Author Name: Stephen O’Connor
Where can we find your book? The novel The Spy in the City of Books is available on Amazon.com, along with my collection of short stories, Smokestack Lightning.
How much does it cost? I believe the novel is 17 dollars; the Kindle edition is 6.99.
Tell us a little about your book.
A little over ten years ago, I met a man who had served in the OSS during WWII. (The Office of Strategic Services was the forerunner of the CIA). He had grown up in “Little Canada” here in Lowell, MA, and went to a French-speaking school. After volunteering for what they told him would be “dangerous work,” (“I was young and stupid,” he confided), he parachuted into France and operated undercover as a spy and liaison between London and the French Forces of the Interior. I had lived in France when I was young, and already had a keen interest in the “Maquis,” or French Resistance. So I began to interview Edwin while developing a good plot for a historical novel.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
They say that drink is the curse of the working man. Work is surely the curse of the writing man, or woman. I have 50,000 words of the next novel, The Nine Hazels, but as a high school teacher I’m buried in work from September to June. I’ll try to finish it next summer. I’m also doing some free-lance writing, and developing a story for an anthology.
What has your journey as a writer been like?
When I was in high school, my mother came home from parent night and said, “Brother Bernier says you have a ‘literary mind.’” I always thought I would write, always wrote long letters to friends (remember letters?), and academic papers. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I said, my God, life is running out-you can’t keep thinking you are going to be a writer, you have to write. I must have written millions of words since that realization.
Did you self-publish?
I was considering it, but I was able to find small presses that were willing to publish my work. There isn’t a lot of difference, actually. You can’t get into national chains, and you have to do a lot of your own promotion.
Please share some advice to help future authors.
Well, as Eric Burden once said, “Mothers, tell your children, not to do what I have done.” I waited too long to get going. You cannot begin too soon. I used to be hypercritical. I wanted a perfect first page. That kind of attitude can paralyze a writer. Just tell the story-you can rewrite all you want.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Well, Jack Kerouac was a Lowell boy, and I love his energy. His lived for a while right up the street from my current house. One of the stories in Smokestack Lightning, “The Hipster’s Hopper,” deals with a man’s obsession with J.K. I love the masters, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, and the grace and style of Henry Thoreau.
What one person has impacted your life the most?
Aside from my parents, I’d go back to Thoreau. Again, Walden Pond is a short drive from here, so I often walk there and stop at the site of his cabin. All the philosophy you need is in the last chapter of Walden. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
How did you create your characters?
Many of the characters I’ve written are based to some extent on people I’ve known, or combinations of characters. An old friend asked me, “Is this guy supposed to be me?” Maybe 40%, or one aspect of his character is you, but I’m not going to be bound by reality. I try to make reality more dramatic and characters more compelling-that’s why they call it fiction. License to lie, or should I say, invent. But I once saw a guy open a bar door and shout, “Is there someone in here I’m supposed to be afraid of?” I couldn’t invent a better way of showing a character to be a reckless brawler.
At six in the morning, not only his apartment, but the entire Pollard Mansion was quiet. The dim rooms were rich with the aroma of coffee. It had been brewed by timer–to Martin LeBris’ mind one of the greatest practical uses of technology in the modern world. “As quiet as the turning of pages in the holy books at dawn,” the poet had written, and there was something sacred in the stillness that pervaded the dim apartment–his “City of Books.” In the thin light of morning, Martin went to examine them; he had been a bibliophile from the distant days when his mother had brought him to the Andover Book Store, where the little boy watched the fireplace glow among the rows of mute testaments.
With money she’d set aside from her job at Woolworth’s, she bought his Christmas presents there, two books he selected called Corsairs of the Gold Coast and Indian Warriors of the East. The fierce Mohawk, and the grizzled pirate perched with his spyglass in the rigging still peered from the ragged jacket covers among the other volumes ranged about him in leather and gold. He went to the bookcase where he had stored some of those that were in sets, or whose bindings were gilded. Most had been published in the 19th century.
He paused for a moment, watching his reflection in the glass doors of the old bookcase. It was as if his own French-Canadian grandfather were looking back at him. “Bonjour Maurice,” he said. The short thick snow-white hair, glasses, the ruddy face and even the flannel lumberjack’s shirt. He could almost hear that gruff familiar voice: “Veins ici, toi.” Come here, you.
How the years had flown, as he donned this livery of age. He shook his head and smiled at the reflection; he had become his grandfather. Martin turned the key once and opened the glass doors. He inhaled the beloved mustiness of leather and paper. Green, black, and brown were the spines, but the letters were gold. Saintly companions, soft whisperers, undying confidants. They spoke of forgotten sieges, duels, palace intrigues, falconry, conquests; the solitary guard at the king’s door, betrayed and bleeding–unwilling to yield. The secrets of the dead, the dreams of the living, and the rhymes of the forlorn poet who put trembling quill to parchment under the myrtle bough and wrote can love be rich and yet I want?
There were histories, diaries, epics, romances, speculations, musings, ramblings, essays–there was bilious colic and laudanum; currants in the orchard and tea by the fire. And of course, there was one whole shelf dedicated to the classical Greek and Roman works he collected. Between sips of the hot Colombian coffee, his hand glided over Coleridge’s Table Talk and Omniana, Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque, Kingsley’s Hypatia, and settled on a slim blue volume by Lord David Cecil called The Stricken Deer because the title struck his fancy.
“The Stricken Deer…what is this?” he wondered. Something that he’d picked up at the Brattle Bookstore, or some flea market, and forgotten, or had never had a chance to look into. He returned to the kitchen, where Hannibal, his aged cat, raised his head, ears twitching, but did not stir. “Look at me now, Hannibal,” he said to the cat curled in its bed of fleece, “an old man in his slippers, rummaging through dusty books older even than himself. Is this the promised end?” He sighed and laughed softly.
He sat at the table and opened the book. It was a life of the poet Cowper. The tenor of the morning changed as he read the inscription on the frontispiece:
I was a stricken deer that left the herd
Long since; with many an arrow deep infixt
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shade.
Martin put the book down, closed his eyes and saw the face the verse had conjured–Odette. There were so many faces that lived only in memory now, but they were vivid. “I couldn’t save you, Odette,” he said aloud, “I’m sorry.” In the last half century, he had apologized often, through wakeful vigils in the solitary night, to that lingering ghost, which spoke to him from amid the echoes of the guns of 1944–from beyond the thin veil that separates the living from the dead in time and memory.
He gulped some coffee, and his gaze ran along the rows of books that lined the floor to ceiling shelves, this world he had created for himself–for what? To remember? To forget? To wait in a fortress of tranquility for revelation, or just for death? And waiting, to call back the days of fire-placed, rocking-chaired bookstores, the world of youth, the world of peace, before he had known killing and had to steel his mind against the smell of death, sickening wounds, and all the grim havoc of war.
Yes, he was an old man, tired of the tumult of life. He’d lived much in his mind since 1945 and sought only the companionship of the ages, of blind Homer and Marcus Aurelius. And yet he wondered whether the duty that the philosopher spoke of did not demand that he had now lain sixty years in a damp, unmarked grave near the broken remains of the woman who died for France, and for him, or for the man he was back then: Patrice Quenton, spy, inserted into occupied France to serve as a liaison between London and the French Forces of the Interior for the Office of Strategic Services. That had been his real duty, weightier than anything he owed her for love, or so they told him.
Duty–that was a word that could create moral dilemmas for a man beyond any other in the language. “If I could’ve saved you, Odette,” he murmured, holding her image in his mind like a withering flower. He hadn’t even been able to save her body. He would like to have placed it under a stone of black marble inscribed with her name, and the simple epitaph: Morte Pour la France. That would have been right for her. But her grave was unknown. He shook his head slowly; his eyes narrowed and his mouth turned down, the morning tinged with gray as in a low voice he spit out the words, “Nazi bastards!” Hannibal’s ears twitched as he watched with eyes like yellow marbles the silent old man gazing long through the brightening window, an empty cup hanging from his hand.
The world was on fire.
The pilot, or some crewman forward, was screaming at him to jump. Martin’s knees were trembling. He wanted to know if they were over the drop zone, but the Liberator shook so violently that he and the men behind him were knocked to the floor. Flak tore at the fuselage as the rattling shell of the cabin filled with choking acrid smoke.
He heard a desperate shout, “Jump for Chrissake! They got our number!” His static line was hooked. He crawled to the open door, which was not in the side but in the belly of this airplane. The craft lurched and he was thrown out before he could jump. A rush of wind and flapping fabric–then he was jerked up like a puppet on a string as the silk chute billowed.
The deep hum of engines faded from his ears as he fell away from the airplane, but the hiss and glare of anti-aircraft fire still shocked the night, exploding above him with a force that jarred his teeth, and in a matter of seconds Martin heard a roar. A fireball lit the white hemisphere of his chute, searing the dark soffit of the ragged clouds. Flaming wreckage tumbled earthward like defeated angels. He recalled for an instant, vividly, the face of a crewman who just a few minutes before had been telling him that Winston Churchill could drink any man in England under the table and wondering at the reality that the man, and the entire crew of nine, had been incinerated. All dead–only he–falling, falling through the night, young and scared and everything yet to come as the fates unwound the threads. Odette, I’m sorry.