Hadley Freeman, author of Life Moves Pretty Fast

For Hadley Freeman, movies of the 1980s have simply got it all. In her new book, Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley puts her obsessive movie geekery to good use, detailing the decade’s key players, genres, and tropes. She looks back on a cinematic world in which bankers are invariably evil, where children are always wiser than adults, where science is embraced with an intense enthusiasm, and the future viewed with giddy excitement. And, she considers how the changes between movies then and movies today say so much about society’s changing expectations of women, young people, and art—and explains why Pretty in Pink should be put on school syllabuses immediately.

Q. How did you approach researching a subject that has the potential to be so subjective?

A. Back when I was at school my history teacher told me that you should always go to the primary source. Obviously I had plenty of theories about these 80s films going into the book as I’ve been obsessed with them for 30 years. But I really didn’t want it just to be me jawing on, disappearing up my own backside with my arguments about how Ghostbusters is a love letter to adult male friendship, or that Pretty in Pink is a feminist classic. So instead I interviewed the people involved in the making of these movies, such as Molly Ringwald, John Landis, Ivan Reitman and Nancy Meyers, and it turned out, rather reassuringly, that they were as interested in those subjects as me. The first person I interviewed was Eleanor Bernstein, who wrote Dirty Dancing, and I said to her that I always thought the reason she wrote the movie was to celebrate the legality of abortion. She laughed and said, “I’ve been waiting 30 years for someone spot that.” So that gave me the confidence that I wasn’t just going down a spiral of my own manic obsession.

Q. How do you define “eighties movies”?

A. I had to be strict about this and say it was movies that were released between 1980 – 1989. It’s a cliche that a decade doesn’t begin properly until four years in, but I decided to take the straightforward chronological approach.

Q. Why is this something you wanted to write about and why will people want to read about it?

A. First and most obviously, it seemed like a really fun subject. What better way to spend a day than interviewing Matthew Broderick about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? But on a more serious level, it was increasingly obvious to me that movies made today by studios are astonishingly conservative, and much more so than movies made in the 80s, especially about things like working women and abortion, and it surprised me that people weren’t talking about this. I hope people will want to read it because they love the movies and also because they want to know how and why Hollywood today became so socially conservative.

Q. What makes eighties movies more culturally relevant or important than other eras and forms of entertainment?

A. I don’t think I’d say 80s movies are more culturally relevant than movies from other eras, but I do think they are more culturally relevant than any movies made since. Movies made in, say, the 40s were hugely culturally relevant. But the 80s was the last decade when movies were made with largely American audiences in mind, and that means they depicted very specific sociopolitical issues, such as the 1980s farm crisis, the bloating of Wall Street and the alienation of the suburbs. It also meant they felt free to depict things like abortion in a positive light and have strong female characters. Now that Hollywood makes movies largely for the foreign market it makes what it imagines what Russia and China want without any sense of specificity. It also takes fewer risks because movies cost so much to market around the world. Thus, whereas teenagers in the 80s had movies like the John Hughes films which meant so much to so many people, now they get identikit superhero movies, which mean nothing to anyone. Even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas struggle to get movies made now, and they were the masters of making emotionally affecting blockbusters.

Q. What is the “thirty-year rule”?

A. The 30 year rule is a theory I made up. It refers to the time it takes for pop culture, dismissed as trash in its own time, to be revered as important art 30 years later. It generally takes 30 years because that’s how long it takes for the kids to grow up and get jobs where they have the platform to proclaim that Tiffany was actually – ACTUALLY – a genius pop star. I am the living embodiment of my own theory.

Q. How did you decide which movies you would write about?

A. Quite simply, it was the movies I love most. I honestly could have written a book five times as long, and there are loads of movies I regretfully had to leave out: The Sure Thing, Field of Dreams, The Witches of Eastwick… But my editor was very strict that this book was not allowed to be 1000 pages long, the tyrant.

Q. These movies continue to be popular with younger generations, so why isn’t Hollywood producing anything similar now?

A. Because movies have become so expensive to market, is the short answer. 80s teen movies were made with mid-market budgets, but Hollywood doesn’t really make those sized movies anymore. It makes either small indies or giant blockbusters. So there are some small teen movies, such as The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now, but in the main there’sTwilight and The Hunger Games.

Q. Is there a way to recreate the ascetics and emotional effect of eighties movies?

A. Absolutely, but the studio has to accept that it’s working on a smaller canvas. The reason 80s teen movies still appeal so much is because they’re all about emotions and relatively unimportant themes, like going to a prom or getting detention. They’re not about saving the world or fighting evil. So you’re not going to get blockbuster audiences, but you will get devoted ones.

Q. What eighties movie best defines your life?

A. It would have to be a tie between Ghostbusters and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ghostbusters because it captures in a very funny way what it was like growing up in New York City in the 80s, as I did, when the city felt like an out of control crime-ridden mess. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because I obsessively watched that movie every day for a year as a whole child and, in my heart, it is still my fantasy teenage life.

Q. What would you say to people who are critical of this era of movies?

A. This is a very cheeky answer but I’d say read my book – not for my amazing words of wisdom (well, not just them) but to hear from the filmmakers behind the movies. They really show that they were doing so much more than just making movies about proms, and how they’re not allowed to make movies like that now.

Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.


Joe Hill, Author of The Fireman

Joe Hill is a horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction writer. His works include the novels Heart-Shaped BoxHorns, and NOS4A2, as well as the comics Locke & Key and Wraith, and a short story collection titled 20th Century Ghosts.

I interviewed Hill about his latest novel, The Fireman (available May 17), which tells the story of Harper Grayson, a young nurse who finds herself pregnant and fighting for survival at the onset of a fiery apocalypse.

Q. How was The Fireman influenced by the popularity of apocalyptic storylines in pop culture today? Why do you think people are so fixated on these stories?

A. The popularity of end-of-the-world stories is not a new thing. Mary Shelley followed Frankenstein with the story of a world ending plague. H.G. Wells frequently toyed with the possibility of our extinction. It shouldn’t be a great surprise. We have a natural attraction to the subject, probably because in a sense, every human being has to face the end-of-the-world. Someday you’ll be dead, and that will be the end of the world… for you. Not only that, every generation is, eventually, wiped from the face of the earth, leaving nothing behind but their works, their rubbish, and the memories of their children.

That’s a big, discomforting idea and we naturally turn to fiction to make sense of it. Fiction is the playground where we test out our response to upsetting scenarios through the safe medium of make-believe.

As far as The Fireman goes, I felt I was arguing with the genre’s recent conventions. A lot of these stories – The Road, Walking Dead – tend to show humanity dispensing with empathy and affection as they descend into a barbaric struggle for survival. But I think human beings are a little better than that. We’re chummy little apes. The human impulse to laugh, to make love, to comfort one another… those aren’t luxuries. They’re hard-wired into who we are.

Q. What makes The Fireman stand out among all the Walking Deads and Hunger Games of the apocalypse genre?

A. Is the Hunger Games apocalyptic? It’s just very dire, isn’t it?

In the Walking Dead, the heroes are the healthy – they protect themselves by building walls between them and the sick, the infected. The ill have no humanity and it’s a mercy to shoot them in the face. In The Fireman, my heroes are the contaminated – the people the healthy want to eliminate. I’m the kind of guy who roots for the underdog, and anyone touched with a grim, potentially fatal illness is as underdoggy as you can get.

Q. What are the elements of a good apocalypse story?

A. I think you want heroes you can love and root for struggling to puzzle their way through an apparently hopeless situation. But of course that’s hardly a description of a “good apocalypse story.” More like a description for a “good story,” period.

Q. What was your approach when writing this book? How did you ensure that minor characters weren’t flat when you were working with such a large cast of characters?

A. My approach to character – whether I’m figuring out my protagonist, or producing a minor character for a single paragraph – is to try and figure out how they talk. If I can hear a person’s particular way of putting things, I can usually get the rest pretty easily. Not only that, if I can accurately reproduce her voice on the page, the reader will understand her as well. It’s the Elmore Leonard approach.

What killed me, working on NOS4A2, was for the first year I was writing it, I couldn’t hear the voice of Charlie Manx. I kept trying on different voices, trying to find the one that was right. Then, one day, I realized he’s an enthusiastic old fellow and that his conversation was littered with exclamation points. I’ve never used so many exclamation points in a book, but for Charlie it was right.

Q. Where did the idea for Dragonscale come from?

A. There was another presidential contest underway when I began the book. This was 2008. One of the men running against Barack Obama, the governor of Texas, said he didn’t believe in global warming. And Obama joked that this guy didn’t believe in global warming but his whole state was on fire. Which was true – there was an enormous wildfire rampaging in Texas, in a region where forests had been dried into kindling by years of drought.

I thought it was a good observation. And then I thought about it some more, and I had an idea: what if that fire was everywhere? Not just Texas, but Cleveland, and Seattle, and Warsaw, and London? What if every time you stamped it out in one place it popped up somewhere else, in a catastrophic game of Whack-A-Mole? So then I thought, what could do that? How could fires keep blooming up like that, everywhere, all the time? And what occurred to me was: contagion.

I decided to make Dragonscale beautiful to look at, because I thought that would be more appealing than something that produces lots of pus. Also I knew it was going to be a romance – about two good people discovering how much they love and enjoy each other – and romance doesn’t play well against a backdrop of pus and stink.

Q. How did you come up with the logistics of Dragonscale? Such as how it affected the body and how it was spread. 

A. I wrote three supernatural novels back to back: a ghost story, a story about a devil, and a kind of vampire story. So with The Fireman, I wanted to do something rooted in the realm of scientific possibility… something a bit more Michael Crichton. When I knew I was going to be writing about a contagion of spontaneous combustion I tried to figure out some believable mechanism, and came up with a particularly dangerous fungal infection. Of course there isn’t a spore that will cause a human being to ignite. But there are fungal infections that will cause skin to blister and rash from chemical heat. It’s a matter of exaggeration not fabrication. And everything else about the ‘scale – from the way it bonds with the brain, to the way it spreads in ash – can be found in spores that really exist.

Q. Why did you choose Harper to be your main character?

A. In the novel prior to The Fireman, I wrote about a woman named Vic McQueen, a tattoo-inked biker with a hard edge. She represented one idea of strength, one kind of female protagonist – a James Cameron style female lead, like Ripley from Aliensor Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. Nothing wrong with that kind of hero, but I wanted to explore a different kind of strength in the new book. Harper’s strength is in her humor, her sense of compassion, her decency, and her unflinching willingness to do what is right regardless of what it might cost her.

Q. What is the importance of Harper’s pregnancy in the midst of the chaos brought on by Dragonscale?

A. Biology prevents me from ever finding out what it would be like to be pregnant. But it’s amazing, right? This new life-form hijacks a woman’s body to serve its own needs. I saw a clear connection between what a fetus does and the way the Dragonscale operates. It too is a life-form that forces the human body to play host. In a sense, Harper’s body becomes a battleground. the landscape for a fight between two opposing armies: life and death.

Also, though, every pregnancy has three acts, just like a play or a good novel. I have great faith in the three act structure.

Q. One of the things I love about your writing is the way you are able to portray a realistic struggle between good and evil characters on a psychological level in a way that seems relevant to day-to-day life despite the extreme circumstances the characters find themselves in. This was true of Ig and Lee in Hornsand now also of Harper and Jakob in The Fireman. How do you approach these ideas of good and evil when you’re writing?

A. You’re very kind.

I try not to think about capital-E Evil at all. I try to figure out what each person wants and how far they’ll go to get it. My definition of evil is when you want something and you don’t care who you have to hurt to get it.

Jakob wants to do his part to save the world from going up in flames. In Jakob’s mind, he’s the dude in the cowboy hat fromThe Walking Dead. If you kill someone with Dragonscale, you know they’ll never burst into flames and maybe take your neighborhood with them. In his mind, his actions are the work of a good, unselfish man. Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story.

Q. How did you approach this same idea of good and evil within individual characters in relation to their internal struggle? Such as with Ben who is able to justify violence on several occasions, but refuses to swear. 

A. Ben Patchett is a guy who thinks manners are the same as decency. But there’s nothing decent about a polite torturer.

When Ben tortures two men, he’s doing it in the name of protecting 150 lives. In his mind, he’s not engaged in cruelty, but in security.

I go back to what I said earlier. Getting the character’s voice right – that’s a key. Once I’ve got a hold of it, I can unlock their head and step inside their thoughts. Ben finds salty language distasteful. That hinted at his desire for a clean, ordered, polite society.

Q. Why do so many of the characters resort to hurting others (Carol, Jakob, the Marlboro Man) instead of helping others (Harper, John)? Do you think this is indicative of human nature? 

A. But Carol would die for the people of Camp Wyndham, all those sick people who have arrived at her secret shelter searching for a way to survive. If Carol kills people, if she hurts people, if she crushes rebellious voices, it’s only because she loves her little community and is frantic to keep them all safe from harm.

And the Marlboro Man is a smug, awful bully, but he never doubts the rightness of his actions. This is a guy who knows he’s doing what has to be done to protect the healthy from the sick. He’s being a man, as defined by a certain kind of 1980s action movie.

When the US launches a drone strike on a terrorist encampment and blasts a hospital instead, they can say honestly they did it to keep us safe and just oops-ed. It’s not that humans are driven to do harm. That’s not the flaw in the design. It’s our genius at morally justifying choices that may in fact not have any moral justification.

Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Marisa Huff, Author of Aperitivo

Marisa Huff is the author of Aperitivo, a cookbook that celebrates the Italian tradition of meeting for an afternoon drink and light snack. Huff has complied some of the best regional bar and restaurant recipes that transports you to all the famous destinations of Italy.

I had the chance to speak with Huff about Aperitivo, released March 15, 2016.

Q. What is aperitivo? What cultural importance does it have in Italy?

A. In Italian, the word aperitivo refers to a predinner drink, an aperitif, as well as the act of meeting friends in the early evening to enjoy said drink. As Joe Bastianich so nicely captured it in the intro of the book, “the practice of the aperitivo is a routine part of everyday life… and is much more than simply grabbing a drink. It is a fundamental example of Italian sensibility at its finest. It is an encounter, a conversation, slowing down and taking time to savor a drink with friends at the close of the day’s labors and enjoy the present moment.”

Today, in Northern Italy, aperitivo is as much of the Italian lifestyle as stopping for an espresso at your local bar each morning or treating soccer as a religion.

Q. How is aperitivo different than the Happy Hour Americans are accustomed to?

A. Unlike American happy hour, an Italian aperitivo has little to do with dollar tacos and drink specials. It consists of a glass of wine or light cocktail paired with a bite to eat. Over indulgence is not the point and is certainly not the Italian way.

Bars in Italy, particularly in Milan, may charge you more, rather than less, for a drink during the aperitivo, which generally starts at 6 p.m. and can last until 8 p.m., or 9 p.m. in the summer, as compared to 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. happy hour deals I have seen here in the States.

In Italy, the markup in the price of a drink is justified by the bar snacks that are served to you or available as a buffet at no extra charge.

Q. What made you think aperitivo would be the perfect topic for a book?

Aperitivo is something that visitors to Italy really enjoy, as it is a fun and informal way to interact with Italians. I can’t think of anyone I know who has come to Venice, let’s say, and not been curious to try a neon red or orange spritz or sip on a Bellini. It’s easy and inviting way to experience la dolce vita.

Q. What is vermouth and why is it used in so many drinks?

A. Vermouth is a fortified, aromatized wine – “fortified” meaning that a fairly neutral spirit has been added to increase the alcohol content of the wine, and “aromatized” in that the botanicals like roots, bark, flowers and citrus peels, have been infused into the wine. In the case of vermouth, as compared to other fortified, aromatized wines, the primary botanical is wormwood.

Together with potable bitters like Campari, sweet Italian vermouth provides the backbone for many aperitivo cocktails. It provides both complexity and sweetness, which balance other ingredients and tend to make you want to eat and drink more or, in other words, to sit down for dinner.

Q. Why did you want to organize the chapters by region?

A. Like most everything in Italy, the art of the aperitivo is practiced in a thoughtful and regional way so it made sense to structure the book around the regional expressions.

Q. How has living in Italy influenced the way you approached this book? 

A. Well, it certainly made the research a whole lot easier. I was able to visit places multiple times and return with my photographer Andrea Fazzari. I believe that one of the things that makes this book special is that all of the photos were shot on site and not in a studio. It really gives it an authentic Italian feel.

Q. Where did you get the recipes?

A. In some cases, bartenders and chefs gave the recipes to me, while others I reconstructed myself based on the drinks and bar snacks that I experienced during my travels.

Q. Which recipe is your favorite? 

A. In terms of drinks, my current go-to aperitivo cocktail is the Americano (vermouth, Campari and soda) and I really enjoy the version of this drink that they serve at Trussardi Café’ in Milan made with beer foam in place of soda water.

And my favorite food recipe has to be the carbonara tramezzino. Those little sandwiches are addictive!

Q. How did writing this book compare to the food writing you have done in the past? 

A. Most of the recent food writing I have been doing is about what is going on in terms of food and wine in Italy, but my articles generally don’t include recipes. This book required a lot more time because I tested each recipe three or four times. I had to draw upon the experience of recipe-testing that I did many years ago when I worked as the research assistant to Jeffrey Steingarten, food editor of Vogue Magazine.

Q. Do you plan on doing any books similar to Aperitivo that focus on other countries or cultures in the future? 

A. If I were to write another book, it would be about Italy as that is what I know best. The most obvious follow-up would be a book on the “digestivo” or after-dinner drinks, but that is a running joke at the moment.

Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.