Imagining the End of the World: An Excerpt from POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE

About six months ago, my friend Andrew Lark invited me to take part in a project he was then developing. He was in the middle of writing the novella that would become “Pollen,” a work of dystopian fiction imagining the end of humanity, and his idea was to include two other novellas to round out a volume with that theme.

He also invited our mutual friend, author Wendy Thomson. Wendy and I both jumped at the chance. We had read and respected Andrew’s previous novel, Better Boxed and Forgotten, and we all respected each other’s work. This included Wendy’s two books, a memoir, Summon the Tiger, and a novel, The Third Order, as well as my own Martin Preuss mystery series.

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The result of our collaboration was Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, published this month (please see the end of the post for details of our book launch on November 2nd.) Besides Andrew’s “Pollen,” Wendy contributed a novella, “Silo Six,” and I added “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

People who know my work wondered if this project represented a departure from my mystery series. But I didn’t see it as a departure at all. True, dystopian fiction is a different genre than mysteries. But in a way, my contribution to Postcards is a mirror image of a mystery novel.

Mysteries, after all, generally start in a state of disorder (a crime has been committed or the social order has been upset somehow) and proceed to a state of order (the crime is solved, the social order is restored).

A dystopian or post-apocalyptic work, on the other hand, often starts with society in a state of order and then proceeds to disorder through some apocalyptic event or events. Or, as Newton’s second law of thermodynamics predicts, things move into a state of increasing disorder in the world of the work.

There’s also another way this isn’t a departure for me: I’ve long been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. It appeals to my cynical sense that “the crust of civilization on which we tread,” as scholar Timothy Garton Ash has written, “is always wafer thin. One tremor and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.”

My appreciation for post-apocalyptic fiction culminated in a senior seminar I developed at the college where I used to teach. As the capstone experience for English and Language Arts majors, the course, titled Post-Apocalyptic American Fiction, required students to prepare an extensive paper derived from in-depth critical reading and research on the topic, then make a public presentation of that paper.

Students were expected to draw upon the critical and analytical powers they had honed in their literature, criticism, and writing courses throughout their previous semesters.

To prepare the course, I read widely and deeply in post-apocalyptic literature, from the beginning (the biblical book of Revelation) to the most recent (at that time, The Hunger Games), from the classic (A Canticle for Leibowitz) to the popular (The Walking Dead), from goremeisters to the finest “literary” authors.

I read books about zombies, vampires, nuclear war, electromagnetic pulses, and crumbling societies in the past, present, and future. I read what critics had to say about them.

For my final reading list, I settled on four novels that represented what I thought were among the most fascinating, daring, and thoughtful works of contemporary post-apocalyptic literature, while still offering at least a glimmer of hope: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (I interpreted “American” to include North American because I wanted her in), Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

I loved this quartet of novels. I had previously taught senior seminars that were among my most rewarding teaching experiences, so I was tremendously excited about the course. I couldn’t wait to teach it.

Unfortunately, it was, to put it bluntly, a disaster in almost every way.

Most of the students in this particular group didn’t understand the books; they didn’t know how to read the research about the books; they didn’t know how to approach a long, segmented critical paper; though seniors, they didn’t know how to incorporate outside sources gracefully; they didn’t have a handle on critical theories or how to use them; they couldn’t grasp the not-so-subtle rules of plagiarism . . .

Please note I’m not mocking or blaming the students here, but rather commenting on their lack of preparation for the rigors of the experience—which of course was our failure as faculty in the department.

I taught the course twice, in the fall and winter semesters. It didn’t get any better from one semester to the other. To make matters worse, I got pneumonia at the beginning of the first semester and was never at my best during the entire four months of the fall.

Needless to say, it was not my finest hour as a professor. As it happened, these two senior seminars turned out to be the last undergraduate courses I would ever teach; the following summer I was appointed dean of the faculty, and except for a few graduate courses I spent the rest of my time until retirement as an administrator.

(Which was a dystopian nightmare of a whole different order of magnitude, but that’s a story for another day.)

So when Andrew invited me into his project, I was coming from a deep involvement in, and appreciation for, dystopian literature. Naturally, I said yes at once.

Because of that background, I’m particularly proud of the book the three of us produced.

Both Andrew and Wendy’s pieces are splendid, not simply as works of dystopian fiction, but as serious and thought-provoking works of literature. As one reviewer said, the novellas in Postcards are “fascinating,” “powerful,” “inviting,” and “tense, bleak, and entirely human narrative[s].”

For myself, I had such a good time on this project that I’ve begun writing a spin-off from my contribution, and have been envisioning an entire cycle of works set in the world I imagined (which I’m starting to call the Dry Earth Series).

I’d like to share a small section of my novella with you here, in hopes you’ll be interested enough to have a look at the entire book.

And if you’re in the metropolitan Detroit area, I invite you to the party celebrating the official launch of this project on Saturday, November 2nd, from 1 till 4 pm, at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion, 74 Arden Park Boulevard, Detroit. To register, go to www.alarksperch.com and hit the Comment button. It’s free and open to the public, but we suggest a contribution to charity.

I’m happy to present an excerpt from my novella in Postcards from the Future, the first two chapters of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

 

1

A figure appears in an empty window frame halfway up the ruined wall. Dark glasses in a face wrapped with rags and shaded beneath a hood stare down at her.

The long barrel of a gun points in her direction.

Caught completely out in the open, she has no time to do anything except dive to the ground. She tries to merge with the rubble, disappear into it, though she knows she can’t; she is completely exposed. She holds her breath, waiting for the kill shot. She had thought there were no bullets left anymore, but she doesn’t want to take any chances.

When the kill shot doesn’t come, she dares to lift her head. The window frame is empty.

She scrambles to her feet and turns to flee.

Before going ten feet, she comes face-to-face with the hooded figure holding his rifle.

“Halt!” the figure rasps. The voice is muffled by the layers of rags wrapped around its head beneath the hood. But there is no mistaking the rough, deep sound.

It is a raggedman’s voice.

She falls to her knees and raises trembling hands.

2

Her day started hours earlier, when the wary young woman—whose name is Ash—picked her way through the debris near the entrance to her underground settlement.

With a staff for balance and protection, she stepped over concrete blocks and ragged piles of broken bricks under the heat of the unrelenting sun. Several times she tripped over planks of charred wood from buildings that had been destroyed in the old wars, concealed under the red dust that coats the land.

Her destination was a few clicks away from their settlement. Wreckage like what surrounded the underground opening was everywhere, all along the meandering path she traveled. They were taught to avoid moving in a straight line to present less of a target, and also to increase the chances of scavenging valuables buried away from the common paths.

The woman stumbled over the detritus of what was left of the city. She wore a tattered drab coat wrapped around her despite the heat, and she protected her head with an ancient battered welder’s helmet that was the unit’s only armor against the brilliantly bright, deadly rays of the sun. This was one among a cache of similar helmets that had been scavenged over the years. Nobody knew what they were at first, but when the tribe discovered the helmets’ uses, they became treasured finds.

She walked carefully, alert to every movement around her. No animals or insects survived anymore, so chances were any movement would be hostile. The only sound was the wind soughing against the metal of her helmet. She swiveled her head constantly. The helmet restricted her view, but its protection against the damaging rays of the sun outweighed any limitations to her vision.

Ash walked over the streets, cracked and overgrown with the skeletal remains of trees and bushes. No one could remember the last time it had rained, not even the elders; plant life had turned brown and desiccated in the absence of water, disappearing like the animals.

Her destination rose ahead of her. It was a larger building than most in the area, originally three stories tall. One entire wall had fallen over in the tremor that rolled through the land the day before.

After a collapse was the worst time to be out scavenging. The dangers from old structures were multiplied after one toppled; the ground grows unsteady around them, so the ones nearby are liable to let go and fall, too. The mortar between blocks is dry, the ruined buildings unstable.

Their original purposes have been lost, but their current usefulness sometimes surprises the survivors who venture from their underground settlement to scavenge. While most such buildings, like the one Ash sought, had long been emptied of any water or food, they sometimes yielded tools or pieces of clothing or other prizes that made exploring them worth the danger. Especially after a collapse, which often uncovered treasures previously hidden to the Vengers who searched.

Ash is a Venger. When Vengers found objects that might be of use, they would bring them back to the settlement. If they found potential food sources, they were to return and inform their work unit’s leader, who would let the Vesters know. They, in turn, would go out and harvest the food. The practice had developed to ensure their survival, and so far it was working, if barely; Ash’s settlement was on the verge of starvation.

Slowly the food sources have been dwindling. As they did, so too did the tribe. The Vengers had to travel further and further from their underground settlement to find food, and sometimes they returned empty-handed and sometimes they did not return at all.

Ash paused when she was about a half-click away from the structure she sought. She scanned the sight through the dark glass of her helmet. Then, stepping carefully while still some distance away, she circled the ruin once, twice, three times, all the while keeping watch for anything moving in the wreckage. It wouldn’t take much to overwhelm her; one raggedman alone could do it if he caught her by surprise.

On her third circuit around the building, a sound reached her, penetrating her helmet. It was high and keening. Though she had not heard a baby cry in years, this brought back the sound of an infant’s mewl. Of course that would be impossible; few children have been born in the recent past. And no child would have survived for long in the outside.

She stopped, knelt low, and listened. The crying ceased, but then she heard what she thought was pounding. She raised the faceplate of her helmet, aware as she did that she was allowing the deadly radiation inside the metal. But she needed to find out what the sound was.

She lifted her head, with the helmet guard ajar so she could see into the shadows that surrounded the building. She listened but heard no more wailing.

Then she heard a scratching and scrambling in the rubble. She stood perfectly still, aware that she was unprotected outside the ruins of the building.

And that this might be a trap.

Then she looked up and saw the figure with the long gun in the empty window frame.

###

Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, by Andrew Charles Lark, Donald Levin, and Wendy Sura Thomson, is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com and on order from your local bookstore.

 

 

Ethics and Killer Copters

In 1985, in the midst of a worklife marked by almost constant professional reinvention, I found myself sitting around a table at an IBM facility near Binghamton, NY, having one of those “What Am I Doing Here?” moments.

I was sitting with two guys from the local branch of IBM’s Federal Systems Division. Their division, as the name suggests, undertook a variety of contracts and projects for the government.

We were talking about a project they wanted me to do. I was then a free-lance writer specializing in, well, anything anybody wanted to hire me for. At the time, I found myself writing a lot of scripts for training and promotional videos, and they wanted me to write one of those.

The project was titled, “The LAMPS MK II Radar Data Processor:  Flight Test Report.”

Briefly, the LAMPS MK II Radar Data Processor was a complicated system of electronics to improve the reliability and effectiveness of radar, data-linking, and other key operations of helicopters.

Despite the bland title, the project wasn’t just a report on the system’s flight test. The real purpose was a script for a training and sales video for the new helicopter system. The script had to sell the system, which meant I had to buy into its value, at least for the duration of the project.

The thing was, this wasn’t just for any kind of helicopters. It was for what are called “destroyer helicopters.”

And as that name suggests, these were weapons of war. Helicopters that blow stuff up and kill people.

This was a few years after the Falkland Islands War (look that up if you never heard of it), and as the two guys from IBM were giving me information I needed to write the script, they were getting more and more excited about the capabilities of their product. In fact, it wasn’t long before they were literally whooping and hollering and flying their hands like helicopters over the table and bouncing up and down in their chairs talking about how GREAT this system was at killing things, and what the Brits could’ve done if they’d had these little babies in the Falklands.

Seriously, it was like something out of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

So here’s the scene: me—a young writer, pacifist, Viet Nam war protester, what my first roommate in college (an engineer) disparaged as an “arty type”—sitting in the room with two suits who were acting like they were crazy.

So what was I doing there, you may ask?

As I said, I was then a free-lance writer. When you’re a free-lancer, you wake up every day and you’re basically unemployed, which means you have to scrounge for work constantly. And therefore, like most free-lancers, I was mostly broke. The IBM job wouldn’t make me rich, but it would help to stabilize my bank account until something else came along.

And anyway, I told myself, it was just a job; my real writing, the writing that mattered, was the fiction I was learning how to write.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a quote from Tony Schwartz, the ghost writer of The Art of the Deal, arguably (along with his reality tv show) the thing most responsible for creating the pernicious myth of Donald Trump as a successful businessman.

“Trump is the most purely evil human being I’ve ever met,” Schwartz said.

My first thought was, “And thanks for doing your bit to help him con the country, Tony.”

But then I thought, even if he knew how awful Trump was, Schwartz probably had no idea somebody like Trump could ever become president, and anyway he was doing exactly what I did when I took on a job writing about destroyer helicopters: doing what you have to to get by.

I don’t know how Schwartz felt about his project, but I felt terrible about mine. I knew it was wrong, and I had tried to persuade myself that my financial situation would somehow excuse it.

Except it didn’t.

I wasn’t the same afterwards. I learned, in a way I had known really only theoretically before, that there is no such thing as an ethically neutral action. In particular, for writers, there is no such thing as ethically neutral writing. It all has consequences for which we are responsible, no matter what kind of writing we do.

I have left that life behind, but I’m still writing, and I’m writing in an area that is fraught with ethical conflicts. I’m a mystery writer: I write about crime; I write about violence and its effects. I write about things that bad people do.

In my Martin Preuss mystery series, I’m constantly dealing with the question: Is it possible to portray unethical actions ethically? Don Winslow puts it another way: “Is it possible to live decently in an indecent world?”

I can’t say I’m doing it well, but I think the answer to both questions is yes. The key for me is to write with a consciousness about about how I portray violence, which is a tremendous social problem—not only violence in action, but in language and thought as well.

Those of us who work in a genre that is so associated with violence have a special duty to treat it responsibly, to treat it, that is, ethically.

This means not only not glorifying it, but showing the truly awful cascading consequences of violence on everyone associated with it, perpetrators and victims and bystanders. And, in my case, to make sure the books present a clear ethical alternative to the unethical actions that flood my fictional world.

As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, at this particularly dreadful moment in history, we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically—and ethically—into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. We need a literature that expands, not contracts, our sympathies.

I try to do that in my mysteries. The books go beyond simply offering readers a tricky puzzle to pass the time with, and instead help them to enter the minds and hearts of my characters, and see and understand the world through those eyes, too.

For those of you who know my work, you might also recognize that Toby, my main character’s profoundly handicapped son, is (among all the other purposes he serves in the series) an important ethical touchstone for his father. And, I hope, for my readers.

A few years ago I was at a writers’ conference and we were talking about killing off characters. I made some remarks about the rather cavalier way people were talking about doing away with their characters, and one of the other writers called me “the moral compass” for the group.

She was kidding, but I loved that. I welcomed it, in fact. My moral compass might not have started forming with those two guys jumping up and down about the joys of killing helicopters, but that day certainly got me headed in the right direction.

What I Learned from Reading Walter Mosley

Before retiring, I taught at a college in Detroit where the big event of the year was a Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series held each spring. This series brought in a guest African American writer each year to give a free public reading and hold a master class with our own and area high school students.

For nine years, I was chair of the English Department that hosted the event. That meant I was the emcee for the evening; my job was to preside over the gathering and, if necessary, introduce the writer.

One of the guest authors I introduced was Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill mystery series, among many other books.

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Rarely had past writers (mostly literary novelists and poets) prompted the kind of passionate public excitement that Mosley did. For months leading up to the reading, phone calls flooded the department from the public as their anticipation mounted.

Among the callers were people wanting not only the usual information—time, place, and so on—but wanting also something more, wanting, if not needing, to talk about Mosley’s works . . . callers who were simply bursting to talk about their favorite characters with the stranger on the other end of the line; callers wanting to know which were my favorite books, and who I liked better, Easy Rawlins or Leonid McGill; callers wanting to know what did I think of that hussy Katrina and why would Leonid ever want to stay with her?

Clearly, his readership idolized him.

To prepare my introduction of him, I gave myself a crash course in Mosley’s works, reading deeply and broadly in all the series as well as the stand-alone books that he had published as of that point.

As a crime writer myself, I read with a double vision: looking for not only what I could use in my introduction of him, but also what I could learn from him for my own writing.

At the end of my reading project, I found much to learn, both in terms of what to do and what to avoid as an author.

I have to say that many aspects of his writing turned me off; the cliched uses of violence and sex, for example, as well as the (to me) annoying similarity of plots and situations from book to book, as when his main characters stop what they’re doing to explain where their next bit of wisdom came from.

Even so, Mosley’s good at what he does, and it was useful for me to understand why and how.

I came to see that Mosley’s work grabs his readers for many reasons. He pulls some in because of the powerhouse prose, the clarity and precision of his eye, the dialogue that crackles with authenticity. Others read him for his way with a story, for plots that hook readers from the first line and don’t let loose till the final page.

Still others loved seeing his strong black characters, male and female, negotiating their way through a complex and often dangerous world. His main characters—Easy, Socrates, Fearless, Leonid, and others—are so engaging because how they work the borderlands between communities serves as a metaphor for the complexities of race in America.

Still others loved the way the quests in his works are always, ultimately, about redemption.

Beyond that, what I learned as a writer had to do with technique: how to set up characters that are vivid and relatable, how to manage multiple plot lines, and how to move the story along quickly and effectively.

One of the things that struck me most about the phone calls that came in while we were preparing for his visit was the almost fanatical devotion his readers have to his characters. Mosley has an incredibly deft touch in populating his fiction with people whom his readers recognize from their own lives, and who fairly leap off the page.

He lets his characters—especially including his first-person narrators—talk in voices that are recognizable and real, and he paints thumbnail portraits of how they look and act, down to the nuanced shades of his characters’ skin tones, in ways that resonate strongly with his readership. He knows his audience and writes to them.

He also adroitly handles three, four, and five interrelated plot lines at a time. My metaphor for what he does is weaving different threads through the fabric of the books. For example, in his Leonid McGill series, main character McGill routinely has to negotiate his family dramas with his wife and children, his love life with his girlfriend, his two or three current cases, and the ever-present past that he struggles in vain to outrun and outfox.

Mosley’s books are busy without seeming overcrowded. I think that, too, partly contributes to the reality of his characters: life is like that.

Finally, for me his work is a master class in how to move those different plot threads along quickly, including the importance of starting scenes at the optimum moment, shaping them for maximum impact, and ending them with enough suspense to get the reader to turn the page; jumping into a chapter or section using a judicious exchange of dialogue or action; and using the transitions of getting the main character from one place to another efficiently.

As I sit down to write the mysteries in my Martin Preuss series, I find myself putting these lessons into practice time and again. It’s another reminder of how much we can glean from critically reading authors who are at the top of their craft.

Are there lessons you’ve learned from your favorite authors? I’d be interested in hearing about them.

An Interview with Martin Preuss

A good friend, Mark Love, is the author of a wonderful series of police procedural novels that he calls the Motown Mysteries. (I interviewed Mark in an earlier post on this blog.) He had the great idea of inviting authors to conduct “interviews” with their main characters on his blog, and his latest interviewee is none other than Martin Preuss, the MC of my series of Ferndale-based mysteries.

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You can find the interview on Mark’s blog at motownmysteries.com. You’ll also find lots of other great posts there, including an interview with Mark’s own detective, Jefferson Chene, and information about Mark’s Motown Mysteries and his other writings.

(Mark wanted to include a photo of what I thought Preuss would look like, but Preuss refused to cooperate . . . so sorry, no photo!)

Here’s the text of that interview. See if you learn something new about the intrepid Preuss!

Welcome, Martin Preuss. Tell us a little about yourself:

MP: This is a hard question for somebody like me to answer . . . These are all hard questions for me, as a matter of fact. I’m a very private person, and I’m not used to sharing much about myself. I’m not one of those people who will tell you their whole life story within the first half-hour after you meet them. You might pull it out of me, but only after I’ve known you for a while. That’s why I’ve put off doing this interview.

But here goes: I’m currently a partner in Greene & Preuss Investigations, a private detective agency in suburban Detroit. Before that I was with the Ferndale Police Department, working my way up from patrol officer to sergeant in the Detective Bureau. I’m from Ypsilanti, Michigan, where my parents were professors at Eastern Michigan University and my brother—well, let’s just say he was good at what he did, and what he did was being a major-league drug addict and all-around jerk. I started college at EMU, but when I married a fellow student, Jeanette Russo, when she got pregnant with our first son Jason, I needed a job to support them. Her father, Nick, was a detective in the Ferndale Police Department, and he’s the one who convinced me to join up. I finished my college degree at Wayne State University in Detroit. Our family was complete when our second son, Toby, was born. Toby has lots of handicaps, but man, nobody has ever been loved as much as that boy is.

How did your background get you involved in the latest novel, Cold Dark Lies?

CDL-Front Cover copy 2MP: After I retired early from the FPD (thanks in large part to the efforts of Nick Russo, but that’s a longer story), I was at loose ends . . . I wasn’t even fifty, with the rest of my life ahead of me, and didn’t know how I was going to fill my days from then on. An 83-year-old private investigator I had met on one of my previous cases, Manny Greene, had been after me to join his one-man agency. I wasn’t keen on doing that; I thought I should do something else, something new. But when Manny—that wise, wise fellow—asked me to look into the disappearance of a young man who hadn’t been seen for forty years, I realized (as I’m sure he knew I would) that investigation is what I was best at. So I joined his agency, and one afternoon when he was tied up and unable to keep a meeting with a new client, he asked me to speak with her. She wanted to find out how her brother wound up strung out on drugs at a skeevy motel in Ferndale, so the Ferndale connection got me hooked and this book was off and running.

Who came first, you or the author?

MP: Levin likes to think he invented me, and I just let him keep on in that delusion. You know how sensitive these writers are.

What is it about this story that sets it apart from the others?

MP: From the other stories in the series, you mean? I think this story is timelier than the other cases. It’s about the impact of the opioid crisis, which is in all the news reports lately. But it’s about the crisis as seen from “ground-level” . . . and by that I mean, it shows the impact of middle-class drug use on the lives not only of the drug users themselves, but on the people who love and care for them. The story show how devastating drug use can be as it destroys lives and brings people in touch with the worse of themselves, as well as the worst of humanity.

Tell us something about your background that may or may not be revealed in the book?

MP: Most people won’t know that I was terribly shy as a boy. (Of course, most people won’t know much about me, as I was saying earlier.) Looking back, I could guess it had a lot to do with my family-of-origin; I was often overwhelmed by the goings-on inside my family. My parents were smart people—they were professors, after all—but that didn’t mean they were always good or even well-intentioned. My father was an alcoholic and my mother was a classic enabler; all her attention went toward protecting my father; my brother and I felt like intruders in our own home. I remember all the times she would shush my brother and me because “Daddy was working,” which usually meant he was in an alcoholic stupor in his home office in the basement. My brother had his own drug problems (my brother’s problems were, eerily, reflected in the case in this book), and sometimes it seemed like I was raising myself. I wound up with the family disease, too . . . I became an alcoholic myself, until Jeanette died. After that I stopped drinking. If I had stopped earlier, things might have been different, but . . . as I always say, if things were different, they wouldn’t be the same.

Are you the type of person who always seeks out the company of others?

MP: Uh, no. I’ve got a few friends—Janie Cahill and Reg Trombley, two of my former colleagues in the Ferndale PD, in particular—and some musician friends (I play rhythm guitar in a band occasionally, whenever I can make the gigs, and I know a lot of musicians around town), but I pretty much keep myself to myself. Reg has his own life with his wife and two daughters and his career in the department, and Janie and I . . . well, our history keeps getting in our way. I might have met someone in this latest book who can pierce through my loneliness, but we’ll all have to wait for the next book to see how that turns out.

What do you do to relax after a day’s work?

MP: I spend as much time as I can with my younger son, Toby. I love the guy more than words can express. He’s multiply-handicapped, with problems that fill a couple of pages on his school IEP: visual limitations, profound cerebral palsy that left him unable to care for his own personal needs, cognitive delays, microcephaly, seizure disorder, the delicate bird bones of his legs that can’t hold up his weight and beak if too much pressure is applied during physical therapy (he’s had a few broken legs). And yet, for all his problems, Toby is the happiest, most content person I’ve ever known. Whenever we go anywhere, he has the best time. He radiates an aura of peace and gentleness that is his default state, spoiled only if one of his physical ailments bother him.

I usually visit him first thing in the morning, before he gets on the bus that takes him to his school program, and I stop in after work or before his bedtime to help give him his bath (his favorite thing in the world), read him some chapters from his Harry Potter books, and spend time talking with him and playing guitar for him as we both unwind from our days before kissing him good night. He lives in a group home because I can’t take care of all his needs by myself with my crazy schedule, first as a detective and now as a private investigator. Not having him live with me is one of my bigger regrets.

Which do you prefer, music or television?

MP: Oh, music, no doubt. I can’t remember the last time I even turned on a television, but music means a lot to me. When I was young, I thought I would be a musician, in fact. Music was a way out of the dreadful realities of my family life.

Who’s your best friend and what influence have they had on your life?

MP: That’s an easy one. Anybody who’s read my books knows the answer to that: My dear son Toby. He’s blessed with a seemingly infinite capacity to offer and accept love from the people who take care of him (including, of course, me), a zenlike patience with the shortcomings and imperfections of other people, an eternal innocence, an ability to savor the best of every moment, and an inability to show or possibly even feel anger. As limited as Toby’s life could be, I often envy his way of being in the world. I sometimes yearn for my son’s blissful contentment, and wish I could learn enough from the boy to be able to replicate it all for myself. He’s also my sounding board for difficult cases; even though he can’t articulate words because of his cerebral palsy, I assume he understands everything I tell him, and talking over my cases with him helps me to get my sometimes-scattered thoughts in order.

What’s your greatest strength? And of course, we want to know the opposite, your greatest weakness.

MP: I have one main strength: what Toby has taught me. Toby keeps me grounded, listens to me puzzle through my cases, and continually shows me what’s really important in life. And it’s not being a hard-drinking, womanizing, wise-cracking, shoot-first tough-guy detective like a lot of fictional detectives. No, it’s being more like what I try to learn from Toby . . . being intuitive; patient; understanding; gentle, even (I refused to carry a gun when I was on the force because I believe violence only creates more violence); and in general more real and down-to-earth than other fictional detectives. You can’t do any of that if you’re busy smashing somebody’s head in.

My weakness? I’d say spending too much time in my own mind, and not being open enough to the vagaries and randomness of life. I was an English minor in college (I started out as a history major), and I remember reading about a character who said he wanted the world to be “at a sort of moral attention forever.” Too often I feel like that’s what I’m like: too guarded, too shut off. It’s something I need to keep pushing against.

What has been the most romantic thing you’ve ever done or instigated?

MP: Well, romance isn’t something I’m comfortable with. My wife died in a car accident several years ago, for which I (and my older son Jason) blame myself even though I wasn’t driving. After one of our wilder fights, she threw the kids in her minivan and took off for her mother’s place up in Traverse City. She never made it: a drunk driver t-boned the car, killing her instantly and injuring the two boys. Since then I haven’t been involved with anyone; I’ve been in a kind of self-imposed exile from relationships.

I guess you might say it’s from the guilt I feel over her death. I’ve had a few close calls with a couple of women, but nothing has worked out since Jeanette died . . . I haven’t even gone on a date, much to the chagrin of the people who read about me. To recall a romantic gesture, I’d have to go back to when Jeanette and I were married—and even then our last few years together were pretty unhappy. Mostly because of me, I hasten to add. With my drinking and moodiness, I wasn’t the best husband or father. But there was that time when we were younger, when we were still a relatively happy family . . . for her birthday one year I arranged to have a bouquet of flowers delivered to her once a week all year-round, including throughout the winter. She loved it. Too bad I couldn’t keep that up longer, right? She might still be around.

If things were different . . .  

“Where do you get your ideas from?” part I

Like many authors, when I’m speaking to people about my writing, I tend to hear similar questions, whether I’m talking to a group or to individuals.

One of the questions I often get is, “How long did it take you to write this book?” That’s an interesting one, and I’m not sure exactly where it comes from. I’ve never asked anybody who posed it, “Whaddaya wanna know for?” That would seem rather surly and ungracious, especially if I haven’t answered their question.

I’m guessing most people have little idea about what goes into writing a novel, so the only form of measurement that makes sense to them is time and that’s why they ask about it.

But without a doubt, the question I get most often is, “Where do your ideas come from?”

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If I’m talking to people who either would like to write or have already started on the long road of becoming a writer, what they really want to know is, how can they go about finding ideas for their own writing. I usually give them some version of Henry James’s advice to young writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” That is, be open to everything . . . what you read, what you hear, what you see, and so on.

For a general reader at a library presentation or a book fair, I tend to talk about where the ideas for a specific book came from. And, because nobody wants to hear a long story while they’re standing at a table, I’ll usually abbreviate it.

The truth is, of course, as always, more complex.

I’m not good at just making things up out of whole cloth, which is what many people (including many writers) think being a writer is all about. For me, I have to start at a specific place—with a kernel of an idea, which may come from an anecdote I’ve heard from someone, or an item I read in the newspaper or online or elsewhere that aroused my interest. When I write mysteries, this usually has to do with a crime or violation of the norm.

Also, because I like my books to be busy, from there I braid together that starting point with elements of other ideas, again taken from my mental file cabinet where I store all my possibilities. (I’ve tried writing these down, but I usually lose my notes.)

Let’s look at the fourth Martin Preuss mystery, The Forgotten Child, as an example of how this works.

TFC-Finalcover cropped jpeg copyIf you haven’t read the novel, here’s some context. (I’ll go easy on the spoilers.) The book is a departure from the first three books in that my main character, Martin Preuss, is now retired from the police department and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life once the thing that gave shape and meaning to his days has ended.

Thus he’s at loose ends when he’s asked to find someone who was last seen in the 1970s.

His search takes him back to the the art scene in the Cass Corridor in Detroit, and to the history of Ferndale, the inner-ring suburb of Detroit where he lives and works.

So where did all that come from?

When I finished the third book in the series, Guilt in Hiding, and started thinking about the next one, I knew I wanted to focus on more than just a crime, I wanted an event that had a critical impact on Ferndale.

My then-neighbor was president of the Ferndale Historical Society, and he told me about a huge fire that devastated a block in downtown Ferndale in 1975. He shared the Society’s archives with me, and he put me onto a book written by the former fire chief, which included a chapter on the fire.

That took care of the important civic event I was looking for, but I knew I needed to personalize it. Most of my books have family dysfunction at their centers, so I rifled through that mental file cabinet for a suitable direction.

I remembered hearing about several men of my acquaintance who, though currently married with families, had had a child with other women when they were young, and who had lost touch with those children over the years. One of these stories seemed like it would lend itself to a mystery novel that forced an investigator to go back in time to the 1970s, and would in addition be ripe for some compelling family drama.

These became the main strands of the plot of The Forgotten Child.

As I began to flesh out the missing person (or should I say, the missing person began to flesh himself out; this is the mysterious and exciting part of writing fiction), I realized he was an artist, and thus his link to the art scene in Detroit in the 1970s was a natural connection, as well as another likely source for more drama.

And the fire? My challenge was how to take this actual episode in Ferndale’s history and put it into a novel—to transform it from an episode in history to an integral part of the plot of a book.

I wouldn’t need to write an accurate history of the fire; historians and participants had already done that. But I would need to imaginatively transform an actual happening into a fictional event that would not only advance the plot of the book but would act as its center of gravity.

The poet Marianne Moore talks about poetry being “imaginary gardens with real toads,” and that’s what I found myself creating here.

I kept as many of the actual details of the fire in place as I could to give the events of the book authenticity and accuracy, while making them serve my own purposes. I kept the date of when it happened, the details of the fire itself (where it started, what damage it did, how it changed Ferndale), and the responses of local fire and police departments.

But because I was creating a work of fiction, I changed some details, some circumstances, and the outcome. I also switched the real people involved with my fictional characters. I changed some key details—specifically the cause of the real fire, which was never determined—to meet my own purposes in the book. I omitted some details to keep the story moving as quickly as possible.

I peopled the apartments in the building (as well as the entire novel) with imaginary characters. I call them “imaginary,” but they are “real toads”—people I might have known or seen at one time—living in this imaginary garden. (Don’t believe authors when we say we’ll never put you in our books; we always do.)

And finally, I set all this in a context consistent with the conventions of a mystery novel, with lots of bad actors and bad actions, most taken (again) from reality but transformed through the alchemy of fiction.

In the coming weeks (alternating with Indie Mondays), I’ll be talking about where the ideas came from for a few of the other books in the series, including the events that formed the inciting actions of the plots. I hope they’ll demonstrate my guiding principle: everything is fuel for a writer’s imagination.

 

 

The First Two Chapters of Cold Dark Lies

This week’s blog post is a teaser: the first two chapters of the latest Martin Preuss mystery, Cold Dark Lies.

The ideas for the book go back a long way. As in all the novels, the final version braids together several strands that come from “real” life. The main plot thread comes from an article I read in a Detroit newspaper many years ago about an auto executive from Bloomfield Hills who was found dead in one of the no-tell motels in Ferndale. It was a minor blip in the news day, but it stuck with me all this time. I was intrigued by the dissonance between his privileged, upper-middle class existence and his desire (or need) to take a walk on the wild side at the skeevy motel, with tragic results for himself and the family he must have left behind.

The idea for one of the subplots in the book comes from a student who came to talk to me once about a research study she was undertaking to find out if she was really related to a criminal gang in Detroit in the 1920s, as family lore had insisted.

As always, by the time both of these threads made it to the final version, I had changed much—characters, situations, names, details, circumstances, motivations, and so on. Then I set it all in an imaginary context consistent with a mystery story—so I made up lots of bad actors, bad actions, and events that didn’t happen . . . but that could have. 

At first, I imagined the motel guy as a character in a poem called “The Secret Life,” but I knew there was more to the story than the poem could explore. When I started thinking about the next book in the series after An Uncertain Accomplice, I took the story out of my back pocket where I had kept it all these years and started thinking about using it in a Preuss mystery.

This is pretty typical of how I’ve been working with these books. Only in the first book, Crimes of Love, did I make up the inciting episode; in all the rest, I started out with a situation I knew about either because somebody told me the story or I read about it somewhere. (Henry James’s advice to writers: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”) After that, it was a matter of imaginatively transforming the original real inciting situations to make them fit with my own purposes and the demands of the plots.

So here’s the beginning of how that process turned out in Cold Dark Lies. Enjoy!

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The hammering brought him back. Loud, insistent pounding on the door. And raised voices outside. And the door handle jiggling. Then more pounding.

He opened his eyes in darkness and rolled his head over the rug where he was sprawled. The smell was unpleasant: damp, sour, musty.

From where he lay, limbs outstretched, his eyes focused on the stumpy and scuffed legs of the bed, the tangle of clothes on the floor, the peeling caramel feet and brown cracked leather of the arm chair, turned on its side. The thick wall of the dresser.

The effort exhausted him. He closed his eyes. He was so tired. Why couldn’t he just sink back into that void where he floated before the pounding on the door roused him?

The banging stopped. The voices receded.

Silence outside.

He listened. Silence in the room, too.

Was he alone?

He lifted his head. Intense pain shot through his neck and temple. As through every other part of his body, he now realized.

He didn’t hurt before—he didn’t feel much of anything—but now he was conscious of sharp aches in his head, ribs, face . . .

He licked his lips and tasted the thick, sweet tang of blood.

He raised his right arm and saw the sleeve of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow. The golden red hair that had furred his forearm ever since he turned fourteen. Around his wrist, the sleek black Fitbit, and, on the third finger of his hand, the ring his ex-wife had given him when he graduated Michigan State—the head of a Spartan warrior carved in intaglio carnelian in a gold setting, like a temple.

And flopping lazily from the crook of his elbow, a syringe still stuck into a vein, pulling at the skin.

Oozing a dribble of blood down to the threadbare, colorless weave of the carpet.

How did that get there?

He couldn’t remember how.

Or why.

Or when.

He wanted to make sense of his situation, but thinking was too hard. His mind was too foggy.

He lowered his arm. In the silence of the room, blackness began to close back in on him, slowly, like a cloth fluttering down over his face.

He was relieved when his thoughts, too, began to close down. No more thinking. Not about what he was doing here, or anything else.

He closed his eyes. Gradually his pain eased, and he welcomed the release. There was only silence.

And finally there was nothing.

 

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

“He was a bad one,” the woman said, and gave her head a sad shake, as though the memory itself hurt.

Martin Preuss waited for her to go on, but she said nothing more. She seemed lost in thought, gazing at the blank wall behind him. He sat with her in what she called the parlor, the front room in her large home in the Boston-Edison Historic District of Detroit. The place smelled of cat pee and old wood, the sweetish-sour odor that reminded Preuss of his childhood home.

All that was missing was the sound of his father raging upstairs while the rest of the family tiptoed around downstairs so they wouldn’t disturb “Daddy’s work.”

Unlike his family’s minimalist home, this one resembled a comfortable museum, with heavy wooden settees and huge armchairs from another age and lush Oriental rugs on the hardwood floors. In the other room, Preuss had noticed a massive Steinway grand piano when the woman, Sarah Posner, invited him in.

She lived here alone with her three cats, so their conversation was interrupted only by her memories. She had lived in this house for decades with her late husband and their three children, who were now grown and scattered across the country.

“You did know him, then,” Preuss prompted, to bring her back from her remembrance.

“Oh, yes,” she said. Her eyes returned from the past to land back on him with a bright intensity. She was small and hunched in the wingback chair where she sat. Her skin was the color and texture of old parchment, and the knuckles of her hands were swollen and stiff as she gripped the arms of her chair. Wisps of white hair peeked from the turban she wore.

“We all knew about him,” she continued. “Izzie was already in prison by the time my Morrie and I were married. But Morrie know him when he was little. Izzie was Morrie’s great-uncle, you see. I didn’t meet Izzie until he got out of prison. He was an old man by then. Old and defeated. And, you know, Morrie’s family used to talk about them. Izzie and his cousin Leon both. Morrie knew Leon, too, but Leon was killed in the thirties, so I never met him.”

She thought for a few moments longer, then said, “They were all bad boys.”

She drew her mouth together in a pinched frown of disapproval.

“They reflected so badly on us,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, all right, they were immigrants, they had to make a place for themselves, it was a bad time, they had no other skills. But it’s another to look at what they did and how they did it. So cruel. And to know people would look at them and think they represented us all. People in this city already had enough reasons to hate us, between the poison they heard from Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.”

She fell into silence as she reflected on her family.

Preuss sketched a fast diagram of the connections in his notebook. When he got back to his office, he would have to draw out a more detailed chart of the family relationships.

“You’ve never met my client?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “Until you called, I’d never heard of her. But now I think I’d quite like to meet her.”

“I’m sure she’d like to meet you, too.”

“Maybe you could set something up,” Sarah said. “She could come for tea.”

“You can probably fill in a lot of family history for her. She seems hungry for it.”

The woman nodded absently, and he wondered if she was off on another reverie.

He had asked her about her family’s connections with members of the Purple Gang, the group of Jewish criminals around Detroit in the 1920s. They began as shakedown artists and petty thieves and wound up controlling the local bootleg liquor trade from Canada during Prohibition, subsequently hiring themselves out as hitmen and enforcers.

Preuss’s client was a college student named Beverly Frankel. She hired Greene and Preuss, Investigations, to track down a rumor in her family that they were related to a few of the Purples. His search led him to this 95-year-old woman and the genteel poverty of her mansion.

According to Sarah Posner, the Frankel family’s stories about their links to the gang were true.

But the family connections were to two cousins who were among the most savage of the crew, so Preuss didn’t know how his client would react to the news. She struck him as someone looking more for colorful, romantic stories of outlaws to tell her friends, but Isadore Adler and Leon Glick’s bombings, assassinations, and brutal enforcement methods weren’t the stuff of romance.

Like many cases he had worked since joining Emmanuel Greene’s detective firm after retiring from the Ferndale Police Department’s Detective Bureau, the lesson here was, don’t ask questions you might not want answered.

Before he could ask the woman any more about her relations, he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Do you have to get that?”

“Let me just check,” he said. “It might be about my son.”

He glanced at the screen. It wasn’t about Toby; the call was from Rhonda Citron, the administrative manager of the detective agency.

“Excuse me,” he said, “it’s my office. I should take this.”

She raised a wan hand in permission and took another sip of her tea. She stared into the air, as though she could see images floating there of the past they had been talking about.

He stood and walked to the parlor’s bay window looking out on the broad, manicured lawns of Edison Boulevard. He connected the call. “Rhonda,” he said.

“Are you still at your appointment in Detroit?”

“I am.”

“For much longer?”

“I think we’re almost done. What’s up?”

“Manny has a one o’clock meeting with a new client and he just called,” Rhonda said. “He’s going to be late. He wanted to know if you could take it for him. He said he doesn’t want the client sitting around waiting.”

He held the phone away from his ear to check the time. Twelve-thirty.

“I can just make it,” he said. “You might have to stall the appointment a little.”

“Great. I’ll let Manny know. Things okay there?”

“I found the link I was looking for. I just need to nail down the next steps. I’ll wrap things up and see you soon.”

He disconnected and returned to the parlor. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to get back,” he said. “Mrs. Posner, could we talk again?”

“Anytime,” she said. “I don’t know how much more I can tell you, but . . . next time, why don’t you bring Miss—what was her name?”

“Frankel.”

“Bring her when you come. I’d like to meet her.”

“Excellent,” said Preuss. “I’ll set it up.”

Sarah Posner said she would look forward to it.

 

[Interested in reading more? Find Cold Dark Lies at Amazon.com or order it through your local bookstore or directly from me at donaldlevin.com.]

 

Promoting Depth in Fiction

In a recent conversation, author, editor, and publicist Diana Kathryn Plopa mentioned how struck she is by what she called all the layers in my books.

I’ve been reflecting on how much I appreciated that comment. We all like to hear nice things about our books, but Diana’s remark about layers particularly resonated with me. I understood her to mean a kind of richness of meaning in the stories and characters that she finds in my work.

Diana’s comment was so interesting because that’s just the term that I use in thinking about my novels: layering.

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Remember those transparencies in old-fashioned biology textbooks? Layered atop an image of the human body, one transparency would have bones, another would show muscles, another would have organs, blood vessels, nerves, and so on. Put them all together and you get a full picture of the fullness and complexity of the human body.

Novels (and not just mine) can have a similar kind of depth. It doesn’t happen accidentally, but results from working the following “overlays” into the books.

1. One layer consists of conventions of the genre or type of writing, including reader expectations.

For example, for a crime novel (my own genre), conventions might include a crime or some violation of the personal, social, or political order; efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator (often this is the focus of the mystery novel; think of the “Law” part of “Law and Order”); the perpetrator is brought to justice (the “Order” part of “Law and Order”); and the world is either set right or order and law are not re-established.

Often a particular kind of crime novel will focus on one or more of those elements. A mystery novel like the Martin Preuss mysteries (to take just one example chosen completely at random) would focus on the efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator of the violation of the order.

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To take another example, in heist novels like Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) Parker books, or a movie like Baby Driver, plot conventions include planning the crime, the meeting/gathering of participants, execution of the crime with ensuing complications, and resolution or justice (or not).

Conventions may also include character types, that is, recurring kinds of characters. Many mysteries offer variations on the eccentric, socially maladjusted genius, a type that comes down to us from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and includes all his modern counterparts, such as Sherlock Holmes in literature and Dr. House and Monk on TV, as well as the solitary counter-authoritarian knight-errant like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Lew Archer, to name just three examples.

Along with these conventions come the expectations the reader brings, such as that she will be challenged, misled, or misdirected along with way, or that the heist will not go well, involving double- or triple-crosses.

On top of this overlay, add:

2. Elements of the setting—the place or places where events happen

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Setting not only supplies the locations for the action (not only names and specific locales, establishments, and so on, but also history, politics, media, etc.). Setting also suggests actions and language arising from places, provides characters particular to certain places, and helps set the tone of the books. Think of how historical mysteries accomplish all of these; think also of what Elmore Leonard’s Detroit setting means for his books. The setting is always crucial.

Finally, on top of these, overlay:

3. An author’s individual concerns: recurring characters and character types, themes, styles

Read enough of any author’s work and you’ll find certain constants. In my mysteries, for example, there’s always a sympathy for marginal characters; a focus on the cascading effects of greed, violence, and misplaced loyalties; issues of social class; and care of a son with cerebral palsy. Here is where an author’s particular point of view and insights turn stock flat characters in round, living people.

I also have another concern that serves as what I think of as the heart of the Preuss series (besides sweet Toby, that is), informing each book. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog posts, at this moment in history, I believe we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. As Camus said in one of his essays, “In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity. We must achieve this or perish.” This echoes Auden’s line “We must love one another or die,” from his great poem, “September 1, 1939,” and what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote, 

sontag“A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.”

In my writing, I’m trying to expand our sympathies and sense of the world. Writing mystery fiction allows me to enter into the minds and hearts of characters acting under the stresses and extremities of crime and see the world through their eyes, and help readers see it as well.

(This is the reason I get a little nuts when I hear a writer talk about writing for “self-expression.” I remember hearing poets and their critics/interpreters talking about “the self,” and images of the self, and the poetry of self, and the self’s multiplicity, and so on. I’m not a fan of the kind of solipsistic, cryptic writing that results from this approach.)

I want to tell a good story, sure, but I also want the reading experience to be more than simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours. I’m hoping that when readers finish my novels, they will be transformed somehow—even if it’s a slightly expanded understanding of what it takes to care for a child with handicaps, or acknowledge how the effects of violence cascade down through generations, or even appreciate the way a grief-stricken detective tries to do his best in a world rife with corruption.

Such transformations are my ultimate intention, and I rely on the layering strategy I talked about here to accomplish it. 

Whether or not I succeed, of course, is up to my readers.