Although the first three novels by Ted Heller, son of "Catch-22" author Joseph Heller, received plenty of critical acclaim, he never had a runaway success in terms of sales. When it was time to shop around "West of Babylon" ($12.99 paper), his new novel about four aging former rock stars from Long Island who embark on one last tour, all the major publishing houses took a pass. Wounded but unbowed, Heller, who lives in Manhattan, decided to self-publish. Good thing he did. The book is big-hearted, perceptive and hilarious, and it doesn't inspire much confidence in the publishing business that nobody thought they could sell it.
Why did you decide to make your characters hail from Long Island?
I could have had my fictitious band come from anywhere in the United States, but Long Island has a reputation for, well, for not having a reputation, and that's why I chose it. Throughout the book, when the band is interviewed by radio DJs or journalists or when they have records reviewed, the fact that they hail from L.I. is held against them, and they have a tremendous chip on their shoulder. I liked that chip being there. It's like John Wayne holding his injured arm in "The Searchers." You never do know how his arm got hurt.
A wise man once said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. What does it take to make a novel about music work, as you've done here?
Well, you're talking to someone who has danced about and around and inside of architecture many times. "West of Babylon," though, is more a book about people who make music than it is about music. I would never want to write a book about anything other than people (and how they interact and about their innermost thoughts), and I purposely limited my research so that the human element would shine through. I can't stand it when I'm reading a book and the author constantly bombards the reader with how much he or she knows about a subject. Usually when that happens you lose all interest in the characters and story. My book is about four aging rock musicians, but they really could have had any job.
You wrote an article for Salon in which you laid out the challenges of being a one-man publishing house. Were there any advantages?
The one big plus is that I had nobody suggesting (and when I say suggesting, I mean demanding) major overhauls in the novel. With "Pocket Kings," even though my editor did a wonderful job, there were still things that were taken out which I wish were still in there, and it stings. But having published three books before "West of Babylon," I feel as though I have an imaginary little devil/angel editor hovering over my shoulder, annoying the daylights out of me and telling me what should stay and what should go. The big negative is that I had no marketing or publicity department other than myself. Sending email out to newspapers and magazines and sending copies of the book out and then never hearing a word back from most of them -- going through that was a lot harder than writing the book.
The book is often laugh-out-loud funny but rarely strays too far from realism. Do you consider this satire?
I definitely do not consider this satire. I think in some places it's so real that it hurts; although, if you're familiar with "Pocket Kings," "Slab Rat" and "Funnymen," satire can be pretty painful, too. But there's nothing in "West of Babylon," I believe, that couldn't happen in real life or that's exaggerated or absurd. In "Pocket Kings" my author/narrator mentions how his first books were satires and how "Satire is what closes on Saturday night" (according to George S. Kaufman) -- so he writes a book that is not a satire and can't get it published. That is exactly what happened with me and "West of Babylon"!
If traditional publishers come crawling back to publish your next book, what will you say to them?
The sick, insane, desperate, needy part of me still hopes some publisher will come crawling to me to publish "West of Babylon"! Ideally, I'd love to tell them to go to hell, but I'd have to suck it up and take their filthy lucre. Hopefully, a publisher will want the next one. I just hope there is a next one.