The Fourth Wall

Posted by: Jon

The Fourth Wall - 02/27/05 10:04 AM

It's been too long since we had new discussion here, and I've been rereading The Fourth Wall (for the... third? fourth? time) this weekend.

This time around, knowing what was going to happen, I let myself concentrate on the craftsmanship, how Barbara organizes and structures the book, and that's been a great pleasure and an education: I especially noticed the command of pacing (when to give plenty of detail, when to summarize and keep moving) and cast of characters (it's a longish list, and each individual gets introduced in an appropriate way, by description or dialogue or a mixture). I also enjoy the realism, which lesser writers ignore, of changing police decectives as soon as the case becomes homicide (even though Piperson had been individualized in a way that would make us think he was sticking around for the whole book).

I also re-noticed what one is aware of on first reading: how gruesome a story it is. (Reading the description here of how she'd been reading revenge tragedies beforehand provided a context for the horrifying (because it was made believable and real) details of revenge-by-deprivation.

But somehow I'd forgotten how full of lightness and fun it also is, especially all the insidery theater stuff: understudies, casting, recasting, rewriting, regional productions, talking to students, dealing with directors devoted to differentness, all of it. I have such a good time reading this sort of thing. Also: all the little (what seemed to me) "extra" scenes and curlicues. By this I mean scenes that don't necessarily advance the plot or characters, that could be omitted without structural harm, but again add to the completeness and believability of the experience (examples: the whole Pittsburgh trip, the talk of Tosca, "mugging" a passerby for a nickel, the growth of Vivian Frank from hardworking understudy to self-indulgent would-be-star).

I also found myself doing the old "cast the movie" game. Anybody want to play? This time around, I saw mild-mannered chameleon Hugh Odell as Kevin Spacey for some reason. I can't think of someone who's both drop-dead-handsome and an indisputably great actor for Ian Cavanaugh. And I was picturing Allison Janney for Abby, but that's mainly because I enjoying watching her in anything; I'm not sure she's really right.

Anyway, I enjoyed the re-experience so much, I wanted to say something.
Posted by: Barbara

Re: The Fourth Wall - 02/27/05 03:43 PM

Oh, thank you, Jon -- you said all the right things. I know writers frequently wonder just how much readers "get" of what they've done; you don't know what a pleasure it is to find a careful reader. Bless you.

You didn't read everything I wrote, though; nobody who bought the book did. This was my first mystery, and I wanted it to be my Dorothy L. Sayers book -- a long, leisurely story in which the mystery was only one of a number of things going on. So that's the way I wrote it.

Enter the publishing industry, with its perceived needs. I was tickled pink when the first editor who read the book, bought it (Michele Tempesta at Doubleday). What I didn't know was that Doubleday's mystery line (called Crime Club) dictated that all the books be about the same length and all sell for the same price. The Fourth Wall was far too long for the Crime Club line. So the manuscript came back to me after copyediting almost slashed to ribbons. Doubleday gave me exactly four days to whip it into shape.

I didn't get much sleep that week. The ms. was a mess. Events would be cut, but later references to those events were left in; I had to decide whether to restore the events or cut the later references. Key bits of information necessary to the solution were deleted; those had to go back in. I had a lot of "asides" in the story which I'd thought were fun, and every one of those was cut; I left them out. Et bloody cetera.

I'll give you a for-instance. My little diatribe about the theater gremlins that come out at night and sprinkle nails on the stage floor -- that was cut. I wanted it in because I thought it contributed to the backstage part of the story, showing one of the innumerable little frustrations that hound every theatrical production. But to put it back in, I had to cut something else to make room for it. So I cut a scene fairly early in the story. There's one matinee performance that's falling flat on its face, so Ian takes it on himself to ignore the fact that the play was written for ensemble acting and puts on a performance that dominates the play. And it works; the cast gets fired up and the audience gets involved. I had a scene in which Abby goes to Ian's dressing room between acts; he goes on the defensive when he sees her walk in, but she tells him she understands the need for what he's doing and to go ahead with her blessing. He relaxes and all is well. I'd thought that was a good early demonstration of Ian's actor's ego (which is eventually what saves him, not Abby); but I reluctantly decided it was too far away from the endpoint to work very well as preparation. So I cut that to make room for the gremlins.

The result of all this heavy cutting was that the grim events of the mystery were pushed closer together. With less recovery time between these events, the whole book took on a grimmer tone than I had originally intended. When it was published, I had a vague idea that some day -- some day -- I would restore the missing parts and get my Dorothy L. Sayers book back. But enough time has passed that now...I've changed my mind. I think the story should be grim. Personal revenge is ugly, even when practiced by the good guys and it should not be softened. I'm satisfied with the book the way it is.

More than you wanted to know, I'm sure.
Posted by: Jon

Re: The Fourth Wall - 02/27/05 04:50 PM

If it's a book I like, I'm always happy to know more. So that's not a problem. and it provides a context for my thoughts. By however accidental and circuitous a route, though, I think it arrived at a proportion that feels "right." Maybe once a person has read and become comfortable with a book, that's always the case? I don't know. But it feels the right length for what it is, and I couldn't say that of some fairly well-known works: for instance, Der Rosenkavalier, much though I love it, still seems to me too long for the kind of story it is.

And all the more credit that, even at this length, it's not ruthlessly plot-oriented; it still finds room for those incidental scenes that might have been omitted, but in fact add so much. (I can imagine a proposal to just cut out the whole trip to Pittsburgh -- but it plants the character of Jay, who turns up a couple more times, besides the pleasures of all the other details, including the Claudia Knight character.)

The scene with Abby going to Ian's dressing room between acts is still there, though.
When he saw my reflection in his mirror, his face took on a defensive look. 'Abby, before you say anything'"

"It's all right," I interrupted. "I think you're doing the right thing. And doing it beautifully. Keep it up!"

He relaxed slightly -- only slightly, because he would have kept it up whether I approved or not.
Do you mean that it was longer before?

One other thing I was especially tickled by, this time: the fact that the new British play, Androcles in Church, was imagined in enough detail (even though quickly sketched in) that I could believe it existed. In fact, I'm rather sorry it doesn't.

In one respect, I may be too careful a reader! I noticed a facual mistake this time around, and I'm surprised by it mostly because I know how knowledgeable you are about theater. But in Chapter 11 of Part I, we're told that a new production of Hamlet
was opening in New York on New Year's Eve in order to qualify for that year's Tony Awards.
Movies do open at the end of a year in order to qualify, but the Tonys have always been geard to the theatrical season. The cutoff used to be in April, I think, and for some time now it's been in May -- but never at the end of a calendar year. As I said, no big deal; it got by me during my first few readings.

[This message has been edited by Jon (edited 02-27-2005).]
Posted by: Barbara

Re: The Fourth Wall - 02/27/05 07:17 PM

Are you sure the cutoff date has never been the end of the year? I remember checking into it at the time, in those pre-web days, and I must have found something to make me think it was done by calendar year. But having the cutoff date at the end of the season certainly makes more sense.
Posted by: Jon

Re: The Fourth Wall - 02/27/05 08:15 PM

I don't have info on every year by a long shot. It's been in May for over 2 decades now (when I started taping), and even before that, when I'd catch the show on a dorm TV or whatever, the telecast was always in the spring, with a cutoff date a month before. The very first awards were presented on April 6, 1947. I found an old news story on line about the producer of Hair bringing charges because the cutoff date (in 1968) was changed from April 10 to April 3 to March 19.

At that time, the cutoff was a month or two earlier than it is now, and shows at the end of a season frequently weren't eligible till a year later. So there has been some variation over the years. So... I suppose we could say that in the fictional year covered by this book, they switched it to December 31.
Posted by: Scribbler

Re: The Fourth Wall - 03/01/05 11:56 AM

You're making me want to sit down and do some rereading. although I have no idea when I'll have the time.

I too like having the addition background info on books. It's interesting that you're now satisfied with the edits you had to make. Because it is true they often do make the book better (in spite of the writer's intial feeling of otherwise). I remember when I read the original version of Stranger in a Strange Land thinking "Uh, no, Mr. Heinlein. The edited version is better. For one thing, Jill is less of an air-head in it."
Posted by: Barbara

Re: The Fourth Wall - 03/01/05 02:19 PM

I think the problem was I was still feeling my way to "my" kind of mystery novel, which turned out not to be à la Sayers. I still admire her books and the way they weave the mystery so seamlessly into daily life. A friend of mine liked to complain that the usual modern female sleuth never had her time taken up with mundane things like picking up the drycleaning. I had Marian Larch pick up the drycleaning once and even had her run the vacuum cleaner, but I know what my friend meant. Even when a mystery gives those added details about the detective's life (such as Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder attending AA meetings), they're just tacked on; the mystery is never far beneath the surface. And I like that too. It makes for a faster-moving story, with little pauses now and then to catch your breath. Different times, different styles.

I see I did not answer Jon's question about the cut Abby-and-Ian scene. Yes, much longer; instead of those few lines, it was a fully developed scene with its own climax. Mostly it was Ian being actorish in a somewhat tense professional situation (Save the performance! Save the performance!). Not a bad scene, but not indispensable.
Posted by: Jon

Re: The Fourth Wall - 03/01/05 03:24 PM

Thanks for that information, Barbara.

And I know what you mean about the appeal of the Sayers inclusiveness (I love Gaudy Night for just that, with all the university atmosphere, though there's no murder and even the mystery isn't that central to my memory of the book). But I think you achieved it here in your own voice and pace: The Fourth Wall in particular is full of people's daily lives, the need to find someplace to eat after a performance or to see one's friends in their plays, and so on. As I said nearer the start of this thread, the fact that a number of scenes and characters aren't essential to the solution (but add a great deal) is one of its charms for me. I'm so glad you found room for all that even within the reduced length.
Posted by: Rita

Re: The Fourth Wall - 03/01/05 03:56 PM

There's a minor character in that book that I still think about once in a while, and that's Tiny, the stagehand who mumbled so badly no one could understand what he was saying. Until he said "I love this play" -- Abby heard that, ha!
Posted by: Jon

Re: The Fourth Wall - 03/01/05 05:56 PM

I think I have a special fondness for Claudia in Pittsburgh, who at first seems like a self-serving climber through the profession. Then we find out that she knows how to listen to an author whose work she's directing, she cares about her students (and is a bit embarrassed that they didn't ask the guest author more intelligent questions), and after Abby's beloved library is destroyed, she is the one thoughtful enough to send a carton of books to start the rebuilding.
Posted by: Christopher

Re: The Fourth Wall - 03/03/05 06:32 PM

My favorite minor character -- not even a supporting character, more like an incidental one -- is in The Apostrophe Thief. He's Wadsworth, the sadsack aglet-maker from Passaic, N.J., who deals showbiz memorabilia on the side. That whole book is about small things, bits and scraps that people collect; Marian even calls it her "little" case. And you can't find many manufactured items smaller than an aglet. (Marian had to look the word up in a dictionary.) That whole collecting scene was fascinating, especially the odd pieces of info dropped in here and there (such as the fact that Ronald Reagan's mother signed his publicity photos for him).

Ah, but this topic is about The Fourth Wall. Sorry.