What I Thought Of… HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST by Steve Hely

Oh, how I do love me a bit of satire, and how I love it even more when the target is a part of the world I’m somewhat acquainted with. Therefore I was, admittedly, pre-disposed to liking How I Became a Famous Novelist, a brutal but hilarious send-up of the publishing industry in which no one emerges unscathed. This is Steve Hely’s debut novel but he has a long list of stellar TV writing credits, including The Late Show with David Letterman, the animated comedy American Dad and what might be my favorite show on TV at the moment, 30 Rock. He’s currently writing for the US version of The Office.

And I think I might love him.

His book, I mean. I think I might love his book…

How I Became a Famous Novelist is the story/downward spiral of Pete Tarslaw, a directionless twenty-something who lives in jeans because they double as a napkin, drinks soda for breakfast while standing in the shower and calls his lunchtime dash across a four-lane highway “the most invigorating part of the day.” He works for a company called EssayAides, re-writing college application essays for foreign students and thus practicing questionable ethics on a daily basis. This bland and bleary-eyed existence suits him just fine, until he gets word that the only good thing that ever happened to him – his ex-girlfriend Polly – is getting married, and he begins to think about having to attend the wedding as a Grade A Loser. What can he possibly do to turn things around, so dramatically and in such a short space of time?

The answer comes from the literary darling du jour, Preston Brooks, who reportedly scored a “high six figures” for the rights to his novel, Kindness to Birds; Pete will simply become the bestest selling bestselling novelist of all time. His decision is cemented by a TV interview with Brooks, filmed at the author’s gabled West Virginian mansion. Brooks is the epitome of literary pretension: he claims he discovered literature in an alleyway the morning after a drinking binge, when a discarded copy of Of Mice and Men showed him “there was stronger stuff than whiskey”, he only writes on a typewriter (“If it was good enough for Faulkner…”) and says of his office, “I call this the dance hall. Because characters will appear, and introduce themselves and ask me to dance. The character always leads. I bow, accept, dance for a while.” Brooks also has the requisite position at a university, where he teaches Creative Writing to a bunch of attractive twenty-year-old women who hang greedily on his every word.

Pete promptly concludes that Brooks is not a literary genius but a complete con artist, and that he can become one too. And he can do it in time for the wedding.

After an in-depth study of the competition (key to success: include at least one murder), one writing class and a few false starts (“Did you just start writing sentences? That seemed a bit rash.”) Pete finally bangs out 331 pages of “greeting card level crap” with the help of whiskey, coffee and an experimental drug used to treat hyperactivity that he cons off his med student roommate. The Tornado Ashes Club is a, ahem, literary novel about a murder at a Las Vegas hotel, a mysterious mission to bring a soul to the afterlife, a quest along America’s highways and World War II. Oh – and chasing tornadoes. Obviously.

Next step: get The Tornado Ashes Club published. Pete sends the manuscript to his college friend Lucy, now an assistant editor at a New York publishing house who tells him that no one in publishing can even tell the difference between good and bad anymore, and confides that she cries herself to sleep at night because the books that move her don’t get published while “the ones that don’t make sense and have adverbs” sell ten million copies and get turned into movies. “Do you realize how many manuscripts we get?” she asks Pete. “Thousands! Tens of thousands! Just stacks and stacks! Some people don’t have desk, they just have stacks. And there are people whose whole job it is to throw them in the garbage. Huge bins! They use shovels! But the manuscripts never stop coming in…” And yet despite this, Ortolan Press is desperate for new talent; Lucy’s boss has sent her to MySpace in search of it, and makes her trawl through blogs. “If I hear the word blog one more time,” she says, “I’m gonna put my neck on the subway tracks.”

In fact, so desperate are Ortolan Press that they agree to publish The Tornado Ashes Club, but Pete soon discovers that getting a book deal isn’t even half the battle. Between him and his wild writer dreams (which include, somewhat bizarrely, snorting cocaine off a manuscript with Zadie Smith, and making a cameo in the film version of his book as “a French resistance fighter or a tornado expert”) are still the hurdles of disastrous Amazon sales ranks, getting bumped from a San Diego BooXpo and terrible book reviews. (The San Francisco Chronicle calls Ashes Club “a road trip that makes you wish you’d taken the plane.”)

Still, all is not lost. After some product placement in the Christian market and a spot on Law and Order: Criminal Intent – in one scene a child molester is reading Pete’s book as he awaits his sentence – things start to look up for The Tornado Ashes Club, and with it, Pete’s appearance at Polly’s wedding…

And that’s when the fun really begins.

A large part of the fun of How I Became a Famous Novelist is the fact that it’s filled with thinly veiled digs at some of the biggest names in publishing today – very thinly veiled, in some cases. Pamela McLaughlin, for instance, is the author of a series of bestselling crime novels featuring the feisty detective Trang Martinez; a tie-in cookbook and a range of wine coolers has helped pay for McLaughlin’s private island and helicopter. This is despite the fact that her books, as Pete points out, “can by read and forgotten in the time it takes for ordered Chinese food to arrive.” Then there’s Tim Drew, a “content producer” who farms out most of his books to Creative Writing grad students, a shining example of the “new model of literary capitalism” and according to a profile in the Boston Globe, last year’s 44th largest economy. His latest title is The Darwin Enigma, a thriller involving a devious secret society, a band of shadowy monks, Charles Darwin, Jesus and Buddha. Phew.

One of the pages that gave me the most giggles is a fake New York Times bestseller list that Pete studied prior to writing his book that gives us – and him – a brief glimpse of his competition. Do any of these remind you of anyone?

  • The Balthazar Tablet by Tim Drew: The murder of a cardinal leads a Yale professor and an underwear model to the Middle East, where they uncover clues to a conspiracy kept hidden by the Shriners.
  • Expense the Burberry by Eve Smoot: A young woman in Manhattan spends her days testing luxury goods and her nights partying and complaining.
  • Indict to Unnerve by Vic Chaster: A prosecutor is the target of an investigation spawned by the daughter of an international assassin he paralyzed in a golf accident.
  • Cap’N Jay and Us by Matt McKenna: A newspaper columnist and his daughter learn lessons from a mischievous squirrel.
  • Abandon the Creamsickles by William Su-choi: Humorous essays on family and childhood by the author of Which Dog Means I’m Fired?

This book was published in 2009 but in light of the recent epidemic of Franzen Fever, it felt even funnier this past weekend when I read it for a second time. Even the blurbs on the “Praise for…” page are chuckle-inducing, and reminiscent of the rash of reviewers clamoring over each other to find new and hyperbolic ways to describe Freedom. One of them – by “Susanne Friedegger, author of Myopia Dystopia” – claims that, “You wish to do more with this book than just read it. You must eat it, consume it, make it a part of your physical form, as it is already consuming your mind space. It must have physical space too. It demands it.”

For my own part, I would say that if you don’t read this book your life will forever be plagued by a nameless void that could otherwise have been filled by this searing satire that delights as much as it mocks.

Or something.

I love, love, LOVE this book, and demand that you go read it immediately. Some of it is so close to the truth it’ll make your cheeks blush with embarrassment, but mostly it’ll make them wet with tears, either from laughing so much or recognizing your own wild and completely unattainable published writer dream-related despair.

You can thank me later.

Click here to purchase How I Became a Famous Novelist from Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to read an interview with Steve Hely from The New Yorker.

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