I swear I didn’t plan it, but there was a lot of irony and surprise going around recently at my ninth Literary Salon. The featured author, Ellis Goodman, here to read from his new novel, The Keller Papers, brought more than a fascinating story both on the page and behind the scenes. He also unknowingly teed up the world event to happen later that evening, as well as resurfaced a bit of history between him and me.
More than a few years ago, when he was CEO of Barton Brands, my public relations agency at the time, Dragonette Inc, pitched Ellis for the Corona beer account. We had just left Edelman, so we were a young agency with a short list of smaller clients—Corona would have been a big coup. We jumped through hoops to demonstrate spectacular results for our modest clients with their tiny budgets, assuming he would, of course, easily extrapolate—“Wow! If they can get all this for only that, imagine what they could do for my big-budget beer!” Alas, his only words were, “It does seem that you have a lot of clients without much money . . . ” (I remember it verbatim). We were so charmed by his polite British accent and gracious manners that it took a while to realize we’d been rebuffed . . . and that he’d left the room.
Déjà Without the Vu
The next time I saw Ellis, he was hosting the premiere of Mulberry Child, a film he’d executive produced based on the book of my great friend Jennifer Kwong (Chinese aka Jian Ping). He didn’t remember me from Adam (which, I have to say, is rare when you have red hair, so I was a bit miffed). Cue the revenge scenario, said my inner storyteller. Let me count the ways I could reveal our previous encounter . . . Too contrived, I thought. It would never sell. So I behaved and introduced myself as Jennifer’s friend, a writer, only to learn that he had finished a novel himself—Bear Any Burden—and was in the painful throes of getting it noticed. The coincidental revenge plot crumbled before me. After all, now we were compadres. I had to love him, right?
I let the cat out of the bag at the launch party for The Keller Papers … he did a little head shake as if trying to remember our past association and hoping it wasn’t “Did I fire her?” My memory jog didn’t work either. Nonetheless, we were now both in the same profession. His novel sounded intriguing, and I invited him to be featured in one of the Literary Salons I hold periodically in my home to introduce new books to avid readers. (Or, as Ellis put it, “the most interesting group, so knowledgeable and committed to the written word.”)
So, what do you call a man who started his career as an accountant, rose to lead an international beverage company, invested in Broadway musicals and movies great and small, and now follows in the Cold War thriller path of John le Carré? Renaissance Man seemed cliché. Did I mention he is British? I introduced him as James Bond, of course.
Ellis set the scene for his story by describing how, when his cousin traced his family tree back through many wars to Poland in the 1770s, he knew he had a story, then taught himself how to write it. He went on to combine his personal history with his eclectic background. For example, one of his main characters, Sir Alex Campbell, heads a UK-based international spirits company which gives him cover to travel behind the Iron Curtain to occasionally do “little things” for MI6, while tapping his far-flung relatives to aid in implementation here and there.
Our always great, post-reading discussion focused on history repeating itself as his story unwound from the Nazis to the Stasi—similar arrogance, intractable feudal and religious alliances and, above all, dangerous nationalism. I mentioned that several years ago, le Carré had lamented the fact that the “fall” of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had made it challenging to come up with equally compelling plots. However, he has a new novel ready for release this September—George Smiley back to deal with a similar world situation. Being in the zeitgeist is good for writers, not so much for the rest of us, we agreed as we discussed how hard it is for things to change and history to progress.
The Explosive, Surprise Ending
Later, as the last two guests and I were polishing off the end of the cheese tray, I received an alarming email from a friend—something right out of a novel. I read it out loud: “Hope this isn’t the end of the world. I would miss not seeing you again.” We quickly turned on the television—it was shockingly unreal and yet familiar—visions of smoke and destruction. Could this really be happening or was it a movie? Was it good or bad? Now, f***ing what?
Then we realized, at the precise moment we’d been bemoaning the “hamster wheel” of the unlearned lessons of history, the US had been in fact doing it all again by bombing Syria. The story had written itself.
And yet, I’m certain, if I put this scene in a novel, it would be edited out as too implausible. No one would buy it.