by P. E. Logan | 02 Nov 2009
How I Became a Famous Novelist
I spent twenty-seven years in publishing’s big leagues doing my part to create alchemy. The task at hand was to turn reams of paper into best-sellers and once wistful scribes into famous writers. At cocktail and dinner parties everywhere but in Manhattan and the Hamptons, the inevitable question arose: “How do I write a best seller?” Maybe you’re thinking, “What kind of a chucklehead dares to think writing is one-two-three easy?” Answer: every connectionless person who hears the oft-told tale of the overnight success and thinks “How hard can it be?” I used to wish that the process could be prescribed or jotted down like a family recipe just so I could hand over an index card and finish my glass of chardonnay.
The belief that writing is easily done reminds me of watching Olympic figure skating and having your legs twitch involuntarily with the skater’s moves. Skating looks effortless and airy when the pros do it, but of course, it’s not. If it were, we’d all be out there in our spangles. Such is the case with writing. You think: “Hey that was MY idea” when you hear the plotlines—the newbie lawyer who through sheer grit undercuts the Mafia, or the Harvard symbolist running in and out of various secret covens hunting for the grail du jour. Whether the story is about charming, pudgy ladies who snoop or lusty vampires in middle school, you know that you could have written this best seller too, if only… Of course, thinking up plots is nothing compared to the real work of writing—creating a story people truly care about and populating that story with a world of characters that readers cannot wait to see each day. But, most people don’t turn their dreams into words. They go back to their day job and daydreams and never take pen to paper. But, if they had scoured the best-seller lists determined to find the secrets to literary glam, then they could perhaps empathize with the central figure in Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist, a first novel by a TV comedy writer where the yucks are plentiful and the emotions earnest. Plus, there are a few useful tips.
Hely’s anti-hero is Pete Tarslaw, a veritable sad sack ambassador with a mindless, daily slog. Pete works at EssayAides, a hole-in-the-wall company in Boston, writing college admission essays for rich high schoolers and foreign students who have yet to master the language. Imagine spending your day repairing submissions like the one from a Russian oil magnate’s daughter who dreams of the Ivy League: “Madonna, by her is convincing feminitaj, has inspired her the artistic individuality, and her courageous states on the political problems, the women all over the dirt. Because of her example I wanted to visit university Brown.” Pete is not the world’s most enthused person and has reluctantly accepted that his life is a steady drone of essay overhauls, take-out meals and dumpy settings—from his cubicle at work to the apartment he shares with Hobart, a neurotic medical student.
Then his email brings threatening news: Polly Pawson, his long lost love from Granby College, is getting married in a year. She is now fast-tracked in a D.C. law firm. Her fiancé James is a rugged Aussie who, in Pete’s mind, could stand in for Thor. Other pals from Granby will be at the wedding too, and they’ve also taken steps in the right direction to mold their lives into something more since college. Pete figures the only way he can go to Polly’s wedding and remind her that she made the mistake of her life is to become someone. Why not a famous novelist? After all, how hard can it be? As Pete says, his fate is “roughly only 300 pages away.”
Pete’s path to literary fame is nicely laid out in sixteen rules in various shades of inane “Do not waste energy making it a good book,” he lists, adding “Must have obscure exotic locations”—upholding, he believes, the great American middle class fixation with foreign culture as found in Andrea Bocelli’s music or Epcot Center. All this brings him to craft the literary novel, “The Tornado Ashes Club,” a turgid escapade featuring Silas Quilter who will traverse the Las Vegas sands and elsewhere in search of the true killer of his boss. Notice I did not say write. Pete has no interest in getting real writing chops and he looks for every conceivable shortcut he can find. He wiggles his way into a cheapie writing class with no intention of paying. He cribs a few lines from a book he idly thumbs through, and he convinces Hobart to give him samples of Reutical, a Ritalin-like pill they’re using in a drug trial at the med school. The meds, along with alternating shots of coffee and MacAllister’s whiskey, send Pete soaring into fits of writing madness worthy of Hunter S. Thompson. Hely wants the reader to know that writing is hard, even if one approaches it with extreme nonchalance like Pete. His message is, irrespective of your motive—the muse whispering in your ear, the ka-ching of royalties tallying up, or a shot at Hollywood fame—writing demands sterner stuff. At the bare minimum, you are going to have to type something!
In order to set up Pete’s preposterous ambitions, Hely has him shrug off the achievements of the literary greats. If you don’t know what you’re doing in life but remain determined to try, you best water down the task at hand. With this, Hely puts blinders on Pete and gives the novel room to riff. “Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get little credit,” he writes. Dickens, Tolstoy, Twain, and Dreiser are categorized as screenwriters. “These guys were writing cut-to’s and cold opens and pan shots and battle scenes. They just didn’t have the technology.” And the Bard ends up in a pile of unprintable expletives. Pete takes a certain pride that he doesn’t bog himself down, like those hacks did, with writing. He is too busy calculating the advance and residuals to actually write any prose.
But, eventually the bell tolls for thee. Pete comes up with a viable plot for “The Tornado Ashes Club” by examining the best-seller lists and looking for clues and “aha moments” behind the mega-sellers. He decodes the list and connects a few dots including this: all big commercial books have a sage and sassy older person in the cast. Ergo, he inserts a grandmother type with a back-story built on fortitude. “Grandmother should have lots of stories of hardship. Made her own soap? Had to slaughter favorite chicken?” As a shout out to those who, like him, think cranking out three-hundred pages will be a breeze, Pete lays down a law about writing that mirrors Dorothy Parker’s sentiment that, if someone you know says he want to be a writer, shoot him. “Writing a novel—actually picking the words and filling in the paragraphs—is a tremendous pain in the ass,” he complains, recognizing that this process will eat up valuable time better spent cruising the Net. And Pete has one other problem: he doesn’t know how to write. “I knew writers drank whiskey and sat around bars, so I took a notebook and went down to The Colonial Boy, a pub with a half-assed Revolutionary theme on Mass. Ave.” At least his homing instincts are good. He knows to follow the Scotch.
Hely’s send-up of the literary world all rings true, from the conjured plots and wacky characters writers must summon, to the pretentiousness of writing colonies and the fixation with Amazon rankings, to the lampooning of publishing’s annual book convention, to the silly names of book stores, to the flamboyancy of best-selling authors, to the mock listings on an ersatz New York Times Best Sellers list. I frequently laughed out loud, with unexpected tee-hee eruptions, and drew stares from fellow passengers on the commuter train. This is a funny book; I frequently drew stares on the train on account of the unexpected outbursts of laughter that it elicited from me. Hely has written for Letterman and Fox TV’s “American Dad,” and he now writes for “30 Rock.” Not surprising, since his fast-paced wit is delivered on the page like a Robin Williams comedy routine. Hely’s humor-writing muscle is so finely tuned that he can aptly produce a larky novel with nonstop punch lines. But he’s also smart enough to keep the plot rolling along. I never tired of his knocks against the system—be it life, work, or Pete’s struggle with life beyond college. And I came to care for Pete, even rooting for his success, or at least his triumphal appearance at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.
Pete finally puts his finished opus in the hands of Lucy, a fellow Granby grad, budding editor, and future wedding attendee, who happens to work at Ortolon publishers, which is a another great pun in the book. Pete will be published! His insincerity towards writers has turned him into one.
Hely softens Pete towards the end of the novel as if he took a small kitchen rasp to Pete’s cynical edges. He makes him thoughtful and gives him self reflection and mature introspection about his actions. Pete can see that his behavior did not get him what he craved and ultimately needed: Polly, respect, and a place at the adult’s table. This is a solid reflection on how we all want to be viewed by friends and peers, as a work in progress. Every adventure, real and literary, is about growth and the lessons learned. It’s even a lesson if you learn that you can’t grow, that you are stuck. Hely weaves this in effectively, and though this is a comedic novel, the book can be taken seriously. It’s easy to do that when you care about Pete. You’re in the stands cheering him on and then shaking your head like a parent—Pete gets so close to the right moves, but makes the wrong ones. This is the nature of comedy. A guy walks into a room and sits down in a chair. Not funny. A guy walks into a room and trips over the ottoman on the way to the chair. Funny.
However, one thing that bothered me about How I Became a Famous Novelist is its debut as a trade paperback original and not a hardcover. From my days at the desk, this would have meant little review attention. I hope this is a recessionary marketing tactic and not a lack of faith by the publishing house. With luck, this plan could pay out for both Steve Hely and Black Cat books. It would be amusing, and deserved, for this book-within-a-book ruse to work for the real author, as nicely as it did for the fictional one. I can easily see Hely’s book becoming a cult classic and not just among ex-patriots of publishing.
Hely expressed in this novel what I long thought when I listened to the endless parade of plots amid the aspiring cocktail party novelists: that there ought to be a book I could recommend to people, one with enough verisimilitude so that they could grasp the quirkiness of the publishing process and the sweat-equity of writing. If I were at one of these cocktail parties today, I would direct them to How I Became a Famous Novelist.
P.E. Logan is communications professional and a writer in New York. She has worked at various adult trade publishing houses including Random House, Putnam, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for almost three decades. She now works at The New York Times. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and other periodicals.
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by Marian Brown | Mon, 11/02/2009 – 17:05
P.E. Logan’s review is spot on. I enjoyed hearing about her publishing background as the context for this book.
by James Meili | Tue, 11/03/2009 – 06:18
A clever invention. Book sounds like more appealing to insiders, but I might read for the humor.
by Bob Curtis | Sun, 12/06/2009 – 09:49
Nice job, Pat! Enjoyed it and makes me want to read the book!! And a great holiday gift for a few friends!