Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Birth of Rabbi Ben

How This Book Happened 
(An abbreviated history of my writing career)

Rabbi Ben, or someone like him, has been flitting around my mind for literally decades, never quite coming into focus, occasionally haunting my dreams, less often appearing on periodic to-do lists of projects or books that I wanted to think about.

I don’t know about other writers, but I often mull things over for years before ever embarking on the perilous voyage from cerebral fantasy to finished project. Or I start a project, it goes off track, I get frustrated and decide to start over. Eventually.

But not always. I got into the book writing racket on a quirk and in a hurry, and that goes to the birth of Rabbi Ben and The Tattooed Rabbi. In 1982 I was working as a photojournalist and accepting corporate gigs when I could get them—they paid far better than magazines or newspapers. An obscure California ad agency hired me to create the images for a marketing campaign to introduce a line of products from a new company. I spent two weeks crawling around Epson’s computer factories in a remote corner of Japan, and as I exposed over a hundred rolls of film I was also exposed to an entirely new take on Japan’s postwar economic “miracle.”

When I got back to California and turned in my pictures, I began to think about a magazine piece about labor conditions in Japan. This led to a New York City meeting with a book publisher. I was sent back home to California with a steamer trunk filled with newspaper and magazine clippings about Japan, and instructions to see how the information in those articles fit together with my first-hand observations. Five months of 18-hour-days later I turned in my first book, The Japanese Conspiracy, which earned many excellent reviews and stirred up much controversy. The publisher, however did a poor job of promoting it—he didn’t even start until the books were starting to come back, unsold, from bookstores—and although the work established me as an author, it never earned the kind of royalties I expected.

 I returned to photography—and then a year later my daughter, 13, came back to live with me. An alienated teen needs at least one parent on the job; it soon became obvious that I couldn’t be a globe-hopping photojournalist and a successful single parent. I had to find another way to earn a living. I decided to write another book, and this led to days in the library looking at microfiche of New York Times best-seller listings going back several years. I concluded that there were two kinds of books that most often made that list: books about celebrities, and books about crimes.

I didn’t know any celebrities. And I didn’t think I had the chops to write fiction. I didn’t know enough about writing. So I embarked on a career in nonfiction, learning more about my craft with each successive book, often collaborating with others who had a story to tell but not the tools to tell it. I learned a lot from writing each of these books, as well as from writing book proposals, including many that never sold.

So about ten years ago, with my sixtieth summer staring me in the face, I felt at last capable of tackling fiction. I began writing screenplays.

That’s right. I’m not only an old dude, I was foolish enough to think I could start a career in a business notorious for ageism against writers. Also, you can’t get into that business without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’re in your twenties with fifteen years experience. I mean, it’s that hard.

Much harder than actually writing a screenplay, as it turns out.

Nevertheless, working with a slightly younger but more experienced screenwriter, I sold a  screenplay, sold a treatment (so someone else could write it) and optioned another. It was years of work at damn near starvation wages, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

And then, in November 2009, while I was in a nearby park walking Sampson, our Chihuahua-Terrier mix, I was struck by a blinding headache in and around my right eye. A filmy white curtain descended. I could see almost nothing from that eye.

I don't get headaches. Once in a great while I give them.

It was a stroke, I decided.

Sampson knew the way home, and I followed. My daughter drove me to the Emergency Room.
Fortunately, I'm a better writer than doctor: The ER doctor sent me to the eye clinic, where an ophthalmologist diagnosed a classic case of a rare type of glaucoma. The only type that can be reversed.

Over the next year, at times half blind between one of eight eye surgeries, I finally had the enforced leisure to think about Rabbi Ben (although he didn’t have a name yet) and how I could use what I knew about synagogues, rabbis, crimes, Jews, human nature and the crime mystery genre.

And then one night, quite unexpectedly, I dreamed the first chapter of The Tattooed Rabbi. Although that wasn’t the title and I hadn’t even thought of the tattoos.



1 comment:

  1. I read and really enjoyed the The Tattooed Rabbi. You know you're reading a good mystery when you can't put it down but finally do because you have to get up for work in the morning, and when you wake up you think about when you can pick the book up again.

    I can't wait for Ben's next adventure!