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Bombardiers - Introductory Essay (2003)

Random House is republishing Bombardiers, and asked me to write an introduction. Here it is. 

Okay, here’s my agenda for this introduction:

  1. Basque fishing cooperatives

  2. What writers do to get “unstuck,” i.e. to beat writer’s block

  3. My mom’s story (abbreviated)

  4. What happens when you stick yourself in a closet for four months, forcing yourself to listen repeatedly to R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

  5. The Great Man Theory of History

  6. My night with Playboy Playmate Danelle Folta, Miss April 1995

  7. Why Londoners don’t really love to vacation in Russia

Where should I start?

Before you’ve 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.

The editor’s 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 you’ve 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 can’t 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 it’s even hard for him to get other staffers at the publishing house to read your book. It doesn’t 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.

If you don’t internalize this message (most don’t), 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.

That didn’t 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.

After 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.

I felt helpless. What could I possibly do to spark heat?

Then 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 – there’s some things you’ll only do or say when you’re really mad.

I was going to satirize the book business. I was going to show the world that publishing had sold out.

My 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 Harry’s Bar & Grill, one of Wall Street’s favorite stomping grounds. We invited everyone we knew.

Danelle Folta, the current reigning playboy centerfold playmate, flew in from Chicago to be at the party to surprise us.

I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 they’ll go anywhere.

Dick 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 they’ve ever seen. I provided them with that rarest of currencies – good water-cooler material. The magazines picked it up. My novel wasn’t silenced. It didn’t have anyone rushing to the bookstore, but I made it through the next bottleneck. I was still in the game.

I 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 she’s not around. Be “disgruntled.”

What do you do when you’re stuck, when you feel helpless, when you think you can’t go on?

Writers get stuck repeatedly. There’s the big kind of stuck, writer’s block, and then there’s the insidious petit mal stuck, three or four times a day, when they’re unable to find the next words. The big stuck happens for the same reasons it happens to people at any job – they’re not letting their whole personality out. They’ve 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, isn’t a symptom of a problem. It’s completely normal and endemic to all writing. What do I possibly say next?

In writing school, you’re taught to get unstuck by focusing on the language, the lyricism of the line. Let the beauty of the sentence unfold. If it doesn’t 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 didn’t use these breaks. They were very upper crust. Story collections were chock full of breaks, each one winking at the reader “I’m 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.

Still, I couldn’t 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 wouldn’t begin programming for three days. In the interim, they played R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” They played this single song repeatedly, 24 hours a day.

 And that did it. With that song clanging in my ears, Bombardiers poured out of me. After three days, I went to my housemate’s 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. That’s 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 didn’t know what to say, I thought about what happened to my mom.

 My 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 year’s 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. She’d have to survive on commissions. What about the clients you promised? Welcome to Wall Street! My mom couldn’t 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. She’d always teased us, “You’re 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 wasn’t 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 doesn’t disagree.

Bombardiers was my revenge. My mom’s story can’t be seen in the novel at all. But it’s 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.

I’m 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 I’m unsure how to transition without dropping in a 2-line break. Okay, here’s the connection between what I’ve said so far and what I’m about to say: things that made me mad / rules I wanted to break / literary conventions I wanted to destroy.

Business books exploded during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Particularly narrative non-fiction. For the first time, readers were given a fly-on-the-wall’s 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. We’d 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.

I thought the writers were giving these bastards way too much credit. It’s 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.

During 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 didn’t 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.

People 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. It’s simply too threatening to admit that it’s all random, that nobody is in control, that nobody knows where we’re 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.

I 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 world’s 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.

I 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 world’s diversity disappear. I would be a witness, and there was probably very little I could do about it, except get mad.

In Bombardiers, my anger turned into a madness.

When the book was published, I tried to tell everyone that it wasn’t 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 doesn’t allow all those ideas to get communicated. Those who bothered to read the book seemed to get it, but a lot of people didn’t read the book because they heard it was just a silly novel about a couple of bond salesmen.

So I went to England. I went to England because over there, the book wasn’t 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 didn’t want to scare people away, so it stole the bite from Puzo’s quote by only printing, “This is a wonderful novel,” which is about as plain-vanilla and forgettable as a blurb can get.

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 store.

“How are they ever going to sell all these books?” I asked my publicist.

 

“You’re going to sign them all,” she explained. “Brits go crazy for signed editions. Doesn’t matter who it’s by. They see something signed by the author, they buy it.”

So we mini-cabbed all over London, signing every copy printed. On the second day, they arranged a public book signing in The City, London’s 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, that’s true, but don’t believe the fantasy it’s trying to convey. You are being lied to.

Get mad.

 

Postscript: Danelle Folta, Miss April 1995, is now a member of Playboy’s 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 world’s diversity will completely disappear, though there’s still plenty to be mad about. For instance, Enron and Worldcom proved that titans haven’t changed at all. My editor is still my editor, and I hope always will be. I don’t know what happened to Jack Kemp. I wrote this in a closet, listening to R.E.M.’s “New Test Leper,” for old times’ sake.