So you wonder what possessed me to become a novelist?
As Charley Pride used to say onstage in the late 1960s, “It’s a little unique, I’d have to admit …” Another issue, of course, at the time.
When I tell people I love to write fiction, it often draws an incredulous response. People would understand it if I said I loved to tweet, or drink beer or chase women, for that matter. The idea of sitting behind a laptop for hours on end – and not just writing, but looking up facts and going back to make sure a Chevy in one chapter isn’t a Honda in another – is alien to the existence of many folks, the same ones who, as soon as they got their senior research paper on Mark Twain completed, promptly vowed they would never write anything remotely as taxing again.
Here’s a secret. Part of my love of writing fiction is a mystery even to me. Part of it is just my nature. Some people like whittling or sewing or restoring automobiles. I like writing. When I was in college, I foolishly tried to escape it. I think it was something I was simply destined to do. I taught myself to type by writing a daily diary of football practice when I was in the ninth grade. I was editor of the school paper in the 11th grade, and it was only partly because no one else wanted the job. I always hated multiple choice and true/false but loved essay questions.
I’m mad as a hatter. Crazy as a loon. Happy as a clam.
I also love journalism, but to a lesser extent. Perhaps it’s because I did it too long. Perhaps it’s because journalism isn’t really, narrowly put, about telling the truth. It’s about getting as close as possible to the truth based on what people say the truth is. That can be a long way from the truth.
A long time ago, it occurred to me that, if a man (or a woman) really wants to tell the truth, he has to write fiction. Perhaps that’s the consuming irony of my life. Once, in a legal proceeding, a lawyer tried to take that view out of context, and when I explained what I meant, the lawyer was so disappointed.
My first novel, The Audacity of Dope, has been out about a year. My second, The Intangibles, is in the editing/design process, and I hope it will be out sometime this year. My third, Crazy by Natural Causes, is under way.
In regard to The Audacity of Dope, I’m often asked if the main character, Riley Mansfield, is based on me. That’s because some people naturally assume that authors aren’t really making it up. That’s kind of an insult, but, as noted previously, it’s hard for people who don’t write to relate to those who do. I could answer in one word: Duh. But I want these very same people to buy the novel, so I, uh, elaborate. Riley is younger, more handsome, more talented and more courageous than I, and he has a significantly better love life. I can barely relate to Riley. In other words … duh. To some extent, every writer of fiction is Walter Mitty.
Here’s where I really have to elaborate. Riley wasn’t based on me. When I wrote about him, I was based on him. Creating a character means coming to grips with him: knowing how he thinks, what he does, and how he reacts. I didn’t live through Riley; I wrote through him. The same was true of other characters: Melissa Franklin, Adam Rhine, Jed Langston, Priscilla Hay, and even the imaginary President of the United States, Sam Harmon.
How could I relate to Riley? I wrote a non-fiction book called True to the Roots: Americana Music Revealed, and it was based on my interactions with singer-songwriters. I got to the point where I thought I had some modest knowledge of what made them tick. Riley smokes pot. Lots of my book subjects did. I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in order to familiarize myself with what it might be like for Riley to have a psychedelic experience. I know a guy who had trouble shaking a painkiller addiction. That experience contributed to the character Adam Rhine.
Still, Audacity was Riley’s story.
The next novel is more complicated. It’s made up of a range of characters, each similarly important and crucial to the story. The Intangibles is going to be slightly more Russian as novels go, even though it’s centered in an imaginary but familiar South Carolina town known as Fairmont.
By the wondrous miracle of having my job eliminated, I now have the opportunity to concentrate on writing fiction, not to mention songwriting, another love. I’m not going to stop offering my observations on NASCAR, or other sports, or to borrow a Dan Jenkins title, Life Its Ownself. This blog will be a regular means of communicating what happens to butter my grits at the time.
I’m going to hit the road to sell my book and sing my songs. I won’t be holed up in this cave all the time. I’ve got to get out so that I can maintain touch with the world about which I aspire to write.
It’s a challenge. I’m going to give it a shot. It’s the Riley coming out in me.