Author Mishka Shubaly. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.
Mishka Shubaly was in bed with me and my husband until two o'clock in the morning, and he utterly rocked my world. Before I face a libel suit, it should be explained that I was reading his Kindle Single, Are You Lonesome Tonight? The title, and the ruinously beautiful and somber girl on the cover, piqued my interest. I read the sample, bought the single in that wonderfully quick and simple exchange that Kindle allows, and before I knew it, it was two o'clock in the morning and I was 10 pages away from the end. Without giving the incredible tale away, I was so shocked and surprised by a particular moment in the story that I actually sat bolt upright in bed, clutched my chest, and made a noise somewhere between a wheeze and a scream. Given that beloved members of my family have been the unfortunate victims of cardiac tragedy, my husband and cat seemed certain that I had just gone out the same way.
Shubaly's writing grabs you by your neck, his thumb fingering the delicate pulse by your throat. He's going to tell you about himself, whether you can stand it or not, and the reason you can't stop reading? It's because he also seems to know a thing or two about your inner life. Picture Charles Bukowski with a greater understanding of women, holding a bass guitar. You laugh out loud in a crowded Coffee Bean, glancing around to make sure that no one's heard you, and then a moment later he tells you something you know to be so painfully true that before you've even stopped laughing, you bleed for a moment, internally.
His new Kindle Single, Bachelor Number One, is already #5 on the Kindle Single Bestseller List and climbing. Recent months have seen Shubaly and Stephen King duking it out for the #1 slot. Not bad for a -- well, why not let him describe himself? "I am a sober drunk, a 35-year-old angry teenager and a ne'er-do-well who has, almost overnight, done well." His real-life story falls into the stranger-than-fiction category: An anonymous, alcoholic bass player turned best-selling literary success.
Bachelor Number One details his last romantic break-up with a real-life "peek though your fingers" email, before going on to tell us about his dance with the CBS network and whether or not to join their reality dating show called 3. Given his ruthless ability to tell the truth about himself and about his life, one might think that a huge network might fear his candidness. In his own words, "I don't think you have to do a whole lot of research to figure out that I'm an agent of chaos."
The Kindle Single seems to be filling the "novella" niche. Pieces too long to be a short story, but too short for a novel. Seemingly not as worthwhile for traditional publishing houses, the Kindle appears to be the perfect conduit for stories of this length. Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and Ann Patchett have been able to offer us these gems which may have been languishing on their MacBook Pro-equivalents for decades. Shubaly's Shipwrecked sat on his hard drive for nine years.
Given that Amazon already sells everything from wolf-urine to uranium, there is a sense of literary outrage about Amazon's new publishing triumph. Shubaly sums up Amazon's success succinctly. "The thing is, that Amazon didn't drive bookstores out of business. We did. The consumers decided that convenience was more important than community. So there's no one to blame but ourselves. I'm not some corporate apologist. But let's call a spade a spade. Amazon didn't buy the stores up and shut them down, we abandoned them."
The fact that Miska Shubaly's (pronounced: Shoe-bah-lee) writing is available for public consumption at all, is something of a miracle. A miracle named David Blum. Blum was an editor for the New York Press when he saw Shubaly's cover letter. The letter, by Shubaly's own admission, was "unhinged." Blum teaches at Columbia, and occasionally he'll bring in a stack of cover letters and ask his students to pick which writer they would have chosen. As of this publication, no one has ever chosen Shubaly's submission, which shows that Blum has a very special gift for finding the best-selling author where others would not. In this case, the diamond in the very inebriated rough.
Author Mishka Shubaly. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.
When he was six years old, Shubaly heard "Johnny B Goode" on the radio, and his brain was permanently altered. Rather than telling his mother that he wanted to be the usual doctor/lawyer/fireman, he told her he wanted to take his "childhood acoustic guitar and travel town to town." While most childhood dreams fall by the wayside, Shubaly's brought him to New York City to become a rock musician.
To say that Shubaly has paid his artistic dues is an understatement; but the fact that they are primarily in music and not writing makes his story just that much more interesting. However, how many indie rock musicians have invested enough of themselves in writing to get an MFA from Columbia? He borrowed 70 dollars from the parents of a friend for the application and was awarded the school's largest scholarship.
In the letter to editor David Blum, Shubaly said he was "a footnote to a footnote of New York Rock." By the time he was considering reality television, he had spent 13 years, in his own words "almost doing something memorable." The Strokes used to open for his old band, he was on the B side of Bruce Springsteen covering "Suicide," his current band Freshkills' (named after the Staten Island Sewage Dump) last CD was produced by Jim Sclavunos of Grinderman/Nick Cave, who also drummed for them on their last South by South West Tour.
However, this is a two-dimensional version of the story. The three-dimensional version includes Shubaly's emotional pain and self obliteration during this period. If the 1970s classic song "Killing Me Softly" were written by these years of Shubaly's existence, it would be called perhaps, "Killing Me Slowly." Shubaly never offers up the usual line "I wouldn't be here today..." But nevertheless, he was shocked at the time of Heath Ledger's death to find that Ledger had died from an amount that "was less than what I did on a quiet Monday night at home." Shubaly describes his life in Are You Lonesome Tonight? during this time: "I have been a drunk and a drug enthusiast for most of the last 20 years, an 'amateur anesthesiologist,' if you will." And, "I lived with one foot in the gutter and the other in the grave, face down on the bar with both middle fingers in the air." Yet even during this period, Shubaly clearly had his same self-deprecating and painfully hilarious sense of humor. He goes to a free testing clinic on Atlantic Avenue and the female doctor says to him, "Reviewing your file, I see that this is your second trip here in five months. You have listed your occupation as "musician/unemployed/asshole."
It was during this period that Shubaly met David Blum after sending him his now famously-Ivy-League-student-rejected cover letter. Shubaly's voice becomes incredibly earnest as he describes Blum as "that strand of spider silk that's spinning from the ceiling when you're in hell. It was what I clung to. Dave gave me an outlet to write about what I was going through." Blum moved on to Amazon and through what Shubaly refers to as his "druggy dispatches" thought Shubaly would be a perfect choice to write a Kindle Single. Right again. But Shubaly faced the opportunity with his usual optimism: "I said, 'Dave, that's the worst idea I've ever heard in my life. No one will buy anything, there's so much free content out there. No one I know owns one of those Kindle things; it's not going to work. And if it works, it won't work for me. But I trust you.'"
Shubaly was, by now, sober and felt like he had nothing to write about. He confided his fear to his trusted friend and editor who responded, "You don't have one single story left?" And Shubaly said, "NO! Well... there was this one time I got shipwrecked..." And Dave said, "Mishka, you asshole! That's that story!" And the Kindle Single, Shipwrecked was published and did extremely well, leading Shubaly to an almost jaunty sense of overconfidence: "Well, that will never happen again!" And then Amazon published Shubaly's The Long Run, a searingly raw story about his substance abuse, recovery, and the beginning of an incredible passion for (inhumanely long) distance-running. And The Long Run has sold three times what Shipwrecked has. So far.
All of Shubaly's current singles are non-fiction, pieces he jokingly calls "My horrible, horrible true stories." Brilliantly written, and horrible only because they are true. Often, it seems like there is more honesty to be found in fiction than in non-fiction. As Oscar Wilde said, "Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth." But it could be that a part of Shubaly's literary success is his unusual and incredible willingness to tell everything, share everything with us, details that we might only tell our very closest friend, in the darkest hours, with two empty bottles of vodka, and a vow of secrecy signed in blood. Shubaly has told these secrets to only his closest friends, it just so happens that he now has hundreds of thousands of them.
When asked how he can bear to be so forthright about such intimate life experiences he says, "To be an alcoholic is an incredibly humbling and incredibly humiliating experience. To drink hard for a long time puts you in all sorts of situations and you can't pretend to have dignity. If I'm enduring this humiliation, then at least one other person out there will have gone through something just as bad if not worse, and probably everybody here has wet the bed at some point. So let's just be open about it, and find a little comfort in our shared failures or shared weakness or the ways in which we've let each other and ourselves down." Pretty beautiful and connective for someone who once felt, "Fuck the world. In the eye. Straight to hell. Forever." Shubaly is nothing if not open about the fact that he is constantly evolving. Part of what makes him so "un-put-downable" is the chance to witness the transformation as it happens right in front of you, page by electronic page.
Every interview comes specially equipped with its own surprise. Your subject is smarter than you thought, taller, angrier, kinder, has an almost diabolical aversion to hedgehogs or an obsession with Justin Bieber. The first surprise about Mishka Shubaly is how young and unharmed he looks, given the sheer quantity of dubious chemicals and hard alcohol his body has had to endure. He could almost be his own younger brother, because, let's face it: Keith Richards looks like Keith Richards for a reason. But if Dorian Gray had an aging portrait in the attic, Shubaly's life experience shows in his deep bass -- a riveting voice composed of broken glass, a crushed cigarette, and driveway gravel. Shubaly jokes about his surprisingly unmarred appearance, "I probably have the lungs and kidneys of an old Polish woman."
Shubaly has spoken, in real life, to his readers about how he stays sober, and in Bachelor Number One he says, "Life as a sober alcoholic is not a lollipop sun setting into a sorbet sky, but neither is it a white-knuckle nightmare of caffeine and nicotine and the Serenity Prayer. I think a lot of people would benefit from seeing an honest, accurate account of what our lives are really like."
And showing what his life is really like has won him everything. How does he feel about the unexpected success of his writing? "A dream that died has come back to life and come true, and it's phenomenal. I would be less surprised if I had woken up one morning with wings."
Read Mishka Shubaly's new Kindle Single, Bachelor Number One:
Mishka Shubaly's Amazon Page: http://www.amazon.com/Mishka-Shubaly/e/B004WTG90A/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1
To Hear Mishka Shubaly's Music: http://www.mishkashubaly.com/
Follow photographer Leslie Hassler on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lesliehassler