The Wonk is in the Telling: The movie SIDEWALLS (Medianeras)

Unknown-16When my husband and I were first falling in love, we’d hang out in his attic apartment in Ames, Iowa on Monday nights.

The ceilings were sloping, and there was a big Robert Smith poster looming over everything. My future husband was skinny and always worried something in his hands, his thumbs square to his pretty forearms. His dark hair was always too long, and even though he was this overly confident, superiorly funny Minnesota boy, he could only hold eye contact with me for so long before he’d look away, a self-effacing smile on his face as if he was couldn’t believe that he was so worked up over a girl.

Who was me. Who couldn’t believe I’d snagged the attention of this boy, this funny boy with green eyes and dimples who had such an accurate bead on me, right away, that he sauntered, sauntered up to me one day and said, I’m going to go get a coke. But first, I want to let you know that when I come back, I’m going to ask you out. And I swear, it will be fine, better than fine.

So on Monday nights, with this beautiful boy in his attic apartment, we’d watch The X-Files on his Zenith television, and to tune it in, he’d have to climb out the little round attic window of his apartment and hang off the side of the house and rest this antennae attachment he got at Radio Shack in the rain gutter.*

Um. Yes.

Um. Yes.

Then he’d swing back into the apartment, and shove his dumpy sofa in front of his Zenith, and then he’d pour me a beer in the one beer glass he owned and drink out of the bottle for himself. And we’d watch Mulder and Scully with our legs crossed over the other on his dumpy sofa and marinate in the second-hand sexual tension until, well. Let’s just say that Robert Smith learned some things.

Oh, it was fine. Better than fine.

Everything about those Monday nights, every little thing about them, is what I am trying to recreate when I watch a movie.

I want everything to be low-stakes and off-kilter. I want the underpants feelings to come slow and easy. I want to hardly be able to believe what I’m watching, but it to all be okay because some love in the story makes it okay. I want nerdery and strange images and I want to cross my legs together with a cute Minnesota boy who likes all the parts I like at the same time.

Actually, that Zenith was the last television we ever had, and it died nobly, during an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer somewhere inside our first year of marriage. Nowadays, when we watch something together, we steal an unstable 90 minutes sometime after our son falls asleep and before we drop from exhaustion. We lean back on our martial bed, with a laptop balanced on our knees and the volume so low we breathe shallow so we can hear the movie and if our child cries out for us.

Somehow, it’s fine. Better than fine.**

The first time we watched the movie Sidewalls (Medianeras, written and directed by Gustavo Taretto, 2011), ensconced in the bedroom of our urban brownstone, the streetlights shining through the windows, the even and sleeping breaths of our kid a few paces away, we looked at each other as it opened with one of the most beautiful monologues we’d ever heard in film and grinned.images-85

It was about the irrational architecture of Buenos Aires, how it had grown out of bad logic, short buildings next to tall ones, small buildings built to make room for even smaller ones, and how this irrationality reflected its people perfectly. How a shoebox apartment lost in the swell of this overgrowth led to depression and anxiety and pain, and how really all the pain and disconnect of the world could be attributed to builders, to architects.

We grinned, because it was beautiful, because we were sitting, knee to knee, a laptop balanced on top of them, in one of the most irrational brownstones in Columbus, Ohio—four narrow stories tall, worked over so heavily in plaster and carved wood and staircases that we sometimes don’t even know if the other person is even in the house and we spend good parts of our day going up and down stairs and looking in all the nooks that 19th century people had some use for trying to find each other.

Just like we’ve been trying to find ourselves, and each other for the last few years.

Unlike that 400 square foot attic apartment, the garrets sloping so close over our heads we had to push the dumpy sofa into the middle of the room to watch TV. So close and small we always knew right where the other was, and we were almost always close enough to touch.



So of course, Sidewalls, is a love story. Perfectly low-stakes and off-kilter, and wonky. The deliverer of our monologue is Martin (Javier Drolas), a shoebox apartment dweller, who until recently, completely confined himself to his apartment, for years, due to severe agoraphobia. He was cured, he says, by a psychoanalyst who told him to go into the city with a camera, where Martin documents the unbeautiful. Because he is also phobic of all transportation, he only goes by foot, and carries a “panic backpack” outfitted for every contingency with tools, first aid, computer memory, and antibiotics.

Every building, says Mariana (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), our heroine, has a side whose only use is to differentiate between us, divide us, to show the wear and ugliness of the building. This is the sidewall. Home only to cracks and graffiti and advertisements. She is an architect who has never built anything, not a building, not a bathroom, she tells us. She works as a window dresser, building ideas in non-rooms that are neither inside or outside, and tells herself that if someone looks at one of her displays, and likes it, that this is the same as liking her. She’s learning to be alone after finding that the man she loved was a stranger; she’s learning to live, again, in the 8th floor apartment she abandoned for him, eight floors up and alone and she’s phobic of elevators. She brings her window display mannequins to her apartment for company, to talk to, to make love to. And obsesses over her childhood copy of Where’s Waldo? Despairing because there is one puzzle in the book she has never solved, has never found Waldo—Waldo in the City. She believes she has no choice but to accept that this is a metaphor for her loneliness, her inability to find herself.

Mariana bathing with her lover.

Mariana bathing with her lover.

The sidewall of her building faces the sidewall of Martin’s.

images-83So this is a love story divided. There is no light between them, and though they share the same street, and there the smallest geographical space between them, we watch them just miss each other, again and again.

Yet, this is not played as a farce, only three times are they within a few feet of the other, looking the other way, or in the dark. How they really miss each other is by their inability to connect and find lasting love with anyone else, and with their personal journeys of self-discovery and increasing readiness for love. And here’s the thing—that’s why this movie is everyone’s wonky love story. Because, we’re all sidewalled away from the other, and if we haven’t found love, it’s like Mariana’s Waldo, he’s there, it’s just our own blindness. We watch Martin and Mariana yearn for the same things, and cry at the same movies, and sing along to the same summer ballad. We also, without seeing them together, have the ability to discern where they are complements.

I think about the Monday nights before I met my husband, watching Mulder and Scully, while he sat in his attic apartment with the window open, the crickets singing, watching Mulder and Scully. We were already having our love story, in a way.

Or at least, that’s the hopefulness of all of this. It should be impossible to tell a love story about two people falling in love before they’ve ever met, or even know the other exists. That’s the wonk. That right there, the telling of this love story. The wonk is not that Martin is phobic and a hypochondriac, it’s not that Mariana smashes tea cups when her neighbor’s piano playing gets too sad, and the wonk is not that she gets her lip pierced. It’s that we watch them fall in love, utterly in love, and they don’t know the fact of the other’s existence until the last 45 seconds of the movie.

Yet, the movie is utterly romantic and dear for all of its failed dates with pothead dogwalkers and impotent swimmers, for its random and heartbreaking sidebars on architecture and cyber sex. Every time Martin smiles at something we know, we just know Mariana would also smile over—our belly swoops satisfyingly. Every time they express their longing for connection without wires or walls, we curl our toes in anticipation of their finding each other. Meanwhile, we see that every foray they make into their own, personal happiness is one more brick demolished out of the sidewall between them.

The wonk is in the telling. In this impossible trick of showing us how we fall in love before we ever meet our beloveds.

Sometimes I ask my husband to, tell me something about you. Something I don’t know. Something that happened to you before we even met. These are my favorite stories. Even the most mundane recollections fascinate me: once I walked a mile in the rain to buy a girl I met in a bar clove cigarettes because she said she was craving one. When I first came to college, I didn’t know which machine was the washer and which one dryer and it made me so angry, all the things we just expected my mother to do. There is always something about these stories that feel familiar, even if I have never heard them before, because they are the things that make my husband who he is, and I love my husband. They are the things that made him ready for me.

This movie is a perfect 93 minutes long, just exactly at the time we can spare after a child’s bedtime and before our own. But the first time we watched it, we started it over and watched it again, and talked all through it, in low voices, pointing out all the things we had noticed the first time. Not unlike that hour, year ago, we earmarked for the other every Monday night, the time we’d see each other even if we hadn’t made plans that week to see each other. I’d climb the stairs to his attic apartment and knock, and he’d open the door and say get in here, what took you so long? Even though I came the same time every Monday.

images-84How do you find a person when you don’t know what you’re longing for? Mariana wonders. That’s it, exactly. Our love story starts when we ask the first questions of ourselves, when the sidewalls are intact. We have to know ourselves, what we long for, what we don’t want. We have to walk a few miles in the rain for a pretty girl who won’t be the one we settle on. We have to walk our dogs with a pothead and have terrible sex with someone we met at a public swimming pool. We have to first, be true to ourselves and pierce what we want to pierce and be afraid and then unafraid.

We have to be better than fine.

We are all irrational, a product of bad logic, we’re the short building next to the tall one. Somehow, we find each other. Mostly when we find ourselves.

This is a spectacularly wonked movie, and not primarily because its hero and heroine are. Its wonk comes from what it chose not to show us. And what it did. Just like love, it should be impossible.

Sidewalls is currently streaming on Netflix. Or available to rent from Amazon.

*When it rained, we couldn’t watch The X-Files. But what we did instead was so much better, I sometimes hoped for rain.

**Fourteen years in June.


Posted in Movies, Review, Talking Wonkomance | 37 Comments

Learning to Read

A guest post from Wonkomance’s official resident undercover librarian, Shelley Ann Clark.

It took me twenty-three years of school to learn how to read.

I’ve heard from a number of my fellow romance fans that they feel judged by their librarians when they check out or ask for romance novels. I’ve heard my fellow librarians speak scornfully of popular literature. There is a great debate, repeated endlessly in the profession, about whether we should give the public what they want, or give the public books that are “good for them.” As if we, the educated readers, are the only ones who can decide what makes a book great. This isn’t to say that I don’t think there’s plenty of room for critique, and I think it’s very important that romance not be exempt from cultural study. In fact, I think popular books need to be at the heart of cultural studies, because those are the books that reflect and shape our societal values. However, it’s vitally important that we remember that there is no one right way to be a reader, even if that’s what we learn in school.

The one-right-way-to-read thinking is antithetical to the principals of reader’s advisory. Generally speaking, most library professionals provide information to meet two kinds of needs: reference, which is when a patron has a need for information about a topic, and reader’s advisory, which is the art of helping the right reader find the right book at the right time. A reference question is, “I need to know how many elephants are currently working in the Barnum & Bailey circus.” A reader’s advisory question is, “God, I loved Fifty Shades of Grey. Do you have any other books like that?”

It wasn’t until I took Reader’s Advisory in library school (under the great Joyce Saricks and Becky Spratford, two of the best names in the field, and two of the best professors I’ve ever had) that I learned two principles of reader’s advisory that made the biggest difference in how I view both reading and writing:

1. There is no such thing as bad writing. There is no such thing as good writing. Good writing is writing a reader likes. That’s it. There’s no objective measurement of it.

2. Never, ever judge another reader’s taste. Reader’s advisory is about finding the right book for your reader, not about finding the right book for you or showing the reader how much you know about literature.

This philosophy was completely counter to everything I’d learned about reading and writing in all my previous education.  After being taught how to analyze writing to find its strengths and weaknesses, after learning about Big Important Books, after evaluating Great Literature and dismissing popular literature, after being taught that genre was lesser, and a genre book might be great for its genre, but it would never be a Great Book…suddenly, here were two librarians teaching me that none of that mattered.

Readers should like the books they read. That’s the only rule.

It’s a radical notion, that, the idea that any one reader’s taste is just as valuable as any other reader’s taste, regardless of education or literacy level or economic status. And it’s an incredibly liberating philosophy as a reader and as a writer. There are no guilty pleasure books, just pleasure books. There are no “should-reads.” You should read what you want. End of story.

Reader’s advisors read for appeal; we do analyze what we read, but we analyze it in terms of why someone might like it. Is it fast-paced? Does it have an unusual setting? Is there a unique voice, or high interpersonal drama, or is the writing lyrical? A reader who loves fast-paced, suspense-filled books will likely be bored by a lyrical, thoughtful, emotional read. Does that make one book better than another? Only in terms of how it fits for that particular reader.

As a writer, learning to think about books this way is the only thing that un-paralyzed me. I didn’t need to write a perfect book; I needed to write a book that at least one reader would enjoy. The goal became manageable, and honestly, fun, for the first time in years. Of course I want my writing to be technically strong. I want to use all those skills I learned to make my writing the best it can be. But it will never be perfect; it may never be Great, in the terms I learned to study. And that’s okay.

Extra Bonus Fun Time!
So, since most of you aren’t reader’s advisors, I’d like to invite you to try to identify the appeal terms that apply to the books you tend to love. I, for instance, like steamy love stories with a strong sense of place and lyrical writing. Some examples of appeal terms: fast-paced, character-driven, dark, humorous, complex plots, high interpersonal drama, alternating point-of-view. Notice that none of them place a value judgment on the work, they just describe it. I’d love to see how you would characterize either your own work or the books you like to read.

* * *

Shelley Ann Clark’s third-grade teacher told her she would grow up to be the next Danielle Steel. It probably says something about her that, at age eight, she knew who that was and thought it was a compliment. Shelley now holds an MA in Creative Writing, a Masters of Library and Information Science, and has worked in public libraries for twelve years. She lives with her husband in Chicago, where she writes about Southern men and the women who bring them to their knees.

Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , , | 36 Comments

Bad-Idea Heroes (No, Like, Really Bad)

Today’s post is going to be a self-indulgent talk therapy session. I apologize in advance. But I’m having one of those writer weeks, the kind where self-doubt is an itchy, wet sweater, weighing you down and making you twitch, and the only way out of it is to keep. Writing. Much as the writing may feel like futile, thrashy flailing for the time being.

So, I like the book I’m working on—it’s called Unbound, and it’s set to be released by Penguin in October. I like the heroine, I like the premise, and I love the hero.

But oh, this hero…

This hero has issues. No shock—all good heroes have them, but this one’s got a lot. He’s living in self-imposed exile in a far-flung crofter’s cottage in the Scottish Highlands, which is strike one, as bad-idea-hero signifiers go. Hermit, check.

Strike two, he’s also got a paraphilia, a deep groove carved into his sexuality that’s obsessed with rope—really scratchy rope—which on its own, nurtured in a sex-positive environment, needn’t be an issue at all. But unfortunately, the fixation isolated him from an early age, distanced his mother, filled him with shame, stunted his ability to socialize, and as an adult he lost all control over it, exacerbated by strike three, a far more troublesome issue—severe alcoholism.

Rob wasn’t the kind of drunk who made an arse of himself at weddings. He was a mean one—petty and cruel, if not violent. He was the kind who’d kept a fifth of gin in his desk and glove box to mitigate the shakes, and who’d for years lost the ability to simply fall asleep, so routinely had he blacked out. He’d drunk himself into the early stages of cirrhosis by thirty-three, a sleep-walking wretch covered in angry purple bruises…

Rob didn’t need a treatment plan, or a support group, or Jesus. He needed exile. Solitary confinement.

And so as the story opens, Rob is not a recovering alcoholic—he’s merely an alcoholic who’s not actively drinking, because the booze is now too far away to be conveniently accessed. He hasn’t fixed his drinking problem, he’s simply shut it in a figurative trunk with a dozen padlocks and crossed his fingers he’ll never get desperate enough to take a crowbar to the hinges.

It wasn’t always this bad.

He’d been good at it, to start.

Two lagers, maybe three, and Rob could shut his brain off enough to get lost in a conversation. To make people laugh. To smile, and really, truly feel the ease and happiness it reflected. The memory of that miserable child had begun to fade, like a bad dream forgotten with the sunrise. A liquid sunrise, golden and pure, poured into a glass to warm the very heart.

And from perhaps eighteen to twenty-eight, he’d managed a balance. For that decade, alcohol had been but a crutch, the lubrication that loosened his brain and mouth enough to let him to enjoy the company of others. To make him charming enough, calm enough, to foster two successful businesses, to court and marry his wife.

Except Rob totally fucked his marriage up, and the fetish he thought had been cured by the booze-soothed ease their early romance (and which was soundly rejected when he finally did roll it out) inevitably returned and, soaked with gin, spiraled out of control. He only indulged it while drunk, in his dark, locked office, with strangers on the Internet…

…only to be dowsed with self-hatred the second he came, the blinding light of reality shining to reveal him as he truly was—a pathetic drunk, one hand bathed in come, wrapped around his limp, spent cock. The other still on his computer mouse, screen awash with some incriminating image, suddenly devoid of its allure; strangers bound and gagged; video of a hog-tied man being fucked by another man; ridiculous words typed by some anonymous nobody. Yeah. That sounds hot. That makes me hard, the nobody might say. What else?

What else? There was nothing else, once Rob came. Shut the offending window, erase his Internet history, get back to the chore of drowning his self-loathing in a bottle of Booth’s.

[Rob’s not gay, by the way—it’s just far easier to find like-minded, narrow-focus kinksters among the male population. Plus the gin didn’t render him particularly choosy. Did I mention he has issues?]

So yeah, this is my hero! Kinda sounds like a romance heroine’s evil ex, the one who saddled her with a major man-distrusting complex, remedied only through the Power of Lurrrve™, as administered by the dashing real hero (who’s probably a former SEAL and definitely not a socially inept hermit.)

And so taking a step back after a feverish first 40,000 words, I’m feeling a bit daunted by my challenge.

How do I make this guy lovable? Not like, “lovable,” in the cuddly, charming sense, but in the sense of, would anyone be able to love this guy? Because pity is no substitute for admiration.

It’s not enough to employ the Christian Grey Method, which is to make him mega-hot with fally-downy pants, thus blinding the heroine to his certifiable emotional retardation. Plus I think Rob’s hot already. In my head, he’s totally Armitage, if Armitage routinely forgot how to shave for a week at a time. But unshaven-Armitage appeal is not enough to paper over Rob’s gaping psychological cracks. (Just as picturing Christian Grey as Michael Fassbender has not aided much in my struggle to enjoy Fifty Shades.)

The issue here is, would Rob pass best-friend muster?

I came to realize, rereading the initial draft, that, “No heroine’s best friend would ever give this man her endorsement.” No real-life best friend would sign off on this guy, and that, I thought, must be a non-starter.

Until I realized, I’ve written plenty of guys who most friends would refuse to sign off on. The average woman probably wouldn’t advise her best friend to date a guy with a rape kink, or a male prostitute crippled by a panic disorder, or a masochistic sociopath with no impulse control, or a pushy borderline chauvinist, or a tactless French creeper who happens to be really good at sculpting naked ladies.

Yet I wrote all those guys, and they seemed to work for readers. Moreover, all those weirdos also earned the blessings of their heroine’s best friends (or sisters), despite them presenting like the Worst Suitors Ever.

But why? In every single case, it came down to the same thing—it wasn’t about how the guy came off. It was about how being with him changed the heroine. A case of the hero bringing out something in the heroine, a tangible, positive transformation that her closest friends and family could see. These guys contributed to their heroines’ character arcs in ways no other heroes could have. (Though the masochistic sociopath was, in fact, the Worst Suitor Ever, despite the heroine’s positive arc.)

So the challenge, I’m realizing, is that I need to figure out what this current hero offers the heroine.

What does she need in her life but isn’t getting, and couldn’t get from a man who wasn’t burdened by all these massive issues? How can his massive issues—or rather, the healing of them—in fact enrich the heroine’s life?

And how do I redeem this guy, not just to the reader, but to himself? He’s not one of those cocky heroes who needs to be humbled by love; quite the opposite. He needs his self-worth constructed, not his arrogance mellowed. And it can’t simply be that he meets this woman, she wheedles his kink out of him, blows his mind by indulging it, and [glittery harp segue] he’s fixed, suddenly able to rejoin polite society, wander into a bar and order a soft drink with no angst—sobriety, check! The sex in this story is intense, but it ain’t magic.

This guy has some serious proving to do.

And so I’m at that point in a book, yet again, where I understand what needs to ultimately happen, but have no clue what shape the resolution will take. And I’m at that point where I have to remind myself that I wind up at this point in nearly every book I write, and that the answer always presents itself, as long I don’t try to guess the solution too early on, as long as I keep grinding my gray matter into the keyboard, keep plumbing the freaky brain-depths of the creeps I’ve birthed, keep taking long, spacey walks with the proper musical accompaniment. Which is just what I’ll have to do, to the tune of 49,900 words in the next five weeks.

Though maybe next time I’ll be smart, and just write about a mega-hot billionaire whose sweatpants won’t stay up.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , , , , , , | 42 Comments