Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why I Write Books

             Currently, I’m caught in a limbo of fiction.  It’s a limbo I don’t particularly cherish being inside.  I've finished Eating Animals and I'm waiting till the start of National Novel Writing Month to begin the new book.  I've got plenty to do: editing two books and proofing yet a third, but it's not writing.  It's not creation.  So, as a stopgap: why I write these things.

I first started writing novels in 1999 … okay, wait.  That’s not entirely true.  I really started writing novels in 1991, when I wrote my first unwieldy horror/sci-fi novel called Mind of Darkness, because I’d heard of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and liked the ring.  I was fifteen when I wrote it, and it was terrible … except, maybe, for a scene in which a possessed mother decides to straighten her scoliosis-afflicted daughter’s spine with a rolling pin.  That got me fired up and is the only thing in the book that still sticks in my head, twenty-four years later.  In senior year of high school, I gave novel writing another go and ended up with a novella called The Transmigration.  It was … all right.  Both books owed a great deal to Stephen King’s It (my then- and now-favorite novel) and both dealt with possession because that was apparently my bag back then.  This was a time in my life during which I was hanging garlic up around my bedroom windows, in case vampires decided to invade the suburbs.  I read horror comics and horror novels and my last date with a girl was going to see Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.  This was my frame of mind/reference.  I wrote spooky short stories for my composition classes and for my final thesis, I compiled a bunch of them into a short story collection.  I got an A-.  I think the minus was because I described sex a little too overtly in a story I called “Bound and Determined.”  You do the math. 

            It took me a long time to write another book, so I stuck with short stories.  Flashback: when I graduated middle school (this was apparently a big deal in my family), I got a typewriter and started typing up short-short stories with ironic titles and twist endings.  I was the O. Henry of the teenage set.  That practice largely ended when I had yet another fight with my monstrous stepmother, and she tore up all my stories and left them in a neat pile on my dresser when I came home.  A master of psychological and emotional horrors, was she.  Anyway, when I lit out on my own as a teenager and found myself ensconced in a dank, eternally beige rooming house on the wrong side of the tracks, my grandparents upgraded my typewriter to a word processor, and there I set about the task of continuing what I did in high school – writing short fiction.  None of it was very good.  A lot of writers thrive in down-and-out situations, but I faltered.  Junkies were ODing across the hall from me and old men were in the business of dying slowly in all the other rooms.  I got into writing bleak poetry and one time I saved a homeless guy’s life and he helped me discover Bob Dylan.  I worked at a bookstore and read and re-read Stephen King, and my friend Tracey got me interested in crime fiction and science fiction, so eventually I read that, too.  Robert Parker.  Orson Scott Card.  I tried to write a novel called Bridge Trip, but it went nowhere. 

            I moved out of the rooming house and into my own studio apartment and started writing short stories I was proud of.  A number of them made it into the first professional fiction book I got published, This Terrestrial Hell.  I wrote one story, called “Last Night at the Bear,” which was both inspired by my saving that homeless guy’s life and a Drew Carey (yes, that one) short story called “Tackling Jim Brown.”  It was my first non-horror story.  Things were clicking.  I tried to write a werewolf novel titled Canis Lupis but it was overly complicated and dull, and there was a woman in it named Devia, who was devious.  Yep.  Then I broke up with my boyfriend of five years.  I did it twice in one day because I was twenty-three and had a fluctuating sense of security.  Three weeks later, I started dating Shawn.  Two weeks after that, I started writing what would be my first novel.

            Shawn definitely had something to do with it.  The whole book, which I titled Spare Parts after a Springsteen song, is about relationships – a long way off of the horror short stories I’d been writing.  Part of that had to do with the William Goldman novel, The Color of Light, which I now recognize is something of a World According to Garp pastiche, though I hadn’t read Garp at the time and knew nothing of John Irving.  My thinking at the time was that I’d gone through a terrible breakup and I was having love issues, and why not write a book about people my age faltering and falling in love and apparently crying six times a chapter.  Plus, I’d recently read King’s On Writing and I was inspired.  Anyhow, I got the book finished in a couple months.  It wasn’t very long – barely 60,000 words – and it wasn’t particularly great, but it got me over the hump.  I wasn’t a potential novelist any longer.  I could write novels, grown-up novels.  I sent it to an agent who sent it to a publisher.  Both of them dropped me on the same day.  Ah, the fleeting feel of fortune. 

            I’m not going to say it didn’t hurt.  I spent probably a decade afraid to submit anything.  But it didn’t stop me from writing.  While waiting to hear from the agent, I inadvertently began a second novel, I’m On Fire, also after a Bruce Springsteen song.  I say inadvertently because I set out to write a short story.  What ended up happening was that a longish novel came out of it.  My first real horror novel.  A decade and a half later, I looked at it again, did a complete rewrite, and submitted it to Cemetery Dance.  They published it this year as an ebook.  The ticking timebomb of success is a slow one. 

            Meanwhile, more books.  I liked contemporary crime fiction, so I wrote a book called The Eighth Acre, with every intent on my hero, Wayne Corbin, becoming a series character.  After my second, much longer book about relationships (Open All Night, also named after a Bruce Springsteen song), I got to another Corbin novel, The Color of Blood and Rust.  By this point, I’d only been writing books two years and the ideas just wouldn’t stop coming.  Five books in two years.  I wrote my second horror novel, Wolves in the Black, and my first epic novel (over 200,000 words), Find the River in 2001.  River I wrote entirely in the first apartment I shared with Shawn.  I needed to keep my spirits up, what with 9/11 happening and it being a really shitty apartment. 

            I don’t want this turning into a litany of books I wrote, because that’s not interesting.  This is more about why than about what, oAt some point during a particularly deep depression, I thought of giving the whole enterprise up.  I was in therapy at the time and he eventually tapped into why I was writing was getting me down, even though I couldn’t stop.  As it turned out, I was associating most of what I did with abject failure, no matter how fast or how well I wrote, because I couldn’t help comparing myself to Stephen King.  He’d had a number one novel before he turned thirty.  He published Carrie at the same age I was when I wrote Open All Night.  He was a huge massive success and I never would be.  It got more existential and sad from there: I was never going to write a book that changed minds, like 1984.  I was relegating myself to the midlist, in a changing publishing climate that no longer understood the concept of midlist.

            Therapy helped me.  So, insanely, did Coldplay.  Their big song, “Viva La Vida” was one of my big earworms that year, and I’d play it when I sat down to pound out a couple thousand words.  The refrain, “who would ever want to be King?” wouldn’t leave me.  Little by little, I realized that needed to be my ethos.  I was writing my own stuff.  I could keep trying to be a fourth-rate Stephen King or a first-rate Kevin Quigley.  I chose Kevin Quigley. 

            National Novel Writing Month helped, too.  The idea behind NaNoWriMo is to get at least 50,000 words of a book out in under a month.  November.  In 2005, I managed the feat, pumping out and 80,000 word book called Welcome to Bloomsbury, which is not named after a Bruce Springsteen song.  It’s a mess of a book, but it showed me I could dedicate myself to a single vision and write fast if I wanted to.  I’ve done NaNo a few more times since, and it’s always rewarding.  A bunch of my friends always try it, and I’m equally sad and happy when they end up ditching their books partway through.  I have only ever done that once, because I kept trying to write a book about possession and apparently that only worked for me in high school. 

            I’ve written twenty-one novels in sixteen years (plus some valiant attempts, like Mary’s Place and Tangerine and American Storm, which all fizzled out).  I’ve also written a bunch of nonfiction (mostly on Stephen King) and a short story collection and a couple of poetry books.  It’s been a remarkably fruitful time.  I start a new book for NaNoWriMo this year called Who We Are, What We’ll Do, and What We Won’t, and if I manage to finish before January, I will have written three full novels in 2015.  Yesterday, I got an idea for a new Wayne Corbin novel, and it’s a good one.  If I play my cards right, I can get cooking on A Dime’s Worth of Damage in March. 

            Why, though?  I mean, of course I want to make a success out of this.  I want people to read me and love me.  I want to make a living out of writing books.  I’m forty now.  Stephen King had already written my favorite novel and had moved onto other matters by the time he was my age.  I wonder if I’ve written my favorite novel of mine yet.  The Legend of Jenny McCabe and Maybe You’re Right are up there, but so is the newest Wayne Corbin book, Panic Town, in which nobody dies.  I guess that’s why, in the full measure of things.  I’m curious about my world, outside and in.  I like learning about people, and about why people do things.  I want to write situations that could have happened in my life, if I were more stable, or less.  But mostly?  Mostly I do it because I want to know if I’m ever going to write my new favorite novel.  I guess that’s as good a reason as any.