you think your kinship to Wales influences your writing life? If so, in what ways?
HS: I feel reasonably comfortable in most places, but no, I do not feel the same way anywhere I go. Not at all. There are places I go or have been that are neutral, others that are compatible to my psyche and still others that seem actively hostile. And then, for me, there is Wales which is none of those things, but a magnetic, impassioned place in which I meet myself in what seems like a different dimension. And so, yes, my kinship to Wales has a great deal to do with my writing life.
To quote from the same source: “A particular emphasis in my work is that an essential quality of liminality with regard to Wales and Welshness is its invisibility to those outside it, particularly in relation to that place or state that is formed by mutual extension of the self into the other…A second emphasis is the numinous nature of the liminal in those places of the imagination, like science fiction, or the transcendent, like theology, that constitute separate planes.”
MW: Has learning the Welsh language changed how you interpret the world, and in turn how you translate your invisible world into words of stories or poems? It seems the translation itself would be a sort of liminal experience.
HS: The greatest gift that the Welsh language gave me is its connection to an inner world, in which “The Welsh Manner of Thought” I have called it, is a primary tool. This is a kind of lateral thinking that is generally not employed by first language English speakers. Being able to speak Welsh, and more importantly to understand Welsh speakers, was a key that unlocked various worlds, including one in myself – gave me access to latent labyrinths that were extant but not fully operational. One result of this, among many was that I stopped pressuring myself to define and categorise, label and file, explain and clarify when I write creatively and instead to illuminate what I see.
An example: Last week I put a photo of a blue tree in Wales on my Facebook page. The response (and I say this affectionately) of my lovely American friends was to enquire about the name of the tree, where it grows, etc. To seek and record information. This is also my tendency – and it is largely a useful and good one in the society, the country in which we live. Americans, it is often said abroad, love facts. And despite living in Canada and Great Britain for much of my life, have I always shared this national passion for statistics and facts for which we have a largely justified reputation. (Just listen to a baseball game.) But in this instance, that Welsh resistance to categorization arose in protest, because the only reason I posted this photo was that it was beautiful and had somewhat magical memories for me. Half of me honoured the curiosity which seems inherent in the American psyche and which has historically produced so many inventions and developments and improvements and so much research and information. And the other half of me felt that an emphasis on facts was detrimental to the contemplation of its loveliness. I would say that my immersion in Welsh culture is largely responsible for that.
There is a hint of this in my essay, Bendithion, a non-fiction piece first published by AGNI and then by the Pushcart Press: http://www.bu.edu/agni/essays/print/2007/66-solow.html
I am just beginning my study of the genres I enjoy reading most, Science Fiction and Fantasy. Some writers are hallmarks of the genre; almost everyone even slightly familiar with it recognizes their names. During our Twitter conversation you’d mentioned that you were friends with Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Sir Arthur C. Clarke.
MW: How and where did you first encounter these icons of the genre? Heinlein is another Sci-Fi hallmark name. Had you met or known him as well?
HS: Isaac Asimov and I became friends a few years before he died. Our acquaintance began when I wrote to him while I was doing some science fiction research for my first book, long before I met and married Herb. I don’t remember what it was now, but I happened to mention a metaphysical/liminal idea I had based on the premise of hidden worlds accessed via mathematics and something else. He was very taken with the idea and wrote back and we began a correspondence that eventuated into a friendship not only with him, but with Janet Asimov, his wife with whom I enjoy an affectionate friendship today.
Arthur C. Clarke and I first met when we talked on the phone for some reason that escapes me now on a publishing project. When I asked him if he would write the Foreword to my forthcoming book, he agreed without hesitation and we began a fax correspondence (there was then no email) that lasted for years, until email came into common use and we continued via that – and the post. He even wrote a recommendation for me for my PhD studies, which I don’t think I submitted as it had to do with my science fiction expertise and not the English Letters degree for which I was applying. Enormously kind of him though. We had marvelous correspondence, and even more marvelous conversations for many, many years.
As for Harlan, to whom I was perhaps the closest, Herb introduced him to me at one of the Comicons at which we seemed to be often speaking or signing books. Herb had known Harlan since he hired him to write a Star Trek episode in the 60s and always thought very highly of him. At that first meeting, we became fast friends. I have enormous respect for Harlan, for his talent, his fierce moral stances and his heart. And for Susan, his wife. I’ve spoken about Harlan at times, in interviews. One can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/bolsta-solow but nothing explains my understanding of and feeling for Harlan as well as this: http://redroom.com/member/harrison-solow/blog/epistle-for-ellison
I did not know Robert Heinlein, nor did Herb, except through his work. As for Theodore Sturgeon, Herb knew him very well. They were good friends. This was before I met Herb, so I never met him. Herb adapted his novella, Killdozer and produced the 2-hour television movie of the same name, which seems to have its own cult following. We have a number of writer friends and colleagues, some of whom are very well known, like the three I spoke of above and others who are lesser known – they write episodic television or are known for other works. Off the top of my head- these are writers like Gene Coon, Richard Matheson, Jerry Sohl, Larry Brody and George Clayton Johnson. I only know the latter two on this list, but Herb of course hired and worked with dozens of science fiction writers. Then there are others whom I can’t say in all conscience that I “know” – but we’ve met, we’ve gone to the same events and/or parties, we end up at the same conventions or conferences, we may be on the same panels or have had a few meals in company together, like Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Fredrick Pohl, Terry Nation, etc. Or we have mutual friends.
Writers everywhere dream of having the film options bought for their novels. I have to be honest; I haven’t seen many book-to-movie transitions that worked all that well. Dances With Wolves is the only movie I remember being pleased with after reading the book first.
MW: Since you’ve been part of the television and movie industry for some time, have you any insight to offer us on how we as writers might influence the possibility of such a deal? (I realize agents have most of the power in this, but what about indie authors, how would they approach the industry?) Is there a certain type of writing that makes better movies?
HS: In answer to the first question: No, I haven’t. First of all, I never give writing advice except to my students (both university and private – or when I give a writing workshop), unless asked a specific question by someone I know well and whose work I know well. Secondly, any advice given about such a fluctuant and capricious industry as the entertainment industry is bound to be outdated a few minutes after someone reads it. You’re right about agents being essential to the submission process in any major motion picture deal (they actually are the submission process), but as for power, entertainment attorneys wield the most power in Hollywood. Unquestionably.
“Is there a certain type of writing that makes better movies?” Good writing doesn’t always make good movies and bad writing doesn’t always make bad movies. Good and bad are so relative that these are impossible terms to employ. Optioned books/scripts get changed, dialogue gets rewritten, stories become “based on” either to their greater good or to their detriment. But they do get changed. A movie is not a book. A case in point – I was on the set once of a television show in which an actress friend of mine (normally very cooperative) simply could not get one of her sentences right. After many takes, she said – “I can’t say these lines. Nobody talks like this!” So the director tried to say it out loud and stumbled over it. The result was that they called the Producer for permission to rewrite it – with approval for every word change. In this case, it was a script and not a book that was the issue, but it often happens that the written sentence is not viable as a spoken sentence. Most often it is written for the eye and not the ear.
If you mean “successful” or “saleable” there is a different criterion altogether. My Dinner With Andre is beautifully written. Most people haven’t heard about it. On the other hand, Star Wars, which hardly depends on writing for its success, is another story entirely. (And I love Star Wars, which actually illustrates the point J ) I’ve been in book-to-movie meetings with very fine directors who are thoroughly enthusiastic about doing a deal and getting a project underway one day and completely disinterested the next. Something as simple as a complex copyright issue that will take some time to work out will send them running to other projects – of which there is an endless, hopeful stream.
My husband, who was the head of three major movie studios, bought hundreds of scripts and made dozens of movies and television shows (some of them, like Star Trek and Mission Impossible, iconic), often explains the writer’s situation this way: “There are about 6000 members of the Writer’s Guild of America. These are experienced, successful writers whose scripts have already been made into movies and television shows and who are well-known and respected in the industry. They have agents who represent them and lawyers who protect them. These writers are the people with whom studios will take a meeting. If each of them has, say, three to ten ideas for a movie each year, that’s 18,000 to 60,000 possible movies. There are not 18,000 to 60,000 movies made every year. There are not 18,000 to 60,000 meetings granted by studios to agents/writers each year. The unknown writer, especially one living outside LA, where mere presence can have a catalytic effect, is facing those odds.”
So for me to give advice to an aspiring writer on how to get a screenplay to a major studio would be irresponsible. I don’t know about the little independent production companies outside Hollywood. That’s not my world.
I’ve seen accounts of your personal library before. One of my own goals is to have a whole room for a library one day. Yours sounds like a fantasy and I love planning for the construction of that room in my future dream house!
MW: Can you tell me about your library, give us a walk-through and point out which books are your favorites? Are there paintings on the wall? What features of your library might you wish you had done differently and which do you like best?
HS: Having lived in so many worlds, my books represent those worlds, and I have favourites in every category: English Literature, Philosophy, Children’s Literature, YA books, Theology, Physics, Astronomy, Literary Analysis (Criticism) Welsh Literature in English, Welsh Literature in Welsh (at a level correspondent to my limited ability to read it!) French Language and Literature, Art, Catechetics, Law, General Non-Fiction, Biography (not much) and books pertaining to the movie industry which are hard to categorise – some are books we are in or quoted in – some are books friends have written, some are gifts from studios, etc. Also, Education, Science Fiction, Gardening, Jewish Studies, Essays, Poetry, American Studies, Cookbooks, Sociology (mostly of Great Britain), History and Reference books. There are others, but these are the main categories. There are, literally thousands of books on our shelves. Each category is of a different size. Art, English Literature, Science Fiction, and Theology & Jewish Studies (combined) comprise the greatest number. As I write this, the carpenter who did all the wood panelling in house from which I am writing, which we call our writing retreat, is here measuring for more bookshelves!
There isn’t any feature of the library that I wish I had done differently. In our Malibu house, which was very large, the library was divided among several rooms – our offices, guest rooms, bedroom, etc. and I used to think it would be better to have all the books in one room and might have done that differently, then. But I’ve become used to having books in different rooms and wouldn’t change that now. It makes sense to have different categories of books in different rooms as suits the purpose of that room. Given the size of our library, however, there are a great many books in these rooms. Which brings me to the paintings you mentioned.
There are many paintings on our walls, yes. My husband’s father was an art dealer in New York and Herb started going to galleries and art auctions with his father when he was about six. His lifelong expertise in art and in particular, art glass and bronze sculpture, has brought many treasures into our house. He buys and sells art as a side business and is a recognized expert in certain areas. He is recognized – and has been interviewed – by Forbes, for example, for his expertise in European and American art glass – Lalique, Daum, Gallé, Tiffany, Chihuli, Seguso, etc.
He is also involved with fine Mexican art and sculpture, Camarena, Caduro. Zuniga (born in Cost Rica, but lived and worked in Mexico) Casteñeda,etc. In fact, director, producer and actor friends often ask him for his advice when acquiring paintings, sculpture and glass. His expertise is well known and highly respected in that circle. He also owned an Art Glass Gallery in Northern California for many years, while he was running MGM & Boreham Wood in London and filming in various places in Europe. It was while he was on these trips, mainly Italy and France, that he was able to acquire various works of art, as well as some of our furniture, dishes, glassware, etc..
It has been fascinating to learn about the art business from him over the years. I had always been aesthetically involved with art – an ardent student of art history and a devoted museum patron but the business side was an entire new world. Herb also appraises certain movie and television memorabilia. For a time we were both consultants to an auction house on such memorabilia and were instrumental in changing the course of entertainment industry memorabilia. We were interviewed by Variety on this venture of ours in the early 2000s.
My own quixotic interest is collecting paintings of monks and nuns. One favourite is a painting of nuns playing on the beach, which originally belonged to Audrey Hepburn, who gave it to Julie Andrews as a gift because they had both played nuns in movies. When Julie and Blake Edwards were downsizing, Herb acquired it from Blake for me because I had actually been one. (Herb and Blake knew each other for decades – since Blake had directed a movie for Herb at MGM starring William Holden.) In the spirit of not caring overmuch about facts, I forget who painted this charming little scene. It hangs in my office along with others on a similar theme. Our art collection is not defined by the specifics I mentioned but they are part of it.
MW: You have recently released a book (Felicity & Barbara Pym) that is a blended fiction and non-fiction, which is I believe closer to the mark in how liminality applies to your work. Please tell us about how you got the idea to approach your topic this way.
HS: In its inception, Felicity & Barbara Pym, was less a concrete idea than an act of academic imagination. In a slightly different format, this work constituted part of my rigourous Master of Fine Arts degree requirement at Mills College in California, one of the few remaining private Liberal Arts colleges for women in America. In order to qualify for the MFA in Literature & Writing (at that time, at least) one was required to both study literature and write a creative work. One’s thesis had to give evidence of accomplishment in both. I thought that writing a creative work about the study of literature would be a fascinating way to demonstrate such accomplishment.
In thinking about how achieve this, I realized that I had inherited much of my literary philosophy from my own undergraduate tutor, who had been a student of FR Leavis at Cambridge and a literary exemplar to me two decades earlier. His great pedagogical/literary gift to me – the interrelatedness of all of literature, and the literary history and context I hold in my head, was something I wanted to pass on to my students with the conviction, passion, discipline with which I had been taught. So I decided to write a dialogue between a student just beginning literary studies and a seasoned professor of literature – but to include only the professor’s letters (which later I changed to emails). It’s very easy to tell, from what the professor (Mallory) writes, the content of the student’s (Felicity’s) letters.
I chose to centre this thesis around the novels of Barbara Pym, because by then, I had become deeply engaged with her work. I knew it well and found that not many other academics did. As there was comparatively little written about her at that time, I was able to fulfill one of the principle tenets of scholarship: to make an original contribution to Literary Studies. If I were able to illuminate the worth of this relatively obscure author to a very young and not very interested college student standing on the cusp of the 21st Century, in a creative work, I felt I would have earned the title of Master, which was about to be conferred on me.
So I embarked on this unsailed sea and thus Felicity and Barbara Pym, an epistolary novel, or what was called by one Harvard editor, “a masterfully done epistolary novel cum memoir cum literary critique cum advice column” was born. What readers enjoy – and mention often is how much they enjoy the humour in it. It’s not a traditional literary study. It’s a story.
Felicity & Barbara Pym has enjoyed surprising success in the UK where it was published, and is beginning to have a following here in the USA so I think there will be an American edition of Felicity & Barbara Pym in the near future.
There is more information about the book on the Felicity & Barbara Pym website, including reviews, at: http://felicityandbarbarapym.wordpress.com/. It is currently available at bookstores in the UK and on Amazon.com
MW: Dr. Solow, thank you so much for being my guest today. It’s been a pleasure reading over your materials as I thought up questions of my own to ask you. I hope to see you again on Twitter and other places in the cyber-world.
HS: Thank you, Madison. These were fascinating questions and not very easy to answer, which is always a pleasurable challenge. Glad to be connected on social media.
 Kathleen Ashley. (ed.) Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp.xviii-xix.
 T.S. Eliot. ‘The Hollow Men’ The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Third Edition, Vol. 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc, 1979). pp. 1291-1294.