Literary cold readers are unsung heroes, the Yodas of the writing world that read first or second drafts—the proud mess we create before the final manuscript. My cold readers saved my tail more often than I can count, at times seeming to understand my characters better than I do. I pour over every critical comment, agree to disagree, let them change my mind, and trust their judgment in the stretch. I don’t know what I would do without them. My current group of cold readers is golden, but occasionally other people offer to join in on the fun.
“Let me edit your book for you. All my friends at work use me to check everything they write. I have the best grammar and punctuation.”
“I’ll read your book for you in advance. Send me a copy and I’ll give you ideas.”
Though I respect and appreciate the gesture, my response is generally a non-committal nod or a gentle thank you because giving an unedited novel to an acquaintance seems something like leaving a baby with a new sitter. Will they care as much as I do? Will they be wise, smart, truthful?
One time I gave in, and received my funniest review ever. A mystery-loving friend had helped me with research on a tricky and unfamiliar subject for my second novel, Bruja Brouhaha. When he offered to read the final draft, I decided his input on my treatment of the topic would be valuable. Handing him a printed copy for comment, I told him I had a month before the submission deadline.
“I can’t wait to read it,” he said as we parted.
A week passed, no word. Okay. He’s busy. I get that. Two weeks in, I was a little nervous but still had time to correct flaws when he got back to me. Six days before deadline, I lived in panic. He hated the novel. That’s why he dodged my friendly “How are you?” email. Two days before deadline (I still had time!) curiosity overcame self-respect and I called him.
During our “Hey, how’s it going?” chitchat, not word about the manuscript. I felt like a supplicating fool but the paranoid writer in me HAD to know. “Um, did you read my book?”
“Oh! Didn’t I tell you? I had the flu. I read a few pages then got too sick to finish. I will. I promise. But the paper you printed it on is FANTASTIC. What kind is it?”
The paper??? Head-smacking special stock from writer hell. Fortunately, days earlier my trusted cold readers gave me a thumbs up on the last draft. I submitted the manuscript to my editor and moved on. The novel, Bruja Brouhaha, recently won the Watson award at Left Coast Crime.
Tuesday, May 7, marks the release of my third novel, Hex on the Ex. Divorced psychologist Liz Cooper thinks she left her emotional baggage behind when she moves into her new home, but the past comes back to haunt her in a bitter clash with a former rival whose murder casts a shadow on Liz as suspect #1. She enlists her family, friends, and a colorful defense attorney to clear to her name, but only Liz’s boyfriend—occult expert Nick Garfield—may be able to decipher the cryptic, devilish clue the murderer left behind.
I hope you enjoy the read!
All of literature is connected. Listen.
Norb Vonnegut and I joined up recently in Manhattan at the Algonquin Hotel. Where else agreeably to conspire about the future of Algonquin Redux? We both appreciate literary confluence. There I told him this story, every word of it true and unembellished. “You have got to put that on AR,” he insisted.
Its cover blares this terrific blurb: “Wall Street. Washington. Intelligence. The Navigator gives you the smartest, wildest ride of your life.” — Norb Vonnegut, Author of The Trust.
Friends help friends. The content of the blurb is not the point of this story. Norb’s name on my cover is.
I had just given a copy of the ARC to my father Walt Pocalyko, who will be 88 in about three weeks. Still a lion, still a reader, he took one look at the cover and smiled broadly. Then he pointed at Norb’s name and asked me if that was Kurt Vonnegut’s son.
Only that’s not how he phrased the question.
“Wait,” Dad said. “Is that Bernie O’Hare’s buddy’s son?”
My father was a close friend of Bernard V. O’Hare (1923-1990), whom readers of Slaughterhouse-Five know from the poignant opening story-of-the-story. Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) finds his old Army buddy. They had been prisoners of war together. Real-life soldiers Kurt and Bernie experienced the actual firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 huddled in a slaughterhouse. During a visit to Pennsylvania to reconnect with Bernie while writing his World War II novel, Kurt encounters stern opprobrium from Bernie’s wife Mary. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies,” she accused him and her husband, “and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.” Kurt promises her that war won’t look wonderful in his book.
It didn’t. Slaughterhouse-Five may be the pinnacle of anti-war fiction. Its subtitle is The Children’s Crusade and the novel is dedicated to Mary O’Hare.
“No, Dad,” I replied. “Norb is not his son. Same family though. A big family. And he’s used to getting asked that question. He’s a distant cousin.”
“Did I ever tell you,” Walt continued, “how Kurt found Bernie?”
“Huh?” I said. From here on, Walt gets to tell his story and I’ll fill in some details.
“Bernie had been our solicitor for Bethlehem Township. This had to be in ’64, because I was just building our Lewis Avenue house, remember? You and your brother were kids. Bernie got himself elected district attorney for Northampton County the previous November. He was wrapping up his solicitor work that year, spring or summer. You were what? Nine? Too young to remember, really, how active I was in the township then. Boy those were great years.”
My father was on Bethlehem Township’s school board, its consolidated school board, then its auditor, zoning administrator, and municipal secretary throughout that decade.
“I used to go right over to the municipal building every afternoon when I finished at the Steel.”
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania the Steel was always preceded by the definite article and capitalized, even when spoken. In the summer of 1964 Walt was a financial manager there. He was 39 years old.
“This had to have been during one of our Saturday morning meetings. As I said, Bernie was still attending. The way I remember it, Connie Schubert came in to find me. I know you remember Connie, my secretary. She said that there’s a guy here looking for Bernie. I went out and met him. Such a nice, decent guy. We chatted for quite a while, and eventually he told me that he and Bernie were prisoners of war together. Now I remembered that Bernie had fought in the Bulge along with your Uncle Mike and your Uncle Pete, but until then I’d forgotten that he was captured and became a German POW. That’s where the two of them met.”
Literary history, Dad.
“Like a lot of us, those two kept in sporadic touch since the war. Bernie went on to law school in the late forties of course. That day, as best I know, was probably the first time that they had seen each other since ’45. Kurt located Bernie by coming to the municipal building, finding Connie and then me. So soon enough, Bernie comes out. It was not any kind of big emotional reunion, even after what? Nineteen years? None of us was that way. But those two were both obviously very happy to be there. Together. They had one hell of a bond. And they were really fine, good men.”
That way would mean . . . emotionally expressive about their combat experiences in World War II.
“The best part of those meetings was afterwards when we’d all reconvene at the Peacock.”
Roadhouse. Burned down the year Bernie died.
“By the time I got there Bernie and his army buddy already had a couple of beers in front of them and were just talking quietly. Talking. I knew other POWs like that. They had it the worst of all of us. We had a great afternoon after that, maybe eight or ten of us eating and smoking cigarettes and drinking and talking. Bernie’s buddy just became one of the gang for the day. And the funny thing is, Mike, he didn’t tell us he was a writer. I never knew that until you came home from college with his book. The one Bernie and Mary are in.”
This story comes full circle in The Navigator.
My favorite stunning reader moment in Slaughterhouse-Five is this: “An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, ‘There they go, there they go.’ He meant his brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.”
The tribute meme in the prologue to my novel is this: Seconded in April 1945 to an intelligence operation liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a B-24 navigator sees “the faces of the Englishmen and the other Americans flattened beyond belief in frozen stares that must, he recognized, exactly mirror his own.” I was vaguely conscious of Kurt Vonnegut excreting his brains when I wrote that line, more so 367 pages later when this reveal comes in my acknowledgements: When the fictional navigator saw those faces of men forever changed, “he was looking at Walt Pocalyko in real life.”
We’re back to the Algonquin Hotel. “They were amazing men,” Norb says to me quietly.
“They are amazing men,” I reply as Norb nods agreement.
And I mean it with love.
Peace, Bernie. Peace, Kurt.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
Last week, mega-selling author James Patterson caused a stir after taking out a couple of high-profile ads urging the U.S. government to step in and help the ailing publishing industry.
Patterson’s suggestion was a bailout similar to the ones banks and the auto industry received at the height of the recession. If they can get government assistance, he reasoned, then why not publishers or bookstores? The idea, unsurprisingly, was hailed by libraries and booksellers. Authors took to Facebook and Twitter to praise his bold vision.
In a subsequent round of interviews, Patterson said he wanted to start an earnest conversation about the sorry state of the publishing industry. He talked about his efforts to promote literacy, including his website ReadKiddoRead. (Although, indicative of his genius at branding, the actual website bills itself as “James Patterson’s ReadKiddoRead”.) He mentioned donating hundreds of thousands of books, creating scholarships and taking part in World Book Night. All of those efforts are noble, and I have no doubt about his sincerity in wanting to promote literacy, help bookstores and save libraries.
But let’s be blunt here — James Patterson bemoaning the state of the publishing industry is a bit like King Midas bitching about a gold shortage. The man is one of the best-selling authors ever. He’s made a staggering amount of money. If he wants to change the way things are done — really, truly change them — he has the power to do so. Off the top of my head, I came up with three ways in which James Patterson — and not the federal government — can help the publishing industry. All it requires is a bit of sacrifice on his his part and a willingness to set aside his own interests in service of the greater good.
Here they are:
1. Don’t release any books for a year
This sounds more snarky that it’s intended to be, and on the surface doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. How would a best-selling author not having books on shelves help stores? Wouldn’t the revenue from sales of his books help keep them in business, thus lifting all boats?
Ideally, yes. But Patterson’s output is so enormous that it has the reverse effect. Right now, the only boat being lifted is his own.
For a moment, let’s think of James Patterson as a tree, crowding the forest and blocking out the sun. Sure, a few other trees are able to plant roots and grow a bit, but they’re not going to get very big with a five-ton banyan in the way. But if that banyan was chopped down, many trees would have the opportunity to move in and thrive.
James Patterson has seven hardcover titles slated for release in 2013, and that’s not even counting his young adult books and books geared toward middle-schoolers. Seven books in one year! And all of them are assured a spot on the hardcover best-seller list.
If he took the year off, there would be seven more spaces on that best-seller list for other people. His millions of readers would possibly seek out seven other books to purchase. In short, at least seven other authors — and likely more — would be given the chance to build their readerships.
That would help the book industry far more than a James Patterson oligopoly, which is what we have now. Success breeds success, and the more successful authors there are out there, the better it will be for everyone.
2. Adopt an author
One could argue that Patterson already does this, what with his ever-growing stable of co-authors. But I’m not talking about his dubious practice of hiring someone else to write 95 percent of his books while he takes 75 percent of the credit.
No, my suggestion is that he pick an unknown writer and tout his or her work to his legion of fans for a month. Imagine if he sent an e-mail to his millions of readers recommending a new book. Or he gives an interview in People magazine mentioning an unheralded book and how fantastic it was to read. He could even give that book a place of honor on his official website, urging everyone else to buy it.
Think about how that author’s sales will skyrocket. No, it won’t get as huge a reaction as those lucky books endorsed by Oprah. But it will help. Quite a bit, actually.
Now imagine if he did this for an entire year. Twelve months. Twelve new authors. Twelve opportunities to create word of mouth and spread goodwill.
Like I said earlier, success breeds success, and this would go a long way in ensuring future success for others.
3. Control distribution
In his ads, Patterson mourned the closing of bookstores. He’s right in that booksellers both large and small are going out of business at an alarming rate. The reason for this is obvious to anyone with two eyes and half a brain: Amazon.com and e-books are changing how books are sold. The more they grow, the more traditional bookstores suffer.
So let’s remove them from the equation. Patterson can do what Stephen King is doing with his upcoming book JOYLAND and delay the release of the e-book version. Therefore people will be forced to buy a physical book. Like King, Patterson is one of the few authors with enough clout to pull such a move.
And if he’s so concerned about the fate of bookstores, he could even go a step further than King and not allow Amazon.com or any other online retailer to sell one of his newest releases. Think of what a game-changer that would be! Readers would be forced to go to bookstores to buy the latest Alex Cross novel or the next Women’s Murder Club adventure. You know, like they did for decades before Amazon came along.
No, Patterson’s publisher would not be pleased. And, no, not every reader would go along with this. I’m sure quite a few would just hop onto Amazon and buy books written by someone else. (Another win, quite honestly.) And, yes, there would eventually be an online black market for that book. And, yes, Amazon would probably whine or cry or sue someone.
But it would make a statement. A mighty powerful one. And that’s what Patterson said he wants to do.
So, those are my humble suggestions. Will James Patterson ever agree to one of them? Oh, hell no. I’m not naive enough to think he’ll ever read this. Even if he somehow does, I’m sure his eyes will pop out of his head.
Patterson is, above all else, a shrewd businessman. He would only agree to one of the above suggestions if it meant more book sales for him. Still, it’s nice to fantasize that he might possibly take one of them to heart or come up with another idea on his own.
The book industry is in dire straits. There’s no doubt about that. But, in all honesty, a few ads can only go so far.
A sweet dry wind blows downriver through the Rio Grande Valley. Squinty sun, cornflower sky. Mid-afternoon two and a half weeks ago. I am in Nuevo Progreso, a Mexican border town in Tamaulipas, catching shade in an open-air bar and . . . doing research for a novel. Yeah. Let’s go with that.
The bar is called the Red Panty.
Not a word of this is made up.
Above and behind the friendly-laconic Mexican bartender is a backlit drink menu painted on a plexiglas rectangle. No prices, just the names of the cocktails. In English. Sort of.
The menu fascinates me. Zoombie, Huracan, Orgasmo, Black Rusia, Amareto, and Panter Punch. Margarita and Piña Colada are correct—they’re Spanish words, after all. A Martini is a Martini the world around. But mix gin with lemon juice and they’ll serve up a Gin Fish.
I am smiling at the mistakes when I have two thoughts. First, shame to be judging my gracious hosts like the Yanqui that I obviously am here. Next, realization that no matter how atrocious the spelling is, I still know exactly what the drinks are. English rendered badly matters . . . and then again, it doesn’t.
This is the Zoombie Paradox, worth considering. It applies to my novel and has broader implications.
We’re about seventy days from the launch of The Navigator.
One feature of my book is that language play drives its narrative as a thriller. The first German word is on the first page and the language itself becomes a key plot device. I am on solid ground in German. Less so in Hungarian, one of the languages that my mother and grandmother spoke at home when I was a kid. I use a fair amount of Hungarian in The Navigator to illuminate one character. Japanese, French, Spanish (a whole quick dialogue), Hebrew, and Arabic all make cameo appearances.
I like languages. I can fake it with flair in a number of them. I figure if you manage a foreign language at about fifteen percent competency you get by. Best result, you show respect for the people who speak it every day, who think in that language.
After I got back from Mexico I began having one of those writer’s anxieties. I wonder how many native speakers of the languages I employed in The Navigator will think that I am a foolish foreign language poseur, about as fluent as the guy who wrote the Red Panty’s drink menu.
The Zoombie Paradox transfers. Foreign language accuracy matters in a novel . . . and then again, it doesn’t.
Those languages, other than plot-critical German, are there to create auras, feelings, emotions, verisimilitude. They are poetic lodestones even if you need to be informed that nagyszerű is what you say in Hungarian when a girl is gorgeous or that yaru ka yarareru ka is Japanese for kill or be killed.
There are moments in The Navigator like the one where a character tells a story, then ends by saying the Hebrew words hashem yinkom damam, and I don’t explain what that means. Kind of a code between me and readers who figure it out. Those who do get a clue about that character.
Foreign languages matter.
With language play, mood and setting become clearer in fiction, even when readers do not understand the snippet. The idea conveys anyway.
One of my closest friends in the academy is Dr. Kathleen Stein-Smith at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where I was a trustee. Kathy just published a book on this subject, The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit and Our Economic and National Security. You can tell from the title which side she takes. She argues that even with English as the new lingua franca (lingua anglais?) worldwide, we Americans isolate and disadvantage ourselves by knowing and speaking only English.
I will leave to her and other credentialed thought leaders just how this insight might play out. I know from the paradox that there are degrees of freedom for disagreement.
I also know that when I spoke Spanish to the bartender at the Red Panty, he answered me in English, as if to say . . . Give it up. We’re both better off if we talk in the language you use all the time.
So I shrugged, shifted to English, and sure enough, the world didn’t end. Nobody cared.
The Red Panty is that kind of place. The question is . . . is fiction?
In The Navigator there is an unapologetic shout-out to an unlikely place. A suburb.
The walking paths of Reston, Virginia are famous and special. They are particularly special to the residents of Reston, who style themselves as stewards of the nation’s preeminent planned community. Built beginning in the 1960s in what were once the forest and agricultural wilds of northwest Fairfax County, the “new town” was constructed with meticulous planning and a fierce local bureaucracy. In the beginning, everything was laid out. Zoning reigned with rigidity rivaling Soviet central planning. The result was stunning. Everything about Reston was special, parklike, and visionary.
Reston is my city home, location of our Washington pied-à-terre. I live here when I’m not up on the Blue Ridge. Reston is unique in the whole east coast megalopolis because of the most profound sense of community extant anywhere in exurbia. I know—I ran for office here once.
Reston is mourning. Our only Barnes & Noble store closes tomorrow. I am not smiling in this picture of my sad last walk through a furniture-piled inflection point the other day.
News of the store’s closing broke in December. “It’s not personal,” a prominent local journalist wrote, while admitting “I don’t think I have made more than a handful of purchases in the last two years.”
The B&N is just a couple hundred yards from our high-rise. I was looking forward to holding one of the book launches for The Navigator there in June. To having a public reading and signing. To hosting my friends there. Not going to happen now.
Here is my contrarian suggestion about why the store is closing.
This event is not, as the econo-punditocracy usually suggests, a result of the economic watershed in the book publishing industry, the rise of e-readers, fewer people buying and reading books, the emergence of publishing on demand, B&N stores “showrooming” for on-line purchasers, or the astonishingly successful market dominance of Amazon.com.
All of those factors play. But they are peripheral to what has changed the bookstore market and its sociological role in connecting readers.
This is now a market too perfect for profit.
Robert Kuttner wrote that phrase in a prescient 1998 essay about Internet commerce in Business Week. He attributed the concept to economist Joseph Schumpeter, of “creative destruction” fame.
The closing of the Reston store is not the fault of Barnes & Noble corporate or the wildly fluctuating purchasing mores of readers. It’s much simpler than that.
Margins on costs for that store were high and climbing. The developer-owner of the property wouldn’t budge when the store’s lease came up for renewal. The landlord had a new tenant lined up . . . as if the world needs another Container Store. (That is not a novelist’s metaphor, that’s really what’s going in there.) Little negotiating leverage was left for B&N, which indeed tried mightily.
Margins on net operating income at the same time are decreasing wherever books are sold. Trust me. Ask your local independent bookseller. Or anyone working in a Big Six publisher—soon to be the Big Five.
Squeezed from both ends, B&N couldn’t construct an income statement with a positive number in Reston.
Unlike in business school case studies, in the real world, when stores can’t turn a consistent profit, they close down. In corporate Barnes & Noble, shaded by the penumbra of the Borders bankruptcy, each store must be contributing. Our expression in the Navy was “every tub on its own bottom.”
This interplay has deep meaning for us as writers and as readers.
There used to be a physical, tangible book community alive in the Reston Barnes & Noble. We will not be the same when we are connected only by electrons and screens. As a tribe none of us needs additional distance—the reader-side analogue to the clear-eyed brilliance of Douglas Corleone’s post here, The Lonely, Uncertain Life of a Writer.
I’ll miss the conversations in that store. The discoveries. The visual feast. The tactile pleasure of holding hardcovers. The inventory change-ups. The volume and density of books, books.
I’ll miss judging the “new and notable” on each visit—even though I haven’t read any of it yet and probably never will.
I’ll miss the wonderful cross-platform ability to order something on-line, walk over there, and buy the book, set aside waiting for me by the time I arrive.
I’ll miss the people whom I only know by face, with the decency of boundaries, shared small smiles, and nods.
I’ll miss the ever-upbeat homeless woman who was still shuffling through the store’s bare-shelved aisles during my final visit, talking to herself incoherently as she always does.
I will probably miss most the anticipation of seeing my own novel displayed on a poster in the windowspace that now announces “This Barnes & Noble is closing on February 28th.”
This store’s demise is a symptom of colony collapse disorder for book people.
I revere independent booksellers of course, but I really liked having a big bookstore nearby.
Harold Stenger, my old mentor and beloved literature professor in college, used to say, “The law of life is the law of change.”
I quoted that line when I gave his eulogy.
When I was twenty-one I wrote my first novel. It was awful in the way that only undergraduate novels can be awful. I graduated from college on Memorial Day 1976. Ahead of me were a few months marking time through the Bicentennial summer before a fixed reporting date at Navy flight school.
I used that time to try to sell the novel. My agent, Peter Shepherd at Harold Ober Associates, was a New York literary giant tolerant enough to take me on as his development project and shop the book. Agents would do that then.
He was unsuccessful of course. Thank God.
But I did try hard to market the book. Probably too hard, facing a commencement-moment-certain for real life. Before the year was out I moved to Florida, earned my commission as a naval officer, then married the college girlfriend to whom I dedicated that book. The novel went mercifully unpublished. I never looked back.
Yes, same wife today. I know you were wondering.
Here’s the point about 1976: I wanted to be a writer so much more than I actually had something important to say.
And I have the pictures to prove it.
My co-conspirator, the photographer, was a wonderful, warm, shy, incredibly literate woman, my friend then and now. Guarded with her passions, her fervor and artistry bloomed behind the lens. Audrey Tiernan went on to a storied career as a photojournalist.
I don’t know what’s more extraordinary, the fact that the two of us had some kind of contextual author’s image in mind on the day we drove to an abandoned train station for that photo shoot . . . or that Audrey was only nineteen when she took those magnificently composed pictures for the dust jacket that never was.
A great unspoken truth in book marketing, especially of novels, is that the author’s photograph on the dust jacket, and today on a web page, has real meaning.
As readers and book buyers we infer a lot about a book—credibility, message, themes, voice, and vision—when we first look at the image of the man or woman who wrote it.
We don’t necessarily want to admit this, but we judge the author visually in order to form first impressions. Impressions that coalesce quickly.
They are telling us something, or they are trying to.
So who was that guy? What kind of book, what kind of image was he trying to market?
I called Audrey, who has more objectivity than I do. “You have to remember,” she said, “even then as a photographer I was always trying to create an image of how the person sees himself. But I’m bringing my vision to that process. I think about that dilapidated closed railroad station that we shot at, and the intense young author . . . “
“Who was trying too hard,” I interrupted.
“Sure you were,” she concurred. “But that made for such an interesting juxtaposition. I liked that. This is different from journalism, where I’m covering a news scene. There I am documenting. In portraiture I’m trying to promote something, to show a vision, to elicit a reaction. And those photos of you were quite imposing.”
“Yes they were.”
“We were so young.”
“Yes we were,” I agreed, and I could hear her smiling over the phone.
Audrey Tiernan’s 1976 photographs show a want-to-be writer with concentration, intellectual intensity, drive, imaginative and romantic flair, artistic and sexual flirtation. All eclipsed by the dominant impression of a guy trying to prove something . . . only, really, he doesn’t precisely know what he’s trying to prove.
It’s 37 years later. For my picture on the dust jacket of The Navigator I turned to Carl Cox, one of the country’s best-known and most successful photographic portraitists. We’ve been friends for years.
Carl happens to love thrillers and all things literary. He is a genius with the camera and in the digital darkroom, and has been at it professionally almost fifty years, since he was a teenager.
“First things first,” he said. “I have to read your book.”
Now here’s a subtlety that, if I wrote it in a novel, someone would criticize as naïve and too obvious. Carl specializes in location portraits. For the first part of our photo shoot, he took my picture at . . . a train station. Union Station in Washington, DC to be precise. There we got the money shot, the one that’s on the dust jacket of The Navigator, on Amazon.com in advance of the book’s June 11 publication date, and here on Algonquin Redux.
“I know you,” Carl said, “but in creating this photo I first pictured in my mind the guy who would have written that book. What would he look like? The author and the book have a lot of texture. I had to get a sense of image first.”
The Navigator begins with a startling dark prologue, at the liberation of a German concentration camp in 1945. “The Holocaust Museum is one of my most important accounts,” Carl continues, “so I was tremendously personally impacted from the beginning right on through. By the time I finished the novel I was ready. Washington is my home town. Everything in the novel was familiar to me and rang so true. I saw you most intentionally like Mickey Spillane, from the way he looked on the books I read as a youngster. His photograph influenced me along with his mysteries. Not that your book is like his stuff . . . “
“Hey, I’ll take that comparison any day,” I said. Spillane sold over 225 million books.
“I meant that in your photos you come across as tough and intellectual, confident, hard but not mean. These are pictures of a calm man, well-ordered. There are a lot of secrets he keeps. He has something important to say that I want to read.”
Which Carl Cox also thinks happens in this photograph, taken in his studio later that day intentionally and reverently in the style of Yousuf Karsh.
I believe that the photographs, old and new taken together, prove a point.
Writing, our writing life, and a good life overall are so much easier when you have a message to convey and a story to tell.
Also, it helps to get past the point in life where you’re desperate to prove something, desirous to be someone you are not.
Or not yet.
I have a friend who wants to be a writer. Well, he already is a writer — a newspaper reporter — and a very good one, at that. But he would also like to be a novelist. In fact, he’s working on something right now. Something that he asked me to read and, hopefully, offer some guidance.
Now, before you think I’m some selfish writer who doesn’t want to help others, let me explain. I refused to read his book because it’s not finished. He still has a ways to go before it’s done. I told him I’d happily read a completed manuscript. But a half-finished one? Well, that’s just a waste of time.
When explaining my reason for not wanting to read his work right now, I gave him the biggest piece of wisdom I could think of. It’s this: The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is a completed manuscript.
It’s pretty straightforward, no? Also easy to grasp. Granted, there are dozens of reasons why some people get published and others don’t, but the biggie is what I stated above — a completed manuscript.
Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve got a great idea for a book”? Or witnessed that age-old excuse of “I just haven’t gotten around to writing it”? Every time I hear something of that ilk, I want to shake the person and remind them that books don’t write themselves. Writing a book is hard work. It takes time. It takes perseverance. It takes hour after lonely hour in front of a blank computer screen, slowly creating a world out of nothing but words. Those who fail to understand that often end up with desk drawers full of half-completed manuscripts.
I know this from experience. I was that person for years. Back when I was a young, aspiring writer, I started (and abandoned) several projects. Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least four different books that I started writing but never finished. For most of them, I lost steam around page 100. That’s the point when, even after putting in so much work, I realized that I still had 200 to 300 pages left to write. And I got intimidated. And tired. And just flat-out bored. So I would stop and move on to something else, only to get intimidated and tired and bored all over again.
But then, one day, I decided to just push through all that doubt and tedium and kept on working. I’m not sure why. Maybe I just liked the idea I was working on better than the others. Or maybe, deep down, I realized the words of wisdom that I recently gave to my friend, that I would never, ever get published unless I had a finished product that actually could get published. And when I did finish it, I felt pretty good about myself. I had created something out of nothing! I had written a book!
There’s a great Stephen Sondheim song from the musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” It’s called “Finishing the Hat.” While on the surface it’s about painter Georges Seurat and how the woman he loves can’t understand why he needs to paint, it’s also about the pains of creating something, anything. Georges’ example is a hat. And how you have to finish it, even though the rest of the world keeps on spinning just outside of your window.
I love that song. I can relate to it. I especially love the ending, when Georges looks at one of his sketches and proclaims: “Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!” Whenever I finish a book, that’s exactly how I feel. “Look!” I want to shout to everyone who will listen. “I made this!”
So that’s why I said no to my friend. It was my way of dangling a carrot on a stick, coaxing him into finishing the manuscript. I don’t want him to be like younger, stubborn, lazy me. I want him to fulfill his dream of getting published. But, more than anything, I want him to feel proud of what he accomplished. I want him to finish that hat. Where there never was a hat.
This month I asked Facebook fans and Twitter followers if they had any questions about writing, publishing, guns, ganja, gay marriage, torture, or comprehensive immigration reform… All right, just about writing and publishing. Here are a few of the questions I received, and my valiant attempts at providing answers.
Has there been any character that you can relate to on a personal level or a character that you disliked intensely?
I try to distance myself as much as possible from Kevin Corvelli, since most readers identify him as an anti-hero. I hear a lot of, “Kevin’s such a (insert derogatory term here), yet I find myself rooting for him so intensely.” But the truth is, I relate to Kevin Corvelli on a personal level in a way that I’ll probably never relate to another character I create. Many first-time authors write something semi-autobiographical, and I was no exception. I experienced the culture shock that Kevin experienced when I moved to Hawaii. I had many of the same misgivings when I was practicing criminal law, and I certainly met many of the same obstacles with my clients.
There have also been a couple characters that I intensely disliked, and that probably comes through on the page. For instance, I detested Erin Simms’s mother in Night on Fire. And a number of the corrupt cops in Last Lawyer Standing.
As you write about a particular characters’ emotional-makeup, have you ever drawn upon anyone you know or read about?
Prior to writing One Man’s Paradise, I’d been closely following the Natalee Holloway story in the news. Like most people, I was sickened by the ineptitude of the police in Aruba, as well as the sensational coverage the incident received here in the States. I wanted to write a “what if” scenario set in Hawaii, one in which the body of the victim was found but everything wasn’t as it seemed. I think many of my own emotional reactions come through on the page, especially when discussing the cable news correspondent Gretchen Hurst.
How has your experience as a defense attorney impacted upon the development of the characters, both protagonist and ‘villains’?
As a defense attorney, in some criminal cases, you really get to know your clients. Some you like, many you dislike. The character of Turi Ahina (who appears in all three books) is based on a client that I truly liked. As a lawyer, you really get the opportunity to know and understand other lawyers, especially in a big city. Milt Cashman (aka Not Guilty Milty) is based on a well-known New York City lawyer who I got to know, but so is his opposite number, Jake Harper. So, as in any profession, there’s the good and the bad and the ugly. Probably more ugly in the legal profession than most.
Have any of the opening lines in your novels come to you first as the starting point of the story? Or do you write the story first and then work your way backward to the writing of the opening lines in the novel?
Many friends and readers have asked me about the first line of Night on Fire: “I’m about to get laid.” The idea behind Night on Fire and that line in particular came to me within the same few minutes. I was sitting at a beach resort near my house (waiting for the bar to open), when I started jotting notes for my second book. I saw Kevin standing at the beach bar across the way, chatting up some woman who may have been a tourist, and it looked like he’d been at it awhile, and that’s the first line that popped in my head, so I went with it. I knew things could only go downhill for Kevin from there.
How long did it take you to write your first novel?
It took me three months to write my first novel, One Man’s Paradise. I had just moved from Hoboken, New Jersey to Waikiki, so there were plenty of new experiences to write about. Michael Connelly said in a recent interview that his best books were written in record time because that means the writing is going well and you’re immersed in the story, and I completely agree. If a book is taking me too long to write, it’s because I’m not falling in love with the characters or I’m not interested in what happens next, and when that’s the case, I abandon the project. Three months, full-time, from concept to final polish, is about my average.
Vonnegut and I were on the phone talking about our new novels. My book, The Navigator, is six months from its June 2013 publication launch date. Norb read the advance bound manuscript from my publisher, Forge Books. Then he graciously and effusively blurbed it for the Macmillan catalog.
“Now you’ve got to join us,” he said, “at Algonquin Redux.”
An invitation to the table for the new guy.
“I’m going to write about marketing and positioning the book,” I told him.
“Good. I want to read about that.”
So in the words of the great John O’Hara from the original Algonquin Round Table, “Let’s get off to a really bad start” and judge a book by its cover.
The Navigator is an up-to-the-minute financial thriller. Genre fiction.
But it’s also a big idea book with a very disturbing prologue.
In April 1945 a 20-year old B-24 navigator is seconded to an intelligence operation, assisting the liberation of a concentration camp in Germany. Why? Because he speaks fluent German and the liberators need a translator. Then something very bad happens. You, the reader, don’t know yet exactly what occurred because the horrific event is fragmented, narrated in the third-person from the navigator’s point of view. He completely decomposes psychologically. A breakdown, they’d have called it in 1945. Today, an acute stress reaction or major depressive episode.
Then the story launches brightly into present day financial thriller world. “Wall Street comes to Washington” is the marketing tagline.
I wrote The Navigator as a fast-paced read, the plot stroking themes like PTSD and its next-generation effects. Financial regulation. Clandestine intelligence operations. Fathers and sons. Competition between brothers. Interracial romance. Banks too big to fail. Insider tech deals. Political ambition. German guilt. Israeli justice. Arab honor. And how the past is never really the past, even if it’s not your own past.
So how do you signal all of that stuff on a book’s cover?
In the concept stage we had a few choices. And by “we” I mean that corps of friends surrounding every novelist. The ones unafraid to thump your ego. The people who snort, “Get over yourself, will you?”
We took our first look at what the publisher created.
“Looks like a Mexican blanket,” my wife Barbara remarked about the first one. Margaret McLean, author of two terrific legal thrillers, liked it.
“Opening credits for the redneck reality show version of Avatar,” my über-perceptive partner Christy Sciscoe said about the second. I had to think about that for a moment. The Navi are the noble native beings on planet Pandora in the James Cameron movie. She spoke for everybody else. Nobody wanted that one.
My old business partner Stephen Frey, lead sled dog for the whole financial thriller genre, liked the third one, which was shaping up to be pretty much everybody’s second choice.
There was a consensus developing. Randy Helm, my college president friend and a classics scholar, named this one the “noir” cover and was first to give it a thumbs-up.
So did Christopher Clark, publisher of Directorship magazine, a guy who spent a decade at Forbes and knows more about print marketing and new media trends than anybody I know. H.T. Narea, who basically re-invented the financial apocalyptic thriller, pegged it as the standout.
We weren’t exactly there yet. The slant-perspective of the title and my name looked sharp. The “noir” treatment was eerily evocative. The newspaper stock page was a cool anachronism. But the central figure was misplaced, out of frame, obscured. We needed color. And the Washington meme was missing.
We went a whole round of playing with that concept cover adding color, getting mixed results like these:
New elements were needed for the walking man. Youth, a sense of style. A key plot moment in The Navigator happens when a briefcase is stolen—so add that. And the cover had to convey “Wall Street comes to Washington.”
The penultimate designs got close, only this time they came back with my name misspelled. Happens all the time with a name like Pocalyko.
The style and body language in the two versions of the walking man distinguished them. The first looked kind of dumpy, a young man with an old guy’s countenance. Not a risk taker. Definitely not a master of the financial universe. The other guy was hip, daring, bold, striding.
We worked on that, refining, combining. Finally we had a cover.
Norb Vonnegut’s topline blurb says “Wall Street. Washington. Intelligence. The Navigator gives you the smartest, wildest ride of your life.”
I think it came out beautiful and balanced. The cover of The Navigator now teases some of the story. The graphic works great on Amazon. It will also be visually distinctive on the display shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores.
I love this book and I’m glad to share its story with you here, especially as our marketing unfolds. More to follow as we get ready to launch.
Happy New Year.
Fear is subjective. What frightens one man may leave another unmoved. What one woman finds silly could terrify another. It all depends on past experiences, childhood traumas, the power of individual imaginations. Case in point: The Blair Witch Project, that seminal 1999 film that divided most viewers into two distinct camps. For some, it was a dull, annoying mess – more nauseating than eerie. For others, it was the most frightening thing they had ever seen. (For the record, I’m in the it-scared-the-crap-out-of-me camp.)
I bring this up because, well, it’s almost Halloween, which is a perfect time to talk about being scared. I also mention it because today’s post is about books that terrified me. And before I delve into those chilling tales, I want to make clear that I don’t expect these particular books to scare you. (Although they very well might.) They’re just four novels and one short story that, for whatever reason, have seared themselves into my consciousness. When someone mentions scary reads, these are what I think of. (Warning: There are spoilers. So if those also frighten you, it might be best if you stopped reading now.)
I might as well start with a classic. Jackson’s tale of four people taking part in a paranormal experiment inside an allegedly haunted mansion isn’t just about things that go bump in the night. (Although it does contain probably the greatest bump-in-the-night sequence ever written.) By focusing on poor, lonely Eleanor Vance, Jackson puts us inside the character’s head, making us feel the house’s tightening grip on her sanity. But the thing that truly unnerves me – the gotcha moment, to use horror-movie parlance – is this passage that begins and ends the book:
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
From the first moment I read them as a teenager, those sentences burrowed into my brain the same way the house invades Eleanor’s. On the surface, they shouldn’t be that scary. It’s just a vague description of an old house. But the words take on a cumulative power, beginning with the first two – Hill House.
That name alone taps into our collective unconscious, summoning up images of a rickety manse atop a fog-shrouded hill. There are dead trees there, certainly, their gnarled, leafless branches rattling in the night wind. Maybe there’s a cemetery in the backyard, and a single light glowing in one of the upper rooms.
The next two words, though, are the kicker. Not sane. Who the hell thinks of a house in terms of sanity? Well, Shirley Jackson, for one, and those two words, bracketed by polite commas, produces shivers every time I read them. By the time we get to the grand finale – and whatever walked there, walked alone – it’s hide under the covers time.
Another haunted house tale, this time by the master of horror himself. I’ll confess: I’m a huge King fan and could have picked any number of scenes from his books that have stuck with me. The Glick boy floating outside the window in ’SALEM’S LOT. The dark walk through the Lincoln Tunnel in THE STAND. The devastating bus crash in THE GREEN MILE, when Paul Edgecomb realizes he’ll outlive everyone he loves. But I chose a moment from THE SHINING, a book I never finished.
What? you say. You never finished THE SHINING?!?
Nope. I know how it ends, of course. And I wanted to finish it when I started it at an age far too young to be reading such things. But I couldn’t. I was too scared to finish it. Too scared after reading the scene young Danny Torrance steps into the hallway and sees a man in a dog costume crawling on all fours and threatening to kill him.
Again, fear is subjective. I have no idea why that image terrified me so much. I was too young to understand what it all really meant. All I know is after reading that passage, I was convinced that there was an insane ghost in a dog costume just waiting for me in the hallway. I was so sure of it that, for several nights, I refused to leave my room in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. The fear kept me pinned to my bed. My mouth stayed dry. My bladder remained full. And, to this day, the second half of THE SHINING remains unread.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
I read this gem in junior high English class, apparently because the curriculum requires scaring the shit out of students at least once outside of gym class. I’m sure a lot of you read it in school, too. For those who didn’t, it concerns Mr. and Mrs. White, who come into possession of a withered monkey’s paw that allegedly has the power to grant three wishes. Simultaneously disbelieving and hopeful, Mr. White wishes for 200 pounds. The bad news? The next day, their son, Herbert, is mangled in machinery while working and dies. The good news? The benevolent company gives them 200 pounds. For their next wish, Mrs. White wishes that poor, dead Herbert would come back to them. That night, someone disrupts their sleep by knocking on the door.
Now, here’s a perfect example of what I meant about imagination being a large part of fear. Someone with an underactive one might think it’s merely a stranger at the door, knocking to ask for directions. But those of us with overactive imaginations know that it’s Herbert on the threshold. Mangled, twisted, dirt-covered zombie Herbert.
Jacobs wisely avoids giving the reader a good idea of the extent of Herbert’s injuries. We just know that they were bad. Very bad. So we’re left to our own devices to picture what’s on the other side of that door, knocking harder and harder as Mrs. White fumbles with the lock and Mr. White shouts, “For God’s sake, don’t let it in!”
I can assure you that whatever Jacobs could have written paled in comparison to the demented vision my young mind created. It scared me to think of that wretched thing knocking on my door. It scared me even more to realize that I was solely responsible for creating that image. A good many fears were created with that short story. And, most likely, quite a few authors, as well.
RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris
I’m not going to mince words here: RED DRAGON might be the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. Before he began to deal exclusively in Hannibal Lecter hijinks, Harris was a phenomenal talent who knew how to turn psychological insight into pure fear. And of the many, many, many scary parts of RED DRAGON, the one that punched me in the gut the hardest is, in fact, comparatively benign.
It concerns profiler Will Graham’s visit to the home of a family recently massacred by the killer known as the Tooth Fairy. To put himself in the same mindset as the killer, Graham first waits in the woods behind the family’s house. When night falls, he slips inside, using police reports and blood trails to describe, in exacting, horrifying detail, how one monster destroyed an entire family. It’s grim and fascinating and horrifying. It has also stuck with me for more the twenty years that have passed since I read the book. Now, every time I pass a window at night, I glance outside and wonder what, if anything, is out there, watching and waiting. Thanks for the nightmares, Mr. Harris.
Because sometimes fact is more frightening than fiction, I reserved the last spot on this list for a piece of nonfiction. THE HOT ZONE is about the government’s efforts to halt an Ebola outbreak in the suburbs of D.C. But before Preston gets to the book’s characters, he introduces us to the disease and what it can do to the average human body. The end result is an opening chapter so disturbing that it was tough to re-read for the purposes of this blog post.
Sparing no detail, Preston tells us about Charles Monet, a Frenchman in Africa who contracts Ebola and then, quite unwisely, is shipped to a hospital via a commercial airplane. As his condition worsens, the reader becomes privy to just how the man’s body is breaking down. Ever wanted to know what happens to intestinal muscles when they start to die? Preston tells you. Were you aware that highly infective black vomit is really “a speckled liquid of two colors, black and red”? Now you know! And of course, Preston doesn’t hesitate to inform us that Monet’s airsickness bag is bulging and brimming with black vomit and threatening to leak as he hands it to a flight attendant.
It’s enough to make you not want to fly ever again. But that’s not the scary part. Oh, heavens no. The truly unnerving part – the part that makes me quiver even while typing this – is a factoid Preston slips in among all the nose-bleeding and skin-sloughing.
A hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four hour plane ride from every city on earth.
Scared yet? You should be. Because even though I’ve reiterated that fear is subjective, sometimes it’s not. That, my friends, is enough to terrify everyone.
Well, those are my scary reads. Now I’m interested in hearing yours. After all, fear is subjective and I’m curious to see what makes the rest of you quake in your boots. So, tell me: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever read?