For almost 10 years, I worked alone in my Manhattan office, writing a novel about a charismatic salesman who is endearing on a personal level, but who operates in business without moral restraint -- he will do virtually anything to close a deal. Then, suddenly, time seemed to sprint ahead for me, The Dream Merchant was in the stores, and I was out hustling books on the radio, occasionally on television, and at book signings around the country. I hadn't been on a book tour in years.
Friends asked me, "Do you enjoy this different life?" I developed a cogent, enthusiastic answer to this, as I have to some of the more uncomfortable questions readers ask me about the risqué situations in the novel: "It's great meeting people and talking about the book after years wrestling with it by myself."
Yes, I do have a healthy appetite for meeting people. But my answer suggests hawking the novel is a rich, uncomplicated pleasure, and more, a natural and reasonable extension of composing the book, what a mature writer must do to cultivate his career. But in reality, the two impulses -- writing and selling -- couldn't be more different, or at least they have been for me.
In composing the novel, I was hell-bent on capturing a vision that utterly possessed me, irrespective of what anyone else might think of it. I woke up in the night sweating about scenes I wanted to write in the morning. I rarely thought about how well or badly the novel was likely to sell -- whether, for example, explicit sex between a young woman and old man would offend some readers -- this did not matter to me at all, not then. I created characters from glimpses of people I knew, from my imagination and from my dreams that began providing nightly answers like a secret ghostwriter. I worked on my sentences obsessively. I wanted the novel to be the best that I could do. And the process of writing The Dream Merchant was as close to a long, very long expanse of bliss that I have ever known. It was like love. No, it was love.
But my state of mind began to change when my beloved hit the stores, or some stores, because others hadn't ordered it and those that had hadn't ordered enough to make a tall inviting pile of books in the front -- that's what I wanted to see. Whenever a good book review came online or into a newspaper, I was smiling at dinner. Almost all the reviews about my novel were excellent, but there weren't as many as I had hoped for. And there was one very bad one, a blemish. I nervously looked at my Amazon page and my sales numbers weren't soaring -- that brought on a sinking feeling. I watched myself weighing the signs of success and failure like my corner butcher weighing out chicken livers on his ancient, swinging scale.
All of this is normal stuff, you could say-- authors want to sell more books, and avarice for recognition is built into our profession. Still, after a month of selling the novel I began to recognize that the commerce side of my book had crowded aside the artistic impulse that guided and delighted me for a decade. I tried to recall how it had felt writing my pages but couldn't summon the feeling. And more disturbing (but perhaps more interesting) was that transactional affection had quietly seeped into unexpected facets of my personal life.
An artist friend wrote glowingly about my novel on Facebook -- "I didn't want it to end," he remarked. I felt so pleased, but more than that, I noticed myself looking at his page so that I could "like" his next posting, even if it wasn't particularly memorable. I found myself dolling out "likes" as a kind of repayment of debt like a politician shaking hands on the stump. In emails friends might extol my novel, but others never mentioned it, which felt like a snub. I didn't feel like calling these good buddies on the phone to kibbutz about football, fishing and backaches. When I reflect on the impulse to write the novel and the joy of composing paragraphs, rating friends by their compliments feels meretricious and utterly absurd.
But don't get me wrong, there is also pleasure in selling books, an excitement at the start of the business day that a fisherman knows before leaving the dock. Fred is now out of his private writing lair and walking into the buzzing wily world of commerce. What will he find? I have phone calls to make. I need to ready myself for an afternoon radio interview. I am thinking about the most appealing way to describe the book. What is the most clever hook for the novel that I wrote without compromise? I check with my publicist, find out what is on the agenda for next week. Where will I be travelling? I am described by my radio host as an author, but these days I am a have-gun-will-travel salesman. I grab a half hour to walk uptown to Eyes On Madison to pick up my new reading glasses. I speak to the congenial owner of the shop, George, about my new lenses and then deftly turn the conversation to The Dream Merchant. I go to my wallet for a lovely little card my wife designed showing the cover of the novel. There is a beautiful girl listening to our conversation. She is leaning my way. "Oh, are you a novelist?" she asks a little star struck. I have a card for her as well. She smiles back at me. On my way out the door I say to her, "I have to warn you, it's a bit sexy." Now she is beaming. I walk out of the shop thrilled. I've made the sale.
Among other things, my novel is an exploration of transactional love. Jim, the protagonist, is driven by the thrill of the financial hunt, the chance to win big or lose everything he's got. He pays for all kinds of love. He pays off politicians to land the biggest jobs in town. He promises his friends terrific paydays. In his world there is no distinction between customers and friends except that his biggest customers are his best friends.
He is transactional in romance as well. His affections are usually focused on attractive younger women. He relies upon his lovers mainly for the inspiration and energy to recreate himself, which he does a number of times in a long life -- the newly-minted Jim is ready to close even bigger deals.
At the start of the novel he is an old man, nearing 80, and the object of his desire is a seductive 26- year -old Israeli woman. Jim is burning with desire for Mara, who will almost surely leave him for someone younger, richer, hotter, but that tension itself -- to have her in his arms but to know that she has one foot out the door -- is a part of her astonishing allure.
At one point, Jim reflects that money, a great deal of money, can buy love or at least something close enough. He recognizes that steady until-death-do-us-part-affection is not what fires his imagination or readies him like Achilles for battle in the Brazilian jungle. The ephemeral, nubile muse is what Jim requires for urgency, power, risk-taking.
Sometimes, I worry that I am becoming hooked on cheap pleasures, like my character, hyped up by good days on the road and ship wrecked by bad ones.
I have been musing a lot about the question of transactional affection -- where it can take us, where it can leave us. When you are selling a product, you develop a "pitch." But zesty sound bites don't hold up over time like true sentences. More and more, I wish my descriptions of the novel were more innocent, more fresh, less controlled. When I'm feeling a bit sullied I tell myself with absolute certainty, the manuscript would be still in my drawer crammed in with pencils, paper clips, wads of gum and old packets of green tea if I hadn't taken the pages and wooed an agent one evening at a bar, sweet talked him like I was Jim.... I am resolved to recapture that freshness in my next interview.
Still, the message for me these days is that it is nearing the time to stop selling and to start writing again.