Nicknames. I’ve had a few of them over the years. You always remember your first, though.
I was twelve years old at the beginning of the 1989 school year. A seventh grader whose sole fashion statement was the nascent gel-hardened mullet I’d achieved by convincing the hairdresser that it was okay with my mom to let it “grow out a bit in the back.” My school was one of those permissive alternative institutions that housed students from 7-12th grade. This was the eighties and up until the year before I arrived students were still allowed to smoke inside the vestibule of the rear doorway. Alaskan winters are harsh and this was more of a humanitarian concession than a permissive one. The school was founded by hippie libertarians and it was still close enough to the seventies that nobody got their knickers twisted over that kind of thing.
During the first week of school I was walking through the student lounge; I was wearing a Hobie Surf shirt and my protomullet was well shellacked, glistening, I’m sure, in the fluorescence of the overhead lights. “Hey,” a girl said from one of the lounge sofas. She was not just any girl, but a 12th grade girl with a leather jacket and long black rock n’ roll hair and everybody called her Animal. “C’mere,” she said. I obediently shuffled over. Surfer shirt and pegged stonewash jeans. Keds. Sweet moulet. “You like Metallica?” She asked with her eyebrow arched. I had no idea who they were but it was clear that the stakes were high so I nodded in response that sure, I liked them. I quickly followed up, mentioning that I also really liked Guns n’ Roses and that I was growing my hair out to be more like, y’know, Axl. There were some eyebrow conversations between her and her cool friends: a girl with very tall bangs, a guy who had a forearm tattoo of a dragon (in high school, in the eighties), and a guy with Robert Smith hair, tights, and pointy shoes. They concluded that I could hang out with them.
I was in. I hung out before school, after school, lunch times. I even taught myself to smoke—Camel unfiltered for extra cool-guy points. By then the smoking area had moved all the way across the street. My favorite trick was to impress the older kids when I bummed one of their smokes by ripping the butt off with my teeth. Over the next few months I learned about Metallica, The Cure, The Violent Femmes, Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division. I learned about the Church of the Subgenius and JR “Bob” Dobbs. I learned about Discordians. I went to a real live punk show. It was a fruitful kickoff to my adolescence.
One afternoon at the smoking area a senior with a beard like a thirty year old man asked me, “Hey, do you have a nickname?” I was shocked. No. I didn’t have a nickname. I hadn’t even considered the possibilities. “Well,” he continued, exhaling a cloud of smoke, “You should pick one.”
My cheeks flushed. This was a ton of responsibility. I wracked my brain for something awesome, something that conveyed how goddamned metal I was. Something even half as rad as “Animal.” After a few pensive drags on my (really cool) unfiltered cigarette I had it: “Ozone.” The older kid nodded approval and said no more.
I don’t think anybody ever actually called me Ozone, no matter how many of my angsty stream of consciousness poems I signed that way. No matter how many tags I left on suburban streets, writing it super cool by crossing the O like a big zero and underlining the word. Ozone just never stuck.
The spanner in the works, you see, was Animal. We were hanging out in the lounge during lunchtime. She was playing a furious game of Egyptian Rat Screw with her best friend. Animal lost the game and took out her frustration by grabbing me around the middle and tickling me until just before I puked. Being a weedy twelve year old boy, I was an easy target for stray frustrations. I was also extremely ticklish. Within a fraction of a second I turned bright molten gasping-for-air red. To make matters worse, I was wearing a fluorescent oversized “Hot Tuna” shirt that amplified the effect considerably.
Animal’s best friend (whose name has been lost down the memory hole) looked at me and said flatly: “Holy shit, check him out. He’s pink. Like, all over. Even the shirt.” A slow snicker started that soon graduated to choking fits of laughter. Between guffaws she managed to say the word: “Pinky.” The shot had been fired. Animal turned to me with wild eyes and began shouting “Pinky! Pinky! Pinky!” Which, of course, became my nickname for the next four or so years.
And that was how I learned that you don’t get to pick your own nickname.
Amongst many other whimsical ideas I’ve had this year:
- Collect a photo essay of handpainted signs
- Write daily blog updates
- Interview locals, in the process teaching myself the art of the interview
- Another photo essay, this one based on poor translations and funny asian signs. In hindsight, this was probably better left undone
- Write a travel blog. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Wow. I’ve been on the road for a very long time. At this point, sitting in a little cafe in Hanoi, it’s been about eight months since Laura and I took off out of New York in September. I’ve spent most of my writing time working on new fiction, or packaging up old fiction into a little collection of short stories that you should definitely buy. I’m also jump-up-and-down excited about the novel I started working on in Buenos Aires and am about halfway through a first draft. In addition, I’ve written six short stories in that time, many of which are bouncing around the rejectosphere of literary magazines whose attention I pretend not to crave.
That sure seems productive, right? Ha. Ha. Ha. Sigh. Counting December, it’s taken six and a half months to produce an unfinished manuscript and several shorts, maybe sixty thousand words in all. If I could have managed even a very un Stephen King like output of five hundred words per day, I’d have written nearly a hundred thousand words by now.
Instead, I spent six weeks working full time freelance to refill travel coffers. Once those were full, our lovely lull in Thailand was at an end and it was time to get back on the road again. Laura and I spent two months moving every two to four days through the Indian subcontinent. It was a grueling pace, through a challenging country, not to mention that at one point I ended up bedridden for a week with a belly full of e. coli. So yeah, output suffered.
I did get a lot of something else, though. Experience. Sights, sounds, smells (probably too many smells). India is a vast, strange, and often horrible place that is impossible to visit without being affected. Experience is different than inspiration, it’s not a crutch to lean on and wait for, it is the raw material that a writer synthesizes into a story.
We are going to land in Chiang Mai soon. I will likely have another freelance contract, but in the meantime I will also have opportunity to write full time again. I’m excited about the next two to three months. And hey, if you join my newsletter you might even get a sneak peek at some of those short stories, since I won’t be publishing much (if any) new work on my blog. If you’re interested in that novel that I’ve been working on, you are welcome to read a sample chapter. It’s an adventure story, which is fitting.
One of the great joys of reading is being transported to faraway lands. Incidentally, that’s also one of the great joys of travel. When asked, many travelers will tell you that they prefer the “authentic” experience to packaged tours or attractions—the greatest thrill of travel is to catch a glimpse of a faraway land through a local’s eyes. Reading a book set in the place you are visiting is one of the best ways to achieve that.
In 2006 I visited an old friend in India. I’d never been. Didn’t know the first thing. I knew there would be a lot of down time, both on the plane from Sydney and on busses, traveling from town to town while I was there. I packed several books, of course. One of them was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.
The story is set in India and revolves around a group of children born on the eve of the Partition. It’s a brilliant story and deservedly won a Pulitzer when it was published in 1981. Safe to say that it would have been a joy to read at any time. However, it was an altogether different experience reading it while sitting on a beach in Mahabalipuram, at a restaurant in Pondicherry, on a deck in Mysore.
There is a passage where a Christian priest is talking to a young Hindu boy and the boy asks what color Jesus was. The priest says something to the effect of, “Blue, of course. Like Krishna.” A great moment. But I was in Pondicherry at the time and had just seen some very old Christian churches with bejeweled friezes of Mary—and in one of them her skin was blue. A detail that would have been fascinating, but was also made delightful by having recently read that passage.
Now I try to read books that are set in, or by authors native to, the places I’m traveling. When I remember, at least. And it doesn’t always work out. As it happens, I don’t really care for Mario Vargas Llosa, so I didn’t pull the trick off in Peru. But reading Oscar Wao in the Dominican Republic was amazing.
For the last month, I’ve been in Buenos Aires. A week or so ago I was absentmindedly walking through Palermo Soho. I had just burned through my reading backlog and was thinking about what I should pick up next when I looked up to see that I was on Jorge Luis Borges Street.
Blaise Cendrars 1887–1961
“ARE YOU THE HERO?” I feel like every author must get this one from time to time. Some more than others, of course. The slew of novels—both good and totally fucking horrid—based on a down and out writer who happens to be kinda nebbishy, yet sexually irresistible. They are legion.
But even when you’re not writing jerk-off wish fulfillment porn, the question still pops up. The first book I wrote did, in fact, center on a guy that was probably just a bit too much like me on the surface. It was the first full-length thing I ever wrote and that conceit is certainly among its plentiful flaws. At least he wasn’t a writer.
So okay, that guy with the tattoos and the smirk was me. But you know what? So was the one-legged porn actress, and the sociopathic finance guy, and the loan shark. Everybody in that story was me. I don’t think it’s something that could be avoided. Or at least I don’t think it’s something that should be avoided, because the other option is far worse.
If I’m writing about a neurotic pre-teen, or an agoraphobic shut-in, or a bloodthirsty axe-maniac, it doesn’t matter. Those characters are still going to carry some part of me. They are going to appear as a result of me putting myself into their position as much as I possibly can.
As far as I’m concerned, writing resembles method acting quite a bit in that regard. The believability of your characters has a lot to do with how much you can empathize with them. Otherwise, you’re left with cardboard cutouts, props for the protagonist.
To heavily paraphrase a Blaise Cendrars interview that I cannot seem to find online:
“All anybody can write about is man. In fiction there is only one man and he is the author. So that’s what I write about.”
Pronouns aside (this was the 50s), it’s a valid point. Also note that Blaise Cendrars once wrote a book, Moravagine, whose title translates to “Death Vaginas” and whose protagonist is a homicidal anarchist dwarf.
The protagonist of the serial novel that I’m planning out right now is a socially awkward girl. And she’s me, too.
So yeah, the hero is me. So is the villain. Hell, the fucking ROCKS are me. It’s my story.
There’s this notion that labelling something with a genre somehow cheapens it, however so much stuff that’s “literary” is sort of fantastical (or speculative or, well, pick one). I mean, what’s 100 Years of Solitude, if not a kind of fantasy? The weirder thing, really, is that the aversion to labeling something like Vampires in the Lemon Grove as fantasy serves to keep a lot of readers away who would be otherwise be very interested in the story.
From The Guardian.
It’s always a problem when one of literature’s big beasts wanders off the reservation into the badlands of genre. The latest to blunder through the electric barriers erected around the safe zone is two-time Booker prize nominee David Mitchell, whose new book Slade House is undeniably a haunted house story. Or, as the Chicago Tribune put it, his “take on a classic ghost story”. As if the thousands of genre ghost stories written every year by horror writers weren’t also one individual’s take on that classic form.
This right here, though:
Writing a werewolf novel because you think it will sell, then patronising people who love werewolf novels, isn’t a smart marketing strategy – but it’s amazing how many smart writers are doing just this.
The kid that’s interested in fantasy or science fiction that only haunts those parts of the book store misses a lot of really great stuff. But those sections are full of hacks, right? Ugh. Genre shouldn’t be short for “this one plot and these same characters with different names”. I mean, it’s not like the literature section isn’t full of books about men’s important boners.
Genre should be a tool for discovery, not a gatekeeping device. Calling House of Leaves literature isn’t going to do me any favors if I want to browse through books that are meant to leave me unsettled. This, of course, goes back to Boing Boing’s post the other day about how genres should be more like tags and less like hierarchical categories.
From Boing Boing
Ultimately, a hardline This-or-That, pigeonholing system of defining genre and works is far more trouble than it’s worth, and can do a great disservice to works that defy easy categorization. Most traditional systems in the publishing industry fit into the pigeonholing system. BISAC Codes (basically trade publishing’s official genre system) are fairly granular, but totally fail to keep up with the proliferation of sub-genres, and the genre categorization systems of all of the major ebook retailers fall victim to the same This-or-That approach.
Oh man, so much this. That said, this approach would be fine for online markets, but how would it work in a physical bookstore? The problem would still be there.
Also, for those of you who still haven’t signed up for my mailing list, I frequently send out sneak peeks and link to awesome short stories and authors that you should be reading. So yeah, you should sign up.
During June of 2006 I was visiting an old friend of mine in India. He was a former teacher and I tracked him down online a year before. Tim had left the Anchorage school district under a cloud of controversy. Rather than push the boulder back uphill, he decided to pack everything and move to India, with a few years’ detour through southeast Asia.
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