The Artist Doesn’t Matter

There is the art … and there is the artist. Is it possible to separate the two?

Let’s look at three case studies.

Case #1: The Superstar

Once upon a time, I was friends with the vice-president of a major electric guitar company, one whose name you’d recognize if you enjoy heavy metal. Let’s call him Joe. Whenever I was at Joe’s house, our conversation invariably turned to Prince. Joe loved talking about Prince. Everybody in the music industry, he said, had weird Prince stories.

I was all ears. After all, I’ve been a huge Prince fan for much of my adult life. In concert, he was the best performer I’ve ever seen—an eccentric, bizarre, charismatic, five-foot-two genius.

Well, let’s hear one, I said.

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Photo credit: MobyRichard via Flickr

Joe began to tell me a story that had been related to him by his friend, let’s call him Dave, who was working as Prince’s guitar tech at the time. I gulped, because this was firsthand music industry stuff.

According to Joe, Dave received a salary of nearly $400,000 per year from the Purple One for his service as principal guitar tech. In return, he had given up all pretense of a life. That was understandable. Working for a boss at that level of talent and fame, and given his immense salary, Dave must’ve known full and hell well what the job would entail when he accepted it.

Total submission to His Royal Purple Ego.

Here’s where the story starts: One day, Dave asked Prince if he could have a few days off to visit his family in Pennsylvania during Thanksgiving. Prince gave him permission.

However, the moment he stepped off the plane in Pennsylvania for the weekend, his cell phone rang.

It was Prince. “I can’t find that setting on the new amp,” the superstar said.

“The vintage tube amp that just arrived?”

“No, the solid-state.”

“Which setting?”

“The fuzzy one we talked about.”

“It’s on the back, in the upper left corner, just to the right of the yellow cable.”

He waited while Prince looked for it. The star came back to the phone and said in his low, velvety voice: “I need to you do it, Dave.”

Dave didn’t miss a beat. “No problem. Give me a few hours to get back to LA.”

And that’s what Dave did. Still at the airport, he turned around, marched to the ticket desk, bought another round-trip ticket from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, and boarded the next flight back to California. Once he’d returned, he drove to 3121, Prince’s rented house up in the Hollywood Hills, walked inside, found the amp, and flipped on the setting.

Prince was nowhere to be found.

Then he drove back to LAX, boarded another cross-country flight, and returned to Pennsylvania.

All of that, just to press a button for Prince.

Callous? Yeah. Exploitative? Of course. Selfish, arrogant, insensitive? Check, check, and check.

That was Prince. And yet I still love his music.

Can you separate the art from the artist?

 

Case #2: The Nebbish

I loved Annie Hall the first time I saw it. I remember that Bullets Over Broadway was an inspired and silly movie. I watched Vicki Cristina Barcelona twice in the theater. And Midnight in Paris was an irresistible little confection for any writer who loves the Golden Era of the 1920s.

The one thing that those movies all have in common? They were all written and directed by Woody Allen.

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Credit: David Shankbone via Flickr

I bring this up because he’s been rumored to have molested his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, an accusation corroborated by his son Ronan Farrow. These allegations haven’t gone away either—these are the types of credible charges, from his own children, that make you think twice. Adding fuel to the rumors about his pedophilic ways is the fact that Allen seduced and married another one of his adopted stepdaughters, Soon-Yi Previn.

I’m inclined to believe that he’s a pervert who should be in prison. At the same time, we all know that he’s an artistic powerhouse.

Can you separate the art from the artist?

 

Case #3: The Fop

At the end of the nineteenth century, England’s most famous playwright and essayist, Oscar Wilde, was convicted of and jailed for “gross indecency with men”.

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Oscar Wilde

He was gay. That was his only crime. He had an affair with a young man in his twenties, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

Can you separate the art from the artist? In 2019, this one is a no-brainer. Of course we can.

But the goalposts are always shifting. Once you commit to judging the art by the artist, you’re committing to a lot of uncomfortable potential contradictions.

 

We Can’t Know Who They Are Anyways

Boycotting good art produced by bad people instantly makes hypocrites of all of us. This is for two reasons.

The first reason is that social norms and customs change by culture and by era. The condemnation of Wilde’s art in 1895 looks silly a century later.

The second reason is even stronger. We cannot know the people behind all the art that we consume.

Be honest: Do you research the lives of the creators of all the art that you consume? Do you read the biography of pop auteur Zedd before you consent to listen to his newest song? Did you analyze the personal life of the Harlequin author who was responsible for your favorite romance series? Do you demand a full background check on the writing staff of a Netflix series before you watch it?

Most of us don’t even know the names of those creators, much less their backgrounds. And even if you think you do, you don’t—because a lot of creative industries employ ghostwriters and ghost producers. I speak from experience, having worked on many, many different ghostwriting projects in the last few years.

Also, the people at the top of our media companies are often horrific human beings. Have you seen the movie The Jazz Singer? My Fair Lady? To Have and Have Not? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Any Jimmy Cagney movie? Looney Tunes cartoons? All were made under the reign of Jack Warner at his studio, Warner Bros—and Jack was a famously toxic piece of shit who enjoyed humiliating and hurting people. He deserted his first wife, fired his own son without cause, and was estranged from his own brother until death. Most of those titans of the old Hollywood studio system were like that. As director Gottfried Reinhardy put it, “Harry Cohn was a sonofabitch but he did it for business; he was not a sadist. Louis B. Mayer could be a monster, but he was not mean for the sake of meanness. Jack was.”

Will you now boycott all entertainment produced during Hollywood’s golden era? Is your moral backbone that strong? Probably not.

More recently, a man named Scott Rudin has produced just about every intelligent film adaptation of the last twenty-five years—The Social Network, The Truman Show, No Country For Old Men, Julie & Julia, Revolutionary Road, There Will Be Blood, Notes On A Scandal, etc. He’s accomplished this all despite being an abusive prick. By some accounts, he churns through nearly 50 assistants per year. He routinely throws objects at people’s heads. His assistants literally used to measure the length of his phone cord so that they would know how far to stand back in case they tripped his wire. Another former assistant has framed the pieces of five different early-2000s flip phones that Rudin snapped in his frequent fits of rage.

Did you know any of that? Probably not. Will you continue to see Rudin’s future work? Most likely. He makes damn good art.

This begs the question: Why do we sometimes care about the artist—and sometimes not?

The short answer is this: Media attention. The news media decide, for whatever reason, to zero in on the bad behavior of one individual artist. Then there’s a stampede to condemn. Everybody’s hide gets ruffled, books get burned, movies get deleted, bad reviews get written.

You may approve of this tsk-tsking, but to me this is herd behavior. It serves as a tool for some people to make themselves feel morally superior to others. In some cases, condemning the Bad Guy is nothing more than a status marker. It separates the ones at the center of the herd from the ones at the margins.

Granted, a bad person should be punished by the legal system. But you won’t hear me crowing about it–the same way you won’t hear me crowing about non-artists getting their comeuppance.

My simple response, if I hear about the immoral acts of some artist, is to make sure they don’t get my money ever again. I may still enjoy their art in other ways, but I won’t let them know it.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Me

Other than travel, my life is not particularly interesting. That’s why I choose not to write about it, other than posting occasional photos on social media about my international journeys.

This isn’t a smoke screen either. There’s no skeletons in this closet, no secrets at all. I’m from a healthy ordinary middle-class family and am just not built for wild or bad behavior. In fact, my future memoir would be the most boring book in the world. Eleven pm Friday night, and I got back to my dorm room and changed into my shorts and picked up my guitar. Boy, it’d been a hard week of reading. My God, I’d have to write it as stream-of-consciousness poetry just to get anybody interested enough to finish the first chapter.

Oh, believe me, I’ve fantasized about acting differently. I’ve imagined someday descending into a lost weekend worthy of William S. Burroughs. Picture it: The seedy motel. The needle plunging the heroin in the space between my toes. The empty cartons of Chinese food strewn about the room. The cigarette butts in the carpet. The strung-out hooker with smeared mascara and an off-the-shoulder t-shirt passed out across the filthy mattress.

Has any of this ever happened? Hell no. The most self-destructive thing I’ve ever done is steal Oreos from a hotel minibar.

From what I’ve seen, most other writers are pretty much the same. We lead really ordinary lives. There are a few exceptions, like Hunter S. Thompson, who forget that it’s their writing, not their personal lives, that are supposed to be fascinating. In his career, Thompson lost sight of this distinction and got swallowed up by his own media-enhanced rock-star self. His writing until 1971 was terrific—Hell’s Angels was great, and of course Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an American classic. But his writing after 1971 was a snooze. He used all his energy building his persona, giving outrageous speeches, gobbling mountains of drugs, running quixotic campaigns for local sheriff, being generally outrageous. There was nothing left in the tank for the words.

Another issue is that those writers who exclusively use the confessional mode don’t have much to say after a while. They eventually run out of material. It’s not exactly news that Mary Karr, for instance, is a brilliant memoirist—but she’s written three memoirs now. One, two, three. I have to believe that she’s spinning her wheels in the confessional mode. Her poetry is marvelous, but in terms of prose, what else ya got for us, Mary? I say that as a fan.

To me, it’s best if we writers look outside ourselves, because the best stories can’t all happen to us individually. The best stories happen to millions of people all over the world, every hour of every day. Which is why I say…

It’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The Spain Tourmaline: $.99 Sale (Nov. 10 to Nov. 16)

Spain.Tourmaline.finalThe Spain Tourmaline is on sale for the next week (November 10 to November 16)! It’s only $0.99 — that’s 80% off regular price. Available wherever ebooks are sold:

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/2BZDp2D

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2DbEQKB

Amazon AU: https://amzn.to/2JVI0n1

Amazon CA: https://amzn.to/2DdMyUr

Apple iTunes: https://apple.co/2FcAG80

Kobo US: http://bit.ly/2OBljVK

Also available at Scribd, Tolino, 24Symbols, Google Play, and other retailers.

Description

Dissatisfied with the tourist beaches of Costa del Sol, gemstone detective Ainsley Walker dreams of discovering the real Spain…

THEN

Her life changes when she accepts an offer to help an aging bullfighter find his jewel-encrusted sword for his grand comeback—an assignment that plunges her deep into the wild, beating heart of traditional Spanish culture.

Andalucía.

In the blink of an eye, Ainsley finds herself on a fast-paced adventure that carries her from bullfights to bull ranches, from tapas bars to tearooms, from Catholic processionals to Moorish patios.

Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, agony—

—and the ancient bonds of life and death.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

… who was a finalist in a prestigious short story contest sponsored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald…

…comes a travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.

Length: 71,000 words
Sixth in the series.

If you haven’t read The Spain Tourmaline, grab a copy today!

Recommended Reading: October 2018

Earlier this year, I realized that I had been reading fewer books by unfamiliar authors. This hasn’t happened because of a newly shortened attention span. My mental state hasn’t yet deteriorated into a series of electrocuted-frog twitches. True, Twitter is a huge time sink, but it hasn’t changed my neural wiring or anything.

No, here are the real reasons:

  1. As a writer and editor, I stare at words for hours and hours every day. At night I often need a break.
  2. During the last few years, I’ve grown into the mentality of a professional. This means that I’m tougher on other people’s books now than I used to be. I’m not necessarily proud of this.
  3. We’ve living in a golden era of television. Between Netflix and Amazon alone, we have hundreds of thousands of hours of high-quality filmed entertainment. For example, most fiction I’ve read recently can’t hold a candle to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, whose scenes are brilliantly written, and which won enough Emmy trophies to build an army.

Anyways, it hit me earlier in the summer that I missed that habit of adventurous reading. You know, the one that I’ve enjoyed most of my life.

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(photo: Hayley Finn via Flickr)

So I assembled a list of books to read. Many websites such as Goodreads will help you curate a list like this, but I did it the old-fashioned way—on a Microsoft Word document. (Side note: Twenty-five years of market dominance, and Word still shows no signs of wearing out.)

I decided that the list would consist of either

  • writers whom I’ve always known about but had never read
  • writers whom I hadn’t read in the last ten years and had forgotten about.

Unfortunately, I discovered that my patience for other people’s fiction is still pretty thin. Again, I’m not proud of this. Several fiction titles I abandoned without finishing and won’t mention them here, with one exception.

Here are the six titles I enjoyed the most. All links Amazon US:

 

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

In so-called “literary fiction”, voice is everything. (Because plot usually doesn’t exist.) In Disgrace, the author’s voice is strong on the page—solid, serious, and with something always swimming just below the surface. Maybe that’s Coetzee’s Dutch Afrikaaner background, maybe that’s just his reported cantankerousness. Anyways, this book was appealing and weird and yet kind of off-kilter at the same time. This despite the fact that the first half of the story itself—a college professor who has an affair with a student and loses his job—felt incredibly tired. It made me think of Tom Wolfe’s admonition to writers to get the hell out of the ivory tower and see how people actually live for a change.

Halfway through, however, the story took a strange twist, and suddenly I found myself in a racially provocative sequence of scenes in rural South Africa involving the protagonist’s grown lesbian daughter. I was motivated to finish this one, and I think I can see why he won the Nobel Prize a few years back. It was unpredictable and fairly masterful, even if Coetzee doesn’t seem like the kind of guy I’d want to share a coffee with. Still, I’d definitely read another book by him. I remember Mark Sarvas enthusiastically recommending his title Summertime on his now-defunct blog The Elegant Variation.

 

My Misspent Youth, by Meghan Daum

For my money, Daum is the best essayist in America. I haven’t read another book of essays that were so nimble and supple. Her insights are as sharp as a diamond cutter’s tool, and each essay still feels contemporary. I say still, because it’s to my eternal shame that it took me nearly twenty goddamned years to finally get around to reading this book, her first.

My Misspent Youth is a collection of essays about Daum’s partly successful, partly agonizing time as a young person struggling in New York City, which ended when she fled to the hinterlands of Nebraska before the age of thirty. If you’re smart and educated and thoughtful and ambitious, and if you’ve ever moved to a new city as a twentysomething (and suffered financially for it), you’ll recognize yourself in these pages. I particularly loved “Variations on Grief”, her bitter essay about a friend who died young without having accomplished anything in his life. That was uniquely honest.

These days Daum apparently runs an occasional essay-writing class in New York. If her talent can rub off, I’d say don’t walk, but run to her doorstep, and beg for a sprinkling of that magic fairy dust.

 

Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso

A graphic novel about the murder of a young woman, and her boyfriend’s sense of grief as he goes to a friend’s house in Colorado to recover. I’m no expert on graphic novels, but I always enjoy them as long as nobody’s wearing colored tights, flying through the air, or shooting webs out of their palms.

Drnaso’s last book Beverly got a lot of attention, and though I don’t know that one, I can report that Sabrina is worth your time. The illustrations are pretty small and basic—honestly, there are better visual artists out there—but the story nonetheless had me turning the page. He’s not afraid to draw characters in mundane situations, which heightens suspense. He’s also not afraid to move to the next scene without resolving that tension. This may lead some people to derisively label the book “arty”, and make snide comparisons to David Lynch, but to me this unpredictability is a draw. It’s a story that takes its time and is not easily summarized.

 

Waiting, by Ha Jin

I need two things from fiction. First, if it’s a story about a radically non-Western culture, I need someone from my own culture to serve as an interpreter. You know, a Virgil to be my guide. Second, I also prefer writers with strong authorial voices, who aren’t afraid to make statements of opinion in the book.

Neither of these preferences should come as any surprise, since both of these qualities define Ainsley Walker, the protagonist in my own Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series. Let’s be honest. In the end, much of fiction really just boils down to a matter of taste. This pisses off critics to no end, but it’s really true. That zombie apocalypse novel with the ugly cover may seem awful to you and me—but to a twelve-year-old boy who can count the total number of books he’s ever read on his left hand, that bloody zombie tale is going to be a great book. He’ll remember it for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, this book didn’t have either of my two preferred qualities, so it wasn’t for me. Waiting is a story about a man in China who waited eighteen years to divorce so he could marry his nurse. Why did I include it on this list? Because Jin, who wrote the book in English, was born and raised in China. Holy Christ in a Happy Meal, is that all kinds of crazy talent. I mean, though I speak Spanish well, I can’t begin to imagine writing a professional-quality book in that language, much less winning the National Book Award for it. If he wrote Waiting by himself, Jin is otherworldly.

 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, by Ernest Hemingway

There’s nothing new I can say about Hemingway that hasn’t already been stated a thousand times by a thousand critics over the last century. What I can say is that I hadn’t read a word by him in a decade. I didn’t care much for his writing when I was younger, though that changed at age twenty-five, when I picked up A Moveable Feast, which stands to me as a supremely artistic way of telling a memoir, even if he didn’t finish it. (Or maybe because he didn’t finish it.)

Anyways, this particular title is a collection of various short stories, a couple of which were frankly boring, but most of which were vintage Hemingway, like the famous title story. Yes, he displays some sexism, and he chooses to draw women in a consistently negative light, but you should know that about him by now. Complaining about Hemingway’s machismo is like going to the hardware store and complaining that you can’t find any milk. You went to the wrong store.

As I was reading, however, I was fixated mostly on his style, trying to imagine how radical it must’ve looked to an America that was still in the throes of the Nathaniel Hawthorne type of hundred-word sentences, a chain of dependent clauses parading across the page nose-to-tail like a procession of pigs. Hemingway’s grandest achievement was to hack away a lot of that linguistic overgrowth, and as a result he became probably the most consequential writer in our history. Today, asking a writer to define Hemingway’s influence is like asking a fish to describe water.

 

No is Not Enough, by Naomi Klein

Ten years ago, at the end of a trip to Europe, I found a copy of Klein’s then-new title The Shock Doctrine in the English-language section of a bookstore in Madrid. I didn’t have anything else to read on the long flight home, so I bought it.

I read the book for eight straight hours. It was a brilliant, profound look at how governments and organizations exploit natural crises for their own ends. I was aghast at the Chicago School of Economics’ influence upon Latin American politics, especially in Chile. The stuff about the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina also put into context a lot of stuff happening during the W era.

This title, published last year, isn’t quite as good, but it’s not because of her lack of analysis, style, or passion—those are all still there. It’s just that this title is less shocking (ba-dum!) and less original. It’s a fairly predictable attack on the horrible actions of the current U.S. administration. Watching her take shots at the lizards in power felt too easy, maybe because they’ve already being well and deservedly ambushed by many other lesser intellects.

Klein is an unabashed leftist—she sits on the board of The Nation—which is too far out to la izquierda for my own tastes. Still, I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement as she identifies and discusses the two biggest threats to global civilization: income inequality and climate change. I’m still a fan, but I’d beg Klein to turn her enormous brain towards issues that are less obvious than the treasonous rat-bastards currently running the federal government. That crime family are going to be short-timers anyways; it’s Klein’s big-picture analysis of long-term trends that makes her so great.

 

 

 

 

Tom Wolfe: An Appreciation

Millions of people were inspired by the writings of Tom Wolfe, and I was one of them. When he died last spring at the age of 88, I lost my one and only role model.

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Tom Wolfe: 1930-2018

A little background: My college career wasn’t the four-year-long bacchanal that popular culture has painted college to be. Instead, it was four-and-a-half very difficult years of studying Cicero, medieval and Renaissance texts, neoclassical books of commonplaces, and other bits of fluff.

However, my profs routinely complained that my writing was too entertaining, too polemical, and sometimes too original. They were right. I couldn’t speak or write that weird hypersensitive academic dialect, which is why I usually saw comments such as very insightful but style is inappropriate scribbled on the margins of my papers. As a result, I knew that there was no way on God’s blue marble that I’d ever work in a university.

Then I discovered Tom Wolfe. He was already almost seventy years old, but in his writing I thought I glimpsed a reflection of myself fifty years in the future.

So Tom Wolfe became my guiding light. An arrow pointing the way. My one and only role model.

“The problem with fiction is that it has to be plausible. That’s not true with nonfiction.” – Tom Wolfe

I gobbled up everything I could find about him. In his twenties, Wolfe too had been a stylish and talented and nonacademic writer while pursuing his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale. He too had gotten the same tsk-tsking comments from his professors. He too bristled at the restrictions, leaving academia as soon as he could.

This was candy to my eyes. I saw that what Wolfe had done, I could do too, in my own way, somehow, sometime in the future.

Like him, I went into journalism. I chose the field partly because it’s what writers often do, and partly because that was how Wolfe had started his career. In fact, he’d spent a few years at The Washington Post, working on the Metro and Foreign desks. I too got a job at the Post, coincidentally also working on the same Metro and Foreign desks.

However, Wolfe left the paper in his early thirties and moved to New York, where his writing career immediately exploded (along with his propensity for outlandish suits). Mine did not. Here’s why.

  1. At twenty-two years old, I was way too young to succeed as a writer. To write good nonfiction or realistic fiction, you flat-out need to be older. That’s not true for other genres. Fantasy writers, for example, do often succeed when quite young.
  2. My skills still needed work. I’d placed in a short story contest sponsored by Scott Fitzgerald’s estate, but that was a matter of beginners’ luck. I really didn’t get the hang of fiction until age thirty. (And my skills will always need work.)
  3. Three, the media market had totally changed in the forty years since Wolfe had burst out in a fireball of success.

That third point is so very crucial. In the nineteen sixties, there were about ten radio stations and three television channels in every major media market. That was it, nothing else. On the print side, the newspaper business was thriving—there were thousands across the nation, and they were mostly solvent, supported by classified ads and retail advertising. The magazine industry was more or less the same. The book industry relied totally on the “produce” model in which a book was seen as basically a head of lettuce, existing for only a few weeks before going bad and being remaindered.

Whoo boy, have things changed.

On the good side, the average American citizen is now inundated by buckets of news and entertainment every waking second.

On the bad side, the average American citizen is now inundated by buckets of news and entertainment every waking second.

Wolfe enjoyed a couple more advantages as well. One was that he was born in 1930, and thereby escaped service in World War II. Think of this—if he’d been born even seven years earlier, he would’ve been drafted into the service, and the experience would have turned him into a Greatest War author like so many others, and he would’ve written about slogging through calf-deep mud with bullets whizzing past his ears and nights spent gnawing on hard cheese rinds and sleeping on the dirty floors of churches in miserable French villages.

Nope—not in his books! Instead, Wolfe hit his mid-thirties, a time when so many writers finally begin doing good work, in the mid-nineteen sixties—the exact moment when our national social fabric started to unravel. And so that time period became his material, with its many peculiarities.

His other advantage was the fact that he made his name in the Sunday newspaper supplements, thin magazines that were disposable and whose editors gave Wolfe room to experiment. They existed for only a few decades and are almost totally extinct today.

HE WASN’T PERFECT

Before going further, I do have small criticisms of Wolfe.

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One, his output was slow, at least to my eyes. He only published a large book every few years or so. For instance, A Man in Full took him eleven years and clocked in at 370,000 words. Do the division, and you see that he only wrote about 35,000 words per year during that time. For comparison’s sake, I usually write about 500,000 words per year on various novels, ghostwriting projects, editing projects, academic exams, emails, blog posts, and other errata. So in that sense, the pupil has exceeded the master.

Of course, it’s true that quantity does not equal quality—but it’s also true that lack of quantity doesn’t equal quality either. To my eyes, there is a basement level of word production below which we start to wonder—is this person still a writer? Or has he become that ickiest of terms, an author?

What’s the difference, you ask? It’s a question of verb tense: a writer writes, while an author has written.

Some of my favorite writers have gotten sucked into teaching jobs and become authors, never or only rarely returning to their careers. For example, I loved the book Paint It Black by Janet Fitch, but she took her sweet time—eleven full years, same as Wolfe did above—before publishing her next book, The Revolution of Marina M., in 2017. Assuming the new one is a normal length of 70,000 words, the math tells us that she was writing at the breakneck pace of 530 words per month, or 18 words per day. I haven’t read the new book yet, and part of me isn’t really inclined to do so.

Another strange thing about Wolfe is that he never wrote in a series, which is a bit of an anomaly for a bestselling fiction author. Going all the way back to James Fenimore Cooper, you can see that series have always been a popular vehicle for writers. Hell, more so-called “literary” names than Wolfe, such as the highbrow John Updike, wrote in a series. Even the Nobel Prize-winning Southern Gothic whiskey-swilling mad genius William Faulkner wrote in a kind of series, knitting all of his work together in the imaginary setting of Yoknapatawpha County. But Wolfe never did anything like that. That’s partly because he came out of nonfiction journalism, which doesn’t do series. It’s also because his work was so strongly based on different locations.

Different locations, you say?

WHAT I STOLE FROM HIM

Full confession: The Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series would one hundred percent never have existed without Tom Wolfe’s work.

He was my biggest inspiration as a writer, by far, nobody else was even close—and this series has been my attempt to carry his intelligent, funny, entertaining style into new places. I mean places quite literally. Wolfe is still living rent-free in my mind as I visit and research locations such as Uruguay and Argentina and Puerto Rico and Portugal and many, many more yet to come. In fact, he drilled the importance of research in every interview he ever gave. “Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the saying goes, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.'”

“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.” – Tom Wolfe

But I did consciously decide to do a few things differently. Here’s a quick list:

  • Ainsley Walker would be my recurring main character, an advantage Wolfe never had.
  • The series would feature the same external goal in every story—find the gemstone—another advantage he never had.
  • The sentences would be less complex and show-offy than Wolfe’s.
  • The chapters would be shorter than Wolfe’s.

So much else, however, I stole shamelessly from the man in the white suit.

  • Remember his colorful, larger-than-life characters, such as Reverend Bacon in Bonfire of the Vanities? I’ve been copying the vibrancy of that character, over and over, in different ways.
  • Remember how he used huge vocabulary words such as sternocleidomastoid muscle? I use them too, once in a while, particularly foreign words and phrases. He taught me to lift the reader up. It’s not insulting to occasionally use a big word, especially if you explain it with context.
  • Remember how the settings of his books played as large a role as the characters? New York, Atlanta, Duke University? I stole that convention too—but I didn’t limit myself to the U.S., the way Wolfe did. I’ve stupidly decided to write about every nation in the entire world.

All of this leads to a single question that has been circling my head for the last two decades: What would Tom Wolfe do if he were trying to make it as a writer right now?

From a business perspective, I guessed that he would’ve begun as a totally independent entity and written whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, held to nothing except his own high standards. This route would mean less money early in life (no advances from traditional publishers), but more money later in life, since books sell eternally now that the produce model has disappeared.

So, thinking of him, I chose that route. It seems to be working.

LOWER THE CURTAIN

Unfortunately, I cannot even name one other writer who inspired me as much as Wolfe did.

The only writer who might come close was Robert Penn Warren—but only for one book, his brilliant All the King’s Men. Michael Crichton’s scientific adventures featured great pacing and good research, but his work was lacking in character and dialogue. James Michener displayed huge ambition and obvious work ethic, but I always found his fiction to be honestly boring. (Warning: I’m a tough critic! Take my opinions with a grain of salt.) Still other classic fiction writers I’ve admired a lot, such as Flannery O’Connor or Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway, never inspired me to emulate them.

But Tom Wolfe was a complete writer. Reading his passages over and over (particularly those in Bonfire) taught me how to write fiction—not from a methodical standpoint, but just through sheer osmosis. At risk of sounding like a vegan yoga teacher, I caught his vibes, man. Then I made them my own.

“What I try to do is re-create a scene from a triple point of view: the subject’s point of view, my own, and that of the other people watching—often within a single paragraph.” –Tom Wolfe

If you’re looking for a good title to start with, well, my favorites are everybody’s favorites, the biggest hits—The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. People older than myself swear by The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, which was linguistically revolutionary but too druggy for me. In college, after I discovered the brilliant The Painted Word, I tracked down From Bauhaus to Our House in the stacks of my library by pulling up dusty old bound copies of Harper’s magazine from the late seventies, when the book first appeared serially in those pages. (I still don’t own a copy of that book, only the printed photocopies of the magazine.) In fact, I blame that book for kickstarting my small obsession with modern architecture. And while studying abroad at Oxford University, I remember finding The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby in a bookstore in London and reading it for hours until my back hurt. I only bought it after I’d finished.

As time went on, of course, I slowly grew apart from his work. You could say it was because Wolfe’s last few books, from 2004 onwards, were not quite as brilliant as before. You could say it was because I was changing. You could say many different things.

But that doesn’t take away the very, very important role he played at a very, very important juncture in my life.

This is the only author appreciation I’m going to write. You won’t see me memorializing any other writers, not like this. That’s partly because the ones I’ve liked the most have already died. But it’s also because none of the others mattered quite as much to my life and career as Tom Wolfe. And I’m doing my best to hopefully, possibly, maybe, someday, fingers crossed, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise—match the master. That’s the goal, anyways. And even if that doesn’t ever quite happen, his example will push me to places I wouldn’t ever get to otherwise.

He was my one and only role model. Requiescat in pace, Tom.

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The Two Anthony Bourdains: Six Years Later

We lost a big one today. Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018) was a hero of mine. I never wanted to be him — a former heroin addict and fairly unhappy chef — but I wanted to be like him, if that makes any sense. I think millions of people probably felt the same way.

He was a phenomenally good nonfiction writer, with the type of authorial voice that you can’t teach somebody. As a television host, he and his team wrestled Parts Unknown to the ground and made it the best program on all of television. I really mean that. It was one of the only television programs that successfully dismantled the myth of the Ugly American — and tried to teach Americans not to be scared of other people.

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You can read thousands of gorgeous remembrances of him all over the interwebz, but nonetheless let me share one more piece. My own.

In 2012, I wrote a blog post here, on this site, about Bourdain’s tortured soul. It was a short piece, and only the second time I’d ever posted anything here. Here it is again:

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He’s an astounding writer.  He used to be a good cook.  And he’s been making good television for almost a decade now.

But Anthony Bourdain has an inner struggle.  A cleavage in his soul.

One half of him, the part born and raised in New York City, the place where people’s emotional shields are as high, hard, and glossy as the glass curtain-walls of their skyscrapers, hasn’t changed.

That’s the wisecracking part.  You saw this exhibited best in the Sardinia episode, years ago, the skinny dude in the black Ramones t-shirt, crouched on a rock, unleashing his sarcasm-plated tongue on the local caper farmers — until they reamed him for using utensils.  The former junkie putting his own needs above others.

Dostoevsky called this a state of “laceration”.  It doesn’t translate so well into English, but I think he meant people who have been pierced, and are aching with pain.  In Bourdain’s case, of course, he “pierced” himself, over and over again, with a heroin needle.  And he’s still aching.

But the other half of his soul has been blooming.  You may remember the Brazilian episode, in Sao Paulo, in which — confronted with a really nice woman and her stew — he finally let down his guard, shed the New York tough-guy shell.  It can be seen in other episodes too, when his empathy quietly emerges, especially during segments with troubled people.  Those are my favorite moments.

As a fiction writer, I’ve been advised to plate my characters with armor, and then throw them into a pool.  It’s a fascinating metaphor.  The main character is forced to strip herself of her psychic armor—because if she doesn’t, she’ll drown, and the mission won’t get achieved.

Bourdain has been “stripping” in public for years—not of clothing, but of his own psychic armor.  And he’s still got years of television (and lots of psychic armor) to go.  It’ll be exciting to see if him continuing to change, and to explore the world, at CNN.

In the meantime, it’s a big world.  Go see it all.

Well, it’s still a big world. And you should still see it all. Without Bourdain, however, that task has just become a little bit harder.

RIP.

$0.99 Sale – The Puerto Rico Pearl

From March 15 to March 22, The Puerto Rico Pearl is on sale around the world for only $0.99!

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Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Apple iTunes, Google Books, Nook (all links US) — no matter what your reading device or store, you can now pick up The Puerto Rico Pearl for under a dollar.

This is a global promotion. New readers in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, and elsewhere — have a look at the story, and if you like it, spread the word!

The Puerto Rico Pearl has never been discounted before, and remember … it will only last one week. Catch it while you can!

Here’s the story:

It’s hurricane season.

An airplane en route to the States has just been forced to land on the island of Puerto Rico—and onboard is AINSLEY WALKER.

Stranded in torrential rain, she is guided by another passenger towards a rickety plantation house in the island’s tropical interior, where she meets an elderly woman who has lost a precious family heirloom.

It’s a pearl brooch that had once belonged to an actual pirate of the Caribbean—and the old spinster needs Ainsley to find it … fast.

Soon she finds herself on another runaway adventure—one that propels her from wealthy art museums to abandoned sugar mills, from colonial-era cities to buried pirate chests on abandoned naval bases.

Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, danger, the limits of her endurance—and the fact that things are never quite as they seem.

The Friend Zone

Have you ever read a novel that, when it ended, you could remember more about the best friend than you could the main character?

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There’s a reason for that.

To explain, let me pull back the curtain. Most stories are about ordinary people going through extraordinary situations. In the end, though, they’re still ordinary people. In fact, that’s their appeal. Protagonists tend to be simple vessels for our empathy, and not very much more. This is especially true on the big screen. Matt Damon once said that main characters in movies should be “ciphers”, or zeroes. If you’ve seen or read the Jason Bourne series, then you know it doesn’t get more cipher-y than that. The guy literally has amnesia.

The friends, on the other hand … well, that’s where the spiky human spirit leaps up and shines. A sharp sidekick stands out in a sea of ciphers like a bright fork in a tray of pudding. Because of this, fictional friends often live longer and more intensely in our collective imagination than heroes do.

You can find hundreds of examples of this dynamic in every branch of storytelling. Prince Hal is just a prince, but Falstaff is so vivid that his name has become an adjective. Forget Frodo, he’s a snooze—we remember Samwise’s stolid and servile dedication to his friend. Tom Sawyer is remembered as a generally nice kid, but it’s his friend Huck Finn, that mischievous homeless trashy scamp, who stands out more brightly in our psyche.

All of this means that, very often, friends are more important than the protagonist.

Therefore, if you’re a writer, you’ve got to spend some time in the friend zone.

Some of these friends come prepackaged as archetypes. Say what you want about them, but archetypes exist for many reasons. One, they’re universally recognized. Two, they pop off the page in a way that protagonists don’t, because friends can be their own crazy selves when they’re at the margins of the story. Three, they don’t have to undergo change. A protagonist’s allies often end the journey the same way they began—maybe crude, maybe honest, or funny, or repressed. In fact, you can usually describe their personalities in adjective-noun pairs, such as the narcissistic salesperson.

Here’s an example from television. I dislike Sex and the City for a lot of different reasons, but the series does perfectly illustrate this principle. Carrie Bradshaw, the series’ protagonist, is a cipher. All we really know is that she loves spending money on shoes. Around her is an orbit of three stalwart friends: the intelligent libertine (Samantha), the traditional naif (Charlotte), and the cynical careerist (Miranda). (Note the adjective-noun for each.) Those characters are more memorable than Carrie because they’re defined. Carrie spends every episode trying to find her own identity, but her friends have already discovered theirs.

(As a side note, did you ever notice that the exact same four characters are found in The Golden Girls? The two casts parallel each other almost perfectly. Carrie is Dorothy, Samantha is Blanche, Charlotte is Rose, and Miranda is Sophia. This probably wasn’t an accident.)

One of the bibles of storytelling is  The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. It’s one of those books that humbles you. When you read it, you realize that other people, smarter people, walked the path of storytelling long before you ever did. In fact, I’d say this guy Vogler figured out the craft of story better than anybody else I’ve ever read, including the famous Joseph Campbell. His book is a reference point for all writers, in every genre, in every format.

Here’s what Vogler has to say about friends: “Allies do many mundane tasks but also serve the important function of humanizing the heroes, adding extra dimensions to their personalities, or challenging them to be more open and balanced. Allies in fiction suggest alternate paths for problem-solving and help round out the personalities of heroes, allowing expression of fear, humor, or ignorance that might not be appropriate for the hero.”

Perfectly said.

 

Ainsley, the Half-Cipher

Books, however, have different strengths than films do.

It’s harder for a main character in a book to be a total cipher, thanks to interior monologue. The nature of the medium—words, on a page or in pixels—brings us easily into a person’s innermost world. We can hear the protagonist narrating all of her thoughts. Movies and television can’t do that, at least not easily. They have to use awkward devices, such as voiceover. Or the producer hopes and prays that a brilliant actor will sign on to the project.

In the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series, the protagonist is more than a cipher. If you’ve read any of the titles, you know where Ainsley stands on just about everything that is going on around her–because she tells us! The woman has opinions. This is the benefit of using the third-person limited perspective.

(It’s true that a writer can achieve the same with a first-person perspective, but first-person tends to work best with protagonists who are either a bit whack-a-doodle or outright liars, and with stories that are less plotted. For example, I love Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, but good luck describing that plot to a stranger. There isn’t one.)

So here’s the contradiction: Though we know all of Ainsley’s thoughts, we don’t know much about Ainsley’s background. Even I don’t know much! We only know what she wants to tell us. She’s like the cool French girl you met in the hostel in Amsterdam during your semester abroad back in college and you ended up hanging out with her for almost a week but never learned anything about her personally except the fact that she liked OG Kush better than Super Silver Haze. Ainsley keeps you, me, and the world, at arm’s length.

Think back to the series. Here’s what we know: Ainsley’s father passed away from cancer when she was a girl, her ex-husband disappeared after law school, and she used to be a state track-and-field champion. She’s also had a checkered work history. And that’s it. That’s literally all we’re told. She never reveals anything about her early life—not her birthplace, not her mother, not her siblings, not her extended family, not her education. We don’t even know her real hair color.

And that’s the way it should be. You, the readers, can project what you’d like onto Ainsley Walker. Maybe in the future we’ll all find out, in extremely granular detail, her complicated relationship with her mother, or her deep insecurities, or her turbulent adolescence. But that would remove some of the mystery.

With Ainsley Walker, you are free to fill in some of the blanks.

 

International Relation(ship)s

More than anything, it’s her many friends and allies who help define Ainsley Walker. Let’s revisit a few of them.

Spoiler alert! You may want to skip this part if you haven’t yet read all the Gemstone Travel Mystery titles.

In The Uruguay Amethyst (link: Amazon US), Ainsley befriends an extroverted hair stylist, Sofia, who becomes her travelling companion through the second half of the book. She is assisted by Bernabé, an elderly lecherous jeweler. Both friends serve different purposes. Sofia helps Ainsley accept her new identity as an international traveler, while Bernabé helps her physically achieve the mission.

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Both are static characters. Sofia finds out that, despite her dreams of travel, she is meant to be in the Montevideo hair salon, and no reader can imagine Bernabé being anything other than himself. Their personalities are set in stone. Meanwhile, Ainsley plays the dynamic character as she tries to achieve two goals: one external (find the gemstone) and one internal (find her identity).

But sometimes the peripheral characters are the dynamic ones, and the main character remains static. The Puerto Rico Pearl is a good example. In this book, Ainsley befriends Luis, an unemployed poet and handyman who drives her around the island searching for the brooch. She also meets Orlando, an obese scholar of Caribbean pirate lore who is trying to free himself from his enormous private stash of historical documents.

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This story wouldn’t be the same without either of them—but Orlando is the one who undergoes a significant change. Ainsley remains the same, beginning to end.

In The Spain Tourmaline, however, Ainsley returns to claim the role of the dynamic character, as she slowly must confront her hostility to the killing of animals. First, despite her newfound vegetarianism, she is forced to eat jamón ibérico. Second, she’s forced to watch a bullfight. Third, she’s finally forced to kill an animal.

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I actually wrote this three-step ladder of escalating internal conflict before I knew anything else about the story. Ainsley’s friend, Gabriel, the bullfighter’s assistant, is static. He exists to carry her along this path of self-discovery.

It’s been exciting to discover that my protagonist and her allies can switch between the two types of roles. It keeps things unpredictable. Sometimes Ainsley’s a deep human being, going through wrenching internal changes—see, for example, The Camino Crystal.

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At other times, she’s like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant, simply battling for survival—see, for example, The North Korea Onyx.

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Whether static or dynamic, her allies are just as important to the series as Ainsley herself.

 

A New Idea For Short Stories

Some writers set their series in the same location (say, a small town), and are therefore able to revisit the same cast of characters in book after book after book. Many readers love this, as they get to visit old friends with every new title.

This isn’t possible for my protagonist, since she travels to a different farflung international location in every title. Still, it seems a shame to dream up and portray a compelling friend–and then abandon that character forever after one book.

So I’ve been kicking around an idea.

Maybe it would be attractive to write and publish a series of short stories or novelettes about Ainsley’s many friends and allies? I’m thinking one title for each. It could be a great way for you readers to revisit some of your favorite characters from the series, and it could be a great way for me to revisit them too. Plus it would extend the number of titles in the series.

Keep in mind, I wouldn’t write an entire novel about a side character, because authors sometimes confuse their readers when they start publishing seven different series, all semi-interwoven with non-chronological timelines and characters running in and out of each. At one conference, I’ve actually seen an author put up a Powerpoint of an incredibly complex flow chart in an attempt to explain how his body of work was arranged. (It kind of looked like this.)

This series, however, wants to stay simple. For you, the reader.

Still, I don’t think a smattering of seven or eight short stories would clutter things up too much, especially if the titles are clear and brief, such as “The Basque Chef”. If that’s something you’d like to see more of, or if you have any other ideas, feel free to let me know via the comments below, via email (j dot a dot jernay@gmail.com), or via other social media such as Twitter. I love hearing from readers.

In the meantime, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

[photo credit: Mick C via Flickr]