Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Interview with William Todd, Author of A Christmas Coda (2016)

It’s not often that a Christmas book crosses our desk as smart, as moving and as ornate as A Christmas Coda, by William Todd.  We were lucky enough to read and review his new book last week, and even luckier when Mr. Todd graciously consented to an interview.

A Christmas Coda is a sequel to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and is a worthy addition to the Scrooge mythos.  It has excited a great deal of interest among Dickens scholars and Carol enthusiasts alike, and is well on its way to becoming a holiday classic in its own right.

Here Todd responds to our questions….

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your career?

I was born in 1960 in Detroit, Michigan, and spent the first couple decades of my life doing non-writing stuff.  So let's start at age 23, when I moved to Los Angeles to begin my first job (of any type, ever) as an aerospace engineer.

Like a lot of new hires, my first couple weeks on the job were basically "free roam," where not much is really expected of you except learning how to use the copy machine.  That's how I found myself one day sitting in my office with a bunch of other new hires, shooting the breeze, until someone raised one of those "Book of 1000 Questions" type of questions, which was:

"If wages were no object, and you could do ANYTHING you wanted to do with the rest of your work life, what would it be?"

To my surprise, I started hearing such answers as "I'd play the saxophone" or "I'd race boats" (which I didn't even know was a career option!).  But an even bigger surprise was that not one of the new hires in my office, aerospace engineering majors all, said, "I'd build the best spaceship ever" or even "I'd become the head of NASA...”

...including me - which was by far the BIGGEST surprise of all.

You see, I'd grown up loving the world of entertainment - books, plays, and especially movies and TV.  But I'd also grown up in Michigan, about as far away from the centers for these activities as you could get, geographically and psychologically.  Entertainment as a career path was never even remotely on my realistic radar.  I was good at school.  I was good at math and science.  An engineering career was a guaranteed job back then.  Why aerospace?

I loved Star Trek.  That should have been a clue.

Instead, I did what I was expected to do.  I got my degree (or two), got my guaranteed job, moved out to the Promised Land...

...and for the first time, stared down the barrel of 50 years doing this.  And, as embarrassed as I am to admit it, waiting my turn to answer the "Book of 1000 Questions" question, not having ever REALLY considered what I'd REALLY like to do with those 50 coming years.

And as it turned out, somewhat to my surprise (and somewhat not), the answer wasn't "to become the best damn engineer I could."

So what DID I want?

And that's how, within a month of graduating from college with two aerospace engineering degrees, and within a week of moving my life out to Los Angeles...

...I started writing scripts.  After work.  Every night.

And didn't stop until I finally sold one, four years later.

Yep, my self-administered "university education" on How To Become A Writer was four straight years of just doing it.

Which, of course, turned out to be only the beginning...

What was it about A Christmas Carol that told you that it needed a sequel?

A Christmas Carol has always been my favorite Christmas story.  Especially Act Three, where the reborn Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning.  I love this part so much that I often watch just this sequence from several of its many movie adaptations, all in a row, for the simple shared joy of it.

But there have always been lingering questions.  And for years, like the spirits that haunted Scrooge, these would occasionally visit me:

- How did Scrooge help Tiny Tim to walk again?
- Could there be any chance for Scrooge to redeem lost love?
- How could Scrooge ever repay a debt of the magnitude he owed Jacob Marley?

Inevitably, these led to speculative musings (most often in the shower, a writer's greatest think tank!) and the eventual forming of answers, image by image and scene by scene.

It took years.  Literally.  But there finally came a time when the enterprise as a whole elbowed its way to the fore and said, "It's time."

And so I began what would be, for me, the most difficult thing I ever wrote in my entire life.

Are there any real-world events that make a sequel to A Christmas Carol particularly pressing at this time?

Yes.  And no.

And forgive me, because my intention is not to waffle, but to hope that A Christmas Coda, like A Christmas Carol before it, is more universal in nature, rather than tied to any specific place, time, or event.  Certainly, there are things in the real world today that beg a re-acquaintance with "goodwill toward men," just as there were very real issues in Victorian times that coincided with the motions of Dickens pen.  But these are universal, ongoing, human issues, not fixed in time, as the longevity of Dickens tale instructs.

The economic realities of Scrooge’s world are pretty bleak; have we come far enough?  Have we lived up to the ideals of The Carol?

We can never - and will never - "come far enough"...

...but that doesn't mean we should stop trying.  I'll broaden the point philosophically to say, there will always be evil in the world, just as our goal should always be to completely eliminate it - even though we know that to be impossible.

We'll never completely "live up to the ideals of The Carol" because that would involve an end point, a state of flawlessness in an inherently flawed universe.  But this is not a matter of despair, because fighting the good fight is what our lives are all about:  It gives us meaning.

[And before anybody beats me to it, yes, I'm the guy who wrote the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie!]

So much of A Christmas Carol and A Christmas Coda are about redemption, and then making good on that redemption.  Why does redemption resonate with you?

I think it relates to the above:  Trying your best to be as good as you can be, inevitably failing to achieve any ideal standard, but finding that it's never too late to do better.

I’m delighted that Jacob Marley is such a large presence in A Christmas Coda, even though he doesn’t appear onstage.  What is the heart of the Marley Paradox, for you?

I'm not sure what the "Marley Paradox" even is!  But I'll give it a shot:

The thing that always bugged me the most about A Christmas Carol was the idea that Jacob Marley, the guy who moved (presumably) heaven itself to save a friend, was himself never saved, but instead, forever condemned to chains, and in his own wailing words, "doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what [I] cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!"

That's not fair!  That's not right!  Scrooge got a second chance...

...why not Marley???

And thus the seed of a sequel was sown...

What is it about A Christmas Carol that has made it such a classic?  Is it the story?  The character of Scrooge?  Or something else?

If only the S.A.T. had been this easy--

e.)  All of the above!

And, yes, more.

But mostly, I believe, is its message of Redemption:

It's never too late - for anyone - to change for the better.

Take THAT, Relentless Focus On The Negative In Modern Culture!

I can imagine that someone who wrote A Christmas Coda is a fan of the holiday.  What are your thoughts and feelings on Christmas?

I've always loved Christmas.  It's been my favorite holiday ever since childhood, when I actually experienced the magic of a Midwestern winter morning transformed by the kindness of parents into a warmly glowing treasure hunt initiated by siblings in knit pajamas well before the rise of the sun, tearing open package after package of colorfully wrapped gifts, piled 'neath a twinkling tree... made of aluminum.

I thought it the most beautiful thing in the world.  I used to lie under it at night reading Archie Christmas comic books, staring up at the ornaments, slowly changing hue from the rotating color wheel with its ratcheting metal plate and blindingly hot floodlight bulb that could only exist in a fairy-tale era before OSHA.

The gifts are the very least of it for me now.

I love it for the music, and the food, and, yes, the fact that people at least try to experience it as "a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time".

In other words, I love it for a lot of the same reasons Charles Dickens did.

How do you envision Scrooge?  Is there an actor or interpretation you had in mind while writing your novel?

I sometimes envision a specific person (such as an actor, but not always) as a physical model when writing a script, and it was (perhaps too) easy to let Alastair Sim slip into the role of Scrooge, given that the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol has become all but canon amongst movie adaptations.

Certainly, in the opening sequence of A Christmas Coda, Mr. Sim was much in mind, right down to the whooping of his post-salvation laugh, since his interaction with Mrs. Dilber was purposely reminiscent of the scene in the 1951 movie (which does not exist in Dickens' novella) where she threatens to "scream for the beadle".

Soon thereafter, however, I abandoned all physical reference to Scrooge, even the original John Leech illustrations, in favor of the original character Dickens described, and thus available to be cast to the particular taste of any reader, in their own mind's eye.

Do you have a favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol?

Actually, no.  Not even what seems to be the consensus pick for "Best Adaptation," which, as mentioned above, is the 1951 Renown Pictures version starring Alastair Sim.

As alluded to farther above, I tend to judge A Christmas Carol adaptations by their third acts, and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

A particular strength of the 1951 version is the scene in which Scrooge goes to his nephew Fred's house on Christmas Day to finally accept his annual dinner invitation.

[An aside:  In an example of just how much people love that 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol, and for anyone who might particularly appreciate a story of heroic research, there is the tale of "Fred's Maid".  She appears in a scant 42-second scene in which she answers the door to Scrooge, and silently encourages him to enter the party.  This actress didn't have a single word of dialogue, and is nowhere credited in the film, but she became such a beloved character to many over the years that she eventually sparked an internet hunt for her identity.  Only recently has the mystery been solved!  If anyone cares to, you may read about it here:  http://dickensblog.typepad.com/dickensblog/2013/05/meet-the-maid-an-interview-with-theresa-derrington-cozens-hardy.html]

There, he encounters Fred and his wife, a woman he had heretofore refused to acknowledge (previously thinking it a bad match - financially) and, in one of the most emotional scenes in the entire movie, asks forgiveness.  And all to the strains of "Barbara Allen" - quite the concentration of weepy emotion in and of itself!

Similarly, the 1984 movie adaptation starring George C. Scott finds its deepest emotional resonance in that very same scene, Scrooge literally capping it with, "God forgive me the time I've wasted."

I love these scenes.  Perhaps best of all.  And the most fascinating thing about them is this:

These moments DO NOT EXIST in Dickens' original "A Christmas Carol".

Instead, he wraps up the entire Fred visit in barely half a page:

In the afternoon he turned his steps towards his nephew’s house.  He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:
“Is your master at home, my dear?” said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl! Very.
“Yes, sir.”
“Where is he, my love?” said Scrooge.
“He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.”
“Thank’ee. He knows me,” said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. “I’ll go in here, my dear.”
He turned it gently, and sidled his face in, round the door. They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.
“Fred!” said Scrooge.
Dear heart alive, how his niece by marriage started! Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool, or he wouldn’t have done it, on any account.
“Why bless my soul!” cried Fred, “who’s that?”
“It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let
me in, Fred?”
Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!

And now, a Sacrilege:

I actually like the movie versions of the Fred scene better than Dickens' original.  To me, they resonate with far more emotion.

But before you gather pitchfork and torch and set GPS coordinates for my home address, pause a moment, as I once did, to consider that perhaps some good can come out of this realization...

...because for me, it was a sign that I, too, might dare extrapolate the work of The Inimitable.

Or that you, perhaps, could actually enjoy it.

My fond hope, of course, is that you will.

For my dearest hope is that A Christmas Coda, like The Carol before it, will become a small part of YOUR love of the Christmas season - blessed to Dickensian fullness--

With Tidings of Comfort and Joy,

William Todd

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