I AM THE ILL INTENT

An incredible scene in the final episode of the Netflix series Daredevil has stuck with me since I watched it a few weeks back. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here, but if you’re terrified of spoilers, I guess you could stop reading. So. Anyway. The chief villain, Wilson Fisk, is being transported inside a police van, handcuffed and under the watch of two heavily armed guards. A little way into the journey he starts to tell a story. A long story, which the viewer quickly recognizes as the tale of the Good Samaritan. He speaks of a man traveling on a road, and how this man “is set upon by men of ill intent.” Then he goes on to talk about the different people who passed him by as he lies there, nearly dead, until the good Samaritan finally stops and helps.

When the story is finished, Fisk says that he’d always thought of himself as the Samaritan. Yet he has come to realize he’s not the good man, and that he’s not any of the others who pass the traveler on the side of the road, either. (The writing here is great, drawn-out, allowing the suspense to build, and the actor Vincent D’Onofrio really works his breaths and pauses.) Then he delivers the killer line: “I am the ill intent.”

He’s not one of the men of ill intent. No, he’s the very spirit of evil. I love that idea for a character, and yet it only really works because the writers spent so much time developing Fisk as a person through all the episodes. He’s not a spirit. He’s flesh and blood and bones, and he sort of has a heart. Yet through the course of the story he finally comes to accept that he is the embodiment of evil, of ill intent. With that one line he moves beyond the confines of a single character and transforms into a kind of force hovering around the entire world of the story.

The Fisk character also reminds me of a line in one of Hemingway’s letters. In the note, he’s offering advice to Fitzgerald about a book in progress:

“Now watch one thing…don’t let yourself slop and get any perfect characters in…Keep them people, people, people and don’t let them be symbols.”

The writers establish Fisk as a human, then let him bloom into a symbol. But he’s not perfectly evil. He’s in love. And the hero, Daredevil, isn’t perfectly good or noble. He has a vindictive, brutal side. Neither main character is close to perfect.

The good guys have a little bad in them and the bad guys have a little good in them. To me, that’s great writing.

And now for something completely different. Recently I wrote a story about machine translation – how technologies like Google Translate and Skype Translator transform spoken or written words from one language into another. It’s here. Then I read this today, from the great Russian translator Larissa Volokhonsky, in the Paris Review, as she recalled an early experience working on this technology:

“…it was then that I understood that machine translation is not possible. I can formalize all these syntactic connections and relationships until I’m blue and gray and dead in my grave, and still I will never convey the taste, the flavor, the rhythm, the smell, the music that I hear.”

She said this, too, which has nothing to do with translation, but made me laugh out loud:

“We were allowed to hunt, you see. They were very wild places. But I didn’t hunt. I could have told you I did, but I didn’t.”

I could have told you I did, but I didn’t. Maybe that’s the difference between a translator and a storyteller.

Gold Medals, Top Secret Projects, and Detective Fiction

This September, Viking Children’s Books will be publishing an adapted version of The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s adult nonfiction bestseller. The adult book is fantastic. Really. Read it. But I’m especially excited about this new one because I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Brown, adapting and editing the text for young readers. It’s the true story of an underdog crew from the University of Washington, a group of boys who rowed their way to the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. The characters are unforgettable, and kids are going to absolutely love the story.

I’m also working on a double top secret project with another writer. He’s a celebrity, too. The good kind, though. He’s smart and funny and passionate about science.

I’m also hoping to have some news soon about a few more children’s books. Unicorns, ninjas, triangle-footed monsters, and those sorts of things.

Now, as for detective fiction…here are a few lines I read recently in a Ross MacDonald book, The Ivory Grin.

“Bent over a bin of oranges with my back to the street, I heard her heels on the pavement and felt her shadow brush me, like a cold feather.”

“Large-eared and almost hairless, his head seemed naked, as if it had been plucked. His long face was dimly lit by pale worried eyes. Deep lines of sorrow dragged down from the wings of his large vulnerable nose.”

Now I could do without the “worried” eyes, the “lines of sorrow” and the “vulnerable” nose. That’s kind of cheating, in my mind, when you feed the feeling to the reader. Bellow does this all the time, too, though, so I guess it’s allowed. But what if those lines aren’t sorrowful? What if this guy is wrinkled because he surfs all the time and gets too much sun? Then they’d be lines of peace and harmony. Criticism aside, I love the shadow as a cold feather above, and the idea that the guy’s head looks like it had been plucked is just wonderful. I laughed out loud.

This last one is just plain weird, in a good way:

“His words were soft and insinuating, breaking gently like bubbles between his pink lips. His breath was strong enough to lean on.”

And that’s all for now.