One of the two T-shirts I bought while we were hanging in Provincetown last week.  The other is pictured on my Zachary Klein Facebook Authors Page, which, if you check it out, please “Like” the page.

I bought this shirt because it is funny, it is true, and it made me think about what fiction really is.  Where is the line between reality and a reflection of reality?  What is that line?  These aren’t entirely new questions because countless people, who have read my Matt Jacob books, have asked how I was able to do as much drugs and drink as my hero and still write a book.

Clearly they believed that Matt Jacob was me rather than a make-believe character.  There’s part of that conflation I appreciate.  It suggests that Matt, my character, is believable enough to be real; and, as a novelist, that is rewarding.  It’s less rewarding to be thought of as a drunken dope addict, but hey, if that’s the price I pay to create interesting characters, so be it.

Actually I begin each book pondering about themes.  What undercurrents of life do I want to think about and explore?  Betrayal?  Ass-biting from the past?  Manipulation?  Lies?  There’s gotta be an overarching idea I’m interested in before I start writing.  Then, it’s how will my characters relate in their own way to the particular theme while still surprising me with aspects of their personality.  Writing a series makes that a little easier because I’ve grown to know some of my cast better and better which means I’m able to dig deeper and deeper into who they really are.  On the other hand, it’s often a lot of fun to introduce the new characters and have the opportunity to discover who they are over the course of the book.

While there’s a difference between detective fiction and straight fiction, there really is a tremendous overlap.  In both cases a story to be told, characters to come alive, situations that need to feel real and a writers’ job to avoid false notes all along the story’s way.

And though detective fiction has a certain form, as someone who works in that area I see my job as pushing the form into different shapes and directions.

A funny incident from my legacy publishing years.  (And a harbinger of much worse things that came.)  I was having lunch with my editor and his assistant concerning TWO WAY TOLL before the book was written.  The editor told me that I was such a good storyteller that I needn’t worry about having the murder within the first forty pages, which was the general rule of thumb for mysteries.  Yet, the very first thing I heard once the book was delivered was, “There’s no murder in the first forty pages.  You know better than that.”  Even after being reminded about our previous luncheon conversation, there was a significant tug of war before they accepted the book as written.

I want more out of my writing than formula.  In fact, I want the individual characters and their relationships front and center.  To me, they should be of greater importance than the “who done it,” which means drawing on interior lives readers can relate to and relationships between these characters that ring true.

That doesn’t mean I short shrift the storyline.  I actually like the challenge of plotting–however difficult it is for me to conjure up that which allows for my people priorities.

Sounds a lot like a literary novel, doesn’t it?  So why am I so committed to detective fiction?  I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that I think of detective fiction as uniquely American and filled with the same potential as jazz—the opportunity to riff and play and experiment with the form with each book I write.  Fresh and new fascinates me.

So what does this have to do with that Provincetown t-shirt?  For me it suggests one of writing’s most difficult challenges.  “Keeping it real” but using imagination to do so.  I’m not interested in rendering my friends’ lives public.  In an interview on my website in the Happenings section, I talk about how a part of me is in each of my characters, but that “part” of me isn’t me and nor are the relationships within the book mine.  Unless I can absorb the internal lives of people I know and meet, unless I can understand the relationships that surround me and transform, transform, transform what I’ve learned in ways that relate to readers, I’ll never be able to “make stuff up.”


(*From “Let It Bleed“)

I began these Monday posts in January of last year.  Since I’d left the legal world and wanted to return to writing, I thought it would be a reasonable way to shake off the dust and try to recapture my voice after endless edits of legal briefs, focus group reports, and case analyses.

I also wanted to see if my take on “stuff” could and would generate any interest from folks other than friends and family without a ton of publicity or spam.  It seemed like a smart thing to do as I also worked on my ultimate goal: turn my original Matt Jacob mystery novels into reasonably priced e-books (more about this coming soon), create a site to sell the MJs as both downloadable PDFs and all the different e-book formats, and, of course, work on new ones.

Well, the books have been converted and the new website is just a kiss away.  There are still a few tweaks left–and don’t hold me to it–but I believe it will be up and running in the next few weeks.

Lately one of my jobs has been to copy and transfer all my past posts over to the new site.  Of course, I end up reading them–déjà vu all over again.  Sort of fun to see the evolution of style and subject, and on the whole I was okay with the writing.  I was pleased that about a thousand people have jumped onto the bus for the ride.  But then a disquieting unease set in and a couple of uncomfortable concerns began to emerge.

Yeah, the Monday’s were a “pass” on my pass/fail life continuum, but they were also an ocean away from what it takes to create a good, honest novel.  Could I still do it?  This question gut-punched me and I began to doubt the entire endeavor.  Began to do my old recluse thing, feel sorry for myself about everything rotten that’s happened this year (of course neglecting all the positives), feeling the pull of my bed and the oblivion of sleep.

Why not try to attack the concern rather than wallow in it?  Unfortunately, that isn’t my strongest gene.  But it is Sue’s.  Who, along with her ongoing concern, sympathy, cheer-leading, and annoyance at my increasingly depressed behavior, sensibly said: “Okay you’re scared.  On one hand, who can blame you?  On the other, so fucking what?  Just start.  You’ve been talking about pushing the fourth book forward some years (a possible idea) to bridge it to the new ones.  Glue yourself to your chair and begin with that.  It might actually give you some idea of the reality of your fears–one way or another.”

I immediately rejected the idea finding one excuse after another.  Until finally, “excused” out, I realized the obvious.  Sue, as she has been so many times during our 30+ year relationship, was absolutely right.

Next morning I plunked my ass down and stared at a blank screen and found myself turning around looking at the old Kay-Pro stowed under my music table.  The machine I used to write STILL AMONG THE LIVING.  My way of avoiding that white void.  Some people count paper clips, I stare at my stuff.

But sometimes that staring actually generates ideas.  I’ve often said that “consciousness is the last stop of information-not the first.”  Apparently the notion of pushing TIES THAT BLIND forward in time had been percolating beneath the angst that had engulfed me.  Instead of stomach sink, I began to imagine my writing groove where I followed the images in my head and used my two fingers to write down the movie I was watching.

I swiveled my chair back toward the computer and began to fill the screen.  The images, and words didn’t come easy that first day.  But I’d set an amount of time to write and wasn’t gonna move until that time was up–all the while keeping Hemingway’s rules in mind.  That is, never finish writing at the end of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter.  The “unfinished” then makes it easier to pick up where you leave off.  I also kept in mind a New Yorker cartoon I had pinned on the wall of someone hunched over a typewriter with the thought bubble saying “Not finished yet, not finished yet, not….”

But it wasn’t until the third or fourth day that my years of novel writing actually kicked in.  Whenever I write I always start at the beginning of the book and edit my way to the place where I left off.  And this time I really enjoyed the process.

So yes, I’ve begun reworking TIES with entirely new opening chapters in order to determine whether I want to push the book’s “time” forward or not.  This writing hasn’t really resolved my anxiety, but it’s reduced it to a level that’s surprisingly comfortable.  Actually, back to what I remember feeling each time I sat down to write a new book.

My head is back into fiction.

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is
the belief that ones work is terribly important.

– Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

Where The Hell You Been?

One of the questions people who comment here keep asking me is what I’ve been doing since I stopped writing about eighteen years ago.

To be honest, the first year after I pulled my fourth Matt Jacob manuscript from Random House was mostly spent on the couch, depressed, watching television (depressed enough to watch daytime tv as well).  I knew I didn’t want to return to my former work as a therapist, but had no inkling of what direction to take.  Not a real happy dance through the park.

Henry Miller once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) that when you’re down to your last dime, you walk to the mailbox and, bingo, there’s a check.  (Were that to be true for most people.)

Well, I got lucky.  My friend Ron Simon, (and my blood brother) the lawyer who wrangled me ouf the the Random House contract, was the present in the mailbox.  He called and asked if I’d like to help with a trial he was doing for a man who died from liver failure due to workplace toxins at a uranium enrichment plant.  Even though I had no idea how I might be useful, I jumped on the offer and a plane and hightailed it to Piketon, Ohio, where the plant and trial were located.

It quickly became clear I had a fair amount to offer.  I helped write and rehearse the opening, taught  lay witnesses how to speak to jurors, even prepped some of our experts about the pitfalls of using “fancyspeak.”  But most importantly, I was allowed to sit in on jury selection, which was my first step toward becoming a competent profiler and jury consultant.

Although we lost the trial, we won the war.  Ron was able to work out a deal with the defendants that provided the widow with a substantial amount of money. (I have no idea how he pulled that off).  I still keep his widow’s thank-you letter tacked to my office wall.

Apparently I provided enough help for Ron to ask me to join his team as a “litigation consultant.”  I’m not sure whether the term even existed before, but it did now and I had enjoyed all the work and time in Piketon.

Thus began a great adventure that had me commuting from Boston to D.C. where Ron had his office.  At the same time I put in enormous time studying profiling and jury selection, areas i was most interested in and for which i could my lean on my background as a therapist.  I was excited by this new turn in life.

For my first few years as a “litigation consultant,” we worked on a number of local D.C. cases.  We won a wrongful death suit against the city–the deceased, an FBI agent shot by a man who wasn’t “wanded,” searched, or asked to walk through the metal detectors that were situated at the government building doorways where the female agent worked.  We also forced the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to repair a large number of poor people’s houses they had severely damaged while constructing three new subway stations in a low income neighborhood.  This situation had as much to do with community organizing (another part of my background from when I lived in Chicago) as it did with legal pressure and negotiations.

But the most poignant circumstance during those early years came when one of Ron’s closest friends’ son died in the passenger seat of a recklessly speeding car driven by his girlfriend who survived.  Initially the parents were intent on a wrongful death lawsuit, but Ron understood they were really looking for emotional closure rather than money.  We asked if they’d be willing to sit down with the other family and try to talk things out.  Eventually they agreed, but the presiding judge initially refused to let me handle the mediation since I had no standing with the court. Ron fought (furiously, as he usually does) pointing out my background as a therapist and someone who had mediated a fair number of divorces.  Finally the judge relented since, by then, both families wanted me to facilitate.

Which turned out to be a very long, sad, painful eight hours.  Hours where the anguish of losing a child, guilt about responsibility, rage, rationality, all had a turn at the podium.  I’m grateful to be able to say that when the day was finished, closure had begun to finally take place, and the lawsuit was dropped.  It was gratifying to watch family members holding hands on their way back to their cars.  To top it off, the judge apologized to me for his original stubbornness and said he wished he knew about me a few months earlier when his niece had died in a similar situation.  His family members were still going at it, long past the point mediation could even be suggested.

Somewhere around that time I realized I could put all my prior professional skills to work.  I’d had extensive training leading different type groups so I studied and began running focus groups for particular cases.  I also recognized that jurors anticipated participating in trials that were like what they saw on television.  Clear, everybody testifying in sequential order, the judge acting as a kindly father figure to whom they could turn for answers–most of which does not happen at a real civil trial.  But more importantly, jurors expected stories—and the classic story arc they have seen in movies and on television.

Well, I was a pretty good storyteller and began working not only with Ron’s firm, but other lawyers whose ethics I respected.  I began to teach how to structure cases in ways that not only told a story, but told it in a manner that allowed for normal trial disruptions and recesses.  Hell, I even had lawyers read books on how to write screenplays.

Frankly, it was a gas to fuse my previous careers and use them to further that which I believed in.  But even as I enjoyed the work, the good we were sometimes able to do, the relationships with both lawyers and clients, the unusual experiences (I spent six weeks investigating the Oklahoma City bombing one summer), I still missed the arts.  Which was why I began to learn to play the saxophone.  And now, at this juncture of my life, it’s close to time to move on again.

And this time the change is coming without the couch and the depression that came with it.

In today’s world I have the opportunity to control my books from the ground up and I intend to try.  I won’t completely leave my law work behind—I’ll always love running focus groups and helping prep people who are fighting the good fight–but my focus is turning toward writing.

But this time I’ll take my professional past along with me.  You can bet your ass that the coined concept, “litigation consultation” appears as a new expression, and that my work with Ron will somehow be woven into my new novels.

Genre As A Dirty Word

When I first began reading fiction as a kid I never knew the word.  I was just happy to read The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and others of the same ilk.  (I read the second generation Swift books because the first were flat out racist and made me uncomfortable.)  In fact, I enjoyed these series so much I read and reread them and still have many ceremoniously sitting on the top of my mystery bookshelf.

Mystery bookshelf?  Why do I have one of those?  Or a science fiction bookshelf?  The same question is also relevant to my classics, modern, and non-fiction shelves.  Why aren’t they simply in alphabetical order by author?

For decades I read without even thinking of categories-let alone the word.  I was omnivorous.  I’d gobble The Foundation Series, chomp down on popular bestsellers like Hawaii or ExodusI’d finish Hawaii and move on to Christopher Isherwood, Hemmingway, and Ursula K. Le Guin.  Later I’d go from Bukowski to Harry Crews to Bernard Malamud to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (which I still imagine a great book and movie, though I haven’t revisited either in decades) to one of my all-time favorites Neuromancer.  In this sci-fi bullet train, William Gibson (known as the “Godfather of Cyberpunk”) chose not to explicate the world he creates but demands that you to buckle up and go for his ride trusting that you’ll get it.

Within all these mixes were sprinkled classics (a few), jags of nonfiction where I read everything I could find about one subject or another.  And, of course, tons of detective fiction by famous authors like Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and the not so famous like Bart Spicer, Max Byrd, Brad Solomon, and Stephen Greenleaf.  (In one of these posts, I’ll dig more deeply into detective fiction authors and their influences on my books.  Though it might take a while since, at the moment, I haven’t much of a clue.)

Until I began my own writing career I never really gave the word much thought.  Though, by that time I was in my 40’s, and finally realized that genre was somehow less than literature, despite a definition that is not particularly pejorative.  “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.”

Benign enough.  But definitions don’t always marry reality.  Is a symphony inferior to a quartet?  Most wouldn’t think so.  Is rock music inferior to classical?  Hmmm, now the critics start yammering.  And if you translate this to literary equivalents, you’d have the same arguments.  Or at least quietly smug, smirky looks.  Genre books are always considered a lower rung on the writing ladder.

So I began to wonder why I was choosing detective fiction which, though elastic, really fits the word’s definition.  Was I afraid to stare at a blank computer screen without any structure to serve as a safety net?  Did I consider myself less a writer than those who strive to write “literary” novels?

For a while there, the questions kicked up a real block.  But then I reread Red Harvest and realized that if I could tell a story halfway as well as Hammitt, I would be lucky.  I picked up The Long Goodbye and decided that if I could pen sentences as descriptive as Chandler, I didn’t give a shit what my books were called.

And then I took it further.  If I were going to be labeled a genre writer, I was going to do everything possible to stretch the boundaries.  Sure, I’d use a generalized detective fiction structure where plot was important, but the heart of what I was writing about had to do with relationships, characters and their interactions.  Themes.  Those were important to me and would be at the heart of every book I’d write.

It also didn’t escape my attention that relationships, characters and their interactions are the meat and potatoes of every novel.  Which brought me to the point where I am now.  A novel that contains these ingredients, that explores them intimately, that is written well, that reveals something to its reader, and makes the reader feel–that’s a good book.  And if the author does enough of it beautifully, it’s a great book.  No matter its classification.

But it’s a funny world we live in.  People feel a need to categorize damn near everything.  During my last literary go-round, I repeatedly heard I wrote “airplane books” or “beach reads,” that is, books to toss once you finished ’em.  It usually wasn’t meant to be mean; ironically it often came on the heels of people telling me how much they enjoyed one of them.  But truthfully, despite my stalwart belief mentioned above, it used to bother me, made me angry or sad.

I can’t say whether I succeeded with my goals in my previous Matt Jacob books, or whether I’ll succeed when I write him out of retirement.  And while Matt and I are much older now, with eyes that look upon the world with a different perspective, both of us still think our hearts are in the same place about the interpersonal issues I care about.  And we both agree those issues will always be the guts of my books.

But while writing the Matt Jacob books, I learned something I had never before realized.  No matter the genre, whether it’s a bad book, or one that wasn’t even published, I have huge respect for anyone who takes the time and effort to write a complete beginning, middle, and end.

It really is that hard.

“A bad book is as much a labour to write as a good one, it comes as
sincerely from the author’s soul.” Aldous Huxley