Prior to being expelled from the team and subsequently the school for stealing Coach’s cell phone, deleting all of his contacts to conceal the stolen item, then turning around and selling said stolen phone to another player, Delonta was a college basketball teammate of mine.
Delonta was no taller than 5’6″ with shoes. He was, by all means, an unlikely candidate for the sport, particularly on a roster of towering trees on the hardwood. However, Delonta had freakish athletic ability evident in his lateral quickness, vertical jump, and uncanny ability to create sufficient space between him and the defender, which allowed him ample time to get off the open shot. He was a sharp shooter who lived mostly behind the 3-point arc, but once inside the paint lived predominantly above the rim gliding by and above defenders over a foot taller.
He had a shiny head that he shaved regularly, a bright smile, and hands the size of our starting center, Stanford, who was well aware of Delonta’s pilfering past and prior misdemeanor convictions.
“Keep a close eye,” Stanford had said when Delonta appeared through the double-doors on the first day of tryouts.
After Delonta made the roster and our first away game scheduled, I was in Coach’s office shooting the breeze about our potential for the season when Stanford moseyed in through the door. He folded his giant body into the lone chair beside me in Coach’s office. He slouched a bit, positioned his elbow on his knee, and propped his face in his hand.
“Coach,” Stanford said, “I don’t care if the locker room door is bolted shut with a logging chain and a 5-inch thick padlock, I’m not leaving my shit in the open for sticky fingers to snatch. I’m telling you Coach, your golden boy is a thief and will pick the pocket of more than just the opposing player.”
Coach was The Redeemer in a way. He was all about second chances. No one was flawed in his opinion, only misguided, and could be put back on the straight and narrow with the proper mentor—someone who could identify the struggles of the individual and help them overcome it. One way of doing that was to be part of a team, an interconnected group of individuals whose success depended on the whole of the team and not on one individual. It was a way for a kid turned sour to turn good again. He could play basketball as well as earn his degree, and with an education came a better future and more open doors.
“I’ll pay close attention,” Coach responded, trying to appease Stanford. “But give him a chance, will you? People change.”
Stanford rose, sort of shook his head a little and unwillingly agreed to give Delonta the benefit of the doubt—for Coach’s sake.
For the short time I knew Delonta, he was a likeable guy and could tell a story with the best of them. On our third road trip that season, Stanford sat in the back of the bus with his headphones in, nodding along to the music in his ears. His left leg was stretched out and straightened in the aisle.
The entirety of the team went through their pre-game road rituals.
Jerel began freestyling.
“I like that,” Chris said in response to Jerel’s freestyle before beginning his own.
Then Buck jumped in.
Keshawn Pickens sat beside me and Bird Owen and Palmer to the right of us.
My ritual consisted of reading Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive, every road trip—a habit that, more than anything, grew out of superstition.
“I think you’d appreciate this,” Coach had said to me, handing me the book prior to one of our away games.
That night I went out and scored 19 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and dished out eight assists in a win. Therefore, as a rule of superstition, it became a necessity to read Drive every trip while twiddling a crumpled Dennis Rodman trading card between my fingers for hours on end as I read.
Delonta initiated his road ritual that day, a ritual that would only last approximately two more games before being banished from the basketball team for good.
“I have a story,” Delonta began. He licked his lips and rubbed his thumb against his heavy eyebrow, a habit of his that accompanied the onset of a brief narrative.
“When I was in first grade, I was a good speller,” he started. “So I’m standing up there in front of the school in the auditorium. The year-end Spelling Bee. The Big Finale. It’s just me and another kid. We’re the only two left. Everybody else has been knocked out. Kids sitting down, still crying ’cause they missed a word ten minutes ago. One boy had to be picked up and carried offstage by two people because he was so upset he lost. Me and this other kid are going back and forth; the judges trying to make one of us slip up. My moms is in the front row, smiling. Proud of me.”
“‘Bicycle,’ the judge says.”
“‘B-I-C-Y-C-L-E,’ I respond. My moms gives a big thumbs up.”
“‘Hydrant,’ another judge follows.”
“‘H-Y-D-R-A-N-T,’ the other boy spells.”
“We’re neck and neck. It goes on like this for a solid two-three minutes. Neither of us falters.”
Delonta pauses. Jerel has stopped freestlying, as have Chris and Buck. All eyes are on Delonta except Stanford. He’s still in the back of the bus. Sleeping. Leg stretched out.
“Then the judge says, ‘Crayon.’ My smile gets this big.”
Delonta smiles from ear to ear.
“You stupid,” Bird says to him, laughing.
“So I’m thinking, ‘I got this Bee.’ This kid doesn’t have a chance. I’m taking home the gold today. ‘Crayon,’ I respond. ‘C-R-A-,'”
Delonta pauses again.
“I’m picturing my crayons in my hand, coloring. My favorite color green. I’m smiling. I’m gonna win the Spelling Bee. My moms is smiling. Everybody in the auditorium has their attention focused on me. The principal is looking at me. My teacher.”
“‘I’m sorry, Delonta,’ the judge says. ‘That is incorrect.'”
“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A,’ I spell out again.”
“‘I’m sorry, Delonta.’ He looks at the other kid as if to give him a chance to spell it.”
“‘Crayon. C-R-A-Y-O-L-A. Crayon,’ I say, crying. My moms is up from her seat, walking hurriedly toward the steps to the stage. The principal is nodding his head at the assistant principal. The auditorium is in complete silence. The kid who had been crying for ten minutes because he spelled a word wrong ten minutes ago has stopped crying. He’s looking at me.”
“‘That’s how they spell it on the box,’ I say to the judge.’That’s how they spell it on the box!'”
“At this point, my mom has whisked me from the stage and taken me behind the curtain. Her hand is over my mouth. My feet are dragging the ground.”
“‘Crayon,’ I hear the other kid say, ‘C-R-A-Y-O-N, Crayon.'”
“I’m throwing a temper tantrum, protesting to my mom and telling her they are cheating. My mom is whipping my ass behind the curtain. And everybody’s clapping for the other kid who just won the spelling bee.”
Less than a month after telling this story, Delonta was expelled from the team after Coach’s cell phone went missing and was traced to another player on the team who it had been sold to. Whether or not Delonta’s failed attempt at winning the coveted Spelling Bee championship in 1st grade after being robbed of the crown on account of corporate branding and product monopolization was the result of his descent into a life of crime and kleptomania is anyone’s guess.
Nevertheless, his theft did result in his banishment from the basketball team for good; and though Delonta may have been a kleptomaniac, it was never suspected he was a pathological liar and had made up the Spelling Bee story. Stanford would later transfer on scholarship to an apprentice school in Norfolk and be zapped by a high voltage of electricity while working as an apprentice in the shipyard. He would be okay.
A dear friend, we’ll call him Dur, and I like to go around remarking—publicly, unapologetically, unselfconsciously*—on other people’s food. It’s a requirement that these people, our targets, be complete strangers: any old Joe and/or Sally out for happy hour or Sunday brunch with the gang.
Dur: “Those people on your right: tell the woman you really like the color of her drink.”
His halfhearted attempt to conceal is amusing and befitting, his high-octane “whisper” and flagrant nod in the direction of the targeted pair—two of maybe a dozen bar patrons including our group of five—on par with the seriously sub-serious nature of what’s about to go down.
Not that they’re noticing a speck of this, it’ll soon become clear, besotted (of love, not drink) as they will appear to be. But anyway.
Such is the task set before me.
“Sure, easy. Lemme just, you know.”
I’m giggling, suddenly back in sixth grade. I feign the sucking in of one deep, brave breath. Or, I take an actual breath, but it’s not, you know, real. Leaning in a little—
“Excuse me.” I’ve plunked myself squarely in the center of a not-me conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice your drink there,” I chance, nodding toward the sugar-rimmed bullseye. “I just really like the color.”
Behind me Dur titters, singeing the edges of our puny and ridiculous façade and leaving us that much closer to seeing our unsophisticated scheme reduced to an all-out play of juvenilia. But I refuse to lose to laughter; I will him neutralized.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty color, huh? I was noticing that earlier actually. Such a nice deep red.”
Her smitten partner nods enthusiastically. “Totally.”
Our eyes connect, lips form why-not smiles, and that’s that.
Fast-forward ten minutes. A friend of Dur’s, Angela, a woman I’ve just met for the first time, declares herself next up.
“I know—I’ll ask if I can help myself to their nut bowl.”
Angela appears quite pleased with her expressed intent, and the rest of us are happy enough to goad her along.
“Haha, good one!” “Ohh, risky business!” “Yeah, do it!”
What ringmasters Dur and I fail to point out is that the nut bowl in question is a communal nut bowl, a nuts-at-no-cost nut bowl. Peanuts for (less than) peanuts, almonds on spec, a filbert free-for-all. (Know that filberts are basically hazelnuts? But then, when was the last time hazelnuts made an appearance in your bar’s communal nut bowl? Anyway.)
What we fail to point out is—
Who cares? Angela’s hardly going out on a limb here, preparing as she is to solicit the lovebirds for that which is by definition already hers.
At any rate, the whole operation is fairly amusing, and a not unwelcome break from more usual conversational fare: Brooklyn real estate, Prospect Park’s Frisbee culture, von Trier’s latest throw-up fest.
Angela leaves her seat at the bar, saunters over.
“Hey there. Just wondering if it’d be okay if I had a few of those nuts.”
No surprise, she’s well-received.
“By all means, help yourself,” the flushed brunette replies, quick to pass the nuts. She smiles throughout; so does he.
End of (that) story. What had started with an earnest expression of (the frustrations of) self-consciousness—“I find myself thinking about how hard it is for me to imagine doing anything ‘off,’ anything, you know, bizarre and inappropriate just for the hell of it, and it just seems so ridiculous, like kind of a shame”—had culminated in a couple of flimsy, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempts at challenging it. And they’d both been flimsy, of course, regardless my grandiose response to Angela’s pass.
As for why they were flimsy, there is some disparity here. Because while Angela’s solicitation was run-of-the-mill, even expected given the bar’s layout/positioning of the nuts, mine at least had the potential for more. For instance, had I insisted on a more straightforward approach, i.e., no surrounding text—simply, craning in close: “I really like the color of your drink, heh”—and if my target had been less, you know, distracted, and if I’d lacked certain physical markers suggestive of innocence, harmlessness, naiveté, maybe then I would’ve had a more solid go at it.
But it played out as it did, which is to say, it played out as it always does for Dur and me: nicely. Good-naturedly. (Drat.)
Part of it, I think, is a default tendency to maintain a sort of social homeostasis—“break the news gently”; “let down lightly”—that desire that people have to present difficult or awkward things in the most pleasant/neutral way possible. And it’s damn hard to override, including on that rare occasion when achieving and maintaining awkwardness is actually sought.
The other week Dur and I, just us two this time, were enjoying happy hour at a quiet Carroll Gardens restaurant. Dur gestures toward the only other occupied table in the place.
“Sit down with them at their table and ask how their dinner was.”
Notice a trend here? Like, that I’m always on the receiving end of these undertakings? Pssh. As if I’m ten years old again: Round Table Pizza dinner with the family, only this time in the shoes of my little brother. (“Hey Kevin, I dare you to go kick that lady in the back of the knee. Do it! I’ll give you the rest of my Cadbury eggs…”) Anyway!
Quite frankly, I’m happy to be on said end. I accept this latest proposal.
With one caveat.
“Hey you guys,” I announce myself, sliding in alongside a big-haired thirtysomething. Almost in the same breath, presumably so as to beat embarrassment: “I’m wondering, how were your meals? See, I’m a food writer [ahem, fib/caveat] and I’m putting together a review on this place,” I finish, sweeping the room with my arm.
Two of the four patrons, their friend-family appearing as five for the time being, chime in immediately.
“I had the lamb salad and it was absolutely delicious, with these olive-y croutons and fried capers.”
Speaker #1, an eager blonde woman, next takes a stab at reviewing her friend’s (lover’s? brother’s?) selection: “He had the Rhode Island scallops and it came with—”
“It was dressed in an apple cider vinaigrette that was just lovely.”
Whoops. Seems someone likes to speak for himself. Anyway.
All four diners weigh in, not one of them questioning, verbally or otherwise, my lack of a notebook and writing instrument. For my part, I channel my inner journalist, affecting an air of inquisitiveness and unyielding concentration while effectively dismissing all mental visions involving the (surely) glinty-eyed, lip-twitching Dur at my back. In other words—
FAIL. Yet again. Damn default.
It’s instructive, I think, to consider the best-case scenario here: I succeed in presenting as “inarguably creepy.” Then what?
The answer: I don’t know. I just haven’t gotten that far yet, and I don’t feel like this is one of those things that lends readily to forecasting. What I do think I know, though, is what’s at the root of these self-/Dur-assigned “challenges,” and therefore I can speculate as to the best-case outcome of the best-case scenario.
Essentially, I think it’s about defying structure: a reaction to the rigidity imposed on us—both by ourselves and by the collective—all as we seek to carve out uniquely satisfying lives. And in my particular case, it isn’t any one thing, but more like an impression: an at-times almost physical sensation of walking with walls on. (Damnit, I WILL discuss my burgeoning spirituality with you, friend with whom it’s never been easy to discuss such matters. Or—bam: wall.)
And re: best-case outcome, though observing out loud the aesthetics of another’s beverage may seem less than germane, it’s really not. Not for me. Because—and this is related—if yelling-slash-singing “You Are My Sunshine” at the top of my goddamn lungs on a packed subway platform** causes the aforementioned walls to bend and bow, even a little bit, well, I’ll drink to that.
**Daring my boyfriend, who some time ago came to a sweet understanding of this “thing” of mine, to commit such acts has become a way of projecting my own “stuff” onto another. So like, me: “Come on, babe, if I were to offer you $200 out of hand to go sit on that person’s lap, wouldn’t you do it?” Him: “No.”
My introduction to the concept (in the mathematical sense) of chaos theory was Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I read it as a kid; as a kid my favourite part was when Nedry got his at the wrong end of a dilophosaurus. I immediately liked the character of Ian Malcolm, the mathematician who wore nothing but black and gray, accurately predicted the collapse of seemingly impervious systems at every turn, and manfully restrained himself from punching the air and yelling ‘QED, bitches!’ every time a velociraptor gutted a secondary character. I was young, so I didn’t understand a lot of what he was saying, but that hardly mattered by the time the film came out. Jeff Golfblum played Malcolm as warm and funny, as only Goldblum can, and that was enough for me¹.
In the novel, and in brief, Malcolm explains some of the basic ideas behind chaos theory, most specifically the pop-culture touchstone of the butterfly effect. As Malcolm tells it, to determine where a cannon ball – once fired from a cannon – will land should be a simple business; if you calculate the force of the propulsion involved and the trajectory the cannonball will take, based on the elevation of the cannon, and apply these factors to the weight of the ball itself, then you should be able to make a pretty accurate prediction of where the arc of the ball. This is what’s known as a linear system; a system where the calculations involved remain the same and you simply plug in new values to get different results. Isaac Newton loved them, and if you’re looking to understand things like mechanical motions, electrical circuits, or sound waves, then linear equations are your go-to guys.
But chaos theory concerns itself with non-linear systems; systems defined by, among other things, their high sensitivity to initial conditions. This is where the butterfly comes in – weather being just such a non-linear system. Because the development of weather systems is so complex and dependent on previous iterations of the system, tiny changes at the onset – say, something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings – can alter the entire course of the day. The butterfly flaps its wings and you and your family enjoy a sunny, cloudless day. The butterfly doesn’t flap and tornadoes devastate the Midwest.
My own personal knowledge of chaos theory and related topics is entirely abstract and hugely general, with no basis in physics or mathematics, and, really, more gaps than knowledge. Thanks to Wikipedia and lunch hours at work, I understand the concepts of cascading failure (ie, for want of a nail), black swans (ie, surprise!), and fractals (ie, best friend of stoned college students). I understand these things in my humanities background kind of way, and I take a vague comfort in knowing that there is such a thing as chaos control, the idea that points exist where a chaotic system can be knocked back into some semblance of predictability.
Knowing these things, I try to look at storms differently. There are clouds overhead right now, and from one perspective – on the surface of things – the term ‘storm’ merely refers to rain and lightning and thunder and the need to shut the window if I want to avoid getting my computer wet. From a more quantum-oriented perspective the thunderhead rolling over is really wheels within wheels within wheels; energy and matter and physics and electricity and the breaking of the sound barrier, interacting and interplaying according to the moments that have preceded them, cause and effect going back in time and space to the initial development of the storm and something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings; an air current that went one way instead of any one of a hundred others.
Which may not seem to make that big of a difference, but, when you think about it, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now if a girl named Leah hadn’t wanted to kiss me when I was 17.The steps go like so:
1. Leah wanted to kiss me (also, yes, I wanted to kiss Leah).
2. Because Leah wanted to kiss me (and I wanted to kiss Leah) we sat and made awkward small talk in the backyard of a friend’s house at a high school party.
3. Because we sat and talked, I told her I needed to find a job.
4. Because I told her this, she found me a job at the club she worked at.
5. Because I worked at the club, I ended up going on a short-lived reality TV show.
6. Because I went on that show, I became friends with the host (on MySpace).
7. Because I was MySpace friends with the host, I became friends with Zoe Brock (on MySpace).
8. Because I was MySpace friends with Zoe Brock, I decided that when I was going to move to the States, I would move to San Francisco, where I at least vaguely knew some people.
9. Because I moved to San Francisco, I met Zoe in person.
10. Because I met Zoe, I ended up writing for TNB.
It’s important to remember that these events in time and space aren’t set up in ranks of patiently-waiting dominos. There’s more to the world than action:reaction, stimulus: response. Movement through life is through a vast – and vastly complex – interplay of events and non-events. It’s impossible to pick a definitive starting point for any one situation and draw a thread of causality from one moment to another².
And people are more complicated than weather systems, it’s true, but they do have their similarities. They’ll rain on your parade, storm out of the room, bring some sunshine into your day… even blow you, if you’re lucky.
Just as we can’t fully map weather systems, it would take an intelligence and a perspective far greater than human to pick a single event that’s occurred in the life of any given person, capture and draw it out of time like a blood sample on a slide and then reverse-engineer it, step by step, and say: ‘That’s where, ultimately, this started.’ At birth? Sure. That’s a beginning for a person, depending on how you want to apply the label ‘beginning’ to a mass of molecules and energy movements moving from one position to another. But any given birth necessitated that two parents moved through the world until they came to that precise moment of conception that led to that birth, and that’s also true for those parents, and for the parents of those parents, and so on and so on, all the way back to the start of time. And maybe if one of those parents in that long line had been caught in the rain on the way over to their lover’s house, everything that followed from that divergent point would have been entirely different.
Here and now, we are all the accumulation of all that has gone before us, everything that has happened, or hasn’t happened, to bring us to this point. Right now I’m writing this because someone somewhere decided that working on a Sunday was to be avoided, so I don’t have to go to work today, affording me the time I need to write this article. I’m also writing this now because a car didn’t hit and kill me yesterday as I went to meet my friend Jay for coffee. And I’m writing this right here and now and as the person I am because of every single experience and event that has come before 7:23pm, January 17, 2010.
I mentioned kissing in the title.
When two people kiss, two worlds – separate in some ways, connected in others – meet. When you (the individual you, the general you, me, my neighbours, your neighbours, anyone and everyone) kiss someone else, it’s not just your lips on theirs; it’s everything, everything that has preceded it coming together, because every single thing shaped that precise moment. If I kiss someone (it happens, sometimes), then that moment, and that person, is connected to every single thing that makes me, me, and forevermore will be.
The physics that Orville and Wilbur Wright put to work to shake the hold of the earth in the Kitty Hawk in 1903 are present in me, because they led to me crossing the Pacific³. Running down a back street in Templestowe, flanked by five other frantic teenage guys, holding a flaming, gasoline-doused pizza box – that moment is there too. The rain on my grandfather’s face, the rain that followed complex chaotic rules that my grandfather, to my knowledge, never even dreamed of – that too played a part, however small, in who I am. My personal history, the personal histories of my friends and family, of the people I’ve met… they’re all here in the effect they’ve had. Moments of doubt, or pain, or triumph, or love, or laughter; moments when physics I’ll never be able to understand were at work, moments that I will never, ever be aware of, all of them combine and inter-react to bring me here, now. And if and when I kiss someone, those have brought me to that place too.
At the same time, it’s also just a kiss.
So, do me a favour. Make out with someone – anyone you like – and bring a little more connection into the world. Be the butterfly that flaps its wings and maybe alters the course of everything; if they need some convincing, just direct them to this piece and let them know that they’ll be acting as part of a wonderful, chaotic, complex system of cause and effect that took millennia to bring them to today.
And tell them I say, what up. Because I want to go back to San Francisco, and apparently, people making out is how that works.
¹ This was before I’d a) seen The Fly and b) realised that Goldblum had spoiled my chances at a shot with Geena Davis.
² despite the fact that yes, that is precisely what I have just done in this example.
³ I’m also amused that they subsequently had a debate with the Smithsonian Institute about the precise details of that.
January 17, 2010
The big reader in my family was my mother; and from the beginning, I coveted her shelves full of D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O’Conner, James Baldwin. Before I was even aware of the ways writing could be categorized, I was steeping myself in literary fiction, and a love of character and phrasing over plot.
It wasn’t until I was a creative writing major in college that I took my preference for a certain type of book and turned it into an outright prejudice. This was so prevalent in our program that I wonder, now, if we were taught this idea. Suddenly, there was an “us” and “them”. We unpublished literary fiction writers cared about every sentence, every nuance, while they, they cared only about racing toward… racing toward… okay, so none of us had actually read any of these books for which we had such a strong disdain. But we knew one thing: they were hack writers and we were artists.
Two events changed me. The first was clicking on a link to a talk given by thriller writer, David Morrell. The lecture was called, “Why Do You Want To Be a Writer?”, and it spread through the literary fiction community, leaving many of us swooning. Who is this guy? we thought. He wasn’t one of us, and yet, he described the heart of a writer and the process of writing so intimately that I had trouble believing in my “us and them” theory. The second was the joy I felt when a friend had her book published (in fact, it’s out this week). I was so excited for her, I asked for an early copy. An environmental thriller. One of those books from The Other Side. And guess what? I read it, and yes, it was different than anything I’d read before, but absolutely gripping.
Today I want to tackle this divide between literary and genre fiction by introducing you to four exquisitely bright and big-hearted thriller writers. I think you’ll enjoy this discussion, and I hope you’ll continue it in the comments section. Maybe, like me, you’ll have a change of heart.
A few years ago, there was a controversy when Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS was chosen for the Oprah Book Club. He asked for his book to be withdrawn because Oprah’s Book Club was directed toward a mass audience and Franzen felt that his work was part of the high-art segment of literature. I have a Ph.D. from Penn State and for many years was a professor of American literature at the University of Iowa. Naturally I wanted to look at Franzen’s high-art novel. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it was a genre novel — specifically, a dysfunctional family novel. This only reinforced in me the believe that all novels ultimately fit into one or more categories. The categories themselves don’t matter as much as how well each novel is written.
The division between high-brow and low-brow shows how much Calvinism and moralism affect many opinion makers. In the early 1900s, the great cultural analyst Van Wyck Brooks bemoaned this influence, pointing out that when a critic refers to a “good” book, that book is frequently slow-paced and difficult to read, something we are encouraged to work at, as if leisure were sinful. For these critics, any novel that gets our hearts pounding should make us suspicious. They refer to thrillers as a “guilty pleasure.”
I personally turn away from the Calvinistic tradition and embrace the all-embracing transcendentalism of British Romantics like Wordsworth, as well as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman in the United States. I welcome diversity and the stimulation of my senses as well as my intellect. One purpose of the International Thriller Writers organization, which Gayle Lynds and I co-founded, is to show that thrillers can be as well-written as any other type of novel, including Franzen’s dysfunctional-family novel, and that the excitement in them makes our lives fuller.
David Morrell is the author of FIRST BLOOD, the award-winning novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph.D. in American literature from the Pennsylvania State University and taught in the English department at the University of Iowa until he gave up his tenure to write full time. “The mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions,” as one reviewer described him, Morrell is the co-founder (with Gayle Lynds) of the International Thriller Writers organization. His numerous bestsellers include THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE (the basis for a top-rated NBC miniseries broadcast after the Super Bowl), THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE, THE FIFTH PROFESSION, and EXTREME DENIAL (set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives). He is also the author of THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST: A LIFETIME OF LESSONS ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING. His latest is THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS, a holiday action thriller. Please visit him at www.davidmorrell.net.
Back in the early 1980s, when I was beginning to write fiction, my mentor was Robert Kirsch, the L.A. Times literary critic. He sent me to the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, explaining it was the child of Robert Frost, the preeminent “literary” workshop in the United States, and he was worried that my primary influence (other than him) was the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, tops at the opposite end of the literature spectrum.
It was true that at the Santa Barbara conference I was getting earfuls from various instructors and fellow students about how pretentious, boring, and navel-gazing so-called literary fiction was. In other words, “literary” writers were full of themselves, and pea green with envy because they made so little, if any money, for their work.
So off to Breadloaf I went, where I got earfuls from various instructors and fellow students about how shallow, repetitious, and needlessly breathless genre fiction was. How writers in the field were lightweight and definitely not serious artists. Worse, they wrote only for money.
Both were – and are – excellent conferences, but the divide was there.
When all of that occurred more than twenty years ago, I was writing and publishing literary short stories. Within a short time because of changes in my personal life I was suddenly writing and publishing male pulp fiction. Today of course I write international espionage novels, which puts me at the heart of what some call non-literary fiction.
What has always bothered me is that both sides aimed – and still aim – poisoned darts at each other. It was utterly silly then, and it still is. We’ve already won the moral war.
As David points out, at our best we combine first-rate writing often better than what’s to be found in “literary” fiction, with dimensioned characters, stories as important and vital as any of the classics, and plots that keep people reading through even content-heavy passages. Among our precursors are Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Each was composing genre fiction during his time. Each was serious about his work, popular with large audiences, and making a living. I’ll bet none of them was embarrassed about it either. And despite all those negatives, they’re now viewed as literary icons.
On the other hand, the “literary” folks are winning the PR war.
Remember when genre fiction was called popular literature? It’s an honorable designation, reflecting the fact that we purposefully want to reach people – regular people. We want large, gregarious, vibrant audiences. To do that, we must be relevant and experiential. We must hit a nerve, say something so intimately entertaining and personally important that readers return to devour more of our books. Is it working? Sure does seem so – they’re voting for us at the cash register.
But that’s helped the literary writers to beat us in public relations – they’ve been calling us writers of commercial fiction, or “commercial writers,” so long now that the phrase is deep in the public’s lexicon. As all of us know, words are powerful. By calling us commercial writers, they’ve inculcated the public with the idea that we do indeed write only for commerce – for money. That there’s no way we can take pride in our work and our contributions, or heaven forbid that our books might be excellent, because of course those qualities are unnecessary for success in the book-buying marketplace. In fact, quality often hinders sales.
As such, prima facie, our books are not worthy to be read.
When was the last time you heard us referred to as writing pop literature? My guess is it’s been years, probably more than a decade. And that’s really our fault. I suspect there’s some sort of Calvinist, Catholic, Jewish, or Midwestern guilt deep within us in which we have a niggling fear they’re right. That our work’s unworthy. Oh, for Pete’s sakes – get over it!
Oprah Winfrey is a smart woman, and she reads a lot, but she has done a disservice to readers. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it’s because the term “commercial fiction” has brainwashed her, too. She trends toward the underdog, which I heartily support. But as such I suspect she views literary fiction as the underdog against a vast conspiracy perpetrated by commercial fiction to destroy our culture. Or, at best, add nothing insightful to it.
One of my great regrets has been to watch the demise of small book clubs across the country. Over and over friends and people I meet while on tour tell me their book clubs have died. Why? Because “we were reading” depressing books, boring books, hard-to-understand books, books “we should” read, books that “are good for us.” It reminds me of castor oil. Often they were Oprah picks.
Have you noticed that sales of Oprah’s book club selections have declined steadily book by book since the first one? I’m glad the sales figures remain large, because I want to do everything I can to support the publishing industry and those who enjoy her choices. Still, a mark of anything successful is that more and more people are attracted to it. Not fewer.
But “fewer” is what is happening to book clubs across the country. When clubs make it a rule that literary fiction will be their only reading choices, people slowly stop reading the books, then they stop attending. Sayonara book club.
At the same time, we’re seeing something similar happening in schools. Instead of a mixture of literary and pop fiction in elementary and high school reading and literature classes, the selections are almost entirely literary – and fewer kids read well, and fewer still read any books as adults.
Literary fiction is an important part of our culture, and it can bring great reading joy. I wish it well. But not at the expense of genre fiction.
If in order to thrive, literary fiction feels it must denigrate us, there is something tragically wrong. And I say to our denigrators what I say to us – get over it. Get a life. Get busy and do something about it as Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and a host of other literary writers have done by creating suspense stories and novels. Even Graham Greene, who for years divided his novels into “real” books and entertainments, at the end of his life decided he had been wrong, that all of his books were just that, books, everything and nothing, not lesser nor greater because of whatever category he or others might choose for them. They were books. Books.
It would be a sorry world if only one form of reading pleasure were available to us. Let us all sit around the campfire and tell tales large and small. Let us respect – and celebrate – each other. Everything else is a waste of time that could be better spent writing the next book. Which is what I am going to do now.
New York Times bestseller Gayle Lynds is the award-winning author of eight international espionage novels, including THE LAST SPYMASTER, THE COIL, MASQUERADE, and MESMERIZED, which are published in some 20 countries. Her books have won such awards as “Novel of the Year” (THE LAST SPYMASTER) given by the Military Writers Society of America, and have been People magazine “Page-Turner of the Week” and “Beach Read of the Week.” Publishers Weekly lists her work among the top ten spy novels of all time. BookPage concurs: “Gayle Lynds has joined the deified ranks of spy thriller authors like Robert Ludlum and John le Carre.” With Ludlum, she created the Covert-One series and wrote three of the novels. One of them, THE HADES FACTOR, was a CBS miniseries in April 2006. A member of the Association for Intelligence Officers, she is co-founder and co-president (with David Morrell) of International Thriller Writers, Inc., and is listed in Who’s Who in the World. Born in Nebraska, raised in Iowa, she now lives in Southern California. You can visit her at www.GayleLynds.com.
At one of my Backspace conferences, an accomplished literary fiction author participated in a panel discussion on creating living, breathing characters in literary fiction. One of the things she discussed at length was the musicality of words, and the care with which she chooses each one. When I told her that I, too, spend a great deal of time crafting individual sentences even though I write thrillers, I could tell she didn’t believe me.I think this is one of the misconceptions literary fiction authors hold toward thriller authors: that we sacrifice quality for the sake of the story.It’s true, the fast pace in thrillers means there’s little time for lingering descriptions or deeply introspective character development. But that just makes the opportunities more precious. And even in the most intense action scene, the rhythm of the sentences, their length, whether or not a sentence ends on a hard or soft note — all of that matters. It isn’t that we don’t care about elegant language, or that we can’t write anything else; it’s that we choose to write thrillers.
Why? For me, it’s all about tension and pace. Thrillers are noisy. Whether they start with a bang or build to a crescendo, they’re all gripping, exciting, involving. And clearly, I’m not the only one who enjoys reading them, since thrillers dominate the bestseller lists.
Which leads to an area where I think literary fiction authors can learn from thriller authors: commercial appeal.
I’d like to offer Jon Clinch’s literary novel FINN as an example. I’m familiar with this book and its backstory because Jon and I are members of the same writing community, and we share an agent.
FINN opens with the most beautiful description of a dead body I’ve ever read:
Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily dep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been flouting would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but this far, under that sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed a swarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself.
Sunday morning, early, and the river is without traffic.
An alligator gar, eight feet if it’s an inch, rises deathlike from the bottom and fastens its long jaw upon a hipbone, which snaps like rotten wood and comes away. The body entire goes under a time or two, bobbing and turning, the eggs of blowflies scattering into the water like thrown rice. The urgent sunfish eddy. The bluebottles hover, endlessly patient, and when the body has recovered its equilibrium and resumed its downward course they settle once more.
Reading on, we learn the body “lacks for skin, all of it, from scalp to sole. Nothing remains but sinew and bone and scraps of succulent yellow fat that the crows have not yet torn free.” The chapter finishes with Pap Finn cooking strips of human skin on a blind bootlegger’s campfire.
That opening could well be the opening of a thriller. It grabs the reader, draws them in, sets the tone, raises questions — all the things a good thriller opening does. In fact, when I wrote to Jon and asked if I could quote his novel in the context of this discussion, he told me he was actually thinking in terms of thrillers when he wrote it, and had “set out to see if I could write a book that accomplished many of the things that I’d heard thriller writers talking about, but with my own set of literary tools.”
Jon’s editor at Random House, Will Murphy, says in a preface to the advance reading edition: “Dear Reader: You hold in your hands a major debut and that rarest of beasts — a real work of literature that has big commercial potential.”
When FINN went on submission, 8 publishing houses wanted to buy it. The auction lasted for days, and the winner, Random House, made the book their lead title — not only because FINN is gorgeously written, but because it also tells such a wonderful story, and they believed the novel would sell in great quantities.
“Commercial potential” and “literary fiction” don’t have to be incompatible concepts, and their happy marriage shouldn’t be “rare.” Readers aren’t stupid. They want great stories. Thrillers sell in such large numbers because they deliver. But a beautifully written literary novel that also thrills will be just as well received.
I’ve always felt a little sad about that literary fiction author who didn’t believe I cared about the musicality of my words as much as she did. I don’t know why she couldn’t acknowledge we had that in common, but her close-mindedness hurts her more than it hurt me.
Thriller authors, on the other hand, are incredibly open. We joke that we’re so nice because we get all the meanness out of our systems when we write our novels. Whether that’s true or not, the thriller community is extraordinarily supportive. Those of you who don’t read thrillers won’t know this, but having David, Gayle, and Barry on this panel with me is like having a panel made up of Pulitzer and Booker prize winners with one MFA student. Not only have these accomplished authors made room for me at the table, all of them have made their mark on my debut. They’ve given me endorsements, critiqued the opening chapters, recommended the novel to their own editors — even given the novel its title. No one knows if one day I’ll be as successful as they are, but their acceptance isn’t contingent on that. It’s enough for them that I too, write thrillers.
Detroit native Karen Dionne dropped out of the University of Michigan in the 1970s and moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness with her husband and infant daughter as part of the back-to-the-land movement. During the next thirty winters, her indoor pursuits included stained glass, weaving, and constructing N-scale model train layouts. Eventually, her creative interests turned to writing. Karen’s short stories have appeared in Bathtub Gin, The Adirondack Review, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine and Thought Magazine. She worked as Senior Fiction Editor for NFG, a print literary journal out of Toronto, Canada, before founding Backspace (www.bksp.org), an Internet-based writers organization with 850 members in a dozen countries. Karen and her husband now live in Detroit’s northern suburbs. FREEZING POINT (Berkley, October 2008) is her first novel. And if you want to see what a cyber launch party looks like, click here: www.freezingpointlaunchparty.com.
Susan, thanks for kicking off this great conversation — it’s a privilege to be part of it.
For me, generally speaking, “literary fiction” means stories that are driven primarily by who; “genre fiction” means stories driven primarily by what. In other words, character driven vs plot driven stories. There’s nothing wrong with either; the only problem, I suppose, is when a writer thinks he’s writing one and is actually writing the other.
One reason literary fiction tends to garner greater critical accolades is because writing character-driven stories is harder than writing plot-driven ones. It’s easier to generate interest by creating a ticking bomb scenario than it is to generate interest by creating a vivid person. I agree with David, Gayle, and Karen that there’s also a Listerine element at work here: “if it tastes this bad, it must be good for me.” Which, if you think about it, is a silly way to judge a book, or anything else, for that matter.
How can you tell whether a book is more literary or more genre? One good sign that you’ve read something more on the genre end of the continuum is forgetability. If the pages were flying by while you were reading it, but shortly after finishing you’re no longer thinking of the book and its feeling doesn’t linger, it was probably more genre than literary. If you remember the characters, though, if they still seem real to you long after you’ve finished the book, if you can instantly recollect the feeling of the book just by thinking about it, if the book stays with you… I’d call that more literary.
It should be obvious at this point that the best books are both genre and literary: you can’t stop reading while you’re in the book, and you can’t stop thinking about it when you’re through. There’s plenty of fiction out there that fits the bill, but it’s classified as genre more often than as literary. Genre aspects tend to eclipse literary aspects when it comes to classifying a book because the genre aspects are more obvious. For example, Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River succeeded perfectly as both genre and as literary fiction, but it’s more widely known as genre because the mental and marketing category “crime” is easier shorthand than “vivid characters; convoluted, Greek tragedy personal history; haunting sense of place.” If I were Dennis, I wouldn’t mind being known more as genre than as literary. A rose by any other name smells as sweet — but genre sells better.
By now, you’ve probably guessed that what I respond to as a reader is both, and not one or the other. I can’t get through books that are boring but supposed to be good for me. But a page-turner without substance doesn’t do it for me, either. Actually, if there’s no substance, I won’t be turning the pages — we’re back to boring, just without the “it’ll be good for you” promise to get you through.
As for my own books, I like to think they succeed as both genre and literary — at least, that’s what I aim for. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I just write the stories that interest me, and try to write them in as powerful a way as I can.
As far as sales and marketing goes, though, again, it’s great to be known as a thriller writer.
After graduating from Cornell Law School, Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center. Eisler’s thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous “Best Of” lists, and have been translated into nearly twenty languages. The first book in Eisler’s assassin John Rain series, RAIN FALL, has been made into a movie starring Gary Oldman that will be released by Sony Pictures in April 2009. To learn more, please visit www.barryeisler.com.
I’m grateful to David, Gayle, Karen, and Barry for kicking off this important conversation, and I hope you’ll check out their links. By the way, that David Morrell talk that inspired me so much was a shortened version of the first chapter in THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST: A LIFETIME OF LESSONS ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING. I’m buying it right this second.
Now, for the rest of you, let’s hear your thoughts…
On the afternoon of December 14th, in the year of our lord 1889, the good steamer George E. Starr chugged around Ediz Hook in a driving squall, her bowels belching hemlock and cedar, as she pulled into ragged Port Bonita. When she landed at Morse Dock, nobody clamored to greet her. Only a few tatters of wet silk bunting were left to mark the occasion, when young Ethan Thornburgh strode off the George E. Starr onto an empty dock, clutching a lone leather suitcase, with the wind at his back, and his silver-eyed gaze leveled straight at the future. He might have looked like a dandy to the casual observer, a young man of some distinction, all buttoned up in a brown suit with tails, freshly coiffed, smelling of camphor and spices, his cleft chin clean-shaven, a waxed mustache mantling his lip like two sea horses kissing. But upon closer inspection, visible through the shifting mothholes in his wool trousers, a trained eye might have observed the shoe polish daubed on his underwear, or the fear in his silver-eyed gaze. One might even have glimpsed the yellow blue remnants of a shiner beneath his right eye.
There’s a tollbooth on the road over to Pensacola Beach. The toll is a dollar.
(Only on the way out. It’s free to come back.)
The tollbooth operators wear a uniform. It consists of a Hawaiian shirt.
That’s it, really.
I mean, I’m sure they wear pants, too. But I never see the pants.
After almost two years of living on the Florida panhandle, I’ve come to think of this Hawaiian-shirt-as-uniform business as typical of what locals call the “Salt Life.”
The “Salt Life” is a popular motif down here on the ole Redneck Riviera. I was of course ignorant about the Salt Life when I first moved to Gulf Breeze. But shortly after we arrived, my husband Kelly and I started seeing “Salt Life” decals stuck to the backs of cars and trucks.
We saw more and more of them. They were everywhere. There were several variations, but the most common was done in white lettering that looked like it had been eroded a little. As though from a gulf breeze, maybe.
“What’s that all about?” I asked Kelly, after I’d seen enough of them to feel they couldn’t be ignored.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s another one.”
It became our own private version of the Slug Bug game.
Eventually Kelly got a job working with some locals who filled him in.
“Salt Life means you’re a local,” he told me one evening after work. “But a local who goes to the beach. Not a local who ignores the beach, or a tourist.”
“Oh,” I said.
But it seemed unlikely there was a sticker purely to designate panhandle locals, so eventually I got around to looking it up online.
Turns out the Salt Life is just a … store.
The company originated out of Jacksonville Beach. It sells t-shirts and visors and coffee mugs and–go figure–car decals.
This was a little disappointing. For a while my ardor for the “Salt Life” cooled.
But eventually it came back.
For one thing, there’s the fishing. I’ve lived near the beach before; I grew up by the Jersey Shore. But I’ve never seen so many people fishing in my life as I see fish here.
Some stimulus money has trickled its way into the local area; it’s being used to build two new fishing piers.
Fishing piers! That’s what we need more of to get this great country back on its feet, dontcha think?
Well, here in Salt Life territory, we do. It’s essential to our well being.
Even to mine, and I don’t even fish. I like fishing, though, now that I live here.
Here are some things I like about fishing:
1. At a time when I get the feeling a lot of people don’t even want to be seen in public, as though it’s an embarrassment to be caught outdoors, I like the way people who fish will just stop on the side of the road and drop a line anywhere they think they can catch something.
1A. They do it late at night, too. I like that. It seems like being out late at night is considered especially suspicious. I’m in favor of any excuse to be out in the middle of the night.
2. I like the way fishing seems to cross all boundaries. People young and old, black and white, male and female, rich and poor, all fish together.
2A. The only difference is the really rich people fish on boats.
There’s this old man I see walking up and down my street a lot. He passes at all hours, in the wee morning, very late at night, or anytime in between. He walks slowly, creakily, pulling a cooler on wheels behind him.
He’s headed for the bridge. He’s going fishing. He’s living the Salt Life.