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Lost Evenings and Bright Moments

This past weekend I flew 3,000 miles back home to spend time with my baby sister and niece, and see all four nights of Frank Turner’s Lost Evenings III. Several nights of moshing left me with a sprained ankle, pulled hamstring, a(n) (obvious) screwed-up back, and one of the best memories of my life, at least post-dead-brother.

I say “back home,” but I don’t really have a home back east anymore, not since my brother Josh died, which some of you may be sick of hearing about. His passing is a couple years old now, and even though expected and lamented, I feel like I am just coming out of the murk now (despite reports I was “back” before). That’s the funny thing with grieving and depression and being wrecked by life and all that shit. You think it’s getting better because it’s getting lighter, and it may be getting lighter–but that don’t mean it’s getting better. I will try to stay light on the brother stuff. I’ve written a lot about it, with more coming out, and I don’t care how tragic personal tragedy gets, human nature has a propensity to, after a while, lose patience. (“Get on with it, already!”) And I agree. But I also share so many dark moments that I only feel it right to share the bright ones too.

This weekend was a bright moment.

I am a big Frank Turner fan. He’s one of three artists/bands (in addition to its many saints) that shape my post-Springsteen brand of secular rock and roll lapsed Catholicism. Lost Evenings is an annual event Frank puts on. It’s a festival, really, jammed with kick-ass band after kick-ass artist, plus pop-up tattoo stands and other amazing artist installations. I’ve seen Frank at least a dozen times. I don’t judge a person on whether they like Frank. But I will say this: if you don’t like Frank, we can maybe still be friends. But we sure as shit can’t be roommates.

Before moshing …

Now, at my advanced age (in conjunction with crippling denigrative bone condition), rocking for four days, let alone dancing (which I’m no good at, but I’ve got to do something), takes a toll on my body. The pills and patches help, and I won’t lie, Frank’s special cocktail didn’t hurt either. But whatever pain remained was so worth it. This was one of those reaffirming goddamn it’s good to be alive trips.

First, I got to hang out every night with friends. My buddy Rich, who I’ve known since I was five, flew from SF with me. Usually I see him once a week for our golf league, but it was also nice to hang with the guy and not be thinking about how my wrist is turning and balls are spinning. Homoerotic overtones aside, golf is a game of never-ending analysis and self-doubt. Sorta the opposite of rock and roll. There was a song a while back that I post often, “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” by Baz Luhrman. It’s a high school graduation speech set to music, and paired with Rocky and “6 Harsh Truths” is probably the only thing you need to know to live an examined life. One of the lines is about how the older you get the more you need the people who knew you when you were young. There is another that talks about bridging the gaps in geography.

Look at this little peanut! I’m a giant!

Since Josh died, when it comes to family of origin, it’s really just my sister and me. And 3,000 miles and two families of our own, with working schedules and taxes and houses and, well, life, can make that bridge tough to transverse sometimes. I need to make more of an effort. And by hosting Lost Evenings in Boston this year, Frank did me my first favor of the weekend.

My niece Sofia is almost two, and she’s finally not scared of my beard. She let me hold her and play with her this time; and if you’ve ever lost a mom early, looking into the eyes of your baby niece is trippy and affirming. All the generations that came and went, and the suffering and sorrow, and then there’s this perfect little face with big eyes staring back at you. And I see my mom still here even though she’s not here anymore. Like I see my grandmother. Like I see my brother in my own boys’ eyes. (Like I sometimes see my father in mine. But I try not to stare too long at the son.)

It was hard being away from my family so long. For a short trip, four days, this one felt really long. I get anxious whenever I travel. I missed my boys, wife, my cousin Celeste who lives on the West Coast near me and has become more like the bigger sister I never had than a cousin. But I was surrounded by family all weekend. My East Coast family. My sister Melissa, now a mom who has blossomed into this beautiful grown-up woman, and that precious little girl of her’s (really makes me want another one. Just got Jack Jack out of diapers. What am I thinking?!). My brother-in-law was there, my (other) buddy Tom was there. My cousin Jason (or Jasón) drove 4 hours, sans phone to make one of the shows. Rich’s cousin Peter, with whom I grew up in the *Berlin projects was there. (*note: the “Berlin projects” are a really, really nice fucking neighborhood in just about another other town).

But the highlight …

After moshing …

Now this might choke me up. It certainly did the night of. See, Frank Turner is one cool dude. I’d written Frank before I set to publish Porter 5, Rag and Bone (available June 4 at fine retailers everywhere), asking if I could use some of his lyrics for the epigraph. The lyrics to his “Song for Josh” sums up my relationship with my brother better than all five Jay Porter books put together. Of course Frank said yes. I don’t know if there is a more gracious, giving, authentic good guy in all of rock. The man oozes authenticity and positivity. But not the kind of “positivity” like “Life, Laugh, Love” that makes you want to claw your eyes out. No, his is the genuine article, the kind that matters to the broken and lost. It’s the positivity of a man who has seen bad days, who knows what it’s like to want to die, to have dark thoughts, to be carved up by the savage, and still finds the courage to reach out, try and connect, do the hard part–love when you could so much more easily give up and hate. If Frank’s got my back, I’ll go on.

Anyway, this is getting really fucking long and my flight is about to land. I’ll get to my point.

Like I said, Frank has a song, fittingly titled … “Song for Josh.” It’s a gut-punch about a friend of his named Josh who took his own life. Having a brother (Josh) who took his own life (which, let’s face it, is what he fucking did) would hurt enough (in the profoundly personal way only the best sad songs can). Add to this my brother was a huge Frank fan. Add to this, by the end, Josh and I had almost nothing to talk about. Talking to Josh at the end was like shouting through a 30-thick-foot concrete wall in the opposite directions during a hurricane. The drugs, drink, damage by that point … But we had a few things we could still connect over. Breaking Bad. Baseball. And rock and roll. In particular The Hold Steady and … Frank Turner.

My brother loved Frank, and when he heard “Song for Josh,” he made me promise I’d play it at his wake. I knew he was killing himself with drugs but I didn’t know he was dying.

My brother knew he was dying.

I played it at his wake. I’ve played it since. And, yeah, usually brings me to tears.

But I’d never heard Frank play it live. I don’t think he does often. I think it’s a hard song for him to play because it hurts to relive. But I write Frank before a lot of shows (like I said, I’ve seen him a dozen times) and still ask. Maybe it’s selfish interest. Maybe I’m desperate to feel the presence of my brother again.

So I wrote Frank before this show. I had an excuse. Rag and Bone copies arrived, and I took a screenshot to show how cool his epigraph looked, not wanting to be presumptuous that Frank would want to read my book. But of course Frank is a righteous mutherfucker and asked for a signed copy (!). Then I had to try once more. I said, “Listen, last time I’ll bug you about this. But my baby sister is coming to her first Frank show on Saturday, and I want to make it super special. If there is any way you could play ‘Song for Josh’…” He responded and, very patiently, said he’d see what he could do. I honestly didn’t expect more than that.

Fast forward through Thursday (which saw one of Springsteen’s saints, the always-excellent Micah Schnabel, open and kick ass), and the Hold Steady follow the next night. My sister, cousin, Rich, and I went to Saturday’s show, and you know where there is going or I wouldn’t be writing this fucking post.

I understand human psychology, how we will what we want, invent what’s not there to suit our own personal delusions. It’s why 70% of Americans believe in angels (but only angels who can’t see us in our “private moments.” But, yeah, when Frank played “Song for Josh,” I was still moved. Deeply. My sister was too. Maybe Frank was planning on playing it anyway. Melissa was at the bar afterward, recovering, and overheard a couple talking about how many shows they’ve seen and how Frank never plays that song. (I immediate sent Frank a thank you, and of course he wrote back, surprisingly fast, that it was his pleasure. He also thanked me for the books I’d left with his merch guy with the tattoos on his head.)

Not sure you can wrap this up. But to quote Frank once more, the pain pays our dues. So below is the song, which my sister recorded on her phone. If you knew my brother, I think it’ll move you too.

(Frank Turner, “Song for Josh,” House of Blues 5/18/19)

IMG_4754

(Click link to play)

London Fields, Cliches, and the Trope of All-Knowing/Nothing Writer

Waiting for my wife to wake up so we can celebrate her on Mother’s Day, I was running through my progressions (what I call my morning Internet ritual visiting various sites, a nervous tic, really [thanks OCD]), and when I got to Rotten Tomatoes, this article caught my attention.

It’s a scathing review of the film London Fields, which I’ve never seen. Didn’t even know they made a movie. I vaguely recall the book from grad school. Other classmates loved Martin Amos’s wit. I remember the dart player Keith and some (mildly) funny lines. Then again, grad school almost killed me. Apparently the film stars Amber Heard (with an uncredited cameo from then-husband Johnny Depp before that shit show), with the most interest parts of the film being its making and subsequent lawsuits, as well as the its abject, utter failure (current score on the Tomatometer: 0%). But that isn’t the part that I wanted to write about. It’s this line:

Thornton is uncharacteristically terrible as one of the most exhausted cliches in fiction: the desperate writer who functions as the all-powerful God of the world they’ve created but who can’t begin to figure out the complexities of real life. 

Thornton, as in Billy Bob, an actor I generally like. Can’t vow for his performance in the film. The review is so vicious and seemingly astute, I will trust that the reviewer’s account is accurate. No, it’s that take on the “cliched” writer: the all-powerful God of the world they’ve created but who can’t begin to figure out the complexities of real life.

It gets me because, well, it gets me for a couple reasons: 1.) This is why I generally never (rarely) have a writer as a protagonist in my own work. There are countless examples of when it works (um, Misery), but I think it’s just one of those eye-rolling tropes, unless you are really, really good at it (um, Stephen King). I’ve had a couple short stories with a writer, I think. One in particular comes to mind, “Red Pistachios,” which is probably the best I’ve ever written. But I really only wrote that story because I wanted to be in Thuglit, and its editor, Todd Robinson, had a whole list of shit not to do if you wanted to be in his magazine. I was younger then, more defiant (i.e., stupid), and took it as a challenge. Robinson closed up shop a few years back, but you can find that story in my collection Choice Cuts (Snubnose Press, which also closed up shop; long is not the life of small noir presses).

But really it’s that line “the all-powerful God” who can’t figure out “the complexities of real life.” Because, well, it’s fucking true. Most writers I know fall into that camp. It’s a cliche, sure, but don’t make it any fucking less true. The “washed-up alcoholics” with their “inability to maintain functional relationships” get slapped on the writer because a lot of writers drink, or are recovering, and they aren’t the most graceful social creatures. This isn’t to imply all, of course. There are plenty of well-adjusted, happily married, sober writers who can manage finances, I’m sure. I’m just not friends with (m)any of them. 

I think that’s the appeal of writing for a lot of people. You do get to be a god. You get to create worlds and make people love in the right way, and you decide who dies and wins and loves and loses; and, yeah, there is an element of megalomania I there. I mean this is hyper analyzing (I have a lot of time to kill and wanted to write something to keep my muscle moving). The primary goal of the storyteller is to … tell a story. And entertain and elucidate, with ethos and all that other crap. But I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the safety of fiction. Even when people are meeting perilous fates, there is no guessing or dread of when the hammer will drop. I’m the one dropping it.

Chilling Serial Killer Books

So The One That Got Away, which is probably my best book to date, was chosen for a published wiki, “Chilling Books About Serial Killers at Large.”

You can find that list HERE.

Of course TOTGA isn’t strictly about “serial killers,” per se. But kinda. It’s about a lot of stuff. Serial killers, wounded women, damaged men, small towns and secrets, my mom, my awful yearbook pic, etc. It’s always interesting to see how others classify your books. We authors don’t necessarily make that choice. We pick a milieu, genre, whatever, but so much more personal history–love, loss, madness, regret (about high school yearbook photos)–goes into the creation, which is then left open to interpretation. I’m glad someone glommed onto the chilling serial angle.

Anyway, check out the list, maybe buy the book, and remember: pictures are forever.

 

Waiting for the E-Mailman

A while ago, my writing buddy (and fellow former junkie pal) Tom Pitts had a great line about a day in the life of a modern writer: waiting for good news from the e-mailman. So much of what we do relies on what others think. You write a book, a book you think is really good—you have it beta tested and deemed ready for the world … and then the real process begins.

The question I get asked most in interviews is a variation on “What is the best/worst writing advice you ever received,” and while the “best” can change depending on my mood and strength of coffee (current brand: Death Wish), the worst advice is always the same: write for yourself.

You hear this one a lot, and it gets echoed constantly, from amateur to pro alike. The former champions it as a version of why they can write whatever the hell they want and any pandering to audience is tantamount to selling out and if they don’t get published it’s because the reading public are morons unable to appreciate their genius (I used to be one). But the pros, even though they’ve cracked the gatekeeper’s door, also fall prey. Though their take is a little different, more subdued, e.g., can’t be concerned with what sells, etc. And of course a large chunk of that is true. You can’t concern solely yourself with what is hot and trending or whatever the kids call it today. Trying to catch a wave (“Have you considered putting “Girl” in the title?)? Thing is already crashing the shore by the time you are paddling out (to go with a surfing motif because why not?).

All that said, you have to be aware of audience. And that is a big word. There’s the general audience, your reader at large. But to get there … you need to get published first. I’ve had around a dozen books published, either already out, soon-to-be, or contracted. This includes a couple I’ve edited. There was a time, right out of grad school, where all I wanted was to get one book published. Man, I thought, if I can have that? I’ll be the happiest guy in the world.

I have that.

I am not the happiest guy in the world.

Personal therapy aside, to paraphrase Mr. Brownstone, Used to take a little. Now the little takes a fucklot more.

I can get my new book published tomorrow. Or rather I could get someone to agree to publish it. And, like Jesus and King Missile, that is way cool. But I’m also at a point where mid-list, few thousand sold, grateful for the opportunity, won’t cut it anymore.

 

In short, I need a hit. I feel like I’ve written that hit with my new novel, THE LAKEHOUSE COVENANT. At least this morning I do. But it’s not really up to me. What I think doesn’t matter, period. The worth of my opinion? It rests somewhere between the right of the stump (the title of my upcoming autobiography) and Brad the three-fingered janitor at the old Berlin Community Center who was missing a thumb and ogled the high school girls. Holds no sway, and may be somewhat offensive. It’s what the agents think, then hopefully the publishers, editors, critics, and book-buying public at large.

Right now the book has started making its rounds in the world. And as much as I would love a short trip? Long-term success in this business is contingent on packing for the long-haul. Overnight hits do happen. More often than not it’s a game of last-man standing. So if you need me, I’ll be over here, waiting for my man.

Italy

If you follow this blog, you probably stopped. Because I don’t update it. But I have a pretty good excuse. 1.) blogs are pointless, and 2.) I’ve been busy with writing. This doesn’t mean I’ve been writing, like, non-stop. But all the hours dedicated to writing have been sopped up.

I just returned from Italy on a book tour for Lamentation, which was translated into Italian by CasaSirio (more on that later). While I was touring Italy I basically wrote a new book on high-speed trains. Which was unassailably cool. The book, THE LAKEHOUSE COVENANT, is also my longest/biggest to date (85K). It might suck. My beta readers will let me know shortly.

In addition to touring Italy and writing a new book, I also landed a variety of cool assignments, the most rocking of which was writing a piece about The Hold Steady for Rare Bird Books new book: Going All the Way: Making the Case for Power Pop (Fall 2019). I think that’s the title. But the best part is I got to interview of my rock-and-roll idols, Franz Nicolay, the band’s multi-instrumentalist/keyboardist. He’s also a wonderful writer. I’m really proud of the essay I contributed, “Never Got to Say Goodbye to You: The Power of Pop.” Not only is it a glowing testament to the band I consider America’s BEST band, but I got to talk about my brother Josh, who most of you know died a couple years ago.

Italy was nuts. I can’t describe what an amazing experience. Marti, the publisher, is fucking awesome, and we became good friends. I am pretty sure he’s buying Junkie Love, too. So I get to go back. More than the packed bookstores, radio and TV interviews, the panels and accolades, the best part was the Italians really love Jay Porter. I know I have fans of the series here, and I am grateful. But I also know the series has its detractors who find Porter unlikeable, dour, bleak, miserable (unwisely, I read my reviews). I am not a moron. I love my publishers for the series, Oceanview, but I can also read between lines. They were hoping for more. So was I. It’s hard not to be disappointed when you write five books, which you feel get better and better, only to be read less and less. I guess I have a lot of Porter in me. I gravitate toward depression and the darker side of life. But on a positive note: I’m also not full of shit.

All the crap I take from American readers who diss Jay Porter–the bleak, dark, black depressing parts (which honestly, encapsulates the actual definition of the term “noir,” the hopelessness of a life in which you are born to die but not before you suffer an awful first)–the Italians love. It’s bleak! It’s dour! It’s like real life!

I know I’m not alone. All these memes were culled (stolen) from Benjamin Whitmer’s page. Ben is also, not coincidentally, big in Europe.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to.

“Thanks for listening, thanks for understanding.”
Craig Finn, The Hold Steady

 

Crossroads Pt. II

Dropping Jack Jack off at preschool this morning, I turn out of our cloistered little village, this quaint cul-de-sac of safely tucked away houses, and onto the main thoroughfare off the hill, the bustling Arlington, which is pretty clogged at 8:30 in the morning. Soon as I turn out, squeezing between traffic, I see a man walking, drifting into the road. He’s holding a leash but no animal is attached. At least that’s what it looks like but when I get closer I see it’s not a leash but a pole. The man is blind. And he’s weaving into the traffic. Cars are going slow, steering wide and clear, but still. As I pass I see he’s about my age, but he’s not using his stick; he’s just holding it, weaving in and out of traffic. So I start muttering “Fuck, that guy’s gonna get hit.” And Jack Jack of course is asking what? what? because now he repeats everything I say, so I’m sure to mutter “fuck” a little softer. And I want to pull over, help this guy get to the sidewalk, because I swear, in the rearview mirror, he looks like he’s gonna get hit by a car. But I can’t stop because of traffic. I think about pulling over at the intersection, helping this man navigate this busy, dangerous road. Then it hits me: dude is probably fifty years old, my age, probably been blind his whole life, surviving on his own. Who the hell am I to think he needs my help to manage a journey he’s probably made thousands of times? Like this is the first time dude’s ever had to walk on his own? Just because he’s blind, he’s not helpless. In fact, if I stop and try to tell him how to walk, makes me a bigger dick for assuming he can’t do it himself, right? I’m a jerk. I don’t know. But then I feel bad about that too. When I get to the intersection, I turn down the hill. I look back one last time. Dude seems like he’s handling his shit fine.

Sometimes even God is heavy-handed with the metaphors.

*

I wrote a blog post the other day. And I was a little surprised by the response. Mostly because so people not only read it. But also because so many were kind enough to reach out to make sure I was all right.

I’m all right.

My wife and I have a routine. When you’re married, you develop routines. They become part of life. And sometimes when Justine is telling me a story, I, being the stupid husband I am, will say, “Okay, I got it.” And Justine will say, “Just listen. I’m telling the story as much for my benefit. I’m a verbal processor.” I’m paraphrasing. Except the “verbal processor” part. So that’s become part of our (loving) routine. “I get it,” I’ll say, “You’re a verbal processor.”

This morning, my wife, who just returned from vacation in Greece, commented about the blog, the … dreary … tone of that last post. And I said, jokingly, I’m a writing processor. Except when I said it, I realized, actually, yeah, that is exactly what I am. Writing is how I make sense of my world. That I choose to do it on here, on this blog, this very public forum, well that’s my deal.

I never expect people to really read this stuff. But I also am VERY grateful they do. My life, I decided a while ago, would be an open book. Literally (not literally). After you write something like Junkie Love, ain’t no point in hiding shit.

When my brother was alive, he tried to take a dig at me by pointing out one of the myriad embarrassing things I did in my drug days. That’s okay. I took as many digs at him. It’s what you do when you love each other. At least when you’re a dude, from the East Coast: you show your love by ribbing and riding, viciously at times. Anyway, I was, like, “Man, I put that shit in a book. You really think I care?”

Of course I care. I care about everything. Deeply. It’s how I write. And that is what I do. I write.

While Justine was away, I bribed Holden to keep the house clean by letting him stay up late so we could have movie nights. (Yes, I know my wife will read this. No, I am not worried. Like our last therapist, the Earth Mother told her, “Hey, you married a writer.”) And I must tell you: despite missing my lovely wife, having an immaculately clean house for ten whole days was glorious, especially to an OCD’d mutherfucker like me. I’d do it all again.

One of the movies we watched was (surprise) a Rocky film. Rocky Balboa. Despite being the laughably 6th installment, the film is surprisingly good. I mean, really fucking good. Rocky is now old, widowed, basically estranged from his son, and he can’t move on. He’s still got something … in the basement.

I’m not going to rehash the plot. But watch it. Seriously. Even if you aren’t a boxing fan. Because, outside of the shitty 3rd through 5th installments, these movies have never been about boxing.

There’s a scene with Little Marie (from the original), and now Rocky, in his 50s, wants to fight again. Of course, being as old as he is, people keep trying to talk him out of it. It’s her response that is important here. Little Marie says to Rocky, “If this is something you got to do, then you do it. Fighters fight.”

Writers write. That’s the point. All this … crap … going on inside of me right now, from my brother dying, to my career (feeling like it’s) spiraling, is the direct result of not writing, not having a direction, not feeling a hope for the future. Up until now I’ve always had the hope of the e-mailman. Because submissions were out. Good news could come in any day. But I’m not submitting anymore. I have nothing new to give. And I say this, while still reassuring, I cherish my boys every day. Every minute with them is a fucking gift. And I laugh. And I love. And I will never hang that fucking sign in my house. I’m okay. I’ll be fine. I’ll eventually get an agent, a new book, hit big as I want. Or at least I’ll keep chasing, keep … navigating … that busy road. Maybe I never make it. But so what? I’ve got everything I need here, my family, my heart; I’m holding up fine. This is my baseline, neurotic, anxious, relentless, yearning. In the meantime, to keep my sanity, I’ll write. Even if it’s for a book about being a dad I never submit. Even if it’s only sporadically here. I’ll write because … writers write.

Crossroads

If you are a fan what I do, feel free to stick around. If you’re not, well, I guess you wouldn’t be here in the first place. A blog, at least mine, can border on confessional, a diary entry, and after 16 no one wants to read that shit. At the same time, I don’t have a point to this, other than I need to keep writing, because the mind is a muscle; and the one thing worse than exercising is coming back to exercise after a long layoff. That’s not true. I exercise every day, and I rather enjoy it. At least compared to the rest of my life, which is fraught with annoyances, from minor to gripping.

Of course at some point (which is probably now), one has to look at the problem, and I am pretty sure I am the problem, the one consistent variable.

Like many writers, I’m sure, I’ve been in the grips of malaise. My writer friend Jennifer Hillier calls it a crossroads.

She’s not wrong.

I write a thriller series, the Jay Porter books. Except they aren’t really thrillers. I never set out to write “thrillers” or “mysteries” or “noir”; I wanted to write books. I settled on genre because the form–and we can use the all encompassing “mysteries,” I suppose–supplied a template I could understand. Writing, for me, had always been about exploring, not just character, but the depths and lengths, the edges and loses–what it’s like, not just for me, which would be boring, but for people like me. And there’s a difference. Because the latter implies a community. And writing isn’t done in a vacuum. I write to be read.

I just wrapped up Porter 5 (RAG AND BONE) and feel quite satisfied about the way I concluded the 5-book arc. I hope others do too. Those who enjoy the Porter series, I imagine will. Those who don’t like Jay or his choices, don’t like the grim and bleak tone (but who, for some fucking reason, keep reading) probably won’t. In short, I don’t backtrack. I move the storyline ahead, go forward to its logical, inevitable, and I hope surprising conclusion.

And I mention all this because now I don’t know what to do next. Being a writer who isn’t writing just might really be the worst feeling. At least for me. I need a purpose. Ever Porter book has a theme (which should make my high school English teachers very happy). The “theme” in book 5 is “purpose.” We need it. I need it. I need to be moving my feet, heading toward something. Otherwise I live in my head. My head is a like a rich chocolate cake: a little goes a long way; too much and you get sick.

I am sick man. I host a weekly app-cast called “Notes from the Underground,” a title I picked because of the opening line to Dostoyevski’s book. I’ve been sick for a while. I might be on the uptick now. Last year was savage. But my brother’s death hangs heavy, and the conversations we have now so mirror the ones Jay and Chris Porter have in my books, I’m not sure which came first.

So what do I write next? I have three books slated to come out with Down & Out Books, and while I am hoping they hit big, I can’t seem to climb over the insecurity that I am doing it all … wrong. On the heels of a cult novel like Junkie Love, I was riding high with Lamentation, got that Anthony nom, and it really felt like I was about to break through. I started getting bigger advances, more press. And then …

I’m not sure what happened. Or if anything did happen. That’s the thing with being sick, mentally, you don’t get a good read on reality. You can only go with reactions. From your publisher. From the critics. From agents. I don’t think the reaction is good. But I don’t know.

Crossroads. Crisis of faith. You can call it whatever you’d like. I woke up  to an interview Hector Duarte Jr. gave for Jesse Rawlins, where people are saying all kinds of nice things about me, like I help others and am not a self-absorbed asshole, and it was touching, but also surprising because, again like many writers/artists, I spent so much of my day wondering if I am good at anything.

I’m a good dad. I am usually confident about that. But this weekend had me doubting even that. My wife Justine is in Greece, so it’s just me and the boys. Holden, Jackson, and I went bowling. But there were no lanes. So after they played video games and spent $9 trying to snag a Spongebob with the claw, because they are kids and don’t understand that those games are rigged, but hey it made them happy, and that makes me happy, we went to get ice cream. And it was a nice day, a nice moment, sunny, California cool/warm, and I love nothing more than being with my boys. We’re sitting in the ice cream shop, which is more a cafe, and bicyclists are out in droves, weaving in and out of traffic, and Jack Jack, who is three years old, goes, “Look at those people. Ugh. What a bunch of assholes,” and I know he got it from me, that I must’ve been driving at some point, and some bicyclist blew a stop sign, and I must’ve said that. Where else would he get it from? And Holden starts laughing, egging him on to say it again, and the people are looking at us. And I’m now trying to quiet two boys who are amped up and a 3-year-old calling bicyclists assholes, and I feel like shit, y’know? We get out of there, back in the car, and I’m trying to explain why Jack Jack can’t say that, why I was wrong, even though I don’t recall one specific incident, more like this is how I fucking am, all the time these days, just angry, raging at nothing at all. Except to my boys, who find everything I say hysterical, who think the world of me, who want to be like me. And I don’t want them to be like me. I want them to be like their mother. I don’t want them to be 47, running out of money, no agent, career in a tailspin, and feeling the things I do. Because as awesome as my boys and wife are, as great as my life is (THREE pars yesterday!), most of the time, I am … gripped … by a pervasive sadness, like a rain seeping deep into the mulch of my bones. I want my boys to have something more, better.

I tried to explain this to Holden, who again reiterated his desire to be just like me. I told him, I want him to be better than me. That is all any father wants, for their kids to be better than they are. I told him if he becomes a writer (which is what he says) that I want him to be a better writer. A better writer. A better father. A better person. That is all any father wants for his child. Of course being 7, he was half paying attention, half off in little kid world.

Later on, we were watching a movie, Ferdinand, about a bull. And of course (*Spoiler) the father dies because parents always die in little kid movies for some reason. But before the dad dies, he tells his boy that he hopes his son grows into a better bull than he is, that that is all any father wants for his child, to have a better life. And Holden looks over and says, “Hey, just like you always say, Dad.” So maybe he was listening. And maybe I just need to watch my language more. Maybe it’s not all falling apart. Maybe I did something good this weekend. Maybe I make a contribution to the betterment of the world at large. Maybe I’ll pull past this crossroads, and look back, and to quote the Boss, someday this’ll all seem funny. Because right now I got two little men that look up to me like I am everything; I can’t let them down. But still it’s a lot of pressure. I mean, I asked Holden who the best musician of all time was. I said, the one artist who is better than Frank Turner, Brian Fallon, and Craig Finn, who, as great as these three are, was more influential. I asked who is the best of all time? Of course my son replied, “You.” Rips your heart right out.

Dennis Lehane’s Note

It’s been a while.

Sorry. In my defense, I’ve been writing. Plus, honestly, I’m still getting over the death of my brother. Not unlike Jay Porter when he lost his brother, Chris, I’ve been talking to Josh more now since he died than when he was alive. Which is … weird.

I have three books coming out this year. I’ve been busy. Add to that the whole mortal coil/existential angst, the what’s-it-all-mean? and, well, I hope that explains my absence. But thanks for tuning in.

When I quit smoking back in 2008, I couldn’t write a word for 6 months. Not. One. Goddamn. Word. The brain is kinda essential to that whole “writing” thing. Mental state affects output. Being a writer configures an odd bird in that department. Can’t write if you are too happy. Because who the fuck wants happy stories about two people loving each other very much and nothing ever going wrong? Which leaves conflict. But that is one tenuous baby. No one want to read too much misery (see: biggest criticisms of Jay Porter). The challenge for the professional writer, or any writer who wants to get read I suppose, lies in harnessing conflict, mining unease but keeping said dissonance pleasant enough that you don’t end up writing Affliction or Leaving Las Vegas. Unless of course you can write another Affliction or Leaving Las Vegas. Because then you get that lucrative movie deal and everyone will love you for the rest of your life (*which may not be long).

I am not quitting writing. And if I ever did, there would be no point in making the announcement. No one gives a shit. One of my favorite bits of advice re: writing comes from Dennis Lehane, who carries a little reminder in his wallet: No one cares. Yeah, that can be depressing to some. To me (and Dennis) it’s freedom: No one cares. You can do whatever the fuck you want.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say this writing shit has left me feeling … tapped.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my life. I mean, as much as a curmudgeonly grumpy fuck like I can. Beats working in a factory, and I can honestly say each book I’ve written has been better than the last.

Only the world doesn’t always share your enthusiasm.

I recently posted about a bad review I got, and, seriously, this isn’t a cry for help, nor is it to disparage the reviewer (although putting spoilers for a book not yet out was kind of a dick move). I use this blog, and really my life, to be open book. I don’t know how else to live. Sure, some of that is born from a … neediness. I won’t pretend to have different stripes. But there is also a very earnest, human emotion behind it all: I want to create work people like.

Before we get into a debate about the purpose of art or any of that. I mean it much, much more simply. I try very hard to write the best books I can, and when they are criticized, however fairly, it hurts. That’s it. Not a “woe is poor me” statement or anything like that. Just a basic, primitive, “Golly, that sure hurt my feelings, Becky.” My youngest, Jack Jack, has taken to this approach. When he doesn’t get his way, he cries and screams, “You bad [insert relation here]! You hurt my feelings.” Of course Jack Jack is 3.

I am 47.

Rejection never gets easier. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.


I’m also wrapping up the fifth (and final) Jay Porter, and as beta reader return their notes, I am super sensitive to the biggest complaint that has plagued the series from the start: Jay. Or more specifically Jay’s being … unlikeable.

Now, to me, Jay is not unlikeable, and it’s always weird to hear he is. Because Jay is … me (you don’t like me?!). His ideas, thoughts, behaviors, beliefs? All Joe. I am a little more mature, evolved than Jay. But, like Holden Caulfield, I don’t disagree with these things he thinks. Impetuous, childish, immature, angsty? Sure. Don’t mean he’s wrong.

It’s my worldview, I suppose. And this is not a worldview that hasn’t been unproblematic. Most of you know about the “salad years.” I am not the most pleasant man to be around in social situations (although to be fair I think most people like me. Well, at least more than they like Jay). But it’s draining. As an artist you have a vision, and I feel I’ve been true that vision. I get a lot of (e)letters from people who say they can relate to Jay and who love the books. It’s the nature of writing, though, some just aren’t going to like what you do. Like Rocky says, “Life will beat you to your knees and keep you there if you let it.” The trick is getting back up.

Because if you don’t? Like Dennis Lehane says: no one cares.