Friday, January 29, 2010

The Author, Chapter Twenty-Six: Before the Fourth

June 30

“Do you know how much I'm worth?” Stuart asked.

They had just finished a complete cleaning of the house, whisking cigar ash off the porch and putting the empty bottles from Vic's room in the trash. The kids were coming the next day. Jeff had completed extensive shopping for both of them. Riley was on some kind of diet to prepare for wrestling in the fall, so Jeff had bought him Blue Monster Naked Juice and protein bars. For Vanessa, the twelve-year-old, he had bought a frozen apple pie and chicken nuggets. The shopping list sent from their mother had been specific and thorough.

“No,” Jeff said.

“Yeah,” Stuart said, lighting a cigar, “Me fucking neither.” He looked over at the younger man. “I know, right? But, not to sound like a rich twat, after the first 10 mil, I just stopped paying attention. I pay 5 grand a month in child support. If you want a real measure of a man's wealth, that seems like a good one to me.

“It's weird, having kids,” he said. “Especially now that they're not around most of the time. When I was in college, a buddy of mine and I got in a fight. I said that people only had children because they thought they would leave nothing else in the world, like they hadn't contributed to society any other way, that their children were their immortality. He fuckin' punched me. Only fist fight I've ever been in. I think I made him feel marginalized, like his parents had brought him into the world because they couldn't think of anything better to do with their lives.

“Then one day you're in love, or you think you are, and having children seems like the natural expression of that, you know? Well, maybe you don't know, but it's true. And then they come into the world, and what the hell do you do with them? At first they're helpless, and then all they want is your attention and love, and then they don't want anything to do with you. Well, maybe that last part is what happens because of divorce or because I'm a shitty parent, but that's how it feels.”

Jeff didn't say anything. The week or so since he had accused Stuart of murdering Mac had been a dark one. He couldn't quite say the writer had taken it personally, but his writing had slowed and his talks had been more introspective, more bitter. He watched sitcoms and reality television. He seemed to always be apologizing for something.

“I think my assumption always was that my children will find me fascinating. That they would want to know what I was about, so I read to them, you know? Redwall, Narnia, all that shit. I think my hope was that they would find the fact that I was a writer interesting and want to be a part of it. And maybe it's just that way with any kid and they way their parents earn a living, but to them, I might as well be a fucking accountant or whatever. Like even the astronaut's kids think their dad's job is no big deal. They were never interested.” He swallowed. “They were never proud of me.”

He took a drink of bourbon and smoked his cigar. “Maybe it's because my parents died when I was young. But I wanted my wife to be proud of me, you know? And she was, for a while, right up until she realized that my methods, being here, drinking, cranking out books, were not going to be changed. Wally was proud of me, and that was actually good enough for, you know, a while.”

He stood up and leaned back against the deck railing, looking at the house, past Jeff. “Who's proud of you, Jeff?”

It was the first time the writer had used Jeff's given name and he was so surprised he spoke without thinking. “My mom's proud of me no matter what. That's what she says, and I believe her. I graduated from college and it was a big deal.”

He didn't say anything more and the silence hung in the air.

“You said that Cemetery was a favorite among people with father issues, yeah?”

Stuart nodded.

“My father died of lymphoma when I was a kid. We saw him waste away in a hospital and after that it was just my mom and me. She always believed in me. She slaved away in medical records, a job she was good at but she hated, to put clothes on my back and then to put me through college. Do you know what it's like to be good at something that you hate?”

Stuart looked at him evenly. “Sometimes,” he said.

“No. I see the way you work. You might hate the industry or what happened to you, but you don't hate the writing, do you?”

The author considered this. “No, you're right. I don't.”

“You can tell. You can't talk about writing the way you do if you hate it. You could be committed to it, because of your kids or your fans or whatever, but not the writing itself. I see you do it every single day and you fucking love it.”

“Yes, you're right, I do. Should I apologize for that?”

“No, you shouldn't. But you should realize what it gives you. Where it puts you in the world. My best friend, Malcolm, he works for an accounting firm. He's damn good at it. He hates it. My sister, she's an office manager and while she might not hate it, most of the time it makes her fucking miserable. She works ten hour days and comes home every night so exhausted her fucking teeth hurt.”


“No, of course not.”

“That's why you're a writer, too, kid. Making shit like that up off the cuff. It's something you love. It's something you can make a living doing, I believe that, and if you can do that, then you mother won't have to work her shitty job forever.”

“And how will I ever turn my writing into a career?”

“I did.”

“You had a one in a million chance. Everything fell into place. How often do you think that really happens?”
Stuart nodded then, took a deep breath, and looked away. “I could help you.”

“You said that was not part of me being here.”

“It's not. I've never stuck my neck out for anyone before, not just my summer kids, but anyone, but I have a good feeling about you. The way you talk, the questions you ask, I don't need to see what you write to know that you're good. That your instincts are right. If you haven't yet, by the time you're done here, I'd like to think you'll have learned something.”

“I have.”

“Good. And how's the book coming?”

Jeff looked up at the writer sharply. He had not spoken about Danny's Dime to anyone. It was still his baby. Had Stuart been in his room?

“Relax, kid, it's no mystery. I've heard you typing away at nights, sometimes like there's a fire under you. Don't you think I know what that means?”

Jeff nodded. “It's part of the power of this place. Doesn't mean you have the same bug as me, but it means you're feeling the same power. Is it good?”

“Yeah, it really is.”

“Coming along pretty easily?”

“Yes, it is.”

Stuart nodded, sagely. “There you go. When you're done with it, we'll take a look at it and see what we can do.”

Jeff felt a tingle of excitement rush to the end of his fingers. Never in a thousand years could he have dreamed...

“What's it called?”

Danny's Dime.”

The author grinned that savage grin of his. “I like it,” he said.

Author's Note: A day off and Cheese

Firstly, we still haven't sold enough tickets for Cheese! the benefit show we're doing for Vita Arts, the arts education non-profit I helped found.

Go here for more details:

Secondly, I am taking the weekend off!  I actually have a few more chapters in the hopper, but the fourth of July is coming up (in the book, obviously) and it's going to be a big deal, so I'm going to get some rest and perspective before attacking it.

A chapter will be posted soon for today and then I won't be back till Monday.  Thanks SO much for reading, it's really exciting to know that I'm actually writing for people who are excited to see what happens next.  Especially Baron, who sends me texts and chapters almost every day that say things like "Moar chapters!"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Author, Chapter Twenty-Five: The Rest of the Time

June 26

Now, I know I told you that this is not what I'm like the rest of the time, you know? Like this eating frozen pizza, drinking bourbon all day thing, it's not the way I am. And I know that if that's all you see, that's all you're gonna think my life is like.

You'll see something a bit different when my kids come up here, but I want you to know what it's really like. I know that one reason why you're here is because you want this, and you should want this, you should be motivated to market the shit out of yourself when you're ready, but the life you see me lead, I'll admit it, it might not be that appealing. Or it might be appealing now, but believe me, you can't live like this after 30, at least not for very long.

I have four homes. I have this place, I got a cabin in Montana, a condo in London and a house in Portland, where I grew up. My parents are both dead, but at least four months out of the year I live in Portland. In between books, I guess you might say.

When I'm done here, I go to my cabin, which is an hour outside of Whitefish, Montana. That's where I get my shit together after spending two or three months trying to poison myself here. There's a landline, but no cell phone, no internet. I spend the first month meditating and going on long runs. I spend the second month negotiating with my editor via fax and talking about the edits on my new book.

Then I move to New York for a month and I stay in this apartment suite that the publisher maintains. I've gotten the same one a couple of times, but it varies. And for the most part, I never get to appreciate where I am anyway. By that time it's fucking winter and New York winters suck. I have a car that takes me to meetings, to the gym, and back home.

I'll spend hours in an office with my editor, sometimes with my agent as well, and sometimes the arguments will go all the way up to the publisher. Most of the time I win, but sometimes they make me see reason. Usually a month is all it takes and then the book is finished.

Then, a month or so later, they'll send me proofs of the cover and a marketing plan. My books usually come out in February, so after I spend Christmas with the kids at the house in Portland, every other year, anyway, and then spend a month getting ready for all the press bullshit. By this time I've probably lost the 20 pounds I put on over the summer.

February and part of March will be all about the book. I'll hit 50 cities in 30 days, doing signings, jumping through hoops, appearing on local or national TV shows and it sounds fun, and it is for the first week, but when it's over you just wish you could sleep for a month.

April and May are touring months. I do speaking engagements at other times if I care or if they offer me enough money, but mostly I do college appearances and fiction conferences and publishing shows and shit in those two months. I go to London when I can, a week a season when I can manage it. If I get done early here I might take some time over there, but that hasn't happened for a while. Usually I get a week there in December and one in the spring. One in the fall if the editing of the book goes easy.

Februaries are the worst and the best. I love getting out there and meeting the people who like me enough to spend $25 or $30 of their hard earned money on my book every year, you know? I love meeting those people, looking into their eyes, shaking their hands. Sure, some of them are creepy, or intense, or weird, but they're what makes me successful. Hundreds of thousands of them turn out every year to buy whatever it is I've cranked out. That's amazing to me. Even after all these years.

But those Februaries are exhausting. Thirty different hotel rooms in as many days, city after city until you don't remember where you are, answering the same 10 fucking questions over and over again until you wish that your readers were a little less retarded. Explaining how you make things up about the occult, you don't spend your life in a goth-inspired home, sleeping in a coffin and sacrificing goats. That Wilcox is not me, he's not a friend of mine, he was created as a fictional character, maybe as the best friend you always had, not with integrity and bravery, but with guile and a survival instinct to rival a cockroach.

But the bitch of it is, is I envy you a little bit. You, who could afford to take three months this summer and live with me. I don't have three months to spare, anywhere. I'm a slave of my own schedule now. At least six or seven months a year are spent creating and selling the damn thing, between writing it, editing it, and plugging it. If I want to spend some of my money to take a ridiculous cruise with this incredibly hot 22-year-old Brazilian girl who has a tongue ring and thinks I'm a genius, I have to argue with all these people, my publisher, my assistants, my ex-wife, my agent. I have this money and no time or place to spend it.

So boo hoo, poor little rich boy, right? And I'm not saying I want out, but I'm telling you that I'm a prisoner of my own success. What's working is working so we're going to keep at it. And if I want to go to London in September because writing the book really took it out of me this year, there are people who are going to tell me I can't.

And of course, my ex-wife will be there to give me a guilt trip about being so selfish as to take a vacation when the kids need me, even though she's conditioned them to barely give a shit about me anymore, to show up here and faithfully serve their time with crackpot dad who doesn't have time for them, to go back home to that harpy who just...

You know what, that harpy just wants what's best for her kids. For our kids, although they are less our kids every year. So yeah, when I want to take a break and go to London for Christmas instead of putting up with her insufferable family to spend the season relaxing instead of listening to passive aggressive bullshit for a week, she makes me feel crappy about it. And I'm enough of a bitch that I let her. And she's right, of course, what kind of a dick am I that I treasure my own security and sanity above that of my progeny?

I've been writing for more than 20 years and I'll be damned if I really believe that if I took a year off the world would forget about me, but that possibility eats at me. When you have so many other writers, with bigger names and higher sales, you feel like you can't take a break. I could take one year off, take one summer where I don't come back here, where I take a month to explore Europe with my kids and then the next year when I write another book, no one will be excited to see me any more. In this short attention span universe, maybe they will have forgotten me.

So you think about selling the rights to your books for movies, because then your name will be out and about more, people won't get to forget you, but then you're paralyzed with fear that what is produced will be bullshit and you'd rather be forgotten than associated with tasteless pap created under the heading of your name.
So you come out here again and again and keep following the same pattern. It ain't broke, so don't fix it, but sometimes I feel like a goddamn hamster on a wheel, you know.

But you know what, it's probably my fault. You can see how hands on I am, so I never just let them take my book and run with it. I have to be part of all of it, so I have to lose a month in New York.

And let me tell you, those weeks when I'm in London? Best of my fucking life. Well, my adult life, maybe. I feel everything melt away when I get off that plane and I get to just be me, the simple me who goes to plays and museums and who bitches about the miserable London weather, even though secretly I love it. That's who I want to be all the time. Of course, I suppose the truth is if I lived there, I would cease to be that guy. I'm only that happy for a week at a time because I don't have that constantly. Or else I'd get tired of that.

Sometimes I think that if I didn't have a responsibility to see these books get published, if I hadn't started down this track as a kid who craved success, that all I'd do is sit here and write and write and write and no one would ever read any of this shit, it would just go on a pile and I'd just keep going until...I dunno. I starved to death? My liver exploded? I can see the headlines now, the winter grounds keeper discovers me in the house in November, rotting away, slumped over my laptop. Wrote himself to death. It'd be the author's equivalent of dying with your boots on.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Author, Chapter Twenty-Four: Myths

June 23

Stuart spent very little time editing that day, he had seemed to feel the need to babysit Jeff instead. Jeff had loosened up a bit after a margarita at La Salsa and had finally felt like himself by the time they got home, full of various iterations of tortillas, meat, and cheese. On the way back, Jeff had stopped at the post office and mailed the memory stick and the receipts into Arthur Reed.

At home, Stuart had been antsy, sitting down, trying to edit, getting back up again, practically pacing, so Jeff had found a Mariner's game and they had watched that instead. Then they ordered Chinese food for dinner and sat out on the porch, waiting for it to arrive. Stuart was drinking beer instead of his usual Woodford, and Jeff wondered if the events of that morning had derailed him so much that he would not write that evening at all.

Stuart lit a cigar and stretched out his legs. They were seated with their backs to the table, staring out at the yard. Jeff noticed that damn post again.

“How are you doing, kid?” he asked.

“I'm okay,” Jeff said, sipping his cold beer.

“I've got an olive branch for you,” the writer said, “To make up for, you know, things.”

“What's that?”

“Ask me anything you want. Ask me the shit you've been afraid to ask me. I'll be up front with you.”

“Tell me about Wallace Preston.”

“Jesus, diving right in huh? Wow.” Jeff shrugged and remained silent. “Alright, fair enough. It's a famous story and it is one that no one actually knows, regardless of what you read or heard.” Stuart regarded the younger man and sighed again. “I'll tell you, and I won't insult you by telling you that what I tell you has to stay with you, okay?” Even though, by saying that, he had reminded Jeff anyway. Jeff nodded.

“As you know, my book was bought in 1988. Wally wasn't the smartest agent around, but what he did was jump the queue. He didn't seek out permission from his agency, he read my letter, read my sample, and he was on a plane the next day. Showed up at my fucking dorm, if you can believe it, and I was lucky that he wasn't a swindler, because that son of a bitch had my signature within an hour of meeting me. He convinced me that I was a genius, that I was going to be huge, and that he was going to be the guy to get me there. As it turned out, he didn't lie.

“The half million dollar advance was all Wally's leg work and I always admitted that. When he suggested that we jump publishers because Viking wasn't taking me seriously anymore, well, that's what we did, and we moved to Vintage, who was going to take more pride in having a writer like me in their stable. Vintage, ironically enough, being an imprint of Random House, who wanted me in the first place.

“So there we were, me and Wally against the world, he was beside me at the hospital when my first kid was born and we both got rich.”

Stuart looks past Jeff, towards the lights of the house and smokes. His jaw clenches and Jeff can't be sure, but he would almost swear that the man had tears in his eyes.

“Betrayal is always worst when it comes as a surprise. Sometimes you can see it coming and it stings, but it's not so bad, you know?

“Wally's betrayal was simple and sad. He'd had a fucking crush on me since the day we met, and after he convinced me to jump to Vintage and we were swimming in money, well...

“At first I told myself he was just getting carried away, wanting to celebrate and getting inappropriate. But eventually the truth came out. I owed him. He wasn't trying to blackmail me, he probably didn't have much of an idea what he was doing, but he didn't negotiate the deal because he wanted me to succeed or because he wanted more money. No, the son of a bitch did it because he thought it would put me under his thumb and get me to let him put his cock in my mouth.”

Stuart went and poured himself a bourbon then, while Jeff sat, speechless. When Vic returned he brought Jeff another Coors. Jeff had asked out of curiosity, because the parting of Wally and Victor had been big news at the time, before Jeff's time, of course, but he had read everything on the man's biography that had ever been published.

“The real world ain't pretty, kid. You think life gets easier when you have money, and it fucking does, I'll tell you that, with maids and housekeepers and nannies and assistants, doesn't change how much the world sucks. It still stings just as much when someone you love shows their true colors and they are ugly.”

The truth dawned on Jeff. “Oh my God,” he said, realization melting across his face.

Stuart smirked. “Just caught onto that did you? Yeah. My second book for Vintage, the first was already in the pipeline when the deal was made, so yeah, in Creature I wrote him a little Valentine. We haven't ever spoken since I left his agency. Only my wife knows what really happened. For all I know, the bastard still thinks he was perfectly within his rights to try to pressure me into..whatever. So yeah, I took the only little revenge that I could. I turned off the tap of the money that he made from my books, as much as I could, anyway. All of the first eight or whatever books he negotiated, he'll always get a piece of those. Can't be helped. But what I did was put a betraying, craven little fag into one of my books. For all I know he never even read it. Doesn't matter. It made me feel better, I'll tell you.”

Stuart reached behind him and ashed his cigar. “So there you go. The truth, for better or worse. And that leads us to Vic Stuart's trust principles.”

“What?” Jeff asked, tilting his head.

Vic put down his drink and held up one finger. “Never trust a man with a boy's name, like Billy, or...”


“Yeah.” He held up a second finger. “Trust no men with girl's names.” Third finger. “Trust no men with facial piercings, lemme tell you,” fourth finger, “Trust no men with ponytails, and of course,” thumb, “Never trust a lawyer. I shouldn't have to tell you that one after today, right?”

“I'll keep it in mind,” Jeff said. “What about the other myths?”


“Other larger than life stories.”

Stuart took a drink and looked amused. Jeff was hoping to draw the author away from the depressing track he had led them down. “I'm larger than life? Do tell.”

“For example, did you really reject Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott when you were approached to make films of the Wilcox books?”

Stuart laughed, a single loud HA. “Kinda,” he said. “As with all myths, there's a bit of truth and a lot of bullshit. I had a meeting with Scott's people, Scott Free, a few years ago. They weren't interested in buying a single book, they wanted the whole damn series, every one of them, to develop as a serious series for Showtime or HBO.”



“But...that would have been amazing!”

“Coulda been. Coulda sucked. There's very few ways of being able to tell until the product is finished. They showed me special effects tests and scripts and production schedules, tried to really impress me, and then one day I was in an office with Scott himself, and I said the only thing I knew to say. I said I'd need to be in on every step in the process and have to sign off on the lot of it. If I didn't like a script, it didn't happen. If I didn't like an actor, I'd pull the plug on the whole thing.”


“Yeah. Some people have told me that it showed a lot of balls and others have told me that it makes me an idiot. But what's the point? I mean, I liked the Lord of the Rings movies as much as the next guy, but I'm not sure they were necessary, you know? Certainly the Narnia movies weren't. Some things deserve to live in the imagination more than on a screen. But that's the only time we really got close.

“I've had plenty of offers, but most of them are for quick and dirty horror movies that are cash grabs for title recognition. They're not people who actually wanna make a Wilcox movie. When I was just getting started, New Line offered me a million flat so they could make a movie called Grave and put my name on it, even though they didn't actually wanna use my story. And that's been a bit more typical than the Scott Free business. I haven't given up, but I'm not in any kind of a hurry, believe me.”

Then the food came and Jeff needed another beer and then they back out on the porch with plates and noodles and soy sauce. Stuart used chopsticks. Jeff stuck with a fork.

“Okay,” Jeff said around a mouthful of rice, “What about Tales from the Crypt?”

Stuart gave his large, toothy grin. “What about it?”

“There was a rumor that you wrote a few episodes under a pseudonym.”

Stuart gave a few nods. “Guilty as charged. That's why I've got the whole series on DVD, if you noticed. I loved the idea of the show and when they asked me to contribute, I couldn't do it fast enough. But we were negotiating a movie deal at the time and it had some exclusive clause in it. Don't even remember now, but the pleasure for me was in writing for the show, not in seeing my name in the credits.”

“Damn. That's awesome.”

“Yeah. I might not be in a rush to see movies of my books, but creating something to be filmed and getting to witness that whole process was amazing. I was able to write two short scripts at the end of one summer out here. The year after that, when I was done with that year's book, I tried to write a full length movie. Could never quite get it together. But I'm still young, right?”

“That would be so cool.”

“I think so, too. You hear all this shit about the Hollywood machine, but the days I spent on set at Tales from the Crypt were amazing. Zemeckis keeps saying he'd like a shot at Wilcox, but he keeps getting distracted with all this digital 3D nonsense he's making instead.

Stuart let out a loud burp and took a drink. “Any other myths you want to debunk while we're at it?”

“I don't...” Jeff laughed, “I can't remember any more.”

“Well, let's see,” Stuart helped himself to more cashew chicken. “I've never slept with anyone famous. No matter what you've heard, you can take that to the bank. No movie stars, no pop stars, no one you've ever heard of. The opportunity has come up every once in a while, but I've convinced myself the illusion is probably always gonna be better than the reality.

“Tales was the only TV or movie writing I've ever done. I got paid to do a rewrite pass on a horror movie once, and I was useless. Free money, in the end, but I never did it again.

“I've never killed a man, either,” he said, bringing his head down to look at Jeff. “I'm not just talking about today, either. I know there are stories, it's inevitable when you write about the kind of stuff that I do, but I make stuff up, man, I don't write from experience.”

Stuart butted his cigar. “What time is it?”

“Uh, it's a little after 7,” Jeff said, checking his phone.

“'Kay. I don't think its gonna happen tonight, so let's just call it a wash. I think what I'll do is watch SportsCenter for some highlights and then I'll take an Ambien and call it a night.”

“Okay,” Jeff said, starting to rise from his seat to begin cleaning up.

“Siddown, kid. Take it easy for once. Get out of here if you want. Go for a drive, go see a movie, go to bed early, do what you wanna do. You're off duty for the evening.”

After their talk, Jeff didn't have more questions, but he didn't want to leave, either. Instead, he opted to have another beer and watch SportsCenter with Victor Fucking Stuart, who had just disclosed some of his darkest secrets.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Author, Chapter Twenty-Three: The Confrontation

June 23

Jeff whirled and saw Stuart was standing in the doorway. He looked like he did most of the time, like he had just rolled out of bed, with greasy cowlicks, days of stubble, wrinkled jeans and a stained t-shirt.

“I woke up and you weren't around,” he said mildly.

Jeff's heart was pumping like a straining locomotive. He felt like it might burst out of his chest. “What? No, I just...uh...”

“What's up with you?” Stuart asked, an amused tone in his voice, tilting his head a little.

Oh, God, he knows, Jeff thought, he knows, this is it. Because of course what had been galloping through the back of his mind the moment he had coupled Mac's mad journal entries with the smell down here and Stuart pulling the gun on him it had all made sense. Mac hadn't quit and run away. Mac had been sacrificed to whatever mad process Stuart followed when he was out here. And now it was Jeff's turn. The lawyers were probably in on it, too, feeding him a young college student or two a summer for whatever sick shit—

“Are you okay?” Stuart said, taking a step toward him, false concern on his face. “You look like you took a shit and found your spleen in the bowl.”

Jeff stumbled out of his chair and it fell over as he retreated to the wall. The solidness of it behind him made him feel better, although his animal instincts realized that he was trapped down here.

“Don't you touch me. Don't fucking come any closer.”

“Hey, man, calm down, what the—“

“What did you do to him?”

Stuart looked as though he couldn't decide whether to laugh or call for help. “Do to...who, kid?”

“Don't fucking call me that! Mac. Tell me what you did!” He couldn't bring himself to actually voice his accusation.

“What's going on? What are you talking about?”

“Tell me!”

Stuart crossed his arms over his chest, and Jeff was struck again, even now, at how thin the man really was. Victor began to nod, very faintly at first, then larger, keeping his eyes locked on Jeff.

“All right. How did you find out?” he asked, and Jeff's legs almost gave way. Part of him had hoped it would not be true.

Jeff pointed at the desk. “He left his thumb drive. It's got all his writing on it, like, all of it, and he never would have left that behind.”

“No, you're right, even a shitty writer like him would not have left something like that behind.”

“So you tell me what you did to him.”

“Okay.” Stuart did that building nod again. Then he sighed. “Okay,” he said again, then sat down on the bed. Jeff twitched as he moved and Stuart gave him a strange look when he did.

“I don't even know what day it was, but I came down here one morning because he wasn't up yet. It was like two in the afternoon and he was always up long before I was. I didn't pay much attention because I didn't care because we didn't like each other. Tell you the truth, I was a little nervous about coming down just now here because of it.

“So I come down here, and it smells weird, not like it always smells weird but like vomit. And sure enough, I come in here and there he is, sprawled on the bed, puddle on the floor, puddle on the bed, shit all over his face, and he was dead. Pills and vodka.”


“So I called some people and the coroner came and I packed up his shit and sent it to his parents. I guess I missed the drive, you know?”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“Well, we can call the lawyers or the poor bastard's parents, I guess.”

The truth was seeping into Jeff slowly. “But then...what about the smell?”

“What about it?” Then realization dawned slowly across the writer's face, like a special effect and he began to laugh, the whinnying pony laugh, up in his nose. He clapped his hand over his mouth to stifle the cries, and Jeff, frightened, pressed harder into the wall.

“Oh...shit! The smell! You thought that...and shit, why wouldn't you? I'm the crazy fucking writer!” He kept laughing, sliding off the bed, onto his knees, laughing until he wept. Then he panted, his eyes wild and his face wet.

“Oh, Jesus, you poor bastard. You really thought you were living with a guy who killed his summer workers? What am I saying, of course you did. A: You're a writer. You probably had this ridiculous back story all cooked up. And B: I pulled a gun on you the moment I met you. There's a creepy smell down here because a raccoon died under the house or something, I swear to you. I'll call an exterminator and we'll have it taken care of if you want, okay, but I didn't kill Mac,” Stuart had a snorting giggling fit again, as he wiped his tears away, “And I certainly didn't bury him under the fucking house, alright?”

Part of Jeff still doubted, but the relief was enough to make his body sag. He righted the chair and sat on it. He wanted to put his head between his knees, but he didn't trust the author again that much. Not yet. He would again later, in the manner of a puppy who doesn't get that some people really can be cruel, but now he was still paranoid.

“The lawyers didn't tell you because I needed someone out here and who would come out here after the last guy fucking died? His parents didn't put out a notice in the papers because they were ashamed of the poor guy. So you didn't hear about it through your school grapevine because no one knows. He didn't leave a note, unless there was one on that drive you found. Was there?”

Jeff thought of the rambling journal file. “No,” he said.

“Just a bunch of shitty writing?” Stuart asked, smiling.

Jeff had to laugh then. “Yeah.” Then the rest of it flowed out of him, the panic, the adrenaline, and he howled in laughter and panic and fear and cried a little, and when Stuart scooted along the bed to pat his knee, he allowed it.

“I'm sorry, kid,” Stuart said. “All this shit must be pretty tough on your ticker, huh?”

Jeff shook his head. “I guess I'm getting used to it,” he said.

“Well get your shit together in your own time and come upstairs when you're ready. We'll go out to lunch, yeah? It's a beautiful day and there's a good Mexican joint on the beach. I have some more chapters that you can read, too.”

Jeff realized that the man was trying to make up for what he had been through, but he was willing to accept it.

“Sure,” he said, “I think I'll take a shower first, but I'll be up in a bit.”

Stuart clapped him on the knee again and then went upstairs.

Jeff sat on his chair for quite some time, processing what had happened, shaking his head, smiling, grimacing, letting out soft chuffs of laughter. “Jesus,” he finally said, exhaling heavily, and then went to clean up.

In the bathroom, he put the shampoo bottle marked MAC in the trash and tied up the bag. He would take it upstairs with him and put it outside in the garbage. The USB drive would go upstairs into an envelope and it would go back to the law firm. With the receipts, Jeff realized, that would make everything very convenient.
As he began to lather in the shower, luxuriating in the hot water, his thoughts remained on Mac. What had driven him to it? What kind of pills had he used and where had he gotten them? What kind of experience must it have been for Stuart to go through? Would he write about it? He probably would. Had he been through something like that before?

The smell of the Irish Spring body wash and Pert Plus (shampoo and conditioner in one!) was strong enough on Jeff's person that he didn't notice the musty, rotting smell in the basement at all when he got dressed. Even though it was what had been behind his murder conspiracy, he didn't notice it at all, anymore, really.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Author's Note: Imitation and Flattery

When I was very young, I realized that I could spell ridiculously well, including many words that weren't even necessarily in my vocabulary.  The theory is that I picked up on not only how to spell words, but also the rules regarding how to spell them, from reading so damn much.

I think, to some degree, the same is true of my writing.  I mention in my book here, The Author, that most writers start out as imitators.  I think I read somewhere that Stephen King started out re-writing stories, simply copying them out.  Not passing them off as his own, just scribing them like a monk.  Judd Apatow, who is now a screenwriter, started out by transcribing VHS recordings of Saturday Night Live skits.  I think another writer claimed to do the same thing with radio shows.

Some of my earliest works of short fiction were intentional rip offs, trying to ape the style or ideas of Poe and Bradbury.  I even wrote a Frank Peretti knockoff once.

You learn by example and so, it follows, that the best examples will be the ones that you strive to be like.  One of the greatest compliments I was ever paid as a writer was being compared to King.  I believe it was in my use of metaphor.  Not that I was particularly trying to write like him at the time, at all, but just that it was powerful being compared to a writer I admired.

What I'm getting around to is that in writing about it, and writing about writing about it, if you know what I mean, I'm becoming conscious of who's knees I spent my time learning at.  I loved the thrill of James Patterson when I was in college (I think he's something of a hack now), but I first learned pacing and cliffhanging chapters as an adult from him.  I learned it much at a much younger age from Hardy Boys books, so either way, lesson learned.  Writing two books in this serial fashion has been very exciting, stringing one event to the next, and realizing how much tension I can build.  And I learned it all from the examples of others who successfully used the same technique.

From Stephen King, as noted above, I got my use of metaphor.  In his book On Writing he talks about trying never to use turns of phrase that people have heard before.  Of course that's basically impossible, but when you describe something you can at least strive not to use a turn of phrase that everyone has seen 100 or 1000 times over.

Also from King, and I've used it several times in The Author, but less in much of my other writing, is creating a sense of forboding.  I just finished the audio book of Thinner, and he ends one chapter with something like: "They went upstairs and made love.  It was the last time they ever did so."  He doesn't do this a lot, but sometimes it is in annoying places.  I don't think he did it in The Dome, so it might have been something he grew out of.  I remember reading passages like that sometimes and thinking, "You son of a bitch!"  It can be a tease and it can be torture and it's probably a tool not to abuse.

One thing that people compliment me on that I think is most my own is my dialogue (and can you believe my browser's spell checker wants me to use dialog?  Ugh.).  I can't point to a single source for that the way I can for some other things.  My theater background helps a bit, I think, in that when writing I practically have conversations with myself.  Reading writers who do great dialogue, like Lawrence Block, is part of it.  I think listening to a lot of audio books has probably helped as well.

The thin line to walk with dialogue comes from keeping it "realistic".  I was struck by the first few minutes of the movie United 93 because it actually was realistic.  It was a couple of guys talking about their weekends and you could not have cared less, but tension was there nonetheless because you knew what was coming.  And then a plane plowed into a building.  Movies, television and books pretty much NEVER have realistic dialogue.  If they did, they would be boring.  What media does is boil down conversations to an essence.  When we say a conversation in a book was realistic, it usually means it was what we wished real life sounded like.  Some writers get recognized for leaping so far past realistic that it becomes another thing altogether, like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith.

I realize now that I've spent more than 20 minutes writing this for no reason in particular.  I walk around these days composing passages for The Author in my head for the next time I sit down and write, and for some reason things like this were bouncing around in my head this evening.  As also noted in The Author, it is bad form to ask a writer where his ideas come from (Of course, I haven't been asked that question over and over yet, so I don't mind if you want to ask).  So this, instead, is me talking about where my technique comes from, I suppose.  Maybe you won't care or maybe it'll be a nice DVD extra for the book until the next chapter gets posted.  A look behind the curtain.

If so, I'm glad you care and I'm glad you're interested.  If not, then the next chapter will be up soon enough.

Thanks for reading.

The Author, Chapter Twenty-Two: The USB Drive

June 23

The phone woke Jeff. It wasn't the Family Guy ring, rather it was a piercing, obnoxious beep-beep-be-beep that made you wish unpleasantness to the inventor of the cell phone, or the ring tone, or the telephone in general. Fuck Alexander Graham Bell and let me sleep.

The phone began to ring again and he staggered out of bed, clapping his hands to the desk, finding his personal phone, a pen, and his wallet before the Nextel fell into his hand.


“Mr. Reynolds?”

It was, of course, the soothing, imperturbable voice of Mr. Lawyer Reed. Jeff let out a heavy exhalation, rolled his eyes, and flopped back into bed.

“Yes, sir?”

“Mr. Reynolds, I trust I have not called you too early?”

Jeff looked at the clock and saw that it was not too early. In fact, Reed had called at 10:34, long after Jeff was supposed to be up. It boded for how the rest of his morning would go.

“No way. What's up?” Jeff winced as soon as he heard his words, conscious that he sounded like a stupid kid.

“Tomorrow—be the third Friday that you have been working for—first Friday was only your second day and the second Friday I gave you the benefit of the doubt. However, this Friday—must be inflexible. Mr. Stuart has a fax machine and I need you to make copies of all of your purchasing receipts—number is the first preset in the fax machine. Mr. Stuart also has it and you also simply need to add—of the office phone number.”

“Of course, no problem.”

“It should not be a difficult task, Mr. Reynolds.”

I said I'd take care of it, cockbag, Jeff said internally, while saying, “Consider it done.”

So Jeff's entire morning was derailed. He didn't brush his teeth, shower, or shave, instead he dove straight into the wide, flat drawer that sat above the knee space in his desk, hunting for receipts. There were two for delivery pizzas, four from Safeway, the one from the brunch on his first day (and what a fucking wild day that had been) and...

Jeff's heart would freeze later, when he realized what it meant, but initially he was just puzzled. He had felt a brush of cloth and when he grabbed it between his two fingers, he pulled out a thumb drive, dangling from a lanyard. 1GB Sandisk, it read on one side and as the drive slowly rotated on the lanyard, it revealed what was written on the other side: “R. McKenzie.”

Weird, he thought, Mac left this behind as well. He immediately plugged it into his laptop. He had to jump through a few hoops, as the memory stick had been formatted for a Macintosh (Jeff had forgotten Mac was a Mac douche on top of everything else, not quite as annoying as a Linux evangelist, but certainly a pain in the ass), but when he did, he saw that there was a folder and a file on the stick. The folder was full of documents, and when he opened a couple, he saw that it was all Mac's work. Short stories, essays, possible a book or two in progress.

A doubtful hand began to walk its fingers up Jeff's back then, as he saw more and more documents that he was sure Mac would not have left behind. The beginning of a biography and what more proof did you want of what kind of a jackass Mac was than that he would begin a biography when he had only just graduated from college?

He backed out of the folder and opened the single document. It was a journal. The entries began with observations of the property and the man himself (judgmental) and then moved on to other things.

5.25.10 The dreams I have here cling to me in my waking hours. I don't know what they mean, I often don't remember them at all, but they affect my mood and my outlook. Every day here feels like a chore, even when the weather is beautiful. I look haggard, as if I had not slept for a week, and even the sun does not seem to improve my coloring.

Christ, he was such a douche, Jeff thought, flipping through the next entries. He even wrote this way for himself! The entries devolved quite quickly after that, becoming less coherent and also less flowery.

5.30.10 I could never describe what I experienced last night, but I woke up retching, it was so awful. I did not quite vomit, but I felt as if doing so might break something loose inside me. I cannot keep this up.

6.1.10 He will be the end of me, I'm sure of it. It all comes from him, it has to, that twisted, repulsive imagination...

6..2x..10)- Oh god its hereits her it is he its its its oh god fuck oh here its here its he

“Hey, man, what's going on?” Victor Stuart asked from behind him.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Author, Chapter Twenty-One: The Second Nightmare

June 22

Before Jeff discovered the USB drive and accused Stuart of murder, he dreamed. It was not the first dream he had experienced since coming to live with Vic, but it was the first dream that he remembered. Mostly he remembered it because the post stuck with him.

He recognized it now, recognized it from the nightmare he'd had on Malcolm's couch, the one with the giant, iconic monolith. It was not the same object as in his last dream, but it was similar. This post was whole, not like the one in the yard that had been smoothed down, but with a rounded top and clear, deeply engraved sigils on every side. The symbols stood out in particular because blood flowed over the stone.

Stuart sat on the far side of the post from Jeff, smoking a peace pipe and sitting in a recliner that was at least two times too big for him. He smoked massive, slow traveling rings, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.

“Is it still mine?” Jeff asked him.

“Only if you still want it,” the writer replied. He reached for the handle and ratcheted the chair back, flinging himself prone. Jeff approached the writer and saw that he was now plugged into various machines, pounds having magically melted away from him, the fragile frame of his skeleton peeking out of what little flesh remained.

“Do you still want it?” Stuart asked, his lips straining to cover large, thrusting teeth that were now too big for his mouth. They caused his words to slur.

“It's all mine,” Jeff said, remembering what the writer had said to him before, when they stood atop the giant stone tower.

“You're goddamn right it is,” Stuart said, and he reached his cadaverous hands up to his own head. He plucked his head from his shoulders and offered it to Jeff. “Take it,” he said, insisting, “It's yours.”

Jeff turned without turning and expected to see the post towering behind him, gouting blood. Instead, it sat there, sedately, clean now, no blood or lichen on its surface, and Jeff thought he would be able to discern what the symbols on it meant. He saw that the reason the shape and the symbols were intact, unlike the post in the yard, was because the post was covered by a small roof, like the shelter on the top of a well.

“It's protected,” he said aloud, his voice echoing into the void of infinity. “It's covered.”

“It's been covered forever,” Jeff's father said, standing next to him. When Jeff turned to look, the figure was actually Jeff's father and mother both occupying one body. The voice was Nicholas Reynolds, circa 1990, and so was the mustache, but the eyes were his mothers and so were the breasts.

“Is it mine?” Jeff asked.

“NO!” His father's voice and his mother's voice and Victor's voice and the faggy lawyer's voice and Malcolm's voice and the voice of God and all his angels all echoed at once.

Jeff looked down to see that Victor's head still rested in his hands. It was now wearing sunglasses. “That don't belong to anyone, kid,” he said in a broad, shit-kicker drawl. “Everything else is yours, ain't no one keeps that.”

Jeff looked up again and saw that there was a circle of people around the post now. They were all kneeling before it, genuflecting in fear and awe at the power contained within the rune-covered stone. He stepped over them, placing his feet carefully on their smooth, bronze backs, approaching the post.

He touched it then, and it seemed like for the first time, even though he had stood on the post in his previous dream and touched the one in the yard in real life. The stone was rough beneath his fingers, as rough as if it had just been carved and not yet polished with sand and wind and time and weather. The symbols on the outside of the post seemed to light up as he touched them, each instilling in his mind their distinct, flawless meaning.

He nodded, the wisdom of the ages and the philosophy of creation all imparted to him simply, directly, sensibly.

don't a tiny voice whispered. Jeff whirled to see who had spoken, but saw no one.

don't it said again, from the deep black of space.

A memory floated back to him, a balloon in a storm, a memory of Vacation Bible School. He sat there, his young hair parted, his small face turned up, eager to please, listening to the teacher as she spoke about the voice of God being still and small. “If you aren't listening, you'll miss it altogether,” she had said.

i said don't, you fucking moron the voice cried, and it was not subtle anymore. Jeff the dreamer had a vision of himself as a cartoon figure, Jim Carrey in The Mask, his flesh almost peeled from his face with the force of the crying voice, his lips and ears flapping in the breeze generated by the words.

Jeff awoke in a panic. It was dark. Fuck, it was black! Where was the window? How would he get out? Then he saw the green light of the numbers of his alarm clock and remembered that red numbers meant home and blue numbers meant college. Green numbers were somewhere different, where was it? Oh, holy shit, he was sleeping in fucking Victor Stuart's basement and it was amazing. The man spoke with him and Jeff was writing a new book and...

And what the fuck had that dream been about? Jeff realized that the sheets were damp with his sweat and that, unlike the last several times he had dreamed, he could remember what had happened. He kicked off the blankets that were too warm and tried to recall what had happened. The post had been there, and he remembered now that it had been there before, in another dream as well, but when? There was blood, and Victor of course, and his dad... Jeff shook his head. He didn't need to think about dear old dad, not at—he looked at the clock again—4:14 a.m. He had just had a nightmare, that's all. It wasn't scary so much as disorienting, it wasn't a big deal and after he had some time to think about it and remember it he could write it down and interpret it and then he would—

Sleep snuck up on Jeff like snake, silent and menacing. He was just about to remember exactly what the symbols on the post meant when it engulfed him entirely. This time, when he woke up, he would remember vague details, his mother, his father, Victor, the post, blood...

oh god i said don't the voice cried, and Jeff's body started as it drifted down into sleep again, but did not quite wake up.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Author, Chapter Twenty: The Next Ten Days

June 13-June 22

They fell into a routine quite quickly. At first it was by default, Jeff getting up before Stuart every morning and cleaning up. Eventually he stopped worrying about waking Stuart in the mornings and just got to work around 10. If he made too much noise, Stuart would retire to his bedroom, where he never seemed to sleep unless forced to do so. Soon Jeff was setting his alarm for 9:30 so he could continue the pattern. Sometimes Jeff would make an effort at breakfast, other times it was cereal or toaster pastries or oatmeal. Once, bored, Jeff hopped in the Rover and went to buy donuts. He was getting better at navigating the driveway.

Strangely, the more he fell into these patterns, the lazier Jeff became about everything else. Yes, he eventually mowed the lawn, but it took him two afternoons. Stuart did not seem to mind. Every night he would go to bed with the best of intentions for the next day, starting on the pile of Stuart's laundry, going for a run, getting up to watch the sun rise, and every morning he would wake up, clean up after Stuart, make breakfast, and simply ride along with the days, which quickly flowed together.

Lunches were whatever Jeff made, usually sandwiches or something equally easy, while Stuart edited what he had written the night before. Afternoons they talked until Stuart could no longer fight the impulse to return to writing, and then Jeff would start dinner. They would chat over dinner, not the deep, heavy discussions of the afternoons, but surface talks, light conversation, nothing that would remove Stuart from his precious groove.
Then, Stuart would return to work, and Jeff would have the evening to himself. Here, again, he found he had no motivation. Two of the summer's big movies had opened by this time, and he made plans twice to go see the new Spielberg picture, and it never happened. Once it slipped his mind and the other time he just decided not to go. Instead, his evenings were filled with two things: Reading the Wilcox novels and writing.

On Tuesday evening, after putting up the leftovers from the pot roast he had made (he'd called his mother to find out how), which they would likely have for lunch tomorrow, Jeff had begun to experience the itch. He remembered Stuart talking about it, and he'd had a vague recollection at the time of what it felt like, but it came back to him all at once, like a relative or friend not seen in quite some time, but who never ceases to be familiar and comfortable.

He sat at the desk in his room and played Tetris, his old trick from school for clearing his mind before a study project. He didn't realize it, but this idea was no different from Vic's drinking: getting out of his own way. He reminded himself that if he was writing, he should be working on Hard Time, but it didn't seem to matter. Instead, what came out of him for two hours on Tuesday, and most evenings after that was something new and exciting.

When he started writing, Jeff was almost convinced that whatever he would produce would be nothing but a Stuart rip off, in the grandest tradition of his writings at 15, somehow absorbing the energy of the man and his home. That was not the case. Instead, he began to tell the tail of Danny Costa, a small time con man from Chicago who comes across his one chance for a big score. In Jeff's mind, the story would somehow become the hard-boiled equivalent of The Old Man and the Sea. Danny's commitment to the Big Job (as Jeff began to think of it), would be so all-consuming that he would not realize that the money he would bring in had already all been spent, either on setting up the score or in shares to the other people involved. He would succeed, and he would be a legend, but he would end with nothing to show for it, and likely be killed by the mob for his troubles.

The story appeared out of whole cloth, without any investment on his part at all. On Wednesday, as Jeff mowed the lawn while Stuart edited, Jeff had conversations, out loud, with himself as Danny and his various cronies: Betty, the grifter who was convinced all she really needed was a bolt-on set of tits to make herself irresistible to men, Bobby Costa, Danny's useless cab driver brother who had initially found out about the score and who was now part of the deal whether Danny liked it or not, old Moses, who referred to himself as a “nigger Jew fence”, and of course Alphonse, the neighborhood cappo, who acted twice as Italian as everyone else to make up for the fact that he'd been born with blond hair.

Part of Jeff desperately wanted to tell Stuart about it, especially since the author had shared another passage from Tomb with him, but he did not. Partly it was because he feared criticism from the writer, especially as brutal as he had been about Mac's work (even though, of course, Mac sucked ass), and partly it was because he wasn't ready for the world of Danny & Co to be shared. Not even with Victor Stuart.

The more he wrote and thought about writing, the more insight he had into Stuart's books, as well. He realized that partly these insights were due to the fact that he was reading the books as an adult (or so he told himself), rather than the kid he'd been way back when he was 15. But these insights also came to him from being around Stuart, from their extensive discussions, from the writer's insight into process, inspiration, and creativity.

Jeff had finished Stuart's second Wilcox book, Faith, on Monday night. It had been widely criticized as a limp sophomore effort by Stuart, one that undid some of his initial splash. After reading it again (as a grownup, of course), Jeff had found Faith to be much more mature than he remembered.

Jeff realized now that Stuart had simply defied expectations. When you produce a second novel in a series, no one will ever be happy. If you give them the same book a second time, people will recognize it for what it is and bitch about it. If you give them something different, people will whine because you didn't give them what they expected, which was exactly the same thing again.

Stuart had thrown all those expectations away and had produced Faith, which was a rollicking adventure yarn to contrast the slow burning terror of Grave. Yes, both mined the Cthulhu mythos to some degree, but there the comparisons ended. Where Grave was a mystery, Faith was effectively a treasure hunt, filled with enough hidden chambers and conspiracies to give Dan Brown an chubby.

And of course, in Cemetery, the third Wilcox novel, Stuart had taken another random turn, creating a balls-out thriller, with Wilcox's own fate hanging in the balance as he was caught between a cult and a crime syndicate. Jeff was gaining a greater appreciation for the tightrope act Stuart had performed early in his career, defying and challenging expectations while successfully capturing more and more readers.

Now, of course, the man did not have to suffer the expectations of fools, or at least not as much, but he continued to unexpectedly change directions, visiting genres and topics such as romance, politics, history, and art, navigating new waters with every book and constantly defying expectations.

Jeff didn't like to admit that he was thinking so far ahead, he felt that it was unlucky, but he could see himself doing something like that with his new book, which was untitled, but which he was mentally thinking of as Danny's Dime. Hard Time was the work of an immature writer, still regurgitating the tropes and stories that he had seen before, but this new book was the beginning of something else, something that could expand into a psychological thriller next, pitting a still broke but plucky Danny against a mob hit man in a battle of wills and guts and guns. The potential was unlimited so long as you didn't let yourself get pinned in.

Stuart's days were less complex that Jeff's: Wake, eat, edit, talk, write, sleep. On Sundays he watched baseball. The man confessed to having more trouble now that he was a bit further into Tomb. He was happy with what he wrote, but the pace was slowing. “No second book this summer, kid, I tell you what,” he'd said. The writer still wasn't referring to Jeff by his name, but he held out hope. As it was, the way Stuart called him kid seemed to carry plenty of affection, and Jeff could not help but think of the way Han Solo referred to Luke Skywalker by the same term. It was a comparison Jeff was very happy with.

So it continued for ten warm days. Pizza dinners, cereal breakfasts, Stuart's nigh-constant Woodford Reserve consumption, writing, reading, talking. It was not exactly how Jeff had pictured his summer would be, but he had no complaints, aside from the occasional heartburn. He'd learned to make separate batches of chili when he cooked that particular dish, as Stuart insisted on so much Tabasco Sauce and red pepper flakes that Jeff's tongue almost melted.

It was not as he'd pictured it, not completely. Stuart had worn nicer clothes in his imagination, and not smelled like a homeless person. The children had already adopted him as a de facto uncle in his fantasies, looking up at him with adoring eyes. In his mind, and Jeff would have never admitted this, even under the most strenuous torture, he had also painted himself a summer romance, torrid, exciting, doomed to end with the season.
But the important expectations, spending time with the man he so admired, being privy to the man's wisdom, experience, and advice, Jeff would not have traded that for anything in the world.

Then came the events of June 23rd, when Jeff found the USB drive and became convinced Victor Stuart had murdered Reginald “Mac” McKenzie.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Author, Chapter Nineteen: The First Sunday

June 12

Saturday night Jeff finished Grave before he went to bed. He was wired when it was done, but he couldn't be bothered to go upstairs to get the second book. The second Wilcox book, he reminded himself, thinking of The Best Year. Instead, he brought his laptop to bed and tinkered with his own book, Hard Time. He knew he needed to add several chapters to help develop his main character, Harvey Clinton, to help justify his personal choices. A new chapter would not come, but he fixed several conversations that seemed clunky.

Jeff awoke more tired than he had been when he turned the light out, and he vaguely remembered dreaming of strange shapes and worlds. He realized that the more he stayed here, the earlier he seemed to be waking up, as it was just a little after nine. He hoped the trend did not continue. He didn't like waiting around for Stuart to wake up, and although there were many books to go in reading all the Wilcox books in a summer, he wasn't ready to start the second one just yet. Part of it was delaying pleasure, but partly he just wasn't ready to jump into another 400 pages.

Jeff went upstairs to find a movie and was taken aback when he found Stuart awake, sitting in the living room, watching baseball on television. The older man looked over his shoulder and saw him.

“Early East Coast game,” he said, “National League, Pirates versus the Braves.”

Jeff didn't know how to react. He thought he'd known just about everything about the writer. He had no idea the man was a closet baseball fan.

“Siddown if you want,” Stuart said, “Game's just starting. It's supposed to be a blowout, but you never know.”

Jeff sat down and watched 20 minutes of television he didn't care about. Occasionally the writer would point out the nuance of a play or the significance of an umpire's ruling.

“You ever play baseball?” Stuart asked during a commercial break that mostly plugged beer and shaving cream.

“No. I played basketball in junior high.”

“I played football when I was in ninth grade. Got my ass kicked all over the place and never tried it again. I never appreciated baseball when I was younger, but when I'm out here in particular, it's a great distraction. I got the super ticket thingee through the cable, so there are games all day on Sunday. Today's my day off, in case I didn't mention it before. We don't talk or think about books today.”

“Got it. Do you want breakfast or something?”

“Nah, I had some cereal earlier. So, since I'm using the TV, your choices are pretty simple. You can watch the games with me, Cardinals/Mets is on later, it's supposed to be a fucking barn burner, or you can go mow the lawn.”

Jeff spent another hour trying to get into the game, watching men strike out repeatedly, while Stuart got more and more excited about a potential shut out and Jeff got more and more bored.

Eventually he gave up and went outside to mow the lawn. There was a small shed behind the car port, and inside Jeff found a ride-on lawn mower. The battery had been disconnected for the winter and sat on a shelf by the door. Jeff took the battery and a charger up to the deck and plugged the battery in.

In the meantime, he went downstairs, got his iPod, and began to edge the lawn using a weed whacker while enjoying the soothing sounds of Tool. The smell of gasoline exhaust from the power tool was oddly enlivening.
He quickly chopped down the lengthy grass at the sides of the house and the carport and moved onto the bigger job of edging the yard and the driveway. It wasn't too hot yet, the sun still indirect, the grass still dewy, but he began to sweat with the labor. Once he reached the opening of the path to the beach he paused and looked down it, as if expecting to see the Henry Thorsen coming up the trail with his trusty shotgun.

Then he turned and saw the post, in the center of the yard. He approached it, meaning to chop away the grass that grew around it and over it. He primed the weed whacker and extended his arms to the post, wincing. The dead grass fell away from the post and nothing else happened. When the grass was clear, he put the weed whacker aside and knelt next to the object. It was still in shadow, as it had been the other morning, and he wondered if he would be able to make out more of the designs on it with better light.

He finished edging the lawn without incident and decided to take a break before beginning to mow. The battery sat on its charger as Stuart called him back to the couch, using the TiVo to show him several plays he found particularly impressive. The man's enthusiasm was infectious, and now that the Cardinals were showing the Mets what for, Jeff found himself a lot more interested in the game. If Jeff was being honest with himself, it was also because he was not looking forward to mowing the lawn, riding mower or not.

Lunch was nachos and beer, Alaskan Amber for Vic and Coors Light for Jeff. While Stuart was drinking less than Jeff was used to witnessing, he acted the drunkest Jeff had ever seen, getting boisterous and loud. As the afternoon passed quickly, Jeff forgot about the lawn and began to be drawn into the world of outs and strikes.
Dinner was more beer and a pizza that Stuart ordered. “None of that frozen frisbee shit, tonight,” he said. “This stuff is pricey, but you know what?”

“It's worth it?” Jeff guessed.

“Your damn right.”

Jeff wasn't the biggest fan of pizza in the first place, let alone twice in a couple of days, but he had to admit the delivery pie was excellent. It was in the Greek style, Stuart informed him, the flat crust painted with olive oil so the result was crispy, almost fried.

The pizza place was called Arturo's, Vic informed him, “And it's run by this short little Mexican guy. Furthest thing from genuine Italian you could imagine, but damn he knows what he's doing.”

True to his word they did not discuss books or “the work” at all, but when the Yankees finished creaming the Mariners, much to Stuart's dismay, Jeff was ready to call it a night. He was logy from heavy food and beer, but when he got up, he saw the battery and the charger on the deck. He returned them to the shed, figuring he'd mow the lawn the next day. It reminded him of the post, so before he went downstairs, he returned to the living room.

“Hey, Vic?”

“Hmm?” The man glanced over his shoulder from flipping channels to find the next exciting game.

“What's the deal with that stone post thing out in the lawn?”

Stuart raised his eyebrows. “That thing? No idea. It's been there as long as I've been coming out here. I always just assumed it was an old property marker or something.”

To Jeff's buzzing mind, the answer was sufficient at the time, but in retrospect, particularly when the truth came out, he realized that on some level he knew the writer was not being completely honest with him.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Author, Chapter Eighteen: Gunfire, or, The Second Morning

June 11

The firing of the shotgun was not what awoke Jeff on his second morning at the Stuart house. What woke him was the sound of Stuart's body hitting the floor above him. Jeff's eyes snapped open, his body trying hard to panic, and then he heard Stuart swear, muffled, through the floor. There was another thump and Jeff was out of bed, running up the stairs.

He skidded out of the kitchen, feet sliding on the hardwood floor of the dining room when he first heard the shots. Stuart was still lying on the floor, his chair splayed beside him, and whatever panic Jeff had been fighting took over completely. At the sound of the shots he threw himself onto the floor and began crawling toward the writer.

“Vic! Vic, are you—“

“God dammit!” Vic said, rising up onto hands and knees. “What the fuck time is it?” He looked at a clock on the wall. “Seven-fucking-thirty and he pulls this bullshit? I swear to Christ. We went over this last summer!”
Jeff was speechless as Vic calmly walked to his room and began to rummage through it. He walked out with a cell phone to his ear.

“Yes, police? This is Victor Stuart, I'm at 517 Beechwood Drive. My phone number is 503-621-6169. My neighbor is discharging a shotgun. If it's like last time, he is skeet shooting off his front porch. Yes, that's right. Yes. I believe it is Henry Thorsen, but I do not plan on walking over there to confirm it while the crazy old bastard is armed.”

Jeff pulled his knees up to his chest, conscious for the first time of how little clothing he was wearing. He slept in his boxer shorts and for a brief, sunny moment he was relieved that he had slept in anything at all. It was bad enough to parade around in front of Vic Stuart in his underwear, it would have been a whole different matter to fall on the floor next to him with his cock flopping around like a dying fish.

He started as another volley of shots began. He squeezed his eyes closed, willing the sound away, completely lost.

“C'mon, kid,” Victor said, and when Jeff opened his eyes, the writer was standing over him, hand extended. It reminded him of the day he had met Stuart, and could that have only been 48 hours beforehand? Only this time, someone really was shooting, it wasn't just a terrible joke.

Stuart helped him up and lead him to the living room, where Jeff was deposited on the couch. Vic handed him an afghan that was folded over the back of the couch and Jeff gratefully wrapped up in it. It was a little cool in the room, Victor had left the outside doors open to let the afternoon heat out and probably fallen asleep, but the comfort was largely due to putting something around himself, putting something between his almost naked body and the threatening world.

Jeff was unaware of the passage of time, other than two more shotgun volleys that caused him to close his eyes and grit his teeth. Eventually Vic returned with a tall glass of orange juice for himself and a hot cup of coffee for Jeff. With the first sip Jeff could tell the coffee was fortified with something, probably bourbon. He was grateful.

“I've got some pills around here somewhere,” Vic said, “Maybe some weed, too, if you need something to help calm down.”

Jeff shook his head. He was too confused to make any decisions. Waking up suddenly wasn't his strong suit at the best of times. Having it happen and immediately feeling like he'd woken up to an exciting morning in Baghdad was a completely different thing.

He realized he was shaking like a baby with a fever. “What...the fuck is...going on?”

“It's my neighbor. I told you I have a gun because I'm convinced he's gonna come up here and try to kill me one day.”

“This is insane.”

“Well, he's insane, if we're being honest. A nutball of the highest caliber,” he winced at the inadvertent pun.

Something that had been worming around at the back of Jeff's mind finally caught up with him. “Thorsen?”
Vic took a sip of his OJ and nodded. “Wait, the Henry Thorsen?”

“The one and only. Gun nut, drug addict, hippie baiter.”

“What the hell is this, some kind of retreat for crazy writers?”

“Does that mean you think I'm crazy, too?”

Jeff opened his mouth and realized what he'd just said. His mouth snapped shut with a click. Victor laughed at him.

“Don't sweat it, kid, I know what you meant. I don't take it personally.” He gave that wild man grin of his. “We all go a little mad some times,” he said, widening his eyes and speaking in a passable Norman Bates voice.

“I saw him,” Jeff said.


“Thorsen, yesterday, I went down to the beach. I think part of me recognized him and that stupid hat.”

Victor laughed again. “He loves those hats.”

“I didn't make the connection, I would have never dreamed two famous writers lived right fucking next door to each other.”

“Hold up there, buddy. Let's get something clear. Me,” Victor pointed at himself. “Famous writer. Henry fucking Thorsen?” he pointed to the other house, “Crazy bastard hack. Calling him a writer insults Charles Dickens and John Milton, alright? He rode the bullshit gonzo craze on Hunter Thompson's coat tails and managed to be the only guy, other than H.T., to make a career out of it. Now he lives off residuals and speaking engagements and apparently only exists to be a pain in the ass to his neighbors.”

“He's done this before,” Jeff said, Vic's phone conversation sinking in.

“Not all the time, just often enough to keep things interesting. There was a year or two when he was keeping it quiet, but I think he was on a book tour or some shit. Few years ago he was fishing with dynamite, if you can believe it. Where do you even buy dynamite?”

Jeff shook his head.

“I just hope that one day he'll die from taking too much hillbilly heroin or he'll fall down the steps and crack his fucking head open or he'll finally be committed.”

“Did he live here first?”

“Nope. Total coincidence as far as I can tell, unless he heard I lived here and decided that bugging me would be a good hobby. Can't say we've ever much talked about it though. I first met him when I went over to find out why he was having a weenie roast at two in the morning while blasting Zeppelin loud enough to hear in the city. Stupid thing is, if I'd have been here by myself I never would have noticed. My wife had to get my attention and point out the fact that for the last hour the bass had been rattling shit off the shelves. I was in that deep.

“So I go over there and he's got three half-naked chicks and a couple of scary, hairy bikers. You can barely see through all the smoke, not all of it from the fire, and I'm sure they were all cranked up on something as well. Someone's truck was running the stereo with the doors open, the music so loud you could almost see it when you got that close.

“I asked the first person who noticed me to turn it down and she passed it on to him. He had a fucking La-z-Boy out there on the lawn, sitting in front of this big bonfire, smoking a fucking peace pipe, if you can believe it. The chick speaks to him, he waves a finger, someone turns the music down. He nods at me, like the big leader or some shit, so I turn to walk away. Then the music goes right back up again and I look back and they're all laughing like he just told a goddamn joke. That was the first night I became familiar with the police's non-emergency number. They don't like you calling 911 for noise complaints. They like to keep the lines open for people who are bleeding.”

“That's...I don't...”

“I know,” Victor said, nodding sagely, “It's nuts. Listen I'm not much of a cook but I can manage not to fuck up toast and eggs. Lets put something in our bellies and go out in the sun and things will look a lot better in an hour or so, yeah?”

Victor was right. The eggs were overdone and the toast was burnt, but soon Jeff was laughing at the absurdity of it all. The second coffee loaded with bourbon also went a long way to improving his mood.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Author, Chapter Seventeen: The First Pages

June 10

“Here,” Vic said, pushing a couple of sheets of paper toward Jeff as he placed a plate of sandwiches next to the writer. After his surprising bout of self-disclosure, Victor had returned to his laptop and written as though the devil himself were cracking a whip over him. “Read this,” he said, then went back to his work without even acknowledging the sandwiches.

Jeff picked up the pages, realized there were just two of them. The first page read, Chapter Three: The Catacombs, and a thrill rolled through Jeff's heart. Part of him had reasonably assumed that Stuart would be sharing his work with him, what else would he be handing him from the table where he wrote? But the reality was almost overwhelming.

He sat down across from Stuart, gathering himself as if he were about to lose his virginity.

Chapter Three: The Catacombs

The inside of the church was drier than it had been in the storm outside, and Wilcox gratefully shook the rain from his coat, but the dryness was the only thing about the interior of the church that was welcoming. A vast crucifix, agonizingly realistic, dominated the altar at the head of the church. Somewhere, in the distance, there was a drip, a regular plonk plonk plonk of water. The church was cold and dark. The interior was so tall as to make one feel that it was only a matter of time before the church collapsed in upon itself, taking any hapless attendees with it.

Jeff shivered and read on, as Wilcox met the young priest who was on duty that day, flashed his investigator's ID and then talked the priest into giving him a tour of the famous catacombs beneath the church. The priest had not wanted to cooperate, but eventually Wilcox had won out.

“The catacombs are beneath the water table,” the priest said, guiding them down the stairs, “So be careful on the steps. They are often damp.”

Wilcox was used to the damp, his shoes were studded for just such occasions, but he didn't feel the need to mention it.

“This level is often referred to as the false catacombs,” the priest said. It was constructed in the dark ages, above the original catacombs, which date back to the 8th Century.” His flashlight played across the primitive stonework, decorated with the silhouettes of bones and skulls. “Very few bodies were actually buried here. Rather, the false catacombs were a place of worship and hiding. They were created as an extended entrance to the true catacombs, which are beneath us. We will descend at least another 20 feet, so it will grow quite colder.”

The priest's voice was gentle and soothing and clearly he had often given this tour before. He was surefooted as they moved into a corner niche, which cleverly disguised spiral stairs. They took it down, leaving the false catacombs. The spiral staircase was so tight that Wilcox often lost sight, not only of the priest, but of the light he carried as well. He continued breathing in a relaxed fashion and walked slowly, steadily down the stairs. This wasn't his first rodeo.

“Here we are,” said the priest gently, and when Wilcox took a last turn, he saw that they were in an antechamber. The priest pushed gently on a heavy stone wall, which pivoted on a gimbal and opened into the true catacombs.

“The Catacombs of Alphonse the Broken,” the priest said, by way of introduction. He played his flashlight into the room, the light catching on small pieces of decorative glass that were embedded in the walls and individual resting places, reflecting like the eyes of small, watchful animals. “This is one of the most untouched catacombs in the world,” he continued, still acting the tour guide. “There are examples here of architecture and design that are found nowhere else.”

The priest gave a slight bow and waved his free hand into the large, dark room. “After you.”

Jeff finished and put the pages down and looked at Stuart for several minutes before the author noticed and stopped his typing. When Stuart finally surfaced for air, he picked up one of the sandwiches and began to chew and swallow. Jeff had gone for simple, turkey, Swiss, mustard and mayo. The author didn't appear to be complaining.

“Well?” he asked through a mouthful of food.

“I really appreciate you letting me—“

Stuart shook his head. “That's not what this is about. I need feedback. Keep me going. What did you think of it? And remember what we talked about before.”

Jeff, who had been about to say 'it was really good' was glad of the reminder. “The priest made me uncomfortable,” he said, after some consideration.

“Good, he's supposed to. Why?”

“Well, speaking for myself, I don't trust religious people, I suppose.” The writer nodded, his mouth full. “But his introduction made him, not suspicious, exactly, but, like, hard to trust, I guess.”


“He seems to young for his position?”

“Good. How about the introduction of the catacombs?”

“I li—“ Jeff corrected himself, “The idea of the catacombs being in layers or tiers was very effective. Especially the older ones being more sophisticated. It speaks of lost technology or power as well as, uh, an intentional effort to shield the older or better catacombs from sight. The mention of the false catacombs generates the idea of secrets and discovery.”

Stuart kept nodding and washed down a mouthful of sandwich with some bourbon. “What about the true catacombs?”

“The line about...” Jeff looked through the two pages, “The line about the reflecting glass being like the eyes of small animals was creepy. It really sets the reader on edge for what may come, and then you don't end the chapter with the relief of them entering it, but leave us having to turn the page to find out what happens when Wilcox enters.”

“What do you think happens?”

“I actually expected it to be the end of the chapter, Wilcox entering and then the priest closing the door behind him.”

“Oh, is that what you thought?” Stuart asked, an arch in his eyebrow. It was Jeff's turn to nod. “You got good instincts, kid. It's not exactly what happens, but you don't ever want to describe exactly what the reader expects and any reader of my books or anyone who's ever read a horror novel or seen a scary movie will expect something like that. So you throw them a bit of a rope-a-dope and give them part of what they're expecting and something they're not.”

Stuart handed Jeff another few sheets of paper. Jeff tried not to grab at them in his excitement.

“I won't ask you about those ones until tomorrow,” he said. “Now fuck off, I've got work to do.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Author, Chapter Sixteen: How It All Started


We had just finished our first year of college and we were planning to spend the summer out here in West Seattle. Ralph, my best friend at the time, had an aunt who lived in this place during the year and then summered out on Whidbey Island. She didn't have any great plans for the place, so she said we could spend the summer here. Ralph had a car and a bit of money saved up, so the plan was we'd get a couple of easy jobs to carry us through the season and spend most of our time getting fucked up and laid. Ralph scored some weed before we left school and we packed our shit and came straight here. We'd had enough of parents and education and structure. We wanted to be our own fucking men for a while, you know?

It was a different color back then, and Ralph's aunt had a guy who looked after the property, so the lawn was mowed and shit, but otherwise it looked about the same. It might not look like much to a homeowner, but this place looked like magic to two horny, bored 19-year-olds.

The first couple of days we lived off the little money that we'd brought, smoked out, prowled the beaches, drank too much, ate easy crap we could prepare ourselves, like what I eat when I'm out here now, stuff young kids eat because they don't know about things like cholesterol and trans fats and triglycerides.

You're a writer, so you might know what I'm talking about when I say that after the third or fourth day out here, I started to get the itch. I'd only experienced it once before, when I wrote The Best Year, which was an experience I hadn't been happy with. I'd forced that one, sat down and beaten it into submission until it was all on the page. It was not an enjoyable experience, just an inevitable one. Like vomiting when you have a stomach bug, you know?

Maybe out here it was just because I didn't resist it, but I don't think so. It always felt this was the place, as stupid as that sounds. I've never met another writer who can't operate anywhere else. Most of The Best Year I cranked out at the desk in my high school bedroom, a lot of it in long hand, and it was like spending six months giving birth to a kid with a giant head.

The first day I gave in and quit resisting the itch, I woke up about six in the morning and I just knew I was giving in. I got the typewriter from the master bedroom, sneaking past Ralph, who was sleeping like a fucking log, and carried it out to the living room. I put it on the table, exactly where I still work, and plugged the fucker in. It had all the bells and whistles, a little beeping noise if you typed words its internal dictionary didn't recognize and shit like that, but all I cared about was the fact that it would be faster than doing it long hand. I'd taken typing in high school, and I was okay. By the end of the summer I was a fucking typing prodigy, believe me.

I don't think I ever found out why Ralph's aunt had that typewriter. If I did, I don't remember. Sometimes it feels like the thing was just there waiting for me.

So there I was, at the table, typewriter plugged in, a few sheets of paper still in it, but I wasn't quite ready. I went to the bathroom, thinking that was it, and then I found myself in the kitchen. I wasn't ready to eat and I was too excited to sit down and write still, something was missing. I needed a drink. I'd only finished drinking with Ralph maybe four or five hours before, mind you, so it wasn't an idea that would normally occur to me. I should still have been a little drunk, or hung over, to be honest, but I wasn't. So I made myself a half-assed boilermaker, poured a glass of whatever piss beer we had around and dumped a shot of Jack Daniels in it. Then I made myself another. I chugged them both in the kitchen, then made myself another and went back to the living room to get started.

It was like pulling the pin on a grenade. Ralph told me he came out of his room and gave me a hard time for making so much noise a few hours later, and let me tell you, electric typewriters are not quiet, especially if you have to erase a word or type something it doesn't recognize, like ichor. I don't even remember him talking to me about it. That first day, I just vanished into the book.

Eventually Ralph gave up on me and went out to find a job. He got a gig as a server in a tourist restaurant on the beach. It's still there, but it's changed its name a bunch of times since then.

It wasn't the summer he'd signed up for, him getting up and going to work and me getting up and pounding away on a typewriter for hours at a time. I didn't go out and prowl for pussy with him like we'd planned and he had a tough time bringing girls back to the place with Victor Llewellyn Stuart, the amazing typing man, holding court in the middle of the house. For that matter, he was never much good without a wingman, either.

It never even occurred to me that I was effectively living off of him, although clearly I was. I never bought any food or alcohol, and I drank plenty that summer, believe me. I don't think Ralph ever expected anything to come of my book, but he could tell, he told me later, that it wasn't something he should get in the way of. He told me that he was a little scared of me, finding me there, plugged into that typewriter like a machine. “Like I was channeling something,” I think he said, and if you know what writing can be like, it's not too far from the truth, is it?

To this day, I don't know where the book came from, or any of my books. I can point out locations and names and conversations to you and tell you where they came from, but the total project, the sum of the parts is a kind of alchemy that I will never properly understand. And it's the alchemy that only happens here, for some reason.

We came out here before Memorial Day weekend, and I was finished a week or so after the Fourth of July. When I was done, all 327 pages of it, I put the pages in a box, put the box under my bed, and went out and got a job. All the good ones were taken, of course, so I wound up bagging groceries for six weeks. It went a long way to win Ralph back, though.

The rest of the summer was what he'd signed up for, and it almost made up for it, I think. I bought him a Commodore 128 with my first advance, which helped a lot, too. He was always a code nerd and he eventually wound up getting in at Microsoft when they first arrived in Seattle. He never had a big position, but he got in early enough that he was one of those rich guys you always hear about. He went on to found his own special effects company. He died of a heart attack in 2003. Too much high living. While my bad habits were usually limited to what I did here, three months out of the year, his just went on and on. You name it, the big lifestyle shit, he got into all of it and you just can't keep that up.

So I made an effort to make it up to him, but a small part of him never forgave me, I don't think. As long as I had this place he never came back out here again.

I didn't get much school work done in my second year of college. The first two months I edited Grave, perfecting it as much as I could on my own. The rest of the time I spent fishing for an agent.

Now, what happened to me doesn't happen often, but it might happen more often than you'd think. The eighties were huge for Stephen King, we're talking the era of Christine, Pet Semetary, It, The Tommyknockers, Misery, and you get the idea. Now, King and I don't get along that well, but I know damn well, and so does he, that I owe a lot of my early success to him. It's possible I could have gotten successfully established on my own, but I can tell you that my initial advance would not have been half a million fucking dollars.

So yeah, round about Easter in 1988, Random House and Viking just about came to blows over me. I actually went with the lower bid, in the end, with Viking, because Random House was more or less expecting to purchase my soul. But that was how I became Victor Stuart, as he exists today.

I dropped out of school, so the only degree I actually have from Pacific University is the honorary one they gave me for contributing so much money to the alumni fund.

The first thing I did, of course, was to buy this house and the Stingray. At that time I didn't realize that I wouldn't be able to write anywhere else, I'd been able to edit and rewrite big parts of Grave at college, but the house was just supposed to be my good luck charm.

It only took me another year to realize that it wasn't. I moved out here and wrote my second book almost immediately. It didn't come out nearly as easily as the first Wilcox book. It was a fight every step of the way. And when I was done, I started another book. Eventually I moved out. For some reason, I couldn't get comfortable here. Especially if I didn't want to write. I could barely take a day off here. I just couldn't do it. You might think I drink a lot now, but I probably drank more than year than I have in the 20 odd years since. I shit you now. I drank like I had something to prove. I ordered wholesale. I went to a doctor and got a prescription for Xanax, nothing helped. Until I went home to my mother's for Christmas and it was like walking out of a storm into the sunlight. It had never fucking occurred to me that my writing was giving with one hand and taking with the other. Yes, I would have to be here to get the work done, but no, there was no reason for me to stay here.

So I didn't. And I never have since.

More than 20 books. Only one summer off, the year my wife left me, and even then I pushed and pushed, but nothing came. A marriage, two kids, countless millions of copies of books sold. I've had three other houses and two condos. I've had just the one car.

So that's the short version. Well, maybe it's the medium version. And now, I think I should get back to work, kid. Make me a coupla turkey sandwiches in an hour or so, will you?

Interlude: Author's Note

Wow.  When I came up with the idea of this book several years ago, let alone when I started writing it, I did not imagine it was going to come together so well or so easily.  This book is clearly ready to come out and yesterday I wandered around the city for an hour or so running errands and another piece fell into place after just rolling things around in my head.

This book represents a lot of things to me: Discipline, maturity, development of my voice, and showing off and having fun.

I'm up to 70 pages of manuscript, give or take, which is more than 100 pages when formatted for publication.  That's half a novel, easy, which is fantastic.  The last novel I wrote in blog format was finished at around 90 pages and this one is clearly going to be longer.

If you're following me regularly, I really appreciate it.  If you're not and you receive this notification, you really should check this puppy out.  It's going gangbusters and I'm thrilled about it.

New chapter, coming up!

Please post questions and/or feedback if you have them.  It'll help keep me excited.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Author, Chapter Fifteen: The Second Talk

June 10

Later, Jeff sat respectfully in silence while Vic lit up a fat, brown cigar. He used a stick of cedar, lighting it off a Zippo, then lighting the cigar from the wood. The burning cedar smell was rich in the air, and eventually it was joined by the denser, somehow woodsier scent of the tobacco. The sun was just dipping past the edges of the trees, evening coming, but in no hurry.

A glass of Woodford was perspiring before the writer, and a can of Coors Light sat before Jeff. It was the writer's first drink of the day. After how Stuart had behaved the day before, Jeff had expected him to tuck into the bottle as soon as he sat down at his laptop. Not for editing, apparently.

“So...yesterday...we talked about what...I wanted to talk about,” Victor said, smoke streaming from the side of his mouth as he puffed on the cigar. He pulled it away and observed the end, making sure it was burning evenly. Satisfied, he waved out the piece of cedar and left it to smolder in the large cut glass ashtray on the table. “So what would you like to talk about?”

Jeff had thought about this since the night before, when Stuart had told him that after their 'orientation' talk, he should think of what he wanted to ask the famous writer.

“What is writing like for you?”

“You mean my process?” Stuart asked in return, puffing.

“No, like, what does it feel like?”

The author took a deep draw on the cigar and let the smoke waft from his mouth. Then he smiled. “Good fucking question. I'm going to answer it with another question though. What is it like for you?”

Jeff was unprepared for this and opened his mouth, then paused.

“You wanna challenge me, you better expect to be challenged, kid.”

Jeff nodded and thought for a moment. “Well...huh,” he chuffed out a small laugh as it came to him, “Sometimes it's like taking a shit.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Sometimes it wells up in you and you just need to find something to put it in as quickly as possible, you know?”

“Yes, I do. When I'm here I suffer the writer's version of diarrhea. It just wants to keep on coming, sometimes when there's not really anything left to come out.”

Jeff nodded and kept going, feeling the words come to him, driven on by the older man's approval.  “Sometimes it's like sex. You push forward through the stuff you don't really wanna do to get to the good part.”

“Goddamn right.”

“Get the boring shit out of the way so you can get to something you're really excited about.”

“That's very good. What else?”

“Well, most of the time it's just, I guess. Manual labor. Like digging a hole. At the end of the day your shoulders aren't as tired, maybe, but it takes it out of you. Sometimes you just have to chug away at it until you get into the zone.”

“Absolutely.” Stuart continued to puff. “So why do you need to know what it feels like for me?”

Jeff didn't answer, thinking the question might be rhetorical. The other man killed his bourbon and refilled his glass before speaking again. “Why do you think it's any different for me, or anyone?”

“I've talked to other writers and they've said different things.”

“Like what?”

“Are you ever gonna answer the question?”

Stuart looked at him, flatly, his smoking on pause. Jeff thought for a moment he had crossed a line. “You see, Jeff, that's why I like you. That's why this is a good fit and you're gonna enjoy being here for the rest of the summer. You're not afraid of me. You're not here trying to impress me like that last jerk-off was. It's different because it is. Just because you and I both see a blue sky right now and we can agree on the definition of blue doesn't mean we see the same thing at all. There's no way to prove that we do. But we can agree on it anyway. Everything you said is true, but just because I agree that writing is like chasing an orgasm doesn't mean it feels the same way to both of us.”


“Sometimes, for me, it's like you described. As soon as I get here, I need to start working. If I don't, it's like craving a cigarette, the less of it I do, the more of a fucking bitch I am. I come here to write. If I'm here and I'm not writing, I feel like a guy at the World Series who's warming the bench. So that needing to take a shit or come urgency is there. But let me ask you something else, if you'll permit me.”

The statement was sarcastic, but Jeff couldn't help but feel that if he said he didn't want to answer, Stuart would keep talking anyway. He nodded.

“You said yesterday you've written a novel, right?”

“Just a first draft.”

“Don't knock it, kid, you wrote a fucking book, alright? Now, how much work was it?”

“A lot.”


“I took notes for two years before it all came together.”

“What came together?”

“The final piece fell into place. I was waiting for everything to fit right.”

Stuart nodded. “Not me. You wanna know how I write?”

“Yeah.” It hadn't been the question he'd asked, but it had been something Jeff had hoped to hear.

“I get tanked. It's the only way I can do it. I get tanked, and I have to be here. I had an idea in a hotel once, so I ordered up a bottle of this,” he pointed at the Woodford, “From room service and got down to it. Couldn't produce a thing. But, to beat your metaphor to death, it wasn't like being constipated. It was a phantom shit. I thought it wanted to come, but it didn't. 'Here I sit, broken hearted.' For whatever reason, I have to be here. This is where the magic is. You believe in magic?”


“Yeah, well, me neither. Even though I write about it. But I believe in superstition. I wrote on the same typewriter that I wrote Grave on for more than 10 years before I took a risk and tried a computer. I was ready to go back to the typewriter if it didn't work. I was practically expecting it not to work, but it did. So whatever is here that lets me create, it isn't in how I write. So I recreate the way I wrote the first book I wrote here. I sleep in the same room, even though its not the biggest, I eat most of the same stuff, I stay up into the wee hours and sleep late into the day, and I drink bourbon. This is not my lifestyle the rest of the year, believe me, it's unhealthy as shit, but its all part of what produces what I write, and I can't fight that.”

“So you write drunk?”

“Not hammered. Not buzzed either. I get into a zone with it. I drink to remove the blocks between my conscious mind and my creative mind. What's in there wants to come out and the more I think about it, the less it does. So I drink to get out of my own way.”

“I can't do that.”

“You can't write drunk anymore than I could write sober, I'm sure. Different strokes. As a further example, I know a writer. Won't tell you who he is, but I promise you've heard of him. Guy smokes enough weed to bake an elephant. I shit you not. And that's the way he writes. Moreover, that's the way the son of a bitch functions. He has so much social anxiety that he can't leave his house without getting stoned first. But that's how he creates. He gets high and he writes. And he's good. I tried it once and after I sobered up, what I had written looked like the ramblings of a retarded third grader. Now, admittedly the guy edits when he's straight, but what he writes while high is still very good.

“And that's why writing seminars are a crock of shit.”

“What?” The non sequitur was jarring.

“Okay. So this guy is well-respected as a writer and as a speaker. Makes a lot of money on the lecture circuit, just like I do. Only because of his social whatever, he has to get high before he can leave his hotel. So he gives these talks on how to be a writer while he's toasted like a marshmallow.”


“Hand to God. But you better believe that he never tells the people in the lectures that step one to being a successful writer is to find yourself a good weed dealer.”


“No. So while he's not lying to them, he's not telling the whole truth. I don't tell people that I have to drink to write either. Or that I have to be here. Someone who hates my books would burn the place down, and then where would I be?”

“Up shit creek?”

Stuart grinned. “You're goddamn right. Could be I could find another place or another work-around like I was able to give up the typewriter, but I would not be hopeful.

“Regardless, that's why these seminars are a crock. They can all give you the same basic advice, keep a journal, write every day so you stay sharp, blah blah, but what works for you is what works for you and no one can give that to you. So save your money.”


“You ever been to one of those lectures?”

“David Balducci came to our school. So did you.”

“Oh, yeah, I suppose I probably did, huh. How was I?”

“Better than Balducci.”

Stuart threw back his head and let out a single, loud Ha. “But how was I?”

“You didn't give us any advice. You told stories about who you were and what it was like being you. I liked it, and your stories of meeting famous people might have inspired someone to want to be a big novelist, but you didn't give us any nuts and bolts.”

“Yeah. When I do real lectures sometimes I get into that a bit, the talks that people pay a lot to come to, and usually they're for some charity or another, but when I'm talking to college kids I try to stay out of the mechanics. You pretty much have to discover them for yourself. How'd you do it?”

“I fucking sat down and started writing.”

Stuart thumped the hand that wasn't holding the cigar on the table twice, in applause. “Damn straight. And how was it?”

“It was shitty.”

“But you got better.”


“What was it?”

Jeff should have seen this coming, but he was still strangely embarrassed. “Um...”

“Love story?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“No shame in that. Happens to the best of us. Was it your fantasy, were you part of it?”


“That or raw imitation is where we all start, kid, don't sweat it. You got better. That's the part that matters.”
They sat for another minute in silence, Stuart puffing the cigar, Jeff looking past him at the trees. He noticed the post in the yard again.

The author leaned back in his seat and looked straight up into the sky, at the few clouds parading past.

“When I'm here I think that I'd keep coming out here even if it wasn't where I had to be to write, you know?” he said. “But when I'm not here, sometimes I think I don't ever wanna come back.” He pulled his head back down and looked at Jeff. “Doesn't that seem weird?”