Novelist and poet Valerie Nieman, author of Blood Clay, did me the honor last month of “tagging” me for a writers’ blog hop on the theme of “My Next Big Thing.” Val posted on her current project, a gripping, suspenseful novel called Backwater, about a young girl’s coming of age and her encounter with horrendous crime. (You can read all about Backwater at http://valerienieman.blogspot.com/2012/12/my-next-big-thing.html. I’ve had a sneak preview of the manuscript–and it’s terrific!)
We were asked ten questions about our latest project. And my latest is the sequel to Journal of a UFO Investigator, to which I’ve given the title The Color of Electrum.
At the bottom of this post, you’ll see the writers I’m tagging, and when and where you can read about their exciting new work.
Now here’s the ten questions, and my ten answers …
1. What is the working title of your book or project?
The Color of Electrum.
2. Where did the idea come from for the book or project?
I was a sophomore at Cornell University in April 1967, when eight students and a professor were killed in a mysterious night-time fire in their residence hall. The Watermargin House, where I lived at the time, was particularly close to the students of that residence hall, and after their home was destroyed in the fire we found places in Watermargin for several of them to live.
Some weeks later, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a pounding on the door of my room. I staggered out into the hallway and found it filled with Watermarginers making their way to the fire escape. One of us had smelled smoke, awakened and alerted the others. A few minutes later we stood outside the house, mostly pajama-clad, as our burning, smoking couch was carried from the living room to the back porch and thrown out onto the lawn.
There were no casualties that night. We all got out safely. But we knew that whoever had set the fire in the residence hall had now come after us and might be back. For the rest of that semester we kept watch at night, hidden at the top of the stairs, watching the door for intruders. I remember sitting with a friend from my first-year Arabic class, a length of heavy iron pipe in my hand, going over verb conjugations for the final exam while we waited for the arsonist to return. (He–or she, or whoever it was–didn’t show.)
On May 22, 1967–the day before the Watermargin fire? or is my memory playing tricks?–the Cornell Daily Sun published a strange article entitled “Fire Passages Read,” which I clipped out of the paper and still have in my files. It began: “A series of meetings at the Cornell Heights Residential Club to discuss death–at which passages from Ezekiel 1:1-13 describing the ‘burning coals of fire’ on the fifth day of the fourth month were quoted–preceded the April 5 fire at the club, according to reliable sources.”
Ezekiel’s fiery vision in “the fourth month, the fifth day of the month”–a fire at Cornell on the fifth day of April. Coincidence? I don’t think anyone ever found out. But I’d long been fascinated by Ezekiel’s vision (with its overtones of UFOs), and the idea intrigued me. There were other dates in the Book of Ezekiel, attached to the prophet’s subsequent visions. The Watermargin fire didn’t correspond to any of them.
Nor did the third fire, which I heard about at the end of May while I was having breakfast in the cafeteria of the student union. “Went out into the hall,” I heard a fellow say at the end of the table–”all went up in flames!” He was describing what had happened the night before in his Collegetown apartment. Again, there were no casualities in this incident. Were any of the people from the residence hall involved? I don’t know.
This was the last of the fires. No one was ever charged in connection with them, and as far as I’m aware the mystery has never been solved. I don’t intend The Color of Electrum to provide the solution. Rather, it imagines what might have happened if the initial fire had taken place exactly one year later than it did–April 5, 1968, a little under twelve hours after Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. And if Danny Shapiro–protagonist of Journal of a UFO Investigator, now in his freshman year at Carthage University–had been caught up in the swirl of (mostly fictional) events that the fire set moving.
3. What genre does it fall under, if any?
Perhaps mystery, perhaps thriller. Most essentially, a literary novel, “coming-of-age” in that Danny continues his struggle toward sexual and moral manhood. I intend to convey something of the madness of the late 1960s, when real life in this country had turned as surreal as Danny’s teenage UFO journal.
4. If applicable, who would you choose to play your characters in a movie?
For Danny, perhaps someone like Ben Feldman–but bearded, bespectacled, and his good looks understated. (In the book, Danny “never thought of himself as handsome, but maybe that was a mistake. … Nothing wrong with his face. Agreeable, kind; no obvious disfigurements, unless you counted the thick horn-rimmed glasses he’d been obliged to wear since he was a little kid.”)
And Annie Sharabi, Danny’s main love interest … she’s Yemenite-Jewish, but I could see her played by Arab or Latina actresses. Maybe a younger Salma Hayek, chunkier and less glamorous but with the sensual allure and the ability to convey Annie’s deep anger? I’ll leave that to the casting director.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your manuscript or project?
Danny Shapiro, college freshman and former “UFO investigator,” finds himself caught up in the late 1960s world of drugs, sex, and would-be revolution–while mysterious, deadly fires, timed according to the Biblical Book of Ezekiel, come striking ever nearer to him.
6. Will your book or story be self-published or represented by an agency?
My agent is the incomparable Peter Steinberg.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I tend to work on one project, leave it alone for a time while I’m working on another, and then come back to it after months or years. I began writing an initial draft of Electrum in the spring of 2007, and stopped in the middle because I couldn’t see where the story was going. Early in 2010 the fogs cleared and I started writing again from the beginning, with a complete draft finished in May of 2012. Does this count as the “first draft”? If so, the answer is: a shade over two years.
8. What other book or stories would you compare this story to within the genre?
In using fiction to evoke the phantasmagoric atmosphere of 1968, with The War as malignant spectral presence, I see myself as doing something akin to John Updike’s Rabbit Redux and Nancy Peacock’s Life Without Water. (Or, for a different period, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.) Danny’s automobile trip from New York State to California, which dominates the second half of the novel, echoes Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; the theme of a long and uncertain journey with a dangerous companion reminds me of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. In the concern with the loss and (shaky) recovery of religious faith–shades of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter and some of Updike’s early stories. In its hearing of ancient Scriptural resonances in a troubled modern context, there’s a resemblance to Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
But the comparison that keeps coming to mind–oddly, perhaps, since The Color of Electrum is hardly juvenile or even YA literature–is with Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Jim Hawkins” goes on a quest that’s in part a search for the caretaking, guiding father he’s never had. He returns, seasoned and a bit hardened, with a treasure of maturity that isn’t to be found in any pirate chest. So, with all the necessary adjustments (sex, drugs, radical politics) factored in, does Danny Shapiro.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book or story?
In 1993, I published a monograph on the prophet Ezekiel, entitled Seeking Ezekiel: Text and Psychology. The argument of the book was that Ezekiel was an extraordinarily gifted but tormented man, dominated by rage and dread of female sexuality. I often wondered: what impact would Ezekiel have on a modern person who fell under the spell of his wild, stunning imagery? I remembered how I had nearly died as a college sophomore, perhaps (if the Cornell Daily Sun article was to be trusted) at the hands of such a person–and at the same time I knew how susceptible I myself was to that spell. I also remembered a theory advanced at the time of the fires by a friend of mine: that the arsonist intended the burnings to be a purge of the sexual “sin” in places like Watermargin or the residence hall, much as Ezekiel himself might have done. And I asked that old novelist’s question: what if … ?
Originally I reached a dead end. And then Peter Steinberg and I had lunch, and he encouraged me to write a sequel to Journal of a UFO Investigator, and I thought: maybe this is it. And I introduced Danny Shapiro as the main character of Electrum, which originally he hadn’t been. And this required me, because of Danny’s chronology in Journal of a UFO Investigator, to shift the date of the novel from 1967 to 1968. I discovered then, to my astonishment, that the Martin Luther King assassination would have taken place the evening before the fire. And then everything that I needed to do became clear. And I can’t tell you anything more because it’ll be a spoiler.
10. What else about the book or story might pique the reader’s interest?
Danny’s continuing innocence, even as he loses his virginity both figuratively and literally, and has one brush after another with violent death. Also his belief in God, which flares and then dies–but can’t stay dead–as he watches Ezekiel’s prophecies play out in the 1968 American nightmare.
Shortly after meeting Danny, Annie Sharabi–drug dealer’s girlfriend, granddaughter of a Yemenite Kabbalist–proudly tells him she’s an atheist.
“I am too,” said Danny. He took the pipe from her hand. Their fingers touched lightly.
“No you’re not.”
Her certainty amused him; he burst out laughing. She laughed too. He took the deepest drag yet, held it until he thought he might pass out. … Around him he felt the music swelling, carrying him up with it. And now there was Annie’s voice, singing along with the Rolling Stones: “‘She comes in colors everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s like a rai-i-i-nbow.’”
“‘Like the appearance of the bow in the cloud on the day of rain,’” Danny quoted from Ezekiel’s vision, “‘so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face.’”
She smiled. He grew dizzier, flew higher. “Told you,” she said.
PREVIEWS OF COMING ATTRACTIONS:
Tuesday, January 15: Laine Cunningham, author of Message Stick and He Drinks Poison, posts on her novel Light and Purple Blooms. “Through a lifetime spent in devotion to church, husband, and the mainstream definition of a good life, Lana Crossfield has betrayed herself. After divorcing both her husband and her church, a pregnant woman she knows is murdered and the unborn fetus is cut from the womb. She must help a community of women survive this horrific betrayal.” http://writersresourceblog.com/2013/01/15/the-next-big-thing/
Friday, February 1: Nancy Peacock, author of Life Without Water, Home Across the Road, and A Broom of One’s Own, posts on The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson, a historical novel spanning 1860 to 1875, set in Louisiana and Texas. http://nancypeacockbooks.com/wp/blog-hop/
Monday, February 4: Linda Hanley Finigan, author of Love and War, posts on her novel The Weight of the Heart. “A party boat sinks on the Thames. An extravagant birthday gala ends in disaster. From the caterer and crew to the high society guests feting a wealthy plastic surgeon on the decks above, The Weight of the Heart weaves together an international cast of characters, grappling with the foibles of their lives in the course of an evening that will end in tragedy–Downton Abbey meets Ship of Fools at the end of the twentieth century.” http://loveandwar-novel.tumblr.com/post/42278512309/my-thanks-to-david-halperin-author-of-journal
Friday, March 29: Peggy Payne, author of Revelation and Sister India, posts on her about-to-be-published novel Cobalt Blue, “a turbulent gorgeous ride into sacred sex, compulsion, obsession, unmentionable attractions, and ultimate empowering redemption. ‘Cobalt Blue is entrancing and unsettling,’ says Angela Davis-Gardner, ‘a novel that gets at the marrow of sexual and spiritual experience. Peggy Payne is one of our most gifted writers.’” http://www.peggypayne.com/blog/?p=2384
Visit these writers’ blogs and comment! Keep the circle moving!