A Peek Into “Mercy”

HERE’S HOW THE WRITING PROCESS GOES FOR ME:

  1. Come up with a vague idea in the middle of the night.
  2. Spend three years taking that vague idea and making it something real that someone would want to read (and do so while having a full-time job and sneaking in writing time while waiting for PPT decks to download or when the in-flight wifi doesn’t work.)
  3. Once that book is ready to go to market, forget all about it and start writing the next one, based on a vague idea from the middle of the night but this time the result is going to be so much better than that piece of crap I just finished.

Okay, sure, it’s not exactly the Stephen King method, but it works for me.

Because of Zaria’s Gate, I’ve been asked whether I now plan to turn it into series. The answer is no, but not just because I’d rather get a broader publishing deal for the first one before entertaining a sequel.

The real reason is because I’ve got Defcon 1 level OCD combined with the attention span of a gopher — and therefore I’ve already moved on from Zaria and the world of Karshen to A.J. Mercer, a Death Row inmate in Alabama who does something impossible on the night of his execution.

He survives.

“Mercy,” my next novel, is loosely based on my experiences on Death Row as a reporter and the people I met while writing my first book, a non-fiction exploration of the death penalty, in the early ’90s. A.J. was real (I changed his last name for the book) and so are some of the other characters, but the premise has just enough fiction to tell a story about the human capacity for forgiveness — and the consequences of our limitations.

Below a short excerpt from early in the book. With any luck, you’ll be able to read the rest in less than three years.

 

Holman Correctional Facility, Atmore, AL – May 19, 2017

7 PM

“GOOD TO SEE YOU JAKE, UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND ALL.”

“You too, Jimmy,” Jake replied as he emptied the pockets of his black suit for the visiting area prison guard. “How are you holding up?”

Warden Fry let out a laugh, one of those deep hearty types that start at the toes and build until your lungs almost burst.

“What’s so funny?”

“Reverend, you never cease to amaze me. We’re a few hours away from executing a human being, a man you’ve come to know and care about, and your first concern is how I’m holding up? Well let me see if I can spell it out for you any: I got twice as many officers posted inside and out of this building as normal. I got news media camped out in tents all over the road, TV crews from Atlanta and New York and even New Zealand – and damned if I know where the hell Zealand is, much less the new one – and dozens of protesters and counter-protesters everywhere the hell else.

“It’s a damn near party out there Jake – they even got donuts and coffee. We’re the biggest show in town and I’m the goddamn ringmaster.”

Jake allowed himself a quick smile. “Okay, I see your point.”

“You do now? That’s good, Jake, that’s real good. Glad to hear it. But since you asked I’ll tell ya – I’m holdin’ up somethin’ awful. I feel dirty, like a stick of gum stuck on the bottom of a shoe. I feel like I’m killin’ the poor sum bitch myself, no different as if I was gonna put my hands around his throat and squeeze out his last breath. That’s how I’m holdin’ up.

“Now don’t go thinkin’ I’ve had a change of heart or any damn thing. I support the law and intend to abide by it. It’s my job, Jake, and most days I like my job. Jus not today is all. Jus not on my watch.”

Jake understood. He and Fry had become as close to friends as anyone else Jake had met since leaving St. Louis. And he knew that Fry’s heart was as hard as a throw pillow.

Coddling was not the same as compassion – and Fry was nothing if not a compassionate man. He believed in rules but he also believed in relaxing those rules if it made his inmates less likely to beat the living hell out of each other or the guards.

He let the men on Death Row have TVs in their cells (no cable, the last thing he needed was for someone to find a porn channel.) They could make phone calls as often as they wanted and had extended visiting privileges. But it wasn’t just about a few extra creature comforts – he also let inmates go to college.

One class per quarter – there were classes in history, math, science, literature, and a host of other subjects, enough for them to earn an Associate’s Degree. Fry caught holy hell for that move from the governor’s office all the way on down to the local boys at the Atmore Diner, who accused Fry of wasting tax dollars on “a bunch of killers.”

Not that Fry cared about the backlash.

“What people have to understand is that’s a community down there,” Fry often said to anyone who’d challenge his methods. “It’s a town with 85 residents and I’m the goddamn mayor whether I like it or not. If I can get them doing something constructive, well then they’ll take better care of their surroundings and stop hassling the officers. That’s worth a hell of a lot more than a few dollars in my book.

“When you take a person away from all the people he knows by confining him in a five-by-eight foot cell – and I don’t give a damn what you give him – you’ve done some damage. He’s allowed out of that cell 45 minutes a day. He can shower every other day. He eats prison food, which ain’t bad but it’s also not what momma used to make, and he’s far from living in a lap of luxury. Hell, it ain’t even close to a Super 8.

“You’ve got to give Death Row inmates something extra, so you can have something to take away. You really wanna hurt someone on Death Row? I mean really cut ‘em to the bone? Take the TV out of his cell. It’s just hell on Earth when you do that. Within a few hours they’re beggin’ to get strapped into Yellow Mama.”

In the end, very few tax dollars were involved in Fry’s unconventional approach. Most everything was funding through a local non-profit and individual donations, including a few pennies from Jake’s own Lazarus Church congregation (and a more substantial check from Jake himself.)

Jake’s parishioners, as poor as they were, did what they could to support their pastor’s good works in Atmore; they were good people and had a special capacity to turn the other cheek. Most were just grateful that they had a strong local church again and a pastor who supported and cared about them, but Jake liked to believe that his flock wasn’t any more special than the rest of humanity; that given the chance to do the right thing, people would do so, regardless of their station.

Fry was a case in point. He had no obligation to provide anything more to his inmates than three meals day, a rusty bed and a pot to piss in. He could have been bitter and unconcerned about people who were just going to die anyway.

“Doesn’t do any good to treat people less than you would want to be treated,” Fry once told him. “Doesn’t hurt them half as much as it diminishes you…and I’ll be damned if I let some killer take my humanity away from me.”

Jake walked silently beside Fry as they made their way through the series of cold steel doors and checkpoints staffed by officers with vacant eyes. Everyone knew what tonight was – you could feel it more than anything, smell it in the still musty air. Men’s heartbeats mimicked the ticking of a clock, solid and steady, yet creeping ever forward.

Jake had taken this walk countless times – but this time, he counted each step. He felt the hard cement floor seep into his soles, examined the cracks in the tired walls. He tried to slow the clock down, to tame it, to push it aside so he could have this final walk all to himself. But the more he tried the more he found himself closer to his destination.

Time waits for no one. Death always comes.

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The Country We Deserve

concertI ONCE WROTE ABOUT AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL STUDENT WHO BLEW HIS HEAD OFF IN FRONT OF HIS CLASSMATES.

I wrote about 9/11 and Columbine, about Virginia Tech, Aurora and Portland. About Sandy Hook and Charlie Hebdo. About Orlando and Dallas, about London and Ariana Grande, about Paris and Eagles of Death Metal.

I’ve written about it all, for more than 20 years. From my days as a wire service reporter to my current role as whatever-the-hell-it-is-I-really-do (still working on that one.)

And every time I’ve said the same things, felt the same things and decried the same things. Every time I thought it would be the last time, because how could any country, any society continue to live and die this way?

And then it happens again.

And it happens again.

It happens again and again and again and again and again and oh fuck it just happened again.

And I realize, once and for all, that it’s not going to stop. It’s not going to end. It’s not going to change, ever, because we don’t want it to change.

We don’t. We say otherwise, but we lie.

We don’t want it to change. We like it this way.

We see a lone gunman and we call it an inalienable right. We see bodies bloodied and call it the price we pay for freedom. We see 24-hour coverage of carnage and call it a TV show.

We call it anything but wrong. We call it anything but vile and horrific. We send our thoughts and prayers but not our common decency.

We reap what we sow, America. We don’t get the country we want, we get the country we deserve.

Until we change, we deserve this – to every last life, to every drop of innocent blood. We deserve it all.

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Trump Can’t Hate — What He Does Instead Is Worse

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP RESIGNED LAST WEEK.love

That’s not a Pollyanna dream. It’s not the blind hope of a defeated electorate.

It’s the truth.

President Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, abdicated his leather throne when, faced with a nation divided, he joined the breach with a hand grenade of historical indifference. He opened the wounds deeper and drew the lines darker.

He let the moral authority of his office drain away in supercilious succession – with silence and then with tweets, with falsehoods and with rancor.

But of all the things Trump is and does, one thing is certain: He doesn’t hate.

Trump may express hate, yes; and he will say hateful things. But a man like Trump doesn’t truly hate because he can’t – he simply doesn’t possess that universal human capacity.

Hate requires nuance and a semblance of rationale – it can be a stupid and baseless rationale, but it’s a rationale nonetheless. And that’s why what Trump does is far worse than anything mere hate could ever hope to achieve.

Only two kinds of people exist in Trump’s world: Donald Trump, and those who love Donald Trump. There’s no thinking beyond that. There is nothing anyone can say or do to make Trump take a side for anything other than his need to be loved. Every decision he makes runs through that narcissism filter.

The Nazis who protested in the streets of Charlottesville praised his name, so he had to let them love him. He doesn’t know how to act any other way.

The need to be loved is stronger, more dangerous, and as we learned last week, more divisive than hate. Without love from his family, from Fox & Friends, from his supporters and, yes, even from those who wear the swastika, Trump can’t function.

He needs it all, every last drop. He feeds on it like a cancer cell devours a healthy body. His yawning hunger for love will consume the republic until all that’s left is skin and bone.

So that’s where are in 2017. When people looked to the White House for leadership, they found only vanity. When they turned to the President to reset the nation’s moral compass, he instead tossed it into the pyre of our basest fears, letting it burn our eyes like so much tear gas.

President Donald Trump resigned not his office, but his role as steward of America’s conscience. He resigned his obligation to be the light that shines moral certitude over a fragile country that often needs to be reminded how, and why, it came into existence.

We will get through this; Americans always do. But now, at least for the foreseeable future, we will have to get through it alone.

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Zaria’s Gate Now Available on Amazon

ZGscan5_test1Zaria’s Gate was originally titled “Reaper” and began with a sentence that popped into my head one night: “Death wore a hoodie.”

I don’t know exactly why that happened, but I loved it and wanted to write a story with that as the opening line. That led to more than three years of writing and re-writing, from a story about a world where everyone had a “reaping date” and looked forward to death, to a story about the nature of reality and existence itself.

The digital version is now available on Amazon. Print version is coming soon, but Zaria was ready to show herself to the world and I didn’t want to stop her.

I of course would love your comments — good, bad or indifferent — as feedback from readers is the only way a writer can get better.

Thank you for reading — I hope you enjoy your journey through Zaria’s Gate as much as I enjoyed bringing her story to life.

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The Cannes Before the Storm

IMG_0124THE DAY BEFORE THE CANNES FESTIVAL OF CREATIVITY BEGINS IN EARNEST is a ballet of well-managed chaos. Some venues are still being built and painted, agencies furiously slap up posters promoting their events, and the infamous Gutter Bar — the perennial Cannes watering hole — still has empty seats.

But unlike other conferences (and I’ve been to a few), there is a feeling and comraderie here in the south of France that you don’t get from South by Southwest. This is, after all, ground zero for creativity, so it stands to reason that the energy would be atomic.

Today, however, was more about prologue. There was Jon Steinberg from Cheddar TV discussing camera angles for their live broadcasts. There was a beachfront stage with vacant chairs waiting for guest speakers to wax some marketing poetry.

Tentative handshakes and small talk in the Cannes Beach cabana turned into laughter and lasting friendships by the second glass of wine. Bikinis and Speedos shared the scene with blazers and chinos. And yes, there were also bomb detection dogs and security screenings — because as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, this is still the world as it is.

But this week is also about optimism. It’s about work that matters because everyone’s work, whatever that is, matters. And in those far too fleeting moments when our cynicism momentarily disappears, we believe that events like Cannes can bring an awakening of our better selves — that our business, which will always be a business, can nevertheless change the world to be what we all hope and need it be,

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Father’s Day Isn’t (Really) About Fathers

FOR YEARS ON FATHER’S DAY I WOULD REPUBLISH AN OLD POST I WROTE ABOUT MY DAD.

I liked it, which was a valid reason to be sure — but the real reason was I was just lazy, and re-posting old stuff to make it seem like new was a pretty easy way to keep the content flowing.

Even I got bored of that, however. So bored, in fact, that last year I didn’t post anything at all.

But today, although I’m yet again reposting a blast from the Below the Fold past, I’m sharing this piece because it reminds me that Father’s Day is not about me, it’s not about dads, it’s not even about lawnmowers or power tools or barbecues (and in my case, most definitely not.)

Mother’s Day is All About Mom, and rightfully so. But Father’s Day is about our kids — and in my case, about the daughter who reminds me, without knowing she reminds me, that good only exists in the world because good people exist. And right now, we could use a few more good people.

Happy Father’s Day, Alex.

“THE GOOD PART”

(originally published August 28, 2016)

FOR NINE MONTHS YOU PREPARED FOR “THE MOMENT.”

white houseThe moment when you would hold your newborn child for the first time. The moment when you would hear her heartbeat and marvel at her innocence.

The moment when an eternity of questions, uncertainties and challenges would be erased with one tiny smile.

Finally the moment arrived.

Now it was time for the good part.

But then you took the baby home and she cried all night. You didn’t sleep for months and diaper changes became as regular as breathing.

This wasn’t the idyllic life you had imagined. Not even close.

Eventually she slept soundly and the crying subsided. She took her first steps.

Now it was going to be okay.

Now it was time for the good part.

But then the wonders of walking turned into the terrible twos and the toddler years. There were illnesses and tantrums, worries and regrets.

No one prepared you for this. No one could.

The good part would have to wait.

Pre-school was going to be the turning point. This was the good part for sure, the beginning of socialization and formal education – the discovery of “self” that would be your child’s greatest adventure.

But there were fears and setbacks. And it didn’t get any better with elementary school or middle school, and definitely not with high school.

There were cool kids and mean girls, awkwardness and anxiety. There was more pressure than you ever had to endure, more danger in the world than you could have ever imagined.

Day after week after month after year you waited. The good part was coming, you told yourself. The good part was just around the corner.

And then, without warning, you are standing in a college dorm on the other side of the country saying goodbye.

Was this it? Was this finally the good part?

Or was the good part the moment you held your newborn child for the first time. The moment you heard her heartbeat and marveled at her innocence.

Was it the moment when the baby cried all night and so did you, because you were now someone’s mom or dad. Was it the sleepless nights and diaper changes when you realized life would never again be this pure, this simple or this perfect.

Could it have been the times when she was sick and you sat with her for hours? Could it have been during the tantrums that started off so seriously but ended with you bursting with laughter?

Did it happen during her school years, when your daughter became her own person and you realized she was stronger, smarter and more determined that you ever were? Was it when she turned that anxiety into resolve and those fears into focus?

I hope so; for your sake I hope all of those things are true.

Don’t wait for the moment when you are standing in a college dorm on the other side of the country saying goodbye.

Don’t wait until the realization hits you with the unforgiving force of a million memories unleashed at once. The realization that it was all the good part. Her entire life.

Every last damn moment of it.

And now the moment has come to let her go – yes, this is the good part, too. In fact, this is the best part of all.

Because she is not really leaving. She won’t really be gone.

She is not moving out.

She is just moving on.

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Truth: The New Digital Divide

cannes 1IN WONDER WOMAN, the new summer blockbuster from DC Comics, Diana Prince uses her “Lasso of Truth” to ensnare the bad guys and make them come clean. Her lasso is the ultimate weapon – nonviolent yet all-powerful.

The world could use that lasso right now.

“Truth” will be a recurring theme throughout this year’s Cannes Festival of Creativity, with sessions on “fake news” and related topics dotting the seminal meeting of the marketing minds. But truth is not just the latest buzzword or trend de jour – truth itself is under attack.

Thanks in part to social media balkanization, a growing rejection of experts and data-driven consumer targeting, a new “digital divide” has emerged – not a divide of access to technology, but of access to the truth. This divide is a pernicious wound, one that’s been torn deeper by our ever-insular online habits and the predilections of those who wish to keep us at odds.

Truth, Lies, and Bullshit

fakeThe truth has always had a certain amount of pliability, otherwise known as bias. There’s a difference, however, between good old-fashioned bias and today’s “post-truth” world of outright bullshit.

Bias is the truth bent toward a point of view. Lies are the opposite of truth. But bullshit, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt once noted, is an unapologetic, wholesale rejection of the truth for personal, professional or political gain. We are so mired in bullshit today that telling lies would actually be an improvement.

Author Nicolas Negroponte tried to warn us in 1995, long before the polarizing Brexit vote, the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign and the entrance of “post-truth” (aka bullshit) into our lexicon. He feared the possibility of customizing our digital feeds to the point of excluding any information we didn’t like or agree with, thereby creating our own realities.

Negroponte couldn’t have been more prescient. Instead of mass media, today we have a mass of micro media. And while a micro media world might be great for marketing, it’s not so great for rational discourse.

The Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed/Red Feed” Facebook tool, for example, puts this ever-widening truth divide on full display, showing how the same story can either be “reported” completely different or, in some cases, ignored altogether. And as a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found, flooding our feeds with facts just makes the divide wider:

“Facts can only do so much,” the study’s authors said. “When people’s beliefs are threatened, they often take flight to a land where facts do not matter. In scientific terms, their beliefs become less ‘falsifiable’ because they can no longer be tested scientifically for verification or refutation.”

Closing the Divide – the News Media May Have a Solution

It’s been said “the truth will set you free.” But if the online news business is any indication, some people are now willing to put a price on that freedom.

New research from the American Press Institute indicates that consumers will in fact pay for news if it’s high quality and on specific topics they value:

“Those who pay for news rate their sources as highly reliable,” the report found. “Subscribers are clearly signaling that publishers cannot cost-cut their way to growth — attracting subscribers requires investment in premium content.” In other words, being reliable (and yes, truthful) is how to rise above the cacophony of media noise.

It’s fitting that the news business help solve this problem since it bears some responsibility. The media’s failure to adjust to a digital-first model sent ad revenue into free fall, which resulted in fewer reporters. These survivors quickly found they could produce more content by being stenographers instead of journalists.

Before long we went from stories going unchecked, to fake news sites making up stories altogether. And because the Internet didn’t distinguish between the New York Times and a blog site someone started five minutes ago, after a while neither did the public.

Here’s the Truth – It Comes Down to Trust

It’s far too easy, as we saw in this past election cycle, to create “news” with a little digital sleight of hand, or to replace black-and-white truths with colorful yet bogus memes.

But politicians, as well as brands, need to be careful. If you play loose and fast with the truth – or ignore it altogether – you risk losing trust.

Trust is the ultimate bond; it’s difficult to gain and nearly impossible to earn back, especially among younger audiences for whom trust is paramount. Savvy consumers will eventually find out if you’ve been lying and they will call you out on it.

Brands and their agencies have a unique opportunity to cut through the digital morass and lift the common discourse. This is not the time to give in and create PowerPoint decks on “Marketing in a Post-Truth World” – this is the time to fight back. To make a stand. To be an activist, not an apologist. We have to close the divide before it separates and swallows us forever.

Call it bullshit if you like. But it’s the truth.

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