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!

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