In the late spring of of 2013, my father was stricken with a swift and sudden illness that took him from a reasonably healthy 76-year-old to a bottled oxygen-dependent invalid in a matter of a few hours. In a few weeks, he was dead. In his final days, he was unable even to speak.
My father, a man who lived for the spoken word, a consummate storyteller who almost never wrote anything down, left only memories in his wake. I had no letters, no stories, not even a tape recording of his soft and wonderful voice.
A couple of weeks after he died, my ex moved a couple thousand miles away, taking my younger daughter with her. My elder daughter went off to college in New York the same day.
Sitting there in my empty apartment, my girls’ rooms now little more than shrines to what once was, I took a solid inventory and found my life wanting. More than wanting, I found my life downright empty. A hollow grief, then, and one I could neither escape nor numb as I had escaped and numbed all grief that came before. So what then? This I asked myself.
The answer came from my father, from all he did and did not do. He did tell stories, marvelous stories full of rich humor, irony, tragedy, and redemption. Stories about his past, my family’s past, about Gilgamesh and Jack Aubrey and Gus McCrae. He told stories of his grandmother and my grandmother, of his daughter, of his friends. All of his stories changed in the telling– that, he always said, was the point and why he disliked writing anything down –but they were always true (though not strictly factual), and they were never dull.
But as I said: he did not write them down. He had notes, sketches, summaries, but no finished work. Certainly nothing that had gone through a revision process or the hands of an editor. He was the only professor I heard of who never published anything after his doctoral thesis. Not a paper, not an essay, not a book or short story.
He did write, though. He wrote a poem about our old dog dying that was deeply moving. I’m told he wrote some short stories, but the only one I read was a draft called My Father’s Dreams in which he told of his dad dreaming of a boy, a former employee, who dies in war. I remember but a single line from that story: My father’s dreams, lost in expostulation and reply. The other parts of the story are tangled up with the ones Dad told many times.
And rich as his stories were, they weren’t novels. He told me he wanted to write a novel about our family, sort of an Angle of Repose about the Arizona territory. He took copious notes, but no novel came out of it.
So I wanted to learn by what he did not do. As Faulkner says in Shingles for the Lord: “Only think I know about work is until it’s done it ain’t done and when it’s done it is.”
A novel. That’s a shit-ton of work.
I liked some novels and hated others. Some of them died in the third act, some died earlier. But some were perfect. The Great Gatsby was the first perfect novel I read. The Shipping News. The Ogre. Gilead. Post Captain. The Adventures of Augie March. What made them great? Why did I like them? And how in the hell could I ever write one?
Czeslaw Milosz said of the novel:
A novel should interest, thrill, and move us. If it does not, it lacks the traits of a true novel. By nature sentimental and melodramatic, it resembles a fairy tale. This has often been forgotten from the moment the novel was charged with a multitude of duties.
So I set out on this terrible, thankless task. I had no idea what to do. I just started writing. No outline, no idea other than one: I wanted to write a novel my dad would like.
I decided the subject should involve a shared love of ours, B-17 bombardiers. Once, when I was about ten, my dad and I watched a WW2 propaganda movie called Bombardier. Dad knew a lot about the planes and the job, about the missions and the bombsight and even their leather jackets. In that one evening, I fell in love with them too. I built several models of B-17s and read all about them. For a number of years this lay dormant, but Ken Burns’s documentary The War brought it fully to life in my mind. I wanted to write about that.
But soon I learned that a novel needs more than setting. It needs to have a plot. It needs to have tension and stakes. But most of all, it needs people you care about, people in whom you have an investment so that when they are in peril, the peril becomes your own. I dusted off an old character of mine from a neglected vignette. In that story, a washed up salesman named Hews goes back to the Catholic orphanage where he was raised. It was long on atmosphere and short on story, but the character was there. I renamed him Hawes after a bebop pianist I admire, Hampton Hawes, and started writing. He came to life almost immediately, especially when I added a friend to the mix. The friend I named Meyer, an obvious homage to John D. MacDonald. And lastly I added an enemy. Of all three of these, I suppose I bear the most resemblance to the enemy.
As for the story, it took many, many drafts. I was fortunate to lose my job and have a number of months where I did little but write, sometimes eight or nine hours a day. National Novel Writing Month came and went, and I finished 50,000 words in about two weeks. Then came revisions and corrections. My unemployment left me too poor to afford an editor, and I was too scared to find an agent. So instead I published it myself, learning all the pitfalls of that firsthand. Revising, correcting, revising. Eventually I called it good and Hawser made its debut in late 2014, about fifteen months after I started it. It never sold very well, but I never tried very hard. I have been told it’s a good book by people who don’t normally like war stories. A couple of people even told me it made them gasp.
Confident, I started number two. It was a noir follow-up to the first, referring to it but not necessarily a sequel. The title, I thought, was a killer: Fifty-Cent Soul. It’s a 1948 LA detective story with plenty of celebrity cameos and a crazy plot that might make Raymond Chandler blush. It was very difficult for a lot of reasons. I believe I completely rewrote it three different times. Finally, I am calling it done. I am not publishing it myself this time. Instead, I’m seeking an agent.
Why? Because I just finished the third novel in what seems to be a trilogy, Miramar. This one I am especially proud of, since it’s an epic that starts in Alcatraz but largely takes place in revolutionary Cuba. It’s the biggest of the three at 120,000 words, but I hope it’s the best.
I have no illusions about literary success at my age, but I want to have the thrill of having somebody I don’t know and have never met pick up my book and feel that same fairy tale quality Milosz wrote of. I carry many characters from my favorite stories around in my head: Travis McGee, Abel Tiffauges, Scout Finch, Stephen Maturin, Yossarian, Ruthie from Fingerstone, Lady Bret Ashley. I hope that somebody might carry Viola Sykes or Schmecky or Hawser around with them the same way, that these characters will have a life of their own long after I too am dead.