This winter, I got some good practice summarizing the plot of my forthcoming mystery novel The Citadel.
Low and behold, hammered people at holiday cocktail parties are actually a pretty decent sounding board for perfecting a succinct book pitch. Attention spans run short, feedback tends to be honest. (Spiced rum is a bit like acetone—smells toxic, if vaguely sweet; might combust if you drop your cigarette in it; moreover, its strips away glossy veneers in a matter no time.)
So anyway, I tested out a few précises-in-progress on sloshed colleagues and drunken cousins, and generally speaking, found this iteration to be the most well-received: In a dystopian near-future, Muslim homicide cop Amir Duran doggedly pursues a would-be terrorist through the ancient streets of a Granada, Spain.
Concise, unpretentious (relatively), and action-oriented.
“Wow,” one close-talking aunt responded. “Sounds like a movie!” I smiled, visions of sugarplums and royalty checks dancing in my head.
At the same gathering, a family friend who’d overheard my synopsis, added, “An Arab protagonist? Love it. Just love it. Send one to Donald Trump as an inauguration gift.” Sure, I thought. Sounds like a great way to end up on an FBI watchlist.
A few weeks later, the head of HR clanked his pint glass against mine and told me, “Congrats.” Followed by, “You read le Carre? I love le Carre. If it’s anything like le Carre, I’ll buy it.” I told him I loved le Carre, too. And perhaps he’d find a thread of the master spy novelist’s influence in my work. I left out the fact that I’d die a happy man if anyone ever legitimately compared me to le Carre. I also strategically omitted that Rushdie and Garcia-Marquez’s magical realism probably shaped my writing style more than le Carre’s wry, intricately-plotted yarns of intrigue and betrayal. The HR guy didn’t strike me as a Satanic Verses enthusiast. But hell, can’t judge a book by its cover now, can you.
By the time New Year’s rolled around, I was feeling pretty confident about the canned language I’d come up with to describe my new book. It had market-tested well. If you consider drunk Bostonians a market, that is. I know craft breweries do.
But then, one frigid night in early January, a strange thing happened. My wife and I were out for dinner with friends. Inevitably, talked turned to my book. I gave them the spiel. And my buddy’s wife tossed a simple follow-up question my way. A big, fat, soft ball of question, I should have been prepared to knock out of the park: “Why’d you choose Granada as the setting for The Citadel?”
Shit. I hadn’t practiced that bit.
To avoid suspicion, I offered something innocuous and relatable. “Well, Bianca and I visited Granada a few years ago during our honeymoon, and I fell madly in love with the place.” My buddy’s wife’s eyebrows arched solicitously, and I tacked on some sort of generic addendum, like, “Never been to a city quite like it. The history…the architecture…so richly textured, so compelling!”
I know, I know. Not exactly the type of soul-stirring revelation that sends prospective readers straight to Amazon in fit of literary hysteria. I’m also hip to the fact that my uninspired explanation really didn’t make much sense, either. So, my friends probably thought. You loved Granada so much, you paid homage by penning a twisted tale about a psychopath killer stalking its picturesque streets?
Doesn’t scan, does it.
Truth is, I didn’t choose Granada. She chose me. And trust me—I’m keenly aware of how narcissistic and delusional that sounds. That’s why I came up with that bland line of bullshit, instead of baring my soul.
Well, life is short, I realize. And if I’m ever going to be worth my salt as a writer, honesty must prevail. So, please, indulge me while I figuratively disembowel myself.
Until three years ago, I’d never once imagined writing a book. Seriously. I mean it. Not once in my life. I’m a good writer and all—had editorials published, composed some kick-ass press-releases. But a book? No way. Too hard. Plus, what would I write about…being a middle class white guy?
But along came Andalusia, southern Spain. A honeymoon in Andalusia, none the less. The first five days of it, spent in Granada.
And there—in Granada’s blinding yellow sunlight, in the tart skin of her green olives, in the meat of her sherry-marinated oxtail, in her short glasses of beer at noon, in the cigarette smoke wafting across her cafe patios, in the clap of flamenco heals against her plaza stone, in her serpentine, millennia-old alleys once shared by Moorish poets and catholic assassins, in the winding, Arabic versus meticulously carved into the sandstone chamber wall’s of her Alhambra, in the blue crescent moon rising above the conifer slopes of her ancient earthen guardian, the rocky sierra, in her painful, palpable, bloody, beautiful history of conquest and re-conquest—in her ghosts—I found my muse.
And that muse haunted me the moment I left. So, I—being the romantic dreamer, I am—and missing Granada dearly—took to the keyboard, and wrote her a little love letter. I hope you like it. I hope she does, too.