Monday, September 24, 2018

Picture books taking flight

By chance, all five of my picture books to date feature a central figure who flies:

  • Boys of Steel: The Creators of SupermanSuperman (duh)
  • Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of BatmanBatman (not self-sustained; via Batplane, Batcopter, Batwing, being ejected out of a giant toaster, etc.)
  • Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Realfairies (duh)
  • Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot's World War II StoryNobuo Fujita, the pilot of the subtitle
  • The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra—the chupacabra (not traditionally described as being winged but our cute little version is)

Superman by Ross MacDonald

Batman by Ty Templeton

fairy photographed by Elsie Wright

Nobuo Fujita by Melissa Iwai

chupacabra by Ana Aranda

I went skydiving in 1996:

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Number of named characters in my illustrated nonfiction

At some point during the revision stage of Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real, I realized it was longer than my other picture book nonfiction. (I probably did compare word counts, though I don't remember the results.) 

Then I realized it was longer partly because that story required more named characters—meaning characters important enough to my telling that I should refer them to by name rather than connection (i.e. "Jerry's father," in Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman) or title. Generally speaking, if a character appears only once, s/he need not be identified by name.

Not including fictional characters like Batman or historical figures mentioned but not an active character in the story, like Edgar Allan Poe in Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman and President Kennedy in Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot's World War II Story, this is how many named characters my illustrated nonfiction books include:

  • Boys of Steeltwo (Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster)
  • Bill the Boy Wondereight (Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Vin Sullivan, Jerry Robinson, Portia Finger, Fred Finger, Julius Schwartz, Jerry Bails)
  • Thirty Minutes Over Oregonfour (Nobuo, Ayako, Yoshi, and Yoriko Fujita)
  • Fairy Spelleight (Frances Griffiths, Elsie Wright, Polly Wright, Arthur Wright, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward Gardner, Harold Snelling, Fred Gettings)

So at eight, Fairy Spell has the same number as Bill the Boy Wonder, but at one point it had eleven. During rewrites, three disappeared—much like fairies themselves are prone to do. 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

"An important and breathtaking book"

"An important and breathtaking book"
—Colby Sharp book talk video (also on his "Awesome 2018 Books" list)

Thank you again, Colby!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

My old school visit feedback form

In my early days (2004-2009) of speaking at schools about the life of a writer and (at the time) cartoonist, I required too much paperwork.

There were the essentials—well, essential: the contract. 

But then there were the extras.

I would bring feedback forms (yes, on paper) to leave with the school to copy and distribute to all teachers and students who heard my presentation. I further asked them to mail me the completed forms (at their expense!). Of course, I could not require them to do so, but I asked nicely, and a good number obliged. Sometimes I would get thick mailings with hundreds of responses.

Looking back, I am a bit embarrassed that I put schools in that position. I was asking a lot of people with more important things to do to take time to help me improve. Yes, asking young writers to "review" something is a valuable exercise, but still—curriculum is extensive and time is limited. I deeply appreciated the input and told them so, but no worries—I will not be resurrecting the practice.

My filing cabinet did not allow me to keep all of the forms, but I do have some favorites, including this one:

I am also no fan of my hair.

(And fourth grader Besart, wherever he is, would now be 24 years old...)

Monday, September 17, 2018

The third teacher

On 9/13/18, under a sky grayed by not-so-far-off Hurricane Florence, I spoke at the beautiful (and beautifully led) Frederick County Middle School in Winchester, VA (where, by chance, the final scene of Batman & Bill was filmed).

Walking in, I noticed a sign referring to "the third teacher." I was pretty sure the school had more than three so I was immediately curious why this one was being singled out.

I learned that the first teacher is the teachers. Second is the students. Third is the building itself. It's fairly new and it's green and it's dotted with QR codes; when scanned, they reveal information on the way some aspect of the building (such as stormwater management) functions. Making a cool idea even cooler, that info was researched and written by the kids.

One aspect of the building I did not need a QR code to understand: no mirrors in the bathrooms. Where they would usually hang are instead colorful, breezily written signs about issues that matter to emerging adolescents but that they may not ask about, such as personal hygiene.

Principal Jerry Putt is a gift to the profession—he's got a "Care Halo." You can tell inside of 30 seconds how much he loves students. Maggie Schrock made my visit possible and was on the team that created the third teacher concept. Thanks to you both for inviting me to see the wonderful goings-on at FCMS. Thank you also to WDVM-TV and The Winchester Star for covering my visit.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The query that sold “Thirty Minutes Over Oregon”

On 11/27/12, I emailed the following query to Jennifer Greene at Clarion.

On 1/10/14, she made an offer.

(This ran a bit longer than the query that sold Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. Sorry, Jennifer!)

I’m the author of more than 70 books for young people including the nonfiction picture books Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. Boys of Steel is an American Library Association Notable Book; was named to multiple “best of the year” lists; and was featured in a USA Today cover story.

Bill the Boy Wonder (new this year) has been covered by NPR’s All Things Considered, Forbes, Washington Post, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, WIRED, and even MTV; it also led to an invitation to give a TED talk. Reviews below. The book trailer features whimsy...and tights.

I’d like to query you on another nonfiction picture book for older readers. Thirty Minutes Over Oregon tells the jaw-dropping tale of a WWII pilot—on the Japanese side—who did something historic and, some would say, heroic. He is not a household name but his story was significant enough to earn a half-page obit in the New York Times. It’s a famous first that is not yet famous. I’m far from a war buff but I’m not exaggerating when I say this is one of the most riveting true stories I’ve heard. (Plus it manages to be a war story without death.)

The book inspired a mock cover experiment that got a lot of buzz in the kidlitosphere (you can see the NYT obit there, too). The response to that (from librarians, teachers, booksellers, parents, kids, agents, fellow authors, and even editors) has been overwhelming and 100% positive; read the comments below the post, especially the most recent one.

Educators of all kinds have come forward to express hope that this book is published; they do this via blog comments, tweets, post-keynote comments. Among their most common requests:

  • books that will appeal to boys (i.e. books they don’t have to force boys to read)
  • middle grade nonfiction picture books
  • previously untold stories
  • World War II stories (boys clamor for them)

Mine is all four.

Plus as we all hear, Common Core Standards are placing increasingly greater emphasis on nonfiction.

I promote my books as often as I brush my teeth. I speak at schools, conferences, and other venues 30-50 times a year, and I sell stacks of books at most venues. Within the past year, I have been invited to places as far-off as Guam and Chile.

A few more compelling selling points:

1 - Excerpt of blog post by attendee of the Shenandoah Children’s Literature Conference:

>> I have met many authors that are new to me. Today’s authors (I’m sure) will become two of my favorites. Marc Tyler Nobleman inspired me with his dedication and passion. His attention to detail and his desire to right the wrongs of the world (at least the world of Superman and Batman) are honorable and inspiring. I didn’t know there were people out there like him. Boys of Steel, a story about the creators of Superman, will grab my boys! He gives me a great entry into interesting nonfiction. The story about World War II Oregon, Thirty Minutes Over Oregon, has to be published. I am amazed that the story exists and we don’t know about it. That’s what I mean, his passion is contagious.

2 - Editor at major house:

>> So, so cool, and SO moving. (In a way, it reminds me of the mega-bestseller Unbroken—but for picture-book readers!)

3 - Comment from a fellow writer I don’t know that I received via a fellow writer I do know:

>> I am blown sideways, gobsmacked, dumbfounded. What an extraordinarily moving story. It simply MUST be told. I can’t believe it hasn’t been picked up -- that is a travesty! And I love how Marc promotes/pitches it on his blog; why, it’s ... it’s ... heroic! His passion for the story is palpable -- contagious even. He is a gifted storyteller. This tale zigs, it zags and then ... WHOOSH, it dives and hits!

4 - Tweet to me from a 5th grade teacher:

>> The more middle grade nonfiction picture books, the better.

5 - Attendee comments after I mentioned the book in my Nevada Reading Week keynote (it was an hourlong talk and this book was only about 5 minutes of it, yet a sizable number of people singled it out):

  • “Very interesting—this is great history no one knows about. I hope it will be published soon.”
  • “I am interested in Thirty Minutes Over Oregon. Hopefully it will be published.”
  • “Want to read Thirty Minutes Over Oregon.”
  • “Especially poignant was the publishing process story of the Japanese [pilot] who bombed Oregon.”
  • “The Japanese bomber story was amazing.”
  • “Hope the Oregon book goes public.”
  • “Loved his story about Thirty Minutes Over Oregon and hope it gets published.”
  • “Interesting Oregon bombing story!”

Sorry for so much info, but I feel it’s all relevant in making an informed decision! As you can see, I have a lot of passion for this project and that will motivate me to work even harder to promote it. After all, look how much I have done even before it is a book...

May I email you the manuscript?

During the summer of 2013, I sent Jennifer copies of Boys of Steel and Bill the Boy Wonder, adorning the envelope with three symbols:

Thank you again to Candy Fleming and Audrey Vernick for pointing me toward Jennifer. And thank you again to Jennifer for taking flight with Nobuo and me.

By the way, Nobuo's first flight over the United States took place 76 years ago today.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

"Superman II" interview: Leueen Willoughby

In Superman II (1980), actress Leueen Willoughby played Leueen (yes, same name), a Daily Planet employee.

A small role, one of her few lines is one of the most fun to quote: "The big one's just as strong as Superman!" It's made even more memorable because it's followed by Lois shoving her which, alas, is not in the only clip I found online:

What were you doing professionally prior to Superman II?

I was working in theatre: repertory at the Bristol Old Vic and Farnham Repertory theatre.

around the time of Superman II

How did you get the role? 

Through the casting director.

Were you a fan of Superman or superheroes?

Not really. I was familiar with Superman but not exactly a fan.

Any funny anecdotes about your Superman experience?

There was a day when the set (the E stage at Pinewood Studios) was getting very hot and the Director of Photography kept saying they needed to turn light off to reduce heat. No one listened to him and the fire sprinklers went off, pouring water everywhere. That got all of us an extended break from shooting. I think we all just went home that day.

Is there one story about your Superman experience that you tell more than any other?

Yes! I tell the story about how Christopher Reeve decided he was going to do a bit of funny business with his Clark Kent hat—taking it off and fumbling it onto a coat rack. During a break in shooting, he worked and worked on getting it just perfect. When it came time to shoot the scene, he had it down perfectly and made it look like a clumsy Clark Kent move.  

What was your impression of Christopher Reeve?

I thought he was a very nice man. He seemed to be polite, pleasant, and, despite being exceptionally handsome, not the least bit egotistical. [The] accident later in his life was tragic. When he said he would walk again, I thought that if anyone could succeed, it would be him. I based that on his discipline and work ethic as an actor. But sadly, it was not to be. 

Margot Kidder?

I think Margot Kidder was having a difficult time in her personal life while we were shooting. 

Gene Hackman?

He had an end date for the time he was available to work on Superman. On his last day, some special effects things got bogged down, as often happened. He was sitting on top of a row of filing cabinets, a relaxed Lex Luthor, reclining, feet up. Every once in a while, he would say in quite a loud voice "5:20 [pm] and it's adios for me." I had to smile at that. However, it did not speed up anything. 

Memories of any other actors on set?

One day we were all waiting while some special effects were being set up. The "bad guys" were sitting opposite me. Terence Stamp said to no one in particular "I haven't worked for four years and now I'm here making an idiot of myself." He said this, I think, because he was having a lot of trouble with the flying. The harness was fitted around the actors' midsection and they had to balance themselves when flying. He was having trouble crashing through the windows of the Daily Planet and landing on his feet. I think that was why he felt he was making an idiot of himself. I wanted to tell him he was not and that one of the stunt guys could probably give him some help, but he was a famous actor and I was a bit part player so I said nothing. I regretted that later. 

Did you attend the premiere, and if so, what was that like?

I did not attend the premiere. 

Did your opinion of the movie change after it opened?

Not really. I [last saw it] maybe ten years ago and it does look a bit dated because computer generated special effects were not available when the film was made. 

Have you been interviewed before about this specifically?

I have been asked a few questions about Superman as part of a longer interview, but not a specific Superman interview.

What was your favorite acting gig?

That is a tough one! I loved playing Mrs. Molloy in The Matchmaker in the West End in London. I also did nine months in The Rocky Horror Show in London and that was a hoot. Later in my career, I played Lady Macbeth, and that was memorable as well. 

What are you doing these days?

I gave up acting over 30 years ago. I then worked in the financial markets as an equities trader. I retired when I was 50. I now ride and compete in dressage with my horse Biasini. I ride with him at the FEI level, an international level. But I am just an amateur rider! I also have a blog, Horse Addict, [which consists of posts] about my own riding, interviews with international riders, reviews of horse books, reviews of horse products, and posts on horse history and photography. Next week I will be going to the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, NC. This is a huge championship with 70 countries taking part and about 1,000 horses. There are eight disciplines: jumping, eventing, dressage, endurance, vaulting, driving, reining, and para-dressage. I have media accreditation for the games and will be there to cover the dressage and to take photos of the dressage competitors for my blog.

Leueen and Biasini competing at the Global Dressage Festival, 
Wellington, FL, March 2018; photo credit Susan Stickle

Where do you live?

I live in Southern Ontario, Canada, just north of Toronto. 

Tell me about your children/family.

My husband used to work for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and is now retired. We met when I was still acting and came to Toronto to take a leading role in a CBC drama about a woman with breast cancer. We have two children who are now adults. Our son is 32 and lives in London. Our daughter is 30 and lives about two hours from us. She is married with a four-year-old son and two stepdaughters. Both of our children have full-time careers involving marketing and social media. 

Have you participated in any Superman-related event (reunion, convention, documentary, etc.)? If not, would you be open to meeting fans and signing autographs at an event like San Diego Comic-Con?

I have not. I once went to a Star Trek convention in Toronto as our kids were Trekkies. I thought it was a lot of fun. 

Are you still in touch with anyone from the cast?

No, I'm not. I have lost touch with most of my acting friends.

When was the last time you saw a member of the cast, and was it on purpose or by chance?

I honestly cannot remember. 

Do you have an opinion on Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut?

[NOTE: Leueen's "big one's just as strong" scene is not in this version of the film.]

The Richard Donner cut? I did not know such a thing existed. Richard Lester directed Superman II and I did not know that Dick Donner [who directed Superman: The Movie] had a cut. However, I do remember that Richard Donner was "Dick" Donner and Richard Lester was always "Richard, never Dick." That's what they used to say.

Do you have any mementos from the experience such as set photos, a script, or anything from the set?

No. I wish I did. 

What did you think when you first heard from me?

I googled you to see who you were. I get a lot of requests for autographs on small collectors' cards for Superman; some are from okay people but others are from people on the fringe. I wanted to make sure you were not "on the fringe."

How do you look back on your Superman experience?

It was a very interesting experience. It was a chance to be on the set of a big film and see the workings of it. I learned a lot about the process of filmmaking that stood me in good stead for later film and TV work.

If the experience changed your life in any way, how?

It was an interesting education about film and film actors but not exactly "life-changing."

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Wikipedia entry for "Bill Finger"…in 2006

In 2006, I began researching for what would become Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. I kept a running Word document of notes which eventually exceeded 700 pages. Periodically, I would copy the changing Wikipedia entry for "Bill Finger" and paste into those notes. Today it is a far cry from then.

Is Throwback Thursday still a thing? In any case, here is the (uncorrected/unedited) version of Bill's entry from 8/22/06 (which I saved because it included a new detail about how Bill was credited for Green Lantern):

Bill Finger (February 8, 1914 - January 18, 1974) was an American writer who is best remembered (though not officially credited) as the co-creator of the character Batman with Bob Kane as well as the co-architect of the series' development.


Finger joined Kane's makeshift studio in 1938. A year later, the success of Superman in Action Comics prompted editors at the comic book division of National Publications (later DC Comics) to request more superheroes for their titles. While Bob Kane is credited as the creator of Batman, controversy was stirred by the book "Men of Tomorrow", which claimed that Kane had created a "Birdman" while Finger suggested the name "Bat-Man".

Finger himself admitted on more than one occasion that Kane did indeed create a version of the character before Finger got involved with the project. Kane was inspired by the flying machine of Leonardo Da Vinci, a movie he had seen called "The Bat" and of course, Bela Lugosi's 1931 film Dracula which featured a "man-bat" in its opening credits. However, Finger did suggest a different costume direction for "The Bat-Man."

In an interview for Jim Steranko's "History of the Comics: Vol. One" Finger described in detail, the extent of his suggestions about the costume. He felt the original character (The Bat-Man) looked too much like Superman with a mask and bat-wings. He recommended replacing the Da Vinci-inspired wings for a cape, giving him gloves, and changing the character's bodysuit from red to grey. Perhaps most importantly, Finger found a book with a picture of a bat in it and encouraged Kane to replace the character's domino mask with a more bat-like hooded cowl, complete with "ears" which would make the character distinguishable even in silhouette. It's generally agreed that Finger encouraged Kane to leave out the character's eyes when he wore the mask. Although Kane would accept many of these suggestions, one cannot escape the direct influence of Lee Falk's character The Phantom, as Kane admitted that he studied newspaper strips on a routine basis.

Finger wrote the first Batman script, while Kane provided art. Because Kane had already submitted the proposal for a Batman character to his editors at DC Comics, Kane was the only person given official credit at the time for the creation of Batman. This was not unusual in the comic books of that time, where the artist would often sign his name to the first page of the story and the script would be uncredited, but it was in contrast to other features on which Finger worked where he was identified as scripter, such as Wildcat and Green Lantern, and in contrast to the credits on features by the same publisher such as Superman, where writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster both received credit during the time they were affiliated with the publisher, even on stories ghosted for them by other writers and artists.

According to Wizard Magazine, Bob Kane had Finger enter a work for hire contract. It is this contract that provided National and DC their strongest defense against later claims by Finger.

Batman was a success, and soon after, National suggested that character receive a youthful sidekick who the readers could use as an audience surrogate. Kane initially suggested an impish character like Puck, while Finger suggested a more down-to-earth character. The name Robin was suggested by Jerry Robinson who had arrived at the studio while Kane and Finger were kicking names around. Finger went on to write many of the early Batman stories, including making major contributions to the character of The Joker, as well as other major Batman villains.

Finger was a very meticulous writer and as such, a slow one, leading one editor to "suggest" that Kane replace him with someone else. During Finger's absence, Gardner Fox contributed scripts that introduced Batman's early "Bat-" arsenal (the utility belt, the Bat-Gyro/plane and the Batarang). Upon his return, Finger created or co-created items such as the Batmobile and Batcave, and is credited with providing a name for Gotham City. Among the things that made his stories particularly distinctive was a use of giant-sized props -- enlarged pennies, sewing machines, or typewriters.

Kane and Finger brought together such diverse influences as pulp magazines, comic strips, film noir and the slapstick comedy of teams like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, creating a "Cartoon-Noir" that was widely imitated. Eventually, Finger left Kane's studio to work directly for DC Comics where he still supplied scripts for Batman as well as many other characters.

The Green Lantern

In 1940, Finger collaborated with artist Martin Nodell on a new superhero feature in All-American Comics #16 called The Green Lantern. Both writer and artist received a by-line on the strip, with Nodell in the earliest issues using the pseudonym "Matt Dellon". Nodell's name appeared first, before Finger's, on the stories that he drew, although when ghost artists such as Irwin Hasen were used, Bill Finger's name appeared first so that the credits instead read "by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell". While the Green Lantern was retired for a time, eventually returning as a completely different character with the same name, and was never as popular as Batman, the character remains an integral part of the history of DC Comics and has reappeared alongside the more contemporary version of the character recognised as his predecesstor. Today, Finger receives no credit for having co-created Green Lantern, the official position being that Nodell created the character and Finger simply supplied the early scripts.

Film work

As a screenwriter, he wrote or co-wrote the films Death Comes to Planet Aytin, The Green Slime, and Track of the Moon Beast. He also wrote a Clock King episode of the live-action Batman TV series.


Business-savvy Bob Kane negotiated a contract with National, signing away any ownership that he might have in the character in exchange for, among other compensations, a mandatory byline on all Batman comics. Although Finger did receive credit for other work done for the same publisher in the 1940s (as examples, the first Wildcat story has the by-line "by Irwin Hasen and Bill Finger" - Sensation Comics no. 1, July 1942 - and the first Green Lantern story said that it was "by Mart Dellon and Bill Finger" - All-American Comics no. 16, July, 1942) Finger began to receive limited acknowledgement for his work on Batman in the pages of the comic book only in the 1960s, as a script-writer (for example, "Letters to the Batcave", Batman no. 169, Feb. 1965, where editor Julius Schwartz names him as the creator of The Riddler, one of Batman's recurring villains). Finger's working arrangement, by comparison to Kane's, left him only with the fees he earned for the scripts that he continued to write, and no credit on the Batman stories that he wrote without Kane. Finger, like Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, and many other creators during and after the Golden Age of Comic Books, would resent National for "cheating" him of the money and dignity that he felt that he was owed for his contributions.

Like his contemporaries including Siegel, Otto Binder, and Gardner Fox, Finger wrote a number of uncredited stories for DC. His 1950s work on Batman with artist Dick Sprang was known for putting the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder through elaborate death traps. These would lead some to suggest that without Kane, the series grew increasingly silly as it moved away from its "gothic" roots; others would contend it was actually the editors who changed the tone to soften Batman's image, due to the increasing criticism of comics during the early 1950s. Finger later wrote for television and radio but writing comics was his main profession. By the time he died in 1974, he had almost never been officially credited for his work. He died poor and without any official heirs to continue his fight for credit.

Posthumously, Finger has been named to the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame and Jack Kirby Hall of Fame. He is also the namesake of the Bill Finger Award, founded by Jerry Robinson, an early collaborator with Kane and Finger, who shares credit with them for creating Robin according to many sources. The award honors lifetime achievements by comic book writers. In 2005, the award honored Arnold Drake (creator of the Doom Patrol and fellow uncredited Batman writer), as well as Jerry Siegel who was given a posthumous award.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

"Superman II" interview: Robin Pappas

In Superman II (1980), actress Robin Pappas played Alice, a Daily Planet employee.

She had only one line.

But even a small role in an iconic film is big enough to yield fascinating behind-the-scenes nuggets, especially with someone who has a big personality. Ergo, an interview with Robin:

What were you doing professionally prior to Superman II

Before, during, and after Superman II, I was a young jobbing actor, working in repertory theaters around Great Britain, generally enjoying the hi-diddly-dee lifestyle. The only bit of film work I'd done previously was in my first term at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] in early '72—we students were used as extras in O Lucky Man! We got paid something like three guineas for the day and it was simultaneously thrilling and boring, mostly kinda wonderful to be part of the "magic of movie-making." [I also had] a small role in The Shining, but that's another story. Just to be in a movie, in any capacity, was a major kick.

Okay, you can't just casually toss out "I was in The Shining" as an aside without consequence. Tell me about it!

I played a nurse in an end scene, which was there for the LA and NY previews, then Stanley Kubrick deleted it, supposedly on advice from Warner's. I understand he destroyed the footage. That seems a bit extreme—I've always felt it would've been a better film with me in it. Ha ha, no really, I preferred the original ending. Jack Nicholson was not around [when I shot], but I got the impression he's a lot of fun on set; no Scatman Crothers, either—my scene was in hospital after the labyrinth scene. Shelley Duvall was super friendly, a very pleasant and down-to-earth person, Barry Nelson polite and easygoing, and young Danny just a normal kid who happened to be a really good actor. There were many takes, and Kubrick struck me as quiet, thoughtful, almost monk-like in his precision.

Back to Superman II…how did you get the role?

As I remember, first an interview with Mary Selway, the casting director, then a brief meeting with Richard Lester, the director, which looking back seems a lot of bother for them for a bit part player.

Were you a fan of Superman or superheroes?

As a child, comics-wise, I loved them all, but particularly the females. In film terms, I'd gone to the first Superman with my sister's five young sons and was tickled to see a couple of acting pals in small parts. The theater was packed and we had to sit in the front row. It was great, so immediate; at certain moments we were cheering and jumping out of our seats with mindless feel-good patriotic fervor, John Williams's music whipping us into a rah-rah frenzy. 

Any funny anecdotes about your Superman experience? 

I don't know that it's that funny, but we'd been burgled the night before. A bunch of us RADA actors were living down the street from the academy in a huge Victorian. The gypsies would occasionally come knocking and want money to tell your fortune. If you refused, you were liable to get a curse, so I always gave them something, and usually got an intriguing verbal bit in return—fascinating how clever at reading people fortune-tellers are. What I didn't realize was this routine was often also a gambit to size up a potential hit, which is what I think happened that night. We were all home and they managed to work around us, very deft they were. Cleaned me out and left a nail file and pair of scissors, which I'm told is a kind of symbolic intimidation tactic. Upshot I didn't sleep much that night, which left me dozing off the next day, sitting upright in a chair between takes.

Is there one story about your Superman experience that you tell more than any other?

Oh yeah. My one and only line was "Catch ya later, Clark." [On] the first take I guess I was thinking "Clark Kent" and the line came out "Catch ya later, Clunt." Very embarrassing.

What was your impression of Christopher Reeve? 

He seemed thoroughly engrossed, seriously committed to getting his character right, from throwing that hat onto the peg to working out his motivation, to such a degree that while he was talking to Dick Lester, I jumped in with some idiot remark like "I think he just feels left out and wants to be liked," which was not appreciated. He shut me down with a quick "Do you mind? I'm having a private conversation with the director." Also, he had a little battery whirly fan he took out of his pocket between takes to cool down. I backed off, sat down, and went back to sleep.

Margot Kidder? 

She did poke her head around her dressing room door at one point, as we little people were walking down the hall to our dressing rooms, and, after clocking us, ducked back in. 

Gene Hackman? 

As far as I know, he wasn't there that day.

Memories of any other actors on set?

Leueen Willoughby I knew from our time together with Cambridge Theatre Company. I shared a car to studio with the actor playing Jimmy Olsen, Marc McClure. He was very sweet. I was sorry there wasn't more of him in the final film. Sarah Douglas was a doll and invited us into her dressing room, offered us her phone if we wanted to call America, etc.; very generous. 

My absolute favorite memory of the day was meeting Jackie Cooper, a legend from the golden days—how they threatened to kill his dog to get him to cry for [the 1931 film] The Champ, as a teenager being seduced by Joan Crawford, Our Gang for chrissake! This man was so real in the midst of such artifice, so genuine and interested and polite, gritty as a truck driver—complaining about coming over on the Concorde and how the food was shitty ("We can put a man on the moon and we still can't get a decent meal on an airplane"). Very friendly, gave us a ride over to the commissary in his car. I'm not sure if I watch his performance admiringly because he was so nice to me or [because he was] such a delightful actor—probably both. 

Did you attend the premiere, and if so, what was that like? 

Lord no, wasn't invited!

Did your opinion of the movie change after it opened? 

Strangely, I was less excited about Superman II— didn't think it worked as well as the first, for whatever reason, and there wasn't enough of me in it.

Have you been interviewed before about this specifically? 

No I have not. Thank you for asking.

What was your favorite acting gig? 

Mother Courage [in the play Mother Courage and Her Children] because it's impossibly hard and Madame Ernestine Von Liebedich (Little Mary Sunshine) because it was such fun. The best gigs are in my mind.

What are you doing these days?

Feels like I'm working harder, but maybe that's just the nature of getting older…too much responsibility! By nature I'm a bum.

Where do you live?

In the picturesque Pocono Mountains, PA. Wish the winters were milder, otherwise it's lovely.

Tell me about your children/family.

Hey, everybody's healthy. I'm the luckiest woman in the world.

Have you participated in any Superman-related event (reunion, convention, documentary, etc.)? If not, would you be open to meeting fans and signing autographs at an event like San Diego Comic-Con?

Would love to. If only I could charge $50 a photo like Carrie Fisher.

Are you still in touch with anyone from the cast?

No, and it's depressing how many people have died already.

When was the last time you saw a member of the cast, and was it on purpose or by chance?

I don't believe I've seen anyone from the Superman II shoot since that day.

When was the last time you watched Superman II? How did you think it held up? 

It's a fun movie. I think it works on its own terms, but I do sense a certain disjointedness—even the Thin Man films suffer from sequel syndrome. 

Do you have an opinion on Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut?

I've never seen it, so can't say. Of course I have loyalty to Dick Lester—this man directed A Hard Day's Night! But again, when I met Lester to get approval for the gig, he was (like Jackie Cooper) so unpretentious and self-deprecating. I told him I admired his work and he came back with "There are so many people involved in making a film it's ridiculous to give any one person the credit." I couldn't help but be impressed by his humility and intelligence.

Do you have any mementos from the experience such as set photos, a script, or anything from the set?

That's painful. I had the scripts from The ShiningSuperman II, Chariots of Fire (didn't have one for Reds)…but, along with play scripts, the pile became huge and heavy and I think I threw them out even before I left England—dumb move.

What did you think when you first heard from me? 

"Oh god, not more homework."

How do you look back on your Superman experience? 

I've embarrassed myself so many times I'd like to think I learned something…what can you do? Try to get smarter. Working on a film is always sort of thrilling because it's pretty glamorous as work goes, and ultimately it's about creating magic, but it is tedious and fragmented and you can feel like you're in a really nice prison, which is why it's wonderful when you happily connect with the people you're confined with. That's entertainment!

If the experience changed your life in any way, how? 

Well, yeah, for most actors, one is unemployed more often than not, so if you're lucky, it's kind of like having an affair for the duration of the job…then it's over. But you always remember that special relationship, day, tension, scene, moment—and the beauty of film is it's in the can forever. That is, if you don't get completely cut out of the movie, sob sob. Thus, like Cinderella, it changes your life, and then you change back.

Anything you'd like to add?

If you get offered a film role, do it.

See also: my interviews with cast members of Superman: The Movie.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

"Thirty Minutes Over Oregon" on Alternative Anticipated Children's Books of Fall 2018 List

This blog could have its own section/label called "Thank you Betsy Bird," this post being the latest entry.

Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot's World War II Story (out 10/9/18) has made her Alternative Anticipated Children's Books of Fall 2018 List (and even if it hadn't, I heartily applaud Betsy's reason for making such a list).

Betsy: "Such a cool story and practically no one knows about it! ... It's this remarkable story about forgiving yourself, forgiving others, and reaching a hand out to someone you're supposed to think of as an enemy. We sort of need this book right now."

So, as spoiled in the first line above, thank you, Betsy Bird.

Friday, August 17, 2018

"FairyTale: A True Story" interview: Florence Hoath (Elsie)

Both my 2018 book Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real and the 1997 film FairyTale: A True Story are based on the Cottingley fairies incident of 1917 England.

Florence Hoath, the actress who played Elsie in the film, kindly agreed to an interview. As of this writing, Lizzie Earl, who played Frances, Elsie's younger cousin and partner-in-gnome, declined my request, but if she changes her mind, I will add in her answers here.

Florence and Lizzie

How old were you when you appeared in FairyTale?

Gosh, it was quite a long time ago now but I must have been about twelve years old. I had appeared in a few films and TV shows before FairyTale but none quite as high profile. 

Where were you living at the time? 

I lived at home with my family in Chiswick, which is in West London. (I do not have a Yorkshire accent so I had to have some voice coaching for the film.)

How were you cast?

I remember the casting process being quite long. I had to go through several rounds of auditions before getting the part. I'm afraid that I don't remember the early stages but I do remember one particular casting further down the line. I think it must have been the final audition as there were about twelve young girls and we all spent the day together chatting, asking questions, and playing around. The director and the casting agents were there, too, and were watching how we behaved, presumably to see what type of characters we all were. In spite of having quite a bit of previous acting experience, I was actually quite a shy child and I tended not to stand out when put in a group, so I remember thinking that I probably wouldn't get through to the next stage. Looking back on it now, I can see that the character I played was quite a shy girl, too, and that may have been one of the reasons that they picked me. 

Do you remember what your reaction was when you were cast?

Thrilled! It really is the best feeling in the world when you get an acting job—some things never change. It is such a difficult industry to succeed in and there is so much competition. I don't think I realized at the time just how lucky I was, but I was certainly very happy and excited about the whole thing. 

Do you remember if you'd heard of the Cottingley fairies before being cast?

It is not a story that I had heard before, but my parents had and the director took the time to explain it to us before filming. We saw the original photographs and were told how much of a big deal it was at the time—how two young girls literally fooled the world into believing in fairies. Throughout filming I got more of a sense of what that must have been like for two young girls—to be thrust into the limelight like that must have been very overwhelming.

How long was the shoot?

I believe that I was filming for around 16 weeks. However, most of the filming took place after Lizzie and I had finished because of all the special effects. I think they were filming with the fairies for another few months after we had wrapped. 

How did you feel being a part of the movie?

It was all just so exciting. It really is the best job in the world. When you are working, you get to dress up and pretend to be someone else for a while. I got to take time off school, which I thought was brilliant, and I got to hang around with fun adults all day. 

What was the hardest part of the shoot?

I don't think any of it was particularly hard. I had to learn a lot of lines which was sometimes a bit tricky and I had to wear a wig which itched a bit…but really, it was just a brilliant experience. 

Any funny stories from the shoot?

I'm so sorry, I don't really remember.

I do have a little fact that might be of interest—when we were first cast, the film was called One Golden Afternoon. I remember having a chat with the director, Charles Sturridge. He asked Lizzie and me what we thought it should be called. We gave a few ideas but surprisingly FairyTale wasn't one of ours…

Also, during filming, they were casting for Spice World—I was a huge Spice Girls fan and didn't get to go to the casting. I remember being very upset about that. Looking back, I definitely got the better film, but there was certainly lots of tears at not being able to meet my idols. 

Anything go wrong on the shoot?

Again, it was such a while ago now that I can't really recall. I do remember that the fairies' house was very, very fragile and took weeks to make. Lizzie and I had to carry it around at one point and I'm sure the props department were watching us like hawks. 

What did you think of the movie?

I don't really like watching myself but I thought the movie was great! There were some really brilliant actors and actresses in it and the story really was very interesting. 

What did your parents think of it?

They loved it. They were probably a little biased but they really did think it was great. I think it is a film that appeals to both adults and children. They knew the story already and I think they were interested to see a film about it also. 

What did your friends think of it?

My friends thought it was cool. I got teased a little about making a film about fairies, but it was all in good humor and I never took it seriously. It was not intended to be unkind. 

Did you attend the premiere, and if so, what do you remember about it?

I did. I remember there being a few screenings of the film along with a premiere. We went to Bradford in Yorkshire and met the mayor, travelling around in an open-top bus and standing for photos at the town hall. We also went to LA and New York for premieres and press junkets/interviews. It was all so exciting and we were made to feel like superstars.

Were you ever in touch with the families of Frances or Elsie?

I think that they were involved in the telling of the story and we may have met one of them at the beginning. I seem to remember being shown some photographs.

Frances's daughter Christine Lynch with 
Florence (left) and Lizzie (far right)

premiere notes by Christine Lynch

Did the movie ever affect your dating life in any way (i.e. when you first told boy/girlfriends you were in it)?

Whenever someone asks what I do and we end up talking about acting, FairyTale tends to get the biggest response. I get lots of "Oh my God, I loved that film!" It does tend to be girls more than boys and usually people of my age or above, but it does seem to be a really well-loved film. I don't think it has ever affected my dating life apart from it being something interesting to talk about when you are first getting to know someone. 

Did you receive fan mail? If so, do you still have any of it?

I do still receive fan mail but not that much from fans of FairyTale. I did a couple of episodes of Doctor Who and the fans of that show are brilliant! It is always lovely to get letters from people who like your work and I do keep it all. 

Were you ever recognized in public? How often and when last? Any stories about that?

I do get recognized in public occasionally but not as much as I used to. Funnily enough, the thing that I used to get recognized for the most for was a commercial campaign that I did when I was about 16. People sometimes used to shout at me in the street, which was a little embarrassing. To be honest, nowadays I get more "Do I know you from somewhere?" or "You've got a really familiar face." I wore a wig in FairyTale and had a different accent, so perhaps that was why I didn't get recognized as much. 

Funny story; I got recognized by two Chinese ladies when I was at Disney World in Florida. They came up to me and I wasn't quite sure what they were saying. It sounded like "maple." It turns out they recognized me from an episode of Miss Marple called "The Body in the Library"—I was the body, so for the most part I was playing a dead person. I was very impressed that they recognized me from that!

Did you appear in other movies after that?

I did, yes. I appeared in several other films, commercials, period dramas, TV shows, and a soap. 

Did you keep in touch with Lizzie Earl (Frances), and if so, when were you last in touch?

Unfortunately, we did not keep in touch. Please do give her my regards if you speak to her! It would be lovely to chat to her sometime and compare stories. 

If you went to college, where and what did you study?

I didn't go to college. I was lucky enough to be offered enough work to keep me busy. 

What are you doing these days?

I am currently writing a book! Like many actors and actresses I have had numerous other jobs including bar work and office work. I sold property in London for a high-end company for a few years, but decided that I'd rather be doing something creative so have written my first-ever book. It's a novel for young adults and is about a girl who has a very unusual ability…

Florence in her garden with Fairy Spell...
and fairies?

Where do you live?

I live in South West London, near Richmond.

If you are/were married, what was your future spouse's reaction when s/he learned you were in this movie?

I am married to an actor. He has never seen the film but does remember it coming out. I think his family were more excited than he was!


I do not have any kids…yet. 

When was the last time you saw the movie? How do you grade your performance?

I haven't seen it in quite a long time, certainly not from start to finish anyway. It pops on the TV from time to time and I'll get a few messages from friends and family letting me know that I'm on the telly. I'm happy with the way that it turned out but I can't help but be a little critical of myself. I do wonder, if I could go back and do things differently, would I? I don't know, I think at the time I did the best that I could do, but I was a kid. I turned up, learnt my lines, and tried to feel what Elsie would be feeling in that moment. As a child I think everything is much simpler. I didn't overanalyze anything or try my performance ten different ways to see what worked best. I just tried to be as natural as possible and hoped that the director liked it. 

Do you believe in anything that hasn't yet been proven by science (including fairies)?

I'd like to believe and I try to keep an open mind. If someone tells me that they have seen a ghost, or felt a presence that they are not able to explain, then who am I to say that it's not true? I believe that there are a lot of things that cannot be explained and I'd like to think that maybe there is something more out there. With regards to fairies…I think it's important for kids to believe in magic. As a child I created whole worlds in my back garden and my imagination allowed me to believe in all sorts of wonderful things—I wouldn't have had it any other way. 

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Maybe he could give me some tips on how to get published! No, honestly, I am pleased that there are people out there still interested in the story. That people still want to know about Elsie and Frances and what they did, and that it may now be told to another generation. I sometimes think about my time making FairyTale and what a wonderful experience it was, but I don't really get a chance to talk about it often. It is nice to relive some of the memories. 

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

When the film came out, we did quite a few interviews, both TV and editorial. I remember us having a big spread in Tatler magazine. We got to do a photo shoot, too. I felt very grown up. I remember seeing one of the photos when it came out and they'd printed one of me in black and white wearing John Lennon-type sunglasses—it was by far the coolest I'd ever been in my opinion. It probably still is…

How do you look back on the experience?

With a smile. I'm grateful that I got picked to play the part and got the opportunity to be involved in the film. It is an experience that I will never forget and a story that I can tell for the rest of my life.

how I inscribed Fairy Spell for Florence; 
illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
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