The following is a prose-poem essay regarding the long genesis of my first novel, GRAY LAKE. I wrote it shortly after completing and self-publishing the novel, which has now reached thousands of readers. I still can’t believe, a couple years later, that the book is finished, and I’m humbled by all those who are saying they enjoy it. The essay mentions several completed and as-yet-uncompleted projects that, at the time, were all in the future. Time is a writer’s bane. I fully intend to eventually complete every idea mentioned in the last section of the essay – let’s just pray that time agrees…
Gray Lake: A Sort of Memoir
It’s 1985. I’m sixteen. I’m driving down a long, straight road in my ’79 Mustang. The dark of night. There is no moon. “Soul Kitchen” by The Doors is on the radio. The headlights are fuzzy and I have to squint to see through the fog starting to roll in from the sides of the road. A book is sitting in the passenger seat. It’s the book I want to write about the strange, wonderful summer I’m experiencing. Two of the protagonists of the book are Brian and Iggy, guys my age, who have a ghostly encounter on the shores of Gray Lake, just like my best friend and I had (or convinced ourselves we had) only a few weeks ago. I realize the road I’m on is Lakeview, and that the lake which is the title of the book I have yet to write is my destination. I frown a little as I look at the paperback. The cover is a picture of the lake with a lady’s regal eyes opening just at the horizon. I love reading; I especially love Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft and this newly emerging guy, Clive Barker, who’s just insane. But the sad truth is I have absolutely no idea how to write a book. And besides, even though I don’t know it, I’m still experiencing the stuff I want to write about. And there’s a lot of road up ahead.
It’s 1988. I’m nineteen. Same road, feels like the same night. Guns n’ f—in’ Roses is cranking on the cassette deck of my killer Chevy Nova – did I have a little accident with the Mustang back down the road a ways? Why, yes! Yes, I did! And I’ve discovered various fun substances which may or may not have contributed to that little fender-bender, and I might have been in a little bit of trouble because of those substances, but who cares because my car is full of girls and friends and the smoke in here is thick as the fog outside. The book is still sitting there on the stained passenger seat, but who has the time to write it? The headlights stutter, they flicker and seem to fade. The night is getting dark and I’m losing focus. Too much beer, too much smoke, too many friends who really aren’t friends at all – and suddenly it goes dark. Suddenly I’m alone. And I can barely see now. I flick the one remaining headlight to bright, but I’m going slow, slow, able to see only one yellow stripe ahead on the road. I feel around. The book is still there. Its shape is comforting. And it starts whispering to me, urging me on to my destination.
It’s the early 1990s. I’m in my mid-twenties. I find myself quite a bit further down the road, in a rusty AMC Hornet. A shit car if ever there was one. There’s nothing good on the radio; it seems everything is crap. I lost the Nova back down the road a ways and had to walk for a long stretch, but I read and learned a lot and managed to stay out of further trouble – did four years of college fly by somewhere in there? – and in some blink-or-you’ll-miss-it slowdown along the way I apparently realized that poetry might save my mortal soul. I’m traveling the road not taken – the road I thought I’d never take, that is. And it’s good for me. But it’s also lonely, terribly lonely, nothing but fog and cold and dark, though the headlights are working better. I feel around and find the book is still there on the passenger seat (the Hornet has a bench seat – dull, tan vinyl), but the book – and the whole passenger side, in fact, are buried under a heaping mound of loose typewriter paper – poems and short stories, many of which have sold or been published. Sheets of white paper stained with scattered words and letters are spilling over into the footwell, are blowing out the window which I’ve left slightly open; sometimes a draft gets in and they billow and fly about the car, making it hard to see, and in the end, all of it amounts to little more than … me, driving alone on this never-ending road. It seems somehow that I’m teaching at the local community college and doing every other sort of odd job, from working in sawmills and trailer and baby food factories to selling men’s suits and driving roads much like this one, checking the growth of endless fields of corn in order to support myself and keep this piece of crap car – is it a long hatchback or a short station wagon? – running. I swear this shitkicker car will nickel and dime me to death! And meanwhile there’s no sign of a destination, not even a rest stop or any hint of dawn on this endless night, this murky, forlorn road.
It’s later in the same decade and I’m in a zippy silver Celica. It’s bright out, blue skies for once, and I can see the lake glimmering in the distance, out there on the horizon! I’m suddenly a journalist, so I must be on my way to cover a story, but it seems Gray Lake is also my destination. My wife? My wife to be? Either way she’s in the car with me, and so is the book. It’s fifty pages long, one-hundred, two-hundred! It’s growing day by day, writing itself, a treasure trove of ideas – it isn’t whispering to me, it’s singing! Look! The book has grown to nearly four-hundred pages! But hey. Hey, what’s this curve in the road ahead? The lake’s on the left side of the road, way up ahead there by the horizon. So why is the road turning right? Why is Gray Lake suddenly nowhere in sight? The book’s whispering to me again as a colorless, depressing mist starts settling over the scenery. The book whispers that it doesn’t want to be longer than It orThe Stand or Swan Song or, hell, Proust. It whispers that, if we’d stayed on the particular path we were on to Gray Lake, that’s what would have happened. What it does not say, but what I’m coming to understand as I drive on into the mist, is that while I might have the skills to drive a sleek Celica, I’m not up to commandeering a rampaging two-ton semi quite yet.
Somehow I’ve driven into a new millennium. I’m cranking Jimmy Buffett. Life’s not bad. The weather is fair. I can’t complain. The minivan I’m driving has cruise control and the three kids in the back, though always making their presence known, aren’t being too loud. At least not usually. The stack of small press short story anthologies, diverse magazines and literary journals on the passenger seat are nice companions, and the book is taking form again, starting to peek through the pile. I’m headed for Gray Lake once more – there it is now, back in front of me, on the approaching horizon – but I’m also heading for Chicago. Columbia College in Chicago, to be exact. My goal is to return to teaching, by way of a master’s degree in writing. There are developmentally disabled people in the vehicle and me helping them seems to be paying for the minivan. These folks want me to write a book about them, but I tell them I have another destination, other promises to keep before I can do that. The book that’s been my longtime companion has distinct weight in the passenger seat – the upholstery is sinking around the book’s edges. The lake comes closer into view, its waves sparkling, suggesting mysteries only I can uncover. Teachers, compadres, writing associates come and go from the van as we crest a final hill. Another half-mile to the shore. The book sits fully formed. We’re almost there, my friends.
Summer 2011. My PT Cruiser is sitting on the shore of Gray Lake, but it’s soon to be replaced by a Hybrid Honda Civic – gotta watch the gas mileage these days…. I’ve been teaching at a community college for about five years now, and I’m only stopping here for a quick breather on my way home … and yet it seems I’ve spent more than a quarter century just driving, driving, driving to this spot to drop off the book. There are countless tire tracks here on the shore. Lots of people stop here. It seems a good place to say goodbye to this novel and leave its fate to others to decide. The road goes on from here. There are lots of other stops I want to make. Along the way I’m going to pick up a guy named Will Castleton and spend a lot of the trip with him. There’s another lake where a guy’s been kidnapped and is staring out a special window. Another stretch has indie rock concerts at almost every stop, and I get to report on all of them. Pretty soon I’ll pass a van containing a couple developmentally disabled people about to start down their own road with a slightly off-kilter social worker. Yet another stretch of my road home is rife with zombies and a post-apocalyptic landscape.
There’s lots of adventure, heartache and excitement coming up.
I can’t wait to get going.
You can buy Gray Lake: A Novel of Crime and Supernatural Horror at Amazon