In June, I hiked and hung out with my brother-in-law at his family’s off-the-grid cabin at Echo Lake, and one evening, impatient with the library book I was reading on my tablet, I scrolled through what other books I had downloaded and there was my first novel, which I finished writing nine years ago — Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.
I started reading it and could not stop.
It was a thrilling experience, to enjoy my own book, enjoy it immensely, as if I were a reader, and not the writer.
I like to say that I write the kinds of books I enjoy reading, so I have to acknowledge that I am the target audience of my book. Which means there are plenty of readers for whom it may not sing. But that’s true of all books.
(Reminds me of what I wrote long ago in an online dating profile — ”I’m not for everyone, but if you’re looking for someone like me, I’m perfect.”)
I remembered a lot of Bones in the Wash, but there were many complications and details and snippets of dialog that I did not remember, and I found myself rooting for both of the main characters, who were working against each other.
For the billions of you who have not read it, here’s a brief synopsis: Bones in the Wash is one-half political thriller, one-half family soap, and one-half murder mystery — that’s right, a book and a half. It’s a “page-turner with a conscience” set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico. Ambitious Albuquerque Mayor Tomas Zamara is charged with doing “whatever it takes” to deliver the state’s five electoral votes for John McCain, which includes shutting down voter registration drives and accusing the Democrats of stealing the election, charges he knows are not true. Challenging him every step of the way is fierce, young Sierra León of the Democracy Project, who calls on him to listen to his better self and reject his party’s dirty tricks. Both protagonists, knee-deep in politics, face as many or more crises with their families and relationships.
What I was especially pleased with as I read the book was the way it weaved together Tomas’ and Sierra’s stories. How their plots collided. For example, in one chapter, we see Tomas shut down a voter registration drive in Bernalillo, creating a new obstacle for Sierra, even though, at that point in the story, he doesn’t even know who she is.
The context in which I was reading Bones is important — I’m rewriting my fourth novel, a mystery/comedy tentatively titled Showdown in Sausalito: The Houseboat Wars Murder Mystery True Story, which sounds like a Borat movie and maybe that’s the point. I am happy with the first ten chapters or so and with the overall story, but I’m struggling through the muddy middle. I’m on Chapter 21 and I wish I could just tighten and polish my first draft, but instead I have to rethink it.
There were two threads going on in my head as I raced through Bones. One was that it was damn entertaining. It was tight and well-written. So many chapters ended with a cliffhanger that made me want to keep reading, even when it was time to sleep or eat. I cared about the characters as they faced one obstacle after another and I wanted to find out how they overcame them. Or didn’t.
The second thread was that the book I’m writing now is not as strong. Aren’t we supposed to get better with experience?
But then I reminded myself that Bones had, at many points during the writing and editing process, been flabby and unfocused, and I kept making it better and most important of all, cutting what wasn’t necessary.
Another interesting, albeit depressing part of reading the book was seeing how, in 2008, the Republicans used allegations of “voter fraud” to shut down voter registration drives and challenge legitimate voters. In light of Trump’s big lie about the 2022 election being stolen and the January 6 attack on the Capitol, what happened in Bones in the Wash was on a small scale and seemed comparatively innocent. But the seeds were there.
I remember talking with one reader, from Canada, who said he loved the book, but that the voter suppression tactics and dirty tricks didn’t seem realistic. I assured him that, though they were fictionalized, all the tactics and tricks in the novel were based on real and recent events, though not necessarily in New Mexico. If he read the book today, he would not consider it unrealistic.
While writing Bones in the Wash, I had this delusion that as allegations of voter fraud were exposed as frauds themselves, as empty excuses to push new voter suppression measures, that this false narrative would die away. Instead it has grown. Even when politicians say the silent part out loud.
I underestimated the power of the big lie. (But I’m not going down that rabbit hole now.)
One more thing I was impressed by was how all the main characters, and even many minor ones, had their own journeys. They were not static one-dimensional stock characters serving only as foils. While writing, I often remind myself of Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the Tom Stoppard play about two minor characters in Hamlet, who are, in this play, the protagonists in their own life stories, as they should be. And as are the secondary characters in Bones in the Wash.
If all goes according to plan, early next year I will finish Showdown in Sausalito and then, five or ten years from now, I’ll pick it up and reread it and be as impressed and entertained as I was with Bones in the Wash. Hopefully, other readers will enjoy it as much as I do.
P.S. The Bones in the Wash ebook is only $.99, through the end of August. Also, I have two paperbacks to give away. I will mail a copy to the first two people who send me their address.