Literary Art at the Junction of Life and Death

The call came to my landline as I was finishing my first cup of coffee of the morning. The CID showed the first name of one of my clients, with whom I had a Zoom scheduled later that morning. In 25 minutes, to be exact. So why was he calling now?

“William, hi.” (Names are changed to protect the honorable.)

“Hi, Ben. Sorry, I didn’t know if you got my text. I do want to have our discussion, but could you call me at nine? I’m going to be walking to the hospital, I’ve taken my mother off life-support.”

“Oh my god, William, I’m so sorry!” I knew that his mother was elderly and her health frail, but I didn’t realize things were at this point. William had been working on rewrites on his novel, and he’d also taken a vacation, so we’d last spoken three weeks prior.

He explained that it was inevitable, and it was all happening now, and a lot was up in the air, but he wanted to keep our appointment. “It’ll take my mind off of things.”

I called him back at nine. The agenda items, established via email some days ago, were a remarks from beta readers of his cozy mystery set in the boroughs of New York City across time — a Science Fiction element, an object with special powers, enabled the narrative to relate events of the past from various points of view. William’s first novel, it has a lightly comic tone, and involves a budding romance, a scoundrel brother, and two cold-case murders in Long Island.

My chat with William took place — predictably — over (or perhaps under) the sounds of ambulance sirens, car horns, and rumbling truck engines. It was sunny and quiet in my yard 100 miles away and I wished the same sunny yellow for William’s morning, as he walked what was sure to be a memorable walk. I pictured the many Rite Aids, Pret-a-Mangers and crosswalks of his world. I believe the closest hospital to his residence is NY Presbyterian. Of course I asked him how he was doing.

“Right now, I just hope I get there in time to say good-bye.”

Good lord! This was not in my job description, but then no one has ever written up my job description for what I do. “So you’re a writing counselor too,” my client Darla (innocent, honorable) remarked last week, having vented and lamented her sorrows and struggles around her novel-in-progress and received my condolences and encouragement. She’d already received, successively, instruction and line edits.

But I never offered to let William go or reschedule this talk. This is what he wished to speak of now, and I wouldn’t deny him. He explained that several beta readers want to understand why one character is romantically attracted to his protagonist, the amateur sleuth with the voracious appetite, limited social skills, and on-the-spectrum mind.

Honk! Honk!

At times I waited for greater quiet, before responding. “Okay, go ahead,” William would say when the traffic quieted. Some blocks ahead of him I envisioned an elderly lady in a hospital gown, on some upper floor, in a small room, propped up on a mechanical bed, surrounded by rails, alone, her wrinkled face and gray hair, her look of exhaustion (all indications for me are that death will be an amplification of my current fatigue) and perhaps loneliness or fear. Was she wondering where her son was, how soon he would be there?

We talked about the general technique of using real-life characters as the foundation for fictional characters. William had told me several times that his protagonist was based on his nephew’s poor social skills and social awkwardness. The nephew once weighed 450 lbs, but now, after stomach-stapling surgery, rocked a trim and handsome 280. “He’s a gem, but one that takes some digging to unearth.” (One of William’s better lines of all time.) “And his wife is a delight! Beautiful, accomplished, and she adores him!”

William, always quick to accept deficiencies in his work, said of his protagonist, “You know, I get him, but I don’t know that it’s coming across on the page. Several people have said that the weakest character in the book is the main character. Isn’t that a problem?”

I’ll call William’s characters Romeo and Juliet.

“William,” I said, “when comes to your beta reader’s remarks, it’s a bit of smoke and mirrors. Yes, you could write 4, 6, 8 or 10 pages of summary exposition exploring Juliet’s past, explaining her family background, her tastes, her preferences, her everything. You can put her on the couch and show that you know her inside and out, and connect it to the moment that she meets Romeo. But all that’s really required is to present something dramatically that offers an explanation. Something that demonstrates there’s a spark, that points to what she and Romeo have in common, and where the attraction lies.”

As it happens, the first time Romeo meets Juliet, she knocks on his apartment door as he lays immobile and in great pain, recovering from a violently physical ejection from a gay bar by a gorilla-sized bouncer (see “lightly comic”), and when Romeo opens it, she’s wearing a t-shirt with a funny slogan about math. In the ensuing scene, she explains that she works as an SAT math tutor.

“So, Romeo only needs to say something like, ‘Algebra is my favorite subject.’ Or better yet, to make it more particular. Like, what about: ‘Oh, you tutor math? Can you believe the revised state standards for Grade 10 in Algebra have removed almost all the benchmarks around the Pythagorean theorem?’ ”

“And Juliet might reply, ‘Oh, I know! How are kids going to understand derivatives if they don’t know a2+b2=c2?’ ”

“ ‘When they get to Calc 1, you mean?’ ”

“ ‘Yes, of course.’ ”

All my students and clients understand that my examples are broad and cheesy and only demonstrate techniques and should not be judged on their style or savvy. (Despite this, occasionally I do grant permission for students to adopt my scene ideas, or include lines of dialogue or description that I’ve crafted on the fly in discussion.)

NEE ner! NEE ner! NEE ner!

I pictured a towering hospital building above William, a semi-circular driveway leading into an ER drop-off just before him. I’d personally been hauled to Bellevue in Midtown once, suffering from severe food poisoning — scallops and squid ink were the special at a hotel restaurant, but that’s another story. All hospitals have those semi-circular drives, even in the heart of Manhattan.

“This is great!” William cried. He was happy to know that his characters weren’t totally inscrutable and that he wouldn’t have to go back to the drawing board entirely. I pictured him smiling even as other hospital visitors plodded dolefully into the double doors bearing sad gifts.

We talked about the second feedback point from his beta readers, which noted that the solution to the cold-case came relatively easily. Yes, Romeo and Juliet’s solving of the case required a visit the NYPL and a long day of digging through a records room at an elder care facility (subtext?! autobiographical overtone?!), and taking a few meetings with detectives to present their evidence, but then the excavation happens, and the bones are located, and that is that.

William spoke in terms of a “twist” to add; I spoke in the classic plot jargon of the fiction craft instructor: what kind of obstacle can be introduced?

“Of course, there’s internal and external. Internal: does Romeo or Juliet decide they have some moral opposition to what they’re doing? Or external: what agent could come along and oppose what they’re doing, hindering it? If for example some heir or offspring of Mr. Porter [the accused] were to come out of the woodwork and learn that the cold case was being re-opened, said character could have the incentive to quash the investigation.”

William groaned skeptically.

“But let’s think outside the box. What if the [object with special powers] goes missing?”

“Oh, that would be interesting.”

“Remember the film Spartacus? One by one, men step forward. ‘I’m Spartacus!’ ‘No, I am Spartacus.’ The real Spartacus is lost in a sea of confessors, thus he cannot be apprehended and tried. What if the [object with special powers] is tossed in a dish containing many more just like it? That’d be a real problem for them.”

He liked this idea. Now William’s tone was really engaged and excited, and you don’t need to know the entire course of the conversation, only that we arrived at something that appealed to him greatly, and he asked me to email him a short summary of this idea, because though the walk and talk was great, he wasn’t at his computer and couldn’t write it down.

Beeeeep! GRRRRR — — rumble, clank clank clank

It felt to me like it was time for him to go inside.

That idea was thought-provoking. Anonymity as obstacle. Undifferentiation as loss. And there was a way in which William on the streets of midtown Manhattan was as indistinguishable as the many similar adult children of the dying entering the hospital in grave spirits. There was a way in which this morning was indistinguishable from many other mornings had by both William and me. There was a way that William’s mother, in my mind, began to resemble the elderly woman in the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza confesses his bank password to her, believing she’s comatose, and she wakes to repeat it as her last words: “Bosco! Bosco!”, mystifying and angering her grieving son, George’s colleague. There was a way in which the dish idea wouldn’t work at all, because the object had a distinct feature which would in fact make it stand out, and also functionally it was a bit like the key fob to my Prius, which I often leave somewhere in the bowels of my tennis bag or tote bag. I don’t know it’s whereabouts, but I’m able to power on the car because it’s detected as being in the cabin. William’s Sci-Fi object might bear those traits — that was uncertain.

I gladly wrote up our meeting notes for William just before composing this, and I closed with: “William, I wish you solace and comfort as you bravely face the passing of your mother.” Thus concluded my morning client meeting about fiction.


What I didn’t note — the part I left out — is a third feedback remark from William’s beta readers. Some said that Romeo’s family (the erstwhile Montagues, if you will) where kind of stereotypical and needed to be rounded out. I said I disagreed. They are minor characters, off-camera (quote/unquote) in a scene in which Romeo speaks with them on the phone, and featured in a dinner scene late in the story. The mother is overbearing, passive-aggressive, and clearly preferential of Romeo’s rich, successful brother (the scoundrel). I found her depiction true-to-life and funny, and the father’s dry, less garrulous manner a nice compliment to mother’s histrionics. William was relieved to hear this.

I realize now that my brain’s invocation of the Seinfeld character was informed by the eternal doubt that Mrs. Costanza has for her son. E.g., “Why would they hire you?” “Who would want to date you?” Romeo’s mother often takes the same tone and makes the same unguarded, hurtful remarks.

I can hardly conclude with words of advice for all writers that one must pull the plug on our doubters, can I? That would be beyond insensitive. So instead:

I imagined a lot while speaking with William. The sounds of his world told a story, as did his voice. And I realized afterwards that I never had to imagine William’s entrance into that hospital room. What would his mother say, if she could say anything? I didn’t believe she knew of the book, in all likelihood. I don’t believe she even knows that William has written a book, so I supposed that William’s conversation with me would not be spoken of. That, perhaps, is for the best.