Friday, December 11, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Let me back up and say that I'm not surrounded by writers on a daily basis. I'm hat-tipping familiar enough with no shortage of scribes, even some of grand reputation. Being a reader as much as a writer, this is fun, no doubt. But means nothing, really. As far as my best of friends, not a noevlist among them. No shortage of artists of other ilk, but not much in the way of key-pounders. Some people I am very fond of who are writers, but I don't see many of them very often.
Where am I going with this?
So, I'm usually just fine with this state of affairs. I much prefer real life, and let that infuse the art. I don't need to live in the art. Not at almost 40, anyway. That can be exhausting. I did enough of that in my 20s...barely survived. Besides, of the arts, writing is fairly solitary...both literally and spiritually. There are people I know fairly well who have no or only passing knowledge of my life as a novelist. (Funny story from back when I was doing commentaries for All Things Considered on NPR: the day after one of my pieces ran, I was dropping off Fiona at school and another dad said to me, "There was a guy on the radio last night with your name." Wow, says I, preparing to humbly but quite happily explain, when he continues, "For a second thought it might be you. But how could it be you? That's stupid. Besides didn't sound anything like you." These are the Buddha moments to which we aspire.)
There are other times, though...
When I was more songwriter than any other kind of writer, I was surrounded by it. Lived it, breathed, ate it. It was who I hung out with, and all we talked about. It got annoying, sometimes. But when you were stuck, when you couldn't find your way through it, when the answer was teasing but staying in the shadows out of reach...well, there was someone there to talk it through, someone who understood, someone who got it. You know?
I like being solitary in my writer's life now, but there are times, every now and then, when I really wish for someone whose brain works the way mine does, who understands my circuitry. There is always someone there on the end of a phone line or email if I want. But the days of having Nick there with a cup of coffee on a Tuesday morning at the Bridge Cafe in Frenchtown are sorely missed.
When my daughter Kristina was a wee lass, her best friend's Dad was a writer. Not just a writer, a fairly remarkable, talented novelist. Mark McGarrity was his name. And because I was living through art in the army and then the guitar circuit at the time (that was a joke, see above), I never met him. By day, Mark was a reporter for the Star-Ledger. By night, he was Bartholomew Gill. Both Mark and Bartholomew died in a very tragic accident in 2002, right around the time I was beginning to simultaneously lose it and come back to Earth.
I wish I'd known him. Krissy tells me his daughter is doing well. They're still in touch.
Anyway. My final toast this weekend, when it comes, will go to Mark, and his daughter. And if you find yourself hankering for a good Irish mystery, you could do worse than Bartholomew Gill.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Anyway, I don't normally get all date-specific here, or sentimental for that matter. And it's been a long time since soldiering was on my mind. But it is, today.
You know what I'm reminded of today? Back when I was still in, recently returned from Somalia and Haiti, but still in, the biggest joke we had was the fact that everyone got off on Veterans Day...except us. Veterans Day is a busy day in the world of active-duty soldiers. Parades to march in, flags to salute, brass to polish. Every jackass in the universe was off on Veterans Day except the veterans still serving. That was our big true joke.
Anyway. Welcome home.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Baker is fun...one of the main reasons I like his stuff so much (or what I've read of it). It's hard not to like him while you're reading. He's having such a good time with language, and so enthusiastically bouncing all over the place in thought. (He's also a folk fan; anyone who tips a hat to Slaid Cleaves in the first few pages of a novel gets a smile from me.) But I think what I really admire about him is his unabashed honesty. It's that same honesty that his detractors don't care for, I think. Too much honesty, they say. But I recognize in his work a level of self-reflection I'm envious of as a writer. Seldom have I witnessed a novelist lay it out there so boldly as Baker does. There is much to learn for me, from him.
Anyway, I found a great passage in the book that I'll post here. This actually isn't self-reflection on his part as I describe above, but just funny and true.
"At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognize that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published. Think of that. Of course yes, Tolstoy and of course Keats and blah blah and yes indeed of course yes. But we're living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention. And some of the most inventive people get no recognition at all. They get tons of money but no recognition as artists. Which is probably much healthier for them and better for their art."
Monday, October 5, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Reading while writing seems to have evolved into cycles for me: there's a time when I voraciously read everything and anything having to do with the subject of the new novel...full immersion for smarts and inspiration. Then follows a time period when I voraciously read everything and anything NOT having to do with the subject of the novel...allowing the muse to bounce and dart freely while I float blissfully on an ocean of "other things."
And then comes the third cycle: that would be the cycle where I don't write at all and don't seem to read much at all and in fact don't seem to be doing much of anything at all except, apparantly, anything I can do to avoid working on the new novel. Sometimes I'll go to such great lengths to avoid working on the new novel that I'll start another novel. Which is how one ends up with not one, not two, but three book-length works in progress. Which then leads to a point where I'm actively not working on three books at once. Ridiculous, really. I mean, really.
Be that as it may -- ridiculous, I mean -- it's where the end of summer found me. Actively avoiding working on three books at once:
1. "The new novel"...I'm furthest along on this, it's the one I've been talking about for two years, and I need to just finish it before people get sick of me talking about this book.
2. "The Night Door"...this is the one for my daughters. Although, talk about procrastination: I'm writing a YA novel for my daughters, one of whom is already 21. I have some time because daughter number 2 is only 10, but still, at this pace, she'll be 21 too before I finish.
3. A nonfiction thing that I don't want to talk about.
Well, summer is done. Autumn is upon us. And I always write best in autumn. So here we go. Time to finish.
To date, my novels have been released exactly three years apart. This was in no way intentional, just how it worked out. The Ice Beneath You in 2002, Voodoo Lounge in 2005, and In Hoboken in 2008. It seems like a long time between books, but it's okay, I guess. I don't want to do worse, though. Which means that for me to hit 2011 at the latest for novel #4, I need to get my ass in gear (there's about 1 year give or take of production time, between when the publisher gets a manuscript and a book hits the shelves).
Hopefully work will be a little more agreeable this fall, as well. I write on planes a lot, and on trains. And it looks like there will be a fair amount of travel this fall.
Some have asked what it is, exactly, that I do for work. Since I don't seem to be rolling in dough generated from my novels, and I don't teach like most normal novelists...what the hell is it that I go into Manhattan to do to bring home the bacon? My friend Gregg recently sent me an image that sums up my job nicely:
Friday, August 14, 2009
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Okay, great. Having said all that, can I say, Mr. Frank's review/article in today's Times is one of the most ridiculous things I've read in a while. Two quotes:
"It is no mystery that consumers show up in record numbers when a retailer offers significantly lower prices. More puzzling, however, is how the notoriously stingy Wal-Mart has managed to attract so many dedicated workers. Anyone who has read Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of her experiences as a Wal-Mart clerk in “Nickel and Dimed” or Steven Greenhouse’s chronicle of Wal-Mart’s widespread flouting of safety and hours regulations in “The Big Squeeze” might well wonder why anyone would even consider a job with the company. "
and then later:
"While Moreton’s book answers important questions about why workers have been willing to accept Wal-Mart’s austere compensation package, Lichtenstein’s sheds valuable light on the technological reasons for the company’s success. "
It's people like Mr. Frank who read Ehrenreich and annotate her and chat about her in chatty circles and write smart article in the Times...but somehow manage to avoid actually understanding or internalizing anything that Ms. Eherenreich has actually written. A completele and maddening lack of understanding.
Take that first quote. Basically, he's saying that since Nickel and Dimed was published, you "might well wonder why anyone would even consider a job with the company." And that second quote: "why workers have been willing to accept Wal-Mart's austere compensation package."
Can I just say: what an ass.
I can picture it now, the internal conversation of a 40-year-old mother of three in Flemington, NJ or Falmouth, MA or Sacramento, CA: "Well, Billy's raise this year took him from $50,000 a year up to $52,000 a year. That's a little help, but boy we're still strapped. I guess I'll have to pick something up in the evenings when he comes home from the plant. Oh, but wait, I was just reading Nickel and Dimed, and it reported dirty pool down at the Wal-Mart. Never mind, we'll just get by I guess."
It's really that second quote of his that gets me, though...both the point of it and the language he uses: "why workers have been willing to accept Wal-Mart's austere compensation package." I get angirer every time I read that line. Really, Mr. Frank? You think that's how it goes down at the HR desk at Wal-Mart? Here comes Steve, who's sweating his ass off all day in an auto-body shop but still can't provide for his family, so he goes down to Wal-Mart for weekend hours. He has an enlightened conversation with the HR person, then sits back, shakes his head, and says: "You know, I'm afraid I just can't accept this austere compensation package. Verily, I say to thee, the grim coin you offer is unreasonable. Instead, I shall to Cornell go, and inquire there as to a more favorable package, as I'm sure my credentials will astonish them."
It's someone like Mr. Frank who might well wonder why I joined the army in 1991, with a war under way. Why would some do that, what with the Army's austere compensation package and -- you know -- chance of death and dismemberment?
Because there were no other choices. Because people don't have options.
Is his article wrong? No. Do the books he's reviewing get it wrong? No.
It's that tone.
It's that same tone everyone academic seemed to have when Nickel and Dimed came out: "What?!?! What a shock!"
The same tone when Chris Hedges released American Fascists (not Chris himself, mind you, anymore than Ehrenreich herself)...I remember the room the night of the book release party at Gerald Stern's house: Chris read from the book to a general reaction of: "What?!??! Shocking!"
And I just wanted to stand up and say to those gathered: Really? Really...are you kidding me? If you're shocked, then you're an ass. (I hate to use a cliche phrase, but the bumpersticker "You're not paying attention" fits well here.)
Just like everyone "discovering" soldiers post-2001. Really? Same guys, been doing the same thing, for you, for 100 years+ now. Nice of you to notice, now that you're scared.
Professor Frank's surprised deconstruction of Christian fundamentals and traditional male/females roles in management at Wal-Mart isn't wrong, or off. It's dead on. But that tone: "Gee whiz, don't they see? Why would anyone settle for this austere compensation package?"
Because there are no other compensation packages, my friend. Just this one. Just this option. This, or pick up the kids and leave. Easier said than done. Easier said than done.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Elsewhere, more conversations and thoughts on the writing process in the Comments at WardSix today. This time about self-editing.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
BPF takes place in the town where I went to high school, and I saw a bunch of old friends (hey Nicole and Rick! Matt and Beth! Rob! Kenny! Karl! Chris Ogden Graham Nash!) some of whom I haven't seen since 1988.
One of those names up there wasn't just from high school, but all the way back to grade school. I put some thoughts here not too long ago about my grade school and those of us who went there (actually, I had 2 grade schools, because I moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey; I'm refering to the second one, Franklin Township, from fourth grade onward). She was from that small tribe of us who passed together through FTS, one of the smallest little schools in the state at the time. Like me, she was a latecomer to the clan (I think I beat her by a year, her family moving in around the corner maybe 5th grade). There were a small handful of us who came in late and didn't do the full cradle-to-high-school journey: me, Nicole, Kathleen, Virginia, Jon B. We were the first small signs of what would be a large boom in the township (and a massive boom in the county), but that wasn't so clear back in 1980. Actually, before us, it wasn't so much a cradle-to-high-school journey but often a cradle-to-grave journey. Hunterdon County (old Hunterdon County, I mean) was a farm community, and if you were born there, you died there, and your children did the same. You can still see old Hunterdon County (and old Franklin Townhsip) but you have to tilt your head and squint and know where to look. (You can start at Ma D's in Frenchtown.)
I say all this to refer back to what I wrote a few months ago about our small circle of kids who went through FTS; forty of us, I think. Having the small group like we did intensifies what is already the case about childhood: childhood is like being in the wilderness, and pushes an intense bond among those who go through it together...like prison, like the army. You grab ahold of each other and survive. You do terrible things to one another, while simultaneously loving and understanding each other better than anyone else in the world. And then, one day...it's over. Just like that. It's over, and you walk away.
Which is why it's so strange when, many years later, you see someone from school...strange enough from high school, even stranger from the purple, mysterious depths of grade school. It's one thing, I guess, to go to a reunion (I haven't gone to one, but I guess) when you know it's coming, and you know there will be time beforehand to get your thoughts and memories straight, and time enough at the event to sit down and talk and laugh (hopefully laugh, right?). My wife went to a reunion and she said it was weird, but it's why she was there, and it was good and fun in the end. Something else entirely to be taken unexpectedly, and here is this person (or people) you went through such an intense period of your life with, and you have all of thirty seconds to say hello, wow, how are the kids?
There are reasons I don't live where I grew up, one of them being the need to put some distance between my childhood and my life (as if they were two seperate things, and I guess they are). And I go through my days assuming I'll never see any of them ever again, and that's okay, because I hold them in my head as memories, I have them up there as I remember them: eleven and twelve years old, summertime fearless, pushing down the old path through the woods by the abandoned train station in Pittstown. It's almost unfair to see someone from the old tribe for only thirty seconds, for a fleeting moment at a concert. Almost better to not see them at all. Because after all that, because after all we went through (and I mean everyone, because we all survived childhood, right?) if you're going to see someone again you want to be able to sit down and say, "Hello, how are you? Did you come out okay on the other side? I'm sorry if I ever did anything to hurt you. I know you feel the same. Anyway, I wish you the best, because I'm one of the people who knows how much you deserve it."
Saturday, July 11, 2009
In other news...Kristina is coming home this week! A valiant return after her 2-month African adventure. To quote David Wilcox, "How you get up there?"
And...if you're anywhere near it this weekend, here's where you should spend your time and money. Gregg Cagno, Peter Mulvey, Ellis Paul...all good, baby. All good.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Busy month here. Much doings. But all that aside, two things I found myself thinking about this morning. In 1995, when I got out of the army, I took off my watch and told myself I would never wear one of those again, and I threw out my running shoes and told myself I would never run again. The watch was just a cheap black plastic digital thingy, picked up at a PX somewhere, permanently strapped to my left wrist through both Somalia and Haiti. You kind of need a watch in the army, no getting around that. But afterward…well, does anyone really know what time it is? Does anyone really care? Right. September 1995, goodbye watch.
As for the running, I never liked running. In fact, I hate it. Does nothing for me. Some people thrive on it, burn on it, live for it. I was never that person. I ran in the army because I had to. And I was a small, skinny guy back then, with long legs, so running was never a problem. I was fast, and could go forever. If I needed to. And that’s the key right there: if I needed to. As of September 1995, I no longer needed to, and I stopped that shit right quick.
So, thirteen years later, December 2008, I get my first physical in a long, long time. My doctor is Terry Shlimbaum in Lambertville, NJ, a great physician in the classic family doc mold, and an old family friend (when I was a kid he was a resident with my mother, and he and his wife babysat young C.W.B. a few times, way back in the day). So this past December, sitting in his exam room, Terry adjusts his brown glasses and smiles and allows how perhaps C.W.B. could lose a few pounds. And, well, maybe we ought to talk about that cholesterol level. Long story short: I’m old.
So, front of January I tried to cut down on the spinach dip and I joined the gym down the street, showing up a few days a week at the opening bell of 5:30 am. Four months later, fifteen pounds. Sweet. Very happy about that. I’ll never have that 1995 body again, but it’s nice to at least fit in my clothes. And yeah, it involves running. And I still hate it. Only way I can do it is on the treadmill with both i-pod working and the TV on. Full distraction. And as for the watch? That’s back, too. Something nice happened recently, and me and Bren went and picked up a Movado for my left wrist. Nothing flashy, but nice. I like it. I’m still not really sure what time it is, and I’m still not sure I care, but I like it.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Saturday, April 11, 2009
So here's the funny thing: In the space of a few months, Living With Music published essays/playlists from 2 white male novelists who are also musicians...who were both born in 1970...in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Of course it's that last fact that makes it interesting. If all the same had been in common but a birthplace of, say, Manhattan...perhaps not such a big deal. But Easton, Pennsylvania?
As Greg Cowles asked us in an email yesterday: so, what's in the water in Easton?
I find this especially fascinating because just last week I finished reading Outliers, the newest book from New Yorker staff writer Malcom Gladwell, which is all about how circumstances of time and place have as much if not more to do with where your life goes as does what's hard-wired in your head. The argument being: yes, you have to be born with a baseline something to be successful in a given path (circumstance of time and place alone won't make Mozart or Bill Gates who they are), but it is just as critical where and when you were born and what circumstances happened in your life (there are plenty of brains born wired to possibly be Mozart or Gates, but circumstance doesn't allow it to happen). The architects of the internet and modern computers were all born at about the same time, in about the same place, and had similar critical things happen to them along the way. Born a couple years too soon or a couple years too late...nada. Born same time and same place but didn't have quite the same stream of circumstances...nada.
So, friend reader, if you've been thinking that your dream in life is to be a pleasantly well-reviewed but not exactly bestselling novelist who also has/had dabbled in music...unless you were born in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1970, I'm afraid you're shit out of luck. Too bad for you.
A side note: turns out JRL and I had one other minor crossing of fate. Back when I did that kind of thing for bread (ten years ago?), I was the copy editor for his wife Rhian Ellis's first (and great) novel After Life. JRL and Ms. Ellis are a married writer couple, and skimming their blog this morning ("we've both been writing..." as excuse for lack of correspondence) reminded me of my all-time favorite writer couple, the Halls. I wrote a short piece about the Halls for All Things Considered a few years ago...the text is here.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
I'm on the Penn campus this week, in west Philly. Not far from home, less than an hour with no traffic, but the days are long so I'm staying. It's a good experience, but strange in it's own way, having nothing to do with the reason I'm here. Penn is a comfortable place, and familiar. I've done readings here for two of my books. One of our favorite Indian restaurants is near here, so we come down for that from time to time.
Way, way back, though, U of Penn is where my mother was a medical student. She began medical school when I was 5, so unlike most physicians' children, I was not only alive but have memory of her being in med school. Memories from that far back in childhood are funny things. There are large swaths of nothingness, blackness, and then the odd random incredibly vivid image. Buildings, streets, that kind of thing. The cadaver room, with all those dead bodies awaiting their student dissection. Soundtrack by Chuck Mangione and Bill Withers. University City, mid to late 1970s.
Years later, when I was 19, 20 years old, I lived in Philly and direct environs for a year or more, and not in a particularly good way. I remember wandering the Penn campus with guitar on my back, going against the flow of all those students streaming out of brick buildings, students who were my age but on a planet tilted differently than my own. An entirely foreign orbit.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Update: ...and the New York Times posts about the essay here.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Oh boy, the stories to tell. You'll find it all here.
Monday, January 5, 2009
So here it is...the official "In Hoboken" soundtrack singles (presented in no particular order).
Across the Universe - The Beatles
Change Partners - Stephen Stills
Damn Everything but the Circus - The Story
Blue Chalk - John Gorka
Do-Re-Me - Woody Guthrie
Eleven Small Roaches - Michael Hedges
Gone - Don Brody/Gregg Cagno/Rich Grula
Nathan (The City) - Linda Sharar
The Grind - Gregg Cagno
The Motorcycle Song - Arlo Guthrie
Renegade - Styx
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes - Crosby, Stills & Nash
99 Years: Don Brody
Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key - Woody Guthrie
Paradise - John Prine (it's The Dorkestra version that gets mentioned, though)
Mingus Died in Mexico - Gregg Cagno/Christian Bauman
Welcome to the Jungle - Guns n Roses
Deportees - Woody Guthrie
Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair - Stephen Foster
Let It Be - The Beatles
Burning For You - Blue Oyster Cult
All Things Being the Same - Ellis Paul
Slip Sliding Away - Paul Simon
Bob Luciano's House - Linda Sharar
Talkin' Alien Abduction Blues - Dan Bern
Participate - Linda Sharar
Ringing In My Ears - The Marys
From Here - Gregg Cagno
It's not every day you get Blue Oyster Cult and Stephen Foster on the same playlist. We do what we do.
And Gregg clearly had time on his hands that week, because he even made up some nifty album art for your iTunes playlist.
With apologies to Melville House. At the very least.