Once dubbed the ‘next darling of the literary world,’ Alan Rifkin couldn’t find anyone to publish his debut novel. So he released it online—for free.
“I would like to pretend I’m just above it all,” Alan Rifkin acknowledges in an unguarded moment, sounding wistful, yet resigned—and when you think about it, maybe even channeling a deep, universal truth. They say the best writers can do this, and Rifkin may be doing it while driving his car, which is where he happens to be when I phone to ask how it really feels to turn your seriously excellent six-years-in-the-writing debut novel into an Internet freebie. But I don’t phrase it this way.
Unfortunately, the rules of the road derail Rifkin’s train of thought before it can really get chugging—“I’m trying to find a place to pull over,” he interrupts himself, a little harried and maybe somewhat irritated as he adds, “I still don’t have an earpiece for my cell phone”—and suddenly his worry that he might get a talking-on-the-phone ticket sounds as unprofound as anything the rest of us might think.
That’s sort of reassuring if you’ve ever read Signal Hill, the collection of Rifkin’s short stories published by the esteemed City Lights in 2003. One reviewer (OK, the reviewer was me, writing for OC Weekly at the time) described the book as “a suite to the midlife crisis,” observing that Rifkin spins “webs of strangling hyperconsciousness around the experiences and motivations of the characters.” My point now is that Rifkin has a mind like a steel trap, or steel wool, maybe—it’s very dense and entangling, but most importantly, steely—and hearing him get bugged by everyday stuff somehow makes him seem more accessible.
But what’s really been bugging Rifkin recently is that he can’t get anybody to publish his debut novel, Alt. Country. And he has every right to be bothered. For one thing, it’s a pretty great book, the deep-and-wide saga of a city-dwelling country rocker who is on the run from—and hopefully, toward—himself. For another thing, it’s not fair—not getting a book deal, that is—at least according to what used to be literary publishing’s force-of-law custom of rewarding great praise from the right reviewers, which is what Rifkin received for Signal Hill.
“Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented. . . . Exquisite,” Kirkus Reviews pronounced.
“A spot-on, weirdly life-affirming and terrifically written batch of stories,” attested Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight. “I could read this guy all day.”
“Rifkin writes with such startling originality,” said Time Out New York, “that you have to believe he’ll be the next darling of the literary world.”
Yeah, well as it turns out, not so much.
If it were easy, Alan Rifkin wouldn’t be able to go around wearing the shades-of-gray ensemble of the wearily serious writer that has always fit him so well, which is to say crinkled and loosely. But Rifkin has been able get into this getup for a long while now, and time—he’s into his 50s—has only enhanced the effect, adding salt and pepper to his mussed-just-right hair and a light scribble of wrinkles to a face that’s always carved in heavy truth.
It was a sunny afternoon late last winter when we first got together to talk about the fate of Alt. Country and Rifkin shuffled into the bright color and quirk of Viento y Agua coffeehouse looking, from the tips of his dull loafers to his smoky-colored trousers, white shirt, corduroy jacket and circular black-framed glasses, like a somber charcoal etching.
Had he changed a bit in the half-dozen years since the last time I’d seen him? Hmmm. That’s a long time.
Rifkin’s been a full-on family man for at least that long, remarried to a widow with whom he shares the son from his divorced marriage and her two children, and they’ve since added a couple more kids together. He’s been teaching writing at Cal State Long Beach for not quite as long. He’s been writing much longer—let’s just say all his life—literary fiction to fill his soul, and journalism for publications like Details, LA Weekly, Premiere and Buzz to fill his wallet. “My first love was short stories,” he says. “The rejection drove me to become a journalist.”
Rifkin arrived at Viento y Agua carrying a copy of the New Yorker, an advance copy of A.W. Hill’s novel, Nowhere-Land, and a few 8 ½-by-11 sheets of cardboard I decided from the get-go not to even bother asking about. We shook hands.
Then he smiled, and hmmm—yes, he had changed. I was suddenly sure he’d never looked better in the 15 years we’ve been crossing paths . . . before remembering I always think that when Alan Rifkin smiles. It’s almost unusual.
Maybe that’s because it’s not easy—not the writing, not the living, not much of any of it for any of us—and maybe Rifkin’s somebody who’s not going to smile when it’s not appropriate. Why should he have been grinning while talking about giving up on the book deal he’s always wanted—about giving it up to the Internet?
“I’m just very pessimistic about getting anyone to read my book by any conventional means,” Rifkin said, and his point was underscored by the clicking of people taking advantage of the coffeehouse’s free Wi-Fi. “All the news from publishing is bad, especially literary publishing. When you read articles where people are questioning whether Philip Roth is marketable, you probably can’t even start talking about whether you can publish a book by Alan Rifkin.”
And when the subject has come up, people have sounded stupid.
“The rejection letters would say the most, sort of stereotypically commercially exasperating things,” Rifkin recalled. “Like, ‘This is so just so fucking beautiful, there’s not a sentence out of place, I don’t think I can sell it.’ “Or, ‘I think I finally put my finger on the reason I can’t say yes to this book, and it’s because, while we know how to sell love stories to women, we haven’t yet cracked the code on how to sell love stories to men.’
“And then, of course, my writing being what it is, there was the occasional, ‘Uhhh, I’m on a different wavelength from you altogether.’ I don’t do the . . . uhh . . . umm . . . conventional potboiler stuff . . . as you yourself have noticed.”
Obviously, Rifkin hasn’t forgotten the part of my review of Signal Hill where I wrote, “Sometimes, wading through this stuff feels like reading’s equivalent of a tag-team wrestling match featuring Raymond Carver and John Bradshaw against Frederick Busch and Dr. Phil.” Ouch. Of course, I meant this in the good way.
But, no, it’s not easy, and it eventually became so difficult that it reached impossible, and thus began the uploading of Alt. Country—all 194 pages of it, plus the Tina Shurts painting of a droopy old piano that would have been the book’s cover—to alanrifkin.com. Which is not to say he’d given up.
“It occurred to me that this might be a way of getting agents or a publisher to read my work without just being stuck in the queue with all their unread e-mail,” he reasoned.
But actually, by the time Rifkin did turn his lifelong dream into dot-com content, he wasn’t just reasoning, anymore. Something had changed, and it pushed him far beyond.
That’s why Rifkin smiled—sometimes—that day at Viento y Agua. That’s why I’ve called him back today, in his car.
“There was sort of a turning point for me—these two aspects of my personality started warring against each other,” he recounts. “On one hand, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by being my own promoter and publisher—that sounded like handing out Bibles at the airport. On the other hand, it didn’t seem like a very brave or self-respecting thing to hide the book I’d poured myself into.
“The best compromise I could find was to put it out there and let it find its own way. So, I let go of the result. As soon as I did that, that’s when all these other folks started coming along with new twists on what could make the experience even better.”
That’s when Alt. Country started to get a musical soundtrack, featuring We Five’s Jerry and Debbie Burgan, Stanley Wycoff with Dave Alvin on lead guitar and backing vocals by the late Chris Gaffney, and David Stadalnikas from Uninvited Dinner Guests. That’s when plans started being made for live performances at record shops and indie theaters.
“Frankly, I didn’t really come up with this; it just sort of synergized,” says Rifkin. “I was writing a book about a country rocker, fleshing out the character with song lyrics and wishing I could get better lyrics than the ones I was writing. Then I met Jerry Burgan, and he gave me some of his—and then an entire song that was looking for a home, that he tailored to the book.”
Burgan, still most famous for his contributions to We Five’s 1965 electro-folk hit, “You Were on My Mind,” was referred to Rifkin while looking for someone to help him write his memoirs. The pair are currently working on that.
“But when Jerry offered to write a song for me, my first reaction—unspoken—was, ‘Why would I want my book mixed up with this guy’s song he’s trying to promote?’ ” Rifkin acknowledges. “It took about three weeks for me to realize it was an interesting idea and that this guy was really being generous. That’s how far I had to come with this.”
Turns out, it was about the same distance that Burgan had to travel.
“I’m a control freak by nature,” Burgan says, “and the idea of putting something out there and saying, ‘There it is,’ is a little scary to me. But we’ve been getting a lot of ‘What a cool idea!’ There have been all kinds of positive exchanges. Alan has been meeting people and talking to people he never would have. That’s exactly the intent of any book—any idea—to see how far it can go. Obviously, we are early in the process, but as a person who has been writing and performing for years and years, the idea of finding something new under the sun is kind of exciting.”
And that’s why Rifkin—speaking easily now, as though he’s found a place to park his car, if you catch my drift—isn’t thinking about a book deal, anymore. Much, anyway.
“I’m not sure if a conventional outcome is the ideal, anymore,” he says. “While I do think it is important—I would prefer to have a book people can hold in their hands rather than straining to see over a computer screen—I think the combination of a book, a possible CD and live performances is more fun and fulfilling than probably what a conventional publisher could do with the book.”
There is a pause. “As an example, I got a rejection today from an agent I queried in September,” Rifkin reports. “What is that? Seven months?”
“It just does not seem a sane way to go, anymore,” he says, “when it’s so easy to get things out there by other means. We need things that are living and breathing. So much of life is a sleepwalk. It’s not so much whether the novel takes you to a higher place, but whether it can keep you in touch with the most important parts of yourself.”
Sitting there, in his car, talking on the telephone, Alan Rifkin doesn’t have to pretend to rise above anything. Alt. Country is out there—further out than he ever could have imagined.