Tag Archives: The Life Fantastic

Growing Up as a Writer, part two

Liza Ketchum

Question
Harvey Swados, your writing instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, sent you out into the world to observe and experience before you wrote. Can you share some of those experiences with us? Do you still work this way when you write?

Answer
When I enrolled in Harvey Swados’s creative writing class, I was a naïve young woman with little worldly experience. I wanted to write, but what would I write about? I knew nothing about Swados, but the class description was intriguing and something told me I needed that course. However, I was a transfer student and arrived to find the class had already filled. I was devastated. So I sat outside the classroom every day until Swados finally gave in and let me enroll.

Harvey Swados

Harvey Swados

Each week, Swados sent us into New York City on assignment. The city was just twenty minutes away by train, but the sites we visited were completely removed from our privileged campus existence. “Carry a notebook,” he told us. “Listen, ask questions, use your senses. And always bring a friend.” Turid Sato, my intrepid Norwegian roommate—who had crossed the Atlantic by freighter, and cross-country skied north of the Arctic circle—was the perfect companion. 

Swados sent us to Night Court, a 24-hour courtroom where men and women were arraigned for shoplifting, assault and battery, and gun possession, under the weary gaze of a judge who’d seen it all. Turid and I visited the New York produce market after midnight and listened to grocers haggle with wholesalers over prices. We went to the Fulton Fish Market, at Manhattan’s tip, at four in the morning. There we watched burly men unload crates of fish and heave them into refrigerated trucks before stomping into the local diner. We followed them in, and ate the best pan-fried fish I have ever tasted. We also brought live lobsters home in paper bags—which caused a commotion on the subway when a loose claw started waving at our seatmate.

On the Line by Harvey SwadosHarvey Swados wrote about the working world. Before he was a published professor of writing, he worked as a metal finisher at a Ford Motor plant. His experiences there led to the publication of his story collection, On the Line. The pieces we wrote for his class were full of gritty sensory detail, realistic dialogue, and interesting characters. While I didn’t become a reporter, as my friend Carter Stith did (for the St. Louis Post Dispatch), this class gave me the confidence to write non-fiction.  And I learned the importance of immersing myself in the places that I wrote about; that no question is too dumb to ask; that most people enjoy talking about themselves, their lives, and their work.  

Out of Left FieldSince that class, I have always included workplaces in my stories and novels, and that includes work done by young characters as well as adults. The work may be incidental to the story—as Brandon’s work in a pizzeria is, in Out of Left Field—or the focus of an entire story, such as Newsgirl, where Amelia disguises herself as a newsboy in order to support her family, or The Life Fantastic, about Teresa’s struggle to become a star onstage. My novels have included a woman geologist and “powder monkey,” a photographer, a ticket seller at Fenway Park, a carpenter, a retired electrician, a newspaper editor who sets his own type, a social worker, a baker, a seamstress, a child who labored as an indentured servant (against his will), a Hollywood screenwriter, a banker, a sheep farmer, and a tattoo artist. (Thanks to Swados, I knew that I would have to spend time in a tattoo parlor, watching and asking questions, in order to create convincing scenes for Blue Coyote.)

In addition to helping to reveal character, writing about a workplace allows the writer to use more interesting nouns and lively verbs, since every type of work has its own vocabulary. Most important: even the most tedious workplace could hold the spark that inspires a good story—and that’s a gift for the writer.

[For more about Harvey Swados]


Booking Agencies in Control

As Teresa and Maeve and Pietro set out on a road tour, vaudeville theater owners were trying to fill theaters across the country with good acts to meet demand. They needed talented people.

Klaw & Erlanger, an early syndicate, was responsible for this “stupendous production.” The six-act show premiered in 1899 and played around the world for the next 21 years. Can you imagine the number of actors and animals needed for each show?

How many acts were needed to fill US vaudeville theaters? There were approximately 8 to 15 acts, each 6 to 15 minutes long, in each theater per day. Some theaters had “continuous” shows from mid-morning to 2:00 am! Every small town had some type of theater and larger towns might have three or four. When Teresa walked out on the stage in 1913, there were more than 2,000 acts needed each day around the USA.

There are several good articles online that talk about the various theater owners, booking agencies, and labor unions. Fervent competition, underhanded blacklisting, and an ongoing struggle to control the market defined the experiences Teresa would have had as a singer. From the Theatrical Syndicate of 1896 to the Orpheum Circuit to the Pantages Circuit and the Western Vaudeville Managers Association, big money was involved and pressure was heavy on individual theater managers and performers. So much so that eventually unions were formed to protect the performers.

Resources:

About the Theatrical Syndicate

Vaudeville Managers Association

Theater Owners Booking Association for African American performers

Bob Hope and American Variety,” from the Library of Congress, for specific examples of playbills and a tour map

 If you’re interested in doing in-depth research, you may find the Keith-Albee Vaudeville Theater Collection at the University of Iowa to be useful.


Join us for a lively discussion!

SCRIBBLERS THREE: How does being in a writer’s group expand and sustain your work? Eileen Christelow, Karen Hesse, and Liza Ketchum, authors for young readers, have been in a critique group for more than thirty years. They will discuss how their writing changed and developed as the group evolved, and will share their most recent books:  Robins! How They Grow Up! (Christelow), My Thumb (Hesse); and The Life Fantastic (Ketchum).

Join the discussion on April 29, 2017, 4:00 pm at the. Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vermont.

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, VT


Maeve’s Warning

When Thunder ComesIn The Life Fantastic, Maeve warns Teresa to be careful in her friendship with Pietro, an African American vaudeville performer. She tells Teresa that black men and boys in the South “get lynched if they look at a white girl.” Maeve also shares the story about a civil disturbance in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, where a white woman lied about being raped by an African American.  Two black men were arrested, and when they escaped lynching, white residents rioted, causing massive destruction in the black community. The woman’s lie wasn’t discovered until after the riot ended and a number of people were killed. After that, Maeve’s father took part in Ku Klux Klan meetings.

Many people think that the KKK was only active in southern states, but in the novel, Teresa remembers her father talking about the Klan having meetings in Vermont. Do you know the history of the KKK? Are you aware of their continuing presence in America today?

Learn more with these recommended books:

Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: the True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate, written by Rick Bowers, National Geographic Society, 2012.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders, written by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engle, John Parra, and Meilo So, Chronicle Books, 2012.

Witness, written by Karen Hesse. Scholastic, 2001.

Wreath for Emmett Till, written by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.



Vaudeville, a Whitehall Lecture

Recorded at the Flagler Museum, this one-hour Whitehall Lecture, “Vaudeville: from Small-Time Acts to Ziegfield’s Follies,” is given by Jerry Dickey, presented February 14, 2010. (Skip the introductions and acknowledgements by beginning at 4:20.)

Dr. Jerry Dickey is the Director of the University of Florida School of Theatre + Dance. His research and teaching specializes in the history of early twentieth century theater in the United States.



Q & A with Liza K, part 2

Question: Have you talked first hand with people who remember vaudeville?

Ketchum and Airplane

My grandfather (on the right) and a colleague next to his WWI plane, in France. This photo was shot a few years after The Life Fantastic takes place. Grandpa crashed twice but survived to tell the tale.

Answer: Yes. My paternal grandfather, who was born in 1893, told me how much vaudeville meant to him as a young man. Grandpa’s father died when he was very young. He was raised, in part, by his grandparents, and started working—taking court dictation—when, as he said, he was “still in short pants.” Grandpa worked to pay his way through college and then started his own business, so vaudeville was the only entertainment he could afford. He would sit up high in a theater’s cheapest seats, often staying for more than one show. He loved the music and the comedy routines. When I was young, he used to sing me the songs he remembered from those days, including some I included in The Life Fantastic—such as “Everybody works but Father—he sits around all day.” My parents were appalled that, when I was four years old, I knew all the words to “There lay Brown, upside down, lapping up the whiskey off the floor. ‘Save the booze!’ the fireman cried, as he came running through the door.” I always wished I could have sat beside Grandpa in those theaters.



You’re Invited!

The Life FantasticPlease join us for a party to celebrate the release of The Life Fantastic: A Novel in Three Acts. The story takes place in 1913, at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment. The book was inspired by a family story: Liza’s great-grandparents eloped and ran away to the vaudeville stage. In keeping with the vaudevillian backdrop of the book, the evening will include theatrical entertainment and music, as well as a reading and time for questions. The book has received kudos from teen readers as well as adults.  

When: Thursday, March 9, 7 PM

Where: Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge, MA.  617-491-2220

For more information about the book, see Liza’s website: www.lizaketchum.org

Or follow Liza on Facebook.

The Life Fantastic provides a fascinating window into the 1900s New York vaudeville scene, while examining the complexities of family support and expectations, as well as burgeoning black activism … Ketchum fits it together seamlessly and entertainingly. Her love of vaudeville shines through Teresa and her descriptions of 1913 Broadway, but she does not ignore the built-in limitations placed on people of color.” (VOYA Magazine)


Q & A with Liza K, part 1

Question: Liza, in The Life Fantastic, you refer to The Gerry Society when Teresa’s age comes into question. What was The Gerry Society?

Commodore Elbridge Gerry, co-founder of the SPCC

Answer: The Gerry Society was founded in 1875 after a woman named Etta Wheeler, who had suffered living with an abusive foster parent, asked why there was a Society for the Protection of Animals (ASPCA)—but nothing similar to protect children? Her question led to the formation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC). One of its founders was named Elbridge Gerry, so the organization was also known as the Gerry Society. Gerry wanted to keep children away from what he called “immoral activities”—such as amusement parks, penny arcades, and live theater. In New York City, children under sixteen were prohibited from performing, and theater owners risked being fined by the Gerry Society if they allowed them onstage. This is why Teresa, in The Life Fantastic, pretends that she is sixteen—and why she and Maeve have to be careful when her younger brother Pascal juggles during Maeve’s performances with her dogs. 

Today’s New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.



Blacks and Vaudeville

Marvin Jones and his son Pietro are two of the characters in The Life Fantastic. An African American father-and-son dance team, they appeared on vaudeville stages across the United States. In spite of challenging color barriers in place throughout the country, they learned the unwritten rules and abided by them so that they could continue to perform.

Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham

Popular comedian Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham is featured in the PBS documentary, “Vaudeville,” in a 19-minute segment on blacks in vaudeville.

Learn more about the challenges presented to black performers on this segment from PBS’ Vaudeville on “Blacks and Vaudeville,” narrated by Ben Vereen. This segment also focuses on successful black performers such as the Nicholas Brothers (whose dance routines are similar to those performed by Pietro and his father), and the comedian Bert Williams, who some called “the Jackie Robinson of show business.”

The full show from PBS American Masters, Vaudeville.



W.E.B. DuBois

The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. DuBoisPietro Jones, one of the main characters in The Life Fantastic, is inspired by the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois’s well-known book, The Souls of Black Folk, is Pietro’s most prized possession. As Pietro travels from one city to the next, he also reads the articles that Du Bois writes for New York’s Amsterdam News and other newspapers.

Do you know about this pivotal sociologist, author, and civil rights activist? He was one of the founding officers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This History Channel video provides a helpful overview of DuBois’ achievements in founding the Niagara Movement and later, the NAACP.