[Editor’s note: Several members of the Silverback community are in the process of writing a memoir, or otherwise recording life stories. I am one. At least I was. Why am I doing this when there is no convention publisher who would have even a whiff of interest, and I am too cheap to publish it myself? For the kids? For posterity? Nope and nope. Vanity? The reason I am doing this is to figure out the real reason for doing this. SB SM]
My Mama Must Have Loved Me
My Mama must have loved me. That’s the only explanation.
I have little writing talent, but I’ve written a bunch of books. I have no music talent, but as long as I adhere to the mantra of “play loud, fast, the get-the-hell off the stage,” I can fool some people. I’m not an intellectual, but people give me credit as being one. I know little to nothing about business, but I’ve earned a small fortune as a marketing guru, and I’m not funny, but many people know me, first and foremost, as a humor writer. The truth is, I’m just a wise guy who never quite graduated from adolescence, the eternal sophomore.
I blame my Mama. Because she loved me, I grew up invincible. Because she loved me, I grew up thinking I could do anything. Because she loved me, I knew that all the best of life would come my way.
As my life is heading for the inevitable finish line, I am forced to acknowledge that I have fallen short of some of my life expectations. Fame and fortune? Let’s just change the definitions. I am a household word, admittedly in a small number of homes, but they are the homes I care about. In terms of money, unless I am unlucky or stupid, I should have enough to last until I die. World’s greatest lover? It’s quality, not quantity, that matters.
Beloved? Um-m-m, not my style. Talented? Only by my definition, yes. Respected? Well, who needs respect, anyway?
Why, then, a memoir? Aren’t those for exceptional people living in extraordinary times, who accomplished amazing feat. Why yes, yes, and yes! I am that person, the one who stands out from an entire generation, the one who inspires myth and legend, the one celebrated in song (albeit, my own), the one who lives on after the flesh has returned to dust. And all because my Mama loved me and convinced me, without ever saying it, that I was equal parts Jesus Christ, the Buddah, and Superman.
I wrote about it in the beloved (by me) third volume of my trilogy of comic novels Stories and Tunes.
If I had courage, I would have titled this Great Expectations. Surely some people would buy it by mistake, and I know a lot of high schools assign it in English lit.
Like many a young man raised in the shadow of Hemingway, I was destined to be the next Great American Novelist, but things kept getting in the way. Life kinda intervened, if I’m not being too poetic for you.
My first novel was Foodball written fresh out of college. It had everything–pages, words, even a few characters. Alas, what it didn’t have was any story, plot, or reason for existing. I still have it, if anyone wants to be the first reader ever. Even I can’t make it end to end.
I decided to stay within myself and to write about something from my own experience. I looked around and found no international intrigue, no high stakes finances, no smokey rooms, no celebrities. So I wrote about beer. Maybe I wouldn’t become the great novelist, but I sure could learn more about beer than anyone else in the world. I traveled the nation, visited every operating brewery, experienced the highlights and low lights in my quest for the Secret of the Suds, and then … someone else beat me to punch. My manuscript for The Great Beer Trek seemed destined to share the bottom drawer with Foodball. I became a working stiff, and it was my incredible good fortune to get a job in a place I loved (Vermont) with a company (Vermont Castings) whose business making cast iron wood stoves was literally on fire. Although my writing was on hold, in all other ways I felt like I was experiencing the best of all possible worlds, getting back to the land while riding a business rocket ship. One day someone approached me about putting together a staff-written book on heating with wood. Book? Say no more. Within about a month we had put together The Book of Heat which sold moderately well in the United States, but actually became a best-seller in Japan. Now, it was the publisher coming back to me asking what I could do next. How about a book on beer, I suggested, and The Great Beer Trek finally saw the light of day.
Would Foodball be next? Hardly, but I was ready to try my hand at fiction. I invented a small Vermont town that was nearly identical to the small Vermont town where I lived, then I populated it with characters who were suspiciously like those folks who lived around me. For a plot I had the characters do the kind of things that most of us did every day.
Originally I envisioned a huge, sprawling, comic novel brimming with searing social commentary, much like one of my favorite books, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Didn’t happen. But what did happen was Beyond Yonder. It was published by the same publisher and at the same time as Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon Days. “Don’t worry,” my editor assured me. “Your book will do much better.” I wonder what he’s doing these days? Beyond Yonder was enough of a success, however, that the publisher wanted a sequel, hence, The King of Vermont.
Vermont Castings continued to pump out woodstoves, and I received something called a “weekly paycheck” that reminded me that the household finances owed a larger debt to my performance as a sales manager than my work as a fledgling novelist. Regardless, I decided to put my cast of characters through a third round of adventures “beyond yonder.” But it would be more than twenty years until Darwin and his cohorts would find out what happened to them. The long story short … well, there is no short version. If you want to hear the long version some day, and you have enough beer, I’ll tell it to you.
At one point in my tenure as Vice President of blahbiddy-blah-blah at Vermont Castings we were meeting with our ad agency, Kelliher/Samets/Volk of Burlington. The copywriter on our account was a nice young man named Chris Bohjalian who confided in me that he, too, wrote fiction on the side. I told him something to the effect of “Stick with it, kid, and someday you might be as big as me.”
No, I couldn’t have been that much of a jerk, but the long story short here is that Chris has cranked out a series of highly-acclaimed novels so that he routinely enters the New York Times Best-Seller in the top 10. I’m hoping that if I grovel sufficiently, he will grace me with a few dismissive words, about what I deserve.
I have many debts of gratitude. First and foremost to the state of Vermont for being home to so many memorable characters who I could rip off for this shameless book. There could be no Shappy Shapiro without a real life Alan Newman of Magic Hat and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s to light the way. There could be no hot ladies from 8 Days without real ladies from 7 Days to inspire. (Note how I changed the real life “7″ to the fictional “8″? That’s literary craft in action.) There could be no Kingdom poet without a real David Budbill, no Grey Fox of the Green Mountains without a Jack Barry and Tony Adams, no Henry Drown without …? I don’t know where Henry Drown came from.
Lest anyone think I am capable only of ripping off other people, let me point out that I’ve ripped off myself, too. The cast of characters that appear in the last half of Stories and Tunes are lifted directly from my non-Vermont novel, Stripah Love. Maybe I should sue! Maybe, if I had the courage I should have called this book No Expectations after the great Rolling Stones song. Why not? I’ve lifted so much else from the annals of life for this collection of stories and tunes. Why not the title, too?from Stories and Tunes, The Public Press, 2006
Step….Before I forget, I finally Figured out why I was not getting the Digest….I had somehow blocked you on my email list. Probably because I mistakenly thought you pissed me off for some reason. Anyway…fixed now…
Loved this column and looked forward to future ones on the subject.
Fully expect to be mentioned somewhere as a an influence in your maturing.
Keep up the great work…love to Sandy.
SB Cousin Larry
It’s not as if I doubt your fame, but I wanted to investigate a bit more. Sure enough. San Diego Public Library has “The King of Vermont” in its stacks, by none other than Stephen Morris. Also, “The New Village Green” (but I think that’s non-fiction, so it doesn’t count). Finally, some guy named Nevil Shute (1899 – 1960) wrote a book entitled “Stephen Morris,” published in 1961. A biography of you at age 13? My advice (and wish)? Keep writing. I am a fan.