The 24-Hour Novel — January 8, 2017
Some writers seem to know what they’re doing when they start a novel. Some—or so I’ve been told—even have a complete outline or a stack of index cards with planned scenes jotted down. Wow! Must be nice to be that smart and organized.
But I’m not.
When I start a book, I know almost nothing. I just start. Is this scary? You bet. On the other hand, there’s a bracing sense of adventure about it. I’m open to surprise. In fact, I’m constantly surprised.
So, for example, I was roughly fifty pages into my most recent Key West caper, One Strange Date, before I realized that it was on its way to becoming something I’d always wanted to attempt but hadn’t got around to trying: a novel in which all the essential action is compressed into a fraught and tidy 24 hours.
Now, I’d worked on deadline many times before, but this was a different kind of deadline, imposed not by a publisher but by the story itself. I was under no pressure to finish up the manuscript, but I was under a great deal of (self-imposed) pressure to make sure the plot was resolved, the tension was heightened and released, and the characters had all had their final moment and their final say–all by a certain hour of a certain evening. Artificial? Sure, that’s why they call it fiction. But the device enforced a strict discipline that I enjoyed. There was no time for just-passing-through characters or throwaway scenes that would squander momentum. There was room—there had to be room–for emotional complexity but not for meandering, for human comedy but not for labored jokes.
Readers, of course, will be the final judges of whether this somewhat accidental experiment in form was worth the trouble. But for me, tapping out a narrative in sync with the rhythm of a ticking clock was a refreshing—and a timely–challenge.
How do you get your ideas? — December 7, 2015
It’s a question that all novelists dread, generally because they don’t know the answer, and it’s a little embarrassing to be utterly baffled by a perfectly legitimate question regarding one’s own work. But the truth, I think, is that writers don’t get ideas at all; they get scraps, hints, riddles, snatches of melody, patches of color…and these resolve only gradually into the beginnings of a story.
At least every now and then they do. Usually the impressions just slip away like daydreams.
With regard to KEY WEST LUCK, the moment of conception remains pretty clear in my mind: It was when I saw a funky old Sno-Cone truck parked next to a beach. The truck was a 1960s-vintage Step-Van equipped with a tinny speaker that played the same tune over and over again. I started wondering who owned the truck. Then, instead of wondering I started imagining. Maybe it was a young woman who not only worked in the truck but lived in it as well. But why would a young woman be living in a Sno-Cone truck? So I figured she was trying to start over after a lousy past, and the truck represented not only her livelihood and her home, but her hopes, her future.
Then, since novels do need plots and villains, after all, I wondered what would happen if someone tried to swindle the truck away from her. What kind of person would do that? How would the young woman fight back? Who would her allies be?
Allies—hmm. That suggested, for starters, a young man, a friend, possibly a love interest. Yes, of course a love interest! How could I have missed that? But he would need a backstory too. And since, as Faulkner and many others have observed, the past is never dead, his backstory would intrude upon the present in ways that would interweave with the story of the Sno-Cone truck. Sounds sort of like a subplot, doesn’t it?
A subplot requires more bad guys. More bad guys demand more good guys to balance and thwart them. Good guys often provide comic relief, which is one of the things that make us like them.
Oh, and then finally there needs to be a climax and a denouement. If you want to be extremely literary, you can substitute an anticlimax and allow the denouement to be full of injustice and frustration, just like in real life. But if you prefer to write an unabashedly escapist yarn that will leave readers happy and affirmed, then you have to tie all the strands together to create a Big Moment, the fallout from which assures that everybody, good and bad, gets what he or she deserves. And that’s all there is to it.
So let’s now circle back to our original question. How do writers get their ideas? They don’t get them; they build them. By writing. Writing until the little scraps of thought and observation begin to take on the momentum of a story. Until the ragged strands of story begin to braid themselves into a plot. Until the plot provides the opportunity for the characters to do and say the things that make the book unique. So the author doesn’t really have the idea until the last page has been written. The idea for a novel is the novel itself.
Brave New Solo World — March 5, 2015
Consider this an invitation to a very quiet, long-distance sort of party.
I’m inviting you to celebrate with me the completion of a project that’s been obsessing me for the last few months: The publication, in new, uniform PRINT editions, of every book I’ve ever written under my own name. That means ten Key West novels; one each set in New York and California; and two non-fiction volumes. A fair amount of work for such a lazy guy!
To cut to the chase, here’s a link to my Amazon author page that shows them all (along with their e-versions).
For those who might be interested, I’d like to explain a bit of why I undertook this labor.
Mainly, it’s a legacy thing. I wanted these books to remain available, in a form I could be proud of, to people who prefer to read on paper. And, for those folks who prefer to buy local, I wanted the titles to be available for ordering through brick-and-mortar stores.
This re-publication program has also been an exercise in tidying up. I’ve been fortunate over the years to be published by a number of major houses—three different ones for the first eight Key West books alone. This has been great, but also messy. Different art directors, different looks, various paperback editions…and, more recently, a chaotic online used-book market from which authors get no benefit whatsoever. (Please think twice about buying those dirty, dog-eared one-cent copies if you care about supporting the work of living writers!) Call me a neat freak (actually, no one ever has before), I wanted there to be a well-designed, well-matched edition whose separate volumes would look good lined up on a shelf.
Finally, the fresh publications are my way of meeting head-on the new realities of the publishing business, which has become largely a do-it-yourself industry. In itself, this is neither good nor bad; Mark Twain was his own publisher, as was Walt Whitman. So there’s a venerable tradition there. Clearly, though, the work of an Indie author includes a wide array of tasks previously handled by agents and editors, designers and proofreaders, marketers and publicists. A lot of stuff! Some of it, frankly, is a real pain in the ass. But some of it has involved a serious learning curve and been, rather surprisingly, a source of great satisfaction.
Then there’s the best part of all: The Indie author’s relationship with readers.
I’ve always savored and appreciated the quiet bond between writers and readers. But now that I’m working as an Indie, that bond feels even closer and more personal. There are no intermediaries now; there’s only you, me, and the laughs and feelings we share through the books. I feel very privileged to be part of that intimate exchange.
I hope you enjoy the new editions. Thanks for your support.
The Joy of Writing Epilogues – December 5, 2014
Writing novels is not the easiest thing in the world but it does offer definite rewards—for example, being read, hearing from readers, and getting paid. Those are the obvious satisfactions, but there are others as well that are less self-evident. One of these is the pure pleasure and privilege of sitting down to write an epilogue.
By the time an epilogue is called for, the often frantic and always complicated action of the novel has been resolved. The collisions of motives and desires that have created tension are in the past; the wreckage from those collisions has been cleared from the narrative road. The squeeze of time we call suspense finally relaxes, and both author and reader have the opportunity at last to exhale. To exhale and to contemplate the question that any decent novel should leave us asking: Then what happens for these characters?
If the reader doesn’t care enough to ponder that question, the novel has failed. The story has not persuaded; the characters have not become real people. But if the reader does care enough to want a glimpse, at least, of the characters’ future destiny, than an epilogue is the perfect payoff. The obvious analogy is to think of a novel as a meal and the epilogue as dessert; but since I personally don’t like desserts, I prefer to think of it as the glass of brandy you carry away from the table and over to the fireplace to savor reflectively and at total leisure.
The mind can run free when it comes to epilogues; epilogues have no rules. Novels do; or rather, every novel generates its own—a certain pace and tone that, once established, need to be maintained. But an epilogue allows that to be reset; it’s a completion but also a fresh start. Fifty or a hundred thousand words may have been lavished on events compressed into a weekend; an epilogue can bound through years or even decades in five pages. Marriages happen; babies are born; long-held secrets are revealed in passing remarks. Punks become mensches, or don’t; tough dames you didn’t quite trust might just turn out to be women you admire. In epilogues, justice is done and characters get what they deserve, which is just another way of saying they have the time and scope to become who they truly were all along, since we mostly carry our destinies within us.
But if writing epilogues is often the pleasantest part of writing novels, why don’t writers spare themselves a lot of grinding work and just write epilogues? Well, there’s the rub. An epilogue can only be as good as the novel that precedes it. The satisfaction it provides is proportional to how much we’ve been made to care about the characters and the outcome of the tale, and there aren’t any shortcuts to creating that kind of emotional involvement. So I guess there’s no help for it: the first 99% of a novel does have to be thought out, and struggled with, and written and rewritten. But it’s a nice incentive to know that, at the end, one will have earned the gleeful privilege of tapping out another epilogue and settling a few more destinies.
Introducing TROPICAL SWAP — December 2, 2014
Dear Friends and Readers–
Cheers from Asheville. I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are by now recovered from it. I also hope it’s warm and sunny where you are—but just in case it isn’t, or just in case you could use a few laughs to get you through the holiday season—I wanted to let you know that my new Key West novel, TROPICAL SWAP, is now available for Kindle, a steal at three bucks.
A print version is in the works and will be available any day. If you prefer to read on paper, please drop me a line and I’ll make sure you’re notified as soon as the book is ready to ship.
No spoilers here, but I can tell you that the plot of TROPICAL SWAP revolves around a home exchange gone horribly wrong–though I’m happy to say it isn’t based on my own exchange experiences, none of which have featured Mafia hit men, death threats scrawled on coconuts, rogue FBI agents, crooked Wall Streeters, spoiled-rotten chihuahuas, relentlessly adorable Burmese cats, or a talkative old man named Bert the Shirt. That stuff I just made up. As for the slightly neurotic and perennially worried protagonist, well, him I sort of know. Anyway, I hope you’ll have a look.
And while the Thanksgiving afterglow is still upon us, I also want to tell you how grateful I am for your support of my work. As some of you know, I took a 12-year vacation from Key West books before last year’s SHOT ON LOCATION. I hadn’t felt like writing more in large part because I simply didn’t think the reading public wanted more. Well, I’m happy to say you’ve proved me wrong. Last time I looked, SHOT ON LOCATION had 221 reviews on Amazon and was still selling pretty briskly; even more gratifying to me, the backlist titles are still selling and I have the great satisfaction of believing that FLORIDA STRAITS and the other earlier books are finding their way to a whole new generation of readers. So thank you and thank you again. And please, if you enjoy the new book, take a few minutes to post a review; other readers really do care what you think, and so do I.
The Naked Detective Revisited —- March 14, 2014
Like most writers, I think, I tend largely to forget about my own books once I’ve written them. This is fortunate, because if I kept my old stuff too firmly in mind, there’d be no way for new stuff to break through the resulting brain-clog.
It takes some external event to get me thinking about my earlier works, and one of those events has just occurred: Amazon is now running a 99 cent promotion on my next-to-most-recent Key West novel, The Naked Detective. So I’ve been thinking about that book this morning, and what do I recall? Mainly three things, definitely though not self-evidently interrelated.
- The book was written under very difficult circumstances.
- I had an almost indecent amount of fun writing it.
- Reviews of the book were all over the map.
As to the first point, my then-publisher, Random House, had recently changed ownership and was in disarray. My editor had been fired and I knew I should expect no help, either editorially or with promotion. That was the bad news. The good news was that I knew I would be paid and the book was already on the schedule, so I could pretty much write whatever I pleased. I was free!
Thus, the second point. I wrote Naked first and foremost to keep myself amused. What I wanted to do was to dance a fine line between telling a traditional, straight-ahead detective story—something I’d never yet done—and writing a kind of affectionate spoof or, more accurately, a comic homage in which a clueless gumshoe would look less to reality than to the conventions of the detective novel in order to solve the crime. For Pete Amsterdam, my reluctant and rather chickenhearted sleuth, things unfold as they had to unfold, as they always unfold in PI stories. He trusts to the wisdom of the story itself—and whaddya know, he carries the day and ends up a bit of a hero.
This brings us to the question of the wildly mixed reviews. People loved Naked or they hated it, thought it was my best book or my worst book, thought it should be a movie or thought it should be tossed. There was very little in between. Why? The reason, I think, is that some readers intuitively grasped my dual purpose—traditional tale and screwball homage—and some did not. For those who didn’t, the book was just another so-so mystery—and frankly, read that way, it is just a so-so mystery. That’s the whole point of the joke. My detective doesn’t detect a thing, and he’d much rather be playing tennis, drinking wine, or listening to Brahms. Stuck with his first case ever, he just does what he’s read a detective should do, and things sort of fall into place. Chaos builds until it resolves into logic. Understandable cowardice is transformed by grudging stages into ambivalent but genuine courage. I happen to think the process is rather funny and, at moments, even touching. Pete Amsterdam is no Marlowe, no Spade, no action hero, just a guy who rises, albeit kicking and screaming, to a challenge.
Isn’t he just a bit like most of us?
Going Short — February 3, 2014
Like many and probably most people who’ve muddled through to careers as novelists, I dipped a toe into fiction writing by way of the short story. In my twenties I wrote quite a few of them. I’d tap them out on my Smith-Corona electric portable, put them in manila envelopes along with return postage, and send them to The New Yorker. They’d come back in ten days or two weeks, polite but terse rejection letters attached with paper clips. I’d get a fresh envelope and try The Atlantic. When that magazine shot me down, I’d try one or two others (Harper’s, Redbook), then decide that the story wasn’t really my best effort and stick it in a drawer.
By the time I was remotely close to doing professional-grade work, I’d figured out that it was way harder to make a living with short stories than with novels. So I didn’t write any for thirty years or so. I still admired the form—the precision, the often oblique but unwavering focus–but story concepts are very different from novel ideas, and I didn’t seem to have room in my brain for both.
Then, a couple of months ago, I started toying with a fictional situation centering on one of my favorite characters, Bert the Shirt. By long habit, I tried to imagine the situation as a novel; it didn’t work. I tried to reshape it as part of a novel; it rang false. Finally I realized it didn’t work as a novel because it was meant to be a story. Whether this was a Eureka or a Duh moment is open to differing opinions.
In any event, the result is CHICKENS, a tale of an encounter between an old man and a feral rooster. But what it’s really about…well, of course I won’t say what it’s really about. Isn’t that the charm of any decent short story—that it’s about something that is suggested, whispered by every word, but never shouted?
I hope you’ll read the piece. Love to hear what you think. http://www.amazon.com/Chickens-West-Short-Story-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00I7V0ZL8
Happy Endings and Peace of Mind —- August 21, 2013
Call me a sap—I like happy endings.
I don’t mean the sort of lazy, sloppy, unearned happy endings that one often sees in bad films and romance novels, as for instance when a rich uncle leaves a windfall inheritance or an improbable twist suddenly makes everything all right. I mean the sort of hard-won happy endings in which the good intentions and honest strivings of believable characters are finally rewarded. It’s not enough that David defeats Goliath. For the outcome to have meaning, we need to understand David’s fear and self-doubt; we need to see him grappling with and overcoming those things. That’s the real victory; the conquest of Goliath is an inevitable follow-up, almost an afterthought. Similarly, it’s not enough that the boy gets the girl (or the boy; spin it any way you like). What gives the outcome resonance are the hurdles and timidity and mistrust that have kept them apart along the way. Again, the true victory lies in becoming ready—in this case to love and be loved; the climactic kiss—as fulfilling and necessary as it is–is a little like the trophy ceremony for a tournament you’ve already won.
Personally, I don’t see why anyone would bother to write a book that didn’t have a happy ending. I mean, writing a book is a helluva lot of work, and a good, solid happy ending—the kind that brings not just a smile but a contented exhalation–is part of the payoff, for the writer no less than for the reader. I understand, of course, that some authors (probably more ambitious and highfalutin than myself) see this differently, believing that novels should more closely mirror the messiness, nastiness, and injustice of real life. As a recovering literature major, I’ve heard this argument many times. It has never yet convinced me. If novels don’t turn out more pleasantly and fairly than real life often does, then why bother writing them or reading them?
When I sat down to write Shot on Location—my new Key West novel, for which (can we talk?) this little essay is a very thinly veiled advertisement—I knew from page one that the story would turn out happily. This is not a spoiler. My books always turn out happily—they’re comedies, after all–and I want the reader to know that from the start. Because a central part of my storytelling strategy lies in exploiting a paradox that’s been around since storytelling began: On the one hand, I want to create suspense, complication, conflict, uncertainty; on the other hand, I want to give the reader the serenity and the peace of mind of knowing that somehow it will all come right.
Somehow—but how? Answering the how question is what takes up all those pages between page one and the epilogue. It’s also what determines whether the ending feels earned and satisfying or just tacked on.
The protagonist of Shot on Location is a ghostwriter. This is a synonym for a frustrated novelist and an underdog. His happy ending can only be the rediscovery of his bolder, freer, more creative side, and along with those things, his self-respect. But to get there he has to solve a rather complicated mystery, fend off various thugs and madmen, stoke his courage to approach the woman of his dreams, and, maybe most difficult of all, persuade himself that he is worthy of real success. In short, he puts everything, up to and including his life, on the line to earn his happy ending—and I hope the reader feels the same sort of peace, reassurance, and quiet vindication that I did when that ending has been reached.
Introducing The Angels’ Share —- May 22, 2012
Writing novels gets to be a habit. Back in the 1990s, when I was living in Key West, I was writing one a year. The rhythm just felt right, brisk but not frenetic, and besides, I liked playing against the stereotype of Key West as a lazy place full of do-nothing knuckleheads.
But if habits are stubborn, they are also fragile; my novel-writing habit got disrupted right around the year 2000. By then a number of things had changed. I’d moved to California and gotten briefly and tangentially involved in the movie business. Studying the West Coast locals, I struggled with the question of what sort of story could be set in my adopted state and ring true; in my view, story and place are inseparable. Meanwhile, the publishing industry was shrinking and growing far less civil; the fiction market was in the tank. As a pragmatist who likes good wine, I segued—somewhat by design, somewhat by chance—into a sort of shadow career as a ghostwriter.
The impulse to write novels didn’t go away; it just lay there like a sleeping dog, twitching or whimpering or farting now and then. Life events rolled by, nudging me toward becoming a slightly more serious person. My parents passed away. Some of my friends (though not me, of course) started seeming a little on the middle-aged side. I gained a different perspective on the struggles of young people to define who they are and to decide whom to trust. And I’d lived in California long enough to know that I didn’t want to write the kind of book that smug, transplanted Easterners had too often written about the Golden State; I didn’t want to write one more facile satire about shallow, muscled people on the beach or one more grim dystopia about a Pacific Babylon. If I ever got around to writing a California novel, I wanted it to be a real story about real characters, and to have something to say about things like love, loss, family and forgiveness.
I also wanted it to be funny. Not gag-driven, knee-slap kind of funny, but the smile funny that happens when human nature is revealed in spite of itself.
Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that part of this yet-to-be-written novel should be set in some version of the Afterlife. To me, this was less of a stretch than it might seem at first glance. I’d always been obsessed with the idea of second chances; what if the second chance failed to present itself in this lifetime? Wouldn’t it be comforting to imagine that it still might happen later? And isn’t there some universal yearning to believe that the dead people we have loved are not entirely and utterly gone, but still with us in some way? And shouldn’t it be possible to acknowledge and explore this yearning without getting all syrupy and woo-woo about it?
These questions simmered for some months and then one morning I started writing. The result is The Angels’ Share, the first novel I have written under my own name in a dozen years. It’s a love story, sort of. Actually, it’s three love stories that intertwine and shuttle back and forth between Santa Barbara and a wry, spare version of Beyond. One of the characters is a winemaker; the title comes from an expression that winemakers use to describe the part of their vintage that is lost to evaporation through pores in the barrels. The hopeful suggestion is that—like much seemingly futile human effort—the lost wine doesn’t really go to waste. Its vapors ascend for the enjoyment of the angels.
The angels, in turn, repay the debt by coming to the aid of the flawed and muddling mortals still struggling toward dignity and love and trust on Earth. But here’s the twist in my imagined version: The so-called angels are far from perfect beings and they’re still struggling, too. Therein lies the comedy and, I hope, the compassion. The Beyond is not some dull and settled place beyond the reach of regret and guilt, grudges and ambivalence. Rather, it’s a forum in which people get one more shot at getting things right, where they can finally tell the truth because the truth no longer hurts.
But enough philosophizing. How do things turn out for our three pairs of lovers? For that you’ll have to read the book, and I very much hope you will.
Love, Longing, and Virgin Heat —- May 16, 2012
The first book I was ever paid for writing–back in 1976 or ‘77—was a ludicrously bad historical romance written pseudonymously for a third-rate paperback publisher. Everything about the project, from the advance to the production values of the finished book, was low-rent and small-time. Still, I learned a few things from the process—mainly about the discipline and resourcefulness required to write in genres that have rules.
Rule one in writing historical romances was that the books had to be at least 100,000 words long; readers wanted some heft for their $1.99. The second rule was that the action needed to be set against a backdrop of epochal events so that readers, tragically, could imagine that they were actually learning something. (My book, as well as I can recall, opened with a skirmish in the French Revolution, moved on to a Virginia plantation, and found its merciful conclusion in a midwestern homestead.)
But by far the most interesting rule had to do with the character of the heroine: She had to be sexy but chaste. She needed to be beautiful, of course, but describing her beauty was merely filler. The crucial thing was that men desired her. Sometimes these were nasty men who plotted to take her by guile or force; sometimes they were kind and wealthy men whose only fault was that the heroine didn’t love them. In any case, she could not yield to their advances. Not that she wasn’t tempted, mind you. She was certainly aware of sexual stirrings in her own mind and body, however daintily these needed to be expressed. No fool, she certainly understood that accepting an older, prosperous suitor could make her life a great deal easier. But it was an absolute requirement of the genre that, however many close calls she might have endured in the course of 100,000 words, she preserve her virginity until being passionately conjoined, at the very end of the story, with her one true love.
Having a long book to write and a six-week deadline in which to write it—on a typewriter, no less–I didn’t think much about the morality or psychology of this last rule. I just followed it. But I’ve come to believe that, in storytelling terms, at least, there must be a compelling and durable wisdom in that genre convention, because, two decades later, in a completely different sort of book, I found myself being guided by it once again.
Virgin Heat, the fifth of my Key West novels, is built around the character of Angelina Amaro, the gorgeous daughter of a New York Mafia don, whose life had essentially stopped at 17, when her boyfriend disappeared. Without giving away too much plot: He disappeared into the Witness Protection Program, and he had to go there because he’d ratted out Angelina’s father. When, years later, the boyfriend/stool pigeon resurfaces—in Key West, where else?—both father and daughter desperately want to find him. The father wants to whack him and the daughter wants to take him to bed to finish what they’d started so long before in the back seat of a car.
Confusions ensue; subplots develop; I like to think that comedy happens. But through it all, the story stands or falls with Angelina and her loopy quest. Like nearly all romantic heroines, she is very sexy in her innocence; she’s been so wound up for so long that she can’t even sit still in a chair. The object of her affections is completely unworthy of her; the reader knows this, even if Angelina herself does not, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the stubborn and slightly crazy purity of her desire.
It’s this purity, I believe, this willful abstention, that makes the reader root for Angelina. Erica Jong may disagree, but it’s hard to root for a slut. I’m not proposing a double standard here; it’s also difficult to root for an inveterate male seducer. In either case, there may be some vicarious titillation or even envy in reading about the exploits of promiscuous characters, but do we actually like them? I think not. Even in a sexually permissive era, there seems to be a gut-deep belief that true love is a more admirable calling and a (relatively) surer path to happiness.
This helps to explain the appeal of the sexy-but-chaste heroine; but there is another, more practical reason why characters in novels tend to absent themselves from felicity. When people actually have sex, there is a well-known release of tension. This may be a wonderful thing on a Friday evening but it’s a disaster halfway through a book. Then what? Why should the reader keep going? What takes the place of the squandered suspense and yearning? It’s like solving the crime halfway through a murder mystery. What do you do for an encore?
So then, coming back to Virgin Heat, how long does Angelina have to wait for her catharsis? Does it ever come at all?
You don’t really expect me to reveal that, do you?
False Starts and Tropical Depression —- May 8, 2012
Some authors set down detailed and scrupulous outlines of their novels before they write a single word. The case can be made that this is a good idea but I don’t do it. I just start. There are two reasons for this approach. First, I’m not smart enough to know much about the story I’m writing until I get immersed in it. Second, I like to be surprised at least as much as the reader does, and an outline murders the suspense. Writing a novel takes me most of a year. That’s a long ballgame to sit through if you already know what happens every inning. So I prefer to wing it.
Winging it, of course, is not without its dangers. Every writer—especially but not only in first drafts–makes mistakes: false starts, wrong turns, motivations that don’t quite add up, the occasional scene that sits there dead on the page. These mistakes take time to make and time to correct. But is this wasted time? I like to think it isn’t. Readers will never see the parts of novels that have been rewritten or expunged—but the author knows that they were there, and this lends texture.
Consider an example from Tropical Depression, the fourth of my Key West novels. When I started writing that book, all I knew about it was that it featured a depressed lingerie executive—Murray Zemelman, aka The Bra King—who had made a mess of his New York life by dumping his wise and steadying wife in favor of an airheaded trophy bride. Desperate, he flees to Key West to reinvent himself and try to make things right. Complications ensue (largely revolving around a scheme to launch an Indian casino in spite of strong objections by corrupt legislators in league with the Mafia. But let’s leave that on the side for now).
In any case, I started writing the book and something just wasn’t working. I know when something isn’t working because it makes me itch and fidget and want to jump up from the desk and scream. So after twenty or so pages I showed the manuscript to my agent. To him the problem was obvious.
“Your stuff is supposed to be funny. This is about a depressed guy. Depressed guys aren’t funny. They’re…well, depressing.”
“Right,” I said. “But he’s only depressed for a while. Then the Prozac kicks in and he gets manic. Manic is funny, right?”
“Manic can be funny,” he allowed. “But this miracle transformation, when does it happen?”
“Soon. Like page 25 or 30.”
“Needs to happen sooner.”
“How much sooner can it happen?”
“How about page one? He’s depressed for, like, three paragraphs. That’s plenty. Try it.”
So, not without resistance, I did. Out went 20 pages of misery—droll misery but misery nonetheless. The book now opened with what I frankly consider a hilarious suicide attempt. (Call me sick, but I happen to believe that a suicide attempt can be extremely funny as long as it’s botched.) Murray is sitting in his closed garage with his engine running. Just as he’s on the cusp of losing consciousness, his depression lifts, he skips straight past normal and into the manic phase. Hungry for life, he throws the car into reverse and crashes through the garage door into daylight. He’s upbeat if not berserk for the rest of the book.
But here’s the thing. If I hadn’t put Murray (and myself) through the grumps and tribulations of those first 20 thrown-away pages, I would have known a lot less about him. I wouldn’t have known how hard he’d worked to earn his (relative) happiness, to rediscover his zest for things. For Murray, becoming a bold and open-hearted goofball is a kind of existential triumph. Triumph over what? The reader doesn’t need to know that in excruciating detail, but I think it’s helpful that I did. To me, knowing a bit more of what Murray had recently been through makes him both more sympathetic…and funnier. I see him shining through his very own darkness, and I hope the reader senses that as well.
Raising the Dead in Scavenger Reef —– April 25, 2012
Some years ago, at a mystery convention called Bouchercon, I was asked to comment on what I liked best about writing novels. I didn’t really think about my answer; it just popped out. My favorite thing, I said, was bringing people back from the dead.
It didn’t dawn on me until much later that this was in fact the opposite of what writers of “crime fiction”—a category so broad as to be nearly meaningless—are generally known for. “Crime writers,” after all, usually specialize in bumping people off; sometimes the body counts get quite high. Me, I hate killing characters. I don’t like to kill nice characters because I would miss them if they were gone. And I don’t like to kill mean characters because I’d like to give them a shot, at least, at redemption; failing that, I’d rather see them live and suffer as many defeats and humiliations as I can think of. And besides, if I kept killing off characters I’d have to invent new ones to take their place, and that would be a lot of work.
Then again, not killing characters is a far different thing from bringing characters back to life. I’m talking now about resuscitating folks who’ve actually been dead, or at least presumed so. Call me sentimental, call me unresigned—I have a tough time reconciling myself to the notion that dead characters need to stay that way. It’s bad enough that death, in real life, is generally final. Why does it need to be that way in stories?
The first time I brought a character back to life was in Florida Straits. In that instance I had a good excuse. I needed a character who was retired from the Mafia. Inconveniently, one can’t retire from the Mafia, since the Mob oath famously proclaims that one joins the Cosa Nostra living and leaves the Cosa Nostra dead. Ergo, I needed a guy who’d died—even very briefly; say, before the medics shocked him back to life in an ambulance near the courthouse steps. That way he could quit on a technicality. This mafioso Lazarus was Bert the Shirt. Bert survived his death virtually unscathed; the only lingering effect of his flat-lining was that he’d mysteriously lost the ability to carry a tune.
Without quite realizing that I was following a motif (or maybe an obsession), I brought two characters back to life in my second novel, Scavenger Reef. I can tell you about one of these but I can only tease about the other, as it would be too much of a spoiler.
The one I can tell you about—it’s revealed in the flap-copy of the print edition and the metadata of the download—is the book’s protagonist, the artist Augie Silver. Augie was loosely based on a dear friend of mine who had died the year before. To put it simply, I was really pissed off that my friend had passed away and I badly wanted to believe it wasn’t so. So I turned to Augie as a proxy. I put him through a terrible sailing accident—an accident that surely no one could survive. Except, unbeknownst to anyone, he does. Weeks later, bedraggled and ghostly but very much alive, he returns to Key West to find that much has changed in his absence. His “death” had left a hole in the world, and the world had poured in to fill it. Now he has to battle like crazy to reclaim and preserve the life he’d briefly vacated.
Augie stayed dead for thirty or so pages—admittedly, an uncomfortable length of time to be deceased, but at least I knew all along that he’d be coming back. The case of the other resurrected character (for convenience I’ll refer to her as “she,” though I’m not promising anything regarding gender) was somewhat stranger. She was dead for the entire time between the first and second drafts, and I truly thought it was forever. I really liked and admired this character and I was weeping when I had to kill her. But the story seemed to demand it; there had to be a sacrifice of equivalent weight to Augie’s eventual triumph.
Fortunately, my editor was even more upset than I was at this character’s untimely demise. He argued that the gesture of sacrifice, the willingness to die in someone else’s place, was enough; she didn’t actually have to perish. We argued back and forth, pretending that the question had to do with symmetry and structure when of course it was all about yearning and emotion.
In the end, we decided to un-kill her. For me, this was a tender and fascinating process. Revisiting the character, I saw things I’d under-appreciated about her or passed over too quickly. I felt a kind of wistfulness that was not so different from the regret one feels at having missed opportunities to get to know a real person who had died. Except that, in fiction, there was something to be done about it. I could raise her up again. I could breathe life back into her. Is there a greater privilege and a greater joy in writing stories?
How Florida Straits Got That Way—–April 12, 2012
It had always been my dream to be a published novelist; so when I graduated college in 1972, I set out, with great determination and complete naivete, to become one, suffering meanwhile through a succession of the usual awful jobs to support the quest. I wrote longhand in those years, filling cheap cardboard-covered notebooks with short stories, sketches, random thoughts, and attempts at longer things. I call them “longer things” because they really don’t deserve a more specific name. If a “longer thing” filled more than, say, two notebooks I started to think of it as a novel.
It wasn’t, of course. It was just a “longer thing.” I had no idea how to write a novel and I made all the mistakes young writers make, unless they happen to be geniuses. Impressed with my own vocabulary, I used fancy words when simple ones would do. Clueless as to plot-construction, I decided that plotting was beneath me. Every “longer thing” had a hero who closely resembled me. Brooding yet clever, he hogged the good lines and won every argument.
Not to put too fine a point on it, my fiction sucked; it sucked a little less bad the more I practiced. But then, by a series of lucky breaks (I’ll save the details for another time), I began to have a career in magazine journalism, and I put fiction aside in favor of sorts of writing that people would actually read and for which I would get paid. This was a refreshing novelty…but also a compromise. And I dimly understood that compromising could get to be a nasty habit.
Cut to 1989. On the strength of no credentials whatsoever, I am offered the chance to ghost-write a nonfiction Mafia book for two FBI agents. I have no idea how to make this work, and God knows the FBI guys certainly don’t. At a terrifying meeting under bad fluorescent lights, the editor intones a few magic words: “Write it like it’s a novel. You know, just craft the story.”
Just craft the story. What a concept! In that moment I began to understand something very basic that, in my youthful hurry and romantic fantasies I had somehow overlooked. A book was an artifact. Not a confession, a rant, or a spontaneous outpouring. It was something to be worked on, something to be shaped. With that in mind, the ghosting assignment suddenly seemed…I certainly won’t say easy, but clear. I pocketed the advance, moved from New York to Key West, and wrote every single morning for half a year. The result was Boss of Bosses, which, fortunately for all concerned, went on to be a bestseller.
In the wake of that book’s success, the editor asked what I’d like to do next. Trying to sound confident and firm, I said I’d like to go back to writing fiction. There was a longish silence at the other end of the phone line. I’ve always imagined that the editor was thinking something like this: Oh, great. We’re making money with this jerk as a ghostwriter and now he imagines he’s a novelist. Well, let’s give him a dinky advance and let him try. He’ll no doubt fall on his face but it’ll keep him out of trouble until we need him for the next nonfiction gig.
The editor asked if I had an actual idea for a novel. I told him I did, sort of. For the previous year or so I’d had two things on my mind: the New York Mafia and the hilarious quirkiness of my adopted hometown, Key West. So I wanted to write a story about a young, very un-tough Mafia misfit who goes to Florida to reinvent himself and, by virtue of smarts and courage he never knew he had, ends up muddling through to a better life.
This was the kernel of Florida Straits. Without doubt, it was to be a very personal book. In describing Joey Goldman’s first impressions of Key West, I borrowed heavily from my own; the compound where he lives was drawn stroke by stroke from my own first Key West residence. I’d eaten fish sandwiches at the same bars where Joey eats them; I’d watched sunsets from the exact same swaths of sand. But at the same time, there was a healthy distance between me and my protagonist. His Dad, after all, was the Godfather, whereas my old man sold furniture and was, for better and worse, actually married to my mother.
What all this added up to was that, probably for the first time in my attempts at fiction, I was using what I knew without writing about myself. A fine line there, but a crucial one. The distance let me see more clearly the kind of story I hoped to craft—a sort of fish-out-of-water, coming-of-age, caper-romantic-comedy hybrid.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Florida Straits. More by coincidence than planning, it is also the first time the book is available in e-form. It means a lot to me to keep the title available. Like every author, I hope to reach new readers every day; but it tickles me, as well, to imagine that there may be folks who read the novel years ago and might like to revisit Joey, Sandra, Bert the Shirt, and the chihuahua, Don Giovanni, as old friends. As for me, I check in on them regularly and am pleased to report that they are all well and happy.
Times change—–or do they?—-March 27, 2012
Hairstyles change. Gizmos come and go. But what about the essential things—things like human nature? I’m not so sure the basics really change at all.
I thought about this the other day, while reading an Op-Ed piece by a Goldman Sachs executive who’d just quit in disgust at the moral deterioration of the firm. If you’d just arrived from Mars and read that diatribe, you might imagine that human greed had just been invented, or that professional disillusionment was a brand new thing, or that this tormented banker was the first person to have had a “successful” career that proved at the end to be devoid of real meaning or satisfaction.
In point of fact, the banker was telling a very old story; but one in which each generation provides its own wrinkles and details. By coincidence, I myself had written a quite similar if less personal story, on the same Op-Ed page in The New York Times, in 1987. Remember 1987? There were no cell phones, no Internet, no Google. People sent faxes and did research at the library. Yet greed was already alive and thriving. So was the empty feeling that goes with greed. So was the tragic confusion between what we glibly call “success” and what truly constitutes a well-lived life. That, really, was the focus of my little essay—how our culture had cheapened and perverted the ideal of success.
I wrote the piece; I got it off my chest; I thought that was the end of it. Then the letters started pouring in—people thanking me for articulating something that was on their minds as well. Then the book editors began to call. The essay, they thought, hinted at something broader—some crisis in our values. Americans always seemed to want more. Why? Was it in our DNA? Was it part of our history? Were we victims of our own commercial propaganda? Would the craving for the next raise or the next bonus ever end? If it didn’t, how could anyone be truly happy?…Had I ever considered writing a book about this stuff?
Truthfully, I hadn’t. But I did. The result was The Hunger for More. It was originally published in 1989; I’ve decided to re-issue it in e-form for the simple reason that it still applies. Change some names, add a zero or two to the size of our greedy ambitions, and the book could come straight from today’s headlines.
The Hunger for More—-Preface to the 2012 Edition
It has long been a point of pride with me that the Wall Street Journal hated this book.
Their commentator attacked it with gusto; but the attack had nothing to do with literary matters and everything to do with ideology. On the basis of a convenient misreading, the Journal reviewer accused me of the fatal sin of being anti-money, and put me in the tradition of “righteous killjoys” who tell the wealthy why they shouldn’t enjoy their wealth. Also included among this imaginary conspiracy of grumps and grouches was Henry David Thoreau. I couldn’t ask for a higher compliment.
Just for the record, though, I am not anti-money. I think money is swell and I wish that I, my friends, and everyone in general had more of it. But The Hunger for More is not a book about money; it’s a book about values—which is really just a fancy way of saying the choices people make. I’ve decided to re-release it—some twenty-three years after its first hardcover publication in 1989—because I believe its messages are even more timely today than they were at the close of the go-go ‘80s.
In saying this, I am not making any sort of claims to prophecy. It’s just that things have a way of going round and round, and the present moment is a lot like 1989, but more so. The 1980s saw a boom that ended in a bust; so did the 2000s—except this time the bust was broader and deeper, the promised recovery more elusive and uncertain. During both sets of flush years, business was in fashion, greed was tolerated and even glorified, and success was measured mainly in dollars. When the respective bubbles burst, business was in bad odor, greed was excoriated, and success was measured…how?
That’s the question, more than any other, that this book seeks to address. To put it very simply, how can we feel good even when the economy is bad? How can we reckon the progress of our lives if not in pay raises and promotions? How do we maintain our optimism and self-esteem while being clobbered daily by dim reports about our prospects?
Money is swell but it’s fickle. The economy is out of our control—out of anyone’s control, apparently–and therefore can’t be trusted. These are hard truths that most of us learn at some point in our lives, but that the current generation of young adults have had their noses rubbed in from an early age. To them I dedicate this reissue of Hunger for More, in the hope that it will be read not as some abstract (still less killjoy!) document, but as part of a sane survival strategy for dicey times. Why define success in terms of wealth and job title when those things can be taken away? A version of success based on personal values, responsible choices, service to others, and creative fulfillment is both a safer and more joyful alternative.
Ojai, California 2012
The Big Time Revisited—Feb. 27, 2012
Back in 1983, when I was the Ethics columnist at Esquire, I got a call one day from an editor at the estimable publishing house then known as Harper & Row. She asked me if I might be interested in writing a book for them. I said yes. She said, “Don’t you want to know the subject before you agree?”
It really didn’t matter. At that moment I would have agreed to write a book about goats, neuroscience, rugby, rutabagas–absolutely anything. I’d spent the previous six months looking for a book idea. During that time I’d had some two dozen lunches with editors, all of which followed the same pattern: Polite chit-chat as a warm-up; industry gossip once we’d gotten comfortable; then, over espresso, that heartbreaking moment when the editor looked hopefully at me, I looked hopefully at the editor, and we realized simultaneously that neither of us had brought a viable idea to the meeting.
Not that I hadn’t had notions of things I’d like to write. But a notion is something that amuses you for half an hour, whereas a book idea is something that needs to hold your interest for a year or more; and besides, my notions tended to be goofy. The editors’ notions, on the other hand, tended to be dry, solemn, imitative of some thick volume then-current on the bestseller list. Not for me.
So I held my breath and waited to hear the editor’s idea: A sort of group portrait of the most successful class ever to graduate from Harvard Business School. At once I felt…ambivalent. A group portrait meant characters. That part I liked. But Harvard Business School? I myself was not an Ivy League type. I knew little about business and had never once read a “business book.” For that matter, I was not a big fan of American-style hard-knuckled capitalism. I made what I considered necessary disclaimers regarding those deficiencies; the editor said that in fact they were excellent qualifications, and so I wrote the book—which I have just recently decided to re-issue in e-form, and that will come available within days.
Why now? I think that’s best explained through the new Preface, appended below. Please have a look. Thanks for visiting.
The Big Time
Preface to the 2012 Edition
The Big Time was my first non-fiction book; originally published in 1986, it sold better than I thought it would and garnered a good deal more attention than I expected. The work was excerpted in both Esquire and Playboy; it was favorably reviewed in The New York Times and many other publications; it even made Business Week’s ten-best list for the year.
For a new author, this was all very gratifying, and yet I was quite ambivalent about the book’s reception for a reason that, until now, I have mostly kept to myself: I thought it was succeeding, in part at least, for the wrong reasons.
Because the book’s central subject was a class from the Harvard Business School—the famously powerful and accomplished class of 1949—reviewers approached it as a business book, pure and simple. Many readers, it seemed, were drawn to it in hopes of absorbing at least some of the strong magic of a B-School education; others picked it up for a vicarious glimpse into the glamour of the boardroom and the corner office.
Now, it’s not that any of those readings were misguided. Of course The Big Time dealt with real-world business matters. There were plenty of anecdotes involving the dilemmas and maneuvers that sometimes make the workplace a stage for high drama. And the 49ers, both by example and through their remarkably candid interview comments, did in fact reveal a wealth of information about the particular methods and wisdom by which HBS shaped its students. But for all that, I was pretty sure that what I’d written was a small but careful work of social criticism that was being read too narrowly as a how-to-succeed-in-business primer.
Thinking back to the culture of 1986, it was probably inevitable that The Big Time would be viewed that way. Business was regarded as quite sexy in those years. Cheerleading magazines like Success and Manhattan, Inc. were flourishing. The loathsome but ubiquitous term “Yuppie” had recently been coined. The hot career was Management Consulting—whatever that exactly was—and the best if not the only way to get on that track was with an MBA degree, preferably from Harvard. The Internet and the dot-coms hadn’t quite come into being; the nerds had yet to have their day. In 1986, the people—almost all white males—who wielded power and amassed fortunes in the business world tended to be smooth and solid executive types, not rebels or visionaries. They wore dark suits and silk ties; they had the right degrees and the right connections and felt no qualms whatsoever about using them to personal advantage. In short, they knew how to play the game. And no one played it better than the ‘49ers.
However, in writing my first book (which, like every writer, I secretly feared might also be my last) I wanted to do more than just tell entertaining stories about a bunch of rich guys. I wanted to say something. I wanted to examine how a certain group of fortunate characters had chosen to live their lives, and what those choices revealed about our culture.
How did the ‘49ers define personal success? What did they see as the proper balance between ambition and responsibility? If business was a game, what were the implications of playing it the way it was played in mid-twentieth century America? Were we rewarding leaders or only managers, creators or mere shufflers of assets? Had we, in 1986, already grown too comfortable, too smugly secure in our prosperity? Had our business leaders noticed that the world was changing, or were we in some early stage of coasting toward decline? These were the sorts of questions I was trying to address in The Big Time, and I believe they are even more pressing now than on the day of the book’s original appearance.
The decades after World War II were a famously golden era for America. From the perspective of 2012, those confident years seem positively Edenic; but even in 1986 it was impossible to look back at them without nostalgia. In the 1950s and 1960s, the whole world wanted what America had—the cars, the movies, the safe, clean suburbs where an expanding middle class could live in greater comfort than average folks had ever known. But it wasn’t just America’s economic prowess that was the envied around the globe; it was the American spirit—the drive, the optimism, the belief that things were only getting better.
The men of HBS 1949 were emblematic of that spirit; not overly modest, they tended to see themselves as its stewards. To be sure, their generation also faced its challenges, its threats to certainty. The emergence of Japan in the 1970s led to a questioning and a crisis of morale not so different from that occasioned by the more recent rise of China. In their time, too, there were recessions and bubbles; the Crash of ’87 was just around the corner as this book was being published. Some of the more thoughtful ‘49ers were already wondering aloud if American dominance and growth could be sustained, and how life would be different for generations born into less sanguine and expansive times.
If the ‘49ers had been mere observers of the culture around them, their story would still be worth the telling. In fact, though, this remarkable group of men did far more than observe; by dint of their wealth, power, and sheer determination, they did much to shape America–the wealthy, sometimes arrogant, energetic and unequal America that later generations have now inherited. In offering The Big Time to a new audience, my hope is not merely to present a portrait of what seems, increasingly, a faraway time, but to promote a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our own.
Ojai, California 2012
Hello Out There!—Feb. 3, 2012
Greetings and thanks for visiting.
This is the very first installment of what I hope will become a regular feature–well, okay, a semi-regular feature–of my site. I’m launching into it much as I launch into a novel–which is to say, without a very detailed plan about where it’s likely to go. This is a big part of why I write: not necessarily to say what’s on my mind but to see what’s on my mind.
Another big part of why I write is that I like to eat, and writing has been my sole livelihood for the past 36 years. In this I feel incredibly fortunate. I got into the business when print publishing–both magazines and books–was a thriving industry. I had a few lucky breaks and the privilege of working with some brilliant and generous editors. I even–strange to tell!–went out on book tour and had the pleasure of schmoozing with flesh-and-blood readers and booksellers.
I’m not embarrassed to wax nostalgic about the writing business as it used to be. But I still love writing as both a process and a profession, and I don’t have time to wallow in nostalgia. The world has changed but a few things haven’t. A good book is a good book, no matter how the content is delivered. A story still rings true or it doesn’t. Characters seem real to us or fake. Dialogue tickles us with its accuracy or falls flat. Most basically of all, writers need to write and readers need to read, and there is a relationship between writers and readers that goes beyond the markings on the page or screen. Writers and readers spend a lot of time together. They share emotions, laughs, suspense, relief, and, within each story, a certain version of morality, justice, right and wrong. It’s a relationship to be valued, and I hope this blog will help to preserve and deepen it. Thanks for reading.