I talked with Bill about the novel, and wrote reviews for The Wedge and the Messenger Post Newspapers (below). Maverick Jetpants apparently appealed to editors as the review appeared in all 17 editions of the MPN.
Recently, I found scans of the review deep in my PICTURES file. Over three years later, I wondered what has happened to our native son?
Bill now lives in Los Angeles. In response to questions, he offers some reflections on life after Jetpants, the writer’s life and — even if from long distance — Rochester: a City of Quality.
While I know you were thrilled by the unanticipated Times review, and never expected the novel to be a best seller, the Jetpants did fare pretty well. The Rochester Public Library has at least one copy. And I have seen the novel at Writers and Books. Overall, how was the book received and how well did it sell?
It’s never not great to see the book in libraries and bookstores. The reviews from outlets that cover books were mainly positive. The dialect between the characters turned off some readers, but I’m not bothered or surprised by that. More recently, a friend of mine, Brad Lewis, along with Mike Yates, the co-founder of WAYO, named a record label after the book. That label, City of Quality Records, put out its first album last year. More on WAYO That’s obviously a real compliment for me, to see something in the book make its way into a non-book thing, and even people who were in some of the bands mentioned in the book have said nice things to me about it.
Also, in October 2013, my friend Nick Walter, who plays guitar for the Rochester band Muler, shared this story via Facebook:
I’m at this show at the Krown on Friday, to see the bands The Years and Nod.
You know who Nod is, The Years is fronted by this old dude named Ed Downey. Great guy, he actually used to play sax for the MC5 in the 60’s.
Jeff from Inugami is their drummer, some dude I don’t know plays bass, and the lead guitar player is Ed’s son, Ian, who was the guy who I recently told you was a fan of your book. They have a great, clunky, Neil Young, Time Out of Mind era Dylan kind of sound.
So, anyway, about midset, inbetween songs, Ian holds up a copy of your book, says the title and your name, and starts talking about how great the book is, and the review in The New York Times. He says he wants to read some passages, but fumbles to find what he’s looking for. Some random person on one side of the room starts yelling “It’s on page 81!” then some other random person on the other side of the room goes “No, 86!”
So he finally finds what he’s looking for and reads a couple passages about the bug jar, real dad describing local bands, Local band stickers and flyers as scene setting, etc.
I realize like half the people in the room have been in the bands being listed, everyone has these huge smiles and
Joe Tunis and Sloppy Joe from Nod are both clutching their sides laughing their asses of.
Ian finally holds the book up and says “There you go, people! we did it, we’ve been imortalized!”
So, having stuff like that happen was cool. The actual experience of traveling, racking up reviews, doing interviews and not having to worry about balancing my writing with the rest of my life for once — it would take a lot of bad luck and poor decisions to completely undo the ways that experience changed me. My publisher, Black Balloon Publishing, which is now part of a publisher known as Catapult, worked hard to make that happen. But who knows if that’ll happen again. I worry that’s the only thing I’ll do, that recent decisions in my life are undoing that.
I have no idea whether my sales met my publisher’s expectations. I get my sales statements in the mail twice a year or so; it’s weird seeing your insignificance quantified. As far as an actual sales figure? Um…feel free to write “between 1,000 and 400 million.”
What have you been doing and writing since Jetpants? How do you feel about Jetpants a few years later?
In April 2013, I moved to Pasadena, Calif., after my girlfriend got a job out here. I’m glad we moved out here. But I’m too afraid of being poor, and of freeloading, and of not having cash flow, and I was very worried that the effort it would take to find a new job would derail me.
That anxiety weighed on me even during my brief promotional tour through the Northeast and West Coast before my book came out. It got worse when I applied for jobs in L.A. and got no response. I tried freelancing through 2013, but it was too much work for too little pay. So, obviously, you can still get a few good reviews and still be part of the oversupply.
Some of that’s probably my fault. In 2013, I should have pitched more writing ideas on my own. I spent much of that summer trying to do some exhaustively detailed reporting about David Bowie’s mugshot taken in Rochester after he was arrested in 1976, [where we have been too] but it didn’t go as far as I wanted it to, and I basically just got depressed. My total income for 2013, I think, was somewhere below $13,000.
So in 2014 I found a full-time job at a financial newspaper, as a copy editor first and now a reporter, cranking out copy about densely-worded financial statements that I have an hour to understand. That’s actually a good thing for me; I come from a long line of tinkerers, and journalism has helped steer me away from my leanings toward never finishing anything. And you can understand a lot about the world when you’re willing to read through boring material; being able to endure boredom can be very useful.
Someone on Twitter was talking about this the other day: writers often say that “writing is hard,” and of course it is. But lines like that tend to come from the same self-congratulatory neighborhood as “Oh, my characters just take on a life of their own.” I would love to have anxiety exclusively about writing again, as opposed to the descent from person-with-influences to person-with-a-job. I had a 25-mile commute and it took me an hour to get to work, 90 minutes coming back. I was getting up at 5:30 a.m. and the highway would be backed up by 6:15 a.m. So 2014 and 2015 I largely lost to exhaustion and L.A. traffic.
I moved to Los Angeles’ west side this January, and my new apartment is much closer to my job. So I have far more time to write now, which is good. I’ve written some short stories. I’m writing a second novel, but I feel like it’d be bad luck to talk about it specifically. But I’m worried that I’m not getting work done as quickly as I should be to still have anyone care. And thus, I’m worried that I might have just blown it.
I have mixed feelings about my first book, mainly because it’s hard not to think about it in context of what I haven’t been able to do, quickly enough, since. Saying the title out loud is painful to me. I don’t think much about the specifics of Maverick Jetpants In The City Of Quality anymore. The positive experiences I mentioned above have, at this point, settled together into what has become a higher floor for my self-esteem. But replaying the highlight reel over and over wouldn’t be healthy.
The review from the New York Times Book Review is still basically the coolest thing that has ever happened to me. But maybe it crowded out some other experiences that I could’ve taken more advantage of at the time. Because that review was such a big event in my life, sometimes when I think back on the book it seems like this object that someone handed to me and got me some high praise rather than something I actually thought up myself.
If “Rochester” is ever mentioned in L.A., does the city register anything? Have you met any Rochesterians in L.A.? Any feelings about the death of another native son, Phillip Seymour Hoffman?
L.A. is the kind of city that can take over your sense of cities, so there’s a lot of talk about L.A. and not many other places.
And when I am able to get back to Rochester — which is only around once a year — I feel a difference that wasn’t there when I still lived on the East Coast. I feel less relevant in my Rochester friends’ lives. We’re all older, perhaps more comfortable with saying less, but I miss how we all kind of inadvertently pushed each other in our conversations to think more sharply.
As far as other Rochesterians out here, not many. I have one friend who grew up in Los Angeles but lives in Rochester now, and another whose family is from Rochester. One of the nice things about writing and revising Maverick Jetpants during much of the previous decade was that I got to think about my hometown more deeply. But I’m less in touch now, and Rochester’s not some just post-Kodak city anymore.
I was surprised when Philip Seymour Hoffman died. The fact that he grew up in Rochester and became famous maybe distracted some locals, like me, at least, from the deeper difficulties in his life. But since you asked I’ve realized I’ve seen him in far more movies — many at the Little — than I thought I had. Perhaps that means his sensibilities were to some extent aligned with mine, and perhaps I was far more of a fan than I’d realized. So, probably, that means I took him for granted. My friend in high school — supposedly, though I can’t confirm — used to walk his mom’s dog, so that was a thing we told people.
Talker of the Town is predominantly about Rochester. Looking at the magazine, what impressions, nostalgic or otherwise, come to mind about Rochester?
The impression I got looking at the magazine was that Rochester is a much, much different place than it was when I lived there. It seems like there are more, different, better conversations getting more attention, and it seems like more people are willing to get behind the city.
Some of those conversations, no doubt, have always been going on, but I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to them growing up. We didn’t have social media or smartphones, obviously. And growing up in the suburbs in the 80s and 90s, much of my experience was a lot of white people talking about the dangers of the “inner city.” So for a lot of people I knew, downtown had criminal mystique, or novelty, and so it was more the subject of suburban tourism and rubbernecking as opposed to something that deserved real engagement.
Even the shows I was going to and the bars where I was hanging out, there was a lot of great stuff going on but I wonder if it also discouraged broader, more earnest interaction with the city. So much of that seemed like what any music reviewer would’ve called “raw anger,” but maybe we were all accidentally shaming ourselves out of trying harder.