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Five Male Fiction Writers. One Massive Existential Crisis.

Jewcy giddily presents the second in our series of Book Klatches, wherein five authors spend five days dishing over e-mail about the writing life. BOOK KLATCHERS Adam Johnson, author of Emporium and Parasites Like Us Daniel Handler, author of Adverbs … Read More

By / December 5, 2007

Jewcy giddily presents the second in our series of Book Klatches, wherein five authors spend five days dishing over e-mail about the writing life.

BOOK KLATCHERS

Adam Johnson, author of Emporium and Parasites Like Us

Daniel Handler, author of Adverbs and the Lemony Snicket books

Chris Castellani, author of A Kiss From Maddalena and The Saint of Lost Things

Peter Orner, author of Esther Stories and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

Moderated by Ed Schwarzschild, author of Responsible Men and The Family Diamond

*****

From: Ed Schwarzschild To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Peter Orner

Good morning, kind klatchers!

The basic idea here is simple: Imagine we're hanging out, kicking back, talking about the writing lives we're living and contemplating. We're a mid-career, all-male klatch by design, which I hope gives us an opportunity to get some interesting takes on specific issues both old and new.

Here we go:

How does it feel to be a mid-career writer? What new pressures/pleasures surprised you? How have the processes of writing and publishing the 2nd, 3rd, etc books felt different from that first book? And how did you push on to become a mid-career writer? Were you ever tempted to stop and switch careers? If so, what kept you from doing that?

Can't wait to hear your thoughts.

Klatch on!

Ed

*****

From: Daniel Handler To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Ed Schwarzschild, Peter Orner

I pack my kid off to school, pour myself the second cup of coffee, check my e-mail and learn I'm mid-career already? I should have stayed in bed. Mid-career? Let's hope, as with the author himself, it's a pretty big middle.

I'm trying to cling to my innocence as far as writing fiction goes. I work best when I don't know quite what I'm doing, and all the writers I admire seem to maintain a certain amount of naiveté throughout their careers. (I used to have a fragment from one of Melville's letters taped up near my desk, in which he admitted to a friend that he had no idea what his new novel was even about. It was Moby-Dick.) I'm trying to finish two short stories in the next few weeks, and I'm at complete existential crisis: not only do I not know how to make these stories better, but I'm beginning to wonder what a short story is, exactly. I hope I always have that kind of vertigo even if it wears out my shoe leather through pacing.

Naturally it's nicer to write a book knowing that in all likelihood it will be published, rather than the fear I had writing my first novel (and then, my first real novel) that it would be found in a box by distant relatives and turned to mulch. That's a substantial difference in temperament now that I'm "mid-career," but it's basically the only one.

Towards the publication of my first novel I found myself wondering what in the world I could do for a living, as being utterly broke and unpublished seemed acceptable but utterly broke and published just seemed pathetic. Writing for children kind of fell into my lap and then, as is so often with young men, my lap took over.

But that's another story.

***

From: Chris Castellani To: Adam Johnson, Daniel Handler, Ed Schwarzscihld, Peter Orner

First of all, it's nice to hear that I'm mid-career. Most days I feel either as though my career, such as it is, is in its awkward pimply sweaty adolescence, or that it's been over since my most recent pub date (Oct, 2005). What a relief to hear I still have at least half my life to live.

I wrote and sought publication for my first book for (too) many reasons: as a gift to my parents (whose immigrant stories inspired it), out of vengeance toward a writing professor who said I'd never publish anything, as a fulfillment of a wish/goal I've had since I first started reading for pleasure, because I loved the setting and the characters (of course), and because I had to save face with the dozens of people who'd had to listen to me complain about writing for five years.

My second book I wrote because I'd settled into that identity as a writer, and I felt confident that I had a story to tell. I put no pressure on myself to prove anything to anyone. I thought, "no one expects anything from a second book, anyway," and because of those low expectations I actually *enjoyed* the process, let myself experiment a bit, and didn't carry around so much baggage. Most people say that the writing of their first book is more "pure," but for me it was the opposite. Instead of feeling tainted by the marketplace and the criticism and the touring, I felt as though my experienced with all of them inoculated me.

Because neither book made me a fortune, I've worked as a teacher and a non-profit administrator for the past few years, and I can't imagine NOT having (an)other job(s) to occupy my mind. I've never once considered not writing as an option. My nonprofit Grub Street is in the literary world, so it feeds my desire to write rather than diminishes it. I also get to meet a lot of amazing fellow writers. So I wouldn't change a thing.

I hope this is OK as an initial response, though, as I read it over, it strikes me as quite boring. I'm looking forward to hearing from the rest of you.

***

From: Adam Johnson To: Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Ed Schwarzschild, Peter Orner

While getting a degree in writing, I had a professor who liked to hold court over beers after class. One time he delivered a mini-lecture on why the third book was the real test for an author, of whether he had "it." His basic argument was that everybody had a book inside, and writers should certainly have two, so the third book determined whether you were a navel-gazing, auto-bio type, or whether you could really write "fiction." It seemed like pretty useless advice to a table of unpublished students, and looking back, it's really clear that this professor had just published, to his great relief, his third book and thus secured tenure.

And yet, here is where I find myself, working on my third book. Like Daniel, the process of writing seems eerily the same, if a little more difficult and contemplative—right now I'm working on a short story, one I don't completely understand, and I hope I don't fail it. But the "mid-career" label seems to refer to the public side of being a writer. As a guy who is pretty much on the sideline of this business, the mid-career label kinda means: Instead of writing for readers, mostly, you're now writing for other writers. Real readers are hard to find, and it seems like publishers are willing to promote the books of literary stars and books for "new," "discovery" and "debut" writers. After two books, I am neither new nor a star, and my next collection of stories is likely to sell to the few thousand people who tried to write a short story themselves in the previous year.

But if you're writing for yourself, or for your wife, or for your close friends, none of that matters. I was always gung-ho over a new short story by Mark Richard or Lorrie Moore, and I'd talk about them with friends whose shared enthusiasm put us somewhere between sneakerheads and war reenactors. And honestly, I didn't start really reading contemporary fiction until I started trying to write it, so it was probably destiny that I would head toward being a writer who writes for other writers. AKA, Mid-career Johnson.

***

From: Peter Orner To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Ed Schwarzschild

Above a urinal in a bathroom in St. Louis this morning (yeah, I hang out in midwestern bathrooms, you got a problem with that?), I read this:

125 YEAR PLAN: LOVE EVERYBODY

I'm trying to employ this kind dictum even toward Ed Schwarzschild for getting me into this. I'm with Daniel. Midwhat? I have enough trouble with feelings of inadequacy every day facing the page, now I have to feel this way on email?

I've always been bored by gambling. But writing (and so much else) has always seemed to me like a crapshoot. I never know if I am going to write another decent sentence from one hour to the next. If I pull a few off, I'm thankful and surprised. And grateful. This is a strange job. And I have always thought of the writing of the sentences as the job part. Not the other part, the publishing part, which is something different entirely, but at the same time determines whether or not bills get paid. This too is a crapshoot, with even wierder odds. Good books get published. Bad books get published. Good books don't get published. Bad books…you get the idea.

Andre Dubus has a beautiful essay in his collection Broken Vessels about Richard Yates. In it he describes the small Boston apartment where Yates spent his last years. It was modest and book-filled. It wasn't squalor, but it was cramped and book-filled, and it was, fitting for Yates, lonely. In the essay Dubus wishes that the apartment could have been preserved in that state, not as a shrine, but so that aspiring writers might see where one writer wound up.

Again, not to show that this is a miserable thing to do with your life, but to demonstrate that even if you are good, and Yates was very good, you might end up in a place like this. Or you might not. But get used to the possibility.

Now go home and write something honest and don't worry about what it might bring you.

***

From: Daniel Handler To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Ed Schwarzschild, Peter Orner

I've always loved something Brian Eno supposedly said, that the Velvet Underground didn't sell that many records, but everybody who bought one started a band. That's how I like to think of literary fiction—regardless of whether or not it finds a large audience, it's the readers who really take it to heart that count. One of the things I love about having left New York, the literary capital of the world, is bumping up against people who are reading whatever occurs to them, and forming opinions about the writing that aren't informed by literary gossip or an article in the Observer. It's a reminder to me not to think about the size of the audience but the passion of the few readers who really take it to heart. A few months back I met a guy, not a writer, who mentioned that his all time favorite book was Robert Coover's first novel, The Origin Of The Brunists, offhand a novel I wouldn't think anybody read who wasn't either a writer or a Coover freak or both. And yet this guy just had it in his head—in effect, he started a band with it—and to me that's the best kind of reader.

***

From: Ed Schwarzschild To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Daniel Handler, Peter Orner

Gentlemen!

Fired off question #1 at some ungodly hour last night, then crashed out, awoke early to take the train from NYC to Boston so that, like any glorious lower-mid-career writer, I could then rent a compact, very fuel efficient car to drive 2 hours into Western MA tonight to meet with a book group at a cool indie bookshop. I could have been worrying about whether anyone would show up at all at the event (who knows? who cares?) It's a great bookstore—Odyssey Books, in South Hadley—and the owners and their faithful are folks who love books and I love them. Instead, my worries were focused elsewhere: would the klatch fly? What a treat to arrive here, find that there is occasional wireless in this chilly old house where I'm lodged, and then discover your great responses. Yes! The klatch is aloft and soaring!

I'm not surprised that we're more or less resisting the "mid-career" label. I mean, no one likes to be pigeonholed, categorized, etc. (well, except perhaps in extreme cases, like "Pulitzer-Prize winner" or "Nobel Laureate" or something like that. This will all lead to a future question, so please allow pigeonholing to flutter around your consciousnesses until, say, Wednesday or Thursday). But for now, I'll just say that I share the jitters around the term "mid-career". Sometimes it seems that I live my life in fear of jinxing the future—from baseball games to opening sentences, especially opening sentences—and even the label "writer" can seem awfully presumptuous, reminding me of how Auden (I think he's the one) said that after finishing a poem, he was never certain he'd be a poet again, because (this part isn't Auden) who the hell knows what is going to happen when you sit down with pen/pencil/laptop/graffito tool? In other words, as Peter rightly and eloquently reminds us from the stalls, it's a crapshoot.

But there has to be some way to describe writers who have 2 + books out in the world and are working on the ones after that. They're no longer sexy debut authors, so they must have entered into their sexy mid-career-age. We could get into the whole lower, upper-middle, upper class mid-career vocab, but let's not. In any case, I'm betting there won't be too much resistance when a future question focuses on the fact that we're all male.

But, on a more serious note, I'm really drawn to the question of audience—from Daniel's Coover fan, to Adam's vision of writing for other writers. Maybe it's safe to say that one thing that develops as we move past first books involves a sharper, clearer sense of audience—who we're hoping to write for, whose eyes we long to have on our pages. Which might be another way of saying that our expectations clarify. But more about this to come.

***

From: Daniel Handler To: Adam Johnson, Chris Castellani, Ed Schwarzschild, Peter Orner

Charlie Parker said, of the "bop"/"hard bop" debate, "Let just call it music." I say we call authors who are past the second book simply "sexy."

***

On Day 2 of the Klatch: You survived a divorce and a plane crash. Can you survive an MFA?

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