Random Hypotheticals about Books

Susan KellyBy

Susan Kelly

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve thought that the silliest hypothetical question ever posed was, or is: If you were only permitted to take one book with you to a desert island, what would that book be?

Seriously, dude? One book?

What happens when you finish reading it? Or re-reading it? What do you do then? Write your own sequel?

I would have to beg the question, and respond by saying that I’d want to take with me every good book I’d never read. Which would, of course, require a freighter to transport, or at least a cargo plane.

Let me pause here so we can all remember one of the all-time great Twilight Zone episodes, in which Burgess Meredith, an avid reader, survives some unspecified mega-disaster that apparently wipes out the rest of humanity but leaves the local library intact. Meredith is ecstatic at the thought of spending the rest of his life in solitude,immersed in his beloved books.

And then he breaks his glasses.

Trust me, there is no writer on the planet who doesn’t rank this as one of her or his Top Ten Fave TZ episodes.

Another concept I’ve never quite grasped is that of “summer reading.” Why would you want to read a book in the summer that you wouldn’t want to read in the winter? Or the fall? Or the spring? Are novels seasonal?

Is this like only wearing white shoes between Memorial Day and Labor Day?

The same holds true of so-called “airplane reading.” Are there books you can only read on a Delta flight from Boston to Atlanta? A British Airways flight from New York to London? And, conversely, are there books you can read only at home, or at least on the ground?

“Hey, Alice, remind me to stick the newest Tom Clancy in my carry-on bag. Airport security will confiscate my copy of ‘The Critique of Pure Reason.'”

It just occurred to me that there may be people who read only on airplanes. In the summer.

Hypothetically speaking.


I admit it. My recently completed three-part interview with Norman Mailer (#1, #2, #3) in the INTERVIEWS WITH THE DEAD series damn near killed me! The man can drink and he can talk. So, since I’m working hard to publish TIES THAT BLIND, the fourth book in my MATT JACOB MYSTERY NOVELS this coming fall, I chose to rerun JUDGING A BOOK By ITS COVER because Michael Paul Smith is not only a dear friend but an amazing artist who will create the cover for TIES. If you enjoyed the first three covers, there’s no doubt how you’ll feel about his fourth.        


cover1On 08/22/2011, I wrote a post titled “PHOTO SHOT” where I described the process of shooting the cover for STILL AMONG THE LIVING (which is available for downloading along with TWO WAY TOLL, and NO SAVING GRACE). What I didn’t write about was the process of choosing among a number of different possible covers and how the choice was made to go with the one I did.

The artist, Michael Paul Smith, was kind enough to give me permission to post those that we didn’t use along with the one we did. So I thought it might be fun to let people see the ones we decided not to use and why those decisions were made. The first two we, (Sue, Michael, and me), were easily able to lay aside.

Although we rejected both of these, one thing I really liked was the angle of the picture primarily because it showed Mark Harris’s book THE SOUTHPAW. On the other hand there was general agreement that in these versions the colors didn’t “pop,” my name and “A Matt Jacob Novel” were too washed out.  And no one really liked the lettering.




The next two engendered more debate:

This one’s lettering took too much of the picture of the table, plus the lettering itself didn’t cut it for any of us.







I really liked the font on the second of these two—given my deco predilections—but Sue and Michael felt the picture wasn’t what they were looking for since there was too much of the table itself showing, especially the brown pattern, which took the focus off the other elements of the picture and again, my name and “A Matt Jacob Novel” were too washed out—though I argued if we lettered them white on this one, I’d be good with it.  Sue and Michael countered that once we cropped the picture the proportions of the whole cover would change.

Alas, these were also put aside though they left the one I liked in its own lonely pile.

Here were two were serious contenders.  No hour and out with these. In fact, both of them made it to the final pick. The fonts worked, the lines on the bottom of this one worked, though again we were going to have to pop my name and “A Matt Jacob Novel,” something that Michael indicated would be no problem.





I, however, had an issue with this one. The left side shading on the picture seemed cool, and I liked the two-tone idea much more than the lines on the cover directly above. Yet I felt the shading seemed too washed out. By this time, however, I was feeling uncomfortable about sending Michael back to the boards.  He assured me that he was enjoying the project and would certainly be willing to give it another go.



Which he did and created the cover we all agreed upon:

Although THE SOUTHPAW doesn’t really show, everything else about this cover was appealing.  And so, when the book does go online, this is what you’ll be seeing.

Given that this entire process is pretty damn subjective, I’d be interested to know what choices any of you might have made.



As most of you know, I’ve been relentlessly pursuing Norman Mailer for an INTERVIEW WITH THE DEAD. Since he had originally proposed to meet in Provincetown, I’ve been scouring every inch of the town with the diminishing hope of finding him. So, as darkness began to shroud the city, I started back to Carpe Diem Guesthouse, to pack and finally head home to Boston. About a block away, I heard footsteps approach from behind. I turned and there he was, fists clenched, barrel chest and curly haired head leading the charge. I wondered if I was going to be face punched, but Mr. Mailer just invaded my space standing nose to nose.

MAILER: And where do you propose to conduct this little chat?

I nodded toward the guest house, practically grazing his forehead with my own and led the way inside.

ME: We can use one of their dining rooms.

Mailer: You would pick a hotel that has rooms named after authors but none of me.

ME: Must have been an oversight.

Mailer: Poppycock! Provincetown’s most famous author an oversight? I don’t think so! People have short memories.

ME: (laughing) Not at all. You’re all over the Internet, your books and essays still in print. Nobody has forgotten you.

MAILER: Then why did you interview that little homo before me? King I understood. But that pasty-faced girly man, Capote?

Both of us took our seats and Mailer’s fists curled even tighter as he leaned across the wooden table between us.

ME: It was you who said, “Harsh words live in the dungeon of the heart,” and that description seems pretty harsh.

MAILER: If you think that was harsh, you must be a fag too.

ME: Have you ever considered that all your misogyny, violence, and homophobia is really about your own love of masculinity? That deep down underneath you’re attracted to men—strong men, real boxers, something you weren’t or could never become?

MAILER: Do you really expect me to answer your half-ass pop psychology?

ME: I wasn’t trying to analyze you Mr. Mailer. Just looking at facts.

MAILER: And what facts might those be, Mister Klein?

ME: Where would you like me to begin, Norman? The Naked And The Dead? All about the boys who actually fought in the war as opposed to cooking like you did.

MAILER: You are a cheeky bastard, aren’t you? I like that.

ME: You’re making my point.

MAILER: I’ll use the language the publisher made me use in the book: fug you. I was in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry.

ME: I know, but by all accounts, you were just in a couple of minor skirmishes before you were assigned to be a cook.

MAILER: Really now? Apparently I fought enough battles for the book to become a New York Times bestseller for 62 weeks. Oh, and in case you forgot, or didn’t know, named one of the “one hundred best novels in English language” by the Modern Library. Not bad for a cook, eh?

Me: A novel about which Gore Vidal wrote, “My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since… I do recall a fine description of men carrying a dying man down a mountain… Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life, but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbons of a Dos Passos work.”

MAILER: (shaking his head) I wondered how long it would take before his name came up. Though you surprise me by not beginning with the Cavett fiasco. There is no greater impotence in all the world than knowing you are right and that the wave of the world is wrong, yet the wave crashes upon you.

ME: If you believe that why do you call it a fiasco?

MAILER: I lost the fight, although I still maintain it was just a TKO. I simply couldn’t fight my hardest with Janet Flanner present. And, I have admitted to being drunk during the show. Handicapped if you will.

I began to speak but Mailer interrupted.

MAILER: Speaking of drink, do you have anything decent here?

ME: I thought you stopped drinking and smoking pot?

MAILER: Actually I stopped because it hurt my writing and health. Don’t write anymore, health doesn’t matter, and there is little pleasure lying around all day, every day. So, just get us some whiskey, all right?

I was lucky. Bourbon in one of Carpe Diem‘s kitchen cabinets. I brought it back with a couple of glasses. Helping himself to a healthy pour, he waved the liquor towards me.

MAILER: Drink up Klein, it’s not every day you get a chance to drink with a literary lion.

ME: Mr. Mailer, you really were one of the 20th century’s literary giants, but don’t you think all the macho, boxing, misogynistic, bullying posturing actually reduced your stature rather than enhanced it? I mean, head-butting Gore Vidal in the green room of The Dick Cavett Show, telling him on air that he ruined Kerouac by sleeping with him?

Nothing ever seemed to be enough for you. Six years later, you threw a drink at Vidal—and punched him—at a Lally Weymouth soirée. And even then Vidal’s response made you look small. Still on the floor, he said, “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”

At first I thought he was going to explode but he just took a deep swallow and refilled his glass.

MAILER: Time and quiet does give one a chance to reflect and I’ve had plenty of both. Still, every moment of  existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit. I never enjoyed the thought of dying even a little.

I want you and your readers to know that I’m not interested in absolute moral judgments. Just think of what it means to be a good man or a bad one. The good guy may be 65 percent good and 35 percent bad—that’s a very good guy. The average decent fellow might be 54 percent good, 46 percent bad—and the average mean spirit is the reverse. So say I’m 60 percent bad and 40 percent good. Should I suffer eternal punishment for that?

Also, I must say, while he might have made me look small with his clever retort, he deserved to be on the floor. Would you sit silently by when someone says, “Mailer, Henry Miller and Charles Manson as brother chauvinists who should be collectively referred to as M3.” Now, while I had many wives, to be compared to Charles Manson was frankly too much to tolerate.

ME: You don’t seem to be suffering eternal punishment. In fact, there’s a strong argument that it was the people around you who were punished. Hell, you nearly murdered the second of your six wives, Adele Morales.

MAILER: I never meant to kill her. It was 4 A.M. at a party to announce my candidacy to run for Mayor of New York and I walk into a room only to hear her say, “Come on, you little faggot, where’s your cojones?” It’s public record that I spent time in Bellevue for that act, which, while I won’t discuss, I do regret.

ME: Not at the time. Numerous people say you stood over her while she was hemorrhaging on the floor and said, “Let the bitch die.”

Mailer: Adele has written a book about our life together. She can have the final words on the subject. But here we are talking gossip and public behavior when you yourself say and I’ll quote, “Mr. Mailer, you really were one of the 20th century’s literary giants.” Yet all of our book talk amounts to Vidal’s insult of The Naked And The Dead. Have you really spent this much time pursuing me to talk about my public persona, or are we going to talk about my work?

ME: We’re there now, Mr. Mailer.

Mailer was right. We sat in Carpe Diem’s breakfast room the entire night and more—much to the chagrin of the other guests who came down for coffee and omelets and were seated in another area. But this is enough for today’s post.dtab NORMAN MAILER More to come.

“What lasts is the strength of your ideas and the force of your expression of them.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor


Last week I fired off an angry screed about our species and the horrors we perpetrate upon each other. It was an accurate reflection of at least some ways I think about human history and our present state of affairs. Problem is, how the hell do I follow up something like that?

While I might not know exactly what I’m going to write the next day when I work on my Matt Jacob novels, there are at least general parameters, an ongoing storyline and characters. So sitting down to write isn’t entering a dark tunnel bereft of ideas. In fact, (and I may have mentioned this before) I use a Hemingway device to help me along. Never stop writing at the end of a chapter, paragraph, or sentence. Makes it easier to get back into the flow. I also start each day editing from the very first sentence to the middle of the unfinished one. Takes a lot longer to write the book, but helps keep consistency of plot and tone as well as making certain that every single word has a purpose.

When I first began these posts, I discovered that my usual writing approach was useless since each of the columns were of a piece. And every piece was a stand-alone with rare exceptions. This was a totally new type of writing for me.

So when I opened the website and the Just sayin’ section, I made a conscious effort to think of subjects I could do justice to in about 800-1000 words. In the beginning there were a barrel full of ideas and issues I wanted to pursue. A couple of years later, ideas are not nearly as plentiful. This led to mixing in some fictional conversations and arguments and eventually creating my Interviews With The Dead.

I gotta tell you, I love working on that series. I know it isn’t feasible or even desirable to limit Just sayin’ to the Interviews With The Dead series, but doing them is really a lot of fun. I think about expanding the ones I’ve published and writing enough of them to turn them into an eBook. That’ll be a cool project, but the fourth Matt Jacob will come first.

Originally, I had planned to hit the publicity mill at full steam when the first three were up and for sale. Instead, I decided to wait until TIES THAT BLIND went up as well. The first three Matt Jacob novels had all been published in hard and softcover before they became eBooks, but TTB had never seen the light of day because I pulled it from the house when I left the legacy world. And it’s been waiting for a long time while I worked as a jury and litigation consultant.

It waits no more. Although I think it is the best of my novels, in order to bridge the time gap I’ve been making some significant revisions, one reason it has taken so long to publish as an eBook. And while I hope to have it up in a couple of months, a book (like any construction process) often has missed deadlines. Especially true for those that are self-imposed.

I’m enjoying the work but dread the day I have to turn my attention to slicing through the cacophony of the internet in the hope that the books will be bought and read. Not my strong suit but I will have some great help.

So what is this post really about other than sharing some tradecraft and future plans?

Honestly, it’s become a bridge to create some distance from last weeks’ column. It seemed ridiculous to simply find a story to write about, a book, movie, or play to review. (Though I have to admit that some of last weeks’ intensity had to do with watching an outstanding one man show of The Iliad. As one reviewer put it, not only were the Troy wars focused upon, but rather how wars in general just seem to be inevitable.)

I could have asked a guest columnist to stand in for me this week but I had to build this particular bridge since my mad has dissipated and I intend to reboot and begin fresh with next week’s post.

Who knows? I might even get summoned to interview another dead person.

How do I work? I grope. ~Albert Einstein


First post in my new place, my books are finally up for sale, and there are a few housekeeping issues I’d like to touch upon.

I’ve always been conflicted about what to charge for my work.  This was especially true when I worked as a counselor.  Then its roots came from the notion that social services ought to be free.  While I was at Project Place, we pulled this off with help from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, some federal funding, private donations and a pay scale collectively determined by need.

When I struck out on my own, no one offered to underpin my salary.  Still, I was incredibly uncomfortable with the fees clinical psychologists were charging their clients, even more so, psychiatrists.  I knew I wasn’t going to get involved with insurance for a myriad of reasons so I had to figure out what I considered fair.

I began checking with crafts people and artists about their “hourly” wage and tried to follow their lead.  Problem was, their lead led to financial disaster.  I was a single parent for half the week and had mouths to feed.  Ten to twelve bucks or barter for more than an hour of work just couldn’t cut it.

So I changed and began charging the hourly rate that each of my clients earned.  For those who earned nothing, I charged nothing.  For those who made a lot of money per hour, that was my fee.  This is how I got paid through most of my years as a counselor.

When I decided I to change careers and write, I knew the termination process with my clients was going to take a significant amount of time.  So I returned to my Project Place headset  and simply placed an open guitar case by my office door and told people to throw in what they thought the session had been worth.  (I probably made more money per session with the open case than I had previously.  Should have stuck with my roots from the get go.)

When I took the plunge at becoming an online novelist, I also decided to man up, not to shuck and jive about the price or worth of my books.  But of course I did so in my usual–not so logical–fashion.  I thought back to when I was young and the cost of a paperback was $4.95.  I liked the number, thought it fair given what it takes to write a novel (as long as there are enough $4.95s, of course) and decided to go with it.

Not so fast.  Apparently some places that distribute e-books demand a minimum of $4.99 per book.  I’d rather $4.95, but it is what it is and I hope my readers find it fair.

I also know that a great many e-book authors do 99 cent specials, free giveaways for certain periods of time, and move their book prices up and down.  I prefer not to get into that game.  And while I can easily imagine some contests like the Goodreads one I did where books are given as a prize, I do intend to keep my e-book prices at $4.99 unless I run into compelling reasons (like distributors) to change it.  Believe me, if that happens, I’ll post about it.

I’m sure there are or will be some with the new site.  Working the backend of this baby is more complicated than the original, so get ready for some operator errors.  Please let me hear about any problems you might encounter by writing me from the “Contact Zach” page.  I will jump right on it.  But don’t feel contacting me is just meant for website issues or feedback.  Feel free to get in touch with me about anything, especially writing.  One of the major reasons I decided to go net rather than traditional is the opportunity to actually converse with my readers. So, if you tell your friends about this site, my books and posts, (see WORD OF MOUTH, two posts below), tell them they can write me too.  As anyone who has seen my Facebook comments can attest, I enjoy communicating with people whether I agree with them or not.

And finally:

Every Monday post from the old site had to be cut and pasted into the new one.  Had I done the same with each comment, this site would still be just a dream.  Although I have every comment ever written in a folder on my computer–as well as every reply–the comments cut and paste process begins from this past July.  I wish I could have moved them all since I know folks spent time and effort writing them.

So look over my new digs, find the problems and the stuff you like, buy a book if you’re so inclined, but most of all, please bring your friends to visit.  I like company.

Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told, “I’m with you kid.  Let’s go.” ~ Maya Angelou