The Book I Will Write by John Henry Fleming is a serial novel-in-emails about a would-be writer named John Henry Fleming who is desperate to publish a book. THE BOOK I WILL WRITE is a work in progress; readers are invited to make comments and influence the outcome. Fleming has been exchanging emails with an editorial assistant at Knopf, Mary Ann Lankowski, and her boss, Senior Editor Roberta Hollymore. Here is Hollymore’s latest email.
A SPECTER IN A WINDY ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Dear John Henry Fleming:
Did I write to you when I was drunk? Am I writing to you now, when I’m drunk again? I should stop referring to my drunkenness as if it’s an altered state; it’s the new normal, as well as my method of coping with the new normal.
I’m in an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side, some place known only to people who’ve been coming here at least thirty years. It’s so dark you can’t see the waiter’s face until he leans down to relight your candle, which is constantly blowing out from a mysterious cold breeze. Is there a roof on this place? Are there walls? I couldn’t tell you.
Seamus has excused himself to use the bathroom three times. He has a resonant brogue one can appreciate if one avoids processing the actual meaning of his words, and sometimes a wind gust carries his voice to me across the restaurant. There must be a bar in here, and Seamus must be holding court with the withered multitudes.
I don’t mind. The breeze and the darkness have put me in a wistful mood. I’ll hold my own conversation with an imaginary you.
Did you ever hear of a novelist by the name of Reid Markham? You remind me of him, not because there’s anything about you that actually resembles him, but because the few details I have of you amount to an empty photo frame into which my brain can slide Reid Markham’s picture and set it among the other Reid Markham relics in my pathetic mental shrine.
Reid Markham was a boy genius of a writer. In 1982, I was twenty-five and had just been promoted to Assistant Editor. He was two years younger than me. His manuscript collected dust in our slush pile at Knopf until I pulled it out of the closet among a stack of other manuscripts, some with actual mold growing on them. I was hungry and hopeful. I was going to find the next big thing. How young and foolish and stupid I was.
And yet I found him. Somehow I found him. Every sentence of The Devil’s Good Graces seemed written especially for me. I felt I knew Reid Markham better than I knew anyone, including myself. If we could only meet, and talk, we’d find we were soulmates. Maybe you’ve had this rare feeling. Maybe it’s only a silly projection, a shaky construction to fend off loneliness. Maybe that’s finally all a novel is good for.
But Reid Markham was the real thing. He was clear-eyed and brave, his words the embodiment of no-nonsense passion, his prose both lyrical and precise. His intelligence and sensitivity shone on every page. I was in love with Reid Markham, though I’d never met him. And I was in love with the idea that a book could make me feel that way.
Things were different then. His book had little commercial appeal, and Reid Markham would never become a media celebrity. He spoke in whispers and half sentences—except when we were alone, and I’m not drunk and morose enough to tell you any more about that now. I championed Reid Markham. I staked my new career on his book. I fought with Senior Editors. Knopf strung Reid Markham along for months, and there were several periods when I did not think the book—or the author—would survive.
You may know the rest of the public story. If not, you can look it up. That was a long time ago. Reid Markham is dead. So is The Novel. So am I. I’m a specter in a windy Italian restaurant tapping out sad stories to a youthful nobody.
Here’s my message today: I can only care about you or your novel to the degree that you resemble Reid Markham and your novel resembles his. So stop writing to the dead. Leave us be. You yourself seem lively enough; why don’t you self-publish your book?
Look, my candle has gone out again. The wind is picking up. I can’t even see the menu to place my order. This is how it is.
Sent from my iPhone