Recently I was lucky enough to meet Ben Tarnoff, the author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature (2014, Penguin Press). Ben happens to be my neighbor’s son-in-law, and he graciously agreed to meet with our book group. Bohemians is an engaging, colorful account of a period of American literary history that I for one knew nothing about. Ben focuses on the four best known San Francisco-based writers of the post-Civil-War period—Twain, Bret Harte, and the poets Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith (the first poet laureate of California). Twain and Harte wrote bold, irreverent California-based stories, fiction that was new and wholly American.
Now–I haven’t finished the book, and while I can highly recommend it based on the two-thirds of it I’ve read, I’m bringing up Ben because of what he said about the writer’s life–his own. I asked him if any part of the book had been especially difficult to write, and he said, “All of it.” He said he’d finish every day of work convinced the pages he’d just written were absolutely terrible. If he felt jazzed about what he’d written, he was sure to find it abysmal the next day.
A successful young writer (he’s also the author of A Counterfeiter’s Paradise, a history of the early years of the American financial system) doubting his abilities at every turn. What else is new, you say? True enough, but it’s always comforting to hear a published writer confess his or her insecurities. I almost felt a stab of pity: I feel good about my writing some days; I don’t think it’s awful every day! I almost got there, to the stab, but I only got as far as near pity. The fact is, whatever his method is, it’s working. His book is beautifully written (at least the part I’ve read is). And I look forward to his next work, whatever that may be—and good Lord, we didn’t even get around to asking him what he was working on.