Skip Lago scowled at the author photo on the back of his fourth novel, Cold Enterprise. The face that stared back at him – with its stylishly dishevelled hair, narrowed eyes, and pensive frown – was contrived to fill an affectation, and one that he would usually disdain.
‘You need to face it, Skip,’ Tyson said from his desk.
Skip slotted Cold Enterprise back up on the top shelf of Tyson’s marble bookcase and studied his books – seven of them, spines growing thicker, the covers fancier, his name bigger and bolder.
‘It’ll be cathartic,’ Tyson went on. ‘Then we’ll be able to move forward.’
Skip dragged down his first novel, Enrage, and his seventh, Streamline. Puffs littered the back of each. On Enrage, they were glowing pronouncements such as, ‘An exciting new voice’ (The New York Times) and ‘Will keep you hooked from beginning to end’ (Chicago Tribune), while Streamline could only boast ‘A sprawling adventure that promises much …’ (San Francisco Chronicle). The complete sentence had been, ‘A sprawling adventure that promises much, but never really delivers.’
Skip shoved the books back onto the shelf and stumbled towards Tyson’s huge comma-shaped onyx desk. Tyson reclined in profile; the sunlight that filled his high-rise office bounced off his solarium tan and charcoal suit, as if he was this hard, chiseled thing.
‘How do you survive up here?’ Skip asked, blinking.
‘This is called daylight,’ Tyson said. ‘If you ever got out, you’d encounter it once in a while.’
‘Daylight’s overrated.’ Skip’s back tightened and knees ached as he slumped into a chair opposite Tyson.
‘Skip, we need to discuss your next book.’
‘There is no next book.’ Skip thought about the blank screen of his laptop, yet again the cursor blinking, as if taunting him.
‘There will be a next book. You know that. Writers are always quitting out of despondency. But you’ll go back to it. You know you will. You just need to consider what you’ll write. Your last two books, Seeing Blinder and Streamline – no. No more of that.’
‘No more flops?’
‘That’s not what I mean.’
‘Then what? What?’
‘You don’t get it, do you?’
‘Seeing Blinder and Streamline were popular fiction. They weren’t bad stories. I know you liked Seeing Blinder—’
‘Loved, Tyson, loved!’
‘You’d be about the only one.’
‘Milo loved it.’
‘Milo thinks he’s your best friend. That’s what people who think they’re your best friends do.’
‘Tyson,’ Skip paused, trying to articulate his thoughts, ‘do you know how rare it is for me to feel positive about my writing? I did about those two books – more so than the ones which came before them. They worked for me.’
‘All right. Fine. But people don’t expect pop fiction ventures from you. You, Skip, are a literary author.’
‘No I’m not.’
‘Yes you are.’
‘No I’m not.’
‘We’ve had this discussion before. What’s your issue with being considered a literary author?’
‘I want to write stuff that’s accessible to everybody. I want to write stuff’s that global.
‘Fun,’ Skip said. ‘At least in its own way.’
‘You can still do that.’
‘Look, it’s not ultimately a case of being one thing or the other. It’s just me being me. It’s what comes out. I don’t control it.’
‘Then perhaps you’ve changed. The divorce, maybe?’
‘I’m over Sherry. It was almost five years ago.’
‘She was also the editor of Midnight and Cold Enterprise – your greatest successes. Is that something you’re missing? Her input?’
‘She left the guy she left you for, you know?’
‘Wasn’t that long afterwards—’
‘Tyson, why’re you telling me this?’
‘Just in case it’s played on your mind.’
‘It hasn’t. Once she went, she was out of my head. Her leaving had nothing to do with those books being different – not that those books are different. They’re some of my best work. I can’t help that people didn’t like them. There’s people who don’t like puppies either, you know.’
‘Skip, you’ve developed a readership. They expect a certain type of work. You’ve eschewed.’
‘Eschewed, Skip. It happens with authors. You get too powerful for your editors. People are afraid to challenge you, to force you to refine and revise, to delve deeper into yourself and produce the good stuff. What we need to do is go back to the beginning. You need to be raw. Confrontational. Go home, jot down a few ideas. You have ideas, don’t you?’
‘I always have ideas, but what’s the point?’
‘How many writers are out there? Published and trying to make it, how many? Maybe I bombed because I have nothing new to say. Maybe there’s nothing new to say. Have you considered that?’
‘Writing isn’t always about being new. Sometimes you just need to get the words down on the page. The truth is you need to put something out there or you’re going to sink into oblivion and never find your way out.’
Skip froze, half out of the recliner. Muscles strained. His stomach felt like ballast. But he fixed his eyes on the golden haze that was Tyson.
‘Accept what you are. Accept it, and you’ll be fine.’
Skip’s Husky, Silver, lay on the couch in his den – the couch where Sherry used to sit, legs folded under her, editing as he wrote at his laptop. Even when he’d accepted her presence, she’d still been distracting. She disrupted the room’s feng shui – just as anybody would. Bar Silver. Silver helped harmonise the room. She was the perfect feng shui object.
Skip scratched Silver behind the left ear, Silver lifting her muzzle, eyes narrowing. Then Skip lay on the floor on his right side, pen in left hand, notepad splayed open.
He scribbled down the first thought that occurred to him – a thought that had been there since talking to Tyson:
Not a real bomb. None of his stories dealt with action on that level. He liked the mundane, liked exploring everybody’s reactions to an everyday situation gone awry.
A disintegrating family.
He stared at the words. That was something which happened every day. He needed to polarise the dynamic.
Taking his pen, he scribble that out and wrote under it:
A re-integrating family.
This would be the crux of his story: a family trying to stay together, despite the individual secrets threatening to tear them apart. They wouldn’t be unravelling – that would be cliché. They would be ravelling.
Skip scribbled a list of characters:
- maternal grandmother
- maternal grandfather
- paternal grandmother
- paternal grandfather
- eldest son
- younger daughter.
That was a good start, the building blocks of a story. But it wasn’t enough. These people needed problems they battled to overcome. He filled in details:
- maternal grandmother ~ Dina, 69, dying of cancer
- maternal grandfather ~ Rod, 70, gay all his life
- daughter/mother ~ Antonia, 39, discovers she's a sexual deviant – maybe S&M
- paternal grandmother ~ Marietta, 69, in a 20-year affair
- paternal grandfather ~ Stan, 69, beats kids
- son/father ~ Malcolm, 42, lifelong wimp, gets off watching wife bang other guys
- eldest son ~ Ray, 18, dyslexic, mistaken as stupid
- daughter ~ Justine, 17, the good daugher
- younger daughter ~ Melissa, 16, sexual addiction – maybe gets it from the mother?
Skip studied his chart. The foundation he’d built was a framework the writing itself would fill. Still, it wasn’t enough.
What the family needed was a dog – a black Labrador named Vonda, Skip decided. He toyed with the notion of telling the story from the dog’s point of view, witnessing conversations and actions it didn’t understand, but which would build the narrative through piecemeal accounts. Skip dismissed the idea. It didn’t feel right. The dog could stay, but the story from the dog’s viewpoint had to go.
The dog would be diabetic. When the family discovered it, they could have one brief bonding moment that defined them – whether that was for good or bad remained to be seen.
Skip was sure he was on the right track now.
What is literary writing?
Skip patted himself down. His black blazer was crumpled, his faded jeans torn and in need of a wash. His boots were scuffed. As he tucked in his t-shirt, then pulled it, he gazed at the daunting Ravel placard Tyson had arranged to mark his return. Over six feet high, the face of the placard was the cover of the new book: all white, bar for the swirling lines – each a different colour – which looked, depending on your perspective, as if they were ravelling or unravelling.
Literary fiction is usually character driven – intellectual, confronting, and challenging, pushing the reader out of their comfort zone. Popular fiction has a broad appeal and is plot driven. It can be about anything, and have an easy, if not universal appeal. Funnily, this is always the sort of fiction I thought I wrote.
In the top left-hand corner of the placard: Lago back to his best, and beyond. In the top right: Brilliant! In the bottom left: A masterpiece of literature. In the bottom right: A literary extravaganza.
Maybe that’s arrogant of me, to think that I have universal appeal – he would pause here, as the audience would laugh with him as he laughed at himself. But it’s true; somewhere, deep inside, we – as writers – yearn for acceptance because we put so much of ourselves on display. Our books are ourselves, reinterpreted, redefined, and reconstructed through characters and story and plot. It’s only in that realisation that I’ve asked certain questions of myself. Foremost amongst those questions is this: what is it that I write?
Skip wasn’t sure he believed a single word of the speech. It had some merit on a cosmetic level, but sounded like a book report. Of course, maybe that was because he’d researched it from articles he’d Googled.
‘A drink, sir?’
Skip turned to the waitress, a pretty blonde who, on immediate impressions, seemed sixteen; on closer inspection, Skip could see the lines about her eyes that make-up didn’t quite cover and the tiredness about her face – she would’ve been in her thirties, although still luminous, with a youthful energy that pulsed through her fatigue and the tedium of her duties.
She thrust out a tray of champagne glasses. Skip held up the forefinger on his right hand, as if to say, Wait. Then, with his left hand, he took a glass and gulped down its contents. He put the glass back and took two more, one in each hand.
‘May I say I love your books, sir,’ the waitress said, with a dimpled smile.
Naturally. Everybody had to tell him they loved his books. As if it was a secret they were sharing just with him. Maybe he should start carrying around an elixir and anoint them into his own personal little fan club.
‘Thanks. Which is your favourite?’
The blonde’s eyes rolled up, her mouth pursing. ‘Probably … ’ she began, elongating the final syllable into a sustained pitch of, ‘Eeeeeeee.’
Skip downed another of his champagnes, and exchanged the empty glass for a full one. She’d say Cold Enterprise – it was everybody’s favourite. Or Ravel. Because he’d already heard countless times on the way in how he’d outdone himself.
‘Streamline,’ the waitress said. ‘That was twisted. I liked that.’
‘Skip!’ Tyson, dressed in a pristine charcoal suit, slid out from the crowd. He took a glass of champagne from the waitress’s tray. ‘Thank you, dear,’ he said. She moved on and Tyson turned to Skip, clapping a hand on his shoulder. ‘You need to socialise.’ His eyes fell on the glasses of champagne in each of Skip’s hands. ‘What’s this?’
‘Champagne.’ Skip sipped from the glass in the left hand. ‘I’d prefer beer, but you know how these things are – or how you cater them.’
‘Skip, at least try to be civilised.’
‘And after I try that, what should I try next?’
Tyson reached for the glass in Skip’s right hand. Skip snatched it away. Drops splattered on Tyson’s sleeve and he cursed, removing a handkerchief from his lapel pocket and dabbing at the stain. Skip finished what remained of the glass and looked for somewhere to put it.
‘Do you want to kill your career? Is that it?’ Tyson said, scrubbing at his sleeve.
‘If I’d wanted to do that, why’d I write the book?’
‘You have a readership. These people are here for you. What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Tyson,’ Skip said, ‘do you really believe it matters how I behave here? These people are—’
‘Careful what you say, Skip!’ Tyson took the empty glass from him.
‘We’ve had this conversation before, Tyson.’
‘We have it all the time, Skip!’
‘Then you know I hate these things. You know I hate the sycophantic nature of them. I’m sure there are genuine people here, somewhere,’ Skip peered around, wishing Milo was here, but Milo was away for work, ‘maybe, but this isn’t a book launch. It’s a social occasion. People come to worship me. I don’t say that egotistically. But that’s what happens. They worship me, fawn over me, verbally fellate me, and I smile, anointing them my minions. I’m thinking of getting an elixir, you know.’
‘Then we disperse, and do you think anything meaningful has happened here? I’ll move on, they’ll all go on with their lives, and at their next social function, they’ll talk about meeting me, hobnobbing with me, and what a charming bastard or boor I was. They’d prefer I was a boor, because it makes for more interesting dinner conversation.’
‘That’s all well and good, Skip. I just don’t want them going away and telling everybody not to buy your book. When you get so big that it doesn’t matter, you can behave how you want. I’ll even encourage you. But, for now, play the game.’
‘Fine.’ Skip shook his head. ‘You know, how nice you are to me is directly proportionate to how successful I am at any given time.’
‘Nonsense. You’re imagining that.’
‘No, you’re imagining that.’
‘Skip, focus. Have you rehearsed your speech?’
‘Yeah, yeah, it’s in my head.’
‘Good. Now, go forth and—’
‘Go forth and multiply your praise.’
Over the next hour, Skip mingled, signing books in his unintelligible left hand cursive and exchanging measured pleasantries with handsome, dignified men in dark suits and grave smiles, and sophisticated women in elegant gowns and elaborate hairstyles just wanting to be untangled.
He was told repeatedly that Ravel was ‘marvellous’ (an adjective Skip considered pompous and fraudulent), and an ‘important contribution to literature’ (praise which was pompous and, worse, unqualifiable). His lungs shrivelled and adrenaline pumped through his limbs. Fighting was useless. He wanted to flee.
He knew the voice before he turned: Sherry. He imagined she would be pale – as always – with that beauty vulnerable but sultry; her large blue eyes forlorn; her dark wavy hair cascading down her slender neck; her lips full, lipsticked; her shoulders bare, exposed in her elegant pink dress with that right shoestring strap that was always askew and wanting to be pulled down.
Skip pivoted, and while he was right about it being Sherry, she looked different to how he’d visualised her – her hair braided, her dress a vivid bloody red and offset by a pair of fingerless black lace gloves, and while she was still gorgeous, her eyes were far from forlorn.
‘I’m looking forward to reading this,’ Sherry said. ‘I’m sure it’ll be great. I always enjoyed your writing.’
Sherry held up a copy of Ravel. Skip took it, flipped it open, and then wondered what the etiquette was when it came to signing a book for an ex who’d left you for another man.
‘You been good?’ Sherry asked.
‘Yeah. Yeah.’ Skip stared at the blank space on the bottom of the title page.
‘You’re looking good.’
‘Thanks. And you? You good?’
‘That’s good to hear.’ He wrote:
Thanks for all your help along the way.
Hope you love the book.
He gave the book back to her.
‘Thanks. Good luck.’ She kissed him on the cheek, then moved on.
Skip didn’t watch her go. He couldn’t. He’d always known he’d encounter her again, and that meeting would generate whatever feelings he’d denied himself five years ago – maybe love, hatred, anger, jealously, or even lust. But there was nothing but some nostalgia because she was somebody he’d once known. Maybe that’s the way it was meant to be.
Tyson was suddenly by his side. ‘Sherry?’ he asked.
‘Surprised she came.’
‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘Just asking, Skip.’
‘We’re about to launch. You ready?’
Tyson led Skip to stage at the front of the reception and provided an introduction that might’ve served better as a eulogy. Applause resounded. Skip rose, aware that those pains in his knees and ankles he used to experience were gone, and took his position behind the podium. He scanned the audience, their faces beaming. Sherry was nowhere to be seen.
‘What is literary writing?’ Skip said. His speech unfurled in his head but now, standing up here, it seemed worthless. ‘I don’t know.’ There was a ripple of laughter. ‘This is my seventh novel. I loved the last two. Everybody else seemed to hate them – except for a waitress who I met today who told me she loved Streamline. But the critics hated them. I don’t know why. I’ve only ever wanted to tell stories. That was always my driving ambition. Why can’t people understand that? Why does it have to be so difficult? It’s like you exist, waiting for that first misstep. Then it’s zombies on the scent of brains.’
‘Skip,’ Tyson whispered from his chair, ‘what’re you doing?
‘You have a story,’ Skip said, ‘it’s in you, like a growing foetus. And it keeps growing until it’s miscarried or born. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not so much. But that’s not the end of it. Because from there you need to rear it. You have help in doing this – your agent, your editor, your publisher, etcetera. But you’re the primary caregiver, and you shape this thing, hoping to make it the best it can be. Of course, it has a mind of its own. In a way, it has its own free will, so no matter how hard you plan, or try to stick to the plan, things can change. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Or bad. It just makes it different. And there’s nothing wrong with being different.’
Tyson jumped up, reached for the microphone. Skip wrestled it away, shoved Tyson so that he fell back into his chair. The crowd, ‘Ooohhed’.
‘Inevitably, you send them out into the world so they can fend for themselves,’ Skip said, ‘but some of you are so anal you want to condemn anything you don’t understand, or if it doesn’t fit in the classification you have of me. It’s not that I’m trying to be different. It’s just that the story is what it is.’
Pockets in the audiences tittered, while others whispered behind their hands. Tyson slunk in his chair.
‘Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just an overly sensitive man-baby and those books were crap. It’s possible. The point is – regardless – I’m proud of what I write. Whether it’s literary, pop fiction, any of that,’ Skip shrugged – a big shrug so that even the people at the back would see it, ‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s pop literary. Who cares? There it is. Thanks. Thanks for coming.’
Silence. Faces gaped at him as he’d done at the placard. Then, from the furthest corner, a solitary applause, bold and intrusive. Skip sought out who it was, thinking it had to be Sherry, that she must be back to rescue him. Or maybe Milo had made it, after all. But it was the blonde waitress, her tray filed under her armpit as she applauded. He smiled at her, and waved to her. Others joined in – not everybody, but enough to suggest that there were a few free-thinkers in the place. Skip held up his hand in appreciation.
Tyson seized the microphone. ‘All part of the show!’ he said. ‘Thank you! Thank you!’ And it was a gambit which might’ve worked, but he then seized Skip by the shoulders and shook him. ‘Skip, do you realise what you’ve done?’
Skip thought about it. ‘In the end, Tyson? Probably nothing. I’ll see you later.’ He started away.
‘Where’re you going?’ Tyson called after him.
‘Home,’ Skip said. And, just as he was about to slip into the crowd, he held up a triumphant arm and called back over his shoulder, ‘To write!’