Born in the U.S.A.

Communication is a wonderful thing. But sometimes it can leave you speechless. I’m doing a little rewriting these days of the sequel to Einstein’s Trunk, and I’ve inserted a scene where the Bruce Springsteen song ‘Born in the U.S.A. is mentioned. In doing so it prompted a memory and I did a little research.
Now, for those of you who don’t know that song, it was released in 1984, and even today is still well thought of and rated number 275 on Rolling Stone’s list of top rock-n-roll hits. The song is about a working class guy who gets “in a hometown jam and has to go serve in Vietnam”. He has no idea what the war is about, loses a friend there and comes to see the war as senseless and the promise of America as unfulfilled.
In other words, the song was not particularly positive about America’s direction at the time – though the title could make you think it was. But here’s the communication angle: In 1984, conservative columnist George Will saw Springsteen in concert, complained the music was too loud, obviously couldn’t hear the lyrics, but loved the title and sound of Springsteen’s hit song – Born in the USA – and decided that Springsteen must be a real, true-blue, supporter of conservative values. Will  mentioned this to his friend, Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Deaver later mentioned it to Reagan’s speech writers, and the next thing you know Reagan is talking about Springsteen in his campaign stump speech. Reagan said, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts, it rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”
In fact, Born in the USA told a completely opposite story. But thanks to the office of the president, the ‘branding’ stuck despite the obvious contradiction provided by the lyrics. As a side note, Lee Iacocca, who obviously never listened to the lyrics either, offered Springsteen $millions to use the song to promote Chrysler, but Bruce turned him down.
But I digress: I received an email a few weeks ago enlightening me on the origin of the name “Yohaba Melekson” – the heroine of Einstein’s Trunk. It turns out that Melek means king in Hebrew and Melekson means ‘son of the king’. Also, the name ‘Yohaba’ has connections to the Hebrew name for God. And it turns out that Rulon’s name also has a religious connotation. I originally chose the name ‘Rulon’ because it was an old Idaho pioneer name that stirred up notions of someone who was straight-laced but perhaps a bit of a hick – remember, Rulon likes to be underestimated! Well, it turns out that Rulon as a first name is a native American name that means ‘Spiritual’. So both Rulon and Yohaba have a name with a spiritual side to them – albeit unintentional.
My next post will either be on Mitt Romney’s chances of being president or a review of mystery writer Michael Connolly’s book – The Fifth Witness. Let me know if you have a preference.   
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South Africa and my Trusty Laptop

     These days everyone is talking about long-term plans. If you don’t have a long-term plan for the economy, the deficit, your life, your retirement, or the war against terror you’re just no fun at a party. With that in mind, I have come up with a long-term plan for my writing career. Here it is: When the time comes, my wife and I plan to retire to Umhlanga, South Africa where we have a charming apartment on the beach, and from there I hope to write, if not the great American novel, then at least one that will keep me and a few others entertained.
     My wife has suggested that I consider moving away from the adventures of Rulon and Yohaba and invent a new character – a black South African police detective who in the process of solving crimes becomes embroiled in the political and economic fabric of South Africa. It’s actually not a bad idea! – for South Africa is a most extraordinary place!
     South Africa defies description. Incredibly beautiful, wild and woolly, democracy with an African beat, almost incomprehensible, on the brink of something – not sure what…perhaps Zimbabwe…hopefully not…perhaps something really special, a rainbow nation, the hope of black Africa…if only…if only.
     Mysteries set in SA would have so many possibilities. First, there is the crime – brutal, unnecessarily violent, random, and all too frequent. Second, the customs – plural wives, muti (witchdoctors) and lebolas (the dowry of cows paid by the husband, usually about ten cows but more if the girl is college educated), the tribal system and the Zulu king. Third, the corruption, the rich black fat cats, soldiers of the revolution who sold out when given the keys to the economy.
     Fourth, the SAP – South African Police – fighting and dying by the hundreds every year, laying their lives on the line for a few hundred dollars per month, many of them knowing that if SA were ever to achieve its goals, it was up to them to hold the line. Fifth, the Africaners, most accepting the new order, but some still bitter. Sixth, the ANC – the African National Congress – Nelson Mandela’s party now threatening to be torn apart by a firebrand named Malema who likes to lead his young followers in singing a song titled, “Shoot the Boer”. Finally, the millions of increasingly dissatisfied poor. Wow! If you couldn’t make a good story out of all of that, well, you don’t deserve to be a thriller writer.
     My next post will be on the movie Master and Commander and how re-watching it has caused me to reflect on the nature of book and movie reviews.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich
   
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Is Rulon Hurt a Republican or a Democrat?

Is Rulon Hurt a Republican or a Democrat – inquiring minds want to know! Early in Einstein’s Trunk, Rulon and Yohaba have their first political discussion while sitting in Yohaba’s apartment. Since then I have spent many hours eavesdropping on their political conversations and so feel singularly capable of summarizing their viewpoints. Naturally, Yohaba thinks Switzerland has most of the right answers – full employment through a nationwide apprenticeship program, stay out of wars, eliminate corruption, and return most of the tax money back to its citizens in the form of long-term infrastructure development and an adequate safety net for the aged, infirm, and unemployed.  Having lived in Switzerland for almost a third of his life, Rulon tends to agree with her.
But make no mistake, Rulon is a red-blooded, gun toting American through and through. He believes that the American eagle has a right wing and a left wing but the head is in the middle. And that is the reason why he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat! Rulon would love to see a third American party spring up. He thinks both parties have failed America. Both say one thing publicly to get votes from the masses and another thing privately behind closed doors to get money from corporations and the wealthy to finance their campaigns.

To Rulon’s way of thinking, the most important issue in America right now is fixing the campaign finance laws and to somehow overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision allowing corporations to give unlimited money to SuperPACs because “corporations are people.” Rulon believes if you fix the campaign finance laws then politicians will be free to fix the country’s problems without worrying about offending their corporate donors.

Even though Rulon is a tough guy, he’s a bit of a history buff and, as his father has said, ‘he can see through a brick wall, given enough time.” In other words, he is no fool. He’s sees the corporations in America as not having allegiance to anything except “returning value to the stockholder”, who, by the way, could be from any country in the world. If corporations can make more profits by moving jobs to China, they’ll do it in a heartbeat – then lobby for overseas tax breaks! Rulon believes that if corporations are left unchecked on the path they are headed, America will eventually return to what it was like in the 1800s when the robber barons ruled the land, child labor was in full swing, and factory workers were paid barely living wages. After all, if the world is an open market and capital is free to move anywhere in the world, why should American workers be paid more than Chinese?
Rulon is particularly impressed with Germany which also faced complaints/threats from corporations that they had to move their manufacturing jobs overseas if they were to survive. But the German unions wouldn’t let that happen and instead of being allowed to abandon German workers to chase cheap and easy profits overseas, the German corporations were forced to think of innovative ways to manufacture in Germany while paying the relatively high German salaries. And since they had no choice, they figured it out! In America, on the other hand, corporations were allowed to move American jobs overseas with impunity, keep the profits, and pay less taxes. Everyone won except the American worker. Both parties abetted or fiddled while that was happening, and that is why Rulon has no use for either party.
Next posting will be on the book Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian and what it taught me about writing novels.
Jim Haberkorn
Zurich
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The joys and challenges of writing Einstein’s Trunk

        What I enjoyed most about writing Einstein’s Trunk was developing the characters, putting words in their mouths, and sometimes even sitting back in wonder at what they just did. When I first put the plot together, I had plans for two female leads, Yohaba, Einstein’s descendent, and Isabella, the South African agent contracted by the Russians. But I had no idea which one would end up betraying Rulon and which one would be his love interest. The decision was actually made by Yohaba when she threw herself at Rulon in her apartment. It was a total surprise even to me. I remember writing that scene and thinking to myself afterwards: Wow, never expected that! 
       Likewise, even later in the story, I still toyed with the idea of having Yohaba betray Rulon. But there was something about the way Yohaba waited outside his apartment after the fight in the Desperado restaurant and then ran up to Rulon in the rain that simply could not be denied. Eventually, Yohaba’s sincerity and honesty won Rulon’s heart – and mine. But Isabella may not be totally out of the picture. While she doesn’t appear in the sequel, I’m considering bringing her back in the third book.
       Far and away, the hardest part for me was writing the beginning. If you give too much description and background information in the beginning, you slow down the plot and bore your readers. If you don’t give enough information then people are confused – or too much information and you kill the suspense and erode curiosity. It’s a judgment call every step of the way.
      I also found it hard to write the physical descriptions of the locales and people. It was the same old question: How much do you describe, how much do you leave out, and how can you artfully include that information in the story without slowing down the action. The best beginning I’ve read where information, plot, action, and character development, were all woven together while keeping the story sizzling along and building interest was in Barry Eisler’s first John Rain book Rainfall.
      My next post will be about what I’ve learned about writing and getting published.  
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich, May 13, 2011

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Yohaba – the heroine

     I definitely think of Yohaba as a heroine, in fact, in the sequel I’m working on now, she has quite a big part to play in settling the score with the bad guys. But back when I started writing Einstein’s Trunk I simple wanted someone who could be juxtaposed against Rulon. Where Rulon was religious, sober, and conservative, I wanted Yohaba to be his opposite. She was irreligious, drank, smoked, cussed, and was overall pretty liberal and aggressive. But I also wanted her to be a deeper character than just a foil to show how virtuous Rulon was. My experience in life has been that courage, honesty, loyalty, and integrity can show up in the strangest places. I really had a good time developing her character. She has a quick wit and a bit of a serpent’s tongue – it was fun putting words in her mouth.
     Early on in the book, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going with her, but then she did something that totally surprised me. I was writing the scene where Rulon had just let Dmitri go after interrogating him in her apartment, and Yohaba, out of the blue, made a very strong pass at Rulon. I remember writing a line that has since been edited out of the book, but sitting there with my fingers poised over the keyboard and wondering to myself, ‘Where did that come from?’ But I went with it, and it setup their entire relationship for the rest of the book. Rulon fell in love with her, and she with him and their relationship caused both to change. Over time, Yohaba smoothed out and lost some of her rough edges. As she grew to love and understand Rulon, she even helped him to live up to his principles. Rulon, for his part, stayed true to himself, but ended up stepping over a few lines when it came to protecting Yohaba – to the chagrin of the bad guys.
     My next week’s blog will be on Rulon’s fighting skill’s particularly on his relationship with Freya – the Wilton Demolition model short handled hammer he uses to such lethal effect.
Jim
Zurich, February 2011
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