Dracula and Frankenstein Walk Into a 7-11 Convenience Store

So, I recently published Little Flower of Luzon, a novel about a man in his late 30s who falls for a 17-yr-old Filipina, and their ensuing relationship that turns out to be as ill-fated as they come. Little Flower of Luzon was a labor of love as I mentioned in a previous post, but that novel was different from anything I’ve written in that it is realist fiction, a far cry from what I am used to writing. Or maybe that’s not what I mean. Some elaboration may be in order.

More than 30 years ago, before there was an internet, back when a mega-chain bookstore amounted to the likes of B. Dalton Booksellers, Walden Books, and that other one whose name escapes me, I used to go to, of all places, my local 7-11 convenience store that sold paperbacks. These were the days of Stephen King’s Cujo, The Stand, etc. At my local 7-11 I even bought a copy of Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn. In my little town there was a library, but the books there, the books I was interested in, at least, amounted to 1950s and 1960s era sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My local 7-11 store was within walking distance. So was the library. There was something about the smell of new paperbacks (yes, I admit here that in the dead of the night, I sometimes sniff new books in my collection. Go on, admit it. You do too.).

These were the days when I was 11 yrs old. By the time I reached my 13th birthday, I was making the trek to our new local mall located several miles from my home. My choice there was Dalton’s or Waldenbooks. I spent many afternoons bouncing between the upper and lower level of the mall, trying to decide which paperbacks I wanted to buy. It made my friends furious, but then they never loved books the way I did.

By the time I was 11 years old I had a paper route. Some weeks I went home with as much twenty dollars. Sure, I spent some of that money on the staples an 11-yr-old needs: soda, chocolate, bubblegum, the occasional comic book (this last staple was frowned upon by my parents, believing that a boy like me was better off using my imagination to conjure images of characters within a novel or a short story, their surroundings, etc. rather than having someone provide images for me…fast forward those three decades or so later, and I find myself chastising my 12-yr-old son about reading a book versus playing the xBox; but, that is tale for another time)–but the bulk of my hard-earned money from my paper route was spent on books.

From a very early age I was interested in what-if novels. The very first books I ever bought–with money my parents had given me for the book mobile at my grade school in Camden, NJ–were Dracula and Frankenstein. Both editions were paperback. It was autumn, crisp, dry wind whipped up red, gold, yellow, and brown leaves from the ground, and Halloween was not far off. It was one of the best days of my life.

So what’s all this have to do with my latest novel? If there’s a point then it is this: a writer never sets out to write in a specific genre. That sort of categorizing comes later. I know little about psychology, but I like to think, as a writer, I know something about the human condition. And I know that when a story needs to come out, regardless of whatever comfort zone a writer prefers, it will pour forth; reaching beyond what we are used to is scary, to be sure, but the end result is something far more rewarding. A story, any good story–any good story that the writer believes is true enough that his or her desire to get the story down trumps anything else in life–is a story worth writing.

One night I tried to explain to my son how it works, this writing life. I told him how, for me, ideas stew for some time before I write them down, how I write character sketches or scenes that have nothing to do with the story I intend to write just to flesh out a character more fully, how I often hear dialogue in my head and, every so often, verbally render those conversations just to hear what my characters sound like.

“So, you’re crazy?” my son asked that night.

Maybe I am, crazy that is. But I would have it no other way.

Mind Candy: The Winged Monkey on My Back

So, I have a confession. It’s big. But not the “there are bodies in my basement” or “I wear ladies underwear under my suit” big. Because I don’t. No bodies. No ladies underwear. Well, actually, I can’t say for certain about the former because I live in an apartment. Technically speaking, there may be bodies beneath the concrete of the building’s basement, but I didn’t put them there. If I did that would mean I would have had a hand in pouring the foundation and I would have been only…what? Four years old when this place was built? Ditto for ladies underwear. Unless of course you count the boxers I’m wearing…My sister used to wear boxers as shorts when that was all the rage in the 1980s. My sister is also a lesbian with a loving partner and two children. She’s pretty much well-adjusted; even if she plots out her work attire on a calendar a month in advance. I guess we all have our little quirks. But you stick by your family, no?

Here it is. The big confession. I just finished Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot tonight.

Yes, I am a closet horror fan. Sure, I have read many great writers: Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Woolf(Virginia), Wolfe (Thomas), Garcia Marquez (how I detest going into a bookstore and finding his work with authors whose names begin with ‘M’), Joyce (of course…although I’ll save my take on Ulysses for another entry one day…it’s not pretty), Rushdie, Auster, Pynchon, Dickens (I still have nightmares), Eliot (George…not T.S.), Bronte (Emily), and too many others to list here. But horror is my mind candy. Always has been, always will. Crap! I should have thrown in Stoker and Shelley (Mary, of course) in my list…

 Growing up, I read my fair share of Stephen King. One week I stayed at the Jersey shore with a high school sweetheart and her family and read The Stand (the old version…the properly edited version…not the money-making scheme with original pages tacked on). I also remember Firestarter scaring the crap of out of me.

 There’s that word again…crap. That reminds me of a discussion (yes, I am digressing) I had with my son about people who curse too much. My father used to say that people who curse too much (alluding, he did, to the fact that there are boundaries within which profanity is called for?) did so because they lacked the vocabulary to express what was really on their minds. My son never met his grandfather. So I shared this sage advice with him. Then my son asked me if it was true. To wit, I told him “how the f*** should I know?” True story, by the way.

Anyway, back to the master of the macabre. Carrie never interested me. And by the time Misery hit the bookstores I was well on my way to becoming the literary giant you see before you, shunning my mind candy for the pursuit of more lofty works of fiction.

Over the past few years, I pursued and will shortly receive my MFA in Creative Writing. During my stint in graduate academia I had to put the brakes on and quit feeding the winged monkey on my back with horror novels. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being seen with a cheap paperback by the likes of King, McCammon, Clegg, etc as much as it was the reading load I was responsible for each semester. I had no time for recreational reading.

So it happened one night a few weeks back I went out to my local Barnes and Noble (because there are no more bookstores left in the world save for the used one in my neighborhood that some nights smells like a cross between wet cat and cooked cabbage). There I purchased Salem’s Lot because I had never read it. I no longer blow through books within a week. Then again, I’m not sixteen years old anymore so there are some things I have to do more slowly and other things I do more quickly which is quite embarrassing, but this is hardly for the forum for that sort of boudoir humor. Tonight marked nearly two weeks since I started the book.

I am on the fence, however. Aside from the vampire angle, which was probably the last book in recent history that pulled off the old-fashioned take on bloodsucking undead creatures, I had a huge problem with the main character Ben Mears, a writer who comes to Jerusalem’s Lot to overcome a childhood fear and perhaps write a book about it. Why a writer? I suppose you would have to ask Mr. King that. Mears could have easily been a carpenter, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a snake oil peddler, or some sort of hobo. Another pivotal character in the book knows more than Mears about vampires and that was, for me as a reader, rather unsettling. Still, say what you want about popular fiction but I think Stephen King is a good writer. His job is to tell tale and use the suspension of disbelief to his advantage, drawing the reader into the world he has created. I suppose this is what Mr. King has mastered. And for good reason, given how long he has been in the game.

Tonight, I will begin Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was another classic that I had missed growing up. There were plenty of other Bradbury books and stories along the way, but this particular book I’m looking forward to. Bradbury, perhaps even more than King, makes it all look so effortless. And for a writer like me I think that is important.

To draw the reader in while appearing, at least on the surface, to make no effort to do so is, in my humble estimation, the mark of a good writer. More than that, it takes a certain finesse, I think, to convince the reader that he is actually in the world the writer has created. The reader should never have a clue that what is unfolding on the pages before him is something made-up; an artificial representation of a world can be disastrous. We’ve all read those books. That’s why I think Stephen King will be read decades from now. When I tell people this they scoff and make George Plimpton faces at me; as if I am some sort of kook who wears ladies underwear or keeps dead bodies hidden in my basement. And that just shows how little some people know…about what good writing is…not the other things…

…the winged monkey on my back is gnawing at me…time to begin Mr. Bradbury’s book.