Self Portrait as the Devil, 1973
Self Portrait with Broken Capillaries, 1975
I’d sell my wife, my dog, and both my daughters to be able to draw; I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, not after all I’ve done for them. But since that sort of compact exists only in weird fiction, I’m stuck, goddammit, with doodling.
Every day of my life till I was about 22, I drew, and drew, and drew, but I never got really good—or, truthfully, any good. With a biblical shake of my fist, I used to blame that sorrowful defeat on my Catholic education, which from kindergarten through high school never offered a single art class, as well as on our dismal family finances, which prevented me (Aw, c’mon, Ma, we don’t have to eat!) from enrolling in the Famous Artists home-study school founded—in the magical realm of Westport, Connecticut!—by a lot of big-name guys like Norman Rockwell and Al Capp. Finally, though, I realized that nothing, nothing could’ve made me a decent artist; the realization dawned at long last the day I was brought to salty tears of frustration by my inability to figure out how to assemble an Office Max cardboard box—Side A goes where? I had, and I have, no 3D faculties whatsoever—none! So how the hell had I ever expected to draw figures in space and learn and apply scientific perspective? Continue reading
Here’s yet another trunk manuscript from the mid-1980s, from during the time I was also writing Sunburn Lake, Joe Gosh, and the script for the Neuromancer graphic novel (while living in Jersey City and teaching undergraduate fiction workshops at Hofstra University twice a week). It’s my one and only stab at writing for very young readers–the first four chapters of what was intended to be an illustrated children’s book.
The circumstances surrounding this never-completed manuscript–so far as I can recall, it has been nearly 30 years–were these: book packager Byron Preiss had gotten hold of a couple of very nice color illustrations (just who the artist was, I can’t recall) of a young girl navigating dangerously around on her flying bed, and thought they ought to have a story attached to them, a story that he could then sell as a book. He called and asked me if I’d like to take a crack at it, and since my daughters were around 4 and 6 or 5 and 7 at the time, I thought it’d be fun to write a children’s story. I said I’d work up a few chapters and he could take it from there. I don’t know if he couldn’t sell the project, or never tried to, or lost interest in it, or even forgot all about it, but in any event, nothing more came of it.
But just the other day my wife Santa discovered the manuscript while going through boxes of manuscripts and galleys in preparation for clearing out our house as much as possible before we put it on the market. I took a read through the manuscript and liked it; Emily, as described right down to the one eye that closes more than the other eye during smiles and laughter, is clearly based on my older daughter Jessie when she was a little girl; the ballerina in the children’s story-within-a-story is obviously based on my younger daughter Kate, who by then had already declared her intention of becoming both a farmer and a ballerina when she grew up. The dolls named in the story were their actual dolls–I especially remember Pink Doll and New Doll. (Jessie is 34 now, and Kate is 32.)
I’m including here a photograph taken around 1985, of me at my office desk in our Summit Avenue rowhouse, and if you look at the two drawings pinned on the wall directly in front of me and just to the right of the telephone–those are the ones Byron sent me that I used to concoct the story.
Thanks to the great cartoonist, critic and educator, Stephen R. Bissette, who generously got the whole project going, last year Dark Horse Books finally–after more than two decades!–collected the 3-issue Freaks’ Amour comic-book series into a full-fledged and beautifully produced graphic novel. The series was originally scripted by Dana Marie Andra and drawn by Phil Hester and Ande Parks. To make the package deluxe, Steve wrong a long introduction, the artists contributed new drawings, Dana wrote an afterward, Gary Panter permitted us to reprint his 3-page Freaks’ Amour adaptation (first published in Young Lust, 1980), and I wrote a brand-new story set in the Freaks’ world, but decades after the story in the novel. It was a little daunting to go back to material I’d worked on when I was 28, 29 years old, but it proved a lot of fun. For some time I’d been wanting to do another “monolog/one-side-of-a-conversation” story–hadn’t done anything along those lines since Sunburn Lake–and so that’s what I did with “There Used to Be Freaks.” It’s very short and very pointed–it’s not the most subtle fiction I’ve ever written–but I was pleased with the result. (The graphic novel, by the way, is still very much in print and available.)
I majored in Sociology at Rutgers-Newark (1967-71), and don’t think I’d ever considered becoming a fiction writer until I was a senior there and took my first creative-writing class. And I enrolled in it only because I’d taken every Sociology course that was being offered and had to fill out my fall schedule with something. The course was taught by a young, exuberant, nurturing instructor in the English Department named Elizabeth White, who later became a dean at the college; there were probably 20 students in the class. The fiction that I wrote and submitted was strongly influenced (I’ll say!) by Ray Bradbury’s stuff—a series of fantasy stories all with the same magic-boy protagonist named, I’m embarrassed to recall, Tommy-John Whitewater. I don’t remember a thing about the stories, except their reception, which seemed, to me at least, rhapsodic, and kindled my thinking seriously about fiction writing, prose fiction writing, as a goal, if not a career. Till then, honestly, it had never occurred to me.
Since I was 8 or 9 I’d written stories, but they were stories for the home-made comic strips (“Be-Bop McCarthy,” “Harry Drebbs, Secret Agent,” “The Blue Bug”) that I labored over, ferociously, in the evenings and on weekends. It was a great blow when, at last, I faced the cold hard fact that I wasn’t ever going to be a decent (much less a great, my only goal) narrative cartoonist; I didn’t know it at the time, but my failure to develop drawing chops was pretty basic and pretty fatal: I had no spatial sense, plus my hand-eye coordination pretty much sucked. What made my life’s first great disappointment bearable was—well, actually it was two things.
Although my two stints as a hired hand writing screenplays were, ultimately, not very successful, I’ve never regretted them. For one thing, the jobs were crazily well-paid, by my standards at least, and for another thing, I picked up a lot of narrative strategies that I’ve applied ever afterwards to my fiction. And for another thing I learned a screenwriter’s “game” that I’ve used again and again over the years to generate ideas when ideas weren’t jumping up and biting me in the imagination. The game is this: take two disparate (but successful) movies and splice them–then see what ideas start to percolate. Example? Okay. Um. All right–how about this. The Godfather meets On Golden Pond. What might that look like? Or–The Hangover meets The Evil Dead. See? It’s great.
So when Art Spiegelman asked me to write a short story for an issue of RAW that would fit in with the issue’s mini-theme of “50’s Commie Nostalgia,” and when I was desperate for some workable idea, I recalled that old screenwriter’s game. First, I asked myself: when I think of the 1950s, what comes straight to mind? And what came was “I Love Lucy” and the House Un-American Activities Committee, the televised McCarthy hearings, all of those propaganda films we were shown in grammar school, and the anti-communist B-movies of the era like The Red Menace, Whip Hand, I Was a Communist for the FBI…and (bingo!) I Married a Communist (a film by Howard Hughes later retitled The Woman on Pier 13, and a title appropriated much later by Philip Roth). Thus the story below–which originally appeared in RAW Volume 2, Number 1, in 1989–was generated by this bit of associative game-playing: “I Love Lucy” meets I Married a Communist. The result: A 50s “sitcom” (called ”Peg”) about commie spies in the suburbs.
I don’t know how great a short story it is, but it still makes me laugh when I read it. So I like it. Continue reading
The sequence of ten vignettes below originally appeared in RAW #8 (1986), the comics anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly; Art gave me pica and line counts and I wrote to spec, unifying the sequence by making each part of it pertain, in one way or another, to the lives of cartoonists. The title, which Art came up with, is a jokey reference to my first novel, Freaks’ Amour (1979). During the time I wrote these, I was also working on a book of linked novellas eventually published, in 1988, as Sunburn Lake, which accounts for the address of the Spangler Home-Study School of Professional Cartooning in the first vignette. In 1985 I’d published Funny Papers, the first novel in my trilogy about the fictional “Derby Dugan” comic strip; for the third novel in the trilogy, Dugan Under Ground (2001), I shamlessly cannibalized from nearly all of these vignettes, which still rank high, near the top, on my list of favorite creations.
In early summer 2012, Chuck Scalin, an artist living in Richmond, Virginia, asked me if I would contribute a story to a project he was working on. He had made, as well as exhibited in a local gallery, a series of very mysterious assemblages, each one fitted inside of its own small presentation case with a transparent window, and now he’d gotten the notion to ask a number of writers living in the Richmond area to compose brief noir fictions inspired by the assemblages. The result was a handsome limited-edition (of 100) black box containing exquisite photographs of 14 of Chuck’s assemblages and 15 stories. The fifteenth story (but the first in the box) was mine, “The Outlawman.” Chuck had asked me to write a story that would “explain” where all of these cryptic assemblages had come from, or been found, the idea being that they weren’t art objects by Chuck Scalin but rather were unearthed “clues” to different crimes that had been committed in the distant past. So I came up with the masked vigilante called the Outlawman (stress falling either on outlaw or lawman: your pick). Originally, it was a much, much longer story, but I had to trim 80% of what I’d written to fit the project’s strict parameters. One of these days, though, I’d like to go back and pick up my first version again and work it through. I like the conceit, I like the character, and I’ve always loved those masked vigilantes–the Green Hornet, the Masked Marvel, the Spider–from old-time pulp magazines and movie serials.
I wish I did, but I rarely write short stories. It’s never been a form that I’ve been comfortable with, and I bet I haven’t written more than ten of them during my career; half of those, however, I’ve written during the past five or six years, and of those, “Bonner’s Best Friend” is the only one that either hasn’t been published or accepted for publication. It was solicited two, three years ago for an anthology of original fiction dealing with the fallout from the Great Recession. But I withdrew it after the editor chopped out about a quarter of the story and then insisted that I change the names of the characters, to make them, he insisted, sound more “ethnic.” He didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading a story about Irish-American characters named Bonner and Natwin. Go figure. Anyhow, I’m glad I pulled it, and while I don’t think it’s the best story in the world, I like it, and reading it again recently I realized that I was unconsciously writing a story in the mode of John O’Hara, one of my favorite American writers. Irish-American, come to think of it. Two lines of phonetic dialog in the story are total swipes from (but I’ll call them homages to) O’Hara: “My still welcome to crash?” and “For cry sake.” So I mise well (another O’Hara-ism) dedicate the story to his memory.