The Sporadic Beaver

Birth of a Book

April 25, 2017

Tags: Robert Attanasio, Erotic Review, Nowhere Man, Beaver Street, 1970s, Punk, Rolling Stone, Playboy, writing

The way things are in publishing these days, it's as difficult for me to sell a magazine article as it is to sell a book. So I usually don't bother writing articles because even if I do sell one, it'll be around for a month at best. My books, however, tend to endure. Nowhere Man remains in print 17 years after publication.

Ironically, both my books began as failed magazine articles. In 1982, Rolling Stone and Playboy turned down an early version of what became Nowhere Man--because I couldn't prove to their satisfaction that what I'd written was true. I started writing Beaver Street in 1995 on assignment from The Nation. It was supposed to be an article about the economics of pornography. They rejected it for not being “political enough.”

But sometimes the stars line up and something I write finds its way into a magazine. This month, the first part of a three-part series called “The Provocateur” has been published on a British site, Erotic Review. The series is an excerpt from a book about the 1970s that I’ve been working on, and it’s the story of my old friend Robert Attanasio, an artist and filmmaker who died in 2015.

It was Attanasio’s death that helped me find a focus for the book and made me realize what its central theme should be—the moment when the student left gave way to Punk.

Part I comes with multiple trigger warnings and a big NSFW. Stay tuned for parts II and III.

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.

The Book-Piracy Pandemic

August 19, 2015

Tags: Scott Turow, book piracy, writing

In 2013, best-selling author and then president of The Authors Guild Scott Turow published a major op-ed in The New York Times titled "The Slow Death of the American Author." In it, he said that on the three most popular search engines, of the first 28 listings in a search for "Scott Turow free e-books," 24 of them were pirate sites, all with paid ads appearing in the margins.

He compared this to a man standing on a street corner telling people where to buy stolen goods and collecting a small fee for his services, and also noted that piracy had virtually destroyed book publishing in Russia, where it "goes almost completely unpoliced."

In the two years since Turow’s essay appeared, the situation has grown significantly worse—it’s an epidemic that’s become a pandemic. I became aware of this about two months ago, when a flurry of publicity about Beaver Street led not to a modest uptick in sales (as might have been the case a year ago) but to an avalanche of e-mail “alerts” for sites offering free downloads of my books, one of which, Nowhere Man, isn’t even available as a legitimate e-book. At least one new pirate site sprang up every day—sometimes two-dozen new ones appeared in a single week.

Often, I’d click on a site just to see what it looked like, and many of them looked as slick as Amazon. One site, based in Russia, offered a forum where people could request pirated editions of specific titles, some of which they were willing to pay for! And though I am curious to see how good the pirated editions of my books are, I’ve never downloaded one, as this seems like an excellent way to get a computer virus.

In fact, I no longer click on the alerts, as the last time I did so, the link brought me to an attack site that uploaded malware to my computer.

As if book publishing weren’t discouraging enough on its own demerits, the piracy pandemic and the associated erosion of income has left me wondering why I should spend years writing another book, when, even if I’m lucky enough to get it published, it’ll be pirated—instantaneously if it’s popular enough.

What’s especially infuriating is that while U.K. Internet providers have blocked all “adult” sites, most of which are completely legal (you have to ask your IP to give you access), and search engine companies have made it harder to find certain adult sites, they claim there’s nothing they can do about piracy—that it’s a “whack-a-mole” proposition.

Which is true. But pirate sites are easy to recognize. They always contain such terms as “download,” “free,” “e-book,” and “pdf,” and often have “ru” (Russia) in the URL. Why a search engine can’t block these sites is beyond my comprehension. I can only assume they have no interest in doing so—because they continue to make money, unlike the authors whom they’re slowly driving out of business, just as Turow predicted.

Pinellas Prison Blues (and Oranges)

April 13, 2015

Tags: Gene Gregorits, writing, literature, Florida, Stand Your Ground, Rick Scott

Gene Gergorits is not Nelson Mandela, and even his staunchest supporters say that it's "pretty much impossible to spin in any positive way" the charge against him--unlawful sexual activity with a minor--under which he's currently being held in Florida's Pinellas County jail, awaiting trial.

Florida, the land of Stand Your Ground, a law most rational people recognize as legalizing murder, is a state that boasts the fourth-highest number of executions in the United States. It’s also a state run by a climate-change-denying governor, Rick Scott, who, in his previous gig as chief executive of Columbia/HCA, a healthcare mega-giant, oversaw the largest Medicare fraud in history. The company (though not Scott himself), admitted to 14 felonies and was fined $1.7 billion, the largest such fine ever levied in the U.S.

So, let’s call Florida what it is: a vengeful, bloodthirsty state run by a chief executive who’s lucky that he’s not doing hard time in a Federal penitentiary, and a state where such notions as the “rule of law,” “justice,” and even “science” mean what those in power want them to mean.

In short, when you’re talking about the Sunshine State, it would be unwise to make any assumptions about the guilt or innocence of those who occupy a prison cell and those who occupy the executive mansion. Or, if you must make an assumption, stick to a safe one: The occupant of the executive mansion has more money than the occupant of the prison cell—because it’s been well-established that Florida is at the forefront of the American ideal of justice for the rich. Therefore, I would not dismiss the theory currently circulating among those paying attention to The State of Florida vs. Gene Gregorits that prosecutors railroaded Gene as an “undesirable,” somebody not welcome in their God-fearing fiefdom, parts of which will soon be underwater. (Visit Miami Beach while you still can.)

Gene chose Florida as a place to live in bohemian semi-poverty because he likes the beach, he detests cold weather, and the cost of living is significantly cheaper than, say, in L.A. But lack of money is only one contributing cause of Gene’s current nightmare. Anybody who followed his pre-incarceration Facebook feed, a litany of impotent rage, threats of self-mutilation, and reports about his ailing cat, Sam, would have seen the obvious: These were the desperate words of a man headed for an insane asylum, prison, and/or early death.

Desperation, of course, is endemic to writing. Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson blew their brains out—and they’d achieved a level of commercial and critical success that’s probably no longer attainable. That’s what the book business can do to people, especially to writers like Gene who are not “brand names,” who dare to cultivate a distinctive voice, and who refuse to write plot-driven genre fiction or nonfiction that defies easy pigeonholing in a commercial category.

Gene, having aggressively rejected all the conventions of mainstream publishing, instead took a uniquely American path: He formed his own imprint, Monastrell, exclusively for his own books. And though Monastrell has put out 18 books and Gene has met with some success, including an interview on Vice.com that briefly sent Dog Days: Volume One rocketing up the Amazon charts, this venture has simply not generated enough cash for Gene to buy himself some Florida Justice.

So, he sits in his Pinellas County prison cell, doing what he can to hang on to what remains of his sanity—he writes books, and Monastrell, currently being run by his supporters, publishes them. Since he’s been in jail, he’s written Stretch Marks, a full-length memoir. This, in itself, is an extraordinary achievement. The Orange Woman: Volume I ($6.99) is a 27-page excerpt from Stretch Marks.

In The Orange Woman, Gene flashes back and forth between the early 1980s and the recent past. But he primarily focuses on the “vicious” winter of 1983, when he was a “sexually perverse child of seven” living in financial and cultural poverty, in rural Pennsylvania, with his emotionally unstable mother, Kathleen, who works a low-paying job at an IBM plant, and his sketchily described younger brother, Matt.

The orange woman is Naomi Fairbanks, so-called because of an artificial tanning product that has turned her skin “the somber orange of baked carrots.” She’s an inbred local “creature,” living in a trailer park, whom Kathleen hires to provide childcare—it’s all she can afford.

Naomi’s dialogue is rendered phonetically—Yer warnt serm cawfee?—and this is among the multitude of vividly conjured sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and sensations of a distant time and place that gives the reader a clear sense of the fucked-up situation Gene escaped from, and explains to some degree why he now finds himself in a Pinellas County prison cell.

The Orange Woman is an hors d’oeuvre that leaves the reader hungry for the full meal, and I can only hope that no matter what happens, Gene continues writing and publishing. For his is a voice that is, indeed, worth preserving.

An Ice-Cold Bath of Publishing Reality

January 31, 2014

Tags: An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, David Comfort, writing, reviews

According to David Comfort, author of The Rock & Roll Book of the Dead and The Reborn Bible 2.0, most writers share the following personality traits: They're hateful, envious, suicidal, masochistic, and megalomaniacal. In a word, they're assholes. But they are capable of producing pithy quotes about the writing biz, and such quotes are scattered throughout Comfort's latest book, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99). Here's one of my favorites, from Jean Cocteau: "Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work the critics don't like--then cultivate it."

An Insider’s Guide also contains a wealth of eye-opening statistics, like this one: There's a .0000416 percent chance that The New Yorker magazine will publish an unsolicited short story.

For aspiring writers looking to save time and postage, this is useful information that you won’t easily find elsewhere. And though I’ve never submitted a short story to The New Yorker—and swore off submitting unsolicited manuscripts to anybody 20 years ago—I can attest to the general accuracy of Comfort’s calculation.

I was afraid that the well-earned and corrosive cynicism that suffuses An Insider’s Guide would remind me all too vividly of what I already know: The writing biz is fucked. Only a fool would go into it. Therefore I must be a fool.

Instead, I found it to be an entertaining rejoinder to the rising tide of fantasyland pep talks about how to make $1 million self-publishing e-books.

Rich with anecdotes about the hard-won wisdom of distinguished authors who survived (or didn’t survive) careers spent slinging words, much to my surprise, An Insider’s Guide left me feeling better about some of the life choices I’ve made.

I’m happy to say, at this late date, that the writing biz has not yet driven me to suicide (as it did Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and Hunter Thompson), alcoholism (as it did Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald), drug addiction (as it did Edgar Allan Poe and William Burroughs), murder (as it did Burroughs), attempted murder (as it did Norman Mailer), insanity (as it did Hemingway before he blew off his head with a shotgun), a duel (as it did Marcel Proust), or fraud (as it did James Frey).

Literary talent has little to do with success, Comfort suggests, and in many cases it can be a hindrance, because if there’s one thing publishers hate, it’s originality. According to Comfort, “Luck, Suck & Pluck” are what it takes to succeed, and he returns to this theme throughout the book. Again, I can personally attest to the inherent validity of this formula.

The fact that John Lennon’s diaries fell into my hands was extraordinary luck, for example. But I couldn’t have done anything with them if it wasn’t for pluck. That publishers rejected Nowhere Man for 18 years, usually for the most ridiculous reasons—Not enough interest in John Lennon!—and that the book then become a bestseller and a cult classic is a monument to pluck. The thing that’s held me back, however, is that I suck at sucking, by which Comfort means “sucking up.” I’ve never developed a strong enough stomach to frequently and with feeling kiss the assorted body parts of the people who are in a position to further my ambitions. But as Meatloaf might say, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

People who become real writers—like Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Jane Austen—can’t help themselves. There’s no rational decision involved. For people like this, it’s the only path to take. You hear the voice in your head and you need to get it down on paper (or on a computer screen). An Insider’s Guide will not save people like this from themselves—though they may be able to glean a few nuggets of practical advice from it.

An Insider’s Guide is a great book for people who think that writing might be a good career move, but can’t quite decide if they should be a writer, get an MBA, be a supermodel, or join the navy. For those people, An Insider’s Guide will serve as an ice-cold bath of publishing reality. I recommend it strongly.

Let me leave you with one last thing aspiring authors should keep in mind: Even the most successful writers, like Fitzgerald, and even those who’ve won the Nobel Prize, like William Faulkner, considered themselves failures and died penniless.

Need I say more?

The Eichmann Transition

September 30, 2013

Tags: Bobby in Naziland, Mary Lyn Maiscott, writing

New York Times article from May 25, 1960.
Mary Lyn Maiscott, aka the Mistress of Syntax, is an editor whose judgment I trust implicitly. (That's one reason I married her.) She edited my two previous books, Nowhere Man and Beaver Street. In both cases, when they were accepted for publication, the editors at the publishing houses barely changed a word.

Four months ago, having finally reached the point where I felt I could do no more on my own, I gave Mary Lyn the complete manuscript for Bobby in Naziland, a novel I'd been working on for more than five years and had shown to nobody. She has since read it and has been giving me feedback--specifically flagging passages that she thought could be clarified, tightened, or somehow improved. (I gave an example of this in a previous post.)

Though I’ve been making improvements, there’s one passage that’s been driving me crazy since 2009, and that I continue to struggle with. It’s the primary thing that stands between me and a finished book. I call it “The Eichmann Transition.”

The capture of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Final Solution, is a story that I knew as well as any story: In 1960, the Mossad kidnapped Eichmann off the street in Buenos Aires and spirited him back to Israel to stand trail for crimes against humanity. I drew on my memory of these events to write a chapter titled “Tales of Eichmann.”

But when I turned to the historical record to check the accuracy of my memory, I came upon a fantastic tale that had been declassified only a few years earlier, and that changed the very essence of the story. Though the Mossad had taken all the credit for capturing Eichmann, acting as if they’d learned of his whereabouts clairvoyantly, it so happens a former Dachau inmate who’d fled with his family to Argentina had tipped them off.

Once settled in his new country, the former inmate, Lothar Hermann, did such a good job of concealing his Jewish identity, not even his teenage daughter Silvia knew about it. She was, in fact, so oblivious of her heritage that she began dating Eichmann’s rabidly anti-Semitic son Klaus, who used his real name and bragged to the Hermanns that his father was a high-ranking Gestapo officer.

The Hermanns, acting as spies, then confirmed Adolf Eichmann’s identity, at which point the Mossad took over.

This story, reduced to little more than a historical footnote, remains generally unknown to anybody who hadn’t researched the matter in the past few years. And it cried out to be included in Bobby in Naziland, a fictional memoir that in part explores the meaning of memory. But how to include it? The story of the Hermanns was not part of the narrator’s memory and its inclusion seemed to violate the narrative structure of the book.

And this is what I continue to struggle with—how to seamlessly transition from what the narrator remembers about Eichmann to what he couldn’t have possibly known, because nobody outside a select inner circle knew it.

Sometimes it feels as if Eichmann will be the death of me yet. But, I swear, with a little help from the Mistress of Syntax, I’ll nail the bastard sooner or later.

The Writer's Dilemma

May 24, 2013

Tags: Bobby in Naziland, Bloomsday on Beaver Street, Brooklyn, writing, book promotion

The main setting of Bobby in Naziland, East 17th Street, in Flatbush, as it looks today.
One of the things I'm going to do at Bloomsday on Beaver Street is read from Bobby in Naziland, the novel I'm in the process of fine-tuning. It's going to be a short reading, about 1600 words that will include the opening pages of the first chapter--just enough to give people a sense of the book's flavor and the voice I've used to portray "an adult consciousness channeling the thoughts and emotions of a seven year old," as I describe it in the prologue.

The book, I'm sure, will be of particular interest to anybody who's familiar with Flatbush, the Brooklyn neighborhood that Bobby in Naziland is set in, especially if they happened to have lived there in the 1950s and '60s, and think they might "know" some of the characters. And I'm sure that readers will derive a great deal of pleasure from my vision of a Brooklyn that no longer exists, a provincial burb filled with goyim and Jews, Auschwitz survivors and army veterans who fought the Nazis, a place where "World War II lingered like a mass hallucination on East 17th Street and large swaths of the surrounding borough."

What I’m not sure of is what I’m going to do with the book when I’m completely finished with it. The publishing industry, which never has functioned in a rational way, has changed so much in the past decade, that I don’t know if it makes sense to go with a traditional publisher (assuming I can find one) or to self-publish. The Internet is full of stories by and about authors, many of whom have successfully published with traditional publishers, who are now struggling with this same question. There are as many self-publishing success stories as there are stories of failure and unmitigated despair. For a writer like me, who’s had some success with traditional publishing but has not produced the blockbuster that publishers demand, there are no easy answers. The more I read, the more confused I get.

I can tell you this much: For the past two years I’ve worked as hard at promoting Beaver Street as I’ve ever worked at anything. I’ve gotten the consistently excellent reviews and the high profile mentions that theoretically sell books. But until I can get those Harry Potter-like sales, it’s unlikely that a traditional publisher will send a bushel (or even a cupful) of cash my way.

So, all I can do for now is spend this Memorial Day weekend putting the finishing touches on Bobby in Naziland, and banish from my mind all that other stuff. The correct answer to my question will present itself when it’s good and ready to do so. As it always does.

I Feel Your Pain, Ted Heller

May 6, 2013

Tags: e-books, writing, Ted Heller, West of Babylon, Erica Heller, Joseph Heller, Yossarian Slept Here

Dear Ted,
I read your piece in Salon, "The Future Is No Fun," about self-publishing your e-book, West of Babylon, and I wanted to let you know that it might be the most depressing story about the publishing industry I've ever read. I got about three quarters of the way through it before I had to stop and put it aside. It was just too bleak to go on. Too much "extreme cruelty." But I came back to it the next day, and skipped to the end, just to make sure it wasn't a suicide note. Then I kind of read it backwards, paragraph-by-paragraph, and felt a little better. I did appreciate your epiphany--if you can call it an epiphany--that you now understand how rough it is out there, and that from now on, you'll help anybody who asks you for help. I feel the same way.

You say that your working life now consists of sending out hundreds of e-mails to people in the media who might want to review your book. You say that you consider it a good day if someone gets back to you, even if they tell you, politely, to fuck off. What you don't seem to realize is that that's how it is now, even if your book isn't self-published. What you spend far too much time doing sounds disturbingly similar to what I've spent far too much time doing since a small, London-based indie published my latest book, Beaver Street, as a paperback and in all e-book formats, two years ago in the U.K., then last year in the U.S.

Still, I found your naïveté touching—calling the media “base hypocrites” because they run stories about authors turning to self-publishing but won’t acknowledge a self-published e-book unless it’s written by a celebrity who self-publishes by choice. You’re just learning now that the media is a viper’s nest of base hypocrites? Where’ve you been? You don’t get media attention by publishing books. You get media attention by committing a terrorist act or by assassinating a celebrity. Not PR gambits I’d recommend.

I should also mention that, though we’ve never met, I did know your father. He was one of my creative writing professors at City College, and as I found out, he could be a cruel bastard, as your sister, Erica, vividly recounts in her memoir, Yossarian Slept Here. But 40 years after the fact, I can sincerely thank him for helping to prepare me emotionally for what I’d have to face as I made my way in the book biz.

Your father, of course, had no illusions about the book-publishing industry. “You can’t live off royalties,” he told us the first day of class. “That’s why I’m teaching here.” (And he didn’t think too highly of agents, either, as I recall.)

All things considered, Ted, I think you’re doing OK. Do I really need to remind you that Salon is the media, and they are paying attention to you? Big time. I wish somebody at Salon would answer my e-mails.

Best,
Bob Rosen

In Silence and Secrecy

May 3, 2013

Tags: Bobby in Naziland, writing, Bloomsday on Beaver Street, Nowhere Man, John Lennon

My actual room is a little more cluttered, and I use a slightly more advanced writing machine.
This weekend, as I've been doing most weekends lately, I'm going to concentrate on fine-tuning Bobby in Naziland, the novel I began writing five years ago, and had not shown to anybody until last week. As I explained in an earlier post, I plan to read the opening pages at Bloomsday on Beaver Street next month, so it was time to show at least those pages to my editor (who happens to be my wife).

I suppose most writers (as well as most readers) find it peculiar that a writer would work in total silence and secrecy for five years, especially these days, when it's become increasingly common for writers to share works-in-progress online with readers who provide instant feedback.

This is the height of literary absurdity and the best of all possible ways for a writer to achieve a state of confusion. Book writing should be a solitary activity that takes place in a room of one’s own with a lock on the door (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf). And I’ve been doing this long enough that I trust my own editorial judgment.

Which is not to say I wouldn’t prefer to be working with an editor at an actual book publishing company who’s given me an advance so substantial, I could concentrate, to the exclusion of all else, on finishing Bobby in Naziland. But I’m not the kind of writer who gets advances, substantial or otherwise, on unfinished books. On the contrary, when I finish the book and begin submitting it, I think publishers will tell me, “Great read, but there’s not enough interest in Jews, goyim, Nazis, the Holocaust, UFOs, the Rosenbergs, or Brooklyn to justify publishing this.”

This is the kind of thing that publishers say reflexively to most writers about most books. It can’t be taken seriously. When I was struggling to publish Nowhere Man—a book that would be translated into a half-dozen languages and become a bestseller in five countries—I was told time and again, for 18 years, “There’s not enough interest in John Lennon.”

Which is one reason I waited five years before showing Bobby in Naziland to anybody, especially publishers. There’s nothing more demoralizing for a writer than to hear from a so-called voice of authority that your work-in-progress is unpublishable.

I also trust the judgment of my editor, and when she reads Bobby in Naziland in its entirety, I want her to read it with a fresh eye. So, I will continue to work in secrecy and silence.

I Don't Wanna Face It

April 22, 2013

Tags: Huffington Post, writing

Face this: Anybody who begins a blog post, essay, or op-ed piece with "Let's face it" is a hack. Frankly, you have to look no further than the celebrity-infested Huffington Post, a money-making site where people blog for exposure rather than money. Honestly, I don't want to pick on Huff Po, as I agree with their politics for the most part. But, to tell you the truth, the quality of their writing is so dreary, I often can't read beyond the first three words of any given post before I'm overcome by boredom. But let's face it, a search of Huff Po for the phrase "let's face it" delivers 81,500 results. Speaking candidly, that's probably the number of new blog posts that appear on Huff Po on any given day.

In my opinion, the reason bad writing is epidemic on Huff Po is because celebrities, movie stars, and "beautiful people" of all stripes believe they are compelling writers because when they speak, the well-scrubbed masses gather around them and hang on their every word. But don't kid yourself: Publishing transcripts of what amounts to cocktail-party blather is a recipe for ridicule.

Truthfully, it was a post by Marlo Thomas (107 million Huff Po results) about the Boston bombings that I started reading the other day that provoked this post. I’m not going to lie, it began, “I love the New York Yankees, but I’ll be honest with you…”

I’ll be honest with you, Marlo: I think you’re a fine lady, but your blog posts really suck.

Read It and Weep

April 10, 2013

Tags: book piracy, Google, Amazon, writing, Scott Turow

I've written frequently on this blog about the difficulties of surviving as a writer in 21st century America, and I've complained long and loud about mega-conglomerates, like Google and Amazon, who've made survival that much more difficult. But nothing I've written comes close to the indictment that Scott Turow, author of numerous best-selling books and president of The Authors Guild, published in The New York Times the other day.

Turow covers a lot of ground in "The Slow Death of the American Author," and I’m not going to discuss all of it here. But I'd like to bring your attention to a couple of points he makes, which shed even more light on similar things I've written about.

One of his main points is how Google, which does business under the slogan “Don’t be evil,” as well as Yahoo and Bing, are, without fear of legal consequence, profiting by directing people to “rogue sites… with paid ads decorating the margins,” that offer pirated e-books for free. “If I stood on a corner telling people who asked where they could buy stolen goods and collected a small fee for it,” Turow writes, “I’d be on my way to jail.”

He then turns to Amazon, which, since 2000, has been selling used print books side-by-side with new books, without sharing the profits on the used books with publishers or authors. Now, Turow says, the company has a patent to sell “used” e-books. Except, unlike print books, which show wear and tear, there’s no difference between a used e-book and a new e-book. “Why,” he asks, “would anyone ever buy a new book again?” Amazon “would literally own the resale market and would shift enormous profits to itself from publishers as well as authors, who would lose the already meager share of the proceeds they receive on the sale of new e-books.”

Turow ends with a vision of the dystopian future of book publishing in the U.S., based on what he saw on a recent visit to Russia, where, he says, “There is only a handful of publishers left,” e-books have been “savaged by instantaneous piracy that goes almost completely unpoliced,” and “in the country of Tolstoy and Chekhov, few Russians… can name a contemporary Russian author whose work regularly affects the national conversation.”

I’d urge everybody with an interest in the fate of books and the people who write them to read Turow’s complete essay.

A Writer Who Doesn't Give a Fuck

April 1, 2013

Tags: Gene Gregorits, writing, book promotion, literature, pussyboy

I've been meaning to write something about Gene Gregorits since I read his book Dog Days a couple of months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a slice-of-life novel that goes nowhere in particular, except from Baltimore to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as the alcoholic, cat-loving narrator takes you down a well-trod path of self-destruction, with the energy of Gregorits's prose driving the narrative forward, despite the lack of anything resembling a conventional plot. This is a book written by a man who's spent a lot of time locked in a room, cranking out millions of words in the course of developing an original voice.

That Gregorits self-published Dog Days under his Monastrell Books imprint, and has turned himself inside out trying to promote it, tells you all you need to know about the state of mainstream publishing these days: If you're going to write something genuinely original and not easily categorized, you’re wasting your time. The publishing industry does not want to know you.

I don’t know if Gregorits made an effort to sell this book to a mainstream publisher, but if he did, what they told him were variations on, “We really enjoyed reading Dog Days but we don’t know how to publish it, so we’re going to pass.” Which means, in the eyes of the publishing world, no matter how good a writer Gregorits is, he’s not a major celebrity with his own TV show, and it’s going to be difficult to promote a book like Dog Days without such a “platform.”

So, Gregorits brought out Dog Days himself, got some publicity on Vice.com, and sold a few books. This infused him with hope. He thought that an interview on a high-profile Website might lead somewhere. But these days, nothing in the writing biz seems to lead anywhere, except oblivion, and anything that doesn’t lead to oblivion is the exception that proves the rule.

Gregorits, who was embittered to begin with—bitterness is what fuels his writing—became even more embittered. He became something rare in the literary firmament: a writer who doesn’t give a fuck what anybody in the biz thinks of him, who doesn’t care whom he pisses off or what bridges he burns.

This is refreshing.

I’ll leave you with a recent post from Gregorits’s Facebook page that neatly sums up the view from underground, written by a man who has allowed himself to feel too much:

Trying to put a press kit together. I had a Princeton pussyboy acting as an “agent” last winter, but he never did a fucking thing so I told him to go fuck his mother. One of the most important things he promised to take care of was a decent looking press kit, and here I am trying to cobble together various reviews, interviews, etc., to show around to an industry that I don’t give a damn about. All time wasted. I’d rather be telemarketing: there’s an end to that dirty business, and a point.

I don’t want to be part of the feeding frenzy. I’m fucking good at what I do. Period. Fuck this PR bullshit. I could simply hack off a piece of my head, or an arm or a leg or something, take off a finger... quick, spiritually transforming, primal.

Or I could sit here mouse-clicking, jacking myself off all day like a baboon... endless, spiritually debilitating, superficial.


There you have it: The 21st century book biz in a nutshell.

Police Story

March 27, 2013

Tags: writing, police, Nowhere Man, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, diaries, Paniko, Javier Foxon

There's one more story about the police that's worth telling, and I've told it only once before--to the Chilean Website Paniko, when Nowhere Man was published in that country, in 2004. The writer, Javier Foxon, had asked me if Yoko Ono had returned my personal diaries--the ones I'd naively given to her, in 1982, when she asked to read them. Since Chile was 5,000 miles away, the interview was running in Spanish, and Paniko was not widely read by members of the NYPD, I figured I'd tell the truth.

I told Foxon that as the first edition of Nowhere Man was going to press, in 2000, Ono had returned my diaries--except for two small notebooks covering the summer of 1979. Foxon's inevitable follow-up question: What happened to the two volumes?

“Well,” I said, “I’m not really sure, but I don’t think their disappearance had anything to do with Ono.”

I explained that after I’d given my diaries to Ono, she turned them over to the police (and other legal and media entities), who combed though the half-million words I’d written, looking for evidence they could use to charge me with a crime, any crime, and use that as leverage to prevent me from ever writing about John Lennon’s diaries. (You can read about that fiasco here.)

But what the police found in the two volumes that had vanished were detailed notes about the gig I had in the summer of 1979, ghostwriting a novel for a former New York City cop. Those notes contained the names of cops I was taking drugs with, the dates we took the drugs, and the places we took them. In one notable passage, I described smoking a joint with a uniformed, on-duty cop in his patrol car.

“So,” I said to Foxon, “I figured the cops freaked out when they read that, and they wanted that information to disappear. I guess the two missing volumes ended up in a shredder.”

And unless I get arrested today, that’s the last police story I’m going to tell for a while.

A White Guy with a Pen

March 26, 2013

Tags: writing, police

Drawing by Mark The-k.
The most surprising thing about all the feedback I've been getting, on this blog and on Facebook, about my encounter with the police last week is that not one person said anything in support of the police. Somebody, I suppose, could have pointed out that the cops made an honest mistake, that they really did think I was defacing the wall, and that they didn't actually do anything to me (except surreptitiously read my notes).

Instead, people like Peter DuPre, a professional automotive journalist, posted a story about the time the police pulled him over for driving a "suspicious" car, pointed a gun at him, and threatened to shoot his injured dog, who was in the car.

The reason for this kind of reaction, I think, is that are a lot of bad cops out there, most people have had an encounter with one of them, and New York’s stop-and-frisk program has become internationally notorious. That the police accosted me, a middle-aged, middle-class white guy, in my own neighborhood, in the middle of the afternoon, is kind of shocking. And yes, the bit about the cop sneaking up behind me and reading what I was writing does have that distinct odor of the police state. I mean, suppose I was writing a novel about terrorism, and was jotting down some notes about blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge. Would the cops have just walked away? I doubt it.

So, let me just say this before, hopefully, moving on to other topics: Yes, it’s true, I did not like the police when I was younger and they routinely harassed me for walking with long hair, or pulled me over every time they saw me behind the wheel of a car, and gave me tickets for utter bullshit. But things changed, in the summer of 1979, when an ex-cop hired me to ghostwrite a novel (never published) based on his experiences as a patrolman in a New York City ghetto neighborhood. I hung out with cops and ex-cops. I drank with them, smoked weed with them, and snorted coke with them. I rode with them in patrol cars. I listened to their stories and I came to see them as human beings, some of whom had done some genuinely heroic things in the course of their careers. Which is to say that what happened to me the other day is not an indictment of the police themselves, but rather an indictment of what New York City has become under Michael Bloomberg in this age of terrorism, when a white guy wielding a pen can arouse the suspicion of the police, who, I’m sure, were only following orders.

The Writing's on the Wall

March 25, 2013

Tags: writing, police

I've gotten a lot of Facebook feedback since Friday's post about two cops accosting me in Greenwich Village because they thought I was writing graffiti on the wall of a building when, in fact, I was jotting down on a small piece of paper some notes for the book I’m working on.

Some of the feedback was deadly serious, with Skip Slavik, of Ohio, commenting at length about "the whole stop-and-frisk thing" ongoing in New York City, and the culture wars of the late 60s and early 70s, when cops all over America would routinely stop and frisk anybody who looked like a hippie. Other comments were sarcastic, with Gloria Malone, of the Bronx, noting, "Now Bloomberg is going to launch a new campaign against ball point pens."

I’d originally intended the post as a humorous anecdote about some of the absurd things that happen on the streets of New York. But it’s since occurred to me that this incident wasn’t quite as amusing as I first thought. The cop who was preparing to arrest me before he realized what I was doing said, “Oh, you’re a writer,” as he was backing away. How could he have known I was a writer, and not writing down a phone number, unless he was standing there long enough to read my notes? And that gave me the creeps—the idea that a cop had snuck up behind me, and whatever decision he’d made to frisk me or not frisk me, arrest me or not arrest me, was based, in part, on what I’d written. The cop was spying on me, and that’s no joke. It’s what happens in a police state.

And then, when I was out Saturday afternoon, and I stopped to jot down a few more notes, something I’ve been doing unselfconsciously for decades, I felt nervous about it, and took a careful look around to make sure there were no lurking cops. It broke my train of thought.

I leave you then with Exhibit A, the actual notes I was writing when the cops snuck up behind me. If you can’t read my scrawl, it says: “Banks: I knew from the moment I saw him” then a delete symbol followed by “walk in the door.” I then added, “2 cops think I’m writing on the wall. 40 years ago they would have arrested me.”

Good thing I don’t write with a can of spray paint.

Law & Order

March 22, 2013

Tags: writing, police

When I looked like this, circa 1973, what happened to me yesterday used to happen all the time. Photo © H. Edward Webberman.
I was on the corner of 6th Avenue and 13th Street, in Greenwich Village, not far from my house, around 4:30 yesterday afternoon, when an idea popped into my head for a minor edit for a passage in my book that I'd been struggling with all day.

This is the kind of thing that happens all the time, and I always carry a pen and a piece of paper with me so I can jot down ideas as they come. Since there was nothing horizontal around, like the top of a newspaper box, I leaned against the wall of the nearest building and began scribbling against its smooth marble surface.

I was totally focused on what I was writing when I sensed a presence an inch or two away. Looking to my right, I saw a cop was getting ready to grab me. But as soon as he saw up close what I was doing, and my face, he took a step backwards. Looking to my left, there was another cop, about a foot away.

"Oh, you’re a writer," said the first cop, a compact, wiry guy, about my own size, probably in his late 20s. "We thought you were writing on the wall."

He was now standing next to his partner, a hulking blond guy, about the same age, and they were both backing away quickly.

“You thought I was a graffiti artist?” I said. “With a ballpoint pen? You were going to arrest me.”

“Have a nice day,” said the first cop.

“Yeah, you, too,” I replied, as they both disappeared around the corner. “Have a nice day.”

But it shook me up—because 40 years ago this is the kind of thing that used to happen to me routinely. Except instead of the cops walking away and telling me to have a nice day, they’d frisk me. One especially memorable night, in 1969, they strip-searched me on a quiet Brooklyn side street—because I was loitering suspiciously. It’s the kind of thing that stays with you.

And I thought that if this were, say, 1973, my encounter with the police would not have ended so happily. At the least they’d have frisked me, because that’s what they always did, and possibly they’d have arrested me for writing on the wall, even if there were a piece a paper between my pen and that smooth marble surface. Because apparently, in this 21st century city, writers scribbling in the streets of Greenwich Village are not only suspicious, but a threat to law and order.

I Saw a Film and Read the News

March 18, 2013

Tags: writing, The New York Times, Janet W. Hardy

Amour, a movie about getting old, getting sick, and dying.

I saw Amour this weekend, and this is what I learned from it: Even if you're wealthy and live in a fabulous apartment in a country with universal healthcare, getting old, getting sick, and dying is still a major drag. If you find this kind of subject matter appealing, Amour presents it artistically and with subtitles.

I was also keeping up with people I know who were all over the news--like my mother, who was interviewed in the Florida Sun Sentinel about her volunteer work as an ombudsman protecting the rights of people who live in nursing homes. Having read this article soon after seeing Amour, it occurred to me that the U.S. should change the slogan on its currency from "E Pluribus Unum" to "Get Rich or Die."

Then another mother, my friend’s daughter, Gloria Malone, had an op-ed piece in The New York Times about being a teenage mother. Most impressive, Gloria. Can a book deal be far behind?

Not to be overlooked in this media frenzy was Janet Hardy, an author I met at the BEA last year, whose book Girlfag I wrote about here. Janet had a piece in Salon about her extraordinary tantric orgasm—an orgasm she described as feeling like “an orgasm times 100.”

A bit of comic relief was in order after processing this information, so I picked up a recent copy of The Spectator, which appeared on my coffee table the other day, presumably beamed in from another universe. The full-page ad on the back cover, for a Bentley Continental GT, with a top speed of 205 mph, tipped me off that I was not the intended audience for this magazine. Who is the intended audience? They appear to be moneyed, titled, ultra-conservative Brits, who enjoy reading people like Taki. A quote from his regular column, “High Life,” tells you all you need to know about The Spectator. “One checks into a hotel for the first time and the concierge calls you by your Christian name,” the Greek journalist complains. “Travel is now an exercise in being among slobs. Tracksuits, trainers, loud dirty children, fat people drinking out of bottles with wires hanging from their ears, they are the best excuse I know of for paying through the nose and flying private.”

Isn’t it time for this guy to check into a nursing home?

Old School

March 14, 2013

Tags: Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, writing

A younger Philip Roth in Newark, NJ. Photo from Philip Roth: Unmasked © Bob Peterson.
Philip Roth: Unmasked, the new documentary by William Karel and Livia Manera, is playing for free this week at the Film Forum, in Manhattan, so I went around the corner last night and saw it. (It will be broadcast March 29, on PBS.)

Having had Portnoy’s Complaint blow my mind at a tender age; having then read about half of Roth's prodigious 30-book output; and having been profoundly influenced by his writing, I found the film mesmerizing and instructive. Roth is as witty and compelling in person as he is in his books. Listening to him talk, for 90 minutes, about his early life, his parents, his process, his work habits, and the reaction to his books, made him seem like the kind of entertaining fellow I'd enjoy hanging out with, which I suppose was the point. Roth knows how to perform for the camera.

His tale of a cab driver named Portnoy picking him up soon after Portnoy’s Complaint became a scandalous sensation is typical of the stories he tells throughout the film. Roth asks the cabbie, who doesn’t recognize him, if people have been giving him a hard time since the book came out. Portnoy tells Roth that everybody who gets into the cab makes some kind of joke about his name. “I want to kill the son of a bitch who wrote that book,” he says. When the ride ends, Roth tells him that he wrote the book. “You son of a bitch!” Portnoy says. “I thought it was you.” Roth gives him a $20 tip.

Though Roth retired this year, one of the most striking things about the film is how old school he is. Not once does he mention the Internet, e-books, tweeting, blogging, or any of a dozen other things that working 21st century writers must contend with. There’s exactly one shot of a computer—it appears to be an early-1990s model—but you don’t see Roth using it. He writes with a pen, standing up at a podium-like desk, in his Connecticut house. Writing standing up, he explains, makes it easier to think, and anytime he gets stuck, he just walks around his study until the ideas flow again.

Most of what Roth says further illuminates aspects of his life and career I already knew about. I didn’t know, however, that he dated Mia Farrow (she discusses their “friendship”), and that chronic back pain nearly drove him to suicide. A shot of Roth hobbling along a path in a cemetery drives home just how frail he is, and that his 80th birthday is impending. He says that the idea of death makes him feel “sad,” but it doesn’t worry him.

One bit of practical advice I got from the film: Roth says that any time a writer is born into a family, the family is “ruined.” He then explains that you can’t publish a book like Portnoy’s Complaint without preparing your parents. Which reminded me that I’ve got some of my own preparing to do, and that it would be a very good idea to do it before I publish any future volumes.

Talk of the Town

March 13, 2013

Tags: Philip Roth, writing

The recently retired Philip Roth, America’s foremost living novelist, turns 80 on March 19. The media is in a frenzy over this event, probably because it's the last time in our lifetimes that we'll see such a public uproar over a writer’s birthday. Popular, prolific, polarizing, and critically acclaimed over six decades, Roth has achieved a level of fame no longer attainable to any writer.

A piece by Adam Gopnik about Roth's birthday, in the current New Yorker, talks about how the future of making a living as a writer in America is "in doubt as rarely before," and gives all the usual Internet-associated reasons for this. One sentence in particular jumped out at me: "It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer."

I couldn’t agree more. Book publishing has always been America’s ultimate can’t do industry. No matter how much sense an idea makes, somebody in book publishing will always find a reason not to do it. When something miraculously goes right, no matter how routine, it’s always the exception that proves the rule. And even when things are going well, even when your books are selling, even before the Internet ravaged the writing profession with the notion that people should write for free and “content” should be available for free, somebody, somewhere along the line can always be counted on to fuck things up, either by design or by accident. If you had a bestseller, for example, chances are excellent that your publisher is busy figuring out a way to not pay you royalties. I could go on. But I won’t.

I’ll simply congratulate Roth for surviving and thriving in this kind of environment since 1960, when his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, was published. Happy birthday, Philip! You’ve been an inspiration.

I Don't Believe in Writer's Block

February 28, 2013

Tags: writing, book promotion

So, here it is, two years to the day that I flew to London to begin the Beaver Street promotional campaign. And what am I doing two years later? Still promoting the damn book. As if to commemorate this anniversary, an interview has popped up on a British website run by Morgen Bailey. In the course of our low-key conversation about the writing life and my career, which took place several months ago, Morgen asked me, "How much marketing do you do?"

Today my answer seems especially relevant: "The marketing and promotion are the hardest parts of writing a book because you have to do it every day, and if you’re lucky it goes on forever."

To which I’d now like to add, “Amen.”

So, before I move on to the next phase of my day, I’ll leave you with a couple of more quotes from the interview which, with any luck at all, might inspire you—especially the aspiring-writer types among you—to read the whole thing, and maybe even pick up a copy of one (or both) of my books.

“Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?” Morgen asked.

“The best writing advice I ever got was, ‘Keep a notebook and write in it every day.’ I don’t believe in writer’s block. If you’re stuck, then write anything, even gibberish. And keep doing it. Eventually, the words will flow.”

“What advice would you give aspiring writers?” she asked.

“Don’t listen to what anybody, especially so-called ‘experts,’ tells you about your work because nobody knows what they’re talking about. And never give up.”

Amen to that, too.

Blogs vs. Books

February 22, 2013

Tags: Observation Post, Beaver Street, City College of New York, writing, 1970s

The Daily Beaver is a thing unto itself that usually has nothing to do with anything else I'm currently writing. It's a promotional tool, a warm-up exercise, a place to occasionally let off steam, and a daily challenge. But one thing I don't do with these blog posts is spend a lot of time rewriting them. What you're reading is a first draft. Maybe I've read it through twice and made some minor changes before posting it. The whole process takes less than an hour.

My books, on the other hand, are probably a fifteenth draft that I've been working on and thinking about for years. They've been critiqued by editors, vetted by lawyers, and subjected to professional copy-editing. I'd hope the difference is apparent to even the casual reader.

I think if blogs existed in the 1970s, I’d have been a more effective blogger than I am today. And by “effective,” I mean that my postings would have gotten more hits and more comments. Because blogging is a better medium for inexperienced amateurs than it is for polished professionals, especially those who put their best work into books.

In the 1970s, I thought writing was easy. Which is to say, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was unpolished, unguarded, I had nothing to lose, and I said all kinds of outrageous things (usually about sex) without understanding the impact it would have on the people who read it. I’d not yet developed a filter, and drew little distinction between what I thought, what I said, and what I wrote. I didn’t understand how easy it was to offend people. I put down on paper whatever was in my head, and then, with little editing, published it in Observation Post, the so-called alternative newspaper at City College. And, boy, did I ever get a reaction… and comments. (See Beaver Street, Chapter 1, “How I Became a Pornographer.”)

I’ve learned a lot in the ensuing decades. For example, I now know that writing well is hard; that it’s not a good idea to publish many of the things I say privately; and that it’s a terrible idea to publish everything that crosses my mind, no matter how many hits and comments it might provoke. There are certain people I’d prefer not to offend. In other words, I’ve learned the art of restraint, which is the opposite of what people are looking for on the Internet.

So, if you want total abandon—at least the kind of total abandon that’s not going to get me sued—then you’ll just have to read my books. In fact, I think I’ll work on one now.

Is Writing Torture?

February 21, 2013

Tags: Philip Roth, writing

There's a story making the rounds about Philip Roth's encounter with a waiter in a Manhattan deli. The waiter, Julian Tepper, presented the literary lion, who was about announce his retirement, with a copy of his first novel, Balls. In a piece that Tepper then published on the Paris Review Daily website, he said that Roth had warmly congratulated him and then told him, "I would quit while you're ahead. Really. It's an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it's not any good. I would say just stop now. You don't want to do this to yourself. That's my advice to you."

Is what Roth said true? Or is it suspiciously reminiscent of the kind of advice that Traci Lords now gives to aspiring porn stars? In short, are these the words of a fantastically successful person who doesn't like the idea of a potential competitor following the path that they so brilliantly blazed to glory?

Since it’s far too late for me to quit while I’m ahead, and I’ve devoted the better part of my career to attempting to follow a nonfiction route similar to the fiction path that Roth had taken, allow me to weigh in with an objective opinion.

No, I do not think writing is torture. Yes, it’s a difficult thing to do, and it requires an enormous amount of discipline and commitment. But it suits me perfectly well, because I happen to be very good at sitting alone in a room, listening to the voices in my head, getting those voices down on a computer screen (or paper), and then spending the next several years rewriting those words and, yes, throwing away most of the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts. (And maybe the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, too.) But I ultimately find writing to be satisfying, which is why I do it. And every day, once I get in the groove, I often find it pleasurable. If this were not the case, I’d have quit decades ago. Because unlike Roth, my first genuine success didn’t come quickly. Writing was a compulsion, something I felt I had to do, and that’s what kept me going.

What makes writing “awful” and “torture” is the business side of it—dealing with the stupidity and fear of publishers who are looking for pretty faces rather than good books; chasing after people for money; devoting more time and energy to promotion than writing; and simply surviving in a business that’s undergoing the most traumatic upheaval since the invention of the printing press.

But that’s not what Roth told Tepper. So, my advice to young Tepper is: Don’t listen to Roth or to anybody else. And don’t write because you think it might be a good career path. Write because you can’t not write. Write because it gives you pleasure. And keep your day job.

My Process

January 18, 2013

Tags: writing, marijuana

Photo courtesy Drug Enforcement Administration.
Maybe you smoke weed to get high, but for me it's a performance-enhancing drug.

That marijuana can help me with my writing is something that I've been aware of for decades, even before one of my distinguished professors at City College told me that she sometimes smoked a joint before editing her own work. She said it made it easier for her to see the "bullshit," and to cross it out.

To be clear: I don’t write when I’m stoned. Quite the opposite, actually. I start work in the morning, after breakfast, usually around 10 o’clock. And depending upon deadlines (or lack thereof) I keep going well into the afternoon. First I write this blog to get my brain into gear. Then I do whatever freelance work I have. And finally I get to the book I’m working on—Bobby in Naziland at the moment—and devote my remaining creative energies to that. Sometime between 3 and 5 o’clock, I find that I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, that I can no longer focus on the computer screen. That’s when I stop.

Writing, in other words, is a sober, self-motivating act of discipline that I’ve been going at fulltime since September 1999, when I left my regular job. It’s after I finish writing that I put a pinch of performance-enhancing cannabis into my pipe, smoke it, and then take a very long walk.

It’s the combination of the marijuana and the walking that puts me into a mind-freeing meditative state similar to what some people might achieve through yoga or chanting. When I’m totally into it, I can walk two or three miles without even realizing I’m walking; I can suddenly look around and have no idea where I am or how I got there.

It’s while I’m walking that my mind is turning over the words that I’ve been wrestling with all day. It happens almost every time: the idea that I couldn’t figure out how to express, or the sentence that I’d rewritten ten times but which still wasn’t right, or the chapter title that didn’t quite click… the correct wording magically pops into my head. I pull a pen and a piece of paper out of my pocket, and leaning against the nearest horizontal surface—a car, a mailbox, a newspaper box—I scribble it down as if in a fever state. Then, the next day, when I go back to my book, that’s where I begin, with the notes I’d taken on my walk.

And no, it tends not to happen if I haven’t smoked beforehand.

I don’t suppose Oprah would want me to come on her show and confess to my use of a performance enhancing drug.