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“I actually could not put the book down. It is well written and kept my interest. I want more from this author.”
Reader review of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead on Amazon.com 

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Stranger Than Fiction

As I have discussed here before, people often accuse my novels of being thinly veiled accounts of things that have actually happened to me. I suspect this is common enough for authors who portray characters and events which could reasonably have been drawn from the writer’s own life.

Usually, I bat away these suggestions and even affect some indignation at the apparent lack of faith in my creativity and imagination. The dirty little secret, as you might suspect, is that some of the things depicted in my books really did happen to me. For example, in my teen years I did go to Mexico with a friend. Unlike what happened in Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, though, we did not drive all the way to central Mexico in a ’65 Chevy. Instead, we drove to Calexico in a Volkswagen Beetle, then walked across the border to Mexicali, and took a train as far as Hermosillo. We had fun, but it was not nearly as eventful as the adventures of my characters. And that particular friend, being quite sensible, was nothing at all like Lonnie.

In truth, most of the stuff in my books did not happen to me. I never lived in San Francisco, as Dallas did in Lautaro’s Spear, although I did work as photographer (among other duties) for a while at a small-town newspaper. I also had some involvement with a weekly urban newspaper like the one where Dallas worked, but that was in Seattle not San Francisco. To this day I have never set foot in Deauville, although I would like to go someday. My experiences as a student in Bordeaux did come in handy in writing the book, but unlike Dallas, I never spent a night with any of the prostitutes on the rue Ste Catherine.

A couple of things in Lautaro’s Spear, though, were drawn pretty much verbatim from my own experiences. For one thing, the character of Marty is based on a real person. I do not know what his actual name was, but I used to get lunch from him sometimes in Seattle during my noon break at work. As was my habit at the time in Mexican eateries, I tried practicing my Spanish on him, but like the fictional Marty, he replied only in English. When I mentioned that I had lived in Chile, just like his fictional alter ego, he began dropping dark hints that he had had some kind of personal involvement in the coup that toppled Salvador Allende. When he said, “We did a job on him,” I could never be certain whether he was referring to the United States collectively or to himself and some kind of CIA commando unit he might have been involved in. Over the years my imagination went a bit crazy conjuring up what his story might have been and wondering how he wound up operating a humble Mexican eatery.

The one episode in Lautaro’s Spear that was drawn most exactly from my life was the events in chapters 26 and 27, wherein Dallas and Ángel find themselves sharing a train compartment with three other people and end up collectively finishing an entire bottle of scotch whiskey. This mostly really happened. Instead of Dallas and Ángel, it was just me traveling with the young American and German women and Swiss lad. And the bottle of whiskey, though very nice, was not the fabulously expensive label conjured up for my story. Also, it was not the year 1980 and we were not traveling to Berlin. Our train was making a journey from Zurich to Vienna just before New Year’s 1974. There was plenty of security, though, which was explained to us as having to do with a concurrent visit to Austria by the Shah of Iran. Otherwise, it all pretty much happened the way I described it. In fact, I drew the details so completely from life and made the people involved so recognizable that, given the pervasiveness of the internet, I nearly half-expected one or more of my three companions from that night to get in touch with me to find out if the story was indeed about them. So far none has.

As for my upcoming book, it is safe to say that no events depicted therein were drawn from my actual life. The narrative does visit a surprising number of places that I have known well, beginning with Seattle, and even finds it way all the way to Ireland. I am still, as reported last month, about halfway through the first draft. With the Christmas/New Year season now well behind us, I am back at the writing and hope to plow through to a completed draft in the next few weeks. The weather is certainly cooperating by providing a gloomy, damp atmosphere compatible with the tone of the story.

I need to finish before spring arrives and brightens things up too much.

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