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.
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.
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.
We know that we’re not promised a thousand tomorrows, that eternity lies only a heartbeat away, that love is worth the risk and worth the pain, that relationships are more important than paychecks, that every moment matters… We know these things, but only the prophets and poets and mystics seem to live as if they believe them. The rest of us tend to need constant reminding. And therein lies the calling and role of the arts.
The arts capture the essence of the world, the truths of human nature, and allow viewers, or readers, to enter that moment, that elusive moment, when truth finally touches time; when revelation finally occurs. The arts open our eyes to the world we so often miss–the world of truth lying hidden under the daily barrage of facts.
When we “suspend our disbelief” during a fictional story, whether performed theatrically by actors or linguistically by words, we actually open ourselves up to finally stop suspending our disbelief in reality and to begin–if only for a moment–to finally believe the truths we already know. So, in a sense art, in my case writing, uses a pretend world to help readers see the real one more clearly.
Authors of fiction are engaged in the work not of telling facts, but of speaking the truth–the truth about life, about human nature, about the role that we each play in shaping the way the world is and the way the future will look. Fiction that matters is fiction that honestly explores the paradoxes of the human spirit, the human condition and the questions that influence our lives and our destinies.
I believe that passion and truth are the two clarion attributes of great fiction–passion that embraces the wounds and dreams of life, and truth that guides us toward experiencing them more fully. I’ve found that it takes unsettling courage to write stories that bite deeply into my soul, but these are the only ones that ultimately satisfy me because I know that I’m doing more than simply entertaining readers. I’m touching their hearts through their eyes.
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.
Sometimes people act weird around you when they think you’re famous.
One time I was speaking at a school and a woman came up to me, all flustered and embarrassed. “You are my biggest fan!” she gushed.
I snickered, thinking she’d notice her mistake, but she didn’t. I think she was hurt when I laughed. “You are!” she insisted. “You are my biggest fan!”
“Oh,” I said at last. “Then I’m glad to finally meet you.”
Another time a very prim and proper Baptist woman picked me up at the airport to drive me to the event at which I was scheduled to speak. “You’re all mine for the weekend,” she said as she met me by the baggage claim area.
“I can’t wait,” I said.
Her hand flew up to her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that!” I thought about sharing this story when I spoke that Sunday morning at her church, but then decided against it.
Once, after speaking at a conference in San Diego, I was walking past some people in the back of the room and I heard someone whispering to her friend, “That’s Steven James!” I felt ridiculous hearing that. I just pretended I didn’t hear them and walked away.
I wonder how anyone could stay human hearing those types of things all the time, being the celebrity, being onstage at the supermarket, at the fitness center, at your kid’s soccer game.
“Look! It’s Tom Cruise!”
“Aren’t you Scarlett Johansson?”
“Oh, Michael Jordan! Over here! Could you sign this picture for my, um… my kid?”
I’m glad I’m not famous like that. I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d go crazy or get hooked on drugs or move to Argentina.
It would terrify me because I know something all those people don’t—I know what I’m really like. I know the dark shape of the things that worm their way through my heart. I know the nasty truth about who I am inside—that I’m an impatient, needy, slightly neurotic, moody, manic, cynical, easily addicted, and desperately driven guy.
My wife never whispers to her friends, “Look! That’s Steven James!” when I walk past because she’s seen me lose my cool with the lawnmower. Instead when I walk through the door she hands me a bag of dripping garbage to take to the curb and says, “There you are. Did you pick up the milk on the way home?”
Sometimes I meet famous people and I get nervous myself, so I know how weird it can be. Once, I ate supper with a famous author and he got a piece of salad stuck in his beard. He didn’t notice and no one at our table wanted to point it out to him because he was so famous and we were so in awe. So, here’s this guy with lettuce hanging from his face and all these people at the table laughing at his jokes and pretending not to see the leaf flapping from his beard all during the meal. Being famous isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be.
Me, I tend to get spaghetti sauce on my shirt when I eat baked ziti. My kids let me know about it right away. They just laugh and point. “Daddy got a stain on his shirt again!”
So much for feeling like Mr. Famous Author Guy.
A few years ago I was at a used bookstore here in my hometown and I found one of the books I’d written on the shelf. At first I thought it was pretty cool to see the spine of my book on the sales rack at a bookstore, but then I realized I was standing in a used bookstore.
Unbelievable! Someone had unloaded a book I’d written, a book I’d sweated over and lost sleep over and spent half a year of my life crafting word by laborious word. Some lowlife had sold my masterpiece to the guys at this bookstore for pennies on the dollar.
I picked it up and flipped it open. Whoever had owned the book had taken really good care of it, the pages were barely worn. It didn’t look very “used” to me. I don’t think it had ever been read.
Then I turned to the dedication page in the front of the book to see if I’d signed it to anyone and discovered that this was the copy I’d given to my daughters’ babysitter. Here’s what I’d written to her:
Dear Eileen, (no, I’m not going to tell you her real name)
Thanks for babysitting and loving my girls!
Finding that book in the used bookstore was a brutal reminder that everything I do is temporary.
One day all of my books will be out of print, all of my stories will be forgotten, all of my words will turn to mist. When I die, only a few people will notice. I’ll get one little paragraph on the obituary page, but even that’ll end up at the bottom of someone’s birdcage within a week. Solomon noticed that and called it absurd (Ecclesiastes 3:19). Whether it’s tomorrow, or in a dozen years, or a hundred, there’ll come a day when no one remembers my name.
On top of Haley Pass, a saddle about 11,200 feet up in the Wind River Range next to 12,504 foot Mount Hooker, there’s a pile of stones. Apparently, the people who make it to the top of the pass each add one to the pile.
When I hiked across that mountain pass a few years ago I thought of adding a stone myself. It was natural, almost instinctive. I grabbed a rock and headed to the pile. There were no signs up there saying, “Congratulations! Put a rock on the pile!” But they didn’t need a sign. I just wanted to leave my mark. I guess we all did.
The book of Genesis includes the story of the Tower of Babel, where the people wanted to raise a monument to themselves that reached all the way to heaven. They wanted to make a name for themselves so everyone who followed them would know they had walked on this planet. I guess they heard the same voice in their hearts that we hear today: Oh, that someone would know I was here! Oh, that I might be remembered!
It’s why we stick a flag on the moon, carve our initials into trees, get personalized license plates, donate money to get our name on a brick, write graffiti on bathroom walls, and leave our life dates etched on our tombstones. A friend of mine told me she heard about a surgeon who got caught engraving her initials in her patients. We want people to know we were here. We want to leave our footprints on this planet.
I thought about some of those things as I stared at that pile of stones and felt the untamed, ancientness of the mountains all around me.
I didn’t end up putting my rock on the pile that day. Something just didn’t seem right about it. There was a bigger story being told there in those peaks.
The other day I was meeting with a book club, and a woman asked me, “How do you write oh-sh** moments? You know what I mean. When a character suddenly realizes everything is about to hit the fan.”
“It helps if you’ve lived through thousands of them.”
I know I have. Like the time when a guy in a moon suit poked the ceiling in my office. The wallboard collapsed, and a sixteen-square-foot nest of hornets rained down on my agent’s redlined draft of Top Producer. There was ooze and bald-faced hornet gak all over my carefully wrought manuscript. It was, I suppose, an ominous start to my career as a novelist.
Or how about the time when Mary and I took our children to a kid-inappropriate Broadway musical? The show was an unsettling combination of catchy tunes and lurid sexual innuendo. We realized our mistake and left at intermission. But there’s more to the story—because sometimes it’s impossible to get a jingle out of your head.
Our son was in grade school back then. He sang and hummed one of the show tunes during a birthday party for his little sister. Over and over, oh my. There were about fifteen little girls running around the house that day, and one of the moms confronted me when he belted out a few verses during pickup.
“Where did he learn that song?” she asked.
“It was a terrible accident,” I said, apologizing all over myself. “We brought our kids to that musical. That awful, awful musical. I’m so embarrassed.” On and on I rambled, afraid that our friend would think less of us as parents.
As I was backpedaling, a pained expression came over her face. “You really didn’t care for the show?”
I said, and I quote verbatim, ” ‘It sucked.’ “
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “I produced it.”
See what I mean? I’ve had my share of oh-sh** moments. Which takes me to title of this post.
Every year hundreds of organizations visit Harvard College to recruit graduating seniors. By the spring of 1980 my eight roommates and I had wallpapered our halls with rejection letters from half of them, maybe more. I was down to my last shot—no offers in hand—so you can imagine that I was more than a little tense when the proverbial, hail-Mary interview with Chase Manhattan began.
The one-on-one meeting took place inside Harvard’s Office of Career Services. It was an old, rabbit warren of a building with a handful of stark rooms, where recruiters could screen applicants.
Chase’s recruiter that day was an attractive woman, not much older than me. Frankly, she didn’t dress like a banker nor sound like one either—which I found disarming.
“We’re going to role play,” the recruiter said in a Kewpie doll voice.
Oh puh-lease, I thought, annoyed that my interview, my final shot at the big time on Wall Street, was starting off with a kids’ game.
“You’ll be a banker,” she continued. “I’ll be a client. And at the end of the meeting, you’ll decide whether I get the loan. Or not, if I’m a poor credit risk.”
“I know now. Do you want the cash in ten or twenties?” I thought the comment was funny, something to break the ice. It was, however, the wrong thing to say.
The recruiter, a graduate of the London School of Economics, leaned forward on the edge of her chair as though to pounce. And pounce she did. She spent the next forty-five minutes taking me apart. I was clueless about cash flows and banking. When her questions ended, I felt like I had gone twelve rounds with George Foreman—in the ring, not with one of his 1-800 grills.
So what happens when you’re down to your last interview? You have no job offers. You have no Plan B. You have no money but plenty of debt. The previous forty-five minutes with a prospective employer have been an unmitigated disaster, and your ego is now soaking in the puddle next to the fire hydrant. What do you do?
“Look,” I said, my hand on the door. “I want to work for Chase Manhattan forever. I have always wanted to be a banker. I will always be a banker, and there’s only one thing you need to know about me.”
“Which is?” Suddenly, she was curious.
“If you hire me, I’ll turn on the lights in the morning and off at night. I’ll work my ass off.” Yes, I said “ass.” What did I have to lose? “Wherever you are, you can rest assured that I’ll be grinding away to identify great loans and above all to protect Chase from a fiasco. Know what I’m saying?”
“But you need to give me a shot. I promise I won’t let you down.” Phew. My crescendo was complete. I opened the door and smiled at the recruiter, again thinking how pretty she was. Hearing a thunderous ovation inside my head, I walked through the door and closed it until the latch clicked tight.
I was inside a closet.
As if there were any doubt, I felt something brush against my nose. It turned out to be a light pull. Which, of course, I pulled to ensure my imagination was not playing a bad trick on me.
Talk about turning crimson. Yes, this was an oh-sh** moment.
As an author writing these scenes now, I try to remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was not the empty sensation of hunger. Nor was it the queasy awareness that precedes nausea. I clearly remember angst. I remember absolute humiliation. And I remember the overwhelming fear that I might cough up one of my organs. It was that bad—then.
It is beautiful now. My treasure trove of oh-sh** moments are a wonderful resource. They help me understand what my fictional characters are thinking when they get into trouble. Or what they would say during those times of profound humiliation. I get inside my head—which helps me get inside the heads of the people I create.
Back to the closet.
I opened the door and heard a wheezing sound, but I didn’t see the recruiter at first. She had slipped off her chair. Literally. She was on the floor, holding her stomach, gasping with laughter.
Well, it was pretty clear what was necessary. I helped her up, shook her hand, and thanked her again. “If you hire me,” I said, “please make sure to get me a map of the floor.” And with that I walked out the door, this time the real one.
For the record, Chase Manhattan hired me. But that’s not the point. I’d love to hear what you think about oh-sh** moments, whether you’re reading them, writing them, or experiencing them in real time.
And if you’re brave enough, why not share a few of your own oh-sh** moments with Algonquin Redux.
I have a confession to make. I monitor the Internet for mentions of my name and reviews of my books. Google is fine. But I prefer Addictomatic because it pulls from a broader range of websites with a single click. At one time, I was indulging my new-author ego. Now, I wonder if search tools are essential for self-defense.
Yesterday, “Norb Vonnegut” registered a hit on a site I had never seen. So I took a look and, much to my surprise, learned that I had commented on a review of a “bestselling” fantasy novel. The author is a Princeton graduate, who now teaches at a major American university with a storied football program.
Apparently, I had commented on the review as follows:
No offense to the fantasy genre. I respect all authors—we work hard and put our feelings on the line every day. And we do it because there’s nothing more satisfying than telling a great story, which rewards readers for spending a few hours with us. But all that said, there’s no way in hell that I read her book.
(Hat tip to Prague, Oklahoma’s Kaitlin Nootbaar, who used the word “hell” in her graduation speech and is standing tall even though her high school won’t award her a diploma. But I digress.)
I won’t name the blog. I don’t want to send them the traffic. Or call them out if they have nothing to do with the theft of my name. I responded to the comment supposedly made by me, identified myself and my books, and wrote, “This is not cool.” But as of this post on Algonquin Redux, my response does not appear on the rogue blog.
Nor am I naming the author. She may have nothing to do with this fraud. I am suspicious, though, and would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Every single comment on the blog extolls the virtues of her book, which appears to be the best thing written since the bible. When does any author score 32 out of 32 positive comments?
One other point. To the best of my knowledge, there’s nobody else out there by the name of Norb Vonnegut. If there is, all I can say is, “Sorry for leaping to conclusions, cuz.”
Moral of the Story: When I was a stockbroker, I paid attention to reputation management and recently blogged about the topic on CNBC.com. According to Burke Files, a friend who specializes in these matters, it’s important to have a game plan ready for those times when the Internet spins your reputation out of control. I’m sad to say, I don’t have a plan.
Sure, this fake blurb may fall into the category of no harm, no foul. Life in the Internet lane, right? But I don’t like fake attribution, and I’m wondering how to handle the problem—especially because the blog has not released my comment: “This is not cool.”
Help! I’m not sure what do. Has anyone run into this problem?
Do you think I should send this link to the author in question with the hope that she’ll address the problem? Or is it better to identify the rogue blog?