Death Becomes Me

August 20, 2009

All of my previous books have taken place over a relatively short time period, and one of the things I wanted to do with my new novel was to try something altogether bigger in scope and subject matter.  But I hadn’t realized until I was well into the book is that there is a severe drawback to writing a story that takes place over an extended period of time (just over a century, in this case): people have to die.  And it is my job to kill ’em off.


Despite the rampant megalomania inherent in the act of making up stories, I’ve found this to be a surprisingly tough gig.  As you live with characters and watch them grow, it’s hard not to become quite fond of them (even the bastards – perhaps especially the bastards.)  And it’s only with extreme reluctance that I’ve consigned them all to their various fates, sorry to see them go.

You can’t just have them expire from old age, either.  Most unprofessional, don’t you know.  So in this book there is death by: enemy sniper fire, arson, drowning (twice), hanging (suicide), lynching, massive stroke, cycling off the edge of a cliff, Parkinson’s disease, and myocardial infarction brought on by a malfunctioning pituitary gland (you’ll just have to trust me on that last one.)  The only person who does die of old age is 106.  If you’re going to do it, do it properly, I say.

It may be wearisome, this endless trudge of death, but I suspect (or hope) that all those morbid endings contribute hugely to the book’s vitality.  After all, a life lived without fear of death is not much of a life at all.

Last minute tweaks

July 29, 2009

Final, tiny polish before submission tomorrow: exorcising last remaining anglicisms.  I found one “pavement” and seven “autumns”.  Damn.  Thank God for search and replace.  Scratching my head trying to think of other tell-tale signs…

Next hurdle jumped

July 27, 2009

Big news today.

We heard from Emma Sweeney, the US literary agent in New York who has been reading the manuscript of Paradise.  She was on holiday last week in Maine.  What was she doing in Maine, you might ask?  (Well, you might.)  I’ll tell you: apparently she was reading my book, and apparently she liked it.  Bruce has written from London telling me that she is very enthusiastic about the novel and is looking forward to representing me.

This is, needless to say, a huge relief.

As regular readers will know, I was worried about whether or not Bruce would like the book, but in some ways getting a US agent on board was going to be an even bigger struggle – since, you know, it’s set in America, an’ all.  Anyway, it seems as if Emma gets the book and what I was trying to accomplish, which is in itself very gratifying.  It will be interesting to see how we go from here.  Bruce is proposing an auction for the UK rights and has his eyes on various of the big UK publishers.  We may wait and see how it fares in the US first.

Christina and I went out for lunch to celebrate and cast most of the film while we were waiting for our food to arrive.  High spirits.  Right now I’m very pleased, although I do have to keep reminding myself that we haven’t sold a thing yet.

Paradise – Arrival

March 17, 2009
It struck me that simply delivering slabs of the new book probably wasn’t a great idea – lack of context and all that.  Better instead to offer up a few choice bits which give a flavor of what is to come.  To that end, here’s another excerpt from early on in the book.  The narrator’s grandparents have just arrived in America from Germany – not in New York, but New Orleans.  Hope you like it.  (Oh, and talking of context.  The date, I should tell you, is 1905.)
The ship’s arrival at the dock prompted a flurry of activity. Frederick and Jette stood on the deck and gazed down at the troop of men who ran to and fro, securing ropes and erecting gangplanks, shouting to each other in a strange language. Jette’s fingers curled around Frederick’s arm.
‘Look at them,’ she whispered.
Frederick nodded. He watched the dockworkers in fascination. He had read about Negroes, but there had been none to be found in the streets of Hanover. The men’s huge muscles gleamed in the afternoon sun. Some laughed and joked as they hauled cargo along the gangplank and on to the quay, others whistled and sang. Frederick thought of the grim-faced men at Bremen who had loaded the same cargo two weeks earlier in sour silence. His heart ballooned. What sort of country can this be, he wondered, when even the hardest jobs are performed with such joy?
When my grandparents finally arrived onshore, they queued to register their arrival in America. Frederick entered his name and occupation in a large ledger and signed his name with an exuberant flourish.
Last year I went to the State Historical Society of Louisiana iand found the book my grandfather signed. Its heavy covers were sheathed in decades-old dust, its spine a mosaic of fragmented leather. The pages were ochre-stiff and pungent with the smell of creeping decay. The paper crackled beneath my touch. And then there it was: FREDERICK MEISENHEIMER, ANGESTELLTE. Clerk. Page upon page of faded signatures preceded this entry, and page upon page followed. Our story was just a single line in this vast narrative of hope. Every family in those pages had begun their journey here before spreading out in waves across the country, on the crest of their immigrant dreams.
My grandfather’s signature itself was utterly unreadable, a defiant, optimistic scrawl. I traced a finger across the faded ink.
As part of the price of their tickets, the steamer company had booked each passenger one night’s stay in a hotel opposite the docks. After a fresh battery of inspections and interviews, Frederick and Jette followed the other passengers across the wide street.
That evening they ate at the hotel restaurant. In the middle of the room stood a table groaning with food. After two weeks of soup and herring, the new arrivals just stood and stared. There were hams dotted with cloves; thick, dark slabs of Creole pork; vast platters of fried chicken; piles of shrimp the size of a child’s fist and coated in a fiery red sauce; and ribs – more ribs than you could imagine, glistening sweet and brown. There were huge ears of corn, shining with butter; potatoes, fried and boiled; buckets of green beans; and, at the centre of the table, a huge, bubbling pot of jambalaya. There was a hill of white rolls, so fresh they spilled steam when you opened them up. There were plates of fresh fruit – oranges, bananas, mangoes, thickly sliced pineapples, plums. Jette and Frederick fell on the feast before them. They piled their plates as high as they could, and then went back for more. They were silent as they ate, every mouthful a new eruption of strange flavours. Their lips tingled with the kiss of spice.
When the meal was finally over, Jette let out a small moan, equal parts distress and satisfaction. ‘I’ve never eaten so much in my life,’ she said, wincing. ‘I need to go and lie down.’
Frederick looked around him. Some passengers were still eating, blinking in astonishment as they chewed. His first night in America! He knew that sleep was far away yet. ‘I’ll stay down here a while,’ he said.
‘Remember we have a long day tomorrow,’ said Jette, kissing him softly as she left.
Frederick drank a glass of cold beer and thought about the strange new world waiting for him outside the front door of the hotel. He pushed his empty glass across the counter, counted out the correct change, and stepped out on to the street.
It was still murderously humid, even though the sun had long since gone down. My grandfather stood for a moment on the street corner. He caught the sharp aroma of fresh tar from the nearby docks, then the sweet scent of bougainvillea, drifting by on a languid breeze. He planted his hat firmly on his head and set off down the street, away from the water: into America.
Frederick must have been quite a sight. He had not shaved for two weeks, and his ginger beard was even wilder than usual. He still wore his velvet suit, which by now was filthy and crumpled beyond recognition. He looked the worse for wear, but he had never felt more excited, or more alive. Shiny trams shuttled past him, bells clanking loudly as they sailed up the wide street, gravel dust floating in their wake. On the sides of the tall brick buildings were posters adorned with giant bars of chocolate and bottles of milk. Beneath the pale glow of the streetlamps, the sidewalks teamed with life. Couples walked past arm in arm, their heads close together in a cloud of sweet nothings. Sharply-dressed men prowled past him, their hats pulled down over their eyes. Packs of thin-limbed children scuttled by in the shadows. Frederick felt their hungry eyes upon him. As he walked on, the cobbled streets narrowed. The windows of upstairs apartments were flung open to the night, and from time to time the warm air was punctuated by raucous laughter or angry shouts from somewhere above him. Women leaned out of their kitchen windows and gossiped to their neighbours across the street, oblivious to the pedestrians passing below. He listened to their crackling, high-pitched delivery, not understanding a word.
After an hour or so, Frederick sat down on a bench and rested. He was thirsty, and hot. He wiped his brow and thought about returning to the hotel. Just then, the sound of a cornet floated through the air. Frederick listened. This was not the sort of dry fugue that echoed through Hanover concert halls. The instrument had been unshackled: it spiralled upwards in bewildering syncopated patterns, a whirlwind of graceful elision and complex melody. The music streaked into the night, every note dripping with joy. My grandfather stood up, thoughts of return forgotten. He followed the sound.
Half way down a nearby side street stood a building lit up like a beacon, bathing the sidewalk in its warm glow. A sign hung over the door: Chez Benny’s. The strange music spilled out of open windows. As he approached, Frederick could hear other instruments –clarinets, a trombone, a banjo. He peered inside. Through a fog of smoke Frederick could see a large room crammed with people, some at small tables, some standing, others dancing. At the far end of the room, six musicians stood on a stage. The cornet player was at their centre, his eyes tightly closed as he blew his horn. Staccato flurries of notes ripped into the night, ragging the up-tempo tune. Behind him the other men were swinging in a sweet, scorching counterpoint of rhythm and harmony. The cornet player bent his knees like a boxer as he delivered each new blistering line of attack. Hot glissandos shimmered in the air, tearing up the joint.
After a moment, Frederick became aware that someone watching him from the front door of the club, a tall Negro. The man took a step towards Frederick and said something. Frederick shook his head in apology.
‘No English,’ he muttered.
The man said something else – which, to his astonishment, Frederick understood. It took him a moment to register why: the man was speaking French.
‘We’re full,’ he said, his accent fragrant with the echo of elsewhere.
‘Who is that?’ asked Frederick in French, pointing through the window.
‘You can’t come in. We’re full.’
‘But I just want –’
‘Are you blind?’ said the man angrily. ‘This club is for blacks.’
Frederick blinked in surprise. He turned and looked again at the audience.
‘You can’t come in,’ said the man again.
‘I’ve never heard such music before,’ said Frederick.
‘Just arrived?’ asked the Negro.
‘This afternoon. From Germany.’
‘Germany?’ The man whistled. ‘You’ve come a long way.’
Frederick looked back at the stage. One of the clarinet players was soloing now, a wailing chorus of glee. ‘Who is that cornet player?’
The man slowly extended his index finger, pushed the rim of his hat upwards, and then pointed through the window. The cornet player stood at the side of the stage, clapping his hands and stamping his foot in time to the music. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is Buddy Bolden.’


March 4, 2009
… is a big number.  It’s the number of words, as of right this instant, that are in my book.  If memory serves, this is more than double the number of words in my first novel, Working It Out.  (Of course, whether that is a good or a bad thing is open to debate.)
Anyway, I am inching slowly towards the end, morning by morning.  Should be there soon.
When I get to the end, the billionth edit/re-write will begin.  It will be interesting to see whether the final number of words after that process is bigger or smaller than the one above.  There are a lot of extraneous adverbs and questionable plot devices waiting for the chop…

Paradise, Part 2

December 13, 2008
The voice that had halted Jette’s afternoon walk belonged to my grandfather, Frederick Meisenheimer, and in fact Jette’s intuition had been exactly right: he was singing directly to her. Frederick had watched her make her way around the path, following the same route she always followed. When she passed in front of the bush he was hiding behind, he crossed his fingers and began to sing.
This was no impromptu performance. Frederick had been watching Jette walk through the Segerpark for several consecutive Sundays, enchanted by her unusual size. He had spent his time between those delicious weekly sightings wondering how best to attract her attention. In the end he had chosen to ambush her with an aria, che gelida manina, from Puccini’s new opera, La Bohème. The opening lines translate as your tiny hand is frozen – not especially appropriate, given that Jette’s hands were not, even by the most charitable standards, tiny; they were also rather clammy due to the unseasonably warm weather. Still, Frederick knew what he was doing. When he had finished, he stepped out from behind the hedge and thrust a concoction of lupins, dahlias, and pansies into Jette’s (big, sweaty) hands. By then, caught squarely in the cross-hairs of Puccini’s gorgeous melody, she was helpless.
My grandfather did not look like the sort of man who could pull off a stunt like this. If you are picturing a suave, attractive suitor, think again. Physically, he and Jette were a good match, insofar as neither of them quite met the prevailing expected standards, and neither of them especially cared. He, too, was huge, in every sense: taller than Jette by an inch or two, he possessed a quivering gut of heroic dimensions which he made no attempt to hide. Waves of thick red hair washed across his head. Instead of the prim moustache favoured by most Hanover men, he wore a magnificent ginger beard which sprouted from his cheeks in chaotic exuberance.
For the next few weeks, Frederick and Jette met each Sunday afternoon by the same privet hedge. They walked side by side around the gardens, although every so often Frederick would step away from Jette and break into song. He serenaded her with Mascagni, Verdi, Donizetti, and Giordano. My grandfather was a terrible ham. He acted out every lyric as if his life depended on it, changing from lovelorn Sicilian peasant to fiery French revolutionary with barely a breath in between. His histrionics earned baleful looks from other passers-by, their quiet Sunday strolls disturbed by this barrelful of song, but he ignored them all. Jette soon learned to do the same. With Frederick by her side, the rest of the world retreated.
Before long, the young couple began to live for their Sunday walks, the long weeks in between a grey sea of pernicious tedium. In each other these two oversized misfits found refuge from the choppy, unforgiving sea in which both had been unhappily drifting. Frederick was enraptured by all of Jette’s big-boned loveliness. He was simply grateful that there was so much of her for him to worship. And Jette loved him right back. She adored the lines he had first whispered through the privet hedge:
Per sogni a per chimere
e per castelli in aria,
l’anima ho milionaria.
When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire!
It was Frederick’s capacity to dream that dazzled Jette the most. When she was with him, anything was possible.
[More later.  I’d love to hear what you think.  If you can’t comment on the blog itself (it’s a bloggers closed-shop), shoot me an email:]

Opening Bit (technical term) to my new novel, "Paradise" – You Read it Here First

December 11, 2008
Always, there was music.
It was music – Puccini, to be precise – that first drew my grandparents into each other’s orbit, more than a hundred years ago. It was an unusually warm afternoon in early spring, in the grandest municipal garden in Hanover, the Segerpark. My grandmother, Henriette Furst, was taking her usual Sunday stroll among the regimented flowerbeds and manicured lawns so beloved of city-dwelling Prussians. At twenty-five, she was a fine example of Teutonic rude health: Jette, as she was known by everyone, was six foot tall, and robustly built. She walked through the park with none of the feminine grace that was expected from ladies of her class. Rather than making her way by trippingly petite steps on the arm of an admirer, Jette clomped briskly along the gravelled paths alone, too busy enjoying the day to worry about the unladylike spectacle she presented to others. Rather than squeezing her considerable frame into the bustles and corsets that constrained the grim-faced ladies she so effortlessly outflanked, Jette preferred voluminous dresses which draped her outsized form like colourful tents. She swept along in a dramatic, free-flowing swirl, leaving all those rigidly-contoured women hobbling in her wake.
And then, as she passed a sculpted wall of privet, a song drifted out from behind the topiary. The singer was male: his voice, as clear and as pure as a freshly-struck bell, fell on Jette like a shower of jasmine. She stopped, stilled by the tune’s simple beauty. Even cloaked in mellifluous Italian, Jette could hear hope and enchantment in every syllable. Unable to pull herself away, alone by the privet hedge, her act of listening felt shockingly intimate. The invisible singer seemed to be whispering in her ear, performing for her alone.
My grandmother, bewitched by song. So our story begins.