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Social Scientist and cultural anthropologist James F. Richardson (PhD) and I sat down and had an interesting conversation about the merits or lack thereof of individualism in contemporary America. We first connected when we swapped books: He read my punk-literary YA novel, The Crew (SoCal punk rock late 1990s, think Dead Poet’s Society meets The Basketball Diaries meets The Breakfast Club) and I read his just-coming-out nonfiction book, Our Worst Strength: American Individualism and its Hidden Discontents. After reading my novel—a tale of extreme individualism—Richardson realized my book could have been a long chapter in his book. So we decided to hash things out. Click HERE for James’s Substack, Homo Imaginari.

The talk lasts an hour. We discuss many things, among them: Our books and lives and how they seem connected; Alcoholism and addiction; American culture compared to other cultures; social group dynamics; individuality; the dissolution of The American Family; the loss of Elders; immigration and assimilation; permissive parenting versus traditional parenting; kids and boundaries; social balance and dialectics; social overcorrections; freedom; college and beyond as young adults; hitting an emotional bottom to affect positive change; therapy: Pros and cons; and more.

My Book:

James’s Book:

Bio, James F. Richardson (from his Substack): “I am a Ph.D. cultural anthropologist who has studied American society for twenty years as a market research consultant. I’ve interviewed Americans in 40 different states and has lived all over the country, including New England, the Chicago-to-Madison corridor, Seattle, and Tucson, Arizona. For nearly three years in the late 1990s, I also lived in South India, studying a very different society than our own. Today, I live with my wife, children, and dogs in sunny Tucson, Arizona, where I write nonfiction and consult with a national client base in the consumer packaged goods industry.”

I started what would become my first novel in 2008, at the ripe age of 25. (The novel was sort of Catcher in the Rye meets The Basketball Diaries meets the Sex Pistols and Ramones; punk kids who get into trouble but love literature and philosophy.) Back then the “novel” was 98% autobiography, more or less a thinly veiled memoir. I was simply laying down my story as I recalled it. Real people. Real names. Real locations.

At the time I was still drinking—something I explore in the novel—and was living in Ocean Beach, the foggy, mellow, druggy neighborhood near the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco.

This was my first stab at writing something book-length. Since 2005—age 22—I’d started journaling, writing bad amateur poetry, and attempting my earliest sketches of what would later become my published short stories and eventually drafts of novels (14 I’ve written so far).

I finished about half of the novel by the time I hit a spiritual bottom and got sober, in the fall of 2010 at the age of 27. Within a month of getting sober I made an impulse choice and moved to Portland, Oregon, where my one sober friend lived. (She’d gotten sober in 2008.) Almost immediately—surging with the adrenaline of creativity—I spent several months feverishly writing all day and all night, in a sort of Hunter S. Thompson trance, until I completed the first [very rough] draft of what was then called The Cannonball Complex in early 2011.

By June, 2011 I was living back in North Oakland. (I lasted a meagre eight months in Portland.) I edited and revised my nascent manuscript, making the classic rookie mistake of sending it out to dozens of literary agents far too prematurely. I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t read any literary agent submission guides. I didn’t grasp how to approach people professionally online. My writing was decent by then but I hadn’t found my literary voice. I didn’t get how to properly plot a book. I didn’t understand character and story ARC. And I didn’t understand, fundamentally, how to transition from a memoir to a novel.

Between 2011 and 2024 (when the book was finally published)—thirteen years—many things happened. I got older and gained more life experience. I interned for a literary agent for nine months who I’d met at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. I went back to college and got my bachelor’s in creative writing. I began attending writing conferences around the country. Voraciously, I devoured writing how-to books such as Stephen King’s brilliant 2000 memoir On Writing, and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, as well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. My short stories started getting published in little magazines and journals for the first time. I even got paid for my writing. I started making money as a developmental book editor.

In 2016, after many revisions on and off for many years, I finally, for the first time, started getting literary agent interest in my book, whose title had changed from The Cannonball Complex to The Crew. The book had morphed from autobiographical  pseudo-memoir to genuine novel, with much of it made up whole cloth, and some of it only loosely “based” on real people. Over time the book had developed a literary life of its own.

Dozens of agents requested to read part of and even the full manuscript. One agent specifically loved the book and read it not once, not twice but fully three times, sending me long, epic, glowing emails about the book. (Including its powerful voice.) Yet that agent dropped off a digital cliff after that, never to be heard from again. I’d even hired a former Random House acquisitions [freelance] book editor who loved my book and helped me prep it. Said editor declared the book ready after we worked together for six grueling months and she even said if it had landed on her desk while she was at RH she’d have accepted it.

But then that one big agent who read it three times dropped off a cliff, never to be heard from again. This was a big blow. It hurt. I set the book aside for a few years. I tried once more during Covid to send the manuscript out to agents, but got no responses. At last, in 2024 I realized the obvious solution: Self-publishing. Why not? Slowly over time I’d realized that there were fewer and fewer financial and artistic incentives provided by the legacy publishers. Almost always debut authors made very little money, and sometimes nowadays advances were either miniscule or even non-existent.

Generally speaking, as the author, even with a major publishing house, you had to do most if not all of the legwork when it came to book tours, promotion, reviews, etc. Not only that but artistically-speaking you possessed little to no control over your book cover and how the book was promoted if it was at all by said publisher.

I’d already crossed the writing threshold of non-traditional publishing when I started writing on Substack in August, 2022. Why not go the extra distance and self-publish my first novel?

The Crew had gone from 98% autobiographical to about 50%, perhaps less. It had become, over the course of sixteen years—2008 to 2024—a serious novel, with all the elements I’d wanted in it.  Countless professionals in the book industry, from literary agents to publicists to editors and famous authors, had pronounced the book solid. Many of them had even connected me to important people. And yet: Ultimately to no avail. What I learned along the way was that writing a book is not simple, nor easy, nor always fun. It’s staggeringly slow, hard, challenging work. And it ultimately falls on YOU to do the work. No publisher can make or break you, or very rarely at least, especially in 2024.

There was also the matter of political bias and ideology which had permeated the traditional book world. My book was about male white upper-middleclass (oh my!) punk rock kids in the year 2000 who talked like kids of that era talked. Some agents over the years had tried to get me to change the year to more contemporary times, to give the kids cell phones, to add in more feminism, a non-white character, etc. But I was never interested in any of that. My goal was translating raw life experience into Art. I did not believe then and I do not believe now that true Art should ever suffer from dictated ideological goals, whether from the Right or the Left.

This is why I write on Substack. This is why I chose self-publishing. Control falls to me, the author, not to agents or publishers with agendas outside the realm of Art. Reviews are coming in. People seem to really like the book. Teachers are reaching out to me to potentially teach the book at the high school level. The protagonist is 16.


Michael Mohr

There’s a consistent debate within the Substack community about what the actual purpose of the platform is. In my mind it’s a fairly silly discussion, really, because it presupposes, as almost all cultural contemporary discussions do, that there’s some sort of easy, obvious binary answer.

There isn’t.

Substack can be anything you want it to be, basically. As a longtime writer who’s had dozens of short stories published in literary magazines and journals over the years (one nominated for the Pushcart Prize), who’s written 13 [unpublished] novels, who’s interned for a literary agent, who’s been a developmental book editor since 2013 working with many authors who went on to be published with major houses, I, personally, take myself seriously both as a person and as a writer.

This seems to be more or less in the minority.

Many on Substack seem to feel that the notion of asking people to pay for your work is not only ridiculous, but borderline evil. Good writing, these people quip, should be pure of all capitalistic incentives. All writing should be free. The point, some say, is not to make money but to produce quality writing, or as some say, “content,” another word which gets debated a lot. (Is it “content” or “writing”? Does the differentiation actually make a difference or mean anything?)

Another take comes from the opposing side: Of course you should ask people to pay for your work; it’s YOUR work and you put your blood, sweat and tears into it.

I fall somewhere roughly between these two poles, but definitely closer to the paid side. I started writing on Substack in August, 2022, about 14 months ago. I began with 50 free subscribers who were a mishmash of family, friends, acquaintances and former clients. I now have 1,150 subscribers with 70 paying. I’m not rich from Substack, but for the first time I’m bringing in a few hundred dollars per month. Not bad for a freelance writer in 2023. Usually writers nowadays make very, very little. (Especially creative writers.)

The reason I ask people to pay for my work—not all of it: Some is free—is because I genuinely think my work is quality. I realize I’m far from the strongest writer around, on this platform or anywhere else, but I think my stuff is really good. Am I allowed to say that? Or do I need to practice insincere humility to sound good online? My stack IS called Sincere American Writing. That’s my sincere feeling: My writing is good. Solid. Powerful. (I feel the same about many other writers on Substack, such as Sherman Alexie, Writers at Work with Sarah Fay, Castalia, Bowen Dwelle, Dee Rambeau, Latham Turner, Joshua Doležal, Lyle McKeany, Alison Acheson, Junot Díaz, and many many more.)

The truth is: it doesn’t matter. Substack is fantastic because it’s specifically for writers; there aren’t an ads or hidden costs; they take a fraction off the top of your paid subs (if you have any); and there’s a warm community feel even if you’re tiny and just starting. If you want to start out only doing free subscriptions, or even stay that way permanently: Go for it! If you want to add the paid sub option on your first day writing on the platform: Do it! I did what many have done: Started out free and, later, after gaining a few hundred subscribers, turned on the paid option. And then I slowly started adding in paywalled posts alongside my free ones. At this point I’m probably doing 75% paywalled posts, 25% free. Something like that.

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