Did you ever try to see if you could write a genre novel and make it work? Eight summers ago, armed with a few bits of inside information about the pre-legalization recreational weed trade in Northern California, I thought that with a research trip back west I might be able to put together a publishable article for, say, Outside magazine. Fortunately, my close friend and best writing advisor told me, in effect: Don’t be stupid, take what you’ve got and make stuff up. Write a novel.
With my usual aplomb, I blinked and said something on the order of Hahh?
Within an hour or so, and then over the next few days, that organ fundamental to my thinking began to sprout something resembling a plot—never my strong point, but it was gaining vigor now—which my imagination began to festoon with invented, remembered, and compounded people, i.e. a dramatis personae. Actually, most of the characters came first: a confused kid in the midrange of the business; an old-time skunk dealer ready to give up in the face of oncoming corporate takeovers so maybe he’d open an Old-Time Grass Business Theme Park with rides and a disco; a frustrated cop who wasn’t allowed to bust anyone important because the town needed the business; a disturbing chap buying up properties under cover for a major tobacco company but really out for himself; a Tibetan-Buddhist lama originally from New Jersey who still sounded like Tony Soprano when discoursing on the dharma; and, principally, a mother anxious about the wayward young man, her son, in the middle of it all . . .
In other words, something like a thriller was shaping up. Something to play with and maybe help boil a pot or two. Thing was, if it was going to thrill I’d have to find a way of writing it that had some swing to it. I’d have to write it quickly if I was to write it at all, and work up a style I could write off the top of my head and with some flair to it, sentences that would be worth reading for their syncopations and their step; otherwise everything would go dead on the page: yes, I was that kind of writer. So I loosened my grammar belt, leaned on Elmore Leonard in the opening pages, then began stretching my sentence and dialogue rhythms, keeping an eye on the plot-clock, and started doing things that Mr. Leonard probably wouldn’t have put in there. For instance the mother, just before things start going haywire with her son, is visited by an over-eager blue-skinned deity when all she was trying to do was visualize a yantra. The book began to seem plausible to me, or the right kind of implausible. I’d lived in California ages back, but had only been in Eureka for part of a day that year, so I’d have to make the place up and hope it would stick. The tobacco-company guy, my first villain ever, was wicked enough to worry me—where was all that nastiness coming from if not from right here?—so that was working. The branches of the plot began sprouting leaves and interwinings. Three months later I got enough people shot or run down to make an ending, and my agent told me that although it needed work here and there he would sell it not in months but weeks.
That was in 2012. An editor at Random House wanted it but then some people upstairs told him No sale. Other houses produced a string of zeroes but no integer whistling a tune at the head of the queue. If it had sold to a major house I’d have used some of the advance money for an authenticity trip to Humboldt County: the characters and their story were doing fine but if I could afford a trip I might repaint the background, most of which I’d made from scraps of this and that, including many swatches of whole cloth. Or maybe I would leave it, but it would be good to check it out and see.
I’d been happy writing it the way I had and I liked the result. The main complaint from publishers was that they couldn’t figure out whether it was a thriller or literary fiction. I couldn’t see why that was a bad thing. I’d chatted with John le Carré at a party in California once, and he was as kind in person as he is unsparing on the page. He was working on Single and Single at the time and told me about it, perhaps because I’d been to Soviet Georgia, where much of Single is set. I gave him a fondly inscribed copy of The Bear Comes Home, we talked shop, he gave me a phone number in Cornwall I never called, and in a stretch of conversation utterly surreal to me, we swapped stories of a Soviet hotel in Frunze (now Bishkek) we’d both stayed in. I knew about its capacity for producing parallel nightmares in groups of its guests, and he knew about the orgies for apparatchiks in the basement’s mineral spa, where the men put on animal costumes and chased prostitutes costumed as birds. Le Carré is a seriously major writer, a fine and intricate gentleman and I write nothing like him because I can’t, but I did think of him as a model of genre probity when I was working on my thriller.
Short version, just last week, out of the blue, some people with evidently excellent taste at a small press asked me if they could put the book out—I hadn’t even known they were considering it—not for the kind of dosh I would have gotten from a major, but it bugged me that the thing hadn’t been published, and in this parlous time the advance would help.
So I’d have to read it again. See if it was truly shipshape. Or if there was excess verbiage I could shear away. I did tend to let scenes and conversations run on. When I gave it a first fresh look it wasn’t as if someone else had written it. It was more that I couldn’t quite apply my eye to the aperture I’d been looking through when I wrote it. The descriptions didn’t evoke the scenery my mind’s eye remembered. The dialogue didn’t have the casual-seeming but efficient conveyance I recalled. The text had been worked over pretty well years ago—my agent is a superb and exacting editor—but now I owed it to the work, and to its kind publishers, to see if I could improve it in any way. I’d have to ease myself back in. I’d written it with a degree of sprezzatura it would be a mistake to lose. Don’t lose the beat. No bad grafts and transplants. No pruning the wrong branches. No wrong intrusions of any kind.
I’m pretty good at editing and reshaping other people’s work—you could ask my students—but I have a less sure hand with my own stuff—please don’t ask the editors I’ve worked with, though I hope I’ve been humbled by experience since the last time.
I started thinking about the best edits I had ever seen. I’d looked through a copy of one of Hemingway’s Paris notebooks in the Hemingway Room of the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. The library was a white cube on a point onshore of Massachusetts Bay. The Hemingway Room’s décor had accents of safari-lodge, but Ava Gardner wasn’t about to walk in and sit on the white and brown hide-covered trunk or stretch out on the tan leather sofa. I was there for a prizegiving event, and the curator showed me a photocopy of the notebook in which Hemingway had penned or pencilled the opening chapters of The Sun Also Rises. Many lines had been struck through with the same firm hand that had written them. Description of evenings in Paris, the nature of the street life, the people you would typically see, and so on: all had been struck out, and what remained was Jake Barnes heading for a bar to meet some friends, that’s all. The cuts had been unerring. There wasn’t a single flaw of judgment. The curator told me I could make an appointment to come back to look over the actual notebook if I wanted. I wasn’t interested in handling the object, but I was floored by the quality of Hemingway’s edit. If over the years I had acquired a degree herd immunity to the Hemingway Effect my esteem for his workmanship had just been given a shot in the arm. (If you’ve been around long enough to be tired of him, read his little story The Old Man at the Bridge and see what you think.)
Now, with my attempted thriller back in my hands, I knew that I was never going to do as well as Hem had. If I wanted to be dishonest I could blame my jazz background. I‘d written like a player in a rhythm section, going for a groove and staying with it when I had it. Keep the plot swinging and the characters light on their feet. I could write that way for two or three thousand words a day, twice my non-genre pace, and feel okay with the result. It was a pity I couldn’t afford a trip west but hey, The Charterhouse of Parma is probably my favorite novel, and its Parma resembles the actual Parma the way Freedonia resembles Sylvania resembles Ultima Thule, and Stendhal had set a fundamentally Renaissance fable in the post-Napoleonic world: the book’s proto-absurdist disjunctions and its realistic take on what the world’s like spice each other. The uneven footing keeps your wits awake. It reads like a Mozart comic opera in which his characters speak in recitative, with occasional arias. I’m no Arrigo Beyle, but trying out some of his steps had been good for me. In fact a reading of the Chartreuse at just the right moment had bucked me up when I began to write a fundamentally preposterous first novel—which, mercifully, reads nothing like him. As for editing the present volume I’d have to find a way to step inside its rhythms and wield my pencil like a cinema Samurai the justice of his sword, otherwise best not wield it at all. I have humble, probably humbling work to do on a piece of work I wrote with relative ease. I’ll keep you posted if I learn something new as I go. Or let’s see how it works out, about a year from now: Street Legal—sorry, Bob—on the excellent Terra Nova imprint.