Dr. George Tiller was murdered in church this morning by an anti-abortion fanatic. Dr. Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kansas, was one of three in the country where women could receive late-term abortions. He and his clinic have been targets of violence for years. This morning, he was murdered in front of his wife, who was singing in the church choir.
I cannot begin to say how sickened I am by this wanton, heinous act. As I find out any information about memorial funds or actions, I’ll post them.
Today I received bound galleys for Hardball, which is always an exciting time in the life of a book. It’s a strange time, too, because it represents a kind of final separation between you and the work you’ve lived with for a long time–it’s in print, it’s thrilling, but the book no longer belongs to you. It belongs now to readers, who not only bring their own experience and expectations to the novel, but understand it –complete it– in ways that differ from your own ideas while you were writing it.
My novels run about 135,000 words. That’s a lot of text and it takes a long time to write. I don’t make them that long on purpose, but as a story and characters develop, and they become more complex, it takes that long to work all the threads of the story out.
It also takes time to work out such dense story lines. I’ve been urged to write two or even three books a year, but I’d have to think in a different way than I do now, a staccato, ad-copy kind of way that focused only on brief bursts of action, with less time spent on thinking through my characters. Even if I could reprogram my brain to write like James Patterson’s stable of writers, I’m not sure stories like his would appeal to V I’s readers.
I often write three or more drafts before a novel comes into its correct shape. I wish it didn’t happen like that–I wish the first draft were the final draft–but that’s happened to me only once in the course of the eighteen books I’ve published–and that was with the fourth novel in the V I series, Bitter Medicine. More than once, I’ve discarded over two hundred pages, and found I could use only two or three paragraphs of the work I tossed.
Thank you all for staying with me on my writing journey.
Filed under: reading
Wayland Davenport had died the same year as my client’s mother. Poor Hunter, Senior, losing his wife and his father at the same time. His mother Mildred was still alive, though, living in a shabby apartment complex in Lincolnwood. When I rang the bell we began one of those tedious conversations through the intercom, where she couldn’t make out what I was saying and I kept shouting into the door mike.
“I’m too old to work,” she screeched.
“Your son’s work,” I hollered. “His photographs. We’re interested in a display — an exhibit. Africa in the 1970’s through American eyes.”
“You’d better go away,” she finally said. “I’m not buying anything.”
I ground my teeth. A woman carrying two large bags of groceries came up the walk, followed by three young children. The biggest had his own small shopping bag but the younger two had their hands free to punch each other. The woman kept muttering an ineffectual “Michael, Tania, stop it.” When she tried to balance a bag on her hip while she fumbled for her keys, I took the bags and held the door. She thanked me with the same exhausted mutter she used on her children.
“I’m visiting Mildred Davenport in 4K but I’ll be glad to carry your bags up for you first,” I said brightly.
“Oh! Oh, thank you. Michael, let go of Tania’s hair.”
She was on four as well, but at the other end, and no, she didn’t know Mildred, more than to recognize her. The kids kept her running all day, and Mildred never left her own apartment, except on Mondays when someone from the senior center came to take her to the store or the doctor.
“Do you know if her son is staying with her?”
“Is that who that man is? I don’t like the way he looks at Tania, I told my husband it wouldn’t surprise me if he was a molester, out of prison and they won’t tell us who’s in the building. We could be murdered here or our children abducted and would the management care? Not any more than they did the time the people in 5A were keeping goldfish in the bathtub and let it overflow into our place. And then the cats, yowling to get out, I have complained a thousand times — Tania, stop pinching –.”
I was thankful when we reached her door. I dumped the bags on the floor, in the middle of a litter of Legos, Beanie babies and half-empty cereal bowls, and fled as the children’s whines rose to howls.
Before leaving my office this morning I had written a short letter to Mildred Davenport, giving her the same story I had tried shouting through the intercom: I was a freelance journalist writing a book on Africa through American eyes and very much wanted to get hold of some of her son’s photographs from the Eighties.
At the far end of the corridor I knocked loudly on her door. After a long wait I heard a shuffling on the other side, and then movement at the peephole. I smiled in a cheery, unthreatening way.
She opened the door the width of a chain bolt. “What do you want?”
I kept smiling. “I put it in writing — I thought that might be easier than me trying to explain it through the door.”
She grudgingly took the envelope from me and shut the door again. The television was turned up so loud I could hear it through the closed door. After about ten minutes she came back.
“I guess you can talk to him but he says he doesn’t know what you mean, he never was in Africa.”
I followed her into a living room where a fan stirred air so heavy it fell back like soup onto my hair and blouse. A television tuned to Oprah provided the only light. Stacks of newspaper and pieces of furniture were crammed so close together that it was hard to find a place to stand.
“Hunter! This here’s the lady.” She shouted over Oprah in a flat nasal.
A figure stirred in one of the overstuffed armchairs. In the flashes from the screen I’d mistaken him for a heap of towels or blankets. Mrs. Davenport muted the sound.
“Who you work for?” he said. “They have money for prints?”
“Gaudy Press. They have some money, but they don’t throw it around.” I looked around for a place to sit and finally perched on the arm of another chair. “They’re especially interested in your work in the Eighties. When you were in Africa.”
“Never was in Africa.” Hunter shot a look at his mother.
“If they want to pay you for your work,” Mrs. Davenport began, but he cut her off.
“I said I never was in Africa. You don’t know anything about my life away from here.”
“I’m only deaf, not crazy,” his mother snapped. “Why don’t you see if you can make some money. Show this lady your photographs. Even if you don’t have Africa you’ve got plenty of others.”
“You go back to Oprah and the lady can go back to her publisher and tell them no sale.” He took the control from his mother and restored the sound; a woman whose car had broken down on the Santa Ana Freeway had been rescued by an angel.
I moved close enough to him that I could see his frayed t-shirt and the stubble of greying hair on his chin. “Your son says you were in South Africa in 1986.”
He curled his lip at me. “I don’t have a son. That I know of.”
“Helen Alder’s son? That the two of you produced after you married in Vietnam?”
“Helen Alder? I never heard of a …” His voice trailed away, and then he said with a ferocious urgency that astounded me, “Where are you really from?”
“Could we go where we can hear each other?”
His mother watched suspiciously when he pushed himself up from his chair, but she stayed behind when he led me to the kitchen. The stuffy air was larded with stale dishwater. The window had a two-by-four nailed across it to keep it from opening. Sweat started to gather at the back of my neck.
“Who sent you to me?” His teeth showed, crooked and tobacco-stained, through the stubble.
“I don’t have any children. I never married. I never was in Africa.”
“What about Vietnam?” I asked.
He shot me an angry look. “And if I say, yeah, I was there, you won’t believe I didn’t marry this Helen whosis.”
“Try me.” I wanted to keep my voice affable, but standing in the musty room was hard on my back as well as my manners.
“I was a photographer. For the old Chicago American before it folded. I covered the war for them from Sixty-three to Sixty-nine. Sur Place bought a lot of my shots — the French were more interested in Indochina than we were. After the paper collapsed I signed on with them as a freelancer.”
“Where were you in 1986? Here?”
He shook his head. “Europe. England. Sometimes New York.”
I took a notepad from my handbag and started fanning my face with it. “When did you come back to Chicago? Do you work for Sur Place out of here?”
His face contorted into a sneer. “I haven’t worked for anyone for a long time. My mother doesn’t like me sponging off her, but she’s paranoid about burglary and she thinks a man around the house, even a washed-up ex-photographer, is better than living alone. Now it’s your turn. And don’t give me any crap about being a freelance writer.”
“Okay. I’m a private investigator. A man claiming to be Hunter Davenport, Junior, asked me to find you.” I showed him my license.
His face began to look like dull putty. “Someone was pulling your leg. I don’t have a son.”
“Fair, very good-looking, most people would be proud to claim him.”
He began to fidget violently with the utensil drawers. “Get the guy to give you a blood sample. We’ll compare DNA. If his matches mine you’re welcome to my whole portfolio. How’d you find me?”
I told him, county birth records followed by tracing Wayland Davenport through old phone books. He’d gone from Cottage Grove Avenue to Loomis, then Montrose, stair-stepping his way up the northwest side until landing at a bungalow in this tiny suburb in 1974. His wife moved into this little apartment four years ago.
“So anyone could find me,” he muttered.
“And is that a problem?”
He gave an unconvincing laugh. “No one wants to find me these days so it’s no problem whatsoever. Now you’ve wasted your time and mine enough. Go hunt up some real mystery. Like who your client is and why he’s stolen my name.”
I stopped in the kitchen doorway and looked back at him. “By the way, who is Helen Alder?”
He bared his teeth, showing a broken chip on the left incisor. “The figment of your client’s imagination.”
I put a business card on the counter top. “Give me a call if you decide to tell me the truth about her.”
Filed under: reading
Note: I’ve been juggling a few too many things lately to work on my alchemy story, so I thought I’d post a story I wrote a few years back that was published in the now-defunct Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine and is almost never anthologized–I hope you’ll find it new to you.
When he came into my office that July afternoon I thought I’d met him before. It was something about his smile, sweet but aloof, as if inviting and withholding at the same time. Now that I’m in the computer age I check databases before my first meeting with a new client, but whatever Hunter Davenport did hadn’t made Lexis-Nexis yet. If I’d seen him before, it wasn’t on the evening news.
“I’m glad you could meet me on short notice, Ms. Warshawski: I’m only in town a few days and these Chicago hotel bills mount up.” He had a trace of that southern drawl we northerners secretly find appealing. “They warned me summer in Chicago could make Charleston feel cool, but I could hardly believe them until I got off that plane.”
I shook his hand and offered him the armchair. Outside, the heat was turning sidewalks into reflecting pools, but in my windowless office all seasons and hours are alike; with air-conditioning and floor lamps it might have been midwinter.
“Charleston, South Carolina? Is that your home, Mr. Davenport?”
“I lived there when I was a teenager, but most of my adult life has been spent in Europe. I can’t quite shake the accent, or a secret longing for long summer afternoons where time stops and all we do is lie in the long grass waiting for fish to rise and drinking lemonade.”
I smiled: I feel nostalgia for those same endless summers, when my friends and I kept our ears cocked for the Good Humor truck while we jumped rope.
“So what brings you to Chicago when you could be in Charleston getting just as hot, and visiting your old haunts in the bargain?”
He smiled again. “Since the grandmother who raised me died, there hasn’t been anything to take me back. I’m looking for my father. Someone told me he’d retired to Chicago, but I didn’t see him in any of the phone books. So I thought I’d better get an investigator. The folks at the Herald-Star said you were good.”
That was enterprising, an out-of-towner going straight to the dailies for advice. “When did you last see him?”
“When I was eleven. When my mother died I guess he couldn’t stand it. He left me at my grandmother’s — my mother’s mother — and took off. I never even got a postcard from him after that.”
“And why do you want to find him now? After what, fifteen years?”
“A pretty good guess, Ms. Warshawski. I’m twenty-four. When my grandmother died I started thinking I wanted more family. Also, well,” he played with his fingers as if embarrassed, “I wondered if he didn’t have a side to his story I ought to hear. I grew up listening to my granny and my aunt — her unmarried daughter who lived with her — repeat what a bad old bag of bones my old man was. They blamed him for my mama’s death. But I began to see that was impossible, so I started wondering about all the rest of what they had to say about my folks. I guess every man likes to know what kind of person his own old man was — what he’s got to measure himself against, so to speak.”
I’m no less human than the next woman — I couldn’t resist the self-deprecating smile, or the wistful yearning in his blue-grey eyes. I printed out a contract for him and told him I needed a five hundred-dollar advance. Under the floor lamp his helmet of ash-blond hair looked like spun gold; as he leaned forward to hand me five hundreds in cash I could almost imagine the money to be some conjuror’s trick.
“I do accept checks and the usual credit cards,” I said.
“I don’t have a permanent address these days. Cash is easier for me.”
It was odd, but not that odd: plenty of people who visit detectives don’t want a paper trail. It just made me wonder.
His story boiled down to this: his father, also named Hunter Davenport, was a photographer, at least, he had been a photographer when young Hunter’s mother died. Hunter, senior had been a freelance journalist in Vietnam, where my client’s mother was an army nurse. The two met, married, produced young Hunter.
“That’s why I lived in Europe as a child: after the war my father covered hot spots in Africa and Asia. My mother and I lived in Paris during the school year and joined him on assignment during the summer. Then she died, in a car wreck in South Africa. It had nothing to do with whatever conflict he was covering. I don’t even know where he was working — when you’re a kid, you don’t pay attention to that kind of thing. It was just the ordinary dumb kind of wreck she could have had in Paris or Charleston. He wasn’t with her, in the car with her, I mean, but my grandmother always blamed him, said if he hadn’t kept her half a world away it never would have happened.”
He stumbled through the words so quickly I had to lean forward to make out what he was saying. He stopped abruptly. When he spoke again it was in a slow flat voice, but his knuckles showed white where he gripped his hands against his crossed legs.
“I was with her when she died. My mother was so beautiful. You never will see a woman as beautiful as her. And when she was covered with blood — it was hard. I still see her in my dreams, that way.” He took a deep breath. “It must have been hard for him, for Hunter — my — my dad — because the next thing I knew I was at school in Charleston, living with my grandmother, and I never saw him again.”
“What was your mother’s name? Birth name, I mean.”
He’d gone away to some private world; my question startled him back to my office. “Oh. Helen. Helen — Alder.”
“And why do you think your father’s in Chicago?”
“The agency. The agency where he used to sell his pictures, they told me they’d last heard from him here.”
I had to pry more information from him: the agency was a French bureau. First he claimed not to remember the name, but when I handed the hundreds back across the table he came up with it: Sur Place, on Boulevard St. Germaine in Paris. No, he didn’t know his father’s social security number. Or his date of birth: he and his mother spent so much time apart from his father that ordinary holidays and birthdays weren’t times they had in common. As for where his father came from, young Hunter was similarly ignorant.
“My dad never talked to me about his childhood that I can remember. And my mother’s family declared him hors la loi, so that –”
“Declared him ooh-la-la?”
“What? Oh, Hors la loi — an outlaw, you know. They never talked about him.”
The client was staying at the Hotel Trefoil, a tiny place on Scott Street where they unpack your luggage and hand you a hot towel when you walk in so you can wipe the day’s sweat from your brow. If he could afford the Trefoil my fee wouldn’t make a dent in his loose change. I told him I’d do what I could and that I’d get back to him in a few days. He thanked me with that tantalizing familiar smile.
“What do you do yourself, Mr. Davenport? I feel I should recognize you.”
He looked startled. In fact, I thought he looked almost frightened, but in the pools of lamplight I couldn’t be certain. Anyway, a second later he was laughing.
“I don’t do anything worth recording. I’m not an actor or an internet genius that you should know me.”
He left on that note, making me wonder how he afforded the Trefoil. Perhaps his Charleston grandmother had left him money. I laid the five hundreds in a circle on my desktop and ran a marking pen over them. They weren’t counterfeit, but of course fairy’s gold vanishes overnight. Just in case I’d drop them at the bank on my way home.
The international operator got me the number of Sur Place, which cheered me: young Davenport had given me information so unwillingly that I’d been afraid he’d manufactured the agency’s name. It was nine at night in Paris; the night operator at the photo agency didn’t speak English. I think he was telling me to call tomorrow, when Monsieur Duval would be in, but I wasn’t a hundred percent sure.
It was only two in Chicago, and Sherman Tucker, the photo editor at the Herald-Star, was at his desk taking calls. “Vic, darling, you’ve found a corpse and I get the first look at it.”
“Not even close.” Sherman has a passion for the old noir private eyes. He keeps hoping I’ll behave like Race Williams or the Continental Op and start stumbling over bodies every time I walk out the front door. “Ever use a stringer named Hunter Davenport, or heard anything about him? He used to freelance in Africa but someone thinks he might have moved to Chicago.”
“Hunter Davenport? I never heard of the guy but he gets more popular by the hour. You’re the second person today asking for him.”
“Did you refer an extremely beautiful young man to me?” I asked.
Sherman laughed. “I don’t look at guys’ legs, V. I. But, yeah, there was a kid in here earlier. I told him if he didn’t want to take a missing person to the cops to go to you.”
Sherman promised to call me if any of his staff recognized Davenport’s name. I felt as though I was trailing after my own client, but I checked the city and suburban directories just to be sure. There were a lot of Davenports, but no Hunters. I frowned at my desk, then dug out the phone directory disk for the Southeast from a service I subscribe to and looked up “Alder” in Charleston, South Carolina. There weren’t any. A whole bunch of Aldermans and Aldershots were listed, but no plain Alders. The client had said his granny was dead. She didn’t seem to have any relatives besides young Hunter. No wonder he wanted to find his father.
I checked with the department of motor vehicles, but Hunter, Senior, didn’t have a driver’s license. For almost any other search I’d need a social security number or a place and date of birth or some such thing. Of course, if the guy really had retired to Chicago, it was possible he’d been born here. I looked with distaste at the hundred or so Davenports in the city, and the two hundred more scattered through the suburbs. As a last resort I’d start calling them to see if a cousin or brother were mooching from them, but first I’d see what I could learn from the County.
They know me in that mausoleum on Washington, but the warmth of my greeting still depends on who’s working the counter that day. I was lucky this afternoon. A middle-aged clerk who was marking time until he could take early retirement and devote himself to his homemade pie shop was on duty. I’ve bought desserts from him from time to time; he was willing to give a fifteen-year stack of registers at one go.
Twenty minutes before closing, when even my friendly clerk was snarling at citizens to hurry up and finish, I found Hunter Davenport. He had been born in 1942 at Chicago Lying-In, to Mildred and Wayland Davenport (race: white, no previous live births, home address on Cottage Grove, age of parents, twenty-seven and thirty-five respectively). If Mildred and Wayland were still alive they were ancient, and they probably had long since moved from Cottage Grove, but at least it was a place to start.
I detoured to my bank to deposit the five hundreds. As I was boarding the L at Lake Street, I thought I saw my client’s gold halo in the crowd. I jumped off the train, but by the time I’d fought past the rush hour crowd behind me I couldn’t see him. I finally decided it must have been a trick of light.
A friend of mine is a librarian in the Chicago system. She’s actually second-in-command at my favorite branch, the Bee branch in Bronzeville
Recently, the librarians made a retreat. In one of their workshops, they were each asked to speak for ten minutes on a book that had changed their lives. My friend chose Their Eyes Were Watching God. She can’t remember when she first read it, but she’s read it many many times, and it electrifies her life now as it has for many years before.
Oddly, most of her fellow librarians chose non-fiction, in fact, most chose “how to” books. She couldn’t think of one other work of fiction. I was surprised, because it’s fiction that almost always touches me in that way that makes me feel as though someone were pulling me up by the roots of my hair. In my teens, Portrait of the Artist affected me with so much intensity that I could hardly sleep for the need to plunge into it over and over. Although I’ve lost some of my adolescent intensity, there are novels like Gilead or A Blessing on the Moon where I reach the end and have to start over again at the beginning at once.
What books have changed your life?
Filed under: reading
“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” This is the captivating opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
If you want to write a bestseller and are too lazy to think of anything original yourself, you are pretty well guaranteed success if you tamper with Jane Austen. Especially with Pride and Prejudice. We’ve had at least twenty spin-offs in the last few years, including Mr. Darcy’s Daughters, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and The Bar Sinister, in which Mr. Darcy has fathered an illegitimate child on the Pemberly estate. Austen believed Darcy to be a moral and ethical person, but what did she know?
I am baffled by the trend of taking other people’s work, or lives, and using it for one’s own fiction. I think of such books as vampire books, where someone else is sucking the blood of the original creator. Do people do it because they don’t have confidence in their own creative ideas? Is it a form of laziness? Or does it stem from a desperate search for common cultural markers in a world where we’re inundated with Twitters and Faces and Jerry Springer and a host of other shouted comments?
I confess, too, to a dislike of novels based on historic figures. It feels both like an invasion of privacy, to take over another person’s life, and a limitation on one’s own creativity: the ending, indeed, the trajectory, are already determined. As my granddaughter, then seven, said when her mother wanted to take her to see Gibson’s movie, The Passion, “I already know how it comes out.”
A few years ago, I read a book whose author claimed to know the effect of the Manhattan Project on Fermi and his family. It wasn’t based on Fermi’s life or letters or the memoirs of others who knew him, but on the author’s anger over the development of the bomb, projected back on to Fermi.
Searching around for a book topic? Make up your own physicist. It will allow you to explore the human experience more fully if you’re not constrained by a pre-determined outcome. Make up your own Regency family. And make up your own damned Zombie!
I’m back from New York, where I spent an energizing morning with my publishers, talking about plans for the publication of Hardball, the next book in my V I series. It will be on sale on September 22, and, given how whole years seem to go by while I’m blinking, that’s pretty much just around the corner. Putnam has done a great jacket–it says “Chicago” in a bold, PI kind of way.
Before going into the city, I spent a day upstate with a beloved old friend, Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Dorothy is 93 now, frail, but still with a tough, insightful mind. I leave her always with new insights into life, living, and writing. I leave her always with a painful wrench–parting is so hard that it’s sometimes hard to bring myself to visit in the first place. Dorothy was one of the great masters of crime fiction in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Unfortunately, her books are no longer in print, although Christina Pickles just read from one of them on Selected Shorts. Look for Dorothy’s books in your used bookstore or your library–she’s so insightful, such an economical storyteller.
I could write for days about Dorothy and not exhaust what I know about her, or my love for her, but I’ll just tell you two of the many suggestions she’s given me: if you’re stuck in a book, if the story isn’t working, stand it on its head. If you like the basic story, turning it upside down, in structure, or in whose narrative viewpoint you’re embracing, can sometimes shake things loose.
The second insight is that you are your best source of material. What you’ve lived, how you’ve lived. Of course, Dorothy’s life holds richer physical material than most: she was the daughter of a poor immigrant mother and tenant-farming father, and her first job out of school was as a magician’s assistant in the middle of the Depression; after she married and moved to New York with her actor husband, Harry, she landed in an exciting milieu of writers and artists– she knew Elia Kazan, Paul Robeson, Joanne Woodward, Hortense Calisher, Carson McCullers and a host of other names we conjure with.
She’s written about her childhood, and her magician boss, often. But she really means, your emotional life is your goldmine. Understanding yourself, being prepared to perform surgery on your emotions in public–that is, on the page–is the only way to write in an authentic voice.