My E-Experience


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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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


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.

He “Will Be Missed.” Yeah? By Whom?

He “Will Be Missed.” Yeah? By Whom?

Forget mindfulness, that living in the moment business. How can we take pleasure in the scents and sight of the Capresso dribbling latte when we know we’re due for so much obligatory sorrowing? So much missing to do! Google “will be missed” if you’re dubious and see the nation’s to-do list.

Not that it’s all heartrending work. Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show “will be missed,” along with the Air America, Ugly Betty, Paula Abdul’s hair styles on TV, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s dogs romping on Capitol Hill. That’s easy missing and we Americans are tough critters. No big deal to grab a wad of Kleenex and prepare to sniffle.

However, whether they rise to actual keening or stay at mere rue, most of our future missing obligations deal with people. Reps. Patrick Kennedy and Neil Abercrombie, retiring from the House, “will be missed,” to say nothing of Evan Bayh (though not by me, given his resignation under pusillanimous circumstances) departing the Senate. Anyway… Dunta Robinson, a right cornerback leaving the Houston Texans, also “will be missed.” Ditto Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui as they bid adieu to the Yankees. Even Simon Cowell WBM as he exits American Idol.

If not yet ubiquitous, the “will be missed” virus is spreading unchecked. The phrase is a cliché, sure, but I suppose not an intolerable one in the above instances. The member of Congress or Portuguese water dogs or hairstyles have not yet departed — or did so very recently — so the writer or speaker is merely observing that at some future moment, one or millions will be ferklempt.

What’s unsettling is that mostly, “will be missed” is tagged on to individuals who have already gone for good. Mosi Tatupu, a running back for the New England Patriots who died last week, “will be missed” according to many accounts. But he has significant competition as so many others who have departed in the last year “will be missed” as well: Edward M. Kennedy, Patrick Swayze, Betty Carter, Robert Parker, John Murtha, Charlie Wilson, J.D. Salinger, E. Lynn Harris, Sheila Lukins, Brittany Murphy, and of course Michael Jackson (whose estate might have enriched itself even more by marketing a “will be missed” macro).

The first few times I heard or read “will be missed,” my mouth merely contracted into its annoying-usage moue, the way it does at “very unique” or “less calories.” I wanted to demand, Will be missed? Will? Nothing down, pay later? Now I’ve come to loathe the expression, not just for its omnipresence, but for its hollowness.

Our culture is so celebrity-obsessed that for individuals to show they matter, they need to display their intimacy to fame. Family and friends barely have time to begin weeping before the public bewailing begins: colleagues of the celebrity issue press releases: journalists send forth I-understood-the-late-lamented’s-very-essence tributes (that often seem based on three-minute interviews at a movie publicity junket); anguished fans pour their hearts out into the sodden blogosphere, starting with some variation of OMG! and ending with a “He/She will be missed.”

Others besides me might be sensing WBM’s overuse — not that it stops them. They just embellish the phrase. The head of the British Fashion Council said Alexander McQueen “will be sorely missed.” Tori Spelling announced that Farrah Fawcett’s smile “will be greatly missed.” While Don Cheadle merely observed Bernie Mac “will be missed,” George Clooney went even further by saying Bernie Mac “will be dearly missed.” But tossing in an adverb to mitigate the offense is a mistake. Like sewing bugle beads on a vulgar dress, it makes a lousy choice more glaring.

“Will be missed” appears to be the verbal equivalent of boyfriend jeans and the breakfast pizza: Bad Fad. As for the grammatical pedigree of the phrase itself, I admit ignorance…even after looking it up; I’m not sure if “will be missed” is in the passive voice or merely a form of the verb to be with a modal auxiliary. What I am sure about is that it comes off as so damned cold.

Wouldn’t the usually well-mannered George Clooney have seemed more of a mensch if he’d said: I dearly miss that Bernie Mac? And though I myself won’t shed a tear, wasn’t there a single member of the Senate who could remark, Darn, I’ll miss that Evan Bayh!

“Will be missed” has little meaning. In fact, it could be seen as a slur, with its potential for being followed by though not by me.

And that future tense? Will be missed? When? On Memorial Day 2010? Okay, there were some eloquent speakers at Ted Kennedy’s memorial, but couldn’t more of his colleagues and constituents have whipped it up for an “is missed” or “I miss him” instead of a WBM after the Senator’s years of service to his country?

Yes, I understand “will be missed” is cant. But the way we speak about each other not only reflects our culture, it influences it. WBM is not just too easy. It’s downright icy to come out with a prefab statement of alleged sadness over a death. Better to just suffer (or not) in silence. A cliché like this shows not only lack of thought, but lack of feeling, as if we’re too busy for even a heartfelt, “Jeez… I’m, like, I’m sad.” It freezes the emotions of those who hear it and moves us ever closer to being a people who have no time for each other.

Also, for a democratic nation that considers itself the land of the free and home of the caring, “will be missed” is also an oddly stiff, detached way of expressing loss. Kennedy, after all, was a US Senator, not a member of the House of Lords.

“Will be missed” all but proclaims I have other things to do now, but I do have a reminder on my BlackBerry and, if I’m so inclined, I’ll clutch my hands to my chest and lower my head in sorrow at 4 PM on May 31. “Will be missed” is a barrier between a speaker and his gut, a writer and her ability to describe the pain (or merely the sting) of someone’s death.

I’m not railing about pop expressions. Some are dandy because they’re lively and real, like the use of dog as a synonym for friend, as in “Hey, dog, you’re looking fine.” It’s a language fad that makes sense, connoting attachment, what we feel about our pals and our pets. It’s all about affection.

But “will be missed”? Pure affectation. When it dies, it will not be missed.

[Published on Huffington Post, March 1, 2010]