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Petaluma author turns colorful life into fiction

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At various times in his life, writer Charles Rubin has been a U.S. Marine, a network television “gofer,” a J.C. Penney catalog writer (specialty: men’s shoes), and an award-winning advertising copywriter (working in New York, Boston and London). More recently, his job descriptions have included being a numerologist and serving as the president of the Inner Light Foundation, founded by his late wife, the renowned motivational speaker Betty Bethards. Though Rubin still continues in the latter capacities, consulting with numerology clients while overseeing the publishing and distribution of Bethards’ many books — including the bestselling “The Dream Book: Symbols for Self Understanding” — when asked how he views himself these days, Rubin admits he mostly self-identifies as a writer.

“I’ve done a lot of things, and I still do a lot of things,” smiles Rubin. “But these days I’m basically a novelist.”

Rubin’s 2002 novel “4-F Blues” tells the story of a Hollywood stuntman who’s classified as physically unfit to join the military during WWII. The book went on to win a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Book Award. His most recent work is the comic novel “Leaning on Thin Air,” set in the ’60s in the advertising world of Boston and beyond. It was praised by Kirkus Review for its similarities to a certain hit television show, stating, “ ‘Mad Men’ never had this kind of fun.”

For all of his success as a creator of fiction, though, Rubin allows that his biggest success to date is not a novel at all. It’s the 1996 nonfiction manual “Don’t Let Your Kids Kill You: A Guide for Parents of Drug and Alcohol Addicted Children.” Part self-help tome, part research project, and part memoir, the book was originally written, not for publication, for Rubin’s own use while wrestling with the serious drug addictions of two of his children. According to its author, the book has since sold more than 100,000 copies, and continues to put Rubin in the spotlight, with the occasional radio or television interview.

“After all these years, the book still sells like hotcakes,” he acknowledges. “That’s partly because, unfortunately, the problem of kids on drugs has not gotten any better. In fact, three weeks ago, a woman wrote in to the syndicated ‘Ask Amy’ column, and said that this book saved her life, and sales zoomed up immediately.

“That’s a common thing,” he allows. “Parents contact me about this book all the time, which continues to amaze me, since I really never intended it to be a real book. It came from research I did to try and survive myself, as a father with kids on drugs. My agent thought I should publish it, because other parents would benefit from this information, too. I guess he was right.”

As the title suggests, “Don’t Let Your Kids Kill You” focuses on the recovery and survival of the parents of those addicted to drugs or alcohol, recognizing that most of the books on the market offer help to the addicted ones, without offering many concrete answers to those in the family who are suffering, too.

“I went through a period where I’d become so consumed with my children’s problems that I was falling apart, missing deadlines, unable to take care of myself,” Rubin says. “So I needed to create a day-to-day guide to help me somehow cling to sanity. And that’s what the book is.”

With a laugh, he adds, “So there’s my one contribution to humankind, to parent-kind. This book. And I’m very proud of it, and the help it’s obviously given. But, as I said, I tend to think of myself as a novelist. And most of the time, I write comedy stuff.”

“Leaning On Thin Air,” as such, is an extremely funny book.

Crammed with details about the advertising industry in its earliest days, Rubin’s first-person tale is loosely inspired by his own recollections of the time. One of the characteristics he shares most closely with Bob Bronson, his neurotic, ad-writing protagonist, is a history of getting fired for refusing to compromise his commitment to his craft.

“It was a golden time, a time when advertising really was an art,” he says, “and I was lucky to become involved with a small, boutique agency that was doing amazing work. I had no idea I could write an ad, at first, but the first one I wrote won awards.” That ad was for a Grosset and Dunlap children’s book about Nazi Germany. “The headline I wrote was something like, ‘A different kind of Superman story,’ because I figured all the kids would know who Superman was, and I was right,” Rubin says. “The advertising today is so horrible, compared to what we were doing back in the ’60s.”

Asked how much of the novel is real and how much is fictional, Rubin laughs again.

“Well, it’s mostly true,” he says, “but I changed the names and made everyone more interesting, including myself. That’s what’s great about writing comic novels. You do have permission to exaggerate.”

(You can reach Community Editor David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com or by calling 707-776-8462)