As a writer I’ve had the great good luck of having an unusual variety of careers. I’ve been the assistant curator of a museum, worked for a radio telescope observatory and for several years I was the lead reviewer and feature writer for The Saratogian newspaper, covering the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and its resident companies, the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra— among many others — as well as writing a wide variety of features, great experience for anyone who wants to write. I’ve been a media and advertising consultant, a web designer and a professional political campaign manager. I’ve written several books, including the novels New York Station and its sequel The Hungry Blade, with several more in the works.
New York Station and The Hungry Blade are based on two little known but true stories: first, the Nazi German intelligence service, the Abwehr, tried to rig the 1940 Presidential election. Hitler— and Nazi Germany— feared President Roosevelt so much they sent five million dollars to the US to block his renomination and reelection. This was an enormous sum coming out of the Great Depression, the cost then of one hundred Spitfire fighter planes or five naval destroyers. At one point it is known that $160,000 was spent just to bribe the thirty-nine members of Pennsylvania delegation to the Democratic National Convention to not vote for Roosevelt— that $4,000 per delegate would’ve bought a large mansion in a prestige suburban neighborhood. At another point Hans Thomsen, the top Nazi diplomat in the US, asked Berlin for permission to stop keeping records of how this vast sum was being spent— he knew how potentially explosive it was if it were to leak. The Nazi effort was the most expensive espionage project in history until that time. By comparison the entire British Secret Intelligence Service in 1939 was only budgeted a mere £700,000.
Second, as the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over England, Britain created a covert organization based in Rockefeller Center called British Security Coordination, staffed mainly by Canadians. It initially had two roles: if Britain fell to the Nazis as France had, the British government was not going to surrender. A government in-exile, the fleet and the Royal Family were to go to Canada. BSC was to direct resistance inside Occupied Britain through a neutral United States. In the event Britain won the Battle of Britain and survived for a time (very far from a sure thing), BSC was to fight Nazi espionage and influence in the US, the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere in the world, and hopefully develop cooperation between Britain and the United States. BSC later helped organize the US’s first true intelligence agency, the World War Two OSS.
The Hungry Blade is also based on several true stories: after its early victories Nazi Germany launched an industrial scale program to loot Europe’s art treasures. Some of these they took for themselves, others, particularly modern art works, which they despised but were valuable, were sold abroad with many going all over the world. The Nazis were also active in the Western Hemisphere outside of the US, including Mexico, then under the progressive leadership of Lázaro Cárdenas. He, along with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, appear briefly in the story.
It is important for every writer to understand his or her writing is their job. You have to work at it like anything else. My experience is that if you get into it, ideas and inspiration tends to follow. If its bad to start, you can always edit that out later.
Sticking with it often brings discoveries. When I was writing The Hungry Blade I discovered that the legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo spoke German. Her father Guillermo Kahlo was a German immigrant to Mexico and became one of Mexico’s leading photographers— a real artist himself. I did not realize that initially and it opened up new vistas on where my story could go. If you keep plugging away, you will find things like that.
That said, sometimes things do come together in a sort of epiphany. It is rare, but a wonderful moment. That happened to me with New York Station. At the time I was working for the Saratogian newspaper. After I completed my reviews we would have to wait for the page to be locked before we were released, and I would shoot the breeze with the other reporters. That’s when I heard about Riley’s Lake House, a legendary but mysterious Art Deco casino outside of Saratoga that had been closed for decades. I couldn’t resist, I had to see it and I snuck out to look. At the same time much of the secret history of the Second World War and its intelligence operations was finally coming out. I knew that Britain had set up an operation in Rockefeller Center to fight the Nazis, and that, amazingly enough, James Bond author Ian Fleming had been a part of it and had spent time in the Saratoga area. At the same time I had been curious for a long time about the Isolationist Era before WWII and why it had taken Pearl Harbor to get the US into the war. As I looked through the big plate glass doors of Riley’s at its amazing interior, all that suddenly came together in mind, and I saw what would become New York Station in a flash— a thrilling moment.
Work and inspiration aside, one of the banes of the writer’s life is writer’s block. There must be an awful lot of it out there because I get asked about it regularly. My take: writer’s block is your subconscious telling you that something is wrong. That’s my experience. You have to listen to it as a message from a deep level of mind and figure out what it’s saying to you and find out what is not right with what you are doing or writing.
That kind of deep listening will help you avoid making big mistakes in your writing, which is most often that there is something that is inauthentic in your writing, or that you are operating outside of your knowledge and need to learn more or research more. As Hemingway famously said, as a writer you have to have a 100% foolproof bullshit detector. If the setting or environment or character motivation is false in some way, the reader will sense it too, and drop the book. Do people really talk that way? Or do your characters talk too much? The possibilities are legion, but you have to get it right for it to feel authentic and for readers to project themselves into the story and identify with the characters, so that it is about them, which is the essence of fiction.
Of course, not everyone will agree with you. You simply have to get used to that. Every writer gets bad reviews. There are websites full of bad reviews that were given to great books and great writers— they make amusing reading if you are in the right kind of mood. If you write enough, you will get bad reviews. They happen to the best of us. But as Napoleon said of himself, you have to believe in your own star. At the same time, you do have to listen, because maybe, just maybe, they know or see something you do not. Hubris is your enemy, too, you don’t want to wind up on a literary Elba.
In the end you have to satisfy yourself. It’s your name on the spine, not a committee’s or someone else’s. And I think, on a fundamental level, you have to enjoy your book or your work yourself. If you aren’t enjoying it, why would anyone else? And sometimes the goal is to bring others around to the way you see the world. That is one of the great powers of fiction.
Watch for The Hungry Blade coming in paperback July 6th!