Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Author, Chapter Twenty-Eight: Stealing

July 1

The children were inside watching a movie as Jeff and Victor cleaned up. Dinner had been hamburgers, grilled by Riley himself. Once the kitchen and the dining room table were cleared, the two men retreated outside as Los Angeles sank into the ocean on the television.

“You ever see that movie?” Stuart asked.


“It's retarded, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“But you don't realize it until after the movie is over. It's a great trick. It's how Dan Brown has a career, because Christ only knows the guy can't write a paragraph to save his ass, but the motherfucker can pace within an inch of his life. Everything takes place with a ticking clock, hurry-hurry-hurry, and you get so pulled into the urgency that you don't think about how ridiculous it is. Same thing with the movie. I don't do that a lot, but when you need your reader to buy something that's a bit iffy, toss it in a place where they don't have time to think about it.

“And don't break that illusion, ever ever. If there's one thing I hate in movies and books, is breaking the illusion. In books especially. Take a dig at George Bush if you must, but have a character do it, in character. As soon as I know that the writer is talking directly to me, his reader, taking a stand on whatever, it jogs me out of the experience. To say nothing of the fact that it won't age well.”

Stuart paused for a moment and then regarded Jeff. “What the fuck was I just talking about?”

Jeff laughed, “I'm not sure.”

“Yeah, me neither.” Stuart took a drink of a soda. He said he didn't drink around his kids. It occurred to Jeff that looking inside the recycling bin under the carport could ruin a lot of illusions for them. “What do you think of my kids?”

Jeff nodded, without saying anything.

“Yup, they sure are kids,” Stuart agreed.

“You ever put them in your books?”

“What do you think?”

“I think there really aren't kids in your books.”

“True. I try not to put real people in my books at all. It gives people an excuse to look into your books for deeper psychological meaning, am I talking about my cocaine problem or my abusive childhood as opposed to just telling a story? Once you get caught mining your real life for details, people start looking for them everywhere.”

Jeff consider this for a moment and then opened his mouth.

“Sorry,” Stuart interrupted him, “I should clarify that. Couple things: I totally lied, I mine stuff from real life all the time. However, I don't take things such as they are. Of course, I already told you I put Wally in a book, but it wasn't him as such, the guy didn't look like him or really act like him except for the fact that he was gay and a betraying coward.”

Jeff nodded.

“But yes, in that way, now that I think about it, my kids are in my books. One book, anyway. The two hit men in Weapon were based on the way my kids treated each other that year. Riley couldn't stand to have her around most of the time, until he wanted something or needed something and even then Vanessa could never say no to him. It was so fucked up. So that became part of the characters of Zip and Sky.

“But I'll tell you what I steal the most. Personalities I make up most of the time, because I deal with so many gray areas and unnatural things that it's easier, to be honest, to just pull stuff out of my ass. But what I steal all the damn time is ticks.”

“Like what?”

Stuart reached up with his left hand and began to caress his ear, starting about halfway up and sliding his thumb and forefinger down to the earlobe. He repeated this several times.

“Durance,” Jeff said, automatically.

“He's the guy that just about everybody remembers. Part of that's because I liked writing him so much I put him in several books, partly it's because he's such a dirtbag, and partly it's because of that tick. I dunno why it stuck so well for so many readers, but just one detail like that is all it takes, sometimes.

“Now, tell me what Durance look like,” Stuart said.

“Well he...” Jeff considered. The darkest, meanest villain in the Wilcox books and he was having trouble remembering, even though he'd jumped right to the character in his mind with Stuart aping that gesture. “You never say, do you?”

Stuart nodded and smiled. “Exactly. My characters, I draw an outline on a piece of paper and hand it to you with some crayons to fill in. You'll remember them better if you make it up yourself. I tell you that Durance does this thing, that he's evil, that he has dark hair, a big nose, a nice suit, and he's fat. That's it. After that, you're on your own.

“And people go crazy. He's a fan favorite, so I get notes about him most often, but people tell me all the time they know people who look exactly like my characters or that such and such a celebrity would be perfect to play so and so in the movie. Who would you pick for Durance?”

“Harvey Keitel,” Jeff said, without needing to think about it.

“Solid choice. What's worse, I can't tell you what I actually think Durance looks like, if you can believe that.”
Jeff shook his head.

“I read a critique of those fucking Twilight books,” Stuart continued. “It said that one of the reasons why they were so popular is the girl character barely exists. She's simply a characterless template that any girl reader can put herself in the place of. It's your story. And it worked remarkably well, clearly.

“So obviously, I do that a little bit. Not so you'll fill in the blanks with yourself, but with your experience. So when you tell me that Durance looks like your uncle, I generally assume it means you don't think too fucking much of your uncle.”

“What else?”

“I saw a guy walking down the street once with this weird, twisting gait. My conclusion was that he must be missing a leg, that this was the way he walked with his false one, and that gave birth, almost on the spot—“

“To Nuratz,” Jeff finished.

“Mmm hmm.”

“Give me another one,” Jeff said.

“Oh, no, I'm not going to ruin the magic, the illusion, and then every time you read one of my books you'll be wondering where I ripped something off from.” But he said it with a smile.

“C'mon, this is great.”

Stuart leaned back and sighed. “Let's see.” He clasped his hands together and then placed his right thumb over his left. Rapidly, he placed the left thumb on top, then the right, then the left, twiddling them meticulously.

“Stark,” Jeff said.

“My college roommate,” Stuart answered. “And that's all! Now, the truth is, this is always here to find. You look into the way a guy writes enough, you'll find his bugaboos, his cheats, where he gets his material. Could be that one guy sits on a street corner, slaps a character together with her face, his ears, those shoulders, and that voice. Beats me. There's enough writers in the world that I'm sure we all have a different way of getting there. But I listen and watch for those shorthand things, those cheats that will immediately tell you what kind of a person you're dealing with.

“I tell you there's this frail old man, skin so light it's almost blue, very thin, with intense eyes, but he walks like a young man, determined, with long strides, what do you get?'

Jeff shook his head. “I don't know.”

“Well, in Tomb, you get the sorcerer who has managed to keep himself alive well past his expiration date. He has the body of the old man but the energy of a younger one. And he has a tick you will remember, believe me.

“You try one,” Stuart said.


“Go on, give it a shot.”

“Uh...” Jeff's thoughts ran wild.

“Remember, less is more.”

“Right. Thirty-year-old woman. Missing part of her left ear. Scar tissue on her neck. Drags her left foot just a little.”

“There you go. I already know what she's wearing and what color her hair is. What happened to her?”

“Bomb blast ten years before.”

“There you go! Now what did you steal?”

“Her walk. It's from a college professor I had.”

“Excellent. I'll give you another example. Murray, the guy that I based on Wally. That bad eye? I saw it on a guy in line at the drug store one day and I could not get it out of my head. I didn't have to give him anything more than that. He was the creepy guy with the fucked up eye and you remembered that.”

“How is it that easy?”

“Ha! You think this is easy? Trying doing it 50 times a book, more. No, sometimes it's not hard, but sometimes you find such a good mannerism or character quality that you have to force yourself not to use it again.

“I mean, all of this stuff is just an easy way to communicate something to your audience. Think of all the visual shortcuts that we have: Stop and go signs, engagement rings, electric guitars, black leather jackets, I guess basically anything you can think of that says 'cool,' for that matter.”


“Fuck, yeah. What kind of assumptions do you automatically make about someone with a tattoo? Completely different ones if it's a tramp stamp versus the Marine Corp seal on their shoulder, but we leap to conclusions. This is just more of the same, letting one part of the brain make associations while the other part is taking in the story. To me, there is no better way of derailing a book than by trying to go into too much detail.”

The two men had been caught up in their experiment, leaning close to each other, getting drawn into the conversation. They took a moment and caught their breath.

“Mac did that, you know,” Stuart said, quietly. “It was one of the things I noticed about his writing that I didn't like.”


“He tried to show me everything. He tried to paint all these word pictures so I knew exactly where I was and exactly what was going on. If you tell me the paint in the bathroom is peeling, I can figure the rest of it out for myself, you know? Lead me to the water and let me drink my own damn self.

“That's a big difference between movies and books. In a movie, you want to show me instead of telling me. If you tell me, it'll be boring. In a book, you need to tell instead of show. That way I can fill the details in for myself. It's better to say there's a horrifying smell in the air and hint as to what's in it than to try to describe it precisely, because your reader may not have the imagination to follow you, but they've smelled some bad things in their time, I promise you that.”

Jeff nodded. Once or twice in the past few days he had noticed the smell in the basement again, particularly this afternoon after they brought the kids back to the house. The smell wasn't worse, he just noticed it more after an absence. When he smelled it again, he often thought of Mac, even though he knew now that they were not connected. They had not talked about Mac since Stuart had finally told him the truth. He hadn't thought about him much either, but the smell from earlier and the reminder of Mac's writing now made Jeff wonder what had happened. Had he really gone nuts? Had he actually tried to kill himself or was it an accident? Where had the pills come from?

“I didn't bring him up for that, Jeff,” Stuart said, gently.

“Hmm?” Jeff came back to the conversation.

“I know the questions you're asking, and I can only tell you one way to answer them, the only way that's ever worked for me, anyway.”

“What's that?”

“Put it in a book.”

And Jeff's mind flashed then to Danny's Dime and the possibilities rose up before him.

Stuart grinned, understanding where the younger man's mind had gone.

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