The Nowhere Man Interview
I met the prolific Marshall Terrill when he was writing The Jesus Music, a book about rock stars who found redemption in Christianity. We spoke about my John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man, and the brief "born again" period in the ex-Beatle's life. Over the course of our conversation, Terrill became intrigued by my other two books, Beaver Street and A Brooklyn Memoir, which will be published in July. Terrill is one of the few journalists who have read all three books, and we later spoke in depth about them. He provided me with a transcript of our conversation about Nowhere Man, which I've edited for clarity. Our discussion of Beaver Street and A Brooklyn Memoir will follow in parts two and three.
Marshall Terrill: You've had a most unusual writing career, and I say that with great respect. You've written about John Lennon (Nowhere Man), your years in the porn magazine business (Beaver Street), and your childhood growing up in Flatbush (A Brooklyn Memoir). Everything you write is so personal, much like Lennon's songs. Now that you know my take, what's your take on your career?
Robert Rosen: My career has been absurd. It's absurd that it took me 18 years to find a publisher for Nowhere Man. It's absurd that I don't have a U.S. publisher. My last two books were published by Headpress and their new imprint, Oil on Water Press, in London. Thank God for Headpress.
All three of my books have received very good reviews. Nobody's lost money on them. Nowhere Man was a bestseller in multiple languages and countries. And yet I find it extremely difficult to get anything published. I'm sure that has to do with the personal nature of the things I write about and the fact that I'm not a major celebrity nor do I have my own TV show and a billion Twitter followers. But the resistance I continue to run into after all these years still surprises me.
So I write to keep myself entertained; I write what I'd want to read. The result is the three books that you've read.
"It's absurd that it took me 18 years to find a publisher for Nowhere Man."
MT: Given what you've just told me, it makes me respect you even more. The fact that you're willing to fight—in many cases for years—for your books to get published is a testament to your resolve.
RR: I appreciate your saying that. I've always wanted to be a writer and I've always felt I could do better than most of the junk that gets published. I turned professional in 1974, after I finished college. I had friends who were editors at newspapers and magazines, and it wasn't that hard to get published and make some money doing it. I'm talking about articles, not books. But as time went on, all the people I knew who were in the business dropped out and went on to more lucrative careers. Instead of it getting easier as I went along, it got more difficult because I didn't know anyone in the business anymore.
MT: I want to go back to something you said earlier about Nowhere Man being in limbo for 18 years. What were some of the behind-the-scenes machinations to getting it published?
RR: It's not like I was working on the book nonstop for 18 years. I'd put it aside for years at the time, but something always drew me back. It just seemed amazing that nobody wanted to publish Nowhere Man. Editors told me things like, "Ono sues everybody," which is totally false. She threatens to sue but never actually sues writers for something they've written. I talked about this in the Village Voice article I wrote about Lennon's gardener, Michael Medeiros, and how nobody will publish his memoir. Editors also told me things like, "Nobody's interested in Lennon's last years," and "You can't prove what you wrote is true."
In 1998, I met Darius James, a writer known for his book Negrophobia. Darius had been living in Berlin and had just returned to the States. He was in New York and had no place to live. I happened to have a spare apartment at the time that I was using as an office. I let him stay there for several months. To thank me he introduced me to his agent, the late Jim Fitzgerald, who couldn't believe Nowhere Man hadn't been published. He was able to place it with Soft Skull Press.
Soft Skull's publisher at the time, Sander Hicks, had absolutely no fear of being sued—and he ended up getting sued for a book he published about George W. Bush, Fortunate Son; the author, J. H. Hatfield, later died by suicide. Anyway, as Soft Skull was going forward with Nowhere Man, Fred Seaman, Lennon's former personal assistant, the guy I used to work for, sued or threatened to sue Ono and Capitol Records for copyright infringement for a photo that he'd taken and that she'd used on the John Lennon anthology CD. She countersued, and her lawyers needed me as a witness at the trial. I think it was understood that if Ono's lawyers gave me a hard time with Nowhere Man, I wasn't going to cooperate with them on the Seaman case. Actually, I didn't have much choice. They were going to subpoena me; they did subpoena me; and I was a cooperative witness. They deposed me. I answered all their questions. I testified in court, they won their case, and they didn't hassle me. Those were the behind-the-scenes machinations.
"I started writing the book that became Nowhere Man a few weeks after I came home from vacation and found my apartment had been ransacked."
MT: What I find amazing as you're telling me this story is how you were able to retain all that information in your head given that you were working on Nowhere Man for all those years. You must have a great memory.
RR: I started writing the book that became Nowhere Man a few weeks after I came home from vacation and found my apartment had been ransacked. Everything I was working on for the Lennon book I was doing with Seaman had been taken. This was a book based on Lennon's diaries that Seaman had given me. I went into a state of shock. I was paralyzed for two weeks. I couldn't believe what had happened. And then at a certain point I realized that I had portions of Lennon's diaries memorized. I started writing down everything from the diaries I could remember. The more I remembered, the more I remembered. I wrote the bulk of Nowhere Man in 1982, and in the ensuing 18 years, I was able to refine it. It was published in 2000. The only thing I wrote after I got the book deal was the section about Mark David Chapman, which Soft Skull asked me to write.
MT: What I love about Nowhere Man is the writing itself because you were able to pack in so much information in a fairly thin book. Was that simply your writing style and was it something that you were conscious of?
RR: It's something I was conscious of. That's how I was taught to write. Joseph Heller was one of my writing teachers in college, and he taught me to condense, to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. Make every word count. That's the way I try to write every single sentence.
MT: One last question about Nowhere Man. What was your biggest takeaway regarding John Lennon's life after being one of the few people to have read his diary in its entirety from 1975 to 1980?
RR: There were a couple of things that really surprised me. One was the extent of his pettiness, especially towards Paul McCartney, and how much pleasure he took in McCartney's arrest in Japan for marijuana. Another was how much he thought about McCartney, which was virtually every single day. The third big thing was how deeply he was into the occult—tarot, astrology, numerology, magic. Those were my three major takeaways.
My latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir is available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.