Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chasing After "It"

I am fond of comparing my writing experience to that of a parent preparing his children for the world outside. Because no matter how careful and thorough you are, once they're out that door, you don't really know how that child will do, and you especially don't know if they might have that "it" factor that brings success.

When compared to a baseball player, I've had a pretty good average, "it"-wise. My first two novels were... my first two novels. My next two - the opera novel "Gabriella's Voice" and "Frosted Glass," a mid-life crisis set on the Oregon Coast and written in first-person female - had "it" in scads. (The response to "Glass" was almost religious, and I suppose you could call it a "cult favorite.") After that, alas, three beautifully written autobiographical novels with nary a shred of "it."

I was extremely excited when I found out about IndieReader.com. Billed as a sort of Sundance Festival for self-published authors, the site offers the kind of screening process that deserving authors desperately need to set themselves apart from the growing crowd of self-published titles. I naturally sent in my most recent work, the karaoke-set "Outro," and included "Double Blind" almost as an afterthought. I shouldn't have been surprised, however, when they decided to feature DB on their fiction page, since this recognition is only the most recent on a growing list of the novel's "it" parade.

Lord knows, I never expected this one to be a hit. But I had a longtime desire to take on the giggly Puritanism of American culture, and my friend Katrina Galway sealed the deal by loaning me novels by Milan Kundera and Leonard Cohen that were much nastier than anything I was liable to dream up. So I kicked that parental voice out of my head, and embarked for the dark side.

The instigating thought for the book was the confession of a close friend, on his wedding night, that he did not love his bride-to-be - that he was just marrying her because he didn't think that anybody else would ever put up with him. So astonishing was my friend's insecurity that I had to dream up a much more plausible reason for putting my narrator/protagonist, Hopkins Grinder, into the same position.

With the consultation of my geneticist pal Robert Pesich, I also made Hopkins a scientist, so that, in addition to talking about sex the way a guy would, he could talk about it the way a scientist would: as a perfectly natural part of life. Thus outfitted, he does what any guy in a loveless marriage would do: he has an affair, with Kelly, a single mother who just wants someone to come around once a week, screw her and then get the hell out. Their initial tryst - in the back room of Kelly's bead shop - has been called "every straight man's fantasy."

I wanted to give Hopkins some redeeming quality, though, and I landed on a good one: he loves his kids. So I created Laura and Marcus, based on my own passel of beloved nephews and nieces (notably my nephew Steven) and crafted endearing and complex attachments between them and their attentive parents.

But here's the complication: Hopkins is a child of divorce, one who would never allow his own children to suffer the same fate. Quite a quandary, then, when his wife Jessie ends an argument by "accidentally" almost cutting one of Hopkins' eyes out with a paring knife. Hopkins decides to recruit a hobbyist seducer, Damon Karvitz, to placate his frazzled, unloved wife (to keep them together no matter what) and is elated with the results - until he finds his wife being merrily boinked by Damon on a hidden-camera website.

This constant process of painting myself into and out of corners is exactly how a shameless sex book developed a deliciously dark sense of humor and a series of surprisingly poignant family situations - a quality only deepened when Hopkins develops an unexpected friendship with Stanford doctor Lisa Pisarro. The intensity is cranked up by an extremely tight, fast-paced writing style - a discipline I learned during the editing of "Frosted Glass" with my drill sergeant/publisher, John Rutledge.

The popularity of DB has come from an audience of male readers, who appreciate Hopkins' tell-it-like-it-is sex tales and then find themselves identifying with his many conflicts. A typical example is Paul, a bar-buddy who doesn't read much but has read DB three times over, and expounds on its qualities like Billy Graham testifying about his Savior. Or Joe, who expected the lurid aspects of the story but also found it "uncomfortably insightful about the male libido." But DB's "it" quality is perhaps best summarized by a female reviewer, Molly Zoe, who wrote, "If you have ever read anything like 'Double Blind,' it would surprise me greatly."