Sunday, October 7, 2012
How Writers Should Die
When I first waded into the waters of self-publishing, I did so with two novellas. The first, WATCH YOUR BACK, showed me within the first month the potential for shorter books in the indie world. The second, ONE MORE LIE, became the first self-published work to be nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award, for which I will always be grateful.
And I owe it all to James M. Cain.
Cain, as most of you know, was the author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, his most famous work. Just behind it are DOUBLE INDEMNITY and MILDRED PIERCE. With hit movies based on each, Cain was, by 1947, one of the most famous novelists in America. The postman was delivering him a lot of money in those days.
His best books were written in a style that Cain made his calling card: the first-person confessional. The narrators recount their downfalls due to the entanglements of lust or greed or some combination thereof. There is something so direct in Cain’s prose. Spare and unsparing. Hardboiled but with a heart. Dialogue that snaps. Plots like runaway trains.
So one day I found myself sitting down to write about a man with a confession to make, and out came WATCH YOUR BACK. I liked it so much I did the same with ONE MORE LIE.
And I’m pleased to no end that the novella is back! You couldn’t get them published traditionally. They just didn’t sell. They were a staple of the old pulp era, but dinosaurs by the end of the twentieth century.
Now, with self-publishing, with low prices and instant delivery, novellas are back stronger than ever. I plan to make them a staple of my future work.
But even more important to me in all this is the example of Cain the man, Cain the writer. He was riding high when the 1950s hit, but then began a period of decline. Publishers started rejecting his stuff. He became, in the eyes of many, “damaged goods.”
By 1963 Cain was 71 years old and without any contracts. He thought he might be the very thing he never wanted to become: an ex-writer. Yet James M. Cain still wrote a 1200 words every morning. Here he is doing that very thing, on his beloved typewriter, at the age of 75:
Now that is inspirational. And guess what? At the age of 82 James M. Cain received the largest advance of his career, for his novel RAINBOW’S END, which was published to excellent reviews. He completed another novel that was published and well received, then immediately got to work on a new one. He had just completed THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS when he died at the age of 85. That last “lost" novel has now been published by the good folks at Hard Case Crime.
That is a writer’s good death--type THE END and keel over! Don’t you believe that? You’re a writer, after all. It’s what you do. You’d do it even if everyone in your family came to you at midnight, woke you up and begged you, for your own good, to stop writing once and for all. You’d tell them to get out of the room because you’re dreaming of your next book and the boys in the basement need to get to work!
And that is why I will never stop writing. Even if the postman stops delivering checks.