Here I Go Again

My literary agent once said I was my own worst enemy – I had too many interests, wrote on too many topics and in too many genres to build a loyal readership.

It’s hard to argue with that. My first book was a young adult novel followed by three humor books. Then I wrote a marketing book and an investing book. Next up were several novels ranging from satire to chick-lit to paranormal. My newest book, co-authored with Jillian Vorce, grew out of a class I teach at BC and focuses on encouraging personal reflection and increasing self-knowledge.

So what literary path have I chosen to pursue next? Obviously something I’ve never done before: a thriller.

It’s been said that most artists – painters, musicians, sculptors, writers, actors, etc. – possess some sort of character flaw bordering on mental illness. That’s probably an overstatement (I hope) but I do believe there’s truth in the fact (not of the “alternative fact” variety) that we tend to see the world from a slightly different (askew?) perspective.

In my case, I think the “disorder” stems from the fact that I’ve never written simply to make money. I write the kind of stuff I enjoy reading. If that means I’ll never reach the stature or earnings of a John Grisham, I’m okay with it.

As I’m writing this, however, I’m reminded that I once did purposely write to make money. And I succeeded. It was back in the early 1980’s and I was spending a week on the Cape. My YA novel had been published and I was selling articles and essays to a bunch of magazines and newspapers – but not making very much money. So I sat back and asked myself a simple question: “What sells?” The answer was equally simple: “Sex!” So, within a week I had written captions for a cartoon book called How To Tell If It Was Good. The book was published by Ivory Tower Press and sold over 200,000 copies.

The moral of the story? Perhaps, unlike white mice, I don’t learn. Perhaps I can’t truly synthesize life lessons – even those that slap me upside the head. Who knows? Maybe the urge to write something strictly for money will strike again. Until then, await my foray into the thriller market – and wish me luck in battling my obvious disorder.

Interview with “Change the Word”

Blackboard with chalkChange the Word: What was your inspiration for Still Counting
Phil Fragasso: I’d always wanted to write a classic romantic page-turner like Erich Segal’s Love Story, but I wanted the story to revolve around contemporary issues (in this case sexual identity). My goal was to create a character-driven story that would make readers laugh and cry and provide some insight in the process.

CTW: What was the greatest challenge you faced while writing it, and how did you overcome it?
PF: I’ve often said that my tragic flaw is having too many interests. I’ve written in a wide variety of genres and my most recent work has been nonfiction. I have a literary agent who has sold my nonfiction books, but he handles very little fiction and declined to represent Still Counting. I tried to find another agent who specialized in fiction but couldn’t find any takers. Many of them said how much they liked the writing, but they declined primarily because I was an unknown in genre fiction. I loved the book and had decided to self-publish – but first tried some small independent publishers. That’s when Wild Rose Press and I discovered each other – and I couldn’t be happier.

CTW: If you could spend a day hanging out with one character from Still Counting, who would you choose and what would you do?
PF: It would have to be Nina. She’s a remarkable young woman. Strongly independent beyond her years (she’s only 22). She’s a beautiful and sassy artist who knows exactly who she is and makes no apologies to anyone. I love people like that. I’d want to spend the day walking around Boston and Cambridge with her talking about whatever popped into our heads and eating at some of the cool restaurants and bars mentioned in the book.

CTW: What are three things you need when you sit down to write?
PF: First off, gotta have my MacBook Air. It’s weird how my writing process has changed over the years. When I started writing, I wrote on a manual typewriter. When I upgraded to an electric typewriter, I found I could no longer write with my fingers on the keyboard. Maybe it was the impatient hum of the motor, but I had to write longhand and then type it. When I moved to computers I was again able to sit at the keyboard and create. Now I have a hard time writing longhand – probably because I edit extensively as I write. Second thing would be a beverage. Usually coffee in the morning, diet Coke and iced tea in the afternoon, and whiskey in the evening (though not always in that order). Something about writing makes me thirsty. Why? Can’t say. The third thing would be a comfortable place to sit. That may sound strange, but I’m big on comfort. I can write most anywhere regardless of noise levels or lighting, inside or outside, just as long as I’m sitting comfortably. (And yes that means I can’t write while standing up. Tried but can’t do it.)

CTW: Where do you draw inspiration from as a writer?
PF: Everywhere. I have way more storylines, situations, characters, and plot twists than I could ever use. I can’t point to how or why, but the inspiration just pops into my head. Part of it is that I’m always open to new ideas and keep my eyes and ears wide open

CTW: What are your three all-time favorite reads?
PF: “All-time favorite” is tough and limiting it to three is impossible. I’ve always had a soft spot for what I would call “mainstream/commercial literary fiction” – books like The World According to Garp, The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Help, and The Invention of Wings. They’re all funny, sad, and universally relatable. Also loved Still Alice and The Notebook – both of which combined stories of true love with the inevitability of aging and death.

CTW: What is the most important lesson you have learned so far as an author? 
PF: Discipline is king. If you wait for inspiration, you’ll wait a long time and end up with nothing. I’ve learned to be very disciplined. When I wrote Still Counting I had an objective of at least 500 words a day, seven days a week. I wrote the first draft in about three months, and then edited and re-edited for another year.

CTW: What’s up next for you and your writing career? 
PF: I have another book, Going Both Ways, coming out on March 18 from Wild Rose Press. It’s a funny, gender-shifting paranormal romance. I’m currently writing two novels – a black-comedy and a road-tripper.

It’s Official: I’m a Girly Man

guy with ipad LOVEI started lusting after girls before I hit my teens. I spent my youth playing baseball and basketball. I love horse racing, pro football, and fishing. I enjoy cold beer, straight whiskey, and the occasional cigar. I’ve owned a series of sports cars over the last three decades. Nonetheless, at the relatively ripe old age of 65, I’ve come to the unequivocal realization that I am a girly man.

As with most things in life, my wife came to this conclusion long before I did. Pretty much from the day we married she’d proudly announce to anyone in hearing range that she was the guy and I was the girl in the relationship. If something needed fixing around the house, I’d look at it, not have a clue what to do, and turn it over to my wife. I’d usually stay nearby in case she needed my “manliness” to reach something high or move something heavy, but for the most part I’d simply stay out of the way.

My wife also likes to point out that I’m the one who remembers our anniversary and can recall who-what-when-and-where minutiae about our first date. I like holding hands and cuddling far more than she does; and I’m the one who reads Nicholas Sparks novels, watches movies with subtitles and, with nary a trace of embarrassment, the one who cried when Haddie returned home from college to be with her cancer-stricken mom on Parenthood.

I used to attribute this aspect of my character to simply being in touch with my feminine side, but I now realize it’s much more pervasive than that. I proactively seek out and embrace the feminine aspect of my character. Many of my closest friends are women and I do find myself confiding more to them than I do to my guy friends. In addition, while noodling this idea, I’ve also recognized that most of my guy friends are also girly men. They don’t cheat on their wives, they don’t drink or gamble to excess, they don’t feel compelled to exercise their Second Amendment right to own firearms, and they tend to be soft-spoken, empathetic and humble. They’re good people who don’t hang out at the country club bar to escape from the old “ball and chain.”

I’ve never been a particularly competitive guy. Whether playing sports or playing board games with friends and family, I don’t really care if I win or lose. I’d prefer to win, but the reason I play is to play. I guess that’s why I’ve never been attracted to the likes of fantasy football. In fact I don’t even understand its appeal. It requires way too large a time commitment and delivers none of the intellectual, social or emotional rewards I value. Plus, if I had Russell Wilson or Luke Kuechly on my fantasy team would I have to root for them even when they’re playing against my beloved Patriots? I don’t get why anyone would purposely choose to add yet another conundrum to our already confusing lives. But there I go again thinking like a woman instead of a dude.

Life is short, which means it’s all about choices. So rather than watching half a dozen sports events every weekend, I limit myself to one or two – and oftentimes none. That means I can’t name the leading running backs in the NFL, the division leaders in the NBA, or the top twenty NCAA teams. But I’m okay with that. It’s not important to me. What is important is learning more about the world around me and the people that are important to me – my family, my friends, my students, and myself. And the way I achieve that is via so-called girly activities like reading, listening, and introspection.

I’ve been a writer for my entire life. I sold my first article when I was sixteen, and I’ve had a wide variety of books and articles published over the years. Recently, however, I’ve decided that the “wide variety” was disadvantageous. I needed to focus my writing. So guess what? I decided to focus on the romance and “chick-lit” genres. I realized I enjoyed reading and writing about the interplay between men and women far more than the cat-and-mouse intrigue of mysteries or the life-and-death plot twists of thrillers. I’ve found that I learn far more about relationships and the human condition from Jodi Picoult than James Patterson. Similarly, I glean more insight when writing a love story than toiling away on a sci-fi adventure. And the beauty is that I can sip just as much whiskey while writing a bittersweet romance as I could working on a hardboiled whodunit.

One of the assignments I give my students at Boston College is to write their own eulogies. That’s a difficult and oftentimes troubling task for young people, and it’s not much easier for folks like me in their seventh decade. But one thing I’d hope to have spoken at my funeral is that “he was a girly man and proud of it.”

Guess I’m a “Trans-Genre” Writer

StillCounting_w10155_300I recently had a new novel accepted by a publisher. When people ask about the book, they usually want to know three things: the title, the plot, and the genre. My response to the first two questions comes fast and easy, but I stumble on the third. Part of the issue is that I hate labels of any kind. I think they’re simplistic and limiting, but that’s not the overriding reason for my hesitation. I feel like I can’t give a simple answer to the question. I have to explain, equivocate and, sometimes, evade outright.

Here’s the problem. My book has been categorized by the publisher as “women’s fiction” – also known as chick-lit. I’m a guy. I’m not a big brawny guy by anyone’s standards, but I am a genuine American male who loves football, drinks whiskey, and confesses to occasionally peeing in the shower. So the admission that I’ve written a chick-lit novel is more than a little disconcerting – to me and the recipient of that information.

Rather than surrender to the chick-lit label, my fallback approach is to analogize. “Remember Erich Segal’s Love Story? It’s kind of like that.” Or “It’s about male-female relationships.” Or “It’s like a James Bond movie without the villains, chase scenes and explosions.” Each of these tends to elicit blank stares so I ultimately have to use the women’s fiction label and refer to contemporary authors like Nicholas Sparks. The blank stares often turn to smirks or sheepish eye rolls. I usually smile and shrug and, for that, I should be ashamed.

I’ve long espoused the tenet that writers should write about what they know and write the kind of books they like to read. So here’s what I know. Love is the most transcendent of human emotions – and the least understood. It’s driven by chemical, physical, intellectual and spiritual attractions (though not necessarily in that order). Love is usually front and center during our moments of deepest despair and rapturous joy. Like most people, I’ve experienced both extremes. I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve shouted and whispered. I’ve begged for and offered forgiveness for transgressions real or imagined. I’ve pondered whether it was better to love or be loved. I’ve wondered whether my experience of love was different from or the same as everyone else’s. And at the most fundamental level, I’ve long wanted to better recognize and appreciate every nuance of what Freddie Mercury called that “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

What I know also drives what I read. I’ve loved books and libraries since I first learned to decipher the alphabet. I read for pleasure, but I also read to learn; and it’s a hallelujah moment when I can combine the two. Many of my hallelujah reading moments have been delivered by books that fall into the chick-lit genre. Books like Eat, Pray, Love; The Rosie Project; The Bridges of Madison County; and The Best of Me. The cynical might question what one could possibly learn from an Elizabeth Gilbert book. The more open-minded will understand that our lives revolve around people and relationships – especially those relationships defined by romantic love and heartfelt bonds. I find that chick-lit books offer a petri dish of love’s complications, encumbrances, and possibilities. In the process they can provide rare insight into the mysteries of love, the arc of heartbreak and renewal, and the secret of successful lifelong commitments.

It’s often stated that people read history to better understand the present. People read chick-lit books about relationships to better understand their own. I’m in that camp. Proudly.