On a warm Tuesday in September of 1982, I received a letter from the novelist John Gardner about a collection of my short stories he’d been gracious enough to critique. That evening, as I sat in the newsroom editing copy, the city editor swiveled his computer monitor and said, “You should read this.”
Gardner had died that day, the 14th, in a motorcycle accident. The description in the story that had moved over the wire read like something from his novels. It didn’t make sense. I’d just seen him, on my first and only visit to his house in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, standing in his makeshift office, touring his home, speaking to his fiancée. He was a living legend among writers, his novel October Light a bestseller, his newest at the time, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, leading the book review section of the New York Times. Unlike many celebrities, he was approachable, hospitable to emerging writers. And now he was gone.
John Champlin Gardner Jr. was born on July 21, 1933. His death 36 years ago came as a blow. The author of 14 novels and numerous others works, he taught at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the State University of New York’s Binghamton University. All notable achievements, but a CV hardly describes his influence.
Over the course of his career, he evolved from ardent critic to mentor who embraced veterans and novitiates alike. Still, his true north was in storytelling. He eschewed labels, focusing on the ancient art, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view and putting people at the heart of great philosophical debates. He strove to create what he called “a vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, writing novels with an intensity often reserved for short stories and poetry.
His passion overflowed in his nonfiction, too. Gardner seemed obsessed with the collision of philosophy and culture. He constantly argued against nihilism, a doctrine that claims nothing is knowable and rejects all distinctions in moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” It’s likely he deeply identified with Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, who finds itself cast from heaven because it is ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions—possibly a comment on the maligned state of humans, as Gardner’s father was a lay preacher.
While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner treated students and aspiring writers with a generosity and grace consistent with his values. I first met him in May of 1982 after he spoke, at the invitation of professor and novelist Fred Misurella, at East Stroudsburg State College, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Gardner looked the part of the Great Writer, sporting a shock of white hair overflowing his forehead and small, wrinkled bags under his eyes. His ubiquitous pipe kept winking out as he talked. He also acted the part. After reading aloud the first page of one of my stories, he invited me to his home in Susquehanna for a longer critique.
* * *
Gardner lived across an open metal bridge on the edge of town, in a farmhouse nestled among the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house resembled an old train station, with curlicues over the porch. Inside sat Gardner’s son, Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married that Saturday. A colleague of his handed him a few short stories and a novel for Gardner’s comments. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.
Then it was my turn. Gardner retreated to his study, a spare room with big windows, to concentrate on the story I’d brought. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and stacks of papers. He hunched over the work, making quick notes in pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave, Gardner apologizing repeatedly for offering me so little time.
In the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical. Not much, he said, but then opened the door to the dining room. With its thick beams and sparkling new plaster, it resembled something out of Mickelsson’s Ghosts.
There were other similarities. The main character in that novel, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at SUNY Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, as well as his wife, son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father invented most of the book.
* * *
John Gardner was born in Batavia, in northwestern New York. His father worked as a dairy farmer, his mother as a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about a thousand copies, but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He was an academic but not an elitist. Playboy paid top dollar for his short stories. (“Julius Caesar and the Werewolf” appeared in September 1984). He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and was married several times. He settled in rural Susquehanna on a 30-acre farm and continued to work.
A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he always wrote interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts, he had completed his evolution, merging philosophy with a vital narrative, tempered by a humility that bordered on self-doubt. By the time he got to Susquehanna, he’d turned the ferocious critic into a man who wanted to say good things about others. People believed he was trying to find his place.
That day at his house, he seemed subdued. Seated on the couch, he spoke in a smooth and quiet voice about future projects. As an aside, I said I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. The novels weren’t filed under the category of “Fiction.” I’d asked the clerk if she carried the author and she led me to the back of the store. We found his books filed under “Literature.”
Gardner listened intently, without expression, then threw back his head and laughed.
I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.
I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.
There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.
Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:
“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.
“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.
“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.
“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.
“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.
“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.
“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.
“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”
“Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.
“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.
“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.
And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”
Now that’s a keeper.
What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot often says the secret to his success as a detective is simple: “Order and method.” We writers could use a bit of that ourselves.
Elizabeth George, author of the Inspector Thomas Lynley mysteries, has two criteria for evaluating fiction: strengths and inconsistencies. In other words, what did the writer do right, and are there any inconsistencies in character, plot, setting, tone, or language.
Why is clarity important? Because what’s in the author’s head doesn’t always make it onto the page. Finding the holes in our story is like using a single mirror to see the back of our heads. We need a second opinion.
What about George’s criteria? I believe they are essential to good critiquing. Simple, but not widely practiced.
Consistency means the characters behave in a manner that is congruent with the personalities we’ve created for them. The language and tone should do the same.
The idea of strengths is simple but its application is often misunderstood. If we focus on the good parts of a manuscript, the writer will, too; hopefully the better work will crowd out some of the lesser stuff. That runs counter to some people’s philosophy—I’ve been stopped after class by those who want to know why I encourage a tiny piece of good writing in a sea of struggle—but that’s the exception to the rule.
What should writers avoid when critiquing a manuscript? In her work of nonfiction, Write Away, George urges us to forget about our own tastes. After reading or hearing a piece, many writers will say they liked or disliked the writing, characters, language, or plot. A typical response from even the most educated is, “I couldn’t get into it.”
That kind of critique doesn’t give the writer enough detail to improve, and might discourage an emerging talent. As George points out, it’s not our story. We’re not there to rewrite the work but to call out the strengths and flag the confusion. Did the writer mean to change point of view in mid-chapter? Is she experimenting with time by switching tense in mid-sentence? Those inconsistencies are concrete, measurable, and susceptible to improvement.
All of this boils down to a single question: are we critiquing the construction of the work or the content? If we develop a system that relies on order and method, we’ll know. And so will the reader.
“There is only one reason to write,” says Sarasota author Anna Schmidt. “That is because you can’t not write.”
Anna, known to her friends as Jo, has written for therapy, but for most of her career, she’s written for publication. She is the author of several series of inspiration and romance, including ones set during World War II (All God’s Children), in Sarasota’s Pinecraft Mennonite community (A Sister’s Forgiveness) and in the Southwest (The Lawman).
She shared her experience this week with members of Sarasota Fiction Writers.
Her advice for emerging authors?
- Build a track record in your genre and develop a following
- Don’t chase trends (unless your agent and editor tell you to)
- During dry spells, attend events and conferences outside your area of expertise (for Jo, that’s mystery and suspense)
- Join book clubs and writers’ groups
- Read outside your genre.
She ended the program by giving away copies of her latest book. Surprised by her generosity, the moderator asked why. With a sly smile she said, “The publisher sent me forty copies. What else am I going to do with them?”
Brinker’s gone soft.
The man who once turned a serial killer into a national brand is ready to chuck it all for the love of a good woman. If he doesn’t get her fired . . . or worse.
By day, Carly is director of marketing at a bank in the Lehigh Valley and one of Brinker’s agency clients. By night, she’s an aspiring thespian with a nomadic troupe of actors. More than anything, she wants to give them a home and has her hopes set on buying a theater in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
But Brinker’s boss wants to expand his ad agency and won’t let anything as useless as ethics stand in his way. And Carly stands in his way.
Can Brinker kick his addictions, win Carly’s trust and neutralize his boss? Find out if the defrocked journalist can get his mojo back in Mr. Magic, available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo, as well as bookstores everywhere.
And don’t miss Brinker’s debut in the cutthroat world of PR in Mr. Mayhem.
As an antidote to the election season, I’d like to share an excerpt from my new suspense/thriller, Mr. Magic. You can read the full-tilt lunacy of the role public relations plays in elections and other marketing campaigns at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, as well as bookstores everywhere.
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And now, Brinker, the defrocked journalist turned PR whiz, will demonstrate how sausage is made:
On a blustery day in early April, Mary Margaret Paulson stood in an open hanger with the snow swirling like dust devils and gazed at the adoring masses. She looked every bit the presidential candidate. Perfect cheekbones, glossy red lips and a bushel of rich brown hair. Long legs in a black pencil skirt, lacy blouse and a red power jacket with shoulders big enough to carry half the states to the nominating convention.
On the campaign trail she’d been called Chillbilly and Bible Spice for her passionate if uninformed defense of religious freedom. The media mocked her. The pundits hated her. But Brinker knew one thing that many had forgotten: the woman oozed sex from every pore, and men and women alike would sacrifice their firstborn to share the air with her.
The scene resembled a campaign rally. An American flag hung behind two corporate jets emblazoned with the cement company’s logo. Paulson stood on a wooden A-Treat box behind a lectern decorated with patriotic bunting and waved like the queen on parade. A crowd of at least a thousand swelled around her, a line of police officers in reflective vests keeping protesters and supporters on opposite sides of the concrete apron. Sitting in rows of folding chairs under space heaters were local and state dignitaries, representatives from the governor’s office, county council members and the mayors of every city within a fifty-mile radius. The rest of the rabble stood in the cold, their hats declaring allegiance to Garth Brooks, the Phillies and the NRA.
Brinker focused on Paulson’s speech. In an effort to cut costs, the cement company wanted to burn hazardous waste. Residents weren’t convinced by the company’s health studies, which showed emissions would remain below EPA thresholds. His position paper had dealt with the need to balance environmental protection with economic growth. He’d reduced it to three bullet points. Paulson hadn’t gotten through the first when she veered off-message like a bike that had lost its training wheels. She ranted about liberals and intellectuals, the elite and the effete, people who were ruining the country with their bleeding hearts and costly regulations, stifling growth and free enterprise and everything that made America great.
The crowd cheered and Brinker, the PR whiz who’d turned a serial killer into a national brand, started to worry that the stunt wouldn’t backfire, that it wouldn’t create the chaos that guaranteed national coverage. Then, from across the tarmac, he heard the sound of grinding gears and smelled the belch of diesel exhaust as an ancient blue school bus tottered around the corner of the hanger and four dozen Korean woman dressed in hot pink jumpsuits piled out, Buddha at the fore, the notes of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” throbbing from a speaker on the roof.
Buddha, AKA Benjamin Kwon, community organizer and ace travel agent who helped the pursued disappear from the grid. Handing signs to the women—he’d economized by printing both sides, “Feel the Burn” on the front and, on the back, “Burn, Baby, Burn”—he marched the women through the crowd, the Koreans forming a wall between supporters and protesters. As they twirled their signs and waved to the camera, Buddha broke away and headed for the perimeter.
Brinker sidled up to him. “How’s it going?”
“’Oppa oppa Gangnam style.’”
“You should run for office.”
Realizing that reinforcements had arrived, Paulson pointed at the ground with a sharply manicured finger and shouted, “This is it! Right here in little old Allentown, PA! The front lines of the battle, the home of concrete and steel that made this nation great!”
The crowd surged, one half cheering, the other half waving signs mounted on wooden stakes the size of baseball bats. Brinker could smell the blood lust as it raced through them, flaring nostrils, pumping muscles, raking their skin until they began to howl.
The handlers must have felt the massive animal coiling for a strike because two of them flanked the lectern as Paulson finished her speech with the pump of a fist and the cry of “Burn, baby, burn!”
The audience exploded, the police line collapsed. Protesters wielded their signs like clubs. Politicians ducked behind the flag. The cement company’s security force, standing respectfully at attention during the remarks, formed a firewall while the handlers hustled Paulson through the back of the hanger.
As police rushed in with batons, Buddha pulled Brinker to the sidelines. Above the roar of sirens, he said, “We have failed you, my friend.”
Brinker smiled as video crews captured the melee. “It’s all good.”
When we think of vacations, we think of the beach or the mountains, Europe or Mexico, a camper or cruise or condo. But if you’re a travel agent who specializes in helping the hunted drop off the grid, you might look to a few places that, while not off the beaten path, aren’t top destinations for the leisure class.
Think Chernobyl, Fukushima and a place that will keep radiating charm for centuries, Los Alamos and the neighboring town of Alamogordo, site of the Manhattan Project and the testing of the first atomic weapons.
At least that’s what the Korean expat Benjamin Kwon thinks when helping debtors, tax dodgers and advertising agency executives elude official scrutiny. Kwon , AKA the Buddha, does his vanish tricks in Mr. Magic, the second in the series of crime novels featuring a defrocked journalist turned PR whiz named Brinker, who made his debut last year in Mr. Mayhem.
What is it about those three sites that attracts the miscreants, misfits and marketing gurus? For Brinker and Buddha, two words: exclusion zone.
Established soon after the 1986 disaster, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation is an evacuation area within a 30 km radius of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Decades after the meltdown, residents have crept back into the area.
After the Tōhoku earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the ensuing tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown made that region too hot to inhabit, yet people will always want a closer look at large-scale disaster.
Alamogordo is connected with the Trinity test, the first explosion of an atomic bomb, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the secret World War II facility that housed the Manhattan Project.
Dr. Beach isn’t naming any of those sites to his top 10 list of vacation destinations, but any place that’s off limits to the casual visitor might make a good place to hide.
That premise forms the backbone of Mr. Magic, a book that asks the question: how hard must a PR counselor work to spin a visit to a nuclear graveyard as adventure travel? For Brinker, that raises another question: how hard will his new boss at the ad agency press him to exile her rivals to these places?
Brinker will have to use all of the magic he can muster to keep himself from becoming the latest to disappear. You can read all about his struggle to give up sex, drugs and dirty tricks at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and jeffwidmer.com, as well as bookstores everywhere.
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Brinker has lost his magic. The agency’s CEO wants him to ace the competition. His former girlfriend wants him in detox. And as rival advertising executives disappear, an ambitious state trooper wants him in jail.
If this keeps up, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand may have to vanish himself.
Throw in toxic waste, a nude car wash and a gun-toting presidential candidate and the czar of PR will have to spin some potent magic to escape the snare of sex, lies and greed that threatens to destroy his job, his sanity and the love of his life.
Brinker does so in Mr. Magic, the second in the series of crime novels starring the defrocked journalist. Mr. Magic plays out in the post-industrial snowbelt of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, an area I know well after working there in marketing for a decade. While Brinker vows to give up drugs and violence, he’s pulled into the netherworld of forced disappearances by a self-styled travel agent who helps clients vanish in places like Fukushima, Chernobyl and the deserts of the American Southwest.
Published by Allusion Books, the novel is the sequel to Mr. Mayhem. Both books are available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and jeffwidmer.com, as well as bookstores everywhere. They join the the novels in the CW McCoy series, Peak Season and Tourist in Paradise, that play out in the tony beach towns of Southwest Florida.
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J.G. Ballard once said that the dystopian landscapes in his books reflect the character’s inner world as much as the outer one.
We’re more familiar with the opposite. Places affect how people feel and act. Think New York in the decade when the city cleaned up graffiti-defaced buildings, repaired windows and installed lighting as part of its crime-fighting strategy.
I’m interested in the collision of those two ideas. In writing fiction, I look for places that both create and reflect a mood. The post-industrial cities of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley provide a wealth of locations that meet that criteria—the ruins of Bethlehem Steel, the abandoned quarries of the Slate Belt, the cement plants near Nazareth.
As you might expect if you read Mr. Mayhem, the novel’s main character, a disgraced journalist called Brinker, thrives in this dystopian world. In Brinker’s second outing, Mr. Magic, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand has gone to work for the advertising agency from hell, where the owners have hired him to make the competition disappear.
The Lehigh Valley is the perfect backdrop for the ensuing struggle. From Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown to the historic Moravian settlement in Bethlehem to Route 22 at rush hour, the Lehigh Valley provides both a canvas and a mirror for a character tormented by addiction and failure. (Alert readers will note that while Chernobyl is not a tourist stop in the Lehigh Valley, the location plays a role in the novel.)
Each day next month, I’ll post on social media images of those seminal locations, places that may have become part of your own inner landscape. How many do you recognize?