by Elizabeth Zelvin
When I was a kid, my parents frequently invited company for dinner. They had interesting friends. Long past our bedtimes, my sister and I used to sneak halfway down the stairs and hang over the banister so we could hear the conversation. This was back in the days before conversation became a spectator sport, something celebrities did on televised talk shows while everybody else just listened. (To this day, I don’t watch talk shows. When I hear a good conversation, I want to participate. And don’t get me started on reality TV....)
My father was a wonderful raconteur, as were some of their friends. They would tell stories—extended jokes that drew us in till we could hardly wait to hear the punch line. Finally it would come—in Yiddish. All the adults would howl with laughter. It always sounded hilarious, since Yiddish is an innately comical language to the anglophone ear. Mind you, neither of my parents spoke Yiddish. My father’s native language was Russian, my mother’s Hungarian. But everybody always understood the punch line—except us. “What does it mean? What does it mean?” we would clamor. They would invariably reply, “It’s untranslatable!”
This intensely frustrating experience left me with an imperative need to know the ending of any story. In mysteries, the ending is of crucial importance. In fact, it’s what distinguishes them from most literary novels. They start with a setup: a crime is committed, but we’re missing crucial information: we don’t know whodunit. Or in a thriller, something will happen if it isn’t stopped, and it’s a race with the clock—or an obstacle course—to prevent disaster. We keep reading—often long past our bedtimes—to find out how they’ll end.
Sometimes I have a dream that’s constructed like a thriller or an adventure story, except that my plotting is tighter and my dialogue more eloquent when I’m asleep than when I’m awake. I give the most stirring speeches in these dreams—out loud, according to my husband.
In one dream, for example, I was in West Africa (where in real life I spent two years in the Peace Corps), part of a group of Americans fighting “the oppressors”. We had just realized that once the locals had finished ousting the oppressors with our help, they planned to get rid of us as well. We were outraged. Each of us talked in turn about how betrayed we felt. I gave quite a speech, according to my husband.
We knew we had to leave at once, before our enemies arrived. A plane was waiting. As we began to board, a plane or helicopter landed. Armed men rushed out and headed toward us. We tried frantically to get everybody aboard. As they reached us, we slammed the doors shut, hoping desperately to take off before they could attack. Through a kind of transparent bubble, we could see them aiming their weapons at us.
At that moment, my husband woke me up.
“You were having a nightmare,” he said.
I was furious.
“No, I wasn’t. Why did you wake me?”
“You were,” he insisted. “You were saying, ‘Please don’t shoot us.”
“I was not! I was saying, ‘Please don’t hurt us.’ We just wanted them to let us leave.”
It wasn’t a nightmare. I felt a sense of intense urgency, rather than dread or terror. Readers feel that way at 3 am when they’re racing through the final pages of a thriller. The last thing I wanted was to be awakened that moment. I wanted to know if we made it into the air before they started shooting. Dammit, I wanted to know the ending!