Domestic Terrorism, Red, White and Blue



­Here we are again, with the FBI and local law enforcement finally closing down a right-wing militia action. But they’ll be back: I know it. I studied it. Around 1995, the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, I got curious about the radical right – militias, the Christian Identity movement, white supremacists, freemen. I needed to know what my fellow citizens who were antigovernment, racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic were thinking – and doing.

I spent three years looking at right-wing websites, a revolting pursuit because of the raging hatreds and demented theories. The effort wasn’t to satisfy my curiosity, although I admit to being curious about why people who had never met a Jew in their lives wanted me dead. I was writing Red, White and Blue, my 1999 novel not just about the dementos, but about sane and decent Americans. As I reread part of the manuscript in my computer looking for a couple of quotes, I thought: “This is a terrific book. I’m so proud of it!” (See? It only took me seventeen years to get past my penchant for self-deprecation. Anyway, Red, White, and Blue, has two main characters:

If the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam had a one-night stand, guess who would have popped out nine months later? Charlie Blair, Special Agent, F.B.I. What an American!

Charlie’s from Wyoming, a Wasp brought up on a ranch. The other character, Lauren Miller, a reporter, is a Jewish New Yorker. Though they never discovered, the reader learns that they are actually distant cousins, descendants of a brother who hopped to train headed west (had to get out of town fast) and a sister who stayed in the East. Charlie has gone undercover in a well-armed, highly organized cabal of crazies. And Lauren travels to Wyoming to investigate (as it turns out) that very group. She observes

people can blab about the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave till they’re blue in the face, but assimilated as she is, she suspects her fellow citizens, her sister Americans, believe that she, Lauren Deborah Miller, Jew, is not as authentic an American as, say, a librarian in Tennessee or a car salesman in Oregon – or a sociopath dribbling over The Turner Diaries in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. She wants to know why.

In my years of research and writing, I interviewed an FBI psychologist and Special Agents fighting radical right groups, a Wyoming state cop who investigated radical groups in his home state, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, and scholars researching the various radical factions.

Wyoming has always sang out to me, and I’d spent a lot of time there over the years. But talking to a local sheriff, a naturalist, a member of the cattlemen’s Association, a realtor, salespeople, librarians, riding instructors, and workers in slow food joints gave me more than information. I got their manners, language, unsolicited political opinions, and (most of the time) great kindness.

The best complement I’ve ever gotten on any book came with Red, White and Blue. I was at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference in the early 2000’s. A woman came up to me; she’d been brought up on a ranch in Montana. She said she bought the novel because she thought it would be funny, reading how a New Yorker messed up the West. Instead, she told me, she loved the book and added: “You really got us! How did you do that?” I shrugged: no idea. But looking back, I realize that during the writing, I became Lauren Miller and Charlie Blair.

My E-Experience



MY E-XPERIENCE

By Susan Isaacs

This is what it was supposed to be: a short mystery story that would be part of an anthology.  The only requirements were it had to be set within the last seventy-five years in New York City.  Piece o’ cake, right?

Right.  Except I don’t write a lot of short fiction.  The opening sentence is the voice of the piece, and it’s always a bitch.  Ten, twenty, fifty times: a stinkeroo.  Then finally voilà!  So I figure: “All that work?  I might as well write a novel.”

But what would become “A Hint of Strangeness” had to be short, whatever “short” meant.  This wouldn’t be my book; it would be a compilation by a group of mystery writers.  So abandoning my literary teacup for a wad of tough-dame Dentyne Ice, I wrote faster than I normally would.  New York City?  Fine.  I’d lived in three of its five boroughs, but chose Queens, 1963, because back then, it not only seemed so aggressively ordinary, it actually was.  My protagonist?  Marianne Kent, nineteen, a Wasp in a mostly Jewish, slightly Italian neighborhood.  Not exactly autobiographical, but when I was that age, I lived in the same part of the borough, Forest Hills.

I’d typed a quick outline.  That’s my M.O.  Also, a mystery needs a strong, direct narrative thrust and an outline keeps the writer on the path.  Whodunit, and why?  How are the scales of justice brought back into balance?  Unlike the Victorian novel, the mystery author can’t meander into fields of daisies or indulge in genealogical anecdotes or an extended tour of Keswick during lambing season.  Especially not in a short story.

Marianne is smart – an economics major at Queens College – and pretty.  So two pluses in her column.  Except that’s it as far as assets go.  Her father was killed in World War II and she was raised by a refined mother of meager means.  One chilly fall night she comes home after a wearying day at school and work, unlocks the front door, and trips over…A body.

If writing is ever a snap, it means the work is lousy: Or at least that’s always been true for me.  But writing A Hint… was pleasurable.  I not only like Marianne, I admired her, and I loved the chemistry between her and her best friend, Laurie Fishbein, a pre-med student.  So when the homicide detective in charge of the case finds himself at a loss, Marianne and Laurie naturally take up the investigation.

The short story grew.  Marianne tracks down a long-lost aunt; Laurie develops a neurasthenic mother by page 31 and a father who is not only broccoli king of New York, but a guy who seems a tad too familiar with the ways of the mob.  Etcetera.

As I was blithely typing page 70, I stopped with an Uh-oh.  I hadn’t finished the short story, and it was no longer a short story.  The characters had taken on lives of their own, met all sorts of intriguing people in the course of their investigation, and were finding out that Queens was perhaps not the bland borough it has once seemed.

After much detecting, some travel, and some really terrific research, Marianne Kent finds out who done it, why, and a great deal about herself.  And I had a novella.  I offered it to the publisher of the anthology whose initial comment, “long is good” was now “You’ll have to cut it in half,” which is like saying “You can keep the heart, but get rid of the left ventricle.”  Also, all along the publisher had been snippy about my Queens setting.  To him, New York City was Manhattan, and he insisted I write at least one scene set in that borough.

To me he was an ignoramus, and a pushy one, but I did insert a productive afternoon at the 42nd Street Library.  (Yes, Manhattan is often referred to as New York, but any mayoral candidate or third-grader knows New York City is also Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island.)

So what do you do with a novella you now own?  I’d never before written one, so I was clueless.  A lot of writers have them published in magazines or save them as the centerpiece for a collection of short fiction.  However, since I tend to write pieces of short fiction only once or twice a decade, I figured this was not my kind of solution.  So I showed it to my agent.  And he said: “I think this would be a good Amazon Single.  I want to send it to them.”

An e-book?  I was torn, though neither in the sense of ripping at my shirt collar because I felt a choking sensation at the thought of betraying my local bookseller by going digital, nor slamming down the phone and bellowing: “This must be bigger!  I will turn this novella/novelette/novelito into a tetralogy.”  No, my work was done and I liked what it was.  Okay, I did have a little guilt about the bookseller, and I didn’t like the notion of an empty space on the shelves where I keep my books and translations.  Still I replied: “Okay.”

Though some editors have been known to read a novel on a weekend, I expected the more usual pattern of twenty-first century publishing.  Dispirited employees at downsized houses with fewer assistants than in the previous century, schlepping a printout of a piece of writing back and forth between home and office for weeks, months, lacking the time or vigor to read it.

On the other hand, Amazon had not exactly downsized.  It was immense, powerful.  (In fact, mine had been an early signature on the letter a huge number of authors put out protesting Amazon dealings with the publisher Hachette. Amazon backed off: case closed.)  Still, when A Hint… was accepted within two or three days, I was astounded.  The jacket cover – not for any bound book, for there would be none, but to have the appearance of bookishness for marketing purposes – came about a week later.

Enright 3I’m a great fan of graphic art, but this cover with its crumbling Manhattan-like city looked as if it belonged on a dystopian novel for despondent young adults.  It lacked even a smidge of humor, which, to me, was what made Marianne’s narrative voice such a delight.  So I e-mailed the otherwise congenial person at Amazon and said something to the effect of “Feh,” albeit a bit more diplomatically.  After several back-and-forths, she agreed to speak to the artist.  My hopes did not soar, but a couple of days later, I had a terrific graphic cover with a bright-eyed intelligent-looking young woman on it.

During this time, the manuscript was on a copy editor’s computer, being examined for missing commas, awkward adverbial clauses, using “which” instead of “that” and the inevitable blatant errors… like a character  having “icy blue eyes” on page 7 and “his eyes, blacker than night, glowered as she extracted the dental floss from her makeup case” on page 46.  But with all the shrinkage in publishing, the work doesn’t go to staff,  but to freelance copy editors who are overworked and underpaid.

During my career I’ve had copy editors who have saved me from my own ignorance, like calling a couch–y thing a chaise lounge rather than a chaise longue, and my overeagerness to use “whom” when “who” was correct.  (It wasn’t all my bad.  I had a supercilious, literal-minded editor who changed my sentence, “the ground was encrusted with a brittle February frost” to “the ground was frozen” followed by red-penciled exclamation point that practically tore the page.)

This time I got a lot more than I expected.  The copyediting was well done, and fast, I think it took about three days.  I’m assuming it was done by an actual person, but for all I know Amazon has created a spellchecking, grammarian android to which they’ve given a human name.

Then one morning, a couple of days later, I got an e-mail that A Hint of Strangeness was up.  And indeed, when I looked at my screen, there it was.  No launch party, no book tour, and in fact, no book.  It might be depressing except for the fact that a lot of people are buying it, reading it, and for the most part, saying it’s terrific.  Not only that, there’s the pleasure of knowing it’s being bought and discussed by readers around the world.

[A quick note here: this is not how it goes with self-published books, as far as I know.  I have no idea how that procedure works, though I suspect it’s a more difficult process, though certainly not impossible.  There have been great successes in this area, but the authors who do best, I believe, not only have the writer’s gift, but an enormous amount of energy and persistence, plus a talent for marketing that I lack.]

So let’s just say I’m wistful about my e-endeavor.  No book, so in place of A Hint of Strangeness, I’ll have to put some Queens-related tchotchke on my shelf, a World’s Fair Unisphere in a snow globe or a Queens College course catalog.  Also, the physical gratification of holding a book, turning the pages, is lost.  There is far less satisfaction in holding up an iPad and saying, “This is mine,” than touching the glossy, heavy paper of the jacket, feeling the book’s weight in your hands as you offer it to someone.

On the other hand, while I may not love tech, I am exceedingly fond of it.  I got my first computer, an IBM Displaywriter, in 1979.  While some of my literary friends were extolling the sensual pleasure of pencil on paper, I was knocking it out on a keyboard, always willing to change it, make it better because I did not have to retype an entire manuscript.

Way back then, long before many of you were in utero, I said to anyone who would listen: “We’re hardwired for language and also for narrative.  It doesn’t matter if it’s carved into stone, hand-written on parchment scrolls like the Torah, bound into leather-covered tomes, stapled into comic books, typeset by a master printer or spewed out by a computer, or whisked through cyberspace onto your screen.  The medium merely gets it out there.

It’s the message – your story/novella/novel – that matters!!

E-books and me



My first downloads on my new Sony Reader (back in the dawn of e-civilization) were the freebies: Hamlet, the US Constitution, Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, Leaves of Grass. The Sony library at the time wasn’t exactly bursting with choices…

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NEVER SHOW YOUR INDEX CARDS



Today, the official publication date of As Husbands Go, I’m going to Joan Smith’s flower shop on Main Street in Port Washington for a Newsday photo shoot.  Well, “photo shoot” sounds kind of four-pages-in-Vogue, and for all I know this could be a teeny black and white accompanying the paper’s review of my novel.  But the point is that Joan matters.  On the Acknowledgments page, I thanked her for teaching me what I needed to know about floral design.  Not for life, mind you: for my protagonist, Susan B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, who co-owns an upscale flower business.

I had a fabulous time learning from Joan Smith, a woman so vibrant she seems to be living two lives simultaneously.  But this was Flowers for Authors 101 – just enough knowledge to create part of the background for the character who will be the foreground.  I didn’t (and couldn’t, of course) learn everything Joan knew.  I didn’t need to.  All I have to do was to feel comfortable enough with a container, floral foam, and the green stuff to convince myself I knew what I was talking about.  Only after I did the research could I convince the reader.

Okay, let’s talk about research.  One pal of mine – a really good writer – came up with some intriguing information in one of his books.  “Hey, I never knew about XYZ,” I said.  “You really must have done a lot of research.”

He looked amused in his noir-ish way (which is to say the demi-smile of a man not utterly undone by an absurd universe) appeared for an instant.  “I don’t do research.  I write fiction.  I make it up.”

Well, that’s one way of doing it.  Make up your facts.  As the god creating a new universe, it is your divine right to plunk down the Champs Élysées in Kansas City or poison a tyrant with diathalene chloride, a lethal compound I formulated three seconds ago.

The obvious problem with this kind of invention is that whether nine-tenths of your readers are scratching their heads over why a French boulevard has moved to Missouri or whether merely a lone chemist/reader is muttering “Wha’?” an error of fact has caused the universe you’ve created to lose its gravitational pull on the imagination.  The reader is yanked back into the real world as he or she wonders whether the author was merely sloppy or had some obscure literary purpose in including such a misstatement.  So?  Is one fiction-reading chemist really such a major deal?  Is it worth an hour or a week’s time finding the perfect poison?

I’ll tell you why I think so: The more you know about a substance or a character’s means of getting and dispensing that substance, and whether that substance kills without a trace or causes an agonized, “He’s been poisoned!” death, the smarter your writing will be.  By “smart” I mean authentic.  It will feel real because you’ve made yourself an omniscient god with the power to bring every aspect of your universe to life.  I needed to go through the experience of “greening out “ a container before adding the flowers.

So today, when the temperature is supposed to hit one hundred, I’ll be mascara-ed and flat-ironed to a fare-thee-well, at my photo shoot, thanking Joan for teaching me enough to make me believe – if only for the time I was writing – that I was a master of the botanical universe.

Happy pub date!

Can we not think pink?



Sunday, I watched the Mets lose to the Giants. Not quite the Mother’s Day gift this baseball fan was hoping for, but at least my team put on a good show, especially with many of them swinging pink bats. They lost by an honorable 6-5.

The pink bats were Major League Baseball’s tribute to Mom. They’ll be auctioned off (along with commemorative plates with pink breast cancer awareness ribbon logos) to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Before I take a swing at this act of charity, let me offer a preemptive defense: My argument is not about breast cancer, a horrible, heartbreaking disease. I’ve seen on my own friends and their dear ones the toll it takes. I believe even more money should be spent researching new treatments and a cure. Also, the Komen Foundation seems to be an exemplary organization. Lastly, I gladly buy all sorts of products, from pink silk scarves to pink containers of Dry Idea deodorant every October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to support the search for cure. The other 334 days of the year, I offer what support I can.

So now let me ask why it is that the people at MLB think about doing something for Mother’s Day, they immediately come up with the equation Women = Breast Cancer. If the idea is to honor Mom by doing something to ease female misery, how about reaching out to those suffering from ovarian or endometrial cancer? Or AIDS? Or, to get away from the women-as-diseased paradigm, assisting women who are victims of domestic violence, or those caught up in the nightmare forced labor or sex slavery?

Hello, people who bring us the All-Star game! How about recognizing that a great hats-off to mothers would be to celebrate us as the champs we are – or at least as potential winners. MLB could fund athletic scholarships for women, or buy sports equipment for girls’ high school teams, or put its muscle behind a push to get women’s baseball as an event in the 2016 Olympics.

Why not auction those bats to provide those strong mothers with special-needs kids some respite care? Or offer free seats, hot dogs and beer, along with no-cost transportation to stadiums to low-income women as part of an MLB GNO?

There’s so much good that needs doing in this world. Next Mother’s Day, I’d like two gifts (besides those from my family): To see my Mets win. To applaud Major League Baseball as it celebrates us by taking off its bubble-gum-tinted glasses and recognizing we have issues beyond breasts – and that its female fans are as multifaceted, strong, and high-minded as the guys swinging those pink bats.

Ran in Huffington Post on May 12, 2010

WRITER/SAINTS



There are literary writer/saints, of course: my saint-in-chief being Jane Austen with Charlotte Brontë floating on a cloud only slightly lower.  And over there is Charles Dickens.

Then there are my personal writer/saints, other writers who have shown great heart and generosity when doing absolutely nothing would have been fine.

Today Jennifer Wiener is right up there, having given my new presence on Facebook page an absolutely unsolicited endorsement on her wall: Susan Isaacs (aka my favorite writer in the world) is on Facebook! If you like me, you’ll love her. And wow, can she get readers’ attention.  It’s so great when an author whose work you admire turns out (like Jennifer) to be a saint as well.

My other saints?

Rona Jaffe and Jackie Collins who gave me my first blurbs.  Unsolicited.  Well, unsolicited by me, because at the time I wrote Compromising Positions, the only novelist I knew was me.  I suppose my then-editor, Marcia Magill, sought out their good opinion with a “Hey, here’s a lively but lonely first novel that needs a friend” letter.

Then Danielle Steel, bless her.  My third novel, Almost Paradise, received a lot of praise.  It also got one scathing, über-bitch of a review from Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times…such a stinkeroo that to this day I cannot bring myself to reread it.  Anyhow, out of the clear blue, I get a charming letter from a writer I’d never met (still haven’t), Ms. Steel, saying how much she enjoys my work.  She urged me not to let a rotten review get me down.  Just keep writing.  Her note was the perfect antidote to that “Life is unfair, so why bother writing and critics are loathsome vampires sucking the life out of the authors because they themselves are dead” self-pity.

And Linda Fairstein.  Here she was, head of the Manhattan DA’s sex crimes unit at the time, writing fiction, living a life so full it would exhaust five normal people.  I was working on Lily White then and needed some insider information; the eponymous main character had been an assistant DA for a time and I needed some texture to give her work a feeling of authenticity.  I asked Linda if I could have five minutes…just a few questions.  “Five minutes?” Linda asked incredulously.  “You’ll need more than that!”  We wound up having a long, informative, and incredibly delightful lunch at Odeon where I marveled at her knowledge and energy.  And at the end, she insisted on picking up the check.  Is that a writer/saint, or what?

Lawrence Block and I were having dinner with our spouses one night when I was in a funk (aka profoundly depressed) over not being able to get the right voice for a novel that was due in…it’s vague, but probably in a few months.  I opened up to him.  Then, instead of the normal “Oh, I’m sure everything will turn out fine” routine, he asked me a series of writerly, analytical questions.  I answered each one, and, by the end of the conversation, realized I was seeing the work I had to do more clearly than I ever had.  Then Larry said something like, “Sounds like you know what to do.”  I said I thought so.  “It’s what you always do,” he added.  Trust my instincts.  Don’t over-cerebrate.  Just write the fucker.  And so I did.

Bless them all.