Ask Them How They Vote

And bleed on the page.

Aside from my father, the only real, if informal, writing teacher I've ever had was Judith Moore. I met her in 1989, when I was working at Hunter's Books in La Jolla, one of the last great independent bookstores in San Diego and now defunct. In the summer of that year, my first novel, out in Doubleday hardcover for two years, appeared in paperback from Pocket Books with a gaudy cover but a neat little blurb from the New York Times. I was in an R&B band at the time called the Caucasians, and the other guitarist was Jan Tonnesen, who has worked at Wahrenbrock's Book House for many years. Judith apparently was in the habit of visiting Jan when she was in town and asking him what he was reading and whether there were any writers of interest emerging in San Diego. Jan mentioned my book. Judith read it and liked it. Jan told her where to find me.

The boss at Hunter's was Jeff Mariotte, now also a novelist and owner of Mysterious Galaxy Books in Clairemont Mesa. It was Jeff who told me Judith Moore had called and wanted to interview me. I had only vaguely heard of her (it turned out later I had read her), and Mariotte assured me she was a classy writer even if I wasn't. That I was lucky.

Judith allowed me to collaborate on the editing of the interview and then quickly instructed me never to do the same for any interview subjects of my own. I thought she was joking, and I told her, "I only write fiction anyway."

"Oh?" she said, and the conversation that led to my writing for this paper had begun.

"Don't be afraid to fail" is the first thing I remember her telling me, and I should be surprised if I don't see that repeated here and there in this issue. That is probably the single most important advice any writer can hear, because I was nothing if not fearful of failing at my father's racket: journalism. "Bleed on the page" became an invitation for an already self-loathing and pained 38-year-old, recently divorced and new from cancer treatment. "Write everything as if it will be the last chance you have to write anything." I don't always do that, but I do so more often than I thought I would, because I remember it as good advice. "I want to see stains, smell smells. I want the reader to taste this person with all their senses."

When it came to interviews, she would suggest offbeat questions such as, "Ask them how they vote. That will lead you toward much in the way of their sensibilities." Another was, "Ask them about their mommies, and always say 'mommies,' especially with men. That will open up floodgates of stuff you won't expect."

Finally, as far as journalist versus reporter goes, I remember her telling me to "use this work as a notebook for your other work. Most journalists have some kind of book going." And "Never call yourself a reporter. They'll stick you down at city administration all day going through public records."

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