Along with writing ArtSake, we have the privilege of administering a grant program for individual artists. And if you do that over a number of years, some artists and some projects just stick with you. Bill Peters‘s fiction is one of them.
For his 2008 grant, he submitted excerpts of a project that would later become Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality, now being published by Black Balloon Publishing. Bill’s writing – then and now – is daring, by turns funny and searing, and entirely one-of-a-kind. With an inimitable voice, the novel follows a pair of friends threatening to emerge, for better or worse, from their “Rochester Classic Drivearound” days.
We asked Bill about his writing, the publishing process, and the “City of Quality.”
ArtSake: Your characters in Maverick Jetpants speak with a hilarious, hermetic language, a sort of Esperanto of in-jokes. What comes first in your writing process, voice or plot?
Bill: In the case of Maverick Jetpants in The City of Quality, voice definitely came first. In the beginning, all I had were a bunch of phrases I’d come up with. The first few, I think, were things like Kangaroo for a Kid, Mango Jitney, Janitor Bats, and Peanut-Butter Shoulder – borderline gibberish. And I combined them with a lot of aggression and whatever else I’d learned about writing at the time. Those phrases, eventually, developed into the in-joke hierarchy between Nate, the main character, and his best friend Necro as they wandered around Rochester, N.Y.
The way I’ve generally explained it, this language initially helped me reduce a tendency I had to weight down my stories with too much background in attempt to define my characters. The Nate-and-Necro speak became a series of icons, or shortcuts, for what would have been acres of exposition. ‘Hermetic,’ though, is a good word to describe Nate and Necro’s conversations, and their dialect is what drives the plot, which came next. The potential for one-upmanship between the two boys was huge, and whatever littlest new thing breached their Great Wall of Vocab quickly became an invasive species. Translated into a plot, that basically meant that after Necro brings up Did You Shee The Fight (an in-joke Nate doesn’t particularly care for) and takes an interest in illustrating fantasy art, Nate decides to help frame him for arson.
That, literally, has been what I’ve gone with for the elevator-pitch description of the plot. The real point of that arc, however, is to get Nate to drive aimlessly around Rochester looking for Necro, and to get him thinking, in some partially-adult way, about his relationship with Necro and his pathology regarding whoever still seems to care about him.
Generally, though, when I write, what comes first for me could be a sentence fragment, or if I’m lucky, a paragraph or a portion of a scene: basically, whatever sounds good that I can type out without immediately second-guessing myself. I’ll repeat this process until I have a bunch of handfuls of words spaced out over a page or two. It’s completely disorganized, and often interrupted with pacing around or checking the news, but eventually I’ll start to get a sense for what feels right for beginnings, middles and endings. Put another way, I write the highlights first, the stuff I feel good about, and then try to fill in the gaps.
ArtSake: What has most surprised you about the process of publishing your first novel?
Bill: How much my relationship with the manuscript changed between the day I received the publishing contract in the mail and the day I turned in my final copy edits. Suddenly, I had to be accountable for all of the book’s lazy moments that I let be lazy because I assumed the manuscript would never be published. Un-screwing-up all of that was far more stressful than I thought it’d be.
Publishing this book was obviously a life-changing opportunity for me, but also my last opportunity to get the work right, and my last opportunity to get it right while balancing a job and the other people in my life. Editing took two years. And over two years, you mature and experience new things, and the way you look at scenes and sentences you wrote six years ago evolves. In other words, you refine your expectations, and you start to wonder whether you can meet them. In many ways, this is good, because it prevents complacency. It’s just hard work, is all.
Because of who I am – which is to say driven by panic and the fine print – rewriting and editing and completing this book was not the journey of spiritual fulfillment I’d once expected it would be. It was much more like some weird labor camp where I was occasionally allowed to tell jokes. The morning I turned in my final copy edits, I corrected one last typo while waiting in line at FedEx. I could’ve gone another year editing, another five. After I mailed away the manuscript that morning, I thought: Well, I guess that’s why you write other stuff.
But it wasn’t all stress. When I received galleys, and then final copies, I had a clearer sense of the work that I, and everyone else I’d worked with, had put into the book. It looked like a real book – free of the double-spaced, Times-New-Roman sadness of a Microsoft Word document. And that felt pretty darn good.
ArtSake: You submitted excerpts from an early version of this novel for your 2008 Artist Fellowship, so you’ve been working on the project for a good chunk of time. Since the inception of this novel, what has remained of your original ideas, and what has transformed?
Bill: I’d say maybe 60 percent of the original work is still there. The original first chapter is gone, as is a chapter where one character, Lip Cheese, kills himself, and another in which Nate goes on a spiritual retreat. Another shorter chapter, where Nate grinds through a day in the chemical recycling division of Kodak Park, was also cut. The plot – coming-of-age by way of allegations of domestic terrorism – is played up more in the final draft. But the main aspects of the book that I cared about the most in terms of language and feeling still exist.
ArtSake: “The City of Quality” refers to Rochester, N.Y., where you grew up. Place obviously factors strongly into your book. I’m curious (and perhaps you guessed this question was coming): how did your time in Massachusetts affect your life as a writer?
Bill: Massachusetts has had a tremendous influence my writing – certainly more than any other state. My writing instructors in undergrad and grad school taught me everything I know about fiction. The Massachusetts Cultural Council awarded me a fiction fellowship, which was a huge encouragement for me to continue revising this book to the state in which it was accepted for publication. Working in various capacities for Masslive and the Republican newspaper in Springfield allowed me to learn about a community.
Maverick Jetpants in The City of Quality also started out as interrelated short stories that were set, vaguely, in Hatfield, Massachusetts. In earlier drafts of this book, there was a bit more country bravado in Nate’s voice. Maybe there still is, I don’t know. But in my head, it’s a dark, autumnal Massachusetts countryside all the way. And Necro’s unusual speech habit in which he precedes a verb with “take and” – as in “Hey, why don’t you take and empty the register?” I got that from Massachusetts too.
ArtSake: These days, it seems that writers are often called on to assume a more active role in promotion of their books. Have you found that a challenge? A lot of fun?
Bill: No but also yes. I’m terrible with clerical duties. Rather than sort out the piles of paperwork on my desk, I’d just as soon burn the entire desk. I always, too, feel a bit embarrassed to have to ask for favors. I’m okay at hanging out without a hidden agenda, but not so okay at schmoozing in a way where it isn’t obvious that I’m schmoozing. But I do like being able to promote my stuff on Facebook and Twitter. I can work my personality into it a little more.
ArtSake: Can you point to any one decision you’ve made as an artist that has had the most impact on your career?
Bill: There are many exciting, boring, sound and poor decisions that factor equally into this area of my life – from deciding to major in English after planning for Psychology, to moving to New York City instead of staying in the town in New Hampshire where I lived after graduating college. Then, as I’ve said elsewhere, there’s the decision I made, in writing this book, that I would resist pressure to clearly define any of Nate and Necro’s in-jokes.
Probably, a bigger decision than those is this: in fifth grade, I used to draw my own comics, and kids liked me for doing that, and I had friends. In sixth grade, though, I found I had fewer friends for it. By seventh and eighth grade, I’d developed a real problem with shyness – I was pretty good at sports, which could’ve landed me a few more friends, but shyness was such a problem that I actively tried to be more mediocre, athletically, to avoid the attention. But when I came home, I kept drawing. If people found out, I’d have been embarrassed to the point of brain failure. I hid the comics in my top dresser drawer when anyone, with the exception of two friends, came over. But I drew through whatever that anxiety was. And eventually, drawing turned into writing, and by tenth grade, I no longer cared. I kept my old friends and made some new ones, and we were proud of not being Trendy – our favorite thing to call everybody else – and I realized that, whatever it was I’d been afraid of, maybe for a little while I’d weathered it.
Bill Peters will be in conversation with author/musician Nathan Larson on Friday September 28 at 7PM, at Amherst Books. Event co-sponsored by the UMass Amherst MFA program. Find more information on upcoming events.
Bill Peters grew up in Rochester, New York, and has received fiction fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the University of Massachusetts. He works as a copy editor for the New York Times News Service, the wire service for The New York Times. He currently lives in Gainesville, Florida. Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality is his first novel.