David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Category: Fiction Page 1 of 2

Will Smith, OJ & Me: Confessions of a White Asshole on Narratively

This is the true story of being a White Asshole in black sitcoms. The first time I thought it must be a coincidence. But by the fourth or fifth time, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I REALLY a White Asshole?

Portrait of a White Asshole as a Young Man

I Kicked My Opioid Addiction with Marijuana on Daily Beast


After I had my knee replacement I got addicted to opioids in about ten minutes. This is how I kicked my addiction. I wrote this as a cautionary tale for anyone with pain. Or anybody prone to addiction.

I Kicked My Opioid Addiction with Marijuana on Daily Beast

Kate Forest on Dyslexia, Tourette’s and Romance, Plus: How to Write Better

The Book Doctors are always drawn to books that break new ground. We love it when someone takes an established genre and tweaks it, twists it, then turns it on its ear. Kate Forest is making a career doing just that. She writes about romance, but she likes to make her characters have some kind of differently-able challenge. So when we saw that her new book, In Tune Out of Sync, is out, we wanted to get the skinny on what brave new world she’ll be taking us to this time.

Read this interview on the HuffPost. 

Photo of Kate Forest smiling in front of a brick wall

Kate Forest

The Book Doctors: What have you learned from writing your previous books that you could apply to writing In Tune Out of Sync?

Kate Forest: Everything and nothing. I feel as though I will never stop learning how to write a better book. I am constantly reading, going to workshops, and asking people for feedback. I strive to remain open in improving my craft. That said, I seem destined to write first drafts with unlikeable heroines and secondary characters that steal the scene. At least I know those mistakes are coming.

TBD: What is In Tune Out of Sync about?

KF: At the core, it’s about “inspiration porn.” This is the idea that typical bodied people watch videos or read stories about people with challenges doing everyday things and feel “inspired to do better.” As if they were to ask, “What’s my excuse?” People with disabilities are not there to inspire the rest of us. The two main characters in this book struggle with how to overcome, or use, their differences. Yes, they compete for the same jobs, but their real conflict stems from how they view themselves and how the world views them.

Cover of In Tune Out of Sync by Kate Forest; unseen man holding a violin embraces a woman

Ruby Basset Publishing

TBD: Why did you choose violin and dyslexia as such main elements of your book?

KF: I had a learning disorder when I was a kid. I couldn’t read until I was about 10. I didn’t have dyslexia, but I knew the pain that simply being in school could elicit. As a school social worker, I have worked with kids with dyslexia and wanted to bring those stories to a romance novel.

Violin? I chose something that seems counterintuitive to dyslexia and Tourette’s Syndrome. The violin, to me, seems delicate, requiring speed reading of music and total control of one’s body. Now put someone who doesn’t always control his body, and someone who can’t read quickly, in an orchestra. It was perfect for building tension.

An important thing to note about this book is that it will be available as an audio book. It’s important to make it accessible to anyone interested in dyslexia stories.

TBD: How did you get into the mindset of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome?

KF: I watched many documentaries. I interviewed people. I read. Tourette’s Syndrome is the one issue I have written about that I hadn’t had much experience with. I needed to be accurate and sensitive. I wanted my language to reflect how people in the TS community talk. Two resources I recommend are Jess Thom’s Touretteshero site and An Unlikely Strength by Larry Barber.

TBD: How did you manage to capture the world of the New York Philharmonic and high-end classical music? Did you do lots of research?

KF: Oh, I had to do tons of research. My music education ended in 5th grade with “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder. I love music, and admire people who make it. Luckily, I know professional classical musicians, and they were kind enough to read drafts of the story and answer my insane questions.

TBD: How do you devise plots for your romances?

KF: I don’t start with plots. Romance stories hinge on the characters. For me, the characters’ inner conflicts are what drive the story. I begin by developing the characters. What do they want? Why do they want it? And what is standing in their way? Layer on that, the two main characters need to have goals that are in direct conflict with each other. There has to be no possible way these two people can end up together. And then, they grow and change, and presto, they are together—happily ever after.

TBD: How do you not fall into cliché as you write books that are filled with so many rules?

KF: The only real rule to genre fiction is that there is an emotionally satisfying ending. I prefer genre fiction to literary fiction for this reason. The genre fiction author makes a promise to the reader on the first page: You will be entertained, we will go on a journey, and everything will be answered in the end. Whether you’re fighting an alien invasion, rooting out a murderer, or watching two people find love, there will be a solution. So clichés? There’s no reason to rely on them when there are no limits.

TBD: Do people who are differently abled ever contact you?

KF: These are my best reviews and letters. I get emails from parents of kids on the spectrum and people with different challenges who say my book portrayed the characters in a sensitive and accurate way. But I’m also happy when someone reads the story and says, “I learned something about this issue.” The more we see fictional characters with disabilities in typical situations, the more we will accept real life people with disabilities in all areas.

TBD: Does your writing fall into any single category? Do you try to fit into the romance genre?

KF: Some people have told me that my books aren’t strictly romance, since they tackle other issues. But the truth is that my books fit squarely in the romance genre. The Romance Writers of America defines romance as stories that “contain a central love story and the resolution of the romance must be emotionally satisfying and optimistic.” All of my books easily meet these criteria. There should be no reason that a story that portrays characters with disabilities should be outside of this genre.

TBD: What new advice do you have for writers?

KF: I’d ask what your goal is as a writer. If you’re writing for pleasure, or you have a single story you want to share, then have fun. Work at your own pace. Take some writing classes. Find a group of like-minded writers. If you have a goal of being a commercial writer, you must join a professional organization of writers. There’s one for each type of book. Writers can’t write alone. I have a team of critique partners who send back angry red comments, slashing entire scenes. I have a different team of beta readers (some writers, some for research questions, some who just like to read). Then I have a technical team of cover designer, formatter, and copy editor. I run a small business, and spend just as much time networking and marketing as I do writing. My grandmother was in a nursing home in her last days, after a lifetime of hard work. Her husband of over 70 years had just died. She said, “Life is not for sissies.” And all I can say is, “Writing is not for sissies either.”

Author Kate Forest has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a dating coach, and spent a disastrous summer selling above-ground swimming pools. But it was her over twenty-year career as a social worker that compelled her to write love stories with characters you don’t typically get to read about. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two kids, and a fierce corgi. Visit her at www.kateforestbooks.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Photo of Susan Wolfe smiling

Susan Wolfe on How to Get a Great Blurb, the Importance of Maternity Leave, and Reading to be a Writer

We first met Susan Wolfe when we taught a workshop at Stanford, where we were the least educated people in the room. We were struck by what a seasoned professional she seemed, even though she was a novice author. She asked all the right questions, she worked her ass off, and it didn’t hurt that she had actual bona fide talent. Her first book was a big success, and now that Escape Velocity, her second novel, is out, we picked her brain about transitioning from the world of law to the world of books.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Susan Wolfe smiling

Susan Wolfe

The Book Doctors: What were your favorite books as a kid and why?

Susan Wolfe: The first real book I ever read was The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I was in Mr. Adams’ second grade classroom in San Bernardino, and he gave me permission to read on my own while the rest of the class finished up something else. So I found The Black Stallion, settled into my chair, and the next thing I knew the class was laughing. Apparently, I had whinnied. I was so shocked to look up and see that I was back in that classroom that I still remember the way the light was filtering in through the windows.

I had just discovered that reading created a little room out behind my head where I could go to have adventures and be other people. That little room has been my solace and a major source of learning and pleasure ever since.

I also loved The Wind in the Willows (I wanted a yellow motor car!) and Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (Maybe a little low-tech now). And my sister Linda, who was three years older, read me entire Zane Grey westerns (Riders of the Purple Sage, Thirty Thousand 0n the Hoof) before I could read them myself.

TBD: What are you reading now, and who are some your favorite authors and books?

SW: I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which I found moving, funny and original. Now I am halfway through The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Some of my favorite books and authors so far:

  • Moby Dick
  • Madame Bovary
  • Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. (I still love a good western!)

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

SW: First and foremost by reading a really wide range of fiction for years and years. For example, my two favorite authors of dialogue are Elmore Leonard and Henry James, for very different reasons. Thinking about these two helped me understand what I wanted my dialogue to accomplish.

Second, by writing. That’s what everybody says, so here are some specifics:

  1. When I decided to write my first book, I needed to get a feel for how much should happen in a given chapter. So I made a chart showing what happened in each chapter of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Then I made sure to have about that same amount happen in each of my chapters. That was hugely helpful to me in setting the pace of the book.
  2. I was lucky enough to have a good editor for my first book, and I tried out almost every suggestion he made. Some of them didn’t work out, so I ultimately rejected them, but I gave all the suggestions a real try.
  3. When I was writing my second book, I found a workshop at Stanford where all we did was listen to 20 pages of somebody’s manuscript and then comment. This was great for two reasons: first, some of the comments were helpful. Second, I learned that reading my own work out loud is a terrific way to figure out what works and what doesn’t. For some reason, I can hear things that aren’t right. I also tried two other workshops where the instructor gives little writing projects, and those felt to me like a waste of time. Could have just been the instructors, but I didn’t get much out of them.
  4. 4Finally, I am lucky enough to know two other writers whose writing and critiques of my work I respect. We have our own workshop and get to know each other’s work thoroughly. I can’t say enough about how helpful this three-person writing group has been to me.

TBD: How did you first get published?

SW: This will not be instructive to anybody else, but it is sort of interesting.

I was a lawyer on maternity leave when I started my first book, The Last Billable Hour (a murder mystery set in a Silicon Valley law firm). When it was time to return to work I told the partner at my law firm that I couldn’t come back because I was writing a novel. He said (among other things), “When you finish, you should show it to my old college roommate Jared Kieling, who is now an editor at St. Martin’s Press.” I thought “yeah, yeah” and kept writing.

One day while I was working away in my writing room, my phone rang and it was Jared Kieling of St. Martin’s Press. He said, “Mike said he’s never seen your fiction, but if it’s anything like the quality of your legal writing I should probably take a look.” A few months later when I finished it, I tied the printed manuscript with string and sent if off to him. He bought it, and the book went on to sell more than 100,000 copies and win the Edgar Award.

The only downside to this amazing and wonderful story is that it gave me very unreasonable expectations of how easy it is to get published. With my second book I woke up and joined the rest of humanity.

Cover of Escape Velocity by Susan Wolfe; sketch of Newton's cradle with a ball flying off

Steelkilt Press

TBD: What was the inspiration for Escape Velocity?

SW: Two-sentence synopsis: Escape Velocity is a wickedly hilarious* thriller about a reformed con artist in a Silicon Valley software company who decides to revive her con artist skills to straighten out her very screwed up company. She needs to get enough money to move out of her car and make a home for her little sister before it’s too late.

My inspiration for the book comes from my own work as a lawyer. I have spent most of my adult life practicing law here in Silicon Valley, partly in-house at several high-tech companies. I liked working in-house, but I sometimes got frustrated that a few people who worked for the company—from accounts payable clerks to highly paid executives—seemed unable or uninterested in doing their jobs. Due to incompetence or egotism or out-and-out self-dealing, some people just seem to burrow into a company like ticks on a tormented dog, and no amount of damage they cause ever seems to dislodge them. If you’ve every worked in a company, you’ve met these people!

So I thought the malfeasance and nonfeasance (as we say in the law) were interesting, and even entertaining in a nice black kind of way. I thought other people might like to know about the chaos, or if they already knew about it, they might like to know that somebody else had experienced it, too. After all, as C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I also thought people might enjoy seeing some incredibly annoying people get their comeuppance.

But then I needed a main character, and along came Georgia Griffin. She is young, inexperienced and from a completely alien environment, so she experiences the wonder that is Silicon Valley high tech right along with the reader. She is also highly intuitive and a little bit tougher than people around her might expect. She is blessed with a job that makes people underestimate her. She badly needs the company to succeed in order to realize her personal goal of finding a better life than the one she was born to, and she reluctantly decides to use her con artist training—sparingly—to help the company succeed.

The surprise to me was that Georgia’s moral and psychological complexities gradually became central to my story. Georgia wants to be a good person, but she does a few sketchy things. At one point I wrote out the fifteen points of Georgia’s moral code. She adheres strictly to her moral code, but it’s a little bit different from other people’s. (For example, “Point #13: Cause the least harm necessary to be effective.” ) So I ended up focusing on the question of whether Georgia succeeds in the effort to turn away from her con artist background.

*According to Hank Phillippi Ryan, award-winning author of Say No More

TBD: How has being a lawyer affected you as a writer?

SW: In some ways that’s hard to know since I’ve always been both. Here’s what I can say:

My books are shot through with my actual experiences as a lawyer. The most obvious impact is on my plots, but my experience also makes my dialogue authentic and helps me create a powerful sense of place.

I worried that my legal writing would make my fiction writing ponderous, but it turns out the two kinds of writing issue from different parts of my brain. So no recognizable impact of one on the other.

I do think being a lawyer has made me more precise, which creates a risk I will over-explain things “for the avoidance of doubt” as we sometimes say in contracts. I hope I fight this effectively.

Finally, I would say I’m a serious writer without being a literary one. I suspect lawyering makes me opt for clarity over poetry when a choice must be made.

TBD: How did you manage to juggle a legal career and a writing career, when both seem like ridiculously time-consuming jobs?

SW: Not. Very. Easily.

And you left out my third ridiculously time-consuming job, which was raising two daughters. For years I would lie in bed and look up at the ceiling thinking, “Baby, Book, Law. Baby, Book, Law.” I was determined to make them all fit.

There were times I did make them fit. I wrote my first book, The Last Billable Hour, when I had only my older daughter. I would write 15 hours a week with babysitting until we ran out of money, and then I’d go to work as a contract lawyer (by project or by the hour) until I had enough money to pay the bills. I got the whole book done that way, and it was a happy, productive time in my life.

The second book was more challenging. By then we had two daughters, and I had a much bigger job as the head lawyer of a company. I decided to go to Starbucks from 6am to 7:30am twice a week to work on the book, and my daughter Catherine, who was eight or nine at the time, decided to go with me. She would sit very quietly and focus on her homework so that I could concentrate. I loved those mornings, but then it turned out I didn’t have one single unstructured moment in my life and was going slowly berserk. So I gave up writing until I was ready to leave law entirely, which is when Escape Velocity finally got written.

TBD: How did you manage to get such great blurbs for your book?

SW: It’s interesting that you ask me that, because my editor Jared Kieling asked me the exact same thing regarding my first book. Answer: I asked people.

I asked them very humbly to consider this great favor for a fellow author.

I spoke to each author about why I admired his or her writing and why I hoped they would like mine.

I asked for three or four times as many blurbs as I actually got, and tried to remind myself not to take it personally if they refused or just blew me off. Writers (and professors and deans and chief lawyers of companies) are very busy people. Fortunately, many of them are also generous.

TBD: How does your title Escape Velocity relate to your story?

SW: In physics, escape velocity is the minimum speed a rocket ship needs to escape the earth’s gravitational pull. Here in Silicon Valley the term is used as a metaphor to describe the amount of money a start-up company needs in order to stop taking money from venture capitalists. The company’s founders try to achieve escape velocity from outside interference by becoming self-sustaining.

In my book, Georgia’s upbringing with her con artist father exerts tremendous pull over her, first because it’s the life she knows and feels competent to navigate, and second because she loves her father. As the story unfolds, the reader realizes she also rather enjoys the excitement. But she doesn’t want a con artist life. So a central question of the novel is whether she has the strength of character to achieve escape velocity from the only life she knows. I don’t think many people accomplish that, and I have been fascinated by readers’ varying opinions about whether she succeeds.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

SW: Elmore Leonard gave me the best writing advice I ever received, and I am happy to pass it along.

I had gone to his reading at a bookstore, and when it was time for him to autograph my copy of his book I asked him to wish me good luck with mine. He asked a question or two about what I was writing and then signed his book. After I turned to go he called after me, “Susan!”

I turned.

“Don’t let anybody else write your book. You write your own book.”

So there you are. Share your writing, read it out loud, listen to intelligent people’s advice, and then decide for yourself.

Susan Wolfe is a lawyer with a B.A. in literature from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. After four years of practicing law, she bailed out and wrote her Edgar Award-winning first novel The Last Billable Hour. She returned to law for another sixteen years, first as a criminal defense attorney and then as an in-house lawyer for Silicon Valley high-tech companies. Her second novel Escape Velocity was published in October and just won the 2017 IPPY Gold Medal in suspense/thriller from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. She lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband Ralph DeVoe. authorsusanwolfe.com

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Photo of Holly Kowitt smiling

Holly Kowitt on Cutting Good Jokes, P.G. Wodehouse, & the Principal’s Underwear (Which Is Missing!)

We’ve been fans of Holly Kowitt for longer than any of us care to remember. And now, our nine-year-old is a fan. And so it goes. When we heard the title of Holly’s new book, we howled, we roared, we had to have it! The Principle’s Underwear Is Missing! What more do you need in a kids’ book? Since she’s one of the funniest, most creative, and most successful writers we know, we thought we’d pick her brain on books, writing, principals, and yes, underwear.

Photo of Holly Kowitt smiling

Holly Kowitt

The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name did you decide to become a writer? And having made that decision, why did you decide to write books for kids?

Holly Kowitt: I first became a writer to get illustration work! My cartoon-like drawing style made me a tough match for most children’s books (this was pre-Wimpy Kid) so I had to create my own projects. Which turned out to be a good thing.

Part of ending up in children’s books was random– my first entry-level job just happened to be at Scholastic. Being there naturally made me focus on kids.

TBD: What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up, and why?

HK: Harriet the Spy was my all-time favorite. The characters were so alive to me—so real and quirky—and, like Harriet, I wanted to be a writer. I also loved Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, a low-concept, timeless coming-of-age story with the best first line ever: “Today I’m going to meet a boy…”

TBD: What books are you reading currently, and what books have you really enjoyed lately?

HK: Should be reading: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Secretly reading: I Represent Sean Rosen, a middle grade novel by Jeff Baron.

Recently enjoyed: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and The Daily Show: An Oral History.

TBD: As an illustrator as well as a writer, how do you get these two parts of your brain to cooperate with each other? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to wearing both hats simultaneously?

HK: The cartoons give me an extra way to hook reluctant readers, and add a loose, fun energy. Plus, they’re a blast to draw. The disadvantage is sometimes the text gets robbed to let the illustrations shine. It’s hard to cut a good joke, even when you realize it works better as a picture.

TBD: I just did a Google search of your name and the wordunderwear, and I got tons of hits. Did you ever think your life as a kids’ book author would lead you down this dark path?

HK: Ha ha! Children’s Book Rule #8: Use the word “underwear” whenever possible.

Cover of The Principal's Underwear is Missing by Holly Kowitt; two students run under the title

MacMillan

TBD: The Principal’s Underwear Is Missing: That may be the greatest title I’ve ever heard. How did you come up with it? And what was the inspiration for the story? Have you ever had underwear go missing? Have you ever been involved with principal’s underwear?

HK: I tried to invent the most catastrophic scenario possible for my heroines—and I think I found it. My approach to a story is always: what’s the biggest problem I could give this character? No, it’s not torn from my own life!

TBD: How do you capture the voice of the kids so well?

HK: Obvi it’s, like, crazy-hard. Some combination of subway eavesdropping, The Urban Dictionary website, profiles of twelve-year old YouTube stars, Seventeen Magazine, and Shop Jeen on Instagram gets me in the ballpark.

TBD: What was your inspiration for the story?

HK: I got the idea from Jeeves, the P.G. Wodehouse series about a rich, dimwitted young man and his very smart butler. I thought it would be fun to set the story in middle school, where a ditzy, super-popular 8th grader teams up with a 6th grade nobody. The Queen Bee has a habit of getting herself into trouble, and it’s up to her brilliant younger friend to get her out.

TBD: What’s this story about?

HK: Becca, a bookish 6th grader, accidentally zonks the school’s most glamorous 8th grader with a volleyball. To make it up to her, Becca tries to do Selfie a favor. But she accidentally grabs the wrong shopping bag—one containing a very personal item. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if Selfie didn’t immediately lose it.

It’s the story of a friendship that holds constant surprises. It’s about exploring an off-limits older world, and finding out how it’s better (and worse) than your own. It’s about challenging the unspoken rules of middle school, and doing what’s right. It’s about losing the principal’s underwear.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers and illustrators?

HK: Billy Crystal’s ex-manager once told him to “leave a tip” with his stand-up act—to go deeper and more personal. After I finish a chapter, I go back and try to squeeze in an extra ten percent to make it funnier, weirder, realer. So my advice is to always give your work that extra push. You won’t be sorry.

Holly Kowitt has written more than fifty books for younger readers, including the Loser List series. She lives in New York City, where she enjoys cycling, flea markets, and West Coast swing dancing. Find her online at kowittbooks.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Inspector Croissant: croissant with eyes, mouth, arms, legs, wearing a hat and walking with suitcase

Josh Funk on the Wonders of SCBWI, iPhone Book Trailers, [REDACTED] & Stinky Stench

We’ve said it before, and will say it again: if you are writing for kids, or reading for kids, or ever were a kid yourself, it behooves you to be a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That’s where we met Josh Funk. Until recently, he was in charge of the annual conference, so we got to know him in an intimate yet thoroughly professional way. Josh is a bundle of creativity, imagination and good fun. And since his new book The Case of the Stinky Stench is out, we picked his brain about kids and books, and the strange and wonderful intersection of those two things.

Photo of Josh Funk holding a stuffed monkey toy

Josh Funk

The Book Doctors: Welcome back!

Josh Funk: Thank you so much for inviting me back, Arielle and David!

TBD: What books are you currently reading, and why?

JF: If it’s okay with you, I’m gonna answer the ‘why’ first. I recently returned home from a two-week tour celebrating The Case of the Stinky Stench, during which I went to 19 schools, a couple of public libraries, and over a dozen bookstores. Because of that, most of what I’m reading is based on bookseller recommendations – and I couldn’t have made a better decision to go that route. Booksellers know their stuff! So here’s what I’ve got:

Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes – this one is so good, I often read a few of the poems contained within this book during my events (usually “How to Write a Poem,” “For Our Children’s Children,” and “Spin a Song”).

7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald – to me, this is a perfect picture book. It’s overflowing with cleverness, exactly my kind of humor, gorgeous illustrations, a well-crafted story, and frankly, a solution I didn’t see coming (but I’ll bet some clever kids could figure it out). With six stellar picture books under her belt, Lazar is one of my favorite picture book authors today.

Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani – this book makes me chuckle on every page. I bought it for my 8-month old niece, and almost kept it for myself. Absurdist humor at its best. And a counting book (as a software engineer, I do love numbers!).

Timmy Failure #6: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis – this series is fantastic! I’ve read each book aloud with my kids and there are at least 2 or 3 times during each book when I have to stop cause I’m laughing so hard (it was Speedo Steve this time). I can’t wait for the movie!

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small – so this has been one of my favorite books for a long time (one of four books that I credit with making me want to be a writer). But while at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Michigan, about 5 minutes prior to my event, the proprietor of the store came over to me and whispered, “That’s Sarah Stewart and David Small.” Long-story-short…ish – they’re regulars and it was just a coincidence they showed up. Nevertheless, I shared my love of The Gardener with them, at which point Sarah asked me why I felt so strongly about the book. I gave her my reasons and she responded with a hug. Then they signed a copy for me and posed for a picture. Needless to say I was giddy with excitement during the event.

Some other books I bought based on bookseller recommendation (but haven’t gotten to read yet) are:

  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
  • The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Agular
  • Bull by David Elliott
  • Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
  • Red Rising by Pierce Brown
  • The Highest Mountain of Books in the World by Rocio Bonilla
  • King of the Bench: No Fear by Steve Moore

TBD: If we’re not mistaken, this is your last year running the fabulous New England SCBWI Conference. What have you learned from all this, and are you ready to pass out?

JF: I was co-director of the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional Spring Conference in 2016 and 2017 – and yes, my duties are now complete. It’s been an incredible experience working with my co-directors Heather Kelly, Sera Rivers, and Marilyn Salerno.

The NESCBWI Conference is a three-day conference (Fri-Sun) that takes place annually in Springfield, MA in late April / early May. This year we had over 700 attendees for the first time ever (to be fair, last year was 699, this year was 703). Planning duties have included:

  • Selecting and scheduling 100+ hours of breakout workshops led by about 75-100 faculty members (each year we get well over 300 workshop proposals)
  • Arranging 3-4 keynote speakers and another 3-4 keynote panels
  • Organizing bonus activities like our Portfolio Showcase, Illustration Challenge, and evening activities
  • Arranging professional critique opportunities with over two dozen literary agents, editors, and art directors
  • Countless (but necessary) logistical arrangements with online registration databases, convention/hotel/AV staff, travel-related activities, and delegation of duties to over 100 volunteers
  • And probably a lot more that I’ve already forgotten

Everything went swimmingly.

Did a New York City subway power outage cause the charter bus carrying most of the agents and editors to arrive with only minutes to spare before critiques began? Of course it did!

Did it matter that the hotel overbooked conference attendees by 14 rooms? Absolutely not!

What have I learned? Two things:

  1. Relax, it will always work out.
  2. I never want to become an event planner.

I probably would have passed out for a month … but due to the unpredictable schedules of publishing, my aforementioned book tour for The Case of the Stinky Stench started just six days later!

TBD: Tell us about The Case of the Stinky Stench. Everyone wants to know, why is the stench so stinky?

JF: Have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something funny? Have you followed that up by taking out every item until you’ve found the stinky culprit, only to find that it wasn’t the obvious ‘spoiled cheese’ or ‘rancid meat’ – but it was the last thing you’d have suspected? Who knew an innocent zucchini would turn that color? Or so that’s what happens when you put mushrooms next to mustard! (That’ll teach me to organize my fridge alphabetically.)

Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was a race for the last drop of syrup. In this sequel, I wanted to keep the setting and characters, but change up the genre. Maybe if there’s a third one it’ll be an action-spy-thriller (wink-wink).

Cover of the Case of the Stinky Stench by Josh Funk; Characters are food with eyes arms and legs

Sterling Children’s Books

In The Case of the Stinky Stench, Inspector Croissant (Sir French Toast’s nephew) joins the team and they travel through the fridge chasing suspect after suspect. Is it Baron von Waffle in his evil lair (Onion Ring Cave)? Could it be a fetid fish in Corn Chowder Lake – or is the fish a literal red herring? I won’t ‘spoil’ the ending for you (but I’ll give you a hint – it is spoiled food).

TBD: How did you manage to make Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast such a great success?

JF: Thanks for the kind words about Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, but I really can’t take credit for most of the success that it’s had.

First off, it has incredible illustrations (thanks, Brendan Kearney) and the Sterling Art Department put together a fantastic cover design. When the art started making its way around the Sterling offices, it got the Marketing and Publicity teams excited enough to create a big promotional push – they even made tote bags to give out at BookExpo! All that helped the Sterling Sales Reps get the book into stores big and small across the country.

And let’s face it, I had absolutely no control over everything in the previous paragraph.

But I did what I could. I created a book trailer:

                                            

Yes, that’s me singing (I created the whole trailer on my iPhone using the GarageBand app and iMovie).

I spend a lot of time on Twitter @joshfunkbooks sharing writing tips, educators’ blogs, other people’s good news, and generally putting out positive vibes in the kidlit world.

I attended many other author events in the years leading up to Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast’s publication. Not only did I learn a lot about what makes great events, but I met lots of authors, educators, and booksellers in the process.

I’ve tried to give back to the writing community. I co-directed the NESCBWI 2016 and 2017 Regional Conferences. I’m on the board of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA (if you’re in New England and you haven’t been – you MUST visit). I even created a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books on my website – it’s basically a high level brain dump of everything I’ve learned about writing since I started.

But I think more than anything, what’s made Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast a success is the readers. Enthusiastic booksellers across the country who handsell it daily, like those at The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis and Octavia Books in New Orleans. Teachers and librarians who exuberantly share it with their students. And folks like you, The Book Doctors, who invite me to chat about it here.

TBD: How did studying computer science help (or hinder) you as a writer?

JF: I’d like you to imagine (because it’s true) that I’ve been sitting at my computer thinking about this for a very, very long time. I typed a few paragraphs, and then deleted them (because they don’t really answer the question OR have a point). I thought some more, typed some more, and deleted some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ultimately, the answer to your question is as follows:

I don’t think it’s helped or hindered me as a writer. I’ve been a software engineer for almost two decades. And I enjoy the day job. It’s possible that I’d had a lot of creativity bottled up over that time which is finally spilling out at a rate faster than one might expect.

So maybe the answer is that at first studying computer science hindered me as a writer, but now it’s helping? I guess it’s a wash. (Ha! Lather, rinse, repeat!)

TBD: How did you come up with all the cool extra stuff for kids: activity kits, character cards, etc.?

JF: Once again, the activity kits were all thanks to my publishers and illustrators. For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and The Case of the Stinky Stench, Sterling’s Marketing and Publicity (and probably Art and Design) teams put them together. They’re incredible! Coloring pages, word searches, mazes, crosswords, and a whole bunch of other stuff – all free to download and print from my website on my ‘Stuff for Kids’ page!

The Case of the Stinky Stench Activity Kit; similar to book cover, but with activity kit written on the bottom

The Case of the Stinky Stench Activity Kit

Regarding the Dear Dragon and Pirasaurs! coloring pages, they were created by illustrators Rodolfo Montalvo and Michael Slack, respectively. I certainly hope that keeps going with my future books!

As far as the character cards, I was just about to order some bookmarks back in the summer of 2015 when I saw the option of ordering Collector’s Cards. At this point I realized two things:

  1. I write picture books, which rarely require bookmarks.
  2. Collector’s cards can easily be used as bookmarks.

So I began designing collector’s cards. And I had a lot of fun with that! For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, I made one for each of the main characters. I made six different ones for Pirasaurs! (thanks to Michael Slack for his help designing those), and I made three more for The Case of the Stinky Stench.

Inspector Croissant: croissant with eyes, mouth, arms, legs, wearing a hat and walking with suitcase

Inspector Croissant collector’s card

Back of Inspector Croissant card; has information written about the character

Inspector Croissant collector’s card reverse

I even made an online quiz to determine Which Pirasaur Are You?! – I’m Bronto Beard, in case you were wondering.

Bearded Brontosaurus wearing pirate clothes

Bronto Beard collector card

TBD: What are you working on next?

JF: It’s interesting that you ask! I just spent a few hours revising [REDACTED] based on my editor’s comments. As you know, I’m very interested in the topic of [REDACTED]. And I’m excited to dive into [REDACTED], that’s gonna be fun to work on. I’ve seen some of [REDACTED]’s illustrations and they’re perfect.

In the near term, I’ve got a book called It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk coming out this fall (9.19.17), illustrated by Edwardian Taylor. It’s not just a fractured-fairy-tale – it’s a META-fractured-fairy-tale – one where Jack doesn’t want to do what the reader tells him to do. Trade his cow for five beans? That’s a terrible idea! Climb the beanstalk? But there’s probably a giant up there! This one will make for a hilarious reader’s theater – and it’s my first picture book that isn’t in rhyme. If you don’t follow Edwardian Taylor on Instagram, you’re missing out. He is an incredible character designer.

Cover of It's Not Jack and the Beanstalk by Josh Funk; boy with climbing gear swinging off of a beanstalk

Two Lions

Then, in 2018 I’ve got at least two more books coming out. In the spring, it’s Albie Newton (about a genius’s attempt to make friends on his first day of school – and his classmate’s ability to accept his ‘quirks’). This one is illustrated by Ester Garay – and everything I’ve seen so far is beyond adorable!

Then, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude is the first picture book in Macmillan’s partnership with the New York Public Library – and I got to write the story of the two lion statues (Patience and Fortitude) that guard the steps on 5th Avenue. When Patience goes missing, Fortitude must search the entire library to find him! I’d already been a fan of Stevie Lewis’ art, and when they told me she had signed on to illustrate, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

And yes, both Albie Newton and Lost in the Library are in rhyme.

TBD: How did you come up with your very entertaining live show? What have you observed that writers who present well do in common?

JF: Attending all of those author events before I released a book certainly paid off! I ‘spied’ on so many different author presentations! I learned what worked well with different ages and audience attention spans. And I definitely learned a thing or twelve from amazing performances by the likes of Ame Dyckman, Kate Messner, Tara Lazar, Bob Shea, Anna Staniszewski, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and many others kidlit stars.

But it really comes down to one thing: know your audience. I’m reading to kids ages 0-10(ish) and their caregivers. I’ve got to be entertaining and enthusiastic for those two groups.

Not all crowds are the same. Some jokes work better in one situation vs another. But I always try to have fun – and I hope that’s what lasts in the minds of the readers.

TBD: Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice?

JF: Twitter is a great way to interact with readers. I’ve become e-friends with many educators, booksellers, writers, illustrators, and booklovers of all sorts on Twitter. And in many cases I’ve ended up getting to hang out with these folks in real life because of Twitter. I schedule most of my classroom Skype visits with teachers and librarians in Twitter chats. Sometimes teachers tweet me questions on their students’ behalf.

I’ve even attended several conferences that stemmed from Twitter relationships. This summer, I’ll be attending my third nErDcampMI, a national literacy conference for educators started by the founders of the Nerdy Book Club. The Nerdy Book Club is blog with daily guest posts (mostly by educators and authors), but it is also an unofficial ‘club’ that is open to anyone who loves books (especially those written for children). These nErDcamps are popping up everywhere (New England, Long Island, Kansas, New Jersey, Pacific Northwest, soon in North Carolina) – and they’re an amazing place to for educators to connect with each other and with book creators.

Just like most of the kidlit world, the kidlit Twitter environment is incredibly welcoming and supportive.

TBD: We hate to ask this, but what advice do you have for writers?

JF: Most of my advice is in the Resources for Writers section of my website, comprised of my Guide to Writing Picture Books.

Outside of that, my best piece of advice is to keep writing new things – especially when writing picture books. This is for a couple reasons:

  1. The first story you write is unlikely to be the one that sells. Get it critiqued. Revise it. It’ll be a great learning experience. But don’t revise it to death. Take what you learn from writing that first story and write another.
  2. A literary agent will want at least 3-4 picture book manuscripts they think they can sell right now before they’ll sign you – which means you probably need 6-8 that YOU think are complete.

The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Just like I tell students during school visits – it’s like playing sports and instruments – the more you practice, the better you get. The stories I’m writing today are better than the ones I wrote two years ago, which are better than the ones I wrote two years before that (at least I think so).

So keep writing!

Thanks again for having me! I wish you a wonderful summer of reading!

Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books – such as Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench along with Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Albie Newton, Lost in the Library, and more coming soon!

Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences.

Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts.

Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.

Find more information about Josh at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on twitter @joshfunkbooks.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Photo of author Paula Priamos

Paula Priamos on Writing, Saying “No” to an Agent, and Being a Shyster’s Daughter

We were lucky to receive a stack of books from Rare Bird Books, a publisher we love. We fell for Inside V by Paula Priamos, who also wrote the memoir The Shyster’s Daughter. So we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, thrillers, memoirs, and how she got published.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of author Paula Priamos

Paula Priamos

The Book Doctors: What kind of books did you like to read when you were a kid and why?

Paula Priamos: Well before kindergarten I taught myself how to read with the book Black Beauty. I started sounding out the small words first and then I’d read those same basically one syllable words to my mother and I’d fill in the rest, concocting my own story about a runaway horse, a plot that had nothing to do with the words on the page. Oftentimes I grew frustrated that I didn’t understand the bigger words. But my mother would patiently help me sound those words out and eventually I read her the entire book. As I got a little older I gravitated towards Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries because I loved having to figure things out.

TBD: What was the inspiration for Inside V?

PP: I always start writing with characters first before conflict and I conceptualized this couple in my head, a man and woman, who are in the kind of relationship that begins with infidelity and quickly winds up in marriage. Yet even with a couple of solid years spent as husband and wife their relationship remains intense – deeply sexually and emotionally connected – and sometimes it’s even dangerous because their passion for each other doesn’t level off or stabilize. They remain in the throes of that initial passion that first brought them together.

The threat to their marriage in the form of a seventeen-year-old girl accusing the husband of sexual assault came to me next, and the events and other characters in the book pretty much played out in my head. It felt as if I spent most of the time writing this novel rapidly filling up lined notebooks, then typing it all on the computer, just trying to catch up.

Cover of Inside V by Paula Priamos; "Inside" in small letters on top, a giant V takes most of the cover

Rare Bird Books

TBD: How did you approach writing a novel, as opposed to a memoir?

PP: I wrote my memoir with literary elements like a narrative arc, scenes and dialogue, so it wasn’t very hard to segue into a novel. There are some literary people who claim a writer can’t write in more than one genre, but I think that mindset is false and quite limiting.

TBD: What was it like to be the daughter of a shyster?

PP: I was the only one out of my two siblings who stayed with my father after my parents decided to divorce when I was a young teen. I’m actually proud to be a shyster’s daughter. My father, in his day, before he was disbarred for embezzlement, was a sharp criminal defense attorney. He was a clever showman who rarely needed to rely on notes when he gave closing arguments, and he angered more than one veteran prosecutor when he’d successfully get his clients off. Over the years he’d done some bad things, crossed legal lines he knew he shouldn’t, and essentially became as morally corrupt as the clients he was defending. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to teach me morals. My father taught me how to read people, to question their motives and to stand up for myself when I need to. I know I’m a much stronger woman for having been raised by him.

TBD: How do you think growing up in Southern California affected you as a writer?

PP: Being a So Cal native is a great thing. I live in an area that is ethnically diverse and with that comes all kinds of intriguing people to write about, conflicts to be had. Geographically Southern California offers mountains, the ocean, deserts and all kinds of city culture, so there are fantastic places to set the backdrop of my scenes. In Inside V, the story takes place in LA, the Valley, Palm Springs, and in Newport Beach.

TBD: What draws you to the thriller category?

PP: I love thrillers, whether it’s books or films. There is nothing more satisfying than reading or watching a smart and unpredictable whodunit that deals with character and story in equal measure. I wrote my memoir in a way that leaves the death of my father a mystery up until the end of the book, so it only made sense when I decided to write fiction that it be a thriller.

TBD: What are you working on next?

PP: I’m more than halfway through another thriller, set in the LA area and with another Greek female protagonist. That’s where the similarities end. This protagonist is not as headstrong as “V” nor as confident, but she gains strength in other ways throughout the narrative. The plot is different. She is trying to move on from a failed first marriage, a former husband who isn’t ready to let her go, all while she attempts to find an old childhood friend who’s suddenly disappeared just hours after they’d been reunited.

TBD: How did you go about getting this novel published?

PP: I had a disagreement with the literary agent who was going to send this novel out to publishers. This particular agent wanted me to fatten up my lean novel and make it more of a typical “women’s mystery novel,” which I did not want to do. I feel that some of these bulkier books derail the tension lines with unnecessary details and languishing asides. Instead I had a person who’d worked PR for my memoir send it to the publisher at Rare Bird, and, as it turns out, she sent it to the right place. The publisher loved that it was the type of book a reader could finish in one day while curled up on the couch or on a long plane ride.

TBD: What advice do you have for writers?

PP: I teach creative writing and one of the first things I tell my students is to be both humble and confident. Know that you’re not immune to criticism and helpful suggestions, but also know that you can’t please everyone nor should you try. Keep an open mind without losing your own creative vision. Try not to get frustrated with what may seem like a slow process of seeing your work to publication because, in the end, there’s nothing like the rush of holding your own beautifully bound book for the first time and knowing it now has the potential to reach countless readers.

Paula Priamos’ writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, ZYZZYVA, Crimewave Magazine in the UK, The Washington Post Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. She is the author of the memoir The Shyster’s Daughter and teaches English and creative writing at CSU San Bernardino. Visit her at paulapriamos.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Cover of Oakland Noir by Eddie Muller

Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, on the Importance of Finding Empathy in Darkness

If you live in the Bay Area, which we did for many years, and you have a penchant for the dark side that draws you toward the underbelly of noir, you know Eddie Muller. He’s a legend. Let’s face it, you don’t get to be the Czar of Noir for nothing. So when we found out he was editing the new Oakland Noir, part of the great noir series by Akashic, we jumped at the chance to pick his dark brain about Oaktown, writing and the book business.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Eddie Muller wearing glasses and a hat, very noir

Eddie Muller

The Book Doctors: What are your earliest memories of being interested in noir? What were some of your favorite noirish books when you were going up, and why?

Eddie Muller: I’m of an earlier generation, pre-VCR. I was first drawn to noir by movies I’d see on Dialing for Dollars, weekdays afternoons when I’d cut school. Stuff like Thieves’ Highway and Cry of the City and The Big Heat. I started combing TV Guide to find movies with “Big,” “City,” “Street” and “Night” in the title. There’s a title: Big City Streets at Night. I’d watch that. The look of the films and the attitudes of the characters resonated with me. I was at the epicenter of the hippie movement in San Francisco, but I was intrigued by this earlier generation’s style and attitude.

In high school I started reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and the die was cast. In that way, I’m like virtually every other crime fiction writer. It’s amazing the influence those guys had, especially Chandler. His prose was intoxicating. Reading Hammett’s short stories made you want to be a detective. Reading Chandler made you want to be a writer. After that, you just start devouring everything. At a certain point I began distinguishing between mystery writers and crime writers. And I became less interested in the detective whodunnits and more fascinated by the noir stuff: Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Willeford. Their books don’t resolve neatly. Things aren’t going to end well.

TBD: What are you currently reading?

EM: I’m looking forward to a couple of days off so I can read Paul Auster’s latest, 4321. I’ve seen some discouraging reviews, but I read everything of this. He’s my favorite living author. I enjoy how his mind works and I like how he translates it to the page.

TBD: What are some of your favorite noir classics, and again, why?

EM: Derek Raymond’s Factory series books are pretty great, especially I Was Dora Suarez. He really turned detective stories into noir literature. Forgive me for touting the obvious touchstones: Hammett’s big three: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key. Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Here’s the thing about crime fiction: you end up loving a writer’s body of work more than a single book. I like reading David Goodis, but I can’t say I like Cassidy’s Girl more than Nightfall. Same with Jim Thompson. Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy. I like Highsmith’s Ripley novels. I like Highsmith in general. She still doesn’t get her due because, obviously, she was a woman writing in what’s perceived as a man’s genre. I had that bias once, as a younger and stupider man. Then I wised up. More guys should wise up.

Cover of Oakland Noir by Eddie Muller

Akashic

TBD: Having been published in San Francisco Noir, part of the Akashic series, I’m a big fan of these books. How did you become involved with Oakland Noir?

EM: Well, we were both in that San Francisco noir collection! I was sort of wondering when Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher, would get around to Oakland. I mean, seriously, how can you have Duluth Noir before Oakland Noir? As it turns out, Jerry Thompson, who’s a writer and bookseller in Oakland, had pitched Johnny on an Oakland Noir collection but hadn’t gotten a green light. Then Jerry approached me about co-editing the anthology—and I guess because Johnny and I had some history we got the go-ahead.

TBD: What was it like editing all these amazing writers?

EM: It was great! Jerry and I shared a vision of what we wanted the book to be—an accurate demographic reflection of the city. Meaning we wanted an appropriate gender/racial/ethnic mix to the stories. Which can be tricky. You want good well-conceived, well-written stories, not just stories featuring a black or Asian or Hispanic character. Let’s be honest: it’s a crap shoot. Jerry did the hard work of selecting most of the contributors, because he knew the literary landscape of Oakland; I pulled in a couple of my buddies, Kim Addonizio and Joe Loya. We had a vision of how the book should play out, but you can’t tell writers what to write. In the end, I was happy with the result. The reviewer for Publishers Weekly complained that some stories weren’t really noir, but the Kirkus reviewer understood completely: our mission was to reveal the city beneath the mainstream perceptions, to use genre fiction show sides of Oakland not usually seen.

TBD: What do you think separates great noir from everyday pulpy potboilers?

EM: Empathy. Great noir writing makes you feel and contemplate lives gone off the rails. That’s not entertaining for a lot of people, but to me it’s one of the purposes of art.

TBD: What exactly is a noircheologist? (Spell check really hated that word!)

EM: I dig through the past to rescue and revive this stuff. That’s the mission of the Film Noir Foundation, which I founded in 2006. We rescue and restore films, specifically noir, that have slipped through the cracks and disappeared. There are a lot of savvy small publishers who are noircheologists on the literary side, but I’m the guy when it comes to film. We recently resurrected a terrific 1956 noir film from Argentina, Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems), and preserved a sensational picture from 1952 called El vampiro negro; it’s an Argentine reworking of Fritz Lang’s M. I’m on a crusade now to show that film noir was not specifically an American thing.

TBD: You have one of the coolest nicknames around: “The Czar of Noir.” How did that come about? And how can I get a nickname that cool?

EM: A woman named Laura Sheppard, event coordinator at the Mechanic’s Institute Library in San Francisco, was introducing me one night. She was reading the far-too-lengthy bio I’d supplied—you do that when you’re young and trying too hard—and, frankly, I think she just got tired of it. So she said, “Hell, he’s just the czar of noir.” It’s been the gift that keeps on giving. If you want a cool nickname, I can put you in touch with Laura.

TBD: Will you ever get tired of noir?

EM: I don’t think so. Not once I realized there was far more to it than what was ascribed by the original scholars on the subject. It annoys some purists when you stretch the boundaries, but who cares? We sold out a week of shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York presenting virtually unknown film noir from Argentina. Akashic’s Noir series has been a fabulous way of getting new writers published and providing a valuable anthropological–literary experience. There’s been a long overdue rethinking of this terrain as strictly a male-only province. All good, as far as I’m concerned.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers in general, and writers of noir specifically?

EM: Understand that noir is not about the body count. It is often about violence—the psychological pressures that lead to it, and the inherent drama in trying to stem the tide. It bothers me when books and films featuring ugly people engaged in relentless killing are described as “noir.” It’s not. Those are just Tom and Jerry cartoons for post-adolescent boys. Not entertaining to me, and not of any significant value to the culture at large. I guess my advice would be “Aim a little higher.”

Eddie Muller is the world’s foremost authority on film noir. As founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation he is a leading figure in film restoration and preservation, and a familiar face and voice on the international film festival circuit, DVD special features and Turner Classic Movies, where he hosts Noir Alley every Sunday morning at 10am EST.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Black and white photo of Barry Lyga

Barry Lyga on Freedom, Pizza, and Writing Dark Shit for Young Adults

We met Barry Lyga when we were waiting to sign books at the (thoroughly awesome) New England SCBWI conference. Turns out we are all Jersey-crowd–the Garden State representing! We had a funny chat, and then we checked out his books. This guy is a powerful writer. His new book, Bang, is out, so we picked his brain about books and publishing and whatnot.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Black and white photo of Barry Lyga

Barry Lyga

The Book Doctors: Who were your favorite authors, and what were some of your favorite books when you are a kid?

Barry Lyga: I had such eclectic tastes as a kid! I loved old classics like Poe and Milton, but I was also obsessed with modern sci-fi authors like Joe Haldeman, as well as comic books by the truckload. Paul Levitz and Alan Moore were two of my favorite comic book writers. I read Haldeman’s Dealing in Futures short story collection over and over as a kid — those stories really opened my mind as to what was possible in storytelling. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Ken Grimwood’s classic Replay. That book blew my mind. I re-read it every year, and it still knocks me down every time.

TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?

BL: I sort of figured it out on my own, really. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to tell stories, and I was manic in my reading. I read constantly. Every chance I had, I would have my nose in a book. So I sort of absorbed a lot of the lessons and the rhythms of writing and internalized them subconsciously. Which isn’t to say that I was a great writer the first time my fingers touched the keyboard! Hell, no! I still had to practice and hone my craft, which took literally decades. But no one ever really sat me down and taught me how to start — I figured that out on my own and then just kept iterating and trying until things started to click.

TBD: How did you find your first agent, and what was your road to publication?

BL: I met Kathy Anderson at a writers conference in early 2005. I had won the Editor’s Choice award at the conference, so she was looking for me. And I had seen one of her lectures the day before I won the award, so I was looking for her. And then it turned out I was scheduled for a pitch session with her! So, it was a fortuitous meeting.

She read the manuscript I had at the time, which was my first YA novel: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl. After a couple of weeks, she offered me representation and I accepted. Then we talked about the book a little; she had some suggestions and I took ‘em. About five months later, she sold that book and my next one at auction. We haven’t looked back since!

TBD: Do you ever get pushback for writing books for teenagers that are so full of darkness?

BL: Not from anyone in the business. Occasionally there are people out there in the wider world who take issue with something I’ve written, but they are — thankfully — a minority. I think most people recognize that my books aren’t promoting the darkness or proselytizing for it; they just reflect it for the reader.

TBD: What did you learn about writing while working in the comic book business?

BL: I worked in comics on the distribution side, not the creative side. So honestly, the most important lesson I learned was that I wanted to be on the creative side!

But there WAS writing involved in that old job; it just wasn’t creative. It was a lot of marketing copy and so on. I did learn a substantial work ethic from that. I learned how to edit myself. I learned how to heed the sanctity of a deadline, which has stood me in good stead — in 12 years as a professional author, I think I’ve missed exactly one deadline. Thanks, comics!

TBD: Tell us about BANG.

BL: BANG is the story of Sebastian. Ten years ago, when he was four years old, Sebastian was playing with his father’s loaded handgun. It went off. And killed Sebastian’s four-month-old baby sister.

Now, ten years later, he’s still living with the guilt, the horror, the shame, and he’s decided he doesn’t deserve to live. How can you find forgiveness for something so unforgivable? How can you atone for a mistake you made before you even knew what a mistake was?

And there’s pizza. Believe me — the pizza is important. It’s a pretty dark book, so the pizza matters.

Cover of Bang by Barry Lyga; bullet hole in letter "A"

Little Brown Books For Young Readers

TBD: What are you working on next?

BL: I wish I could tell you! I have two projects in the hopper right now, but contracts have yet to be signed, so I’m not supposed to say anything about them. They’re both dream projects, for completely different reasons, and I’m so, so incredibly excited about them. Stay tuned!

TBD: What do you love most about being a professional author? What do you hate most about it?

BL: I love the freedom. I don’t mean the freedom of dictating my own hours and days (which is amazing; don’t get me wrong!), but rather the freedom of knowing that I am the one deciding what I do next. No one comes to me and says, “OK, your next book is about a kid who can talk to chickens…but he has a poultry allergy! Make it so!” I have the freedom to decide what stories I will tell. Some of them succeed; some of them don’t. But they’re all mine.

As to what I hate… I really hate the uncertainty. Which, of course, is the flip side of the freedom! There’s no way to know which, if any, of the stories I decide to tell will strike a chord with the reading public. If you made a graph of the sales of my books, it would look like a cardiac patient’s EKG. It’s all over the place. There’s nothing you can do about it, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from hating it!

TBD: You’ve written some pretty grim books on some really difficult topics. How does that affect you personally?

BL: Until recently, it didn’t! I mean, I wrote a book about child abuse (Boy Toy) and a whole series about serial killers (I Hunt Killers) and it never bothered me. I slept the sleep of the just every night, no matter what horrors I’d conjured during the day.

But BANG was different. Maybe because I was a new father. I was writing about a dead four-month-old baby while my own four-month-old baby was sleeping in a bassinet next to me. This book really, really got its hooks into me, and while that bothers me, I hope it will get its hooks into readers, too.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

BL: I always tell writers: It’s OK to suck. It’s OK to look at something you’ve written and not like it. That just means that you’ve grown as a writer, developed better taste and better instincts, in the interim. So, take that new perspective and write something new. Inevitably, you’ll look back on that in a little while and think that it sucks, too! But that’s all right. That’s progress. One of these days, you’ll write something that only half-sucks, and then you’re on your way!

Called a “YA rebel-author” by Kirkus Reviews, Barry Lyga has published seventeen novels in various genres in his eleven-year career, including the New York Times bestselling I Hunt Killers. His books have been or are slated to be published in more than a dozen different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. Lyga lives and podcasts near New York City with his wife, Morgan Baden, their nigh-omnipotent daughter, and their preternaturally chill son. His comic book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but is still way too big.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED. 

Portrait photo of Anna Staniszewski smiling

Anna Staniszewski on MFAs, Writing, and Not Teaching Kids Stuff in Your Kids’ Book

Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Portrait photo of Anna Staniszewski smiling

Anna Staniszewski

The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?

Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.

TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?

AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.

TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?

AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.

TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.

AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.

Cover of Dogosaurus Rex by Anna Staniszewski; boy walking a T. Rex on leash

Holt Books for Young Readers

TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?

AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.

The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.

Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.

TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.

AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.

TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?

AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.

While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.

TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?

AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.

I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.

TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.

AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.

TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?

AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.

Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Jamie Mayer on Screenplay vs Book, the Garden State and the Power of Pain

Since David was a screenwriter for many years, he’s fascinated by the difference between writing for the screen and writing for between the covers. He’s also quite fascinated by pain, how we use it, how we avoid it, and what we can learn from it. So when he came across Jamie Mayer’s wonderful new novel Painless, we decided to pick her brain about books, screenplays, and pain. Which all seem oddly related somehow.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Jamie Mayer sitting and smiling

Jamie Mayer

The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?

Jamie Mayer: I think some of the books that make the biggest impression are the ones that help you learn about things you really want to know but no one is telling you, so stuff like sex (Judy Blume, my parents’ old hippy-ish copy of The Joy of Sex), magic (Half Magic, Dragonsong), or the mysteries of older, cooler kids (The Outsiders, Judy Blume again – my friends and I had a well marked-up copy of Forever, her “adultiest” one).

I also loved stories about kids who did things they weren’t supposed to be able to do, like living in a museum (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or solving mysteries (Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown).

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

JM: I always wrote short stories for myself, but never really considered writing as a career. In college I studied film, photography and documentary film. I later decided that if I wanted to direct films, no one would let me unless I also wrote them, so I started writing screenplays – and then it turned into my primary career.

Cover of Painless by Jamie Mayer; silhouette of a person kneeling

Rare Bird Books

TBD: What was the inspiration for Painless?

JM: I read a newspaper story about a young boy with the same disorder as Quinn, the main character in Painless. It’s a neurological condition where you literally can’t feel pain, and his parents were beside themselves trying to live with this kid who had no natural fear of pain and thought nothing of doing things that would hurt himself or others. And I wondered what living like this would do psychologically to this boy as he grew older – if he grew older, because lots of people with this condition don’t survive to adulthood.

TBD: Why did you choose to write a Young Adult novel?

JM: The story of Painless originally took the form of a screenplay, one of the first I ever wrote. I came close to directing it as a film, but when that fell apart, I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it – but the story still wasn’t done with me somehow. My mentor Holly Goldberg Sloan, the screenwriter/director-turned-best-selling YA author, suggested I try writing it as a YA novel. And that idea just breathed new energy into it – as I expanded and developed it into novel form it took on a whole new life!

TBD: We live in New Jersey, and we wonder what it was like for you growing up in the Garden State?

JM: I always like to stick up for New Jersey, which is really such a beautiful place but gets a bad rap!

My parents lived in New York City before I was born, but when I was still a baby they hit the suburbs of central New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up, just an hour’s train ride from New York – and we visited often to see family, go to museums or theater, etc. – but it really was this smallish town, where kids wandered freely, disappearing into the woods to play and collect tadpoles or whatever for hours without grownup supervision. At the time I thought it was a little boring, but in retrospect, it was pretty awesome. Plus Jersey corn and tomatoes. Plus Springsteen. Plus Jon Stewart. Come on.

TBD: Why did you pick someone who can’t feel physical pain to be your book’s hero?

JM: There are upsides to feeling no pain, but obviously there are downsides too. Around the time I wrote the original story, I was dealing with the long illness and death of my father (who was a wonderful guy, by the way, nothing like Quinn’s dad!). And like anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, or a terrible romantic breakup or even unrequited love, I thought to myself, “Wow, this feels horrible. Maybe if I just never care this much about anyone ever again, I’ll never feel this bad again!” Of course, that’s a terrible idea if you want to be even remotely human – if you want to feel the good stuff, you’ll also be vulnerable to feeling the bad. So this physical condition struck me as a perfect metaphor for how people sometimes close themselves off from connection and love, becoming emotionally “painless”. And I wanted to write a story about someone who comes to realize that to make life worth living, he has to open that door a crack.

TBD: How does your process for writing a novel differ from writing a screenplay?

JM: Screenplays are so much about structure and clear character arcs – which are also really useful in writing a novel. But where screenwriting style is usually very spare and external, only describing what you can see, a novel can be more descriptive and internal, so I needed to consciously remind myself to widen the palette, and that was really fun and liberating! Also, in a screenplay you don’t have to choose between first and third (or second!) person POVs, so that created a whole new facet to the process as well..whose POV are we in when, and why, and how?

TBD: What are you working on next?

JM: I just wrote and directed a short coming-of-age film called Crowbar Smile that you can watch on TheScene.com. I’m hoping it will become a full-length feature film soon. I’m also writing several new film and television scripts. There may be a new YA novel brewing as well, but it’s too soon to talk about it!

TBD: If time had split and you were living another, parallel life, what would it be?

JM: I would be a large animal veterinarian. As a kid, I loved biology and animals and was always bringing random animals home. I wanted to go to vet school and interned in high school with my local vet, where I even got to scrub in and assist in the surgery to spay my own kitten! In college, I discovered a love of film and photography, and somehow never got around to all the pre-med classes I would need for vet school. So in my alternate timeline I am a horse doctor, driving from farm to farm with my muddy boots on…

I know it seems unrelated to my current career, but my interest in biology and things medical makes me especially interested in story ideas like the one underlying Painless!

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

JM: Write – which seems obvious, but lots of people don’t do. There are a lot of bad drafts that have to happen on the way to accumulating 10,000 hours of practice! And learn to re-write – which I think is a different, and in lots of ways harder, process, which involves evaluating and incorporating criticism and notes and being willing to tear up things that you might be very attached to! These things are simple to say but not necessarily to do – and I think every writer grapples with both these processes every day.

Screenwriter Jamie Mayer is venturing into prose with her debut YA novel Painless. Born in New York City, Mayer grew up in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and a neurotic-but-good-hearted rescue dog. More info at www.jamiemayer.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Cover of Standing Up by Kate Forest; two hands touching

Kate Forest on Amputee Romance, Learning to Write, and the Superpower of Empathy

We’ve known Kate Forest for many years, and it’s been a joy to watch her come into her own as a writer. She has an unusual book out now, and we wanted to pick her brain about how she came up with this fascinating twist on the classic romance.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of Kate Forest smiling

Kate Forest

The Book Doctors: Why did you do something as silly as decide to become a writer?

Kate Forest: I wish I weren’t a writer. I’ve always been the storyteller of the family (some of the stories were even truthful). I felt compelled to write them down a few years ago. I didn’t have plans to publish at first. But I’m also too ambitious for my own good.

TBD: What are you reading these days? What were your favorite books growing up, and why?

KF: Growing up was tough in terms of books.I didn’t learn to read until I was about 11 years old. Not only did I miss out on all the Judy Blumes, but school was a very painful place. I had the fortune of getting some extra help in 6th grade. One day I looked around the reading group I was in and noticed I was with the smart kids. I immediately went to Sherlock Holmes (still some of my favorite stories).

Now, I love reading romance of any kind. Devouring Amanda DeWees, Veronica Forand. And I love non-fiction. Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson is on the top of my Kindle now.

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

KF: Trial and error. My sister, Andrea Pyros, is the real writer of the family, and she was kind enough to not laugh too hard when I said I was going to write a book. I took classes at my local community college, read books, and attended conferences, online classes, and workshops. I came from a place of knowing that I didn’t know anything and felt no shame in starting from scratch at 40 years old.

TBD: What drew you to romance writing?

KF: I need a happy ever after in my fiction. Because of my work as a social worker, I’ve never been able to read those wonderful weepy Oprah Book Club books. When Precious came out, I couldn’t look at that as entertainment, since foster care was my day job. Fiction, for me, needs to be an escape. And I’d better be emotionally satisfied at the end or I’ll hurl the book at the wall. For non-fiction I can be forgiving.

Cover of Standing Up by Kate Forest; two hands touching

Ruby Basset Publishing

TBD: Tell us what your new book, Standing Up, is about.

KF: It’s the classic nerd/jock story but with a twist. Mike was the star football player in high school. A car accident lands him on crutches in excruciating pain, and he elects to have his legs amputated below the knee. Jill is a woman determined to get to NASA but finds it hard to stand up for herself in a man’s world. It’s more a story of finding your identity than a straightforward romance.

TBD: They say, “Write what you know, but you’ve never had an amputation. How did you get into the mindset of someone missing a limb? There’s so much attention being paid to ensuring that genuine experience dictates the content of books like this. How did you make sure that your writing was real?

KF: If I only wrote what I “know” all my characters would be middle class Jewish cis-gendered women. I am in complete agreement that representation matters. We need diversity in books, not just in the characters depicted, but also among the authors. That said, I think I did my due diligence. I interviewed amputees and people with disabilities. I met with a prosthetics expert, had sensitivity readers, and relied on my professional experiences. This story is not going to be true for everyone with limb loss because not everyone with limb loss has the same experience. But it could be true for some. And not everything the characters think and feel will sit well with everyone. Just because one of my characters says something insensitive doesn’t mean that it’s my personal belief. I hope people see the evolution of the characters.

TBD: It’s unusual to see an amputee in a romance novel. What prompted you to write something like this?

KF: I was tired of all the “perfect” characters in romance. Their only flaws being they are “too smart,” “too wealthy,” etc. I meet people all the time who find true lasting love, and they are far from perfect. We all need love stories. We all deserve a happy ever after.

TBD: How did being a social worker impact how you wrote this novel?

KF: I’m a storyteller, but I’m also a listener. If I had a superpower it would be empathy. It takes a lot out of me to sit with someone through their pain. To be present and hold them in that space. That’s the job of a good social worker. To offer the non-judgemental support and advocacy. I’ve been telling people’s stories through court reports, case files, and hospital notes, always with the conviction to get the person what they need.

TBD: How long does it take you to write a book?

KF: Too darn long. I am a painfully slow writer and an even slower editor/reviser. I can’t plot a book at the beginning. I have some vague idea of what will happen. Mostly, I have a clear idea of who these characters are. I just let them play on the page. I end up deleting many, many wonderfully written pages that are absolutely useless.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers? For romance writers?

KF: A good story has terrible conflict. You can’t be afraid to put your characters through hell. They should be at the place where everything is hopeless. It’s really hard to go there. None of us want to think about being hopeless. But that’s the desperation the characters need to feel. Otherwise, the story isn’t compelling.

Author Kate Forest has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a dating coach, and spent a disastrous summer selling above-ground swimming pools. But it was her over 20-year career as a social worker that compelled her to write love stories with characters you don’t typically get to read about. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two kids, and a fierce corgi. Learn more at kateforestbooks.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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Photo of J.K. Knauss smiling

J. K. Knauss on Bloody Cucumbers, NaNoWriMo, Bagwyn Books, and Violence

We first met J. K. Knauss when we did a Pitchapalooza at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, one of our favorite bookstores in the world. We loved her idea for her book, but we were also impressed that she actually wrote a blog post that was very entertaining and formative about the event itself. Subsequently she bought one of David’s books and noticed that the metadata for the e-book was wrong. It was these impressive displays that made us become big fans. Not only of what a professional J. K. is, but also how generous a person. And now that her new book is out, we wanted to pick her brain about writing, publishing, and all that jazz.

Read this interview on the HuffPost.

Photo of J.K. Knauss smiling

J.K. Knauss

The Book Doctors: What made you decide to become a writer? What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?

J. K. Knauss: I’m not sure there was a decision involved. I have no memory of ever wanting to do anything else. My favorite books as a kid were the many by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Willo Davis Roberts. Not only did they write lots of great books, but I also got to meet them at an author fair near my hometown. Seeing that authors were real people, like me, I hoped that someday, somebody might pay me for my writing.

TBD: We noticed that you use Goodreads. Could you explain to our readers how you work with that website and what some of the benefits are?

JKK: Goodreads is a wonderful way for readers to get in touch with authors because the site is entirely dedicated to books. I encourage readers to use the “Ask a Question” feature on my profile, and to join groups that interest them. With so many books out there, sites like Goodreads can help with one of life’s toughest questions: what to read next?

Book cover of Seven Noble Knight by JK Knauss; silhouettes of knights on horseback

Cover of Seven Noble Knights by J.K. Knauss

TBD: Could you describe your process of writing Seven Noble Knights? How did you come up with the idea? What is your daily writing practice like?

JKK: Seven Noble Knights is based on a legend I encountered in graduate school. Don’t let that turn you off! I read my advisor’s paper about the possible meanings of the bloody cucumber incident and decided I had to read everything I could about such a bizarre story. It had much more to offer—knights, ladies, Spanish pride, Moorish civilization… I let it marinate for a few years, then wrote the big travel chapters, the giant battle, and the last three chapters during two consecutive NaNoWriMos. During November, writing was the first thing I did every morning. Otherwise, I stealth wrote, fitting in sentences and scenes wherever I could between my paid editing and copyediting projects. I’m still a stealth writer today.

TBD: Do you use beta readers? Are they valuable in the editing process?

JKK: The first time I lived in Tucson, I had the kismet to join a writers group worth its weight in editorial comment balloons. They’re talented writers who gave me fresh perspectives on how to build a medieval world without bogging the reader down. Most importantly, they’ve stuck with me through some exaggerated highs and lows, even though I had to leave Tucson not once, but twice. Thanks, Low Writers!

TBD: Did you work with an editor at your publishing house? If so, what was that like?

JKK: I worked with a couple of professional editors as well as my critique group, got feedback at the 2013 Naperville Pitchapalooza and the 2014 Grub Street conference, and sent Seven Noble Knights through my own editing mill before I sent it out. Bagwyn Books makes historical accuracy their highest priority, so my editor and I focused on presenting a well-rounded picture of medieval Spain.

TBD: This is such an epic, how did you approach keeping all the storylines and characters afloat and helping your readers not get confused?

JKK: Buried in a tote bag with a flamenco dancer on it, I have a folder that’s thicker than the paperback is going to be with research notes, fold-out maps, character lists, chapter outlines, and a handwritten translation/summary of a few chapters of a thirteenth-century history book. There’s nothing like the benevolent authority of King Alfonso X, el Sabio, to keep a writer on track.

TBD: There’s lots of violence in Seven Noble Knights, but none of it feels gratuitous. Could you give us some of your philosophy about violence in stories, particularly violence towards women?

JKK: Medieval Spain was a society in a state of perpetual warfare for more than 800 years. Everywhere you looked, there was a border to attack or defend. So while it surprised me to be so drawn to such a violent story, it’s important to present the context accurately. I hope readers will come to their own conclusions about the appropriateness of violence in the Middle Ages and today.

There’s so much else going on in Seven Noble Knights, violence against women only occurs during Doña Lambra’s punishment. This is a female character who hasn’t hesitated to wield violence against others as one more tool for getting ahead. In the sequel, there will probably be some nongratuitous violence against innocent women characters. Much as it pains me to consider, again it’s a question of historical realism.

TBD: So, we have violence and odd uses of produce. Do the passions of your medieval characters come out in any other way?

JKK: As fiercely as they slay the enemy and seek revenge, so do the characters in Seven Noble Knights defend their families and fall in love. The hero, Mudarra, finds no meaning in his life until he meets a forbidden love. The seven young title characters will do anything to keep the peace within their beloved family. Don Gonzalo is deeply devoted to his wife, the mother of the seven noble knights, and will do anything to return to her—even betray her with another woman. Doña Lambra loves her cousin, but has to marry some nobleman she’s never met before. Lambra’s maid falls in love with the stable boy and hopes he can help her escape her servile life. Love arises all the stronger in hopeless places.

TBD: We checked out your story collection Rhinoceros Dreams. David also loves rhinoceroses. Why are you drawn to the rhinoceros?

JKK: All five species of rhino are soulful creatures, the gentle giants of the savannah or the rainforest. I had the opportunity to pet a pair of white rhinos at Southwick’s Zoo in southern Massachusetts, and it was the most Zen moment of my life. I highly recommend petting a rhino if you can! And I hope people will stop desiring them for their horns, which are worthless to anyone who isn’t a rhino.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but do you have any advice for writers?

JKK: You might think a field dedicated to bringing the dreams of sensitive writers to an eager reading public would be all daisies and unicorns. But the publishing world has more of the brutal about it than the subtle. When you least expect it, something about the publishing process will break your heart. It’s the price authors pay for loving to write. If you have what it takes, you’ll keep going. So my advice is: “Brace yourself.”

Born and raised in Northern California, J. K. Knauss has wandered all over the United States, Spain, and England. She worked as a librarian and a Spanish teacher and earned a PhD in medieval Spanish literature before entering the publishing world as an editor. Seven Noble Knights, an epic of family, betrayal, and revenge in medieval Spain, debuted December 2016 in ebook from Bagwyn Books. The softcover edition came out January 16, 2017. Tour dates, fun, and prizes are still being added to the Seven Noble Knights Grand Book Launch Blog Tour. Feel free to sign up for her mailing list or visit JessicaKnauss.com for castles, stories, and magic.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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Author Charlie Jane Anders with a fake raven in her hand

Charlie Jane Anders on Writers Building Community, Smushing Genres, & Being an Outsider

It’s hard to be a writer in the Bay Area and not know Charlie Jane Anders. Besides being a prolific writer, she is an incredibly generous networker and runs an absolutely awesome reading series called Writers With Drinks. So we thought we’d check in with her and pick her brain about novels, writing, reading, and all that jazz.

Read on the Huffinton Post.

Author Charlie Jane Anders with a fake raven in her hand

Charlie Jane Anders

The Book Doctors: In some ways, your book defies categories. To us, it felt like magic realism, but it has elements of fantasy, cyber-steam punk, and coming-of-age. When you sat down to write this book, did you think about what category it would be in? Did this make it more difficult to sell the book and find an audience?

Charlie Jane Anders: When I started to write All the Birds in the Sky, I was attracted to the idea of smushing together fantasy and science fiction by having a witch and a mad scientist in the same story together. I thought of the book initially as sort of pastiche or spoof. I would have all these standard fantasy tropes and these science fiction tropes, and they would be colliding in a funny way. That turned out to be very, very boring. Instead, I had to think more about what these two genres meant to me and how I connected to each of them personally. I was terrified that this genre confusion would make the book a hard sell — but it turned out the bigger problem was the fact that it starts out with the characters as little kids and then we see them grow up about 100 pages in. It seemed like some people could not quite wrap their minds around the idea of a book that feels like a young-adult novel at first but then becomes an adult novel. I was so grateful that my agent and publisher were willing to roll with it and didn’t try to get me to restructure the book, with flashbacks or whatever.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders book cover; flock of birds all over the title

Book cover for All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

TBD: David has, because of many personal experiences, felt like an outsider most of his life. So he especially related to the main characters of this beautiful book, and we wondered if your experience as an outsider helped shape these characters, who are fighting against a world that sees them as different, unusual, bizarre, and ultimately, threatening.

CJA: The theme of feeling like an outsider kept coming up in this book, in part because of the decision to start out with the main characters as kids. I think a lot of people can relate, one way or another, to the sense of not fitting in or being misunderstood. I had a rough time in grade school and middle school for a bunch of reasons, and I felt like writing honestly about growing up meant that I had to capture some of that emotional and physical insecurity that so many of us have lived with. And yet, having the kids grow up and live as twentysomethings meant that we got to see them as powerful adults, with control over their own lives and agency and all that goes with that. They can’t escape from being shaped by their childhood experiences, but they can choose how they deal with it.

TBD: You have put a lot of time and effort into reaching out to a community of writers. We suggest this to our clients all the time. How did you do this, and has this helped you in your writing career?

CJA: I can still easily remember when I felt totally isolated as a newbie fiction writer, and how hard it was to find people to connect with. Whatever point you’re at in your career, writers really need to stick together, to help deal with the pressure and insanity of the creative process and the publishing biz. I’ve had a blast curating Writers With Drinks, the reading series that I organize and (usually) host in San Francisco. I have gotten to meet a whole bunch of amazing writers — including David! — and hear them read. And it’s been a thrill to expose people to a new audience, especially since Writers With Drinks usually has as many different genres and styles as I can fit into one event. So you might come to hear the science fiction author, but discover a new favorite poet. But just as valuable has been the social aspect — an event where we’re all creating something together and nobody’s competing has been great for helping me (and hopefully others) make friends. I think being around these awesome, talented people has helped me raise my game as a writer, because I get to hear/read some of the best examples of the craft every month.

TBD: David has read several times at the fantastic reading series called Writers with Drinks, at the deliciously named Make Out Room in San Francisco, and he always has a blast. What have you learned by watching the hundreds of writers that you have wrangled into this wildly successful series?

CJA: Ha, see above. To add to what I wrote up there, I think that part of the fun of Writers With Drinks has been the thing of combining different genres and getting to see how a stand-up comic, a slam poet, a science fiction author and a literary memoirist are using some of the same techniques and approaches — just with different end goals. Plus you get to see how each genre is powerful in its own particular way. I love when you get people laughing their ass off one minute and then being moved to tears the next.

TBD: Tell us about io9 magazine.

CJA: Getting to be involved with the creation of io9 was one of the greatest opportunities of my life. Annalee Newitz, who founded io9, wanted to blend science and science fiction in a kind of homage to Omni Magazine, and it was really inspirational to see how the two things informed each other. After eight and a half years, I came away with a really strong sense that we are 100 percent living in the future. And I basically got paid to geek out about storytelling, and sometimes my half-baked ideas about books, movies and TV shows led to some of the most fascinating conversations with our readers and other folks. It was like getting paid to go to grad school.

TBD: You’ve been published in tons of small magazines and journals, like Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Zyzzyva, to name a few. How does a writer get published in these places, and how has this helped you in your publishing career?

CJA: When it comes to Tin House and McSweeney’s, I was only published on their websites, but it was still a major honor to be featured there. And getting into ZYZZYVA was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me. This super well-respected literary magazine chose to publish me way, way back when I was just starting out and barely getting my stories into tiny zines and the occasional website. In general, I published tons and tons of fiction in small publications, many of which have gone under or never received any exposure to speak of. Early on, I would publish stories pretty much anyplace that was willing to consider them, including one of those adult newspapers that’s mostly a vehicle for stripper ads. I didn’t make a lot of money from doing that, to say the least, but it was good to get the experience of having my creative writing appear in a lot of places and dealing with editors and readers. The whole process of making up a story — and having it turn into something that other people read and take in and form their own relationship with — is so weird, it might be kinda good to get used to it before you start reaching a bigger readership.

TBD: You won an Emperor Norton Award. First of all, what is that exactly, and how did you end up becoming a winner of this prestigious award?

CJA: Oh ha ha ha… the Emperor Norton Award for Extraordinary Invention and Creativity Unhindered by the Constraints of Paltry Reason is something that Tachyon Publishing and Borderlands Bookstore were doing for a while there — I don’t know many of them they gave out, but I was so thrilled. I think something about the weird, silly intros I cook up for the authors at Writers With Drinks, plus my bizarre fiction, struck someone as unhinged, in a good way. I was very flattered — hinges are good for doors, but I think a lot of people could stand to be a little less hinged. I’m always kind of scared of how many people seem to think they have everything all figured out.

TBD: You are a self-described “female geek.” What does that mean to you? And tell us about the anthology you put together that embraces this particular demographic.

CJA: Way back in 2006, Annalee and I were both approached about editing anthology projects for Seal Press, and we decided to collaborate. Our book was called She’s Such a Geek, and it was a collection of essays by women in science, technology and other geeky fields. We put out a call for submissions, and we were just blown away by the hundreds of submissions we received. There were a lot of heartbreaking stories by women who had been at the top of their class as undergraduates but then got treated horribly in grad school. A lot of geeky women of color shared stories of hearing subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about their ability to keep up and contribute. There were also a ton of uplifting, thrilling stories of geeky triumph and discovery, from women who discovered a love of science, math, tech, gaming or science fiction and found that it changed their lives. It was an eye-opening, intense experience. Since that book came out a decade ago, we’ve seen way more women celebrating their geek identity, and venues for female geeks to come together. There’s an annual event called GeekGirlCon and a ton of other stuff. It’s been so awesome to see that happen.

TBD: In All the Birds in the Sky, Patricia the witch forms a really strong bond with her cat, Berkley. What happens to the cat after she goes off to magic school?

CJA: A ton of people asked me what happened to Berkley, who’s very important in Patricia’s life when she’s in middle school. I learned the hard way that you can’t leave any loose ends where cats are concerned — unless they’re loose ends in a ball of yarn, in which case go ahead. So I wrote a story called “Clover,” which is available at Tor.com, to explain what happened to Berkley later on. This turned out to be one of those things where you start pulling on one thread — to continue the ball of yarn metaphor — and then all sorts of interesting things start coming out. I ended up getting a chance to explore a bit more about the use of magic in my fictional world, and approach it from a very different direction than I did in the book, thanks to a different protagonist. Plus this story absolutely stands on its own — so if someone hasn’t read the book yet, this is a good way to dip into that world.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you do have a column in which you give writing advice, what advice you have for writers?

CJA: The main advice I have for writers is to hang in there and keep writing. And also, to be kind to yourself. A writer — especially a beginning writer — has to keep two contradictory mindsets in order to keep going. You have to believe that you’re a flippin’ genius, your ideas are brilliant, and you’re a fantastic storyteller, or you won’t be able to summon the audacity and stamina to create the big, ambitious stories you want to tell. But you also have to be aware that your writing is going to have huge flaws, it’s easy to screw up, the craft takes a long time to learn (and you really never finish learning it), and when people criticize your work they’re probably on to something. That combination of hubris and humility can be hard to sustain and can easily drive you nuts. So be nice to yourself, and just keep writing even if you think you’re churning out garbage sometimes.

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky. She organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series, and was a founding editor of io9, a site about science fiction, science and futurism. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, Pindeldyboz, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and a ton of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and her novel Choir Boy won a Lambda Literary Award.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.

Book cover of Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third; characters in a car driving underground

Cathy Camper on Lowriders, Graphic Novels and Diversity in Books

We first met Cathy Camper when she won our Pitchapalooza at the great Portland bookstore Powell’s. The first book in the series did so well that the second one is out now, so we thought we’d pick her brain about books, lowriders, outer space, libraries and diversity in books.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Book cover of Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third; characters in a car driving underground

Chronicle Books

The Book Doctors: Tell us about the new book.

Cathy Camper: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth came out July 2016. This graphic novel follows Lowriders in Space. The three main characters are the same, but you can read each book on its own and still understand what’s going on. At the end of Lowriders in Space, Genie, Elirio, Lupe and Flapjack Octopus’s cat goes missing. The three embark on a crazy road trip to find their cat. It leads them down into the Underworld, ruled by Miclantecuhtli, the Aztec God of the Dead. He’s catnapped their gato, and to get back Genie, it will take all their combined wits and camaraderie to outwit La Llorona, Chupacabra driving a monster truck, and Miclantecutli, who wears a luchadore cape of eyeballs! Similar to the first book, Raúl III illustrated it all in ballpoint pen, with the addition of a green pen in this book, because they get lost in a maíz maze along the way.

TBD: How was it different writing the second book after the first book did so well?

CC: Once you have a book out there, there’s always pressure to deliver another book that’s equally good. Luckily, I was already thinking up book two at the same time I was writing book one. I had to do a big rewrite early on, which was tough, but the book kept getting richer and richer the more I wrote. Also – a big difference – when I wrote book one, I didn’t know who would illustrate it, or even if it would be a graphic novel or picture book. But with book two, I was able to write towards Raúl III, and his style. I even asked him, “What do you like drawing?” He said, “Bats and skeletons.” So I wrote the story to let his artwork flourish. In this way, we work together more like musicians, and it’s really fun.

TBD: There seems to be this idea in the publishing community that Latino people don’t read books. Could you address that please?

CC: Well that’s sure not been our experience – every school visit and author talk we’ve done, we have Latinx loving our book, both kids and adults. Those publishers might need to look at it the other way around; if people aren’t buying their books, maybe you don’t have things people want to read. School Library Journal just chose our book as one of their top Latinx books of 2016 for kids, and we got this best books of 2016 shout out from Gene Yang, Ambassador of Children’s Books, so there ya go!

TBD: What are some of the challenges of writing a graphic novel, as opposed to a novel without images?

CC: A graphic novel is a collaboration (unless you’re drawing it too), so you can’t be too precious about your words….lots get edited, cut and changed. Writing a comic is more like writing a film than fiction; your words are instructing actions. So you need to be like a director when you visualize what happens; it’s boring to have lots of static scenes with crowded dialog. Sometimes, you can sneak a little poetry into the text, but more often, the poetry exists in the meld between text and art.

Photo of Raúl Gonzalez III and Cathy Camper smiling

Cathy Camper (right) and Raúl Gonzalez III (left)

TBD: Tell us about the process of working with your illustrator.

CC: Raúl III and I are lucky, because we get along super well. When we started to work together, we had only spent around eight hours together (he lives in Boston, I live in Portland, OR), but we both have a good work ethic, a similar sense of humor, and we give each other a lot of give and take in the books’ creation. Generally, I write the story first with the editors, then it goes to Raúl and the art director, for the blocking of panels and pages, and artwork. In most kids’ picture books, the artist and illustrator only communicate via the editor. But Raúl and I often share ideas; he might suggest text, and I might tell him something to tuck in the illustrations. It really is like playing jazz, lots of improvisation and adding in things we discover along the way.

TBD: How has being a librarian affected your work as an author?

CC: I wrote these books because I couldn’t find them to give to kids at my library. We desperately need more diverse books, and books that appeal to boys. Working around teachers, parents and kids all day, I know what books are connecting with folks. I’m also pretty good at pitching books to people – I do it for my job! As a librarian, I’ve also learned a ton about publishing and the business side of books, how books are made, ordered and promoted.

TBD: What is your next project?

CC: I’m working on the third lowrider book. It’s called Blast from the Past; L’il Lowriders in Space. Remember L’il Archies, or the Muppet Babies? This is the same thing – it’s all about our three heroes when they were kids, their families and where they grew up. I have an Arab American picture book that will come out in 2019, called Ten Ways to Hear Snow with Penguin/Dial. There’s another Arab American picture book in the works, and a YA novel called Circle A, about some kids in the ‘80s that meet some punks squatting in an abandoned house. That one deals with issues of social justice, race, sexual orientation and how images are misused in the media, all issues that are front and center right now. I look at each book as a good adventure, you never know where it will lead.

TBD: What or some graphic novels you love, and why?

CC: For kids, I enjoyed Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma, and The Hilda comics by Luke Pearson are really imaginative. I also recommend March Grand Prix by Kean Soo, for kids that ask for more comics about cars, since it’s about car racing. I thought the Lunch Witch books by Deb Lucke were also great. For adult comics, I love Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf, and thought the compilation The Shirley Jackson Project edited by Rob Kirby, of comics about Shirley Jackson, was fantastic.

TBD: Any exciting news about Lowriders in Space, since it came out in 2014?

CC: Yes, Lowriders in Space got nominated for a Texas Bluebonnet Award, so Raul and I have done a lot of author presentations down there, and felt all kinds of love from the Lone Star State. The Bluebonnet committee is made up of awesome librarians and educators, and they posted a lot of fun material educators and parents can use to supplement our book.

Also, both Raúl and I have heard many accounts of how our books connect with kids. The most touching is testimony that they are a gateway books, for kids who just wouldn’t read. For kids that don’t see themselves reflected in books, for kids that struggle with reading, for autistic kids – we’ve heard again and again our book was the spark that lit the flame of how exciting reading can be. As creators, we’d hoped to share a story in our heads with folks, but to have those stories open the door to the pleasure of a lifetime of reading? We are totally awed, and honored.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, illustrators, or graphic novel people?

CC: Keep writing. Writing is like a boiling pot; if you have talent and write enough, it will get better and better, something good will eventually boil over and someone will notice. My other advice is to do work in the DIY/alternative world, the same as you do in the mainstream world. Eventually the two overlap, and the adventures and skills you learn in both end up complimenting each other. And for writers of color, and writers outside the mainstream, don’t give up! We need your stories, and you are the future.

Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, with a third volume in the works. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow, and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.  

Rainbow, Baba Ram Wammalamma dingdong & the Garden of Earthly Delights

delightc-362x400SPORTING MY NUT-HUGGING ELEPHANT BELLS, I arrived in Laurel Canyon, an enchanted eucalyptus oasis in the middle of this Hollywood smogfarm metropolis. As I entered the log cabin house set behind a wildflower jasmine jungle, a solid block of patchouli incense musk nearly knocked me over. With driftwood tie-dye batik beanbags windchimes macrame´ hanging plants and Mexican day-of-the-dead skeleton art everywhere, it looked like Woodstock exploded in Rainbow’s house, as this boomed out:

“Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones, you better watch your speed”

Rainbow had long straight grey hair, feather earrings and a floor length tie-dye dress with a dopey hippie happy face on it. No make-up. No shoes.

Namaste.  Enter.  Would you like some ginseng tea?” wafted out of Rainbow.

The customer’s always right. When in Rome, drink ginseng tea. While she fetched me tea I survey lots of pots of pot plants. Rainbow returned with my tea in a psychedelic homemade mug with a drawing of some dopey hippie happy face on it. The tea smelled too earthy and dank for drinking, but I brought the Mother Earth medicine scent up to my lips and sipped.

It was good. And good for me.

“Do you dig the dead?”

Rainbow looked at me like she expected something. I was confused.  Was this some weird necrophilia deal Mr. Hartley, my employment counselor/father confessor/fairy godmother/pimp, forgot to tell me about? I made a mental note: Find out what’s the going rate for having sex with dead people. But perhaps more importantly, do I feel comfortable shopping a dead person?

“I believe Jerry Garcia is the physical embodiment of the Godhead, don’t you?”

Jerry Garcia!  The Grateful Dead. That’s who belonged to that dopey hippie happy face.  Jerry Garcia! I saw me digging a grave and putting a gratefully dead Jerry Garcia in it.

“Oh yeah, Jerry Garcia is a total Godhead. Yeah, I definitely dig the Dead…”

I trotted out my best hippieboy smile. Actually, I couldn’t’ve cared less about the Dead. Or the dead. Rule #5: the customer is always right. I was there to get paid. I looked around for my envelope. No envelope. I didn’t like that. I was looking for a low-maintenance score, get in, get out, badda bing badda boom. Relax, cowboy, you’re gonna get paid, go with the flow, flowing, in the flow. Hey, someone wants to pay me to say Jerry Garcia is the physical embodiment of the Godhead, that’s Easy Money.

“Give me your hand,” Rainbow said.

I gave her the hand. She took it.

“You have big hands,” she said.

In my line of work that was a compliment.

“Thank you,” I said.

She looked at me funny, like it wasn’t a compliment at all, just a statement of fact. But she didn’t really seem to care, she looked into my palm like it held the key to the sweet mysteries of life.

GET THE MONEY UP FRONT

GET THE MONEY UP FRONT

GET THE MONEY UP FRONT

 Only the newest greenhorn in Greenhornville doesn’t get the money up front. This is what separates the rank amateur from the hard working professional. You’re not here to have a good time, Charley, you’re here to get paid.

But Rainbow had produced nothing, and I could tell she’d be just the sort who’d get all bent if a guy mentioned something as crass as cash.

So I sat and stewed as Rainbow gazed into the crystal ball of my palm.

After she stared at my palm for what seemed like a month, Rainbow was starting to seem demented. I was convinced she was a Charlie Manson groupie with a garotte she was going to use to sacrifice me and the goat I was sure was in the backyard.

I was starting to have serious doubts about Rainbow.  About this whole line of work. I had enough money. I could excuse myself like I’m going to the bathroom and walk out and just drive. But again the question: Where would I go? Who would I go to? I had nowhere. I had no one.

“You’re a very old soul…” Rainbow concluded.

You said a mouthful there, sister.

“…and you‘ve lived many lives…you were an explorer and sailed all over the world… and you were a sultan with many women. You were a mighty warrior in battle, and you were a slave on a plantation…”

Rainbow looked into me like she had periscopes that went through my eyes.

That was when I noticed her for the first time. In all the confusion I hadn’t really seen her. She had deep eyes, steel-colored with flecks of cobalt. A big Scandihoovian Bergman madly-suffering but eternally hopeful face. I half expected Death to walk out of her bedroom and challenge me to a game of chess for my soul.

“You’re here to learn a lesson, and I’m here to teach you…” Said Rainbow.

Okay, it’s a hot-for-hippy-teacher thing. I breathed easy.

“Do you know what tantric sex is?” Rainbow asked.

I could dish some semicoherent gobbledygook about ancient mystic Asian sex, but she wanted me to be the blissfully ignorant manmoonchild, so naturally I turned myself into whatever she wanted me to be. That was my job.

“No, I don’t…”

Rainbow handed me a smile, and led me through a translucent tie-dye cloth door into a bed with a room around it. It was the biggest bed I’d ever seen. Overhead, high in the tall pointed ceiling was a skylight, where incense curled up thick from fat Buddha bellies; candles tossed soft little drops of light everywhere; elephantheaded Indian gods with massive genitalia copulated with lionheaded goddesses; statue women stared with dozens of breasts; a halfman halfbull was inside a godhead with a doghead; Japanese paintings of Jade-looking beautybabies intercoursed in every position imaginable, one leg up over an ear, the other wrapped around a head; Old French postcards of cherubinesque honeys were Frenched and doggied; a guy went down (or would that be up?) on himself; and a shrine of rosebudvaginas and phalluspeni smiled.  Pillows and cushions plump velvety; blankets, fur, and fat cloth made me feel like a cat, and I wanted to roll around getting my belly stroked while nubile handmaidens fed me catnip.

A sculpture of a vagina started talking to me: “Hi, David, welcome to the party, come on in.”

And in the center of it all a big picture of a dark man with long black curly hair and brown magnets for eyes that kept staring at me no matter where I went in the room, it was freaky. He was hard and soft at the same time.  I’d never seen the guy, but he looked familiar, like he was the kind of guy who could set you straight if you were floundering around. And I was so very full of flounder at the moment.  I made a mental note to find a wise, kind, benevolent guru teacher as soon as I left Rainbow’s. I’m still looking.

“That’s Baba Ram Wammmalammadingdong,” said Rainbow.

I was sure she didn’t really say that, but that’s what it sounded like to my 17 year-old man child idiot ears, all Dr. Seussy.

“He’s the master of sensual enlightenment.”

That’s what I wanna be when I grow up: master of sensual enlightenment.

“Sexual transcendance can only happen when you are connected to the life force that flows through all living things,” breathed Rainbow. “You have to open, I mean really open, all of your… shock absorbers.”

Years later I would realize it was my chakras and not my shock absorbers that needed opening, but at the time I couldn’t care less.  I’d open my shock absorbers, my athletic supporters my cookie jar, whatever she wanted. I just needed to get paid, and I needed to get paid IMMEDIATELY. I was seeking enlightenment through cold hard cash.

“Why don’t we start by meditating?”

Rainbow settled into a big comfy-womfy cushy cushion crosslegged, and motioned for me to do the same.

I balked. I’m naturally curious by nature, I was very interested in the whole third-eye transcendent sex thing, and picking up some exotic kinky eastern sex tips would’ve been grand, but I had to get my money UP FRONT.

I sighed quiet. I knew for a fact it will not help us achieve harmony with the life force that flows through all living things if I told Rainbow she needed to pay me IMMEDIATELY.

I was dreadfully dithered.

But just when things were looking their most dodgy, the gods smiled upon me, and Rainbow, God love her, new what I needed and could not ask for.

“Oh, shit, you need some bread, don’t you?” she said.

I could’ve cried. I saw this as a clearcut sign that I was being taken care of by something bigger than myself.

Rainbow got out of crosslegged, rummaged through an old macrame´ bag, and returned with four skanky twenties, a nasty ten, a funky five, four filthy ones and a bunch of loose change, then handed me the whole kitandkaboodle.

I was starting to dig this crazy chick. I could see her scrimping and saving to give herself a treat. Me. I was the treat for my trick. I vowed then and there to be a pot of gold for this Rainbow.

“Opening the gate that leads to the garden of earthly delights can only be achieved through a woman’s pleasure.”

Rainbow paused to make sure I got it.

“Opening the gate that leads to the garden of earthly delights can only be achieved through a woman’s pleasure.”

She looked at me intensely, so I understood how important this was.

So I thought about it hard.  It was comforting to have someone telling me what to think about. I didn’t have to make any decisions, and that moment, decisions were just disasters waiting to happen.

Garden of earthly delights. A woman’s pleasure. A woman’s orgasm.  Tumblers click in my head, a lock snapped open, and I saw the light. A woman’s pleasure was the key to sexual ecstasy. Now that I had my money, I was keenly interested in this whole thing.

“A man can have multiple orgasms… most people don’t know that, but it’s true. And I can show you how to do it.” Rainbow said with absolute conviction.

Multiple orgasms? Hell, I had one and it nearly kills me. But I was crazy curious to see if I could incorporate some clitoris into my penis.

“There’s a line where your orgasm is, it’s kinda like a waterfall. See, it’s like you’re in a beautiful warm river, and the current is pulling you along, and you’re headed towards the waterfall, you’re getting closer and closer… until you’re hanging right there on the edge of the waterfall, but you’re not letting yourself go over.  You just get inside your own orgasm, and you can stay there as long as you want, as long as you don’t release. Do you know what release  means?”

Yeah, I think I got the idea.

“No, what do you mean?” I asked.

“Your release is your ejaculation. So you can orgasm without ejaculating,” Rainbow said carefully.

And the weird thing was, I knew exactly what she meant. River, waterfalls, release, the whole shebang.

“I know it sounds totally… far out… but if you can wrap your cosmic mind around this, you’ll always have lots of groovy lovemaking in your life. You probably won’t get it tonight, but it’s something you can always practice. By yourself, with a partner, doesn’t matter. In the words of Baba Ram Wammalammadingdong, ‘Practice makes perfect.’”

I was starting to really like this Wammalammadingdong guy.

“Wow, that sounds… far out.” I’d never said far out before or since, but Rainbow ate it up like wavy gravy with a tie-dye spoon.

She took off her robe. She was the only industrial sex customer I ever had who took off her clothes while I still had mine on. And for an old broad (again with the proviso that anyone over the age of twenty-five years was Old) she had a riproaring body. Supple muscles firm lithe and graceful, breasts slung low, with big brown chocolate kiss nipples in the middle. Mental note to self: as far as books go, don’t judge them by their covers.

Rainbow seemed to be one of those rare people who was actually comfortable with her own naked body.

“You have a beautiful body…”  I would’ve said it whether it was true or not, but in this case it was true, which did make it easier.

She liked it. She wasn’t desperate like lots of my other clients, but she liked it.

“Do whatever makes you happy,” said Rainbow.

“Do you want me to take my clothes off?” Just trying to keep the customer satisfied.

Wow. Whatever made me happy. Reminded me of my mom. No one said that to me in real life, never mind when I was chickening.

Seemed like if you were gonna learn to orgasm without ejaculating, you should be naked. So I took off my clothes.  Rainbow set opposite me crosslegged on that continent of a bed. I tried, but I just couldn’t get the crosslegged thing going.  My pedophile grandfather’s coalminer soccerplaying legs were just too unyielding. I was tugging and pulling, cuz I was trying to suck it up and play through the pain, but damn, that shit hurt.

“Don’t do it if it hurts. Don’t do anything that hurts…” Rainbow flows. You gotta hand it to the hippies, when it comes to peace and love and all that business, they really know their shit.

Rainbow showed me how to deepbreathe, and we deepbreathe until we felt the life force flowing through us. I didn’t actually feel the life force flowing through me as such, but she did, and that was good enough for me. The crumpled bills in my pocket were filling me with the life force.

Rainbow and I Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmed for about a fortnight. Eventually I did feel a little lightheaded, like when I first smoked a cigarette. But hey, if she wanted to pay me to breathe and say om, that was rolling off a log for a chicken.

Finally when Rainbow was om’d out, she took my hand, placed it on her breast, looked me in the eyes, and with a hypnotic smile showed me how to roll that mammoth mammarian poolcue tip between my thumb and forefinger, and it got bigger and tighter, until it felt like it was ready to pop, while she made airsuck sounds of pleasure.

I could smell her now, Rainbowing as she made my hand the axis between her legs around which she gyrated, nestling my head into her neck and whispering, “Kiss me soft…”

I ate her neck like a fruitcake while she revved in growly moans, everything moved in rhythm like a well-oiled sex machine, the fur blanket softly soft as she guided me like an air traffic controller. Then Rainbow replaced my hand with my mouth and she huffed and she puffed like she was gonna blow the house down, jimjamming and earthquakeshaking.

I smiled inside. I was getting a crash course in the fine art of a woman’s orgasm, and I was getting paid for it. America–what a country!

“Now I’m right there,” she pants, “…if I let myself, I’d go right over the waterfall… but… I’m… not… I’m gonna stay… right here and let the… waves roll through me… there’s one… slow down… Stop!” Rainbow squeezed, fists clenching and unclenching like a baby breastfeeding, “…now slow… there’s another one… ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… God…”

Rainbow let rip with a top-of-the-lungs scream. A gigantic little death. When she collapsed at the tip of my tongue, I understood for the first time what they were talking about, as time warped, Einstein smiling somewhere, eternity in a second, infinity in a grain of sand.

I thought of busting my ass in the grease of Hollywood Fried Chicken.  I thought of my father slaving away at the explosives plan. I thought about my grandfather shovelling coal down the mine. I sure as hell wouldn’t be getting black lung disease from this.

A rainbow slowly descended from Orgasm Mountain, while I stood next to her, nakedly rolling my big huge rock up my big huge hill.

After a brief intermission, Act II began. She pulled me into the river, took me right to the edge of the waterfalls, and then stopped. The most important thing, she said, was to turn off your mind, and move into your body. You can’t think and swim at the same time.

Once a man plunges over the waterfalls in his barrel, of course, it’s all over for him. For a while at least.  So you have to be very careful and really pay attention. I practiced getting right on the edge and just sticking there. And it was good. When she did something particularly compelling, I felt the spray in my face and the pull of the fall, and by God, quivers did quiver me, then I quickly pulled myself back.

Rainbow was my Seeingeyesexdog.

“Wow, that was groovy…” I said, when it was clear we were done.

Groovy? I couldn’t believe that came out of my mouth, but as usual I’d ceased to exist in my need  to please.

I didn’t know what to do next. Should I hang out? Were we friends? I thought for a minute. I still didn’t feel that creeping mudslide of depression I usually got after I worked as a chicken. I was just a little confused, that’s all. But looking around I could see myself moving right in here and being the sextoy for all of Rainbow’s old greatbodied freakyhippie chicks. Sounded like fun, I think, as I grabbed at another salvation flotation device.

“I have something for you…” Rainbow was sweet as you please, slipping into an old soft tie-dye robe. I followed at her heels like a naked chickenpuppy. She reached in a drawer and I was expecting a nice fat juicy tip. Twenty, maybe fifty. Instead Rainbow pulled the out a feather.

A feather.

“It’s an earring,” said Rainbow.

I had to work hard not to show how totally disgusted I was as I took out the rhinestone in my ear and replaced it with the feather. I looked in the mirror. To my amazement, I actually liked the way it looked. Kind of tribal. Even though I silently scoffed when she presented it to me, that feather became a war souvenir, and I wore it on and off for many years.

And whenever I did, I thought of Rainbow.

She kissed me on both cheeks. She thanked me. I thanked her. She didn’t say we should get together again soon, or that we should stay in touch. I loved that. I did what I came to do, we both got what we wanted, and that, as they say, was that.

Rainbow was the only trick I ever had who gave me more than I gave her.

Motorcycling away from Rainbow, floating on my feather earring in the sweetness of the cool Laurel Canyon night, I was high on Rainbow’s free love.

That she paid for.

Bacheloretts, Bulging G-Strings, & Dick-Filled Lap Dances: Deconstruct Male Stripping in the New Millenium

Chippendales2Rumors of the death of male stripping in America are greatly exaggerated.  I know, because recently on a dark dank Saturday night, I took the Queen of LA Stripper Intelligensia, 5’10” Private Dancer/Nordic goddess Nica Jensen, to the seedy sweet scrotum of Hollywood, Arena Nightclub, Santa Monica & Highland, where The Hollywood Men were reportedly going to be shakin and bakin their moneymakers, while frenzied females shriek & wave seas of money for dick-filled lap dances.  Needless to say, me and Nica are highly skeptical.  We’re early.

The club seats 500 people.  So far there are only 7 lovely Latinas at one table, decked out in the height of East LA fashion.  One wears a white wedding veil.  One is in a wheelchair.  They are already drinking heavily.  Looks like we’re in for a long night.  We’re greeted by Dan Remington, the emcee/part owner of The Hollywood Men.  He’s a 16 pound bowling ball of a guy with slick hair and matching handshake, surrounded by a surprisingly nice smile.  He is, and will remain, fully clothed, and is the only performer who will be able to say that.  He tells us that December sucks, it’s the worst time of year, which is true in so very so many ways, in my opinion.  You can see he’s a little worried that no screaming ladies are going to show up, and without them, it’s a very different show.  But during the bachelorette season, Dan tells us, there are 500 women here 3 times a week, in fact they had to move here because they outgrew the last place.  Guys come from all over the world to audition, if you’re interested just call, make an appointment, come down, one guy was just in last week from Europe, came all the way here to be a Hollywood Man.  A kind of pilgrimage, I guess.  Nica wants to know how many of the guys are gay.  “NONE,” Dan Remington blurts a little too loud, then says softer, “None of the guys are gay.  They’re not gay.”  During the next 12 minutes he will tell us like nineteen more times how not gay all the guys are.  Later Nica will say, “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much,” and I will laugh.  Hard.  Nica wants to know if any of the guys are married.  We are told they are not.  “They all have girlfriends,” Dan says, then leans in with a smile, “but almost all of them fool around.”  Later Nica will tell me she has no trouble believing that, and I will laugh again, though not as hard this time.  Nica wants to know where men sit if they want to watch. Dan tell us that no men ever come here to watch.  In all these years, only one gay male couple came, and when they saw what the show was, they left.  So none of the dancers or hosts or waiters are gay, and none of the audience is gay men.  But what would happen, Nica wants to know, looking down at Dan, if a guy wanted to come and watch?  “Well, we would sit him wherever he wanted to sit.”  This satisfies Nica, which is a good thing, cuz you don’t wanna piss off Nica.  Next we’re ushered into the dressing room to meet the brains and buns behind The Hollywood Men, the Sultan of Shwing, the King of the G-String, the dean of American male stripping, 1998 Playgirl Man of the Year, Scott Layne.  If you called Central Casting and asked them to send over a male stripper, Scott Layne would show up.  Even in sweats and a tank top, Scott exudes an utter American maleness, gunboats bulging, buff with mantan, hardbody with soft smile, chiselly cheeks with charmy eyes.  I’ve known Scott since New York Chippendale’s, where we worked together, and he first became a star under the late great Nick de Noia, the Grand Daddy dandy of modern American male stripping.  I’m happy to see him.  And he me, apparently, as evidenced by the big bear hug he lays on me.  Hug-wise I give as good as I get.  Not in a gay way.  I want to emphasize that.  It’s a deeply heterosexual hug, the hug of men who’ve fought together in the trenches of the battle of the sexes, comrades in codpieces, me armed with roller skates, tux and microphone, Scott with the smallest G-string the law would allow.  The show’s gonna start in half an hour, and I ask him if he’s nervous.  “Why would you be nervous?” Scott and Nica answer at the same time.  The mark of a true professional.  Nica wants to know what the chances are of a woman buying a ticket, attending the show, and taking home a Hollywood Man.  “Depends on how good looking she is,” Scott smiles.  Sounds about right.  Nica wants to know what Scott thinks turns a woman on.  “For me, it’s all about sharp moves, quick moves, that are sensual and sexy without being graphic.  I hate it when guys get graphic, that’s not what most women want to see. And I hate when dancers don’t pay attention to older women, to women who aren’t traditionally hot.  Look, women are all about the chase.  Men want to cut to the chase.  Women love the tease in strip tease.  Men are like, ‘Bend over and show it to me.’”  Nica nods.  Sounds about right.  We’re ushered back out into the club, and glorioski, there are like a hundred women buzz-cocking around, power-drinking, primping, whispering, giggling, babbling in gaggles, a dozen white wedding veils waving like snow covered clouds drifting towards the land of Marriage.  As the ladies chill, mill, and spill female hormones, half-nude spandexed cuffed and collared hunk Hosts hustle drinks and smear muscle-bulging flirtatious bodacious charm all over the women.  All of a sudden this seems like it could be fun.  The women seem like they’re already having a blast.  With each other.  Every little grouplet has the same kind of hair, the same kind of outfit, like different tribes, all with their own unique plumage.  I don’t see one single woman here by herself.  They are pack animals.  Female strip clubs are loaded with lone wolves.  Nica starts drinking.  This is a good sign.  She leans over and tells me that in a female strip club, if you say the girls are into having sex with each other, this is considered a very good thing.  I tell her I think it’s the specter of a homophobic Puritanical low-touch erotophobic machocentric culture.  Nica agrees.  She chortles: “And for God’s sake, how do they know they’re not gay, what do they do, give them all some kind of gay test?”  I laugh at that, too, as I imagine having to take a gay test: fashion sense, artistic ability, fellatio skills.  More women are streaming in, and by Jiminy, there must be close to 200 women  here.  Me and Nica are impressed.  Our waiter is cut, ripped, lean yet pec-heavy, hard-haired and ab-happy.  It looks like it would hurt your fist if you punched his stomach.  He doesn’t seem gay.  He doesn’t really seem straight either.  He seems kind of asexual to me.  Like he’s a Ken doll, and if you took down his black Spandex, a smooth bump would be there.  He seems like an accountant.  Nica asks him if he dreamed of being a topless waiter when he was a kid.  He laughs and says that he did not, that’s it’s a great part time gig.  Nica asks him what he does apart from this. Turns out he is an accountant.  Seriously.  When he’s gone I ask Nica if she thinks he’s sexy.  She looks at me like I’m stupid.  “Not my type,” says Nica.  “If there was some nerd here with glasses and a slide rule in his pocket, that would be more my speed.”  Then all of a sudden, BOOM! lights go down, sound goes up, and Scott’s voice booms through the room: It’s Showtime.  There’s smoke, there’s a big video screen, there’s crazy swirling lights, and when the first Hollywood Man busts onto the stage, a scream comes up from the ladies, a primal lioness roar that rattles my teeth, rolls through my bones, and lights up my balls like Chinese New Year, as I’m hot-wired right into all that grrrrl power.  Nica looks over at me.  She’s into it.  The women are into it.  She leans over and whispers: “There’s a lot of really beautiful women here, aren’t there?”  I nod in agreement.  There are.  5 Men pop out onto stage and do a hiphoppy Fosse meets Backstreet Boys choreography, and the women are up on their feet, like at a Southern Baptist church when the spirit lifts the congregation.  Nothing like this in a female strip club.  Big video presentation, clips of movies and local news segments featuring the Hollywood Men show, in front of all that tight seemless choreography.  The men do take their shirts and pants off in the opening number, but not until they take off their jackets and shirts, unbuttoning and removing little by little.  When they get down to their skivvies, the estrogen laden roar bounces off the walls.  Now we’re into the numbers.  Each is almost a Jungian American archetype: Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, the Cowboy, the Fireman, the Vampire.  They all start off with lots of costume, surrounded many times by other dancers.  Slowly they take it off while lip synching, until they take down their underpants to reveal their teeny G-strings.  When they get to this point, they all make the same move: they turn around and bend over, their asses shining like a big happy heartmoon.  The women seem to love that.  They writhe, they undulate, they simulate intercourse, poundpoundpounding into the floor. They pour oil on themselves. The men touch themselves on their covered penis areas quite a bit.  The women seem to love that, too.  But honestly, after a while, the perfect smooth hairless chestpecs and the perfect smooth hairless 6 pacs, and the perfect smooth hairless asses all blend one into the other.  Mind you the women are great.  They are so much fun to watch.  I love how they enjoy the show through each other.  Understand this: in terms of sexual orientation, I am 70%, 20% lesbian, and 10% gay, so this show is not, as has been pointed out repeatedly, intended for me.  But I did 2 years at Chippendale’s when it was the hottest show in New York City, so I know my way around men taking their clothes off.  Plus, that’s why I brought the lovely and talented Nica, because she likes men and finds them sexual.  Plus she’s taken her clothes off in front of them for money, and she’s not ashamed to say so.  Plus she’s watched a lot of men watching women take their clothes off.  So after every act, I turn to Nica and I ask, “Was that hot?  Did that guy turn you on?  What that sexy?”  Every time she shakes her head and says, “No.”  It’s not that she’s having a bad time.  She’s actually enjoying the show.  It’s just that none of these beekcakey bodies is beaming out any real sexuality.  That’s what it seems like to me, and Nica confirms this.  Then Scott Layne comes out, and she sees why he’s a star.  He’s Danny Zuko from Grease, ducktail, tight leather pants and jacket.  Behind him on the screen is John Travolta playing Danny Zuko from Grease.  The effect is cooly postmodern in a Warholian way.  The movie icon duplicated by the live male stripper icon.  And Scott pulls it off, the same cocky shy nice intense calm vibe beaming out of both of them, stripper as movie star.  Only Scott actually sings.  He’s got a mike, and he’s singing.  At first I don’t believe it, because his rockabilly Elvis thing very good.  But then there’s a little slip, and it clearly is him singing.  Nica turns to me and she nods and says, “Wow, he’s really good.” And you can see it really isn’t the meat, and it’s really is the motion.  It’s the power and the skill that comes from having perfected a craft, being able to channel the Sex muse effortlessly with talent.  Scott blows the roof off the joint, as the women go gaga.  Afterwards I ask Nica if she thought he was sexy.  She hesitates.  Thinking.  “He’s really good.  I really enjoyed him, he’s a total pro, the guy is really talented.”  Next up comes a guy in a bad female wig and skirt, with balloons shoved down his feminine sweater.  It’s as if Jerry Lewis has decided to become a male stripper.  Nica is intrigued.  To a hip hop Spike Jones-ish soundtrack, this guy does an old school burlesque silent comedy number.  And he’s fucking funny.  With amazing control of his body.  Slowly the wig, sweater and skirt come off, and he’s sporting a goofy Clark Kent meets Devo wig, with a Superman shirt.  He shifts the balloons from his chest to his crotch, magically transforming them from huge breasts into gigantic balls.  And the guy is an astonishing mindbending breakdancing fool.  Isolating his body and moving the parts independently of each other in freakishly funny bendability, in the great tradition of vaudeville eccentric dancers like Donald O’Connor, with the good looks and athletic muscular grace of Gene Kelly, all filtered through new millenium streetwise edgy urban modernism.  It is a breathtaking performance.  I ask Nica if he was sexy.  Her eyes have gone a bit dreamy in the middle of her creamy round face, and she nods her head: Yes.  Nica’s got a crush on the guy. I ask her why.  She tells me it’s because he diffused the manufactured, corporate asexual vibe with HUMOR.  That ironically, a nice dose of humanity is still what entices more than a shapely butt and a bulging G-string.

Now one lucky gal who wins a lottery gets to sit on a chair in the middle of the stage.  5 guys disrobe down to their wee G-strings and towels.   Then they gather in a tight circlejerk formation around her, facing her, and appear to remove their wee G-strings while opening their towels and exposing their johnsons and willies to her.  The audience goes nuts and bananas.  I thought if I was surrounded by 5 beautiful women and they all exposed their nakedness at me, I would like to see that.  That is probably a sight that I could work into a fantasy that I could masturbate to.  In fact now that I’ve thought about it, maybe I will.  Okay, I’m back.

Now all that remains is the up-close-and-personal, interactive, hands-on segment of the show, where the Hollywood Men actually come out into the audience, and the women wave the money, or plant in their cleavage, or in their panties peaking out from under their tight jeans.  And I’m telling you, when they climb down from that stage like so many Collosuses of Rome, it is an absolute free-4-all.  Unlike in a female strip joint, there are no beefy security guys to stop the clients from mauling the dancers.  And the fur is definitely flying.  There are at least 6 dancers, naked but for small black underpants, working the room.  And I mean working.  You hear little random screams and squeals and shrieks as little knots of females gather around dancers like menstrual blood clotting.  Every veil-clad bride-to-be in attendance gets at least one lap dance, and most of them get many.  The dancer generally comes over to the woman with the dollar bill flag flying (either held by herself, or more usually, her friends) and the dancer takes the bill, then undulates around and into the woman.  Many breasts and necks are nuzzled.  Male faces are buried into crotch areas.  Female hands stroke and fondle and feel up smooth hairless powerful male chests and bellies, and grab a package or two.  Sometimes a dancer literally disappears into a forest of females, so you couldn’t even see him anymore.  The 7 Latinas who were the first ones in the place are whooping and halloring and dancing.  I have to admit it’s great to see a woman dancing in a wheelchair.  Then she gets a lap dance, and the guy is really great with her, sexy and nice and respectful.  She’s digging it.  Then the bride-tobe gets her own lap dance, and she digs it even more.  I gotta say, the room is really hyper-charged with sexenergy.  Next to me, a truly stunning woman has stuffed a bill in her thong panties peeking out from under her tight jeans.  As she slides down onto the booth/chair, the bill disappears.  She tried unsuccessfully to fish it out.  He tries grabbing it with his teeth.  With as little success.  She unbuckles her belt, unsnaps her jeans and parts the zipper like it’s a pare of beautiful vaginal lips, revealing her stunningly sexy lower belly.  The dancer hesitated, then goes down.   He nibbles around the bill, then slowly and seductively pulls it out of the string of her thong thing.  I have to admit I was jealous.  I wanted to be that dancer.  This moment illustrates the best of the audience participation section, what at Chippendale’s used to be called the Kiss & Tip.  I did see a couple of the guys pull women’s hair, yanking heads into crotches with what I thought was too much force.  Some women seemed to like that.  Other seemed put off when the dancer moved away.  Regardless, MUCH MUCH money exchanged hands, and MANY MANY hands roved over ACRES & ACRES of naked flesh.  I wanted to give Nica the opportunity to have a lap dance if she was into it.  I was curious what her reaction would be to getting one, having given so many herself.  I asked her if she wanted one.  She nodded enthusiastically.  This is just one of the things we love about Nica. Guess who she wants a lap dance from?  Funny wildly talented smiling sweet guy.  Naturally.  I have to admit I felt a little odd asking this guy wearing nothing but tiny black underpants if he would give my friend a lap dance, but only because all that gay talk before the show made me afraid I would disrupt the delicate balance of the show.  Me, I don’t give a shit, I just want Nica to have her lap dance.  So I find the guy and tell him what I want, and he’s the very model of accommodation.  Nica gives him the money.  The guy’s got curly brown soft hair, as opposed to the hard sculpted look of so many of the other guys.  He looks her in the eyes as he pulsates and undulates rhythmically before her. She sinks down into her chair as he moves in closer and closer to her until his smooth supple rippling skin is inches from her lips. Nica seems to be really enjoying her lap dance.   She puts her hands on his chest.  He is gentle with her, but still seems capable of rocking her world.  He is professional, but slightly removed, an amazing mover with a supple lithe physicality and a serious soulfulness, although he doesn’t seem emotionally engaged like he did on stage.  He spends a good 5 minutes with Nica before he kisses her on the cheek and takes off.  Nica’s cheeks are flushing and her eyes are alive.  I ask her if she enjoyed her lap dance.  She says she did.

Then it’s on to the big slam bang finale, and Scott’s bringing the show home.  Everybody gets their bows and applause, and then the lights are coming up.  I go over to the 7 Latinas who were the first ones in the place.  Turns out the lady in the wheelchair is the mother of the woman in the white bridal veil.  They’re laughing and carrying on and having a grand old time.  Turns out the veiled bride-to-be is getting married next Saturday.  Her boyfriend knows she’s here.  He told her to go out and have a good time.  That’s why she’s marrying him.  She points out the dancer Nica has a crush on and says, “Tell him, ‘Oh my God!”  Just tell him that for me.  ‘Oh my God!’”  Her mother in the wheelchair points to a picture of Scott.  “Tell him that I’d like to take him home.”  Everyone hoots and hollars.  You can tell they’ll be telling this story for a very long time.

Me and Nica head backstage to the dressing room.  Many men are in various stages of sweaty robing and disrobing.  Nica sneaks peaks.  Scott bounds over.  I tell him how much I enjoyed his show, and how Nick his mentor would have been proud.  Scott seems genuinely touched.  Nica thanks him for a great show.  Tells him what a great entertainer he is.  It’s nice to watch, one pro to another, acknowledgment always meaning more coming from a peer.  “I’ve been doing it long enough, I better be good at it,” Scott smiles with wry self-deprecation.  “How long have you been dancing?” Nica wants to know.  “Over twenty years,” Scott says. “Not bad for being 42 years old, huh?”  Nica cannot believe Scott is 42.  I can.  Nica wants to know if we can interview her favorite dancer.  Scott hooks us up.  Chris Watters is his name.  2 T’s.  With his clothes on he seems smaller.  He’s well dressed casually, groomed, moving with an easy animal grace.  He seems shy and earnest.  He’s traveled all over the world dancing for women.  He got his start Jane Mansfield style, only instead of at Schwabs, Chris was minding his own business dancing in a nightclub in Boise, Idaho, when a guy spotted him and recruited him into the male exotic dancing business.  He’s currently running his own music production company, CMW Productions (cmwproductions.net) while going to school studying business administration.  His parents are into him being a dancer.  They’ve seen the show and they dig it.  Nica wants to know what he’s learned about women taking his clothes off for them.   He smiles and thinks.  He’s a thoughtful guy who chooses his words carefully.  “I see women from a totally different point of view.  I see women at their worst, when they’re drunk and rude.”  Pause. Thinking.  “I put up a lot of walls.”  Pause.  Thinking.  “Some dancing… table dancing, makes you feel creeped out… it’s too much… people cross boundaries.  I like it a lot better when I can just get out on stage and do my thing.  Women dancers are a lot more protected.  It’s weird feeling like an object…”  Pause. Thinking. “it makes you feel creepy… people can be so… I come home with scratches, and bruises, and bite marks, and I have no idea where they came from… it’s scary… sometimes rich women make you feel like shit, they think they can say anything they want, and they say cruel things, sometimes, they’re drunk, they look down their nose at me… it can get really ugly.”  Pause.  Thinking.  “Like I said, I see women at their worst.”  Nica wants to know if Chris is married.  He confesses that he is.  Me and Nica shoot each other knowing glances.  The wife’s a gogo dancer.  Not a stripper, he says a little too quickly.  Like we’d care.  But that’s part of this world, those fine lines that distinguish what you will do and what you won’t.  Take off your clothes. Leave on your G-string.  Sell a kiss.  Let a customer touch you in your most tender netherparts.  Selling your sexuality is a tricky thing, and the shading between trick and performer, john and gigolo, hustler and dancer is crucial for mental stability.  You set your boundaries, and that is how you define yourself.  A lot of male strippers at I worked with at Chippendale’s sold sex, but they would never call themselves a whore.  Whereas, when I’ve worked with women from the next class of sex worker down the foodchain, the street ho, many embrace their ho-ness, “Yeah that’s right, I’m a ho, so you wanna fuck with me, I have got to get PAID!”  Nica wants to know if he’s planning on having kids.  God love Nica, she’s keeping us on track.  Chris smiles that crazy sweet sexy shy smile:  “Yeah.”  I ask what he’d say if his son turned to him and said: “Daddy, when I grow up I want to be a male stripper!”  “No way!” he laughs very loud.  He’s got a nice easy laugh, which he’s laughed a couple of times, but this laugh is loaded with jaded cynical world-weariness.  Nica wants to know why not.  “Dancers get lazy.  It’s too easy, the money.  There’s no work ethic in this world.”  He starts to say something, then hesitates, as if his internal censor stopped him.  I ask him to elaborate, but he shies away.  It makes him more interesting, that there is something withheld.  Nica wants to know what he thinks women want.  “Confidence with a smile.  Even if you can’t dance, if you really have a good time out there, women like that. “  Pause.  Thinking.  Smile.  “I try to use the golden rule.  I do to others what I would want done to me.”  Hard to argue with that.   Nica shakes his hand.  I shake his hand.  Solid handshake.  Single pump.  Firm without having anything to prove.

As we leave Nica says what a sweet fragile soul he seemed, and confesses how she wants to rap him up in her arms and give him a big long hug, because he seems like he’s been so wounded.  She’s surprised.  She never thought guys would feel so much like she does about taking their clothes off for money.   She reflects how heterosexual male stripping is more akin to the neo-burlesque movement that is sweeping the country, as opposed to the more anatomical direction female stripping has evolved into, where girls make a series of poses which illustrate what they would look like having sex.  “If you can’t show them what you’d look like fucking, forget it, you’re not gonna make any money,” says Nica, and I can’t argue with that.

Then me and Nica walk out into the Hollywood night, where it’s not raining men, it’s just plain raining.  And I can say without hesitation that male stripping is very much alive and kicking, kissing and tipping, every Friday and Saturday night in the City of Fallen Angels.

What It’s Like to Get Hit By a Car on a Motorcycle

Weaving and gunning, he whipped it down Fell, timing it just right, so he hit the synchronized lights just as they changed, right on the edge of out-of-control. Divisidaro, Fillmore, Steiner flashed by: boom, boom, boom, George cruising Lili through each light as it turned green, one after another, like magic.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it coming, some big American junker-mobile running the light. That bastard’s gonna hit me, George thought, he’s gonna run that light, and he’s gonna hit me.

Imagine the smallest split of a second you can. Now split that an infinite number of times. That’s how long it took for George to think all that.

George’s eyes were wide as CD’s, utterly concentrated, totally focused. If he had not been, he would have died. If he’d had to, at this moment, he could have lifted a refrigerator off a loved one.

The driver of the American junker was drunk. His name was Ozwaldo Grzylwrsklnzwzykoski, aka Oz Grizzly. He had been drinking beer, then vodka, then beer, then vodka. He had somehow driven from Las Vegas, where he had been drinking with a relative who offered him a job breaking a man’s knees in Lodi, California. Oz was going to check into the Royal Viking Hotel, where he planned to dry out and have sex with several transgender sex workers. He actually should have been making a right turn, in which case this incident would have never happened. But he was so stoopid drunk, he ran the red, right at George, so blurred he couldn’t even focus on the steering wheel right in front of his eyes.

George lifted Lili’s front tire off the pavement. That, combined with the heavy screeching back-tire breaking, caused her to skid away from the Oz mobile.

Oz churned oblivious through the light, completely unaware he was perilously close to manslaughtering U vehicularly.

Lili seemed to be defying gravity itself as she flew sideways on Fell towards Market St.

And just as it looked inevitable that Lili was going to slam head first into the back panel of the passenger side of the Oz mobile, God seemed to intervene. Or maybe it was just George being all he could be.

Either way, George managed to get Lili to just clip the back of the Oz mobile’s passenger side bumper.

This stopped Lili’s forward momentum just enough so that with George flying forward at the same speed he had been, he flew over the handlebars down Fell St, head first.

Joseph Plantune, aka Joey, a homeless man who believed that aliens were coming for him imminently, looked up from the trash can he was mining, and saw a George flying through the air. He didn’t notice Lili or the Oz mobile. All he saw was the flying George. Head first. This caused Joey to sprint down Geary away from Fell, screaming, “You’ll never take me aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive!”

Holy shit, George thought, I’m flying through the air. With the greatest of ease. Hey, I’m even making a joke as I fly through the air. He seemed to fly forever, flying, floating parallel to the ground, headfirst. If only I had a cape, I could be Superman.

Then George realized he was gong to come down and hit the pavement. He did something smart now. Instead of thinking, he let his body take over. George was lucky that way. His body just naturally took over when it had to. When all around him were losing their heads he was inhabiting his body.

And his body, like most all bodies, knew exactly what to do.

And his body did it.

As it came down, George’s body naturally tucked, his shoulder rolling down towards the road, his helmeted head shielded by his right arm coming up, and as gravity took over, plummeting him towards blacktop, he landed on the flat of his forearm, rolling forward in a moving ball of humanity like a tumbler in thick black leather.

George’s body was all loosey-goosey, easy-jointed as it made contact.

And somehow he managed keep his roll going, as if he had been coached from an early age by a brilliant but cruel Rumanian gymnastic coach.

And when the roll was over, he popped up on his feet and stood there facing away from Geary St.

Stood on his two feet in his two boots.

Unscratched.

Unscathed.

Untouched.

Wait a minute, he thought, how did that happen? Did that happen? Did I just fly through the air, and do some crazy stunt man shit? How the hell did I do that? It wasn’t you, stoopid. That was God. God just saved me. Sent you a message. Do your job. Look after the boy. Thank you God, and I will not ever forget that you saved my life here. From now on, I do the right thing. Sex is highly over-rated. George made a note to himself: have that tattooed on your penis, young man.

Then he had a thought that moved him to action.

Lili.

Oh no.

Please God, just one more thing, I swear this is the last thing I’ll ever ask for: let Lili be okay.

George turned and ran back towards Geary.

There she was.

Lili.

Lying on her side.

Battered and bruised.

That beautiful old lady, scraped and scuffed.

He reached her, got down on his knees.

Put his hand on her, feeling for a pulse.

Oh please, be okay.

She’s dead.

What a night.

This is the worse night of my life.

I did this.

This is my fault.

If I had just minded my business and not been chasing my tail, he wouldn’t have gone skag hunting and Lili would be sitting under her cover where she belongs, having sweet Indian dreams.

Damn me.

Too late.

Somebody beat me to it.

George stroked her violated tank, gouged deep in the belly.

George ran his hands over her twisted front fender.

George let his fingers linger on her twisted handlebars.

George couldn’t bring himself to touch her scratched to hell forks, shock absorbed in shock.

Sadly he got himself to his feet.

With forlorn care, he lifted her to her wheels.

He slipped down her kick-stand and gingerly leaned her that way.

Lili groaned as her bent gnarled mass her rested on her stand.

She’s upright anyway, George thought.

He straddled her, without resting any way on her seat.

Looking at her handlebars was like seeing an injury victim with a badly broken leg, where the shinbone is pointing one way, and the foot is pointing the other.

Carefully, lovingly, George put his hands on her handlebars, and with the touch of an expert chiropractor, he pulled them back towards their natural resting place, like twisted a neck to bring it into alignment.

To George’s surprise, the handlebars moves easily back into place. In fact, they slid too far, so they were out of kilter the other way. Very easy he slid them back so they were centered.

Okay, George smiled, maybe it’s not so dire. Maybe she’s okay. Maybe we can coax her back to life. Maybe she’s just got a sprained hip and some minor contusions. Maybe there’s just a lot of blood from some superficial wounds.

George now dismounted and went to the front of Lili. He could now see that her front fender was bent badly, but if he was very tender with her, he could twist it back enough to be able to drive her, then take her to the shop and get her all shiny and new, like a virgin Indian touched for the very first time.

George took her into his hands and softly manipulated Lili, bending the metal so that it moved away from the tire. It did. It worked. It was an ugly raw wound, but at least it looked more normal now, and would not interfere with her smooth rolling.

George went back around and straddled Lili once more.

Barely breathing, he touched the key still hanging in its hole. He turned it into the Off position. He stopped and heaved a deep sigh.

I mean it Lord, if you give me this one thing, make this one thing okay, and I will never let you down again. Let her come one. Let their be light.

George switched the key back into the On position.

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, she turned on, the front headlight shooting out a beam of white into the black night.

Okay, said George, that’s it, you win. From now on, no shit, it’s the straight and narrow for me, no bullshit.

George then calmly, moved the lever out for better access, and my his foot primed her a couple of times, while giving her a little taste of gas with the hand accelerator.

He snorted three quick blasts of breath, and kicked down on the lever.

Lili sputtered and spurted, like a heavy smoker trying to wake up in the morning.

But George nursed her into consciousness by opening the choke on the left of the engine, pulling out the knobby pin so the engine gasped air and gas and the pistons sprung to life, pumping like porn stars as Lili finally righted herself and purred.

Oh Lord, thank you, now I know everything’s gonna be alright, George thought.

And he really believed it.

Why I Took My Daughter to Feed the Hungry on Thanksgiving

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“I’m starving,” Olive announced one day last week is. She’s my daughter. She’s six.

“You’re not starving,” I said, “you’re hungry.”

Epiphany. Laugh-of-luxury child has no idea what it means to starve. To not eat. To be poor.

Yes, she understands there are Poor People. But it’s an intellectual construct. Like knowing there are Emus or Mexican Jumping Beans.

I don’t want Olive to be one of those pampered, entitled suburban white kids who thinks of Poor People as the Other, to be denigrated, looked down upon, ignored, pitied from afar, used for cheap labor and/or cannon fodder. I was raised in lap-of-luxury suburbia, but I was taught that Poor People are just like you and me. Only they don’t have money. Or opportunity. Or a bubble of affluence surrounding them. I was raised to believe that it’s our obligation to give back. To help. To take care of those less fortunate than ourselves. I want my daughter to understand that the corporate-fueled greed which has corrupted this country is EVIL. I want her to understand that people are more important than profit. I want her to understand that it’s important to help people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
I know what it’s like to be poor. When I was 17 I was cast out, and lived in poverty for a decade. Food stamps. Dank basement apartments that cost $25 a month. Trying to choose between buying three slices of pizza or a used paperback. Figuring out how to become an expert shoplifter. Turns out I liked stealing more than I liked being hungry. But I was lucky, I’m white, I was educated, and I was loved and taken care of as a kid, told I could be whoever I wanted to be whatever if I worked hard and did the right thing. And I did. So by the time I was 30, I had returned to a lap-of-luxury life. And I want Olive to have an idea that is like to be poor, without her actually having to be poor herself. I know that’s not entirely possible, but I want to do all I can to help her understand.

So we decided on this Thanksgiving to volunteer to feed hungry people. We took Olive to Roosevelt Elementary School in Union City, New Jersey. We prepared her by telling her there might be some homeless people there, and they might dress and possibly smell different than us. But they were just like us. Only they didn’t have money. Or much chance of getting money. Or a fancy house or a fancy car or a fancy TV or fancy food. Olive has dreams of someday becoming a waitress. (Or an artist. Or an Olympic gymnast. Or an architect. Or a ballet dancer. Or a writer.) So the idea of getting to be a waitress for poor people on Thanksgiving was exciting to her in a way that only a six-year-old can get excited.

The volunteers at Roosevelt Elementary School were a rainbow coalition of all ages, races and sizes. There was festive bunting with “Happy Thanksgiving” festooned across it. Kids had made Thanksgiving art placemats that were totally cool. There was tons of food.

The vibe was festive, happy, thankful and giving.

IMG_20131128_112518_653Then the Mayor walked in. I was not expecting to meet the mayor of Union City on Thanksgiving. But there he was. In the flesh. He looked like one of the volunteers. His name is Brian P. Stack. He was born and raised in Union City. This was his brainchild. He started doing this on Thanksgiving when he was 14 years old. He handed out chickens back then, because he couldn’t afford turkeys. During the week of Thanksgiving he handed out 18,000 turkeys. Well, not personally. But his people. I asked him why he did this.

“I just know there’s so much need here, and I want to help.”

Politician has become a dirty word. They’re rich people who make dirty deals behind closed doors. They espouse goodness, while they lurk around public bathrooms looking for illicit hookups; they smoke crack like it’s going out of business; they cheat on their wives, their kids, and the people who voted them into office while they line their pockets with filthy lucre that’s meant to help those less fortunate than themselves. I didn’t expect on this Thanksgiving to meet a politician who gave me faith that America is not totally corrupt. There are still public servants who are, you know … public servants. Who serve the public. Instead of the other way around. Brian P. Stack seems to be in the business of making the word Politician mean something good again.

Then people started showing up to eat. Young, old, and in between. I was in charge of salad. Olive was in charge of rolls and cranberry sauce. She really got her waitress on, welcoming people, asking with a chipper smile, “Would you like a roll? Would you like some cranberry sauce?” She was the youngest one serving food by 25 years. She made people smile.
And they kept coming. At least 300 hungry mouths were fed by the time we finished. And lots of them took containers of food to go. They ate, they talked, they hung out, they ate. Some by themselves, some with their boy/girlfriend. Some with their family and kids.

After about an hour we took a break and Olive had a roll, some cranberry sauce and a giant helping of salad. There we were, eating with all the Poor People. After she finished eating, Olive looked around and said to me, “Dad, the poor people look the same as us.”

Point made.

I asked Olive if she was having fun serving rolls and cranberry sauce.

“Yeah,” she said, “it’s super fun.”

She was right. It was super fun. It was pure joy. With no hangover.

I looked up and all of a sudden we were almost done. Apparently time moves quickly when you’re helping people.

As we were leaving, Olive looked at me with a big six-year-old smile and said, “I want to do this again next year!”

And so we shall. So we shall.

Me & Sally: A True-Life Interspecies Love Story

sally monkeyThis is how I fell in love with Sally.  But this is not a love story.  It’s a tragedy.  Even though we were instantly drawn to each other with a fiery flame, and grew to love each other deeply, we could never be together.  We were too different.  Our people would never let us.  It would have been too scandalous, too shocking, too forbidden.  The world was not ready for a love like Sally had for me.  And I for Sally.

Sally and I are hired to act in a Michelob beer commercial.  The theme of the spot is evolution.  I am hired to star in the commercial as a Neanderthal Man.  Type-casting.  Four hours I sit while a crew of highly-skilled make-up artists glued thin layers of skin-colored latex over every inch of my face, transforming me from end of second millennium American Homo Sapien into Caveman.  They sculpt a gigantic forehead with a scary hairy monobrow, wee sunken eyes, a flaring nose cauliflowering across my cheeks, thick rubber caveman lips, and huge wooly mammoth-eating fake teeth.  My hair is almost fur, extending from the thicket on my head to my jaw lines, and down both cheeks.

When I look in the mirror I don’t recognize myself.  I look for a long time but I can’t find myself in there anywhere.   Until I look all the way inside my simian face and see my eyes.  There I am.  I have a deep desire to grunt and snarl and hump someone from behind.

Finally, I’m ready for my introduction to Sally.  Her trainer comes up to me, very serious, doesn’t even notice that I’m a 2,000 year old Neanderthal Man.

“Don’t make eye contact at first.  Let her come to you.  Get down on her level and don’t make any quick movements.  Be very calm and very still.  She can sense fear.  Plus, she can jump six feet straight up in the air, and she’s ten times stronger than you.  For example, Sally’s jaw is so strong she could snap your arm in two like a dry twig.  But it’s really important she doesn’t feel any fear coming off you.”

Suddenly all I can see is my bloody Neanderthal hand dangling out of Sally’s mouth and I’m panicking while trying desperately not to panic.

Sally comes out of her trailer, hand-in-hand with another trainer.  I squat down to her level.  Avert my eyes.  I can feel Sally’s stare as she inches slowly towards me wary and dangerous.  Sounds like a bass drum has been transplanted into my chest cavity.  I’m so scared I have no spit.  There’s a small crowd gathering, all quiet tension, waiting to see what Sally will do to David the Neanderthal.  Finally she’s right in my face.  Since I’m not making eye contact for fear of having my Adam’s apple ripped out, I smell her before I see her.  She smells clean, wild, untamed, and of the earth.  I feel myself calm with smell of her.

Sally sniffs me suspiciously, moving her mouth to my jaw.  The tension is unbearable.  Her hot breath breathes on my lips.  She’s brings her lips to my cheek.  She’s going to rip it open, tear the flesh off the bone, I just know it.  I’m trying harder than I’ve ever tried anything not to visualize her biting my nose off with her superstrong jaw that can snap my arm in two like a dry twig.

Slowly, ever slowly, I turn bring my eyes to hers like a simian Southern belle, bringing my eyes up to meet hers.  Sally’s stare almost knocks me over.  Wise, curious, clever, keen, deep, sharp, smart, mysterious animal passion beams from Sally into me, jolting my soul and rattling my bones.  Her face is a picture of puzzlement, brows knitted, head tilted to one side.  As she stares into my half-man, half-monkey face, I find I can read her thoughts.  She’s speaking to me with her eyes:

“What are you?…  You’re not one of them…  But you’re not one of me…  Seriously, what are you?”

I smile.  I can’t help it.

Sally puckers, then covers my face and lips with tiny sweet little kisses.

I’m overcome, undone, head-over-heels in love with Sally.  She puts her arms around my neck and hops into my arms.  The crowd oohs and ahs, witness to the start of a beautiful tragic love story.

The whole rest of the shoot, Sally and I are like sweet and potato.  Whenever she sees me, she runs up to me excited as a longlostlover, jumps up in my arms, and covers me with kisses.  I carry her around like she’s my sweet lovemonkey and I’m her ape loverman, holding hands and going bananas, swooning and spooning.  I’ve never known a female who was so openly, unabashedly, good-naturedly affectionate, who lit up so in my presence.

Work laws for actors like Sally are very strict, due to years of Hollywood abuse.  So Sally works very strict 12-hour shifts.  This may seem trivial now, but it will prove crucial as our story unfolds.

In the commercial I, Neanderthal, will be sitting next to Sally, while an actress, playing a Homo Sapien waitress, flirts with me.  We block the scene without Sally.  The actress walks up to me all stiff and skittishy, just lobbing her line in my general vicinity, like a lazy newsboy tossing an errant morning paper:

“Hey good looking, come here often?”

It’s bad.  Bad, bad, bad.  The director stops everything, walks over to her and says, “I need you to hot it up, honey, make with the goo-goo eyes, like you did in the callback, babe.”  She promises she will, shoots him a sex-baby look, which evaporates the second the director turns and walks away.  I notice her gill are a bit aqua green as she thinks about how Sally’s powerful jaw can snap her arm like a dry twig.

The lights are tweaked for the ten thousandth time.  The camera focused.  Hair, make-up and wardrobe are fluffed, patted, and tucked.  Finally everything is ready, hundreds of highly-paid technicians and advertising geeks all set to make commercial magic.

Sally’s brought in, hops up on her stool next to me at the bar, reaches over and kisses me on the cheek as I whisper sweet little Neanderthal nothings into her hairy ears.

“Scene 4, take 1.  Roll camera!”

“Camera rolling.  Speed.”

“Sound?”

“Speed!”

“And… Action!”

The actress walks towards us like a nervous cat at a dog show.  Even I can feel her fear, and I’m certainly no monkey.  She started to make the most tentative of flirty eyes in my general direction.

Well, Sally goes bananas, jumps up on the bar, bares her teeth, and hisses, looking like she’s going to rip this poor spooked woman’s heart out, show it to her, then eat it.

The actress’ scream curdles blood as she runs raging wailing and weeping through the set, and out the door.

I still think the advertising geeks should have used that in the commercial, because it says more about evolution than any of the lame shit they came up with.

But no, they decide to just write the waitress out of the commercial.

It’s a mad complicated shoot, and because the advertising geeks have been so busy figuring out which swanky restaurant they’re going to eat dinner at that night, we’re way far behind schedule.

So now it’s getting to be 6:30 PM.  7:00 is the end of Sally’s 12-hour shift.  So the advertising geeks send some junior assistant flunky over to Sally’s trainer and he asks if they can get Sally to work overtime, because if they don’t get all her shots, they’re going to have to bring everybody back and go way over budget.

The trainer says he doubts Sally will want to work overtime but he’ll see what he can do.

The geeks huddle furiously, whispering toxically.  It’s now 6:45 PM.  A much better-dressed executive walks up to the trainer.  They’ll pay whatever he wants.  Name the price.

The trainer smiles.  Slowly reminds the executive what Sally is, and how she’s not in any way shape or form financially motivated.

“Well then we’ll give her all the damn bananas she wants,” the better-dressed executive explains.

“Well,” explains the trainer patiently, as if he’s talking to a dumb animal, “Sally already gets all the bananas she wants, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Finally it’s 6:58PM.  The best-dressed executive hustles over to the trainer.

“Listen, I don’t care what the hell she wants, we need to get three more shots off before she leaves, is that clear?”

You can see the trainer is about to lose it, wishing to God that he only had to deal with reasonable mammals.

But before he can say anything, it’s 7 o’clock.  Exactly 12 hours after Sally started working.

Sally steps up on the bar, and slowly, dramatically, like the consummate performer she is, raises her left arm over her head, and slaps her wrist where a watch would be, the international sign for:

“Look what time it is.”

She then jumps down, and starts pulling me by the hand toward the door.  As the highly-paid technicians try desperately not to laugh, and the advertising geeks shit themselves, Sally and I proceed through the set, and straight out the door, hand-in-hand, like a naked bride and Neanderthal groom heading for our abba dabba honeymoon.

They have to bring everybody back the next day, and Sally becomes a hero.  She get sus all another day’s pay, and with incredible style, panache, and savoir faire, tells the oppressive exploiting fascist fatcat Bosses to stick it.  Love Live Sally!

When I ask the trainer about it, he tells me that Sally has an acute sense of time.  Because she works so often, she knows exactly when 12 hours are up, and has figured out that by making the sign for time, not only will her day be over, but she’ll also make everyone laugh real hard.  Which she loves to do.  All day, whenever it’s time for a meal, or a break, everyone from actors to Teamsters raise their hand up over their head, and slap their wrist where a watch would be, in silent homage to Sally the magical beauty.  Much to the amusement of everyone except the advertising geeks, who seem basically jaded and disgusted by pretty much everything except what swanky restaurant they’re going to eat at that night.

As for me, one of the great regrets of my life is that I never get to consummate my relationship with the exquisite, talented and loving Sally.  I know she would’ve been a powerful, wild, romantic, spiritual and highly rocking lover, and a fabulous life partner.  Oh, the spectacular kids we could’ve had!

But alas, Sally and I had a love that could never be.

The Whore Wars

HosHookersjohns marks cover croppedIt took me a quarter of a century to transition from teenage rent boy to best-selling author, but soon after I did, I was invited into the office of the prominent book agent. “David,” he said as he leaned back in his air ergonomic Aeron chair, “whatever you do, don’t get stuck in the sex ghetto.” So I left the sex ghetto, and wrote several books on very straight subjects. On five of those books, the publishers would not allow me to use my real name, because I have the stink of fornication upon me. But the sex ghetto kept singing her siren-sweet song to me. So I plunged back in and co-edited an anthology in which the contributors have one thing in common: they worked in the sex business. Absolutely no one wanted to buy this book–agents, major publishing houses, smaller publishing houses, university presses, even the tiny presses that publish exactly this kind of book. Finally after two years, and dozens of rejections, we landed at a small but well-respected independent publisher. In the end, after we paid all the contributors, we lost money putting together this book. The publishers only printed 2500 copies. Dan Brown has sold that many books since you started reading this piece. But somehow this little book that nobody wanted has put me at the epicenter of the Whore Wars, a fierce and ugly battle that has been raging for years in the sex ghetto.

In the world of sex for money, there are two armies. The decriminalizationist, largely liberal lefty, “sex positive,” it’s-all-good camp. Many are turning tricks to finance their master’s degrees; others are dominatrixes who are equally at home deconstructing the Marquis de Sade and flicking a cat-o-nine tales; lots of very organized loud lesbian activists. Even though they’re always telling you how empowering it is to be a sexual healer, most are either retired, or looking for a lucrative exit strategy because when you retire from the sex business, there’s no golden parachute. They argue that prohibition makes criminals out of hard-working Americans who are just trying to make sure baby has new shoes. Across the road is the abolitionist, mostly conservative, Christian-tinged, prostitution-is-slavery, everyone-is-trafficked, it’s-all-bad camp. They are mostly academics who wear dowdy clothes and look like they haven’t had sex in years; quasi-neo-feminists who claim to speak for the downtrodden victims of commercial exploitation from the lap of luxury; and not-for-profit activists who overcame brutal beatings on the mean streets as junky hos. They will trot out statistics that prove everyone in the sex for money world was sexually abused as a child, and that everyone who trades their body for cash is brutalized by charming but subhuman pimps, traded by smugglers of human flesh. Except for the reformed junky hos, none of these people have ever turned a trick. Not surprisingly, abolitionists and decriminalizationists alike seem to want to simplify this ridiculously complex subject so it fits their agenda.

In 2002, when my first book and I came out, I was recruited by both sides. And before I looked, I leapt. Just say yes. A good recipe for getting yourself into the sex business in the first place. So I collected writing from both the groups. My mission was to give voice to the entire spectrum of this underrepresented population, to humanize these creatures who are reviled and glorified, worshiped and spat upon in the sex ghetto. I invited everyone. If you lived in the Life, and if you had a story to tell, regardless of whether it was polished prose or a diamond in the rough, you were welcomed with open arms. I very consciously didn’t grind my political ax. In our book $2500 call girls, $100 rent boys, and $10 crack hos are bedfellows.

Most everyone, except me and my co-editor, thought this book would fly under the radar and die a slow painful death, probably out of print in a year. But on August 23, 2009, all that changed. That’s when our little book rather shockingly appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. That’s when it got ugly for me in the sex ghetto.

Usually, a book or an idea gets attacked from the right or from the left. But I’ve got both sides calling for my head on a pike. One side thinks I am, “Deplorable… dishonorable…” The other is, “Disappointed… pissed off…”. I have no idea what percentage of people who toil in the world of sex for money are doing so voluntarily, and how many are doing so against their will. In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to get reliable statistics. It’s not like a census taker can go to a “massage parlor” where trafficked women are being kept against their will (as was the case in several recently busted in the Bay Area) and interview the slaves. Or from an independent contractor who gets her tricks through craigslist. Or, for that matter, from “Ashley Dupree,” after she’s had her way with Elliot Spitzer. And so many of the statistics we do see from the left or the right are manipulated to fit their agendas. The fact is, right now, in big cities and small towns across America, a hard-working sex worker who is not being coerced, who is doing this of his or her own free will, is making money having sex with someone. And at the same time, a victim is being used as a sex slave by the most hideous, vile creatures ever spawned. That’s what’s going on in America, and whether we like it or not, the sex for money business is booming.

Quite simply, our society is sexually ill. It is broken. I believe the vast majority of Americans do not come close to getting all the love and sex they want. So they try to buy it. I believe this book has generated such intense interest in part because the oldest profession seems to be the next taboo being exposed in the limelight of the American zeitgeist. Mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, incest, one after another have been trotted out and examined like a bug under a microscope. Jim Carrol’s The Basketball Diaries, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life and William Styron’s A Memoir of Madness were all deeply personal accounts of aberrant behavior that had been previously swept under America’s rug. And now it seems like the world wants to know, who are these people selling sex? Why are we buying so much of it? Who are these hos, hookers, call girls and rent boys that make everyone from Catholics to Orthodox Jews to Islamic fundamentalists to Mormons regular guests in the sex ghetto?

This book was an attempt to answer that question. It took no sides in the whore wars. Should it be legalized? Prohibited? It seems both sides want the book to take their position. But it doesn’t. Our agenda is to let these hos, hookers, call girls and rent boys speak for themselves. This is why we opened our book with Post-Porn Modernist Annie Sprinkle’s “40 Reasons Why Whores Are My Heroes.” And followed it with Oakland’s diamond-hard mochaluv’s: “Being a Ho Sucks.” Are whores heroes? Does being a ho suck? Yes and yes.
However, as we put this book together, one thing became clear. Until we take the millions of dollars and man/woman hours currently being directed at adults who, having weighed their economic options, choose of their own free will to exchange sex for money, predators and peddlers of flesh who operate in every major American city, largely ignored by law enforcement, will continue to flourish. People who sell sex will continue to be in constant danger of being abused and beaten by both johns and the police, with no legal recourse. While savage killers like Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, continued to prey on women in that world because, in his words, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

If this book helps people see that men and women who have sex for money are mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, I will be happy. If it shines a compassionate light into the sex ghetto, it’ll be worth all the slings and arrows slung my way in the whore wars. But if nothing else comes out of all this, I hope the words of the legendary Georgina Spelvin, anthology contributor and star of The Devil in Miss Jones, ring out from between the covers of our book. “Do your part. Take a hooker to lunch.”

Shame on Joe Paterno & Penn State & a Plea to Abused Kids From a Rape Survivor

 I was raped. By a large, athletic, violent man. I was young, naïve, and defenseless. Being the victim of this unspeakable violence destroyed the kid I was. Every single day I am internally tortured by this abuse I survived over three decades ago. I became a drug addict. I tormented everyone who was stupid enough to love me. It took me years, decades, just to be able to function without indulging in self-destructive behavior on a daily basis. I was lucky. I had a family that stuck by me. I had resources to eventually get help. I healed myself with the help of a hypnotherapist, writing about my abuse and telling my story, and the love of a good woman. But I vowed that I would try, in whatever small way I could, to speak for boys and girls who are not as fortunate as myself. Who don’t have the resources and love in their lives. Needless to say, I was greatly affected by the news that Jerry Sandusky, a man who built an organization that purported to help kids, has been charged with violently and sexually abusing them. There are even reports that he pimped them out to other adults, in order to further his own apparently grotesque needs. I’m filled with rage. I want him to suffer as he made these defenseless boys suffer. I’m filled with fury at Joe Paterno and the other officials at Penn State University, who were complicit in this horrible alleged abuse. Who helped to hide this monster. He is every bit as guilty as the man who actually allegedly perpetrated these deeds of shocking cruelty. I’m filled with disgust for the fans of Penn State who continue to stand by men who allegedly enabled pedophiles. Why aren’t they in the streets expressing solidarity with those boys whose lives were ruined? Why aren’t they in the streets expressing outrage that men who pretended to have the best interests of boys in their hearts, were actually hiding and enabling the most vile creature imaginable? But mostly I’m filled with sadness for these boys who suffered so miserably at the hands of adults. I want to help. I want to tell these boys, these young men, the survivors, but they are not alone. They can get help. They need to tell their stories. If there’s anything I can do, please just let me know.

Tripping the Light Fantastic, or How I Learned to Play Hockey on Acid

At 16 I’m shipped away to Boarding School for my sins.  The school is full of bright, gifted, spindled, folded, and mutilated teenagers, almost all of whom have been kicked of at least 1, if not several, other institutions of learning.  Believe me, I fit right in at Boarding School.

darrow lacrosseWe have the worst hockey team in the history of the league.  Our first game we get beat like 31-1.  Do you have any idea how difficult it is to let in 31 goals in 30 minutes?  Any way you do the math, that’s over a goal a minute, ladies and gentlemen.  The best player on the team is Joe Skyfeather.  We call him Joe Starfucker, and he likes that.  He’s our goalie.  A great goalie.  After every game he’s one huge Iriquois welt.  He says if he wasn’t a hopeless Indian drunk already, he’d have to start drinking heavily.   The one good thing about losing 31-1 is that when you score that 1 goal, man, you celebrate hard.

Half-way through our season, we’re 0-5.  We’ve scored 4 goals, while allowing about, I don’t know, maybe a kazillion.  We’re going to play our sixth game, on the road, against Andover, 1 of the hoitiest of the toity prep schools in America.  As we’re getting ready to leave, Rat comes in all excited.  He’s just scored some acid from his brother who’s out on parole and laying low in Rat’s room.  I’ve never taken acid at this point, but the word from Rat’s brother is that this is the trippiest shit he’s ever seen.  And apparently he’s seen some pretty trippy shit.  And there’s enough for everybody.    Rat whips it out.  I’m expecting some bubbling liquid in a laboratory beaker, with smoke and prisms and colored lights.   But no.  It’s just an 8 x 10 sheet of paper.  He peels something off, and with an impish grins, places it on his tongue and downs it.  He holds it out for us to join him.  Everyone sits and stares.

“Come on, you sorry bunch of pansy-asses.  We gotta go show those rich bitches what it means to be play this game with a head full of the trippiest shit in the Berkshire Mountains.  We gotta show the world that we may be the worst hockey players in history, but we’re the all-time greatest partiers.  We gotta let our freak flag fly, man!’

Rat’s speech stirs something within me.  In all of us.  We’re castoffs, misfits, the throwaways of our generation.  And suddenly we’ve got a shot to go down in school history, turn ourselves from laughing stock into folk heroes, talked about around campfires for generations to come.

Still, no one wants to be the first to follow Rat down the road to Infamy.  Eyes are averted.  Feet shuffled.  Harrumphs abound.

It’s times like this that turn boys into men.  While us white suburban bourgeois laddies sit with our thumbs up our collective ass, it takes a young brave from the reservation to lead us.  A boy warrior whose ancestors have been raped and pillaged, lied to, deceived, mocked, vilified, burned out of the land they loved, hunted down and destroyed like vermin.   Joe Starfucker.  He rises slowly, a beat-up rented mule of a goalie with long, straggly scraggly raven hair.   He walks with the weight of the ages to Rat and sticks out his tongue.

hanson_brothersRat grins like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

“Yeah baby, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.  Joe Starfucker, you are the man!”

Joe closes his eyes and crosses himself, while Rat places the tab on his tongue like he’s giving Holy Communion.  When Starfucker swallows, everybody whoops and hollers.   Rat then dispenses the rest of the acid like he’s High Priest of the Order of Psychedelic Hockey, a cross between the Pope, Timothy Leery and Wayne Gretsky.

Beevo, Nevs, Harry the Hoagy, Fat Phil, Dougy the K, even Lurch, all gobble down their medicine.

When my turn comes, I’m shocked to find out that the tab of acid is actually a thin little transparent Mickey Mouse.  I smile as I swallow my electric Disney coolaid, visions of Snow White and her freaky dwarves stoned off their nuts, as Jimi Hendrix wails “Some Day My Prince Will Come” in the background.

It’s quiet on the bus to the game.  Scary quiet.  Everyone’s bugging eyes at each other, trying to see if anything’s happening, wondering if this really is some trippy shit, and if it is, what it will be like trying to play hockey against the masters of the universe Andover superstars while we’re massively loop-de-looped.

Then suddenly  we’re pulling into Andover.  You can smell the money.  At least I think that’s what the smell is.  The dorms are all swanky swank swank.  The grounds are manicured to within an inch of their strangulated lives.  The boys are wearing their spiffy little blue blazers, and their spastic little tassley shoes with their dorkadelic little preppy haircuts.  If you weren’t high on some trippy shit already, looking at all these Young Republican bootlickers-in-training would make you go all wavy gravy in a New York minute.

I’m still not feeling any effects, and frankly I’m beginning to wonder whether Rat’s brother sold us all a bill of goods, as we troop into the Taj Mahal locker room, looking at each other for any tell-tale signs of synaptic scramble.

lsdNot a word is spoken as we don the tools of ignorance necessary for us to get the inevitable ass-whupping we are about to take.  Our coach, Mr. Clament, the Clam, a besotted French teacher, senses something is amiss.  He clears his drunken throat, and launches into a Win-One-For-the-Gipper speech.

About half-way through the Clam’s speech, his face starts melting, his tongue flicks out like an iguana, and his eyes spring loose from their sockets like those eyeball glasses that hang down and wobble when you move your head.  His nose spreads out like Silly Putty smushed as his eyebrows do the Australian crawl across his face.  His lips are wax candy and his teeth are changing colors like the Wizard of Oz’s horse: red to green to blue to orange.

I shake my head to try and clear it, but that just makes little fireworks with tails shoot across the inside of my eyeballs in wonderful waving watercolors.

I look around. Everyone’s shaking their head, eyes covered with potter’s glaze, like a flock of sheep who’ve just been converted to Christianity.

The Clam reaches his drunken crescendo, expecting a rousing jolt of competitive manchild testosterone.  Nothing.  We just sit there, staring like big mouth bass, tripping our little brains out.  He’s dumbfounded, and decides his next logical move is go into the bathroom and drink, so he shrugs, turns, and disappears into the bathroom to drink.

“Is this some trippy shit or what?”   Rat pops his eyes out of his head and rolls them around, and the laugher lets loose – KABANG! – and we chortle like whacked-out bobbing head dolls.

The Andover superstar uniforms are shiny and new as the masters of the universe prepare to use us as the tools of their athletic glorification.  They look like bourgeois marionettes to me, stooge puppets of the paramilitary fascist state.  The thought of cutting their strings and watching them crumble cracks me up, and I catch an edge of my skate on the ice, tumbling down, and sliding headfirst into the boards with a loud crash.  The game hasn’t even started yet, and I’ve already checked myself.  Our whole team stops their pitiful warm-up, stares at me, and gets the giggles, tittering like schoolboys, kids in the stands pointing fingers and laughing at us, Andover superstars glaring with smug, condescending menace.

slide_294923_2397851_freeThen suddenly the game is starting, and the crowd shape-shifts, all beautiful fuzzy colors that only make sense when you look at the whole thing from a distance.  When I focus on any one person, the face seems to disintegrate and lose focus.  Or maybe it is me who’s disintegrating and losing focus.  Hard to say for sure.  The referee looks like a big fat zebra.  I chuckle thinking about the lion waiting for him at the watering hole after the game.

The puck takes about six weeks to drop from the fat Zebra’s hoof to the ice.  I discover I don’t have to move my legs to skate.   I float over the ice like an angel on a wave of feathers.  Beevo is winning the face-off now, and the puck shuffles back to me.  It takes its sweet time.  It realizes time is sweet.  I stop it with my stick, which bends and waves in my hands.  An Andover superstar rushes headlong at me, snarling like an overbred hound from hell, but moving in slow motion.  I sidestep him with the greatest of ease.  I have to stop myself from laughing it’s so much fun.  My bones are almost-congealed jello, my skin tingles with the fire of Godlove, and my third eye is wide open.  I see Harry the Hoagy streaking with trails like a comet up-ice and I can see the line the puck will travel to get to him before I even make the pass.  So I flick my stick and the puck goes on that exact line, like a geometry equation only I can see.  As if Harry the Hoagy and I are connected by a Higher Power.  The puck nestles gently on The Hoagy’s stick.  He cuts between the two Andover behemoth superstar defensemen and suddenly he’s 1-on-1 with the master of the universe goalie, face to mask, stoned off of his nut.  Harry the Hoagy starts to go right, the goalie bites, Harry changes his mind, slides the puck onto his backhand and eases it into the gaping mouth of the goal like Casanova scoring with the Queen of France.

We stop.  The crowd is all stunned silence.  The Andover superstars flabbergast.  Then it dawns on us.  We scored a goal.  We’re ahead for the first time the whole year.  We free-form to Harry the Hoagy and do a group hug interpretive dance celebration, Fosse meets Bullwinkle.  The fat Zebra has to come get us to re-start the game.  We’re too busy celebrating.  We’ve never celebrated being ahead in a game before, and we have no idea how it’s done, or when it’s supposed to be over.

The whole game is like that.  Lurch hits a guy so hard he airlifts him up off the ice and knocks out his whole family.  Rat is a whirling dervish, breaking up plays, leading rushes, poke-checking guys who aren’t even there.  Fat Phil is a man possessed, moving like one of those graceful hippo ballet dancers in tutus from “Fantasia”.  And Joe Starfucker,a well, Joe plays the game of his life.  Stick saves, pad saves, glove saves.  At one point he makes a save, and his glove flies off.  The puck rebounds right back to an Andover superstar, and he fires again.  Joe Starfucker reaches out and catches that puck with his bare hand.  This time even the Andover superstar crowd has to give him a big ovation.  They don’t want to, you can tell.  They have to.  He holds the puck over his head, he’s showing it the Great Puck Spirit, then bows deeply, as if he’s a Japanese kabuki actor.

largeLate in the game, the Andover superstars manage to sneak one by Joe Starfucker, after they roughed him up in the crease, which as anyone who’s ever been roughed up in a crease knows, is nasty business, and strictly illegal to boot.  The game’s winding down, and the Andover superstars are sharks who’ve smelled blood.  But the acid still floods our collective brains with the power and beauty of Mother Earth and Father Sky, and we match the superstars hammer for tong.

There’s a minute left to play.  We to get a face-off deep in superstar territory.  Beevo takes the face-off, the puck falling like a big black penny from heaven.  Beevo flicks it easily back to Lurch at the point.  Lurch winds up and takes a Paul Bunyon swing at it.  However, he mostly misses, catching the puck on end so it flutters like a drunken butterfly toward the net.  The Andover superstars are caught off-guard.  They’re expecting a bullet, clenched and moving towards the upper left corner of the goal, where it is happily headed.

I see the puck fluffernutting towards me, getting bigger and bigger as it calls my name:

“Here I come, David – here I commmmmmme…”

I see myself gently flicking the puck, caressing it lightly like a well-loved lover past the Andover superstar goalie.  So I reach up with my wavy stick and kiss the crazy gyrating puck with it.  The Andover superstar defensemen and goalie are already off-balance because it is loop-de-looping instead of shotgunning, and when I flick it, the puck tumbles down and right, leaving them grasping at air straws.

Gently lovingly it bulges pillowy into the billowing netting of the goal.

The buzzer sounds.

BUZZZZZZZ!

The game is over.

The silence sits on the ice like the gods have pushed the mute button.

David has slain Goliath.  Not with a stone and a slingshot, but stoned with a headful of totally trippy shit.

We skate over to Joe Starfucker and jump on top of him, flopping around on the ice like a huge undulating amoebae, until they cart us off.  In the locker room our clothes jump off our bodies.  We sing in the rain of the shower, then have a wild raucous ride home.

Word of our triumph, and how achieved it, spreads like wildfire through our little community.  Of course we never win another game all year.  Never even come close.  Rat’s brother gets put back in the slammer, and that’s the end of the great Acid Experiment.

But for one glorious winter afternoon, we were one with the universe, Kings of the World, and we did it tripping the light fantastic.

DSC_0017

The Birthing of Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry, or How My Daughter Got Born

Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry IMG_0080was determined to make an immediate splash, which she did by making her mother’s water break at five o’clock in the morning on September 11. Olive’s due date was September 5 so technically she was a week late, although obviously the due date is an artificial construct of a society that wishes to control this most uncontrollable of events. But this artificial due date would come to influence Olive’s birth in a profound and terrible. Because she was “late” she was not allowed to be delivered in a nice quiet birthing center suite with a big tub and a double bed, kind of like a cheap room in a Ramada Inn redone by Laura Ashley. This was the first in a series of maddeningly arbitrary decisions which were forced upon Olive by the hospital which made her life, and all our lives, so much more difficult, and seemed solely motivated by fear of litigation rather than the safety and well-being of Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry. So Olive had to be born in the madness of the delivery room of the hospital proper, and by the time she was born, the hallway was sick with contracting cervixes, and babies were practically flying out of uteri.

Olive’s mother basically felt nothing out of the ordinary for the 18 hours after the breaking of her water. Unbeknownst to her cervix was having a series of teeny tiny mini-contractions. I don’t know who Braxton or Hicks are, but I hope one day to have a contraction named after me. Having both seen so many movies and television shows where a pregnant woman’s water breaks, and then she has to frantically give birth in the back of a taxi, Olive’s mother and father were confused when the water so monumentally broke, a tsunami of fluids gushing willie and nilly, and then … nothing. They went to the hospital, they were examined, and were told to go home. So Olive spent the night in her mother on the day the water broke.

The next morning Olive arrived again at the hospital, and she was checked in in utero. The mother and father could not understand how this could be labor. Laughing and cracking jokes, thinking about next year’s line of mismatched socks and chilling with friends and family. Then a woman came into the hospital who was also very very pregnant. But she wasn’t laughing and cracking jokes. Pain flashed furiously out of her face as her body wracked. She was flushed and cramped, wet with mad perspiration, insane pain beaming put of her eyes. Clearly, Olive’s parents thought, there’s labor and there’s labor.

Olive’s mother was now hooked up to machines, prodded and probed, jabbed and stuck, measured and examined. A microphone was placed on her belly, and Olive’s heart was broadcast out of a speaker, while numbers appeared on a screen, and a printout spit from a computer, all synched to the heartbeat of Olive.

BOOM BOOM BOOM!

The one constant in the whole birthing process was the heartbeat of Olive. Rocksteady, pounding, it was magnificent and inspiring. Through the thick and the thin, the pushing and shoving, the tears and fears and panic and triumphant, you could’ve set your watch by Olive’s heartbeat.

BOOM BOOM BOOM!

And so they all assembled: Olive, her mom, her dad, her mother’s mother, her mother’s godmother, her dula and her midwife, with a series of nurses, technicians, doctors, drug dispensers, and the occasional cleaning person making cameo appearances. The contractions were displayed on the graph, next to Olive’s heartbeat.

BOOM BOOM BOOM!

They were small and irregular, these contractions, especially when contrasted with the heartbeat of Olive. And they stayed that way for many hours, while everyone chatted, yacked, laughed and swapped stories. It was like a party in a really depressing apartment without any music or alcohol. When Olive’s grandmother and grandfather left the contractions suddenly intensified. Olive’s mother’s eyes glazed, a dazed trance dancing on her face, her breath short, all of a sudden she wasn’t participating in the happy banter. And there on the contraction graph, a huge spike, the line jumping straight up all the way off the paper. It lasted for 30 seconds maybe, but it seemed so much longer, because it was so intense.  I lived through many earthquakes in California, and that’s kind of what it was like. An earthquake. Thirty seconds takes a month and a half to pass.  And then it was over.

IMG_1972 copyOlive’s mom had asked the midwife and the dula over and over, “When is it going to be Active Labor?” The dula turned to Olive’s mother and with dry sly wit said:

“Now it’s Active Labor.”

This new phase of quaking just kept going on and on and on and on and on and on, until time lost all meaning. But Olive still wasn’t coming out, and no one quite knew if her mother’s body was ready.  No one knew, of course, that Olive was a behemoth.  The midwife didn’t want to give an internal exam, for fear of infection, due to the fact that the water had broken so long ago. At the suggestion of the dula, Olive’s mother had been working diligently for months on the Big Ball, perfected a series of exercises which loosen the hips and pelvis. During this contraction marathon, she balanced furiously on the Big Ball, huffing and puffing and working her way through the spasms that wracked her body, telling everyone that Olive seemed to be sinking lower and lower and lower. Although at the time no one referred to Olive as Olive. Olive’s mother and father did not know Olive’s gender until they saw it. They had decided on the name Olive quite early on, but they had struggled to find a male name. Turns out they needn’t have bothered.

Finally, after too many hours of too much contracting, the midwife decided to determine how close Olive’s mother’s body was to being ready. Turns out it was not very ready at all. And by this time Olive’s mother was whipped into exhaustion, from over-exertion and powerful pain. She would start shaking, sometimes a leg, sometimes both, sometimes her whole body, violently involuntarily shaking. It reminded me of runners at the finish line of a marathon shaking uncontrollably, having lost control of their body.

The doctor wanted to cut into the belly of Olive’s mother and yank her out.  It had been too long since water had broken, and if something went wrong he and the hospital would be libel. Olive’s mother said, No, please don’t cut me.  Her father said , No, please don’t cut her.  But the clock was ticking and the doc was a picture of institutional fiduciary grimness.  Olive’s dad got so mad he wanted to punch the doctor in his smug face.  Her dad managed to repress that impulse.

The dula and the midwife took the great white doctor aside and they had an animated discussion.

olive sept. 20 040The image of the scalpel cutting into the flesh and Olive being ripped out made everyone edgy, tweaky and manic, especially since people hadn’t slept for such a long time and were freaked by the possibility that after all this, the baby could die.

After much deliberation and discussion, the doctor split and the dula and the midwife returned looked very happy with themselves.  Something was inserted somewhere to try and make the process happen more quickly. This seemed to have little effect.

After more deliberation and discussion, it was decided that a drug would be injected to induce labor. And a pain relieving epidural seemed clearly in order.

The Anesthesiologist marched in.  Crisp, meticulous and immaculate, a pin would look sloppy next to him.  He seemed to have a spotlight shining on him.  He wheeled in a large metallic box, like a magician, and laid out all his tools on its flat surface. I once worked as a fruit picker, with migrants. The way they attacked a fruit tree was a work of art. They didn’t seem to be moving that fast, but everything happened so rapidly you couldn’t follow it.  It was surreal. That’s what the anesthesiologist was like. He had a small needle inserted near the spine of Olive’s mother so quick you thought your eyes were deceiving you. Then he threaded what looked like a metallic fishing line into the hole. Or I’m assuming he did, I didn’t see it happen, all of a sudden it was just there. I don’t even think the man spoke a word. Then all of a sudden, like the Lone Ranger, he was gone without even waiting for Thank You.

Instant relief bathed the grateful face of Olive’s mom. Her face was drained of pain, fear, tension and anxiety. The contractions kept coming thick and heavy, although Olive’s mom was bearing them much more easily. But still her body was not ready for Olive to come out. So Olive’s mother slept, gathering her strength. Recharged and revived, the inducing drugs working away, the epidural was discontinued. It was time.

This is where things got freaky.  The midwife actually reached her hands into the womb and started manipulating things inside Olive’s mother. You could see Olive moving around through the thin skin, thrashing and kicking as she was sucked downdowndown into the canal as her heart beat:

BOOM BOOM BOOM!

59 hours and 45 minutes since the start of labor, the body was finally ready. The grandmother and the godmother and the husband and the dula and the midwife prepared with the mother for the final push. With the midwife’s fingers expertly manipulating inside the body of Olive’s mother, the pushing began again.  Three to each contraction.

On and on it went, with each contraction the midwife exhorting, imploring, encouraging the mother to keep pushing even when she could push no more, three pushes, with the breath held, then release and sink into the bed.

Suddenly there it was.  A miracle.  The top of the head. Even though it was clearly visible it was completely unbelievable. Even though you knew it was going to happen, it was incomprehensible. Even though you understood what was going on, it was ununderstandable. Even though it was impossible, it was actually happening.

The grandmother wept and wept, as she helped, great tears of joy and release, and the godmother kept saying just the right things at just the right moment to relieve the tension. The dula was here there and everywhere, supplying what was needed even before it was asked for. The husband whispered in the ear, and supplied the oxygen. And the midwife was like the captain of the team, organizing, letting everyone know what they should do in a commanding yet gentle voice, always knowing what to do, with her hands deep inside the body of the mother, moving and rearranging and allowing life to enter the world.

A third of the head was pushed out and then went back in again at the end of the contraction. And then there it was again with another contraction and push, the whole head, even as they watched they kept asking themselves:

“How is this happening?”

The midwife started yanking on the head with what seemed like, to the interested observer, shockingly violently aggression. The father had a sudden vision of the midwife ripping his daughter’s head right off, the poor headless baby flailing its arms, while the horrified head looked on.

But no, the midwife’s magic fingers slid Olive right out of her mother.

A collective gasp filled the room. The mother was overcome with relieved jioe de vivre and unspeakable metaphysical physical soul opening exhilaration and awe.

Suddenly there she was:

Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry.

Alive, laying on her mother’s chest, still attached by the cord to the inside. The midwife and dula rubbed Olive with sweet vigor. Olive’s tiny yet huge lungs filling with air, and she gave out a small surprised cry, like: Wow, I’m really here!

IMG_2890The father cried copious tears overflowing with a love that he had never felt.  He saw Olive learning to talk and walk and read and going to school and learning to drive and falling in love and getting married and having a baby of her own, eternity in an instant, infinity in an infant’s eyes.

And that is how, after almost 60 hours of labor, Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry came into the world weighing a whopping 9 lbs. 2 oz at 2:19 p.m. on September 13, 2007.

David Henry Sterry on Salon: How Writing a Book Led to the Love of my Life

My first piece on Salon.  Thanks to Arielle Eckstut. To read on Salon click here:  http://www.salon.com/2013/02/14/i_wrote_my_way_to_true_love/

mort morte coverx3000wxzp“You should stop writing these stupid movie scripts and write about your life, it’s so much more interesting.” Janine, my hypnotherapist, was not being unkind. She just had no filter. And she was right. That was the most infuriating thing about Janine my hypnotherapist. She was always right.

I had just gotten a three-picture deal with Disney. Well, it wasn’t really a three-picture deal. They hired me to write a script for one of their moronic ideas (Sinbad in the Army with dogs), and in the contract they locked me up for another two movies for slightly more money each time. But at the bottom of every page was writ in small letters: “We can terminate this contract for any reason at any time for perpetuity and eternity in this and every other conceivable universe and pay you NOTHING.” I asked my agent and she said I could tell everybody I had a three-picture deal with Disney. Even though I didn’t really. And that, in a nutshell, is Hollywood, baby.

But the thought of telling the truth about myself made me hot and clammy, sticky and jittery, teeth tearing into cuticles till they bled. I was much more comfortable working on my buddy script about two 12-year-olds who go to Vegas and beat the mob. Or my mobster-becomes-a-vampire script. Or my “Some Like It Hot” cross-dressing baseball script.

But I’d always wanted to write a book. So that night I started writing one. It was liberating. Gave my obsessive mind something to focus on besides my own sex-addicted self-loathing.

Turns out I wasn’t quite ready to tell that story yet. I hadn’t hit bottom. I was still living in my beautiful Craftsman home in the hills of Echo Park with my beautiful red sports car and my beautiful sex-denying fiancée. I hadn’t yet been fired by Disney, my Sinbad/Army/dog script unmade, my fictitious three-picture deal evaporated in a puff of smoke. I hadn’t yet been dumped by an entirely different beautiful damaged narcissistic sex-denying fiancée whom I DIDN’T EVEN LIKE. I hadn’t yet been whacked over the head with a metal pipe at 4 a.m. in Harlem by an angry disenfranchised crackhead while pursuing a transsexual thief masquerading as a female sex worker. That was when I hit bottom. The bottom of the bottom.

I decided I would try to get my book published. By this time I was living in the nasty skanky hovel in Venice Beach where you could satisfy all your crack needs by sticking your head out the window and yelling, “Yo!” I’d hang out at Muscle Beach with the steroid-bloated weightlifters and tourists and wannabe actresses, actors, screenwriters, producers, directors and other local whack jobs, begging people to read my book. Eventually I sent it to a woman who used to be my commercial acting agent in New York City. She said she loved my book, and asked me if I’d mind if she gave it to her goddaughter, who was a literary agent. “Do I mind?” I scoffed. “Are you kidding me? I will name my first child after you if you do me this kindness.”

I sent the Goddaughter Agent my manuscript. By that time it was called “Mort Morte.” A week after I sent the script I called to make sure she had received my manuscript. Contained herein is a valuable lesson for anyone doing business. Disregard the Follow Up at your own peril. Goddaughter Agent confessed sheepishly that she had lost it. I rolled my eyes, thinking to myself: What a bunch of buffoons these New York literary agents are. If I had done the typical writer thing, and assumed that the universe hates me, that I am a no-talent hack, and that the agent was rejecting me, I would not be writing this story now. But I did the Follow Up. My motto, which I adopted in Hollywood: I will not stop until the person I’m pursuing says yes or takes out a Restraining Order.

I sent her another “Mort Morte.” A month later, having heard not a peep from her, I called Goddaughter Agent. I didn’t snarl in a snarky voice, “Why haven’t you read my manuscript yet?” I was as nice as pie. I give good phone. I asked her how she was doing, cracked a joke that made her laugh. I never mentioned my manuscript. She promised me she’d read it as soon as she could. Later I found out she was Jewish. Well, she still is. And I was so nice that she felt guilty, and my manuscript moved up about 3 inches in the 12-foot pile by her desk. This was before the Internet, when people actually sent manuscripts through the mail! Can you imagine?!

One month later to the day I made the same phone call to Goddaughter Agent. Nice as pie. Unbeknownst to me, my manuscript rose a whole foot in the 12-foot pile. Nine months, once a month, I called her. One human gestation period. We could’ve had a baby in the time it took her to read my manuscript. Finally, guilt drove my manuscript to the top of the pile. By this time, we had a nice banter going. An idea popped out of my mouth, as if the Muse had pushed it out. I told her I was coming to New York for Christmas. She told me that if I did, she’d read my book and take me out to lunch. Of course I had no plans at all to go to New York for Christmas. I quickly accepted her lunch invitation 3,000 miles away. As soon as I hung up, I frantically bought a ticket to New York.

She took me to a swank restaurant, one of those places agents take writers when they want to impress them. She had seemed in my mind on the phone from 3,000 miles away like a very amiable dowager. Not at all. Turned out she was 20-something, totally cute, great smile, fabulous laugh, smoking hot body, kind eyes and spectacularly stylish, like she just stepped out of a magazine featuring wildly intelligent cutting-edge fashionista intelligentsia 20-something Manhattan babes. I was one smitten kitten. She told me she loved “Mort Morte.” And she had smart things to say about changes she wanted me to make. I was so used to getting the dumbest dumbass notes from Hollywood studio hacks that it was like a fragrant breeze on the first day of spring. She said if I made the changes, she’d represent me and my baby/manuscript. I was ecstatic. But there was something more. I liked this woman. A lot.

That night I couldn’t stop thinking about her. So the next day I called her and asked her if she wanted to hang out. She said she’d like to hang out. I later found out she had plans she broke for me. Nothing sexier than someone breaking their plans for you. We went to see one of Billy Bob Thornton’s most forgettable movies. I can literally remember nothing about it. Except that I was with her. Then she asked me if I wanted to go to a French restaurant near her apartment in Brooklyn. I was pretty sure that was dating code for: I want to hook up with you. Turns out I was right. The French restaurant was spectacular. But not as spectacular as she was.

Suddenly we were in her ridiculously stylish Brooklyn brownstone. She was so much fun to talk to. Religion, politics, books, America, the world, the universe. Einstein was proven right again, time really is relative. An hour passed in a minute. At a certain point she asked me in a funny, teasing and altogether endearing way, “Every first novel is about the author. But this book isn’t about you, is it? You didn’t kill your father and three of your stepdads, did you?”

I laughed. It was funny. The way she said it. What she was saying. Normally, I would’ve given her some lame retort that masked who I really was. I was like an anti-superhero. Instead of having a secret identity that was amazing and saved people, I had a secret identity that was a twisted grotesque monster bent on destroying me and all those who cared about me. But I decided to take off the mask. I was not going to lie about who I was or what I’d done. If she didn’t like it, that was her problem. I was so exhausted living a lie. I was ready to be set free by the truth. I’d hit the bottom. The bottom of the bottom.

So I told her everything. About the man who abused me when I was 17. About being sucked into the filthy underbelly of the Hollywood sex business. Becoming a drug addict and a sex addict and doing my time with Janine my hypnotherapist. I thought it would feel terrible to say all that to someone I was interested in. Just the opposite. It was such a load lifted. The black cloud that had been thunderstorming all over my life parted and the sun shone and the birds chirped and the angels sang. It was a transcendent moment. I thought if I told someone I was interested in about my sordid shameful dirty secrets that she’d be horrified and run screaming away from me. Just the opposite. Goddaughter Agent was fascinated. Spellbound. “That’s the book you should write.” Exactly what Janine my hypnotherapist said. Only now, I was ready. I didn’t care anymore. It was so good to be Out.

I moved in with Goddaughter Agent that night. I didn’t know I was moving in with her, but it turned out I was. Her name was Arielle. Well, it still is. She came out to visit me in Venice Beach. She was even better than I’d imagined. She helped me put together a proposal for my real story. That became a book called “Chicken.”

But much more important, I found the love of my life. Arielle AKA Goddaughter Agent. Two years after the Billy Bob Thornton movie and the French restaurant we were married high on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. A couple of years later we made a baby together. I know it happens all the time, babies being made, but it still strikes me every day as being spectacularly magical that two human beings, without any help at all, could make something as complicated as a human being. Olive. That’s what we called her. Well, we still do. She’s 5 years old now. Einstein proven right once again. That five years has gone by in about 10 minutes.

“Mort Morte” never got sent out by my agent/wife. As soon as we got married, she fired me as a client. But I still wanted to get that book published. I kept showing it to people over the years. Everyone seemed to love it, but they all thought it was just too weird. So I decided, at the suggestion of the lovely and talented Arielle, to go after a world-class artist to make some illustrations for my book. This led me to a French Canadian named Alain Pilon. I contacted him, and sent him my manuscript. He loved it and agreed to make a bunch of illustrations. All the while I kept tweaking and polishing, buffing and shining, making it better and sending it out there.

Finally, one day, to my shock and amazement, there it was in my inbox. An email from an editor who said how much she loved “Mort Morte.” I was used to this by now, and I knew the next sentence would be about why they couldn’t publish my quirky, wacky, coming-of-age Alice in Wonderland meets Tin Drum novel about gun violence and kids in America, and a boy who really loves his mother. But wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, this editor said she wanted to publish my book. I was gobsmacked. I showed the email to Arielle. We danced and made happy happy sounds.

Twenty years after I started writing that book I finally got it published. I’m a different person now than I was then. But every time I look at the beautiful Alain Pilon cover of “Mort Morte” I am filled with joy.

And that’s how writing a book led me to the love of my life.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 14 books, including his memoir, “Chicken,” an international bestseller that has been translated into 10 languages. His anthology, “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys,” was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. His new illustrated novel is “Mort Morte,” a coming-of-age black comedy about gun violence and children, and a boy who really loves his mother.

Having Sex with Craigslist Prostitue/Escort/Ho/Industrial Sex Technician: A True Story

This is from a reading I did at Litquake, in Vesuvio’s, the historic North Beach literary watering hole.

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2 Bi-Coastal Pitchapaloozas, Litquake, James River Writers Conference

2 Pitchapaloozas in 24 hours. 3,000 miles apart.  They said it couldn’t be done.  They were wrong.

It all started on a beautiful Virginia Saturday afternoon at the James River Writers Conference, in the shockingly excellent city of Richmond.  JRWC came into our lives as the result of brutal failure.  Two years ago I set up a DC area mini-tour for an infamous book I put together.  My girl Shawna Kenney (whose memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix–which is about when she was a teenage dominatrix) was just optioned by Vince Vaughn) booked us into Poets & Busboys in Washington (packed to the rafters!), Atomic Books in Baltimore (filled to the gills!), and Chop Suey in Richmond.  When Shawna and I walked into Chop Suey, there were exactly 0 customers in the store.  There were

about 15 folding chairs.  None of them had audience asses in them.  Just as we were ready to call it a day, in walked a couple of brave souls who looked like they actually wanted to be there.  One of them was a colleague and dear friend of Shawna Kenney named Valley Haggard.  A ridiculously intimate show like that can actually be liberating, because let’s face it, since there are only four people, it really doesn’t matter, and you can just let loose.  So I actually had an ecstatic rhapsodic performing experiences.  This is one of the reasons I do it.  Afterwards, Shawna and I went out with Valley Haggard.  First of all, is that not the greatest name ever?  Valley Haggard.  Born to be an author.  Or a country singer.  Second of all, she was so smart, and funny, and generous, and goofy.  At a certain point she told me she was part of a writing group: The James River Writers.  I told her about Pitchapalooza and BOOM! Next thing you knew, we were on a beautiful Virginia Saturday afternoon about to unleash Pitchapalooza on Richmond.  Beautiful old buildings, a rabid writing community, and the sheer NICENESS of the people make it a go-to destination.  And I am not being paid by the Richmond Visitors Bureau to say that.  Although if they did want to pay me, I would certainly take their money.  One of the cool things about doing a writer’s festival is that you get to actually hang out with lots of pretty spectacular authors and writers.  Plus, I did about a dozen seven-minute consultations. 

It’s shocking how fast get to know someone in seven minutes.  So it was fun to see all these people that we had connoitered with, filling the auditorium.  By the time we started it was pretty much full, 150 writers and those who love them waiting in breathless anticipation.  We had a very funny and savvy panelist, Michelle Brower, from the Folio Literary Management.  As we do at every Pitchapalooza, we heard many crackerjack pitches.  A middle-age dragon (Michelle said that a menopausal dragon would be hysterical, and in doing so brought the house down).  I Do, I Did, I Don’t, a novel about a society where marriages have to be renewed every 10 years.  Dystopian apocalypses, literary opusi, zombies, werewolves, vampires and hard-boiled dicks.  But our winner was a cut above.  He’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he worked very closely with trained military dogs.  Dogs of war.  His novel, Boots on the Ground, Paws on the Ground, about soldiers battling in life and death circumstances, and their relationships with these brave, loyal, and extraordinary canines brought Arielle to tears.  In 1 minute.  Plus, his man’s-man lantern jaw, buff hulking hunky humble manner, and his AWESOME story made him an absolute crowd favorite.  Hurt Locker meets Rin Tin Tin, it just seemed to have bestseller written all over it.  And it was just one of many pitches that screamed: BOOK!

As soon as Pitchapalooza Richmond was done, and I had said heartfelt thanks to my new Richmond peeps, I whipped back to the hotel, grabbed my baggage, got the kind of hug only a four-year-old can give from Olive, kissed Arielle a fond adieu, and was whisked away to the airport.  It was a mad blast to have Olive with us, but we had decided she would go back with Arielle on the train, while I would fly solo to San Francisco, and do Pitchapalooza in San Francisco all by myself.

Having been awakened that morning at 7 AM by Olive begging me to play Biting Piggy (a game we made up about a month ago), I stumbled, mumbled, bumbled and numbled my way off the plane at 1 AM (4 AM EST!), feeling like someone had inserted nozzles into my ear holes and blown cotton candy into my skull.  Red-rimmed pupils, baggage under my eyes bigger than the suitcase I was lugging, guts rumbling from too much bad trail mix and caffeine, I shuffled through the disorientating post-midnight fluorescence of SFO.  I don’t know if it’s because I’ve heard too many zombie pitches lately, but being in an airport in the wee, wee hours will totally make you believe in zombies.  As I threw myself into bed at 2 AM (5 AM EST!)  I felt the sting of a tickle catch in my throat.  A cough barked out of me.  Followed by another cough.  Then another.  I could actually feel a flu bug attacking my larynx.  HACK!  HACK!  HACK!  Knowing that the thing I needed most in the world was a good deep night’s sleep, I tossed and coughed through a miserable night’s stupor.  In my fevered dreams, zombies were pitching me books about werewolves, vampires, hard-boiled dicks, and yes, zombies.  All while eating chunks of my flesh.  It’s so depressing when you get out of bed in the morning, and you’re more exhausted than when you got in the night before.

Lead-headed, wheezing and sneezing, I coughed my way out the door.  Luckily it was a rare robin-egg-blue sky day in Baghdad-by-the Bay, and a brisk but toasty breeze blowing lifted my spirits.  Once I got to North Beach, I found, to my surprise and delight, that the massive annual street fair was raging.  Columbus Avenue shut down, tables four deep set up on sidewalks outside restaurants, revelers and tourists and looky-loos cramjampacked in one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world, where Old Italian cannoli/espresso/gelato culture rubs elbows (and many other body parts) with drunken scruffy post-Beat writer types who scribble away in notebooks.

The fair was madness, in the best sense of the word.  A WWII-type float with Andrews Sisters-look-alikes singing Roll Out the Barrel; a high-stepping marching band from Oakland rocking their synchronized syncopation; Chinese slow-motion tai chi masters; kilted-up bag piping bad boys; American flag flying, Harley hog-riders; wild west cowboys on a high-stepping horses, and cowgirls decked out in sparkly costumes that looked like a cross between Dale Evans and Liberace.  It made me so happy to be alive.

I made my way to the Vesuvio’s, where I was going to be doing a reading for Litquake, the seismographic orgy of books that blows up San Francisco every October.  For those of you who don’t know, Vesuvio’s is right across the alley from City Lights Bookstore, the beating heart and pulsating brain of San Francisco literati for 50 years.  Everyone from Dylan Thomas to Lenny Bruce to Jack Kerouac have gotten polluted, plastered and plonkied while waxing poetic at Vesuvio’s.  I felt a great wave of history as I walked in, an overpowering sense of honor, humility, and gratitude to be reading at this shrine where so many great writers have drunk until they passed out.  The readers performed from the second floor balcony, looking down as if from Mount Olympus on the pulsating, hooch-fueled throng, shoehorned in wall-to-wall, cheek-by-jowl, the body heat wafting upwards, a crackling electromagneticity rocketing around the room, and ricocheting off those hallowed walls, which have seen so much literary history made over the years.  I was up first, and my adrenal glands were spitting fire, my central nervous system all jacked up, while my heart felt like a hare being chased by the hounds.  The din of the crowd was so loud it sounded like someone had turned the volume up to 11.  I was worried that they wouldn’t shut up and listen to me.  I underestimated the power of MC extraordinaire Mr. Alan Black, master of the pregnant pause and the growling punchline, a man who made his bones running shows at the Edinburgh Castle, where the Tenderloin sits like a festering sore on the bum of San Francisco.  Like a lion tamer who uses a Scottish brogue and slashing wit as his whip and chair to control a room full of wild beasts, he subdued the crowd in 1.2 seconds.  I love that feeling of a tightly packed mass of humanity waiting silently for the performer to try and conjure magic out of thin air.  I took a deep breath, relished the moment, and plunged in.  It was such a joy riding those words in that crowd through my story.  Ridiculously gratifying.

Sadly I had to bolt as soon as I was finished, so I missed the show, and as I strolled back down Columbus Avenue toward the Pyramid Building, the adrenaline speed wore off and I was struck dumb by a numbing wave of exhaustipation.  I had quite forgotten how depleted and drained my battery was, and I worried I’d have to call AAA to jumpstart me before Pitchapalooza Litquake, which was set to start in 20 min.  Caffeine! my brain screamed.  I collapsed into Starbucks.  I coughed.  I hacked.  I wheezed.  I drank.  I made it to Market Street, rejuvenated, just in time to find the organizers starting to seriously worry that I wasn’t going to show up.  It was my great good fortune to have two publishing stalwarts, Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark (Write That Book Already!) as my copilots.  They arrived like the cavalry providing reinforcement for my battle weary troops.  And we were off!  A meta-post-modern novel about a writer battling his own book.  A rich girl getting back at her bad dad.  A juicy, gossipy guide to the London Olympics.  An Australian graphic novel about fast food workers who are actually crime fighters: fries and spies!  Dystopian apocalypses, literary opusi, zombies, werewolves, vampires and hard-boiled dicks.  But again, the winner was a cut above: a hysterically told tale set in Liverpool, where soccer is a combination of religious obsession and drunken life-and-death spectacle, and a woman finds she can predict the outcome of matches before they happen.  Madcap antics ensue.

Suddenly it was over.  I staggered in a stupor out onto Market Street, wrung out like a ragged rag, but wildly satisfied.  That night I collapsed into bed moaning and groaning, wracked by hacking spasms.  Slept for 12 hours.  Next night I slept 12 more.  When I awoke, the bug, the tickle, the hack and cough were miraculously gone.  I’m on the plane going back to my Jersey hearth and home.  Happily anticipating the kind of kiss only a four-year-old can give from Olive, and snuggling into my own bed with my lovely and talented wife.

To see all pictures click here.

Eulogy for Milo

 

May brought the first summer day in 2010, when it’s so hot you sweat just breathing, and the streets shimmer in protest. As we were broiling in the car struggling in the parking lot that was Rt. 3E just outside the Lincoln Tunnel, I was overcome with the hubris of we humans, chanting like ravenous jackals, “Drill, baby, drill!” And I imagined Mother Nature shaking her head in disgust as the latest national unnatural disaster is unleashed. I’m just so angry when I see the pictures and contemplate the massive clusterfuck gushing into the Gulf Coast waters. But then Olive started singing, “American Pie” from the back seat, and I had hope again. Olive is 2 ½. Not 2. 2 ½. May be a most excellent mother. The new book drops on May 4. Doing event at my favorite local bookstore, Watchung Bookstore. And of course another month brings another Sex Worker Literati.

Truth or Fiction: Voting by Memoir

Truth or Fiction

: Voting by Memoir

Memoirs have been a source of raging controversy. Seems some memoirs are more true than others. But to me, a memoirist makes a deal with the reader: what I tell you is real, and you judge me by the stories I tell you. I think about this way too much because I am a memoirist. So when it came time to choose who would be the best leader of these great United States, I dove into the word-pools of John McCain and Barak Obama, these memoirists who would be president. I started with McCain’s The Way to Bravery. First off, McCain didn’t even write his memoir. And the book reads like it was written by the captain of the football team who had the smart kid do it for him. The facts are all there, but it’s generic as a can of beans with the word BEANS written on it. The book’s peppered with war stories, and he talks about America watching the Iraq invasion with shock, awe and a thrilling pleasure. It dawned on me as I read this book that the John McCain in this book is the archetypal American John Wayne male. A man who’d rather fight than talk.

Barack Obama did write his own memoir. Right off the bat, I like that. In the world of books we talk a lot about voice. The voice in Dreams from My Father is so strong and personal. A scene in an airplane to Africa, home of Obama’s father, stuck in my mind. An Englishman bound for South Africa talks about the poor buggers of godforsaken Africa. Obama feels silent fury, but even in the midst of rage, empathizes with the man and questions his own basic beliefs. If anything, this is a man too stuck in his own brain. But a man with poetry in his soul. He seems to be the model of the new American male. A thoughtful, sensitive international man of the world.

I have no clue how the economic plans of either candidate will dig us out of this gaping gasping chasm. But memoir wise, Obama feels the real deal, while McCain feels a fake. I’ve heard the pundits pundicate that the authentic maverick John McCain has let his true story be edited to the point of fiction, so that he doesn’t comes across like a man who wrote a memoir about courage. Obama, with his thoughtful, elegant prose, comes across like a man who’d rather talk than fight. A man true to his memoir.

Truth or Fiction: Voting for the President By Reading His Memoir

Truth or Fiction: Voting By Memoir


Memoirs have been a source of raging controversy.  Seems some memoirs are more true than others.  A memoirist makes a deal with the reader: what I tell you is real, and you judge me by my stories. I think about this way too much because I’m a memoirist. So when it came time to choose the next leader of these great United States, I dove into the wordpools of these memoirists who would be president.   I started with John McCain’s The Way to Bravery. First off, McCain didn’t even write his memoir.  And the book reads like it was written by the captain of the football team who had the smart kid do it for him.  The facts are all there, but it’s generic as a can of beans with the word BEANS written on it. The book’s peppered with war stories, and he talks about America watching the Iraq invasion with shock, awe and a thrilling pleasure.  It dawned on me as I read this book that the John McCain in this book is the archetypical American John Wayne male.  A man who’d rather fight than talk. 

 

Barack Obama did write his own memoir.  Right off the bat, I like that.  In the world of books we talk alot about voice.  The voice in Dreams from My Father is so strong and personal.  A scene in an airplane to Africa, home of Obama’s father, stuck in my mind.  An Englishman bound for South Africa talks about the poor buggers of godforsaken Africa.  Obama feels silent fury, but even in the midst of rage, emphasizes with the man and questions his own basic beliefs.  If anything, this is a man too stuck in his own brain.  But a man with poetry in his soul.  He seems to be the model of the new American male. A thoughtful, sensitive international man of the world.    

 

I have no clue how the economic plans of either candidate will dig us out of this gaping gasping chasm.  But memoir wise, Obama feels the real deal, while McCain feels a fake.  I’ve heard the pundits pundicate that the authentic maverick John McCain has let his true story be edited to the point of fiction, so that he doesn’t comes across like a man who wrote a memoir about courage.  Obama, with his thoughtful, elegant prose, comes across like a man who’d rather talk and fight.  A man true to his memoir.

David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of nine books, an award-winning comic/actor, an activist, and a man who has not worn matching socks in 20 years. kept his first memoir, chicken, is being made into a TV series by Showtime.  His new memoir, Master of Ceremonies: a True Story of Love, Murder, Roller Skates and Chippendales is the story of when he was at the epicenter of one of the great party cultures of all time, skating around in a tuxedo while Rome burned.

SEX TV INTERVIEWS ME ABOUT BEING A TEENAGE PROSTITUTE

AUTO INSANITY


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olive has really discovered how to smile, and apparently she enjoys doing itvery much.  She had her first Thanksgiving at her grandfather’s birthday party.  Everyone was very nice to her.  She seemed to have a very good time.  At one point on the trip back in the car, she woke up and went absolutely berserk.  A whole new level of insanity, this death rattle of the scream that shrieks from the depths of her up her lungs shoots through her throat rattles off the top of her skull and careens out horrifically.  In a small enclosed spaces like a car it makes you feel like plucking your eyes out. Arielle wanted to stop the car and comfort her.  I said, just let her scream for a minute and see what happens.  It’s okay to be furious at the world.  It’s a very natural reaction to the human condition.  Let’s see if she can figure out how to calm herself down.  Sure enough about three minutes later she was asleep, and slept the whole rest of the trip.  Being responsible for another human being’s existence makes for a series of seemingly life altering decisions every day.it‘s not dull.  And when she smiles in my face it’s like the universe is a rose opening just for me.

The Joys of Moving Across Country When You’re Pregnant

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Well, we did it.We put all of our stuff into boxes, hired burly man to put them in a giant truck, stuffed our most valuable (mismatched socks, my mother’s ashes) stuff into our Rav 4 and waved goodbye to our life in San Rafael California, where the sun shines all the time, and the deer are so friendly that we frequently found them rummaging through our refrigerator when they had the munchies.Packing, for me, after several months of doing it, was a source of almost unspeakable horror.the more I packed, and more than was to pack, one pile would disappear and 2 more would rear their heads.It was like a dream you have where you’re running as hard as you can, but you’re not getting any closer to the house where those men are molesting your girlfriend, or whatever particular thing you run towards in your dreams.

Several times I just broke down completely, weeping like a hurricane as I tried to decide whether to throw away some postcard my mother sent me 35 years ago, or some fab picture of some babe I boffed in 1979.All the fevered letters, the sweet notes, passionate poems, the broken hearts on both sides of the Highway of Love.It just plumb wore me out sifting through all the shit of my life and figure out the difference between junk and my stuff, what was trash and what was treasure.And of course I turned 50 on June 2.Half a century.If I live to be a hundred it’s already half over.And of course we were writing two books under a ridiculously preposterous deadline.And of course my lovely and talented wife was pregnant.All evidence points toward the fact that it is my child dancing in her womb, only time will tell.So there’s that.

But the results of all these churning tributaries of life feeding into one giant waterfall was that I lost part of my mind, and I’m just now getting it back.My hands have been aching.Ever since the move.While they were sore before that, but they really started aching during the move.A combination of deep sharp pain, slow strangulating pain.Throbbing burning pain, and the psychological pain that constant pain inflicts.The slightest difficulty became a source of intense irritation which flamed into rage so quickly it gave me the bends.Tracking down and talking to computer technicians, phone company lackeys, insurance brokers, tax record officials, it was all just beyond me.

Luckily, I had a lot of help, mostly from my lovely and talented wife, who as I said was pregnant, and continues to be so.Also, Judy, my moms widow, she packed about 17,000 boxes, all by herself.She’s from Minnesota, so she has that good Midwestern work ethic, and she was one box-packing fool.She was like a cartoon character, you stand there and all watching her arms and hands whirring all-around, and suddenly another box was packed and she was taping it shut, easy peasy, Bob’s your uncle.And mind you, I started collecting boxes and packing several months before the move.So it’s not like I was unprepared.

But the more I packed, the more my mental health deteriorated, until finally I was blinded by the light, and suddenly a migraine had somehow slithered like a computer virus into the mainframe of my brain.Apparently when you have a migraine it’s basically just everything tightening up and compressing.It feels like my head is in a giant vise being tightened by a circus strongman with an anger management problem.Then I start to see these lights in the corner of my eyes, only when you look right at them, they go away, so you’re not really sure if you’re actually seeing the lights, or if it’s just some floater that you see in the corner of your eye sometimes.But then I get this kind of disorientated, off kilter, askew feeling.It’s not so overpowering that you can’t carry on a conversation or brush your teeth or pack a box, but there’s definitely something wrong.Then I really really really see the lights in the corners of my eyes, and that’s when I know I’ve arrived in Migraine City, where excruciating agony awaits everyone who steps off that train.It used to be at this point in the migraine, I would get a knee buckling, chest heaving, jaw tightening pain started in the middle of my brain and worked its way out seismically.

However, since I started working with Dr. Marty Rossman, and his amazing creative visualization techniques, I am able to get through the whole thing now with basically no pain at all.Here’s what I’d do.I get myself in a cool very dark place, somewhere soft I can lay down and be very peaceful.I imagine a very happy moment from my past: a beach in Hawaii where wild horses cavorted on a hill 200 yards away, and the warm warm ocean broke in gentle waves.In.Out.In.Out.And I time the waves with my breath.In.Out.In.Out.Then starting at the soles of my feet, I breathe cool blue soothing light into my body, moving up little by little, toes, feet, ankles, calves, knees, and usually by the time I get to my poor wracked brain, I am asleep, and usually I sleep for a couple of hours.When I wake up and I’m groggy and it’s hard for me to put words together, and I’m logey, there’s tapioca pudding where sharp thoughts should be.So that’s what packing reduced me to: a useless, incoherent, blithering idiot.But somehow I got by with a little help from my friends.Then all I had to do was drive across the United States of America.With my lovely and talented wife getting more pregnant by the day, furiously trying to finish writing these books, and wrap our minds around the fact that very very very very soon we were going to be new homeowners, new parents, and new New Jersey-ites.

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America is huge.And tilted.All the nuts and flakes eventually roll to California.And what you realize as soon as you leave California, is that you were one of the nuts and flakes.When you get into Nevada, and Wyoming, it’s almost incomprehensible how much land there is no one living there.Land as far as the eye can see.And then some.We drove and we drove and we drove.Then we drove and we drove and we drove.It was actually really fun to just get to talk with each other, without the phone always ringing, and some emergency or other to have to face down.And it was an excellent way to write a book.I would drive, and my lovely and talented wife would type with the laptop in, of all places, her lap. I think our child is either going to be madly in love with books, or will hate them with a fiery passion.

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Cheyenne, Wyoming is not nearly as exciting as you think it would be.Basically it seems like a rundown, time-worn western town where everyone seems a little too anxious to talk to someone who’s not from there.We went into a pawn shop and the guy behind the counter with more nose hairs than teeth roped us into a conversation that was literally about the weather.And he would not let us go.We tried to extricate ourselves over and over again, to no avail.He did everything but physically restrain us from leaving his store.It took some classic misdirection involving the unborn within my lovely and talented wife’s belly to get us the hell out of there.But you can get a really good steak in Cheyenne, Wyoming.Omaha is also a very good town for getting a steak.We were going to get married on the trip across the country.Mostly for insurance purposes.Seriously.That’s what we’ve come to as a culture.Got to get married so you can get health insurance.Plus we thought it would be fun to get married while my lovely and talented wife looked so gosh darn pregnant.So we asked about getting married in Salt Lake City.We figured, it must be very easy to get married there, since men historically had so many wives in Salt Lake City.No, turns out it’s actually quite difficult to get married in Salt Lake City.Our waiter said he thought it was because they were trying to discourage polygamy.We had a very nice gay Mormon waiter in Salt Lake City.And I wondered what it must be like to be a gay Mormon in Salt Lake City.And I thought about Matthew Shepard and how those homophobes crucified him.

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The open spaces of the planes and prairies are very peaceful and restful.The people we saw there seemed very well fed and friendlier, more interested in other people than folks on either coast.Everyone wanted to know when the baby was due, if it was a boy or girl, what name we picked out.Miles and miles and miles of rows and rows and rows of corn and beans and wheat.There’s so much food and so much space, and you wonder, How is anyone hungry?How is it that people don’t have a place to live?

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Chicago is a very cool town.There’s all this amazing stuff going on, blues festivals and world-class theater and food that makes you happy to be alive.We treated ourselves in Chicago, took a day off, and did some chillin.We decided to go to the Ritz, and have their brunch.We had done that in Atlanta when we were on our book tour, and it was so decadent and disgusting and fun.In Atlanta there were three rooms with stations of food in them: meats of every kind and breads of every kind and salads of every kind and the even had a chocolate fountain.A chocolate fountain!Nothing says fun to me like a chocolate fountain.So we walked in about two o’clock to the Chicago Ritz, pregnant and roadburned.They did have a lot of stuff and the stuff was good, don’t get me wrong.But they only had a few kinds of bread, a few kinds of meat, maybe a quarter of the stuff that was in the Atlanta Ritz: certainly no chocolate fountain. We were sitting next to two Uber Alpha males.They were in their late 40s even on a Sunday they were in their killer suits, and tasselly shoes. I always feel like scruffy lad next one of these Alpha Males. Like they are Men.And I am a boy.So the one guy turns to the other and says, “I don’t want to hear about how your kids are sick, or your wife has cancer, or your car needs new tires, I don’t give a shit.You either put up the numbers or you don’t.If you have the numbers, everything else works itself out.If you don’t have the numbers, I don’t want to hear any of your bullshit.”

Either I forgot how disgusting, despicable, and deplorable New York City is, or I’ve completely changed since I moved in away from here in 1993.Or New York City has changed since then.Because it really sucks now.It’s abusively loud, it’s ridiculously expensive, would it is becoming one huge super Mall, where they’re trying to drive out all artists, and the artisans, and regular people who aren’t billionaires.Plus, it smells like sour kiss and old man’s balls.Don’t ask how I know what old man balls smell like, trust me you don’t want to know.Here are some of the highlights from my first week in New York City.

·I got two moving violations for ridiculous shift I didn’t even do

·I got three parking tickets

·the window of my car was smashed in, and all the license and registration material was stolen, clearly an attempt to steal my identity

·my wallet with my drivers license is, the keys to my motorcycle, and hundreds of dollars was stolen

·a cab driver tried to run me over while I was rollerskating on 6th Ave

And it was so hot and humid and muggy and some stinky.I really began to think that it was all a big mistake, I was yearning for California so bad to hurt.We moved from apartment to apartment, staying with our kind friends, trying not to wear out are welcome.We were urban Bedouins.Which is not easy when, as a couple, you are getting more pregnant every day.We did finally finish our books though.Except for a few dribs and drabs, Be Artists In the Me, and The Writer In Me are done and dusted, put to bed.Plus we had a really fun party, where people gave us a lot of stuff for the new baby.Much of which I could not readily identify.It was really great to see people I hadn’t seen in so long.And we went to see a show called Spring A weakening.It’s really a great piece of work.It’s all about repressed sexuality and adolescents.Something which I have been studying, formally and informally for many years, and in fact the subject of my next book, which will be a ghost story about a Shaker baby skeleton aerie in a wall at a boarding school.John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony for his work in the show, was unfucking believable, just electric.And we saw a fantastic movie called Once, and evolution in the musical, Irish, incredibly real, simple and moving.And I got to play a lot of soccer, with people from all over the world.So that was cool.

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We took control of our house on August 1.The people we bought it from had lived here for 50 years.And they have done basically nothing to improve the house for 49 of those years.The electricity was installed by Thomas Alva Edison.The entire basement was constructed from asbestos.So on August 2, asbestosis removers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, architects, interior designers and decorators, colorists, general contractors, carpenters, and tradesmen of every ilk swarmed through our new home, painting, plumbing, electricing, madly removing asbestos.And then it was a crazy — toward the finish line: getting everything done before our stuff arrived in and/or the baby did.There was much sanding of many floors, paint was ordered and applied to walls, sinks were bought and installed, electrical boxes mounted on the walls, telephone and cable hard wired into this beautiful old house.It really looked for a moment what our stuff is going to arrive before the stain on the floors was dry.I kept having this image in my head of the movers tromping in with our stuff, and traipsing staying throughout every square inch of our house.But somehow, miraculously, almost everything was done by the time our stuff was due to arrive on Monday morning at 8:30 a.m..By about noon on Monday, we looked at each other and had the same thought.Where are the movers with our stuff?Because they certainly weren’t here at our house.So we called up the moving company.Turns out the driver was in Maryland, or Memphis, or Minneapolis.I can’t remember, someplace that started with an M. but they certainly weren’t in Montclair were our house was.And is.It was definitely a case of movus interruptus.So we had to do it all over again the next day.But this time, our stuff came.It was amazing how much of it just seemed like junk to me.I would open a box and think, Oh my God!Did I actually pay to have this moved?What is this?Is this mine?Oh my God!Two large movers, and one short Hispanic man bugged all of our stuff from the truck into the house.After about an hour, but the short Hispanic man started grumbling in Spanish, disgruntled and dismayed.As he walked up the narrow, steep stairs with another heavy boxes, he kept moaning No Mas.This became his nickname around our house: No Mas.It took them eight hours to haul all of our shit into our house, but finally it was done.We were in.Hallelujah!

Many said we were insane to try and move across country while Arielle was pregnant.Into a house that was basically in shambles.But we did it.And we are both very very happy in our new home.And the baby is due today.

After having been through this ordeal, I do have one piece of advice.If anyone out there is thinking of moving:

JUST SAY NO!!!

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