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What is Too Political for Fun?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Every time I publish a book, I know I’ll get some angry letters, and readers response to Breakdown proved no exception. “I just threw away my hardcover copy,” one reader wrote. “Keep your politics to yourself. I read for fun,” wrote another. I will say that the positive mail outnumbered the negative by over 10 to 1, but the negative mail does give me pause. “Why do you hate rich people?” One reader asked. “They’re always your villains.” Another asked why I hate conservatives.

First of all, like Shylock, I bleed when you prick me, so angry letters do sting, but they also make me start wondering what my writing should and shouldn’t be.

Second, I don’t try to write political novels. I write novels that spring out of contemporary social issues, because those provide a fertile field for crime. I come from a place where radio and TV shows routinely call the President “A Muslim terrorist,” or “Muslim socialist.” The leader of the state legislature recently sent an email to his “A” list calling for prayers for the President’s death and referred to the First Lady as “Yo-Mama.” Tea party rallies, in their heyday, would show caricatures of the President with crude racial slogans.

These political/social realities caused me to create an African-American politician who gets subjected to the same abuse that has been ladled onto the President. I don’t know if that makes the book so political that it can’t be read for entertainment. After all, that’s what I am–an entertainer. Would my books be more entertaining if they featured disputed wills and missing children, instead of people struggling with First and Fourth Amendment freedoms?

My novel Blacklist actually featured a villain who had impeccable progressive credentials but some readers hated it because it also included an Egyptian boy who was a refugee on the run–for those readers, Blacklist was too political–they said I was siding with terrorists. Like President Obama, apparently.

I don’t know what the answer is, as I start work on a new novel. How much should I shape my writing, my story-telling, in response to your expectations?

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A Farewell to Arms, or at least to Touring

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

I was on the road with my new novel, Breakdown, from the first of January until February 2, so I substituted little snippets on Facebook for my blog. Being on tour is a privilege and in many ways a pleasure because of the different bookstores and readers you encounter, but the downside is you are only in any given city for about 18 hours–you really come with the dust and go with the wind. My 18 hours in the LA area were particularly wonderful. Beloved friends who I don’t often see drove over to Pasadena for my event at Vroman’s bookstore.

Reading at Vroman's in Pasadena

After dinner, we went up to the lounge in the Langham hotel where they have a typewriter Ernest Hemingway used when he was covering World War II from London. Guests were invited to write a letter on the machine, and I did so, sending one to my friend and mentor Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Those of you who know Ms. Davis know that she never has migrated to a computer, and continues to write on her old upright, so it seemed fitting. I learned to type on a manual Underwood myself, but I had forgotten how much wrist strength is needed to hammer those keys. I gave up after a couple of paragraphs filled with overstruck letters from jamming the keys. A couple of Canadian journalists who were in the lounge wanted to show off for my friend and her 14-year-old daughter, so they started pounding away, only to discover that they, too, had lost the magic of the manual machine.

Showing off with Hemingway's typewriter

I don’t seem well-organized mentally these days. Every place I went on the road I left something behind, usually not an object of huge importance, but I abandoned my iPad in Palo Alto, and without the generosity of Sherry Barson, who was driving me, I would have been a sad and sorry writer. Sherry added two hours to her homebound commute to make a rendezvous with the event coordinator, retrieve my iPad and bring it to my hotel, which was as far from her own home as could be imagined.  Another good Samaritan was United flight attendant Kelly Linn, who found my journal in the pocket of my airplane seat and took the trouble to track me down and mail it to me. I don’t know what’s wrong with me these days–hope it isn’t plaque build-up in the brain–but I am definitely not firing on all cylinders. Perhaps after a month of puppy therapy with my Golden all will return to more or less normal.

My luckiest event of the tour was my trip to Toronto to take part in the Toronto Star’s “Star Talk” series at the Toronto Public Library.  I got to the airport at 6:30 in the morning so I could catch the early flight, but the Toronto airport was shut  because of dense fog.  After sitting at the airport for 8 hours, doing my back exercises behind a row of chairs, wandering from food bar to food bar, our flight was suddenly called. We were the only flight to make it in from Chicago that day, and why they cleared us I’ll never know–we couldn’t see the ground in Toronto until our plane was level with the Harbor front skyscrapers–but I got there just in time to take part in the series. It was a great event, well organized and incredibly well attended, and a brilliant conversation afterwards at dinner with the paper’s publisher and editor and a woman from the library. They were inveighing, as we in Chicago have been doing, about cuts to the library budget. Margaret Atwood has been a passionate advocate for the library, but the mayor of Toronto said he’d never heard of her and didn’t care what she had to say! However, their city council certainly had and forced the mayor to back down. I wonder if Rahm has heard of me, Stuart Dybek, or any of the other writers who have been trying to get our libraries back up to full staff and full hours?

 

 

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