It's summer and--as usual--I'm working on about ten projects at once, and thinking about five or six others. But--I'm getting things done!
I am very sorry to hear of the death this week of Austin newspaper columnist John Kelso. As his former colleague Michael Corcoran said, “He loved his job and so he was better at it than he had to be.”
Kelso was the model for the character Wes Leonard in my story “Bad Guts” and my novel That Demon Life. When he interviewed me for the column below, he said that he approved. He even said That Demon Life was funny--as nice a thing as has ever been said.
Writer's Book Came Together Between Cab Fares
By John Kelso
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Lowell Mick White may be the only author to ever write a 182-page novel while driving a cab.
OK, so he wasn't really driving the cab around Austin while he was writing "That Demon Life", a book full of colorful, sketchy and disreputable characters you probably wouldn't want running your Brownie scout meeting. While writing, he was parked between fares.
"I sat there with my clipboard and a cheap notebook I got at H-E-B, and I'd write," said White, who, from 1998 to 2002, spent time driving around Austin in a Yellow Cab putting his book together. "I'd find a place to park and I'd write 'til I got a call and I'd pick a passenger up. Yeah, I did it old-school with a pen."
Macs are for sissies.
This guy is no slouch with the words. He was the recipient of a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, which includes a six-month residency at J. Frank Dobie's former Hill Country Ranch and a payment of $1,200 to write out in the country.
But most of the book was composed in the cab, on Austin streets. White says you can tell from looking at the structure of the book when the passengers climbed in.
"You might have noticed those little short subchapters. That's where I got passengers in the cabs."
This is one of those deals where life imitates art, or steam imitates steam.
"They sat naked on the mussed bed eating greasy chicken and drinking warm beer, and Richard felt like nothing in his life — nothing, nothing, nothing, ever — tasted better," it says on page 35. "He was just so damn happy."
Then, in real cab life, White remembers the time the drunken wealthy attorney got in the back of his cab and did a strip tease as he was giving her a ride home. He didn't say if he had tinted windows.
"Her friends didn't want her to drive and they put her in the cab, and I was taking her home and she was taking her clothes off," White recalled. "And when I got her home she didn't have her (house) keys, so I was taking her back to the party. I had no place else to take her. But her daughter showed up" and let her in the house.
It's not easy writing a book in a cab. Your cab is your office. White recalls the four slobs who got in the cab and messed everything up.
"I worried a lot of the time that I might lose whatever notebook I was working in, or that it might get damaged," wrote White, who is working on his Ph.D. in English at Texas A&M. "I remember once on Fourth Street some older drunk guys got into my cab, four of them, three in back, one in front, and the guy who sat up front plopped his fat middle-aged butt down on my notebook before I could move it. I totally lost my temper — started cursing, yelling, kicked them all out before I even started the meter."
It's a fun book. There's a little round judge named Cantu, who has the hots for a chick named Giselle, who has a gigantic bird tattoo on her back. There's Paige, who will nail every male that breathes. There's a defense attorney named Linda, who hates her job and thinks all the criminals should be lined up and shot.
White appreciates his characters and loves Linda. He says at a book signing recently when a reader came down on Linda, it made him kind of mad.
"This guy said, 'I didn't like Linda very well; she's not a very moral character.' I said, 'I lived with Linda in the cab for years, she's a very moral character. I like her.' "
Hey, at least she didn't throw up in the back seat of his cab, like some of his real customers.
I can't find a link to the column on the American-Statesman website. The story "Bad Guts" is included in Long Time Ago Good. And of course you need to read That Demon Life.
Good gosh. It's September and school is back and I get to work with a bunch of new students, (mostly) all optimistic and cheerful and energetic. So. What better way to combat their youthful optimism than to get all gloomy about the end of the world?
Here is a nice section from That Demon Life. End of the world and grackles, too. Enjoy!
The great-tailed grackle had adapted very well to city life and was the most common bird in the city, able to live on bugs or garbage or almost anything. They were large birds with black, iridescent feathers and bright evil yellow eyes, and the males were larger than the females and carried an impressive fan-shaped tail: they fought for the best position in the highest branches of trees or the loftiest arch of a streetlight and they posed there, bills pointed toward the sky, gasping and croaking and hissing, shitting on anything that happened to be beneath them. Quincy Whittaker thought that was just like—life.
Quincy’s cab was parked outside the office shack of a big towing company on the south side. The cab’s meter was up to $64 25 now, and still running, clicking up another quarter every forty seconds or so. He could see the crazy woman through the shack’s window, waving her arms and jabbering about something. Behind the shack was a fence enclosing a vast field of cars and trucks, mostly dead and partially disassembled, rotting under the hard harsh sun. In front of the shack, by a ditch, stood a giant lone sycamore, filled with grackles. Quincy was parked in the tree’s shade, enduring a steady rain of grackle shit—just like life.
This is how it will all end, he thought, the World will come to a damn end while I sit in a car getting shit on. This is how it is.
For months Quincy had been anticipating the end of the world. There was a psychic who came on the radio late at night when Quincy was sitting alone in his dark, quiet cab, and every night the psychic seemed a little more worked up about the end times. He had a vision of a fungus that was going to kill all the planet’s plant life, leaving no food for humans or domestic animals—no food at all. There was going to be an explosion of x-rays from the sun that would fry whatever side of the Earth was facing the sun at the time. The U.S. economy would collapse because of a mystery illness that would leave millions of people too ill to go to work. The dark star would swing in through the solar system, Nibiru or Marduk or whatever it was called—Planet X!—setting off a vast cataclysm of floods, winds, earthquakes, volcanoes—the end of the world, the end of the world, at last, and it was all tied in, somehow, to the Third Secret of Fatima, which was somehow connected to the Book of Revelations. Quincy was back on familiar ground, there, in Revelations. It was his favorite book of the Bible. He loved the part where the angels floated around streaming tears, crying “Woe! Woe! Woe, to all the inhabiters of Earth!” Sitting in the dark Quincy fondly imagined the skeletons of trees left leafless by the fungus, with great clouds of dirt and dust—no longer held fast by grass—blowing through the air, settling in dunes among the cars abandoned along the highways, Escalades, Navigators, Range Rovers, great huge SUVs like dead dinosaurs, bleached bones of the drivers behind the wheels, corpses cluttering the streets, food for the grackles. Then Marduk would loom on the horizon and there’d be an earthquake or two, a typhoon, a tidal wave, and the Earth would be washed clean. Woe to all mankind! Woe, you motherfuckers! Woe! Day and night, driving his battered cab through the streets of the city, Quincy pondered the end of the world—there were signs everywhere, he could see it coming, looking off at the expressways and strip malls teeming with rude goddamn rich people, thoughtless bastards worried more about their taxes than their souls, preening, cocky, ignorant of their fate, shitting on everyone below them—just like the damn grackles. Just like life. The end of the world! Quincy wanted it to happen. He couldn’t wait.
Linda came out of the shack. “This is the wrong place,” she said. “They don’t have my truck.”
“I was lookin’ at those cars,” Quincy said. “Those trucks over there.” He pointed with his chin across the fence at the endless field of broken down dead vehicles.
“Those were all peoples’ lives, once. You know what I’m saying? People were proud to have those cars then, new cars, drive ‘em all day, happy. Now they all a bunch of junk—worthless, nothing, dead. That’s how we’re all going to end up, you know?”
“Yeah?” Linda asked.
Quincy nodded. “Soon, too.”
Linda looked out the window. She’d barely noticed the piles of dead cars, but now that Quincy pointed them out—hard afternoon sun glaring off the broken glass and twisted metal of the vehicles as they slowly returned to their base elements—they were, really, terribly oppressive. Junk. Lost dreams. Lost youth. Death. Linda flopped back in the seat, suddenly depressed.
“Good Lord,” she said. “Take me someplace to get a drink.”
This week: getting over a nasty flu, and rereading That Demon Life....
A yellow tomcat—someone’s curious pet—followed Linda and Gilbert into her condo and resisted Linda’s half-hearted attempts to chase it back out. After a few minutes Linda gave up and sprawled back on her couch, trying to rest, hoping to sleep. The living room was dim, gloomy and comfortable, except that the yellow cat kept trying to hop up on her belly. After getting tossed off three times the cat sat on the floor near Linda’s head, staring at her.
“If you’re looking for those birds, they’re gone,” Linda said.
From a distant part of the townhouse she heard a washing machine start, and in another moment or two Gilbert bustled in with a bottle of wine and a glass.
“Here,” he said, filling the glass. “I started your clothes, I got you this drink, and in a minute I’m gonna get to work on those steaks. Okay?”
“I’m not in the mood to eat,” Linda said. But she took the wine glass from Gilbert and rested it on her belly.
“That washer you got’s complicated but I managed to figure it out,” Gilbert said. He stood looking down at her. “You know, you really got a lot of dirty clothes. You need to get a maid or something.”
“A maid?” Linda asked. “You go and hire me one. Why the hell should I have to pay someone to do my laundry?”
“Maybe you should take a vacation,” Gilbert said. “Ever think of that? Maybe I can sneak away, too, we can go to Mexico or someplace, sit on the beach and relax.”
“The beach,” Linda snorted. “Bunch of goddamn sand. I’ll never understand why people want to go some weird creepy foreign place and sit on a pile of goddamn sand.”
“Take my word, baby,” Gilbert said, “you need to relax, some. You’re on edge—you’re getting to the point where you make me nervous. So drink your wine and relax.”
“Relaxation is the next thing to death,” Linda said. She turned her face away from Gilbert.
“You’re crazy,” Gilbert said. He walked off, and soon Linda could hear some banging around in the kitchen.
Linda took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, almost relaxed, not quite dead, probably depressed. The beach, she thought. Goddamn. Sand. Ridiculous. Oh well. She closed her eyes. The couch was very comfortable, and she might have had a pleasant time lounging there, dozing—except for that damn cat staring at her, and Gilbert. Gilbert would probably want to use his man-meat on her after dinner; that would have to be avoided. But at least she was getting her laundry done—that was the important thing, clean clothes, maybe even ironed clean clothes. It was almost worth putting up with man-meat for.
On the last day of the 2010 AWP Bookfair, the powers allow non-AWP civilians to enter the arena to buy books and hobnob with writers, and I was sitting at the Slough Press table and a lady and a boy of maybe 10 or 11 came by and looked over my books. He was really taken with That Demon Life—which put me in an uncomfortable position.
I want everyone to read my books—everyone, including kids. But—but—when I tell people That Demon Life is a comic novel about lust and laziness, with lots of drinking and screwing and miscellaneous bad behavior—well, I’m serious. It really is. And is that appropriate for a kid?
My parents let me read pretty much anything. I moved pretty much from Dr. Seuss to adult novels. An example: I loved James Bond, so for Christmas in the 4th grade I got a boxed set of the complete works of Ian Fleming! That was so cool….
But I’m not a parent. (Thankfully!) I had never had to concern myself with thoughts of familial censorship or appropriateness until that day in Denver.
In the end I steered the kid over to Long Time Ago Good, and his mom bought it for him. I guess that’s good, right?
I’ve been thinking about these things since I read Steve Himmer’s essay, Making Room for Readers. Himmer was in a somewhat different situation than I was in, but at least my kid had a good mother who wanted him to read almost anything. It was me and not the controlling adult who thought my book might be inappropriate….
Back in 2007 I received a rejection on my novel, That Demon Life. It was a bad rejection—the agent basically liked my book, and we corresponded for a couple of weeks, but then she finally said No. She turned the novel down because she felt there wasn’t enough movement in the protagonist of the book. She also really hated the epilogue.
I was more than bummed-out. This was a blow. I wondered if I should massively revise the book. And so I took a day or so and reread the manuscript and wrote a memo to myself about character changes in the book—or lack of character changes in the book. I was trying to get my feelings sorted out....
I forgot all about the memo until I found it yesterday on my hard drive….
Thoughts on Character Transformation in That Demon Life
1. There are structural impediments to large-scale change or character transformation in the novel. TDLtakes place over the course of a week (with an epilogue two weeks after that). The tight time frame limits how far any single person can be transformed, unless it’s Saul on the way to Damascus or something.
2. Many novels have characters who don’t change. Four examples that have influenced me:
A. War & Peace. Pierre’s happy at the end, and wiser, but he’s still the same kindly, bumbling, idealistic, over-intellectualized man he was 15 years earlier. Andrei is dead--so there's a change! Nicolas is an adult version of the young man he was, Marie has moved from having an overbearing father to having an overbearing husband, Sonya is likened to an energetic kitten in the opening and a content old housecat in the epilogue (okay, change, though still cat-like), and though Natasha has moved from a young girl concerned with singing and dancing and flirting around to a grown woman concerned with being a mother, does that really count as a transformation or is it a recognition of the aging process? When Denisov looks at Natasha, he still sees the 14 year-old, which says more about him than Natasha….
B. The Sun Also Rises. The whole fucking point of this book is that Brett & Jake will never ever change! Never ever!
C. A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius’s valve opens up and he hits the road—but he is going to be the same nut in New York that he was in New Orleans. (On the other hand: Ig’s mom does change, as do Jones and Levy….Ignatius could then be a catalyst for change?)
D. The Gay Place (“The Flea Circus”). Over the course of a busy week, Roy actually does some legislative work, helps out the governor, and kind of makes a commitment to Ouida, but he’s still the same lazy, sardonic drunk he was before….(Hmm, kinda TDL-ish?) Is the sorta-commitment a change? Don’t think so, not really….
3. EM Forster warns against privileging Round Characters over Flat Characters (I think; it’s been a long time since I’ve read Forster). This is only pertinent if you concede that a Round Character must have the“potential to change.” Though at any rate you need flat & round both….
4. People don’t change, anyway. I deeply believe this. Behaviors may manifest themselves in different ways over time, but the Person’s basic character remains the same. In striving for verisimilitude, the novel needs to remain true to human character (or at least true to my perception of it).
5. Desire for character change a reflection of the aspirations & wish-fullfillments of the reader? Should I care and if so how much?
In the end, I didn’t do any revisions. I even kept the epilogue. I liked That Demon Life—it was the book I wanted to write. I still like it….
I put this together quite quickly, but it kind of works! I guess I'm advertising Google at the same time I'm advertising That Demon Life, but, oh well....
I've learned that That Demon Life is a finalist for the Writers' League of Texas Book Award!
Yeah, that's an exclamation point in the previous sentence--I'm pretty excited. You've heard the cliche about how it's nice to be nominated, right? Well, it is nice.
This desk has been the starting point for two and a half dissertations and two books:
§ In 1964, my father bought the filing cabinets to store materials for his dissertation.
§ In 1974, my mother placed a board across the cabinets, transforming it into a desk, and wrote her dissertation at it.
§ In 2009-2010, I wrote my dissertation at it.
§ In the early part of this decade I rewrote and revised That Demon Life sitting at this desk.
§ In the middle part of the decade, I wrote Long Time Ago Good here.
There will be more books coming from this desk, though I doubt there will be any more dissertations….
At one point several years ago I was reading Larry McMurtry’s novel, Duane’s Depressed. It’s a good book, but I had a “Hey, wait a minute” moment at the point where Duane—who’s, well, depressed, and has decided to change his life by breaking ties with his family and moving out to a cabin in the country—decides he needs a bicycle, and he whips out his wallet, which is stuffed with cash he’s won playing poker, and he buys the bike. Hey, wait a minute. Does Duane not realize how privileged he is? Does McMurtry? I couldn’t stop thinking about all the non-white, non-oilman depressed people in the world who didn’t have a pocket full of money or a place to go hide from their families.
I was writing my novel, That Demon Life, at the time, and so I put in a little passage reacting to Duane’s Depressed:
Linda almost laughed out loud thinking about it—start life over and do absolutely nothing. Why not? She had the resources—a trust fund from her mother left her in a position where she didn’t have to worry about a paycheck, ever. Linda knew how lucky she was to have a rich dead mother. There were plenty of other people out there who were sad and messed up and still had to soldier off every goddamn morning to work in some dreadful job or other. There were some brave people out there. Heroes. Linda was glad she didn’t have to be one of them (106).
So my book got published, and some people have read it (and more people should). One of them said the other day, “I finally figured Linda out—she’s just a trust-fund baby.” Well, no. The reader didn’t get it. Not “just.” Linda understands her privilege, and is in the process of developing a little bit of empathy. But as far as the reader goes, there’s nothing to be done. You write something down, and it’s not yours anymore—it belongs to the reader. And, of course, one of the main themes of That Demon Life is that you cannot control what other people think—and the book takes the further, Classical Stoic view that because you can't control what other people think, you shouldn’t care what other people think. But I’m not always a very good Stoic.