I wrote 'YOU comma Idiot' over a period of years starting in my late thirties and ending well into my forties. It began because I suddenly stopped enjoying novels. Or even worse, for the first time ever, I wasn't finishing them. And then I got it in my head that I could write my own, that I could tell a story in a voice too engaging to put down. Or die in the attempt. It became a kind of late-night stoner's challenge.
I was wrong, of course. As I discovered, my story could easily be put down. It sprawled anywhere and everywhere but nowhere particularly interesting. It was self-conscious and surprisingly lacking in fluidity. It was a third-person account of slacker Lee Goodstone's days spent with best friend Johnny, Johnny's uber-girlfriend Honey, and other neighbourhood types. But nothing ever happened. When I finally stopped and read 100 pages of it, I was taken aback at how I'd actually created something people had every right to put down.
And so I started again, writing character notes and plot notes and notes about my notes. And I wrote them in the second person, very comfortable for me, a habit I'd developed fleshing out ideas and scripts for TV spots, which is how I earn my living. I wrote, 'You're the kind of guy who's incredibly lazy'. Or, 'You don't work, you sell hash instead'. And not long after, I began rewriting the book in that same voice, from scratch. Instantly, what had previously felt too-cool-for-school now sounded friendly and fresh and oddly sympathetic.
Not watching TV at night is a good way to get things done. There's a lot of time to be had there. I put my son to bed at night and fired up the computer in my basement, writing from nine-thirty until midnight, one, two. My wife would come down and give me a kiss around ten-thirty. I stopped only to watch stupid hockey highlights. I needed all that time. I was a slow writer, reworking the same passages far too often. And though the story came quickly, I had a tendency to wander and digress. This would also cost me reams of time later on when I was forced to return and sift through all that lettuce and tomato looking for hamburger.
Lee Goodstone slept with his best friend's girlfriend on a lark. I was just fucking around. I thought of it and typed it in to see what would happen. I thought I'd delete it the next night. Instead, it woke the character up. Once I started writing around it I realized something had simply been needed to shake Lee's world. It seems incredible to me now that it wasn't immediately obvious, that I had to stumble upon it.
I remember once hearing one of the creators of M*A*S*H* discussing comedy writing on a retrospective show, and he said, 'Always put your character in the situation he least wants to be in'. I applied some of that logic.
I had another small, helpful revelation one night, writing while CNN played at the other end of the room. Larry King was interviewing a quirkily crew-cutted American politician named Gary Condit who was forever squirming under the lights, denying his role in the baffling disappearance of a girl much younger than him. Naturally, the more he squirmed, the more everyone was convinced he was guilty. And then I had this sudden and strange thought: what if some poor bastard ever got himself in this same position but hadn't actually done anything wrong? Once they start to train those cameras on you, do you have any kind of chance of surviving? (It was only later that it came out Gary Condit was, to everyone's surprise, and certainly mine, innocent.) And right then and there I decided I had the plotline I wanted to weave into my characters lives. The possibility of foul play. However, because I wasn't interested in it from a cops and courtroom perspective, it would be the story of a guy who's friend was suspected in a girl's disappearance, and how it affected all of their relationships. I didn't want to write about clues and questionings; instead the space cadet sidekick was going to run into trouble.
I thought writing funny would be easier. Not easy, but easier. I couldn't figure out why other writers didn't try harder to be funny in their books. Now I know. It's fucking hard. The pacing is so different, you can't possibly go at the rhythm of a sitcom or a movie. Which is what most people think of when you say 'funny'. So instead you cheat humour into opportunities that present themselves naturally, and subtly create others. You work incredibly hard to slip in anecdotes and episodes and entire plot turns just so you can lead everything up to a line you like the sound of, or an exchange that gets your rocks off. It's very dicey. Your characters banter. Your narrator makes a lot of asides. There are a number of look-yourself-in-the-mirror moments where you try to figure out if the badminton scene is happening in the story because it ought to or because you like the way the word shuttlecock looks near the end of a sentence.
I wrote from the memories of my youth and so that meant Montreal. Some of it NDG for sure, but definitely some from the north end of the island too, Cartierville, which most people hardly knew of, it seemed to me, except maybe because this is where Belmont Park once was. I melded neighbourhoods and merged timelines, feeling very free about setting it in a space I wanted to remember, more than actually existed. It was a blast, in that way. I recall almost everyone from my earlier years fondly. And all the places. So I just invented a comfortable, fun turf. Straight out of my head. Because the thing was, I had no intention of naming anything along the way. Not even Montreal. Nada. I referred only to this 'street' and that 'boulevard'. The Royal Victoria Hospital was 'City General'. The Laurentians were 'Up North'. It was pure North American generic. It was very liberating. I didn't want to get into it. Especially living in Montreal, and all that can sometimes mean to people. I was writing about people who never embraced anything anyways. And I was Canadian. And a first-time author. Looking for an agent in New York, and a publisher. I didn't want any more strikes against me.
And then I got an agent. And a publisher. And an editor. And they all said, set it in Montreal. As did others. And at first I first thought, are they crazy? But then I did it and now I'm glad I did but of course that meant I had to go back and Montreal-ize the whole goddamned thing, which was strange and ironic, though I really got into it, it's what I'd been writing about all that time anyway, these anglos still living entirely in English in Montreal, in this day and age. Though I didn't really get into it. If you know what I mean. I still just wanted to tell a funny story about what we were like back then and what me might be like today, too.
I've always thought of 'YOU comma Idiot' as such a guy's book. In the beginning, I was sure of it. A story for other guys like me. And yet, it's women that have been so influential in moving it forward. Penn Whaling from the Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency. Bethany Gibson assigned by
Alexander's Goose Lane Editions. Julie Scriver and Akoulina Connell. A woman named Sabine Campbell, whom I never properly thanked. And Milena Stojanac, whom I met at a fortuitous moment. And all of them so solidly behind it, as much as any author could ask. It felt like such a happy coincidence at first but now I wonder about it more. Why was it this way? And I realize how much the novel benefitted from their touch, too. This supposed book for guys. For things to turn out this way is a lucky, unexpected vibe. Now if a woman is reading it, I listen extra hard to what she has to say afterwards. And I remember that guys are, essentially, dummies anyway.
I loved reading John Updike's Rabbit books when I was in school. All of them, the first three, then the fourth, then even a fifth, a long story mostly about Nelson. I also loved early John Irving, not just 'Garp' but 'The Water-Method Man' and 'The 158 Pound Marriage'. Insanely good. Did you know in 'The 158 Pound Marriage' the main character's name is never established? At least I'm pretty sure. I loved 'Barney's Version" and 'Trainspotting' and 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas', reading them all numerous times. I really liked 'The Beach', 'Life of Pi', 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?' and 'The Wanderers' by Richard Price. And 'American Psycho' and 'Bright Lights, Big City.' I purposely went back afterwards and read 'Bright Lights' because of the second-person thing. What a great book. I'd always thought a whole slew of books had been written in the second-person but now I realize I've never read any others.
It never occurred to me that I wouldn't get published. That's how dumb I was. I just assumed I'd send it around and various people would leap at the chance to print it. Hoo boy. And then I started learning things. What the process is and the odds are. And that you should get an agent first. And the odds of that. And then that fucking Query Letter. And The Synopsis. Mother of God. Do I have any thoughts for writers trying to get published? Yes. Make sure you're very, very lucky. (And read the intro by Dennis Lehane to the book 'Your First Novel'. Then read the rest of the book. But don't read too many other books. Write instead.)
A bunch of years ago, I cooled on novels for a while. It was just me, of course. There were a lot of good books to read, certainly. I was just going through a phase and a change in my reading tastes and ultimately it led to me to try writing one. So I wrote a book for myself to read. One I would be sure to finish. Now what's left to be seen is whether others feel the same way.