SLEEPLESS IN LONDON 

Advice For the Just-Famous Author

A friend of mine used to teach creative writing at a community college, where most of her students were unemployed loggers.

I'm telling this to my British publisher, Caroline, at a swanky dinner party in London, after a three-hour book signing. She's beautiful sitting across from me, twisting a strand of long dark hair between her fingers. I haven't slept since my last night in Portland, 72 hours ago.

All of these college students, I tell Caroline, wanted to be retrained as famous writers.

What nobody wants to tell them is: writing is the easy part. It's everything else that you have to find out for yourself, because nobody in America--except maybe Gwyneth Paltrow--is raised to be famous. Instead you spend your time like an Anne Rice vampire, seeking out other famous names to study them. You beg for advice.

Caroline tells me that Jay McInerney has a deal with Giorgio Armani. In public, McInerney wears only Armani clothes. In exchange, he can go into any Armani shop, anywhere in the world, and they'll give him anything for free.

"It's a very unofficial arrangement," she says. I wonder if Ross Dress For Less will cut the same deal.

She opens her clutch bag and unofficially gives me a blister card full of the prescription sleeping pill Dalmane. She tells me my books are the most "nicked" books in London.

Asking people in the publishing industry about the behavior of other writers is less than helpful. Every day in London, I drive from interviews to book events with my publicist, Megan, asking her for personal details about the other writers she's shepherded.

Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, The Acid House, and Filth, spent this summer in Ibiza, mixing dance music and making neon-colored plaster casts of women's assholes. Megan describes him as just "a lovely man."

Martin Amis, she says, is "lovely."

William Vollman? "Lovely."

Jackie Collins is lovely, too, until some radio interviewer comments on her giant diamond rings and then she gets all freaked out that a mugger will be at her next book signing.

Somewhere in Manchester, I tell Megan it isn't too late for me to get drunk and disagreeable, and she says, "That could describe any author on tour."

The advice, when it comes, is less than helpful.

Last summer, I had another big posh dinner, but in New York, and with Bret Easton Ellis, who comes across as a handsome football player who dresses really well. And when I told him my vampire metaphor and asked his advice, he laughed and instead said the "Easton" part of his name is made up. Some college professor told him to add it for distinction. He talks about writing the screenplay for a Caligula-type epic that the Gucciones want to make about the Czarina Catherine the Great, except it turns out she wasn't screwed to death by a horse, so that pretty much shelved the whole project.

At another dinner last Easter, Portland writer Diana Abu-Jabar told me how, when the tour schedule is so tight you never get to eat, you can survive by foraging for protein in the hotel room mini-bar. Nuts. Dried fruit. Beef Jerky.

My agent, Edward Hibbert, is also an actor on the television series Frasier, and taught me to establish a secret signal. At any public events or parties, if you're trapped, smiling into the monologue of some ugly bore, you should have a subtle gesture. For Edward, it's when he rubs his upper lip with his finger. This signals your publicist or bodyguard or handler who then rescues you with some lame excuse. This way the publicist looks evil and intrusive and you look innocent and put-upon.

Edward will kill me for telling his signal.

The only drawback is whenever you're talking to someone famous and they twitch or scratch, you imagine you're being the ugly bore.

This summer, Juliette Lewis told me that neglecting your personal hygiene, wearing dirty clothes, letting your hair get long and greasy, is a natural reaction to losing your anonymity. It's your way of proving to other people that you're still a regular human being.

Except, I told her, I was stinky, dirty and greasy before I ever sold a book.

In England, on the plane between Manchester and Glasgow, I read Stephen King's new book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, mostly because I hope he'll fork over some advice. Stephen "The King" has always been my ideal writer. Okay he's a little goofy, but he's not a drunk like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. He's not a gloomy masochist like Dorothy Parker. Here's a man who write-write-writes his demons away. A writing factory who lives to write and writes to live. Okay, I haven't read him since The Dark Half, but--what a frigging work ethic! What output!

Imagine my surprise. The best part of On Writing is when King's writing The Tommyknockers--a book about a manic writer who never sleeps and destroys her health by go-go-going all the time, inventing nuclear-powered water heaters--and King himself is so coked up he has to keep cotton swabs jammed in his nose to stop the bleeding.

You can imagine Amy Irving and Nancy Allen dancing around naked in the movie Carrie, shouting, "Plug it up! Plug it up!"

The second-best part is where King's writing The Shining, drunk out of his mind. From there, his drinking gets so bad that he has absolutely no memory of writing Cujo.

Yeah. Right. Likely story. Isn't this what straight boys say when they wake up underneath another man?

As for writing advice, it's pretty skimpy: Don't use adverbs. Don't write in passive voice. Write early in the morning and use the afternoon to answer all those angry hateful fan letters.

In Glasgow, a waiter sees the book on my table and asks if it's any good, and I tell him to take it. Please. It's his, and he's thrilled.

In Belfast, I drink Guinness all night in the Festival Pub. At the hotel, I take two Dalmane. First, I can't move my arms. Then my legs. It's okay, even "The King" abused drugs. I feel...lovely.

In these last soft-focus moments, I'm naked at a party with Gwyneth Paltrow. She's naked and laughing at everything I say. We're alone in a corner where nobody will see us, and she tells me how charming and attractive I am. It's so subtle when she tucks a few strands of hair behind her ear, I hardly notice, but a moment later a man steps up. He says, "Miss Paltrow, we need you to sign some contracts."

And she looks at me sadly and says, "It was SO nice meeting you." And--damn it-- I've used an adverb.

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