A Tale of Two (or Three) Suitcases

One of the joys of researching a historical novel is the uncovering of parallels, unrelated facts that nevertheless strike me as significant. When you read a lot of mysteries, as I do, you come to believe there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything is significant.

The scope of the novel encompasses several wars from 1936 to 1962 and there are many parallels involved. War does awful things to people no matter who’s fighting; brutality breeds only more brutality and what’s learned is passed through generations. You torture mine, I’ll torture yours even more. It’s a chain of iniquity that continues to this day.

But we were talking about suitcases. When photojournalist, Robert Capa, fled Paris as the Nazis arrived, he may have had with him a suitcase full of negatives from the Spanish Civil War, photos by Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) as well as Capa. The suitcase was lost for many years, until it turned up in Mexico in 1995. When it was found, it was hoped by many including Capa’s brother Cornell, that it would contain the negative of Falling Soldier, Capa’s most famous photo that is said to depict the moment of death of a Spanish Republican soldier. Cornell Capa’s hope was that finding the negative intact and in sequence would finally put to rest the controversy that has always followed the photo: real, or was it staged?

Unfortunately the negative was not in the case, the controversy continues, and no one is absolutely certain how the suitcase wound up in Mexico. I have a theory about that and it fits nicely in a novel.

The parallel suitcase belonged to Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in France after fleeing the Nazis, appearing to make it safely to Spain on his way to America, then being turned back by Franco’s guards. Despairing, ill, fearing he would be turned over to the Nazis, and unable to summon the energy to try again, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine in Portbou, Catalonia on the French/Spanish border. The suitcase containing the manuscript of an unpublished book he had carried from Germany was never found.

In a totally unrelated postscript: Harry “Suitcase” Simpson was a well-traveled Major League ballplayer who played for seventeen different teams in the majors, minors, and Negro Leagues. There are two theories on the nickname: one because he was always being traded and two, because his size thirteen shoes reminded a sportswriter of a cartoon character named “Suitcase.” I can’t find any evidence that Harry ever lost a suitcase and as far as I know, he never met either Capa or Benjamin, but I’ll take any opportunity to throw in a baseball reference.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Writers and Agents

My first novel attracted some interest from an agent who read three very different drafts before finally deciding it wasn’t right for her. She was encouraging and complimentary and her feedback was very valuable to me. It made me really want to work with her. The novel has taken on a much darker tone – it’s no longer a light-hearted travelogue of southern France complete with food, wine and colorful natives – it’s more honest, more personal and painful, a true first novel. I may not have revised it to a book the agent wanted to sell, but I’m happy with it, now. Of course I had to go through the early rejection stage of thinking it was all shit and I couldn’t write a want ad, but I’m past that now and submitting to other agents.

I’m close to finishing the first draft of my second novel. This is a totally different animal; set in twentieth century Europe, it tells multiple stories in different time frames that converge in a single location. It too has taken some surprising turns – into consideration of issues of personal responsibility in the face of evil and how we learn violence. And two characters who were not in the original conception, both female, have assumed prominent, catalytic roles.

Let’s talk about agents. They are the gatekeepers to the world of traditional publishing; there’s no entry to major houses without one. There’s some variation but the basic process goes like this: I send a one page query letter describing my novel and hope that some word or phrase strikes a chord that makes her want to read a few pages of the book I’ve been writing for the last three years. If she hears the sweet music in those pages, she may ask to read more. If she doesn’t, there’s only silence. Now I understand the pressures on all sides. The agent already has clients and her first responsibility must be to them. What comes over the transom is future business development, part of the job but not the highest priority. Still, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for an automated return email that says: “No, thank you.” The writer’s only option is multiple submissions, a process that feels something like trying to strike a piñata without knowing it’s in a totally different room.

There are web sites like Agent Query and Publishers’ Marketplace that list recent publishing deals and give me an idea which agents might be a good fit. Then I go to their web sites, see who they represent and what genres they’re looking for, and try to decide if they’re right for me. It ain’t easy. Genres are marketing categories and they’re fluid. Where’s the line between literary and commercial fiction? Why do some mysteries cross over to become literary? What on earth is women’s fiction?

And where do I fit in? If an agent has big name authors will she have time for me? If she doesn’t, is she any good? Is a big agency with multiple divisions and foreign offices better than a boutique with personal relationships?

So I look for any clue that might indicate there’s a chance to break through the clutter, and send another query.

The alternative is self-publishing which holds no appeal for me; although many people think it’s the future, most of them happen to be part of a whole new industry that’s developed to support the new writer-entrepreneur. And if, as my friend Mike Shatzkin writes, very few self-published writers are selling many books, and agents and traditional publishing houses are wary of taking on a title that’s been self-published, then what’s the difference between the new model and the bad old days of vanity publishers?

Enough for now, I need to research the record for oldest writer to publish a first novel.

©2015 Ron Scherl

1000 Words a Day

Podcasts and workouts. Perfect, like oysters and champagne. Get your head into something else and that thirty-minute elliptical workout just flies by, well, not really but it does go a little bit faster when the mind is occupied.

Lately I’ve been listening to writers talking about writing, something most people would find about as interesting as golf on the radio or your uncle’s Orlando vacation photos. But I can’t resist. I don’t learn much but I do get to feel like part of the club, experiencing many of the same frustrations and satisfactions. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and every once in a while it feels good to connect with other writers in this virtual group. Real writing groups are not for me, I prefer my therapy one-to-one.

These interviews do give you some sense of the writers and, when they respond with generosity, I’m more inclined to want to read their books. Debut novelists usually see the interview as a great opportunity and respond enthusiastically, veterans often find it a chore and grudgingly impart clichéd answers to standard questions. Certainly not a reliable indicator of talent but you need some way to work your way through the incredible number of volumes published daily.

The interviews usually begin with the writer describing the genesis of the book, then move on to discuss the elements that most interested the host: “Why did you decide to set your book in this tiny town in France?” “Because I live there.” One of the standard questions concerns the value of the MFA, a hot issue in literary academia: “It was a wonderful experience and it worked for me, but certainly it’s not for everyone.” Or, “No I didn’t take an MFA, but these programs have produced many wonderful writers, but we won’t get into names.”

The conversations usually end with the host asking the writer if she has any writing advice for listeners like me and, while there’s some variation in the wording, the message is almost always the same: just write. It’s a job and it’s hard work and you have to keep at it. Write in a Starbucks, or complete solitude; maybe mornings are best for you, or not; maybe you make an outline, or have no idea what comes next; write for three hours a day, or one thousand words, or just as much as you feel like; whatever methods you employ only work if you keep writing. You learn by doing it. You improve by revising it. And then you do it again, until someone thinks it’s worthy of publication – or not. At which time, you’re already at work on the next book. Success may bring confidence but it also brings the knowledge of just how hard this is.

In a different vein, the New Yorker fiction podcast is a wonderful way for any reader to occupy an hour.

A writer chooses a story (not his own) from the magazine’s archives, reads it to us, and then discusses it with New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. Very different than a writer discussing his own work, it’s fascinating to hear two intensely focused and perceptive readers analyze a piece of short fiction, revealing to even casual listeners why it works and what went into making that happen. This is the big leagues.

No need to count, this piece is only about 560 words.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Poker

Back to work on Novel Two, which means relearning all the acronyms and trying to remember the factions they represented in the Spanish Civil War. So I took time out from multiple flavors of socialism to have some fun imagining a poker game that might have taken place in the Hotel Florida in Madrid sometime in 1937. Madrid was still in Republican hands although the Nationalist bombing campaign had begun. The characters are Robert Capa, Chim (David Szymin), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernie Pyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Lenoir, who is a young, entirely fictional French journalist. The game is five-card stud.

 

Chim: “We don’t have all day, André, Franco’s planes are due any minute.” Chim, who had changed his name from Szymin to Seymour but was known to everyone as Chim, refused to call Capa anything but André, although that wasn’t his birth name either. His parents called him Endre Friedmann.

Pyle: “It would be more accurate to call them Hitler’s planes. The Condor Legion is leading the raids.”

Cartier-Bresson: “That’s not exactly comforting.”

Hemingway: “Your king bets, Capa. What do you say?”

Capa: “I need a minute, where’s Gerda?”

Lenoir, who is not playing, answers: “I think she went upstairs to edit photos.”

Capa: “Lenoir, can you ask her…No, wait. Can you loan me 100 francs?”

Lenoir: “Sorry, Bob. I don’t have it.”

At that moment the concussion from the bombing was close enough to rattle the windows.

Cartier-Bresson: “That does it. I’m going to the shelter.”

Hemingway: “You can’t leave, Henri, Capa has to bet.”

Cartier-Bresson: “I fold. Now I can leave.”

Pyle: “You can’t fold. It’s Capa’s turn.”

Capa: “Henri, if you’re out, you can loan me 100 francs.”

HC-B: “To be returned when?”

Capa: “When I win, of course.”

HC-B, walking away: “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Chim: “I’m beginning to think the war will end before this hand, and neither ending will be pretty.”

Capa: “I raise a hundred.Henri will cover it, but it won’t be necessary. ”

Pyle: “I don’t think I want to know. I fold.”

Chim: “Me too. It’s up to you, Papa.”

Hemingway: “I’ve got to call your ass, Capa. How many of those aces do you have?”

Capa: “Two. That ought to be enough.”

Hemingway, revealing three nines, “Not quite.”

Capa: “Let’s have a drink. Lenoir, can you buy us a drink. What’s that you’re reading, a letter from your lover? Is that a smile. I’ve never seen him smile before. Is he happy?”

“Hard to tell,” Chim said. “That might be a smile on his face, I’m not sure.”

“I don’t think it’s a smile, maybe it’s a rueful smile. What would you call it, Papa?”

“Photographers, totally useless without a camera. You don’t know how to interpret or even describe, you can only record what your machines allow. It takes a writer to truly understand another man. The young man is trying to be happy but that is only part of the picture. When you study him, you see sadness behind the smile, which is not rueful at all. He does not regret; he hasn’t yet done anything wrong, in fact he hasn’t done anything at all. His sadness is not full of remorse, it is empty, unfulfilled. It is the sadness of a man who thinks he knows what he wants but cannot have it. Yet the possibility remains, it might still happen, but he cannot make it happen. He must wait for events to run their course, so he is frustrated, but his love has given him reason to hope. He is still in the running, if not yet in the lead. Gentlemen, our young Lenoir is in love, although he has not yet been able to make love to the woman he desires. He is trying to compensate by devouring, again, and again, the words that give him hope. But it is not enough. Il est triste, oui, but he is also very horny.”

That brought a great roar of laughter and cheers from the assembly of journalists.

“Bravo, Papa.” they shouted, and produced a round of drinks.

Lenoir looked up from his letter. He was not smiling: “Fuck you, all of you. Especially you, Hemingway.”

Papa roared: “Bravo Lenoir, not exactly eloquent, but the only appropriate response.”

©2015 Ron Scherl

 

 

 

Reboot

Ending the silence. My mother’s horrible death left me exhausted and more in need of repair than sharing, more than I knew, which for a time took what remained of creative inspiration. Finally, I encountered another detour, this time an opportunity to get my photographer hat out of the closet, ironically as the result of the illness of a former colleague. Now the job is done, mom is gone, and I begin again.

Angle of Reflection is currently resting with an agent who has promised to read it within a reasonable amount of time. That was about a month ago, so we’re probably about half way to any reaction. This agent had read an earlier draft more than a year ago and offered positive feedback and suggestions for change, but ultimately said no. This is a very different book: darker in tone, closer to the bone, probably not at all what she expects. Of course, I can’t decide if that’s a good thing but it does help shape my anxious waiting. My fingers are crossed, which is probably why it’s taking so long to type this. (Nervous laughter).

I’m about ready to get back to work on the next novel. It’s a much more ambitious project and had to wait until I felt I’d exhausted the possibilities I’d launched with Angle; of course I realize that should anyone want to publish it there will be more work to do, but until that happens, I’ve taken it as far as I can and it’s time to move on. I see Angle as the book that taught me how to write a novel, a much more difficult process than I ever imagined. It was about two and a half years of writing, considering, assessing, and revising, a very different process than making photographs. Doing it – and having a completed novel be the result – has taught me what works for me and what I can anticipate in the next book. It’s very hard work, more difficult than anything I’ve done before, but it also required a very intense emotional investigation that only came in small increments. Each draft dug a little deeper, each step went a little further. Then, in the middle of the process, I decided to quit using antidepressants and my path to the truth seemed much smoother. I didn’t know when I started this book that I was also launching an exercise in self-therapy.

The photo job was an effective jump-start. It wasn’t a creative opportunity, but it got me back out in the world. The need to work and interact with others got me out of the house and out of my head and, as a result, seems to have reignited the spark needed to get my butt back in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard.

Adieu

“Ruthie’s gone. Ruthie’s gone. Ruthie’s gone.”

-Evangeline Finlay, her caregiver

They took mom’s body and left a rose on her bed.

She just stopped breathing, after eleven days without food or water, eleven days with her family waiting for the end, she just stopped breathing. Her heart continued beating for a few more minutes then slowed and stopped. It was over. Just like that. It was over.

Ninety-seven years. A long life. Eleven days. A long death. And then she just stopped breathing. I expected more. I expected a poetic moment. I’d read accounts of a profound change when the living spirit departed its container. Nothing. Perhaps it takes a soul more poetic than mine to see what I couldn’t. Or maybe a spirit more evolved than mine. Or maybe all those accounts were truly poetry.

Now we’re held captive by ritual. We cannot bury her during Passover, so we must wait until Sunday. She was a cultural Jew, not much on religion, but as a Jew she’ll be buried – after Passover.

They took mom’s body and left a rose on her bed.

I liked the men who took her body away. They were extremely respectful, wore ill-fitting black suits and white plastic gloves and their papers said they were from a removal service. They wrapped her in the sheet from her bed, covered it with a red velvet cloth and wheeled the gurney to the elevator and a waiting van. There were no witnesses. None of the residents, waiting their turn, were in the hall when she passed by. I thought the management might have closed the corridor but surely everyone would have known why.

They took mom’s body and left a rose on her bed.

Adieu mom.

 

Lord of the Flies

I watched Zorba the Greek the other night. I know, I know, I called this piece Lord of the Flies. Just bear with me. There’s a scene near the end where the old woman is dying and the village crones come into the house to wait for her end so they can ransack the house.
Now we’re doing the same. We sit and wait for her to die, but mom is not cooperating. When she’s gone, we’ll store her body and get rid of her things.

It feels like we’re the subjects of a sadistic social experiment: confine five members of a family and two strangers in a small space, subject them to a massive amount of stress and sorrow and see how they react. How long will it take for social norms to break down? Who gets drunk? Who flees in terror? What will distract them, make them cry, make them laugh? How do they cope? Lord of the Flies.

It’s been a week now, no end in sight. No one can say how long.

And what about mom? Breathing seems to take more effort today but her blood pressure is an enviable 120/60. She hasn’t taken food or water for eight days. The doctor who didn’t think she’d last this long has increased her morphine so she gets it every two hours now. She wakes when the nurse administers the drug and begins to moan. There’s a sign of recognition when a family member comes to comfort her and she’s able to lift her arms for a sort of hug. Her moaning increases because she cannot talk but the recognition of family seems to indicate some sense of awareness of her condition. She knows, but is as powerless as we are to change anything. She is trapped in a useless body. In any real sense, she is already dead.

Why do we allow this? When death is inevitable, when life holds nothing more, why do we persist in maintaining breath? Even people with faith in an afterlife, in God’s blessing, who believe in some reward for good behavior, do not agree to end life when it is no longer viable. Even when they believe they’re going to a better place. Suicide is a dirty word and to hasten my mother’s death would be murder. We’ve got it all wrong.

Waiting – Watching

All we can do is watch. She sleeps with her mouth open, a gaping void with three teeth, the two in front and one more after a gap. Her breathing is labored and noisy, currently about nine breaths per minute, but subject to change. One bulging eye is part open but blind, we think. Her skin, mostly purple now is so thin it barely covers the bones that protrude at the joints. Her legs, once her great pride now just pale sticks. My eyes trace the purple veins in her hands and watch the pulse still beating in her neck. She looks as if her still-working organs would be visible beneath the nightgown.

When she wakes she seems agitated, tries to speak but can no longer form words. She moans and stretches out her arms as if seeking a human touch and my embrace – hesitant from fear of hurting her or a lifetime of awkward affection – does seem to comfort her, or so I choose to think. We talk to her, not knowing if she can hear. We tell her we’re here, we love her and we’ll be all right when she leaves. Nothing that has gone before matters now. It’s OK for her to go now, we say, but she can’t agree. We give her permission but she has no more control of this than we do. Or does she? Is she fighting to stay alive, raging “against the dying of the light” Who can say?

It seems so unlikely, it was never a happy life, why fight to continue it? Because her lack of faith leads to fear of the unknown? Maybe.

There is a nurse from hospice and a full time aide. They watch “Ellen” with the sound off. They chart every event, record imperceptible changes. They will not leave her alone and they won’t leave us alone with the morphine. They will keep her comfortable but they won’t speed her journey. They say if we have private thoughts to express they will leave the room for a moment. I can’t think of anything I need to say.

They tell us to talk to her, reassure her, tell her it’s OK but I don’t think she can hear, or could understand if she had somehow regained the hearing she lost years ago. I think this advice is meant for us, to let us feel we are doing what we can, to comfort us. They tell us there may be moments of clarity, or not.

Her breath is shallow now and has fallen to seven per minute. “American Idol” with sound, kept respectfully low. A swab with water for dry lips causes her to close her mouth tight. She wants no more. She sleeps. Does she dream? Sometimes there is eye movement beneath the lids but does it signify a dream?

And she wakes and begins to moan. It’s too high pitched and scratchy to be a moan but it’s not a whine. It sounds like an old 78 recording of a soprano past her prime. It is the sound of anguish, of reaching, of need. The nurse administers morphine, Atavan, and Seroquel by syringe without needle in her mouth, then massages her throat to make her swallow. She sleeps again.

So we watch – and look for signs of change. Has her breathing slowed? Or is it faster? Have her feet turned purple? Blood pressure down but sometimes it rises before death. Pulse? There is no pattern, our deaths, like our lives are unique. And this is the one body process we cannot know from the experience of others.

The Today Show. No change.

Meredith

Divorce Court

Weight Loss Program Advertising and Bankruptcy Lawyers

One Life to Live

Local News

No change.

We are seven waiting for mom to die.

Her hospice nurse and aide

The three children

The two grandchildren

Waiting

No change

Her breath is a little slower now, maybe six per minute and the time between is longer.

Watching her breathe, ten or fifteen seconds between breaths is a lifetime. It seems too long. I think she’s gone but no, her chest slowly rises and falls again accompanied by a raspy moan.

It will be 83 degrees and sunny tomorrow.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Gateway to Understanding

Is emotion the gateway to reason or is it an obstacle to understanding?

I had always believed in the power of the intellect, that an educated intelligence should be sufficient to decode the clues and understand the opportunities and conflicts we all face. Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true; it is only through emotional engagement that we can truly understand anything at all. How we respond to art offers a window.

Angle of Reflection contains a scene in a museum where Ben and Emma are discussing a Picasso exhibit. Ben is able to admire the technique and appreciate the results from an intellectual distance but maintains that Picasso never moves him. (Let’s assume he’s never seen Guernica.) Emma tells him it may yet happen and to beware of sealing his emotions in today’s opinion.

Later he reflects on a painting that moved him more than most: Vermeer’s, A Maid Asleep. “I couldn’t turn away. I was immediately and profoundly drawn into that world, I could walk into that woman’s dreams and imagine stories that explained all the elements Vermeer chose to include.” We can’t know whether the artist had the same stories in mind but it doesn’t matter, what is significant is that the emotional reaction to the image made the content knowable.

Here’s where we get back to the question of antidepressant medication: it is my contention that one of the severe effects of many years on SSRIs was a stifling of emotion, which led to a failure to understand what was happening to me. I couldn’t get to it because I couldn’t feel it.

I’m not the first to report this. “SSRIs also cause a multitude of troubling side effects. These include sexual dysfunction, suppression of REM sleep, muscle tics, fatigue, emotional blunting, and apathy. In addition, investigators have reported that long-term use is associated with memory impairment, problem-solving difficulties, loss of creativity, and learning deficiencies.” Robert Whitaker: Anatomy of an Epidemic, Broadway Books, Random House, 2010.

I’m beginning to feel that I’m nearing the finish line for Angle. Could be wrong, of course, I’ve thought this before, then I sent it to my editor. I began to wonder how you know when you’re done with a novel. There is no requirement for length, no facts that have to be explained, no rules to follow. Thinking won’t get you there. I suppose you can say that it’s finished when someone decides to publish it, but Fitzgerald was still trying to rewrite Gatsby as it was on the press. I asked a friend who is a wonderful painter how she knew when a painting was finished. She said: “I don’t know, I just feel it.”

Feels right to me.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Work

I’m beginning to understand how Donna Tartt could spend ten years writing a novel. I used to think it would be impossible to maintain interest in the same book over that long a time. I used to think you could rewrite and polish only so many times before it was perfect. But that was before I tried to write a novel, and before I hired an editor to help.

A few weeks ago I sent my latest draft to my efficient and perceptive editor, a draft that I had polished through the technique of reading it aloud, recording it, and making changes as I listened to the playback.

I was really pleased with it. I thought reading aloud had helped to make the dialogue flow better and cleaned up some awkward sentence structure. I had noticed that when reading I stumbled over inaccurate punctuation and fuzzy thinking. Any text that I wasn’t fully committed to didn’t read smoothly. I had discovered a way to get to the truth of the book.

I was also weaning myself from antidepressant medication and was sure I was seeing the effects of clarified thinking and emotional access in my writing. I was right about that, especially in the passages dealing with relationships, but I was missing the bigger picture. In the process of stripping down some characters trying to get to the truth I wanted to convey, I lost some objectivity and allowed reality to overwhelm the fictional narrative resulting in a loss of pace, tension, and structure.

In other words, in finding some truth about myself, I managed to lose my reader. My editor had no trouble pinpointing the problems: “I think what’s missing in this chapter is an emotional hook that will compel the reader to care…As a reader, I feel unsure of what the book is about and therefore unsure of what I should care about, and why.”

Ouch!

I was surprised and disappointed.

When we talked she was quick to apologize for being so blunt, then added: “but isn’t that what you’re paying me for?”

She’s right, her comments and suggestions are enormously helpful, and I’ve gone back to work with enthusiasm, understanding the task is to fictionalize the narrative while retaining the emotional truth.

Not a problem, this is only year three of this book.

©2015 Ron Scherl