The Key (Literally) To Opening A Novel

By Mark Alpert

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This week I received my twenty copies of the paperback version of The Six, my first Young Adult novel (see photo above). The paperback has a brand-new cover that looks very cool. (The book is about teenagers who turn into robots, and the publisher had a lot of great ideas for illustrating the human-machine hybrids.)

Even better, at the end of the paperback is a teaser chapter for the next novel in the series, The Siege, which will be published on July 5th. I’ll provide more information about that book before the pub date, but in the meantime you can check out my website for details.

My colleague Jim Bell has written eloquently about the need to begin a novel with a pivotal incident that pushes the main character through a “doorway of no return.” Instead of simply repeating Jim’s good advice, I thought I’d provide an example of such a doorway in the manuscript I’ve been sharing in this blog over the past few weeks. (You can read the first two installments here and here.) In this novel, the doorway is a temptation that the narrator will be unable to resist. And this chapter has a literal door to solidify the metaphor.

___________

“The governor would like to see you, Mr. Blanchard. In his office.” Booth’s voice was like death. “Will you follow me, please?”

Then he turned around and marched out of the conference room. He walked fast, as if he couldn’t stand to spend another second in my presence. After a moment of confusion, I hurried after him.

I caught up with Booth in the marble hallway that ran the length of the Statehouse. “Hey, what’s this about?”

“The governor asked to see you,” he repeated. “I don’t know anything beyond that.”

I had trouble keeping up with him, Booth was walking so fast. He took big loping strides and stared straight ahead, ignoring the legislators and state troopers loitering in the corridor. The governor, I figured, had probably decided on the spur of the moment to grant an exclusive interview. He did that sometimes. He’d probably told Booth, “Get the reporter from the Clarion-Journal,” and Booth most likely said, “Don’t you think we should get the Associated Press reporter, governor? That way we’d reach more people.” And then the governor probably shouted, “Damn it, Booth, I said I wanted the Clarion-Journal!” and that was why Booth was acting so ugly now.

Soon we reached the suite of offices belonging to the governor and his staff. Booth barreled past the receptionist and headed for Fowler’s private office. Grimacing, he opened the door. “You have ten minutes.”

As soon as I stepped inside, Booth slammed the door shut behind me.

Fowler sat in his wheelchair behind another desk, a massive gray thing that wasn’t nearly as pretty as the desk in the conference room. The governor’s office was kind of rundown, to tell the truth. Its walls were lined with books – volumes of state ordinances, mostly – and they gave the room a sour odor. The only decoration in the office was a portrait of Eugenia Fowler, the governor’s late wife. The painting showed her in the blue gown she wore to Fowler’s first inauguration, her long dark hair tumbling luxuriantly to her shoulders. Eugenia died of lung cancer in ’79, leaving behind no children and one very sick husband. For some reason, maybe because she’d been so lovely and kind-hearted, a lot of folks in Alabama still revered her memory. The same portrait that hung in Fowler’s office also hung in every county courthouse and high school in the state.

With no reporters or television cameras or officials surrounding him, Fowler looked tiny, insubstantial. But his eyes tracked me steadily as I came over to his left side to shake his good hand. He seemed more alert now, as if he just woke up from a nap.

“How are you feeling today, governor?” I asked. His hand felt incredibly soft and light in my own. He didn’t answer my question, but when we were finished shaking hands he pointed at a chair nearby and motioned for me to pull it over. After I sat down, he pointed at the top drawer of his massive desk.

“Open it.”

I jumped in my chair. His voice was a lot louder and sharper than I expected. Leaning forward, I opened the desk drawer for him. It was full of official-looking papers — letterheads, requisition forms, that sort of thing.

Fowler kept his eyes on me, waiting. After a couple of seconds he let out an impatient grunt. “Well, go ahead. Lift up the junk in that drawer and hand me a cigar.”

Baffled, I reached into the drawer. Sure enough, underneath all those papers was a box of cigars. I pulled it out and lifted the lid, which had a picture of a burro and a smiling señorita. Then I took a cigar out of the box and handed it to Fowler.

“Care for a cigar, Mr. Blanchard?”

“Uh, no thank you.”

“You sure? They’re good cigars. Not as good as Cubans, but damn close.”

“I’m sure, governor.”

“Well, pass me that lighter then.”

Fowler pointed at a silver paperweight sitting on his desk. It was about the size of a hockey puck, and the state seal was embossed on the top. As I picked it up I noticed that it opened like a clamshell, and hidden inside was a cigarette lighter. Fowler stuck the cigar in his mouth and waited for me to light it.

“You sure you oughtta be smoking these things, governor?” I asked, remembering the story I’d written about his health.

“Don’t you worry about me. I know what I’m doing. Everyone’s always telling me, ‘Don’t do this, Jimmy, don’t do that.’ Booth Taylor thinks a little cigar every now and then is gonna put me in my grave. It’s plain foolish. You can give me that light now.”

I lit the governor’s cigar. His cheeks hollowed as he took the first few preliminary puffs. For a moment he looked more like a suckling infant than a 70-year-old.

“I’m gonna tell you something, Mr. Blanchard.” He leaned back in his wheelchair and took the cigar out of his mouth. “But before I say anything, I want you to promise that you’re not gonna go and print it in your newspaper. This is just between you, me and the wall. Understand?”

“We can go off the record if you want.”

“That’s exactly what I want. If I see this conversation in the Clarion-Journal tomorrow, I’m gonna make sure you never work in this state again. You heah?”

“Yes, governor, I hear you.”

Fowler took a long pull on his cigar. The smoke curled around his face. “Mr. Blanchard, I want to know your opinion. Who do you think should be the next governor of this state?”

My guard went up. “I don’t take sides,” I said, very carefully. “I just write down what other people say.”

“We’re just talking hypothetically now. If you could pick anybody, who would it be?”

“I’m sorry, governor, I can’t answer that question.”

“You can’t or you won’t?”

Now I thought I knew why Fowler had called me into his office. He wanted me to admit that I was biasing my stories against him. “I can’t. If I expressed my opinions, that would compromise my objectivity.”

Fowler took another pull on his cigar. “Let me ask you a different question then. Do you consider yourself an honest person?”

“Of course,” I said defensively.

“All right, you’re an honest person. Who taught you how to be honest? The Clarion-Journal?”

“Governor, I don’t see the point behind these questions.”

“I’ll get to the point in a minute. Don’t take any of this personally. I ain’t questioning your honesty. I’m just trying to get to know you a little better.”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but why do you want to get to know me better?”

“No, I don’t mind you asking. I don’t mind it at all. I’m trying to get to know you better because I’m about to offer you a job.”

You could’ve knocked me down with a feather. I really mean it. It was the most improbable thing I’d ever heard in my life. “A job? What kind of job?”

“Wait a minute, you never answered my question. You never told me who it was that taught you to be honest.”

“Let me think about it for a second,” I said, stalling for time. I needed to figure out what was going on here. “I guess you could say it was my father. He died when I was five years old, but whenever I hear a voice inside my head that’s telling me to be honest or kind, I like to think that it’s my father’s voice.”

“Your daddy was a lawyer, ain’t that right? Name was Thomas Henry Blanchard?”

“That’s right. How did you know?”

“I know a lot of folks in this state. That’s why I keep getting their votes. But I don’t think your daddy ever voted for me. No, I don’t think so.”

Even in the midst of my confusion, I recognized what Fowler was doing. Whenever the governor was talking with someone, whether it was a legislator or a county sheriff or just a plain old citizen, he always tried to establish some kind of family connection. If Fowler didn’t know you, then he knew your brother. If he didn’t know your brother, then he knew your second cousin. In a state as small as ours, he was bound to find someone he knew. My father had been dead for almost 25 years, but the governor had a long memory. I felt a surge of resentment — I didn’t like Fowler mentioning his name. “You’re right,” I said. “My father never cared for you.”

Fowler nodded. “Well, we were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I never met the man personally, but I always heard he was a good lawyer. I’m very sorry that he died so young. How much do they pay you at the Clarion-Journal, Mr. Blanchard?”

The question threw me off-balance again. Fowler was good at that too. “Nineteen thousand a year,” I replied, trying hard not to betray any embarrassment. Small newspapers are notoriously stingy, and the Clarion-Journal was no exception.

“I can offer you fifty thousand to start,” Fowler said. “And I’ll raise it to sixty after I’m reelected. That’s just ten thousand dollars less than what my Cabinet members make.”

He expected me to be impressed, and I was. But I was also suspicious. “So you’re running again?”

“Of course I’m running again. You think I’m gonna let that son-of-a-bitch George Bledsoe take over?”

“But don’t you think…”

“No, I’m not too sick. I’ve been hearing that for ten years now, everyone saying I’m too sick to run the state or control my Cabinet or even go the men’s room by myself. If everything they said was true, I’d be dead three times over by now.”

I looked at him carefully. The cigar in his hand had gone out. His lips were flecked with spittle and his jowls hung loose on his lopsided face. But a couple of ruddy spots had broken through the pallor of his cheeks and his focus on me was unwavering. Maybe he wasn’t so sick after all. “So what do you need me for?”

“Well, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think much of newspaper reporters. Especially the ones who cover politics in this state. But you seem to be the brightest one of the bunch. And once my campaign gets going, I’m gonna need some help with the press.”

“What about Booth?”

“Booth’s a hard worker, but right now he’s doing the job of ten men. He needs an assistant. Someone who knows all the reporters, someone who can make sure that Bledsoe doesn’t grab all the attention. A campaign spokesman, that’s what he needs. You think you can handle something like that?”

I didn’t say anything right away. It was a tempting offer, no doubt about it. I could certainly use the fifty thousand dollars. But after a few seconds I shook my head. This was Jimmy Fowler, the man who made his reputation by throwing donuts at Negroes at the Woolworth’s downtown. I couldn’t work for him. “Look, I’m sorry, but…”

“Before you say no, just hear me out. This election is gonna be different from all the others. I’ve been thinking about it for some time now, and I know I need to do something different. I need to make an apology.”

“An apology?”

Fowler nodded. He tossed his dead cigar into the trashcan under his desk. “You see, for the past eight years I’ve made jobs the top priority of my administration. And we’ve had some success, no one can deny it. We’ve brought thousands of jobs into this state. But we should be doing better. The problem is, a lot of out-of-state companies have a negative impression of us. They don’t want to relocate here because they think the people of Alabama are backward and bigoted. And I’ve come to realize that the reason for this misimpression goes back to my first years in the governor’s office, when I got involved in all that controversy over the race issue. Because of what happened back then, I’ve become a symbol of something hateful. And if I step down from the governor’s office now, I’ll go to my grave with that symbol hanging around my neck like an albatross. Now you may not know this about me, Jack, but….you don’t mind if I call you Jack, do you?”

“No, no, go ahead.”

“You may not know this about me, but I’m a fairly religious man. I may not go to church too often, but I try to stay right with the Lord. And when I realized I had this problem, I went to the Lord for guidance. I said Lord, what can I do to cut this albatross from around my neck? And He told me what to do. So, first off, I’m gonna apologize for some of the things I did during my first years in office. I did the wrong thing when I opposed racial integration, and I need to acknowledge that. And then I’m gonna run for reelection, but this time I ain’t running on a jobs platform or any other kind of platform. I’m running for governor now so I can undo the damage. I’m gonna reorganize the state troopers from top to bottom to make sure there are enough African-Americans in every position, from corporal to commissioner. I’m gonna create a special task force to investigate Klan activities in this state, because the FBI hasn’t done a damn thing about it for twenty years. I’m gonna increase funding for the poorest school districts in the state, where most of the black folks live. And I’m gonna announce a whole lot of other changes as my campaign progresses, but they’re all gonna be aimed at the same thing: to undo the damage.”

By this point I was cursing myself for agreeing to go off-the-record. This was a hell of a story. I could just picture the headline: Jimmy Fowler Sees The Light. And the deck underneath it, in smaller type: Like Saul on the Road to Damascus. But a crucial question remained unanswered. “And you think this strategy will help you defeat Bledsoe?” I asked.

Fowler stared at me, serious as a heart attack. “This ain’t a strategy. I believe in this.”

He was breathing hard now, exhausted from talking so much. I felt a little lightheaded myself, probably from all the cigar smoke hanging in the air. “When are you going to make your announcement?”

“On Monday. And then I’m gonna hit the ground running.” He furrowed his brow and looked me in the eye. “I’ll give you the weekend to think it over, Jack. If you want to come work for me, let me know by Sunday morning. If not, I’ll hire someone else. Now if you’ll excuse me, I got some other business to take care of. Booth!”

The door to the office suddenly opened and behind it was Booth Taylor, standing there as if he hadn’t moved an inch the whole time we were talking. “All right, Mr. Blanchard,” he said. “Your time is up.”

Booth glowered, his face even uglier than before. I could see that the job offer certainly wasn’t his idea. I stood up to shake Fowler’s hand again. “Thank you for interrupting your schedule to see me, governor.”

I was ready to leave, but the hand that had felt as light as a jellyfish in our first handshake now held on to me like a guy wire. “You think about what I told you, y’heah?”

Then Fowler let go.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

5 thoughts on “The Key (Literally) To Opening A Novel

  1. Ah, nice door usage, Mark. This scene also reminds me of what my pal Chris Vogler would tag “The Refusal of the Call.” I’m not sure, but I believe that in the great myths this scene almost always had a cigar in it. I’ll check!

    • George Wallace also sneaked cigars in his wheelchair. And Eugenia is based on Lurleen Wallace, who died of cancer while serving as governor in the Sixties. (George got her to run as his substitute in 1966, because back then the state constitution didn’t allow the governor to have two consecutive terms.) I remember seeing portraits of her all over Alabama.

  2. Oh yes, he about to take the first step of the hero’s journey. First he has to refuse it, but then he takes it. (Is the refusal the first step?)
    I have changed my opinion of the governor. He seemed ignorant and mean during the press conference. Now, he seems like a decent person who actually cares about the people of his state. That was a dramatic shift, and it was convincing.

    • That’s what I find so fascinating about politicians: their ability to convincingly change personality, usually depending on the audience. When I asked Alabama’s black leaders (in the 1980s) what they really thought about Wallace, the typical response was, “Oh, in person he’s nice as pie. After a meeting with him, you would think it went really well, it was a really productive meeting. And then an hour later he’d hold a press conference about the meeting and say all these nasty things about you.”

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