All My Characters Come From Dive Bars

Pretty much any fiction writer will say their characters are as important to them as their kids. Character development is one of my favorite things about writing and I recently came to an interesting conclusion about my process – a large portion of my dramatis personae are inspired from people I met in dive bars. That’s easily where you meet the most interesting people. It’s not the clubs or fancy restaurants or fund raisers or through your college buddies. It’s in real low down places where humanity goes to seek out that which they are looking for – whatever it is, or maybe nothing at all. It’s also where people feel free to show their real selves. There’s no veneer in a dirty, rundown joint that serves the vilest of swill to those either hurting in their souls or merely trying to shake off the weathered skin of real life for a few minutes or hours. Dive bars are where the bedrock of humanity chooses to display their whole beings.

The Anchor

The Anchor – New Haven, CT  – One of my favs – unfortunately gone forever.

I didn’t start frequenting dive bars until my mid-thirties. In my younger days I maintained the public face of a pretty spoiled prick. I would only patronize those places wherein only the crème of the professional crop go slithering about – lawyers, politicians, business people, wannabe business people and that lot. I still go to those places but now it’s with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Those people are a bit boring and ubiquitous in as much as literary interest is concerned. How many different ways can you write folks like that? Desiree became a successful attorney after working her way through law school stripping and tending bar. Conrad always wanted to be an entrepreneur but was only able to afford tuition to the school of hard knocks and had to sell his left shoelace in order to afford the apple that inspired his idea to manufacture left handed apple corers and finally hitting it big.

Barf.

Give me Tanya; a single sixty something diminutive black woman I met in New Haven, CT who grew up as poor as poor could be but somehow saved up her money and scored a gig working at the Social Security office in San Francisco in the early seventies and then after reaching pension age, moved back to New Haven and became a librarian for Yale. Why is that more interesting than the aforementioned people? Because someone like Tanya will give you their real story and let you knead through the clay that made them what they are and what they believe in. Tanya was grateful for everything that happened to her and although I would argue it was all her – she would say it was luck and happenstance. Try finding a lawyer who would say that! Tanya possesses no ego and practices life on a common sense platform. Except for her trip across country to San Fran, she’s never really been anywhere else. Once a year she takes a vacation – thirty miles east of New Haven where she stays in a Howard Johnsons motel for three days (she takes a train by the way, never got a driver’s license) and eats out at a Friendly’s restaurant. If you’re not from the Northeast – Friendly’s is a step above McDonald’s. Tanya’s advice to everyone is that if you can’t afford to spend twenty bucks when you go to the dive bar – stay home until you can.

Does Tanya’s life sound boring to you? Then you’re not a writer. I could build a hell of a character around her life and a great story as well. Her life is full of good stuff to play with. It has morals, in term of morals to the story and regular morals as well. It shows character, strength, quiet rebellion but rebellion nonetheless and humanity. One could make a nice, quiet heartfelt story about Tanya, the kind you could shop to Reader’s Digest or some fluffy literary rag. Or, if you’re like me, add in some darkness and struggle, shore it up with a few lurid relationships along the way and ending up with her alone, but content and willing to go off into the afterlife with little fanfare, but also no regrets. How about this; a fictional historical chronicle of life as a quiet, but astute young black woman making her own way in the drastically changing United States of the seventies. With a little research and some imagination you could have a Gore Vidal-ish novel to beat the band.

What’s the point of this diatribe? I don’t fucking know. I guess I was thinking about my characters and how they were born and felt like passing it along. For all you writers; if you’re in a bind and need to go and toss some character attributes into your arrow bag then take a little respite to your local dive and spend some time talking to real people. Sometimes your imagination needs a little kick in the ass and nothing is as good as taking cues from actual humans. For readers, if you’re enjoying someone’s work keep in mind the arduous process that goes into creating your favorite made up people and understand it’s about as hard as squeezing a watermelon through a hole the size of a lemon. (See what I did there?)

#divebars #newhaven #jbvincent #theanchor #bukowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Location as Character

It’s no great revelation that authors like to immerse themselves in the locations they write about. But, the truly memorable stories are the ones in which the author develops and animates the setting as if it were a living, breathing human character. Most authors of note all have the ability to do this, but the ones that pop into my mind most often are John Berendt and Ron Rash. There are many, many more, but when I think of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the first thing I think of is Savannah – the main characters don’t even make their way into my brain until a few seconds after recalling the book, and even then they’re a little fuzzy. Same thing with Venice. With Ron Rash’s stories, I get a very clear vision and feeling of what Appalachia is like even though I’ve barely seen any of it in person.

It’s a skill – taking a town, city, state, region even a neighborhood and giving it life. The only way to do it in my opinion is to completely marinate yourself in the location in which the story is being set. That may seem like an elementary notion but I can tell when someone has written a piece based somewhere in which they haven’t spent enough time to truly get the flavor of the scene. I think you have to live there if even for the short term in order to do justice to the location as well as the story. Now, certainly we’ve all visited places where we felt a strong connection and may feel like we immediately know the essence of that particular spot. But, it’s rare and if you spend a little more time in that place invariably you will learn that your first impression is not even close to the whole story.

Of course, what makes the character of a place are the characters in it. Physical description is not enough. You have to “feel” the pulse based on the people who live there and the stories they tell. Perhaps Berendt and Rash resonate with me because of the diametrically opposed locations they write about and the people that give breath to those locations. There’s richness between the two that makes pondering the differences so much fun – Savannah’s old school Southern hospitality mixed with depravity and the locales of Appalachia with its sparseness of resources and simplicity of life amalgamated with demons most associated with urban locales i.e. drug addiction, poverty and all that goes with it.

One of the things I love about writing is attempting to paint an accurate picture in someone’s mind with words that transport the reader into a specific scene. One of the things I dislike about writing is the time it takes to develop that scene. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fun, but when you’re itching to get your ideas from the brain to the page, it’s hard to have patience. For me, it’s like waiting for Christmas.

Here’s an example.

I’m stuck here in purgatory (Connecticut) for the next two years. CT has never been and never will be a muse for my fictional writing, it’s far too ubiquitous and uninteresting. However, I’ve decided to embark on a non-fiction piece bringing attention to a downtrodden tiny city near where I live. I have very personal reasons for taking on this project (I was spurned by a local official when I wanted to be the Economic Development person for this particular city seven years ago) and I’m hoping I’ll do a good enough job on this piece to get some action in the way of attracting business people to come in and save this little place.

It’s a tall order. But, this municipality is a gem and has lots of history and does not deserve to rot away into just another tragedy of urban blight. So, even though this is a non-fiction project, I really have to capture the core of the place and communicate it in such a way as to make people, specifically business people, want to visit and hopefully get a glimpse of the vision I see for the future of the city. That entails lots and lots of research because I’ve never lived there – but, now that I live within a few miles, I can really dip myself into the place and get to know it even better. Time is the Devil though and hopefully I can finish it in two years.

To be successful, I have to make this little city into a person and hope people fall in love with it, just like Berendt’s Savannah and Rash’s Appalachia. I need to meet with and interview all the people who make up the place – old residents, new residents, business owners, politicians, hopeful politicians etc., and communicate the collective personality to the reader.

Telling a story without an accurately developed portrayal of the location as a character is like a body without a skeleton – an amorphous blob with no definition.

Fearless Writing

The audio version of this post appears below. Just click on “play”.

 

 

I’m a pussy when it comes to writing. I really am. And, it gets worse with age. I like raw…like, exposed nerve, mind-boggling, “can’t believe it went there” kind of raw. Human character boiled right down to its component parts – darkness, fear, topics too weird to think about, explosive revelations about otherwise seemingly normal people that shock and make you really have to think and wonder how you could have been so wrong about them.

 

I love to read raw and I like to write raw. But, I hold back and would bet, hell, I know other writers do the same thing. I truly believe that there is a very small percentage of writing out there that really represents what goes on in the mind of the writer. I read so many books where I think to myself – man, this author could have gone so much deeper and I bet they didn’t for the very same reason I don’t – fear.

 

If only everyone could be like Bukowski – fearless. Bukowski was completely unaffected by the notion that people would find him to be nothing but a drunk, womanizing, sadistic bum. He didn’t care what people thought at all. I need to do that, but I’m far too afraid. Too much of a pussy.

 

My fear stems from the notion that you are a piece of every character you create and there are some pieces I don’t want my readers to know about, or that just don’t exist, that were born from my imagination, but that I worry people will think I have direct experience with. Here’s a for instance: hookers. I’ve never engaged a prostitute before and certainly never will. However, I do have experience with hookers through my former career as a private investigator. I worry that if I write a largely accurate portrayal of a scene with a hooker and bring my readers into that scene, then people like – oh, I don’t know, my mom, the mother of my children and everyone who knows me would think that I have been a participant in the oldest profession. Stupid, just stupid, I know it is, but I don’t want to have to explain myself every time I write something racy, off color – raw.

 

And, that’s just sad. I always have a couple of novels brewing and throughout the process I send passages to my trusted advisors Rose and Holli, whom I’ve mentioned in this blog before. For this one supernatural novel, I have a very graphic scene that takes place in Hell and involves a priest, a little girl and the Devil. The writing is probably some of the best I have ever done. And, when I passed it on to Holli & Rose with a very small exception – I think it was word placement or something, they thought it should stay in and not be changed. Guess what? That paragraph will only see the light of day after either me or mom is safely six feet under.

 

My intention with that scene is to put the reader directly in front of it and instill terror, repulsion and abject hatred. It scores on all of those points. But, my fear is that someone will read it and be like “damn, that JB Vincent is one fucked and twisted individual that he can come up with shit like that.” I realize Stephen King never had that problem and that’s why he’s so rich and famous. I feel like I have to filter my imagination so that when people see me walking down the street they don’t quickly walk to the other side. Or, friends and family will think: “how come we didn’t realize he was so mentally ill.” Unlike Bukowski, I actually do want people to like me somewhat, or at least not be repulsed.

 

So, what’s the solution? I honestly have no idea. Like I said, it’s getting worse with age – there are my kids to think about. I can just see them going through my things after I take off for the unknown. “Wow. Daddy was sure one weird dude.” Perhaps I just need some yoga, more absinthe and vodka, or maybe I need to lose the confines of my conservative being and just go for it. I’m going to have to keep you posted on this one.

Being a Ghost – It’s a Thriller

The audio version of “Being a Ghost – It’s a Thriller” appears below, just hit play.

 

 

I’ve never really thought about ghost writing before. Well, that’s not true, I have thought about it, just not very seriously. It was while reading The Ghost by Robert Harris a few years back. Great book by the way, you should read it. The movie? Meh. Anywho…while I was reading the book it occurred to me that it might be kind of fun to dive into someone else’s soul and try and figure out exactly what makes them tick on whatever level it was they were trying to achieve with their particular project.

 

In the case of The Ghost, the main character is a ghostwriter who writes biographies for small time celebrities. That seems kind of boring to me, and I dismissed it straight away. It doesn’t seem like any real fun could come out of getting into someone’s actual life. But, being able to infiltrate someone else’s fiction ideas while trying to create some kind of symbiosis with another would be author could be very entertaining indeed. Then I finished the book and those thoughts just went away.

 

Recently, I fell into a project whereby one of those would be authors made contact and asked if I’d be interested in putting a rough story into some kind of readable form. I figured “what the hell”, I was bored with my own stuff at that moment and needed a distraction. Now, this person isn’t exactly what you’d call communicative – which I suppose is the whole reason he/she (I have no idea which, as this person always refers to him/herself as “we”) is going with a ghostwriter in the first place. I’m provided very little in terms of substantive content to operate on and the emails we shoot back and forth are very word heavy on my part and very cryptic on theirs. I was given a one page sheet entitled “background” and a couple of chapters consisting of about three pages each (when I was done each chapter was about 30 pages) which were not poorly written, just lacking in any kind of filler or character development.

 

Even though this person contacted me, I had to compete against some other authors in order to get the gig. So, to be totally honest, I really didn’t invest myself in the story at first – in fact, it just kind of rolled out of my head and my attitude was “if I get it, great. If not, screw this person.” I submitted what I wrote and got this response:

 

“We love what you did with it. Still reviewing other authors.”

 

That was it – nothing else.

 

I sat looking at the words indignantly. If “they” loved it – then what the fuck is with this “other authors” crap? If you love it, you love it – I should be in. Then I did something that is so diametrically opposed to my shitty attitude, that even I was amazed. In my mind, I basically begged for the job, by asking if there was anything “they” wanted changed, or edited. Keep in mind this is like, no money really, and heaven only knows if it’s going to really be published (I was assured it would be), so there’s not much at stake. But, that doesn’t matter; I wanted to do this thing.

 

I got this response:

 

“No. No changes needed.”

 

Oh, well, hell, thanks for that. So, I waited. Months. In fact, my self-righteousness and ego subsided and I forgot about the project altogether.

 

Then I got an email with “Remember Us?” in the subject line. It was asking for another chapter. A little shiver went through me. I went back and read what I had written for the first few chapters. Suddenly, I really wanted to know where this story was going.

 

It’s hard to explain this kind of thrill. I always refer to writing a story as the same kind of excitement that comes from reading one, because you never really know where it’s going or how it will end. But, the one thing remaining constant is that it’s your brain the stuff is coming from, so the continuity is always there. This, – this was something completely different – it was an amalgam of the fun of reading and the thrill of writing, all wrapped up in a hot little package.

 

For the first time in ages, I blocked out a chunk of time, told everyone in the family to go to Hell for a while, and I wrote the fuck out of that chapter. I stopped once to get another cup of Dark Magic, but that was it – I even held my bladder until the chapter was finished. I did like, three edits – all spelling. I read it once, and only once and hit the send button.

 

My mysterious friend doesn’t have the latest version of Word, something I’d forgotten over the months, so he/she (“they” rather), didn’t get it on the first shot. I had to re-format. Can I tell you? I nearly exploded when it didn’t go through the first time. I was so anxious for “them” to see it. Especially, since the “client” I guess you would call “them”, used the phrase “dying to read it”, when requesting the format change. I changed that format and sent it so quickly I thought the enter button on my Mac would request some time off.

 

“They” loved it.

 

So, now I wait, impatiently for the next chapter. I have no idea why I find this so exciting. The only near parallel I can draw is its like some kind of intellectual voyeurism. Trying to figure out what it is someone else’s mind is creating almost as it’s happening is a crazy, crazy feeling – and, apparently getting it right is a high I cannot explain. I imagine it may be the same kind of rush people get when they watch other people…you know, do it. It’s so intimate and something you are not usually privy to. Hell, I’m a horror show when I’m writing; I want NOBODY to see anything until I’m finished. My poor wife Amy has been abused so badly whilst looking over my shoulder when I’m in the zone, that’s its embarrassing – especially when I was finishing up 5 Tales for the e-book.

 

I could never do it. I would never be able to say to someone – “Here’s some ideas for a story – have at it.” It’s just not in my nature, its far too personal. But, damn, I’ll tell ya; if you have some good ideas and want them written out – call me, maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lestat Comes Home

Welcome Back. Lestat!

Welcome Back. Lestat!

The audio version of this post appears below. Just click on “play”.

 

 

So, let me be the fifty-millionth person to write about the return of Lestat.

I rarely look forward to book launches. It’s not because I’m a pompous egotistical a-hole who feels he is beneath reading new literature (even though I am the egotistical a-hole part, that’s not why), it’s just that there is so much great stuff floating around that I haven’t read. Therefore, I don’t get excited. However… my ears perked up and a Chris Matthew’s style shiver went up my leg when I heard Anne Rice was bringing back her antihero the vampire Lestat.

Like millions of Rice fans, I love Lestat. He is one of my favorite characters ever and I’ve always wanted to be able to create a character with the kind of layered supernatural richness braised in human foibles that Lestat embodies. To no avail of course, Anne Rice is Anne Rice after all, and there’s only ever going to be one, thankfully.

But, I do think about my characters like Anne thinks of hers, as living beings that come to her and not vice versa. Lestat hasn’t been around for a very long time and as you can see here, there is a reason; she has been wrestling with the brat prince for years. I totally get that. I read Rice novels because of Lestat. As much as I love all of her writing, I can only get through the books of the vampire chronicles because her other work doesn’t hold my interest. The writing is always beautiful, but the plots aren’t to my taste.

Lestat is like the James Bond of the vampire world – he never gets boring and always stays true to his character. Anyone can identify with him and the situations he goes through – even if we’re not all preternatural beings, we can put ourselves in his place and enjoy the ride.

Hopefully, all fiction writers have characters like Lestat who even when they are dormant in our mind hang in the background like an ethereal mist, just waiting for the right time to come out and pounce on our consciousness. That’s what makes writing and reading fun – the realness of fictional characters.

I’ve written before that we are our own main characters in one way or another. I definitely identify with that idea. My Lestat is Charlie who appears in my short story compilation 5 Tales. Charlie is an amalgamation of real people I know, but his personality is closer to mine than any other character I’ve developed. He’s not an alter ego by any stretch of the imagination – but he possesses my snide-ness and some of my mannerisms. I couldn’t be Charlie, he likes killing too much, but I identify with a lot of his characteristics and experience.

Anne has spoken of Lestat as her lover. I find that incredibly intriguing – inventing a character that is so close you can call them a lover, begs the question as to what aspects of that character are a part of the author? I mean; that’s fun to think about. I’ve never created a character that I thought of as a lover. I’ve created ones I thought could be best friends, or ones I’d like to kill, but a lover? Not yet. That’s some serious character development right there.

Yeah, I can’t wait for Lestat’s return.

Lost in Translation: Storytelling

I write because I love to tell stories. I’ve always been able to spin a tale as I’ve had great characters move through my life who were larger than life, or just plain interesting in some offbeat way. Pulling from their experiences and adding in my own idea of where their particular story should head has always been a joyful labor of love.

 

But, I definitely don’t think all authors are born storytellers because they get way too involved in the “structure” and “how tos” of writing. I always feel like I can tell when an author has been burning the midnight oil trying to get his/her thoughts stripped down and massaged into such a manner as to gain the Hail Mary from St Martin’s, or Grammar for Dummies, or some other such boring ass manual. Or, they’re trying to fit into their publisher’s page limits. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s just my taste – I don’t know. I do know this – if I read someone’s story out loud, I can tell if they’re a real storyteller, or not.

 

As most of us who call ourselves writers know, you should always read your piece out loud before the final edit. Do I do it? Not enough, that’s for sure. I’m just about to do the audio book for 5 Tales and I’m going to do it myself. Thanks to some very talented people at the Atlanta School of Broadcasting – I’ve got the voice and the voice over thing down. But, to be honest, I’m a little scared. I’m worried that it’s not going to sound like when I tell a story verbally to a friend or acquaintance, and that would kill me. I write exactly the way I talk. Well, I think I do anyway, after the edits I’m never really sure if the message is lost or not. I also worry that suddenly I won’t like the structure or plot of XYZ story, and now that it’s out all over the place I can’t change it.

 

The biggest reason I’m intimidated to do this audio book stems from a segment I heard on the now defunct Dick Gordon’s The Story where Dick had Ron Rash read his short story Something Rich & Strange from his collection Nothing Gold Can Stay. It’s the most amazing reading I’ve ever heard. You cannot help but stay and hear the whole thing once it gets a hold of you – which happens immediately. It’s this kind of storytelling I aspire to and I think most writers of fiction should. I realize it could be his voice or his cadence, but I’ve listened to it so many times that I’m absolutely sure it’s the story itself. Give it a listen – you’ll be enrapt.

Here’s the link for Ron Rash’s Something Rich & Strange. You can thank me in the comments!

 

 

Write Your Way Out of Depression

The audio version of this post appears below. Just click on “play”.

 

 

I’ve only been depressed once in my life and I hope to holy hell it never happens again. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever been through and the worst part was I kept beating myself up for being what I saw as weak. I’ve always been a happy guy even though I kind of go through life with a surly façade and I never believed that people could really get depressed. I saw it as just a cry for attention from needy people and I often accused friends of being as such. I regret that now. Depression is a horrific sickness and I have nothing but oceans of empathy for chronic depression sufferers.

 

What happened to me was I acquired a psychotic stalker who is now in jail, thank the universe. This was a client of mine who developed an obsession and did so many unspeakable things; I don’t even want to go into it. Imagine that – me, of all people not going into dark horrific and sick details? Extraordinary, I know.

 

Anyway, after about a month of constant harassment, which caused me to re-think my business and where I was in life, I found myself in serious danger. I would wake up at night and pull my gun out from under my pillow and look at it. I was never suicidal, I have far too big of an ego for that – but, I’d look down the loaded barrel and think about it. This didn’t worry me – it was just a dramatic response. What did worry me was I didn’t want to leave my apartment. I’m a social guy, not a homebody. I like to go out and see people – anybody really. I’m an amateur anthropologist and once I found myself not wanting to take part in life I got REALLY worried.

 

I had no idea what to do. I certainly couldn’t admit my situation to anybody – that would be weak. But, I did finally tell my mom – and thank God I did because that was the first step to breaking out of it. I would call her and sometimes I couldn’t even get any words out of my mouth – I was paralyzed. We’d just sit there in silence. Then some really good friends of mine began to make me go out and do things with them. That was a big help and really pushed me to seek out a real solution.

 

I didn’t want to commit to a shrink because I felt that despite its debilitating manifestation that the depression was temporary and I just had to find a way through the tunnel. I had this acquaintance I knew from some boards that I sat on who called himself a Business Psychologist. I really liked and respected the guy but considered his title pretty nebulous and didn’t have a lot of faith in whether or not he could actually help. Man, was I wrong. It took a lot for me to admit to him that I was suffering and suffering badly. He asked if I thought I needed to be put on medication and I said no. I don’t even like to take Advil so the thought of some kind of anti-depressant made me even more depressed.

 

This is what he said to me: “Jason, I’ve known you for years. I’ve heard your public speeches and I’ve read everything you’ve written for our boards. You can write yourself out of this depression. It’s what I do and I’ve advised hundreds of people to do it and it almost always works to some degree. For you, I think it will solve the problem and if you ever find yourself depressed again, you should do the same thing.”

 

I was dubious, but I was also desperate so I tried it. It took a week, but goddamn it if it didn’t work! And, it still works. At that time, I hadn’t decided to become a writer, but I do think the fact writing burst me out of that funk has something to do with my chosen profession. I ALWAYS feel great after a day of writing – even if I end the day frustrated or I’ve written absolute crap. Now, I can’t attest to whether or not writing has kept me from depression all these years because as I said, I’ve always been a pretty happy person, but I’m willing to consider it.

 

Don’t take my word for it because obviously I’m not a professional, but I would strongly suggest that if you feel a depression coming on or are chronically depressed, you should at least give writing a try. Here is a great guide on how to start:

http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/HomePage/Faculty/Pennebaker/Home2000/WritingandHealth.html