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Way to go, Bob!

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I’ve been busy. I don’t always choose to be working on two things at once, but sometimes that’s how it turns out. I’m never writing more than one novel at a time, but it has happened before (and will happen again) that I’m writing a novel concurrently with either a screenplay or a teleplay. I co-own the theatrical rights to The World According to Garp with Warner Bros. I’ve written an adaptation of Garp as a teleplay — a miniseries in five episodes. I’ll keep you posted about what comes of it. And I’ve started a new novel, my fifteenth, on New Year’s Eve. I’m twelve chapters into it, short chapters — about 130 double-spaced pages, in a type font large enough for people who need reading glasses.

 

I’m really happy that the Swedish Academy gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. My friend Stephen King said he was “over the moon” when he heard the news — me, too. I’ve noticed that some of my fellow writers — a few good friends among them — have been grumpy about it, but (without looking at a list of nominees) I feel as good about Dylan winning it as I do about only a handful of other winners. To name just three who very much deserved it: Gabriel García Márquez, Günter Grass, and Alice Munro. Way to go, Bob!

 

I share with Steve King a special fondness for Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks — in particular, “Shelter from the Storm,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Idiot Wind,” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” The epigraph for my novel Last Night in Twisted River is from “Tangled Up in Blue.”

 

I had a job in great north woods

Working as a cook for a spell

But I never did like it all that much

And one day the ax just fell.

 

Just think of all the songs that stand out, from a wide range of albums — like the most memorable chapters from an author’s novels: “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Girl of the North Country,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; “The Times They Are A-Changin’” from the album of that title; “It Ain’t Me, Babe” from Another Side of Bob Dylan; “Mr. Tambourine Man” from Bringing It All Back Home; “Like a Rolling Stone” from Highway 61 Revisited; “I Want You” and “Just Like a Woman” from Blonde on Blonde; and “Forever Young” from Planet Waves.

 

When I was rewriting Garp as a teleplay — a novel I was first writing forty years ago — I was listening to the music of the 1960s and the 1970s, when the heart of the story of Garp is set. What a lot of great music there is. In the center of it, and influencing the best of the rest, is Dylan. I was remembering, from when I wrote Garp the first time, that I imagined the subject at the heart of that novel might be out of date before I finished the manuscript — namely, sexual hatred driven by intolerance of sexual minorities or sexual differences. It’s sad that sexual bigotry is still with us. I wish Garp were out of date; it should be old news.

 

Think of “Blowin’ in the Wind” — it should be old news, too, but it isn’t.

 

Yes,’n’ how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows

That too many people have died?

 

Think of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” — nothing has changed.

 

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it

I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it

I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’

I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’

I saw a white ladder all covered with water

I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken

I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children

 

These are protest songs. Garp is a protest novel. It’s a sexual assassination story: a mother, an outspoken feminist, is killed by a man who hates women; her son is killed by a woman who hates him. The most level-headed, even-tempered character in the novel, and the only character who loves this mother and her son equally, is a transgender woman — formerly, an NFL football player. In the teleplay, I made Roberta the principal voice-over and POV character. I wonder: What would Roberta think of President Trump and Vice-President Pence?

 

Meanwhile, the press keep writing about Dylan’s unusual (or “unsuitable”) behavior for a Nobel Prize winner. In Dec., Dylan skipped the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm but sent a most generous and humble statement, which was read aloud by the American ambassador to Sweden. The New York Times described Dylan as “the always-slippery folksinger.” But I thought Dylan was simply being frank: he said he is “often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors.” Meaning: he’d rather keep working than talk about his work — I know the feeling. At the ceremony in Stockholm, Patti Smith sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” — making a mistake, halting to say “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” then resuming the song. Who can blame her for being nervous? And on April Fool’s Day, when Dylan was in Sweden for two concerts in Stockholm and another in Lund, Dylan received his award at a small gathering in a Stockholm hotel; only members of the academy and one of Dylan’s staff attended. A member of the academy described Dylan as “a very nice, kind man.” Now Dylan is expected to give a lecture before June 10 of this year — that is, if he wants to get the 8 million Swedish kronor (almost $900,000). A few Nobel lectures have been taped, as the Associated Press has pointed out — as recently as 2013 by the Canadian Nobel Literature laureate, Alice Munro. I don’t know why some people expect Dylan to behave like everyone else. As a songwriter, what’s interesting about him is that he isn’t like anyone else.

 

And now I have to go back to work — or, as Bob puts it, “the pursuit of my creative endeavors.”

—John