Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why I Write What I Write: Guest post by Charles Salzberg

CHARLES SALZBERG is the author of the Shamus Award-nominated Swann’s Last Song, Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair (re-release Nov. 2016), Devil in the Hole (re-release Nov. 2016), Triple Shot (Aug. 2016), and Swann’s Way Out (Feb. 2017). His novels have been recognized by Suspense Magazine, the Silver Falchion Awards, the Beverly Hills Book Award and the Indie Excellence Award. He has written over 25 nonfiction books, including From Set Shot to Slam Dunk, an oral history of the NBA, and Soupy Sez: My Life and Zany Times, with Soupy Sales. He has been a visiting professor of magazine at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, and he teaches writing at the Writer’s Voice and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a founding member.

Charles Salzberg:
Why I Write What I Write

For me, a novel rarely begins with plot or a character, or even a particular crime. Instead, it begins with a simple question. What if? Hopefully, that question, if compelling enough, propels me into a story that examines an important idea or theme.

The novels I’m interested in writing have to be about something and in the act of writing that novel I hope to able to learn something about myself, about the world I live in, and about the people who live in it with me. The novel has to examine something either I didn’t know, something I’m confused about, or something I want to know more about, usually human behavior. Hopefully, by the end of the novel I’ve answered at least some of those questions while at the same time entertaining my reader.

Here’s what I mean.

Devil in the Hole, was published a few years ago, but the seed for that novel was planted more than thirty years ago when I came across a front page story in the New York Times about a man who killed his entire family, wife, three kids, mother, and the family dog, then disappeared. Sad to say, these kinds of stories aren’t all that rare, but there was something about this one that was special, something that fascinated me, something that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

This did not seem to be a crime of passion, nor did it appear to be a crime committed in a moment of madness. It was so meticulously planned out that the perpetrator managed to give himself almost a month’s head start on the authorities by making sure no one in the upscale community where the murders took place would miss his victims. He stopped the mail. He called the school and told them his kids would be visiting relatives for a month. He left all the lights on in the house so people would think the family was still home. He might have suffered from some kind of mental illness or delusion, but he wasn’t insane in the way we think of madmen who typically (if there is such a thing) commit mass murder. If he wasn’t just stark raving mad, he had a reason to commit these murders but I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what that reason could possibly have been.

I knew instinctively, I guess, that whatever it that “reason” was it might well say something important about the human condition. And so for years, this crime stuck with me. Every so often my mind would drift back to it, even as the years passed and the murderer still remained on the loose. wanted to write about it, but until I could wrap my mind around how someone could plan such a heinous crime, I couldn’t begin to write. I had to, in my own mind, come up with some kind of rationale for the murders because mere madness was not of any interest to me.

It took years, but finally a possible rationale for murders occurred to me and only then could I begin to write the novel. And so, Devil in the Hole did not become a book about a mass murder but rather a book about failure and shame and the inability to attain the elusive American Dream, something probably every one of us has grappled with over the course of our life.

A writer rarely knows if he or she is successful in doing what they set out to do but in this case I got a hint at the answer quite accidentally. I was speaking to a college class out in Long Island that had been assigned the book. A young woman raised her hand and said, rather sheepishly, “I’m ashamed to say this, but I have to admit that by the time I finished reading the book I kind of started feeling sorry for the killer.”

That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. It’s not that the killer was a hero, not by a long shot. And it’s not that he didn’t commit a heinous crime and deserved to be punished. But rather what this young woman was saying to me was that after reading the novel she could understand how the average person might, under certain circumstances commit such a violent horrible act. And how we all can share the same feelings, even though, thank goodness, most of us don’t act on them the way this man did. The book was about something, and it wasn’t about bringing a murderer to justice.

I’ve just finished another novel called, Second Story Man. Briefly, it’s about a lifetime master burglar named Francis Hoyt (based on two real-life master criminals). Hoyt, smart, arrogant, athletic, considers himself the best at what he does: breaking into people’s houses and stealing their valuables. Not only the best working now, but the best ever. He’s never been caught in the act. And although he’s earned more than enough money over a lifetime of crime to quit, he can’t. Why? Because he has an almost pathological need to succeed, to be the best. And when he’s challenged by two men, one a Miami police detective, the other a retired Connecticut State Investigator, he’s invigorated and spurred on not only to taunt the two hunters, but continually prove he’s smarter than they are.

Thus begins a cat and mouse tale of three men all trying to prove they’re the best at what they do. I hope I’ve written an entertaining crime novel that will keep readers guessing as to what will happen, who will come up the winner in this contest of egos, but what’s really more important to me is that I was able to examine for myself this what I think of as a uniquely American trait of having to be the best, making everything into a contest where there must be a clear winner and a clear loser. And the phenomena of never being satisfied with what we have. don’t have to look far to see signs of this today. It’s not good enough that Donald Trump won the presidency, he has to prove to himself and us that he won in a landslide, that he not only won the Electoral College but also the popular vote. Why do the enormously wealthy never have enough? What is it about us that creates this dynamic and more important, what is the downside of this compulsion?

That’s what I had to find out and at least for me, that’s what I did by writing this novel. Obviously, I can’t answer all the questions I have, but for me writing a novel is a start.

1 comment:

Martha Reed said...

I'm particularly interested in why one event sticks in a writer's mind over the plethora of equally bizarre others. I had that happen to me last week in the story of the woman who got her arm stuck riffling through a clothing donation box. She died of blunt force trauma and hypothermia. My brain immediately asked: why blunt force trauma?

Great blog! Thanks for posting.