what is the deal
When I started this blog two years ago, I did it to increase mindshare and enhance my brand presence in the cultural marketspace.
Also I had this feeling that nobody knew who the hell I was. And that the people who did know had a somewhat distorted sense of what I was like. Like I was this snobby Harvard/Yale/Time guy who wore an ascot like Fred on Scooby-Doo, or something. Which fair enough, how could you not think that? But as you can see in the picture below, I much prefer a floppy ruff.
So in this obsessive way, that I wasn’t totally in control of, I did a series of posts that amount to a sort of mini-autobiography. It was almost compulsive. It was definitely confessional. Essentially I wrote a lot of posts about awful, embarrassing episodes in my life.
It probably served some therapeutic function that I don’t fully understand. Some of this stuff I had never really talked about with anyone. But I’m actually pretty proud of the writing. It’s bloggy and messy, but I kept it very honest, possibly too honest. In places I think it’s even funny, in a self-immolating kind of way.
So since there’s been an uptick in blog traffic recently, I thought I’d aggregate those early posts for recent arrivals. With appropriate parental warnings. See below.
How Not to Become a Writer, or, Why I Have Not Been to Maine in 20 Years
Parental warnings: depression, extreme boredom, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
How I Got Published; or, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Parental warnings: whining
The Flight of the Halcyon
Parental warnings: cuteness
In the interests of authorial transparency, a quick update on the work in progress.
Weeks on leave from Time: We’re now entering week four. I could get used to this. I could post the amount of salary I’ve lost as a result of this leave, but that would just be depressing.
Confidence: High. If it were low I’d be too freaked out to post. Of course historically, for me, feelings of euphoria during the creative process have often preceded really awful moments where I realized I’d made a critical miscalculation about something I was writing, that required months of brutal work to fix. If I fall off the grid in the next week or so, that’s probably why.
Soundtrack: Still the same. Beta Band, Robyn Hitchcock, Metric. Plus some Mountain Goats. When I’m done I will never want to listen to any of these bands again.
Word count: 113,321. Which actually isn’t that much higher than when I posted about this a week and a half ago (it was 105,850 then). But these words are of significantly higher quality than those old words. Those old words were crap! We will not speak of htem.
Basically what I’ve been doing is, I’ve written about four-fifths of the plot, and I’ve been trying to get ready to write that critical last fifth. But I can’t do it till the first four-fifths are really working — all the characters make sense as people, all the scenes connect up in a coherent arc, I have some idea how the little details I’ve planted throughout are going to pay off, and so on. So I’ve been going over and over those first sections, getting them ready.
The feeling is approximately the same as when you were a kid, and you had one of those toy cars with a friction motor inside, where you had to repeatedly vroom it over the same section of floor until the engine was good and revved up, and then you would let it go and watch it take off and scare your cat or scuff the wainscoting or disappear under a couch or whatever.
That’s what I’m doing, except it’s with this novel. I’m must about finished vrooming it. I’m about to let it go.
Or, Lives of the Novelists Part XXIII. Or, a Requiem for Drazen Petrovic.
A while ago I decided to write something explaining why I went to Harvard and then Yale. Because people ask me about that a lot, and the answer is funny, sort of.
I explained about the Harvard part here. Now I’m doing the Yale part.
This involves telling the story of one of the strangest and most miserable years of my life — a whole year of my life that I almost never talk about or think about. And yet it happened, apparently. It’s been on my mind lately because I’m fictionalizing a version of it in The Magician King.
[These images are more comprehensible, slightly, if you mouse over them and read the alt text … ]
The story picks up at the end of yet another autobiographical piece, one that ended with my fleeing the state of Maine with my vestigial tail tucked between my legs. (If only it had been a prehensile tail. Then I would have shown that state what for.)
That was in February of 1992, less than a year after I graduated college. I fled to New York City, where I served a brief and inglorious term as an intern at a non-profit publishing company, which due to its alert staff and intellectually rich back catalog was able to survive my disastrous stint there. Suffice to say that I did not find my calling in book publishing.
Though I will say that I became a top-notch Xeroxer there. No kidding. To this day I make quality copies.
But I was lousy at the rest of it, and plus New York freaked me out. I lived on 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a much more extreme location back then. Giuliani time was still a long way off. The neighborhood did have its charms: there was an arcade within walking distance that had Magic Sword, which is my all-time favorite arcade game, and was open 24 hours a day. Such were the joys of the old pre-Disney Times Square. (I don’t think it had a name, but it was the one with the red police-light spinning over the doorway, you too haunted Times Square back in the day.)
But the little kritch-kritch sounds I heard as I walked to work in the morning were the sounds of crack vials popping under my shoes. That felt like bad news. And my room-mate turned out to be a prostitute. I answered his phone a lot. He’s not here? Would you like to get together instead? Your voice sounds nice.
That felt wrong to me too. I’ve heard my voice, and it’s not particularly nice.
It’s coming. It’s long and bone-chillingly confessional. It’s almost here. But not yet.
The reason it’s not here yet is that I’m working frantically on The Magician King. Some fun facts about this as-yet-unfinished book:
— It was due at the publisher six (6) days ago
— It is currently 105,850 words long. I would guess I’ve got somewhere between 35 and 40,000 words to go.
— I expect I’ll have a decent draft by the end of October.
— I have suspended any attempts to control my caffeine intake during the month of October
— These days it is mostly getting written in this armchair:
— On a good day work goes from about 10 in the morning to about 8 at night. That’s a good day. What happens on a bad day? There are no bad days! Who are you? Get out of my office!
— Bands I’m listening to while I work on it include Metric, The Beta Band and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
— There is a small creature who lives in my house who actively sabotages work on my book. She looks like this:
I went to Comic-Con.
While I was there I had to blog a bunch of times for Techland, to justify their paying for me to go, plus make a couple of appearances for The Magicians.
Then I was also cramming research for a Time story I’m writing now, and trying to write The Magician King. That was enough without blogging here. Though I would have liked to have been blogging here.
If you’re curious what I would have said, you can pretty much read it in the form of these Techland posts:
You might get from the titles of these posts that I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about Comic-Con. That is true.
After I graduated from college I had a publishing internship for about three months. I was the worst intern in the world. I have a truly humiliating proof of this, but fortunately this introductory paragraph is too brief to contain it.
About the only thing I learned during my short career in publishing — besides that I sucked at publishing — was that the trade lingo for the About the Author page is the “Ab Au.” (Pronounced “ab aw.”)
(Though I’ve never heard anybody actually say that besides the one editor who told me about it. Now that I think about it it’s possible he was yanking my chain. I was “that” intern.)
I have long been aware that the only interesting thing in my personal Ab Au is the weird fact that I went to both Harvard and Yale.
And it is weird. The other day I was watching the trailer for The Social Network, that movie about the founding of Facebook, and I was watching the scenes where Mark Zuckerberg is at Harvard and thinking, wow, yeah, Harvard, I bet that was some heavy shit. And then I stopped and thought, waitaminnit, I went to Harvard!
And Yale. Why did that happen?
It’s a question I get a lot. Not from people who actually want to know how I got published, but from people who want to know how they can get published.
I get that. It’s pretty understandable. If I were them I’d want to know how I could get published too.
Well do I remember how incomprehensible the whole New York publishing world looked when I was not “inside” it. It is a dark planet, emitting little detectable radiation on any wavelength. There isn’t much reliable information about its diabolical inhabitants. Accounts by travelers to that cursed orb rarely agree.
I can only give you mine. It’s not pretty.
Chapter 1. In which I don’t get published (1989-1993)
I saw short stories as the natural entry point. In college and shortly thereafter I wrote a lot of them. I would ballpark the number of my unpublished short stories at around 150. I stopped when I realized that a) I have no gift or real love for the short story as a form, and b) the market for short stories is a difficult and complicated and relatively conservative one. It helps to know people, and to have an MFA-type writing style. I didn’t.
Chapter 2. In which I write a novel (1993-1996)
It’s unlikely that, as a first-time novelist, you’ll be able to sell a project based on a partial manuscript. You will need a total manuscript. I wrote a novel in the early 1990’s, in the years right after I graduated college. I did this without an agent or connections or any particular encouragement. I was rejected from all the MFA programs, grant programs and writer’s colonies I applied to. But it’s the first thing I did right.
I’m back in New York City for like 10 seconds — long enough to do a reading at the Borders in Columbus Circle tonight. (See how I worked that in.)
While I’m traveling I’m basically an isolated, sentient point hanging unsupported in space. But now that I’m actually home it occurs to me that practically nobody reading this blog has any idea who the hell I am other than that I’m the guy who wrote the Harry Potter book that has sex in it.
(I’m still waiting for a newspaper to use the headline “Dirty Harry” for a review. Come on guys. it’s just sitting there.)
I don’t blog about my personal life that much, because it’s inherently creepy and anyway who cares. But! If you’re curious, here’s my character sheet.
I live in Brooklyn. I bought a too-big, too-old brownstone there last year. The neighborhood is called Clinton Hill, which nobody knows where that is, but just start in Fort Greene and walk towards the sound of small arms fire and you’ll get there.
I am 40. So I remember the world before Harry Potter and the Internet. But I don’t remember when the Beatles were together. But I did have a bad haircut in the 80s.
I’m a dad. My daughter, Lily, is 6. The two words she would use to describe herself are ‘cute’ and ‘fierce.’ She looks like this:
That’s her with the wings. I don’t know who the hell that guy is. Watch the hands, buddy.
Lily’s mother and I split up when Lily was very small. But very recently, like a few weeks ago, I got married again(!) My wife’s name is Sophie Gee. She’s a novelist and a professor at Princeton in the English department. (The 18th century is her specialty. But don’t try her on Milton either because she will fuck you up.) I love her so much I can’t even write about it here.
Finally, a forward-looking statement: Sophie is pregnant. Very pregnant. Sometime toward the end of June, beginning of July, I will drop off the face of the Earth and then re-emerge a couple of weeks later covered in vomit.
You’ve been warned.
The other day the New Yorker announced its list of the twenty best writers under forty.
Lists like this are of course totally bogus. But I like them. They treat literature like it was some kind of damn dog race, which is demeaning to both literature and dog racing (which is pretty horrible to begin with). I think they’re a unique artifact of late-20th-century popular criticism — as crass and lame as earlier eras of human civilization were, I can’t imagine critics of an earlier era being crass and lame in quite this exact way. It’s like some horrible amalgamation of all our obsessions with youth and media and penis-length, given list form.
And yet: they get some basic information out there, albeit in a crude and distorted form. I think some writers are good and other writers less good. You think other writers are good or less good too. Here are their names. Now we know.
When the New Yorker announced their list, I read it and immediately was all, no way, this sucks. In fact I was all like that publicly, on Twitter. So I feel like I should add something to that. Mostly caveats.
I have a thing about popular/genre fiction and literary fiction. I think and write about the difference/non-difference between them, and the history of that difference, a lot. For reasons I’ve explained way better elsewhere (see those links above) I happen to think the collapse/confusion/obsolescence of that difference is the most interesting thing going on in contemporary fiction. It’s how we’re finally metabolizing/moving on from Modernism, which had a lot to do with inventing that difference in the first place, toward a kind of writing that is new and exciting and uniquely of its time. Which is the job of every culture ever. This is our avant-garde.
So I was disappointed but not surprised when there weren’t any genre writers on the New Yorker‘s list. It seemed typical of that institution’s blindness and ossified-ness, which is only matched by its breathtaking insight (honestly, who else would have been smart/strong enough to start sticking Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stuff in front of a mass audience? That kicks ass.) (Being born in 1963, he was way too old and crumbly for the list.)
Now two caveats to that: one, numerous people have argued that some of the writers on the list are in fact genre writers. Chris Adrian, for example, and Karen Russell. And Rivka Galchen. Those people are right. Or about Adrian and Galchen anyway. I’ve never read Karen Russell. #criticfail!
Two, nowhere here am I dissing the writers who happen to be on this list. There are some writers on there who I actually have read and, regardless of where they’re shelved, I think are not just excellent, but particularly excellent. They are: Gary Shteyngart, Rivka Galchen, Josh Ferris and Wells Tower (whose Viking story “Everything Ravaged Everything Burned” isn’t urban fantasy, but it’s cool in the same way that urban fantasy is cool).
Oh, and here’s another caveat: the New Yorker put your book, The Magicians, on their end-of-year best-of list last year. So where do you get off saying they don’t respect genre fiction?
Answer, I don’t know where I get off. How could I? I dine out on that whenever I can. The moral of this story being that magazines (and by extension people) are almost always smarter and more thoughtful than you (meaning me) initially think they are.
But I still think they should have had a few straight-ahead genre people on there. I don’t know how old Paolo Bacigalupi is, but he doesn’t look 40 to me.
p.s. I would never suggest that there should be a comparable 40-and-up writers list. But I do think there should be a list of writers who are exactly 40. I would have a shot at that one. Me and Kelly Link (b. 1969). And John Scalzi (also b. 1969). David Anthony Durham. David Mitchell. Huh. Actually it’s pretty competitive.
(This post was posted from the cafe at Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC, where I am reading in three short hours.)
This is one of those questions that if I were an old Infocom text adventure game like Zork I would say I DON’T UNDERSTAND THAT.
And the cursor would just sit there blinking, and you (meaning me) would have to think of some other question. But we don’t all have the luxury of being old Infocom text adventure games do we?
Unfortunately to answer this question — which admittedly nobody has actually asked me — I will first have to go through all that David Copperfield kind of crap.
I come from literary stock. My parents are both English professors. My father taught at Brandeis and then Johns Hopkins, my mom taught at Smith and UC Irvine and a bunch of other places.
It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to explain what that actually meant to a small person being raised by those parents. We were a very literary household. My father in particular is pretty much the most literary person you can imagine. He won a MacArthur Fellowship. He won a Bollingen Prize. He didn’t win them for curing leprosy. He won them for reading, writing and talking about books, mostly poetry, all day every day.
Books were what you talked about in our house (or mostly you listened to your parents talk about them). All the time. Literature was what was important in life. Even more important than crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women. Although that was right up there.
It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but one day you’ll run into one of my dad’s former students or colleagues and I promise you they’ll back me up on this, to the hilt.
The children of the household, while embracing (to various degrees) the ideology of the ruling class, maintained an underground resistance movement as well. The activities of the resistance consisted of consuming massive amounts of science fiction and fantasy in book, comic book, movie and video game form. We were occasionally exposed, and then we were beaten about the head and neck with heavy sighs and then drowned in our own shame.
But we persevered. Vive la resistance.