December '05 -- guest edited by Christopher Monks
I wrote a bestseller in 2005. It was called Tom Clancy’s Latest Novel and the initial response was phenomenal. My publisher was very pleased. We sold half a million copies in the first two weeks!
Tom Clancy’s Latest Novel is a 700-page bildungsroman about a shy and uncommunicative boy who grows up in Western New York. Not much happens, really. A schoolmate steals his bicycle on page 190, and the wronged child just stays in bed reminiscing for three or four chapters. His mother, a gentle and nurturing housewife, brings him graham crackers smeared with apricot jam in chapter nine’s most dramatic scene. She sits on the edge of the boy’s bed and tells him the soothing yet somewhat convoluted history of the previous eight generations of her Swedish family. She details their hardscrabble lives in Göteborg, paying close attention to the importance of agriculture in their daily routines. They were not necessarily destitute but nobody would have called them well off, either. In an intriguing twist, at least twelve of the men are named Henning Henning Senior, Henning Junior, blind Henning, groping Henning, and so on. At the end of her absorbing 278-page monologue, she concludes: “They were good people. And you know what? So are you, honey.” Contentedly, my protagonist falls asleep with the knowledge that his mother loves him and that everything will eventually be all right. “Daddy and I will buy you a new bike,” she says at last. “A better one.” Or did the excited boy only dream it? That’s just one of the many mysteries in Tom Clancy’s Latest Novel.
In the concluding three hundred pages I really stomp on the narrative gas. The prose is almost indecently muscular. This is where my still-unnamed protagonist “comes of age.” At the age of eighteen, he marries his high school sweetheart, G., and they attend Haverford College and Georgetown Law School together. Upon graduation they open a law practice in San Diego. After three years of unimpeded professional success, they decide to have some children. Their twins, Tyler and Zoë, turn out to be popular and athletic kids. Of course everything isn’t perfect when you raise children, no matter how gifted and superior they may be. Tension mounts in Chapter 38 when eleven-year-old Tyler, a budding soccer star, finds a cigarette on the sidewalk of their gated community, and he considers smoking it, but my central character, Todd, sits him down by the pool and discusses the many health risks. After hearing his father out, Tyler thanks him for caring so much. “Thanks, Dad,” Tyler says and snaps the cigarette in half. “I don’t know what came over me.” They share a hearty laugh at this. Maybe this acceptance and understanding between father and son is what appealed to so many readers in America. I can’t say for sure.
Parenting is a breeze.
But when G. is diagnosed with breast cancer in chapter 56 the happily married couple is shocked and dismayed. However, I make the artistic decision to gloss over this setback in one attenuated burst of dialogue (“G. has cancer, man. Radiation begins next week. Uncool.”) and instead focus all my prodigious narrative gifts on detailing San Diego weather patterns and how they seem to match the fluctuations of central character’s emotions. Amazing how on sunny days Todd is mostly “happy.” Then, on days that threaten to be overcast but prove to be sunny after all, he is “less happy.” Anyway, to find out the rest you’ll just have to buy Tom Clancy’s Latest Novel if you haven’t bought it yet!
Many people were surprised by the success of my book. First novels by unknown authors rarely crack the top ten of the New York Times Bestseller List, let alone sit like a demented grandmother in position #3 for an astonishing 19 weeks in a row. Mine was one of the lucky few, I suppose. It could have happened to anyone, really.
Hats off to the marketing department at Random House: they gave away no surprises. In fact, the front and back of the hardcover edition revealed nothing about the book’s content. Even though I am a reasonably handsome man in my mid-fifties, my photograph did not appear on the jacket. They begged me to trust them, and I’m glad I did.
When I was a young struggling writer in Western New York, I believed that a 700-page novel required sex, intrigue, action and mucho conflict to appeal to the average airport reader. Tom Clancy’s Latest Novel has none of these. And who says plot is important? Aristotle? Zip it, pal. Take a shower. Even if the paperback sales of TCLN have tailed off a bit and the book has yet to catch its second wind, I am so pleased to have this new summer place in La Jolla, a five-acre spread, where I can finally write in peace.
My literary agent, Ed “The Glove” Lynch at Sparber-Podowski Creative Management (Elmira, NY), recently bought himself a sleek new Mercedes. “You got brass nuts, buddy,” he told me. “Keep pounding those keys!” Incidentally, Ed Lynch is not one of these distant and unpleasant New York City agents you hear so much about. He answers my calls on the second ring. My besteller has changed his life! After the initial windfall, Ed quit his night job at the Mexican restaurant. “I never want to say the word chimichanga again,” he confided. “Never!” He’s positively thrilled by my success.
And I am, too. Don’t get me wrong. I guess what I found most shocking in those first few months was how many famous people contacted me. For instance, one morning my wife Gwen brought the cordless phone to my book-lined study, where I was hard at work on a sequel to my record-breaking first effort.
“What is it, my life, my love?” I said.
“It’s the phone,” she said.
Gwen was a constant joy, a real “straight-shooter.” Once again she had cut to the heart of the matter. Where would I have been without her? Even in remission, she was a force of nature. Gwen kept me tethered to the solid rock of reality. I admired her majestic forehead, her canted hip, her fuzzy slippers.
“Stop staring at me like that,” she said and pressed the phone into my hand. “Here. Take this.”
I made no effort to accept her offering. “Who is on the line?” I inquired.
“Tom Clancy,” she said, “and he’s fucking pissed.”
“What a delight! Tom Clancy calling me when he’s in a grouchy mood? Shall I whisper tender sobriquets in his hairy ear?”
“Says he wants to snap your neck like a celery stick.”
“Oh, that Clancy.” I chuckled. “What a way with words! So descriptive, so . . . precise.”
I’d read somewhere that Tom Clancy was an accomplished amateur boxer. When provoked he was known to bully interviewers and autograph seekers. He had knocked men out and laughed about it afterwards. A lot of rage in that fellow. But I recognized the good-natured joshing one white male artist reserves for his successful colleague.
“I gave Mr. Clancy our address,” Gwen said with a shrug. “And directions to our house. He’s calling from his car, by the way.”
“Wonderful, wonderful,” I said, no longer listening to her. “Do whatever you think is best, hon. In the meantime, I’ll get back to work here. Give Clancy boy my regards, Gwen. Tell him I’ll ring him up some other time.” I returned to my desk and settled into my chair. “Have old Tom-Tom leave his number and we’ll talk shop later in the week.”
Here is one of my steadfast rules: I must never be bothered when I’m typing. (MFA students and telemarketers please take note.) This stuff doesn’t write itself, you know. It takes work. Years of hard work. I don’t want to sound arrogant here (heaven forfend!), and the sophomore slump can hit the best of us just look at Ralph Ellison but I am confident that my next effort, tentatively titled Stephen King’s Best Book in Years!, will be just as popular as my first novel.
Alone in my study, I began typing again. When the doorbell rang I threw up my hands. “Amazing!” One distraction after another.
“Honey, you have a visitor,” Gwen sang from the bottom of the stairs. “Come on down.”
She sounded so happy. What a change from the eleven months she spent suffering on the couch in her tattered bathrobe while I worked diligently on my first book. The wheel of fortune was spinning for us yet again. Sometimes I couldn’t believe my luck. What a life!