The Book I Will Write #22

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 and a senior editor at Knopf, as well as with an agent. Here is Fleming’s latest email to the assistant.





Mary Ann “Annie” Lankowski
Editorial Assistant
Knopf Publishing

Dear Annie,

My landlady’s a proofreader by profession, so when she changed the locks last weekend, I took it as a sign that I was not error-free. That’s fine. If I could afford it, I’d go to a tattoo shop and have them blazon a huge proofreading symbol across my chest.

Stet or delete?

I pounded on all the doors—front, side, and back—and when I stopped in the gravel drive and looked up at the 3rd floor attic window—my chilly home for the past two years—she stood there in a posture of disapproval, her hands folded behind her back, motionless, staring, guarding my few possessions like the spoils of our sad little war.

I’ll continue to call her my landlady. I haven’t given up.

At least I have my notebook. Also, I’m lucky to have worn two pairs of everything that day, trying to keep warm. I have back-ups.

The library’s cold, thanks to budget cuts, but it’s still warmer than my former and future room. I live here now. It’s actually kind of wonderful. It only took me a day to start thinking of the stacks as my own personal book collection. And the patrons and staff as my house guests. I find I’m more gracious to them that way. I don’t get upset with the reeking homeless man who always wants to talk about zeppelins, or the redheaded biker woman who’s always looking over my shoulder as I type.

Including now. Please go away.

But I’m not homeless. I live here through a miracle of ingenuity. You see, there’s a bedtime Story Time for children each evening at 7 p.m. It’s run by an elegant white-haired woman with shapely calves everyone calls The Story Lady. Story Time ends promptly at 7:30, and while The Story Lady escorts the children back to their parents in the library reception area, she leaves the doors open.

I hang out in the Young Adult section and slip into the Story Room as soon as it’s clear. There’s a small closet in there with just enough room for me to hide among stacks of retired office equipment.

The Story Lady returns. I see her through the crack. She stacks up the little carpet samples that the children sit on and drags her chair over to the wall. The woman is elegant even when she thinks no one is watching, which I guess is the true test of elegance, if elegance even has meaning when no one is bothering to notice it. Her calves are undeniably shapely. She must be a runner. She gathers her story books, flips the lights with her long fingers, shuts the door, and locks it.

The essence of The Story Lady remains, the room infused with her elegance and grace, the ghosts of her calves fluttering in the darkness, her soothing voice whispering stories until the room is an ocean of stories with waves lapping the walls and rolling back and forth through the night.

I’m inspired. I take out my notebook and pen. I sit on a stack of dot-matrix printers and lean back against an ancient computer. I don’t dare turn on the light. I fill pages of my notebook with what I’m certain are brilliant lines and plot ideas and character sketches. I work myself into such a fever that I believe I have every last detail of my novel figured out. The oneness of something is aglow in my brain.

Sadly, The Story Lady, like liquor and drugs, has proved a false muse. In the morning, the words are just words, and some not even. Their brilliance is lost. Most of it makes no sense. What was I thinking? What spell was I under?

I’m a kept man, and The Story Lady knows it. She’s a jealous muse.

I’m convinced the only way to break the cycle of inspiration and despair is to get hold of The Devil’s Good Graces. I’m certain it’s in this library, and now that the sternest of the stern librarians is charging in my direction to prevent me from exceeding my allotted thirty minutes by even a second, I will go and find it.

I’m sorry that I’m gripped at night by The Story Lady. But I think of you all day. I hope to write again soon with good news.

John Henry Fleming