All Posts By Michael Kahn

A Special Heaven for Authors: My Fantasy

I’ve been thinking about the afterlife lately. Not mine, though at age of 67 I know I am closer to my end than my beginning. But, to quote Marcus Aurelius, “It is not death a man should fear but he should fear never having to live.” So I try focus on the living part.

But I have a fantasy–or maybe I should call it a yearning–for a special afterlife. Not mine. My fantasy afterlife is for a unique group of men and women: a place for beloved authors who died in obscurity or with no expectation that their works would live on after them.

Authors who died famous need no afterlife. Indeed, for many of them an afterlife would be a miserable residence in one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell. Take, for example, those who reached the apex of fame, namely, the number 1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list. For the year 1960, the most famous author in America was Allen Drury with his novel Advise and Consent. He would continue to dominate the bestseller lists of the early 1960s, and for good reason. He was an excellent storyteller. But today–just 60 years later–Drury’s Advise and Consent is ranked behind more than 200,000 other titles on Amazon. I don’t want Allen Drury spending eternity in some dank afterlife staring at his Amazon ranking and wondering what happened to his legacy. To grasp the ephemeral nature of bestseller fame, check out the authors and their works on these lists of bestsellers from the 1920s. More than 90% of them have been out of print and forgotten for decades.

“But those are bestsellers,” you snobs scoff. “That’s no way to judge literary greatness.”

Okay, how about the Pulitzer Prize for Literature? That’s the essence of acclaim and achievement, right? Actually, Allen Drury won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for Advise and Consent. Take the year I was born: 1952. That prestigious prize was awarded that year to Herman Wouk for The Caine Mutiny, which is currently ranked behind more than half a million other books on Amazon. I’m fairly sure neither man’s novel is taught in any university course on American Literature. But that’s okay. Drury and Wouk went to their graves secure in the knowledge that their Pulitzer Prize would be mentioned in the opening paragraph of their obituary and that their elite literary status was safe. No need to update them. Let them rest in peace.

And sadly, even some of those modern authors who did make it onto the syllabuses for American Lit courses back in my college days have begun to fade. John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer are just a few of the literary giants of that era whose novels have gone out of print or who are now lingering in the Allen Drury dungeon on Amazon. For all of these fine authors, I wish them tranquility in their graves.

So who would I gather in my fantasy afterlife, in my celestial version of the Algonquin Round Table?

First would be Herman Melville, whose promising career as a novelist was destroyed by the nasty critical reception of Moby Dick. His writing career ruined, he spent the last decades of his life in obscurity working as a customs inspector for New York City. He died in 1891. But by the 1930s his work had been rediscovered, and soon Moby Dick would be hailed as a masterpiece and perhaps the Great American Novel. And Billy Budd, discovered among his papers nearly three decades after his death and finally published in 1924, is now recognized as one of great works of literature of the 19th Century. Better yet for a man who died in obscurity, Billy Budd has been adapted into an award-winning play and an Oscar-nominated movie. I just love the thought of Melville looking down from above in amazement at his posthumous success.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgeral

Joining Melville at that celestial Round Table would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose own brilliant career was upended by publication of The Great Gatsby, which was neither a critical nor financial success. Fitzgerald, an alcoholic since college, deteriorated further after publication of that novel and died at the age of 40, viewing himself a failure. But now The Great Gatsby is included on all those reading lists alongside Moby Dick and is usually one of the Top 3 contenders (along with Moby Dick and Huck Finn) for the honor of Great American Novel. I’d like to imagine Herman and Scott chatting at the table and perhaps joking about some of their literary peers who sneered at them in life and are now forgotten for all time.

Jane Austen

Two women would have a special place at my table: Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. Jane must be amazed not only by the ongoing sales of her novels but by all those screen and theatrical adaptions of each of them. Here is a writer who died more than two centuries ago but whose novels remain relevant and popular. This year has seen the debut of the third movie or TV adaptation of her novel Emma in just the past 25 years—four if you count the movie Clueless, which many fans may not know is a modern adaptation of Austen’s Emma. Four! Think of that. For a novel published in 1815! Can you name any novel published in your lifetime that has had more than one motion picture adaptation? I can’t.

Emily Dickinson

As for Emily Dickinson, her ascent to the pantheon of American poets is even more remarkable. She lived most of her short life in isolation in Amherst, Massachusetts. Fewer than a dozen of her vast collection of poems were published in her lifetime. It was not until after Emily’s death in 1886, when her younger sister Lavinia discovered her cache of poems, that the breadth and sheer artistry of her work became public. How astonished–and, hopefully, pleased–would the shy Ms. Dickinson be today to discover the reach of her poetry and its impact on American culture. She is taught in literature and poetry classes classes in the United States from middle school to college. Her poetry is frequently anthologized and has been used as text for songs by composers such as Aaron Copland, Nick Peros, John Adams and Michael Tilson Thomas. A few literary journals—including The Emily Dickinson Journal, the official publication of the Emily Dickinson International Society—have been founded to examine her work. A commemorative stamp in her honor was issued by the United States Postal Service as the second stamp in the “American Poet” series. She was inducted into the  National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973. A one-woman play titled The Belle of Amherst appeared on Broadway in 1976, winning several awards.

Not too shabby, eh?

And finally, at that first seating at my celestial Round Table would be the Bard himself. Though it’s not all that clear whether he was critically esteemed at the time of his death–or was viewed as just another playwright hack–there is no question that William Shakespeare deserves a prime spot in my fantasy afterlife. He has now been dead for more than four centuries. If one merely tallied up the number of Shakespeare productions being staged around the world in any given year over the past decade, he would easily come in first place of all playwrights that year, living or dead. The Guinness Book of Records lists 410 feature-length film and TV versions of Shakespeare’s plays, making him the most filmed author ever in any language. There are, for example, more than a dozen film versions of Richard III and more than fifty film versions of Hamlet. So, too, there are thousands of books and tens of thousands of scholarly articles written about Shakespeare and his plays. I would like to think the Bard would be delighted to page through some of those books, watch some of the dozens and dozens of movie versions of his plays, and perhaps even gaze down from the clouds at a current production of Romeo and Juliet being staged at his very moment somewhere in the world.

So what’s at the root of this fantasy of mine? Every writer–and every musician and playwright and photographer and painter– no matter the genre or the topic, and certainly no matter the current level of success, wonders whether his or her works will live beyond the grave, much less beyond the century. The answer for 99.9% of us is an emphatic No. And that was certainly the answer assumed by those at my fantasy Round Table. I’d like to hope, at least for them, that they might be given a glimpse, no matter how brief, of their profound impact on our world.

And as a final and fitting tribute to my afterlife gathering, here is a link to one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death.” Enjoy.

(Featured image: Gates of Heaven. Photo by Porfirio Domingues)

Napoleon’s Penis: The Ultimate MacGuffin?

The answer: absolutely. And yes, I know where you focused on that painting of Napoleon.

But before we take a closer look at that titular appendage, we need to understand the MacGuffin and its key role in many of your favorite books and movies.

So what is a MacGuffin? Coined by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, it is a valued plot device for authors of all types of fiction, from novels to screenplays to dramas. It’s typically introduced early in the work and acts as the catalyst to set the characters in motion and drive the story. Hitchcock described the MacGuffin as “the thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience doesn’t care about.” Well, yes and no. The perfect example of a Hitchcock MacGuffin is the movie Psycho, where most of us have forgotten the plot device–namely, the stolen money that motivates all of the actions of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)–long before that horrifying scene when she steps into the shower, now considered one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Another example: the letters of transit in the motion picture Casablanca. They serve as the MacGuffin for that movie, though few of us remember them after the closing credits.

But some MacGuffins are more memorable than others–and they tend to stick with each of us long after we close the novel or leave the movie theater.

Consider Citizen Kane. The MacGuffin in that celebrated film is Rosebud, which is the murmured dying word of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. The film follows a reporter’s efforts to uncover the significance of that word. His search ends in frustration when he concludes that he can’t solve the mystery and thus the meaning of Kane’s last word will remain an enigma. But then comes the movie’s final scene:

We are back at Kane’s mansion. The staff is busy cataloging or discarding the dead man’s belongings. They come upon a sled–the same one on which the innocent eight-year-old Kane was playing on the day his bank-trustee-appointed guardian came to take him away from home to prepare for his lonely new life as an American oligarch. The staff worker, deeming the sled junk, throws it into the furnace. As the sled burns, the camera zooms in to reveal its trade name: “Rosebud.” Without that dying word, no plot, no movie, and certainly no sympathy for the dead man.

Another famous MacGuffin is the statuette of a falcon in the 1929 detective novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Sam Spade, the private investigator (played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie version) is hired to find the statuette, which legend claims is made of gold and precious gems covered by black enamel. (Ironically, the subsequent fate of the Maltese Falcon movie prop–a piece of Hollywood memorabilia right up there with Dorothy’s ruby slippers–morphed into a complex and lucrative real-world MacGuffin, as reported by Bryan Burrough in Vanity Fair here.)

And then there is that Persian rug in the the 1998 crime comedy The Big Lebowski. Yes, the rug that “really tied the room together.” It also ties the movie together. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is assaulted in his apartment by two goons who have mistaken him for another Jeffrey Lebowski. Realizing their mistake, the goons leave, but not before one of them urinates on his rug. Outraged, the Dude seeks compensation from the other Lebowski, a wealthy philanthropist who refuses his request, thus setting the entire plot in motion. Without that rug, no movie.

While a missing object is a frequent MacGuffin, occasionally–especially in mystery novels and movies–the MacGuffin will be a missing person. One such mystery is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the MacGuffin is Mr. Kurtz, the inscrutable ivory trader operating out of a station somewhere far up the Congo River in Africa. The novella is the narrator’s tale of trying to find Kurtz. Eight decades later, Francis Ford Coppola directed Apocalypse Now, an updated version of Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War. A U.S. Army officer (played by Martin Sheen) is placed on the trail of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a rogue U.S. Army Special Forces officer who’s gone insane and established himself as a demigod in the jungles of Cambodia. Although Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Kurtz is spellbinding, he actually spends little time on the screen, instead serving as the unseen MacGuffin propelling Sheen’s character and his troops forward in their journey into the heart of darkness of the war-ravaged region. (By the way, the name of the detective narrator in Heart of Darkness is Marlow. The name of the detective narrator in the Raymond Chandler mystery novels is Marlowe. Coincidence? Like Conrad’s Marlow, Chandler’s Marlowe finds missing persons.)

In my first novel, Grave Designs, I unwittingly created a MacGuffin years before I had heard of that term or its significance. The MacGuffin in Grave Designs is a coffin stolen from a grave in a pet cemetery. That burial plot had been endowed with a large trust fund for its care and maintenance—a trust fund secretly established by a powerful partner in a major law firm. The partner has died, and his law firm is confused to discover the trust fund, especially since neither the partner nor his family ever owned a pet. The firm retains attorney Rachel Gold to figure out what was in that grave, and shortly thereafter the grave is robbed. Rachel’s search for that stolen coffin and its mysterious contents propels the novel’s plot.

And then there are MacGuffins in the form of works of art. Back at the time of the release of my novel The Sirena Quest, an interviewer asked me to describe the book in 12 words or less. A long pause, a silent word count, a smile, and then the answer: “A Baby Boomer version of ‘The Big Chill’ meets ‘The Maltese Falcon.’” It was only later, as I thought about my answer, that I realized that an art object—stolen or otherwise missing—serves as the MacGuffin for so many literary works, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, to Wilkie Collins’ 19th-century masterpiece, The Moonstone, and so on all the way back to those Arthurian tales of quests to find the Holy Grail. My Holy Grail is Sirena, a legendary Greco-Roman statue of a young goddess that mysteriously disappeared from my protagonists’ college 35 years ago.

Which, at last, brings us back to Napoleon’s penis. The Emperor’s member was not famous during his lifetime, at least based on my review of his biographies. There have, of course, been genuinely famous penises, but mostly in the 20th Century, where they became a topic of gossip (such as the purported endowments of the comedian Milton Berle and the singer Frank Sinatra) or of video display (see, e.g., porn stars John Holmes and Ron Jeremy. I’ll let you conduct the NSFW Google search for those two). But, alas, even famous penises tend to enter the grave attached to their owners.

Not so with Napoleon’s. According to legend, his penis was removed during his autopsy in 1821 and initially claimed by his chaplain, Abbé Ange Vignali. From there, it embarked on a journey from owner to owner across Europe and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. When its owners put it up for auction in 1916, the catalog chastely described it as “a mummified tendon taken from Napoleon Bonaparte’s body during post-mortem.” It was allegedly last purchased in 1969 by a Columbia University professor of medicine. Alas, there is little aesthetic appeal to that object, which Time magazine described as “looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or a shriveled eel.” For more on the weird history of that “shriveled eel,” visit the Wonders and Marvels website, where you can read “The Strange Journey of Napoleon’s Penis” by Karen Abbott.

Among other things, Monsier Bonaparte’s “object of art” inspired the plot of my second Rachel Gold novel, Death Benefits, While Napoleon’s penis makes no appearance, you will quickly discern its, er, seminal contribution to the mystery at the core of the novel.

But meanwhile, Napoleon’s penis remains the proverbial low-hanging fruit for some budding mystery novelist looking for a MacGuffin to power his novel. I have no idea where that penis is today–or whether it still exists–or even whether that “shriveled eel” is in fact the mummified remains of Napoleon’s little fellow. But we’re talking fiction here. There are also reports of Rasputin’s preserved member. Or you can just invent another famous one. Such as, perhaps, an appendage known in certain circles as the original Lincoln Log. Or perhaps Gustave Eiffel’s Tower. Or, or course, Scarface’s Little Friend. Think of all those possibilities! Be sure to make it a collector’s item. Worth millions. After all, if the Maltese Falcon movie prop could sell at auction for more than $4 million, think what a famous historical figure’s preserved member would be worth. And its sudden disappearance would certain get a plot rolling. There you go. Have fun!

Cover Reveals: The Good, the Bad, and, well . . .

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Most authors have little say in the design of our book covers, and thus arrives that anxious moment when the publisher reveals its proposed cover for your novel. You hope for the best.

This time I got lucky. For my next Rachel Gold novel, Bad Trust, due in April of this year, I can state that the publisher’s cover reveal was not only a relief but a delight. I hope you agree.

But feelings of relief, much less delight, are not always an author’s reaction to the cover reveal. The best example I can think of was my very first cover, way back at the beginning of my writing career. Here’s that story:

My first novel, published in hardcover under the title The Canaan Legacy, involved a mysterious grave in a pet cemetery. A powerful senior partner in a large Chicago law firm had established a secret trust fund for the care and maintenance of that grave. After the partner dies, his law firm discovers the trust fund. Both the firm and the dead partner’s family are baffled since neither the partner nor his family had ever owned a pet, much less one named CANAAN. That is the word engraved on the tombstone. The only word. The firm retains Rachel Gold to determine what exactly is in that grave, which is robbed within days after she starts to investigate.

Working with my editor and then my copy editor at the publishing house, we got the manuscript in final form. My editor called to tell me that the book cover would arrive within the next few days. Imagine my excitement and anticipation. My very first novel! My name in print!

And then I received the cover.

Early in the novel, our hero Rachel Gold visits the pet cemetery. As drafted in my manuscript, Chapter 2 opens:

The entrance to Wagging Tail Estates is guarded by two cement bulldogs.  They stand at attention at eye level on a pair of squat doric columns that flank the pathway into the cemetary.  The dogs stare defiantly at the plumbing supply store across the street from the cemetary.

Re-read that quoted paragraph above. Now look over at the cover. As you can tell, the dogs are not bulldogs, they do not “stand at attention at eye level,” and they certainly do not “stare defiantly” at anything.

In a panic, I contacted the publisher and explained the disparity between the manuscript and the cover. “Ah, yes,” he responded, “Andre in our art department designed the cover. He said the bulldogs looked deplorable. He asured me that these dogs are much better.”

“Oh,” I responded, confused. After a long pause, “And what breed of dog are they?”

“Good question. I asked Andre the same. His said hunting dogs.”

Another pause as I tried to make sense out of this conversation. “The breed?”

“He doesn’t know. Have another call coming in, Mike. Talk later. Bye.”

I called my agent, outraged. She listened, offered some words of sympathy, and then said, “Mike, how important are those two cement dogs to the story? Do they have any impact on the plot?”

I sighed. “I suppose not.”

“Keep that in mind, Mike.”

And I did. If you turn to Chapter 2 of the published novel–reissued in paperback under the title Grave Designs–the opening paragraph now reads:

The entrance to Wagging Tail Estates is guarded by two cement hunting dogs.  They sit at attention at eye level on a pair of squat doric columns that flank the pathway into the cemetery.  The dogs gaze aloofly at the plumbing supply store across the street from the cemetery

Thus my welcome to the world of publishing.

The paperback edition came out with not only a new cover but a new title: Grave Designs. A long story that I will save for another day.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker

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When in need of a snappy one-liner for the beginning of your book–or your essay or your talk or just about anything–a good place to start is the works of Dorothy Parker, a legendary literary figure of the 1920s and ’30s known for her biting wit. As she once wrote, “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

I happened to be need of a worthy quote for the beginning of my latest novel, Bad Trust, to be published this April, so I turned to Ms. Parker’s treasure trove. My novel features two mysteries–both involving arrogant, nasty wealthy men. I quickly found the perfect quote: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

As her online biography explains, in addition to her writings for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker helped form a group called the Algonquin Round Table with writer Robert Benchley and playwright Robert Sherwood. That group also included The New Yorker founder Harold Ross, comedian Harpo Marx, and playwright Edna Ferber among others. It took its name from its meetings at the Algonquin Hotel and became famous for the group’s sharp-tongued banter. The photograph below features Dorothy Parker with some other members of that group, including Harpo Marx (standing in the middle) and Alexander Woollcott (seated on the far right). The photograph at the top of this post was taken in 1924 in the backyard of her New York residence.

Members of the Algonquin Round Table: (standing, left to right) Art Samuels and Harpo Marx;; (sitting) Charles MacArthur, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcut

My favorite quote of hers was a brilliant pun she came up with on the fly at a meeting of the Algonquin Round Table during their weekly challenge game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence? They gave Dorothy the word “horticulture.” With barely a pause, she responded: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” (For those not familiar with the original centuries-old adage, it goes “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”)

A few other Dorothy Parker classics:

Brevity is the soul of lingerie.

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy

A hangover is the wrath of grapes.

The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘check enclosed.’

But as too often is the case, the life of a brilliant, witty individual comes to a sad end. Think of Oscar Wilde, perhaps the greatest Irish wit of the 19th Century, author of, among others, the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the play The Importance of Being Earnest, but later prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality and, after his release, dying alone in Paris at the age of 46. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald, the proverbial Toast of the Town in the Roaring Twenties, but then descending into alcoholism and depression, and dead at the age of 40.

Such was the fate of Dorothy Parker, who faded into alcoholism and obscurity in her later years. Childless and living alone in a residential hotel in New York City, she died of a heart attack in 1967. According to her biographer Marian Meade, her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including in her attorney’s filing cabinet, for nearly two decades. Nevertheless, she wrote her proposed epitaph: “Excuse my dust.”

So if there is an afterlife for authors, I hope she enjoys seeing her quote on the first page of my new novel. Thank you, Dorothy.

Cheerful Words of Wisdom from Falstaff

During these cold dark days of winter, with ice and sleet in the forecast and Spring more than a month away, we could all use some cheering up. For Ishmael, in the opening paragraph of Moby Dick, that meant it was “high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” For me, it means it’s high time to turn to some cheerful words of wisdom from Falstaff.

I’ve written before of my love of Falstaff. I am, of course, hardly alone. In the words of the great literary critic Harold Bloom, who died last fall at the age of 89, Falstaff is not just “the glory of the Henry IV plays” but (Bloom’s italics) “the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare.” Here are three of my favorite Falstaff speeches. I hope you enjoy them.

  • In a wonderfully comic scene in Henry IV. Part 1, Falstaff plays dead to avoid being killed in battle. Danger having passed, the fat knight rises from his feigned death. Was it an act of cowardice to fake your own death? Of course not, he claims. Don’t be ridiculous. As he explains, abstractions like “honor” and “valor” will get you nothing once you’re dead. Falstaff claims that his conduct is precisely the kind of “discretion” that keeps a man from foolishly running into swords in an effort to earn a reputation for heroism:

To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of

a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying,

when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true

and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is

discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.

Henry IV, Part 1, Act 5, Scene 4
  • Another favorite speech on honor occurs as talk of war escalates in that same play. Falstaff asks Hal to stand over him if he should fall in battle. Hal tells him absolutely not, and, as he exits the stage, invokes a code of honor, telling Falstaff he owes God a death. Falstaff, alone on the stage, provides us with a powerful soliloquy on honor, beginning with whether he does owe God his death:

It’s not due yet. I’d hate to pay him before the due date. Why should I be so eager to pay him before he even asks for it? Well, it doesn’t matter: honor spurs me on. Yeah, but what if honor spurs me off once I’m on, and picks me out to die? What happens then? Can honor set a broken leg? No. Or an arm? No. Can it make a wound stop hurting? No. Honor can’t perform surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word, “honor?” What is that “honor?” Air. Quite a bargain! Who has it? A guy who died last Wednesday. Does he feel it? No. Does he hear it? No. It can’t be detected, then? Right—not by the dead, anyway. But won’t it live with the living? No. Why? Slander won’t allow it. That’s why I don’t want any part of it. Honor is nothing more than a gravestone, and that concludes my catechism.

Henry IV, Part 1, Act 5, Scene 1
  • Finally, one of Falstaff’s most poignant speeches comes, unexpectedly, in the middle of a comic scene in a tavern where he plays the part of King Henry IV (Hal’s father) to help Hal prepare for his upcoming meeting with his father. He questions Hal about his companions and in particular about Falstaff. As the King, of course, Falstaff speaks most kindly of Falstaff. They then reverse roles, with Hal playing the King and Falstaff playing Prince Hal. Looking on are the hostess, Mistress Quickly, and Hal’s companions Bardolph and Peto. Now playing the role of the King, Hal excoriates the Prince for hanging out with that “villanous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.” “My Lord, I know the man,” replies the “Prince.” Then banish him, the “King” says. And here is Falstaff’s response (in the role of Prince Hal):

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Henry !v, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4

For more on what makes Falstaff so appealing and memorable, I recommend Theodore Dalrymple’s essay in City Journal entitled “Why We Love Falstaff.

From Sancho Panza to Saul Goodman: More Thoughts on the Cage-Free Character

As many of my readers know, I am a big fan of what I have named the Cage-Free Character. Those fictional free-range characters occupy a special place in my library, my own novels, and my heart.

What exactly is a Cage-Free Character? He or she typically starts off as a minor character in a novel or dramatic work who quickly yanks control of the story from the creator. In the process, our free-range character morphs from bit player into key figure, and not only adds humor to the work but depth to the protagonist. My two favorite cage-free characters–created within a few years of each other by two giants of literature–are Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Cervantes’ Sancho Panza. Indeed, I am convinced that Falstaff so charmed his creator that what he had originally planned as a single historical play–like its predecessor (Richard II) and its successor (Henry V)–Falstaff forced him to expand into two plays, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, in order to contain all of Falstaff’s exploits and speeches. I’m quite sure that Shakespeare was delighted by Falstaff, and audiences have shared in that delight for centuries.

By contrast, Sancho Panza becomes the first–or at least the most famous–sidekick in literature. The sidekick is the protagonist’s worthy companion who performs many functions to assist the hero or heroine. For those who haven’t read Don Quixote, Sancho is the peasant laborer—greedy but kind, faithful but cowardly, illiterate but brilliant—whom Don Quixote takes on as his squire as he sets off on his insane journey as a knight errant. The cage-free version of the sidekick, such as Sancho, serves a vital and humorous function in improving the depth of the story. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Cervantes’ novel without Sancho at the hero’s side.

The world of literature is filled with memorable sidekicks. Think of Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes tales, or, better yet, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster′s stoic valet in the P.G. Wodehouse novels. Neither could be described as cage-free. Watson is earnest, curious, and in awe of his friend Holmes. Jeeves, who navigates his knucklehead employer through every outrageous social faux pas, preserves the calm and courteous demeanor of a dutiful valet and hardly displays any emotions. When he feels discomfort or is being discreet, he assumes an expressionless face which Bertie describes as resembling a “stuffed moose.” When surprised, he will raise his eyebrow a small fraction of an inch, and when he is amused, the corner of his mouth twitches slightly. But to many readers, including me, Jeeves is much more than a just sidekick; he is the most fascinating character in the novels–and we immediately perk up whenever he appears at Bertie’s door.

As one would assume, the sidekick also thrives in the movies and on TV, from Chester in the TV series Gunsmoke (1955–1975) to Dr. Frankenstein’s Igor to the Lone Ranger’s Tonto to Dr. Evil’s Mini-Me to Shrek’s loyal Donkey to, of course, Seinfeld’s Kramer, the epitome of the cage-free character.

The role of sidekick is not limited to men. From Lady Macbeth to Harry Potter’s Hermione to Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, the cage-free female sidekick has played an important role in a wide variety of literary works through the ages. And in the movie version of The Thin Man–which was so popular it inspired several sequels–Myrna Loy became America’s most famous and beloved female sidekick

Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nora and Nick Charles in The Thin Man (1934)

And then there is that special category of sidekick who so enchants the author and the audience that he or she assumes the role of lead character in a new work. Falstaff is the perfect example. He became so famous and beloved in the two Henry IV plays that Shakespeare created a new play–The Merry Wives of Windsor–with Falstaff as the star. So, too, Tom Sawyer’s unforgettable sidekick in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer became the title character in the subsequent The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–with Tom occupying a secondary role.

We fans of the TV series Breaking Bad–in my opinion one of the greatest television series of all time–quickly became enamored by two cage-free characters: Walter White’s sidekick Jesse Pinkman and his sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman. And sure enough, both characters earned their own sequels: the TV series Better Call Saul and the motion picture El Camino.

In my Rachel Gold series, the cage-free (and X-rated) sidekick is Benny Goldberg.

How best to explain Benny? He arrives about a third of the way through my first novel Grave Designs and soon seizes control. Fat, crude, brilliant and hilarious, he is Rachel’s best pal. They had been young associates together at the large law firm of Abbott & Windsor. By the time the novel opens Rachel had left the firm to start her own solo practice as Rachel Gold, Attorney at Law. Benny would soon leave the firm to become a professor at DePaul Law School. A few years later, Rachel would return home to St. Louis to be closer to her mother after her father died, and the following year Benny would accept a faculty position in St. Louis at Washington University Law School where he is now a tenured professor with a nationwide reputation in antitrust law.

And even now, as a tenured professor and a noted antitrust expert, he remains the Benny that Rachel adores, You’ll get a sense of Benny in this scene early on in my next novel, Bad Trust, which will be published this Spring. They are meeting for lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant, when Rachel asks:

“Are you going to class dressed like that?”

Moi?” He leaned back in his chair and gestured at his outfit. “What’s wrong with this, Miss Fashion Cop?”

Benny had on a New York Rangers hockey jersey, faded olive cargo pants, and red Converse Chuck Taylor All Star low tops. His shaggy Jew-fro had reach Jimi Hendrix proportions, and he apparently hadn’t shave that morning. Not quite the prevailing image for an esteemed legal scholar.

I shook my head. “All I can say is thank God for tenure.”

“Here, here” He grinned and raised his bottle of Tsingtao beer.

While I don’t have any current plans to promote him to his own series, that option remains open!

My Answer to the Question of the Month

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The editor of Clues, the publication of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, reached out to me with the following question for its members: “What are your top tips for finding readers once your books are out in the world?”

Given that I haven’t been able to quit my day job, I may not have been the best choice to offer advice to struggling authors. Nevertheless, I gave it a shot. Here’s a link the December issue of Clues, where my answer appears. And if you’d prefer to read it here, read on!

As Dr. Samuel Johnson claimed, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

Well, yes and no. We’d like to make money from our writings, but money is rarely the principal motivation, especially since our hourly earnings tend to be lower than the federal minimum wage. I’m a lawyer by day and a writer at night. I’ve published a dozen novels and several short stories but never made enough to quit my day job. That’s okay. Fortune and fame would be nice, but meanwhile I’m having a good time writing.

So here’s what I suggest to help you not quit your day job: create a presence on social media. You need to find a way to get your name and your book out there now that the good old days of book reviews and author profiles in big and small newspapers around the country are gone. The best way to do create that presence is through your own blog. Make yourself to post something interesting at least once or twice a month. It can be about your writings—or anything else you find interesting. Anything. My topics have included lessons I’ve learned from my dog and my Baby Boomer delusions of hipness. Of course, “interesting” definitely includes anything about your latest book—from its cover to its release date to your research to how you chose your dedication.

The blog is Step 1. Step 2: create an author’s page on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com, and include a link there to your blog so that every post gets re-posted on those sites. And every once in a while, link to one of those posts on Facebook or Twitter or even LinkedIn. The result? The bigger your social media presence, the more likely people will find you and find your writings.

Upcoming Appearance at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival

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I am pleased to announce that I will be one of the featured speakers at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, November 12th at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, held each year at the Jewish Community Center on 2 Millstone Campus Drive in St. Louis, MO 63146. I will part of the annual “Missouri’s Own!” panel of four speakers.

I will be discussing The Art of Conflict: Tales of the Courtroom, which, as the Festival program describes:

“pairs each of five previously published articles on practical lawyering advice by an esteemed trial lawyer with a fictional short story by an award-winning author-attorney on the same theme as that article. * * * For fans of legal thrillers, this book offers a unique and compelling mixture of fiction and reality, written by a trial lawyer by day and award-winning author by night.”

Alan C. Kohn

What will add a deep element of  poignancy to this event is that my co-author Alan C. Kohn passed away just two months ago at the age of 87. Alan was a legendary member of the local and national trial bar, admired by attorneys and judges and, of course, his clients. The Art of Conflict was his dream project.

Alan was struggling with congestive heart failure when we started working on the book. I was so honored to be able to get the book in print while he was still alive and able to take pride in it. He was absolutely thrilled by the rave review of the book by the Honorable Michael A. Wolf, the retired Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and Dean and Professor Emeritus at St. Louis University Law School. So much so, in fact, that Judge Wolf’s full review is printed on the book jacket.

I hope to be able to share some of my memories of Alan at the event.

You can find out more about that event and the rest of this year’s Book Festival here.

Life Lessons from My Dog

Nearly a decade has passed since our beloved dog Kirby died. Just the other day, as I was searching through some old files, I came across a column I wrote on Kirby that was published 20 years ago in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Those lessons he taught me back then remain as true and important today–for me and for you. Thus I wanted to share them with you. I hope you enjoy them–and perhaps learn something special:

 You Can Learn a Lot By Paying Attention to Your Dog
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 16, 2019)

In 1993, Robert Fulghum published the bestseller, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Those lessons include “Play fair,” “Don’t take things that aren’t yours,” “Flush,” and “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.”

I learned a few things in kindergarten, too, but I’ve learned more from my dog Kirby. He joined our family five years ago when my children selected him from the APA. Kirby is a mutt—my one precondition. After all, who wants a pet with a better bloodline than your own? Plus, mutts tend to be healthier and more easygoing than their pedigreed cousins.
Kirby’s mother was a registered collie who escaped for a night of what Ricky Martin would call la vida loca. The result was a motley litter of seven that had little in common, including fathers. Kirby’s dad had enough German shepherd in him to give his son one upright ear to go with the elegantly curved one inherited from his mom. With his golden coat and widow’s peak,

Kirby is actually a handsome mutt. Indeed, other dog owners occasionally ask me what breed he is.

Kirby as a puppy

“A Polish wolfhound,” I answer casually adding, “They’re quite rare in this country.” I don’t tell them the origin of the name: “Polish” in honor of my in-laws, both from Poland; “wolf” because we thought Kirby would feel more a member of our family with a Jewish-sounding name; and “hound” because, well, that’s what he is.

What he isn’t is the smartest dog on the block. We pretty much keep mum when friends brag about the tricks their dogs can perform. Ours doesn’t do tricks. Indeed, ours still hasn’t gotten the hang of playing fetch. Oh, he’ll gladly chase the ball but some of the subtleties of the game—such as returning the ball—seem beyond his grasp. Then again, it’s possible that I’m the one who hasn’t grasped his version of fetch, which is more a hybrid of tug-of-war and keep-away-from-master. But regardless of his class rank, Kirby has taught me things we never learned in kindergarten, including:


Nothing is more important than your family.
• The size of your heart counts more than the size of your brain.
• Greet friends and family with enthusiasm.
• It’s nice to go for a walk with someone you love.
• Loyalty comes first.
• Listen carefully.
• True love is unconditional, even when they forget you outside during a storm or lock you in the basement during a dinner party.
• Be grateful for even the smallest presents.
• Never complain and never hold a grudge.
• A pat on the head is always welcome.
• There’s nothing worth watching on TV.
• Naps are wonderful.
• It’s good to snuggle, especially at night.
• Accept responsibility for your mistakes and show that you’re sorry.
• Bodily functions are perfectly natural; so don’t be embarrassed.
• Don’t get antsy when you have some free time. Relax and enjoy it.
• Remember to stop and smell the roses, and all the other good things out there.
• Who you are is far more important than where you came from.

I learned from Kirby that there is something essentially and wonderfully American about a mutt. We are a mix of peoples

Athletes from the United States march into the Olympic Stadium during opening ceremonies for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

and creeds and religions from every corner of the planet. No nation has come close to our level of diversity, and it’s surely no coincidence that none has come close to matching our achievements. Our special glory is on display during the opening ceremonies of every Olympics, as we watch one “purebred” team after another parade past until we reach Team USA with its cheerful medley of blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, Christians, Moslems, Hindus and Jews. Surely our remarkable diversity is at the core of our remarkable strength and resilience. We are, in short, the mutts of the world.

Thank you, Professor Kirby.

 

 

5 Essential Habits of Successful Writers — A Guest Post

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Our guest blogger today is Daniela McVicker, a freelance writers and a contributor to RatedByStudents. Daniela has a master’s degree in English Literature and is truly passionate about  teaching. She works with students to help them reveal their writing talents and find one true calling. So join me as we learn more from Daniela. I’ll add a few of my own observations at the conclusion of her post.



Writing pretty words doesn’t make you a successful writer. It doesn’t matter if you’re able to craft sentences with obscure words to describe everyday feelings and emotions. People who use words like that are the worst writers. Success in writing is about delivering your intended message and influencing other people.

Some authors manage to find massive success, while others remain anonymous. And it’s incredibly frustrating. Well, if you want to make 6 figures as a freelancer and win the most coveted literary prizes, it’s time to make a change. Successful writers have developed certain habits that set them apart from the crowd.

To get started, imitate the habits of highly successful authors. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, just learn from the best. These are some of the things the most successful writers do. You too will become successful by copying these idiosyncrasies.

1.      They Write Every Day of Their Lives

Spare a few moments to do a little bit of writing every day. Writers are supposed to write. Stephen King tries to get about 6 pages a day. The award-winning writer sets a goal for 2000 words a day and tries to get them fairly clean. Ernest Hemingway wrote somewhere between 500 and 1000 words a day. It’s impressive to see how some authors succeed in getting so much work done.

Try starting higher than you think you can do. You’ll be surprised to see how much you accomplish. If you schedule your time properly, say no to social events, and go to a quieter location, you have whatever it takes to create great work. Don’t wait for the right time to write because there’s never a right time to take action.

Practice makes perfect. Truer words have never been spoken. Keep an unpublishable, private journal where you can scribble your thoughts. Write down what you think about life, things, etc. If you want to be a successful writer, you must establish a writing routine. This may seem monotonous, but it’ll completely transform your work. 

2.      They Practice Being Physically Healthy

Men and women who’ve been blessed with the ability to write great literary pieces look after their health. Why? Because they know that writing is unhealthy. Wait … what??? Yes, when you set off to write a novel or a play you sit at the desk for hours at an end. Lying down for too long increases your risk of developing heart disease. What’s more, too much sitting is bad for your mental health. That’s what science says. Undesired harmful effects include:

  • Weakening or thinning of the memory-focused part of the brain
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Unpleasant feelings or emotions, like sadness, fear, vulnerability

There’s nothing more important than staying healthy. Besides minimizing the time spent sitting, you’ll want to:

  • Pay attention to your posture
  • Give your eyes a break
  • Stretch to eliminate the damage of sitting

Famous writers wrote while lying down. One writer that reminds us of their lengthy and involuntary stays in bed is James Joyce. He used to write stretching across a bed, always wearing a white coat. Truman Capote is another horizontal author. He also practiced writing stretched in the bed. Of course, you can come up with your own interesting habits.

3.      They Connect with Readers

One of the things that set professional writers apart from amateurs is the strong connection that they build with the audience. They understand just how important it is to connect with their readers. People buy from who they trust. Even if what you’re trying to sell is what people need, if they don’t trust you, they won’t take action. Don’t leave it up to the publishers or publicists. Take matters into your own hands, otherwise, no one will read your content.

Engage Your Audience Directly

For communication to take place, someone needs to start talking. Why don’t you take the initiative? Get out of your bubble and hit social media. Social media is an incredible tool in helping you better communicate with your readers. People will provide you feedback on your writing. Talk to readers as if they were sitting right across the table.

Build an Email List

If you have an email list of friends or family who opted in, you might better use it. the question now is: What should you put in your emails? Well, you can share interesting stories. You can’t write a novel in one day, but you certainly can come up with a captivating story about, say, a physical scar. Keep your emails short and pay attention to what readers like and don’t like.

Spend More Time on Your Blog

You’d think that writers aren’t supposed to blog in 2019. Well, they do. Blogging establishes writing discipline, but that’s not what’s important. What matters is that blogging can help you establish expertise in your area and build connections. When you blog, you make yourself available to others. Share content, write guest posts, and offer your support.

4.      They Don’t Write for The Money

As an author, you can make a lot of money. Nevertheless, money isn’t the goal. What is then? Impacting people with your words. Successful writers want to release their complex thoughts and create relationships with the people around. They couldn’t care less about making a profit. Franz Kafka or Marcel Proust never made a dime. Maybe so, but that didn’t stop them from creating literary masterpieces.

You shouldn’t write for money. Successful writers work tirelessly to make a name for themselves. They love writing and wouldn’t do anything else. George Orwell, for example, was driven by sheer egoism. To be more precise, he wanted to be recognized as being intelligent, to be talked about, and, most importantly, be remembered in a positive light after his death.

Sure, you can make cash publishing books for money. However, you won’t thrive if you don’t enjoy what you do. Practice writing for pleasure. Don’t write for your friends, parents or teachers. It’s important to find some kind of pleasure in the process.

5.      They Don’t Wait for Inspiration to Strike

If you’re waiting for inspiration to write, you might as well give it up. You’ll miss a bunch of writing time. Only amateurs sit around and wait for inspiration. Successful authors just put their thoughts into words. They’ve stopped believing in magic a long time ago. As you write, you’ll get your creativity back.

So, what if you scribble a bad word, sentence, or paragraph? You can always come back to what you’ve written and make changes. The only way you can get your creative juices flowing is writing. If you persist, something good will come out of your writing. You’ve got nothing better to do than to take inspiration into your own hands and force something to come onto the page.

To conclude, you have what it takes to become a successful writer. By having these habits, you’re guaranteed to achieve your goals. Emulate the habits of successful authors and become one yourself.