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 been kicked out of his apartment, and was recently living at the library. Now he’s been kidnapped by an organization known as The Zeppelin Society, who needs Fleming to write a letter to the FAA requesting permission to conduct a test flight of their experimental zeppelin. Here’s the latest email from Fleming.
WE ARE TRYING TO CONTRIBUTE IN A LEGITIMATE WAY TO THE FURTHERANCE OF THE HUMAN TRIUMPH
Mary Ann “Annie” Lankowski
I’m sorry I haven’t written sooner. I’m literally chained to this yellowed computer and its obsolete operating system. Hans and Vik take turns watching me. When I use the bathroom, I have to carry the monitor, tower, and keyboard with me. Fortunately, there’s no mouse. One of them waits outside the door. This time, I was careful to slip the power cord into my pocket, and there’s an outlet in the bathroom. I’m tapping this out as I sit on the toilet. Vik keeps clearing his throat like he can hear me. I don’t know how much time I’ve got. I clear my throat, too, to let him know I’m still busy.
I feel like I’m stalling for time, but I’m not sure why. Hans and Vik want me to stay here until I write a satisfactory letter to the FAA requesting permission to test-fly their prototype zeppelin model.
Does this mean I’m kidnapped? I asked.
We don’t use that language, says Hans. Hans is a big guy with a jaw like a fist. He wears leather pants and a leather jacket and sounds like a squeegee when he moves. He oils his hair.
Then what’s the point of the chain, I ask him.
For encouragement, he says.
This has been going on for two days now. Hans and Vik explained to me that they want me to craft a letter so good the FAA, after rejecting them eleven times, can’t possibly refuse to grant them a test-flight.
We are trying to contribute in a legitimate way to the furtherance of the human triumph, Hans said, borrowing a line from one of his rejected FAA letters. But this is the last chance. If they’re rejected again, they’ll be forced to go underground, and then the U.S. government will label them subversives. They will be enemies of the state. It could lead to acts of violence by either party. No pressure.
So why don’t I just write what they ask and be done with it?
I don’t know. I’ve had some ideas. I’m trying to get the right tone. But do I want to come off as an earnest entrepreneur (energetic but formal), a passionate genius (flighty and casual), or a mildly condescending scientist who has better things to do (self-evident)?
I don’t discuss these things with Hans and Vik. They don’t get the nuances of tone. That’s why they’ve failed eleven times. So, in the meantime, I’ve pretended to be thinking about their letter, when I’m really thinking about writing my novel. You hear stories about labor-camp prisoners who write their memoirs in their heads to keep themselves sane during solitary confinement. By the time Hans and Vik are done with me, the only task left, as far as my novel’s concerned, will be transcribing. Thoughts like these give me hope. They sustain me through my current predicament.
One thing I’ve noticed is that when I touch my fingers to the keyboard, Hans and Vik grow very quiet. If they’ve been whispering, they shush each other. Hans’s squeegee pants stop squeaking. There’s an air of expectancy.
I play my part. I look harder at the screen. I raise a finger as though I might tap my first letter at any moment. Sometimes when I do that the key comes off and sticks to my fingertip, and then Vik has to pull it off and fix the keyboard.
Also, if it’s mealtime and I appear to be concentrating with my fingers on the keyboard, Vik will feed me, forking up hash browns and Vienna sausages and passing them sensuously between my lips, sometimes with a little half-grin that tells me she’s enjoying it right under Hans’s nose.
Hans is knocking on the bathroom door now. Writer, are you done? he asks.
I’d better go. I’m suddenly hungry.
What doesn’t kill you, gives you something to write about, as they say. And I’m not dead yet.
Please give Ms. Hollymore my best if you speak to her in jail.
As I chew my hash browns, I’ll be thinking of you.
John Henry Fleming