The Sigh That Killed Him

I have drawn liberally from history to construct my novels.  History is the blessing and the curse that has been handed down through the ages to novelists such as myself.

It is a blessing because it informs us of all the multitudinous permutations that the human experience can take: wars, love affairs, marriages, deaths, whatever.

It is a curse because there is so much of it to read.

In writing about my 100-year-old Russian emigree Anja, for example, I read five history books on Russia.  My novel is mainly a spiritual journey of one young American woman, but along the way, she meets Anja, and I wanted it to ring true, so I started absorbing the literature.  In choosing books, I focused mostly on Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s, which Anja lived through, although just barely.

It was a time when Stalin was consolidating his power by killing his enemies.  Millions were imprisoned and sent to Siberia for slight or nonexistent crimes.  Others were tortured and forced to confess to crimes they never even remotely committed.  It is estimated that Stalin killed over 20 million of his own people, mostly for nonexistent conspiracies.

One anecdote in particular stopped me cold (The Sword and the Shield, p. 77).  It concerned a diplomat in Paris named Albam.  In the Russian Embassy where he worked, his officemates discussed the trial of 16 Russians then going on in Moscow.  All they had done was support Trotsky when he was in power, but now, he was out of power.  During the conversation, Albam retreated into a deep silence.  Later, when Albam read in the newspaper about their execution, he sighed.

That subversive sigh helped to convict Albam and 13 of his colleagues of capital crimes.  His wife ended up denouncing him to the authorities, trying desperately to save her own skin.

I could not let that historical footnote be lost to history, so I expropriated it for my own novel:

“How do I explain?  It was like when I was young and married with child.  Husband living in Oslo under an assumed name.  In the homeland, we were all waiting for a knock at the door.  One day in October, they knocked on thirty doors and took away all the men in the village.  Every one tried and shot.  You could hear the gunshots from outside the prison walls.  They lined them up two deep to save on bullets.  Dropped them in a hole in the ground and covered them with lime.  Prison was on a bluff above a river.  Sixty years later in a big rain, that bluff washed away.  Preserved bodies washed into the river by the hundreds.  Everybody’s father and grandfather.  That’s what a knock on the door is like.”

Cat’s grin had disappeared and her eyes had widened visibly.

“When you get to my age, everything connects to everything else.  Our neighbor was the constable.  He heard about the executions at work.  He didn’t say anything, he just listened quietly.  And then he sighed.”

Cat had tilted her head down, her eyes on Anja’s expensive black leather flats.

“You know they shot him for that sigh?  And 38 of his friends and family, too.”

Anja looked solemnly at Cat, daring her to comprehend it.  After nearly 70 years, she still remembered every detail.

“Was that your husband Aleksi?” Cat asked.

It seemed to Anja as if she were trying to turn the subject back to valentines.

“No, that was the man who sighed.”

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Guns, Music, and Heart

Dustin Hoffman recently told an interviewer that throughout his career, he never wanted to hold a gun in a movie.  It was a policy he laid down in his career in the 1960s, after being disappointed by a couple movies in which a gun was a primary prop.  He was also motivated by a violent incident in his own life involving a gun.  He also just didn’t like the role model he was providing.

Pondering this in the yurt inside my brain, index finger pressed against my lips, eyes cast skyward, I realized there are disadvantages to choosing such movies.  An actor has many fewer choices of movies, for example.  He wouldn’t be able to act in such wonderful movies as Godfather, Inception, Titanic, The Limey, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Fargo, Crash, True Grit, No Country for Old Men, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, any of Tony Scott’s films, any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, and almost any of Martin Scorcese’s films.

I contrast that with the career of Denzel Washington.  He’s an excellent actor with great presence, but long ago, I noticed a pattern to his movies: They have a lot of guns and killing.  Even though they usually have a lot of emotional heft to them, they all fit into one violent genre or another.  The Mighty Quinn, The Pelican Brief, Crimson Tide, Devil in a Blue Dress, Fallen, Training Day, Out of Time, The Manchurian Candidate, Deja Vu, American Gangster, The Taking of Pelham 123, Safe House, and the recently released 2 Guns, all involve gunplay to a greater or greater degree.

2 GunsI have a concern about the role that guns play in our society.  My cousin was killed in her twenties by a student in her aerobics class.  I’m a big proponent of gun control.  I don’t think that movies like Django Unchained, with the bloodbaths that populate the climactic scenes, provide a good role model for America’s children.  (In fact, I never even watched the film until my girlfriend left town for a few days.  She doesn’t like that stuff at all.)

However, there are no absolutes in my world.  I must confess that I placed a gun in the first chapter of my own novel, What Happens to Us,  The very purpose of the book was to demonstrate how dangerous unsupervised government surveillance can be, so I was compelled to put a maladjusted psychotic gun owner in the antagonist role.  However, I worked hard to make it so that this thriller wasn’t all about the guns, but about the characters and the heart.  There’s a gun in chapter 1 and a couple guns in chapter 27, but that’s it.  No fancy hardware, no cool poses, no attitude while holding the gun.

Not only that, but there was lot of room in the middle for character sketches.  There’s an account of how Cat discovered she had a good voice.  There’s an account of Dante’s sleight-of-hand mentor, whom he met at age 12.  There’s a 100-year-old woman who develops a relationship with Cat, and in the final scene of that thread, Cat is laying her head on Anja’s chest and feeling at one with everything and everyone.

To me, novels are about notes, as in musical notes.  The more notes you hit–with different tones, different timbres, different melodies–the better chance you have of putting together a memorable story.  A novel that’s just about guns and shooting becomes a cacaphony.  But if there are a lot of scenes that make you think, and even more importantly, make you feel something, then maybe you really have something there.

Why My Friend Became a Felon

Authors find characters in different ways.  In my new novel, What Happens to Us, the leading man comes directly from real life., Dante is like an alcoholic drink, in more ways than one.  He’s two parts magician, two parts romantic, and two parts wounded bird, and two parts felon.

Regarding the felon part, I must confess that I know whereof I speak.  I’m a professional magician, as you know from my previous posts, and over the past four years, I’ve developed a friendship with a magic fan of mine named, let’s say, Bart.  A couple years ago, Bart and his mother started eating dinner at the restaurant in Culver City, California, where I was doing walkaround closeup magic once a week.  Bart was something of a character, dressed somewhat carelessly, always in t-shirts and jeans, and tipping the scales at over 300 pounds.  He drove a 30-year-old Cadillac and had a pony tail hanging down to the middle of his back.

Bart’s saving grace, however, was that he was obviously brilliant.  He had earned a couple million in the go-go stock market of the late ’90s, and then lost much of it in the years since.  He had also made his living as a professional poker player.  I looked him up on the Internet and discovered that he had won some big money at poker tournaments.

Bart was fascinated by my cardplay.  He revered my sleights in a way that charmed me.  He began taking me out to dinner.  The restaurants weren’t just greasy spoons,either, but white-tablecloth establishments.  We chatted about everything and anything, getting to know each other better.  He helped me book gigs.  He was my biggest cheerleader.  The third time he took me out, though, he came out with a strange announcement.

David with card smaller

“I may have to go away to prison for a few months,” he said calmly, eyes averted.

I looked at him blankly.  Prison?  In my embarrassed way, I asked him what the deal was.  Turned out that about five years ago, he had started filing bankruptcies in Los Angeles court for a lawyer in Wichita.  He didn’t really ask many questions about them, just filed them–hundreds of them.  It would have been no problem for anyone except that the people whom he was filing for didn’t exist.  He claimed he didn’t know he was committing fraud, that the lawyer was the perpetrator.

While waiting for his trial, Bart did me a huge favor.  My tenth anniversary of meeting my girlfriend was coming up, and I wanted to do something special.  I took her to Vegas, and by that time, Bart was living there.  He had sold his house to pay his legal bills and had bought a trailer home off of Tropicana Boulevard.

On the day Claire and I arrived in Vegas, Bart met us in the lobby of the Rio.  We had reserved a room for $175 for three nights, which was a pretty good deal.  But Bart felt he could do me one better.

“You stay here,” Bart told me.  “I’m going up to the check-in desk an act like Claire’s boyfriend.”

“Okay,” I said.

I watched from a distance.  They talked to the counter clerk for about ten minutes, then walked back towards me.  Claire’s face was filled with thinly disguised glee.

“I got you a high-roller suite,” Bart said.  “This room normally goes for $900 a night.”

“How much is it going to cost me?” I asked.

“Same rate.”

I was dumbfounded.  That was clearly the celebration I needed to ensure ten more years of bliss with Claire.  It turned out to be a 2-room suite on the 17th floor.  It had the most heavenly king-size bed with 180 degrees of windows.  It had three televisions, including one that you could watch in the sauna.  There were two bathrooms, one measuring about 500 square feet.  I still didn’t understand how Bart had done it, though, so when we were alone, I asked Claire.

“I don’t really know,” she said.  “He was talking, and then they were giving us things.”

Later, I broke down and asked Bart exactly what he had done.

“They had lost your reservation,” Bart said.  “We were lucky about that.  That means they owed us something.  So I started talking, just asking for things, and it turned out that they had this room available.  The thing is, you just have to keep your cool, not get mad, and just keep talking and asking for things.  If they can, they’ll be happy to do things for you.”

A month later, we reported our experience at the family party to my Uncle Gary, who is a retired parole officer.  Gary was suspicious, certain that Bart was “grooming us.”

“He’s nice to you over a period of time, and one day, he asks you to do something risky,” Gary said.  “And bam!  You’re scammed!”

I tried to explain.  Over the past couple years, I had met his childhood friends, who all seemed straight and decent.  I knew his mother, who was a retired schoolteacher.  He was always doing decent things for me, like helping me book airline tickets cheap.

But the more I explained, the hotter under the collar Gary became about it.  He started babbling on until he was no longer making sense.  He was certain that Bart was a con man.  And I wasn’t sure either way.

Soon, Bart was tried in Wichita and found guilty.  While the lawyer was sentenced to six years, Bart only got 18 months in Lompoc, which is a minimum-security prison.  His friends rallied around and gave him a going-away party, and I performed magic.  While he was in Lompoc, I was on his email list, corresponding with my prison pen pal.  It was truly strange to be corresponding with a con in prison.

Recently Bart got out and moved to Vegas, getting work as a blackjack dealer in a big casino. It’s strange to think that the casinos let an ex-con handle their money, but hey, that’s Vegas for ya.

Every now and then, the question gnaws at me: What was Bart’s downfall?

One day, I wrote it up, and it eventually found its way into my novel:

What Cat studied more than anything else was not Dante’s curriculum, but Dante himself.  He didn’t accept conventional wisdom, always seemed to be reinventing the world for himself.  In time, she would discover that he had an intense dislike for limitations.  The world said you had to get a regular job.  He didn’t get a regular job and nothing terrible happened.   The world said you couldn’t be happy without your own DNA staring back at you, but he didn’t get anybody pregnant and nothing terrible happened.  The world said you had to get to bed by eleven and up by six.  He often stayed awake till three and arose at noon and nothing terrible happened. 

When presented with a magic trick in a book, he immediately mused how he might change it, deface it, surgically enhance it.  When he encountered a girl in a bar who was in trouble, he found a way to rescue her.  Some people, he noticed, solved problems by trying to follow instructions, clinging to a step-by-step obeisance.  Dante instead fixed his mind on the end point and worked his way back from there, no matter if the road led through social conventions, warnings from authorities, taboos.  He was always exploring taboos, if only to see if they had any basis.

Dante had been told since he was young that he was special.  It was his father who had told him that he could accomplish anything, that he was the smartest kid not just in his elementary school, but in the state. 

“Your future is wide open,” he had told him.

That was why he was so astounded every time he failed. 

Maybe I was little easy on Bart in fiction.  In real life, he always thinks he’s smarter than everyone in the room–which is often true–and therefore, feels justified in cutting corners.  He’s so smart that he doesn’t need to follow convention or even the law.  He knows that his intentions are pure, and that’s enough for him.

And that was his crucial mistake.

Deception, As Described by an Expert

I work professionally as a magician, which means I am a professional deceiver.  I know how to throw the 3-card monte.  I know how to run the shell game.  I know the right moment and method for switching things.  It’s a way of thinking, more than anything else, and I’ve honed it for 23 years.


That’s one of the things I wanted to insert into my new novel, What Happens to Us.  It’s a thriller, and deception is shot through it.  Since my days as an English major at UCLA, I’ve realized that deception, secrets, and lies deepen a novel immensely.  But not all people know how to deceive as well as magicians and con men (between which, btw, there is a thin line).

When Cat, my protagonist, realizes she doesn’t have a place to sleep for the night, she decides to pick up a guy at a bar.  But she doesn’t choose just any guy.  She chooses an alcoholic whom she knows will be passed out by the time the expectations come due.  That’s a woman who knows how to deceive.

I know lots of magicians who are deceptive not just professionally, but also in their personal lives.  One made a living for several years as a con man (the monte, the shell game, the endless chain) in Orange County, California, while pretending to everyone around him that he was simply doing magician gigs.  When he finally fell deathly ill with an obscure and incurable illness in his thirties, he realized that his life had become toxic, and he came clean.  When he did, the illness mysteriously went away.

However, he still steals other people’s tricks and sell them as his own.  He still bends the rules in so any ways that it’s not funny.  To some of us, deception is simply tattooed onto our souls.

Cat’s love interest is a working magician, as well.  Dante explains to Cat how they’re going to use magic principles to stay away from their pursuer.  It all boils down to Runterschrauben, the German concept of blending into the background.  However, Runterschrauben has some negative side effects, as well, which leads them down a path they never wanted to go down.

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