by Tod Wodicka, August 18th, 2011
Though the experience ended up being both personally and creatively rejuvenating, the application guidelines for being named the 2011 Tibor Jones & Associates’ Writer in Residence were nothing if not harrowing. I know this because I basically invented the post. My application consisted of an emotional catastrophe followed by a phone call.
Not having spoken much to anyone over the age of five in a few days and having consumed a sticky bottle of something the Germans suppose is amaretto, I curtailed any semblance of social niceties and launched right into the bad stuff. Thinking: isn’t that what agents are for? The bad stuff? I said that I needed to come to London right away. Tomorrow, if possible. Yesterday even.
‘I’m sorry,’ my agent, Kevin Conroy Scott, said. ‘Who am I speaking with, again?’
This cheered me up. ‘Your most favorite author!’
‘Brian, hey, I didn’t recognize you. Sorry, are you calling from Skype?’
‘This isn’t Brian.’
‘Wilbur? Hans?’ A pause. ‘Tali Sharot, is that you?’
I deepened my voice. ‘No.’
A longer pause. ‘Do I know you?’
I said that it was Tod Wodicka, semi-acclaimed novelist, author of ALL SHALL BE WELL; AND ALL SHALL BE WELL; AND ALL MANNER OF THINGS SHALL BE WELL. ‘It’s been translated into Romanian,’ I added, trying to ring a bell. ‘I’m a writer and I’m in pain.’
‘Tod, why didn’t you say so. You should have said our favorite Berlin-based author from upstate New York who used to be fat…’ Kevin put on a song by Pulp.
‘Did I mention that I’m in severe emotional distress?’
Kevin said, ‘Did they really translate it into Romanian?’
‘Hard to say. I was going to ask you about that, actually. Does Romania still exist? They were supposed to, I signed a contract, they paid me money…’
More silence. Slightly more enthusiastic: ‘So have you finished the new novel?’
There was no time for that kind of talk. ‘Berlin is haunted,’ I continued. I had to return to the bad stuff, not the difficult and embarrassing stuff of my second novel. ‘I need to come to London, can I please come to London?’
The best way to learn how to be alone is to not be alone. So I arrived in London on the good graces of Tibor Jones via EZ Jet and the mini-mall horror of Luton Airport. I hadn’t slept and I hadn’t eaten in some time. As the first official Tibor Jones’ Writer in Residence, I was given the secret code to the Tibor Jones door. I didn’t have my own desk but I got to sit next to or across from whoever I wanted; the proximity to other humans while writing, it was explained to me, was really good for momentum and concentration. Someone cited Walter Benjamin, who used to hire boys to sit next to him while he wrote. (I think Cheever did the same thing, but the boys had to sit on his lap.) I went along with this, as I had no choice. I tried not to wobble the tables too much but I inevitably did, and got yelled at in Spanish. (I think.) The point was to work on my novel around people, have people everywhere around me at all times, industrious and emotional sound people with healthy relationships and nice, well-arranged clothing; qualified and upright Tibor Jones people to prevent myself from doing many of the activities which had occupied my last week of unproductive physical and emotionally isolated wallowing. No more Germanic amaretto – a full fucking stop to the sitting there manically refreshing my Yahoo mail or taking bubble bath after bubble bath.
So what’s working at Tibor Jones like as a novelist?
It’s a gift. Seriously. Though the office gets a bit humid in the afternoon, they actually have people who come and for some reason – or no reason whatsoever – bring in entire boxes of spicy Jamaican nuts. Peanuts and cashews. I saw this with my own eyes. The tea and milk is also recommended, and complimentary for Writers in Residence; and if you want a break, there are many interesting books to borrow from the shelves. The couch is comfy. The people are generous, committed. Super agent Sophie Lambert is the best person to talk to about literature and/or Indian politics. You can smoke cigarettes on the roof and lust after London’s increasingly sex-toyesque skyline. It’s like writing inside a community, albeit one that may or may not be taking crooked bribes via boxes of spicy Jamaican nuts.
There’s also Brixton. Say what you want about Brixton, it’s never boring. But if you crave boring, well they’ve got that too: you can buy really, really well-composed sandwiches at Marks and Spencer’s and take them back to the office and pretend you have a real job.
The Brixton Market also has a variety of feel good restaurants, places where they use their own children to forage and harvest the food; but the Tibor Jones Writer in Residence doesn’t make enough to eat at them every day. Ethical food is expensive. I did find, however, that if I hung around certain desks at certain times of the day, looking really sad and saying how awful my current emotional state was, sometimes Tibor Jones employees would take me out for a free lunch. Things made of pumpkins. Strange wheat. Vegetables that tasted like sweetened bark. This usually only happened once per employee because, well, if they took me out to lunch then they’d have to listen to their semi-acclaimed author ramble on about his personal problems. You really don’t want to push it.
Two exciting things happened towards the end of my residency. Neither exactly my fault. One: Landa Acevedo-Scott gave birth to a baby boy. Two: Brixton went berserking.
First the baby. I’d been hoping that Landa would give birth during my residency, in fact, I’d been praying for it. I’d even begun looking into homeopathic means of secretly inducing birth. Partly, of course, because I wished her and Kevin the epochal happiness of bringing a new life into the world but mostly because I wanted her chair. I really, really wanted her chair. And her desk. Eventually, I got both, and an office more or less to myself for a few days and I’d like to formally apologize if any of herbs and roots I secretly added to her tea induced the 48 hours of labor that Kevin later described to me as, ‘Not really fun.’ The chair was fun.
The riot and the sad Hollywood ending to Brixton’s Footlocker you know about. I will only add that it happened on the last day of my residency, and made it very difficult to actually get into the residency. The building superintendent actually came to visit me and told me I might want to consider going home in case it all kicks off again.
‘Like right now?’
‘Better safe than sorry.’
That excited me. It was four in the afternoon and I slept through the previous nights berserking. I didn’t want to leave London without seeing some berserking!
So I went out and got herded, along with everyone else, around the ‘crime scene’ of the high street, past the gaping maw of the Footlocker, past the pretty broken glass and people everywhere holding their i-phones out in front of them like Geiger Counters … and right directly over to the very place I’d avoided my entire stay in London.
The very place I crossed the road to avoid, and would never look directly at. Freud would call this heimlich or unheimlich or something like that, meaning: there I was, finally, on the very last day of my stay, uncannily pushed by the city of London itself – with the help of a fucking riot! – to the very place in London, the only place I never wanted to ever return to.
It used to be a special place. It is still is a special place. Under a tree in front of the Ritzy Cinema. Over a year before I’d stood just there, right there, and asked the woman I love to marry me. She’d said yes. Recently, she changed her mind.
But on this day, very near that same spot, stood a Jamaican. A Rastafarian. He was either preaching or singing. Nobody was really paying attention but me, and only because I knew that I had to: I began to think he was preaching to me. It had all led to this point.
‘It’s the beginning of the end, mon! This is it, mon! Look around you, it is starting here! The end of the world!’
I took in the spot and the memories I’d avoided and the wild prophet who’d claimed it as its own – and the city streets all upturned and almost celebratory. I smiled. Partly because I liked the idea of the immolation of the Brixton Footlocker being one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse, and partly because he was right. The world is always ending somewhere, for someone, somehow. Part of mine had ended, and now it had stopped ending. It was starting again. Slowly, yes, but I could feel it starting again nonetheless. So being the 2011 Tibor Jones’ Writer in Residence helped me find some comfort in that, in the end of the world, mon. And hope. It’s all about the Jamaican nuts. And not obsessing over questions you’d rather not have answered.