Archive for the ‘About Writing’ Category

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.

I have never seen Footloose

July 31st, 2010 Comments off
I have never seen Footloose. This seems important to me right now, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that I’m finishing a manuscript, a novel, that’s a relatively disturbing story. I wrote it many years ago, and am editing some parts now, and may start sending it out to agents soon. Few of the characters in the book, called Powdered Milk, would have ever been interested in seeing Footloose. Few of them would have watched Friends. I’ve never seen an episode of Friends. I’ve never seen Top Gun. Most people my age have. Maybe I’m wondering how my writing would be different if I had been interested in seeing these particularly age-defining movies and shows. Maybe I’m wondering if exposure to Top Gun would mean that I wouldn’t, once again, be looking for an agent, if I were more in touch with popular culture. It’s a powerful movie, it seems. People still talk about it these many years later. I once told a friend of mine that I’d never seen Friends. He called me Un-American. He was only partly joking. None of which is to say that I don’t enjoy many, many mainstream movies or popular TV shows. I’ve gladly watched virtually every episode of Sponge Bob Squarepants with my children. I’ve watched each of the Star Wars movies more time than I’ll willingly admit. But Footloose, it seems so happy. Friends as well. I’ve seen clips, I’ve heard people talk about these shows. People I know and like. They get a certain joy out of watching Footloose. Out of repeating bits and pieces of a favorite episode of Friends. Good and simple and popular stories, it seems, that people like very much. Sometimes I think I want to write very different fiction from what I do now. Science Fiction, maybe. Something purely funny. Or a heart-warming tale of youthful rebellion. Set to music. But I’d have to use a different name, I come to realize. Otherwise it wouldn’t be me.
Categories: About Writing, Posts, Powdered Milk Tags:

Robbie Case and the Real-Life Frauds – The three parts of Robbie

July 28th, 2010 Comments off
Someone asked me about the similarities between Robbie and any real-life frauds who run companies around the world. One note about the following is that, a year or so into the first draft of Shimmer, I realized that Robbie, Perry and Trevor had never appeared in the same room together. That realization, and the way in which each of the three formed the kind of whole described below, is what led me to end the book the way it ends. Without going too far with this, when I think about whether Robbie is symbolic of any real-life corruption, I have to think of him as three people — he’s Perry, Robbie and Trevor all in one. They are three views of the executive in the midst of the fraud. Trevor is at one extreme — the person who knows about the fraud, who was actually part of setting it in motion, and doesn’t care. Perry is at the other extreme — living in a kind of hopeful denial, wishing what he feels to be true wasn’t real, yet nonetheless working quietly to bring the fraud to an end. And then there’s Robbie, in the middle, knowing what he is doing is wrong, struggling with the ethics and morality of it every day, wanting not to benefit from the fraud, but unable to confess to the fraud, or to reject the fraud completely. So how does that relate to real-life frauds? I think the truth is that real-life frauds are more varied in their motivations than we want to admit, more so, at least, than the press often shows. Some of these people are purely and consciously diabolical. These are the Trevor’s of the world. But some are clearly more conflicted, they are swept up in a corruption that, while it’s of their own making, they want to undo it, like Robbie. And some are blind to the truth because they believe in what they’re doing but are, eventually, too smart and too caring to deny the truth forever, like Perry. Perry, for instance, in my mind, would have become a whistle-blower had Robbie not agreed to give everything up. Whistle-blowers — of corporate or government corruption – are modern heroes, I think. The pressure and threats that they face when they fight their bosses, when they speak truth to power, it’s unimaginable. We all can talk a good talk about doing what’s right, about avoiding anything unethical, but if it’s you’re job — the paycheck that feeds your children, that heats your house, that puts food on the table — if all that is on the line, would you speak up? Would you put yourself at risk? So many people wouldn’t. Perry, in that sense, is the true goodness in the novel. Not just because he listens to his own ethical voice, but especially because he helps — pushes, goads, enables — Robbie to find his own best self, the self that can give everything up, that can do what is right. Put another way, some of these frauds we see are, I am sure, awful people. People I wouldn’t want to share a cab with, wouldn’t enjoy a drink with. But other people who we see getting led away from the courtroom, I think that most of us would, if we spent time with them and learned what led them to them to their fraudulent and corrupt acts, we’d find that they were actually quite nice. Quite decent. Well intentioned. Human.

Music, Writing and a Shimmer Playlist

July 8th, 2010 Comments off
There are a number of things that tend to surprise people about how I write. One is that, for the most part, I write out of order and without an outline. The other surprise is that I listen to music while I write. I know I’m not alone in doing this. But, for people who don’t write, it often surprises them that I can write with music playing, a seeming distraction from what I’m doing. For me, though, the music helps. While writing the very dark Tacoma stories that ultimately made up my as-yet-unpublished novel Circus Vargas, for instance, I listened to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. I listened to them over and over, often at the highest volume my ears would allow. And yet it’s worth noting that, for reasons I’ll never understand, I don’t much listen to the lyrics of songs. This is not limited to listening to music while writing; this is a reality whenever I listen to music. I find no interest in the insights, imagery or possible meaning of the words to any songs I listen to. I read Gravity’s Rainbow recently, and even struggled to pay attention to the song lyrics that permeate the book. The same words, set as prose, would have interested me more. It’s not surprising, I guess, that some of my favorite music, especially while writing, is singer-less (lyric-less? I’m resisting the word “instrumental,” which evokes Muzak and Lawrence Welk) music like Bitches Brew and ambient Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. Over the past decade, I’ve started listening to the dark, orchestral (and vaguely pretentious) music of Godspeed You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt Zion Orchestra. There are songs of theirs that I’ve listened repeatedly, more times than seems possible, while writing. I’m listening to Silver Mt Zion now. “Sow Some Lonesome Corner So Many Flowers Bloom.” It’s part of the loose playlist I put together to go with Shimmer. Music I listened to while writing and editing the book. Music that, it seems to me now, goes well with the book. The list is here on my site. And portions are here on iTunes and Last.FM. (Rights issues, apparently, prevented me from putting the complete list on those sites.) I’ve even managed to copy and paste the list here. It’s in order, by the way, the music following the changes in the novel.
Aphex Twin
Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2 Disc 2
Brian Eno/Brian Eno
Ambient 1: Music for Airports
Sow Some Lonesome Corner So Many Flowers Bloom
A Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band With Choir
This Is Our Punk-Rock, These Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing
Talk Show Host
Romeo + Juliet
Friday Miles
Miles Davis
At Fillmore [UK] Disc 2
The Dharma At Big Sur, Part I: A New Day
BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams & Tracy Silverman
Adams: The Dharma At Big Sur – My Father Knew Charles Ives
Dirty Harry
Demon Days
Storm: Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven; Gathering Storm
Godspeed You Black Emperor!
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven Disc 1
How to Disappear Completely
Kid A
Accelera Deck
Hamlet [2000]
Half Day Closing
Strange Overtones
David Byrne and Brian Eno
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Spain Never Made It
Foundry Field Recordings
Rabbit in Your Headlights
Psyence Fiction
This Time
The Smashing Pumpkins
MACHINA/The Machines of God
Bell Bottom Blues
Derek & The Dominos
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Elton John
Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy
The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
Everlong (Live)
Foo Fighters
Skin and Bones [Live]
God Is an Astronaut
All Is Violent, All Is Bright
Steam Engine
My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves
New World
Selmasongs: Music From the Motion Picture Soundtrack Dancer in the Dark
For the Beauty of Wynona
Daniel Lanois
For The Beauty of Wynona
Jane Says
Jane’s Addiction
Nothing’s Shocking
Secret World
Peter Gabriel
Pearl Jam
Breaking the Girl
The Red Hot Chili Peppers
Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Road Out West
Vending Machine
5 Piece Kit
In the Light
Led Zeppelin
Physical Graffiti
Skinny Love
Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago
Special Cases
Massive Attack
100th Window
Goodbye Blue Sky
Pink Floyd
The Wall
Herd of Instinct
Pink Floyd
I Will Sing You Songs
My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves
Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)
George Harrison
All Things Must Pass Disc 1
We Dance
Wowee Zowee
Donavon Frankenreiter
The Abbey Road Sessions (Live)
In Rainbows
Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World
Achtung Baby
Summer Breeze
The Isley Brothers
The Ultimate Isley Brothers
Categories: About Shimmer, About Writing, Posts Tags:

Early Notes on Shimmer (Or, How I Started Shimmer Before Madoff Was Even a Fraud)

June 25th, 2010 Comments off
Virtually every interview I’ve done about Shimmer has involved questions about Bernie Madoff. The pre-promotion of the book was occuring as the Madoff story was unfolding, more details coming out every day or week. And the hardcover was published within weeks, I believe, of his sentencing in New York. On some level, this was good, because it drew attention to the book. But there were downsides. The Madoff connection cast Shimmer in even more thriller-esque light. The book isn’t a thriller, but was sometimes perceived as one – because it involves a Ponzi Scheme and lies and so on — and the Madoff parallels only supported that, as it empowered reviewers and interviewers to throw out words like “timely” and “prescient.” During many interviews, I end up spending a great deal of time politely explaining how the book is not a true thriller and was written long before – 10 or more years before – the Madoff story broke. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that another downside of the Madoff comparisons was a certain skepticism among book sellers that Shimmer had been bought, let alone written, before the Madoff story broke. It’s as if the book sellers were concerned Shimmer was a quickie book, written simply to capitalize on the Madoff story, almost like one of those “unauthorized” biographies that come out when a star dies and/or is imprisoned. I always said that I’d written the first version of the book 10 years before it was published, which is true. But the other day I found a file of notes and ideas for stories and novels. The dates are 1995 and 1997, when I’d finished a manuscript for a novel, High of Sixty, Occasional Rain (about a bankrupt bill collector hiding out in Alaska) that was being shopped in New York. I was trying to figure out what I’d work on next. I didn’t start Shimmer till 1999 — instead I worked on Powdered Milk (about a reporter covering a series of arsons in New England) — but was making notes about ideas for Shimmer before then. Here are some of the notes. In one form or another, all of this made it into the novel: New York 4/22/95 Riding in a cab that’s squeaking … the sound echoing through the car, cruising up Broadway. 7/4/97 The walls lined with file cabinets, the grand views of Colgate in New Jersey. Living on the 39th floor of a building with a subway stop in the basememt. Maybe this is the novel where there’s something that happens, some freak accident, one click too many on an insurance form, and the character is wronged. And, or, also, there’s the proposal at work, some … campaign, a new product feature, something that begins to spiral, build and escalate. All of it’s in New York. All of it is in buildings. In the winter. In the dark. I’ll post some more from the note file soon.

Dreams Where I Get Food Poisoning

December 16th, 2009 Comments off
n+1 logo Keith Gessen, co-editor of the journal N+1 and former book critic for New York Magazine, selected one of my short stories, “Dreams Where I Can Fly” (Raritan, Spring 2009), for publication in the Italian magazine Internazionale well as listing it as one of his favorite stories for 2009. This was my thank you note to him, which, for reasons eventually explained in the post, I couldn’t send to him directly. This is really nice of you to list my story as one of your favorites of the year and it makes me think that I haven’t thanked you properly for selecting my story for Internazionale. I’m actually not sure I thanked you at all, let alone enough, because when you emailed me that you wanted the story for Internazionale I was ill, violently, terribly, deliriously ill with food poisoning. My hands were shaking as I typed my response and the ensuing follow-up messages — of which there may have been two or ten, I’m not sure — were typed between bouts of vomiting and fitful, delirious stretches of sleep. testata270I’ve had food poisoning four times now in my life and so it’s getting to be a kind of badge of honor, like the number of hallucinogenic wanderings you’ve taken before you’re 21. But like an acid trip, food poisoning – and, maybe especially, the drugs they give you to get over the nausea — leave you spent and deadened for many days afterward. A lost week, to be sure. It’s possible that if a very gracious and well-written Italian editor hadn’t contacted me more than a week after you and I corresponded, I might well have never remembered any of this. Or I might have written it all off as a low grade, historically unanchored flashback. Which, besides being unacceptably rude, would have been deeply unfortunate. So strange was that week of illness and its unexpected connection to the selection of this story that yet another week went by after I exchanged emails with the Italian editor before I remembered that, coincidentally, I’m going to be in Italy in March and could have coffee or wine or both (but not sushi, which will almost certainly still be off-palate then) with the editor, assuming that his spoken English is as good as his written. htmlgiant_logobAnd even that, the coincidence of my going to Italy for a trip planned long before you contacted me or I took that fated journey to my neighborhood sushi bar, all of it only adds to the dreamy dislocation of this entire event. Finally, because I’m seven paragraphs into this, I can’t not note that my confusion over all this only continued by my seeing this post via a cryptic automated Google alert email, the kind of message that usually announces that an “Eric Barnes” in rural Wyoming has been released on parole, but that this time listed my name next to the title of a story of mine, which led me to believe that the alert was, this time, about me. The last complication, I hope, is that while I was able to read your post yesterday, when I tried to go back to the post in the morning, the link would not work, which, of course, sends me back into a state of total dislocation over whether any of this really did happen. The subtext of all this, of course, is that while I appear to be writing this as a simple comment on your blog, I am in fact writing it elsewhere on my computer and will, when possible, copy and paste it into your blog as if it were the effortless ramblings of a thankful writer. In the meantime, I think I’ll post this to my own blog, just to alter the order of events on this a little bit more. Again, I’m glad you enjoyed “Dreams Where I Can Fly.” Thanks for giving it this attention.

William Eggleston and Tacoma

October 13th, 2009 Comments off
I wrote this almost two months ago for another blog, but thought I’d put it up here.

I bought a book of William Eggleston’s photographs recently at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. They are the photos collected in the book titled Paris. Eggleston’s photos, when I first saw them more than ten years ago, were disturbing and thrilling to me in the way that it was, many years ago when I first started writing, disturbing and thrilling to read the short stories of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.

And so I have always loved William Eggleston’s photographs.

Eggleston’s photos make me think of Carver’s stories and Ford’s stories.  Except that those are stories I love, but don’t like to read.  Because those are short stories about people I grew up with. Stories about family of mine. Friends of mine. Houses I’d lived in.

They were disburbing stories. Stories that articulated what had happened down the street. In my basement. In my car. Carver and Ford wrote stories about lost, blue collar places like Tacoma, Washington, where I used to live and where I used to sometimes sleep in those big plywood newspaper drop boxes that, back then, were positioned around town. I used to roam all day in the vast, forgotten woods on the other side of the city, woods filled with beer cans and tires and metal objects of indeterminate purpose, woods that we called the gulch. Woods that, these days, are increasingly known as  the Homes of Timber Ridge, The Villas at Pine Creek, but that back then were aimless and empty woods filled with purposeless kids in search of something, anything to do.

Let me put it another way. In every town or city that you might ever live in or visit, there are streets between neighborhoods, forgotten streets that city planners have lost track of, that neighborhood associations use as borders, that anxious commuters use as shortcuts as they race home. There are houses on those streets, houses that when you drive past them you at most glance in their direction. But mostly you forget them. Dark houses, with many objects in the front yard.

When I was growing up, those are the houses where I played.  Those are the houses where, later, I got drunk.

Those are the houses that Raymond Carver writes about. And that William Eggleston photographs.

Now, though, I’m a parent.  A husband.  A legitimate member of the business community.  My neighbors, they see me, see me mowing the lawn or see me taking out my recyclables, and they think I’m as normal as they are. Because nothing establishes normalcy and legitimacy like taking out the recyclables. Low fat milk cartons.  A container marked organic chicken. I’ve spent a lot of time creating this impression. I work hard at this.

And then I’ll see Eggleston’s photos. And I’ll know it’s all a lie.

I like to write about lies. Shimmer is about a lie. Not just the literal lie. There’s a deeper lie. Shimmer is a seemingly bright and well-lit book about companies and computers and the highly educated people who run such corporations. Except that there is a darkness in Shimmer, a darkness beyond the lie on which the company is built or in the deception carried out against friends.

There is the darkness of addiction, of a hidden, secret life not exposed to anyone else.

Eggleston’s photos seem to find those sorts of secrets. The dark secrets of people. The dark history of a place. The dark meaning of an object. A thing.

I first saw one of Eggleston’s photos on the wall of a restaurant in Memphis, which made me go find a book of his, The Guide. This was ten or more years ago now and they’re photos taken in the South and I didn’t grow up in the South but that doesn’t matter. That lack of geographic and historical connection only makes it better for me. Makes the disburbance worse. Because, again, these are photos of the people I grew up with. The homes I wandered through and the cars I rode in and the places where I spent all my time.

There’s a certain cloudiness about my looking at a book of photos by William Eggleston. The cloudiness of knowing, personally, the person whose work you are viewing or reading or to which you are listening. It’s not that I know Eggleston. Instead it’s the knowing of connection, of incidental connection.

For instance: I bought Paris at Square Books in Oxford, a beautiful bookstore I’d ended up in after a small event for my book, a reading at a book club in Como, Mississippi, a tiny farming town in Mississippi where I’d been invited to talk about my book to a book club of truly interesting and different and intelligent and, especially, thoughtful people, such deeply thoughtful people.

Which happens in Mississippi more often than you can ever imagine if you’ve never spent time in Mississippi. I’ve lived in New York and Connecticut and I grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and Juneau, Alaska, and in those places a place like Mississippi or Memphis is as foreign as Paris. More foreign, maybe, because people there know they don’t have any experience with Paris, but think they know Mississippi, or Memphis.

But they don’t.

And so I happened to be in Oxford for food and wine after reading in Como and I happened to meet someone I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise met, Lyn Roberts of Square Books, and it was good to meet her, for reasons practical and impractical, and things like that seem likely to happen in Mississippi and Memphis and the South, all of which is many thousands of miles from where I grew up and where I thought I’d live.

And so besides meeting Lyn Roberts and thanking her for featuring my book in the Square Books newsletter and on their shelves and thanking her for inviting me, right then, to be on Thacker Mountain Radio, I also saw Paris, Eggleston’s book of photographs, there in Square Books and I bought it.  Which is the incidental connection of being in that place when they happened to have the book at the counter when I was talking to someone I wouldn’t have talked to any other time. And it’s the incidental connection of my knowing a few things about Eggleston.

I know his son, tangentially and briefly. We went to a Radiohead concert in 2003. I got too drunk there, because I love Radiohead and because I’d recently gotten divorced and seeing Radiohead with him and his cousin was a way to escape, a beautiful wonderful way to escape.

I know Eggleston’s nephew, Paul, a friend of mine who I like very much and who worked with me at a company that was, in many ways, the inspiration for this book, Shimmer, and who is one of those genuine people you meet in your life. Genuinely nice. Genuinely smart. Genuinely different.

I know Eggleston is a drinker. It doesn’t take a lot to know this. It’d be hard to read something that’s been written about him, even harder to live in Memphis, and not know that Eggleston’s a drinker. A drunk. An alcoholic, though how can you label a someone that way? How can you diminish a person so simply? I knew and know alcoholics. I always have. I grew up in a city of alcoholics and a family of alcoholics so for me to say this is not a simple thing, not a dismissive thing. It’s only a factual thing. In the way that Eggleston’s photos are factual, maybe.

That is a photo of a restaurant window. That is a photo of a puddle in the rain. That is a man who drinks too much. But it is all so much more. I know another thing about Eggleston: That David Byrne, the musician, likes Eggleston’s work.

I have liked David Byrne since the first moment I heard one of his songs, Crosseyed and Painless or The Great Curve, I don’t remember which and maybe it was both, I was certainly drinking when I heard it, but that was one of those moments, the moment of hearing one song after the other while listening to Remain in Light with a friend of mine who understood there was a world beyond Tacoma where he and I lived then. Beyond the paper boxes and dirty parks and littered forgotten homes on dark streets you drive on but do not notice.

A friend who listened to David Byrne and Brian Eno, not AC/DC. Not Def Leppard. Not Knight Rider.

And so he was a friend who helped open me to a world where I could listen to other kinds of music and live in other kinds of places and enjoy other kinds of art. Like William Eggleston’s photos. Photos that are painful and haunted and beautiful and possessed by demons, really. My demons, obviously, which break free when I look at some photo of a street corner, a home, a simple stack of chairs.

Or maybe they are demons within the photos themselves.


In truth, I think I hope that the photos have demons. I think anyone who writes − and maybe it’s true of photographers and maybe it’s true of musicians − I think we do what we do because of the demons. The dark memories. The empty moments. The embodiment of moments we spend so much time trying to forget. Eggleston’s photos have always reminded me of Tacoma, where I grew up and which is the place I fled.

I think that Eggleston’s photos − of Mississippi or of Memphis or of Paris − they remind me of Tacoma − your Tacoma, my Tacoma, anyone’s Tacoma, anyone’s place that they cannot really ever flee. It’s hard for me to look at one of his photos and not picture him, William Eggleston, there, in that town or on that street or in that building taking a photo. They are photos removed from the place they capture and yet they are photos that could come only from Eggleston, who was there, taking the picture. Holding the camera. You can see him. Feel him. Know that he is there.

Eggleston there in his photos. But unseen on the page. Me there in the book.  But unmentioned in the writing. The producer there in the song.  But unheard in the music. There’s a last point to make about Eggleston’s book of Paris photographs, which is this: It’s the first book in which I’ve seen Eggleston’s drawings.

They are simple, abstract drawings interspersed between the photos. At least I think they are drawings. They may be drawings, or oil paintings, or water colors. I’m not sure. And I don’t really care. In the same way I don’t understand the mechanics of music I like, the notes or the key or something as simple as the beat. Those are technicalities I don’t understand.

Because all I really care about is how the music sounds.

Or how the drawings look. How they feel in your hands. And how they make you feel, how they leave you unable to swallow and you can’t turn the page yet and you lose yourself to looking. Lose yourself staring.

Lose yourself to your demons.

Is it that in a photograph − a medium of art that almost anyone can confuse, rightly, with a tool of the family vacation − is it that in looking at a photo we inevitably inject ourselves into the scene? Isn’t that what every photo in a scrapbook or on Facebook or on Twitpic or on your desk at work or on your bathroom wall, isn’t that what each of those photos asks us to do? Imagine us here. Imagine yourself here. Imagine how good it was.

Except, of course, that Eggleston’s photos are by no means always photos of moments that are good. In the same way that childhood is not just bliss. Or love is not just beautiful. Or the present is not just what is happening now. Which is why I look at these photos and I am disturbed, my sense of now and love and childhood altered. Affected. Knocked slightly askew. I like that, of course. Disturbing as it is. I like it.

I like it very much.

Book Tour Secrets & Other Updates

July 30th, 2009 Comments off
ReadingIf I could write what I wanted to write, this would be a note about a man throwing chairs at one of my readings or the fairly hyperactive “meditation” a person was engaged in prior to a morning TV talk show. No one was injured in either instance, but they are great stories nonetheless. However, some combination of age, maturity and especially the cautionary place occupied by a new writer leads me to hold off on telling these sorts of stories quite yet. Time needs to pass, I think. Just a little more time. I’ve done 6 or so readings so far, visited untold bookstores, been on two morning TV talk shows, done interviews in print and on camera, and generally spent the last month talking way, way too much about myself. That, I’ve come to realize, is the nature of a book tour. Who knew? Other stories I’ll tell some day involve nearly taking the kids into some sort of “Members Only Men’s Club” in a rural town, the notable “personality quirks” of a few interviewers, and the deeply odd behavior of certain guests waiting their turn to go on morning TV talk shows. (Loud meditation was only the start.) The things I can say are bland but real: That bookstore owners and staff, the people at Unbridled, every interviewer and reviewer, and all the people who’ve come out to hear me read or get a book signed are all incredibly gracious and nice. Thank you all. Here are photos of some of the events so far: And links to some of the interviews and stories so far: And links to some of the reviews so far: Thanks again.
Categories: About Shimmer, About Writing, Posts Tags:

Writing, Publishing & Waiting

June 4th, 2009 2 comments
Rumor has it that I’ll be getting some actual copies of Shimmer today, with the book hitting the stores over the coming weeks. So I thought I’d post this, a version of a talk I gave to students at MUS (Memphis University School) recently, and that will go into a kind of loose video soon, combined with the slides that went with the talk. I posted a few of the slides here also. I had to give a talk about my novel to a group of high school students recently. And a friend of mine, a teacher, said, “You need to talk to them about failure.” Which might suggest a certain lack of confidence in my speech. But I’d been thinking about failure anyway. Because this book Shimmer − because writing in general − is inevitably tied to failure. Think of Hemingway, one of the most acclaimed American writers, who killed himself at least in part because of his failure to be able continue to write as he got older. Think of Keats, one of the great English poets, who died at a young age, at least by most accounts, considering himself a failure. Or think of the British novelist John Fowles − and this is the one I like to think of − who wrote numerous manuscripts before getting his first novel published. I failed to publish a novel for what seems like a very long time. I started writing seriously almost twenty years ago. In that time, I’ve written four novels, have had five agents. The first novel I wrote, I wrote 900 pages. I then cut that down to 400 pages. Then 300 pages. I spent most of three years on that book. And at the end of those three years, I realized that − truly, honestly − the book was terrible. Horrible. But still, for some reason, I kept writing.


In part, I wrote short stories. There are probably 200 publications that publish what are called literary stories − not genre stories. Stories that might be very serious or very funny, but that are of some weight. Stories that, for better or worse, aspire to be studied and taught. That aspire to some level of significance.rejection1 The first story I ever had published, almost 15 years ago, was rejected by something like 75 publications before someone accepted it. Think of it. Nearly half of the 200 publications who might have said yes, instead said no. And in just the last three years, I’ve received exactly 468 rejections of short stories of mine. That’s nearly a rejection every other day. And that 468 is just for the last three years, during which time I have, for certain inexplicable reasons, kept an accurate count of every rejection. This means that, since I started sending out stories 15 years ago, I’ve received over 1,000 rejections. If you think about those 1,000 rejections, in that time I’ve had 13 stories accepted. Which is a success rate of 1.3%. I take a strange comfort in all these numbers. Quantifying and containing the rejections. I turn them around in large spreadsheets, spin them into a database, plot them on well-organized charts. Although, in truth, counting the rejections, doing the math, it’s just a means of quantifying and containing my disappointments. It might be like not getting the job you want. Or being rejected by a college. Or it might be like that woman who breaks up with you. Or won’t go out with you in the first place. These are the disappointments, the failures, that shake you. That make you question who exactly you are. Who you want to be. Who you even can be. The rejections, as they come in, are like votes. Votes against you. Each one adding up. What if you asked out 100 people and they all said no? But, still, I kept writing


Like most people, I suppose, I have in my life met many people who say they want to write. You meet a few who actually sit down and do some writing, the start of a story maybe or some chapters for a novel. You meet still fewer who finish what they start. And fewer still who actually get a story, a novel, a biography, a book of any substance published.rejection4 Writing is the hardest work I have ever done. I’ve worked 60-hour weeks in marine construction, building docks and floats, cold, wet and tired in the rain. I’ve worked 80-hour weeks in fish processing plants in Alaska, where you work till you’re soaked and cold and covered in scales and slime. I went to a fancy college and a top graduate school where students competed, coldly, for the attention of professors. As a reporter I called the father of a girl killed in a car crash and asked him, “How do you feel?” and in business I’ve pulled all nighters before presenting to venture capitalists who held the future of our company in their hands and I’ve walked into rooms of 20 people and told all of them, “I’m sorry, go home, because I’m laying all of you off.” But writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And when you’re done writing, when you’ve finished what you’ve written, then you face that 1 in a hundred chance that your story or novel will get published. And then, when you’ve published it, you’ll struggle to get it read. I heard Philip Roth say one time that in any given city there are maybe 10,000  people who actually read. By which he meant, 10,000 people who read books of some weight, who think hard about them, who stop afterward and consider the significance, if any, of what they’ve just finished. Maybe it’s 100,000 people, he said. Regardless, it’s a tiny number. But, still, you write. For reasons I can’t fully explain, even to myself, I get up every morning at 5, I work late into the night, and I write. It is exhausting, mind-numbing, tedious, and thrilling. And that’s just in the first 15 minutes of working. You sit alone in a dark room, separating yourself from your friends, from your children, from your wife.


One way I can maybe try to describe why I write is that it’s an act in the pursuit of something significant. What I write may be somewhat to very to not at all significant, but it’s an attempt. One strange part of this equation, though, is that the attempt to do something significant so often correlates to not being paid well or at all. It’s why the minister at your church, the rabbi at your synagogue, is probably the lowest paid person you know, yet could well be one of the most important people in your community. In your life. Jay Leno makes millions off an auto-biography, yet Cormac McCarthy, one of the most important writers of our lifetime, worked in obscurity and near-poverty for decades. Britney Spears gets paid millions to lip-synch a song she didn’t write, while musicians of immensely greater talent play their trumpet or guitar in front of a coin box out on the street. But, still, you write.


People ask me when I start to write do I have a plan. An outline. For me, I start with the vaguest notion of a situation, and in the back of my mind I’ll think and think about that situation, that idea, that premise, and I’ll start to make notes to myself, and soon I’ll have pages of notes, but I’m not really yet working on anything coherent, until finally, at some point, I’ll find the first sentence. And then I’ll write and write off that first sentence. I write in a low grade panic at that point, racing to get everything on the page. I write out of order, I write the end long before I’ve written the middle. I skip around and leave myself notes in the middle of chapters. That’s how I write. Shimmer was the same. Back in 1999, I had a vague notion of writing a book about a company. I pictured a building. I pictured offices. I pictured some kind of technology, an overly complicated, almost impossibly involved technology. I pictured the people who might work there. Those ideas circled in my mind. But they weren’t an idea for an actual novel until I realized I wanted to write a book about a company that was built on a lie. And that’s when if found the first sentence. The first sentence was and is. “I’d started having dreams where I could fly.”


In graduate school, in the writing program I was in, a friend and writer started a novel and wrote a few chapters. He was a very talented, gifted writer. He later had a story in Best American Short Stories, in fact. So he comes to our workshop with this first chapter of this novel and most of the students like it, some don’t, but our professor, who has said nothing, toward the end of class he says, “Well, I have to say that I was extremely disappointed in your work. To me, it was nothing more than an ellipses-ridden, scatological string of clichés.” He went on, downward, from there. And so my friend stopped working on that novel. He just couldn’t go on with it. Which is too bad. Because even if there was some truth to what that professor said, there was surely a novel in there somewhere.


So what I have had to do over these years is recalculate those rejections. Rethink them. Understand them differently.garyemail Because although nearly 200 publications have said no to my stories, although at least 100 different book editors said no to my manuscripts, after all that one editor said yes. To my novel, Shimmer. One publisher accepted my book. And so it will be published. It will, like all books, live on forever. It will live longer than me or my children or anyone listening. It will live longer than every editor who rejected my work in the past. And so that one yes, that acceptance, it in a sense makes everyone else wrong. It makes them irrelevant. Because if you ask out 100 people, and only the 101st says yes and then you realize you are lucky enough to be in love, then all that matters is that 101st person. Everyone else was wrong. Everyone else is irrelevant. And so the question is, did I really fail when I didn’t get published for all those years? The answer was yes, but now the answer is no.


For me, even that first novel, the 900 incoherent pages that became 300 unreadable pages, I came back to it ten years later, with an idea − an idea that came to me sitting outside drinking coffee with my wife near Salem, Mass and I rewrote that novel into a manuscript called Circus Vargas that got me my fifth agent, Gary Heidt, who shopped that manuscript to every publisher he could, and while Circus Vargas didn’t get picked up then, Gary came back to me and asked me for another manuscript, which was Shimmer. If I hadn’t written the 900 pages, and the 300 pages, and the novels in between and the stories that were rejected, then I wouldn’t have written and published Shimmer. And Circus Vargas will be published too, some day. As will High of Sixty, Occasional Rain. And Powdered Milk. The other novels I’ve written. They will be published. And then, like Shimmer, those books too will outlive me.


Stories, Drafts & Shimmer: How I Write

May 4th, 2009 Comments off
Sometimes people ask how I write. They want to know about the logistics. Do I write with a plan? An outline? Do I know how the story or the novel will end? It’s usually a little disorienting when I say, “No. I don’t have a plan. I have some vague idea. Maybe a place. A person. And really, for me, it all depends on the first sentence.” And so because I’d been needing to do some sort of video blog post, here’s this post about how I write: Stories, Drafts & Shimmer.
Stories, Drafts and Shimmer

Stories, Drafts and Shimmer

Thanks. (If you have trouble with the version above, try the Windows Media Player version here or here on YouTube.)