[Editor's Note: We are pleased to announce our ninth Indiespensable volume: a limited edition, autographed, 56-page hardcover chapbook of "A Day's Pleasure," the first part of Glen David Gold's new novel, Sunnyside. Here, Gold explains the origin of his novel and the chapbook.]
Ladies and Gentleman, a secret: it took me eight years to write Sunnyside, my new novel. It would have taken me seven but for the shameful word I am about to impart.
After writing my first novel, I published a few stories and essays about obsessive collecting, a— I was about to say "hobby," but that covers it about as well as "hobby" covers OxyContin binging, playing GTA 4 until your thumbs bleed, or losing the kid's college education fund on the ponies. Let's call it a condition that runs in my blood. I have, with therapy, gotten much less anxious about acquiring things, but back around 2000-2001, I spent more time on eBay than I did reading, writing, or pursuing trivial things that other, smaller people seemed to value like "going outside" or "answering the phone."
I subscribed to auction catalogues from Christie's, et al., in hopes of finding more stuff. Once, I received a catalogue accidentally from a field I didn't collect in, one in which I had feelings more sacred than acquisitive. I read it cover to cover, saved it, and every once in a while took it out and just stared at it. I didn't bid on anything in the auction. The items were just too important to me, somehow. We'll get back to this in a minute.
Let us flash forward a bit. In between bursts of acquiring stuff, I was working on Sunnyside. I had the first hundred or so pages in the bag. Except they were bad. It is a terrible thing that even after you are allegedly a professional, sometimes you fall off the beam. I wrote badly for a few weeks, put it down, did other things, then wrote badly again. The most terrifying thing about this was either that I kept trying new angles and I still wrote badly or that the pages sounded so much like me.
This went on for years.
I tossed the original idea for the novel away. I wrote essays, short stories, scripts. I started thinking hard about a small unanalyzed moment in David Robinson's biography of Chaplin. On a Sunday in 1916, Chaplin had been the subject of a mass hysteria and had been seen in over 800 places simultaneously. How odd is that to hear? I've thought about it so much I can't really tell anymore. Sometimes I dream a line of prose that, in my dream, has already been written. And I write it down in my journal and realize that, no, it's just so much a part of my unconscious already that it feels like it's been written already. That's how the subject of Chaplin-as-delusion felt. I almost didn't write about it because it seemed so obvious to me.
I wrote a few pages about this mass hysteria and read them aloud to my wife. I felt some shame because of how easily they had come.My wife told me I had finally found not just an interesting story but also the voice of my novel. In other words, what I thought was an incident was the beginning of something. I wrote the first draft of what is now "A Day's Pleasure" fairly quickly, in about three weeks. When I got to the end, I had the structure of the rest of the book in mind.
That was in November 2004. It took me another four years to finish a draft of Sunnyside , and for a very long time, the thing that most motivated me was remembering how the voice of "A Day's Pleasure" had come so clearly and completely. I kept going back to it and feeling, if I might use this word in a secular sense, blessed. At this point, I was not so much in eBay mode, and that's no coincidence. There's an inverse relationship between making stuff up — producing — and wanting to acquire things.
I was in email correspondence with other writers. Such is the beauty of the internet that you can meet people virtually whom you don't actually know intimately. Once, twice, three times, this dialogue happened:
Other Writer: I can't wait to read Sunnyside.
Me: I'll send you a galley.
Other Writer: [sound of footsteps rapidly fleeing]
For a galley isn't just a galley — it's also a request that the recipient chat the book up, blurb it, blog about it, do the author a favor. Which is a shame. I wondered if there was something I could share with the world in the spirit of a kid coming back from summer camp with an ashtray and a hand-tooled leather belt for dad. Why not make "A Day's Pleasure" its own slender book?
About a year ago, with a draft of Sunnyside complete, I started to dismantle the library of materials I'd accumulated on Hollywood, observer squadron aircraft, german Shepherds, Bolsheviks, the Onondaga nation, 1920s cotillion etiquette, and from behind a book of hobo memoirs fell the auction catalogue that had once so chilled me: the June 25, 2001, Sotheby's "Private Collection of Illustrated Books and Fine Bindings." This was an assembly of amazing handbound editions, most of them from the 1920s, constructivist or art deco, many of them executed in leather by master craftsmen like Paul Bonet, Pierre Bonnard, and Henri Creuzevault. They were each of them very complex works of art that elaborated on the text, multiplying the effect by making its very housing gorgeous and strange.
There is something about books. If you're reading this, you agree already, perhaps. Just as objects, they hold manna, magical power, in that they are both solid things and the repository of shared imagination. When you're a writer, they have even more meaning, some of it conflicted. There is an alchemical transition between the translucent work in your head and the heavy chunk of pulp that ends up in your hand. You have this ephemeral shimmer that, day by day, you take down onto paper. Often, our thoughts are more beautiful than how we end up realizing them. But not always.
Looking at this old auction catalogue, I fantasized about "A Day's Pleasure" being a keepsake, something that I'd designed, a celebration of the creative process. I wanted an artist who could riff on the old books from the auction catalogue. Specifically there was one image — a Paul Bonet binding of Frans Masereel's La Ville — that struck me as jazzy, urban, sweeping, and just a little bit like a communist worker mural. It felt a little like how I wanted someone reading "A Day's Pleasure" to think of it.
My wife immediately thought of J. D. King, a friend of hers who has done illustration work and album covers for years — his aesthetic is perfect, a mash-up of Rodchenko and The Jetsons. (He's right here, by the way.) I sent him a copy of my manuscript and the auction catalogue, and in about 35 seconds he had a version of what you see before you, and then, because he is obsessively motivated and has the work ethic of Chaplin himself, he took many weeks to tweak and revise the gridwork, sometimes at my suggestion, sometimes at his own, at the end moving hearts and heads a centimeter here or there for maximum impact.
J. D.'s work blew me away, beginning with his use of color as a way to link the various parts of the narrative that he has reduced to a set of key symbols. When he had the image down, he asked where I wanted my name and the title to go, and the answer was: nowhere. I liked the idea of his cover causing the book to speak for itself.
Once I had the cover in process, I wanted someone to illustrate the interior. I had in mind a very specific image from a very specific artist. In fact, the idea was so solid it was not unlike how I conceived of "A Day's Pleasure" in the first place — like it was already there, something like a dream. I wanted Patrick McDonnell, genius creator of the comic strip Mutts, to draw Charlie Chaplin surrounded by cats. Luckily, Patrick and I are friends, and either that was enough or he lost a bet I'm unaware of, but he signed up to draw and he knocked it out of the park.
I'm not sure how many of you have tried to print your own book before. (Hands?) It turns out to be surprisingly difficult, especially if you're burdened by not quite knowing what you're doing. Eli Horowitz at McSweeney's was kind enough, over the bribe of a pizza lunch, to give me a vocabulary, to discuss foils and stamps and bids and silkscreening processes. I brought this knowledge as if it were my own back to my editors at Knopf, who could well have just patted me on the head and sent me on my way.
Instead, they were intrigued. They set me up with Andy Hughes, the lord of production for Knopf, who fell on the project like a whirlwind — the most articulate, well-organized, precise whirlwind you can imagine. At first, he just helped look for bids from printers, but within seconds, seemingly, he had taken over, quizzing me and J. D. about cover details, coming up with a simple and excellent interior design, sending me paper samples, updating me with PDFs of the book almost weekly, and basically cheerleading this weird idea I had into life.
Now, I'm typing these words on the February solstice, and as of today, the books are still just an idea. Specifically, they are in production somewhere on the other side of the world, but for me, they are still part of my imagination. Powell's has been remarkable in their support of what is still intangible.This is something I love about books — if you can find a few like-minded people, you can produce something aesthetically pleasing, an object, that each reader can take alone into his or her home and experience in some unknowable, personal way. I wanted to make something that bridged that distance from me to readers, readers I know and readers I don't, and I am proud to be part of the Indiespensable program (no matter how my spell checker wants to spell that), which seems to me the best possible extension of such dreams.
A lot of Sunnyside is about silent film, both in practice and in theory. It's in part an examination of how movies work on your brain. What is it like to have an emotional investment in images projected upon a screen? Unstated is the parallel relationship between reader and book. There is that jump from the ephemeral images in my brain to the tangible book that will go with you and help generate your own intangible thoughts. My conclusion, deep in the book, is that the act of empathizing with characters causes the audience itself to be the hero of the story. How great is that?
We're now at the end of the essay and I am slightly reluctant to let you go. I hope you like "A Day's Pleasure." Each copy is signed and numbered and belly-banded (Andy Hughes's design) and has a spiffy print in it that J. D. did with zero input from me, which generated in me the great feeling of having inspired another artist. So what you have is a collaboration that I hope will turn your head.
If not, might I make a suggestion?
You can rest assured that, stabs at sanity and creativity aside, I'll be still cruising the same place I was at the beginning of this essay, and perhaps we'll meet on eBay.
Books mentioned in this post
Glen David Gold is the author of Sunnyside