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Posts tagged “Jim Thomsen

Outtakes

Yesterday, the Kindle Post hosted an interview with me about the re-emergence of 600 Hours of Edward. It used three questions of a wider-ranging interview that my good friend Jim Thomsen, a freelance book editor and author, had conducted with me. Here, then, is the rest of the story …

Unlike Edward, you don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. But, like Edward, you’re a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, of the TV show Dragnet and of the band R.E.M., and you live where the book is set, in Billings, Montana. Talk about how you blended the factual and the fictional.

I get asked this a lot, and my sheepish answer is that I chose to incorporate all of those things into the narrative simply because I knew them well and could thus write about them with authority and great speed, a distinct requirement of the arena (National Novel Writing Month) in which I was working. Without that constraint, who knows what I would have chosen. And in subsequent works, I’ve begun to see the merits in putting fictional twists on real places. It opens up the imagination and allows me to more fully immerse myself in the little worlds I try to create. That said, I think a lot of people in Billings who’ve read the book have gotten a kick out of seeing, say, their Albertsons store represented in print. At one event I did in Texas, a boy with Asperger’s, the son of a high school friend, came up to me and said, “Is there really an Albertsons at the corner of 13th and Grand in Billings, Montana?” I was proud to tell him that, yes, there is. I shop there every week.

Billings, Montana, where Edward and I live.

How fine a line do you find there is between Asperger’s characteristics and just plain old human eccentricity? Edward is a slave to his routines — his constant logging of everything from wake-up times to weather to travel distances — but, to varying degrees, so are many of us who don’t have Asperger’s. How relatable do you think readers will find Edward to be?

What makes Edward work—for me as the author and for folks who read the book—is that he’s reflective of things that don’t know boundaries that are generational, ethnic, medical or educational—things like isolation, familial estrangement, the struggle to fit in and find one’s path, to make friends, to live life instead of letting the days pass by. That he has Asperger’s simply puts a different set of filters on how he experiences those everyday things.

600 Hours of Edward is such a lean, breezy read. Many literary authors tend to issue debuts full of dense prose and writerly devices — lots of metaphors and similes, exposition, backstory. Was it difficult to steer clear of that, or do you find your natural writer’s voice is an economical one?

I think the peculiarities of the story imposed some of that. 600 Hours is structured in a deceptively simple way. It starts with Edward’s waking up on a mid-October day and ends 25 days later. Everything proceeds in a straight line, and because the story is told in his voice, it’s naturally spare and devoid of rambling exposition. The few times he stops and speaks of past events, they always have a direct correlation—at least in his mind—with what’s happening in the moment. I do prefer spare to verbose, simple and clear to dense and poetic, and I think some of that can be attributed to my journalism background and some to my story sensibility. I put great faith in Hemingway’s idea of the iceberg’s dignity of movement, that you can write confidently and without adornments, and readers will fill in the details with their own minds. I like the idea that readers’ imaginations are active participants in the stories I write.

Another literary convention from which you steered clear was giving Edward an obvious love interest (though his disastrous evening with a woman he met on an online dating site is one of the funniest parts of 600 Hours of Edward). Did you wrestle with that as you wrote it, and did you have any misgivings about that based on the reactions of early readers who might have wanted to see Edward in love?

I never considered a love interest essential to this part of Edward’s story. What I knew about him is that he was straining against some of his self-imposed barriers, and his attempt at online dating is part of the way he challenges himself to connect with others. What I tell people who read the book and ask me what happens to this storyline or that storyline is to use their imaginations. This is a 25-day snapshot of a life in transition. After the window closes on Day 25, the story I told is over. But that doesn’t stop Edward, as a character living in readers’ minds, from going on.

600 Hours of Edward (paperback)

600 Hours of Edward (ebook)

600 Hours of Edward (audiobook)


Once More, With Feeling: An Interview With Paul Roberts of Sniff ‘n’ The Tears

Paul Roberts, 1978

 

By Jim Thomsen

Last week, I rhapsodized about one of my favorite pop-rock bands, Sniff ‘n’ The Tears. But I was really giving mad props to just one person: Paul Roberts, the band’s founder, singer, songwriter and sole constant since the British group came together in 1977. I’ve always been a fan of auteur types, artists who take control their own universe—sometimes by force—and make their art better for keeping it as undiluted as possible. I also admire artists who work for the sake of the art—and the craft—and aren’t obsessed with stardom. (When Roberts got burned out on music from time to time—he’s recorded one album per decade since the early Nineties—he turns to his second artistic career as a gallery-quality painter who created the Sniff album covers.) Roberts qualifies on all scores.

And so it was a pleasure to find that the Somerset, Great Britain, resident—now sixty-two and a father of three grown daughters—was willing to answer some questions via e-mail for our benefit.

Enjoy a visit with the man who brought the insanely catchy “Driver’s Seat” into the world. (And I should hasten to add that the new Sniff album, Downstream, which was released just this spring, is an accessible, absolutely wonderful collection of grown-up pop-rock gems. If you need a touchstone, I can safely say that if you like Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler’s solo recordings, you’ll find much to relate to and admire in this self-produced, self-released, under-the-radar delight.)

Q: Why a new album, after eleven years away ? Do you, in your sixties, feel any particular urge to round up a group of friends and hit the road?

A: I make the records because I love doing it, I don’t have unrealistic expectations for them but there are enough “Sniff” fans to make it worthwhile. As for touring, I would love to, but the demand would have to be there for promoters etc to get behind it.

Q: How often did you tour America with the band, and what are your memories of those days? Who did you open for, and were you received and treated well? Or were there some memorable bad times? Did touring tend to bring the band together or expose the personal differences among members?

A: We did one two-and-a-half-month-long American tour in 1979. The first half of the tour we supported Kenny Loggins and the other half, Kansas. On that tour only (guitarists) Loz Netto and Mick Dyche remained from the original band; Chris Birkin and Alan Fealdman had left. Chris had his own band and didn’t want to commit to Sniff now that success beckoned and Alan literally did not want to give up his day job which I believe he still has. Drummer Luigi Salvoni did not want to do the tour and was opposed to our new manager, Bud Prager, (who was instrumental in Foreigner’s success), who he felt was steering the band in the wrong direction.

In retrospect, I think he was right, but … we had a great time on tour and everybody got along fine, but in hindsight it would have been far better to have done a club tour. Bud felt we’d reach more people playing coliseums with Kansas but that goes back to the generic pop fodder argument. Now I think it’s better to play to an audience, however small, that is in to you.

Q: In listening to the Downstream lyrics, your thematic concerns seem to be more about the outside world — sometimes in torn-from-the-newspaper way, and sometimes in an appreciating-the-wonder-of-the natural-world way. Whereas in the first four Sniff albums, your concerns seemed proportionately more about the worlds between men and women. What does that say about the Paul Roberts of, say, 1978, as opposed to the Paul Roberts of today?

A: When you’re young, relationships are what occupy your mind, everything else is secondary. When the turmoil of raging hormones is behind you, you worry about what kind of world your children have to deal with. A more reflective state of mind.

"Buttoning The Red Dress," an oil-on-canvas painting by Paul Roberts

Q: Why do you think Sniff ‘n’ the Tears didn’t sustain the commercial success portended by the breakthrough of “Driver’s Seat”? Was it about how the music didn’t fit into the music of the moment between 1978 and 1982? Was it about band stability? About label promotion and distribution? About your experiences on the road? Or was it about what was going on with you on a personal level?

A: I have never contemplated making music which “fitted in” with the times. I try and do what comes naturally, and work with musicians who complement that. In the music business, there are a lot of things that can go wrong and I would say it takes a huge amount of focus and determination to circumnavigate the pitfalls. We were unlucky in a number of areas and maybe not determined enough in others.

Q: After four albums in five years, you were without a record contract at the end of 1982. At that point, what were your thoughts about what to do with the rest of your life? Did you want music as much as painting, still, as viable careers? Or did you maybe think about packing it all in, in your mid-thirties then, and go somewhere completely different and do something completely different?

A: Chiswick were a small independent label who had done well out of licensing the band worldwide but they were not equipped to promote us properly themselves. So by the time we got to “Ride Blue Divide”, the last contracted album, believe me, there was no desire to continue working with them. I’d say that Love/Action (the band’s third album, released in 1981) was the one that should have changed our fortunes but we had been coerced into using a “producer” which Bud Prager felt had been lacking on the first two albums and going for a more produced sound. I don’t think it worked. It’s the album which to me sound most dated. It was time to take a raincheck, and that’s what we did.

Q: How would you describe yourself as a bandmate vs. a bandleader?

A: My main reason for wanting a band was for that interaction and consistency but I also I wanted my songs to be central to the concept.

"The Holly Walk," an oil-on-canvas painting by Paul Roberts (2007)

Q: My theory about why Sniff ‘n’ the Tears wasn’t a bigger radio/commercial sensation is this: The songs, like your singing voice, seems to exist in a middle register of emotion, lacking the anthemic soaring or the pumped-up dance-floor urgency of the biggest hits of the time. Your music, like your voice, doesn’t wail or rip or shred. They’re songs that simply lope along in second or third gear with great shimmery competence, complementing the comparative dryness of your vocal style, but they don’t grab listeners by the throat in the way that, say, The Clash did. Or Journey. Or just about anybody who was “big” then on the radio.

A: You mention The Clash and Journey; I remember two of the biggest bands at the time were The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, not to mention Tom Petty. One of my favourite bands ever would be Little Feat, who as far as I know never had a hit. Music is a broad church; I wasn’t plotting how to storm the charts, I just wanted to do music that I could feel proud of in my own way. Dire Straits had a second album failure but came back with a strong third album. In my opinion, that’s what we failed to do.

Q: It certainly wasn’t a function of the catchiness of the songs, or their arrangements or musicianship, in my opinion, because deep album cuts like “Roll The Weight Away” or “The Game’s Up” or “Steal My Heart” or “The Thrill Of It All” or “5 & Zero” float unbidden into my forebrain as often, if not more, than “Driver’s Seat” … but they do so in a sneak-up-on-me sort of way. I see them as subtle delights, rather than overt ones. What do you think?

A: The industry in those days was, and probably still is, geared for mega-success. A lot of the music I love is not that obvious, but there is room for it. Bud Prager, our manager, at the time also managed Foreigner. (He) believed that unless you made music that appealed to teenage boys in the Midwest, you could never hope to sell twelve million albums … which he seemed to think was the point. I never thought that was the point. I hoped that if I made good enough music that there would be enough people out there to build a sustainable career. For me, Tom Petty has done that. So has Paul Simon, JJ Cale, Tom Waits and many others. If something grows on you, it will stay with you for longer.

Q: I remember you saying not too long ago in an interview that Sniff ‘n’ the Tears suffered early on in the public consciousness by being compared to Dire Straits and the London pub-rock scene. But Downstream has many songs that sound … well … Knopfleresque. (The opening guitar licks on “Black Money,” for instance, sound like Mark Knopfler was sitting in on the recording session.) Have you grown more at ease with those parallels, however unfair they might have seemed at the time, given that your second, third and fourth albums went in move of a New Wave direction that Dire Straits never touched?

A: What had happened was that we had in fact recorded Fickle Heart (Sniff’s first album, recorded in 1977 and released in 1978) before Dire Straits’ first album. In fact, me and (guitarist) Mick Dyche ran into (original Dire Straits drummer) Pick Withers and were discussing this with him in Wardour Street when we were mastering and they were still recording. Unfortunately Chiswick’s distributor then went bankrupt and they didn’t finalise their deal with EMI for another year, so we found ourselves being accused of following in the path of Dire Straits. (As they say in the movies, any similarity is purely coincidental.) I never really thought the comparison bore too much scrutiny, but we were both laid-back muso-ish bands in the days of the three-chord thrash. New Wave was a meaningless description even then. All it described were the bands that had more to offer than attitude and haircuts.

Q: What have you been doing, for the most part, since the late 1980s, after your pair of solo albums? You seemed to take yourself off the regular-recording path. Has it been all painting, or have you been doing other work? Concentrating on your family? Traveling? Finding other artistic pursuits?

A: We made an album, No Damage Done, in 1992 and then toured Germany and Benelux. (Jim’s note: I actually overlooked this album since Allmusic.com doesn’t list it in its database, nor did I see it on Sniff’s Amazon page. Apparently, it was an import-only album. I’m glad Paul alerted me to it, for it was like Christmas for me—a “new” Sniff album to enjoy!) I might re-release it as I think I probably now own the rights. I have, of course, also been painting and enjoying seeing my children grow up.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with “Driver’s Seat”? A lot of artists tagged as “one-hit wonders”—and, sadly, that’s how America probably sees you since I believe that it’s the only song that got real airplay here—tend to resent being defined by the one song that gets cemented to their names. They tend to say, “You know, I wrote and recorded a lot of other good songs, too, you know. Hello?”

A: I’ve always felt that if you had to be a one-hit wonder, then “Driver’s Seat” was a pretty good song to be remembered by. People still love it. It’s not cheap or cheesy or formulaic. It’s got a great energy. Of course, there are other songs I’m proud of, but what the hell. I would never not play “Driver’s Seat.”

Q: If somebody wrote a book about your life, or if you wrote a memoir, what do you think it should be called?

A: What Next?

Paul Roberts, 2011

 

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work on The Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


Progress Report: 6/21/11

This will be blessedly short. It’s 2:05 a.m. as I begin it, and I’m exhausted:

Really Cool News, At Least To Me, Part 1: A poem of mine has been published by The Montucky Review, a new literary journal. It’s called Eastward Ho, and I wrote it about five years ago. Sometime back, I posted it on Facebook, and a friend of mine — a true poet named John Wall — suggested some revisions, which I finally made last weekend, right before I submitted it.

As I write poetry about as often as Boston releases an album — and to far less satisfying results — I wouldn’t expect to see this feat duplicated any time soon.

Really Cool News, At Least To Me, Part 2: The short-story collection that I’ve been bleating about (now renamed She’s Gone) is done, done, done, done. That’s why I’m up at such an insane hour. I’ll be sending it along to my publisher this week.

Pointless News, To Everybody: Because I don’t waste enough time online, I have a new social-media presence. Check it out (or look at the ghastly screen grab above).

Finally …

I know this feature is supposed to focus on things that are happening, well, away from here, but if you haven’t checked out Jim Thomsen’s piece on the band Sniff ‘n’ The Tears (directly below this post), you really are missing out on something special. If you haven’t checked out the first video, for the band’s hit song “Driver’s Seat,” please do. If you don’t like it, please see a doctor, as you’re probably dead.

Jim will be back next Monday with Part 2, an interview with Sniff’s lead singer and songwriter, Paul Roberts. It’s not to be missed.


Sniff ‘n’ The Tears and “Driver’s Seat”: One-Hit Wonder? It’s No Wonder

“The second album by this intellectual minded English ensemble is filled with the same kind of quality music that graced its debut last year. Writer / guitarist / vocalist / painter Paul Roberts is at the forefront, writing songs that are both heady in content and poignantly melodic. His songs have an eerie kind of esoteric quality to them.”

— Billboard magazine, June 14, 1980

 

By Jim Thomsen

It’s amazing to me how many pop and rock acts from the Seventies are still recording and releasing albums of new, original material.

Molly Hatchet? Still in business. America? Still at it. So is Foghat, and the Little River Band, and Kansas. Leo Freaking Sayer! Debby Effing Boone! Alan O’Day, whose one hit, “Undercover Angel,” was released over thirty-four years ago, put out an album in 2008. Who buys an Alan O’Day album nowadays? (Hell, who bought one in 1977?)

Who buys any of these albums?

Well, people like me, that’s who.

Because, to that list, add a band I love: Sniff ‘n’ the Tears.

Scratch your head for a minute as you think about that one. “Um … hmmmm … are you talking about the guys that did ‘Driver’s Seat’? Those guys are still around? Those one-hit wonders? Are you freaking kidding me?”

Yes. Yep. Yup. And nope.

I was in eighth grade, sporting headgear braces and Farrah Fawcett-feathered hair, when I first heard “Driver’s Seat” on my AM/FM clock radio. I promptly ten-sped down to Steve Nicolet’s Record Shack to procure the brand-spanking-new vinyl single with my newspaper bike-route money. I must have played it twenty-six times or more on my Sears belt-drive turntable before my mom called for me to come down to dinner. And then, I’m sure, I played it twenty-six times more as I did my algebra homework beneath the watchful eyes of my Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head poster. And probably 2,600 times since. As far as I’m concerned, “Driver’s Seat” is the most insanely catchy song ever created.

Now I’m less than two weeks shy of forty-six, with a stomach that slopes like a ski run, and temples shot through with tarnished silver. And as I write, I am listening to Downstream, the Sniff ‘n’ The Tears album released this spring, on my laptop computer. And it’s good, and it’s good for all the same reasons I eventually bought—and wore out—the first Sniff album, Fickle Heart, in 1978: Accessible songs, hook-riddled melodies and engagingly cryptic lyrics rendered in the pleasantly high, dry burr of founding member Paul Roberts’ singing voice.

In fact, as probably the only person in North America who owns all seven Sniff albums (and the two Paul Roberts solo albums), I can authoritatively say that everything Paul Roberts has recorded is like that. The man simply has the gift for catchy, tuneful pop-rock songs with sly, intricate arrangements that bring out something new for the ear with each listen.

His songs are the equivalent of sliders at happy hour; cooked just right, slathered with the right condiments and chased with smartly selected aperitifs, they go down tasty and easy and not a bit greasy. They simply agree with me, and I could sample them all night long. (Which may or may not explain the sloping stomach.) They’re not high cuisine, nor are they fast food. They’re merely pretty good appetizers.

That said, I understand perfectly why Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, which put out four records between 1978 and 1982 before calling it quits (for the first time, that is), was a one-hit wonder.

One, nobody knew what they were or what scene they fit into. They were New Wave, sort of, a little, but not really (though anybody who heard the serenely spacy synthesizer solo near the end of “Driver’s Seat” could be forgiven for thinking otherwise). They came from the London pub-rock scene that spawned Dire Straits, among others, but their pop songcraft was just a little too slick to be lumped in with the Dylanesque shuffle blues of Mark Knopfler & Co. They rocked, but not too hard, and in that regard they were as far away from being The Clash as they were Led Zeppelin. In short, they defied categorization. And, as any author pitching a book to a publisher knows, the inability to categorize is almost always the kiss of commercial death. Inevitably the bottom line is: “We love it, but we don’t know how to sell it.”

Two, their songs dwelled in a narrow, middling emotional range. They didn’t reach for anthemic heights, nor did they produce their records with the propulsive dance-floor rhythms of the music that made the Top Forty in that time. There was no cohesive lyrical vision, merely Roberts’ affably vague, vaguely sophisticated observations. Whether or not to try for bigger things was apparently a subject of constant tension between Roberts and the band’s manager, Bud Prager (who was filling the same role with Foreigner, among others).

Roberts drily distills the debate about how to follow up the band’s successful first album on the Sniff website: “Bud wanted the guy who was later to have huge success producing Bon Jovi. Bud felt that a big glossy rock sound with big choruses was what was required. It didn’t occur to him that poodle rock might not be our natural constituency. For Bud, there was only one way to do it and that was the way Foreigner had done it.

“There were other bands from England that did not fit the template. I remember him saying, ‘The Police will never make it in the States because Americans don’t like reggae.’”

Roberts held out for his producer, a first-timer, and won. Or did he? He picks up the story: “At the studio, the reaction to the album was fantastic and certain light-headed feelings of vindication were beginning to set in. Until Bud Prager took me to one side. He said, ‘Enjoy this evening, Paul, while you can. Everybody is telling you (that) you made a great album, but I’ve got to tell you it’s a disaster. There is no hit single, no ‘Driver’s Seat.’”

Both were right. The Game’s Up was a very good album, receiving positive reviews, and it remains Roberts’ favorite. But it yielded no hits. While Sniff charted a handful of singles in Europe, it stiffed in North America and never again found so much as reliable distribution over here.

Three, there is the unsmall matter of Roberts’ voice. I’ve spent more time than anybody ever should trying to find the words to describe this instrument, and what I’ve come down to is this: He sings like a man leaning against the outside of a nightclub at two in the morning, cupping a cigarette and a lighter in his hands as he sings alone, with a hint at an untapped well of unspeakable melancholy, to whatever traffic might be passing by.

It is a thin, scratchy, slightly hoarse instrument with a limited range that can’t wail, soar or snarl with much credibility or cohesiveness. And yet, it is wonderfully expressive within that narrow corridor—dryly pained, dryly sardonic, dryly seductive, but oh, so distant. He sings like a man who is afraid to let loose everything he feels, or simply can’t find his way to the fullest expression of his feelings, often floating his voice in a light croon or a dry whisper just behind a slow or midtempo beat.

He’s not unlike other critically acclaimed singer-songwriters of the era I like and admire—Mark Knopfler, David Knopfler and Lloyd Cole among them. But none of those guys had much in the way of hits (Dire Straits had only a handful of Top Forty singles; it was one of the last album-rock-station sensations)—and one can’t help but wonder if their too-cool-for-school singing styles, whether affected or genuine, didn’t impact their fortunes on radio and in video.

That indifference can best be summed up by a single word spoken by a friend on a recent road trip through Oregon. I played the Fickle Heart CD all the way through, and toward the end, my friend asked who the artist was. I showed him the CD cover and asked him if he’d like me to burn him a copy. There was a moment of silence, then my friend handed me back the cover. “Eh,” he said.

That didn’t bother me—believe me, I get it that Sniff ‘n’ The Tears is an acquired taste—and I get the strong impression that it doesn’t bother Paul Roberts, either.

In everything he’s said and written on the subject, Roberts’ attitude toward his fame—or lack of it—as a one-hit wonder can be summed up: “Oh, well.” He didn’t need music to make him whole; he’s been married for nearly thirty years, has three grown daughters and a second career as a commercially successful painter.

Now sixty-two, he lives in Somerset, near London, and lives comfortably (“Driver’s Seat” has made him a pretty penny on various reissues and commercial licensings for cars and stereo systems). He makes music when he feels like it (solo albums in 1985 and 1987; Sniff albums in 1991, 2001 and now 2011) and lives his life when he doesn’t. You might say that on trouble and strife, he has another way of looking at life.

I’ll tell you more about it next week … when I share an interview I recently conducted with the man himself.

In the meantime, enjoy one of Roberts’ best atmospheric compositions.

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work onThe Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


Another Page: ‘Cujo’*

* — aka, “The Horror Novel That Isn’t Really a Horror Novel Nor Is It Really About a Rabid and Murderous Saint Bernard”

 

Jim Thomsen

By Jim Thomsen

I never had a “Hemingway moment” as a kid, as most modern-day male writers have. Nor a Steinbeck one, though my inner road-tripper was mesmerized by Travels With Charley. My tastes tended toward Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators, and trended in my young teens toward Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventures and true crime. In retrospect, I see now that I liked (a) painless diversionary fare that (b) allowed me to project my own fantasies for dark adventure in a safe and silent way.

None of that explains why I felt a strange ping in my solar plexus the first time I picked up a Stephen King book. It was the fall of 1981, and I was a junior in a Christian boarding high school. And as a social maladroit, I spent large swaths of time staring out of my dormitory window being bored out of my Christian gourd.

One of the fellow doinks in my dorm had lent me a stack of horror paperbacks, and the one on top was Cujo. I don’t know why I even opened it, based on the back jacket copy: A big friendly dog chases a rabbit into a hidden underground cave—and stirs a sleeping evil crueler than death itself. A terrified four-year-old boy sees his bedroom closet door swing open untouched by human hands, and screams at the unholy red eyes gleaming in the darkness ….

I am not a bit into tales of the supernatural, paranormal or extraterrestrial, so I am surprised that I bothered to crack the cover. I have always preferred tales of hardcore reality in everyday circumstances (which made my unfortunate side trip into Cussler-dom a blessedly brief one). Somehow I got past that and into the story, and discovered three things with the aforementioned zing:

  • Cujo is not really a story about a rabid, murderous dog. It’s a nuanced, bittersweet, deeply real tale of anger, love, marriage and corrosive compromise.
  • The language. The voice. Oh, my God. I never knew that a writer’s voice could be so original, so brimming with feeling, and yet so wise and crisp and literate. And so unaffected. And so awesome. Holy crap!
  • The characters come to fully realized life in a way I’d never seen in a novel before, and haven’t all that often in the thousands of literary novels I’ve read in the thirty years since.

Oh, yeah, and No. 4. There’s story, and there’s more story, and then there’s even more story.

Here’s an example that encompasses all four of the above virtues … and it concerns a secondary character in Cujo, for crying out loud.

His grateful country had given him the Distinguished Service Cross. A grateful hospital staff in Paris had discharged him in February 1945 with an 80 percent disability pension and a gold-plated monkey on his back. A grateful hometown gave him a parade on the Fourth of July (by then he was twenty-one instead of twenty, able to vote, his hair graying around the temples, and he felt all of seven hundred, thank you very much). The grateful town selectmen had remanded the property taxes on the Pervier place in perpetuity. That was good, because he would have lost it twenty years ago otherwise. He had replaced the morphine he could no longer obtain with high-tension booze and had then proceeded to get about his life’s work, which was killing himself as slowly and pleasantly as he could.

Now, in 1980, Gary Pervier was fifty-six years old, totally gray, and meaner than a bull with a jackhandle up its ass.

I find that just about perfect. It sets a scene. It establishes a character (a very Hemingway character, at that). It makes backstory, often a dreary undertaking for most writers, as fun as the front story. And it does so with remarkable insight in an utterly effortless shoot-the-shit tone. Most writers, I suspect, couldn’t resist the self-conscious impulse to doll this up with prose with something purple like “puffy rolls of fishbelly flesh pitched and rolled on his ancient and agonized bones, fueled by nothing more thin blood and strong alcohol.” Because, you know, in the literary tradition, seediness is next to godliness.

But that passage, as wonderful as it is, isn’t really what the book’s about. (I’m giving away very little when I say that Gary Pervier, the poor bastard, never makes it to fifty-seven.) Cujo is about two couples fighting mortal battles for the souls of their unions and their children. Vic Trenton is a man at the end of his tether, fighting to save his advertising business even as he fights a battle within himself about whether to keep his family intact in the aftermath of his wife Donna’s confessed infidelities. Charity Camber is fighting to keep alive her dreams for her ten-year-old son’s future from the coarse, alcohol-crushed clutches of her contentedly white-trash husband, Joe.

But none of these characters are as sympathetic — or unsympathetic — as they sound. Joe Camber isn’t really a bad guy, and Donna Trenton is no shrewish whore. And that’s the story with real people, as opposed to people usually found in literature. Most writers don’t have the space or patience or skill to develop multi-dimensional characters. Genre writers are often too busy shaping the traits of their characters to the demands of their plots; literary writers are often more concerned with crafting perfect sentences to describe their characters than with the characters themselves.

King’s talent, by contrast, is so ridiculously off the charts that he manages to have it every which way. He spends pages and pages on the turmoils in the Trenton and Camber households, and the reader doesn’t notice that we haven’t seen the rabid, eponymous Saint Bernard in twenty or so pages at any given time because King has crafted unbearable suspense in the spaces between the words of the husbands and the wives, making everything they say — and don’t say — like a sprint through a minefield at darkest midnight.

An example:

They walked together to the stairs.

Donna asked, “So what comes next, Vic?”

He shook his head. “I just don’t know.”

“Do I write ‘I promise to never fuck the local tennis bum again’ five hundred times on the blackboard and miss recess? Do we get a divorce? Do we never mention it again? What?” She didn’t feel hysterical, only tired, but her voice was rising in a way she didn’t like and hadn’t intended. The shame was the worst, the shame of being found out and seeing how it had punched his face in. And she hated him as well as herself for making her feel so badly ashamed, because she didn’t believe she was responsible for the factors leading up to the final decision to fuck Steve Kemp — if there ever had been anything so thinking as a decision.

“We ought to be able to get it together,” he muttered, but she did not mistake him; he wasn’t talking to her. “This thing —” He looked at her pleadingly. “He was the only one, wasn’t he?”

It was the one unforgivable question, the one he had no right to ask. She left him then, almost ran up the stairs, before everything could spill out, the stupid recriminations and accusations that would not solve anything but only muddy up whatever weak honesty they had been able to manage.

I can’t help but think that most genre writers would never think to probe this part of their characters’ psyches — and now, back to our gun-riddled chase scene, folks — and that most literary writers would dance around it, forsaking direct dialogue for deep searching studies of the strained planes of the patrician bones of Donna Trenton’s face under her ashen skin and the allegedly immutable truths contained within each sweat-stung pore and puckered fold around the eyes. King cares, and cares and cares and cares, page after page after page.

This is where his critics over the decades have gone horribly wrong: King is not a horror writer. He is a teller of stories about people whose character traits — the full messy buffet plate of them — emerge in horrific situations. Which, yes, sometimes involve vampires, telekinetic teens, underground creatures, postapocalyptic satanic figures and Chryslers possessed by the souls of cranky old men. And, of course, rabid Saint Bernards. And I say, so fucking what?

I could belabor the point, but the point here isn’t to get into a critical dissection of Stephen King’s man-of-letters credentials, it’s to geek out about a book I loved at a time when I needed not only a quality diversion but also quality beyond diversion, as can only be needed by a boy at a time when he’s trying to fumble his way toward being a man.

Not that the diversions themselves weren’t lighting up my nerve endings. I can remember reading in the bed of my dorm room after lights-out, balancing a flashlight on my pillow, thoughts of sleep driven away by a surge of adrenaline as I took in passages like this:

She looked out the car window, saw the baseball bat lying in the high grass, and opened the car door.

In the dark mouth of the garage, Cujo stood up and began to advance slowly, blood-flecked head lowered, down the crushed gravel toward her.

“Come on then, motherfucker,” she whispered.

It was twelve-thirty when Donna Trenton stepped out of her Pinto for the last time.

Thirty years later, I still get the chills when I read those few paragraphs. That is the power of Stephen King. The enduring power. Where’s my flashlight?

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work on The Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


Once More, With Feeling: The Larry Burnett interview

 

Jim Thomsen

By Jim Thomsen

A few weeks ago, I shared some thoughts in this space about the not-quite-a-hit-single “Cinderella,” (see below) recorded and released by the soft-rock band Firefall in 1976. As I wrote, it’s a pretty tune wrapped around some shocking and seemingly misogynistic lyrics. (Cinderella, can’t you see/I don’t want your company/Better leave this morning, leave today/Take your love and your child away.)

Since then, as hoped for, the songwriter — Firefall band member Larry Burnett — agreed to talk to me about what’s informed the song he wrote as a 16-year-old in 1968 — and what’s continued to inform it in his private life and in the public consciousness. I think you’ll enjoy this remarkably candid, self-effacing conversation with a musician who had a backstage ticket to the never-ending show that is classic rock.

Q: I’ve seen you discuss this in a few interviews that can be found online, but can you talk a little about what you saw around you as a teenager that led to the writing of “Cinderella”?

A: I, like so many (even my own son), come from a broken home (Mom left Dad when I was 4-ish).  For most of my adolescent and adult life, all was filtered through a lens of betrayal and suspicion. It was easy to look around and notice lives going awry and against their own standards.

Q: Was the lyrical view of “Cinderella” typical or different from the themes expressed in other songs you wrote in those formative years? What were your obsessions of the time?

A: Other songs I wrote during my teen years sucked. I was mostly obsessed with narcotics and having sex with some forty-something divorcee in the neighborhood … or any female, for that matter. I didn’t get laid until I was 18 and moved out of my folks’ house. Nancy Neal … I’ll never forget her. I actually crossed paths again with her when I was in Firefall.

Q: When the time came to choose songs for the first Firefall album, were there any misgivings within the band or the label about putting “Cinderella” on it? It seems quaint now, but it WAS 1976, and Middle America was still presumed to be churchgoing and innocent, and a song with “Goddamn, girl!” as the punchline passage must have at least raised a few eyebrows.

A: Once I wrote a song, I didn’t really care how it was handled for “business reasons.”  For the single, Atlantic edited out the word “God” from “Goddamn”, thinking that might help soften the impact.  I was never a fan of softening the impact, but, like I said, I didn’t really care.

Q: Feminists protested the playing of “Cinderella” on the radio, leading to it stalling out as a single just short of the Top 40, according to Firefall’s Wikipedia site. What do you remember about that?

A: I remember everyone being surprised at that … bunch of men, what do you expect?  Again, I write ‘em as I see ‘em.  People react how they react.  Some of the kindest words I’ve gotten regarding that song over the years have come from women.  Why? I couldn’t tell you, but kind words are kind words. I’ll take them gratefully.

Q: In reading your 2008 blog, I saw that you came to be a father relatively late in life, and now have a son who’s almost college age. How did you take the news that you were to be a father … and how did you take to BEING a father? How do you characterize your relationship with your son?

A: For many years I never saw myself as a husband or a father … and rightly so.  As I healed up from years of drinking and drug addiction, my self-image began to shift to one in which I thought I actually had something to offer in those roles.

I have an astonishing relationship with my son and I believe that he would agree.  I am driving to Connecticut on Saturday to see him in his last high school play (he is in them all, and quite the charismatic thespian, much to both of our pleasant surprises).

It was not as I had planned or hoped. His mother informed me that she did not want to be married to me anymore when he was about a year and a half old … and then had me removed from the house by the courts a week before his second birthday. I was deeply disturbed by it all, but figured as long as I didn’t disappear, like my own father had, it would be, at least, better than my own experience.

So, I was as present as I could be.  I saw him every few days throughout his childhood.  We spent many series of days and nights together. I attended and was present for all the big moments.  We vacationed together.

To her credit, his mother was a strong supporter of our relationship and time together, she just didn’t want to be married to me.

Q: How does the man that you are now, nearing sixty, relate to the kid who wrote “Cinderella”? Can you imagine having that mindset today, living what you’ve lived? What would the 2011 Larry Burnett say about the 1968 Larry Burnett?

A: I can imagine anything … bit of a curse. “A little less self-absorption, son …”

Q: When you pull out a guitar and start to compose a song nowadays, what do those songs tend to want to be about?

A: Same ol’ stuff … life and folks around me and the stories that lie therein … observing things (foibles, weakness, fear) that most won’t self-observe out loud. I provide a service. Other writers that I bow down to provide that same service for me.

Q: You’re still writing and recording music, and playing the occasional live gig, but as recently as 2008, you were working in a UPS store for $10 an hour. Do you think of yourself as a happy man, even content? Or are you still chasing after something?

A: Still chasing. Passes the time … and occasionally leads to some extraordinary music being made. I’ve actually had some pretty lucrative jobs over the years (classic rock on-air talent, transportation and logistics sales, copyediting) but my willingness to drop it all in pursuit of that chase has led me here.

Q: How do you look back on your Firefall days? Any big regrets, or do you see the journey — however it spun — as the destination, and every experience as a constructive learning moment? Could you take the stage with (Firefall bandleader) Jock Bartley and the others just as easily now as you did in 1975, or has there been too much time gone by and too much bad blood spilled?

A: I actually took the stage with Jock, Mark, David, Joe Lala and current members of Jock’s ghost band in 2009 for a reunion concert.  The concert went very well. Jock and I will never get along, (but) all that stops when we play … as it did in the ‘70s.

Regrets? Nothing that keeps me up at night or ruins my days. It all could have been handled better by us and those around us. We all did the best we could.

Whenever someone I am speaking with discovers that I was in Firefall (and many hundreds have over the years), I never have heard this: “Firefall? Yeah, I remember them. They sucked.”

Postscript: I ordered the two CDs that Larry Burnett has recorded in the last decade, via CD Baby, and found them to be full of accessible, enjoyable acoustic folk-blues tunes. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work onThe Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


Grab Bag: The MFA effect

First: Read this story in Salon, provocatively titled “Are MFA programs ruining American fiction?” (I’ll end the suspense now and tell you that the piece doesn’t answer the question in any substantive way.) Then come back and I’ll share my meager thoughts.

I was fascinated to read that article because it’s a topic my good friend Jim Thomsen and I bandy about with some regularity. I’m afraid we’re no closer to an answer than anyone else is, and we probably never will be.

As the article itself points out, for every citation one can make that MFA programs are herding American letters into stultifying sameness that’s slavish to style, there’s an MFA holder who is writing superb, accessible, popular fiction:

Still, you can publish adventurous work without an MFA, as Jennifer Egan has repeatedly proven, and MFA programs have also produced writers with great popular appeal, such as Michael Chabon.

What I have found is that there is a certain kind of writing — affected, self-reverential, beautifully constructed but stripped of soul — that I sometimes wander across, and sure enough, I flip over to the “about the author” section, and the writer holds an MFA. But just as often, I’ll read something that moves me seemingly without effort, and that writer will turn out to have an MFA, too.

This is one of those areas where regardless of where you stand, ammunition is at the ready to bolster your point. I’m just not certain that either side is right, or wrong. Mostly, I find myself nodding in vigorous agreement with the author of the piece, Laura Miller, when she notes that “I must confess to being completely indifferent to the ongoing MFA controversy.” Snootier-than-thou MFA types annoy me. So do artless genre hacks. And Washington Redskins fans. Whatever.

The thing I can say with certainty is that I despise any tendency to put storytelling in a box. To the camp that says MFA-fueled writing, categorically, is better, I say: Steinbeck. Hemingway. Egan. Evison. To the camp that finds literary writing to be too high-falutin’, I say: Read some Chabon, or Roth, or Wolff, or O’Connor and get back to me.

Jim, on the other hand, sees some real danger in the MFA-ification of American letters. Read on:

Jim Thomsen

My objections to “MFA writing” can be boiled down to a few key thoughts.

One, most of the MFA writing I’ve read has a dreary sameness. It’s almost all arid, airbrushed, emotionless prose drained of all blood and heat and light, as cold and perfect as the surface of a stainless-steel toilet. It seems to promote the idea that the sentence-crafting matters more than storytelling, which is a disturbing idea to promote in the world of writing, you know, stories. And that seems to come from the open boot-camp atmosphere of MFA classes and workshops, in which works are presented to peers and often mercilessly perforated, leading to rewriting that seems passive and even defensive, written specifically to avoid drawing classmate-driven scorn.

All that heavily implies that, two, an orthodoxy has been imposed on all such writing and that, as one commenter on Laura Miller’s essay put it: “Those who do not conform are locked out.” And that leads to three, which answers the question, “Locked out of what?” That answer: Many of the most prestigious and best-paying literary journals and publishing houses, and the critical establishment that moves in lockstep with it. It’s a scary idea, and a distinctly un-American one, this reality that, often, literature is not judged on its merits but by its pedigree.

Four: The idea that getting right out of college and cocooning oneself in an MFA program seems antithetical to the idea — and, I submit, the established fact — that the best writing AND storytelling stem from wisdom and perspective gained from actually being out in the world and experiencing a rich sampling of what’s best and worst about it. You have talent and want to write? Join the Army. Take a freighter to Argentina. Spend a month in a county jail. Fight wildfires in the high Sierras. Play minor-league baseball. Work a season on a sorghum farm in Saskatchewan. Spend a year in an Israeli kibbutz. Do some fucking thing. Just, you know, LIVE. Otherwise you’re just trading on trite and overthumped themes and subjects: Daddy Didn’t Love Me Enough. My Parents Divorced Sixteen Years Ago And I Still Can’t Get Over It. The Boy Who Drove Me To Bulimia In Eighth Grade. My Freshman-Year Existential Crisis. Sartre And Small Boobs Ruined My Life. The Weird Homeless Guy Outside The Dairy Queen.

And five, the MFA program simply isn’t available to poor people. It’s a form of literary redlining. You can’t get in without a bachelor’s degree, which many of us spend years paying off if Mom and Dad aren’t footing the bill. And all the fellowships and teaching gigs in graduate school won’t come close to covering your tuition, housing and daily living expenses. All of which is fine for those who are willing to do it but not so fine for those of us who can’t do it and have to settle for being told that we can’t be in The New Yorker or Glimmer Train or reviewed in The New York Times because of it.

Six is really one, but it bears repeating: MFA writing is largely BORING writing. And boring writing is always bad writing. Bad writing should never be rewarded, particularly to the exclusion of all other kinds.


Once More, With Feeling: The “Cinderella” You Won’t Find In Children’s Books

 

Guest post by Jim Thomsen

Last week, somewhere between Sublimity and Silverton, Oregon, between spitting rain and a sliver of sunlight far to the north, I broke the morning silence with the first CD of the second day of a road trip. The CD wasFirefall: Greatest Hits,” and the second song was “Cinderella.”

After the song was done, I punched replay. Then did it again. And again. Over and over I played it; my best guess is between nine and eleven times. By that time I let the CD advance to “You Are The Woman,” Firefall‘s biggest hit, I was on the outskirts of Boring, a boring town, and bearing down on decidedly non-boring Portland … and musing on the subject of stark differences.

“Cinderella,” see, is a lovely tune, full of lilting acoustic guitars, the occasional chime of an electric, and a flute part that floated atop the bobbing bass line like a seagull on the bow of a sailboat. It’s also one of the most hateful, misogynistic songs ever written, a caustic dismissal of a woman whose crime was loving a man who apparently let her love him until she committed the second crime of allowing him to have unprotected sex with her. (The chorus: “Cinderella, can’t you see? I don’t want your company. Better leave this morning, leave today. Take your love and your child away.”) On the last refrain, the song gets bouncier than ever, with some swampy harp urging along the beat, before settling in a sweet low fade.

Kind of makes you wonder about the songwriter, doesn’t it? I did some research online, and what I found revealed a lot about how songwriting sausage is made. Firefall’s primary songwriters were guitarist Larry Burnett and singer Rick Roberts. Roberts, who wrote Firefall’s biggest soft-rock hits, often did so with “his head in a big bag of cocaine,” according to a Burnett interview. Burnett, who by his own admission also had drug problems, insisted in another interview that he wasn’t the man in the song, and that he had in fact written “Cinderella” when he was 16. “I certainly didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend who was pregnant and I was working my butt off trying to support us,” Burnett said. “None of that was going on. But it was certainly happening around me in other people’s lives.”

OK, I can buy that. Then I thought, kinda makes you wonder what sort of discussions went on among the members of Firefall and their label, Atlantic Records, when it came time to choose songs to record and include on their 1976 debut album. “Cinderella” not only made the cut, but it was chosen as the second single. I can’t recall having heard “Cinderella” on AM radio, nestled between “Lonely Boy” and “Undercover Angel,” but I wish my parents had, just so the 11-year-old mean could have gauged their stricken expressions. I might not have ever been allowed to listen to the radio again if that were the case. And if my socioculturally staid parents would have soiled themselves, then imagine the feminist response. In an interview, Firefall member Jock Bartley explained what happened:

“’Cinderella’ ended up being an AM single that ironically enough we found out later was climbing the charts and got into the 40s and suddenly dropped with an anchor,” Bartley told classicbands.com. “We went, ‘What the hell happened?” We found out later that a number of women’s organizations on the East Coast; Baltimore, D.C., New York, Boston, kind of banded together and used their clout to tell this song was an inappropriate lyrical song, that basically says a guy kicked out a girl because she got pregnant.

“It was a fictional song. We certainly were not holding up the banner for any abusive kind of behavior or chauvinistic bullshit. It was a great song and one of my favorite Firefall songs. We found out that on the AM hits, it really dropped off the charts after there was an exerted effort put by some feminist groups, which was fairly ridiculous.”

Not sure I really follow Bartley’s reasoning there … but, whatever.

As for Burnett, the song doesn’t square very well with his current reality. At age fifty-six, he launched a regrettably short-lived blog in which he discussed life on the cold downslope of rock fame. At the time, he was living in Northern Virginia, scraping for performance gigs wherever he could and making ends meet by working for $10 an hour in a UPS store. Around age forty, he became a father to a son. And while he says it hasn’t been easy for either, given that he and the son’s mother divorced when the son was two years old, Burnett writes: “I love him. He loves me. There is no doubt between us of these two facts.”

Then he reveals something that reveals something, perhaps, about “Cinderella”: “A few days before my boy’s arrival home, I become uncomfortable. I wonder about my fitness as a father…  as his father. What will we talk about? Will we talk at all? What will we do? How will he greet me? Should I wrap him in my arms? Is he too old for that? Does he think I’m an idiot, yet (he is a teen, after all)? Does he see through my charade? Sense the fatherly fraud in me?

“This,” Burnett added, “is a small part of the influence of my own father’s absence on his son.”

I thought about that as I continued east on my road trip, to Walla Walla, Washington. Where I stopped to see my own dad. Or, rather, my own dad’s grave. He broke his back just trying to keep his head above water, my dad, but he did it with his children and wife at his side. He wouldn’t have had it any other way, and for that I am profoundly glad.

(Postscript: I contacted Larry Burnett by e-mail and asked him if he’d be willing to let me interview him about “Cinderella.” He agreed, and I sent him some questions. I didn’t hear back from by him by the deadline for this essay, but if and when he does get back to me, I’ll write a follow-up piece.)

 

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work onThe Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.

 


Grab Bag: The Sad Case of Carlton Smith

Jim Thomsen

By Jim Thomsen

A few years ago, I set out to be a true-crime author. Like Carlton Smith. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to make a living? Running around the country, sitting in on murder trials, conducting jailhouse interviews, poking through courthouse files? Banging out deathless prose late at night over whiskey and cigarettes in one airport hotel room after another?

At the time I made my move, I worked at a newspaper. Like Carlton Smith. Although he was a bit higher up the food chain than I when he made the jump twenty years ago.

He was a star investigative reporter at The Seattle Times, whose exhaustive work on the investigation into the nation’s most prolific serial killer in the 1980s nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. It later was the basis for a well-written, well-received book called The Search For The Green River Killer.

I, on the other hand, was stuck in a dead-end job as the night and weekend news editor of the smaller daily paper on the other side of Puget Sound. I won awards, too, but they were for writing headlines. As much as I enjoyed that, I dreamed of working in longer-form journalism. Much longer. I began cultivating my dream in my early forties, about the same age that Carlton Smith broke away from The Times and went all-in as a true-crime author.

While Carlton Smith was nearing the end of a remarkably prolific run — twenty-five true-crime paperbacks in twenty years — I was sitting in on Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board hearings and digging through the board’s old case files at the governor’s office, in search of the perfect stories of crime, punishment and redemption. I dreamed of making a pitch, landing an agent and a publishing contract and following in the celebrated footsteps of Gregg Olsen and the lack Jack Olsen (no relation), two true-crime authors who had become friends of mine. I dreamed of an advance big enough to let me quit my job and spend my days driving around the state interviewing witnesses to long-forgotten crimes and typing up notes in the back booths of roadside restaurants.

My dream, like Carlton Smith’s, was not terribly practical. I gave up early, and he gave up far too late. I gave up because I learned that I couldn’t get a publishing deal unless the crime I chose to write about was fresh and high-profile, full of sex and pretty people that attracted lots of TV cameras. I wasn’t interested in those stories; I thought I’d found a nice niche looking into stories of old murders in which the killers had done their time and were ready to re-enter society as changed beings, but I was told over and over that there was no market for such stories. And I couldn’t self-publish them, even though I’m a big believer in self-publishing, because I would have had to pay for legal vetting and libel insurance to protect myself from the prospect of lawsuits based on what I wrote. And did I mention that I had a bottomed-out newspaper job? I couldn’t afford anything like that.

Carlton Smith, though … he made it. Big. At least that’s how I saw it. I read a lot of true-crime books, fascinated with the stories as much as the techniques by which they were written, and it seemed that a new Carlton Smith paperback could be found once or twice a year on the shelves of the local Fred Meyer or Target or Walmart. He was fearsomely prolific, and prolific in a high-profile way, churning out books on many of the nation’s most notorious crime cases (alleged wife-killing Chicago cop Drew Peterson, legendary record producer Phil Spector, family-killer Christian Longo, Jon-Benet Ramsey, the BTK killer, etc.).

I think that because I was so in awe of his journalistic pedigree and his prolific publishing pace, I allowed myself to not think too deeply about my belief that Carlton Smith’s books were, well … not very good. I liked thinking about the author, in the rumpled sportcoats he wore around The Seattle Times newsroom, jetting from one city to the next, using his name and reputation and publishing deal to get enviable and privileged access to the inside of the nation’s most fascinating crime cases. I liked thinking about the velvet rope being pulled aside for him, the deference and respect I imagined he would be given, the idea that the people who lived cheek-by-jowl with insanity and murder would unburden their delicious secrets to the man with the notepad and the sympathetic nod and the string of questions that never seemed to end.

But the more I thought about that, and the more I saw how true-crime sausage was made through my own journey, the more I realized that Carlton Smith’s books didn’t reflect that image. Rarely, I came to see, did he sit in on a trial. (In fact, the books were often finished and even published before a trial.) Rarely did he interview anyone, let alone the principal figures in a given case. Rarely did his research turn up anything that wasn’t readily accessible public record. And rarely did these threadbare narratives, with titles like Dying For Daddy and The Prom Night Murders, square easily with the comprehensive and exhaustive work he did as a newspaper reporter on the Green River killings. I used to keep track on a notepad of how many times in a given book Smith would write “It is not known ….” as a way to building a papier-mache bridge between a given story’s yawning chasms in chronology or understanding. It’s a phrase that no good newspaper editor would ever allow a reporter to get away with.

It became clear to me that Smith was operating in the shallow end of the true-crime pool, churning out quickies on the cheap as chunks of fatty raw meat for the Court TV constituency. And a skim through Smith’s Amazon page reinforces that realization. Of Smith’s Murder At Yosemite, a reviewer wrote: “Unfortunately, I probably got more information and insight about this crime from reading the local newspaper. The editing was poor and the story lacked substance.” Other reviews called the book a “tabloid” treatment that was “poorly written” and “sparse” in details. A few called out occasionally contradictory facts. Of Reckless, his book about Spector’s murder case, another reviewer wrote: “If you like student research papers in which the author simply looks at the other books and articles on the subject and then overwrites them with personal observations, then that’s what you get here. Very boring.”

The more I thought about it, though, the more I couldn’t decide who I held responsible for that. Did Carlton Smith, one of the great investigative newspaper reporters of his time, sell himself out and go for the quick buck? Or did his publisher put him in a box he couldn’t get out of, paying meager advances and holding him to impossibly tight deadlines?

I didn’t get my answer until I saw Carlton Smith’s obituary last weekend in The Seattle Times. It’s not hard to read between the lines of the article, which focused largely on his earlier newspaper glories, and see the sad ruin that his life must have become. He died alone outside his Reno apartment, his body found on the stairs by a neighbor. According to his ex-wife, “he had become depressed about finances.” While he was glad to be finishing the final true-crime book of his final contract and start work on a historical novel, she said “he was hoping to get part-time work at a newspaper.”

That last line hit home with me. Me, as I sit in a small room I’m renting in my sister’s house, having been laid off from my newspaper job a few months before. Me, who’s casting about for work in writing and editing, and finding only the occasional ill-paying freelance gig. Me, nineteen years younger than Carlton Smith was when he died, hoping my next nineteen years won’t be as hardscrabble as his. And knowing that they probably will be. Because I don’t know how to do anything else and I don’t want to do anything else. Like Carlton Smith.

“It was not an easy way to make a living,” the article says. “The deadlines were punishing, the cases were all over the country and ‘sometimes he would lose money on a book because he spent so much time researching,’ according to his ex-wife.” A woman, by the way, he pushed away during his newspaper days. And nights and weekends, according to the obituary.

I want to be a published book author. But I also want to be loved back by something I love, and have a shot at making a living at it at something above a subsistence level. Like Carlton Smith, I imagine. I also imagine that love was never really requited by a publisher that took its prime cuts from each book and left him with table scraps. As a friend who’s a true-crime author put it on a Facebook post: “I imagine he died of a broken heart.” I can believe it, if “hope” for a part-time newspaper job was all the great Carlton Smith was left with in the end. What does that portend for the not-so-great Jim Thomsen?

I don’t know, but I do know this: The way Carlton Smith went, that’s not the way I want to go. Or the way I want to be, in the here and now. How I’ll manage that, I don’t know. But now, thanks to Carlton Smith, I do know what I won’t do. And that’s a start.

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Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work on The Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.

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Want to offer up a guest post for Grab Bag? If you have an idea about a writing-related topic, or you’re an author who’d like to be interviewed in this space, send an inquiry to craig@craig-lancaster.com.


Talking it out

If you live long enough and stridently enough — I’m working on the former and a master of the latter — life will eventually demonstrate to you that all of your grand pronouncements are, in a word, bullroar.

Luckily, I’ve been kicked in the teeth enough times to have a decent example of this at the ready.

In another life, I was one of the sports editors at the San Jose Mercury News. At the time, we had a columnist who is a rather well-known fellow these days (it would be indiscreet to tell you that his name is Skip Bayless). When this columnist was scheduled to write — three or four times a week — he would generally call in, get hooked up with the editor on duty (sometimes me) and engage in a long, mostly one-sided discussion about the ins and outs of the column. A few hours later, the column would arrive, and damned if it didn’t contain many of the words this writer had expended on the phone.

Back then, when these half-hour-or-longer phone conversations represented a significant expenditure of my overall workday, I considered this exercise a conceit by a big-timer that I had to swallow for the good of the team.

Then I started writing fiction — and started doing almost the exactly the same thing to someone else, my friend Jim Thomsen, whom I jokingly refer to as my literary wingman. Only it’s no joke.

A few weeks ago, as a story idea I’d been turning over in my head for months started to percolate and demand to be written, Jim and I spent upward of two hours breaking down my idea via text message. We talked about the basic heft of the idea, possible directions the story could go, point of view, secondary and tertiary characters, conflicts, setting. Everything. And while I don’t think I was a bother to Jim, the truth of the matter is, I wouldn’t have noticed if I were. I needed that skull session in order to move ahead with the marathon chore of actually writing the story. It’s not as if we intricately plotted things out; I still don’t know exactly where it’s going to end up, and some of the aspects that I thought were dead-solid certain have shifted even in these early days of drafting it.

Beyond that, I realize now that Skip’s seemingly incurable need to talk before he wrote was, perhaps, wholly legitimate in the context of his process. I get it now: If you’re a writer, you want to know that your good idea really is worthwhile, at least in the eyes of someone you trust. You want feedback on how you’re going to approach it, where it’s going to go, how you’re going to get it there. I feel a little sheepish now for any umbrage I took at Skip’s phone calls back then. (The sheer outrageousness of some of his contentions allow me to stop short of actual regret.)

Still, it must be said:

I was wrong.