I had just published a short novel about a dishwasher who decides to kill a billionaire for political reasons when I received an email that I at first ignored. It was a strange email, seemed almost like a prank. “Dear Mr. Wren,” it began, “you don’t know me and there’s no reason you should.” This is actually where, at first, I stopped, writing it off as spam, or as a fan letter written in a particularly distasteful style. Either way it failed to maintain my interest even to the end of the first sentence and it wasn’t until several weeks later, scrolling through old emails, trying to decide which ones to delete, that I first read it through all the way to the end. “I have read your most recent novel with great interest. The main reason for my interest was personal, as is perhaps always the case with literature. One of your two main characters, since they are both unnamed I am unsure how to refer to them, bore a striking resemblance to my own history and character. I too began in relative poverty and have worked my way up to become one of the world’s richest men. I too see life through a complex web of cynicism and hope. There were moments, reading your book, when I wondered if I should in fact sue you for libel, moments too close for comfort, in which I was painfully aware of your characters shortcomings and therefore of my own. But instead of a lawsuit I have decided to come to you with a proposal. I would like you to write my biography. I suspect anyone able to write a fictional character so close to my own would also be able to capture my real self in all its complexity and nuance. From reading your work I of course realize that, politically, we are neither on the same page nor on the same side. However, as a struggling author I also assume you are very much in need of money, and that I would obviously be able to provide in substantial quantities. Let me be clear, I am not looking to pay you off, not bribing you in order for you to whitewash either my history or my character. I simply wish for you to write about me honestly, using your full abilities of both observation and research, including all of my shortcomings and flaws and bringing to bear upon them the full force of your literary craft. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. As a first step I simply propose that we meet in person. You can see for yourself, decide if I might be a worthy subject for your pen. There are many extremely boring books being written about CEO’s and business hero’s of our time. I very much hope you will understand my desire to have a more interesting, one might even say eccentric, book written about me. I kindly hope you will consider my proposal, at the very least the first step in which we meet in person. If your only temptation is monetary I will certainly not be offended. By this point in my life I’m used to it. Sincerely,” at this point I believe I should withhold his name, for fear of incurring an actual lawsuit at some future point in time. But I did, after reading over his email several times, trying to decide if it was for real, staring at page after page of google search results, all of which confirmed his enormous wealth, eventually reply to his email and agree to meet with him.
Our first meeting took place almost surreptitiously. It was only much later that I realized he had hired someone to watch me, learn my routines, and when he approached me in the bookstore it was the furthest thing from a coincidence, though he most likely already knew about my fondness for coincidences and that I would be taken in by the appearance of one, that I would want to believe it, believe it was a sign of some sort that I should write his biography after all. He said hello, said his name (though by this point I already recognized him), that we had already corresponded over email, that he was happy to meet me for the first time in person. What was strange was I immediately liked him. We had already arranged a meeting for later that week so our first encounter was brief. It’s only now I see how skillful this first chance encounter actually was. (What the hell would he have been doing in that low rent bookstore otherwise.) And also what it meant, how much he must have wanted me to do as he wished in order to go to all that effort. But even as I’m writing this I see it is incorrect. It had so little to do with me. He is simply a man who puts his mind to something and then does everything possible to get his way. In this way we are almost opposite, since so many of my desires and wishes over the years have almost completely eluded me.
Then there was our second meeting, a somewhat more substantial encounter. Very quickly I understood I was speaking to someone with certain skills, someone considerably more persuasive than I would ever be. He was talking, telling me about his life, and as he did so I could feel myself being persuaded that I should take him up on his offer, that working with or for him would make my life considerably more compelling. But what seemed strange to me in retrospect was, to the best of my recollection, I don’t believe he mentioned his offer once, or even eluded it. (Except maybe at the very end in the form of a joke.) How did he do it, why was I persuaded? As I examined this question in my mind, turned it over and around, in fact spending the next several days wondering, I came to the conclusion that the right solution must be the most obvious one. It had to do with money. I thought, if you were to show me a nice looking watch, and give it to me, I would say thank you and wear it and be pleased with the situation. But if you were to show me a nice watch, tell me it was worth one million dollars, and then give it to me, against my better judgment, perhaps even against my most deeply held convictions, I would be overwhelmed. The man who wanted me to write his biography was just such a watch. He made a good impression, but the extra kick I got from him had almost nothing to do with whatever he may have done or said. The more I wondered about it the more I felt it came from somewhere else, from my own insecurities and doubts around the topic of money. From feeling that money is meant for other people, I want enough to get by but otherwise don’t really care for such things, and yet when I tell myself this supposed fact (about myself) in a more conscious way, the only place it leads me is to doubting whether or not it is actually true. I certainly have my own kind of ambition: ambition to write great literature and be recognized for it. How can I keep telling myself this ambition is so different from the ambition to accrue wealth? How is it so different from the man I met who so effortlessly persuaded me to write about his life? I thought the persuasion was little more than my unacknowledged desire to be close to money, to see a kind of wealth that honestly I can barely imagine – or, more accurately, my imagination runs wild, but I have no idea what it would be like in reality – and to witness it up close.
The end of this second meeting was particularly intriguing. Quite suddenly he changed his tone, in a sense changed his approach. He told me that when you have a lot of money you start to attract a different kind of person: brownnosers and sycophants, and he always worked hard to ensure there were enough people around him who knew how to say no, who knew how to stand up to him, to tell him when he was going off the rails and not just always what they thought he wanted to hear. He was sure I was this kind of person: stubborn, my own man, willing to speak ‘truth to power’ as an activist protesting against his corporation once described the true value of activism to him, and as he told me this, for the first time in our meeting, I doubted him, wondered if he was now simply telling me what he thought I wanted to hear. Sitting there across from him, what I actually felt is that I was just another potential sycophant in a coterie of the same. I knew that in my life, in so many positive but also self-destructive ways, I could certainly be stubborn, but I really wasn’t sure if standing up to the person who was paying my rent (and perhaps also my retirement fund) was one of those ways. At the same time, I told myself, if for whatever reason at any point the situation became intolerable, I could simply walk away. I would have the financial courage to walk away. Then he told a joke that seemed strange to me at the time, that I didn’t fully get, in fact I wasn’t even sure it was a joke. He said: “You and I are completely different people. We have completely different lives, different politics. But I always negotiate on the basis that everyone has something in common. And I’m certain we have a lot. That as you begin to work on the book you’ll really start to see it. And one thing I think maybe we have in common is this, you and I both: when we’re staring into the eyes of a pig, we really know how to grab it by the ears, we really know how to get our knee right in there, right between the eyes. You in your writing. And for me, of course, its just business.” Then he laughed, a genuine, hearty laugh, it was one of the few times I heard anything so joyful come out of his mouth, and, in one of the few moments in this story I’m genuinely ashamed of, I laughed along with him. I laughed as if he had just said the funniest thing in the world.
It will be no secret to anyone who knows me that my life is, in large part, a struggle with depression. However, it is often difficult for me to describe or explain the exact nature of my depression, what it is like for me. And what happened next was – instead of tearing into the large package of research material that appeared on my doorstep the next week, instead of reading the thirty-seven page contact that also arrived a few days later, instead of thinking about him or reconsidering whether or not I should actually write his biography – I instead fell into a deep depression and did absolutely nothing for several months. For this entire period the thick package remained unopened, propped up against the wall next to my front door. The contract remained unread.
Of course, I did not literally do nothing during this period. I was reading a great deal and continuing to half-heartedly work on the unfinished novel I had been chipping away at for several years. This novel was going to be different from any of my previous books. It was going to be more personal, closer to non-fiction, closer to my real daily life and thoughts. I wanted to write a book that went more in this direction, felt it was part of my natural progression and also part of the general zeitgeist, but at the same time within me there seemed to be an incredible resistance towards the undertaking. It was as if I wanted to write about my life without actually giving anything away. For example, I didn’t want to write about my romantic life, and when I did allude to it in certain passages, I would just as quickly edit those allusions away. Mostly what remained were my thoughts on philosophy, literature, activism and politics, and yet I refused to see it as a book length essay or collection of aphorisms, continued to think of it as a kind of autobiographical novel, and did everything in my power to continuously push the manuscript in this, perhaps unrealistic, direction. After the relative success of my last book, the book that had gotten me into this biography mess in the first place, I feared this new book of philosophical and political reflections would be seen by many as a disappointment. It had no characters (only me), no narrative energy or forward momentum. I realized I was up to my old tricks. My books had always alternated: a more accessible work followed by a more difficult or experimental one. I am never sure if this is a form of career self-sabotage or a way of keeping my artistic edge. But I know I can’t seem to help myself. I once thought of writing three unpublished books in a row: an accessible one, a more difficult one, and then another accessible one. This would make it possible for me to publish the two more accessible books back to back, allowing the second more accessible book to build on the first one’s success. But such nefarious long-term plans also seem beyond me. As soon as I finish an acceptable draft of a book I immediately want to get it off my desk, out into the world, out of my life, to be free of it. Keeping two unpublished books in a desk drawer while I attempted to complete a third would have required an act of pure will I was simply incapable of. It occurred to me that at the same time I was attempting to write a book about my own life, I was also going to begin writing a book about someone else’s. I wondered how these two books would bleed into each other, contaminate one another, how each book might make writing the other one easier or more difficult.
I said I did nothing during these three months, and felt I was doing nothing because the depression had once again overwhelmed me, but if I think back upon it there was actually so much that happened. One thing that happened is more and more unanswered messaged accumulated, and were deleted, on my voicemail. These messages were from the eventual publisher of the biography and became increasingly aggressive, even hostile, over the course of the three months. At first they were messages simply inquiring whether or not I had received the contract and whether the terms were acceptable to me. There were also emails. But as the months progressed the messages and emails wanted to know why they had not heard back from me, if I was planning to accept their extremely generous financial offer or if I was planning to continue ignoring them, if I wanted them to instead find another writer to complete this project or if, instead, it was my desire that this important book would not be published at all. I assumed, in the depth of my depression, that I would simply lose the gig, but as the messages grew angrier began to realize something else might be going on. That perhaps the subject of the biography had even insisted that the writer had to be me, and if this was the case it might be possible for me to demand even more money. Or was I only flattering myself.
During this time there were also difficulties in my romantic life that I was not able to write about in my non-fiction novel-in-progress and therefore will also not attempt to write about here.
One aspect of my ongoing depression is that it comes and goes, even though I don’t quite experience it in this manner. What I experience is that I am always depressed. It is only in retrospect that I am able to see that during certain periods I am slightly more functional and during others I am considerably less. Often, with these periods of more severe depression, there is something, some event, that snaps me out of it, and in this case it was a visit from my eventual biography subject. I was sitting at the exact same café I go to each morning, a novel in my hands and a notebook open in front of me (years ago I had started writing longhand because spending too much time on the computer was hurting my back.) I was reading Volume One of The Aesthetics of Resistance by the German author Peter Weiss. There was a rap at the window and I looked over. I always prefer to sit as close to the window as possible, as if literally enacting my desire to be closer to the outside world. It was him, smiling at me like I was his favorite person in the world. He came and sat across from me. I was expecting him to be angry but he didn’t seem even remotely upset.