One Saturday night well over a year ago, I went to Williamsburg, Brooklyn—more specifically, to the bar Galapagos—to meet my girlfriend, Mo, who wanted me with her at a modern burlesque show where one of her friends was performing. I emerged from the Bedford Avenue L-train stop into a parallel universe where everyone seemed to be pressed out of the same mold. Each man seemed to wear a trucker hat; each woman seemed to wear a little T-shirt and was laden with 10 pounds of accessories. The entire neighborhood was infested with hipsters, a brand of human that defines itself by its ironic superiority, its youth, and its tendency toward obscure music choices. Edging on 30, thick, and in an old, uninteresting shirt, I stood and looked at the milling thousands who wandered down Bedford and wondered, Who are these people?
A few days later I dropped the editors at The Morning News an email. Until that point I had mostly written personal essays and humor pieces, and I was looking for a new challenge. I have an idea, I wrote. I want to write a serialized novel as a Williamsburg wannabe-indie-rocker.
I decided the character would be from Albany, N.Y.—a city I have visited a few times and disliked—and that he would be totally, unapologetically dedicated to rocking in all of its many forms. The editors and I decided to publish the series under the indie-rocker’s name, Gary Benchley; it would be fun, we decided, to perpetrate a hoax and see what happened. I picked “Gary” because I didn’t know anyone named Gary, so none of my friends would worry this story was about them, and “Benchley” because there was a book of Robert Benchley essays on the bookshelf near my desk. To make him more real, we gave Gary his own email address. After a few installments of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, letters began to arrive.
Hey, Gary. I was just reading your latest letter on The Morning News. You write about your dick a lot. Aside from that, you seem pretty cool. My girlfriend and I will be in New York in June, on our way to Toronto. We’re Australian and we only know one person in New York, and zero people who can drop as many band names as you can into such a small amount of text. So we thought, being fellow Postal Service fans, maybe you’d like to have a drink with us one night and give us some tips about cool places to hang out. We’ll only be there for a week or so. Obviously we could be insane, really ugly, or not very cool, but I can assure you that none of these things are true.
Some people saw through the hoax, but a surprising number didn’t. Over the year hundreds of people dropped Gary a line. It wasn’t just girls from Australia looking for a good time in New York. A Brooklyn rock band wrote to ask if Gary wanted to join them as a guitarist. A woman who described herself as “the only female drummer in Namibia” wrote to encourage Gary in his quest for a “hot chick drummer.” An editor from the New York Times wrote in, asking Gary if he wanted to write for them—and was quite disappointed to learn that he wasn't real.
This made sense. Gary was a 22-year-old fully embracing life. Gary was hooked into the culture of New York City in a way only a young person, seeing the tall buildings and going out for expensive drinks, can be. He was immune to ennui and fully committed to writing himself into this city’s great myth. And he wrote honestly about having his genitals ravaged by a dachshund. How could I, eight years older and much more likely to stay home typing than go out rocking, compare?
You rock. What hood are you from in Albany? What year did you leave? I’m from the place, maybe we know some peeps.
What came next surprised me. Literary agents began to email Gary, telling him he should start turning his column into a novel. A few months after that, editors at publishing houses began to write in as well. One agency, ICM, figured out I was behind Benchley, and I decided if they could puzzle out my identity from the clues I left in Gary’s story, I should give them my business.
From there it was off to meet the editors. Jake Klisivitch at Plume Books made it clear he wanted the book, and within a few more weeks I had an advance promised to me and a book contract. It took about two months to put it all together. Well, holy shit, I thought. That’s not how it happens. Somehow in the writer’s lottery, I had come up with a winning number. The confluence of The Morning News, indie rock, Williamsburg, and hoaxing was, at that moment, the correct recipe for getting a book deal.
Once the contract was signed I spent many weeks congratulating myself. I took field trips to Williamsburg to sit in coffee shops for research. I took a longer trip to Austin, Texas, to join my friend Steve Burns as he toured the American Southwest with his band. I sat in the van and made mental notes about the life of the independent rock musician, which, especially in the Southwest, consists of extremely long, monotonous drives followed by an hour of performance, followed by more driving. I interviewed Steve at length and read books about music production so I could get the jargon right. Then I sat down and I didn’t write.
I continued to not write for quite a while. Having a book deal is pure pleasure. It brushes away all of your self-doubt because you can walk down the street, look at people and think, Do they have a book deal? I live in Brooklyn, so the answer is “yes” for every third passerby, but I didn’t let that fact get in the way of my swelling sense of self-importance. Paul Ford was going to be a published author of fiction! In trade paperback! On paper! With a cover! Yes, I was the shit.
But while it’s great to have a book deal, writing a book is deadly. It involves sitting still (which I found I could do just fine) and coming up with ideas (which was much harder). Luckily I had The Morning News and my editor Rosecrans Baldwin waiting for a new installment of Gary Benchley, Rock Star every other Wednesday. This required me to produce at least 3,000 words every two weeks. By delivering these installments to Rosecrans, and by writing great heaps of prose between November and January 2004, I was able to accrue the 85,000 words expected and get a solid draft out the door. When it was done I was almost broke, because my advance, which was equivalent to about six months’ worth of living expenses, took much longer to get to me than I expected—which is, I guess, the typical situation in publishing. But I still had enough in the bank to make rent and buy cigarettes.
Here’s the thing… so far in the story you’ve played a total of two shows… one of which was a party which I have a hard time counting as a “show”… no offense… but, yeah. So, technically, after your FIRST show… you get approached by the manager of a band that draws over 250 people to a club who automatically starts talking labels with you even though your set didn’t even have a full band? (no guitar)?
Now, maybe the opportunity pool in NYC is a lot deeper than the shallow “kiddie-pool” of a scene we have here in Minneapolis, or maybe this manager reads the column and believes it’s marketing genius for the band (which it is), or perhaps your band kicks so much ass on their own that the minute you pick up the guitar you no longer sound like you just stepped out of the garage, but this sort of stuff just doesn’t happen. Hell, I know of and have played along side bands who were (and are) AMAZING and have been playing together for over six years actively in clubs not only in Mpls but throughout the country and they STILL aren’t getting attention from any serious management… let alone a label.
HOW CAN THIS HAPPEN???
I don’t exactly know how it happened that I started smoking at 30. The best explanation I can offer is this: After a serious relationship broke up in May 2003, I began to go out regularly for drinks with friends, and since the smoking ban in New York bars requires smokers to stand outside whenever they want a cigarette, I would go out with them to keep the conversation moving, and of course I took a cigarette when offered—such a small sin, in the scope of things, and such a pleasure as the smoke entered my lungs and the nicotine entered my bloodstream. But I never bought a pack for myself, so I wasn’t really a smoker—until I did buy a pack one night.
By November 2004, with the deadline for the book a few months away, I had learned that drinking a few bottles of Diet Coke and smoking an entire pack of Marlboros was exactly the right medicine to keep me up through the night writing whatever needed to be written. Typically I would write all night, and then, at about six in the morning, I’d stumble downstairs for a cup of coffee and a bagel with egg and cheese, come back up to my apartment, and sleep until two in the afternoon.
I was growing even fatter, and I coughed constantly. My girlfriend saw me hardly at all, and when she did I had bags under my eyes the size of clams. I was not much of a boyfriend during those months. I hope being thanked sincerely in the acknowledgements of the book gives her some solace for the hulking, pale mess I was as I wrote the last half of Gary Benchley, Rock Star; Mo deserves it, especially after taking me to the emergency room the night after I finished the first draft.
Your missives are strangely comforting to anyone who has ever tried to make any kind of art out of life (or in spite of life, or because of life…). The recent letter echoes much of what my friends have gone through in their music-making, and if only they’d known…In any case, hope you’re not planning on killing this off anytime soon.
I’d been having these odd chest pains and ignoring them. It was just a slight, nagging tension right about where my heart is. After a month of these pains I finally confessed to Mo what was going on. “Well,” she said, “you need to go to the doctor right away.”
“But,” I said, “I don’t have insurance.”
She wasn’t swayed by that argument, so we walked over to Long Island College Hospital, where I was immediately ushered into the emergency room. Doctors poked at me and took measurements. My heart was fine, they said, but my heartbeat was surprisingly fast. As they poked my chest and looked into my pupils, I became convinced I was going to die.
“You’re on drugs,” said a doctor.
“No,” I said. “I’m always like this.”
The doctor shook his head. I was transferred from bed to bed while Mo sat in the waiting room. A woman next to me screamed in pain. I thought, If this is what it takes to write a novel, I’m getting out of the business.
I had been thinking about writing you for a while, but I figured you’d probably had enough people writing telling you how great your stories are… BUT, this new development with Katherine has me all excited and very much looking forward to reading more. Keep ‘em comin’!
The doctors never did figure out what was wrong with me. They told me to calm down, get more sleep, and stop drinking six cups of coffee and five Diet Cokes a day, and please, please stop smoking. It was also implied I should, from time to time, go outside and move my body from place to place. I went home and held Mo’s hand, staring at the ceiling of her living room. Given that I still hadn’t seen my advance, I would now be totally broke once I paid the nearly $1,000 it cost me to go to the hospital.
I quit smoking, mostly. I started going outside again, blinking in the sunlight. The chest pains, whether they were stress or acid reflux or something else, cleared up and did not return. And I continued to send in my every-other-week installments of Benchley to The Morning News, editing the novel into shape under the counsel of Rosecrans, Jake at Plume, and the friends who took the time to read it and offer advice. I turned in the final draft and started a new job the next day, a job with benefits that allowed me to go to the doctor. My new doctor told me I was OK but needed to get in shape. My shape is still a work in progress, but I did convince the doctor to buy a copy of the book when it was published. Publishing is a game of inches, and every copy counts.
And that is the story of how Gary Benchley, Rock Star came to be.
I’ve been a fan of your column for about a year now, and I was sorry to read the last one. I was even sorrier to read that you’re doing a book with Plume for $3,000. If that’s your actual advance (and for your sake I hope it’s not), it’s embarrassing. Not to seem opportunistic, but any good literary agent (I’m not one yet, but my boss is) would be able to get you significantly more money than that, and also negotiate you a better contract. I would have emailed you about writing a book months ago, but you seemed pretty damn busy with the band, etc. I don’t know if you’ve signed anything with Plume, but you might want to consider re-negotiating the deal, or at the very least, consulting with someone about your contract. I’d be happy to talk to you about this, because: 1. I like your columns and I’d like to see you write a good book, 2. I’d be interested in representing you (jointly with my boss), which would carry benefits such as those mentioned above, as well as our ability to help push the marketing and publicity of the book when it comes out. If any of this sounds interesting to you, let me know. And even if it’s not, can you write back and tell me the actual name of your band?
Many have questioned the ethics of perpetrating this hoax on the trusting readers of The Morning News. Doing so is, at the least, a violation of the author-reader contract. Perhaps I could say it was an experiment in online identity, or an attempt to play at the boundaries of fiction, but that would give me more credit than I deserve. Gary Benchley, Rock Star started as my vehicle for mocking the world around me. I made fun of indie rockers and indie rock fans, bloggers, celebrity culture, yoga devotees, and pretentious New Yorkers. I mocked with affection, or at least a sense of self-preservation, because, even though I am not a yoga devotee, I am guilty of all the other sins just listed: I have the Arcade Fire on my MP3 player, I read Gawker.com and Radar Magazine, and I am just as snobbish in my tiny web-writer subculture as anyone in indie rock.
Later, the story became something different. I grew fond of Gary Benchley and his bandmates, and I spent less time mocking my protagonist and more time trying to capture that sense of being young, stupid, and in love with New York City that I remembered from my own experiences. Like Gary, I washed up on the East River shore at 22. I was hopeful, wandering through the East Village with friends, staying out all night and talking about how I could make it as a writer. In my book it takes Gary less than a year to get a band together; that’s fiction. It took me eight years to be able to look someone in the eye and tell them I was a writer without feeling like I was lying.
I have been a radio man without a station for many years now (I am 30), and I just wanted to tell you that your story has been a real inspiration to me. Encouraged by your moxie and determination, I have committed to producing/directing my own program, broadcasters be damned. This was a goal I had long since abandoned that has been revived thanks in no small part to your column. So—thank you, Gary.
And yes, perpetrating this hoax troubled me, and I felt pangs of guilt whenever I received earnest emails from people around the world who empathized with Gary, who saw in his plight some of their own struggles. As the serial progressed I stopped laughing at the people who wrote in to Gary to share a few details from their lives and began to feel a kinship with them. Like them, I had come to believe in Gary Benchley, in his struggle to get a band together and make a life for himself in New York City. I began to see the people who wrote to him as co-conspirators in the prank rather than its victims. So many strangers—hundreds, by the time the series ended—were affected enough by the stories of this young man they felt the need to open their email programs and drop him a note, sometimes to praise, sometimes to excoriate, sometimes to ask if he was real or not
I found there are many decent, trusting people in the world (although I did take advantage of their trust to learn that). In response, I decided to try to write a book that honors the reader’s faith in Gary Benchley, even if I myself am a reprehensible hoaxster. I, like Gary’s fans, wanted him to succeed—if not as a rock star, then as a human being. Otherwise, what was the point of humiliating him so thoroughly in episode after episode?
And so the joke, created after one night’s frustration in Williamsburg, became my first novel (Plume Books, $14). I hope Gary’s fans find that to be a fitting punchline.
Paul Ford will read from his debut novel Gary Benchley, Rock Star at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6 (reading starts at 8:30 p.m.), at Spike Hill Bar, 184 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn (take the L Train to Bedford Ave.). All are invited. More details are available at the book’s website, garybenchleyrockstar.com.