Scaling The Border Wall Of Publishing

 

If you consider yourself a writer, you must have experienced a few breakthrough moments. Once in a while there are magical times, hard to come by but worth all the previous struggle, when the words begin to flow and a previously thick stew of ideas coheres into a real story. In years past, that euphoria never lasted long because it was next to impossible to take it any farther. That fleeting sense of accomplishment was inevitably followed by the hopeless feeling of running up against a border wall. Patrols were stationed there to keep you from entering the promised land where your stories might take root and flourish. Obtaining a passport to gain entry into that realm wasn’t totally impossible, but there were dozens of hoops to jump through, and endless waits for the decision-makers to pronounce you worthy.

Then a revolution of sorts arrived on the scene. The self-publishing industry rose up, almost overnight, to blow down that barrier as if it were the Bastille. How liberating was that? We could say good riddance to those endless rules of proper storytelling that applied to newbies like us, but that established authors ignored with impunity. No more waiting six months to hear an agent or publisher say “not for us,” if they bothered to reply at all. No more of their arrogant demands, like the right to view our pieces exclusively so that we wouldn’t waste their precious time, when they had no regrets at all about wasting ours. No more spending years revising one story to suit numerous “expert” and often contradictory specifications, years that could have been filled with countless other stories and boundless creativity.

Perhaps most importantly, none of us has to take no for an answer without knowing why. Even if every agent on earth declares, “I can’t sell it,” that no longer has to be the final word. If we believe in our own work, we can sell it ourselves. Once I’ve given my best effort to my own manuscript, I can put professional editors, proofreaders, and graphic designers on the job. A hired team works to make it as professional as it can be without stomping on my original vision. There are plenty of books out there that are not particularly commercial, and certainly not destined to be best-sellers, but that are good enough for me.

Those would include my own four self-published novels. If I were to pick up one of them and skim it as if it had been written by somebody else, I would at least be tempted to buy it. It would speak to me on numerous levels. No industry expert can convince me that the first paragraph has to grab me with blood and gore. Slow but steady character development is what I like. The most liberating part of this revolution is the ability to produce the kind of writing that interests me. I might be in the minority when it comes to literary taste, but I can’t be the only reader in the world who likes chick-lit minus the predictable, happily-ever-after endings. I must be able to believe it myself. My favorite heroines aren’t all that different from me.

Back in the old days, some experts advised aspiring authors to concentrate on popular genres where the markets were relatively receptive. They mentioned children’s stories and science fiction as possibilities. Certainly those genres have popular appeal, but I was never able to get a spark of an idea from them. My stories tend to take a political or sexual turn, which is hardly ideal for children.  Science fiction presents too many plausibility issues. My real interest is writing about the struggles of more-or-less ordinary women who will never be Wonder Woman, or even the first female president of the US, but who can nevertheless triumph in their own journeys.

These days it looks like we’ve blown down the border wall by sheer numbers, but that doesn’t guarantee that all of us will prosper on the other side. It’s our job to cultivate the promised land, not overcrowd it with junk and take up resources without contributing enough. Who knows how long it will take us to feel like full citizens of that rich country? A satisfying life can only be built one day at a time. It’s our job to spread our seeds, cultivate them, and then wait patiently for the desert to bloom.

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If Trump Were A Novelist

Sometimes when the daily news gets too grim for me, I play a trick on myself. I pretend it’s all part of a serialized narrative concocted by the news media for my entertainment. I’m not suggesting it’s “false news.” I’m just using my imagination to pretend it’s less serious than it really is. With this technique I can imagine that the president isn’t necessarily the pathological liar and delusional idiot he appears to be, but more of a creative genius who has fashioned a unique presidential character, barely believable but endlessly amusing.

Such creativity, if that’s what it is, makes me jealous. I’ve written two novels, Secretarial Wars and Let’s Play Ball, in which lousy presidents play a part, but this Trump creation blows them both away. My presidents were morally challenged manipulators, but I never envisioned what we appear to have now, a full-blown Fascist who not only aspires to be a dictator, but seems to believe he already is one. How is this possible in America, with its 230-year-old constitution? It’s got to be a fantasy, right?

This raises the question of whether Trump is aware of his own creativity. His lying is so constant and shameless that it seems to be a reflex action. Does he realize that most of what he spouts is garbage, or is he able to convince himself, at least in the moment, that he’s speaking the truth? Does he really believe he got a great deal with North Korea, or that he makes our NATO allies and trading partners respect us with his empty bluster? Has he convinced himself he actually cares about struggling people? Does he see himself as the caped crusader who saved the country from the Islamic threat posed by Barack Obama? Or that he has the power to make inconvenient statements and actions from his past go away, no matter how well documented they are?

This running show will continue as long as his political base holds strong and continues to lap it all up. That percentage of the electorate sometimes scarily approaches, or even exceeds, forty percent. As long as these folks believe everything their hero says, he can say and do anything. A strong contingent within the base reportedly believes, quite literally, that Obama is the anti-Christ. That would seem to imply that Trump himself is Christ, or a Christ-like figure, despite his demonstrated inability to name a single Bible verse or to identify a communion wafer when he saw one. His most powerful enablers, including the bulk of Congressional Republicans, will stand by and watch this show continue to unfold without interfering with it, as long as it continues to benefit their interests. Now and then a few betray some discomfort with the sham, but not enough to stop it.

The one thing Trump can’t do, if he is to preserve his heroic narrative, is to lose his bid for reelection. If this appears possible in the final days of the 2020 campaign, he’ll at least make noises about tearing up the constitution, always an obstacle to achieving his full greatness, and canceling the election. Polls seem to indicate his base would be more than fine with this. Or if he goes through with the election and loses, he’ll declare it false news and demand that the results be thrown out, which would make his base ecstatic. Thus, in one blow, he will rewrite both history and reality.

If I’d been asleep for over two years and had just awoken to the daily news, I’d think comedians had taken over traditional outlets. It’s the perfect setup for a satirical political comedy with a catchy logline: an adversarial country sabotages our electoral process and installs their own choice as president, an ignorant buffoon who makes us the laughing stock of the world. He’s a brilliant caricature, worthy of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator. His own glorification is all that matters. If it could be passed off as comedy, his Nazi-like speeches to his most ardent supporters would be less scary and more like performance art.

Trump reaches new heights of comic genius when he accuses others of what he’s guilty of himself, thus deflecting attention from his own actions. All of his opponents are crooks and liars, and the investigations surrounding his associates are witch hunts. Most recently, he turned the tables brilliantly when he accused Obama of being a patsy for Russia. He went on to declare, with a straight face, that the Russians are bent on helping Democrats win the 2018 mid-terms. The question remains: Is this man crazy? Or is he just ribbing us all, with the twinkle of a gifted comic in his eye?

The Illiterate President

American history is a long, absorbing tale made up of countless episodes and intriguing characters. The republic began as a radical dream of economic freedom and political independence, cooked up by a handful of East Coast intellectuals who were exuberantly aware that they were committing treason against the British Empire. These ideas spread until they became a cause that enough citizens (although nowhere near a majority) were willing to fight for. The story continued to unfold on a landscape that encouraged westward expansion, a movement that seemed inevitable, yet presented many obstacles and challenges. Several decades after its founding, the young republic was put to the ultimate test when it became plain that two diametrically opposed economic systems, one based on slavery and the other on paid labor, could not remain one. A long, bloody civil war was fought to settle this issue in favor of freedom.

The story never stops unfolding. Democracy is continually threatened by both internal and external forces. In the present day, an unfortunate set of circumstances has elevated to the presidency a kleptomaniac with an untreated mental illness. He was assisted by an anachronism known as the Electoral College, a system originally designed to ensure that under-populated areas of the country would be given a voice. It has served this purpose, but in the present day, long after the nation has ceased to be predominantly rural, it continues to give these areas inordinate power. The electoral process in 2016 was further disrupted by interference from a foreign adversary, probably with the full cooperation of the winning candidate and his campaign. Donald Trump’s ultimate goal is to install a Fascist dictatorship, answerable only to him. Our place in history will depend on how well we resist this threat.

One of Trump’s worst qualities, apart from his extreme narcissism, is his ignorance. These traits are actually two sides of the same coin. His lack of knowledge is something that could have been remedied in school, or by reading books. But how can you educate someone who seems to think he was born knowing everything there is to know? He must have been a nightmare to his teachers. This man is emphatically not a reader. That would require a level of concentration, and an ability to immerse himself in another person’s ideas, that seems beyond him. The American story reads like a novel, with its twists and turns and nuances. It takes real effort to absorb all of its moving parts and get it whole.

Trump recently exclaimed over his incredible discovery that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Does anybody else know that? I bet nobody else knows that!” Actually, that is a fact well known to any halfway attentive school child. He wonders why “nobody” has thought about the causes of the Civil War, which must be the subject of millions of books. Has he ever cracked one open in his life?

Abraham Lincoln was indeed a founding member of the Republican Party. The newly minted party of the 1850s took in both abolitionists and the more moderate proponents of “free soil,” a movement to stop the spread of slavery into territories that were yet to become states. Lincoln at first adhered to the free soil platform, and only gradually became a full-fledged abolitionist. As president, he held back until it suited his military strategy to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Democrats of that time were generally a pro-slavery party. They continued to hold the south through Reconstruction, and for many years after that, until a gradual realignment began to take place. This movement picked up speed just before and during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and included a major shift in the alliance of African American voters.

The idea of party realignments that unfolded over a period of more than a century would make Trump’s eyes glaze over, if someone were foolhardy enough to try to explain it to him. How to make him understand that the Republican Party has evolved into something that Lincoln wouldn’t recognize? That would be beyond the capability of an extreme narcissist who doesn’t believe in anything except his own life story, suitably embellished to remove any fault.

I like the idea of a president who values the truth that can be found in books, including novels that don’t claim to be the literal truth. When I first read Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father shortly after his election to the presidency in 2008, I thought it read like a novel. Some critics have gone so far as to call it historical fiction. It’s a youthful autobiography, first attempted after Obama’s election as the first black president of Harvard Law Review. By his own admission, it gained only modest attention and lukewarm reviews. A second edition came out during his campaign for the Senate in Illinois. In the foreword, he admitted that some of his writing in the first edition made him cringe in retrospect. Judging by that statement, he showed more self-awareness in his thirties than Trump has ever shown in 70 years.

Obama admitted in that foreword that he occasionally used fictional elements. “There are the dangers inherent in any autobiographical work; the temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer, the tendency to overestimate the interest one’s experiences hold for others, selective lapses of memory … I can’t say that I’ve avoided all, or any, of these hazards successfully … the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me. For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” Again, Obama acknowledges falling short of perfection, something that Trump seems incapable of doing.

Can you even imagine Trump reading a novel? That would require him to embrace a world not his own. He’d need to exert some imagination, to develop an attention span of longer than five minutes, to stick with a narrative that stretches beyond 140 characters. Trump is too busy reigning over a fantasy world in which he is the unquestioned supreme dictator of the United States, if not the galaxy. He is Superman and Batman rolled into one, a godlike creature who ordered the sun to come out at his inauguration. Soon he will command the Israelis and Palestinians to embrace one another, and ISIS to disband and give us all their oil. How can they not obey? He is the all-knowing, all-powerful Trump, who surpasses any hero in fact or fiction.

Going Hollywood In Maryland

My first self-published novel, Secretarial Wars, took forever to finish. I started working on it around 1990, before self-publishing became a real option, and I didn’t finally dispose of it until 2003. It was inspired by several awkward office experiences I lived through during my first full-time job after college. Considering how humble the job was, and how frustratingly long it took to get anywhere in my professional life, it seems incredible that a small slice of that story has now been dramatized in a short film called “The Investigation.”

Secretarial Wars was actually my third attempt at a novel. I had spent years struggling with two hot messes, a college story and its sequel, that were trying to become novels and not really succeeding. I finally reflected that I might do better by grounding a story in my more recent real-life experiences. So I conceived a tale based on my secretarial life at the quasi-government Fulbright grant program from 1974 to 1979.

Fulbright grants were awarded mostly to university professors and researchers with the goal of disseminating American ideals and values abroad. The viewpoint character in my story, Miriam, was a somewhat confused but ambitious young woman who chafed at the limits of her secretarial role. She had two best friends in the office, based on pals of mine who were nearly polar opposites in personality and worked for the organization at different times. One of these girlfriends was a dedicated secretary, and the other, to put it mildly, was not.

Since I started writing the novel before most offices had become high-tech, and it focused on a time when stone age instruments like electric typewriters were in use, I compromised by bringing it up to the early 1990s, when the Internet did exist but was not yet at every desktop, and the few cell phones in use were clunky by today’s standards.

I ground out three novels after Secretarial Wars, and paid to have all four converted to screenplays by professional screenwriters. I thought they all did a decent job of making the stories more cinematic than the originals. Secretarial Wars was the one I felt adhered most faithfully to the original novel. I lifted a few scenes from that screenplay and enhanced them for submission to a local outfit called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z. I called the short script “Secretarial Spy,” and centered it on a secretary’s travails at a Fulbright-like grant program. The heroine, Miriam, an aspiring investigative journalist, entertains two rather contradictory goals: to get a promotion, but also to investigate her boss for possible malfeasance in awarding grants.

The script underwent a thorough revision by a writer far more movie-savvy than me, and was renamed “The Investigation.” While the story ended up quite different from the original, I’m not inclined to complain about that. No doubt if the process had taken place in Hollywood, California instead of Bethesda, Maryland, the same wholesale changes would have occurred. The spark of the idea remains intact: a showdown between Miriam and a boss of questionable morals, Mrs. Broadwater. They work for an outfit called the Peace Council, which boasts an idealistic mission: to promote international cooperation through humanitarian projects. However, owing to the Council’s involvement in many political and financial deals overseas, it’s also vulnerable to corruption.

The film truly does bring back a humiliating episode. Fresh out of college, rather full of myself as a summa cum laude graduate, I was discontent with my secretarial position but didn’t realize that my disdain was obvious. I applied for a modest promotion, based on my ability to complete writing tasks. I was called into the office of the deputy director, a steely woman who really ran the place, and subjected to a painful interview. I didn’t have ready answers for her barrage of questions and observations. Do you like your job? All I could honestly reply was that I believed in the mission of the agency. You haven’t formed a real partnership with your immediate supervisor. I insinuated my supervisor might be partly to blame for that, while trying not to throw her totally under the bus. You never take initiative. But how, I wondered, is a lowly underling supposed to do that?

I tried to do better after that wretched interview. I was pursuing a master’s degree in political science in night school, and I decided to examine the nuts and bolts of the organization for a term paper. No real scandal turned up in the course of my research. Still, it set me thinking: what if something had looked fishy? What if grants were for sale to the highest bidder, or as a political reward? Maybe a secretary who aspired to be an investigative journalist would pursue such a theory. And maybe she’d establish contact with an underground newspaper editor who was looking for scandals, and also happened to be devastatingly handsome.

The boss who unwittingly served as the model for Mrs. Broadwater is now deceased. There’s no way of knowing how she would feel to be portrayed as a sourpuss, and possibly worse. Not that it’s a fair portrayal—she was actually a dedicated and accomplished official, who dealt with me as the child I still was. She may have looked like a witch to me all those years ago when I was her powerless employee, but the story demonstrates her growth as well as Miriam’s.

The young secretary in the film, after receiving a comeuppance much like the real-life one I endured, vows to improve her job performance. Concurrently, she picks up a habit of staying late in the office, poking around for secrets. The crusty boss nearly catches her in the act one night, but perhaps mistaking her nosiness for conscientiousness, unbends enough to offer her the long-sought promotion. When Miriam requests to be called an assistant instead of a secretary as part of that deal, Mrs. B approves of Miriam’s newfound spirit. There is even a suggestion that the boss has sniffed out Miriam’s investigatory plan, and doesn’t totally disapprove. She was once a young idealist herself.

Isn’t it amazing how re-imagining a painful situation or a troublesome person can give you a sense of power over them? When that process is aided by talented actors and filmmakers, it’s even more empowering. My (almost) fifteen minutes of fame can be viewed below:

The Resistance For Writers: Part Two

250px-principal_cast_in_casablanca_trailer_cropI’m one of the luckier Feds, I guess. I retired from government service in 2014, well before the country elected a president who seems bent on establishing a dictatorship. An essential part of his plan is ravaging as many Federal agencies as he can and subverting their intended missions. All in all, I’m grateful not to be back in my old cubicle at the Department of Labor (OSHA), watching the effects of this first-hand, but it still makes my blood boil.

I wasn’t one of those aging employees who clung to my job once I sensed I was being pushed toward retirement. It was aggravating to see my substantive work start to disappear as my hair went gray. I saw younger employees awarded higher grades to do essentially the same work I used to do. They were pampered far too much with all-expenses-paid junkets, lunches, and “retreats,” and the more benefits they got, the more they complained. I honestly don’t mind seeing some of these high-priced whiners squirm a little in the Trump administration. But the essential, front-line work of agencies like OSHA, which relies on many truly dedicated and hard-working employees, is too important to minimize or discard just because managers have been known to make short-sighted decisions.

Trump is going after the most visible Feds first. These include Inspector Generals, who are supposed to be independent critics of agency practices. He’ll get rid of anyone brave enough to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. Hopefully, before mass firings at the IRS can be accomplished, someone will be brazen enough to leak Trump’s tax returns, which will probably tell us all we need to know about his ties to foreign governments, his corruption, and his phony charity. That bureaucrat will be both lauded and vilified, and may even go to prison, if Trump gets his way.

I was pretty much relegated to mundane tasks in my final years, but now that I look back, it wasn’t all that bad. It means I’m qualified to star in my own proposed non-action-packed movie, “Barricades of the Bureaucracy.” Grunt work is where the true resistance lies. By grunt work I mean everyday chores like running employment reports, taking head counts of various job classifications, gathering and analyzing performance data, and writing the budget narratives and reports that explain this data. Those are the facts upon which the agency’s work is based and its effectiveness is measured. It is the best possible resistance to “alternative facts.” By any objective measures, there is no doubt that OSHA has been a success since it was launched in 1971. Workplace injuries have gone down, even as employment in dangerous occupations has risen. Onsite inspections have been proven to make hazardous workplaces safer. If Trump decides he wants to abolish the agency, he will no doubt demand falsified statistics to prove his case. How long can the heroic budget analyst hold out, insisting on the truth?

It’s a shame that true courage is not usually cinematic. We can’t all be Victor Laszlo, or even Rick Blaine, the freedom fighters of “Casablanca” who happened to love the same woman. For them, the fight meant taking up arms. The necessity of that finally superseded everything else, even their love for the beautiful Ilsa. How can a mere bureaucrat equal that? It’s not likely many of them will be forced to choose between love and war. Refusing to lie to please a tyrant is a quiet pursuit–until it isn’t.

Can you envision a courageous budget analyst waterboarded until he or she gives in? Even Trump is probably not crazy enough to institute torture for pencil pushers, although the way things are going, you never know. Admittedly, there are not enough dramatic scenes in my theoretical movie to attract big crowds to the theater. However, one image persists in my mind. Even if Trump’s minions succeed in shutting down all the websites that contain data they don’t like, I doubt if they can track down and destroy every offensive document that remains on personal drives, and every hard copy report on which the data is based. I can just see a buxom bureaucrat sneaking out of her office with documents stuffed in her bra and panties, a latter-day Fawn Hall.

The most effective resistance has never been about throwing tomatoes or grenades. The best antidotes to Trump are truth, verifiable facts, and reason. Civil disobedience, in this day and age, means refusing to succumb to lies and doing everything possible to promote the truth. If the guardians of information do this in great enough numbers, victory will be ours.

Writers Of The Resistance

4b81149247ccf4548a3a29c1fcd82444It’s not exactly the Civil War all over again, with opposing homegrown armies battling one another to the death on battlegrounds like Antietam and Gettysburg. Still, with the political climate boiling and differences between factions looking intractable, a hot war isn’t as implausible as it once seemed. These days there seem to be fewer and fewer unthinkable possibilities. We don’t yet know how far President Trump will go in challenging the normal rules of society to enforce his authority. One thing is certain: he didn’t hesitate during the campaign to set his thugs on peaceful demonstrators.

Those of us with progressive beliefs are feeling beleaguered. We’re clinging to common sense in the face of a government in which facts and reason have no place. I believe there are few problems in our society that couldn’t be solved, or at least alleviated, if billionaires like Trump and his closest buddies were paying their fair share of taxes. Yet that is absolutely out of the question. To even argue the point is a waste of breath. A President who has been propelled into office on a movement depending on lies, conspiracy theories, and delusion can’t be reasoned with, and neither can his followers. He will never read reputable newspapers or listen to experts who say things he doesn’t want to hear. His only real belief is in his own greatness and his ability to do whatever he wants. The word for that is dictatorship.

With reason flying out the window, so has politics as usual. We once had two major political parties with a core of responsible leaders who saw the necessity of compromising on occasion to get things done. Now one of the parties has mastered every dirty trick in the book to keep itself in power. Thanks to innovations like Citizens United, gerrymandering, and voter suppression, and the tried-but-true Electoral College, the system is so rigged that dislodging the clowns will probably be impossible for years to come. A majority of citizens already opposes them, yet here they are in all their glory, claiming a “mandate.” Most people favor sensible gun control, Planned Parenthood, affordable health care, and clean energy, but those are looking like pipe dreams. We might as well call this system by its rightful name: Fascism.

Artists have a long history of standing up to Fascists. Art is only one weapon, but a necessary one. Political fiction has always pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible, but lately even the most innovative stories have been overtaken by events. I’ve been looking forward to the fifth season of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” but now the incredibly sleazy Underwood administration seems so tame compared to reality. Sleazy doesn’t necessarily equate to Fascist. True, Frank Underwood has murdered people who stood in his way, but he has some sensible ideas for running the country and has implemented a few policies that actually help ordinary people. He’s evil, but he’s smart enough to cover his tracks. His calculating nature and self-control tend to prove he’s not crazy. By contrast, many of Trump’s statements are utterly irrational, and he can’t seem to stop himself from uttering or tweeting them.

If the brutal election and its aftermath produce a Resistance movement, that could turn out to be a silver lining for writers. Many great stories came out of resistance to Nazism before and during World War Two. A truly creative writer could perhaps find a way to adapt one of my favorites, “Casablanca,” to the US landscape. It would involve a love triangle centered on a heroine who thinks her husband, a renowned freedom fighter, has perished in prison. She falls in love with another man, also a freedom fighter in his own more understated way, only to find out that her husband is still alive and is coming back. She must decide: which rebel does she love most?

Admittedly, it wouldn’t have quite the same punch unless there was a real war going on, with troops occupying Washington the way they did Paris. Maybe if Hillary Clinton had won the election, and Trump had instigated the violent insurrection he hinted at numerous times, that would have been the case. Or if he should lose a reelection bid four years from now, he might be unwilling to accept those results peaceably. Even in the absence of a hot war, I can envision one of my favorite scenes replicated: the singing of the Marseillaise at Rick’s café, which joyfully drowned out the German national anthem. To get the flavor of that scene, all we’d have to do is find the nearest gathering of Trumpsters, and blast it with Pete Seeger and other peace songs.

A Resistance story doesn’t necessarily involve actual combat. There are many World War Two-era stories that celebrate non-violent resistance to Nazism. A few examples include “The Book Thief” (which celebrates the reading and preservation of forbidden books during Nazi book-burning campaigns); “Rosenstrasse” (which portrays the silent protests by Christian women that resulted in getting their Jewish husbands released from prison); and “Sophie Scholl” (which depicts the White Rose student resistance movement that encouraged kids to spread leaflets and graffiti throughout Germany).

I was a bureaucrat for forty years in Federal government and quasi-government programs, and was never on the front lines of anything. So what kind of Resistance movie could I produce based on my own experiences? Many budget analysts like me are charged with producing head counts of employees in various job classifications. One of my responsibilities at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was maintaining lists of compliance safety and health officers, known as CSHOs. They were the front-line employees who performed safety and health inspections at worksites.

Now the Trump team has announced its intention to change civil service rules so that career Federal employees can be fired without cause. It can’t be a coincidence that they’ve demanded the names of Energy Department employees who have been involved in designing and implementing clean energy policies. So far, the department has denied the request. Will they be able to continue standing up to the science deniers? I envision a drama with a working title like “Barricades of the Bureaucracy.” Not exactly an action-packed thriller, it would instead be a tale of organized civil disobedience among pencil pushers.

A wide-scale resistance movement in the Federal bureaucracy could take the form of refusing to divulge the names of employees who are doing the regulatory and scientific jobs they were hired to do, such as establishing environmental protection laws and enforcing safety and health rules in hazardous workplaces. Presumably, if they can’t be identified, they can’t be fired. If their identities eventually come to light, human resources offices could refuse to do the paperwork required to terminate their employment. The prospect of firing whole departments might stump even the great and magnificent Donald Trump.

Nazi Germany was reputed to be a bureaucratic society, with the complicated administrative structure of the Third Reich existing parallel to and competitive with the Nazi Party. It seemed that everything, even genocide, had to be done by the book. Maybe it would be a good thing if the Trumpsters turned out to resemble the Nazis in that regard. We could build barricades with paperwork, and hopefully they’d smother in it.

My Classic Rock Soundtrack

rockstar_55-xlI’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.

Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.

Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.

Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”

Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”

The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).

Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.