“The elevator pitch is that it’s a couple years ago, and Larry Morvan lost his best friend, his girlfriend, his father and his virginity during a three-day academic field trip. Now, on the eve of his 17th birthday, he has a confession to make,” says Erik Rasmussen, doing his best baiting for his new novel. “That’s not what the book is about, though. It is about a lot of things: friendship, betrayal, masturbation, growing up, and it’s about a reckoning. It’s about doing your best to explain not only how things happen but why. And ‘why’ being the most human question. I mean, every animal can figure out when, where, who, what, how. But I think the only animal that asks the question ‘why’ is humans, and that’s where all stories come from.”
Rasmussen, the editor in chief of the biannual fashion publication At Large, has spent the past several months spreading the word on his debut novel, so it’s no wonder he’s got his selling points down to a tee. Titled “Diet of Worms,” the book is a coming-of-age story inspired by the themes of religion and addiction that have spilled into his own life. And after letting the finished product sit unpublished on his shelf for several years, the book’s publication is long overdue.
Seven years ago, Rasmussen took some time off work and churned out what is now “Diet of Worms” in a blur of three or so months.
“I left some things languishing; did a big edit on it; finished it; went into debt, of course; ran up my credit card bills because I didn’t work for six months to finish it, and self-published it at the McNally Jackson, three or four copies,” he says, from a booth at Cafe Colette in Williamsburg, near the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, the photographer Marley Rizzuti. “Felt good about myself, put it on a shelf, and there it sat for six years. And, you know, life happened.”
He describes the next several years as full of “some entanglements, some engagements, doing a lot of things I shouldn’t have done,” during which time he was an addict.
The book was rediscovered several years later wedged on his bookshelf by his then-girlfriend, once Rasmussen had gotten sober.
“I told her, ‘Oh I’m a writer’ — stuff you say to a girl when you’re first meeting them to make yourself sound interesting,” he says. “I even bragged about writing a book. So she found it and read it without telling me. She said, ‘I loved reading this book, and you should do something with it and stop talking about it.’ And after everything that had gone on the preceding couple of years, I felt it would be a good way to continue the recovery process.”
When he returned to the book, sober and with several years’ distance, it was as if he were reading someone else’s work, for the first time.
“I had no recollection and no memory of writing it. It was wild,” he says. “I mean, I remember that I wrote it. I remember the time spent tapping my pen against the table waiting for ideas to come. I remember the feeling when the ideas didn’t come. But I didn’t remember the story.”
In the meantime, he’d landed at At Large, and spent years editing others’ works, developing that muscle. “I had a whole new set of eyes and a different heart,” he says. “So I read this thing — it felt different — and I thought I could really do this book a favor. Be a good shepherd and be a good steward and raise it right.”
The book was a cornerstone of his recovery process. “In really dark times, I would always remind myself, ‘you know what, man, you said that you were going to write a book before you turned 33, and you did it at 31 and finished it at 32. You did what you said you were going to do.’ And that buoyed me through some dark times, and I thought, ‘well, I kind of owe it to this book to finish it and bring it as far as it can go.’”
Rasmussen, now 40, grew up on Long Island in a family of writers; his grandmother is a poet, and “the family lore is that we’re related to [Lewis] Wallace, the guy who wrote ‘Ben-Hur,’” he says. “I didn’t grow up by any means wealthy. And when you’re young, especially from Long Island, man, it’s like ‘Great Gatsby’ s–t. There’s some rich f–ing people on that. And they’re always the ones that are looked up to, whether you like it or not. And so the proud, bright spot in the family lore was that, ‘Oh, we’re writers.’”
The book’s many religious themes stem from his childhood: his mother is a deacon, while his father identifies as an atheist. “I went to Bible studies, I went to Lutheran schools. But I don’t think I was ever convinced,” he says.
The book itself is of course personal, for its incorporation of the more defining experiences in Rasmussen’s life — but that’s only half of it. The act of seeing it through to publication has been defining in its own way.
“It was part of reconciling the past; taking up the old and sort of severing it and tying it all back together,” he says. “Reconciling the person I am now with the person I used to be, and sort of healing over the part between. And bringing this book to the public was definitely a big part of that.”
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