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.
Strange topic for a writing/book blog, you ask? Perhaps. But let’s think about solar energy for a minute. Hailed since the 1970s as the Next Big Thing, decades have passed and solar still remains the red-headed stepchild of the energy world. We haven’t run out of oil yet, there are other forms of alternative energy such as wind power and more exotic solutions like algae biofuels, etc. But beneath all the hype, solar energy has quietly been forging ahead. Technology has advanced significantly from the clunky panels of yesteryear. In California, huge billion-dollar solar farms have been sprouting up in the mojave desert.
I been thinking a lot about solar power lately because my new thriller, SOLAR ISLAND, releases in 10 days on December 11, 2012, from Seven Realms Publishing. A description is available on my website:
Writing a thriller about solar power was tricky because there is a fine line between including enough technical detail to remain convincing, but not so much that the reader feels like they’ve waded into a textbook.
What’s your experience with solar power? Do you have any panels on your house or do they make the property look too industrial? Anyone have one of those portable solar chargers for your smartphone?
I may not be certain how the world will meet its energy needs going forward, but I do know one thing: the sun will still be around. it makes sense, therefore, to learn to make use of its natural energy.
Thanks for reading!
I thought I would write a bit about how our backgrounds can influence our writing. The old cliché says, “Write what you know,” but I can’t help but feel if everyone did that, literature as a whole would be shortchanged. The whole point of writing and reading is to imagine things you haven’t experienced before, to explore new worlds, concepts and personalities.
That said, it does help to be writing about something to which you have some sort of connection. Arthur Conan Doyle was not a professional detective himself, but his medical school training and work experiences enabled him to imagine in fantastic realism the intricate details of those famous fictional cases. Did you know that while in med school, Doyle took a position as a ship’s surgeon on a whaling vessel that sailed to Greenland?
As a marine biologist, I’ve never even seen a blue whale (although I’ve been in the water with other kinds of whales), much less tagged and swam with one, but in my new thriller/mystery WIRED KINGDOM I’ve managed to do just that. Having a foundation in marine science enables me to write with some semblance of authority, and to incorporate a few technical details that add realism to the story. It’s not exactly what I would call, ‘write what you know’ but more like ‘write what you can convincingly get away with.’ Real life can be a bit…well, mundane at times, right, so the point is perhaps to take the familiar and make it unfamiliar, to infuse our sense of normalcy with an element of excitement.
But exactly how this element is introduced is critical. The devil is in the details, as they say, and to be able to negotiate those details a writer needs some background and experiences to draw upon. Sure, research helps, but there’s a big difference between someone researching something they know nothing about for the first time and researching based on past experience and knowledge to clarify details.
With research based on past experience, anything becomes not only possible, but convincingly, even alarmingly so. A seemingly random killing in a small town that exposes the strange interrelationships of its residents, perhaps, or a whale tagged with a webcam that films a murder at sea. Anything that expands upon a writer’s background and experiences in such a way that it fills the story with convincing detail and vivid realism. For me, some of the background that would find its way into WIRED KINGDOM, kiDNApped, and the upcoming SOLAR ISLAND began with my personal experiences of scuba diving around the world.
So while there certainly doesn’t need to be a direct connection between the writer and the work, most of the time there will be some past history with at least one element of the story. We’ve all heard of M.D.’s writing medical thrillers and lawyers writing legal thrillers, but there are successful examples of these types of books written by non-professionals, too. The goal of the novel first and foremost is to entertain; everything else is a distant second.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts.
Since my debut novel (thriller Wired Kingdom) prominently features a whale, I decided to focus this post on whales. I’ll share a few of my personal experiences with them as well as what made me want to write about them in my book.
Allow me to begin by providing a brief description of the story:
When a blue whale tagged with a web-cam designed with stolen defense technology broadcasts a brutal murder at sea as part of a television nature program, Special Agent Tara Shores finds herself navigating an ocean of manipulation and deceit in a deadly race to reach the 100-ton creature roaming the Pacific before an unknown killer can destroy the digital evidence it carries.
You can view a book trailer for the novel here:
So, at its heart, Wired Kingdom is a whodunit murder mystery where a whale harbors a key piece of evidence in the case. In some early drafts of the story I even had the web-cam on different kinds of animals, such as a shark, but there was something about whales that just made the most sense. They’re big, formidable animals if one needs to confront one, but they are also beautiful, majestic creatures that have come back from the brink of extinction after nearly being hunted from the Earth. Many people feel a certain empathy for them, a sentiment that figures prominently in the novel.
As someone with a degree in marine science, I have spent time formally studying whales and the environment in which they live. But reading about them alone doesn’t begin to do justice to these mysterious creatures. To truly appreciate them, one needs to see them in their natural environment, which I have been fortunate enough to do on several occasions throughout my life. Below I will share a few videos I’ve taken of whales in different parts of the world.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaIhSVrr52k This is a video of a humpback whale in Hawaii. I took this while on a whale watching boat called the Navatek, on the island of Oahu. Can you see the calf by her mother’s side? You can hear the screams of the excited passengers when the whale breaches, or jumps out of the water. No one is exactly sure why whales breach. It may be just for the fun of it, or perhaps to shake loose parasites.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9Dc2j844mY This clip shows a gray whale off Los Angeles, which I took from another whale watch out of Marina del Rey (where, incidentally, part of the story for Wired Kingdom is set). Grays are famous for their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico, where they give birth.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_mPHwGLpDo This is a special clip, not for what you can see, but for what you can hear. My wife shot this when we were scuba diving on a shipwreck in Hawaii (yes, that’s me diving in the video). The sounds you can hear are the songs of humpback whales! We could hear them all around us throughout the dive, although we never saw one.
Note that I don’t have any blue whale shots—I haven’t been lucky enough to see one of those in the wild—yet—but that’s part of what made them so alluring to me, and so worthy of being a main character in Wired Kingdom. That, and the fact that they are the largest animals ever to have lived on our planet.
These types of whale encounters have been a source of inspiration for me as I wrote Wired Kingdom, and which helped me to inject a dose of realism into the story’s pages. I hope that this post has stirred your imagination enough to make you want to learn more about whales for yourself!
Thanks for reading.