Tuesday, March 26, 2013


If you could be whisked backward in time, by some Dickensian spirit or H. G. Wellsian device, where and when would you go?

Let’s stipulate that you would be invisible and adhere to the Star Trek-Vulcan non-interference policy.

Would you choose big-ticket, red-letter events? Like the Sermon on the Mount or the download of the Ten Commandments; the Gettysburg Address or the “I Had a Dream” speech?

Of course you can catch a rerun of Dr. King’s speech on YouTube, and they say you had to be real close to hear Liincoln’s brief, unamplified remarks. Could the acoustics have been any better for the Beatitudes and the Thou Shalt Nots?

My time travel list is top heavy with performing artists. If I were younger, it might include Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson. The Beatles don’t make my list either. I would like to have been at Elvis’ legendary 1969 concert at the International Hotel in Vegas.

No writers on my list (well, there is one hyphenate, I’ll get to that in a moment). No matter how Hollywood tries to glamorize the seat-of-the-pants work (The Way We Were,
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ruby Sparks), it ‘s still a solitary schlubb in a room pecking away. Or, in the case of Doctor Zhivago, Omar Sharif shivering and scratching away at his Lara poems.

For me, too often writing feels like the sweaty business the Coen Brothers show us in Barton Fink.

As to the hyphenate, I would put near the top of my list author-actor Charles Dickens doing one of his legendary public readings. Ralph Waldo Emerson attended one in Boston during Dickens' American tour; Emerson said it was so funny that that he laughed “as if he must crumble to pieces.” Of course, when Dickens acted out Little Nell’s death scene from The Old Curiosity Shop, Victorian crowds went wild with grief.

Here’s a contemporaneous account of Dickens’ rendition of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes
in Oliver Twist: “Warming with excitement, he flung aside his book and acted the scene of the murder, shrieked the terrified pleadings of the girl, growled the brutal savagery of the murderer... Then the cries for mercy: ‘Bill! dear Bill! for dear God's sake!’... When the pleading ceases, you open your eyes in relief, in time to see the impersonation of the murderer seizing a heavy club, and striking his victim to the ground.”

Little wonder that Dickens achieved a rock star-like status on his reading tours, complete with Gladstone bag filled with cash receipts just like the Rolling Stones. But Dickens wasn’t the first rock star. That title goes by general consensus to Franz Liszt. "Lisztomania" swept across Europe in the 1840s, a quarter-century before Dickens’ American tour.

"We hear about women throwing their clothes onto the stage and taking his cigar butts and placing them in their cleavages," says Stephen Hough, a renowned concert pianist on his own right.

Vladimir (l) and Sergei
Liszt does not make my list, but I have often fantasied about slipping into Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Beverly Hills home back in the ‘30s or ‘40s. I’d pick one of those afternoons or evenings when Sergei’s dear friend, Vladimir Horowitz, would drop by and the two keyboard titans, on dovetailed concert grands, would sink their talon hands into a two-piano reduction of the Rach 3. No amplification needed in that room!

Dueling pianos also beckon me back. I would love to hear one of the legendary “cutting
contests” matching stride piano players during that same general era. According to Wikipedia, the blind genius Art Tatum would usually win, beating out such legendary striders as Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, and Earl "Fatha" Hines, with a couple boogie woogie virtuosos for good measure, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson.

I ‘d pay Stub-Hub a special time-warp premium for a keyboard-side seat.

Another grand musical duel entices, this one featuring none other than Ludwig von Beethoven. His opponent, Daniel Steibelt, was a self-regarding Viennese composer-pianist. According to musicologist Harold Schonberg, the two rivals had their showdown at a musicale where Steibelt played a brilliant fantasy for piano and strings whose theme he had taken from a Beethoven trio he had heard the previous week:

“Steibelt’s admirers were in raptures. Now the issue was joined, and Beethoven had to show his strength. He walked to the piano, grasped the cello part of the Steibelt work en route, put it upside down on the piano and insultingly drummed out a theme with one finger. Then he improvised, and—angry, excited, on his mettle—how he must have improvised! Before Beethoven had finished, Steibelt stole from the room. He never again would meet Beethoven, and made it a condition before going anywhere in Vienna that Beethoven not be invited.” (Schonberg: The Great Pianists From Mozart to the Present, p. 75)

What else? I’d love to have seen Nijinsky dance, Houdini disappear an elephant, heard Chaliapin sing the Song of the Volga Boatmen, watched Babe Ruth circle the bases after a gigantic clout. I wish I could get good outfield seats in Yankee Stadium in 1951 to see Joe DiMaggio side by side with rookie sensation Mickey Mantle .

What’s on your list? Anything happening right now, anywhere in the world, you might wish someday you could go back to?

Monday, March 18, 2013


Rather than writing about what I know, as beginning fiction writers are ever advised to do, I've chosen to write about what excites me. Why not? Non-astronaut Jules Verne wrote about lunar travel; James Hilton never visited Shangri-La, nor Edgar Rice Burroughs the moon. As fiction fodder, my own milieu bored me as a boy, and continues to do so.

I decided to write the kind of books that I like to read, just like Ian Fleming did. Can  you imagine, that intrepid spy novelist-to-be grew up and lived in a world without James Bond thrillers. So would we all, were it not for his sophisticated, wry, storytelling genius and incurably boyish imagination.

(Of course, Fleming, as a Naval Intelligence officer in World War II, knew the espionage business, too. But that’s off my point, isn’t it?)

My first published thriller was set in exotic locales I’d never laid eyes on (and still haven’t)—Istanbul and the Eastern Mediterranean, with climactic events on the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo. Lair of the Fox was published in 1989, before the era of online, on-the-fly research, so my work desk was piled high with National Geographics, maps ordered from around the world, travel magazines and travel books.

Pre-publication I sent off reading copies to some of my favorite thriller writers, and was flabbergasted to get back generous quotes from two of them, Clive Cussler and the late Ross Thomas. But my favorite response was a letter from Eric Ambler, whose 1939 masterpiece, A Coffin for Demetrios (Mask of Demetrios in the U.K.), was also set in Istanbul and was my inspiration for Lair.

Ambler promised to read my fledgling novel when he had the chance. Then he added that, like me (as I had confessed in my letter), he had not had a chance to visit Istanbul before writing Demetrios.

Eventually, he said, he came to know the city quite well and applied this knowledge in several works—especially The Light of Day (filmed as Topkapi).

The funny thing was, he went on in his urbane way, more than a few “Old Stamboul hands” had advised him that the atmospherics and feel of the magical city by the Bosphorus were far better captured in Demetrios than in the later works.

I’m not saying that ignorance is a virtue, please note. What I am saying is that dogmatic pronouncements like “Write what you know!” may resound convincingly in the Fiction Fundamentals lecture hall, but they are not necessarily so. The best comeback to such dogmatism remains Hamlet’s:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
My own philosophy of writing is expressed in this quatrain by Conan Doyle that serves as the epigraph to The Lost World:

I have wrought my simple plan / If I give one hour of joy / To the boy who's half a man, / Or the man who's half a boy.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


It’s old news that too much sedentary activity can pose health risk. Yet that was the thrust of a recent newspaper story (in the London Independent). Among the scary conditions cited: heart disease, blood clots on the brain, even certain types of cancer.

The article’s cautionary focus is directed to the modern legion of desk workers. It's only way down in the fourteenth paragraph that the focus narrows to a particular sedentary class—writers.

What writers need to do, apparently, is quite simple: Crank up their desks to lectern height.

By way of encouragement, the article cites a distinguished quartet of stand-up writers—Hemingway, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Churchill. The only living example offered is, oddly, Don Rumsfeld.

But writers, when they confront the blank page, on paper or screen, are they obsessed with health and fitness? Hardly. Their obsession is trying to plug into the nearest Muse. Performance enhancing drugs are not limited to athletes, after all; if they could be assured of hitting it out of the park, many writers would gladly dice with the Devil, and many have.

So here’s my more persuasive argument for writing on one’s feet. It invigorates the process of composition. More blood to the brain equals more muscular prose, something like that.

It’s especially true of fiction-writing, especially for that first draft. As one writer exhorted me early on:
  • Write with physical energy and strong emotion.
  • Get the raw pigment down on the canvas (to use an analogy).
  • Write in a state of excitement.
A legendary writing teacher put it this way: “Write without hesitation, to put down your first thought or first impression.”

(The teacher was William Foster-Harris at the University of Oklahoma, whose successful students included Louis L’Amour, Mary Higgins Clark and Tony Hillerman.  His out-of-print primer on plotting is well worth searching for.)

Leon Martell, a contemporary playwright and actor, once offered a UCLA Extension course called “Writing Below the Neck: A Theatrical Approach to Creating Characters.” I never took Mr. Martell’s course, but I was intrigued by the catalogue description:

“To get past the intellectual in the writer, to reach what is spontaneous and visceral in a character, Leon Martell works with exercises originally created for actors which have been adapted to help writers work from the inside out.”

Fiction writers need to be actors, obviously, to get inside their characters. In the words of Georges Simenon cited in an earlier post, “All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels.” Flaubert is supposed to have experienced symptoms of arsenic poisoning when writing of Madame Bovary’s death.

Writing with strong and sympathetic emotion requires a great deal of physical energy. To prime the pump, many fiction writers (just like actors) do vigorous warmup exercises before sitting, or standing, to begin their work. In his early years, John D.MacDonald did pushups and situps prior to his daily stint.

My own first fiction sales, at five cents a word, were to confession magazines, True Romance and True Story. They were first-person stories from the female perspective, following a plot formula carved in stone—Sin, Suffer and Repent. There were many additional editorial commandments, one of which I have never forgotten: Every paragraph must be infused with strong emotion.

I don’t remember if I did pushups before launching into the first-draft of “Can’t Anyone Hear Me Crying,” my first sale, but I was certainly energized, and, yes, I was sobbing along with my POV character by the end.

As for writing on one’s feet, I’m surprised that the London Independent article omitted the venerable practice of dictation. Erle Stanley Gardner, author of Perry Mason stories (and hundreds more under a host of pen names) “dictated his detective novels nonstop to a series of secretaries, having previously pasted about in his studio 3-by-5 cards reminding him at exactly what hour the dog barked, the telephone rang, the murderer coughed.” (William F. Buckley Jr., “What’s So Bad About Writing Fast?” New York Times Book Review, Feb. 9, 1986.)

For his first drafts, Sidney Sheldon reportedly paced in front of a secretary who took shorthand at 220 words a minute.

A more distinguished (and probably slower) dictator was Robert Louis Stevenson. There are accounts of RLS, at his hilltop house in Samoa toward the end of his life, acting out all the parts, male and female, as he improvised scenes from St. Ives and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston.

Whenever C.S. Forester, author of the Hornblower Saga and The African Queen, encountered a particularly knotty problem in a story or scene, he would pace his study until the matter resolved itself. Forester also recounts (in The Hornblower Companion, Pinnacle Books, 1964) the all-consuming nature of his creative process, in which he could visualize all his characters to the extent that he could walk around them as on a stage and view them from all angles.

Two more quotes to round out this brief discussion on the proper physical attitude for writing. First, from a wonderful writer who neither sat nor stood, Truman Capote:

“I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.”

(Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, p. 294.)

And a parting shot from John D. MacDonald in defense of the seat-of-the-pants technique (while flouting all the health risks thereof):

"Get the fissures in the piles and the varicosities and the pressures on the disks and keep the ass on the chair and do it!"

(Quoted in John D. MacDonald by Davod Geherin)


Wednesday, March 6, 2013


...But certainly not for Hugo Chávez, or Chavismo. I leave that to Sean Penn and Oliver Stone. And apparently the Los Angeles Times, which featured the following banner caption beneath the dead dictator’s pugnacious portrait on page 1 this morning:

Now let me add that I had high hopes for Chávez when he muscled his way to power in the early ‘90s, in the aftermath of the impeachment for corruption of President Carlos Andrés Pérez... and not long after my wife and I visited the country to research a thriller novel.

As the years passed, and the familiar Man on Horseback galloped into the headlines, my hopes were dashed, and so were Venezuela’s… yet again.

Now back to that thriller novel, which I titled Orinoco, but which my publisher (Pocket) oddly retitled Pursuit Into Darkness It was supposed to be action adventure, but it kept turning into glorified travelogue because, well, because Venezuela is one of the most incredibly beautiful places on earth.

Here’s a quick sketch from chapter two of my book: 

 “He felt the familiar pull of the land itself, of the frontier, something Venezuela embodied for him more than anywhere else on earth. Its cities were jumping-off places for outrigger islands and Andean peaks, rain forests and rolling grasslands, jungle rivers and breathtaking waterfalls, and a vast highlands studded with giant sandstone mesas. Its cornucopia of resources included one of the world's largest deposits of oil, plus diamonds, gold, silver, iron, bauxite, manganese, coal and hydroelectric power--the modern fulfillment of the El Dorado dream that had once lured Sir Walter Raleigh to the region."
Among my inspirations was Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, though I skipped the dinosaurs that Doyle’s imagination deposited atop Auyán-Tepui, the "giant sandstone mesa" from whose prow Angel Falls plunges endlessly down into the surrounding jungle).

But the passage from Pursuit could also serve as the setup for a standard Venezuelan joke, one I heard from a native guide from Ciudad Bolívar who drove me across hundreds of miles of the La Gran Sabana:

“So God, he amuses himself by putting all this incredible natural wealth and beauty into this one small country. But then he plays an even bigger joke—he gives it all to Venezuelans.”

Meaning—alas—that nothing will come of it. Because Venezuelans can’t agree on anything.
Maybe the next guy will do a better job down there. Please, God, let it be so. I’m tired of your joke.


*For a far less addlepated assessment of the late, unlamented Venezuelan strongman, I recommend today’s editorial in the Miami Herald, "Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his legacy of plunder":

A few excerpts: “…as a national leader, he was an abject failure who plunged Venezuela into a political and economic abyss… In an energy-rich country that once knew no blackouts, electrical shortages are frequent, the result of Mr. Chávez’s plundering of the country’s public oil company. In a country that once enjoyed a thriving free market, prices are controlled and food items often scarce…Venezuela has become one of the most violent countries in the world, with nearly 20,000 murders recorded in 2011.”