Before I beat myself up too much for taking two years to face the fact that I'm not getting my new book written as fast as I thought I would, I should acknowledge a lesson I just received in the mysterious tides of creation.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that some books take longer to write than others. A research-heavy non-fiction book, like this Undressing of America, can typically take three or four years to complete. But another book may have a completely different timeline. A humor book, for example, written by two collaborators in a white heat of inspiration and excitement. Today I uploaded the first episode of just such a book—My Pal Splendid Man, my new collaboration with Will Jacobs—to my author page. And how long did My Pal Splendid Man take to write, from conception to completion?
Just a little over twenty-seven years.
In January, 1981, a young Will Jacobs was sitting in his apartment on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco looking out at the gray sky and drizzle, having just finished reading a few old superhero comics, and a scene flashed into his mind. There's this frustrated would-be writer named Will, see, sitting around catching up on his self-pity, and suddenly there's a knock on his door. He opens the door and a friend walks in, a guy in a blue business suit and glasses who looks unprepossessing enough—but there's something special about him. Something that does not immediately meet the eye. And after some cryptic dialogue between Will and his pal, we suddenly get it: this guy is a superhero, the most powerful superhero in the universe, in his secret identity. And with all the great crises a hero could and should be tackling, this one, for some reason, had come around to help Will snap out of his funk.
Our young Jacobs wrote a few pages, liked it, and called up the even younger Gerard Jones to read it to him. Jones thought it was funny and intriguing and asked what happened next. Jacobs had no idea. He'd have to let it sit and see if the next scene came to him. Jones said he'd love to hear it when it happened. Back in those days, you see, Jacobs and Jones had written a few unpublishable things together for fun, but they didn't think of themselves as any sort of humor-writing team. Whereas now if Will Jacobs has a humor idea his first thought is, "I wonder if Jones will want to work on this with me?" and if Gerard Jones likes an idea of Jacobs's his first question is, "Can I help?" back then their friendship was still on a "Well, let me know when you've got more to share" basis. So those few handwritten pages of story on lined paper went back into Will's stack of fragments and notes.
Four or five months later, however, our young Jacobs and Jones found themselves starting a humor book together—they called it The Summer of the Beaver but it would eventually be renamed The Beaver Papers—then finishing it, then sending it to agents and editors, and finally selling it to a real publisher in New York. As neither of them had ever sold anything to anyone before (aside from used books and discount jewelry), this had a tremendous effect on them. They decided that they had a talent for writing humor together, and so they looked for the next funny idea they could develop. One of them, they no longer know who, remembered those few pages about the would-be writer and the superhero. They figured out what the odd friendship would be based on, they developed the characters, and they hurled themselves into the stories with the aforementioned white heat.
By the end of 1982, Jacobs and Jones had written several inter-connected stories about Will Jones and his god-like and supremely virtuous pal. (Who was not yet named Splendid Man. He's gone through a couple of names along the way.) Some of them were pretty lame, but some of them were actually quite funny. Unfortunately, even the better of them somehow didn't add a book. Our young writers had become extremely fond of the characters and the style of humor and the narrative voice, but they just couldn't figure out how to bring it all together. So they put it down for a while. And then, in the fall of 1983, they got a job with The National Lampoon, and life carried them on.
Occasionally over the years they dusted the pages off to see if they could do something with them. They got a few of the stories printed in a little comic book fanzine. In 1987, when the now not-so-young Jacobs and Jones scored some success with their comic bookThe Trouble with Girls, they got a publisher quite interested in adapting My Pal Mighty Man (as it was briefly known) into a comic book. But when the publisher almost immediately folded, they moved on again. A few times in the late 1990s, Jacobs would have an inexplicable brainstorm and crank out another My Pal Whoever story or scene, and Jones would say, "Hey, that's funny." But by then it was just a hobby.
By the time Checker Books contacted them in 2006 to ask about reprinting their old Trouble with Girls comics in graphic novel form, our now middled-aged friends had ceased to write humor together at all. But the knowledge that their collaborations were going to be seeing print again got them missing the days when they had regularly made each other laugh and fall in love with preposterous characters. So Jacobs pulled the old superhero stories out of his desk drawer. "You know what?" he said to Jones (emailed, really). "Some of these are really good. And I'll bet with what we've learned about storytelling over the past couple of decades, we could figure out what it's been lacking."
The first thing they did was come up with a character name that made them laugh: Splendid Man. Which opened up a whole new subplot that, they suddenly realized, would tie all the stories together in a wonderful way. (I'm not telling you what it is. I want you to read it.) Suddenly they were able to throw themselves back into the stories in a white heat of inspiration and excitement that belied their advanced years. They showed it to some people and heard that it was very funny but not quite ready for publication yet. So they set it down, wrote a whole different book (Million Dollar Ideas) in a heat of comparable whiteness, and came back to it. This time they—we—think we've really got it. We're putting it on line, one story every three weeks, to draw attention to it and solicit some reader comments. And already we're hearing very nice things.
What struck me most forcefully when I scanned the Splendid Man website this morning is that the initial spark from 1981 is still alive in it. (You'll recognize the original scene described above as the opening of Episode Two.) And yet there's so much else in it that Will and I have learned in the journey from our twenties to our fifties. It's a rare gift to be able to connect so intimately with one's own past, and to bring something back to life that I honestly thought I'd have to put down.
I need to remind myself of this whenever I catch myself falling into the trap of dropping each new day that I don't write The Undressing of America onto the scale of my self-worth. Sometimes books happen when they happen.
Unfortunately, there is that problem of the contract with FSG...and that other half of the advance that would sure come in handy....