Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
I just had a really enjoyable discussion with Full o’ Bull on the art of novel writing. Here is how it ended:
He’s upstairs now, engaged in a heated debate with his wife and daughter on whether or not to kick me out of the house. It was bound to happen sooner or later, given the rising tensions in this lockdown household, especially between Full o’ Bull and me. Oh, well, such is life. While the jury is deliberating, let me fill you guys in on what just happened.
Our literary exchange began with Full o’ Bull knocking on my door, which was highly unusual. Out of respect for my privacy, he and the others don’t normally enter my room.
“What can we do for you?” I asked him, as I swivelled around in the office chair – his office chair – to greet him.
Poor Full o’ Bull was at an immediate disadvantage. With no other chair to sit on, there he stood, in the middle of what used to be his own domain. And he couldn’t come any closer to loom over me. Social distancing wouldn’t allow it.
“We need to talk,” he said with a face that clearly meant business.
“So it would appear.”
“I’ve been reading that so-called ‘novel’ you’ve been working on.”
“Have you? Shucks, Full o’Bull. You should have told me. I’d have provided you with a free link.”
“The paywall is not the problem.”
“Oh, but it is for me,” I said, reaching for my wallet. “You guys are such wonderful hosts. Having you pay for my novel is beyond ludicrous. What’s the current exchange rate?”
“C’mon Toby. Stop clowning around. You know damned well what this is about.”
“I want you to change the subject. More specifically, I want you to stop writing about me. No more disparaging words about my hobbies, no more wisecracks about my writer’s block. You’ve had your fun at my expense. Enough is enough.”
“But Full o’ Bull, my fans would be mortified. Do you have any idea how fond of you they’ve become, these past few weeks?”
“They’ll get over it. And besides, you’re a literary superstar. They’ll eat out of your hand no matter what you feed them. So I’m asking you again, politely, to cease and desist.”
“Yeah, yeah, you don’t have to tell me. Even if I had the money or the connections to take you to court over this, I wouldn’t stand a chance. As long as you don’t tell outright lies about me, I can’t sue you for libel or defamation of character. As for breaching my privacy – maybe if you had written about a festering boil on my bum the judge would rule in my favor, but ridiculing my hobbies or likening me to Salieri is perfectly okay, even though that’s far more personal and painful. Let’s hear it for freedom of speech, eh Toby?”
“I’m glad you’ve thought everything through. Because you really don’t want to mess with my legal team. Now the leader of the pack, Marty Liebermann, may still be hooked up to a ventilator in an IC-unit on Long Island, but his assistants can be every bit as vicious. And I’d hate to see you get hurt. The good news, of course, is that freedom of speech applies to you, too. So chin up, Full o’ Bull. You’re a writer. Meaning you are free to write about me, too.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, pal. I don’t find you interesting enough.”
“I see your point. After all, it was the guy playing Salieri who got the Oscar for Best Actor, not the guy playing Mozart. It’s usually the complex, tormented characters like you and Salieri that have the highest entertainment value, not the easy-going, straightforward ones like me and Mozart.”
Unable to come up with a snappy enough reply, Full o’ Bull let out a long uneven sigh.
“And even if I did write about you,” he now said with a glum voice, “it wouldn’t be a level playing field. I’d only be addressing family, friends and a handful of interested outsiders, maybe a hundred people if I’m lucky, whereas you have thousands of followers.”
“Tens of thousands, actually, if not more, proving your point all the more forcefully. Tell you what, though. Why don’t I refer my fans to your blog?”
“That would only make matters worse. Hahaha, all your doting fans would think, that old sourpuss can’t even take a joke. No, once you’ve become the object of public ridicule, your only option is to be a good sport, keep a stiff upper lip, take it in your stride, turn the other cheek, bla bla bla. Well, I’ve had it with all of that noble crap!”
Poor Full o’ Bull was getting quite emotional at this point. His stiff upper lip – in so far as he ever had one, his annoyance with me having been written all over his face since day one – had now made place for a trembling lower one.
“I am asking you, one more time, to back off. Your so-called novel is causing me distress. And indirectly, the other members of this household are suffering, too. I’m appealing to your conscience, here, Toby, hoping – perhaps foolishly – that you have one. We’re the people who took you in, for Christ’s sake, in the middle of a goddamned pandemic. We’ve fed you, we’ve given up our work space, we’ve bent over backwards to make you feel at home here. And what do you do? I’ve never seen a more blatant example of biting the hand that feeds you!”
“Nibble, I’d say, not bite. Like a playful puppy.”
“Oh, give me a break.”
He now took a step forward. Instincitvely I wheeled the office chair back a few inches and held up a hand to ward off any punches he might throw.
“Okay, okay.” I said. “Point taken. I know what a pain in the neck I can be. But that’s part of my bad boy image and goes a long way to explain my success as a writer. I am the guy people love to hate. And in so doing, they often end up sympathizing with my victims. If you can stop being annoyed with me just for one minute, you would realize that thanks to me, you’ve been getting a shitload of free publicity!”
“Oh, so now I’m supposed to be grateful, am I?”
“Well, yes, actually. Remember in the chapter on the Booga Ball, that I challenged my readers to name just one Dutch writer other than you, because that would be cheating? Believe me, over 95% won’t be able to. Think about it Full o’ Bull: literally tens of thousands of my fans now know exactly one Dutch writer: you! And I’ve been saying some nice things about you and your writing along the way, too.”
“Let me see. What was it that you wrote about me? ‘It’s not as though he’s a total schlemiel.’ And about my writing? ‘Some of it isn’t half-bad.’ What great quotes they would make for on the cover of my next book! No Toby, I’m afraid my friends were right: reasoning with someone like you is pointless. So I’m going to present you with an ultimatum instead.”
“An ultimatum? That sounds exciting.”
“Either you write me out of your so-called novel, or you leave this house. It’s that simple.”
“Gosh, Full o’Bull. When’s dinner today? Six-thirtyish? Because I need some time to think this over. Although I will say right off the bat that I’m a bit disappointed to see you meddling with the content of my work. I’d have expected better from a fellow novelist.”
“If you had been working on a proper novel, I would have let you be. But this is just a glorified blog. It’s fake fiction!”
“Whoa, Full o’Bull. That’s brilliant. The conversation that we’re having right this very minute is going to be the next chapter of my novel, and you just came up with the perfect title. Fake Fiction. My fans will love it. Correction: our fans will love it. What’s wrong? You don’t like the title?”
His lower lip was trembling again.
And that’s when he blew up, calling me an asshole and telling me to use my imagination.
Poor Full o’Bull, the angry, old writer, longing for the good old days when novels were novels and diaries diaries, when ‘blog’ wasn’t even a word yet and there was still a clear and sharp divide between fact and fiction, between science and opinion, between truth and falsehood.
But all such boundaries have blurred as we’ve moved into the 21st century. Our world is one of alternative facts and fake news… and sure, why not, of fake fiction, too!
Use your imagination, asshole. Make something up. What an endearingly antiquated view of what it takes for a text to qualify as a novel. You know what my answer would have been, if he hadn’t slammed the door and gone stomping up the stairs?
I’d have told him about the time I was sitting at a desk that had been set up in the back yard of my publisher’s mansion in Nantucket, amid stacks and stacks of copies of Revenge of the Optimists that I had been asked to autograph for our promotional campaign.
Even though my personal assistant Linda had learned to forge my signature and was helping me out, it was a daunting task, and my hand was beginning to cramp up when a ladybug landed on the title page of the book that I had just finished signing.
I could have flicked it away with my thumb and forefinger, I suppose, or used my pen like a hockey stick and given it a good slapshot, but I didn’t want to injure it, not only because I’m a nice guy, but also because it might have left a stain on the paper.
Hoping it would lose interest in my book and leave of its own free will, I let it crawl across the title and over my name, until it reached the edge of what for it must have seemed like a cliff, the book in question, as many of you will know, being more than six hundred pages thick. After tasting the air with its antennae, it decided to turn around, crawling over my name again, and then over the title, and further southwards, until it reached the cliff at the bottom. Again it paused to taste the air, and again it turned around.
This time, I blocked its path with my pen, hoping it would climb onto it so that I could finally close the book and add it to the pile of signed copies. But it preferred to turn around and head back south again. I now prodded it with the tip of my pen to hurry it along, a little too violently, as it turned out, for it flipped over onto its back, so that I had to help it back onto its six feet again.
As I continued to poke, prod and block it, the ladybug did all sorts of things: it changed course, it sped up, it slowed down, it played dead, it even took a crap (so much for not leaving a stain on the page), but the one thing that it didn’t do, was to fly off. And they do fly, ladybugs. In fact, they are quite good at it, according to the Wikipedia page that I later consulted.
So why this stubborn refusal to leave?
Because it didn’t really have to.
And why, when I got bored of harassing it and left it alone for a bit, did it change its mind, spreading its wings and taking off after all?
Because it felt like it.
The way that ladybug refused to use its wings that afternoon: that, dear Full o’ Bull, is how I feel about using my imagination to write Lockdown in Amsterdam. Not if I don’t have to. Only if I feel like it.
It has become awfully quiet upstairs. Have they reached a verdict?
It would be a real shame if I were to be kicked out of this house. A drama of truly Shakespearean proportions was beginning to develop between Full o’ Bull and me: young versus old, up-and-coming versus over-the-hill, prince versus king, you name it.
But don’t worry. It’s early yet. We’re only in Chapter 4, meaning it’s not too late to change course, or even to change genres. If I am forced to leave this house, we could easily turn this into a picaresque novel. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, that’s a story narrated by a scoundrel (a rascal, a good-for-nothing, someone like me, in other words), who gets into all sorts of trouble along the way.
I came to Holland to do a book tour. When that fell through, I had to leave the ritzy hotel where I had just had a fling with three beautiful girls. I was moved to a dingy hotel, only to be kicked out there, too. Then I stayed for a bit with an angry old writer and his wife, until I got kicked out again. And so on and so forth, until I get chased out of Amsterdam by an angry mob. The adventures and misadventures of Toby Quinn during the Covid-19 pandemic. That would make a great book, too.
What I’m trying to say, my dear friends, is that we can still have lots of fun, even without Full o’ Bull. But whatever the outcome of the deliberations upstairs, I’d rather stick to real life events for now, and see no immediate need to use the wings of my imagination to make this novel work. Maybe I was a ladybug in my previous life.
Hark! Methinks I hear footsteps! The jury has reached a verdict!
So I’m going to end this chapter with a real cliffhanger: will our young hero be allowed to stay longer with the nice Dutch family, or will he need to pack his bags and seek his fortune elsewhere?
Stay tuned, folks, for the next episode of… Lockdown in Amsterdammmmmm!
(coming up next – Chapter 5: New Balls, Please!)