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Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Can’t Imagine

Today is one of those days seemingly calculated to make baby-boomers feel old. Forty years ago on this date in Manhattan a troubled 25-year-old man shot John Lennon from behind as the musician entered the archway of the Dakota, the building where he lived.

The news of the murder spread quickly. I heard it about shortly afterward while working the evening shift at a weekly newspaper in a Seattle suburb. We all stopped to ponder the unbelievable event and share a few reflections. I reminisced about my vivid memory of having seen the Beatles’ iconic performance on The Ed Sullivan Show 17 years earlier.

The eyes of a teenaged member of our crew went wide.

“Wow,” he said, “you can actually remember when the Beatles were still together?”

That was another one of those moments seemingly calculated to make a baby-boomer feel old.

That interchange about the Fab Four is echoed in Chapter 6 of Searching for Cunégonde when young Sebastián says something similar to the novel’s protagonist, 28-year-old Dallas. That chapter, which is titled “Reports of a Murder,” is dominated by Lennon’s death. It was not something I had intended, but I had inadvertently written myself into a corner that made it unavoidable.

One of the running themes in the previous book about Dallas, Lautaro’s Spear, was the protagonist’s preoccupation with the fact that he is 27 years old and the symbolic weight that age carries in the wake of a chain of high-profile rock star deaths.

Spoiler alert: despite his doubts, Dallas survives to see his 28th birthday. I amused myself by making his date of birth Pearl Harbor Day. In view of comparisons people keep wanting to make between Dallas and myself, I was probably asking for it by having him born in the same month that I was. That is probably why it was important to me that Dallas be a Sagittarius rather than a Capricorn.

Here come some more spoilers for Lautaro’s Spear. Dallas’s 28th birthday is a solitary, doleful affair. It is redeemed, though, by the surprise appearance of a friend he never expected to see again and an invitation to take off for more adventures. That is where the book ends.

When it came to writing the sequel, I knew from reader feedback it was pretty much unavoidable I would need to pick up Dallas’s story from the moment the previous book ended. I did manage to delay that follow-up for five chapters by first picking up Dallas’s story a dozen years later before flashing back to December 1980.

I was already well into writing Chapter 6 when it dawned on me that the day after Dallas’s birthday that year was the day of Lennon’s murder. I quickly realized there was no way to avoid making it part of the story and set about doing some rewriting and revising. It was the kind of shattering news that traveled immediately all over the world and became a particular focus for Dallas’s generation as well as affecting everybody else. It couldn’t just be ignored.

So that is the story of how John Lennon forced his way into my novel and totally took over one of the chapters. As Lennon himself sang (in the song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”; the original quote was from Allen Saunders in a 1957 issue of Readers Digest), “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

In my own personal variation, my books are often what happens when I am busy trying to write something else.

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