SOMERVILLE, Mass. Maggie Turbek was once a promising young writer, but at age 58 she finds her future is largely behind her. “I had one moderately successful novel, so I feel I accomplished something,” she says of “Under the Rhododendrons,” her clear-eyed look back at her youth written when she was 28. “Had I known how little money you make from a moderately successful novel I would have just gone to work at the Post Office.”
Turbek: “The cable guy didn’t show up? Another ferry sank in India–I think that’s probably worse.”
But Turbek’s case-hardened knowledge of what it takes to become a writer is much in demand these days among those just beginning their careers in the field, all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and toting newly-framed Master of Fine Arts in Literature degrees from one publisher to another. “Maggie’s tough, but that’s what I need,” says Chloe Sevigne, who is currently shopping a collection of short stories that she used as her master’s project at the University of Arkansas-Hoxie. “Whenever I start to go off the rails, she blows the whistle.”
The service that Turbek provides, along with her young assistant Lorna Twellman, a recent graduate of Tufts University with a worthless English degree, is to monitor clients’ on-line activity to keep them focused on writing and not complaining about the thousand daily shocks that everyone’s flesh is heir to. “I blame the whole ‘Customer is always right’ philosophy,” Turbek says with apparent disgust. “If everything isn’t perfect in your little world, you think you’re entitled to wig out instead of getting your ass in your chair and writing.”
“I can’t write today–it’s too nice outside!”
“Maggie, I hate to interrupt, but I think you should see this,” Twellman says to Turbek, like a latter-day Alexander Graham Bell calling to her Watson. “Good grief!” Turbek says as she reads a Facebook comment by Michael Hofstrau, a blocked writer who signed up for Turbek’s “Basic” service at $240 a month. “There should be separate lines in Starbucks,” Hofstrau writes. “One for people who haven’t got their shit together, and one for people like me.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Turbek says as she nudges the younger woman aside, “but this calls for high-level intervention. ‘Hey Michael,’” Turbek taps out on Hofstrau’s Facebook page, and Twellman recoils at the ferocity with which the seasoned pro cracks away at her keyboard. “Raymond Carver used to write on scraps of paper in the laundromat. I think you can put up with somebody who doesn’t know the difference between a chai latte and a caramel macchiato.”
“If I see any of you complaining about noise from leaf-blowers, I’m going to come to your house and smash your keyboard over your head.”
Soon the young writer’s complaining ceases, a sign that he has turned back to his work; a sports/science fiction novel about a time-traveling Negro League baseball team that plays on Mars. “Nobody ever got anything written by whining,” Turbek says as she returns to her desk.
She taps her space bar to make her screen saver disappear, then checks the blog of Melissa Hurwit-Hwang, an M.F.A. from Skidmore who’s working on a blank verse poem cycle about the oppressive character of counter-top household appliances of the 1950s, even though she was born three decades later. “I could KILL those stupid Jehovah’s Witnesses, ringing the doorbell just as I was getting going good!” the young woman writes. “I’ve lost my inspiration for the day.”
“If words can change the world, dictionaries would be in jail.”
Turbek scans the post with disgust, takes a piece of chewing gum out of her mouth and tosses it in a wastebasket, then adds a comment that causes the younger novelist’s face to redden 90 miles away in Amherst, Mass. “Melissa, sweetie–Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan after he was interrupted by that notorious Person from Porlock. You’re telling me you can’t crank out a couplet or two today?”
There is silence on the screen for a while before Hurwit-Hwang replies. “Sorry Maggie. I promise–I’ll tackle toaster ovens this morning, and electric skillets this afternoon.”
Turbek then turns her attention to a male client whose productivity declines dramatically as the college basketball season approaches its climax in “March Madness.” “Don’t waste your time on Kansas,” she reads when she logs onto the blog of Art Shmansky, a would-be writer of noir children’s books. “They’re going to fall apart like a pair of Wal-Mart sweat socks in the first round.”
“What a nimrod,” she says with disgust.
“What?” Twellman asks, hoping to learn from the woman who’s considered the Mistress of Darkness among writers who’d sell their souls for a six-figure advance.
“He’s getting into it over a stupid basketball tournament that won’t start for six weeks!” Turbek replies. She quickly logs on to the site–knuckleheadsports.com–chooses a user name and a password and breaks into the discussion with a ice-cold blast of realism. “Hey Shmansky,” she writes. “Do you think Raymond Chandler gave two shits about CCNY vs. Holy Cross?”
Usually a rapid responder, the budding writer is stunned into silence. “Well, uh, my writing coach just called for a substitution,” he types after a while before signing off. “I’ve been benched, so it’s back to my imitation hard-bitten, cynical prose for kids.”