Life alongside Twain and Dickens and such: Modern authors savor spotlight

Here's the mid-section of a package I sent to papers, on "The Great American Read." Scroll up and you'll find the mainbar; scroll down  and you get te details, some essential and some not.

By Mike Hughes

For modern authors,
this is big. “The Great American Read” puts them with the old

Diana Gabaldon (the
“Outlander” author) recalls her first reaction: “I said, 'Who
else is on the list?'”

Well, all the top
names -- Twain and Tolkien, Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and
Heller, Jane Austen and J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee and the Brontes
and more. All made the 100-book list.

We've learned about
them in school, but some of these modern masters bring surprises.

Gabaldan, who writes
Scottish-English epics, is a Latina from Arizona. Nicholas Sparks,
creator of romances, is a former drug rep and champion runner.
Neither fits the image of writer as solitary soul.

Sparks, 52, says
being a drug rep was fairly easy for him. “I'm optimistic; I'm

And Gabaldon -- 66,
with ebony hair and quick smile -- could pass for a romance-novel

She describes her
lead character, Claire Randall, as “still very tentative in
everything she does” ... then adds: “This is not me, by the way.”

Not even close.
Gabaldon describes her parents as “friendly, gregarious people”
and seems to fit that description herself.

These two modern
authors have something else in common: “For both of us, it was our
first novel that was chosen” for the list, Sparks said. Here are
sketches of both:

Nicholas Sparks

Sparks needed his
outgoing nature, when his dad's graduate studies kept him on the
move. Early on, he lived in Nebraska (twice), California (twice) and
Minnesota. But then his dad landed a job on the business faculty of
California State University, Sacramento; at 8, young Sparks settled

He found success as
a runner. In California's state high school meet, he finished fourth
in the 800-meter. Then he landed a scholarship to Notre Dame and
peaked in the four-by-800 relay; Sparks ran his leg at 1:50.3, the
team was 7:20.11 – still a school record, 33 years later.

Injuries slowed him
after that, but Sparks views it philosophically. “You learn a lot
from running.”

There's the
introspection of long runs. Sparks' first published book was
go-authored with Olympic distance champion Billy Mills -- “Wokini:
A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding.”

That came out in
1990, after a couple unpublished novels and stabs at other careers.
But the big change had come a year earlier, when he really got to
know his wife's parents.

“They couldn't go
to our wedding” because of illness, Sparks said. “They told us
the story of how they got together .... It was just the way he looked
at her. He was in love with his wife of 60 years.”

So Sparks wrote “The
Notebook” in the evenings. “The agent I addressed it to had
passed on,” he said.

It was found by
another agent, who made a million-dollar deal. “It was
mind-blowing,” Sparks said. “And then, of course, the fear sets
in: 'Can you write a second one? Is anyone going to read this one?'”

He could; they did.
So far, 11 of his 19 novels have been made into movies.

Diana Gabaldon

When she was 3,
Gabaldon had her first moment with literature: “'Mr. Mixie Dough,
the Baker Man' (was) the first book that I read by myself. I was 3
and it was amazing.”

She grew up in
Flagstaff, where her dad was state senator for 16 years. She savored
books, but her degrees – zoology, a master's in marine biology, a
doctorate in behavioral ecology – were in science. Her thesis --
“Nest Site Selection of the Pinyon Jay” -- wasn't a best-seller.

“I had always
known I was supposed to be a novelist,” Gabaldon said, “and when
I was 36, I said ... 'Mozart was dead at 36; you'd better get

She chose to write
about an English nurse in the late 1940s, accidentally traveling to
18th-century Scotland ... a place and time Gabaldon had
never seen. Still, she did have:

-- Experience with
love amid opposite cultures. Her mom's roots were English, her dad's
were Mexican. “It was like living in two cultures .... I had
grandparents who didn't speak English at all.”

-- Her research
skills. “You can look up anything; it's really easy.”

Gabaldon wrote parts
of the story -- “I don't write in a straight line and I don't plan
stories” -- with no endgame. Then – after an Internet discussion
– she showed a sampling in a CompuServe chat room.

One person showed it
to another, who contacted an agent, who wanted the rest. Six months
later, she sent him a finished story. “He emerged with a three-book
contract and bing, I was a novelist.”

And a successful
one. The books, starting in 1991, did well ... and found new
audiences when the cable series began in 2014. “Starz was taking
out ads that covered entire skyscrapers.”

So she continues to
thrive, a gregarious person who somehow enjoys writing and
researching alone. “I'm 66; it's been 30 years (and) it's still my
favorite thing to do.”


Ready for "Read"? Here's an overview

This wraps up the three-part package I sent to papers, previewing PBS' "The Great American Read." For the other two, scroll upL

By Mike Hughes

Here are glimpses of
“The Great American Read”:

The list

-- A survey asked
7,200 Americans for their most-loved novel. A top-100 was compiled,
but there was also a committee of 13 experts. Each could pick one
book from further down, for possible inclusion.

-- The only rules:
One book per author ... a series counts as one ... any book from any
language, as long as there's an English-language edition.

-- The 100 and other
details are at

-- People can
continue to vote, one per day, Online or via app

TV show

-- 8 p.m. Tuesdays,
PBS, from Sept. 11 to Oct. 23

-- Opener is an
overview; others follow themes: “Who am I?” on Sept. 18;
“Heroes,” Sept. 25; “Villains and Monsters,” Oct. 2; romance,
Oct. 9; “Other Worlds,” Oct. 16; and the finale, announcing the
winner, Oct. 23.


-- “The Book of
Books,” by Jessica Allen; 2018, Black Dog & Leventhal
Publishers, $29.99.

-- Brief portraits
of the 100 books, plus some interesting digressions.

Trends in the 100

-- Two are from the
17th century -- “Don Quixote” (1605) and “The
Pilgrims Progress” (1678); 18 are from the 2000s, most recently
“Gone Girl” (2012), “Americanah” (2013) and “Ghost”

-- Two authors –
Charlotte and Emily Bronte – are siblings. Diana Gabaldon and
George R.R.Martin are good friends; so were Ernest Hemingway and F.
Scott Fitzgerald ... until their falling-out.

-- 33 authors are
women ... but readers weren't always aware of that. The Brontes at
first used male names; others – L.M. Montgomery, S.E. Hinton, V.C.
Andrews, E.L. James – used initials.

-- 64 are by
Americans, but only 51 of the stories are set here.

-- Some of the
authors had day jobs far from writing, the book says. Kurt Vonnegut
sold cars, Herman Melville was a customs inspector, Jean Auel was a
keypunch operator. Charles Dickens worked in a factory at 12 and
later was a court stenographer. And Harper Lee worked at an airline
ticket office ... until friend gave her money to take a year off and
write “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

-- Many of the books
– from “Mockingbird” and “Catcher in the Rye” to “Hunger
Games” -- have been banned somewhere. In all, PBS says, 21 of the
authors have had this or another book banned.

-- And some of the
books ave been savaged by legitimate critics. The book gives
examples: “The Sun Also Rises” is “boring, boring and more
boring” .... “The Call of the Wild” was “the worst book
ever.” But the harshest criticism may have been by Mark Twain,
aimed at Jane Austen: “Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice,' I
want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own


When smart guys go bad: "Mayans" series and James' life

There is one scene in the "Mayans MC" opener that is virtually unwatchable -- a deeply disturbing and disturbed torture scene. And there are many scenes that are immensely watchable. This "Sons of Anarchy" series has the same mix of personal drama and fierce action. It starts Tuesday (Sept. 4); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When “Sons of
Anarchy” had its lethal conclusion, some things were clear:

Viewers want more;
so does the network. This was “the most-watched regular drama
series in FX history,” said spokesman John Solberg. “I think it
averaged about 12 1/2 million viewers.”

Now “Mayans M.C.”
begins ... four years after “Sons” ended. Its debut was nudged by
a convenient failure. “I planned on 'Bastard Executioner' bombing,”
joked Kurt Sutter, creator of all three series.

debuted in 2015, promptly proving what most TV critics had suspected:
There is not a wellspring of American interest in 13th-century
English warfare.

That failure freed
Sutter for his next plan – a series based on the Mayans, the
Mexican-American motorcycle club that befriended the Sons.

The next step? “I
was very aware that a white guy from Jersey shouldn't be writing a
show (alone) that takes place in the Latino subculture,” Sutter
said. That's not because of political correctness – “I don't
really give a (bleep)” -- but because he wanted “to honor this
world and be authentic.”

So he talked to
Latinos. One day, Elgin James came in to meet Sutter and some other
writers. “Within minutes,” Sutter said, “I was so aware that I
was no longer the smartest guy at the table.”

Sutter hired James
as co-creator and thought about him when imagining the lead
character. James, after all, is a brilliant person whose life
skidded; he's been in gangs, in prison, in juvie, in intensive care.

He reflects the idea
of “somebody who is a bright light, who is supposed to have a
different destiny, (but) that energy and that intelligence (is)
applied to an outlaw culture,” Sutter said.

That became the
central character, EZ Reyes. He was the smart one, the star athlete,
the Stanford student with a great girlfriend. Then something went
wrong and he was convicted.

“Survival is all
that counts then,” said JD Pardo, who plays him. “In prison, all
you have is your word.”

Now EZ is out –
the reason soon becomes clear – and is a rookie in his brother's
motorcycle club.

Pardo fits the
golden-guy image, giving EZ a leading-man look and a pensive stare.
He first became a TV regular in the 2004 “Clubhouse,” playing the
ballboy with a Yankees-type team. But the next year, he startled his
agent by seeking “A Girl Like Me,” based on the true story of a
transgender murder victim. “When I read the script, I said, 'I'm
not going out for any pilots this year. I have to do this.'”

He got the role and
established himself as a serious actor who looks like a macho hero.
But could a guy as gifted as the fictional EZ really have his life go
so badly? Perhaps ... as James' own life has proven.

James went from an
orphanage to foster homes to, he says, battles with other kids -- “I
grew up being called (insults for blacks and Latinos) my whole life”
-- and with “my 350-pound father.” He became, he says, like other
guys. “We didn't know how to be men; the only way we knew was to

He did, often. He
was first arrested at 12, was sent to juvenile hall at 14, but read
Malcolm X and others. “I wanted to be Morris Dees (the civil rights
lawyer). He was a huge hero to me.”

Instead, James
missed a chance to go to Antioch College. In a fight back home, he
was beaten on the head with a baseball bat. After a long recovery –
he still wears hats to cover the injury – James was homeless, then
a member of what he openly calls a “gang.” (Others involved with
“Mayans” and “Sons” have carefully used the word “club.”)
His gang, FSU, battled white-supremacists.

James got a break
when he entered a Sundance screenwriters' lab. He wrote, directed and
scored “Little Birds,” a movie about two teen girls. It drew
praise (but few moviegoers); producer Brian Grazer hired him to write
a movie script ... and then James was arrested and convicted.

The crime –
blackmailing a supremacist – was true, he says. (“I was the only
guilty guy in there.”) But it reflected his past life; in prison,
he wrote Grazer's script, “Lowriders.”

Then he met Sutter,
who saw him as fiction personified. “The characters I like to
create are damaged,” Sutter said. “They live outside the
parameters .... There's a rogue component, an outlaw component.”

Still, Sutter said,
there's more to it than that. “People didn't show up for 'Sons'
because it was about (bleeping) outaws. (They did) because it was
about a (bleeping) family.”

This new family,
like the Sons, happens to ride big bikes, shoot guns and administer
brutal beatings.

-- “Mayans MC,”
10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX

-- 90-minute opener,
Sept. 4, reruns at 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m; then on Wednesday night at
midnight, Friday at 11:30 p.m.. and more

-- Rated TV-Mature,
with crude language and an extreme torture scene


Bobby Brown: A "bad guy" (onstage, at least) seeks a good image

Of all the interview sessions during the recent Television Critics Association weeks, none had quite as much emotion as the one with Bobby Brown. Now his mini-series runs Sept. 4-5; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Bobby Brown,
this was an uncomfortable moment.

He was talking to
the Television Critics Association about the Sept. 4-5 “Bobby Brown
Story” mini-series. The TCA happened to be at the Beverly Hilton,
where his ex-wife Whitney Houston died six years earlier.

“The spirit of my
ex-wife is probably still here,” Brown said.

A few minutes later,
his discomfort grew. A reporter asked if the film would show his
violence toward Houston. “There were no violent incidents between
me and Whitney,” Brown said flatly.

Another reporter
read accounts of Houston's 9-1-1 call (finding her with a bruise and
a cut lip) and pointed out it was in the public record. “The public
record is wrong,” Brown said. A moment later, the planned time for
follow-up questions was canceled.

That overshadows
what could be a feel-good mini-series about a triumphant life. “Bobby
never really (explained) his side of the story,” said producer
Jesse Collins.

Brown agreed that
he's misunderstood. “If you see me in concert, then you can call be
a 'bad guy.' You see me in person, ... you won't call me a bad guy.
You'll call me Bobby.”

He was 12 when he
joined the Boston pop group New Edition and 17 when he was ousted.
“That defined it for me, being able to do my own music, write my
own songs”

Brown's “My
Prerogative” and “She Ain't Worth It” reached No. 1 and others
hit the top 10. Still, TV ignored him. “If we had social media,
it'd be way bigger .... There were not many shows that we could go
on,” Brown said.

Back then, the BET
was struggling. Now it's thrived with “The New Edition Story”
(rerunning Sept. 4) and this follow-up. “His personality is super,”
said Woody McClain, who plays Brown in both. “It's super big.”

Gabrielle Dennis,
who plays Houston in the Brown mini-series, said he was emotional
even when the actors first read the script. “In the core of this
movie is heart.”

-- “The Bobby
Brown Story” first half, 9 and 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4, BET

-- Second half, 9
and 11:30 Wednesday, with first half rerunning at 6:30

-- Both rerun at 5
and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 6:55 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 5:30 p.m.
Sunday (Sept. 9), 8:30 and 11:30 p.m. Sept. 11

-- Three-part “New
Edition Story” reruns at 7:05, 9:25 and 11:29 p.m. Monday (Sept.
3), 2:35, 4:55 and 7 p.m. Tuesday


"RBG": A solemn, serious Supreme Court justice becomes richly human

As the summer TV season ends, a truly great film arrives. Some people have already seen "RBG" -- a deep and deeply engrossing portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- in movie theaters; now others can see it on Labor Day, via CNN. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

As they started
their “RBG” documentary, Julie Cohen and Betsy West seemed on
familiar turf.

Supreme Court
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was already famous. She was “The Great
Dissenter,” with strongly worded objections to the conservative
majority; some law students – via Internet and then a book – had
even made her “The Notorious RBG.”

Still, there were
fresh surprises, West said. The movie, which reaches CNN on Labor
Day, points to:

-- “The depth of
her romance with Marty (Ginsburg). And the role he played as the
supportive spouse.”

-- Her affinity for
people who seemed to be her opposite. Ginsburg, 85, has often seemed
stern, solemn, silent. Her late husband was none of those things;
neither was her late friend Antonin Scalia.

-- And the extreme
impact she had on women's rights. In the film, Gloria Steinem calls
her “the closest thing to a superhero I know.”

West – a
generation younger than Ginsburg – echoes that. “My life was
transformed by Judge Ginsburg,” she said. “Opportunities were
opened up that weren't available to our mothers.”

When Ginsburg
started Harvard Law School, she was among nine women in a class of
more than 500. When her granddaughter started, the class was 50
percent female.

And when Ginsburg
finished school (tied for No. 1 in her class), no New York firm would
hire her. She took alternate routes – a clerkship, co-authoring a
book on Swedish law (for which she learned Swedish), then teaching at
Rutgers. In 1972, she co-founded the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.

Many people know
Thurgood Marshall's role in civil rights; fewer had heard of
Ginsburg's. “She modeled her approach after Thurgood Marshall,”
West said. “It was a step-by-step approach.”

She took six cases
to the Supreme Court and won five times, creating building blocks for
gender law.

During this time,
Martin Ginsburg, a prominent tax lawyer, stepped happily to the
background, West said. “She had been a supportive spouse to him and
now he did the same.”

When she was a
17-year-old Cornell freshman, he had quickly impressed her, West
said. “He was a very gregarious, outgoing guy.”

She married him a
month after graduation and took a job near his Army base. Later, when
he landed a New York job, she transferred from Harvard to Columbia.
At one point, she was averaging two hours of sleep while studying,
nursing him through an illness and caring for their baby.

But as her career
soared, he stepped aside. In the film, one person recalls their
daughter explaining that “her father did the cooking and her mother
did the thinking.”

Ginsburg was
appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980 and was sometimes
viewed as a moderate, finding consensus with Scalia and Robert Bork.
“She wasn't a flaming liberal,” West said.

But after she
reached the Supreme Court in 1992, subsequent appointments nudged it
to the right. Ginsburg became the dissenter, sharply disagreeing with
Scalia, a guy with qualities like her husband's.

“Justice Scalia
was a very funny guy,” West said. He and Ginsburg “both loved
opera; she is very knowledgeable about opera. They had great respect
for each other as equals.”

Martin Ginsburg died
in 2010 at 78, Scalia in 2016 at 79. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg has
survived colon cancer and pancreatic cancer; she has even revealed a
comic side that many people weren't aware of. “She has a great
sense of humor,” West said. “Julie and I love to see her laugh.”

That's not the first
impression people have. “She is absolutely intimidating,” West
said. “She's small (5-foot, one-half inch) and quiet; she doesn't
fill up a lot of space.” Except in law books and history books.

-- “RBG,” debuts
9 p.m. ET Monday (Sept. 3), CNN, repeating at midnight.

-- Also, 8 p.m.
Sept. 9; times could change with breaking news