I am very happy to be here tonight, for two reasons. First, I would have no bibliomystery series and no current project without Norlin Library and its experts. Second, I can’t imagine a more delightful crowd than one filled with fellow bibliophiles…who also love dessert.
To celebrate CU’s libraries tonight, and the wonder of all things book-related, I would like to share some of the weird and wonderful mysteries of my writing career. When Winston Churchill said, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…”, he was talking about the Russians. But he might as well have been talking about writing fiction. When I got serious about fiction writing seventeen years ago, I had no idea that the universe exerted a cosmic irony on this profession – or, if you prefer, that God had such a playful and mischievous sense of humor. There have been funny moments, strange twists of fate and, underlying it all, the great mystery of the creative process. And, finally, an unwritten mystery having to do with Norlin itself…
Let’s start with the riddle and move toward the enigma.
When I gave myself up to the creative universe, I had no idea it would toy with me. Maybe I asked for it when I named my first book, which was submitted as an unsolicited manuscript, Unsolicited. But honestly, when I proposed a book called Unprintable, I never thought that would make it literally unprintable.
The first hint of trouble came when a fax rolled off the machine from my editor. The first thing you learn about New York publishing is that you rarely hear from anyone unless something is terribly wrong, or you’ve made the New York Times bestseller list. Somehow I knew that wasn’t the case here! My editor had just read the finished manuscript and deemed it unprintable. She wanted a rewrite.
I didn’t realize quite how huge a disaster this was until I mentioned it to a few writer friends. One came with food, as if it were a bereavement. Another offered babysitting. Another offered her house in the mountains. And my own husband sacrificed his notebook computer – still a novelty at the time. Finally, an experienced writer friend got my husband on the phone and told him to keep an eye on me – evidently, when faced with a rewrite, writers sometimes resort to drastic measures. But I rewrote the book at my friend’s mountain house and was happy with it in the end, much humbled and grateful to my editor for having forced me to improve it.
Okay – my book had been literally unprintable. But we were not done yet…every good drama has three acts. I didn’t know it, but we were just heading into Act Two. On the day of my rewrite deadline, I knew I had to Fedex the book to New York by 2 or 3 – it was my day to help the Girl Scout troop leader that afternoon. I renumbered the pages, rewrote the acknowledgements to recognize the food provider, babysitting provider, condo-provider, laptop provider and advice provider – and began to print it out. But after a chapter it stopped; the printer was out of toner. When I opened the drawer, there was no toner there: we had thought I was finished with this book and hadn’t replenished reserves yet. No problem, the drive to the office supply store and back only took half an hour or so. But I had no sooner got the pages rolling through the mechanism with that satisfying click, than a box flashed up onto my screen. It was one I hadn’t seen before:
THIS PRINTER HAS PRODUCED THE REQUIRED NUMBER OF COPIES FOR ITS LIFETIME. PLEASE CONTACT MANUFACTURER FOR REFURBISHMENT IF DESIRED.
I could not believe such a thing could happen – I’d heard of planned obsolescence, but since when do printers only promise to produce a finite number of copies? My Alex Plumtree-like husband rescued me again; I e-mailed him the chapters and he printed them out for me. I made the deadline and the Girl Scout meeting, in a little bit of a state. But all was well, I had printed the book that had threatened to be unprintable…
Except that I had forgotten about Act Three. A week later, a call from the 212 area code with a RANDOM HOUSE caller ID came through, always a fearful prospect. Again, there was no doubt: I had not made the NYT bestseller list. There could be no wonderful reviews in, because the book had not been published yet. I held my breath: did they want another rewrite? Was my editor cancelling the contract? I answered with great trepidation. It was indeed my editor’s assistant. “I’m sorry, Julie. I’m afraid we have a problem.” She sighed, but I could have laughed out loud. The print on my manuscript was too pale, after having been copied for editing. Production couldn’t start until I printed out a darker copy. I think at this point I finally smiled and had a good laugh with the assistant about the dark book that had become literally Unprintable.
On to the mystery: the weird, inexplicable interplays between fiction and real life.
In my second book, Unbound, when I was still pretty naïve, I happened to mention that my character spotted a book by Samuel Pepys on a library table. I am ashamed to admit that I threw in Pepys’s name because I had always heard of him, knew he was quintessentially English, and liked the strangeness of his name. I had also mentioned in that book that my character, Alex Plumtree, had gone to Magdalen College at Cambridge. Again, I am embarrassed to admit that I did this solely out of enjoyment of the strange name and its strange pronunciation. For my fifth book, Uncatalogued, I thought I would make Samuel Pepys the historical center, and his famous diary the literary center.
So imagine my surprise when, in the course of reading his diary, I learned that Pepys was an inveterate bibliophile and book collector – like Alex Plumtree. That he had attended Magdalen College at Cambridge – like Alex Plumtree. That Pepys had slowly lost his sight, over the course of writing his diaries – as Alex Plumtree was losing his. That he had been the Secretary of the Navy Board under Charles II, as Alex Plumtree was the officer of his rowing club near London. I had, without knowing a thing about Samuel Pepys, patterned my protagonist after him – England’s most famous bibliophile and book collector. And as every mystery reader and writer knows, there really is no such thing as coincidence.
There are many, many more of these odd overlaps of fiction and reality. In one book, I am sorry to say, I had some book-dealer baddies nearly succeed in doing away with Princess Diana as part of a conspiracy. The summer after that book came out, she was dead – though we know now, it was no conspiracy. I wish with all my heart that I had not written about her.
Nor should I, in another book, have created a fictional act of terrorism in the financial center of London, complete with buildings collapsing into the street. Far too much like real life – I just didn’t know it then.
Every time these things happen I shiver just a little bit, and think about the goosepimply link between fiction and reality that sometimes feels a little too real.
Finally, the enigma: the awe-inspiring mystery of creativity. Madeline l’Engle, a brilliant writer and thinker, wrote about a link between creativity and something greater than us. It certainly feels that way to a writer.
Characters: Alexandra Plumtree. First, there’s the way characters the characters you create actually seem to exist. If you write something they would never say, it’s like getting that little “blunk!” error sound on your computer. It just doesn’t work. You can’t force the character to do what you want. For instance, I started writing my booklover’s series with a female character. But Alexandra Plumtree just didn’t work. The minute I switched her to a man, he was real, and everything gelled. I still don’t know why, and even I think it’s a little weird that I write a male protagonist. I try not to think about it too much!
Letter to Grace. For the book I’ve been working on for the last five years, I couldn’t quite get the voice of my new character. She lives in London in the year 1670, and I had researched the speech of that era extensively – Pepys’s diaries again. A writer friend told me to write my character a letter, and have her answer back. I don’t blame those of you who are rolling your eyes right now. But this actually worked! The letter back from her was the voice I used for her next 500 pages.
Getting ideas. Then there’s the way the ideas come. Recently I heard a speaker at a writer’s conference talk about the way your brain is completely open and available for you to access its riches when you wake up. This may be true – it might be a physical phenomenon. But I have had many ideas between waking and sleeping, even one entire book – Unbound – upon waking, and it feels like something pretty special. It feels as though someone has just dropped a remarkably detailed, complicated book in my lap like a gift. For me, there is a feeling of a presence at these times – even when ideas come in the middle of a session at the computer at the kitchen table. It feels as though there is something greater than me at work, granting me a moment’s insight to another world.
Woo-woo/Elizabeth George. Mystery writers often talk about woo-woo – it means anything supernatural thrown into a plot. Well, what we do is woo-woo, in my opinion. These bolts from the blue can’t be controlled. Elizabeth George, one of my favorite mystery writers, wrote one of her books about this issue – the scariness of having something outside of ourselves in control of something so important. In For the Sake of Elena, one of the characters finds herself nearly berserk with fear that she has lost her creativity – the magic part of her life as a painter. Elizabeth George acknowledged, by putting this at the center of the plot, that the loss of this creative spark would be enough to destroy someone who had once had it.
My husband, the noble role model for my series protagonist Alex Plumtree, tells me not to worry. He believes it’s not all as mysterious and supernatural as I think, that the ideas grow out of some deeply buried knowledge of historical fact. But it doesn’t feel like that.
Einstein. To sum up creativity, I must quote a master: none other than Albert Einstein. Einstein said, “There are two ways to go through life. You can live as if nothing is a miracle, or as if everything is a miracle.” Maybe you can see why I come down on the side of non-stop wonders.
But finally, a little story about C.U. I owe C.U.’s libraries a great deal, far more than I have paid in hiring the CTRC to conduct research. They discovered 16th-century sources for my current novel that I couldn’t find anywhere else, some of which I travelled to the British Library to see. They also had books I couldn’t get anywhere else. The professionals of the C.U. Rare Books Room welcomed me and my questions about vellum manuscripts, got out their ultraviolet light, and showed me what a palimpsest would look like. We even wore white gloves to avoid soiling the codex pages.
And then they showed me to what I will call the “Mystery Annex”, where the books on books are kept. This is something that could turn into a wonderful novel. In this secluded corner of Norlin, where the British Library publications hide, it is very quiet and remote. It is always deserted. No one would hear you scream. One night, I was feeling as though another miracle had just occurred, having found authentic bound records from the British Library – right here in Boulder! – when I pulled out one of the oversized volumes from a lower shelf. They’re stored horizontally. With it came a bulging wallet, inches thick with bills, that had been tucked deep into the shadows.
It started me thinking, because it looked so deliberately hidden. Had someone left it there for a reason? Safety, maybe? Or had I stumbled into the midst of a drug deal, or a payoff for something more sinister? Was someone waiting for me to leave so he could come and take it, and leave his merchandise? In fact, was someone hiding there, watching me at that very moment? Of course the right thing to do, what Alex Plumtree would do, would be to take it to the library’s lost and found…but it seemed that someone meant for it to be there. In the end I left it where it was, and have been thinking of it ever since. The story remains unwritten…but I’d better not name it that, or it might follow in the footsteps of Unsolicited, Unprintable and Unsold. I think I’ll name it Unforgotten.
Three cheers for CU’s Friends of the Libraries, from all of us who couldn’t function without you.