So I did a Q&A last week with author Jeff Cohen [http://www.aarontucker.com--can't make the link thingie behave this morning] for an upcoming issue of Mystery Morgue [http://www.breakthroughpromotions.com/mysterymorgue/]. One of the questions he posed concerns a topic that’s been on my mind a great deal recently-- The Sophomore Effort: “Your first novel, A Field of Darkness, has been widely praised and extremely well-reviewed. Does that relax you or increase the pressure for a second book?”
I began my response by saying, “I’m a total wuss so it’s terrifying. I’m convinced the first book was a fluke. The initial response to A Field of Darkness has been so kind and generous that I worry a great deal about readers finding the sequel a disappointment.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about why the idea of my first book doing at all well has a tendency to make me writhe in terror. It’s not a question of glass-half-full / glass-half-empty perspective, it feels more like, “oh sure, the glass is half full… of some tremendously volatile explosive,” which I’m meanwhile supposed to ferry across a hockey rink, riding a shoddily manufactured pogo stick.
A couple of weeks ago I read Sidney Sheldon’s autobiography, The Other Side of Me.
Sheldon not only wrote eighteen phenomenally successful novels, but seven Broadway plays and the screenplays for twenty-five films, including Easter Parade and Annie Get Your Gun. He created The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. And yet the man was himself often subject to bouts of terrified writhing—usually in response to pinnacle moments in his career.
Immediately after receiving the best original screenplay Oscar for The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer, for instance, Sheldon’s date for the evening, Dona Holloway, said to him, “That’s so wonderful. How do you feel?”
Sheldon recalls thinking,
How did I feel? I felt more depressed than I ever felt in my life. I felt as though I had stolen something from people who deserved it more than I did. I felt like a phony.
The awards went on, but from that moment, what was happening on stage became a blur… Everything seemed to go on forever. I could not wait to get out of there.
When Dore Schary told Sheldon that MGM had decided to make him a producer, he writes,
I went back to my office and thought, I’m thirty-four years old, I have an Oscar, and I’m a producer at the biggest motion picture studio in the world…. I was overcome with a feeling of dread…. There was no way I could do this. I would call Dore and tell him that I could not accept it. He would probably fire me and I would soon be looking for a job.
I’ve heard Lee Child quote Graham Greene on what success means to a writer: “failure deferred.”
It’s somewhat reassuring to know that the terror thing isn’t just my own invention, but I’ve been wondering a lot about the root of it. Why the fear? Where does that three a.m. conviction that you’re hanging over the abyss by your last broken toenail come from?
I kind of doubt that it’s a state of mind common to CPAs: “well, there went the last spreadsheet I’ll ever create where the numbers all added up twice in a row….” Or that, say, Lee Iacocca lay awake at night after designing the original Mustang convinced the thing’s wheels would fall off for no apparent reason. And there are probably writers who finish a manuscript and say, “gee, that went fine and I bet it will do okay. Can’t wait to start on the next one, soon as I top up my coffee mug, here.” I just haven’t met them.
Why is that? What is it about writing that leaves us feeling shaky? My friend Muffy said to me the other day, “I’m working on this treatment for a screenplay, and somehow I appear to have utterly lost my balls in the process.”
With my usual penchant for high-flown diction, I replied, “Dude, oh my GOD… I so totally relate!”
WTF is that sinking loss-of-balls sensation?
I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure it out, and the only thing I can come up with is that successful writing is, at least for me, dependent on what I think of as “the spooky part.” Those little epiphanies that appear out of nowhere… sparks of illumination or insight or wit thrown off by the back burner of one’s consciousness when you least expect them… the juice, the juju, the mojo—the tiny-but-full-blown Athenas popping into the head of Zeus.
I’ve heard Our Jackie say that Maisie Dobbs leapt into her head when she was stuck in traffic one day. Most of us are familiar with J.K. Rowling’s response when she’s asked how she got the idea for Harry Potter: “I was taking a long train journey from Manchester to London in England and the idea for Harry just fell into my head,” she said in one interview, adding in another, "It was extraordinary because I had never planned to write for children. Harry came to me immediately, as did the school and a few of the other characters such as Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost whose head is not quite cut off. The train was delayed and for hours I sat there, thinking and thinking and thinking.”
The. Spooky. Part.
Favors of an evanescent muse, serendipity… et cetera, et cetera. If I try to picture the source from whence they cometh, the image that comes to mind is this ancient well into which you can drop a stone and have time to sing at least three verses of “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?” before hearing the splash.
I’m not sure what all’s down at the bottom. Maybe Golem lives there, my preciousssss, dining exclusively on paper-thin slices of sashimi made from all those indigenous spiky blind glow-in-the-dark fish. Maybe it’s Rumpelstiltskin--cracking his straw-into-gold knuckles to pass the time. It could be Baron Samedi. The Minotaur. Even Bunnicula. Whatever its earthly form, I figure the well’s occupant is capricious since it sometimes throws up glittery ideas which are total crap, after which it goes “mwa ha ha ha” and belches in malicious satisfaction.
Right now, Baron Gol-Stilts-Cula-Taur has my second novel in its fiendish lap, along with my balls. I’m just sitting here wondering whether it wants a tribute of carrots, rum, incense, or the proverbial unblemished set of seven youths and seven maidens. I plan to lower my offering down into the spooky darkness with the aid of Janine’s green plastic bucket—keeping my fingers crossed that the rope’s long enough to reach bottom.
If the bucket comes back up empty, I might just take a long boring Amtrak ride to seal the bargain.
I just hope that Geoffrey Holder playing Baron Samedi isn't riding on the front of the train going "mwa ha ha ha," the way he was at the end of Live and Let Die.
Because that would suck.