Wednesday, 3 June 2015

That Thing You're Trying to Write While You Write Everything Else – by Umberto Tosi

The author then and now
When I was seven, it was a very good year – sort of. World War II ended. The Allies won. America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, beginning the nuclear age, which “changed everything except our way of thinking,” as Einstein observed, adding that he “should have become a watchmaker.”

During the war, my father, who had worked in his family's food brokerage business back in Boston, took us to Los Angeles and became a welder at a Lockheed Aircraft plant in Burbank, California, building P-38 Lightning fighter bombers. He had wanted to be a doctor, but couldn't afford medical school during the Great Depression. My mother sang with a dance band at a faux Arabian Nights potted-palm night club on the Sunset Strip, the kind you see in old Astaire movies, but with a bit less swank. She had been a promising opera singer in New England, doing lead roles and recitals on stage. My parents saw themselves as thwarted, although they didn't use the word.

Amid a wartime housing shortage, we settled in a one-bedroom, California-Mission-style stucco bungalow in Hollywood – the L.A. district, not the mythical Tinseltown. I slept in a closet-pull-down Murphy bed. I thought it was great fun, especially when an earthquake rumbled me awake one morning at 6, yawing and pitching our little abode like a storm-tossed fishing boat and swinging the fake Spanish candelabra above me.

I thought I would grow up to be a piano player then, or a bum riding the rails and smoking stogies, because sometimes my father called me “little bum,” because I got to play all day, according to him. I loved pianos. My mother nagged my father to buy one. “Money doesn't grow on trees,” he'd say. “There's no room for it!”

“Just a spinet,” my mother would plead. Everything with them was a bone of contention.

They hated Los Angeles as a palm-infested cultural wasteland where people rode in cars and didn't speak to each other. Boston would always be home – where their two families, like themselves, were in perpetual contention – one patrician and Northern Italian, the other bohemian, expansive and very Roman. Twice a year – from 1943 to 1949 – my mother took me (with or without my father) on  transcontinental sleeper trains from L.A. to Boston and back – for a month at Christmas time, and in July, another month with my mother's family – grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and all – in a big rented beach house on Cape Cod they could ill afford.


Those coast-to-coast, three-thousand-mile train crossings – three days and nights each way, pulled by gigantic, dragon breathed, black iron steam engines – fascinated and shaped my spirit in ways I would only realize later in life. I got to run loose, up and down the chains of cars – lengthy in those days – from baggage to observation cars and back, over and over, with packs of other kids while our parents played canasta over smokes and cocktails in the lounge cars. I brushed by every kind of person, young, fancy, plain, black, white, servicemen in uniform, porters and conductors in their outfits, through clouds of cigarette smoke and odors of leather, sweat, rumpled clothes, sandwiches, shaving lotion and Chanel No. 5 –  barely noticing the passing panoramas of mountains, forests, plateaus, deserts and great plains outside the smoky windows.

I scared myself giddy crossing between each lurching car – pulling open the heavy sliding doors, feeling the rush of outside air, hearing the roar-and-clack of steel wheels on tracks. I would jump over the moving plates where the cars joined and spy the blur of the gravel rail bed through the gaps.

“A mile a minute,” my father liked to say as the train picked up speed. “We're going sixty miles an hour – even more pretty soon,” – and a passing conductor would nod in agreement. The concept fascinated me. Suddenly I thought of myself as running a mile a minute when I traversed the train back to front – maybe a little more. I imagined myself accelerating like Superman, taking giant strides over long distances through open country, like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan – starting at one spot and effortlessly ending up ten, twenty miles from where I started.

I didn't know about Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity back then, nor that Einstein arrived at it through thought experiments about moving trains in 1905 while he worked for the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. Nor did it occur to me that the train on which I traveled could be considered “an inertial frame of reference” – at whatever speed –  in which a little boy ran at the same two-or-three miles per hour – as he on the “stationary” sidewalk in front of his Hollywood bungalow.

Relativity or not, my cumulative train experiences gave birth to an idea for a novel that grew and stayed with me – coming to the surface over and over, through most of my writing life –  The Einstein Express.  It's about people on the the train, about space-time, about my mother and father, about my own life, with many characters crossing paths as they travel, about a mystery that unfolds like the landscape, strange as the white out of a blizzard that stranded our train for days out on the prairie on one of those December trips back then.


My “express,” however, turned out to be more of a milk train, with many stops, delays and detours. I thought I'd start out my career at a newspaper, like a lot of novelists. When I was 15, I got a hopeless crush on a curvy vivacious, copper-haired, oo-la-la 24-year-old French actress named Isabelle, direct from Paris. My mother had met her at Paramount Studios where the two had jobs dubbing Hollywood movies into Italian and French. Isabelle, who had immigrated to Hollywood to play in a film that fell through, was living in a cheap hotel. My mother offered her a spare bedroom in the house where we lived by the early 1950s. My parents were divorced by then, and we had a series of boarders – all Hollywood hopefuls from overseas. My mother liked guests and ran the household as a sort of salon for various artists, writers and musicians.

I wrote a short story in longhand, an awkward tale about a private eye and boy lost in a train station, which I let Isabelle read. She seemed to delight in it. “Ah, ma petite Zola,” she teased. I glowed.

Isabelle took up with a then-popular columnist for the Los Angeles Times named Gene Sherman, a tall,  dashing raconteur nearly twice her age who smoked a pipe, wore snazzy sports jackets and drove a sporty red MG TD2 roadster – always with kid-leather gloves, plaid scarf and gray touring cap. This was time when foreign-made cars were rare in the United States, even Southern California. Gene was married at the time, but Isabelle was very Parisian about it. He would buzz it up our driveway for his frequent dates with her and sometimes join us for an Italian dinner with opera and Neapolitan love songs on the stereo and lots of conversation. I decided that newspapering would be the life for me.

The author's 1960s press card
A teenage infatuation, rather than literary aspirations, led to my writing career.  A few years later, Gene helped get me hired as a copy boy at the L.A. Times, my first real job other than after-school grocery bagger. Thus began a circuitous trip – not as a novelist, but as something of a journalist. I stayed nearly twelve years at the Times, moving up to reporter, staff writer and eventually managing editor on its then-esteemed Sunday magazine, West.

Restless, I moved on from the Times to writing for magazines, then took other editing jobs, and – naturally, being in Los Angeles, wrote screenplays that I never sold. Eventually, I moved north to become editor of San Francisco Magazine, edited other mags there, including Francis Ford Coppola's City of San Francisco, and edited manuscripts for a regional publishing house. Meanwhile, I authored articles for magazines – local and national – literally hundreds of them over time – political, business and showbiz profiles, investigative screeds, trend pieces, travel and food features. Have typewriter, will travel. I coauthored three books for major publishers. I also ghosted “autobiographies” and how-to books for various clients. But still no novel – not even much fiction, though I dabbled at home.

By the late 1990s, I found myself in Silicon Valley as managing editor of a high-tech start up that was pioneered something called “Internet books” – MightyWords.com.  During the next few years leading through the millennium, MightyWords presaged what Amazon Kindle does today – offering digital works online by established authors – for example, Toni Morrison, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury  – and providing an online, free agora for authors to self-publish ebooks, something never done before. A surprising number of very creative writers did so, putting up with our often quirky interfaces.

We had two big problems. One was the delivery system: We didn't have a good one. There were no enough electronic reading tablets on the market then – other than Palm, with which we tried to explore possibilities. Customers either had to read their books, short stories and essays on screen or make hard copies on their home or office printers.  Few wanted to do this for longer works, but mid-length stories and papers --- which were short of book-length, yet too long for magazines – provided a sweet spot.

Two, was financing. Such progress not withstanding, our fickle Silicon Valley venture capital backers packed up their tents when the high-tech bubble burst before MightyWords could sustain itself in the marketplace. Barnes & Noble bought what was left of our start-up leaving most of us on the street. The stock options that I dreamed could make me another overnight hi-tech millionaire, were good for papering my parakeet's cage. You might think that B&N would have used the technology MightyWords developed to outpace Amazon, but the bookstore giant – and its corporate publishing suppliers – remained wedded to paper, bricks and mortar in the decade that followed, allowing Jeff Bezos and Amazon to make its market and become the digital publishing giant that it is today.

Meanwhile, I moved into contract publishing and freelancing for a while – and even sold real estate. But I kept writing. Finally gathering frugal resources in my dotage – re-discovered to my old dream of writing fiction. I had developed a certain style and verbal adeptness over years of writing professionally, but had to teach myself how to write at least presentable fiction – a constant process –  with, I hoped, compelling characters, plot, settings, twists, ironies, layers, and especially, try to make it sing. It helped to have been an avid fiction reader all my life – literature, scifi, detective stories, historical novels, and, what I love most, magic realism. It was also intimidating.

I got back on the Einstein Express again for a while after seeing the Kronos Quartet perform prolific minimalist composer Steve Reich's haunting 1988 multimedia composition, Different Trains, in San Francisco. Reich traveled back and forth from Los Angeles to New York as a child– between his divorced parents – during the 1940s as well. Like myself, he drew inspiration form the experience, but brilliantly, he carried it a step further by imagining children on trains to Nazi concentration camps during those same years he traveled across America as a child, incorporating these impressions into his three-movement piece. As a novel, the Einstein Express may never reach that profound level, but it does keep calling me to go to elsewhere, strange and just as unique in the space-time continuum if I dare.

I wrote a lot of junk for a few years, but then hit my stride with a series of short stories and novellas which I published digitally  – Our Own Kind, My Dog's Name, Gunning for the Holy Ghost, to name a few. I got into literary journals as well. I moved to Chicago – for love, but that's another story – and was lucky enough to become a contributing editor of the esteemed Chicago Quarterly Review. Last year, I wrote and publish my most ambitious work of fiction – Ophelia Rising, an historical literary novel re-imagining the life of Shakespeare's fair maid, before and after Hamlet.

Novels now, but still no Einstein Express, even though I keep going back to it, writing passages and chapters – volumes of pages that still won't come fully together. Several of these chapters became short stories in themselves – one of which, “Onion Station” was published by Chicago Quarterly Review last spring. Maybe I'll never finish the Einstein Express. Maybe I'll make it the title of the collection of short stories I'm hoping to publish in the fall. I remember thinking a lot about the Einstein Express when I saw the late Spaulding Gray's 1992 confessional masterpiece, Monster in a Box, in which the brilliant, angst-ridden monologist shares his tribulations writing his first novel “Impossible Vacation” the voluminous pages of which he carried around in a carton with him for years through a series of life crises. I could relate – but a least I've got my first novel out there and more. I'll take a deep breath now and move forward.

I'm still on that train, I suppose – maybe in the dining car, enjoying a good meal, the scenery and some engaging strangers – each a time traveler – who have joined me. I found out, like other writers before me, that you can buy your ticket. You can move around on the train, but you're not necessarily in charge of where you're going.

9 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

What a fascinating life you've led, Umberto. Normally with long blogs if they don't catch my attention right away I either don't read to the end or I skim read. But I read the entirety of this blog post and really enjoyed it.

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you, Chris! I enjoy your posts as well.

Penny Dolan said...

Great post! Enjoyed that train ride too.

Penny Dolan said...

Sorry - that should have said "enjoyed reading about your train ride" but your description was vivid enough to see.

Susan Price said...

I agree with the others,Umberto - fantastic post, and a great showcase for your writing! So pleased to meet you here.

Mari Biella said...

Wonderful post, Umberto, and quite a story in its own right! It's illustrative of just how much mental and imaginative growth a novel can sometimes undergo before a single word is written.

Lydia Bennet said...

Fantastic post Umberto and a fabulous life story! Such adventures. The romance of those old trains crossing whole nations! Wow. Keep us up to speed with Einstein's progress please!

Lewis Perdue said...

Wonderful words! And if you don't keep on riding that train,I will kick you in the caboose!

Dennis Hamley said...

Wonderful, evocative post, Umberto. We are obviously of a similar generation and the railway fantasy, albeit on much shorter journeys, was strong with me as well. I'm still a railway buff. I'm well into 'Ophelia Rising'and enjoying it very much. Ophelia's near-drowning was beautifully done and I love the way you're using the Players fresh from their Mousetrap disaster. We don't often think of what might have happened to them!