Over the next few weeks, I’ll do the traditional media thing, and provide you with my own sort of year in review. All of it will focus on publishing and writing, both indie and traditional, and all of it will be my opinion.
Around the first of December, I started a version of this post. Before that, I’ve been grazing along, writing a more personal post about the things I learned or relearned in 2014, and you’ll see that before the end of the year. I wrote down those items as they came up or as I remembered them.
I hoped to do the same with traditional publishing.
I started with a comment Dean made about a line in a traditional publisher’s quarterly financial report for the third quarter about the importance of copyright. Dean couldn’t remember what financial report the line came from, so I decided to find it–and of course, I couldn’t. Not fast anyway. But the upshot was that I read a mountain of financial reports for traditional publishers, and honestly, they sent chills through me, considering what’s been occurring with publishing contracts.
Over the past year or two, publishing companies have changed their thinking about the industry. (From now on, I will primarily refer to traditional publishing companies as publishers.)
Some of this change has been happening for years, as mergers and acquisitions grew. Some of it has come from the fact that the large companies have finally understood the impact ebooks and online shopping have had on the industry.
Much of the change is in response to 2013’s dismal fall sales, which happened courtesy of the Justice Department’s investigation of six major publishers and Apple for price-fixing. It didn’t matter how that case turned out; the case itself changed business as usual inside publishing.
Business as usual was this: Before that all important Christmas shopping season, publishers consulted with each other about the timing of their blockbusters.
Think of it the way that the movie industry does: When a film that will suck up all the ticket sales of a particular genre (like an Avengers movie) declares it will release in May, other filmmakers in that genre will avoid that weekend. Generally, studios will release a film that they think will appeal to a different type of audience.
This sort of thing is easier to do in film than in books. A movie takes years to produce and finish. The movie studio will reserve its theater space often two years before that film releases. Sometimes a studio will move a film to a different weekend because of another blockbuster, but often because of production troubles. (This happened with one of the Harry Potter films.) You’ll note that the move will be at least six months after the initial release date.
That’s because of all the moving parts it takes to get a film to market.
Booksellers don’t require book publishers to reserve space in the store ahead of time. There aren’t four or six or twelve slots for books in the average bookstore. There are hundreds.
However, it was smarter marketing to make certain that John Grisham’s latest novel would not compete with Scott Turow’s latest novel, on the theory that legal thriller readers wouldn’t pony up $60 the week of the hardcover releases—they would choose which author they liked best, and only pay $30.
So publishers would contact each other about a year before and informally discuss release dates. Weekend 1 (in September) would belong to Turow; Weekend 6 (in November) would belong to Grisham. But…Stephen King was releasing around that time, and he might take some sales from Grisham, so move the Grisham to Weekend 4…and so on and so on.
When the court case started, publishers couldn’t make these informal phone calls. And traditional book production takes a fraction of the time movie production takes. The publishers released their fall catalogues early in the year, and then the orders would occur, and the release dates would be set in stone.
Because there was no consulting in 2013, a disaster set up: Turow, a former juggernaut author, whose legal thrillers were always an event, was releasing his first book in three years. In theory, his sales would have destroyed any other author’s sales in the same genre.
Just like John Grisham’s sales would in their first weekend. Grisham’s books had ceased to be “Events” like Turow’s, but Grisham had a loyal mass following that bought everything. He got his own release week, generally speaking, just like Turow.
Only in 2013, their releases were exactly seven days apart. Turow’s novel came out on October 15, and Grisham’s on October 22. And Grand Central, Turow’s publisher, learned that readers preferred John Grisham by a huge margin.
Even so, neither book sold at the author’s historic high.
No book in that fall sold at an historic high. Factors came together to prevent it. Some of those factors were:
1. Publishers could no longer collude on release dates (or anything else, including price).
2. The rise of independent publishing meant a lot of readers, who would have bought a legal thriller from Turow or Grisham because those two authors were among the few still writing in the genre, got siphoned off. Those readers found other legal thriller writers or backlist novels that had been taken out of print when the legal thriller genre “died.” Indie publishing gave readers what they wanted when they wanted it, and a lot of them abandoned the bestseller they sorta liked for a midlist writer they loved and whose book was now available to them.
3. The utter decimation of the newspaper book review section. When newspapers died, they took their book review sections with them. Surviving newspapers cut the “fat” from their pages, including the book section. (Which is stupid to me, because the book section was a guaranteed source of weekly advertising revenue.) Only a handful of book sections survived, and those were in truncated form.
4. Magazines got rid of book review sections as well. Those that kept the review section, like Vanity Fair, put it in (I kid you not) 9-point type or smaller.
5. The reluctance of the book blogger. Book bloggers with large followings don’t feel the need to review a Big Book just because some publisher said they must do so. In fact, book bloggers prefer to be the source of recommendations for the eclectic reader, not the mass reader.
6. The decline of shelf space in the brick-and-mortar store. In 2013, there were fewer paid placements available in bookstores (up front is paid for, folks, as is that new release table). Readers were learning to shop differently.
7. The rise of the algorithm. Online bookstores would send out targeted marketing e-mails to readers based on previous purchases. Sometime in 2013, online bookstores changed their home pages so that a reader might see only the types of books that interested her. This is changing back in late 2014 because Amazon has realized what a cash cow coop advertising is. Now, when you log onto Amazon or Kobo or Barnes & Noble, you will see a scroll of bestsellers along the top (relatively small) before you see all the “recommended for you” books. But that sales venue is nothing like walking into a store and seeing John Grisham’s latest stacked in piles of twenty everywhere.
There was a lot of gloom and doom throughout the entire traditional industry in 2013 because it was clear to everyone that the old system wasn’t working. The old system, based on velocity and constant push of new product, was actually falling apart.
So traditional publishers did what all businesses do when something isn’t working: they reassessed. They studied financial sheets and looked at two things—where their business lost money and where it earned money.
The publishers had a surprising realization: those backlist titles they threw up on Amazon and one or two other sites because everyone was demanding ebooks? Those damn things were selling and making the company an astonishing amount of money.
There were other benefits to the ebooks as well, which I’ll get to below, but the financial one trumped everything. Even better, digital products are inexpensive for the company to produce compared to actual physical products.
Here’s how Houghton Mifflin Harcourt stated that in their third quarter results:
The increase in product profitability was primarily driven by a $17 million reduction in product cost…
You’ll find little phrases like that one in all the financial reports of the major publishers. They’re just buried in financial speak. (And that’s only one reference to the lower product cost. There are others, buried in different line items. You just have to know how to read these things—which is a lot easier these days, with online accounting dictionaries at all of our fingertips.)
So, ebooks made money without a lot of in-house support, and they had low continual costs. Think about this: to reissue a mass market paperback that was a surprise good seller, the company had to go back to press, then ship the books to a warehouse, anticipate returns, and not see revenue for at least 90 days.
A surprise good-selling ebook has the digital storage costs and the other little fees that the online ebook retailers charge, but there is no printing fee, no shipping fee, no warehousing fees, no returns, and they get paid promptly at 30 days. Oh, my, oh, my, isn’t that lovely for the bottom line?
Add to that the fact that most writers sold the license to their digital rights dirt-cheap. Even if an ebook had the same costs as a print book, the lower royalty rate to the authors, based on net sales, not cover price, would equal a much lower product costs.
Ebooks—at any price—are an astonishing revenue boon to traditional publishers. I say astonishing, because I’m pretty sure that no traditional publisher realized how well these things earned until they reassessed their entire business model.
The protectionism that sparked the price-fixing case from the Justice Department? That desire to make sure no ebooks sold so that customers would only buy hardcovers? That’s so 2012.
Where publishers discovered that they lost money was on marketing and any attempt to push velocity. Ad buys in book publications, doing a ton of up-front promotion to spark interest in a book, pay-for-placement in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, all had very little effect on sales, unlike the past. The marketing costs were high in comparison to the return.
In the past, that return was quick sales that recouped everything. The present is pretty simple: the bestseller numbers have flatlined significantly. In the past, a new release by John Grisham would have sold at least half a million copies in its first week.
Last month, Gray Mountain, Grisham’s 2014 release, sold 122,506 copies in its first week, the highest selling fiction title out of the gate for the entire year. (The closest competitor? Top Secret Twenty-One, the latest Janet Evanovich title, which sold 88,997 copies in its first week. (As reported in the November 14, 2014, Entertainment Weekly Chart Attack [no available link.])
Neither sales figure would have gotten the Evanovich or the Grisham on any chart before the ebook revolution. Those sales figures are extremely low.
I spent much of the fall of 2014 asking serious readers if they heard that this bestselling author or that bestselling author had a new release. Every question I asked was about an author with a fall release, and every person I asked, in my informal sample, said no.
I was particularly shocked to see the anemic promotion for Lee Child’s latest, Personal, which came out on September 2, 2014. Personal is a Jack Reacher novel, and Jack Reacher is a well known character—so well known that Tom Cruise played him in a film—10 months before.
Even an anemic film like Jack Reacher increases book sales astronomically. Generally, publishers trumpet the next book released by the author.
Most of the ads I saw for Personal were group ads, not individual ads. In other words, Personal was displayed with the five other titles that Delacorte wanted to promote that month.
If we needed a sign that ad buys were down across the board in publishing, the Personal ad buy was it.
So…expenses trimmed, income up…rather than dying these past few years, traditional publishers have healthy balance sheets all over again. Except Hachette of course. Those of you who keep asking me my opinion on the Hachette/Amazon thing should use a brain cell or two. Hachette caved within a week of this statement in parent company Lagardere’s third quarter financial report:
In the United States, in a digital market that is at a standstill (slowdown seen since 2013), net sales of e-books were down (28% of net sales for Trade(3) vs. 31% at the end of September 2013), due notably to Amazon’s punitive measures…
The key words in my paragraph above are “parent company.” That loss of revenue was unacceptable, and any parent company would demand that the situation get resolved before year’s end, whatever it took to settle it. As Dean was saying throughout when anyone asked him: what you saw was a battle between two major international corporations over a contract. Nothing more. The sky is not falling—although it could have for Hachette if it suffered any more losses like that. (And if you want to fight over Hachette & Amazon, declaring one or the other evil, do it somewhere else. Those comments won’t get through.)
You learn a lot reading financial statements, and the things I learned made me revise this piece entirely. Every single one of the major traditional publishing companies is revamping its business model, and that revamp is showing up in the financial speak of the quarterly reports.
The biggest change is a seemingly simple one:
Traditional Publishers Have Changed The Way They Regard Books.
In the past, books were widgets, retail product that would be on a shelf for a short period of time and then disappear, only to be replaced by a new widget.
Every now and then a widget would sell well, for reasons unknown to the manufacturer (the publisher), so the manufacturer would keep that widget on the shelf until sales declined at such a rate to make the costs of stocking bookstore shelves unfeasible. Then the widget would move to the warehouse where a store could order if it wanted the widget. Once warehouse sales declined below some set financial point, the company stopped producing the widget.
Or in publishing terms, the book went out of print. Not any more. Now, traditionally published books no longer go out of print.
The main reason is…
Improved Asset Management
Once upon a time, only the big selling novels became assets of the company. Some company reports still reflect this attitude, noting that the megasellers like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series bring in a disproportionate part of the annual revenue. Often, in a financial report, you’ll see a series like that listed not only in quarterly revenue, but also as an asset of the company.
However, the midlist books and the out-and-out failure titles never got listed as assets of the company. And now, if you dig down deep in the financials, they do.
For almost no cost (under corporate definitions), a book can remain in print as an e-book, and stick around on the corporate books as an asset. An asset has two functions inside a business. The asset is something the firm owns, just like many of you own your house.
In business terms, however, an asset is also something that a corporation controls (or owns) that the corporation believes has a future economic value. A copyright license for a book is just this kind of asset. The book might not sell well now, but for little cost, that book might perform gangbusters in the future.
Think that doesn’t happen? Fads come and go, and along with them, attendant material. When Titanic came out in the 1990s, Dean’s then-agent wanted to know if Dean controlled the rights to the Titanic sf novel he had written because traditional publishing was in a Titanic buying frenzy.
Imagine if that novel had been in print at the time. Whether Dean wanted the book reissued or not (he didn’t, for reasons we won’t discuss here), sales would have increased without him lifting a finger just because the Titanic was in the news.
On traditional publishers’ balance sheets, the asset load grew significantly these past few years. You will find that information in the year-end reports of some companies in 2013. I’ll wager you’ll see even more of that in the year-end reports for 2014 which will appear in January.
But, to publishers, books also remain…
In addition to being assets to traditional publishers, books remain widgets. They have a limited brick-and-mortar shelf life. Their more expensive incarnations—the paper versions—will only exist for a short time.
Traditional publishers hope to make back their entire investment into their widgets—ahem, I mean books—in the first few weeks after release. From then on, the successful book is pure profit. The unsuccessful book takes years to earn back its initial costs. In the past, the unsuccessful book became worthless—something that the publisher was happy to get rid of. Now, the unsuccessful book moves into the asset category, and can have earnings over years and years.
The print version will cease to exist, although it might be brought back if one of those changes I mentioned above happens.
By the way, a book can earn back its costs without earning out its advance. In fact, that’s a lot more common now than it used to be, as contracts pare down the various royalties that the publisher owes the writer. Books often become profitable long before the writer sees a dime in earn-out royalties.
Books have a new(ish) identity to publishers. And that identity is…
As I have said repeatedly in the Business Rusch blog, contracts between publishers and writers have gotten draconian. Publishers want to own every right in the property (what writers incorrectly call their book) and writers should only license what the publisher needs to market the book effectively.
Most writers are so happy to sell their books to a publisher that they actually sell their books. (If you don’t understand what I mean by that, you need to learn copyright. Pick up The Copyright Handbook—and read it.) The contracts the writers sign license almost all rights in the book in as close to perpetuity as a publisher can legally manage. (“In perpetuity” is not possible in a valid contract. Contracts must have an end date.)
Why do the publishers want that? Because books are no longer just paper items. They’re apps and games and characters and movies and YouTube videos. They’re greeting cards and Starbucks coffee wisdom and Halloween costumes. They’re merchandise, and so much more.
Why should the writer get the bulk of these proceeds when the publisher needs the revenue? After all, if the publisher licenses all of these rights (and more) in a book property, then the book’s value as an asset grows exponentially.
In the past, publishers had to license the additional merchandising, movie, audiobook, and foreign rights to other companies.
But look at those financial statements folks. Take a peek at this one, which is for Simon & Schuster. Actually, let me correct myself. This financial statement is for CBS Corporation, which owns Simon & Schuster. Note the breakdown of the various arms of the company.
The financial statement divides the revenues of the corporation by segment. The segments are Entertainment, Cable News, Publishing, and Local Broadcasting.
Then the statement divides the revenues by type, which is quite fascinating. Because the listed types are Advertising, Content Licensing and Distribution, and Affiliate and Subscription Fees.
In other words, there are seven major ways that CBS Corporation raises revenues. Two have an impact on writers who have ventured into this corporation through its publishing segment.
The publishing arm puts out the book, and then, depending on the book, the content can be licensed and distributed. Most content in the licensing and distribution mentioned here are film and television related, but not for long.
A comment that CBS CEO Les Moonves made at the UBS 42nd Annual Global Media and Communications Conference on December 9, 2014 should send a shiver through every single writer who publishes with Simon & Schuster. Publisher’s Lunch calls that conference an “investor conference,” and, indeed, the webcast of that presentation show up on CBS’s Investor Relations page.
Moonves said of Simon & Schuster, “Simon & Schuster continues to do a really phenomenal job. Their profits continue to grow every year and we’re really proud of the business…It’s a little gem as a part of our company.”
As CEO, Moonves should know about the various divisions of his corporation. But to call S&S a little gem doesn’t just refer to S&S’s current earnings.
S&S has the most draconian contracts in the business—and has had them for about ten years. They have developed their books into exploitable content long before other publishers ever thought of doing so.
S&S is a little gem that will make CBS Corporation money in a lot of areas, including content licensing and distribution.
Which brings us to the last major way that large conglomerates are thinking about books. They’re…
In the past, only the big bestselling books became profit centers for their publishers, and then only the books that lent themselves to such exploitation. Many writers had good contracts back in the day, so they kept audio rights and movie rights and translation rights in their own pockets.
But now, because of that whole exploitable content thing above, so many traditional publishers want a percentage of every single imaginable right. And there are more imaginable rights than writers can generally imagine. Look, for example, at this list at the Harry Potter shop: everything from books to wands to clothing to home décor. That doesn’t count the games or the movies or the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Such things have happened with Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. But it happens with smaller projects too. A lot of popular books that have no movie tie-ins have produced mugs or t-shirts tied to the books themselves.
And as corporations are more than just publishers, they want to own the profit center (book). The reason Moonves called Simon & Schuster a little gem is because S&S has always had a tie-in arm. Fifteen years ago, that arm was designed from the top down.
Or as Wikipedia puts it on the S&S page:
As part of CBS, Simon & Schuster is the primary publisher for books related to various media franchises owned by CBS, such as How I Met Your Mother, Star Trek, and CSI.
Top-down publishing. CBS had big properties, so they decided to use their tiny publishing department to produce merchandise (books) for those properties. I’m sure CBS had other arms that also produced other merchandise.
What has changed is that now corporations like CBS (and News Corp, which owns HarperCollins and Zondervan) want to exploit from the bottom up. So imagine that a writer writes a lovely book that has pieces which might make a good TV show or a nice addition to the YouTube Channel. If the contract between the writer and publisher are written correctly from the point of view of the parent corporation, then the exploitable content becomes a profit center for the corporation with very little creator expense.
In other words, the corporation won’t have to pay six to seven figures to get a TV or film license from the author. The corporation already licensed (or bought!) those rights in the publishing contract, for a fraction of what the writer would normally get.
This is what you’ve heard many of us derisively call Hollywood accounting, because these business practices have been rife in Tinsel Town for generations.
This form of accounting moved to the record industry twenty years ago, and has slowly moved into publishing.
You haven’t heard much about it yet because the bulk of the traditional publishing industry has developed contracts to exploit a book’s content only in the past few years.
Writers haven’t yet realized what they’ve signed. Nor have a lot of this potential cases become lawsuit worthy. Writers have yet to complain about the contracts because writers are still working to fulfill those contracts.
Although you’re hearing whispers. The entire controversy over L.J. Smith who wrote The Vampire Diaries for twenty years is a contract dispute. Smith signed with Alloy Entertainment, a packaging firm. Smith got nothing from the sale of The Vampire Diaries to television, nor does she get anything from all the marketing and merchandising rights. In fact, Alloy Entertainment fired her a few years ago—which was all within the legal boundaries set by the contract.
Packaging firms have existed for decades. The packaging firm owns the rights to the entire creation (the “world”) and the writers are simply contractors with no rights in the work whatsoever.
When traditional publishers can devise contracts that essentially do the same thing, they do. And writers, desperate to be published, signed those damn things.
Signing those publishing contracts is more dangerous now than it was fifteen years ago. Because fifteen years ago, books would go out of print, and then the contract would end.
Now, books don’t go out of print.
I’m waiting for the first big lawsuit from a writer against a publisher, as the writer tries to find a new way out of a contract. Musicians have been filing those lawsuits for years now, and for the most part, getting no traction. It’s their signatures on the dotted line. Not understanding the implications of what you sign is not a good defense in most contract cases.
What did traditional publishing learn in 2014? How to revise their business to make even more money. Traditional publishers will be around for a long time, and writers will continue to sign with them.
But writers need to know what they’re up against.
They’re not signing up for a partnership with a production and distribution company like they had in the past. Mostly, these days, writers are signing with an international entertainment conglomerate that wants to exploit its assets for as long as possible.
And books have moved from widgets to assets on the conglomerate’s financial statements. The contracts—and the hardball that publishers now play—reflect this move.
When writers do business with an international entertainment conglomerate, they should be prepared to walk away from what initially looks like a good deal. Because, in most cases, the writers will lose the right to exploit that property themselves for the life of the copyright.
In 2014, traditional publishers reassessed their businesses and improved them—from the publishers’ point of view.
Traditional writers who go blindly into this world will get screwed worse than they ever have before. Traditional writers who go in with their eyes open might gain some benefits at the expense of a book or two or three.
Generally speaking, the writers who go into traditional publishing are risk-averse. But it would seem to me that the only writers who should go into traditional publishing are writers who appreciate and understand risk.
Because in 2014, the big conglomerates did what big conglomerates do: they reassessed their business and improved it.
Most writers never think to do that with their businesses.
Next in my year in review? What indie writers learned. And then, what I learned (or didn’t learn).
I want to get this done before the end of the year, because I personally hate reading the previous year in review in the new year. I of course left all of this for the last minute.
I have other business musing posts lined up for 2015.
If you want me to continue to muse on business, please forward this or tweet it or consider donating. I don’t get paid for the nonfiction I write, so the donations help. You’ll see the PayPal account listed as White Mist Mountain which is one of my companies.
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“Business Musings: “What Traditional Publishers Learned in 2014,” copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Now you can also preorder an ebook of The Peyti Crisis, which marks Flint’s return to the series after the events of Blowback. You can get The Peyti Crisis on Amazon, Kobo, and iTunes right now. I suspect the audio version preorder will appear next month.
To understand what happens in The Peyti Crisis and the remaining three books, you’ll need to read A Murder of Clones and Search & Recovery. Right now, those three ebook sites and Audible are the only places to get the preorders. On their official release dates, the books will be available in trade paper, ebook, and audio on many different retailers. In fact, if you talk to your favorite brick-and-mortar bookstore while holiday shopping, you might be able to convince them to order paper copies in time for the release of A Murder of Clones on January 13, 2015.
Publisher’s Weekly has weighed in favorably on A Murder of Clones, saying, “Fans of Rusch’s Retrieval Artist universe will enjoy the expansion of the Anniversary Day story, with new characters providing more perspectives on its signature events, while newcomers will get a good introduction to the series.”
If you haven’t started the Anniversary Day books in the Retrieval Artist universe, now’s the time. The reissues of Anniversary Day and Blowback are both available with a letter from the author in each.
If you want Retrieval Artist updates without visiting this website, sign up for the Retrieval Artist newsletter.
And the next announcement, in January 2015, will be of A Murder of Clones’ publication! Woot!
“Chains” by USA Today bestselling writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. “Chains” is also available as a standalone ebook on Kobo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and in other online retailers. “Chains” appears in Fiction River: Christmas Ghosts, available in audio, trade paperback, ebook, and–for a limited time only–as part of a set-your-own-price Holiday StoryBundle along with eight other holiday books.
CHRISTMAS SEEMED LIKE the perfect time to be in New York, he had told his agent. Or maybe that was his manager. Or his handler. God, he couldn’t keep track of his people any more.
And when the hell did he get people, anyway?
He had been wrong. It was the loneliest time to be in New York.
Jamison Roth McKendrick, Jaime to his fans, Roth to his friends (what few there were left), sat in his dressing room at the recently renamed Mary Martin Theater and peered into the antique mirror the theater manager had installed especially for him.
When Roth had full stage makeup on his face, he looked odd. His skin was half a shade darker and this close, he could see the lines that photographers were so careful to airbrush out. His eyebrows, darkened with pencil, looked like creatures in a Disney nature film, and his mouth was bowed like a girl’s.
Only his blue eyes remained the same. They startled even him, not because they were (as the tabloids said) “a unique shade of blue,” but because they weren’t. His blue eyes were the only thing he had gotten from his father, and Roth hated the reminder.
Roth closed those famous eyes for just a moment. The voice was young, and young meant he had to be somewhat polite. Jamison Roth McKendrick wasn’t known for polite, which was why he was sitting here on December 21st after having just performed a successful preview of his one-man show A Christmas Carol rather than at home in the bosom of his family.
Not that he had a family, with or without a bosom. The last bosom, in fact, had finalized her divorce from him in September, after much media fanfare. It didn’t matter to People or Extra or Entertainment Tonight that he and the bosom had been separated for more than a year; only that she had sued for part of his extensive fortune and had, sadly for her, lost.
God Bless Our Prenups, Every One.
“Mr. McKendrick?” the young voice asked.
So, not a fan or a friend, but something other. Not a colleague or a minion either. Too young.
He mentally clothed himself in Jaime McKendrick, and became, for just a moment, a Star—something bright and shining in the firmament, or at least, something Very Famous and worth catering to.
A thin girl sat on top of a pile of coats that Roth had stored in the corner of his dressing room. She was in that intermediate age—she could have been a tween, a teen, or hell, maybe even a young adult; he couldn’t tell at first glance. What he could tell was this: She was too young to be alone with him.
Visions of paparazzi danced in his head.
“Can you help me?” she asked.
He wanted to say a firm and surly no, worthy of Scrooge. After all, he’d just been channeling the man onstage. Of course, he’d also been channeling Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and was on the verge of channeling the Christmas goose, at least according to his unbelievably favorable review in, of all places, The New York Times.
But Roth couldn’t say no. Not in a firm and surly way. Not in any way. Nor could he touch the girl or approach her or do anything untoward. He needed to play this smart, although he had never quite figured out what smart was in this circumstance.
Except he had learned, through hard experience, that everyone—teens in particular—came attached to cell phones, and cell phones had cameras, and the cameras linked to the Internet in less than ten seconds.
One mistake, one wrong word, and he would be the wrong kind of Internet sensation in less than 24 hours.
Apparently, he was silent for too long because the girl stood. Taller than he expected, but painfully thin. A cheap coat though—he always knew coats—and well-worn winter boots beneath blue jeans ironed to a crease.
Who ironed their jeans in the 21st century?
“I don’t want to go home,” she said, and, to his credit, he didn’t close his eyes.
How many times had he heard that over the years? Take me with you, women said. I’ll be the best lover you’ve ever had, other women said. Can we go to your apartment? little kids asked, because his TV apartment on the show that had made him famous had been a veritable magical wonderland, a place that was everything to everyone and in reality, nothing at all.
He grabbed his cell phone, keeping his gaze on the girl. With his thumb, he dialed the personal assistant the theater had assigned to him. He couldn’t remember the guy’s name; normally, he would have contacted the stage manager, but this seemed like an assistant thing.
“Please, Mr. McKendrick,” the girl said, sounding desperate. “I don’t want to go home.”
The door opened and the girl startled backwards, tripping not only on her coat, but on the big pile. The assistant leaned in and didn’t see her.
“Mr. McKendrick?” the assistant asked. “What can I—”
The girl shot Roth a look of sheer betrayal and then bolted out of the dressing room.
Roth leaned back in his chair. “You might want to let the stage manager know that a civilian managed to cross the Rubicon.”
“What?” the assistant asked, clearly not understanding. How could someone work in a theater and not understand classical references? Roth did, and he never even went to college.
He sighed. “Please let someone in charge know that an unauthorized person is loose backstage.”
“Oh,” the assistant said and left without bothering to shut the door.
Roth stood, and walked past the expensive sofa (that he didn’t need), the table with a computer (that he also didn’t need), the pile of coats (which he certainly didn’t need), and pushed the door closed. It latched quietly.
He glanced at those coats. Buying them had been a compulsion. He knew that, but he had allowed himself a few days of insanity after the year he’d had. Thanks to a parade of therapists, he even knew what the coats represented.
Warmth, security, protection, all those things he’d never had. All those things he had to learn to provide for himself.
“Nicely done, kiddo,” said the ghost lurking in the shadows by the costumes.
“Shut the hell up, Dad,” Roth said. “And kindly go away.”
Erika Brandis stood in the lobby of the hotel, surrounded by fourteen teenage girls, all dressed to what they considered to be the nines, all holding white plastic bags that stated I [heart] New York but which actually meant I Am An Idiot Tourist! Mug Me!, all chattering incessantly. They had shut up for the play, partly because they saw the infamous Jaime McKendrick in the flesh, even if that flesh was wearing 19th century clothing and mostly pretending to be an elderly man. It was hard to make those thighs look elderly, and the biceps weren’t bad either. The famous Hollywood abs were hidden by a long coat and vest, but nothing could hide that face.
Men shouldn’t be called pretty, and Jaime McKendrick never had been, not really. He had a masculine jawline, what used to be called a Roman nose, and cheekbones that could cut glass. But there was something arresting about him, even when he was in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.
There was nothing sexy in A Christmas Carol, except Jaime McKendrick, of course. And girls who had just come into puberty, whose hormones were trying to take over the world, noticed.
When the Elizabeth Cady Stanton School For Girls in God-Knows-Where Ohio had contacted Erika to run a near-Christmas tour of New York, she had thought the job would be easy. After all, there wouldn’t be boys. In the past, when she’d hosted high school groups, boys had tried to swing from building to building like Spider-man. Boys had had fights in the hotel hallways. Boys had smuggled in beer, and consumed it in the hallways. Boys had rollerbladed down staircases and commandeered elevators with fake guns.
She had decided never to host boys again. Men, yes. Boys, no. And somehow—she had no idea how now that she was standing in the midst of these girls on penultimate day of the worst tour of her life—she had forgotten what it was like to be a teenage girl. Raging hormones didn’t cut it. Raging insanity plus hormones, boy craziness, giggles, and nonstop talking.
Maybe she would disband Brandis Tours. Maybe she would have to, given the upcoming insurance and legal problems if she didn’t find Hannah Adams. The girl went missing at the Mary Martin Theater, and the stupid teacher in charge of the headcount didn’t notice.
Insurance and legal, hell. Erika really didn’t want to think about the human side of a pretty, underage girl lost in Manhattan. A girl Erika was theoretically responsible for although, technically, the school was responsible for her. Not that it mattered; if they didn’t find Hannah, Erika would always blame herself.
Not in the least because she had confiscated all cell phones before the girls left for the theater. Somewhere in this building, Hannah Adams’ cell phone gathered dust, while Hannah herself was lost in the bowels of the city. Or at least, lost in its tourist mecca.
Erika grabbed the elbow of Miss Sargent, the twenty-something teacher who had lost Hannah, and dragged her away from the noise, kinda. The other teacher, Mrs. Markovich, a middle-aged woman who had taken the afternoon off thinking that nothing could go wrong in the thea-tah, was glaring at both of them for leaving her alone with the excited girls.
“Let me make sure I actually heard you,” Erika said to Miss Sargent. “You only counted the girls when you got back.”
“I haven’t counted them at all,” the idiot teacher said. “The girls told me she was missing.”
Erika bit back the comment she was going to make because it involved words not acceptable to teachers and other delicate organisms. Instead, she stood on the nearest chair and clapped her hands.
Miraculously, the girls shut up.
“Count off,” Erika said.
They had done this all during the trip, and even though a few of them rolled their eyes, they always emitted a number in the right sequence when she pointed at them.
Nineteen. She needed twenty.
“Who is Hannah Adams’ travel partner?” she asked. They were supposed to buddy up. She learned from dealing with boys that two usually worked in keeping track of each other, but three was a mess. And not having someone keep track resulted in—well, resulted in this.
“I am.” The prettiest girl in the group stepped forward. “I forgot I was supposed to watch her.”
Her little friends—an even number of little friends, dammit—tittered. Erika had hated cliques. She wondered if they had deliberately dumped Hannah Adams.
“You forgot,” Erika said mockingly, letting the group know she didn’t believe the girl. “Well, then. You get to stay in the hotel tonight with Mrs. Markovich while everyone else goes out to a fancy dinner. Clearly you’re too tired to enjoy yourself.”
“Hey!” the girl said. “Do you know who my parents are?”
“Unless they’re Bill and Melinda Gates, I really don’t care,” Erika said. “And even then, it might be hard to make me care.”
She nodded at Markovich who looked upset at being forced to stay in (when she claimed she wanted nothing more just five hours ago).
“When did you last see Hannah?” Erika asked the girl.
“Oh, in the theater. We sat next to each other. She has a thing for Jaime.”
All of the girls had a thing for Jaime. They chose the plays by vote before they left, choosing, apparently based on the fame of the lead star, rather than the quality of the production.
Not that Erika could complain about the quality of A Christmas Carol starring Jamison Roth McKendrick. The man was classically trained, and unbelievably talented. He’d been unbelievably talented when he was a kid. He had learned his craft since.
“Do we call the police?” Miss Sargent asked tremulously.
“Not yet,” Erika said.
Teenage girls were nothing if not resourceful, especially when it came to pursuing a crush. Erika was going back to the theater—alone—first, to see if she could find Hannah. And if she couldn’t…well, she didn’t want to think about what came next.
When Roth got out of the shower, he wrapped a towel around himself and prayed that his father’s ghost wouldn’t be waiting for him in the dressing room. The ghost stayed out of the bathroom, much to his relief, and almost never showed up when Roth was unclothed. His father was more courteous in death than he had ever been in life.
The ghost had joined him some time in the last ten years, maybe before. He’d slowly become visible, first out of the corner of Roth’s eye, and then as an actual presence that few besides Roth could see. Lately, his father’s ghost actually seemed solid, like a hired assistant who had no idea he was supposed to appear only when summoned.
Roth stepped into the dressing room, and there was the ghost, sitting on the pile of coats. The old man—who wasn’t that old; fifty-five when he put the gun in his mouth—had his arms crossed and his fully intact face glaring.
“Angels and ministers of grace defend me,” Roth muttered, misquoting Hamlet.
The ghost rolled his eyes. He’d actually expressed an opinion about Roth quoting Hamlet around him, saying it was rude. Roth said it wasn’t pertinent, since the ghost had murdered himself rather than let an incestuous uncle do it.
Still, Roth preferred quoting plays to the ghost rather than actually engaging him in a real conversation.
Roth dressed, knowing that his father had faded out for the naked part. If Roth went naked for the rest of his life, he would never see his father again, but that wasn’t really viable. Even though he had enough money to do so, he wasn’t the Howard Hughes type. He didn’t believe in locking himself away from the world forever.
Roth had lied to himself when he came here. Or to be correct, he’d suffered from a glimmer of hope. He’d hoped that a theater as old as the Mary Martin would have its own rather territorial ghost, and that ghost would chase his father off. But apparently ghosts, like their human counterparts, believed in taking a winter break. The theater’s resident ghost took one look at dear old Dad and gave up the ghosting, at least for the duration of Roth’s one-man play.
Mercifully, his father didn’t reappear after Roth put on his street clothes. Maybe the ghost found someone else to torment. Roth grabbed the coat that he had worn to the theater off the back of the door rather than dust off the coats in the pile. His father’s ghost didn’t leave goo, but one couldn’t be too careful.
Roth wrapped a scarf around his mouth and nose, and plopped a hat on his head. It was too dark to wear sunglasses. Besides, this was New York. No one cared about the famous here, except for the handful of groupies who hung out at the stage door. With luck, he’d stayed here long enough to avoid them as well.
He knew he wasn’t alone in the theater. The house manager, Louise Zheng, remained until the last of the crew left. He felt bad keeping her here for an extra half hour, but at least she didn’t have to return tonight.
He’d actually apologized when he met her for doing a show over the holiday. She had grinned, and told him point blank that no one who worked this show celebrated Christmas. The crew was composed of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists and others who found the holiday season damn near unbearable.
In LA, everyone celebrated Christmas, whether they were Christian or not. They used it as a secular suck-up party, ranking the gifts given according to where the recipient stood on the what-can-you-do-for-me-right-now ladder. Since he’d climbed to the top of that ladder, he got all kinds of marvelous, unnecessary stuff.
He supposed it was piling up at his house in Bel Air right now, like the coats had piled in his dressing room.
He decided to walk through the theater, so that he could let Louise know he was going home. As he reached the back of the house, he heard her voice. She sounded exasperated.
“I’m sure we would know if there was a child here. It’s impossible for a child to hide here.”
“Oh, come on, Louise,” said a second voice, also female, and so familiar that it sent a shiver through him. “This is a theater. We both know that someone could die in here, and no one would know.”
“Honey, the entire community knows whenever someone dies on stage.” Louise chuckled at her own pun.
“This is not a laughing matter,” said the owner of the other voice. “This girl—who is seventeen—is missing, and I’m responsible for her. You want me to call the police and let them search this place top to bottom?”
Seventeen? That tall, too-thin girl was seventeen? Roth shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. Something about her seemed younger. Maybe because she hadn’t come on to him the way that seventeen-year-olds usually did.
He pushed open the double doors and stepped into the lobby. Louise dominated his vision, but Louise always dominated someone’s vision. She was heavyset and prone to wearing flowing clothing, even in the dead of winter. It was hard to see past her.
“There’s a missing girl?” he said. “I think I saw her.”
Louise turned, and her plucked eyebrows went up at the sight of him. He would have smiled at her reassuringly, if it weren’t for the woman who just stepped out of Louise’s shadow.
Barely five feet tall, she should have disappeared, but of course she didn’t. She never had.
His breath caught. “Erika?”
“Roth,” she said flatly, as if she were mad at him. She had no cause to be mad at him, did she? He hadn’t seen her in fifteen years—damn near as long as the missing girl had been alive.
“You guys know each other?” Louise asked.
Erika stuck her hands in the pockets of her black coat and raised one eyebrow, a Spock-like move she had trained herself to do at the age of ten. Back then it had been funny. Now it was sexy.
Hell, it had been sexy fifteen years ago.
He wanted to run to her, gather her in his arms, and pull her close. Instead, he mirrored her by putting his hands in his own pockets.
Erika was waiting for him to answer Louise’s question.
“We know each other,” Roth said.
“I could have given you preferred seats, if you’d told me that,” Louise said to Erika. “Jeez, you made those kids sit in the very back, and they could have—”
“Louise.” Erika still had the ability to shut someone up and make them feel stupid with one word. “The missing girl?”
Roth took another step closer. His heart was pounding as if he were stepping in front of cameras without knowing his lines. Forty years old and light-headed, like a twenty-year-old boy facing the most beautiful woman in the world.
Erika wasn’t beautiful. She never had been. When they were kids, she had been almost homely. Her strong features belonged on a face much older, and kids teased her for it. In high school, Roth had realized that a camera took Erika’s mismatched face and glued it together. In photographs, she had been arresting, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that she would be arresting on film as well.
He had brought her to New York. And, after their early success, he had accompanied her to Los Angeles.
And there it had gone all wrong.
Somehow, he hadn’t expected her to come back here.
The face had come together, just like he had thought it would. She was stunning. Just stunning.
And she was staring at him.
“You saw her?” Erika asked him.
It took him a moment to gather his thoughts. He’d been lost in her, lost in their past, lost in regrets.
God, he hated regrets. He tried to ignore them, like he tried to ignore everything else.
“Somehow she snuck backstage.” Roth addressed this to Louise, because he couldn’t quite talk to Erika. Not yet. “I sent that assistant you hired for me—”
“Cody?” she asked. No wonder Roth couldn’t remember the name. It didn’t suit the kid at all.
“Yeah, him,” Roth said. “I sent him to find the stage manager and say that a civilian had gotten in.”
“Rex left before the end of the show,” Louise said, as if the fact that the stage manager left early was Roth’s fault.
“Well, I also told the assistant to find someone in charge. I guess he didn’t find you, did he? And he’s gone now?”
“Kid’s gonna get himself fired,” Louise muttered. “Where did you see this girl?”
Roth’s gaze met Erika’s. Her black eyes were flat. She had a trick that he had forgotten until this moment, a trick that could make her seem like she felt no emotions at all. She only used it in times of high stress.
“First, let’s make sure we have the right girl,” Roth said. “She’s tall? Too thin? Irons her jeans?”
Louise chuckled at that last detail, but Erika didn’t.
“That’s her,” she said.
Roth sighed. “She got into my dressing room somehow. I thought she was a groupie. When I summoned Cody, she bolted. I didn’t think much of it—”
“Because you’re the famous Jaime, and all the girls fall at your feet?” Erika wasn’t as in control as she pretended. Was that jealousy he heard beneath the sarcasm? And if so, what was she jealous of? His success? Or the fact that there had been other women?
A lot of other women. Too many, none of them Erika.
“It’s not unusual,” he said. “It’s more unusual if the fans don’t find me.”
“We have the backstage area protected,” Louise said to Erika. “We’re aware of this problem. Roth’s not the first to deal with it. You should have seen it when Hugh Jackman—”
“What do I need to do to impress upon you that time is of the essence here?” Erika snapped at her.
Louise took a step backwards. “I’m sorry. I—do you think she’s still here?”
“It’s a place to start.” Erika stepped around Louise as if Louise were no longer important. She stopped in front of Roth. He caught a faint scent of rose water and the spice that was Erika, and he shivered in recognition. Those scents sometimes haunted his dreams. “What did she want with you?”
“She asked me to help her,” he said. “She said she didn’t want to go home.”
Erika cursed. He hadn’t heard that particular combination of words in more than a decade.
“Why would she think you could help her?” Louise asked.
“How the hell should I know?” Roth had had enough. “I didn’t say a word to her. Why don’t you just call her cell?”
“Because,” Erika said, “I’m so practical I made the kids leave their phones at the hotel so that I wouldn’t have to police them in the theater.”
He was finally beginning to hear some of the other words she was using. Kids. Tour.
“Are you a teacher?” he asked, unable to imagine it. The Erika he had known didn’t have the patience for or the interest in handling a group of children all day.
“No,” she said. “I run theatrical tours of Manhattan.”
He blinked, frowned, trying to control his face as well as she had controlled hers. The most gifted actress he had ever known running tours? In Manhattan?
He glanced at Louise, who shrugged. Apparently Louise and Erika knew each other.
“It doesn’t matter what I do,” Erika said. “I have to find this girl. She could be in trouble.”
A door banged behind them. Roth turned. The girl stood near the wall, hands behind her, eyes wide. She was trying very hard not to look at Roth, although her gaze kept darting toward him.
“It’s okay, Ms. Brandis,” the girl said. “I’m sorry if I caused you trouble. I didn’t mean to.”
Erika frowned. “What’s this all about? You asked Ro—Jaime—for help. Were you—are you—in trouble?”
The girl glanced at Roth. The color rose on her cheeks as she spoke to him. “Your friend, he followed me. He said that—I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here, and I made a mistake.”
Roth’s stomach twisted. “My friend?” he asked, hoping against hope she meant Cody, the assistant.
“The old man in your dressing room? He was in the corner? He said…” she paused, seemed to reconsider her reluctance to speak.
Roth’s hands were shaking. He wanted her to finish the sentence.
“…He said,” she repeated, “that you’re not a person to consult on family matters and he said you have—I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Roth said, feeling numb.
“He said you have…never helped anyone in your life.” She winced, as if she expected some kind of physical repercussions for her words.
Roth looked at Erika. He couldn’t help it. Her gaze met his. There was a slight frown between her eyes. Never helped anyone?
“Your friend?” Louise asked. “There’s someone else here? I thought you and I were the last ones.”
“I haven’t seen him for a while,” the girl said. “He showed me where to hide, but I felt silly. I’m stupid asking for help. I mean, what can you do? You’re just some famous guy.”
Roth was glad his hands were in his pockets. He had to clench his fists to control his shaking.
“What do you need help with?” Erika asked. “Why didn’t you talk to me?”
The girl looked down. “I just had this stupid idea that Jaime—Mr. McKendrick—was like his character on TV. I’m smarter than that, really, but I think I’ve thought that forever.” She looked up, and he could see the naked need in her eyes. “Home is…” She shook her head. “I should have just run away.”
Home is…indescribable. He recognized that one.
Erika bit her lower lip.
“New York is no place for a girl alone,” Louise said. “Believe me, I know. You’re seventeen. You got about a year to put up with home. Do good, get into a good college, and you’ll escape. I promise.”
The girl nodded, her cheeks dark red with embarrassment. Apparently she had heard this advice before and it meant little to her.
“The man you talked to,” Roth said. “Was there anything familiar about him?”
She raised her head. “He had eyes like yours,” she said.
Strangely, the shaking stopped. “And you saw him,” Roth said. It wasn’t a question. He was stunned, and his voice reflected that.
The girl nodded. “Wasn’t he supposed to be here?”
Roth swallowed. He didn’t want her to know about the ghost. He didn’t want anyone to know. The fact that a teenage girl had seen the ghost terrified Roth on such a deep level that he could barely speak.
“I hope I didn’t get anyone in trouble,” the girl said.
“You didn’t,” Erika said. “Let’s go back.”
She put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and propelled her forward. Roth took a deep breath, stunned by the afternoon.
“Erika,” he said.
He had no idea what else to add. It’s good to see you was too banal. I missed you was true, but irrelevant. Talk to me, don’t leave me, we can fix this—all of that got said long ago.
She must have seen it in his eyes. She gave him a tiny half smile, nodded once, and then let herself and the girl out of the theater.
Louise followed them to the door and locked it behind them. “How do you know Erika?”
We grew up together; we went to school together; we ran away together; we saved each other’s lives; we believed in each other once.
“She used to act,” he said.
“Oh,” Louise said flatly. “Didn’t everyone?”
The streets were holiday empty, but it had started to snow. Every cab that went by had its service light off, even if no one sat in the backseat.
Since Erika had found Hannah, there was no real need to hurry back to the hotel. They went to the nearest subway instead.
Down a long flight of stairs, through the turnstile, on the platform. It was hot here; it was always hot down here; and right now she welcomed it.
Neither of them spoke. Hannah was probably afraid she would get into trouble, and Erika should have been wondering what to do with her.
Instead, her mind was on Roth.
She should have expected to see him. She had gone to his play, after all. But she’d seen him at work half a dozen times, mostly on trips to LA usually timed around the shows he dabbled in. Roth always dabbled in theater, usually uncredited, because it was his first love.
Sometimes she thought it his only love.
She huddled deeper in her coat.
He looked good, better than he had onstage. Younger, which he was supposed to look because he was much younger than Ebenezer Scrooge, but vibrant too, as if he were lit from within. Roth had always had too much charisma, but he used to be able to dim that light. Now, it seemed, it was on no matter what he did.
“You gonna send me home?” Hannah asked quietly. No one else stood on this part of the platform.
“You want to tell me why I shouldn’t?” Erika probably wouldn’t have asked that question of any other girl. She hadn’t even learned most of their names. But she had watched Hannah from the beginning. This trip had meant something to her. She did iron her clothing, but it wasn’t ego. She was trying to fit in. And she got lost in the plays. They seemed like a hobby, or maybe an obsession: she knew if someone had played the roles previous; she even knew the history of some of the theaters. She was bright, the kind of bright that stood out in a group, even when she tried to hide it.
And Roth was right: she was too thin.
“I paid for this myself, you know,” Hannah said. “I sold some stuff to get here. My parents don’t even know I’m here. They haven’t been home in months. I’ve been on my own. I want to stay. Can I stay?”
Erika let out a sigh. Hannah knew how to pick her targets. Erika had run away from home at sixteen. She and Roth had arrived in Manhattan together, determined to take the world by storm.
He’d managed that. She hadn’t.
“You’re supposed to go home Tuesday,” Erika said.
“I know,” Hannah said. And in those two words was the explanation for the entire afternoon. Erika wondered how long Hannah had dreamed of rescue, and how long Jamison Roth McKendrick’s fictional creation had had a starring role in that little psychodrama.
A hot wind blew through the tunnel. Erika could see the lights of the approaching subway car.
“When do you turn eighteen?” she asked, before she could stop herself.
“February 16,” Hannah said.
“Two months from now?” Erika said, not expecting that. “I thought you were a junior.”
“I’m a senior. I couldn’t go last year,” Hannah said. “I couldn’t afford it. I begged to go this year.”
The train slowed to a stop, and the doors eased open.
“Coming here was the extent of your plan?” Erika asked.
Hannah shrugged. “I hoped I would have more money.”
Erika sighed, and led Hannah onto the train. Only one other person boarded a few doors down. He hunched, his coat pulled tightly around his face as if the breeze down here had been chill instead of hot and humid.
Erika tensed, then made herself release a breath slowly. She always got nervous when she saw a man alone like that, particularly one whose face she couldn’t quite make out.
“Who’s that?” Hannah asked, looking at the shrouded man at the far end of their car.
“I have no idea,” Erika said.
Dinner: take-out. Vegetarian, which damn near spoiled the fun. Roth had planned to spend the evening watching videos and reading, but he stood in front of the penthouse’s windows instead, looking down at a glistening city.
No matter what happened to him here, no matter what had happened to him here, he loved New York, had from the moment he saw it.
And if he were honest with himself, it always made him think about Erika.
He hated being honest with himself.
Three wives, three divorces. The second wife had accused him of having a true love and not marrying her. The second wife, who had met Erika just once, that last visit fifteen years ago. Logically, the first wife should have accused him of not getting over Erika, since Wife Number One was the rebound. But by the end, neither of them cared. The problem with Wife Number Two and, if he was honest with himself (there he went again), Wife Number Three, was that both of them cared.
He thought he had. But when he saw Erika this afternoon, he realized he was wrong. Or maybe he had been right on the word: He had cared. But he more than cared about Erika.
He loved her, even now.
The Christmas lights added to the city lights. New York was the only North American city that seemed brighter over the holidays than it did in the middle of the summer.
He had booked the play after the divorce was final, making all of his “people” scramble to get everything in place. If a show hadn’t closed at the Mary Martin he wouldn’t be here at all.
Live shows, December 23 to 30, including Christmas. And he had convinced himself that the schedule was all right; then he wouldn’t notice just how alone he had let himself become.
Maybe he wouldn’t have noticed if Erika hadn’t shown up. Erika, irreverent, goofy, then aloof and frightened (thanks, Dad), willing to go that extra mile for Roth’s talent, she said, even though it was her talent that got them booked. They were for a brief shining moment the Nichols and May of their generation, back when people knew who Nichols and May were and the comparison meant something grand.
Only Nichols and May hadn’t been in love with each other, although Roth later read that they had gotten too real on stage and that had convinced them to quit. He and Erika hadn’t gotten too real—too real involved suicides and stalking and darkness. Instead, they had gotten too far away from real. The humor got too light. The sarcasm they were known for, sarcasm Roth’s fans would be surprised to know he had within him, had vanished in froth. Erika used that as an excuse to stay off stage, so he got them a screen test in LA.
The morning of the test, she promised she’d leave their hotel after him, and she didn’t. He had to go on without her, and he did, and he didn’t get the role (of course) because it had been for a witty couple, but he did get another part, which led to yet another part, which led to the TV show, and the rest, as they said—whoever they were—was history. Not that it was meaningful history, but it was his history, not even her history, because he had gone back to the hotel and he had tried to reason with her, and she had burst into tears, told him he was too pushy and he didn’t understand and he reminded her of his father which was the worst insult ever and she couldn’t take it any more, so she wouldn’t.
She left, right then.
And he let her.
He convinced himself that he didn’t need her.
Of course, he lied.
Erika let all the girls go out to dinner, even those she had initially grounded. Hannah went too, but Erika called in one of the Brandis Tour staff members to tail Hannah like a bloodhound. The girl wouldn’t even go to the bathroom alone.
Erika remained at the hotel with Mrs. Markovich, who confirmed that no one had seen Hannah’s parents at the school for more than a year, not that anyone cared about the loss.
They’re nasty people, Markovich said. Always drunk, always mean. I’d heard he lost his job and had to relocate, but the wife wanted to stay in town, so she did. That way, Hannah could stay in school.
Gossip wasn’t an answer, so Erika used more connections. The local police were going to check with neighbors and get back to her. A detective friend was going to check credit card and cell phone records. It might cost her a bit of money, but she wasn’t going to send a girl back to a bad situation, not after the girl had asked for help.
Erika had been in a bad situation and never asked for help. She and Roth had decided to flee together. Fleeing, which used to be her response of choice, wasn’t as good as staying most of the time, but sometimes it was the only sane thing to do. Or so several of her counselors had said, as they tried to work through her fears.
Not that the fears entirely went away, as that creepy guy on the subway made her realize yet again.
It had been a perfect storm, one counselor had said to her. Parents who didn’t give a damn, a stalker who killed himself in front of you, and no one there to help you deal with the aftermath.
Roth helped, Erika had said timidly.
Sixteen himself, the counselor had said, and the son of the man who ruined both of your lives. Did you ever think he didn’t have the ability to handle the crisis any more than you did?
It was after that conversation she found herself watching Roth’s movies, and then going to his plays only when she knew he wouldn’t see her. It was, she suspected, her way of forgiving him for trying to make her into something she wasn’t.
She couldn’t handle the stage. She couldn’t handle all those people watching her. She had no idea how Roth lived the way he did, under such a microscope, with people who not only stared at him, but followed his every move. And being an actor—a superstar—meant that he had his own share of stalkers. The profession encouraged them.
Erika let go of the acting dream long ago. She drifted a bit, then came back to New York. Setting up the tours had been her way of inching back into the theater scene. She’d even enrolled in Tisch School of the Arts. She wasn’t enrolled for acting; she had enrolled for writing. Technically, her advisors at NYU had told her that she didn’t need to do this; her background lingered. Bad videos of her and Roth on stage, doing material she improvised, material she sometimes wrote, would have gotten her the work she craved.
Her therapist said she needed written courage, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. A piece of paper to give her legitimacy.
And the therapist was right: Erika wanted that. She wanted to be real, somehow, not this floaty terrorized creature, hiding behind a tough-woman mask.
Which was why she couldn’t let Hannah go without researching her situation. And now, time was of the essence.
Erika took a break from her computer work and the phone calls, and got some room service. She wondered what Roth was doing; the show was dark tonight, and would be dark for one more day. The actual performances started on Tuesday.
Her breath caught just thinking about him. She had never married, which she blamed on her stalker, but she could as easily blame it on Roth. Despite everything, she had loved him. It just wasn’t meant to be.
How could it? His father stalked her from the time she hit puberty and then, when she was just fifteen, he caught her alone and assaulted her. She told no one about that; she just avoided him. Nearly a year later, he caught her again. This time, he threatened her with a gun. Roth had interrupted them.
Roth, all big and strong and so angry. Roth, who was trying to get her out of the room, when his father turned the gun on himself.
Roth’s mother blamed Roth. And Erika. That measly excuse for a woman ran off when she realized that no one would take pity on her for being McKendrick’s wife. She had died of some kind of alcohol poisoning or maybe it was an overdose just a few months later.
That was when Roth told Erika he wanted to go to New York. He hadn’t tried acting before that. He was trying to take care of her. At least that was how it felt. Only she took care of him, nurturing him to get him on stage, writing his early material until he relaxed and blossomed in front of crowds.
She had withered, and he hadn’t even noticed. Or maybe he had, and it disgusted him. He had certainly married women who looked nothing like Erika—all tall and busty and blonde. He had dated women like that too. Erika was the aberration, and she knew it.
But that didn’t stop her from feeling like a lovesick kid when she looked at him this afternoon.
Someone knocked. Erika peeked through the keyhole, saw the room service waiter, then opened the door. At the end of the hall, an older man watched them. He made her heart pound.
The waiter pushed the food cart inside, and as he did, Erika stepped into the hall. The man seemed to vanish into his room. Erika didn’t even hear the door snick shut.
The room service waiter quoted her a price and she paid it. If she had been leading a tour of businesspeople, she would have charged it to their account. But schools couldn’t afford that. They couldn’t even afford the extra administrative room she usually insisted on, which was why Markovich lay kitty-corner on the bed, snoring as if nothing had happened all day.
Erika tipped the waiter and sent him on his way. She felt oddly dispirited. It was probably a result of seeing Roth, of all the reminders of the past. She didn’t usually look at older men peering out of their rooms in hotels and think they were dangerous—at least, she didn’t any more.
She had gotten better.
Just the combination of Hannah and Roth made her relapse. She would finish dinner, make sure the girls got back safely, and then head to her own apartment.
There, surrounded by her stuff, she would ground herself, so that she could be stronger in the morning.
The next morning, Roth found himself standing outside Brandis Tours. It was a tiny little office in a building that had somehow missed the neighborhood renovations. He couldn’t even see inside. He had to open the door, with Brandis Tours printed in tiny letters at eye level, and step into a narrow, somewhat cluttered corridor. A Brandis Tours sign pointed toward the back, past other closed doors, and he followed the corridor as if he were heading into hell itself.
It had been a long time since he’d been in a place this rundown. For years now, he had allowed his people to do errands for him. He had stayed inside a cocoon, and tried not to leave, pleading paparazzi, pleading celebrity, pleading nothing except selfish wealth.
He stopped for just a half-second outside the door that had Brandis Tours emblazoned across its yellow front. His heart was pounding as if he were going to go onstage. To be honest, it was worse than if he were going to go onstage.
He took a deep breath, remembered his lines—yes, he had planned lines—and then rapped on the door. The sound echoed in the hallway. He half expected the ghost to make some kind of snide comment about the vicinity, but the ghost had been unusually quiet the last 24 hours. In fact, Roth wasn’t quite sure when the ghost last appeared.
Roth knocked again, and while he waited, he burnished his lines. Would Erika believe he was just here because of the girl? Probably not. But the girl was part of the reason he had come. He had an obscene amount of money and if home truly were indescribable as the girl had implied, then maybe a tiny portion of that obscene amount of money would go to an attorney who could help emancipate her.
Roth had a hunch no one else had thought of that option; he certainly hadn’t at sixteen, and even if he had, even if his mother hadn’t rather conveniently kicked off, he wouldn’t have had the funds to hire an attorney to sever himself from her. Back then, he didn’t think in attorneys and legalities. He’d only learned that in Hollywood, and then because it was the only way to survive.
No one answered. He raised his hand to knock a third time, and then realized what he was doing. He couldn’t summon Erika through will alone. If he really wanted to talk to her, he probably had to call the Brandis Tours 800 number. But he was afraid of getting an over-the-phone brushoff that he knew he wouldn’t get in person.
Something crashed behind the door. He tilted his head, wondered if he had imagined that. Last night, he had dreamed about walking in on his horrid father menacing a frightened, half-clothed Erika with a gun. Erika had fallen backwards against a chair, then grabbed a book off the floor and tossed it at Roth’s father. That hadn’t slowed him down.
Another thump. Or crash. Or something Roth couldn’t identify.
It was probably harmless. It was probably another tenant. If he acted rashly, he would get sued or hit the tabloids or—
He didn’t care. He grabbed the doorknob, and was surprised when it turned under his hand.
He stepped inside an office not much bigger than his closet. Erika, white-faced, held a letter opener like a knife, her back against the desk.
A man leaned over her, a man who turned when Roth came in, a man with Roth’s eyes.
“You son of a bitch!” Roth said.
Erika swiped at the ghost, but of course the letter opener went through him instead of doing any damage.
The ghost’s obsession had lasted past death. Was it what kept the old man moving? Roth had thought maybe it was a final, misguided attempt to get his son’s forgiveness.
All those ghost rules his father had once complained about snapped into context. Maybe sticking with Roth was the only way the ghost figured he could get to Erika. Unfinished business and all that.
“Get out of the way, Erika.” Roth had no idea if the ghost could hurt her, but he’d seen indications that the ghost had gained solidity in the last few years. Maybe the ghost could control what he could touch and what he couldn’t.
Erika looked over the ghost’s shoulder at Roth. He could see it in her eyes: Not again! What is this?
“Get away from her.” Roth approached the ghost as if he were alive.
“Or what?” The ghost asked. “You can’t do anything to me. You’ve tried.”
Roth had tried everything he could think of. Spells from psychics. Sage in rooms where his father had been. Destroying the gun. Desecrating the grave. Quoting Shakespeare at the old man as if that would make him go away.
Everything except this.
Roth reached forward and grabbed the ghost by the throat. It was a real throat, except that it was cold and clammy. The skin actually felt dead.
“You’re no better than you were when you were alive,” Roth said. “You’re a useless bit of nothing and I’ve given you too much power. We both wear the chains you wore in life, and I, for one, am breaking them.”
He slammed the ghost against the wall. The ghost’s blue eyes widened in surprise. He had clearly felt that.
“It is your father?” Erika said as if she couldn’t believe it.
“Yeah,” Roth said, not letting go.
And then a Fury went by him in human form. Erika, launching herself at the ghost, fists clenched, hitting and screaming and kicking. The ghost was screaming now too, and trying to cover up his stomach, his groin, his entire self, but he couldn’t do it because Roth held him tight. Apparently, Roth was keeping him solid.
Good. The bastard needed to feel just a bit of the pain he had caused others.
Erika stepped back. She clearly saw the damage she had done, but she too had just figured out that it was impossible to kill something that had already died.
Death was a small punishment, one that the ghost had actually taken for himself. But death was only the beginning.
“I’m done with you,” Roth said.
“You’ve said that before,” the ghost said, his voice squeezed.
“I’m done keeping your secrets,” Roth said. “I’m going to tell the whole world what you did, how you died, what you were doing all those years, not just to Erika, but to other girls who somehow came to your attention. I’m going to tell everyone what a coward you were and how you couldn’t face anything, how you were so frightened you shot yourself rather than deal with me.”
The ghost’s neck felt less solid.
“And you’ll have to watch,” Roth said. “The whole world is going to know what an awful excuse for a human being you were.”
“You wouldn’t,” the ghost said.
“He would.” Erika leaned right into the ghost’s face. “And I’ll help. I’ll tell every single thing you did—”
“It’ll be about you,” the ghost said. “No one will respect you.”
“With the great Jaime McKendrick at my side?” she asked. “No one will respect you.”
The ghost looked at Roth in complete panic. “Son, if you ever loved me—”
“If I ever loved you, I don’t remember it,” Roth said. “No one remembers you with love or kindness. No one.”
The ghost’s eyes filled with tears. “You can’t….”
“Oh,” Erika said. “We will. And we will enjoy it.”
Roth’s hand slipped forward and hit the wall. The ghost had vanished.
Erika felt the air where the ghost had been. “Is he gone?”
“I don’t know,” Roth said. “But I’ve never been able to chase him off before. Usually he crosses the room and taunts me.”
“Has he been haunting you since…that day?”
Roth wiped his hand on his coat. He had been wrong about the goo. He felt like his palm was covered with it.
“Not visibly,” he said. “Not for years. But he slowly started to appear. And then he got more aggressive. I kept ignoring him. I thought that would make him go away.”
Erika let out a half-laugh. Then she bowed her head, and shook it.
“What?” Roth asked.
“Five different counselors,” she said. “They all told me that I can’t ignore the things that hurt me—”
“You confront them.” Roth had left one of the most recent counselors for saying the same thing. “They weren’t talking about ghosts.”
Erika did that Spock-thing with her eyebrow. “Weren’t they?”
Roth felt shaky. He looked at the wall, at his bruised knuckles, and then his knees buckled. He grabbed the side of a chair and eased into it.
“It can’t be that easy,” he said.
“You think that was easy?” she asked. “Five counselors. I couldn’t have gotten in your father’s face without them.”
Roth let out a small sigh. “That day, I should have pulled that gun away from him.”
“I don’t think you could have,” Erika said.
“I should have kept him away from you,” Roth said.
“You didn’t know what he was doing until that moment.”
Roth looked at her. “You’ve thought a lot about this.”
She nodded. “I had to. Otherwise, I would have been stuck, forever.”
They say that people stay the same age they were when they became famous, Wife Number Three said. You were, what?, twenty-five? You’re stuck there, Roth. You’re the most stuck person I’ve ever met.
He swallowed, then put his face in his hands. I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?
He’d been saying that all week, all fall, ever since he started doing A Christmas Carol. He had thought nothing more than lines in a play. But it wasn’t.
There was a reason people remembered that story.
Roth’s father still wore his chains. But Roth was still alive. He could break his chains. Forge new chains.
He looked up at Erika. “I’ve been unfair to you.”
She shook her head. “I’m the one who ran away from you.”
“We were kids,” he said, forgiving them both.
“We’re not kids any more,” she said.
He took her hand. It was warm and soft and familiar. How could a hand he hadn’t touched in fifteen years feel like one he touched every single day? One he needed every single day.
She slipped her hand out of his. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to talk about that girl,” he said.
“I never learned her name,” he said.
“She’s going to be eighteen in two months. The teachers are going to find her a new place to live, help her finish her last semester, get her to the right college. I was going to write letters and maybe research scholarships.”
“She won’t need a scholarship,” Roth said. “I can pay for—”
Erika put a finger over his mouth. He wanted to kiss it, but he didn’t. Not yet. “She needs to do this on her own. Or think she is. There are other ways to help.”
He gently removed her finger from his lips. “Like what?”
“I don’t know all of them yet,” she said. “But I’ll tell you as I learn.”
“You’ll stay in touch?” he asked.
“If you want me to,” she said.
Oh, God, he nearly said. Of course I do. I’ve felt so lost without you.
He would never say such things, never had said such things. Never would. Then he wondered why not. So he said, “I don’t ever want to lose you again.”
Erika stepped back. He felt it as if she had created a real absence.
“Did I say too much?” he asked. “I thought—”
“You just felt sorry for me,” she said. “That’s all. You never really cared—”
“Jesus Christ, Erika,” he said. “I still dream about you. I’ve missed you every single day. I’ve never loved anyone else.”
She stared at him. He held his breath. He’d never felt like this—hopeful and terrified at the same time.
Then she launched herself into his arms. He pulled her close. They were kissing and it felt like he had never been kissed in his entire life. Three wives, a dozen girl friends, even more groupies and stage kisses and this felt like the very first time.
He felt like a drowning man who had just come up for air.
“Don’t leave me again,” he whispered against her mouth.
She froze, then leaned back so he could see her stunning face.
“Don’t let me go,” she said.
“I won’t,” he said. “I promise.”
“I promise too,” she said, and went back to kissing him, as if they were buried in a pile of mistletoe.
He wasn’t sure he could make this work. But he knew, this was the first time in all of his relationships, in his entire life, that he wanted to make it work. On a deep level, an elemental level, down in his very soul.
Erika took his face in her hands, and smiled at him. And for the first time in years, he smiled back—a real smile, not a stage smile. A smile that came from deep within him.
A smile he knew he would only ever share with her.
Chains Copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch First published in Fiction River: Christmas Ghosts, edited by Kristine Grayson, WMG Publishing, October 2013 Published by WMG Publishing Cover and Layout copyright © 2014 by WMG Publishing Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing Cover art copyright © Maksim Shmeljov/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
I had a lot of time for reading in November, and I took advantage of it. Even with some missteps, I managed to read lots of good things. One misstep in particular disappointed me: a bookseller gave me an extra ARC he’d received from a writer we both love. The book was so dark, so depressing, and so hard to read that I finally gave up halfway through. Much as I loved that writer’s work, I would actually avoid my reading chair so I didn’t have to delve deeper into that novel. I don’t mind dark, usually. But I do mind unrelenting and hard to read. [sigh]
This month reaffirmed something I’ve always known about myself: I hate literary pretentiousness. And I found it in a lot of my reading. It didn’t help that the guest editor of The Best American Essays has wildly different taste than I do. I really don’t care about essays with one-page block paragraphs or lovely language. He also didn’t do the real work of editing, by putting stuff in an easily digestible order—instead having a raped/dead child section because the authors’ pieces were alphabetical instead of easing us in and out of the difficult essays. He didn’t do the worst job I’d seen of editing the year’s best essays—that was the poet a few years ago. But it was close. (And his introductory essay was almost unreadable.)
Of course, if he were to see this recommended reading list, along with the bestsellers and the tie-in novel, he would consider my opinion worthless. Because good people don’t let their friends read popular books. My mind must be cheese or something.
Some of the magazines had entire literary-pretension issues, which they do at times. It just happened to coincide with this year’s best essay reading—and ick. [sigh] One magazine had a long essay about the “problem” with The Goldfinch. The problem was that it was a bestseller—and it’s winning awards. That bestseller thing makes it trash, you know, so the awards are going to hell. At least, according to everyone quoted in that article. This is why we need gatekeepers. So that they can protect us from the books we want to read.
Enough snark. Moving on.
Thank heavens, I discovered Roxane Gay this month. Her essays have provided a tonic. I feel about her work the way I felt about the essays of Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, Alice Walker, and Ursula K. Le Guin when I discovered them. Finally, someone who gets it. Since I’m reading a collection of Roxane Gay’s work, you’ll see her mentioned here (and next month) quite a bit.
Atwan, Robert, “Foreword,” The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Usually I don’t recommend series editor Robert Atwan’s forewords to the Best American essays. They’re usually similar, and informative.
This year, though, he got a bee up his butt or something. He goes on about political correctness and how it’s harming the essay, which means it’s harming thought. He goes on for pages, writing an impassioned essay himself about expressing ideas and doubts that aren’t in the mainstream. Wonderful stuff.
Balogh, Mary, Only Enchanting, Signet, 2014. As regular readers of the Recommended Reading List know, I love Mary Balogh’s work. She often writes in series as defined by the romance world—books about related characters. In this case, the related characters are members of The Survivors Club, a group of Napoleonic war survivors who were badly injured and unable to return to normal life.
This book’s survivor, Flavian (don’t ask), has a traumatic brain injury. Only of course, in the early 19th century, it wasn’t called that. He has a lot of repercussions from the head injury, and lost his fiancée because the entire family thought him so damaged he would never recover. Initially, he couldn’t speak and had to relearn everything. He also had dark rages and holes in his memory.
Balogh doesn’t take the easy romance way out, where the hero overcomes his issues, and is finally able to be “normal” again. She works with the flawed material, gives the injured party a well matched partner, and lets the romance happen.
As a result, this book is surprisingly sweet. It’s a good, quick read.
Brenner, Wendy, “Strange Beads,” The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Brenner suffered a severe health crisis in the last decade, which, combined with the death of her ex-fiancé, sent her spiraling into depression. Oddly, a listing on EBay might have saved her. She explores collections and collecting, and their ties to identity and loss. Fascinating.
Child, Lee, Personal, Delacourt, 2014. When Child is on his game, he’s one of our best writers. He knows how to pace, has a firm command of viewpoint, and can write some of the best descriptions in popular fiction. His writing is light-years above any writing I saw in the pretentious literary reading I mentioned in the introduction.
The book’s title fits. Reacher gets called back to service by the U.S. government for an odd reason—he arrested a possible world-class sniper back in the day, and the government wants him to track the guy again. Only Reacher understands immediately that the government wants him as bait. The book proceeds from there.
Let me have a writerly geek moment, however. Child varies his Reacher books. Some are told from multiple points of view, in the third person including Reacher. Others are told in first person only, just from the perspective of Reacher.
Child doesn’t do this randomly. He makes sure form suits the function. When a Reacher book is first person, it’s because the plot wouldn’t hold if we were in the other characters’ heads. If the book is in third person, it’s often because Reacher can’t be everywhere and see everything the reader needs to understand for the novel.
Child presents a master class in point of view whenever he writes. Personal wouldn’t work in third person. And, you know what? It wouldn’t be personal either.
Dermatis, Dayle A., “Desperate Housewitches,” Uncollected Anthology: Winter Witches, Soul’s Road Press, 2014. I’m behind on some of my Uncollected Anthology reading from the previous group (including Dayle’s story), but I couldn’t pass this one up, just based on the title.
Trust Dayle to write a winter holiday story about the solstice and magic. She manages to combine the claustrophobia of a suburban neighborhood with the competitiveness that women sometimes engage in with holiday ritual. Only the holiday ritual here isn’t decorating a Christmas tree or singing carols (although there is a discussion of carolers that made me chuckle). Nope. This one is about pagan rituals. The story’s wonderful, funny, and a do-not-miss.
Fairstein, Linda, Death Angel, Signet Select, 2014. Very creepy book that I thought would be about the Brooke Astor problem. Turned out to be something else entirely.
A woman is found dead in Central Park beneath the statue of the Bethesda angel, Alex Cooper and the gang think maybe this is the first act of a deranged psycho. But it’s so much more. She takes us through the history of the park and the expensive buildings nearby like the Dakota, which I found just plain fascinating.
Fairstein, Linda, Night Watch, Signet Select, 2013. I almost didn’t mention this one because it makes me really uncomfortable. Cleary based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case a few years ago, the book made me feel like I’m reading a roman a clef. I probably was, despite all of her protests at the end. Still, I found myself thinking about it, and the difficulties of prosecuting a high profile case in this media culture. Because it wouldn’t let me go, I’m recommending it.
Fairstein, Linda, Terminal City, Dutton, 2014. This book came out in June. Again, I almost didn’t recommend it because the relationship between Mike Chapman and Alex Cooper had devolved into something verbally abusive. I’m still disturbed by that, even though they patch things up in the middle. That relationship—which has been becoming romantic—has gotten more verbally nasty in the last few books, and that makes me uncomfortable.
That said, I found everything else about this book fascinating. The Grand Central Terminal history, the Waldorf-Astoria stuff—much of which I knew. But Fairstein describes everything so very well that I really feel like I’m there as I read. I’m truly disappointed that I’ve come to the end of the binge. So it looks like I’ll be picking up the 17th book in the series when it appears next year.
Gay, Roxane, “I Was Once Miss America,” Bad Feminist: Essays, Harper Perennial, 2014. I cannot express how much I love this essay. It is, essentially, about being the nerdy kid who wants to belong. Gay starts with discussing the Miss America contest, and how empowering it was for all of us when Vanessa Williams won. (I now find it even more empowering that she has persevered after the “revelations” that forced her out of the crown, and how that incident is mostly forgotten.)
Gay starts there, but she doesn’t stop there. Instead, she moves to high school, the cool kids, and the Sweet Valley High books. She’s an unabashed fan of those books, and I find that marvelous. I wish I knew where this essay originally appeared, because I suspect she wrote in about Sweet Valley High in a respected literary journal, which is even more fun.
Her attitude toward the cool kids makes me think of the Echosmith song, “Cool Kids,” but Gay wrote the essay before that song appeared.
I’m amazed this essay didn’t appear in a year’s best. Probably because it discusses, in an almost fannish way, something that Lit Crit doesn’t allow (beloved books that are anything but canon). Wonderful. If you only read one essay in this book, this is the essay to read.
Gay, Roxane, “See Me, Feel Me, Hear Me, Reach Me,” Bad Feminist: Essays, Harper Perennial, 2014. Gay has divided her collection of essays into little sections. The section in which this essay appears is called “Me,” and while this essay is personal, it’s also a wise treatise on what we all think we have in common, and what we probably don’t. Just because we are the same gender or the same race or the same class doesn’t mean we are the same. She explores this in a quite moving way—actually starting and ending with the internet (internet dating sites to be specific)—and wanders, like personal essays do, into other equally fascinating territory.
Gay, Roxane, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” Bad Feminist: Essays, Harper Perennial, 2014. I never thought an essay about Scrabble tournaments would be so fascinating—and funny. Because she was bored in the small town where her new teaching job landed her, Gay started playing competitive Scrabble. (Dyslexic me would’ve watched more TV.) She describes her emotions, the other players, how competitive Scrabble works—and, oh my! The footnotes. They’re snide and fun. (“His name was Jim. [footnote: His name was not Jim].”) Lovely stuff.
Gay, Roxane, “Typical First Year Professor,” Bad Feminist: Essays, Harper Perennial, 2014. I come from a family of professors. I spent the first 21 years of my life in a university setting, and Gay nails it. The insecurity (of the professor), the difficulties with the students, the joys of teaching—all here, and delightfully portrayed.
Gordon, Mary, “On Enmity,” The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. A very disturbing essay on the meaning of the word “enemy.” She wrote it in little bits, and examines who and what could be someone’s enemy—from the seasons to a parent. Creepy and thought-provoking. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I read it.
Grisham, John, Gray Mountain, Doubleday, 2014. After I finished Gray Mountain, I combed the internet to see what the “real” critics had to say about it. I knew they would struggle: I had no idea how much.
The early critical journals that mostly write reviews for the book trade hated the book, because, they said, it wasn’t thrilling. Some newspapers (courageous types that still had review columns) mentioned the book, and then discussed Grisham’s stupid comments in October. (Don’t go there. I try not to.) Some papers and magazines actually got what he was trying to do.
Full disclosure: Despite the image of the running woman on the cover and the jacket copy, Gray Mountain is not a thriller. It’s not meant to be a thriller. It’s not even close to a thriller. It’s a literary novel.
Now, I know, as most publishers do, that the literary novel label will send 90% of you running in the other direction. And that’s too bad. Because Grisham combined two traditions: the literary novel about a single important turning point in a woman’s life and a muckraking novel of a kind we haven’t seen since Sinclair Lewis nearly 100 years ago. Grisham takes on Big Coal, and makes a case against it.
More to my taste, his case is also against the way that corporations and the law go hand-in-hand in some parts of America. Jeez, who else writes about corporations controlling the law—not someone who writes mysteries set on the Moon…? (I always love it when people tell me that the situations I set up in the Retrieval Artist novels would never happen. I smile to myself and move the conversation along.)
Anyway, because Grisham is an amazing storyteller, the book moves fast. Samantha Kofer loses her high-end lawyer job as the recession hits in 2008, and takes a position with a legal aid firm in Virginia. Cultures clash as she learns about small town life. Characters come alive, and Grisham even flirts with some romance tropes. The book made me laugh aloud in several places, particularly when it came to some estate business. About 30 pages from the end, I worried that Grisham couldn’t wrap up all the threads he had dangling—and yet he did.
Grisham has become the kind of writer I just love. I have stopped reading so many long-term bestsellers because they write the same book over and over again. Grisham does write about the little guy taking on a big bad corporation/evil a lot, but every writer has themes. Grisham uses different styles and different techniques to tell his stories.
Gray Mountain has more in common with Grisham’s short stories than it does with The Firm. And while The Firm was a kick-butt thriller, Gray Mountain is the kind of novel that introduces you to people, a way of life, and a point of view you might never have encountered before. Worth reading.
Lahr, John, “Caught in the Act,” The New Yorker, September 15, 2014. This long piece about the career of Al Pacino is fascinating. I didn’t know much of it, even though I love Pacino. I knew about his passion for acting, but not about some of the difficulties he encountered. (Everyone who works in the arts encounters difficulties throughout their careers.)
There’s a lot of good advice for writers here, mostly about perseverance. And then there’s this:
In mid-2010, Pacino learned that his business manager, Kenneth I. Starr, had been arrested for embezzling his clients’ money in a Ponzi scheme. (Starr is currently serving seven and a half years in prison.) There had been warnings. Early on, Mike Nichols, who had taken his money out of Starr’s company, had raised suspicions. “I’ll get to it,” Pacino told Nichols. “Then I never got to it,” he said. “Millions of dollars were gone,” [Lucila] Sola said. “Gone.”
Sigh. How often does this happen? Too often. Whenever someone else manages your money with carte blanche, that person will eventually either mismanage it to death or steal it. Most likely steal it.
The great thing about being in the arts is that you can generally earn your way back to solvency, which is what Pacino did. In fact he went beyond that.
It has taken Pacino four years to work himself back to a position where, he says, “compared to a normal person, I have a significant amount.”
The problem is that he had to take projects he wouldn’t normally take. They’re detailed in this part of the piece.
In the arts, money equals freedom. Managing your own money means managing your own freedom. Articles like this reinforce that lesson over and over again. At least for me.
Li, Yiyun, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Written in little sections like the Mary Gordon essay, mentioned above, Yiyun Li’s essay made me stop and think. Sometimes I had to stop between sections and contemplate what she was talking about. And the last few sections are just…amazing.
Smith, Dean Wesley, The Edwards Mansion, Smith’s Monthly, November, 2014. Another wonderful entry in Dean’s Thunder Mountain series. I have no idea how he keeps mixing time travel, westerns, and a touch of romance, and making it work, but he does. He starts with the woman who falls in love with an old mansion in downtown Boise, but she’s having trouble restoring it. Seems it has a ghost so terrifying that the contractors flee. Enter Bonnie and Duster Kendal, who have an idea about who that ghost might be. If you’ve read any Thunder Mountain books, you have an idea too—not that it matters. The journey is wonderful—and then there’s this twist in the middle… Oh, just read it.
Thomas, Jodi, Rewriting Monday, Berkley, 2009. I discovered Jodi Thomas through a Western romance anthology, and realized she’d published lots of novels. This one sounded like it would most interest me, and I ordered it. Turns out I was right.
I have no idea how the book was marketed, since I ordered based on the writer’s name, but I can tell you this isn’t a traditional romance—although the back cover makes it sound like one. Pepper Malone, on the run from her former boyfriend (and an embarrassing situation at her big-time newspaper job), ends up in Bailee, Texas. Desperate for money, she gets a job at the local weekly paper, run by Mike McCulloch.
McCulloch inherited the job, along with his niece, when his brother and father died within a month of each other. Sounds like you know where this’ll go, right? But it doesn’t go there in a traditional manner at all.
There’s some suspense here (a threat to the paper, for no reason anyone can comprehend), some small town family stuff (with other characters), and lots of no-one-is-what-she-looks-like going on here.
Delightful, heartwarming, impossible to put down—I have another Thomas book on the way.
Thomas, Rob, and Graham, Jennifer, Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, narrated by Kristen Bell, Random House Audio, 2014. Yes, I am a big Veronica Mars fan. Yes, I supported the Kickstarter. Yes, I literally bought the t-shirt.
I also love a well-written tie-in novel. However, I’ll be honest here: I can’t tell you if this book is well-written or not. I didn’t read it. I listened to it and, as Mystery Scene Magazine said about this audio book, you can’t go wrong with Kristen Bell narrating a Veronica Mars audio book. I do know a lot of the descriptions were Mars-worthy, and the pacing was off at times.
By pacing, I mean that the chapter ends felt random, and the places where I’m sure there were white spaces between sections felt more like chapter endings. For example, the entire main conflict resolves in the middle of a chapter and then the chapter continues for another 4 minutes (audiobook time). I was able to ignore most of that because I was listening, not reading, but I’m sure that would have annoyed me in book form.
But—and this is an important OMG kinda but—this tie-in is amazing. It does something that no tie-in novel is supposed to do. I’ve written more tie-ins than I want to think about and Rule #1 of tie-in writing is make sure the characters are the same at the end as they are in the beginning. (You know, like episodic TV used to be—no killing the main characters, no introduction of something life-altering, nada.)
In the middle of this book—something so breathtaking happens that I gasped aloud. And the changes continued all the way to the end. Wowza, wowza, wowza. It makes me believe that Rob Thomas really was involved with this book (like he said he was) rather than simply lending his name to it, like so many celebrities Dean and I ghosted for in the past.
If you’re a fan of Veronica Mars, do not miss this book. I’m actually waiting to preorder the next—which I will consume in audio, of course.
Here’s what I did: I had to finish the massive Retrieval Artist project. I was writing a huge story arc, something that ultimately became 8 books. I’d published the first book in 2011, the next in 2012, and I’ve been working on the remaining six ever since.
Oh, that sounds so orderly. Here’s the truth of it: I write out of order, so parts of all eight books have existed since 2008, when I started this project. I’ve struggled to write other projects as well—and often managed it—but about a year ago, I knew I would have to focus on this single project to finish it properly. And by focus, I mean pay attention only to that project, which is not how my hummingbird brain works.
I jettisoned dozens of other projects, said no to some short story assignments, pulled out of a major anthology when it became clear that the short story I was writing was really a novel, and I didn’t have time (or the mental capacity) to try something shorter.
Right there, I probably lost an opportunity or two in the future, because I’m sure that anthology editor won’t work with me again. (Of course, she was shaping up to be totally anal. I pulled out when she said that she would require us all to revise our story three times (without having read any of them), so losing her future invites really doesn’t bother me much.)
I generally write at least one (usually more) stories per year for the Dell Magazines. I wrote a few, but stopped in the summer. I begged off the Business Rusch when it became a distraction (and the news on publishing had slowed down to Hachette, Hachette, Hachette!).
I haven’t written in my other series for more than a year now. I have at least three novels that I started from various short stories that I haven’t been able to finish.
The effect of this writing gap are starting to show. My long-awaited Smokey Dalton novel appeared in March. If this were an ideal world, I should have another in spring of 2015. I haven’t gotten to it yet, although I know what it will be—and the next one after that too.
I wanted to write three Nelscott novels about a character who is not Smokey, and slated that project for December of 2013 (because all three novels had tried to be one novel and failed, so I had 50,000 words of all three), and couldn’t get to it. Which is a good thing, since last week, I figured out that I needed to go back to my very first idea for that very first novel about that side character, but write it from multiple viewpoints.
I haven’t written a Kristine Grayson novel in two (three?) years. I have managed novellas—and I just published one, which I wrote after finishing the Retrieval Artist project. I was going to finish that Grayson novella if it killed me. It’s a holiday novella, and I wanted it out for the holidays, but I wasn’t sure I could get to it. I wrote it in October, and was immediately relieved when my varied beta readers pronounced it good.
That was the first project I worked on since the Retrieval Artist focus, and my brain really had become mush. So I was happy that it worked out.
Now, the Grayson novella finished, two of the six remaining Retrieval Artist novels up for preorder (the other four are in the queue)—and I find myself without a real deadline for the first time in maybe 25 years.
By real deadline, I mean a deadline imposed by someone else, something that I have agreed to.
I’m pretty good at setting my own deadlines. I’ve functioned like that for years before I had my first story published, and I functioned like that in down times when book contracts were scarce.
But this is the first time in my memory where I could actually coast if I wanted to.
I don’t want to. I like working.
I have a Popcorn Kitten Problem. Remember the Popcorn Kittens? My writer friends and I developed the term based on
Click here to view the embedded video.of kittens popping in front of the camera like popcorn. We use that term to describe how our brains feel now that indie publishing has given us the opportunity to write whatever we want.
I know how to corral Popcorn Kittens. I’ve done it for years. I set a schedule and go.
The problem is that every single project feels pressing. I really want to write those three Nelscott novels. I really want to write a Grayson trilogy about the Interim Fates. I really want to write a bunch of short stories. I want to occasionally put up a business blog of some kind. I really want to write the next Fey books (when I can focus again). I really want to write the next Diving book (after I clear my palate of science fiction—a year in sf was a bit much for me). I really want to write the next book in an as-yet-unpublished series because I want to get that series started. I really want to write the next books after Snipers and The Enemy Within. I really want to…
You get the picture.
Often it helps me to look at all of these projects from a business perspective. Which part of my business do I need to tend to first?
The problem is that I have let almost every aspect of my multi-genre, multi-pen name career go so that I could finish the Retrieval Artist.
The other problem is that I’m a good enough businesswoman to know that the only person who cares about this is me.
Readers and fans will wait until I publish the next book. My favorite short fiction editors will also wait until I send them the right story. They don’t feel a ticking clock.
That knowledge usually tempers this feeling.
In this instance, it does not.
My usual tricks to corral these kittens aren’t working. Figure out which project is most important? All of them. Figure out which project is ready to be written? All of them. Figure out which project will help my career the most? Gosh, how do I figure that out in the modern era? Figure out some artificial deadlines and go for them? Maybe. Hmmm. Maybe.
Dean suggested that I make a list and take all these projects out of my head. He knows me, so he also told me I can modify the list as need be.
The thing is that I already wrote a list and chucked it. And then I wrote another list and chucked it. And I wrote a third list—well, you get the picture.
Every time I start something new, I think I should be writing something else. Every time I start a list, I write the number 1 and write five things next to it. (Yes, I know, that’s not helpful.)
Whenever I think I should just give up and read and see what’ll happen next, I pick up something I want to read for research.
I’m ready to work: I just have to figure out what’s next.
And I know, I know, I can probably multi-task. Write one thing in the morning, something different in the afternoon, research in the evening. I have some business duties that got piled on me this fall, and I have to do those too, even if they’re fun. And some health things that I can’t miss on or I have days where I’m only able to sit on the couch and watch television. So I must do those.
It’s one of those dilemmas I haven’t faced in years. I know a lot of you face them all the time, especially if you started in indie. I empathize.
I’m heading off to make my list now—and hope I stick to it.
But before I do, let me ask a favor of you: Please don’t ask me to write in your favorite series or tell me which project to do next. That just makes me want to do something else. Because I’m really, really contrary. (I have no idea how I managed to complete book deadlines. I think I filed them in the homework compartment of my brain, which was trained decades ago.)
I’ll get to whatever I get to. I’ll probably surprise myself.
In fact, I’m already surprising myself.
While I’m figuring out the fiction, I’ve been writing blog posts. I’m not coming back every week, but I’ll put up posts as I go along, like I promised when I quit in May. (I put up some in August that you might’ve missed because my RSS feed was down.)
This week, a reader asked me a Spade/Paladin question that has my brain churning. This morning, another reader asked me about a general question that brought to mind yet another series I’ve been waiting to start.
The brain’s working. It’s just full of kittens.
And I need to pick one.
(And as I typed that, my three-year-old self stamped her little foot and moaned dramatically, “But it’s so haaaaaaaard.”)
Wish me luck.
As I mentioned above, I’m back sort of. I’ll be doing business blogs and a few craft blogs when the mood strikes. But that’s the key. I’ll post when the mood strikes. I’m not going to post as often as I did for the first five years.
I will still put a donate button here. I’ve been looking at Patreon, and I wish it existed when I was doing the weekly blog. I don’t think I’ll use it. I want to keep my options open—so that I can go dark for six months, if I feel the need.
But I did miss you, and I hope you come visit from time to time.
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“Business Musings: “The Popcorn Kitten Problem,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
“Inspiration” by USA Today bestselling writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this site for one week only. The story’s also available on most online retail sites, including Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.
The free story will be available for one week only. If you missed this one, click on the links above. There’s another free story lurking somewhere around the site. Track the story down, read, and enjoy!
“Harold Angel” by World Fantasy Award winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available on most online retail sites, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.
The free story will be available for one week only. If you missed this one, click on the links above. There’s another free story lurking somewhere around the site. Track the story down, read, and enjoy!
You can find this volume on all the ebook sites and in many bookstores. But here’s the secret: You can also get it as part of a Holiday StoryBundle that I’m in. In fact, you can get both of Kevin’s holiday anthologies, Fiction River’s holiday anthology Christmas Ghosts, and my Kristine Grayson Santa novella from last year, Visions of Sugar Plums. (In case you haven’t noticed all the covers on this site, the new novella came out this week.) In addition, you can get Carole Nelson Douglas’s wonderful A Wall Street Christmas Carol, the first holiday novel Dean’s ever written—the heartwarming and strange Heaven Painted As A Christmas Gift, Mark Teppo’s marvelous Rudolph!, David Sakmyster’s amazing Silver and Gold, and a collection of incredible holiday stories from Jody Lynn Nye.
If you do holiday reading like I do, we have you covered this year. You can set your own price for the StoryBundle, and get a lot of great reading for the price of one of my novellas. For the price of a paper copy of one of these books, you can get all of the titles. (You have to pay a little extra to get the bonus books.) And–in the spirit of the season–you can designate some or all of your money to go to one of three charities.
You can also order these as presents, although I’m not sure how gifting works at StoryBundle. I just know it does. (And in that spirit, you have less than a week to get 12 writing books from another StoryBundle as presents for all the writers on your list.)
I tell you about this now so you can get reading. Because if you’re like me, the bulk of your holiday reading occurs between now and New Year’s Eve. Go forth, order, enjoy, and get your heart warmed. And drink a little hot chocolate for me.