Why I Won’t Read Your Novel

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(This image is relevant, I swear)

A couple of months ago I’m at a 30th birthday party of a friend of a friend who I didn’t really know and besides feeling like an imposter during the intimate thank-you speeches I was having a pretty good time. Sometime after midnight the party began to thin leaving only the die hard drinkers and that’s when it happened. Every writer on the face of the planet has been, or will be in the following situation.

A skinny guy with a pony tail, who looked as if he owned every episode of Doctor Who and was of an age where that was weird, crossed the floor and made his way up to me. ‘You’re a writer,’ he said as if he were accusing me of something evil.

I confessed to the horrible truth that I was indeed a writer and a smile crossed his face as if he had been on some Hobbit-like adventure the entire night to find me and now here we were.

His name was Lawrence, and he had just finished writing his first novel. It was set in the future where for some undisclosed reason, domestic cats grew to be thirty feet tall and were now the main threat to humanity.

‘Will you read it?’

‘Oh, shit man, I’m real busy,’ I said.

‘You’re a really good writer. I can tell just by looking at you.’

In my experience good writers and bad writers look relatively similar but I was half drunk, half tired and wanting to get home to watch music videos on RAGE, so I handed him my card (yes, I have one) and told him to send me his manuscript.

‘No need,’ he said burying his hand into a dirty backpack by his feet. He pulled out a ream of paper and shoved it at me. It was nine hundred pages long and held by elastic bands and insecurity.

‘You carry it on you?’ I asked.

‘Of course.’

‘Isn’t it heavy?’

‘It’s the first in a series. I’ve got the other four at home.’

‘What if this one doesn’t sell?’

Confusion crossed his face. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing, forget it,’ I said.

I carried the monster under my arm and made the trek out to the train station. Ten minutes later a carriage rolled up. I took a seat by the window with the big bastard next to me, took a sip of beer from a bottle I smuggled out of the party, lent my head against the window and drunkenly nodded off.

I woke to the not so gentle nudges of a police officer. ‘This train isn’t a hotel,’ he said.

Who was I to argue? It didn’t look like one. I climbed to my feet and looked to the empty seat next to me. ‘Shit, someone stole my manuscript.’

‘A what?’

‘Before a novel is published it’s called a…’ I gave up. He didn’t care and after I gave it some thought, it didn’t much bother me either.

I made my way home thinking about the poor literary deprived bastard who took the nine hundred page beast, went to bed and forgot all about that Saturday night.

A few days later I was sitting in front of the typer, wrestling with a particularly troublesome sentence when the telephone rang. The number: BLOCKED.

‘Have you read my novel yet?’

It took a moment for my mind to catch up. ‘Lawrence, I’m not sure if I’m going to get to it.’

‘But you said you would read it?’

‘I said I would try to read it.’

‘I’ll call you back tomorrow after you’ve had some time.’ And he hung up.

The next day rolled around and again, there I was staring at another string of bad words and the flashing cursor taunting me with each little blink.

And again, the phone rang. The number: BLOCKED.

This time I ignored it. In hindsight I should have just shown guts, picked up the phone and told this poor prick I had lost his Cat-ageddon story but I had this blinking bloody cursor to deal with. The phone rang out, there of was breath of silence and just as I was about to hammer away again at the keyboard it started back up. And over the next twenty four hours it rang another fifty something times. Then the paranoia set in.Maybe I should have read it? Maybe I should call him back? What if he’s found me? What if he’s hiding in my wardrobe right now? What if he’s dressed as a clown? What if he has a knife? And with that paranoid thought I headed down to the Prahran police station and dramatically slammed my phone on the bench and told my tale of woe to the cop who looked younger than the leather jacket I was wearing.

‘Who’s your telco provider?’ He asked.

‘Vodaphone.’

‘They don’t have very good coverage.’

‘They seem to be doing okay today.’

He told me the best thing to do is change my number and I walked out glad he wasn’t solving a homicide. A couple of steps later, the devil phone rang again but this time it was a buddy, Hugh. He was down at the Bush Inn which was conveniently, or not so conveniently for some, located half a block from the Prahran police station. I crossed the road and half a pint later I had told Hugh the events of the past few days.

Hugh took a sip of his beer. ‘How did all the cats get big?’

‘I didn’t read it!’

‘Why?’

‘Christ, have you not been listening?’ and before I could get any further my phone rang, again. ‘SHIT!’

Hugh snatched it off the bar, took two drunken steps back, smirked and answered it. ‘Detective Senior Sergeant Thomas Andrews.’

Now, I cannot lie, at this point, impersonating a police officer seemed like a worse idea than Justin Bieber playing live at Folsom Prison. Hugh even had the balls to give over a rank, badge number and the name of his commanding officer down at the Prahran Police Station. But if the Bush Inn Hotel gave out awards for best impromptu performance down at the TAB end of the bar, Hugh would have been a very strong contender. And after a few minutes, he hung up the phone and declared the case closed. And for about an hour it looked as if the world had returned to normal. We had a couple more beers, a couple of more bets, then I went to the bar and when I returned I had a missed call on the phone, only this time the caller had left a message. I pushed it into my ear to hear over the racket of the bar.

‘This is Constable Bernadette Collins from the Prahran police station calling in regard to a complaint about impersonating a police officer…’

My stomach dropped. I played Hugh the recording, told him he couldn’t act for shit, and as we headed off back down the road towards the cop shop to explain ourselves, I was rehearsing the explanation I was going to have to give to my girlfriend when I had to make the call for her to bail Hugh and I out of the clink. When I looked over to Hugh and for the first time noticed the Hawaiian shorts and filthy sneakers he was wearing. ‘This hurts us you son of a bitch.’

‘You’re drunk,’ he said. ‘Don’t fuck us in here.’

It sounded like a plan but as soon as I walked into the foyer of the station fear and panic had set in and I blurted out the words: ‘I AM NOT A COP!’

The young cop gave pause and sized me up, probably trying to gauge if I was the violent type or not. Christ, even Hugh looked at me sideways and he was one of my own kind. I drew a breath, flashed a smile and explained everything that had led up to the point where two half drunken fools were standing at the front desk of the Prahran police station explaining why they were impersonating police officers.

‘Why didn’t you read his book?’ the cop asked.

I sighed. ‘Because, it was probably bad.’

She shrugged. ‘So?’

We weren’t a threat. Nobody would ever believe either one of us were a cop. The Constable let us off with a warning and as we headed back to the Bush Inn for a celebratory drink, I thought about Lawrence and why he was so desperate for somebody to read his manuscript and then I realized something that I should have seen in his eyes the night he gave me his book… he had nobody else to read it.

I had another beer, watched Hugh win $182.50 on a dog called ‘Tank’ and then the next time my phone rang, I answered it and asked Lawrence if he could send me another copy of his manuscript.

First published at Momentumbooks.com.au

An Ex-Con, a Bag of Weed, and Rick Springfield on the Radio — Researching Out of Exile

Out of Exile_cover Every criminal thinks they have a story to tell and as a crime writer, I listen to all of them. I first heard the name Frankie Bell from a guy I grew up with who did nine months inside for beating his neighbor to a side of beef because the neighbor played the classic rock hit Take It Easy on repeat for twelve hours. He said, “You want to hear some stories, go talk to Frankie Bell. But whatever you do, don’t let him anywhere near a cop”. He didn’t say why and at the time I didn’t think to ask. I was in the depths of researching Out of Exile and really needed to get out of the office. So I spent half a day on the phone tracking down a number for Frankie and when I spoke to him he agreed to meet the following day.
I stood on a busy corner in Collingwood when Frankie stopped the traffic to pull over and let me in. Horns were honked, abuse was yelled but Frankie didn’t seem to notice or care. He must have been seven foot tall and at least half as wide with hands the size of dinner plates. He had some errands to run around and do and asked if I mined tagging along. I didn’t and we hit the road.
“I just got out,” Frankie said rolling a cigarette with one hand and driving with the other and splitting his eye line between the two.
“How long were you in?”
“Just under three years.”
“For what?”
“Smacked around some coppers.”
“How many?”
“Seven.”
“That’s a lot of copper.”
“That’s why the three years.”
A couple of blocks later he pulled the old XF Ford over to the side of the road in a suburban street where all the houses were worn down by life and time. We climbed out and headed to the front door.
“Just a quick stop,” Frankie said knocking on the door.
A moment later the door pulled back to reveal a little old lady dressed in clothes that hadn’t been fashionable for thirty years.
A smile crossed her face at the sight of Frankie. “Hello, luv. Are you here for your weekly?”
Her name was Joan and her house was hot. Cats were passed out in front of the heater and when she left, Frankie turned to me and said: “I”ve been coming here for years.”
Joan came back into the room before Frankie could answer and in her hands, she carried the biggest bag of marijuana I have ever seen in the hands of the elderly. “There you go,” she said handing it over.
Frankie palmed her some notes as he very politely declined Joan’s offer of a cup of tea and biscuits. Later Frankie told me Joan’s sons have a hydro set up somewhere in the bush and give her some weed to sell for a bit of extra pocket money. She’s only on a pension so Frankie feels good about giving her his business even though he could get better pot for the same price elsewhere.
On the drive back to Flemington, Frankie scanned through the radio looking for a good song. He settled on Jesse’s Girl and turned it up. “That Rick Springfield, what a talent,” he shouts over the song.
But as soon as the words left his mouth the smile dropped from his face and his whole body tensed up.
“What?” I said confused.
He shot a quick glance into the rearview mirror. “We got cops.”
My eyes darted to the massive bag of weed by my feet and back to Frankie. “What do we do?”
“We drive casual.”
“How do we do that?”
“You know, casual.”
If casual were an ex-crim and an over-educated writer cruising through Flemington with a massive bag of weed listening to Rick Springfield’s 80’s classic, Jesse’s Girl, then we were doing it.
I shuffled down in my seat and got an angle through the side view mirror. “They’re still there,” I said.
Frankie pulled a left turn. Then another left turn and yet another after that.
“What are you doing,” I said. “Stop turning left.”
“I can’t turn right.”
“Why?”
“The indicator is broken. They’ll pull us over if I turn and don’t indicate.”
“And this is a better idea!”
“Don’t yell at me.”
“We can’t keep turning left!”
Frankie slowed the car to a T-intersection. “We don’t have any choice.” He hooked a big finger around the lever and turned the indicator on and the moment he did flashing red and blues lit up the street and along with the dying wail of the siren.
Frankie pulled the car to the side of the road as I threw my jacket over the massive bag of weed by my feet and all I could think about was the warning: Don’t let Frankie Bell near any cops.
The cop approached the car and looked at Frankie with a hard look that he probably perfected from watching too much television and motioned to the radio that was still blasting out Jessie’s Girl. “Can you turn that down?”
“But it’s Rick Springfield?” Frankie said.
The cop sighed. “License.”
Frankie handed it over, and the cop looked at it, looked at us and headed back to the patrol to run the license.
Frankie’s face formed a V. “This pig better not mouth off, again. I don’t care I’ll clock him.” He turned to me. “You got my back, right?”
“What, no! Just be cool.”
“Do you see the way he was looking at me?”
“No.”
Before Frankie could lose his shit the cop appeared and poked his head through the window, handed the license back and said: “Have a nice day.”
And then he was gone.
Frankie turned and smiled. “Ah, ha, ha. I”m a convicted criminal I am and look at that, outsmarted the coppers I did.”
“Just don’t use your indicator until he’s gone.”
Frankie wanted to celebrate our escape by smoking a bunch of weed and playing Nintendo. I couldn’t think of anything worse, I probably could but I couldn’t be bothered and had Frankie drop me at home. His hatred for police was seeded in some awful event and harbored for unknown reasons and by the time I climbed out of the car I worked up the courage to ask.
“Why did you beat all those cops up for?”
His eyes dipped with a hint of sorrow, regret and bad luck. “I didn’t know they were coppers at the time. We were down the pub and one of them put his hand up my girlfriend’s skirt. I just lost it.”
“What happened to the girl?”
“Got married while I was in jail,” he said. “I guess she didn’t really love me.”
And then I watched Frankie Bell’s beat up Ford disappear into the traffic.
You can spend years researching your novel. Standing in an office buried waist high in books, magazines and poorly formatted printouts from Google is only going to get you so far. Every once in a while you need to step out from behind the desk, you need to start a fight, you need to fall in love and make mistakes, you need to have regrets and you need to live and fail. And occasionally you need to get into a car with an ex-con, a bag of weed and listen to Rick Springfield.

First Published at Omnimystery