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, and her boss, Senior Editor Roberta Hollymore. Here is Fleming’s latest reply.
A STAR CHAMBER FOR STARS
Dear Ms. Hollymore,
Thank you for your interest in my manuscript. Owing to your gracious encouragement, the novel is now underway!
There are still details to be worked out regarding plot and character. There are also details to be worked out regarding details—ha ha, it’s true! In any case, I’m cooking with gas, as they say!
And to think that you saved my emails! To think that you were thinking of me when you were contractually obligated to be thinking of your date, Mr. Seamus! I am encouraged almost beyond my ability to process such encouragement. Still, I soldier on.
As long as we’re talking again, I have some new ideas to run by you. I’m leaning toward some of these and against others, but I won’t tell you which because I don’t want to bias your opinion.
• Michael Jackson: what if he faked his death so he could fulfill his secret lifelong dream to become a farmer? Maybe the faked-death celebrity book has already been done. But with tomatoes?
• Here’s how he might have come to his decision. First, before a big concert, he meets a girl backstage, the daughter of a record exec. The girl looks both sad and annoyed. MJ has never seen this reaction on a fan’s face before. It makes him think. It makes him question his life’s purpose. He searches again for the girl and her father but to no avail. He experiences anxious moments. At last he’s called to the stage, where he gives the first lackluster performance of his life, bottoming out when, halfway through a moonwalk, the thought occurs to him that what he’s really doing now is imitating one of his many imitators. He stops in mid-step and lets his arms and his heels fall limp. He announces to his 80,000 live fans, “I don’t know. I’m just not into this whole performing thing.” And here’s where things get juicy. Unbeknownst to MJ (or to most other touring performers) the stadium keeps in storage a large cache of rotten tomatoes. The storage room holding the tomatoes is climate controlled to keep them in a suspended state of rot. At the press of a button, these tomatoes are raised by hundreds of electric lifts up through trap doors at the end of each row in the stadium. The disgruntled fans see the tomatoes and do not require further instructions. Michael Jackson is shamed, the red tint of the tomatoes hiding/highlighting (pick one) the extreme embarrassment from which he’ll never recover. But the tomatoes give MJ an idea.
• Thus follows the faked death, the organic tomato farming, the chance encounter with a likeminded football star, MJ’s philanthropic rebirth, etc.
• But who pressed the button to raise the tomatoes at the stadium? And why is it important for the stadium to have rotten tomatoes on hand in the event the show is lousy?
• Here’s why: there’s a secret society that sets and enforces performance standards, a kind of star chamber for stars. The story of this secret society may either be a subplot or a sequel.
• The secret society also governs books. In a metafictional moment, the society tries to shut down the completion of this very manuscript on aesthetic grounds. The writer, who goes by the name John Henry Fleming, previously wrestled with self-doubt. Now he must literally wrestle with a member of the secret society to decide the fate of his novel. Cage match, all rules suspended. How much is he willing to suffer for his art? How about a meaty elbow to the skull? Here comes the violent interlude in an otherwise uplifting story.
• And let’s not forget the story of the girl at the stadium. Her parents get their divorce. She feels duped by love. Does she find it again, ever?
I’ve taken up enough of your time for now. I hope that it’s not too boastful of me to say that these ideas are but the tip of my imaginative iceberg. Also, they’re all replaceable, so if you don’t like any of them, I’ll re-stock the queue. Meanwhile, I look forward to hearing your verdict. Hopefully, you won’t challenge me to a cage match—ha ha ha!
–John Henry Fleming
P.S. I hope Mr. Seamus’s hairy ears don’t prevent him from hearing you. If I had hairy ears, I would shave them so I wouldn’t miss a single word of your wisdom.