Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Literary Sunsets

Readers tell me they think the single most important aspect of a book is the ending. A woman at a Left Coast Crime Convention said, "If the author doesn't get the ending just right, it doesn't matter how good the rest of the book was. It's still ruined for me."

So I work hard at my endings. No exaggeration to say I rewrite them fifty, seventy-five, a hundred times. I may change the whole thing, or just one word. I may reinstate an earlier version, then go back to a different earlier version. I move phrases and sentences around. Square One and I get to know each other very well.

The moral and ethical questions in my upcoming book, A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, are complex, and I struggled to bring the action to, to the proper close. I've never put more effort into the final chapter of a book. As I worked late one afternoon, adding, deleting, revising, I glanced out the window into the sunset. It had been a typical Seattle January day, cloudy, drizzly, damp. In a word, bleak. I was anticipating one of those typical January sunsets, where the sun, absent all day, would go down without notice, leaving us to the gathering darkness. Like the last page of a Patricia Highsmith novel.

But just as the sun approached the horizon, it broke through the clouds and lit the sky, forming a magnificent pattern of brilliant orange and lustrous salmon-pink over ever-shifting streaks of gray. That brief blaze seemed to redeem the whole dreary day. Much more impressive, even, than those sunsets in July, when the flaming sun suddenly drops out of a cloudless sky to vanish behind the Olympic Mountains. All's well that ends well. Like the final number of a stage musical.

A low-note Highsmith ending wouldn't do, I thought. Not for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, and probably not for any book I'd write. But neither would a stage-musical finale ring true for this story. My protagonist had done seriously wrong (if at least partially for good reasons), and he couldn't march, smiling, out of the novel. There would be sunshine at the end, but it would need to be filtered through carefully-laid out cloud cover, just so, such that when readers would close the back cover of the book, they'd smile, and say, "Yeah."

I think I finally got it right. I hope I did.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Confessions Of The Chocolate Fiend

I've noticed that mystery readers also have particular fondness for cats and chocolate. I like cats, myself, but chocolate? There's an obsession.

This goes back a long, long time, to when I was a teenager, sprouting the customary crop of acne, which unglued my mother no end. She forbade me to even sniff the brown skin poison, which made it necessary for me to stop at the corner confectionery on the way home, buy a chocolate ice-cream cone, a Hershey bar, or both, and make sure I consumed them before I darkened Mother's door.

Let no one tell you such behavior has no basis in heredity. From earliest childhood, my daughter Erin was also a chocolate fiend. She would sneak packages of chocolate pudding powder from the kitchen shelves, take them up to her room, open the box, wet her finger, dunk, and enjoy. When Myra, my wife, and I found empty boxes under her bed, Myra got upset. I suggested we ignore the matter, figuring that in those days (the early to mid-seventies), there were a lot worse substances Erin could've been sneaking.

One Saturday, when Erin was about twelve, she, her brother, and Myra went out, and I stayed home, writing. All of a sudden, I had an uncontrollable craving for chocolate. But the cupboard was bare. So - and I swear, this is just the way it happened - I walked into Erin's bedroom, opened the top left drawer of her eight-drawer dresser, reached beneath a pile of underwear, and closed my shaking fingers around a 3-inch-diameter lump of dark chocolate. Okay, I thought, I'll take just one bite.

After I'd reduced the heavenly block to about a half-inch square, I told myself I really ought to leave something for Erin for her own next emergency. So I returned the uneaten remnant to its resting place, and went back, sighing contently, to my typewriter.

Nothing further was said until many years later. I don't remember the trigger, but some chocolate-related remark prompted me to ask Erin, "Do you remember...?"

I thought she'd slug me. "Yes, I remember!" she barked. "You left me this tiny little piece of chocolate with tooth marks all over it. But you know what pissed me off the most? I couldn't say a word to you about it because I wasn't supposed to be hiding chocolate."

I told her there were worse substances I could've been sneaking in those days.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphobe or Triskaidekaphile

Am I a triskaidekaphobe or a triskaidekaphile? Seven-thirteen's an interesting combination, the lucky number up against the inauspicious one. I always pause on July thirteenth to remember a signal event in my own life. Forty-six years ago today, I reported for active duty in the U.S. Navy. Remember the draft? In 1965, every doctor served in the military.

Talk about culture shock. I'd spent my entire life in schools and medical academic institutions, where reason and logic ruled. No more. Authority was determined solely by the number of stripes on a shoulder, and that authority was absolute and often frightening. On my third day at work, the captain at the little Naval Air Station hospital told me we'd do a cesarean the next day on a woman whose condition not only did not indicate a section; it actually contraindicated that course. "Y'know why we're gonna do a section, Dr. Karp?" the captain asked me. When I couldn't give an answer, he shouted, "Because I'm the captain and I say so." Then, he blew out of the room. Consequently, I was up all night, surreptitiously inducing the woman's labor, and getting her delivered vaginally, an action that could have gotten me court-martialed. When the captain came in the next day and saw the patient had delivered (supposedly spontaneously), he said, "Well, guess we don't have to section her." After he left, the other drafted obstetrician, who'd already served his first year, whispered to me, "Whew. I didn't think he'd let a small thing like there was no more baby inside stop him."

I spent two years on the edge, never sure when the captain might decide to arrange to have me sent to, as he put it, "Veet Nam." At one point, he told all the doctors's wives that they would spend the upcoming weekend making curtains for the hospital, in anticipation of an inspection by D.C. bigwigs which he hoped would lead to his promotion to admiral. When my wife told him she was not in the Navy and subject to his commands, he replied, "That's true, you're not. But your husband is, so you have a choice. Make the curtains, or next week, your husband's in Veet Nam." She made the curtains. The captain did not make admiral, the only bit of proper justice I was witness to in my military life.

I wrote down every scary and weird episode: one day, I'd write a book. And I did. I called it, ARE YOU A REAL DOCTOR OR A NAVY DOCTOR? because of the frequent question from the wives of enlisted men, who believed that some of their doctors were drafted after medical training (real doctors), and the others were corpsmen who'd been promoted to officer status (Navy doctors). But when I was ready to send my book to editors and agents, a friend told me I ought to read another book about crazy military experiences. And when I finished CATCH-22, all I could do was sigh, stick away my manuscript in a desk drawer, and go on to the next project. The Navy got the last laugh.

So, where was the luck? What about the seven in July thirteenth? My military service had interrupted my residency, and the other obstetrician who served with me referred me to a superlative program, where I finished that aspect of my training. In the process, I became aware of professional opportunities I probably would never have thought of in other programs, the upshot being that I landed in Seattle, spent my medical career in a most interesting line of medical work until the scribbling bug became irresistible, and then I was able to do a quick sidestep into full-time mystery-novel writing. Now, seven books later, with the eighth (A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, due out from Poisoned Pen Press in December), I have no cause for regret.

True, I don't know how I might have ended up had the Navy never snagged me, but given the course I was on at the time, I've got to think I did well to have been sidetracked. Bottom line, you play the hand you're dealt as well as you can, and hope the sevens outrank the thirteens.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Say It (correctly) With Music

I got more than a terrific musical performance this past Sunday. During their concert at Reutlinger's Victorian Palace in San Francisco, violinist David Reffkin, leader of the American Ragtime Ensemble, and St. Louis ragtime pianist Dr. Dave Majzchrak, did a real number on a bit of common verbal misconduct.

"Maple Leaf Rag, by Scott Joplin, is such a well-known composition," said Reffkin, "that pianists often say they know it forward and backward. But when was the last time you heard someone actually play Maple Leaf Rag backward? "

Whereupon, the two musicians proceeded to do exactly that. Very odd experience. Reffkin said it might have been the toughest musical transcription he'd ever done. I believe that.

Reffkin could have taken the fun even further. Does it literally blow you away to hear people say "literally" when they mean "figuratively?" But when the pianist and the violinist said they knew Maple Leaf Rag backward, that's just what they meant, folks. Literally.