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Authors: John Dunning

Tags: #Mystery


John Dunning


























asked how long it takes to write a book. I thought he was kidding but I told him anyway.

It takes as long as it takes.

The Holland Suggestions
Looking for Ginger North
took about six months each. But that was long ago and they were first novels. I didn’t fret much then about the stuff I didn’t know, being happily unaware how much of that stuff there was in the world.

took eighteen months. This was a multi-layered historical novel with fifty characters and two major false starts. One of these snipe hunts ate up 300 pages. Once it got rolling, the book was written in 139 consecutive workdays—Saturdays, Sundays and Allegheny River Days all included.

Booked to Die
took two years. Even then it didn’t want to work until I sank all the way into despair, threw out the central idea and took up with a second-string plot.

The Bookman’s Wake
was three years on the fire. This was a trek through hell, full of false middles and bogus characters who appeared suddenly to muddy it up and were ruthlessly cut in later drafts. There were long interruptions, and the ending seemed to hang forever out of reach.

And then there was
the sweet little thing you hold in your hands.

Forget literary vanity—this isn’t conceit talking.
was a sweetheart because it was so free and easy, so author-friendly, that it was almost indecent. There was no struggle: it started in the right place and unfolded like a roadmap, leading straight to what then seemed like the inevitable conclusion. There were no fits and starts, no dips into hell, no groping around for True North. It took six weeks, start to finish, and remained for years the only book its author ever sold straight out of the typewriter, without having to suffer the agony-of-defeat known in the writing business as Rejection.

If I could do it again, and teach myself to do it on demand, I could maybe get rich. As a radio comic once said, you could bottle that and sell it to Rexall. It arrived like a new girlfriend comes to a teenager, unexpected and gone before he can stop and figure out what happened. Today, fourteen years later, I know how it happened. But I still don’t know how to do it again.

A writer whose process has evolved into what can only be called slugging it out in the trenches cannot help being suspicious of a gift like that. I’ve always felt a little like a thief when I thought of
I want to hand it over with an apology, though I still run into readers who remember it as my best book. I have not re-read it in all these years, though I think of it often. There is always a temptation with a reissue to make changes. I know that, for starters, I’d be tempted to change the name of the heroine. I’d probably make her a Mary or a Rachel the way everyone else does when they write about the Amish. I know (and knew then) that Amish fathers do not name their daughters Diana. Amish daughters do not do what this one does. But I also know that the surest thing about people is that they are wonderfully unpredictable. Individuals will always rise up and counter the flow of the tribe, no matter how hidebound and pious that particular tribe may look to an outsider. Jacob Yoder is, first of all, a man. And yes, there are runaways from that closed society, and a few do find what they’re looking for and never return to that world they came from.

John Gardner once wrote that to change a character’s name from Jane to Cynthia is to make the fictional ground shudder beneath her. Touch even this one thing, and I would have a different book: I would have turned this happy novel into a pit of snakes. So I’ll tell you a few things about the process, then I’ll let it go and be happy that this new edition is finally here.

A book needs hot fuel to propel it. Books written out of anger are sometimes the easiest to write and can be—if the author avoids heavy-handed preachiness—potent and effective work.
and its predecessor,
, were written with the same bile-dipped pen. Both grew out of my experience at the Denver
, where I arrived in 1966 on a wave of idealistic excitement. I soaked up the reporter’s life: I was always turned on, it was like food and water, and I ate it up. Journalism is a marvelous career for a young man, and the
was in every way my university. But it’s a young man’s game, and those who let themselves grow old in it risk becoming the cynical reporters of movies and books. Their salaries lock them in bondage and their alternatives are few. They can behave themselves, make friends of the right people and move up in management, where they quickly become—in the eyes of their former friends—part of the problem. They can move on to public relations, cheerfully promoting the interests of the villains they once tried to get indicted. They can wake up at forty simply dreading the prospects of another St. Patrick’s Day Parade, another rubber-chicken luncheon speaker with a Ph.D. in boredom, another lady with a two-headed peacock. A few drop out and write books, a career that (I’m here to tell you) is not for the fainthearted or the guy with an addiction to regular paychecks.

This is all well and good but where, you ask me, did the anger come from? Without belaboring the point, let’s say that there were one or two people in management at this otherwise fine newspaper who thought they had the right to kill investigative or critical stories when the controversy involved their friends. Angry? You bet. I still carry it a quarter of a century later.

But they were boss and I was not. I was gone.

Still, it was an experience. Henry James said that a young writer should try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost, and here was a rich caldron of life simmering on the front burner. I was ready to write it, and I settled on an historical framework first for various reasons. In the 1920s the
was steeped in yellow journalism. Its owners, Frederick Bonfils and Harry Tammen, were full of hell and willing to do most anything to sell newspapers or ad copy. The central focus of my novel
was to be the takeover of the state by the Ku Klux Klan, but the hero was a reporter for the
who struggles against this evil stupidity and in the process must overcome a raft of personal problems and professional obstacles. It should be noted that, historically, Bonfils and Tammen were minor heroes in the Klan controversy. Bonfils crusaded editorially against the hooded bigots, and it was largely through his efforts that Mayor Ben Stapleton was exposed as a Klansman and subjected to a recall election, which failed. But it’s easy to crusade against politicians and bad government. It’s a different story when your advertising interests are on the line, and if history teaches us nothing else about Bonfils and Tammen, it tells us this: whatever else they did, they always operated with the economic health of their newspaper foremost in their minds. They would kill a reporter’s Klan story, not for political reasons but because he had uncovered a membership roster that revealed most of their advertisers as Klan sympathizers.

Fair game, I decided. But when I wrote the finished scenes, the picture playing in my head was not of Tom Hastings, my hero, sitting in that
newsroom in 1923. It was myself I saw, bucking the same brand of odious management in 1969. One scene in particular unfolded almost literally from life, exactly as it happened to a friend of mine and was later described to me. Instead of Chamber of Commerce kleagles from the 1920s, the villains were auto dealers of the 1960s, white-collar grafters who had been caught rolling back the odometers on their used cars. In fiction and life the results were the same: neither story saw the light of day, but by then my newspaper days were over.

was a tough book to write. I say it took eighteen months, but in a sense I had been at it for the entire five years I worked on the newspaper and I’d been thinking about the newspaper parts of it during all the years since then. Now it was finished. I shipped it to my agent, Phyllis Westberg, in New York, and settled in for the uneasy wait. The next morning I came down to my workroom because this is what I do. I get up at 4:30 and if there’s nothing to write, I sit at my desk. I was deep in the clutches of postpartum blues, at loose ends but full of restless energy. Suddenly, without idea or direction, without a character named or developed, I began to write a sketch for

I still had the anger, the hot fuel to drive it. Even a book as big as
had barely skimmed the foam off the top of that volcanic kettle.

The following month, to my great amazement, I had a second book virtually ready to send to New York.

There’s a principle that writers sometimes talk about when they gather in pubs or mingle with each other at cocktail parties. John Williams, who won a National Book Award for his novel
, described it to me this way. You break the book’s back. Call it what you will—getting a bead on it, seeing it at last for what it really is, finding the path to True North and having it all slip into place—whatever you call it, there’s not a writer on earth who has not had that experience. You struggle with concepts big and small for weeks, months, years, and then it breaks and you see so clearly how it needs to go. How long it takes to reach this point is what determines the answer to the question that started this essay a few pages ago. The silliest inconsistencies hang you up forever. The smallest obstacle creates a ripple effect when you tinker with it, and the more you tinker with it the bigger the impact on material already written and yet to come. It can cascade back through the book with the power of a tidal wave, washing away your underpinnings and eroding your foundations. When this happens, you do what people along the Mississippi do every other year or so—you pick up your soggy stuff, rebuild your house and go on with it. If Jane simply must become Cynthia, with devastating consequences for Robert, you suck it up and let her do it. If Robert then jumps off a bridge, you follow that line and see where it goes. You follow your people into their various scenes knowing that every incident has its opposite possibility. The same thing could happen in another place, or between different characters, or with different results. Indecision and doubt ride with you day and night. The alternate worlds that can rise up in any one novel are terrifying as you contemplate working up yet another one. Your hero takes a turn and you can’t know if it’s right until sixty pages have passed and the trail has petered out in a box canyon. John Fowles, in
The French Lieutenant’s Woman,
wanted Charles to turn left and go back to town; Charles went right instead, down to the dairy to meet Sarah. Charles is motivated by something Fowles can’t yet understand, but it works. If it had not, I believe Fowles would tinker until it did.

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