"I have an affinity for people who have had several breakdowns," deadpanned Los Angeles author Robert Ward, whose most recent novel, "Red Baker," (Dial Press) describes the disintegration of a Baltimore steelworker's life when the plant where he works is shut down.
Ward, 42, who also is a writer and co-producer for the "Hill Street Blues" television show and a former English professor, is well-acquainted with despair. Before the success of his current book, he spent five years willfully trying to write the "wrong" book for reasons that were more commercial than literary, he said.
"I had one eye on the thriller chart and one eye on the literary chart, one eye on fame and one eye on a movie sale, and the result was that I had a book that had nothing . . . they were simply impure motives," he said, with apologies for how "corny and old-fashioned" that might sound. That realization, coming after he had "spent thousands of hours" on it, drove him to "just about crack up," he said.
It was that night, as he lay staring into the darkness at 4 a.m., that the voice of Red Baker began to speak to him in words that became the opening lines of his award-winning book of the same name: "The story I am about to tell you is how I, Red Baker, lost my job, my pride, my family and came damned close to losing my home and life, but through an act of ingenuity got them all (for the time being) back again. . . ."
Finding the Right Voice
The gritty, unsentimental voice that speaks with first-person authenticity about a Baltimore life centered around the now-closed steel mill was, finally, the right voice, reached only after Ward had "exhausted myself of the will."
When the right voice finally spoke early that morning, Ward "knew it was right from that second," but he also felt a "terrible sense of agony," he told Saturday Review earlier this year.
"This wasn't the 700-page tome I'd been writing obsessively . . . and I thought, 'Oh my God, what if this one doesn't work either?' "
"Red Baker" has worked so well that it has garnered positive reviews in prestigious places, the 1986 PEN Los Angeles Center Fiction Award and a recent paperback offering (Washington Square Press).
The response that Ward seems to relish the most, however, is that of unemployed steelworkers and other disenfranchised blue-collar workers around the country, some of whom have told him that "Red Baker" is the first book they've read since high school.
'Red Baker Is Me'
"That book was me. Red Baker is me," one of them told Ward when he returned to his hometown of Baltimore to promote the book.
Although Ward said going back makes him feel "so weird," his forays home are frequent. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood like that in his book. "I have to take a tremendous amount of ribbing in an attempt to see if I've become a jerk," he said, "to see if I've become Mr. Hollywood."
Ward could qualify as the Bruce Springsteen of the literary set. Through his vivid, earthy characterizations he has been able to articulate the sense of despair and betrayal felt by those who are economically displaced.
"Realism is the strongest thing in fiction," he said, realism and passion based on "knowing how things work." Ward, whose speech is simultaneously street-wise and literary, evokes Dickens and others who had a "large vision of life and real passion about real things." Dismissing much of the popular literary style in fiction, particularly that based on what he describes as "phony irony," Ward said that simple reality based on "earned experience" is what is "infinitely interesting" in fiction.
Yet it was not until after he had left college teaching and had begun to work as a journalist that Ward said he really "discovered how things work." As a professor, "I believed I knew that America was decadent and this was that and that was this, but I didn't know how any of it worked." But he did know he'd "never write any real fiction of any merit," he said, until he got away from the professorial life style that he considered such a "trap."
He fled to New York where he free-lanced for New Times, Rolling Stone and Gentleman's Quarterly while hanging out at Elaine's and trying to be part of the chic crowd, he said. The New York scene began to wear thin for him at about the same time the '60s sensibility beckoned. What followed was a wired decade in Haight-Ashbury during which he attempted to write his first novel, "Shedding Skin."
After writing several hundred pages, he said, he "just knew it was no good." One night he and some of his friends took the manuscript up to the roof of his building and "ripped it up and threw it off" and, he said melodramatically, "it reached its apogee of brilliance as it flew away into the beautiful haze of the sea gulls."
He moved back to Baltimore and, finally, having arrived at another emotional "bottom place," was able to find the right narrative voice for a new version of his book, "Shedding Skin."