Monday, January 25, 2010

The Holy Goof and my own Dean Moriarty(s)

The Holy Goof by the late William Plummer is a biography of one of the greatest literary figures to never write anything substantial--his best-known work is a fragment of a letter. But Sherlock Holmes' words to Watson might also describe Neal Cassady's relationship to Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Jerry Garcia (leader of the Grateful Dead): "Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it."

Cassady was, in simplest terms, an amiable flake in the right place at the right time. He was a poor boy from Denver with a quick mind and a taste for the drug of the moment (marijuana in the 40s and 50s, LSD and benzedrine in the 60s). He is "Dean Moriarty" in On the Road, and the after-the-fact template (as Plummer puts it, "Kesey had dreamed Cassady first, had imagined him into being--with the usual distortions of dreamwork, of course") for McMurphy, protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He is the "secret hero" of the landmark poem Howl. Garcia is quoted as saying, "Until I met Neal, I was headed toward being a graphic artist...he helped us be the kind of band we are, a concert not a studio band."

Here's a film clip of Allen Ginsberg; Cassady shows up at the 3:15 point.

What Cassady had that these other, more accomplished men lacked was a sure sense of his own affect on people: a natural grace. Despite a taste for brutally rough sex, he never lacked for female company. He could talk himself out of most conflicts with authority (although not all: he spent two notable stretches in prison for drugs). He was vastly well-read and self-educated. In other words, he mirrored things that Kerouac, Kesey, Garcia and especially Ginsberg could never manage for themselves.

I wonder how common this is among writers, especially those who grew up in the pre-internet age (alienated kids now have social resources I never had). How many of us seek out and latch onto people who are what we wish we could be? Here, then, is the story of my two Neals.

As a teen, I was a total loser. Girls were as alien to me as anything George Lucas put in his cantina. But I became friends with Willie*, who had an awesome car, all the girls he wanted, was a basketball star and knew all the places underage kids could get beer. In short, for a teen nerd in the swamps of west Tennessee, he was the epitome of natural grace. He did his best to teach me about cool music (he was into the Bee Gees before Saturday Night Fever) and how to dress to impress the ladies. Needless to say, as adults we have nothing in common; in fact, when I saw him last year at my stepfather's funeral (the first time in at least twenty years), he was kind of creepy and pathetic, still talking of nothing but his glory days as a teen.

In college, I became friends with Jack*, who was tall, handsome, played guitar and had a wicked sense of humor. Everything he did seemed to be effortless. He could talk to any girl, make jokes with any guy, and was never socially awkward or off-balance. Even when falling-down drunk, he was cool. He encouraged my first attempts at writing something more substantial than a newspaper story, and we made grand plans for prose/music endeavors. Unlike Willie, Jack was also a decent guy, which made it impossible to be jealous of the ease with which he passed through life. He contacted me a few years ago and he's turned out to be a solid family man with a respectable career. That made me happy. But I suppose I'll always feel like Millhouse to his Bart.

Because I never aspired to revolutionize literary form like Kerouac and Ginsberg, or effect social change like Kesey, I haven't transposed my Cassadys into any of my writing. But reading about the original Cassady got me thinking about whether other writers of the pre-internet generation had similar experiences. Did we all have our Neal Cassadys? And was this an exclusively male phenomena?

Leave a comment relating your own Neal Cassady, and be entered for a chance to win both The Holy Goof and a signed copy of my book of your choice.

*Name changed for reasons that should be obvious by the end of the post.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"The work is play for mortal stakes"*

In 1988, I lived in Huntsville, Alabama working for Olan Mills Portrait Studios as a traveling photographer, a job with slightly less dignity than scraping up road kill. I also wrote novels on big yellow legal pads, that I subsequently typed up when I had the chance (on a typewriter, even). My stuff was terrible; I had no sense of my own style, so I mimicked those of books I read (it's a wonder I survived my Joe Lansdale Drive-In period). I had not yet discovered my own voice.

Luckily, thanks to the Huntsville Public Library, I took a chance on my first Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker, Pale Kings and Princes.

I knew the characters from the TV show Spenser for Hire, so I had no trouble jumping into this, the fourteenth book in the series. The plot was self-contained and dealt with drugs, the hot topic of the 80s. But I was unprepared for my response to Parker's literary language: here were moral dilemmas with no easy solutions, characters sketched in vivid detail, relationships that felt real and literary jokes I got. I knew almost at once that this was the sort of writing I wanted to do.

I can even quote the passage where I felt The Big Click in my head telling me I'd found my personal literary touchstone:

The Wheaton Street Directory was the size of a phone book with a green cover plastered with ads for local establishments. At the bottom was printed A Public Service Publication of the Central Argus. It consisted of an alphabetical listing of the streets, each address and the name of the person who lived at that address. People who go to great trouble to keep their phones unlisted never think to keep themselves out of the street directory.

I started with Acorn Street and went down the list looking at the names listed opposite the numbers. In the best of all possible worlds there was no reason they couldn't live on Acorn Street. There was no reason to think I'd have to go through the whole book. Early in the afternoon, about one-fifteen, I found the name Esteva on Water Street.

(Pale Kings and Princes, p. 63 of the hardcover first edition)

I don't know why this particular passage struck such a chord, but it prompted a major sea change in how I wrote that reached its first fruition in the late 90s with my Firefly Witch short stories (see an example here). In them I developed my first unique narrator, figured out how to write humor that worked instead of groaned, and embraced the serious emotions I'd previously skirted.

I also became a total fan of Robert B. Parker, who passed away on Jan. 18.

There will be many far more eloquent tributes to the man and his work, from authors much more accomplished than me. There's even at least one other author who named his son Spenser, as I did. But on the occasion of Parker's passing I wanted to honor his influence, and to remind everyone that while the art may stick around, the artists who touch us are not infinite resources. Take a moment to look them up online and send them an e-mail; you may get a personal response, a form letter, or no reply at all. But if they, like Parker, sit down at their desk one morning and don't get up, you'll be glad you did.

(the author's "RBP" signature on my copy of his western novel Appaloosa.)

*from Robert Frost's poem, "Two Tramps in Mud Time." Quoted in at least two Spenser novels (Mortal Stakes and Rough Weather).

Monday, January 18, 2010

How weird is too weird?

A reader asked me, "How about how you differentiate between an exciting new idea and something that's just plain weird? Have you ever written anything that you loved, but others didn't quite get?"

First I'd like to quote from my favorite rejection letter:

"The majority of our editorial readers thought this story was just too odd for their tastes; it didn't appeal to any of them, although one editor found humor within your manuscript."

When I got the above rejection letter (the summer of 1997), I was in the throes of my biggest creative rush. The previous year I ended a dire relationship and for the first time really applied myself to writing. It seemed as if all the story ideas backed up in my brain came out at once, and I averaged a 3,000-word short story every week. I submitted everything I wrote, rationalizing that somewhere there might in fact be an editor looking for a story about a female redneck big game hunter tracking an African poacher masquerading as the leader of a cult of silkworm worshippers.

I was wrong. As the above quote explains in detail.

I've had my share of weird ideas. Speculative fiction, I think, tends to send your thoughts out there more than, say, writing a literary coming-of-age novel set in your old home town. And sometimes you have to go past the edge in order to look back and see it.

Experience has taught my to better screen ideas before committing the time and energy to develop them into stories. But I still have just as many outrageous, bizarre and probably unpalatable ones as ever. Sometimes they progress to actual manuscripts before they reveal themselves as unworkable, but usually I catch them early in the process. I don't want to filter them at the source; I want my subconscious to feel free to toss up any suggestions, no matter how twisted or bizarre. Luckily the ol' id doesn't take it personally if a few get sidelined for being, as the letter said, just too odd.

So to answer the first part of the question, I'd say experience. As for the second part, pretty much everything I've written has run up against people who just didn't "get" it. Thankfully, though, I've found plenty of people who do.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

By request: Fan Fiction

Recently I was asked, “What are your thoughts on fan fiction? If someone wrote fan fiction [based] on your works, would you be pleased or horrified?”

Before I wade into this, let me define my terms. “Fan fiction” is fiction that makes unauthorized use of characters and concepts that belong to someone else. The actual quality of the writing, in this context, is immaterial. Fan fiction is stealing.

Some fan fiction is written strictly for the authors, or physically shown to their friends (i.e., hand a stack of paper to someone and say, “read this”). Some is published for no charge, like the many fan sites on the internet. And then there’s the stuff that's actually published for profit, such as Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife.*

I have two problems with fan fiction. One is that it's “unauthorized”: the person who did the initial creating has not approved this use of his creation. That’s a moral issue, independent of quality or monetary gain. When you take something that’s not yours, even insubstantial things like characters and settings, it’s stealing.

The other problem is craft-related. Creating a world, its characters, their history and relationships, even details such as clothing and customs, are the heavy lifting of writing. You do all that so that you can then tell your story. To take all these from someone else is cheating; it’s the same as using steroids to break a sports record.

But as with anything that’s black-and-white in principle, in reality there are many shades of gray. Have I written fan-fiction? Yes. The last time was in junior high, when I wrote a Star Trek story that shamelessly ripped off the original series episode, “The Omega Glory.” I also wrote Batman stories that I dreamed would one day be seen by Denny O’Neill; thankfully this never happened, because they were dire (I did eventually work with Mr. O’Neill when I wrote a parody [a whole different animal, legally and artistically] for the nonfiction collection Batman Unauthorized.).

My fan fiction endeavors had two things in common with the vast majority of fan-fic: 1) They were awful, and 2) they were shown only to friends. While I still consider this morally wrong, in practice it seems pretty harmless. It certainly did no damage to the respective franchises.

This was all pre-internet, of course. Now it’s possible that free online fan-fiction might have more readers than the original source. Worse, the fan fiction may travel into areas that the creator never intended and alter the public’s image of the creation for good (i.e., “slash” and blatant pornography).

So what can the creator do?

Ultimately not much; the nature of modern communications makes it impossible to really eliminate fan fiction. And maybe at some level that’s good. After all, the core drive to create fan-fiction comes from the simple fact that the original touched someone. Your characters and situations motivated a total stranger to want to play in your sandbox. That’s not only flattering, it’s profound. It’s what caused legends as different as Olympus and Billy the Kid to become what they are. All those tales were fan fiction.

So to answer the original question, would I be pleased if someone wrote fan fiction based on my characters? Ultimately, no. Yes, I'd be flattered.** But no matter how you dress it up or justify it, no matter how you smudge the black and white into gray, one fact remains undeniable: it’s stealing.

*Exceptions to this include legendary characters such as King Arthur, Robin Hood or Hercules. The difference? These characters have multiple origins and sources with no canonical “creator.” Wicked comes from a single source: L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books. The same with Ahab’s Wife, taken entirely from Melville’s novel. The fact that the original authors are dead and the material is in public domain does not change the moral issues involved, only the legal ones.

**I certainly wouldn’t share Annie Proulx’s vast contempt for the people she touched with
Brokeback Mountain.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Giants of West Tennessee: Jesse Hill Ford, part 1

NOTE: This is an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I'll include links so interested readers can find out more.

As I've mentioned before, I grew up in a tiny West Tennessee town that has no school, no library, no newspaper, three churches, is a notorious speed trap and is just generally the kind of place I'd recommend most folks avoid.

What is unusual is that, five miles away, there once lived an actual honest-to-God bestselling author.

Jesse Hill Ford's biggest success, The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, came out in 1965. It dealt with a black undertaker in a small Southern town seeking to divorce his wife, who's had an affair with a white policeman. The undertaker's threat to name the policeman in the divorce action starts a chain reaction that leads to several deaths and the moral destruction of just about everyone else. It was a thorough indictment of small-town racism that spared no one.

This was Ford's second novel, and with it he became the toast of Humboldt, TN, the inspiration for the book's fictional Somerton. Folks in Humboldt who previously called him "weird" for both being a writer and mooching off his wife's family now sang his praises.

In 1970 a very faithful movie version was released. Those who'd switched from badmouthing Ford to sucking up to him, all without actually reading his book, now saw just how he depicted them. The irony that the book had been available for five years, but no one in Humboldt bothered to read it, was lost in their belated outrage.

(A clip from The Liberation of L.B. Jones with Lola Falana and Anthony Zerbe)

But that irony was nothing compared to what happened next. In 1971 a black soldier parked in Ford's rural driveway, thinking it was a safe place to make out with his date. Ford fired a rifle shot that killed him; he claimed it was accidental, but the local district attorney, seeing a chance to avenge Ford's depiction of Humboldt, charged him with first degree murder. He was acquitted, but it took all his profits from the success of his novel to get him off, and cost him his standing as a liberal. And he never wrote another novel.

Instead, he began playing the role of the Faulkneresque author without actually writing anything. He divorced his first wife, who stood by him during all his troubles, and married a wealthy woman with mental issues. He taught writing seminars and wrote reactionary opinion pieces for USA Today. And finally, right after his Collected Letters were published in 1996, he committed suicide.

Here's a brief documentary about Ford:

Next month in part 2, I'll explain my personal connection to Ford and how he shaped some of my deepest writing convictions.