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January, 2009Another Thing to Know

Serial Killer

My sister and I have been addicts of the newspaper serial ever since we learned about babies from a thrilling tale called Chickie, by Elenore Meherin, published in daily installments by a Cleveland newspaper back in the early nineteen-twenties. I feel that nothing can help us, that no cure is drastic enough to save us now... God knows, we have attempted to conquer our passion for the newspaper serial. Once, not long ago, when I was trying to break away from the outpourings of Mr. Rob Eden, the author of the serial I am now following, I read for ten days no other paper than the Times, which, no doubt as a favor to readers like me, does not published Mr. Edenís works. But the only result was that I took to dreaming about Augur, who sends to the Times those stimulating dispatches on European politics."

Ruth McKenney, ďChickie Has a Baby,Ē from My Sister Eileen
It was a disease peculiar to the 80s, as I recall. Reporters everywhere wanted to do what Amistad Maupin had done with Tales of the City in the San Francisco Examiner, or copy Cyra McFadddenís The Serial. At the San Antonio Light, a coworker and I even wrote a proposal about -Ė I think Ė- a local real estate agent and, maybe, a murder, although I might be confusing our concept with what someone else actually executed in another newspaper. All I remember is a vivid, specific description of the shoe worn by the foot pressing the accelerator on some car whose make and model was designed to convey, in an instance, the characterís age, class, position within the cityís hierarchies. (The shoe covered gender; the store where it was purchased established our characterís yuppie-hipster cred.) I offer belated thanks here to whichever wise editor decided we should not serially embarrass ourselves. Years later, one of my colleagues at the Baltimore Sun initiated one of those Naked Came the Stranger group novels, but our editors declined to publish it, possibly because the Sun was already publishing some fiction, although not labeling the articles as such. Rimshot!

Then, one day last February, just before I was about to begin a typically frenetic book tour, I heard that someone from the New York Times magazine was trying to get in touch with me. I suspected/hoped that I was going to be asked to write the serial novella that the Times had been running for several years, and which had included writers such as Michael Chabon, Cathleen Schine, Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly. I was intrigued, flattered -- and absolutely panicked. How could I do it? How could I not do it? I wrote two of the serialís past practitioners, who gave me nothing but encouragement. Still, it was an overwhelming prospect. Fifteen chapters, of roughly the same length, capable of sustaining a readerís interest over almost five months.

My 2008 calendar, a far from comprehensive document, doesnít include notations of when I spoke to the editor, or even when I delivered my proposal. My computer has a proposal dated March 27, in which the dog, a central figure in the story, was going to be a Dalmatian; Iím not sure when he mutated into an Italian greyhound. I know I signed the contract in late April because I have a vivid memory of getting on the elevator in the Hotel Monteleone, bound for the business center and its fax Hawaiimachine, only to find I was alone with Dr. John. A third draft was submitted in late July and I remember discussing it while sitting in Hawaii, trying to ignore a view similar to this. By late August, I was on an almost weekly schedule of receiving proofs late Monday or Tuesday, then discussing last-minute changes on Wednesday, ten days before the magazine closed.

The week of Jan. 11th, I had my final editing session; the last chapter will appear Jan. 25th. Apparently, this will be the last serialized novel for a while; given the economy in general and the media economy in specific, the Times has decided serialized fiction is a luxury it canít afford. And I just want to say Ė- it was a blast. I liked everything about the experience -Ė the challenge of writing to length and creating pieces that were semi-discrete; the face-saving corrections on salient details about my hometown (the Edmondson Drive-In! the Edmondson Drive-In!). A big thank-you to Ilena Silverman, Aaron Retica, Bill Ferguson and everyone at the Times Magazine who shepherded this girl and her ďGirlĒ through the process.

You can read ďThe Girl in the Green RaincoatĒ online. Iím not sure when it will be published as a book. I do know that I wonít expand it; itís the length it should be. Iím also not sure what it augurs for Tess. When I wrote the proposal, I believed it would be the definitive end to the Tess Monaghan series, but I no longer feel that way. I just donít know how or when she will return.

Thanks to Kevin Burton Smithís excellent historical perspective, I know I didnít break new ground when I wrote about a pregnant PI. In fact, there have been several PI novels in recent years that center on women with children. (Men with children, too, but Ė- sorry, itís just not the same.) Hallie Ephronís just-out novel, Never Tell a Lie, features a woman in the final trimester of her pregnancy. For years Iíve said, "I canít write Tess with a kid." But I also said I would never write a serial killer novel, or even a stand-alone, so ďneverĒ is clearly a somewhat fungible concept for me. Lately, Iíve even begun to rethink my adamant claim that I will never write anything remotely close to a memoir, but maybe thatís just because Iím under the spell of the always excellent Abigail Thomas and her new book, Thinking About Memoir.

Hereís what I do know: I have a stand-alone, LIFE SENTENCES, which will be published March 10. I have started another stand-alone, and hope to publish it in 2010. (Iím lucky enough to be under contract, but I never presume I will actually write the book I have to write.) I put Tess through a lot last year and she needs some time off. Iím not getting any time off, but having only one project this year will seem like a relative vacation. Besides, as I always say whenever I note a challenging patch in my working life: Itís better than a real job.

Tour details next month. I have a shockingly healthy one, given the economy, so I hope to see folks on the road. But remember, if you have a computer, you can support the independent or chain bookstore of your choice. For my holiday shopping, I used local stores -- one independent, one chain and one used/rare bookstore -- Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Penn., and Square Books in Oxford, Miss. And Iíll say this for books -- you seldom lose 40 percent of your investment in less than twelve months.

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