January 21, 2005

The Opportunist


I want to talk about something that was hinted at in a recent comment--how I should be happy to have a published novel and not lament so much that I don’t have a career. That’s not what the comment said at all, but that’s what it got me thinking about. I’ve probably talked about this before. I get the feeling that I repeat myself sometimes, I mean whole sentences, verbatim--but what can I do, these thoughts are core to my every day. My answer is: no, having a published novel is not entirely enough.

I wrote the novel that’s been published when I was twenty years old. I wrote the first draft--200 pages--in an insane month in a dirty room in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. My agent at the time, who was trying to sell an earlier novel about being a slacker in Minneapolis, MN, didn’t know what to make of it. She sent it out reluctantly. "I do not see a market for a book that is slight and lacking in any meaningful message," said one editor. Three years later I added forty pages to it and decided to try and get it published myself. Soft Skull Press decided to take it on. At that time they were publishing books at Kinko’s. Mine was their first full-color, professionally bound book.

It was a great experience getting it published--vindicating, made me feel like a writer, which is a great feeling. I went on a book tour, there was a book release party, I had a girlfriend, I felt good. Soft Skull didn’t have any distribution at that time so the book kind of stayed in place. It was great to have a book to hand out to people, and it was an impetus for writing another book, but it’s not like it launched me anywhere other than my own mind. I broke up with that girlfriend--actually she broke up with me, not because we didn’t like each other, but for other sort-of-dramatic reasons. So I was a single, self-loathing 24-year-old. I started writing another novel in this atmosphere which would last me three years.

All in all, it was a very fucked up experience writing the next book: it owned me. I thought that was proof that I was writing something profound, important, but maybe it was a learning experience--never write like that again. Never drown yourself in a book. I tried to find an agent for the book, got rejected, found one who would take it on, and then the book was rejected by many publishers, even small independent publishers. I can hear you thinking, Maybe it sucks. It doesn’t suck. It needs some help, but it doesn’t suck. Not getting that book published nearly drained me of my will to write. What’s the fucking point to suffer like that and have nothing come of it? Rejection letters aren’t just about vanity. I know there is much worse suffering, but these problems are real to me. I need to keep writing, keep submitting, same old story.

In the past, editors would take on writers who showed promise. They took on careers. Not today. If you’re not an instant success, or can’t promise it, you’re nothing. All right, moving on. Cut to: Wilmington, NC. I start another novel while my wife is pregnant. I try to write something that has more chance of selling. I can’t write something completely mainstream because nothing will come out of me, but this book is less of a long character piece. It’s called "North of Sunset," and it’s about Hollywood--vanity plates are a big part of it, but I don’t want to get into the plot. It’s sort of like Tom Wolfe except more fucked-up and less uptight. I think this license plate should be the cover. Everybody who reads the book loves it, they say it’s a page-turner. Except for the people who work in publishing. Agents say it’s hard to sell a Hollywood novel. I say, Hollywood is the capital of America, and America is the capital of the world, so this shouldn’t be an issue. The novel’s about more than the movie business. But agents reject it. I go with my original agent who says he’ll try to sell it aggressively.

The book gets rejected twenty or so places. Then it’s done. Keep in mind that I am a new father, an unemployed new father. I have worked very hard on the novels I have written and I have little to show for it. I have had little morsels that have kept me afloat until the next piece of good news. Of course, some people are dying to get an agent, etc. but I am past that. I’ve got a kid to support, I have written five novels, I am working on my sixth, I am a writer who writes. I am sorry to bore you with my self-pitying and un-unique tale, if you've made it this far. Given the subject of the last post, it may seem like I’m whoring out my depression. Really I just have to vent this shit every once in a while.

So, to conclude…this blog has been enormously important to me. To have smart people actually respond positively to what I’ve written, in real time, is a great experience. Thank you. It’s progress.


Shirley Shave said...

Nice entry. I feel for you.

Henry Baum said...

Thanks. That means a lot coming from you.

Spiral Stairs said...

I think it may have been a flippant comment of mine that you're talking about. (Or, it may have been someone else's comment and this is my damn megalomania acting up again.) Anyway, let me add a couple thoughts to your very interesting post.

Here are a few things that are indisputably true about me: (1) I have a career; (2) I do not have a published novel; (3) My career has absolutely nothing to do with publishing a novel; (4) My career, in fact, involves sitting at a desk and generating numbered lists like this; (5) I am ambivalent, at best, about my career; and (6) I wish I had a published novel.

Pour those ingredients into a pot, stir in some self-pity, and here's what comes out: A man who just knows -- KNOWS! -- that there are a bunch of good, artistic ideas incubating in his head that one day -- ONE DAY! -- he will get down on paper in publishable form. On that day -- THAT DAY! -- he will cease being a desk jockey and commence being a writer, and then he can bathe and shave as he sees fit, and he can listen to loud music during the day, and lo, life becomes grand! But, the time is never just quite right to get down to business. The man's evening is just a bit too short. The man's weekend is just a bit too busy. So the man trudges along, holding out hope that events external to him will intervene to cause a change. So far, no good. Those who have overcome these obstacles and have gotten down to the serious business of writing strike this man as heroic figures.

The grass is always greener, I know. But please try to remember that your grass is, in fact, green. You say you don't have a career. It seems to me that you do have a career: You're a writer. You are not happy with the status of your career, and that's fine. I don't know enough about your life to say whether I want it. But there is greenness in your grass that I wish I had on my side of the fence.

Henry Baum said...

Thanks a whole lot, Spiral. I thought this post might be taken as vain self-importance and not be worth reading. I was referring to your comment--so you’re right to be a megalomaniac. Since having a kid, these problems have become more stark for me. It’s not just my artistic ego at stake anymore, but my family. We have daily, incessant money troubles that I don’t write about here very often. Yes, my grass is green, and I am not all about pessimism. My hope and my faith in what I can possibly accomplish is what keeps me going. I am proud of what I’ve done and what I can do. But money. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t mind getting a $100,000 book deal and never selling a book, just to have a reprieve from this constant worry. That may sound terrible, but that’s where I’m at.

You are a fucking great writer and a great mind. I am glad to have met you through this site. One day--ONE DAY--you’ll write that novel.

Henry Baum said...

That sounds stupid. Who wouldn’t want to have a $100,000 book deal? I was thinking about artistic integrity and the desire to reach people through what I’ve written. Those concepts mattered more to me when I could afford it. I am not talking about selling out. I wish I could write something that would sell easily but I can’t. I just want some kind of compensation for the hours of work I’ve put in. If not $100,000, then something...Though publishing a book for no money at all would at least pay my pride.

Spiral Stairs said...

I really appreciate your kind words. Check back in 20 years to see if I'm still pushing paper. I'll be checking for the Penguin editions of H. Baum's oeuvre.

You know, it sounds too simple to say it this way, but everyone wants the same things out of their careers: money and fulfillment. Not too many get a satisfactory amount of both. We spend our professional lives on a teeter-totter, trying to get the two sides to balance equally on the fulcrum. Some people eventually give up on having it all, and let the teeter-totter fall completely to one side -- usually on the money side, because that's the side that's easiest to sit on. A lot of people, however, struggle with the teeter-totter forever. I'm one of them. You may be too.

Spiral Stairs said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Spiral Stairs said...

Double-frickin'-post. Sorry. Blogger has been abusing me today.

Sabrina_C said...

dear henry,

i like to make everything into a letter so you are just going to have to deal with the fact that i addressed you as dear--i know, it even makes me ill, but whatcha gonna do? i think for this exact reason it is important to have blogging. for all of the talented writers that are working their ass off and see little coming out of it. every couple of months i swear i am going to quit and take up partying full time, or maybe go to law school. but i don't, and maybe it would be better if everyone gave up and i got a better chance, but really, where would i be without competition. this is turning into more than i expected it to. i suppose, the bottom line is here--we have an audience and we can defy what publishers and agents tell us about the readability of our material. it's like, "hey fuckheads--people read the shit i write. i dunno about you, but all the goddamn hits i get are proof of this." then maybe we could murder the whole lot of them (the publishers not the readers), roast them over an open flame and feast on their fiery haunches.



Henry Baum said...

For that fine comment, I "promoted" you to the Writers list.

Joseph K said...

I find your posts, regardless of topic, to be layered, deep and thoughtful. Keep on keeping on. For what it is worth, I am reading and want to read more.

P.S. I second what you say about Spiral Stairs. I am the qualitative anchor on our joint blog, but I am shameless and cannot help myself with the continued posts.

tequilita said...

i hate to hear that you are down henry. i wish i had something to say that would turn it all around. i'm glad you are so open, and i'm even gladder that i stumbled across your blog. all i can do is talk about what a genuinely good, and abysmally talented guy i think you are. i hope good things come to you and yours and i hope you keep hoping. it feeds us, this hunger of yours.

all of the people here make me laugh and think, dry witted wise asses. i'm not worthy.

darling maggot said...

you know who doesn't want a fucking $100,000 book deal? thomas harris.

anyway, having a blog means being able to say what the fuck you want without apologizing. i feel your pain and i empathize with your situation. too bad i'm not any better off, or i'd have sage advice for you to follow.

have you read stephen king's book, "on writing: memoirs of the craft"?

Billy said...

you're welcome. i feel the same way when people comment on my blog. i got a second book of poems self published and am just gonna sell it on the streets like a hustler.

unsure. said...

i have a new blog. i am back online permanently. a certian person pushed me over the edge today. the first entry is to him. he made me come back here. i have unfinnished business. i have not yet thanked you, for caring like you did. & i will.


Fence said...

You should be happy to have a published novel. But that doesn't mean you can't lament the fact that you aren't where you want to be in life.

I could offer meaningless advice, but I won't. The comments people have already left have already said anything I might say, and far better.

You never know, you might win the lotto (that's the thought that often cheers me up)

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