I was born a gifted child. By the time I started school, everyone was telling me I could be anything I wanted, do anything I wanted to do. At home, too–I had very supportive, encouraging parents. But there was only one thing I ever wanted to be: a writer. Just a writer.
That’s the wrong word, “just.” It trivializes something sacred. Writing is my connection to the universe. My only connection. If some magical surgery could scalpel it out of my soul, there would be nothing left. Without my writing, that’s what I’d be: Nothing.
I knew this years before teachers started telling my parents about my “talent.” I felt it inside me, growing. It suffused every cell in my body, surging with such power that I couldn’t have suppressed it even if I had wanted to.
That force crushed everything in its path. By the time I was in grade school, it was so potent that it took over my world. It wasn’t just that writing was the only thing I cared about; writing owned me. Every sense was always tuned to that same signal. If I wrote something great, that’s how I’d feel. And if I wrote something lousy, that’s how I’d feel, too.
I don’t know the exact time it happened, but, after a while, writing was the only thing that could make me feel anything at all. The topic didn’t matter. Even if it was supposed to be writing about writing–like when you do a book report–it was always about my writing. It didn’t make any difference if I liked the book or I hated it, the only thing that counted was how I said whatever I thought–that was the power-source.
I knew the grade didn’t matter. Of course I’d get an A, but so would other kids. There was no grade that could measure my writing.
I was the only judge.
But I was never smug, never satisfied. I’d spend hours deciding on just the right phrase, always trying to get it ... perfect.
I didn’t care about being the best writer in class. What did that mean? I always knew there was more than that. Much more. Some place where I rightfully belonged. Don’t mistake me for some petty narcissist–I was always my harshest critic, even when I was my only critic.
It wasn’t until tenth grade that I saw my name in print. I could actually feel my synapses flame with this confirmation of my destiny.
The editor told me it was very unusual for a sophomore to get a bylined story. Even though I knew I could have written the whole school paper by myself, every single word, I told her how grateful I was to have gotten the chance.
I wasn’t even lying. Not then.
The staff of the school paper always picked the editor. Every member got to vote, but it wasn’t like the other elections at school. It wasn’t the most popular kid who won–it was the one who was willing to do the most work. Some of the kids just wanted to do their own thing: take photos, or write poems, or do a gossip column, silly garbage like that. But putting the whole thing together, that wasn’t a job most people wanted.
They always said the editor should be someone who had earned the job. Worked their way up from the bottom, paid their dues. So, naturally, they always picked a senior for the position. High school has all kinds of rules–the kind they put on posters, and the kind you learn by watching how things work. It doesn’t take long before you realize that the rules don’t apply to everyone. Certain kids get to do certain things; other kids don’t. Nobody had to spell that out. It was just the way things were–and so blatantly obvious that even the dullest kids picked it up quickly.
I saw this as an operational system, a weird blend of objectivity and favoritism. Like with the jocks: the best players got to be first string, no matter what year they were in. So the stars actually earned their positions. But once they got to be stars, they got their own set of rules as well.
I thought writing would work the same way. So whatever the editor told me to cover, I jumped on it. I was never late with an assignment. And I always nailed it, too: If they wanted three hundred words; they got three hundred words. Who, What, Where, When, and Why, just like the faculty advisor said had to be in every story.
The faculty advisor was Mr. David. The school hired him because he had a Master’s from the Columbia School of Journalism, and he had a lot of pieces published, in magazines with big names. He won some prizes for writing, too.
Mr. David had been what they called an “investigative journalist” before he retired. I guess they had to pay him a lot of money to get him to teach at a high school. But that wouldn’t be a problem. In the town I lived in, the parents always demanded the best teachers. They paid a lot of taxes to keep their public school as good as any private one. Better, even. That was very important if you wanted to get into the best colleges. I remember hearing my father tell my mother that was why we moved there from the city. It made the commute worthwhile, he said.
Besides the school paper and the journalism class, Mr. David taught creative writing. He even worked with the Debate Club. Maybe he was one of those men you read about–the ones who can’t stand being retired. He was busy all the time. I don’t think he needed the money, so I guess that teaching was what he really wanted to do.
I thought a lot about Mr. David because I was trying to come up with a solution for my problem, and I thought he might have the experience to help me. My problem was the editor of the paper. She was a fat, pasty-faced toad, with frizzy hair and thick ankles. Outside of the paper, she was so marginalized that you wouldn’t believe she could squeeze her disgusting presence into that tiny bit of space. But when it came to the paper, everybody always gave in to her, because she did just about all the work.
That made her really valuable. If someone turned in a pile of slop, Amanda would fix it up for them–even if she had to rewrite every word. That meant a lot, especially to the crowd who needed every extracurricular activity they could grab. They were obsessed with getting into the best colleges, and they knew grades and SATs just weren’t enough. Their competition always had more than that to offer, so they needed more, too.
They were always saying Amanda was a real lifesaver. Saying it to her–I don’t what they said about her at the cafeteria tables where she knew she’d never be allowed to sit. Or even if they ever mentioned her at all.
But to me, Amanda was no savior, she was a roadblock. She changed everything I turned in. I would get it back, all marked up. The first time, I told her I wasn’t going to rewrite it. She hadn’t made what I wrote better, she’d just changed it to be what she wanted it to be–she was in control, and she wasn’t letting anyone else join that one-member club.
She didn’t like me saying that, I could tell. But she didn’t lose her temper or anything. She just said everyone on the paper had to be edited, and if I didn’t “go through the process,” my article would have to be spiked.
I knew what that meant–Mr. David taught what he called “newspaper vocabulary” to all of us. He was the first person I ever heard use words like “byline” or “jump” and expressions like “above the fold” or “column inches.”
I couldn’t stand the thought of anything I wrote being spiked–it would be like the spike going into my own body. So I made all the changes. Every single one. Because we were so close to deadline by then, I had to make them with Amanda looking over my shoulder, watching the screen.
I wanted to spike her eyes.
Nothing was going to change until Amanda graduated. A whole school year away. I couldn’t live with her having so much power over me for that much time. I couldn’t let her keep changing everything I wrote. It was like she was slicing pieces off me. If I didn’t find a way to stop her, there would be nothing left. Not of my writing, so ... not of me, either. By then, there was no dividing line.
I knew I could never say anything like that out loud. Nobody would ever understand. And if I tried to explain it, they’d probably want me to see some “counselor.” That’s when I started to plan.
I waited a few weeks, then I took one of my articles home with me, all marked up with Amanda’s “editing.” By then, she didn’t watch me make the changes in front of her anymore–she knew I’d do whatever she said, even if she didn’t know why. So when I told her I’d bring the article back to her the next morning, all fixed, she believed me.
I waited around for the stupid Debate Club to be over. Then I asked Mr. David if I could talk to him for a minute. I asked if I could meet him somewhere off campus. To talk about something in private. Anywhere he wanted, but ... well, it was kind of an emergency.
He didn’t even look surprised when I said that.
He drove me to a coffeehouse. Not a Starbucks, a real coffeehouse. It was all older people there, and the music they played was old. I guess it was, anyway–I’d never heard anything like it before.
The waitress knew Mr. David; she didn’t even ask him what he wanted, only me. I asked her if I could have some green tea. She waited for a few seconds, like she expected me to say something more, then she walked away.
That’s when I showed Mr. David my article. It was about a boy in our school who had gotten a perfect score on his math SATs. That kid was in a wheelchair. What I wrote about was how everyone knows kids in wheelchairs sometimes develop really powerful arms–one part of their body doesn’t work, so they compensate by building up another part that does. But the barbed point of my piece was how important sports are in high school, and how this boy knew he could never be part of that. He hadn’t just wanted to fit in; he wanted to excel. Arm-wrestling wasn’t a school sport, so he found another way.
My piece was supposed to be all about his perfect score. But I wrote it about how that kid didn’t like the place people wanted to put him in, so he made one for himself. And then he rolled his wheelchair right into it.
Mr. David read it right there, sipping his coffee. Not too fast, not too slow ... the way a real editor reads, not the way a teacher grades.
When he was finished, he looked over at me, but he didn’t say anything.
“I know I must be doing something wrong, Mr. David,” I said. “Every time I turn anything in, it comes back looking like this.”
Then I handed him Amanda’s edits. “The thing is, I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong. I mean, I always make the changes she tells me to, but they never make sense to me. This isn’t an ego-thing; I just want to improve. I need to be the best writer I can possibly be. But how can I learn to be a better writer if I just keep changing what I write without ever knowing why I’m doing it.”
“Doesn’t Amanda explain her edits to you?”
“I ... guess she does. I mean, the first few times I asked her, she said some things. But she only used adjectives, and those are ... well, flabby. If someone says they want to change what I wrote because it needs more punch and they don’t tell me what ‘punch’ is, I can’t get better. And I have to get better.”
Mr. David gave me a look I didn’t understand. I waited a long time, but he didn’t say anything. So I did.
“I’m not criticizing Amanda,” I told him. “She must know a hundred times more about writing than I do. I’m just ... embarrassed, I guess. I mean, how come I don’t get it? I try. I read her edits over a dozen times, but I still can’t see how they make whatever I wrote better. So I know I must be missing something.
“I need to find the key, Mr. David. Because if I can’t unlock the door, I can’t get inside the only place I want to be. The only place I truly belong.”
“Surely that’s not the school newspaper, Seth?”
“No, sir. I want to be a writer. I want the best writer I have in me to come out. I know how important it is to learn from others. But if I can’t even do that, how can I ever hope to...?”
Mr. David sipped his coffee again. Took off his glasses and rubbed his temples. Then he said something to me I never forgot: “You’ll get better at it, Seth.”
“But how can I get better if–?”
“Better at manipulating people,” Mr. David cut into what I was saying. “You just keep practicing.” He sounded sad when he said that.
He drove me home without saying another word.
Amanda never edited another of my pieces. She just ran them exactly as I turned them in, word for word. Mr. David never spoke to me again, except in class, and then only when he had to. I was sorry about that. I had learned so much from him. One of the books on the “optional” list he handed out is where I first read about how some editors have a need to mark their territory. The book called it “pecker tracks,” but I knew that was probably a real old expression, from before women were in positions of power. Like editors were.
The literary magazine in college had an editor, too. But she didn’t believe art should be edited–she would say things like “Kerouac and Corso showed us all the way.” I thought what they wrote was some kind of drugged drivel. But everything in her magazine–and it was her magazine, the same way the high school paper had been Amanda’s–was “art.” And one doesn’t judge art.
At first, I thought she was being sarcastic. But she was worse than stupid; she was a believer. By then, everyone knew what a gift I had. But they saw only the part I wanted them to see. I had to hide the other one. I wasn’t just a writer; I was a researcher. I could scan gobs of material really quickly, and weave it into whatever I was writing. So getting an A on a short story or an essay, that was nothing. But for something like a term paper–one where they counted the footnotes without actually reading them–I needed my second gift ... the one nobody knew about.
After I graduated, I had to make a decision. Not about being a writer–I was a writer–but how to find the quickest way to force others to acknowledge it. I was accepted by every MFA program I applied to. But I applied only to make my parents happy; I wasn’t going to spend any more years of my life getting some credential that wasn’t good for anything except teaching writing. A few of my college professors had that MFA degree. I always took their courses, but none of them taught anything I could use ... like how to get published by the best houses. All they did was pose and posture. One of them, he was so “ironic” that he was always able to get a couple of the girls taking his class to think he was brilliant. He never saw the irony in that. Another one, all he did was scream at students. He’d make us read our work out loud, in front of the class, and then he’d do a “critique.” After that, the class would all give “feedback.” Like the professor was the king shark, so he got the first rip, but he’d leave plenty for the others to feed on.
Once, after I finished reading, he said my story was vapid. “Writing isn’t just mastery of words,” he said. “Even the most perfect prose will die on the vine if it isn’t nourished by narrative force.” I could feel the class nodding approval, waiting to jump in. But I was ready. I’d been waiting for it. Training for it like a prizefighter.
“Who says so?” I said to the professor. “You?”
“Well, I am the one who gives out the grades.”The class laughed. A herd of sheep, bleating on command.
“Sure,” I said. “But this is the only place you get to make those kinds of decisions.”
The class went quiet, not knowing what to do ... waiting for their next cue.
“Is that supposed to be clever?” the professor said. “Or just some deep profundity you read in a comic book?”
Some people in the class started to laugh, but they were nervous laughs, like they weren’t sure they were doing the right thing. When the rest didn’t join in, they stopped.
“It’s just the truth,” I said to the professor. “In this little class, you get to decide what’s ‘good’ writing and what’s ‘bad’ writing. But out in the world, you don’t get to make those decisions, other people do. And they already made their decision about your writing, didn’t they? Otherwise, you’d have a whole bunch of your own books published by now, wouldn’t you?”
“You apparently have some serious problems, young man,”the professor said, his face all blotchy from trying to sound blasé while he was raging inside. “Maybe the school counselor could be helpful.”
Nobody laughed at all. After class, one of the girls came up to me. “That was the most amazing thing I ever saw,” she said. “I would have been terrified to stand up to him like that.”
“The only way you can be hurt is if you care,” I told her. She didn’t understand what I meant until the next semester. Once she saw for herself what I meant, she dropped out of school. I don’t know what happened to her after that.
I didn’t want to teach. And I was sick of all the generic advice. I knew that desire isn’t all it takes, and “try, try again” is wasted when “again” is a synonym for “infinitely.” What I found out is that everyone wants to be a writer. Everyone. Right this second, more people are writing books than reading them. They don’t understand that only a micro-percentage of them actually have that special gift.
Not that I blame people for being confused about that, especially people my age. Anyone can get “published” now. Some of them put their writing in their blogs, beyond-all-doubt convinced they have thousands and thousands of “fans.” Some of them use one of those “print on demand” outfits. Amazon will “publish” your book, guaranteed. All you have to do is agree to make it a “Kindle original.” Now any twit can e-mail all his Facebook friends with a URL that proves he’s a “writer.” They’ve all read actual books that seriously suck, so they know the bar is low enough for them to jump over, too.
They don’t look at writing as an art. It’s not playing the violin, or sculpting, or opera singing. They think being able to do those kinds of things is truly special–a God-given “gift” that might take a whole lifetime to perfect. Everyone’s heard of child prodigies in the “arts.” Three-year-olds who play the piano, kindergarten kids who paint ... they’re on TV all the time. But writing, who can’t do that? I read a survey once: almost ninety percent of the respondents rated themselves “very good” drivers. If the question had been: “Do you have writing talent?” the percentage would probably be the same. And just as accurate.
That’s because writing has no standards of value. It isn’t measured by how many pounds you can lift. Or who is first across the finish line in a race. Those are objective criteria, uniformly applied. Writing is nothing like that. What’s “good” is what people say is good. Only a privileged few people get to say that; the rest are entitled only to listen to their wisdom. The literati rule. And the sheep obey. Even if the opinions they are told to treasure call them sheep. And it is beyond dispute that any book can instantly turn from rancid to wonderful the instant someone makes a movie out of it. That’s the closest thing to a yardstick people ever have about writing. And if the movie turns out to be a hit, everyone runs out to buy the paperback of the book they wouldn’t touch in hardcover. But, first, it has to be published. It took me quite a lot of rejections to learn this.
After I graduated, I knew I couldn’t continue living at home. My parents would have let me, but that house could never provide the atmosphere I needed. Too much noise, too many distractions. And too many things other people would expect me to do. Family stuff.
I needed my own place. Which meant I needed money. I thought about getting some college-graduate job, maybe even teaching high school English. But I remembered Mr. David. I didn’t know if he was a real writer–I thought maybe he was, although I couldn’t explain why I thought so–and I realized that a high school teacher never has any time for his own work. I thought of being a cab driver, but that was too scary. In this city, cab drivers get killed all the time. And they have to work very long hours to make any money. I researched all that because I was trying to find a job where I wouldn’t have people telling me what to do all the time.
Finally, I ended up working at this big office supply store. All I had to do was keep the shelves stocked, answer customer questions sometimes, and not get fired for breaking the rules. Simpleton rules, like no smoking inside the building, not leaving your personal cell phone on, never taking stuff home ... stupid, petty things like that. All I really wanted to do was write. All the time. All day, everyday. And this job let me get pretty close; I could put in four hours every night during the weekdays, and the weekends were all mine. Even when they changed the employee schedule–and they were always doing that–it didn’t matter to me. When they put me on weekends, I still had Monday and Tuesday off . Days never mattered to me, only hours.
The only place I could afford wasn’t nice in any way at all, and I didn’t waste time trying to keep it clean. I knew some of the great writers had worked under much worse conditions. One day, I’d be telling the story of how I’d sacrificed so much for my art. Telling the story to some interviewer, after I was famous.
It took me almost nine months to finish my first novel. I didn’t know what to do next, so I went back to researching. I joined a writers group. I thought it would be a good place to learn how to get my novel seen by the right people, but all they wanted to do was read their own stuff out loud, and then get “feedback” from the others. Just like in college, only now, everybody was supposed to be “supportive.” Like it was some sickening form of group therapy.
It always felt more like a secret society than a group of professionals. They all threw around insider terms like “hard-soft deals” and “The List.” The screenplay morons were the worst, dropping names like they were throwing coins into a wishing well. They all had the vocabulary down pat, but it wasn’t their vocabulary. In their mouths, those same words all turned into hollow dreams.
So I gave up on writing groups. I started going to open-mic readings. But the crowds there were always more interested in how the writer looked than anything he wrote. Some of them even brought their own cheering sections. The big favorites were always the ex-cons and the ex-hookers. It was hard, but I did it. And all for nothing. Even the people who seemed to really love my work, all they had for me was more advice. Most of it was some variation of “What you need is an agent.” As if I hadn’t known that! I’d tried researching agents, but it was like trying to negotiate a booby-trapped path through a forest of lies. Some of them wanted a “reading fee,” some said they were“coaches,” some were nothing but fronts for a vanity press outfit.
It seemed as if the only real agents already had more clients than they needed. That made sense to me. If you make your living off a percentage of what a writer sells, why would you want to represent a writer who’s never sold a thing? I felt stupid for not understanding what I should have known all along. Like when I was competition-checking in one of those giant Barnes & Nobles. I watched a middle-aged woman walk in the door. She didn’t even look at the books, just asked the clerk at the front desk, “Where’s the Bestseller List?” The clerk didn’t even look up, just pointed her to a special shelf they had standing all by itself. She marched right over there, like there was nothing else worth reading in that whole giant store.
So I did more research. It seemed as if the major houses were always publishing first novelists, so they had to have discovered them somehow. That had to be the door I was looking for. I could see how some books got published. If you were a famous person, you could always sell your life story, especially if you had sex with other famous people. But it didn’t matter if you were a movie star or a serial killer, publishers loved “true” stories ... even the ones that turned out to have been made up. I thought of making up a story myself, but people are much more suspicious than they used to be, with so many frauds getting exposed all the time.
Besides, even if I got away with it, all I’d have was money. Nobody would know me as a writer. I knew the path to my destiny was its own test. I knew if I ever stepped off that path, I could never reach what was at its end.
So I looked even deeper. And I found one of the answers. All of those first novelists had a common denominator. Contacts. Connections. Somebody who could open doors for them. I didn’t have anyone like that. And I never would. Even so, I never strayed from my path.
I met women in the places I went to for readings, but all they wanted was to hook up, as if the place were a singles bar instead of a showcase. I could use them for what they had to offer, and sometimes I did ... just in case they knew somebody. But none of them ever did.
When I finally met the person who changed everything, it was in a place I’d never imagined. At work. Her name was Julia. “Like Julia Roberts,” she said, “except for my face and my figure.” I knew that kind of talk. It’s supposed to be self-deprecating humor, but it’s really a test. And I knew all the answers.
Julia had been working there longer than I had–“Right out of high school,” she told me, later–but I never actually noticed her until the day she caught me in the stockroom. I was supposed to be out on the floor, but I had an image in my head, and I had to get it into my notebook before it disappeared.
“I didn’t know you were a writer,” is the first thing she ever said to me. From the moment she said I was a writer, I knew she was the one. But I had learned a lot by then, just like Mr. David had said I would.
“I never said I was–”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry, Seth. I never could figure out why a guy like you would be working in a place like this, and now I know, that’s all. I’d never say anything to the people who work here.”
“Taking notes, I know. That’s what writers do, isn’t it? They all keep notebooks. I heard Stephen King say that once. On TV.”
After she asked me a couple of dozen times, I brought one of my short stories to work and gave it to her .The very next day, she told me I was the most amazing writer she ever read. She had stayed up all night, reading that story over and over again. “And every time I read it, I found something new,”she said. Her eyes were pure and true as she recited my validation. Listening to her, I felt the same way I had when I’d first seen my name in print. This was meant to happen.
Destiny, finding its way. Rewarding me for never straying from the only path there was.
Julia had been saving for years. “What have I got to spend money on, anyway?”
When I first saw her apartment, I was surprised at how big it was.“I lived here with Mom ever since she moved back home after the divorce. I was only four then, so I don’t remember much about it. Mom moved back in with her mother. My grandmother. It was just the three of us. Then Nana passed, and it was just us two. I was twenty-three when Mom died. One day, she told me she had cancer. She only lived a couple of months after that.“Mom didn’t have any money to leave me, but, in a way, I guess she did. This place is rent-controlled, and now it’s mine. I could never afford such a nice place otherwise.”
I made some sounds. If people are getting emotional, it’s better not to use words. If you stick with sounds, they’ll turn thosesounds into whatever they need to hear.
Julia had to talk me into it, but, finally, I moved in with her. Even half the rent on that place was much less than I had been paying for the little dump I had before. And Julia moved everything around, so I had plenty of space. Even a separate room of my own, just for working. She called it my “studio.”
A couple of months later, I told Julia I had to leave.
“But why, Seth? Don’t you have everything you want here?”
“It’s a beautiful apartment, Julia. And you’re a beautiful girl. But you know how I feel about my writing. I have to do it. But it’s just too ... hard this way. We come home from work, and I just disappear into my studio. It’s like we live together, but we never see each other, you see what I mean?”
“That’s okay, Seth. I know you have to–”
“It’s not okay with me, Julia. I want to be able to ... be with you, but by the time I get home from work, I know I’ve only got a few hours until I’m too tired to write any more. By then, you’re already asleep. I live here like some ghost. And that hurts me. Because I know it’s hurting you.”
Julia got a second job, part-time. I stayed home and wrote. That way, I always had some time to spend with her. Every time I told her maybe I should go back to work so I could help pay some of the bills, she practically ordered me not to.
The writing I did in that place was my best work. When I told Julia I couldn’t have done it without her, she started crying.
I kept going to writing conferences–the ones you have to pay for, like it was tuition. But I never came back with anything I could use. I remember one of the speakers, though. After he made a little speech, this writer whose book was being made into a movie took questions from the audience. When someone asked the same question I would have, I couldn’t breathe, waiting for the answer.
But it wasn’t The Answer–it was just a mask, dropping. “The most important thing to remember is to keep writing. It may take a while, but cream always rises to the top.” As he said that, he looked like the cat who had just swallowed that cream. Like he was smirking right at me.
One time, Julia and I were in a bookstore together. I opened a book that the Times reviewer called a “tour de force.” I read a few pages. A red mist came over my eyes. I threw the book across the room. Nobody even noticed.
“I can write better than that in my sleep,” I told Julia.
“I know you can, honey. None of them–”
“No, you don’t understand,” I told her. “It’s not about being a better writer. It’s not that kind of fight. I have to find another way.”
But it was the other way that found me. I was in one of those miserable little clubs, sitting at a table, waiting for the open-mic to start. Julia was working that night, so I was there by myself.
“Mind if I join you?” a man said. He was older than me, wearing a fine suit and a silk tie. Nothing flashy; this wasn’t a man who needed props to put on an act. My heart almost stopped; I knew he had to be an agent. But it turned out he wasn’t an agent, he was a writer. Well, not really, not yet. But he had plans.“You ever write any crime fiction?” he asked me.
“I don’t do genre stuff ,” I told him.
“But you could, if you wanted to.” I just shrugged, but I was impressed. Maybe he wasn’t an agent, but he had the insight to understand what I was capable of. It was as if he knew the real reason I even came to those readings. He leaned closer. “There’s an endless market for crime fiction that the reader thinks of as ‘realistic,’” he said. Not a lecture, an explanation. He didn’t talk down to me like some pompous professor; he showed me respect. “That means the writer has to have some credentials, so the readers can tell themselves they’re being let in on the inside stuff .”
“That wouldn’t be–”
“Enough? Of course not. Probably half the cops in L.A. have written screenplays. Medical examiners, forensic techs, psychologists. . . most of them have file cabinets full of crap they think are great novels. Any part of the criminal justice system you can name, even those idiot ‘profilers,’ they all think they can do it. DAs, Legal Aid lawyers, judges. .. I’ll bet most of them have some kind of half-ass ‘book’ they’re working on right this minute.”
As I lit another cigarette, I noticed his eyes were as flat and silvery as mirrors–I could see myself in them.
“That’s what makes crap like Law and Order such a smash,”he went on. “People know every episode is ‘ripped from today’s headlines.’ Ripped off would be more like it, but you can’t argue with success.”
“My work is–”
“Original,” he cut me off . “I know. I’ve listened to it. And read it, too. Not all of it, of course–only the short stories you’ve had published in those little magazines. But that was more than enough. This is the ninth reading of yours I’ve been to. What does that tell you?”
“That you go to a lot of readings.”
He smiled away my wariness. “Scouting expeditions,” he said.
“But you said you’re not an agent, you’re a–”
“I didn’t say I was a writer. I said I wanted to be one. A rich, famous one. And I know how to make that happen. I’ve studied the process for a very long time, and I’ve decoded the formula. Want to hear me out?”
I just nodded.
“The first step is to understand that you don’t have talent,” he said. “The next step is to find someone who does.”
That was almost ten years ago. Today, H. Emory Trelaine is a fixture on the bestseller lists. His Darrow series has been translated into a dozen languages, and the critics love the fact that he’s “been there.” They blather on about how Trelaine’s real-life experience “informs” his novels.And Trelaine has been there. Any reviewer could trace the origin of his protagonist, Clarence Darrow Nighthawk. A career prosecutor who proudly described himself as a “mixed-breed,” he was the son of a brilliant biologist and a “special needs” teacher. When he was a freshman in high school, his mother had been killed by a drunk driver. The driver survived the crash. While he was still in college, his father had been murdered. He was killed in prison, where he was doing a life sentence for mailing an envelope full of contact-poison to that drunk driver. As a prosecutor, Trelaine had devoted his life to fighting crime. And the books were his “catharsis,” since Darrow often worked outside the same law that was always tying his hands in court.
I wrote every word of every one of those books. First, I read nothing but crime novels for ninety days straight, day and night. I made notes. Took a little from some, a lot from others. When I had the formula down–and Trelaine had been right; it is a formula–I turned my gift loose and let it soar.
I wrote the first Darrow novel in less than two months. When I showed it to Trelaine, he promised to get back to me. A week passed without a word. I got more and more anxious every day.
“He’ll call, honey,” Julia kept telling me. “I know he will.”
She was saying something like that one day when I’d finally had enough of her puerile nonsense.“Could you just shut–”
But then the phone interrupted me.
Trelaine had no trouble getting himself an agent. “One phone call,” he told me. We were sitting in a booth in a diner out in Queens at three in the morning–it would be the last time anyone could possibly see us together in public. He said his agent had gotten a major house to take on his first book, especially when he was able to promise them this one was just the start of a series. A series with legs.“Serious money,” he said. “And plenty more to come.”
Trelaine wanted to pay me a flat fee, like I was some hired hand. I told him it had to be a percentage. I don’t know what he heard in my voice when I said that. Whatever it was, he knew I meant it. And that it wasn’t about money. When I got back home, I told Julia it was just another false alarm. She said the kind of stuff she always said. I kissed her forehead, blessed her for having so much faith in me. And then we went to bed.
Three books later, Trelaine was rich and famous. I was just rich.
The day after my first check cleared, I packed my stuff and moved out. When Julia asked me why, I told her that it wasn’t right, her giving up her life for a man so obsessed with his writing that he couldn’t give her any of the things she deserved. It’s easy to lie if you put enough truth into it. It was time to face reality, I told her. I was never going to be a published author. But I was going to die trying. Even that part had some truth in it.
“I’ll never stop believing in you, Seth. Never.”That was the last thing she ever said to me.
The first four books in the series made The List, but Trelaine and I never met again, even in private. He never even called, except to tell me when his agent had signed another contract.
I was alone. But not alone with my writing, the way I’d always thought it was meant to be. Julia wasn’t in the way, anymore, but that damn Darrow series was. Thanks to all the pressure from the publisher, I could work on my own stuff only part-time. Just like I’d been doing when I’d first met Julia.
I never got invited to one of those launch parties the publishing houses throw for a book that they know is going to be hot. I never did any book signings. Nobody ever asked to interview me. But I did get to talk to the editor of the Darrow series on a pretty regular basis, especially when he sent over his “notes” on a manuscript I’d just submitted.
Even with that kind of access, it took me a while. Mr. David had been right–some things came naturally to me, but other things I needed a lot of practice to get good at. Good enough, that is.
By the time I’d made the deal with Trelaine, I knew how to get what I needed. I knew that patience is a weapon. And timing really is everything. During one of our meetings, the editor let it slip that the publishing house had known the truth ever since the second Darrow book. I sat on that knowledge like a man with a powerful handgun in his pocket, but only one bullet for it.
When I felt it, when I knew it was my time, I just walked into the publishing house and asked for the editor. I didn’t have an appointment, and I had to show ID at the security desk before they would even call upstairs. It took a couple of minutes, but then they gave me a badge and told me to go on up.
I didn’t waste the editor’s time. I told him he knew better than anyone what I was capable of as a writer. Just imagine what I could produce if I was liberated from the genre ghetto. I showed him the manuscript of my own novel, the one I had been working on for years. He promised to get back to me.
A week passed. A hundred times, I reached for the phone. But I always stopped myself. I’d already fired the one bullet I had–acting all anxious could send it off-course.
Two more weeks. Then the editor called me and asked me to come in. He told me my novel was brilliant. Almost magical. “But there’s no market for a novel of that complexity. Not now, anyway. The only way to make something like this a commercial success is by major promotion, Seth. And publishing today is all about consolidation, not risk-taking. Especially with the economy the way it is now.”
Trelaine’s next book had Darrow going after a ring of rapists who made movies of what they did, previewed them over YouTube, then sold them through a “back channel” over the Internet. It was his biggest seller ever.
A few weeks later, Trelaine’s body was discovered in the front seat of his Mercedes. The back of his head was nothing but pulp.
The papers went insane with speculation. What had made him a target for assassination? Was it his courtroom fighting for justice? Or was it his novels, the ones that had carried his crusade even farther? Trelaine’s entire backlist was reissued, with new thematic jacketing of the paperbacks. On the back of every one was a collage of newspaper headlines about his murder. They flew off the shelves.
I let six months pass. Then I called the editor, and told him I had something he had to see. I could hear the boredom in his voice until I said, “And I can’t tell you about it on the phone.”
Inside his office, I told him I had another three Darrow novels on my hard drive. All completed. He wasn’t bored anymore.
The head of the publishing house called a press conference to announce that Trelaine couldn’t be silenced. “Whoever had him killed thought they could stop him from writing the truth, but they didn’t know who they were dealing with,” he told a rapt audience. “There are at least two more completed manuscripts already in our hands. That’s all I have to say at this time.”
The press corps had heard a version of that story before. Stieg Larsson died before any of his books had been published, and now he’s the bestselling writer in the world. They did everything but shout “Amen!”
CNN ran the story every hour for a whole day and night. The bloggers kept it alive for weeks more. Pre-orders came in so quickly they almost crashed the company’s server. It was probably even worse at Amazon.
On a special crossover episode between Law & Order and CSI, a crusading novelist was found dead in the front seat of his car. At first, his wife was the prime suspect. Especially when they found she’d been having an affair, and that there was a big life insurance policy, too.
But the murder turned out to be the work of a professional. The truth came out when they matched the assassin’s “signature” to other crimes in the FBI database. In exchange for the DA’s office “taking the needle off the table,” the assassin gave up the people who hired him–a cartel of kiddieporn producers.
When the next Darrow finally came out, they couldn’t print them fast enough. HBO bought the series. Variety quoted a studio bigwig as saying “Darrow is too big for any one movie.”
Trelaine’s editor is my editor now. My own novel was released, under my own name. The house paid a respectable advance, and made a commitment to major promotion: full-page ad in the Times, thirty-city tour, a launch party at the publisher’s mansion. Plus the stuff the public doesn’t know about: window displays, end-caps, front-of-the-store dumps ... you have to pay for all that.
Throw in the top-tier Amazon “package,” a ton of favor-trade blurbs, and you can bet the farm on the outcome. It’s simple math: payoff equals payout. I’m a lock for The List.
I wonder if Julia will see me on TV.
© 2013 Andrew Vachss. All Rights Reserved.
"Ghostwriter" appears in Mortal Lock, a collection of Andrew Vachss' short stories published by Vintage Books.