Shifting Gears: From Psychedelia to Reality

My first novel, Beyond the Will of God: A Jill Simpson Mystery, is a psychedelic mystery that I’m very proud of. The original idea for the story came to me in the mid-1970s. Six years later, on New Years Day, 1981, I wrote the first scene (where Cecil Miller gets off the bus in the middle of Missouri farm country and meets Coral McGrey). I didn’t really know what I was doing then. It took another 12 years for me to actually feel like I needed to get serious about turning that scene into a novel. But what a stupid thing, to write a novel.

Beyond the Will of God came to me at a time when I was reading lots of spy novels, utopian science fiction, and biographies of musicians and spiritual thinkers. The story is deeply influenced by those genres. At the time that I did this work — 1993 to about 2000 — I did not think of myself as a novelist. I had not studied literature since high school. I knew I was a writer, but I had no idea what that meant. Each writer needs to figure out who they are and what their real talent is. Some are poets, some journalists, some are biographers, some are historians. This is obvious, but usually very difficult to figure out when you’re in the thick of things.

I have a friend who loves to write poetry. He sends it to me with long, luxurious letters (now emails) describing how he came up with the ideas for his poems. These letters and what is essentially a kind of hybrid memoir-diary description of poem writing are incredibly sensual and powerful. I marvel at my friend’s superior skills with the written word. Then I read the poems. They’re not so good. Sometimes they’re terrible. The word choice is clunky, the topics derivative and trivial, and the language does not sing. I’ve told him this several times. I am not one to criticize. It makes my skin crawl to tell another writer that I don’t like something. I recently begged an editor not to count on me for book reviews. But I reach out to my friend anyway to say that his poems suck. I’ve also told him that his narrative work is astounding. He continues to send me his poetry wrapped up in gorgeous prose. He will never get published by someone else.

So, when I finally got serious about Beyond the Will of God, I had no idea who I was as a writer. I had no idea what it meant to write long fiction. I just sort of made things up as I went along. It takes forever to get a novel right…especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. But I got my novel at least to seem like a novel over the course of a decade (stealing evenings, weekends, and summer vacations to do this).

The story I wrote is about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. More specifically, it’s about the meaning and magical properties of this trio of debauchery and mayhem we all so revere. Somehow I slipped in the CIA, secret militia groups, the question of whether all our dead heroes of the past are really dead, and so much more. Like I say, I had no idea what I was doing. You can study novels all you want, but until you’re writing one you don’t understand shit.

Once I completed Beyond the Will of God I realized that fiction was the writing I did best. I was surprised that my “first readers” were moved by descriptive scenes about walking around farmland in the heat of the day. I was surprised as well to be told by several writer friends that they were envious of my ability to write something so long and lyrical.

Now, I know my novel is not for everyone. I know as well that the story is far-fetched and could probably be much better done if it were intended as outright satire (it is supposed to be funny, but not in-your-face-funny). One good friend, enjoying my heavily laden plot full of conspiracy theory references, felt I needed to add in AIDS and Liberace (he had died around the time she read the book). Another friend noted that my focus on insect sounds needed scientific descriptions. But I’d written this thing with no idea that I would be so taken with the process of fictioning out, like a strange verbal puzzle, weird and provocative ideas. The ultimate issue in the story is not really about psychedelic drugs as legitimate ways to get at the meaning of life. It is more just the means of asking the question: What is consciousness? Is the human mind more elastic and magical than we give it credit for? And what about the emotional and spirit moving power of music?

I have written two novels since completing Beyond the Will of God. These are not about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. They are about sex, though. Sex is oozing out of everything in life. No author worth anything can’t write about sex. But they’re also about love and insanity and pain and loss and family. Since completing my first novel, I’ve actually studied fiction and story. I made up my own syllabus and carefully read everyone from Barry Hannah (my favorite), Peter Matthiessen, and Don DeLillo to Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, and Toni Morrison (why I just did a gender split there, I do not know).

My fiction is, I guess, kind of written in the American Realist fashion. It is at times tender, gentle, and seeking to evoke some sort of sense of life as pastoral. At other times it is edgy, experimental, twisted, abstract, and hedonistic. I worry that women will not understand that I am writing about the male sub-conscious. Men are rarely depicted as they really are in their own minds. Our writers of the near past (you know them by name…) gained fame for talking about penises and masturbation and pedophilia and bad love and sexual obsession but they did it wrong. Even Norman Mailer, that satyristic old goat, didn’t build in the doubt and pain of men (and boys) struggling with their libidos, wanting so much to be loved, struggling with the confusion of animal urge that makes it so hard to satisfy women (and men). Love is such a noble form of psychosis.

My intent here, then, is to explain what’s coming. I have not read spy novels and science fiction much at all since 1993. I have read Updike, Roth, Bellow, Franzen, Wallace, and Rushdie. I keep trying to read Pynchon, Burroughs, and Vollman. I’m not comparing myself to any of these guys. That would be ludicrous. The funny thing is that while I appreciate their use of language, I find all of their stories and characters kind of useless and effete. There’s a reason that men have stopped reading fiction in America. There’s a reason, too, that most people stay away from “serious fiction.”

I hope my books are never called “serious” anything. But what I will be putting out over the next several years is not for the faint of heart. The surface of my stories is almost always about the psychosis of love and sex and the family. I hope the way I do things, though, provides enough provocation that the reader will find the rabbit holes I’m digging that lead into the unconscious and what is always at the root of everything in myth and fiction: the dual questions of the meaning of life and what is enough.

Why would I seek to create the monstrosities I will soon unveil? How could anyone take themselves so seriously?

On the one hand, I’d simply like to just lie down and apologize. But on the other, I grew up with a mentally ill mother; I was adopted with no idea of my racial heritage; my father is a genius; I have found true love and lost it and then found it again; I have a problem with alcohol; my sons are actually far, far better men than me; I spent 30 years afraid of doing what I wanted with my brain; I see beauty in everything; I have probably been clinically depressed most of my adult life; I left my first wife when she was three months pregnant; I’m overweight and don’t care; and I spent years writing about global warming and energy independence and there are still no solutions in sight. The human race really is totally fucked.

I’d go on, but I don’t want to depress you…

I do, however, want to keep writing stories that are fueled by all of that and more. Life isn’t serious. It’s beautiful. Life isn’t a joke, it’s pornographic. There’s nothing better than a walk with your sweetie near sunset or a big breakfast with your family. And so many of us are in pain because our minds are twisted up wrong and not perfect. Fiction needs to take all of this into account. That’s a tall order. I don’t know if I’m up to succeeding as well as I’d like, but that’s what I aim to try anyway. I hope you’ll by my books. I hope they make living a bit more open-ended, and that they push you to wonder about the meaning of things and what is enough. Rabbit holes are fun to dig for people who want to find them.

I have a to-do list for six more novels after the two that I will publish over the next year. It sucks to be 54 and have goals like that. I also have at least one more Jill Simpson mystery in me as well. Hopefully when I’m all done I will have a pretty good grasp on the meaning of life as I see it. Most certainly I will know what’s enough.

In closing, I got a tweet today that said: “The fact that Nabokov wrote Lolita at 56 seals the deal for me. Or: writers never get old!” I would modify that and say “Writers never get old, but they do get senile.” The more you write, the harder it is to know where that line is. I wonder if the same is true for readers. Only time will tell.

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