Tomorrow, my 16th novel, The Most Dangerous Thing, goes on sale. I am a happy camper. Scratch that – I am a lucky camper. I try to remember that every day and to be consciously grateful for my good fortune. Whenever I say that, someone says: But you work hard! Perhaps, but so do others and a lot of people have to work at jobs they don’t love. I had twenty years in a business I liked, the newspaper world, and now I’ve had a decade as a fulltime novelist. To repeat: I am lucky.
This week, I want to give something back to readers, although the truth is, you can enter these daily give-aways even if you’ve never picked up one of my books and never intend to. The gifts range from silly to cool, and there’s even a day of erudition, if you will. And it’s easy to enter. All you have to do is enter a comment below the daily entry. You may comment more than once if a dialogue emerges – and I always hope it does. But in that case, only your first comment can be entered into the drawing. This week, I will be giving away: a copy of Madison Smartt Bell’s Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore, in which a certain mystery writer takes Bell through Dickeyville, along with a complete set of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, in hardcover; an Esskay cap and tin; a bank; a robot; and, finally, a T-shirt that says: “Be careful or I’ll put you in my novel” – and a promise that I wlll, in fact, put you — well, your name- in a novel.
I very seldom agree to Tucker-ize because it’s harder than you might think, making a pre-ordained name fit a work. (“Meyerhoff,” a surname that graces the home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was a bitch to work into Another Thing to Fall, precisely because it is so well-known.)
The contest was inspired by one of my favorite novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I feel has never gotten its due. Maybe that’s because it was hugely popular in its time, maybe there are nits to pick with Betty Smith’s style. I can’t help suspecting that Tree gets short shrift because it centers on the life of a girl and therefore does not feel universal.
The opening chapter is a gem, a day in the life of an 11-year-old girl in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1912. It contains a passage that is a touchstone for me as a writer. Frannie Nolan is in the bakery, waiting to buy day-old bread for her family’s supper. She sees a dirty, unkempt old man dozing on a bench and plays “her favorite game, figuring out about people.”
“He is old. He must be past seventy. He was born about the time Abraham Lincoln was living and getting himself ready to be president. . . . He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his little pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn’t be afraid, that Mother was there. Then she picked him up and put her cheek on his head and said that he was her own sweet baby. He might have been a boy like my brother, running in and out of the house and slamming the door.”
He was a baby once. This is where I start, every time I write a novel. This is what I think when I see the unfortunate men and women in my own neighborhood, sometimes sleeping on the ground on a wretchedly hot day. She picked him up and put her cheek on his head. I know not all mothers and fathers do this, that some parents can be unspeakably cruel, but I think that most wish to be good.
So, comment below if you want to be entered for the books by Atkinson and Bell. Here’s something that might get the conversation going: Why is this entry called candy store? Hint: It has something to do with a man who is called Cheapskate Charlie. Or you can show off your insider knowledge, tell folks what I always do on pub date, which I’ll do tomorrow. Or you can ponder why “James of Long Island” would wait on hold just to say that awful word to Diane Rehm while I made desperate slashing motions across my throat. I tell myself: He was a baby once.