I Feel Them Still

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In writing this novel, I sometimes drew from and embellished on astonishing real-life events.  The above passage was spun off the story of a man named Walter Irving Scott, a Rhode Island magician who stunned the magic world in 1930 with his offbeat methods that fooled even the greats of magic.  He taught many of his most secret moves to a street magician named Gazzo, but in 1994, Gazzo had a stroke and lost all the moves that he had learned with his left hand.  Since Scott died in 1995, those moves were lost forever.

In addition, I’ve mixed in some details from the life of Dai Vernon, generally considered to be the best technical magician of the 20th century.  In fact, the magic world has many fascinating stories that the wider world has not been exposed to, and which will make for excellent reading in my future work.

In my early years as a writer, most of what I wrote was pure fiction, perhaps because I had lived so little of life.  I didn’t have a terribly eventful early life like Mary Karr or Ernest Hemingway.  In addition, I was a bit ashamed of my mundane suburban upbringing.  I didn’t feel that what I had experienced was literary enough.

Today, however, what I write is a somewhat equal combination of fiction, real life, and historical anecdotes.  By now, many extraordinary things have happened to me and I’m not ashamed to talk about them.  Now, I realize that my one childhood encounter with my Uncle John, who was a gambling cheat, is worth writing about.  Now, I’m discovering parts of my childhood that people want to read about.  Childhood memories are a bit like lost fingers, I guess.  I feel them still.

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What Dog Hath Wrought

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The woman who texted this to me had just found me on Facebook.  In high school, we had worked on the newspaper together.  In the years since, she had become very religious.

This text is a testament to how different readers read a novel differently.  When I was writing the novel, I never thought of Dante as “a dog,” but in all ways a nice guy.  However, he does fall in love with the protagonist and then not act on it.  While he’s living with her in exile, he ends up getting a girlfriend and spending nights at her place.  He’s unfaithful to a woman he’s not involved with.  He’s sleeping with another woman whom he’s not married to.  Does that make him a dog?

???

To download this novel, What Happens to Us, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Beverly in Movieland

A well-known author/blogger just blogged about my new novel, What Happens to Us.  Quite pleased, in fact, exzeedinglee pleeeeezd.

I’ve read Beverly Gray’s blog a few times and she’s really quite the excellent writer. She recently published a highly regarded biography of Roger Corman, for whom she worked for a decade.  Now, as a result of her frank biography, it seems that he hates her.  So much for honesty.

Take a look.

http://beverlygray.blogspot.com/

My Greatest Hits, Trust Me

If you’re new to my blog, there’s a whole lot to read.  After all, I’ve produced a post nearly every day since starting in July.  That’s why I’d like to list my personal favorite blog posts, so that you can read me at my best.

Try these:

 

Sally (R) at school with another Mexican-American friend

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Family 479

 

My father was a young man.  He had already been smoking for eight years.

David Groves jr high school

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Family 260

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Combo David and Donald shot closer

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I Look at the World through Word-Colored Glasses

I’m not that good at math.  I majored in physics for a quarter at UCLA, and it was a disaster.  Somehow, I just don’t think that way.  I also don’t think like a bureaucrat or a bean counter.  But words, now there’s my territory.  Words, I like to say, are the sea in which I swim.  I think not in images or numbers or feelings, as some people do, but strictly in words.  During down times, words twist and turn in my head, re-forming themselves this way and that.  I look at the world through word-colored glasses.

Word colored glasses smallerThat became clear to me as early as junior high school, when I was a star student in Mrs. Robinson’s Spanish class.  I ripped through the assignments so quickly that she put me on an independent study program.  That freed me up to write, at my request, short stories in Spanish.  I remember writing a story about a nuclear war between the Land of the Pickles and the Land of the Meatballs.  The pickles were the first to strike.  They dropped radioactive pickle juice onto the meatballs.

By high school, I was spending most of my time working on the newspaper.  By my sophomore year, the newspaper advisor offered me the position of editor-in-chief.

Desmond Buzzell, my high school journalism advisor

Desmond Buzzell, my high school journalism advisor

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I’d have to order around the seniors.  They wouldn’t do what I said.”

“Of course they would.  You’d be the boss.”

But I couldn’t see it, so instead, I convinced him to make me the sports editor instead.  By the end of that year, I was winning awards for my sports column.  By junior year, I finally accepted the editor-in-chief position and was spending the summer at a highly competitive journalism camp and winning more awards.

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In college, I switched from journalism to literature, and began thinking about words in deeper ways.  Journalism consisted of quickly dashed-off flotsam about fleeting events, but literature consisted of deeply considered words about eternal subjects, topics that had occupied the minds of Socrates, Lao Tsu, and Dante.  I began to admire those who let their deep thoughts determine the words, and the words determine the form, such as Joyce, Tolstoy, and Didion, rather than deadline writers who settle for any sentences that piece themselves together before the 2 pm deadline.

I dove into great literature.  I was amazed at how Virginia Woolf’s meandering sentences could skillfully mimic actual thinking.  It seemed extraordinary that the lack of a simple period had such profound perceptual consequences.  Of couorse, that same lack of periods has through the years scared many people away from her prose.  To others, it has opened a door into the richest veins of the mind.  Without the imprisoning chains of those tiny little dots, Woolf was freer than any person alive at that time.  Her sentences had set her free.

I became obsessed with Hemingway’s spare language, a type of language that seemed less like prose and more like the building blocks of something deeper.  Using Hemingway’s model, I stripped down my own language to its own building blocks so that I could see it better.  It was like taking apart a car engine.  My father had done that in his own day, but I was doing it with language.  Once the engine is in pieces, you can then understand it fully, and in time, rebuild it in a different way to fit your own tastes.

Donald Groves and Model A, age 17 smaller 2

I began identifying the characteristics of famous writers, from the caricatured prose of Dickens to the self-devouring poetry of Hopkins to the conversational poetry of Whitman to the ego-made-incarnate prose of Roth, to many others.

In my twenties, I realized with some astonishment that one could consciously choose the way that one processes the world.  I can’t adequately express how revolutionary a concept that is, even today.  One could focus on details and minutiae all the time, thus engaging the left brain.  Or one could see the world through large concepts and artistic structures, thus engaging the right brain.  If one took the former option, the side effects seemed to be that one missed the big picture, didn’t connect with flow, and blocked one’s creative output.  If one took the latter option, the side effects seemed to be that one made more mistakes in grammar, spelling, and fact.

It was an easy choice.  I chose to think like an artist.  I suspect that’s why Claire often complains that my side of the bedroom is so messy.

But there was no other possible choice.  At the time, I was working as a freelance proofreader, checking book galleys for spelling and typing mistakes, and later, as a freelance copy editor, checking for grammatical and compositional errors.  Doing that kind of work for six to seven hours a day was grueling, and at the end of the day, I did not feel like doing my own writing.  My head was filled with other people’s words throughout the evening, and I needed a few hours to empty it before I wrote my own stuff.  By the time my head was emptied, it was time to fill it up with words again.  I never wrote anything creative.  It was an endless cycle of emptiness.

When I became a freelance writer, my inner life became much richer, to be sure.  Still, there were limitations.  Writing health articles for magazines like American Health, McCall’s, Psychology Today, and others was moderately rewarding, in the same way that it’s rewarding to date a woman whom only your mother finds attractive.  It wasn’t really what I wanted to do.  I wanted to write fiction all the time, but I was working so hard making ends meet that I just couldn’t find the time to finish anything.

David Groves with beard in twenties

All this time, increasingly, language was my life.  Foreigners were astonished that I could pronounce foreign words correctly upon hearing them once.  I never misspelled words.  My mind could tag-team with my fingers to achieve a 105 wpm typing speed.  While spending idle time–in a car, for example, or at a concert–my mind often drifted to words.  Often, my mind would latch onto a word or phrase–for example, ubiquitous–and type it over and over again on my thigh, counting the number of letters typed with each hand, subtracting one from another, and playing games with those numbers.  All my girlfriends knew the feel, while lying in bed with me during a romantic moment, of my fingers typing out words on their backs or arms.

I was seeing a therapist during that time, and I remember a session I had with her.  I had opened the door and walked into that session as I had done many times before, but this time, I smiled.

I was amused by something I hadn’t noticed before.  While walking through the door into her office, it struck me as extraordinary that the brain could execute an action so mundane as opening a door, which involved turning the knob, pushing it while walking through, and then pushing it back with the other hand at just the right moment to send the door closing at just the right speed, catch it with that original hand behind my back–behind my back!–and then gently close the door shut.  It was such a complex series of motor skills, and yet the mind perceived it as a single action.  It seemed like some neurological miracle.

“So what’s going on this week?” Honora asked.

“Well, I’m having trouble finding the time to write my novel.”

“Maybe you have nothing to say.”

Well, okay, therapists are paid to think the unthinkable.  She didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it irked me all the same.  Here was something I wanted to do more than anything–write my novel–and yet I could never find the time to do it.  And she was blaming me for it?

“I do have something to say,” I said with seething calmness.  “I have a lot to say.”

“Like what?”

“Well, it’s not like I’m a survivor of some holocaust or I’m a McMartin kid or anything,” I said.  “But you know how I opened that door?  It struck me as so amazingly complex, like something that…revealed the extraordinary complexity of the brain, and yet, we never talk about it.  I want to write about the things we never talk about.”

It made me think about a line from Tender Is the Night by Fitzgerald, which goes something like this:

“He went to the mail desk first.  As the woman who served him pushed up with her bosom a piece of paper that had nearly escaped the desk, he thought how differently women use their bodies from men.”

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It took me seven years to finish writing my first novel, ten years to finish my second, and six years to finish my third.  By the time I got to the third one, I had learned so much about writing and life that I would often finish at the end of the day with tears in my eyes, knowing that I had packed as much wisdom into it as I had ever seen in any piece of writing.

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But it didn’t always come easy.  My best passages often took 80 to 100 drafts before they were finished.  But when they were finished, they were so tightly and intricately woven together that it became nearly impossible for the reader to pull them apart and see where the passage originated or where one thought blended into another.  Eighty drafts tend to blend together like layers of soil, moisture, and time on an archaeological dig.

Now that the novel is published, it’s so layered that I could talk about it for years.  Every corner of it is a little universe.  Every plot twist has a complex history.  I was pleased when a reader told me she had read it a second time, because it bears rereading.  Give it a try.  Its roots, as you can well imagine, go deep.  And when you read it, wear your word-colored glasses.

What Happens to Us

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Only $3.99 to download onto your Kindle

I Had a Dream

When you choose a career, it’s not always a straight line.

In my case, I started out at age 7 wanting to be an astronaut or a baseball player.

My father had always wanted something else for me.

“Be a dentist,” he said.  “You get as much money as a doctor, but no one wakes you up at night and says you have to come into the hospital to fix a toothache.”

But by senior year in college, I was on a straight line: I wanted to become a novelist.  I pretty quickly published my first short story, in an august journal called North American Review, which Hemingway and Twain had also published in.

“I pay for four years of tuition at UCLA,” my father complained to my mother, “and he wants to become a novelist?!”

He never told me about his complaint, though.  He was too decent to say it out loud to me.  I learned about it only years later from my mother.

After graduation, I didn’t find any companies who wanted to hire someone as a full-time novelist, so I started doing journalism, small-time at first, but within six years, was publishing in Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Harper’s Bazaar, and a host of other glamorous and glitzy publications.  I was flying in to New York twice a year to meet with editors.  I had bylines galore.

But I wasn’t glitzy by nature.  I still wanted to be a novelist and I had no time for it.  When Joe Weider offered me a full-time editor’s job in his fitness empire, I answered, “Oh no, I’m sorry, I’m working on a novel.”  I was still under the delusion that freelance writing might allow me some free time to work on fiction.  It didn’t.

When I finally realized that freelancing had failed me, I jumped ship and became a full-time magician.  I had heard that cruise-ship magicians worked only two hours a week, got paid a couple thousand a week, and had lots of free time.  That was the job for me.  I would travel the world and write my novels for 38 hours a week.  But in the meantime, I had to become a master salesman, selling my show to cold-call customers, which once again took all my time.

The only thing that gave me enough time to write my novel, finally, was poverty.  Just giving it all up and writing.  Not worrying about jobs, not worrying about getting new things, not worrying about going without health insurance, not worrying about what people think, and they think some pretty bad things, believe me.

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Not worrying: It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

I started writing the novel six years ago, after thinking about it for 24.  I wrote much of it at night, when I had insomnia.  It would calm me to write on it, chip away at it.  There are so many different parts of a novel that it’s like a whole country, and you work to create that geography, climate, and culture.  It was compulsive.  It was the one thing I knew how to do.  I didn’t know how to be happy, exactly, or worldly successful, but I did know how to write.  You scribble a first draft, go away from it for a few days, thinking about it, and then ideas come to you in the shower, on the bikepath, before going to sleep.  If you’re smart, you write down those ideas when they come to you.

But at the end of that path, which is a long one, I can assure you, winding and endless, you have something solid and real that you’ve been hoping for all your life.  You sit in front of the computer and smile.  You read the last couple chapters to your girlfriend and she cries.  Sometimes, you even choke up reading it.  You give it to your girlfriend to read aloud because you know you can’t do it yourself.  There are gorgeous sentences that sparkle as if they were pure sunlight.  There are characters who have lived in your heart for years.  There are turns of phrase that only appear after the 80th draft.  There’s a plot that fits together like a Mitrokhin puzzle.  And there’s a dream that you’ve finally fulfilled, rather than letting it die.

And that’s why you should buy my novel, if only to support someone who’s had a dream.

Writing Like Water Through a Faucet

In my early twenties, I had serious writers’ block.  Somehow, by the time I reached thirty, I had conquered it, and now, the words just flow out of me like water through a faucet.

IMG_2656 distressed 1aIf there’s one thing I can say about writing, it’s that it’s all about commitment.

I just published the novel, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, and if nothing else, putting the novel out there was a supreme act of commitment.

I committed, for example, that I would write a novel in a certain highly polished and rewritten prose style like Margaret Atwood’s rather an unpolished, fresh, ragged one like Jack Kerouac’s.

I committed to an understandable style like Ernest Hemingway’s rather than a hip, obscure one like Raymond Carver’s.

I committed to a female protagonist when I’m a man.  I committed to a side character who’s turning 100 years old, and risked losing the reader’s interest, first, because she’s so old, and second, because she’s only loosely and thematically tied to the center of the story, even though I find her issues intensely moving.

Naturally, these choices are all about risk, and that can freeze up your pipes.  You may need a plumber.  You may have to drink from the water hose.

When you commit to write in one way, you risk that people will think you should have written about it in a different way.  Many criticize Dan Brown, for example, for writing in a less-than-credible style.  That conspiracy, they say, is just too implausible.  His massive fan base, however, are drawn to him precisely because of that incredibility.  Wow, they say, I’ve never read such a gripping book!

The Japanese have a saying: The nail that sticks up its head gets hammered down.

Over the years, I’ve learned that when you publish, you stick your head up.  It’s true in every endeavor: stepping onstage, publishing a blog, making a movie, sitting down at a piano and playing for people.  People sometimes take pot shots at you.

Be a Street Magician cover 3 smallerIn 1998, when my first book, Be a Street Magician!, was published, one guy in Boston went on a campaign against me.  He was the administrator of a forum about street performing and posted a thread called, “Why Is David Groves Such a Wanker?” and then emailed me the link, trying to goad me into defending myself.  He was a hammer.

With the publication of my newest book, I’ve had some detractors.  One reviewer complained that all my characters “have issues.”  Another didn’t like my antagonist because “he’s just a bully, and I prefer villains that you like in spite of yourself, such as Hannibal Lechter.”  On the other hand, many others have come down on my side.  A common assessment is that the novel is “a wild ride,” and one reader even affectionately called it “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”  Other phrases include “terrifyingly realistic,” “full of lots of nice twists and turns,” “a real page turner: well written and compelling,” and “a stroke of genius” (and that last one wasn’t from my mother!).

Cover What Happens 1dIf you’re going to publish anything, you have to put yourself out there, commit to the artistic choices you’ve made, stand behind them.  If you don’t, you’re headed in the direction of Block Boulevard.