This fall I'll be traveling to a few writing conferences where I will sit on a panel with a few other publisher or agent types and we'll do our best to answer questions about the industry, trying to manage expectations but to also keep people excited about writing. Inevitably, the question will come up--What is the hot trend? What should I be writing?
I never have a good answer for that. I don't pay much attention to the trends, and conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't chase them even if you know what they are because by the time you finish your book, the train will probably have left the station.
That's why I believe it's more important to write by your gut and try to write something that won't feel dated in twenty years. Easier said than done, of course, but it's a goal. As a publisher I am deathly afraid that when it comes time for me to retire in a hundred years and I'm sitting at the head of the banquet table and everybody is going on about this and that, somebody will stand up with some painfully embarrassing book.
"And Ben thought Disco Gopher fiction would be popular forever," the table laughing at my expense.
So, what do I use for guideposts when evaluating fiction? You may need a decoder ring (I may need one, too), but here are three unlikely people who have shaped my vision of publishing:
(1) Mikal Gilmore--Gilmore's 1994 family memoir, Shot in the Heart, is a book that haunts me more than anything else I've ever read. Heartbreaking in its scope, terrifying in the brutality it portrays, Shot in the Heart covers the legacy of the Gilmore family including Mikal's notorious brother Gary who murdered two men in Utah and was subsequently put to death in 1977 by firing squad. I'm sure I've read the book at least five times and listened to the abridged audio version twenty times (there really, really should be an unabridged audio version), and have bought no less than thirty copies as gifts for friends, family, and strangers. The layers of family mythology are almost suffocating, and I have had more than one person return the book saying that it was too painful to read. I regret that I wasn't in a place to publish it when it came out originally (I was just graduating from high school), but have been on a mission since to find fiction that can match its honesty and weight. I cannot recommend this book enough.
(2) Raven Mack--I'm not afraid to admit that I was a pretty big fan of professional wrestling when I was growing up. From the first time I caught Ox Baker on an episode of Georgia Championship Wrestling back in 1983 I was hooked on the over the top personalities, the violence, and the theater of it all. When I got a little older and some of the finer myths of the business were exposed, I didn't turn away disappointed--I became fascinated by the depth of wrestling's carny roots and the intricacies of the hidden subculture. I don't watch it anymore, but I still read message boards that either directly or indirectly discuss it. One of those boards featured intermittent writing from a guy calling himself Raven Mack. It was clear to me, independent of the topic he was exploring, the guy was a natural writer and storyteller. He impressed me as a philosophical and literary heir to the great Harry Crews. There were tales of growing up in rural Virginia watching the same wrestling I grew up on, listening to some of the same obscure hip hop, metal, and punk that I listened to over the last 25 years, and having a passing knowledge of topics that only probably four or five other people besides me would find interesting. He's like the other cousin I didn't know about (Nathan Singer being the first). Raven used to put out a 'zine called The Confederate Mack and is now working on developing something called Rojonekku, and I find that his writing--peppered with references to fringe characters like Necro Butcher, Hasil Adkins and Swamp Dogg, sometimes simple, often brutal, always feels more authentic than most of what lands on my desk. It's clearly from the gut, raw reporting from one more undercover pocket of America.
(3) Tyrus Raymond Cobb--Anybody who knows anything about me knows that my two biggest loves in life are the written word and baseball. It was only natural that at some point there'd be a deeply committed, long lasting relationship between the two of them. Cobb was the kind of guy that fascinates me--blessed with unearthly abilities and an unparalleled competitive drive, he was a malcontent predisposed to great outbursts of alarming violence, deeply haunted by the inability to ever feel like he had made good. After great disagreement over his desire to be a baseball player at a time when the game was populated by ne'er-do-wells, ruffians, and hooligans, Cobb had left Royston, Georgia with two things from his father--a little bit of cash and an admonition--"Don't come home a failure." Weeks before the Detroit Tigers asked him to join the team, Cobb's mother unloaded a shotgun into Cobb's father, killing him. With the only man who could validate him buried in the ground, Cobb went on to play the game with a ferocity that resulted in injury to teammates, rival players, and innocent bystanders alike. When biographer Al Stump asked Cobb why he played so hard, Cobb responded that he was playing with the ghost of his father on his heels. When it was all said and done, Cobb was the leading vote getter in the first class of players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His .367 career batting average is still tops in the record books and he is widely regarded as one of the best baseball players of all time.