Leonard Rosen grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where he taught high school English. Graduate studies in literature followed, and he went on to a university teaching career. Len writes full time now in the Boston area. He has contributed radio commentaries to Boston’s NPR station, written best-selling textbooks on writing, and taught writing at Harvard University and Bentley University. The Tenth Witness is a prequel to his award-winning first novel, All Cry Chaos. Both feature Interpol agent Henri Poincaré.
Tearing the Sky Apart
I was five when the lady making me a grilled cheese sandwich cocked her head, listening to a distant rumble. This was in Baltimore, where summer thunderstorms are a near-daily occurrence. “They’re coming,” she said. “The dinosaurs.”
“Dinosaurs fighting. Where do you think thunder and lightening come from?”
In school a few years later, I learned about electrical discharges in storm clouds and the booming of rapidly heated air. I aced the test but preferred to imagine dinosaurs tearing the sky apart.
If I didn’t know I was a writer at that point, my father confirmed it when he returned home late one summer afternoon to find me on the stairs above the driveway with one of his raincoats draped across my shoulders. Once again, the sky was on the verge of exploding. He looked up at me as air rushed along the ground and the first fat drops fell. I opened my arms and summoned the winds. He said: “What are you doing?”
“Watch,” I said.
A violent storm broke, and at dinner that evening I took full credit.
“You have an imagination,” he said.
I did. The only question was how I would arrange my life so I could put that imagination to use. As a child and teen, I spent more time on ball fields than in libraries. The very best part of school was reading fiction; but after the final bell rang, life for me was all about sports—until, that is, I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. That’s when I fell hard into fiction. I became an English major in college, then a high school English teacher, then (after a lot more reading) a college teacher of literature and writing. Teaching gave me my summers, and I wrote my first novel when I was 23—about a man who discovers his name in the prophecies of Nostradamus. It wasn’t a very good novel (though I thought otherwise at the time), nor were the three that followed.
But I kept at it because I wanted to do what Kazantzakis did: create lives so compelling that I mourned their loss when the story ended. With two novels published, I think of Kazantzakis and the high bar he set. I think also of the kid who preferred dinosaurs to explanations of charged particles. That’s a disposition that can’t be learned, I suspect. The artist is mad enough to believe, even with a wink, that he can summon a storm. My father knew he couldn’t; but as an engineer he could make machines one steel block at a time and change the world that way. These are different dispositions, and worlds can be created from either.
I can illustrate. My first novel, All Cry Chaos, came to me when in the course of twelve hours I noticed astonishing similarities between tree limbs, lightning bolts, the veins in my eyes (when I administered drops), and the ridgelines of mountains as seen from above (I was on a cross-country flight that day). Scientists and mathematicians have studied this patterning in nature using a mathematics called fractal geometry. Fascinated by the same phenomena, I was drawn in a different direction, to questions like these: What if a mathematician studying fractals was killed? Who would do it? Why? Why does a lightning bolt look like a tree limb? What if the mathematics that describes tree limbs and sidewalk cracks also describes the operations of global financial networks? (It does. Read Benoit Mandelbrot.) Do patterns in nature suggest a Pattern Maker? Might I write a thriller with theological elements?
There are charged particles and there are dinosaurs. I chose, and continue to choose, dinosaurs.
This same habit of mind guided my writing of the just-released prequel to All Cry Chaos. The Tenth Witness tells the story of how my protagonist, Henri Poincaré, comes to be an Interpol agent. (See my guest blog at Jungle Red on the experience of writing a prequel.) Chaos was set in 2010, when Poincaré was a thirty-year veteran. Who was he in his late twenties? No one is born an Interpol agent. What events forced a change in careers? The most heinous crimes of the century occurred in Europe, during the Second World War. What if I involved Poincaré somehow with the Third Reich? The timing would work if he met unreconstructed Nazis in the 1970s, just thirty years after the war. What if he fell in love with the daughter of a Nazi? She herself would have been born after the war and thus innocent of Nazi-era crimes. But what exactly did she learn at papa’s knee? What might Poincaré discover that would drive a wedge between his conscience and his affections for this woman?
I found a deep, rich, fact-based literature on the legacy of National Socialism and the tortured lives of the children of Nazi-era criminals. As with All Cry Chaos, I read and then wrote a novel—once again preferring dinosaurs to scientific explanations. My goal, then and now, is to evoke, not tell.
The novel I’m working on at present follows from this same impulse. What if a magician lost his sense of wonder? What a sad state of affairs to be capable of astonishing everyone in a theater but himself! How will he recover enchantment?
I play out my life through stories. I turn sixty in January; and I’m amazed—and grateful—that I’ve made room each day for imagination. I’m rich with what-ifs. What I pray for is the time and energy to see more than a few of them through to mature novels.
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