Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The LIRR: My Rolling Editorial Office

Twenty-two years. That’s how long I’ve been a daily passenger on the Long Island Railroad. I’ve pretty much seen it all over these past two decades. Crazed commuters. Yapping yentas. Cell phone screamers. High stakes card games. Reckless revelers. Ticked-off ticket-takers. I’ve weathered broken trains, busted seats, overcrowded cars, overheated passengers, increased fares and a world of noise. And yet over the past 14 years, I’ve somehow managed to complete a full-length novel on my daily back-and-forth commute aboard America’s busiest railroad.

          According to Wikipedia, the LIRR averages a weekday ridership of more than 337,000. On some noisy days it feels like there are that many in my train car! The railroad - founded in 1834 - now has 124 stations, more than 700 miles of track, and stretches from the eastern tip of Suffolk County to Manhattan’s Penn Station. It’s also one of the few commuter railroads to operate 24/7. For better or worse, it has been my ride to and from work since 1994.

          Okay, so I’ve got to admit, I didn’t actually write my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, on the train. At least not the first draft. That was done over a three-month span at a desktop computer when I was living in Bayside, Queens in the autumn of 2002. Then came the re-writes. No first novel by any aspiring author is ever publication-ready after the first attempt. Dare I say that the same applies to writers at every level of their career. It’s not just the discovery of typos and missing quotation marks. First drafts are a writer’s best attempt to put the story down on paper. Little did I know that this monumental accomplishment would actually be one of the easier aspects of preparing my novel for publication.

Re-writes require a great deal of discipline and determination. Also a dose of serious concentration and a more discerning pair of eyes. You find yourself cutting many well-written but unnecessary paragraphs, pieces of research, and sometimes even eliminating a character, or story-line. It can be painful at times, but is entirely necessary.

          When I lived in Bayside, my commute to Penn Station was a mere 17 minutes on average. Hardly the sort of ride that would allow more than a quick peek at a few pages. I vividly recall printing out the full 402 page document and tucking it inside my work bag. This of course was back in the day when tablet computers didn’t exist and laptops were cumbersome to carry. By the time I found a seat and displayed my ticket for the conductor, I had time to peruse  perhaps as many as five pages before arriving at Penn. Another five would be read on the way home from the city.

          This early round of editing had me traveling with two different colored pens to make various notations on the pages. Blue was for corrections and new content. Black was used to cross out sentences, or even full paragraphs. And heaven forbid the train ever come to a short stop while I attempted to mark the pages in ink… a discouraging mishap that occurred all-too-often.

          My older daughter, Amber, was not yet two when I took the plunge into this process of becoming a novelist. Her evening schedule required my loving participation. So even with my wife’s very best efforts, I still could not concentrate full-time at home on whipping this novel into shape on my “downtime.” Being a new Dad left me to a handful of bleary-eyed late-night hours to plug in my mark-ups from the train ride home, email the updated document to myself, and print out the next several pages for tomorrow morning’s commute. This was in an era just before external hard drives, memory sticks and the like.

          It took me a full three years of polishing (mostly on the train) before I came to the realization that I needed a professional editor. I had been printing out the document and allowing a few close friends and family members a gander, receiving much encouragement. But when I shared it with some publishing professionals, the feedback wasn’t nearly as complimentary. In fact, it was the kick in the butt that I greatly needed.

Editor and Author Jeannette de Beauvior
          Jeannette de Beauvoir is both a published novelist and an experienced editor. I selected her in large part because she had stated on her website that she was a fan of 1970s folk music. We hit it off right away and agreed on three rounds of editing. However, with my busy day-job and continuing parental responsibilities, the train commutes became all the more essential. Now living on Long Island’s south shore, my commute had grown from 17 to 45 minutes each way. Some may have considered this a drawback. In my case, it more than doubled my precious editing time. A fortuitous inconvenience.

          The LIRR passengers have their unofficial code of conduct and routines. Morning commutes tend to be quieter. Especially those prior to 7:30am. Sure, you’ll always get your occasional conversations, although most passengers are respectful of their decibel level. I say “most” because sometimes – particularly on summer Monday mornings – you’ll get some loud out-of-towners who carelessly violate this decorum. And then there are the groups of friendly daily riders who sit in clusters and hold boisterous gossip-fests across the center aisle, drawing angry glares from those trying to rest, or concentrate on work. To be stuck in a four-seater with one of these groups can prove a fate worse than root-canal.

          Afternoon trains tend to be far noisier. Those in the 4pm hour are often packed with construction workers just getting off a jobsite. One can regularly find these burly hard-hats drinking copious amounts of beer, while holding loud, foul mouthed rank-out sessions. Relocation to another car is strongly recommended, even when one isn’t trying to edit a novel. Commuters on afternoon rush hour trains also tend to increase their speaking volume. It can prove an annoyance to those concentrating on work, although it is more tolerated than the morning westbound rides. An investment in an MP3 player and a pair of earbuds is a MUST for those who prefer peace of mind.

          Most riders fall into a routine of catching regular trains home in the evening. Mine became a 6:05 express. I generally ride at the front of the train in order to be closer to my car when pulling into the station. Suffice to say, I encountered an interesting cast of regulars.

A spry quartet of 60-something men would regularly engage in heated rounds of blackjack with a deck of cards resting on a flattened FedEx box. Serious money was usually at stake. One woman – a wedding planner perhaps – would chat loudly and constantly on her phone about catering and flower arrangements, oblivious to the angry glares of those around her. And then there is one 40-something woman who would call her family and friends each evening, routinely revealing generous personal details including her home address for dinner delivery, and her house alarm code for her forgetful kids to get inside. It is a testament to the morals of daily LIRR commuters that this single-mom and her family weren’t robbed, or physically harmed.

          The suggestions from my editor were plugged in at home in my constantly changing Word document. Re-reads of these revisions continued to be conducted along the rickety tracks between Manhattan and Merrick. This process took just over four months to complete. And even after we had deemed it “ready,” I continued to tinker with improving the pages using techniques that she had taught me. Meanwhile, the initiation of a “quiet car” program on the train helped to create a more conducive working environment. It was all falling into place.

          Two years later, I landed a literary agent. I was supplied with a trio of editing reports from the in-house editors and a two month-deadline to implement them. My daily commute was never more valuable. Without those 90 minutes of round-trip revisions, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it completed in time. Not that it mattered in the end.

          An impasse with my agent over the degree of “adult content” caused me to shelve the project for the past several years. Well, sort of. I never really stopped polishing it. My purchase of a tablet device in 2011 enabled me to resume daily editing without having to schlep piles of printed pages in my work bag. It was on the LIRR that I developed a new ending to the original story. And eventually it became my research headquarters for various publishing options.

          It has been a long and arduous journey for me in bringing Poet Of The Wrong Generation to publication. The tracks between New York City and Long Island are figuratively littered with countless sentences, paragraphs and characters cut from the original manuscript. I can’t be certain as to whether my novel is the first to be so thoroughly constructed on the Long Island Railroad. But no doubt, I can’t imagine of another book in which more time was invested by an everyday commuter.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ray Manzarek of The Doors: The Coolest Rockstar I Almost Met

Ray Manzarek, Keyboardist of The Doors

Of the many celebrities that I've had the pleasure of knowing, Ray Manzarek was the one I learned the most from. He was sociable, moody, erudite, poetic, energetic, playful, temperamental and wonderfully thoughtful. The coolest rock star I ever met… well almost.

          The year was 1997. I had been in the midst of a 7-year magic carpet ride of working with many of my boyhood heroes.  My job in those days was director of marketing and PR for an international postal agency called IGPC. I had initiated a program in 1995 that allowed living legends from the world of entertainment to be honored on postage stamps by a handful of lesser-known countries around the world. Before long, every publicist, agent, manager, fan-club, marketing company and some celebrities themselves were pursuing me in an effort to have that next postal honor. It was mind-blowing.

Ray Manzarek in the 1960s
          The Doors were undoubtedly one of the greatest rock groups of the 1960s. Led by their legendary front-man, Jim Morrison, they made their mark on the pop music world with their psychedelic and bluesy rock sound. Manzarek was the band’s tall, bespectacled keyboard player who supplied them with much of their signature sound – especially on keyboard-heavy classics such as Light My Fire and Touch Me.

          Sometime in mid-1997, I got contacted by a collectible company from New Jersey about a licensing deal celebrating the music of The Doors. They asked me to find them a series of postal administrations to feature their first six album covers on legal tender. Eventually, we settled on six stamps from one nation: St. Vincent & The Grenadines (a Caribbean island). The stamps were designed impressively. They all had to be approved by the band’s manager, a gentleman from Los Angeles by the name of Danny Sugarman. It was a quick turnaround; no complications whatsoever. During this process I had no contact with any of the surviving band members. Nor did I expect to.

          The Doors postage stamps were released in late ’97. I remember drafting a press release, getting it approved by all parties, then sending it out to my list of go-to media contacts. But a funny thing happened along the way. One of my regulars for the celebrity stamp stories was a guy called David Moye, an editor for a satirical news service out in San Diego called Wireless Flash. Mr. Moye called me up upon receipt of my announcement. He promised to run a story, but something in his voice that day suggested that he had a much bigger idea.

Journalist, David Moye
          As it turned out, David Moye was a personal friend of Ray Manzarek. He told me that no story would be complete without a quote from one of the living band members, so he would be contacting him for a sound byte. Later that evening, Mr. Moye phoned me back. He could hardly contain his excitement. “Lonnie, not only did Ray give me some quotes for the feature, but he’s really keen on these Doors stamps. He’s asking to talk to you; wants to maybe do something special to promote them.”

           The very next day, I had a home phone number for a rock legend with an invitation to call him up. It was his wife, Dorothy who answered when I called. She passed the phone to Ray, who couldn’t have been friendlier. “So I was thinking, maybe you and I could help each other out. You see, I know you’re looking to promote our stamps, which are way cool. But I’ve got this other project going on that I’m trying to hype. I’m thinking that maybe you can book me on a few shows where I can plug both the stamps and my new memoir, which is about to be published.”

          Manzarek had written a book called: Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors. David Moye had told him of my considerable publicity skills. The rock legend saw this as an opportunity to potentially co-promote two projects at once. I was only too willing to play along. I sent out an alert to some 60 rock-radio morning shows across the US, offering Ray Manzerek as an interview guest, plus a set of the Doors stamps as an on-air giveaway. I immediately drew interest from some 20 stations. I phoned back Ray with the details.

          “So I’m really impressed. But I’m not gonna take all of ‘em. Sure, I’ll do the big markets. Also the west coast shows where I’m in the same time zone. But I’m passing on the smaller east coast gigs. No way I’m getting up at 4am to talk to ten listeners in South Carolina.”

          The radio spots were all a success. Ray would call me after each one to give me the interview highlights. As we progressed with the promotion, he began to treat me like a friend. He offered to sign sets of the Doors stamps sheets, and even gave me his home address in Beverly Hills to send over packages by FedEx. At one point, I remember him asking me if I was a fan of The Doors. When I answered affirmatively, he told me I could ask him any question I wanted about the band.

“So what was your take on the Oliver Stone movie of The Doors?”

“Next question!” he answered sharply. After we both had an awkward laugh, he went on a ten minute diatribe about how much Oliver Stone had distorted the personalities of the band members. “I loved the attention that the movie generated for us and our music, but let’s just say that I wasn’t a fan of the depiction of us.”

One of the big early bookings that I got for Ray was a phone-in segment on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn. I don’t own a clip of the show from that night, but I remember it going horribly wrong.  An audio glitch occurred from the start of the interview that prevented Ray from hearing the questions from the host. He started talking about the stamps, but then lost his temper (on live TV) when he couldn’t hear Kilborn’s questions. Eventually, he started cursing a blue streak (which was bleeped out on 7-second delay). He hung up in frustration. The studio audience couldn’t control their laughter. It was a disaster… or so I thought.

I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear back from Ray after the Daily Show debacle. But late the next morning, he was calling my office. I was hesitant to pick up his call. But I nervously grabbed it after the second ring, awaiting an eruption that never came.

“Lonnie, you won’t believe how many people have been calling us this morning about that show from last night. I had no idea so many people even watched that cable network. I haven’t had this much attention in years! Everyone we know has been ringing us since that screw-up from last night. It’s wild.”

 I probably spoke to Ray Manzarek some twenty times by phone over the next several months. In addition to my booking him for media appearances, he also enjoyed bouncing some ideas off me for future projects. One of them was a novel he was writing entitled, The Poet In Exile. It was a fantasy story where Jim Morrison had faked his own death and was living on some remote island, keeping tabs on the music world. It wasn’t particularly good, though I appreciated the sentiment of Ray keeping his fallen band-mate alive for a last reunion. He’d even sent me the unedited manuscript to review.

Regrettably, I never did get to meet Ray in person, though it almost happened in June of 1998. He had flown to New York to attend a memorial service for Linda McCartney to which he had been invited. I was traveling that week at a postal exhibition on the west coast, unaware that Ray was in my hometown. I had quite the surprise when I returned.

Toby, our lovely, redheaded receptionist alerted me that someone famous had stopped by while I was away. She couldn’t remember his name, but she told me that he had been in my office and left me a note. I immediately raced to my cluttered desk and found the message amidst the piles of folders, stamp designs and loose papers. It was scrawled on a yellow note pad next to my keyboard.

“Lonnie, sorry I missed you. I thought I’d surprise you by saying hello in person. Maybe next time. Best wishes from your friend Ray.”

There never would be a next time. Not in person, anyway. But I continued to speak with Ray by phone sporadically over the next few years. In 2001, after I’d left my job at IGPC, I’d called him to let him know that I was looking for the next phase in my career. His response was unhelpful, but priceless.

The Doors 21st Century Reunion Lineup
“So how’s your singing voice? Robbie, John and I are thinking about going back on the road as the Doors again for some shows. If you can sing like Jim Morrison, well I might have you audition.”

In 2002, I penned the first draft of my debut novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation. There is a sequence midway through the story where my fictional rock star, Johnny Elias would be out in Los Angeles, recording a second album with his band, trying to match the immense success of his first recording. As the author, I wanted to insert a real rock legend based in L.A. who could randomly run into Johnny and share some career advice and offer validation of his success. Immediately, I thought of Ray. A musical icon for sure, but not someone who would be so easily recognized by casual fans. The scene is a short one, though I took the liberty of putting a few words of encouragement in Ray’s mouth. I mailed him the pages of the scene, along with a note summarizing my book. He phoned me up some weeks later.

“So, when I first saw your book title, I thought you were ripping off The Poet In Exile (his Jim Morrison inspired novel). But then I read the scene you sent me and realized this is totally different. Anyway, it’s all cool with me. I’m kinda flattered that you thought to stick me in your story. When do I get to read the rest of it?”

          I later sent a box to Ray containing the complete manuscript. And though I never heard back from him with his feedback, I had every intention of seeking him out upon publication of the novel to get a promotional quote. Sadly, this was not to be.

          It took me 14 long years to finally bring my novel to print after years of life’s ups and downs. Between a busy career, raising two kids, endless editing, and an array of setbacks, an earlier release was simply not possible.

Ray Manzarek died suddenly in 2013 after a short illness. He was 73 and had been musically active to the end. It would have been a great joy for me to have shared a signed copy of my novel with my legendary “friend” after all the stamp sheets and books he had signed for me. Even sweeter would have been the opportunity to do it in person, an event that unfortunately eluded us both. Still, I will always cherish the relationship he and I shared by phone and FedEx back in the late 1990s. A truly terrific character who I am proud to honor with a scene in my novel that I know he was genuinely tickled by. It now serves as a fitting tribute.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. Order your copy today.