Wednesday, October 2, 2019

PINS 20th Anniversary; Wrestling with the Publishing Industry

This week is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of my debut novel, PINS, a wrestling coming-of-age story about patron saints, headlocks, crash diets, thrash metal, dogpiles, nutpulls, and only the occasional assault.

It's been a long fascinating journey from those first scratches of writing (I started with Chapter 16, by the way) to having not one but two high-powered agents fail to sell the book, then 56 rejection letters, most brief, a few quite educational, to self-publishing the book the old-school way by starting a sole proprietorship home office, shipping cartons to wholesalers across the country while having a stack of cartons serve as a hard makeshift sofa in my living room, to creating ebook, stage and audiobook adaptations, and even getting a German translation. This was all while actually wrestling for 14 years and winning a few matches.

Yes, to paraphrase SNL actor Garrett Morris' baseball-playing character, 'wrestling's been very very good to me.'

The story follows Joey Nicci, a 15-year-old Catholic boy and his family after they've moved from Newark, New Jersey to the small nearby suburb of Little Falls. Joey's crush on his wrestling teammate Donny "Dink" Kohrs leads him to joining Dink and a few other teammates in increasing dangerous activities that lead to the death of a teammate. While Joey narrowly escapes jail, the second half of the novel focuses on his outcast status, and a layered religious theme, to the point of Joey's near-martyr-like near-death.

And yes, it is spelled PINS, not Pins. That word/acronym takes on multiple meanings in the novel, including one (spoiler), a different term for juvenile delinquents used in the New Jersey state court system of the time: Person in Need of Supervision.

That's just one of the many research tidbits that helped shape the novel, while I was simultaneously writing others, since 1991 when I inherited a tiny Mac and stayed up too many nights struggling with them all, like a garden of prose (not unlike the scraggly garden next door to my early 1990s East Village apartment where it all began) after watching, and videotaping, a few TV shows about a violent crime (The Hail Mary murder), a wrestling team gang assault (covered on The Phil Donahue Show) and being haunted by the atmosphere at a Queens protest after the murder of Julio Rivera, to whom the novel is dedicated. 

The author in 1999. photo: Rick Gerharter
By May 1997, as a graduate in the Master of Arts English/Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University, an early version on the other-titled manuscript was my thesis. But it wasn't the only novel I was working on. 

I must have really annoyed my fellow novel-writing classmates when, instead of submitting the same reworked manuscript as others did, I switched gears and shared works-in-progress of what would become my third, fourth and (hopefully seventh and eighth) novels. 

But the wrestling novel soon became my main focus. You can read a hardbound embarrassing early version of PINS at the university's library (a requirement for completing the degree). But even then, I had some intense interactions with a few wrestlers, both good and bad, that would change the story even more. 

It would be nice to say that things would have been more successful if either of my two high-powered agents had sold PINS by 1998. But in retrospect, it wasn't finished. It wasn't even called PINS. 

21 years younger & 20 pounds lighter, 1998
In 1998, home from my trip to Amsterdam for Gay Games V, I showed my parents a VHS copy of some of the 30+ hours of sports footage and interviews I'd shot on a Hi-8 camera. Faced with the decision of either making a gay sports documentary or completing a first novel, my father immediately suggested I finish the book. It's a decision I don't regret (although I do hope to edit that Gay Games V footage some day!)

When I self-published my first novel PINS in 1999, I first printed 1000 copies as a test, gave away 50 or so as review copies. Then I accumulated reviews, let my press kit snowball with more accolades, then redid the back and front cover with blurbs, made a lot of corrections, and printed 5000 more with a press in Michigan.

Richard Labonté and his staff at A Different Light bookstore on Castro Street ordered copies by the carton. I would occasionally haul a 30-pound 50-book box in a duffel bag, arrive sweaty on my bike, and unload the books with a sense of accomplishment, and the consignment sales checks kept arriving on time.

Other bookstores around the country, and even in Australia, ordered copies on consignment. I kept files and invoices on them all (there were many more indie bookstores then). I even brought a few to Rome in 2000 and hand-sold them for cash at a gay bookstore only blocks from The Vatican.

Also in 2000, I did an East Coast reading tour for PINS, my reading there was met with a nice group of fans, many from the local wrestling team, and it was my birthday, a sweet review in The Advocate had just been published (penned by author John Weir, no less), and it snowed!

Blurry pic of me with a bunch of books, 2000
There were a few blunders, like the New Haven bookstore that forgot they'd booked my reading (no one showed up), or the Cincinnati bookstore that double-booked me with a Naughty Santa night.

But by this time, I had gotten over the stigma of being a self-published author. I'd learned the ropes from publicity to product, of making art and business blend. 

Still, I was put off when, attending the 2000 American Booksellers Convention in Chicago, while I was making deals and connections at a small booth in a corner of the convention center, I did endure a few snubs. 

At the time, the Lambda Literary Foundation refused to accept self-published books for its awards submissions. I clapped back by attending the ceremony (at the invitation of a finalist author friend from college) timed with the ABA, and bought a half-page ad in the awards program.

Of course, that stigma was removed by 2012, when my fourth novel, Every Time I Think of You, won a Lammy, and its sequel, Message of Love, became a finalist. Thanks!  

Ship It
Back in Ohio in 2000 and 2001, (along with a great Columbus reading on another snowy night), my devoted parents played the part of East Coast distributors to save UPS costs. I'd get faxes (sent automatically to my fax machine, often programmed for the middle of the night, then email Mom the shipping info. Imagine being awakened at 3 A.M. by the cranking noise of fax paper spewed out with an order for 20 more copies to be shipped.

After 9/11, booksellers and wholesalers went into a panic, and return shipments came by the boxful. But later, universities, including one of my alma maters, Ohio State University, started ordering multiple copies for reading lists.

As my other works were published, I kept getting requests from fans to pen a sequel. But that seemed less necessary as other ideas ripened, and while I can easily imagine what could have happened to Joey, Dink and the other characters afterward, I remained satisfied with the work as is. Besides, if you get the symbolic under-story to it, you know it's complete. "Snortisimus dorsi."

And yet, stage adaptations, the German translation (Wrestling Team) and the audiobook and ebook versions have brought more fans to the book.

I've still got about 100 copies left, so there will be no re-publication or new edition. No big events, no parties. Sorry. I've been busy with other projects that I'll share soon.

However, if you want a signed copy, Paypal me $15 at myrmidude @ and 20% of the price will go to Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco.

You can read more about PINS, and some of the great reviews on my website at

Extra! Extra! Hey, look at the Headlines
At the height of PINS' popularity, it was for weeks at a time the #1 Gay Fiction title on Amazon and other book lists in gay media. That's a rare achievement, and probably not possible now for a self-published work. Since then, the online sales arena for actual gay literary fiction has been crowded out by the flood of lighter fare (Sorry, ladies, but your M/M mpreg shape-shifting meet-cute romances are not the same as a book by Alexander Chee or Edmond White.)

Getting reviews in print publications is not easy, and unneeded for the less serious works available now. You can read reviews of PINS on my website, but here are a few of the best: 

“What starts off as yet another "coming-of-age" tale of gay youth in suburbia takes a dramatic turn and careens into a full-fledged miracle of writing. PINS seduces the reader into thinking that sex is the only thing on its mind. By the time Provenzano is through with his story, however, some universal truths have been examined and harshly displayed." - NY Blade

“You know a novel is first rate when the story is so authentic and tense that the reality seems to resonate. PINS explores the strange boundaries of machismo and homophobia in sports, specifically high school wrestling. Yet this is hardly your typical coming-of-age story of being a gay teenager living in the adolescent closet in suburban America, because numerous harsh and heart-wrenching twists add chaos and nuances that keep the drama from being trite...

"PINS is an auspicious debut, sort of a Catcher in the Rye about disillusioned gay jocks. It firmly establishes Jim Provenzano as an important new voice in early 21st-century fiction.”  –Torso Magazine  
PINS play at New Conservatory Theatre, 2002

(Hey, don't laugh; back in those days, reviews in adult gay magazines were very good for sales. They reached thousands of readers already interested in buying gay books.)

"Though told third-person, PINS effectively puts us in 15-year-old Joey’s POV, capturing apt details from the musical obsessions du jour (thrash-metal like Tool and Nine Inch Nails) to the homoeroticism and homophobia that coexist in high school athletics. 

"Joey’s family life, too, is insightfully sketched, as his parents and younger siblings deal variably with relocation and other stresses. PINS works best early on, when such engrossing-if-unremarkable home/school concerns dominate. Midway, the tale takes a sharp turn – one that doles out vicious, drunken violence to the wrestling team’s more obvious 'queer.'

"PINS is a fresh debut that feels psychologically on target ... A fast read, it’s accessible stuff for teens as well as adults–though, given some explicit sexual content in the late going, don’t expect PINS to surface on sub-college curricula anytime soon.  ​–Dennis Harvey, from East Bay Express, July 2000

“Provenzano has a swift and flexible style that cuts against sentiment and reveals, in moments of grace, something like true feeling. He’s also funny. He has an ear for teenage banter, and he’s tartly lyrical about Jersey towns, Italian families and homemade mix tapes with titles like GRAPPLE and AURGH. Most urgent, he shows how gay bashing is still an outlet for kids who grew up in the so-called gay ‘90s.”  – The Advocate

Page to Stage
I never would have considered penning a stage adaptation of PINS, but when New Conservatory Theatre Center's Artistic Director Ed Decker asked, then commissioned the project, I couldn't say no. In 2002, that play got some good reviews and solid box office through its eight-week run. It also served as a terrific learning experience in condensing a work I revered down to a two-hour script. A few review excerpts:

"A strong, well-staged world premiere production. Provenzano shows great skill with naturalistic dialogue and a healthy dose of wry humor." – SF Examiner

"Provenzano shows a deep fondness for his characters and a sure understanding of the wrestling milieu. He's particularly adept at handling the crosscurrents of fear and lust produced by the conflict between the sport's potential homoeroticism and the team members' homophobia ... nicely captures the tender ache of adolescence." – Chicago Reader

"PINS wrestles with his themes thoughtfully and to entertaining effect. The center of the play, though, is a gay coming-of-age story compounded by the homophobia that seems rampant in so many sports, especially those with obvious homoerotic overtones. – San Francisco Chronicle

Fortunately, while writing the novel, I had some plot and structure problems. Those were solved by simultaneously writing a screenplay adaptation. It's available for any interested producers. At 180 pages, it would make a nice mini-series.

Words and Sound
And here's the trailer for the audiobook, read by Paul Fleschner (see below).  It's pretty clear where the original novel's cover image came from, video footage I shot at a high school wrestling tournament from above (also the POV of a certain ghost-like 'Saint' angel in the story).

There's also a playlist on my YouTube channel of all the songs referenced in the novel (which came in handy as a sound score for the play). But most important, read the book, and do share a review. Because even 20 years later, independent authors need your support.

Happy anniversary, PINS. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been born. Well, probably something else.

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