Here’s the straight dope, friends and neighbors, fellow writers and readers, internet voyeurs and those who arrived by inadvertent click.
I’m a writer, born and bred, always have been and will be till death or I lose my marbles. It’s what I do. Come hell or high water. Success or failure. Broke or living high on the hawg.
I write everyday—personal letters, letters to the editor, emails and texts, social media posts, poems, the occasional essay, no end of sarcastic snippets I keep in a jar, but far more than anything else I write novels. I’ve started and now finished more than twenty of the blasted things in the past forty years. And I probably have another twenty at some level of completion from a single page to well over a hundred pages.
All in all I’m pretty fair at this novel writing business. I took to it in my youth like a bird to flight, and one might assume I’ve improved a bit after all the years of scribbling.
There’s also this—I suck at most everything else. Okay, sure, I do a few other things reasonably well—converse, read, travel, play tennis. And I do some things very well, at least on occasion, like parent and take life seriously, but way too often I lose patience and suck at parenting and ultimately I find the human race far too absurd to take too seriously for any length of time.
And so, like most of us, I have, over the decades, gravitated to what I do well, which also happened to be what I most thoroughly enjoy doing—writing fiction.
I’ve been a house painter, construction worker, roofer, basketball player and coach, bicycle racer, and very serious motorcycle rider. I’ve been a good and a bad boyfriend, a son, a brother, a traveler, a salesman, a fitness trainer, an elected official, an actor, a teacher, and God maybe remembers what else over these past six decades. But all these existential propositions have come and gone like water over Victoria. When the water pools, I am, always, a writer. Of fiction. Cause that’s where the truth is and that’s the only thing, other than my wife and kids, I give a shit about.
Other writers who aren’t fakes, posers, and impostors understand precisely what I’m talking about here; all others will have to use your imaginations.
A writer, especially a novelist or a poet, writes, but even more important than the writing is the living. The essential ingredient any writer worth his or her pen must mix into the soup is an extraordinarily strong desire for living, for sucking the proverbial marrow out of life. Why is this so important? Because it is a writer’s collective experience that determines whether he or she has anything unique to offer the reader.
Doesn’t matter if you’re traveling down the Ganges by mailboat or struggling to move your bowels after a stint on opioids following back surgery, the true writer remains keenly aware of all the endless minutiae involved in these experiences. The writer must constantly remain vigilant as both observer and participant.
It is not so much what a writer experiences but rather how he experiences it. How immersed does he become? How affected? How objective? How subjective?
From the time I was very young, and I’m talking late teens, maybe early twenties, I began to view people and events and places as fodder for my writing gristmill.
Work, travel, love, friendship, books, movies, arguments, drugs, alcohol, sports, pride, fear, arrogance—the whole tangled web of life was engaged in and experienced always with the notion in the back of my head that it would one day light up the page when I wrote about it. I have lived virtually every second of every day, no matter if I was getting a tooth drilled or skiing down the back bowls of Vail through two feet of fresh powder, fully present, like a Buddhist monk, fully engaged. I have not wanted to miss a moment for always I have been aware how important that moment might be if and when I need it in a story I have to tell.
Don’t get me wrong, I fell in love and travelled to Bariloche and smoked grass and aggressively stated my opinion on a plethora of subjects because I enjoy being tuned in, because I have long understood the now overused concept of ‘mindfulness’. But always—and I mean always—inside my brain has lived a little dude with a note pad and a pen jotting down details, feelings, ideas, facial expressions, the color of the sky at dusk, the architecture in Prague, the venom spewed by a jealous mate, the sound of tires racing down Avenue des Champs-Élysées in the middle of a wet Parisian night…
You get the idea. I was meant to write. I was programmed from the beginning to detail the human condition through storytelling. Was this predetermined, free will, or a mere twist of fate? I don’t have a clue, and don’t much care. In the end all that matters is the realization that life is frustratingly short. Much time is taken up with trivial necessities, more time wasted by laziness and worthless pursuits, and so the little time that’s left must be used wisely. I ’ve never made much dough and I’ve failed miserably at leading a stable middle-class American life with all its silly material cravings, trappings, and trips to nowhere. But whenever possible I have used my time judiciously to write novels and stories and poems to entertain, shock, amuse, and maybe even occasionally enlighten my readers. And in addition, I have given my readers free admission into my brain and soul. I have opened the door wide and invited you in to see exactly how one of your fellow humans thinks and feels about the vast intricacies of life. I’ve tried to hold nothing back.
I am, of course, like all of us, bounded by circumstance. I am an American writer. A white American male. Raised in a middle-class family in a New Jersey suburb. My parents were part of what some call The Greatest Generation. My father was a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war Mom and Dad had six sons. I am the youngest son. We had a stable, if raucous, upbringing. We attended public schools, played sports, and were encouraged to speak our minds.
I began to question the validity of the reality being inflicted upon me by others sometime around sophomore year of high school. Rebellion came soon thereafter. I continue to rebel nearly half a century later. Every culture, every society, needs rebels. Individuals willing to question the status quo. It’s a good thing to have rebels. It’s healthy. I hope at least one of my own offspring will one day take up the mantle.
As a writer I am most interested in the American experience, the American experiment from a political, social, cultural, psychological, and philosophical perspective. Peruse my canon and you will discover a wide range of narratives. Early in my publishing career, from, say, my mid 30s till my early 40s, I had some commercial and critical success and quickly got caught up in the cash and fame. In success. Or at least that narrow definition of American success that is like a heavy blanket of suffocation to any true artist, musician, or writer. I was like a junkie who had thoroughly enjoyed that first exhilarating fix and right away wanted more, more, more.
But then it all came crashing down. I got lazy. I lost my focus. My desire. My zeal. I wrote a shitty novel. It didn’t sell. Bantam Books—a business—threw me out on the street. I pouted and complained and blamed everyone but myself. For quite a while. A couple years. Three years or more. Finally I got over it. And lo and behold, where did I find satisfaction? In writing! In storytelling! And as I write this in the late summer of 2020, a pandemic raging, I am amazed to realize another decade of my life has zipped by. In this past decade, my wife and I have had more kids, I’ve been elected twice to our municipal council, I’ve started a personal training business, I’ve coached a ton of basketball, baseball, and softball, I’ve started a small publishing business, and I’ve somehow managed to complete a dozen new novels and my first book of verse!
I, of course, did not know it or even contemplate it at the time, but being unshackled from the publishing biz would turn out to be the greatest gift this writer would ever receive. The publishing biz, being a profit and loss business, forces authors to toe the line. If a writer writes a commercially successful legal thriller, he is expected, encouraged, financially rewarded to write another legal thriller and another and another, even if they are all essentially the same. Novels are entertainment, after all, and it behooves publishers, editors, and authors to give the reading public what they want.
I wanted something different. I wanted to write about whatever interested me. I wanted to delve into a wide range of human experiences and emotions. I wanted to try different genres, different narrative techniques, different voices. I wanted to explore and challenge myself as a writer, a spouse, a father, a friend, a traveler.
I published my first novel, This Way Madness Lies, in 1992, almost 30 years ago. The terrific editor and first-class human being Ms. Jamie Raab, then of Warner Books, helped me with my first four novels. I would’ve preferred to spend my entire career working with Jamie, but, well, things don’t always turn out as you desire. Bad advice, bad choices, bad health, greed, ambition all worked together to drive Jamie and I apart.
I moved to Bantam, where I had an extremely negative experience but made a nice pot of dough and produced a couple pretty fair psychological thrillers under the tutelage of Ms. Kate Miciak, a brilliant editor with an unfortunate cynicism toward those not as brilliant as herself, which pretty much includes everyone.
Since then the work has been mine and mine alone—the ideas, the research, the first rough drafts, the lion’s share of the editing, the design, the fonts, the titles, the bad grammar, the lousy spelling, the scattered plots, the undeveloped characters, the whole ball of wax—all mine. I’ll take the credit, and every ounce of blame. Sure, I had some outside editing help here and there, copyediting, content and design advice, but these books are 99% my toil, sweat, and absolute dedication to the art. The end product may be less than perfect, but it is the product, in its entirety, of my toil and imagination.
I’ve written novels in the third person, the first person, from an old woman’s perspective, from a 15-year-old-boy’s point of view, from an unbalanced 25-year-old woman’s twisted perspective, from the lofty heights of an omnipotent narrator, and on and on.
I’ve delved into family dynamics, love, lust, marriage, religion, politics, war, the past, the present, the future, and time travel. I’ve tackled mental illness, infidelity, the meaning of love, the terrible swift sword of combat, the conceits of power, the innocence of youth. And along the way I’ve touched on Greed, Lust, The Frailty of the Human Condition, Self-Deception, and, of course, like any writer worthy of his or her efforts Racism, Sexism, Friendship, the Terrible Truth, the Impossibility of Getting Along with the Opposite Sex, and Family, Family, Family.
A real writer is always writing. 24/7. If not on paper or on a keyboard then up in his or her head.
Writing fiction that has any balls at all demands at least a general understanding of psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, politics, love, hate, greed, reality, and fantasy. In addition, the novelist, if he or she is going to pass muster, must be an astute observer of human behavior, an exceptional listener, and agreeable to long stretches of solitude, success, tedium, and failure.
Finally, the committed novelist must be a skilled and entertaining wordsmith; otherwise all else is for naught. It’s an odd hodge-podge of talents, disciplines, and desires that must blend together in a single individual to create a skilled and prodigious writer.
I have a lot on my plate right now with this fucking pandemic, two kids in middle school, one kid in high school, two small businesses, coaching baseball and hoops, and, of course, my marriage, the single most important relationship in my life. But through all this I am still determined to carve out quality time to pursue my creative writing endeavors. I’m hoping I don’t need to pull a Paul Gauguin and flee to some far corner of the planet to escape, but, well, who knows just what the future may hold. It would make a good novel, or memoir…