Tuesday, May 23, 2017

LOOK ME IN THE EYE: My Life With Asperger's – John Elder Robison

Should you happen to make the acquaintance of any Aspergian but me, beware. You just might find yourself face down at the bottom of a hole that's deeper than you are tall, hearing your acquaintance laugh as he or she walks off and leaves you there.

I know the above generalization isn't fair, as I'm aware of only one Aspergian who did this. But I offer it as an example of the sort of socially inappropriate and sometimes dangerous “tricks” one can encounter among the often hyper-brilliant, super-delicate social outliers named after the late Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician credited with diagnosing autistic symptoms in children in 1944. Modern psychology classifies this syndrome on the mild end of the autistic spectrum.
I exclude myself from the danger list mainly because my Asperger's lacks the hyper brilliance. Alas, though, the fragility is mine in spades. It's what turns my face red whenever someone I don't know looks at me for longer than a passing glance. My long-dead mother's long ago warning kicking in maybe, making me unconsciously afraid the stranger's going to offer me candy. But this is not about me. This is about me. This is about John Elder Robison and his memoir Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's.
Robison's the only Aspergian I know of who has lowered someone head first into a deep pit and then gone back to the house for something to eat. The victim was his younger brother. “When I came out,” he says, “Varmint was nowhere to be seen. I had expected he would have gotten out in the time I was gone, but he was still in there. I kicked some wood chips in to see if filling the hole would cause him to emerge. He just yelled. I pulled him out before the neighbors heard him.” When his brother, eight years younger, complained, Robison reminded him the object was to test whether the hole would make a good trap. Playing such “tricks” had become Robison's way of winning acceptance despite his odd behavior, which ordinarily repelled other children from him.
Hans Asperger and young patient
Robison wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's until he was forty, and had overcome many of the condition's more obvious symptoms. But he didn't fool a therapist friend, who gently confronted him after noticing “certain odd things about me” but never mentioning them. He gave Robison a book, Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood. “I picked it up. Warily. 'What the hell is this?'” He started reading, and recognized himself in the list of symptoms. These included problems with body language such as eye-to-eye contact, appropriate facial expressions, postures, and gestures, and a lack of emotional interaction with others:
It did fit me. Completely. It was like a revelation. I realized that all the psychologists and psychiatrists and mental heath workers I had been sent to as a child had completely missed what [his friend] had seen.
As a child, I had been told I was smart but I was lazy. Reading the pages, I realized I wasn’t lazy, just different.
I knew that I did not look at people when I talked to them. Hell, I had been beaten up and criticized for that all through my childhood. But until I read that book I had never realized my behavior was unusual. I had never understood why people treated me the way they did. It had always seemed so mean, so unfair. It had never occurred to me that other people might find what I did (or did not do) naturally disconcerting. The answer to “Why won’t you look me in the eye, young man?” was right there in the book.
The realization was staggering. There are other people like me. So many, in fact, that they have a name for us.
I kept reading, willing my eyes to pick up the pace. My head spun.
 
“I had always felt like a fraud or, even worse, a sociopath waiting to be found out,” he says. “But the book told a very different story. I was not a heartless killer waiting to harvest my first victim. I was normal, for what I am.”

Being a “normal” Aspergian has positive sides, as well, one gracing some people with an exceptionally detailed memory. Another, great mental speed. “No one knows why one person has a gift like this and another doesn’t,” he says, “but I’ve met other Aspergian people with savantlike abilities like mine. In my opinion, part of this ability—which I seem to have been born with—comes from my extraordinary powers of concentration. I have an extremely sharp focus.
These heightened abilities along with a love for mechanical things, an uncommon capacity for patience, and a taste for audacity were his ticket out of hell.
Dropping his brother into the hole was an early example of his mischievous yen for risk. He found that playing pranks in school made him popular despite his odd social behavior. “In school, I became the class clown. Out of school, I became a trickster. I made quite a few trips to the principal’s office in those years. But it was worth it.
I was good at thinking up tricks. When I did, the other kids laughed with me, not at me. We all laughed at the teachers or whomever else I poked fun at. As long as my pranks lasted, I was popular. It felt great, having other kids admire me and like me.”
These practical jokes grew in sophistication until they started showing “a nasty edge.” He blames this on sadness at how other kids had treated him over the years that curdled into a simmering anger. Fortunately no one was injured, but Robison understands he came close to disaster. “If I had not found electronics and music, I might well have come to a bad end” he says. His route to salvation started at age thirteen with the Christmas gift of a RadioShack computer kit. He assembled it, and moved on to tinkering with old radios and TVs. Before long he was devising improvements to electronic guitar amplifiers, making them louder and “hotter”, and by the time he was sixteen he'd dropped out of school and was hanging out in bars applying his innovations to equipment for local bands.
Soon the musicians and I moved from changing the sound of the amplifier to creating entirely new sound effects. In those days, reverb and tremolo were the only effects available to most musicians. I began to experiment, producing new effects, new sounds.” Word spread, he began traveling with bands. One day his path crossed that of Ace Frehley, guitarist with the headliner band KISS. Frehley was trying futilely to rig his guitar with a smoke bomb. Robison stepped in and got it to work. This led to touring gigs with KISS devising the special effects that would give the band its signature pyrotechnically spectacular shows.

Robison's interests and skills grew beyond the music scene, taking him into the corporate world where he helped design some of the first video games and talking toys. He rose into management positions, but soon found his technical talents atrophying as he struggled to improve his social skills:
There was a trade-off for that increased emotional intelligence. I look at circuits I designed twenty years ago and it’s as if someone else did them.
Some of my designs were true masterpieces of economy and functionality. Many people told me they were expressions of a creative genius. And today I don’t understand them at all. When I look at those old drawings, I am reminded of a book I read as a teenager, Flowers for Algernon. Scientists took a retarded janitor and made him a genius, but it didn’t last. His brilliance faded away before his eyes. That’s how I feel sometimes, looking back at the creative engineering I’ve done. Those designs were the fruit of a part of my mind that is no longer with me. I will never invent circuits like that again. I may conceive of something like Ace Frehley’s light guitar, but someone else will have to design it.
Despite this shift in skills, he says some of the old hangups lurk nearby. “I have taught myself to act 'normal.' I can do it well enough to fool the average person for a whole evening, maybe longer. But it all falls apart if I hear something that elicits a strong emotional reaction from me that is different from what people expect. In an instant, in their eyes, I turn into the sociopathic killer I was believed to be forty years ago.”
These days he owns a specialty automobile service company in Springfield, Mass. He lectures, is involved in autism research and is the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary.
He cites a 2007 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that one person in one-hundred-fifty falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
Asperger’s is not a disease. It’s a way of being,” he concludes. “There is no cure, nor is there a need for one.”

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]





Friday, May 19, 2017

Asshole or Asperger's?

Since we are talking about me, may we assume the second option, that my countless and varied episodes of assholery can reasonably be blamed on the neurological aberration known as Asperger's Syndrome? A comparatively mild condition on the autism spectrum that nonetheless can wreak havoc in a person's life? May we? If so, we can go ahead and slip on the 4-D glasses and settle in for a glimpse of my long, strange, angst-drenched (I'll try not to get any on you) trip. But if you can't--and I'm speaking directly to you, you there with the cynical smirk!—if you are unable to give me the benefit of any plausibly allowable doubt here as a guest on my blog, well then dammit you can buzz the fuck off. Go read another James Patterson novel!

Those of you still with me, in particular those of my acquaintances who have witnessed or experienced examples of my socially inappropriate behavior, please understand I am not trying to escape responsibility for the injuries and embarrassments I have caused. I'm not looking to excuse what I've done. My hope is to ease the sting of presumed intent by identifying the underlying reflexes that prompt many of my boorish actions. Virtually all perceptions of premeditation with these blunders are illusory. The blunders spring to life instantaneously. They're intuitive, born of a fallible reading of nuance. Self-protection for an Aspergian is tricky, risky business. The occasions when I've lost my temper with people, or treated them meanly, have haunted me from as far back as I can remember. My memory's nowhere near as comprehensive as the typical Aspergian's, but those of times I've unnecessarily hurt people are the ones that always seem to stick.

My self-diagnosis of what I've come to believe is Asperger's began while reading John Elder Robison's memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's, This book not only opened my eyes (figuratively, ha ha) it emboldened me to shed a little light on my own personality dysfunctions. I want to be forgivable, of course, even liked, if not loved, else I might never have recognized in myself some of the symptoms Robison describes so intimately. His suffering was exponentially greater than mine. Then, too, his brilliance in overcoming the paralysis of believing himself an inexplicable outcast compares in little measure with my stubborn trudging through the passive daydreaming my obsessively critical lawyer father constantly paired with “feeble-mindedness.” I'd fixed my bearing on an idea of normalcy, to escape the neurotic tangle of physical tics, asthma, skin rashes, self-reproach and thoughts of suicide to an existence that promised happiness.
Mine and Robison's trouble understanding and communicating with people pushed us along divergent paths. He found solace in inanimate objects, machines in particular awakened his self-confidence: “No matter how big the machine, I am in charge. Machines don’t talk back. They are predictable. They don’t trick me, and they’re never mean.” My path went inward, my “feeble-minded” daydreaming leading me ultimately to the magic of words. The lawyer could follow me there only by proxy. He'd embedded reflexes in me that foretold spyware, yet my stubbornness, bequeathed unwittingly by him in his Norwegian genes, proved an effective enough firewall to preserve at least a fig-leaf sense of privacy.
I also turned to inanimate objects, but my curiosity focused on fantasy rather than mechanics. Even something humble as a rock was alive to me, with feelings I worried about hurting. I think my mother encouraged this. This inclination has stayed with me, albeit my emotional attachment is less empathic. Now, I see things mostly in the role of scapegoat--the laptop gets cursed when my fingers hit the wrong key, the hammer hears shouted obscenities when it hits my thumb while I'm trying to hang a picture, the picture hissed at when it refuses to hang straight. I know this is not sane, but it's safer taking anger out on things than on people. And I do sometimes apologize to the things after I've calmed down. But only when we're alone.
Robison's discovery that his mind worked rapidly understanding complex problems, and that he had an exceptionally detailed memory, opened up a new life for him. These unusual traits converged with his mechanical savvy and an unusual capacity for patience to launch electronics as the vehicle that gave him a ride he'd not dreamed possible. After dropping out of high school, he became so inventive designing lighting and audio circuitry on his kitchen table for local nightclubs the rock band KISS learned of his skills and paid him to trick out some electric guitars with special effects. The group soon made him its special effects expert. In turn the Aspergian whiz kid made KISS famous for its spectacular live performances.
With dutiful effort Robison made gradual progress learning social cues and mastering the “illogical” small talk that enabled him to feel more comfortable in social settings. Same with me, although my deficit in this area was nowhere near as severe. This could be because my mind works much slower than Robison's, more cautiously. Not all Aspergians are alike. Our traits can vary widely. After reading Robison's memoir I sought out more information on Asperger's, to help me better understand the syndrome and to help me with my own diagnosis. This is from Adult Asperger's Syndrome: The Essential Guide, by Kenneth Roberson, Ph,D,: 
 The complexity of Asperger’s can be distilled down to one main idea – trouble understanding what goes on in other people’s minds.
So far, so good. In another section, Roberson explains the way many if not most Aspergians cope with this shortcoming:
The neurological vulnerabilities of someone with Asperger’s make them especially sensitive to ambiguity and unpredictability, which are typically overwhelming. Their counter-reaction is to seek orderliness, certainty and uniformity. To do that they focus on facts in the present moment, they take ideas and words exactly at their most usual and basic sense, and they avoid figurative or metaphorical thinking. The world of Asperger’s is an orderly one. Facts, rather than presumptions, are a priority. Doubt, uncertainty, and vagueness are avoided. Literal speech, focusing on things exactly as they are while leaving out figurative explanations and assumptions, is a hallmark of Asperger’s.

For me, while the distillate's the same, my coping, by contrast, is primarily subterranean. I'd learned to hide in my imagination, so it was natural for me to begin exploring there when I felt bold enough to venture outward. This led to my working out above-ground difficulties without the pressure of someone looking over my shoulder. Books, newspapers and other reading matter, along with stumbles, missteps and serious blunders comprised the resources I worked with in my secret little chamber. I went above ground to test hypotheses on real people, which gained me incrementally the successes that kept me going. My test method was to represent my findings in words, both oral and written. I taught myself basic wordcraft this way. Writing has been my life raft over the years—a four-decade career in newspapers, which fed my Social Security account. These days I blog and write fiction to preserve my illusion of sanity.
I nearly forgot to mention another neurological aberration that has complicated things. A psychiatrist diagnosed this one: Attention Deficit Disorder. It was a late diagnosis that identified a layer of difficulty over those of my as-yet undiagnosed Asperger's. All the more incentive to dive to my private place, where ideas whirl and dance before me with less risk of interruption by superficial stimuli. Yet danger is not completely absent there. Plenty of bad memories sleep below in the dark, and many can be awakened by resonances from above. My little hideout in one sense sits on a dormant volcano of bad juju. It's my good fortune to have a mojo, besides my writing, that is fairly effective in keeping the bad stuff at bay: certain musical strains. Two come to mind at the moment.
One is a certain section in The Nutcracker Suite. I don't know what it means, how it relates to the story, or even which of the eight numbers it's in or where it is in the number. It's only a few bars. I know only that whenever I hear it I start to cry. It's a purely emotional response to an unexpected triumphal-sounding advent of brass that follows a stretch of tones that seems to suggest hardship or trial. I've surmised that somehow this moving tonal progression taps deep into my subconscious with a healing touch on some long ago forgotten hurt.
Here's another that does the same thing for me. It's from the 1968 Broadway musical Hair, and it's called “The Flesh Failures.” The lyrics start out grim:
We starve, look at one another short of breath,
Walking proudly in our winter coats,
Wearing smells from laboratories,
Facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy,
Listening for the new told lies with supreme visions of
Lonely tunes.
Somewhere, inside something, there is a rush of
Greatness.
Who knows what stands in front of our lives;
I fashion my future on films in space.
Silence tells me secretly everything, everything
...


At the end comes the chorus, bringing the healing tears. It consists of a single phrase, repeated over and over, like a mantra: Let the Sunshine In.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY – John Irving

It took me half a lifetime to read Moby Dick, with multiple stops and starts, each effort taking me a little further into the dense forest of words, many having no bearing I could see on the story. Eventually, several years ago, having come to understand there's more to literature than story and that as an important classic Moby Dick needed to be read, I girded my loins and slogged to the end, to the 544th page after "Call me Ishmael." I have no intention of ever trying to review it.

I have every intention of trying to do justice to the 626 pages of A Prayer for Owen Meany despite my ambivalence toward it, one of the strangest novels I have read. I read it because several female friends, whose literary taste I respect, loved it. I might have demurred, though, had I read the opening of Publisher's Weekly's review:

Irving's storytelling skills have gone seriously astray in this contrived, preachy, tedious tale of the eponymous Owen Meany, a latter-day prophet and Christ-like figure who dies a martyr after having inspired true Christian belief in the narrator, Johnny Wheelwright.

Other prominent reviews saved their "problems" with the novel until further down, after saying the standard nice things reviewers say about heavily promoted books by popular authors, the kind of puffery Owen Meany loved to lampoon as MADE FOR TELEVISION. But I didn't consult any reviews—not even the plethora ofboring and “tedious single-star comments among Amazon's "customer reviews"--before I downloaded this leviathan novel to my Kindle. I'd never been sold on Irving. I did read Garp and possibly Setting Free the Bears. I remember nothing of the latter, precious little of Garp the movie and less of the book. Mainly that there were weird characters and startling plot twists. The only character I can recall is the transvestite (transsexual?) football player John Lithgow portrayed in the film version of Garp. It occurs to me my reading Irving back then was also female prompted. Photos show him to have been a classically handsome man. Perhaps that has something to do with his popularity.
Do I sound envious? Maybe I am, just a tad. But were the guy a better wordsmith he could have women lined up for blocks and it wouldn't matter that much. Same were he a better storyteller. I can forgive a lot for a good story well written. Owen Meany is a rather silly story told with three times too many words. The only characters that amused me were Owen Meany and his childhood friend-cum-lover Hester the Molester. Meany's either a dwarf or a midget—it's never made clear, although we learn that as an adult he's five-feet tall, which would make him simply short--with a voice problem that forces him when talking to practically scream through his nose. I kept thinking of a fellow in my small Wisconsin hometown who had some kind of palate malformation. His voice was loud and nasal. He also was mentally disabled. Owen Meany is mentally over-abled.
Meany is a know-it-all, and because he is always correct, at least in his context as a character, I felt no tension waiting for him to screw up. He serves as a living truth meter, at least in the mind of his best friend, the novel's wimpy narrator, whom Meany shoots down at virtually every turn. This initially presented me with a problem, as I invariably identify with narrators. This may seem to some a weakness of character, but I try to rationalize it as enabling me to better suspend my critical disbelief and lose myself in a story. Thus, Owen Meany was shooting me down every time he shot down, along with everyone else, his best friend. Started pissing me off, to be frank. Fortunately, at some point early on I found myself identifying with the screaming Meany, which enabled me to distance myself enough from the wimp narrator to calm me for riding the story. Albeit bumpy ride that it is.
In retrospect, it's the bumps that keep the ride alive. Bumps and abrupt, screeching turns and brilliantly executed, thigh-slapping comic sketches. These are what kept me awake through the deadly, arid stretches of description and background and cameo visits from inconsequential characters and—sometimes I wondered if Irving had accidentally cut and pasted entire chapters from some other work-in-progress. Or maybe he keeps a database labeled fill or padding, and simply stuffs chunks from it hither and thither with an eye on word count to satisfy his publisher.
And then there were the tedious tropes and gimmick scenes. Meany or his friend getting “the shivers” like ninnies every time something spooks them, which is often. Hester the Molester, the narrator's cousin, gets drunk and barfs in her grandmother's rose garden every New Year's Eve. For years. You could bank on it. Every year. Hahahahaha. But I forgave poor Hester. It wasn't her fault Irving used her so lazily.


 So what's the big deal about Meany thinking he's the Second Coming? He thinks he's God's instrument and is able to persuade others that he is. He predicts the precise date of his death, and dies a hero and a martyr. But to what end? To save one atheist? His friend, the narrator, who then goes on to save his biological father? Two heathens brought to faith in the Bible by one dinky, squeaky little maybe prophet? And does faith in the Bible make one a Christian? I know virtually all self-proclaimed Christians insist it does. Evidently Irving does, else what other message should we take from this monster of a novel?
Then again maybe Owen Meany is a prophet of sorts. Here's an exchange between him and the narrator (Irving always represents Meany's voice in upper case letters):
Do we have a generation of drunks to look forward to?”
WE HAVE A GENERATION OF PEOPLE WHO ARE ANGRY TO LOOK FORWARD TO,” Owen said. “AND MAYBE TWO GENERATIONS OF PEOPLE WHO DON’T GIVE A SHIT,” he added.
I'll give that one an amen.




[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Death's Honesty (30)

Blow's consciousness emerged in accelerating increments from the latent panic of being somewhere on his back in excruciating pain, unable to move or speak. A sense of something darkly malevolent looming above him riveted his attention around the barrel of what appeared to be a pistol inches from his face. Distantly, a non-specific voice intruded, complicating the sickening intimacy of his predicament enough to let in a familiar scent, and then the touch of thighs embracing his torso.
No, ma'am. Mr. Stone can't take the call. He's sound asleep. Yes. Under a doctor's care, as I said. He can't meet you at the jail tonight but he'll be available to meet with you tomorrow. Yes. Yes. I understand. I know you want your son home as soon as possible. Yes. I will call the jail right now and tell them you and your husband are coming. I'm sorry? Oh, I'm Joan, Mr. Stone's sister. Joan Stone. That is correct. Tomorrow morning...or, yes of course, later this morning. Mr. Stone will be in his office at nine. That's right. Yes, ma'am. Good bye.”
The pok of a cellphone snapping shut opened Blow's eyes. He managed to focus on the moonlit features of Rose McGillicutty's saucy Irish face just in time to discern who he was looking at before she rocked sideways and reached for the chair next to his side of the bed, then rocked back upright atop him.
Shit,” she said, rocking the other way, snatching her smart phone from the bedside table and rocking back upright. “I gotta call the damned jail. What's your client's name again? Morowitz, right?”
Allen Bradley III.” Blow's voice came out half-strangled.
Allen Bradley Morowitz, right? Sorry to wake you, Darlin'. I gotta make this damned call.”
Yup, that's it. What's up?”
She explained that his client's parents had just gotten in and wanted to bail their son out as soon as they could get to the jail. It was a little after three. They guessed it would take them less than an hour to get from the airport to Leicester. They wanted Blow to meet them at the jail. He started to nod that he understood, but pain shot through his neck. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Sounded like you handled it brilliantly, Rosie. Did I hear you tell them you were Joan?”
Rose grinned. “I started to say I was your wife, then I almost gave them my name. I don't think too clearly coming out of a sound sleep. But then I had a flash of inspiration. Close call, wasn't it.”
Ha ha. So what're you gonna tell the deputy?”
Oops. Shit. Caller ID. You up to making the call, Darlin'?” Blow almost nodded again. “Sure,” he said instead. Rose rocked back to the chair and retrieved the flip-up phone. He fumbled with it in the curtain-dimmed moonlight through the bedroom window, punched up a number, spoke with someone, his voice sounding oddly formal, and flipped the phone shut. Rose rocked back to the bedside table where she deposited both phones.
Shoulda put yours there to begin with,” she said, rocking back upright.
You could have, but then I wouldn't be having the pleasure of all this rocking back and forth upon me.”
You enjoying this?”
Haven't you figured that out yet?”
Oh. Yeah. So you are. Actually, um, I'm kinda enjoying it myself.”
Oh. Yeah. So you are.”


Blow had forgotten how petite Julie Morowitz was. Looking at her now as she entered his office with her husband, her diminutive size and an air of girlish diffidence erased the impression she'd made from Judge Lambert's laptop screen during her son's bond hearing. Now, the composed face, its smooth, snowy complexion adorned with the cascading auburn spirals that had struck Blow as Medusa-like in the Skype close-up, seemed fragile.
He knew how perception can mislead, and how part of the illusion he was experiencing had to do with the husband's disproportionate size—well over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, sturdy, confident body language—which at a distance oddly emboldened the effect of his freckled face and short, sandy hair. It was a face that had looked weak in the Skype conference.
As he welcomed them, motioned them to the chairs facing his desk, made light of his neck brace and offered cordial largely generic remarks, another, older sense of the couple wedged itself between the contrasting versions. The Morowitzes were younger then but seemed in his memory much younger than the intervening years would imply. They'd been almost giddy with the enthusiasm of buying a new house. Blow handled their end of the transaction. He remembered the matter with a good feeling, some of which their presence brought with them despite the grim circumstances.
Mrs. Bassett's not here today?” Julie Morowitz's relaxed contralto also belied its effect in the bond hearing—gone was the nasal suggestion of anxiety, which Blow guessed could have been a distortion in the Skype transmission. He stifled a gasp at her mentioning the name of his part-time secretary. She couldn't have met Barbara Bassett more than at most twice during the earlier matter, and then only peripherally. And if Mrs. Morowitz knew Barbara in some other context she would have used her first name. With a memory that powerful she could make a politician go dumb. Any notion as to who might be in charge here, no matter how soft the touch, suddenly went moot. Allen Bradley Morowitz II, his bulk threatening to overwhelm the hardwood courtroom chair, merely gazed wondrously at his poised, able spouse.
Barbara's taking a long weekend, Mrs. Morowitz. She's semi-retired, works only part-time anyway now. She'll be pleased to know you remembered her.”
It was when the interview moved on to substance, leaning toward Blow to discuss the dire prospects facing their son, Chip, that Julie and Al--as they'd introduced themselves—revealed a subtler indication of the difference in their personalities: Blow found it in their eyes and their mouths. Julie's brown irises sparkled with spirit, Al's were such a pale blue they had a spectral aura. At a distance his strong jaw and sharp cheekbones mitigated this effect, but up close, intuitively, they betrayed an inner weakness. His thin lips seemed to corroborate this, as well. Even slack they had a pinched, prissy look. His wife's lower lip protruded slightly, robust and challenging, allowing a glimpse of teeth. Her face, peering at him through the auburn spirals, hinted slyly she could enjoy a little sexual mischief.
Despite this difference in demeanors, or perhaps because of it, Blow addressed his first question to Al Morowitz.
I'm sort of surprised you didn't bring Chip along.” He tried to sound casual, but Al flinched at its import. He stared briefly at Blow, then said, “He was so tired. We decided to let him sleep.”
I guess there's no one with him then?”
Morowitz stared a moment more, then turned his head and passed the baton to his wife.
No, Mr. Stone. We trust our son. He didn't kill anyone, and he's going to cooperate fully with you and obey the terms of his bond. We trust you, too. We're counting on you to clear our boy's good name.”
Well, thank you, Mrs. Morowitz. I certainly hope you're right.” He wondered silently if Judge Lambert would agree that the terms she'd set for bond were being met.
He decided she might were Julie Morowitz to make the argument they were.


Friday, May 12, 2017

AN ACCIDENTAL NOVELIST – Richard S. Wheeler

       It ain't the steak, it's the sizzle. I first read this sentiment decades ago as an insider's tip on how to pitch a book idea or even a completed manuscript to an agent or publishing house. It made sense at the time, cynical as I'd become with a file folder bulging with rejection slips. Thus, this sage advice prompted me to spend perhaps more creative energy than I had to spare coming up with clever titles and blurbs for my queries and cover letters.

    Amid a newspaper reporting career at the time, I'd gotten fairly good at snagging a reader's interest with the first sentence. And I knew a catchy headline when I saw one. Yet, despite my best efforts pimping my fiction with carnival come-ons, that folder of rejection slips kept getting fatter. My sizzle failed to entice anyone to try my steaks. Why? Well, to dance around the probable truth, the last thing a writer wants to admit is that he's fooling himself and that his steaks are merely gristle.

    Richard Wheeler had entered the writing game a few years before I did. We share some common ground. Both are Wisconsin boys (or were) and both were floundering in sputtering newspaper careers. We each ended up writing fiction, but Wheeler had more guts. He jumped off the creaking boxcar and headed for Fiction Junction without a map, while I rattled along to the end of the line. Today he has more than 60 published novels and a bunch of awards under his belt. Me? five books, self-published.
 
    I hadn't heard of Wheeler until recently. My favorite mystery writer, Ed Gorman, recommended his friend's literary memoir, An Accidental Novelist, which I immediately acquired. I read it raptly. Wheeler taught me a lot in this book besides introducing me to a man so much like myself it's scary--a distinct difference being his having more guts.
   Perhaps his most important lesson, which I happily share with all other aspiring novelists, is the secret of the other "Z" word. As I consider suspense a form of torture, I'll give you the word right now: Buzz.

   Buzz is the hipper version of the traditional "word of mouth." It's more effective for selling books than big-budget publicity by a big-name publisher that takes out full-page ads in literary magazines and sends an author on big-time promotional tours. Wheeler speaks from experience here, having enjoyed the luxury of big-time tours that stroked his ego, got him TV interviews and audiences with important literary lights, book-signings galore and nights in the best hotels. Despite all this, the expensive tours did little to stimulate sales of the touted books, he says.

   What did work, he claims, was the reaction of readers. If they like a book and recommend it to their friends, the sales will take off. How to get the buzz started, especially for an unknown author? Free books:

   "I believe that publishers should simply give away half of an obscure author's first printing at free bookstore signings, book festivals and other venues, and that this sort of pump-priming is the only type of promotion of obscure authors that will ultimately pay off."

   There's plenty more of value in this book for the aspiring novelist who's heading toward Fiction Junction without a map.

   I've since read several of his novels—historical fiction, under his own name, and the mysteries he publishes as Axel Brand. I've enjoyed them all. Richard S. Wheeler is a winner. 
 
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


 


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Death's Honesty (29)

Rose McGillicutty's agile fingers eased the cervical collar off Blow's neck and set it on a wooden chair near the bed. They were sitting on the bed when she did this. With the collar off, she reached up and gently massaged the muscles and tendons in his neck and shoulders. A purr started in his throat.
“This feel good?” The question was unnecessary, but it enabled her to complement with the calm confidence in her voice what her hands were doing to his body. The purr climbed in affirmation. “Say if it hurts,” she cautioned. “You've sure got some knots, Darlin'. Didn't you say they gave you a muscle relaxant?”
“I think one of the nurses said that. Guess it didn't work, huh?”
“Where does it hurt the most?”
“In back. Whenever I move my head. Worse when I try to rotate it.”
She leaned in and kissed the back of his neck. “I can smell that collar on you. Smells hospitally. You don't have to wear it to bed, do you?”
“Let's try without it. It's only a sprain, but...you'll go easy on me, won't you?”
“Go easy on you? Have I ever gone easy on you, mister? Oh, well, those first few times, but they don't count.”
Blow, grinning, started to turn his head, then hunched his shoulders and squinted against the pain. The grin rode his memory back to his junior year at Leicester High School where Rose, brand new in the teaching game, tutored some of her male algebra students after hours in her home. Blow was one of them, and algebra only one of the tutored courses. Soon run out of town on the rumor express, she disappeared, to return quietly several years later and begin writing novels and running a confidential boutique bordello in her home. Blow knew she was back when he discovered in his mail a rose-scented calling card. As information, besides the scent, the cream-colored card provided only a tiny embossed red rose in one corner, a phone number, and a street address.
Seeing her, smiling her half-shy-half-sly smile, surprised and warmed him when he found her waiting in the hospital lobby. She started to spread her arms as if to hug him, then reached above the collar and ran the tips of her fingers along the stubble on his jaw. Her smile had gone more to the shy side.
“I was afraid you'd be in a wheelchair.” Her voice was soft, tone confidential.
Blow laughed. “I was afraid I'd be on a gurney. It's only a sprain. Hurts like hell, though.”
“Didn't they give you something?”
“A shot. Probly Vicodin or Percocet. Some kind of muscle relaxant, too, I think.”
“Feel kinda floppy?”
“Nah, more like...kinda loopy, I guess. Or I probly would be in a chair. Thanks for coming, Rosie. How'd you find out?”
The sly reasserted itself. “I have my sources.”
She hugged him, then tugged on his arm, nodding toward the door. “I'll put some soup on. Maybe some cabernet. Get you comfortable.”
Stepping into the night chill braced Blow, sharpened his senses. The afternoon clouds had vacated the sky, now a distant dark broken only by a smattering of cosmic glitter and a brilliant crescent moon. She led him to her Renault and opened the passenger door. She held a hand lightly on his head to guide it from bumping the frame during his awkward climb in.
“Smells rosy in here,” he said, as she backed the car out of its slot. “My inner wolf wants to howl.”
“Your inner wolf needs some food. First, anyway.” She declined his request to drop him off where he'd left his truck at Mundaign's: “You're too woozy, Darlin'. Don't want you in any more trouble tonight.” They decided he could get the truck in the morning, and she took him home. By the time she'd parked in her driveway he had brought her up to speed on his situation. She already knew about the kids, but hadn't heard of Chris Curtis's murder. She knew of Mundaign, that he was researching a book on local history, but she hadn't made the connection between his interest in Blackbeard and the murders.
“Do you think he was involved? I mean, maybe he shot them as trespassers? Some kind of get-off-my-lawn nut, you think?”
“Anything's possible at this point, Rosie, but my client was there, holding a pistol. I think he's innocent, but it sure as hell doesn't look good for him at the moment.”
“His parents are in Europe?”
“Should be here tomorrow. I might have better luck talking to the kid when he's out on bond. He's scared to death in there now.”
Several windows beckoned with curtain-softened light as Rose's modest brownstone came into view.
“I'm not interrupting anything, am I?” Blow knew the question was unnecessary but it'd become something of a habit, in this instance recognizing that Irma, Rose's secretary, who had taken on a discreet male clientele of her own, might be so occupied when they arrived. Rose found this arrangement convenient as she tapered off her own direct involvement in the entertainment end of her enterprise. Her success as a novelist was simply taking up too much of her time.
“I don't think so. Irma's probly busy proofing The Would-be Squire. It's almost done. My best yet, I think. She might feel like a little party break, though, if you're still up when I'm through with you.”
“Woody Squire, huh?”
“Hey, I like that.”