I correct a misnomer

by Devin

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda, due October 2 from St. Martin’s Press, is my second book. But all writers, and probably many readers, know that’s a misnomer: Chances are you’ve actually written several books, or at least book-length manuscripts, by the time you get one published. What goes in the record as your “first book” is, simply and more accurately, your first book that was good enough to convince someone to publish it.

In my case, something like seven and a half  books, or book-length manuscripts—let’s call them BLMs—preceded my first published one, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003). I offer descriptions of each, and a précis of what each taught me as a writer:

BLM 1: A biography of the Beatles, written circa 1979. (It was definitely before John Lennon’s murder.) It was not plagiarized by any means, but it was patterned exceedingly closely on a recently issued Marvel Comics version of the Beatles’ story. (A comic I lost years ago, then delightedly found again at the New Jersey Beatlefest of 2003.) I typed it up myself and pasted the sheets into a big book of blank pages purchased from a gift shoppe. I even ripped pictures from books and made a photo insert. Crafty little devil! My mother surely still has this somewhere, next to my grade-school clay ashtrays.

What it taught me: Stamina is important, and renewing one’s faith in a project can be difficult. I was more than keen on writing this at the start, and the first two or three chapters were thick with the febrile descriptions and fabricated facts (Liverpool had, I reckoned, a population of about 1,100 people) that poured from my little head. But I ran out of steam toward the end, and my ass dragged over the finish line: The last chapter, detailing the Beatles’ denouement, was little more than a page long. The whole didn’t even make it to 50 pages. But it was, I assert, a book—a long piece of prose with a beginning, middle, and end. It wound down in a funk, but I finished the damned thing.

BLM 2. A critical-historical study of rock and roll music in the 1960s, titled When Soft Voices Die (artsy). The first draft, finished in 1984, was not plagiarized by any means, but it was patterned exceedingly closely on Nik Cohn’s Rock from the Beginning. The second draft, done the next year, was much expanded and much more the product of my own tastes and perceptions as opposed to Mr. Cohn’s, but unfortunately just as useless to the world at large. A professor I knew read it, and encouraged me, unaccountably in retrospect, to send the manuscript to his agent in New York (a well-known agent, to whom, as I recall, James Ellroy’s American Tabloid is dedicated). The agent had an associate write a kindly note back, saying that the writing was good but that the book added no new insight or fact to the present picture. Which was undeniable.

What it taught me: Write your own damn book—don’t rewrite someone else’s.

BLM 3. A critical study of ten films, called Modes of Perception: The Director’s Art (heavy), written in 1985 as a senior project in high school. Let’s see if I can recall the films: Psycho, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Once Upon a Time in the West, Midnight Cowboy, The Twelve Chairs, Carnal Knowledge, American Graffiti, and I guess I can’t remember the other. Very auteurist, very Hollywood in orientation; highly influenced by the first edition of Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films, the only serious work of analytical film criticism I’d read at that point. The project was pass/fail; I passed and graduated. Whew.

What it taught me: Anyone who selects ten movies to write about, and four of those ten are directed by Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols, needs to see more movies.

BLM 4. A novel, written over the summer of 1985 (was I prolific back then or what?), called The Crossing, a Chandleresque mystery set for some lost reason in rural Georgia—a region I had never seen and still haven’t. Gratuitously violent, excruciatingly hardboiled; I stretched my powers of description and empathy to portray the phenomenon of a bullet pulverizing a human jaw. There were, I think, seven characters, counting the detective. Three or four of the others wound up dead. Leaving two suspects, only one of whom was smart enough to have done it. Mystery solved.

What it taught me: Novels aren’t that hard to write. Good novels, on the other hand …

BLM 5. A collection of short stories, polished off in 1987, called On the Ledge and Other Places. The title story, written in my eighth-grade English class, was about a little boy who murders another little boy in a rowboat, by smashing his head with an oar. Luckily, the teacher didn’t report me for having homicidal fantasies, as would happen today. Older stories were collected and newer ones written to be entered into a contest I’d come across in The North American Review. I didn’t win.

What it taught me: a) Work you did last week doesn’t always integrate smoothly with work you did five years ago, especially if five years ago you weren’t shaving yet. b) The short story isn’t really my thing.

BLM 6. A novel, finished in 1988, called Blind. I thought that was a good title, though it had no particular contextual meaning; didn’t know Talking Heads would record a song called “Blind” that very year and steal my thunder. Based loosely on my father’s experiences as a loan officer and repo man in the Midwest in the early 1960s, conflated with a recent case that had gotten much attention in Iowa: In 1983, Steven Hadley, the head teller at the John Deere Community Credit Union in Waterloo—and a professional acquaintance of my dad, who managed another credit union in the area—absconded with over $1 million. Abandoning his wife and children, he escaped by air, dressed in drag. Hadley was still at large when I started the novel; around the time I finished it, the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” was doing a segment on him. By chance, he was apprehended just days before the episode aired.

What it taught me: I can finish a longer novel. And a better novel. This was not a thin slice like the Georgia murder mystery; the stack had weight. I didn’t skimp on scenes, didn’t rush things along just to be done with them. I let rhythms develop and things play out. The story was uninteresting, the characters ambivalent to the point of despondency, the resolution thuddingly foreordained, but again, I’d finished it, and it was a lot better than my earlier attempt at the form.

BLM 7. A book of four longish stories, written in 1993 and 1994, called The Art of Imagination. This was offered as my master’s thesis in English at the City College of New York. While there, I’d had fiction workshops with three very different teachers, two of whom were lovely and encouraging, the other of whom was a bully, but all of whom taught me valuable lessons. These stories (which shared the theme of protagonists discovering hidden aspects of visible life, and following out in deliberate action the fancies of their imaginations) were better than any I’d written back in the ‘80s. That was partly because of these teachers, and partly because in the long interregnum between BLMs 6 and 7, I’d veered away from fiction and back toward criticism, mostly of movies. I’d written dozens of reviews for my college paper and then for the local metro paper, published a few essays in Film Quarterly, and crafted, purely for my own reference and enjoyment, a ton of super-brief movie critiques (not plagiarized by any means, but closely patterned on Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies).

What it taught me: Synthesis. Form and content, voice and thought, are not separate, they are the same. Synthesis.

What I needed to do to grow as a writer was to combine the critical analysis and aesthetic critique I seemed to have a knack for—the deconstruction and reassembly of artists and artworks into new imaginative shapes—with the vivid language and free metaphor that I took for granted made good fiction. Everything sprang from this. I discovered critics (D. H. Lawrence, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler) who’d made the same discovery decades before me. Where I’d never been a particular fan of Norman Mailer, I suddenly saw how great were his achievements. My writing got better, my thinking less regimented. I started getting published more regularly, and what I published began getting reprinted. I began to feel what I’d never really felt before—like I did have a voice, did have a unique mind attached to that voice.

BLM 7 ½. A novel, called—well, I won’t say, lest I go back to it someday. Written throughout 1995 and 1996, it was a) inspired by the O. J. Simpson murders, and b) about a circle of late-adolescent friends living in New York. It was overambitious and underplotted (think Big Serious Novel, early 1960s: Set This House on Fire, Another Country, An American Dream), and it stalled on me at the halfway point, which amounted to more than 300 pages.

What it taught me: In fact, it is very hard to write a good novel—a large, thematically coherent, holistic piece of involving, dramatic, shocking, moving narrative. There can be few harder tasks to set oneself in life than that.

It hurt, but I admitted the novel I’d put everything into for more than a year wasn’t working.  I drawered it, and probably wrote about one movie or another. Soon enough, having read and been disappointed by a couple of highly touted books on the Beatles, I began making notes on that long-cherished subject—the subject, in fact, of BLM 1—and a few years later I had, yes, my first published book.

But far from my first book.

Misnomer corrected, I hope?

(P.S. I persist in typing “misnomer” as “mishomer.” I haven’t seen a Simpsons episode in ages: Perhaps my subconscious is telling me I miss Homer?)