I take an unusual interest in the dedications at the beginnings of novels. I don’t skip that page like most people probably do; in fact, I spend time ruminating on the circumstances that led to the dedication. Wives, children, parents—usually pretty obvious. Sometimes the author will supply an explanation, but often a cryptic “for Jane” will be all the reader has for clues. Months later I’ll be reading an interview with the author and something he says will make a connection back to that dedication. I try to guess, often with scant clues, why the author chose his/her particular dedicatee. A mystery even before the story begins. Prolific authors get to pick a lot more dedicatees, so eventually they get around to editors, agents, random acquaintances, pets. Debut authors like me, though, we have a tougher job of it. We’ve no way of knowing if our pens will dry up, our minds go dark, if we’ll ever write another book. Our first dedication has to count.
Still, I never had a doubt about my debut dedication. Later this year I’ll get to share in the collective thrill of debut authors whose first books are being released, but I don’t think I’ll ever again feel that particular sense of accomplishment I felt when I finished the last draft of the book, wrote the dedication—“for my grandfather, William Henry Pepin, Jr.”—and printed out a copy to send him in the mail. It was September 2006, two weeks after his eightieth birthday. I was a bit ashamed because I’d meant to finish my final edits and mail him the book for his birthday—but of course I took longer than I expected. I was doubly bummed because I hadn’t been able to fly up to New Hampshire for his party, not in the middle of my first semester of a PhD program. It was a surprise party with family members from all over the country, and I couldn’t make it. I did call him that day, asked him if he was surprised at the turnout. He said he was having a good time. It’s a good excuse to have a beer, he said, one of his usual droll understatements.
Despite my regrets, he got the book in the mail. He militantly guarded the manuscript so that no other members of the family could get a hold of it. My cousin Chris, in particular, would drill him for details whenever they got together to watch the Patriots and drink beers and eat popcorn. But Papa—that’s what I call him, what all us grandkids call him—he wouldn’t budge. Not a word. See, Chris didn’t always want to read the book. When we were kids I traumatized him with ghost stories, so he’d already had enough of my fiction. But then for research I borrowed some of his motorcycle books while he was serving in Iraq (that’s right, my “scardey-cat” cousin went to Iraq, something I could never do). Once Chris knew there’d be motorcycles in the book, he was sold. But still Papa wouldn’t divulge anything of what he was reading, except to say that indeed there were some motorcycles in the book.
Nor would Papa tell my grandmother much about the book—not because he wanted her to wait for the published version, but because we’d all sort of agreed that she probably shouldn’t read it at all. Ever. She can be proud of me by looking at the spine of the novel as it sits on her shelf, but she probably shouldn’t actually open it. “Your grandfather says somebody gets decapitated in the first chapter,” she told me on the phone two months ago. “Not decapitated,” I told her. “Just shot in the face.” “I don’t think I’ll be reading that any time soon,” she said.
But my grandfather was just as eager to read it as I was to let him read it. He took a couple weeks finishing it. For him, the window between opening a book and falling asleep is pretty narrow, so two weeks is pretty good. Recently, I listened to an interview with James Patterson in which he explained why he wrote such short chapters with very little detail. Patterson said he did it for the “working person” who only had five minutes to knock off a chapter or two before bedtime. Although my grandfather didn’t really start reading until after he retired, he was still exactly that working man that Patterson was aiming for. Papa loved Patterson and other no-nonsense suspense and mystery writers bent on snagging the average guy or gal as a reader: Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell.
My grandfather retired about fifteen years ago, so his awakening to reading coincided with my getting serious as a writer. I loved that he had become a reader, even if we didn’t really share a taste for the same authors. I had literary ambitions because I was in college learning how to Write with a capital W, and he was just looking for entertainment. Still, we’ve talked about fiction a lot over this past decade, and we’ve never been closer as a grandfather and grandson. That’s saying a lot—because my father wasn’t around much when I was a kid, and Papa often filled in for that absence.
Papa would read my short stories as they got published, and often he was baffled. He didn’t like the kind of “open,” character-based endings that are frequent in “literary” fiction. He’d praise the writing but shrug at my endings. But even when I was a pretentious youth scoffing at the crime genre, he and I still shared an interest in the macabre, the violent and the mysterious in fiction. Yet over the years, I’ve kept leaning closer and closer to his way of thinking. I gave James Ellory a shot and saw a genius who could write with the same depth and originality as any capital-W Writer. I gave Michael Connelly a shot and loved it, even though it fit snugly inside of genre conventions. Soon Papa and I were trading books, mostly Connelly and Leonard. He grew to love Connelly and like Leonard (who sometimes indulges in those open endings Papa didn’t like). He gave up on James Ellroy right quick, as I assumed he would.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about writing his novels toward an ideal reader, which in King’s case is his wife Tabitha. Once I realized Pyres was going to be a crime novel, I also realized that my grandfather was going to be the closest I’d get to an ideal reader. I still wanted to do some tricks with theme and character that Papa wouldn’t have much patience for, but I vowed to keep the story lean and tense, keep him interested with plenty of suspense and violence. I wanted to see if I could hold back his nap for another few minutes. I also wanted to show him that I could dedicate myself to a project this big and get it done—because he was always instrumental in my learning the value of hard work.
When Papa was a working man, he was a dental technician. He made dentures. I grew up around his dental lab, visiting often to see him in a white apron and a white face mask, with wet plaster on his hands and rows of dentures on his shelves. I saw him stooped over a Bunsen burner, melting pink wax into the shape of human gums. I’d sit and eat his root beer barrel candies or his potato sticks and I’d watch him at his delicate, exacting work, shaping a tooth with a metal pick.
He was a perfectionist at his job, and he impressed on me his Protestant work ethic. It’s gotten me through a lot of school, thousands of pages of practice writing, a couple practice novels, and finally several drafts of Pyres. Even when my grandfather retired, he never quite retired. His hand-made dentures were in demand, since they were considered better quality than the machine-made dentures that had become the norm. He worked part time in the summers when he and my grandmother weren’t down in Florida with their snowbird friends and season passes to Busch Gardens.
One afternoon several weeks after I sent the book, I called his house expecting my grandmother to answer, as she always did. But it was Papa on the phone, half-groggy from a nap, answering because my grandmother had gone out on some errands. He was getting over a bout of pneumonia and he was coughing up a storm, but he did manage to talk enough to tell me how nice I’d been to dedicate the book to him, how glad he was to read it. He didn’t elaborate or get excited or weepy. He wasn’t like that. He just thanked me. We talked a few times after that, but that’s the conversation I’ll remember best, even as he coughed his way through it.
My grandfather passed away on the evening of January 21, 2007. A Sunday night, the Patriots were playing, but he didn’t get to watch that last game. He died unconscious in a hospice house surrounded by his family, and not unexpectedly. He’d been quite sick for weeks, and it became clear that his coughing had more to do with a degenerative lung disease than pneumonia. He hadn’t smoked a cigarette since the 1950s, but he’d inhaled years and years of dust from the plaster of the dentures he made to perfection. His hard work had been his fate, and I think he probably took a kind of pride in that.
It’s been just a little over a week now, and I still can’t believe he’s gone. I doubt I’ll ever quite get over losing him—my Papa, ideal reader. Everyone in the family keeps telling me how glad they are that he got a chance to read my book and see my dedication before he died. I’m glad too, but I wish he could’ve been around to read the second and the third, and—well, God willing I’ll have a chance to write those, to finish that work I have to do. Is it sick of me to hope that some day, decades from now, I’ll die hard at work on a novel, never to be finished? The one straight-out mystery that Dickens ever wrote was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and he died—partly from exhaustion caused by his reading tours—before he could let his faithful readers know who killed Edwin. Readers have been speculating for a hundred and thirty-odd years. I like that.
After the funeral, my grandmother gave me back the manuscript I had sent to Papa. It’s here beside me now with the dedication, with my little handwritten note to him saying, “I hope you enjoy it.” The book will certainly change a bit here and there before it goes to publication, but it’ll essentially be the same book he read, with one glaring exception—one change I dread having to make, but I know I will. I’m going to have to rewrite that dedication. I’m going to have to say “In memory of my grandfather, William Henry Pepin, Jr.” And now there is no more mystery about why.
autor of Pyres (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
That’s right ladies and gentlemen, I’m jumping ahead a year… to “Killer Year 2: This time it’s personal!” (Or, “Sophmore Year: We’ll shove you in a locker!”)
I’m hard at work on my second novel, currently titled WHISPER TO THEIR SOULS.
I’m a little more than halfway through it, trying to get on another roll and just burn through the last third. So far that roll hasn’t come, but it will. While I’m buying time I’m definitely pumping out between 800-1500 words a day. The book has been through a lot (I got the idea for it over 2 years ago) and while the general idea has remained the same for it, the style has changed.
I’m trying to push myself a little, writing from multiple viewpoints, looking at the story from different character’s eyes. It’s an interesting process and much different from my experience writing the first book. I like the way it’s going so far. I like the story I’m telling, but for a while I was rolling around looking for a motive for my antagonist and a central theme.
In the past week, I think I’ve found both. And it’s interesting how I didn’t expect either to come the moment they did.
The idea for the motive came when I was standing outside a bar in a darkened corner of Bayonne, over looking the Bayonne Bridge which leads to Staten Island. It’s such an interesting area, and near where I was already writing about. My friend started to give me some history on the area and it just clicked together. It was exciting and I really wanted to start writing right there. (Unfortunately I had to be fitted for a tuxedo, so the writing didn’t happen until the next day.)
Then last night, I found the theme. I was listening to the new Decemberists album and found a song called “Sons and Daughters.” (Lyrics on my own blog). The song drives everything the book is about home, bombs, families, and rebuilding your own life after tragedy has struck. And it has a driving rhythm which, I feel, stirs the listener emotionally. I could almost picture the final scene of the novel in my head with that music playing over it.
The process of writing is so very intersting to me. I love thinking about how the process works, what makes things click together.
So what about you other writers? Do you have any intersting stories about how you got the idea for your novel? Or something that struck you which you just had to write about?
Has any song stirred you so much that it completely changed the direction of something you’re writing about?
It’s hard to believe it’s been three years since my friend Bill Relling passed away. Yesterday was the anniversary of his passing. So much has happened to me since then. Things that without his help and influence would never have happened.
Bill was more than just a friend to me. He was my teacher, my mentor. Under his guidance I was able to finally achieve the dream of writing a novel. And not just one, but several.
But I’m far from the only one he helped. There have been dozens of other, either through the classes he taught or the writing group he established (one which several have kept going.) We all learned our craft from him. He showed us how to write a novel, how to finish, how to polish. And I’m not the first of his “students” to get published. Nathan Walpow comes to mind.
Bill, under his full name William Relling, Jr., had several books published – BRUJO, SILENT MOON, THE CRIMINALIST, DEADLY VINTAGE, SWEET POISON, to name some. But his legacy is not just his body of work. It is all of us that have carry on working hard to make it in the world of fiction because of how he prepared us. We each carry a little bit of Bill with us as we write. I can feel him frowning at times when I begin to write something that isn’t fully thought out. I can sense him when I’m editing, saying “Kill your darlings.” And I can almost see him smiling when I craft a chapter that really works. He is always with me.
Sadly, he did not live long enough to see me get my own publishing contract. In a strange way, it was because he passed away that I am finally on the path to publication. Some of you know my odd journey. It started with an introduction to small house publisher Ugly Town, who then sold my contract to Bantam Dell later. The reason I got into Ugly Town was because a friend provided an introduction. That friend was Nathan Walpow. At the time, it had been quite some time since Nathan and I had seen each other. Then when Bill died, I saw Nathan and several other former members of the writing group at the memorial service. Of course we talked about Bill, laughing a lot and remembering what he’d done for each of us. Somehow Nathan and I got onto the topic of what we were working on at the time. That’s when Nathan offered to give me the introduction to his publisher Ugly Town. Part of the reason I think he did it was that’s what he thought Bill would want. That offer led directly to where I find myself today, with THE CLEANER coming out this summer from Delacorte (Bantam Dell.)
While Bill was alive, he helped me develop my skills and become the writer I am. Then, even after he was gone, he helped again, putting me on my way to publication.
I could not be more thankful. And I could not miss him more.
I know Bill would be happy to hear that things happened the way they did. He’d think it was an interesting story. But he’d warn me not to make it too sentimental.
I guess there are still some lessons I need to learn.
CONTEST: I’m giving away a copy of THE CLEANER to one lucky entrant. CLICK HERE FOR MORE DETAILS.
Okay, on the surface, I get it. People read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces thinking it was a memoir. Turned out it was a novel instead. Oprah beat him up, ensuring his universal pariahhood for all eternity. Nobody, and I mean nobody, cross Teh Oprah. Folks were upset. They felt betrayed.
And then the other day the duo who created JT LeRoy, Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop, went to some Chelsea shindig and people were all up in their grills. “Yo! Why don’t you apologize?” was the question du jour. And Knoop answered, “What for? Because you bought a book? Because you were moved by the words?” To which I say, duh.
James Frey is particularly interesting to me because of how much grief he took. He wrote a book. He called it a memoir. People read his book. Teh Oprah did her couch orgasm thing with it that authors everywhere crave. It sold a jerbillion copies. Folks were moved. It changed their lives. Then it turned out to be, er, exaggerated. Oh. My. Gawd.
It was a “memoir,” for cripe’s sake. Are those things ever real? Maybe it’s just me, but when I see “memoir” I think “autobiographical fiction.” Sorry, but I don’t trust many folks to speak accurately of themselves in print.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no James Frey fan, nor trying to be an apologist. I attempted to read the book in question and found it too purple, even by my standards. But, come on, Teh Oprah, it didn’t become a different book just because it turns out James Frey is a fabulist. Also known as a writer. The words didn’t morph on the page as if Voldemort waved his wand over it just because he made some stuff up.
So it wasn’t all the “true.” But it’s still what it is. An account of a life. If you’d never found out, whatever you got from the book would have still been there, inside you, doing whatever it is books like that do to people. If you think it meant something only because you think it was “true,” then were you never moved by a novel?
Even when you’re not as cynical as I am, you gotta admit memoirs are pretty elastic things, aren’t they? Subjective and messy and prone to hyperbole and confabulation. But if they move you, they move you.
I’m not saying writers of what is ostensibly non-fiction get a free pass to make stuff up. I think there are places where complete dedication to accuracy are critical. But I think you gotta think in terms of what a piece of writing is attempting to do and at least evaluate it on those terms. Make stuff up in scientific research or journalistic reporting and I think you should burn in hell. Or, even (and I know this is extreme) have to abase yourself before Teh Oprah. Make stuff up in a memoir and you’re, well, you’re writing a memoir.
I will say this. Probably Frey should have called it a novel. Maybe it wouldn’t have been published, or maybe it would have been published anyway. I don’t know. I’m not really the target audience for those “I was an unrepentent, bottom-feeding skank” books anyway. A friend of mine read it and liked it. After all the folderol, she said, “Well, I still think it was essentially true, even if most of it didn’t really happen.” In other words, she left her pitchfork and torch in the barn. Now, to be sure, I think it was appropriate that he was outed. It was a novel, not a memoir. Like I said, I get that. I just think all the hand-wringing, all the abuse he took, was an absurd overreaction.
The Ladies of JT LeRoy got it right, I believe. “What for? Because you bought a book? Because you were moved by the words?”
Good for them.
Filed under: Gregg Olsen
By now the world knows the story of the two boys: one stolen four years ago and one last week. Both were found and returned to their families. Both dealing with the trauma of being abducted by a Missouri predator named Michael Devlin.
If you don’t know the story of Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, you will soon enough. Oprah is going to have the Hornbeck family on her show today. There will be books (I might even write one as it fits what I do in my other life as a true crime writer). Movies. More interviews. Magazine articles.
And on down the line.
When I think about this case, I think about other boys and girls who have been snatched, abused, and returned. Most famously, the case of Steven Stayner comes to mind. It was the subject of a true crime book, I KNOW MY FIRST NAME IS STEVEN.
In 1972, sex predator named Kenneth Eugene Parnell kidnapped Stayner, then a second grader. Seven years later Parnell used Stayner to capture another little boy, Timmy White, in Ukiah, California. The nightmare ended when Steven went to the police for help. He wasn’t about to let what happened to him, happen to Timmy.
There was no happy ending there. Steven died in a motorcycle accident in 1989. His older brother, Cary, murdered four women in Yosemite in 1999 (again another true crime book). No one knows what became of little Timmy White.
I’ve often thought of Timmy. I read the book based on the Stayner case more than once. I did a double take any time the Lifetime movie aired, showing Cary Stayner lurking in the background, the actor doing a pretty good job of showing the confusion he felt by his brother’s return. I cried when Steven Staynor’s life ended in that accident.
Of course, the plot of this story is true. Beneath its “I can’t believe this happened?” surface in the Devlin case something seldom spoken about: Boys being sexually abused by men. I was talking to a friend the other day about what happened to him as a child, and I wanted to tell him my own story. But even now in my 40s, I’m unable to give voice to it.
A recent post on a blog, Crime Rant, I run with fellow true crime author M. William Phelps, came from a man named George:
I didn’t tell anyone till I came within a hair of throwing my life away, I was 31. You have no idea the shame & guilt I felt for over 20 years. Even after years of finally dealing with all the issues surrounding it, it still wants to destroy me. And I just had a sliver of what Shawn & Ben went through. I can tell you exactly what Shawn felt & why he’d never tell. Keep in mind, most boys don’t.
How do you face your family, your mom, dad & everybody else & tell them what happened to you? He felt like the lowest piece of garbage, a freak, less than a male, any sense of masculinity shattered. He could only imagine the eventual judgment of him by the ones he loved & everybody else, he’d be called a fag, gay or the like. He feels that he should’ve done something to fight him off but couldn’t/didn’t (not that he could as a little boy), but this is what had been going through his mind. This would all rush into his mind the very first time it happened, what do you think it was like after the 50th, 100th?
I can’t even begin to imagine the whole dynamic of the kidnapping & being torn from your family & threats to him & his family. Now the whole world knows it?
I appreciate George’s brave post. He has more guts than I. But now I’m thinking of Shawn and Ben and all the others and I’m hopeful they will recover and live happy, safe, productive lives, knowing that whatever happened to them was not their fault.
I’ll read the book about Devlin. Like I said, I might even write it. No matter what I do, however, I know one thing with complete certainty: I’ll never understand why a grown man would do that to a child.
True crime author Gregg Olsen’s first novel, A WICKED SNOW, will be released by Pinnacle in March.
There were no bookstores in my suburban town as I was growing up–this was before megamalls and big-box book retailers even existed. The next town over –a real town, with a center, not just amorphous suburban sprawl–had a bookstore, in the clocktower of a 19th century office block. But it was too far to walk, and I didn’t get up there much.
My heavy early bookbuying was done in drugstores and the local luncheonette, off revolving metal racks. The books were mass-market paperbacks, selling for 50 cents; slightly cheaper ones went for .35.
I found some great books on those racks–Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, Frank Herbert’s Dune (toward the end of my drugstore-haunting period), and oddball one-off finds like the supernatural stories of Davis Grubb or Old House of Fear by Russell Kirk, which seems to have invented an entire subgenre of gothic romance all by itself.
The Alfred Hitchcock anthologies were a big favorite. Not only would you find crime, horror, and the supernatural all crammed together , by people like Richard Matheson, Robert Aickman, Robert (Psycho) Bloch, Edward D. Hoch, but they were only 35 cents. I could buy one, and still have money left over for a fist full of cheap, sugary candy bars.
I still have a lot of these paperbacks. I’ve been dragging them around for years; they tend to get double shelved now behind more “serious” literature, rediscovered only when I move (which I seem to do a fuck of a lot).
But this early training in drugstore bookbuying had a lasting effect on me. I associate those metal book racks with intense reading pleasure and literary discovery. Whenever I pass a book rack in Walgreens or some all-night grocery store I come to a screeching halt and thumb through all the titles.
I’m glad my book is coming out in hardcover. But I’ll feel I’ve really arrived if it goes into mass-market paperback and I see it sitting in a rack near the checkout counter, next to the sports and bridal magazines.
I wonder what my twelve-year-old self would have thought of it.
VINNIE’S HEAD St. Martin’s Minotaur March 2007
Patricia Storms says writers are magicians.
When I read her quote a couple months ago on the Paperback Writer blog, I had to stop a moment and think about this. And, by God, I think she may be right.
When I was about ten years old, my father took me to a magic show in Hollywood called IT’S MAGIC. There were about twenty magicians on the bill, one after another showing us their biggest and best tricks, sawing women in half, floating balls in the air and, yes, pulling rabbits out of the hat.
I loved the show and, afterwards, my father immediately took me to Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop, where I picked up a trick called multiplying billiard balls. Only the billiard ball size were too large for my small hands, so I got the pint-sized version.
I practiced that trick for months. And, if I do say so myself, I got pretty darn good at it. I still have a picture of me at twelve years old, decked out in the homemade tux my mother made for me, showing off my sleight of hand dexterity with those Bert Wheeler multiplying balls.
Thing is, the mechanics of the trick weren’t very tough. I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you how it was done, but let’s say that just about anyone could do the trick with a few minutes practice.
But I have a feeling it wouldn’t look much like magic. It would probably look like some guy ham-handedly struggling to multiply those billiard balls, and the gimmick behind the trick would be obvious to any but the dimmest of spectators.
Real magicians, you see, practice day in and out to make their sleight of hand smooth and undetectable. So that it looks like REAL magic. So that people watch and say, “Wow! Do that again!”
And that’s what writers try to do as well. We work very hard behind the scenes, manipulating words and phrases and characters and plot lines and trying our best to make it all look seamless and — hopefully — get our readers (and our editors and publishers) to say, “Wow! Do that again!”
A lot of people think that all they need to know is how the trick is done and they, too, can be a magician. They’re unwilling to put in the real practice necessary, and the moment they learn the trick, they’re ready to perform. To get in front of an audience of their friends and family and show off.
First time writers often think that the moment they’ve put that first story down on paper, they’re ready to be published — “How do I get an agent?” is the most commonly asked question of professional writers next to “Where do you get your ideas?”
But are you ready for that agent any more than that first time magician is ready to perform?
Writing, like magic, takes years of practice. And a willingness to fail again and again until we get it right. Until what we do seems not like simple trickery, but REAL magic to those who read our work. When the words draw them in and transport them to another time and place, a time and place filled with characters who are alive and breathing and the suspension of disbelief is so deep that we, as writers, can get away with almost anything. Can make them believe that a woman can be cut in half, that rabbits can materialize from nowhere, that those billiard balls can multiply between our fingers…
The great writers, like the great magicians, elevate craft to an art. And as we read their work, we can’t help but think, “How did he do that?”
But knowing the “how” is only a small part of the trick. It’s knowing what to DO with that “how” that really counts.
Making them believe, like Patricia Storms, that what we do is magic.