see the stars you say, in the gloaming night
my tiny hand in yours
here is the world through my daddy’s eyes
up higher than high on a shoulder ride
in from our porch with the day’s dying light
sleep tight, little flower, good night
build it strong you say, as the summer melts
but i make my house from a heap of sticks
that blow away in the wind
your hammer falls, a rising wall
a fine little playhouse for me
play hard, little flower, be free
hike the woods you say, through green-dampened sun
we stride hand in hand through the buzz
i step on their nest and i freeze and i scream
and although i’m near grown, you carry me home
their venom your own misery
you’re too sweet, little flower, too sweet
but one night you sleep, and you don’t wake up
why did the heavens not cry?
a trillion cells, a silenced heart
the dust of the stars turning bright
i go to the porch and i look to the sky
to seek out the undimmable light
good bye, my sweet father, good night
Why am I starting this article—which is supposed to be about our unpublished manuscripts— with a poem? I’ll get to that in a minute. But first: remember that summer when everyone was surreptitiously reading Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles, eyes darting shiftily as they tried to project the air of a person deep in thoughtful analysis of some highbrow masterpiece? Yep. I read it too, and I had the same thought as everyone else: Geez. I could write a book. Not a flaming porn book, maybe (although I happen to think I could rock that too, assuming anyone else would have an interest in nerdy almost-porn). No, it was the writing that motivated me.
Fifty Shades didn’t become a bestseller because of the stellar writing, I know. But it did drive home the point that in our new digital world anyone could publish a book about anything. This struck a chord: somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain lurked a budding author, who’d been patiently biding her time until I woke up to her presence.
In a fit of misguided confidence I sat down and started a novel. To make a long story short, 5000 revisions later, The Queen of Hearts was released. Having your first novel published is fabulous, but the downside is you don’t have a bunch of other manuscripts in the drawer and you don’t have a lot of writing experience. Therefore I am going to talk today about the unwritten manuscript in my mind.
The Dad Book.
I have this idea I’d like to base a protagonist on my father. My dad was a singular dude, unlike anyone else I’ve ever met. He was also my favorite person and he died, suddenly and shockingly one night, in the midst of perfect health. After he died, his brother in Arizona went through his stuff and we discovered—to no one’s surprise—that an old IQ test indicated he was literally one of the smartest people on earth. He knew everything: as a child, in the pre-internet era, I used him as an encyclopedia whenever I had a question about physics or geopolitics or economics or literature or history or anything except fashion, basically. (No exaggeration on the fashion front: at the time of his death, Dad wore the exact same size and style of clothing he’d always worn, not appreciating the point of wearing different sorts of outfits on different occasions and certainly not appreciating the point of spending money on clothing. He had maybe four outfits, and refused to wear a tie, ever, on the grounds they were pointless and stupid.* Every now and then in a crowd I will spy the tall, slim silhouette of a man wearing worn black jeans and disintegrating army boots and it makes me want to weep.)**
He saw the world in a different way than the rest of us: supremely logical, he could build anything, make anything, figure out anything, often after only a casual glance. Well, I say he could figure out anything but there was one notable exception. Baffled by superstition and bias and any form of nonsensical behavior, he was frequently bewildered by other people, especially if they failed to behave with integrity.**
In addition to his intolerance of fools, Dad possessed a wicked sense of humor, a keen sense of social justice, and a number of almost fetishistic idiosyncrasies, chief among them a total inability to operate a vehicle without losing his mind over the pokiness of other drivers. (He was completely irony-proof, too: when the rest of us did our Dad-In-Traffic impersonations, he’d smile but then immediately launch into another rant about some slow-ass tractor that had pulled in front of him yesterday.) He loved any sort of machine, the faster and more complex the better. He was utterly unmotivated by wealth—he and my mother met in Kentucky in the 1960’s, where they’d both gone to volunteer in the war on poverty, and where he remained for the rest of his life even though he possessed about as many Southern Appalachian characteristics as Winston Churchill. He never spent money if he could avoid it: he built himself a tiny house in the mountains, rebuilt an ancient 1930’s era truck out of random prices of salvaged metal, read thousands of books from the library, and jerry-rigged the shit out of any mechanical contraption that broke. Or he just invented new machines. You know the cliche of the smart guy whose glasses are held together by duct tape? Yes. That was my dad.***
So there’s my main character, in a nutshell. There’d be a couple key differences: because I write medical/women’s fiction, Dad would have to morph into a brilliant, idiosyncratic female doctor. Given his innovative way of thinking, he—she—would be an infectious disease doctor, I think, on the cusp of a major discovery during a horrific worldwide pandemic, wearing battered work jeans as she battles corruption and venality with a single-minded determination to impose logic and peace upon the world.
And, of course, she’ll drive fast.
*Trying to get Dad to wear a tuxedo to my wedding led to a battle of epic proportions, which, because he loved me so much, he eventually lost. He looked remarkably handsome, but in retrospect I wish I’d let him wear his hideous 1960’s blue wedding suit—the only suit he ever owned.
**He would certainly not have survived the current political era, for instance.
***Several years after my dad’s death, I’d cry my way through The Martian by Andy Weir; I’m probably the only person on earth to lose it over the main character’s obsession with duct tape and math. But despite his fierce intellect and his scientific mind and all his lovable weirdness, my Dad was the one man on earth I could count on for pure unconditional support. And, like most children, I failed to realize what that was worth until it was gone. I wrote the poem at the beginning of this piece in a haze of grief the year after he died, on Father’s Day while flying home from a work trip, trying to capture the the tiniest fragment of what it was like to be his daughter.