As they say . . . “Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt.”
[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.
*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:
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.
[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.”
“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 . . . ”
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.”
“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.
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.”
[My following essay appeared in the 2018 California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch Anthology. The title of this anthology is: Voices of the Valley: Journeys.
ABOUT MY WRITING by Ben Leiter
Lots of people talk about it. If I say I’m a writer, which I don’t for a lot of reasons, the response— “Oh, you’re a writer? Neat. I’ve always wanted to write. I have some really good ideas for a book on . . .” —pick a topic.
I stand there. I listen. Well hell, then write something. What’s stopping you?
By now, I know their self-deceptive, rehearsed litany of excuses.
My wife/husband will feel ignored.
There’s no time.
My job is too demanding.
Can’t get in the mood.
Need to do more research.
Must set up a quiet space in the house first.
Want to take a writing course.
I’m working on some ideas.
Don’t want to embarrass myself.
Need an agent.
Waiting for retirement.
Add yours to the list.
Several statements are in order for writers to know:
A novel is fiction.
Writers write what they know.
Writers should write what they care about.
All writers betray.
All writers are liars.
All generalizations are false.
First of all, to write, you have to show up. That means a lot of BIC. That’s writer’s shorthand for “butt-in-chair.” (We writers do have a sense of humor.)
Some authors say writing saved their lives.
Some say it saved their sanity or returned it, like our friend, J.D. Salinger.
One writing cliché pushed my fears aside and started my typing: “All first drafts are shit.” That’s credited to Papa Hemingway. I didn’t know you were allowed to do that—innumerable drafts. There’s a fine little pony in my personal pile of manure—somewhere.
Guess I thought a writing muse sat next to Leon Uris or Alice Munro and whispered in their ears as they typed away.
Then I found out.
Perseverance pays. Papa H. rewrote the ending to one of his books seventy-nine times.
Salinger carried drafts of Catcher in the Rye throughout the war in Europe, including combat zones. He was profoundly depressed and found a way to temporarily relieve his depression by giving it to his teenage alter ego and protagonist, Holden Caulfield.
Talk about depressive. William Styron, whose work is poetic and easily readable at the same time (unlike John Updike’s work) was struck by clinical depression. Styron said, through a character named Farrell, in Sophie’s Choice, “People have been known to drown in this place. And they never even find the bodies.” He was talking about writing. Later, Farrell says, “Son, write your guts out.”
Talk about source-conflict. John Updike drew his material directly from actual family and friends, triggering hard feelings.
I came across these excerpts from the diary of John Steinbeck when he was writing Grapes of Wrath.
“No one else knows my lack of ability the way I do… ”
“Go get her done. And I’m afraid she’s a little dull.”
“My work is no good, I think—I’m desperately upset about it . . . I’m slipping. I’ve been slipping all my life.”
“Vacillating and miserable . . . I’m so lazy, so damned lazy.”
My favorite Amy Tan reflections on writing, from The Best American Short Stories 1999:
“This was one of those moments that cause people to either join a religious cult, spend a lot of money on psychotherapy, or take up the less drastic and more economical practice of writing fiction.”
“The truth is I write for more self-serving reasons—that is, I write for myself . . . I write because if I didn’t, I’d probably go crazy. Thus I write about questions that disturb me, images that mystify me, or memories that cause me anguish and pain. I write about secrets, lies, and contradictions . . . I write stories about life as I have misunderstood it.”
“After thirty pages . . . I abandoned all the pages . . . I wrote and then rewrote six times another thirty pages . . . I wrote and rewrote one hundred fifty pages . . . I felt sick for about a week. I couldn’t write.”
When Stephen King was interviewed and asked why he wrote in the horror genre he said, “What makes you think I had a choice?” My kinda of guy.
Joan Didion said, according to the September 2015 Writer’s Digest, “I write to know what I think.” My kinda gal.
Shelby Foote, the famous historian, revealed in The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walter Percy, “A man must write for himself, and then he must accept the penalties—including the possibility of damnation. You’ve got to put it all on the line; anything less than all is hedging and your work is weakened at the wellspring, hopelessly flawed, shot through with rot … ”
A common thread weaves through these writers: make your work connect with your obsessions and passions.
I see writing as a way to raise my consciousness. Aren’t we all seeking answers to fundamental questions like “What does it mean to be alive?”
According to Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, “—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”
We live in a world where we run around fourteen hours a day. So, it helps to read about other people’s lives with the hope of capturing meaning.
Someone called writing a ministry of sorts. The salaries are pitiful when you factor in the amount of work and time. You think about it late at night. It can change your life. It’s a journey. You can easily end up at a different place when the book is done. You are like a Jesuit priest, you pray and keep the faith with your work.
I feel exactly as Edna St. Vincent Millay when she said in a 1927 letter to her mother, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.”
That’s why no one knows I’m a writer because I use a pen name. I’m not one of those writers who writes for the drawer. My product will see the light of day. I just haven’t figured out how or when.
A tangential thought—my unremarkable life may not leave a legacy. But, baby oh baby, some of the stories and the secrets I’ve come across—my version, starring people I have known.
Yeah . . . I was here all right. But no one will know it. Hopefully, they’ll hear me through my pen name. I relish the open-endedness of the mental challenge. I will never be able to exhaust it. I fear it will wear me down first.
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 experienced what Stephen King talked about, where I am so absorbed in writing the story that it takes on its own life, goes places I had not planned.
This new vocation creates my opportunity to revisit old friends I’ve read over the years, this time to pick up ideas on writing styles. My favorites have been John le Carré, Len Deighton, Richard Price, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Anne Lamott, and Michael Connelly.
But, more importantly, it requires that I make pilgrimage to the greats, however briefly, from Shakespeare to Steinbeck.
While my brother became an accomplished amateur oil painter, I paint with words.
I would like to be as accomplished in my own artistic genre as he is. Unlike dried paint on canvas, I can constantly revise my work.
Then there is the possibility that I might have something to say in addition to what I am recording for posterity. 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.
I hope so, because it’s good and proper that we reflect back on what happened. We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we like them or not. Why? They may turn up unannounced, surprise us at the quietest time, 2:00 a.m. in a bad dream, and demand to know why we deserted them, why we betrayed them, and who we have become.
Perhaps I can say something memorable about this thing we share called the human condition. There are so many ways to describe our journey, our common experience: short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, novels.
I hear music in “I am a writer.” It energizes me.
I have permission now, from Stephen King and Amy Tan, to read and write all I want.
And . . . I like it.
Then occasionally at night, a house-sound. My mouth fills with ashes. I am fearful that the fraud police have arrived and will be knocking on the door. Feelings of continual inadequacy linger just below the surface, right above the feelings of failure—which run deeper.
There’s another piece of wisdom that I’ve heard repeated by the masters over the years. It doesn’t apply to everyone, but definitely includes me. These folks say that every good storyteller writes from core wounds. We all carry them. We know them—if we think about them—and if we write about them, the product will have authenticity and voice.
Kat Howard shared personal truths in her “A Life in Fiction” in Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman. “Oh, sure, he had based characters on people he knew, stolen little bits of their lives. A gesture, a phrase, a particular color of eye or way of walking. The petty thievery all writers commit.”
Had I started writing a decade or two earlier, by now I would have made minor people-thefts an unconscious habit. My writing would be richer.
David Morrell wrote First Blood, but everyone remembers it as Rambo. In interviews, he talked about how you need to be a writer, because you have to—no choice. And he referred to fiction writing as self-psychoanalysis. Writers suppress secrets they need to tell, ones that haunt them.
The famous writer, Christopher Hitchens, said in a YouTube video, “Writing is what you must do; without it you die.” That was a literary bridge too far for me.
“Finally, no book is written. Every book is rewritten.” I don’t remember who said that.
And, one more thing: “When you become tired and discouraged, just punch the keys and bleed.” I think I said that.
I have been a fan of the famous writer, Kurt Vonnegut, for decades.
…He satirized the stylish popularity of Eastern meditation, saying we had the same thing in the West—reading short stories, which also lowered your heart rate and freed your mind from other concerns. He said short stories were “Buddhist catnaps.” [from KURT VONNEGUT LETTERS, edited by Dan Wakefield]
[Suggestions, observations, and advice, writing as Ben Leiter]
A thank-you note to Dennis Lehane for his book Moonlight Mile.
Mr. Lehane, please excuse my previous ignorance of the quality of your work. The dialogue and plot were as rich as Gone Girl. Of course, I fell in love with your protagonist which you had already planned for every reader to do.
I think I know how you did it: the protagonist is flawed; he is constantly in trouble; he tries to do right by his wife, and he is wicked in love with his little daughter.
So, after I bonded with your hero, and then the Boston Russian mob threatened his family — you had my undivided attention. Great plot twists and turns.
A thriller, through and through.
Maybe my contempt for the Russian mob and other mobs stems from my previous career?