Lit, Camera, Action 

This month's East Bay book gossip.

Ghost of a chance: Oakland cartoonist and author Dan Clowes was on the verge of "renting a prom tux" for Sunday night's Academy Awards, when, like his fellow nominees, he was offered a free one. The Academy didn't pick Clowes, who was nominated for cowriting the screenplay adaptation of his graphic novel, Ghost World (Fantagraphics, $9.95). Akiva Goldsman walked away with the trophy instead -- not that Clowes was surprised.

"I can't think of anything more torturous than having to give a speech in front of a billion people," Clowes mused shortly before leaving for LA a week before the ceremony. "The minute this thing's over, everything will be back to normal." Clowes and cowriter/director Terry Zwigoff were up against the scribes behind A Beautiful Mind, Shrek, Lord of the Rings, and In the Bedroom: "We don't have a prayer, thank God."

Adapting his heartbreaking graphic novel about two teenage best friends into a critics' darling of a film took major tweaking. "We started out trying to make the movie exactly like the comic, but I was bored out of my mind," Clowes explained. Book-to-film adaptation is all about "your loyalty to the author. But I thought, 'Hey, I'm the author.' I don't have to have loyalty to myself."

NPR interviews and a New Yorker profile have been intensely flattering, but all the attention feels weird, Clowes said. "There's a reason that we aren't actors," Clowes joked of cartoonists.

Clowes said those big Hollywood luncheons reminded him of high-school assemblies, where Russell Crowe and Marisa Tomei "are like the football players and cheerleaders, and Terry and I are like the guys in the model rocketry club. Context is everything." Lunching, he kept thinking of all the writing and drawing he would rather be doing.

Clowes was well into several new projects a couple years back when the idea for the movie was born. "Everything was going great," he laughed, "until this happened."

He still isn't sure who the Academy actually is. Nor does he ever announce his newfound status in hopes of wresting freebies from the service sector. It's tempting, he says, but "I haven't told my barber."

Outta sight: The Fine Line Features film of Jennifer Egan's debut novel, starring Cameron Diaz, opened last year -- and closed so quickly that the author never got a chance to see it. UC Berkeley dropouts and clashes with Oakland cops pepper The Invisible Circus (Picador, $13), in which a Fleetwood Mac-era teen leaves the Bay Area to investigate the death of her hippie sister in Europe eight years before. Film critics winced; a Seattle reporter charged director Adam Brooks with "making a career out of unsuccessful adaptations of chick lit." (Brooks' past adaptation credits include French Kiss and Beloved.) After barely a week in New York theaters, its run was done.

"It would have been better if it had done well, but financially it was excellent for me, and if you're going to take their money you can't freak out when things don't go the way you'd like," says Egan, whose new novel Look at Me (Doubleday, $24.95) is a National Book Award finalist but not prime Hollywood material because a major character suffers serious facial damage. Hanging around those European sets was fun, Egan says, but "eerie, watching people act out a scene you'd had in your mind, as if they were dramatizing your dream." Meanwhile, Egan remembers "sitting in that little room writing the novel, wondering if anyone would ever even read it."

Acting like an author: Now that the title tale from his national bestseller The Palace Thief is big-screen bound, Bay Area doctor-turned-novelist Ethan Canin has been watching his work transmogrify. In the first finished scene he saw, a crowd of students rushes through a Gothic arch onto a playing field.

"It's a gorgeous shot, the door into the movie, really, and a moment undoable in prose," he recalls. "Just darkness and a feeling of claustrophobia, then this bursting open of light and color. I have that feeling sometimes in a baseball stadium; that first sighting, after the long tunnels, of the bright green grass."

Watching one's story on-screen is almost, though not quite, as difficult as reading one's own writing, notes the California Book Award-winning author. "I learned a huge amount," Canin says. He had a small part in the movie, and in the "hours and hours" it took to film his half-minute scene, Canin discovered that "I overact. As Kevin Kline pointed out to me after the fifth, sixth, and seventh takes, the trick to movie acting -- unlike stage acting -- is to do nothing." But watching those takes and retakes became "an exercise in a kind of liberating wonder." To see "Kline fixing his tie in a mirror, a heron taking off from a beach -- and to go from there, to watch the way a movie is assembled from tiny jagged pieces, like a mosaic, into a story, is to see for the first time the underbelly of the craft."

Canin also discovered his talent for screenwriting. "I don't like to think about that," he frets, "because I have more books to write."

Reaction shot: He played a killer in In Cold Blood; now Robert Blake is embroiled in a real-life murder case involving his wife. Writing about it for Rolling Stone is Deanne Stillman, whose best-selling Twenty-Nine Palms (Morrow, $12.95), new in paperback, is based on yet another murder, partly set in Oakland, and up for Pulitzer consideration. Penetrating Hollywood for the Blake story was as hard, Stillman says, as cracking into the Marine Corps, which she had to do for Twenty-Nine Palms.

Bonny Lee Bakley's "whole life was all about either becoming a star or marrying one," Stillman says of the victim. "She had hooked up with Jerry Lee Lewis and had an affair with Christian Brando."


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