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A couple of years ago USA Today ran one of those Top Ten lists that they love so much. It was the Top Ten Most Beloved People in America. I didn’t make the list. But a couple months later they ran the Top Ten Most Hated People in America (I didn’t make that list either), and it doesn’t take special insight to predict the same people were on both lists. Six of them, as I recall now. 

That’s when I came to certain realizations about the opinions of people who know me through my work but I don’t know them. Anyone in that position is both loved and hated for the wrong reasons and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Even Tom Hanks has his detractors and I met a guy lately who thinks Dick Cheney has a nice personality. 

This came to mind because the famous mystery novelist Sue Grafton once threatened to kill me. I don’t think she was serious — I didn’t start locking my doors or anything — but she definitely wasn’t kidding. This is a woman who spends a lot of time thinking about how it would feel to knock someone off. She tends to do it by creating thinly veiled fictional characters out of people she doesn’t care for and then whacking them. 

But the bottom line here is that Sue is a gracious, perfectly nice woman and she doesn’t like me. She’s not the only one. I can name several nice folks that I like who don’t like me a bit. And I wonder about that.

I understand the many wonderful people in the world who think my writing stinks. Lord knows, I don’t judge folks by whether they can stand my books or not. A writer would be a total dingbat if he, or she, turned against people simply for not connecting with the writing (although loving my work does help make a good first impression). I’m not that lost in vapid-land. 

And you don’t turn 35 living in a tent and washing dishes in an Italian restaurant if you care deeply about public opinion, so I’m not going to turn into the cloy king, but I’d like to come up with a stance to take on the issue of being hated by nice people. Anyone with ideas is welcome to throw them out there.

Announcements: 1) Those of you interested in writing or me or my writing can go to an interview at Roses and Thorns and learn everything you want to know about my attitude toward writing novels and then some. http://roseandthornreviews.blogspot.com/2008/04/tim-sandlin-author-interview-by.html

2) The Jackson Hole Writers Conference comes around June 25 to 28 — four days of inspiration and fun. Three writing critiques, seven New York Times best selling authors, seven agents and editors, workshops, and dancing cowboys and cowgirls — if you’ve never been to a writers conference, this is the one for you. If you have been, it’s the one for you also. You can hang around people who are interested in the same things you are interested in (how often does that happen outside the internet?) and, between sessions, wander through the Teton Mountains. Check it out right here.

3) I’m writing a scene in GroVont IV where Lydia goes to the Lompoc Minimum Security Federal Prison in Lompoc, California, to visit Hank. I would love to meet anyone who has served time in Lompoc, or visited a loved one in Lompoc, or knows of anyone who has ever been in Lompoc or any other minimum security federal pen. Surely, with 5,000-whatever of you out there, one of my fans has been in prison. Let me know. You too can make the Acknowledgments page.

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Due to the severe isolation of the job, most literary writers, and a few of the genre guys, develop a co-dependency relationship with a specific bookstore. The store is usually a local, mid-sized independent where you can get to know the staff and the staff can get to know you and your idiosyncrasies. Authors become mascots, of a sort, like the store cat that customers see slinking through the stacks. We drop in at these bookstores four or five times a week, just to see the books on the shelves. We buy a few, of course, but most of the time we’re there to absorb vibrations off the printed page. We need to know books still exist. We need to renew faith that the book we’re writing now will one day be on those shelves, real and tangible.

My home store is Valley Books in Jackson, Wyoming. Steve Ashley owns Valley Books and he is the finest human I’ve known in my days on Earth. I have owed Steve money continuously for over thirty years. Back during the dishwashing decades, I would charge all my Christmas presents there, for the family back in Oklahoma, then spend the rest of the year paying off the bill.

After that, came the flush screenwriting years when I pretended Steve allowed me to hang out in his bookstore for a hundred dollar a month cover charge. In exchange, I pretended all the books were free. Most months it worked out well. Only in winter did I drop so far behind I had to write a massive check in the spring.

When I’m in the throes of writing a novel, I tend to get more than a little spooky. Steve’s employees have always been kind and patient with my abnormal behavior. More than once I came to after a bookseller touched me on the arm and asked after my welfare, when I was frozen up in front of a shelf.

Which brings us to Christmas Eve. Fifteen to twenty years ago, in appreciation of all Steve and his staff did for me, I would go in during Christmas week and clean the employee bathroom. I hoped to start a precedent ¬¬– a movement, if you will – whereby all authors clean their local bookstore employee bathrooms during Christmas week.

It never caught on. To this day, I think if Phillip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike had followed my lead, we would have created a new tradition, equal to Secret Santas and black-eyed peas on New Year’s. But then, Steve remodeled the store and did away with employee bathrooms. I would have probably stopped, eventually, anyway. There comes a time of life where it’s considered peculiar to clean other people’s bathrooms.

So, here is the current Christmas Eve tradition: First we – the family and I – go to the 4 p.m. Christmas carol service at the Episcopal Church here in town. My daughter, Leila, loves to sing, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” I like tradition and ritual.

(Last Monday night, Dick Cheney was at the service. By my modest count, seventeen members of the congregation were packing guns. We skipped the Peace. Made the Good Will to Men thing seem a bit warped.)

Then, after church, I take a bottle of Frangelica liqueur to Valley Books, and right before closing, the staff, the owner, family members, and late shoppers toast to Christmas and the wonderful folks who sell books. Actually, we share several toasts. I don’t drink much anymore, so it doesn’t take but a couple shots to zip me right into the holiday spirit. And I’ve found the staff is more appreciative of a Dixie cup full of cheer at closing time than they were of a clean bathroom.

If there’s any Frangelica left, I take it home and put in into the French toast Christmas morning. I heartily endorse baking with liqueurs.

On another note, I once tried to explain to Leila why teenagers hate poems and songs featuring their name. I used the example of “Georgie, Porgie, pudding and pie.” I never met a kid named George yet who doesn’t loathe that poem. And girls named Brandy – my advice is don’t break into “Brandy, you’re a fine girl,” when you meet them. They’ve heard it before. At seven, my Leila is not impressed by people who knock out a verse of “Layla” the moment they meet her. Besides, no one can remember the line after “You got me on my knees.”

For me, the most damaging Christmas icon is that little brat Tiny Tim. God, I hated that sanctimonious suck-up. I was small for my age – I grew seven inches after high school – so the whole tiny thing made me neurotic as a Democrat in Utah anyway. It didn’t help for other kids to taunt, “Where’s your crutch, Tiny Tim? When are you going to say your line?”

But then I grew up and I am no longer an insecure, short, isolated, frightened, resentful, nerdy, twerp.

I don’t think. To prove my point, I will now take a giant step forward in my development as a whole human being.

“Merry Christmas.” Here it comes: “God bless us every one.”

p.s. Mark it on your calendar. Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty comes out in paperback on January 4. If you’ve already read the book, buy a few for your loved ones. Grandparents love it even when they claim their friends won’t. And order three from chain stores. You don’t have to pick them up. Unclaimed books will eventually reach a shelf. I’m too old to wash dishes professionally.

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Let’s say you’re hanging out in the campus Starbucks with a bunch of MFA students. You know the kind. The girls order their coffee decaf triple venti three Splenda extra hot stirred no-foam with double whipped cream and extra caramel. The guys call a movie a film. Some twit will jump down your throat if you use “party” as a verb. And these intellectuals (you can’t say pseudo-intellectual without being one) break out in a limerick reciting contest.

What you can do, after you’ve read this blog, is show them up by reciting the original limerick. Not only the first but also the most famous, it has nothing to do with Nantucket or Terlingua.

Here is God’s Own limerick.

Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

Some dork will call you on the rhyme of the second line, but limericks are defined more by rhythm than rhyme scheme. Tell them when Jesus first created the poem in whatever form of Hebrew they spoke back then, that “name” and “heaven” rhymed. Not many can prove you wrong there.

Whoever actually did translate the prayer for the King James version must have done it limerick form on purpose. You don’t just fall into that 8-6-4-4-8 beat thing by accident. Maybe the old monk or whoever it was had been drinking with Irishmen who started conversations with, “There once was a girl from Regina.”

I heard a guy at Pearl Street Bagels tell this nice looking girl that Jesus spoke Yiddish. She said that wasn’t true, that her Jesus was a Southern Baptist and none of them talked in Yiddish at all.

I seem to be on strike. I went down to the Cowboy Bar looking for someone to picket, but they weren’t shooting any movies, so I left. People say this Hollywood drama is like pro football players striking— millionaires trying to cut other millionaires out of the cut — but I disagree. Writers of TV and movies are being shafted by the non-creative types at the top, who have been somewhat Draconian in this deal. As the saying out there goes for writers: “You can make a killing, but you can’t make a living.”

There’s also an old Polish/blonde/North Dakota/fill-in-the-blank joke about the woman who went to a movie set and she wanted to get ahead so she slept with the writer.

I’m on page 300 of the fourth book of the GroVont trilogy. For those of you who haven’t read the story so far, the first three books take place in 1963, 1973, and 1983. At the end of the 1983 book, Sam Callahan’s mother, Lydia, went into hiding after the Secret Service discovered she’d Fed Exxed a poison chew toy to President Reagan’s dog.

Now, in 1993, Lydia has been let out of prison. Her community service requirement entails taping an oral history of a 100-year-old codger named Oly Pedersen, who appeared in a paragraph or two of each of the other three books.

Did you follow that?

I’ve been searching for a title for a couple of years. At first it was “Oly and Lydia,” but that then Garrison Keillor started telling Oly and Lena jokes on his show and I gave it up. Then it was GroVont IV. I hate movie sequels that use numbers because no one involved was creative enough to come up with a name, so I threw that out. Then I read about this experiment where they hooked people up to a lie detector machine and read them lists of words, and the two words that caused the greatest emotional response were “Mother” and “Blood.” So, naturally, I named the book “Mother’s Blood.” My editor didn’t like it. He said a book with that title would not announce itself as a comedy. He said, “Mother’s Blood is dark.” Even though that was a straight line for the ages, I had to walk away.

So — drum roll. The new title of the new novel: “A Clean Catch.”

I can hear you now. “I don’t get it.” For some, the reference may not be obvious. “Clean catch” is a term used by people who are explaining the proper way to give a urine sample. Basically, you whiz two seconds, stop, position the cup, start again, and stop before overflow. This procedure can either be medical or legal. Everywhere you go these days, someone wants your pee.

Anyway, I told my good friend and internet guru (drop him a line if you need a web page designed) Curt the new title and here’s what he wrote back.

“To me the stream is a person. You start off full blast with a big hole to shoot for, but as time goes by, you come to a point where you suddenly have to stop and aim for the cup (society), without dripping, missing, or overflowing. Or the huge hole becomes a tiny cup whether you want it to or not. My dad’s simplification was ‘Piss on it.’ ”

Both of these explanations are brilliant. It’s like when a high school kid writes a paper on your novel and finds all kinds of symbols, metaphors, and motifs you never dreamed of. After you read the paper, you say, “Yeah. That’s what I meant. I just didn’t know it at the time.”

So, all you Blog Commenters — and you know who you are — this is a challenge. I’d like to hear your interpretation of the metaphor behind a novel entitled “A Clean Catch.” Go wild (although keep it short. The rest of us have to read these things).

Years from now, after the strike ends, when I’m interviewed on “The View” and one of those vibrant women says, “Tell us the meaning of the title,” I may go into your very own rap, and you can e-mail your friends and loved ones and say, “Tim stole that metaphor from me.”

How about this: If the title stays till publication, I’ll put the best one you guys come up with in the Acknowledgments. It can’t get more exciting than that.

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Dick Cheney spent a couple of hours in K Mart Friday afternoon. When I went down to pick my daughter up after school the bus stop was clogged by my least favorite minions. Rumor has it the Vice President was buying fire power, but I feel this rumor is based more on expectations than hard facts. The woman I heard spreading the gossip said, “Guns and ammo are the only products a real man has to pick out himself. He’d have sent an employee if he wanted Chap Stick.”

There may be truth in this. The Vice President of our country would not be in K Mart trying on clothes. If he was there for killing devices, someone should alert the area lawyers.

Here’s an actual story I found on Yahoo that is so bizarre, as a humor writer, I am humbled. Brittany Spears’ mother is writing a book on parenting. Imagine that. Nothing I can say could possibly make that sentence any funnier. There is a lesson to be learned here, by all you blog readers who are also novelists. Writing tip #1: Just because something is true does not make it believable. I could never get away with Britney Spears’ mother writing a book on parenting in fiction.

When my first editor said, “This is too far-fetched to put in a book. It’s not believable,” the one excuse she would not accept was, “But it’s true.” She didn’t even bother to say, “So what?

Non-fiction writers have a major advantage over fiction writers in this respect. They can get away with claiming true things are true, even though anyone who reads much nonfiction knows that’s bull. Take my personal favorite nonfiction works — Walden and Desert Solitaire. Both of those either leave out crucial data or make it up. Neither one is any closer to true than Have Spacesuit Will Travel.

Don’t get me started on the evils of nonfiction.

Many readers seem to have taken that last blog in a way I didn’t intend it to be taken. It wasn’t meant as a rant on the scumbags of Hollywood. Hollywood doesn’t contain a higher percentage of scumbags than, say, politics. Or drug dealing. I’d put it around forty percent. Nowhere near the ratio of bad to good you find at an insurance company.

I met some incredibly creative, cool people working in Hollywood. Some of my best friends, etc. The movie business works exactly like the Forest Service in that the lower to middle grade workers are high quality — professional and competent beyond normal belief — and they are convinced upper management is made up of fools and clowns. Maybe most industries are that way. I don’t know. I only know about Forest Service and movies.

I do know, in my personal history, the betrayal and heartbreak has been more extreme in publishing than movies.

My point, when I said everyone in L.A. lies, was that they speak in a code and until you learn that code, you’re a calf at the veal house. When a vice president of something or other (they’re all vice presidents of something or other. They pass out titles instead of raises) says he loves your work, and, after a couple of pertinent questions, you realize the guy hasn’t read your work — this doesn’t make him evil.

When you call an agent and her assistant says she’s stepped away from her desk and you can hear her in the background, the assistant isn’t lying, so much, as speaking in Hollywood babble. Your job is to learn Hollywood babble. If you can’t sail calmly, without crippling frustration, through a sea of duplicity, you’re in the wrong business.

All professions have a language of their own, and — Writer’s Lesson #2 — as a writer, if you can nail the language, you’ve nailed the profession. The readers will believe you and will go wherever you take them. It’s just that Hollywood babble isn’t so much technical terms — like in waitressing or hanging drywall — as it’s English words that don’t mean what the rest of us agree that they mean.

Bottom line in movies: The raw material every in the busines works with is the relationship. Your agent never says, “I know Joe Schmo at Universal.” She says, “I have a relationship with Joe Schmo at Universal.” Relationships are power and lifelines. If relationships are your career, there cannot, by definition, be an honest relationship.

I learned a lot of amazing skills in L.A., but here is the only one that I’ve been able to use east of San Bernadino. There’s deli in Beverly Hills called Nate ’N Al. The waitresses average sixty years old and are famous for treating both the high and low with equal disdain. I, personally, think it’s a bum rap. They treated me fine, but they treat stars the same as they treated me, which isn’t fine to the stars.

Anyway, if you take a baby or young toddler into Nate ’N Al as soon as you sit down they bring out a bagel cut in half diagonally and run a shoelace through the center hole and loop it around your kid’s highchair arm, so if the baby throws the bagel, it doesn’t get dirty. It hangs off the string a couple inches over the floor. Bagel on a rope.

After I left Hollywood, Leila and I started going to Pearl Street Bagels here in Jackson every morning, five days a week, so her mother could get some rest. And every day, I gave Leila her bagel on a rope to play with while I drank coffee and read the newspaper.

In seven years of working the movie business, bagel on a rope is the one thing that has proved relevant in real life.

P.S. There was a coyote in the K Mart parking lot this afternoon. That’s kind of odd, even for Wyoming. To my knowledge, there is no connection between the two K Mart anecdotes in this blog.

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I couldn’t sleep last night. I got to worrying about why ravel and unravel mean the same thing. What’s that all about? And why cleave is its own opposite. About three in the morning it hit me that if a semi-truck has 18 wheels, a whole truck must have 36. That’s the kind of thing that kills us literary types.

Onward through the fog. Or blog.

Attitude is language. Which means we are not only what we say but how we say it. Here is all you need to know about the difference between publishing novels and writing movies.

In publishing, if an editor doesn’t want your work, they send you a rejection letter. Rejection is the key word for New Yorkers. Editors like to look at writers from the point of view of Cotton Mather’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, and they are God. Once misspelled word, or a margin too narrow or too wide, and they not only ship you a rejection slip, but a form rejection slip.

Compare rejection to how Hollywood turns you down. The producer who doesn’t want your work will say, “This is the best first draft I’ve read all year, buy I’m afraid I have to pass.” Isn’t passing so much softer than rejecting? It’s also sneakier because it leaves the door open for coming back, as in “I’ll pass on those pork chops but I may take you up on it later.”

And when they do pass, they do it by sending an e-mail to your agent. Down at the bottom of the e-mail are letters CF/rb, or whatever, indicating who said it and who typed it. But below that, at the very bottom, you’ll find this cryptic sentence:

Dictated but not read.

That means whoever said it said it but they reserve the right of denial, if it goes to court or their job is on the line. Isn’t that sneaky?

Actually, you’re lucky to get a Pass in Hollywood. Mostly what you’ll get is silence. People out there hate to say “No.” It might be awkward and awkwardness is not tolerated. Stars never say “No.” You send them the script and if they like it they say, “Maybe, depends on the money,” but if they don’t like it, eight phones calls, twelve e-mails and four months later your agent’s assistant lets it slip, “Too bad that didn’t work out with the star.”

“First I’ve heard it didn’t.”

“Oh, they passed a couple months ago.” This always comes from the assistant, never the agent. No agent who wants to stay alive in that town will tell a client anything the client doesn’t want to hear.

And then here’s what happens more often than could be statistically random. A friend of yours at a hummus and pita bread party will be standing next to your star and your friend will say, “Too bad you passed on Such-and-So’s script. You would have been great for the part.” And the star will say, “What script? I didn’t see any script,” which means either the star, his agent, or your agent, or all three, are lying through their teeth.

You’ll never know for sure, but the odds run to his agent. Agents love to protect their clients from artsy character-driven passion projects by turning them down without telling the star the offer existed. Nothing an agent hates more than a client taking on a project for some reason other than big bucks. Better to keep him mindless tentpoles.

Or maybe your own agent didn’t want to tell you the famous actor will never in this lifetime play in your cross-dressing musical and he told you he submitted it but instead he stuck it in a file cabinet for three months before telling his assistant to leak it to you that the star loves the script but it’s not for him.

Or maybe the star is lying.

If you plan to work in the movie business you must accept that everyone lies and it’s normal behavior and your job is to figure out what they really mean. They don’t even know they are lying. They think they’re speaking in a code (which we will discuss in a future blog) and, if you’re a professional you will be able to translate the truth. For instance, in that earlier statement, “This is the best first draft I’ve read all year,” the only part of that you need to hear is “first draft.” That means if they take it you’ll be doing rewrites on your death bed.

Richard Price once said, “Thank you, in Hollywood, means you’re fired.” It my experience, the studios said “Thank you,” but the producers said nothing. Remember when your first girlfriend broke up with you in high school? You talk on the phone every day for a few months and then it stops. No Goodbye. No thanks for the memories. If you throw a wall-eyed cat fit she has her best friend tell you you’re being shallow. That’s how it is with producers. One day you call them and their assistant says he’ll call back in ten minutes and that’s the end.

Your progression should be idealism to cynicism to acceptance. Otherwise, the business will destroy you.

Here’s an example of Hollywood and language. Early in my career, an actor — we’ll call him Tom Skerritt — hired me to adapt an unpublished novel. Mind you, I never talked to Tom in person. That isn’t done. I talked to his son the producer who said Tom wanted the script aimed at sixteen year olds. He also said when the movie came out he and I would share screenwriter credit. I was so green at the time, I didn’t realize a producer taking half the credit for a script he didn’t write is as ethical as parking in a handicapped zone and as legal as gunning down a Git Shit clerk.

Anyway, I wrote for four months, turned in the script, waited a few more months, then I called the son who said, “I misheard Dad. He wanted the script aimed at sixty year olds.”

He hung up and that was that. I was out four months of my life and they were out a fairly large chunk of money, because Tom said “Sixty” and the son heard “Sixteen.”

Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe it was a case of Dictated but not read.

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Friday night I drank a glass of red wine and Saturday morning I woke up with the stigmata. Not full blown stations-of-the-cross stigmata, I grant you, but I had big red blisters at the base of both my palms.

For those of you not familiar with the term, stigmata is a Catholic thing where beatific vision types bleed from the spots where Christ got himself nailed. It’s considered a miracle, if you are devout, and if you pull off three miracles you qualify for sainthood. For those of us who aren’t devout, it’s a reaction to the histamines in red wine. Francis of Assissi had it. Catherine of Siena didn’t bleed any more than me. These saints with stigmata were all from France and Italy, as far as I know. They probably drank a lot more than one glass of red wine, so it’s no wonder their blisters broke.

Elmore Leonard wrote a fine book about a non-Catholic with the stigmata. His characters made a big deal out of it. The hero was so sensitive a high-quality woman fell in love with him. Nobody genuflects when I bleed. My wife feeds me an antihistamine and tells me to drink white next time.

But then my stigmata doesn’t stream down my wrists. Maybe I should drink more.

I used to drink more. From 1977 to 1987, or so, I got drunk six nights a week. The drink itself changed every few years, but it was never red wine. Like all good hippies, I made the transition from drugs to alcohol by way of tequila. Anyone who’s ever snorted a dark powder only to find out he has Maxwell House Instant crystals up his nose — another mistake I’ve made — will tell you don’t buff the stuff, so I started on straight, pure shots with a lemon chaser. Slowly, I worked my way through sunrises and bloody Marias, although I never sank so low as the yuppie margarita. From tequila, I went on to whiskey. I always figured I wasn’t a true drunk because I avoided scotch.

I did waste a year or two on Grand Marnier. I was working in a terrible Italian restaurant — “Nobody Eats Here Twice” — that closed at midnight and every night at ten I chugged a coffee cup full of Grand Marnier. If tequila is the missing link between booze and mescaline, Grand Marnier is the Quaaludes of the alcohol kingdom. Taken in large quantities, it’s a rank concoction. These days, I put a dollop in pancake batter, but that’s my limit.

I ended my run on Jim Beam with a splash. Bars in Wyoming closed at ten on Sundays, back then, and the band didn’t play that night, which means I didn’t dance, which means I didn’t drink on Sunday. I can’t remember what I did do. Movies, maybe.

I finally quit after I married an alcoholic and saw what a stupid maneuver self-destruction is. The world over people argue about which is worse: being an alcoholic or being married to an alcoholic. To me, that’s like choosing between death by cancer or emphysema. It’s more academic than practical.

Emily is dead now, which is a drag. I’m not shooting for false pity here. I hadn’t seen or heard from her in fifteen years when she died. Her niece, who didn’t know who I was when she first sent messages to my web site and only a couple years later discovered I used to be married to her aunt, told me the news. One more weird irony in the life of a writer.

My doctor told me more alcoholics die from lung problems than liver or heart disease, because most alcoholics smoke and the cigarettes kill them before the alcohol. I think that’s what happened to Emily, but I’m not sure. She got pneumonia. I’ve found cigarette and alcohol addicts often die before they have to because they’re afraid of doctors and hospitals. Being sick is bad enough without withdrawal, so they put off seeking help way later than the rest of us would.

Here’s a tip you won’t find in the standard writing manual. Recovering alcoholics should never go on a book tour. It is almost impossible to spend six or eight weeks flying around, sleeping somewhere new every night, living though hours of boredom between moments of exposing yourself to strangers, without resorting to mood enhancement. It’s the only time I drink more than one glass of wine a month. I can name more than one writer whose tour ended in rehab.

The only novelist I know personally who can pull the totally drink-free book tour off is Chris Moore. Chris has the self-discipline and willpower of a Samurai. When you’re on the road, the publisher pays for everything. An ex-professional dishwasher and spare change artist like me tends to wallow in hog heaven, to the point where I gained fifteen pounds on the Sorrow Floats tour. Chris, when faced with the endless possibilities of dinner on someone else’s tab, chooses Caesar salad.
Imagine that.

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I’m off to the Wyoming Book Festival in Cheyenne next weekend. Come on down, if you’re in the area. There will be forty or fifty writers from Wyoming, Colorado, and South Dakota. Maybe a couple from Montana. They have a web page that gives the times and places. I have three events — a talk, a signing, and a panel.
It seems like every mid-to-big town in America has a book festival now days. I’m not sure why, but, God knows, I appreciate it. I suppose there are writers who hate them — there are writers who hate almost everything — but it’s fun for me to be around people who are interested in something I’m interested in. I lived and wrote, every day, in Jackson Hole for over twenty years before I got to know any readers, much less writers. Mostly everyone I knew was either a waitress, a drunk, a cowboy dancer, or a derelict. Or a combination of the above. Looking back, I think maybe there were people in town I might have had something in common with. I was just too busy doing whatever it was I did to meet them.
I made a conscious decision way back when that if I wanted to write I couldn’t downhill ski. This cut me off from 98 percent of the locals, in winter. I figured I had to conserve time and money. Self-evident truth #3. “You can’t obsess on two things at once.”
That’s why they call it obsession. And, for me, I must obsess on a book or it’s a waste of my time to write it and yours to read it. William Buckley can toss off novels between cocktail parties and yachting regattas. Not me.
Let’s give an example of what I mean by obsession on a book.
Because of cowboy dancing to let off tension after a day of writing, I found short-term serial monogamy during the shoulder seasons, between skiing and mountain climbing. By Thanksgiving and Memorial Day, those women were long gone, back to the jocks from whence they came.
The solitude reached its most clinical Christmas of 1984. I was writing Western Swing, which, for those of you who don’t have my work memorized, is told in the first person by Loren Paul and Lana Sue Goodwin/Potts/Roe/Paul. I’d recently finished the fifth draft of Sex and Sunsets, written in the first person by Kelly Palamino, who was secretly one of Loren’s pen names. Are you following this? I had two cats named Fitz and Zelda, and, like so many single artistic types, my cats were considerably more than pets. They were next of kin.
I also had a huge spider plant that took up at least half the front room of my apartment. I decorated the spider plant with Christmas lights and sparkly ornaments. It was quite nice. I didn’t use tinsel that Christmas because the year before Zelda had taken to eating the stuff and it came out looking like two-foot-long silver tape worms.
We had a bunch of presents under the spider plant, all wrapped in shiny paper and decorated with ribbons. The day before Christmas Eve, my friend from way back, Pam, came over to bring me Christmas fudge. She started poking around under the spider plant, looking at the gift cards on the presents.
“This one’s from you to Lana Sue,” Pam said.
“It’s a surprise,” I said. “I think she’ll like it.”
“And this one is from Kelly to Loren.” She looked up at me with a question in her eyes.
“I helped Kelly pick it out.”
“Tim,” Pam said. “You are Kelly.”
“Technically Loren is Kelly.”
“And you are Loren. And Lana Sue.”
That’s when I got a bit defensive. I said the pithiest comeback I could think of, on short notice. “So?”
“So, all these presents are to and from people who live inside your head.”
“That’s not true. Lana Sue bought treats for Fitz and Zelda.”
“Okay, all your presents are either for imaginary friends or cats.”
“What’s your point?”
Soon after that, Pam left.
On Christmas Day I made Grand Marnier spiked coffee and crepes for breakfast. Zelda and Fitz had Purina Special Diet. Then I turned on the radio to Christmas music and we all opened our gifts. Everyone except maybe Zelda was in the proper holiday spirit.
But that night, the Cowboy Bar wasn’t open on account of it being Christmas. There was no one to dance with. We didn’t have a TV and there’s only so much fun you can have with people who aren’t real.
I carried Zelda and Fitz into the bathroom for a family meeting.
“Look,” I said. “Guys. I’m afraid this is turning creepy.” Luckily, for my future, neither one of them said anything. “”We’ve got to take a break from the book. It’s time I got a job. Time I met people who aren’t me.”
Zelda clawed the door, wanting out.
And when Leila gets old enough for me to tell her the stories of my youth, I’m going to tell her this one and, at the end, I’ll say, “And that’s how I started cooking in the Lame Duck Chinese Restaurant, which is how I got interested in China, which is how I came to adopt you. It all began the Christmas me and my characters exchanged presents.”
I imagine Leila will then make me swear to never, ever, tell anyone that story again.

p.s. Those of you writing an English paper on this blog may score bonus points if you know how many times I used the word “which.”

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