The last time I interviewed you you were in the midst of a nasty breakup.  You were nervous, constantly looking over your shoulder, scouting for an exit. I thought, this guy is either a crackhead or he is being hunted. I’d heard about your proclivities and I was ready for a little weirdness, but nothing prepared me for the reality. We were only together for half an hour and it seemed like days. The entire time I felt like we were on the precipice of some great violence. I mean, it was innocent enough in the beginning. You were wearing a white dress made of an unusual fabric, plastic or latex, but with the flow and flexibility of cotton. I remember thinking, I would like a dress like that but I’d be embarrassed to wear it. Your face was all scratched from an accident. Or at least that’s what you said. You’d said you’d been on a bus and there was a crash somewhere in downstate Illinois. You insisted on the term “downstate.” You mentioned a Deer tractor and a forklift and a staple gun. You also mentioned “corn people.” And I thought, Hey, I’m the interviewer. It’s not my job to fact check this motherfucker. So I let it slide. I mean, I’d just gotten out of rehab myself and I didn’t want any trouble. It may sound stupid but I was happy to have this job.

I don’t care about your problems. You think you’re not responsible because you’re an addict, because many people you’ve passed traveling your uneven highway have decided against loving you. To me you’re just like any other narcissist working for some international literary conglomerate thinking that every interview you’re assigned is secretly about you. You should just cash your paycheck and go home to your wife (who doesn’t even like you) and your 2.4 kids and pray that nobody ever does decide to pay attention to your petty bullshit because you would burn like a dry leaf under a magnifying glass.

 

So you have a new essay collection.

Yep.

Jimmy Wallet Is Buried Alive

Here is a photograph, undated. Jimmy Wallet is seated, his face turned, the sharp lines of his chin and jaw like an alligator that doesn’t bite. He’s terrifically handsome, with a boyish nose and cheeks, a sly smile, a little patch of beard below his lip, long black dreadlocks past his shoulders. His oldest daughter, Jasmine, sits next to him. People say she should be a model. Hannah is sprawled across Jimmy’s lap, looking at the camera, laughing, Jimmy’s hand covering her stomach. Behind him are his two younger girls, Raven and Paloma, and his wife, Mechelle. Raven looks up to her mother, who is turned and kissing the baby, her lips against Paloma’s mouth and nose. It’s a perfect picture, and soon it will be all over the news.

Jimmy Wallet is in motion now. He’s walking to the store. He has a loping, lazy, long-legged walk, arms bouncing near his waist. He’s wearing baggy jeans, a red sweatshirt, and a sleeve- less leather vest. The day is serene. Jimmy breathes deep, smells the Pacific, the sage from the hillside, the jasmine from the yard. When he left Mechelle, she was cleaning up the house, packing boxes, organizing the children’s things. There’ve been tornado warnings, and Mechelle is worried they’ll have to evacuate.

Catie5On Sunday morning April 12th post the 2015 AWP conference in Minneapolis, hung over and famished at some Ecuadorian restaurant, I interviewed Catie Disabato about her debut novel The Ghost Network. The story involves the disappearance of famed pop star Molly Metropolis. When Molly goes missing, her personal assistant and a journalist join forces to determine if Molly’s been kidnapped, gone into hiding, or worse. Using Molly’s journals and song lyrics to uncover clues to her whereabouts, the women find themselves up against an obscure intellectual sect with subterranean headquarters hidden within an underground subway system in Chicago.

Before attempting to delve into the annals of critical theory, first I must comment on the title, “Adrien Brody,” because I adore Adrien Brody, the actor. I find him and his nose intriguing. I like the shadow-facets of his characters, and how he can bring a full body of darkness to his “good” characters. For this reason, Marie Calloway’s story, “Adrien Brody” (MuuMuu House), spoke to me from the title alone. I also like the aesthetics of modern technology within the landscapes of fictional narratives. I like when writers experiment with this and find new ways to creatively tell a story. I applaud writers who divulge themselves and others in a “real” sense. They are called journalists, memoirists, creative nonfiction writers, and they are to be celebrated when their crafts are true and their intentions are bigger than themselves. Likewise for a fiction writer, the intentions must be equally rigorous, true, and focused on the story. Always the story. To write any other way is masturbatory and easy and pedestrian and sloppy. And when a writer finds herself between the categories of the real and the imaginative, the possibilities are exciting, such as when a writer represents herself as a character within her own narrative—but here there is a backdoor danger. She opens herself for reader responses, not only to her story and craft, but also to her personally, as an entity aside from her art, and this is the place where academic objectivism becomes gray, where critical responses, perhaps more so than in other venues, lose the “gentleman’s code.” Apparently, the code has been lifted in response to “Adrien Brody,” as the code has been lifted for many online debates over form and style and story and writer “legitimacy.” Is it a case of digital diarrhea? Have we lost our good manners when responding to works because it is simply too easy to write whatever pops into our minds and then quickly click ‘send’? Is this an excuse?

Of course, Valentine’s Day ain’t just about romance. Other kinds of love count just as much – or even more. In fact, I treat Feb 14th as a great time to remember those who’ve influenced my sexual life, which is why I thought I’d share a few of my heroes with you. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the folks below I probably wouldn’t be writing this column. So here we go. I’m sending a valentine to…

Betty Dodson

If you’ve ever read Betty Dodson’s work or heard her interviewed, you’ll know how grounded, warm and wise she is about sex. From singing the praises of solo sex to encouraging us to value friendship rather than searching for an “other half” (see the videos on her site), Betty speaks her mind with spirit and integrity. The following quotes come from Sex For One, her groundbreaking book that has transformed attitudes towards solo sex:

“We have been so brainwashed by romantic love that when I talk about the importance of couples continuing to masturbate alone, and learning to share masturbation together, some assume I’m against ‘regular sex.’ Not true. I’m all for any sexual activity that makes both partners happy.  What I don’t support is ‘compulsive intercourse’ as the only way to be sexual. Instead of assuming the word sex means a penis inside a vagina, we need to realize that there are an infinite number of ways to express our sexuality.”

“Organized opposition to masturbation, like opposition to pornography, is actually opposition to sexual arousal; to be turned on is somehow considered antisocial. In truth, it’s just the reverse: to be sexually repressed is antisocial.”

Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott is a sexual hero of mine because of how totally he owns his sexual identity. He also writes like a flipping genius. His story collection, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, contains stories about a sexually submissive guy who derives pleasure from pain and violence during sex. A friend of mine once complained that he’d gone to one of Stephen’s readings and noticed the writer was all cut and bruised. But I was impressed to hear this! By modelling pride, Stephen Elliott liberates others to do so, including my own kinky self. (Pass me that paddle, will you?).

The following is from the title story in Stephen Elliott’s collection, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up.

“She keeps going. Spanking me really hard, tying up my penis and balls, dragging me around the apartment by my hair. And it’s hours later when we go to sleep and she’s missed her train home.

“I sleep on the inside of the spoon. She’s my abusive boyfriend and I feel safe, her arms wrapped around me. She looks wonderful in her underwear. Her skin is warm, brown, and smooth. She smells so good. In the morning I don’t want her to leave. I slide my face between her naked legs. She opens her eyes and looks down on me. It’s only six and the alarm will soon ring. “What do you think you’re doing?” But she doesn’t make me move. She grabs my hair and closes her eyes.”

Susie Bright

Susie Bright, the famed feminist sex educator, is one of my heroes because of the ways she speaks out about sex. She takes sex seriously, but can also laugh about it. In her fabulous, worldly wise audio show, In Bed With Susie Bright, she is open about sexual politics while also encouraging others to speak their mind. Perhaps what I love most about Susie is her absolute commitment to helping us explore our sex-lives with compassion and excitement.

The following quote is from Born-Again Virgin, an essay in The Sexual State of the Union, by Susie Bright:

“The openness of lust, of sexual attraction, is often the way we learn to love somebody, and that’s no small feat. It is very difficult to love people, even though our communal evolution and ego lead us there in many ways. It is so much easier to be impatient, to discriminate, to draw as many lines in the sand as we can. For even the awareness of not loving someone, of one’s loss, is compassionate compared to the demands of shame and blame.”

So Betty, Stephen and Susie, you’re all getting valentines.  And I’ll also be sending a heart-shaped box of thank you’s to:

  • Anais Nin, who I have raved about recently at Erotica For All.  If she were alive, I’d have a massive crush.
  • Violet Blue, who, as you may well already know, is the famous pro-porn feminist and expert on sex and the web.
  • Steve Almond, who is master of the emotionally meaningful sex scene.  Check out his delicious little chapbook This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey.
  • Jennifer Lyon Bell, who makes beautiful erotic movies at Blue Artichoke Films and has a wonderfully wise and feeling attitude towards sex.
  • Freud, who, as we know, was a sexist old bugger, but he was one of the first people to state that our sexual identities matter and are utterly linked to our holistic health. In Victorian society, that must have taken balls of steel.

Do you have sexual heroes of your own? Movie stars? Directors? Sex activists? Artists? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

Hearts and flowers, all. Enjoy Feb 14th, whether with others or alone.  Mind you, the 13th has particular potential if you’re a solo lover… Plus if you want to create romance without necessarily having it, join me for some romance writing here.

The picture on the main page is by Fecuop, via Wikimedia Commons.

Very recently I learned that one of my favorite Mary Gaitskill stories, “The Nice Restaurant”, has never been collected. I still have the issue of the New Yorker it appeared in, and while I do own Mary Gaitskill’s work, it had never occurred to me she wouldn’t have collected it yet until a friend mentioned it in passing on Twitter and I was reminded, again, why for at least 20 years now, I save stories from magazines.

I’ve been contemplating the nature of Stephen Elliott’s appeal.  The author of several books of fiction, including the acclaimed and popular Happy Baby, it was his memoir, The Adderall Diaries, that seems to have catapulted him to the status of a literary “cult hero.”  Many critics have lauded Adderall Diaries as a work of genius–an assessment with which I so strongly concur that I have felt, at times over the past year, like Elliott’s pimp I seem to rave about him so frequently in public forums.  In fact, I might even feel a little creepy about it were it not for the fact that everywhere I go, I meet people who have been as deeply impacted by his work as I, and who are similarly shouting it from the rooftops to the point that they (such as the novelist Karen Palmer) profess to a similar groupie-like embarrassment.

So what’s with this guy?  Why are so many people obsessed with him?  To describe his writing style as “intimate” would be inadequate (he is, perhaps, the most intimate writer I’ve ever read) and yet he possesses an acute sense–deeper, in fact, than that of many writers who divulge much less about themselves in their work–that writing cannot merely be about the writer’s demons, whims or confessions.  It’s an intriguing combination that seems to help Elliott function simultaneously as a spokeswriter for the disenfranchised who have traditionaly existed on the fringe of artistic culture–runaways, sex workers, addicts, masochists–and yet also as a general literary “therapist,” not unlike The Rumpus’ earthy and wise advice columnist, “Dear Sugar.”  For Elliott’s obsession, more so than with any sexual fetish or drug, seems to be the pursuit of truth and art, with living a life of integrity, with the rights of children, and with what it requires to achieve true human connection.  This is the fodder of his work, never in a sanctimonious or distant way, but from the perspective of a desperate, sometimes-drug-addled, dominatrix-hiring seeker whose voice (despite being quintessentially unreliable for obvious reasons) we simply believe.  Reading Elliott–whether in one of his books or in his Daily Rumpus emails–the reader cannot help but be reminded that writing is, first and foremost, a form of communication.  I am not sure I have ever encountered a writer whose body of work–fiction, non, and blog-like–seems to illustrate this more than Elliott’s.  Daringly open, deeply engaged, and equipped with an eerie insight that was hard-earned on the streets and in group homes, one of Elliott’s favorite topics is his own fucked-up-ed-ness, but I’ve got to admit that if I didn’t know so many people who know him much better than I do and promise me this is not some kind of marketing schtick, I might almost disbelieve it because he is so damn wise.  There is a “Physician, heal thyself” paradox about Elliott, but in the end this duality of the artist as a wounded boy-man haunted by demons he makes no effort to hide, yet at the same time the smartest and best (indirect) advice-giver you may ever encounter, is only one of the many intriguing aspects of Elliott’s persona and his work.

I’ve read with Stephen at Chicago’s one-of-a-kind queer indie bookstore, Quimby’s; he blurbed my collection Slut Lullabies; we’ve exchanged the odd email here and there and once spoke on the phone.  But I am such a fan that when Brad Listi approached me and asked if I’d like to interview him to celebrate the release of Adderall Diaries in paperback, I basically nearly wet my pants in excitement, and had sent him these long-winded questions within a couple of hours.  Busy as he is, I figured I might hear from him in a week or so.  But because Stephen is about as manic as I am, instead I had the answers in less than 48 hours.

By the way, Stephen himself suggested that I include the Q&As that he “couldn’t really answer.”  But I’d already planned to do that, because his non-answers are answers of a sort, too, so I wouldn’t have had it any other way . . .

***

GF: The Adderall Diaries deeply examines the concept that no one person owns The Truth, and that everyone has his or her own truth.  In the book, you explore the ways your father’s truth differs from your own.  The way you come to accept your dad’s ownership of his version of events feels awe-inspiring and redemptive to the reader, and appears to have been transformative to you as a writer/person.  Can you talk about your process in coming to forgive your father despite the many real abuses done to kids who cannot defend themselves?  In other words, what is the relationship between the subjectivity of “truth” and the real existence of “right” and “wrong” in the actions we perpetrate on others?

SE: Jesus, this is tough question to start with. Here’s the thing, you have to look at this from two places.

From the point of society we need to do a much better job at protecting children and much of that is about money. We need better staff to child ratios in the group homes, better paid teachers in public schools. We need to give more chances to abused children. In other words, more than one chance. They need the kind of multiple chances that children in better homes get.

But from the point of the individual it’s hard to heal without forgiving. It’s not about right and wrong. Your anger might be fully justified but who is it hurting?


Despite the revelation of many intimate details of your life and psyche in The Adderall Diaries, the narrative never feels insular or narcissistic, but rather passionately engaged with the wider world.  Talk about your decision to weave in outside plots, such as the murder of Nina Reiser, and how this may have changed your writing process and the end result of the book.  How do you advise young writers to ensure that their work is “bigger” than a mere confessional tell-all while still being honest?

I appreciate that. But writing a memoir is always narcissistic. Most art and writing is narcissistic. Of course, that’s different from feeling narcissistic. As a writer you have to always remember the reader doesn’t give a shit about you. If you’re not offering the reader anything they’re going to put the book down.

The reader is the most important person with a book. The reader is doing the writer a favor. So any decision that doesn’t take the reader into account is a bad decision. Holding back information because you’re uncomfortable is just as bad as providing too much information because you want to get something off your chest. Everything has to serve the story.

Of course, there is no such thing as a book that everybody likes. The goal is writing your reader’s favorite book.

The thing to remember about honesty is that it’s much more than just not lying. Honesty is bordered by self-knowledge. It’s a goal, but it’s not actually attainable, because to be perfectly honest you’d have to have perfect self-knowledge, and for that you would have to be a person that never changes.


I don’t remember your exact wording, but you wrote once in a Daily Rumpus that the world does not owe artists/writers a living for following their passions and creating the art they want to make . . . I was very struck by this and have brought it up in recent interviews I’ve done about my own work.  I think what you meant is that most of the world doesn’t get paid to do something they love or that is their singular passion, and that artists can’t expect that either–that the economic world is quite separate from the artistic world, and that if you choose not to compromise and get a job that the culture rewards financially, you’re making a choice and have to accept responsibilities and the consequences of that choice.  I deeply agree with that sentiment.  Yet I also believe that it’s unfortunate–even tragic–that art is so devalued by most people, and certainly those in power, and I think you would probably concur.  So I find myself with this paradox: I believe artists “deserve” to be paid, and that their work has true value . . . yet I also believe that refusing to conform to the existing cultural norms of having a work-a-day job is a choice (sometimes a luxury), whether those norms are right or wrong.  Hmm . . . I’m not sure where the question is in here . . . I guess that, in a sea of writers who seem to be constantly be belly-aching about being underpaid, I was very intrigued by someone–especially someone who doesn’t have much money–being bold enough to say that we’ve made our own beds and should perhaps stop whining.  Am I understanding your views correctly, and can you talk more about your philosophy of art vs. commerce?

I think you’re understanding my views correctly. I’m in favor of more funding for the arts in a very general sense. But who would get that funding? And people would still complain that they weren’t getting the scholarships, grants, etc.

I was awarded a Stegner Fellowship that funded me for two years and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Still… I had already written three books at that point, and continued writing books after the funding ran out.

I understand journalists who are upset because they can no longer afford to do in-depth stories but I don’t understand writers who think they are owed a living for writing a novel they want to write. And I actually think it’s a very negative space to be in, since everybody (or almost everybody) has a job when they write their first novel. I think what happens often is people associate the money they’re paid for their art with the value of their art, and that’s a disaster for the work.

When I finish writing something I always try to get as much for it as I can, but I never (or almost never) write it for that reason. I’m able to write whatever I want because I keep my expenses extremely low. I don’t have children; I pay cheap rent. Sometimes I worry about my financial security, but never in terms of writing. When I think of how I’m going to scrounge some money I never think, “I should write something.”


Speaking of money: we both grew up in Chicago, around the same time, in neighborhoods where being a writer was basically unheard of as a profession or aspiration.  It never occurred to me to major in Creative Writing in college because that seemed like something a kid with a trust fund would do, whereas my parents were below the poverty line, and my dad had never finished elementary school . . . now you, of course, have a background of economic hardship–living in group homes or on the street–that even far surpasses mine.  Can you talk about your process in coming to identify as a writer/artist and whether you found your “class” background to be a barrier, an asset, or both?

Well, that’s tricky. I left home when I was thirteen and slept on the streets for a year and then I was made a ward of the court (full story on that here: http://therumpus.net/2009/04/where-i-slept/). I spent the next four years in group homes and went to college on a scholarship. But before that I lived in a nice house. We weren’t rich, but we were certainly middle class.

All I’m saying is it’s not a competition.

I never really identified as a writer. I was a history major in college. But I always wrote a lot. I never imagined it as something I could do as a profession, and I guess I was right about that. I did start publishing at some point, and then I got that fellowship, and it was all really kind of sudden. Like, I sent these two novels to the slushpile of a new publisher (MacAdam/Cage), and they bought both of them for $18,000 a piece, and I got the fellowship to Stanford a month later.

I think traveling across many social classes has mostly helped me as a writer and a person. Middle class, group home, Stanford. I think that’s mostly an asset, on the whole.


In The Daily Rumpus as well as in your books, you write a lot about love, desire, loneliness, attachment and sex–to say that you have a romantic temperament would, I think, be a distinct understatement, and I mean that in a good way, the way it’s also true of, say, Steve Almond.  Yet you’ve indicated in some of your writing that you don’t think you’re really cut out to be in a long-term relationship, and that you remain immature for your age.  Given that commitment can come in all shapes and sizes, can you talk about what it takes, in your view, to be in a successful longstanding relationship and what constitutes the “maturity” for this to be possible?

I don’t think I can.


Your book tour for The Adderall Diaries was one of the most unusual and comprehensive in the history of book tours–it would probably be fair to say that you may officially be the “go to” guy now on the topic of touring!  What do you counsel all new writers to do when their books come out?  Is there anything you did that you wouldn’t do again or feel was either not successful or was more trouble than it was worth?

I don’t think I would do any of it again because I’ve already done it. When people ask me how to market their books I usually say they need to do something that nobody else has done. If it’s the thing you’re supposed to do when marketing a book then people are already doing it and it’s probably worthless.

The most important thing is to write a great book. That’s 50%, at least. If you can do that you have a chance. If you can’t do that the odds get longer.


How has launching The Rumpus and writing The Daily Rumpus impacted your life?  Discuss the rewards of The Rumpus and what, in general, drives writers (outside of any economic impetus) to take time away from their own work to help other writers, generate cultural dialogue and foster community.

The Daily Rumpus email was supposed to be just a bunch of links to interesting things on The Rumpus. Instead it became just a free-write, where I just write about whatever I’m thinking. Sometimes I make up stories. Often I think about things like marketing, connecting, relationships, love. A little about sex. Or I review things I’m reading and seeing. It’s gotten to the point where I spend two or three hours on it every day. It’s replaced long form writing as my creative outlet. For a while I fought against it, but now I embrace it. I just love writing them. It feels so fulfilling. I don’t know what they’re going to mean in the larger picture of my “career”, but that’s also because I don’t know what shape literary writing is going to take. It feels like a whole new form. I don’t know if anybody else is sending out an email of new literary writing every day.

As far as what drives writers to foster community, to take on editing projects and create publishing houses, I think it’s all of a piece. Those that are pushed to do those things are probably also gaining some creative substanence from doing them. But hell if I know.


What are you most excited about right now?

I’m excited to see Animal Kingdom tomorrow night. But you’re asking something else. I’m definitely curious to see how all of this turns out.


For those readers who don’t subscribe to The Daily Rumpus and may not have heard you wax rhapsodic about Roberto Bolano, whose Savage Detectives knocked me on my ass as well, will you riff a little here on why he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and everyone should go out and read him immediately?

I was talking with a writer about Bolano’s 2666. He hadn’t read it but said he heard it was so good it made you not want to write. I told him it was the opposite. It was so good it made you only want to write. It also made you aware of what would be required from if you were to do that.


Elaborate on this line from The Adderall Diaries, and the way this fact impacts your own life, identity and choices as an artist: “The books of our time have little to do with the destruction of the self.  We expect our bards to survive, to figure things out.”

I guess what I was saying is I’m a mess.



I am very unhappy.I am in the South of France, in a villa set in a vineyard, where bottle after bottle of Cote du Rhone wine is brought to me every day, alongside exotic cheeses, slices of country ham, and baguettes.I am with a woman who takes pleasure in my pleasure.None of this did I have to pay for.

Recently, in the fine media tradition of griping about how sick everybody is of talking about something—and thereby talking about it more—I read a tweet that quipped, “Can we stop talking about the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 already?”

The answer is no.

I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.

So what’s with the nipple on the cover of Slut Lullabies?  Are you trying to embarrass people on the train?

You’re at least the fifth person to mention public transportation in relationship to my cover.  When I first showed the cover photograph—which was taken by my dear friend Susan Aurinko, to people, several immediately said we should crop out the nipple so readers wouldn’t be afraid to take it on the bus.  My editor, however, fought the good fight for nipple inclusion, pointing out (rightly so I think) that anyone who wasn’t afraid to read a book with a title that seems to indicate musical porn wouldn’t be scared off by a little Seinfeld-esque nip action either.  I’ve got to admit, though, that since the book has come out, quite a few people have mentioned the looks they get on the train while reading it.  This makes me very happy.

When I left Chicago in late 1997 I wasn’t thinking about San Francisco; I wasn’t thinking about anywhere. I wondered where I would end up but it was just a vague, rootless anxiety because I had no idea.

I spent a season in a ski resort high in the Rocky Mountains near the Loveland Pass where you can glide through the trees lit by moonlight, a giant thirty-minute ski run in soft, untouched powder. A dozen of us hit the pass on those winter nights. We pushed back from the ridge, hurtling toward the valley, the sky blurry with stars. I would lean back on my board, waving the tip above the surface, snow buzzing my ankles like fairies. It felt like riding a cloud. We sailed through clusters of trees, jumping small creek beds. In the mountains nobody ever asked what you did for a living or where you were from. At the base, flushed and cold, we’d strap our gear over our shoulders and hitchhike back to the top.

When winter was over and the snow was melting I came down from the mountain. I drove into Southern Utah where they film the Nike commercials. I lay on a bench for twelve hours outside the Moab post office trying to decide where to go. I had left my fiancé and the weight of that was finally on me. I was in a part of Utah famed for its sandstone arches and deep gorges, kayakers paddling the rapids sweeping up along the pink and brown canyon walls. I kept all my possessions inside my hatchback: snowboard, bicycle, photographs, and several boxes of papers. I considered staying in the Lazy Turtle hostel with a hippie who made her living beading necklaces. Instead I continued on the Nevada 50, the “loneliest road in America,” a barren two-lane street across the longest stretch of the state, gas stations and a brothel every fifty miles, listening to Radiohead’s OK Computer until Reno rose ahead of me in a neon rage.

In San Francisco I slept above the Castro, the seat reclined as far as it would go. I went to the bars and asked men to buy me drinks. I would listen to their problems, acting like a young hustler, the real JT Leroy, except I’d been plucked off the streets years ago. I was better looking than when I was a homeless fourteen-year-old. My skin was clearer, and I was more prepared to strike a deal. But I didn’t have much to sell.

One man took me home. He lived on a small street in Twin Peaks. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. I slept in his spare bedroom where he kept a wooden cross with eyebolts and leather shackles drilled into the wall.

“If you come home drunk I’m going to chain you to that and fuck you,” he said.

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t,” I replied.

I was twenty-six and I hadn’t committed to any city. I had been crisscrossing the country like a dog chasing his tail and I was in California again. I hadn’t spent a year in the same house or apartment since I was thirteen. I thought I was just passing through.

It was a time when people were coming to San Francisco for a reason. Innovators and Ivy Leaguers clogging the entry ramps to the digital age, pulling the levers of the roaring stock market housed in cool server banks throughout the Bay Area. A gold rush was underway. The 101, the primary artery between the city and Silicon Valley, was littered with billboards flashing by like a flipbook advertising websites to nowhere. There were private parties every night in the small dark bars in North Beach and South of Market. They were easy to get into and inside everything was free. People talked about “vaporware” and “loss leaders” and “CRM” and the importance of losing money. They carried the next big thing on a disc at the bottom of their backpack. It was more random than a dartboard thrown at a map, but it’s where I ended up. Kids my age were billionaires overnight.

I got a job summarizing free catalogs for a database called Catalogs2Go. There was another temp whose only job was to find more free catalogs to order that I could describe. They came every day, hundreds of them: gardening catalogs, lawn furniture, fabric distributors, hand-made popsicle-stick houses. They sat above and beneath my feet, filling the shelves and window ledge. I tried to paraphrase five an hour, but that became four, and then three. Then I stopped altogether and sat watching the city through the window, all the people sifting between buildings downtown.

After a month I walked into the Vice President’s office and told him I hadn’t done anything in weeks and he didn’t know that because he had no system of accountability. I told him I could finish his website in ten days. They’d been working on it for almost a year.

“We don’t want to hire you,” he said.

“I’m not asking you to hire me,” I said.

He gave me an office and a phone. I asked people I met at poetry readings to write summaries at five dollars a description. The catalogs disappeared and the office became clean and the Vice President asked if I would join the company and offered me $50,000 and I let out a low whistle and that was that.

Catalogs2Go was the perfect symbol of the time, a website dedicated to giving away something that was already free, but it was just a whim of the Vice President, it had nothing to do with the company, and the technical support cost $20,000 a month. There was talk of shutting the website down. I thought when they shut it down I would lose my job, and I didn’t want to lose my job. It was the first real job I had ever had. In fact, I wasn’t going to lose my job. Nobody lost their job then. We were still a year away from the point where everybody lost their jobs all at once as billion dollar companies became penny stocks and office buildings became empty glass houses next to a highway with nothing of value left except the copper wiring.

I met someone who optimized websites for search engines and asked him to help me. He registered Catalogs2Go so it came up first whenever someone went looking for “free stuff”. Soon the site was getting 2,000 unique users a day and in 1999 you didn’t shut down a website with that much traffic. The company had a second round of funding and was hiring everyone available, but the ecommerce platform the company was based on didn’t work, or didn’t work well enough, and we were losing money on every client. I suggested we sell “search engine optimization.” I decided we should charge $3,000 a month.

It’s the period of my life that makes the least sense. I had my own apartment. I was making more money than I could possibly spend. I was engaged with my work though I recognized its basic absurdity. I was happy, probably as happy as I have ever been. When I tell people my story I talk about group homes, writing, sexual awakening. I talk about rooftops and drugs and relationships. I mention getting clean and graduating high school in two years and going to college only to finish University and fall right back in. I talk about the semester I took off to work as a barker for a live sex show in Amsterdam, and the affair I had with Miriam, the Surinamese cabaret dancer, whose husband was in jail for some violent crime. But I rarely talk about the fourteen months I spent working for a living in the place where I made most of the friends I’m closest with today, the people I hired. I rarely talk about it even though it’s the moment when modern events finally intersected directly with my life and I became part of the world.

I couldn’t get permission from my superiors to sell my product, but they weren’t saying no. Within six months my little department was billing something like a million dollars. I was given a bonus. I had five full time employees and my own temps. We hired the search engine expert. He had business cards made with the job title of “Jedi” and sent company wide emails on the virtues of gambling and getting high and was quickly fired, but it didn’t matter. I would promise rankings and then I would tell someone else to figure out how to get them. I was quoted as a search engine expert in the New York Times. I didn’t even know how it was done. In retrospect I guess it was a consulting model, but everyone wanted to believe we had created some magic software. Because once you admitted that it was just a college grad scratching his head and resubmitting a website with different taglines, then you had nothing to sell. The other companies had their own college grads making coffee and working for options.

In late 1999 and early 2000 companies were going public very fast and that was the only point. When I started at the company there were maybe fifteen employees; eight months later there were two hundred. The company, and the industry, was sinking under its own weight. The board brought in a new leadership team and when they came in they saw that the only thing turning a profit was me and my little crew in the back.

The new players were tan and fat. They organized sales meetings in Vegas with cabanas near the pool and had hookers sent to their rooms on company credit cards. I was given a new title, Director of Emerging Technologies, along with a saleswoman to help me push more search engine optimization. When we talked she put her hand on my thigh, or ran her fingers along my neck, or pressed my ankle with the toe of her shoe. She couldn’t sell anything. She didn’t seem to know what a search engine was. When someone would try to explain it to her she would gently pull the hem of her skirt over her knees.

And then I was bored with all of it. I closed my office door every day until noon while I wrote my third novel, What It Means To Love You, based on a couple I met when I was stripping in Chicago, Nancy and Pierce. The real Nancy was a runaway working as a high priced call girl. She regularly made $2,000 a day. Pierce was older, effortlessly good looking, with a square jaw, long braided hair, and teardrops tattooed beneath his right eye. Nancy wouldn’t share her money so Pierce supplemented his income sucking cock in video booths off Halsted Street.

The last time I saw Nancy she gave me a stolen dress, which I returned to Marshall Fields for a six-hundred-dollar credit. The last time I saw Pierce he was throwing bottles from the window of the studio they shared on the tenth floor of an elevator building on Belmont.

“See you later,” I said, while the cops stood around him watching him sweep the glass. But I never did.

Between March 10, 2000, and April 14, 2000, the tech heavy NASDAQ exchange plunged thirty-five percent. Other companies had already cleared out. Giant buildings south of the city sat deserted, as if no one had ever been there. Downtown was quiet, even in the middle of the day.

At work things were tense. Someone erased all the emails and documents from my computer. I led a weekly meeting but people stopped showing up. My salesgirl refused to talk to me. I was called in to discuss possible sexual harassment charges.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You’ve never worked in a corporate environment before. It’s normal that you wouldn’t understand certain protocols. We’ll pay for you to take a class.”

Someone warned me, “I don’t know what you did…”

One weekend I broke into the COO’s email. There was a letter from my salesgirl. She wanted to meet him later and get a drink. Then she wanted to do that thing he liked. She also wanted to know when he was going to get rid of me. She was tired of me looking over her shoulder. He urged her to use the other account he’d set up, and yes, he couldn’t wait to fuck her, and no, she shouldn’t worry about me. He was going to take care of that. Everything was working fine.

The COO and the salesgirl were living together. Her resume was fake. They met in a strip-club. He left his wife and she left her husband. Now the plan was to push me out and take over my product. Though there wasn’t any product. It was like some cheap spy novel. I’ve never bothered to write about it because the characters are so black and white. The things they wanted had no lasting value. They weren’t conflicted enough to be frauds like most people, they were just liars.

It was a technology company but he had never changed his password. Same for his VP of Sales and my new salesgirl. It was amazing, actually, how many people had never changed their passwords from the one originally assigned: Welcome. I printed the emails and took them to the human resources officer. Like most of the senior management he was new. The old timers looking to cash in had cashed out instead and gone into retirement. A handful of companies would survive, led by Google, but the boom was bust.

HR offered me two weeks severance but I said it was going to take me longer than that to recover. The VP of Sales called me into his office and threatened to have me killed. I told my employees to watch my door and make sure it never closed. A meeting was scheduled for six at night in the boardroom on a Friday. I got the next plane to Los Angeles and went into hiding with Hart Fisher, my first publisher, in Granada Hills.

They cut me a check for $30,000 in exchange for my signature and a promise not to tell. I cashed the check. A month later the company sank permanently beneath the waves.

This would have been the time to return to Chicago, but I didn’t. When I left my fiancé I’d burned some bridge I hadn’t known existed. It was 2000. Ralph Nader was running for president. Hans Reiser was in Russia working on his file system, fulfilling a million dollar contract with the department of defense. His best friend was keeping his wife company in California while he was away.





Be there for installment number one of the quarterly TNB Literary Experience in San Francisco.

WHERE & WHEN: The Makeout Room, Tuesday, May 25th @ 7 p.m.
3225 22nd Street, San Francisco $5.

Featuring:

Penelope Houston (The Avengers, drool inducing poet)
Johnny Genocide (No Alternative, junkie memoirist)
Stephen Elliott (Adderall Diaries, The Rumpus.net)
Paul Clayton (White Seed, humorist)
Lauren Becker (Corium Magazine, great smile)
Thomas Wood (Funny as hell)

Hosted by:

Tony DuShane (Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, mustache)

Look forward to a fast paced night of excellent readers, lubricating your liver and getting your books signed.

Show ends at 9 p.m.

Click here for a larger copy of the postcard flyer and tell your friends.

Before the ground war started, we hunkered behind berms, firing shots at targets built from crumb rubber, careful not to shoot the Bedouin and their camels when they appeared on the horizon. We stood in jeeps and flashed the Saudis on the highway, making lewd gestures with our tongues and fingers at the Saudi women sitting in the back of their husbands’ Mercedes, because only men can drive in that country. We fought the Gulf War for them, and for their fat white business partners in Texas. We were hired guns, sleeping in prefabricated bunkers built years before the Ba’ath party rumbled over the oil fields into Kuwait.

So you’re just coming off a crazy book tour where you did readings in people’s living rooms all over America.

That’s true. What I did was I let anybody who wanted to read a book get a copy. The only catch was they had to forward it to the next person within a week. So when I was pushed to do a book tour I contacted the 400 people who participated in the lending library to see if anyone wanted to host a reading in their home. A lot of times it wasn’t in a person’s living room. Sometimes they wanted to do the reading in a cafe, or a gallery.