What kind of books do people leave in the Little Free Library? Are they books they don’t like or books they want to share with others? Seeing a well-worn copy of Bel Canto in my local Little Free Library, I’m inclined to believe the latter.
This novel by Ann Patchett is a visualization of Stockholm Syndrome in an unnamed South American country. Appropriate for the geography, the tale is told as magic realism, with a narrator who dips into the story at key moments, sharing what the captors and hostages should know but don’t. Despite the close relationships between terrorists and victims, they are equally doomed as their dreamy jungle idyll is bound to end in tragedy.
Bel Canto is both too long and too short, as we discover the life stories of all the participants – the talented soprano, the Japanese businessman, the illiterate rebel. The plot inches ahead, with key events taking place off-stage that are hinted at but not described. And then the fantasy comes to an end, as all do, and we’re left with unanswered questions.
This is by design. As Ann Patchett says in The Getaway Car, her short book on writing:
What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.
Her world, and the world of Bel Canto, is a lot like ours. A little messy, a bit ominous and love the only consolation for an uncertain future.
In my novel The Swamp, a drone crashes into the White House, changing the course of history forever. Where did that come from? A bad weather forecast.
The Triggering Incident
On this day in 2013, Washington was supposed to get an epic snow storm. There was a run on milk and toilet paper. The federal government shut down. The local TV channels suspended programs and went to wall-to-wall coverage. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel even flew in to witness the snowy carnage.
And it rained. I watched it all day, waiting for it to turn to snow, but the precipitation remained persistently non-frozen. It was the city that cried snow, to quote the Washington Post Express.
Around 4 PM, I gave up and went to happy hour, walking deserted downtown streets to be the only customer at a bar. The weatherman on TV said that there was a layer of hot air over the city; it was snowing in the suburbs.
Layer of hot air…. If you’re a writer, this is one of those amusing details that you file away.
Ironically, I had recently started working in communications at the National Weather Service. A few months later, I had the chance to visit the Weather Forecast Office in Sterling, the office that had issued the bum forecast.
I didn’t ask them about that. Instead, I was shown how they used computer models and data displays to customize local forecasts. I was also shown a weather balloon, which carried a radiosonde designed to transmit atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed data.
“The Secret Service visited after we had balloon end up on the White House lawn,” a meteorologist told me. Another interesting detail, filed away.
At the same time, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing level of security theater in DC. Public spaces and parks have been stolen by the Secret Service and other agencies in the name of security. The perimeter around the White House expands ever outward, seizing Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south, grand public spaces that are routinely closed off. This is done despite the Secret Service’s failure to prevent fence jumpers and other miscreants.
Then, in 2015, a man crashed a drone into the White House in what was described as a drunken lark. It made a mockery of security theater. How can you keep the President safe in the age of the drone? Another interesting detail.
If you’re a writer, you constantly collect information – even if you don’t realize it, filing away interesting stories and amusing incidents for future use.
Write What You Know
I had a recently finished writing a mystery novel, Murder on U Street. It’s a dark comedy in which I kill off hipsters.
For my next book, I wanted to write a satire with a political edge, like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.
What could I write about? The image of the drone disappearing into the night stuck with me. It would be a great way to open a book.
Write what you know. What did I know? The National Weather Service had taught me about weather forecasting and government bureaucracy. I knew security theater, for I had seen places I loved locked away by fences. And I had heard enough anti-Washington sentiment to understand that a good chunk of this country wanted this city to disappear.
So, where do book ideas come from? Putting all of these thoughts together, I had my idea for The Swamp:
A meteorologist, humiliated by a bum forecast, puts a drone into the layer of hot air over DC to measure its strength. It crashes into the White House, triggering a security scare. The nation is outraged. How can we keep the President safe from drones? By moving him, and the rest of government, out of Washington.
Three books about tyranny provide lessons for Americans about overcoming dark times.
Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.
Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.
Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick up another book about tyranny. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.
Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?
The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.
Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.
Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, and books about tyranny, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.
Even better than experiencing good reviews is meeting readers, like Mandi in Florida! Her extended family has been some of my biggest supporters. Her aunt Rachel (the cool aunt) designed the cover of my novel.
Check out the hilarious world of THE SWAMP, available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.
My new novel, THE SWAMP, begins with a bad weather forecast. A meteorologist predicts snow for the nation’s capital. But snow turns to rain over the city, for it is protected by a layer of hot air in this funny book about Washington, DC.
How much hot air is over the city? To determine this, the meteorologist sets a drone aloft over the skies of DC, triggering a comic chain of events leading to the end of the country as we know it. Welcome to THE SWAMP.
DC always seems to be on the rain-snow line and with another questionable forecast in the air, I decided this weekend was the perfect time to launch THE SWAMP. This dark satire of Washington, DC is now available in print and Kindle on Amazon.
A five-star review described the book as a “dystopian thriller that will have you wondering..what if? or if only?”
THE SWAMP is set in a mercifully Trump-free era. It’s an alternate history of DC, in which sleazy TV correspondents, mommy bloggers and jaded politicos struggle to control a world spinning away from them. If you like dark comedies filled with complex characters and ironic plot twists, then you’ll love THE SWAMP.
In your head, it’s perfect, the Great American Novel, a book destined to be a classic. All you have to do is write it down.
But an idea is not a real thing. It’s nothing. Saying you have a great idea for a book is like saying you have a great idea for a jet fighter. It’s a fantasy. Only by taking your story and actually telling it do you create art.
Your book will be imperfect. Shockingly so, which is why most people never get around to creating art. It’s safer to be an imaginary artist than a real one.
But, if you’re an artist, you get your art out the door and into the world. “Real artists ship,” as Steve Jobs said. You become a writer by writing, not by dreaming about it.
National Novel Writing Month in November is an excellent time to start your creative journey. Join a global community of people striving to write a novel. Challenge yourself to pick up the literary habit, find the solace of creating something new and make a real contribution to the world.
The objective during NaNoWriMo is to write a novel – not necessarily a good novel. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality, with a single goal to attain: 50,000 words. That’s 1667 words a day.
The novel can be crap. In fact, it probably will be crap. Expect it to be crap. Giving yourself permission to write crap is enormously liberating.
And you can always fix it. Many great novels have emerged from painful first drafts. Every book gets revised. Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms.
I tend to write and cut. For my short story, Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction contest, I wrote it over a couple of days but then spent the next month picking away it like a turkey carcass, deleting anything that sounded like exposition until only the bones remained. You can fix stories but first you have to write them.
My first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, began as a joke. After three years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I was going to take some time off to write a big, serious novel about 9/11. No pressure.
But, at my going away party, I joked that I was going to write a book called Murder in Ocean Hall. I had learned a lot about the big egos of ocean explorers while at NOAA, as well as interesting background behind the construction of the Ocean Hall exhibit at the Smithsonian. I could pair these interesting stories with my street-level knowledge of DC beyond the monuments to create a murder-mystery.
Write what you know.
Plus, writing a mystery was a way of taking pressure off my own artistic ambitions. I wasn’t writing serious literature. Instead, I was writing genre fiction. It didn’t have to be the Great American Novel; readable would suffice.
I don’t know why people say writing is painful. “Just open a vein and bleed,” according to Hemingway.
But, for me, writing is a joy. Starting during NaNoWriMo, but continuing long after, I went to a coffee shop and made stuff up, piling up words and solving problems as I built my book, learning how to write a novel over endless cups of java.
Is Murder in Ocean Hall any good? Does it matter? I had fun writing it and I enjoy seeing it on my shelf.
Which is why you should NaNoWriMo. You’ll do what few people have – actually write a book rather than just talking about it. But also because writing is a fun and creative activity with its own rewards. And you can do it while hanging out in coffee shops. That’s why I write.
When an errant drone crashes into the White House, it triggers a chain of events that leads to the end of the country as we know it.
Welcome to THE SWAMP, my new novel mocks the city that America has come to hate.
THE SWAMP begins on Christmas Eve, when a drone crash causes a security scare at the White House. Fox News screams, “How can we keep the President safe?” A crackpot idea from a cynical TV correspondent – let’s move the nation’s capital to an underground bunker – becomes an uncontrollable political movement. Can the President and the rest of official Washington contain this red state rebellion or will it swamp them all?
From mommy bloggers to scheming bureaucrats, THE SWAMP is a love letter to this city – and a wish for its destruction – packaged together in a black comedy reminiscent of Christopher Buckley and Evelyn Waugh.
For the friends of Hemingway in 1920s Paris, everything was dated B.S. or A.S. Before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, their lives were complicated and largely anonymous. After Sun, their flaws were exposed to the world.
The story of the making of this literary masterpiece is told in Everybody Behaves Badly, an account of Hemingway, his friends and the events that inspired the first modern American novel of the 20th Century.
I paired the book with Bell’s Two Hearted. One of the early IPAs, it’s been a favorite ever since it first surprised my taste buds on a 100 degree day at the Capital Fringe Festival. Tangy and citrusy, it defines summer to me.
Named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan, a favorite vacation spot for young Hemingway, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, it’s perfect the beer pairing for a book about Papa at work.
What does it take to create a novel? For Hemingway, it meant betraying nearly everyone in his world – mentors, drinking buddies, literary rivals and even his wife – as he strived to become a giant in American letters.
The Sun Also Rises was a revolution when it was published in 1926, a fusion of high/low style, in which Hemingway took postmodern “less is more” prose and married it with a scandalous story of dissipation among the idle rich. What lifted it above a drunken yarn was the epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “You are all a lost generation.” This defining quote, as well as the title, turned the novel into a representation of youth scarred by war, seeking for a meaning in a landscape without God or authority.
The novel is less a story and more transcription of a disastrous trip to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Following the debacle, Hemingway wrote the book in a period of weeks, not even bothering to change the real names of people that he used in the first draft.
The characters in Sun are all real, and scarcely disguised from their actual counterparts. The most appalling depiction is that of Harold Loeb, who admired Hemingway with almost slavish devotion. In return, he gets mocked in the novel as Robert Cohn, a Jew who doesn’t know his place, with the temerity to romance Lady Brett, a woman that he certainly doesn’t deserve. It was a portrayal and a betrayal that Loeb never got over and one that he spent decades trying to understand.
After the publication of the book in 1926, there was a craze to be like Lady Brett, the hard-drinking sex symbol of the novel. Like her literary counterpart, Lady Duff Twysden was a broke alcoholic of a dubious lineage. Fleeing debts and family complications, she ended up in Santa Fe, before dying of tuberculosis. Hemingway, cruel to the end, told his biographer that her casket was carried by former lovers, who dropped it at the funeral – a fictitious tale.
Her husband in the novel, Mike Campbell (the real Pat Guthrie), the very model of the dissipated English upper classes, died of a drug overdose, owing money to bars and hotels all over Paris.
Depicted as trying to trick Cohn into marrying her, Frances Clyne (the real Kitty Cannell) went on to one of the most fascinating lives of all the people mocked in The Sun Also Rises. After surviving Paris during Nazi occupation, she become a game show guest, noted for her expertise in everything from timeless glamor to surviving prison. One subject she wouldn’t discuss: Hemingway. She thought he was a bastard from the very beginning.
While the backstories in Everybody Behaves Badly are fascinating, what makes the book great is the story of how Hemingway created his masterpiece. Everybody Behaves Badly is a writer’s book – I’ve never read a book that does a better job explaining how a novel actually gets written, showing how Hemingway took real events and transmuted them into his novel.
One character Hemingway leaves out of the book: Hadley, his wife. The Paris Wife depicts her as crushed by this omission, knowing that she was losing her husband.
By the time The Sun Also Rises is published, Hemingway was moving on from the woman who subsidized his early writing efforts for a richer catch: the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer.
Thirty years later, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to blame the pernicious influence of rich friends on his decision to leave Hadley. They said that Hemingway deserved someone more stylish than doughty Hadley.
But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald predicted back in 1926, with every major new book, Hemingway would have a new wife. After Pauline would come Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.
Write what you know. That’s the cardinal rule of writing. For Hemingway, that meant mining his own life for the material to create The Sun Also Rises. It’s his best book and the novel that frees American literature from its fussy and florid predecessors. Like a good IPA, it’s a sharp and refreshing shock to everything you’ve experienced before.
What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?
The Barnes and Noble in Bethesda is closing. The last of the great literary superstores, it anchors downtown Bethesda, MD, providing a focus to the community and a convenient rest stop on the Capital Crescent Trail.
Books used to be big business. Downtown DC had several stores much like the leftover Barnes and Noble, from the sprawling Borders on L Street to the bustling Waldenbooks in Union Station. All gone now.
In my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block, a satire of American life in the new millennium, I have my alter ego Esalen McGillicuddy ponder the book business:
Laptop in front of me, I sat in the Borders Cafe. It was an absurd business, even back then. The store was several thousand square feet in a mall packed with luxury retail shops. But rather than selling thousand-dollar blouses or expensive electronics, they made do with $2 cups of coffee and the occasional paperback. Sitting there with a latte, watching the smattering of idlers in the store, it was a business that didn’t make any sense. How’d they pay their rent, much less eke out a profit? It was a leftover from the 90s, from that magical economic era, a dinosaur that had stumbled on into the age of mammals.
I’ll miss shopping at Barnes and Noble for the same reason that I miss reading the newspaper – serendipity. Online shopping is task-oriented – you know what you want and you search for it. Browsing in a good bookstore is about exploration. It’s about luck. It’s about stumbling upon the right book at the right time.
I had a gift card with $5 left on it. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I ended up in the remaindered section of the Bethesda Barnes and Noble, searching through the stacks of marked-down books at the front of the store.
I didn’t care for the cover of Arts & Entertainments but read the blurbs and the first couple pages and was sold. At $4.98.
This funny New York novel by Christopher Beha asks, “How real is reality TV?” The answer: not very. Like with scripted programs, reality characters have arcs – narratives imposed upon them by producers. We like pantomime villains and high drama so that’s what reality TV gives us, whether it’s true or not.
And once you join the reality world, it’s impossible to get out, for you become addicted to fame and money. The only escape is death and, even then, your demise will be used to anchor another story, another narrative arc, another turn of the wheel, your complex existence reduced to a single stereotype, whether that’s hero or heel.
I was thinking of doing a blog series on remaindered books, panning for gold among these leftover titles.
But, like the last Barnes and Noble, even these remnants of the publishing industry are soon to be no more.
Bethesda will survive the loss of Barnes and Noble. In cities like Washington, we have other options, independent booksellers like Kramerbooks.
But, in most of the country, Barnes and Noble was the only bookstore in town. And it did more than just sell books, too, but provided a safe space for reading groups, online dates and Craigslist transactions. It’s a loss to the community.
No more will readers have the experience of aimless browsing, of searching through stacks of discounted books looking for something you can’t describe until you pull a black comedy out of the pile. The end of Barnes and Noble means the end of serendipity.
In a country enthralled by reality TV, Barnes and Noble is no longer needed. But what about all those remaindered books? Where will they go? To the great pulp mill, destined for recycling as flimsy wrapping paper, their contents unread.
“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present.”
― The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
Dystopia deserves its own category in the bestseller charts. From financial collapse to the close of the millennial party, every novelist in America is working to end the world – on paper, at least.
As Lionel Trilling illustrates in The Mandibles, her account a family experiencing economic ruin, these dystopian fantasies tells us more about the present than the future. Seeing the world awash in debt, Trilling wrote a book about what happens when the facade of fiat money is exposed. More terrifying than the scariest of horror movies, The Mandibles is about the day our currency is revealed as mere paper.
Super Sad True Love Story is another novel of American decline, in which New York hipsters barrel toward a cliff which the reader can see but they can’t. Shteyngart presents Americans as willfully stupid, in love with selfies and sex, unable to admit that the world around them has changed. When it all comes crashing down, the Chinese – it’s always the Chinese – swoop in to buy Manhattan for pennies on the dollar, a reverse of the old Dutch barter, the impoverished survivors lucky to work as ditch-diggers for their Mandarin masters.
Previous generations did dystopia differently. The state in George Orwell’s 1984 is omniscient and omnipotent, able to spy on your very thoughts. No escape is possible, the boot stamping on a human face forever. Authors of the period, caught between titanic blocs, assumed that a modern administrative state forged by war would be used to comprehensively subjugate the people.
But what if the super-state wasn’t so super? What if the people in charge were more hapless bunglers than evil geniuses? What if our age is less 1984 and more Catch-22? Joseph Heller’s book, published in the 1960s and set during WWII, is a portrayal of the American government that rings true even today.
Heller’s story is one that we can all recognize – the story of a lone man fighting bureaucracy. Instead of battling for Obamacare subsidies or fighting a traffic ticket, Yossarian takes on the Army as it buries its enemies in bombs and its soldiers in red tape.
Like Yossarian, we think someone is in charge. There must be some sensible authority figure, who can undo what makes no sense. But bureaucracy is something that entangles all its participants, as anyone who has worked in government knows.
Now, however, Americans are discovering a new kind of dystopia, one of our novelists didn’t prepare us for – the incompetent dystopia. At its head is an erratic TV star, leading an administration that can’t even write a lawful executive order. Or a tweet that doesn’t enrage an ally. Or a press release without a typo.
Orwell would be disappointed. Big Brother is someone you rely on, to monitor and oppress, capable of shaping the future and erasing the past. But this government can’t even cope with the present.
Dystopian fiction is more than just entertainment, it serves a function. Novels like The Mandibles and Super Sad True Love Story are warnings, our most creative minds looking at contemporary events and extrapolating outwards. Shteyngart sees us undone by our vanity, while for Trilling the end comes from excess borrowing.
Fortunately, novelists are poor predictors of the future. Their dystopias never arrive, for they’re writing about the present, not the future. Of that we can be thankful.