Autumn is the season of essence here in the North Country of far northern New York State. It is what people enjoy most about this golden place between the high mountains and the big river. It is about auburn fields of corn alternating with dark spatters of spruce, sugar maples outlining red dairy barns, windy days, and bulbous clouds chasing shadows across a rolling landscape.
It is about college football games, children playing in leaf piles, country auctions, and fresh apple cider. It is about long walks down quiet country roads past two-hundred-year-old stone fences and overgrown foundations redolent with history. And it is about storm windows, getting the firewood in, and digging out winter clothing.
Most of all, it is about color. Winter is white, though less so, if our elders are to be believed, than once was the case. Spring, before the buds break forth, is all black and white, snow and mud and empty tree branches. Summer is green, of course, bare feet and newly mowed lawns. But in the fall, the monochromatic scheme gives way and the result lifts the spirit.
For some, the red and orange of the maple epitomize this time of year; blood-red splashes of color ripple across the Adirondack foothills, giving every landscape the feel of inspired canvas. The colors blaze briefly and then die in what seems an orgy of waste. But as Richard Jeffries, the 19th century chronicler of English rural life once wrote, "there is no economy, thrift, or saving, in nature; it is one splendid waste. It is that waste which makes it so beautiful, and so irresistible!"
But of all the season's colors, it is the bronze of autumn that truly glorifies the Northlands. Who could ever imagine so many elaborations on a single theme? Every field sports its own hue, every barn weathers to a different shade. Each cornfield browns at its own pace dependent only upon differing factors of soil content, elevation, or exposure.
During autumn, the North Country feels both whole and timeless. The same elements repeat, yet we never grow tired of them. Admit it, summer becomes wearisome by late August and spring is mere transition--the Gerry Ford of seasons. For too many, winter is only to be escaped from--where is their sense of place? To experience the essence of fall, they must know winter as well.
Each season has its patrons, and justly so. But only autumn offers such variety of landscape, of weather, of "color." The same every year, yet always glorious, uplifting, elating. Who could ever call this season monotonous? The artist may as well call his palette boring.
"We get only transient and partial glimpses of the beauty of the world," Thoreau wrote. Surely, a North Country autumn must be one of those glimpses.
He is without doubt one of, if not THE most interesting characters to ever sit astride the world stage. Fifty years after his death, he is still named by many as their personal hero. He managed to save the free world it sometimes seems, not because of that character but in spite of it.
He was a complicated and far from perfect man. Although I consider his leadership during the war to be heroic, I don't really think of him as one of my personal heroes. I doubt I would have enjoyed his company. He was deeply flawed in many ways: intolerant of others whose intellects did not rise to the heights of his own, often petulant, frequently wrong, an alcoholic, certainly. He suffered from bouts of depression, what he called the "black dog." A man of his times, he believed wholeheartedly in British imperialism. He was unable to see the coming end to that particular form of world domination, even as its end became more and more obvious in the waning days of the war as America's rise became clear to everyone else. He could make remarks that were petty, crass and even racist. He looked down on Gandhi as a "Wog" and a troublemaker and suggested letting him die from one of his hunger strikes. He resisted India's heroic fight for independence even as he was calling on Britons to battle for their own liberty against Hitler.
Churchill is incredibly difficult to categorize, a man of contradictions. He could be forward looking, embracing the development of the tank during World War I, against the advice of military men. At the same time, he refused to see the end of the era of his beloved battleships, calling for a combined British and American fleet of new sixteen-gun battleships, even though the ships were dinosaurs. But then, almost overnight, he embraced the need for aircraft carriers. Battleships took five years to build, while an aircraft carrier could be rigged out of a hull in a matter of months.
Despite all of these faults, however, he was still, clearly, the right man at the right time to save western civilization from the forces of tyranny and evil. His intellect was massive, one of the best ever in the fields of military planning, of politics, of literature. His use of the English language is almost without parallel. An argument could be made that he literally "talked" the people of Britain and the world into believing they could and ultimately would defeat Hitler. Not an easy task when the world was reeling from Blitzkrieg in 1939 and from the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Yet a generation earlier, it would have been hard to imagine him rising to world leadership. He suffered ignominy and ridicule in World War l--the Great war--through his defeat at Gallipoli and the Dardenelles, leading to his dismissal as First Lord of the Admiralty. After leaving office, instead of retiring to his study and his books, he chose instead to go directly to the front lines in France and face the enemy in the trenches and on the battlefield.
Clearly, he was no coward, leading from the rear. He had witnessed slaughter firsthand on battlefields in India in a previous century, in Belgium in 1916 and in London in 1940. He'd been a prisoner of war during the Boer War, escaped and was lionized in Britain, which he used to catapult his political career. He had taken part in the last great cavalry charge in history in the Sudan. He seemed at times to simply defy death. He believed his life had a purpose and that he couldn't die until that purpose had been achieved.
When he became Prime Minister in the darkest days of civilization, he was as hands-on a leader as one could imagine. He traveled well over a hundred thousand miles during the course of the war, and this in a time when travel was long, slow and difficult, even by airplane. And oh so risky in a world aflame with war. His health often suffered on long, cold, unheated airline flights that he knew were the cause of repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia. He traveled to Moscow, to America, to Africa and the Middle East, to war zones wherever they were. His bravery was legendary and inspirational to soldiers as well as citizens.
As a writer, I've found it great fun to imagine Churchill in scenes with other world leaders, to imagine what this irascible character might have said to Queen Victoria or King George or Stalin or Hitler. He is the ultimate protagonist. Heroic? Certainly. In many ways to many people, myself included. Just not in every situation. What makes him a terrific character for a novel is his moodiness, his insecurities and, yes, his faults. Who among us can admire a hero we can't identify with? Churchill's many flaws make him real to us, thus raising his achievements to the realm of legend.
My father was born and raised in Nova Scotia. He attended Acadia University before decamping to the United States to get his Ph.D. in English from Ohio State. He loved to tell stories about trading furs with the Mi'kmaq Indians when he was a teenager. His father, my grandfather, was a fur trapper and then trader his whole life, finally retiring in the late 1960s at the age of 93. He was recognized as the oldest fur trader in Canada with an award at the annual Traders and Trappers convention in Montreal.
As a result of this history, I've had a lifelong love of Nova Scotia, the home of my ancestors and of a summer home on the Eastern shore where I have vacationed my entire life. That home is just an hour and a half from Halifax, a fascinating city I have visited nearly every summer since I was a boy. My earliest memories of the city have to do with visiting a pair of elderly aunts who lived together in a row house that I recall mainly because they had a pair of huge parrots who yelled at everyone.
Halifax was much more provincial in those days, a small, quiet city but one with a vibrant history. At the center, atop Citadel Hill, is an old fort that still dominates the city today with magnificent views of its spectacular harbor. The historic fort boasts changing of the guard ceremonies to rival those of London's Buckingham Palace. Many of the recovered bodies from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 are buried in a cemetery in the city, and there is a museum commemorating the great Halifax Explosion of 1917. A French cargo ship fully loaded with wartime explosives collided with a Norwegian vessel. A fire quickly ignited the explosives causing a cataclysmic blast that was the greatest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons. More than 2000 people were killed and another 9000 were injured. Virtually all structures within a half-mile radius, including the entire community of Richmond, were completely obliterated. Parts of the exploding ship were found miles inland. Almost no windows in the entire city remained unbroken, and hundreds who had been watching the fire in the harbor through their windows were blinded by the explosion. A tsunami created by the blast wiped out the community of Mi'kmaq First Nations people that had lived in the Tuft's Cove area for generations.
Halifax boasts one of the deepest ice-free natural harbors in the world. The city became the focus of World War ll convoys leaving for England. Nazi submarines patrolled the approaches to the city sinking many cargo ships, and at least one U-boat slipped through the submarine nets protecting the harbor. Recently, a U-boat was discovered on the bottom of the Churchill River in Labrador, almost sixty miles inland.
Today, Halifax is a thriving metropolitan center with vibrant green parks, a bustling waterfront filled with historic ships moored as museums, home of the famous clipper ship, Blue Nose ll and early Arctic exploration vessels. There are fashionable stores, restaurants and pubs, ferries to carry tourists around the beautiful harbor and much, much more. But if Halifax is the center of the Maritimes, the rest of the region is blissfully free of exploitation and tourism.
I have pondered for years why more attention is not paid to northeastern Canada. Perhaps it is too close for us to feel we have truly got out into the bush. After all, much of this wilderness is little more than a three-hour flight from at least a hundred million people. Northern Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland offer a wide variety of wilderness experience, not to mention a fascinating history extending back a thousand years to the first Vikings who landed at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland.
It is also a place that has not been done to death by writers. Although there is an extensive literature of exploration, in recent times only Farley Mowat leaps to mind as a writer whose work truly encompasses the region. Mowat's books range north to the Arctic, but he has clearly chosen the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the surrounding maritime provinces and islands as one part of the world he values highly. In Sea of Slaughter, he encyclopedically documents how man has been systematically destroying the wildlife of the region ever since the first whalers made landfall off the coasts of Greenland and Labrador around the year 1500.
When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, Alaska was the place to go. I remember high school friends whose parents packed them up and moved to the remotest parts of the big state never to be heard from again--at least by me. It sometimes seemed everyone I knew, at one time or another, made a hegira to Alaska. I cannot tell you how many slide shows I sat through of old 1950s Buicks and Oldsmobiles, roofs disappearing under loads of army surplus tenting, as they huffed their way up the Alaska highway. But the rocky coastlines of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador offer thousands of miles (over four thousand miles in Nova Scotia alone) of fascinating and historically vital shores, of countless offshore islands, of fiords with thousand-foot cliffs, of seals, seabirds, moose, caribou, and whales.
It's all there for the taking or--more aptly--for the experiencing. And I guarantee you that for every individual you come across who will be able to say to your tales, "Oh, I've been there," there will be ten such if you go to Alaska.
Once, in a spirit of high adventure, my friend Jim and I spent several weeks traveling in Newfoundland and Labrador. Our goal was to canoe some truly wild rivers – a goal only partially realized as we managed to choose a summer of uncommon drought. Still, the adventure was realized in my mind, if nowhere else, and I find myself thinking of it often.
Adventure! The word calls forth images of Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary, the search for the Northwest passage, Vikings braving the cold North Atlantic, and even the heroes of my childhood fantasies: Davy Crocket, Tarzan, and Mowgli. These images, fictional and real, have all tumbled together to give the word "adventure" a vivid and genuine meaning. Whatever else, adventure was always serious business.
But the world has changed, and so has the word.
Today, travel to the highest mountain in Tibet and you will find an expedition of scores of cameramen, transport crews, and media people all in support of a single man who wants to ski down Everest, or another who dons aqualung and wetsuit in order to "swim" down the great mountain's frigid glacial streams.
Journey to the Bering Strait, and you might see a middle-aged woman swimming from America to Russia in waters so cold she must dodge icebergs.
On the frozen Arctic Ocean, a man is attempting to be the first to ride a motorcycle to the North Pole. In the South China Sea, another has just completed a grueling open ocean voyage windsurfing on a fiberglass board. And a blind man once undertook the first "blind" crossing of the Atlantic. In what must be one of the great understatements of any age, he said: "It's not going to be easy."
Or consider the recreation of adventurous exploits in the name of commerce. Stephen Spielberg reproduces Shanghai of the 1920s complete to thousands of extras dressed in costumes of the era. On a frozen wasteland, a public television company reconstitutes the tortures of the ill-fated Shackleton crew. And in nearly every country, wars past and present are perpetually recast and refilmed to supply TV networks with late-night adventure reruns.
In the face of such incredible and often outrageously expensive feats, what can be left for the ordinary set of adventurers?
What, I wonder, does a starving African family think when they see a Land Rover, patriotic flags flying, roar past their outstretched rice bowls, as it competes in a trans-African safari? How do boatloads of starving Haitian refugees comprehend that windsurfer who glides past them on his hi-tech board dressed in a rubberized wetsuit?
The gap between what adventure was and what it has become is as great as the distance that separates that starving refugee from a Donald Trump in his penthouse. Today, adventure appears to represent more an act of self-discovery than one of physical exploration–of psychological absorption rather than societal obligation.
There is something in us, it seems, that will always need adventure, so that as the real ones become used up, we stand ever-ready to create new ones, however absurd and remote from real life. What is the point, after all, in attempting to "re-create" Amundsen's march to the South Pole if one uses modern down clothing, high-protein-density dehydrated foods, and satellite positioning devices to determine longitude and latitude?
Adventure is escapism in today's world. It enables us to forget, however briefly, the bewildering and fast-moving changes that are overwhelming our crowded planet. It can, quite simply, make us feel relevant again.
And so, in the absence of new frontiers, we create false ones based on doing a thing faster or without oxygen or by a more dangerous route or simply in a manner so ridiculous that no one ever thought of it before–motorcycling to the North Pole.
What makes us "feel" relevant has at last become truly irrelevant. We go four-wheeling past the gaunt faces of the starving.
My most recent historical thriller, London Underground, grew out of my love for the city of London. I'm an Anglophile to my core and have always been fascinated by British history, which is the most interesting and all-encompassing of virtually any other country. That history ranges across the globe and has included confrontations among many nations, great wars and the development of empire, the Raj, as it's called in India.
I've used this extraordinary history in many of my books, from Victorian England to the Boer War in South Africa to the world wars. One of my thrillers is set in Africa, following the life and career of Winston Churchill from his time as a 25-year-old journalist in the Boer War through the second world war and into his post-war retirement. One of my young adult novels is set in London and London Underground also has scenes with Churchill in his underground war cabinet rooms.
I first visited London when I was thirteen and on my way, via a long summer driving across Europe with my parents, to Istanbul, where my father had a Fulbright Lectureship at the university. My London highlight of that trip was getting to see the just released film "Cleopatra" on a huge screen in the heart of the city. The scene with Elizabeth Taylor in her bath made quite an impression on a thirteen-year-old. Not a bad way to get introduced to London.
In my twenties I made several visits, staying for six or seven weeks each time. This was when I really fell for the city, for its history, museums, the mighty Thames River, the markets, opera and theater and the wonderful parks. I had a brief infatuation with an English girl, wandered the city on foot for days and sat on a stage just feet behind the great cello player, Pablo Casals. The house had oversold tickets and as a result put a row of chairs on stage immediately behind Casals. I doubt many ever got to see the great master perform from behind at a distance of about six feet. I rented a car and somehow managed to drive out of the center of the city, for the first time ever driving on the left and toured past Stonehenge and on into Wales. There is history around every corner in Britain and especially London. I later made trips with my wife right after we were married and again with our eight-year-old.
I loved riding the tube, accessing the trains via those old elevators that dropped like stones with rattling noises as though Lucifer were shaking his chains. I grew enamored of the long, wooden escalators that carried us down into the depths. The sounds of screeching trains and the whoosh of air at any train station today still evoke those early memories from decades ago.
I love a mysterious underground and have exploited this in many of my books: the ice tunnels of Greenland, the volcanic tubes of Iceland, the mysterious passageways beneath an ancient African hillside or a Buddhist monastery in central China. It's a funny sort of fixation, especially given my mother's claustrophobia, which I saw her deal with on many occasions. We once lined up to take a tour into the Lascaux Caverns in France to see the ancient cave paintings. My mother didn't make it past the first quirky turn into the depths, and she sent me on by myself. Given her interest in history and archaeology, which she used as the basis for a series of mysteries she published, it always surprised me she still loved to write about places she could never visit.
Whether it's spies, vampires, aliens or serial killers, writers seem enamored of long underground chases through dark, forbidding tunnels. One has to admit, it's a wonderful environment for suspense, though sometimes the reader must be willing to suspend his disbelief. I always marvel at those many police procedurals on TV, where some beautiful, lone woman is chased down long corridors, often in a big city hospital that is, miraculously, utterly deserted. When have you ever visited a big city hospital, even in the middle of the night, that wasn't full of people?
I've written books that take place during WW II, 10,000 years in the past, in ancient Egypt and Victorian London. Alas, I am unable to visit these times. I would definitely visit ancient Egypt if I could figure out a way to do it. The same is true of London during the Blitz and Africa when it was still largely unspoiled.
But that's why people write books: to transport themselves. Is it possible to have a sense of place for a place and time that no longer exist? I think so.
Writers often need a sense of place and time to help inform their work. One place and time that has greatly influenced me is Istanbul, Turkey in the year 1963. I still feel, fifty years later, that my living there for a year at the age of thirteen will result in a book some day, perhaps a memoir or, more likely, a setting for a terrific historical thriller.
I lived in Istanbul in 1963-64 with my parents who both taught at the University of Istanbul, my father on a Fulbright scholarship. It was an experience that would ripple down the decades of my life. I still thrill to watch movies filmed in Istanbul the year I was there: Topkapi with Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercouri and From Russia With Love, the James Bond thriller with Sean Connery. Both films evoke the sense of place I felt when I was there, riding ferries on the Bosporus, strolling through the Grand Bazarr, the Palace of Dolmabahce, Taxim Square where crowds of beggars followed me and the new Hilton Hotel where I got to see my first and only belly dancer at the tender age of thirteen.
My memories of the sixties as a special time also resonated that year, just before the Vietnam war exploded, along with all the civil rights movements of that tumultuous period in the United States. In Istanbul, I attended dance parties where we shuffled to Chubby Checkers and the Twist or Do the Locomotion. My father wrote about dancing at a party given by our landlord where all the Turkish women were very fat. They were trying to dance the Twist and it was like "dancing in the midst of a herd of elephants."
I was madly in love with with a girl in my international class. Her name was Susie Eitner. There was also Batu, an incredible acrobat from Norway and Peter Cook, my best friend from England who went on to join the merchant marine. My school was next to Roberts College, a well known institution located in the shadow of the great fort of Rumeli Hissar overlooking the Bosporus.
When we arrived in the fall of '63, our apartment in the city of Bebek wasn't ready so we lived for two weeks in a trailer lent to my father by colleagues. The trailor was literally feet from the high stone ramparts of Rumeli Hissar. One day, my father came rushing home from work to tell us that Jackie Kennedy was going by on Aristotle Onassis's yacht. I ran to a bluff overlooking the Bosporus where there was an ancient graveyard, climbed up on a headstone and there, cruising just below was the yacht. I could clearly see Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwell on deck. They looked up. I waved to them. They waved back. I have often wondered if there might be a photo of me somewhere in the Kennedy family archives of that "cute Turkish boy waving to us from the top of a gravestone."
Perhaps that gravestone was a prescient symbol. Less than a month later, Jackie's husband, JFK, was dead. I was one of the few who would not be surprised when Jackie married Ari Onassis on the rebound some years later. My parents and I were likely some of the last people on earth to learn about JFK's death. We were on a cruise at the time on the Black Sea. Several days after the assassination, my mother noticed a man reading a newspaper at the next table. The paper had a large picture of JFK with a black border around it. In bold letters at the top it said, as nearly as I can recall: Kennedy Olduolru. My mother looked it up in her Turkish dictionary. It meant killed or mortally wounded. That's how we learned Kennedy was dead, on a ship where no one else spoke English, many days after the event.
When we returned to our apartment, our landlord, who lived upstairs, brought his entire family down all dressed somberly in black to offer their condolences. It was heartfelt on their part, and I often think, in that clear-eyed age before America's great mistaken war in Vietnam, that it may have been the last time such a thing might ever happen.
Another evocation of the innocence of that age came in how my parents allowed me to roam all over the city by myself. One can hardly imagine permitting such a thing today with a thirteen-year-old. But I would go out to the street in front of our apartment and flag down a dolmus (a sort of shared taxi filled with other riders, cages of chickens, laborers, etc.) and go to Taxim Square in the heart of the city. There, I would walk down the street and select an English language movie to see. Westerns were popular and I remember how strange it felt to be listening comfortably to the actors on the screen while everyone else in the theater had to read the Turkish subtitles.
Often that year, my mother would take me on a long drive the length of the Bosporus to an American air base on the Black Sea where we would watch English language movies in a large gymnasium sitting on folding chairs surrounded by soldiers. This was, in a sense, an age of innocence for America. We were still revered for helping to save the world from Nazism. JFK and Jackie were wildly loved in foreign lands, and no one would have considered claiming to be Canadian or Australian when they traveled abroad. American tourists were sometimes called the "Ugly Americans," but in my experience we were envied, our dollars coveted, our broad world view appreciated.
Our apartment had a fantastic view of the Bosporus, and I never tired of staring out the window at the cavalcade of ships: colorful fishing boats, warships of many nations, private yachts, sailing sloops and the huge cruise liners like the Queen Mary, which seemed to fill the channel from Europe to Asia with their massiveness.
Below our living room window, a man came regularly up our cobbled roadway with an enormous brown bear that he would have do tricks beneath us. And across that same cobbled street were the crumbling ruins of an ancient palace. I have a picture of myself skiing down the steps of that palace after our one and only snowfall that year.
In many ways my sense of time and place became rooted in Istanbul that year. I was thirteen, on the edge of puberty and in a fascinating new land. Surrounded as that year was by other years in my American home where little seemed to change, that time stood out like a beacon and demands, still today, to be written about.
I recently had the fun of sitting in my doctor's waiting room for over an hour. Fortunately I had brought a good book. But I became more interested in my fellow passengers in this common ritual. In the course of waiting in this large, very busy medical office, at least fifty people came and went during my own sojourn. Not one of them had brought anything to read, not a book, not a magazine, not a newspaper. They sat and stared at the walls like fish in an aquarium waiting to be hauled to a higher plain. I felt almost embarassed that I had a book.
Not long after this experience, I attended a university hockey game. Standing at the railing looking down over the crowd below, I could see dozens of students staring, not at the game, but at tiny video screens: Blackberries, iPhones, iPads. They were easy enough to pick out, those glowing screens clutched in loving fingers.
Stroll across any of America's university campuses and you may see a handful of students sprawled on the lawn reading books, but you will more likely see scores or even hundreds staring at their personal video screens or talking on cell phones. It has gotten so you can't see any student walking anywhere who doesn't have one hand crooked, holding his phone to his ear. It's become a sort of college student symbol, that crooked hand, like a letter sweater in the 1950s. Someone should do a study to see how many injuries can be attributed to students wandering off into traffic or stumbling over steps while concentrating on their video screens and cell phone conversations.
This hi-tech phenomenon has the publishing industry doing back flips as it tries to determine what the wave of the future will be. It has spurred the new e-book, Kindle and other electronic reading devices, which in turn have led to questions about copyright law, as commercial giants like Google and Amazon try to figure out what the next business model will be for books.
The result for authors is not encouraging. Publishing houses have been consolidating for at least a decade. There are fewer and fewer places where you can send your manuscripts for serious consideration. And it is harder than ever for unknown writers to get a hearing, much less make a living. The big houses no longer have the budgets to carry first-time authors on their lists. And so we see the same names over and over again on best seller lists. Yet paradoxically, we are told that more books than ever are being published. Hundreds of thousands a year, though many now see the light of day only through university presses, self-publishing, vanity presses, print on demand services and so on.
Books are not and I predict will not be going away any time soon. But the method of their production and distribution is changing rapidly. Maybe I was wrong to think that all those tiny video screens at that hockey game were tuned to videos or games. Maybe they were all students reading great literature in the palms of their hands. In class, students are tempted to ignore the lecture and play a video game. Perhaps at hockey games they ignore the match in order to read great literature.
Perhaps. But it seems a stretch.
Whenever I get frustrated at the glacial progress or, usually, lack of same toward getting anything published, I think about how unalone I am in this feeling.
Each of the creative arts is extremely competitive and difficult to get a foothold in. We've all heard about starving actors destined to spend whole careers in off-off Broadway shows, musicians who work difficult hours, scrabble for any sort of living wage and endure travel schedules that eat up their profits, artists who struggle for years to get a gallery show in which nothing is sold.
A friend of mine is an artist, a very fine sculptor with many distinguished works sold to museums and as public commissions for parks and so forth. Yet he has never been able to make a living at it and had to teach at the University of Rochester for many years. Teaching is an honorable profession, but it takes away from the time he can devote to his true passion.
The sad truth is the vast majority of creative artists labor at professions that seem not to be valued by society, at least in a monetary sense. There are millions of artists out there and only the tiniest handful ever rise above obscurity. Many achieve fame and high prices for their works only after they are dead; think Van Gogh or the new Swedish sensation, Stieg Larsson, whose Millenium Trilogy of crime novels has sold twenty-seven million copies in forty countries since his death in 2004. His three books recently ranked one, two, three on Amazon's best seller list. Larsson would probably be glad he's not around to see his heirs fighting over royalties.
One of the ways I console myself in this frustrating business is by keeping track of my fellow "little people," to quote BP's CEO, Tony Hayward. When I watch an old movie on TV and see the credits flow past at the end, beyond the two or three who get top billing, there may be forty or fifty names I've never heard of. These are the little people who spend entire careers hoping to break out somehow. Ninety-eight per cent never will. They do their work doggedly and professionally, but almost no one will ever know who they are. Every movie has that list of names at the end. On rare occasion, a minor roll will produce a name that went on to become famous. It stands out like a beacon, one that keeps the rest of us toiling away in obscurity, that faint hope of success always dangling in front of us.
You have to admire the creative urge, its ability to fight through all of this stuff. It takes sacrifice to follow your muse, though I admit to feelings that my efforts do little to improve humanity and pale in the face of, say, a nurse, who toils for a career at the business of easing suffering. That sort of dedication seldom wins public admiration or credit either, thought it does offer the security of a regular paycheck.
So it takes a sort of stubborn character, self-absorption and ego to pursue a career in the creative arts. Come to think of it, I could be describing politicians.
Most people visit London to enjoy the view from the top of the London Eye, shop in Harrod's magnificent halls or tramp the passageways of the British Museum. There is so much to see. But tourists tend to overlook what is beneath their feet.
Sometimes with good reason.
It's been said that no one in London is ever more than three feet from a rat. There are tens of millions of rats in the great city, far outnumbering the people who blissfully ignore them. As recently as Victorian times, residents thought nothing of emptying chamber pots out the windows to join the bodies of dead animals, rotting vegetation, garbage and fish market offal. Cattle, sheep, pigs and horses deposited 40,000 tons of dung on London streets every year. In a poem about the River Fleet, Ben Johnson wrote: "The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs."
In the 1840s, covered sewers frequently had no access to the Thames. There was such a stench from the sewer running beneath Fleet Street that it had to be reconstructed and eventually the Fleet River was completely covered over. The very best addresses in London, Westminster, Belgravia, Grosvenor, Hanover and Berkley Squares all smelled like the rankest offal, due to stopped up house drains. Buckingham Palace was one of the worst offenders, with sewers sometimes hundreds of years old and crumbling. Sewers were primitive, restricted to surface water and were quickly overwhelmed by 250,000 overflowing cesspits. When a new tunnel system was being built in the 1860s, all crafted by horse-and steam-driven cranes, the old sewers had first to be traced and charted because no one knew where they ran, which certainly gives an idea of how frequently they were cleaned. If there are so many rats today, it's nearly inconceivable to imagine how many of the animals basked in the abundance thrown their way in the Victorian Age.
But along with those rats, there is also a tremendous amount of fascinating history beneath the feet of London's tourists. There is evidence of bathhouses, amphitheaters, temples, taverns and markets. The layers of clay, gravel and stone have delivered up a Roman ship sunk by a stone cannonball and even a mammoth. Peter Ackroyd writes in Thames : The Biography of ancient bridges as well. A bridge over the Thames at Eton has been dated to ca. 1400 BC. Sometimes later structures were built on the foundations of earlier ones. A wooden bridge, also of Bronze Age provenance has been found near Vauxhall.
Mysteries abound beneath these cobbled streets. Bones are everywhere in London, constantly being exposed by builders and infrastructure repairs, from old cemeteries, prison gallows, hospital plots and pauper burial grounds, sometimes dating back to medieval and even Roman times. The Pauper's Cemetery at St. Bride's Church had been in use since Charles II's day. Bones were piled in heaps. Once a week, the remains of paupers were thrown into a hole fourteen feet deep. A clergyman said a few words and the grave received a slim covering of loose soil. The next week, the ground was opened up and a new lot interred. The whole neighborhood reeked with the smell of death.
A dozen rivers flow beneath the city, most completely covered over. One of the lost rivers of underground London is the Walbrook, which played a key role in the Roman settlement of Londinium. The town was established by the Romans after the invasion of 43 A.D. led by the Roman Emperor Claudius. The Walbrook got its name because it flowed right through the old walled city and into the Thames. The Romans even built a temple to Mithras on the east bank. It was discovered and excavated during reconstruction after World War II. Today the river flows completely underground, paralleling a street called Walbrook, not far from the Bank of England.
Londinium began as a small fort at the north end of a new bridge across the Thames. It became an important trade center between the Roman provinces of the continent and Britain. Just a few years after it was established, Londinium was sacked by a neighboring tribe called the Iceni led by Queen Boudica. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of widespread destruction by fire at this time, in the form of a red layer of ash beneath the city. Also uncovered have been numerous examples of goods imported from across the Roman Empire.
The Tyburn River runs underground from South Hampstead through St. James's Park to the Thames at Pimlico near Vauxhall Bridge. The Tyburn gallows was alongside the river. It was the principal place of execution in the county of Middlesex from the 12th to 18th centuries, before they moved it to Newgate Prison. Bones and skulls sometimes washed out of the grounds.
Some underground sites still resonate with tourists today. Winston Churchill's underground cabinet war rooms are a popular visit. Tens of thousands sheltered here during the war in an alternate city not altogether dissimilar from those today beneath the cities of Toronto and Montreal. One gets a sense of what life was like here as the bombs of the Blitz rained down. Narrow corridors and primitive conditions were endured with representative British stoicism, and one can almost imagine Churchill's voice ringing out as he called to one of his secretaries, his cigar smoke wafting through the cramped hallways.
Another popular tour is a pair of pumping stations, magnificent edifices, complete with minarets. The Prince of Wales actually visited the opening of Crossness Pumping Station. The band of the Royal Marines played as his royal highness and his entourage of archbishops, princes, dukes and earls examined the boiler house and were taken into the culvert that connected to the sewers. It was constructed of superb brickwork and lined with rows of colored lights. One can just imagine that august assemblage strolling where there would soon be sewage up to their eyeballs.
Tube stations, war rooms, hidden rivers, Roman ruins, ancient bones and uncountable numbers of rats are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the secrets of undergound London.
For most of my life I have wondered and speculated about the possibility that there might be survivors of the Titanic that no one knew about. In the most recent movie, much was made of the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio had won his ticket in a card game, so there was no record of him as a passenger. I wondered if there were survivors who got off the great ship unknown to anyone.
They would be presumed to have drowned; their bodies never recovered. That was the basis for "The Last Titanic Story." To carry it further, I speculated these survivors went on to have descendants of mixed native blood.
All speculation but an intriguing subject for a thriller, don't you think?
There are many humbling moments in the life of a writer. Constant rejection from publishers and agents, bad reviews and non existent royalties to name only a few. But perhaps my most humble moment came years ago after the publication of my first book.
I'd been invited to Hoss's Authors Night in Long Lake in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. If you're unfamiliar with this institution, it's basically a party and sale under a big tent outside Hoss's Bookstore and general store. Authors begin with a private picnic given by the hosts and then spend a couple of pleasant hours under the tent at tables filled with their books for sale. It's an opportunity for the public to meet their favorite writers and purchase autographed copies of their books.
Since this was my first appearance, I'd been looking forward to it. At the picnic I sat with writers Gary Randorf, Chuck Brumley and Anne LaBastille, who would depart every few minutes to deliver hot dogs or hamburgers to her German Shepherds waiting patiently in her pickup truck.
Eventually it was time to sell books and we all trouped down to the tent where our books had been carefully laid out by our hosts on long tables. I was to share a table with one of the best known and most prolific writers in the Adirondack region, Barbara McMartin, the author of numerous trail guides and histories of the Adirondacks.
There was my little book, perched at the very edge of a ten foot long table, the rest of which was completely filled with Barbara's twenty or so titles. All night long, as people approached our table, I'd perk up at the prospect of actually selling a book, only to have them lean on my book or shove it out of the way in order to reach one of Barbara's and hand it off to her for signing. At times I was so surrounded by crowds of McMartin admirers that I felt like some sort of personal aide to her, actually handing out copies of her books to those who couldn't get close enough to reach one. I think Barbara sold fifty or even seventy-five books that night. I sold one, if memory serves. It might have been to my wife.
Perhaps that experience was a worthwhile lesson in eating humble pie, one that prepared me for more of the same to come in the years ahead. I traveled to several bookstores around the state with Anne LaBastille for author's nights. Like Barbara, Anne was well known, even nationally so since the big splash she made with the first of her Woodswoman series in 1976. I rarely sold more than a handful of books. But Anne had a real following, mostly women who identified greatly with her woman alone in the wilderness theme. Again, I was outsold by vast numbers.
On one of these occasions, to the new Plattsburgh Borders bookstore, I drove with Anne, Mohawk poet Maurice Kenny and Adirondack legend Clarence Petty, the subject of a biography I had written. Maurice had never met Clarence and the two told stories the entire time, each vying to out-reminisce the other. This was when I first heard Clarence's story about being a passenger in an old Model A Ford about 1920. He was sitting in the back seat with his rifle as they drove up a very steep road. The car flipped backwards and turned upside down injuring the two men in the front. Clarence's gun actually went off and blew a hole through his jacket without injuring him. In those very early days of the automobile, I suspect no one thought anything at all about driving with a loaded gun.
After the book signing, Maurice got a ride home with someone else, perhaps exhausted at the thought of having to go toe to toe with Clarence again in the story telling department, though Maurice was no slouch himself. Anne invited Clarence and me to come spend the night at her farmhouse near Lake Champlain. I was quite excited to be spending time with these two legendary Adirondackers in an intimate setting.
Anne's house was funky and cozy with a woodstove in the living room where she slept on the floor. The house was piled high with books, magazines and notes for various projects. There were many paintings and crafty things from Guatemala where Anne had done extensive research as an ecologist over many years. Before we settled in for the night, she gave me a tour of her book business housed in the barn. The place was filled with tables of books, boxes and packing materials. Anne was the first writer I ever knew who did all her own marketing, promotion, packing, mailing and bookkeeping. She was dedicated to the work and quite successful at it. She tried to convince me that this was the only way to go. But I was unable to accept it. I wanted to write, not be a salesman and marketing guru, something I still resist, though the demands of my publishers that I become fluent in social media, have made that much more difficult.
Before going to bed, Anne decided to put teetotaler Clarence on the spot. I got the impression this was something of a ritual whenever they got together. Anne insisted that we have drinks. She pulled out an enormous bottle of Jack Daniels and carefully poured out glasses for each of us, placing one ostentatiously in front of Clarence. Of course he would never touch it, but he seemed to treat Anne's little temptation with a degree of resigned humor.
Anne and Clarence were both down to earth people, and I learned, perhaps, a bit of perspective on dealing with humble pie moments from them. In any event, Anne and I drank more than enough for the three of us that long ago night.
When I graduated from college, the one thing I was looking forward to perhaps more than any other was the freedom to read whatever I wanted. No more assignments, no summer reading lists, just my own meandering tastes.
And meandering they were. I was very much into environmental issues in those days and would read virtually anything with a dust jacket showing our planet dripping oil or wrapped in plastics and toxic metals. It used to drive my parents crazy. They were both college English professors and were reading, teaching and producing anthologies filled with the names of some of the twentieth century’s greatest writers: Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, John Cheever, Katherine Anne Porter, John Updike, Eudora Welty and the like. There I was, buried in Paul Ehrlich’s controversial 1968 book, The Population Bomb.
But I was beyond all those stodgy Great American writers. Having grown up in an almost absurdly literary household, I read everything I could get my hands on. Which led to some rather unusual reading habits. I plowed through Tolstoy’s War and Peace three times before I graduated from high school and dipped into Joyce, James, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and many more.
I pretty much burned out my interest in serious literary fiction and I’ve never looked back. Literary nonfiction is another matter. Who can put down one of John McPhee’s books?
Today, I am most fascinated by the world of science, astronomy, physics, biology, medicine, archaeology and anthropology. One of my earliest memories of any sort of career interest was in the field of oceanography. This was in the heady days of Jacques Cousteau. I wanted to scuba dive like Cousteau—or at least like Seahunt’s Lloyd Bridges. Raised by English professors, a history major in college, I have always felt deep down that I was a frustrated scientist. And that interest, though never followed through academically, has guided much of my fiction writing over the last decade. My son shares some of my interests. He majored in Geography and English. I have suggested to him, only a little facetiously, that he might get a job as science writer for the New York Times.
The books that had the greatest impact on me as a child had to do with adventure. The year I lived in Mexico with my parents and sister when I was eight, I discovered at the end of our street, a small, English language library. In it was a many-volumed leather-bound set of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books. I can still remember the joy of bringing one of those books home. I was only allowed to take out one at a time and I would read it slowly, savoring every word. A few years later when I was thirteen, I was again living abroad in Istanbul where my father had a Fulbright Scholarship. In the library of the international school that I attended called Roberts College, perched on the edge of the Bosporus, I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Like the Tarzan books, I was enthralled for weeks.
Finding a book or series of books at precisely the right age can be an important and even transforming experience. There’s a great deal of serendipity involved. As an adult, I tried to reread Tolkien but without success. One of my favorite books in college was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I tried it again in my thirties and found it completely unmoving and was unable to finish it. It can ruin one’s memory of a great book forever if it is revisited at the wrong time. Maybe that’s why I haven’t attempted to reread War and Peace as an adult. Some things should remain sacred.
All of this is by way of admitting that a great deal of what I read nowadays consists of popular fiction and especially thrillers. I love them unabashedly, the throbbing pace, unexpected twists and turns, exotic locales. And now I write them as well, folding in plots rich with science and history. But I’ve become choosy and will drop a book that doesn’t maintain my interest. Most don’t. I particularly do not like the latest batch of top sellers. They seem too often written like cartoons, with utterly unbelievable events and cardboard characters.
I also write young adult adventure novels, basically thrillers for young people. I like to imagine I’m creating something that may one day be found in a library somewhere by a thirteen-year-old and will enthrall and inspire him the way Tolkien did me.
I know. I’m no Tolkien. But there’s something profoundly satisfying to think of the inspiration I felt so long ago being somehow filtered through my own world view and passed down to the generations that follow.
The letter came out of the blue. It was from a regional publisher that had been considering my submission of a young adult novel for three years. The elapsed time wasn't a surprise. They had published one of my earlier books after a seven year "study" period. But when I opened the letter, I finally comprehended what a really tough business this is.
The publishing house had experienced a "freak accident" the letter began. Wow! I thought. They're actually going to publish something.
No such luck. A car traveling at ninety miles an hour had crashed through a brick wall, careened through the office of their President, through an interior wall, across the entire showroom and partially out the exterior wall on the other side of the building. While no one was hurt and the driver went directly to jail, the damage done to the business was extraordinary.
They were writing to tell me this because a number of manuscripts, including mine, had been on the President's desk at the time and had been destroyed. Could I possibly send them another copy? Such is the state of mind of any writer, I actually took this as a positive sign. My book was on the President's desk. It was still being considered! It's hard enough to get anything published these days, but actually having a book run over takes things to a new level.
It can take a while to break through. I know that. My earliest memory of my grandfather is of him poring over papers in his eighties through thick glasses. An immigrant from Russia, unhappy in his career as a dentist in Manhattan, he spent much of his free time translating Russian literature and poetry. Though he spent half a century at it, he never broke through. My childhood attic held stacks of those translations not one of which, to my knowledge, was ever published. His father had been accused of murder in tzarist Russia in the 1890s. The family was exiled to Siberia, where my great grandfather established a successful business and the family became part of an intellectual community. Among the family's friends was writer Maxim Gorky, considered the father of Soviet literature. With a lineage like that, even if only associative, members of my family shouldn't have to have their manuscripts run over. Exiled to Siberia? Maybe.
At least seven members of my extended family have been writers. My parents, both college English professors, published many books between them. My mother wrote a series of murder mysteries and my father produced several works of well received fiction, one of which, The Ivy Trap, was considered for a movie by the likes of Gregory Peck and Lee J. Cobb. But their greatest success came with five anthologies they crafted because they couldn't find exactly what they wanted for their own courses. At least two of the books became best sellers and continue to be used in university English classes.
When I bought my father's house in 1993, the home I grew up in, I was cleaning out the attic, about to throw out a box filled with old correspondence, when I discovered a file of letters from the 1960s. They were from writers my parents had corresponded with concerning purchasing the rights to stories for their anthologies. I was a writer myself by this time and pored over the contents like lost gold coins from a sunken Spanish galleon.
Here were signed, often hand-written letters from the likes of Saul Bellow, Heinz Huber, Wright Morris and others. One of my favorites was a single-spaced, typed letter from Thomas Pynchon, written on yellow, lined graph paper and signed by the author ( I guess he couldn't go out in public to buy plain white paper). In it, he apologized for refusing permission to include a story entitled "Entropy" in one of my parents' collections. He wrote: "I have a funny thing about that story: I don't like it, and I regret having written it…it embodies a number of bad writing habits I still haven't shaken, and it would embarrass me now to see the thing come grinning and rattling out of its closet after six years." Evidently he got over the embarrassment, because a few years later I learned that "Entropy" had been published again after all.
The treasure trove brought to mind one of my mother's mantras: never stop sending things out; it keeps the mails interesting. These days it's email, but the principle is the same. Extending that advice, over the years I wrote to many authors whose work inspired me. To my surprise, most of them responded. I have letters from Farley Mowat, Barbara Tuchman, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard and John McPhee, among others. In a second letter to me, McPhee signed his name John Angus McPhee. Clearly, a lost relative.
A number of years ago, I read about an author who had written twenty-seven books without getting any of them published. It gave me heart. I was only up to fifteen at the time, and while I had published four works of nonfiction, I had close to a dozen novels either rattling around my desk or out with various agents. The Guinness Book of Records seemed well within my grasp.
Before the breakdown of Western civilization following the stock market collapse of 2008, my agent called to tell me that he had been talking to a major publishing house about one of my thrillers. Half a dozen editors had read the book and were enthusiastic about it. One actually said he thought it could be the next Da Vinci Code. I went out to dinner.
That was the last I ever heard about it.
Of course, I sent out another copy of the book that had been run over. In a few years, perhaps after the present economic crash has run its course, I am sure I will receive another letter: "Dear Sir: We are sorry to inform you that due to _______ (insert phrase of choice) earthquake, volcanic eruption, ozone belt depletion, Armageddon, we will need another copy of your manuscript.