“Let me get this straight, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father. We’ve been chatting regularly the last couple of years, the skeleton and I. A long overdue conversation, you might say. My father’s skeleton has been resting in his dirt bed now for more than twelve years. He finally has time for contemplation, to consider the things he wished he’d said and done while he was walking among us.
“Yes, yes,” said the skeleton. “But I want to try to understand something specific here, Elie, while you natter on in your blahg about every random gargoyle of injustice you encounter– and, it goes without saying, the less income you have the more stinking injustice will be thrust into your face to deal with. I want to know what you actually expect to accomplish by telling the story of my life. Your plan involves the telling of this story… and then?” The skeleton raised an open hand and turned it palm up.
“OK, you write this definitive, historically accurate, politically informed story, themes as urgent today as they were in 1932, and you manage to do a second draft you’re pretty happy with. It’s now a fairly snappy read, a story someone would be interested in reading. It pulls together all kinds of interesting historical moments, personal and national, illuminates them from cool angles, fits them into an ongoing puzzle of human irrationality and hope. It works in the difficult question of how a person can truly forgive an abuser and learn to live a better way. A good read, thoughtful, measured, thought–provoking. Done and done, you could say. Then, all you have to do is find an agent and then a publisher so you can both get paid.
“But let’s assume your primary aim was to write the complex story of your complicated father as clearly as possible, to understand the relationship and set the issues out calmly, for yourself and anyone else, with no regard for the commercial success or failure of the manuscript. If so, you would appear to be almost done with this project and we’d have to call it largely successful, in the manner of Bear Bryant’s moral victory– which he disparagingly, and accurately, compared to kissing your sister. But I’m trying to put my finger on what exactly you aim to do with this Book of Irv, what your real hopes are for this thing you’ve been working on, systematically now, for the last two years.”
Sell it to the highest bidder, obviously.
“Well, you say that, but that has always been a distant after-thought for you, getting paid by the high bidder, or by any bidder at all, for that matter. How much of writing this manuscript was motivated by a need to get some corporate princeling to pay you for your time tapping out little lines of carefully marshaled words several hours every day? I’m trying to understand what, exactly, it is you hope to get out of finishing this book. What role a need for recognition as a writer plays in your motivation. How you think the success of this book might change your life.”
Part of my motivation, seriously, is to say “fuck you, Hitler.” I reclaim your life, and your unknown life stands in for a brutally culled generation, a tiny handful left from a huge family on both sides, thanks to Mr. Fucking Hitler. The rabid madman published an unreadable doorstop of a screed called Mein Kampf, after becoming well-known for a failed authoritarian coup he defended stirringly at his public trial, and lived off the royalties of that giant piece of dreck for a decade. Until he actually took power and started carrying out the insane proposals he ranted about in the book.
“Whoa, Elie, ‘fuck Hitler?’ That’s really the best you can come up with? Buy this book because, fuck Hitler, yo?” the skeleton did a stiff armed Seig Heil and then let his skinny arm go limp.
Part of it, yeah. Testifying. Kill my whole family, you insane asshole, but since you didn’t manage to kill my parents, or me, I get the final last word. You know one big reason why our family was so insane? Every relative left behind where we come from was killed by mobs, factions whipped to murderous frenzy by that master of marketing and self-promotion, Germany’s savior, the charismatic psychopath Mr. Hitler. There are white douchebags right now buying copies of Mein Kampf, hanging pictures of that foaming-at-the-mouth Alsatian bitch in their dens, next to the mounted heads of animals they’ve killed.
“Seriously, Elie,” said the skeleton. “I take your point, but still. Hitler’s the best you can do? You’re going to dedicate the book to mom and Hitler?”
Hah, funny you should say that. The thought did cross my mind, though I realized at once it would be problematic.
“Obviously,” said the skeleton. “But your little Hitler pivot doesn’t distract me from trying to get the honest answer to my actual question. We’re not on some network talk show where you can get away with that kind of shit. We have all the time in the world, all the time left in your world, anyway. I want to know how important getting this ms. into print, and being paid for it, is to you.
“You know, we can dance around and around– and I can go for days, now that I’m but a skeleton– or you can honestly weigh how important getting paid is to you, how pressing the need to be recognized for honing your ability to write about what moves you.”
Both things are important to me. I’ve been paid a couple of times for writing, $250 a pop. It felt great. Once the words are published they are something everyone in our consumer society can understand. Send the link to the mangled prose, worked over by the same ham-fisted hack who gives the thumbs up or thumbs down on paying you, and every friend you send it to will write back with a happy ‘atta boy!’ Write something equally moving, send it to the same group of friends, and the reaction is a kind of chagrined silence. The question hanging in the air is: what the fuck? Get paid for this work and send me the link, I’ll be happy to see it, but this…. I don’t have any way to talk about this if it’s just a page from your diary…
“That’s the world, Elie,” said the skeleton. “Until a paid critic for a well-respected journal writes appreciatively about your important work, how is anyone to know how good or important it really is? You can bitch about a materialistic, shallow, clueless consumer society where all creativity must be commodified before it can be grasped, a culture best conjured by the images in a zombie movie– or you can sell that bitching. Are you serious about selling your bitching, sir?”
Serious as Hitler, dad.
“How important is the conversation you will have with strangers, once the book is out in the public?”
Clearly, also very important. Strangers are ultimately who I am writing for. My friends will be happy for me, a few will even read the book cover to cover. But the real audience for this book is people who never heard of Irv Widaen. As far as they go, he’s a fictional front man for the telling of a story much bigger than the conflicts of his individual life. The larger conversation, that’s really what I am excited about.
“Clearly,” said the skeleton. “So excited you’d engage in a two year chat with a dead man, for lack of a more suitable interlocutor.”
One small step better than talking to the wall, I think you’ll agree.
“You’ll get no argument from me, Elie. How important is your fantasy of talking to Terry Gross and Leonard Lopate about the book?”
Fairly important, I guess. For multiple reasons. Leaving aside the marketing angle, and getting to speak directly to their demographic, I think they are both excellent interviewers and I’d enjoy talking to them. Beyond that, they don’t talk to just anybody. Sometimes you’ll hear an interview that seems to contradict that, but in general, they are asking nuanced, intelligent questions about things that people have written, sung, acted out. Would you not have looked forward to a chance to talk to somebody like that?
“Oh, absolutely,” said the skeleton, beginning to slump back into his grave.
Well, there you go, dad. Anyway, let me catch you later, you seem to be slouching toward a well-deserved nap.
“My reward,” said the skeleton, settling back into the dark earth of his grave.