The greatest children's book you'll never read
Or: Tom Swift and me. How an argument over adverbs killed my new novel
IT WAS SUCH A wonderful idea. Around a decade ago, while finishing up my first novel, I came up with a premise for a children’s book. I’d been living in Berlin, East and West, with interruptions since 1984 and fulltime since 1991, but had never written anything about it. Now, with the first of my East African adventure novels out of the way for the moment, the no less harrowing experiences I had been having closer to what I had long since begun regarding as “home” started bubbling up from my subconscious to demand a story of their own.
Here was my idea: I’ve pretty much always lived in old buildings since the day I was born, and all of the flats I’ve rented in Berlin were built before World War I. (In fact, now that my significant other and I are looking for a new place together, I insist that the building have been built during the reign of the last Kaiser.) This experience, along with my previous life as an historian, have combined to give me a notion that everybody who ever lives in a house or flat inevitably leaves some sort of “residue” behind them. I don’t mean just skin cells, molecules, or structural alterations of some kind, but a certain “vibe” in the walls that, for better or worse, becomes part of the building and in turn influences new generations of inhabitants in unexpected ways. They aren't ghosts exactly, they're more like shadows - although who is a "shadow" and who is "the real thing" is open to debate.
My planned children's novel centered around so-called “Schlafburschen” or “bed lodgers.” In the days of industrialization, when the tenements of Berlin and other large cities were bursting at the joists, those workers who could afford their own flats would frequently take on bed lodgers, poverty-stricken laborers who rented the tenants’ beds while the latter were off at work. Once the tenants returned home, the bed lodgers would head off to work themselves, usually working entire nights at starvation wages. This little-known footnote of German history struck me when I first read about it years ago and I’ve never been able to get it out of my head.
Berlin artist Heinrich Zille's drawing "The Late
Bed Lodger" opens a window onto the miserable
living conditions of early 20th century Berliners
The premise of “The Bed Lodgers: A Berlin Tale” was that many of these bed lodgers are actually still there, but we never get to see them because they are only home when we’re not. In my story, two children from our times, Albrecht and Luise, are forced through a series of unfortunate circumstances to leave their cozy suburban home and move with their mother into a tumbledown Wilhelmine-era tenement in central Berlin. Every horror and oddity I have ever experienced in a Berlin tenement flat found its way into the story, including the pigeons that you could hear cooing through a hole in the toilet wall of my girlfriend’s flat in Kreuzberg (since repaired). The kids notice right away that there’s something strange about the place, and are particularly mystified that, no matter how hard they work at keeping their room tidy, everything is always messed up beyond recognition when they get home and their overworked mother is permanently angry with them for making her life even harder. There can only be one explanation. One of the book’s characters, an ancient upstairs neighbor called Herr Schumpeter, fills our heroes in:
‘Sometimes,’ Herr Schumpeter said, puffing on his pipe, ‘very rarely, in tremendously old buildings like this one, and in the humblest flats where the rents are still very low, they’re still with us. So, unless I’m entirely mistaken, you’ve got a band of bed lodgers living with you.’
Luise opened her eyes wide. ‘You mean there are other people sleeping in our beds when we’re not at home?” she asked.
‘That is exactly what I mean,’ Herr Schumpeter replied.
Mind you, these particular bed lodgers aren't a modern-day version, but the real thing left over from around 1880 or so. The neighbor goes on to explain that people who work too hard can actually turn into bed lodgers, who think only about sleeping, which bodes ill for the children’s desperately overstretched mother. While Luise is content to share their shabby little flat with the three unfortunate bed lodgers, a father and two children of their exact same ages, Albrecht does all he can to get rid of them. Later, he starts cooperating with them and then takes heroic efforts to save them before the building is knocked down (thus destroying them too) to make room for yet another parking ramp. To find out just how he achieves this you would have had to have read the book.
There's mystery, action, humor, the whole school bullying issue, loads of atmosphere, a touch of historical philosophy, and a certain feeling of creepiness that everyone who lives in a Berlin tenement (which is most people around here) would likely feel before climbing into their own beds at night. And although I've long been fascinated by C.G. Jung, I wasn't aware of the story's Jungian implications until a friend pointed them out to me.
I loved the idea and immediately started writing it in German, typing up around twenty pages before I ran out of fresh ideas and turned to new projects. (That’s how I usually write books: get started with something, hit a wall, wait a few years, and then go back to it with renewed energy.) Last summer and fall I returned to it and completed a draft within a few weeks. The German publisher who produced my last four novels fell in love with it and sent me a publishing contract within days of reading it. Over the ensuing months I honed the text, sent it out to test readers, and had it edited twice. As a non-native speaker I had to work quadruply hard to get it all exactly the way I wanted it to be. I submitted my final draft to the publisher in March, i.e. over six months ago. This time, I was sure, I had a winner on my hands.
So far, so good. My publisher produced a cover and had the whole text illustrated by an artist in Hamburg. He printed up a glossy four-page brochure and planned to telephone each Berlin bookseller personally. I was already setting up readings and other publicity events. Publication was set for October 3. People were preordering copies. The booksellers I talked to were delighted. Everything was unfolding perfectly. In an email the publisher sent me in early September he said that the editor he employs suggested only two insignificant changes (calling Julia, the children's mother, “mother” throughout the text and using more gender-inclusive language at three or four places). The rest, he said, was mere “fine-tuning.” What could ever go wrong?
Great stories, crappy writing:
By the time I read them, the language in the Tom Swift
books had been cleaned up - too late to help me, though!
Plenty could - and did - go wrong. I finally received the galley proofs last week. (For those of you who aren’t in the professional writing biz, galley proofs are a printout of the final typeset version that is about to go to the printing shop. At this stage, everything is basically completed and the author is supposed to check through the text one last time to correct such minor errors as misspellings and improper punctuation.) Imagine my shock to find that the entire manuscript had been trashed, and in the most absurd way imaginable. Whoever edited it gave my poor little book the full Tom Swift treatment.
In case you’ve forgotten, Tom Swift was an old dime novel series about a boy adventurer. The stories are exciting all right, but it's the language that intrigues and amuses writers today. The author of the original series that appeared from 1910 to 1941, “Victor Appleton,” delighted in both inserting adverbs into every sentence and digging up endless synonyms for the verb “to say.” Here are some examples from Tom Swift and his Airship (1910), courtesy of Wikipedia:
"Oh, I'm not a professor," he said quickly. "I'm a professional balloonist, parachute jumper. Give exhibitions at county fairs. Leap for life, and all that sort of thing. I guess you mean my friend. He's smart enough for a professor. Invented a lot of things. How much is the damage?"
"No professor?" cried Miss Perkman indignantly. "Why I understood from Miss Nestor that she called some one professor."
"I was referring to my friend, Mr. Swift," said Mary. "His father's a professor, anyhow, isn't he, Tom? I mean Mr. Swift!"
"I believe he has a degree, but he never uses it," was the lad's answer.
"Ha! Then I have been deceived! There is no professor present!" and the old maid drew herself up as though desirous of punishing some one. …
"I — I don't know what to say," stammered Tom.
Nowadays, this sort of writing is called a “swifty” and has inspired countless parodies. Here are a few, once again from Wikipedia:
· "I'll have a martini," said Tom, drily.
· "Who left the toilet seat down?" Tom asked peevishly.
· "Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
· "Adverbial puns are fun," said Tom swiftly.
· "That's the last time I'll stick my arm in a lion's mouth," the lion-tamer said off-handedly.
This is funny until it happens to you and your own writing. After six months of “editing,” my poor little children’s story had been transmogrified into a cheap Tom Swift knockoff. In fact, it had become the worst book I had ever read. Here are some random examples from what used to be my book, translated into English. I swear I'm not making any of them up:
“Help!” Albrecht cried fearfully and grabbed hold of the rain gutter.
“I swear it too,” Luise sobbed likewise. (How does that sound, I wonder?)
“You shouldn’t swear,” their mother answered strictly.
Albert shook his head tempestuously.
“That can’t be!” Albrecht cried surprisedly.
“They had other people living with them?” Albrecht asked unbelievingly.
“And when was that?” Albrecht asked curiously. (Followed by:)
“When?” Herr Schumpeter thoughtfully repeated the question.
“Simply disgusting,” the mother wrinkled her nose.
“Yes, and you look like it, too,” Albrecht growled.
And then there’s my favorite:
“I don’t believe one word of it,” Albrecht contradicted him energetically and determinedly.
And so on, on every one of the book's 196 forgettable pages.
This is a rare snapshot of me last weekend after
finishing the proofs for my new book
As you might expect, I protested these fundamental changes to the structure and character of my novel, saying that they made the book into a “dime novel.” I listed dozens of examples and said they would have to go. My publisher took such offense at "dime novel" (instead of, say, “you effing sabotaged my book!”, which is what I would have liked to have told him) that he instantly cancelled the publishing contract. He never answered my diplomatic response, where I held my ground but explained the whole "showing not telling" business again and offered to fix the text and then have it reedited at my own expense. Instead, he faxed me an official letter ending our publishing deal.
So here we are. Despite the thousands my publisher has already invested in the book, and which he will never get back, it will not appear on October 3 or any time soon. How do I feel? Mostly relief that my little novel has been saved from a fiasco and that I have been spared eternal infamy as the second coming of “Victor Appleton.” Living in what used to be East Berlin, on a street that is still divided by what remains of the Berlin Wall, I don't take kindly to censorship, which is what this amounts to. I haven’t lost any money and I still have a marketable and copyrighted manuscript that I have already begun translating into English. Maybe I'll try an English-language publisher first. But mostly I feel tired. “The Bed Lodgers” would have been my tenth published book and my seventh work of fiction. I despair at the thought of starting yet another quest for agents and publishers. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, gave the T-shirt to charity, and hoped never to need another one.
But whatever happens, my Bed Lodgers will live on. If not in the pages of a book, at least in the walls of my Berlin flat. I think that, in their own way, they approve of my decision.