It started as a vision: a musical drama about John F. Kennedy. I began researching, reading biographies and recollections of the man, both admiring and critical. I took on a collaborator, lyricist/composer Will Holt, who also immersed himself in books about JFK. It soon became apparent to us that despite everything that was out there, the real Jack Kennedy was maddeningly elusive.
Oh, we had facts. Lots of them, but in total, they were surface. Our Jack, for whom we would have to write invented-but-true-to-character lines – was a mystery.
Jack was the second of nine children. Older brother Joe Kennedy, Jr. was, almost from birth, anointed, designated by their father to someday become the first Catholic President of the U.S. The books told us that in Jack’s early years he was chronically ill, that, unlike brother Joe, who was a bit of a grind, he was an indifferent student, becoming something of a playboy. And of course, for all four sons, urged on by their father, the womanizing.
Along with that, contradictions and anomalies: After Joe was killed in action in WWII, Jack abruptly changed direction, entered politics and eventually became President, the Jack Kennedy we came to know as charismatic, focused and highly intelligent.
Remarkably, the way we, as writers, finally discovered who John F. Kennedy was – what the show was really about – was from something that’s missing from everything ever written about him.
Here’s how it happened.
Will and I had worked through much of the first act; the drama, the obvious conflicts of Jack’s life from age 17 through his early 20’s. Scenes moved back-and-forth through time. Jack’s relationship with brother Joe, flashing back to the father’s days at Harvard, then, prior to WWII, FDR appointing Joe Kennedy, Sr. Ambassador to Great Britain, and the family’s move to England. We addressed the brothers’ war service. Jack, in the Pacific, becomes a sudden, much-publicized hero. Meanwhile, in Europe, Joe, Jr. has flown 37 bombing missions without drawing headlines. But, arguably because of Jack’s abrupt notoriety, consistent with Junior’s family role and the need to top Jack, and despite being due for rotation back to the U.S., Joe volunteers for another mission – one that, had it succeeded, would have drawn huge press-coverage. Instead, with almost Shakespearian irony, his plane explodes in midair, and he is killed. The news tears the Ambassador apart.
We were at a key point in Jack’s life – chronicled in all the books: the war ends, and the father, still devastated by Joe’s death, tells Jack that he wants him to run for Congress. For the seat that, according to the father’s plan, Joe would have sought.
We knew we had to play that scene. It was too pivotal a moment in Jack’s life to finesse, to gloss over.
And yet, in none of the books is there a record of what was actually said. Only a distant, basically one-line statement: Dad tells Jack he wants him to run, to – in effect – take his brother’s place.
Followed, in all of them, by Jack campaigning.
The historians all made the same logical assumption – Jack said okay. Worse: on the face of it, a scene without conflict. Ergo, not especially interesting.
And that’s when it happened for us as writers.
Our Jack said “No.” Loud. Clear.
That’s right. The Jack we had posited from all the bits and hints told us that he had flat-out refused, that he’d had way too much of his father’s B.S.
Our Jack, almost without our realizing it, had taken on a life. We had found the character. And with it, the heart of his story.
The same thing that happens – if you’re doing it right – when writing fiction.
The pieces? They’d been there all along.
Jack’s frequent childhood illnesses. One doesn’t have to be Freud to recognize that as a classic plea for love and attention from a kid who knew from the getgo that he was a distant number two.
The dropout/playboy business? Totally consistent with a young man who, recognizing that there’s no gain in competing with Crown Prince older-brother, chooses the opposite path.
And, while Jack was a young Naval Officer in D.C., his affair with a married woman with “questionable” connections. Fearing that if leaked to the press, it might damage Junior’s political future, their liaison was broken up by the father – with FBI help.
Could it be that Jack knew?
Additionally there was Jack’s avowed ambition to become a journalist after the war. Again, a way to avoid comparison with Joe, Jr.
Other “Why didn’t we see that before?” clues began snapping into place. I think of them as the buzzing of the fiction-writer’s shit-detector. The totality of which cemented our certainty: there was no way that Jack would have agreed to run.
And yet – he did. And he won. And went on to the Presidency.
Our conclusions yielded two vital scenes. The first: Jack, alone with his mourning father, tries to cheer him, and is rudely rebuffed. Then, the older man’s eyes narrow. He tells Jack to run. Jack rejects the idea. Angry, his father demands to know why. Jack sings: “Dad, I’m not Joe.” And in a truly operatic duet, they argue. Tension – and passions – rise, till finally Jack flatly, unequivocally refuses. His father regards him for a moment. Then, with bitterness and contempt: “I know – you’re not Joe…”
He turns, exits, leaving Jack alone onstage, crushed. And the audience wiped out along with him.
But – what or who changed Jack’s mind, convinced him to run for office? We had to play that transaction. And from what we knew of the family, it could only be his mother, Rose. Which gave us our next scene – Rose convincing him it’s his duty as a Kennedy to make peoples’ lives better. The First Act concludes with Jack campaigning.
No one will ever know what actually took place – none of the players left any public, known account. But I’m convinced that we got it very close to right.
Closer than any of the books…
More than that, it gave us the spine for the entire show: that lifelong conflict between Jack Kennedy and his father. It demonstrates the importance of digging beneath the surfaces of your characters, whether fictional or real. And of listening, of hearing their subtext.
To watch moments from JACK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iq2NUv9MzPU&feature=youtu.be
Story and Character, as seen by Howard Hawks
By Thomas Kaufman
Just like the question of which came first, chicken or egg, the confusion surrounding character and plot is enough to drive a person crazy. Is a story plot-driven? Character-driven? How do these two essential elements of story intersect? Where does it all begin?
In some novels, it’s easy to see that plot is driving the story. Certain writers have books with wonderful twists and turns and lots of action, but the characters are as thin as the pages of the book. Other writers may go deep into the characters’ lives, while the events, the plot of the book, are minimal.
Still other writers have taken story and character and blended them in such a way as to prevent anyone from unraveling them. An example is RED HARVEST by Dashiell Hammett. Plot is what brings the detective to Montana — he is summoned to do a job. But when he arrives, he finds his employer has been murdered. So the detective finds the murderer and brings him to justice. Case closed.
Except that’s just the first 50 pages of this book. What happens next? Well, in the course of finding the killer, the detective learns about the corruption of the town named Personville — pronounced ‘Poisonville’ by those who live there. When, in the course of his investigation, the cops take a shot at him, that tears it. The detective decides the town is rotten. He stays, though he has no official reason to do so, and cleans up the town on his own.
So—is it plot or character that drives RED HARVEST?
In his book STORY, Robert McKee writes that plot and character are the same phenomena, viewed from two different perspectives. I think there’s a good case for that. In RED HARVEST, how can you separate plot from character? We know the detective stays on through his own choice, it’s his character that takes offense at the corruption of the police, the ruthlessness of the gangs, the misery of the town. It’s his character that makes him stay. But the inciting incident is plot, that’s what brings him to Personville in the first place.
Another way of viewing plot versus character comes from Howard Hawks. The film director who brought us HIS GIRL FRIDAY, THE BIG SLEEP, and TO HAVE AND TO HAVE NOT had definite opinions about story and character. Here’s a quote from Joseph McBride’s interview book, HAWKS ON HAWKS:
McBRIDE: “Plots tend to be more important in films than characters. Quite often the characters behave according to the dictates of the plot. But you usually do it the other way around.”
HAWKS: “There’s a very simple theory behind that. There are about thirty plots in all of drama. They’ve all been done by very good people. If you can think of a new way to tell that plot, you’re pretty good. But if you can do characters, you can forget about plot. You just have the characters moving around. Let them tell the story for you, and don’t worry about the plot. I don’t. “
Hawks goes on to say that movement, plot, comes from character. Sometimes this is called writing from the inside out, being inside your characters deep enough to understand what makes them tick, then extrapolating what they would do under certain circumstances. So in a balanced story, plot comes from within, from the desires and fears of your characters. As the writer, you tailor the plot to showcase the characters.
Have you ever read a book and, once you’re finished, you think about one or more of the characters for days, weeks, even months afterward? That means the writer succeeded in bringing those characters to life – that’s a real achievement, and I don’t think you can get there by plot alone.
How about you? Have you ever read a book with characters you still remember?
I like stories that surprise me, show me things I’ve never seen before, and get me playing make-believe like I haven’t done since selling my G.I. Joes and Legos at a garage sale. Few tales are as make-believe (or as fun) as fantasy fiction—from the “light fantasy” of alternate histories and time travel to the hardcore stuff involving space odysseys and dragons. Trouble is, I’m a skeptic, a hard sell. For a story to grab me, no matter how far-fetched it’s supposed to be, I have to see and feel things I recognize, things I relate to.
Sounds like common sense, but as a voracious reader and a judge in umpteen competitions, including the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Awards, I’m here to tell you it’s not as common as you’d think.
The idea of believable fantasy truly hit home when, after writing four reality-based thrillers (Comes a Horseman, Germ, Deadfall and Deadlock), I decided to infuse my next series of thrillers with a hefty dose of fantasy. The first of The Immortal Files books, The 13th Tribe, deals with immortal vigilantes, a group of never-aging killers, determined to make their long lives meaningful by ridding the world of bad guys. It never dawns on them that in the process they’ve become bad guys themselves.
Its sequel, The Judgment Stone (releasing today, May 15th), ups the fantasy ante with angels and demons: not the Dan Brown, metaphoric kind, but the biblical, winged-creatures-of-protection-and-temptation kind. In this story, a group of immortals—different from the group in the first book, this time more violent and malicious—steal an archeological find. It’s a piece of the first Ten Commandments, the tablets Moses broke when he came down Mt. Sinai and found the Israelites worshipping a Golden Calf—and touching it peels back the veil between our world and the spiritual world. The Clan—as this group is called—uses it to hunt down and kill the people closest to God. They’re nasty that way.
Upon choosing this direction, my first thought was, Oh no, what will readers of my more traditional thrillers think? Will they join me on this ride? Will they be willing to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the adventures and suspense at the heart of these stories? All of my stories have pushed the reality envelope—the virus in Germ that becomes lethal only after finding the DNA matching the DNA encoded within it; the reality-bending helmets of Deadlock that make soldiers better killers by turning targets into “ideal” enemies. But immortality and spiritual beings? I knew I was asking a lot.
Looking within, to my own reading proclivities and preferences, I realized the best way to “sell” fantasy to traditional thriller readers was to make the fantasy parts feel less fantastical, to make them seem real. And one strong way to do that was to make everything else about the story hyper-realistic; that is, insert the fantasy into the relevant, recognizable and real: the fantasy becomes real because everything around it is real.
Drones are a hot topic these days, with their uses and abuses in the War in Afghanistan, in domestic airspace, and in the arsenals of our enemies. Before FoxNews’s and CNN’s reporting that weaponized drones were vulnerable to terrorist hijacking, the bad guys in The 13th Tribe hijacked a fleet and attacked a major U.S. city. In fact, one reader wrote me, saying facetiously (I think), “What have you wrought? You put the idea into their heads!” Of course, that was never my intention, but it was my intention to make my story timely and pertinent.
Another American concern is making our soldiers safe and giving them winning strategic advantages through technology. My immortals have access to the latest high-tech advancements, including invisibility suits. As CNN reported on the Pentagon’s investment in “Quantum Stealth” camouflage metamaterial, which bends light around the wearer, rendering them invisible, readers of the Immortal Files were experiencing the technology in action.
Likewise, DARPA—the Department of Defense’s agency for new military technologies—helped the cause by announcing its intention to develop a performance-enhancing exoskeleton that allowed soldiers to walk faster and farther, jump higher and carry more weight. In The Judgment Stone, the bad guys use just such technology. While I call the exoskeleton “Austin boots” (after Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man fame) and Lockheed Martin calls its prototypes “HULC,” the announcement put the concept into the public eye, another reality that lends credence to The Judgment Stone’s fantasy elements.
The Judgment Stone takes place, primarily, in Egypt, a current flashpoint of political hostility and unrest. My using this location was no accident—it was designed to reflect the unrest in my protagonist’s life and offer another pressing reason to make his family safe in a dangerous environment.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of reality for most people—the human condition. If the majority of readers are like me (and I think they are), they’re more willing to accept the fantastical elements of a story if they recognize emotions and fears and desires in the characters; if they can relate to them. The Judgment Stone’s main protagonist Jagger Baird’s main interest is in protecting his family, even while struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome and adjusting to a new prosthetic arm. The terrible things he’s endured cause him to doubt the existence of a loving God. His on-the-fence spirituality mirrors many America’s struggle with reconciling why God allows bad things to happen to good people, as poll after poll indicates.
It was only in the midst of finding the reality in which to set the Immortal Files’ fantasies that I realized that my stories may not be as far-fetched as I’d feared: 78% indicated belief in angels, and 70% believe in the devil. Still, drawing inspiration from today’s headlines does help shift the stories from a fantasy tonal palette into a traditional thriller’s. And that means, at least for my fans, more readers throwing disbelief into the wind and enjoying the fun.
So, when a story asks you to make a leap into a not-so-realistic world or situation, what helps you take that plunge?
Erased and Other Stories is a collection of superb stories that show the skill and versatility of Thomas Kaufman, author of Drink the Tea. Kaufman’s unusual private eye Willis Gidney is on hand for two stories, as well as a devious ADD coach for adults, a Polish Jew attempting to smuggle a priceless violin out of Nazi Germany, a political operative with his own agenda, a sensible man pushed into a senseless crime, and a cameraman who’s trying not to kill his client — all caught up in more devious plots than you can shake a lead pipe at. Some of these stories may keep you up at night, while others may make you laugh. Erased and Other Stories is great read from Private Eye Writers of America’s Best First Novel Competition winner, Thomas Kaufman.
It’s spring. Baseball season. And that always makes me think of the time when I heard the doctor tell us about his son.
A number of years ago I was speaking at an event in Florida, and afterward they had a reception at the organizer’shome. Normally, I’m not into these types of things. I’m not the best socializer and usually end up by myself in the corner, feeling awkward, and I mentally check out and start thinking of scenes for my next novel.
Well, that night I decided it would come across as rude if I didn’t attend, so I joined them and eventually found myself eating cold potato salad on the porch watching a storm come in off the ocean.
A couple of people joined me. One of the women said something about how often it rains around here in the afternoons, and then someone else commented how common it was to have baseball games cancelled, and then the man standing next to me, who’d been quiet up until then, told us this story.
He was a doctor and explained that last week his son had a baseball game. “William’s not very good,” he told us, “almost never manages to hit the ball. So it was the bottom of the ninth, his team was down by one, one other boy was on base and William was going to be up to bat in just a couple minutes. The game was almost over, he hadn’t hit the ball once yet, and that’s when I got the page from the hospital. I was on call and the issue wasn’t actually life-threatening, but it was important enough, so I thought I should head over there.
“As the boy right before William went to the batter’s box, I slipped out of the stands to head to the parking lot.
“A couple minutes later I was climbing in my car when I heard the crowd go crazy. I figured it was just the other team cheering because they’d won—or maybe the boy in front of William had managed to knock in a run. But when I got home later that night, my wife told me what’d really happened. The boy in front of William had popped out, and William swung on the first pitch and connected. Hard. This boy who could barely even hit the ball, knocked it over the fence. A game-winning home run. The crowd went crazy.
“As he was coming around third base on his way to home, he looked up to the stands to the place I’d been sitting and saw that I wasn’t there. He lowered his eyes and was staring at the ground as he crossed home plate.”
Everyone on the porch was silent. The storm brewed over the water. The doctor was watching it come our way as he went on. “No one should be staring at the ground when he crosses home plate.”
He looked at us then, and asked if we thought he should have answered the page. We had no answer, but we could see on his face that he already had answered the question in his own mind.
I can’t say he did the right thing or the wrong one, I can only say that I understand what it’s like to be drawn in two directions—to have work obligations and family ones, to do my best to be a good father and husband and also meet my writing deadlines. It’s incredibly hard for me to strike a balance—it seems like I end up swinging wildly from one extreme to the other.
Maybe we all do.
But here’s what I took away from the story that doctor told me when we stood on the porch in the path of the storm: sometimes, when it’s not an emergency, and we don’t need to respond to the page or answer the call, I think we should just let it ring.
There are some things more important than answering it. As he said—and I agree with him— no one should be staring at the ground when he crosses home plate.
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.
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!
Cross cultural exchange
Everyone fantasizes about at least one travel destination – some people hope to visit the elaborate splendor of the Taj Mahal, or the soaring heights of Machu Picchu, the romantic lagoon of Venice, or the bohemian cafes of Montparnasse. All in the interest of experiencing a different culture, expanding horizons, and leaning something new. My fantasy destination has always been Egypt.
I have always wanted to contemplate the pure symmetry of the pyramids of Giza, stand awestruck over the gilded coffins of pharos, and examine the ranks of carved figures walking sideways and stiff-legged across an ancient frieze in the Valley of Kings.
In the winter of 2011, I finally decided to go to Egypt. The catalyst was research for my novel The Stolen Chalice – a romantic thriller with an ancient Egyptian theme. As a former reporter, turned novelist I found that I crave the stimulation of field research. I find it hard to write my books without visiting the locations. So tickets were bought, itineraries planned, hotels booked.
But not so fast. The so-called “Arab Spring” arrived with unexpected force. As crowds were storming Tahrir Square, the U.S. State Department issued a “travel warning” urging all “non-essential travel” be postponed. I watched the coverage on the Internet as a revolution unfolded in real-time broadcasts. The events were stirring and disturbing, both peaceful and violent. It was a revolution via You Tube. We watched a society change before our very eyes.
One year after the uprising, Cairo seemed quiet. The presidential elections were planned. The political scene was, if not stable, at least calm. So I set off with my eldest son William to video locations for the enhanced electronic version of The Stolen Chalice.
We had a marvelous trip. We climbed down into ancient tombs, rode camels out into the desert and explored historic sights. But I’d like to share an incident that gave me a glimpse of our increasingly connected world.
As a music lover, I was keen to hear what the Cairo Opera House had to offer. The hotel concierge obtained a ticket for me, without any indication of what the program might be. That night, clutching a ridiculously cheap 15 dollar ticket I arrived at the Cairo Opera house to discover that the evening performance was a live video feed from the Metropolitan Opera in New York! It was one of the Met simulcasts – Verdi’s Ernani. The audience was all Egyptian – not a tourist in the house. I sat with them, as they watched the patrons at the Met take their places, and the conductor begin the performance.
How interesting that the same communication technology that brought me images of Tahrir Square during revolution, could show the citizens of Cairo an opera performance in New York. How little we anticipate the cross-cultural effects of our modern communications. We share our lives in real time now, from our revolutions to our art. - Kitty Pilgrim
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.
I’ve been a writer long enough now that it’s my answer to the once-troublesome question, “What do you do?” But I’ve got no answers for the recurring questions that follow. Perhaps you’ve managed to field some of these before:
1. Have I heard of you?
2. How are your sales?
3. What’s your day job/How do you subsidize your writing?
4. What would you do if you had to work?
5. When will the movie version come out?
6. I don’t mean the plot. What’s your book about?
7. Since you don’t have to go to work, will you help me move?
8. So is the publishing business really dying?
9. Will you read my manuscript and send it to your agent or publisher or both?
10. Are those cold sores? [note: This one may just be me]
I would appreciate any thoughts, Algonquinists.