“Do you know where I am?”
“It’s three in the morning,” croaks Son, his voice raspy from sleep.
“I make it … twenty-two minutes after three … London time.” Dad is calm, his voice commanding. His accent hints of a childhood down south. He is standing outside on the street corner, cell phone in one ear, finger in the other as cabbies scrape and squeal for post-Broadway fares.
“Can’t this wait? I have a test tomorrow morning.”
“At that fine center for higher learning where I’m paying your tuition, right?”
Son thinks, Uh-oh. Stretching, rubbing his eyes, he is awake now. He says nothing, bracing himself for the downward spiral about to begin.
Dad says nothing either. They are two men separated by 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean, five hours of time zone, and thirty-two years in age. But the silence between them cannot be quantified. It is a vast, infinite gulf of dead air time.
Finally, Son returns to the beginning, to Dad’s opening salvo. “I take it you’re in New York?”
“Hosting a dinner for my biggest client. Which begs the question: why am I calling while your mother and two other people, who indirectly underwrite your tuition at the London School of Economics, are patiently waiting for me to return?”
Son returns Dad’s sarcasm in kind. “The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Let me ask you something. Did you have a good time in Germany?”
I liked that. So much so that I googled “money porn” which, much to my dismay, generated a list of websites likely to leave your computer with gifts that keep giving. Know what I mean?
But I digress.
This story is pure money porn. I have taken some liberties with the dialogue and locations in order to protect the identities of Son and Dad. But the events are completely true, and I have written them as best as I remember what my friend said.
END OF INTERMISSION
“Err … Germany was okay.” No more retaliatory sarcasm from Son. He knows this conversation will not end well. Not sure why.
“I take it you enjoyed Oktoberfest?”
“If you like that sort of thing,” replies Son, attempting to sound contrite. Months ago he had reported to a friend, “Dude, it was the bomb.”
“Your flight was okay?”
“So let me ask you something. Did you go with anyone?”
“Couple of the guys.”
“Good,” says Dad. “That’s helpful. Now, while you and the guys were bouncing around the beer halls, is there any chance you had a few too many?”
“Not on purpose. It just kind of happens that way at Oktoberfest.”
“Right. And when you returned to London, did you ever develop a strange feeling in the pit of your stomach that you had left something behind? Anything?”
Son replies, “No.” But realizing he has spoken too quickly, he stretches the word into two syllables. “No” sounds somewhat southern, like his father’s pronunciation. “No-oh?”
“Let’s go back to the flight. ‘Uneventful’ if I recall correctly.”
“Can you please tell me what’s wrong?” Son glances at the woman in his bed. She is starting to stir. He hopes she does not wake and say something. No doubt Dad will hear.
“Can you remember how you and the guys got from the terminal to those beer halls?”
Son thinks. He really thinks.
Suddenly, a vague recollection morphs into an uncomfortable, horrifying moment of eureka recollection. Son says, “Oh sh**.”
“Right. Oh, sh**. I’m sitting here with your mother, my clients, and a restaurant bill I can’t pay. And you know why? I’m maxed out on my credit card all because the rental company charged me for the BMW you never returned.”
This is money porn gone bad.
I’ve blogged about my oh-sh** moments in the past. See The Worst Interview of All Time. Personally, I think real-life bloopers empower novelists. Every time we go oops, we take one step closer toward the mental anguish of our characters, right?
But ‘tis the season. Time to move on. Sort of.
Here’s the thing. Every year during Hallowmas—that crazy time between Halloween and Christmas when retailers declare open season on our wallets—stuff happens. With all the rush, rush, rushing and the egg, egg, eggnogging, something always goes wrong. If anything, ’tis the season for oh-sh** moments IMHO. This year I kicked off the holidays with another one of mine:
An ethical dilemma no less.
Let me set the stage. Mary and I have some new friends in Narragansett. I’ll call the couple Husband and Wife, in part to offer them anonymity and in part because J.R. Moehringer uses this function technique to name a few characters in Sutton. (Great book and the perfect Christmas gift, especially if you need something last minute. But I digress.) To celebrate the season and cement our growing friendship, Husband, Wife, Mary and I went out to dinner at the Matunuck Oyster Bar.
The restaurant, as you might guess, is known for fish. But I opted for Sausage Bolognese. It was cold outside. I had bicycled that day. The weather and the workout seemed like reasonable excuses to eat sausage and pasta rather than something from the bay.
The Oyster House was neither dark, nor particularly bright. It was comfortable. And the evening was perfect, warm laughter in the room, Mary and me drinking a decent bottle of wine with new friends. Somebody in our group ordered oysters. Most days, those mollusks are freakin’ ugly. But that night they looked spectacular on the platter, fresh, briny, evocative of the sea and that classic paragraph from Hemingway:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
But, again, I digress.
There we were, the four of us, sitting and eating and enjoying each other’s company, when something on Husband’s sleeve caught my eye. Like I said before, the room was neither dark nor bright, the light just enough to toy with my eyes which are feeling a little more wear and tear every year. I squinted and, much to my horror, identified the object as a remnant from some philistine’s Sausage Bolognese.
That philistine was me. I was the only one who ordered the dish, both at our table and the ones surrounding us. The errant Bolognese, about the size of a small button, had lodged above Husband’s right elbow. He was sitting to my left. The sausage looked like a third eye on his white shirt, winking every so often to remind me that with all the yak, yak, yakking, I had somehow spewed Bolognese on a neighbor and our new friend.
In milliseconds that could have been a lifetime, I cycled through my choices:
I was lost in this personal reverie of choices when Mary began calling my name. “Norb, Norb, why are you so quiet?”
What would you do?
I’ll be back on New Year’s Eve, right here in this post, to tell you what happened, how I handled the situation with Husband and Wife. And if somebody makes a particularly pithy observation, I’ll send him/her a free copy of The Gods of Greenwich.
Happy holidays to all.
Update: I’m getting trickles of information everywhere: email, dm, tweets, etc. Please “like” my Facebook page to join in/follow. I’ll try to direct all conversation there.
Forget the long lines at the malls. I hope the expression “Black Friday” takes on a different connotation for one thief, who’s been on the run for over thirty years. With this post, I’m announcing a reward for the return of a priceless object taken from my dorm room between 1978 and 1980. I was living in Eliot House at Harvard College.
Even if you have no direct knowledge of the theft, I ask that you re-tweet this post or share it on Facebook—because somewhere, someplace, somebody knows the whereabouts of a missing treasure. And I sincerely believe that nothing can remain secret in these days of e-mail, social media, and the Internet.
Background on the Reward: I’m researching art theft for a Grove O’Rourke thriller. Priceless by Robert K. Whitman and John Shiffman is an excellent read. So is The Art of the Heist by Myles J. Connor and Jenny Siler. Each book, one written from the perspective of the FBI and one from the perspective of a thief, describes how authorities turned to rewards when they had no clues about a case. I’m taking a page from their playbooks.
Priceless Object in my Dorm Room: Okay, okay. I know the description sounds hyperbolic. My mother spent twelve months knitting a large, crimson blanket with a big white H on it (Harvard colors). I think Vermeer completed thirty-five paintings during his lifetime. My mother knitted only one H blanket, and it is priceless to me.
The Heist: After returning from the Christmas holidays, I pinned the blanket to my bedroom wall. Several weeks later, my roommates and I hosted a party in our C-entry suite just over the Eliot House library. Everybody was welcome. Everybody had the run of our rooms. I never thought twice about a theft during our open house.
The night in question, I was mixing daiquiris in our common area. I walked into my bedroom at one point and noticed a guy sitting near my desk, alone, either buzzed or high or out of it—or so I thought. He had dark hair and wore glasses. I did not recognize him and am not sure whether he attended Harvard. He seemed suspicious. But I didn’t notice whether the blanket was missing. We spoke for a few minutes, and I forgot about him until the next day when I discovered the theft.
Reward: If your information leads to the return of my blanket, I’ll take you and another guest out to the restaurant of your choice in the city of your choice anywhere in the United States. Just to be clear—I’m not paying for airfare. But if you and your guest want to meet at a fish house in Hawaii, or any other US location, I’m picking up the dinner tab.
I promise to be a charming and engaging host. And who knows? Maybe we can work one of your ideas into a novel—a discussion to be continued during a fun meal and perhaps a glass of wine or two.
Other: No questions asked. I’m not interested in prosecuting anybody. I just want the blanket back.
Like I said before—the Internet is a great equalizer for fighting theft. Sure, there are spectacular thefts that go unsolved for long periods of time. The Gardner heist may be the most notorious.
But I’m optimistic. Two books inspired me to re-open this cold case, and with your help I think we’ll find that missing blanket. Thank you in advance for your participation.
“Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?” It’s a question that readers always ask at book signings.
“First book?” I like to fish around for details before offering advice.
“Don’t tell anyone.”
The problem, as I see it, is there are a million reasons to stop writing. We all suffer from the same mind games at one time or another. People will laugh… I won’t get published… No free time… I could go on. I probably used all the excuses at least once myself.
Check that—all the excuses except for one. I never thought, My book’s not good enough. That’s because I never told anyone I was writing Top Producer. I believed then, and still do now, that secrecy insulated me from disappointment.
Side note to reader: I’m building up to the Internet porn in the title of this post.
Think about what happens when you tell someone, “I’m writing a book.”
Your friend asks, “May I see a few pages?” This is the moment when those shower noises from Psycho play in the background.
But you forge ahead, oblivious to certain disaster. “Sure.”
You send your baby over. You wait for feedback. Your mind plays tricks. Will she like it? Why hasn’t he gotten back to me? Maybe my hero needs a dog. The gymnastics of self-doubt take over, and you stop writing while waiting for validation.
The moment of feedback arrives. It is the pinnacle of fear, the make-or-break time for your ego. Your friend, somebody you trust, somebody you care about, says something noncommittal. “It’s okay.”
The comment is, of course, devastating. That’s because every author, whether budding or published 100 times, wants to hear the same thing. “Your book is the greatest piece of literature since the Bible.”
Instead you hear, “Okay.” The word feels like a dagger buried six inches in your back.
Right about now, you might be thinking to yourself, I can take criticism. I have a thick skin. I’ll use the feedback and move on.
Maybe. In my previous life, I was a stockbroker and know a thing or two about rejection. I once cold called a guy who asked, “Wanna know what I think about your profession?”
He didn’t say a word. Instead, he held the receiver inside a toilet bowl, flushed, and then hung up—gurgle, dial tone, oh my.
I phoned him right back. “Hey, that was great, John. I’ve never been flushed before.”
No, I didn’t get the account. And yes, John was his real name. No pun intended.
It seems to me, however, that writing a book is a far more intimate experience. You pour out your heart and expose yourself to the world—your vulnerabilities, your aspirations and your observations about the eccentricities of life, everything that’s important.
Getting flushed by a prospective client is a piece of cake. Rejection of a passage is crippling.
I didn’t even tell my wife about Top Producer. Mary is a voracious reader and my number one editor in the books that have followed: The Gods of Greenwich, The Trust, and Mr. President. But back then I never disclosed my secret project to her.
I’d get up at five in the morning and write two hours before heading off to work. I’d write in the evenings, after dinner, on the weekends, and on planes while traveling to meet with clients.
“Is everything okay?” Mary asked. She noticed the long hours I was spending in my man cave.
“Lots going on at work, sweetie.”
She didn’t buy the explanation. She concluded that I was suffering from an Internet porn addiction. And one Saturday, while I was exercising in our basement, she sneaked into my office with a zip drive and a mission.No racy .jpeg files or movies of celebrities in the buff, I’m pleased to report. Nothing that required an intervention. Mary found a file labeled book, however, which was where I kept my drafts of Top Producer. That afternoon she never confessed to stealing my book.
The following day, I was in my office, writing, thinking about three sharks eating a fat money manager in front of 500 guests at the New England Aquarium. And I heard Mary laughing. Big belly laughs. I assumed she was on the phone with one of her great friends from childhood—there’s no stopping the two when they get together—so I forced myself to continue working and ignore the noise.
That night we ate spaghetti bolognese, or “sauce noodles” as we call it. The dish is a Sunday night tradition in our house. After our kids headed upstairs to do their homework, Mary flattened me with the four scariest words between spouses. “We need to talk.”
It got worse. “I have a confession to make.”
Now I was nervous. I stopped rinsing dishes and sat down.
“I stole your book,” she said. “I’ve been reading it all day.”
My heart should have been pounding. But, strangely, I was calm.
“I loved it,” she continued. “You’ve got to finish. I need to know what happens next.”
Her comments could have gone the other way. Mary could have said, “It’s okay.” In which case, I would have stopped writing. Or she might have said, “Why don’t you feed Charlie Kelemen to jelly fish instead of sharks. Less blood, right?”
She didn’t. She said, “I loved it.” I was safe. But the fact is, I still didn’t tell most of my friends about Top Producer.
Mary had a different agenda. On Wednesday of that week, she told her walking buddy that I was writing a book. That my long absences were legitimate. The Internet-porn scare was over.
So began a chain reaction. Mary’s walking buddy told her husband, who told one of his former students, who agreed to meet and is now my über agent from Folio Literary Management.
I know many authors have had great experiences with writing groups, where the members offer constructive feedback to each other. My advice: write your book before you join. No matter whether you find a publisher, self publish, or bury your manuscript somewhere—finishing a book is a big deal. Nobody can ever take that away from you.
Agree, disagree? Tell me what you think.
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.
Have you noticed how nobody wants to talk anymore? We’re texting. Or we’re e-mailing. We don’t answer our phones, and our outgoing calls funnel into the bowels of voice mail. My greeting says something like, “This phone is surgically attached to my hip.”
Alexander Graham Bell must be rolling over in his grave. It feels like society is embracing technologies that make us less efficient. I know all these advances are wearing out my eyes faster. Does anybody really want to read a novel on their iPhone? And as for the on-screen keyboards—forget about it. They make me feel like my fingers need to go on a diet.
Wouldn’t it be easier to dial however many numbers it takes to reach the other party and then do the twentieth century thing and speak to another human being? But no. We shoot around e-mails and texts with the new vocabulary of the twenty-first century: OMG, WTF, and countless other acronyms whose meanings BTSOOM. Sometimes, the symbols make me feel like we’re abandoning the English language to new-age hieroglyphics.
Confession time: I love when my daughter texts me a <3. I always intend to reply with a @}—\-,—, but I can never remember how.
It’s almost politically incorrect not to respond immediately. Which is ironic when you think about it, because writing consumes so much time. It’s so much faster to speak. Even on my quick e-mails and texts, I worry about spelling and verb tenses. I hate making mistakes. I proofread my words a hundred times before sending them off. And auto-correct is a feature that drives me nuts. I once sent a condolence note to my agent after his aunt died. Auto-correct turned the message into something that was totally inappropriate. Yikes.
I suppose texting and e-mailing have some advantages. It never fails to amaze me how my kids, thumbs blazing, can juggle sixteen conversations at one time. E-mails are convenient, when I don’t have time to talk. The truth, however, is that I still prefer speaking to people.
So, here’s what I propose for Tuesday, July 24. I’m driving all day, heading south on a book tour for The Trust. You can comment below. I’ll read and reply as soon as possible—which means when I’m not driving. But why don’t you pick up your phone instead and tell me what’s on your mind about anything? My number is 914-318-7000.
Who likes audiobooks as much as I do?
When I was a stockbroker, braving my way through Manhattan’s kiss-and-yell traffic every morning, I listened to books on tape all the time. Hemingway, Irving, Wolfe–I grew to love cabbies giving me the finger. Jaywalkers thumbing their noses were no problem. And angry cops, the officers were a piece of cake.
It’s easy to wave a friendly goodbye when you’re concentrating on the latest from James Lee Burke and Will Patton. Bring on the detours, the flat tires, and the traffic snarls up and down the West Side Highway. There’s no experience better than listening to someone read you a story.
Now as a writer, I have grown to appreciate–make that really appreciate–the narrators who turn books into entertainment that outshines most of Hollywood’s new offerings. When’s the last time you lost yourself in one of those comic-book action movies that monopolize theater marquees?
I had the pleasure of working with “audie-winning” Robert Fass, who narrated The Gods of Greenwich. He is meticulous, in the best possible way, and drew on his travels through Iceland just to get the accent right for my novel.
Here’s a film clip from Robert, and me, about National Audiobook Month:
One last thing. No tribute to books on tape is complete without a mention of the American Foundation for the Blind (“AFB”). The AFB was the first organization to record books on time; they have given all of us a gift that far exceeds their mission to expand possibilities for those with vision loss.
Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about acronyms. Not sure why.
When I worked on Wall Street, I avoided them. The investment banks tried to simplify complex financial instruments with familiar sounding names that sometimes went too far: LYONs and TIGRs and BIMBOs, oh my. In my experience, any security that came with an acronym was toxic. But I digress.
I think it was my new novel, The Trust, which triggered my recent acronym kick. I asked an author friend, “May I send you an ARC?”
He said, “Sure, if you tell me what the hell an ARC is.”
“Advance reading copy. You know a galley.”
To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: We were two authors, divided by a common acronym.
Shortly afterwards, I was talking with a friend from high school about a recent alumni dinner we both attended. I say “alumni,” but the event took place at the school. And there were an equal number of graduates and students during the evening in question.
Over dinner, the students at our table all discussed ED. Their conversations were heavy, foreboding, and mildly unsettling for the grads. They were talking about college admissions—Early Decision to be precise. We the distinguished alumni, guilty of watching too many pharmaceutical commercials, thought the topic was Erectile Dysfunction at first.
Again, and with apologies to GBS: We were two generations divided by a common acronym.
And just yesterday morning, my wife described an e-mail exchange between a mother and a daughter.
Daughter: “I got the job!”
Daughter: “Mom, do you know what WTF means?”
Mother: “Well, That’s Fantastic!!!”
Good thing they weren’t texting. That exchange could have gone FUBAR, big time. Texting is the major league of acronyms and miscellaneous abbreviations, right?
Are acronyms destroying the English language or making it more fun? Why don’t you grab a coffee from *$, that’s Starbucks and I know *$ is not an acronym, and tell me what you think.
BTW, TWHAB = This Won’t Hurt A Bit.
This morning I asked my wife, Mary, how old somebody is.
Mary said, “She’s like me but worse.”