Almost every day since the book’s release in January, somebody somewhere has commented on the extensive research in Fireball, and I’ve been gratified to learn that my dumpster dive into federal records accomplished its goal, as did long hours spent sifting through existing histories and biographies, newspapers, unpublished manuscripts and interviews, birth and death records, military archives, and conversations with participants and relatives of participants in the story. Oh, and a day spent eating dirt, getting stuck on cactus, and bouncing off boulders on Potosi Mountain. And other days spent walking in the footsteps of people in the narrative. When it was over I understood Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at the molecular level and also had learned about others critical to the story, from the stewardess on Flight 3 to the miner and ex-football star who led the charge up the mountain.
But that was then. It’s a good thing when you are the author of a book that gets positive reviews and that people really like. There’s gratification; there’s also pressure every time somebody says, read Fireball, loved it, big fan, what’s next? Well, thanks! And, uhhh, I dunno.
It’s all organic, man. It comes from luck, or inspiration, or usually from a particular friend saying, “You know what would make a great idea for a book?” And that friend did it again two months ago, planting this seed in my brain. At first I think, no, that’s no good. It’s been done, or I can’t get at that story, or something similar, but then the damn seed starts to sprout and before long I’m believing that, yes, he’s right again. This is a story. I’m going to tell this story.
Friends, readers, I’m starting my next book. It’s a new day and a new ballgame. It’s not even the top of the first inning and the umpire isn’t about to shout, “Play ball!” [Reference to American baseball, global readers.] It’s not even time for spring training, really, because first comes determination of the theme of the book, what I’m writing to, what tone to set, how the narrative will sound, and even more basic to that, who are my characters? I’m in that nebulous period where I’m learning about the world I’m going to be inhabiting for a year or two. I’m reading existing works and visiting web sites. Just now I was reading a biography on the couch and Francois, my ten-week-old black kitten, jumped up on me and asked, “Whatcha readin’, Dad?” and before you know it, we were both asleep on the couch. So I can report that this phase is rather pleasant so far.
I’m not ready to announce what the book is going to be about, except to say it’s another World War II story with an aviation theme and part of it is set in Hollywood. (Tom, you’re a bright fellow. If you guess what the story is, please don’t blurt it out.) It’s nonfiction because to me the best stories are true stories where I say to myself as I unearth the facts, “You couldn’t make this stuff up.” Research is going to put me back in D.C. and back in Hollywood, but it’ll also require a trip to England and possibly to France and Germany and this time I’m going to have to be sifting through German records and lots of them. Sprechen sie Deutsch? My high school German teacher, Miss Diamond (who I had a crush on, but, don’t tell), would be the first to report, no, Robert does not speak German. That’s going to be a handicap to my enterprise because one thing I’m certain of is, this story is going to include a civilian’s-eye view of life on the ground in Germany during the latter phases of World War II. It’s one story line in what will no doubt be many story lines.
It’s daunting to be at this point in a book. Way down the road, I know I’m going to be holding three pounds of bouncing baby … hardcover, but in the meantime everything is squishy and Unknown. I have no idea where I’m heading. I don’t know how I’ll get there. I don’t know what I’ll discover along the way. Worst of all, I don’t know what makes my main character tick. I hate not knowing, and there’s so much mythology grown around this character that I already have a healthy dislike. Just like I had with Gable. I tell myself that it’s OK, the Gable thing worked out, and now he and I are friends and I pay my respects at his grave and everything.
Today’s confession is that I hate new people. My lifelong friend and former co-worker, Helene, would tell you that. Oh, Robert hates new people. Anytime somebody new came on staff at the company where we both worked, there was a period where I didn’t like them until I got a handle on them and then it was usually OK, except of course when it wasn’t. So now I’m at the stage where, based on everything I know so far, I don’t like this new person I’m going to write a book about. But when you’re in close quarters with someone for a long period, the ice gets broken somehow, and I’m counting on the fact that it’ll happen here. We even have some things in common, so what the hell am I worried about?
There, I’ve said it: I’m starting a new book. Monkey off my back. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, this autumn I’m back in the saddle pitching Fireball and so coming and going, it will be an interesting time. Keep your eye peeled for dispatches from the front, which will all be delivered here at this address a couple times a week.