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 like...like 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?

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