Be different. Better yet, be yourself.

Dr. Paul Nagel was my screenwriting professor at the University of Miami back in the early 1980’s. He said something (which I have since heard paraphrased numerous times) that has stuck with me since: Don’t write like everyone else in Hollywood. They’ve already got everyone else in Hollywood. The bottom line is that nobody was writing like H.B. Berlow. Unfortunately, at that young age, even I wasn’t writing like H.B. Berlow.

A divorce and a poetry anthology got me moving emotionally and intellectually. A five years span in Boston immersed me into a scene populated by the widest range of writing styles. It was there I became a writer. That was the poetical me. The fiction me took a while longer. Whereas I was fascinated by Hammett and Chandler and Ellroy and Jim Thompson, I didn’t live in 1930’s or 1950’s Los Angeles or 1950’s Midwest. I was living in Wichita, KS in the 1990’s and into the next century.

You learn, you read, you grow, and, hopefully, you find yourself. Therein lies the rub, as the Bard would say. The Writing You that you find may not be the one that agents and editors and publishers want. And if immortality is what you’re looking for (or at the very least, publication) then you have a serious choice. You can either violate the years of work and effort and inner retrospection to “write what sells” or you can stay on your path.

I met a young lady several years ago and asked her what she wrote. She informed me that Steampunk was her genre. Not fully aware of its scope, she provided me with an explanation that fascinated me. I asked how she got into it and she replied that was what was currently selling.

I nodded my head and walked away.

Having spent so many years working through prosody and the craft of fiction, taking the steps to read works in my preferred genres of noir, hard-boiled, dark fiction, and Transgressive fiction, I found it hard to believe that someone would simply choose a genre for the financial gain with perhaps no abiding or deep-rooted connection to it.

When it comes to contests, I also try not to get too uptight that a work does not receive recognition. The judges of that particular year may not have appreciated the nature of my work. I guarantee resubmitting to the same contest the following year (assuming the judges change) would have a different result. There is no reason for me to review the winning entries and try to write something “just like that.”

I am at a point in my life that could be a literary crossroads, if I allow it to be. The desire for publishing success is great. I won’t deny that. Anyone who says they are writing for the pure aesthetics is delusional. By the same token, at the age of 53, I am only too comfortable in my literary skin to simply change with the prevailing winds. There IS a market for me and my work. There IS an audience.

It has taken 53 years to become H.B. Berlow and right now the writing world does not have H.B. Berlow. I’m staying the course.

Hard-boiled

At the end of last year, I finished reading Max Allan Collins’ Chicago Confidential. It was my introduction to his series character Nathan Heller, a somewhat shady private investigator with a set of values and a past that includes association with gangster. The novel is strewn with historical references involving the investigation of organized crime by Senator Estes Kefauver. As such there is a plethora of real figures including the senator himself, Frank Sinatra, and Jayne Mansfield (before she became a big name actress).

I have also read several works of James Ellroy. His pieces are also infused with a historical sensibility and mention several real life people as well. They are set, like Collins’ work, in the fifties (for the most part) and weave the true factual incidents with the fictional protagonists.

So why does Ellroy ring true for me and Collins seem glib?

Collins uses first person narrative in a way that breaks down the “fourth wall” that actors often refer to. As opposed to hearing Heller speak for himself, he is talking to us, the reader in a conversational manner. But because he has done nothing to make me feel that I am OF the fifties, it seems to be a space-time continuum where a character from the fifties is speaking to me in the 2000’s. I have lost the feeling of the writing, the feeling of the time period.
Ellroy writes in third person and from multiple perspectives. His detail seeps through the pores of the writing; it IS the 1950’s (or early 1960’s as in American Tabloid) and I am eavesdropping on each scene. I am a fly on the wall.

In Collins I see the elements of hard-boiled fiction but they seem to be more like pieces in a laboratory, a scientific experiment in which ingredients are distilled down to an essence but without the spark to bring it to life.

Ellroy is scatological, irreverent, hip, and not afraid of stepping on toes. He is the vile version of Hammett, the foul-mouthed godchild to hard-boiled literature.

What I am realizing is that I don’t want my hard-boiled literature to be neat and clean. I want it to have a tarnished feel, a grittiness that is honest, and a trajectory like a bullet fired in the air on New Year’s Eve.

“Mystery” writing is fascinating but a true hard-boiled piece delves into aspects of the human psyche that almost no one outside of a Transgressive writer would even seek to explore.