Tuesday, March 5, 2013

David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut talk about M & M Mort Morte, becoming a writer, getting fired from your own business, finding true love and so much more

Get ready, because the atoms, protons and electrons are about to go zooming around in high gear--something that always happens when David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut are about. I think I first met them when they were writing The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, a hilarious, smart and uber-practical tome to the publication process. I keep buying up copies of this to give to writer friends. Anyway, I kept running into them at book fairs, and the more I saw of the two of them (they're husband and wife), the more I adored each of them. It's a delight to have them both on the blog, and the only thing better would be to hang out with them over coffee and pie. Thanks, David and Arielle!  

Me to David: You are completely hip, hilarious and multi-talented actor, author, performer, screenwriter activist, doting husband and grade A dad. And you’ve got a hell of a backstory to how you got from point a to point b. Want to tell it, please?

Well, thank you, it's awfully nice to see all those attributes in one sentence directed at me.  I suppose one's whole life is backstory isn't it?  First of all, I'm the son of immigrants.  This has in many ways shaped my entire existence.  My parents came to this country with basically nothing but the clothes on their back, and after 20 years of hard work, sweat and sacrifice, they were totally broke, getting divorced, and deep in therapy.  But they both worked like dogs.  No, they worked much harder than dogs.  We have a dog who hangs around our house and she never does anything except eat, excrete and lick herself.  Doesn't work at all.  It was always emphasized to me in no uncertain terms that if you don't work hard you are basically useless as a human.  My mom always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do.  Which was such a great gift.  A gift I try to give to my daughter every day.  My grandfather was a coalminer.  He went down into the pits so early in the morning that it was still dark, and when he came out after shift, it was already dark again.  He'd go for a whole week without seeing the sun.  So whenever people say to me how hard it is to be a writer, I have to laugh.  To sit behind a desk or in a cafĂ© or wherever and put words together, make up stories, that's cake.  When you compare to being a coalminer.  And of course my grandfather died of black lung disease when he was about my age I think.  It took them 20 years, but the British government finally sent my uncle a check for like $400 or something.  To pay for the sins that were committed to my grandfather.  

I always loved writing.  Ever since I was a tiny little kid.  When I was in the third grade we lived in Hueytown Alabama, during the height of the George Wallace Regime, when he was standing in front of school houses with an ax proclaiming, "We're not letting the darkies in here!"  Or words to that effect.  So they had a writing contest at our school.  Well, I should explain there was a big study that came out in which Alabama was rated 50th in the nation in education.  That's why they had the writing contest.  To prove to the world that Alabama wasn't full of a bunch of illiterate crackers.  The subject of the essay was, "Why I Love Alabama."  Being the son of an immigrant, I want to win so badly that I basically wrote a propaganda piece for president Lyndon Baines Johnson, Governor George Wallace, America, and of course Alabama.  In my memory I won the contest.  But I have no proof of this.  That's one of the interesting things about writing a memoir.  There are certain things you can fact-check.  But it's a book of memory.  And memory is by its very nature the original unreliable narrator.  My immigrant parents were furious when I wrote my memoir.  I actually went back and looked at the book very carefully.  They are only in the book about two a half percent of the 60,000 words.  And well over half the things I say about them are very complementary.  I actually catalogued the whole thing.  But after my father first read the book, he called me up and started screaming about how the Jaguar he had, which I mentioned in the book, was not blue, it was green.  "GREEN!"  he screamed.  He didn't mention the fact that I wrote about how he basically abandoning me, which led to me getting raped in Hollywood and being sucked into the sex business, which is what the book is about.  No, he wanted to talk about the fact that the Jaguar was GREEN! So I started off loving writing, which I still do. Woody Allen said there are only two things in life you can really control.  Art and masturbation. Being a professional writer I get to do both those things every day! And I get to control them. There seems so little in my life I can control. This is never so clearly demonstrated as when I ask my daughter to do something. She is 5. She wants to do what she wants to do.  All the time.  When I write I can make anyone do anything anytime.  

But in the end, writing saved my life. I was a drug addict, a fornicator, an adulterer, a problematic hypersexualist, a sinner who wallowed in misery while convincing the world I was a charming, successful humanitarian. Hallelujah, gimme an amen. But when I finally decided to write the truth about myself it really did set me free.  I forgave my angry father, and focused on all the good things he did. Food on table, roof over head, clothes on back, the whole nine.  I found true love. I stopped having nightmares about the man with the shirt that had SEXY written on it in silvery sparkly letters who brutalized me and tore me in half and traumatized me into a life of PTSD-fueled self-destruction. Writing, a family, friends and gardening, replaced coke, mammoth sexual binges and the relentless pursuit of fool's gold in my life. 

Along with your wife Arielle Eckstut (whom I also adore), you created a workshop with a book to go along with it, Putting Your Passion into Print. What would you say are the major mistakes that writers make in trying to get their work out there?

They don't know how to explain what's exciting, funny, thrilling, sexy, informative, inspiring, intriguing, romantic, scintillating, brilliant, new and yet familiar about their book. They don't research to find exactly the right publishing partners. They don't know what other books to compare it to. They don't spend enough time connecting with other writers and readers and industry professionals. They don't befriend their local independent bookstore enough. They don't learn about what's going on in the book business.  They chase trends instead of writing something they are wildly passionate about. They don't think of new and exciting ways to present themselves and their material. They don't get enough people to read their writing before they send it out. They send out stuff that's half-baked.  Who wants to eat a half-baked meal, no matter how great the ingredients are?  The best writing advice I ever got was from my screenplay agent in Hollywood.  "Stop sending me these shitty scripts I can't sell." There you have it in a nutshell.

Tell us the backstory behind your extraordinary new book Mort Morte?

I was a screenplay writer in Hollywood.  I had a grand house, a fancy car, a long line of beautiful, talented, insecure fiancees in my wake.  In short, I was miserable as sin, and my misery always wanted company.  My hypnotherapist suggested, after I told her my story, that I should, you know, write about it.  Strangely, this had never occurred to me.  Even though I made my living writing movie scripts.  Plus, I was very ashamed of my secrets. Being British, I was taught in no uncertain terms to be polite and happy and if I had any troubles or problems, I should do everyone a favor and just keep my big fat yap shut. Tight lips and thick skulls, that's what my people are known for. But I gave it my best shot. I went home and tried to write my story. Mort Morte is what came out. The hero, at the age of three, kills his father with the gun his dad gives him as a birthday present. Then he keeps killing the horrible monsterous men his mother keeps marrying. Clearly I wasn't ready to tell my story yet. I hadn't hit bottom. But just as clearly I was working out some stuff.

You make it a point to always be in the public eye, and yet you do it in a way that is so entertaining, people want to see more of you. How do you do such alchemy?

I work hard try to make sure everything I put out has something fun or funny or startling or informative or educational.  Certainly I don't always succeed.  But I try.

Tell us about your writing/working life. What’s a typical day like?

Wake noonish, take care of emails, social media, Book Doctor stuff. After playing with, reading to, watering, feeding, bathing and storytelling to child, write from 9 PM til 3 or 4 in the morning.  We also tour alot, and I always write very productively on planes and in trains.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

What to do about the gun violence epidemic. What makes Breaking Bad so good. Exactly how do Gilligan take a moral, upstanding high school chemistry teacher family man & turn him into a meth cooking killer that you're rooting for.  Getting my memoir Chicken made in Hollywood. Protecting my five year old from Disney.  

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

What's your next project? And what's the meaning of life?

I'm finishing my first full-length solo novel, The Valley of Love & Delight, which is a ghost story featuring the Shakers, a religious group from the 1800s who made great furniture and didn't believe in sex.  There are no more Shakers. I have an anthology coming out in April called Johns, Marks, Tricks & Chickenhawks, it's all writings by people how sell and people who buy sex, it's the follow up to Hos, Hookers, Call Girls & Rent Boys. A novel I wrote with the Zimmermen twins called The Hobbyist comes out in May. What Are They Thinking?, a book I co-wrote with the lovely and talented Arielle Eckstut and two Duke brain scientist, about the teenage brain, comes out with Norton in June. And then the ten year anniversary of Chicken comes out in July I think. 

To help the species evolve successfully, to create things of value, and to have and bring joy that doesn't come at the expense of others.

Me to Ariel: Tell us about Little Miss Mismatched, your uber cool company? 

I co-founded LittleMissMatched around 2003. I had always wanted to start my own company. And I had always wanted to be a designer. I got to do both things, so it was a very exciting time for me. The mission behind the company was to inspire creativity and self-expression in girls. The hook was that we sold socks that don't match in packs of threes--a pair and a spare! Before long, we were also making pajamas, bedding, furniture, clothing and books. We were going against all the conventional wisdom of what a tween girls' brand had to be (lots of pink, lots of oversexualization) and we turned the industry a little bit to the left. That was what was most exciting. But our success--or what I termed success--was short-lived. The majority share of our business was bought by a private equity firm. I was fired, the business became just one of the many to follow whatever trend was winging its way through the world of kid's fashion, and the mission of the brand got lost.  I bring this up because when I got fired, I was unexpectedly launched back into the world of publishing. I had been an agent for over 10 years prior to starting LittleMissMatched. And when I returned to publishing, I was a veteran of an entirely different industry. But one that made me a much more successful writer and consultant to other writers. I had an understanding of business and marketing that I never would've had if I stayed in publishing. The rag business is in no way refined. And I learned a far more rough and tumble, aggressive, customer-centric style of doing business. 

How did the two of you start working together and what's that been like? 

In about 1996, my godmother called me to say that one of her clients (she was an agent for actors) had written a manuscript. She asked if I would look at it. It was experimental literary fiction. Not something I represented. But I read the first few pages and I was astonished. It was one of the most original, creative things I had ever read. Sadly, I lost the manuscript and was too guilty to ask for it again. Fortunately, David is very persistent. He's written about this time from his perspective. But let's just say that it took a very long time for me to actually read the entire book. By December of 1998, I finally had. We had already once met briefly. David was engaged at that time. I thought he was exceedingly adorable, but, well, engaged! When I saw him again in 1998, he was not. We essentially moved in together that day!

As a literary agent, what mistakes have you personally noticed that writers make? 

Number one mistake is that they don't do their research. This comes in many forms. They send their sci-fi manuscript to agents who don't represent sci-fi. They don't know their category. They've written a sic-fi novel, but have never read one. They don't know how the business works--what a proper pitch is, how to address an agent properly, etc. You have to be a student of publishing and a massive reader of your category of the bookstore to succeed. What attracts your attention? Someone who does the opposite of the person described above! Someone who knows what the agent actually represents and has a reason for querying him/her. Someone who can name authors that aren't just NYT bestsellers in their categories. Someone who spends time in the local independent bookstore. Someone who has already connected to their potential readers. 

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