Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cold pizza

I've revised the first 10,000 words of Cyberlama. Here are some changes.


Old draft:
During my time in Paris, I met a co-worker named Olivier de Crecy, whom I looked to as a mentor. Olivier was eleven years older than I was, and, though he had lived in the U.S. for several years, he was a native of Paris. He gained some popularity in the city because of how sympathetic he was to the people in his articles. They were sweet human interest pieces: stories of old couples who collected clarinets or young chefs striking out on their own for the first time—that sort of thing. He labored for weeks when he worked on a story, his desk covered with notes and files that he rearranged constantly as he tried to find a form for what he was trying to say. With all of this work, one might imagine that his pieces would be long. But, by the time he had his finished draft in hand, it would often be no more than four or five paragraphs, fragments of insight that some readers would scour our pages for, ignoring the more ambitious stories—mine included—that the editor selected for the front page. I wanted to learn anything I could from him.

Current draft:
At The Spectacle, I had a co-worker named Olivier Bailleul, a writer who had worked in New York for several years, though he was a native of Paris, which he would declare as good or bad, depending on the time of day. Olivier was eleven years older than I was—not quite a father figure, but more mature than my usual cohort. The residual muscle tone of years spent participating in triathlons, glossy hair that was just beginning to show some streaks of gray, and a well-positioned L-shaped scar on his chin gave him the aura of a reformed swashbuckler. He had gained some popularity in the city because of how sympathetic he was toward his typical subject matter: retired couples who collected antique clarinets or young chefs specializing in bone marrow or foam—those sorts of people. Without ever complaining, he labored for days on each piece, often spending all night at his computer, only rising from his desk red-eyed and sore before a deadline with a story that readers would scour our pages for, often ignoring the more ambitious pieces about police investigations and court trials—mine included—that our editor selected for the front page. Though he freely gave advice when solicited, none of the other staff members had yet managed to soak up any of his talent.

Old draft:
 It was during this time that I was contacted about the Pagani experiment. The correspondence began with a written letter from Dr. Arturo Pagani himself. It was personally delivered to me at home one evening by an American courier just as I was leaving my apartment. My family was living in Pennsylvania at the time, and I was surprised to see that the letter came from Washington D.C.

 I took the letter with me as I went in search of dinner. I lived beside an open-air market—Le Marché des Enfants Rouges—where I frequently ate, but that night, because it had rained all afternoon and the air was still quite chilly, I wanted to be indoors. I went down several smaller streets that I had never explored before and found myself entering a restaurant with an obscure sign that I assumed would be far too expensive for me to eat in ever again during my stay. The place was dim, and I asked to be seated at a table by the window. The hostess brought me to a cozy corner and helped me into a comfortable velvet chair. With a glass of wine beside me and the glistening street outside, I opened the letter and read.

The message was vague, as I realize now it had to be. In it, Dr. Pagani described a “longevity program” that the Department of Defense was funding in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. I wasn’t very well-versed in science at the time, but these were all organizations I had at least heard of. The letter didn’t go into many more details than that. Toward the end, there were a few sentences about how I had been one of the few people invited to participate.

Current draft:
It was during this time that I was contacted about the Southway experiment. The correspondence began with a written letter from Dr. Edward Southway himself, delivered to me in the cobblestone courtyard of my building one evening by a uniformed courier with a buzz cut and shined black shoes just as I was returning from a long day at work. The message was vague, as I realize now it had to be. In it, Dr. Southway described a longevity program founded by organizations with acronyms like Dod and NIH and NSF. In the last paragraph, I skimmed over a few sentences describing how I had been one of the few people invited to participate. I tossed it without second thought.

Another letter arrived a week later, again delivered by the same ironed and lintless courier who, this time, bowed about ten degrees after snapping the letter into my palm and said, “We certainly hope you’ll have the opportunity to respond, ma’am.”

 The details were more specific. Dr. Southway mentioned my graduate thesis and my early writing. He described having read several of my articles in The Spectacle and admiring them. I responded, and a few days later I received my first long distance phone call from him.

“Diana, my dear!” His voice across the ocean was bright and tinted by a trace of a British accent, though I couldn’t be sure it was authentic. “I’m delighted that we have a chance to catch up!” He spoke as if we were good friends. It made me uneasy.

 “I admit I’m quite confused by the whole thing,” I offered.

“Not at all, not at all, my dear. There is absolutely nothing to be confused about. Perhaps, let me just start at the beginning. You just sit back…find a comfortable lounge chair…and I’ll tell you a little story.”

He spoke for well over two hours that first evening, beginning with an introduction about vital organ systems that sounded well rehearsed, but transitioning into more of a free form later on as he spoke about his own dreams and hopes for the future. “And this, of course, is where you come along, my dear,” he said, before pausing, perhaps for effect. “I—well, we—we see something in your work.” At the time I had no idea who the “we” might represent and assumed they were members of the organizations with the acronyms. “Sure, sure, you are young…underdeveloped…immature, perhaps, sure. But there is something in you, Diana, a talent ready to bloom. We can all feel it.”

What I felt was a pang of disappointment. Though I had no reason to trust this man, who could have been a pathological liar with an obsession for recent college graduates for all I knew, he was repeating what my professors had always told me. I wasn’t good, but I might be good someday. Though I refused to admit it to myself, his words immediately enslaved me. I wanted to prove him right and I was willing to do anything I could to do so.


I'm using more specifics--thanks in part to the almighty Chabon--and this is forcing me to see everything more clearly, which is good, even if I end up cutting back on the details later. I'm also changing the voice of the narrator on a trial-basis. She's a little more energetic and slightly more funny, at least I think she is.

What's Peanut eating? Rotisserie chicken 


  1. No pressure, Mr. B. Just posting it up because I want the feeling of forward movement. I'm working my way through The Master and Margarita! It's a wild ride so far.

  2. I really like the changes you made, Davin. Those little details really make the difference. In the second reading, I was very confused as to where she lived. But in the more detailed I could tell she was still in America (I think) and not France. I also like the way you ended the second set, with her thinking she wasn't good enough but wanting to prove it. Great stuff here. Congrats.

    PS don't let Peanut eat any skin or fatty parts of the chicken. I know, mother hen here, but the fatty part, even a slight bit, can cause a blockage in the liver and if her billy-rubins get blocked, then she'll drown in her own urine. (Honest, we had a dog that this happened too. Surgery didn't help and it was very sad.) And because Peanut is small, it won't take much.

  3. Robynne Rand, Thanks for reading! And Happy New Year to you. Yes, I'm trying to give my narrator a little more room to grow and explore her insecurity and motivation more. I'm glad it's working better for you.

    And I like it when you talk about billy-rubins! The vast majority of Peanut's diet is standard dog food supplemented with pumpkin and other treats occasionally. He sniffs and sniffs whenever I have chicken for dinner, so I give him a couple pinches of white meat, no skin or fat. :)

  4. Sorry, you know, I forgot you were a scientist. You know all about billy-rubins don't you. And ask Peanut to forgive me for thinking he's a she. My bad.

    But billy-rubins is a fun word isn't it.