Strand Bookstore, the granddaddy and the mother of American bookstores. Monday night. September 22. New York, New York. The very city where Master of Ceremonies takes place. Only now it's 2008 and not 1985. How far I've come, what a different person I am. No longer in a top hat, tuxedo, and roller skates. No longer in front of 600 booze fueled flesh craving cash waving Ladies. Now I'm doing an event based on remembering that event. And I can wear whatever I want. Say whatever I want. Be whoever I want to be. I have reinvented myself, but it happens so slowly that I hardly recognize it. But tonight it is stark and clear, I'm not the person I was when I wrote this book. Hallelujah!
As I walk into the Strand, it's alive with New Yorkers and tourists from all over the world buzzing like reader bees around the pollen of all those books. My God, I love that book store. I said this during the event, I used to come to the Strand when I was a civilian, before I entered the publishing wars. And I loved it back then hanging out with all those books. In the stacks. In the basement. All those astonishing art books on the second floor. And a floor they won't even let you in unless you're extra special. I love that.
We were late. Terrible traffic coming through the Lincoln Tunnel. It makes you disgusted to be a human being to come through the Lincoln Tunnel from New Jersey. What we have done to this beautiful earth. Our mother. What a world we have made for ourselves, sitting in these metallic boxes inching creeping along standing still even as time maddeningly stops, trying to squeeze into this tiny hole we made to get us to the other side. The Dark rose up in me when it became clear we would not be there at 630, the black bitter anger flaring up like lava out of a volcano. But I was determined to actively seek out the Joy. So I walked in at 645 for seven o'clock show. Imagine my relief when there were already a bunch of Citizens sitting waiting, and Strand people bringing more folding chairs out. A good sign.
Mike Daisey is a true force of nature. First of all, he occupies a large space. And that space radiates out like a magical force field all around him, powered by the sheer force of his being. That's it. The dude radiates. He burns. His brain is so fast and large. And there seems to be so much 411 that he has instant access to. It takes me a second to adjust sometimes when I'm first with Mike. But it's fun getting up to speed with the Daisey. By the way, he's doing a show about homeland security at the public theater starts October 21. I hugely encourage everyone to see it. It is a life and death topic, and nobody will attack it with the hungry-dog-sinking-teeth-into-juicy-bone intensity that Mike Daisey will. His poster for 21 dog years is him chomping on a bone like a dog. It's very funny. And slightly disturbing At one point during the event Jim and I were both saying how if you're going to include real people in your memoir, you should get a release from them, signed sealed and delivered. And perhaps consult a lawyer. Mike leaned into the mic and said, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with my distinguished colleagues, just write it like you want to write it and fuck em if they can't take a joke. Now that I think about it, I'm sure those are the words he actually said. But that's the way I remember them. As I wrote these words down, it seemed like the best way I could communicate to you what the moment was really like, without having access to seeing it again. I can't remember every word he said. But I remember the feeling I had so clearly. I can see as seen on the screen of my mind. And this is but one of the problems inherent in writing a memoir. I once heard James Elroy, one of my favorite writers, hard-boiled nasty crime fiction like LA confidential, say that a memoir shouldn't have dialogue in it, unless you have a tape recorder there. It's how the hell do you know exactly what anybody said? The man has a point. I should go back and look at the videotape (Link listed below) in the archive of the Strand and see what he actually said. But I want to write this down first, to see how my memory is different from what actually happened. As I try to reconstruct it, to retell it, to make art out of it, to make it come alive, to capture the truth of it, I use my own words to capture the words of Mike Daisey. Because, whose words am I going to use? This is really what the whole evening is about. How do you make a memory come alive on the page. But the point is, Mike Daisey has this kind of fearless Socratic gadfly Lenny Brucey disdain for the corrupt, ignorant, soul-deadening, life-threatening institutions that are crumbling all around us, he is the old school foole who will make you laugh out loud while he tells you what everyone already knows but is too stupid or afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes on. So my heart soared like the eagle when I saw Mike Daisy standing amongst all the books at the Strand, there to do my show. And it all came about due to two factors: 1) when I made my dream of performing at the Edinburgh fringe Festival come true Mike Daisey and I shared a large dressing room at the Assembly Room for 23 nights. it's such a strange environment, to be at the largest theater festival in the world it's this pressure packed cutthroat lunatic funhouse madhouse, the whole city overrun by artists from all over the world, the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Doing a one man show you're really in the trenches. And you learn a lot about someone by watching them get ready to do their one-man show 23 times. Every night we would warm up next to each other. Me doing crunches stretches yogic poses, and Mike Daisey twirling a chopstick fretting darkly and sweating. 2) Jim Levine. Who was standing talking to Mike Daisey at the Strand. Mike is a client of Jim Levine. Jim Levine is just such a great human to be around. As I said during the event, I've played many rounds of golf with Jim Levine, and I've never seen him lose his temper. And he's not that good a golfer. Me, I hit a couple of bad shots and the F.-bombs start flying, as do the clubs all too frequently, it's sad when you throw your golf club farther than you hit your ball. He and his lovely and talented wife, noted author, psychologist and all around good egg Joan Levine let us stay in their Manhattan apartment when she was 8 7/8 months pregnant. It was an extreme act of kindness. And my heart soared like the eagle to see that Jim Levine was there to be with me on this night.
By the time we started there was a large juicy crowd gathered. Very gratifying. A few friends, but mostly just people there to see this event. First Mike Daisey told a story that started being about the act of storytelling, what it takes to convey the truth, the beauty, the essence of an event. Because as soon as you start talking about it of course you're doomed to failure by the constraints of language. And then he talked about being an American cultural emissary in Kazjkekistan. The way he described coming into the country, how this yellow dome of sand covers the sky so you can look directly at the sun. He painted such beautiful pictures I could see them in my mind. I was thinking, yes this is how you tell a story, this is how the brain works, it sees pictures. I saw the yellow over the sky like a translucent slicker. And there was a big wall around the hotel. I saw it in the eye of my mind. This country has been wracked by civil war, wracked by Russia, wracked by everybody apparently. And Mike Daisey told about how he interviewed all these Kazjkekistanis, all different economic groups, going into people's homes, and how many of them were so numb telling their stories, they had done what humans do when confronted with too much tragedy. Something in them shut off. And there was a disconnect between the horrors that they were describing, and the way they were describing them. And you lost the effect of the story because it was so deadened in the telling. Then in an interview this one woman told her story so simply and so naturally and so beautifully she inhabited the story as she was telling it, and that's the thing that made it come to life. So it's not just the recitation of events, the plot, the narrative. It's the way the storyteller inhabits the story that makes it come alive. Mike's was a fantastic shaggy dog story, you're thinking, Where is he going with this? there's no way he can bring this whole thing back around to where he started, but somehow, he did, he wrapped it all up in a beautiful fullcircle moment, with the beginning meeting at the end gracefully and in harmony. And I felt very lucky to have Mike Daisey up there with me. It really made me think about the way I tell stories, the way we all tell stories. And I've been thinking about that all day today. More about that later. Mike Daisey was so entertaining. And he provoked my thoughts, made me see the world in a new and different way, challenged my basic beliefs. It's so rare that that happens to me in this world, in this America.
Then it was my turn to perform. This was really the first time I had done this material in public. And here I was playing Broadway. Literally not figuratively. And I made the mistake I so often do in life. Exposed my Achilles' heel. My bete noir. I tried too hard. I did too much. I didn't have faith that just saying the words and inhabiting the story would be sufficient. So I acted things out too big, I hit the words too hard, it was all a little forced. I did relax into it at a certain point and several parts of the story did come to life. At one point, I jerked my head forward and smashed my tooth into the mic. That to me was the perfect symbol for what I was doing wrong. Too much. Too hard. Too big. I have to embrace the idea that just me doing my thing will be enough. My friend Victoria Emory came over today and we worked on the material. And she was saying that the performance was getting in the way of with the story. Stopping me from inhabiting the thing. She thought that I should read from the book. You see I memorize these things, it comes from making a one-man play out of Chicken. But that was theater, with lights, and music and all the trappings of theater. Still, I remembered my fantastic director, David Ford, the guru of one-man shows, the master, the Yoda, instructing me over and over to make it conversational, make it intimate, just tell the story. Speaking of which, Arielle had told me several times that she thought I should just read from the book. And she also suggested I start at the very beginning of the book. I don't do that at the presentation I did at the Strand. First I described the era, 1985. Because I thought that's what the story was about. The cash happy Coke crazy 80s, when girls just wanted to have fun and it was always raining men on ladies night. Then I described the larger than life men and the matter than madhatter madness. But when I read that first chapter out loud today, as Arielle had suggested, I realized that, yes, this is how it should start. Because in that first chapter you meet me, and I am you when you were 25, a basically decent human with some skeletons in my closet, trying to make a dream come true. So it becomes specific yet Universal. But if you only show the bulging G strings and blow jobs gone badly and the cocaine and the partying and the fall of Rome, without the hero going through the hero's journey, you don't really have a story. That's not what I wanted to write. At this is the mistake I have made, both in presenting this book to the world, and in my readings. It was like the Odyssey without Odysseus. That's not to say I didn't think the performance had many redeeming qualities. Even when I'm fucking everything up and still go do things very well. Hey, it ain't bragging if it's the truth. I was just doing the wrong material and attacking it in the wrong way. But I learned so much by making these mistakes. And by listening to Jim Levine and Mike Daisey.
Then it was Jim Levine's turn. I was so impressed by his level of preparation. Usually when someone asks me to believe that do something like this, I just throw some shite together at the very last possible second. He actually had printed out documents, filled with clear articulate answers to the question: What makes for a memoir that's going to sell? And the answer, on the most simplistic level is, the teller of the story has to answer the question: Why should anyone care? Seriously, why should I give a shit about your story? Have you lived through extraordinary circumstances? Are you an extraordinary writer? An extraordinary person? It opened the eyes to hear it stated so baldly and perfectly. All those writers at the Strand feverishly scribbled down these wisdom pearls he was flinging for free. And I felt very lucky to have Jim Levine up there with me. Jim Levine gave concrete examples of people he has worked with who satisfied all these criteria for what makes a memoir that will sell. And they all sold. Ultimately, Jim Levine said, publishing is a word-o-mouth business. You have to have a book with enough juice that people will read it. But then your book has to take the next step, be so good that when a person finishes reading it may feel compelled to tell a friend: YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK! Of course many businesses work in this word-o-mouth model. But in publishing, where there is virtually no budget for promoting most books, it becomes even more crucial.
I was the master of ceremonies, moderator, compare, whatever, but I didn't even really have to ask any questions, the conversation just flowed so nice. Jim Levine told a story about a famous personage, name withheld, who was written about in a very flattering way, but was so incensed by the way he was betrayed, that you threatened legal action. And this is not uncommon. In fact, I was talking about how my publisher, actually someone who's not even my publisher, a partner of my publisher, Morgan estrogen, was so terrified of being sued because of Master of Ceremonies, that I had to have the book vetted by a battery of lawyers. And we all know how painful that can be. The Suits made me change all these details. Which just pissed me off no end. Because then my story wasn't true and real anymore. I had to make one of the characters black. He wasn't black in real life. But this is the penalty we pay for living in a litigious fucked up world. So anyway, the guy in the book that I made black, I was thinking about doing an event with him, but he insisted on seeing the book first. I was mad tweaking when I sent him the book, I thought, That's a big mistake. He's gonna freak the fuck out. Because in my experience, with my memoir Chicken at least, my parents, who are in the book, absolutely freaked the fuck out, as did my brothers and sisters, who aren't even in the book. So I was sure this ex-chippendales dude would freak the fuck out. Cuz some bad things happen to him. But actually, I think he comes off better than any of the main dancers. Because that was my experience of him. So anyway, I was pins-and-needling big-time. I'm convinced that at some point one of these Chippendales dudes will come a'knocking at my door and punch my lights out. Luckily, I think a lot of them don't know how to read, and if they do, find it too taxing. So I've got that going for me anyway. The point is, I sent this guy, who's a character in the book, who I turned into a black man, a copy of the book. In which he is a character. I get an e-mail back about a week later. And it struck terror into my heart when I saw it in my inbox. But here's what it said, or the gist of it anyway: Hey, how come you made me black? I think he would have liked it if I used his real name and made him exactly like he was. He seemed to think it was the coolest thing to be in this book. Human nature just baffles me. Anyway, me and Jim Levine and Mike Daisy had a spectacular chat about the evolution, machinations, and Art of a memoir.
Then there were questions from the audience. One person wanted to know how you find an agent. Jim Levine started talking about how many of his clients are referrals from other people. But of course none of those writers in that room are in the circle of published writers. They don't know anybody. That's why they're at the Strand on a Monday night. So I jumped in and I gave my putting your passion into print spiel about how you have to find books that are similar to yours, but not identical, and make a list of agents who sold those books, then find out everything you possibly can about those agents. I said you have to stalk them. And Jim leaned into the microphone, with the timing of a vaudeville comic and said: Well, I don't think you should STALK them. I think it's better to RESEARCH them. Not STALK. RESEARCH. Got a big laugh. Deservedly so. But then Jim Levine picked up a copy of our book Putting Your Passion into Print, held it up, and said, All the information you need to know about finding an agent, writing a proposal, the whole thing, it's in here. In fact, he said, several publishing houses now give this book to their new clients. That made me very proud. I think Arielle and I really did write a successful book. It set out to demystify the process of taking something you love, making a book out of it, then getting it published, in a fun, entertaining way. And I believe that's exactly what it does. Irregardless it was an astonishing endorsement.
Christina Foxley and the Strand were so grand. I asked the audience to please buy something, I said, If you can't afford one of the books, at least buy a pen, a bookmark, something. Because these independent bookstores, they are the lifeblood, the brain, heart, guts, and conscience of America, and more and more of them are going out of business, a terrible sign of the times, another illustration of the collapse of the civilization. In the end I think betwixt the three of us, Jim Levine, Mike Daisey and moi, we illuminated the methods, the madness and the Art of telling a story, combined with the nuts and bolts of the business of selling a story. Which is the subtitle of the event. Telling and selling your life stories.
Then we sold a bunch of books. Sadly, we didn't have enough copies of Putting Your Passion into Print on hand. I guess that's what happens when an agent so enthusiastically endorses a book like that to a room full of writers. It's always one of the saddest things for a writer, when someone wants to buy your book, and it's not available. But better that than the other way around, when there's a big bunch of your sad lonely unloved books that nobody wants. After the event I had that happy happy afterglow that comes from doing a difficult job. I did it, I pushed the rock on the way up the big huge mountain. I remember earlier in the day, I was standing in my kitchen, I had that feeling of the weight hanging heavy on me, I said to Arielle, God, why did I put this event together, all I want to do is go up to my room, to my cocoon, and finish my new novel. This was followed by a tsunami of exhaustion that laid waste to my coastline. But I realize in retrospect, that was the Dark speaking to me, calling out to me, trying to drag me into the chamber of doom and gloom. Because in the end, I had such a blast, performing, bringing all these amazing people together, rocking that great shrine of books, back in the Big Apple where it all started. Only a now I'm calling the tune. It feels as like this is what I was born to do. And I'm doing it. And there is the Joy.
Next stop: LA, city of the fallen angels, Book Soup, Hollywood, October 1; Barnes & Noble, Santa Monica October 2; Vroman's, Pasadena, October 3.
And why isn't anyone saying that Sarah Palin is a walking advertisement for the disastrous tactic of teaching abstinence? This is what happens. Kids have babies they are utterly incapable of caring for when they are shackled with ignorance. Well, that's my two cents worth, and with inflation I did owe you one, now I owe you about a dozen.
I'm really enjoying writing these mini-memoirs about doing a tour that's all about memoir.
Causes David Sterry Supports
Sex Worker Rights