Café Pinfold: Year Two

It was exactly this time last year—Christmas season 2012—when I started pulling things together that I thought I’d like to put on a writer’s blog I had in mind, deciding on the name for the blog, figuring out the categories, and planning the new material I wanted to write. And looking back on Café Pinfold now, looking over all of the posts, all of the various content, I’m pretty damn pleased with myself—good job, Tom! And great job, Chad Luibl, who has assisted me since the start. Without him, the work I’ve posted would be the same, but the environment would look like sheer hell. Thanks again, Chad, thanks a million.

My intentions for Year Two are simple and ambitious:

  1. To publish in its entirety my “lost” non-fiction novel (written in 1987-88) called Painters in Winter. Until recently I had no idea whatever happened to the manuscript (you can read more about it in the introduction to the BOOKS section); my wife Santa discovered it in a folder when she was helping me look for an old book contract which we suspected might be in a box in our storage locker. The contract wasn’t there, but the manuscript for Painters was. At first about 40 pages were missing. Then, miraculously, she found a manila envelope containing every single one of the missing pages. Anyhow…because of the awful circumstances surrounding the original project (again, see BOOKS), I’d built up this dire mental vibe around the book. It was the only full-length work of mine that was never published and despite recalling how proud I’d been of it at the time, I was afraid it might, you know, suck. It doesn’t. Au contraire! I’m a pretty vicious critic of my own work, but with complete and unsentimental honesty I can tell you it’s one of the very best things I’ve ever done. It’s good, if I do say so myself, and sorry (but not really) if I sound, well, immodest.  It’s damn good. I wrote it right after Funny Papers and Sunburn Lake, two of my strongest and favorite books (it actually works as the non-fiction companion to Funny Papers since all of the “real” people I write about in Painters appear re-named and fictionalized in Funny Papers). When I wrote Painters in Winter it upset my editor because it seemed to him I’d taken too many narrative liberties—which is precisely why, I think, it seems so contemporary in 2014; in fact, what struck me upon rereading it is how close it is in approach and intention to some of my favorite work of narrative non-fiction, especially But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer (originally published in 1996) and 1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies (originally published in 2013). The unearthed typescript (a dot-matrix printout!) runs to 254 pages, and I’ll be posting the book in increments of 3 or 4 short chapters at a time, every 2 to 3 weeks throughout 2014. The book is about the eight painters who exhibited together in February 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City: Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies. But it’s also about, just as much about, their friends, their families, and Manhattan itself in the first decade of the twentieth century.  (Since “publishing” the book here is in no way a for-profit endeavor, I considered posting images of the paintings referred to throughout the text, but finally I decided not to do that, much as they’d anchor and enliven the posts, and I decided not to because I felt it might be an exploitation of the artists’ work for my own ends. That being said, God knows you can easily find on the internet images of all the paintings mentioned.
  2. To finish writing and posting my first serial novel, King Touey. So far, I’ve posted four “episodes,” roughly 25,000 words. As I’ve written elsewhere about the novel, the aim is to finish it in 12 episodes and then to write a non-fiction Afterward about the 1915 labor strike at Standard Oil in Bayonne, New Jersey, which provides the background for the novel. As those readers who’ve been following the serial know by now, King Touey isn’t a “strike novel,”  not really, it’s a story set against that backdrop; my models, sort of, are two films, Haskel Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980). Wexler’s film was actually shot during the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but it’s a fiction film with several storylines playing out during the chaos of those days; Malle’s film (one of my favorites) is crime story shot in the “Boardwalk Empire” city just as the once-grand-but-now-gone-to-seed old-time hotels were being demolished to make room for the first gambling casinos. (You can see the wrecking balls doing their work in the background.) I wanted/want King Touey to be something like those two films, a multi-character, multi-plotline novel that takes place during a chaotic and transitional time in an American city, in this case my hometown. When I was growing up there in the 1950s and 60s, I never heard a thing about either of the two violent, bitter strikes at the Standard (the second one happened in 1916); it wasn’t until I was at Rutgers-Newark and in a political science or sociology class that I became aware of them, but once I did, all kinds of things that had seemed mysterious and inexplicable to me when I was kid in Bayonne—the subtle/not-so-subtle animosities between Polish- and Irish-Americans, for one thing—suddenly made perfect sense. I should point out, especially to readers who may know Bayonne or be familiar with Hudson County history, that I’ve taken some liberties with geography for the sake of storytelling, and I’ve conflated some of the real-life events, also for the sake of storytelling, and while some of my characters are people who actually lived and participated in these events—most prominently Pearl Bergoff, the “King of the Strikebreakers,” and Eugene F. Kinkead, the Sheriff of Hudson County, my versions of them are fictitious, though I’ve tried, and continue to try, not to violate their fundamental public personae. My aim at this point is to finish the novel during 2014 and then to revise it completely and publish it in a limited edition book of 100 copies in time to mark the centenary of the strike in July 2015.
  3. To continue writing short essays about each of my published books; I’ve done 5 in the first year; there are 15 to go.
  4. To continue posting ephemera that I like, including—first up!—a selection of cartoon self-portraits culled from the dozens I’ve done/doodled since I was 23. I got into this habit when I was an editor for a group of men’s magazines and used to sketch on the backs of square rejection slips whenever I was bored. (I’ll be posting those at ORPHANS.) After I’d been doing these little cartoons for a while, Art Spiegelman asked me to write a series of short vignettes for an issue of RAW, and one of those vignettes turned out to be completely autobiographical: “Whenever he’s on the telephone, he has to have a pen in his hand and a pad of unlined paper nearby so that, talking business or just shooting the shit, he can doodle heads. Say he gets a call and there’s no pad and pen within easy reach, he’ll say wait a sec, could you? and then go look. He’ll come back, say thanks for holding, and start right in drawing his tiny little heads–heads only, in profile, with thick brows, googly eyes, blobby noses, mouths wide open, tongues hanging out, spittle flying. He does left-facing profiles, right-facing profiles, he’ll put wild hair on his heads or scratch a little fringe over the ears. Sometimes he indicates a neck, sometimes he even sketches in a sport shirt collar. But that’s as far as he goes, body-wise. He does heads only. Beyond that, he lacks all confidence.”  (You can also find the complete series of vignettes at ORPHANS.)
  5. To return (after yet another long hiatus) to the three linked novellas I’ve been writing under the umbrella title “Standard Six” that are currently posted, incomplete, at IN PROGRESS. My promise to myself is to finish at least one them in 2014.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve found some things you’ve enjoyed at Café Pinfold, and I hope you find a lot more in Year Two.

Tom De Haven
December 2013

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Café Pinfold: Eight Months On

In January 2013, I started to make a list of work that I wanted to post on a blog I had in mind, and it’s also when I came up with the title. (“Cafe” because a good cafe is an unpretentious, casual place you can drop into at any time for a quick cup of coffee or a full–though not a fancy or sumptuous–meal; “Pinfold” because of all the many characters I’ve created for novels and stories and scripts, Pinfold–the 1890s street urchin from Funny Papers, my third novel–has always been, for me, the most important; having created that character and written that novel, I knew that I was in this profession, a profession I love, for the long run; I knew that I could do this over the course of my lifetime, that I had the talent, the training, and the discipline.)

With the indispensible advice, guidance, design skills, and computer savvy of Chad Luibl–currently a third-year graduate student in the MFA creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I teach–I began putting material up on the blog in February. Through the winter and spring, I kept passing stuff–manuscripts and images, even a video–along to Chad, some of it older work, some of it works-in-progress, some of it new and written exclusively for Cafe Pinfold, including short introductory essays to each of the sections and each of the postings, as well as the first episodes of the serial novel King Touey. The blog has been accessible since mid-February, but I deliberately didn’t make any formal announcements about it until the spring when, finally, each category could offer substantial material.

Although I’ll still be posting work–fiction and essays–that I’ve  created and published over the last several decades, and lectures I’ve written and delivered for specific occasions, from here on out the main focus of Cafe Pinfold will on the series of short autobiographical essays I’m writing about each of my published books (two have already been posted, for Jersey Luck and U.S.S.A., 16 to go) and the continuation of King Touey. (The plan there is to conclude the novel in 12 episodes with a non-fiction coda to follow about the 1915 Standard Oil strike in Bayonne, New Jersey, which provides the background for the novel.) I will also continue to add new chapters to each of the three linked novellas that comprise Standard Six. Eventually, I’ll start posting sections of another novel I’ve finished called The Unlighted Place.

The reception so far to Cafe Pinfold has been gratifying, but a number of writer friends have been a little disconcerted, too, even annoyed, that I’ve decided to “give” my work away. Believe me, I understand their concern. Writing is a profession and its practitioners ought to be paid for what they produce.  No argument from me! But as I said in my original “Welcome” post, the current situation in book publishing has become unpleasant, frustrating, insulting, and essentially pointless. It’s dispiriting to realize how many terrific writers of my acquaintance have published novels over the last few years that a) never made it onto a bookstore shelf, b) never were reviewed, anywhere, and c) disappeared–instantly!–without a chance or a trace. I just got tired of it and decided to opt out, simple as that. Sure, I’d like to earn more of my living from what I write, but I like being in complete control of my career now, and of my work; I love writing, especially writing fiction, and I enjoy making it available for anyone who wants to read some of it. And while I don’t think it’s ideal for any writer to publish without a good editor’s input, I’ve been writing long enough–and I’ve worked as an editor myself–that I feel confident anything I’ve posted, or will post, on Cafe Pinfold is the best I can produce. Promise you, it’s all been finically edited and extensively revised. (Also, I’ve been known to go back and tinker.)

To everyone reading this, and to all those who’ve dropped into the cafe over the last several months, many thanks. Please come again.

Tom De Haven
August 25, 2013

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Café Pinfold: The Beginning

I’ve been a professional writer–mostly of fiction, but of other things too–for a long time; I sold my first story–and earned $30 for it, five bucks a published page–to The Carolina Quarterly while I was in grad school, so it was probably 1972. Approximately 41 years ago. Jesus Christ, that is a long time.

I used to tell myself that I loved publishing stuff, but lately I’ve come to doubt what I believed since I was 23. I’ve always loved writing the stuff (well, let me qualify that: I’ve always loved writing it when it’s going well, and I love finishing)–and I’ve always loved seeing my stuff in print, but the process of publishing and the business of writing?  Hmmm, not so much. It’s a joy seeing galleys, and it’s indescribably exciting to see a finished book for the first time, to hold it in your hands, to flip through it, fondle it, open it up and start reading.

But then there’s all the other shit.

I won’t go into that, however, I’d just sound cranky, and that’s not why I’m doing this blog, to complain or express opinions. I’m doing it because I realized (and it came as a big shock, really) that I didn’t care if I commercially published anything ever again. But it might be fun, I subsequently realized, to make some of my work–old work and new work–available online for anybody who cared to read it.

I also thought a blog would be an impetus to me to accomplish a few things that had snagged my imagination in recent years. I’ve always enjoyed serialized fiction, so I figured a blog would give me the opportunity of writing some SERIALS myself. And while I have no interest in producing a book-length memoir, I thought I would like to write short essays linked to the circumstances surrounding, and the strategies involved in, the composition of each of my books–which is why I’ve put up the covers of all of them, under BOOKS; the text currently connected to each cover is merely a placeholder; the idea is to gradually replace every “publisher’s blurb” with a short memoir and some appropriate photographs.

That’s what’s coming; currently, Cafe Pinfold offers essays I’ve published and lectures I’ve delivered (COMICS WRITINGS), plus (in FILM) a few embedded videos (I did the scripts) as well as the complete film scripts I wrote (for Susan Seidelman and Alex Proyas, in the late 1980s, early 1990s) based on my novels Freaks’ Amour and Jersey Luck ; IN PROGRESS consists of the opening chunks of three linked novellas that I’m still working on. Soon, I’ll be putting up chapters from a novel called “The Unlighted Place,” my stab at a ghost story.  (Somebody told me years ago that every fiction writer ought to write at least one ghost story.)  I’m also working on a novel set in the nineteen-teens called “Patsy Touey,” but I’ve decided for the time being not to post any excerpts; however, one of the first stories in Serials will be a related piece called “King Touey.” The ORPHANS section is a hodgepodge of stuff–short fiction I did 25 years ago, stuff I did last summer, stuff I did in between.

So there you are.  I hope you find something here that you like.

Tom De Haven
February 21, 2013