Writing on the rocks

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Photo credit: Esquire.com

The Paris Review once interviewed Hunter S. Thompson and asked him, among other things, about writing under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Here’s the relevant exchange:

Paris Review: Almost without exception writers we’ve interviewed over the years admit they cannot write under the influence of booze or drugs—or at the least what they’ve done has to be rewritten in the cool of the day. What’s your comment about this?

Thompson: They lie. Or maybe you’ve been interviewing a very narrow spectrum of writers. It’s like saying, “Almost without exception women we’ve interviewed over the years swear that they never indulge in sodomy”—without saying that you did all your interviews in a nunnery. Did you interview Coleridge? Did you interview Poe? Or Scott Fitzgerald? Or Mark Twain? Or Fred Exley? Did Faulkner tell you that what he was drinking all the time was really iced tea, not whiskey? Please. Who the fuck do you think wrote the Book of Revelation? A bunch of stone-sober clerics?

Writers love their drinks. I don’t think that’s a stereotype.

“You’re a rummy, but no more than most good writers are.” So wrote Hemingway—a man who knew a thing or two about drinking—in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writing and alcohol have long been companions. Indeed, numerous bars around the world continue to benefit from the patronage of their famous—though, now deceased—customers. There are more than a handful of watering holes who boast Hemingway as a one-time patron. The writer was a frequent visitor to Harry’s Bar in Venice, where he had his own table in the corner. He laid numerous daïquiris to waste at El Floridita in Havana and enjoyed drinking scotch at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.

Dylan Thomas gulped his last drink at Manhattan’s White Horse Tavern. Thompson enjoyed frequent libations at the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado. Ian Fleming drank a bottle of gin a day. This, coupled with his daily habit of smoking seventy cigarettes, contributed to his early demise at the age of fifty-six. His favorite pub was the Duck Inn in Pett Bottom near Canterbury. His favorite chair in the back is dully marked. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, while not heavyweight drinkers like the aforementioned scribes, met Tuesday mornings as part of a group called “The Inklings” at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. A plaque above their table marks the meeting spot. Jack Kerouac paid regular visits to Vesuvio across the street from City Lights in San Francisco.

Tourism spots aside, many great scribblers have embraced alcohol—often to their own detriment. But I’ve always wanted to know why? Perhaps it has something to do with availability and opportunity. If you’re wandering around your house all day, trying to come up with something to jot down on paper, it’s pretty easy to grab a scotch from the wet bar or beer from the fridge. Perhaps it’s a distraction from the solitary nature of writing itself. Authors, by their trade, are loners, and a drink can be good company. A 2008 Los Angeles Times article I found on this subject matter states:

“Intoxication, if not the source of literary creation, creates a cerebral aura congenial to it. It recasts the glare of life in a softer hue. It soothes anxiety and other stultifiers of reflection. It warms the mind and thaws thoughts frozen in timidity. The fruit of the vine does not give us insight but aids our discovery of it; it can allow you to eavesdrop on yourself.”

Writing, as all who do it know, is hard work. It’s mentally taxing at times and can wear you down. I might sit with a glass of scotch or wine beside me as I write, but I would never tackle a page while feeling intoxicated—or even slightly buzzed. Yes, alcohol takes the edge off, but I want my mind to be as sharp and focused as possible when I work. That said, I do enjoy drinking and toasting a good day’s writing.

Of course, none of this answers the question as to why so many authors are full-blown alcoholics. Consider this fact from a 2011 article in Slate: “According to one study, 71 percent of prominent 20th-century American writers at least flirted with alcoholism. (Only 8 percent of the general population abuses alcohol.)”

How James Bond got his name

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Ian Fleming was born on this date in 1908. Many dismiss Fleming as a mere pulp writer, but I disagree with this assessment. He was a master stylist and a damn fine thriller writer. His opening to Casino Royale is a personal favorite:

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high-gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.

In honor of Fleming’s birthday, I thought I’d share the above video. It’s from an interview he gave at his Jamaican hideaway, Goldeneye, where he wrote all the Bond novels. It’s a wonderful little snippet in which he explains how he named his iconic character.

Fleming died in 1964, a victim of his fun–but excessive–lifestyle.

And in other Bond news, click here for details on the new 007 novel coming out this September. Set in 1957, two weeks after the events detailed in Goldfinger, it will actually feature original, never-before-published content by Fleming. Can’t wait!

Living with Writer’s Envy

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Writer’s Envy is a condition in which you stumble across a sentence or paragraph in another author’s work and scream in frustration for not having written it yourself. I am prone to regular fits of Writer’s Envy. The only cure, as far as I can tell, is to stop reading—but seeing as that’s not possible, I have decided to give voice to my suffering.

In recent months, the work of one particular author has sent me into several fits of jealousy. If you’re not familiar with the late James Crumley, please do yourself a favor and purchase several of his books right now. He wrote hardboiled detective novels set in the Pacific Northwest. One critic described him as the literary love child of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. That’s pretty much spot-on.

Crumley’s stories are imbued with Thompson’s drug-fueled, Gonzo madness and Chandler’s hard-edged style. Like Chandler, his plots don’t always make perfect sense, but that hardly matters. It’s Crumley’s characters and writing that’ll keep you coming back for more. In the passage below, from Crumley’s The Wrong Case, private eye Milo Milodragovitch—searching for a client’s missing brother—has just followed up a lead in a slum bar and is now standing in the rain-slicked parking lot after sunset:

A car full of drunks hissed over the Ripley Avenue bridge and down the ramp above us, fleeing through the night down black and wet streets, heading home or to another gaily lighted bar rife with music and dancing and sweaty women with bright eyes and lips like faded rose petals. As the driver down-shifted, the exhaust belched, the tires snickered across the slick pavement, a girl’s shrill laughter flew out, abandoned like a beer can in the skid. The colored lights from the discreet Riverfront sign reflected off the dark asphalt, wavering as the wind sifted the rain, glowing like the lights beneath a black sea.

Awesome, isn’t it? There’s nothing contrived here. There’s no sense Crumley is writing to impress. It’s just a beautiful piece of writing that evokes a great sense of atmosphere. Another passage I love is from Crumley’s last book, The Final Country, in which Milodragovitch is attempting to clear his name in a murder case. Here is how he describes one of the femme fatales he encounters:

Her fine features, framed by coal black hair, seemed chiseled from an ancient marble as pink and bloody as the froth from a sucking chest wound. As she walked out the door, her hips swayed like willows in the wind and her bare white shoulders gleamed like a hot flame in the smoky shadows.

Again, it’s just a wonderful piece of writing that captures the essence of a character without resorting to cliché. It brings to mind dingy bars and seductive glances. But of all the things Crumley wrote, his opening to his masterpiece The Last Good Kiss is considered by many to be the best first paragraph in crime fiction:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Crumley sadly passed away in 2008, but he left behind a legacy of phenomenal writing and stellar stories.

Winston Churchill Reporting

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"'Adventure' is my middle name."

“‘Adventure’ is my middle name.”

Work on Winston Churchill Reporting continues.  Originally, the book was subtitled Dispatches from a Young War Correspondent.  Now, it’s Adventures of a Young War Correspondent.  Although a work of nonfiction, the book is primarily an action-adventure story—something we definitely want to convey in the title.

It’s received a nice publicity blurb from Martin Dugard, author of the excellent Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone, and co-author of the Killing . . . books with Bill O’Reilly.  Several other authors I admire have also said they’d be willing to take a look at the manuscript, so we’ll see what happens.  The book is currently with a proofreader at Da Capo.

Plans right now call for the book to have four maps, one for each campaign Churchill covered as a war correspondent.  I’m also pleased with the pictures I’ve managed to scrounge up from various archives. Hopefully, the book will be a treat for not only Churchill fans, but anyone who loves a great adventure story.

More details to come . . .

Cover art for ‘Winston Churchill Reporting’

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My publisher, Da Capo, sent me a composite of their proposed cover for Winston Churchill Reporting. I must say, I’m most happy with it!

The book is out Oct. 13.

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Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones: Adventures in the Age of Empire

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Hear the name Winston Churchill, and what comes to mind? Most likely, it’s Churchill the war leader with his ever-present cigar, bulldog scowl, and never-surrender spirit. But long before Churchill’s Finest Hour, there was Winston Churchill the young adventurer.

Between 1895 and 1900, Churchill covered wars of empire in Cuba, India’s North-West Frontier, the Sudan, and South Africa as a correspondent for several London newspapers. In September, Da Capo will publish my book Winston Churchill Reporting, which details this rollicking period in Churchill’s life. Consider it Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones.

Churchill’s dispatches are vivid, graphic, and make for compelling reading. Although he published some of his articles in book form, I wanted to rely on his reports as they originally appeared.

As a war correspondent for the Morning Post in 1898, Churchill was attached to General Kitchener’s army and followed the Anglo-Egyptian re-conquest of the Sudan. At the Battle of Omdurman, Churchill was commissioned with the 21st Lancers and took part in an epic cavalry charge against several thousand enemy Dervish.

We can see exactly how he described it in this report, printed in the Morning Post on September 29, 1898:

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Equally vivid is his detailing of the bloody aftermath, which appeared in the Morning Post on October 6, 1898:

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In 1899, Churchill was again reporting for the Morning Post, this time from the South African battlefields of the Second Boer War. It was here he made an international name for himself after being captured and then escaping from an enemy Prisoner of War camp.

In January 1900, he was present at the disastrous Battle of Spion Kop. This article was published in the Morning Post on February 17, 1900. It’s yet another example of his gripping journalism:

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I’ll post more details on the book throughout the year!

(The blog first appeared on the website for the British Newspaper Archive.)