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

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 In fact, I have four unpublished novels to my credit—five if you include the one I wrote when I was 13 years old, a lovely little mystery of 75 typed, double-spaced pages about a strange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 Two of my longer failed novels, both detective thrillers, were under contract with publishers until withdrawn by me for fear that they were rather mediocre examples of the form and that when readers and critics compared them with my non-fiction books—as surely they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

You Are Here

Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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