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. He’s recently been kicked out of his apartment and is living in the library. Here is Fleming’s latest email to the assistant.
Mary Ann “Annie” Lankowski
Today, Zeppelin Man found me back in the fiction stacks. I’d already been through every book in the M section, and I’d moved on to R, hoping Reid Markham’s book had been misshelved under his first name. Zeppelin Man wasn’t scanning titles; he came for me. I’d become a person of interest.
Zeppelin Man walks with a bowlegged limp and his chin thrust forward. I steeled myself for a monologue on the virtues of slow-speed air travel.
I was determined to ignore him. I ran my finger across the R-spines and pulled a book from the shelf, some sort of large-print mystery novel. Zeppelin Man stopped nine inches from my right shoulder. He waited for me to acknowledge him.
I wasn’t going to. I had important business. Why is it that people feel free to interrupt a writer at work? For my own novel to be written, The Devil’s Good Graces must be found, and Reid Markham must be my primary influence, I’m certain. If I can channel Reid Markham, my vegetarian alt-history thriller will write itself.
I could feel the wind of Zeppelin Man’s labored, uneven breaths. The walk had tired him out. He’s an old man, encased in a shell of expired skin, and his only home now is a dream in the sky. Yet I had to resist the urge to pity him. We both knew this was a test of wills. If I turned now, I’d be drawn into his world of airships and shadow governments.
We stood there, me facing the shelves with my nose in a book, he facing my shoulder, breathing his noisy breaths, each of us unwilling to give.
A woman came down the aisle. I saw her out of the corner of my eye. She was large in the hips and couldn’t squeeze by us.
“Excuse me,” she said.
Neither the old man nor I made a sound. I turned the page. I made expressions to show that I was absorbed in the mystery novel. I placed a finger on the 30-point font. I squinted and nodded.
“That word there is dagger,” the woman said. “The double-g makes a guh sound. Can you say that?”
I said nothing. Eventually, she turned and left.
The battle raged. My strategy was to relax my muscles and behave in every way as though I were genuinely so absorbed in the book I didn’t even register the old man’s presence. His strategy was to bore holes in my head with his rheumy glare.
A thin librarian came by. She squeezed past without a problem. “You two,” she said under her breath.
Minutes passed. I felt I was winning. My legs are younger and stronger than Zeppelin Man’s. In a war of attrition, I knew I could outlast him.
But the old man hung on. He had the determination of a man with only one dream.
At last he spoke. “I know,” he said. And he turned and limped away.
I stood alone with my book, stunned. The author of the book’s name was D. P. Reasons, I finally noticed, and it sounded familiar. I hadn’t read a word of it. Actually I’d read one word, over and over, and now I’ve forgotten the word.
Had I won? For a moment, it seemed so. But then his comment sank in. What did he know? Did he know where I slept at night? Did he know what I was looking for? Did he know where the book was?
My heart trembled. With two words, Zeppelin Man had gotten under my skin. He’d pierced my bulwarks with his death-rattle. Now I will have to come to him for an explanation. I’ll look through the stacks first. I’ll sift through the closets when the librarians are busy. But I know in the end I’ll go to Zeppelin Man and hear him out.
I hope you’re well, Annie. There are times when I want you to break your vow and come see me, let me be your ex-ex-lover. But no, the time isn’t right. It’s not safe here. There’s a battle raging. Not just with Zeppelin Man. Not just with Story Lady. There’s a battle to solve the mystery of Reid Markham and his book. There’s a battle to maintain my dignity. My creative focus. My personal hygiene.
Sometimes at night, an image of the Zeppelin Man dances over my head like a vision of my future.
Sometimes the image of Zeppelin Man dances a waltz with the image of Story Lady. That’s when I stick my nose against my skin and check for the smell my own death. Will my bones be found one day among the eternal plastic of the dot-matrix printers in the library closet? Will the great novel inside me never get written? Will my beautiful thoughts expire before they ever take shape in the world?
I must be smart. I must fight on. I will.
Yours in solidarity,
John Henry Fleming