Every so often (weekly at the moment), I’ll be writing a commentary about a story from EMPTY ROOMS LONELY COUNTRIES. I’ll tackle the stories in the order they appear in the book. Given the nature of this exercise, I cannot guarantee that I won’t spoil specific details from the story. So you may want to return to the commentaries here when you’ve finished reading the book. If I don’t address an aspect of the story you were interested in, by all means leave a question at the end of this post and I’ll do my best to answer it.
This story was originally supposed to be published in City Style magazine. This particular version is a re-write or two beyond what was submitted to the magazine, but I’m confident nothing significant is missing. Somewhere along the way, I twisted the tense from present to past, and “the magazine” became the “now-defunct magazine”.
At the time, “Defying Gravity” was the piece I was most proud of – probably since “The Illusion of Swing” – and it was upsetting for me when my editor Derrek told me that it wouldn’t be published. We were in my kitchen, and there was a party happening. This was early 1999, when Spryte and I were having parties pretty regularly, whether it was Milkshake Tuesday (bring your own ice cream and we’ll do the rest!) or Let’s-Gather-Our-Friends-Together-To-Meet-Christian/Spryte’s-New-Girl/Boyfriend-And-Frighten-Them-Events. Derrek and I were drinking White Russians and he started telling me what was going on with City Style.
Basically, if I’m remembering it right, the magazine was sold to someone else, specifically a woman who had no previous experience running a magazine. The story went that the Weekly Planet had recently written a negative review of her husband’s South Tampa pizzeria, and because they were angry, and because they had the money to burn, the wife bought City Style as a way of becoming a serious competitor against the Weekly Planet. She had a laundry list of changes, and it seemed – to me anyway – that her most vocal complaint had to do with my writing. She wanted my participation with the magazine to be minimal at best.
I wasn’t stupid enough to believe my writing was for everyone, so it didn’t surprise me that the new publisher didn’t like my work. What surprised me was how she never once talked to me personally, never once brought the then-current writers together to discuss what was happening with the magazine, or anything else that would be even remotely professional. I’m not saying that we were the greatest writing staff in Tampa, but there were some excellent people contributing every month – many for free – and they deserved some kind of acknowledgement.
Unfortunately for Derrek, he insisted that my writing was an asset for the magazine. The following week or so after the party was filled with phone calls from Derrek, sometimes optimistic, most of the time pessimistic, but he was insistent on making sure that, if anything, “Defying Gravity” would be published.
And so, Derrek calling to let me know that he was fired didn’t surprise me as much as I thought it would. What shocked me was how Derrek was let go.
City Style lasted only two more issues after Derrek’s removal. The one issue I saw wasn’t an improvement by any means, and it certainly didn’t have a chance in hell of going against the Weekly Planet. The new publisher managed to suck all of the flavor from the magazine, and in doing so she successfully turned City Style into a magazine that was as indistinguishable and vanilla as 99% of the publications Tampa would see in the next ten years.
While a lot of my work at the time reflected our generation’s displacement and problematic lack of identity, I felt that “Defying Gravity” was the first story to shift the focus away from that generalized “my generation” to the more personalized “this is me”. Since my return from London – as seen in “Little Conundrums” – I was overwhelmed with this constant feeling that I had missed something vital. It was important for me to participate in anything remotely outrageous, whether it’s heading into town and drink myself to death or jumping on a plane to Atlanta for three days, because I was secretly hoping that this was the event that was going to bring me where I needed to be. Even my relationships at the time were volatile because I needed the drama to feel more alive. I figured, Fitzgerald had Zelda, Miller had June, and it was impossible to consider their work without the influence of these women. Without June, Miller might not have had the fire to write Tropic of Cancer. Without the need to prove himself to Zelda, Fitzgerald might not have finished The Great Gatsby, and certainly would not have had the material for Tender is the Night. So, which one of these women would be the one to take me to the next level? Who would be the one to get rid of all this ennui? And it was this way of approaching everything as a writer that made life difficult at the time:
Kurt Vonnegut wrote once that Americans are miserable because we try to live our lives like the characters in a short story, which in essence, was the object of our own disillusionment. For two days we were nothing but characters acting out a life that was nothing like our own inside a world that was nothing like our own, and now that this story was concluding, we couldn’t help but feel discouraged.
We’ve managed to displace ourselves from the truth and we all knew it. Somewhere in all of this, we believed that the rest of the world – the one where people are slaughtered by the thousands because of petty disputes, where the superheroes call it quits while the villains run for office, where nothing seems to make any sense if you stare at it for too long – was no more, and that somehow we found asylum in the vacuum of our own absurdity. And now, after fully comprehending it, it was time to go home.
As writers, you’d figure that we’d know better.
We finished breakfast, paid the bill and left for home; in eight hours, our story would be ended and our lives would resume as it once did. We would simply be ourselves again, like it or not.
A lot of people have asked how we ended up in Alabama instead of Florida. And it’s a good question, especially since to drive to a completely different state requires a great amount of effort and ineptitude. When we finished breakfast that Sunday morning, we were all barely holding it together. We spent the hour before piecing together what had happened in the last two days. We had rolls of film, and we were both excited and terrified to see what was on them. During the course of breakfast, there were a lot of aha!-moments where someone would remember something vital. While I still hadn’t had my first hangover (that would come in another six years), I was still tremendously exhausted. Compared to the rest, I was the one in the best shape to drive. My friend in the passenger seat stayed away long enough to get me onto the highway. Before she passed out, she said to stay on the highway until we got to Tampa. And so I drove. Now, I do remember feeling the something was off, whether it be the placement of the sun or the large amount of advertising for businesses within Alabama; still, I drove on because I trusted the instructions that were given to me.
The detour added four or so hours to what should have been an 8 hour drive. We had to get off the highway and work our way south-east through rural Georgia. We stopped at the weirdest places we found along the way, and ate the best boiled peanuts and fried foods. It was a surreal and beautiful side trip.