This Blog will offer 10 of the reasons why I wrote my new novel, Moments Captured. Bob’s Blog #1, the week of 1 October.
1 I was deeply intrigued by the difficulty of capturing motion, an issue that preoccupied many gifted late 19th century photographers and painters, including Degas, Lautrec, Thomas Eakins and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). The novel opens with Muybridge attempting to “shoot” a stagecoach robbery with his cumbersome, all-too-slow view camera. To produce an image of the outlaws in flagrante he’s forced to use his faster, twin stereoscopic cameras, which can only create twin tiny negatives. The question of how to capture movement, i.e., how to depict life itself, is essential to this narrative, for Moments Captured traces the camera’s development from total immobility to Muybridge’s 1879 invention of the world’s first motion picture projector. I feature the photographer’s work with Leland Stanford and the ingenious technical breakthroughs that enable Edward to stop time and capture the trotting horse as it goes through its paces. This desire to catch movement is not confined to horseflesh: It becomes a romantic quest when, early in “Moments Captured,” Edward falls in love with the gifted dancer Holly Hughes. I think of this novel as a technological romance.
Good timing for the novelist, and a total accident: Muybridge, the fictional/real protagonist of my new novel, Moments Captured, is everywhere today. Most of us who watched the 30th Summer Olympics were awed by the stop-motion shots of athletes. In London, the photographer’s technological innovations were visible everywhere in the NBC telecasts. We saw women and men divers go airborne from the platform or spring board, viewed their acrobatic tucks or corkscrew twists, watched them uncoil their sleek bodies and align their hands then enter the water with— or without— a decisive splash. As the descent was captured in a series of elegant stills we, like the judges, evaluated the take-off, how well the divers controlled their limbs and the final crucial instant of contact with the water. We also witnessed my innovative artist’s “instant of eternity” on the track in multiple close races, in the potent volleyball spike and in the freeze frame one-thousandth-of-a-second replays of the Gold Medal swimmer out-touching the Silver medalist at the wall. Yet only a handful of the tens of millions of viewers had ever heard the name of the photographer who invented stop action: Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904).
Week Two: 11 Oct. The West and the Western
The novel opens with a stagecoach hold up. It’s a scene we’ve all seen in dozens of Western movies. But I’ve tried to add a twist to this iconic scene— For the first time there’s a camera present. Which makes for a more enduring event, especially for the bandits. And adds an ongoing threat to Muybridge’s life.
Moments Captured explores the passing of the American West in the post-Civil War 1860s. The actual photographer Muybridge extensively documented an earlier era, so he knew the world of the migratory Plains Tribes and was present fictionally when the Ute tribe negotiated a reasonable land deal with the fur trader John Jacob Astor. A few years later, U.S. Army chased the Utes off their tribal land without payment of a single dollar.
In one early scene Muybridge hawks his photographs to the residents of a miniscule hamlet, one of the scores that sprung up along the proposed right-of-way of the Transcontinental Railroad. Most of these settlements were doomed to extinction when the rail magnates cynically pushed their steel rails in a different direction when offered a more lucrative bid from another town. Meanwhile, the Central Pacific, run by Leland Stanford and three other plutocrat millionaires, profited from both the real and these paper towns. And from the virtually unlimited largesse of Congress, which wanted the transcontinental railroad, literally, at any price. The railroad was completed in 1869 to with unprecedented fanfare and press coverage. The role of the Central Pacific in the novel will be examined at more length next week.
An editor of my first novel, One Smart Indian (in paper, Overlook Press since 1980), once asked me why I wrote about Native Americans. I replied candidly, “I’ve always loved cowboys and Indians.” He didn’t believe me, but it was and is true.
This is an excerpt from Memory, a memoir in progress: “Cowboys and Indians obsessed me as a kid. I don’t think I was a particularly greedy seven-year-old, but I must’ve pestered my parent to buy me a cowboy suit. At eight years old, in a 1949 black-and-white photograph, I stand smiling in full regalia—chaps with a tooled leather belt and fringed leather vest, and, for then, an almost credible gun belt on my right hip. On my head, an oversized grey Stetson’s canted back, its string looped under my chin. One chap awry, right leg thrust forward, I level the cap gun at the camera. What’s a revelation to this writer now is that the boy in the shot is undeniably me—bubbly yet in deadly earnest; as though in acting the part persuaded this avatar of Robert J. Seidman believed that he was the real thing, a cowpoke in his own imaginative True West.
“In lieu of a horse this pudgy, punctilious and self-confident if fretful eight-year-old would mount and “ride” a high and wide mahogany RCA Victrola console. I remember borrowing an old quilt—closest thing I could find to an Indian blanket—and ritually throwing it over my mount. Which made the riding trickier since I had to be careful not to come tumbling down onto the concrete basement floor on the ungirted, slippery quilt. Ah, the degree to which a kid will go to give fantasy substance.
“Cowboy movies fanned my obsession with The West —After 1948 when we got our black-and-white RCA 10-inch TV console, every afternoon at five Frontier Playhouse offered a sacred, not-to-be-missed hour with a revolving cast of heroes and villains. In these B-Westerns you rooted for your favorite in a contest in which the man in the white hat was endlessly threatened —unhorsed, hogtied, trussed, beaten to a pulp, shot at, chased—yet he never succumbed to the bad guy’s bullying: Roy, Gene, Hoppy, Hoot, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele and their sage, come-hither-at-a-whistle steeds and comic sidekicks all survived perpetual assaults on their honor and persons to emerge triumphant.
“I nurtured such a profound urge to camp out on the range that I started a campfire in our basement with a pile of filmy lace curtains. They were grey, not white, and I assumed they were too dirty to have any domestic function. The concrete floor seemed a safe, sensible place for a fire, but I hadn’t reckoned with the dropped acoustical tile ceiling that, as the flames roared higher, started to char. I was trying to put out the fire with the ersatz saddle blanket when Binnie, my mother, smelled smoke. She hustled downstairs —the fastest I’d ever seen her move—and together we fetched and filled a bucket then dumped on water until the flames drowned. Under maternal orders, I cleaned up the black sodden mess. And witnessed my handiwork —the flames deposited a permanent scar, a roughly round black circle on the concrete below and soot streaks on the ceiling above. What prompted the campfire? Was I mad at my parents for an imagined or actual sleight? Was I an idiot with a synapse or two misfiring? Or was the eight-year-old pushing the limit? Did I unintentionally intend to burn the house down? I don’t think so. I don’t ever remember being that mad at my parents.”