I was thrilled to return to Subterranean Books, in St. Louis, for my first live event in four years. There's a complete audio recording of the reading and Q&A that followed, which I'll make available in weeks to come. In the meantime, here's a transcript of my opening remarks.
Hi everyone. Thank you all for coming. I know many of you were here in 2019 for my previous book, Bobby in Naziland, which was re-released as A Brooklyn Memoir. Nowhere Man is a very different book, and there's a new edition with 45 pages of supplementary material, a new introduction, and innumerable corrections, additions, and revisions.
I was supposed to do this three years ago. Unfortunately a pandemic got in the way. This is my first book event since the pandemic started, and I timed it to coincide with what would have been John Lennon's 83rd birthday on October 9.
Perhaps some of you have already read Nowhere Man, possibly when it was originally published more than 23 years ago. A lot's happened since then. Tonight I'm going to talk about how I wrote Nowhere Man and some of what's happened since 2000. Then I'm going to read three short passages to give you a sense of the book's flavor. I should warn you that one passage has some strong language, which is pretty much unavoidable when writing about Lennon. After I finish reading I'll throw it open to questions.
I began writing Nowhere Man more than 41 years ago, in early 1982. It took me 18 years to find a publisher. Everybody I sent the manuscript to was afraid to publish it. They were worried about lawsuits. They were worried that there wasn't enough interest in John Lennon. They were worried that I couldn't provide documented proof that what I'd written was true. I didn't work nonstop on the book for 18 years, but I never gave up on it because I knew it was a story that needed to be told. So I had 18 years to refine the book and get it right.
Then, a small indie publisher, Soft Skull Press, made an offer for Nowhere Man and published it in the summer of 2000. They were very good at promotion and after 18 years of rejection I had an international bestseller in multiple languages.
So what made the book so dangerous and controversial that nobody would touch it for all those years? Nowhere Man exists because five months after Lennon was murdered, his personal assistant Fred Seaman, an old college friend, gave me the diaries Lennon had been keeping for the last six years of his life and asked me to turn it into a book—it's what John had told him to do, he said.
In the new introduction I describe this as the old literary trope: an "ordinary man" in an "extraordinary situation." Did I take at face value what Seaman told me? Yes. Was this naïve? Obviously. Did I recognize the moment as a life-changing occasion? No, I saw it as a job. Of course I wanted to turn Lennon's diaries into a book. I was a writer looking for a story, and the story of the Beatles was the story of my generation.
But what exactly was in those diaries that made them such an extraordinary document? Well, they struck me as a rough draft of the tell-all memoir John never had a chance to complete. He put everything in there: the gossip, the fear, the rage, the insanity, the insecurity, the inspiration, the love, and the hate… all the emotions and contradictions that made Lennon who he was. And I had to turn this disjointed mass of raw material into a coherent narrative. Which I started doing. But before I could finish—and this is the story behind the book, which I detail in a chapter called "John Lennon's Diaries"—everything I was working on was taken from me.
All of this raises a question that I've been asked repeatedly for the past 23 years: What right did I have to reveal the personal information in a man's private diaries? In other words did I have a right to tell this story?
All I can say is that John Lennon was a historical figure, the information in his diaries was of historical value, and an extraordinary circumstance allowed me to be a conduit of that information. Had I chosen to not publish Nowhere Man, this story would not have been told in my lifetime, if ever. So I made a decision: I chose to put the story out there.
If you're uncomfortable with that (and I know some people are), there are plenty of authorized Lennon biographies. You don't have to read my book. But if you choose to read it, I will say that I've done my best to give you the truth as I know it.
The three selections I'm going to read are from a section called "Dakota 1980." They take place towards the end of John's five-year hiatus, before he returned to the studio to record his final album, Double Fantasy.
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