Even though I did not fall in love with writing until I was 19, I always loved books. From elementary school onward, I bought and hoarded as many as I could. I loved them as objects, as works of art, as things, as ideas. I cared about having books around, hosting them on carefully organized shelves that I could gaze at and mull over. My parents generously allowed me to fill a basket each time they shopped at a bookstore.
I received my first rare books at age 11. On a trip to New York City we went to The Strand’s rare book room and I used my own money to buy a 17th century history of the city of Rome. A few months later for Christmas my mother gave me a copy of Japanese street photographer Seiji Kurata’s Flash-Up, a book I had been obsessed with but personally unable to afford ($75) at a little used bookstore while travelling in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That book is now worth ten times that initial amount.
Literature was never really a part of my identity growing up. I told everyone Nineteen Eighty-Four was my favorite book, and that seemed to placate them.
No one would have described me as a bookworm or a lover of novels. Instead I was a skateboarder, or a hockey player, or a kid who knew a little too much about war, or a Scrabble hustler, or later a DJ.
I did read large tomes, even when I was too young to read large tomes, but my selections were indiscriminate to any notions of genre or category. I also read predominately in private. I inhaled ten works of non-fiction for every novel that I picked up, and many of those were science fiction like Alfred Bester or John Haldeman. Somewhere along the way I still managed to read a fair amount of literary “classics”, or at least spent enough time with them on my shelves to pretend that I had.
When I got to Sarah Lawrence College, I discovered that there were lots of students who went there because they wanted to be writers. Maybe it was the unusually high number of graduates who went on to Iowa, or the stellar faculty, or just a concentration of fluffy millennial delusion, but the place was just lousy with wannabe scribes. My sophomore year, as a joke, I took a writing workshop, only to find that many of those who had bragged the loudest about writing were not very serious about it. But there were also people, like Benjamin Hale (now the author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore) and Benjamin Samuel (now the editor of Electric Literature), whose talent was clear and I looked up to utterly. I wanted to be one of them.
I found out that in some respects I had been accidentally training my whole life to be a novelist. That my obsession with words, which I had left untapped and unutilized for anything other than my short and unremarkable teenage competitive Scrabble career, could be wielded as a weapon. I was still DJing professionally then, and my mother told me that Murakami had worked at a record store and run a jazz club before he ever wrote a single word of fiction for publication.
More than that, my years of lying, arguing, and, bullshitting could finally be put to defined use.
“Max is writing fiction now,” my father said to his friend Harold Ickes at a dinner in between my sophomore and junior year.
“But Max,” Harold turned to me and said, “you’ve been writing fiction you’re entire life.”
Growing up surrounded by Washington D.C. lawyers, spin artists, and political operatives had at least taught me that.
In literature classes at Sarah Lawrence I learned about structure, that novels were maps, buildings, and stochastic organisms that could be fiddled with and designed. In writing workshops I treated the professors as editors, and tried to learn how it might be to work in a one on one relationship with a professional. And outside of school I started to turn my autodidactic fury on great literary works. I read Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest in a single summer, not because I loved them as a reader, but because I loved them as a writer. I wanted to figure out how to make one of those. How to do that.
And somewhere in there, I fell in love. Or at least, I fell in lust. I let the idea consume me. I let it define me. So when I graduated I decided to give it a shot.