Naming my fat book after the working title of Knausgård’s fictional memoir (or a country in South America, home to a host of writers I keep coming back to including Aira, Borges, and the Pole, Gombrowicz — to name just a few) is more than just a whimsical notion, and has some justification in a line I found in Gombrowicz’s Diary. My own fat book has at its center, at its very heart, the state of Oklahoma which could be described by the words Gombrowicz used for Argentina: “…a country richer in cows than in art.”
I heard an interview with the writer Cory Doctorow recently in which (it seems) he argued that posting writing online where anyone who wants can access it and read it is not publishing. Publishing is the act of bringing a work together with an audience. Because posting something online doesn’t guarantee an audience, it’s not publishing. That was one thing. The other end of what he was getting at was that making a book available online for free download doesn’t mean that no paper copies of the same book will be sold. People who want the convenience of a paperbound codex will pay for it. People who want a properly formatted ebook for their ereader will pay for it. People that just want to read your book for free should be able to do so. From the writer’s point of view, he wants not only money, but to be read. A writer will maximize his audience by being available to any reader who wants to invest the time whether that reader is willing to pay or not.
When I began researching Doctorow’s writings on the subject of publishing I ran across a corollary to this notion of publishing as bringing together a work and a audience. Doctorow says that bloggers who bring unknown works to a larger audience are acting (in effect) as publishers.
Case in point: While the description of Ted Heller’s novel West of Babylon in Sam Jordison’s Guardian review doesn’t convince me that it’s a book that I’d want to read, I was pleased to see that the Guardian is paying attention to self-published books. In keeping with my comments about publishing above, here Jordinson is effectively acting as a publisher in connecting a books with an audience. I’m guessing a few of the Guardian’s readers will be interested in a “down-in-the-gutter” rock-and-roll novel even if it isn’t the sort of thing I seek out.
My “Bloomsday Book” is actually an episode in a larger project I started a little more than two years ago in a café in Natchez. At the time I wanted to write a homecoming narrative, a story about someone coming home after being away for a long time. For many years I thought about sending one of my characters (Adam perhaps) back home and writing about the experience in some fictional way. The notes I wrote that day eventually formed the kernel of a fat book and the “Bloomsday Book” is a substantial fraction of the third part (of four). The other day, while reading Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds I realized that the fourth part of this fat work-in-progress will be none other than Without a Trace, a novel that I’ve attempted (unsuccessfully) to write at least four times. Chejfec’s meditations on traces brought me back to Walter Benjamin.
This fat book in four parts doesn’t have a title. I have the name of each of the parts: Red Neck, Discontent, Home, and Without a Trace. But the whole itself? Given that the text of Red Neck was (in part) posted on my old blog Donavan’s Brain, I was tempted to repurpose that blog title for this fat work-in-progress. Donavan’s Brain is probably as accurate a description of what the book is about as any other title I can think of. I could call it Diary, but then what would I call this collection of blog posts? Or perhaps I’ll call it Argentina. You see the problems I have to deal with as a writer.
Why do I admire Aira? Because he writes short books in cafés in Buenos Aires? Anyone can write short books and café owners don’t care what you do at your table as long as you pay your bills and keep to yourself. As I read his How I Became a Nun I thought, Hey, I can do this. He’s just writing down whatever comes to mind. The imperative is production, but not the sort of production associated with industrial manufacturing; here it’s the production of the artisan, the craftsman who makes something with his hands, slowly and with attention to detail and knowing that the work of his hands will say something about what sort of man he is.
I look forward to Thursday nights the way most people look forward to Friday night. Thursday evenings are protected. No matter what’s going on in the world, Thursday is my night to say, “No, I can’t do it. I’ve got other plans.” Thursday nights are reading nights. No streaming soccer matches on the widescreen display. Just a book, and me on the couch, or the bed, or in my reading chair. “I have a date with a book,” I could say. But perhaps some wouldn’t understand.
Even though I read every day – reading is essential for the writing life – I rarely get more than an hour (here or there) on most days. Except for Thursday when I can block off three or four hours to immerse myself into something. And I won’t give that up.
My current reading list has a fair number of soccer (aka football) books given that my present writing project is soccer-themed. I’m in the research phase at the moment. The research phase for a book is the best since it involves reading and note-taking mostly. The organizational, the structural phase is less fun. The actual writing part is the labor.
There’s a long-ish piece in the New Yorker this week by John McPhee on structure (in writing). It’s an interesting article to me, as a writer, because McPhee opens the door to the workshop. I’ve always been a fan of the “Writers at Work” series in the Paris Review. Although, I can’t imagine that anyone but a writer would be all that interested in how writers go about their work. It’s literary shoptalk. What I’ve learned in two decades of reading about how other writers write is that everyone has their own bag of tricks, everyone works in their own way, and there’s no standard method. What works for one writer, won’t necessarily work for another.
Working methods differ, but the basic process is the same: conception, organization, implementation, revision, (and finally) publication. How a writer goes about navigating that process is his business.
I still don’t know what sort of soccer book I’m going to write. When I first got interested in writing about soccer (the latter part of 2011) my first idea was to write a book about youth soccer, a vaguely fictional memoir about a dad coaching his son’s team. The first thing I did was a “literature search.”
When I was in graduate school, I had to come up with an original research problem. That original problem would be the subject of the dissertation I would need to write to complete my degree. The originality of the idea was key. I couldn’t just do something that had already been done, the idea had to be completely fresh, something new in the world, pertaining to a problem that had never been solved before. So each time I came up with an idea (the conception phase) I’d trudge off to the library (the Internet was still in its infancy back then) and do a literature search. The mechanics were slightly different than doing a Google search, but the idea is the same. The literature search had to be complete and exhaustive. The worst thing is to pick a project, spend a year or two working on it, and then discover that it’s already been done before.
It didn’t take me long to find Jim Haner’s book Soccerhead. The subtitle of the book gives you an idea of what the subject matter is: “An accidental journey into the heart of the American game.” But it’s the premise that gives the book its structure: a dad who gets drafted to coach his son’s soccer team learns about the game and it’s history and development. Haner covers the story of soccer in America, giving an entertaining history of the game embedded in the context of his trials and tribulations as a youth soccer coach. It’s a brilliantly done book. And there’s no reason why I should try to rewrite it. Okay, perhaps things are different in the US, ten years since Soccerhead‘s publication, but there are other soccer books I could write, so why redo that one?
I’d moved to Long Island for practical reasons having to do with my writing career. And after three years of working on a novel, a colleague of mine, another writer, encouraged me to take up blogging. This colleague had been experimenting with blogging about wine. He knew that I was an amateur brewer, so he kept bugging me about writing a craft beer blog. Somewhat reluctantly, I gave it a try. And the experience I gained over the subsequent five years helped shape my thinking about culture and society. I wasn’t satisfied to limit myself to writing just about craft beer, I wanted to write about American culture and what the craft beer movement represented in that context. The connections I made in those five years led to a partnership with two other brewers, and together we founded and launched a craft brewery of our own. Now that I’m a professional brewer and not just a beer writer, I have a different relationship to the local beer scene. So what I write about the world of craft beer is colored by this new perspective.
I thought about giving up writing about craft beer altogether. During that time I indulged myself in working on a number of fiction projects I’d started over the years and not quite finished because I was so wrapped up in chasing after craft beer. With the beer blogging out of the way I felt free to flirt with other subjects. And because my son was getting more involved with soccer and his team needed an assistant coach, my life started revolving more and more about the axis of the soccer pitch and less about the pub. The change was also good for my health. Running around after eight and nine year olds is good exercise, and after a few months I noticed my beer gut shrinking.
Writing about the craft beer movement allowed me to write about culture, economics, politics, psychology, and pretty much anything else that interested me. Craft beer was a lens. And through that lens I hoped to gain new insights about how American society is put together, what’s going well, and where we’re making mistakes. After a few months of talking with people in the soccer world and reading whatever I could find on the subject, I realized that soccer was also a lens. And the soccer lens could be trained on the same aspects of American society, culture, economics, etc. And, additionally, soccer and craft beer were connected by the umbilical of the pub and the stadium terrace where beer drinking and spectating meld into the same act (like chocolate and peanut butter).
Last year, shortly after my brewery got its final operational license in place, I was talking with Rasan about a book that I thought I was going to write, a book about my and my business partner’s experiences in getting a small brewery up and running. I’d just read a book by Gabriel Kuhn called Soccer versus the State and I’d realized that we’d been running our brewery as an anarchist collective (without realizing it) for nearly five years. Reading Kuhn’s book started my mental wheels turning. At the heart of the craft beer movement is a (sublimated?) commitment to anarchism, and certainly an overt commitment to doing things for yourself rather than confining one’s role in society to that of passive consumer. But I also started thinking about our local soccer club, and the pay-for-play model that we all agreed to uncritically. What Kuhn had written about freeing the game from capitalist shackles seemed right to me. Soccer is a game. People get together and kick a ball for fun. I’d already run into the politics of the use of public space and how that is controlled, and regulated with fee structures that are designed to keep out “undesirable elements” (poor people and recent immigrants). The fees we had to pay to get our brewing license were not huge, but I wondered why the State had what amounted to a pay-for-play policy when it came to starting a new business. It was like they were saying, unless you are part of the monied elite, don’t bother us, stay chained to your soul-killing, alienating nine-to-five slave-work like a good boy. Imagine it. What if anyone who wanted to could make their own beer and sell or trade it to whomever they wanted without interference from the State – it would be anarchy. And that’s good thing. Gabriel Kuhn, with his little book about soccer, had completely changed the way I thought about anarchy. I’d been operating under a misconception about anarchism all my life. After reading Kuhn’s book, I realized that I had been a closeted anarchist. Kuhn gave me the courage to come out of that closet and declare my natural born and instinctive anarchist tendencies. And if a book about soccer can do that, then I thought (as a writer) the subject was worth studying.
From Terry Eagleton’s review in the Guardian of a new biography of Jacques Derrida by Benoît Peeters: Of Derrida being labeled by his jewishness, Eagleton writes, “Identity and homogeneity were what he would later seek to deconstruct. Yet the experience also gave him a deep suspicion of solidarity.” And I realize the impossibility of completing my book Red Neck, among whose principle themes are identity and homogeneity, without mentioning Derrida at least in passing. Indeed, this French philosopher was the subject of so many of the conversations I had with Peter, David, and Ernest when we were in graduate school.
Or perhaps I should save Derrida for my next book structured around literary cities. He could appear in either Paris or Prague where “…in 1981 to address a secretly organised philosophy seminar, he was arrested and charged with drug smuggling.” [from Eagleton’s review]
Literary (as opposed to philosophical) interests led me to begin reading the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein. One day over lunch, Rasan suggested that I read Ray Monk’s biography of the Austrian philosopher. I put the book on my very long list.
Today, I read a piece in the Guardian about Ray Monk’s new biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Monk’s title is what caught my eye: Inside the Centre.
Two things draw me to this biography of Oppenheimer: the title and the subject matter. While I’ll be working on my current book, Discontent, for the foreseeable future, that hasn’t stopped me from sketching out plans for my next book which will have a five part structure, each part corresponding to a literary city. The third, and central part, of my probable next novel is about New York and will bear the title, The Center.
Ten years ago, right after I moved to Long Island I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the development of the atomic bomb. My plan was to use that research to provide context (and content) to a novel I thought I was going to write set (at least in part) in Los Alamos. I still haven’t written that novel. Perhaps the subject is too big. But, as I read Stuart Jeffries article in the Guardian I started thinking about that unwritten book of mine. Oppenheimer was born in New York. That’s one connection. And Oppenheimer’s project at Los Alamos was called Manhattan. Perhaps, Oppenheimer and his bomb will find their way into The Center.