Dear James Franco:
On Thursday I arrived in Orlando for a sort-of-but-not-quite book tour. If I haven’t said this enough, my first book, a novella called Wally, was just published by Burrow Press. Buy it: http://burrowpress.com/wally/
You can get it on Amazon as well: http://www.amazon.com/Wally-Don-Peteroy/dp/0984953817/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352535226&sr=8-1&keywords=don+peteroy+wally
And if you need a better sales pitch, you can watch the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G1IdIjfmBI
Anyway, I want to inform you about my Florida trip, but I fear boring you. Been there, done that, right? You’re probably desensitized to the enormity and significance of experiences like I had last weekend. Yet, my gut insists that I tell you the story, though I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe you’d benefit from vicariously positioning yourself within the realm of my small-scale triumphs. Maybe I’ll evoke your nostalgia for the early days of your writing career, when you had to fight your way up from street-level; when you stuffed countless envelopes with stories and braced yourself for the subsequent deluge of rejections; when you felt bewildered, lost, intimidated, terrified; when nobody complemented your writing or even wanted to help you make it better because, to them, you were no one special, you were just one of the thousands of aspiring writers; when the idea of having an agent seemed as impossible as trying to count how many miles are in the color orange; when you wished to God that someone would show you how to navigate your way through this massive and confusing culture, with all its AWP stuff and lit magazines and contests; when you wished to God that someone would grant you all the time in the world to focus on your writing, while he takes care of figuring everything out for you; someone who’d know which of the thousands of magazines to send stuff to, how to find their addresses and current editors, and how to write a cover letter. Nostalgia is healthy James. When we remember how hard things were, it humbles us and quiets the ego.
My flight arrived on Thursday at 1:00. Ryan, the publisher and editor at Burrow Press, picked me up at the airport, and then drove me to Scott’s house. Scott is a kind man who puts up couch-surfers. This all worked out favorably, since I didn’t have money for a hotel. Originally, I wanted to pitch a tent at a campground or sleep in the bushes at a nearby park. The latter seemed more appealing. Although this sounds nonsensical, I’ll take any opportunity to manufacture my image in creative ways. My favorite writers were also skilled at performing the role of the aloof and crazy writer. Think about it: a writer comes to town for several events pertaining to his book release, and when people ask him where he’s staying, he answers, “I’m sleeping in a park. I found a nice cluster of bushes that I can crawl into.” He’s disheveled, mildly smelly, and dirty. He rolls out of the bushes all scraped up, walks six blocks, and arrives at the venue hosting his reading. Then, when he’s done, he goes back to the park and slithers back inside the bushes. I like that.
Ryan wasn’t thrilled with the idea. I understood why. But maybe if I’m lucky enough to have a third book one day, I’ll say, “I will only come to do a reading if you let me sleep in the bushes.”
After meeting Scott, we headed down to the University of Central Florida. I’d been invited to do two events on campus. A professor of Creative Writing had invited me to read to his undergraduate class of about thirty students. They were taking am upper-level section on the novella. Incidentally, I’d written a novella. I would read for about fifteen minutes, and then open the floor for a Q & A session.
The reading went OK. The students enjoyed it, but I picked a scene that takes a long time before anything really develops. The Q&A session—my first ever—was far more interesting. Here’s the thing. I’m about to tell you the thing. You’re acquainted with the social decorum of graduate programs; you’ve undoubtedly noticed—and perhaps perpetuated—the unspoken rule that when a visiting writer or scholar opens up his/her discussion for questions, you best not ask anything stupid (or too smart. Asking Denis Johnson to elaborate on the post-Lacanian mirror-inversion of gender commoditization would make you seem dickish). Dim-witted inquires, supposedly, involve subject matters like author biography, inspiration, ideas, habits, and influences. Whenever a writer visits UC, those are precisely the questions I’d like to ask, but I bite my tongue. Undergraduates, however, don’t give the fuck about etiquette or asking impressive, theoretical questions. They’re eager, and they want to know The Secret; they want The Answer to this whole writing business. During the entire forty-five minutes, there wasn’t a single moment of awkward silence lingering in the classroom because we had urgent and important matters to discuss. Typical questions were, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, “How do you know when a story is finished and ready to be sent out?”, “How much time do you spend writing every day?”, “How do you become a better writer?”, “How do you find your voice?”, “How did you write Wally?”, “How did you go about finding a publisher?” and so on. I loved it. They wanted to know every effing thing about the writer, the writer’s lifestyle, the writer’s struggles, the writer’s work ethic, and it was—to coin a new phrase—a breath of fresh air to be in a classroom where students weren’t ashamed to be beginners.
I’ve gone on too long already, and I’m still on day one. Let me just wrap up this posting by telling you about the rest of Thursday. After my classroom visit, I kindly “invited” the students to buy my book. I anticipated that maybe four or five would make the purchase, but get this: everyone bought it. I think I outsold Cincinnati in that one undergraduate class. I suddenly have an urge to visit more undergraduate writing classes. Hmmm.
After the class, we (me, Ryan, and the professor who’d hooked me up) went out to eat. Then, it was onto the next event—a public reading at UCF, sponsored by one of the student organizations. Days prior, when I’d imagined the event, I saw myself in some trashy community room in the student union. I visualized leftover pizza boxes from the day’s earlier functions, a threadbare carpet marked with soda stains, old couches and recliners filled with holes and gashes and bleeding out their cotton interiors, the walls a patchwork eyesore of fliers and announcements, and a rattling Coke machine in the corner. Nope, James Franco. Fantasy fail. My imagination was incorrect. The event was in a partitioned ballroom, a location that seemed far too elegant for someone who isn’t even considered an “emerging writer.” There was a stage with drapes hanging from the back wall, a podium, a microphone, and rows of seats. Not metal fold-out chairs or those generic plastic ones found in student union buildings, cafeterias, and dorms, but nice, cushioned seats. This was some AWP-style shit. I thought, “Have you mistaken me for someone else?” I glanced around for Lorrie Moore. I checked to see if Ron Carlson was taking a shit in the bathroom, or if Steve Almond was sitting at a table outside, with his head planted down on his arms. No, James Franco, this was about me. How’d I know? There was a cookie cake on a table by the door. “Welcome Don Peteroy” was written in sugary goo across the cake’s surface. Again, this seemed unreal. I’d spent most of my childhood convinced that I’d become the kind of person that nobody would welcome, that my celebratory cake would consist of fish guts and kitty litter, and would bear the words “Go Elsewhere” in the blood and tears of my traumatized victims.
The place filled up, just about every seat taken. I read. I read a better part, a manic interior diatribe about the Transformers action figure, Soundwave. They loved it. And then, the Q & A. I wasn’t nervous at all because I absolutely love talking to aspiring writers. Halfway through, I’d discovered my shtick. I’d received the same variety of questions that were asked earlier, and my responses—at least according to how I heard myself—were more along the motivational speaker lines. I was the Wayne Dyer of young writers, telling them that in the first draft, they mustn’t judge themselves; rather, they must outrun the inner-critic who always says, “Your writing sucks! Just look at that sentence! It’s horrible! Why even bother to go on? Face it, you’ll never been a good writer!” Once that first draft is finished, catch your breath, take a shower, eat, and watch some TV. Later, the critic—who you’d left in the dust—will finally arrive, panting and sweating from a long jog. Invite him/her in. Return to your draft, and now give the critic permission to trash it. He’ll be loud at first, pointing out every little mistake as evidence of your ineptitude, but the more you revise, the less he’ll have to say. You’ll know your story’s done when he’s quiet, when he’s searching hard for menial flaws, when he occasionally mumbles something trivial. Revising draft after draft effectively covers the critic’s mouth with duct tape. (If you don’t have a critic—if you’re so confident in your ability to write wonderful prose—find a critic. You’re deluding yourself. You’ll never get anywhere).
I was digging it James, not in a self-obsessed way, but on a more karmic level. Here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you the thing. I strongly believe that you can’t keep what you have unless you give it away. When I first started writing, I had no community—no workshops to point out my errors; no mentors; no way to develop craft other than through trial and error; no knowledge of the literary magazine culture’s conventions and practices; no understanding of how to gain access and maneuver myself through that world; and no insight about what it means to fail (I would have loved to know that most writers amass hundreds of rejections). Here I was in a position to both inform and encourage, to let confused and timid writers know that getting 100 rejections isn’t the end of the world—it’s not even close, to impart them with the uncomfortable wisdom that if you want this, casual reading and writing won’t suffice—there are no shortcuts, unless, of course, you have an economic and cultural advantage, but those instances are rare.
I felt alive again, James Franco. Not because I got a lot of attention and praise, but because—I hope—a whole bunch of writers left the ballroom feeling better about themselves, feeling optimistic even though failure is the most common outcome, feeling determined and inspired to read and write as if the world depended on it. The crazy thing is, after winning the Playboy College Fiction contest and getting Wally published, I’ve had a difficult time writing. Talking to these students brought me back to my ground-state. I felt inspired for the first time in about a year. I’ve got some stories on my plate, and I’m eager to make another full revision on the Wally’s sequel, My Helicopter Heart (The 600 page novel about Wally stalking your friend Kirsten Dunst during the Christian Apocalypse).
I have three other events I’d like to talk about. It might take me a long time to cover them because I have a more important blog-related project in the works. Something interactive.
Anyway, I hope that my success reminded you of all your little successes you accrued on your way up, and that you’re feeling a bit of gratitude about where you’ve gone and where you are as a writer.
Damn it, James! I waited too long to write the follow-up I promised—the Book Release Party Part Two post. By now, the excitement’s worn off. If I force myself to continue anyway, I’ll fail to summon the enthusiasm and gratitude expressed in part one. I’d either have to adopt a fallacious tone in order to facilitate a consistency of mood between parts one and two, or I could just let my current sourness usurp the optimism I’d intended on carrying through to the follow-up. The latter’s more appealing because it’ll require less work. Hell, it might be fun to defamiliarize the cheerful ground-state of my previously post by telling the rest of the story with a sense of morbid reflection: “So I got up there and read some shit. There were shadows everywhere, but they came from nowhere. Maybe these were the shadows of the literary greats who’d come before me. I swore I could hear them retching as I read. I closed my book and sat down. What else can you do in life but sit? Why stand? Nobody cares about you, or, for the love of God, fiction. Fiction! Ha! What a joke.”
In regards to writing my follow-up, I like the idea of embracing my current nihilistic state, but there’s a drawback. My disavowal of last week’s good cheer will do nothing but emphasize the tonal disparities between parts one and two. A grouchy sequel to a joyful testimony? Imagine We Bought A Zoo Part Two: The Honeymoon’s Over, Bitch! Matt Damon realizes that happiness is no more substantial than a two-week old air freshener hanging over an open sewer. He pushes Scarlett Johansson into a ravine, then sets the zoo ablaze. If I stay true to my gloom, I’ll lose the story and end up demonstrating the irrefutable evidence that I’m emotionally and philosophically inconsistent, that my feelings and world views one day are wholly incompatible with the nonsense in my head the next day.
See, everything’s been mildly shitty since October 19th. I’ve got high-class problems, so I’ll spare you the tirade. Instead, here’s some good news. I’m going to Orlando this week for something that might be considered a book tour. I don’t have a grasp on what actually constitutes a book tour. I’m doing multiple readings in a small area. Is that sufficient enough? Can you forgive me my tendency to embellish, and just agree that what I’m doing is a fucking book6 tour? I need this line on my CV. Sooner or later, I’ll have a PhD (I hope) and I’ll need a job. I want to say to my interviewers, “Did you happen to catch line 34 on my CV? You don’t recall it? Yes, I agree, there’s a lot. Well, let’s look at it. Right here; this line. Why don’t we read it together? ‘In November of 2012, Don Peteroy went on a book tour of Florida, in support of his novella, Wally.’”
Yes, the book tour is in Florida. But not all of Florida. Just Orlando. I’ll be reading at an event called Functionally Literate on November 3rd. It’s at Urban reThink, the non-profit connected with Burrow Press. I’ll be doing a reading at the University of Central Florida, and, get this, I’m attending one of the school’s undergraduate writing classes as a guest lecturer or interviewee or some kind of living, breathing, and publically accessible body of knowledge who knows a thing or two about writing a novella.
Here’s what I know, by the way: If you want to write a novella, sit down and write the shit without fucking up. And if you do fuck up, try to stop. Otherwise, when people read your novella, they’re going to think you’re an asshole or something. One person will hand your novella to another person and say, “Read this. Isn’t he an asshole?”
I’ll be doing other things, but right now, I can’t remember what. One thing, though: I’ll be looking for you. Not in an active, creepy way, but in a general, hopeful way. I’m optimistic; the likelihood of you showing up at my reading is much greater than, say, persuading Mitt Romney to sit on the steps of his local Planned Parenthood and give free hand jobs to all the men who’ve honored and respected their lovers’ dignity by going to Planned Parenthood together. If you’re interested, I’ve included in this post the day, time, and location. For my reading event. Not for Planned Parenthood hand jobs. But you’re welcome to give out free hand jobs at Planned Parenthood. If you did that, I’d truly know how you feel about me. And you’d know how a lot of horny men feel about you.
I’m back to the original question: should I go ahead and write about the rest of the book release party? I’m inclined to hold off until I’m in a better mood. Maybe once I get to Orlando, I’ll feel less melancholic.
And speaking of melancholy, I’ve written the initial drafts for my first batch of query letters to (specific) agents. I’m currently revising the letters, and finding the task rather arduous because my insecurities keep interfering. I can’t stop my mind from anticipating the difficulties I’ll face once I start asking these agents if they’d be interested in representing my novel. I’m sure you remember going though the exact same ordeal. Any words of advice? Should I look for ways to dodge the query-letter slush pile? Should I forget these letters and go “network” some more? I don’t have the money to go to Bread Loaf, or the money to pay for a 20-minute private consultation and manuscript critique with big-time agent person. I don’t have Jonathan Safran Foer’s phone number anymore. I’m doing street-level unsolicited querying. Nor do I entertain any delusions about finding myself on the receiving end of extraordinarily fortunate outcomes (though I won’t dismiss the possibility). I’ve chosen to put myself up against substantially unfavorable odds, given my choice of topic and characters. Just to give you an idea of how I’m shooting myself in the foot, here’s the rough version of the query letter’s first line:
I suppose I could do worse. I could write a memoir in which I contextualize every single fart I’ve blasted in the last year.
What I really want, James, is to see you in Florida. I want us to sit side by side in beach chairs, along the shoulder of a highway leading to Disney World. I want us to smoke cigars and laugh at the traffic. Maybe do a crossword puzzle, listen to an AC/DC cassette on a boom box, see who can fart the loudest and then offer the most high-brow Zizekian contextualization of the said fart, and then call it quits and go our separate ways.
Functionally Literate: A Literary Function.
Saturday November 3rd, 7:00PM
625 E Central Blvd, Orlando, Florida 32801
(Me. The dude who won the 2012 Playboy College Fiction Contest and wrote Wally)
JOHN HENRY FLEMING
(founding editor of Saw Palm, author, writing professor at USF)
(poet, author of Satellite Beach)
(founder of Postcard Press, Kerouac Writer in Residence)
Dear James Franco:
Do tell me, James, when you received your printed copy of Palo Alto, your premiere collection of short stories (published by Scribner, nonetheless), did it feel like having unprotected sex for the first time? When you ripped the cellophane off the book, did you think, “This is better than most orgasms”? Did your accomplishment evoke so much awe that, for a moment, you struggled to reconcile the previously unpublished James Franco persona with the present James Franco, literary success? Was the psychic disharmony so profound that you felt yourself split in two? When you glanced at your headshot on the jacket, was it a Lacanian-mirror moment? Am I becoming too theoretical now? You’re a Ph.D. student, you know what I’m talking about. When you gazed into your own face, when you re-read the blubs, did you chuckle in disbelief? Did that little one-note laugh unify the two seemingly incongruent James Francos into one? Was your psychic fragmentation resolved? Did you say, “Now, alas, I am a writer”?
Or were you mildly indifferent? Did you regard your publication (with Scribner, nonetheless), as necessary? As compulsory as, say, pissing after two pitchers of beer? Was literary achievement practically unavoidable? Did you cradle the book against your chest and skip around joyfully, or did you give it a quick glance, then cast it aside with the rest of the junk piled on your desk?
I want to believe that you went somewhere private and cried. I want to believe that you whispered, “God, thank you.”
Do you know that my first published book is coming out in October? Do you know that ever since I got the acceptance email in December, every day has felt like an unprotected orgasm?
I didn’t think it’d be inevitable. I was surprised. Imagine finding a dead owl in your mailbox. That’s how outlandish the acceptance email seemed to me.
Did I ever tell you that I tried to become a rock star? That was hell.
The book is called Wally. It’s a novella. That means “short novel” but not short enough to be considered a long-short-story. I started writing it in 2007, I think. I’ve rewritten it a hundred times. Last summer, I deemed the current draft competent enough to send to out to a small handful of indie presses. I usually don’t conduct my business in small handfuls; rather I prefer the carpet bomb method. It makes sense. As you may or may not know, everyone is trying to get a book published, and most small presses put out no more than two or three titles a year. We’re in the business of failure, but there are ways to stack the odds in your favor. If you load a cannon with darts and fire it at a target, chances are, one of the darts will hit bull’s eye.
I sent the novella to six places. Hardly a cannon blast. I was still unsure of myself, so I was testing the waters, hoping that my six inevitable rejections would be accompanied by an editor’s response. Maybe someone would tell me something useful, like, “Although this story was a fun read, it needs more of a sense of place,” or, “too nostalgic.” But, a few months later, I found myself writing emails to five of those presses, stating, “Please remove my manuscript from consideration, it has been accepted elsewhere.”
The publisher is Burrow Press. They’re in Orlando. They like my writing.
So here’s the thing. First book, indie press, novella. Not exactly the bestseller formula. But I’m going to do whatever possible to avoid becoming one of those writers who has a trunk full of his own books, which is 99% of them. I spent so long writing the thing, that to act dismissively once it goes into print would be like investing your retirement account in a start-up company that specializes in cup-holder-holders. If I go online and search “Book Promotion,” countless experts will tell me it’s all about the marketing (and, incidentally, they’ll tell me I can learn their effective strategies by purchasing their books on how to market books).
Book trailers have become a popular promotional strategy. The first book trailer I ever saw was for The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III. It confused me. The trailer seemed less about the book and more about Andre’s ability to enact and traverse socially constructed gender codes and behaviors. In one scene, he’s cutting wood with a circular saw. He tells his audience that he’s a self-taught carpenter, and he built his own house. We see him driving his pick-up truck. Perhaps the agenda here is to neutralize stereotypes, or to exonerate Andre from affiliation with all the other prissy writers who have soft hands and sit on their lazy asses and intellectualize shit all day. Dubus’s message is clear: “If you think I haven’t got testicles, take a look at the size of these nuts.” After proving his manhood, he shows us family photographs. Then we see Andre playing ball with his kids, snuggling up to his wife, and chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Here, he’s saying, “Although my nuts are huge, they’ve never prevented me from participating in domestic rituals. Listen ladies, I’ve got a soft side.” He explains the book’s plot, which the trailer treats as an afterthought. After a brief synopsis, Andre goes shopping for vegetables and flowers. At the cash register, he pulls out a wad of dollar bills and sorts through them. The only possible justification for filming this trivial grocery store transaction is that money is thematically relevant to the book’s plot. But come on! What this scene really implies is that Dubus is so fucking good at everything he does—writing, carpentry, cooking, and parenting—that he’s obtained what everyone else wants: financial security. This trailer is meant to sell Andre Dubas III, the ideal husband, the ideal man. By buying the book, you buy into the dream of everyman becoming as great as Andre. Check it out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGIWRbIHOD8
I want a book trailer, but I don’t want a Dubus-style trailer. If I followed his format, I’d be advertising idiocy. All of my manly home-improvement skills involve miscalculations, unintended holes in walls, getting my legs tangled up in the measuring tape, and lots of swearing. During the domesticated kitchen-guy scene, I wouldn’t be chopping vegetables. I don’t do that, it takes too long. I’d be slipping a Hungry Man dinner in the microwave. Then, at the grocery store, I’d be counting dimes and nickels.
I can’t think of an appropriate book trailer for Wally but I’m sure you can. I need you, James. Why? Because you’re James Franco, author, actor, artist, director, scholar, licensed aircraft pilot. I could spend the next twenty minutes yapping about how much I love this and that thing you’ve done, and declare that your aesthetic is what attracts me most, but I’m getting to old to exert the mental energy needed to concoct crafty, brown-nose rationalizations. What I want is the opportunities that come when you endow a work of art with your endorsement.
Can you please do my book trailer? I can pay you with nickels and dimes.
P.S. Speaking about marketing, you can pre-order my book, as well as read the first chapter online at http://burrowpress.com/wally/