The Book I Will Write 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 and a senior editor at Knopf, as well as with an agent. He’s been kicked out of his apartment and is living in the library, where he accepted the invitation of a member of the Zeppelin Society to visit their headquarters. Here’s his latest email to the editorial assistant.
THE OTHER WAY IS ME
Mary Ann “Annie” Lankowski
It’s a good thing that what I’ve written of my novel exists mainly on the blank slate in my head. I’m twice removed from my cold little office and my computer that sits in front of the window looking out on the gravel drive. I’ve been kidnapped by the Zeppelin Society.
Here’s how it happened:
I climbed into the sidecar and the redheaded biker woman drove me to the Zeppelin Society Museum and Headquarters. The woman would only tell me her Zeppelin Society Name (or Zep-Name, as she said), which is Viktoria Luise. She told me I could call her “Vik with a K.”
The Zeppelin Society is in fact headquartered in the Lakehurst Industrial Park, in view of the Navy air base. It’s a maze of long, low, gray buildings, many abandoned and without addresses. Please don’t send anyone to try to rescue me; I have reason to believe my kidnappers know something about Reid Markham and his book. Let me complete my investigation. I’ll escape on my own.
Vik stopped her Harley in front of a gray door with no markings. “I think I know why you don’t get many visitors,” I joked. Vik made no reply. She waited to remove her helmet until we were inside. She shook out her stringy red hair.
The headquarters is nothing more than a high-ceilinged warehouse with a pair of office cubicles against one wall. The display of zeppelin memorabilia—silverware, scraps of fabric skin, a few charred remnants of the Hindenburg, a captain’s hat, a menu, a pair of shoes—are laid out on card tables grouped in the center of the room. Another area serves as the workshop, with tools and materials for making model zeppelins scattered on a plywood table with sawhorse legs. A pair of wrenches holds down the ends of some blueprints.
“Up there”—she pointed above the banks of fluorescent lights to a small dirigible tied to a pipe and bobbing in the air currents—“is model Z3000. She’s ready to fly. All we need is approval. That’s where you come in.”
“Hans and I are smart. We’re smart like hell. We’re engineering legends. But sometimes we don’t understand what people want. We have a hard time understanding their communication needs. There was this one time we needed a letter to ask people to join our society.”
“The email I got?”
“Yes. We captured a writer for that.”
“You kidnapped him?”
“We let him go when he finished it.”
“That’s a crime,” I told her.
“Writers like to write,” she said. “So we let him write. For us.”
I finally understood. “And what will you let me write?” I asked.
“The FAA,” she said, “you’d think because it’s a government agency, they’d want things straight. We fill out forms and write letters to have test flights. We don’t embellish. Our letters keep getting rejected. They keep saying things like, ‘We don’t understand the sense of this.’ I always want to write back and say, ‘We don’t understand the sense of you,’ but Hans says that’s no good. There’s another way.”
“Of course. The other way is me.”
“If we ignore the FAA and send the Z3000 up, they have the excuse to shoot her down. We won’t take the bait. ‘Get another communication specialist,’ Hans says to me one day. ‘You mean like a writer?’ I says back. Hans nods. I’m the more talkative one. So I says, ‘Hans, I will take care of this for you.’ And now I am taking care of it. Like this.”
“Is Hans his real name or his Zep-Name?” I asked.
She didn’t reply. She stepped outside and made a phone call. Then she came back in.
“Hans needs a ride,” she announced. “You stay here.”
I am writing this now from the Zeppelin Society computer. Its once-creamy plastic has yellowed with age. The keyboard smells bad. Some of the keys have to be jabbed with my thumb. Some of them stick to my fingertips. The connection is dial-up.
I tried the door. It’s locked. It’s steel and can’t be kicked in. There are high windows, and maybe I’ll climb up to them and escape when the time comes. Meanwhile, I felt I needed to give you this update. I’m going to search the premises now. Could I possibly find a copy of The Devil’s Good Graces? Do you know what it’s about? Are there zeppelins in it? Airships of any kind?
I’m unsettled. The deeper I get into my research, the more my novel seems to recede from view, to the point where I’m almost nostalgic for it, or for what it might have been. I have to remind myself that there’s a high purpose to all this. I haven’t forgotten you, Michael Jackson! I haven’t forgotten your tomatoes! I haven’t forgotten you, Star Chamber for Stars! When I return to you, we’ll make a beautiful book together, I promise!
Write to me soon, Annie. Things are lonely sometimes, and I miss your replies.
John Henry Fleming