Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bill Peschel talks about his hilarious Writers Gone Wild

Trust me, you are going to want to devour this book. Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes
by Bill Peschel is a hilarious and witty compendium of writers acting badly. (What? We act badly?) It's a collection of over 200 different stories of bad behavior and it is absolutely and totally wonderful. Thanks, Bill, for coming on my blog.

Where did you ever get the idea for this book? (aside: I know you tell how in your book, but it’s such a great story, I’d love to reproduce it for my blog.) And how much fun was it to research?

The idea for the book surfaced in 1994. I was reading a biography of George Bernard Shaw, and when he was a poor, charming Irishman living with his mother in London, he lost his virginity to an older woman, Jenny Patterson, who had a fiery temper and “a remarkable bust.” In preparation, he had bought a packet of “French letters” ─ condoms to us ─ and noted the date and cost in his diary (he had also opened the packet and commented that they “extraordinarily revolted” him).

The course of Shaw’s unfortunate affair ─ filled with fights, reconciliations, stolen letters, makeup sex and ending in a lovers’ triangle and a screaming row ─ surprised me. I thought he had been an ascetic, possibly a virgin all his life. I wrote down the date he bought his condoms, amused at the thought of collecting notable literary stories tied to the calendar.

The more I thought, the more other events surfaced: the day Truman Capote opened the New York Times and read about the murders that led to “In Cold Blood” (the inciting incident, to you fiction writers, that would lead to his downfall); the first performance of “Casey At The Bat”; or the night Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Perhaps I would write a book for writers, containing useful stories: where inspiration comes from, how writers can lose their focus or waste their talent. It would contain birth and death dates, illuminating quotations, maybe some writing tips.

It seemed not only like a great idea, but also impossible to write. It would require 366 stories, including leap year, each keyed to the day it happened. It would take years to assemble, and I would have to write it.

But the idea stayed. Maybe it felt sorry for me. So I began setting aside ideas and stories. At my job on the newspaper, I’d save profiles and reviews from the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times and the Associated Press. When we got internet access, I found British newspapers such as the Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, that covered the book scene and also wrote about the canonical writers. New York and Esquire magazines wrote about writers in Bellevue and Olivia Goldsmith’s obscene valentine candy. On a website, someone posted their Ph.D-level dissertation about Henry David Thoreau accidentally setting fire to a forest. A friend of Allen Ginsburg told an anecdote about the poet’s sexual degrees of separation from Walt Whitman.

About two years ago, with a lot of material compiled and little to show for it, I decided to write some essays and post them to the website. Six months later, I had the makings of a book.

Why is it so wonderful to know that our most hallowed writers can also be fumbling and foolish? Personally I feel that rather than diminishing their reputations, these stories actually make the person more complex, and thereby enhance their writing. Would you agree?

That’s true. Some of these stories show the incredible struggles these men and women have had to overcome. Janet Frame was days from a lobotomy that would have destroyed her talent. Dostoyevsky endured a decade in Siberia after believing he was going to be executed by the Tsar’s firing squad. Sherwood Anderson literally fled his wife and family to find himself as a writer. They were gifted, but they had to work, like us. They lived, like us. Yet look at what they achieved! That’s the point behind “Writers Gone Wild.”

Plus, writers have always put their lives into their works. There’s a scene in Hemingway’s short story, “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” in which Macomber flees from the lion, then asks Wilson, the great white hunter, not to tell anyone. Wilson takes offense and thinks of Macomber as a “bloody four-letter man as well as a bloody coward.” That key exchange was inspired by Hemingway’s drunken fight with Wallace Stevens on a Key West pier. Afterwards, Stevens ─ an upright, proper insurance exec ─ asked Hem to keep quiet about it. Think of what the boys back in Harford would say! The story gives you Hem’s response.

The writing must have been a great deal of fun.Note the title: Shelley freaks out. What was it like writing this?How did you figure out how to organize things? And were there any writers you wanted to do, but they had no juicy information on them at all?

The essays were great fun to do. It was like writing fan fiction. The characters are there, the story was there. All I had to do was ferret out the facts and figure out the most effective way to tell it. The only difficulty was that Penguin wanted short essays ─ roughly 300 words each ─ with the manuscript topping out at 60,000 words. A lot of decisions had to be made about which stories to tell and what to leave out.

If you could see my desk, you’ll see I’m not a natural organizer. I’ve been a self-help junkie all my life. I’m always reading books and websites and trying new methods to motivate me: keeping notebooks, creating to-do lists, using whiteboards and bulletin boards to display and track information. I could write a self-help book for writers, if I could only find my notes.

So I organized as I researched, because the key thought is that accumulating facts mean nothing if you can’t find it again. And my system had to be simple, because I keep forgetting how to use complex systems. So the filing was as simple as it could get: A-Z. I had amassed two file drawers with information saved by the writer’s last name or by topic such as sex, feuds, frauds, last words. The system was duplicated on my computer, where I have thousands of files saved.

Once the contract was signed, I went back through all those files, scanned the material and dug out stories ideas I had missed. Grouping the stories by topics seemed the logical response.

As far as writers I would like to have covered, that wasn’t an issue. Penguin wisely wanted the first book to be about canonical writers, so I’m sure Jonathan Franzen will be heartbroken to learn his fallout with Oprah didn’t make the book. Neither did Philip Roth’s marriage to Claire Bloom or Alice Walker disowning her daughter by e-mail. Maybe in the sequel.

But as the book was taking shape, I wanted to make sure that women and black writers were represented and that American writers didn’t dominate. So I looked for stories about Ida B. Wells and Richard Wright, and when cutting stories, made sure that the foreign writers stayed.

The only hole in the book was the lack of Canadian writers. All of them are apparently honorable, level-headed, honest, upright and sober. Wonderful for them, but frustrating for a muckraking writer.

I loved the story of Mailer taking out a page in a newspaper and printing his horrible reviews—and how instead of hurting him, it made him a larger fixture on the literary scene.So, can modern day writers learn something from this, or will it only work if you are Mailer?

Mailer wasn’t the first to do it. Maxwell Anderson also bashed his critics in a full-page ad. Recently, I ran across a similar story about a playwright who ordered the one negative review of his play to be displayed in the lobby. He explained that he wanted the audience to leave the play, read the notice, and say, “What was that wanker thinking?”

So there is a lesson in Mailer’s story, that artists can use their personalities to shape the world and promote their works and the force. Create an iconic image. Make some noise. Leave an impression. There’s a Monty Python skit in which Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” He’s right.

The problem is balancing being talked about with producing things worth talking about. Popularity can trap a writer, both from without ─ by creating expectations in readers that limit your creativity ─ and from within, when your ego becomes a parasite on your energy.

I experienced this when I wrote an article about playing a Continental Army soldier in Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot.” The set was closed to journalists, but I got in as an extra. The story didn’t break any news, but being near Mel created a strong proximity effect. The day after publication, this self-effacing copy editor was under the heat lamp of eager attention from my co-workers and friends. The local TV news station interviewed me. I could literally feel my head swelling. To a lifelong pessimist, it was an unexpected, disconcerting feeling, like I had slipped into an alternative world where I was a celebrity.

So tell us your favorite story here and why?

Boy, that’s hard, because every story had to engage me in some way before I would write it. William Burroughs shooting his girlfriend through the head while playing William Tell; Ana├»s Nin cheating on her husband with Henry Miller and making up for it by taking him to a lesbian bordello; the logrolling behind Kafka and his interest in very peculiar porn; Erica Jong’s seduction by a publisher. How do you choose?

So here’s today’s favorite story today: After the Nazis overran France in 1940 and began oppressing the Jews in Paris, Samuel Beckett decided “you simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded.”

So in 1941, he and his partner, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, joined the resistance. They’d gather information about the disposition of German forces, and he would type them on paper that would be reduced to the size of a matchbox. An old woman who looked like a respectable peasant would pass the information on to England.

A year later, they were betrayed by a Catholic priest. Sam and Suzanne fled Paris barely ahead of the Germans sent to arrest them. They made their way to Provence, where they spent the rest of the war in Roussillon, a hilltop village isolated from the world. Beckett would help the farmers by day and spend his evenings working on his novel, “Watt.” After the war, he was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance by the French government.

Beckett’s story impressed me. I wouldn’t have expected the man who wrote “Waiting for Godot” to take such a stand. With all of the writers with questionable political beliefs ─ Ezra Pound, who loved Mussolini and fascism, Knut Hamsun, who welcomed the Nazis to his native Norway, and H.L. Mencken, who silenced himself during WWII and turned his back on persecuted Jews, Beckett ‘s act was heroic and historically correct. He also rarely mentioned his resistance work. Many of his friends never knew about the medals.

What’s obsessing you now?

Marketing this book. Years from now, writers will reminisce fondly about the pre-Internet days, when all you had to do was attend booksignings and pass out bookmarks. Now, we’re YouTubing, Facebooking, tweeting, Shelfaring and podcasting. Soon, we’ll jump to brain-to-brain linkages with readers on our e-mind list.

I’m not complaining. It’s wonderful to have these options to reach readers, but it can be very exhausting. You always feel you’re forgotten to do something vitally important.

Otherwise, I have two passions. I’m slowly gathering material for a “Hollywood Gone Wild,” and annotating Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel. She was one of the first women to graduate from a British university (Oxford, in fact), and her Lord Peter mysteries are full of literary, cultural, historical and political references. I have several books annotated on my website, but because her first book is in the public domain, I’ll get to publish it in e-book and print form.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

After writing 2,000 words, the first one that should come to mind is: “Do you ever shut up?” Seriously, thanks so much for inviting me!

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