T.C. Boyle has been writing the same story his entire career. But it’s the oldest story of them all – the story of man’s fall.
From his early short stories to his sprawling novels, Boyle explores the tragic nature of existence, in wildly comic fashion, as he reveals all of us to be creatures of our own desires, with no nobility, just advanced primates with super-fueled egos and ambitions.
Never has that been better expressed than in The Terranauts (now in paperback!), his account of scientists living under a dome in the Arizona desert for two years. Vaguely cult-like, the objective is to create a better earth, in case we destroy this one, and to pioneer methods for transporting man to the stars.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the novel is based upon Biosphere II, one of those 90s experiments that best lay forgotten. Like the Biosphere II team, the Terranauts descend into chaos as they slowly starve (and nearly suffocate), under a glass dome without enough nature to support them.
The book is written as an oral history of the project, with different Terranauts and crew telling their side of the story – and casting blame for their project’s infamous failure, the conceit being that the story is well-known to everyone.
One of the most compelling voices is Linda Ryu. Passed over to be an original Terranaut, she lingers on as support staff and is slowly driven mad by jealousy and rage, at one point wondering if the whole project was a kind of practical joke at her expense.
I’ve been a fan of T.C. Boyle’s work ever since reading Greasy Lake and Other Stories, a collection of fiction of that roared into my consciousness like a Bruce Springsteen anthem. I had never read anything anything so hilarious and contemporary before, a riff from a wild literary genius.
Since then, I’ve read most of his books, following along as Boyle explores how our desires take us out of the Garden of Eden. It’s fitting that, in The Terranauts, the action is set in a literal garden under a dome. But, like the original habitants of the original garden, the Terranauts give way to their desires, turning heaven into hell. In this petri dish in the desert, Boyle tells the oldest story of all, and has never done so more powerfully.
My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper Fiction Issue. Since then, a number of friends have asked me about the story. Where did the idea for Victory Party come from? How did I write it? Why did I write it?
Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.
The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the election.
I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.
Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:
voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.
But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?
There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.
DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.
I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.
My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.
I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.
In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.
It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.
I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.
Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.
The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.
Writing & Editing
When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.
After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell.
I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.
After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.
The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of victory, one that he knows won’t last.
To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a party at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was a thrill.
If you liked Victory Party, you’ll love my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the real city beyond the monuments. Read this book if you want a wry look at the DC art scene.
I also have another novel in the works – Drone City, a satire in which a drone crashes into the White House, leading to the end of the country as we know it. It’s a comedy. I’m editing the manuscript now and am looking for agent. Look for it later this year 🙂
I’m a writer. I’ve read a lot of biographies of Ernest Hemingway – it’s practically a requirement of the profession.
The first biography of Hemingway I read was the one that Papa wrote himself – A Moveable Feast. It’s a slim and sentimental ode to Hemingway’s early years, romanticizing poverty and Paris. And not exactly true. Hemingway uses the book to settle old scores and falsely claim that Pauline, his second wife, stole him from his first.
Michael Reynolds has written a series of books chronicling Hemingway’s life, such as Hemingway: The 1930s. They’re the best source for a comprehensive account of the author and his works.
The book that stands out for me is Hemingway’s Boat: Everything That He Loved and Lost. It’s a different kind of biography, more of a profile of the people around Hemingway rather than the man himself. And it’s fascinating, showing him as a bully and a braggart – but also hugely devoted to his friends and family.
I was reluctant to read another Hemingway bio but then I saw Ernest Hemingway: A New Life. With the 1922 portrait by Henry Strater on the cover, it’s a beautiful book.
Trauma – If Hemingway was alive today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. He suffered the trauma of war, nearly losing his life during WWI. Afterward, he suffered guilt, believing that the brave died while he lived. He also felt like a fraud, being an ambulance driver rather than a proper soldier. His trauma went unrecognized and untreated – as it did for millions of others.
Women – A man married four times has a complicated relationship with women. His mother was famously domineering and Hemingway didn’t even attend her funeral, blaming her for his father’s suicide. He needed a wife, afraid of being alone, yet he cheated on all of them. Interestingly, his best novels, such as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, all came into fruition when he was leaving one wife for another.
Sex – An academic industry exists to parse the sexual subtexts of Hemingway’s life and work. Zelda Fitzgerald called him “a pansy with hair on his chest.” His public image as a man of action was largely true – but it was also true that he was bookish and sensitive. He was the type of man who seduced women and then bragged about it. Psychologists can speculate if these hypermasculine displays concealed a more conflicted nature.
Reputation – Hugely competitive, Hemingway not only wanted to bed the best women, he wanted to write the best books. From the beginning, he looked for his place in the literary canon, placing himself up there with authors like Mark Twain. The decisions he made, such as his marriages, were made to further his art. He had a habit of marrying wealthy women so that he could write.
Madness – The Hemingway family is littered with suicides and mental illness. Hemingway, his father, his brother and his sister all killed themselves. Hemingway’s son, Gregory, died in a women’s prison, after being arrested by the police. He was going by the name Gloria at the time. Hemingway said that his son had the “biggest dark side” of anyone in the family, “except me.” Hemingway died after succumbing to the depression that had plagued him his entire life.
Ernest Hemingway: A New Life emphasizes with its tragic subject, elevating the author to hero, not for his public image, but for his creative accomplishments in the face of so much pain and struggle.
If you’re a progressive, these are dark times indeed. You’ve suffered a historic and surprising loss, one that seems to usher in a new age of evil.
Great works of literature, such as The Lord of the Rings, can provide consolation to discouraged liberals in the new Trump universe. Look for hope, not from the east, but in the big books of fantasy. From Gandalf to Aslan, the characters in these imagined worlds endured far worse than a bright orange politician. They took on and defeated enemies who would enslave them. Let their stories be your guide to surviving the Age of Trump.
When it comes to confronting evil, no one is more inspiring than Gandalf the White in The Lord of the Rings. Pulling together an unlikely coalition of misfits, he defeats evil in its purest and most implacable form.
His greatest weapon: hope. As he struggled with the impossible task that was destroying the One Ring, he rallied his companions by saying:
Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.
If you’re Gandalf, you fight on, even as you plunge into the pit with a Balrog.
His credo was simple:
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
That means that you do what you can, every day.
Gandalf knew how to deal with a two-faced politician, too. Lock him in a tower. After the treacherous wizard Saruman is defeated by the Ents, Gandalf keeps him trapped in Orthanc. Saruman pleads for release, with words whose very sound was an enchantment:
Those who listened unwearily to that voice could seldom report the words that they had heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to see wise themselves. When others spoke, they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.
Saruman possesses the oratory of Ted Cruz. And, like Cruz, he’s taken every side on every issue. He turned evil because evil was going to win. Better to be on the winning side. Gandalf wisely keeps him in Orthanc.
And if Saruman is Cruz then who is his treacherous companion, Grima Wormtongue? He tries to weaken King Théoden of Rohan and nearly succeeds. Playing the role of Wormtongue in the Republican Party would be Newt Gingrich, who sought to discredit the Republican establishment from within. Unlike the Lord of the Rings, the Grand Old Party never woke up from its spell. Rohirrim did not ride to the rescue at the Republican Convention.
C.S. Lewis would argue that great sacrifice is needed to cleanse the world. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where it’s always winter but never Christmas (which feels like Washington today), it takes blood to put things right in this thinly veiled Christian allegory. Perhaps Hillary, like Aslan, should’ve sacrificed her political ambitions and let a more palatable candidate run for office.
George R. R. Martin dismisses these ideas about good and evil. You’re naïve to even think that way and liable to get beheaded if you embrace the hero myth. In the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die. Like Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger, it’s best to look after your own interest, without morals. His scheming and self-interest represent many in Washington.
I prefer the consolation of Gandalf. As progressives enter the political wilderness, remember the words of Greybeard:
Not all those who wander are lost.
In the years before the War of the Ring, Gandalf adventured throughout Middle-Earth, defeating monsters and learning about the people under his protection, from greedy dwarves to breakfast-loving hobbits. He could not become Gandalf the White without the forge of this experience.
From merry wizards to talking lions, the world of fantasy offers consolation to progressives looking into the land of shadow. At the very least, they’ll provide something to read over the next four years.
You’re the next J.K. Rowling, slaving away in obscurity somewhere. You’ve written a book that will change the world. How do you find an agent to get your masterpiece published?
At the recent DC Author Festival, Cynthia Kane from Capital Talent Agency, Bridget Matzie from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth and Dara Kaye from Ross Yoon spoke on an “Ask an Agent” panel about how aspiring authors can find literary representation. Before a packed house in the basement of the MLK Library in Washington, DC, they explained what they’re looking for and how writers can break in to the publishing world.
How do you find an agent? Here are their recommendations:
Get a Referral
The best way to find an agent is to be referred by an existing client, particularly when it comes to nonfiction. Dara Kaye at Roos Yoon said that most of their new clients come from referrals. Good authors know other good authors. Someone referred to the agency gets their query letter looked at more closely than someone unknown to the agency. Other query letters go into the slush pile, to be reviewed by interns and junior agents. If you know someone, use that connection.
Build a Platform
What is a platform? It’s a term that’s used a lot in marketing. In short, it’s a built-in audience of people who are excited to read your work. It could be an avid social media following or an audience you’ve built by being the expert in a field. You can create a platform by publishing elsewhere. For nonfiction authors, this means getting articles published in newspapers and magazines. Fiction writers should also publish, even if it’s only on their own blog.
Find a Junior Agent
If you’re interested in being represented by the Daniel Smith Agency, don’t write to Daniel Smith. He’s the head of the agency and is busy working with existing clients. Instead, send your query letter to someone further down the org chart. Agency web sites often have biographies of their staff. Look for a junior agent, one new to the agency with few clients. Read their biography, discover what they’re interested in and write a query letter directed at them. Writer’s Digest also has a great list of new agents. New agents need great clients. Be one of them.
Bridget Matzie from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth summed up “Ask an Agent” with a helpful bit of advice: the publishing business is a business. While authors and agents may romanticize books, titles need to sell. If they don’t, then she doesn’t have a job. While you may be creating art, the publishing world is going to look at your book as another widget to market. Your job is to write books – the agent’s job is to sell them.
Can you get a literary agent through a query letter? That was the question I had before attending “Writing the Dreaded Query Letter” at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Alan Orloff answered the question in the affirmative. Not only has he obtained representation solely by an email query, he showed us how in this Saturday afternoon class.
The first point he made was perhaps the most important – a query letter is a business letter. It’s not a philosophical treatise. It’s a short, concise email communication that’s designed to get an agent to read your writing sample. That’s it.
Like a good business letter, a query letter has four parts:
Salutation: Address a particular agent by name. You can find agents online through resources such as AgentQuery.
Hook/Description: The hook is a catchy sentence or two designed to catch a reader’s interest. For example, “It’s Jaws in space.” Follow that up with a paragraph describing the plot of the book – what happens and to whom.
Biography: Mention your writing credits and any relevant experience you have.
Close: Thank them for their time and include the first five pages from your manuscript. No need to ask for representation – that’s why you’re writing them.
It was a workshop so I also received feedback on the query letter for my upcoming novel DRONE CITY, from the class and from Orloff (see above). He mentioned that he spends weeks polishing his queries. You only have one chance to impress an agent so you have to make sure that your letter is perfect.
The small class closed with participants exchanging email addresses and Orloff sharing copies of his book, Diamonds for the Dead.
I took this class because I’m working on another novel – DRONE CITY. In this satire, a drone lands on the White House lawn, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the end of the nation as we know it.
With my previous books Murder in Ocean Hall and Murder on U Street, I skipped over the “find an agent” step and self-published, thinking the publishing business was based upon referrals. Orloff showed that it was possible to find an agent through a professionally written query letter. After taking his class, I’m looking forward to finding an agent for DRONE CITY.
A mythical wedding, a demonstration, a carnival, a funeral procession, a fashion show or perhaps a combination of all these? A colorful parade of mysterious creatures wander through a fictitious northern landscape carrying unique crafted objects. Who are they and where are they going?
Next Level Craft is not your typical handicraft exhibition – it has its own soundtrack and music video. The renowned young Swedish artist Aia Jüdes has created a playful and different tale of craft, mixing voguing (a modern dance style characterized by perfect, stylized hand and arm movements, acrobatic poses and flamboyant fashion), street art, high fashion, pop culture and electronic music with everything from wool embroidery, weaving and felting to root binding, wood turning and birch bark braiding.
It was a surreal experience, a room filled with bizarre objects and an ever-changing lightshow. Adding to the strangeness was a trippy video of dancing Swedes. So much weirdness for InstagramDC to photograph, as the lights cycled from red to blue.
Best of all, photography was encouraged! It’s a very forward-thinking embassy for hosting this strange exhibit and for reaching out to local photographers to cover it. We had a blast taking pictures of these unique crafts and posing for photos in the weird lighting.
That was cool. But getting up on the roof was even cooler.
There was an amazing view of Rosslyn and the Kennedy Center, from a vantage point that few get to see. It was sleeting but no way was I going to miss this experience.
As a writer, it’s inspiring to see creative work. It’s source material for me. I wrote Murder on U Street, my novel about homicide in DC’s art scene, after having similar experiences. So don’t be surprised if a trippy Swedish art exhibit shows up in a future book 😉
If you want to truly write a book, and not just live out some Eat, Pray, Love fantasy, then you need to go to a boring place. That’s the conclusion of Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup, in a recent blog post. He advocates going to a place where there is nothing to do.
While writing is a solitary activity, it doesn’t mean you need to be alone while doing it. I’m a city person, and like to write around other people, even if I’m not talking to them. A writer’s retreat in a remote cabin would probably turn me into the Unabomber. I need to see and hear other humans.
I’ve written two books in public in Washington, DC. These are my favorite places to write in the city:
1. Peets – 17th and L. I liked it when it was a Caribou, and I like it even more as a Peet’s (better scones). Located on a corner, with windows all around, it’s the perfect clean, well-lighted place. If you’re creatively stuck, you can always stare out the windows at cyclists going by on L Street. On the weekends, it’s so slow that I wonder how they stay in business. But they do and that’s perfect for me.
2. Cove – If you need more structure, than check out the co-working space Cove. They offer desks, fast wifi, coffee and even meeting rooms, all at a very reasonable rate. They have locations around DC but I like the Cove on 14th Street above Barcelona. If you’re there on a Sunday morning (when I like to write), you’ll have the place to yourself.
3. Renaissance Hotel – West End. Hotel lobbies are underused writing spaces in this city. This one has an Illy Cafe in it and they make the best cappuccino in the city. One upside/downside: no free wifi. If you can’t control your social media compulsion, come for the isolation.
4. Kogod Courtyard – Located at the National Portrait Gallery, it’s a calm oasis in the center of the city. There’s wifi, plentiful seating and a cafe. Plus, if you run out of ideas, you can always explore the fascinating exhibits at the museum. Open from 11 – 7.
5. Pound the Hill – This indie coffee shop has awesome food – the chicken salad is particularly good – and they even have a happy hour. With art on the walls, it’s a cute place on Capitol Hill to get some work done.
Note: I hate laptop campers, especially in small places like Pound. Give yourself two hours, do your work, and then leave. You can get a lot done if you give yourself a deadline.
A writing place doesn’t need to be boring. It just needs to be a spot where you like to write. When I wrote Murder in Ocean Hall, I discovered that I liked to get my writing done early in the day. And that I couldn’t do it at home. I had to leave my apartment, as if I were going to a job. Which is why I love and patronize coffee shops. While you may have a different preference, the most important thing is find the writing place that works for you.
That was that was the insult a friend of mine received. It was perfect. After all, no one in America aspires to be a middle manager. Why would you? Middle man – the title alone speaks of failure. You couldn’t make it to the top so now you manage the work of other people. You spend eight hours in a cubicle and write TPS reports.
Middle men are also replaceable, the type of jobs that get supplanted by technology. Instead of going to Sears and talking to a middle man, you just order what you want from Amazon.
In his short story collection, Middle Men, Jim Gavin explores the world of men stuck somewhere between their dreams and reality. Appropriate for a book on purgatory, these stories are primarily set in Los Angeles. The sun-blasted landscape of the city looms large in Middle Men. Characters escape to the freeway or Del Taco to ease their troubles.
In an interview at the end of the book, Gavin explains that Middle Men is about mastery. It’s about growing up, learning a trade and accepting your fate in a very uncertain economy. The men in the book start out young dreamers – they’re slackers and standup comics and aspiring screenwriters – and end up grizzled vets grimly hanging on to their piece of the American dream.
There are a couple of great short stories in the book – Illuminati and Elephant Doors – that perfectly describe the entertainment business in Hollywood, stripping away the glamor and revealing an industry in which very few find success. As a failed screenwriter in the book says, “Nothing always happens. The literature of Hollywood is depressingly consistent on this point.” Middle Men should be required reading for anyone seeking fame in LA.
You root for the men in Middle Men, trying to make it in a strangled economy with few opportunities. You believe in them. They’re trying. They haven’t given up the idea that they can be better. And that America can too.
There’s something about an old-fashioned paperback that can’t be duplicated in this digital age. It’s not neat and clean like e-text. Paperbacks reveal themselves through use. Good books become worn and tattered as they’re passed from reader to reader. The better the book, the worse it looks.
This is my $3.95 copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It shows a couple decades of use. I read it in college, read it again when I had a job working in one-person library, packed it when I moved to Florida, packed it again when returned to DC, boxed it up a couple more times as I switched apartments in Washington, reread it some more and finally placed it on a shelf with much shinier books in better condition.
It’s the book I won’t part with, no matter how shabby it gets.