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Show some respect, trees died for this

Free words, at the door of The Little Theatre.

The internet is of limited authenticity. Anyone with access to a computer can type a manifesto, oblivious to spelling, grammar and logic, and launch it into the clouds.

Printed books are so much more superior. The book has been passed from the writer to editors, to designers who select type faces and the weight of paper and a photo for the cover, to marketers who decide the best way to present the finished product to the public.

Book are the gems of our culture, treasures. We give them as gifts. We quote from them. We recommend books to friends, what we’re reading is always a subject of conversation.

So when we walked out of The Little Theatre on Sunday night, after watching the excellent documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” I took a moment to peer into the free library box at the front door. One of those sprightly painted cabinets where people can drop off books they no longer want or need, and someone else stops by, browses for a moment and maybe walks off with a book on trimming shrubs. Useful stuff. Or a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s hallucinogenic, anti-Soviet novel, “The Master and Margarita.” Heady stuff. Free books, a person-to-person transaction of advice or literature. Just as I always look at a book store’s display of picks by its employees, I’m curious as to what readers have taken the time to pass on to a stranger.

And there, in The Little’s free library box… was my book, “22 Minutes.” The story of my friend, Ernie Coleman, the legendary Lake Ontario sailor, carpenter, dancer, survivor of the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy, the Battle of Savo Island.

What did this mean, stumbling across something I’d written, on a Sunday night, right next to a James Patterson novel, and a Ralph Compton western, “Ride the Hard Trail,” free for the taking? Perhaps someone bought it, started reading and then decided, “Nah, it’s not for me.”

Was it one of the copies I’d autographed? I pulled it from the shelf and opened the book. Yes, someone had written something on the blank first page. But it wasn’t my autograph.

A great read by local author Jeff Spevak about a Rochesterian of note! Also follow Jeff on Facebook and at jeffspevak.com for regular thoughtful blog posts! Enjoy!

Perhaps the words of a friend, I don’t know. The second sentence reads like a commercial. The best review I could have ever asked for. And then, a second comment, in printing that looks like it might have come from a different hand:

Remember: Trees died for this!

Was this a criticism of the book, as a waste of paper? Or the wail of a millennial coming to the defense of eBooks? Read into it what you want. I prefer to think those words were the work of a conscientious human, a defender of the environment, offering yet another reason to pass on a book to the next reader.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Thinking of kind of a dystopian thing

More than 100 aspiring authors gathered at Rochester Riverside Hotel a week ago. All had signed on for Writers & Books’ The Ladder Literary Conference. Aspiring authors, all levels of wordsmiths, both fiction and non-fiction, sizing up each other, evaluating the odds that their brilliance might be recognized by one of the literary agents on the panels. Panels such as “Crafting Character” or “How Not to Be an Amateur Poet.” Perhaps these aspiring authors would pick up a brilliant morsel of advice that opens the seemingly airtight door between them and literary acclaim.

We were quietly asking each other: “Sooooo, what’re you working on?”

“I’m thinking of kind of a dystopian thing…,” My Friend Patrick said.

Dystopian. I heard that word quite a few times over the course of the day-long conference. Not exactly a word that comes up in everyday conversation. Let’s look it up.

Dystopian (adjective). Relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Here are some well-known examples. The titan of dystopia, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the temperature at which books burn. H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” imaging a world in which Japan and Germany win World War II. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” for our conservative friends. Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange.” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a world in which women are reduced to breeding machines. And most recently, Omar El Akkad’s “American War,” published in 2017, a story of civil war fought over climate change.

That’s just a sampler. I’ve read most of them. Tragedies for any taste. I guess I like bad news.

That was the vibe I was picking up on, from these writers at The Ladder. Writers, they’re the barometers of bad times.

And what storm is it that now drives these thoughts, sending them flitting across our laptop screens like pages from a newspaper blown down a deserted street? Donald Trump, of course. Dystopian Donald. The new inspiration for today’s fiction writers.

And, the man who destroyed my dystopian novel.

I wrote it a few years ago, after My Friends Paul and Liz allowed me to paw through a handful of first drafts left behind by Liz’s father, who had died a few years earlier. Leslie Waller wrote best sellers such as “Dog Day Afternoon.” He even ghost-wrote the book accompanying Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The challenge: update for the contemporary reader one of Waller’s in-utero manuscripts, pounded out on his typewriter. I selected from the pile a thriller about eco-terrorists kidnapping a Nixon-like president. Working feverishly at the crack of dawn virtually every morning, I updated that character as a president who now sounded suspiciously like George W. Bush.

In “The President’s Confession,” I used Bush’s actual words to create a portrait of a corrupt, morally-challenged former president who lies the nation into folly and is now being tortured into confessing the sins of his administration. Lies that are broadcast to the rest of the world.

I even worked on this thing for months with a veteran agent, before she seemed to lose interest. I’ve had a few experiences like that on other manuscripts; agents who are like kittens playing with a ball of yarn, until someone tosses a new ball of yarn onto the floor, and they start playing with that one.

Either the idea of an American president as the center of an international thriller is brilliant, or it’s too obvious. Because last year former President Bill Clinton teamed up with mega-typist James Patterson and beat me to the publishers with “The President is Missing,” a best seller – I hear it’s also going to be a Showtime mini-series – featuring a president who slips away from the Secret Service so he can do his work unencumbered by watchdogs.

My president, Frederick W. Field, does the same thing.

So, partially because of the new literary team of Clinton and Patterson, I guess “The President’s Confession” is dead. But mostly, it’s dead because my fiction can’t top the reality of today’s White House. The women paid hush money to keep silent about affairs, the threat of war used as political theater, obstructing justice by firing the people investigating him, creating distractions such as a disease-bearing caravan of immigrants bearing down on our southern border, caging children, deregulating environmental controls, disputing science, mining the presidency for personal profit, golfing on taxpayer money, colluding with Russians, saying he’d welcome dirt offered by foreign governments offered on his political opponents, ignoring the murder of a journalist ordered by the Saudi Arabia and selling them fighter jets, ignoring Russia’s cyber attacks on our political system, calling neo-Nazis “good people,” encouraging violence against Muslims and journalists, stripping women of the right to control their bodies, mocking fellow citizens, criticizing the work of American intelligence agencies and the FBI in favor of what Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il tell him, and the lies, lies, lies, a Niagara of lies. And more. Amazingly, there is much more.

“The President’s Confession” simply can’t compete with all that. For a writer, it’s implausible to create a character who is that corrupt.

But I did nail one detail. An excerpt, from Chapter Sixty-Five, the scene is an outdoor concert celebrating the creation of a political party ostensibly driven by concern for the planet, but with darker intentions:

One by one, Urs the Father spits and roasts the chemical companies, the politicians, the arms manufacturers, the corrupt enforcement agencies, the killers of wildlife, the destroyers of forests and the nuclear industries. Fearless in a nation of banking, he includes the banks that finance all of this.

“Who is to be held accountable?” he bellows. “There! There is the Specter of Greed and Death itself!” He turns and points over his shoulder, beyond the stage. “There!” he shrieks. Thousands look skyward as artificial smoke billows from behind the vast video screen, with yellow and red lights flickering deep within it, as though a tunnel into hell has opened. Something is moving in the darkness, something huge, obscuring the night-sky stars. An unwieldy bulk, growing larger, looming over the stage like a zeppelin. A head, then two outstretched arms, then a torso. “There!” Urs the Father shrieks. “There!”      

“It’s him!” Zimmerman screams to Jane over the exploding roar of the crowd, also recognizing the image depicted by the giant balloon. Indeed, the boogeyman chosen by Free Your Mind to be the face of evil is the former American president, Frederick W. Field.

That’s right. “The President’s Confession” foresaw The Trump Baby.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

My book, but not my story

Ernie Coleman.

I look out the front-room windows. Damp, foggy, just another Rochester day. But it’s not, it’s not just any other day for me.

This is the official publication day for my book, “22 Minutes.” I use the word “official” because the books have already been printed, they’ve been sitting in a Pennsylvania warehouse, waiting for you.

And I use the words “my book,” even though it’s not my story. In 2012 I sat down with a 93-year-old man, Ernie Coleman, and listened to him talk. “22 Minutes” is his story.

Like most good stories, Ernie’s story was actually several stories, all intertwined.

There is the story of Ernie as a teenager from East Rochester High School who takes a series of jobs to help the family through The Great Depression: hustling as a golf-course caddy, working a fox farm to provide furs for women’s coats, assembling explosives in a fireworks factory.

There is the story of Ernie the carpenter. Building houses, building sailboats.

There is the story of Ernie the sailor, a legend on Lake Ontario.

There is the story of Ernie the family man. He built that family through four marriages, adoption, stepchildren. Ernie was candid, he told of the affair that destroyed his first marriage, the tragic deaths of his second and third wives. Some of the kids zigged this way, some zagged that way, there were successes and strife. One of his daughters was gay, and fell into a life of drugs and abuse at the hands of her partner. There were reconciliations.

There is the story of Ernie joining the Navy during World War II. Tales of going AWOL, of getting in a brawl with zoot-suiters, of running a Navy carpenter’s shop at Pearl Harbor that brings to mind the scamps of the old TV show “McHale’s Navy.”

And there is Vincennes. Ernie’s ship. One month after Ernie was assigned to the cruiser, after it had sailed out of Pearl Harbor, Vincennes was sunk in a brutal battle that was a part of the Guadalcanal campaign. Three American cruisers and one Australian cruiser were sunk, about 1,000 men died, 332 of them on Vincennes. It was the worst open-sea defeat in the history of the United States Navy. And it took the Imperial Japanese Navy only 22 minutes.

That’s the 22 minutes of “22 Minutes.” A brief moment that haunted Ernie for the rest of his life.

When we sat down together that first morning in 2012, that’s what I really wanted to talk to Ernie about. The Battle of Savo Island. But it brought back the nightmares. And we never spoke of Vincennes and Savo Island again.

The book we produced together, “Chasing the Wind,” was filled with details that Ernie summoned from his remarkable memory. But Vincennes? That became my detective story. And over time, I pieced together what had happened to Ernie that night off Savo Island.

We self published “Chasing the Wind,” and I took Ernie all over the city with the book. Book clubs, readings, even folk-music concerts. We sold 1,200 copies, pretty good for a self-published book. Ernie couldn’t believe people were so interested in his story, that they wanted him to sign the book. He was happy to talk about sailing, and other aspects of his life. But he never talked about Vincennes. “It’s in there,” he’d say, pointing to the book. He never read those chapters.

It wasn’t over. I had several literary agents tell me that I needed to re-write “Chasing the Wind.” Put myself, and my relationship with Ernie, in the book. And keep alive this chapter of American history, Savo Island, and the heroism in defeat, that is overshadowed by the final successes of the Guadalcanal campaign.

“Chasing the Wind” became the book within the new book, “22 Minutes.” The new book fills out Ernie’s story, adds my own impressions of this hero, our trips to retirement homes and book signings, and how he dealt with his own approaching mortality. We even see that Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, led a 2015 expedition that found Vincennes on the Pacific Ocean floor, where it had rested in the quiet darkness for decades. Billionaires have those kinds of resources at their disposal. We just can’t help ourselves, gawking at our tragic histories.

So, with all of that, this long process, “22 Minutes” isn’t simply, “My first book.”

We’ll have a party next week to celebrate the publication, 6 p.m. May 9, at the fabulous Record Archive Backroom Lounge. You’re invited.

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