My Dark Secret (Plus More News from the Sill: New Intel, Cruelly Won)

March 8, 2011

Shot of plum-tree blossoms--white, early morning

The plum tree outside my office window

I’ve been asked several times now in questions sent to me here whether I’d ever think about doing a novel. Yes. In fact, I have four unpublished novels to my credit—five if you include the one I wrote when I was 13 years old, a lovely little mystery of 75 typed, double-spaced pages about a strange clock. It had a sex scene, though I knew nothing at that point about sex. Two of my longer failed novels, both detective thrillers, were under contract with publishers until withdrawn by me for fear that they were rather mediocre examples of the form and that when readers and critics compared them with my non-fiction books—as surely they would—the novels would be found piteously wanting.

I do wonder sometimes if I even have the sensibility to write a worthwhile novel. The best novelists seem to have a knack for inflicting unending catastrophe on their characters. I’m not sure I have the stomach to do so. For example, it would be hard for me to write about the ghost of a murdered girl. As the father of three daughters, I couldn’t even read The Lovely Bones, let alone imagine how a writer could chain herself to such a project for months on end without winding up hospitalized on an intravenous Zoloft drip. Yet most readers found the book very moving and satisfying. I fear that if I were to write a novel about, say, the Titanic disaster, I’d find some way of making the Titanic not sink. I am the pin-up boy for wishful optimism.

That’s not to say that I can’t write about dark things. Obviously I can and do. The difference is, I don’t have to make them up by myself. The facts are there, the end-results immutable. The Titanic sank. I did not have to be the one to sink it. The nice thing about non-fiction is that the plot, the characters, and the settings are all there in the historical record. My job is to find them and present them to their best advantage.

I did spend years filling journals with plots and bits of dialogue overheard in bars and diners in anticipation of a career as a novelist. (Here’s a trenchant observation from one of my 1986 notebooks: “Never smell the bedspread in a motel room.”) And certainly while working as a daily news reporter, I always had a novel in progress. It’s one of the things journalists are required to do. We drink, we complain, we tell horrific jokes, we work on novels in our off hours. For me, the prospect of writing from the imagination unfettered by the drab reality of everyday reporting beckoned like a diamond on black velvet, especially when I faced the prospect of covering a suburban school-board meeting or, as occurred too often, when I had to telephone the parents of a teenager killed in the inevitable Saturday night car crash to ask how they felt about it (okay, we were young, then, and didn’t realize we were heartless idiots).

Happily, I have found writing narrative non-fiction to be infinitely satisfying. First there’s the detective work, the hunt for the kinds of details that make an event come alive; then comes the writing, my favorite phase, where I can steal novelistic techniques—foreshadowing, withholding, and such—and deploy them in the realm of non-fiction in a manner that lets readers experience past events as did those who lived through them the first time around, that is, day by day, week by week, without benefit of knowing how things would turn out. Of course, depending on the notoriety of the events in question, readers may in fact already know the outcome, but the best non-fiction makes us suspend that knowledge. Every time I read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, about the Titanic, I find myself hoping against hope that this time the ship will not sink.

Having said all this, I did participate this past fall in a delightfully strange and anxiety-provoking experiment, in which 36 writers associated with a philanthropic writers’ cabal called the Seattle7 wrote a complete novel, on stage, before a live and at times inebriated audience, in the space of six days. (For more about this endeavor, please visit the project’s Facebook page.)

Each of us had to write a chapter in two hours or less, guided by a rough directive as to what we had to do in order to advance the narrative in a coherent fashion. Afterward, a real-life editor pulled it all together, tying up loose ends, water-boarding a few writers, and discovering anew that getting 36 writers to think in a common direction is like getting 36 toddlers to line up for lunch.

The result however is quite smashing, and now, after a brief contest, it even has a title: Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices. Happily, the project also raised some $10,000 for charity. The book will be published as an ebook in May. So, a loud series of huzzahs, please! I will become a published novelist at last.

The Window-Sill Wars VI: New Intelligence, But Rather Cruelly Won

Eyes of a stuffed animal, looking watchful, or idiotic, either one

Observers have gathered, watching closely

There are eyes everywhere, as the Secret Red Rose Army continues its rather slow, and rather tedious, advance. Observers from foreign lands have moved into position, pretending to be used-car salesmen on holiday. And, most recently, there is a rumor that certain “enhanced” interrogation techniques have been deployed against one member of the Secret Red Rose Army, the same individual who in previous reports had quietly left the column for a meeting with Rat. Captured as he sought to slip back in among his fellow men, he was dragged from the line screaming, or whatever small porcelain pumpkins do when they are unhappy.

And now, disturbingly—I warn you, the following contains graphic material and is not for everyone—a photograph has turned up purporting to catch the actual interrogation. Attempts to verify the photo are underway.

Kitchen apple-corer used for "enhanced interrogation"

Enhanced interrogation

And as always, everyone wonders what Severed-head Ken is thinking about all this, and why he has done nothing—nothing—to intercede. He simply watches and waits. Anger mounts.

Head of Ken doll, looking vapid

Still no clue

Disparaging remarks fly, along lines of, “What else would you expect from Barbie’s boyfriend?” There are two commonly offered explanations: First, that he is after all an extruded plastic toy; second, that he knows well that it is best to keep one’s counsel in any confrontation, lest one end up siding with the losing force.

Meanwhile, in painful juxtaposition, there are signs of the accelerating advance of spring. The plum tree outside Erik’s office is slowly beginning to bloom.

Close-up of plum blossoms

More plum blossoms

How amid all this beauty can there be such tension and despair? Won’t cooler heads prevail—and surely these heads are as cool as any, consisting of plastic, porcelain and, in the cases of the nuns, metal gears and sparking mechanisms, and all have all spent the night next to a frosty window. Only time will tell.

The Red Rose army advances. But there is a new satisfaction in its ranks. The interrogation worked. The apple-corer has never failed. Or so they believe. They march forward now with a new and chilling confidence. But what have they learned? Is it real and valid intelligence, or merely the babbling of a small orange pumpkin trying to make the interrogation end? And, a more existential question, can an apple-corer ever truly intimidate a small porcelain figurine?

Close-up of Red Rose figurine in grip of apple-corer. Diabolical!

Diabolical--but to what effect?

A tantalizing thought: Suppose his recapture and subsequent interrogation were intended all along? Even some in the Red Rose ranks have begun to wonder.

Close-up of a Red Rose figurine apparently expressing doubt

First doubts

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The First-Ever Footnote Haiku (Plus, More News about the Worsening Situation on Erik’s Office Window Sill)

February 28, 2011

figurine with rat: secret negotiations

Secret negotiations (see below for the latest in the Window-Sill Wars)

I was recently proofreading the source notes section of my forthcoming book, In the Garden of Beasts, when it occurred to me that bits of random poetry might be embedded within.

I don’t use conventional footnotes of the kind we all learned in high school because they’re too distracting. Instead of littering the text with tiny numbers, I assemble my notes in the back of the book, where readers will find the relevant citations identified first by page number and then by a few words taken from the quote or sentence in question. For example, the very first line of the book, on page 3, begins with the phrase, “It was common…” In the notes, a reader looking for the source of this material will first hunt for page 3 and then look for a brief snippet that matches the original text. The note will look like this: “3  It was common:” The citation (in this case a rather long one) follows.

So, I wondered if any sequences of these phrases might form interesting bits of random poetry. Clearly I have too much time on my hands. However, I give you now, for the first time in literary history, a brief collection of source-note haiku, each consisting of snippets in the exact order in which they appear in the notes portion of my book. The titles are the titles of the corresponding chapters: 


The Choice

I love you past telling.
          I was busy
Do you know really?
          I had to choose.


Tiergartenstrasse 27a

We have one of the best residences,
trees and gardens,
twice the size of an average New York apartment,
entirely done in gold.



There had been talk of numerous liaisons,
his clammy possessiveness.
“Believe me,” she said,
“Hitler needs a woman.”


Diels, Afraid

A pathetic passive-looking creature,
I was young and reckless enough,
like a frightened rabbit.


Mrs. Cerruti’s Distress

She found this astonishing:
Temperature 101 and ½ in the shade today.
The three men undressed and climbed in.


As Darkness Fell

Wish I did have a home:
It was the greatest shock,
the strain and terror of life,
to kill them all.


A Dream of Love

I thought of you my dear,
spread over the nerve connections:
at sixty-five one must take stock.


The Queer Bird in Exile I

A gifted, clever and educated woman
she considers herself a Communist—
through Martha’s efforts,
They bought a new black Mercedes.


The Queer Bird in Exile II

Max, my love,
          that ass,
          a real buffoon;
Bassett confessed he had destroyed
          such love letters.


The Window-Sill Wars V: Tinderbox!


Conditions on my window sill continue to degrade, as both sides stockpile armaments and as the secret Red Rose Army comes ever closer. It’s a tinderbox. Anything could set off a conflagration. One fear: That a house lifted by a tornado in Kansas might, by some grim quirk of fate, fall upon one of the leaders, thus leading inevitably to the outbreak of hostilities.

Image of a house fallen atop Nunzilla

The worst nightmare

The spies continue to ply their trade. As I last reported, one member of the Red Rose Army had secretly left the column. His whereabouts remain unknown, but there can only be one conclusion: He is a mole in the pay of one of the opposing camps. But which one?  There is a rumor that he was met in a remote hallway by Rat (last spotted secretly conversing with the Nunzillas) and given cash and instructions. But for what purpose?

Red rose figurine and mouse in close-up

Up to no good

Yet another diplomat has arrived—Sleepy Poe, the Edgar Award statue—with hopes of cooling tempers and bringing both sides to the negotiating table. But how much can a porcelain statue with no ears or mouth hope to accomplish?

Image of newest diplomat: Edgar Award statue, sleepy figure of Poe in porcelain

Yet another diplomat arrives

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On the Roller Coaster (Plus, New Developments in the Window-Sill Wars: Weapons and Confusion)

February 18, 2011

The wind-up Triceratops eyes his "Bullet," a train

Now what?

Anyone who writes a book and is fortunate enough to get it published knows that the period between the last bit of editing and the day the book goes on sale is a roller coaster of emotion.

We look for signs that our books will fly off the shelves and be loved by readers everywhere. In these several months we see everything with a new intensity, like brand new parents who suddenly see the world through their baby’s eyes and realize how beautiful everything is, and how fraught with hazards like electrical plugs, Drano, Lego sets, and hot dogs. Is that crocus now coming up in my yard a sign of good things to come? That robin—what’s he doing here so early, and why is he so fat?

And then, suddenly, the first review appears—one of the so-called “advance” reviews, which appear long before publication so that bookstores, prison libraries and others can get an idea of what’s coming down the pike. One such advance publication is Booklist, published by the American Library Association but available only to subscribers. What an author covets here is a so-called “starred” review. Kind of pathetic, isn’t it?—that we still need a star to be happy, as if we were all still nine years old and had just turned in our dioramas of the lost colony of Roanoke made with Popsicle sticks.

Well, I confess that I am just as needy as every other author. I may as well be nine years old. My wife would say I am nine, possibly eight. So I am pleased to say that Booklist just gave In the Garden of Beasts a starred review. I’m told it includes the word “brilliant,” but I am so pathologically thin-skinned—so much a terrified nine-year-old—that I do not read my reviews. Friends will tell me about the good ones, certain other friends will tell me about the bad ones. My dear departed mother would have told me all of them were good, and that no matter what anyone said, she still loved me. 

Some other nice news recently arrived: listed the top ten forthcoming books most in demand by bookstores, and mine was number three. Tina Fey’s new book, Bossypants, is number one. I forgive her. Honestly, how can one woman be so smart and sexy at the same time?

So, I try to level myself with the hunt for my next book. (I may have found it, but I’m not sure yet, and I never kiss and tell.) And, for better or worse, the events on my window sill are proving a significant distraction. There remains in my office an overall sense of foreboding.


The Window-Sill Wars IV: Weapons and Confusion

As the tension on my window sill mounts, both sides have begun acquiring armaments. The Nunzillas took delivery of a drone aircraft, and are frantically trying to figure out how to fly it, since it has no obvious means of propulsion. And, a source of further chagrin: the aircraft appears not to have any missiles or machine-guns or anything.   

The Nunzillas acquired a drone, which is really a paper plane

The Nunzillas' disappointment is obvious

Wind-up Triceratops and his allies also had a set-back. Mistakenly, they acquired a Japanese Bullet train, confusing the name for something lethal that comes out of a gun; they are now seeking to devise a means of throwing the train at opposing forces.

The wind-up Triceratops eyes his "Bullet," a train

This is a bullet?

Meanwhile, the Red Rose Army continues its slow advance. Stairs are especially difficult.

Red Rose Army figurines march up stairs

The Red Rose Army struggling with stairs

Mysteriously, and unbeknownst to the rest of the army, one member has quietly dropped from the column. His disappearance has thus far gone unremarked. What can he be up to?

A figurine quietly leaves the Red Army column

This cannot bode well

Another ominous sign: The war correspondents have begun to gather, looking jaunty and cool. Book contracts have been signed. They know trouble is coming. The only question is when.

A teddy bear in sunglasses sits in a rocker--a journalist, clearly

The foreign correspondent, in repose

For now it is quiet. Too quiet. Way too quiet. Really really quiet.

Seattle at dusk

The city at dusk, bracing for the approach of night

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