Why I Write
The first money I ever made was for playing trumpet in a polka band at a Polish picnic on the shores of Candlewood Lake in Connecticut. I was 12 years old and the accordionist and the drummer and the clarinetist and the tuba player were all grown men. At the end of the day, I went home with five bucks and a bloody lipLater I played jazz in a number of bands and, at 16, toured New England in one of them. Then I served three years as an able seaman on tankers in the US Merchant Marine.Except for those experiences, all the work I’ve ever done has been creative: writing for advertising, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and books, and even inventing games for the Milton Bradley Company. I worked for Young & Rubicam in New York and Hollywood, and also for McCann-Erickson and Manoff, and then for 16 years ran my own agency at 477 Madison Avenue, with such accounts as BMW, Canada Dry, Georgia-Pacific, Crayola, and many others. All during that long stretch in the ad business, I employed a secret method to keep from losing my mind: I wrote as a freelancer. And what I wrote about was crime.
Why crime? When I was a kid, my family lived in a quiet neighborhood in Danbury, and a young woman whose home was nearby went to that same Candlewood Lake for a swim. Pieces of her body were found among the rocks on the west side of the lake. She’d been raped and hideously mutilated. The killer was never caught.
A year after that, the owner of a small grocery store closed up on Christmas Eve and went down into his basement office to tot up his receipts. An 18-year-old tough named Pooch McCarthy forced his way into the shop and shot the grocer and stole his money.
The justice system was different in those days. McCarthy was convicted, and instead of enjoying 25 years of appeals, in June he was taken to Wethersfield State Prison and given the juice
Those events, and others, greatly stimulated my interest. At Syracuse University, I studied psychology, and focused particularly on abnormal psychology. I learned about sociopaths and psychopaths, murderers and fetishists and rapists, and many other deviants. Do you know what frotteurists are? They’re people who derive sexual pleasure from rubbing against the body of a stranger. Where do you find them? Wherever there are crowds. Like pickpockets, they love the New York subways at rush hour. And however weird they may be, there are others who are far worse.
So I had plenty of material to write about while I was freelancing. And to expand my knowledge, I visited prisons and mental hospitals and interviewed inmates and cops and CO’s and psychologists. I did the same thing in Florida, and I have a friend in California, where I live now, who’s a psychologist in the state mental hospital.
Who bought my stuff? Men’s adventure magazines. I wrote dozens of articles for them, as did other writers I met, including Mario Puzo and Tom Chastain. The work not only relaxed me, it was a hell of a lot of fun.
While in advertising, I began writing jingles for various products, drawing on my experience with the trumpet to compose the melodies as well as the lyrics. I wrote them for Coca-Cola and Oasis cigarettes and various others. My arranger was Ralph Burns, a brilliant musician and a good friend. Ralph went on to win Oscars for Cabaret and All That Jazz.
One of my agency’s accounts was the Wella, maker of hair products. I created a campaign that would feature beautiful women using Wella Balsam Shampoo and Conditioner, and the women I hired were the original Charlie’s Angels, including Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, and Cheryl Ladd. And believe me, they were no angels.
That was more good material, and I used it to write a novel. My lawyers insisted I use a pseudonym to fend off lawsuits, particularly from Farrah, and so I did. The book was not about crime but showbiz, and titled The Girl with the Golden Hair.
Columbia Pictures bought the screen rights. The producer was Marty Ransohoff and the supervising executive was Sherry Lansing. Bo Derek was to play the lead. But Sherry left to join Fox, and Columbia killed all her projects and the movie was never made. Columbia also bought the rights to my Star Power, but that was not made either.
Thinking I’d get out of advertising and write full time, I sold my agency. But then another agency made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I became its president and stayed with it for six years. During that time, I wrote my first crime novel, By Reason of Insanity.
Finally, I quit and began writing full time. I turned out five more novels, and then took a break and became a partner in Gemini, a video game development company. We struggled to make it go, but it was underfunded and the technical director died from Parkinson’s disease, and eventually the company went bust.
So it was back to writing. And for the first time I took a shot at nonfiction. One of the things I like to do is fly aerobatic airplanes, and I’ve owned a number of them. On a trip to Germany, I met a former member of the Luftwaffe who’d test-flown the Me 262, the first operational fighter jet, and had flown it in combat. I was intrigued, and wound up spending several years researching the life of the jet’s designer, Willy Messerschmitt.
The book was titled Sharks of the Air. To my chagrin, the publisher did a miserable job of editing, and before I knew it the book was released, errors and all. Never again, I decided. Stick with fiction, and make sure the publisher handles the material properly.
That led me to write The Big Hit, and my great agent Bob Diforio placed it with Mysterious Press, along with my earlier novels. In The Big Hit, everything I’d learned came together. The villain is a psychopath, and his view of people and his reasons for killing them are quite accurately portrayed. So are some slimy dealings in the movie business. On top of that, the editors at Mysterious were meticulous and very helpful.
Now the book is out, and I’m pleased that readers are enthusiastic about it, and I’m working on another.
What’s the next one about? Crime, of course.