Publish This Or I’ll Fucking Kill You

David Butter had tried his hand at just about everything:
 
Who Shot Madonna? (mystery/crime/fantasy)
 
Catchers and Pitchers in the Rye: Homosexuality in America’s Heartland (non-fiction)
 
How to Stop Writing: Short stories by David Butter (literature)
 
He read books on how to write the perfect query letter, the most tantalizing pitch, synopsis, you name it. But that’s all gone out the window. His letter to the editor of Northwest Fiction contains only the following: ‘Dear William Speisbel: Publish this or I’ll fucking kill you. Regards, David Butter.’

 

 

POV Switch
 
I read recently that a good back story is important to getting your first book published, that people want to read books written by interesting people. Well, if that’s the case, then here’s your back story: author murders editor of pretentious literary press.
 
Let the Oregonian Newspaper write my back story.

 

 

Information Dump
 
Home for me, David Butter, is Portland, Oregon. I live in a one-bedroom house left to me by my mother although I am responsible for the taxes and utilities. Not exactly a small sum when you work in the service industry. But who cares about my house, right? The latest rejection letter came in a record 9 days. I’ve submitted four other novels to Northwest Fiction and so am familiar with their response time. It usually takes about 9 weeks for me to get the usual ‘not quite right for us’ balonely and the hastily (if I’m lucky!) penned initials of the editor. This time, though, is a little different. Same stock rejection letter, same initials (B.S., appropriately) but at the bottom there’s a little note:
 
My guess is you’d make as lazy a murderer as you do a writer. Regards, B.S.
 
4435 SE Hawthorne.
 
The address is right there on the bottom. I could walk there. It would take me ten minutes, tops. The bastard must have known that. He’s taunting me. Of course, I’ll have to break in now, get the letter back if he hasn’t already tossed it. Or worse, hidden it somewhere safe just in case I follow through.
 
Patience, David. You need to do this write.

 

 

Revision
 
            Patience, David. You need to do this right.

 

 

Pacing
 
The best part of all of this is that I can write about it afterwards. Like Michelangelo breaking into the abbey’s morgue to secretly cut open the cadavers. It was illegal, sure, but he advanced the fields of medicine and science by taking a chance. I’ll pen a tale of murder rivaling Crime and Punishment. Did Fyodor ever kill anybody? I don’t know, but yeah, probably.
 
I begin by doing the obvious: I stake out Northwest Fiction, which, to my surprise, is nothing more than a two-storey Victorian with a meager hand-painted sign hanging beside the door. I sit in my car for hours on my day off but only see him peek his bald head out the door once. And why did he peek his head out the door? To get the mail, which I note, is loaded with 9 X 12 envelopes. I can’t be sure, but I swear I see a smile cross his lips as he clasps the envelopes, brutally almost, and retreats back into his lair. Before the door closes, I hear Strauss playing. How typical. If it was something like ZZ Top, I might have changed my mind about all of this.
 
And so it goes for another two days. The guy’s a shut-in. Lives and works from home. There’s a wife, if you can call her that. She’s more of an extra. One of many running around Portland. You probably know her. She dresses like a librarian the way some kids dress like rock stars. It’s what she should have done with her life had she not taken what little literary talent she had and married this d-bag and gone into the advertising business. She drives a Subaru with a bumper-sticker (‘Impeach Bush!’) that she slapped on after deciding against the one she really wanted, Free Tibet!, because her neighbor already had that one on her Prius.
 
Let me put it another way. You know how some people pick certain bands to play the soundtrack to their lives (as if their dull lives warranted any). For Speisbel’s wife, think Carly Simon or The Indigo Girls.
 
(For me: Nick Drake’s “Poor Boy” looping endlessly)
 
Okay, so I don’t really know any of this, but I’ll bet you the royalties from my soon-to-be published book that at least half of it is true. Trust me; I’ve lived here my whole life. These people are exactly what they seem.
 
Anyway, all that’s important here is that she’s gone all day, every day.
 
And I haven’t seen a dog, but I’m guessing if he does have one it’s a Pomeranian or some such lapdog that he strokes like a cat as he goes about mocking the submissions sent to him. Oh, Skittles, listen to this one. Ha, ha, ha, it really is too horrid. ‘A Pomeranian he strokes like a cat.’ Ha ha ha. What a clumsy simile! Ha ha ha….

 

 

Details
 
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I drive a 92’ Honda Civic that has 145,000 miles on it and no stereo. Another gift from my dear mother. I’ve been loading up a cooler every day with deli sandwiches, chips, Twizzlers, and a coffee maker I can plug into the cigarette lighter. (And an empty 2-liter bottle of Coke. My own little Porta-Potty. Too much information? Well, too bad. If I leave out the details here, who’s to say I won’t leave them out later? I got that priceless gem from a craft book on writing.)
 
And, of course, books:
 
Tom Watson’s 100 Classic Golf Tips (I don’t play but have been thinking about trying it out)
 
William Saroyan’s The Man with the Heart in the Highlands and Other Early Stories
 
Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

 

 

Character Arc
 
I’m not going to change. So get over it.
 
Fuck character arc.
 
People do not change.
 
Our lives are sentences and they all end in periods. One big, dark, black period. The kind William Speisbel’s about to come to.
 
Period.
 
There’s your character arc.

 

 

Plot Point #1
 
I’ve decided that William will come to a full stop next week, on Wednesday, August 4th. I’ve chosen a literary date of course: the death day of Knut Hamsun, as well as the birthday of Franz Kafka. Who could ask for more? Were they alive today, I am sure William would spend all of two minutes on their manuscripts before sending off his rejection letters, teeming with the moral certitude he’d just saved the world from more bad literature.
 
Even though I’ve picked the perfect date, I have to admit my resolve has been wavering as of late. The solution: I’ve started watching Nightline a lot. It’s a huge motivation watching all these idiots killing their wives, husbands, whoevers and then getting caught because of something stupid. Just last night this ingenius woman typed in ‘Ingenious ways to commit murder’ into her computer’s search engine only days before her husband was mysteriously chloroformed, jig-sawed into pieces, and stuffed into suitcases that were tossed into a nearby lake, only to float up days later.
 
My most recent internet searches:
 
How to volunteer in Portland, Oregon
 
Who is illegible to adopt needy children from third world countries?
 
How to send flowers anonymously to people in retirement homes
 
My Mom didn’t raise a dumb-dumb.
 
Mom.

 

 

Audience
 
I already told you she died, but let me see if I can build up some sympathy here.
 
On second thought, forget it.
 
Chances are your heart died long ago and you could care less about anybody’s mother, dead or otherwise.
 
Bravo for you.

 

 

Action
 
I get a break on Tuesday.
 
The mole leaves his burrow at 11:37 a.m. I hadn’t planned on this but decide to nose around while I have the opportunity. I walk around to the side of the house, stand on tip-toe so I can reach over the wood fence and un-latch the door. I could have drawn it before I even set eyes on the backyard: plastic patio furniture, a raised garden that’s about six feet by two (just enough to bury a certain editor in), and a rusting barbeque with a ceramic ashtray brimming with cigarette butts.
 
There’s no yipping dog though. Not even when I turn the handle on the back door and find it unlocked. Typical. The middle-class is so trusting. I pass through an empty kitchen into the living room where I find something like a manuscript graveyard. A graveyard that’s been carpet bombed.
 
It’s worse than I thought. Twenty, maybe thirty, corpses strewn about the floor by a heartless serial killer.
 
I take my time, dig through them reading snippets as I go along (“I think I’m feeling a little incontinent!” her uncle screamed.), but there’s no David Butter book. Still, I want to save them, each and every one of them, but I know I can’t. Instead, I do what I can and rescue one called The Life of a Calculator. I figure the title alone warrants a sincere rejection letter. A decent burial, if you will.
 
The form rejection letters, all of them pre-initialed, are stacked neatly on the coffee table. I steal the entire batch. Take that, William Speisbel. After rummaging around one last time for my manuscript and finding nothing, I take my leave.
 
Once I’m safely back home, I dig into The Life of a Calculator. When I finish (it only takes me two hours, being a natural speed-reader), I write the following letter and enclose it with one of the rejection slips, the bottom snipped off where those hurtful initials once lay, replaced with the friendliest of signatures.
 
Dear Ms. Clark,
 
            Thank you so much for sharing your novel with me. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time. Really, I should send you a check. A blank one! I thoroughly enjoyed your story about Sally and her love for Math. I assure you, the subtle metaphor running throughout the book (her feeling like a continually punched calculator that is used and subsequently tossed aside by the men in her life) was not lost on me. What a beautiful prism through which to view a life! Unfortunately, I cannot publish your book. I have recently come down with a bad case of cancer and the publishing side of the press will be shutting down indefinitely. I wish I could print up a million copies and drop them all on Oprah’s doorstep. I know she’d love it.
 
            Best of luck finding a home for Sally.
 
            Yours,
 
            Billy Speisbel

 

Now that’s a rejection letter. I promise you that our Ms. Clark will be so inspired, she’ll write another 432 pages by the end of the week. A sequel perhaps: The Death of a Protractor.

 

 

Plot Point #2
 
            There are many times when a golfer should swallow his pride. Being faced with a bad lie in the rough is clearly such an occasion. If you can’t see your ball from ten yards away, think about hacking it out into the fairway.
 
            -Mark O’Meara, from One Hundred Golf Tips
 

 

I was fantasizing about teeing off on William’s head, wondering if anybody had ever been killed that way before and contemplating buying some pumpkins to practice on when I stumbled upon the above quote.
 
I am in the metaphorical rough.
 
Hell, I don’t even know if I’m still on a golf course.
 
It’s August 1st and I’m beginning to wonder if killing Billy is the way to go. I mean, how is he supposed to publish my book if he’s a period?
 
I go back to my surveillance of the house, but nothing much happens. No wife. Not even a stray bald head for two whole days.
 
Nothing, nothing, nothing, and then Whammo!
 
At first I think it might be one of Northwest Fiction’s authors coming to pay our man a visit, but no, the man’s too young. Well, there’s that and the fact that he doesn’t look like a writer. (And don’t tell me writers don’t have a certain look. Give me a roomful of people and I’ll you who the writer is. I can even tell if they’re any good or not. It’s a talent I have. For example, the prolific ones tend to resemble morticians. It’s all in the brow. And here I’m actually thinking of someone in particular. Can you guess? Okay, I’ll give you a clue. It rhymes with ‘Moist Feral Goats.’)
 
Anyway, this kid is definitely not a writer. A skater maybe. Or a musician of some sort. Both maybe. His head is shaved and he has one of those full-sleeve tattoos that’s nearly a prerequisite for living in Portland these days. All I know is that when William opens the door, he places his arm around the kid’s shoulder and lets him right in.
 
I’m giddy.
 
And I don’t use the word ‘giddy’ lightly.
 
All sorts of scenarios are running through my head as I wait in the car and read…
 
He took a key from his pocket, and unlocked the door, and flung it open…and suddenly…at the sound of the door opening, all the rows and rows of little square candies looked quickly around to see who was coming in. The tiny faces actually turned toward the door and stared at Mr. Wonka.

 

“There you are!” he cried triumphantly. “They’re looking round! There’s no argument about it! They are square candies that look round!”
 
            -from Raold Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

 

 

Leave Something to the Reader
 
No. You might miss it. For all I know, you aren’t all that bright. And besides, you’d have to be insanely intuitive to know why I put that quote there. I have a feeling our editor friend might be a square candy looking round.
 
There, I said it.
 
Too obvious, or do you still not get it?
 
I think William might be having an affair.

 

 

Dialogue
 
The boy doesn’t leave the house for nearly an hour and when he does, he looks incredibly sheepish. I mean like he’s way overdoing it, hands in pockets, brisk walk, eyes darting up and down the street.
 
I decide to follow him.
 
“Excuse me. Sir? Sir?”
 
The kid stops, looks at me like I’m nuts, like who the hell do I think I’m calling sir. He doesn’t say a word, just stares at me all catty-like, the way good-looking women look at other better-looking women.
 
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I need to ask you a question. Well, a favor more like.” Again, nothing, like he’s trying to gauge what kind of a waste of time I am. “Don’t worry, I’m not a freak or anything. I just wanted to know if you’re a friend of William’s by any chance.”
 
“Who? Oh, Bill. Yeah, sure. We’re pals.”
 
His voice doesn’t match his face somehow. I expected deep and scratchy, something like a cheese grater lodged in his throat. What I get is an indoor voice. A lactose- intolerant voice.
 
“I thought so. I saw you leaving his house just now.”
 
“Uh-huh. So what?”
 
“Well, this is a little awkward, but I’d like to know exactly how it is, I mean, in what capacity, you know Bill.”
 
“And how, I mean, in what capacity, exactly, is that any of your fucking business?”
 
I’d foreseen this type of reaction. I take out my wallet, turn so that he can’t see how much cash I have.
 
Mom left me fairly comfortable.
 
“Does a hundred bucks make it my business?”
 
“Sure it does,” the kid says and smirks so that a dimple momentarily dents his cheek. “Only I get the money first.”
 
“Fair enough,” I say and hand it over. “The truth now, please.”

 

 

Plot Twist
 
“Bill is my dad.”
 
“Your Dad?”
 
“Last I checked.”
 
God, I’m an idiot. Why didn’t that ever cross my mind? The smirk is still on the kid’s face. I could kidnap the little asshole, hold him ransom until his Daddy publishes my book. But how? It’s the middle of the afternoon.
 
“Can I go now?”
 
“Yes, of course,” I say. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”
 
The kid crams the bills into his front pocket, turns and stomps off. Another dead end. Maybe this isn’t meant to be. Maybe I’m really not that great of a writer. Maybe I should try writing poetry. I mean, anybody can write poetry.

 

 

Educate Your Reader
 
Did you know that poetry used to be known as The Gay Science?
 
That’s what I’m thinking about when I hear footsteps behind me.
 
“Hey, wait up a sec!” It’s the kid. He’s running, his face all flushed. “Funny thing,” he says when he reaches me. “But I hate my dad.”
 
“I’m not—” I start to say, but he stops me.
 
“And truth is,” he says and holds up the bills I gave him earlier. “I could use a few more of these.”

 

 

Sub-Plot
 
“Rewrite what?” he would roar. “It comes out perfect!”
 
            — from Herb Caen’s introduction to William Saroyan’s The Man with the Heart in the Highlands and Other Early Stories

 

I seem to have made an unlikely friend in Chekhov Speisbel. That’s right. William named his kid Chekhov. You name your dog after writers, not your son. Anyway, turns out Chekhov is a whiz with computers, says he can hack into his Dad’s computer and get me anything I want: emails, websites he’s visited, that type of thing.
 
Why, you may be wondering, would this kid be so willing to help me?
 
Chekhov’s sitting on my sofa, flipping through the latest issue of Northwest Fiction when I ask him just this.
 
“Let’s just say I don’t give a fuck. And like I said, I need the money.”

 

 

Talking Heads
 
“Drugs?”
 
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
 
Little shit.
 
“I mean, do you need the money for drugs?”
 
“Yeah, sure, for drugs. Whatever.”
 
“I’d just feel bad giving—”
 
“Save it, okay. I don’t do needles. That ease your mind?”
 
“Yes, actually, it does.”
 
“A blackmailer with a conscience. How novel.” He puts his father’s magazine down, walks over to the bookcase in the living room. “You read all these?”
 
“Most.”
 
“Dad has about ten times this.”
 
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
 
He pulls out The Idiot, lets it fall open at random.
 
“All these Russians. Fucking soap operas if you ask me. Never did get what the big deal was.”
 
“You’ve read that?” I say, trying not to sound too surprised.
 
“Dad made me read all this shit. Wanted me to be on one of these shelves someday. If I ever have a kid, I’m not going to force him to play guitar just because my band never made it.”
 
He snaps the book shut with one hand, slides it back onto the wrong shelf.
 
“You’re in a band then?”
 
Bees! Ever hear of us?”
 
“The Bees? No, I don’t think so. But then I don’t–”
 
“It’s just Bees! With an exclamation mark. No the. Anyway, of course you haven’t heard of us. Nobody has yet.”
 
I’m about to make an attempt to sound interested in Bees! when Chekhov squats down, starts manhandling one of my manuscripts. “What have we here? This your own personal stash?”
 
“I wrote them if that’s what you mean.”
 
“I’m beginning to see what this is about, David. It can be a little tough getting into the business, am I right?”
 
“Look, if you’re not interested in doing this, I’ll find some other way of going about it.”
 
“I’m interested, David. Definitely interested.” He puts my manuscript back without bothering to open it, stands and leans against the wall. “Have you ever heard of a book called The Debris of a Poet?”
 
“No.”
 
“Guess who the author is?”
 
“I don’t know. You?”
 
“C’mon, even I could come up with a better title than that. That’s all Pop.” Chekhov walks to the couch, sits down and pulls a cigarette from his shirt pocket, starts tapping it on his knee all James Dean like. “It’s never been published. Want to know why?”
 
“Why?”
 
“Because it sucks ass. And it’s not exactly the type of thing Northwest Fiction publishes. You want a copy? I could get you one. For a fee, of course.”
 
“Of course. Can you tell me what it’s about first?”
 
“You ever hear that story about James Joyce and how he used to love the smell of his girlfriend’s farts? I think he wrote a famous poem about it or something.”
 
Chekhov lights his cigarette.
 
“I think so. Yes.”
 
“Only thing ol’ Joycey ever wrote that I liked. Pretty fucked up, huh? Joycey, I mean, not me. Anyway, The Debris of a Poet makes Joyce look like a nun.”
 
Now I’m drooling.
 
“How much?”
 
“Three bills.”
 
“Done,” I say and grab the ashtray that I keep for guests. “Anything else I might find useful?”
 
With each drag his dimples come to life, like somebody is shooting his cheek with a bb gun.
 
“I can get you records of websites he belongs to. Copies of emails I know he wouldn’t like to surface.”
 
“What kind of websites?”
 
“The kind my Mom wouldn’t want to know about.”
 
I knew it.
 
“How much?”
 
“For both? Another four on top of the three.”
 
“I don’t know…”
 
“Tell you what. I’ll throw in his cell number at no extra charge.”
 
“Throw in your mother’s email and we’ve got a deal.”
 
“No dice. Mom does not find out about any of this.”
 
I hadn’t considered this.
 
“Fine,” I say. “I’m not interested in breaking up anybody’s marriage anyway.”
 
“Well, good. Because if she ever hears about any of this, I’ll be right back over here and you can believe—”
 
“That won’t be necessary, Chekhov. I promise you that.”
 
He puts his cigarette out, walks to the door.
 
“Give me a few days. I’ll have what you want.”

 

 

Plot Point #3
 
I take my time with The Debris of a Poet, force myself to read slowly, something that doesn’t come easily to me. But it’s worth it. I savor every word, swill every adverb around in my mouth like a fine wine. Or rather, a cheap, nasty wine. If one can savor such a thing.
 
At various points in the book, I’m almost convinced that the book is meant as a parody of some sort, a collage of all the bad writing ever sent to him. I’d show you what I’m talking about, but even I have standards to keep to.

 

 

The Unreliable Narrator

 

They were there, his beautiful toes, hidden under the veil of a sneaker, a temptation Mr. White could not allow himself to consider. He felt himself growing, his blood running to certain neglected extremities, and suddenly he knew he’d either have to leave the room or risk acting upon his impulses.
 

But what would happen if he did give in to his baser instincts?
 

Then it came to him.
 

“I’m sorry, Tommy, but could you please remove your shoes. My wife’s rules.”
 

It was perfect. Flawless.
 

Tommy, the boy from next door, took his sweet time removing his New Balance running shoes. As each pure white lace came undone, Mr. White found himself thinking about corsets, how seductive he’d always found them. It was only a short step further picturing young Tommy in one. He’d have to sit down soon lest his passion become too obvious. Even an eleven-year-old boy would soon spot what was happening in his trousers.

 

—from William Speisbel’s The Debris of a Poet

 

 

Tension
 
It takes four phone calls before I finally get an exasperated, “Yes?”
 
“Hi, William. This is David Butter. You don’t know me yet, but you’re going to be my editor.”
 
“Where’d you get this number? It’s not—”
 
“Before you hang up, I have two very good reasons why you shouldn’t. Number one: Foot Fun dot com. Number two: Big Hot Thunder Rod For You at Yahoo dot com.” There’s a scratching sound on the other end, probably holding the phone to his chest, trying to smother me. “Still with us, William?”
 
“Who is this?”
 
“I already told you that. This is David Butter.”
 
“Is this a friend of Chekhov’s?”
 
“No, I’m afraid it’s worse than that. I’m a writer.”
 
“Christ. Listen, I don’t know what you’re after, but I’ve never heard of those things you mentioned. Now goodbye.”
 
“Maybe I should contact your wife then. I’m sure she’d be interested in this secret life of yours.”
 
He sounds tired all of a sudden, like I’ve injected him with morphine somehow. “What is it you want?”
 
“Be so kind as to open your front door in a few moments and all will be explained. You see, I happen to be parked in front of your house with my laptop. Did you know you can get Wifi out here?”
 
“Look, you can’t be here now. I’ve got to–”
 
“I suppose I could wait for your wife to come home. She has yoga tonight, doesn’t she?”
 
“You can’t just—”
 
“I can.”
 
End call. Moments later the front door opens.

 

 

Climax
 
When I’m let into the house, the first thing I notice is how un-editor-like William looks: short and heavy-set, wearing a bright orange Hawaiian shirt and a Mariners baseball hat. I don’t know what I was expecting, some bushy-eyed monster in sweater and glasses, drinking white wine, snacking on cheese, and burping Proust.
 
“We can talk in here,” he says and leads me into the dining room where there’s a table covered with more manila envelopes.
 
“Shall we begin?” I say and place my suitcase on the table, hand him a few of the ill-gained documents.
 
“Where did you get these?” he mutters.
 
“I can’t reveal my sources. I’m sure you understand.”
 
“No, I’m sure I don’t.” He folds the copied emails in half, stuffs them into the front of his baggy jeans. “Why are you doing this to me?”
 
“Here,” I say and hand him my manuscript, How to Stop Writing. “This might make things a little clearer.”
 
“Oh, Jesus. You?”
 
“I told you in my last cover letter that if you didn’t publish my book, I was going to kill you. You responded, and quite eloquently I might add, that I’d make as lazy a murderer as I do a writer. Do I appear lazy to you now, William?”
 
“Listen, you don’t have to do this. We can work something out. I have–”
 
“Settle down, William. I’m not going to kill you. What I want is very simple: Publish my book. You do that and these other nasty inconveniences go bye-bye.”
 
He looks down at the manuscript, contempt ransacking his face.
 
“I’ll be the laughing stock of—”
 
“Of what, William? Foot Fun Dot Com? I really don’t think they’ll mind.”
 
He looks down again, holds my manuscript by his fingertips like a smelly sock.
 
“Can I at least edit it?”
 
“No need to. Perfect as is.”
 
“You’re bluffing. You wouldn’t tell my wife. You’re desperate, but not that desperate. Authors always mirror their writing.” He pauses here, for dramatic affect no doubt. “And yours is spineless.”
 
“You may want to consider this bit of ugliness before you say anything more.”
 
I pull out my copy of The Debris of a Poet and hand it to him in the same smelly-sock manner.
 
“Look familiar?”
 
“Oh, my God.”
 
Oh, my God? What are you, a pre-pubescent teen? Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.”
 
“That’s enough.”
 
“I should say so.”
 
“We’re done talking,” he says, standing up from the table like maybe he’s going to run for it. Behind him, on the mantle, is a picture of Chekhov, age twelve maybe, wearing cleats, a baseball stadium in the background.
 
Cleats.
 
I toss the book back into my briefcase and lock it.
 
“Isn’t that your son, William? Seems to me he’s about the same age as the boy in your little novel. Quite an awkward coincidence, don’t you think?”
 
Then, before he can give me an answer, we hear the front door open.
 
A woman, far too attractive to be married to this bespectacled pear of a man, walks into the room.
 
“Hi, honey. Who’s your friend?”
 
She says it like I’m some sort of playmate for her husband, but, nonetheless, I stand and offer my hand like the true gentleman I am.
 
“Janet,” William Spiesbel of Northwest Fiction says. “I’d like you to meet Mr. Butter. My latest discovery.”

Front page image by Celeste RC

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