Friday, April 6, 2018


Every published author will tell you that a great copy editor is a gift from God, and have horror stories about those more in Satan’s camp. I’ve had both. Now that I’m busy with the editorial process, the importance of great copy editing has become even more apparent.

There’s a big range of capabilities different copy editors bring to their roles. Some are basically proofreaders, who concentrate on typos, spelling, punctuation, format screw-ups, like a bad break in the middle of a sentence, things that are objectively incorrect. But beyond that, there’s a lot of room for thoughtful interpretation. Especially for things like commas, colons, semi-colons, quote marks, dashes, and so on. These can have a big impact on style and meaning. The copy editor has to understand the author’s intent, their distinctive voice, to know how to properly suggest how these guideposts should be arranged.

Great copy editors also delve into grammar, usage, syntax, continuity, fact checking, historical accuracy, repetitive or poor word choice, character consistency, even unintended pejoratives  – many of the things developmental editors also attend to. This means they have to have a good understanding of the author’s voice and style, not only to catch and correct tiny errors, but to maintain a clear understanding of the storyline itself. A gestalt on the work as a whole. 

This is where copy editing is a fine art. It’s not their job to rewrite an author’s work. In fact, rewriting a sentence usually guarantees it’s in the copy editor’s style, not that of the author’s. Though sometimes the author doesn’t hear her own voice. She knows what she wants to say, and might think she is saying it, but it doesn’t always come out that way. The copy editor can help by questioning the author’s intent. “Did you mean for the reader to think x or y?”

A not-so-good copy editor is either someone who just misses too many goof-ups, or worse, one who conforms to strict definitions of formal rules. When I was in advertising, I sent some copy to a bigwig for approval. After checking for technical accuracy, he turned it over to his admin, who was a former English teacher. I got it back all marked up with a red pen. She took out all my contractions, re-attached the split infinitives, and after making sure there were no incomplete sentences, ganged them up into long paragraphs. Thus taking all the life out of the prose. 

I thanked her for her help, and sent her a huge stack of long-form brochures asking her to apply her magic, and never heard from her again.      

My favorite copy editors either come from journalism or advertising. Those professions teach you how to keep the writing from straying too far from acceptable standards, but also that style must be a flexible thing, who appreciate the whole and do not distort the author’s voice by fussing over irrelevant particulars, or imposing rules that were first established in the eighteenth century. 

I work with a lot of beta readers who I ask to ignore typos and misspellings, hoping to keep their attention on the greater work.  This is easy for me, since I’m the world’s worst proofreader. And utterly dependent on great copy editors, who are the lifeguards in the narrative stream. 

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This is the newest of the blogs Chris has been posting sharing his thoughts about the art of writing with other writers—be they published or unpublished—that might be helpful. He’s had a successful career as a wordsmith, starting with a career in advertising and moving on to write a string of highly successful mysteries. His most recent Sam Acquillo mystery Tango Down is available on Amazon. Chris has won innumerable awards and has had dozens of rights sales around the world, including audio sales to Blackstone Audiobooks. Do pass this on to others you know, post comments on the Cockeyed Pessimist website, and feel free to share your thoughts with Chris via View my Blog The Cockeyed Pessimist, or email Chris directly or Martin Shepard at

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


These are times when optimism is about as easy to sustain as the suspension of disbelief watching a superhero movie. I consume way too much of the media fury, so I won't add to it here. Rather, I’d like to address one small slice of the public debate, at least among those who are literate enough to ask: Are we moving into a post-literate society?
No. And here's why.
Just as there's a natural distribution of good looks, intelligence and athletic grace across the population, there's a percentage of people who like to read, absorb information and artistic expression, and formulate their own opinions from the swelter of competing views. Let's assume that the qualities described above are encouraged, for some, by spending four years in college. This means the percentage of the thoughtful and inquisitive is larger than ever: In 1940, only about five percent of the country had graduated from college. Now it’s over a third.
  You’ll hear people say "Kids don’t read anymore." Tell them that books sales, in particular physical books, are growing, and much of that growth is being driven by young readers. It's true that the number of brick and mortar bookstores has declined, but that's because of Amazon and other online sources. It's a matter of distribution, not consumption, and for the purpose of my thesis here, somewhat misleading. 
Journalism is another institution that is supposedly dying on the vine, and for sure, the print media is under huge duress. Though for every daily newspaper that goes under there are hundreds, if not thousands, of fresh news outlets appearing online. You may rightly assert that many, or most, are poorly managed and edited, and filled with uncurated dreck. That still leaves so much worthy and enriching information, and commentary, that you'd never be able to absorb it all.
You can make a strong case that the cretin in the White House has caused an upsurge in media consumption, however polarized individual outlets have become. Trust in the media favored by Democrats has actually improved in recent times. I submit that this is because people are paying more attention, that they're reading more. I also believe that responsible journalism, in an era of propaganda and phony news, is trying harder to keep their facts straight and their commentary thoughtfully nuanced. 
A good friend of mine has a theory of the human mind:  "People have a tendency to extrapolate current circumstances indefinitely into the future." Even the scantest understanding of the past ought to unburden you of this fallacy. We are, no doubt, going through some monumental changes, occurring at an unprecedented pace. This is much of the problem, since rapid change makes it feel like everything is going to hell in a handbasket. The originators of Chaos Theory, a scientific paradigm that explains the behavior of complex systems, say that nature moves from order to disorder in irregular, but relentless, cycles. They call the state between these cycles "phase transition," when things become the most chaotic. 
This is where we're living today. It’s not a post-literate society, it's a society making a painful adjustment to the Information Age, finding their way through the torrent of books, articles and essays, along with posts, Tweets, online rants and blogs, just like this.
If you believe civilization is worth preserving, you have to believe that wisdom and critical thinking are essential ingredients in that preservation. Thought in isolation from information is valuable, but closed-ended. You can only go so far on your own. I maintain that the richest source of revelation and enrichment are books. Whatever form they take, physical or electronic, books will save us from annihilation, from the foolishness – economic, military, environmental, cultural – that is also an irredeemable component of the human experience. 
Don't despair. Publishers are publishing, readers are reading. Thus, thinkers keep thinking. 

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I encourage you to share this blog with others who may enjoy it. I particularly welcome your comments on this cockeyed pessimist site. Chris Knopf's eighth Sam Acquillo mystery, Tango Down, is now available for purchase. You can also reach Chris by email at, and follow The Permanent Press on Facebook and Twitter for updates on all our titles!  

Monday, November 20, 2017

BILL'S BLOG by Bill McCauley

This past November ninth Judy and I did what we've been doing for decades now: celebrating my birthday by visiting my son Marc and his wife Stella who live just outside Seattle, and getting together with some of our writers for a meal who also live in the area. This led into a spirited discussion about writing with William (Bill) McCauley, a very gifted writer and world traveler whose fiction we'd published three times to excellent reviews—Need (the Seattle Times review said  "his evocation of place is masterful and provides a level of engagement reminiscent of Hawthorne or Melville"), The Turning Over, his second novel, set in Sierra Leone, involved Western aid workers and native workers and won high praise in Library Journal,and his short story collection Adulteries, Hot Tubs, and Such Like Matters—set in Suburban America—was hailed in Booklist as "biting and insightful stories about well-to-do middle-agers, bored with their lives, who engage in empty shenanigans." Obviously my admiration for Bill is immense. And to pass those twelve  hours of travel I  brought along the world-famed Swedish novelist Henning Mankell's Sidetracked. So much for my introduction  to Bill's Blog. Needless to say it was a novel I abhorred.   —Marty Shepard

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When Marty and I were talking about books a few days ago he told me he'd recently read a Henning Mankell novel and was disappointed. He asked me if I'd read any of Mankell's books. I said I'd read only one and I came away from it feeling betrayed by the reviewer blurbs. Reading the book was akin to what I feel when I have unwisely devoured some fast-food treat like a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke. It may fill my belly, but it will not satisfy me. This is because there is nothing new in it. Everyone knows what to expect from a Big Mac and fries. In an analogous way the Mankell book filled my time and gave me no satisfaction at all. Having read the blurbs, I anticipated an enjoyable read and ended up annoyed with myself for not cutting my losses at page 25 and tossing the book into the Goodwill bin.  

I make no judgement about the worth of the Mankell book. A book is worth what the reader thinks it's worth. Obviously, my opinion on Mankell's writing is out of sync with many thousands of his loyal readers. I didn't like it because it did not meet my standard for a good readable book.  

We all have standards, though we don't often express them, and when we do we don't express them well. What are yours? Can you generalize your standards in a sentence? I can. I keep it simple; it is the same standard I use to evaluate art. For me the quality of a book starts and ends with the question of whether it offers me the discovery of something new (Merriam-Webster: "to obtain sight or knowledge of for the first time"). Perhaps this is another way of saying it must be interesting.

From my perspective, the topic of a book or its genre are not of first importance. The next book that captures my admiration might be a novel, or a collection of short stories, or book of poems, or an anthropological book on human origins, or a book on cosmology, or a military history, or a book on any number of other topics, in any number of genres. What I don't want is to give my time to any book that says something in a way that I've seen many times, that is didactic, that is careless or ugly in its use of language, or is populated by two-dimensional cliché expressions and characters. I want originality in material and in manner of presentation. I believe that when the writer strives for originality she necessarily discovers and offers discoveries to readers; and in not being original, the writer forecloses the possibility of discovering and offering discoveries to readers.

"Discovery" is a very general term. In that sense I mean discovery has many aspects. Often, I find one aspect of discovery in a book but not other aspects that I value. When that happens, I am nonetheless likely to finish it because the value of the one ongoing experience of discovery is enough for me to enjoy the book. For example, I recently read This Kind of War, by T. R. Fehrenbach. I heartily recommend it, though the writer's underlying politics are too conservative for me, the intellectual setting is outdated (it was written in the early 60s), it is loaded with mid-20th Century racial clichés, and the writing is often in mediocre military-history style. Nonetheless, I liked it very much and think it a worthwhile read, because it brilliantly characterizes the difficulties of fighting a war of movement (a modern war) in mountainous North Korea. This is new information for a lot of people and should be thoroughly understood by those advocating a war against North Korea. The insights (discoveries) provided by the author were original and clearly developed. The book is a tidy history of the Korean War.

Another example of a book in which readers are likely to find rich veins of discovery is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I read this year. Whereas the Fehrenbach book offered me one aspect of significant discovery (why fighting a land war in North Korea is a bad idea), Pale Fire offers many aspects of discovery. In this it exemplifies the genius of Nabokov. I've read several of his books and in none have I found any single weakness. In his books, discoveries abound, on every page from first to last. Plot? No one is more original. Humor? I experienced numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Poetic language? So subtle and lush I stopped and reread sentences and paragraphs to re-experience the thrill of the first reading. Originality? He seems never to repeat himself in any book or from book to book, and never to use any character as a template for others. His characters are as original and as alive as Shakespeare's. Dialogue? Always in character, never unfitting or unlikely, and always leading the reader into yet another discovery.

Poems and short stories are typically built around a single discovery. O. Henry made a living on this. John Updike is known for the one-line "zingers," each a revelation (discovery) for the reader, with which he ends his short stories. Ditto John Cheever. A poem without discovery for the reader is reduced to an exercise in word play.

In the most felicitous case, as the writer composes he is discovering. While I cannot say how other writers work I can say that I never end up with the words and thoughts I put down first. Never. I throw away far more pages of stuff than end up in a manuscript. It is in the act of writing that I discover what I want to say; it is in the act of developing characters that I discover who the characters are. When I follow that motif of composition – exploring by writing and making changes until I cannot find another change that makes an improvement – I continuously feel an aesthetic lift that accompanies discovery, because I am writing stuff that says more than the words alone express. The writer hopes the reader makes his or her own discoveries. The most enduring literature consistently involves the reader in this way. To the extent this happens, the writer is successful.

For many years I've believed this. It is what sustains me when I am defeated by my cliché characters or a plot line that embarrasses me and defeats every attempted change.

This brings me full circle to Mankell's book. I discovered nothing in it that wasn't on the surface of the words, which is simple word play.

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I am curious to hear from you about which popular writers you believe are incredibly overrated, and the reasons you would put forward for your dismissals of them. The media is always concerned with Best-Seller lists, and contrarian that I sometimes am, I'd like to see a listing of other unworthy Best-Sellers for another blog. My email address is

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


My grandparents all came from Russia. Some had religious ties, others were atheists, but all were pacifists. When it came down to my father and mother’s affiliations and those of their generation, all were agnostic at best and none of their children (my cousins, or anyone in our extended family) had any religious education at all, for which I am eternally grateful, since it’s enabled me to avoid tribalism, be it nationalism, racial, or religious.

My favorite book is not fiction which we largely publish, Nor even memoirs It is Stephen Mitchell’s translation of  La-tzu’s the Tao Te Ching—81 short poetic statements about the Way things are. The front flap talks about at the basic predicament of being alive; about wisdom in action and imparts a balance and perspective that leads to a serene and generous spirit. I read it repeatedly in my 30’s and have gone back to again. 

It is the most widely read translated book in world literature after the Bible. Yet few of my friends and contemporaries have ever read it, But if there were one book I would recommend to one and all to read, it wouldn’t be a anything from one of the mega publishers or smaller ones like us, but this engrossing and timeless work.

So what spurred me to write this blog now? Coming across an article written 12 years ago called Zen Judaism. And it was funny. And we can all enjoy something that can foster laughter.

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* If there is no self,

   whose arthritis is this? 

* Be here now. 

   Be someplace else later. 

   Is that so complicated? 

* Drink tea and nourish life. 

   With the first sip... joy. 

   With the second... satisfaction. 

   With the third, peace. 

   With the fourth, a danish. 

* Wherever you go, there you are. 

   Your luggage is another story. 

* Accept misfortune as a blessing. 

   Do not wish for perfect health 

   or a life without problems. 

   What would you talk about? 

* The journey of a thousand miles 

    begins with a single "oy." 

* There is no escaping karma. 

    In a previous life, you never called, 

    you never wrote, you never visited. 

    And whose fault was that? 

* Zen is not easy. 

   It takes effort to attain nothingness. 

   And then what do you have? 


* The Tao does not speak. 

   The Tao does not blame. 

   The Tao does not take sides. 

   The Tao demands nothing of others. 

   The Tao is not Jewish. 

* Breathe in. Breathe out. 

   Breathe in. Breathe out. 

   Forget this and attaining Enlightenment 

   will be the least of your problems. 

* Let your mind be as a floating cloud. 

   Let your stillness be as the wooded glen. 

   And sit up straight. You'll never meet the 

   Buddha with such rounded shoulders.

* Be patient and achieve all things. 

   Be impatient and achieve all things faster. 

* To Find the Buddha, look within. 

   Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. 

   Each flower blossoms ten thousand times.

   Each blossom has ten thousand petals. 

   You might want to see a specialist. 

* To practice Zen and the art of Jewish 

   motorcycle maintenance, do the following: 

   get rid of the motorcycle. 

   What were you thinking? 

* Be aware of your body. 

   Be aware of your perceptions. 

   Keep in mind that not every physical 

   sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness. 

* The Torah says,"Love thy neighbor as

   thyself." The Buddha says there is no "self." 

   So, maybe you are off the hook. 

* The Buddha taught that one should practice

   loving kindness to all sentient beings. Still, 

   would it kill you to find a nice sentient being 

   who happens to be Jewish? 

* Though only your skin, sinews, and bones

   remain, though your blood and flesh 

   dry up and wither away, 

   yet shall you meditate and not stir until 

   you have attained full Enlightenment.  

   But, first, a little nosh.

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I encourage you to share this blog with others who may enjoy it. I particularly welcome your comments on this cockeyed pessimist site. You can also reach me by email (, and follow The Permanent Press on Facebook and Twitter for updates on all our titles!  


Wednesday, August 16, 2017


        Howard Owen is surely the best known and widely read author in Richmond and also well known throughout the state of Virginia. His 16th novel, (and fourth Willie Black Mystery), The Devil’s Triangle debuted last month. Another achievement is that he has never had a bad review.

        His 17th mystery, Annie’s Bones, will be published by us in April, 2018.

        This is the story of his journey.

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By Howard Owen

        My professional/public life has tended to run in 20-year cycles.
        In my early 20s, I became a sports writer because the idea of getting paid to go to ballgames and write about them seemed to me to be a pleasant way to spend my adult life. Maybe I wouldn’t change the world, but, like a diligent physician, I would do no harm.

        Then, just before I turned 40, I started my first novel, because I had managed to get promoted away from using the main talent I thought I brought to journalism: writing.  I needed to write. That first novel, Littlejohn, was bought by The Permanent Press after a dozen large publishers had turned it down. Martin and Judith Shepard’s judgment was rewarded when the book got great reviews and word-of-mouth support from independent booksellers, and Random House purchased it from them/me and republished it the next year. 

        That made writing novels in my free time (I was still working as a newspaper editor) easier, because I was fairly confident someone would publish my work. Over the next 20 years, I wrote nine literary novels, some for The Permanent Press, some for Harper Collins and Random House.

        Then about the time I turned 60, still working as a newspaper editor, another fork in the road appeared, and, like Yogi Berra advised, I took it.

        A friend, Tom De Haven, an outstanding novelist who teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, asked me to write a detective noir short story for a collection that would become Richmond Noir, one of a series of noir collections published by Akashic Books.

        I had never written a mystery anything. I didn’t even read that many mysteries, but I’m always game to write something that people might read, so I gave it a try. That short story, “The Thirteenth Floor,” was the birth of Willie Black, a night police reporter for the Richmond daily newspaper who drinks too much, smokes too much and marries too much, a man with a good heart and bad habits.

        I knew right away that Willie’s first-person voice was something I could use in a novel or two. Even before Richmond Noir came out, I was working on the first Willie Black mystery. That first one, Oregon Hill, won the Dashiell Hammett Prize for best crime literature in the U.S. and Canada. The fifth one, Grace, is a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best Fiction Adult Mystery. The sixth one, The Devil’s Triangle, with a starred Publishers Weekly review, came out in July. I’m polishing the seventh one now. The first six have all been published by The Permanent Press as will, I’m hoping, the seventh.

        What have I learned? Basically, writing is writing. I found that the things that carried me in literary fiction—a good plot, intriguing characters, quality writing—worked just as well in mysteries. And when I needed professional advice (What kind of gun should the bad guy use? What’s it like at an execution? What’s the procedure between the arrest and the trial?), there was always an expert, either in person or online, who could tell me what I needed to know. 

        The important thing is simply to have a good story and write it well. Genre doesn’t matter. The bonus, with mysteries, is that you have a protagonist and a setting already. If you have a likeable, compelling protagonist, you can use him or her over and over. And the setting doesn’t usually change. All you need is another story, and the world is full of stories. 

        With literary fiction, I had to invent a new world every time out. With the mysteries, I always have Willie (he’s 10 years younger than me, so I can ride him for years to come), and I always have Richmond, a city with a history, with a wealth of nooks and crannies that you don’t find in most cities. 

        The down side, if there is one, is that the characters have to stay real and fresh. Willie can’t be fully redeemed, although he tries to be good. There’s not much of a market for Detective Blanc. 

        So, I’m seven novels into that third phase right now.
Twenty. Forty. Sixty. Can’t wait to see what 80 brings.

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        We urge you to pass Howard’s blog on to others and to also to post your remarks on this cockeyed pessimist website and also on Howard’s site The Willie Black series and his other books can be ordered on Amazon or on our website, We encourage you to leave your comments on this page, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Monday, July 3, 2017


Besides being a publisher I’m still a licensed physician who—decades ago—had a practice in psychiatry. And it’s occurred to me that nobody has raised the possibility that our 71-year-old president is showing symptoms of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But if you go online, you will see that Donald Trump is increasingly displaying every symptom of this disease.
Up until now many people have witnessed Trump’s sensitivity to criticism, outbursts of anger, dissimulation and illogical changes of policy both domestically and internationally. In the past he’s shown these traits which have turned many Americans against him, but at this point it seems more likely we’ve missed the boat here, and that his growing intemperance is likely a result of an incurable and rapidly advancing illness.

For instance, people who suffer from dementia display “sundowners syndrome”—where their symptoms increase during the night, which is when Donald Trump sends out his most incendiary messages. Other common symptoms of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s is agitation, usually resulting from fear, confusion, fatigue, and feeling overwhelmed from trying to make sense of a world that no longer makes sense. Spelling and word choice errors are likely to be affected and continuously increase in Trump’s tweets. Unprovoked mood swings are still another sign of dementia—going from calm to rage for no apparent reason.

If so we, as a nation, are at even greater risk if our president is suffering from this incurable disease. I would hope that there is a Praetorian guard surrounding the President, far less delusional, who might prevent Trump from pressing the nuclear button. But who is to say?

I know that Donald Trump will never release his tax returns. But will he or his more rational staff allow the President to be examined by reputable physicians whose specialty is dementia? One thing is certain: it will require many individuals and organizations to demand such an examination be done.

My hope is that you will not only comment on this blog but pass it on to others as well—including your elected lawmakers be they Republicans or Democrats, and to media sources including radio, magazines, and newspapers large and small alike. And please comment on this Cockeyed Pessimist blog, tell us what you are doing, and send out your own blogs as well.

Urgency is called for on this one.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017


I’ve been a great admirer of Eleanor Lerman as a writer, poet, blogger and brave soul who has overcome serious illness without complaint, and who can turn adversity into lyrical memoir, such as this current blog. There is incredible honesty in her work and it’s been a privilege to have published her and count her as a good friend. I think you will be equally impressed by this piece.  —Martin Shepard
*         *         *

Monsters and Memory
by Eleanor Lerman

In 1970, when I was eighteen, I answered a want ad in the Village Voice that said, “Person needed to sweep up in harpsichord workshop.” I figured I could do that job; after all, I had grand ideas about being a writer and scorned the alternate path of going to college or getting a “real” job which, at that time, would have meant putting on a demure dress and typing letters in an insurance office. (Well, that’s how I pictured a girl’s life in those years and what my typing course in high school had prepared me for.) So, I took the A train from my parents’ house in Far Rockaway to the Village, got off at Sheridan Square, walked down to 161 Charles Street near the Hudson River and—not that I knew it then—found the place that would change my life forever.             

That day, Michael Zuckermann hired me to work at Zuckermann Harpsichords and also gave me the keys to a tiny apartment upstairs so I became not only his employee but also his neighbor and eventually, his friend. Yes, I swept the floors but I also made harpsichord kit parts. I drilled pin boards, spun wire into coils, affixed tongues into the plastic jacks that help pluck the harpsichords’ strings. By the time I was nineteen I was managing the place so Michael could be free to pursue his real passion: making movies that starred his girlfriend, Rosalie, running naked down Charles Street at night as a tape-recorded recitation of “She Sells Sea Shells” played in the background. The reason for this eludes me now, but I’m sure it all made sense at the time.

Michael once told me that he hired me because I had a soulful look, which meant I had achieved exactly the look I was going for: long hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, rags and glitter. Sort of half Cher, half Egyptian tomb painting. What better qualifications could anyone have for working in a harpsichord kit factory at that time, in those years, in that place?

So, Charles Street and Charles Lane behind it, along with the harpsichord workshop and all the people I met through that place—including a movie producer who lived in a carriage house on the Lane along with art historian wife—shaped who I was and who I am. I didn’t realize it then, of course, but I know it now. I was an angry, resentful, unsophisticated and uneducated kid with a dead mother and a fractured family so I didn’t know how to really relate to any of the people I met, but I did know how to watch them from somewhere deep inside myself. The people whose circle parted just a little to let me in—movie stars, Great American Writers, once-famous musicians suddenly and famously down-and-out, comedians on the rise, but mostly the writers, all men, all extraordinarily talented—filled me with jealousy (I wanted to be them), with rage (I hated the idea that I believed I couldn’t be them, though they were all extremely kind and encouraging to me), and even, once in a while, inspiration (what the hell, if some of these acting-out-all-the-time and raging-drunk types could write books, then why not me, too?). Anyway. When I was 36, I moved away from the Village and all things Zuckermann. There were a lot of reasons, including the fact that I thought I was failing as a writer (I had published two books of poetry but couldn’t find anyone to buy a novel I’d written) and so it was time to give up and try to live a normal life. That didn’t work out because I am not a normal person—at least, not the demure dress and typing kind of person who I thought I was sentencing myself to become by leaving the Village, moving to Queens, and getting a more conventional job. So, years got lost, bad decisions got made, etc., etc. Lots of time passed. Lots.

But actually, all that is prelude to what I really want to write about here, so let’s start by my saying that now, as it turns out, I am not quite the failure I thought I was. I am still not where I want to be as a writer but, at the age of 65, I have finally learned a few things about how to do my job better, be more discerning about the angels and oddities walking through the front door. And one of the things I’ve learned about my job is that different people who do the same thing do it differently. Some people who write stories start with developing their characters, some start by working out the plot, some just begin with a particular sentence and follow where it leads them. For me, stories start with a place. In my last novel, The Stargazer’s Embassy, Greenwich Village was an important setting for a good part of what happens. In a book I’ve just begun working on, the story began to reveal itself to me when I was riding on the Long Island Railroad and through the window, glimpsed a winding, lonely looking street that seemed to lead off to nowhere. I was on the train because, after a sudden and near-fatal illness, I was in the process of recovery, which involved traveling to a physical therapy facility some distance from the small Long Island beach town where I live. So, day after day, on the train, that deserted street with a fence on the corner and an empty lot lined by tall cattails, began to exercise a kind of pull on me. It was autumn; the sky was gray and mackerel-striped. The wind pushed around the clouds above the street and blew sand across the weedy lot. In my mind, that glimpse of scenery became a place called Satellite Street and it became mine.

So, back home, sitting on my purple couch, in my imagination I began to walk down Satellite Street and what I found there was a woman with short-term memory problems and her friend, falling into dementia, who can only remember experiences from long ago. There are a lot of things I intend for these women to do, but one important task is to make a brief visit to the Village because I want them to help me say good-bye one last and final time.

Maybe it’s because as we—as I—get older, the longing for people and places in the past grows stronger, as if by going back to those years we could cast off all the bad choices, the disasters, the illnesses and grief that came to visit afterwards. But for me, I know that I have to find another way to live and to write that is not constantly referencing the past. My life was pretty scary for a while but it’s much better now, and I have to find a way to work from that better place.

In my new story, a woman named Mara develops a mild obsession with the movie Godzilla—the old one, from 1956, with Raymond Burr. Mara thinks, at first, that her obsession stems from an affinity she feels with Godzilla’s atomic rage: she’s been very sick (who can she represent here, hmmm?), she’s lost her job, is living on Satellite Street in a middle-of-nowhere area surrounded by marshy inlets and highways to better places. She’s also very angry about the turn her life has taken and so she’d like to stomp out a few cities herself, smash up some skyscrapers and blast away an army of puny soldiers with her radioactive breath. But what she’s going to find out is something quite different: that while it takes a monster’s strength to survive this life, it also may require a monster’s heart—full of wandering atoms and stardust and ancient memories about human creation—to stomp on into the future. Wounded, maybe, but still breathing fire.

So, on I go. On we go. I recently received an email from someone I’ve never met, telling me that he’s a friend of Wallace Zuckermann, the original owner of Zuckermann Harpsichords and the older brother of my boss/friend Michael Zuckermann. Michael passed away many years ago but Wallace, who I didn’t know well, and whose real name, apparently, is Wolfgang, is an elderly fellow now, living in Paris in near poverty. (I know, that sounds like a novel all by itself.) The person who wrote to me is trying to get some folks together to find a way to chronicle Wolfgang/Wallace’s life (he was born in Germany, became an American soldier, created the harpsichord kit business and wrote a volume of bizarre, erotic fairytales which he once sent me and I am now trying to find among my books) and I told him I would help, if I can. Such an odd time to receive a communique from my Zuckermann-addled past but maybe it’s just the right time, as well.  Maybe it will help me say good-bye in my story, knowing that the girl with the kohl-rimmed eyes still gets to live a little longer, roam around her old haunts for a while longer and then go to sleep. Like Godzilla, she can drowse under the sea until roused again to stalk a new world. Angry. Happy enough. Certainly strong enough. Finally free.

Eleanor Lerman is the author of Radiomen (The Permanent Press, 2015) and The Stargazer’s Embassy, which will be published by Mayapple Press in July.