I mean, I certainly spent my formative years drinking with the Beats in San Francisco in the late fifties and early sixties. I even did the bars one night with Jack when he came back for a visit. I was there the famous night Allen Ginsberg read HOWL for the first time. My main writer friend in those days was Richard Brautigan. Even our wives and babies were friends, as documented by Ianthe Brautigan in her recent book about her father. It was Richard who intervened with a publisher to get some poems of mine published in Beatitude. But then a forty year dry spell until I published my first novel last year. So the question arises, is it really a Beat novel, because I am or was, even though it wasn’t written then?
A bit over ten years ago I began Siskiyou Racer as a way of learning word processing on my new computer, to help struggling mankind on their journey towards fulfillment, and because I had always been this Beat writer type but without having much to show for it except some poetry. I just started typing the novel and events in it began to unfold.
Ostensibly it’s a love story is about an American car racer and his girlfriend and begins in the 1930s. The real impetus for the novel though, began on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan , during a time that seems to have sparked a lot of spiritual development: the late 1960s. My friend , the late Lex Hixon, had gone to buy a book that had been on one of his reading lists at Yale. He was impressed by the Swami (and also the author of the book) that sold it to him and accepted his invitation to attend a lecture. He and his wife were immediately hooked by their first taste of high-power Eastern spirituality. After putting off their insistence that I go to the Vedanta Center and check it out for almost a month, I finally did so. I was immediately hooked on the divine bliss the Swami and his Center radiated. When I left the lecture and boarded a bus downtown to drink with my buddies and buddettes at Max’s Kansas City, I was astonished to find the blissful feeling only intensified. For many years I have referred to the experience of this power of a great teacher as “Fifth Avenue Bus effect”. It, and the notions of religious pluralism I learned along the way, are the real energies behind my novel.
After I finished the book with the help of a writer’s group in Portland where I now live, I spent a year sending the it off to agents and publishers with some encouragement but no contract. A helpful editor at Harper’s San Francisco suggested I consider self -publishing. The publishing house I spoke with in Berkeley originally quoted $7000, but two weeks later offer me their special deal of $3500. After hearing those figures you can imagine how elated I was, when a friend, who manages a Sufi bookstore in New York, told me of a new form of publishing called print-on demand that cost around $100! I lost no time in heading for the website she mentioned: iUniverse.com. And it was indeed true, although their rate has since gone up to, I believe, $199. The process went like this: I rendered my manuscript into Word format which it had not been. Then I sent it to them electronically. They did a cover, which I really like and send back the proofs in about a month for me to do the final edit on. They had me write cover blurbs and promo information. This process, by the way, is not to be confused with e books which is where the book is offered to readers to read online.
Barnes & Noble were the first to have Siskiyou Racer on their website. It can also be ordered at their customer service desks in the stores and picked up without having to pay postage. Other major retailers such as Amazon now have the book too. I am completely satisfied with the service I received and the only flaws in the process were the result of my too-hasty editing. For a small extra fee, I plan to go back and correct a few of them that have lingered on. All in all, it was a quick, easy, inexpensive way to make the transition from writer to author.
An interesting side note, out of the relatively small number of people who attended Swami Nikhilananda’s center just before, and during the time I was there, five of them are or became, authors. The most well know is the sublime J.D. Salinger, whose work, along with that of T.S. Eliot, kept me going spiritually until I discovered the East. Then my friend Lex Hixon ,who currently has 13 books in print on various traditions. A girl named Leona (whom I thought could not be really spiritual because I used to see her in my Greenwich Village neighborhood) became a nun in New Delhi and has a written a biography about one of the early Western woman disciples of Swami Vivekananda. Shelly Brown was a young ballet student when she met the Swami in New York. He suggested she give up dance study and become a physician. She did so with considerable success and has recently published a biography on one of the important recent Indian Swamis.
So Siskiyou Racer definitely fits into the implied Eastern religion category of Beat novel, but the question remains can it be one just because I was there even though it wasn’t?
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 02 issue of New Connection, published in Portland, OR and available online at www.newconnexion.net. Reprinted with permission.