Lisa's are mighty and we always prevail (lrph) Mon 7 Dec 09 13:40
Charlie Haas, author of "The Enthusiast," is our next guest in Inkwell.vue. Charlie Haas was born in Brooklyn, New York, and now lives in Oakland, California. He's written for a few dozen magazines, including New West, Esquire, Outside, Mother Jones, and Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. His screenwriting credits include Over the Edge, Gremlins 2, and Matinee. His novel "The Enthusiast" was published by Harper Perennial in May of 2009. Leading our discussion will be Ed Ward. Ed Ward has been reading since he can remember and writing professionally since he was 16, largely for magazines and newspapers, most of which are now out of business. He's also been "rock and roll historian" for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross since the show's inception. He lives in Montpellier, France and is working on a memoir of his 15 years in Berlin. Thank you both for being here.
Ed Ward (captward) Tue 8 Dec 09 08:30
Always a pleasure. I'm 2/3 of my way through my second reading of the book, and it's as enjoyable -- more so, even -- than the first time. I have a lot to say about the story of Henry Bay, editor of small-circulation magazines for people with special hobbies and sporting activities, not to mention about the way Charlie writes, but I need to clear one thing up right away. Over the years, it goes without saying that Henry's not making a lot of money, so he's always driving lousy cars. I recognize most of them -- hell, I've rented most of them at one time or another -- but...please tell me there has never been a car named the Flurry, the Sidekick, or the Echo.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Tue 8 Dec 09 09:07
Let me first say that I'm flattered to be here, and to have Ed as leader. Big thanks to The WELL for the invitation. The Flurry is the only made-up car in the book. (The Echo was a bottom-of-the-line Toyota in the early aughts, and Suzuki made the trouble-prone Sidekick in the '90s.) I tried to saddle Henry with the cheapest and meekest cars available. As he tells us: "In my ten years on the road I never got two hundred dollars ahead... You could chart my lack of progress by the cars I drove: a Sidekick, an Escort, a Protégé, a Kadett, an Aspire, a Justy, and for six awful months a Flurry, one of the most entry-level cars ever made by a Big Three manufacturer." Ah, the magazine life.
Ed Ward (captward) Tue 8 Dec 09 09:26
I know it's made me the rich, powerful, and well-regarded man I am today, no question. But here's a question: to what degree is Henry's story yours? Not so much literally -- there's very little difference between a crappy job at a skateboard magazine and a crappy job at the New Yorker -- as a reflection on crappy jobs you've had. How much of your career has been in magazines?
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Tue 8 Dec 09 10:04
My story, both professional and personal, overlaps with Henry's in some places and not others. I never had his series of jobs at enthusiast publications, but my years of writing for general-interest magazines sent me to some out-of-the-way places and odd subcultures that helped me come up with the tall tales of Henry's jobs at Spelunk, Cozy: The Magazine of Tea, and so on. (And I did have those bad cars and apartments.) But also: When I started the book, I'd been screenwriting for many years. I don't think there's any need here for me to add to the literature of complaint about writing for Hollywood -- how marginalized the writer can feel at times. But that experience did feed into the what-am-I-doing-here way that Henry feels by the time he's working for Clean Page. And yet: am I grateful to have made a living doing both those things, and to have seen what I saw? Yes. The moment in the book when Henry tells Gerald's moving man about good places to stop in towns Henry thought he never wanted to see again, when he says "Actually, it's kind of a great drive" -- in short, when he stops hating his past -- that's definitely a place where our stories coincide.
Ed Ward (captward) Tue 8 Dec 09 11:20
Did writing for the movies influence the way the narrative here came out? Did it make you hungry to do things you can't do in film? If so, what? If not, what are the similarities? I guess this question boils down to: why a novel?
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Tue 8 Dec 09 12:53
There may be some Hollywood plotting habits in the book -- e.g., when Henry's in the woods and uses the stuff he learned at "County Ways," that's probably a vestige of screenwriting. But yes, I was definitely hungry to do some non-movie things. Interior monologue... longer speeches... subtler jokes... making one's case to the reader with turns of phrase outside of dialogue... but mostly, the chance to write a somewhat idiosyncratic story, one whose rhythm doesn't run on a two-hour, three-act clock. (I don't think the "Cozy" chapter -- some people's favorite -- would have survived the movie process. It does nothing for the plot, but it's crucial to Henry's story.) When I was working in movies, my frequent joke was "What I really want to do is indirect." That's one answer to "Why a novel?" Another, I think, is that there's business (psychological, emotional, philosophical) that you want to transact with yourself and your audience -- business that, for some of us writer types, isn't going to get done outside of fiction.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 9 Dec 09 07:59
You know, one thing that's great about reading The Enthusiast is the constant indirection, sentences that seem to be going in one direction only to land in another. For a while, during my first reading, I thought of them as "punch lines," even when the punch wasnt humorous, but on the second go-round, it was more like expressing the confusion Henry constantly feels -- that we all feel at least from time to time as we go through life. Examples: "My story was that I'd arrived at the conference center, gone looking for Barney, and immediately gotten lost. I was a little annoyed at how readily everyone believed it." "Gerald had even advised me on what food to take: Pilot crackers, beef jerk, apples, and white cheese. That was what the forty-niners had brought to California, he said, and it was about time someone took it back." "In honor of her childhood, Mom called religion 'Halloween on speed' and Dad liked to say we were 'decent, church-fearing Americans.'" But although they work out of context here as one-liners (or two-liners), in context that's just the way the book is written, and it's a wonderfully fresh story-telling style, although it undoubtedly has antecedents.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Wed 9 Dec 09 09:17
I have little to say to that one except thanks. If I had to say where that tendency in the writing comes from, I'd cite reading humorists, writing comedy myself, and reading poetry, the New York School poets in particular. It's about how the truth keeps sneaking up on Henry / the reader / all of us.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 9 Dec 09 09:35
I loved this book! And I want to underscore what Ed said about the "punch lines" - so many brilliant turns of phrase that aren't just there to call attention to themselves but serve the story perfectly. I wore out a pencil underlining them. I also wanted to quote one of my favorite passages, which I think nails the falling-in-love thing: > "The woman across the room got off the phone and came over. She was tall, > with a sand-blond ponytail, in a chambray shirt, fishing vest, hiking > boots, and jeans . The was a few years older than I was. Her camping > clothes and lack of makeup made her beauty seem like a knack, something > she'd picked up along with fly-tying. Her face was friendly, but the gray > eyes reserved the right to assess and make fun. There was the prospect of a > radiant smirk . Out of nowhere I saw something, a room I'd never been in, > with sunlight on a worn wooden floor, and the sound outside of a breeze > over water . I realized I'd made up a frame of her childhood, a lakeside > house where she'd run through that room keeping up with a brother or two, > as if she'd just told me about it. When she spoke again the image was > gone."
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Wed 9 Dec 09 10:06
David, thanks so much!
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 9 Dec 09 10:18
Not knowing doodly-squat about the New York School of poets, I'd love for you to expand on that thought, Charlie.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Wed 9 Dec 09 11:46
Ah! Well, the "first wave" of the school is generally considered to have centered around John Ashberry, Frank O'Hara, and Kenneth Koch. David Lehman's book "The Last Avant-Garde" is a useful intro to their lives and poetics, and excellent omnibus collections of their work have been coming out in recent years. The "second wave" included Ron Padgett, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, and a host of others, most of them associated with the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. Joe Brainard, the painter and collagist, did the covers for many of their books, turned their poems into wonderful comic strips, and was a fine writer as well. (Larry Rivers and Jim Dine also collaborated with these guys.) They were a very productive crowd when I was a teenager, and I read their work eagerly. The tone of Padgett's work in particular -- laconic, sometimes hilariously abrupt, but always warm and conversational -- made a big impact on me. (And still does -- he continues to produce delightful books.)
uber-muso hipster hyperbole (pjm) Wed 9 Dec 09 13:33
I've only read the posts in this interview and I already love this book. I will get a copy ASAP.
David Dodd (ddodd) Wed 9 Dec 09 13:35
How great to see this book on Inkwell! I loved it, and have recommended it to a lot of folks. Just yesterday my wife Diana gave it to a patron at the Novato library (they had two copies on the new book shelf!). My question for Charlie: several times, I have seen this referred to as a "first novel." Not so, says I! Can you talk a bit about your real "first novel"? Personally, I enjoyed it a lot, but it's a bit hard to find. And why did you wait so long to make a second sally into the form (or maybe you have a trunk full of novels--one can hope...)?
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 9 Dec 09 13:55
A quick note to our offsite readers...You may ask your questions of Charlie by emailing them to <email@example.com>
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Wed 9 Dec 09 14:26
Uber-muso and David, thanks so much for your kind words. David, I think you're talking about a mystery Tim Hunter and I wrote back when I was in college, long before Tim became the celebrated director of "River's Edge" and several other good movies. We were trying to come up with a way into the film trade, and the mystery was that... didn't go to the screen, but it was published. When we did get our first movie made, it was "Over the Edge," Matt Dillon's first picture, directed by Jonathan Kaplan. Tim and I wrote the novelization ourselves (published by Grove Press), so I guess that's a previous novel too. Can we call "The Enthusiast" my first solo novel? My first novel written for non-movie purposes? As to why I waited so long... movies and magazine writing were fun to do, but I also had the idea for "The Enthusiast" a long time before I knew how to write it. By which I mean noticing stuff about life as well as learning about writing.
David Dodd (ddodd) Wed 9 Dec 09 14:41
Great answer, Charlie! And yes, it is YOUR first novel, so I will withdraw my picayune objection...
David Dodd (ddodd) Wed 9 Dec 09 14:42
By the way: Soul Hit is the title of the Tim Hunter / Charlie Haas mystery. I think.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Thu 10 Dec 09 02:48
A postscript about the New York School poets: if you go to my Web page (www.harpercollins.com/charliehaas) and look at "Essays" on the lower right, you'll find (along with some humor pieces and other odds and ends) a little appreciation called "Joe, Ted, and Ron."
Maria Rosales (rosmar) Thu 10 Dec 09 08:54
This book is SO good. You really do know how to notice stuff about life. I'm curious about the brother--I ended the novel with a sense that maybe, in a strange way, the accident had been good for him. Was that your sense, too? Also, I thought it was interesting that the protesters were all about the fetuses, when the researchers also did things like giving kittens brain damage so they could figure out how to fix it. My main point--I loved this book.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Thu 10 Dec 09 09:25
Maria, thanks so much. I wouldnt say the injury is good for Barney per se, but it sure has some positive side effects on the relationships among Henry, Barney, Deirdre, Patti, Michael, and Pearl. An ill wind that blows some good. From pretty early in the writing process, I had the ending clearly in mind -- I wanted to build to the state of mind in which we find Henry at the close. Barneys injury contributes to that. I dont think Henry would be who he is at the end without dealing with it. I like your point about the protesters and scientists as well... rights and values in conflict all over the place.
David Dodd (ddodd) Thu 10 Dec 09 13:26
Another great thing about this book is the real affection it conjures (or did in me, anyway) for those enthusiast magazines. I was reminded of two that I subscribed to when I was a kid. "Quinto Lingo," which was a magazine for language nuts, with every article in five languages; and "The Trader Speaks," a real enthusiast magazine copied on legal size paper, folded over, and stapled, about baseball card collecting. Those were my passions, and the fact that there were others out there who shared my craziness made life more worthwhile... And then, later on, The Golden Road.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 10 Dec 09 13:33
Fanzines of a sort. But in other ways, not.
Charlie Haas (charliehaas) Thu 10 Dec 09 14:00
It seems to me that enthusiasms like the ones in the book give people the opportunity to be their own fans, or at least not someone else's. The kite buggy event in the desert that Henry goes to cover is real (www.nabx.net). I went. Like Henry, I was the only person there without a kite buggy. A few hundred participants, no spectators, and a sport most people have never heard of. And the people in the desert don't care -- they just love doing it and watching one another do it. A pure enthusiasm, which is why I thought it was suitable for Henry's first job. And as he says: "There's a magazine as soon as five people find a new way to hurt themselves."
Lisa Harris (lrph) Fri 11 Dec 09 13:40
I was just coming in to post that line and comment on how true, yet strange, it is. I have always been intrigued by the plethora of magazines devoted to hobbies and interests that I didn't know existed. I just began reading yesterday, and hope to spend more quality time with Henry over the weekend.
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