Introductory Essay (2003)
House is republishing Bombardiers, and asked me to write an introduction.
Here it is.
heres my agenda for this introduction:
Basque fishing cooperatives
What writers do to get unstuck, i.e. to
beat writers block
My moms story (abbreviated)
What happens when you stick yourself in a closet
for four months, forcing yourself to listen repeatedly to R.E.M.s
Its the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
The Great Man Theory of History
My night with Playboy Playmate Danelle Folta,
Miss April 1995
Why Londoners dont really love to vacation in
should I start?
youve actually had a book published, during all those years you starve
for your art, you cling to certain fantasies to help you survive. The most
common of these fantasies also happens to be the most laughable: that when
you finally sell your book to a publishing house, all your troubles are
over. Your book will merit superlative reviews, everyone will rush to
bookstores, and a golden hue will thereafter grace your life. The kernel
of this fantasy is the fallacy that selling your book to a publisher is
the narrowest bottleneck you will ever have to squeeze through.
editors job is to disabuse you of this fantasy. Of course, there is a
grace period, where he calls you and dispenses the sort of things you
really want to hear, that youve written something fantastic, et cetera.
But then he invites you to lunch. He will escort you to one of the
pleasant local eateries, a white-tablecloth kind of place you know
that dating advice about always break up in a public place, so she cant
throw a fit? Same goes for teaching a writer about the reality of book
publishing. You sit there, trapped, as your fantasy is disassembled. There
are over 60,000 books published every year. How is yours ever going to
rise above the din? Your editor will confess that its even hard for him
to get other staffers at the publishing house to read your book. It
doesnt matter how great the manuscript is. Novels come and go like
tramps in the night at a fleabag hotel. Nobody cares. Nobody reads
anymore. The only two ways to avoid this fate are: 1. be very, very lucky,
or 2. make something happen that gets noticed.
you dont internalize this message (most dont), the editor will
ignore your phone calls in order to teach you, the hard way, that
publishing really is merciless and unjust. He is giving you a taste of
what it will be like when your novel is ignored by everyone but your
parents and their friends. That resounding, emphatic silence.
didnt happen to me, because I got the message. I have a great editor, a
man I believe is among the greatest editors in the industry, and he is
particularly skilled at convincing me that my job is just beginning at the
words, The End. My job is to help him make something happen.
lunch, I went back to the Warwick Hotel on 57th and sulked for
three days. I had planned to carouse Manhattan with friends and celebrate
my long-dreamed status as Author, but I called them all and cancelled.
When I was done sulking at the Warwick, I returned to San Francisco and
sulked for another month.
felt helpless. What could I possibly do to spark heat?
I became angry. I wanted revenge upon the crushing forces of capitalism
that were going to silence my book. And in my hot anger, I discovered a
willingness to attempt something outrageous. You know the feeling
theres some things youll only do or say when youre really mad.
was going to satirize the book business. I was going to show the world
that publishing had sold out.
editor and I planned an initial public offering party. We wrote a
prospectus offering shares in my book. I wrangled two floor-traders from
the futures exchange to tend the trading pit we erected in the back room
of Harrys Bar & Grill, one of Wall Streets favorite stomping
grounds. We invited everyone we knew.
Folta, the current reigning playboy centerfold playmate, flew in from
Chicago to be at the party to surprise us.
didnt know her. Nor did my editor. She was there because a camera crew
from Entertaiment Tonight was there, and she wanted exposure on
television. The camera crew from ET was there because they didnt want
to be scooped by the camera team from CNN, which was also there. CNN was
there because CNBC was there; CNBC was there because NY1 was there. NY1
was there because theyll go anywhere.
Cavett was also there! So was Jack Kemp, the politician who had run for
President! So was Candace Bushnell, writing her Sex & The City column.
And Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation. I didnt know any
of these people! They were there because my crazy little stunt had turned
into a happening. And we were all wedged into the trading pit, buying and
selling shares in my book from the two futures traders in their green
jackets barking prices in their thick Staten Island accents. Nobody knew
whether to buy or sell, but we all knew to be loud and make weird auction
gestures with our hands. The floor was covered in trading tickets.
Confused speculators wandered out of the pit, unsure whether they had just
made a killing or lost a bundle. Greedy spectators wandered in, wanting a
piece of the action. A box of Playboys got opened and torn centerfolds of
Danelle Folta were flying around, folded into paper airplanes. The camera
crews recorded all of it, unsure whether it was real or a joke, but I knew
that didnt matter it would be good TV. They would have to
use their footage. It was just too darn crazy not to show.
A few publishing people came to
the party too. They were the most confused of all. This was unlike any
book launch theyve ever seen. I provided them with that rarest of
currencies good water-cooler material. The magazines picked it up. My
novel wasnt silenced. It didnt have anyone rushing to the bookstore,
but I made it through the next bottleneck. I was still in the game.
suppose the moral of the story is, when your fantasies are being crushed
by the forces of capitalism, get mad. Stick your finger up and flip them
the bird. Make fun of your boss when shes not around. Be
do you do when youre stuck, when you feel helpless, when you think you
cant go on?
get stuck repeatedly. Theres the big kind of stuck, writers block,
and then theres the insidious petit mal stuck, three or four
times a day, when theyre unable to find the next words. The big stuck
happens for the same reasons it happens to people at any job theyre
not letting their whole personality out. Theyve trapped themselves in a
voice or a style that is too narrow, too confining, and one day the tap
dries up. The petit mal, on the other hand, isnt a
symptom of a problem. Its completely normal and endemic to all writing.
What do I possibly say next?
In writing school, youre taught
to get unstuck by focusing on the language, the lyricism of the line. Let
the beauty of the sentence unfold. If it doesnt work, get into the mind
of the character. If you were that character, and that last scene just
happened to you, what would you do next?
Before I began writing Bombardiers,
I was suffering from both kinds of stuck. My writing seemed to be
going nowhere. I was forcing it, but still producing blah work out of
sheer habit. My words fell onto the page like dribbling from a slowly
leaking faucet. Then I met the writer William Kittredge. He wrote stories
and essays; he argued that most fiction those days lacked interesting
ideas. He suggested that writing needed to get grounded in our politics.
Not Democrat-Republican politics, but really just whatever was going on in
the world that we were angry about. Get mad, he warned, or watch your
beloved art form drift into irrelevance.
I began summoning anger while
writing. I penned a couple essays. I felt loose for the first time in
years, freed by my anger to attempt styles of writing that customary
decorum marked taboo. I took chances. The angrier I got, the crisper and
livelier my prose. I broke rules for the sake of breaking them. In the
late 1980s and early 1990s, writers loved 3-line breaks and hated adverbs.
Adverbs were gauche; adverbs strained the delicate literary ear. An
adverb is only a coverup for a poorly chosen verb, was the sort of
thing teachers taught writing students. By the mid-nineties, there was
blatant Adverb Discrimination throughout literary fiction. It was socially
acceptable to piss upon writers who had employed them. Instead, literary
fiction had fallen in love with white space, sort of soft-landing chapter
breaks, quiet pauses. They no longer needed to architect transitions scene
to scene just insert a break. Hit the return button on the
typewriter not just once, but twice! There was the 1-line break, the
2-line break, and the 3-line break. Trashy genre novels didnt use these
breaks. They were very upper crust. Story collections were chock full of
breaks, each one winking at the reader Im deep and thoughtful, sleep
with me. Oh, the pretension!
When I began Bombardiers, I
sought my revenge. I piled on the adverbs, and I refused to lean on the
crutch of white space. It took me awhile to get started though. I sat
staring into space for a couple weeks, trying to get angry. But the
weather was too nice to get angry, and outside my window these flowers
were budding that looked like pink flamingos. Finally, I had an
inspiration. Write in the closet! There was a small supply closet in my
home office. It measured 30 inches deep and 40 inches wide. I set a
folding chair in there, sideways, and set my Mac on a stool. It did not
look like there was room for a human being in there as well, but I climbed
in and shut the door. (This is a true story). I was cramped and
suffocating and ornery, and there was no place for my anger to vent but
into the keyboard.
I couldnt quite start typing. I needed some music. There was just
enough room in the closet for a small disc player to sit under my folding
chair. For two days I played a variety of CDs, but no words came. I tried
the radio. Late on the third day, I stumbled onto a radio station that was
going out of business. The radio station that would take its place
wouldnt begin programming for three days. In the interim, they played
R.E.M.s Its the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel
Fine). They played this single song repeatedly, 24 hours a day.
that did it. With that song clanging in my ears, Bombardiers poured
out of me. After three days, I went to my housemates CD collection,
stole his R.E.M. Document, and hit the Repeat Song button. I
played that song (and only that song) for the next four months, until the
book was done. Thats pretty quick for a writer. (I had a full-time job
at the time). My secret was the closet, the R.E.M., and my anger. My petit
mals were very brief. Whenever I got stuck and didnt know what to
say, I thought about what happened to my mom.
mom had been a secretary/receptionist at a variety of places, trying to
raise her three growing boys. When I was in ninth grade, she was hired
away from a framing shop by a stockbroker, to be his assistant. He
promised that after a years training, she could graduate to being a
full broker. He would split off some of his clients as hers. She studied
hard for the Series 7 exam and passed it easily. When the year was up, he
came in one morning, threw a phone book on her desk and told her to start
cold-calling. He gave her none of his clients. (This was during the
terrible bear market of the late 1970s.) In addition, her salary would be
reduced 10% a month, starting now. Shed have to survive on commissions.
What about the clients you promised? Welcome to Wall Street! My mom
couldnt survive a 10% cut, let alone the 20% cut looming in just four
weeks, and so on. She could barely afford to feed and clothe her three
boys as it was. Shed always teased us, Youre going to eat me out
of house and home! We finally had. She sold the house and moved in with
her boyfriend. She gave us a choice: live with her or with our father. He
appeared to have the money to provide for us; she needed a chance to make
a go as a stockbroker. We went to live with Dad. (None of knew yet that
his company was bankrupt and his wealth was an illusion).
Next thing I knew, Mom
wasnt working at the stock brokerage any more. Did Wall Street cheat
her out of her house and three boys? More like they tipped a domino,
needlessly. Mom corrects me when I tell this story she says she was
already going to sell the house and move in with her boyfriend but I
stand by my basic thesis: she never really had a fair chance. She
was my revenge. My moms story cant be seen in the novel at all.
But its in there, between sentences. So is the way Marcia Reynolds was
fired (we used to work together). So is the way Nina Schuyler was treated
by the investment bankers she worked for. Their stories were my anger, my
fire, whenever I got stuck.
having a petit mal right now, by the way. I want to move on to the
next topic on the agenda, The Great Man Theory of History, but Im
unsure how to transition without dropping in a 2-line break. Okay,
heres the connection between what Ive said so far and what Im
about to say: things that made me mad / rules I wanted to break /
literary conventions I wanted to destroy.
books exploded during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Particularly
narrative non-fiction. For the first time, readers were given a
fly-on-the-walls view of what it was like to be a Captain of Industry. Vanity
Fair and The New Yorker devoted story after story to these
titans, prescient men who built empires by buying up companies. Wed
shifted from an industrial economy to an information economy, and
geo-economics had replaced geopolitics as the driving force changing the
world. The new kind of war was a trade war, measured not in land but in
trade deficits and debt payments. The Cold War ended when the Russian
economy finally imploded. It was becoming clear to everyone that business
leaders had replaced politicians as the guys really in charge. Fawning
profiles were penned, articulating how these supermen ruled the markets.
thought the writers were giving these bastards way too much credit. Its
an old argument: do men make history, or does history make the man? Before
World War II, almost all history was written from the point of view of
generals and presidents. After World War II, the G.I. bill was passed,
providing soldiers college tuition to avoid having the labor markets
flooded with infantrymen looking for jobs. Men of every imaginable
ethnic/lower class background went to college for the first time. What
they read in their history books had absolutely no relation to their
heritage or their point of view. As they went on to become graduate
students, a new version of history was written, from the point of view of
the footsoldier. The greatest novels of all time are reports from the
trenches. Generals are portrayed as buffoons, clueless about the human
cost of their decisions.
the merger spree of the eighties and nineties, the glorified titans
floated bonds to finance their hostile acquisitions. I was on the other
end of their decisions, trying to sell their bonds. It was a joke. We knew
most of these bonds were time bombs going to ruin the integrity of the
financial system. Our customers didnt want to swallow these lies. Yet,
on orders, we rammed them down their throat. The titans enjoyed their
moment of fame, and the financial markets have been paying the price ever
since. Scandal after scandal has surfaced as those time bombs explode.
Those ass-kissing profiles in glossy magazines bore no relation to what I
had witnessed from the trenches of this economic superpower.
use fantasies in order to survive. Investors need the fantasy that there
are Men in Control, that someone is at the helm of the markets. We need
the world to make sense; we need there to be cause and effect. Its
simply too threatening to admit that its all random, that nobody is in
control, that nobody knows where were headed. Even I refuse to admit
this. I prefer to believe that the masses are in control, yet we cede the
credit to an individual because it makes a more-consumable story if you
can put a Face on it. We need heroes. I need my faith in the masses.
studied economics in college. Money supply, indifference curves, that sort
of thing. A professor named Masahiko Aoki taught me all about the Japanese
economic system, which was fairly different than ours. I went on to study
how history and culture had shaped capitalism elsewhere. I studied
Yugoslavian worker-controlled firms, Israeli kibbutzes, lumbermill
cooperatives in Oregon, and Basque fishing villages. These economic models
appealed to me, because in each case the individuals were able to put
communal interest over self-interest. I was collecting firewood for my
fantasy that capitalism would not crush all culture as we know it.
Capitalism could be flavored by local culture and custom, like
chive-infused olive oil. I wanted to believe that the worlds great
diversity of people and animals and languages and family styles would
survive. I wrote some well-received papers, and Masa Aoki offered me a
scholarship to pursue my Ph.D.
turned him down. I was lying to myself. The preponderance of the evidence
allowed only one conclusion: that over the course of my lifetime, I would
watch the worlds diversity disappear. I would be a witness, and there
was probably very little I could do about it, except get mad.
Bombardiers, my anger turned into a madness.
When the book was published, I
tried to tell everyone that it wasnt just a novel about a couple of
bond salesmen. It was about my mom and about the joy of adverbs and a
warning that our heroes, those Captains of Industry, were turning Planet
Earth into a supermall. But the crushing bottleneck of publishing
doesnt allow all those ideas to get communicated. Those who bothered to
read the book seemed to get it, but a lot of people didnt read the book
because they heard it was just a silly novel about a couple of bond
So I went to England. I went to
England because over there, the book wasnt being defanged. It was being
read (and reviewed) as an indictment of America, Inc. Just as an example,
Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, provided a blurb for my book.
He wrote, This is a wonderful novel. You will never invest again. In
England, that full quote ran across the jacket like ticker tape. But my
American publisher didnt want to scare people away, so it stole the
bite from Puzos quote by only printing, This is a wonderful
novel, which is about as plain-vanilla and forgettable as a blurb can
So I went to England, and there
were huge stacks of my novel in all the shop windows. My little British
publishing house had printed 3,000 copies of the novel, which would be
invisible in America but in London works out to almost 100 copies per
How are they ever going to sell
all these books? I asked my publicist.
Youre going to sign them
all, she explained. Brits go crazy for signed editions. Doesnt
matter who its by. They see something signed by the author, they buy
So we mini-cabbed all over London,
signing every copy printed. On the second day, they arranged a public book
signing in The City, Londons Wall Street. Huge posters urged people to
come meet the author. The bookstore set my signing table in the back, in
the travel section. I sat there for a full hour, pen ready, and only one
guy came up to talk to me. He was an American. The store was crowded with
customers, but nobody wanted my book. In fact, there was a crowd six-deep
at the Russian Travel bookshelf, directly behind me. Boy, I was
thinking, Russia sure is popular this year. Finally my publicist
suggested I just sign the books. I did, and then went looking for a
restroom. The moment I left the table, the crowd in the Russian travel
section turned and pounced, devouring the stacks of signed first editions.
Apparently, readers in London are
too shy to talk to authors directly.
In this way entirely
manufactured the market was manipulated, and for one week my novel was
#1 in England. Which is why it probably says somewhere on the jacket of
the edition you are reading #1 International Bestseller.
Technically, thats true, but dont believe the fantasy its trying
to convey. You are being lied to.
Postscript: Danelle Folta, Miss
April 1995, is now a member of Playboys X-treme Team, competing in
snowboarding events. My little British publishing house has been swallowed
several times by increasingly bigger conglomerates, as demanded by the
financial markets. My Mom is a Supervisor in Program Support in the
Biology Department at the University of Washington, nearing retirement. I
repaid my debt to William Kittredge by helping get his essay collection
published. The book is called, Who Owns the West? Contemporary
American fiction pulled its head out of the sand and is far more relevant
today than ten years ago. My life is half over, and I no longer think the
worlds diversity will completely disappear, though theres still
plenty to be mad about. For instance, Enron and Worldcom proved that
titans havent changed at all. My editor is still my editor, and I hope
always will be. I dont know what happened to Jack Kemp. I wrote this in
a closet, listening to R.E.M.s New Test Leper, for old times