EYES. [Leiter writing tips]

EYES. [Leiter writing tips]

An interesting take on “eyes,” so different from the usual clichés. From the action thriller, White Plague, by James Abel.

…Whoever said, Eyes are the windows of the soul, didn’t know what he was talking about. Eyes are curtains to prevent you from seeing. They’re rabbits that climb out of a magician’s hat. Eyes are the last thing you see smiling before a bullet slams into your midsection. I’ll take pulse rate over eyes as clues any day of the week, and my rate was up.
She slid closer.

JAMES PATTERSON: interview excerpt

LEITER WRITING TIPS
[excerpts from interview with James Patterson in BY THE BOOK]

Re his favorite novelists: “Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce, and Gunter Grass are important to me because their writing made it crystal clear that I wasn’t capable of the write stuff. Those dream killers are still among my favorites. So is George Pelecanos in the thriller-mystery game. Also, Richard Price, who seems to remember every good line and phrase he ever heard. ]

Patterson: “I avoid the same kinds of books I do people—long-winded, sanctimonious, goody-two-shoes, self-important…”

N.B. Like Patterson, I don’t have “the write stuff” either; or the Patterson stuff. But, I’m working on it with two California Writers Clubs: The Tri-Valley Writers; and The San Joaquin Writers.
Ben Leiter. http://benleiter.com

Last Days of the Donald

      LAST DAYS OF THE DONALD

By Ben Leiter.

[Author note:  This prophetic story came to my attention because I know people who know people, from my eighteen years of government service in Washington, D.C. But I worry. Did someone feed me “fake intelligence?” While I am not sure events will unfold as described, I believe these are the options.]

Speaking into the hi-tech, encrypted cell phone, impervious to miscellaneous Russians: “Carrie Homeland here for Bourbon.” She stood looking out the seventh floor windows of the large complex ringed with a forest of Northern Virginia green.

“Bourbon here, eighty-proof,” came the clear audio back through the small speakers built into the iPhoneX which Carrie held in her hand. 

“Thank you, sir. We need to meet. Secure room here at The Campus. Anytime this evening.”

“Okay. I’ll be there at 6:45. We have to do this?” Bourbon asked, clearing his throat from the surprise of the call he had been dreading all week. 

“Yes, sir. I promised I’d ask for this meeting only if we were at a certain point. We’re there. Time for patriots to step forward, and you’re one of them.” We’ll see, thought Carrie.

“I’ll have a uniformed Marine guard meet you at the entrance and transfer you to his vehicle and bring you in through the underground garage. Someone will park your car and return it when you leave. 

The CIA facility in Langley, Virginia often carried the moniker of a college facility, “The Campus.” Eight of the best bourbons are produced in the Bluegrass State, represented by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. 

“Bourbon,” a more respectful code name than the staff suggestion of “M&M.” Carrie  Homeland smiled to herself. Her code name was pretty cool and and easy to remember if you subscribed to Netflix. No convoluted words or letters. It contained sufficient deniability, always necessary for a CIA Director.

***

In the specially constructed secure-room with the interior plastic laminate, and the low level electronic pulsing buzz within the wall, a cocoon against cell phone signals, Carrie Homeland shook hands with the Senate Majority Leader, aka “Bourbon.” 

“No one else, sir. Just us. Complete deniability.” Except for the videotaping, she thought.

Except for the videotaping, Bourbon thought.

“I don’t mean to be abrupt, sir, but please let me brief this quickly. I know you don’t want to be missed at your residence since your wife is in his cabinet.

“There are options. The easiest resolution—the President resigns for health reasons and to spend more time with his teenage son, usually the most difficult years for kids anyhow. In return, the Vice President, after he is sworn in, will pardon Trump and his family for all crimes, including the Russian money laundering and previous tax evasions. 

“They all get to move on with get-out-of-jail-free-cards, if they are family. If not family—collateral damage. Maybe not fair to non-family members, but Trump always treated others as disposable anyhow. This moves us past the Donald Trump national debacle and stops further decline of the country. It brings Putin’s winning streak to an abrupt close. Allows us to start fence mending with NATO and others. If Trump fights option one, the next option will be impeachment and conviction.”

“But would it get through the Senate? asked Bourbon. “You know you need sixty-seven. Sixty seven isn’t my head-count.” 

Bourbon, always the master of the needed number. His voice-waver said he wanted to be wrong on this tally and Carrie to be right with her numbers.

“Yes, sir, we’ve locked up the votes. Got the forty-seven Democrats of course, and we’ve got commitments from twenty-one Republicans.”

“Sixty-eight total? That’s cutting it pretty close isn’t it?” worried Bourbon, “and however did you get twenty-one of my people?” 

Carried responded, “Well, there’s another two who will come on board if absolutely necessary. Total of seventy. We’ve promised lucrative private sector employment to anyone defeated in their primary because of the impeachment conviction. Our contacts pervade all industries. You know that—including the liquor industry.” Point taken?

“The deal we made with Trump’s silent, big money backers is they get to keep Pence and he can run in 2020. You know how Pence was so ready to substitute as the presidential candidate in 2016 when the Billy Bush tapes broke. Pence will play ball. If not, he’ll be dragged in as a co-conspirator for not honoring his oath to defend the constitution and for by-stander abuse.”

“By-stander abuse?” said Bourbon. 

“I’m entering it into our secret, spy-crime-book as a new felony,” Carrie said. Intelligence humor.

Bourbon’s face scrunched up and he said, “What if neither option works?” 

Carrie realized Bourbon’s face hadn’t scrunched. It always looked collapsed. 

An uneasy quiet filled the room.

“Sir,” Carrie said, with practiced, professional gravitas, “there’s real powerful people out there. Think back. JFK let the Russians build that damned wall in Berlin, lost Cuba—did you know there were still missiles in Cuba after the Russian ships turned back? And, he was getting ready to pull out of Vietnam after his reelection. Kennedy’s family money was chump change compared to our big oil and the military-industrial complex back then. And, behind the scenes, influentials knew about his shared mistress with the Mafia guy and his other reckless sexual antics. Even Joe Kennedy’s money couldn’t keep the lid on all that forever. JFK became too unpredictable with some very risk-averse players. I’m not advocating this option . . . merely an historical observation. Even the CIA can’t control everything everybody does.”

Carrie Homeland sensed she was talking too much and needed to turn it over to Bourbon—better psychology. She made a verbal pivot. “We need to assess who can be most effective in delivering the got-to-go message to Trump. Who will he listen to? Option one is the best way for him, his family, and the country. We’ve already done it once, with Nixon. Messy, but it worked.”

“Hmm. I’m probably the one who has to tell him the Senate is lost, but who can go with me that he’ll believe?” Bourbon said. 

“How about Hannity?” Carrie said.

“Would he do that?” 

“He would, if I ask him.” Carrie said. 

“How do you know?”

“Not to be a smart-ass, sir, but I’ll ask Sean to read my lips as I form the words: ‘aiding and abetting the undermining of American institutions;’ ‘collusion to commit fraud;’ ‘facilitator of treason;’ and ‘fake news.’”

“Fake news?” Bourbon asked.  

“Yeah. Don’t you agree?” 

Carrie continued the assessment, unable to put the verbal ball in Bourbon’s court. Bourbon probably does some of his best work by keeping his mouth shut. 

“North Korea is now stronger than ever. Trump has betrayed NATO and the Middle East and Putin keeps Trump’s decades-old money laundering secret. Trump also agreed to cripple China. Putin’s worried, like all the Russians, about the 1.4 billion Chinese on the border of their  vast Russian open spaces. More Chinese speak English now than Americans. Russia’s whole economy is only the size of the GDP of Texas. Texans will brag about how big that is, but it ain’t country-big.”

Bourbon knows all this, but I need the videotape record. 

“Senator, it’s not just about Trump agreeing to option one and resigning; he has only a brief window to bring art to this deal, the most important of his life. He cannot afford to go bankrupt on this one. Dad’s not around to bail him out. The Mueller report is due in three weeks. Once it hits the streets, and it will—we’ve taken measures—we’ll have all the votes we need and more for conviction. No one escapes, only Barron.”

“You know what’s in the report?”  asked Bourbon.

“Of course, all primary source-work. We’ve got wires inside the Kremlin and electronic gremlins in their Moscow computer servers they’ll never find. We know everything. We just don’t want to expose our surveillance hand. Need to milk it as long as we can. They’ll eventually figure it out, even if they can’t find our technicals. Our eavesdropping enabled Mueller to make his initial case, flipping witnesses close the President. It you had them all at the same Mueller deposition, you woulda thought you were in a room full of birds.”

“Room? Birds?” Bourbon questioned.

“Yeah, canaries singing their heads off.”

***

And so it came to pass that the forty-fifth President of the United States resigned from office due to his dangerously high blood pressure, brought on by the political stresses of the job to make America great again. “I’ve given so much to this country. Huge contribution,” he said to Sean Hannity before he boarded the helicopter with a farewell wave.

His alleged crimes were dismissed with the announcement that Trump had been an undercover Frank Serpico among Presidents, secretly advancing U.S. interests the entire time, while advising the intelligence agencies. 

After resigning, Ex-president Trump attended an unpublicized meeting at CIA Headquarters, The Campus, in Langley, Virginia. He was awarded a coveted hero’s star on the wall in the CIA lobby. 

Twenty minutes after he left the building, Carrie Homeland directed staff to remove the star and send it to Hillary.

***

Twenty months later, the Ex-president visited Trump Tower in downtown Moscow, staying in the Putin Executive Suite on the top floor for a two week getaway. It contained a fabulous spa designed by Ivanka. 

The huge residential tower had been constructed at remarkable speed with no red tape inspection-hassles. The architectural drawings had been completed in early 2016 and then shelved in the fall.  

Trump spent an hour each day, after a room service lunch including a cheeseburger and two scoops of ice cream, dictating his coming tell-all memoir with its working title, The Art of When to Leave. The guaranteed bestseller would divulge names, dates, and specific tactics to support the authors’s claimed reputation for masterful negotiations. It might even hint at certain payoffs, but his mind wasn’t made up on that, yet. 

His New York literary agent pressed him to finish quickly, providing additional hand-held recorders in every room to encourage more productivity. The Donald, at seventy-five—well, anything could happen. 

Something did happen. The one day Donald Trump decided to walk downtown Moscow, instead of using his assigned limo, he was struck by a large refuse truck and died at the scene, in the crosswalk. 

The truck’s VIN was filed off and the listed driver, Ivan Ivanovich, did not exist on the City of Moscow employee roster.  

###

INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR BEN LEITER

[Go to June Gillam’s webpage http://www.junegillam.com to see her edited interview with me. June is a published novelist and the Secretary for the San Joaquin Valley branch of the California Writers Club.  Below is my full submission to her  for the interview.]

JUNE GILLAM INTERVIEWS AUTHOR BEN LEITER

Ben Leiter is the author of four previously published books, available on Amazon and Kindle:

CITY MANAGEMENT SNAPSHOTS: ON THE RUN—an illustrated memoir of his city management career across the country chronicling true tales of murder, suicide, political betrayals, a communist spy, and a monkey on the loose represented by Gloria Allred.

BABY BOOMERS’ LOVE-BETRAYAL—a sardonic, romance-noir exploring the love practices of the boomer generation. Will the protagonist, Bill Peters, find the holy grail of true romance?

GOD’S BETRAYAL: THE CREDO—a political-religious thriller. A young Father Gabriel Garza stumbles through blood soaked Vatican archives. He now possesses explosive religious and political files from his mysterious thesis advisor. His master’s thesis could precipitate The Second Reformation. Someone has placed him on The Watch List.

BETRAYAL OF FATHER GARZA—a political-religious thriller. An older disillusioned Roman Catholic priest ministers daily in his tough Washington, D.C. inner city parish. His mysterious Vatican thesis advisor, from back in Rome decades ago, continues to share secret files. But the real danger lurks in Garza’s old master’s thesis which could launch a crusader call to unite Christendom. Someone has moved Father Garza from The Watch List to The Hit List. Suspects include: the Vatican, the Mafia, the CIA, ISIS, the neighborhood gang, and Vladimir Putin.

Q: Is there a thread or theme that ties your books together, even though they are of different genres?

A. Yes, very much so. Together, these four books examine the cataclysmic collision between the expectations of the baby boomer generation and the primal forces of politics, religion and romance.

The question is: “Who betrayed whom?” (Ben Leiter thinks he knows.)

We are the children of the Greatest Generation, and we were supposed to finish their work. They saved the world from the darkness of fascism, and we were supposed to bring everyone to The Promised Land. We didn’t. How we squandered our inheritance links to the theme of betrayal in my books.

Three additional works, currently in draft form, with their working titles, include: The Murph Betrayals; God’s Betrayal: Quantum Resurrection; and Leiter Writing Tips.

Q: Why the pen name Ben Leiter?

A. If you read any of my books, you’ll understand why immediately with the authentic, explosive nature of the material and the controversy of story lines and subplots.

Also, since my memoir, City Management Snapshots: On the Run, is all true, I had to change and delete names to protect the guilty.

Using a pen name provides me the needed psychological freedom to write what I want; to explore themes without embarrassing me or my family.

A secondary reason for the pen name is so that the neighborhood won’t be cluttered with media or frenzied fans trying to find my house seeking autographs. (That’s a joke . . .more of a personal fantasy.)

The name Ben Leiter translates “been leader,” if you use the German pronunciation of the last name. It describes my previous profession as a city manager in seven cities across the country.

Q. Any writing associations you’d like to point out?
A: Yes. Writing as Ben Leiter, I am a member of two California professional writers’ clubs, have published articles in four anthologies, and have published over 50 items on medium.com. My website is benleiter.com (enter on address bar) or go to http://benleiter.com.

Q: Why do you write?

A: To find out what I think; to figure out why I think what I think; to investigate “what it’s all about.” And, to avoid boring people with my strong opinions in conversations. If I put my views on the written page, I must present them in an intelligent and interesting fashion, or the reader won’t turn the page.

Also, writing fiction allows me to explore my favorite theme of betrayal and its sub-themes involving politics, religion and romance.

“Fiction,” or “faction” as I like to call it, lets me roam. I use my version of the Pareto Principle—80/20. That means I want my writing to be 80% fact based, and 20% fiction. So, for example, my priest-protagonist in a future book can transition into the afterlife after his assassination, based on the hard science of Planck lengths, quantum physics, and string theory. He can then come back and interfere in actual historical human affairs. But then, the history he interrupts and changes will also be 80/20—80% historically accurate and 20% made up.

I embrace the responsibility to get the 80% history accurate, and the wonderful flexibility, fun, and creativity of the 20%.

Q: What do you want to achieve? Writing objective?

A: Validation as a good writer who has something to say that is worth reading.

Q: How long have you been writing?

A: Seriously, since 2010.

Q: Favorite authors?

A: John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Michael Connelly; Gillian Flynn, Andy Weir, Anne Lamott, Dennis Lehane, Tom Wolf, Robert Crais, Martin Cruz Smith, Leon Uris, Don Winslow. Right now, I’m reading Winslow’s The Cartel for the third time, as I did Flynn’s Gone Girl.

I’ve personally met and talked with Andy Weir and Bob Woodward.

Bob Woodward and I shared common associations from decades ago in Rockville, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C.

I just found out this year that my stockbroker, who is from the Netherlands, personally met John LeCarré. Why do I mention these names? Great to have a chance to name-drop. Ha!

Q: Can you describe the impact any books have had on you?

A: As I noted in one of my medium.com articles, I’d rather have lunch—at the risk of being lunch—with Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs than with the female protagonist in Flynn’s Gone Girl. That wife-protagonist is like real-world-scary. She’s out there walking around, fer sure. For me, Flynn’s book ranks with Catcher in the Rye; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; and Exodus.

In Exodus, I still remember the murder scene of Karen, Dov’s girlfriend. I was fourteen when I read it. The book made me militantly pro-Israeli.

Another Leon Uris book, Trinity, provided insight into what we Irish call The Troubles— the colonization atrocities of the English. (I’m part English too, but the Irish always wins out—so much more colorful.)

Soon after reading Trinity, I was talking to a business associate of my father’s generation who was born and raised in Scotland and bandied his brogue about. I mentioned my fascination with the book. His response, “Oh, that’s right. You’re of the Catholic persuasion, aren’t you.” I felt unease, filed it away, and mentioned it later to my father. He understood and explained it was an old colonial code phrase used, as if RC wasn’t a real religion.

While I stayed up all night on a school night at age sixteen to finish reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it was The Grapes of Wrath which rocked my political world. Over the three days I took to read the book, at age eighteen, I morphed from a card carrying Goldwaterite to the opposite end of the political spectrum. Never politically looked back, either.

Oh, interesting footnote. Twenty-one years after reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which opens up at Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall, I was at the exact same spot on a cold, drizzly day, as a minor American official.

A personal encounter there resulted in my helping a woman at The Wall get her three children back from the East German communists—those s.o.b.s. They had kidnapped her kids and put them up for adoption when the parents escaped to the West. It’s all in my memoir.

And, decades after reading The Grapes of Wrath, I interviewed for County Administrator of the California jurisdiction the story takes place in. I tried very hard to hide any attitude.

I didn’t get the job.

Years later would see Howard Zinn’s A Political History of the United States cement my leftist views with his expert historical research and insightful facts. Zinn flew bombers in WW II and was red, white, and blue American. Except, I’d change the “red” to “read”.

On the religious front, beside the Bible, the works of the Catholic theologian Hans Kung made the greatest impact. I’ve studied his work for over fifty years. Amazingly, he’s still a card carrying Catholic, despite past Vatican efforts to eliminate his employment as an academic theologian, and numerous attempts to shut him up or to excommunicate him.

As I’m writing this, I now realize why the renegade priest-protagonist of two of my books, Father Gabriel Alphonso Esquivel Garza, is on THE WATCH LIST of powerful people. He has Kung-DNA. And, some bad player has moved Garza to THE HIT LIST.

Q: Tell me about your protagonist in your most recent book. Why will readers like him?

My hero protagonist, Father Gabriel Alphonso Esquivel Garza, is an Hispanic-Schwarzenegger-Rambo-renegade Catholic priest with a Zorro complex. He refuses to let principles keep him from doing what is right. He is merciless in the defense of children.

Q: Daily writing schedule?

A: As soon as I can get out of bed, to the coffee pot, and to my writing office, I’m good for about two hours “in the zone.” “The Zone” provides that psychological, all-consuming mind-set that takes you and your creativity to other places. I believe it’s a healthy dynamic like meditation, or praying, or demanding exercise.

I try to get in an additional two to four hours of a lesser writing intensity, or reading, or research, or marketing, during the rest of the day.

Q: Are you a Pantser (write by the seat of the pants, ad hoc) or a Plotter (outline in detail before writing)?
A: Both—here’s how and why.

I rely on The Muse, or inspiration, or whatever has caught my fancy at the moment to fling words on paper. Once I have enough “somethings” on paper, I start organizing and putting them into a table of contents with detailed notes under each chapter, which is the equivalent of an outline. I then keep adding, revising. I move stuff I delete to the end of the working draft, to be probably brought forward at a future time, after it has “matured.” Advice: never throw anything away.

I experience difficulty deleting my pet phrases and scenes. Some famous author said that your favorite computer key should be the delete key.

Q: How do you vet your work?

A: Three critique groups; two California Writing Club memberships; past developmental editing by Scott Evans, author and English professor at the University of the Pacific.

Q: Strengths and weaknesses of your manuscripts?

A: From the professional writing feedback I have received over the years, the strengths of my work seem to be the imagination, the creativity of the work, and the character (good and bad) of my protagonists.

My drafts have received deserved hits by critique groups for not always letting the reader know immediately what is going on and where we are at. I accept that criticism because I want to pull the reader in. I want the reader to do a little bit of head work.

I love John LeCarré’s writing with its exceptional use of indirection. I remember becoming frustrated in one of his books because I now found myself on page 65 and had no idea what was going on. Then I realized. I was in exactly the same situation as the book’s protagonist, trying to identify the traitor in The Circus, LeCarré’s name for British intelligence. The protagonist reflected the puzzle-palace-nature of the events swirling about him. Well done, John.

Another self-critique: the wicked wolf constantly tempts Little Red Riding Hood to stray off the path and pick the pretty flowers. You can’t do it. Stay on the path. Stick strictly to the story arc. Never leave the path or you may lose the reader.

Me? I can’t resist the pretty flowers.

I also refuse to dumb down my work. If my reader doesn’t understand Watergate, or doesn’t know about the Reformation, or the Crusades, or the crimes committed by our CIA, then the reader must retain immediate access to Google, or put the book down.

I don’t have the patience, and there isn’t enough time, for me to educate in the nuances of Chappaquiddick, or excommunication, or disco fever.

I also plead guilty to occasional finger waving and sermonizing which I detest in an explicit form. I prefer for my characters to carry that water for me in a hopefully more subtle fashion.

Q: The word”betrayal” seems to come up a lot in your book titles. What’s going on?

A: Yes. I’m afraid that I’ve become slightly obsessed with betrayal in all of its manifestations.

For example, the betrayals “on my watch”—in my lifetime—just a taste, and in no order:
*CIA and Roman Catholic Church assistance to Nazis to escape arrest after World War II.
*The massive priestly child pedophilia in the Catholic Church.
*The false public relations construct of “Camelot” to cover perverse, risky sexual behavior by President Kennedy.
*The disaster of Vietnam: bad judgement, the manufactured Gulf of Tonkin incident; killing millions of Vietnamese in the name of their freedom;
*The Iran-Contra scandal.
*Watergate.
*Invasion of Iraq for the 9/11 attack on the U.S. Invaded the wrong country and no weapons of mass destruction ever found. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian, not Iraqi.
*Intelligence failures before and after 9/11.
*2008 implosion of U.S. economy on the watch of the most incompetent President in U.S. history.
*Popular adulation of President Clinton, a totally charismatic, out-of-control sex addict. When asked why he committed sexual peccadilloes, he confessed, in an unguarded moment, “Because I could.”
*Nixon’s 1968 treason against the United States. He urged South Vietnam’s President Thieu, through back channels, to not sign the Paris Peace Treaty right before the 1968 presidential election because Nixon would get him a better deal if elected. The war continued seven more years with 20,000 additional American deaths and uncountable Vietnamese slain.
*Federal tax policies which have gifted massive subsidies to corporations who kept profits overseas and sent American jobs offshore by the millions. When I have problems with my CATV company, I end up talking to someone whom I can barely understand, in Costa Rica, the Philippines, or India.
*U.S. Army and CIA providing schools for foreign military and police in torture and terror techniques.
*The truth behind the Kennedy Assassination. We still don’t know it.
*The true power of the Mafia and organized crime.
*The War on Drugs which was really our U.S. drug companies vs. overseas drug cartels.
*The opiod addiction of the American population.
*The political refusal to provide basic rights to U.S. citizens: health care; safe communities; schools that work; jobs.
*The contemporary political domination of the NRA with the blasphemous use of the word “freedom” masquerading for “profit.”
*The refusal of Christian denominations to come together, as well as the need for The Reformation, Part II.

These are all some of my rants. My challenge—to make them interesting through story telling.

Please excuse the comparison—because I do not write anywhere near his quality—but I’m finding lately a new rant for betrayal. Dostoevsky has moved onto my writing radar screen. Like him, I refuse to accept ANY justification for children’s suffering. I think I prefer to stand with the suffering of the children and will not accept any higher honor presented to us by churches, or countries, or traditions.

While I and my family adore our pet maltipoo, named Ted D. Bear, I object to the macro attention and billions spent on pets while near term fetuses are aborted and American children are homeless and hungry. A pet peeve, you might say.

Q: Any writer advice?

A: I find comfort from famously successful authors who say:

*Write, write, write and then write some more and maybe you will get it right.

*Writing is something you must do; you have to do it. Not want to. If you are a writer, you understand what this means.

* “Keep your day job.”

*These terms surface often in advice from writing experts:
Persevere.
Write a lot
Read a lot. 
Not for people easily discouraged.
Love the process.

*I’m a big fan of writing advice from Anne Lamott. One of her aphorisms: “I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.” That so appeals to the Catholic guilt I carry in my Irish DNA. Then, there’s my built-in German DNA which loves to wrestle with the big issues, even to the point of a personal, internal civil war. Then, the ever-so-slight, about 18%, English DNA says, “Well, organize it and write it all down.”

*One other thing. Let me quote John Gardner, a famous writing guru, ON BECOMING A NOVELIST. “Writing a novel takes an immense amount of time, at least for most people, and can test the writer’s psyche beyond endurance. The writer asks himself day after day, year after year, if he’s fooling himself, asks why people write novels anyhow–long, careful studies of the hopes, joys, and disasters of creatures who, strictly speaking, do not exist. The writer may be undermined by creeping misanthropy, while the writer’s wife, or husband, is growing sulky and embarrassed.”

Of course, there’s a satisfying creative upside to writing which we at least intuit, or we wouldn’t stay at the desk until our fingers are numb from typing.

Q: Tell us a little more about yourself.

A: I’ve been a city manager in 7 cities across the country, in Maryland, Texas, Michigan and California. My career also took me overseas as an American local government official to W. Germany, Poland, and Japan.

I have been married to a wonderful, patient woman for 33 years, a beautiful native of Peru, who endures my anxieties and writing distractedness with good humor.

I was raised red, white and blue American; and red, white and blue Roman Catholic. My decades on this earth and my writing ambitions authorize me to reexamine these two powerful institutions—country and church. For me, a lot of answers conceal themselves in a probable gray zone.

For example, is America an empire? You bet. Do I think that is a good thing? Not necessarily, because of the personal heroic cost of our dead soldiers and the squandering of our national treasure.

But, here’s the rub. Would you rather have the Russians in charge? Or, the Chinese? No. So let’s continue to export our mad modern culture of McDonald’s, Apple, Amazon and porn. Oh, and guns.

But remember, no gun ever shot anyone by itself. Guns don’t shoot people, people shoot people. Thanks for protecting us, NRA. [That was sarcastic in case my writing skills were deficient.] See how the finger-wagging surfaces for no reason?

God help us if the ever-neutral, bloodless Swiss were in charge.
All of our streets would be clean.
We’d speak at least three languages.
There’d be no exploited, trafficked, or missing children.
Everyone would be educated, go skiing, and drink hot chocolate.
I’d probably have an anxiety attack from the lack of anxiety—called boredom.

Q: Any indications of a writing life earlier?

A: Over my city management career, I penned lots of professional articles on everything from strategic planning to embezzlement which appeared in nation-wide publications. At one point, I even had my own column in a newspaper.

I always tried to make my articles interesting, or to have a twist. For example, one article, carried the all too true title, SOMEONE IS STEALING THE TAXPAYERS’ MONEY!

As budget director for a large Texas city, I always wanted to tell “the story” behind the numbers. I saw too many budget staff letting themselves get lost in the numbers or “hiding” in the numbers. I felt it important to be clear to my boss the city manager, his bosses the city council, and their bosses the public, about exactly what the budget meant for them for the next year.
I continually rewrote the 20 page budget message at the beginning of the 500 page budget document, to get the message right. One of my senior staff, exasperated at my numerous revisions said, “You’re just a frustrated novelist.” I demurred at the time, but she was correct.
Two of my favorite quotes from that same government staff, one from a very talented colleague, “Numbers are our friends.”
The second quote came from one of my budget staffers hiding behind his lazy incompetence. When I asked why the numbers didn’t add up, he pointed to a number on the budget page he had prepared and said, “Oh . . . that’s a bad number”—like the number jumped onto the page somehow and misbehaved.
I think my response was “Oh . . . really?”

Late in my career, in a job interview with a city council, I was asked why I had published so many articles. The totally unexpected question suddenly triggered a response that I did not know I possessed, “I guess it’s a way to leave a legacy.”

Q: What is your educational background?

A: I am a Case Western Reserve University Ph.D-in-political-science-drop-out. But, I did secure a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Urban Affairs, an interdisciplinary planning degree.
My B.A. held a major in political science, with minors in English, Philosophy and Theology.

Q: Other writing observations?

I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people out there who share my love of books, and reading, and ideas, and writing.

I relish the open-endedness of the mental challenge of writing. I will never be able to exhaust it. It will wear me down first, I fear.

I respect the work ethic required to become a successful writer, whether commercially published or not.

I admire the creativity of the process and the final product.

I have had Stephen King’s experience, where I get into the story or one of the characters, and it takes on a life of its own, and goes places I had not planned.

Since I developed my “rule” years ago to never go back and read a book the second time, this writing occupation gives me the justification and permission to revisit old book-friends.

I should be able to handle the rejection. In my past career, along with the public accolades and good salary, I experienced an enormous amount of criticism—it came with the job territory—on an almost weekly basis. I’m used to it; maybe I miss it and need it.

For decades, I have pushed paper. Why stop now?

While my brother has become an accomplished amateur oil painter, I paint with words.
I would like to be as accomplished as he, in my own artistic genre. But better than oil painting, I can constantly revise my work.

Another reason for writing—it keeps the mind sharp. My family shows too much history of Altzheimer’s. Maybe writing will delay or forestall some of the mental ravages of old age.

Then there is the possibility that I might have something to say. Having been around for decades, I would expect myself to paint some life pictures accurately if not brilliantly, perhaps with some insight, too; especially if I have been paying attention. Have I? Perhaps I can say something memorable about this thing we all share called the human condition. If I can, then what becomes fascinating are all the ways there are to describe this common experience: short stories; poems; essays; novels.

I like the sound of “I am a writer.”

I have always been a book worm, loved to read. The mid-westerner in me must justify all those academic credentials and insists on looking for a practical application—writing is it.

I have been energized by writing.

I do want to say something, my way, about the human condition, even if it’s merely to observe the whole tragic circumstance.

Q: Any final reflection?

A: I think I have permission now, from Stephen King and Amy Tan, to read and write all I want to.

In my case, the most important contributor to writing was reading at an early age and continuing non-stop the rest of my life. I was that 10 year old kid continuing to read under the sheets, after my father told me to turn the light off and go to sleep.

I’ll keep reading and writing until The Big Sleep.

###

BUT WE KNOW HE’S DIRTY!

[The following creative non-fiction, based on my life experiences in city management, is a composite of two cities. It is my version of “faction”–80% fiction, 20% facts. I would say “enjoy,” but it was no fun at the time.] 

This appeared  in the 2018 California Writers Club Tri–Valley Branch Anthology, Voices of the Valley: Journeys.

                                               

                                                 BUT WE KNOW HE’S DIRTY!

“Owen, Mayor Murray—line two,” said Marsha from the doorway of the city manager’s office.

“Got it, thanks.” Own Friel sighed, pulled at the collar of his white button-down shirt, picked up the phone. “Good morning, Mayor.”

“Yeah. Wanted to check on Latham’s subdivision plan approval. Is it on for the Tuesday council meeting?”

“Mayor, I’m not sure it’s ready.”

“What do you mean? We’ve been talking about this for over a month.”

“Yes sir, it was discussed at the joint work session with the city council and the planning commission, but no clear direction came out. Several council members question why we have to sacrifice a half acre of municipal golf course to accommodate Latham’s lot layout.”

“So what?”

“Well, they wonder if Latham deliberately designed it to gain extra acreage from the city.”

“Why always the glass half full, Mr. City Manager? Who’re you working for, anyhow. We need quality housing to attract up-scale residents. Why do I have to push you over simple things, especially when Latham wants to invest?”

“Well, Mayor, I’m just sharing what— ”

“Don’t need your sharing. Get’er done, Friel. Understand?”

Friel fumed. You never give up municipal land. If you have to, make damned sure the taxpayers receive fair compensation. Fairways and putting greens—more sacred than Indian burial grounds. Latham, the mayor’s buddy—always wants something; an exception, a favor, a renegotiation. They offend the city manager and the wannabe golfer in me.

Friel scheduled the review of Tudor Estates to be built next to the municipal golf course on the City Council Agenda for next week.

***

What’s with this guy? The mayor’s face brooded a coming thunderstorm. Every damn time our one developer tries to invest, Friel blocks it: study this; implications of the General Plan; citizen input. That’s what I got elected for. I’m the “citizen input.”

          ***

What’s with this guy? The city manager stressed. The mayor acts like the self-appointed champion for developers; bending the rules, even requesting subsidies. I want to improve our city as much as he does, if that’s his real agenda. I’m not running a giveaway program. He wants me to genuflect, that’s what.

          ***

When the City Council Agenda item came up Tuesday night, staff recommended the subdivision approval and also raised the question of the developer’s request for additional golf course acreage.

No one from the audience spoke regarding the project, except a for a two minute presentation by the developer, Latham. No debate from the council—approved unanimously.

***

Sondra Turpin, the city attorney, called the police chief and the city manager to meet privately in her office at 6:45 a.m. the next day. She knew no one had ever seen Mayor Murray that early.

Sitting down, Owen said, “Chief, Sondra, we really have to do this? It feels . . . I don’t know . . . sneaky.”

Sondra Turpin added, “We need a consult with the DA. It’s their job to look into it, not ours. But, we could be indicted if we suspect something illegal and do nothing.”

“Let me look at the file notes again,” said Owen. “I know about the mayor’s ‘entrepreneurial activities,’ approaching companies about the city’s contracts with them. Just announces himself as the business advocate. His pitch, ‘The business of government is business.’ He adds that the city manager doesn’t understand how business is the city’s lifeblood; he lets himself get tied up in silly red tape; and he doesn’t have the common sense to know there’s serious folks on the council and then there’s the others.” 

Owen scanned the top sheet on the desk in the red folder. He had studied it before. It read:

Background: refuse contracts can be mining for gold. Secure a ten-year exclusive municipal franchise for a set rate per household. Everyone has to have their garbage picked up. The refuse company must invest in trucks and processing facilities and be assured that they will recover their costs with a “reasonable” profit. 

Allegation: Bribe for a refuse evergreen clause.

Evidence source: Michael “Fish Eyes” O’Connor produced this conversation from the recorder in his suit coat pocket. Transcript excerpts:

Mayor to O’Connor, President of Refuse Enterprises: “So, Mickey, here’s what I propose. Rates can go up, but it’s difficult, requires a public hearing, and ‘findings.’ Seniors show up. Everyone feels sorry for ‘mom and dad,’ who always turn out in our elections, by the way. They’ve got good memories when it comes time to vote. Forget the Alzheimer’s stereotypes.

O’Connor to Mayor: “Yo. I hear you, Mr. Mayor.”

Mayor to O’Connor: “There’s an easier way. With automatic cost-of-living escalator clauses in the franchise, the rates could be adjusted annually, without council action or public debate. Better yet, we add a continuing fifteen-year evergreen provision. Starting next year, the ten-year franchise would automatically roll over each year to a fifteen-year franchise term, unless the city gives formal notice to end the contract. With a minimum fifteen years, and several elections, Mickey, I know you could reverse any foolish council decisions—or get a new council.”

O’Connor to Mayor: “You thought this through good, Mayor. Don’t hear anything real illegal, not that, you know . . . ”

Mayor: “Yep. All I ask, provide a donation to my educational non-profit foundation. Say, $7,000 a year. Tax deductible. You’d be helping me and the community.”

Dissecting the report, Owen knew Mickey could say they were just talking about quids and about quos, but not quid pro quo; no criminal conspiracy. The dots are there, but can they be connected? Guess this is what I signed up for as city manager. Time to sit a little taller in the saddle. Why are my hands so clammy? 

“Okay,” said Owen. “Let’s do this.”

***

Owen made the appointment with the county district attorney, Andrew Dennion. Dennion owned a reputation for being a hard-charger.

Owen detailed hearsay accounts and noted his weak first-hand evidence, except for the taped conversation—not sure how valuable that was, and under what circumstances the tape had been obtained.

“I appreciate you coming to see me. I understand the bind you’re in,” said the D.A. looking at Owen with concern.

Owen said, “I can’t make accusations without proof, but I can’t hide my head in the sand, either. That’s why I’m bringing it to you, suggesting a confidential investigation by your office.”

“He’s complicated,” Andrew said. “I’ve worked with the man. You and he sure operate on different wavelengths. But, I’ve got to make sure this isn’t viewed as a vendetta. He is an elected official. We take that seriously around here.”

Owen’s eyebrows knitted. “You think this is personal? I don’t have a smoking gun, but that’s why I’m here. I need it on record that city staff did due diligence if this breaks bad for us.”

“Owen, don’t get upset. Let me put it this way. Number One, I know he’s dirty. Number Two, it’s probably under $100,000. Number Three, our plate is too full.”

Owen released a low “wow” of disappointment, looking down, using two syllables to mutter it.

Andrew concluded, “Stay in touch. If we find stronger evidence, I’ll look into it.”

***

One week later, Marsha handed Owen a phone message from the mayor.

The paper slip read: “I know what you did at the DA.”  

“Problem, Owen?” Marsha asked. 

“Ahh, nooo. Just had to check something out with the district attorney.”

“You sure have your hands full with that mayor, acts like an old time plantation boss-man. If there’s anything I can do . . . ”

“Thanks, Marsha.”

Owen organized the clutter on his desk, looked out the window, then paced his office. He sat back down and picked up the phone.

“Thanks for taking my call, Andrew. Got a strange message here from the mayor, says he knows what I did.

“Hmmm,” Andrew Dennion responded.

Owen felt his face flushing. “Look, I thought our meeting was completely confidential. That’s why I went to your office. Not even my secretary knew what we talked about. What’s going on?” 

“Owen, the meeting was confidential. The notes I took sit in a locked file cabinet for pending investigations. I think you need to check your home front.”

“Home front?”

“Your Chief Shipley called two days after we met. I filled him in. Didn’t he tell you?”

“No, he didn’t. I told him and the city attorney that we met and there was no action, for  now.”

“Owen, do I need to tell you to be careful?”

***

Mayor Murray’s blood pressure pounded like a heart-hammer. Friel—so self-righteous—thinks he’s the appointed protector of the civic good. I’m the one who got elected. I’m the one who stands up in public, tells people what I would do for the city. I answer all their stupid questions.  

No one elected Friel, not even as dogcatcher. Just a business manager, paid to do what he’s told. Too much education for the job. Hell, what use is a master’s degree, anyhow? Maybe that’s where he gets his ‘let me protect you from yourself’ attitude.

I look out for the community and that means taking care of folks who built this city and continue to give. They’re the ones who pay for our municipal services. 

Friel encourages the council to pay attention to marginal folks, always referring to “Joe and Jane Taxpayer” in his public speeches. They don’t pay the freight. The businesses do. Guess I can’t say it like that anymore. Got to be careful about minority references, too. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong; just gotta watch out how I phrase things.

***

The mayor scheduled the city manager’s annual performance review two months early.

Owen entered the conference room wearing a forced smile, his breathing shallow. He felt caterpillars scampering up and down his spine.

The mayor concluded the review with a verbal fishing line, and attached the bait.

  “Well, Mr. City Manager, you have satisfactory marks from most of the council, but I’m still unhappy with the way you interact with the elected mayor of this town. You think you are the mayor and city manager and everything else. You don’t do what I want. I don’t think you know how to work with a mayor. That’s a big problem in this city.”

The fatigue of a long day piggy-backed on the tension the city manager carried. It was now 11:40 p.m. He concentrated too hard on what he wanted to say; the how-to-say-it well, left him.

Owen bit on the bait. 

“Listen, I’ve worked for several  mayors. They didn’t run all over town wearing their egos on their sleeves and trying to cut phony deals. They always put the city first, even sacrificing personal income.”

“Wait a minute, Friel.”

“No, you wait a minute.” Owen leaned forward and glared at the mayor down at the end of the conference table, a continent away. “Simple, Mayor. The rules are you get a majority of council votes on an issue, then I carry out your policy. I’m sick and tired of your one-man show and undermining me and the city council. It hurts the city. I don’t trust you any further than I can throw you.”

Silence became the elephant in the room.

Peering over his half-framed reading glasses and heavy jowls at the red-faced city manager, the mayor declared in an uncharacteristic whisper-tone, “I think we’re adjourned for tonight, ladies and gentlemen.”

Smiles on Murray’s two faces declared: “Mission Accomplished.” Now we’ve got a municipal employee who disrespects his elected officials. Strike Two for this city manager. I’ll turn Friel into my shoeshine boy yet.

John McPhee

My literary Christmas present to fellow writers.
I just came across this New York Times Book review by Craig Taylor of THE PATCH by John McPhee. I’m not familiar with McPhee, but after this, I’m going to look him up, for a lot of reasons. Here’s a couple of excerpts.

“Here is the seventh collection of essays by John McPhee, his 33rd book and perhaps his eleventy-billionth word of published prose. This far into a prolific career, it may be a good time fo finally unmask the 87-year-old as a one trick pony. In “The Patch,” he again shamelessly employs his go-to strategy: crafting sentences so energetic and structurally sound that he can introduce apparently unappealing subjects, even ones that look to be encased in a cruddy veneer of boringness, and persuade us to care about them. He’s been working this angle since the 1950s; it’s a good thing we’re finally onto him now. . . . The second half of the book comprises an experiment called an “album quilt,” a montage of “fragments” of varying length from pieces done across the years, a mix of buffed and whittled snippets in which Joan Baez leads to Thomas Wolfe, and a profile of Barbara Streisand gives way to a disquisition on oared ships, and young Time magazine McPhee alternates with wise New Yorker McPhee. With 250,000 words available, McPhee says he cut 75 percent. He was left surveying a stack of heartwood.”

Merry Christmas.
Ben Leiter