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An Improbable Cause

Thirteen months ago I wrote about finding my new agent, extending my metaphor of storming the fortress of the publishing business. A new year, and time for a new metaphor : climbing a mountain.

I first gazed up at the summit thirteen years ago. It looked close. I was writing a memoir about my father and the 1960’s. Memoirs were hot and my father was still quite famous. It shouldn’t be hard to get there. While I imagined a modest pile of gold at the top, what got me climbing was the vision of a circle of readers, enthralled by my strange tale. Thirteen years later and I’m still climbing.

I had no sooner set off up the mountain when, as is often the case with real mountains, I lost sight of the top. I didn’t mind. In those early days the journey seemed its own reward. Meadows, fragrant with newly discovered memories. The satisfaction of flexing new writer’s muscles. Startling perspectives that altitude lends to previously settled versions of the past.

When I finished the book I sent it to my agent. He made comments. I wrote another draft, and I sent it again. And again. Here’s where I began to suspect that there was something funny about this mountain. With each draft my agent assured me that I’d made progress, but there were always new things to address in the next draft.

It went on for years. I felt like a character in a drawing by M. C. Escher: each stairway only led up to the foot of the same stairs. Finally a draft came which my agent didn’t have the stomach to read. I abandoned the memoir and began writing fiction.

Four years ago my agent submitted book one of a series to editors at major publishers. They all rejected it without comment, except for one, who called it “clever.”

A year ago my current agent submitted a re-written version of the same book to a limited list of publishers – the previous rejecters being off limits. By late summer they’d all said no. This time some said nice things about the story or the writing before passing.

In the fall I sent my agent a new book. He loved it and submitted it to editors. Rejections have been coming since. Most say something nice about my writing, the story premise or characters, before complaining about something else (the writing, story or characters.)

An old friend, the most successful writer I know, has guided me up some of the more treacherous parts of my journey. He assures me that the book will get published. As he says, writing is a “business of no.” If my agent loves my book, some editor will too. And it only takes one.

After speaking to my friend for a moment I see the top. I’m almost there. The last bit is very steep, the air’s thin and winds howling, but…

I find courage in this website.  If I’ve been rejected, I’m in good company: J.K. Rowling, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Faulkner, Tolkien, Vonnegut…Mary freaking Shelley.

My writer friend and agent tell me that getting rejected for different reasons is good. If several editors see the same problem, then it’s something to worry about.

But worry I do. And in a way I didn’t with the first two rounds of rejections. Or with the whole exhausting journey up this pile of rocks. I can’t explain it, but I think it has to do with vertigo. If I look down, I see how far I’ve come, and what a long way it is to the bottom. Which is where I’m going to be in a few months if someone doesn’t bite.

But what about self-publishing? I will if I must, I suppose….though so many are doing it that it seems as futile as tossing a grain of sand in the ocean and expecting anyone to notice the waves.

I’ve been writing more or less full time for thirteen years. By the measure of Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours to achieve something I’m homing in on twenty.

As I wait on publishers I’m working on yet another book. In the past I’ve taken rejections in stride. Not this time. Each “no” pokes another hole in my balloon. When an editor calls my story “a little contrived” I lose it. Every plot point, every snippet of dialogue is at risk. No sooner have I type it on the screen than the mad army of second-guessing attacks, like the wicked witch’s monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, tearing each sentence apart, eviscerating every scene. It’s painful. I have to wonder why I’m still at it.

What I need now is perspective. Clarity on what motivated me to set out in the first place. And I see that as I moved from memoir to fiction, that motivation evolved. Writing my personal story came from the need to tell the truth about my life and my father’s. It’s different with the novels. They come from my dissatisfaction with existing books. Just as I once composed the music I wanted to hear that hadn’t been made yet, I need to write a book that hasn’t been written, the one I long to read.

That impulse starts with the book, the music that satisfied a hunger even before you knew you had it. That like a morsel of dark chocolate lit up a pleasure center deep in the brain.

For a long time I got my thrills from horror books. I burned out on that genre around the time that it burned out on itself. I turned to detective stories and police procedurals. Most bore me, because they follow such well-trodden ground, littered with exhausted tropes. The protagonist drinks too much and only listen to Jazz. Cops secretly sleep with fellow cops. They’re forever snarling at each other and hassling with their superiors, who threaten them when they break the rules…And then Internal Affairs shows up, and I’m out of there. I’ve read that book too many times.

Around the time that I started my first novel, I lucked on a number of books that provided a zing I hadn’t felt in years. All mystery/thrillers with one thing in common: they stretched the limits of the genre.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy presented a fresh mix of family psychodrama and official intrigue with the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander, an anti-hero who was neither cop nor gumshoe, neither straight or even quite sane.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher was no conventional hero. While in most genre series the books derive comfort from familiar surroundings (I’m looking at you, LA) Jack Reacher lives nowhere. Each book takes place in a different setting.

Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody may be a PI, but she weaves disparate story threads together across time with a rare depth of characterization.

Peter Abrahams also barked up the literary branch of the mystery tree, with a fearless need to invent a new sub-genre with every book.

I’d read all these authors but didn’t get my socks knocked right off until fellow Open Salon blogger Bellwether Vance turned me onto Gillian Flynn. Sharp Objects and Dark Places were fresh and spicy. Something told me their author was still getting her legs. And that once she got to running all bets were off.

I didn’t know it would happen so soon. Days after finishing her first first two, she published Gone Girl. Flynn’s unreliable narrator Amy set up a delicious surprise at the midpoint of the story. So delicious that I practically lost my taste for other authors.

And frankly, they didn’t help. While Lee Child has mostly kept up the good work, the others pooped out. Peter Abrahams unaccountably abandoned adult fare for YA. Kate Atkinson quit mysteries for weird alternate reality historicals. The follow up to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was a bore, though Stieg couldn’t be blamed. He was dead.

Worst of all, with the exception of a fine short story, “The Grownup,” Gillian Flynn became her own Gone Girl. She stopped publishing. I wanted more of the quality she was selling. Needed more. But there wasn’t any.

So I work trying to write that book I long to read. Inspired by groundbreakers, I’ve marked out territory at the very edge of my genre (if not over it.) My protagonists aren’t cops, private eyes or reporters. The seemingly ordinary world they inhabit has been distorted by technology. The past lives on, almost more vital than the present. People are rarely who they appear. My fascinations with basements, caves and Victorian architecture sneak into the stories.

It’s my own peculiar vision, not the product of the market, but my tastes. Top editors seem obliged to say good things about it. So why won’t any of them buy it? It’s a question that spoils my writing days and haunts my nights.

My writing career has always been an improbable cause. At best I hoped for a small niche readership. But thrillers are big business – and outside of the hothouse of literary fiction, publishers have succumbed to the same bean counter mentality that helped ruin the record business. It’s based on the unarguable math that says you make more money with a single Gone Girl than ten thousand also-ran novels. What could possibly justify publishing something if it doesn’t have a shot at becoming that next blockbuster?

Maybe nobody will buy this book. I don’t like to think about that.

But any day my agent might call. I’ll race up the last steps to the top of the mountain. After the excitement dies down I’ll find this chair and this laptop, and the job of facing down ten thousand conundrums, the reality of writing a novel.

 

News Fast

The morning of June 5 1968,  I was at home when I heard that Robert Kennedy had been shot. I sat glued to the TV, watching the same clips over and over, waiting as he clung to life. But I’d seen this show before. Five years before his brother had been shot, and I’d waited as he clung to life. Then I’d held a small candle of hope. Now I knew this Kennedy wouldn’t make it. Just two month before Martin Luther King had been shot, and he hadn’t made it. Was I superstitious, believing bad things come in threes? Or had I seen enough of the 1960s to know that decade of dreams couldn’t end well? Though I already knew the end, still I waited. My body could barely contain a hurricane of feelings.

And then a newscaster announced that Bobby was dead, and rare tears burst forth, blurring his face. What did I weep for? I’d met Robert Kennedy. My father had arranged for me to talk to him for ten precious minutes when he was Senator from New York. He was the most charismatic man I’d known. But what I felt now was the end of hope for America, at least in the political realm. I launched myself at the television and snapped it off. I didn’t turn one on again for fifteen years.

I was seventeen. Hormone addled, making terrible decisions by the week. But shutting off that TV came from some deep instinct for survival. A wise place in me that knew this body and soul could not abide as a wide open container for all the bad news to come – and come I knew it would. Without thinking I’d embarked on a news fast.

The affairs of the world passed me in a blur. I was barely aware when Richard Nixon became president, or as the War dragged on, or even as men landed on the moon. In ignoring what was out there I naturally became more aware of what was right before me – the frets on my guitar, what gigs were coming up, where the next meal was coming from.

When I came home in 1973 my parents were strangely lit up. I knew and cared nothing of the Watergate scandal, but they were having the best time of their marital life. My father would burst into the kitchen brandishing the day’s New York Times, quoting the headlines to my mother with the passion of a one-time actor. My mother would crow and they would denounce Nixon and his minions with a glee I never witnessed in that house before or after.

It was only decades later, after they were dead, that I figured out what was going on. My parents were emotional ignoramuses. The only way they knew to express all the rage, frustration, envy and deep sense of betrayal both felt towards the other was by proxy, through politics. For everyone in our family politics was the only permissible venue for expressions of the heart. And any expression of emotion feels better than constant repression.

My mother didn’t think much of my news fast. In 1983 she bought me a black-and-white TV and I began watching the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. I had misgivings about breaking my fast, but I’d apparently learned too well at home. There was a buzz to be had witnessing the ups and down of political affairs. With the Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991 I really signed up for the show. I watched every minute of it, shouting at the TV just like my parents. After that I mainlined the news, hitting up a full New York Times worth every morning.

By 2000 the Internet had me tweaking on the hour. It was more fun than not until the Bush/Gore recount. When the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George Bush my misgivings returned about going back on the stuff. But it was too late. I was a hopeless news junkie.

In 2004 I started the transition from composer to writer. And like all addicts, found an excuse for my habit. The process of creating music and writing is similar. You constantly run into stuck spots – dilemmas of which note should come next, what verb to use. With music I found that cigarettes were the ideal drug for bridging those stuck points. Except they kill you. So I quit.

The stuck moments in writing are more frequent and more painful than the ones in composing. Perhaps that’s because when you write music at an instrument, the ryhthym and vibrations get in your body and help dance you past the stuck points. Not so with writing. It’s just thought against thought in incorporeal perpetual war.

As I started writing I soon discovered the news hit as nicotine substitute. Hassle with a sentence, try to imagine what a character says next. Get stuck. Hit up Google News or a blog. It’s as real a buzz as you get from drugs. A jolt of brain chemicals.

By the beginning of the last election cycle I was hitting up the news every ten minutes. And the stuff of this campaign was like today’s marijuana compared to the old – way more potent. Candidate T**** was a master of TV, a man who knew how to deliver a daily dose or two that surprised, outraged, flabbergasted. Knew how to get the brain chemicals flowing. Mine were flowing. Dosing every ten minutes I was a bit crazed, but also very well informed, perhaps more so than anyone I know.

So on November 8, the night of the election, it was only a half hour after the polls closed when I got the deja vu. Nobody was lying unconscious on a hotel kitchen floor, as in 1968. But I knew in my gut, just as I’d known with Bobby, that death was imminint. Back then I’d believed Bobby was the last, best hope for America. And that it had died with him. A 17-year old’s hysteria.

But this time…In the days following the election I continued to click to the news at the stuck spots in my writing. Initial shock gave way to something worse – a toxic brew of dread, horror, and worst, a sense of utter powerlessness. The books I write are dark fictions. I take the tens of human drama and dial them up to eleven. Re-imagine bad dreams as nightmares.

To dial the current political situation up to eleven is to envision literal apocalypse. Our country led by a madman and his grinning minions, torn apart by civil war. The world deep in nuclear winter. The human species and a million others extinct from global warming….

Two days after the election I read three items online. I will spare the reader these morsels – you can find them if you wish, or dare. But they flipped a switch in my head, and I tumbled into a poisonous sea of existential terror and hopeless rage. An intolerable place. When my wife came home I vented some of the venom, though it didn’t help. She has always been immune to the news, but by the next morning she said, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened in my life.” I tried to remind her of a few other things we’d weathered, but it was no good. It was bad enough that I was driving myself crazy. I’d infected her.

I went cold turkey on the news. Stopped visiting the Times website and my favorite political blogs. Re-arranged my home page so that Google News didn’t come up. Stopped talking to family and friends about the election. And, hardest of all, did my best not to think about it.

Within two days I felt better. My fast requires discipline. Pitfalls lie everywhere. Walking the dog a neighbor’s Wall Street Journal lies on his driveway, its headlines screaming to be read. Avert the eyes. Swipe the wrong way on my phone and the new version of IOS displays top headlines…Don’t look!

I get sandbagged at CVS. I’m in line for my meds, step towards the counter…People Magazine. The headline “President T****,” his picture filling the cover. They’ve gussied him up, made him look presidential…

The switch flips in my head again. I want to tell the pharmacist that I’m going to Rite Aid from now on, explain how back in Blue Laws New England they keep the dirty magazines behind the counter, shield the covers so kids can’t see. But this People cover is more obscene than the centerfold of Hustler in its prime, and should be hidden from adults…But I’m an adult, and I keep it to myself. It still takes an hour to calm down.

I get caught unawares by my thoughts, especially in the middle of the night. Turn away from the thoughts! Play a video game, read a dark novel.

There will always be bad moments in the writing – it’s the nature of the beast. It’s tough when you suddenly realize that a whole plot line is riddled with holes, and the rest of the story depends on it, so how the hell are you going to…But then I remember how it feels when that switch clicks in my head. It’s worse. So I pace. Check email. But I don’t look.

A week into my fast the New Yorker came in the mail. I hemmed and hawed, then looked. Deliberately. Sixteen writers’ takes on President T****, writing smartly, as they do at the New Yorker. The magazine must have gone to press before I started my fast, so there was no actual news. But I had to skim what I read. It took hours to recover, and I had apocalyptic nightmares that night. A day later I was better.

The worst thing about reading the New Yorker was that not one of the 16 writers had clue one about what to do now. Except write. Which is what I do. I’m getting a lot more done since my fast. Fiddling while Rome burns. I’m just grateful to have a fiddle.

When Life Imitates Art

When I began blogging I vowed to only write about politics on the rare occasions that I had something personal to contribute. This is one of those times.

ACT I: Plum Pit Throat 

 I just finished a new draft of book one of my series  and sent it to my new agent. Just as I embarked on my re-write I contracted a sore throat and fever of 103. A trip to the emergency room fixed the latter, but as I resumed work on my book the pain in my throat persisted. And persisted. A month into it I saw my doctor. She didn’t find anything. The mysterious pain persisted.

As I neared the end of my re-write the pain just went away, and hasn’t returned. Now here’s the thing: Ray, the protagonist of my novel, suffers a mysterious pain in his throat. The subject of my book is neither throat cancer nor sword eating. Without spoiling the plot, I can say that Ray’s condition is psychosomatic. Its cause is in fact related to the central conflict of the book. And that central conflict in turn stemmed from events in my own more or less real life.

So my throat ached in sympathy with my character. Happily, I will never end up felled in a hail of police bullets. But there’s still a cautionary tale here. Stephen King has addressed the blurring of lines between life and fiction in a number of his novels: Misery, Lisey’s Story, The Dark Half. If your fictional dreams tend to be nightmares (something I share with Mr. King) then be careful what you dream.

ACT II: Insane Clown Posse

 The siege of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is over, and the score is clear: Big Government 1, sovereign citizen/patriots/terrorists/numbskulls 0. The FBI learned the lessons of Waco and Ruby Ridge well, playing their hand with finesse and even brilliance – they let the perps think they were free to roam, allowing the arrests to happen with relative non-violence. And nailed Cliven Bundy, the Moses of the Clown Posse Rebellion, at the airport in Portland. They are throwing the book at him, as well they should. It will likely discourage future idiocy.

Though arresting Cliven might not have been necessary. Because the FBI’s hands off approach allowed the spotlight to remain fully on the perps of the standoff – and in that light they looked utterly ridiculous. Public ridicule is a tough thing for any political movement to survive. (When part of your media outreach  is a video of an obese fellow in only an adult diaper challenging Chris Christie to a wrestling match, you’re doing the ridiculer’s work for them.)

Except there’s something personally embarrassing in this business. The one man who died during the whole saga was LaVoy Finicum, shot during the initial arrest.

It turns out he’s one of my own. A scribbler of thrillers. (There are those who believe he wasn’t reaching for his gun, but murdered in cold blood. It might be interesting to see the venn diagram between them and the people now believing President Obama personally stuffed a pillow over Antonin Scalia’s head.)

Following his armed involvement in the original Cliven Bundy standoff, Mr. Finicum penned Only By Blood and Suffering, which according to the 1 ½ reviews by bloggers far braver than me (Here and Here)  is a post-apocalyptic tale of gun toting patriots who battle for survival. I was willing to forgive Mr. Finicum’s use of the word “peddling” to describe his patriots riding around on bikes – we writers have all gotten screwed by spellcheck.

But I can’t forgive his execution of the attractive female mayor of a small town. Our heroes hang her slowly, for maximum pain. This is the worst sort of wingnut porn: a misogynistic, sadistic endpoint to antigovernment fantasies in which you torture everyone you disagree with to death.

In the reality of Malheur, the only person who died was Finicum himself. As a writer, I find it spooky. He penned a fantasy about violent insurrection, then ended up living it. And dying it. Write about desperados and you run the risk of becoming one. And perhaps it was fate: with a name like LaVoy Finicum maybe you’re destined to live and die an a bad novel. Growing up in the 50s we kids ran around playing Cowboys and Indians. I hope my dear grandson doesn’t end up playing Feds and Wackadoodles.

ACT III The Elephant in the Room

 This one’s a no brainer, and far too much ink has been wasted on this story. So I’ll be brief. Donald Trump perfected his entertainment skills doing reality TV. Now he’s using those chops to run for president. Whether he makes it or not, our political discourse has been forever cheapened (not that it was of great quality before he stomped onto the scene.) Even if Trump fails, his methods have been so successful that future candidates will imitate them, and with less talent. For yes, as terrible as Trump is, he’s good at what he does. Horrified as I am by the prospect of him becoming president, I admit to his entertaining me – granted these are the cheapest of cheap thrills.

What’s that wacky guy going to say next? If he gets elected and Mexico refuses to pay for his wall, will he nuke Mexico City? Will he nuke Mecca? Or liberal San Francisco? Any of these will certainly play well with the base. Since he finds Hillary’s bathroom break so “disgusting,” will he ban female urination? Mr. Trump is enthusiastic about bringing back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse.” Will we watch it on the Torture and Execution Channel, voting the torturers up and down? Will he put half the country in concentration camps so we can’t vote him out of office?

Ah, now I’m doing it. Penning violent fantasies. It’s why I don’t write about politics.

So back to the harmless pursuit of music and literature. But first I must ask – do we Americans really want to live in a reality TV show? I guess we’re finding out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the Castle

Late fall I recounted my quest for a new literary agent. I likened it to storming the dark castle of the publishing business, armed with only a query letter. What I sought was an “Offer of Representation” – a writer’s ticket into the first courtyard of the castle.

I sent out my first query on October 23rd. Six weeks later I got an offer. I spoke to the agent and he answered all my questions to my satisfaction. And I liked him. A few days later we signed a contract. Read more…

Demon Stagefright and the Rock-and-Roll Devil

“See the man with stagefright, just standing up there to give it all his might.” –Robbie Robertson

I wrote in my last post  about being an introverted artist who must periodically emerge from under my rock to peddle my wares. Am I’m doing it. Not only querying literary agents , but going on TV! The Kennedy Files, a ten-hour documentary, premiered on the Reelz Network November 10th. In it I discuss my father’s battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy over the publication of The Death of a President, as detailed in Sam Kashner’s Vanity Fair article, for which I was also interviewed. Read more…

Out From Under My Rock

Under a rock

Faint noises filter in from outside, the roar of a crowd pierced by cries of glee. They’re out there under the sun, watching their sportsball game. Marching with linked arms. Or partying down, dancing, singing out of tune. The extroverts.

The noises are faint because I’m under my rock, in my cave. It’s neither dank nor buggy, and I sit in a very comfortable chair. Best of all, I’m alone. I’m happy here. I’m an introvert. Read more…

Storming the Castle

Siege_et_prise_du_Chateau_des_Tuileries_cph.3b49398In the eleven years I’ve been writing I’ve completed a memoir and two novels, and am working on a third. I could self-publish any of them in a matter of a few days, but I’m still holding out for a traditional publisher. You can’t get one without a literary agent. I’ve parted ways with mine, so I’ve been looking for a new one. It’s been an ordeal.

Read more…