I’m reading Dr. Calott Wang’s book right now and this guest post is a good introduction to what her book is about.
Is Wall Street Making Life or Death Decisions?
By Dora Calott Wang, M.D.,
Author of The Kitchen Shrink: A Psychiatrist’s Reflections on Healing
in a Changing World
Is your health insurance company traded on Wall Street?
If so, is Wall Street deciding your medical care?
It’s hard to recall that for-profit corporations were once kept out of
health care — in fact, for most of the 20th century. During this
time, the nation’s medical system was built largely by non-profit and
charitable organizations, which is why so many hospitals are named for
saints. Courts across the country ruled that for corporations to
profit from medical care was simply “against sound public policy.” In
the early 1980’s, however, when the financial and airline industries
were deregulated, a similar process occurred for American medicine.
For-profit corporations became newly encouraged to take leadership of
health care. Deregulating health care into the free market was
intended to drive down costs and to improve care. After all, medical
care in 1980 consumed a whopping 9.1 percent of the nation’s GDP.
Never mind that after 30 years in the free market, health care costs
have doubled to consume 18 percent of the GDP (with a third of these
precious dollars wasted on bureaucracy). Never mind that health care
has gotten increasingly inaccessible to the uninsured and even the
insured, or that American health care has become an international
poster child for reform.
The real issue is that modern medical care has simply, finally, gotten
so effective. Today, even cancer and AIDs are no longer death
sentences, and if organs fail, you try to get a new one. But prior to
the discovery of antibiotics and vaccines in the 1930’s, leeches were
routinely applied, and medicine was steeped in superstition. Between
1918 and 1920, three percent of the world’s population was wiped out
— by the flu.
The fair and effective distribution of life-sustaining resources like
food, water and shelter, is the very story of civilization. Yet now,
thanks to centuries upon centuries of civilization and scientific
inquiry, we have at last, a new life-sustaining resource — modern
medical care, which is less than 80 years old.
How should this powerful new resource be distributed? I believe that
medical care shouldn’t be considered an ordinary product, like
athletic shoes or flat screen TV’s. Rather, it is quickly becoming
essential, like water. Yet there will be no easy answers when it comes
medical care, in this brave new world in which DNA is already being
tweaked to grow completely new organs. We are embarking on a new,
complex and long chapter of history.
I can’t help but think that health care reform isn’t over, and wasn’t
concluded with the signing of the Patient Protection and Affordable
Care Act in March.
I believe that health care reform will be our entire future.
In the meantime, for now, how is modern medical care, a new
Prometheus’ fire, being distributed and decided in the United States?
Physicians and patients sit face to face and discuss medical decisions
— about whether a life-sustaining cardiac bypass surgery is
warranted, or whether a new liver should be gotten. But ultimately,
the purse strings on medical care are held by health insurance
The new health reform laws will obligate insurance companies to
provide “coverage” even when patients become sick or if they have a
“pre-existing condition” or what I will call “illness”. The PPACA has
a provision on “administrative simplification” scheduled to take
effect in 2014, which aims to streamline the process of doctors and
health care providers asking for approvals from health insurance
companies before treatments are rendered.
But even after the new laws are implemented, health insurance
companies, many of them for-profit corporations traded on Wall Street,
will continue to hold the purse strings on medical care.
Our recent health reform efforts are landmark progress in the right
However, in the last thirty years, the values of Wall Street have so
infiltrated the values of American society that seemingly all aspects
of life are impacted, even medical care of the human body and mind,
even the everyday life or death decisions that happen in doctor
offices and hospital rooms.
© 2010 Dora Calott Wang, M.D., author of The Kitchen Shrink: A
Psychiatrist’s Reflections on Healing in a Changing World
Dora Calott Wang, M.D., is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the
University of New Mexico School of Medicine. A graduate of the Yale
School of Medicine and the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, she
received her M.A. in English literature from the University of
California, Berkeley, and has been the recipient of a writer’s
residency from the Lannan Foundation. Her memoir, The Kitchen Shrink:
A Psychiatrist’s Reflections on Healing in a Changing World was
published by Riverhead Books, The Penguin Group.
For more information please visit www.doracalottwang.com and follow
the author on Facebook and Twitter.
I don’t read much non-fiction. I simply don’t have the time, and when I do, its not generally from the “thriller” genre. So how come I have written three guide books to three thrillers? The answer is simple. Dan Brown. What Brown has managed to do brilliantly within the framework of his novels, is weave facts and fiction seamlessly together in a coherent and logical way, the like of which is rarely seen. I’m not saying its all perfect — indeed, as I point out in my guide books, some of his factual research leaves much to be desired — but he does have an uncanny knack of being able to hit the zeitgeist of the moment when it comes to historical themes and ideas.
Brown seems to follow certain pre-set rules within his Robert Langdon based novels. Generally there is a religious element and this element is stacked up against a scientific element. Then there are the codes and clues — mainly left within an historical framework — mathematical conundrums being a favorite of Mr Brown. Finally there are the secret societies that seem to be the glue that holds the stories together. In The Da Vinci Code, we see an exploration of the sacred feminine and an alternative life of Christ. In Angels & Demons, the very heart of Christendom, the Vatican is central to the story and in The Lost Symbol Brown takes it all a step further as he espouses the ideals of deism and universal godhead. Essentially what Brown has written are three books that have woven between them a central theme of tolerance to all faiths, but above all, an acknowledgement that faith plays an essential role in the development of mans consciousness and being. As a historian, I can attest to the fact that this mantra was crucial to most if not all ancient cultures. In this respect Dan Brown is carrying on a long standing tradition.
The Lost Symbol is at first glance a less remarkable book than its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code. It seems to lack the one major hook, the heart in mouth fact that suddenly makes gasp out loud as you read the page. However, this book is a slow burner. Its message of tolerance and universality is not at first obvious — but the more you read and digest the message within the pages, the more you realize that this time ’round, Brown has a clear and decisive meaning that he is trying to get across. When I first saw this I was aghast. A novelist trying to change the way the world thinks from inside a story of chases and code breaking. But then, think about it. Brown has an audience unlike any novelist ever has. The Lost Symbol was awaited as if it were the harbinger of a new messiah after the enormous success of The Da Vinci Code — some eighty million people the world over had become instant fans of his writing — he had an audience who patiently waited for every word on every page. What better way to change the world. Read the rest of this entry »
by Simon Cox,
Author of Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction
It was April 2009, and I was just arriving at the London Book Fair at the Earls Court Exhibition Halls. I was intending on catching up with friends, my UK publisher, and having a general look at what was new in the publishing world. However, I knew that something remarkable had happened the minute I had arrived. An air of excitement and expectation filled the packed halls, and smiles were emanating from all around. Grown men were close to tears.
I instantly knew what had happened: the new Dan Brown book had been announced.
This was to be the start of nearly five months of manic preparation and debate. Clues and hints would be given out, opinions bandied about, and crazed supposition would fill thousands of web pages. However, let’s wind back the clock to the publication of Brown’s previous Robert Langdon thriller, The Da Vinci Code, in 2003.
Back then, Dan Brown was a semisuccessful author of several thrillers, one of which was the first Robert Langdon novel, Angels & Demons, published in 2000. Sales had been average to poor, and Brown’s publisher decided to take a gamble with The Da Vinci Code, sending out ten thousand free copies to bookstores and their book buyers, reviewers, and trade professionals. The plan worked, and soon sales really began to take off.
At the time, I was the editor in chief of a U.S.-based newsstand magazine called Phenomena. The Da Vinci Code was starting to cause quite a stir within the alternative-history genre that I inhabited; in fact, several authors that I had worked for as a researcher had their work credited as source material for Brown’s book. (Phenomena even ran an article “casting” the movie version of The Da Vinci Code, should it ever come to pass. For the record, not one of the actors we thought would be so terrific in the roles of Dr. Robert Langdon, Sir Leigh Teabing, and the book’s other characters was cast for Ron Howard’s 2006 film starring Tom Hanks.) Eventually a small London publisher approached me about writing a short guide to The Da Vinci Code. The book, Cracking the Da Vinci Code, went on to become an international best seller in its own right. I subsequently wrote Illuminating Angels & Demons, a companion to Brown’s other Langdon-based novel.
Intriguingly, the dust jacket of the U.S. hardcover edition of The Da Vinci Code seemed to contain clues hinting at the next novel in the series. This fascinated me, and I found out all I could about these clues and the secrets that they potentially held.
Time passed, and rumors began circulating that a title had been chosen. The new book was to be called The Solomon Key — an apparent reference to a medieval book on magic with the same title. Impatiently, I began researching all that I could about this centuries-old text, which supposedly was written in Italy during the Renaissance but claimed a lineage that went all the way back to King Solomon himself. Perfect material for a Dan Brown thriller, I thought. Brown’s publishing team registered a new website, solomonkey.com, and everything seemed poised for the new book to arrive soon.
More time passed . . . and more time passed . . . and still no definitive word about the new book, though plenty of fresh rumors abounded: Brown had scrapped the book; there would be no follow-up to The Da Vinci Code. Brown, exhausted from having fended off a high-profile copyright-infringement lawsuit in London, had decided to take an extended break from writing. It was even claimed that the 2004 movie National Treasure, starring Nicolas Cage as a treasure hunter seeking a mysterious war chest hidden by the Founding Fathers, had stolen so much of the forthcoming book’s thunder that it required a complete rewrite. The unsubstantiated allegations were completely fanciful, of course, but they replicated over and over like a virus on the ever-conspiratorial internet sites that monitored the story, sending the rumor mill into overdrive.
Then came the 2009 London Book Fair. Only a couple of months before, I had predicted to my UK publisher that the announcement would indeed be made at the London event. More in hope than expectation, it has to be said, but accurate nonetheless.
A press release was handed out by Brown’s publishers, and suddenly a new title presented itself. The Lost Symbol, to be published on September 15, 2009. What could such an enigmatic title mean? What was lost? Which symbol? The race was on, the game was afoot, and I rushed headlong into research-and-reading mode. What you hold in your hands before you is the outcome of that labor.
Before long, a new website appeared, at www.thelostsymbol.com
, though nothing but a holding page was evident for quite a while. Then, out of the blue, the site added links to a Dan Brown Facebook page and Twitter feed. Excitement grew to fever pitch, as thousands of people became Facebook and Twitter followers of Dan Brown overnight.
Steadily, these new media outlets began to reveal tantalizing clues and tidbits of story line. With each revelation, I furiously took notes and researched everything I could find. It was as if a whole new world were opening up. It was a cornucopia of material, and I started ordering more new books for my library to cover some of the subjects mentioned.
Some of the clues actually gave coordinates to several locations, such as the so-called Bimini Road. This unusual underwater structure off the island of Bimini in the Bahamas is claimed to be a man-made edifice and a remnant of the lost island of Atlantis. I had spent two summers on Bimini a number of years back as part of my research for a book about Atlantis. “Great,” I thought, “now I have a head start on some of the material.” Coordinates were also given for the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last standing wonder of the ancient world and another place with which I was intimately familiar. Then there were coordinates to Newgrange in Ireland, a monumental passage tomb built around five thousand years ago. The stone structure is famous for its alignment to dawn on the winter solstice, when a narrow beam of light briefly illuminates the floor of the chamber. I had just visited Newgrange with the author and Freemason Chris McClintock.
Possible adversaries and secret societies were hinted at. Ciphers, codes, and cryptograms were revealed. Historical figures were mentioned. It was all adding up to a furious game of who could be first to reveal the answers to the clues. Websites sprang up detailing the background and history of some of the people, places, and groups being mentioned. It was an internet feeding frenzy.
Then I remembered something: Bishop Manuel Aringarosa, a character from The Da Vinci Code, whose name had a hidden meaning. Aringa is the Italian word for “herring”; rosa means “red.” Dan Brown liked to throw multiple red herrings into the mix. I began to look at the Twitter and Facebook clues in a new light. What if many of these were indeed red herrings? What if I were immersing myself in subjects that weren’t included in the published book? That’s when I stopped even looking at the Facebook and Twitter pages. After all, everything would be revealed on the day of publication, September 15.
Even this date, we were told, was part of the puzzle; chosen specifically for the book’s release. I began to check almanacs, history books, websites, conspiracy theorist blogs, but found nothing. Then it hit me: 09.15.09; 9 plus 15 plus 9 equals 33. So it was true. The Freemasons, and specifically Scottish Rite Freemasons, would be a central theme of the book — something that had been hinted at on the dust jacket of The Da Vinci Code years ago.
Then, before I knew it, publication day arrived. I began reading The Lost Symbol furiously. When I finished some twelve hours later, I realized that my suspicions had proved correct: many of the clues leaked over the previous months on Dan Brown’s Twitter and Facebook pages were indeed aringarosa — red herrings. There was no Morgan affair; no Aaron Burr; no William Wirt (and the strange story of his skull); no Knights of the Golden Circle; no substantial mentions of Albert Pike; no Benedict Arnold; no Confederate gold; no Babington plot; no Alexander Hamilton and the origins of the New York Stock Exchange; no Sons of Liberty; no Lost Colony of Roanoke; no Robert Hanssen, the U.S.-born Russian spy; no Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.
Cleverly, there was no Key of Solomon, either. Instead we have a family with the surname of Solomon, who hold the keys to the eventual outcome. The Great Pyramid figures in the story, though not prominently and not in the context that many had thought.
Dan Brown and his publishers had managed to pull off something of a coup, keeping the plotline of The Lost Symbol pretty much under wraps until the day of publication (although a couple of U.S. newspapers did print reviews the day before, in defiance of the publisher’s embargo). It was an amazing feat, especially considering that the book’s print run exceeded five million copies, and it guaranteed Brown a huge amount of media and public attention.
So: what did we end up with? Is The Lost Symbol a worthy successor to Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code?
The Lost Symbol is, in the end, a pretty good thriller that keeps Robert Langdon on his toes and involves some big themes and historical enigmas. However, it’s the deeper, more hidden elements of the book that I believe will have the most impact over time. Between the lines of the novel, Dan Brown has attempted to write something akin to a hidden Hermetic text. It’s a bold and ambitious undertaking, and one that I applaud him for. Indeed, the last ten chapters of the book and the epilogue are more or less an extended treatise on Deism, Hermetic thought, and religious tolerance.
The Freemasons are the secret society of choice this time around. I’m sure that there will be those who see Freemasonry as a covert, sinister movement intent on power and blasphemy. I see it rather differently. I am not a Freemason, nor will I ever be one. But I do know many Freemasons. Indeed, Ian Robertson, one of the chief researchers for this book, is a Freemason, as is my friend Chris McClintock, author of the soon-to-be-published Sun of God book series on the origins of the Freemasonry and its symbolism. Neither of them is in any way sinister, nor are the countless other Freemasons that I know and respect. I like the stance that Dan Brown has taken with Freemasonry within The Lost Symbol. Many commentators thought that the Masons would, in effect, be portrayed as the “bad guys,” but this is not the case. In fact, Brown makes a convincing argument for Freemasonry being a tolerant and enlightened movement with some interesting and forward-thinking ideas.
While it should be said that Freemasonry is a secretive society, it is not a secret society. Membership is easy to research and find out about, and most members are not shy about letting you know that they are within the craft, as it is called. Since the heyday of Freemasonry in the eighteenth century, it has attracted men of a certain social standing and, to an extent, still does. But the group has become more welcoming as of late, and I hope that this trend continues.
One of the things I wanted to get across within some of the entries of this book is that maybe it’s not Freemasonry we should be wary of — instead maybe we should fear the real secret groups and societies of which we know very little or nothing. Then again, maybe we are simply chasing shadows, wisps of rumor and supposition that have tormented us for millennia; a fear of secret and hidden things that, in the end, may not be that secret or hidden after all. Another thing worth noting is that although many of the people mentioned in this book were not Freemasons (Pierre L’Enfant springs to mind), or at least we have no evidence that they were, they would have been intimately familiar with the society and its workings. Many of their contemporaries and peers would have been members, and the craft would have been all around. It seems likely, for instance, that Thomas Jefferson, though we have no direct evidence of his membership in a Masonic lodge, did have sympathies with the Masonic ideals of brotherhood, enlightenment, and religious tolerance.
Once again, like my previous guides to Dan Brown’s books, this book is laid out in an easy-to-read A-to-Z format. There are some sixty entries in all; fewer than in previous guides. This was deliberate, as I wanted to give you a much more in-depth took at some of the themes, places, people, and groups featured in the novel.
The BBC in the United Kingdom once called me “a historian of the obscure,” a title that I like very much indeed. I have aimed to bring you some of that history of obscure and hidden subjects within the pages of this book. If you feel the urge to look deeper and delve further into some of the interesting subjects highlighted here, take a look at the bibliography and start building your own library of esoteric and arcane subjects. Just make sure that you remember to sleep and eat while familiarizing yourself with the ancient mystery traditions — it’s an addictive pursuit but also a very rewarding one, and one that I hope many of you will undertake.
If you want to talk about, debate, or extol any of the subjects in this book or the novel itself, head over to my website at www.decodingthelostsymbol.com
, where you will find a forum for debate and articles and blogs. If you want to contact me directly about any of the issues raised, I have my own Facebook page under my name and can be found on Twitter too (@FindSimonCox).
Writing this book was a lot of fun, and it has given me a newfound respect and admiration for the men who founded a new and fledgling nation in America, at the end of the eighteenth century. As a British writer and historian, it’s a period of history that I was not that familiar with and I have really enjoyed the research and subsequent writing about this tumultuous time. The Founding Fathers really were incredibly enlightened and forward-thinking men, who guided the formation of a republic with steady hands and an unwavering resolve. I will forever look at them, and this period of time, in a brand-new light from now on.
I hope you enjoy Decoding The Lost Symbol, and find its contents enlightening and interesting. I pass it on to you with the hope that you will find it as fun to read as it was to write.
The above is an excerpt from the book Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction by Simon Cox. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2009 Simon Cox, author of Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction
Simon Cox, author of Decoding The Lost Symbol: The Unauthorized Expert Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction, was the founding editor in chief of the successful newsstand magazine Phenomena. Having studied Egyptology at University College London, he went on to work as a research assistant for some of the biggest names in the alternative history game, including Graham Hancock, Robert Bauvel, and David Rohl. He splits his time between Britain and the United States.
Rising Above it All: How Rambo’s Creator Earned His Pilot’s License
By David Morrell,
Author of The Shimmer
Readers familiar with my fiction know how much I love doing research. For Testament, I enrolled in an outdoor wilderness survival course and lived above timberline in the Wyoming mountains for 30 days. For The Protector, I spent a week at the Bill Scott raceway in West Virginia, learning offensive-defensive driving maneuvers, such as the 180-degree spins you see in the movies. I once broke my collarbone in a two-day knife-fighting class designed for military and law enforcement personnel.
Two years ago, I began the longest research project of my career. I was preparing to write a novel called The Shimmer, a fictional dramatization of the mysterious lights that appear on many nights outside the small town of Marfa in west Texas. When the first settlers passed through that area in the 1800s, they saw the lights, and people have been drawn to those lights ever since, including James Dean who became fascinated by them when he filmed his final movie Giant near Marfa in 1955.
The lights float, bob, and weave. They combine and change colors. They seem far away and yet so close that people think they can reach out and touch them. In the 1970s, the citizens of Marfa organized what they called a Ghost Light Hunt and pursued the lights, using horses, vehicles, and an airplane, but the lights had no difficulty eluding them.
Because an airplane was used, I decided to include one in The Shimmer. I’d never written about a pilot, and the idea of trying something new always appeals to me. The dramatic possibilities were intriguing. But a minute’s thought warned me about the monumental task I was planning. As a novelist version of a Method actor, I couldn’t just cram an airplane into my novel. First, I would need to learn how airplanes worked so that real pilots wouldn’t be annoyed by inaccuracies. Real pilots. That’s when I realized that it wouldn’t be enough to learn how airplanes worked. I would need to take pilot training.
I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our small airport has a flight school: Sierra Aviation. I made an appointment with one of the instructors, Larry Haight, who took me up in a Cessna 172 on what’s called a “discovery” flight. The idea was to “discover” whether I enjoyed the sensation of being in the cockpit and peering several thousand feet down at the ground. Flying in a small aircraft is a much more immediate and visceral experience than sitting in the cabin of a commercial airliner. Even in a Cessna, the canopy is huge compared to the tiny windows on an airliner. The horizon stretches forever.
It turned out that I more than enjoyed the experience. It was exhilarating and fulfilling. I realized that this was something I wanted to do not only for research but also to broaden my life. As a consequence, I eventually earned my private pilot’s license and bought a 2003 172SP. The plane was based near Dallas, and my longest cross-country flight to date (600 miles) involved piloting it from there to Santa Fe. Truly, nothing can equal controlling an aircraft, making it do safely whatever I want while seeing the world as if I were an eagle.
In The Shimmer, I wanted the main character’s attitude toward flying (“getting above it all”) to help develop the book’s theme. The following passage shows what I mean. You only need to know that Dan Page is a police officer. When I started pilot training, I figured that one day I’d be relaxing in the sky, listening to an iPod and glancing dreamily around. As we learn in this section, the actuality is quite different and more substantial.
“Non-pilots often assumed that the appeal of flying involved appreciating the scenery. But Page had become a pilot because he enjoyed the sensation of moving in three dimensions. The truth was that maintaining altitude and speed while staying on course, monitoring radio transmissions, and comparing a sectional map to actual features on the ground required so much concentration that a pilot had little time for sightseeing.
“There was another element to flying, though. It helped Page not to think about the terrible pain people inflicted on one another. He’d seen too many lives destroyed by guns, knives, beer bottles, screwdrivers, baseball bats, and even a nail gun. Six months earlier, he’d been the first officer to arrive at the scene of a car accident in which a drunken driver had hit an oncoming vehicle and killed five children along with the woman who was taking them to a birthday party. There’d been so much blood that Page still had nightmares about it.
“His friends thought he was joking when he said that the reward of flying was ‘getting above it all,’ but he was serious. The various activities involved in controlling an aircraft shut out what he was determined not to remember.
“That helped Page now. His confusion, his urgency, his need to have answers — on the ground, these emotions had thrown him off balance, but once he was in the air, the discipline of controlling the Cessna forced him to feel as level as the aircraft. In the calm sky, amid the monotonous, muffled drone of the engine, the plane created a floating sensation. He welcomed it yet couldn’t help dreading what he might discover on the ground “
At one point a character asks Page, how high he intends to fly.
“Enough to get above everything,” he answers.
“Sounds like the way to run a life.”
That’s an important lesson I learned from flying.
©2009 David Morrell, author of The Shimmer
Author Bio David Morrell, author of The Shimmer, is the award-winning author of numerous New York Times bestsellers, including Creepers and Scavenger. Co-founder of the International Thriller Writers organization and author of the classic Brotherhood of the Rose spy trilogy, Morrell is considered by many to be the father of the modern action novel
Memoirs, Movies and Those (Mostly) True Stories
A Writer’s Take on Reality’s Rough Edges
By Steve Luxenberg,
Author of Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
Why do they do it?
Why do so many film makers put “based on a true story” or some variation as one of their opening frames, when they have freely altered the truth of the story?
Because it works. Because those words retain their mesmerizing power, even though they are misused or stretched at times to the point where there’s little relationship between the story being told and the facts that gave rise to them. Truth-twisting in film has become so accepted that reviewers rarely comment on it or point out the discrepancies between fact and fiction, between information and invention.
As a long-time journalist and a first-time author, I’m probably more fascinated than most people at the transformation of a nonfiction work from book to screen. In researching and writing about a family secret that took me back to the beginning of the 20th century, I chased down many leads to ambiguous and not entirely satisfying conclusions. I joked with friends that I envied the novelist’s license to invent what could not be learned or verified.
I’m not suggesting that there’s a grand deception here. It’s news to no one that movies change certain facts, sometimes for legal and privacy reasons. But film makers increasingly want to have it both ways. What began as a safeguard (“some facts have been changed to protect . . . “) has turned into a genre. Why not just come out and say it? “Some facts have been changed to protect the innocent, streamline the plot and increase dramatic tension. But the story is still (mostly) true.”
Instead, the trend line is moving in the opposite direction. Recent case in point: The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie as the mother fighting a corrupt Los Angeles police department that had declared a stranger to be her abducted nine-year-old son, begins with the words “a true story” appearing on a black screen, holding for a few seconds, and then fade out.
Not “based on” or “inspired by.” Just that flat, unambiguous statement: “a true story.” Then, in the fine print at the end the closing credits, the film makers fess up. “While this picture is based upon a true story,” we’re told, “some of the characters have been composited or invented, and a number of incidents fictionalized.” In other words, (which I liked and admired for its storytelling as well as its artful re-creation of the 1920s) improved on the remarkable tale of Christine Collins and her young son Walter. The true story wasn’t quite good enough.
Moviegoers seem to accept this hybrid genre, and the industry celebrates it (Oscars, etc.). Is it any wonder that it has crept into the world of nonfiction books, where memoir writers have claimed a license to “fill in the gaps” (based on truth and memory, of course)? Or that universities now offer courses in “creative nonfiction”?
Truman Capote gave us the “nonfiction novel,” stealing a page from the film world. Tom Wolfe chose to take his new journalism into novels, which solved that problem. James Frey obviously crossed the line, however, in embellishing and inventing some of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces about his drug use and brushes with law. A screenplay version of Frey’s work could have said “a true story,” and no one would have batted an eye.
Subsequent editions of Frey’s memoir have carried an apology from the author that is a model of muddle. “I didn’t initially think of what I was writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography,” he wrote. “I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it’s a story, and one that I could not have written without having lived the life I’ve lived.”
Frey’s right on one score: Others disagree, and there’s a lively and continuing debate in the writing community about these issues. On a Facebook discussion the other day, for example, the question came up: How far should memoir writers go in reconstructing scenes and dialogue?
I draw a harder line than most. I favor the rough edges of memory over neat and pretty reconstructions. (More interesting, usually.) Invention? As I wrote in the Facebook discussion, that’s why we have novels.
Readers, I think, are smart. They know that most writers don’t have notes or documents to back up dialogue from long ago. So what’s the problem? In a word: Credibility. As a writer, I want readers to grant me some license to tell my story. But if I present lengthy dialogue as fact, I risk losing their trust — and their interest. Bad deal for me.
There’s a scene in my new book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, that illustrates the difficulty of reconstructing past events. I’m at a restaurant outside Detroit, interviewing a cousin about the secret that stands at the center of the book. The secret was my mother’s. Throughout her life, my mom had hidden the existence of a disabled sister. I was trying to find out why. My search had led to my cousin, someone I had never known.
In the early 1950s, I learned, my cousin and my mother had argued about the secret, leading to a life-long rift between the two women. Just as my cousin is recounting a climatic moment in their dispute, we’re interrupted by the waitress’s offer of coffee. After the waitress leaves, my cousin resumes her account — and offers a different (and more dramatic) version of the key moment she had described only seconds before.
I had no doubt about the crux of my cousin’s story. My mother had, after all, kept the secret. But if I wanted an “accurate” version of their conversation, I was out of luck. My cousin was giving me the version that reflected years of thinking about that moment, that reflected her feelings as much as her memory.
“The nuances lie beyond my reach,” I wrote in the book. “Fifty years later, this is the best my cousin can do.”
I saw no reason to choose between the two versions. I would present both, and use the scene to point out the intricate patterns of trouble imposed by time and memory. That would be better than presenting a reconstruction of their argument.
That would be something closer to true.
©2009 Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
Steve Luxenberg has been a senior editor with the Washington Post for twenty-two years, overseeing reporting that has won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
For more information please visit www.steveluxenberg.com
Creating a Magic System
By Karina L. Fabian
Amber asked me to write a little about how magic works in the Faerie world and how I came up with its rules and philosophies. I’ll be frank–a lot of it is working itself out in the stories, so with each story or book where magic is involved, some new aspect comes to light. That’s how I think–seat of the pants–and it makes it exciting for me. However, here are some basics.
Three “Qualities of Magic”: Because I have a very firm Good Vs. Evil undercurrent in all the stories and an adapted for of Christianity, but wanted to have everyday magic as well, I adopted a three-way system. Natural magic is a force, something like mental electricity, that certain people can manipulate; holy magic comes from God, sometimes through the intercession of the Saints; evil magic from consort with Satan.
Natural Magic: Magic as a natural force is limited to a talented few who also put in a lot of time and study (and, it just occurred to me, a lot of athletic training). The better trained and healthier you are, the more complex a spell you can weave. There are some everyday spells and potions, limited in use and scope. Magic, thus, isn’t a cure-all. Some creatures can handle magic more adeptly than others. Pixies, for example, shape shift as easily as thought; for a dragon can’t do it on its own. Natural magic is also necessary for the survival of many of the Faerie creatures; too long or too far away from the Gap between Faerie and the Mundane, and a Magical will get sick, like a plant that’s too long out of the sun.
Holy Magic: Only those who have dedicated their lives to God can properly wield this magic: nuns, priests, monks, and the like. They often have an affinity for natural magics, too, but Holy magic is stronger, and often less under their control. As Vern said, “God is not a vending machine to spit out answers to your prayers. He will consider every one, of course, but in His ineffable wisdom, he’ll take into account everything from the lives at stake to the butterfly effect, not just at the moment of the prayer, but from all time before and after.” When you think about it, the fact that they can do so much is a miracle in itself. Sister Grace, Vern’s partner, is a mage and nun of the Order of Our Lady of the Miracles
Evil Magic: This is your pretty typical Satanism stuff: blood sacrifices, rituals, giving up of souls. Usually those who wield natural magics do not go for evil magic. We’ll be learning more about it in future books, as the Dark One brings the war against Good to the Mundane.
Magical items: Magic energy can be stored in a trinket, usually with a particular purpose. Holy magics tend to be stored in religious items, like saint medallions, with the saint directing the particular spell. So a St. Michael the Archangel charm would hold protective energy. Potions tend to be more in the realm of natural magics. Sometimes, a particular item will absorb magic, but these items are dangerous unless in the hands of an expert mage.Vern’s first case involved a magical fruit which was grated and put into fertilizer. It made the plants come alive in a spooky and murderous way.
Magic and the Mundane: No creature of the Mundane dimension can handle magic. They simply are not genetically suited, as the mage Bill Gates (pronounced Gae-tez) would say. He advised those who wish to work magic major in computer programming, which is as close as you can get, in his opinion.
Every writer has their own vision of what magic would be like. Some create a, pardon the pun, magical world where powers can be used with ease for everything from creating a glass of cold water to giving a school bully warts. Others have a complex system of rules and magical mathematics. In the end, it’s the needs of the world and the needs of the story that define the kind of magic. If you are building your own magical system, consider your world first. Let it tell you what it needs and what it can carry. Let it define your magical “space.” Then let your imagination soar within that space.