Friday, April 29, 2011
Also of note today, thanks to the writer Traci Hohenstein for featuring me among a list of Great Summer Beach Reads on her blog! Much appreciated, Traci!
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
There was a time in my life when I considered a career as a war correspondent. There is something in human nature that compels us to want to be where the action is, and nowhere else is the action more intense than in war. Not that I know firsthand. But I considered the option.
I think the first time this notion crossed my mind in any serious way was during the wars in the Balkans. I read an article in a college alumni magazine about a recent graduate who decided that she wanted to cover the war, though she had no experience, no funds and no backing. Somehow she scraped together the money and travelled all on her own, hiking in on foot to the war zone to work as a freelance photographer. I was impressed. She had guts that I didn’t have. Or did I? I could have done the same thing. I was moved by the tragedy unfolding there. I wanted to feel like I was doing something important. But was it worth risking my life over?
As the years went by, I came back to this question off and on many times. I managed to find work as a freelance journalist, writing travel articles and taking photos for some newspapers and smaller magazines. It was a struggle. I knew that there was always a hotspot somewhere in the world. If only I had the courage to march on in there, my career might truly be born.
I used to watch the careers of some of the correspondents that I most admired. One of these has always been Carolyn Cole of the Los Angeles Times. I remember during the early days of the current war in Iraq, when a U.S. pilot was shot down near the Euphrates River in Baghdad. He was apparently hiding out in a stand of rushes along the river, with angry Iraqis searching for him. Right in the midst of it all was Carolyn Cole, snapping photos behind enemy lines. The type of bravery it took for her to be there at that moment astounded me. Just another day on the job, I suppose.
Two of my own personal heroes from World War II were also correspondents. Ernie Pyle famously covered the entire European campaign, only to die when he travelled to the Pacific theater toward the end of the war. Robert Capa was the only photographer to land with the troops on D-Day at Omaha Beach. He shot 106 photos, all but eight of which were later destroyed by a 15-year-old darkroom assistant. Capa survived numerous wars only to retire from the life and go on to found the famous Magnum photo agency. He vowed never to return to a war zone, but eventually boredom dragged him back into it, and Capa died when he stepped on a land mine in French Indochina.
So what is it about this allure of danger? Apparently the constant rush of adrenaline becomes hard to live without. Life off the battlefield just can’t compare.
When I considered the profession, I used the examples of my heroes to help me make up my mind. I greatly admire Pyle and Capa, but I didn’t want to end up like them. I’m just not willing to risk my own life. Maybe I’ll never have that rush of adrenaline, but instead I’ll sit here at home, or in a café, and make up stories all on my own.
All of this comes to mind, of course, as the world of combat journalism mourns the loss of two of its most respected members. Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were killed last week as they covered the conflict in Libya. These were brave men, trying to make a difference. I respect them greatly. I admire their courage immensely. They obviously believed in what they were doing, and tragically paid the ultimate price. It does make me consider, however, that the career path I have chosen is the one on which I belong. Maybe I’ll get run over by that proverbial bus on my way to the café, but I think I’ll take my chances with that and leave the combat journalism to braver souls than me.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
So, interestingly enough, Amazon.com launched a new webstore today just for German customers. It's called Amazon DE. This joins the regular Amazon, and Amazon UK. Just to prove to some forum participants that I actually had some sales over there today, I posted this screen shot above. And yes, the book is still in English! :-)
Update: So as someone on the above mentioned forum made me aware, Amazon DE is actually featuring my book on their home page today, the very first day of the site's existence. My cover is right up there next to Jonathan Franzen. Pretty exciting! As a result, No Cure for the Broken Hearted is now the number one selling English book on Amazon in Germany. Who'd have guessed?
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Him - "What do you write?"
Me - "Novels."
Him - "So when you finish them, you sell them online?"
Me - "Yes."
Him - "You mean like ebooks?"
Me - "That's right. And paperbacks, too. But mostly ebooks."
To me this was an astonishing exchange. His very first assumption was that a writer sells his books online, electronically. He didn't assume that I had an agent, or a publisher, or that my books were for sale down at the local bookshop. This was an average American guy, who probably spent the last fifteen years or so downloading his music from iTunes, watching movies instantly on Netflix, and playing online video games. The obvious extension in his mind was to books being sold in the same way. To me it wasn't shocking so much that he would assume I was selling ebooks at all. It was shocking that in his mind, this was the default. Electronic delivery was the norm.
Of course this is only an anecdote, but it definitely points to the direction that publishing is going. Most people still buy paper books. That is still the more normal way to read a novel, but how long is that going to last? Personally, I love paper books and I hope they stick around to some degree forever. Before long, though, they might seem like an anachronism. Maybe it hasn't really happened yet, but pretty soon ebooks really are going to be the new normal.
Friday, April 8, 2011
As I was riding today with a pack of off-duty instructors, and running into others all over the mountain, I realized what I missed the most about the years I spent here. It was the camaraderie. Working as an instructor, you are part of something larger than yourself. You are part of a community. You work together. You socialize together. You ski and ride together. You see each other at the market. The professional life of a writer is in many ways the antithesis of all of that. While people in most types of jobs have colleagues that they see from day to day, for a writer it is a wholly solitary occupation. You get up in the morning and you write. Just you and the computer. Perhaps if you need some other human interaction you go to a coffeehouse to work, but you still hardly speak to anyone at all. Life as a writer can be a lonely existence. I sometimes go long periods of time without seeing any friends at all, especially if I'm trying to meet some self-imposed deadline.
On the flip side of this equation, when I do see people I know, they often have a hard time understanding that what I am doing is actually work. They think that because I don't go clock in somewhere, at some specific time, I'm not really working. "Let's go surfing!" they might say. Or "Let's go skiing! Come on, what are you doing? Nothing!" The temptation can be great. Other times I might be at the coffeehouse and actually run into someone I know. This can create an internal conflict. I love the chance for social interaction, but I am trying to accomplish something after all. I can't really say no to a chat, but if it goes on too long I'll pay for it later in guilt when I don't get anything done.
I suppose what all of this boils down to is that the life of a writer is considerably different than most other professions. A writer's life is solitary, but a writer who can support himself with his craft has the ultimate freedom. He can write in the morning or in the middle of the night. He can go skiing when his friends come calling, if he wants to. He can live and work wherever he wants (or wherever he can afford to anyway).
As for myself it is only the ebook revolution that has enabled me to make these choices. I could have spent another season teaching on the mountain, but for the first time in all of these years I can finally afford not to. For me that choice was easy. While I may miss the camaraderie, I'll take the freedom to write every time. I am a writer, after all, though for tomorrow I promised a friend I'd spend one more day on the slopes. I'm feeling guilty already...
Saturday, April 2, 2011
When I was a child I wanted to be a pilot. At the age of six I boarded a plane and caught a glimpse of the cockpit, with all those wonderful dials, buttons and knobs. The captain stood in the doorway, a stunning figure in his white pressed uniform and navy blue cap, ready to whisk us away on a far-flung journey. Yes, that was the life for me. In hindsight perhaps I should have listened to my instincts.
Instead I took the long, miserable path of a writer. I had no idea at the time that dedicating my life to writing would mean forsaking nearly everything most people take for granted. Money, security and even love would have to wait a very long time, if not forever. Instead I took on a lifestyle of poverty, uncertainty, rejection and at the same time, the ultimate freedom; the freedom to live a life outside the expectations of society.
I’ve lived an interesting life on a shoestring, but I still have to wonder what life might be like if I suddenly made it big. Would I be any different? When Jack Kerouac finished writing On The Road, he carried the manuscript around with him in a knapsack for six years, unable to find a publisher. In the meantime he cranked out several other books, none of which sold. Just like me, he lived on the brink of starvation, working odd jobs and struggling to survive. It wasn’t until his good friend, the poet Allen Ginsburg, implored a publisher to look at On The Road that it finally saw the light of day and went on to become a classic of 20th century literature. During those six years, was Kerouac any less of a literary master? Of course not. But was he treated like one? Absolutely not. He was treated like the bum that everyone thought he must be. Afterwards he was lavished with praise, featured on radio and TV broadcasts and all of his other works were quickly snapped up.
It must be mentioned, however, that publishing success did not bring Kerouac happiness. After the world finally discovered him, he moved home with his mother and drank himself to death by the age of 47. And here lies perhaps the most important lesson of all for a struggling writer. The writing itself must be its own reward. You have to do it because you can’t live without doing it. Because it gives you a reason to exist.
In the 20 years since I made my fateful decision to write I’ve had no home of my own and no job I could stand to keep for more than a year. I lived under dark clouds of debt, afraid to spend any money at all and constantly worrying about my future. While all of my friends slowly moved ahead, buying homes and new cars, starting families and saving for retirement, I merely got older and broker. But do I have any regrets? No. Not really. Disappointments, perhaps, but not regrets.
But why exactly have I put myself through the misery, one might ask? Because I simply can’t help it. Once I started writing I could not stop and probably never will. Of course there are the obvious goals of fame and wealth, but if those were my only motivations I would have given up long ago and moved on to something else. There is also the goal of immortality. The desire to write something that will last. That will live on after you are gone and give your life meaning. This is a strong draw for most writers. We are all desperate to add some meaning to our lives, and we think we have something to say, even though most books go out of print within a year.
A third and even more practical reason to pursue a career in writing is the desire to travel the world, work on your own terms and never punch a clock. Never sit in a corporate office and use your brainpower for someone else’s gain. Never let your soul be sucked dry by a job you hate, but embrace life and the joys and the sorrows of living. A writer wakes up when he feels like it, works when he feels like it, and never leaves the house if he doesn’t want to. To many people this sounds like Nirvana. No boss, no alarm clocks, no office politics, no overtime.
The flipside to this existence is that it all of the sitting around and thinking can drive one utterly mad. Lounging around the house in your pajamas all day thinking is not psychologically healthy. There is simply way too much to obsess about. Financial concerns, no doubt, but also the terrible guilt that what you are writing is not good enough, or that you are not accomplishing enough at all. Getting out of the house can help. Getting out of town is even better. It allows one to clear one’s head and recharge one’s creative batteries.
Somehow I have managed to travel the world on so little money, even I don’t know how I did it. An Australian friend once told me, “You could live off the fumes of an oily rag.” Of course, I took that as a compliment. I may be dirt poor, but I’ve lived a life rich with experience. This experience is the substance from which novels are made. I think back to days working on a cable ship in the middle of the Pacific and watching whales swim past my porthole. I remember a Tahitian boy treating me to mangos and warm soda at his ramshackle home on a remote island. I remember late nights in Eastern Europe, driving around in a tiny car crammed with locals and feeling like I belonged.
Traveling also makes it easier to see the world around you with eyes wide open, because even the mundane in one person’s world can be vastly intriguing to another. And upon returning home, the traveler has a whole new perspective on what might have seemed mundane beforehand. Suddenly he notices things about people and perceptions, and even the style of the buildings in his neighborhood and the weather on an average spring day that he might have completely dismissed beforehand.
Making these observations and sharing them with the rest of the world is what writing is all about, after all. And nothing lifts the spirits of a writer better than a good day’s work. Sometimes when I’m down I know that the only thing that will make me feel better is a productive day. And when I know my work is going well, nothing can get me down. When my writing is good, life is good.
I heard someone once say that a successful writer is a mediocre writer with persistence. I’ve always figured that if this were really true, I’d have a lock on it. Twenty years with hardly a paycheck is awfully persistent. Of course, perhaps I’m not mediocre enough. Whatever the case may be, twenty years as a starving artist has been an interesting ride.