Thursday, September 14, 2006

Titanic, Story Unsinkable

from James

I took my kids to the Titanic Exhibit at the Miami Museum of Science this weekend. They seem to have inherited a fascination with that tragedy from their old man. My fifth-grade daughter is currently reading “SOS Titanic” by Eve Bunting, and her younger brother’s favorite Magic Treehouse book is “Tonight on the Titanic.”
It was a well-worthwhile exhibit. At the entrance, they give each person a “boarding pass” with the name and age of an actual passenger on it. As you leave the exhibit, you check the names on the big board, and it tells you if you survived or not. I was a 28-year-old man traveling in third class on a ship where lifeboats were for first class passengers and mostly “women and children.” So I kind of knew my fate before we even started.

I’ve actually incorporated my fascination with the Titanic into my writing. I can recall at least two references to it in my novels.

The more obscure one was in my second novel, “The Informant.” A vicious serial killer is terrorizing Miami. After several murders, someone calls a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter at the Miami Tribune and tells him that he can predict the killer’s next victim—but he wants to be paid for his information. Is he the killer, or is he the clairvoyant evil genius he claims to be? And which is worse?

I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this scary guy went by the alias “Ernest Gill.” Gill was a real person. And he was involved in one of the most infamous cases of “checkbook journalism.” Gill was an Irish sailor onboard the SS Californian—the ship that many people claimed was near the sinking Titanic and ignored her distress calls. Gill’s salary was five English pounds a month. A Boston newspaper paid him five hundred dollars—this is in 1912, mind you—for his story that Lord Stanley, the captain of the Californian, saw distress flares fired from the Titanic but just kept going. Kind of an interesting historical tidbit in a novel that deals with a deadly game of checkbook journalism.

My other Titanic reference appears in “Lying with Strangers.” There, Kevin Stokes is a lawyer in a big Boston firm who has just sold his first novel to a major publisher. He has always dreamed of doing a reading and signing at a local bookstore called Book Lovers, but unfortunately, Book Lovers is about to go the way of many independent bookstores in this country. So he holds his event there before the store closes, even though his book is not yet published. Here’s how it goes . . . and Titanic enthusiasts will love this:

"Good evening," he said to a crowd of about a half dozen loyalists. "I’m Kevin
Stokes, and I have to say I’m more saddened than honored to be the last author
to speak at Booklovers’.”
"Excuse me" said a woman in the first row. "Your book’s not out yet?"
"Not yet. But I left a few copies of the manuscript here last week for anyone who wanted to check it out and read it. I see two of them are missing, so I guess somebody may have read it."
"I did." It was an old man, leaning against the bookshelves in the back. "Excellent book."
Kevin smiled. "Thank you. You read it?"
"Yes, and it’s a strange twist of fate that I did. Last Wednesday I got off the bus at the wrong stop, and it was raining, so I came into the bookstore. Resting right on the counter was this manuscript. I started reading it and couldn’t put it down."
"That’s great.
It’s supposed to be a thriller."
"Your wife’s a doctor, right?"
Kevin blinked. That was out of the blue. "Yeah."
"That’s right."
"I would guess she’s about twenty eight years old?"
He smiled nervously. It was getting a little personal. "This really isn’t about my wife."
"But it is. What do think, you have to pen an autobiography to reveal yourself though your writing?"
"I understand what you’re saying. But there’s no one like my wife in this book."
"She’s all over this book. You just don’t know it."
The tone was a little accusatory, the old man’s stare not exactly friendly.
Kevin averted his eyes and checked his notes, just to break away. "Anyway, the
rest of the crowd is probably wondering what we’re talking about, so let me tell
you something about the book."
"It’s about a beautiful and successful woman who is forced to make a life or death decision," the old man said.
"Well, there’s more to it than that. It’s about trust, betrayal, and—"
"A kidnapping. That’s the most important thing."
Said Kevin, "I think the characters are most important."
"Hah! You’ve preordained a tragedy. That’s what’s most important."
"This is a novel. I haven’t preordained anything."
"Is that what you think? Just write the story and wash your hands of it? Fourteen years before the Titanic went to the bottom of the ocean, there was a novel written about the exact same thing. The Wreck of the Titan or Futility by Morgan Robertson. Some called it prophetic, but prophecy merely foretells the future. I believe Mr. Robertson’s book actually shaped it. It’s in the Bible, mister. Nothing new under the sun. By writing this story, you’ve sealed someone’s fate."
"It’s a story. It’s all made up."
"Where do you live?"
"I don’t think I want to answer that."
"I know where you live."
He was glaring with contempt from the back of the room. No one in the crowd
moved. Finally, the owner approached the angry old man.
"Excuse me, sir. But
I’m going to have to ask you to leave."
He was frozen, his eyes locked onto Kevin.
"Sir, don’t make me call the police."
He scowled and said, "I was leaving anyway."
Now, the most remarkable thing about this scene from Lying with Strangers is not that there actually was a book called “The Wreck of the Titan or Futility” that seems to have some eerie foretelling of the Titanic’s fate. To me, the really creepy thing is that this scene, as I wrote it, is based on an actual event in my own life.

I was on tour for my third novel, "The Abduction," having a wonderful time at a terrific bookstore called Liberty’s in Boca Raton—another independent that has since bitten the dust. Some guy joined us late and became unruly. He kept raising his hands and asking questions out of turn, rattling me much the same way this guy rattles Kevin in “Lying with Strangers.” It wasn't quite as bad as the fictional version, but it upset me and the store manager a good deal at the time. I even notified my publisher about it, and wasn't sure I wanted to continue my tour. I did continue, however, and ultimately, I decided to deal with that incident the way all writers deal with things that scare them, haunt them, bug them, or nibble at their paranoia.

I wrote about it.


  1. Ohmigosh! Your very own heckler. I've never had one of those creepy experiences, but it must have been disconcerting. My most uncomfortable event happened after one of my talks. I had a woman get up and ask a question in which she (innocently, I believe) revealed the killer and the climax. Sheesh!

  2. Weird, story, Jim.

    Now, what if you'd gone to the next stop on your book tour? Orlando, maybe. And the same guy is there, saying things about you nobody else could know. Then he shows up in Jacksonville. Again, more secrets exposed. On to Birmingham. He's there, looking crazier than ever, getting personal, cutting deep, threatening to expose you, claiming that HE wrote the book, and you stole it.

    You're going to have to kill him...because you're deep inside a Stephen King novel.

    (I think the owners of the late, lamented Liberties are going to open a new bookstore in Boca Raton).