Monthly Archives: October 2014

‘The Book Of Strange New Things’ Treads Familiar Territory


Michel Faber wrote a book a while ago (The Crimson Petal And The White) that became a critically acclaimed international best-seller. He also wrote the book Under The Skin, which was recently made into a very weird movie starring Scarlett Johansson as some kind of confused and lonely alien sex monster.

Now, he’s written a new one called The Book Of Strange New Things. It took him more than 10 years, according to the press blitzkrieg accompanying its release. Which is cool because it’s a remarkable work of imagination and genius. A “poignant meditation on humanity,” a mesmerizing exploration of faith and love and a “genre-defying” masterpiece.

According to the press release. And the cover blurbs. And the book’s Amazon page. While it truly is some of those things, it most certainly isn’t others. The problem is, many of those gushy, shopworn descriptions are really a kind of coded language being beamed out to the literarily sophisticated and carefully targeted audience for this book, and they’re all saying the same thing: that this is a science-fiction book, but not to worry because it’s, you know, better than all those other science-fiction books. The nasty, grimy, cheap ones with their ridiculous spaceships and squishy aliens.

And that’s just totally infuriating.

But hey, that’s the press about the book and not the book itself. And the book itself? It has issues of its own.

The Book Of Strange New Things is about Peter Leigh, former drunk, junkie, petty thief and all-around class act who finds Jesus one night thanks to two broken ankles and the ministrations of a pretty nurse named Bea. He then goes on to become a small-time Christian minister in England with a little church and a charmingly love-thy-neighbor attitude, and, as the story opens, we find him as a missionary being sent to a distant planet called Oasis to bring the word of God to the aliens.

Actually, we find him literally on the road to the airport with Bea (now his beloved wife and partner in Christ), awkwardly trying to make love one last time in the back seat of their car before Peter leaves on his great adventure. It is as clumsy as those sorts of things always are. As thrilling and intimate and disappointing. As human as those things always are, “Confined and uncomfortable, with his toes knocking against the window and his knees chafing on the … car seat.”

And this is Faber’s great strength, trotted out right from the opening pages — this ability to write believable, lovely, flawed and inept characters. To animate his creations by exposing their great loves and human frailties, and to make us want, somehow, to follow along behind them as they traipse across the pages, the miles and, in short order, the light-years.

Peter gets on a spaceship. Peter is flung across the galaxy. Peter, in a stew of hyperspace jet lag, barfs a lot and staggers around with his head on crooked, acting all fish-out-of-water as he adjusts to the alien environment of Oasis and the (nearly) equally alien environment of the base built by the humans living there — a place of plain rooms and endless corridors, old-timey music pumped through hidden speakers and months-old magazines roughly edited so that no news of home accidentally slips through.

And this, for me, was where The Book Of Strange New Things began to wear thin. Because for a book whose press goes to lengths to separate it from the genre it is allegedly defying (going so far as to never even use the phrase “science fiction” to describe it), it is 100 percent a science-fiction book — just not a terribly original one. It is a Missionary To The Aliens story, a path well-trod by Golden Age sci-fi writers (something which Faber lampshades in a couple of places by having Peter make mention of feeling like he’s living in a classic science-fiction story) and, more recently, done famously by Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow or James Blish in A Case Of Conscience. And Faber brings little that’s new or original to the trope, save a masterful skill for sketching the slow accretion of dread and mistrust in the hearts of his characters. The natives of Oasis welcome the word of God, but are they too welcoming? The human settlement operates with a calm efficiency, even in the face of death, but is it too calm and too efficient?

Peter spends about half the balance of the book in the field, ministering to his alien Jesus Lovers (his name for them, because he can’t pronounce their real names) and half the time back at the human compound, at which point the book also becomes partly an epistolary novel, made up of what are essentially emails sent back and forth between Peter and Bea as Peter falls further into the strange, bloodless ennui of Oasis and Bea details for him, in increasingly frantic letters, an Earth that has begun to fall rapidly to pieces. There are epic natural disasters, food shortages, riots, crime. Not to give anything away (because there are a couple of decent twists that come in the end), but Faber makes the End Times into an extension of the nightly news and, suddenly, with the pages running out and the lotus eaters too indifferent to rouse, The Book Of Strange New Things becomes a sort of dead-eyed rapture allegory with Oasis as a heaven for those bereft of passion, bereft of memory; who love nothing and hate nothing and exist in a kind of perpetual yesterday where today’s problems are simply someone else’s.

Here’s the funny thing, though. In the end, maybe all the press is exactly right. If you’re not a fan of science fiction — if you can’t stand the thought of spaceships and aliens and inhuman minds — then The Book Of Strange New Things might be perfect for you. It is, after all, science fiction that seems deliberately stripped of all wonder and amazement. Of all strangeness. But in its place Faber tells a beautifully human story of love, loss, faith and the sometimes uncrossable distances between people. It feels, more than anything, like an achingly gentle 500-page first chapter to an apocalypse novel yet to come.

But if you are a sci-fi fan and would rather just rush your way straight to the end of the world, go reread your copies of A Canticle For Leibowitz. There, at least, you’ll have your priests and your disasters and know that you’ll be reading a true genre-defying masterpiece, not something that’s just wearing the outfit with nothing underneath.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

‘The Book Of Strange New Things’ Treads Familiar Territory


Michel Faber wrote a book a while ago (The Crimson Petal And The White) that became a critically acclaimed international best-seller. He also wrote the book Under The Skin, which was recently made into a very weird movie starring Scarlett Johansson as some kind of confused and lonely alien sex monster.

Now, he’s written a new one called The Book Of Strange New Things. It took him more than 10 years, according to the press blitzkrieg accompanying its release. Which is cool because it’s a remarkable work of imagination and genius. A “poignant meditation on humanity,” a mesmerizing exploration of faith and love and a “genre-defying” masterpiece.

According to the press release. And the cover blurbs. And the book’s Amazon page. While it truly is some of those things, it most certainly isn’t others. The problem is, many of those gushy, shopworn descriptions are really a kind of coded language being beamed out to the literarily sophisticated and carefully targeted audience for this book, and they’re all saying the same thing: that this is a science-fiction book, but not to worry because it’s, you know, better than all those other science-fiction books. The nasty, grimy, cheap ones with their ridiculous spaceships and squishy aliens.

And that’s just totally infuriating.

But hey, that’s the press about the book and not the book itself. And the book itself? It has issues of its own.

The Book Of Strange New Things is about Peter Leigh, former drunk, junkie, petty thief and all-around class act who finds Jesus one night thanks to two broken ankles and the ministrations of a pretty nurse named Bea. He then goes on to become a small-time Christian minister in England with a little church and a charmingly love-thy-neighbor attitude, and, as the story opens, we find him as a missionary being sent to a distant planet called Oasis to bring the word of God to the aliens.

Actually, we find him literally on the road to the airport with Bea (now his beloved wife and partner in Christ), awkwardly trying to make love one last time in the back seat of their car before Peter leaves on his great adventure. It is as clumsy as those sorts of things always are. As thrilling and intimate and disappointing. As human as those things always are, “Confined and uncomfortable, with his toes knocking against the window and his knees chafing on the … car seat.”

And this is Faber’s great strength, trotted out right from the opening pages — this ability to write believable, lovely, flawed and inept characters. To animate his creations by exposing their great loves and human frailties, and to make us want, somehow, to follow along behind them as they traipse across the pages, the miles and, in short order, the light-years.

Peter gets on a spaceship. Peter is flung across the galaxy. Peter, in a stew of hyperspace jet lag, barfs a lot and staggers around with his head on crooked, acting all fish-out-of-water as he adjusts to the alien environment of Oasis and the (nearly) equally alien environment of the base built by the humans living there — a place of plain rooms and endless corridors, old-timey music pumped through hidden speakers and months-old magazines roughly edited so that no news of home accidentally slips through.

And this, for me, was where The Book Of Strange New Things began to wear thin. Because for a book whose press goes to lengths to separate it from the genre it is allegedly defying (going so far as to never even use the phrase “science fiction” to describe it), it is 100 percent a science-fiction book — just not a terribly original one. It is a Missionary To The Aliens story, a path well-trod by Golden Age sci-fi writers (something which Faber lampshades in a couple of places by having Peter make mention of feeling like he’s living in a classic science-fiction story) and, more recently, done famously by Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow or James Blish in A Case Of Conscience. And Faber brings little that’s new or original to the trope, save a masterful skill for sketching the slow accretion of dread and mistrust in the hearts of his characters. The natives of Oasis welcome the word of God, but are they too welcoming? The human settlement operates with a calm efficiency, even in the face of death, but is it too calm and too efficient?

Peter spends about half the balance of the book in the field, ministering to his alien Jesus Lovers (his name for them, because he can’t pronounce their real names) and half the time back at the human compound, at which point the book also becomes partly an epistolary novel, made up of what are essentially emails sent back and forth between Peter and Bea as Peter falls further into the strange, bloodless ennui of Oasis and Bea details for him, in increasingly frantic letters, an Earth that has begun to fall rapidly to pieces. There are epic natural disasters, food shortages, riots, crime. Not to give anything away (because there are a couple of decent twists that come in the end), but Faber makes the End Times into an extension of the nightly news and, suddenly, with the pages running out and the lotus eaters too indifferent to rouse, The Book Of Strange New Things becomes a sort of dead-eyed rapture allegory with Oasis as a heaven for those bereft of passion, bereft of memory; who love nothing and hate nothing and exist in a kind of perpetual yesterday where today’s problems are simply someone else’s.

Here’s the funny thing, though. In the end, maybe all the press is exactly right. If you’re not a fan of science fiction — if you can’t stand the thought of spaceships and aliens and inhuman minds — then The Book Of Strange New Things might be perfect for you. It is, after all, science fiction that seems deliberately stripped of all wonder and amazement. Of all strangeness. But in its place Faber tells a beautifully human story of love, loss, faith and the sometimes uncrossable distances between people. It feels, more than anything, like an achingly gentle 500-page first chapter to an apocalypse novel yet to come.

But if you are a sci-fi fan and would rather just rush your way straight to the end of the world, go reread your copies of A Canticle For Leibowitz. There, at least, you’ll have your priests and your disasters and know that you’ll be reading a true genre-defying masterpiece, not something that’s just wearing the outfit with nothing underneath.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

‘The Book Of Strange New Things’ Treads Familiar Territory


Michel Faber wrote a book a while ago (The Crimson Petal And The White) that became a critically acclaimed international best-seller. He also wrote the book Under The Skin, which was recently made into a very weird movie starring Scarlett Johansson as some kind of confused and lonely alien sex monster.

Now, he’s written a new one called The Book Of Strange New Things. It took him more than 10 years, according to the press blitzkrieg accompanying its release. Which is cool because it’s a remarkable work of imagination and genius. A “poignant meditation on humanity,” a mesmerizing exploration of faith and love and a “genre-defying” masterpiece.

According to the press release. And the cover blurbs. And the book’s Amazon page. While it truly is some of those things, it most certainly isn’t others. The problem is, many of those gushy, shopworn descriptions are really a kind of coded language being beamed out to the literarily sophisticated and carefully targeted audience for this book, and they’re all saying the same thing: That this is a science-fiction book, but not to worry because it’s, you know, better than all those other science-fiction books. The nasty, grimy, cheap ones with their ridiculous spaceships and squishy aliens.

And that’s just totally infuriating.

But hey, that’s the press about the book and not the book itself, and the book itself? It has issues of its own.

The Book Of Strange New Things is about Peter Leigh, former drunk, junkie, petty thief and all-around class act who finds Jesus one night thanks to two broken ankles and the ministrations of a pretty nurse named Bea. He then goes on to become a small-time Christian minister in England with a little church and a charmingly love-thy-neighbor attitude, and, as the story opens, we find him as a missionary being sent to a distant planet called Oasis to bring the word of God to the aliens.

Actually, we find him literally on the road to the airport with Bea (now his beloved wife and partner in Christ), awkwardly trying to make love one last time in the back seat of their car before Peter leaves on his great adventure. It is as clumsy as those sorts of things always are. As thrilling and intimate and disappointing. As human as those things always are, “Confined and uncomfortable, with his toes knocking against the window and his knees chafing on the … car seat.”

And this is Faber’s great strength, trotted out right from the opening pages — this ability to write believable, lovely, flawed and inept characters. To animate his creations by exposing their great loves and human frailties, and to make us want, somehow, to follow along behind them as they traipse across the pages, the miles and, in short order, the light-years.

Peter gets on a spaceship. Peter is flung across the galaxy. Peter, in a stew of hyperspace jet lag, barfs a lot and staggers around with his head on crooked, acting all fish-out-of-water as he adjusts to the alien environment of Oasis and the (nearly) equally alien environment of the base built by the humans living there — a place of plain rooms and endless corridors, old-timey music pumped through hidden speakers and months-old magazines roughly edited so that no news of home accidentally slips through.

And this, for me, was where The Book Of Strange New Things began to wear thin. Because for a book whose press goes to lengths to separate it from the genre it is allegedly defying (going so far as to never even use the phrase “science fiction” to describe it), it is 100 percent a science-fiction book — just not a terribly original one. It is a Missionary To The Aliens story, a path well-trod by Golden Age sci-fi writers (something which Faber lampshades in a couple of places by having Peter make mention of feeling like he’s living in a classic science-fiction story) and, more recently, done famously by Mary Doria Russell in The Sparrow or James Blish in A Case Of Conscience. And Faber brings little that’s new or original to the trope, save a masterful skill for sketching the slow accretion of dread and mistrust in the hearts of his characters. The natives of Oasis welcome the word of God, but are they too welcoming? The human settlement operates with a calm efficiency, even in the face of death, but is it too calm and too efficient?

Peter spends about half the balance of the book in the field, ministering to his alien Jesus Lovers (his name for them, because he can’t pronounce their real names) and half the time back at the human compound, at which point the book also becomes partly an epistolary novel, made up of what are essentially emails sent back and forth between Peter and Bea as Peter falls further into the strange, bloodless ennui of Oasis and Bea details for him, in increasingly frantic letters, an Earth that has begun to fall rapidly to pieces. There are epic natural disasters, food shortages, riots, crime. Not to give anything away (because there are a couple of decent twists that come in the end), but Faber makes the End Times into an extension of the nightly news and, suddenly, with the pages running out and the lotus eaters too indifferent to rouse, The Book Of Strange New Things becomes a sort of dead-eyed rapture allegory with Oasis as a heaven for those bereft of passion, bereft of memory; who love nothing and hate nothing and exist in a kind of perpetual yesterday where today’s problems are simply someone else’s.

Here’s the funny thing, though. In the end, maybe all the press is exactly right. If you’re not a fan of science fiction — if you can’t stand the thought of spaceships and aliens and inhuman minds — then The Book Of Strange New Things might be perfect for you. It is, after all, science fiction that seems deliberately stripped of all wonder and amazement. Of all strangeness. But in its place Faber tells a beautifully human story of love, loss, faith and the sometimes uncrossable distances between people. It feels, more than anything, like an achingly gentle 500-page first chapter to an apocalypse novel yet to come.

But if you are a sci-fi fan and would rather just rush your way straight to the end of the world, go reread your copies of A Canticle For Leibowitz. There, at least, you’ll have your priests and your disasters and know that you’ll be reading a true genre-defying masterpiece, not something that’s just wearing the outfit with nothing underneath.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

A Well-Designed Parking Sign Can Make Life Much Easier


Which parking sign is easier to understand? Nikki Sylianteng is trying to build a better parking sign at her website, To Park Or Not To Park. One of her redesign efforts can be seen at right.i
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Which parking sign is easier to understand? Nikki Sylianteng is trying to build a better parking sign at her website, To Park Or Not To Park. One of her redesign efforts can be seen at right.

Courtesy Nikki Sylianteng


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Courtesy Nikki Sylianteng

Which parking sign is easier to understand? Nikki Sylianteng is trying to build a better parking sign at her website, To Park Or Not To Park. One of her redesign efforts can be seen at right.

Which parking sign is easier to understand? Nikki Sylianteng is trying to build a better parking sign at her website, To Park Or Not To Park. One of her redesign efforts can be seen at right.

Courtesy Nikki Sylianteng

Is it safe to park on the street, or are you risking a ticket? The more signs there are, the more confusing that question gets.

Designer Nikki Sylianteng is trying to fix the problem through visual design. You can see various iterations of her sign at her website, To Park Or Not To Park, and you can hear her discuss her project at the audio link above.

Remembering All-Night Fright Fests And Halloween Horrorthons


Terrifying terrorramas so scary you'll need a nurse on standby! Bob Mondello says the 1993 film Matinee brought back memories of his days writing Halloween horror ad copy for a movie theater chain.i
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Terrifying terrorramas so scary you’ll need a nurse on standby! Bob Mondello says the 1993 film Matinee brought back memories of his days writing Halloween horror ad copy for a movie theater chain.

Courtesy of Universal/The Kobal CollectionTION


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Courtesy of Universal/The Kobal CollectionTION

Terrifying terrorramas so scary you'll need a nurse on standby! Bob Mondello says the 1993 film Matinee brought back memories of his days writing Halloween horror ad copy for a movie theater chain.

Terrifying terrorramas so scary you’ll need a nurse on standby! Bob Mondello says the 1993 film Matinee brought back memories of his days writing Halloween horror ad copy for a movie theater chain.

Courtesy of Universal/The Kobal CollectionTION

Halloween’s rolled around again and yeah, yeah, it’s a dark and stormy night. The road’s washed out, phone’s gone dead, the mystic’s reading her Ouija board, and zombies are popping through doorways left open by a demented kewpie doll.

Been there. Seen that. Got the T-shirt.

In fact, I very nearly designed a T-shirt for this sort of stuff back in the 1970s, before I was a movie critic. My first gig out of college was doing publicity for Roth Theaters, a midsize, D.C.-based theater chain that got gobbled up in the ’80s by a bigger circuit. My boss was Paul Roth, an old-school movie guy who by the time I met him had probably forgotten more about showmanship than I’ll ever know.

We staged weddings in the aisle for a movie called The Bride (patrons threw popcorn instead of rice). We dressed a verrrry short usher one December as E.T., and then added a beard and tasseled red hat so he could be Santa’s Helper. And for the opening of Airplane! an usher and I climbed up on a marquee to attach the back half of a plane fuselage I’d found at a junkyard so it looked like it had crashed into the theater. We knew we were getting the look right when a passing motorist screeched to a halt, leapt from his car, and yelled, “Is everyone OK?”

But the most fun we had was promoting Roth’s drive-in theaters, especially when audiences dwindled as the weather turned cold. Halloween was both a challenge and an opportunity for drive-ins: obviously the right place for scares, but hard to find new films for when there was a chill in the air. So Paul dug deep in the B-movie horror vaults and showed me how to sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Here’s the kind of ad copy he favored (writing it was the first radio writing I ever did). Imagine a booming voice with lots of echo effects, thunder crashes and screams between phrases.

“Friday Night at the Ranch Drive In: Our Dusk-to-Dawn Halloween Horrorthon! An all-night fright-fest with Five — count-‘em FIVE(!) — full-length features. Shuddering specters guaranteed to scare you shout-less! Films so terrifying we can’t reveal the titles. But we can say this: No one with a heart condition will be admitted. We’ll have nurses in attendance … and a hearse standing by.”

Man, I used to love writing copy like that. Years later, when John Goodman played a ’60s horror guy in the movie Matinee, wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks at scary moments, I felt like I was watching my boss.

These days, when you go to a scary movie, you see a scary movie. And no question, the scares are scarier now. It’s all up there on-screen. But the old horrorthons (and terrorramas, which were horrorthons, but sexy) had their charms, too.

I still remember Paul showing me how a little red food coloring in the popcorn oil could turn a bucket of popcorn into a BUCKET OF BLOOD.

Kinda gross, right? But the point was to scare the “yell” out of you, and for the most part, we did.

‘Nightcrawler’ Jake Gyllenhaal: We’re All Complicit In ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’


When Nightcrawler begins, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is stealing scrap metal and struggling to get by. He lands a job as a stringer — a freelance cameraman for a local news station.i
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When Nightcrawler begins, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is stealing scrap metal and struggling to get by. He lands a job as a stringer — a freelance cameraman for a local news station.

Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films


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Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films

When Nightcrawler begins, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is stealing scrap metal and struggling to get by. He lands a job as a stringer — a freelance cameraman for a local news station.

When Nightcrawler begins, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is stealing scrap metal and struggling to get by. He lands a job as a stringer — a freelance cameraman for a local news station.

Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films

The last time NPR’s Audie Cornish spoke with Jake Gyllenhaal it was in the fall of 2013. They met on the set of the film Nightcrawler, and at the time, the tabloids were talking about how much weight he’d lost for the role. Cornish remembers he was gaunt, his blue eyes were sunken in — and he didn’t blink.

“When you met me I was not wholly aware of how I was behaving,” he tells Cornish a year later. “Probably because I had put myself through certain things. In a weird way thought I was normal, but according to you — not so much.”

Once you see Nightcrawler, that makes a lot of sense. In it, Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom — hungry and prowling the lamp-lit streets of Los Angeles. He stumbles on work as a freelance cameraman for a TV station with an “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos.

Gyllenhaal says what sticks with him is the way that his character deploys the cheery language of self-help guides even as he tries to break into a business built on misery. Gyllenhaal says he memorized the script and it’s now ingrained in his memory. He easily recites the film’s first speech:

“Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for a job. In fact, I’ve made my mind up to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I’m a hard worker, I set high goals and I’ve been told that I’m persistent. Now I’m not feeling myself, sir. Having been raised with the self-esteem movement so popular in schools, I used to expect my needs to be considered. But I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations.”

On paper it doesn’t look so bad, “but out in the world — taking a few morals out of the equation — it can be pretty dangerous,” Gyllenhaal says. “He speaks like a real entrepreneur; he speaks like a very successful entrepreneur. I mean, there is nothing he says in this movie that I don’t agree with. I agree with everything this character says in one way or another. It’s what he does that I don’t necessarily agree with.”

Interview Highlights

When Lou (Gyllenhaal) starts shooting crime scenes, he finds a business partner in TV executive Nina Romina (Rene Russo).i
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When Lou (Gyllenhaal) starts shooting crime scenes, he finds a business partner in TV executive Nina Romina (Rene Russo).

Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films


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Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films

When Lou (Gyllenhaal) starts shooting crime scenes, he finds a business partner in TV executive Nina Romina (Rene Russo).

When Lou (Gyllenhaal) starts shooting crime scenes, he finds a business partner in TV executive Nina Romina (Rene Russo).

Chuck Zlotnick/Open Road Films

On the business of real “night crawlers”

I think [the business of being a freelancer is] maybe more robust than ever. I went on the streets of LA with two brothers — they’re called stringers, really, who do this job — spent a number of nights with them. …

What I saw was — and this is why I think the idea of blame, or whatever, on who does the job or what it is doesn’t make sense to me — because what I saw was a great innocence, kind of childlike play. And that was a key for me in finding the character.

On what it’s like to be the first to arrive at the scene of an accident

It does get dangerous here. … Being a young kid — going out in the backyard, climbing trees, setting fires — is not a very different feeling to what you feel when you’re with these guys. There’s a thrill, particularly on the way to the unknown. As you venture with them into the night and then you get a call, you don’t know what you’re going to be seeing. And there’s a terror there. But you can feel from them an excitement, too.

On the audience voyeurism fueling the demand for this type of footage

I really feel like there’s something very primal about the slowing down at an accident scene. And it’s in those feelings that some people find great success in the work and Lou happens to be one of those people. But I think he’s enabled by Rene Russo’s character, Nina, who is editing and buying his footage. And she is then, in turn, enabled by the station heads and they are enabled by us [the audience].

Because you can blame anybody, but I think, really, there is no blame; we’re all complicit. And a lot of people leave the movie saying, “Wow, what a ride.” And there are a whole slew, a whole spectrum of response to it — all of which, kind of leading back to oneself and how complicit the individual is in creating someone like Lou.

Funny, Dirty, Sad: The ‘Holy Trinity’ For ‘Transparent’ Creator Jill Soloway


Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura in the new Amazon series Transparent. Jill Soloway says she cast Tambor in the role because everyone knows Tambor as a "dad figure."i
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Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura in the new Amazon series Transparent. Jill Soloway says she cast Tambor in the role because everyone knows Tambor as a “dad figure.”

Courtesy of Amazon


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Courtesy of Amazon

Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura in the new Amazon series Transparent. Jill Soloway says she cast Tambor in the role because everyone knows Tambor as a "dad figure."

Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura in the new Amazon series Transparent. Jill Soloway says she cast Tambor in the role because everyone knows Tambor as a “dad figure.”

Courtesy of Amazon

When Jill Soloway’s father came out as a trans woman — fairly late in life — Soloway says for her it was a huge relief.

“It’s interesting, I think, to grow up in a family with this really huge missing piece and not know what that piece is — sort of like you’re feeling around in a dark room,” Soloway tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “It’s like the elephant in the room, but all the lights are off. So you’re feeling around and you’re feeling this quite huge thing. It was an amazing relief for the lights to go on.”

Shortly thereafter, Soloway had a strong feeling that writing about an older trans parent was going to be her “creative destiny,” she says.

And it was.

Soloway’s new Amazon original series Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as a 70-year-old father who comes out to his three adult children as a transgender woman, and begins a new life transitioning from male to female — from Mort to Maura.

The series also follows Maura’s three self-absorbed adult children who are each dealing with their own issues relating to identity and sexuality, while trying to process that their parent has had a secret life.

Entertainment Weekly TV critic Melissa Maerz described the series as “groundbreaking television.”

“Older transitioners are a whole different group of people because of the way that society has only recently begun to evolve,” Soloway says. “A lot of older transitioners had to live a life of secrecy. Many of them were secret cross-dressers. It just felt like the most perfect opportunity to tell a story about secrets — about boundaries, legacy, gender, family — all the things I’m obsessed with.”

Interview Highlights

On why Jeffrey Tambor was cast as Maura

Besides the fact that everybody knows Jeffrey as a sort of dad figure, it’s kind of interesting that people can say, “Oh, the dad we’ve always known on Arrested Development is revealing themselves.” That familiarity with audiences as a man and: “We love them anyway. We still love them as a woman — we love them more as a woman.”

The way that the audience is relating to Maura through knowing Jeffrey I think can serve as a great way for America, for the whole world, to relate to the trans people in their life — whether they’re on television or whether they’re in their life: “I’ve always known you; I’ve always loved you; of course I still love you.”

On why Maura comes out in her 70s

This is something Jeffrey says — he says, “Maura is making a break for freedom.” I think it’s a real matter of life or death for Maura, where I would imagine she’s lived a life of carrying a really, really, really heavy burden — depression and anxiety that comes from not being able to be yourself. The space between who you are and what the world sees is probably no longer tolerable for Maura.

On Soloway’s reaction to her own parent coming out as trans

I really was in some ways relieved that, “Ohh, this is what I have not known.” There were just so many missing pieces to a journey that felt like a relief. The first things that I communicated to my parent were love and, “I love you unconditionally,” and, “I’m so proud of you,” and, “This is so brave of you,” and “Tell me more.”

Writer Jill Soloway (right) says she feels more creative when she's dressed "more masculine" — meaning jeans and a T-shirt.i
i

Writer Jill Soloway (right) says she feels more creative when she’s dressed “more masculine” — meaning jeans and a T-shirt.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios


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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Writer Jill Soloway (right) says she feels more creative when she's dressed "more masculine" — meaning jeans and a T-shirt.

Writer Jill Soloway (right) says she feels more creative when she’s dressed “more masculine” — meaning jeans and a T-shirt.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

On her own presentation

Today I would say I’m dressed sort of like a boy and on other days I look pretty feminine and will put on makeup and will get my hair done and look pretty ladylike. I think I’ve always had that struggle my whole life, of feeling a little bit more gender-neutral, feeling more comfortable as a creative person when I’m dressed like a boy, when I’m dressed more masculine.

So if I’m doing comedy, if I’m writing, if I’m working, I really like [to] wear jeans and a T-shirt and no makeup and feel kind of masculine because it makes me really focus on what I’m doing. And it puts the work first. … It’s odd … to even realize that little codes and cues like, “I don’t need to be looked at; I don’t need to be appreciated; I don’t need to be pretty,” allow me to be more creative.

On how women appear on TV

When you’re speaking to people, male or female, about what women want [on TV], the sort of standard network answer is “wish fulfillment.” So that’s why the women on TV always have perfect hair and they’ve been spray-tanned and they’re wearing fake lashes and they have perfect bodies and they look TV pretty — even the girls who are supposed to be the unattractive women look TV pretty. …

So one of the things I’ve been so conscious about — when I made Afternoon Delight and Transparent — is to have women who look like they’re not wearing any makeup, women who look like themselves but still have access to full, rich, creative, interesting, exciting lives and great sex and a great story. To me, “wish fulfillment” for women means having access to everything without performing femininity that satisfies the white cis male [identifying with the gender you are biologically].

Jill Soloway has also been  a writer and producer on HBO's Six Feet Under, and Showtime's  United States of Tara.i
i

Jill Soloway has also been a writer and producer on HBO’s Six Feet Under, and Showtime’s United States of Tara.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for GLAAD


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Jason Merritt/Getty Images for GLAAD

Jill Soloway has also been  a writer and producer on HBO's Six Feet Under, and Showtime's  United States of Tara.

Jill Soloway has also been a writer and producer on HBO’s Six Feet Under, and Showtime’s United States of Tara.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for GLAAD

On using gender neutral pronouns like “them” and “they”

It’s not always plural. “Them” or “they” is used for the singular when you don’t know the person who is coming. Like, “My friend is coming from the airport.” “What time are they going to get here?” That would be singular, and “they” would refer to the fact that you don’t know the gender of the friend who is coming from the airport.

Similarly, there are some people who identify as male, there are some people who identify as female, and there are some people who don’t want to identify and want to still be able to be spoken about in a sentence, and “they” and “them” is perfect for that. It sounds plural to people immediately, but I think as this country begins to get used to the sound of “they” and “them” — it took me awhile, it took me a year to have “they” or “them” roll of the tongue, but it’s just the way to speak about somebody where you don’t want to gender them.

On the importance of portraying sex and sexuality in her work

I think of my work as this kind of holy trinity — funny, dirty, sad. It’s really easy to be funny. You get a lot of funny people in a room, the show is funny. It’s really easy to do sad, you just put on some sad music and write dramatically — everybody can do that. It’s really hard to get dirty right.

Funny, Dirty, Sad: The ‘Holy Trinity’ For ‘Transparent’ Creator Jill Soloway


Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura in the new Amazon series Transparent. Jill Soloway says she cast Tambor in the role because everyone knows Tambor as a "dad figure."i
i

Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura in the new Amazon series Transparent. Jill Soloway says she cast Tambor in the role because everyone knows Tambor as a “dad figure.”

Courtesy of Amazon


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Courtesy of Amazon

Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura in the new Amazon series Transparent. Jill Soloway says she cast Tambor in the role because everyone knows Tambor as a "dad figure."

Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura in the new Amazon series Transparent. Jill Soloway says she cast Tambor in the role because everyone knows Tambor as a “dad figure.”

Courtesy of Amazon

When Jill Soloway’s father came out as a trans woman — fairly late in life — Soloway says for her it was a huge relief.

“It’s interesting, I think, to grow up in a family with this really huge missing piece and not know what that piece is — sort of like you’re feeling around in a dark room,” Soloway tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “It’s like the elephant in the room, but all the lights are off. So you’re feeling around and you’re feeling this quite huge thing. It was an amazing relief for the lights to go on.”

Shortly thereafter, Soloway had a strong feeling that writing about an older trans parent was going to be her “creative destiny,” she says.

And it was.

Soloway’s new Amazon original series Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as a 70-year-old father who comes out to his three adult children as a transgender woman, and begins a new life transitioning from male to female — from Mort to Maura.

The series also follows Maura’s three self-absorbed adult children who are each dealing with their own issues relating to identity and sexuality, while trying to process that their parent has had a secret life.

Entertainment Weekly TV critic Melissa Maerz described the series as “groundbreaking television.”

“Older transitioners are a whole different group of people because of the way that society has only recently begun to evolve,” Soloway says. “A lot of older transitioners had to live a life of secrecy. Many of them were secret cross-dressers. It just felt like the most perfect opportunity to tell a story about secrets — about boundaries, legacy, gender, family — all the things I’m obsessed with.”

Interview Highlights

On why Jeffrey Tambor was cast as Maura

Besides the fact that everybody knows Jeffrey as a sort of dad figure, it’s kind of interesting that people can say, “Oh, the dad we’ve always known on Arrested Development is revealing themselves.” That familiarity with audiences as a man and: “We love them anyway. We still love them as a woman — we love them more as a woman.”

The way that the audience is relating to Maura through knowing Jeffrey I think can serve as a great way for America, for the whole world, to relate to the trans people in their life — whether they’re on television or whether they’re in their life: “I’ve always known you; I’ve always loved you; of course I still love you.”

On why Maura comes out in her 70s

This is something Jeffrey says — he says, “Maura is making a break for freedom.” I think it’s a real matter of life or death for Maura, where I would imagine she’s lived a life of carrying a really, really, really heavy burden — depression and anxiety that comes from not being able to be yourself. The space between who you are and what the world sees is probably no longer tolerable for Maura.

On Soloway’s reaction to her own parent coming out as trans

I really was in some ways relieved that, “Ohh, this is what I have not known.” There were just so many missing pieces to a journey that felt like a relief. The first things that I communicated to my parent were love and, “I love you unconditionally,” and, “I’m so proud of you,” and, “This is so brave of you,” and “Tell me more.”

Writer Jill Soloway (right) says she feels more creative when she's dressed "more masculine" — meaning jeans and a T-shirt.i
i

Writer Jill Soloway (right) says she feels more creative when she’s dressed “more masculine” — meaning jeans and a T-shirt.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios


hide caption

itoggle caption

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Writer Jill Soloway (right) says she feels more creative when she's dressed "more masculine" — meaning jeans and a T-shirt.

Writer Jill Soloway (right) says she feels more creative when she’s dressed “more masculine” — meaning jeans and a T-shirt.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

On her own presentation

Today I would say I’m dressed sort of like a boy and on other days I look pretty feminine and will put on makeup and will get my hair done and look pretty ladylike. I think I’ve always had that struggle my whole life, of feeling a little bit more gender-neutral, feeling more comfortable as a creative person when I’m dressed like a boy, when I’m dressed more masculine.

So if I’m doing comedy, if I’m writing, if I’m working, I really like [to] wear jeans and a T-shirt and no makeup and feel kind of masculine because it makes me really focus on what I’m doing. And it puts the work first. … It’s odd … to even realize that little codes and cues like, “I don’t need to be looked at; I don’t need to be appreciated; I don’t need to be pretty,” allow me to be more creative.

On how women appear on TV

When you’re speaking to people, male or female, about what women want [on TV], the sort of standard network answer is “wish fulfillment.” So that’s why the women on TV always have perfect hair and they’ve been spray-tanned and they’re wearing fake lashes and they have perfect bodies and they look TV pretty — even the girls who are supposed to be the unattractive women look TV pretty. …

So one of the things I’ve been so conscious about — when I made Afternoon Delight and Transparent — is to have women who look like they’re not wearing any makeup, women who look like themselves but still have access to full, rich, creative, interesting, exciting lives and great sex and a great story. To me, “wish fulfillment” for women means having access to everything without performing femininity that satisfies the white cis male [identifying with the gender you are biologically].

Jill Soloway has also been  a writer and producer on HBO's Six Feet Under, and Showtime's  United States of Tara.i
i

Jill Soloway has also been a writer and producer on HBO’s Six Feet Under, and Showtime’s United States of Tara.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for GLAAD


hide caption

itoggle caption

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for GLAAD

Jill Soloway has also been  a writer and producer on HBO's Six Feet Under, and Showtime's  United States of Tara.

Jill Soloway has also been a writer and producer on HBO’s Six Feet Under, and Showtime’s United States of Tara.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for GLAAD

On using gender neutral pronouns like “them” and “they”

It’s not always plural. “Them” or “they” is used for the singular when you don’t know the person who is coming. Like, “My friend is coming from the airport.” “What time are they going to get here?” That would be singular, and “they” would refer to the fact that you don’t know the gender of the friend who is coming from the airport.

Similarly, there are some people who identify as male, there are some people who identify as female, and there are some people who don’t want to identify and want to still be able to be spoken about in a sentence, and “they” and “them” is perfect for that. It sounds plural to people immediately, but I think as this country begins to get used to the sound of “they” and “them” — it took me awhile, it took me a year to have “they” or “them” roll of the tongue, but it’s just the way to speak about somebody where you don’t want to gender them.

On the importance of portraying sex and sexuality in her work

I think of my work as this kind of holy trinity — funny, dirty, sad. It’s really easy to be funny. You get a lot of funny people in a room, the show is funny. It’s really easy to do sad, you just put on some sad music and write dramatically — everybody can do that. It’s really hard to get dirty right.