On the first night of one of my classes at Johns Hopkins, I sat next to a guy covered in tats and wearing an interesting fedora. I immediately went about the process of making friends with Isaac James Baker. His first published novel, Broken Bones, is out this week, and he allowed me to interview him for my blog.
Congrats on your new book, published this week!
What’s it about and where can we buy it?
It’s about a young man who wakes up in the emergency room and has no idea how he got there. That’s because he’s starved himself close to death and hasn’t slept in weeks. So he ends up in a psychiatric ward for people with eating disorders. Each chapter of the book is his journal entry from that day.
If the book is based on a real experience, why did it take the form of a novel?
In 2008, I found myself in an E.R. because I hadn’t eaten or slept much for a few months. At that point, I was close to death and completely insane. But in that state, writing was an instinctual way of fighting for my sanity, so I wrote compulsively. Yes, I spent a month in an eating disorder ward and the novel is inspired by that experience. But when I got out, I tried to boil down all my writing into a coherent book, and I realized that I couldn’t trust myself as a reliable source. Nonfiction was not an option because I had no way to discern what was reliable, in a journalistic sense.
I’ve focused most of my writing on journalism and non-fiction, writing that is based on facts and observation. Maybe that’s made me skeptical of memoirs. The good ones read like novels and the bad ones are just novels with a memoir label slapped on. So I wrote a novel. The novel is a highly intimate form, but it also provides some level of distance between the writer and the reader, more so than with a memoir. I needed the freedom of the novel so I could take liberties.
Your original publisher went bankrupt and your original agent landed in jail, but you still managed to publish this book. What can you share with other writers looking to publish a first book that would help them learn from your experience?
That was not a fun process. When I finished Broken Bones, I sent it out to more than 100 agents, publishers, contests, etc. After countless rejections, someone jumped on it and sent me a contract, which I signed. I thought my life was awesome. Turns out my agent was engaging in various financial shenanigans. He kept telling me he was in the hospital struggling with serious health issues, and, having just survived a traumatic hospital experience myself, I sympathized with him. But he was convicted of scamming a bunch of people, so he went to jail. The publisher doesn’t exist anymore. The novel passed out before getting off the ground.
So, I started over. I tried the whole selling myself process from scratch, but it was too depressing. The four-year-long waiting game of bullshit left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I needed to get over it. Also, there was a part of me that felt I couldn’t move on until I published this book. Writing the book was a key part of my recovery, and maybe I viewed publication as some sort of final step. I just couldn’t wait any longer.
So, now the book is available for Kindles and Nooks and will shortly be available in print, through an on-demand printing press. I fear that “self-publishing” the book will doom it to “obscurity,” but at this point, I don’t care. I’m just honored people want to read it. There is so much community among writers and readers, and I wanted to engage with that community directly. (That said: if an indie press out there wants to scoop this up for a second edition, I’m listening.)
You’ve written and published poems, essays, short stories, and now a novel. What’s the hardest form for you? Which do you enjoy the most?
Poems are so hard. With a poem, I feel like you have to have some sort of seriously profound thing to say, and then you have to say it perfectly or you’ll fuck it up. I love short stories most because you can mix the best things about poetry and the best things about prose. Short stories allow writers to riff and pull off crazy tricks. The short story is the perfect medium for exploration.
Where and when do you write?
All over, all the time. I get some of my best writing done at my desk late at night, like 11 pm until question mark. Or, if I go to bed early, I get up at dawn and write. I always have a notebook in my jacket or backpack, to write things down as I’m on the train or sitting on a park bench. If I don’t write it down, I don’t remember it, so writing is a constant process. Writing while traveling is pure bliss, and it’s really challenging and rewarding, so my notebook comes in handy when I’m running around.
Tell us about your wine blog.
Writing and wine are my passions, so I mix them together. When I turned 21, I dreamed of a career in the wine business, so I studied like crazy, took classes and exams, worked in wineries and wine bars. I toured wine regions and became a dedicated member of several tasting groups. I’m driven to write about wine, I think, because it’s such a frequently misunderstood subject. Wine isn’t about money or status, it’s about fruit and earth and farmers and history. Plus, it’s delicious. I’m also a huge nerd, and wine is such an endlessly evolving subject, so we make a good match. I guess my blog is like a journal of wine adventures and education.
Let’s pretend you wrote and sold a screenplay of one of your novels, for which you were paid handsomely. Where would you vacation?
If I got ever got paid a large sum of money for my writing — and this is pure conjecture here — I’d head to Perth, Australia. I’m a surf nut and I’ve wanted to surf the West Australian coast since I was a kid. I’d rent a car and visit some of the meanest waves in all these remote spots. Plus, the western Australian region of Margaret River is home to some amazing wines. For me, a vacation spot has to have reliable surf and beautiful wine country in close proximity.
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