Le Mot Juste – A Very French Battle

Café de Flore, Paris. Spring 1984

cafe-de-flore-bwIn 1984, when I was twenty, I visited my parents, who were studying in Paris. Bless them, they gave me a tidy daily allowance during my ten-day visite, and I made myself scarce during the day while they worked.

Their flat was on Rue du Cherche Midi near Saint Germain. I had spent four months in the southwest for a semester during my senior year of high school, and it was my first time back in France in three years. Each day, from about ten in the morning until we would meet up for dinner in the evening, I had the city to myself, and a few francs to spend.

The Boulevard Saint Germain was straight up Rue du Dragon from their flat, and it was to Saint-Germain that I would go each morning. I had heard of Les Deux Magots cafe, and I went there the first day. It was packed, and I didn’t see anywhere to sit outside and drink coffee like a proper French person. Café de Flore, right next to Duex Magots, seemed more inviting, and I sat down. Had Deux Magots not been so crowded that day, things might have gone differently.

Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 13.58.03Café de Flore was brisk and casual. “Monsieur” was all the waiter would say when he arrived at the table. “Un café, s’il vous plait,” I’d say. He would deliver the espresso, take my money, tear the receipt ticket as he made change from a pocket in his vest and lay it with the change in a little saucer.

I decided I liked Café de Flore and its formal informality, so I came back the next day, and the next. I would sit, watching the people go by, and try to think of something to write in my journal. (I know—and it gets worse: as well as a journal, I had brought along Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises and Down and Out in Paris and London). On that second day, as I got ready to leave to find lunch somewhere a bit more affordable I noticed a group of professional looking people at another table drinking something and using a seltzer bottle to top up whatever was in their glasses.

The seltzer bottle was gorgeous, the glass thick, slightly green, and the bottom two-thirds covered with a pounded pewter skin. The skin had intricate squares cut out all over it, so that you could see the water level inside. As I stood up to put on my jacket, I noticed some other seltzer bottles along the back wall of the bar inside. I resolved to come back that afternoon for a whiskey and soda, using the seltzer bottle.

selzter bottle - no quite cafe de flore

similar to those in 1984

Against all experience and judgment, I expected the waiter to offer a glimmer of recognition for the young man who drank his coffee there in the late mornings when I returned that afternoon at four, but he did not. “Monsieur,” he said.

 

“Un whiskey-soda, s’il vous plait,” I said.

Quickly, he brought a high-ball glass with a good shot and a half of whiskey, a bucket with ice and tongs and a bottle of Perrier. Not only did I have to pay for the whiskey, which was expensive, but also the Perrier.

“Pardon,” I protested, I didn’t want Perrier.

He looked dismayed—hadn’t I asked for a whiskey soda?

“Oui, mais…”

–he gestured at the table; “’et voila,” he said and repeated the price.

In halting French, I tried to say “I saw a bottle on one of the tables earlier today, a…a pressure bottle….do you know the word ‘seltzer’?

“Non, monsieur,” he said. Did I want the whiskey-soda?

Yes, I said. I paid, and he left.

I sat back in the wicker chair, defeated. I dipped into my shoulder bag for my Bantam New College English-French dictionary. I sat back and absently poured a dash of Perrier into the whiskey and began scanning the “s” section for “seltzer bottle.” There was no seltzer nor soda entry. I put the book down—sedulous, selvage, semi-conductor were all included, but real, needful words like seltzer were nowhere in evidence.

The bitter injustice of it all became more real as I sipped my drink. I knew that Perrier was mineral water, but I had never been able to taste the minerals until that day. Added to the whiskey, the cocktail I had looked forward to since before lunch became bad whiskey cut with rusty, mildly sulfurous water.

That evening, before bed, I scanned my parents’ thicker Larousse English-French dictionary, but again, no seltzer bottle. The next afternoon, I returned at one. I ordered a Pastis this time, and he brought the bucket and a little carafe of water. Was he sneering? I wondered. Was he smiling enigmatically ? No. He was impassive, a chess master.

“Monsieur,” I tried again in stilted French. “Yesterday, I saw a bottle on one of the tables….a bottle for soda…but it wasn’t Perrier. Do you remember?”

“Non, monsieur, “ he said, “Désolé.” He tore my receipt and moved to another table.

I stared after him. He wasn’t sorry; wasn’t ‘désolé.’ That much was certain. He was enjoying this.

As he stood at the other table, he glanced back at me, and this time there was a flicker of something in his expression. Sometimes, a woman sitting alone or with friends notices your attention; she will meet your gaze for a moment, glance down and smile to herself as she looks back at you. Or rather, her inward smile will bloom enough within her for it to flicker briefly across her face as she looks back.

The waiter’s flicker was the opposite. The waiter’s eyes met mine, he looked down, and when he returned his gaze to me, his mouth hardened and turned down slightly at the corners, a very French mixture of pity with a splash of contempt. Both expressions—the woman’s and his—are alike in that each is meant to invite you on; both make clear that the next step is yours.

Shakespear and coI resolved that I would join this battle. I finished my drink and hurried over to Shakespeare & Co, where I knew they had an encyclopedic English-French dictionary. I had been nosing around Shakespeare & Co already. As a twenty year-old American, visiting Paris, it seemed apt to be reading The Sun Also Rises together with A Moveable Feast, and I had already begun using these works to guide my tours of the city. I had gone

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Blvd Raspail

to Shakespeare & Co my first full day in Paris, I had paid my respects at 14 Rue de Tilsit where Scott and Zelda had lived; and I was pleased to note that seventy or more years on, Boulevard Raspail, near to Cherche Midi, was as “bored, dead and dull” as Jake Barnes had found it sixty years earlier.

I moved toward Shakespeare & Co that day with a sense of purpose, no longer a passive tourist, but a man engaged in a noble struggle. The Larousse dictionary lay open on a lectern near the front of the shop. Five inches thick, crammed—presumably—with useful mots. There was nothing to help me there, however, and I began to doubt the importance of my quest. I wandered disconsolately down to the Pont au Double and looked across at Notre Dame catching a whiff of sulphur-scented defeat.

The following day, I had my morning coffee at Café de Flore, but I couldn’t bear to return that afternoon, and so spent my time browsing books stalls and looking in vintage shops. That night, back at my parents’ flat, I picked up The Sun Also Rises with an air of resignation. A book that had at first held out such promise for me had failed to deliver. I Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 14.30.20had hoped that re-reading the novel while in Paris would give form to some of the writer’s observations, breathe life into the expatriate’s lives. The very language of the novel, however, increased their distance from me, and their lives seemed all the more remote for it—people are “tight” not drunk; things are kept in a “press” not a cupboard.

And then, there it was. Brett and the Count had come to Jake’s apartment for a drink. Jake went to the press for the “siphon” to make brandy-and-sodas. I put the book down. Yes, people used to call it that. Siphon….siphon. Bring the seltzer bottle….amenez le siphon. The waiter couldn’t hold me any less pitiable and contemptible than he already did; and if my gambit failed, I’d have to find another café. But if successful, how much greater the share of glory?  Le siphon.

I went to Café de Flore a little later than usual the next day. Jake and his pals may have been able to drink cocktails at all hours, but even on vacation ordering “un whiskey-soda” earlier than three of four in the afternoon seemed a bit much. I sat down promptly at three that day in my accustomed area at Café de Flore.

“Monsieur.”

“Un whiskey-soda, s’il vous plait.”

“Oui, monsieur,” and he turned quickly.

“Mais!” I said, forcing him to stop and turn back. “Pas de Perrier, aujourd’hui. Amenez le siphon, s’il vous plait.”

cafe-de-flore-jmc

30 years later…

His face fell. He refused to look me in the eye. “Oui, monsieur.”

I spent that entire day’s allowance at Café de Flore. I walked heavily down Rue du Dragon to Cherche Midi in the early evening, feeling the glow of drunken expats all around me.

It was a simple exchange of values—we gave one another purpose, the waiter and I.

Or at least it was pretty to think so….

 

JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series is due out at the end of this year.

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.

 

Post-Modernist Bilge

In my Chosen Words post from earlier this week (3/16) on the difficulty of writing about what the conspirators in the Imogen Trager books want, I said, “the bright line between fact and fiction, party and faction, virtue and vice is growing dim.”

DarkNet.ad-poster-WITHOUT LAWIn the name of verisimilitude (and telling a good story), I’ve been struggling to get right the atmospherics of our time; to isolate and describe the tactics and threat posed by reactionaries. I wonder at how close I seem to be coming. In that same post, I noted the novels are “about Power,” and that where there is no law, there’s only power.

Today, two front page articles in the NY Times discuss both of my major themes:

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions
“Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.” (Christopher Wylie)

Trump and the Truth: A President Tests His Own Credibility
“Advisors say privately that Mr. Trump may not always be precise but is speaking to a larger truth that many Americans understand….To them, the particular facts do not matter as much as this deeper truth.”

This is post-modernist bilge, of a kind rightly derided on the left and right. When the rule of law is nakedly abandoned, when all facts are dismissed as subjective—as having an agenda—when truth is “provisional,” when learning and expertise are assaulted, we’re left with Power as the only true north; and power does not seek the best and brightest, nor the good to its cause; but rather the chancers, hucksters, opportunists, nihilists. Corruption is their by-word.  They leave destruction, misery (and in my books, death) in their wake.

It’s not that I’m reading the newspapers and—collage-style—cobbling together a plausible, dystopian thriller series. Our current state has been years—and millions of dollars!—in the making.  The Imogen Trager series has likewise been growing (albeit with a fraction of the monetary support).

I wrote the rough draft of Faithless Elector in 2000. It had been knocking around in my head for some years prior to that, but the Bush-Gore election demonstrated how finely poised our democracy had become.  Subsequent national elections continue to expose the problems of the Electoral College.

Since then, the threat from reactionaries has grown and has proved to be all-too real.  I followed up Faithless with Dark Network (conceived in 2015-16), about, among other things, problems at the FBI.  I’m generally worried about what I’ll inadvertently get right with this last book.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The final book in the series, is due our at the end of this year.

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

 

 

Monstrous Imagination

Wm McIlvanneyWilliam McIlvanney (Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Vetch, Docherty) still schools me. In a recent blog post I wrote about needing a new kind of imagination to write a genuinely remorseless villain. I think I was wrong. McIlvanney’s character, Jack Laidlaw, has persuaded me that I was shirking a writer’s job.

In the wake of real scandals and malfeasance the first two books in the trilogy, Faithless Elector and Dark Network, now seem prophetic. In Faithless Elector, the task of writing was straightforward: I saw the weaknesses of a system, saw how dark forces could exploit them and then put myself in the place of a group of conspirators to think about what I would do if I were them. The real difficulty was in figuring out what to do to thwart them.

For Dark Network, were I a conspirator hoping to solidify my hard-won position, I figured I’d rail about voter fraud, daze and confuse the media, and I’d install a pliant Attorney General to quash investigations—or better, allow those investigations to atrophy. Indeed, some of the tension in the story comes from the heroine’s need to get the information out before a new, pliant AG can be sworn in. She knows, as we all know now, that with a majority in Congress, there would be no check—fictionally, or otherwise. Once again, we’re seeing in real time what a power grab would look like, how it could be (is being) effected, and how little can be done to stop it.  But I kept my villain(s) largely in shadow.

My books have identified a toxic strain of contemporary cynicism, but as I come to write the final book and delve into who the perpetrators are, I find that my early drafts don’t need a new perspective, but a deeper one. Cynical, pantomime villains aren’t satisfying characters, and Imogen and Duncan need a worthy opponent. Ruthless as they are, the conspirators believe what they’re doing is right, and that the country needs it. For me, this is the most chilling aspect of all, and I should have listened more closely to my instincts.  Fortunately, there was Jack.

In Laidlaw, one of McIlvanney’s finest novels, Jack Laidlaw chides a new partner when he Laidlaw_coverdespairs of catching the “monster” who has committed a horrific crime with, “Look, other people can afford to write ‘monster’ across this and consign it to limbo…We can’t afford to do that.” In the scene he’s talking about detectives, but he could just as easily be hectoring writers (like me) looking for shortcuts.

I have to put myself back in their place to imagine what it is they want, and why they’re willing to risk so much to get it. In Faithless Elector and Dark Network I deliberately kept the conspirators in the shadows. I felt—and readers seem to agree—that fighting an unnamable post-modern menace “fit” with the times and made for a compelling story. Not knowing whom you’re fighting or what ultimately they want also makes for brooding, dark atmospherics.

But I find there’s a limit. As I tear up dismayingly large chunks of the final book draft for this series, it will be to reveal the conspirators as all-too human.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  Find them through Indybound.org.  

They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

Shakespearian Guilt

Reality threatens to outpace imagination, and I worry that justice and guilt are becoming quaint notions

Michael Smerconish writes today in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the silence (and poor sales) that come from writing ahead of the curve of opinion and understanding.  (I feel your pain, Michael!)Smerconish

His novel, TALK is about the rise of a right-wing radio host who has qualms about how he makes a living and what his actions are doing to the body politic.  When Smerconish published the book in 2014, he says, it was called “far-fetched,” “unrealistic” and “could never happen in America.”  Those who rejected my first book Faithless Elector during my wilderness years said pretty much the same things, adding: “no one knows or cares about the Electoral College.”  I think they do now.

What strikes me as I read about TALK and think about my own works, Faithless Elector and Dark Network, is that the outlines for our current situation have been in place for a long time.  It took only an effort of imagination to see where things were going and how it might turn out.  I continue to work on the final book in the trilogy and delve into who the conspirators really are and what they want.  But as I strive to understand them and write them, I find I have to abandon the current, anguished state of politics as (un)usual once again–this time in favor of a stark, vindictive reality.

This time, reality threatens to outpace imagination.  As I challenge and query the plot points and action in the current draft, as I fret over motivations, I worry that my own imagination may not have stretched far enough.  Maybe it requires a new perspective.

In TALK, it seems the protagonist Stan Powers is troubled with guilt.  In my books the protagonists are propelled by a sense of justice for its own sake, and–in the case of Duncan Calder–as retributive.  I worry that such notions may be quickly becoming quaint.

I titled this blog piece “Shakespearian Guilt” because whether we’re familiar with Shakespeare’s villains, we understand the feelings of guilt that accompany heinous acts.  Richard III is visited by ghosts of those he murdered, and they curse him:  “think on me, despair, and die,” they say.  Macbeth is accused by ghosts, Henry IV feels the need to atone for usurping Richard II’s throne.  We understand it, and we feel better that these characters are miserable, despite their high status.  But what happens when they’re not troubled, when they have no qualms?  The epigram for Dark Network hinted at it:  “Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience” (Adam Smith).

For those who’ve read the books, I see the dark network conspirators as baffled that events have come to this bloody head (a few well placed bribes should have taken care of it); they’re appalled by the body count that’s piling up across the books, but not because there’s blood on their hands, but because it’s untidy, public.  Feeling mortified that it has come to this, doesn’t mean they can’t sleep at night, or that quiet moments are troubled with doubt.  Far from it. They’re doing the right and virtuous thing; and such men never question themselves or their motives.  If they win, it’s because the angels were on their side.  If they lose, the forces of darkness have won…but only for now.

 JMc-author2.2017James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network. Find them through Indybound.org.  

They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center 

Downtown revitalization management is perfect training for writing thrillers

In the past, I’ve joked that there’s a well-worn path between downtown revitalization non-profits and writing thrillers…because let’s face it, there isn’t. Lately, as I think about it, I’m not so sure it’s a joke.

My former jobs were perfect training for writing thrillers.

MysteriousAffair.panel

A Mysterious Affair in Princeton

Recently, I was a late addition to a panel at “A Mysterious Affair in Princeton” put on by the Cloak & Dagger bookstore, which was a fantastic “affair,” with great speakers and a very nice turnout of mystery-thriller readers who had insightful questions.

The day’s final speaker was SJ Rozan, best known for the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series and other mysteries. Her talk revolved around why people are drawn to mysteries and thrillers.

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SJ Rozan

She began by discussing “ur” stories, or essential narratives, that we tell ourselves over and again. The job of mysteries, she said, going back to their essence as “ur” stories, “is to provide an explanation” for what happened in an otherwise arbitrary, indifferent world.

The essence of a thriller, she noted, my ears pricking up farther, is simply: “is there enough time?” Can the hero(es) stop the ticking bomb or thwart the bad guys? What will it take to stop it?

As good as her talk was, I’m afraid I started thinking a lot about thrillers and stopped listening. My thrillers are indeed predicated on timing. In Faithless Elector, the tension concerns whether the heroine and hero can get the information out in time to stop the conspiracy, and in Dark Network, they’re confronted with a plot no one initially believes exists. In both cases, if the presidency is stolen—as we’re seeing now in the real world—it’s next to impossible to effect meaningful change after the fact.

This past week, I applied for a part-time job with a commercial district management organization. As I worked on my cover letter, wondering how much (or even if!) I should discuss writing novels as the reason for my hiatus from the world of non-profits, I found myself thinking about what leadership of a non-profit entailed.

downtown.revitalzIt turns out, managing a commercial district is perfect training for thrillers. Not that death and mayhem are ever part of the work, thankfully, but the planning and execution is eerily similar to plotting a thriller.

First, (Act One, let’s call it) there is a cast of characters in any district. In order to be effective, the district manager must know who the main players are, who the ancillary players are, how they interact and what it is they want. Scene setting, exposition. Often what they want is at odds with what others want, and they will coalesce into mini interest groups—Conflict!

And then something happens to disrupt the equilibrium (such as it is). Information that wasn’t meant to come to light is revealed, or someone is murdered…or there is a block grant available. Which takes us to Act Two.

Act Two, then, is where the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle toward achieving his/her goal of exposing the conspiracy or beginning a façade improvement program. Anyone who has worked in non-profit/local government will recognize this trope, and any such person might be forgiven for having daydreamed a timely murder or two.

Act Two sees the “first culmination” wherein it looks like the hero(ine)/district manager will achieve their goal. Inevitably, everything falls apart, leading to the “midpoint,” where it seems all hope is lost.

This leads naturally to Act Three, and the “climax” –the point of maximum tension where the opposing forces confront one another (Board meeting, anyone?). Act Three, then, shows how the world/commercial district returns to equilibrium having successfully navigated the obstacles—or failed miserably.

It’s the ending, however, where the non-profit and the fictional worlds diverge.  The thriller writer Tom Clancy once famously said:  “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”  He might just as easily have been talking about the difference between non-profit district management and thrillers.

 

JMc-author2.2017

 James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.

Find them through Indybound.org.
They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

 If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center

Imogen Trager’s online presence

Imogen.site1Apparently, Imogen Trager, the heroine of my books, Faithless Elector and Dark Network has a larger online presence than I do!

When a friend recently took a Facebook personality test, it concluded that my friend should consider becoming an FBI agent.  Jokingly, I suggested she change her name to Imogen Trager–who is an FBI Agent.

My friend felt she knew the name (she has read the book), but Googled it nevertheless.  To her (and my!) surprise, Imogen has quite a large online presence.  In fact, Imogen Trager has a larger, more consistent online presence than I have.imogen_trager.google_search2016.10.30

I find I’m a bit jealous.

Or is it darker than that?

All writers hope their characters have a life “beyond the page.”  We hope they seem real.  I remember one of the highest compliments I received some 25 years ago was from an acquaintance who told me how at a dinner party he’d started telling a story about something that had happened to a friend of his.

But as he told the story, he later related to me, he realized he was talking about a scene from the book I was writing back then, and the “friend” he was talking about was a character in the book he had read.

Why did that earlier instance make me feel good, where this leaves me troubled?  Am I a modern-day Major Kovalyov, obsessed with status and rank?

In Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist short story, “The Nose,” Major Kovalyov’s nose goes missing and ends up living a better life than he, its owner. Kovalyov frets and seethes because his nose achieves greater social rank (status) than he ever had himself.

The Nose-GogolPerhaps the difference between now and 25 years ago is the nature of status: how it’s achieved, and what it represents.  In the indy-publishing business, we live by ‘mentions,’ ‘likes,’ and ‘follows;’ by ‘shares,’ author- and sales rankings–all of it contributing to our rank (our “status?”) in search engines. To be on page two of the search results is almost as bad as not existing.

I think it must be the exclusivity of her presence on the search results page that bothers me. Her rank is such that the first two pages of search results relate to her and no one else; whereas I have to share my “james mccrone” presence with a musician, an insurance broker in London (they seem like very nice people) and an ad for Ancestry.com.

RedHairWill Imogen and her red hair continue this life of their own?  Will her status grow and mine wane?

Or am I just losing my mind?

JMc-author2.2017

 James McCrone is the author of the political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network….featuring Imogen Trager.

Find them through Indybound.org.  

They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

 If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center

Sailing too close to the wind: Guest post on The Reading Cafe

Sailing Too Close to the Wind, by James McCroneblog.ReadingCafe

A well-crafted political thriller should feel “real.” To do so, it has to flirt with real events. But sometimes I worry I’m sailing just a bit too close to the wind.

Read the full post…and enter to WIN a giveaway for one free, signed copy of Faithless Elector
-or-
Dark Network