Stranger Than Fiction – The Anatomy of a Novel


Jurassic Forest
Jurassic Forest (Photo credit: pixelens photography)

“Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby”. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) 

After years of penning what I considered to be Pulitzer Prize winning memos at work, crafting short stories that nobody read and submitting exaggerated youth sport write ups that lost my reader’s faster than a blind crossing guard, I decided to try my hand at writing a book.

I have to admit that being an aspiring writer in today’s digital age is the like being a portrait artist at a hyperactivity convention.  I have so many pearls to string on an endless necklace of insights but my end customer has the attention span of a flea and reads a maximum of 800 words a day – all of them tweets from Kim Kardashian. Yet, the dream to write burns inside of me like an underground coal fire or perhaps, severe indigestion. For an ex-college jock that took literature and played baseball because both involved the least amount of effort, the dream of publishing a tome is the equivalent of hitting a home run in Dodger Stadium. Most of us lead lives of quiet suburban desperation and do not want our ultimate legacy to be that we were really good at picking up dog poop.  The French, by the way, never pick it up. This gives them more time to drink espresso and write books.

I knew I was facing some headwinds as an aspiring author but was self-aware enough to recognize that I lacked several critical prerequisites – brevity, humility and a good editor. Yet, the voices inside my head continued to offer unsolicited ideas, strange characters and challenges to put pen to paper. My doctor explained to me that I could take medication to make all these feelings go away but it seemed cheaper to write a book since his drugs were not available in generic form and my company had just implemented a high deductible plan.

I began to record in earnest humorous stories about life as a middle child in a four-boy family ruled by a neoconservative alpha male and a new age, psychic mother.  My primary purpose was to use humor to reassure any reader that our lives are trains that run along parallel tracks.  The only normal people we know, they say, are those we do not know very well.  I also wanted to use the book as a warning to anyone under eighteen to not try to outrun the police in your Mom’s Ford Granada.

My photographic memory carefully sorted through the thousand sepia photos which were lovingly cut and pasted into a picture album documenting suburban life in the 1970s – the final days of Jurassic parenting – where T-Rex fathers roamed the hardware store aisles and She-Rex mothers moved in the shadows tenderizing everything before it was fed to their clueless progeny.

In considering the daunting challenge of penning a book, it seemed logical to string together a series of vignettes already written about my family.  I had written some articles for local papers and had penned a few “tattle tales” for family events. Yet, this would not be a “kiss and tell” autobiographical account.  I would be creating a new genre that recalled the days before child protective services felt the need to stick their noses into suburban life. I christened it “swear and yell” fiction.

Just as Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and others insisted on chronicling the Greatest Generation, I felt compelled to raise a glass to The Silent Generation.  They are slowly disappearing and with them we are losing a piece of our own mythology. Today’s “think, but don’t say” society has slowly forced them into hiding and with each sunset,  a generation that found its thrills on Blueberry Hill, is slowly relinquishing their colorful profanity and creative punishments — watching them beaten into plowshares fashioned out of “I messages” and “timeouts”.  The T-Rex father is disappearing into a tar pit of political correctness – and with his passing, we are losing a valuable link to our past and to certain values that used to serve us as important social and moral guardrails.

Yet, to pen a tribute that both serenades and teases the age of Jurassic parenting presents challenges for a writer who often sacrifices tact for the sake of a cheap joke.  The best stories in every family are best served like rich, blue cheese. They require time spent curing and fermenting out of the eye of the public – at least until the statute of limitations is expired. Comedy is tragedy plus time and those who do choose to tattle on their parents and/or siblings do so at their own risk. They may also find a sprig of arsenic in their iced tea at the next Fourth of July picnic.

If one wants to freely write about life and borrow from the past, they must turn to fiction where one can play Mr. Potato Head with each character – mixing vices, virtues and vicissitudes into people that resemble everyone and no one.  Any first work of fiction borrows liberally from an author’s experiences that are disguised behind a primer of odd events, improbable situations and plausibly deniable moments. The problem is that the truth is always trying to wiggle out into the light of day.

The challenge is everyone wants to know which part is true and which  is fiction.  Upon receiving my draft novel, friends and family scrutinized the freshly created fiction like Egyptian hieroglyphics attempting to decipher the story and its characters for hidden messages and personal judgment.  It was particularly justifiable in my case as I had crafted a novel about a family of four boys from Southern California with a conservative father and a liberal, intuitive mother.  Given that art so often imitates life, it is a love story that takes place at a train wreck.

My next problem was getting every family member to read the entire book.  Eventually, everyone came around – asking for a copy of the manuscript and then disappearing into weeks of radio silence as they digested the story and their perceived Doppelgängers.

“Why did you have me saying this?” asked one brother.

“It’s not you.” I emailed back.

“Oh yeah. Why can’t my character have said that?”

“It’s not you.”

“Oh yeah.”

Gratefully, each brother loved and approved of the manuscript but concluded with the same question, “ Have you shown it to Dad yet?” The answer was always the same – “not yet”. I was rationalizing that I wanted all of their feedback before proceeding to the Supreme Court for a final review. The future of my nascent manuscript which now had the working title, “T-Rex by the Tail”, hung in the balance.

“Dad, it’s an anthem to your generation and your unfiltered lens to the world.  You are the last great land mammals in a time of profound social change.”

He listened and said nothing – a long, pregnant pause across three thousand miles of fiber optic phone line.

“Look, just as long as the book does not end with Obama in the White House or taxes being raised on the middle class, I can handle a few lampoons.  We managed to raise you knuckleheads.  My generation can take it.“

He paused and then added. “I’m not sure your generation will be able to take it when its your turn.  But, hey, that book is for your kids to write. And one more thing, just be sure to make the father in the story a Republican – a Reagan Republican.”

Dad, no problem.

4 thoughts on “Stranger Than Fiction – The Anatomy of a Novel

  1. Matt Dahlgren May 6, 2012 / 11:01 pm

    Great piece, Mike. You have a way with words! I’m currently working on a novel, too. Best of luck with this…it sounds really good. P.S. I think I’d get along well with your Dad!

    • Michael Turpin May 7, 2012 / 10:30 am

      Matt, thanks for the note. I was so pleased that my blog about your grandfather got so much attention. Lots of my buddies who I grew up with in SM and Arcadia playing Sr Babe and High School ball — all came out of the wood work to honor his memory. The novel is a tricky thing and God only knows if it will sell 12 copies of 1200. I am not holding my breathe waiting for the NY Times to call but at least I can silence the voices in my head for a while. Good luck with your book and please let me know what the title is and where I can buy it. Cheers! Mike

  2. Tony Brice May 11, 2012 / 7:38 am

    So you have overcome the lack of brevity, humility and a good editor….?

    • Michael Turpin May 11, 2012 / 12:28 pm

      I got the editor. One out of three ain’t bad. It’s a good batting average. Probably higher than anyone on the Cleveland Indians!

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