My friend Todd McNamee will be holding a reading this Saturday at Old World Merchants in Vancouver, WA, “surrounded by all my wonderful friends and family,” he writes on the event’s Facebook page. “I am very excited to be doing this at my dear friend’s import store” — which is such a cool venue for a reading, yes? I’m psyched.
To prepare for the reading, the other day I joined Todd at a café in northeast Portland for coffee and a chat about his first published novel, Drifting. Of course, we ourselves drifted into other topics (see what I did there?), like religion and relationships and rehabilitation. But all those things play an important role in his novel, too, so in what wound up being a serendipitously cohesive conversation, we always managed to bring it back to the writing.
You said you started writing the book eight years ago?
Yeah. It was around 2004, 2005. It was kind of the beginning and the end of one phase of my life and the next. I’d gone through a period where I’d written a fantasy novel and gotten an agent and sent it out, and that got rejected. And shortly after that, I started my own business where I was tuning pianos full time and teaching [music], so I didn’t do any writing at all for a few years. And after a couple of years of that, I realized I really wanted to write another novel, but I didn’t know how I was going to do that. I couldn’t figure out the time thing.
So it was just a sense. You knew you wanted to write something, and it had to be a novel.
Yeah, well, this was the fourth novel I’d done. I’d written a novel every couple of years for several years before then. I think I finished my first one when I was 21. So I’ve been doing this for a while and it’s just been a part of my life. But the thought of finishing a book, the size was just intimating at that time, and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to fit that in with my schedule. So I tricked myself. Because the thought of doing another novel was too big, but the thought of doing short stories was something I could wrap my mind around. So the idea was to have several different characters, each with their own story, told through a central narrator.
Almost like a Winesburg, Ohio sort of thing?
Yeah. And it went through a lot of drafts, because I threw out everything I’d learned up to that point. The fantasy novel was very plot-driven, and it had everything in it I knew about writing. Drifting has almost none of that. It was like starting over from scratch. And it was really personal. A lot of the stuff that’s in it is based on real things that happened to me or people around me.
I was going to ask how autobiographical it is.
Just with the central idea. My biological father, he likes to marry people. He doesn’t necessarily get divorced, but he’s one of those people, he’ll come into a town, find a woman, knock her up, and vanish. I was talking to my sister about this a little while ago, and her best guess is that there are nine of us. I don’t actually know any of these people. My sister is the only one I’ve actually met in person, and my brother John, who has the same mother as me. And I thought that was interesting, so I thought, okay, I’m going to have a cast of characters, who have a central figure connecting them. This father. I thought that would be a good basis for fiction, because fiction is what you don’t know.
Do you feel like this book was partly a way for you to . . . not to get to know the people you’ve never met, but to invent them?
Absolutely. And also, when you write a novel, you’ve got to stay interested in it for a couple of years. And I thought this would give me something that I could work on for a couple of years.
Do you consider it a “Portland” book, or is it more personal than that?
I think of all of my books as Portland books. I don’t think you can distinguish me from the city. I grew up here. I keep trying to leave, but I keep staying.
So, the novel starts out in Portland, but these characters, this fictional family, they all wind up on a cruise together in Hawaii? What made you send them down there?
Because I’d been on a cruise to Hawaii. I went with my in-laws. And I liked that idea as a way to keep the book within a certain time frame. You know, having everything happen, from beginning to end, within the space of a week, I like that system. One of the books I’m working on now is kind of like that, too. I mean, things are defined by the limits you put on them.
And you said your mother has started reading the book.
She has. She’s about halfway through.
What is she thinking about all this?
I’m kind of afraid to ask, really. But, you know, other than the basic idea, everything else is completely fictional. But it’s hard to explain that to people. If you tell somebody you know, “This character is partially based on you,” what they’re going to read is all the stuff that’s completely made-up and then say, “You really think about me that way?” And I have to say, “No! I mean, when you do this particular affectation, I think that’s really cute so I used that for this character, but it’s not you.” So I’m not really sure what my mom’s going to think about this. I’m blown away that she’s actually reading it.
You know, when you write a book, you always have to think about an audience, and for this one I really just wrote it for one person. I was thinking about my friend Effie, whom three of the characters are based on, different aspects of her personality, from her tattoos or the way she talks. So that was whom the book was directed toward, as an audience.
Was it hard to keep track of such a wide cast of characters, even if they’re based on a limited number of people?
Yes and no. They were all pretty distinct in my mind, and only a couple of the characters get most of the attention. It’s really the story of Patrick and Tonya, and the rest of them just also happen to be there in that group. But it’s their story, those two characters, and other stories go on around them.
[At this point, my iPod got fried in the hot sun and I lost several minutes of our conversation before I realized it had overheated. I switched to a different recorder, so, no problem, but here’s the gist of what I lost:
Todd was explaining how this novel, Drifting, “was written right before I had to quit drinking.” Todd is very active in the recovery community and very open about his own recovery efforts. This novel, it turns out, bridged a peak in his drinking and the beginning of his recovery. In the beginning, he was doing the Hemingway thing (we actually talked about this) where he refused to write while drinking, so he wrote in order to give himself permission to go drinking. But with work and his marriage and his drinking, it was hard going, so he had to write it practically a page a day. And all the while he was drinking more and more.
Then there’s a great moment, the makings of literary legend, in which Todd had finished this novel and gotten it through a few revisions when, frustrated with both Todd and his attention to the writing, his then-wife took the novel and put the whole thing through the shredder.
“My god!” I said. “It’s like that scene with Annie Wilkes in Misery!”
Todd laughed. “It was, a little bit.”
Fortunately, Todd had earlier drafts to fall back on, but at the time, he quit writing the book. And that’s where the recorded interview picks back up. . . .]
So I never planned to work on this book ever again. Then I got sober. But I didn’t write anything for the first year and a half or so that I was sober. I just couldn’t think straight enough to do so. But I did a lot of journaling — I figured it could be material someday when I could think again. After that time period had passed, I wrote a different book, really about what it felt like to get sober, but it was done in the context of a contemporary science fiction book.
I had met Heather, who would go on to become my publisher, I met her online through a friend of a friend, and I knew she was a publisher. We were chatting online, just as friends, and one day we started talking on the phone, and I knew that she had a book. She’s like, “Well, I’m editing this manuscript,” and I’m like, “Oh, well, I’m editing a manuscript myself right now. Why don’t we swap?” That’s all I was thinking about. It had been a long time since I’d shared my work with anybody — it had been five or six years at this point. Anyway, this book was about this guy who has psionic abilities, but they didn’t work when he drank, and he drank a lot, for that reason. It was very plot-driven, you know, back to what I was doing before. And Heather was like, “Wow, we really want to do this, but we’ve never done a science fiction book.” And I said, “Well, if you’re interested in more literary fiction, it just so happens that I have a novel, already written and ready to go, if you’d like to take a look at it.” And that was Drifting.
And here we are.
It was the book that just wouldn’t die.
Do you find that Buddhism comes into your work a lot? [Todd and I took refuge together at the Kagyu Changchub Chuling dharma center in Portland, which is where we met.]
I’m writing a book write now that’s kind of a love story, about this emotional affair. It’s a writing exercise I found somewhere, which was, take something that didn’t work out the way you want it to and see what would happen it did, but it went horribly wrong. So I got an entire book out of that one exercise. Plus, it has the best title of anything I’ve ever written. It’s called Sex, Death, and Buddha: a Love Story.
I love it!
Isn’t that a good title? You would totally buy that book!
I would buy that book!
But both the main characters in that book are meditators, so that’s kind of the feel. It’s sort of in book form what happens in your mind during an emotional affair. That’s the most overtly Buddhist book. But when I finish these three other projects I’m working on, I want to write a nonfiction book on Buddhism, which I’ve been taking notes on for four or five years now.
What’s the gist of that nonfiction book? What’s your angle?
Well, that’s the thing, it keeps changing. I want it to be a very hands-on, practical book. That’s one half of me. But the other half of me wants to do the exact opposite of that. I’ve done five drafts where you write a hundred pages and then you scrap it all and six months later you start from page one again. And then an idea for a novel comes up, and the novel has been the Muse that’s been really kind to me lately.
You mentioned other projects before the Buddhism book?
Yeah, the book I’m editing right now is a good old-fashioned road trip book. It’s about a music writer and her hero is this gal who’s a punk rock gal who dies from suicide. She lives over in New York and my character lives here on the West Coast, and she decides to drive out to the memorial, because her daughter also lives in New York and she hasn’t seen her daughter in a number of years, and her husband’s been dead for ten years. And her life is at a crossroads. It was my NaNoWriMo book last year.
Do you do NaNoWriMo every year?
Yeah, but I normally never get anything useful out of it. Usually I get 25,000 words of a really bad idea that goes nowhere, but usually it’s a good warm-up for the next book, which then goes really well. But this time, the idea was there, fully formed, bam, from day one until the end.
Are you pretty rigid with your writing schedule? I mean, you said earlier that with Drifting, it was like a page a day, squeezing it in.
I try to be pretty rigid about it, yeah. These last couple of years I’ve been really blessed in that my work schedule is that I work in the afternoons, and it’s pretty set.
So are you one of those morning writers?
I am. That comes down to, I think it’s in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that whatever’s the most important to you, you do first thing. So I get up, I make my coffee, I meditate, I write for a bit, and depending on what my work or school day is, I’ll alternate: I’ll sit for a bit, I’ll write a couple of pages, I’ll sit again, then I’ll write a couple of pages.
How hard is it to keep those separate? For me, if I were to sit between writing, I would still be writing in my head, and it would be so hard for me to actually sit in meditation.
I don’t know. I’ve done a few retreats now, so it’s not as hard. And before I sit each time, I also do a little reading in the dharma, so that will cleanse my palate a little bit. I can definitely go through periods where all I do is write, and I definitely go through periods where all I do is sit, but neither one of those is very useful to me. When I’m doing one, I feel guilty that I’m not doing the other. So I do one, but I always tell the other one, Don’t worry, I’ll get to you in a second.
Do you work and sit in the same space?
Yeah. I live in a tiny, tiny room now, so it’s my bed, and this much space, and then it’s my bookshelves. And that’s fine. I mean, I learned to meditate in jail, and I was at Inverness jail, which is sixty guys in a dorm, so where I am now, that’s not so tough.
I had done some meditating before jail, but in this case it was like, I have time, I have motivation, and it’s not like I have someplace I’m going. All the environments are conducive to really making some progress. And there was also the awareness going in that this could be an experience that really benefits my life, or it could be one that marks my life going the other direction. It was very black and white, a very clear choice, which was good, because that was all I could comprehend at that time.
I basically used Jack Kornfield’s book, A Path With Heart, which was the only book on dharma in the jail library. And that was alright. And there was this guy who sat across from me who had only one leg and was in for heroin issues, but he was a Sufi. They regard the Buddha as a prophet and give him lots of respect, so we had lots of talks. He was the only person I spoke to the whole three weeks I was in. You don’t want to try making a lot of friends in jail!
And you know, I had read somewhere about different Tibetans who had done ten, twelve years in prison in China, and a lot of them had said those were the best years of their lives because they were in the dharma all the time. Whereas now, I have my teaching schedule, I have all these appointments, I’m moving around a lot, and I’m doing everything except for practice.
Distractions, distractions, distractions.
Exactly. So I really liked that idea. Plus, I was a mess. I was a real mess. But I knew that something was working, I could feel it. So there’s been no looking back.
So how many other books to you have, altogether, besides Drifting?
I’ve written seven.
And how many are you hoping to get out there? Because, you know, we all have at least one we keep in the drawer.
Oh, even that one I sent out. I send out all of them, I’m shameless! But my first three books I’m not worried about ever seeing the light of day. This one I’m glad is going out. I really do think it’s some of my best stuff. The kind of writing I do really well, this book highlights that. I’m a dialogue person, so there’s a lot of that in there. And like I said, it’s a personal book. This is the book you write when you’ve run out of ideas. Like, I don’t really know what I’m doing anymore, so I’m going to do this.
Tell me what you’re going to do for your reading on Saturday.
I was going to talk about a lot of the stuff we’re talking about now, how the book got written. I might talk about character, about how I edited the book, about the process. Also, I’m really excited with how the cover turned out. Talking about distractions while meditating! The retreat before last, back in March of 2012, that’s when I got the idea for how the cover was going to look. It was a ten-day retreat and I got that on the third day, and I knew exactly who I was going to ask to model, I knew exactly which photographer I wanted to use.
So you’re on retreat, meditating, and you’re thinking about some woman’s leg?
Yeah! Only the leg — no other parts! But yeah, that’s all I thought about. I mean, on my first retreat, it was good by the end of it, but the first seven days were a living hell, so I just kept wanting to go back home. I would look at the parking lot nostalgically. But what happened on this second retreat after I got this idea, I wanted to go back home then, too, but it was because my life was so great, and I was so happy. It was a really good marker of where I was and how far I’d come. Other than the distractions, but they were distractions based on joy.
So that was really fun, doing that cover shoot and being a part of that. And also, you know, when you’re a writer and you’re working on something by yourself. . . You know, it was just me. I mean, I’d played in bands before, and it’s all the fun of babysitting without all the money. You’re feeding everybody’s egos — “You really are the best bass player in the greater southeast area,” that sort of stuff — egos egos egos. That’s one of the reasons I always went back to writing. It’s just me doing it.
But that’s one of the things I’ve realized working on this book. I mean, wow, there’ve been a lot of people working really hard to help me realize this book. I can count ten people off the top of my head who have put in hours helping me make this happen. And that was humbling.
Although, now that I think about it, that’s not humbling at all — that’s ego gratified!
So it feels good to realize this dream, then.
Well, that’s another thing. Nothing in my life has prepared me for this moment. I’ve got thousands of rejections slips. I was submitting a lot in the `90s, I was writing a lot of short stories.
What do you miss about story submissions?
I miss the mail. I mean, I used to write on a typewriter. I like that.
Is it just the pace of it? Or the nostalgia factor?
A lot of it’s nostalgia. When an editor mails you back something, even if it’s a rejection, but they’ve got a little handwritten note on there saying hey, we really liked this particular one, if you’d clean this up and resubmit. Or there was nothing in this particular batch but keep sending stuff to us. Those things are really nice, but they were really rare. You didn’t get those all the time.
But it’s the pace, too. That was the great thing about the mail: it forced you to move on and start working on the next thing. Now all you do is check email. I mean, why work? Checking email is a full-time job!
A lot of those early stories you had published, they were under a pseudonym. What made you switch to your non-pseudonym — your nym — for the novel?
Well, I was publishing poetry under Todd McNamee, which is my name. My middle name is Steen, which is simple. My last name, no one can pronounce it. So originally I was thinking I would do poetry under one name and fiction under a different name, just to keep those separate. And the main thing that happened the last few years is that I just stopped giving a shit.
This is who I am.
Todd McNamee is a writer, musician, piano repair man, mountain climber, world traveler and student of life. He is actively involved in the recovery and Buddhist communities. McNamee has published dozens of poems in various literary zines and many works of short fiction under the name T.M. Steen. He is currently working on a novel about punk rock.