We first met Sam Benjamin a couple of years ago when he read his work at an event David put together in New York City. Sam had some cool electro-jazz playing behind him and a wry, dry, sly style that was laid back but intense. It was clear early on that he was an excellent word slinger with some seriously crazy stories to tell about his wild life. Halfway through his reading, Arielle, my wife and mother of my child, leaned over and whispered into my ear, "He's good . . . and cute." Afterwards, I asked him if he was working on a book. He confessed that he was. And now that book, American Gangbang: A Love Story, has just dropped. It's always exciting when someone you know and admire finally gets their book published. So we thought we'd check in with Sam and see how it's going.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: First of all, congratulations; mad props on losing your publishing virginity.
SAM BENJAMIN: Thanks. I hope the publishing industry is gentle with me.
TBD: How long did it take, start to finish, to get your book published?
SB: Six torturously long years.
TBD: Sounds about right. From the first time we met you, we loved your nickname: the Ivy League Pornographer. Did you actually study pornography at Brown University?
SB: I wish. Actually, I got into porn right out of college, worked there until early 2003. Then I came to my senses and quit the business, and went back to school to get my MFA.
TBD: Did you benefit as a writer by getting an MFA?
SB: Getting my MFA was actually super helpful in writing the book, even though I didn't do much writing there. I was trying to make a documentary film, which never materialized. I just didn't have the right sensibility for it. But I was surrounded by some really talented classmates, and I guess some of it rubbed off. Probably the most valuable thing I got from my MFA program was the understanding of how to carry a long project around with you for a while -- how to bear that weird weight. At that point, I was really ready to leave Los Angeles. I saved up five grand and moved to Thailand with the idea of trying to sit down and write a book. It really felt like my last creative chance; artistically, I had failed at everything else to this point. So I got over there and found a room that cost like $2.50 a night. And I got down to business. For five months I wrote every day. When I lifted up my head to look around, I'd probably bashed out about 60,000 words.
TBD: When David's first memoir came out, his parents didn't really speak to him for years. When you were writing, were you worried about how your parents would react? Because they are in the book, and some of this stuff is so taboo.
SB: My parents were the most supportive people you could wish for -- both when I was writing my book and when I was being a porno-weirdo. They rose to the challenge of having their son be a participant in the sex industry admirably. But they didn't pretend like they liked it much, either. I actually feel kind of guilty when I think back on how they must have had to answer their well-meaning friends' questions at dinner parties for years: you know, "How's Sam doing?" Both of them are really amateurish, transparent liars. Their pals must have realized something was up... ha ha. But they always stood behind me. I realized, many years later, that that was precisely what separated me from my new peers in porn. I was lucky enough to have the support of loving parents and sister -- more often than not, they didn't.
TBD: So, this initial 60,000 words, were they, you know, good?
SB: Oh God, most of it was crap.
TBD: The "shitty first draft," as Anne Lamott dubbed it.
SB: Yeah, looking back, it was definitely the shitty first draft. But at the time I didn't know it. Luckily I'd amassed enough generous friends who were willing to take on the awful task of reading first-pass chapters, and they'd lie to me and tell me that my story was good. I believed them, because I needed to believe them.
TBD: Thus illustrating two very important principles in getting your memoir published. 1) You actually have to write. As Hemingway said, "Apply ass to chair." 2) Find people to read your work.
SB: Exactly. So, I hadn't finished the narrative, but, being impatient, I decided to go out and get myself a literary agent. The informal word on the street among friends of mine who seemed to know was that you could sell non-fiction books on the basis of a few good chapters. By this time, I'd used up all of my money. Southeast Asia is cheap, but it is not free. So I moved in with my parents in North Carolina. I sent out query letters to agents every day. After more than 60 rejections, I finally got one dude on my hook. I had no idea what he was about, but he seemed interested, so I let him have his way with me . . .
TBD: We don't like where this is going--
SB: I should have known things were destined to be painful when, right off the bat, he was tough to get on the phone. By the second week of being represented by this guy, he had already transmogrified into the distant, moody boyfriend who doesn't return your phone calls. I was pretty pissed, but I was way too hooked on the idea of selling my book to tell him to change his ways. I had zero leverage, in any case. Months passed and with my agent's help (he was talented, just not real attentive), I worked on getting my "partial" in shape for submission. I cobbled together enough cash to move to Portland, Oregon, with my girlfriend. Supposedly my agent had a good connection at a very reputable publishing house, someone he felt would be interested in the subject matter. It was all a matter of getting it to him at the right time. In Portland, I got a job in a beer distribution warehouse. I lasted two days. Then I got a job putting PCs together. Quit -- it made my fingers hurt. Finally, I landed in Wells Fargo's customer care department, answering mail from irate customers. And they say an MFA's a worthless degree!
TBD: Answering mail from irate customers is a fine art, and you need to be a master.
SB: You have no idea. Finally, six months after he'd taken me on, my agent sent out my manuscript to his guy, an editor at Penguin. Unbelievably, this guy liked it. We had this crazy conversation in the lobby of the Wells Fargo building in Portland where he told me he wanted to buy it. I still remember exactly what I was wearing. My heart was pounding. That night I took my girlfriend out for Thai food, and we spent $40 on dinner, all the cash I had in the world . . .
TBD: I'm waiting for the other shoe to fall.
SB: Here it comes. A week later I hear back from my agent, who lets me know that the publisher, one level up on the food chain from the editor, had found some radio interview with me archived on the Internet, and he hadn't much liked it. Plus, the book wasn't finished -- so he was sorry, but he was gonna have to say no. All the air sort of let out of the balloon after that. I dropped even further on my agent's list. I think he must have had 80 clients or so, and I was number 80. I felt like, "Hey, we almost sold this! Send it out to everyone you know!" But he disagreed. And in fact, he was totally right. I should have written the whole thing first -- but I was hiding from having to buckle down and really complete the project.
TBD: Yes, after we've gotten over the initial brutal abuse of rejection, we always keep trying to fix our manuscript or proposal, to keep it evolving, to make it better.
SB: We had one other near-sale six months later. It was damn near identical, and even more heartbreaking. The editor liked the manuscript, but she was wary of buying a partial -- she'd been burned in the past. I did everything short of beg, but no luck. It just wasn't going to happen. That time I cried . . .
TBD: We feel your pain.
SB: Eventually, I moved on. Years passed. I kind of moved in and out of being really depressed. I thought, "Well, this isn't going to happen, huh?" As a last ditch effort, I decided to self-publish the damn thing, more out of spite than anything else. I had a friend, Shane Mahoney, who offered to do some pro bono publicity work for me. He got it mentioned in Flavorpill. From that article, I got the attention of a new agent who sat me down and basically ordered me to rewrite the book in full. So, humiliatingly, I moved back home, again. I got a job at a Massage Envy in a strip mall. Every day I wasn't working, I went out to this little coffee shop in Carrboro, North Carolina, and I took another whack at the book.
TBD: What were you working on at that point in the process?
SB: Well, the hardest part of this book was completing the final piece, in which I stop being a cute kid in porno and sort of grow up and explore my own deviancy. I procrastinated for years writing those chapters, precisely because I wasn't ready to admit in a public forum some of the more amoral behavior I'd tried on for size. I mean, if I can be honest with you, the truth is -- I still didn't admit it all! I believe in the power of speaking to your confessional urge, but nonetheless, there are a few porno moments I very much hope to take to the grave with me. But I kind of figured out there was power in admitting and owning up to my worst moments. I was pretty negative about some of the characters in the book, sort of took them to task for being loathsome people. It's likely that my criticism is a lot more valuable -- or at least a lot more fair -- if I'm willing to subject myself to the same sort of moral scrutiny.
TBD: Because you reveal so much of yourself, you illuminate things about men, sexuality, money and ambition that hold up a mirror to modern American culture.
SB: Thanks. So, eventually, I finished a version. About a year later, this dude at Simon and Schuster, Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, was dumb enough to buy it.
TBD: We see so many talented writers who never quite get their break because, in part, they're missing that one ingredient -- perseverance. It's very difficult, in the face of the universe rudely, ruthlessly rejecting you ad infinitum, to keep on keeping on. Those are the people that we see have success. Congratulations again.
SB: See you at the bookstore!
The Book Doctor's 10 Tips for Memoir Writers
1) Do absolutely fascinating, and/or horrendously horrible, and/or utterly unusual things; or have absolutely fascinating, and/or horrendously horrible, and/or utterly unusual things happen to you. The memoir market is so glutted your story has to be unique, new and fresh.
2) Don't die. Staying alive is one of the most important things a memoir writer can do.
3) Don't lie. You can change names. You can change physical characteristics of people if it doesn't alter the story. But you can't make stuff up.
4) A memoir is a book of memories. It is not an autobiography, which is more about getting all the facts right. Not that you don't have an obligation to get the facts right. You do. You must (see James Frey). But memoir is about memory, which by its very nature is subjective and unreliable. When writing a memoir, try to invoke as many senses as possible. David has found again and again, when he recalls the smell of a scene, lots of memories come flooding back. For better and for worse.
5) A random collection of true stories does not a memoir make. A memoir has a beginning, a middle, and an end. One of the most difficult challenges of writing a memoir is constructing a narrative out of the seemingly random events we call life. Make a list of the most meaningful moments of your life in chronological order. It's very revealing and slightly horrifying. But it's a good place to start.
6) Write the whole manuscript. Gone are the days when a memoir can sell on a couple of excellent chapters. As illustrated by Sam's story.
7) Don't give up. Never give up. But always keep evolving. Making the book better, looking for people who can help you, researching, networking, writing, persevering.
8) Have a great support team of readers who will tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In a kind and gentle way.
9) Don't worry about getting sued yet. Just write your story. Your publisher will vet the book before they put it out. Unless you are self-publishing. Then find a lawyer who specializes in this stuff. If you don't know one, contact us; we do.
10) Be kind to others and hard on yourself. No one likes a pity-party whiner. Or a writer grinding their ax into someone else's back.
Sam Benjamin's book, American Gangbang, was published on October 18, 2011, by Gallery Books, Simon & Schuster. He can be found at http://sambenjamin.tumblr.com.
The Book Doctors are Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. She's been an agent for 20 years, is the author of seven books, and an entrepreneuse who founded the company Little Mismatched. David Henry Sterry is the author of 12 books, the last of which ended up on the front cover the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Together they wrote The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. They have helped dozens and dozens of talented amateur writers become professionally published authors.
Follow David Henry Sterry on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@sterryhead