By day, my wife leads a normal, busy life: doctor, business owner, teacher of medical residents. But when she steps through the door at the end of the day, she pretty much turns into one of theX-Men— with superhuman olfactory powers.
Just the other evening, for instance, Ingrid came home from work, stopped short in the living room, and sniffed the air. “Can’t you smell that?” she said, an edge to her voice.
“Smell what?” I said, looking up from my computer, where I was writing this blog post.
“You’re telling me you don’t smell it?” She glared at me.
Honestly, I smelled nothing. So she led me right to a corner of the carpet two rooms away and pointed out a faint yellowish stain. Suddenly, there came a whining from under the couch. One of our two dogs huddled there, quivering with guilt and fear, evidently having earlier emptied its little bladder on the carpet.
My wife scolds me for not noticing, as if I’m the culprit in this scenario, and hands me a paper towel roll and a bottle of stain remover. For a brief moment I feel like huddling under the couch next to the dog and whining, “But I didn’t pee on the rug.” But one more look from my wife, and I’m on my hands and knees, scrubbing.
Such is the power of my wife’s sense of smell. Gotta admire it. Sure, women in general have a stronger sense of smell than men. This is well documented by scholarly articles in science journals. The average guy can’t smell anything less than a pile of rotting garbage. But the average woman can detect body odor from an old man several rows away in a crowded movie theater.
My wife’s sense of smell takes this truism to new heights. She can smell a rotting apple from 100 feet away. Her heightened olfactory sensitivity stands in sharp contrast to my own. Ironically, I’m the one with the big schnoz. But it fires blanks. There could be a three-month old chicken in the fridge, and I wouldn’t necessarily smell it. She, on occasion, regularly sniffs food and tosses it out before it turns bad.
Impressed by my wife’s sense of smell, I suggest she join the X-Men, but she waves away this suggestion. Don’t be intimidated, I say. Sure, Wolverine has mutant fingernails that turn into claws enabling him to defeat evil mutants. And Storm has glowing eyes that trigger major weather systems, such as hurricanes and tornados, beating back the enemy.
But Ingrid also has a superhuman talent that could help improve the world. Perhaps the U.S. Border Control could hire her to sniff for drugs at the airport. She’d not only locate narcotics hidden in old socks in suitcases, but she could tell you country and date of origin, purity, and when the socks were last washed.
She smiles, thinking I’m making fun of her. But I point out similarities. All X-Men have a backstory as to how their powers originated, and my wife is no exception. Wolverine was born with the “X” gene, giving him retractable claws and incredibly fast healing powers, but his abilities were heightened by government researchers who injected his skeleton with a special alloy that made it indestructible.
My wife, for her part, was born with the “S” gene, but its potential wasn’t fully realized until she underwent morning sickness thirteen years ago and began detecting smells from several blocks away. At the time, I was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. She said that the chemo made me smell like, well, chemicals, and more than once insisted I shower before I lay down next to her to go to sleep.
Today, even though our daughter has long since emerged from the womb, Ingrid retains much of the super-powerful sense of smell she developed back then. Still, my wife is humble about her abilities. “It’s not that my nose is stronger than other people’s,” she insists. “It’s that you don’t have a sense of smell.”
As she says this, we’re eating salad at a restaurant, but her face has turned long and she’s not eating and she grips hers fork tightly. “The tomatoes are rotten,” she confidently declares.
“Tastes fine to me,” I say, but chew more slowly. What if she’s right? Perhaps the rotten tomato has been placed there by Magneto, the X-Men archenemy who presides over “evil mutants” – those who use their super powers not to help society but to hurt it.
Just in case, I add a few extra shakes of Russian dressing to my salad.
(Ruminator’s note: Part of an occasional series, this essay is a factual retelling of events depicted in my upcoming novel)
Of everything that’s happened to me in life, perhaps nothing upset my moral compass more than when I changed the locks on my first wife. Even now, thinking back to 1994, it’s tough to believe I did it. Or that it happened at all.
And yet the memory remains vivid, the scene clear as day. It’s late autumn. Evening. I pace the living room of our fourth-floor Brooklyn apartment, sweat dampening my shirt. My father sits on the sofa, watching me from beneath his head of gray hair. The shiny new lock I had installed earlier that day stares out from the front door like an all-seeing, guilt-invoking eye.
“Make the damn phone call already,” says my father, who I’ve asked over for psychological, and possibly physical support. “Just get it over with.”
I phone my wife at her mother’s, where she’s eating dinner. I tell her, in my best diplomatic voice, I’ve changed the locks on her. She could come by at a mutually convenient date to pick up her stuff.
“You changed the effing locks?” she says.
After she slams down the phone, my father asks how it went. I don’t answer, just stare out the window at the street four stories below. At the tiny cars streaking past.
It’s been a long year for me – getting diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the same time my marriage went south. As the wound from my neck surgery healed, a wound in our relationship opened up. “It’s like a part of me is dying,” she told me after learning my cancer was incurable. Instead of touching me in a good way, her declaration of empathy seemed to me a sign of weakness. I felt less patient with things that only half-worked. I didn’t have time for half-ass anymore; I didn’t have the luxury of breaking up years down the road. She spent more time at her mother’s; I’d taken to sleeping on the living room sofa. But she’d refused to separate.
Fifteen minutes after my wife slams down the phone, my father and I hear a car squeal up. Red lights flash across the window. We simultaneously gaze down through the glass panes at the street below. Two cops step out of a squad car. My wife and mother-in-law emerge from the back of the squad car. Thinking fast, I run over to the phone and call my lawyer, who lives nearby, and tell him to come over ASAP.
After all, it was his idea. Meeting him several weeks earlier, I told him the stress of living with my wife was compromising my immune system. She’d refused to consider separation. The lawyer laid out a method he’d honed with numerous clients. He drew up a letter giving her a month to vacate the apartment. Since I’d bought the place before the marriage, which presumably was of short duration, I legally owned it and could do with it as I wished. But that night she tore up the letter in front of me. So my lawyer went to Plan B.
At first I argued against it. Honestly, locking her out felt extreme. Wrong. Went against what I’d been taught about marriage. My first wife and I had
signed a Ketubah before witnesses, a Jewish document declaring I’d take care of her through thick and thin. Still, my heart needed immediate action, and I knew she could just stay at her mother’s. If I thought too much I might chicken out, and I couldn’t endure another day of living with a woman who felt as if part of her were dying. So I OK’d Plan B.
The downstairs doorbell sounds. I buzz the four of them in and there are the thumps of many shoes ascending four flights of stairs, loudening.
Twisting the new deadbolt, I open the door.
A pair of white cops stare back at me like disapproving bookends, on either side of a steaming mad mother-daughter team. My father stands shoulder-to-shoulder with me. For a long awkward moment the six of us linger in the doorway getting the feel of things. My heart hammers against my chest. If Hannibal could sneak forty elephants and 50,000 men across the Alps in three weeks flat to defeat the Romans, I strain to reassure myself, maybe I could do the Brooklyn version.
“Ahem!” the bigger cop says, gaze darting between my father and me. “Which one of you gents is Mr. Kalish?”
“We both are,” my father says, supportively.
“He’s the one,” my wife says.
“I see. Mr. Kalish, did you change the locks on your wife?”
“I guess so.”
“Did you or did you not?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Sir, you can’t lock your wife out of the marital abode. You got to give her what, forty days notice?”
“Thirty,” the shorter cop corrects.
Something hard and small sinks in me. My brain pulses with a nightmare vision of living with a seriously scorned woman, stress fueling my cancer.
But just then the door buzzer sounds, like the cavalry. I run down four flights of stairs and greet my lawyer at the downstairs door.
Now, let me tell you about my lawyer. Back then he’s in his seventies, overweight, with bad knees. He meditates on the four flights of stairs. “You got an elevator here?” he asks.
I shake my head; he grunts. Lifting one foot, he places it on the first step. He ascends like a gimpy sloth. The third step grows into the fourth. Fifth into sixth. Finally he reaches the top, gasping, and strides over to the cops in the hallway.
“I’m David’s lawyer,” he declares. “How can I help you?”
The cops reiterate I don’t have the right to lock my wife out of the apartment because “she’s still his wife.” But my lawyer cites legal code to the contrary, and hands them a document signed by a family court judge. I can’t help but admire my lawyer in that moment: the cops gaze longingly down the flights of stairs, as if dreading a Kathmandu-sized mountain of paperwork piling up on their desks into the wee hours.
“What’s going on here?” my mother-in-law demands.
The policemen scratch their hats; the taller clears his throat. “Ahem! Why don’t you grab what you need for now, Mrs. Kalish? Pillow, underwear, that sort of thing. Blender. You can arrange to pick up the rest of your stuff at a later date.”
“There’s nothing I even want,” my wife says in a shaky voice. Her mother reddens, facing me. “We’ll see you in court, you son of a bitch!”
“You don’t talk to my client,” my lawyer retorts. “You talk to me!”
“We’ll see about that!” The cops’ eyes dart between my lawyer and my mother-in-law. There’s nothing more to say. My soon-to-be ex and her mother stomp down the stairs, followed by the cops.
“Congratulations,” my lawyer tells me. “You have your place back. Your peace of mind.”
I shake hands with him and my father, thanking them both, dreading my lawyer’s bill. Sure, I have my place back. But when they leave me alone in my newly bachelor apartment, it feels eerily empty, as do I.
I’m alone, truly. When my heart finally stops racing, I feel guilty about the lockout. How could I do that to my wife? I reassure myself she’ll stay at her mother’s place until she finds her own. But a few weeks later, a judge rules that I pay my wife $10,000 to compensate for the loss of her home, wiping away my last traces of survivor’s guilt.
Memory is funny. Just when you think it fits into a nice pattern – defining who you are today — you come across a part that doesn’t fit. Who you are today doesn’t seem like the same person who did that thing.
It’s as if I’m writing about someone else. And in fact, I did. For my novel, I changed the names, and twisted reality, to distance myself from the hard truth. Because sometimes we look back and think,Wow, did I really do that? Must have been a twin brother.
Yes, I actually went through those things. But so did my twin brother.
After my first marriage ended in a police showdown in 1994, and the wounds from my cancer surgery healed, I flew to Mexico for a nine-day vacation in a remote stretch of Pacific Coast. I badly needed to get away. Down there I met a 19-year-old senorita, Ester, who spoke about seven words of English, about the same as my Spanish.
How we managed to date over the next five years, during my twice-yearly vacations in Mexico, is a mystery to me I’m still sorting through. There were staggering differences between us – of age, culture, and language, not to mention 3,500 miles. Our conversations were confined to basic sentences, often with the help of a Spanish-English dictionary. But sometimes words matter less than actions. My first marriage left me feeling as if I could never love, or be loved, again; my incurable cancer made me feel it didn’t matter. But Ester, from our very first date, showed me a kindness and courage that gradually convinced me otherwise.
I met her in the developing resort region of Huátulco, at a souvenir shop where she worked. I bought some pottery there and the next-store shopkeeper playfully urged me to ask her out. What the hell, I thought. I was attracted to her exotic looks – long black hair, dark features, slim figure. She moved with Latin grace. The shopkeeper translated for me; that evening I not only took out Ester but several cousins of hers and other relatives. We went to a local disco where I made a fool of myself on the dance floor. But a few nights later her family allowed me to see her alone, and I took her to dinner at a restaurant on a beach.
I’ll never forget that evening. The moon, our candlelight. As waves whispered darkly against the shore, the waiter set in front of me an eighteen-inch long Pacific Coast lobster, its shell black and hard as metal. I felt overwhelmed, not knowing where to start. Without my asking, Ester took my plate, plunged a steak knife into the hard shell, slit it down the back, and unsheathed the succulent meat for me. A few minutes later she returned my plate to me. Gracias, I said, staring at my lobster in the moonlight.
I wasn’t used to a woman so caring and direct. On some neglected level it felt right. I’d exited my first marriage thinking, in a misguided old-fashioned way, that the man should take care of the woman, moreso than she of him. Ester’s example reassured me of another possibility that felt closer to how things should be.
Over the next five years, I returned to Mexico at least twice a year to see Ester. When I wasn’t seeing her, I lived my busy life in New York — working long days at The Associated Press as a reporter, commuting by subway. And during that time, I went through a string of far briefer relationships with American women. At first I told Ester nothing about them. With each relationship I took mental notes, and none seemed as kind or genuine as Ester. Once, she asked me if I was dating in the United States, and I admitted to it. She asked me if I planned to marry her, saying her relatives asked her all the time. She said they thought I was stringing her along. They were right. I was selfish. I am sorry now; I was going through a certain stage of life back then and if it all happened again I’d probably do it all over. That Ester continued to accept me made me feel even more accepted, though in a guilty way.
As you may be aware if you follow group psychology, two oddly convincing hoaxes were perpetuated on the American people in the last three-quarters of a century.
The first occurred in 1938, when Orson Welles broadcastWar of the Worlds, a simulated newscast of a Martian attack on our planet. Mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners. Residents fled homes to escape what they thought was a gas raid by aliens. Calls swamped police. People kissed loved ones goodbye, as if for the last time.
The second oddly convincing hoax happened in my blog post last week when I pretended to be freaking out over the wave of marijuana legalization sweeping the nation — and proposed the use of time management techniques, group therapy, and sweat-lodge retreats to keep stoners from wreaking havoc on society.
“Shouldn’t we nip the problem in the marijuana bud,” I wrote, “before stoned bureaucrats at the Social Security Administration mail out disability checks to several million deceased Americans? Before NASA sends the next multi-billion dollar Mars Rover to Venus by accident, where it abruptly disintegrates upon entering the boiling hot atmosphere? Before a wasted president of the United States, God forbid, mistakenly presses the button instead of the letter ‘T’ on his keyboard?”
While my readers didn’t flee into the streets screaming, some took my spoof of pot reform seriously. They suspected I was a right-wing nut job, or at least an old fuddy-duddy — someone who feared that the addition of tens of millions inexperienced or more frequent users threatened the very fabric of American society.
The reaction by some of my public surprised me much as I imagine it must have surprised Orson Welles, who meant his broadcast in fun.
“Allow me to summarize David’s post in four words,” one reader commented: “I’m an OLLLLLLLDDDDDD MAAANNNNN.”
“Maybe the opposite of your worries would come true,” another commented. “Maybe all those people who pop pain pills illegally or drown their sorrows would turn to marijuana and be safer.”
One reader thoughtfully pointed out flaws in my proposal. “Trying to put pot smokers on a schedule would be a huge failure, as most of us lose track of time quite frequently.”
“I think you need to lay off the crack,” another succinctly wrote.
My first reaction to this sort of reaction was, OMG! Where did I steer people wrong? Because I’m frankly a pretty liberal guy. Confusing me with a member of the Tea Party is like saying Al Gore drives aHummer. (On the positive side, my post drew more than 700 readers over two days — among my highest two-day totals since I started blogging in September).
Surely, I’d dropped enough clues that my piece was spoof. The image I chose was a satirical poster on the dangers of marijuana, a “weed with roots in hell”: “Weird orgies.” “Wild parties.” “Unleashed passion.”
“Let’s apply time-management techniques and team-building to control a potentially chaotic situation,” I wrote as a caption.
Then again, Orson Welles also left clues that his fictional presentation wasn’t serious — evidently not enough, like mine. His War of the Worlds aired a disclaimer at the beginning, but many people tuned in too late to hear it. Compounding the realism, the episode was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, and the show had no commercials. During the course of the show regular programming “breaks down” as the studio seems to struggle with casualty updates, firefighting, and the declaration of martial law by New Jersey state militia.
My own mistake, a writer-friend of mine pointed out, was that the first few paragraphs of my satire sounded too serious in tone. So some readers who made it that far figured, maybe, just maybe, this guyis a conservative nut-job.
“You’re kidding right?” one reader commented. “I mean, is this satire? Because nowadays, you never know. Some of the ideas people come up with these days are crazier than the satire of a few decades ago.”
I’m not a big TV watcher, but in the 1990s I was hooked on Seinfeld, the classic sitcom featuring Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. As I sat in bed splitting my sides, I hardly suspected the show about nothing would help me frame the theme for my novel, The Opposite of Everything, nearly two decades later.
One episode in particular, “The Opposite,” stayed with me long after it aired in 1994.
In it, George Costanza is so fed up with life he resolves to do the complete opposite of what came normally. He orders the opposite of his normal lunch, and introduces himself to a beautiful woman who happens to order the same lunch, saying “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” To his surprise, she is impressed and agrees to date him.
George explains his transformation to Jerry:
It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.
The “opposite” concept appealed to me as a novelist on several levels.
Looking back on the 1990s, I sometimes felt as hapless as George. I was a busy New York City journalist struggling through stress at work, health problems, and a failed marriage. So when I sat down to write my book, long after Seinfeld went into repeats, I drew on the opposite theme for inspiration. My struggle to write the book echoed the life it depicted. At times, I wanted to run away from both. Instead I fictionalized the trauma, viewing my life through a contrarian lens. The further I distanced myself it, the less I felt like a victim.
Like George, my main character, Daniel Plotnick, partly based on me, resolves to do the opposite of everything that hurt him. Plotnick’s philosophy gels after his father accidentally pushes him off the GW Bridge:
“While the opposite concept was not new to him, never before had it resounded so emphatically, as he lay in a hospital bed, lucky to have survived at all. He resolved to go when the proverbial light was red. Stop on green. Eat chocolate ice cream when he craved vanilla. Choose a woman not at all like his ex-wife. Never go to the Catskills again—or talk with his father.”
Deciding to get remarried, he plots to make his second wedding the perfect opposite of his first. He cancels the caterer, corrals guests to cook, and replaces the priest with Buddhist monks. But his contrarian strategy collapses when he undergoes chemotherapy during his wife’s pregnancy.
Their side effects scarily converge. They both turn queasy. He loses hair; she grows hair in new places. Something grows inside each of them. Ultimately, the birth of their daughter reaffirms Plotnick’s faith in a more benign growth — the one to be nurtured with love and caring.
Let’s apply time-management techniques and team-building to control a potentially chaotic situation
The thing I like about blogging, aside from having a great excuse to avoid doing chores around the house, is that I get to dream up bizarre ideas and run them past you, my readers, to make sure I’m not totally crazy.
This past week, for instance, an idea came to me as I listened to news that Colorado and Washington legalized pot use for pleasure, nudging the nation into uncharted territory. Already two dozen states allow medical marijuana, and New York State may not be far behind. Taken as a whole, these moves could open up the floodgates to millions of new weed smokers. And therein lies the conundrum.
Sure, state legislators are treading carefully. They’re debating how to measure people’s blood levels if caught driving stoned. But they’re missing the larger impact of potentially millions of Americans losing their grip on reality. Which is what could happen when inexperienced users get high for the first time – or existing stoners smoke far more regularly because they no longer have to sneak around.
It’s not hard to imagine America taking a major hit to productivity and the efficient functioning of society. It’s not hard to imagine stoned CPAs messing up on tax returns. A truck driver delivering sausage to a shoe factory. A plumber forgetting to install the flush mechanism in toilets. A resort operator with the munchies deciding to build a Dunkin Donuts in the middle of the advanced slope at Vail Ski Resort. Insanely smiling cops telling New York City drivers to stop on green and go on red, traffic backed up for miles. Stoned spouses too spacey to have sex.
And that’s where my idea comes in – a corporate-style solution with potentially broad appeal that applies high-level organizational standards to a chaotic situation.
Here’s what I propose: a pot-smoking group that uses time management techniques, role playing and sweat lodge retreats to help stoners live more fulfilled, productive lives through weed. (Devoted readers may recognize this as the plot of a future novel of mine; click here).
A bit extreme, you say? Well, bear with me. Unlike alcohol, which drink by drink makes you louder and less coordinated and less careful, just a few hits of pot can distort our spatial perceptions and wreck our short-term memory (so I’ve read in several scientific journals).
Granted, the examples of potential problems I offer are extreme. But now’s the time to act before they get even worse. Shouldn’t we nip the problem in the marijuana bud, so to speak, before stoned bureaucrats at the Social Security Administration mail out disability checks to several million deceased Americans? Before NASA sends the next multi-billion dollar Mars Rover to Venus by accident, where it abruptly disintegrates upon entering the boiling hot atmosphere?
Before a wasted president of the United States, God forbid, mistakenly presses the button instead of the letter “T” on his keyboard?
As its first major activity my group – tentatively titled, Pot Smokers Unanimous — would dispatch a nationwide network of marijuana coaches to help stoners create pot-smoking schedules, built around times during the day when they must function normally, and other times they can “check out.”
The schedules would be enforceable. Errant pot smokers who go “off schedule” would lose their weed privileges. Those who adhere would be rewarded with more flex time.
PSU would offer group therapy meetings for members to practice memory exercises and visualization techniques to teach them how to act normal while wasted. How to keep a coherent conversation and tell a joke without forgetting the punchline. How to give a lecture, say, before a Computer Programming Conference on how the forces of genericity and indexing balance each other, simultaneously promoting and controlling generality in programming. Without cracking up in the middle.
During PSU therapy sessions, joints would get passed around, clouds of smoke drifting across the room, as mentors test participants’ ability to counter-argue and keep track of talking points, all while incinerating lungfuls of weed
It’s a tricky situation, for sure. Intrinsic in the THC experience is chaos — the opposite of order. We all seek the mindful blur but are hard-pressed to see past it.
But my corporate-style approach, I believe, could have broad bi-partisan appeal – especially with Tea Party conservatives pissed over the electoral swing toward a drug they publicly despise. They’re in a bind over not wanting to take sides with liberals, but clearly wouldn’t want to miss out on millions of stoned voters.
By uniting in a coherent fashion behind this contentious issue, let’s find a solution before it’s too late. The time to act is now.
What do you think? Am I totally crazy? I’m eager to hear your comments.
In my last post, I talked about how tense I felt about my book tour this spring. I half-jokingly mentioned I’d love to hire my main character to impersonate me. A more confident, smoother version of myself, who wouldn’t mind getting up in front of a book crowd.
Well, you can imagine my delight this week when my publisher,WiDo Publishing, managed to arrange a meeting between us!
So on Tuesday, I took an Amtrak down to Manhattan and we sat down for an hour at a bar on the Lower East Side, where my character, Daniel Plotnick, knows the bartender and gets his beers for free.
Here’s how the interview appears this morning in my publisher’s blog, entitled “A Matter of Characters,” exploring the interesting and sometimes contentious relationship between authors and their characters:
WiDo Publishing: Welcome, both of you! It’s a pleasure to introduce not just the author but the main character of the book he wrote.
Daniel Plotnick: Well, it strikes me as bizarre, to say the least.
David Kalish: It’s my pleasure to be here. I’m so honored.
WiDo: To start off, David, why don’t you tell us a little about your book and why you chose Daniel Plotnick for your main character.
DK: Be happy to.The Opposite of Everything is a comedic twist on my own struggles with disease and divorce. The book started out as a memoir, but morphed over the years into comedic fiction. Early on in the writing process, I found I needed to distance myself from material that otherwise might be too overwhelming for me to write about. So I changed the facts, stretched truths, made up new names, and invented impossible scenarios.
Daniel Plotnick, my main character, is a prime example. He goes through what I went through – cancer, marital collapse, treatment and renewal. But he’s a zany, more hapless version of myself. He’s so traumatized by his problems he goes gothic. Wears a nose ring. His father accidentally pushes him off the GW Bridge. He decides that, in order to survive another day, he must do the opposite of everything he did before. Thus the title of the book.
DP: Wait a second. You make me sound like your developmentally disabled brother. A real nut job.
DK: Well, I didn’t mean to. I wanted to make you a more interesting version of myself. You take risks. You go off on philosophical tangents. And if it’s any comfort, all my characters are a bit extreme.
DP: Yeah, but I’m the main one. Why pick on me?
WiDo: OK, let’s move on. Can you give us some examples, David, of how you stretched reality for comic effect?
DK: Be happy to! In my novel, Daniel Plotnick meets the woman of his dreams. But he’s so obsessed with making his second wedding the opposite of his first – to avoid repeating his failure in marriage — he cancels the caterers, corrals guests to help cook, and replaces the priest with Buddhist monks. Another example of something I made up is when Plotnick’s father and his second wife try to help Plotnick and his second wife conceive a baby. None of this, of course, actually happened to me.
DP: Yeah, but it happened to me. You used me as your whipping boy. Couldn’t you have picked on someone else?
DK: Sorry. Most of the bad things I make you go through are to help you develop as a character. By the end of the book, you’re a lot more expressive and introspective in a wise way because of everything you’ve gone through.
WiDo: Let’s move on here. David, I understand your book tour starts in March, shortly after release. You’ve got a pretty busy schedule – Saratoga on March 20; Brooklyn, March 27; Saratoga again in April. Boston in May. Are you stressed out?
DK: Stressed out is understating it. I’m not really a public person. That’s why I became a writer in the first place. In fact … (DK pulls out a sheath of papers) … In fact, I’d like Daniel Plotnick here to pinch hit for me.
WiDo: What a great idea! That would be the first time one of our authors teamed up with a protagonist on a book tour.
DK: I figured if Plotnick is crazy enough to wear a nose ring and go goth then he should have no problem presenting my novel to a crowd, risking his dignity.
WiDo: Well, Daniel Plotnick, how do you feel impersonating the author who invented you?
DP: This is news to me.
(DKshows DP the papers)
DK: I have a contract for you to sign, Daniel. It states you agree to play me in all public appearances – “including but not limited to book stores, libraries, and conferences” — promoting my forthcoming novel,The Opposite of Everything.
DP: (laughs). Give me a break! No way I’m getting up in front of a crowd. I’ve got enough problems with cancer, divorce, and all those other problems you gave me. It’s not easy being me.
WiDo: Perhaps I can interject here. Mr. Plotnick, as you know, the book tour is important to selling books. If no one buys Mr. Kalish’s books, you will be as anonymous as he. Your stake in this is as great as him.
DP: I don’t care about the book tour. Besides, this so-called contract is just another way for Kalish to control me. He thinks he’s God and I’m his sock puppet. It’s enough he took away nearly all the exclamation points from my dialogue. Now when I talk I feel blah.
WiDo: Er, removing those exclamation marks was our suggestion, Daniel. It’s part of the copy editing process. There were 884 exclamation marks in David’s novel. Way too many for a 200-page novel.
DP: So I’m the happy victim? I’m tired of being controlled!
DK: I’m pleading with you, Daniel.
DP: You dug your own grave, bro. I’m not subjecting myself to yet another stressful experience. It’s enough you named me Daniel Plotnick. Where’d you get that dweeby name anyway?
DK: It just came to me. I was lying in bed dreaming, and your name spoke to me. I could hear it when I woke up. Daniel Plotnick. Daniel Plotnick. Daniel Plotnick.
DP: Really? My name came to you in a dream?
DK: That’s right. You’re everything to me, Daniel. Without you … I’m just an ordinary person.
DP: I’m flattered. But I’m still not getting up on stage for you.
WiDo: Well that about wraps up our interview today. Check out the blog post at “A Matter of Characters,” featuring author David Kalish and his hapless protagonist, Daniel Plotnick.
DK: So you’re not going to help me? What am I supposed to do? Take public speaking lessons?
DP: My suggestion, young man, is to start drinking. Heavily. Here. Have a beer. It’s free. I know the bartender.
This month I enter the final stretch before my novel, The Opposite of Everything, is published on March 11. I’d be dishonest saying I wasn’t nervous going into it.
I’m holding my book launch on March 20 at Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga. Another launch event at Powerhouse on Eighth, a Brooklyn bookstore, on March 27. On April 10, I’m booked in an hour-long event at Saratoga Springs Public Library. In May I’m hosting a panel at a writer’s conference in Boston, and another book event at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock, N.Y. There are others. Click here for more info.
Thinking about the zillion details – getting the word out, planning and hosting the events – keeps me up at night. Fact is, I’ve never gone on a book tour, let alone organized my own. I don’t consider myself a highly organized person. I’m not naturally drawn to public speaking, which is partly why I became a writer. I’m a bit of a technophobe, afraid to press the wrong button, and every day I must use the Internet to spread the word.
I’m stepping way outside my comfort zone.
I reassure myself I’ve overcome many challenges thrown so far my way. It took me thirteen years to write my novel, a comedic fictional twist on my real-life journey through cancer, divorce, treatment and renewal. It took several hundred rejections by literary agents and publishers. I rewrote the darn thing several dozen times, guided by fellow writers and teachers at Bennington College, where I earned my MFA.
Then the real challenge came last spring, when I finally found a publisher that accepted my novel. Signing the contract, I was forced to shed my naïve notions about the journey to the bookshelf. Successful authors, I once believed, focused on what they did best. They rearranged words on the page. And once their first novel was accepted for publication, they’d pop open the champagne, do a couple of book signings, and work full-bore on their second novel.
That was in my younger and more idealistic days. Since my novel was acquired, I’ve barely touched my second. Instead I’ve plunged into social media, a requirement for first-time authors like me. My online presence used to consist of a barebones Facebook page. My incoming Facebook invites went straight into the spam folder, and one of those invites was from my wife. So I gritted my teeth and googled “book promotion plan,” cobbling one together. I reached out for help from people who knew a lot more than me. Today, I spend oceans of time blogging for the Times Union and harnessing Facebook and Twitter. I participate in Goodreads. I update my author Web site. I solicit reviews, sending emails to bloggers, Amazon reviewers, and traditional media reviewers to see if they want an advance review copy when it comes out later this month.
Though I’m still afraid to push the wrong button, I’m less afraid than before. I keep coming back to writing – reminding myself that’s why I’m doing all this stuff. One thing that overwhelms me is the idea of presenting my novel at book events to a crowd. So I’m crafting a “stump speech” – something to use again and again for presentations at book events, with minor tweaks – that weaves in my journey as a writer and how that influenced my novel. The thing that got me here in the first place – my writing – will also save me. When I talk publicly I will be writing in the air. I remind myself I’ve not strayed too far from that which I know.
I’m here toward the end of a long chapter in my journey because this is where life has led me. My first poem was in kindergarten: Days pass, nights too, every day, there’s something new. In one form or another in my life, I have danced on stage naked and lived to tell about it. Research and preparation and good will and networking are my allies. I know too that talking about my fears helps. For that I thank my blog readers. Thanks for listening. Each of your comments, and visits, keeps me going. I hope I’ll see many of you at my launch events. The satisfaction of meeting you would make me realize that this whole trip has been worth it. I’ll be giving details of the events in coming weeks in this blog and through other social media. And you’re all invited.
You can do it, I tell myself. I repeat this to myself a lot.
To blow off steam I fantasize about hiring someone to impersonate me. Who’s a smoother, more confident version of myself. But then I realize my launch budget could never afford it. Instead, perhaps I’ll impersonate myself. Sort of how I hired a character to play me in my novel. A more hapless, zanier version of myself. Someone who’s crazy enough to get up in front of a crowd and dance naked on stage.
One day, for sure, I’ll finish my second novel. It will be easier to sell because of my first. By then I’ll have paved a rocky path through social media to the bookshelf, whether virtual or bricks-and-mortar. Between now and then, I’ll try not to grit my teeth too much. And hopefully sell a lot of books.