Yesterday the taxi dropped me, exhausted, back home from the Budapest Airport after a whirlwind 48 hours in the Big Apple. I can safely report that nothing got broken, despite the fact that Ken Bruen and I put away a fair volume of spirits.
It all began pretty quietly. I arrived early Saturday evening at the Mansfield, where I was booked for two nights (Ken wouldn’t arrive until the next day). Wonderful hotel, which I originally learned about from Ken, for whom it is a favorite. After unloading my bags and cleaning up, I went to the only place I could think to go—the hotel’s “M Bar”. Two martinis later and after an educational talk with the bartender and waitress about the state of American television acting (apparently being crushed by the prevalence of reality shows), I grabbed some mouth-inferno lamb vindaloo from the Indian restaurant across the street, began watching Tomorrow Never Dies on my computer, and promptly passed out.
Pretty boring, huh?
Well, by Sunday dinnertime I was finally reminded why the hell I was in Manhattan. Over a delicious Italian dinner with Ken, his editor Ben Sevier, my agent Matt Williams and my editor Kelley Ragland, we pow-wowed about the next day’s lunch. This lunch, the point of my visit and the starting-point of what will surely be a mind-blowing tour by Ken Bruen, would be a much more indirect affair than I’d imagined. It was simple (and perhaps simply brilliant): Place two novelists in a room with the representatives of Esquire, GQ, Time, Mystery Scene, Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and give them fantastic food from Manhattan’s newest hotspot, BLT Fish.
“So,” I said warily, “are we going to be reading from our books or something?”
“No,” said Kelley. “You’ll have lunch.”
I was having trouble getting this. “You flew me across the world, for lunch?”
She nodded. “And getting to know these people. Conversation.”
“Charm,” said Ken, nervously fingering the vest pocket holding his cigarettes.
Charm—or a charm offensive—had always been the unstated point of this plan, but now it was being said aloud. We had to be charming, witty and memorable. If we weren’t, then St Martin’s investment in us was just a joke.
So, the pressure intensified.
But both Ken and I tried to blow it off. Outside, smoking in the cold, we kept saying, “Nothing to worry about, they’ll love us.”
People repeat things in order to convince themselves; the most repeated things in history have usually been lies. And we repeated that hopeful lie continuously until 1am, when, after a conversation with Mike, the “M” bartender, and filled with Jameson’s (Ken) and Bombay Sapphire (myself), we took the miserable elevator ride to the loneliness of our rooms.
The next morning, I met Ken and our St Martin’s posse at the Flatiron and we walked to BLT Fish. As we neared, I became more and more convinced that our guests were only coming in order to write-up something about the restaurant and thus make their first steps into the more lucrative world of restaurant reviewing.
And with that in mind, the first thing I ordered was a gin martini.
But I drank slowly, under the watchful eye of Kelley, my editor, who had been giving us warnings since the previous night, when they all worried Ken and I would repeat our ‘04 Edgars 6am drinking session.
Then the guests started arriving. Kate Stine from Mystery Scene came first, and with her entrance my nervousness began to dissipate. She was cordial and kind and, above all, interested. I didn’t see her take a single culinary note during the entire meal. We were soon joined by Dick Donohue of Publishers Weekly, who manages to shift his goatee into a variety of expressions of scorn and leave such amateurs as myself stunned by his versatility. After no time at all he was advising me on how to best produce a scathing scornful stare. Andrea Sachs from Time has her own kind of stare which is entirely devoid of scorn—it is instead a sign of intelligent curiosity, not entirely unlike a cat’s.
Since the St Martin’s posse was rather large (not including us novelists, I seem to remember five) I didn’t get to meet many of the rest until we were sitting down. The technique devised by Linda McFall, the astute and passionate organizer of the event, was to separate Ken and I by having two tables. Halfway through the lunch Ken and I would switch seats, so everyone got a piece of our action. Neither Ken nor I were pleased about this—we felt that close proximity would not only give us mutual support, but the jokes would fly easier as well. But this was not to be, and I was soon able to see why. While both Ken and I write books with deaths and the occasional mystery for St Martin’s Minotaur, that’s almost where the similarities end. Linda and the rest of the team wanted us to show our individual personalities. And I think this worked out.
At table 1, I was introduced to the charming book editor for GQ, Stephanie Davis, and soon our table (including Kate and Dick, as well as members of the St Martins posse) was rolling along as if we were all old friends. What, I asked myself, had I been worried about? Fact is, New York high-fliers are, despite how they’re depicted in such cinematic classics as Sweet Home Alabama, just great folks who’ve simply accomplished more than you or me. Of course, this was no scientific sampling: It consisted of people in the publishing world. But it backs up my experience so far, that publishing is, depsite all the conglomerates and casual axing of employees, still a personal business. I wouldn’t expand this to include something like the NY stock market.
Once the halfway point was reached, I was, despite my enjoyment, dying for a cigarette. I had been going easy on my martini (always aware of Kelley watching from across the table), so it was a bearable need, but it was there nonetheless. Ken and I were to switch tables now, so I decided to grab a smoke before settling in my new seat. But that wasn’t to be, because Ken and I were informed it was time to make a speech.
Now, this had never been part of the plan. And so neither of us had anything prepared. We (or at least I) whined at Linda, who kept repeating last night’s lie: “Nothing to worry about.” So, cigaretteless and now needing one far more than before, I sat, said hello to my new table-mates, and began to sweat profusely. John Cunningham, the Minotaur publisher, stood up and said a few things I don’t remember, and the floor was turned over to Ken, who stood and began to speak.
What did Ken say? Well, I don’t remember that either because I was deperately trying to figure out what I was going to say to this esteemed group. I wondered if being obstinate would get me off the hook, or perhaps no one would notice if I went out for that cigarette. Then some of Ken’s elegant words reached me and I realized he was recounting a trip to Texas after last year’s Edgars, and his surprise at seeing the small size of the Alamo. He was telling a story—yes! Brilliant! That’s what I would do. A nice Budapest tale to hold everyone enraptured for five minutes and relieve me of having to think of something else.
But as he wrapped up his typically engaging story, my mind remained blank. It was as if I’d just been born at that moment, and had nothing to recall. They applauded Ken’s lovely tale, and then turned to look at me.
So I stood. And began to speak.
What did I say?
I have no earthy idea. The words just trickled out over what could have been an hour or 30 seconds, and then I sat down.
And I ran off for a cigarette.
Admittedly, I do remember one thing I said, because I stole it from Ken. The previous night, he’d said that we should mention that the link between the two of us is that he’s a European writer inspired by American fiction, while I’m an American writer inspired by European fiction. And since he didn’t mention it himself (later he said he left that gem for me), I could steal it without remorse.
After the cigarette, I rejoined table 2, all of whom were probably dismayed that I showed up, gave a disjoined speech, and then fled—though all were New York-charming enough not to mention it. Andrea from Time sat to my left, and though I found her charming we had a momentary squabble (actually, a tongue-in-cheek squabble) when I learned that the speeches were at her bidding. To my right with her intense and mesmerizing stare, sat Anna Godberson from Esquire. Wilda Williamson from Library Journal called fine questions from the other side of the table (and later told me to expect a forthcoming review in her journal), as did Charles Taylor, a reviewer for Salon and the New York Times (among others), who, while more reticent to speak, always made clever inquiries. Peter Cannon from Publishers Weekly acted similarly, watching all the time. Both these men seemed vaguely clandestine, intensely observing the movements of conversation, as if noting them for a surveillance report to be made to their local rezident.
Or maybe that’s only my paranoia. Again.
Table 2 had more of a question-answer dynamic, which was great—a question gives you direction, and I was allowed to expand on what was expandable, finally remembering that I actually did have a life before that day’s lunch. Which was good, because the martini was finished, and without direction I could’ve said anything.
Of course, what one really wants to know is, how was the food at BLT Fish? It was excellent. I had baked chicken with stuffing and asparagus on the side, and afterward what was perhaps hazlenut ice cream with…ok, I don’t remember, but I think it was some kind of cake. Chocolate, perhaps. But quite tasty.
We said our farewells to the guests (feeling quite buoyant I even forced people to embrace one another before leaving), and Ken and I stood around, trembling slightly, and learning from our posse that we actually did a good job. Did I detect a note of surprise in their voices? (Well, no.) And apparently the mysterious words I said in my speech came off well. I just wish I could remember them. In celebration, I ordered a second martini.
Out on the curb, waiting for the car to pick me up, I said my goodbyes to everyone. And Ken and I, as usual, embraced like the old friends we’ve become, despite the fact we see each other only once a year. We made plans for more frequent meet-ups, because with a man as tremendous as he is, once a year just isn’t enough. Then I handed out kisses like they were going out of style.
On the plane going home, I was elated (and a little drunk—waiting at an airport gate is dull business, but at least they install bars) and still somewhat bewildered by everything. A mere 48 hours, a surprisingly relaxing lunch, and I was on a plane again beside a Bulgarian veterinarian who spoke no English, so I used my little Serbian to chat with him. When the drinks came around he said, “Pivo!” [beer], and I agreed. Which was a blessing, because after the drink I fell asleep, waking to find from the digital map that we were already somewhere over Ireland.
Which, thinking of Ken, my comrade-in arms, seemed very appropriate.
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)