My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Colin Fleming, author of Dark March, a collection of short stories which I recently spotlighted here at The Quivering Pen's Front Porch Books feature. Fleming writes for The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Slate, The Boston Globe, and The New Criterion, and publishes fiction with the VQR, Post Road, Boulevard, Denver Quarterly, and The Massachusetts Review. His first two books, Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep (Outpost19) and Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories (Texas Review Press), were released in 2013. The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss is forthcoming in April 2015 from Dzanc Books. He recently completed a book of Cape Cod fiction called Here, Googan Googan, and is presently finishing a novel about a piano prodigy who does not wish to be one called The Freeze Tag Sessions, in addition to Musings with Franklin, a novel told entirely in conversations between Writer, Bartender, and the guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin in what may or may not be Hell, plus two works of nonfiction: Just Give Me the Backing: A Life Lived to the Music of the Beatles, and Don't Call Them Pieces: Excursions in Art, Music, Literature, Film, and the Writing Life. Find him on the web by visiting his website or tracking him down on Facebook.
My First Season in Hell
(and the Book That Wasn’t Supposed to be My First Book)
Oh, this is going to suck. Sorry, sorry, sorry, readers: this will mostly be upsetting, but I’ll mix in some funny bits, too. The stuff about the liquid heroin is pretty amusing, even if it wasn’t at the time. But that’s getting ahead of everything.
I was going to dedicate that first book to my wife. Total no-brainer. I never thought I’d be married. I never thought I’d feel the way that I felt about her. Just as I never thought, without a word of warning, on March 19, 2012, four months to the day after we closed on the house, she’d be gone, for good, en route to her second divorce in three years. I would never receive explanation for what happened, even though I prayed that I would. I was set upon by lawyers. She got two to take me on. She didn’t phone, she didn’t write. I sat there, wanting to die, alone in that house, utterly gobsmacked and broken. I’d read so many books in my life, seen so many films, read so many librettos (and all kinds of unprecedented shit happens to people in operas), and I had never heard of something quite like this going down. Not with the sans any communication bit. Not without ever saying, not once: Hey, I don’t like such and such that you do.
It’s a year-and-a-half later now, and I still have no explanation as to what the fuck that was, despite writing—and I counted it up in the end—four million words to this now ex-wife of mine. But it is because of whatever the fuck it was that happened that I wrote my first book. The book I had never given thought to writing, which I came to write in a month, give or take, alone in that house which I was dispossessed of on June 8, 2012, on a computer worth $400 that my wife would try to take from me via her team of lawyers, crying at the desk, trying to keep myself going—which is to say, writing, at that point—so as not to up and off myself.
I’d sit there each day, writing so many words to my wife, because I didn’t even have so much as a phone number to reach her, doing all of my deadline shit (which means grinding on low numbers, from anywhere from, say, $50 to $1,000), working on my first novel, and saying to myself, essentially: Okay, big boy. Give me two fucking stories. Give me two motherfucking stories right now. Today. I know you want to die, but give me two fucking stories. Dig deep. No? Nothing there. Dig deeper. Don’t fucking die on me. Give me two fucking stories. Start to finish. I know you have this in you, you fucking pussy. Give me two motherfucking stories. Live. No one else can give what I know you fucking well can. Give me two fucking stories. Come on.
That voice may have known I had whatever I had in me, but I didn’t. Not then.
But there was something every day, and sometimes it was two full stories, soup to nuts. I’d look down, surprised at what they were. They were fantastical, and hellish, and funny, which only seemed to deepen the pain in them. I hadn’t planned to write what I wrote, only to tap into a vein of pain that was unlike any I had ever known or—and this really put things into hellish perspective—than even I knew I could imagine. One story was about an island that became ambulatory and had adventures on the land. There was a wise ass rock crab in that one. Another was about rival haunted forests. One featured a man who discovered levels of basements below his regular basement as his house grew shorter on the outside. The stuff could be out there, but the emotions were always human and upfront. They were on you, and they ripped through you. You couldn’t get away from them. That was my book.
There was a recurring character named Doze, who had lost a wife. He’d been to war, and had a strange Irish criminal-cum-artist friend named Padraig who sometimes turned up in this town, this world, this hell, by the sea. It was all like Disney and Fantasia gone horribly, horribly wrong, with stuff, still, for the kiddies, all of those animals doing funny animal things. I knew what I was doing, even if I didn’t ever wake up and say, “Well, let’s write a story about a bird who leads shipwrecked sailors to their deaths and then do one about this Doze guy who finds his garage encrusted in blue crystals”: I was capturing heartbreak in its purest, unfiltered form, where there is no explanation, no traction to move forward, something so raw and hateful and hurting that it exists out of time, with only a start, a jumping off point, and not, so far as you can tell, even if you’re wise and know that, yes, time is usually helpful, with any end. Not even a mitigating moment. It’s almost like you’re terminally ill, and you have a friend who is a doctor who asks you to do some study that might otherwise be deleterious to your health but you’re about to croak anyway, so might as well produce some kind of official, definitive record if it could be helpful. And this was my heartbreak record, for everyone else who, in a manner of speaking, wasn’t terminally ill. And it was funny, too. Which made everything so much worse. You can’t have tragedy without comedy, and vice versa, and there they both were, more incised than ever before in my work, bolstering the fuck out of each other, and I also came to realize that the human condition can only hold so much pain before that pain runneth over and takes other, oft-fanciful forms which, of course, comment back on the original, totally un-fanciful situation. That was my book. And I gave myself to it.
The next day, June 8, 2012, I was taken on by four people in court, and formally dispossessed of the house. I had seen my wife exactly once after she had left. We met at Park Street here in Boston, one of the hotspots on the Freedom Trail. She wanted to be touched, held, kissed—and utterly destroyed though I was, and so confused, and so hurt, and so scared, I was happy to see her again. That night, in an email, she accused me of making her miss yoga. I hadn’t seen or spoken to my wife in five weeks, and now there was this yoga charge. Freakin’ yoga. She was the kindest, most gentle person I knew, and then, boom, mind-fuck time. The lawyers redoubled their efforts. One of them swore at me repeatedly in meetings, threw things off my person, jabbed his fat fingers into my chest, while I took it, alone, with my wife half a mile down the street, at her job, having a nice latte for herself for all I knew. They weren’t telling. Maybe she was with husband #1. I had no clue. I still have no clue.
On that day of June 8, 2012, the hardest day of my life, I wrote the words “More Wood” on the back of my right hand, something I do now whenever I have something big to do. Friends and family offered to go to the courthouse with me, but I didn’t want to put anyone through the horrors of seeing me hurting like that. The “More Wood” bit comes from the 1947 film, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum. He’s undone by a woman, and there’s a moment when everything crystallizes for him, and he knows just how fucked he is. The Jane Greer character who takes down Mitchum says, in effect, “You only have me to make deals with now.” To which Mitchum responds, “Well build my gallows high, baby.” As in, it takes a tall gallows to hang a big man. In other words, go get some more fucking wood, because there is such a thing as character, even when you are in hell, even when you have been put in hell. Especially when you are trying to write your way out of hell.
The judge basically told me I was fucked, that I didn’t even have counsel. She said go outside and negotiate for your stuff so it doesn’t get stolen from you. I could feel myself shaking in front of a courtroom full of people, terrified. Until all of this happened, I was scared of public speaking. But now, you could trot me out in front of a football stadium full of people, or just on national radio, as I would be a year later, and it doesn’t faze me in the slightest. I have been forged. I am something unlike what I was, and that day went a long way in my forging. I walked out into the rotunda, slunk down in a stairwell, called my mother, and started bawling. Upon which, one of the lawyers walked over and said “We’re waiting for you.” I sat across from them and my wife. I told the latter I loved her. The lawyers were laughing their asses off. I asked my wife why she was doing this. The lawyers said it was illegal for me to ask that, and I said, enough, fuck this, for once stop the fucking lies. I asked again, crying in front of her and these strangers, and she went and hid in the bathroom, as I signed myself off the deed to our house. I then walked outside, spit up more blood, vomited, and went to my studio apartment in Boston. I had a deadline. And work to do on Dark March.
I knew, by then, what the book after it was going to be; it had been written in this time period as well, a volume called The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss. This was my legacy. I wanted to make sure there was enough material left behind for me to have one. In July, on a Saturday morning, the kind of morning I had enjoyed so often with the person who had made like I never existed, I almost came to cease existing myself, the abyss closing in on me from all directions. I took the train up to the North Shore, where Rockport is, and I sat in the woods, waiting for the next one, which I was going to put myself in front of. I remember spitting, and seeing the blood on the backs of the orange leaves on the ground, and how the blood from my mouth which came from God knows where inside of me seemed to at once brighten and darken all of that New England ruddiness.
I sat there for what must have been two hours, before the voice that had been there all along since I started Dark March managed to get me off my ass and on a train instead of in front of one. “You’re seeing this fucker through, asshole. More wood. More fucking wood.” Days later, I was in San Francisco for ESPN The Magazine at AT&T Ballpark talking to Buster Posey, who would win the National League MVP for the eventual-World Champion Giants. I started to feel sick after the game—a tilt taken by the rival Dodgers—while looking at some seals sunning themselves with Alcatraz in the distance. I got a cab and headed back to the hotel. I had a red-eye flight that night, because I had five deadlines waiting for me in Boston, deadlines I could not afford to miss. Lawyers were waiting for me, too, but I didn’t know that exactly just then.
I knew something was way wrong in the cab. Like, wrong in some physically unprecedented for me way. I managed to pay the cabbie and stumble into the Hyatt Regency. On the floor of the bathroom, I had a stroke. I shat myself and covered myself in vomit. I don’t know how long I was passed out. When I came to, I couldn’t remember my name. I knew two names, though. One was the name of my wife. The other was the name of what was to become my first book.
Sitting in the lobby, I took my photo with my cell phone. It was in my wife’s name. Upon returning to Boston, that very day, the lawyers would send me an angry email saying it was being shut off. I took my photo because I figured, you know, this is it, you’re dying. How many people get to see what that looks like minutes before all of that goes down? My face was misshapen, bloated, out of whack, with every blood vessel in it seemingly broken. My head throbbed, and I came upon the less than brilliant idea that all I needed was some Advil, which I had in my suitcase, which was locked up behind the front desk. I didn’t know a ton of words at the time (weird feeling, forgetting your language) but I made my way over to the porter, and sort of slurred and pointed in the direction of the luggage room. I’m sure he thought I was drunk or out of my mind or both. He let me in, and I proceeded to fall on the floor. I couldn’t get up. I fumbled with my suitcase, and found the Ziploc bag with my Advil in it. Unfortunately, it was the same Ziploc bag that I had stuck a bottle of water in as well, and the top had come off that, so now the contents of the bag was this kind of brown soup. I drank it all down, and I’m sure it looked like I was drinking liquid heroin or else some new kind of drug. I tried to stand up, and fell over.
Eventually, I remembered my name, and I called my mother and my sister. They panicked, of course, but I was getting on that red-eye. I couldn’t afford not to hit those deadlines. I’m 6' 1", a big guy, built like a hockey player, for I was a hockey player. So, of course, on the plane I’m in the middle seat, between a hipster who took his shoes off straight away (then again, considering I had shat myself and was flecked with vomit, I really couldn’t complain) and a super attractive woman on the aisle. It was she that I passed out on, my head on her shoulder. I slept the entire way. When we got to Logan, she looked me in the eyes, this angel who served, at the same time, to remind me of a person that I had thought was this moral paragon, and said, “Good luck.” Then she kissed me on the cheek. I had never said a single word to her.
The lawyers were waiting, they did their thing, my wife continued to vivisect me, in absentia, at the level of my soul, I hit the deadlines—which included writing something funny on Tony Danza for The Washington Post—and that week I came up with a running order for Dark March. Eighteen stories of the experience of heartbreak distilled, I was certain, in its purest form, its definitive form, in all of its real and fantastical iterations. A friend of mine, Charles McLeod, had done a couple books with a press called Outpost19. Good man, Charles. Later in the year, when I kept coughing up blood, such that I made a trip to the CVS “Minute Clinic,” something I never do, and especially wouldn’t have done then, because I didn’t want to live, Charles offered to send me some of the hibiscus tea that I was then drinking to try and lower my blood pressure. I was thinking in terms of legacy, of finishing three more ongoing books. I grew my hair out long, to my shoulders, an outward manifestation of the changes occurring inside of me. I sat and I wrote to Alex Turner’s Submarine EP, and its track “It’s Hard to Get Around the Wind,” a song that seemed to soundtrack my season in hell, and the Vaccines’ “Wetsuit,” with its refrain of “do me wrong do me wrong me,” which, to me, were lines of being acted upon, sinned against in the worst fashion, with the one true response, the response of the artist, and of a human possessed of character, to create art. I could never do to anyone what was done to me, and yet, I never stopped loving her. I realized, for the first time in my life, that I loved someone unconditionally, when the only other thing I had ever felt unconditional about was my need to create—an awful epiphany, especially to have it then. And I also knew I loved something that was scarcely of this earth, and I had been wrong about what or who that was in a way I did not know I was capable. In the end, which may be a start, I would write four books, the aforesaid four million words to my wife, fifty-two short stories, sixty magazine pieces, and two million words to editors between March 19, 2012, and New Year’s Eve.
She never wrote back. Nor did her parents. I knew, though, that this was the defining thing to happen to me, that it always would be, and if I was going to do the singular thing I set out to do as a writer, an artist, which I will not go into here, it would be because of if and how I came through all of this, as a writer, an artist, a man, a creature with a soul.
Charles liked the Outpost19 guys, so I sent them the book. I needed to start getting books into the world, even if a couple went without advances, even though someone who writes for the places I write for shouldn’t make a practice of giving books away for free. I now had so much material that there was a logjam. Other books could get money—and hopefully a lot of it—up front. What mattered now is that Outpost19 wanted the thing, and this book that I wrote from hell, would be my first book. They had a rough publication date in mind, and I asked them if they would do me a favor: if I could pick the exact date of publication. They said sure, go for it.
So on June 8, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the absolute worst day of my life, a day worse than the day I stroked out in San Francisco, a day worse than spending Christmas alone coughing up blood, a day worse than first discovering the love of my life was gone, a day worse than that afternoon I sat in the North Shore woods and very nearly put myself in a front of a train, my first book came out. Two weeks later I would sell my third, which was also written from that hell. And now I keep going. I write when everyone else is asleep, I am there working at 4:30 every morning, hitting my deadlines, working on like six books at once, selling fiction left and right, and working working working for that moment people like to tell me I am close to, when I break through in a new kind of way. Working. Creating. Halving my blood pressure, too, as it turned out. So, as of sitting here and writing this on October 7, 2013, two days before I read from both Dark March and Between Cloud and Horizon at Harvard Book Store, it is still very much a case of more wood.