Been a pretty crazy stretch. Seems like all I have done lately is write. Which is what I am supposed to be doing, I know, but I’ve written two novels since November, and this feels like probably the busiest I’ve ever been. Whenever people would say “There aren’t enough hours in a day,” I always sorta wanted to punch them. I get what they mean now. I used to feel like Will in About a Boy, trying to kill days as fast as possible. Now I wish I could slow down time to get more done before resuming suburban dad duties every evening.
Couple bits of housekeeping. Before I dive back into the next round of edits, I’ll be teaching this class over at LitReactor starting Tuesday. Writing/editing/teaching is a wonderful three-headed-monster. I learn as much from editing and teaching as I do reading/writing. Which is hardly a revelation. These things feed off one another. Like my elliptical machine–self powered. (Sorry this isn’t a more entertaining blog. I’ll be sure to throw in an uplifting meme somewhere.)
Anyway, class starts Tuesday; there’s still space. I’m looking forward to talking shop with other writers trying to crack the code, or just get better. Writing is like golf: it’s not about spiritual perfection; it’s about spiritual progress. Or maybe that’s AA. I get those two confused. Last class I taught was at the SF Writers’ Grotto, which was a blast, and I certainly got as much as I gave. I have no doubt I’ll end up in academia. I’ve spent half my life in school, and I feed off that environment of improvement. This class will be entirely online, which is, frankly, better for me. I express myself better digitally than I do in person. I am sure I am not the only writer who feels that way. Just far less anxious behind a keyboard than trying to figure out what to do with my hands. And, y’know, no Bridge traffic.
AlsoLamentation is finally out in paperback. Which means we sold out our initial hardcover run (I think). Yay! I mean, you don’t get a paperback unless the hardcover does well. So I guess it did well. Thanks to everyone who bought it. If you held out this long hoping for a physical copy less … heavy … here you go! (Seriously, mailing hardcovers is nuts. Shipping costs almost as much as a paperback.)
When I sat down to write my first book, which, if we skip over the amateurish teenage attempts (and, yes, sadly, they exist) we’re mostly talking Junkie Love. There are those who will argue that Junkie Loveis the best thing I’ve done, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. I mean, who can forget Joel Landmine‘s riveting performance as a young me? Or the kick-ass Get Set Go soundtrack?
Like a first-born child, Junkie Love will always be special. But it’s also not a traditional book. When I interviewed Brian Panowich, whose masterful debut Bull Mountain will surely be on the tip of many an Anthony tongue this year, Brian confessed part of the reason for BM’s episodic approach stemmed from necessity. Like me, Brian found the story better told via fragmented, interconnected vignettes. That approach works perfectly for Bull Mountain, and I think it works well for Junkie Love, too.
But I wanted to venture into more mainstream, commercial fiction after Junkie Love, which is, let’s face it, a one-off story. I chose to tell the tale of my addiction and redemption via a highly stylized form of narration. Again, this isn’t to disparage the end result. I love Junkie Loveand would never distance myself from it. But it’s not a commercial mystery. It’s not conventional, period. Part of the reason it took so long to find someone to take a chance on it (thank you, Vagabondage Press!). In fact, without my MFA (the degree always a controversial topic), I don’t get that book published period.
Back to wanting to write a novel. I always figured I would someday. Once I figured out how. That took longer than I thought. Turns out writing a book is really, really fucking hard. Part of my time as a junkie I swear was research (though my tax person still won’t let me write-off the years of addiction. Too bad. We added up all the money I spent on dope as part of a rehab class. Conservative estimates placed the amount around $325K).
What I learned getting my Master’s in creative writing is that writing can be taught. There are some writers, like my buddy Tom Pitts, who understand the process inherently. Without an MFA, Tom has written several pulse-pounding thrillers. If you can do that too, good on you. I needed school. And, in particular, Lynne Barrett, who showed me how to write a book via causality, a concept I just couldn’t grasp until she broke it down. This instruction is the only way Junkie Lovewas seeing the light of day, and it also helped me forge a successful career writing mysteries. This causes that. Sounds simple. And it is. Try putting it in practice. But there are tricks, tips, techniques, and, not to bust my arm patting myself on the back, I’m good at explaining them. In addition to Lamentation, December Boys, the second in the Jay Porter Thriller series, is out in June (and off to some rave reviews), and we’ve sold Book 3 in the series, the tentatively titled Cold, Cold Hills, which takes its name from this bone-chilling Paul Kelly song.
While this is a pitch to get folks to sign up for the class, it is also a confessional. Combining my rich junkie history with how to write mysteries is a (wait for it) novel approach. But this is me. This is how I talk. How I convey information, straight from the heart, heart on the sleeve, no punches pull, name your cliché. Part of the benefit of living the way I did involves certain communicative skills. Maybe I always had them. Maybe it was the years on the street, nursed via survival, second chances, augmented with an education. I’ll never be sure. But I do know this: I can teach writing. I do it all day, every day. I have people–strangers, friends, everyone in between–writing me, and we talk writing, mostly because I am a lonely, lonely man desperate for validation, but also because I love to help.
Not people at large, mind you. I still possess disdain for mankind in general. But writers? Artists? I’d bleed for them. Especially ones who desperately want to be published–want to be published so bad the desire feeds off the marrow of their bones as they scream into a infinite abyss like Natalie Portman. I care about those people. Because that was me. And it sucked. I had all this stuff in my head and heart and I couldn’t get it out, and it ate me up. Cost me a wife. And it almost killed me. But then CCSU, FIU, Lynne, and I learned.
Now I want to teach other people how to do it. Because writing a book, specifically mysteries, is a formula. Note: NOT formulaic. As Lynne used to say, “All art is contrivance. When someone says something iscontrived, what they are really saying is the author/artist has done a bad job in concealing the puppet strings.” I am paraphrasing.
I fully expect to end up in academia someday. My dream job is to buy back the old family homestead in Berlin, and teach at my alma mater, Central Connecticut State University (Tom Hazuka, my number is the same). Until then, I’ll be ramping up classes like this (and the one I taught at Josh Mohr‘s place, the Writer’s Grotto), because I love talking shop, and after having slagged off so many years, it’s a joy to find something I’m good at that’s a benefit to others. Being a cynical bastard, I know I should caveat that with something snarky. But I can’t. When it comes to writing, I mean every goddamn word.
Just got back from my first Left Coast Crime. (Actually I am sitting in the airport waiting to board my flight. I have a feeling upon returning home, where my wonderful wife Justine watched the boys for the past three days I am not going to get a lot of “me” time to write this.)
As you may’ve noticed (or maybe not), I don’t blog much these days, and if I promise to do better, it’ll be like Dave Pirner says, “One more promise I couldn’t keep.” Just no time to blog. And I can’t get over the feeling that blogging has become like playing music live, a terribly invasive, in-your-face medium. At least with blogging I don’t have to haul my amp up a flight of stairs on a Wednesday night to “headline” (i.e., play last). Plus I get to include memes, which I realized at LCC is 99% of my material.
That and stories I’ve told a hundred times.
Sharing a cab ride to the airport Sunday morning with S.W. Lauden, he joked he was going to finish my “A lamb is a baby sheep” story that I’d told the previous night at the bar, which was probably the 7th time over the weekend I’d told that same story, replete with the same inflection, same manufactured observation, same, well, everything. (The story: about 2 years ago I dropped Holden off at preschool where they had adult and baby animals on the wall–cow, calf; pig, piglet, etc. When I got to “sheep/lamb,” I exclaimed, rather loudly, in a room full of moms and kids, “Holy shit! A lamb is a baby sheep!” Just never dawned on me. There’s more to the joke, which I am sure I will repeat another hundred times. See you all at Bouchercon.)
Reminded me of I Heart Huckabees and Jude Law’s Shania Twain story. (I can’t find a clip from the actual movie, but here is the audio over Adventure Time.)
And I know that sounds a little goofy. I’m six foot one, covered in tattoos, have a criminal record. At this point I should be able to get a coffee and not feel like my buddy Clayton once described David Byrne (“He was getting a coffee, all twitchy like everyone was watching him. No one was watching him!”). But it’s important to recognize your limitations, know what you are good at. I suck at math. Don’t ask me to hang a curtain rod. Some things I do well. Some I don’t. Just like everyone else in this life. In the middle of the conference we got a great write-up in the Washington Post about a new anthology I am in re: gun awareness, and some yahoo called me a “social justice warrior,” which caused me to panic, which makes no logical sense. He wasn’t even talking about me, but every author in the collection. I am an introvert. Big deal. But the only time I get close to feeling like I belong is a crime writers convention, where (like Frank sings) the best people I know are looking out for me.
I am glad I made the switch to genre and get to go to conferences like Left Coast and Bouchercon because as much as I fear/hate/loathe leaving my house, it is necessary. Unless I want to be one of those weirdoes with a car packed full of newspapers who listens only to transistor radios, I have to force myself to mix and mingle, and not only because my career demands it; it’s part of being human.
So that’s it. A big goddamn thank you to Left Coast, and specifically Ingrid Willis and Deborah Lacy, and all the folks who put these things together and make oddballs such as I feel so welcome (and a special thanks to Catriona McPherson, one of the very few whom I willingly hug!). As I prepare to hunker down indoors until New Orleans, I can’t express how much I need to do this. It’s a lot like working out. You don’t exactly look forward to the process, you know it’s going to be hard, but when you are done it was so fucking worth it.
On Saturday, my lovely wife Justine and I went to see The Revenant, the new film by Birdmandirector Alejandro González Iñárritu. And usual for any Tom Hardy movie, my wife hated it. She thinks I have a thing for slow, plodding, uber-violent manly-man movies (most of which star Tom Hardy), and she’s right; I do. I walked out mesmerized. The Reverant is not an “enjoyable” movie. Though beautifully shot, with wide, aching shots of the hostile, frozen landscapes (which appeals, for obvious reasons), it is difficult to watch at times. The film, like the best art, challenges, and its themes go full 11th grade high school English teacher on your ass (man vs. nature, man vs. man, man versus self).
Iñárritu makes you think, dig deep, and the movie doesn’t take easy outs. It is such a widely different film than Birdman, both stylistically and thematically. As an artist myself, I found that scope enthralling, to see a filmmaker willing to take the risks, shoot so high, achieve something grand and remarkable. Writing reviews is hard to do without spoilers. I’ll do my best, but if you haven’t seen the film, or The Hateful Eight, you might want to stop here.
A couple weeks ago, the wife and I saw Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight. And at the time, I thought it was … meh. Keep in mind, I love Tarantino. Though he only wrote (i.e., didn’t direct) True Romance, the film remains one of my all-time favs (and it is the movie my wife and I fell in love to). And Pulp Fictionis, hands down, one of the best films ever made. The only Tarantino I didn’t like was Jackie Brown, and even the ones I didn’t love (Inglourious Basterds) possess sublime moments. I thought Django was magnificent (we will discuss that shortly; in particular Tarantino’s infatuation with a certain derogatory term). H8 employs all the director’s strengths–character, dialogue, homage, a true genius for cinematography. But the whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. I left the theater feeling like I got my money’s worth. Like blowjobs and pizza, even bad Tarantino is pretty good.
Then again, I live in California, where they regularly put things like asparagus and nettles on pizza, and as for the other? Well, I’m married. But after seeing The Revenant, I’ve changed my mind about The Hateful Eight. It is a bad movie. The film commits the most egregious of sins; it opts for style over substance, and refuses to make any sort of meaningful statement. H8 is like that joke band, of which I knew so many in San Francisco back in the ’90s. Y’know, the kind, where every song is about erectile dysfunction and no one takes a damn thing seriously, like that 4-Non Blondes video–not, not song. I’m talking about the video for “What’s Up?” I love the song. Very emotive, honest, heartfelt, but the video is performed all winks and nods. Strap on a goofy hat, mug for the camera, try to have it both ways. I hate that shit. Frank Turner sings about the phenomena in “Four Simple Words”:
It’s really easy to make fun of everything when you don’t stand for anything.
That’s what Hateful Eight felt like. A big wink and a nod, a whole lot bluster and beauty signifying nothing. The acting is great. Sam Jackson is always wonderful. Kurt Russell terrific too. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of America’s best actresses. But the film is almost three hours long, and in the end it says … stuff. Plus, can Quentin Tarantino please stop with the n-word shit? It’s 2016. Can we evolve? In Django, a film about slavery, where the oppressed overcomes (to a degree), its usage makes some sense. Here it only highlights one of Tarantino’s real shortcomings.
The Reverant covers roughly the same time frame. I mean, it’s the fucking 1800s. If there are no cars and people have to poop in the woods, it’s the same time frame. But what radically different visions! And, yes, not every movie has to be heavy or severe. Even There’s Something About Mary, This Is Spinal Tap, and The Hangover has something to say. There can be sincerity in comedy, even the slapstick variety. An artist only has to take the leap and put their heart out there, take the risk of being judged (so glad the singular they is now accepted). And that is scary shit, for any artist. Or human being.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare the two. Like comparing Springsteen to a pop singer. Then again, I love Taylor Swift because she means what she sings. And I’ll close with this, a point on which both my wife and I agree: The Reverant is not an enjoyable movie. She hated it. I loved it. But, either, it’s not “enjoyable.” (Although I suppose that depends on your definition of the word “enjoyable.”) The Hateful Eight is enjoyable. It’s fine, easily digestible fare. Much like movie popcorn. Fun at the time, makes you a little sick later, and then becomes forgettable with no lasting nutritional value. The Reverant is something better than enjoyable. It does what all great art should do. It moves you.
What’s it say about me that my two favorite films of 2015 are sequels to movies from 1976 and 1977?
Obviousness aside, The Force Awakens, the long-awaited next installment in the Star Wars franchise, and Creed, the next Rocky movie nobody was clamoring for, would seem, on the surface, to have little in common, aside from the fact that I thought they were the year’s best, “best” being a relative term, meaning the ones I liked best, so, really, who gives a shit? I only know, leaving the theater produced furtive little feelings, euphoria and joy, I didn’t get following any other movie. Despite one film being a intergalactic space opera and the other a boxing movie, the two films share remarkable similarities. And since it’s the end of the year, all lists are arbitrary, and everyone loves fucking lists, here is a fucking arbitrary list because I need something to write about.
Since (inadvertently) ruining the ending of Breaking Bad (sorry, Kevin), I am a hyper-sensative about spoilers, forcing me to go a little more abstract than I’d like with a movie review, but not being a dick is important.
The Story Began 40 Years Ago / Seven Is a Lucky Number
When I planned on writing this post, I was going to choose which movie was better. Though I loved both, only one gave me that punch to the gut when I walked out the first time, Creed. (I’m a frustrated boxer at heart). But there were extenuating circumstances. I saw the movie alone, after visiting my pain management doctor (yes, my bones are still disintegrating), with lower expectations.
Creed is the story of Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of former champ Apollo, Rocky’s first opponent from 1976. Here “Donny” seeks out Rocky to train him. Simple enough premise. We’ll get to why the filmmaker and star deliver such a knockout shortly. And unless you live under and rock and/or are one of these people who “don’t own a TV,” you know the deal with the new Star Wars. But like Creed, here the baton has been handed off to a new generation. In both cases, there is an appeal to the past with a nod to the future (we can expect more Creed-based films. Though thankfully not more music. Because the band sucks).
Passing the Baton by Tapping into What Made Franchise Great (by Passing the Baton) Pt. I
Sylvester Stallone isn’t quite as culpable. Stallone has always been an odd artist, responsible for so much crab. I can’t begin to list all the Stop or My Mom Will Shoot offenses. Yet … the man gave us Rocky, which might just be the most American story every told. While the Star Wars universe is never-ending, Rocky is just the one story: a man rises from nobody to take a beating and show he has the heart of a champion. (Maybe it’s wishful thinking.) How many times can you tell that story in an original, refreshing way? Well, really just the one. And then there was Rocky II, III, IV, V, and VI (although it was called Rocky Balboa, technically.) I loved Rocky III as a kid. But it’s not a good movie. IV is comic book Cold War propaganda, and V is just fucking awful. Unlike George Lucas, Stallone still knows what makes Rocky great; he simply fell victim to flogging dead horses. Surprisingly Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI) is a damn good movie, so much so that I dreaded when I heard they were making Creed. RB was a great note to go out on. But Creed is, well, way better.
Passing the Baton by Tapping into What Made Franchise Great (by Passing the Baton) Pt. II
We are a funny lot, us humans. Or maybe it’s an American thing. I don’t know. I don’t leave my house much. I used to joke that one day I’d live virtually, and that has sorta come to fruition, given the amount of time I spend online, which is where my job is, my writing network, etc. As such, my take on reality may be skewed. But I have picked up patterns–and maybe this is accentuated by the online, anonymous culture–but the reaction to mainstream, populist culture always amuses me. And by amuses I mean bugs the fuck out of me.
Doesn’t matter what the “thing” is, if it’s popular enough, someone is always there to tell you how much they hate it. Which is really quite silly if you think about about. You have hundreds talking about how much they love something, but Bob over there feels compelled to let you know that he doesn’t like that … thing!
I wish I could say I was better. But I’m really not. Ask my wife.
Anytime Justine is watching some insipid reality show, whether it’s TheBachelor, the Bachelorette, or American Idol (or any number of the crappy ones she watches), I can’t walk in the room without letting her know how much I hate it. What does it matter if I think reality television is stupid? It’s not like my wife is asking me to watch it with her. But I do it every time. I’ll walk by and have to make a snarky comment about how lame I think that shit is. They get millions of viewers, every week–or else they wouldn’t be on the air–so clearly many, many people enjoy them. But I don’t. Like Ray Davis, I’m not like everyone else.
Of course I am right and they are wrong, my tastes correct, and if you don’t agree with me you are fundamentally lacking in aesthetic appreciation and artistic acumen. Duh. In short, I am no different than anyone else.
I hate the term “hater.” Much like I loath the phrase “disrespect” (respect is something you give–how can you impact in the negative?). But it’s part of the lexicon, and it fits here, so who am I to rage against?
I read some spoilers in Rolling Stone so it wasn’t that. Although some people felt compelled to do their best to ruin the experience any way they could, offering spoilers, trying to ruin the ending, etc. Again, I rag on the shit I don’t like, so this isn’t a “I’m better than” comment. More a commentary. What we don’t like shapes our identities as much as what we do. You have all these people super stoked to see a movie, with which they deeply identify, but it is every bit as important for another group (albeit statistically smaller) to let the world know they don’t like it! It’s the “I don’t watch/own TV” argument from Pulp Fiction.
I’ve been writing this blog for a while, so I know, like my 83-year-old shrink, that I repeat myself. But I’m getting old too. About the time Return of the Jedi came out, I was taking art in high school with Miss Wilensky (I think I have that right), and she introduced this concept called Notan, by which drawings are defined by negative shapes. That’s always stuck with me. I have a remarkable memory. I can’t remember stuff like receipts and taxes, but the important (barroom trivia) stuff stays in there.
As for the rest of it, no big deal. Got a couple funny texts/emails, like, “Did you unfriend me over Star Wars?” And the answer is, yes. But I didn’t mean to. I tried to unfollow certain naysayers because I wanted to enjoy the movie and not deal with the negativity (how’s that for irony?), but when that didn’t work I had to block the worst offenders. Apparently when you block on Facebook, you unfriend, so that was a little embarrassing. But not really. I might have to do it again. The Force Awakens reestablishes the Star Wars franchise in a big, big way, which means we can look forward to a couple absolute certainties: more Star Wars movies, and more people who feel compelled to tell you how much they hate a make-believe galaxy far, far away.
Some of you may’ve noticed (the lonelier among you) that I haven’t been blogging much lately. I popped back in a month ago, promising to blog more. And then proceeded to promptly break that promise. Hence the title of this post, one of the contenders for Pink Floyd’s “comeback” album in 1987, the Gilmour-led, underwhelming Momentary Lapse of Reason. All of which has little to do with nothing. Except it’s early and I don’t sleep well these days, not since my youngest son, Jackson Kerouac, displaced me in my own bed about four months ago, relegating me to the sofa (with my bad back).
As for why I’ve been in absentia, I have several very good excuses.
In case you’ve missed pointless musings and old KITH clips, I can explain. Truth is, like Danny Gardner, I cling to Catholic guilt. One, I’ve had a string of colds that has left me sounding like Sam Elliot. Another good, better excuse is I have too much shit to do. My paying job (I know it’s shocking but being a writer doesn’t pay all that well) practically doubled my hours. Then there’s the magazine, reading series, and being a dad/husband. Both my lovely wife, Justine, and I work, but she has the misfortune of going to an office, which involves a daily commute, something I refuse to do. Not just the commuting or even the day job part. Just, y’know, fuck pants. Point is: all those other household item stuffs–the bills, g-shopping, laundry (though we split the cumbersome, dreaded task of folding), cooking–falls on my shoulders (I make a mutherfucking mean quiche). Since my wife reads this, I have to make clear that we split household duties, and she gets sleepless nights with Jackson, who, though a doll during the day, suddenly turns to Rosemary’s Baby at night, scratching any exposed flesh with talon-like claws. But I’m home, so I deal with Comcast. Enough said.
Truth is, man, I’ve been writing. Like, a lot. That’s where much of the time has gone. I am working on a new standalone before I have to start the next Jay Porter book, which is yet untitled but already sold (advance spent). I am not worried about its being due in June. That was the case with December Boys last year. Sold the book. Due in June. Stuck the landing. The thing with me? I am great at repeating patterns, reliving those units of time. Some people, dirty hippies mostly, hate routines and rigidity. Though I share the free-spirit disdain for lower appendage restrictions (i.e., pants), I need routines. Because, as I wrote in Junkie Love, left to my own devices my results tend to suck. So I know the process to finish a book by June. I have to start writing it by January. I’ve been frantically trying to squeeze this new book in before I start that one. At 22K it’s been a slow show but I am planning on writing 50K in the next three weeks. Which I think I can do. Of course this 50K is going to suck, but I want to get it down.
I was really cooking and then we went to Disney World for Thanksgiving to meet the real-life Jay Porter. Jay is based on my half-brother, Jay Streeter, who lives down there. Since Jay has, effectively, landed me a 3-book deal, I figured it was time the kids all met. Jay and his wife Kristina have three kids Holden’s age. The funny thing about the real-life Jay (RLJ) is he still hasn’t read Lamentation, which has become a running joke. At least on my end. When I sent RLJ the audio version with Timothy McKean’s awesome reading, he still hadn’t gotten around to even listening. I was busting his balls, and RLF was making excuses. He was like, “I know, Joe, but I want to listen to it in my truck, but my radio doesn’t work. I have this new radio, in the package and everything. I’ve just been so goddamn busy I haven’t gotten around to installing it. The fucking thing is still in the package. Sitting in my truck. Just have to find the time to put it in.” And I said, “Y’know, Jay, that exact scene is in my book.” It’s true. There’s a scene in Lamentation where Jay Porter is kvetching about how his radio doesn’t work and he has this new one his boss gave him (both Jays working the swap shop/flea market scene) but he just can’t find the time to put it in. It was pretty funny.
Disney was wonderful. My sister, Melissa, and her new husband met us. It was great getting the families together (finally). Disney, as I’ve mentioned, is my only happy childhood memory, hence Holden’s 7th trip in his 5 years. But it gummed up my writing machine, and I am just now getting back up to speed.
Plus, I know when December Boys comes out, I will have to, again, ramp up the self-promotion stuff. Figured y’all could use a break from me (I know I could). Or to quote Gluehead, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”
Maybe it’s left over from my days doing meth or a perverse appreciation of early M. Night Shyamalan movies, but I still look for signs. Not in the hippy-dippy, cosmic sense. Okay, maybe a little bit. Some call it God. Others the Universe. We can go with the Force to keep all parties happy and non-offended. I wasn’t always like this. But like Han Solo, I reserve the right to change my mind. It’s how we evolve.
One of the shitty parts about becoming a writer is you trade in the magic for the mechanics. That is, you willingly surrender the transformative powers of (reading) literature to create the illusion for others. It’s a worthwhile trade. Writing books for a living is fucking awesome. I am not complaining (at least no more than usual). But it does suck that I can’t read a book anymore without picking it apart, dissecting the engine to reassemble my own Mickey-moused gears. To misquote Steve Earle, I take every book apart to see how they work.
Twice in the last decade I got swept up again, became just another reader, a fanboy who couldn’t put down the book. A former professor of mine, James W. Hall, said after he read Silence of the Lambsthat he felt both enthralled and disheartened. Which is what happens when a book is so good you realize the bar has been raised that much higher. That’s how I felt when I finished Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.
I read The Girl on the Trainwhile I was vacationing in Cabo with the family earlier this year. The locale certainly didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the book. Sitting poolside, sipping margaritas (all-inclusive is the only way I roll), I devoured the book in two days, and have recommended it, ad nauseum, to everyone who’ll listen. I gave a reading a few weeks ago down in Pacifica. After my Q&A, a line formed at the register. They were all buying Girl on the Train. That’s how hard I pimp that book. Great art must be rewarded.
I’d written Portland author Johnny Shaw, who said if I did come up I’d have a place to stay. Then I had lunch with my agent, Liz, and our foreign rights people. (Italy and Spain are interested in Lamentation. But I really want the French.) We were talking about Girl on the Trainand how much I love the book. I mentioned I was even thinking of going to the reading at Powell’s. All during lunch, my phone was going off with incoming messages. After we ate, I checked my e-mail to see I’d … won a meet and greet with Paula Hawkins at Powell’s. Apparently, I’d entered an Instagram contest about a question I’d ask. I don’t even remember doing so. I don’t sleep well at night. See? The Universe, God … The Force. So I booked a flight.
In the days leading up to the reading, I revisited The Girl on the Train. Like any great work, the book only proved better a second time. I don’t want to give spoilers in case you haven’t read it (and if you haven’t read it, what the fuck is wrong with you?). All I know is from the first line, you get sucked in. I suppose voice is the most obvious culprit. Though the book is told via 3 first person narrators, this is Rachel’s story. She is the girl on the train. Alcoholic, defeated, broken. A loser. If you know my past, you can see why such a heroine would appeal to me. There is also the top-flight mystery and flawless pacing.
On this second reading of The Girl on the Train, something did change: my opinion of Rachel. My question, the one that had won me the meet and greet, was simple: Where is Rachel now? Without giving too much away, I wanted to know if she conquered her demons. The first reading I would’ve said no. The second time through? I think she just might make it.
As for the night itself, I mean, it was fucking awesome. Paula’s super nice and down-to-earth, gracious with her time, funny. I got to bring along Johnny Shaw (who gave me an Advanced Reader’s Copy of his newest novel, Floodgate–eat your heart out, Pitts) and fellow author Michelle Bellon, whose work I’ve read and love (and blurbed). I got to meet Oliver Brennan, another neurotic Portland writer who tries to never leave the house. Once we got past the expected awkwardness of cramming socially challenged writers in a very tiny space, I was able to talk to one of my favorite writers about a work that has shaped my own. While I was reading The Girl on the Train in Mexico, I’d been simultaenously wrapping up my latest novel, December Boys. Though the style and subject matter may differ, there are definitely some threads that link the two, certainly that of madness and doubting one’s own perception, etc.
As a writer, you don’t get much opportunity for social interaction. Rather you do your best to avoid it. You eventually have to leave the house of course. Grocery shopping. Doctor’s appointments. Dinner parties. But it’s never easy. At least not for me. Talking to normals has always felt taxing. Which is hardly a reflection on mankind and more a commentary on the faulty wiring in my brain. At this point, my neurosis has become a tic, a slight limp, the stutter that is a permanent part of my personality, neither ingrained nor hidden; it’s simply who I am.
I was talking to Josh Stallings in the bookroom at Bouchercon, both of us frittering awkward, acknowledging how foreign group activities are to persons of our ilk.
“And this crowd,” Josh said, “these are our people. This is as good as it gets for guys like us.”
It’s why I look forward to the conference so much every year, despite knowing how much it will exhaust me. The trip isn’t cheap. It often involves a long flight. Add in the hotel and cab rides and meals (which this year included the fabulous Chuck’s, which had some of the tastiest burgers and shakes I’ve ever devoured), and, well, it’s not cheap. But it’s worth every cent.
Everyone wants to win, and even if it’s is “just an honor to be nominated,” wanting to win is human nature, and coming up short, regardless of the length of odds, will always hurt. After the Awards were over, I was disappointed. Not devastated. Just, well, it sucks. I also knew all my friends were going to offer condolences. Which made me want to disappear for a while. Sometimes it’s easier to take the insults and cruelty than it is the kindness. But they all offered, and we joked and laughed–I got a few emails and texts–and by the end of the night the sting was pretty dull.
I woke up the next morning feeling … grateful. It’s going to sound crazy. But the last time I felt like I had friends like this was when I was a junkie. For all their faults, drugs addicts are a tight-knit community, a group of misfits, bound together by defect and long-shot dreams. For all intents and purposes, that defines writers too (many of whom, not so coincidentally, are former addicts and alcoholics, at least in the crime community). My point is, I feel like I have friends again. Some are carry-overs like Tom Pitts, and my buddy from grad school, B-Con neophyte Mike Creeden. Most of these people voted for my books, and really cared about the outcome and my feelings after the vote. Several I’d first met online, and we’d had long, in-depth conversations electronically before ever meeting face-to-face. And now these friendships mean the world.
So to Tom, Todd, Mike & Mike, Brian, the Rob(s), Ro, Danny, Michelle, Tommy, Terrence, Richard, The Pluckster, Chris, The Shotgun Honey Crew, Warren, Marietta, Les, Kate, Angel, Rebecca, Christa, Ed, Soledad, Jed, Jen, Jack, Johnny, Jay, Josh, Hilary, Travis, Steve, Seth, Matt, Pam, James, all the variations of Er(y)(i)(c)(k), and everyone else I may’ve missed: thank you. Sitting at the Anthony Awards, having my publishers from Oceanview sitting next to me, surrounded by all you guys supporting me, well, it was touching.
This has already been a pretty fucking sentimental post, so I might as well go all the way. You get much further in this life I believe by lifting one another up than trying to push someone else down. I’ll stop short of saying I love you all, which would probably only invite more people trying to touch me. I’ll just say I look forward to seeing you all next year. Some more of “our tribe” will be nominated. And this time, we’re taking home the gold. (Or at least some decorative dinnerware, as is the case.)
Tom Pitts used to say, “Reading options suck when the gutter is your library.” They don’t let junkies into the actual library, because junkies immediately head to the bathroom, clog up the toilet, and get blood everywhere. The SF libraries have timers on the lock (and good luck hitting a tiny capillary in five minutes with that dim light). I once read Men Are from Mars; Women Are from Venus simply because I found that crap lying on the street. Oh, who am I kidding? I fucking loved that book (and it would go on to serve as the basis for my myriad marriages and subsequent divorces). Junkies collect stray books like broken men and regrets. You have nothing but time to kill and a life to waste. You see homeless selling these books for a buck on scabies-infested blankets next to broken toasters and one shoe, but that is wishful thinking. Because you can find books for free everywhere when you’re a bum. Just can’t be too selective. You read what you find. Can’t say I’d ever pick up The Unauthorized Biography of Art Garfunkelotherwise. There are, of course, divine exceptions.
One day I found Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnightlying in the gutter. I’d probably been walking to Gluehead’s shack, a trek I made most every day to grovel for speed. Or maybe I was coming back from Martin De Porres, the soup kitchen on 16th @ Potrero, which cooked up the best oatmeal. I don’t know where I found the book, exactly, only that I did, and that I read it, straight through, riveted. Midnight fast became a favorite, like Catcher in the Ryeor On the Road; like it was written just for me. The day the movie version came out, I borrowed my dead friend Troy’s car to take my crazy wife on a date down in Colma. Cost me half a gram. Best balloon I ever spent.
I just did an interview with the Last Bookstore, which will be hosting my upcoming reading with Jerry and Ryan Leone (Wasting Talent). Like I told them, I know this will sound hyperbolic: but Jerry Stahl saved my life. At least his book did. Or maybe not. Maybe I would’ve eventually stopped shooting junk all on my own, got off the street, gone on to earn my degrees, get married, have kids, publish a bunch of books, and buy a big house in the suburban hills regardless. I have no way of knowing. But the day I found Permanent Midnight, I was eating out of dumpsters and selling my blood (the UFO Study would give you $20 to test for diseases), I was at least 50 pounds lighter than I am now, my face was covered in pancake makeup to hide the sores and oozing pus, and I was dying. Permanent Midnight showed me there was another way for guys like us. Full of self-loathing and black, gallows humor, the story told of a deranged and damaged man who found the better parts of himself through words. Jerry Stahl offered me something in short supply in those days: hope.
And here it is, almost 20 years later. On Thursday, I get to read with one of my literary heroes, Jerry Stahl. I’ve written a lot of fiction since I picked my ass up off the street, but I could’ve have written a better script. No one would believe it.