Monday, April 17, 2023

Monday Night Zoom Boys: Guest Post by Charles Salzberg

Charles Salzberg:
When the pandemic hit and we were asked, then told to shelter in place, most people’s lives changed dramatically. Not mine. Having been a freelance writer since the age of 28, when I suddenly and, in retrospect, foolishly quit my three-month job working in the mailroom at New York magazine, I’ve worked from home. 

I took to apartment life like a (add your favorite aquatic animal here) to water. I didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time. I could go to sleep when I wanted. I could wake up when I wanted. If the weather was bad, I didn’t have to go out in it. If the apartment got too hot, I’d take a stroll by the river. A pair of shoes, or in my case sneakers, had many months added to its life. Sweaters, too. And if I didn’t go out much, I didn’t have to do laundry much. Excuse me. I’m getting all misty-eyed and nostalgic just thinking about it.
I was alone, but far from isolated. I had other freelance friends I could meet for coffee (we couldn’t afford much more than that), or talk on the phone. My good friend from New York days, Roy Hoffman—he worked the photostat machine in Milton Glaser’s art department—and I spoke practically every day, Monday through Friday. There was only one hard and fast rule: Roy’s sister was one of the directors of All My Children, and days when she was directing the show it was off-limits to call between 1 and 2 p.m.

Life, if you don’t count barely having enough money to pay the rent and eat two, full meals a day, was good. It was especially good because if I ever got down on myself—no work, no one to call or hang out with—I’d just think about all those suckers out there who were stuck in an office all day. Every day.

I found out how lucky I really was when I was very low on work (none) and thought I’d have to get a full-time job or die of malnutrition. I was asked to try out for a position as an editor at a popular women’s magazine (at the time, I was doing a lot of writing, mostly celebrity profiles, for magazines like Redbook). They had me come in for a week (yes, they paid me for it), which consisted of rewriting other people’s articles and talking to P.R. people. I once had to call Elizabeth Taylor’s publicist and ask the question “What is your favorite place to spend the Christmas holidays?” for one of those horrid list articles. Their question, not mine. So, I called the publicist and I was supposed to ask, “What spot was Elizabeth and Richard’s (she had been married to the great English actor Richard Burton, but he’d already passed away a year or two earlier) favorite Christmas vacation destination.” I swear I could hear a “huff” sound. Finally, after what seemed like minutes but was only seconds, she said four words. “Richard. Burton. Is. Dead.” Now remember, I knew it’s a stupid question. And I knew Burton was dead. But the question was past tense “where did they used to like to go?)” And I wasn’t working for the New York Times or The New Yorker. I was working for a women’s magazine. Anyway, I could sense that the p.r. woman was going to hang up on me, and even though I couldn’t see her, I was imagining her hand, holding the phone, going in a downward direction, heading to end the call. But before she could cut me off, I slammed the phone onto its cradle. Several of the editors were standing around my desk, smiling. One of them, the smiliest, said, “did she hang up on you?” 

“Nope. Because I think I was quicker to hang up on her before she could hang up on me.”  

Anyway, it only took a day before knew this wasn’t for me. I mean, when did people have time to have a life? Go to the bank? Do laundry? Talk on the phone? At the end of the week, I was offered the job, but I turned it down. I learned my lesson. The freelance life was for me. Tra-la.

 Enough strolling down memory lane. Let’s get back to that vicious bug from Asia, that was keeping everyone was home. Suddenly, and without being asked, everyone was leading my life. 

At first, it was, “welcome to my world!” But after a week or so, when I realized I wasn’t so special anymore, my attitude was properly adjusted. Now, instead of a cheery “Welcome to my world!” It was “Get the hell out of my world!”

I live alone, and as the days dragged on, even I began to hunger for some kind of human contact. And then the world discovered Zoom (or they discovered us). At first, I used it to maintain a weekly lunch with my good friend and fellow writer, Ross Klavan. And then, a couple times a week I used it to teach my writing classes. But still, something was missing.

Turns out that something was contact with other like-minded people. I missed my crime writing friends. I missed going to crime writers’ conferences. 

I didn’t have too much time to feel sorry for myself. An invitation (no, not the kind that announce weddings) came from my friend Reed Farrel Coleman (Long Island, way out on Long Island) to join a weekly Zoom with four other crime writers, Michael Wiley (Jacksonville, Florida), Matt Goldman (Minneapolis, Minnesota) and Tom Straw (Connecticut). By the way, between us we’re edging embarrassingly close to double-digit losses of the Shamus Award (Okay, Reed is far from a total loser since he’s actually won it more than once). I already knew Tom and I knew of Matt and Michael, but I’d never formally met them. 

To be honest, I was a little skeptical as to how this would work out. What would we talk about? Would we get along? Other than crime, what did we have in common? Did I really want to spend every Monday evening for who knows how long talking about the virus and politics? I. Don’t. Think. So.

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. After our first session, it was like we’d known each other all our lives. And I don’t think I’ve ever met four more interesting people (all crammed into my iPad screen). Before writing crime novels, both Matt and Tom were very successful Hollywood sit-com writers—shows like Seinfeld, Night Court, Nurse Jackie, The New Adventures of Old Christine. And although it happened that at one point both of them worked on the same lot and they knew a lot of the same people, they didn’t know each other before our Zoom. As a magazine journalist, I’d interview some of the people they’d worked with. Besides, as someone once said, “everyone has two businesses. Their own and show business.” Hence, there was also plenty to talk about. But Reed, Mike and me held our own. Reed didn’t plenty of interesting jobs while he was writing and publishing novels. Mike is a college professor, but he’s originally from Chicago, so you know he’s got plenty to offer.

We have no ground rules, per se—although I’m sure it’s in everyone’s mind that if we don’t deliver something interesting, wise, witty (and remember, we’re in a Zoom with two guys who got paid big bucks to write comedy for hit shows) or worthwhile for too long, we’ll find ourselves searching in vain for that Zoom link. We’ve talked about everything and anything but thankfully I don’t think politics has come up once as a subject for debate. Nor do I ever remember any talk about the pandemic, unless it was to report who got it.

There’s surprisingly little talk of sports. I mean, take five guys and put ‘em in a room and I think the over/under is that only eight minutes will pass before no matter what else they were talking about the subject turns to the Knick score last night. But for some reason, even though most of us are big sports fans and certainly have our opinions, it rarely comes up as a serious topic of conversation. Perhaps it’s because we’re all living in different parts of the country and thus don’t follow the same teams. But I’m pretty sure it’s not that. Let’s just say we’re far more evolved and interesting than your average guy of our age and experience.

But there is plenty of talk about books we’ve read or are reading, movies we’ve seen, streaming series we’re watching. I don’t know about the others, but I keep a pen and notepad net to me to jot down recommendations (or warnings).

At some point in the call, one of us is likely to throw out the question, how’s the writing going? And then each of us will state our case and I’d say we’ve rarely spent more than three minutes discussing that. No gloating. No complaining. No guilt. It’s an entirely informational question.

And yes, we do talk about “the business.” How could we not? Put five writers in the same room and the topics of publishing and publishers, other writers, the ones we like, the ones we don’t like. For the record, sorry to disappoint you but I have to say the “don’t like” list can’t even go beyond the fingers of one hand. We complain about the state of the business. We talk about how hard it is to get people to invest twenty to thirty bucks in a book. Okay, let’s face it, writers are, on the whole, experts on complaining. I’d like to think that we’ve earned that right since we genuinely do have so much to complain about.

Come to think of it, we do have one hard and fast rule, we’re all under the “cone of silence.” What’s said in the Monday Night Zoom Room stays in the Monday Night Zoom Room.

Which is why I’m writing this in invisible ink.
P.S. When we were all well-vaccinated, we took a Monday Night Zoom Boys trip together. And now, even though the pandemic is pretty much over, we still meet, though we should change our name to The Every Other Monday Night Zoom Boys.

Charles Salzberg is an award-winning crime novel writer who resides in Manhattan, New York. He teaches writing in New York City, is a Founding Member of New York Writers Workshop, and is on the boards of PrisonWrites and Mystery Writers of America-NY. His upcoming novel, Man on the Run, will be available this April.  

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