On Artistic Integrity

Back in the day, the biggest faux pas you could commit was selling out. When Green Day was saying goodbye to the California punk scene, they instantly became a load of poseurs. But who are we to judge, really? Green Day is capable of making decisions in their own best interest — just as any artist is. And sure: everyone has asked themselves the big ‘what if’ questions should fame ever ever came knocking. The movies just make it all seem so easy….

 
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Then fame comes knocking. Or an approximation of it. All two of you who read this blog may recall the announcement that my debut novel, OLLIE, had been picked up by a small British press. You may note that now, that announcement has vanished — and that is due to the sad fact that rushing to the finish line isn’t worth breaking your neck over. My (fabulous) agent and I decided that it was in OLLIE’s best interest to pull him from the publisher and shelve him for a bit, while we shop around my other manuscript, THE BATTER AND THE PINTO. As it was, OLLIE had been through countless revisions and versions, so what harm could a little more do? Changing the name of Ollie’s love interest seemed a small price, as did the addition of a few extra period details, such as more smoking. Stuff like that felt like an even trade if it meant getting OLLIE out there. Little did I realize the true price.

First and foremost, something I constantly preach to my painting students is that there is an art in knowing when to be finished. I have stacks of paintings I’ve ruined because I didn’t just STOP. The same can be said for writing. OLLIE survived the first round of publisher edits to be something I could be happy with in print. But then the edits kept coming. The amount of demands for rewriting was getting to a point where OLLIE wasn’t OLLIE anymore — nor was Ollie Ollie. There was no way I’d be happy bending to the opinion of someone who felt she had more creative input than she did. The plain fact of the matter was that I knew who and what OLLIE was meant to be — but she didn’t. Not a clue.

And I couldn’t be leaving my story with someone like that.

Or maybe I’m just that punk.

 
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DUMPED - Article for 'AUTHOR' Magazine

I was asked to share a bit on my experience as a writer for Author magazine. The result dealt with the dichotomy between the artist’s mind (and mental health) and the larger world that consumes it. Please enjoy!

the struggle is real

the struggle is real

He’s a certifiable asshole, and you kind of hate him, but you want him to succeed despite all of his endless fuckery. That’s how I talk about Ollie when people ask what my book is about. It was just how I described him to my old roommate, Bean, who’d lived with me while Ollie was still about eighty-seven words and a pipe dream. I thought it was obvious where Ollie had come from, for Bean and I had spent countless hours dredging out our troubled backgrounds. She had an alcoholic for a mother and a twin sister that was apparently homicidal. I told her how my dad kicked the can, about the breakdown I’d had on some sidewalk near Union Square after being dumped by the biggest narcissist you ever saw. It sent me tearing madly onto the subway platform near my apartment; I was going to fling myself in front of the train and then everyone would know how much it hurt to live in this meat puppet of mine. Divine intervention got me to the hospital instead. Medication has sedated the wailing. My body grows less numb with the hormones I take.

Bean thought medication was for the birds. She didn’t understand what I was like when left to my own devices. To her, it was exaggeration that Ollie would think cocaine was a good idea; to her, Ollie’s oblivious sadism was character fluff. To me, he was nearly autobiographical. What would Ollie do? Whatever the fuck I would have done. Wrap it up and hit send on all those query letters.

I kept Bean informed about every query I sent from the Barnes and Noble at the mall, where I was surrounded by hundreds of published books much crappier than mine. Everyone we knew was working on some project or another, needed advice about what works, what doesn’t, so I figured I was being helpful. Her plans for some generic epic fantasy comic came up a lot, though I rarely saw much more than glimpses of a flossy plot from her. Meanwhile, I hammered away on Ollie almost every day. For my graduate thesis project, I decided to illustrate the novel and research how stupid it was that adults didn’t get the benefit of beautiful art like children’s literature does.

It was all going to plan until Trump won the White House and doe-eyed sophomore Bean freaked out. Salty grad student me was already pulling out sixties protest stories and ransacking the apartment for anything that could become a picket sign. It sucks, yes, but we can do things about it. We don’t complain on Twitter, we get our asses out and mobilize. I’d get her a book about it, help her understand that we’ve gone through crazy, troubling shit before. For someone who liked to brag how damn woke she was, she was pretty ignorant.

I decided on another approach. I bought her a hefty hardcover book about sixties protest and a paperback copy of Profiles in Courage for myself. The minute I gave it to her, I should have known it was a waste of money. She put it on her bedside table, where it remained until the argument that broke us. I was angry that she treated me like a chauffeur, and she was lit that I dared to be pissed about it for more than fifteen minutes. Ollie came out in full force over it. I sent her rude texts; I left for hours and hours without telling her where I was going or why; I spat on her poor attempts to “talk it out”. When I came back to our place and saw she’d moved a bunch of things I’d lent her into our parlor, the stopper was violently uncorked.  

I banged on her door, which she had locked, screaming at her to come out, screaming that she better return that book to me, screaming, screaming, screaming. She said she refused to do so with me camped out in the parlor, and eventually cracked her door just enough to throw the fucking thing at my head. I’d be lucky if the spine wasn’t ruined; I had plans to return it. My frustration grew, which was capped by my meds, but not so much that it disappeared. Hurting other people is wrong – I could remember that easily enough – but no one could get angry if I took that aggression out on myself. There’s probably still a dent in the plaster of that house, where I beat my head repeatedly. Flinging myself on the bed, I’d shouted and flailed, pulled my hair and punched myself in the face enough to get a nice shiner.

A knock at the door.

When I got myself together enough to answer it, I anticipated Bean on the other side with empathy for my clear struggle. I was instead greeted by two officers and an EMT. My face fell: I’d been in this situation before, and it always ended with me in an ambulance, a friendship breakup, and an unwanted stint in the loony bin. I didn’t have time for two weeks I couldn’t afford in the psych ward. I had a thesis project to finish. It was finals time. A hurricane had just fucked up our whole town. And for God’s sake, I was still waiting to hear back from the single agent reading my manuscript.

One ambulance ride later, I was languishing in a sub-par facility for whack-jobs, while my landlady was busy kicking me out of my place while I was gone. Without any connection to the outside world, I knew none of this until my mother showed up, explaining why she had to help me last-minute move when I got out. It made me feel like returning to school was pointless. Here was proof, landing me right back where I was after the incident near Union Square. Nothing had changed. I was still a madman that people left out with the rubbish.

But Ollie had so much spark, had so much power in his voice. How hypocritical it was to commend the writing and spit on the writer. Go on and praise the nuance, the skill, the resonance. It’s all dandy until you’re locked in with me and I’m screaming, screaming, screaming foul and fouler. Then shut down, folded up, catatonic. Just try getting anything good out of me then. Just try. Maybe I’ll manage to survive it again. Maybe it’ll mean more writing.

Two manuscripts later, I’ve found representation. I’ve vowed to never speed-read a book again after all the work it took to even get my stories on someone’s desk. When I first spoke to my agent, she was surprised to discover I wasn’t a fifty-year-old British man, but a weenie American who liked World War I history and sixties rock ‘n’ roll. Ollie wasn’t an invention carved out of careful research and planning: he was a struggle – a real person wading through muck and turmoil. He’s real because I’m real.  

And I’ve something to say.

 

On Universal Characters

In writing, there is a freedom to explore various themes and genres before the rest of the world manages to catch on. This creates the perfect climate for atypical stories with atypical characters that don’t yet fit any marketing mold. For this reason, I found writing as a great venue for spinning tales about gay/queer men – more so than other widely consumed mediums such as TV and cinema. But this doesn’t come without its own weird little tropes and idiosyncrasies, even on its small scale. For instance, I appreciate that three is a big focus on coming out stories, but it frustrates me that it seems to be the only transformative journey a queer character is allowed to go on within the world of fiction. Similarly, the only agony he is permitted to feel has to be directly related to his queerness, not his overall human condition. And while it’s fine for people to continue exploring these stories, that is not my aim when it comes to writing queer stories. Yes, he struggles with his homosexuality, but his problems are more rooted in unsatisfied dreams, depression as a condition (and not a result of direct action, such as homophobia). Therefore, in looking at OLLIE, the main idea is less about his attraction to Liam as another man, but more specifically in how this personality challenges his own worldview. Ollie’s rebelliousness is a failing in his own character, not his sexuality. His focus on wooing women is only partially related to his truth, and more a result of his ingrained egoism. Ollie is his own worst enemy because he struggles with the trauma of being a human.

Though it’s a bit preemptive to say this, as my second manuscript is still on submission, I think the leading man in that story is another prime example of this theory. Clyde Harlow has escaped his abusive father, but his depression is not caused by the experience. His depression aggravates him when things go wrong, but he is still prone to ennui even when he’s simply breathing. A reader struggling with these feelings in the real world should relate to Clyde (and Ollie and others) not because of his orientation, but because the feelings are the same. Too often, especially with young people, we are concerned about labels and whether or not something pertains to this or that group. But I argue that our world is becoming more universal, and so, I think, should our fiction.  

Silver Screen Beauties

Lately, I've fallen in love with Ivor Novello, which sort of jumped off my love for Buster Keaton. All those early film sorts, like Valentino and Astaire and the lot amaze me so much -- and are pretty easy on the eyes. I think it must be how emotive their faces are that I've got so wrapped up in drawing them lately. All these drawings ended up shaping the lead character in the manuscript I've got in super-duper-rough draft. Hope you like my little retrospective here. 

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Painting Painting Painting

I've been steadily plugging away on my third manuscript, which I'm happy to report is nearly finished. I've also been doing a whole lot of painting in acrylic lately, which has been a good study for me. Here are some of the ones I'm working on right now. I've realized I have a great love of painting portraits of vintage men, as you can see in the one of Ivor Novello, Ollie and Julian! I've another one of Buster Keaton in the work, and then some inspired by the James Norton adaption of War and Peace. 

 

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Character Sketches and Ideas

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It's sort of strange to think that I've begun a third manuscript when OLLIE's barely out the door and the second hasn't even been put in front of my agent yet. I can't stand being idle, though, so here comes the next story I've been planning for some time. It's another historical piece with a broken hero in love with another equally broken person. I suppose you could say it's my aesthetic! Interestingly enough, I've found that it really helps my writing process when I use visuals to plot out things like how characters look, or even how a certain scene might play out. In that way, I would compare writing to stage acting for the reclusive. There's still practice and research and learning and important dramatic things to resolve, but all without the bother of the big, scary stage! Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to get a look at some of the character sketches I've begun for this third story, which is currently titled The Pinniped Club (for explorative gentlemen). Strangely, part of the inspiration for this particular story was found in an antique shop in Savannah, Georgia. I bought this mysterious portrait of this handsome Edwardian gentleman and knew he had a story. Now I'm finally able to work on it! I hope it lives up to the task! 


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Over here are some more Eddie sketches (the bottom two), and then some concept sketches for two other characters. The other lead is named Francis and is the upper left character, while the upper right character is called Deidrick, and his look was sort of an accidental discovery while doodling the other two. But it helps having him in mind when I imagine his personality. 

The lead character's name is Eddie Finch, but I won't tell you too much about him or else you won't want to read his story! But he's a pianist in the 1920's, which got me thinking about the talented but oft forgotten Ivor Novello. I thought he had such a beautiful face, and his features are the base for Eddie's looks. It helps having that to fall back on, especially when I'm trying to come up with little ticks and nuances, like the turn of the hair or the cut of the mouth, the nose -- what have you. 

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OFFICIALLY ON SUBMISSION!

Apologies for the radio silence, but it's that dreaded time of year that sucks the life out of you. On the bright end of things, Ms. Saritza Hernandez, my agent has begun the arduous task of finding OLLIE a home in publishing. It's a little crazy to think of how far OLLIE has come since I was goaded into picking up writing again by a friend. I suppose you could say I'd been on a bit of a sabbatical, stuck in a shit relationship that kept me from doing a lot of the things I once enjoyed. Strangely, even after moving on, I still was nervous to go back to something like writing, which I was rusty and and surely no longer any good. In that mode, it was nice to find things to get my boots wet on, a little fanfic here or an exercise in poetry there. Before I knew it, I'd pulled OLLIE off a shelf I'd set him up on over ten years ago. Thinking on it now, its a little surreal it might actually become something more than just my friends will read! Even more exciting is how it's restored my confidence in storytelling. Already, I have a second manuscript about a man on the run with another miscreant and his dog in the test reading phase, and have begun hammering out a third. I'm pumped for you to meet all these new characters just as much as Ollie! Thanks to everyone who's helped place me this far. There's still so much further to go!

 

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