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"We need to make books cool again. If you go home with someone & they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."--John Waters

I'm the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. Look for my next one THE LAST KIND WORDS due out May '12 from Bantam Books. Contact: PicSelf1@aol.com

Saturday, March 21, 2009

On the Edge of The Underneath or Pumice to the Pink

I read a lot of writers' blogs, and I'm surprised at how many of them talk abut always meeting their deadlines, always smoothly plotting out the work, always working non-stop for hours on end. Me, I'm here to tell you that, at least for this writer, I hit wall after wall. I fight with doubt and insecurity just about every day. I look at the work and my head spins, my heart sinks, my nerves itch. It probably happens for all of us stuck in front of the computer even on a beautiful day like today, but I'm amused by how few authors admit to it. If I didn't admit to it, I'm not sure what the hell else I'd have to blog about.

Case in point: my latest novel THE UNDERNEATH. This is the story of a young former thief named Terry who returns home to his family of professional card sharps, burglars, and grifters on the eve of his brother's execution. Five years earlier, Terry's brother, Collie, went on a night-long killing spree, murdering seven people for no reason. After leaving his family and the bent life behind, Terry returns when Collie asks him to visit him in prison. Collie admits to six of the killings, including a seven-year-old girl, but claims he's innocent of one of the murders. Why he bothers or even cares at this late date is a mystery, but Collie begs Terry to look into that single killing.

Loaded with his own baggage, Terry returns to his family and must face cops and criminals from the past. He must deal with a younger sister who runs with the wrong crowd, his feeble grandfather dying from Alzheimers, his card sharp uncles who have just cheated a local mobster.

Now, anyone who's read any of my fiction knows that the "ghosts from the past" is a major theme of my work. It's not because my own history is any more dramatic or haunting than yours or anybody else's. But the job of the writer is to constantly scratch at himself and dig up his own feelings, to pick at his scabs and sores and keep them bleeding. And it's in that running blood that he finds his conflicts and tensions and characters.

It takes a toll, this kind of self-rending. It gets me thinking about my older sister, who's mentally handicapped (or mentally disabled, or learning challenged, or whatever the new PC term is nowadays). When I was a kid I recall her growing very angry and frustrated over minor incidents. On occasion she'd lash out with incredible strength, but more often she'd wind up biting the backs of her hands. I remember my mother rubbing lotion on my sister's hands to soften the scars and calluses, and then she'd lovingly scrub them with pumice stone. Afterwards her hands would be pink and raw and shining, the outer layer of dead skin wiped away.

Maybe it's a strained metaphor, but that's how I'm feeling lately. Raw and pink and shiny, missing a few extra layers of hardshell. Some of it has to do with our current economic situation. Like many of you, I'm beating my brains out for a buck. I'm getting shanked everywhere I turn. But more than that, I think it's because each time out of the gate I try to stretch and strain myself to take my old themes and move them someplace new. To expand and expound upon them, to explore them further as my worldview and perspective shift with each passing year.

It's digging the well deeper and diverting the water. The deeper you go, the more stone you have to cut into. I'm starting to notice it more than ever before. Maybe because the last one, SHADOW SEASON, took a real toll. I had to face head-on my own terror of blindness. Not only face it, but put it to use. Laugh if you want, but I wrote most of the book with my eyes closed, imagining moment to moment, page to page, what it would be like to be blind, how frightened and enraged it would make me. It was like being frightened of heights but writing a book while sitting on the roof. The fear and anger became me, the way I became the book.

With THE UNDERNEATH there are some new pains and aches and unresolved issues to discuss. Some of them will be obvious to my readers, some won't be. Some I'll see clearly and some I won't notice until I'm nearly finished with the novel, or well after. Right now though, there's a couple of things that keep catching in my craw, putting me on edge. It makes me resist the story. The scenes meant to build tension in the reader build tension in me, and who needs that kind of shit on a sunny glorious spring day? I don't. But I still need to keep to my deadlines. I still need to face down the empty page. I still need to face my doubt and fear. I still need to punch through my own hindrance and defense. Once again I need to bring pumice to the pink and scuff another layer off.

And how was your day?


Anonymous said...

Aside from a few stories on a blog, I'm not a published author so I'm not facing any deadlines that are not self-imposed. But I know about hitting the wall. Head on. Repeatedly. Doubt & insecurity are closer than my own skin. What's the old saying about writing being easy, all you do is open a vein and hold it over the paper?

Tom Piccirilli said...

That's by Walter Smith. Here's my fave:

"Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." ~Gene Fowler

Anonymous said...

And that succinctness shows why Fowler is published and I'm not.

Douglas E Wright said...

I have really no deadlines at the moment, Tom. But writing is not an easy go for me. It takes a long time to write a short story. Even after it's done I'll be watching a movie and think there needs to be a word change in the completed story. But, like you I notice I am digging deeper and deeper. The stories are different but underneath they are all the same.

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing this, Tom.

Jamie Eyberg said...

I am finding it takes a little more with each story. I have to dive a little deeper to find something that fascinates me, scares me, puts me in awe.

Anonymous said...

It's strange. I can go to any Tom Piccirilli book I own (and I own lots of them), open to the first few pages, and see testimonial after testimonial about how great a writer you are. Add to that Keene's comments about how every writer wishes they could write like you.

You're doing something right Tom, so it's not your talent that should be the cause of your insecurity.

Doubt and fear over the economy? I can understand that, I go to bed everynight worrying about whether my company will have enough customers to keep the doors open.

Doubt and fear over deadlines and your work? You just might be the most gifted contempory author fiction has to offer. I count the days until your next book is released, as do so many others.

I think writers might be thier own toughest critics.


ronnoc said...

Every time I read your blog I'm reminded how good of a writer you are. Of course, if doubting yourself is how you write what you write, feel free to ignore the above.

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