It’s generally understood that when you receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, it means that you don’t have much more … well, life time.
But what does it mean when you get mentioned in a novel?
Last time I blogged, it was, in part, about Steer Toward Rock, the novel by Fae Myenne Ng, due out in May. While reading a set of proofs her publisher (Hyperion) had sent, I was shocked to run into myself near the end of the book, with references to Hickory Wind, my book about the country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, and to my being a middle son, thus making me “the perfect Chinese guy.”
Fae reminded me that, years ago, she’d been in touch, not long after I’d raved about her debut novel, Bone, and had me autograph several books she wanted to give as gifts to family members. Using me in her story, she said, came pretty naturally.
Fine. But then, just a few weeks later, I got some news from Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog, a novel I’d enjoyed immensely (and which, by the way, recently crept onto the New York Times best sellers list, in paperback form). We had met at a Library Laureates fundraising dinner for the San Francisco Main Library, and, over the course of several months, she and her husband Kevin had become friends with Dianne, my wife, and me.
Now, over dinner, after watching Top Chef together, she told me she wanted to have me as a character in her next novel, entitled No One You Know, being published in July by Delacorte. Just as I did when Cameron Crowe asked a similar question in connection with his film, Almost Famous, I gave my consent, with no questions. But, she said, she would let me know just what she had in mind.
A couple of weeks later, she sent an official request for permission, told me I’d be in three chapters, and added, “You appear as yourself. Which is to say you're handsome, charming, and witty.” She ran down my role in the story. It has to do with my past affiliation with Rolling Stone. But Michelle also works in a scene in Dianne and my home, and our wall display of our wedding photos, shot by Rolling Stone’s chief photographer when we married in 1976, a gal named Annie Leibovitz.
Michelle concluded, “If you're okay with it, I would love to use your real name. If not, I totally understand, and I'll give the character a different name, like Bill Fong-Flores.” She was JK, as the kids are texting.
I told Michelle that I would now be in two novels this year. Crazy, hey?
Wait a sec—make that three. I just got a postcard from Bob Levinson, who, back in the ‘70s, had a rock publicity firm in Los Angeles. In recent years, he’s carved out a successful career as a novelist, beginning with The Elvis and Marilyn Affair in 2000. His seventh book, In the Key of Death, is just out, and he invited me to a join him at a bookshop in Los Angeles. I couldn’t be in L.A. the day of the book launch and sent Bob my regrets. He e-mailed me back, saying he was hoping to post the prologue of the novel on his Web site soon. “A name you'll recognize there,” he said, “is this Ben Fong-Torres guy, who's doing a cover piece for Rolling Stone.”
After thinking about turning this odd set of circumstances into a Redroom blog, I asked Bob, why me? He replied: “It was important (to me, anyway) to lend verisimilitude to time and character, establishing how important this faded icon of rock was back when. No stronger way than to have Ben Fong-Torres doing the cover piece for Stone, with Annie taking the pix...”
His answer aged me a few years, but, no matter. Now, what about Michelle Richmond, who’s a kid, compared with Bob and me? I asked; she answered:
“I met you around the time I started No One You Know. When we met, I really had no idea where the book was going. Months later, I came to a spot in the novel in which the narrator, Ellie, becomes interested in finding out what happened to Billy Boudreaux, a once-famous bass player who had since dropped off the map. Well, by this time, Kevin and I had been to your house a couple of times, and I'd been reading Not Fade Away, so things just sort of came together in my mind.
“In the book, Ben Fong-Torres was the last person to interview Billy Boudreaux, back in the early eighties. As soon as I decided that the narrator was going to talk to you, I knew she had to go to your house, because how could I put you in the book and not include your house? With its amazing views and the leopard print carpet and those astonishing Annie Leibovitz photos, and the big office downstairs filled with decades of your research and writing--and music!--the house feels like an extension of you and Dianne, so emblematic of your personalities.
“Ultimately, inserting you in the book caused the plot to take turns I'd never expected, which was really fun. And your presence in the novel ended up playing off one of its major themes--the fine line between fact and fiction in storytelling. I love having a real, recognizable San Francisco person living and breathing beside the fictional characters.”
I appreciate Michelle having me “living and breathing” in her story. Much better than me serving to remind of a “faded icon of rock” from “back when.” No matter how they finesse it, though, I know what it all means. When a novelist needs a sturdy old (and, let’s face it, unusual) name for a rock journalist character from the past, who you gonna call?
Who else but ... Bill Fong-Flores!
Causes Ben Fong-Torres Supports
Susan G. Komen For The Cure Rocket Dog Rescue