It came in over the
transom, like a couple hundred other manuscripts each week, memoirs of people
nobody ever heard of, novels that start with weather reports and introduce
thirty characters in the first two pages, massive collections of unreadable
poetry from someone’s grandmother.
They all go into a
stack for the screeners, who look through them, attach our form rejection, and
send them back.
Actually there’s only
one screener. Her name is Myra Crispee. She has one green eye and one blue eye,
and a talent for going through the slush pile. She picks out the occasional
possibility and gets rid of the rest. Every day. Love my job, she says. When I
ask her why, she says it’s because I pay her the big bucks.
Tempus Publishing isn’t
a major oufit, but we do okay. We don’t specialize. Tempus will publish
anything that looks as if it’ll make money. But most of the manuscripts we see
have already made the rounds at Random House, HarperCollins, and the other
biggies. Some come in from an agent, but that has no effect on the way we treat
them. Unless we know the author, they all go into the pile.
Sometimes we get
lucky. We published a couple of self-help books last year that did extremely
well, and a novel about Noah’s ark that became a runaway bestseller.
Anyhow, the day it
arrived was cold and wet. The heating system had gone down again so I was
wrapped in a sweater. I’d just opened the office and had turned on the coffee
when Myra came in, carrying an umbrella and a manuscript. That was unusual. She
doesn’t usually take these things home. “Hey, Jerry,” she said, “I think we’ve
got a winner.”
She was beaming. “Yes.
I was up half the night with it.” She trooped over to her desk and sat down in
front of what I thought was a second manuscript, but which turned out to be the
rest of the submission.
“My God,” I said, “that
looks like a thousand pages.”
She peeked at the
end. “Twelve hundred and twelve. I’ve only read a few chapters, but if the rest
of it is like what I’ve seen—.”
“That good, huh?”
“I couldn’t put it
down.” The magic words. We seldom saw anything that wasn’t easy to walk away
from. She leafed through the pages. “Incredible,” she said. “Who is this guy?”
“What is it?” I
“He calls it The Long War. It’s about the war in the
“How many are we
involved in? I didn’t see the news this morning.”
“It’s been done,” I
“Not like this, boss.”
She was still turning pages.
“Who’s it by?”
“Guy named Patterson.”
She shook her head. “Edward Patterson. Ever hear of him?”
He was a stranger to
me. “What’s the cover letter say?”
She needed a minute
to find it. “‘Novel enclosed.’“
We used to have a
screener’s box where she could deposit manuscripts that were potentially
publishable. We dispensed with it because Myra rarely put anything in it. So
she just brought the manuscript over and laid it on a side table. Then she
walked back to her desk, pulled the next submission off the pile, and began
turning pages. But I knew she was really waiting for me. Wanted me to pick up The Long War. “I’ll look at it before I
go home,” I said.
She continued turning
pages, sighed, and touched her keyboard. The printer kicked out a fresh
rejection. “Okay,” she said.
I was working on Make Straight the Path, an inspirational
book by Adam Trent. It was pious and reassuring, loaded with anecdotes showing
how the unbelievers get theirs. You wouldn’t believe how his other books had
sold. Penguin would have loved to have him.
I stayed with it,
resisting the temptation to look at Patterson’s epic. It resembled an epic. The manuscript obscured a coffee stain half a
foot above the table. That made it official.
Now, lest you think I’m
one of those editors who only cares how many copies can be moved, let me tell
you that, while sales figures matter, it’s always been my ambition to discover
a new writer. Well, okay, all editors feel that way. But that’s because we’re
generous and compassionate. So when Myra got up and headed for the washroom, I
took a look.
Patterson lived in
I lifted the cover
page and glanced at the opening lines. That night I hauled it down in the
elevator, the whole twelve hundred pages, and took it home.
I read it on the
train. Read during dinner at Milo’s. Read through the evening and took it to
bed. In the summer of 2001, I went to the Army recruiting office with the young
college student hero and cringed while he joined the Reserves. I rode with the
UN inspectors while they played tag with Iraqi ‘escorts,’ and tried to surprise
their hosts at suspect facilities. I sat in the councils of the president while
his aides urged an attack on Saddam and constructed arguments they hoped the UN
and the voters would buy.
The night got away
from me, and I finally closed my eyes when the first light of dawn was hitting
the curtains. I called Myra’s voicemail a couple hours later, letting her know
I’d be late. Called again around nine to tell her I wouldn’t be in at all.
It wasn’t simply one
more war novel. This one had that cliffhanging quality, yes. But it was vastly
more. It owned the war. Through the
eyes of its characters the reader saw how it had happened, came to grasp the
inevitability of the conflict. He understood what it had meant to ride shotgun
on the convoys or to go house to house in Fallujah. He experienced what it was
to fight an enemy who wasn’t afraid to die. Who imagined killing to be a divine
I spent time with a
group of insurgents, and came to understand what drove them. I carried
stretchers through the burn wards of an Iraqi hospital when shattered
bystanders were brought in. And finally I was with mothers in Ohio when the
dread news came.
It had perspective,
passion, fear, the determination of obviously flawed men and women in authority
to get things right, the mounting frustration as those who had been liberated
refused to throw roses.
I was holed up with
it for six days. The outside world simply stopped until the last shots had been
fired, and the fallout had begun to take its political toll.
It was a War and Peace for our time.
I had done better
than find one more professional writer who could sell a few thousand copies of
whatever. I had found a new Herman Wouk.
I finished late on a
drizzly, cold evening and sat staring out my apartment window at downtown
Boston, thinking about Edward Patterson. On that night, only I, and Myra, knew
who he was. Within a year, the whole world was going to know.
He lived in Laconia,
at the foot of the White Mountains.
It was a quarter
after ten. A bit late to be calling. On the other hand, this was a guy who, as
far as I could determine, had never been published. I remembered my own
reaction when the postcard had arrived from Guns
and Ammo announcing my own first sale.
me, had gotten Patterson’s number from information and printed it neatly above
the title. I made myself a scotch and soda and reached for the phone.
“Wonderful,” he said. “Mr.
Becker, that’s great. You’re actually going to publish it?” He sounded
younger than I’d expected.
“Yes, Mr. Patterson.
Ed. Is it okay if I call you Ed?”
“Sure. Yes. Absolutely. Can you hold a second?”
He must have covered
the phone. But I knew what was happening. He was passing the good news to his
wife. Or girl friend. Or whomever.
“I’m back,” he said.
“Mr. Becker, you have no idea what this means to me.”
“I can guess,” I
said. “Ed, are you by any chance free to come into Boston tomorrow?”
He made a sound deep
in his throat. “I’m a teacher,” he
said. “At the high school.”
“Okay. How about
Saturday?” We don’t usually open the office Saturday but in this case I was
willing to make an exception.
“I can do that,” he said.
“Fine. I’ll have a
contract ready, and we’ll celebrate by going to lunch.” The truth was that I
wanted him signed and delivered before he found out how good The Long War was. If he realized what he
had, I’d wind up having to deal with an agent. Or possibly even get caught in a
bidding war with MacMillan.
He was maybe twenty-five.
Tall, with a nervous smile. Light brown hair already beginning to thin. Sallow
cheeks, pale skin, watery gray eyes behind bifocals. He wore a fatigue jacket
and hauled a laptop in a stitched bag over one shoulder. Didn’t look much like
He turned the pages
of the contract with long, thin fingers, not examining it, I thought, so much
as admiring it. When he got to the advance, he stopped. “Twenty thousand
dollars?” he asked.
I was about to say I’d
be willing to go higher because I liked the book. I’d expected to go higher.
But it was always best to start out with a conservative figure. You can always
“Seems like a lot,”
“Well,” I said,
trying to conceal my surprise, “Tempus believes in being generous.” It didn’t
really matter. The book was going to make a ton, so there was no risk.
“It’s certainly very
kind of you.” He smiled again. He looked like the kind of guy the other kids
had picked on in the schoolyard. And I would never have believed him capable of
the kind of rugged prose that informed The
I showed him where to
sign, explained what we expected, that we’d want to be able to use his bio and
likeness in promoting the book, that we might ask him to make a few guest
appearances. I didn’t mention that he was signing over all TV and movie rights,
that he was giving Tempus a healthy share of any foreign sales, that we would
also collect seventy-five percent of book club rights. And of course there was
the option clause. “Normally, Ed,” I told him, “we’d want to retain the right
of first refusal on your next novel.”
“But—?” he said,
suddenly looking worried.
“I want to be up
front with you, Ed. Is there going to be a sequel?”
“A sequel?” His eyes
clouded. “There’ll be another book.”
“Okay. Good enough. Tempus
is willing to forego the option. We’d like instead to sign you to a three-book
deal. Beyond The Long War.”
His eyes slid shut,
and I was looking at the most beatific smile I’d ever seen. Paradise had
“We’re offering a seventy-five thousand dollar
advance for the three.”
He put the glass down
and stared at me. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything,”
I said. “Just sign on the line.” I showed him where.
I know what you’re
thinking. But we do not try to take advantage of our authors. We were providing
a major service for Ed Patterson. We were giving him a chance to launch a new
career, to break away from his teaching job, to fulfill a lifelong dream. When
you’ve been in this business for a while, you discover that it takes a lifelong
dream to drive someone to write a novel. Especially a big one.
He signed the
contract. Four books in all. In triplicate. I put one in a manila envelope and
handed it to him. “Your copy,” I said.
He was glowing.
“Now let’s go
We went across the street to Marco’s. It’s a
quiet Italian restaurant just off the Common. It was still a little early for
lunch, so hardly anyone was there. We ordered a decanter of red wine, and I
filled both glasses. “To you, Ed,” I said. “And to The Long War.”
He wore a grin a mile wide. “Thanks, Jerry.” He
sipped the wine, made a face at it, put it down. “Strong stuff,” he said.
I finished my own and refilled the glass. “I
have to tell you, Ed, The Long War is
pretty good. How long have you been working on it? Four years? Five?”
“I guess you could
say ten or eleven. Somewhere in there.”
“Ten years? You’ve been writing this since you were, what, fifteen?
Do I have that right?”
“Oh, no, Jerry. I
didn’t write the novel. Max did.”
“Max? Who’s Max?”
“Ah,” he said. “That’s
the real accomplishment. That’s my
I finished the second
glass in a swallow. “You didn’t tell me there was going to be a surprise.”
The waiter arrived.
We ordered. When he was gone we picked up where we’d left off. “What surprise?”
I demanded. “Who wrote the book? Are you his agent?”
“Hell, Jerry, anybody
can sit down and write a novel. All you have to do is be willing to stay with
it for, what, a year or so? Or five, I guess. Sit down and be willing to write
every day. That’s all it takes.”
“What are you trying
to tell me, Ed? Who’s Max?”
He’d dropped the
laptop onto the seat beside him. Now he set it on the table and opened it.
Lights blinked on and the screen glowed cobalt blue. “This is Max,” he said.
I stared at the computer,
then at Ed. It was an ordinary HP model. Myra had one like it. Black case, the
logo printed on the lid. “You said Max wrote the book.”
“Max is a computer.”
“Actually, he’s an
artificial intelligence, Jerry.” He leaned forward, breathless. “A real one.”
“The computer wrote
“He’s an AI.” He
looked at me as if waiting for me to cheer. When I didn’t a cloud crossed his
“I don’t care what
you call him,” I said, “no machine could have written The Long War.”
The big grin came
back. “But he did.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“A few years ago they
were saying no computer would ever compete with a chess master. You look
recently to see who’s world champ?”
We sat staring at
each other. The door opened and people came in. A family with a little boy. The
boy had a pulltoy.
“It took four days,”
“What took four days?”
“To write the novel.”
A chill settled into
my bones. I drank down more of the wine. Two plates showed up. Pizza for
Patterson. Spaghetti and meatballs for me. But my appetite had gone south. “Four
days,” I said.
“Yes. Well, maybe a
bit more. But not much.” He took a deep breath and smiled modestly. “It took me
almost as long to tell him what kind of book I wanted.”
“It’s just not
“That doesn’t include
printing time, though.”
“You’re signed to do
three more novels.”
“I was expecting
“They’ll be good. Max
was years in the making and has spent a long time analyzing the great books.”
“How long?” I asked.
“How long what?” He
was chewing on the pizza, obviously enjoying himself. But he looked as if he
couldn’t understand why I was unhappy.
“How long will it
take to deliver the other novels?”
“Probably two weeks.
It takes a while to run them off.”
“Two weeks for
another novel like The Long War?”
“Two weeks for all
three. But they won’t be like The Long
War, although they’ll be of comparable quality.” He pushed his chair back
and tried to look upbeat. “We’ve already decided on the next book. It’ll be
about the power and the downside of religious belief. Along the order of The Brothers Karamazov. But different,
of course. Original.”
I sat frozen. Yep, no
problem for Max. You want something to make people forget The Winds of War? Have it for you Tuesday.
“You all right,
“I need some fresh
air.” Or maybe we’d get a new Huck Finn.
This time around we’d take a hard look at anti-gay prejudice. I threw money on
the table and headed for the door.
“Jerry, wait.” He was
right behind me.
Maybe a new Dreiser
novel. By Max.
Or something in the
mode of Scott Fitzgerald.
Traffic outside was
heavy. Buses, delivery trucks, crowded sidewalks. “If Max wrote the book, why’s
your name on it?”
“Legal reasons. He’s
not a person. Can’t sign checks. Can’t really do anything.”
“Except write great
“You got it.”
He stood in front of
me and flashed an enormous grin. He had no idea what he’d done. This child, who was obviously very good with
electronics had canceled William Faulkner, Melville, Cather: What would their
work be worth in the shadow of this thing?
I assumed if he could do Karamazov,
he could produce a new symbolic masterpiece in the spirit of James Joyce. Call
this one Achilles, in which a man’s
life is driven by a search for control. Or maybe something to push Remembrance of Things Past off the
charts. In eight volumes, delivered over the course of a month.
“I couldn’t be sure
it had worked,” Patterson said. “I don’t read that much. Not fiction. I didn’t
know whether it was any good or not. What Max wrote. You were the test. We’ll
put his name on the cover though, if
“What’s Max’s last
name?” I asked.
A bus was coming up behind him. It was a local,
headed for Massachusetts Avenue. It had just picked up passengers at the
corner, seen an opening, and was accelerating. It had broken loose from the
“I thought it sounded
Max Winterhaven was
slung over his shoulder. I looked up at the bus driver, and I swear he knew
what I was going to do before I did. I saw it in his face the instant before I
gave Patterson his quick shove. His eyes went wide and he toppled backward.
People screamed, the brakes screeched, and I either said, or thought, “This one’s
for Henry James.”
I got clean away. The
descriptions that showed up on CNN a few hours later sounded nothing like me.
They also reported that the dead man had been carrying a laptop, but it had
been smashed. Police were trying to reconstruct it, but I never heard anything
There was no widow, I’m
pleased to say. I don’t know who had been with him the night I called. The Long War, as we all know, has become
an international bestseller. We are sending the checks to the deceased’s
are on the tube almost weekly, decrying the loss of Edward Patterson, a man of
incredible talent, who would have become a towering literary figure, had he
only been given time.