WRITERS AT WORK|
by Dennis Loy Johnson
9 April 2001 Recently, I resumed work on my novel, "Story of My Hair." After years of agonizing, I decided it was time to tackle that one, crucial section I'd been putting off as too difficult. Yes, I'm talking about the minibiography of the author that appears on the back flap of the book jacket.
As many readers may be unaware, those author bios are usually written by the authors themselves. There's not much room and so it's a difficult assignment. What sort of things were considered critical? I decided to study the bios in some books I'd been sent to consider for review recently.
Because I expect "Story of My Hair" to be, as soon as I finish writing it, a bestseller that also appeals to the really, really hip, I started by perusing one of the trendiestlooking books on my desk "Woodcuts of Women," by Dagoberto Gilb (Grove). It had that thing on the cover that tells you, nowadays, that a book is hip and ohsointelligent a nearnaked woman in a raunchy pose.
"A union construction worker for over twelve years, Gilb lives in Austin, Texas," said his bio.
I took out my notepad. Workingclass job / where live, I wrote.
"Right as Rain" (Little, Brown) author George P. Pelecanos "worked as an electronics salesman, shoe salesman, bartender, construction worker, and independent film producer."
Throw in improbable glamoroussexy job, I noted.
"Iced" (Holt) author Jenny Siler, I learned, "was educated at Andover and Columbia" and "has tended bar, driven a forklift, and graded salmon."
Where educated / workingclass job nobody-will-comprehend, I added.
Then I noticed something strange although nearly every bio I studied ended by noting that the author was living in Brooklyn and working on a second novel, almost none of the author bios I'd read mentioned that the author had ever done any writing before. This was troubling. The job I had the most experience at writing was, apparently, considered problematic in a writer.
Then, the bio of "Just Friends" (Ballantine) author Robyn Sisman, who was "a fulltime writer and currently lives in Somerset, near Bath," put me at ease.
Not only was she a writer, she was fulltime!
Deborah Smith's bio in her book about life in rural Georgia, "On Bear Mountain" (Little, Brown), took things even further she'd been a "newspaper reporter and medical writer," for one. What's more, Smith, "a sixthgeneration Georgia native, grew up helping her grandmother tend a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens on the family farm." Plus, "She and her highschool sweetheart, an electrical engineer, have been married for over twenty years."
Not only did she admit to a writing career, she used vivid detail that proved she knew what she was writing about Rhode Island Red chickens! That's writing! And she was married! She had to be good!
I noticed the spousal mention, in fact, nearly everywhere, usually in the "the noun" formulation as in, "He's married to Jennifer Jennifer, the actress."
Spouse has to work too, I scribbled.
"Bargains in the Real World" (Random House) author Elizabeth Cox had a gainfully employed husband I'd even heard of Michael Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly. I'd been trying to sell him short stories for years.
Note to self, I wrote, don't give Cox bad review.
Meanwhile, Daniel Grey Marshall wrote "Still Can't See Nothin' Comin'" (HarperCollins) "after an early adolescence marked by experiences with drugs and aclohol on the streets and rooftops of Madison, Wisconsin," his bio note said, introducing a whole 'nother element.
Throw in something sad about yourself, I noted, maybe even pitiful.
My list of elements, it seemed, was complete. But it wasn't until I read one particular bio that I saw how to weave them all into one, epic masterpiece.
I found that inspiration in the back of "Crawling at Night," by Nani Power (Atlantic). "Nani Power," it said, "grew up in Virginia, went to Bennington College and the Corcoran Art School, and attended L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts Americaines in France on a painting fellowship. She has worked in Manhattan as a caterer, in a trailer as an itinerant family's nanny, as an aide in a nursing home, as a sandwich seller on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, and as a chef in a Japanese restaurant."
What's more, the cover had a raunchy, naked, pre-adolescent girl on it!
What with the vile cover, it seemed like the complete package until I noticed nanny Nani's bio had left out one thing: the spousal element!
I saw my chance to write the best bio ever, and I went for it.
Dennis Loy Johnson, I finally wrote, moved, as a child, on a daily basis to numerous places where he had no idea what they were saying. Eventually, he was educated at Harvard and Yale, after which he got a job digging ditches. He once poked himself in the eye. He's never written anything before, never even thought about it. He does too have a significant other, Petunia, the stoic. He currently resides in Brooklyn, where he's working on his next author's bio.
I figure the rest of my novel should be a piece of cake.
Last Weeks MobyLives Column: "How to Make Literary Journalists Nervous" One novelist gets a bad review and does the logical thing: He takes out a bounty on the reviewer.
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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.