I've been writing novels since 1999 - seventeen years now, and I like to think I've gotten better. My first book was written in the shadow of an old relationship that faltered and in the brightness of a new relationship that seemed to be working out. Shawn's also been seventeen years now, so that's been kind of tidy.
I've been writing seriously for a long time. A little while ago, when I turned thirty and had a crisis of confidence, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn't ever going to write an "important" novel. Nothing that changed people in a big way. Not only have I found it very difficult to secure an agent or a publisher interested in my books, I've sort of resigned myself to the idea that the books I want to write are accessible, and fairly contemporary, and not about Big Themes. I'm never going to write 1984, for instance. I'm not going to write The Grapes of Wrath.
I came to that way of thinking at a time when I was freaking out about being 30 and not having published a great deal of my fiction. My nonfiction has done well. I've written a few monographs of Stephen King and I'm well-known in that world. I'm writing a bio/exegesis on one of my favorite bands' albums, and I hope that will be something, too. But I've written 22 novels and only one of them has been published, as an ebook. My short-fiction collection is available in paperback, but that hasn't really done gangbusters, either. None of this matters and all of this matters. I take my writing seriously, and not being published in the traditional way has been this huge burden I sometimes think about and sometimes don't. I want my name on the dustjacket of a hardcover book you can pick up at the supermarket, you know? Maybe all that's beside the point.
In 2009, following the completion of Roller Disco Saturday Night, I fell into a writer's block. When the thing you love doing the most is something suddenly shut off from you, you feel adrift. I'm sure a lot of it had to do with my impending fourth decade. I spent three years writing about another writer's work and life, editing I'm On Fire and Roller Disco, and attempting a couple very long novels that shit the bed (Tangerine and American Storm). Then, in 2013, something in me snapped and I sat down to write what I thought would be a novella called My Agent of Chaos. It turned out to be more than that - not only a full-bodied novel, but also my writing salvation. It was a serious book with something to say. I don't know if it was Important or not, but it was real and it was something I could be proud of.
And look, I don't know what Important means - to readers, to myself, to publishing houses and agents. I'm not sure. What I do know is that I followed up Chaos with a book called Panic Town, the fifth book in a mystery series featuring private eye Wayne Corbin - a man I've followed since that first, furtive year of novel-writing in 1999. Panic Town isn't really "Important" except how it's important to me. It allowed me to remember, in a way Chaos didn't, that writing was hard work, but it was also super fun. I wrote the book in a white heat and marveled that I'd finished in in three months. I'd blocked out nine.
I got to thinking about the books I'd liked so much in the past that I'd written - books the few readers I'd had seemed to like the best. Find the River, written in 2001 - my first big books with a big cast. The Legend of Jenny McCabe, in 2006 - a book from which I took minor characters from most of my previous books, made them major characters, and put them all in Minneapolis. That book was massive, nearly 300,000 words. Maybe You're Right, written right after, a book about sex and love and writing. Those were the ones I thought of as my "high points" of my literary work (though I'd argue that my fourth Wayne Corbin book, The Taste of Concrete On Your Tongue, might function that way, too).
My Agent of Chaos turned out to be good, and hard-won, but I don't know as if I'd put it on the top shelf of my work. Right after Panic Town, I decided to jump back into National Novel Writing Month and bang out what turned out to be Things Have Changed, a book that felt Important in my head but turned out not to be. It's pretty slight, despite the fact that it opens on a grisly suicide and features a character with possible multiple personalities. It worked, but barely.
Then I decided to write Eating Animals. A book that started out being about a cooking show competition and turned into a treatise on S&M and sin and evil and generational misdeeds. The longer I wrote, the more I realized I wanted to write my own East of Eden, and that I was succeeding at doing so. It's a nearly 200,000 word book that I managed to write in 4 months. I wrote one 5,000 word chunk in a single afternoon, fewer than 2 hours, just because it was too strong not to. That book made me believe I could write Important things. Stuff that mattered. I think Eating Animals might actually be Important. I don't know. It was important to me.
When I wrote Who We Are, What We'll Do, and What We Won't, I intended it to be a little slight. Of course, that didn't work out for me, either. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo, anticipating a similar experience to Things Had Changed. What I got was another My Agent of Chaos - almost among my best work, but I didn't stick the landing and it needs fixing. And I will fix it. It means more to me now than it did when I started.
What now? What next? I'm working on a nonfiction book about the band Blitzen Trapper right now, and I'm editing a book my father wrote. Then: what I anticipate to be a long, long book called American Lonely.
My three favorite novels of all time are It, by King; East of Eden, by Steinbeck; and The World According to Garp, by Irving. I've written my homages to the first two. I think I want to write my homage to Garp next. Not the story or even the style of writing, but the scope, the thrust, the intensity. I want to write something that, even if it doesn't turn out to be Important, will be something that Matters. I thought, when I was going through my writer's block, that I had not only ceased to write, but that I would never again write work that Matters. I proved myself wrong.
I'm a good writer. I'm a smart guy. And I have a feeling that, if I treat it right and don't prioritize speed and page count over story, American Lonely can be Important. That's how I want to start my forty-first year: doing something Important.
I'll let you know when I get there.
- On Importance