What is the Secret to a Lasting Career?
Talk Given at The Saints & Sinners Conference, May 2014
Bruce Dern said in a recent interview, "Understand at the very beginning that it is an endurance contest. Nobody makes it overnight. And if they do, they’re gone in a decade."
I myself have not only seen very famous in their time writers come so quickly as to seem like meteors. In fact, I’ve seen entire literary movements come and go. When Midwesterner Saul Bellow moved to New York some people were so upset, one wrote in the Chicago Sun, "we critics made you and we can break you." He turned out to be wrong. Because by then Bellow had found a large and loyal readership. But once the critics turned on Thomas Wolfe, an immense presence in the 1930’s literary world, his literary end followed shortly. Fortunately so did his life. Even today we have not reassessed this particularly American writer’s underrated and unique achievement. The critics turned on F. Scott Fitzgerald and on Henry James and on Tennesee Williams in the end too. But they all continued writing, working toward a single end: the creation of a body of work. As a result we have The Rich Boy and The Loves of the Last Tycoon, Small Craft Warnings and Clothes For a SummerHotel, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Aren’t you glad?
Try not to associate yourself with any particular school or movement or group too closely. They can be very useful at first for moral and actual, practical reasons, but they can become stultifying and worse, entrapping. Few questions can stop you dead faster than, "Weren’t you once a Minimalist? Or Modernist? Or. . .whatever? A few years ago, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran and myself received Lambda Lit Pioneer awards for our group, The Violet Quill. White has distanced himself from the VQ for a decade now. Holleran told the audience he thought it was mostly a creation of literary critics and historians. The truth is we were never identical writers, not even close, nor were we identical to the other four writers in the group, but we did form a cohesive group at one time. And we were written about at time: not quite truthfully, but sensationally. Because we three found success individually, the group continues to be well known now. If we’d all died of AIDS—which could have happened? Would anyone pay attention to us now? I wonder. Because there was a group that happened to: it is most commonly known as the Black Heart Collective. It grew out of a social and writing group at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Center called Black and White Men Together with three VQ members originally involved. It developed rapidly as its other members wrote on the edge of their lives. Most of them passed: friends dearly missed: Essex Hemphill, Dave Frechette, Donald Woods, and Assotto Saint. The editor of their two anthologies also died, alone, in his flat in Harlem, surrounded by African-Americans he was terrified of coming out to as gay and as HIV infected. But coming back to the Violet Quill, I can think of no three gay writers’careers that have ended up being so utterly different from each other as we three.
Having a sensational-prize winning, best selling, or commercially successful first play, book, or movie really does help. The first novel or play or collection of stories or film that goes over the top is a wonderful thing and there’s no doubt that you can get a great deal of mileage out of it. But it is far from crucial. The first ever PEN/ Hemingway Award given for first fiction in 1975 had four nominees— Joan Chase, Renata Adler, Michael Shaara and myself. Renata Adler won for Speedboat. She’s been incarcerated for mental problems ever since. Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels won the Pultizer and eventually became a film. He never finished the sequel that he told me he was writing. Years later, after he died, his son, Jeff , did finish the book, and he went on to write and publish ten more books. In other words, he had the rest of his father’s career. The fourth of us, Chase waited 25 years before putting out a second book which critics agreed was almost as good as the first. A Ph.D. paper about us four finalists was titled, "The Disaster of Early Literary Success." As you can see only one of us had any kind of literary career.
The so-called "sophomore slump" however is real and getting past it can be a big step. If you get past that successfully, even more successfully than your first book, you are pretty well on your way. Stephen King followed Carrie, which was not a best seller until after it became a film, with Salem’s Lot,a bigger, more expansive, and actually more Stephen King-like book, as well as a best seller. I followed my little book, Smart as the Devil, with a second one, Eyes, which was a NYTimes and then an international best seller. I optioned the film rights to Eyes for fifteen years. Those options paid for summer rentals at Fire Island Pines for a decade.
Some writers never get past their first book. As a result, they suffer from what I call First Novelitis. That happens when you fear you’ll never top the reception of that first book and so you keep putting off handing in the new book, year after year. And as you do, that FIRST novel gets bigger and bigger in your view and anything else you write, gets smaller and smaller until you have become a self-defeating prophecy and you couldn’t possibly put out a second one. Think it can’t happen to you? Check out this little list of writers who suffered big time from First Novelitis ---J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee (well 53 years at least), Margaret Mitchell, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright,
A way to get around that is in that year or so that the first book is busily coming out to write as much of the second book as you can. And as the first book is coming out, to work like hell to finish the second. That will do two things: provide you with something to give your agent and editor and also have something distract you from what is happening or not happening to you and your first book in the outside world. Believe me, you should have some kind of distraction in this period or you may end up distracted for good.
Having a best seller or prize winner at least once a decade helps a lot. Because then booksellers, and people in marketing remember your name. With thousands of new authors each year, it is important to have them actually, and simply remember your name. Once you have done that, you are considered, as I discovered about myself recently, a "marquee name" i.e. one that could go up on a theater or cinema marquee. That’s great, but don’t ever presume on it, don’t ever think it really means anything. .
Don’t ever believe your reviews. Read them from the distance of an Olympian God. Some you will not even recognize as reviews of the book your wrote. More than once I’ve said, "what book did he read? Doesn’t sound like mine at all." Exploit reviews if they are good. If they are controversially negative or sensationally negative, then exploit them even more. When my fourth novel The Lure came out it was lambasted in a transparently homophobic review in the Sunday New York Times book section. Disaster, right? Well, no. The book instantly went back to press for a new printing; it was picked up by a book club-- the first gay themed book to be picked up -- where it became one the year’s top sellers. It was translated into five languages and in 36 years it has never been out of print. I always keep in mind what Edgar Allen Poe wrote to his beloved a week after his poem, The Raven, came out in print. "My poem is damned. Damned in the quarterlies and in the weeklies. Damned in the public houses and in the coffee houses. Damned in the college assemblies and damned from every pulpit in the nation." So much for reviews.
Having a real and loyal readership becomes paramount to continuing a career. If you can at all, get out and meet your readers. If you have a physical or mental distinguishing mark or even a disability, don’t ever let that stop you. That will in fact aid your sense of presence. Anything that makes you stand out is useful. Look at Matt Sycamore Bernstein, aka Mattilda. Folks come out to see what skirts and get up he’ll wear next. Speak with, not to, your readers. If they didn’t like a book, or character, or plot turn, do not panic. Ask why not. You may never write it to their liking, but interacting means you value their input. And you should value their input. When I have several projects I’m writing and weighing which one should be next, I ask my readers which they would prefer first. I know of two critically received gay authors who were so snotty and snobby on the road, that their book tours were cut short and they were never invited back to many venues. Remember you are their guest; don’t abuse their hospitality. Go anywhere and virtually everywhere you are invited to read or speak if you can: small book groups, men’s or women’s groups. Special groups. Schools. Private homes. In the three years before Bastard Out of Carolina came out, Dorothy Allison did approximately 100 readings a year, mostly to women’s groups all across the U.S. It was grueling, and expensive, but she credits this for the success of the book. When I was writing Like People in History, a book I knew would be a game-changer for me, I did fifteen readings around the country—like Dorothy from an unsold and unpublished novel. Much of it to gauge interest and to build an audience for the book. I did this despite the fact I’d recently had a best seller—The Joy of Gay Sex.
Try different things and try different media. In 1984 people came to me wanting to turn my novella, An Asian Minor into a play with music and dancing. I thought they were nuts. But I said, sure, go ahead. They brought me the first scene a few weeks later. I read it and said, "Shit. I can do better than that!" So I did. When it opened it was re-titled "Immortal!" We used rhythm and blues songs that all of us knew and loved. The stage was the size of a postage stamp. Yet we crammed nine people onto it. Immortal ran for eight months off Broadway and led to a second career for me in theatre. I’ve completed five plays since and four have been produced. Some of them a few times. Ditto when someone asked me to turn my second novel into a film, I swiped a screen play in their office -- to copy their format, I said. The truth is I’d never seen a film script before in my life. Was this ballsy or stupid? Both, but they never found out and they were paying a lot. and I wanted to try out writing a script. Since then, I’ve done several scripts since and I was even hired to do script doctoring. True story. These days I blog on the Huffington Post. I write reviews, and essays. I’ve even constructed a new form of non-fiction: I call the bio-essay. It’s an essay but also a biography and I’ve even snuck in autobiography all in one short form. True Stories was the first; and True Stories Too, is another example of writing using this form.
Get into anthologies, magazines, websites and collections. Exposure. Exposure. Exposure. Also you want more readers. I’ve been invited into some odd collections, and no matter how outré it seemed at first, each collection turned out to be worthwhile—if of course of variable quality. At some larger author-on-display shows that I do usually dealing with genre fiction, I’m known for maybe three short stories. People bring in that magazine or that anthology year after year and I autograph it. Somewhat like this, I’ve been known to slightly tailor a piece especially for a collection. Sections of my recently written Victorian novel are appearing in an alternative history online-zine, in Tim and Becky’s newest collection of love stories, and in Rob Rosen’s anthology of erotica about men from different stations in life. Three different audiences will know of this book. And I’ve got at least three more sections from this book that I could place in other publications.
Leading to another must: if you are writing something and it starts to get really good, and you feel that your writing of this piece becomes especially bravura and you love it but it has clearly gotten too long or weird or otherwise out of hand for your novel, or novella, or play, do not, I repeat, do not, discard it. Instead save it and even round it out a bit with a little polish here and there, and especially at the end, so it can stand on its own. Not only will it make a separately place-able piece of writing but it is exactly the kind of thing you want to read when your book is out and you are making appearances. Or if it’s a performance piece you are doing, it can be the kind of thing that gets done in evenings of say short plays, or a film anthology. True, every once in a while there will be some super-fan in the front row who will find the page where it begins and then as you go off on your peroration of utter brilliance, she will get utterly lost and look up at you as though betrayed. But hey! That’s her problem! You meanwhile received a standing ovation and are signing books hand over fist.
Change with the times. The list of what did not exist for writers when I began seriously writing a half century ago would take all day to relate. Conferences were all but non-existent. Readings, when they happened at all, were reserved for top echelon authors. I went to one by W.H. Auden and one by Truman Capote, and they were starry events indeed. Small press publishing was 90 percent work and10 percent creativity. And there were a dozen extremely distinguished mid-list publishers in New York City alone. Delacorte, in 1979 was the house of choice for authors James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Irwin Shaw, Joseph Heller, Richard Yates, Jayne Anne Phillips and yours truly. It now exists merely to put out Danielle Steele’s annual novel. When I began SeaHorse Press in 1977 I discovered that I was paying advances for first books equal to Knopf, Norton, New Directions and Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. No wonder I was inundated with manuscripts?
Always keep in mind that it is your name on the book, play, movie or And that you will be the one to answer for it. Always keep that in mind. If an editor or agent or director someone wants to change your work so you feel it is no longer your work—dump him! Get rid of her! Quit! And soldier on. I’ve had three lit agents and I still sell most of my books, plays and films myself. I’ve also had a dozen mainstream and smaller press publishers. It is your work and no one’s but your work. Remain open to what is being recommended as editorial changes, consider it carefully, honestly, but never ever change for the sake of more sales or greater commerciality. If, when Harvey Fierstein came to me with his first play "The International Stud" (all of it graphically set in the backroom of a ‘70’s gay bar) and I told him that it was too gay for the squeamish mainstream audiences we would never had gotten the rest of his wonderful Torch Song Trilogy which I ended up publishing, and which won three Tony awards, and became a film, etc. etc.
Although sometimes you can tell if something will be a hit or a best seller, nine times out of ten, you can’t. And nobody else can either-- no matter what they say. It’s a crap shoot. After the success of my gay thriller The Lure, I published a quiet, small book, a romance titled Late in the Season. It was all but ignored by the publisher that had ballyhooed its predecessor. Even so, Late in the Season has remained in print for 35 years straight. It has had five new editions, and five translations and it still sells well. Some critics consider it my best novel. Did I listen to my agent or editor? No! I was stubborn and look where it got me. When I finished Like People in History after several years of writing, my agent showed it to a dozen editors who all declined it. She asked what she should do. I said show it to number thirteen. He published the book. When it came out and was successful, the other twelve banged their heads against a wall. Remember what Dern said, it’s an endurance contest.
By now you’re saying to yourself, but where in all this, Felice, are the non-material aspects of writing, where’s the creativity, the talent, dare anyone say it, where’s what the Romans called genius, that ineffable confluence of an individual and a talent? In a way this is the biggest and most important question in having an enduring career. In a recent issue of Book Forum, Toronto based author Carl Wilson wrote this – "There’s a talent to having talent and to living with it. Talent alone can seem like an alien invasion of the self, a kind of parasite that requires its host to do things it might otherwise not do. Cultural history includes many figures who seemed antagonistic to their talent –resented it, wrestled with it, defied it, even wished to purge or abandon it altogether like Rimbaud did. That struggle seems to be the formula for dying young, as if the daemon is fiercer than the mere human, and the only way to destroy it to kill the vessel too." Anyone who has been creative over a period of time can tell you how true that is. Creativity exacts a personal price, and that price is eerily, individually, crafted to each person carrying it or in some cases saddled with it. All I can do is to remind you that you are what Wilson calls "the vessel" and it’s up to you to make some kind of decision about how you are going to deal with your talent.
Will it be easy? Listen to this: in one hour, one day in the summer of 1975, I was politely, compassionately rejected by the man I believed I couldn’t live without and then found out I’d been nominated for a mainstream literary award that would forward my career from that moment on. It was difficult at that time not to see some kind of connection, or pattern, especially if this kind of thing keeps reoccurring. No one else can help you here, not your wife, husband, child, parent or therapist. They are not living the creative life with all of its perils. It’s up to you to recognize what is happening and to find a way to deal with it. Failure to do so, as Philip Seymour Hoffman most recently showed us, can be fatal.
Last piece of advice. Love literature. Your own sure but other people’s too. I came out of the New York City Public School and University system and it was drummed into my head that the way to write is by reading. Read in your field. Read out of your field. I read science mags, sci-fi, archaeology, and classical music. Read new books, sure. Also read the classics. They are classics for a reason. They’re good. Last year, Charlotte Bronte’s last novel Vilette taught me more about what a book should be and do than all of the Roberto Bolanos, Michael Cunninghams, Donna Tarrts and current hot-reads put together. Read.
Talk Given at The Saints & Sinners Conference, May 2014
© Felice Picano 2014/2016