I dropped out of graduate school in 1977 and took an editing job in Chicago that paid so little that I wound up working evenings and weekends as a janitor at a couple of apartment buildings managed by a Hungarian scamp named John. John would take me with him as he traveled to sketchy neighborhoods to do plumbing and other odd jobs. I started writing stories about my janitorial adventures and published them in The Chicago Reader, Chicago magazine and another magazine that no longer exists. When I quit my job at Phoenix New Times in 2000, I sat down and wrote the first 40,000 words of Speaking English, this time in the first-person, because I realized long ago that if your friends recognize even the slightest similarity between you and a character in your fiction, they assume that everything else in the story is true as well. It kind of satisfied a long-time urge to send out a scandalous and fictitious send-up of those boring and awful end-of-year letters we all get from friends and relatives at Christmastime. I shamelessly peppered it with funny stories told (over and over) by my long-time friend, Bob Peruzzo, whose diction is eerily similar to the character, Pauly.
Here's the first paragraph:
"Back then, you used to worry about getting mugged in that neighborhood. Now you have to worry about getting run down by a $1200 baby stroller pushed by some yuppie hopped up on Starbucks coffee."
I sold the novel, sort of, to an editor at a midtown New York publishing house who backed out when my non-fiction book, Chasing the Panda, didn't make the New York Times Bestseller List. Then another editor in Great Britain wanted it but was moving to a new job and instead referred me to a British agent who asked me to flesh it out, which I did, before he disappeared. So screw it: I published it myself.
Mike Miner was one of my editors at Chicago Reader, back in the day. Thirty years later he's still there, and here's what he wrote about Speaking English when it came out in 2012: