My reading is guided by serendipity. I let books like In the Midst of Winter find me. Reading should never be required but something you do because you enjoy it.
One night, going through Netflix, I found Allende, a portrayal of the last hours of the Chilean president, who was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973. The Spanish title for the film is even better: Allende en su laberinto or Allende in His Labyrinth. The movie is not magic realism, despite the title, but gritty realism, as Allende single-handedly defends his revolution against nearly every other institution of the state. His loss results in decades of dictatorship.
The movie left me curious about the thin country so when I saw In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, I had to pick it up. This new novel by the niece of Salvador Allende concerns itself with social justice. Not what’s legal, but what’s right for vulnerable people such as refugees. As a child, Isabel Allende was driven from Chile following the overthrow of her uncle.
The novel starts with a car accident on a snowy day, an incident that upends the lives of everyone involved. Richard Bowmaster, a stuffy norteamericano academic, gets drawn into the lives of Evelyn Ortega, an illegal immigrant, and Lucia Maraz, a lusty 60-something Chilean. All three are haunted by painful tragedies, their lives shaped by the loss of loved ones. Drawn together in conspiracy, they grow closer as they share the stories of their lives.
The plot is a bit of a melodrama (a mysterious body in the trunk of the car), but, after reading of how much Richard, Evelyn and Lucia have suffered, you want a happy ending. You want them to discover an invincible summer in the midst of winter, to quote Camus.
How do you respond to tragedy, from the loss of family members to the inescapable indignities of growing old? What are our obligations, beyond the law, to refugees? How do you build a just society in an age of cruel states and dictatorships?
In the Midst of Winter offers the simplest of solutions – take care of your fellow humans – a revolutionary act to counteract a world steeped in tragedy.
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.
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 my short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper Fiction Competition, I portray a Washington shocked by the Trump victory – and one person who’s happy about the result.
Election 2016 was an event that traumatized the American psyche. I wasn’t the only person who processed this horror through fiction. A majority of the submissions to the City Paper contest concerned Trump, as I learned during a reading at Kramerbooks.
I assumed the worst was over. A horrible punch to the gut but then life in Washington would resume along the contours of previous experience. Trump would rise to the occasion and become a normal Republican like Bush.
I was wrong. Realized it during his American Carnage inauguration speech. Everything went downhill from there, a year of outrages culminating in the firing of James Comey. Now, we’ll be lucky to survive 2017 without Trump kicking off war on the Korean peninsula.
During the year, I wrote a novel – The Swamp. My fictional depiction of the Obama era seems quaint. The book presents a scenario I thought outlandish, in which a political groundswell demands that the nation’s capital be moved out of DC. Out of Washington, I called it. But this fictional future reads like a best-case scenario now.
Thinking back on my short story, Victory Party, what would my protagonist make of the past year? My ex-con Randy was happy, the Trump victory representing revenge upon the elite class, through he’s wise enough to know it won’t last. One year later, it hasn’t, and I imagine him trying to stay honorable in very dishonorable times.
We write to make sense of our times, trying to impose narrative on chaos. Washington wrote following the Trump victory. Washington continues to write as the nation unravels.
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.
How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?
Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.
They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.
It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.
The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.
“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.
But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend? We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.
I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.
After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.
The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.
I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.
It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.
So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.
I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.
I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.
Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.
“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.
T.C. Boyle has been writing the same story his entire career. But it’s the oldest story of them all – the story of man’s fall.
From his early short stories to his sprawling novels, Boyle explores the tragic nature of existence, in wildly comic fashion, as he reveals all of us to be creatures of our own desires, with no nobility, just advanced primates with super-fueled egos and ambitions.
Never has that been better expressed than in The Terranauts (now in paperback!), his account of scientists living under a dome in the Arizona desert for two years. Vaguely cult-like, the objective is to create a better earth, in case we destroy this one, and to pioneer methods for transporting man to the stars.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the novel is based upon Biosphere II, one of those 90s experiments that best lay forgotten. Like the Biosphere II team, the Terranauts descend into chaos as they slowly starve (and nearly suffocate), under a glass dome without enough nature to support them.
The book is written as an oral history of the project, with different Terranauts and crew telling their side of the story – and casting blame for their project’s infamous failure, the conceit being that the story is well-known to everyone.
One of the most compelling voices is Linda Ryu. Passed over to be an original Terranaut, she lingers on as support staff and is slowly driven mad by jealousy and rage, at one point wondering if the whole project was a kind of practical joke at her expense.
I’ve been a fan of T.C. Boyle’s work ever since reading Greasy Lake and Other Stories, a collection of fiction of that roared into my consciousness like a Bruce Springsteen anthem. I had never read anything anything so hilarious and contemporary before, a riff from a wild literary genius.
Since then, I’ve read most of his books, following along as Boyle explores how our desires take us out of the Garden of Eden. It’s fitting that, in The Terranauts, the action is set in a literal garden under a dome. But, like the original habitants of the original garden, the Terranauts give way to their desires, turning heaven into hell. In this petri dish in the desert, Boyle tells the oldest story of all, and has never done so more powerfully.
Fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. Novels aren’t true but they have to feel that way, whether they’re about Hobbits from the Shire or jaded exiles in 1920s Paris.
I started Moonglow by Michael Chabon and put it down halfway through. The book strides the line between memoir and novel and succeeds at neither. There’s a scene where Chabon’s grandfather and another man attach explosives to the Key Bridge during WWII to tweak local authorities. Maybe because I live in Washington, and have crossed the bridge numerous times, but this scene did not ring true with me. The tale seemed impossible, as did Moonglow, which read like a shaggy dog story, despite the good reviews.
I did not have that problem with The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which captured me instantly, from the very first line:
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.
The book is a confession, written to his jailer, as a nameless secret agent recounts his sins during the Vietnam War. We get his story, and the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, as well as a wry account of refugees in America in this tour-de-force of a novel.
It’s a little too long. A hundred pages could be excised from its length but there’s hardly been a novel published in the past ten years that I haven’t felt the same about. Still, there’s not a false word in this work of fiction. Nothing breaks the spell of disbelief.
The Sympathizer deserves the Pulitzer Prize for that reason. It’s a powerful story that feels true. And that’s the test of great fiction.
Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.
The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the 2016 Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the trauma of the election.
I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.
Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:
voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.
But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?
There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.
DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.
I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.
My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.
I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.
In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.
It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.
I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.
Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.
The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was secretly happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.
Writing & Editing
When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.
After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell.
I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats.
“Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.
After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.
The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of happiness amid the gloom:
Randy was smiling, a broad and unexpected grin that overtook his face, a few seconds of happy disbelief, a triumphal joy. It was the joy of winning, victory over these careless people and their easy lives. He knew it wouldn’t last.
To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a reading at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was the thrill of a lifetime