101 — with Jack Ketchum

As part of my ongoing 101 section for newer writers, I’ve asked a handful of colleagues—and mentors of my own—to participate in the name of preventing mistakes and paying knowledge forward. I asked them all the same question: What one thing did you have to learn on your own you wish someone had told you? This edition is brought to you by Jack Ketchum, author of Off Season, The Girl Next Door, Red and many more. And now… Jack.


In college and for several years after I was probably reading too much Harold Pinter, Beckett, Joyce, Blaise Cendrars and Henry Miller — Henry for sure — and got the idea that I was going to be the next one to advance American literature.  I was going to dazzle ‘em one day.  Just you wait and see.

The upshot of this bit of post-adolescent foolishness was that for the next eight years after graduating, while acting, teaching, writing ad copy, and working as an author’s agent I wrote a handful of “experimental” one-act plays in the manner of Pinter and Beckett, a ridiculously obscure novella, a lot of poetry, a pretty decent children’s book, and my first novel.

Ah, that fucking piece-of-shit first novel.

It was autobiographical, naturally — that seemed to be where the novel was going at the time, with Mailer and Tom Wolfe and the rest taking a leaf from Miller —  written from the copious notes I’d taken on a road-trip with my girlfriend from New York to California.  It wanted to be THE AIR-CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE or some such thing.  But although there was some pretty good writing in it I was no Henry Miller.  I wasn’t going to top the master at his own game.

I was determined, though.  Dogged.  I must have rewritten that damn thing a dozen times or more.  It was long, then got longer, then longer still.  I cut, fixed, wrote some more, cut that, inserted this…it just went on and on.  At some point my girlfriend Paula had had enough, bless her heart.  “You’re supposed to be such a hot-shit writer?” she said.  “Sell something!”

That pissed me off.  I mean, that  really pissed me off.  Harsh words were spoken.  But I’d been working as an author’s agent for three years and knew the markets.  All the men’s mags back then wanted to be low-rent Playboys.  So I wrote a story called THE HANGUP, a black comedy that was only marginally autobiographical and in no way experimental and was not going to advance American literature by a fraction of an inch, and sent it off to an editor I knew, Ben Pesta at Swank — and he snapped it up.   The check was probably a hundred dollars.    Maybe a hundred fifty.

Best check I ever got.  I went home to my mom’s house and burned every draft and copy of that damn novel in her fireplace.  My mom thought I’d gone a little nuts, I think.  But I wasn’t.  I was free.  I quit my job and started marketing my own stuff like crazy and I’ve never looked back.

Forget art.  In time, a measure of it will come to you.  You don’t have to go searching for the thing.  You read, you absorb, you write, and over time you’re writing better and better.  Pretty soon you’re doing stronger stuff than you ever thought you would.

It’s the nature of the beast.


Thanks to Jack for playing along and giving you all some food for thought and a lesson for your ears rather than over your head. Please visit him at http://www.jackketchum.net to see what he’s up to and grab the books you haven’t read yet…

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