Nine Months of Traveling During Covid

My international life during a global pandemic…

I left the US in September of 2020, back when very few were traveling and the second wave of the pandemic was a vague fear looming on the horizon. Getting out of the country was an ordeal. I’d compare it to threading a needle on a bouncing bus while wearing mittens. Let me explain.

Trying to arrive in Barbados, my first stop, was a comedy of errors. First came a month of cancelled flights by American Airlines, then a cancelled connecting flight in Dallas, then an involuntary 10-day stay in Miami Beach (expensive but not unwelcome), followed by a rebooking on LIAT airlines. (LIAT, I found out later, colloquially stands for Late, If At All.) That flight, however, required a forced 5-day stay in Jamaica, in quarantine, while waiting for a new connecting flight to Barbados.

It was my only option, and once I arrived in Jamaica, I was greeted with the task of finding a new PCR test (as my last one had expired) in a developing Caribbean country, on a specific day (Wednesday), at a specific time (3 pm), to qualify for the 72-hr PCR rule that Barbados had in place for arrivals. Achieving this was a feat that required the help of the PR guy at my hotel, who placed a personal call to the actual Jamaican Minister of Health (a childhood friend, he explained), whose office obtained me a single spot at one of two private clinics on the island. The private clinic only took cash, which had to be paid on the morning of the exam, and I was tagged onto the butt end of a large group of people. By the way, Jamaican authorities also placed a mandatory app on my phone to monitor my whereabouts, though it’s not clear that anyone ever followed up on that. I left the phone in my hotel to go out for dinner twice. Color me rebellious, but I hadn’t been to that island since age five and wanted to see what I was missing in Kingston.

Finally arriving in Barbados, I sat in another mandatory 8-day quarantine during which time carb-heavy foods (pasta, club sandwiches, fries) were brought to my hotel room door three times a day. I felt like the Christmas goose being fattened before the kill. Leaving the room wasn’t allowed, either, even though I could hear the ocean crashing just twenty tantalizing meters away. Later, after being released, I discovered that while Barbados had zero cases of covid, they still enforced all the new global protocols. So I spent the next three months wearing masks everywhere, getting temperature checks in the forehead, and accepting squirts of gel — you know, the same old drill, but on an island with no virus whatsoever. They’re not particularly good at independent thinking, those Bajans. (This observation was echoed to me by a couple Bajans themselves.) If I sound frustrated, it’s because I’d gone there precisely to escape the virus, not to pretend it still existed.

Still, Barbados is a tropical paradise, albeit one with excellent wifi and a Michael Kors outlet. They tell me that Grenada is the most unspoiled island in the Caribbean, and I hope to check that out too, along with Dominica and the Grenadines. I’m going back soon.


Next stop was Colombia. Landing there in January was fairly easy. That country requires a simple 96-hour PCR test, which was easily gained in Miami, and the movement around that terrific country was mostly unrestricted, though there were occasional surprise weekend lockdowns in Medellín that were barely enforced. I’d been to Colombia before, for several months in 2014 and again in 2019, and the people are the most friendly of any place I’ve ever been, next to Puerto Rico.

I avoided Bogotá until the end of my two-month stay there, since the covid-19 situation was so precarious through January and part of February. In fact, if the world ever suffers a pandemic like this again, my advice is to head to warm cities such as Medellin in the months following the winter holidays (January and February). The post-holiday viral bulge there was less pronounced, thanks to the “eternal spring” climate that allows so much outdoor dining, outdoor activities, and outdoor socializing. Bogotá suffered a much larger increase in post-holiday cases simply because of the colder climate there, and the subsequently greater numbers of indoor parties and socializing during the holidays.

In rural areas such as El Eje Cafetero, the open-air coffee region where I stayed for two weeks, locals told me that there was absolutely no virus there until November 2020, months after it’d gripped most of the world, and very little transmission of the virus once it arrived. My hired driver said there’d been a total of two covid deaths, both over age 70. There really is something to be said for fresh air and ventilation in avoiding viruses (see the end of this article). I would guess that better overall health, owing to a life of agricultural labor, probably played a role too.


In March, it was onto Peru, for which I gained another PCR exam in Bogotá, this one administered by a sadistic nurse who jammed her swab into my nose with enough strength to crack a rock. I also discovered that Peru now requires face shields on all transportation — plane, train, bus, and auto. That was my biggest problem there, for reasons of 1) claustrophobia and 2) language comprehension.

It drove me a little batty to wear both a N95 and a face shield, because together they create a sonic bubble around your skull in which you can hear both your own breathing and your own words bouncing back at you. Regarding language, imagine going to an airport check-in desk and trying understand a female with a tiny, high-pitched voice speaking to you rapidly in a foreign language—while she wears two layers of facial protection and stands behind a plexiglass shield. I’m fluent in Spanish, but I don’t have superhuman hearing. Instead of asking people to repeat themselves, or inflict another excruciating hand-cupped-to-ear Torquemada-style interrogation, I would sometimes just say yes, and then hope that I’d hadn’t just agreed to a five-year term of indentured servitude. This was sometimes true in restaurants too, even excellent ones such as Maido. (If you go, make a reservation for the tasting menu, which was probably the best meal of my life.)

Overall, Peru was quite strict about covid-19, which I’ve learned is true in general, even before the pandemic. At Machu Picchu, for example, there were spotters standing throughout the historic mountaintop site—despite it being as open air as a place can possibly be—who were ready to reprimand anybody who took off the mask for even a second.

Still, that famous wonder of the world, as astounding as it is, was overshadowed by a day tour of the Sacred Valley I’d done a few days prior. My overall favorite site in Peru was definitely La Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, outside of Arequipa. Check out the slideshow here (text in Spanish) and put it on your next trip itinerary. I have to say that bathing in natural hot springs at 5000 m elevation in a hailstorm next to a mini-volcano while watching llamas wander by was a high point of the year.


Mexico, my current stop, has been more relaxed. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. There is no PCR exam required for entry, and I’d estimate that only about 75% of the people on the street in Mexico City are wearing masks (compared with almost 100% everywhere else). Sometimes I’m not sure the older people understand that they’re in the midst of a pandemic. I’ve seen older folks gathering in large groups in plazas for salsa or ranchero dancing, mostly without masks. So keep that in mind next time you want to curse out Americans . We haven’t cornered the market on intransigent jackassery, but we’re definitely the loudest.


I’m planning to get the J & J vaccine in another couple of weeks upon my return to Miami, and so will end a very unusual chapter of not only world history but also personal history.

Was traveling during a pandemic dangerous?

No more than staying at home in the US. After all, you can socially distance anywhere, in any country. In fact, I’d argue that a warm climate, good ventilation, outdoor activities, personal fitness, social distancing, and of course the almighty N95 mask are all you need to avoid any serious viral illness. Where you do these things matters very little. The only exceptions are those who are immunocompromised, elderly, or afflicted with metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc), in which case it’s best to keep oneself in the most developed country possible in case of hospitalization. For those of us in great health, I have yet to see any dangers in traveling during this pandemic.

Did people think I was crazy?

Yes—fear is much stronger than hope. Friends and even my own family told me to stay in the US during the pandemic. This would’ve meant an entire Great Lakes winter sealed alone behind closed doors, which seemed like a silly thing to do when I saw a second, even bigger wave of infections coming.

Plus, when the world says zig, I like to zag. I see this flexibility as a positive attribute during times of crisis—it’s the old principle of throwing yourself into the punch instead of waiting to be greeted by it. I cast aside fear and made judicious decisions regarding risk, starting with the miniscule IFR (infection fatality rate) for people my age (1 in 400, which includes the obese). And there was my own suspicion that I had already had a mild five-day case of covid-19 in January 2020, long before it became A Thing.

As a result, I safely explored four new countries, visited bucket-list sites for half price (Machu Picchu), gained tons of new Gemstone Travel Mystery ideas (just wait!), made a lot of money working online, met a ton of new people, and even fell in love.

Would I do it again?

Yes, absolutely. Choosing to travel internationally during a global pandemic was one of the best choices of my life. “Crisis” is the Greek word for something like “turning point” or “decision” — something all good storytellers should know — and I’ve benefitted personally, financially, literarily, and emotionally from this one.

It’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The Mongolian Moonstone (An Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery): ON SALE NOW

The Mongolian Moonstone (An Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery) is now on sale at Amazon.

Read on:

“Well-paced and skillfully told, with an outstanding sense of place, an enjoyable main character, and entertaining supporting cast…. [Ainsley Walker] swept me off my feet.” — Venus de Hilo, 5-star review

“A delightful [series] – it will enchant you with exotic places and interesting characters.” — Linda Osborn, 5-star review

The vast steppes of central Asia.

The son of a wealthy Mongolian businessman.

And one missing gemstone…

The inhabitants of a remote Mongolian village have suffered the theft of their prized moonstone—and their land sits atop some of the most valuable mineral deposits in the world.

Enter…

AINSLEY WALKER

Fresh off her onyx adventure, she embarks upon an epic journey across the open grasslands of Mongolia.

Running from the ruins of Buddhist monasteries to abandoned Russian military bases…

…from the mountains of the north to the vast mining pits of the Gobi Desert in the south…

…Ainsley can’t stop, she can’t turn back, not until she’s recovered the village’s precious treasure—even if it means pushing herself further than she’d ever thought possible.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post–

–comes a travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.

Ninth in the series.
Approximately 63,000 words.

“The story locales are vivid and exciting… I felt like I had just watched a great Travel Channel episode…” — Mel Collins

Click here to purchase The Mongolian Moonstone!

(link: Amazon US)

The End of Ghostwriting, For Me

Confession: I’ve spent the last four years working as a ghostwriter.

It started sometime in 2015, when I moved to a new city and applied for a job at a ghostwriting firm. This particular company wanted to see both fiction and nonfiction samples, as they were busy in both departments. I put the samples together and sent the package over.

Typrewriter

My vintage 1949 Smith & Corona.

They liked my samples and decided to take a flier on me. I was thrilled. The first project they sent me was a lecture about plotting and movies. It was a small assignment, but I worked fast. Evidently it impressed them, because they quickly upped my rate, instituted an incentive program, and then sent me a completed manuscript to edit/rewrite. It was a memoir, written by an international student from Africa, about dealing with her descent into mental illness while living at a boarding school in the U.S.*

[*All project descriptions have been slightly changed to protect the clients’ identities.]

I worked hard on that one. Soon I had earned the firm’s trust, and the projects began arriving fast and furious upon my doorstep. During the next four years, I wrote or edited 40 to 50 different projects.

They were all different.

I wrote international espionage thrillers. I wrote a wacky novel about a boy discovering a not-so-imaginary world of wild spirits living inside an old factory. I wrote a trilogy of time-travel sci-fi novels. I wrote a tear-stained family drama that ended in a triple suicide. A lesbian BDSM murder mystery set in Eastern Europe. A salty humor book about toxic bosses.

I never would’ve thought to write about any of these topics if I hadn’t been assigned the projects. That’s what made them so much fun.

The clients varied. There were a few doctors, an unemployed political consultant, some egocentric business types, even a flight attendant. None of the clients were famous, but many were respected in their professions. Some needed a book for their careers but didn’t have time to write one. Some lacked confidence and needed help finishing their stories. For some, English was their second language.

Anyways, during this time, my hands were a blur on the keyboard. In 2017 alone, I wrote over half a million words, which tripled my previous yearly record.

That may sound like a lot, but that’s small beans compared to pulp writers of the early 20th century. Those writers, whom you’ve never heard of, typically wrote a million words a year for the slick genre magazines, some as fast as a novel per week. (A novel was defined as about 25,000 words back then; today, it’s about 60,000 to 70,000 words.)

Not me. When I’m writing, I usually max out at 2000 words a day. That means my absolute yearly maximum, with no weekends or vacations, would be about 730,000 words. That would amount to 12 normal-length novels, if I could swing it.

The point: I have done a lot of writing recently. But you, the public, unfortunately won’t see those books under this name—at least not for 35 years, when intellectual property law allows me to claim them for my own. By that time, those new book sales will keep me well stocked in cardigans, Metamucil, and split tennis balls for the bottom of my walker.

Anyways, it’s all over now. The ghostwriting firm closed several months ago, without warning.

 

Work-For-Hire Is Nothing New

People find ghostwriting fascinating. I get asked a lot of questions from strangers about it.

Here’s what I know about the field.

First, there’s no reason to think that ghosting is a new phenomenon. Pen names can be seen as a form of ghosting, and many famous writers in history, such as Soren Kierkegaard, used multiple ones. Some pen names are so well known that we don’t even realize they’re pseudonyms, such as Stan Lee, Anne Rice, Barbara Vine, and Lee Child. Even Benjamin Franklin wrote under the pen name Alice Addertongue!

What we call ghostwriting today has been a big part of publishing for at least a century. Early in the twentieth century, a man named Edward Stratemeyer sold nearly half a billion books. (That’s billion, with a b.) He controlled the youth publishing market for decades, and was almost a hundred percent dependent upon ghosts. For example, he conceived of “Franklin W. Dixon”, who wrote all the Hardy Boys novels, and “Carolyn Keene”, who wrote all the Nancy Drew novels. Those two writers never existed. Stratemeyer used those names as a screen for a rotating group of contributing ghostwriters. Today, famous ghosts such as Andrew Crofts have sold millions and millions of books—and the only people who know exactly which ones are high-level editors.

Some readers are appalled that books are not written by the author on the back cover. That’s a bit naïve. Do those people also get upset that Aunt Jemima never existed? Or that the Geico lizard isn’t real?

It’s better to think of an author name as a brand, not a person.

Ghosts have very practical uses. Sometimes, if bestselling novelists freak out or get sick, their traditional publishers may decide it’s easier to call for backup in order to make an autumn release date. I’ve heard rumors that, back in 1998, J.K. Rowling very nearly got replaced on her own sequel to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because she was so late with the manuscript.

Some of these practices seem to be dying out in the twenty-first century. People like James Patterson and the late Clive Cussler are openly crediting their ghosts now, as are many celebrity memoirs. But ghostwriting is like a weed. It always grows back, in different forms.

 

The Benefits of Being A Hired Gun

Ghostwriting was rewarding. It tickled my brain and heart in ways that writing on my own hasn’t, just because of the sheer variety of assignments.

For example, on my own I never would’ve written a highly self-conscious Jane Eyre set in the rural American West, overlaid with supernatural elements—never—but man, write that sucker I did. It’s funny what a fat wire transfer deposited directly into your checking account can do to stimulate creativity. I’m not joking. Money really is a powerful motivator for art.

Also, in ghosting an assignment, there’s a lot less open space. The client has usually set limits. So instead of wandering aimlessly across a featureless field of pure artistic inspiration, you’re navigating through a tight rocky canyon. The walls are high, and you can’t climb out. You’ve got to pick your way along the bottom of the canyon, all the way to the end—and they need you to find it by Friday EOD.

A black notebook , a pen and dollar cash banknotes on wooden background - concept of financial management or planning, make money from freelance writingAlso, ghostwriting can be lucrative, especially if you can wrangle a percentage of the profits of a breakout book. (The businessman Donald Trump, for example, stupidly paid his ghost, Tony Schwartz, 50% of the profits of The Art of the Deal — without a single negotiation.) That type of windfall never happened to me, though the firm paid pretty well. I was thrilled to be making a lot of money doing something really fun and challenging.

Overall, the experience taught me that being an artist-for-hire is a little easier than being an artist-for-oneself. I don’t think I’m going to provoke much pearl-clutching by saying that either. In fact, the god of highfalutin modernist poetry, T.S. Eliot, used to talk about how much he liked strict poetic form because it removed choice, forcing him to be creative within tighter constraints. The fewer decisions, the easier. It’s why many people, such as Steve Jobs, prefer to wear the same clothing every day.

But in the back of my head simmered the advice of a writing guru named Dean Wesley Smith. A few years ago, he taught me a lot about how to build a modern writing career. He’s also done a ton of ghostwriting projects in his life. Dean cautioned me not to do too much of that type of work, because it can blunt a person’s own original artistic impulse. He himself complained that he never found a really strong original voice on the page because he was too busy being paid to sound like other people.

He was right. It was fun while it lasted — but now it’s back to my voice.

 

Ainsley Rising

While ghostwriting, I put the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mysteries partly on hold.

No longer. Here’s what’s coming up:

The Mongolian Moonstone was completed a few months ago. Its release has been interrupted by a short-notice two-week trip to the Middle East, by the arrival of covid-19, and by a monthlong move to a new address. The book is releasing soon, and if you liked previous titles, you’re going to love this one.

The next title, The Easter Island Coral, is halfway finished and was inspired by a three-day trip I made to that remote pebble of an island at the end of 2017. I outlined the entire story on a legal pad during the flight back to Santiago. In three words: obsession, madness, and moais. You’re going to love this one too.

The following title, The Chile Copper, will see Ainsley seeking a copper sextant, a collection of which I discovered at the Museo Maritimo Nacional in Valparaíso. It felt appropriate to use a nautical instrument as the McGuffin here, since that string bean of a nation has over four thousand kilometers of coastline. Anyways, in this one you’ll see Ainsley chasing a suspect across a ventisquero (glacier), joining a group of distance cyclers across Patagonia, and cracking more than a few jokes about the linguistic mess that calls itself Chilean Spanish. If you liked The Argentina Rhodochrosite, you might love this one most of all—it feels like it wants to be pretty long and intricately plotted.

Other confirmed future story locations include Bolivia, Colombia, Panamá, México (specifically the Yucatán), Iceland, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai.

Generally, I’m choosing wild, farflung places. The more unfamiliar, the better. Nobody needs another story about another traveler discovering baguettes in Paris or cappuccinos in Rome. That has been beaten like a gong.

Me, I’ve done a lot of travelling the last few years, but I don’t actually visit all the places I write about. I didn’t go to North Korea, thank God—but don’t hold it against me. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the bestselling slavery novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, without having set foot in the American South. Stephen Crane wrote the definitive novel of the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage, even though he hadn’t even been born until six years after the war ended.

On the other hand, I also travel to many foreign locations without writing about them. A week in the Netherlands last winter left me kind of flat. Good beer, meh food, gray skies, but nothing really seemed interesting enough to write about. (Sorry, Nederlanders!) Same with Siberia, which totally defeated my powers of imagination. Even after doing a lot of research, I just couldn’t find a compelling story about that God-forsaken empty taiga.

One thing is for sure—while ghostwriting was challenging and fun, I’m going to heed the advice above and steer myself back towards my original voice.

Thanks for staying with me.

Meanwhile, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The Mechanics of Strong Modern Sentences

Sentences are the writer’s stock-in-trade. Manipulating them should be as essential to us as manipulating algebraic equations is to a mathematician, or matching color swatches is to an interior designer.

Here are a few bits of knowledge that I’ve gleaned, or accidentally discovered, about how to write better sentences for fiction in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

By the way, I usually write anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 words per year, and this is what seems to work.

 

A phrase is better than a clause

Whenever possible, avoid using extra clauses. Try to replace them with participle, gerund, prepositional, or appositive phrases.

There’s no law stating that you can’t open a sentence with a dependent clause, but it’s becoming more modern not to do so.

Here’s an example:

When she was a child, Ariella discovered her superhuman powers.

As a child, Ariella discovered her superhuman powers.

Which one is better? Arguably the second. The first sentence begins with a dependent clause. Again, this is not wrong, but it is less efficient. To make matters worse, however, this particular dependent clause uses a ‘be’ verb, which is inexcusable. Stick with action verbs.

The primary reason to limit dependent clauses is that a subject-verb combination is very powerful and should be reserved for true action. In modern fiction, we generally restrict clauses to one, maybe two, in each sentence, so that the action is clear, direct, and simple. Any more than that, and you run the risk of writing like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Check out this sentence from The Scarlet Letter:

“It (Hester’s face) was like a mask; or, rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman’s features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.”

Ugh. Four verbs in that sentence. Plus two confused similes. Hawthorne is notorious for his ADD regarding similes. Just read that sentence again, and you can see him changing his mind about which comparison he wanted to use. Red rover, red rover, send an editor on over.

Still, his storytelling was tight. I’ve always said that The Scarlet Letter would be a massive hit today if someone would just rewrite it in a modern American style.

 

Metaphorical language has to fit the theme

Let’s say you’re writing a horror story about a herd of vampire kittens who descend upon and terrorize a small town.

(You like that idea? It’s all yours. My gift to you. Run with it.)

Here are two variations on the same sentence:

Its fangs bared, the vicious little feline leapt on the old woman’s horrified face like a spurt of blood out of a vein.

Its fangs bared, the vicious little feline leapt on the old woman’s horrified face like an Olympic track-and-field gold medalist.

Which one reads better? The first one, obviously. But why? Because spurt of blood is more closely aligned with horror than Olympic track-and-field gold medalist is.

There you go—I just saved you the cost of an MFA. You’re welcome. Seriously, that’s a huge part of writing traditional storytelling fiction. Choosing every word carefully, particularly in metaphorical language. It’s important in creating an overall effect.

In some of my books, I’ve gone so far as to write down a single “deep image” that I want every book to reflect. They’re one-word themes, such as competition or meat. Then, when I drop bits of metaphorical color into the book, I make sure that each figure of speech is oriented to that deep image. It’s a technique borrowed from poetry.

I’m not going to lie, though: doing so does slow down the words-per-hour rate. Thinking of a thematically-aligned metaphor can be hard. Sometimes I just skip it altogether.

 

Put the subject and verb next to one another

Which sentence is better?

Karina, who found herself paralyzed with fear beneath the furry blood-soaked predator, the way her dead mother had undoubtedly felt a few minutes earlier, screamed.  

Paralyzed with fear beneath the furry blood-soaked predator, the way her dead mother had undoubtedly felt a few minutes earlier, Karina screamed.

The second one is better. Why? The subject and verb, Karina and screamed, are next to one another, with zero words separating them.

In the first sentence, however, Karina and screamed are literally at opposite ends of the sentence, with 20 words separating them.

The second sentence is waaay more modern.

The first sentence is a nineteenth-century structure known as a periodic sentence, which is defined as any sentence that saves its independent clause until the end. In other words, the verb arrives dead last in the sentence. This was Hawthorne’s favorite tool, the go-to structure for Henry James, and the preferred syntax for a lot of other Victorian-era writers whom nobody reads anymore… mostly because there’s too much freaking space between the subjects and the verbs.

Compare sentences with music. Minimalist songs tend to last longer because they don’t have a lot of instrumental parts to sound dated. Take the song Rock On, by David Essex, or even Ben E. King’s Stand By Me. Both sound modern as a result, especially “Rock On”, even though it’s almost half a century old.

Sentences are like that too. Subjects and verbs are like the rhythm section.

Fun fact: In German, this old syntactic model is still common. Germans typically hold their verbs back until the very last moment. This denies people the meaning of the sentence until the very end, forcing them to read or listen closely to the entire phrasing. It’s possible that this explains why Germans are famously meticulous—because their language demands it.

Maybe you prefer to read this longer, ornate style. Maybe you like to lose yourself in a long labyrinth of clauses. That’s fine. You can find boatloads of old books in any library or at digital repositories of history such as Hathitrust. Just be sure to leave a trail of bread crumbs behind you, and let your loved ones know how long you’ll be gone. It can get dangerous in that dark forest of clauses.

Me, I live in 2019, and I like to sell books. So I’ll continue working in the modern style.

 

Use Interior Monologue and Information

This is not specifically about sentence structure, but I can’t resist mentioning this.

Why those two things? Because they’re the only two things that books do better than filmed entertainment.

Written words help us get inside characters’ heads much more easily than any other medium. For interior monologue, filmed content has to rely on voiceover, or direct address to the camera. Those are inferior methods of accomplishing what books do quite efficiently.

Here’s an example:

Samuel stared at the trembling, furry little animal in his hands. It had killed his grandmother, that much he knew. The smart thing would be to swing it around by its tail like a sock full of rocks and then dash its evil brains against the wall. But it was hard to reconcile this little tabby face with the same blood-drinking creature that had sucked the life out of his dear Mawmaw. In the end, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not since that afternoon at the farm. To this day, he still woke up in night sweats, dreaming of the bag of kittens he’d drowned in the pond under the stern tutelage of his grandfather. It didn’t matter how many humans it had killed—he couldn’t kill this animal. He’d never be able to sleep again.

Onscreen, you could accomplish this, in a limited way, with flashbacks. But during my time in Hollywood, every development exec I knew rolled eyeballs at flashback scenes in a script, and most writers avoided them as a result. Maybe you could have the character speaking his or her true thoughts under his breath. That works, briefly—like in Die Hard, when John McClane mutters ruefully to himself as he crawls through the ventilation shaft: Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs. Or a really gifted actor can even express some of that in his or her face.

But none of it works as well as a paragraph in a book.

The other thing that words do better than video is relay information. That’s why, in the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series (link: Amazon US), I occasionally will toss in paragraphs of historical or geographical or cultural background about the place where Ainsley finds herself. For people reading on tablets, I also provide links to stable, respected websites that provide even more background and context. Judging from the reviews, some readers really appreciate those links. Those who consider them a distraction can easily skip over them, so I see no downside to the practice.

Overall, written words convey information a thousand times better than filmed content. Using this advantage will make the best experience possible for the reader, hopefully compelling the person to put aside the newest episode of her favorite sitcom in favor of one more chapter. This is important, given that all of us can now read books and watch video on the same damn device. It’s a battle for attention.

 

Read Stephen King

I’m only half joking. He’s a terrific prose writer, and I marvel at the way his sentences manage to be propulsive and modern and stylish all at the same time. No doubt, we’ll still be reading him in a hundred years. If you want more specific language tips from King, check out On Writing, which is a bit of a Bible for a lot of us novelist types.

In the meantime, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The Artist Doesn’t Matter

There is the art … and there is the artist. Is it possible to separate the two?

Let’s look at three case studies.

Case #1: The Superstar

Once upon a time, I was friends with the vice-president of a major electric guitar company, one whose name you’d recognize if you enjoy heavy metal. Let’s call him Joe. Whenever I was at Joe’s house, our conversation invariably turned to Prince. Joe loved talking about Prince. Everybody in the music industry, he said, had weird Prince stories.

I was all ears. After all, I’ve been a huge Prince fan for much of my adult life. In concert, he was the best performer I’ve ever seen—an eccentric, bizarre, charismatic, five-foot-two genius.

Well, let’s hear one, I said.

46484184241_e297cff95c_z

Photo credit: MobyRichard via Flickr

Joe began to tell me a story that had been related to him by his friend, let’s call him Dave, who was working as Prince’s guitar tech at the time. I gulped, because this was firsthand music industry stuff.

According to Joe, Dave received a salary of nearly $400,000 per year from the Purple One for his service as principal guitar tech. In return, he had given up all pretense of a life. That was understandable. Working for a boss at that level of talent and fame, and given his immense salary, Dave must’ve known full and hell well what the job would entail when he accepted it.

Total submission to His Royal Purple Ego.

Here’s where the story starts: One day, Dave asked Prince if he could have a few days off to visit his family in Pennsylvania during Thanksgiving. Prince gave him permission.

However, the moment he stepped off the plane in Pennsylvania for the weekend, his cell phone rang.

It was Prince. “I can’t find that setting on the new amp,” the superstar said.

“The vintage tube amp that just arrived?”

“No, the solid-state.”

“Which setting?”

“The fuzzy one we talked about.”

“It’s on the back, in the upper left corner, just to the right of the yellow cable.”

He waited while Prince looked for it. The star came back to the phone and said in his low, velvety voice: “I need to you do it, Dave.”

Dave didn’t miss a beat. “No problem. Give me a few hours to get back to LA.”

And that’s what Dave did. Still at the airport, he turned around, marched to the ticket desk, bought another round-trip ticket from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, and boarded the next flight back to California. Once he’d returned, he drove to 3121, Prince’s rented house up in the Hollywood Hills, walked inside, found the amp, and flipped on the setting.

Prince was nowhere to be found.

Then he drove back to LAX, boarded another cross-country flight, and returned to Pennsylvania.

All of that, just to press a button for Prince.

Callous? Yeah. Exploitative? Of course. Selfish, arrogant, insensitive? Check, check, and check.

That was Prince. And yet I still love his music.

Can you separate the art from the artist?

 

Case #2: The Nebbish

I loved Annie Hall the first time I saw it. I remember that Bullets Over Broadway was an inspired and silly movie. I watched Vicki Cristina Barcelona twice in the theater. And Midnight in Paris was an irresistible little confection for any writer who loves the Golden Era of the 1920s.

The one thing that those movies all have in common? They were all written and directed by Woody Allen.

3478578444_2805638139_m

Credit: David Shankbone via Flickr

I bring this up because he’s been rumored to have molested his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, an accusation corroborated by his son Ronan Farrow. These allegations haven’t gone away either—these are the types of credible charges, from his own children, that make you think twice. Adding fuel to the rumors about his pedophilic ways is the fact that Allen seduced and married another one of his adopted stepdaughters, Soon-Yi Previn.

I’m inclined to believe that he’s a pervert who should be in prison. At the same time, we all know that he’s an artistic powerhouse.

Can you separate the art from the artist?

 

Case #3: The Fop

At the end of the nineteenth century, England’s most famous playwright and essayist, Oscar Wilde, was convicted of and jailed for “gross indecency with men”.

oscar_wilde,_1882

Oscar Wilde

He was gay. That was his only crime. He had an affair with a young man in his twenties, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.

Can you separate the art from the artist? In 2019, this one is a no-brainer. Of course we can.

But the goalposts are always shifting. Once you commit to judging the art by the artist, you’re committing to a lot of uncomfortable potential contradictions.

 

We Can’t Know Who They Are Anyways

Boycotting good art produced by bad people instantly makes hypocrites of all of us. This is for two reasons.

The first reason is that social norms and customs change by culture and by era. The condemnation of Wilde’s art in 1895 looks silly a century later.

The second reason is even stronger. We cannot know the people behind all the art that we consume.

Be honest: Do you research the lives of the creators of all the art that you consume? Do you read the biography of pop auteur Zedd before you consent to listen to his newest song? Did you analyze the personal life of the Harlequin author who was responsible for your favorite romance series? Do you demand a full background check on the writing staff of a Netflix series before you watch it?

Most of us don’t even know the names of those creators, much less their backgrounds. And even if you think you do, you don’t—because a lot of creative industries employ ghostwriters and ghost producers. I speak from experience, having worked on many, many different ghostwriting projects in the last few years.

Also, the people at the top of our media companies are often horrific human beings. Have you seen the movie The Jazz Singer? My Fair Lady? To Have and Have Not? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Any Jimmy Cagney movie? Looney Tunes cartoons? All were made under the reign of Jack Warner at his studio, Warner Bros—and Jack was a famously toxic piece of shit who enjoyed humiliating and hurting people. He deserted his first wife, fired his own son without cause, and was estranged from his own brother until death. Most of those titans of the old Hollywood studio system were like that. As director Gottfried Reinhardy put it, “Harry Cohn was a sonofabitch but he did it for business; he was not a sadist. Louis B. Mayer could be a monster, but he was not mean for the sake of meanness. Jack was.”

Will you now boycott all entertainment produced during Hollywood’s golden era? Is your moral backbone that strong? Probably not.

More recently, a man named Scott Rudin has produced just about every intelligent film adaptation of the last twenty-five years—The Social Network, The Truman Show, No Country For Old Men, Julie & Julia, Revolutionary Road, There Will Be Blood, Notes On A Scandal, etc. He’s accomplished this all despite being an abusive prick. By some accounts, he churns through nearly 50 assistants per year. He routinely throws objects at people’s heads. His assistants literally used to measure the length of his phone cord so that they would know how far to stand back in case they tripped his wire. Another former assistant has framed the pieces of five different early-2000s flip phones that Rudin snapped in his frequent fits of rage.

Did you know any of that? Probably not. Will you continue to see Rudin’s future work? Most likely. He makes damn good art.

This begs the question: Why do we sometimes care about the artist—and sometimes not?

The short answer is this: Media attention. The news media decide, for whatever reason, to zero in on the bad behavior of one individual artist. Then there’s a stampede to condemn. Everybody’s hide gets ruffled, books get burned, movies get deleted, bad reviews get written.

You may approve of this tsk-tsking, but to me this is herd behavior. It serves as a tool for some people to make themselves feel morally superior to others. In some cases, condemning the Bad Guy is nothing more than a status marker. It separates the ones at the center of the herd from the ones at the margins.

Granted, a bad person should be punished by the legal system. But you won’t hear me crowing about it–the same way you won’t hear me crowing about non-artists getting their comeuppance.

My simple response, if I hear about the immoral acts of some artist, is to make sure they don’t get my money ever again. I may still enjoy their art in other ways, but I won’t let them know it.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Me

Other than travel, my life is not particularly interesting. That’s why I choose not to write about it, other than posting occasional photos on social media about my international journeys.

This isn’t a smoke screen either. There’s no skeletons in this closet, no secrets at all. I’m from a healthy ordinary middle-class family and am just not built for wild or bad behavior. In fact, my future memoir would be the most boring book in the world. Eleven pm Friday night, and I got back to my dorm room and changed into my shorts and picked up my guitar. Boy, it’d been a hard week of reading. My God, I’d have to write it as stream-of-consciousness poetry just to get anybody interested enough to finish the first chapter.

Oh, believe me, I’ve fantasized about acting differently. I’ve imagined someday descending into a lost weekend worthy of William S. Burroughs. Picture it: The seedy motel. The needle plunging the heroin in the space between my toes. The empty cartons of Chinese food strewn about the room. The cigarette butts in the carpet. The strung-out hooker with smeared mascara and an off-the-shoulder t-shirt passed out across the filthy mattress.

Has any of this ever happened? Hell no. The most self-destructive thing I’ve ever done is steal Oreos from a hotel minibar.

From what I’ve seen, most other writers are pretty much the same. We lead really ordinary lives. There are a few exceptions, like Hunter S. Thompson, who forget that it’s their writing, not their personal lives, that are supposed to be fascinating. In his career, Thompson lost sight of this distinction and got swallowed up by his own media-enhanced rock-star self. His writing until 1971 was terrific—Hell’s Angels was great, and of course Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an American classic. But his writing after 1971 was a snooze. He used all his energy building his persona, giving outrageous speeches, gobbling mountains of drugs, running quixotic campaigns for local sheriff, being generally outrageous. There was nothing left in the tank for the words.

Another issue is that those writers who exclusively use the confessional mode don’t have much to say after a while. They eventually run out of material. It’s not exactly news that Mary Karr, for instance, is a brilliant memoirist—but she’s written three memoirs now. One, two, three. I have to believe that she’s spinning her wheels in the confessional mode. Her poetry is marvelous, but in terms of prose, what else ya got for us, Mary? I say that as a fan.

To me, it’s best if we writers look outside ourselves, because the best stories can’t all happen to us individually. The best stories happen to millions of people all over the world, every hour of every day. Which is why I say…

It’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The Camino Crystal — FREE — Nov 17 to Nov 20!

Four short days to get it for free — and only on Amazon!

This is the book’s final sale. Starting next week, The Camino Crystal goes full-price to Kobo, Apple iTunes, B & N, and all other retailers across the world where ebooks are sold.

Link: http://amzn.to/2bSDwhY (Amazon US)

Description:

CaminoCrystal.v1-1

For fans of Isabel Allende and Paolo Coehlo…

Her northern Spanish vacation drawing to a close, Ainsley Walker still hasn’t found the right souvenir to take home.

THEN

A priest tells her the story of a priceless crystal tiara hidden by a medieval Spanish princess—and he knows where it’s been hidden.

The Camino de Santiago.

The world’s most famous pilgrimage route, it stretches across all of northern Spain. For hundreds of years, millions have trodden this trail in search of wild adventure, better health, and spiritual enlightenment.

On her grueling journey, Ainsley endures harsh climates, the competition from other pilgrims, a string of bad luck—and, most importantly, her own resistance to personal growth.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

…comes THE CAMINO CRYSTAL, an exciting travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.

Length: 27,000 words ***A NOVELLA***
Seventh in the series.

The Spain Tourmaline: $.99 Sale (Nov. 10 to Nov. 16)

Spain.Tourmaline.finalThe Spain Tourmaline is on sale for the next week (November 10 to November 16)! It’s only $0.99 — that’s 80% off regular price. Available wherever ebooks are sold:

Amazon US: http://amzn.to/2BZDp2D

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2DbEQKB

Amazon AU: https://amzn.to/2JVI0n1

Amazon CA: https://amzn.to/2DdMyUr

Apple iTunes: https://apple.co/2FcAG80

Kobo US: http://bit.ly/2OBljVK

Also available at Scribd, Tolino, 24Symbols, Google Play, and other retailers.

Description

Dissatisfied with the tourist beaches of Costa del Sol, gemstone detective Ainsley Walker dreams of discovering the real Spain…

THEN

Her life changes when she accepts an offer to help an aging bullfighter find his jewel-encrusted sword for his grand comeback—an assignment that plunges her deep into the wild, beating heart of traditional Spanish culture.

Andalucía.

In the blink of an eye, Ainsley finds herself on a fast-paced adventure that carries her from bullfights to bull ranches, from tapas bars to tearooms, from Catholic processionals to Moorish patios.

Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, agony—

—and the ancient bonds of life and death.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

… who was a finalist in a prestigious short story contest sponsored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald…

…comes a travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.

Length: 71,000 words
Sixth in the series.

If you haven’t read The Spain Tourmaline, grab a copy today!

Tom Wolfe: An Appreciation

Millions of people were inspired by the writings of Tom Wolfe, and I was one of them. When he died last spring at the age of 88, I lost my one and only role model.

b084084bae8a99df826f6111738d3c7c

Tom Wolfe: 1930-2018

A little background: My college career wasn’t the four-year-long bacchanal that popular culture has painted college to be. Instead, it was four-and-a-half very difficult years of studying Cicero, medieval and Renaissance texts, neoclassical books of commonplaces, and other bits of fluff.

However, my profs routinely complained that my writing was too entertaining, too polemical, and sometimes too original. They were right. I couldn’t speak or write that weird hypersensitive academic dialect, which is why I usually saw comments such as very insightful but style is inappropriate scribbled on the margins of my papers. As a result, I knew that there was no way on God’s blue marble that I’d ever work in a university.

Then I discovered Tom Wolfe. He was already almost seventy years old, but in his writing I thought I glimpsed a reflection of myself fifty years in the future.

So Tom Wolfe became my guiding light. An arrow pointing the way. My one and only role model.

“The problem with fiction is that it has to be plausible. That’s not true with nonfiction.” – Tom Wolfe

I gobbled up everything I could find about him. In his twenties, Wolfe too had been a stylish and talented and nonacademic writer while pursuing his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale. He too had gotten the same tsk-tsking comments from his professors. He too bristled at the restrictions, leaving academia as soon as he could.

This was candy to my eyes. I saw that what Wolfe had done, I could do too, in my own way, somehow, sometime in the future.

Like him, I went into journalism. I chose the field partly because it’s what writers often do, and partly because that was how Wolfe had started his career. In fact, he’d spent a few years at The Washington Post, working on the Metro and Foreign desks. I too got a job at the Post, coincidentally also working on the same Metro and Foreign desks.

However, Wolfe left the paper in his early thirties and moved to New York, where his writing career immediately exploded (along with his propensity for outlandish suits). Mine did not. Here’s why.

  1. At twenty-two years old, I was way too young to succeed as a writer. To write good nonfiction or realistic fiction, you flat-out need to be older. That’s not true for other genres. Fantasy writers, for example, do often succeed when quite young.
  2. My skills still needed work. I’d placed in a short story contest sponsored by Scott Fitzgerald’s estate, but that was a matter of beginners’ luck. I really didn’t get the hang of fiction until age thirty. (And my skills will always need work.)
  3. Three, the media market had totally changed in the forty years since Wolfe had burst out in a fireball of success.

That third point is so very crucial. In the nineteen sixties, there were about ten radio stations and three television channels in every major media market. That was it, nothing else. On the print side, the newspaper business was thriving—there were thousands across the nation, and they were mostly solvent, supported by classified ads and retail advertising. The magazine industry was more or less the same. The book industry relied totally on the “produce” model in which a book was seen as basically a head of lettuce, existing for only a few weeks before going bad and being remaindered.

Whoo boy, have things changed.

On the good side, the average American citizen is now inundated by buckets of news and entertainment every waking second.

On the bad side, the average American citizen is now inundated by buckets of news and entertainment every waking second.

Wolfe enjoyed a couple more advantages as well. One was that he was born in 1930, and thereby escaped service in World War II. Think of this—if he’d been born even seven years earlier, he would’ve been drafted into the service, and the experience would have turned him into a Greatest War author like so many others, and he would’ve written about slogging through calf-deep mud with bullets whizzing past his ears and nights spent gnawing on hard cheese rinds and sleeping on the dirty floors of churches in miserable French villages.

Nope—not in his books! Instead, Wolfe hit his mid-thirties, a time when so many writers finally begin doing good work, in the mid-nineteen sixties—the exact moment when our national social fabric started to unravel. And so that time period became his material, with its many peculiarities.

His other advantage was the fact that he made his name in the Sunday newspaper supplements, thin magazines that were disposable and whose editors gave Wolfe room to experiment. They existed for only a few decades and are almost totally extinct today.

HE WASN’T PERFECT

Before going further, I do have small criticisms of Wolfe.

0315_90s_twolfebook_cck_oneuseonly

One, his output was slow, at least to my eyes. He only published a large book every few years or so. For instance, A Man in Full took him eleven years and clocked in at 370,000 words. Do the division, and you see that he only wrote about 35,000 words per year during that time. For comparison’s sake, I usually write about 500,000 words per year on various novels, ghostwriting projects, editing projects, academic exams, emails, blog posts, and other errata. So in that sense, the pupil has exceeded the master.

Of course, it’s true that quantity does not equal quality—but it’s also true that lack of quantity doesn’t equal quality either. To my eyes, there is a basement level of word production below which we start to wonder—is this person still a writer? Or has he become that ickiest of terms, an author?

What’s the difference, you ask? It’s a question of verb tense: a writer writes, while an author has written.

Some of my favorite writers have gotten sucked into teaching jobs and become authors, never or only rarely returning to their careers. For example, I loved the book Paint It Black by Janet Fitch, but she took her sweet time—eleven full years, same as Wolfe did above—before publishing her next book, The Revolution of Marina M., in 2017. Assuming the new one is a normal length of 70,000 words, the math tells us that she was writing at the breakneck pace of 530 words per month, or 18 words per day. I haven’t read the new book yet, and part of me isn’t really inclined to do so.

Another strange thing about Wolfe is that he never wrote in a series, which is a bit of an anomaly for a bestselling fiction author. Going all the way back to James Fenimore Cooper, you can see that series have always been a popular vehicle for writers. Hell, more so-called “literary” names than Wolfe, such as the highbrow John Updike, wrote in a series. Even the Nobel Prize-winning Southern Gothic whiskey-swilling mad genius William Faulkner wrote in a kind of series, knitting all of his work together in the imaginary setting of Yoknapatawpha County. But Wolfe never did anything like that. That’s partly because he came out of nonfiction journalism, which doesn’t do series. It’s also because his work was so strongly based on different locations.

Different locations, you say?

WHAT I STOLE FROM HIM

Full confession: The Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series would one hundred percent never have existed without Tom Wolfe’s work.

He was my biggest inspiration as a writer, by far, nobody else was even close—and this series has been my attempt to carry his intelligent, funny, entertaining style into new places. I mean places quite literally. Wolfe is still living rent-free in my mind as I visit and research locations such as Uruguay and Argentina and Puerto Rico and Portugal and many, many more yet to come. In fact, he drilled the importance of research in every interview he ever gave. “Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the saying goes, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.'”

“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.” – Tom Wolfe

But I did consciously decide to do a few things differently. Here’s a quick list:

  • Ainsley Walker would be my recurring main character, an advantage Wolfe never had.
  • The series would feature the same external goal in every story—find the gemstone—another advantage he never had.
  • The sentences would be less complex and show-offy than Wolfe’s.
  • The chapters would be shorter than Wolfe’s.

So much else, however, I stole shamelessly from the man in the white suit.

  • Remember his colorful, larger-than-life characters, such as Reverend Bacon in Bonfire of the Vanities? I’ve been copying the vibrancy of that character, over and over, in different ways.
  • Remember how he used huge vocabulary words such as sternocleidomastoid muscle? I use them too, once in a while, particularly foreign words and phrases. He taught me to lift the reader up. It’s not insulting to occasionally use a big word, especially if you explain it with context.
  • Remember how the settings of his books played as large a role as the characters? New York, Atlanta, Duke University? I stole that convention too—but I didn’t limit myself to the U.S., the way Wolfe did. I’ve stupidly decided to write about every nation in the entire world.

All of this leads to a single question that has been circling my head for the last two decades: What would Tom Wolfe do if he were trying to make it as a writer right now?

From a business perspective, I guessed that he would’ve begun as a totally independent entity and written whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, held to nothing except his own high standards. This route would mean less money early in life (no advances from traditional publishers), but more money later in life, since books sell eternally now that the produce model has disappeared.

So, thinking of him, I chose that route. It seems to be working.

LOWER THE CURTAIN

Unfortunately, I cannot even name one other writer who inspired me as much as Wolfe did.

The only writer who might come close was Robert Penn Warren—but only for one book, his brilliant All the King’s Men. Michael Crichton’s scientific adventures featured great pacing and good research, but his work was lacking in character and dialogue. James Michener displayed huge ambition and obvious work ethic, but I always found his fiction to be honestly boring. (Warning: I’m a tough critic! Take my opinions with a grain of salt.) Still other classic fiction writers I’ve admired a lot, such as Flannery O’Connor or Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway, never inspired me to emulate them.

But Tom Wolfe was a complete writer. Reading his passages over and over (particularly those in Bonfire) taught me how to write fiction—not from a methodical standpoint, but just through sheer osmosis. At risk of sounding like a vegan yoga teacher, I caught his vibes, man. Then I made them my own.

“What I try to do is re-create a scene from a triple point of view: the subject’s point of view, my own, and that of the other people watching—often within a single paragraph.” –Tom Wolfe

If you’re looking for a good title to start with, well, my favorites are everybody’s favorites, the biggest hits—The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. People older than myself swear by The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, which was linguistically revolutionary but too druggy for me. In college, after I discovered the brilliant The Painted Word, I tracked down From Bauhaus to Our House in the stacks of my library by pulling up dusty old bound copies of Harper’s magazine from the late seventies, when the book first appeared serially in those pages. (I still don’t own a copy of that book, only the printed photocopies of the magazine.) In fact, I blame that book for kickstarting my small obsession with modern architecture. And while studying abroad at Oxford University, I remember finding The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby in a bookstore in London and reading it for hours until my back hurt. I only bought it after I’d finished.

As time went on, of course, I slowly grew apart from his work. You could say it was because Wolfe’s last few books, from 2004 onwards, were not quite as brilliant as before. You could say it was because I was changing. You could say many different things.

But that doesn’t take away the very, very important role he played at a very, very important juncture in my life.

This is the only author appreciation I’m going to write. You won’t see me memorializing any other writers, not like this. That’s partly because the ones I’ve liked the most have already died. But it’s also because none of the others mattered quite as much to my life and career as Tom Wolfe. And I’m doing my best to hopefully, possibly, maybe, someday, fingers crossed, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise—match the master. That’s the goal, anyways. And even if that doesn’t ever quite happen, his example will push me to places I wouldn’t ever get to otherwise.

He was my one and only role model. Requiescat in pace, Tom.

tom-wolfe-gty-01-jpo-180515_hpMain_31x13_992

The Two Anthony Bourdains: Six Years Later

We lost a big one today. Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018) was a hero of mine. I never wanted to be him — a former heroin addict and fairly unhappy chef — but I wanted to be like him, if that makes any sense. I think millions of people probably felt the same way.

He was a phenomenally good nonfiction writer, with the type of authorial voice that you can’t teach somebody. As a television host, he and his team wrestled Parts Unknown to the ground and made it the best program on all of television. I really mean that. It was one of the only television programs that successfully dismantled the myth of the Ugly American — and tried to teach Americans not to be scared of other people.

Bourdain4

You can read thousands of gorgeous remembrances of him all over the interwebz, but nonetheless let me share one more piece. My own.

In 2012, I wrote a blog post here, on this site, about Bourdain’s tortured soul. It was a short piece, and only the second time I’d ever posted anything here. Here it is again:

The Two Anthony Bourdains

He’s an astounding writer.  He used to be a good cook.  And he’s been making good television for almost a decade now.

But Anthony Bourdain has an inner struggle.  A cleavage in his soul.

One half of him, the part born and raised in New York City, the place where people’s emotional shields are as high, hard, and glossy as the glass curtain-walls of their skyscrapers, hasn’t changed.

That’s the wisecracking part.  You saw this exhibited best in the Sardinia episode, years ago, the skinny dude in the black Ramones t-shirt, crouched on a rock, unleashing his sarcasm-plated tongue on the local caper farmers — until they reamed him for using utensils.  The former junkie putting his own needs above others.

Dostoevsky called this a state of “laceration”.  It doesn’t translate so well into English, but I think he meant people who have been pierced, and are aching with pain.  In Bourdain’s case, of course, he “pierced” himself, over and over again, with a heroin needle.  And he’s still aching.

But the other half of his soul has been blooming.  You may remember the Brazilian episode, in Sao Paulo, in which — confronted with a really nice woman and her stew — he finally let down his guard, shed the New York tough-guy shell.  It can be seen in other episodes too, when his empathy quietly emerges, especially during segments with troubled people.  Those are my favorite moments.

As a fiction writer, I’ve been advised to plate my characters with armor, and then throw them into a pool.  It’s a fascinating metaphor.  The main character is forced to strip herself of her psychic armor—because if she doesn’t, she’ll drown, and the mission won’t get achieved.

Bourdain has been “stripping” in public for years—not of clothing, but of his own psychic armor.  And he’s still got years of television (and lots of psychic armor) to go.  It’ll be exciting to see if him continuing to change, and to explore the world, at CNN.

In the meantime, it’s a big world.  Go see it all.

Well, it’s still a big world. And you should still see it all. Without Bourdain, however, that task has just become a little bit harder.

RIP.

$0.99 Sale – The Puerto Rico Pearl

From March 15 to March 22, The Puerto Rico Pearl is on sale around the world for only $0.99!

PuertoRicoPearl.6x9.700px

Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Apple iTunes, Google Books, Nook (all links US) — no matter what your reading device or store, you can now pick up The Puerto Rico Pearl for under a dollar.

This is a global promotion. New readers in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, and elsewhere — have a look at the story, and if you like it, spread the word!

The Puerto Rico Pearl has never been discounted before, and remember … it will only last one week. Catch it while you can!

Here’s the story:

It’s hurricane season.

An airplane en route to the States has just been forced to land on the island of Puerto Rico—and onboard is AINSLEY WALKER.

Stranded in torrential rain, she is guided by another passenger towards a rickety plantation house in the island’s tropical interior, where she meets an elderly woman who has lost a precious family heirloom.

It’s a pearl brooch that had once belonged to an actual pirate of the Caribbean—and the old spinster needs Ainsley to find it … fast.

Soon she finds herself on another runaway adventure—one that propels her from wealthy art museums to abandoned sugar mills, from colonial-era cities to buried pirate chests on abandoned naval bases.

Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, danger, the limits of her endurance—and the fact that things are never quite as they seem.