First, his ode to plumbing salesmen, “Costello,” was published in The New Yorker (complete with an interview with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman ). Before the awesome reality had a chance to set in, his short story collection, Middle Men, was picked up by Simon & Schuster. Jim Gavin, a former plumbing salesman and student of Lou Mathews, is finally reaping the benefit of his talent and hard work. Here, in his own humorous words, Jim expounds on his success and tells us why his true gratification comes from the writing itself.
Writers’ Program: Your short story, “Costello,” was published in the December issue of The New Yorker. As a native Angelino, I felt the story captured great little nuggets of life here. What was your inspiration for the story? Did you grow up in the area?
Jim Gavin: The inspiration was purely market driven. People want to read about two things – vampires and aging plumbing salesmen. I went with plumbing, mostly because I had worked in that industry and wouldn’t have to do any research. A character had been forming for a while, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him until I wrote the first sentence – “Costello sees a lizard at the bottom of the pool.” I didn’t know his name was Costello until I wrote it, but once I did, the rhythm and mood of the story seemed to fall into place.
WP: Tell us about your experience working with Lou Mathews, and taking Writers’ Program classes in general. How did these classes help you develop your writing?
JG: LA is lousy with writers who owe Lou Mathews a huge debt, both artistically and in terms of actual dollars. The man is generous to a fault. I took his class while I was coming to the end of my tenure as a plumbing salesman. I remember trudging up the 405 every Tuesday night to spend three hours in a room with a bunch of strangers. But they weren’t strangers – they were just like me, making time for something they love. It was easily the best part of my week. As a writer, Lou is the real deal, one of the city’s great chroniclers. As a teacher, he makes you care about language and all the little details that go into making a piece of fiction work.
WP: You recently sold your short story collection to Simon & Schuster. Do you have any advice for writers who are submitting their work for publication? Is there anything people can do to give themselves “an edge,” or is it all about the writing?
JG: I got a break, but I don’t feel like it’s something I earned. Publication just means you got lucky. What you earn, on your own, day after day, is the satisfaction of the work. Last year I finished a book, something I never thought I could do. I felt like if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I wouldn’t be totally embarrassed when my loved ones found the file folder on my desk top that said “collection.” That was a good feeling, and until I earned that feeling on my own, I was never going to get lucky.
WP: What project are you working on next? Who do you look to for inspiration when you’re feeling drained?
JG: I’m working on a novel. That’s always a noble thing to say. I have no clue what I’m doing, but I suppose if I did I would lose interest in the whole thing. This year I’ve read some great novels that got me excited to write. The Eden Hunter by Skip Horack is a mesmerizing yarn, and Spooner by Pete Dexter is your basic American masterpiece. Writers I’m always going to for inspiration include Evan S. Connell, J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, Ross MacDonald, and James Joyce.
Katy Flaherty is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Online) and Events. Write to her at email@example.com.