One of the biggest cliches in any discussion of writing is “Why do you write?” It seems to be a question that won’t go away. I find it interesting, especially since nobody asks the plumber “Why do you plumb?” or the carpenter “Why do you carpet?”
But I’ll also tell you my answer, the same answer William Goldman gave in his excellent 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade: “I’ve got secrets!”
Secrets, you hear me, secrets! And I agree. I know things, big things. Things right under our noses, only I’ve assimilated and made sense of them and now I’m bringing them to you, wrapped in a nice candy shell of good writing, witty dialogue and poignant moments.
After all, isn’t this why anyone writes?
Actually no. The genre writers, I don’t think, care too much about this sort of thing. They write mainly escapism. I know I’ll get arguments—there are lots of people who find profundities in every Star Wars and Harry Potter installment—but I really believe genre is generally antithetical to discovery, to the search for truth.
Why? Because unless you break the rules of genre (and I love it when writers do—Jose Saramago is a great example), you have certain foregone conclusions. Most people find that sort of comforting; I don’t.
I don’t care for most westerns, but one of my favorites is The Cowboys, a 1972 John Wayne film. Why? Because Wayne, obviously the star, gets shot in the back two-thirds of the way through the movie. You don’t expect that in a Western.
Another is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There simply isn’t enough time to describe all the ways that one went against the grain.
By defying genre expectations, the creators are saying, “We’ve got secrets!” Because secrets keep the genres going! And going!
That’s why I write.
It’s lonely. When I was first starting Entertaining Welsey Shaw, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and fire was newly discovered, I read somewhere, on either the internet or a stone tablet, a quote attributed to Toni Morrison†: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, write it.
I liked that advice, and set out to do that. I was amazed no one had written the definitive ordinary-guy-meets-celebrity novel, a setup I thought was ripe.
But agents and publishers aren’t so lofty-minded. They want stories that are very close to what they’ve already published, so they can see it that way. Despite Ms. Morrison’s advice, most people don’t like to see something they haven’t seen before. Nearly every agent and publisher I showed the novel to wanted to know, immediately, what the “comparables” were, meaning, what’s “like it.” Some websites even gave examples: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. Yeah, agents and marketers think far and deep.
Okay, it’s hard to blame them. The business is tough, and most books, like most movies and most recordings these days, don’t make money. So they’re being very careful about what they publish. At the same time, being this reactionary often means missing the next big opportunity. Once upon a time Ms. Rowling couldn’t find anyone who would publish a 500 page book with all text and no pictures aimed at kids. It does sound absurd, doesn’t it? What smart money would pursue that?
What all this means is fiction, particularly American fiction, is wedded to genre. It’s not as bad in other cultures. But I can’t help but feel sad when I see people reading predictable stuff over and over again. I can sort of understand why predictability is desirable—you want to know, when you invest your time, what you’re going to get. An old friend recently told me this is why she goes to Disney World again and again: you know how your vacation will turn out. You know what you’re going to see, how you’re going to react, what they’ll make you feel.
Me, I love surprises. I’d rather try something new and not enjoy it. For one thing, all the things I do love were once new experiences for me, ones I was iffy about. For another, well, as I said, I love surprises, don’t like the predictable. When I go into an action hero flick, I know they’re going to succeed in their mission—blow up the big battle station or whatever—but there will be a big loss…probably the most lovable character will die. But nothing subversive will happen.
I live for subversiveness. Art is created when the norms bump up against subversiveness and friction results. If we still weren’t shooting hero cowboys in the middle of the picture, we’d still be making Stagecoach. Nothing wrong with Stagecoach. There is something wrong with still making Stagecoaches in 2017.
Daniel Ferreira, my protagonist in Entertaining Welsey Shaw, has secrets, and they come out in his writings too. At the point we join him in the story, however, no one is interested in them anymore. He had one break-out book, when he was fresh out of college, Since then no one has been interested in anything he’s had to say. So he’s turning out schlock for third-tier magazines and newspapers, a hired gun.
That’s how Entertaining Welsey Shaw begins. You can read the rest of it, too, as it’s now out, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and just about everywhere else they sell books (if you ask nicely). You can also either get it, or ask them to order it, at your local indie book store. In fact, there’s a list of such stores right here. Whatever method of delivery you choose, from drone to phone, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get.
And there’s currently a contest going on. Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about a haphazard encounter between our Everyman Daniel and a famous, elusive celebrity. Tell me an interesting encounter you’ve had with a celebrity, either traveling incognito or in full view. The best story (judged by me) wins a free hardback copy of the novel–a $27.99 value as they say. The link is here—https://entertainingwelseyshaw.com/2017/03/24/giveaway-get-a-free-copy-of-entertaining-welsey-shaw-for-entertaining-the-rest-of-us-with-your-story/.
Good luck! And remember, genre is fun but surprises are better.
† I always say “attributed” because there are a lot of quotes that were not said by people who are famous for saying them, even well-known quotes.
I’m betting you didn’t know she had one, did you? Well, most celebrities do. Including Welsey Shaw.
They just really would rather not talk about it. Including Welsey Shaw.
In Gwyneth’s case, a man has been harassing her for seventeen years.
Yep, let me say that again—seventeen years.
And after numerous incidents, including encounters that sent him to a psychiatric facility back in 2000, he was just found not guilty of harassing her yet again.
The actress was clearly disappointed in the verdict. “I’ve been dealing for 17 years with the communications from this man … I felt very upset by it [the verdict] … this has been a very long and very traumatic experience already.”
The man’s attorney says he is harmless. Furthermore, she says, he is misunderstood. “He just needs the right medication,” she maintains.
I can’t imagine Ms. Paltrow is much comforted by those words.
The sad truth is the famous and easily-recognizable have to deal with this every day. We know who they are. They don’t know who we are. Which is why so many people who seek out the glow of fame later come to regret it.
Paltrow gave evidence in the case in which she claimed she was sent around 70 messages between 2009 and 2015.
She said the letters ranged from “religious to pornographic to threatening.” Some even talked about her death.
This struck me because there is a similar subplot in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. It could almost have been ripped from the Paltrow case, except that I started writing it first, or at least before anyone ever knew GP had a stalker. In the beginning, to a large degree, Welsey Shaw was modeled on Gwyneth Paltrow. (I’ve since moved away from that to modeling her after a large number of actresses to making her largely her own person, with a pinch of this celebrity and a dash of that.)
What’s truly frightening, and what I wanted to point out with Welsey’s stalker, is that there’s no real defense against people like this. You can get restraining orders, have them put away somewhere, but those orders always expire, those sentences are eventually up. You can’t keep the person away forever. And you never really know when they’re going to end up on your doorstep. After all, they don’t send you a note saying, “Hey, they let me out today!” —Or they do, which is perhaps even scarier.
Paltrow said her stalker “wanted to marry her.” Ironically, that’s exactly the plot line I’d devised for Welsey. Her stalker also wants to walk her down the aisle!
He too gets put away. He too is eventually let out, and attacks again. And there’s not much Welsey can do about it.
Sadly, this is a very bad case of life imitating art. There should be better ways to safeguard celebrities who are stalked, but I have no idea what they could be.
I know, I know, I’ve been writing about Jennifer Lawrence a lot lately. But she’s been in the news a lot lately.
JL seems on a mission to show us how, despite how ridiculously easy she has risen to fame (seriously, has any other recent star had more triumphs with fewer if any setbacks?), she is just as insecure, just as disappointed, just as unhappy as the rest of us. She’s an ordinary gal who just happens to make $25 million per picture, who just bought a $20 million dollar house. But other than that, well. she hates New Years too. And parties. And she’s lonely. Can’t get a date.
All highly possible. As I’ve written before, fame and money truly don’t buy happiness, and history is littered with rich people who never found contentment. Orson Welles even made a film about it, Citizen Kane. In the end Charles Foster was richer than God and probably more famous, yet all he longed for was that sled and the childhood it represented. It’s probably not as corny as it sounds.
Ms. Lawrence says she will not be having a good time tonight as the clock strikes twelve. She claims New Years is a downer for her, that she often drinks and is depressed, and never has any fun. She also seems to think that there’s too much pressure to make New Years Eve the perfect party.
She’s got a point there. I have a scene in Entertaining Welsey Shaw where we spend New Years not with movie star Welsey Shaw, but rather with the ordinary-guy protagonist, Daniel Ferreira, at a small, humble bar/restaurant in his small humble home town, with a few other would-be partiers who for whatever reason aren’t doing anything better either. It’s a pathetic scene, and we’re meant to be wondering all the time what Welsey is doing for New Years in her neck of the world. She is perhaps on some yacht, or partying with royalty.
The point of the scene was that New Years Eve creates this insecurity that other people are having—must be having—more fun than you. You start comparing New Years’ with idealized ones that you don’t even know exist. And of course they’re better. Everything you imagine is always better. That’s kind of what the whole novel Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about.
Jennifer Lawrence seems to understand this. She’s done trying to have the perfect New Years. “I really hate it. I’ve never had a good one. Everyone’s chasing a good time, and it’s always a disappointment. I plan on doing nothing and then if something lands in my lap … but I always end up drunk and disappointed.”
Lawrence also says she often gets nervous. And when she gets nervous, she tends to throw up. She says this is why she rarely goes to after-parties. “Drunk and Disappointed should be the title of my memoir.”
She claims to be more comfortable staying home, with close friends. There doesn’t seem to be much boyfriend talk. “I plan on doing nothing and then if something lands in my lap…” But she didn’t finish that sentence, in appropriate Welseyesque mystery.
I really give her a lot of credit for her mature outlook. She’s not like the many Hollywood celebrities who feel they must project a constant party atmosphere all the time, showing everyone how rich and happy they are and how much fun they are having. There’s nothing wrong with being happy and having fun, but some celebrities’ attempts at persuasion are so fake as to be bordering on pathos.
Welsey notices this, and this is why she despises so many other celebrities, and why she too has trouble making real friends. That’s what the novel is about too.
So maybe Welsey and J-Law would be good friends. They’re alike in more ways than one.
Read more about Jennifer Lawrence’s take on New Years here.
The other day I was at a restaurant listening in as a group at the next table talked about their favorite books.
This always gladdens me. I love to hear people discussing books with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for movies or rock bands these days. But what I heard next made me sad.
One of the women was praising some novel she’d just read, and she sold it by saying, “It’s short. You could finish it today if you started. And it’s real easy. A quick read.”
…Why in the world would that be a virtue?
Now, I understand War and Peace is daunting to all of us. I still haven’t gotten to it. (My wife’s better than I am.) But why do we want assurances we won’t have to spend long with something we’re supposed to be enjoying?
Can you imagine someone saying, “Star Wars The Force Awakens is short. You could see it and be back here in an hour. A quick flick”?
I’ve also heard many a “book lover” say they were intimidated by thick books?
Why, I wonder? Is there some sort of prize for finishing off more books. Do people get paid commissions to read? If a book is five times thicker than the average book, maybe there’s five times more good stuff in it. (Maybe not, and I’ve read some rambling tomes that needed an editor, but still, the size alone won’t persuade or dissuade me from approaching a book.)
But if you enjoy reading, why would you want it to be “quick”? (It begs all sorts of analogies…well, okay, just one.)
We sure live in a rush-rush-rush culture, which is part of what Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about. We don’t take the time to see what’s going on around us. Right in the opening chapter, when Daniel sees the famous actress in a Starbucks for the first time…
I’m sitting by myself, leafing through a picture book bought after a long meeting and a long lunch. If anyone would look up, they might notice that Welsey Shaw is standing here. True, she’s in faded jeans, scuffed brown boots, violet scarf and green sweater. Someone at a table behind her gets up and shoves his chair right into her buttock. She jumps. He excuses himself without really looking at her face. He and his companion, a matronly Asian woman with short, spiky hair that belongs on her daughter, leave their cups and teabags on the table. They have an air about them that says they are only slumming here. She folds up a laptop much newer and sleeker than mine, sticks it in a leather bag and they are off.
I blink, and Welsey Shaw is still there.
I’ve often wondered how many famous people have passed me by that I didn’t notice because I was in a hurry to get to somewhere. And sometimes we’re not even in a hurry for a reason. We’re just in a hurry because it’s our default setting.
Not only do I not want to rush through a book, I will, if it’s good enough, go right back to the beginning and start again. It’s amazing what you notice the second time around; indeed, if it’s great fiction, you can’t grok everything the first go, and you’ll read a completely different book with the second pass. This isn’t true of something like, say, Gone Girl, but Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog or José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis will yield treasures in repeated readings. In fact, that’s the idea. Deborah Eisenberg sometimes spends years crafting a single story. I don’t think she’d want you to skim through it in an hour. I’ve read some of them half a dozen times, and with each reacquaintance they’re so different I almost wonder if she doesn’t sneak into my house and alter the text when I’m asleep.
So when I hear people, like these women, selling a book by bragging how short it is, how fast it reads, how you don’t have to spend a lot of time with it, I have to wonder what their point is? If a book (or a record, or a movie) yields up everything quickly and easily, I kind of feel like I’ve been jipped. There’s supposed to be more to it than that, isn’t there?
What do you think?
It sounds like a scene from Entertaining Welsey Shaw. Many scenes, in fact. Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most sought-after actresses in the world, says she is in fact lonely most of the time.
Lawrence said in a magazine interview recently that she spends most weekends home and has a hard time meeting people. That is indeed tricky to do when you’re more famous and worth more than literally every other person you come into contact with.
This mirrors what other A-listers—Kristen Stewart, Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley, Claire Danes—have said about their lives in the past.
“I feel like I need to meet a guy, with all due respect, who has been living in Baghdad for five years who has no idea who I am,” Lawrence said in the interview, adding, ““I am lonely every Saturday night. Guys are so mean to me. I know where it’s coming from, I know they’re trying to establish dominance, but it hurts my feelings. I’m just a girl who wants you to be nice to me. I am straight as an arrow.”
It’s hard for most of us to believe that someone with everything—money, fame, looks, glamorous friends—could be unhappy. For that matter, it’s hard to believe they could be lacking anything in life.
This was the very premise that got me writing Entertaining Welsey Shaw, the thought that people who look like they have it all so often don’t. After all, why would someone like that feel insecure? Or unhappy. As Lawrence herself says:
“It’s strangely exhilarating, because you keep trying to fight for that validation. You want to have [validation] before you get married, so that you don’t seek it out once you are.”
This need to be validated sounds familiar. Claire Danes has famously said, “People confuse fame with validation or love. But fame is not the reward. The reward is getting fulfillment out of doing the thing you love.” And also, “Acting is the greatest answer to my loneliness that I have found.”
The major theme of Entertaining Welsey Shaw is how, despite her incredible success, she is lonely and isolated. I find it odd that novels and other fiction featuring celebrities rarely deal with this side of their lives. They’re usually portrayed as imperious, egocentric, mercurial…everything but vulnerable. Of course this is the image they have to project, as it’s part of their brand. And the cynical contrarian in me says they may sometimes overplay their “ordinary guy/gal” as well, because that’s good for their brand too. After all, nobody likes a star who is constantly reminding us how much better than us she is, no matter how clean her bowels are.
Jennifer Lawrence may know this too. She’s hardly the first star to claim she spends date nights home alone, watching TV and maybe spooning some Haagen-Dazs. We like to believe this. It makes it seem like we could sit down on the couch next to them and maybe have a conversation. Now change that to sit across from them in a coffee shop and talk about everything and anything in your life and you have the very premise of Entertaining Welsey Shaw. It’s a premise I think a lot of celebrities would be able to relate to. —I wonder what Jennifer Lawrence would think of it?