“The Page Where It Happens” (by Joseph S. Walker)

Joseph Walker’s short stories have appeared in our sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and in various other periodicals and anthologies, including the MWA’s Life Is Short and Then You Die, edited by Kelley Armstrong. His story “The Last Man in Lafarge” won the first annual Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction at the 2019 Bouchercon. It will appear in EQMM in early 2021. Coming up much sooner is his EQMM debut, “Chasing Diamonds,” in our September/October issue (on sale August 18). It’s a story set at  a baseball game, and it accomplishes what the author talks about in this post: It draws readers fully and authentically into its setting. Don’t miss it! —Janet Hutchings

How is it that one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had as a writer this year was finding a way to work powdered sugar scattered on the pavement into a story?  Bear with me.  The trail will take a couple of turns, but we’ll get there.

Like seemingly half the people in the (nominally) civilized world, I spent a very agreeable few hours over the recent Independence Day weekend escaping my pandemic woes by watching the newly available stream of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway blockbuster HamiltonHamilton is many things: an enthralling musical, a riveting piece of American history, a bold political statement about race and immigration and gender. It’s also, not incidentally, a crime story—a mirror image of Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s great novel is about the psychological aftermath of a killing, and what it does to a person to carry the burden of ending a life. Hamilton is about the psychological prelude to a killing, and what brings a person to the point of taking that burden on—or choosing not to. Aaron Burr tells us in the musical’s first song that he will (spoiler alert!) shoot Alexander Hamilton. Given what we quickly learn of their characters, the reverse seems far more likely. Hamilton is brash and aggressive, relishing conflict and even violence; Burr is patient and cautious, preferring political gamesmanship.  Over the next two and a half hours, we follow the winding path each man takes to their duel.  We see how the events, ideas, hopes, and emotions of their lives lead Burr to shoot to kill, while Hamilton points his weapon to the sky, throwing away his shot.

I had listened to the album of the show’s songs many times, but never had a chance to see it before watching the stream.  It made for an oddly disjointed experience.  The show itself was, as advertised, terrific.  While we’re now seeing some elements of the inevitable backlash, Hamilton is a complex, stunning piece of work fully deserving of the considerable acclaim and success it has earned. It’s difficult to resist the sheer amount of energy and ambition which make the show so exuberant, so excessive in the pleasures it offers.  In particular, it is a privilege to see the original Broadway cast inhabiting the roles that made them famous, and it is a gift to future generations that this high-quality recording of their version of the show will always be available.

As much as I enjoyed it, however, I also had the sense of watching the show at a certain remove, experiencing it through a kind of distancing haze.  At moments, I wasn’t so much watching Hamilton as watching myself watch Hamilton.  When you spend four years hearing about how superlative a piece of art is, how it outdoes what was previously believed possible in the form, how simply being exposed to it is a transcendent, life-changing experience—well, there’s simply no way for the thing itself to live up to that kind of advance billing. It is a creation of mortal beings, not deities.  The expectations generated by hyperbole become a buffer between you and the actual experience, especially if you’ve learned so much about the thing (by, say, listening to an album setting out the entire story in detail) that very little about it can be surprising.  I found myself imagining an audience member a few days into the show’s run, settling into his seat with only a vague awareness that it’s a musical about the American revolution, unprepared for what’s about to unfold. I felt very jealous of this person I had conjured.

Then there’s the other, more obvious source of this sense of distance, this lack of immediacy: I wasn’t seeing the show live.  I wasn’t looking at actors on a set.  I was looking at a flat display of colored pixels, just another in the seemingly endless series of screens so many of us spend our lives staring at these days.  It was not an experience so much as a simulation of an experience.  I wasn’t breathing the same air as Daveed Diggs.  I wasn’t continually aware of the subtle shifts in attention and emotion in the audience members around me.  Watching Hamilton was fun, and certainly a worthwhile investment of my time, but it lacked that increasingly rare element we all need in our lives: authenticity. The felt experience of something genuine, something inescapably real.

This has become a particular problem in the blighted year of 2020.  Confined to our homes, denied many of the rituals and pleasures and indulgences we were accustomed to, we necessarily encounter almost all of the world through that matrix of pixels. We see our coworkers on Zoom, our friends and family on FaceTime, the musicians we had tickets for on YouTube.  We are, quite literally, being screened from the real world.  But the pandemic has really only accelerated what was already in motion.  If you’re like me, it’s been years since you could go anywhere without your phone and not feel that you were missing something as essential as your house keys and your wallet.  What’s happening on Twitter?  Has anyone commented on my most recent Facebook post?  Can I ever crack that level of Candy Crush?  Am I caught up on email?  Did I miss an important text?  Did I miss a completely trivial text that will nonetheless give me something to think about for five minutes?  We have become completely addicted to our phones, while almost never using them as phones.

Thinking about Hamilton and authenticity, I thought about Manhattan.  I’ve only been there twice in my adult life, both brief visits for professional conferences. The things I’ve done in Manhattan are, for the most part, the tourist things, the New York City clichés.  I’ve ridden the subway and seen rats on the tracks.  I’ve been to a Yankees game, back when they were still playing in the house that Ruth built.  I’ve gone to a couple of Broadway shows, walked through Times Square at night, and eaten thin slices of pizza folded in half after soaking some of the grease off the cheese with a napkin.  I have layered memories of these experiences; they feel real to me.

What feels even more real to me, though, is an experience I’ve never had in reality, an experience nobody has had in reality.  The location in Manhattan that feels the most authentic to me doesn’t exist. It’s the West 35th Street brownstone home of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the detectives created by Rex Stout.

I believe I have read every Wolfe story and novel, many of them multiple times.  I own most of them in cheaply printed hardcover book club editions, usually without jackets, bought at used book shops over the decades since I first read The League of Frightened Men as a teenager.  The look and feel and scent of those books—the slightly musty odor, the yellowing pages, the indecipherable names of former owners scrawled inside the covers—is the first level of the authenticity I find in them. It is not, however, the most deeply experienced.  That’s reserved for the brownstone itself, the building I can enter only in my mind but seem to know as well as my own home.  The comfort of the red chair, reserved for clients and favored guests, with the little table alongside it to facilitate the writing of checks. The rich aromas of Fritz Brenner’s cooking. The hum of the elevator coming down from the plant rooms. The coat rack where Archie assesses visitors for possible threats, and the dining room where talk of business is strictly barred.  The bright yellow expanse of Wolfe’s pajamas.  The trick picture of the waterfall, concealing a peephole for spying on the office, and the big globe in the corner, for Wolfe to scowl at when he has no choice but to work.  I could give tours of the place, from the basement, where Wolfe throws darts for exercise, to the roof, with its ten thousand orchids.  How can I know so well a place that has never existed?

We conceive of reading and writing as abstracted mental exercises, interiorized activities disconnected from the “real” world of sensation and direct contact.  We don’t normally think of them as having physical dimensions, as incorporating the same kind of authentic, lived flavor as, say, actually watching a Broadway musical in person.  There are exceptions.  Harlan Ellison, the writer who made me want to be a writer (and who, despite normally being categorized as a fantasy or science fiction author, was an Edgar winner who started out writing about New York City street gangs), used to hold events where he would spend a day sitting in the front window of a bookstore, writing a short story based on a prompt provided to him in the morning.  As each page rolled out of his typewriter, it would be taped up in the window to allow people to read the story as it was actually being born into the world (a collection of these stories, Ellison Under Glass, was recently published by Charnel House). It occurs to me only now that at these events, Ellison must have been able to see people in the act of reading his story, just as they were able to see him in the act of writing it.  Two activities, normally conducted in isolation, were simultaneously transformed into complementary public performances.

In the normal course of events, though, reading and writing have only the authenticity, the sense of reality, that we can infuse them with in our minds.  We feel the brush of the wings as another world builds itself for us and takes flight. This isn’t confined to crime reading, of course.  I vividly remember reading the Dan Simmons novel The Terror, about a doomed Arctic expedition, and being so vicariously drawn in by the depictions of extreme cold that I was surprised, every time I put the book down, to discover myself back in a scorching Indiana summer. I’m sure any number of readers believe that they have walked the halls of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, or felt the Pequod roll beneath their feet. We mystery fans, though, have a particularly rich field of vividly convincing worlds to mentally visit. The series characters we spend years or decades following bring with them the spaces they inhabit, spaces which we come to treat as part of our own mental landscape. The sad little rented room where Matthew Scudder lived during the darkest years of his alcoholism.  Kinsey Milhone’s compact, shiplike apartment.  Travis McGee’s Busted Flush.

Screens, I’ve come to think, block us from the world, replacing it with windows into something that may be measureless in two dimensions but which can never have a third.  The page, instead, expands the world through a kind of magic trick, collapsing three dimensions and all the resources of our senses to a few lines of ink and then allowing them to unfold again, directly into our sense of reality.  Reading is spiritual origami, turning sheets of paper into pieces of our lived truth.

If this is true for reading, it’s equally true for writing. That brownstone couldn’t be so real to me if it weren’t first real to Stout himself.  As a writer, I haven’t yet created a series character who might come to seem like an old friend to my readers.  But I do take pleasure in trying to bring to my stories the kind of details and observations that, I hope, will spark this sense of reality, however briefly.  Writing about them does the same for me.  Of the pleasures writing offers, it’s the one that has become perhaps the most important to me in this odd, cramped, closed-down time.

Five years ago, on vacation in New Orleans, I bought a bag of beignets at the world-famous Café du Monde and carried them into Jackson Square, one of the most beautiful public spaces I’ve ever visited.  I remember many things from that morning: the soaring dignity of St. Louis Cathedral against a spotless blue sky, the wandering groups of tourists, the bursts of music that seemed to come from every direction.  For whatever reason, though, what sticks most vividly and most deeply in my mind is simply this: underneath every bench at the south end of the square, the pavement was marked with streaks of powdered sugar.  They marked the places where people had leaned forward to bite into the sweet, airy, warm beignets while trying, and mostly failing, to keep the sugar off their clothes.  When I think of New Orleans, those little piles of sugar are the first thing I think of, and they remain as convincingly real to me as the room I am sitting in now—or as Nero Wolfe’s office.

Last week, I wrote a story set in New Orleans and finally had a chance to use that image.  Writing it into the story was deeply satisfying. I would be still more satisfied to think that there might be at least one reader out there, perhaps as confined and as frustrated as I am by the way her world has shrunk in the last six months, who will read that image and find that, however briefly, it has expanded to include Jackson Square.

It may well be hubris to hope that anything I wrote could have such an impact, even fleetingly. Given everything that’s happened in the last six months, though, I’ll take hope where I can find it.  And I’ll hope, too, that the world brightens enough in the coming months that the 2021 Bouchercon, scheduled to take place in New Orleans, actually can happen, and that I’ll have a chance to go and see if the sugar is still on the pavement.  Perhaps I’ll see you there, with no pixels between us.

This entry was posted in Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Setting, Story, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “The Page Where It Happens” (by Joseph S. Walker)

  1. Lou Manfredo says:

    Great piece, Joseph, and so true. I think if I were on a polygraph machine and asked, ‘Have you ever had dinner at Nero Wolfe’s brownstone?’ and I answered, ‘Yes, many times,’ the machine would proclaim it a true statement. Glad to see I’m not alone.

  2. Mike says:

    Yes, those little details that hide in plain sight can impart a sense of realism that draws the reader in.

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