Thursday, June 18, 2009

The man named Panic

By Laura Caldwell

I have a book due on July 1. In the past, I have written fiction. I have written mysteries, thrillers, chick-lit novels, magazine pieces and legal articles. This current project, however, is my first book-length work of nonfiction. It's about a young man I represented in a murder trial a few years ago, along with my friend, Catharine O'Daniel, the well-respected criminal defense lawyer who did all the heavy lifting. The book is about a fight the young man saw and walked away from in his Southwest Chicago neighborhood. It’s about how a man tragically died in that fight. It's about the young man's arrest and subsequent odyssey of justice—six years in a holding cell at 26 & Cal before receiving a trial. It's about the immense challenges and cruel realities of the Chicago criminal justice system. It's about starting over with nothing. It's about odd friendships and their profundities. Anyway, that is what I hope the book is about. I have been working on it for a while, but I can't tell if I'm getting it right.

The book, tentatively titled Unlikely (like it or hate it? I'd love to know), will be published by Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster. It’s my first book with them. Recently, in New York, my agent and I had drinks at the Hudson Hotel with my Free Press editor, Hilary Redmon. I asked her if I could turn in the manuscript a few days late, after the 4th of July holiday. I'll be at my house in Long Beach, Indiana over the 4th, and I imagined the final spit-shining I could give the manuscript after the 4th of July parade (comprised of decorated golf courts, kids in red wagons, and usually one guy - the guy from the neighborhood everyone loves - who dresses up, usually as a woman). I imagined I could squeeze in some editing around the beer-drinking /brat-eating festival on the lawn of the old school house or maybe before the late night fireworks. By then, I hope, the guy following me around will be gone.

This guy—no I take it back, this man—he has a name. It’s Panic. He won’t be ignored, this man. He lurks, reading over my shoulder as I'm typing my manuscript. He smirks at a lame phrase, gives a grudging nod after I revise it. He is behind me, too, while I'm teaching at law school, whispering in my ear that I should be back in my writing chair. When I invite a friend over for dinner or meet someone out for a drink, he isn't so polite. He doesn't whisper then. He shouts at me that I shouldn't be doing this. I shouldn't be doing anything, but writing, writing, writing the manuscript that is due in eighteen days.

When I close my bedroom door at night, he shakes his head at me and takes a seat at the foot of the stairs outside the room. We both know I won't forget him during sleep. We both know I'll wake up more than once, feeling him waiting out there. When I get up in the morning, he’ll stand again, ready to follow me around the rest of the day.

I do my best to ignore him, to act like he’s not following me, that I don't see him, don't feel him. If I were to let him in, to shake his hand and offer to listen to what he has to say, I know he would be belligerent, rattling off everything I should be doing to finish this manuscript, all the things I should be canceling. He even wants me to cancel events celebrating my new book—Red Hot Lies—because Panic is only about himself and his client, and his client is Unlikely, the book due July 1st. (No, July 6!) I ignore him because he and I disagree about his worth. He thinks he's integral to the book-writing process. He thinks he actually helps me get the manuscript done and done well. He won't listen to me telling him to stay the hell away, to go lurk around someone who needs him, like maybe a senator in Springfield, trying to manage the Illinois budget. Come to think of it, the senator doesn't need him either. I can't send Panic his way. I wouldn’t transfer him to my worst enemy. He’s that scary. And so he will haunt me. He will lurk and whisper until the manuscript is done. And then I will send it off to my editor with a jaunty, hopeful email that mentions nothing, absolutely nothing, about him.


Guyot said...

Great post.

And it sounds like a fantastic book. I am not a fan of true crime/nonfiction type of stuff, generally speaking. But I will buy that book in a heartbeat. Seriously.

I think the title could go either way. It could be a great title (I like it, by the way) so long as the publisher does its job marketing-wise. If they don't, the title could hurt you because folks may not get it - doesn't "grab" them like the dopey ad folks say it must.

Best of luck with it, and with the lurking man. We've all been visited by he guy. He has a futon in my basement.

Sean Chercover said...

Oh my God. What a great post. I've got that Panic man in my house, too. If you find a way to evict him, let me know!

I like the title, but as Guyot said, it may be a bit enigmatic; you might want to add a word.

Unlikely _________ Unlikely hero, victim, witness, justice, verdict, advocate, etc.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Well said, Laura. And the book sounds great.

Laura Caldwell said...

Thanks, guys! Sean, I really like Unlikely Justice. Or maybe I I need a subtitle? But those are trickier than titles, almost. Some suggested to me "Unlikely: A young man's oddysey of justice and the two women who saved him." But I think it's kinda overselling or maybe it sounds a little cheesy. If anyone has read any books lately with great subtitles, shoot 'em my way, will ya?

David J. Montgomery said...

I'm not wild about UNLIKELY by itself. I don't think it says enough about what the book is about.

This might be too cliche, but the first thing that popped into my head was DELAYED JUSTICE (a play on the old phrase "justice delayed is justice denied").

I think sub-titles can be very effective with non-fiction. So it could be something like:

"DELAYED JUSTICE: The man the system forgot and the women who found him"

Just spitballing here...

Libby Hellmann said...

Nice post, Laura. I know Panic personally. Let's put a contract out on him and get him out the way forever. Sean, know anyone?

I think David is onto something with "Delayed Justice" ... you could play with the word "deny:" in the subtitle...

Laura Caldwell said...

David, I think your title (and subtitle) is brilliant! Leave it to the reviewer to knock it out of the park. I'm typing it onto the manuscript now, where I've got a list of alternatives. Thanks!

Laura Caldwell said...

Me again - Do you guys think I could slip the word 'young' in there? IE: DELAYED JUSTICE: The young man the system forgot and the women who found him. He was only 19 when he went into the holding cell. Was 25 when he got out.

Anonymous said...

I like David's subtitle, but maybe substitute the word "forgot" with "lost" as in lost in the system. Seems to play off the word "found" better in "the women who found him."