The Book I Will Write by John Henry Fleming is a serial novel-in-emails about a would-be writer named John Henry Fleming who is desperate to publish a book. THE BOOK I WILL WRITE is a work in progress; readers are invited to make comments and influence the outcome. Fleming has been exchanging emails with an editorial assistant at Knopf, Mary Ann Lankowski, under the nose of her boss, Senior Editor Roberta Hollymore. Here is Lankowski’s latest reply.
A ROSY CHUTZPAH
Dear John Henry,
No one’s ever dedicated a book to me, let alone an unwritten manuscript. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I actually did believe in you before, but now that you’ve written down that I believe, I think I might. I can see in my mind that dedication page, and a bunch of pages behind it. A few pages, I guess. Will this be a short novel? I imagine it will be. Which is fine because I’m pretty short myself.
I’m sitting here after hours in the office. Actually, it’s not after hours, but Ms. Hollymore’s gone home early again. I think she might have a date—her first in years. I overheard her on the phone, insisting on the terms. She wasn’t going to let him buy her dinner. In fact, she didn’t want dinner. Tapas would be fine, though, and he could buy half, and if they had an uneven number of drinks, she wouldn’t object to his buying the last one.
She used the bathroom about fifteen times today. She hung up on an author who called to complain about his cover art. When he called back, I had to listen to his earful about peacock symbology. Everyone’s crazy these days. I wonder if I’ll end up that way.
At the same time, I hope the date works out for her. That’ll improve my working conditions.
I was going back over your ideas in your previous emails. Normally, Ms. Hollymore would have deleted emails like yours (with prejudice bordering on extreme), but they’re still there in her box. I don’t know what that means. She might just have been absentminded because this tapas date was still in negotiations. Who knows? She hasn’t said anything else about you, in case you’re wondering.
Sorry if it sounds like I’m killing time. I have fifteen minutes left in the workday. Can you tell? Ha ha.
Anyway, it’s great that you’re so full of ideas. In terms of publishability, I think Ms. Hollymore’s right about the tomato stew idea. Have you thought more about it? What pop culture icon would you use? Have you narrowed the icon down to a certain type of performer? Male or female? Do you know what team the football player will play for? Do you know what kind of stew they’ll make together? How will they serve it to the homeless? Will they use those metal potato scoopers from the buffet you mentioned in your previous email?
When I was a kid, I got to meet pop culture icon Michael Jackson backstage before a concert in Honolulu. My dad used to be a record-industry exec, so he arranged it. He took me to Hawaii to tell me that he and my mom were getting a divorce because he’d met someone else. I didn’t know that meeting people was cause for divorce. He told me as we drove to the concert. And then we went backstage. Good times, eh? Michael Jackson looked like a bleached scarecrow with half the stuffing removed. The experience scarred me for life.
I don’t know if Michael Jackson ever made tomato stew. The subject didn’t come up in the eleven seconds I spent with him backstage.
Well, it’s almost time to go. I know this because it takes me twenty minutes to slowly sip my hot chai while I’m writing emails, and I sat down with my chai to write this note to you. To be honest, I still don’t know why I’m writing it. I’m starting to think that people aren’t in control of what they do, no matter what they say. I’m starting to think that the main purpose of our brains is to make up rationales for things we’ve already done or know we’re going to do anyway.
For instance, I could say that I’m writing to you because I’ve been looking for someone to spill my guts to, an anonymous email pal. Or I could say that I’m writing to you because I like the sound of your voice in my head as I read your words or else the look of your letters on the screen. Or maybe because you were the first person I’ve encountered not to get angry or discouraged by Ms. Hollymore.
You’ve got a rosy chutzpah like a shield. That could be why Ms. Hollymore kept your emails; she’s still trying to figure out a way to break through your shield and crush your spirit.
I could give you any of those reasons for writing to you. But you know what? I’m going to try an experiment. I’m just going to write to you whenever I feel like it—drunk or sober—and not make up a rationale for it.
So here I am writing to you. I hope you’re happy with your writing. I hope you’ll write me back.