Lewis DeSimone on Seeing the Order That Underlies What Only Looks Like Chaos
Lewis DeSimone is the author of the novels Chemistry and The Heart’s History, which was shortlisted for the Rainbow Award. On his first trip to the West Coast more than 20 years ago, he fell in love at first sight with San Francisco and decided to sacrifice the red brick sidewalks and autumn leaves of his native Boston for sunshine, rainbow flags, and the thrill of earthquakes. He only occasionally feels homesick.
Lewis’s stories and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, and he regularly blogs at the Huffington Post and SexandtheSissy.wordpress.com. His autobiographical essay “Last Tango in Cambridge,” from the anthology The Other Man, is currently being adapted for the stage—as if the subject itself weren’t dramatic enough. To read excerpts from his work or contact him directly, please visitwww.lewisdesimone.com.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
I’ve always hated that question. It’s a product of America’s work-focused culture, the notion that your identity is somehow embodied in your job. Asking people what they do is pretty much like asking how they are. All anyone wants to hear is “fine.” Tell them you have a stomach flu or you’re in a funk because you just had a fight with your lover, and most of them will get a look of horror on their face and suddenly remember that they’re late for an appointment.
Much to the detriment of my bank account, I have never defined myself by a job. I do a lot of things: I write novels, I drink wine, I host dinner parties, I binge-watch Masters of Sex. But typically, when pressed, I will gauge my interlocutor’s receptiveness and respond either with, “I’m a writer, but I do marketing for a living,” or “I’m in marketing, but I’m really a novelist.” It’s like an actor saying what he really wants to do is direct.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
My biggest struggle is making time to write. I’m not one of those people who get up early and work on their novels for an hour before heading to the office. I tend to work in bursts, not by any consistent schedule. Sometimes it’s just jotting down notes as I lie in bed. At other times, I’ll sit down at the computer at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, and the next time I look up it’s the middle of the afternoon. The trick I’ve become most fond of should have been obvious a long time ago: a staycation. It’s amazing how much I can get done in a week when there are no non-writer obligations on my plate.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
After I finished guffawing and peeing my pants, I would tell the poor idealistic thing that the hardest part of writing — and the part few writers enjoy — is marketing. Make connections, go to conferences, get your name out there. That’s as much a part of the job as sitting at the computer and spilling out your alleged genius.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
If success is defined as achieving fame and fortune from your passion, then no. Not yet, at least. But I do get to sit down and write a perfect sentence now and then — which is pretty much the greatest feeling in the world — and I get to share my work with others. Readers tell me that my work has made them laugh, cry, and think. And that’s really what it’s all about — using words to make a connection.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Something with cats, of course. … Actually, I’m less likely to turn to YouTube than to pop in a DVD of Auntie Mame. It’s impossible to feel bad when Rosalind Russell is telling you to “live, live, live!” As I discussed in the anthology My Diva, Mame Dennis is my all-time favorite movie character. If there’s one fictitious person I could bring to life and spend an evening with, it would be her.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
Adam. He took care of this very cool garden, but then he made a really, really bad mistake. I can relate.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Back then, and even before, I wanted to be a writer. I don’t know how or why, but I wanted to be a writer pretty much from the moment I started reading. Stories fascinated me, and I wanted to have my own to tell. I can’t be sure what I was reading at the age of 10 — maybe Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, maybe a little Dickens. At that age, writers weren’t my heroes. I think I was more into movie stars. In my novel The Heart’s History, one of the characters reflects on his childhood crush on the young Jack Nicholson. I did not make that up.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I tried it once or twice but burst out laughing before I could get past the second button. I did win a wet underwear contest once, though, if that counts.
What’s wrong with society today?
How much space do I have? Let me focus on just one thing. People are overstimulated these days by having too many options — 2,000 TV channels, a billion websites, and thousands of books being published every week, all without much vetting by experts. As a result, patience is in short supply, and all voices (no matter how insipid) are given equal weight. When everyone’s special, special becomes meaningless.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
New Amsterdam gin. Every writer needs a copilot.
What is your fondest memory?
When my first nephew was eight months old, he fell asleep lying on my chest, and I dozed off right along with him. It was the purest moment of love I’ve ever experienced.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Every time I remember to shut off the internal judge and open to the empathetic mind.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The election of the first woman president of the United States. As long as she’s a Democrat.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I’ve often heard it said that artists create order from the chaos of life. I prefer to think that artists have the gift of seeing the order that underlies what only looks like chaos. Art is the manifestation of that vision — something that makes the truth (which often means ugliness) of human existence look, sound, and feel beautiful. And yes, art is absolutely necessary, at least for me. Without the understanding that art brings to the universe, I would be merely existing, not living. It’s the difference between opening a can of tuna fish at home and experiencing the tasting menu at Gary Danko.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment, I’m working on the umpteenth revision of a novel I thought was finished months ago (the curse of having an astute reader who’s not afraid to tell me what’s wrong with it). It’s my first attempt at romantic comedy — and the first of my books in which nobody dies. But there is one character who’s testing me, so he’d better watch his Ps and Qs.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I have always gravitated toward writers who have something profound to say about the human condition. I wrote my college thesis on Thomas Hardy, but I’ve never had the nerve to work on the wide canvas that seemed to come so naturally to him. Among contemporary novelists, I most admire Philip Roth. If I could write the equivalent of American Pastoral or The Human Stain, I would die a happy man.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Weather — not better weather, just more complicated weather. I grew up on the East Coast, and the thing I miss most is thunderstorms.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
It probably starts with a martini and ends with Sondheim.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Donald Trump announcing his presidential candidacy.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With 50 words, you can write the elevator pitch of a novel. And those will be the most difficult 50 words you ever write. With 50 dollars you can buy a bottle of good wine to recover from the stress.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Strawberries, fine chocolate, my lover’s sweat.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Six months in a cottage in Provence, where I could live like a Frenchman and write like Hemingway. Well, Hemingway with adjectives.