Welcome Pulitzer Prize winner Howard Rosenberg to Plain Talk. Howard’s new novel is called Up Yours. In this guest post Howard talks about his first hand experience witnessing a murder/suicide in Paris. This is quite a story!
I’m constantly asked about my unpublished first mystery novel (all right, never, but I need a lead, and this is it).
Flashback to the pre-Internet, pre-Kardashian era. I was visiting Paris with my family. We had just walked to Notre Dame, passing under the cathedral’s ferocious gargoyles, when a suicidal German tourist hurled himself from the top like a meteor and landed on a 13-year-old French schoolgirl, killing both. Picture it—perhaps 50 feet away. Blood oozing. Bodies pulsating. Eyewitnesses screaming. All of it ghastly. Chilling. Nightmarish. Nearly impossible to process.
Are we journalists not predators who exploit the miseries of others for what we define (often generously) as news? So naturally I saw this as opportunity. Yes, how cynical, how coldhearted. But puleeeze. High-def horror right under my nose? Weren’t the literary Gods signaling me—a wannabe mystery writer—that here was my ticket? That I must turn this numbing tragedy to my advantage? Opportunity wasn’t just knocking; it was a battering ram.
Flash forward. I’m now back at my day job as Los Angeles Times TV critic, mulling a Notre Dame-centric plot for my slam-dunk best seller. Then an epiphany: a kidnapping! Yes, yes, that was it, a kidnapping for ransom. How original.
I took time off and returned to Paris (filthy, rotten job, but it had to be done) for a tax-write-off week of research. The highlight: huffing and puffing into a tape recorder while climbing the narrow, winding staircase to the top of Notre Dame (I counted 382 steps). Next, a sit-down with the Prefet de police arranged by my paper’s Paris bureau chief. My French hovered somewhere between weak and non-existent. So I hired a young Frenchman who, poor guy, was so intimidated by the city’s top cop that he was barely able to speak during the interview, let alone translate. Talk about foreshadowing.
To make a tortuously long story short (which, sadly, my novel would fail to do), I jetted home and proceeded to write what I’m now fairly certain was the worst mystery—not hyperbole—ever committed to paper. I had presumed, arrogantly, that skill as a journalist would make writing fiction a snap. Was I not a widely praised columnist? All right, moderately praised. All right, mom liked me.
As it turned out, I had no clue about writing a novel. How unreadable was 382 STEPS? Skipping the grisly details, when a friend, a published novelist, offered to read the manuscript and deliver an honest appraisal, I handed it over, confident of a rave review.
Never heard from her. Ever. Apparently, she was too embarrassed to say to my face that I had written a laughably bad clunker. Agents I contacted agreed; oh, the pain. Continue reading …