The Vagaries of Publishing

In six weeks or so it will be nine years since I started this column in 1999. “TGIF” was the brainchild of senior editor Judith Moore, who died in 2006, just after publishing the critically acclaimed book she may well have been born to write, Fat Girl. Moore was a friend of mine and a real mentor who still thoroughly informs these pages. Her legacy to me is rather more than just this column but, in fact, the opportunity for me to make a living as a writer. I didn’t think I necessarily needed anyone’s help in that department at the time.

I met her in 1989. (I had published two books that same year.) But I was about to learn the meaning of the phrase “the vagaries of publishing”; and unknowingly she provided a golden parachute for just that. In my case, it was a huge German conglomerate devouring several publishing houses at once, including mine, and the resulting mandate to liquidate some 50 percent of their contracts. Without her, you would not be reading this today.

Moore is a presence over my right shoulder when I sit down to write this thing. I can always hear her voice, “Bleed on the page, Pumpkin.” She called everyone (I think) Pumpkin or Muffin or Sweetheart. “Write as if this is the last chance you’ll ever get to write anything.” Most importantly, she told me early on, “Don’t be afraid to fail.” From her, this was blanket permission to do so. Naturally, I did. More than a few times.

This morning I can hear her voice as I flail at a subject beyond what to do on a Friday night or over the weekend. “What interests you?” She always asked that. I remembered replying once, “What I’m interested in and the reader’s interests might be two different things.” She told me, “Forget the reader,” although she did not use the word forget. Neither did she mean what you might think. “You could write about a barrel of grease and make it interesting,” she once said to me, and I thanked her. And then one day she called on me to do just that. The assignment was to trace the course of this town’s used grease from fast-food joints and restaurants to its ultimate destination. When I turned in a dull-as-dirt 1500-word piece she backpedaled, “Okay, I was wrong.”

She would call me often and, without saying hello, begin by saying something provocative such as, “Let’s see if we can get you over $30,000 a year. Let’s list some ideas.” For the next 45 minutes we would each fill two or three pages of legal sheets with phrases such as, “24 Hour Donuts,” “24 Hour Laundromat: the southern and westernmost Last Chance Laundry,” or “Roomful of Egos: get a dozen best San Diego guitarists together in one room to play.” Or — this one I’ll never forget — “My friend Abe found a rock band in East County called Dahmer’s Diner. Why don’t you hang around with them for a week, interview their parents?” The resulting cover was one of the oddest and most deranged documents I ever put my name to.

When my brother, a drama teacher at Yale and in London, read that piece about sitting in a donut shop all night, he wrote to me, “A tour de force of nothing, Old Boy. How did you manage it?”

One of Judith’s suggestions, 12 years ago or so, was to spend a week in the Tijuana coroner’s office and write about it. I’ll never forget that week.

Her first suggestion for this column was to accompany a young couple on a first Friday-night date. I did once, sort of, but the young man’s tolerance for a chaperone was limited. I’d love to try it again. Another topic I long to do would involve a high school dance. For some reason I have not been able to finagle that one.

It was the second or maybe third appearance of “TGIF,” a piece about a little kid and an old man at Windansea beach at the La Jolla/Pacific Beach border and how they watched crabs in a tide pool, that Judith Moore told me she liked the thing. I was half expecting her to tell me that this was not what I was supposed to be doing, that I should be providing tips on Friday-night recreation and not mood pieces. But her affirmation (“It was like a little parable.”) was a green light for me to broaden the possibilities of what the page could be.

As I write this, I have Turner Classic Movies on television, and Tony Curtis is talking about the committed friend and mentor that Cary Grant was to him. I find myself thinking of Judith as a kind of Cary Grant of literary journalism, only with periodic digressions into the ribald or at least the fleshly.

Some time ago I and other writers were asked to contribute a short piece for an issue commemorating her. While I could see that she had affected others deeply, I still felt special, and there simply wasn’t enough space to go on as to why.

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