My Third Book: From Nothing

Writers by affliction are an idiosyncratic lot. Other than a willingness to spend an enormous amount of time alone and a preternatural love of language construction, we don’t have all that much in common. We write about different things, from the historic lives of dead people to the ponderous calculations of romance that could never live up to its description. Some of us have enviable discipline in reserving hours for our craft day in and day out. Others are beasts of procrastination who binge occasionally in overnight typing sessions while devoting daylight hours to cleaning out pencil-stuffed drawers and ceiling fan lint. An author on tour may enjoy speaking publicly, while another cowers at facing readership in the form of human flesh.

We may share a passion for literary achievement, but we are in few ways the same. One bit of sameness has occurred to me exactly three times, each when I’ve finished one of my novels. When the final copy-edit has put the book to bed and readied it for your consumption, I’ve invariably asked myself the same simple question:

“Why did I do that?”

The existential query is unavoidable. Why does a writer remain dedicated to the challenge of completing a book? I am guessing I am not alone in that meditation. It is impossible to think that most of my colleagues and the legions of our predecessors have not asked themselves the same thing. It’s a heck of an endeavor, for most not particularly lucrative. It disarms the writer to a battalion of transparent critics, and the incomplete satisfaction is resolved only in the reborn commitment to attempt it yet again.

So I ask you, as you are likely to ask me: Why bother?

To say that we are without choice in the matter may sound glib, but I am afraid that is the only reasonable answer I can muster. We do it because we can’t not do it. We do it because there is something inside of us that needs to ferment and emerge, to escape the confines of a sole mind and become part of a shared consciousness. If we could avoid or redirect this need many of us would, but we cannot, and so we sit, ruminate, draft, and revise. Somehow the new book becomes complete and we are ready to share it, with the best of intentions. For me, happily that time is now, and I hope the new work resonates with some of you the way its voice called out to me.

I am glad it is done. I am honored to share it with you.

It has been a fragile three years in the making. It was delayed partly by life’s interruptions and partly by my need to pick each word at least a dozen times. I may not have the discipline to write in predetermined sections of each day, but I do have the discipline to embrace each of my sentences before I toss them to you. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s time-consuming. It’s exhausting. I know of no other way to do it with pride.

From Nothing. That’s the title, and sort of where it came from — out of nowhere, yet grounded in a collection of moments I have known or expanded in scope. Should you choose to read it, you’ll discover in more detail why I called it that.

It’s the story of why a life becomes a story, how that story is guided concretely and through alchemy, and why some stories are better than others, even if they didn’t set out to be something more than assembled emotions wrapped around an evocative philosophy.

Weird stuff, huh? The problem remains that it’s difficult for an originator to talk about the plot and characters in a book without giving away any spoilers or making light of one’s own intentions. Allow me instead to dance around a few of the book’s themes.

Technology: Yes, it’s me again, come to take you inside the empirical land where I earn most of my living. This is the universe of creative destruction, where bad things have to happen to otherwise good people for progress to have its way with all of us. At the same time, bad people have a way of making these spoils the treasury of their own private club, and the best most of us can hope to do is stay out of the way of the greedy stampede when it targets our cubicle. Change comes with ugly intervention and nasty byproducts. We then quickly abandon the carnage, cash in whatever chips are left on the table, and reinvent ourselves in our evolving world.

Bar Music: I hope you like piercing lyrics and backbeat as much as I do. Sound is at the heart of this novel. We’re still digesting the baby boom, the soundtrack of our lives, the guitar-hero worship that came and went as fast as any other craze but lingers in the possibility of ephemeral ambition. I spend a lot of time thinking about music, and in this tale I devote a lot of pages to unwrapping composition. The songs connect the dots, even when the dots don’t want to be connected and would rather fade into the Milky Way. I have my favorites and they may not be yours, but our immersion in star-quality memories holds us together. That makes for songs that matter.

Redemption: This book has been a strangely spiritual journey for me, more unmasking than I have attempted previously and certainly more uncomfortable than I intended. The protagonist, Victor Selo, has a troubled life that he finds ways to overcome on the surface, yet he can neither come to terms with success nor adequately interpret loss. He makes a lot of mistakes, stumbles through a litany of lifetime accidents, and where he learns from some misdoings, the ultimate assessment of moral right and material wrong forever confounds and eludes him. Theology and philosophy are a tight couplet in our curious canon. I know I have done no better a job of answering the unanswerable than any before me, but perhaps I can open a different door for you to the unquenchable struggle.

So there you have it, a new book is born and with my deepest hope on its way to your hearts. Reserve a copy, read it when time allows, and let me know where we are and aren’t on the same page. With any luck I’ll be back again in a few years with another adventurous yarn, asking myself why I once again committed to the improbable. Much of that will always be up to you, more than you will likely ever know.

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Publication date is June 12, 2018. If you would like to review an advance reading copy please contact my publisher, The Story Plant, or via email: thestoryplant@thestoryplant.com.

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A Brief Excerpt from Track 2

When Victor awoke it was dark. He looked around and the parking lot was filled. He recognized a third of the cars from the office parking lot. Full Stack Max’s mustard yellow minivan, dents on three sides. Code Machine Clarence’s jacked up Escalade with the shotgun bucket seat usually toting that new kid, QA Juan. Admin Darcy’s prized lime green Prius gleaming under security lights as if she had driven through the car wash on the way there. The familiarity was comforting. At least some of them had come. He was head to toe in perspiration but relieved in the dashboard’s digital transmission that it was after 7:30. People inside would be singing. There would be friendly faces. Inside Providence it would be safe.

Victor had slept in the car almost six hours. That was odd. He really was drained, more than he had thought. As he mustered the courage to open the car door, a tap came on the half-open window. The face beyond the glass was unfamiliar to him.

“You okay?” It was the voice of a man perhaps a decade older than him. Victor looked at the stranger, his plain grey T-shirt, blue-black lumberjack flannel overshirt, vintage khakis, stubble beard, untrimmed mustache and mutton chops. It was a programmer look, but Victor knew all the programmers at Global Harmonics and they were the only programmers who came to Providence. Who was this guy?

“I’m fine,” replied Victor, not yet finding the energy to move.

“Come on inside, you look like you could use a drink,” said Mean Master Muttonchops.

“Yeah, I’m coming. Do I know you?”

“You don’t. My name is Thomas Katem. I’m an investment banker.” He handed Victor his business card through the open window slot. “You’re Victor Selo, right?”

Victor eyed the card for familiarity and put it in his damp chest pocket. “Have we met before?”

“It’s possible, the circles we travel overlap. Unfortunately your meeting at Global Harmonics was over before I got there. Late to the slaughter, the way I heard it.”

“Your loss, we put on a good show. You don’t dress like an investment banker.”

“It’s afterhours. I carry a change in the car. Doesn’t everyone around here?”

“You think I need to clean up before we go in?”

“Nah, come on, I’ll buy you a drink. I’ll bet you have friends inside.”

“We’ll find out.” Victor opened the door and got out of the car. Strangely, the asphalt felt comforting under his feet.

As Victor walked through the doors beside Katem, Providence was in full swing. In all the day’s drama, he had forgotten this was Friday, Live Band Karaoke Night. A warm fall weekend was getting under way. Tonight people wouldn’t sing with a machine, they would front a cover band. It was what made Fridays special, particularly for anyone who had abandoned a long-ago dream.

At the mic was possibly the worst Elvis impersonator of all time, a grey ponytailer doing his best to belt out “Viva Las Vegas” with more stage drama than musicality. He wasn’t an awful singer, he could work his way through a tune with credible intonation. He just didn’t sound anything like the King. He didn’t look like him either, beyond the tattered white sequined jumpsuit. Elvis recognized Victor from across the room and raised the mic stand to him as he entered. Victor waved briefly, then crossed toward the bar with Katem a half step behind. Elvis found the segue to a low pitch baritone interpretation of “Love Me Tender.”

“You know Elvis?” asked Katem.

“His name is Johnny Olano. He lives for this. Friday is his day. Three Elvis tunes, five shots of tequila, and he never goes home alone.”

“He must be seventy, maybe seventy-five,” observed Katem. “How does he pull off that trick?”

“Welcome to Providence.” Victor motioned the bartender with two fingers and was handed a pair of Coronas. Few of his colleagues in the bar were making eye contact with him. A few nodded slightly his way, but his usual warm embrace wasn’t to be found.

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TSO in the Front Row

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Christmas time
And the moment’s just beginning
From last night
When we’d wished upon a star

If our kindness
This day is just pretending
If we pretend long enough
Never giving up
It just might be who we are

  • From “Promises to Keep” by Paul O’Neill & Robert Kinkel

It’s getting late. Or early. Depends on where you are. Music of the Night.

I’m just back from my almost annual two-and-a-half hours with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was different this year. For the first time ever my wife and I sat in the front row. I didn’t pay any special price and TSO does not sell VIP packages. We just got lucky ordering the millisecond tickets went on sale to fans. Incredibly lucky. Staggeringly lucky. Not an ordinary occurrence for yours truly.

Last night’s show at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California was as good as any and every show we’ve seen TSO perform since we began following them around the turn of the Millennium. The difference was the intensity of, well, being in the front row. I’ve been going to rock concerts like this for over forty years now, and the few times I’ve found my way to the front row, there is nothing like it. When there is nothing between you and the musicians but a wee bit of inner space, you connect. It’s indescribable. It’s metaphysical. It’s what rock and roll is meant to be, the lines between audience and performers erased. You feel the experience in a different way. There is a pure intensity that sinks through your sensory inputs and temporarily commands possession of your emotional framework. Ideas become visceral. Passion becomes tangible. You wish it could last forever. At least I do.

Then reality returns. It has to return, so you can take the music with you and do something with it. Inspiration is a spark, not an engine. If you find a way for the spark to ignite, you carry the torch with a reason and do something with it. Moments like hanging in the front row keep me young, but my work is still my work. Part of that is sharing this stuff with you, to bring us together in the service of something productive, something that matters.

Seconds before the show began, in the dim light of pre-set, music director Al Pitrelli walked to center stage in the shadows. I was about ten feet from him. Pitrelli is a musician of such amazing talent I am humbled watching his fingers navigate the fret board at speeds I can barely imagine, let alone emulate. I looked at Pitrelli and made eye contact. I gave him the aviator’s thumbs up. He looked back at me and put his hand over his heart, a Roman Centurion salute of sorts, but kinder and more heartfelt as he often does when connecting with someone in the audience. In that moment I felt simultaneously like we had just met in person yet were old friends. I guess both of those readings are true. It is the illusion of knowingness that allows art to work. Ancient philosophers worried about the dangers of such false impressions. Old rock and rollers like me call it keeping the backbeat.

I have never met Al Pitrelli, or TSO founder/impresario Paul O’Neill, or anyone in Trans-Siberian Orchestra, despite the fact that they inspired me to write my second book, Endless Encores. I talk about the band in the book’s Preface, how brave they are to try out new material on every tour to keep moving forward, while still giving their fans the show they expect. They just give us more, music we don’t know is coming, and that lets us grow together rather than lock into a fixed expectation of the ordinary. Maybe someday I’ll get to meet these guys—who knows, what were the chances I’d end up in the front row of their show at retail?

What do I really want to share in this predawn realtime post, something I rarely do but at the moment feel compelled to publish unpolished? Is it to convince you that TSO offers a level of practiced musicianship, vibrant stagecraft, theatrical innovation, and storytelling significance that is much too rare in pop entertainment? Possibly. Is it simply to capture the moment for myself of front row showtime as a slice of life? I’d be lying if I told you otherwise. Yet here’s the real deal: Go back to the top of this post and have another look at the lyrics I excerpted.

There is a through line here. It is the holiday season, a time of pause, a time of reflection. In the ultimate irony, the venue where TSO played last night was not too far from San Bernardino, where violent tragedy again struck our nation only days ago. Families all around us are in pain. What we need to embrace is that every kind act in response to those in need is an act that restores humanity to humanity. Music, stories, and unforgettable performances can be our road back to the goodness that gives our life purpose. When art is a conduit that reminds us to act as we internalize, we are brought together toward a path that anticipates healing. We learn from the evocative, and we advance on the hard work that must be done to make sense of our brief time together.

TSO carries into my heart a sense of hope. It ties the holidays to a call of service, and it ties the years together in a continuum of incomplete measure. Sitting in the front row made it feel more real, more direct, more personal, and oh yes, more intense. We have a tremendous amount of work to do together and not much time to have an impact. Listen to the lyrics, feel the music, embrace the integration. Then do something with it.

Celebrate the holidays by doing something that really matters. And don’t forget to turn up the volume. I’ll see you in the front row, the cheap seats, or anywhere else we can make a real difference. Think hope, then make it happen.
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