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Candy and Cigarettes

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

And Here's How You Can Help

I've decided to take to the streets.  No, I'm not joining any Occupy movement.  I mean I am going to target small presses to get my memoir, Junkie Love, published, on my own, grass roots and all that.  I do much better being hands-on anyway. Sitting back and waiting for my agent to hear back from the big houses has been killing me.  It's not like the smaller, independent presses are going to necessarily respond any faster (or at all), but I'll be the one doing the sending and receiving, having direct exchanges, which doesn't really change anything, I know.  But it sure makes me feel like I am doing something more than sitting on my (finely toned) ass, checking my e-mail six billion times.  (Actually, it won't change that last part, will it?)

It's really a no-brainer, when you look at what I am after.  It sure ain't the money. The standard, average advance for a first book is about seven grand, I hear.  Some authors get more of course, and if you are a barely literate, fat tart living in New Jersey, I'm sure Harper Collins (or whoever published that drivel) is handing out six figures.  And they should.  I may not be a fan of fat tarts or reality TV in general, but I understand the value of name recognition.  Publishing crap like Sookie (or is it Snookie?  It's so hard to tell vampires apart from fat tarts these days.  And, yes, I know, technically Sookie is a fairy.  Which is why I stopped watching True Blood) might allow an editor to take a flyer on something a little riskier.  And even if that isn't my book, that is still a good thing.  And it is reading.  If barely.

Another personality trait/life circumstance that lends itself well to my going with a small press is my ability to bang my head against a wall longer than you (universal). I am relentless in promoting my art, and I am a machine when it comes to routine and schedule.  I could be better at time management, I'm sure, but my tenacity is never in question.  Small presses require the author to do more legwork.  True, I have an arthritic hip, rendering my right leg all but useless, but my other leg works pretty well.  Most importantly, this is what I do.  After the wife and kid, of course, it is what is most important.  The work, my livelihood and passion and all that crap. Who better to have for an advocate for you than you?

Problem is, I'm sorta flying blind here.  Like a newly divorced 50-year-old suddenly on the prowl again, only fatter, balder, and with no fucking idea how to use an iPad, iPhone, or iTouch (there's a double entendre in there somewhere).  I may not be fat. Or bald.  And, yeah, I'm really really good looking, but that doesn't mean I know jack about how to get publishers, big or small, to read my book.  Which is half the goddamn problem.  Of the myriad rejections we received, the vast majority were assumed.  Meaning, we never heard back one way or the other.  Strikes me as unprofessional not to even respond, but I miss a bunch of submissions for Lip Service West, so who am I to complain?  I am guessing publishers get a lot more submissions than I do for my bi-monthly reading series.  You need a really catchy query, and this book doesn't exactly lend itself to that.  I am convinced, if I can get people to actually read the damn thing and give it a chance, someone has got to see the value in it.  It's all about the query.

(Sorry for another LOL Cat, but my wife and her friend in Micronesia simply can't get enough of them.  Justine and Liz are always, like, "Nice blog--but please please please more LOL Cats!"  So here you go, Liz and Justine.)

I have a few strikes working against me.  One is the whole "junkie" thing.  The memoir is about more than just the drugs.  In fact, the real heart of the story is probably my relationship with my mom.  Probably should think about changing the title, which Michele and I did for the last round we sent out (to Boys of Belvedere), but it didn't seem to make any difference, and the title is Junkie Love.  But using the word junkie is a lot like using the word vampire in a title these days.  Vampire books sell like crazy, but those are the ones that are accepted.  I can only imagine how many frumpy, oversexed housewives and gaunt, pale men who look like Alan Cummings are inundating inboxes with yet another shit novel about the undead. I'm sure as an editor even sees the word vampire, he/she wants to scream.  Not sure "junkie memoir" elicits that different a reaction.  And there is another thing junkies and vampires ( have in common, kinda like this dinosaur book.

Anyhow, here's how you can help.  If you are reading this blog, chances are you are a writer, or know one, or know someone who published with a small press.  Most importantly, you know what I do.  If you know the name of a indie publisher, or have a database that lists some of them, I'd sure appreciate it if you'd pass that information along.  I'll buy you a beer next time I see you.*

* Meaning if you ever find where I live and/or are invited into my house.  I have no plans to leave any time soon.  I've got a new book to finish.  

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Free Agent

Well, it's looking like I am about to be a free agent again.  Gonna hit the open market, lend my considerable talents to whomever wants them the most.  Let the bidding begin...


When I got an agent two years ago, I was beyond ecstatic.  After sending off myriad query letters, most of them going unanswered, or rejected with a single, uncapitalized (and often not even spell-checked) line, I was totally unprepared for life after acceptance.  I'd been so singularly focused on finding an agent for my work that I didn't realize doing so only got me through the door to the party.  It did not introduce me to the hot girl.  It didn't even move me closer to the hors d'oeuvres table.  It left me in corner with baby, holding out hope someone would ask me to dance.

The most important aspect to consider when looking for representation, I'd been told by professor and advisor and writer alike, was to find an agent who is in love with your project.  I'd had nibbles and bites, garnered a modicum of interest out of grad school for my noir novel, The Lone Palm (since reworked and retitled into the far-snazzier Wake the Undertaker)--even had someone hold onto it for close to a year, suggesting umpteen changes, all of which I implemented, only to have said agent pass (though concede I'd done everything she asked for)--but no one was in love. When I redirected my efforts to my memoir, revising an earlier, incoherent and aimless draft (which featured, among other unsellable points, a time-traveling subplot and six tiny monkeys the size of field mice on a mission to assassinate God [spelled with a small "g"]), I landed representation with the first agent I (properly) queried.

The "query letter" is like asking the most popular, prettiest girl in class to go to the prom with you. You are woefully overmatched, flying blind, goofy, awkward and insecure, trying to convince someone who barely knows you exist to take a flyer on you. With a brief, cordial, risk-less introduction, you need to convince her in a few words that you are worth her time and expertise.  And to do it for free.

An agent only gets paid if he/she sells your book.  Which may or may not happen anytime soon.  You have to sympathize with agents.  Everyone thinks he is a writer. If an agent accepts open submissions, and most do, can you imagine the amount of utter shit she has to read?  The countless, meandering tomes with unappealing characters who sit around cafes talking endlessly (via improperly tagged dialogue) with nothing causal ever happening.  It's amazing how many writers write that same talking cafe scene (I've written dozens).  I had a former prof who said that's because writers tend to be introverted and spend so much time in their head that internal conflict is where they are most comfortable.  I guess.  But remember, like playing sixteen-minute, prog rock guitar solos: just because it's fun to play doesn't mean it's fun to listen to.

If he could, I'm convinced, a writer would pen an entire 800+ page novel composed of nothing but dialogue in a cafe (or on a train), where misunderstood and unappreciated losers discuss life, love, and death through pithy one-liners and obtuse metaphor.  Kinda like My Dinner with Andre, but without Wallace Shawn. And you can't have a dinner with Andre without Wallace Shawn.

It's not like I don't understand how tough it is to be both an agent or a publisher; I am not approaching this like a lover wronged.  I suffered through enough horseshit submissions and uninspired creative writing papers as a magazine editor and teaching assistant/tutor to know that most people who call themselves writers can't write for shit.  Still, I am a writer, and tonight I am feeling a bit heartbroken.

My agent and I are breaking up.  It's not because we don't love each other any more.  We have, in the words of Jackopierce, just run out of time.  Contract is up in January.  There is nowhere left for Michele to submit.  We've hit all the big and medium-sized houses, and while the writing has generally been hailed as just this side of James Joyce (I'm paraphrasing) (, we failed to find a publisher.

Michele loved the book, and did everything she could to see me published, and she is still willing to help me explore less traditional routes (i.e., e-publishing), but as I discussed yesterday (, I am reticent to go that direction.

So where do we go from here?  Good fucking question.  There are the smaller houses, the less attractive, dumpy cousin to the big house hot girl, which offer nothing in return, the prose version of the poetry chapbook.  It's doubtful another agent could take on the memoir and do anything with it right now.  At best, he/she would have to wait until houses roll over or the market dictates something differently.  And that will take a long time, with no end in sight.  Wake the Undertaker lacks some of the lyrical punch of Junkie Love, but the novel is more plot-centric and commercially viable (I think), so I could try to push that one, hope that my rising star within the noir community garners me more than a cursory glance.  I have the short stories and whatnot, but first book deals for short story collections are pretty rare.  Then there's the new novel I just started, which is still years away from being presentable, because I write slowly, and I just started.

But, really, who gives a shit?  I don't need the money.  I've got exactly the life I want.  I wake when I want (i.e., when Holden tells me to), I workout in my garage when I want (when my arthritic hip isn't flaring up), and I write when I want (meaning, when all my chores are done and Justine says I am off duty).  All I ever asked of this World/the Universe/God was to A.) be afforded the opportunity to be an artist, and B.) not starve.  I'd say W/U/G granted that request.  Maybe not exactly in the order or manner I would've liked.  But it was granted just the same.  Of course, now I want more.  But isn't that the way it always goes when you think you've got everything you want?  Like the Boss says, "poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and the king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything"...

I don't care about being king anymore.  I just want my fucking book published.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

50K & Self-Publishing

By the time this goes up, we will be at, or very near, 50K hits (thanks).  I set out writing this blog to show publishers that people will buy my book(s) should they publish it/them.  In just under 10 months, we've hit this nice, round number, which is slightly deceiving, since for the few first months, no one besides my wife and Jimmy were reading the damn thing.  The majority of these page views have occurred within the last 6 months, with more and more logging on every week.  Publishers, however, have yet to jump on the Joe Train, apparently unpersuaded by my obvious marketing platform, rock star persona, and unparalleled pop culture knowledge (i.e., ability to post You Tube clips featuring cats).  Which leaves us with the big question: if we haven't landed the lucrative book deal, what, exactly, has this experience taught us.  Two things. Some people like cat videos.  Some people like Danzig.  And never the twain shall meet.  That is...until now.


Went back east for Thanksgiving.  Flew with the boy and the wife, and the kid cried the entire 5 hours into Boston.  Poor Justine was forced to walk the aisles as my son screamed, and we were that asshole couple.  Before I had a child, I, like all childless people, looked down on parents whose baby caterwauled an entire flight, with disdain.  Didn't really think about what they could do, only thought it about it from my point of view.  Which was, if you can't get your kid to shut up, don't fly on my fucking plane.  But perception is 9/10ths of the law. On the other side now, I sat back, fairly relaxed, as clearly irritated passengers glowered at me.  I could only shrug, as if to say, What the fuck do you want me to do?  He's a baby.  Sorry my aunt died and I feel compelled to go back east for Thanksgiving to visit family I've been ignoring, because in the end all you have is family and it's pretty goddamn important to make the effort, sorry my year-and-a-half old son doesn't understand why his ears feel funny and is unable to process why he can't hear or comprehend this new, awful feeling, and that his pain has interrupted your 36 channels of Direct TV programming.

I won't fly anything other than Jet Blue.  Justine, when she's booking our flights, prefers Southwest.  Or as P. Scott Cunningham calls it, Greyhound in the Sky.  I ain't flying fucking Southwest when I'm paying for the flight.  I've ridden enough actual Greyhounds that it simply isn't worth saving the $60-some-odd bucks to sit cramped next to unwashed sweaty people on upholstery that stinks like canned green bean casserole.

Anyway, that's why I didn't post much last week, and everything I did post had been written in advance, so I feel like I am just getting back.  And I missed writing a blog daily.  I missed the routine.  And the attention.

Sitting around on Saturday night, I was Googling my own name (yeah, that's what I do with my Saturday nights).  And I found this.

No 1: email Joe Clifford
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Joe Clifford is a talented writer without a book deal. He blogs at Candy and Cigarettes and his stories can be found at various places in the online world. For me Joe is a classic example of the publishing problem, ranking pretty high on my should be published list. Joe plays this down, but the issue remains.
Joe also replied to the email, to my utter shock. He was pretty nice about it too. He kindly mentioned Railroad on his blog and said that he would send some poetry our way. To Joe my email was just a compliment from a reader, which was cool with him. To me – it felt like I was disturbing Kerouac in flow.
I would like to thank Joe for showing his support to an underground project but also for smashing my perception of ‘established’, or as he would put it, ‘visible’ writers. From here on, I’ll contact anyone I think can push things forward, I’ll contact anyone I goddamn like, in the name of writing – of course. Hell – I might even pen that letter to Ferlinghetti.
That's from Jade Willets's blog, What Would Neal Do? (  He's the editor of Railroad Poetry Project (, which you may recall requested some poetry from me ( I'm not going to keep milking a nice e-mail, except that I found Jade's blog post a few hours before I received an e-mail from my agent, Michele, who, in light of our inability to find a publisher, uttered those two dreaded words.
Well, I guess that's one word, actually, compounded and all.  
It's been hanging over my head now for months, a worst case scenario.  I had a lot of sayings I lived by back in my drug days, one of which being, If it's worst comes to worst, it's gonna be worst.  Or as Lou Reed says, "The path of least resistance leads to the garbage heap over there"...

I signed with CGS Literary/MDM Management two years ago, a two-year contract, which is up this January.  The agency was so thrilled with my memoir, Junkie Love, and we had so much interest right off the bat that I thought it was a forgone conclusion I'd have a book deal by now.  I don't fault Michele, who has never wavered in her faith in that book or in me.  If I blame anyone, it's this cocksucker.

That's James Frey, the lying douche bag who ruined it for all recovering junkies looking to cash in on a lifetime of bad decisions.  I mean, I am too fucking old to go out and find a new way to fuck up my life and come back from the dead. There's nothing to be proud about living life as I did, a derelict scumbag.  Still, it's somehow extra offensive to me that this guy tried to take credit for having survived something he couldn't have.  It takes a certain kind of person to live the way I did.  Not better.  Not worse.  OK.  Probably worse.  Still, they were my mistakes and resurrection, and I resent manscaped hipster douche bags trying to hone in on my action.  Or to quote the Hold Steady, "You want the scars but you don't want the war"...
I've been told repeatedly that publishers are leery of the junkie memoir now. But the more time that goes by, the less I can accept that.  It's in my best interest to believe it, and to blame James Frey.  But I can't.  Not really.  I don't know why publishers won't take my memoir.  There has been a universal recognition that the writing is terrific (it's hard to argue that it's not).  Still, there can only be one reason why I don't have that book deal.
My book isn't good enough.
Relax.  I don't need a pep talk, nor do I need consoling messages telling me to hang in there.  I know what I have here.  It's a damn good book. But publishers aren't in this business to promote the arts; they are in it to make money.  And you can't fault them for that.  No one's arguing that fat tart from the Jersey Shore got a book deal because of her deft ability to turn a phrase.  By saying my memoir isn't good enough, I only mean that publishers don't see a way to make money off it.  I think it would, obviously.  I am extremely attractive, and charming in short bursts, which I think would be a boon on any book tour.  But I don't make these calls.  I don't have a say in any of it.  All I have control over is the work.  Right?
Maybe.  Maybe not.  The publishing industry is changing (with pioneers like former Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash leading the way, and there are all sorts of avenues now available to writers.  One of them is self-publishing.  Michele works with a fairly discriminating e-publisher.  It wouldn't cost any money. And if we sold enough books, perhaps it would entice traditional publishers to take a chance, that is if I didn't tell them to go fuck themselves when they came calling.  Revenge fantasies and all.
I often hear from people that they would buy my book should it be made available, and with 50K readers in just under 10 months, one could make the argument that there are potential buyers.  Then again, when I shamelessly whored myself for the Best Blogger Awards, I got, like, 7 votes.  So who's to say?
In the end, however, I can't self-publish my memoir for the simple reason that it doesn't satisfy my ultimate goal, teaching writing at the university level.  Plus, news of my "book deal" wouldn't make former classmates want to stab themselves in the eye with a fork, overcome with jealously and feelings of inadequacy.  I'd just be another guy with a make-believe book, indistinguishable from Aunt Edna's Jams of the South and all the grammatically incorrect, plotless fantasy novels about mystery-solving magic unicorns. In short, I'd be no different than this guy.

I don't need a book deal for the money (which is good, 'cause there ain't shit to be made in books).  I'd like the fame and adoration, sure, because I am a big ball of empty inside.  The most important aspect of writing, however, is the audience.  Which I sort of have with this blog (soon to be new and improved), and the short stories, etc. (seriously, thanks for reading).  Plus, like every cynic (and men who dress like mauve unicorns), I am a romantic at heart, and I have to believe, eventually, an editor will see what I know is in that memoir, something good, something special, something worthwhile.  And if not?  There are worst things than knowing you've created something you're proud of.  

Or as Gluehead used to say, "I don't do felonies for free."  
(*The best compliment I ever got for Junkie Love came from Gluehead.  He said, "[It] makes James Frey's A Million Little Pieces look like the Bernie Mac Show."  Not really sure what that means, but it sure sounds cool.  I included that quote in agent query letters.)

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen

Could've been '98 or 2000.  I don't think it was 2000 because I was with Becky by then, and we were living at the Casa Loma Hotel, not the Heights, cashing the bad checks.  I think that Thanksgiving I spent in jail.  I am pretty sure the year was 1999.

I was living here.

There it is.  Hepatitis Heights.  I stole this pic off Tom Pitts's new blog (, which he's using solely to advertise his recently published work, although I'm hoping he'll start using it to write new posts, like I do here, about those dark days, because, honestly, I could use the reinforcement; my memory from back then is kinda hazy.  I can tell you this: that house used to look a fucklot worse. For one, there were no garbage bins out front.  The city took ours away because no one had paid the bill in forever.  No one paid anything there.  No trash.  No lights. No heat.  Giant black trash bags were piled high along the side of the house.  A transvestite lived downstairs, and he liked me so I got to take the occasional shower. The biggest difference, you don't see the newly released dogs from the pen waiting on the stoop to beat the shit out of you and steal your stash.  Oh, and there was no sun.

I've described the hell that was Hepatitis Heights before, both in the blog (somewhat) and in my memoir (extensively).  I am sure the sun shone at some point like it does in this picture, but the way I remember it, it was always raining and it was always nighttime.  Jerry Stahl has a line in his autobiography, likening addiction to a permanent midnight (which is also the name of his memoir), and when I first heard that title I rolled my eyes, thinking it a bit overwrought, and I was an addict.  But now that I'm not, I look back on that time and he's right: it always seemed dark.  Then again, I did so much fucking meth, I was up most nights, crashing during the day.  Kinda like a vampire.  Who also didn't get laid much. Maybe I'll get a million hits from teenage girls today.  Or randy 40-year-old moms.

So this Thanksgiving I'm thinking about, 1999, I was living at Hepatitis Heights, and I want to say I had a girlfriend, or a wife, and that she was gone.  Believe it or not, I usually had a girlfriend (or wife) back then.  Not exactly high class; top tier prospects aren't out trolling the bowery after midnight.  They were less girlfriends and more running partners.  There's not a lot of time for fucking when you're day is divided into two ten-hour, drug-hunting shifts.

I've always hated Thanksgiving.  It's a goddamn depressing holiday.  Even when I was kid.  I've never been much of a foodie, and the idea of a holiday revolving entirely around people gorging themselves fat seemed stupid to me, especially when we're talking about Thanksgiving food, gourds, cranberry and gravy, turkey, and add to that being stuck around people and that the television programming sucked, and T-giving was, by far, my least favorite holiday growing up.  But if you think it sucked when I was kid, can you imagine how depressing it is for a junkie?

Forget for a moment that I got what I deserved, that I was a bad, shiftless person and all that.  Just try to picture waking up in that shithole above, dope sick, hungry, and its being Thanksgiving.

I think I called my mom and begged her to send me some money, using the ol', "But Mom!  It's Thanksgiving!" college try.  I was fucking 30 years old.  So after she hung up on me, I must've gotten well somehow, enough so that I, this gimp, Gavin, and another guy, Paul, decided we'd find a soup kitchen that would feed us, make the day slightly less awful.  I think it was Gavin who said they had the best Thanksgiving soup kitchen in the Haight.  I, of course, avoided the Haight every chance I could, because even then I hated hippies.

So we went in search of the Best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen.

You never get all three things you need at once when you are a junkie: drugs, food, cigarettes.  I mean, it might happen, but it's usually by accident, and not with enough frequency that you can remotely count on its ever happening again. Hepatitis Heights was on Potrero Hill, and we walked all the way to the Haight because we didn't have the three dollars apiece to ride the bus, and even if we did have the three bucks we would've bought cigarettes and walked anyway.  But we didn't have $3.  And we didn't have cigarettes.  So it didn't matter.

San Francisco is only 7 miles by 7 miles, so it wasn't that bad of a walk, but I can only imagine what we looked like to other respectable folks about to carve the bird with Junior at Grandma's, three dirtbags shlepping along, like Moses' rejects, wrapped in filthy rags, Gavin and his abnormally craned neck, like a glorious fried bird, leading the way.

We got there pretty late, but they still had food.  It was soup kitchen food, so we're not talking Chez Panisse or anything, but when you are starving, even crackers taste really good.

I'm probably conflating all this, combining six different occasions into one, like it was actually Glide Church that I went to with Paul and Gavin, and maybe this Thanksgiving I was alone or with Tom Pitts.  Either way, there was musical accompaniment, a plump woman playing a Casio.  And a lot of hobos.

But here is the part that really sticks with me.  The cigarettes.  There were three of us, so we'd probably been picking up butts from the streets and ashcans and sharing them along the way.  But after dinner, when we'd finished the canned meat and powdered spuds, this really sweet young girl who was volunteering there came to our table, and without asking or saying a word, just laid three cigarettes on our table and smiled.  They weren't doing this for any other table.  She only came to our table.  It honestly was one of the nicest things anyone had done for me in days, or maybe weeks.  Hell, months.

I remember so clearly, standing outside with Paul and Gavin (or Tom or whomever), in the sweet November carbon bus dioxide, the hoodrats and gutterpunks squirreling away spare change from strangers, and smoking that full cigarette, which I didn't have to share with anybody else, my belly full, and being genuinely thankful.  Not sure if it was the best Thanksgiving soup kitchen.  But it was the best goddamn cigarette I ever had.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Truth in Advertising: The Deception of Noir

One of the more interesting subdivisions of the writing world is the relationship between literary fiction and genre fiction (e.g., noir).  As a writer trying to straddle the two, if with a more sympathetic foot on the darker side of the street (or as Paul W. might say, with "one foot in the door, the other foot in the gutter...), I've discovered the presentation and promotion of both camps can be a bit deceptive. Kinda like Greenland vs. Iceland.

For those of you who are (like I) geographically challenged, that's Greenland on the left, the one covered with a fuckton of ice, looking about as hospitable as a summer's day on Hoth.  In one of the first examples of tourist duping, early settlers, attempting to lure workers to the snow-covered wasteland, came up with the idea of calling it"Greenland." (Ironically, Iceland [pictured on the right], is mostly green, but got saddled with the shittier island name.  Apparently only two names were left in the hat.)

I didn't start out intending to write one brand of fiction or the other.  In an early writing class I took after getting straight, the professor remarked that my voice betrayed a certain "hardboiled" edge.   Which I found remarkable.

"How weird!" I said.  "Because I read a lot of hardboiled authors."

Well, no shit, Joe.  That's how it works.  You are what you read (which is why, even though I haven't read the book in a few years, there is an undeniable Catcher in the Rye tone to my blog posts.  That's what you get when you read one goddamn book 6,432 times, ya phony bastards).

I soon learned that hardboiled/noir constitutes "genre," a five-letter dirty word in the writing world, and that if you wanted to be taken seriously, you needed to steer clear.  Fucking with genre is like fucking with venereal disease; you'll never shake its stigma.  I wanted to be taken seriously because I was still delusional enough to believe I'd have a legacy.  Seems crazy now, but I'd just gotten sober and my head was stuck pretty high in those pink clouds.  I was so much older than the other students, but with real world experience from which to mine; the (mostly self-imposed) standards were erected pretty goddamn high.

When I received an offer to study at Florida International University for my MFA, I found, by chance/luck/fate, that I'd ended up at a school deeply immersed in the mystery tradition, of which noir is a subset (or maybe it's the other way around). Department director Les Standiford's an accomplished mystery writer with several novels to his name, and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) earned his Master's there. James W. Hall also taught in the program (not that he could pick me out of a line up of one), and my thesis advisor, Lynne Barrett, had spent a lot of time dissecting the inner-workings of mystery and suspense.  As a result, I started writing more noir and less literary fiction.  And I started having a lot more fun.  All the stodgy, overbearing themes and insufferable morality plays about sons who can't speak to their fathers over holiday dinner went out of the shattered bathroom window.  In its place were the wonderful criminals, the wounded and broken hearted, the morally bankrupt castoffs and fuck-ups who still try to do the right thing, even when all evidence points to the contrary.  Which made sense beyond just the fact that this is what I liked to read.  It's also the world I'd been living in for the past tent years.

This wouldn't even be worth remarking upon if there didn't exist such a chasm between the two schools.  I still write literary fiction, but I have to say, by and large, the purveyors of literary fiction tend to be pompous douches.  I know I am running the risk of over generalizing, and it's a big fucking field.  But I have been to one too many pretentious parties where "craft" is discussed as nauseum over plates of  over-rated cheeses.  I remember this one particular get-together at the AWP, a small gathering, where everyone (but me) had a fellowship, and they all wrote this brand of fiction, or poetry, all in the same uppity vein, and soon as you walked in the room, you felt drenched in the phoniness, the front of it all.  All one needs is a little validation to bring out their inner dick.  And, yeah, there was envy on my part, and I'm not saying they were bad people, and I'm certainly not saying they weren't good writers.  Still, little kindness or generosity emanated from that room.

Which is where I draw the biggest distinction between what separates the two camps, which ends up being fairly ironical.  Noir is a world populated by unsavory types doing unspeakable things, and its writers create hellish landscapes, where characters backstab, murder, and dismember (and not necessarily in that order), but in real life, the authors who write this stuff tend to be real sweethearts.

From David Corbett to Thuglit editor Todd "Big Daddy Thug" Robinson, to the good folks over at Shotgun Honey, the noir/hardboiled/mystery community has been nothing but generous and supportive.  Go to any one of the sites that house my noir shorts and look at the comment sections.  You won't find a remotely negative comment.  For any story.  Just all these hardasses taking the time out to religiously read one another's efforts and prop each other up.

It's funny.  When you think about literary fiction, the works upon which critical acclaim is heaped--let's take, say, Infinite Jest by lit fic darling David Foster Wallace--even if you actual read that and pretend to have enjoyed it, you can't exactly use words like "like."  It's an experience, a masterpiece, a whatthefuckever, but I tried reading that shit and it bored me senseless.  Maybe I'm not that bright. But I'll take Jim Thompson over Don DeLillo any day.

The truth is I like a lot of literary fiction, including DeLillo, whose White Noise mesmerized me.  For the first half.  Until I just sorta...lost...interest.  I didn't put it down, or rather not pick it back up, because it wasn't good.  I kinda forgot about it. Which never happens with Charles Willeford, or David Goodis, or Day Keene.  I think one of the reasons I didn't read much in high school was the books they assigned.  I know the guy has his fans, but I can't stand Dickens.  Every year, they tried to cram that whimsical crap down my throat.  And I wouldn't bite.  (When I was finally forced [in grad school] to read David Copperfield, I felt justified in my prejudice.  Fuck David Copperfield.  Guy finally gets to exact his revenge against his tormentor, and what's he do?  He slaps him.  Not punches.  Slaps.  What a fancy pants dandy.) High school English teachers don't assign Stephen King, who is a brilliant, funny, amazing writer.  I'm not going to say he's better or worse than whomever, but reading King is something you enjoy, whereas so much of literary fiction feels like work.

No point in apologizing, really.  In the end, it's a matter of taste, I suppose.  Given my druthers, I'd prefer not to use expression like "given my druthers"; I prefer the cheap and lurid.  I like the lowlife.  I want the visceral grittiness of pulp, to share in the bond among the lowest common denominator.  I feel like I am among my own kind there.  And if you can get past the tattoos and criminal record, you'll find that the people are really nice. Plus I like books that have a plot.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Remnants of Wanderlust

When I started out with this writing shit, I had my literary heroes I wanted to emulate, the usual suspects who speak to the wanderlust of the broken hearted: Kerouac, Salinger, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Westerberg.  You read these writers, and as amazing as they are, you're still thinking, I could do that.  It's just words and sentences, right? A pretty image, an analogy, metaphor.  How hard could it be? Pretty fucking hard. Especially when you try to condense the sprawling human condition down to short story format.

The first short story I ever wrote was called the Four Butchers.  It was quite good.  I wish I'd managed to hold onto it.  I did for a long, long time, actually. Through a lot of the drug years and homeless bouts, sleeping in the back of the green Ford Ranger I sorta stole from my brother in CT (sorry, Josh) and drove out west with that hooker I picked up in Minneapolis, I had this giant green trunk I dragged with me everywhere I went--from the East Coast, up through Minnesota, where I reunited (briefly) with my darling, crazy ex-wife, living at the Roach Motel in Rochester, working day labor on a corn farm, surviving quite literally day-to-day, I had my green trunk.  In it I kept my whole world, old drawings and cartoons I'd made; a Cat Stevens songbook for those times I stole a guitar and held onto it long enough to play songs of peace and hope and joy, even though those words increasingly played like bullshit; my copies of Catcher in the Rye (always had a spare); various odds and ends of a hobo's life.

One of the more beautifully ironic moments of my life was leaving Rochester to go back west to San Francisco, because I was sick of getting ripped off and beaten up by Minneapolis dealers, and leaving my wife, because, though I loved her very much, I loved drugs more, and Shania Twain's "You're Still the One" came on the radio just as I was pulling out of the Candelight Inn parking lot, and I looked in the rearview mirror and watched her just standing there.

My friend Matt used to say, when you are saying goodbye to someone at an airport (or Greyhound station, or roach-infested dump like the Candlelight), don't ever turn around; it will haunt you forever.

I picked up the hooker in Minneapolis as I made for San Francisco.  It's not like I just picked her up on the corner.  I knew her beforehand, sort of, the way all junkies seem to know each other.  And I didn't have sex with her.  She had the sickness. She simply needed a ride out west, and I was going that way, and could use the company.  Seems I've known a lot of hookers from Minneapolis in my life. Never got a Christmas Card from any of them...  (That's not true.  I've actually gotten X-Mas cards from quite a few of them.)

I hit the city...and then I lost my green trunk.  I lost the green truck, which held the green trunk, and I lost my dreams.  Lost most of my life.  After that, I carried everything I held dear in a tattered maroon backpack, which was pretty big, far as backpacks go, but obviously not as big as a truck or trunk.  You could fit a toothbrush, pair of socks in that maroon backpack, a journal, but nothing as big as a hooker, and I had no more short stories; the Four Butchers was the only one I'd written.

Most of those aimless drifting years, I still made art.  Or rather, I tried to remain creative.  Not sure you could call what I was doing "art."  The Wandering Jews made a CD right before I went completely mad, and there are brief moments on that CD I am still proud of.  A lot of it, though, is utter rubbish, parts where I was so high, so far from key, it's like I'm singing a different song.  But "So It Goes" came out pretty good, and there are a couple others that shine, albeit momentarily.

I mostly drew pictures and wrote poetry (if you could call it that) to keep the chops up.  That was easy to do, stealing drawing pads from Walgreens (I'd go in, pick up a pad and pencil, start drawing, and walk on out the door).  I held onto some of it. My buddy Kelp mailed me back the drawings after I got sober, and the poems/lyrics morphed into some of the material I still play today.  It's nice to have mementos. And of course I got the memoir, which I still believe will see the light of publishing day.  Just probably not until after I am dead.

Theses days I've been focusing mostly on writing short stories.  Short stories are a rather pointless form.  I like writing them.  Some people like reading them when they are done well, but for the amount of work required to create them, you get little bang for your buck.  They aren't as pointless as poetry, but if you're looking for the big hit, want to knock one out of the park, you need a novel.  Or better yet a screenplay.  And even then, mostly what you'll need is luck.


After I got straight, I was in my early 30s and getting a check-up from our family doctor, Dr. Lawson.  He just died.  He was a good man.  I was down over how little I had to call my own.  And at my age... It was like I was starting from scratch.

"Most people don't start accruing personal wealth until their early 30s anyway," Dr. Lawson said, matter-of-factly.  "You're right where you're supposed to be." 

It made me feel better.  Maybe I emerged from the fog with more than an empty, tattered backpack.  I still had people who cared about me, who believed in me.  Like Dr. Lawson, who knew all about my scumbag ways and didn't judge me.  Or at least he didn't think I was a totally hopeless case.  And he was right.  Little by little, bone by bone (or bird by bird, as Anne Lamott would say), I started rebuilding.  In the end those things I lost weren't all that difficult to replace, and what I couldn't get back, the music and hard copies and lovers, I carry them with me.  They are a part of the new stories I tell.

It's probably good I don't have that first short story.  Because in my mind, it was very funny, terribly clever, an example of irrefutable genius, but in reality, knowing how hard it is to write a good short story, probably the hardest of all writing forms (besides the villanelle, of course), it probably sucked something awful.  It's best to let nostalgia airbrush those flaws away.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving Ham

Been a pretty good fucking month, this November, at least in terms of my writing. It'd be nice to say I finally got that elusive book deal but I wouldn't want to lie.  It's starting to look like that ain't in the cards, at least for this current hand I'm holding. Which is a goddamn shame, since one of those books is pretty fucking brilliant (while the other is just pretty fucking good).  I haven't been awarded a fellowship, nor have I won any major awards.  And, again, those things might not be in my bag. It's not sour grapes, 'cause believe you fucking me, I'd take 'em if they came my way, mixed fruit packaging and poker metaphors notwithstanding.  All I've ever truly asked of this life is to create art while earning enough money not to starve, and I'd say I've done pretty well in that capacity, even if getting there came via a skewed, unconnected and crooked path.  The Lord, it seems, does work in mysterious ways.

(If you Google that phrase, there are actually a lot funnier pictures.  Very wrong, funny pictures.)

I want an outlet for my work; I don't care about the money.  Which is good, 'cause I ain't making squat at this.  So to that end, November has been a very good month, indeed. and are also publishing some stories in a day or two, and KVMR, a Sacramento radio station, is turning one of my shorts into a drama (acted out with with music!).  And yesterday, I received a lovely acceptance letter from the folks over at A Twist of Noir, lavishing praise on a piece I just finished called "A Matter of Trust," which is one of those pieces that, as a writer, you develop an affinity for because it did not come easily; I'd been writing that particular piece for well over a year.  You can find that story here:  

Now, countless hours have been logged completing these works, and while I am utterly grateful to these places for recognizing that effort and providing the avenue for me to showcase them, you still find yourself asking, is it really worth it?  I mean, the time it takes for me to write an average short story, actual sitting down and writing the damn thing, probably falls somewhere between 15 and 30 hours, not to mention ones like "Trust," which take a lot longer, and it's not like the world is exactly clamoring for my latest witty burst of the short form.  If novels are a dead art, what the fuck are short stories?

Another old gem from the Onion.

Novelists Strike Fails To Affect Nation Whatsoever

MARCH 15, 2008 | ISSUE 44•11
LOS ANGELES—The Novelists Guild of America strike, now entering its fourth month, has had no impact on the nation at all, sources reported Tuesday.
The strike, which scholars say could be the longest since 1951, when American novelists may or may not have voluntarily committed to a six-month work stoppage, has brought an immediate halt to all new novels, novellas, and novelettes from coast to coast, affecting no one.
Enlarge ImageBookstores across the country saw no measurable change in anything.
Nor has America's economy seen any adverse effects whatsoever, as consumers easily adjust to the sudden cessation of any bold new sprawling works of fiction or taut psychological character studies.
"There's a novelists strike?" Ames, IA consumer Carl Hailes said. "That's terrible. When is it scheduled to begin?"
The strike kicked off last fall when the NGA announced it had hit a roadblock in negotiations with the Alliance of Printed Fiction and Literature Producers, failing to resolve certain key issues concerning online distribution, digital media rights, and readers just not getting what writers were trying to do with a number of important allegorical devices.
After a press conference at the Massachusetts home of NGA president John Updike—who called the strike an attempt by novelists "to give both the sublime and mundane alike their beautiful due"—members of the guild began picketing their studies, desks, and libraries and refusing to work on any further novels until the APFLP and the American reading public agreed to their demands.
Enlarge ImageNovelist T.R. Walsh was forced to put a manuscript on hold he has been writing for more than 15 years.
So far, sources say, no one has attempted to cross the picket lines, most of which are located in private homes. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that at least one novelist may be breaking the strike by writing under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman."
"We must, as a people, achieve a resolution to this strike soon," novelist David Foster Wallace said at a rally Monday at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, where he is a professor. "The thought of this country being deprived of its only source of book-length fiction is enough to give one the howling fantods."
"I thank you both for coming," he added.
While the strike has been joined by an estimated 250,000 novelists—225,000 of whom have reportedly stopped in the middle of their first novel—it has done no damage to any measurable sector of the economy, including bookstore chains, newspapers, magazines, all major media, overseas markets, independent film studios, major film studios, actors, editors, animators, carpenters, those in finance or banking, the day-to-day lives of average Americans, or anything else anyone can think of as of press time.
A report published last week by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication found that the strike has thus far had an economic impact of approximately 0.00 to 0.01 percent. In addition, consumer habits remain unaffected, with 0 percent of those polled saying their reading habits had changed "significantly," 0 percent saying they had changed "somewhat," and an additional 0 saying they had changed "slightly." A significant number of respondents reported no reading habits.
Although some initially worried that the strike could affect Hollywood by limiting material for television or film adaptation, fears were quelled when studio executives announced in January that they would continue optioning comic books and graphic novels.
The publishing industry itself, which many believed to be most vulnerable, has nonetheless managed to weather the crisis. Publishers have reissued new editions of early, pre-union novelists—such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jane Austen, both of whom have previously established successful track records—and have seen no no change in monthly sales.
Some members of the public attempted to express concern over the prospect of the strike going on much longer.
"If this situation is not brought to a halt soon, it could have serious ramifications for, you know, literary culture, I guess," said Kyle Farmer, a Phoenix-area real estate consultant and avid golfer. "It would be tragic if we had to go a whole year without a new novel from Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer," he added, unaware that both authors died in 2007.
No high-profile, red-carpet, star-studded telecasts of the PEN/Faulkner Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Awards, or the Man Booker Prize Awards were affected by the strike, since no such telecasts have ever existed. 
Which is why professors have always told me that if you are looking to writing to answer some deeper existential questions, or hoping it's going to provide love and acceptance from the masses, critical acclaim or fame, you're in the wrong line of work.  You've got to love writing for writing's sake.  I did.  And then I didn't.

Grad school kicked the shit out of me.  During my three years in Miami, I got divorced, almost died in a motorcycle accident, and worst of all had to live in Miami, the armpit sweat stain of America.

It was also when I was introduced to this ass clown, and from whom, thankfully, I never expect to hear again.

Grad school was a strange, though necessary, experience.  I learned the particulars of a craft, even if it's not exactly in high demand, which came at a high cost.  And I am not talking about the divorce or almost dying part.  To learn any skill thoroughly, you need to take it apart, dissect and inspect it, put it back together. Which takes the magic out of it.  There used to be something magical about words, a power to penetrate (insert teenage boy joke here), and I lost that for a while.  Even when it came back, somewhat, it was hardly the same.

I began to hate writing and had kinda given up.  Then I started writing this blog and it made me remember the parts of it I used to enjoy.  And you started reading it.  So thanks.

To show our appreciation, Candy & Cigarettes would like to give away a Thanksgiving Ham*.  Sign up to follow Candy & Cigarettes (over there on the right side, where it says "Follow"), and one lucky reader will receive a 10-oz. ham for Thanksgiving.  It will be pink, plump, and succulent!  

Just our way of saying thanks!

* Terms & Conditions apply.  1.) Might not be for this Thanksgiving 2.) Might not be a real ham 3.) Must live in my neighborhood to be eligible 4.) People named "Chad" will not be considered.

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