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.
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.
Norb’s new eBook short. $1.99
What happens when greed collides with blind ambition? In this short story, available exclusively as an eBook, Grove O’Rourke discovers how far powerful adversaries will go to push their political agendas. The prize: the presidency of the United States. Continue reading
I’m just back from Bouchercon (and for the uninitiated, that’s pronounced Bow-cher-con, not Boo-cher-con, as I originally thought when I first heard of it eons ago).
Bouchercon is America’s largest mystery writing and fan conference, where herds of writers graze near pools of liquid (yes, that’s a metaphor for the hotel bar), swap news, see old friends and meet new ones, connect with publishers, agents, editors and reviewers, and spend time signing books and meeting readers. Awards are given (Macavity, Anthony and Shamus); parties are thrown (Norb and I ran into each other at the party given by our publisher, Minotaur Books); and most importantly, we are collectively thrown out of our solitary writing cells and thrust into hyper social connectivity.
I love Bouchercon; it never fails to inspire me, spark new ideas, and generally make me feel warm all over, because honestly … the crime fiction community is such a wondrous, wonderful bunch of people! We are, in fact, a family … like the original Algonquin, except on a larger scale.
The conference changes location annually. This year, we got a chance to meet Cleveland (a lovely city with great hospitality); in 2013, it’s Albany. Last year, we gathered in St. Louis, where I had the great good fortune of meeting our own Douglas Corleone.
See what I mean? It’s a table.
This year was made particularly special by the launch of BOOKS TO DIE FOR — an anthology of which I’m extremely proud to have participated in. Billed as “the world’s greatest mystery writers on the world’s greatest mystery novels”, the book has been a labor of love for its editors, John Connolly and Declan Burke, and certainly for the contributors. The US version released at Bouchercon, and we signed more than 500 copies for more than two hours … giving many of us a chance to feel like Michael Connelly (who is a contributor and was sitting across the room from me). We missed Declan, who was originally slated to be there, but hope to cage him next year in Albany.
I had the opportunity to write about one of my more unexpected influences: Agatha Christie, and Murder on the Orient Express in particular. Every one of the essays was a labor of love, modern writers writing about authors they admire, authors that taught them something, authors that convinced them to try it themselves.
And our honorarium … well, as if getting to foist our opinions on an unsuspecting world wasn’t honor enough, we had a choice of money or rare Irish whiskey. Guess which one most of us chose.
John and other East Coast-based authors will be touring the area in support of BOOKS TO DIE FOR, so make sure you pick up a copy. It’s an entertaining, insightful reference/recommendation work that will have a place at “the table” for many a year to come!
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?
Let me know what you think.