Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Second in a series: How I got the idea for my novel MADELINE'S MIRACLES

Of all the questions asked of fiction writers, the one most common is: Where do you get your ideas? It is a crucial question that goes to the heart of the storyteller's art. One might generalize and assert that it comes from an amalgam of one's life's experiences, stories told by others, books read, movies seen, dreams and fantasies, and the molten mix in the cauldron of one's imagination. This is one writer's attempt to pinpoint the spark that ignited the idea that became the story and its aftermath.

As a confirmed skeptic I do not believe in anything that is outside the orbit of logical reality. I eschew anything new age, strange repetitive rituals and self-professed gurus who allege they have "the answer" and demand obedience. I do not believe in anything in the supernatural, realm and that includes fantasy, Fairy Godmothers, angels, superheroes, weird conspiracy theories, miracles, doppelgangers, Dybbuks, and the thousand other mysterious ideas and imagined events that fall into this genre.

Hordes of people will disagree with such skepticism. It would be pointless to argue the point since there is no empirical evidence to the contrary, and the end game of the argument will always remain unresolved.

Nevertheless, I do believe in the power of the subconscious, which is essentially a mystery, although science continues to uncover more and more empirical evidence on the inner workings of the human brain. As a novelist, I know I am drawing on this still mysterious subconscious power although I cannot explain how or why it works. I accept it since I know it is the essential tool in the fiction writer's art.

There are insistent people who will cling with fervor to their belief in one or another aspect of the supernatural. Try to argue with someone who truly believes he has had an out of body experience, or has heard God's voice, or believes that Kennedy was murdered by Johnson, or the CIA brought down the twin towers, and any other of the hundreds of conspiracy theories that trigger unambiguous certainties. The list is endless, and the way in which these stories are conveyed, armed with the power of passionate belief, can be dangerously persuasive.

In every field, people will cite supernatural forces as having intervened in their personal narratives. Since I truly "believe" in the idea of "luck," I stand ready to be accused of hypocrisy. I suppose one can attribute a lucky break to "divine intervention" or somesuch, and we do know from the "what happens next" aspect of storytelling that events do happen without notice or foreshadowing, but I don't let myself go too far into the unknowable and resist all efforts by people to explain it by alleging that they had received some miraculous gift of foresight.

That said, there have been moments in which self-interest or, admittedly, blind fear, trumped logic, and I found myself willing to buy into a bizarre supernatural mindset. This recounting goes to the heart of that persistent question: "Where do you get your ideas?"

I got the idea for Madeline's Miracles from this ubiquitous fount. A friend of mine had lost an adult son, probably to AIDS, and was having a "death" celebration at the home of a friend in Beverly Hills. I had never been to such a themed event, and I was seated at a table next to an attractive woman who greeted me warmly. When I gave her my name, her response was: "I know." I had never met her before and was somewhat confused by the response.

Without missing a beat, she announced that she was a "psychic" and that she was certain that I would have a successful career in Hollywood. I was dumbfounded. I had been in Los Angeles less than a week when I was invited to this event by the mother of the deceased. I was, of course, both baffled and flattered. I had never met an acknowledged "psychic" before, and here was this complete stranger predicting my success.

Of course, she was playing into my aspirations. One of my books, The War of the Roses, was in the early phase of development, and I had relocated to Los Angeles in the hopes that I could speed the process and perhaps interest the movie crowd into optioning my growing collection of fiction. I was, of course, completely skeptical. After all, this was weird and woolly Hollywood. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by her assertion about my alleged future success. Who wouldn't be? To make the matter more baffling, she then told me that she could actually pick which of my books would be the next one to attract Hollywood producers.

Against my better judgment, I found myself going along, figuring that this was yet another creative hustling ploy in La-La Land. Mostly out of curiosity, I made a date to meet for breakfast at the Bel Air Hotel the next day. She instructed me to bring four of my books for her "analysis." What the hell? I told myself. I decided to go with the flow.

When I arrived at the Bel Air she had with her a female executive from 20th Century Fox, which greatly enhanced her credibility. She then took each of my books, closed her eyes, put the flat of her hand on the books in some mysterious incantation, and after this strange ceremony handed one of the books to the studio executive. "This is the one," she told the executive. It took great discipline on my part to hide my astonishment.

Suddenly she stiffened and seemed to go into a trance, then rose from the table remarking that she "sensed" that a person in this dining room was a hit man assigned to kill one of her clients. She rose from table and told us that she had to phone her client to warn him. The executive from the studio hardly reacted to this strange behavior. I was, to say the least, bewildered. It struck me as an Alice in Wonderland moment, challenging my concept of reality. She returned to the table and the conversation went on as before. The executive from Fox seemed to treat this woman's action as perfectly normal. Did they know something I didn't? Worse, I felt my entire belief system challenged.

Another luncheon meeting with the psychic was arranged at which the book was discussed, and I was assured that an impending sale was being arranged. The female executive was present at this luncheon and told me that it was happening, that the studio powers were on the cusp of a decision, and that she would call me soon to announce the purchase of the rights. The psychic nodded her approval. Despite all my previous skepticism, I sensed that my previous logic system was being challenged. I felt myself becoming a believer.

After this luncheon I was ecstatic. I had no doubt that what was promised would happen. It seemed so credible. My skepticism had miraculously vanished.

I waited for the call that was going to announce that the deal was sealed, convinced in my gut that these people were on to something that had eluded me all my life. I was hooked and knew it. I was completely convinced that another movie was in the hopper. I waited. Be patient, I told myself. It was a done deal. I continued to wait. And wait.

I never heard from these people again, although I tried reaching them, but they never returned my calls. Because I was in thrall to this supernatural circumstance, I began to believe that somewhere down the line I had thrown out bad Karma that scotched the deal. After awhile logic began to surface again, and I returned to the normality of my skepticism. Why such an elaborate charade? I am still baffled by the experience. I felt like a fool, a naïve and gullible idiot. I still do.

I know this story strains credibility, but it is absolutely true in every detail, and it gave me the idea for Madeline's Miracles, a novel in which a family becomes the total pawn of a psychic who eventually dictates their every move. And yet, even today, I ask myself: Did this woman really believe she had a psychic gift, or was she merely manipulating me for her own profit, a naïve wannabe in ambitious pursuit of his hopes and dreams. There is a lesson here that still resonates and raises a red flag on the road ahead for anyone with outsized aspirations. More importantly it shows how easily our vulnerabilities can be manipulated by people bent on gaining their own rewards. Anyone who has ever had an experience with a cult will understand the dilemma this incident poses.

Still, even as I condemn myself for my naiveté, a tiny window of believability refuses to close completely. By some measure, one might say that I have done pretty well in Tinsel Town. I have overall sold or optioned ten of my books to Hollywood. Three have been made into movies, including a trilogy on PBS. Does that constitute "success" as predicted by this psychic? I'm not sure.

The book chosen through incantation by the psychic was never made. Perhaps someday…

Read the first chapter of Madeline's Miracles NOW!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Obama in Berlin

If Barack Obama loses his bid to become President of the United States, he can trace the beginning of his demise to his campaign's boneheaded idea to speak in Berlin. While on the surface it might seem to offer a resounding image of popularity and approval, the historical memory it provokes and the powerful and sinister images it recalls to living memory is an ominous reminder of events that continue to resonate among older Americans.


The spirited young Obama people must have huddled around the planning table blinded with the brilliance of the idea that their candidate's speaking in Berlin would trigger memories of President's Kennedy's stirring remark that gave hope to the beleaguered people of that surrounded city, "Ich bin ein Berliner," and would offer the double reminder of Ronald Reagan's "Tear down that wall" speech a few years later.


They must have reveled in the creativity of such a ploy that, they believed, would anoint Obama to be the heir apparent to such illustrious forebears. Unfortunately, the decision and its aftermath suggests that the vaunted brain power of Obama's inner circle is suffering from severe limitations of historical memory. The context of the Kennedy and Reagan eras was totally different. The battle then was between freedom and repression. We were in a very different time, in a war that literally had split Europe in half, and we were standing with allies against a tyrannical and nuclear armed state with serious designs on us and our European allies. Kennedy and Reagan were the cheerleaders for the good guys.

What Obama did, first in choosing to make his speech on the site of one of the principal monuments to German nationalism, and secondly in declaring that "This is our moment," against the background of a cheering and adoring crowd provoked memories of a German leader who through oratory and charisma stirred similar emotions and instilled the belief that he was the anointed one, the man of the moment whose magic would lead his people into a paradise of wealth and privilege over which they were destined to rule for a thousand years.


While such a comparison is odious in its implications and subjects a fine, idealistic, decent and eloquent man to be in sync with a monster, it suggests that his campaign strategists subjected him to a fatally flawed mission that forgot or overlooked or dismissed the power of historical memory. We know, of course, that the Germany of today is not the Germany of the thirties and forties, far from it. But long term memories are, as neurologists will attest, the last of the brain's complex functions to deteriorate.

What the Obama people failed to consider was that there are millions of people among the American voting public that are still haunted by memories of World War II when Americans considered Nazi Germany the most hated country on earth.

There were nearly 300,000 battle deaths in that war and nearly 700,000 wounded. Many of today's nearly forty million people over 65 lost grandfathers or fathers in that ghastly war or lived with wounded or disabled relatives. There are still more than three million of living American veteran survivors of that war and more than four million people 85 or over, voters all, who bear intimate memories of those times.


Consider too the millions who have seen Leni Riefenstahl's films depicting mesmerized sycophants of the Fuehrer, sieg heiling in robotic frenzy, and the millions born after who have studied those 13 years of German history. Then there was the Holocaust, an event that continues to resonate and stir bitter memories of horror and disgust.


Perhaps the youth oriented Obama people failed to understand the lingering influence of such imagery or took a calculated risk that such memories were swiftly fading into oblivion. That kind of misstep might be indicative of another mental hole in their ranks, the danger inherent in dismissing the aspirations and dignity of older Americans. I wonder if these elders are as hungry for "change" as our younger citizens. Considering the limited time horizons of older Americans, one can speculate if "change" resonates with a more ominous meaning within this considerable voting bloc. Be forewarned Obama strategists. Beware of using the "age card" against McCain.


The McCain people, earlier dismissed as clueless over-the-hill dolts, were quick to understand the real implications of the Berlin venue and the speech. Perhaps their retooling has borne fruit.


At this point let me stress that I am discussing process not partisan ideology. Campaigning is all about manipulation, and the two principal levers that strategists pull are based on hopes and fears. When we see these talking head strategists on television, they are characterizing the candidates they are paid to serve as products. They are immersed in the technology of campaigning based on statistics, polls, focus groups and image making. They are not advocates, but technicians. When Hillary Clinton talks about "playbooks," she is correct. Each side works from its own playbook, and one side inevitably is at war with the playbook of the other. Think football.


In the case of the Obama in Germany play, the opposition came up with what I believe is a brilliant counter strategy, creating matching commercials that got more exposure on the Internet and on televised news shows than their limited paid ad schedules. The first compared the crowds that came to hear Obama to the adoration of the mindless multitudes who worship on the altar of the celebrity culture, mostly the young, who the Obama people believe is their prime target audience. The second compared Obama, as his German oracular speech clearly spelled out in his "This is the moment" declaration, to the biblical prophet, Moses, but cleverly illustrated by the Hollywood actor Charlton Heston in the role. The implication is that Obama has received the call and is fated to lead us somewhere where magical change is supposed to happen.


The real message of those subtle and cunning ads was comparing Obama to you know who. It was not about Britney Spears or Paris Hilton or Moses, and anyone who thinks so is naïve and has not grasped the significance and subliminal effect of the powerful suggestion inserted into these two commercials. That message was designed to stoke fear and doubt, fear that Obama was insinuating to a giant crowd of mesmerized German onlookers that he was operating in the context of some self-generated messianic mission and doubt about the content of his words and his judgment in failing to assess the power of historical memory.


I cannot believe the very clever Obama pros and the candidate himself did not see that one coming. In one swoop it cast doubt upon Obama's content and eloquence and suggested a comparison to a man who created one of the greatest bloodbaths in human history and who used words and eloquence as his principal weapons of mass persuasion.


The reaction to it telescoped the message that the McCain people are no longer as lackadaisical and out of touch as they have been portrayed.


Were the ads negative? Depends on whose ox is being gored. It was certainly a putdown of deliberate Obama campaign manipulation. Wasn't the Berlin speech an attempt to trash the Bush legacy and spread manure all over the McCain candidacy? It was staged to illustrate the alleged low esteem that some Europeans have for the present American administration and by inference John McCain. Good in theory. Bad venue. Clueless speech.


These campaigns are not playing tiddlywinks. They are engaged in combat in a war for the greatest democratic prize of all, the Presidency of the United States. All their debates, their utterances, their commercials, are a form of combat, and they have enlisted armies of officers and foot soldiers to win their war. If you have any doubts, just plug into the blogosphere and survey the hostility and anger in the war of words that motivates the followers of both candidates and what is sure to see slashing counterpunches to this blog. I stand prepared. It's an old cliché to shoot the messenger.


Even in the fast moving battleground of a contentious presidential campaign, the McCain people will surely wield its weapon again and again to reinforce the blunder of Obama in Berlin. What does one remember of the Goldwater campaign if not the Lyndon Johnson "Daisy H bomb commercial," which you can find on YouTube, or go all the way back to the Dewey campaign and the image that characterized him as the "little man on the top of the wedding cake?" I could go on and on. You see, historical memory matters and political campaigns are often won and lost on imagery that can act like a vampire sucking the blood out of an unwitting candidate.

Expect both campaigns to make errors of judgment as they progress. The McCain people have already made their fair share of dumb moves, but their counter to the Berlin speech indicates that there are some very shrewd and canny people who have just come aboard the Straight Talk Express.


This is not to say that the Obama braintrust has lost its way. There are many talented and hard eyed professionals in the upper ranks of the campaign. And their candidate is certainly attractive, astute and, despite disclaimers, calculating and politically combative.

But they had better not start believing their own publicity and not let the generational divide blind them to the reality of the folks who dine on early bird dinners, wear hearing aids and spectacles, and know that George Patton wore pearl handled pistols, can remember cars like the Nash and the Hudson, that Clark Gable was once the king of Hollywood and that the Hula Hoop once swiveled the hips of a nation. However haltingly, these folks are ambulatory enough to vote, even in those new fangled voting machines.

Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys. Read more of his blogs at The Writer's Life

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Loaded Query

Oblique and often innocent questions can reveal character traits that I have found useful in my fiction. I ask the following question often since it reveals the level of a person’s expectations.

What is your number?

This means what is your comfort zone in terms of your net worth. I have asked this question of people of all economic categories from the very poor to the super rich. Obviously those with the least net worth answer that their level of satisfaction would be a million dollars in liquid assets.

As we ride up the scale, most people think five million is more than adequate. Sophisticated and well-off people who have reached the five to ten million mark will set their comfort zone between fifteen and twenty million.

A large category places the comfort level at 25 million, but this answer comes from people who have attained that figure. Of course, for many people to whom I have posed this question, their answer has been “The sky’s the limit.”

Usually they follow this up by saying that extreme wealth is more a report card of achievement than a comfort zone. Some tell me that acquiring wealth is merely a game or that they enjoy the process of giving their money away, which they call “giving back.”

To many the process of “giving back” gives them a high from being honored and butt kissed by the recipients of their largesse. They never will admit this. Nor will they ever admit that having extreme wealth gives them perks and power and the ability to buy bigger and better toys.

I have not found any difference in their level of happiness or self-worth. Indeed, many of my super wealthy friends and acquaintances have just as many psychological problems as those who have a lot less.

I have also found less envy of the super rich by the less than rich, although the very poor are naturally angry with their circumstances and vocal about the inequality.

What do you think?

Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys.