Where Book Ideas Come From

I’m currently engaging in that ritual of publishing, filling out the “Author Questionnaire” my publisher’s marketing department seeks for my upcoming book The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived — an essentially hopeful act imagining all the vast audiences who theoretically will run on book stores and internet retail sites to purchase multiple copies, and all the media who will devote yards of type and gigabytes of content to cover it. Here I’ll share just  one of the 53 items on the questionnaire (I live to spell this word) and my response to it:

  1.  31. Please write a paragraph or two on how you came to write this book — including any interesting or newsworthy anecdotes about researching it, writing it, or getting it published.

Until two years ago, I had spent my entire life dismissing, ignoring, or denying my mother’s attempts to impress on me the significance of her father. His many books on my bookshelf went unread. The boxes and boxes of photos and letters my mother kept for decades were felt only as dead weight. When my mother died, if it hadn’t been for my sister’s stubborn insistence, they all would have been headed to the incinerator. For 17 years, I have lived within 25 miles of a repository of 50,000 items consisting of many hundreds of thousands of pages documenting every aspect of my grandfather’s life in shockingly intimate detail, and yet it never occurred to me it might be interesting to look into those 148 boxes sitting in federal storage space in the Library of Congress. As I neared the age of 60, with old age and death peeking ominously over the horizon, I began to wonder increasingly about my grandfather, and his influence on my life and career. Again and again questions formed in my mind, only to butt up against the reality that all those who could have so easily answered them were gone, and that the knowledge itself was vanishing from the face of the earth. I knew that many, if not most people face that same sad irony at some point in their lives. And then the bulb lit in my mind: I had a unique advantage, the mountain of material that would answer all my questions, and many more I never could have imagined.

Ironically, after two years of intensive research and reading in the world’s greatest library, of going through all those boxes my sister had clung to after our mother’s death, just as I was finishing the manuscript for the book, I made one final discovery that would shine a unique light on all that I had learned – in the unlit far corner of my own basement closet.

Please Sir, May I Have Some More?

My grandfather and grandmother, Mack and Irene Kantor, on their back patio, 1957



For months now I’ve been desperate to finish the first draft of my “investigative memoir,” The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived, a book taking advantage of thousands of documents concerning my grandfather’s life that have been sitting in the Library of Congress for half a century. It never occurred to me to look at any of them, until now. It’s been an amazing, perspective-altering experience — I only thought I knew my grandfather well, it turns out. And like all books, it’s been a physical, emotional and mental energy suck — this one for a stretch of 18 months. I’ve been sweating, gasping, groaning under the weight of it, each morning bellying up to my laptop to push and shove the boulder uphill, only to find it waiting for me at the bottom the morning after. Last week, I finally pushed it over the top. I wrote the last word of the first draft and sent it off to Sarah Hochman, my wonderful editor at Blue Rider Press. I felt elated for 24 hours, and then …. bored. I miss structuring my weeks around that awesome/awful challenge. Striding into battle day after day gave shape to my life, and made the moments after knocking off for the day the sweetest kind of release.

Have to find another project soonest.

Old Souls Revisited

I was looking at some old files from my research for Old Souls and was amazed and amused all over again at the resemblance between these two women. The woman on the right as a very small child began calling herself by the name of the woman on the left — a woman who died in heart surgery in the months before she was born. The two families lived in different towns and had never met. The girl’s parents said the child began asking for “her husband,” the dead woman’s husband, by name. She also said the names of the dead woman’s 7 children, in birth order. The dead woman’s grown daughters heard about this girl and were very skeptical. Their family was wealthy, and they suspected the girl’s family might be putting the child up to this in an attempt to get money. They paid a surprise visit, and said that the little girl called them by name, and then asked them if their uncle had given them “her” jewelry, as she had asked. This clinched it for the daughters: Only their family knew that before the fatal surgery, their mother had asked her brothers to distribute her valuables to her daughters. I took the photo on the right of the grown-up child (in her 20s when I took this in 1997), and later found a photo of the woman who had died in heart surgery.

Of course, there were many cases with similarly amazing fact sets in which there was no physical resemblance between the child making the statements and the deceased person who fit those statements. So make of the above amazing resemblance what you will.


Ghosts of August

Gene Weingarten was rooting around in the past and came up with a 400-word essay I wrote for Tropic Magazine in the “Calendar Issue” that ran the last Sunday of the year in 1986. This was a gimmick issue, where we had full page calendars accompanied by a piece of art and a short essay relating to each month. My month was August. It’s very interesting to read something you wrote that you have no (or almost no) memory of having written. That sense of not knowing what the next sentence, the next word, is going to be is essential to the reading experience — and impossible for the author to duplicate — EXCEPT if it’s something he wrote 30 years earlier and hasn’t thought of since. As in this case.
Gene’s verdict was that it was 8% overwritten, and I can accept that. But as I read it, as if it were the first time I was ever seeing this particular grouping of words, I thought, “not bad.”


By August, the heat is like an injury you keep reinjuring. You begin to worry that all that pain has got to add up to something bad. It bakes your paint job and cracks your vinyl dash. It melts the asphalt and lingers spitefully at night. Your sheets are damp.

Each day is the same, and the ocean is flat, windless, heavy — molten lead. ‘ It rains, but the rain brings no relief, and mold grows in your closets and you think it’s growing between your toes and on your teeth. Flossing doesn’t help either, and you begin to feel that whatever is growing isn’t mold but malignancy.

And then you understand a hurricane, you understand the angry force that spawns it. The sun cauterizes the ocean, a hot poker on an open wound. Power hemorrhages from the sky day upon day. The threat is born, and the threat is fed.

It is a threat you have to wake up with in the morning and sleep with at night, like the missiles in the submarines swimming up the Gulf Stream, or the words “I want a divorce” in a bad marriage. And like all threats you live with, you forget about it until the sun pounds it into your brain again, or if your head is deep in the sand, it takes the man on the 11 o’clock news.

Will you pull down the storm shutters that have been rusted in place for a decade? Will you pack your bags and roll up the carpets and leave for who knows where at 3 in the morning? Because if you believe what August has been trying to tell you, you shouldn’t have built or bought a house here in the first place. And will your insurance cover the loss or even begin to? Will the causeways be clogged? Or just washed out to sea?

The heat of August threatens to go on in unchanging monotony to the end of time. Until it starts to push the sea over the sea wall and threatens to change everything instead. Change beyond recognition or redemption. For the only point of the month is the Storm, or the threat of the Storm and to walk through the heat is nothing against walking with that dark threat on your back: a disaster with no one to blame, the kind of random, unpredictable horror we hope to eliminate with our vaccines and C-sections, V-E Day and the Neighborhood Crime Watch.

Back to Newsbreak: The watch has become a warning. It takes 12 hours to get out, and the storm is, or may be, only nine hours away. Since it is the middle of the night, you go to sleep with the radio on and wake up to blue skies and wind and another threat that was just a bad dream.

And now you’ve got a whole season, two seasons, of cool, but not too cool, breezes — six months to pretend that nothing is out there, nothing threatens. Six months to forget.

In My Grandfather’s Footsteps

The author, age 5, watched over by the author, age 55, on his first attempt at two-wheeled conveyance, Christmas Day 1959.

Even as I continue doing talks and interviews about Acid Test, I am deep into the research phase, and close to beginning to write, a new book that is more personal and higher concept.  It’s about my grandfather, the writer MacKinlay Kantor, who died almost 40 years ago. The working title is: The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived, an Investigative Memoir.

Irony is intended.

My mother once told me that as she and her brother, my Uncle Tim, were growing up, their father led them to believe he was the most famous writer who ever lived.

This was an absurdity, of course, but not to the degree it may at first seem. MacKinlay Kantor, wrote innumerable works of fiction and nonfiction, including 45 books, one of which, Andersonville, won the Pulitzer Prize and sat atop the bestseller lists for more than a year. Another novel, Glory for Me, was the basis for the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which took seven Oscars, became the highest grossing film since “Gone with the Wind,” and is often ranked among the greatest American films of all time. These successes played out over three decades, during which Mack, as everyone called him, rose from severe starvation-level poverty to considerable wealth, appeared on popular television shows, made cameo appearances in movies. He discovered performer Burl Ives, mentored crime novelist John D. MacDonald  and hung out with the likes of Grant Wood, Sherwood Anderson, Stephen Vincent Benet and Ernest Hemingway.

Despite this undeniably impressive resume, my siblings and I tended to discount our grandfather’s claim to fame as overblown and considered him more pompous than legitimately famous. By the time he died, when I was in my early 20s, his work had largely faded in the public mind. Though my mother and my uncle kept trying to push the significance of their father’s biography on us, we rolled our eyes and mostly ignored them – glanced at the old newspaper clippings without reading, thought about what we were going to do after dinner rather than listen to yet another story from the distant past.  Though his many books lined a shelf in my bookcase, I never so much as attempted to read them – save for Andersonville, which I attempted twice, and both times failed to penetrate beyond page 30. For us, as with so many people, maybe even most, even extreme dramas in family history beyond one generation removed become a kind of white noise, tuned out until it’s too late.

Now my mother and uncle are both dead, as is everyone else who knew my grandfather intimately.  I can’t explain why it never occurred to me that my deciding, at age 12, that I wanted to become a writer, or the fact that I actually succeeded in that rather ludicrous ambition, might have something to do with my heritage. Again, like so many people, I never considered that I might have been formed or even influenced by the abilities, proclivities or eccentricities of my near and distant forbears until the main sources of knowledge about them had vanished from the face of the earth.

Who arrives at maturity without experiencing that regret? Suddenly, questions about the past, your past and your family’s past, begin to flood in, questions that could have been so easily and profitably answered during the lifetimes of your parents or their parents, but now are literally unanswerable, lost forever behind the impenetrable veil of death.

But I had an advantage, if not unique, at least exceedingly rare: In the Library of Congress of the Unites States, less than 25 miles from my home, is a room filled with boxes of indexed correspondence, contracts, manuscripts, photographs, journals, paraphernalia and even an unpublished autobiography once belonging to my grandfather, not to mention the 45 books that were published, including two published autobiographies, as well as a published memoir by my uncle – none of which I had ever read.

Beginning with this mountain of evidence, I am discovering as much as I possibly can about the man MacKinlay Kantor, and other of my ancestors as they seem to become relevant, and to ponder the significance of my discoveries in my own life. The process of researching and writing the book will be the journey of discovery, not only into the specifics of my own family and how they relate to me, but to the significance of ancestry in general.

I will explore the anthropology, science and history of interest in family lineage, from the origins and history of kinship itself to the practice of ancestor worship to the common fact that in preliterate cultures people memorized lineage going back a dozen generations to the drive of adopted children to find birth parents to the study of how personality traits relate to inherited DNAto modern studies indicating that people who know more about their ancestral roots tend to be happier and more successful – and to everything in between. In both personal and scientific terms, I will attempt to plumb the depths and find the bottom of the mystery of why where we literally came from — biologically, genetically, emotionally – retains such a hold on us as individuals and society as a whole.

And in the end, it will be an investigation into what can be recovered and what is irretrievably lost; what can be made sense of and what will remain forever unclear.

The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived will, as the title suggests, also be a study of the art of writing, written by someone who is a fourth generation professional writer, someone who, until now, had been unable to read the work of his own grandfather – a certifiable piece of the American literary canon. What was it about the writing that put me off? What part of it seems to echo in my own work? What does it say about changing literary tastes, and how does it prefigure the inevitable, if not already hastening, obsolescence of what I consider to be fine writing?

In the end, it will be a meditation on how we all have dual and conflicting tendencies, resisting our genealogical past as if it were an existential threat, yet ultimately pining to connect with it, even as it vanishes before our eyes.

Bugged By the Post Hunt? You Weren’t Alone

These bugs and this website played a key role in 8th annual Post Hunt, dreamed up by Dave Barry, Gene Weingarten and myself. Explanation to come. Meanwhile ….


This was the scene on a sweltering late May Sunday afternoon, blazing sun  instead of the previously forecast torrential rain. We’ll take it.

The Post news story about the event is here.

An explanation of the puzzles, and how the bugs fit in, can be found here.

Dino Doo Doo

The Daily Beast just posted this ridiculously hyped story about dinosaurs “tripping on LSD.”…/did-dinosaurs-drop-prehistor…
Not to be harsh, but what morons! The research shows ergot fungus in dinosaur remains. Ergot fungus is NOT LSD. It is a deadly rye toxin that killed hundreds of thousands in the Middle Ages. Lysergic Acid is one of many active components in the fungus, and must be extracted, then combined with diethylamide, an extract of ammonia, to make LSD. So the dinos were not “tripping,” though they may have been tripping and falling… down dead.

Old Souls Made New Again

I learned a valuable thing about Google search I should have known long ago: You can limit your search for whatever search terms so that you only see recent posts. Using this method, I found  a review of Old Souls (published way back in 1999) that I’d never seen before. It was probably the most thorough and thoughtful review I’ve ever seen of that book. Here’s the link.

Even A Blind Squirrel …

… Finds an acorn once in a while.


Jim Haag, an editor at the Virginian Pilot, just posted this on Facebook. I’d forgotten all about this, but it really ain’t bad advice!


A final dip into the archives: This great piece of advice, from the timeMichael Gruss and I got to work with Post editor Tom Shroder on writing and editing: “In the writing system of justice, every sentence is guilty until proven innocent. When you’ve got something down, go back and look at it sentence by sentence with serious skepticism, insisting that each sentence has to prove its worth (what does it accomplish?), logical consistency (is there anything that confuses, or doesn’t fully make sense?) and reader friendliness (does it engage, create an effect, lead a reader forward?)”

Bronco’s Sacrifice — an excerpt from Acid Test

Yesterday, Nicholas Blackston posted a photo of some of his Marine comrades from Iraq, members of a platoon that had joined Nick’s for a joint night mission. Midway through the mission, the Humvee they were in took a direct hit from an IED. Nick and his crew watched helplessly as the Humvee burned, one of the harrowing experiences that haunted Nick after he returned home from war. I’d never seen the photo before, though the names had stayed with me, indelibly pressed in my mind and heart ever since Nick shared his account with me. This photo, happy, healthy young men who’d heeded the call to serve their country in a moment of camaraderie just weeks or days from disaster, now haunts me. This is the story of their sacrifice, as it appears in Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal

From left to right: Nathan Elrod, the machine gunner; Nicholas Manoukian (Manny), the radio guy ; Luis Blanco, the VC; Clifford Collinsworth, the driver. Photo courtesy of Nick Blackston.

Less than two weeks after the Charlie Company ambush, on October 21, Nick’s Light Horse platoon combined with Bronco platoon for a patrol in the city. They were a mirror image of vehicles and armament traveling in parallel along facing alleys. Bronco was led by Lt. Daniel Moran, the lieutenant Nick had accidentally tripped up back in training, and Lt. Boehlert’s close friend.

Now the two lieutenants shared a joint mission, escorting the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. The very nature of the EOD was to look for trouble, to roll into the most heavily booby-trapped territory with their thickly armored vehicles, their robots and their bomb suits searching out IEDs to mess with. At night.

Night missions were spooky, but at least Nick could stand up in his turret without feeling like a neon bullseye.  The enemy didn’t have night vision gear, or at least that’s what they’d been told. Nick savored the unaccustomed luxury of  a breeze puffing through his body armor as they rolled into the maze of alleyways. Nick’s Humvee, with Lt. Boehlert aboard, was in the lead going down one alley, and Moran’s Humvee led down the other when the sky ripped apart.

“I remember seeing this huge fireball go in the air,” Nick says. “And my lieutenant said, ‘What was that?” and I said, ‘There’s a huge fireball in the sky,’ and then the only thing I remember coming out of his mouth was, ‘Bronco.’”

Boehlert issued sharp, urgent orders and Seabass whipped the Humvee around the corner and into the parallel alley, approaching from the front.

Bending down and looking through the front window, Nick saw Lieutenant Moran lying on the ground, smoke rising from his body. Another Marine, a guy named Blanco, stumbled toward their Humvee, looking wobbly, as if he’d just been woken from a deep sleep. When Seabass opened the door, they were looking at Bronco’s Humvee immersed in flame. Even from a few car-lengths away, he felt the intense heat from the fire on the exposed skin of his face. The EOD guys were throwing a flame-retardant blanket on the still smoking Lt. Moran and Blanco stood there, looking at them, tottering.

Where were the others? Where they still in there?

Blanco was talking, he was confused, rambling. Then he said, “Take off my glove, bro. It’s hot.”

Blanco held out his hand toward them and Nick and Seabass both looked at it. His glove and his hand were the same thing, a charred, smoking clump; you couldn’t tell where glove ended and flesh began.

“It was just—it looked really bad. And Seabass was real calm, and he said, ‘Man, you need to keep your glove on. Don’t take it off.’ And that’s one of the things they taught us in the training when it comes to burns—don’t remove anything because you’ll take the flesh with it.”

The corpsman came by and took Blanco and Lt. Moran off. Leaving Nick and Seabass watching the vehicle burn, slowly coming to the realization that the two men who had been blown out and badly burned were the lucky ones. Three more guys, the driver Collinsworth, and the radio guy, Manny, and the machine gunner Elrod, were missing and presumably still in there, in that fire.

As they watched it burn, they could see silhouettes through the flames. Nick desperately looked for some way to approach the vehicle to fight the fire and attempt a rescue, but the vehicle started cooking off—all the ammo and explosives began to ignite. Boom. Boom. Boom. The open spot in Nick’s turret faced the fire. He turned it sideways and ducked down just in time, as the rounds from the exploding munitions pinged into the armor surrounding him. Seabass had jumped back in the Humvee and was backing them off to a safer distance.

“Every time there was a moment where we’d think we could go in there and maybe put it out or do something, more rounds would start cooking off, and then the grenades would go off, and then…We ended up having to back our vehicles out and get away from it because that vehicle was a liability. We had to sit there and let our guys burn and just watch it because we couldn’t do anything about it.”

Nick felt bad for his lieutenant, who had to give the order to back off. That had been his best friend lying smoking on the ground, his best friend’s crew burning alive in there, so Nick was impressed with how Boehlert “held his stuff together. He was a pretty good officer. He didn’t show – he stayed very professional, and that had to be hard for him.”

It was hard for all of them.

Nick only knew the men slightly, but he’d gone through training with them, lived in the same barracks with them, gone through the same hell, faced the same dangers. As they waited for an opportunity to approach the vehicle, images raced through Nick’s mind of the men inside.  Collinsworth had been one of those guys always on the offensive. He’d picked on Nick constantly, always giving him a hard time. Nick didn’t like it, but he didn’t take it personally. “That’s just the kind of person he was.”

But that day, when they were getting ready for the mission, out of nowhere Collinsworth had given Nick a big smile and said, “what’s up, faggot?” but in a good-humored way that made Nick smile back.

“I realized that that was his way of actually being nice, seeing that smile. And I remember, in that moment, kind of forgiving him for all the stupid stuff that, you know, just picking on me before. And I had no idea that he’d be leaving.”

“The other guy, Manny—his name was Nicholas as well. His full name was Nicholas Manoukian, but we called him Manny. He was a radio guy. He didn’t even know me, he wasn’t even in my platoon. But whenever I’d be back in the barracks back in the States, training or whatever, anytime guys were joking around with me, just picking on me for the smallest things, he always took up for me. And it always surprised me, because I was just like, ‘I don’t know you’ He was new to our unit, too, and I didn’t go to Fallujah with him or anything, and I was just like, ‘I don’t know this guy, but he’s nice enough to back me up.’ He was just a nice guy. Had a wife and everything, Manny did.”

By then, there was no doubt that that woman and child had lost a husband and father. Manny and Collinsworth had to be dead.

What Nick felt, more than anything, was rage. “We were furious,” Nick said. “You know, any time that they ever got us, it’s just, it’s something that feels like a low blow, you know?”

When the fire and explosions had finally died down — hours had passed— they crept back toward the still-smoking wreckage. As they moved in, a brick wall burst open, a secondary explosion timed by the insurgents to inflict casualties on whoever responded to the first one. Nick was knocked back by the impact, but unhurt. When the dust settled, they couldn’t see Lt. Boehlert, who had been on foot near where the explosion went off.  They tried raising him on the radio, but the answering static mocked them. Then the static broke into violent coughing, followed by Boehlert’s voice, shaky but cogent. “It just kinda rattled his noggin a little bit.”

Ignoring the threat of a tertiary strike, they moved in on what was left of the wall, trying to trace the wires on the secondary explosion to find out where the insurgent who triggered it had been holed up. That led them to a nearby house, but the bomber was long gone. While that was going on, another platoon rogered up on the radio to alert them: there was movement behind the vehicle.

That’s where they found Nathan Elrod, twenty, just a year older than Nick. Elrod was a gunner, too, and like Nick, he’d decided in high school that he wanted to be a Marine. “A good, nice, and caring person,” the sixteen-year-old Elrod had written in an essay on the kind of man he wanted to be. “A U.S. Marine, and a hero.” The impact of the IED blew Elrod out of his turret. He’d been lying in the dirt, minus both legs and part of one arm, for hours. When they got to him, his blood seeping away into the filth of the street, he was conscious and talking. They carried him into the vehicle. He had no idea what had happened to him.

“I can’t, I can’t breathe,” he told them.

And then he died.

Lieutenant Moran and Blanco both survived. Moran suffered 3rd degree burns over 50% of his body, multiple fractures in his back, damage to his lung, a concussion and a crushed spleen. Blanco’s hands and legs and face were all badly burned. Moran would spend three years recovering from his wounds. Both men would be dealing with their injuries, in one way or another, the rest of their lives.

But they would have lives.

That night, Nick’s platoon sat there waiting for the fire to burn out and guarding the wreckage, which had become a tomb. At one point, Nick noticed an Iraqi grilling meat for dinner in his little yard just on the other side of the wall, as if nothing had happened, and he seethed with helpless rage. It wasn’t until after sunrise that they were able to tow the charred hulk away, the Marines remains inseparable from the chassis. As they went, pieces of the wreck fell away.

After that, Nick couldn’t even look at fire. Which was a problem because they had to burn their mail. He just couldn’t do it for days. But he knew he couldn’t go through the rest of his life avoiding the sight of flames, so he took his accumulated letters out to the fire pit and forced himself to watch as the papers curled, then blackened. He just stood there crying, until he felt a hand patting him on his shoulder.

“Everyone understood,” he said.