Q: How similar were your experiences in the '90s to those of your characters?
Many of the East Village clubs and bars depicted in the The Losers' Club were real places. Was I "addicted to the personal ads" like the main character of Martin Sierra in the book? Quite frankly, yes. Like the main character, unable to afford the ridiculous rents in Manhattan, I lived in Queens, which put me at a disadvantage socially and culturally. I've also suffered, all my life, from an overwhelming shyness and sense of inadequacy, which -- along with my need for solitude to write -- has tended to isolate me, then as now. On the one hand I want and need many friends, on the other, friendships need constant maintenance. Often, it was a question of time -- or the lack of it. Ten hours at work to pay the rent meant I had 3 hours left to write -- or left to do writing-related activities. If I made a phone call to a friend or received a personal phone call, I would tend to get involved in a two-hour conversation about "life." So that would be it. It's a challenge I'm sure many artistic people have to deal with: the balance of friendships and creative quality time. I'm not sure how they negotiate it. But, socially, I've always managed it badly. Meaning, in the past, I've often fallen to living like a hermit. Which is psychologically unhealthy, not to mention ultimately depressing, especially when your creative endeavors crash and burn, as they often must - and you realize how alone you really are.
So, now to get back to the personal ads -- I just didn't know how to meet people. Or, I should say, the "right kind of people." Creative, open-minded, super-smart women. Like the character in the book, I wanted to find a kindred spirit: someone who could understand my creative needs and quest for meaning in the world. Someone who wasn't so into money and status in any conventional way. In fact, I didn't want a "conventional" woman, at all. That drove me to look for "friends with potential" in the downtown papers. It seemed to make total sense in New York City where everyone seems isolated and disconnected, anyway, and neighbors don't speak to each other.
I was also looking to have fun: go dancing, catch live music, take a part in the living and breathing city. To live in my own time, which at the time of the book, was the 1990s.
Q: How do you think the '90s shaped the quest for love, friendship and other relationships?
There was something retro-sixties/early seventies about the 1990s. Guitar rock, political activism, indie/verite cinema, do-it-yourself art projects (fanzines and books and serious comics) were everywhere -- and there were many venues for these things. Jun (the publisher at Ludlow) and I have discussed this many times, about how the environment was just fertile for all kinds of projects. It seemed like anything was possible. You could create a fanzine and it would find an audience. You could cut your own record, and people would be interested. You could cobble together a feature film and it would find studio distribution. It's hard to imagine that now. Imagine Go Fish or even Clerks, finding studio backing now. Or a fanzine finding a wide audience. I couldn't believe some of the books and comics showing up in conventional stores, at the time. Home-made books and records of all kinds were finding distribution in places like Tower Records and Books and Barnes & Noble. I've heard that since then, Tower has stopped carrying books entirely. But they were important, then. At least, in the East Village.
Q: Do you find that sort of Gen-X protag a heroic figure or something bleak and hopeless? Why?
I never set out to write a "Gen-X" character. I was just being true to what I was feeling at the time. But I know what you mean. Remember all those '90s character-driven films like Floundering, Lost in Oblivion, Bodies, Rest & Motion, Slacker, Reality Bites? Steve Buscemi and Ethan Hawke remain the most enduring of '90s icons. (I'm proud to say that my novel, The Losers' Club, currently shares front window space right beside Ethan Hawke's Ash Wednesday at St. Mark's Bookshop, according to what Jun tells me.) But what many '90s characters shared in common was a sense of "angst" and a strong need to "find themselves" while living amidst chaos. More often than not, the Gen-X protag just seemed plain lost. This is definitely a characteristic of Martin Sierra in The Losers' Club. This is definitely a characteristic of any creative life, which implies an exploration of the unmapped possibilities in the world. The arc of self-discovery or "plot" is only apparent after the fact. Bleak and hopeless? Not really. Not having a clear road map on a journey does create, at times, almost an unbearable sense of uncertainty and angst, but then no one is actually in control of their own destiny. I'm reminded of the title of a documentary on Chet Baker, Let's Get Lost. That's what living a creative life is all about: losing yourself to find yourself.
Q: How have readers related to the characters in your book?
It's hard to say at this point. The novel is only now slowly getting around. And not everyone "gets it." But people, mostly younger people, who read the novel truly appreciate it and understand it. Older, tea-totting fops may be a little closed off to it. Readers who love a plot-driven, commercial novel also won't appreciate it. But I never intended to write a commercial, nuts-and-bolts "thriller"; I hate those books! The kind of books I like take me to a place I've never been before. So I fashioned The Losers' Club to be like the types of books I love -- part travelogue, part romance, part sociological document (regarding the "sub-culture" of personal ads), part '90s artifact - I think I've generally succeeded. I'm happy with my accomplishment, at least. I know others enjoy the book and that the audience for it is growing.
Q: Why the title The Loser's Club? What did you want to say by that?
I meant the title in a self-deprecating/ironic way. As creative people, searching for love and meaning, we're all winners and losers. But to quote Dorothy Allison, "Life is mostly about losing." It's a sad fact. But true. In the novel, Martin has a tough time finding love. We all do. He lost his family. We all do -- or must (to find our calling). In the novel, as a writer, he's subjected to an inordinate amount of concrete rejections -- those editor's rejection letters filling up his mailbox on an almost daily basis (we've all been there). Plus the ridicule and rejection by the society as a whole for someone who appears to be, by all cultural standards, a "failure": without money or status. At the novel's opening, Martin's life is like a broken record. His calling (as a writer) alienates him and makes him feel like a failure. The personal ads provide him with vivid experiences, yet as one reviewer put it, "seem ultimately doomed" and are likely to provide even more rejection. He's also searching for family surrogates, which in the Big City (where everyone is so closed off and guarded) can be tough. The loss of his mother at an early age (also a poet herself), left a huge empty space in his psyche he can never seem to fill. He longs for a reconnection to the world, like all writers and artists do. Art is an attempt at communication, after all. But not everyone can understand the language, at first. So first there must be the rejections, the failure, the loss.
Q: What's your next book about?
My next book is a personal novel (like The Losers' Club), about a group of writers and musicians in Spain. It's still in its early stages, at this point. But I'm enjoying the process and trying hard along the way to make enduring friendships.