My new novel, Alice and Oliver
, is loosely based on the first year of my late wife Diana Colbert’s battle with leukemia, a disease she was diagnosed with when our infant daughter was six months old. As you might suspect from that lead-in, it is a book about love and generosity and the conflict between what we owe ourselves and what we owe others, just how we’re supposed to spend our time on this mortal coil. A lot of it takes place in hospitals. For this essay, however, know that I have no intention of wallowing in the difficulties or the raw emotions of this project. Instead I thought it might be worthwhile to focus on one particular thing I did to give myself some freedom. Writing books takes a long time, and one thing a writer must do is learn to live with his or her project. When the subject is this intense, sometimes it helps when you can distract yourself from the really hard infrastructure and get occupied by molding and adornments. Maybe you can even have some fun, even as you must still dive back in, continually, and address the hard true stuff, the real subject of your work.
So, in my case, the thing I did that’s worth discussing here: changing the time frame. I moved the novel back 15 or so years into the ’90s, specifically 1993-1994, in New York City, when I first moved to Manhattan. It’s a time that in my mind is still close enough to reach back and touch, but which honestly is not that close anymore. (Laugh now, Brooklyn millennial readers. There will be a time, I promise, when you are nostalgic for the stretch when your subway moved to the elevated track, and started out over the river, and you whipped out your phone and checked your texts and emails, because now you were going to have a signal.)
Anyway, macro level, making the events of Alice and Oliver
happen 20 years ago provided some big-picture context: events in the novel would be monumental to the characters; they’d also take place at a certain moment, and then the moment would pass. (Things might not turn out how Alice and Oliver Culvert want, and would have reverberations for them. But those events would still indeed pass. I needed the structure of the novel, especially its ending, to reflect that.) Just as importantly, though, changing the time frame opened up the landscape — it created opportunities as a framing device (for instance, referencing Hillary Clinton’s failed efforts as First Lady to get a national health care plan passed), but also for references simply designed to bring a smile (a married couple in a waiting room, each reading a different John Grisham
novel), or to adapt weird trivia into the narrative (tattoos, though popular among young adults, were illegal to get within Manhattan’s city limits). In short, different breathing spaces, means of relief and information.
Following are a few more detailed examples —
events or ideas I concentrated on, and how their intricacies, in some form or another, not only occupied me but influenced the novel.
Haiku on Times Square
High above Times Square: a billboard for Cup-a-Soup had steam rising from its cup; rings of smoke similarly rose from out of the cigarette of the cartoonish, neon figure known as Joe Camel; a billboard for TDK Cassettes had the iconic image of a man gripping his seat to keep from being blown away by the sound. Broadway theaters were just around the corner.
Ed Koch had made promises. David Dinkins had commissioned projects. Cleaning up 42nd Street was also one of new mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign promises. Few believed him. The street was the same seedy gauntlet it had been since the ’70s: peep-show booths with signs advertising All New-Release Videotapes at Discount Prices (Oriental bi beta/vhs SHE-MALE European Male Amateur Spanish); adult theaters with placards listing show times for films like Rear Entry Rhythm
; rinky-dink electronic shops. I found these facts in the 1994 documentary The Gods of Times Square
, about the self-proclaimed Sons of Yahweh, the infamous collection of African Americans in studded headbands and wristbands, who set up loudspeakers and banners made on bedsheets, and screamed at pedestrian tourists. Back in the day, I stopped the DVD every few frames and took notes on the background: the incense tables and peddlers hawking fake gold ropes, the Silence=Death stickers — remnants of an earlier time, and protests against the city and national government’s inaction in the face of AIDS — all over lampposts and walls.
At the time, the beautification project in Times Square meant commissioned haiku signs adorning shuttered theater marquees
. A photographer named Richard Hunt actually put them all on a poster that used to be on sale at St. Mark’s Bookshop (back when that existed). The store was always out of the posters, though, so you had to go down to the artist’s apartment on the Lower East Side to buy one. The images got put in a book commemorating the poems
, though I still have the poster framed in my apartment. One poem:
Outside the deli
Primroses and daffodils
I open my coat
In 1994, Disney put a retail store in Times Square. It was a big deal at the time, and the store actually hired a marching band that paraded down 42nd Street. Soon the mayor’s office would use eminent domain and urban blight arguments to start kicking out the small-business owners they found offensive.
None of this made it into Alice and Oliver
. There’s a struggling musician in the book who I’d imagined hanging out at a nearby recording studio. I’d thought his friends could flick him shit and joke that he should try out for the marching band. But the book didn’t need that scene.
What ended up being more important, though, was that feeling, that mood for the city, a Manhattan that didn’t even know it was on the cusp. Although, I guess, maybe it’s always on the cusp.
Nirvana before Nirvana
In retrospect, that loud, wide dirge of sound, the fuzz and drone of what classifies as grunge
feels like something from another era. It’s music that was always intended to be heard at a club show, or through a loud speaker in a dorm room with rugs on the walls. Through a dirge of alcohol or sinsemilla. To me, the lyrics often almost naïve in their full and total cynicism, we feel the response to ’80s hair and grey weather and Reagan republicanism, absolutely. I’d also argue that this is music that was not in any way meant to be heard through ear buds or laptops — though, of course, it is listened to that way, and the best of it can survive any format.
Very early on, I spent time trying to figure out how best to use this. To have the music inform the book without being obvious. Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, but I didn’t want that to be part of things because it would take over. I experimented with cameos but also didn’t want to be obvious or gross. Eventually I settled on the band Mudhoney, who never made it to superstar status but were influential, and not just in the Seattle music scene. Don’t you know that all young Kurt Cobain wanted was to be in Mudhoney? Indeed, we hear the influence of Mudhoney’s 1988 EP Superfuzz Bigmuff
all over the Nirvana sound. There are even claims that Mark Arm, the band’s lead singer, first coined the term “grunge” (though Arm once disputed that in Rolling Stone
, making this adjustment to the record: "Ugly people weren't allowed to rock before us”).
Of course, Mudhoney. An easy thing for my cancer novel would have been to use the band’s biggest hit, “Touch Me I’m Sick.”
I didn’t do that, but there are Mudhoney lyrics in Alice and Oliver
, quoted in a hospital, at a key point in the book.
Let me say here that Mark Arm was a prince in that he didn’t ask for money in exchange for the rights. He just wanted to make sure that I didn’t fuck up the lyrics.
World Wide Information Superthingamajig
Until the fall of 1994, when Netscape Navigator, the first commercial web browser, became available to the public, web browsing was mostly done in college research labs through a system known as MOSAIC
. Mind you, the Internet was around back then; it was possible to go online — but usually this was a mediated affair; most often you used portals like America Online, or paid a membership to be part of a chat room system — at the time it was called the “virtual community movement” — like The Well
. You paid for time online. You worked within the frame of your membership. There were personal websites, sure, but maybe like a million of them. If you were dedicated, you had a shot at visiting them all.
Of course, nobody knew what was coming. They made educated guesses. For instance, tried to get cutting edge by sending CD-ROMs to homes, with their interactive issue burned onto the disc. You also can see how AT&T imagined search engines and the web of the future here
. But it was all trial and error and guesswork.
Again, this places the time frame of the novel on a cusp. Still in the era of dial-up Internet connections and landlines and the cat scream when your modem connected with the server. Still in that period when a call in to your apartment severed your connection, and a photo could take forever to load on your screen.
In Alice and Oliver
, Oliver Culvert has a graduate degree in computer science. He’s working on a template that will allow users to cut from any
writing program and paste onto his writing template. When I was in college, I could only write on a WordPerfect program. My friend might only be able to use Word. Loading the software for one program onto another involved all kinds of discs and transfers, and usually something went wrong. Returning to this time allowed me to hint at what was coming with Napster, and prefigure some of the issues surrounding content and ownership that have not only decimated the creative fields, but have also helped to secure the power of those sites which deliver content into our computers and smartphones. Not the biggest part of Alice and Oliver
. Not its focus by any stretch. Again, something that has a chance of adding to the reading experience.
If you are a Knicks fan, you know these numbers all too well. They refer to John Starks’s performance in game seven of the 1994 NBA finals
. Some context: 1994 was the year that Michael Jordan retired to try and play baseball, and it finally seemed to be the Knicks' time for a title. (It was during game five of this series that OJ made his freeway run in that white Bronco — NBC actually cut to a split screen during the game, so the nation could watch both at once
. Starks was a hero throughout the city, the grocery-store bag-boy hoops addict who played pickup ball during his honeymoon, an overachiever who wowed the streets of NYC with the kind of hustle and grit that gets you put in rap songs — “See I’ve got heart like John Starks / Hitting mad sparks / Pass me the mic / And I’ll be rocking the whole park.” (Beastie Boys, “Get It Together”
Of course, the dude also could go nuts at any moment and head-butt an opponent, which he certainly did on occasion
By the time we got to the deciding game against Houston, Knicks coach Pat Riley justifiably had little faith in the rest of the Knicks’ backcourt. So Riley went out on his shield. He kept Starks in the deciding game, even though the guy couldn’t make a shot to save his fucking life: 2 for 18. He made 2 shots out of 18 attempts. The guy kept gunning and gunning, and kept throwing up rock after rock. This includes 0 for 11 from behind the 3-point line. It includes three bricked 3-pointers in the final minute, the last of them
a horrific, brutal air ball with the game on the line. (To be fair, Patrick Ewing also went 6-20 from the field and got outscored 30-17 by his counterpart, Hakeem Olajuwon.)
I remember being on the sidewalk with my sister one night after an early-round playoff game that season. Someone we passed on the street was telling his friend, “The Knicks must not have won tonight. The streets are too quiet.” The truth of those words was immediately recognizable: when a New York team wins an important playoff game, horns blare, people cheer on the sidewalks. That was the kind of thing that returned to me as I’d work on this book. Too often in this world, the things you root for — whether sports teams or spouses to recover from horrible diseases — don’t quite pan out.
All of which gets condensed into Oliver listening to sports radio, when a caller is fretting about whether the Knicks backcourt is strong enough to get them to a title. Maybe two sentences in the novel.
A bonus: in the novel, the caller is identified as Doris from Rego Park
. Anyone who used to listen to sports radio in the city knows Doris; she actually was a die-hard Mets fan with the most serious smoker’s cough in history.
A writer comes up with things like this. Flashes of light. Spaces to breathe. Enough of them to distract. To entertain yourself. It’s still very much a novel about cancer, about life and death and generosity and big-ticket issues. But these help. They make it all go down easier, rounding the edges, helping to keep a writer — and hopefully readers, too — engaged, perhaps even enthralled. Check out Alice and Oliver
. See what you think.
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was born in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has an MFA from Bennington College and has received fellowships from Yaddo, UCross, and the Vermont Studio Center. He lives in New York City.