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Original Essays


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Original Essays

Learning to Ice Climb

by Ridley Pearson
 
  1. The Body of David Hayes
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    The Body of David Hayes

    Ridley Pearson
    "I've been a [Pearson] fan for a long time ? in the field of crime fiction, he always plows new ground." Michael Connelly

    "Strong, inventive and a decided cut above standard police procedurals with well-drawn, intense characters and great plotting... a must." The Baltimore Sun


The ice arrived with a vengeance, the result of two massive weather systems, one driving up from the Gulf, the other sinking swiftly from Canada, a Siberian Express with tracks laid to mid-America, where we've made our home for the past four years.

The cold air snuck under the warm mass, but invaded a region not yet bit by winter. Having no time to freeze anything, it simply decided to play devil's advocate and to chill the warm rain that began to fall, neither giving it time nor affording it opportunity to fall as snow. Within six hours the region wore a blanket of ice over an inch thick. It stayed with us for four weeks.

We share a driveway with a neighbor, whose opinion — based on experience, we were told — was not to plow. Having lived in Idaho for twenty years, where winter stretches November to May, my instinct is to plow anything and everything that resembles ice or snow. But not wanting to force my neighbor's hand, we relented. By the time it made sense to plow, the ice was epoxied to the drive. We were stuck with it. Literally.

We lived with an ice rink outside our door for those four weeks. Our daughters would come home from school and announce, "We're going skating," and run onto the drive in their boots and scoot about, while Mom and I tried to dance our way to the back door laden with groceries.

It was during this time that four of the five projects I was working on came to deadline. I was buried under a layer of ice of my own.

In the twenty years I've been published, I've never taken on more than two projects at once — most typically a novel and screenplay. But mirroring those weather masses colliding over our home, I found myself with five contracted projects colliding into my professional life all at the same time. Several were projects I had tried to start many years before, and I could not bring myself to say no given how hard and for how long I'd worked to see them to fruition. So, here I was with three novels and two television series, all due in some form or another within three weeks of each other. (Next time I'll look more carefully at delivery dates in contracts!)

Thankfully, I'd been working twelve-hour days since June, concerned that such a weather event as these deadlines might occur. I could feel the chill coming. Now, with only weeks to go, I took to rising at 4:30 A.M. and working through until 5:00 at night, phones off, a good deal of the time, with (unheard of for me) even my e-mail turned off.

I divided the day into work sessions, and strictly adhered to a preplanned schedule and cut off times. In four and five hour blocks, I chipped away at the ice.

Walking to and from the house (my office is over a garage) I would drag a shovel with me, cutting a narrow band of black through the ground cover, down to asphalt, which I would then salt. My wife and girls used this same path to reach the garage, and I didn't want anyone going ass over teakettle. Some days I trudged. Some days I looked up at the garage as if it were out to eat me, to swallow me whole, not wanting to take another step toward it.

And then, the thaw.

It came slowly and it flirted with us, with me. One day just above freezing, the next, tanking back down into the twenties. And so my work as well: a glimpse of one or more of the projects coming to an end, but then — as my work so often does for me — the end stretching out and elongating like some magic putty belonging to the girls. Pull and push and pull, and it never breaks; it never ends.

In twenty years I have never missed a deadline. I missed two in two weeks. I lay awake at night trying to piece together endings and characters. I participated in three-hour conference calls with television producers making comments on early drafts of my scripts — three hours that were in the schedule for writing, not talking.

Finally, the Gulf air prevailed and drove out the arctic mass that had owned us, that many said had made for the longest, coldest January and February in the past fifteen years. Cracks appeared in the driveway, fissures of hope. Upstairs in the office, endings came in sight. For the first time in a dozen or more months on my "Ridley novel," as I'd begun to call my suspense thriller (for 2005), I could see the end. I could taste it. Cracks appeared in the chains that held me to my desk, and instead of one massive blanket of cold covering me, the projects broke back into individual pieces and I could chip my way out, ice pick in hand.

What amazes me, as I look back, is that despite the "cold" — the concern about missing deadlines and disappointing editors — each of the projects offered its own daily voyage. I had fun writing, despite the load. I looked forward to my arrival in the office. I had made the transition to ice climber somewhere along the way. I wanted to strap on the crampons and make for the summit. And now, as I sit here today, I have a script out at Showtime; the Animal Planet documentary is in the final throes of edit; Peter and the Starcatchers, co-written with Dave Barry, went to Disney Editions this morning; my Ridley novel, Losing Hope (aptly titled? I've often wondered), is being read by the editor; I have one more project to tackle.

The ice is gone. It's in the low sixties today. Our girls, both with chickenpox at the same time, are sitting out on the patio, their first fresh air in something like five days. Mom and I are exhausted, having ridden through several sleepless nights, giving oatmeal baths and telling stories to take their minds off the itching. The first hint of spring teases the air. It smells loamy and sweet outside. The birds sing. My hard drive whines.

And here come the e-mails: Losing Hope is missing a chapter — I've sent the manuscript a chapter short; Disney Editions needs an acknowledgments page; Dave (Barry) and I are debating whether to list prior titles in the Starcatcher novel; Showtime is silent on the pilot script and the producer is holding her breath.

Life is back to normal. We've thawed.

I hear squeals of joy coming from the backyard — the itching must be going away.

It's time to put the salt and shovel away. I hope it's not a false sense of spring. Enough ice for one year. Time now for short sleeves and rewrites. spacer

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