Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

14 May 2021

Everybody is Fooking Me!

The first time my wife met my mother, we were sitting around the dining room table at my parents’ home in New Jersey. My mother had lapsed into one of her meandering stories and happened to drop the name of one of her least-favorite people. The very thought of this person galled her. A flash of anger crossed Mom’s face and she punctuated her anecdote with a final, spite-filled kicker: “That bitch!”

Horrified, my father reminded her that they had company.

Mom waved a hand at my wife. “Oh,” she said, chuckling. “It’s just an espression.”

Yes, that’s how she rolled. Bobbing on seas of anger and comedy. And that is also how she pronounced that word. She was born in Italy (if the Mussolini pic below doesn’t make that obvious) and arrived in America when she was 15 years old. She spoke English with an Italian accent her whole life, which ended in 2016. Mom was occasionally openly self-conscious about her lack of education. She’d never finished high school, but managed to learn to write and speak English with the help of a nun at the first American church she attended, in Brooklyn, New York.

I think of her every year at this time because Mother’s Day’s proximity to Easter means that at least one of my brothers will hit me up for one of Mom’s old recipes. After her funeral, I swiped the index card file box from her kitchen, and have been slowly compiling her recipes, an exhausting project that requires me to decipher her handwriting and her bizarre spellings. Recipes call for ingredients such as vinella extract, garlic gloves, buches of scallions, and cicken brests pounded into tin cotolets. But those types of errors are easier to grapple with than the wacky way she used to express—er, I mean espress herself.

Not once in my life did I ever hear her say, “Never mind!” Instead, for some reason, she’d say, “Levver mind!” Similarly, the word meanwhile became meanwise. Otherwise was always notherwise. Members of Orthodox churches or beliefs were described as Ortodosk. Angry and hungry were interchangeable. When she speculated about the future—which in her cosmology was universally bleak—she mused, “Who knows what’s gonna be?” The kitchen was her domain, but she suffered from a crazy case of butterfingers. After a loud crash and the shattering of glass or china, we’d hear her exclaim: “Oooooh, what I did!”

When we were kids, my brothers and I could not help bursting into laughter at the way she mangled the language. When it was all the rage to describe a cool kid at school as a “dude,” we were reduced to tears hearing our Mom suddenly ask of a kid she spied on the school grounds, “Who is that doo-doo?”

Kids can be cruel, and I was no angel. Whenever I broke into her accent, she’d scream: “Stop mimmying me! I’m not an idjit, you know! I made you, didn’t I?” Or she’d shake a fist at me and yell, “Hey, body, I’m gonna sawk you!” That is to say, Hey buddy, I’m gonna sock you!

Sometimes her word choices made a bizarre kind of sense. She hated using munch—ie, mulch—in her flower beds because she was convinced all it did was invite birds to scrounge through the moist bark in search of fat worms to, well, munch on. As a neighborhood cat was about to defile her roses, she lunged at it, screaming, “I’ll kill you, you munster!” (Hearing her, I immediately thought of the old TV show, The Munsters, who were in fact monsters.) She once asked me and Denise: “So, guys? Are you busy? Do you have a lot of dead-ends?” She meant to say deadlines, of course, but she had unwittingly nailed the essence of the writer’s life.

To this day, if I do something erratic while driving, Denise will remark that perhaps I’d been tutored by my mother, who was famously a terror behind the wheel. Mom came home one day lamenting that a cop had stopped her for no good reason.

Mom: But officer, I made a left on red!
Cop: Yes, I know. That’s why I stopped you!
Mom: Oh, you not gonna give me a ticket on Valentine, are you?

(Yes—the date of her infraction was February 14th.) Moved by this madwoman’s logic, the cop let her off with a warning. But for the rest of day, while driving around town, my mother was subjected to angry honks, shouts, or worse from her fellow drivers. Exasperated, she arrived home and dropped her own brand of f-bomb. “Everybody is fooking me!” she told my father. As this was not a word she used often, even my father was left struggling to comprehend what she had just said.

On one visit to their home in Jersey, we noticed that my mother kept staring at Denise in a strange way all morning. After breakfast, when we left the house to run an errand downtown, she chased us to the door, shouting at the top of her lungs: “Not till I’m dead! Not till I’m dead!” And proceeded to slam the door behind us.

Only later, when we returned, did we calm her down enough to extract the reason for her strange outburst. She pointed to the T-shirt Denise was wearing, which read, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.

I can just imagine how she felt seeing those words on that shirt. It was bad enough that the writer Mom had given birth to had mocked her ceaselessly during his childhood. But now the ungrateful whelp had joined in matrimony with another writer. Surely one day they would mock her in print! It was all too much.

My mother’s revenge came in a manner she could not have predicted. When Denise and I were married, Denise was living in Rome, covering soccer for ESPN. I joined her there for a year, and discovered upon arrival in the Eternal City how worthless my knowledge of high school Italian truly was. I understood one out of every 10 words a Roman spoke to me. My brain unwisely seized upon any word with a Latin root that sounded like one I knew in English—only to discover that I’d mistaken a falsi amici—“false friend”—for a bonafide cognate. No, Joe, morbido in Italian does not mean morbid. A person who is noisoso is boring, not annoying.

I floundered for months, despite the tongue’s seeming simplicity. Only five vowel sounds; what could go wrong?

And yes, the longer I was there, the more the language seeped into my brain. But in strangely diabolical ways. When I attempted to speak English with visiting Americans or Brits, I sounded like a moron. Why? Because now, rather than produce the English I had known all my life, my brain was translating Italian words and syntax into English. In my newfound insanity, porcupines didn’t have quills, they had spines, because the Italian word for a quill or thorn was spina. Oh, and the animal wasn’t a porcupine, but a porcuspine. And you know what? That’s pretty much how my mother used to refer to that creature: porky-spine.

That short time abroad helped me understand Mom better than I ever had. Was it possible that she said Levver mind! because the Italian command “Lasciala!”—ie, Leave it be, Leave it there, Leave it alone—had somehow become coded in her brain for the American English way to dismiss one’s thought or concern? Given her background, she would never nail the word expression for the same reason that some Americans will be ordering expressos until the end of their days.
I returned from that overseas adventure with more story ideas than I could ever use. Years later, I proudly presented Mom with a mystery novel I’d written that was set in Italy. The entire book was a work of mimmying—I mean mimicry. One of the writers who reviewed it said that he was convinced the book had been written by an Italian writer, and later translated into English.* I took that as a compliment.

As for Mom, she read my book once. Then she read it again, this time laboriously underlining various situations and plot points. “You stole my stories!” she told me on a call shortly after. “I told you not to do that! What if I wanted to write them down?”

I swear I didn’t! Okay, maybe one teensy anecdote in the life of one of my characters was lifted from Mom’s childhood.

I know for a fact that she had once attempted an oral history. When I was still in elementary school, I found a tape recorder on which she had begun speaking about her childhood in wartime Italy. A childhood filled with an absentee father, Nazi soldiers encamped in her village, Allied bombings, and breathtaking scenery that she could never quite dislodge from her heart. “I don’t need your mountains,” she told my brother angrily when he moved to Colorado to attend college. “I left my mountains in Italy!”

She never completed that life story. Maybe someday I will. Until then, stories like the ones you’ve just read are the best I can do to commemorate her memory. Wherever you are, Mom, let’s remember one thing. I waited till you were gone.

* * *

* I’m fascinated by the books In Other Words, and Whereabouts, which the author Jhumpa Lahiri, a British-born American, originally wrote in Italian, a language she learned as an adult. Then she or another person subsequently translated the books into English. She also edited and translated The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. But I haven’t read them yet. If you have, kindly share your experience in the comments.

23 April 2021

Making Fudge

Back in the 1980s a college English professor of mine shared a “stupid Hollywood” story with our class. Some genius producers released a TV mini-series on the life of the outlaw Jesse James. Whoever wrote the script read a bunch of history books to do their research. Only problem was, one of the books wasn’t nonfiction. It was (oops!) a novel. In Hollywood terms, history is free for the taking; fiction isn’t. “So now the lawyers are talking,” the professor said, his voice oozing schadenfreude.

I was much older when I finally encountered the 1983 novel the professor was probably referencing: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The author, Ron Hansen, frequently incorporates nonfictional elements in his fiction, with astonishing results. His book was the (intentional) source of the 2007 Brad Pitt/Casey Affleck movie, which reproduced much of Hansen’s gorgeous language. One of my favorite parts of both the movie and book is the lyrical description of Jesse’s character that opens Hansen’s book. (You can read much of it using Amazon’s Look Inside feature here.)

I’m a sucker for the fiction/nonfiction mind-meld. I remember reading E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime as a kid and hitting the part where magician Harry Houdini enters the life of the fictional family at the center of the book. After about a page of this, sixth-grade me stopped dead in his tracks, obsessed with knowing, “How much of this is true?”

Here’s the answer older me would impart to that young reader: Who cares? It’s fiction!

My latest story (“Mr. Tesla Likes to Watch,” AHMM, May/June 2021) features Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain working independently to solve a mystery in 1890s New York. The men have a gentleman’s wager going. Whoever cracks the case buys the other a dinner at Delmonico’s.

I’ve wanted to work them into a story ever since I discovered a truly atmospheric photo of the two of them together in Tesla’s workshop. (No, not the ones shown here.) I’m linking to the photo rather than post it here, on the advice of counsel at the firm of Sleuth & Sayers, Esq. Go look at the pic. I’ll wait. Cool, huh? That photo alone sent me on a research spree.

Things I did before writing the story:
  • The two men were members of the co-ed Players Club in New York City, founded by actor Edwin Booth as a social club for professionals in the arts. The club, located on Gramercy Park, still exists and accepts members who fit the fill and are willing to cough up the scratch. I read the modern club’s website.
  • I consulted timelines of both mens’ lives to figure out when they might have been in New York City at the same time. This was complicated by the fact that the debt-ridden Twain was living abroad during the 1890s, but somehow the pair became friends during this period.
  • I read one academic paper that summarized their correspondence.
  • I spent half a day poking around the lives and characters of the two men, limiting myself to taking only one page of notes on each.
  • Daily I prayed before the Edison/Tesla shrine in my living room. (Okay, I’m kidding about that. But for reasons involving the unwise decision to visit a local brewery on the same day it hosted a flea market we do have a shrine-like shelf in our home that memorializes that legendary feud.)

I stopped researching there. I’ve learned over the years that I’m an obsessive over-researcher. Once, determined to write a book set in Vietnam-era New York City, I convinced myself that I could not possibly start writing a word until I’d read a 900-page volume on the administration of Mayor John Lindsay. No sooner had I finished that book than I was certain—certain, I tell you!—that I had to read two of a three-volume biography on Richard Nixon. Thankfully I stopped before I did, realizing that maybe I had a little problem.

My brain now marinated in Twain/Tesla lore, I set aside my notes, and wrote the damn thing, choosing deliberately to fudge facts along the way. For me, the freedom to fudge was the only way to have fun writing such a story. Fudged fact: in the story I say Tesla walked Manhattan daily, dropping a thermometer on a string into the Hudson and East rivers, to see if their temperatures varied. Totally not true, but it seemed to fit his eccentric character, so I went with it.

I know many writers have devoted much of their work to the historic-figures-as-detective subgenre. Tesla, because of his seeming wackiness, shows up in tons of novels, often in the science fiction and fantasy genre. (Did you catch the late David Bowie’s portrayal of Tesla in the 2006 movie, The Prestige? That film was based on a novel by author Christopher Priest.) But that’s just a start. Without really trying, I poked around online and found mysteries that team Tesla with Arthur Conan Doyle, or Doyle with Houdini. I bet I would love reading those books, but I’m not sure I could maintain enough interest in a specific real-life figure to devote more than one of my own stories to them. A complete mystery series? No way.

For me, the joy of using a historic figure boils down to nailing those peoples’ eccentricities, and finding neat ways to play with them. Twain is legendary for his witty one-liners. In writing his dialogue, I repurposed some things he did say, and invented a few of my own.

My social life is filled with news of the exploits and projects of various narrative nonfiction writers. The journalist in me loves reading their work and seeing how they pulled together mountains of abstruse research to fashion a highly readable historical account. But historical mysteries are freeing precisely because they can be whimsical. 

Also, in writing this story, I experienced a difference in focus. In a typical story, I’m primarily working to fit together pieces of a plot. In this story, that primacy shifted to character. I had these parts (i.e., a real person’s known tics or backstory) and I was working to see how I could layer them into the story. How would Twain sound talking about a case? How would each man’s expertise impact the way he investigated that case? Who would be more methodical? Who unwittingly becomes the Watson?

I answered these questions for myself, as you’ll see. But now that I’ve done so, I’m not sure I could return to those characters again. The novelty has worn off, in a sense. On a second outing, I worry that their behaviors would come off as shtick, not charming. And of course, I’m wary that other writers have used these men as fictional characters.

But who knows? There was one amazing letter real-life Twain wrote real-life Tesla that blew my freaking mind. It could be easily turned into a story…or a book…or a movie… The only problem is, it’s so strange no one would ever believe it was true. Which how we got here in the first place.

* * *

See you in three weeks!


02 April 2021

Giving It Away for Free

I don’t think I fit the profile of a sap or a patsy, but there’s an argument that I’m a bit of a sucker. Thus far this year I’ve read and commented on two full nonfiction books, a nonfiction book proposal, and a sample chapter intended to accompany that proposal. All works in progress, all written by people other than myself, and all of my time given free for the asking.

I didn’t see what I’d committed to until I was in the thick of it, feeling like a freelance editor (or college professor) without the income, and wondering why I hadn’t gotten more of my own writing done. Just as that realization hit me, a fresh email popped into my inbox. It was from an acquaintance here in town. She asked if I’d consider reading her middle-grade novel and advise her on how to sell it. She offered payment, which was nice. But since I had now switched to overcompensation mode, I turned her down flat. (And feel bad about it, to boot!)

I’m determined to say no more often in 2021. I’ll check back with you to let you know how well I’m doing on that score.

But yes, I give it away for free often. And when the experience goes well, I feel like I’ve made a difference. I’m naturally drawn to people who are committed to their writing, and aren’t afraid to work to take it to the next level. Some years ago, my wife and I “donated” (i.e., accepted no payment) for a weekend class we ran for a local writing program on how to write nonfiction book proposals. Three out of our 15 students went on to get book deals with traditional publishers. A fourth decided to self publish what is shaping up to be a really fine book that she will use to promote her business. We felt awesome hearing those success stories.

But other times the help I offer quickly becomes a time-suck. The dividing line is always the person’s level of commitment. How hard they are willing to work. How easy they expect the journey to be. And, I dare say, how quickly they are willing to give up.

Once, there was a well-heeled business dude whose only daughter had written an inspirational book. She wanted Daddy to front the costs of the “publisher” she had found on the Internet. “Is $10,000 a reasonable amount to pay to get a book published?” Daddy-O asked on a phone call that quickly gobbled an hour of my time that I’ll never get back.

Another person—an accomplished entrepreneur—insisted on paying me to coach him in the writing of a book proposal. Now, next to inhaling rotisserie chickens and slices of pizza in record time, nonfiction book proposals are arguably my largest area of professional expertise. They’re tricky to write. Ultimately, they’re a sales document, designed to sell a publisher on the (always nonfiction) book you want to write—and to land the best price while doing so. But boy, they cannot read like that. They have to wow editors with compelling writing, too. Most people who’ve worked in business have no idea how to write such a chimera, let alone the book they feel they have inside them. Hours and meetings into his project, my entrepreneur friend threw up his hands in frustration and said, “Do you think my time would be better spent hiring a ghostwriter like you?”

Things I'd be enjoying if I weren
t reading your book...

I spent long (unpaid) afternoons with another businessman—what is it with you business dudes?—who wanted to write a memoir. First we mapped out the plot of his book on a whiteboard, and later spent hours organizing scenes on index cards and rearranging their order on the giant conference table in his office.

He was ecstatic. After years of simply talking about the book he wanted to write, he could finally see a way to getting it done. Look—it was outlined to the max! All he had to do was go home, trip down the path mapped by the index cards, and write!

Before Covid did a number on our social lives, I ran into him at a bar, were he made the most hilarious proposition I’ve ever heard. “I just can’t seem to find the time to write the damn thing,” he confessed. “Hey! What if you came over and sat in my office for an hour every day? You could work on your projects, and I could work on mine! It would be like—”

He paused, struggling to find the right word.

“Babysitting?” was the one that popped into my mind.

Believe me, I know writing is not something that comes naturally to a lot of people. You could very well be an accomplished individual in your chosen profession, and never have had to write anything longer than that one 10-page term paper you wrote in college. The thought of completing a short story, or an entire book, is daunting.

But what ticked me off recently was a text sent to my wife’s mobile phone at 8:30 pm on a Sunday night. “A friend of mine has a book she wants to get published,” a neighbor wrote. “Are there any tips or sites you would recommend?”

I hit the roof. Unknowingly, this person had blundered into one of my pet peeves. Yes, I know the world of publishing can sometimes seem opaque to people who aren’t immersed in it, but—call me crazy—are we not living in a golden age of information? If you’re passionate about something, you ought to be able to find the information you need to chase your writing dreams.

I wonder if I’m wrong about this. In fact, I write these next words with some trepidation because I fear I am on the verge of becoming a Grumpy Old Writer Man. So please bear with me.

My publishing path is similar to that of many other writers. I started writing short stories in the 1970s, when I was barely into my teens. I knew no one else who wanted to do what I did. And yet, here are the things one would-be writer kid knew, I repeat, in the Seventies:

* I knew how to format a short story manuscript.
* I knew the addresses of the markets I wanted to crack—and sometimes the names of the editors.
* I knew I ought to mail a SASE when I mailed my story in.
* I knew I’d have to get my parents to drive me to the post office. It was too far to walk, and unsafe to ride my bike to get there.
* I knew I’d get rejections, but I also knew I would just have to keep sending stories out.
* I knew there would be still more rejections, and that I would just have to keep sending out stories.
* I was prepared to repeat the last two steps ad nauseam.

How did I know such things in the 1970s, before the Internet as we know it was available, and before you could ask a friend to text working writers on your behalf? 

Simple. I found it all out at my public library. The top shelf of the reference section had a copy of the LMP (Literary Market Place) and an outdated copy of Writer’s Market. That was pretty much all I needed. That, and copies of the magazines I loved that gave me the audacious notion of seeing my own stories in print.

More things I’d enjoy if I weren't reading your novel-in-progress.

Later, as I got older, there were other libraries with more generous resources. One held back issues of magazines such as Writer’s Digest or The Writer. And when I began to think I could write a novel, I scoured paperback racks in stationery stores and bookstores. The book pages of local newspapers were still rich with book reviews back then. If you thought critically and maybe even opportunistically, you could mine all those resources for clues to imprints, agents, and editors.

The Sunday night text crystalized my intention, folks. I have to stop taking the road to Suckerdom. The next time someone asks how to get a book published, I intend to encourage them to do their own research first. To think about how hard they’re willing to work, and how badly they want it.

Because I suspect that if you’re bugging a writer on a Sunday night, you are probably not really looking for information, but for a quick ’n’ dirty “secret.” A way to hack a profession or an accomplishment that has historically never been easy.

There is only one secret, and that is this: Everything you need to succeed or fail is inside you already. If you’re lucky, it’s as stubborn as a teenage kid, and just as resilient. Find that kid, and keep them close. They’re the only writer buddy you need.

Writing is hard. Thats the point. It may be the only point.

* * * 

One of my (professionally paid) ghostwriting projects pubs next month. The author was a dream to work with. Hope to share news about that next time.

See you three weeks!


12 March 2021

The Joy of Monotasking

When my wife and I hang out in the backyard at the end of a day, inevitably our conversation turns to productivity. How can we get more things done without driving ourselves crazy?

Over the years, we’ve devoured a number of books that promise to help their readers crack this nut. Two of our favorites are books that have, in a certain sense, sparked mini-movements. Getting Things Done, by David Allen, inspired legions of developers to create software that embodies Allen’s principles: religiously collect all your to-dos in one place so you can routinely process things in one go; if a task can be done in two minutes or less, freaking do it now and don’t waste time adding it your to-do list!

Deep Work, by Cal Newport, is more of a manifesto. He argues that human beings do their best work when they think deeply about a project, and ruthlessly keep their workplace and time free from distractions. His official definition:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
The challenge facing any professional today, he says, is fighting to accomplish this deep work. It’s bad enough that we all have to contend with mindless admin or household tasks, but now we’re bombarded with ceaseless emails, the promise of “free promotion” if only we’ll become slaves to social media, and the fatuous lie that is multitasking.

In contrast, Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, famously responds only to emails he thinks are worth it. (We know this from personal experience. Denise and I have tried to lure him into doing an interview. No response.)

He did, however, talk to a reporter for the New York Times. It’s a wonderful chat, archived here. In trying to explain why ceaseless interruptions by social media and email are making us miserable, he says,
“…the culprit here is network switching. Human brains take a long time to switch. If you’re going to put your target of attention on one thing and then switch it to a new target, that takes a while, right?”
And later he adds:
“And then if you wrench your attention back to what you were trying to do, it creates this whole pile-up in your brain, which we experience as a loss of cognitive function. We also feel frustrated. We feel tired. We feel anxious. Because the human brain can’t do it.”
I greatly enjoy Deep Work’s opening anecdote. Newport describes how Carl Jung got some of his major books and academic papers written. Jung built a Spartan, two-story stone tower in Bollingen, in the woods overlooking Lake Zurich, and used it to escape from the obligations of clinical practice, academic lectures, and the temptations of Zurich’s coffeehouse scene. (He later enlarged the house, but you can see the original design here.) He conceived that tower not as a vacation home, but a place to which he escaped to get work done. Alone, away from others, Jung walked in the woods, thought deeply, and managed to get a lot of writing done. The ideas born at Bollingen are today regarded as the strongest counter-arguments to Freudianism. 

If you want to write, you need to think. Sometimes deeply. Even if what you’re writing is playful. I have heard of some people who can write while playing classical music, or jazz, or whatever, in the background. I’ve heard of a mystery writer—was it Stanley Ellin or Robert L. Fish?—who could bang away happily on his typewriter while his kids were inches away, playing in their pool. I believe all these stories, but I can’t say I necessarily admire such skills.

Some of the best advice on writing is sitting on the windowsill facing Denise’s desk. She describes them as a “A list of do’s, a list of don’ts.”

One, as you can see, is Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules of Writing, which I don’t need to go into, because it’s sparked tons of other columns in the mystery world. (One of my favorite follow-up essays half-joked that Leonard probably had forgotten he had a deadline for a piece for the New York Times, so he sat down the day the piece was due, and quickly banged out those 10 rules, machine-gun-reporter-style, never expecting that so many other writers would later obsess about them.)

The other little list Denise treasures is culled from the work of Henry Miller. It’s a work schedule Miller hammered out in the 1930s to help him get one particular book done. I’ve made the image big so you can read his rules, but you can find the complete list at numerous websites, like this one.
It’s worth thinking about how Miller’s approach might apply to your own work. If you want to get a task or specific project done, you work on it until completion. You resist the urge to do all the other Bright Shiny Ideas that are bouncing around your brain, and which always seem so much more exciting and promising than the piece of crap you’re trying to write right now.

And yes, Miller’s rules may not apply to the one big project you’re working on, nor are they for every writer. This is, after all, Miller’s list. But still, when I read his rules, I feel seen: Work on one thing at a time until finished. Start no more new books. Work joyously. Go out and see friends. (Boy, so I miss that in the long malaise that is 2020-21.) But also: when you cannot create you can still work. Yes, yes, yes! Man, is he right about all of that.

I don’t know if Professor Newport has ever seen this list, but I think he would approve. At the end of Newport’s interview with the Times, he’s asked for book recommendations, and he tosses off a few, observing that by necessity literary work is the epitome of deep work:
“there’s really no way to produce real insight in writing at that level without actually just having the ability to be alone with your own thoughts and observing the world, and just letting that percolate and letting that move, and trying to craft and move and work with it.”
I like that. Also, for some reason, writing this post reminded me of our man Curly, played by Jack Palance, in the 1991 movie, City Slickers. Remember his genius piece of advice?

I recently watched another sort of clip; an interview with one of John Steinbeck’s sons. Thomas Steinbeck said his father would take time every morning to sharpen 24 pencils because he hated the distraction of having to stop his work and sharpen them in the middle of whatever he was working on. I suspect that anyone who’s ever written knows the real reason Steinbeck sharpened those pencils. He was procrastinating, because sometimes writing is terrifying, especially if you have struggled with depression and self-doubt, as Steinbeck did.

Nevertheless, I went out that day and ordered a box of 24 pencils. They’re (relatively) local-to-me pencils, made by the good folks at the Musgrave Pencil Company, in Shelbyville, Tennessee. They’re made of cedar, come in a fragrant cedar box, and smell marvelous when you take the time to sharpen them.

So I guess my advice this week is to take the advice of other writers and thinkers. Stay safe. Work joyously and recklessly. Work on one thing that freaking matters to you right now. Heaven help you if you start a novel or story with the weather! And take the time to smell the pencils.


See you in three weeks!

— Joe

19 February 2021

The Day I Hung Up My Fedora Forever

I was about 10 years old when I got my first business cards. I “printed” them up myself, laboriously writing them in longhand with pen on index cards I swiped from my Dad.

D’AGNESE DETECTIVE AGENCY, the first line read. After that came our home address in Jersey. There ended my originality. The rest of the copy is tattooed in the brain of anyone who loved mysteries as a kid: 25 cents per case, plus expenses. No case too small.

I don’t know how many of these cards I wrote up. But it was a lot, because I remember discarding a few of my Dad’s pens along the way. Some cards started in black or blue ink, but finished in red. Then I pressed my younger brothers into service. We dropped those cards into every home mailbox or mail slot in the neighborhood.

I set up my office in the garage. We always had some folding chairs tucked away in a closet; I appropriated a couple for myself and my operatives. My Dad had a very large metal gasoline can in the garage—also perfect, also fortuitous—which became my desk of sorts.

I don’t know how long I had to wait for my first case, but when it materialized, it came in the form of two big kids. I can’t be precise about their ages, or mine, because childhood memories are forever and ageless. One of the kids was the friend of our older, big-kid neighbor, Clint.

Big kids suck.

“Someone stole my bike,” he told me. “I need you to find it.”

As soon as his lips closed, a shocking thought passed through my head: What the hell was I doing? I had no freaking idea how to be a detective. How does one even begin to track a stolen bike?

“Do you have any suspects?” I said.

My client didn’t get a chance to respond, because at this point one of my brothers insisted on seeing the color of the fellow’s money. “It’s 25 cents!”

“Yeah, I know,” the big kid said. “I read those books too.”

Book #1 in the Series. Note the gas can!

The books in question, as you’ve no doubt guessed, were the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries that were written so wonderfully by a man named Donald J. Sobol over the course of 49 years.

Sobol wrote other books in his lifetime, but the Brown mysteries—about Leroy Brown, a kid sleuth who solved cases out of his garage in a small fictional town in Florida—will always be his claim to fame. The Brown books each contained about 10 short mysteries.

I hate dreaming up clues for the stories I write today. I’m terrible at it. Sobol’s genius was boiling every single case down to some abstruse factoid that revealed which person in the story was a liar. Things like which way water flowed in the Amazon basin, or the fact that dogs can’t see color, or the fact that fire never burns downward, only up. (I just made these up. They are not Sobol-approved.) No one in the stories, not even grown-ups, knew this kind of trivia, but Encyclopedia always did. That’s how he always nabbed the perp.

I never did read all the Brown books. My childhood ended before Sobol finished crafting them. But many years later, I had the chance to read the first volume of his Two-Minute Mysteries series, which were wickedly short newspaper puzzlers not unlike the ones in Woman’s World magazine today. Sobol published three books culled from this one syndicated mystery column, which he began writing for newspapers in 1959.

But here’s what blew my mind: In the same way that Raymond Chandler “cannibalized” his short stories and their plots in later novels, or the way Ellery Queen repurposed their old radio scripts for later books, Sobol clearly tapped some of his old Dr. Haledjian newspaper shorts for later Encyclopedia Brown material.

Because clues are just that precious.

None of this helped me, by the way, back in the 1970s. The Case of the Purloined Bike didn’t have a single critical clue to guide me. (I wouldn’t have spotted it if it had.) As I recall, the case fell apart when the client threatened to steal our bikes, mine and my brothers. Isn’t that just like a big kid?!

Terrified, I fled my newly hatched office for the safety of my upstairs bedroom, bolting the door. If the world was not going to challenge my ratiocinative abilities, I would not be a party to its madness.

Book #29 —the last in the series.

My younger brother, who has always been physically bigger than me, fought off the big kids with a stick and locked the garage door. He’s the only hero of this story.

I never had another case. But some months later, a commuter on the bus to the big city plopped down next to my father one morning and innocently asked, “Are you a detective?”

My father spluttered that he was no such thing.

The woman showed him my business card.

“That’s gotta be one of my idiot kids!” he told her.

“I thought so,” she said. “But I thought I would ask. I need someone to find my sweater. I can’t find it anywhere.”

Where was this paragon of clienthood when I needed her?

By rights my story ends there. But many years later, when I was working at the children’s publishing company, Scholastic, I had the chance to interview Sobol, who lived in Florida, by phone.

I found him to be incredibly down to earth. He chuckled when I told him about my detective agency. I was not the only grown-up who’d shared such an anecdote with him over the years. Pulling some questions from old bios of him, I asked if he still fished or golfed. He laughed. He said most days he was lucky if he got up from his desk and made it to the refrigerator.

At the end of the interview, I mentioned in passing that our children’s magazine would be reprinting one of the Brown mysteries to accompany the Q&A I was writing.

In a line that sort of presaged my own future, Sobol replied, “Am I getting paid for this? I mean, if it’s just a few bucks, no big deal. But if it’s $25, send me the check.”

His last Brown title was published a few months after he died in the summer of 2012, at age 87. The best estimate I’ve found says the Brown books have sold more than 50 million copies—and counting. That should keep us in budding detectives until the end of this century, at least.

Count me out.

* * * 

See you in three weeks!

29 January 2021

Drinking With Archivists

I have a lovely real-life mystery for you today, but what I really want to talk about is cardboard boxes and what’s hidden inside them.

I’ve written lots of nonfiction, particularly in the self-help/financial/memoir genres, for various ghostwriting clients. But I’ve never done the sort of books my wife writes—deep narrative nonfiction. I was probably in high school the first time I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources. But I had to live to my fourth decade before I ever touched a primary source worth writing about.

By now I’ve tagged along with Denise on research trips to three university libraries, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, two National Archives facilities, a bibliophilic organization in New York, and a presidential archive. And she’s trained me to be a half-competent researcher of online resources. I’ve come away with a profound respect for the work she and archivists do, as well as fostering a deep geek love for old stuff tucked away in new boxes.

Nothing beats holding a letter that was written by hand with a fountain pen a hundred years (or more) ago. Every thing about the artifact screams history. The grain of stationery, its postmarks, and its postage stamps are just the beginning. Sometimes letters are written on the highly ornate stationery of exotic hotels and resorts that are long gone. Other times they’re written on corporate stationery of businesses—such as carriage manufacturers and ice delivery firms, to choose two examples—that barely exist anymore. Sometimes you find poignant sentimental items—dried flowers, coiled human hair, or faded scraps of fabric—tucked into those letters.

Practicing one's penmanship:
"I long have loved you from afar..."

I love the way old letters were folded to get them down to the size of an handmade envelope. Or the creative methods correspondents employed to reduce the total weight of the envelope, and thus the required postage. When they got to the end of a page, they’d maybe turn it upside down and write in between the lines, or diagonally across their previously written text, confident in that their confidante on the other end would be able to decipher it all.

"My dear Paul: I hope you can freaking read this..."

Researchers must quickly learn how to decipher the handwriting of the person they’re researching. But it’s hit or miss. I have found it easy to read the scanned letters (online at the Library of Congress) of Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Declaration of Independence signer, Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. They had crystal-clear penmanship. But the letters of Edith Bolling Wilson, second wife and widow of Woodrow Wilson, scrawled in chicken scratch with an unsharpened pencil? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Meanwhile, as you pore through these marvelous treasures in archival boxes, the clock is ticking. A friend whose wife earned a doctorate in art history told me how he’d accompany her on research trips to various libraries and archives because “research is a family effort.” He’s totally correct.

Time and money are working against you. You’re usually visiting a new city to access these precious archives, crashing with friends or staying at a hotel. You’re eating out. Maybe you have a flight out of town in three days, and you can’t spare another day researching because you have to be at another facility on Thursday. You get to the archives right when it opens, and you read through lunch. When the library closes, you’re out the door, wired and starved. Your eyeballs are fried, sunlight feels alien, and your smartphone feels like the most artificial thing you’ve ever touched. My time in archives have transformed me into a stationery snob.

Archivists instinctively describe their collections in cubic feet. A banker’s box, roughly 1 cubic foot, can hold about 2,000 sheets of paper. A Hollinger box, on the left down there, holds about a third of that. But in my experience, if you hit a World War II-era box filled with onionskin stock or carbon copies, each of those boxes actually holds about 63 million sheets of paper.

There’s only so many hours in a day. Using finding aids, you can target your search. But sometimes you go on fishing expeditions, hoping to find materials no researcher has ever laid eyes upon. I found that if I worked my butt off, I could maybe get through one full box in a day, or three or four of the smaller ones, if I could single out just the specific folders we thought would be most likely to hold what we were looking for. But because you’re human, you can only survey so much.

Sometimes, archivists are bursting to share juicy tidbits with you, like the time an archivist brought Denise a copy of a report by a young medical doctor, Charles Augustus Leale, who attended a certain tragic theatre performance in Washington, DC, in 1865. Leale was the first doctor to touch Lincoln after that fatal shot, and managed to get the president’s breathing started again. Leale’s account was only discovered by a researcher in 2012. The account perfectly fleshed out a chapter in Denise’s latest book.

To write her first book of this type, my wife accessed the Department of Energy records pertaining to the Manhattan Project held at the National Archives facility in Morrow, Georgia. Fans of the book still occasionally ask if she came across the names of their relatives who worked on the project.

“No,” she says. “But you’re welcome to try finding them yourself. We only got through a handful of boxes, and there are 5,000 more boxes in that collection.”

Math geeks: If you use the conservative estimate that one cubic foot contains 1,800 sheets of paper, that means that one collection alone consists of at least 9 million sheets of government paper. Archival budgets being what they are, most of those boxes have never been opened and processed since they were entrusted to the National Archives. There are tons more books about the Manhattan Project to be written, I assure you. Just not by Denise.

(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

Which is, by the way, why archivists drink. And when they do, they tell wonderful stories about things they’ve found rooting around the records. One such mystery is the one beginning above. It’s a pair of ads that ran in the New Yorker magazine in November 1941. Taken at face value, they’re just promoting a parlor game. But if you’re in Naval Intelligence in August 1942, and you see German words, references to air-raid shelters, and random letters and numbers, you start thinking secret codes “of a possible subversive nature.”

(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

"Attention of the Atlanta Zone Intelligence Officer was called to the fact that the dice shown in the various ads contain the numerals 12-7 and 24 and 5. It is to be noted that 12-7 would be December 7th, and 24.0 is practically the latitude of Pearl Harbor."
(Naval District records, RG 181, NARA, Morrow, GA)

Are we really to believe that America’s enemies were communicating via pricy ads in a New York literary magazine? Lieutenant Commander J.L. Laube of the Sixth Naval District certainly thought so. He suggested that someone track down the person who placed the ads on behalf of this mysterious New York publishing company.

Poking around online, I’ve located a few defunct businesses that operated under the same (admittedly common) name. Indeed, several modern publishing companies use the same moniker. (People really like the word monarch, apparently.)

When our friends at the archives first mentioned the ads to me, I knew they had the makings of a decent short story, even if the real-life investigation ended quite prosaically. But that’s the thing. I don’t know how the real-life story ended. Just one more scrap of paper would have satisfied my curiosity. Beginning, middle, and end.

Don’t worry. I’ve got this. That sheet of paper is somewhere in a cardboard box in Morrow, Georgia. I just have to page through a couple of million sheets to find it.

Or I could make it up. That, my friends, is the beauty of fiction.

* * *

See you in three weeks!


08 January 2021

Sherlock Holmes: Brilliant on Paper

Fate or William S. Baring-Gould hath decreed that the January of every year must be devoted to the pursuit of Sherlockiana. So maybe it’s worth sharing that I made the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes sometime in the mid-1970s, when he appeared under the tree one Christmas, dolled up in cheap wrapping paper. He resided in a curious boxed set containing six paperback volumes that probably set Santa back $7.50.

To be honest, I had tried to make sense of Holmes when I was even younger, paging through a heavy hardcover I’d found in my school library. I didn’t enjoy my first rodeo with the gentleman from Baker Street. Back then, I was under the sweet impression that one read books by starting at page one, and proceeding thenceforth until you reached the final page. Page 1 of that musty, water-stained hardcover meant starting with A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel. Critical to the canon, to be sure, but probably not the best jumping-off point for a fourth grader. Bored and overwhelmed, I returned the book to the library and promptly forgot about Holmes.

But years later, I was older and had begun consuming Ellery Queen novels like they were bags of potato chips. It helped that the covers of the Holmes paperbacks were enticingly illustrated by an artist identified only as ANDERSON. The Holmes in these images was a pale, hatchet-faced genius. But if I had started at A Study in Scarlet again, I probably would have given that genius a pass for the second time. I was saved by the mostly unlikely component of a book that a kid would ever care about: the introduction.

Each of these books bore a short intro by a famous mystery writer. Ed McBain, for example, introduces A Study in Scarlet by pointing out how often in this maiden adventure Holmes (that is to say, Doyle) mocks policemen and police work. McBain hilariously describes what would happen if the men of the 87th Precinct took Holmes in for questioning, and charged him with defamation.

Joe Gores, who introduces The Memoirs and who spent a dozen years as a real-life private investigator, lovingly pokes holes in Holmes’s skills as a private consulting detective.

P.G. Wodehouse, who made a career out of skewering the British upper crust, theorizes in his introduction to The Sign of the Four that Holmes must have deep pockets since no one ever seems to pay him very much to solve their little problems. Wodehouse riffs on this for a while before revealing his theory about the source of Holme’s filthy lucre: Holmes was in fact Moriarty all along!

All great stuff, by great writers, but it was all lost on me, because in 1975, I had yet to enter the squad room at the 87th precinct. I knew nothing of Jeeves and Bertie. I sure as heck had not read a single adventure of The Executioner (author Don Pendleton intro’d The Hound of the Baskervilles), nor The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (written by Nicholas Meyer, who introduced The Return…).

No. The only introduction that caught my eye was the one opening The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was a now-famous essay by Frederic Dannay in which he tells how a loving aunt presented him with a library copy of The Adventures to pass the time when he was a bedridden with an ear infection. I had no idea that I was reading the words of one-half of Ellery Queen. I was utterly clueless about the nature of their authorship. The name on the cover of the book said Ellery Queen, and in my ears I heard the voice of the late actor Jim Hutton:

I opened the book with no realization that I stood—rather, I sat—on the brink of my fate. I had no inkling, no premonition, that in another minute my life’s work would be born…


I started on the first page of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and truly the game was afoot. The unbearable pain in my ear…vanished! The abyss of melancholy into with a twelve-year-old can sink…forgotten!
The rest, of course, was history. “Ellery” reads the book in a single night, wakes the next morning, drags himself to the library with a throbbing ear, and begs a librarian to let him have more Holmes, even though he does not yet have a library card. He leaves with The Memoirs, A Study in Scarlet, and The Hound, and devours them each in turn. Well, this was promising, I thought, diving into the very first adventure myself.

I enjoyed that fogbound world a good deal, perhaps not as much as the young Dannay. I just didn’t grasp a lot of the finer plot points. Some of the endings struck me as ambiguous, as if the world’s adults had conspired to leave kids in the dark at every turn. Even today I don’t think the Holmes stories make ideal reading for kids. (A future column on this assertion is in the works.)

But still, I treasured that little boxed set and its colorful covers. It never occurred to me until years later that I had not read every single Holmes adventure. For some reason, probably having to do with cost, Ballantine had omitted three further books—The Valley of Fear, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book—from the set. I didn’t discover them until college, and it was a delight to find that the hansom cab had kindly consented to stop for me one more time. This time around, I understood the nuances of Holmes’s world far better. I loved the prickly old coot.

My childhood boxed set was lost during one of my moves, and I had to wait for the Internet and online bookselling to be invented before I could be reunited with another version of them. This set lives face out on the top of my living room bookshelves. All I have to do is glance up to see Holmes sneering down at me. “You will not abandon me again,” he seems to be saying, and I swear that I shan’t, ever.

* * * 

By the way: Years ago I acquired Baring-Gould's Annotated Holmes and, slavishly, the newer annotation by Leslie S. Klinger—though I have to admit that they are more suitable for bench-pressing workouts than long nights reading in front of the fire, all the while cutting off circulation to your femoral arteries.

However, by far the best ebook version of the Holmes canon I’ve found is the one published by Top-Five Books, which includes all the stories and all the illustrations that appeared when the stories were first published. Check it out here.

See you in three weeks!

In these pandemic times, two of the three volumes in my Annotated Sherlock Holmes (Klinger edition) serve as Denise's laptop stand in her Zoom corner (seen through her ring light).

18 December 2020

The Greatest Christmas Mystery, Ever, Part II

The thing every author creates that marks a work as their own is also the very thing they cannot see. Fans and critics might well rave about a writer’s “style,” but those writers have no clue what these mad people are talking about. A writer can try to imitate another writer’s style, but not for long. Inevitably, the thing that makes a writer unique eventually outs. That’s why those Sherlockian pastiches never really nail Doyle. Close, but no meerschaum pipe.

Writers love to lament quirks of their style. But when they do that, they’re really moping about defects that are painfully obvious to them. When I edit my work, I try desperately to excise the stuff I hate about my writing. I know, for example, that I overuse words like “concoct”—not to mention “desperately” and “excise.” And sure, there are tons of junk words I search for during an editing pass that have been culled, I might as well confess, from previous columns on that subject right here on the Sleuthsayers blog. (A tip of the hat here to Messrs. Lopresti and Floyd.)

But let’s face it: no matter how much I tinker with my paragraphs and sentences, the Joe-ness within me inevitably spills onto the page. I have no idea, for example, how my use of definite and indefinite articles differ from some other writers. And I have no clue how my use of phonemes (don’t ask) punctuate the Joe-itude. For every quirk I prune away, I lay down a thousand more tells that taint the prose with what can probably be described as a sort of invisible literary fingerprint.

And modern scientists can lift those prints.

Toward the end of the 19th century, descendants of a man named Henry Livingston Jr. went public with the shocking truth, as they perceived it: Clement Clarke Moore had claimed authorship of a poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, written by their ancestor.

Livingston (1748-1828) was many things in life—a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a surveyor, a justice of the peace, and an inveterate poet. When Livingston’s first wife died, he married and fathered children with another woman. It was to this second crop of kids that Livingston—who lives in the literature as a light-hearted, jolly fellow—is believed to have first read his Christmas poem sometime between 1807-09. The family suspected that a visitor to Henry’s estate in Poughkeepsie brought a copy with her to New York City, where it somehow ended up in Moore’s household.


Of course, there’s no proof of any of this. Livingston’s original text, with numerous cross-outs—was said to have been preserved in the family for decades, until it was lost in a house fire in Wisconsin in the 1840s.

But we do have those marvelous words. If Livingston wrote the poem, his invisible fingerprints would be all over it, wouldn’t they? In 1999, a descendant convinced a Vassar professor to begin a textual analysis of the poem, comparing its signature quirks to other known examples of Livingston’s and Moore’s poetry. After a long study, the first prof, Don Foster, said yep, Livingston did it!(1) If that weren’t enough, a second professor—MacDonald P. Jackson, professor emeritus at the University of Auckland—subjected the work of the two men to numerous tests, producing a 2016 book in the process, ultimately finding for Livingston.(2) I urge you read Professor Mac’s work, if long asides on phoneme pairs, attributive adjectives, and high- and low-frequency words—and the syllables that love them—run to your taste.


The thing is, we should have known all along. I can’t help imagining Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen or even the aforementioned Mr. Holmes pegging Moore as the malingerer after a long weekend in the country with him.

On paper, the dude looks temperamentally incapable of writing such a poem.

Item 1: In 1799, New York passed a law allowing for gradual emancipation. That meant that all enslaved persons in the state had to be freed by 1827. Clement Clarke Moore—a biblical scholar, a man of the freaking cloth—held onto his enslaved persons till the very end. The year A Visit from St. Nicholas was published, 1823, Moore owned five human beings. They had to be pried from his grip at the very last gasp of the manumission law. To make matters worse, Moore was rabidly against abolition and went to his grave in 1863 objecting to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Item 2: When Moore sold his Chelsea property in Manhattan, he did it in such a way to exclude working class New Yorkers, and did everything in his power to create an atmosphere modern Americans would associate with a gated community, banning everything from stables to factories to retail shops within the confines of Chelsea’s boundaries. When city fathers announced they wanted to run Ninth Avenue through his estate, he railed against it, saying it was a plot to appease the working class.

Item 3: When scholars speak of Moore, they use words like stodgy, stuffy, elitist, narrow, unplayful, or curmudgeonly. His other writing, especially the other poems he wrote, express a weirdly moralistic tone. He doesn’t really seem to like children. In one of the Christmas poems in his ouevre, Santa comes off like a dick—mocking the children for whom he has left a sackful of coal. As you read this poem, Moore appears in your mind’s eye, sadistically flexing a switch, as if prepping to whip a naughty child’s backside. In 1995, when the New-York Historical Society mounted an exhibition devoted to the poem, the museum’s curator confided to the New York Times, “He was clearly a prig. He had a very closed mind.”

I don’t have to tell you that scholars, academics, and museum curators choose their words very carefully.

Does this sound like the kind of man who could effortlessly write about sugar-plums and dozing tots? In the poem we all know and love, Santa comes to life as a pipe-smoking, soot-covered, working class hero, i.e., a “peddler just opening his pack.” That is not a portrayal you’d expect from the pen of a man who hated filthy tradesmen and their tobacco with equal venom. Could a guy like this really breathe life into a right jolly old elf?

If the modern academics are correct, suddenly tiny bits of the story surrounding the writing of the Christmas poem make a whole lot more sense.

No wonder Moore didn’t want his children and guests to share the poem he read them in 1822. No wonder he downplayed his “creation” for two decades, claiming the poem as his own and inserting it into a published collection of his poetry only after his children pushed him to do so. No wonder he claimed the poem was easy to write. (Trivial works usually are, aren’t they? Compiling a Hebrew-English dictionary, as Moore had, is far more mentally taxing.)

I might add that before Moore published the poem in his collection, he wrote a strange letter to the editor of the Troy, New York, newspaper that first pubbed the poem anonymously. Moore asked if editor Norman Tuttle knew who the author of the poem was when Tuttle first released it in the pages of his publication in 1823. Speaking as a writer myself, that is a very weird question for a writer to ask of his own work. As Livingston descendants and researchers point out, such a query only makes sense if Moore was trying to suss out if the coast was clear before he formally claimed the poem as his own.

Maybe it’s time for us to face facts. Maybe Moore wasn’t a brilliant-but-humble genius at all, as I hinted three weeks ago. Maybe he was just another hypocritical, moralizing, enslaving churchman. A man who willfully perpetrated one of the most outrageous thefts in the history of U.S. literature.

Not the “Poet of Christmas” at all. More like the plagiarist who stole Christmas.

Signed first edition? I think not.

Happy New Year to you all! See you in three weeks.

* * * 

(1) Author Unknown, by Don Foster (New York: Owl Books/Henry Holt, 2000). Chapter 6, beginning page 221, on the Santa Claus poem analysis.
(2) Who Wrote The Night Before Christmas?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question, by MacDonald P. Jackson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016).
See also:
* Henry Livingston, Jr.: The Poet You Always Loved, by Mary Van Deusen (Wrentham, Massacusetts: Val Alain Publishing, 2016).

27 November 2020

The Greatest Christmas Mystery, Ever (Part I)

Every year in December, a curious event used to take place at the Church of the Intercession, an Episcopal congregation located in upper Manhattan. Local children would meet for a Christmas musical pageant capped off by a poetry reading. Later, everyone traipses to the cemetery across the street, places a wreath on a grave, and sings carols before returning to the church for some snacks.

Until this, our pandemic year, this tradition has happened virtually unchanged every 24th of December for more than 120 years. The oldest continuing tradition in New York City, they call it. Older than, say, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The grave that has drawn congregants for more than 100 years belongs to a man named Clement Clarke Moore, who died in 1863.


In life Moore was a professor, a religious scholar and theologian, an occasional poet, and, curiously, a savvy real-estate developer who founded a Manhattan neighborhood called Chelsea, named after and built on land that once belonged to his family. But that’s not why anyone remembers Moore on this night. No one drags their child to a freezing cemetery to celebrate the life of a man who wrote a 1,000-page scholarly text entitled *The Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, in Two Volumes*. No. Moore is remembered because when he wasn’t busy cranking out his alefs, bets, and gimels, he apparently found time to write A Visit from Saint Nicholas, also known as ’Twas The Night Before Christmas.

For much of his life, Moore downplayed the poem associated with his name. When he first read those immortal lines to family and friends gathered at his home one Christmas, he strictly admonished them not to share it outside his residence. One of his guests nevertheless snuck out a copy and sent it to a newspaper in Troy, New York, which printed it anonymously, a common practice at the time. Countless other newspapers followed, and reprinting those lines became an annual tradition.

Like many writers, Moore wanted to be remembered for his “serious” work. Later in life, whenever someone cajoled him to tell how he came to write the classic poem, he related the same story. One day in 1822, he went out to buy a Christmas turkey and saw a fat Dutchman sitting in a carriage smoking a long clay pipe. Inspired, Moore rushed home and dashed off the 56-line poem about a plump, “jolly old elf” in a feverish bout of creativity. The poem literally poured from his pen—without a single correction necessary.

Even today it’s hard to quantify how important the poem is. Every culture in Europe has its own tradition of a Christmas “gift-bringer.” The English have Father Christmas, the French Père Noël. Icelandic children are visited by 13 mischievous Yule “lads”—tiny dwarves who leave children sweets or rotting potatoes, depending on their behavior. The Dutch had Sinterklaas, a homegrown version of Saint Nicholas, the kindly, fourth-century Turkish-born Catholic bishop who was regarded as the patron saint of sailors, pawnbrokers, reformed thieves, brewers, and, last but not least, children.

Though centuries had passed between the life of the real Saint Nicholas and the creation of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version was and still is visibly religious: he’s a dour-faced man who wears a bishop’s miter on his head, and carries a bishop’s crook in his hand, the symbol of a shepherd leading his flock.

Every culture’s gift-bringer behaves differently. My mother grew up in Italy believing in La Befana, an old witch who flies her broom into every Italian home on the eve of the Epiphany (January 6th). Every year on December 5, the night before the traditional Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, Dutch children leave carrots in their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’s white horse. Come morning, they find candy in those shoes if they have been good, a bundle of twigs if they have been bad.

The American Santa observes a totally different protocol, and everything we know about him was sketched out for the very first time in the poem we’re discussing. The poem codifies Santa: how he looks, which night of the year he visits, how he transports himself to your house, how he enters and leaves the dwelling, how he behaves while there, the precise number of his reindeer, and their names. So it’s not too crazy to suggest that the author of A Visit from Saint Nicholas wasn’t just dashing off a delightful little poem that day, he was building American culture.

And none too soon, if you believe the historians. At this time in history American cities were struggling with a very scary Yuletide dilemma. So much so that the upper-crusters who bought plots of land in Moore’s tranquil enclave Chelsea had come to dread Christmas. December in 1820s New York City was like frat-boy central. It wasn’t uncommon for idle, laid-off workers to kick in the doors of wealthy homes and to demand pocket money in exchange for a bawdy song. But then, sometime during that decade in New York City, the weeks of unceasing hooliganism abruptly stopped.

Because Santa.

At least two historians* argue that the city’s fathers conspired with the media machine of the time (newspapers and weekly magazines) and retailers to promote a new sort of tradition. Christmas was no longer about giving pocket change to the less fortunate. It was about a visit from Santa Claus and giving presents—not candy or fruit or homemade sweets but store-bought presents—to children. In doing so, responsible adults were ostensibly reenacting the story of the Christ child receiving gifts in the manger from the three Magi.

Once this powerful tradition took hold, a family man could no longer afford to be idle at the end of the calendar year. He had to stay off the streets and gainfully employed if he was going to be able to afford presents for his children and, as the tradition morphed, for every other member of his family. Societal pressure eradicated one tradition and ushered in another. This New York-style Christmas quickly spread to the rest of the nation, aided by women’s magazines and impossible-to-ignore retail advertisements in every influential American publication.

America needed Santa. Needed his benevolent, calming influence to correct and redirect a societal ill. But it would be wrong of us to say that the Santa of A Visit from Saint Nicholas was nothing but a potent and irritating tool for conspicuous consumption.

The poem should be celebrated on its own merits. If you’ve ever read poetry or essays written by amateur writers from the founding era of the United States till about the era of the Civil War, you’ve probably been bored to tears or scratched your eyes out. The Christmas poem is nothing like that. The writing’s clear, its images crisp. It’s probably the most famous American poem. Amazon currently lists no fewer than 732 versions of this public domain book. It’s the book every Christmas-celebrating kid ever born must receive at some point in their lives, along with The Grinch and The Polar Express.

But so few people know the story of the classic’s origin—or why they should even care. If you want to go “meta” on this, you could say that once upon a time a sweet genius conceived of a way to sidestep the messy Catholic-Protestant rift and get back to the joy of the old pagan Yule. Stripping away the baggage of Old World religions, this nimble writer created a magnanimous secular magician who brings presents to worthy children every year without fail. Sans miter, sans crook, sans religious robes, this Santa is, frankly, the perfect, nondenominational gift-bringer for a nation of immigrants. How lucky we are! How truly blessed, that this magical tale was bequeathed to us by a humble New Yorker whose name we hardly know but whose words still give us all the feels!

There’s just one problem with everything I’ve just told you.

It may all be a bright shining lie.

I'm partial to the Charles Santore edition.

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* Sources for this article include two wonderful books: The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, by Steven Nissenbaum; and Christmas: A Biography, by Judith Flanders.

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. See you—with the conclusion—in three weeks!

06 November 2020

"We Gather Together" with Denise Kiernan

This week, rather than do actual work, I am ceding this space in part to my lovely and brilliant wife Denise Kiernan, a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, a narrative nonfiction history titled We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, arrives in stores next week.

Denise was given 50 minutes to complete this short survey, and permitted access to a No. 2 pencil, a cup of coffee, and a large glazed doughnut to assist her in nailing down her answers. And yes, the doughnut was local and organic. We’re not animals.

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The publisher says this book is “the biography of an idea.” What’s the idea? I thought it was about Thanksgiving. I’m so confused.
What is thanksgiving, really, but an idea? How’s that for vague? The book looks at American history through the lens of our culture’s relationship to giving thanks. But first, obviously, we stop in Ancient Rome. The idea is one of communities and cultures coming together in gratitude, and how that timeless practice evolved into the American holiday of thanksgiving and how that, in turn, has changed over the years. And guess what? That holiday is primed to evolve again.

At the heart of the book is a lady in black. (Sorry, this is a mystery blog, and I just wanted to make her sound mysterious.) But she does always wear black. And she edits a magazine. And she has opinions, causes, crusades. Many of them, in fact. Can you tell us about her?
Sarah Josepha Hale was the O.G. influencer. She was a widow (hence the black wardrobe—not much mystery there) with five kids and no formal education who went on to edit Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most influential magazines of the 19th century. She wrote about what to wear, how to cook, who to read. The Lady’s Book “editress”—as she called herself—wielded a unique kind of power and influence at a time when she didn’t even have the right to vote. But she didn’t do so only to sell copies of her magazine. She created anthologies of the writings of other women, highlighting and sharing their talents. She gave invaluable boosts to some men as well: Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow. She used her media pulpit to raise funds for libraries, veterans and their widows, monuments to their memory, and more. In doing so, she encouraged others to follow her lead. Her influence—despite the limits put on her at the time by her gender—has carried through to this very day. So yes, she is and was one of the most prolific writers I’ve ever encountered: poems, novels, recipe books, hostess manuals, anthologies of notable women, book reviews, you name it. Reading about her made me seriously question what the hell I’ve been doing with my time.

What are some of the newfangled ideas Hale promoted—and are any of them still in practice?
Despite her noir attire—see what I did there?—she promoted the idea of brides wearing white, à la Queen Victoria. She wrote a little ditty called “Mary’s Lamb” (i.e., “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) which remains one of the most-sung rhymes in all American kid-dom. She also thought Christmas trees would catch on, and promoted them to her readership. Jury’s still out on that one, I suppose.

You’re writing nonfiction, so there’s research involved. Can you tell us about some of the cool stuff you found as you were digging? And please brag about what a great little shopper your husband has become in pandemic times, buying strange old magazines online for your researching pleasure.
Learning about how Hale published a lot of people before they were “big” names—Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne—was fascinating. Oh, that reminds me: My husband, who is constantly bragging about his online shopping prowess, somehow neglected to pick up a very specific vintage copy of a certain little magazine for me. [That original copy of Hales magazine is very expensive, and rare book dealers are chiselers!—Ed.] My husband does, however, buy white and brown rice by the ton, and invests in various Harry Potter miniatures for our Christmas village. I, on the other hand, insisted on the North Pole-dancing elves in the seedier part of our planned holiday burg.

Everyone knows the story of how Lincoln grew his beard because 11-year-old Grace Greenwood Bedell wrote and told him to Go Forth and Be Hirsute. Why don’t more people know of Hale’s connection to Honest Abe?
Well, I wouldn’t agree with you that everyone knows the Abe-Grace-Beard story. But I hear you. As far as Hale and Lincoln are concerned, all I can say is that there are many people throughout history who played integral roles in key events of the American story who get little or no credit. Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fictionalized version of thanksgiving took hold and caught on. An ebon-clad widow who edited a women’s magazine and wrote letters just didn’t catch on. However, Hale is the reason we celebrate this holiday at the same time year after year.

We here at Sleuthsayers burn candles at the feet of our patron saint, Edgar Allan Poe. What can you tell us about his association with “The Editress,” Mrs. Hale?
Hale and Poe (and his small family) resided in Philadelphia at the same time. He was editing Graham’s Magazine in the same period when Sarah Josepha Hale was editing Godey’s. Hale was one of the very first publishers of Poe’s work, and arguably not only introduced him to a much wider audience, but also enjoyed the best relationship of any editor with this rather troublesome writer. Before Hale ever ran any of his work in full, her magazine reviewed one of his first books, and though describing his prose as “boyish,” nevertheless said the then-unknown author showed “genius.” Shortly after publishing that assessment, Hale received a letter from her son, David, who attended West Point with Poe. David asked his mother to consider more of Poe’s work, and she willingly did. Poe also proposed to write—and Hale accepted to edit—a long-running gossip column that poked fun at several literary figures in New York City. That scathing column immediately stoked controversy among the literati and forced the publisher of Hale’s magazine to issue what we would today consider the classic disclaimer: “the opinions expressed herein are those of the author, not the publisher.”

[Okay, Joe, just FYI: I’m done with the coffee. Switching to wine. –DK]

Is it true that several women in the Midwest, upon reading a certain story of Poe’s in the pages of Godey’s Magazine, either a) had their hair turn green overnight, or b) systematically walled up their husbands in farmhouse walls?Okay, yes, the most famous of Poe’s works that appeared first in Hale’s magazine before achieving much greater acclaim was “The Cask of Amontillado.” [Oh yeah—my intrepid online-shopping hubby also failed to find that particular publication for me as well. But hey—I have a fun Borgin & Burke’s replica to set up in my village next to the “Elf”-inspired Gimbel’s department store that stands around the corner from our Scrooge & Marley’s counting house.]

Your book spans (literally) the dawn of time to the present day as it contemplates the power of myth and the benefits of embracing gratitude. Can you tell us anything more about Hales magnificent obsession?
What can I say? The woman liked a well-cooked bird. Sarah Josepha Hale accomplished much in her lifetime, but her crowning achievement was convincing a president, Abraham Lincoln, to establish a national day of thanks after writing to ask four of his presidential predecessors—as well as numerous governors, ambassadors, and the like—to do the same. Her fascination with the idea of Thanksgiving started early and first appears in her novel, Northwood, published in 1827, in which she describes a “Thanksgiving supper surrounded by a large family” and an indulgent meal in which … “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting.” And, and, and. On it goes. The woman liked a fancy meal and the table setting to match it. She never relinquished the idea, and in the 1852 reissue of Northwood, there is a pointed update. One of her protagonists announces that although Thanksgiving was not yet a national holiday observed throughout America, he felt certain that … “I trust it will become so … When it shall be observed, on the same day throughout all the states and territories, it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness.” At a time when the country was deeply divided, nothing seemed more important to Hale than officially recognizing gratitude. It took her decades, but she is the reason this nation celebrates a day of thanks.

Which figure in your book would you love to invite to Thanksgiving dinner and have a socially distant beverage—or share a greasy little drumstick—with?
Poe. No question.
Wait—Frederick Douglass.
No, scratch that…Sojourner Truth.
Oh! Oh! Oh! M. F. K Fisher.
Never mind. Will you leave me a drumstick this year?

All this talk is making me hungry. What’s for dinner?
You can have the rest of my doughnut.

Can you tell the nice folks about your tour in closing?
I hit the virtual road on Tuesday, November 10, talking about We Gather Together with different interviewers for every event. Autographed bookplates are available from a variety of independent bookstores, and I am available on the interwebs for the foreseeable future, such as it is.





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Join me in three weeks, when I will blow your minds about that magical, wondrous holiday, Christmas!