Millions of people wish they were bestselling novelists, but what do bestselling novelists wish for?
To be rock stars, of course. Turns out that Dave Barry and Stephen King, both possessed of the same desire, shared the same book marketing person, Kathi Goldmark. When she heard the same dream put forth by both men, she thought, in the best Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland tradition, why not put on a show? The show became the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band featuring the likes of King, Barry, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, Roy Blount, Jr., Scott Turow, and for one unforgettable night, me.
I was on the council of the Authors Guild during the 1990s, and I had gotten to know a lot of the nation’s top authors as a result⎯Erica Jong, Judy Bloom, Scott Turow, Roger Angell, and many others. One thing led to another, and it’s been too many years to remember what those things were, but I was invited to join the group on May 22, 1993 for two shows in a small, sweaty club called Nightstage in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I met the Remainders the night before, in a bar/restaurant in Northampton, Massachusetts, where they were performing on their way to Cambridge. That night, I had one of the most hysterical dinners of my life with Dave Barry and Roy Blount, Jr., two of America’s greatest humorists. Barry told a long and memorable story about how, in the 1960s, he and a friend were driven inside a U-Haul trailer, down the New Jersey Turnpike, strung out on marijuana. They spent the entire drive trying to figure out why the world looked upside-down through the peephole in the trailer, a question that can indeed consume hours if the marijuana is strong enough, which it was.
That night I got to play 8-ball with Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, and Roy Blount, Jr. taught me the words to the songs we would sing. In every city, the Remainders would pick up a couple of local authors to join the chorus, and in Cambridge I had the privilege of doing just that.
On the way back from Northampton to Boston, where I lived at the time, I was working on the words to 60s hits including “Louie, Louie”⎯who knew the song even had real words? I was so consumed with getting the lyrics right that it’s amazing I never drove off the Mass Pike.
And then, the next day, came my fifteen minutes of fame. The shows were well-attended, and Roy Blount, Jr. really sold me to a local crowd by explaining that I was one of their own, a local author joining the band for the day. I’m not a big ego guy, but I sure liked that round of applause when I was up on stage. We did our songs, the audience danced and went crazy seeing Ridley Pearson on electric guitar, and Amy Tan delivering an astonishingly sexy version of “These Boots Were Made For Walking” as Roy Blount, Jr. and I did the chorus. “Louie, Louie” brought the house down.
In between shows, I got to sit in the tour bus with Stephen King, who could not have been kinder to a young and unknown writer like myself.
“I write the way I do because I have the heart of an eight-year-old boy,” King told me. “I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
I asked him the question I always ask major authors, so I can go back and tell my writing classes. At the time, I was teaching three times a year at U.C.L.A. and at private classes in the Boston area. The key question: how do you organize your work?
King gave a thoughtful reply.
“I honestly don’t do any outlining,” he said. “I’ll just write two drafts and I’ll polish, and along the way I’ll write myself notes like, ‘Remember to explain how Billy got the money for the airplane.’”
First, I was astonished by the fact that someone could write a 1,200 page manuscripts that flowed perfectly without creating even the slightest sense of an outline. That astonished me. And second, I remember sitting in the bus and thinking to myself, how Billy got the money for the airplane? Billy must be a kid, and kids don’t get money for airplanes. That’s so Stephen King.
Someone was kind enough to take a picture of King and me, and I look, to use the phrase of my fellow Authors Guild member, the great baseball writer Roger Angell, “unforgivably young.” I had just joined a self-help group of which King was also a member, and we had discussed that fact. As the photo was snapped, King, who graciously put his arm around me, whispered in my ear, “It gets better.”
The other memory of my one evening as a Rock Bottom Remainder was this⎯two very attractive, blonde German girls had taken a fancy to me as I performed, and invited me to join them in their hotel room. True story. I followed them, away from the theater in Cambridge, only to lose them in those pre-cell phone days in the swirling Cambridge traffic.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Otherwise, they might have proven Stephen King wrong. It probably would never have gotten better than that.