Writing isn't all done at a keyboard. And if your protagonist is a
pot grower, well . . . please excuse the cloud of smoke.
December 27, 2009
By Mark Haskell Smith
Reporting from Amsterdam Franco bullwhips a 25-foot-long plastic
bag through the air, snapping it behind him, sending the tail sailing
over his head. The bag looks like a balloon-animal anaconda and he's
the half-magician / half-matador who makes it dance. He's certainly
got the crowd's attention. They watch as the plastic snake grows in
length, slowly filling with smoky mist, the freshly vaporized essence
of the 2008 and current Cannabis Cup winner, Super Lemon Haze.
Franco is one of the legendary Strain Hunters, an A-team of
globe-trotting cannabis breeders who seek out rare landrace strains
of marijuana. They've made expeditions to Malawi and India searching
for pure plant genetics, marijuana strains unaffected by
hybridization or cross-pollination. If it was a tomato, we'd call it heirloom.
When Franco swings the bag in my direction I don't refuse. Smoking a
Cup winner with Franco is like playing catch with Manny Ramirez or
kicking a soccer ball with David Beckham. It's an experience.
You wouldn't know it to look at me but I'm not just hanging out here
in Amsterdam. I'm writing.
It's a common mistake non-writers make, confusing the physical act of
typing with writing, and writers do sometimes sit at the keyboard,
but that's just a small part of the job. Think about it. An athlete
trains and practices before he or she competes, a chef will shop for
the freshest items before deciding what to cook, an architect will
study building sites before beginning a design. Writers write about
people, and to understand what makes people tick, to get inside their
emotional lives -- to write, really -- writers need to engage with the world.
Kerouac hit the road, Hemingway hit the bottle and Dorothy Parker hit
the mattress. Me? I'm hitting the Super Lemon Haze.
For the last three years, I've wrestled with my fourth novel, a story
set in the world of high-grade marijuana cultivation. It's a unique
subculture of underground botanists, farmers, ganjaficionados and
seed geneticists who endeavor to discover, develop and refine
distinctive strains. The gap between excellent and mediocre is wide,
and the stakes are high. The very best marijuana gets entered in the
Cannabis Cup -- an event that takes place in this city every
November. If you are good enough or lucky enough to win, you have the
most valuable pot in the world. The seeds of a Cup winner are worth
millions, the marijuana is worth even more. It is the Super Bowl of
the marijuana world.
I find this culture utterly compelling, not just because of the
science but because it is still, for the most part, an illegal
pursuit about which people feel passionately engaged. This passion is
similar to what you'd find in a vineyard in Napa or in the kitchen of
a top restaurant. The Cannabis Cup, though, is more than a
competition; it's also a celebration of a mostly underground,
In my novel "Baked," I tell the story of a young underground botanist
from Los Angeles -- a man inspired by Floyd Zaiger, inventor of the
pluot -- and what happens when he wins the Cup and returns home to
find himself caught in a tug of war between medical marijuana
dispensaries who want an exclusive on his strain.
I was able to do a lot of my research in Los Angeles. I spoke to
growers, got thrown out of my neighborhood medical marijuana
dispensary and watched hours of videos on YouTube of the Cannabis Cup
ceremonies. But like Marvin Gaye sang, "Ain't nothin' like the real
thing, baby," and for me that's key. I need my readers to trust me.
If I can earn their trust, they'll believe the world in the novel is
real, and the emotional journey of my character will have a stronger effect.
That means I can't just sit around staring at the blank screen, I
have to do a kind of full immersion writing. I want those tiny
details, the textures and nuance, that can energize a story and make
a novel come alive. It's the unknown unknowns that interest me, the
things I don't know I don't know. That means I have to go out into
the world with my eyes wide open. Which is why I'm at the Cannabis Cup.
I wheel away from the giant pulsating tube of Super Lemon Haze and
take in the expo floor. Despite a large crowd in a relatively small
space, the vibe is friendly and easygoing. Everyone is chilled out.
Perhaps that's the Haze talking.
The big seed companies have fancy booths where they give away
T-shirts and dispense advice to would-be growers. There are some
smaller seed dealers, representatives from the Berkeley Patients
Group and some guys with a laser bong.
But it's the people who fascinate me; they've come from all over the
world. I talk to stoners from Japan, potheads from Germany, folks
from Denver, Fresno, Washington D.C., Oklahoma, Sacramento, Oakland
and San Diego, and a French man who tells every woman in the hall
that she is "very beautiful."
Los Angeles is well represented. I meet Swerve, a lanky strain
developer from the Valley whose company, the Cali Connection, is
something of an upstart competing against big guns like Greenhouse
Seeds and Sensi Seeds.
Still, the big Los Angeles success story has to be Don and Aaron from
DNA Genetics, two guys who came to the Cup years ago as fans, then
returned to L.A., started experimenting and have ended up developing
numerous award-winning strains. They have since relocated to
Amsterdam where they are "two stoners living the dream."
Swerve and Don and Aaron throw me a little. Are they that different
from the protagonist of my novel? Did I just meet a character I've
had in my head for years? For a writer, to experience something
you've only imagined, or to find out that there's some parallel
reality to your imaginings . . . it can either reassure you or freak
you out. Full immersion writing has its risks.
The Cup was founded by Steven Hager, editor of High Times magazine,
and its signature event is the Coffeeshop Crawl. This is where the
judges -- and any fan can purchase a judge's pass -- go from coffee
shop to coffee shop, sampling the entries in the competition. This
year there are 26 coffee shops entered.
My protagonist doesn't take part in the crawl, but he does visit
several coffee shops, so I retrace his steps and end up in the new
Dampkring Coffeeshop on Haarlemmerstraat. Along with Barney's, Green
House and Kadinsky, it is in the vanguard of contemporary coffee
shops, with a clean, modern design, large sunny windows and a
world-class selection of marijuana and hashish.
This is what legalized marijuana would look like in Los Angeles --
and with a statewide legalization initiative potentially on the
ballot next November, we may be closer than we think to a soft drug
policy such as Holland's.
I purchase a sample of the Dampkring's competition entry, a strain
they call "John Sinclair" after the former manager of the MC5. I act
like I know what I'm doing -- the protagonist in my novel would know
what to do -- so I follow the guidelines for judging that are
included in the judge's handbook. I sniff the bud and inspect the leaves.
Then, I roll a joint that looks more like a hangnail than a fancy
Dutch spliff and light up.
I exhale and think about my protagonist. Like Franco the Strain
Hunter, or Don and Aaron from DNA Genetics, he has an obsessive
devotion to his work. I too have an obsession, only mine is for
finding the emotional and psychological truth in small moments and
strange details, in taking the energy of the world and filtering it
through my imagination into something to put down on paper, using
words and sentences to control it, to send that wallop of truth into
a reader's mind.
Smith's fourth novel, "Baked," is forthcoming in August 2010.