I wrote this column several weeks ago, at the beginning of my book tour. I have been really busy – all that traveling – so it’s taken me until now to get it onto the blog. Finally, here’s my post for this week, from the road …
July 10th, 2014
It’s a funny thing, how stories converge, and how events in one’s life intersect. We don’t need to go far to prove the six degrees of separation – that particular mathematical hypothesis can be proven in our own history.
Let me explain …
I’m in the midst of a long book tour, in fact, I’m writing this on a flight from St. Louis to Boston. Yesterday I was in Chicago. When I talk about a new book, I like to tell the story of the story – where the kindling came from, and what I saw/read/experienced/observed that gave me the fuel for the fire, and I add some detail on the sparks that lit the story. It’s a way of engaging an audience without revealing too many plot spoilers.
One of the themes in The Care and Management of Lies is that of food as a flashpoint for emotional nostalgia. In my talk in Chicago, I illustrated that point with a story about the experience of craving something recognizable from home, foods that bring a sense of belonging, of family. I described being 21 years of age and in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for an extended period of time. You’ve heard me talk about my experiences as a flight attendant, the job I went into straight out of college because I wanted to travel – well, I’d been flying about three months when I was “positioned” out to Morocco and Saudi for six weeks during the Hadj – the Pilgrimage. We only worked one flight each week, taking pilgrims from Rabat to Jeddah, dividing the week between those two places – we flew back to Rabat empty. And believe me, we needed the week to get over that outbound flight! I remember being at an outdoor restaurant in Jeddah, eating something strange, something I wasn’t that happy about consuming, probably because I was getting a bit fed up with Middle Eastern food after a month’s worth of it. Suddenly, I had a craving for a bacon sandwich. Not any bacon sandwich – no, I wanted my dad’s bacon sandwich, with bread cut in doorstep slices, dipped in the fat on one side then buttered before the rashers of lovely thick British bacon were laid across. Two important things of note here: You will not find bacon anywhere in a Muslim country. And I was a vegetarian. That, my friends, is emotional nostalgia, as represented in the desire for a certain food.
Bill Young, the terrific media escort in Chicago, had taken me to my event, and on the way to my next event, he asked me about my experiences in Saudi Arabia – he added that he was interested because he was reading a really great thriller, I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes. Much of the plot is focused on political intrigue in Saudi. I told him a few stories, then added another media escort/Saudi story. Stay with me on this one – you know how my stories ramble ….
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, another disaster appeared to be looming – Rita, a hurricane-force storm heading for Houston, TX. I was on book tour at the time and I, too, was heading for Houston, TX. It seemed we’d make landfall around the same time. A woman in the boarding line for the flight asked me if I lived in Houston, and when I said “No” she asked, “Then why in God’s name are you going there?” To add weight to what transpired later I was seated next to a senior photojournalist from Associated Press, one whose specialization was natural disasters. He was headed to Galveston, to look straight into the eye of the storm. The 'plane had less than ten passengers on board. The AP fellow told me he’d only just arrived home from New Orleans when he received the call to get going again – he’d barely had time to buy a new hazmat suit. We talked about what he’d seen post-Katrina – things you would never have read in the press – and we talked about the then war in Iraq. I remember saying to him, “Now I’ve got one of you guys on my own – why is the press rolling over and playing dead with this Administration?” He answered, “Two words – Karl Rove. He’s got something on almost every news editor or owner.” And he wasn’t yanking my chain. That’s interesting, I thought, and considered again the machinations of our government at the time. Not that any of them are perfect, I know, but that was a special case, methinks.
Mary Ann Loweth, another amazing media escort, was there to meet me in Houston. We left the airport in her Chevy Suburban only to run into a long tailback at a major intersection nearby. We didn’t have a lot of time to get me to my hotel for a quick change of clothes before my event at Murder By The Book. The tailback had been caused by massive police activity, closing the road so that very specific cross traffic had immediate right of way - a convoy of black Suburbans. Blue flashing lights were everywhere ahead of us. “Surely Bush isn’t coming in,” said Mary Ann. “Hell no,” I said. “It’s way too dangerous here!” Mary Ann took matters into her own hands – ever the pro, she had to get an author to an event and a slew of black cars with some sort of get-past-the-traffic free card wasn’t going to stop her. She swung the steering wheel to the right and headed off across an adjacent field, joining the highway well past the roadblock. We didn’t have to wait long to find out who was being given a diplomatic pass to get out of town before Rita cruised in. As we approached the hotel, more black Suburbans – of government issue, it was clear now – were lined up outside. Men in black suits (a secret service detail?) were holding up traffic coming into the hotel while a number of Saudi Arabian families - or maybe a cluster of one man's wives, plus children - clambered aboard the SUV's, followed by servants carrying their many bags containing purchases from posh stores. Amazing what having a bit of oil can do – friends in high places indeed. And don't you love seeing the guys in black suits with curly wire coming out of their ears, while they talk into their wrist watches?
Mary Ann parked as close as she could, as I leapt out and ran into the hotel with my bags. I stopped to talk to a lurking hotel employee, asking him what was going on. “Oh, a few of our guests felt uncomfortable here with the approaching weather, so they’re being given some assistance," he said. Yeah, I thought, I bet they are.
I recounted this story to Bill, who said, “You should get that book.” So I did. And I have reached the point where Jeddah is mentioned for the first time, and memories are flooding back. I was there over 35 years ago. I was not a writer then (more of a recreational scribbler), but I have always had one of the key skills required of a writer – I'm observant, possibly to the point of being nosy. Details interest me. I remember what I’ve seen and heard, what smells assault my olfactory system, and what touches my soul about a place and people. Jeddah may have developed a bit in the intervening years, but I have my doubts as to whether the spirit of the place has changed. Corrupt is the first word that springs to mind. Brutal is another. Princes are ten a penny, and every one has enough money to buy anything and anyone. The desperately poor are everywhere. Alcohol might be banned, but go to any party given by the rich (and there are truckloads of them), and all manner of alcohol is there for the taking – and I mean the expensive stuff. And I have seen people “bought." It’s amazing what some people would do for even a sniff at that kind of wealth - it's a bit like watching dogs roll in something nasty and seeing the sheer pleasure on their faces. "Gee, I stink and I'm loving it!"
I read something about Saudi Arabia today, that it’s one of the "Top 5 Most Corrupt Countries in the World" and one of the most ruthless. It’s also where 15 of the 19 “9-11” highjackers hailed from. Interesting – I think many of us have forgotten that little factoid, seeing as we went to war in Iraq.
Here’s something else I remember about Jeddah, and I think this conversation happened on the same day and in the same place where I had my craving for a bacon sandwich. I had been out walking earlier in the day – not on my own, I might add – and a dog came up to me, obviously hungry. I’m used to attracting homeless, hungry canines – I should open a shelter, really - so I bought some sort of pastry (it was all I could find), gave it to the dog, and went on my way. At that lunch, one of the crew members told us that there were no dogs in Jeddah, as the government had euthanized every dog to deal with a rabies epidemic. “But I’ve seen a dog,” I said. “You can’t have,” said the guy. “There are none.”
That sums up Jeddah for me – someone tells you there are no dogs, that the place has been cleansed of them. But you know what you’ve seen, and the dogs are still there, rabid as all get out.
Oh, and I Am Pilgrim is my favorite thriller of the year so far – very dense plotting, excellent character development and super-fast pacing. I was out of breath by the time I finished it. If you are one of Our Jim's students (and we know you are, after reading his amazing series about writing here on Naked Authors), read this book and make notes - then go back to Jim's lessons on plot, on character, and time and place, and see how the story stacks up.
Enjoy your weekend, one and all ....