Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Book of Air and Shadows

The Book of Air and Shadows was born during a conference with an intellectual property lawyer on a particular afternoon in November of 2003. When I say born, I mean nearly the whole plot popped into my head and I actually spun it out as a narrative, really as an extended hypothetical in reference to the reason I was sitting in the lawyer's office in the first place. The issue at hand, which I won't get into, was essentially about the value of an oral anecdote with respect to a work of fiction based on same. For example, a guy in a bar tells you a story, and then you write a work of fiction about it, and the guy in the bar comes back at you after the book's been published and says, in effect, that's my story, all you did was put it into words, so I want to get credit as a collaborator, you can't claim to have written the book ("our" book) all by yourself.

So the intellectual property lawyer asks me about the various circumstances involved, and I tell him, and he says that the anecdote guy has a point and might be able to sue me. I might win such a suit, he said, but it would cost a bundle to defend it.

I could not believe this. I said, wait, suppose I'm in your office and I tell you a story, any story, let's say . . .it's about an English professor who finds a manuscript of an unknown Shakespeare play . . . .

And off I went, and as I spoke, there boiled up, in a manner that will be familiar to many writers, characters and twists, and subplots and the underlying theme of the novel, which was what happens when ideas in a writer's mind get converted into intellectual property that people can fight about.

So why Shakespeare? Because he's the essence of mystery. Because in the modern history of the world there's no literary figure of remotely comparable magnitude for whom we have less biographical information: the greatest single figure writing in our language, and he's smoke. Because he flourished in a world without copyright laws. Because I had just read a biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, and started to imagine what Shakespeare might have made of her, a Shakespearian tragic heroine if ever there was one, and then I started to imagine a situation where he might've written such a play, and then I asked why he would've bothered since such a work could never be performed, given the religious politics of the time. So there had to be a reason he wrote this lost play, and hid it away, maybe there was a plot to get him into trouble, and a set of letters, yes, coded, letters, that both explained the plot and provided clues to where the precious manuscript was hidden. And the people who found these letters would be a strange pair, a man and a woman, and the hero would be . . . I thought, looking at the guy I was talking to, an intellectual property lawyer!

When the intellectual property lawyer told me his bad news, therefore, I was not as annoyed as I might have been, because I had the plot of my next novel as a gift fully formed. Honestly, it was like reading a thought balloon hanging over my own head. I love it when that happens—all I had to do was type it out. Not really, but there was an important lesson here, too, which is that there's no point in crying over intellectual property lost. Just make up some more.

Moving between twenty-first-century America and seventeenth-century England, The Book of Air and shadow is a modern thriller that brilliantly re-creates William Shakespeare's life at the turn of the seventeenth century and combines an ingenious and intricately layered plot with a devastating portrait of a contemporary man on the brink of self-discovery . . . or self-destruction.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I want to read this book because it sounds like something Dan Brown would write about. But obviously your writing skills are better than that quack and thus I have more of a motivation to read it.