Steve Coulter, my good friend of many decades and the powerhouse drummer in my occasional band The Corvids, is the only person I’ve ever known who has a journalism degree. This year, he re-launched himself as a writer of mystery/thriller fiction and various web articles. And then he demanded that I answer these questions so that he can get me tied up in some sketchy multi-leveling marketing bullshit online. That’s how we do it, in 2014! (And my talented & elegant friend Martin Langfield has done a far better job with this assignment.)
1. What are you working on?
I’m still happily recovering from the failed launch of my environmental/nature online magazine, Greenfriar. It was a “self-financed startup,” which means I don’t owe anyone money and am free to go about my business, such as it is. But it also means I couldn’t hire any full-time help, or pay myself, or pay more than $50 for free-lance pieces, because “hope for eventual advertising money” is not accepted as a form of payment for rent, groceries, liquor, etc. I’m doing a little freelance, the sort of essays and columns I used to do for The Awl and Gawker, and I’m always halfway starting or plotting a book—but the reality is that I’ve only had two books published and I’m well into my 40s, so it’s unlikely I’m going to suddenly start churning out novels or non-fiction books. All of that is to say: What I’m working on is something that has grown out of the visions I had for the book Dignity, along with my longtime obsessions with the California missions, land conservation, the high desert, and the special satisfaction I get from walking around in silence, far away from all you people and your constant jabbering and tweeting, etc.
2. How does your work differ from other writers in your genre?
As a novelist, I don’t really have a genre—of my two published books, one is a dark comedy that very roughly follows the “diversity of perversities” style of satirical thriller written by Carl Hiaasen, but it also has the “tell much of the story in fake news accounts” trick that powers Dracula and Salem’s Lot, and most of the (few) reviews noted the snarky dialogue was of the Elmore Leonard/Raymond Chandler vein, which is a pretty terrific thing to get called on.
My more recent book, Dignity, is written as a collection of epistles from a modern-day Saint Paul sending encouragement and news to self-sustaining communities that pop up within half-built and abandoned exurban developments after the 2008 financial collapse. It’s utterly sincere and romantic. Which is to say: I believe that book. Very easy to write, too, although of course it was work. But an empty house in the desert and some Leonard Cohen or Antony & the Johnsons or Emmylou Harris could generally get me back to the haunted traveler who wrote that book.
And then there’s my non-fiction book about hiking up the California Coast, from the border fence at the Tijuana Bullring by the Sea to San Francisco. I did this in 2009 for HarperCollins, but the little Harper imprint that signed me was shuttered not long after I submitted my aimless first draft. And that’s probably for the best, because nobody at HarperCollins liked my first draft at all. (This has been my most successful book, financially, because I got to keep the substantial advance. Thanks, Rupert Murdoch!)
As an essayist or a columnist or (what I’ve really been) a blogger, the people who admit to liking my stuff tend to put it in the American Jeremiad school of half-humorous/dead-serious writing, which is a great compliment, because most of my favorite writers did their best work in that area: Edward Abbey, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Mike Royko, Malcolm X/Alex Haley, Mark Twain, etc. And despite the fact that I “quit” journalism and blogging and any kind of periodical writing on a disturbingly routine basis, my full-time income has mostly come from this kind of work, to the point that I haven’t had a Real Job since working as a desk editor and rewrite guy at United Press International in Washington back in 1999.
3. Why do you write what you write?
I mostly write out of disgust and dissatisfaction. I want a beautiful life but I’m stuck in this Garbage World with you people.
Very slowly, I’m figuring out I probably should not waste any more time on writing. It seems increasingly passive and banal, the whole exercise. There’s real stuff that needs doing!
4. How does your writing process work?
Not very well. The truth is, I don’t really “believe” in writing. Not now, anyway. The writers I admired are almost all dead and gone. The kind of writing I like to read has fallen out of favor, or the current versions are pretty tired copies. Writing is a pretty disgusting way to make a living, when you think about it—it’s all to get people to “emotionally respond” to a headline so they’ll click on something, “share” it, and then close the browser tab a paragraph later because who cares?
There’s a whorish desperation to even the very few halfway-decent writers today. You either write about the same tripe everybody else writes about—Game of Thrones, Hillary Clinton, Silicon Valley, whatever new subculture is offended by its lack of persecution, a sports star, a wealthy rapper, the Tea Party, the new iPhone—or you make a stunt out of not doing that specific thing: Dark Matters: A Gamer Woman’s Journey Through a Year Without Using Light Bulbs In a Very Dark House, etc. The paucity of aesthetic morality throughout global civilization dulls the wits of even the sharpest satirists at The Baffler and The Onion.
5. What is your advice for those struggling to write and/or make a living from writing?
Give up! Really, why struggle with something that has so few rewards? Now if you just love typing so much and can’t stop, then type away. That’s fine, and better than watching the teevee or joining a bicyclists club or whatever.
But if it’s hard, and you’re not getting anywhere, don’t waste time or money on writing programs, writing seminars, writing workshops, books about overcoming writer’s block, books about how to read other books, books about how to sell books to book publishers, etc. Chances are, whatever you’ve got to say has been said before, and it’s probably been said much better, and any look at the bookshelves in your local independent bookshop will reveal that most of the shelf space goes to the deserving “old reliables”—along with gimmick-garbage throwaways like Four-Thousand Supermarkets: A Year of Traveling To 4,000 Supermarkets, gift books for Father’s/Mother’s Day, gift books for graduates, gift books for the home chef, gift books for the unemployed, gift books for the depressed, gift books for the recently divorced or widowed, gift books for pet owners, seasonal political books with snappy topical titles that repeat something the few buyers already believe, glossy magazines with many beautiful photographs of Scarlett Johansson and/or a new device of some kind, and various gewgaws that announce to co-workers and potential sex partners that you actively engage in the reading of books, because you are smarter than the people that just watch Netflix eight hours each night.
* * *
Now, I think, I am supposed to somehow “pass this on” to some other people, but I’m pretty sure the people I have in mind will refuse to take part in such a morbidly vain exercise. Instead, I choose … Jim Newell, Salon’s politics writer and the 2013 world sex champion, and the talented Matt Welch, noted “libertarian of convenience” until the Koch Brothers shut down Reason due to moral bankruptcy. As always, “Blame Steve Coulter” for all of this.
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