Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Most Important Stranger

Working Stiffs welcomes guest blogger Mark Arsenault!

by Mark Arsenault

One of the most influential people in my writing career was a homeless heroin addict who lived under a bridge. Her name was Julia. Without her, I may never have tried to write a novel.

I met Julia in 1997 while working as a reporter in Lowell, Massachusetts, an old redbrick New England mill town north of Boston.

One day, the newsroom police scanner reported a body under a railroad bridge, and I went out to do the story. But by the time I found the place, the action was over and the police, the paramedics and the body were gone.

What was left behind—on a concrete ledge hidden beneath the bridge, maybe 20 feet above some railroad tracks—was evidence of a community. I discovered dirty bedding and old clothing, crates of cutlery and candles, canned goods and cat food, damp campfire ashes, and mounds and mounds of trash.

The dead man under the bridge had overdosed on heroin. I learned that his nickname was Ebby. Through the local homeless shelter, I also found Ebby’s longtime girlfriend—Julia.

I only saw her once. Now, 12 years later, I can’t picture her face in my mind. From my notes, I know that she had rough skin and rugged hands, but dainty eyebrows.

Ebby and Julia had lived together under that railroad bridge for two years, through nasty New England winters, as part of a small, invisible community of homeless addicts.

Julia told me her story in a coffee shop. People with nothing to lose are the most honest people you’ll ever meet.

Heroin, she told me, knows exactly what a person is missing inside, and that’s what it provides, every time. Do it for one week, and you’ll have a habit. At the time, she had recently cut back to two bags of heroin a day, and was hoping to quit. She was devastated by Ebby’s death. “We weren’t hurting anyone but ourselves,” she told me. “Why couldn’t we just have our little lives?”

That was when I realized her tale was one of the oldest in the world: a love story with a tragic ending.

I raced back to the newspaper with plans for a feature on this underground community of addicts, to take the readers into a world they never knew existed, which is the job of any newspaper.

My editor had other ideas. He wasn’t interested in these people. He told me to go find some “respectable” folks to write about.

I was equal parts crushed and infuriated. I would have quit my job on the spot, except that I was two missed paychecks from joining the homeless.

So I had to suck it up, get back to my desk and try to forget about the story.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Julia called me one time. I told her I was having trouble getting her story in print. She asked me: If you can’t write it for the paper, can you at least write it for me?

I promised I would.

Having that story spiked by the editor was the kick-in-the-pants I needed to try to write my first novel. Five years later that book was published under the title Spiked. It includes a fictionalized scene inspired by Julia and Ebby’s story.

Three books later, I’ve realized that a key ingredient to finishing a novel—especially a first novel—is having a reason to write. Anybody can do this. Find a worthy person to write for, and then finish your book for that person. (Worry about trying to sell it later.)

I don’t know what happened to Julia. Part of me prefers not to know because I’m afraid the news might be bad. I like to think she’s out there somewhere. She might not know that I kept my promise to write her story. She might not know the book was dedicated to her.

So, if you had to choose somebody to be the inspiration for finishing a first novel, who would it be? If you already found that inspiration, who was it?

Mark Arsenault is a Shamus-nominated mystery writer, a journalist, a runner, hiker, political junkie and eBay fanatic who collects memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. His new novel is LOOT THE MOON, the second book in the Billy Povich series that began with GRAVEWRITER, a noir thriller praised for a fusion of suspense, humor and human tenderness. With 20 years of experience as a print reporter, Arsenault is one of those weird cranks who still prefers to read the news on paper. His Web site is: http://markarsenault.net/


Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Mark. Fascinating story! And a really interesting question. It made me think back to a "book" I wrote when I was just out of high school. It was written longhand in a 300 page notebook and I never attempted to market it. But it was based on a series of murders that happened locally...girls my age who died tragically and found no justice, as the killer wasn't caught. In my fictionalized version, my protagonists nailed the guy. Thinking back, maybe that was my way to get these girls the justice they deserved.

PatRemick said...

Welcome Mark - and looking forward to hearing more from you at the New England Crime Bake!

My published short stories are inspired by real people, including one loosely based on a murder I covered as a reporter decades ago -- and remains with me to this day. In the story, the killer is revealed. So you could say the victim inspired me to write the story -- and like Annette, find justice.

Joyce Tremel said...

Beautiful story, Mark.

My second novel wasn't inspired by a single person, but by the thousands of men who died during the American Civil War--especially the unknown ones who are still buried in unmarked and unknown graves.

Jenna said...

I had a different kind of inspiration for finishing my first novel. I wrote the first paragraph of A Cutthroat Business in the fall of 2004, while I was studying for my real estate license. It languished for a year, while I studied and worked and didn't do any writing. In the meantime, in the spring of 2005, I met Tasha Alexander. Some of you know her, some of you don't, but for you who don't, I'll just say that she's gorgeous and talented and beautiful inside and out, and an incredible lovely and supportive person - as well as a brilliant writer. This was a few months before her first book came out, and she was the one who convinced me that if she could do it - write a book and get it published - I could do it too. She's not in the book, but I wouldn't have pushed through the way I had if it hadn't been for her help and support and encouragement.

Fascinating story about Julia, Mark!

Cheryle said...

Welcome, Mark. That was a most moving story. Thanks for sharing.