My Writing Process
ON MULTI-CHARACTER BOOKS
ON RIZZO & DOGS
ON WRITING A
HARRIS & COMPANY
ON WRITING ABOUT MYSELF
ON MULTI-CHARACTER BOOKS
Periodically I go back to trying to write a book with several main characters and inter-connecting plots. This is something I first attempted in the early 1970s when I was writing politically-themed novels. The first was a book called Utopia Parkway-Exit 1/4 Mile which is a highway sign on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, NY. That version had four main characters and about the same number of supporting characters and three plot lines. I was never satisfied with it and later, using the same title, wrote a second book about a group of graduate students at a Midwestern college that used composite characters from my own MFA experience. This book also had four main characters and a host of supporting players and though my agent at the time tried selling it, he couldn't place it with a publisher. Jimmy Powell, who at the time was running the Writers' Center of Indiana, did publish an excerpt of it in a literary magazine called In-Print.
The idea, though, did not die there. I attempted it again with 6 main characters in probably my most autobiographical novel about the last year of my bookstore Intellectuals & Liars in LA. That was called Lost Illusions but again my agent could not find a home for it anywhere.
I tried again with Wooing Wu, a romance between a Chinese PhD candidate and a burnt-out American poet/teacher set in the early 1990s in NYC, but though that book has a cast of eight characters, the focus is really on the two main characters and the other six characters are purely supporting characters in the romantic comedy and only really appear in the sections devoted to the main character they interact with.
It wasn’t until I wrote Night & Day that I achieved the desired effect of several stories involving about 10 main characters crisscrossing through each other’s lives. It was like trying to keep 10 balls in the air at once and was exhilarating. The plot revolves around the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a college on Long Island and the romances that develop or don’t quite develop between various members of the college community. Since A Midsummer Night’s Dream has four distinct groups—the court, the lovers, the fairies, the clowns—it was best suited to a romance that involved multiple ethnic and racial groups. My agent at that time spent two years submitting it to various publishers but again had no success finding a home for it. It was a major disappointment not only for me but for her, too.
I found, though, that the idea just wouldn’t go away and sometime after returning to Turkey in 2010, I wrote another book using the same motif—a theatre group at a college putting on a new version of a Shakespearean play—set in Istanbul. That book, Istanbul Days, Istanbul Nights—uses Romeo & Juliet instead since rather than feuding families, I let the idea of language and culture be the stumbling block to the potential romances between foreigners working in Istanbul alongside Turks. The theatre director also decides to refashion the tragedy as a comedy and this book is lighter in tone than Night & Day, though both are bittersweet.
So the two books are similar in some ways but different in others. There are characters who fulfill the same roles in both books but their back stories are different and in most cases their lives take different turns. That was the fun of writing those books: letting these characters loose to bump and collide on their own. And though there are characters who are left alone at the end of Istanbul Days, there aren’t any tragic events that befall characters in Night & Day. Perhaps life for foreigners is harder in America than in Turkey, or perhaps I saw more heartbreak there than here. I’m not sure why that is, but then again winning half the time is pretty good odds in life. After all, Mickey Mantle only had a career batting average of .298, Willie Mays .302, and Ty Cobb has the record high of .366. So getting it right half the time is like having a .500 batting average which in baseball is deemed impossible.
And love is pretty much impossible half the time and a miracle the other half. And ain’t that a kick in the proverbial head?
ON RIZZO & DOGS
Years ago, actually many years ago, I wrote what would become my first Rizzo book. It was called like a deuce, which was a reference to the Bruce Springsteen song Blinded By The Light. The lines went:
He was just blinded by the light
cut loose like a deuce, another runner in the night
blinded by the light
Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Oh, but Mama, that's where the fun is.
Springsteen was referring to a supped up car, like "a little deuce coup" to quote a Beach Boys' song, but I intended a double meaning. Rizzo just wasn't a sports car zooming around in the night but also a wild card, as in "deuces wild" in poker, so he was in essence unpredictable. He was my journalist protagonist who was too cocky for his own good. And Rizzo in the first Rizzo books (like a deuce & Rizzo & Mike) had a dog who was a little wild, too.
Now Rizzo as a character stayed with me and aged in a series of books I wrote using him, mainly because various agents I had couldn't seem to sell any of those books and I just refused to let him go. He became, as had many of the characters in those books, personal friends of mine, as real to me as real friends of mine, who in many ways influenced the characters in those books. The bantering between Rizzo and his best friend Peter was so similar to the bantering over dinner tables, in kitchens, in bars, walking on the street, in theatre lobbies that friends of mine and I indulged in all these many years. Those characters were, in essence, my friends and me. And the nameless dog that was, as Jimmy Powell once quipped after reading the earlier book, the second most realized character in the novel, was my dog Frodo, alive in those pages, a ghost in the novels to follow, haunting Rizzo, and also that other character who pops in and out of various novels of mine, Anthony Provenzano.
So it wasn't unusual that one day last week when I was talking via skype with my old friend Chuck Thegze, he started asking me about some parts of my life he only became aware of by reading my blog. Now Chuck has known me since he was the West Coast editor of Avon Books and he tried to buy my book Rizzo & Mike for Avon (that was 1978) and though the house eventually passed on the book, Chuck and I became good friends. We both still remember the night we played pool in some pool hall in Santa Monica and also the night he came to my house in Santa Monica for dinner of my famous red clam sauce and he met my ex-wife Jane (who wasn't my ex-wife at the time) and my dog Frodo, who left a lasting impression on all my friends and family.
So we got to talking about Frodo, who in Chuck's mind is spiritually connected to the Rizzo books and to LA even though Frodo was a native NYer just like me who just happened to spend part of our lives in Ohio (perish the memories) and LA. He wanted to hear the story of my first night in LA, when after having driven across the country in a make-shift caravan with three cars, a U-Haul 24 foot truck, six adults (Dave Capus, his girlfriend soon to be second wife Peg, Dave Reed, another friend of David's named Bill, Jane, and me), one child (Peg's daughter Ivy), a cat (Dave Capus' whose name, sorry, David, escapes me)and my dog Frodo (and yes, he was named after that character in Tolkein's books in the hopes he, too, would be loyal and brave, which he was, though a bit wild, too, perhaps because of the way I played with him.). The two Daves, Jane and I, and the dog drove ahead to find lodgings for us all and that first night we all stayed in a four person motel room in Canoga Park which allowed pets. We did find a five bedroom house in Simi Valley where we all lived together for two months but that's another story. The first night, though, the two Daves went off scouting out bars while Jane and I drove into Beverly Hills to have dinner with my only friend in LA, Rip Crystal, & his girlfriend who would eventually become his wife, Fran.
Whew. That was a long intro.
Anyway, we hired some kids to stay in the motel room to watch Frodo while we were gone and when we came back around midnight, the room was empty but there was a note to call their mother. As it turns out, she had the bright idea of bringing them all to her house, and Frodo, who probably thought he was being kidnapped, bolted out of their door at his first opportunity to escape and disappeared somewhere in Canoga Park miles from the motel, lost and probably scared, which pretty much sums up how we felt when after spending two hours driving throughout their neighborhood calling his name every 100 feet or so, finally dragged ourselves back to the motel thinking we had lost him forever on our first night in LA.
However, much to our surprise and relief, he was waiting for us expectantly on what was to be our bed, his tail wagging profusely, those cries of joy coming from us all, and the two Daves laughing as they explained how Frodo was pacing up and down the block in front of the motel waiting for someone he knew to come home. How he found his way back was a mystery; however, that night I let him sleep between us though insisting he stop wagging his tail.
There are so many stories featuring Frodo but my favorites revolve around his total loyalty to me. As a puppy, he wouldn’t eat unless I sat next to him on the floor and would throughout his life insist on climbing onto my lap while I was trying to write, hunched over my trusty Smith Corona, even when he grew up to be a 60 pound dog. He was black & tan, half German Shepherd and half Collie, with a slightly pointed head and those long, floppy ears which I refused to have clipped. He was fixed late in life (when he was five) by Jane who had him living with her the first time we separated in North Hollywood because I agreed to let him live there to protect her since she lived with another actress and both felt safer with Frodo around. Besides, I lived in a much smaller place in Malibu and it was really too small for him. How he became neutered, though, without my permission, happened because he bit the first boyfriend she took up with after leaving me. I loved him for that, but was distressed she had him fixed and almost took him away from her. But I relented because I did worry about her and Loretta, her roommate.
The other time he proved he was my dog was just before I left LA after losing my store. I had been housesitting at Ren Weschler’s mother’s house for the two months prior to leaving and Frodo was staying with Jane and her soon-to-be second husband Jack. Our agreed upon understanding was that arrangement was only temporary until I left for NY because up until that time he was with me but I couldn’t have him at Ren’s mother’s house. A few days before I was to board the plane for NY I called Jane to arrange picking up Frodo. She then asked if I could change my mind and let her keep the dog because, as she said, “Jack likes him.” I thought that Jack was getting Jane but there was no need for him to also get my dog and told her to let Jack get his own dog. She kept pleading, though, so I offered a compromise. I told her to bring Frodo to the acting school where she was working when no one else was there and that I would come to the school, sit for a while talking to her, and then get up to leave. If Frodo followed me out to my car, he went with me to NY. But if he stayed in the school with her, she could keep him.
Well, that’s what we did. He was happy to see him, jumping, running circles around me, and finally calming down enough to lay on his back so I could rub his stomach and chest. After a while, when he was resting quietly, I got up to leave. As soon as I stood, his ears perked up, and as I walked to the door, he got up and followed me. We walked down the stairs to the parking lot together, and when I opened the car door, he climbed in, and laid his head on my lap as soon as I was seated behind the wheel. He never even looked back. And thus we flew off into the sunset together.
He would let me take a bone out of his mouth without once objecting, chase a stick for hours and dare me to take it away from him, bark at anything or anyone that came within a block of whatever house we lived in but could tell the sound of any car belonging to a friend of mine within 150 feet of the house and stand, his tail wagging, at the door waiting patiently for them to enter, would walk next to me off his lease and would stop on a dime if he tried to chase another dog or squirrel when I yelled "no!" He had the saddest dog eyes and the wettest nose which he would somehow find a way to stick inside my shirt. He loved spaghetti, lettuce, and raw peanuts, and would go through a large box of Milkbones in less than a week. I loved him more than I've ever loved any animal and it broke my heart when after fifteen years, he finally couldn’t walk anymore. Taking him to the vet who finally gave him an injection that put him to sleep forever was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I cried for over ten minutes in that vet’s office, unable to leave him there, still seeing his eyes as he looked up at me just before the needle went in. I had him cremated, and his ashes sit on my desk today, just as they have sat on my desk these 20 some odd years since that day, physically with me just as he is with me in spirit, still in my memory, my heart, till I join him once again to play fetch in some heavenly field.
ON WRITING A HARRIS & COMPANY
I posted an older story, a harris & company, because I wanted to write about how I work as a writer and this one was important because it was one of the ones that lead to the discovery of my voice.
First, I was in graduate school, an MFA Program at Bowling Green University in Ohio (which, by the way, is one state I prefer to fly over rather than drive through, but the program was helpful in that it gave me plenty of time to write since the teaching assistantship was not demanding, there were few other distractions apart from playing pinball with my esteemed colleagues like Jimmy Powell, Gordon Anderson (both of whom would later be my partners in the first year of the bookstore Intellectuals & Liars in LA), Joel Dailey, Randy Signor (both of whom would end up working at the store, though Randy’s contribution excelled all the others), and others too numerous to name. There was always breakfast afterwards at 2:30-3:00 in the morning when the bars closed and the pinball machines lay dormant. But I’m off topic here, as usual.
So, I was visiting my friend Rip Crystal (older brother to Billy) in LA where he was sharing an apartment with Joel Gotler who was, if I remember correctly, still an agent at William Morris before he struck out on his own (that’s Joel, not Rip, who was writing/acting there). Anyway, Joel decided I needed help coming up with stories so he gave me one: the trip his friend A. (Arnie) Harris took to Mexico to buy drugs, I think, though I might be wrong here (you see what an impression that original story had on me). Anyway I was polite and listened but what struck me most about the whole experience that visit was the fact that Joel was involved with some woman who would call him up at all hours of the day and night and say “Come” and he would drop everything and go. This image of him rushing off stayed with me long after the trip was over.
Now the trip was just before I started the MFA Program so things were fermenting in my head.
Oh yeah, there’s another little piece of the story I should add: Al Secunda. He was a former agent at William Morris, too (I knew these people through Rip who had worked there, also, as an agent before he decided to let his artistic side flow and quit). Well Al decided to be an actor and left the agency to pursue that career. But the thing about Al was that he had all these part-time jobs to support himself while trying to make it as an actor, including handing out take-ones for WTFM and working at Gimbals around the same time I worked there but in different departments (I was in vacuums and he was, I think, in Mens’ Wear). He’s the one who watered the fake plants and caused a flood on the 2nd floor of the store.
Anyway, there I was at BG sitting in my office in the basement of Hanna Hall ignoring my office mate who was reciting Gregory Corso’s poem on marriage when the germ of the story started to work its way from my head to paper on my typewriter (this was ages before PCs). What came out was the story posted. So even though a harris & company started out as Joel’s friend’s story, only the name remained, along, of course, with bits and pieces of Joel and Al. Characters we create in turn create themselves. We give them a back story, facts and personality traits, throw them into a situation where they must interact with other characters we have also created in much the same way, and they take on a life of their own.
And that’s the joy of it: allowing for discoveries. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s more or less the way life works, too, right?
ON WRITING ABOUT MYSELF
I think it would be fair to say all writers write about themselves even if they don’t because what we omit is as revealing as what we include in whatever it is we write. Besides, writing, like all the other art forms, is an attempt to communicate something to someone, otherwise why make it public. We all can’t be like Emily Dickinson, but even she showed her work to some people even if she did not publish it. And I am no different than any other writer in that I, too, within the act of communicating, expose myself.
Actually I’ve always said that to understand my character one would have to read my books because though the books are not necessarily factual in regards to my life (they are fiction, after all), the tone or voice of my books is all me. My sensibility, as it were. But the facts/details in the books in the back stories of the various characters, in the events described, are partially mine and also belong to those people I have known, whether friends or acquaintances, or even passing strangers. So you can’t think I am the characters, but I am the books.
Which leads me to explain why I suddenly began writing those pieces on my blog that are included in the “thoughts and observations” category. I am, in this way, putting down the facts, my facts, or at least the way I remember them, which is, of course, subjective, but which is something I feel at this stage in my life compelled to do.
So I’ve written about my two fathers, my brothers, on the differences between the youth of today and my generation, on protests, on my bookstore, on life in LA and Turkey, my mother, teachers who influenced me, the NY of my youth, among other things, and will probably write about the other women in my life (grandmother, aunts, in regards to how they have influence me in terms of the women I have chosen to become involved with), my dog, the men in my life (grandfather, uncles, and the effect they have had on my character), and who knows what else. It is all a new venue for me: nonfiction. Chapters in what I suppose could be called a personal memoir. Something my friend Chuck Thegze has been after me to do for some time now, so Chuck, and I know you read them because you comment on them, thanks for the motivation.
Why now? Well, why not? But to go beyond the pat answer, because in talking about these facts to the few readers who actually read them, I am also recording what happened so that I can continue to understand why I ended up where I am. I think if I were back in the US among my friends, I might not be doing this, even with Chuck’s urging, because I would be having conversations with some of the friends who are reading these, and you all know who you are, during our normal interaction. But here, in Turkey, where I have few real friends, I find this is an adequate substitute, or at least the only substitute open to me. For though I find myself relaying stories here to people around me, I know they are only half listening, their interest level in me being defined by the nature of our relationship: former student or teacher who worked for/with me or people I coached afterwards. They have to at least fake interest, though I can tell some are really interested. I know this because though I’ve given books to many people here, only a few have actually read them. And though I used to share the posts with facebook “friends”, I only now share them with the handful of designated "close friends" since those posts are too personal to share with people with whom I would not be having those conversations with in person.
And I think also I am at that stage where I now regret having no family of my own. I think of my brothers Johnny and George, my sister Theresa, or close friends Maureen Foster, Dave Capus, Ren Weschler, and Jim Zimmerman who have offspring that they can relate their stories to. But I, for reasons now that somehow do not seem as important as they once did, managed not to. And so these remembrances are really my way of passing on these stories, of not letting the ghosts in my life fade away. So with the indulgence of those who are only interested in the poetry that I mostly post, I say that these memories will keep popping up, for they seem to be buzzing around my head, waking me up in the middle of the night and demanding I pay attention. And this is not a good thing because I don't sleep well to begin with, but now, besides all those fictional characters that call out to me to give them a voice and who, at times, seem more flesh and blood than the people I share the ferry, metro, and bus with, that sat in classrooms or the cafeteria, that bump into me on street corners or at Ali Usta when I'm just trying to get my two scoops of walnut and almond ice cream, now, yes, now there are these shadows that have come out from behind the curtains, from under the bed, from along the walls, and they say, Len, it's time to tell our stories, too.
So I listen up. And I record. And if you're not interested, just skip over these pieces and wait for the next poem because there will be more poetry. I can assure you of that.