VALLEY SCENE: James Franco and young actor Troy Tinnirello shoot a scene on location in Yosemite Valley for the short movie ‘Yosemite,’ which also filmed in Palo Alto. Courtesy of @yosemite_film on Instagram

Family Resemblance

A California Childhood is a key to the startling energy of the man, but one only needs to look closer to home to his multi-hyphenate mother, Betsy: “maybe better known around here than her son,” said co-producer Clara Aranovich on the set of Yosemite. In addition to the prose (including the short story that is the source of Yosemite) A California Childhood includes home photos Betsy Franco took of her children.

My friend Elysia Chester tipped me off to news of a Betsy Franco reading. She is a theater director, an actress, an artist, a writer. Forty or so gathered to see her read and discuss her new novel at at the Santa Clara Library last weekend. The riddle of James Franco’s energy is nicely solved: the apple didn’t fall far. An animated woman in a sleeveless white dress, she sat under a PowerPoint presentation. Next to her was her son, Tom Franco, who illustrated the cover of his mother’s book. It’s a painting taken from Rodin, whose work is key to her first adult novel, Naked.

Like James, Tom Franco went to Palo Alto High. He is currently managing the Firehouse Art Co. space and live-work studios in south Berkeley, near where he lives. He brought a couple of his untitled sculptures to the reading, including a whimsical found-object CD player covered with a thick impasto of paint drips. From the robot-y creature’s brow bulge eyes like binoculars, made from the butt ends of root beer bottles. Tom Franco was wearing a thin-lapeled, thin-striped sports coat, and with him was his wife and partner, Julia Lazar, and their two small dogs.

In addition to directing the Palo Alto Children’s Theater, Betsy Franco has written 80 books of young-adult work over her 30 years of writing. “I usually don’t check on sales,” she says. “Books have a life of their own and promotions like this are different for me. I was very committed to doing one thing a month for this book.”

She came west from Shaker Heights, where her father, Dr. David Verne, was an oral surgeon who enjoyed the arts and drew in his spare time; his favorite artists ranging from Goya and the post-Impressionists to Ludwig Bemelmans—best known as the creator of Madeline, but a multi-hyphenate in his own right. Verne’s wife collected Japanese prints, which later became today’s Verne Collection, a gallery in Cleveland’s Little Italy. (Fun James Franco fact: he took a couple of years of Japanese at Palo Alto High.) When Betsy Franco came to Stanford—”I don’t want to say the year it was”—she was studying studio art with a parallel ambition to become a writer, but then she took an acting class as a way of understanding the emotions of her characters. “It got me out of my head and into my body, in the feelings of the characters,” she says. The acting showed when Betsy read from her new novel, in the Dickens phrase, “she do the voices”.

Naked was published in October by Tyris Books, which Tom Franco describes as a “lovely get-it-done outfit in Madison, Wisconsin.” It is a romance, pitchable as “Midnight in Paris meets The Time Traveler’s Wife” (and thus James Franco blurbed it on the cover). Betsy Franco is adapting it for the screen—it’s bemusingly tough, she told the crowd. Here she was a visual artist trying to relearn to make the written script a series of visuals. She sees Naked‘s importance as an act of historical justice.

At the Rodin sculpture garden at Stanford, a statue of Rodin’s mistress Camille Claudel comes to life, and renames herself “Cat”; she begins an affair with a modern student. Claudel’s legend has grown over the years, but Betsy Franco says she went through hoops to see what she had believed was the only statue in the U.S. by Claudel, a desk-sized sculpture titled The Implorer currently in the vaults of the Metropolitan in NYC. (I remembered hearing there was another Claudel at the National Museum of Women of the Arts in D.C.; sure enough Young Girl With a Sheaf is there, one of Claudel’s rare surviving works.)

“I’m going to pound the desk,” Betsy Franco says. “Camille Claudel is as good as Rodin.” Claudel posed for the Rodin statue that comes to life in the Stanford garden; it was originally a full length nude until Rodin tore off its arms and one of its legs to give it drama. Claudel’s tragic decline makes better copy than her gifts; what persists is the patronizing story of a French critic paying Claudel a back-handed compliment. He called her a freak rebel against female destiny: “a revolt against nature: a woman of genius!” The work survives, says Betsy Franco, “the very, very sensual gigantic sculpture—she’d be cutting edge even now.”

Moving on to adult prose, Betsy Franco sees the difference between young and grown adult lit as primarily “distinguished by the sex scenes, though teens read a lot of things these days. I have my young friends because I never grew up myself.” I asked her what it was like as a mother to read her son James’ fiction, which includes scenes of aggressive sexual encounters and pointless violence.

“You can imagine,” she says. “I just read one chapter at a time, put it down, rested a bit, and then read a little more. When I used to put together collections of teen writing, I wouldn’t censor it in any way. Teens have a whole world of things they need to say. He’s writing fiction, and that means he’s twisting the facts. If he did everything that happened in the stories, he wouldn’t be alive.”

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