Lost in an Office Building

August 29th, 2010  by: 1 comment
Some of the very earliest ideas for Shimmer came while I was working as a marketing assistant for a big accounting firm in New York. I hated everything about the job. Except for the view. I was in the World Financial Center next to the World Trade Center. The group of 20 or so people I was in were positioned next to what was essentially a wall of glass, floor to ceiling, one end of the building to another, all of it looking out on the Hudson River. I couldn’t figure out why we had such a nice space. We were consultants to an investment bank, actually, and were only supposed to be in the building temporarily. Within a few weeks, it became clear that the scope of the accounting firm’s work for the bank wasn’t very well defined because, many days, I did nothing. I just stared out that wall of windows. I was only a marketing assistant, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but I started to realize that a lot of the full-blown accountants also seemed to be doing nothing. It was as if we’d been forgotten, there on the 15th floor of the building, taking up a huge swath of space, sitting in our cubicles in a deeply pleasant quiet. All of us just looking out on the Hudson. The experience led me to write about the Unoccupied Territories in Shimmer, the fresh and pristine office spaces that the company built in advance of them hiring a new group of employees. And it also led me to include the Rogue Sections, the groups who’d managed to completely remove themselves from any meaningful contribution to the company. And it led me to have Robbie just standing at his window, and staring out, looking at the Hudson and the sunset beyond the river. In the World Financial Center, one day a woman walked into the middle of our group with a clipboard, looked around at all of us, and said, after a moment, “What in the world are all of you doing here?” We weren’t supposed to be there. She was in charge of space assignments for the entire building. And she’d had no idea we wee there. She was moving some group in the next day. She was furious. To her, we didn’t exist. She kept checking her clipboard, looking for some reference to our existence. Within a week, she had us moved to a cramped basement office. Thankfully, it was August and I was going back to graduate school. I think I spent one day in that basement. Maybe not even that. I can’t really remember.  All I remember is that view.
Categories: About Shimmer, About Writing, Posts Tags:

Postcards From the Church of Scientology

August 26th, 2010  by: Comments off
I’m on the mailing list for the Church of Scientology. Every day, I get an average of four pieces of direct mail related to Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard. Newsletters, book offers, catalogs selling a seemingly endless number of lectures by L. Ron Hubbard, and numerous invitations to training events at schools, resorts and even on cruise ships. I have no idea why I’m receiving all this mail. It’s been going on since we moved to our current home. There used to be a Church of Scientology a few blocks from my house and so, when the mailings started, I assumed I was being subjected to some sort of “new neighbor marketing campaign” — the type of direct mail effort generally associated with corner dry cleaners, lawn services and your run-of-the-mill Protestant church. Yet nearly four years later, the Scientology mailings continue. I can only assume that I was put on the list by mistake, or a friend signed me up as a joke. Sometimes, when my wife is sorting through the inch-tall stack of Scientology correspondence, she turns to me and asks, “Are you sure you’re not secretly a Scientologist? Maybe you just — “and at this point she’ll make quote marks with her fingers — “stopped by the church in a moment of weakness?” We’ve only been married 4 years. In the history of marriage, I suppose there are more shocking revelations than that your spouse is a secret Scientologist. But I’m not a Scientologist. Still, sometimes I find myself spending just a little extra time with some of the materials. Scientology is surrounded by such an aura of the absurdly mysterious that I can’t help but hope that some secret will be revealed in the fine print of a Business Reply Envelope. So far, what I’ve learned is that Scientologists use a lot of lingo to which the rest of us are not privy. What’s a FLAG? An OT? What’s a CCH? What’s my Tone Scale? Am on the proper “route to exteriorization”? Can I be on that route without trying? I’m baffled by it all. Which seems to be somewhat intentional. Because what’s most interesting to me is the deep and pervasive sense of disdain Scientologists seem to hold for non-Scientologists. I’m a fairly “confident” person, I have to admit, but the Scientologists make me look humble by comparison. The other thing I’ve learned is that I could spend every dollar I make buying Scientology resources. Books, recordings and the aforementioned training events. There’s no end to what I could spend. And learn.

I'm on the mailing list for the Church of Scientology. Every day, I get an average of four pieces of direct mail related to Scientology. Newsletters, book offers, catalogs selling a seemingly endless number of lectures by L. Ron Hubbard, and numerous invitations to training events at schools, resorts and even on cruise ships.

I have no idea why I'm receiving all this mail. It's been going on since we moved to our current home. There used to be a Church of Scientology a few blocks from my house and so, when the mailings started, I assumed I was being subjected to some sort of "new neighbor marketing campaign" -- the type of direct mail effort generally associated with corner dry cleaners, lawn services and even your run-of-the-mill Protestant church.

Yet nearly four years later, the Scientology mailings continue. I can only assume that I was put on the list by mistake, or a friend signed me up as a joke.

Sometimes, when my wife is sorting through the inch-tall stack of Scientology correspondence, she turns to me and asks, "Are you sure you're not secretly a Scientologist? Maybe you just -- "and at this point she'll make quote marks with her fingers -- "stopped by the church in a moment of weakness?"

We've only been married 4 years. In the history of marriage, I suppose there are more shocking revelations than that your spouse is a secret Scientologist.

But I'm not a Scientologist. Still, sometimes I find myself spending just a little bit of time with some of the materials. Scientology is surrounded by such an aura of the absurdly mysterious that I can't help but hope that some secret will be revealed in the fine print of a Business Reply Envelope.

So far, what I've learned is that Scientologists use a lot of lingo to which the rest of us are not privy. What's a FLAG? An OT? What's a CCH? What's my Tone Scale? How do I get on the proper "route to exteriorization"?

I'm baffled by it all. Which seems to be somewhat intentional. Because what's most interesting to me is the deep and pervasive sense of disdain Scientologists seem to hold for non-Scientologists. I'm a fairly "confident" person, I have to admit, but the Scientologists make me look humble by comparison.

The other thing I've learned is that I could spend every dollar I make buying Scientology resources. Books, recordings and the aforementioned training events. There's no end to what I could spend. And learn.

Categories: Posts Tags:

Layoffs & Excel: How I Started Writing Shimmer

August 17th, 2010  by: Comments off
Somehow, when I was 35 years old, I found myself as Chief Operating Officer of a $15 million publishing company. We employed 200 people, we published all over the country, we had plans to grow even bigger, faster. I think I got that title largely because of a moment some years earlier, when we were trying to raise money from venture capitalists, but lacked a CFO who could provide them the details they needed. The owner of the company looked at me and said, “Do you think you can put together a spreadsheet?” I had no financial background. Minimal understanding of accounting. I’d been hired as an editor. But the owner was, like so many entrepreneurs, one of those people to whom it is almost impossible to say no. “Sure I can,” I said. I locked myself in my office for a month, taught myself the dark inner workings of Excel, and proceeded to construct an extraordinarily — perhaps ridiculously — elaborate model of all aspects of the company’s operations. When I was done, it was more than 500 pages long. There was no Ponzi scheme behind the model. But as we presented it to potential investors, it became clear that the complexity of the model gave it a self-fulfilling quality. The investors studied the numbers. And they wanted to believe. And so, in those same meetings, my mind started to wander. What would it be like to create a model built on a lie? At night, in the morning, I started to work on Shimmer. Meanwhile, the publishing company had grown too fast and gotten too big. We started cutbacks, layoffs, firings. It was awful. I stood in rooms of 20 people, all of them getting laid off. I met with a woman who’d just had a baby, laying her off as she cried into her hands. I laid one person off over the phone, calling her at home because she’d been sick, using a speakerphone to end it as she lay in bed in her trailer. She’d been with the company for 10 years. Those moments haunt me still. The realization that with my extravagant title, my elaborate model, and my power to have hired so many of these people, with all that I had taken these people into my trust. Every layoff and cutback, however, felt like a violation of that trust. I violated it often. In 2002, I bought five cases of beer, called a staff meeting, and told the remaining 60 people they no longer had a job. We had found investors, but they turned out to be in financial trouble beyond anything I could have imagined. The bank cut our funding. They stopped taking my calls. In the end, there wasn’t even enough money to file bankruptcy. We just walked away. For weeks, the phones still rang. The Web sites were still live. Even the email worked. I assume it was the landlord who finally shut off the lights.

Wanted: Agent Who Likes Arson, Leaves and Stories of Financial Malfeasance

August 7th, 2010  by: Comments off
I’m looking for a new agent. I hate looking for an agent. Maybe some agent will read this before I even start the process of reaching out to people. Maybe they’ll magically, send me an email saying that they’d love to represent me. Like the magical love affair in a sweet and simple book. I’m still trying to sort out which book I want to send out next. It’s either going to be High of Sixty, about a bankrupt bill collector hiding out in Alaska, or Powdered Milk, about a reporter covering a series of arsons in Connecticut. I finished rereading both over the last two weeks. I hadn’t read Powdered Milk in a year or so. It’s a funny but ultimately very disturbing book. It’s strange for me to have written something so unsettling. Not that I haven’t written lots of dark stories. But I’d forgotten how slowly but deeply the strangeness in Powdered Milk reveals itself. I forget a lot about much of what I write. Not sure that’s normal or not. But so be it. I haven’t written a blurb or pitch or synposis for Powdered Milk yet. It’ll go something like this, though:
Powdered Milk is a novel about arsons, and the newspaper reporter covering them in three isolated Connecticut towns. It is a novel about secrets. It is a novel about sex. It is, in the end, a novel about submarines, love, fire and Monty Breel, a 31-year-old reporter for the local bi-weekly called The Gazette. And it is a novel about leaves. Lots and lots of leaves.
Who wouldn’t want to read that? The High of Sixty pitch is looking something like this:
High of Sixty is the story of a bankrupt bill collector hiding from his debts in a dark, forgotten office building in Juneau, Alaska. It’s a book about the awkwardness of friendship, the loss of wealth, unforgivable mistakes and a bad love affair. It’s a book that, at least in part, is meant to be funny. And it’s a book about Carter’s aunt lighting his uncle on fire at the holidays. It is a book about inter-office memos printed in the waxy purple ink of old mimeograph machines. It is a book about sneaking on board cruise ships to sip tequila and do the rhumba.
So many choices.

Genres and the Voices in My Head

August 4th, 2010  by: 1 comment
I don’t think I ever picked how I write, or even a genre in which to write. It’s more, for me, about the voice in my head. I’m not sure I know where that voice came from. Maybe I don’t even want to know where it came from. But I started to write because, somewhere in my mind, there was a story and a voice and a fundamental thing that I wanted to say and that I thought people would want to read. I’ve written in a variety of different voices or styles, now that I look back on it. Many of the first stories I published were in a much darker, more barren, even sometimes violent style. But that changed over time so that, while Shimmer is still often fairly dark, it’s also sometimes funny. There are light moments. And, certainly, it’s a book without violence, in style or content. That said, to some degree, I’ve always been influenced by, or even tried to emulate, writers I like, particularly Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. And yet I don’t think I ever particularly sound like the writers that have most influenced me. Shimmer certainly doesn’t sound anything like Cormac McCarthy and similarities to Delillo are, maybe, there. Maybe. And so it really comes back to the unexplained voices in my head. Excerpts from an interview on This Book For Free. http://thisbookforfree.com/?p=1002

I have never seen Footloose

July 31st, 2010  by: Comments off
I have never seen Footloose. This seems important to me right now, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that I’m finishing a manuscript, a novel, that’s a relatively disturbing story. I wrote it many years ago, and am editing some parts now, and may start sending it out to agents soon. Few of the characters in the book, called Powdered Milk, would have ever been interested in seeing Footloose. Few of them would have watched Friends. I’ve never seen an episode of Friends. I’ve never seen Top Gun. Most people my age have. Maybe I’m wondering how my writing would be different if I had been interested in seeing these particularly age-defining movies and shows. Maybe I’m wondering if exposure to Top Gun would mean that I wouldn’t, once again, be looking for an agent, if I were more in touch with popular culture. It’s a powerful movie, it seems. People still talk about it these many years later. I once told a friend of mine that I’d never seen Friends. He called me Un-American. He was only partly joking. None of which is to say that I don’t enjoy many, many mainstream movies or popular TV shows. I’ve gladly watched virtually every episode of Sponge Bob Squarepants with my children. I’ve watched each of the Star Wars movies more time than I’ll willingly admit. But Footloose, it seems so happy. Friends as well. I’ve seen clips, I’ve heard people talk about these shows. People I know and like. They get a certain joy out of watching Footloose. Out of repeating bits and pieces of a favorite episode of Friends. Good and simple and popular stories, it seems, that people like very much. Sometimes I think I want to write very different fiction from what I do now. Science Fiction, maybe. Something purely funny. Or a heart-warming tale of youthful rebellion. Set to music. But I’d have to use a different name, I come to realize. Otherwise it wouldn’t be me.
Categories: About Writing, Posts, Powdered Milk Tags:

Robbie Case and the Real-Life Frauds – The three parts of Robbie

July 28th, 2010  by: Comments off
Someone asked me about the similarities between Robbie and any real-life frauds who run companies around the world. One note about the following is that, a year or so into the first draft of Shimmer, I realized that Robbie, Perry and Trevor had never appeared in the same room together. That realization, and the way in which each of the three formed the kind of whole described below, is what led me to end the book the way it ends. Without going too far with this, when I think about whether Robbie is symbolic of any real-life corruption, I have to think of him as three people — he’s Perry, Robbie and Trevor all in one. They are three views of the executive in the midst of the fraud. Trevor is at one extreme — the person who knows about the fraud, who was actually part of setting it in motion, and doesn’t care. Perry is at the other extreme — living in a kind of hopeful denial, wishing what he feels to be true wasn’t real, yet nonetheless working quietly to bring the fraud to an end. And then there’s Robbie, in the middle, knowing what he is doing is wrong, struggling with the ethics and morality of it every day, wanting not to benefit from the fraud, but unable to confess to the fraud, or to reject the fraud completely. So how does that relate to real-life frauds? I think the truth is that real-life frauds are more varied in their motivations than we want to admit, more so, at least, than the press often shows. Some of these people are purely and consciously diabolical. These are the Trevor’s of the world. But some are clearly more conflicted, they are swept up in a corruption that, while it’s of their own making, they want to undo it, like Robbie. And some are blind to the truth because they believe in what they’re doing but are, eventually, too smart and too caring to deny the truth forever, like Perry. Perry, for instance, in my mind, would have become a whistle-blower had Robbie not agreed to give everything up. Whistle-blowers — of corporate or government corruption – are modern heroes, I think. The pressure and threats that they face when they fight their bosses, when they speak truth to power, it’s unimaginable. We all can talk a good talk about doing what’s right, about avoiding anything unethical, but if it’s you’re job — the paycheck that feeds your children, that heats your house, that puts food on the table — if all that is on the line, would you speak up? Would you put yourself at risk? So many people wouldn’t. Perry, in that sense, is the true goodness in the novel. Not just because he listens to his own ethical voice, but especially because he helps — pushes, goads, enables — Robbie to find his own best self, the self that can give everything up, that can do what is right. Put another way, some of these frauds we see are, I am sure, awful people. People I wouldn’t want to share a cab with, wouldn’t enjoy a drink with. But other people who we see getting led away from the courtroom, I think that most of us would, if we spent time with them and learned what led them to them to their fraudulent and corrupt acts, we’d find that they were actually quite nice. Quite decent. Well intentioned. Human.

Sex, Shimmer and the Space Between Reality and Fiction

July 22nd, 2010  by: Comments off

I’m too old to be remotely embarrassed by the amount of sex in Shimmer. I suppose there’s the requisite discomfort about my mother reading the book. But even that is minimal.

None of which is to say I wasn’t ready for some negative reactions to the sex. There had been a couple of editors, in fact, who, in rejecting the manuscript, registered a quite serious level offense at Robbie’s obsession with prostitutes. And so as I’ve done interviews and, especially, book clubs, I’ve been ready for someone to register a similar complaint. The sex scenes in the book turn increasingly dark and disturbing. I’ve thought someone would be offended. I always knew I wanted to write a series of scenes that, through the first third of the book, would offer a certain voyeuristic appeal to the reader. Yet I knew that any sense of appeal or attraction would need to disappear for the reader as the book — and the darkness of the sex scenes — progressed. I even wanted readers to, maybe, feel a latent guilt that they’d maybe enjoyed the earlier scenes. What I didn’t at all expect was the way in which many women who’ve read the book simply brush the sex off as silly dalliances. They aren’t offended. They aren’t bothered. They just take it for what it is: One more sign of Robbie’s inner weakness. Men are more apt to express that discomfort I was trying to engender. They stammer uncomfortably, glance around the room, wonder exactly who to reconcile what they clearly felt with what is appropriate to say. An issue men do register with me, although it’s always been privately, is the apparent sexual prowess Robbie seems to display, night after night. A friend of a friend said to me, leaning close, “Now I’m not sure he could be having sex that often, now could he? Must have been a bit of exaggeration there, right? Right?” One of the many problems with the book having been called a thriller is that for some readers the thriller label inevitably created an expectation that the book should be taken literally, as if each word and sentence were one more clue in the evolving plot. It’s a maddening reaction for me, the way the thriller label diminished (or shut down), for some readers, the possibility of experiencing the book in that murky, vaguely magical space between reality and fantasy. Put another way: What matters, in a thriller, is how many times Robbie has sex. What matters, in a work of literary fiction, is that Robbie is struggling to understand his need for sex with prostitutes. It’s too bad anyone ever saw Shimmer as anything but a work of literary fiction. I can’t quite imagine reading the book, sex scenes included, in any other light.
Categories: About Shimmer, Posts Tags:

MENSA and Me – How, from now on, I’m only talkin’ to geniuses

July 19th, 2010  by: 1 comment
The local MENSA group was nice enough to invite me to speak to their book club about Shimmer. This was a very nice thing for them to do, not least of which because it meant that, for weeks, I kept telling friends and family, “Sorry, but from now on, I’m only talking to geniuses.” That’s the kind of thing I find hysterical, even if my friends and family don’t. I was horrified when I met the group, though, because one of the first people I talked to was a former mainframe programmer from IBM. He’d worked there for many decades. I wanted to turn and run, sure he’d tear the book apart, exposing me as a hack writer fraud who’d made everything up. He didn’t. He enjoyed the book. He had many interesting questions and comments. Late in the conversation, though, he said he had one more question. “There’s just one part of the plot that I couldn’t quite follow.” And from there he proceeded to point out the one truly impossible aspect of the lie at the heart of Shimmer. I was fully aware of the point. But no one else had ever raised a question about it. Shimmer is fiction, and is fiction filled with exaggerations and untruths. There was no Frederick Fadowsky. There is no Core Communications. But fictional or not, the book had to be true to the world it created. A part of that, is that the company and the people who ran it all needed to seem possible. The schemes, the lying, the notion of a company built on a secret lie, these things are all clearly possible. We have real world examples, big and small, to which most anyone can compare the world in Shimmer. Yet there’s an aspect to the fraud that is simply impossible. I’m torn on whether to point it out here. I won’t today. Maybe soon.
Categories: About Shimmer, Posts Tags: ,

Countdown to Collapse – A timeline for Shimmer

July 14th, 2010  by: Comments off
I don’t do research. And I don’t make outlines. These are my conditions when writing. Of course, they’re only conditions I’ve set with myself.  (Punch line: Even then, the negotiations are ugly.) I do, however, make outlines after I’m well into a project. It might be 50 pages in, it might be 200, but at some point I have to start planning how everything I’ve written will come together. Sometimes, it’s as much as anything a need to catalog the many disparate parts that I’ve put on the page. That catalog then becomes an outline. With Shimmer, one part of the catalog was setting the timeline for the impending collapse of Robbie’s fraud, especially as the lie manifests in the shadow network (the series of servers and satellites and networking that is secretly supporting the actual company). I didn’t remember doing this until I found it on my computer, but, as part of sorting out that timeline, I apparently put together a detailed spreadsheet of scenes and dates.

(There’s a PDF of the file here.)

This doesn’t reflect the final timeline — there was no need to update it as the text changed — but the timeline is pretty close to how the book was published. Interesting note on the side:  “Need to accelerate decline [before this point] OR heighten need for extension beyond collapse.” I think I did the latter. Maybe I did both. I’m continually surprised by how people read Shimmer and say it was such a fast read. A page-turner. To me, there were so many details — as reflected in this timeline (and the financial spreadsheet I had to put together) — that my experience of the book was slow, a slog through the minutiae. I guess things like this timeline are part of what made the book quick?
Categories: About Shimmer, Posts Tags: