La femme mystérieuse, Part 1: A man got on a train

Opinion May 16, 2013 0 Comments

Hugh Gilmore with his book manuscript.

by Hugh Gilmore

This is a story about how haste made waste of a literary dream and how a mysterious shadow slipped into my life, rescued me, stirred my mind, and then disappeared.

As you might expect, the story involves a woman. Or so I believe. I’m still not a hundred-percent sure, but I do know I don’t care. Read on, if you like mysteries, but don’t expect this one to be solved. I’ve promised never to divulge certain clues and that should be easy in this case: I don’t know what they are. And maybe after we get to the end of this story you’ll understand why I probably don’t want to know. Probably. Even a columnist is human, after all.

Let’s talk about the literary dream: it began twelve years ago, on my birthday, in my used bookshop, two hours before opening time. I’d gone in early to sit behind the window curtain and begin writing my first novel. Some novelists won’t start a book until they have hundreds, if not thousands, of note cards outlining every inch of the plot. Others just turn their dog loose on the trail and hurry along behind it. I’m that type.

With a fine-point, felt-tip pen I wrote my opening scene into a marbleized copybook: A man got on a train. As I wrote, I knew what my closing scene would be: The man would die that same night. I trusted that all the in-between would come to me as I wrote. The man I’d chosen was an actual historical figure, a self-made “scientist/explorer” named Richard L. Garner. Like me, he’d studied primates in Africa. He was born in Abingdon, Va, in 1848 and he died in Tennessee in 1920 while promoting his research by giving public lectures.

I composed 10 hand-written pages each day, hurrying home later to read them aloud to my wife, Janet. Those were enjoyable days, marked by suspense and curiosity, since neither of us knew what tomorrow’s pages would tell. A day’s episode might end with a hand on a doorknob. What waited on the other side? An empty room? A dead body? A beaded purse? Such is the power of the writer. The answer, of course, is: whatever he or she says. How arbitrary. How awful. How absorbing. How awful. The choices are infinite. The choices are limited. There is no right or wrong answer. Is there?

Oh my goodness, if you work out every detail of the plot ahead of time, then writing a novel is work. Sheer, dreadful, miserable work, as dreary as writing a term paper. But if you don’t, and you make it up as you go along, you keep running down alleys, turning corners, and finding yourself in strange neighborhoods you don’t know how to get out of. Characters you invented simply to walk through a scene suddenly stop and start talking to the camera, start singing and dancing and telling their life stories.

Cursed to be tongue-tied through childhood, in middle age I found myself victimized by glibness. Out came an abundance of words whenever I sat down to write – false leads, useless quarrelsome characters, endless dialogue and description. I never suffered “writer’s block.” Quite the opposite.

And so, with that first book, as the train carrying Richard L. Garner rushed along toward Nashville, one doorknob after another turned to reveal another character, who had to be explained, carrying another prop, which needed to be explained, as he or she came sauntering, rushing, stumbling, or tottering into the next carriage. These explanations are referred to as “backstory” in fiction. In the hands of a novice writer any story of 300 pages that begins and ends in one day is going to be riddled with them. No matter how well they’re written, if these digressions are not kept to a minimum they will interrupt and confuse the flow of the story.

I filled six copy books in this meandering “and then” style. That was great fun, but then the hard work I’d tried to avoid by ad-libbing had to begin.

Suffice it to say that I worked hard and long. Rewriting involves more than correcting mistakes. I paid dearly for the fun of my run-wild, run-free months of creative fun by spending the next two years, daily, reshaping the story. But shortly after that, I won first place in the novel category for a sample of my novel at the annual Philadelphia Writers Conference. Everyone told me that was a “message from the universe.” You got it, kid! Go get ‘em.

In those days I believed in the system: Write your book, polish it, and then go get an agent to sell it for you. I spent two years trying to interest an agent, failed to do so, got bored, started another novel. And another. And some short stories. And started writing this column for the Local (now in its seventh year). And a memoir.

I found I liked writing stories more than I liked trying to sell them to an agent, editor, or publisher. My story about Mister Garner sat in the desk drawer, affectionately remembered like a summer romance that ended only because your partner moved to the moon. Every once in a while I’d change the title. “Garner” became “Fit in a Spoon,” then “Family of Man,” which was replaced by “If Pigs had Wings, soon to be “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour.”

So, how did “Gorilla Tour,” come finally to be released in February of this year, (12 years later) with a big, happy book-launch party, only not to be heard of since? And what does this silence have to do with the subtle and strange appearance in my life of a mystery woman? I’m still trying to figure it out. She’d entered my life, turned my head around, and left again – supposedly finally – in the same enigmatic way she’d entered: anonymously.

See you next week.

Hugh Gilmore is also the author of “Malcolm’s Wine: A Noir Crime Novel of Rare Books, Vintage Wines, and Sneaky People.” Available now exclusively at Amazon.com.

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