Tuesday, October 7, 2008

On Writing II

According to surveys, the average income of a fiction writer--if you include the Internet folks and the superstars like Stephen King--is $512 a year. That's not even fried-egg-sandwich money... My friend David Robins, author of The War of the Rats and many other excellent novels, likes to say there are fewer fiction writers making a full-time living at their craft than there are professional football players in the game. So it's a rarefied atmosphere. It's also, I believe, the most fun you can have with your pants on.

I love fiction. I am not, however, an informed writer. I never read writing magazines. I don't subscribe to the New York Times Book Review. I frankly don't give much of a hoot what a reviewer may think of a particular novel and generally distrust reviewers anyway. Write your own stuff--don't criticize others'. I neither write nor read short stories, and I don't spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at the fiction that's there. I go to one workshop annually, run by a group call the Red Dog Writers. It's fun, intense, friendly an I would recommend it to anyone interested in the craft.

I have an agent--bless his soul--who years ago sold my first novel, a science-faction paperback titled The IFO Report--and will soon be pounding the pavement with my latest opus, Montparnasse. I love him as I love family.

I write fiction because creating and peopling my own worlds with characters I have brought to life is, by and large, more fun than dealing with the one I'm in. When I finished writing the IFO book, my characters held a party for me. Now admittedly, I was drunk at the time, a not uncommon state back then, but still, there they were, all the lead players of my opus, telling me exactly what they thought of me and my work, and how I could have done better by them. I like the people I invent. After a while, they become my friends and, as any writer who has gone through the process will tell you, they take on a life of their own. Can there be anything cooler than that?

Here's installment 49 of Wasted Miracles.

Catherine cut him off. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”
Colin tugged the coffee table so it was next to the chair. “Who are you angry at, anyway? Me or her? If it’s me, and you still want me to help you find her, then put your anger away for now, OK? And if it’s Josie, take it up with her when she’s back.”
Catherine swung at him. It was a better blow than the one in the parking lot. He caught her hand in his, enveloped her fist. “You already did that once. It didn’t help either, so just stop.”
Catherine’s face had gone very white. She let her arm drop.
Colin said. “I think it’s time you meet Mamadou.”
On Tuesdays and Fridays the Zulu took care of his legitimate businesses. He had quite a few. There was a three-store video rental concern that specialized in family value films and other wholesome fare. Two stores were in the affluent McLean and Great Falls area of Northern Virginia, the third was on Georgia Avenue near the 16th Street Gold Coast in Washington. The latter store had a back room where mostly interracial porn was discreetly available to members. Returns in all three stores were down a bit and he attributed this to a variety of reasons. People spent more time outdoors in the summer and video rentals were down. Also, the blockbusting summer releases drew customers to the movie houses. Equally important was the Zulu’s deep belief that pornography was a seasonal thing, that his customers’ baser instincts were closer to the surface during the winter months when night fell at five in the afternoon and more layers of clothing were worn, making disrobing--and therefore sex--increasingly tempting.
Independent from the video rental stores was a small production company that produced eight- to fifteen- minute pornographic clips destined for the predominantly straightlaced Muslim nations. The grainy color footage invariably showed bearded men with Arabic features doing things forbidden by the Koran to women whose Nordic good looks would bear little scrutiny. Jewish freelancers produced these clips and their work, considering almost non-existent budgets, was imaginative. He had thought that, if possible, the late Herbie’s girlfriend would be the star of a series of such performances, a dozen of which could be shot in a single day. The girl had not yet acquired the wasted look of the prostitutes and addicts often used in his productions, and, in his estimation, there was no sense letting the young woman’s potential go to waste--a fresh young face was always welcome in the volatile porno market. He’d have to get rid of her anyway since her usefulness would come to an end as soon as she revealed the information she claimed not to harbor, so it made sense to get some returns on the troublesome investment she represented.
To offset revenue falls in the summer, the Zulu was majority owner of two sporting goods stores that sold high-cost bicycles, in-line skates, rock climbing equipment and hiking gear. The Zulu personally had a closetful of in-line skates, exorbitantly expensive trekking boots, one-, two- and four-person tents, a whitewater kayak and a tandem bicycle that had been hand-built by the nation’s top two-wheel designer. He also had a full collection of leopard-striped Lycra and Spandex tops and bottoms, in case he decided to take the tandem out for a spin. He had done so once, forcing Comfort to take the rear seat, but the expedition had not gone farther than a mile when Comfort’s feet somehow got stuck in the vehicle’s toe-clips. Unable to maintain both momentum and balance, the hapless riders had panicked, causing the tandem and its pedalers to run into a parked Cadillac. It had been an embarrassing and unfortunate moment for all concerned. In retrospect, though, the Zulu had to admit the mishap had been a blessing. He had found the tandem’s narrow seat painfully uncomfortable, had in fact been moments away from dismounting and telling Comfort to pedal the bicycle home by himself. The accident had at least allowed him to save a modicum of face. The skates and hiking boots he had never worn. The tents were never pitched. But he had paddled the kayak in an acquaintance’s swimming pool and found it enchanting, had done several laps until his arms hurt and he was caught in the slight vortex of the pool’s filter unit. Comfort, who had been holding a rope tied to the kayak’s bow, rescued him. The Zulu was gratified to see that the sports stores’ profits were healthy and climbing.
Other financial initiatives included loans at heretical--but legal--interest rates to Ethiopian and Somali hot dog vendors who needed cash to buy their carts and operating stock; partial interest in three downtown nightclubs; a used car dealership; two very tidy eight-unit apartment buildings in Northeast and a duckpin bowling alley in Oakton, Virginia, some twenty miles from Washington. The bowling alley was the loss leader for a bar next door called The Eleventh Frame. The Zulu owned that establishment as well.
On all these investments the Zulu dutifully paid federal, state and local taxes. His returns were always on time and correct to the penny. He had never been audited. He employed a full-time certified public accountant who kept straight books.
The Zulu’s investments served a twofold purpose. They masked the income he made from the sale of drugs, and, since he encouraged the local mob to launder its cash through his establishments, the stores, dealerships and clubs allowed him to operate relatively free of the Washington-based organized crime family that could, in a moment, have shut him down.
The Zulu was also active in politics. He had contributed to the election and re-election of the mayor of Washington, even after an FBI sting operation caught that individual red-handed toking from a crack pipe. That had proven tricky, had thrust the Zulu into a limelight he neither wanted nor appreciated. He had been questioned regarding his relationship His Honor and steadfastly refused the renounce his friendship with the great man. And since Washington is a forgiving town--the voters after all did reelect the mayor, but only after he tearfully admitted his powerlessness over drugs and alcohol and promised to reform both himself and the city--interest in the Zulu’s affairs waned and passed quickly.
His name had more than once been linked to the capital’s thriving drug trade but there was simply no proof. The Zulu operated quietly--if sometimes with great violence--and did not espouse the trappings of vulgar wealth. He was simply a black businessman, a naturalized U.S. citizen, an acquaintance and occasional guest of the mayor. The true source of his original wealth was unknown to all but a handful of people. The Zulu, when faced with someone so indiscreet as to openly question his background, merely shrugged and hinted at the vast--if discrete--wealth of his tribe. People assumed he was a prince, a direct descendant of Shaka and he met this assumption with a shy but knowing smile.
The Zulu turned is attention to the important matter of finding temporary manpower to replace the late and unlamented Akim. The boy had had promise. The Zulu was sorely disappointed in the way things had turned out but didn’t dwell on it. He liked to think of himself as a man who created opportunities from setbacks. Akim and Comfort had made a good pair but that was no more; Comfort alone might have his uses but what the Zulu really needed was a two-man team fully capable of and willing to do great harm to others, as needed.
He had heard good things about a pair of disgraced former cops whose last employer had attempted to renege on an agreement. The ex-officers had drowned him slowly in the Tidal Basin but the employer’s death was ruled accidental by a grand jury. The two were looking for work and seemed like the Zulu’s kind of people. He dialed Information to get their numbers.

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