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Archive for August, 2010

Lost in an Office Building

August 29th, 2010 1 comment
Some of the very earliest ideas for Shimmer came while I was working as a marketing assistant for a big accounting firm in New York. I hated everything about the job. Except for the view. I was in the World Financial Center next to the World Trade Center. The group of 20 or so people I was in were positioned next to what was essentially a wall of glass, floor to ceiling, one end of the building to another, all of it looking out on the Hudson River. I couldn’t figure out why we had such a nice space. We were consultants to an investment bank, actually, and were only supposed to be in the building temporarily. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the scope of the accounting firm’s work for the bank wasn’t very well defined because, many days, I did nothing. I just stared out that wall of windows. I was only a marketing assistant, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but I started to realize that a lot of the full-blown accountants also seemed to be doing nothing. It was as if we’d been forgotten, there on the 15th floor of the building, taking up a huge swath of space, sitting in our cubicles in a deeply pleasant quiet. All of us just looking out on the Hudson. The experience led me to write about the Unoccupied Territories in Shimmer, the fresh and pristine office spaces that the company built in advance of them hiring a new group of employees. And it also led me to include the Rogue Sections, the groups who’d managed to completely remove themselves from any meaningful contribution to the company. And it led me to have Robbie just standing at his window, and staring out, looking at the Hudson and the sunset beyond the river. In the World Financial Center, one day a woman walked into the middle of our group with a clipboard, looked around at all of us, and said, after a moment, “What in the world are all of you doing here?” We weren’t supposed to be there. She was in charge of space assignments for the entire building. And she’d had no idea we wee there. She was moving some group in the next day. She was furious. To her, we didn’t exist. She kept checking her clipboard, looking for some reference to our existence. Within a week, she had us moved to a cramped basement office. Thankfully, it was August and I was going back to graduate school. I think I spent one day in that basement. Maybe not even that. I can’t really remember.  All I remember is that view.
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Postcards From the Church of Scientology

August 26th, 2010 Comments off
I’m on the mailing list for the Church of Scientology. Every day, I get an average of four pieces of direct mail related to Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard. Newsletters, book offers, catalogs selling a seemingly endless number of lectures by L. Ron Hubbard, and numerous invitations to training events at schools, resorts and even on cruise ships. I have no idea why I’m receiving all this mail. It’s been going on since we moved to our current home. There used to be a Church of Scientology a few blocks from my house and so, when the mailings started, I assumed I was being subjected to some sort of “new neighbor marketing campaign” — the type of direct mail effort generally associated with corner dry cleaners, lawn services and your run-of-the-mill Protestant church. Yet nearly four years later, the Scientology mailings continue. I can only assume that I was put on the list by mistake, or a friend signed me up as a joke. Sometimes, when my wife is sorting through the inch-tall stack of Scientology correspondence, she turns to me and asks, “Are you sure you’re not secretly a Scientologist? Maybe you just — “and at this point she’ll make quote marks with her fingers — “stopped by the church in a moment of weakness?” We’ve only been married 4 years. In the history of marriage, I suppose there are more shocking revelations than that your spouse is a secret Scientologist. But I’m not a Scientologist. Still, sometimes I find myself spending just a little extra time with some of the materials. Scientology is surrounded by such an aura of the absurdly mysterious that I can’t help but hope that some secret will be revealed in the fine print of a Business Reply Envelope. So far, what I’ve learned is that Scientologists use a lot of lingo to which the rest of us are not privy. What’s a FLAG? An OT? What’s a CCH? What’s my Tone Scale? Am on the proper “route to exteriorization”? Can I be on that route without trying? I’m baffled by it all. Which seems to be somewhat intentional. Because what’s most interesting to me is the deep and pervasive sense of disdain Scientologists seem to hold for non-Scientologists. I’m a fairly “confident” person, I have to admit, but the Scientologists make me look humble by comparison. The other thing I’ve learned is that I could spend every dollar I make buying Scientology resources. Books, recordings and the aforementioned training events. There’s no end to what I could spend. And learn.

I'm on the mailing list for the Church of Scientology. Every day, I get an average of four pieces of direct mail related to Scientology. Newsletters, book offers, catalogs selling a seemingly endless number of lectures by L. Ron Hubbard, and numerous invitations to training events at schools, resorts and even on cruise ships.

I have no idea why I'm receiving all this mail. It's been going on since we moved to our current home. There used to be a Church of Scientology a few blocks from my house and so, when the mailings started, I assumed I was being subjected to some sort of "new neighbor marketing campaign" -- the type of direct mail effort generally associated with corner dry cleaners, lawn services and even your run-of-the-mill Protestant church.

Yet nearly four years later, the Scientology mailings continue. I can only assume that I was put on the list by mistake, or a friend signed me up as a joke.

Sometimes, when my wife is sorting through the inch-tall stack of Scientology correspondence, she turns to me and asks, "Are you sure you're not secretly a Scientologist? Maybe you just -- "and at this point she'll make quote marks with her fingers -- "stopped by the church in a moment of weakness?"

We've only been married 4 years. In the history of marriage, I suppose there are more shocking revelations than that your spouse is a secret Scientologist.

But I'm not a Scientologist. Still, sometimes I find myself spending just a little bit of time with some of the materials. Scientology is surrounded by such an aura of the absurdly mysterious that I can't help but hope that some secret will be revealed in the fine print of a Business Reply Envelope.

So far, what I've learned is that Scientologists use a lot of lingo to which the rest of us are not privy. What's a FLAG? An OT? What's a CCH? What's my Tone Scale? How do I get on the proper "route to exteriorization"?

I'm baffled by it all. Which seems to be somewhat intentional. Because what's most interesting to me is the deep and pervasive sense of disdain Scientologists seem to hold for non-Scientologists. I'm a fairly "confident" person, I have to admit, but the Scientologists make me look humble by comparison.

The other thing I've learned is that I could spend every dollar I make buying Scientology resources. Books, recordings and the aforementioned training events. There's no end to what I could spend. And learn.

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Layoffs & Excel: How I Started Writing Shimmer

August 17th, 2010 Comments off
Somehow, when I was 35 years old, I found myself as Chief Operating Officer of a $15 million publishing company. We employed 200 people, we published all over the country, we had plans to grow even bigger, faster. I think I got that title largely because of a moment some years earlier, when we were trying to raise money from venture capitalists, but lacked a CFO who could provide them the details they needed. The owner of the company looked at me and said, “Do you think you can put together a spreadsheet?” I had no financial background. Minimal understanding of accounting. I’d been hired as an editor. But the owner was, like so many entrepreneurs, one of those people to whom it is almost impossible to say no. “Sure I can,” I said. I locked myself in my office for a month, taught myself the dark inner workings of Excel, and proceeded to construct an extraordinarily — perhaps ridiculously — elaborate model of all aspects of the company’s operations. When I was done, it was more than 500 pages long. There was no Ponzi scheme behind the model. But as we presented it to potential investors, it became clear that the complexity of the model gave it a self-fulfilling quality. The investors studied the numbers. And they wanted to believe. And so, in those same meetings, my mind started to wander. What would it be like to create a model built on a lie? At night, in the morning, I started to work on Shimmer. Meanwhile, the publishing company had grown too fast and gotten too big. We started cutbacks, layoffs, firings. It was awful. I stood in rooms of 20 people, all of them getting laid off. I met with a woman who’d just had a baby, laying her off as she cried into her hands. I laid one person off over the phone, calling her at home because she’d been sick, using a speakerphone to end it as she lay in bed in her trailer. She’d been with the company for 10 years. Those moments haunt me still. The realization that with my extravagant title, my elaborate model, and my power to have hired so many of these people, with all that I had taken these people into my trust. Every layoff and cutback, however, felt like a violation of that trust. I violated it often. In 2002, I bought five cases of beer, called a staff meeting, and told the remaining 60 people they no longer had a job. We had found investors, but they turned out to be in financial trouble beyond anything I could have imagined. The bank cut our funding. They stopped taking my calls. In the end, there wasn’t even enough money to file bankruptcy. We just walked away. For weeks, the phones still rang. The Web sites were still live. Even the email worked. I assume it was the landlord who finally shut off the lights.

Wanted: Agent Who Likes Arson, Leaves and Stories of Financial Malfeasance

August 7th, 2010 Comments off
I’m looking for a new agent. I hate looking for an agent. Maybe some agent will read this before I even start the process of reaching out to people. Maybe they’ll magically, send me an email saying that they’d love to represent me. Like the magical love affair in a sweet and simple book. I’m still trying to sort out which book I want to send out next. It’s either going to be High of Sixty, about a bankrupt bill collector hiding out in Alaska, or Powdered Milk, about a reporter covering a series of arsons in Connecticut. I finished rereading both over the last two weeks. I hadn’t read Powdered Milk in a year or so. It’s a funny but ultimately very disturbing book. It’s strange for me to have written something so unsettling. Not that I haven’t written lots of dark stories. But I’d forgotten how slowly but deeply the strangeness in Powdered Milk reveals itself. I forget a lot about much of what I write. Not sure that’s normal or not. But so be it. I haven’t written a blurb or pitch or synposis for Powdered Milk yet. It’ll go something like this, though:
Powdered Milk is a novel about arsons, and the newspaper reporter covering them in three isolated Connecticut towns. It is a novel about secrets. It is a novel about sex. It is, in the end, a novel about submarines, love, fire and Monty Breel, a 31-year-old reporter for the local bi-weekly called The Gazette. And it is a novel about leaves. Lots and lots of leaves.
Who wouldn’t want to read that? The High of Sixty pitch is looking something like this:
High of Sixty is the story of a bankrupt bill collector hiding from his debts in a dark, forgotten office building in Juneau, Alaska. It’s a book about the awkwardness of friendship, the loss of wealth, unforgivable mistakes and a bad love affair. It’s a book that, at least in part, is meant to be funny. And it’s a book about Carter’s aunt lighting his uncle on fire at the holidays. It is a book about inter-office memos printed in the waxy purple ink of old mimeograph machines. It is a book about sneaking on board cruise ships to sip tequila and do the rhumba.
So many choices.

Genres and the Voices in My Head

August 4th, 2010 1 comment
I don’t think I ever picked how I write, or even a genre in which to write. It’s more, for me, about the voice in my head. I’m not sure I know where that voice came from. Maybe I don’t even want to know where it came from. But I started to write because, somewhere in my mind, there was a story and a voice and a fundamental thing that I wanted to say and that I thought people would want to read. I’ve written in a variety of different voices or styles, now that I look back on it. Many of the first stories I published were in a much darker, more barren, even sometimes violent style. But that changed over time so that, while Shimmer is still often fairly dark, it’s also sometimes funny. There are light moments. And, certainly, it’s a book without violence, in style or content. That said, to some degree, I’ve always been influenced by, or even tried to emulate, writers I like, particularly Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. And yet I don’t think I ever particularly sound like the writers that have most influenced me. Shimmer certainly doesn’t sound anything like Cormac McCarthy and similarities to Delillo are, maybe, there. Maybe. And so it really comes back to the unexplained voices in my head. Excerpts from an interview on This Book For Free. http://thisbookforfree.com/?p=1002