This week, I welcome author Larry Closs.
Larry Closs is the author of Beatitude, a novel, and a New Yorker who often wanders far from home.
He has been a national writer, editor, photographer and videographer for nearly 20 years for publications and websites at News Corporation, TimeWarner, Hearst and Viacom, including TV Guide, TVGuide.com, Road Runner and Nickelodeon. At Gesso, a communication design studio he co-founded, clients included Sony, Estee Lauder, Smithsonian Institution, USAID, National Cancer Institute and the NBA. He has produced digital shorts for the Travel Channel, co-produced two mobile apps and freelanced for Out, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine and The New York Aquarian.
As Director of Communications for Next Generation Nepal, a nonprofit dedicated to reconnecting trafficked children with their families, he oversees communications and marketing, and his photographs and video from Nepal have been used by CNN, The Huffington Post, USA Today, HarperCollins and The Nate Berkus Show.
ANTHONY: Larry, thanks for taking some time to chat with me. Beatitude has been in print from Rebel Satori Press for a little while now, and you’re doing your first reading and signing in NYC on March 12 (7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 82nd and Broadway). Nervous?
LARRY: I’m more excited than nervous. I’ve invited everyone I know—and everyone I don’t know is welcome! A good number have already told me they’ll be there. It will be interesting to see people from different areas of my life—many of whom have never met—all in the same place. I’m also looking forward to meeting a few people who have read the book and written to me. Until now, we’ve only known each other through the emails we’ve exchanged.
Also, I recently realized that March 12 is Jack Kerouac’s birthday—he would have been 90. Kerouac and On the Road figure so prominently in Beatitude I couldn’t have planned a more perfect date if I tried. And it was a total coincidence. Unless, of course, there’s no such thing as coincidence, as Beatitude suggests, which makes it even more perfect.
While we’re on the subject of my reading, I’d like to mention Lou Pizzitola, who organizes and schedules events at this particular Barnes & Noble. Lou goes out of his way to feature appearances by authors who are published by small and independent presses, giving them a chance for the kind of exposure they rarely get. An author couldn’t ask for a better advocate.
ANTHONY: This is the first signing—any immediate plans for more?
LARRY: There are a few things in the works that will be announced when the details are finalized. But I’d like to add that I am open to any and all invitations. Book stores, book clubs, literary salons—any type of salon, actually.
ANTHONY: I know you’ve discussed this elsewhere, but tell us a little about the genesis of Beatitude. What brought you to write about the Beat Generation through the eyes of two New Yorkers in the 1990s?
LARRY: Beatitude began as a much simpler story about two young men, Harry and Jay, who become friends as a result of their shared fascination with the Beats. I set the story in the mid-90s because that’s when the Beats last experienced one of their periodic rediscoveries, which seems to happen every 15 or 20 years. We’re actually about due for another surge of interest, and the long-delayed movie version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which finally comes out this May, will probably fuel one.
There had to be more to the story, of course, and as the characters developed, I began to see the potential to explore the mysteries and subtleties of attraction. Jay’s girlfriend, Zahra, had always been present, but in the background. When she became more central, she took on an unlikely role and that really took Harry and Jay’s relationship to an unexpected place. Harry’s former infatuation, Matteo, also appeared, inspired by the need to provide insight into Harry’s past and why he was prone to making the same mistake over and over.
The Beats themselves evolved from a few references to full-fledged characters when I saw the parallels between Harry, Jay and Zahra and Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. The Beats were as famous for their complicated loves lives as they were for their literary efforts, and each of the Beats experienced unrequited love from both sides of the equation—either falling for someone who couldn’t reciprocate or being the reluctant object of affection. I realized that the situation in which Harry, Jay and Zahra find themselves was not unique but universal and the Beats provided the perfect counterpoint. That left me with Beatitude’s biggest questions: What do you do when you find yourself on either side of that equation? What must you each give up to keep the other in your life?
ANTHONY: You ultimately were published by Rebel Satori Press. What are the pros and cons of being published by a small independent house like RSP?
LARRY: The biggest pro is being published. That’s the hardest thing for any author to achieve these days—finding a publisher who believes in a book so much that he’s willing to invest in it.
The most unexpected pro was that I was able to get a literary agent after trying to do so for a long time. Why get an agent after a publisher had accepted the book? To help with the contract. My agent helped me retain the foreign and adaptation rights, which are, aside from royalties, the two avenues with the greatest potential to generate revenue. The agency has individuals dedicated to foreign sales as well as contacts in the film and television industries that neither I nor my publisher have, so there’s a much greater chance of selling those rights than if I attempted to do so on my own.
I also negotiated control of the cover design, which was important to me. I’m not a designer but I used to co-own a design studio and have a design sensibility. I knew what sort of aesthetic I wanted and I was able to engage an amazing illustrator—Anthony Freda—for the cover, and an amazing designer—John Barrow—for the equally important back cover and spine. Every author imagines what the cover of his or her book will look like. Mine turned out better than I’d ever dreamed.
As for the cons of being published by an independent press, there are none—again, you’re a published author!—but there arechallenges. Advances are small, rare or, in my case, nonexistent, so there was no immediate financial reward. I was responsible for clearing the rights and paying the licensing fees for song lyrics and excerpts from other literary works featured in my book, which was a long and tedious process. I had to print my own galleys for publications with long lead times. I had to trade my author hat for my publicist hat and spend nearly every spare minute promoting the book on my author website, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram. Pinterest is on my radar. It goes on.
I will say that every review, article, post, mention, tweet, share, like or email from a reader makes it all worthwhile—especially an email from a reader. To know that what you’ve written has affected someone you’ve never met, that your book spoke to even one person—so much so that he or she was inspired to write to you—is the most heartening response you can ever receive.
ANTHONY: In the scene at the Whitney Museum’s Beat Culture exhibit, Harry, Jay and Zahra meet Allen Ginsberg and see a different side of their Beat Generation heroes. Did you always plan to include that real-life event as a seminal part of the novel?
LARRY: Beatitude is a novel set in the real New York City of 1995, populated by fictional characters who occasionally interact with versions of real people, like the characters in Titanic. The real-life Beat Culture exhibit aligned with Beatitude’s timeline and provided the perfect backdrop for Harry, Jay and Zahra’s encounter with Ginsberg, which didn’t turn out as expected.
There are several moments in Beatitude when the main characters must accept the difference between what they want something to be and what something actually is. When Harry and Jay view the legendary scroll manuscript of On the Road, they realize that Kerouac didn’t produce a perfectly polished and publishable novel in three weeks. When Harry, Jay and Zahra meet Ginsberg at the Beat Culture exhibit, he shatters their image of him as an eternally beneficent dharma bum. When Harry and Jay hit a speed bump in their friendship, Harry is forced to acknowledge his true feelings for Jay.
A reader summed it up very well: “Beatitude captures an experience that is universal to all people—that the greatest source of human suffering comes from our wanting things to be other than what they are.” I like when readers tell me what Beatitude is about!
ANTHONY: You have two previously unpublished Ginsberg poems in the book. How did you get access to those?
LARRY: I had a recording of a Ginsberg poetry reading at MoMA, and when I wrote the scene in which Harry, Jay and Zahra go to see him there, I selected excerpts from a few of the poems he read. After Rebel Satori Press accepted Beatitude for publication, I had to clear the rights to the poems and I contacted Peter Hale at the Allen Ginsberg Estate. In the course of his research, Peter discovered that two of the poems—“Like Other Guys” and “Carl Solomon Dream”—had, surprisingly, never been published (“Like Other Guys” appeared only as a 26-copy broadside).
I initially thought that I would have to rewrite the scene with other poems but Peter put me in touch with Ginsberg’s literary agent at The Wylie Agency and, long story short, I was able to include the two poems—using excerpts in the scene at MoMA and the full text in an Appendix. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed that two previously unpublished poems by Allen Ginsberg would be featured in my first novel. Beatitude, indeed.
ANTHONY: The character of Harry Charity hit particularly close to home for me. Did the characters of Harry and Jay instantly hit the page running, or did they grow and change in unpredictable ways over the course of writing the novel?
LARRY: They definitely grew and changed, and, as a consequence, so did their relationship and their story. I really didn’t realize what the book was about—or what the book could be about—until the fourth or fifth draft. From the beginning, Harry and Jay were friends, united by their shared interest in the Beats. But that’s the surface. What was beneath their interest in the Beats? What part of each other did the Beats stir? What really drew them together?
I set out to write a novel that uncovered truths in everyday experience by blending fact and fiction to create a more epic version of reality. The perfect analogy is Instagram, the popular iPhone photo editing and sharing app. You take photos of real-life people, places and objects, run them through a variety of filters—adjust the color saturation, play with the contrast, convert to black and white, change the crop, blur or focus—and you can achieve something much more evocative than the unvarnished original.
I read an interview with one of my favorite musicians, Tom Waits, and he said, “The truth is overrated. Avoid it at all costs.” He meant that reality can almost always be improved upon. What actually happens is irrelevant if you can make it more interesting while retaining the essence. With each draft of Beatitude, I added more filters, and the story—as well as Harry and Jay—gradually became more apocryphal.
ANTHONY: I especially liked the way you work Harry’s personal history into the narrative—what we assume at first are dream sequences about Jay turn out to be memories of Harry’s most recent relationship, but eventually you have Harry tell the story in more “gory” detail as he recognizes that old patterns are repeating themselves. Developing it this way added a great underlying secondary tension to the main tension between Harry and Jay. How did you decide which tidbits of Harry’s past to reveal when? I guess what I’m asking is a variation on that old standard: are you a detailed outliner or a “see where it goes” type of writer?
LARRY: The structure and pacing were the most challenging aspects of the book for me. How to build tension and reveal just enough information along the way to keep a reader interested in knowing the resolution? Initial drafts were “see where it goes.” Then I created a detailed outline. Then I tossed the outline. In retrospect, I employed something similar to the cut-up method that William S. Burroughs espoused. The difference is that Burroughs believed in randomly reordering chapters or sections of a book to subvert traditional linear storytelling, while the story I wanted to tell was, ultimately, very linear, with a beginning, middle and end. Still, our approaches were the same.
After I had a draft of the book, I experimented with splitting some scenes in two and rearranging others. In a way, it was very mechanical. But it made me realize that what you don’t say is just as important as what you do—and actually more intriguing. Tell the first half of a story at one point and readers will likely stick around for the second. The process also revealed the need for scenes I hadn’t included. There were brief references to why Harry was so damaged at the beginning of the book, but what really happened to him? I needed to know, so I wrote the flashback sequences with Matteo, initially, as one long piece.
Wayne Hoffman, a friend and fellow author (Sweet Like Sugar, Hard), once observed to me that there are scenes authors have to write for themselves that never make it into a finished book. I wasn’t sure the flashbacks were going to make it into Beatitude but I had to write them so I could fully understand Harry. Eventually, they became an essential part of the story, but I reworked and rewrote each of them as self-contained scenes and placed them at pivotal moments in the narrative to mirror Harry’s relationship with Jay.
ANTHONY: In my review in Chelsea Station, I admit to not knowing very much about the Beat Generation other than the names, and yet I never felt like you, or your characters, were talking “over my head” about things only a “true fan” would know. Was there a conscious decision as you were writing to make sure the book stayed accessible to as many readers as possible rather than targeting only folks who were Beat fans?
LARRY: It was essential that Beatitude be a self-contained experience, whatever a reader’s familiarity with the Beats. Having read nearly all books by the Beats as well as a multitude of books about the Beats, I realized I knew a lot more than most. I did assume, however, that some of the more iconic stories were general knowledge—the fact that Kerouac wrote the first draft of On the Road on a 120-foot roll of Teletype paper in three weeks, for instance, or that the publication of Ginsberg’s “Howl” prompted a landmark censorship trial—and so I short-handed them in the book.
As I collected feedback from friends and colleagues on the manuscript-in-progress, however, I discovered that most weren’t as familiar with those stories as I would have thought. So, I employed a technique travel writers often use, providing in-depth background information as asides, although I integrated the information into the narrative. Readers unfamiliar with the Beats will be intrigued, I think—many have told me that Beatitude inspired them to seek out On the Road, “Howl” and Naked Lunch—and will also understand Harry and Jay’s fascination with them.
ANTHONY: So what’s next on the horizon for you, other than continuing to promote Beatitude? Is there another book in the works? And can you give us a tease or two about it?
LARRY: I have a folder on my laptop called New Novel, but that’s all I’ll say. I didn’t tell anyone the title of Beatitude or what it was about until I had a first draft—not even my best friend, who tried every which way imaginable to get something out of me. I like a book to arrive complete and stand on its own, with no preconceptions. Also, my writing process is organic. Beatitude took many unexpected turns as I wrote it and I expect the next book will do the same. What I believe it will be about right now is not necessarily what it will be about when it’s finished.
ANTHONY: And my usual final question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to convince someone to read it?
LARRY: I have a lot of favorite books and the list changes with every book I read. But, related to this discussion, one of my favorites is On the Road. It will make you young again.
ANTHONY: Thanks, Larry!