Okay, so The Dream Merchant has just been published. It's an exciting day for me that was a long time coming. This is my first novel. But with all the things I might say about it, people keep asking me why did it take you so long to write?
Frankly, this is an uncomfortable question without a simple answer. There are many things I'd rather discuss about the book, such as the protagonist, Jim, who is the best salesman you'll ever meet.
So let me digress for a moment. Jim can sell anything to anyone, and he's a fun guy, charismatic as hell. Jim can brighten the worst day in your life--he has the rare gift of engendering hope. In the beginning of the novel I am describing a super salesman who takes ethical shortcuts to get to the top of the hill... until the house of cards collapses: Jim loses everything, his businesses, his family. To make it back on top, in the most unlikely manner, Jim will then cross any line put in front of him. He commits unpardonable sins. And still slews of people are drawn to him.
"But don't you think ten years is too long to spend on one novel?"
People ask me this all the time. Yes and no. My wife asked me this for years. But the time passes very quickly. Haven't you noticed? My mom has been gone for eight years, but I recall the conversations that we had together about the plot of The Dream Merchant. She had some good ideas that helped me during the early years of composition. Those talks feel like yesterday. Ten years sounds like a lot of time, but it doesn't feel that way to me.
"But it is a long time."
Yes. I suppose. You just wouldn't believe how many times over the years I've been asked by people, "Aren't you finished with that book yet?" The question assumes that I had been eager to finish when actually I felt happy working on the novel and sometimes worried about what I would do when I was no longer writing it. Also, the question implies that during this same span I might have written three or even four novels. Would this have been better? Maybe. I've wondered about that. I recall once reading about the pride John Updike felt when he went to his bookshelf and eyed the expanse of his many novels that seemed to be widening even while he looked on. I will never have such a moment.
Yes, there are moments when I have felt embarrassed as if my slowness was a red mark of failure-- TOO SLOW. But on other days I feel proud. It sets me apart to have spent nearly twice the time on one medium sized novel than it took Tolstoy to write War and Peace. There is something honorable in that and perhaps also mysterious.
"But what did you do for ten years?"
The truth is the story had its hooks into me for much longer than that. In 1984 I happened to read a piece in Time Magazine about illegal gold mining camps in the Brazilian Amazon.
"Garimpos" were miniature empires deep in the rain forest. The owner of each of them was like a king who enforced his own murderous rules. Each camp had a tiny airstrip and a small private army to protect the operation from marauders. The camps had a stable of gorgeous women to keep their miners happy. These outposts were almost impossible to get out of, like penal colonies, because of the distances involved, the near impassable terrain and the preponderance of hungry hunting jaguars. The workers were in fact slaves who labored for long hours in mud pits hoping to bring a fortune out of the jungle for their families living in the city. But that rarely happened. The scrawny little men spent their flakes of gold on women and booze and expensive food in the garimpo. They slept beneath the trees outside the camps and were sometimes eaten in the night by jaguars or they died of malaria or dengue fever.
I wanted to travel to the Amazon and write about this lawless unlikely way of life. I actually signed a contract with Harper's to write about the camps and gold mining in the jungle but around that same time I began writing Searching for Bobby Fischer. The memoir about my kid took over my writing life. And then I wrote another book. And another. But all the while I thought about writing about the Brazilian jungle camps that reminded me of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
From the beginning of The Dream Merchant I was aiming the novel toward the Amazon. It was my design that Jim would eventually bottom out in business and love; and then driven by desperation and runaway ambition he would try to remake himself as the ruler of one of these jungle outposts.
I knew I'd have to visit that world, to learn to walk in the jungle, and experience its peril. I needed to be around the greed and malevolence of one of the gold mining outposts or it wouldn't come alive on the page.
I planned the trip for months and travelled to the Amazon with my son Josh. We spent four weeks there. It was a revelation. There are so many stories I could tell. One night we were deep in the rain forest sleeping or trying to sleep in hammocks slung between two acai trees . But it was impossible to sleep with the humidity and heat. It was so dark you couldn't see your own hand. And the jungle was roaring with insects and screaming parrots and monkeys, and crashing sounds that were inexplicable and terrifying. Then at one point it became eerie quiet except for the growl of a hunting jaguar that seemed to be closing in on us. Our two guides told us not to worry. They were keeping vigil with their rifles, but still we brought pointy sticks into our hammocks so we'd have a fighting chance if the cats jumped us--some fighting chance. In the morning our guides wanted to show us how accurate they were with their rifles. They pointed the guns to the trees but their trusted weapons wouldn't shoot--they were rusted and jammed! The Amazon was exciting and frightening. We met some very great people.
"But you went to Brazil for a month. Not for years."
The book had a research component, no question. Lenny Bruce, the great social satirist and comedian is a character in the novel. I had to learn all about him. I read everything I could get my hands on. I studied his performance tapes until I could write skits in his voice. I did that. I got into his skin. And then Lenny fit right into my pages...There were other things I had to learn.
"So you did research for all those years?"
Okay. It was my first novel. And I am a slow writer. The answers were often not apparent to me. When I began, I envisioned a book with an omniscient narrator. I worked that way for two years but the novel wasn't coming alive for me. I couldn't achieve a deep intimacy with my main character until I introduced a narrator who was his close friend. Then the book started to percolate. But I had to go back and change so many things. More than once I took the wrong fork in a story line and wasted months. I spent a year writing Jim's youthful history and then took ninety percent of it out.
There was so much I had to learn about my characters. Insights were hard won. There were weeks when I was stuck. Then the answer would come to me and I could move ahead. But often the answer meant I had to go back and change what I'd done before.
As I said, ten years sounds like a lot of time but it didn't feel that way to me. I was working on a story that took over my life. Meanwhile, football seasons passed. Summer fishing trips passed while the story moved ahead. Then I decided that the book was flagging a bit in the middle like a paunchy guy. I needed to make him lean and fast. It was hard to give up pages but necessary.
And then came a time a couple of years ago when the novel was finished but I couldn't let it go. By then I was living in the jungle with Jim. It was so exciting. I loved it there. I didn't want to come back. Every day I revisited the garimpo but eventually I wasn't doing much there anymore, just changing a few sentences to no great effect. But I still liked being there...until there came a moment when the book wouldn't let me change any more sentences. That was the day that the novel moved away from me. It shut me out. Then I was done.
"Was The Dream Merchant worth all of that time in your life?"
Big question. Take a look.