Being Bad Feels Pretty Good

Later on in my scumbag years, anytime the subject of The Breakfast Club came up (and it came up more than you’d think), people naturally assumed I identified with John Bender. The truth is, growing up, I was more on Team Andy. I wanted to be a jock, and I sorta hated the burnouts in high school. Of course, I switched teams, and subsequent viewings of the film found me rooting for John Bender more and more. John Bender is rude, abrasive, brutally honest, cutting, damaged, and kind of an asshole. But Bender is always the most interesting character on the screen.

12924615_507059162831601_7509215167134207243_nWhen you start writing books, you will hear you need to make your characters sympathetic. Well, you’ll hear a lot of shit. Often this information will be contradictory. Like a bird in the hand vs. nothing ventured, nothing gained, life is nothing if not contrarian. You weigh these platitudes, and like they say in AA: you take what you can use and leave the rest at the door. I don’t necessarily worry about sympathetic. I want you to care about and still root for my characters. Similar. But not the same thing.

I just got word I’ll be receiving a very nice review in Booklist for December Boys, next up in the Jay Porter Thriller series. I didn’t get one from them for Lamentation, so it’s very cool. It goes live April 26. I’m not allowed to share the entire review until then, just a sentence or two. This sums it up nicely.

“The author suggests it’s the pain in Porter’s life that has him acting so awfully, but whether readers buy that or not, they’re still in for some fine writing, plus an interesting mix of people and a truly offbeat, if arguably rude, hero.”

12985571_1122364691118716_3393949242774473043_nI always find it funny when people point out that Jay is a jerk. Mostly because Jay is based on me. He’s based on my brother, Jay (Streeter) too. I steal my brother’s line of work (estate clearing) and other details of his life (he worked in the northern NH mountains for a while and is technologically averse). In fact the entire plot for the new  book (WIP title Cold, Cold Hills, borrowed from the great Paul Kelly, this before I found out there is currently a hot new book called In a Dark, Dark Wood. That’s okay. My agent hated the temporary title. That’s what I have Jimmy for) came from a recent Thanksgiving trip visiting my brother, who is planning on buying the estate clearing business from his boss. Jay (Streeter) was worried about coming up with the cash to buy the business. So the new plot: Jay (Porter) is trying to buy his boss’s business and is worried about how he’ll get the cash. Family is a fucking goldmine for plot. That and crimes in Pennsylvania. 

faa0844c1a1251e11797310d0f155e1cStill, the more I write the character, the more I realize Jay Porter is me. Or more like an idealized version of me. And by “idealized version,” I mean the way I’d act if I didn’t have to worry about getting along with people. Life is hard, and it will beat you down if you let it.

Right now being online is torture. The upcoming election is hell, and keeping my mouth shut (or fingers still) can be murder. But I don’t want to fight. People won’t always agree with your POV. Standing around with my hands clenched in fists of rage helps exactly no one. But I sometimes wish I had two lives. One where I could be like I am now (civilized). And the other where I could say whatever the fuck I wanted.

563b5fba365fb608caffb24770352e8cIt’s nice to say you should always speak your mind. But, like expecting to always be happy, to quote my dead friend Troy (to whom Book 3 is dedicated), it’s not a very grown-up expectation. There are considerations we make to our fellow man in order to share this planet. One of which is you don’t get to be a dick. We must assimilate, conform (in a non-creepy 1984 way). Or you’re in for a bitch of a time.

12963366_1116650135024727_8394743455776426110_nWhen you write fiction you can explore what might’ve been. In the case of Jay Porter, I don’t have many questions. I don’t live like Jay Porter because I am smarter than he is. I’ve learned to not give in to his self-destructive tendencies. Though I have them, and, yes, I flirt with them. I just don’t fully submerge. I wrote the character to be the way he is being perceived (success!), and it’s a fine line. People who don’t like the books often point to Jay’s choices and voice as the main issue.

Talking with my wife the other day, I joked, “I don’t see the problem. I don’t think Jay is a jerk. I think he’s right. He’s based on me, y’know?”

To which Justine replied, “That’s the problem.”

Which was pretty funny. And I imagine it sucks at times to be married to me, because I do have a lot of Jay Porter in me. But at forty-five, I’ve also learned that if I actually did act like Jay, I’d have what Jay does, namely, a lot of hurt and pain. And I’d be alone. He’s a character I wrote to be just short of self-awareness. Or rather, slightly more aware than those around him, which is a horrible fate. To quote Annie from the greatest baseball film of all-time, Bull Durham, “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”

12961658_869512909824679_2474471166638443370_nMy publicist at Oceanview, Lisa Daily, said, in response to Jay’s jerkiness, “I nearly always find the outlier, the alternative point of view, to be most interesting.” Marlowe is a bit of a prick. I am reading Holden Catcher in the Rye (he’s 5; it’s time), and I still think Holden Caulfield is right. Rob Gordon too. I rooted for Walter White, and I think most people did as well. Was Walter sympathetic? Maybe when he had the cancer. But once you start dealing meth and killing people, sympathy sorta goes out the fucking window. But like John Bender, Walt was always fucking interesting.

“They loved each other very much and nothing ever went wrong” makes for a shitty novel, and I find Mailer’s edict that heroes must be larger-than-life boring as fuck. I want edge, flaws–I want good intentions gone wrong–because, well, that’s life. And it’s the imperfections that make things beautiful.

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2 thoughts on “Being Bad Feels Pretty Good

  1. I agree with you, Joe, that characters need to be memorable, but not perfect. If they’re perfect, they’re boring beyond words. Real people are not perfect, far from it. People have quirks, habits, and ways of thinking that are not the same for everyone. Writing imperfect, flawed people makes for a more interesting ride.

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