Speech to the National Kidney Foundation Author’s Luncheon
Nov. 3, 2018
“I’m deeply honored to be up here on the stage with all of these great authors. I’ve been to many of these luncheons over the years, and I know that the annual National Kidney Foundation Luncheon is one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the country. It’s really the high point for most authors. Thank you for including me.
You get on an elevator with a copy of your novel in your hand, and then a guy gets in and looks at what you’re holding. He says, “Through the Bookstore Window – What’s that about?” Then he pushes the button for the second floor.
You freeze for a second. What am I supposed to say?
You fumble through a couple of sentences. “It’s a literary-thriller. The literary part happens in a bookstore, and the rest is all Thriller.”
Then the door opens. He gives a slight shrug and gets out. You have a sinking feeling. Did I fail in my “elevator-speech”? Is he going to remember anything I said – much less, care? At first you wonder if you could have been more persuasive if you had time for, maybe, another ten or twenty sentences. Then you realize, “no.” If you could really tell the story in 20 sentences, why would you write a whole book and spread it out over 275 pages?
The thing about writing a novel is this: no one really wants to hear an author talk about it. And there’s really more to it than that. When they finally read the book, readers don’t want to hear the author’s voice at all. When readers get into a story, it’s because they are experiencing it through the eyes of the characters. Authors may create the plot and the setting, but it is the characters who have to live in that world – maybe shaping it as they go along, or being shaped by it. But one way or another, it is the characters’ story. And if an author is lucky, the characters will imbed themselves into the heads of readers who will then do what every author hopes – flip the pages to find out what happens next.
In “Through the Bookstore Window” I’m hoping for just that. There are three characters – three narrative voices – that tell different parts of the story as the book progresses, and I’m counting on all three of them to worm themselves into your mind so that you can forget about me and focus on what happens next.
With that in mind, let me introduce Gina – the principal narrator of the story. Gina Perini manages Hayes Street Books, a great bookstore that is only a few blocks from here – at least it would be, if I hadn’t just made it up out of nothing. (every time I go down Hayes Street I wonder if it really would be a good place for a bookstore, but then my wife says don’t even think about it!).
Gina is the main narrative voice in the novel, and she tells a lot about herself right at the beginning. When she’s not managing the bookstore, she’s looking over her shoulder – rather fearfully — for those who might be trying to deport her or, worse yet, those who might be trying to find her and kill her. Gina is a refugee from the Bosnian War. She managed to escape the violence of that war — and the sexual violence that went along with it. Then she changed her name and escaped to the United States. And now she’s here illegally. It’s 2011, and for Gina every day is a battle to escape the violence of her past.
“Escaping the violence of the past” – if you want to say that this story has a theme, that’s probably it. Whether it’s war violence, sexual violence, or just ordinary gun violence – all of the main characters struggle with that problem throughout the story, as each of them tries to escape its effects.
Gina tells you a lot about herself, but she doesn’t tell you everything. On page 28 she says, “There are things I don’t really talk about until I know you pretty well.” Well, I’m not going to give away her secrets. You’ll have to read the book — and get to know her well enough — to find out what she meant by that.
Early in the story Gina learns about a child that she’d almost given up on. This is a baby she was very close to – a little girl who was born during the chaos of the Bosnian War. Gina discovers she is still alive and living in America. She’s now 15-years-old, and has been adopted by a couple in Indiana. And as Gina learns more, she finds out that the girl is caught in an ugly web of sexual abuse. From that point forward, the main narrative thrust of the story follows Gina’s efforts to find and protect that young girl.
The girl is named Alexi, and she becomes the second narrative voice in the story. It’s always a risk for an author to alternate narrators in the middle of a book. Just as one character imbeds herself in the mind of readers, the author asks readers to take the time to go through the same experience with another narrator. But like Gina, Alexi tells the part of the story that only she knows. And her story is so immediate and so harrowing, that it simply has to be told by her directly. As an author, you can only hope that the power of her story will resonate with the reader.
And there’s a third narrative voice as well – Davey, a retired Indiana cop, who is about to turn 70. After Gina intervenes to help Alexi — and the two of them disappear — Davey is brought in to find out what happened to them. It could have been a routine job, but Davey’s empty shell of a life has begun crashing in around him. The weight of his experiences in the Vietnam War have gotten worse instead of better as he’s gotten older, and his search for Gina and Alexi has an impact on him that brings him close to the edge. At one point he doesn’t know if he is really chasing them or protecting them. But at every step, he tells his part of the story in his own way because no one else could get inside his head to tell it for him.
That’s as much of the novel as I can really tell you. You’ll have to pick up the book and listen to the voices of Gina, Alexi, and Davey if you want to hear the rest of the story.
That’s my story – now, what about yours?
Whenever I talk about writing there is usually someone in the audience who has a novel they’ve always wanted to write but they’ve never gotten around to doing it. My advice is to do it – even if you’ve been putting it off for a long time, do it. In fact, your procrastination may have been a good thing. The story you wanted to write may have gotten better over the years as you’ve rolled it around in your mind.
I’m no expert on writing novels. I started out as a lawyers — writing fiction is maybe my 3rd or 4th career, and I just wandered into it without any prior training. But it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. And if I can do it, you can do it.
Writing a book-length story seems daunting, and it can be intimidating if you look at it that way. But after you start doing it you realize that a novel is just a series of scenes strung together. If you create a character, dive into a scene, — maybe give it a beginning and an end and some tension in the middle — you’ll have something. Put enough of those scenes together, and you’ll have a book. And along the way you might find yourself talking to the characters, and they’ll probably be talking to you. But that’s okay. It’s what happens, and neither of you is going crazy.
I’ve become a strong advocate of writing fiction if you have any inkling that you might enjoy it. I could list lots of reasons.
First, of all there are no rules. A story can be as long or as short, or as simple or as complex, or as down-to-earth or as fantastical as you want it to be. It’s your story, and only you can write it. You’re your own boss. Don’t worry about finding an agent or a big-time publisher – if that happens, it happens. Instead, just pick a couple of friends you respect and write it for them. If they enjoy, you’re already a success.
Also, you get to exercise a different part of your brain. Everything else I’ve ever written in life has had to be logical and precise. Writing fiction is totally different. Sure, you still use nouns and verbs and all the basic stuff, but nothing else is the same. You’re working with images, feelings, nuances, expanded vocabulary, rhythmic sentence-structure, and all kinds of things that appeal to the senses and the emotions. And if you ever find any legalese creeping into one of my stories, you have my permission to take me out and pummel me!
The other thing is that it’s fun. Where else can you create your own world, populate it with your own creatures, and make them do your bidding? You create characters that you love or hate, you chart their futures, and you consign them to their fate. You get to play god without becoming a megalomaniac.
But the best thing of all is this: writing fiction is something that you should get better at as you get older. Story-telling is just distilled human experience, and as you get older you have more of the stuff of human existence to draw upon, more connections that will spring to mind. Your creative powers in this field increase. You don’t age-out like you do in other fields. You may be too old swim in the Olympics or play right-field for the Giants, but your ability to tell a story has probably gotten richer and better as you age.
In my case, I couldn’t have written a character like Davey, a 70-year-old retired cop, when I was 30. I had to get older to understand what life was like for him, and it was only then that I could give him the opportunity to tell his story. On the other hand, I still remember enough of my younger days to write about Gina. I hadn’t forgotten about what life was like when I was in my ‘30s. So as you get older, your possibilities as a story-teller get broader. You add to your palate without losing anything that was already there.
And if you do this, you might just end up writing a novel that others will love and that will give you endless satisfaction. And, who knows? A year or so from now you may have the opportunity that I’ve just had – to stand in front of a wonderful audience like this and talk about your book.
Thank you so much!”