How I Became a Famous Novelistby Steve Hely
“If this book doesn’t make you laugh, you may need a new funny bone.” —Kyle Smith, People (4 stars)
In this blistering evisceration of celebrity culture and literary fame, a roguish loser sets out to write the best-sellingest best seller of all time. When he actually pulls it off, he winds up tearing like a tornado across America’s cultural landscape.
What Pete Tarslaw wants is simple enough:
FAME—Realistic amount. Enough to open new avenues of sexual opportunity. Personal assistant to read mail, grocery shop, etc.
FINANCIAL COMFORT—Never have a job again. Retire. Spend rest of life lying around, pursuing hobbies (boating? skeet shooting?)
STATELY HOME BY THE OCEAN (OR SCENIC LAKE)—Spacious library, bay windows, wet bar. HD TV, discreetly placed. Comfortable couch.
HUMILIATE EX-GIRLFRIEND AT HER WEDDING
This is the story of how he succeeds in getting it all, and what it costs him in the end.
Narrated by an unlikely literary legend, How I Became a Famous Novelist pinballs from the postcollege slums of Boston to the fear-drenched halls of Manhattan’s publishing houses, from the gloomy purity of Montana’s foremost writing workshop to the hedonistic hotel bars of the Sunset Strip.
This is the horrifying, hilarious tale of how Pete Tarslaw’s “pile of garbage,” called The Tornado Ashes Club, became the most talked about, blogged about, read, admired, and reviled novel in America. It will change everything you think you know—about literature, appearance, truth, beauty, and those people out there, somewhere in America, who still care about books.
“Biting, hilarious and improbably affectionate.” —Publishers Weekly
“A gleeful skewering of the publishing industry and every cliché of the writing life.” —Ed Park, The New York Times Book Review
“If this book doesn’t make you laugh, you may need a new funny bone.” —Kyle Smith, People (4 stars)
“A hilarious send-up of literary pretensions and celebrity culture.” —Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
“A satiric, facetious, and laugh-out-loud funny first novel.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Steve Hely needed to know how to write very well in order to write as miserably as he does in How I Became a Famous Novelist. In a satirical novel that is a gag-packed assault on fictitious best-selling fiction, Mr. Hely . . . takes aim at genre after genre and manages to savage them all. Without really straining credulity, [his] travels through the world of publishing become exuberantly far-flung. Mr. Hely has deftly clobbered the popular-book business, [taking] aim at lucrative ‘tidy candy-packaged novels you wrapped up and gave as presents,’ the kinds of books that go ‘from store shelves to home shelves to used-book sales unread.’ His complaints about such books are very funny. They’d be even funnier if they weren’t true.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“[A] penetrating satire.” —Anis Shivani, Huffington Post‘s Best Books of 2009 Honorable Mention
“Brilliant . . . How I Became a Famous Novelist is a cheeky book and a brave one, all but naming real-life literary emperors sans clothes. . . . I was sold and sold again . . . [by Hely’s] subtle zingers. . . . The cynicism is delicious, the humor never broad, with just enough modesty and conscience seeping into the story to make our con artist lovable. . . . I rooted for Pete, a scheming underachiever whom the late great humorist Max Shulman would have been proud to call his own. I may have read a funnier book in the last twenty years, but at this moment I’m hard-pressed to name it.” —Elinor Lipman, The Washington Post
“What makes this book especially funny and satisfying is that it lampoons an aspect of American culture that doesn’t get parodied as often as others, such as film and television. The book industry is no less deserving. After all, this is a country that made The Bridges of Madison County and The Secret runaway bestsellers. . . . Hely has put together a book that so perfectly and hilariously skewers the publishing industry, it’s amazing that he could find anyone to print it. It’s time to prove we’re smarter than the book business thinks we are and make his novel as big a hit as the Da Vinci Code.” —The New York Post
“A savagely funny, well observed skewering of the current state of best-selling fiction of all genres: a surprisingly affectionate story of a confused life.” —Raymond Khoury, NPR.org (“Three Books for the Contemplative Comic”)
“Very irreverent, very funny, and very much on target.” —Barbara Rixstine, Lincoln Journal Star
“It may seem like an act of deep cynicism to name a biting satire of publishing, in which one of its would-be darlings exploits the industry’s weaknesses for fortune’s sake, as a standout in a year in which print media shed nearly 90,000 jobs. But only someone who loved books could lay bare the process by which college-application ghostwriter Pete Tarslaw sets out to write the James-Patterson-meets-Paulo-Coelho novel The Tornado Ashes Club, a nonsensical pastiche whose excerpts, along with fatuous blurbs and too-real-to-be-true bestseller lists, act as waystations on the way to Tarslaw’s rise and inevitable fall. Sucker-punching everyone from William Faulkner to Oprah, Famous Novelist‘s narrator would be despicable if he weren’t so self-aware, and his misguided conviction fuels a series of Swiftian encounters rounded out by a note-perfect ending affirming and smashing the brass ring he thought he was chasing all along.” —A.V. Club
“It takes a very good writer to pull of a parody like this, and Hely is a very good writer. . . . A hilariously apt pastiche of our Oprah-fied fictional world . . . [that] gleefully decapitates not just an entire industry but an entire culture. What’s best about How I Became a Famous Novelist is that Hely is a superb mimic, changing (fictional) fictional styles at a page’s notice: He can do pastoral, he can do old-fashioned nostalgia, he can do pseudo-lit, he can do broken English. But most of all, he can do sharp and funny. All through the book, I kept imagining him writing a note-perfect parody and, as he did so, laughing convulsively. I certainly did. . . . Many novels claim to be very funny, though few genuinely are. How I Became a Famous Novelist is. Genuinely. Funny.” —Martin Levin, Globe and Mail
“Mad Magazine has nothing on Hely. . . . I’m recommending this book to every writer I know. If there’s a publishing target that Hely misses, I can’t think what it is. His eye for the telling detail is dead-on.” —Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine
“This is a Zen koan. Steve Hely does the seemingly impossible: write an uproariously funny book that is also an in-depth, unbiased look at the literary industry. . . . As the story progresses, it keeps getting better and funnier, and I was sad to see it end. Hely has touched both ends of the spectrum with a laugh out loud funny book that is also devastatingly truthful about writers, publishers, and readers.” —Ben Mullin, Good Reads
“Bracingly funny . . . Note-perfect . . . Hely possesses the instincts of a good television-trained smartass. He keeps Tarslaw bouncing from one monumental screw-up to the next novel-plotting ploy with a rollicking cynical energy. . . . Before long a different kind of note rises from the book’s comedic ferment, a clear and insistent reminder that amidst all the (seemingly) good-natured conning and just plain getting-by that so many authors must partake in, there is something in literature pure enough to still be corrupted. Perhaps even something that cannot and should not be mocked. That a satirist with as unerring aim as Hely should risk making such a suggestion is impressive.” —Chris Barsanti, PopMatters
“How I Became A Famous Novelist is a must read for any fan or detractor of today’s popular literature. . . . [A] masterful parody . . . The plight of Pete Tarslaw is laugh-out-loud-funny . . . but the book also makes you think about your own preconceived notions about what is trash and what is great literature. How I Became A Famous Novelist is an original and highly enjoyable skewering of the hand of the industry that fed it. It is a must for any avid reader.” —Associated Content
“[Hely’s] fast-paced wit is delivered on the page like a Robin Williams comedy routine. His humor-writing muscle is so finely tuned that he can aptly produce a larky novel with nonstop punch lines. But he’s also smart enough to keep the plot rolling along. I never tired of his knocks against the system . . . And I came to care for Pete. . . . Hely expressed in this novel what I long thought when I listened to the endless parade of plots amid the aspiring cocktail party novelists: There ought to be a book I could recommend to people, one with enough verisimilitude so that they could grasps the quirkiness of the publishing process and the sweat-equity of writing. If I were at one of these cocktail parties today, I would direct them to How I Became Famous Novelist.” —P. E. Logan, Wunderkammer Magazine
“Hely has written a captivating novel about writing a bestselling novel, while doing as little work as possible. The fake New York Times bestseller list alone is worth the price of this book!” —Mitch Gaslin, Shelf Awareness
“Laugh-out-loud funny . . . [How I Became a Famous Novelist] does for the whole writing and publishing industry what Gulliver’s Travels does for society: skewers it and serves it up over an open flame. Long after you’ve stopped laughing, scenes and screeds will stick with you—and you’ll certainly never view commercially popular fiction of any kind the same way again.” —Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly (Best Book of the Year)
“A witty and urbane novel about, well, a guy . . . setting out to write the best-selling novel of all time, and lucky us, we get to go along for the ride.” —Candace Hammond, Cape Cod Times
“A funny, thought-provoking, cynical story about being successful for all the wrong reasons.” —Library Journal
“You’d have to be pretty cheeky to name your first book How I Became a Famous Novelist . . . [and] Steve Hely has as much cheek as Alvin and the rest of the Chipmunks.” —Gregory Cowles, The New York Times Paper Cuts Blog
“Matching the cosmetically comedic wit of Miguel de Cervantes and the brash repertoire of Tucker Max, Steve Hely creates a character in How I Became a Famous Novelist so etched with honest humor and even more honest strife that any reader will be left school-girl-giggling and rapid-fire page-flipping until the very end.” —Kristen Peters, The Daily Iowan
“How I Became a Famous Novelist has a laugh-out-loud quotient inappropriately high for reading in public. [I] yukked so hard that yogurt shot out my nose.” —Amy Woods Butler, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The hilarity level of this book is not an idle threat. . . . No one connected to books—writers, writing teachers, lit agents, publishers, critics, book buyers—gets off unskewered by Hely’s rapier pen. But out of the irony emerges something that feels like genuine reverence for great books, and for those who write out of honesty. For fellow book lovers weary of tracking book sales trends, Hely’s warp-up might even feel like catharsis.” —Mari Malcolm, Amazon.com (Best Books of July 2009)
“How I Became a Famous Novelist is a masterful page-turner, and I highly, highly recommend it.” —My Blargh Blog
“How I Became a Famous Novelist is so funny, I kept posting quotes on my Facebook page until they revoked my newsfeed rights.” —as i please (online)
“A keen satire of the modern literary milieu . . . Hely excels at writing bad prose well. . . . [He] is adept at humorously crafting a convincingly run-of-the-mill bestselling book within a book and this is why How I Became a Famous Novelist shines. There are yucks, to be sure, but like all successful black comedies, the yucks are funny until the reader realizes that they are based on a darker truth. And when that darker truth is the state of modern literature, the reader’s bellowing guffaws may soon turn to whimpering sobs.” —The ragbag (online)
“An excellent send-up of the bestseller industry . . . Full of delicious snarkiness.” —Turi’s Stuff (online)
“Satirically hilarious . . . If you enjoy Nick Hornby’s About a Boy or High Fidelity, you will really like this [book].” —43 Things (online)
“Hely’s story offers a pitch-perfect takeoff on the insipid conventions of the best-seller racks and combines the expected caustic wit with an unexpected depth of emotional insight.” —Tim Runestad, Austin American-Statesman
“I am jazzed about a debut novel, by a TV writer, of all things. Very, very funny, and rather uncomfortably insightful about the publishing industry. Pete Tarslaw, a twenty-something with unreliable personal hygiene habits and an ethics challenged job writing fake grad school applications for foreign students takes it upon himself to become a bestselling novelist in order to impress his former, and soon to wed an Australian, girlfriend. Pete’s account of this personal challenge, from his observations about who, and what makes the bestseller list, the act (not art) of creating his masterpiece and the ultimate road to his wild success will make you cringe with delight.” —Cathy Langer, The Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, CO
“Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist is snort-out-loud funny, even if his fake-o best seller list has a book entitled How Eva Got Rich, Got Thin, and Got Over Him, which I am pretty sure I wrote. And if I didn’t, I’m going to.” —Jennifer Weiner, author of Little Earthquakes and Good in Bed, on jenniferweiner.com
“Feverishly hilarious . . . Writing a screed against book reviewers in the middle of your book seems about as clear an example of ‘asking for trouble’ as waving a red flag at a bull, or talking about fiscal responsibility at a Democratic National Convention, but Hely doesn’t need to worry: his fast-paced, deft, and very funny debut novel is virtually bile-proof.” —Steve Donoghue, Open Letters
“After reading the first six pages, I was laughing so hard that I put the book aside to keep from reading it too fast—I wanted to savor the pleasure. How I Became a Famous Novelist is . . . . the Airplane! of books.” —Andrew Gelman, Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science (a Columbia University blog)
“[How I Became a Famous Novelist] is a feast for the mind and should be on every writer’s bookshelf. It’s a re-readable triumph of writing genius.” —Tales and Troubled Times of a Hungry Writer
“It’s been a while since I read something fictional that I felt was honest. . . . Disillusioned by the commercialization of literature, Hely delivers his passion for writing through a voice that is hysterical, satirical, and thoughtful. . . . Definitely a recommendation for anyone that’s been looking for a good read!” —automatic systematic
Winner of the 2010 Thurber Prize for American Humor
An Amazon.com Best Book of the Year
Huffington Post Ten Best Book of the Year
A Washington Post Best Book of 2009
An Indie Next List Notable selection (July 2009)
You have to understand how bad things were for me back then. I’d leave my radio alarm set to full volume at the far end of the AM dial, so every morning at seven-thirty I’d wake up to static mixed with a rabid minister screeching in Haitian Creole, because for sheer bracing power that sound cannot be bested. When the alarm went off I’d have no choice but to eject myself from my bed, panting, infuriated, flailing everywhere. I’d have to pee really bad.
There’d be either one or two beer bottles filled with urine next to my bed. I used to drink five or six beers before going to sleep, but I’m much too lazy to get up in the night to go to the bathroom. My roommate Hobart, who was a med student, only once brought up the public health implications of this arrangement. My feeling was, if he wanted to do something about it, terrific.
Sometimes I’d wake up wearing my jeans. I wore jeans daily because jeans can double as a napkin, and sometimes I fell asleep without bothering to take them off.
So, often when I woke up I’d be covered in a film of sick feverish sweat. This was a blessing in a way, because it forced me to take a daily shower, which otherwise I might’ve done without.
Walking into the kitchen, I’d shove my hand into a crumpled bag of kettle-cooked sour cream and chives potato chips. Two fistfuls made breakfast. This seemed only a few steps removed from a healthy plate of hash browns like a farmer eats. Next I’d open a 20 oz. Mountain Dew. Coffee-making is a process for which I’d had no patience ever since one time when we ran out of filters and I thought I could use an old shirt. You can’t use an old shirt. Bad results for floor, coffee, shirt, and the jeans I was wearing at the time.
This was a good system anyway because it involved no dishes. In the novel Cockroaches Convene, there’s that great scene where Proudfoot puts his dirty dishes in the back of a pickup truck and drives through a car wash. Sometimes I wished I had a pickup truck so I could do that.
The Mountain Dew acquired an extra kick because I’d multitask by drinking it in the shower. Traces of soap and Herbal Essences would get into the bottle. This is called “bonus spice.” After dressing I’d get in my Camry, with which I had an abusive and codependent relationship. I’d pull out of the driveway, bashing up the fender a little on the wooden beams that held up the garage. It deserved that. But the car knew I really loved it.
In the car I’d listen to Donnie Vebber. He’s this borderline fascist talk radio host who advocates, among other things, rounding up illegal immigrants and then deporting them to Iran and we’ll see how the Islamopigs like it when they’re selling their burritos and pushing their twelve kids in shopping carts around the streets of Tehran. Another plan of his is a nuclear first strike against China. I don’t agree with this, I should point out. I listened to Donnie Vebber in the hopes that he’d rouse some scintilla of emotion or outrage in me. But I numbed to it fast. Then and now I thought about politics with the indifference a grizzled city coroner has toward the body of a murdered prostitute.
I’d drive south out of Boston down I-93, past those oil tanks by the harbor, until I got to the place where all the clams and mussels were dying of unknown bacterial wasting disease. The tidal marshes gave off a car-permeating stink. Then I’d follow Old Town Road past St. Agnes High, where I’d wait in front of the rectory and watch the half-Asian girl with the monstrous rack and her friend Sad-Eyes as they pulled cigarettes out of improbable folds in their uniforms. They’d smoke and I’d switch the radio to classic rock, except in November through January when the classic rock station turned to all-Christmas songs. On Tuesdays the girls had chapel or something so I’d just go straight to work.
The Alexander Hamilton Building had little in common with its namesake, unless he was a brick man who squatted next to a bog. Hamilton was at one end of Founders Office Park, where in buildings named after Washington and Jefferson people managed mail-order sporting goods businesses, investigated insurance fraud, planned trips to Maui and so forth.
In the lobby of the Hamilton Building there was a koi pond. I loved the koi pond. I was jealous of those fish. Fat, lumpy, blissful. Their time was theirs, to do as they wished: open and close their mouths, float, suck the algae off rocks. Perhaps I would have used my freedom differently. But the koi were living much the way I wished to.
Exiting the elevator on the third floor, I would pass Lisa at her desk. She was a mountainous black woman who served as receptionist for a team of small-claims lawyers. At first I thought she was a cheery, lovely presence. On account of my undernourished physique, she frequently offered to take me home and “put some meat on those bones.” This seemed cute and charming, and I’d grin and say “any time!”
But then she started adding that when she got me home she was also going to give me a bath. “I’ll scrub you good. Scrub that dirt out of your hair.” There were more and more details about the bath each time—which parts of me she was going to wash, and how, and with what kind of soap. I took to scurrying past while pretending to read the newspaper.
Thinking back on it now, this is about the only affectionate human contact I had around this time, and I guess I really appreciated it. On this particular day, Lisa was on the phone, but she stared at me and made a vigorous scrubbing motion. I hurried along, eyes on the rug.
This was a Friday. It wasn’t going to be too bad. I was carrying Hobart’s copy of last Sunday’s New York Times, and there’d be ample time for going on the Internet, looking at pictures of pandas, YouTubes of Danish girls singing karaoke, cats on record players, kids in Indiana launching themselves from homemade catapults. (Remember, this was a few years ago—the Internet was much less sophisticated.)
My only assignment was Mr. Hoshi Tanaka. I had to write him a business school essay.
The company I worked for was called EssayAides. On its sleek brochures, EssayAides stated their goal of “connecting minds and expanding educational opportunities around the globe. Our 200+ associates, trained at the finest American colleges and universities, provide the highest level of admissions consulting.”
What that meant “on the ground,” as Jon Sturges was fond of saying, was that a wealthy kid would send us some gibberish words. We’d turn those into a polished application essay for college or grad school.
This raises ethical issues, if you care to bother yourself with them. I’d worked at the company for three years. It’s not my fault the world is a nexus of corrupt arrangements through which the privileged channel power and resources in complex, self-serving loops. I needed to pay for Mountain Dew.
Many of the clients were rich American kids. They’d be applying to Middlebury or Pomona or wherever, and they’d send you something about how Anchorman or the golf team had changed their lives. I’d polish it up, change Will Ferrell to Toni Morrison, and golf to learning woodworking from a Darfur refugee.
I didn’t not feel bad about this. But I took pride in my work. Sometimes we’d get some work from a current college student. I got one unspeakably dumb sophomore at Trinity an A- in “Post-Modern Novel” with a series of essays of which he should be quite proud, if he ever reads them.
Soon Jon Sturges, the entrepreneur behind all this, knew I had a gift. He promoted me to Senior Associate. Here I learned that the real money was coming in from Asia, where aspiring applicants would pay more and never raise the tiresome questions about “accuracy.” I wrote the toughest essays myself and farmed out the rest of the work to part-timers among the starving and overeducated.
EssayAides had only one other full-time employee. As I sat down at my computer, she stood in my doorway.
Alice couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds. Her voice should have sounded squeaky like a cartoon mouse. Instead it was disturbingly deep. She stood there for a really long time.
“What’re you doing?”
“A Japanese guy applying to Wharton. You?”
“Just going over some things I farmed out. A lot of my team’s been making them too smart. I had an essay for Colorado College that I sent to one of those Palo Alto guys, and he put in two quotes from Walter Benjamin.”
“Yikes. Gotta cut that out.” Jon was always warning us not to make the essays too smart or colleges would catch on.
Alice unfolded her arms and held out a hardcover book.
On the cover was a pen-and-ink drawing of a flock of birds in flight. Kindness to Birds by Preston Brooks.
“I’ve been reading this.”
“Oh. How is it?”
I knew this Preston Brooks. He was sort of the Mannheim Steamroller or the Velveeta cheese of novelists. But I just nodded, because I liked Alice. There was a lot weird about her. Her grandmother had died two years ago and left Alice all her clothes, mothbally “70s sweaters with big poofy necks. That was all Alice wore, as some kind of tribute. But back then I wore napkin pants and ratty running sneakers and my hair had mysterious crusts, so as far as that goes Alice was friggin’ Donna Karan. Alice graduated from some woman’s college in Nova Scotia or something, and how Jon Sturges found her I don’t know.
That the two of us came into the office at all was, macroeconomically, pointless, because no one called or came in. Jon Sturges just liked having some humans in an office so his company felt like a legitimate enterprise. He paid us more to sit there for an approximation of regular business hours.
My office was barren except for a framed poster of a Roman aqueduct. Jon Sturges based his business philosophy on this book called Caesar, CEO: Business Secrets of the Ancient Romans.
He constantly made analogies to ancient Rome, in the flawed belief that knowing about one smart-guy thing made him not an idiot. He referred to our rival company, Academic Edge, as “Carthage.” They did seem to threaten our empire; we’d been getting fewer and fewer Hoshi Tanakas this season. The application-essay “consulting” business was getting more and more competitive. But Jon Sturges had other businesses in similar moral gray areas. He couldn’t really focus on one thing for more than like an hour at a time. “An empire has to expand,” he said. He said lots of inappropriately grand things.
On my computer I opened up Hoshi Tanaka’s essay. The topic was “How do you expect an MBA from Wharton to help you achieve your career goals, and why now?”
Hoshi had replied: Wharton School of Business is held in the first category. At this time in my career, it is passing to the next step to attend business school for study. As to what I can provide, experience.
Warren Buffet has this word: “partnership.” This is realistic. The many cases of blemishing companies were cases when this did not partnership. For one year I have worked at sales managing. Here, I dampened with the Japanese method of business: loyalty, namely selfsacrifice, namely adherence to the group, namely entrusted effort. This maintains the strong corporation, the flood of all sections is very skillful. Yet also I learned “partnership.” This is seen in the part of a car. They experience partnership or the car failures.
But “globalization” means changings in turbulence. The company and the leader where the entire market is part of success always maintain the necessity of adjust to the environment. As for the business school, “actual state,” and the serious problems which face the entrepreneur are engaged in the setting of science.
This is as in a car’s machinery. A new leader is prepared. This is my sincere hope.
Now began the part of the day where I would stare out the window and think about how I got here.
It began with my mom: she was vicious about limits on the TV. This was back when moms could still pull that off. There probably would’ve been nothing she could do if I was born ten years later. But we didn’t even have cable.
Books, on the other hand, were allowed. Books are not as good as TV, but they were the best I could do, so I read a lot. By the time I was twelve I’d read the entire Nick Boyle oeuvre, from Talon of the Warshrike to Fateful Lightning Loosed. I’d go to the library and pick up any book that had a sword, a gun, or a powerboat on the cover. This led to an interesting informal education, like the time I read The Centurion’s Concubine. I knew what a centurion was, and I assumed a concubine was a type of sword.
With no TV to fill it, my spongy brain absorbed everything. Once Mom took a bite of pecan pie and said it was really good. So I asked her if it made “her tiny muscle of passion quiver with inflamed anticipation.” This was a line from The Centurion’s Concubine that didn’t apply.
But all this reading taught me how to churn out sentences. Before long, Mom was paying me to write thank-you notes for her, a dollar a pop. And they were good, too—“I was touched to my very core with gratitude,” etc.
Thusly I cruised through high school.
In senior year, an English teacher who was called Weird Beard recommended his alma mater, Granby College, “sort of a small college Ivy.” The brochure he gave me showed a flaxenhaired woman in a skirt, half sitting and half lying next to a field hockey stick while listening to a guy with glasses reading from a book. The moral was clear: guys with glasses who read books could do well here. So that’s where I ended up.
Suddenly I found myself transported to a secular paradise.
A lush green valley where no one expected anything of anyone. I could do whatever I wanted, which it turned out was not very much plus drinking. I played Flipcup and Beirut and Knock “em Toads. Off trays I ate cheese fries and ageless pizza in the Commons while girls scurried through in their last night’s clothes and fliers demanded I free Tibet and take guitar lessons. I slept on futons and went for pancakes and pounded the Plexiglas at hockey games and parsed The Simpsons and lost bets and threw Frisbees.
I went to seafood dinners with people’s uncomfortable dads.
The stoner who couldn’t shut up about Radiohead, the guy who tried to pull off smoking a corncob pipe and loaned me his dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged, the premed who would fall asleep with a highlighter in his mouth, the dude already with a huge gut who quoted Rudy and ordered wings—I loved them all. I knew the taste of Busch Light as the sun came up after a drive to the beach.
But best of all was my girlfriend. The fetching Polly Pawson first slept with me because it was easier than walking back to her room. We’d have low-energy make out sessions that devolved into naps. She wore faded sweatshirts and track pants over her dainty figure, and her flops of hair smelled like raspberry shampoo.
The actual classes of course were pointless. I signed on as an English major, but the professors were dreary pale gnomes who intoned about “text and countertext” and “fiction as the continuance of a shared illusion.” Instead of loving perfectly good books like Moby-Dick, where a fucking whale eats everybody, these fuckers insisted on pretending to like excruciating books like Boring Middlemarch and Jack-Off Ulysses.They were a bloodless and humorless race who spent their hours rooting around in eighteenth-century sonnets and old New Yorker stories looking for coded gay sex. But I got their lingo down. I could rattle off papers on “Moby-Dick: A Vivisection of Capitalism” or whatever in a couple hours and get an A-.
Polly had her own ingenious strategy to get herself out of papers.
The pawson method.
Rub bits of crushed-up flowers or peppers under your eyes. Your eyes will get red and puffed-up. Go to your professor at his office hours. He’ll (or she’ll, but Polly was especially good on males) be stunned to see you because nobody ever goes to office hours. He’ll be so excited he’ll start prattling about the Northern European Renaissance or whatnot.
Look distracted. Stare out the window, look around the office, pick up a book or something.
Then sob—once, not loud.
Hold your face in your hands until he stops talking. He’ll ask you what’s wrong. Say “I . . . I need to go home for a while.”
GIVE NO DETAILS.
The professor, remember, is just an awkward grad student, grown up. If he had people skills he’d be doing something cooler than lecturing hung-over twenty-year-olds about the Northern European Renaissance. He’ll be ashamed that he prattled on. Say, “I don’t think I can take the exam right now.” Remember that these academics are trained to be on the lookout for depression, schizophrenia, etc.
He’ll envision nightmare scenarios where you kill yourself and after an investigation and a lawsuit he doesn’t get tenure.
He’ll agree to anything.
Stand up and give him a hug. Hug him for a few seconds too long, to reinforce the awkwardness.
Polly was brilliant.
Readers’ Guide by Dave Johns
1. At the outset of the novel, protagonist Pete Tarslaw’s life ranges from crappy to unremarkable. His days consist of rewriting college application essays on behalf of semi-literate students and sitting on his couch watching television. Sometimes he finds time to drink alcohol (often on his couch). What kind of person is he? What seems to be the source of his lack of self-knowledge and motivation?
2. In his television interview, Preston Brooks says that “Writing is a cudgel I wield to chase away the brigands who would burn down the precious things of the human heart,” and it dawns on Tarslaw that Brooks, and very likely all novelists, are “con artists.” Why does Tarslaw think that? Is he right? Are writers cons?
3. Tarslaw devises a set of rules for how to write a best seller. Among them:
—Write a popular book.
—Do not waste energy making it a good book.
—Must include a murder.
—Must include a club, secrets/mysterious missions.
—Main character is miraculously liberated from a lousy job.
—Novel must have scenes on a highway.
—At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals.
Are there any common best seller tropes that he left out? What would you add to the list?
4. Would your book club have chosen The Tornado Ashes Club? Who would have selected it? Who would have loved it? Hated it?
5. Do you think Pete Tarslaw’s deeply cynical view of the publishing world is held with merit? Is The New York Times Bestseller List a force for good or evil in the world?
6. Tarslaw convinces his roommate, Hobart, to give him a supply of the experimental ADD drug Reutical to help him concentrate on writing. Why does Hobart give him the drug? Think about the relationship between Pete and Hobart. Do they make good roommates?
7. Tarslaw drives to his Aunt Evelyn’s house in Vermont to write his novel. When he arrives, he discusses his project over dinner with Evelyn and her partner, Margaret. They ask him what inspired him to start writing a novel, and he says, “mostly to humiliate Polly, and impress people at her wedding.” At that, Margaret laughs and says, “Right on.” Tarslaw writes that “Margaret totally gets it.” What exactly does she get? That humans often do grandiose things for shameful and vindictive reasons?
8. Tarslaw asserts that “There is not much evidence that fame and popularity follow a logical pattern.” Do you agree or disagree?
9. After cracking the 23rd spot on The New York Times Bestseller List, Tarslaw spends Christmas with his family (p. 172). He says that he was “nervous that I’d be called upon to say witty things, but instead everyone assumed the regular things I said were witty.” What does this observation reveal about the nature of fame (or about the nature of family dinner table conversations)?
10. Before things take a turn for the worse, Tarslaw achieves some of the things he wants out of life as a best selling novelist. Even still, it doesn’t seem like he’s happy with his life. Why not? What’s wrong with Pete Tarslaw?
11. Tarslaw behaves badly at Polly’s wedding. He gets horribly drunk. He breaks things. He passes out on the floor. He also gives a hideous drunken toast, which in some ways is one of the more honest things we’ve heard out of him. Why does he lose control at the wedding?
12. Are we meant to think Polly Pawson is good? Do you root for her? For her marriage?
13. When Tarslaw debates Preston Brooks about the “soul” of modern literature, who as a reader were you rooting for? Why?
14. Does it matter if a novelist’s writing is “real,” truthful and sincere? Why or why not?
15. Which is more tragic: a breathtaking novel that nobody reads, or a vacuous but terribly popular best seller that deadens the minds of a thousand lonely bookworms? Why?
16. If a writer crafts a devastatingly trenchant novel but nobody reads it, should it ever have been written? (Think of the dead trees that would be saved, or the coal that never would be burned to generate electricity for handheld electronic readers.)
17. Late in the book we meet Professor Mintz, who believes that books should be judged not on their literary merits but based on their popularity. Instead of teaching Moby-Dick in class, his students read an 1880s novel about cannibals that Mintz deems superior to Melville’s classic because it was more popular in its time. Is there an intellectual case to be made in support of Mintz’s literary approach, or is it absurd?
18. Things could have worked out differently for Pete Tarslaw if he had never revealed his literary insincerity. In many ways he’s like a magician who revealed his secrets, a cardinal sin in the entertainment business. Do you think his primary error was admitting his ruse, or did he commit a graver sin against literature?
19. At the end of the book, Tarslaw reads a novel called Peking that Lucy had recommended, and he finds it breathtaking. It seems to describe something fundamental about life that Tarslaw could never quite put his finger on. Tarslaw concludes “That the only way to live is to lose yourself.” What does he mean by that?
20. In an ideal society, what would be the appropriate punishment for Pete Tarslaw’s crimes?
21. Can we trust a word Pete Tarslaw says?
Suggestions for further reading:
At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien; Shibumi by Trevanian; Text and Counter-Text: Towards an Understanding of Intertextualities by E. Charolotte Hunter; The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy; The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton; The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
10 Reasons why Steve Hely’s first novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist will hit you like This is Spinal Tap. In fact, in honor of Spinal Tap, let’s crank that number to 11.
1. Hely has written for David Letterman and has a dry, sharp wit.
2. If anyone can write a rollicking satire of the publishing world, this is the guy.
3. Hely’s protagonist, Pete Tarslaw, is an underemployed, underwashed liberal arts slacker who cooks up the idea of becoming a famous novelist to make his soon-to-be-married ex-girlfriend jealous. Could there be a worse reason to go into writing? If so, I have yet to see it.
4. In preparation for his opus, Tarslaw atomizes the genres and conventions of today’s bestsellers and literary prize winners with striking clarity. He makes a lot of lists.
5. Tarslaw’s Rule 5: “Must include a club, secrets/mysterious missions, shy characters, characters whose lives are changed suddenly, surprising love affairs, women who’ve given up on love but turn out to be beautiful.”
6. “The Tornado Ashes Club,” Tarslaw’s novel, is designed to bring joy to lonely middle-aged women who devour baked goods. That’s almost how things turn out.
7. That Hely can keep readers from throwing the book against the wall while reading Tarslaw’s calculatedly awful prose is a significant achievement, facilitated by his decision to keep such passages very, very short.
8. Hely, by contrast, writes taut, funny sentences, such as: “Writing a novel is pathetic and boring. Anyone sensible hates it. It’s all you can do to not play Snood all afternoon.”
9. As almost every aspect of publishing — bespectacled young literary geniuses (Jonathan Safran Foer, anybody?), the post-publication influence of Oprah — gets satirized, true insiders may wonder about who escapes unscathed: notably, powerful agents. Perhaps Hely’s is too big to annoy.
10. I found this entirely charming, but I am a book geek. Then again, who knew about the Westminster Kennel Club before “Best in Show”?
11. It is possible to write a good book about writing a bad book; Hely has done it.