Last month I talked about writing during the Ebook Revolution Hysteria of 2010-2013 and how this crashed against the realities of not only the market and my own stupidity but also the compounded tragedies of being unemployed, beginning a divorce, and having my mother killed by four different kinds of cancer all within months of each other. I’ve written in FXXK WRITING: A GUIDE FOR FRUSTRATED ARTISTS about this period, living in crushed quarters with a combination bathroom kitchen (“The Bitchin’”), working every kind of job you could imagine to make rent and create a small nest egg. But in that chapter I largely focused on the non-writing I did (improv, teaching, history). But I did write a little. And I have mixed feelings about it.
See, there’s a lot of writer tough-guy BS about writing no matter what. That “real” writers are the ones who don’t let anything stop them from getting their daily word count. Lost a job? Get back to writing. Wife leaves you? Get back to writing. Mom dies? Get back to writing. In other words, a tough love version of Alec Baldwin’s inspiration speech from Glen Gary Glen Ross.
Such thinking is pure grizzly shit, as the late Tom Piccirilli used to say. It feeds into a masochistic, workaholic, hyper-capitalistic mindframe about will, production, and value that doesn’t much jive with being an artist or decent human being beyond a kernel of wisdom (keep working hard at your craft to get better). And yet, when we are at our most vulnerable we often succumb to the strongly worded message from media around us. I had wedded my identity to being a writer (and future success to boot) for so long that when my life collapsed I still gave writing a shot. I felt like if I stopped, I would stop being a person worthy of . . . well, anything.
The first opportunity arrived when everything was on fire. Thanks to DEATH MATCH and my other books about fighting and martial arts, I had a very, very small reputation as “that guy who writes wrestling novels.” So when Paul Bishop, editor of the late lamented FIGHT CARD series contacted me about writing a short novel set in the world of wrestling, I said yes. How often do you get asked to write a novel?
Keep that question in mind as we march along.
RISE OF THE LUCHADOR was written in fits in starts during a period of re-wiring my brain after tragedy. It’s a fun, violent, and brutal story of a real street fighter from Brazil forced to hide in the world of pro wrestling. When I was interviewed about the book, Renee Pickup noted that for all the fun and fisticuffs the story’s emotional depth shocked her. The motivations in that book reflected my own thoughts on life and death and what makes the former worth living before the latter takes over. Grim and introspective was my jam.
I then wrote a serialized fantasy novel for my Ridlerville Newsletter called THE KING OF SATURDAY MORNING. It’s an unabashedly weird nostalgia novel about a guy who knows WAY TOO MUCH about Saturday morning cartoons being shoved into the world where all those shows live and how he gets his ass handed to him all over the place. I wrote it in crazy short chapters because with the hours I was working I couldn’t bother to do otherwise. I’m not sure if anyone read it. I’ve never heard anyone mention anything other than thanks for sending it out. It’s never been properly published. I enjoyed writing it, but when it was done, I was spent. I can’t really remember why I wrote it other than to prove that I could still do it and, maybe, have fun with a zero-stakes project.
I also tried to write “just for fun.” Tried my hand at a romance novel. Then a sword and sorcery thriller. And for the first time since I started writing novels I gave up. I didn’t push these suckers to completion. I ran out of gas. All the tough guy bullshit about finishing your work ran through my head . . . but I didn’t care. So what? They were experiments. Add them to the pyre. Who fucking cares? It was roughly the same time I realized I had to give up writing academic history. Journal articles took forever to get published and paid nothing but “credibility” which I could not trade for food or eat. Such things were for the luxury class. And so the momentum for prose died.
But the bug of storytelling kept biting. Most of 2014 was spent writing comic book pitches and scripts. I sold one, came SO CLOSE to selling a complete graphic novel to a great independent publisher, and worked with some amazing artists (including the incredible Yuki Saeki, who did the cover of FXXK WRITING). But after working sixty-hour weeks, six to seven days-a-week, the idea of writing a novel that wouldn’t pay shit when I was done after a year of labor was not going to happen.
And yes, I had other novels in existence that I thought of as assets. The problem? My agent at the time wouldn’t represent my fiction. They loved my historical work but didn’t know the markets that I wrote in and wasn’t interested in trying. So, yeah, I shoved these novels around but I didn’t make it a priority.
I’d occasionally tinker on a short story, and sold a few for okay money, but with the flame of enthusiasm flickering out I was thinking “FXXK WRITING” more and more. I didn’t care about being a novelist. I had written fourteen novels, thrown away about three, and so far it had meant a lot of joy, a lot of delusion, and a pretty good skill set no one wanted to pay for.
And that was fine. I didn’t miss it. I had joy in my life from teaching, doing improv, sketch comedy, pitches, and occasionally throwing my name in the hat for history fellowships and other kinds of work. Indeed, the time I used to spent writing novels I primarily spent filling out endless cover letters, job application, and more. Writing novels didn’t’ mean shit.
And that was a boon. I’d invested too much of my identity into a means of production. I thought my value as a human being was only via what I could produce. It was when I abandoned that goal I made profound friendships and got my mind out of the dungeons it had been chained to for years. I saw that writing was a way to hide from the world, justifiable solitude, and an excuse to not engage with others (it’s all the other wonderful stuff, too, but when you STOP and take a hard look at yourself you realize sometimes your escape into art is a way to avoid living or making decisions).
I started to have less and less patience for artists who considered themselves better than other types of people or jobs. I had ZERO patience for successful writers who thought publishing rewarded talent and creativity and was inherently fair: when you have no money and no job and are running out of comic books to sell for food, such people become patron saints of the 1%. I had a very fun, very stressful life that didn’t include writing novels. There was nothing lacking. There was no secret desire. I wasn’t looking to write a new novel. And if I never did, it would have been great. My life would still be worth living. I was content.
February 2016. I was producing improv shows, creating sketch comedy troupes, reading amazing memoirs and weird history, writing “FXXK WRITING” and traveling the world on a history fellowship. Writing up my research, which had taken me from California to the UK to the Philippines, I went to lunch with my friend Nick Mamatas. Nick and his family were a boon and offered advice, food, and support when I had next to nothing. He said a publisher was looking for someone who might be interested in a writing a pulpy historically based urban fantasy series. Would I be interested in pitching them some ideas?
That project became HEX-RATED, the first installment of THE BRIMSTONE FILES.
Sixteen years of writing short stories. Four years writing fourteen novels. Two-plus years saying “fuck novels.” And now a two-book deal?
SEE? IT’S JUST THAT EASY! YOU CAN DO IT, TOO!
Help Jay keep Brimstone alive by buying HEX-RATED, which was favorably reviewed by NPR, Publisher’s Weekly, and Barnes & Noble! See my grandmaster of horror Brian Keene called it “Deliciously uncomfortable, wonderfully gritty, and a worthy successor to the occult detectives of old.”
© 2017 Jason S Ridler