I grew up at newsstands. Comic books, Mad
, Quarterly Skateboarder
(before the wheels were urethane), Playboy
(the pictures, sure, but also the only place you ever saw a drink called a "potable"), the New Journalism Esquire
at the high-school library, and even the occasional peek into Mom or Dad's disappointing secret drawer, Fortune
Some people thought of magazines as books' poor relations, but they were palpably alive, and a kid could fantasize about working at one — the clever conversations, the drinking, the affairs of the heart of the week. (Later, I did work at one. It was all true.)
So it was in magazines that I noticed changes. Life and Look covered what interested everyone — DiMaggio, Kefauver, the Beatles. Then Life and Look went out of business, and when I went to the newsstand I saw six magazines about quilting. The general interest was getting less general as we became a beehive of increasingly separate cells.
Magazines weren't the point, but they were an indicator. Music was another. We went from every transistor radio on a crowded beach being tuned to the same Top 40 station to every iPod on the street playing a personal Top 400. You might love two of my five favorite bands, but quite possibly you've never heard of them. The obvious accelerator of all this is the Internet, where no fetish is too pinpoint, where I spend time reading blogs about pencils and notebooks.
As I thought about this I started to see a character for a novel, a nomadic editor who works for a series of enthusiast magazines — one month Spelunk, the next month Cozy, the Magazine of Tea. "I was the civilian at every magazine I worked for," he would tell us. "At Ice Climbing I was the only staff member who still had all ten toes, and at Metal Detector Treasures I was the only one without twenty rings on his fingers." He'd have a handle on America that was his alone, and, his business being what it is, he'd have some terrible cars, apartments, and bosses: comedy. Each magazine would provide its own tall tale: picaresque.
I could do this, I thought. It was social commentary, which I'd done as a journalist, and comedy, which I'd done as a screenwriter. Comedy is hard, with all-afternoon silences as you wait for the missing joke to come in by synaptic tramp steamer, but it does come.
But it turned out that the novel couldn't be all funny stuff, any more than life is. To be the story I wanted to tell, the novel would need dysfunction, loss, fear — everything we read about in order to unwind from it. The picaresque could take me on a trip, but it couldn't get me home. I'd have to attempt the real job: taking a big inventory of memories, emotions, and beliefs out of my head, laying them out on the coffee table, staring at them a long time, and putting them back inside in something like the right order. "The worst moments of your life?" the Bureau of Novels said. "Bring those, too."
My personal situation was bracing. I'd left a semi-reliable living writing movies (including monster movies, which are salutary domesticators of fear and, like working at magazines, fun) to do something I now doubted I could do. I doubted even more that anyone would want it when I was done.
At this point, through the embarrassing non-mysteries of one writer's creative process, a new character came into the book: Wendy Probst, the crochet lady.
Henry, the narrator, is working for Crochet Life, a magazine that tells its readers how to crochet throws adorned with pictures of unicorns, rainbows, and Raggedy Anns. His editor asks him to go photograph the latest work of Wendy Probst, a crochet artist whose throws always get good reader response: "I still get letters asking for her Paddington Bear."
Henry goes to see Probst and finds her crocheting a throw that shows "a man in a uniform shirt and ball cap shooting a woman with a handgun, her blood spraying across the scene. Another man, on his knees, pleaded with the shooter as people ran away in the background."
"That was a workplace shooting last year at Belton Lumber Byproducts," Probst says. "I wasn't there, but I saw the coverage. Most of these things, I was there for."
The rest of the throws lying around show "violence, sickness, arrests, and people weeping into pay phones." One day, Probst tells Henry, she was working on some unicorn-type throws to sell at a crafts fair when this stuff started coming out, and it kept coming out over a long winter. "I had a big bag of frozen drumettes in the house and I just kept going," she says. She doesn't know what she'll do with these crochets, or how she'll make a living now: "It's not like I can take these to the crafts fair."
So the psychology of my coming up with this character wasn't what you'd call deep. That I didn't get the joke at the time might be ironic, but isn't surprising. I was going through something as jumpy as Wendy Probst's drumette winter. I was taking BART trains from Oakland to random towns and walking all day, notebook in hand, trying to get that inventory from my head onto the coffee table. I was becoming too fond of saying, "The novel is to the nervous breakdown what the controlled burn is to the forest fire. If you're lucky."
When Henry leaves Wendy Probst's house, he asks her if she wants anything — food, maybe, or a ride into town. She picks up the workplace shooting crochet she thinks no one will want and says, "No, thanks. I think I need to finish this."
So I did — finished the manuscript, or at least got it to a point where editors could help me. I have the great luck to be married to a pro, and then came the people in New York. One of the things people like to say about publishing is "No one edits anymore." They say this with wonderful knowing assurance, and it's nonsense. There are some gifted, overworked angels in that business who took me in and gave me my own private Iowa. If they hadn't, I wouldn't be writing this, I'd be writing: CUT TO: THE MONSTER, SLIMY BEYOND DESCRIPTION.
Now the book is out there, a fact that surprises me every day. Some people who like it say they enjoy the funny parts, but also the way the other stuff "sneaks up" on them. God knows it snuck up on the author.
A writing tip, maybe my only one: the ground shifts under you.