|How I Wrote
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
photo © Len Irish
|It's always a
little awkward admitting that my novel, About the
Author, is highly autobiographical. After all, it does concern an
alcoholic skirt-chaser who, too lazy to write his own fiction, settles
for stealing the manuscript of a recently-deceased friend and publishing
it as his own. And then plotting the death of the only person who knows
his secret. Yet it can't be avoided: the fictional premise derives
directly from my own life.
Like my cad hero, Cal Cunningham, I grew up hoping, one day, to write fiction. Like him, upon graduating from University, I took a low-paying job as a bookstore stockboy. Like Cal, I riled with envy of the grinning authors whose novels I was obliged to unpack at the bookstore. But also like Cal, I found that stealing out to the local bar after work to drink cheap beer and chat up girls was infinitely easier than planting my arse in the chair to write. Like Cal, I lived in a slum with a law student roommate who harboured dreams of writing fiction himself. The scenes in my novel where Cal listens to his harrowingly prolific roommate thrashing away at a novel next door derive directly from my own life. So too Cal's creeping sense of horror that he himself will never author the books that he believes it is his destiny to write.
How I came to break the creative stalemate and actually write About the Author is where fact and fiction part company. Or seem to. Having diagnosed that my difficulties as a writer derived, at least in part, from my ambition to write deep, meaningful, important fiction that would rival James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, I one day decided to lighten up. What about writing a novel that strove for the humour of one of my favourite books - Kinglsey Amis's immortal Lucky Jim - but that had the page-turning suspense of one of Patricia Highsmith's wonderfully creepy Ripley novels? What about dropping the tortured artiste pose and trying to have some fun? What about taking my fear of writing fiction and, instead of pretending that the fear didn't exist, making it the subject of my story? Suddenly I found myself jotting notes furiously about my days living with my old law school buddy (and literary rival), about my procrastination, about the hilarious horrors of my bookstore job. But determined not to descend into self-referential navel-gazing (the fate of all-too-many first novels), I told myself that the real-life premise would act only as a springboard into the book's main action, which I hoped would be thick with suspense, rich in humour, wild with unexpected incident-and plus have at least one lesbian sex scene.
Part of my strategy in planning the novel derived from a cold-blooded assessment of my circumstances. By then, I was a busy journalist, writing non-fiction for magazines. I didn't have enough money to stop work for eight months or a year to write a rough draft of the book, so I knew that any novel I wrote would have to be done in fits and starts, between journalism deadlines. I figured that only a book with a very strong narrative could be written in such a manner; it would be simply impossible to try to write a slow, atmospheric, meditative book in such a piecemeal fashion.
Although it took me only one afternoon to lay out the entire plot from start to finish in a notebook, I knew it was going to take me considerably longer to flesh-out those notes and convert them into a living, breathing novel.
If I had known how long it would take, I might never have started.
I scribbled that plot outline on March 14, 1987. I punched in the last full stop of the actual novel on August 30, 2000. In that fourteen year span, I migrated from my native Toronto to New York City where I, an illegal alien, moved into a crack ghetto on the northern tip of Manhattan and tried to launch a journalism career. Eventually, I was to write for many magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, where I became a Contributing Editor. I got married. I had a child. I got a green card. I moved to a better neighbourhood. I won a National Magazine Award for an article that I later expanded into a non-fiction book called As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl, which became a New York Times bestseller and was translated into seven languages. I turned thirty. Then forty. And all through that time, I inched along in About the Author, sometimes having to put it away for two years at a time as I banged out the journalism. There were times when I wondered if I would ever get back to it. But the plot, characters and situation always drew me back in. And I would start writing again - sometimes just three pages before my editor from Rolling Stone would call, and the novel would have to go back into a drawer.
But eventually I did finish the book, and in doing so was amazed, and amused, to see how its latter half, while originally conceived as pure fiction more than a decade earlier, oddly prefigured how my life had turned out. No, I did not steal my old roommate's manuscript; and no, I did not try to engineer a homicide. I did, however, watch as my novel sold to a New York publisher for a sum that I could not have imagined back in 1987. I also watched as a major Hollywood movie studio, Dreamworks, optioned the novel, ten months before its publication, just as happens to Cal's fictional novel in About the Author. And in a strange, twisted reflection of my novel's plot, in which Cal ends up marrying his law school roommate's former girlfriend, I watched as the real law student I had lived with met, and married, my old girlfriend. These bizarre parallels between my real life and the novel strike me as particularly apt, since the weird intertwining of real life and fiction was a hidden theme of my book all along.