Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Author, Chapter Forty-One: Wisdom

July 22

Here's the extent of what I have to tell you, Jeff. With the sun down and the cool breeze blowing, the damn heat finally breaking off the place, I'm gonna tell you what I have to tell you, and you can take it or leave it.
Number one: If you're gonna take it seriously, take it seriously. If you were me, you could have made a couple million bucks by the time you were 25 and then gotten out of the business. Trouble is, the people who are really serious about this shit aren't looking to get rich, God help us, we're looking to be writers. So give that some thought. See if you can justify making a big splash and then opting out. Your bankbook might not thank you, but the rest of your life will. The returns on a decent investment of a million bucks will keep you in beer and steak for a good, long while if you're careful.

The second part of that is, don't forget to take it seriously. You've seen me do it. I don't write on the road, I don't write on a laptop wherever I happen to be, you know? But when I write, that's all I do. The shitty thing is, is no one's gonna pay you to write until you break through. It's lame, you know, working a shitty job, scrabbling for rent and grants or whatever, or living with your parents until you're 30, but that's the way it has to be some times.

I realize I'm not the guy to be talking about that, I'm the great white success story, $500,000 advance at 20 years old and I just moved on from success to success. I was declared the North American Publishing Association Young Writer to Watch in 1990. I've had a book at the top of three bestseller lists at the same time.

But it's true. When there's nothing left to be loyal to, you fucking be loyal to you, man. You stick that shit out. Because no one will believe in you as much as you do.

Be careful when you get married. Admittedly, these are the words of a callous guy over 40 who has been divorced, but my words are still valid. I'm not here to tell you to get a pre-nup so she doesn't take you to the cleaners. If you make it you'll have lawyers to tell you that. I'm here to tell you to hitch your wagon to someone who gets it. Who gets that just because you succeeded doesn't mean you're ready to retire. That just because you're rich doesn't mean you've told all the stories you have to tell. That just because you have kids doesn't mean you don't have to be loyal to the angry, hungry, story-writing machine that lives inside you.
But the hardest truth I have to tell you, Jeff, is this. Consider the consequences of your actions. You want to be a man of letters, be a lit teacher. Be a literary agent. Be an editor. If you sign up to be the coal-fed word engine that propels an entire industry, you may not be happy.

Ask yourself if I'm happy, or if you'd be happy sitting where I am. I ask myself that all the time, and I'm still not entirely sure, you know? For that matter, what is happy? Happy was where I could have been fifteen years ago, one kid, another one on the way, millions of dollars in the bank, and that should have been it, right? But it wasn't. I don't know what more I wanted, but I wanted more.

Even if I'd have been strong enough to leave and never come back, if I'd have sold the house and moved away with my family to live off the successes of my youth, it wouldn't have been enough. Whoever bought this house would have woken up one night at two in the morning to find me sitting at this table with a bottle of booze and a laptop. Maybe I'm a cautionary tale or a rare example, Jeff, but I think I'm less rare than you might imagine. Just because I'm lucky enough to be the guy whose books are a compulsion tied to a location doesn't mean that I'm the only one.

The only old man of fiction who quit while he was ahead that I can think of is Tom Clancy. Maybe Rowling will stay silent now that she's as rich as God, but I doubt it. Think about it, how many novelists of 60 are multi-multi-bestsellers and could afford to quit whenever they wanted to. Grisham could have quit after five books and never worked again, but instead he keeps cranking out stuff that makes him happy that people don't even like that much. Critics and fans will have told you that Stephen King could have quit three different times and maybe been liked better than he would be today because he kept writing. There are people who don't forgive the poor bastard for not dying after he got ran over by a car, can you believe that shit? Lawrence Block, Stephen Cannell, Dean Koontz, even someone who only hit the jackpot a few years ago like Janet Evanovich, how much is enough?

And that's what I'm here to tell you, Jeff, as I sit here at my expensive house with my expensive bourbon and expensive cigar, is don't do it. It's not worth it. This job, if you can even call it that, has been an albatross around my neck since the day I signed that contract with Wally, the devil take his soul. Decisions, deadlines, editorial choices, photo shoots, compromises, always the fucking compromises. Maybe you really think it's necessary for your story to accurately and brutally portray a pedophilic relationship, but your editor, your agent and your publisher are all terrified of it. And maybe that will be your one way of trying to say enough is enough, this is my ejection seat, let me out, I don't want to play anymore.

Ah, Jesus, kid, I'm sorry. The job is amazing. Most of the time I love it. But when I'm out here, busting my ass for a public that just expects me to operate like a giant, annual literary jukebox, it gets kind of hard to deal with sometimes. I'm sorry. It's really not all that bad, it really isn't.

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