The last bit of writing a new book is like when you’re assembling a bookshelf or something, and they’ve been telling you throughout not to tighten the screws all the way, to get everything in the right place and make sure it’s all on correctly before going back, at last, and doing those last final irreversible turns.
I’m sure this is an in-apt analogy in a lot of ways, but I’ve been using most of my figurative-language crafting ability in writing my new book, which is why I haven’t been active on this space at all this year. I’m coming to the point now where I’ll soon have to tighten those final screws, step back, and see if it looks like a beautiful bookshelf or not (and then turn it over to my editors, who’ll have their own round of sanding and painting and packaging and so on). Promise I’ll try and blog more after it’s done.
Hey, are you doing NaNoWriMo? (If you don’t know what that is, you’re probably not—It’s National Novel Writing Month, a collective-inspiration program where people try to write a whole 50,000-word novel over the course of November.)
If you are doing it, if you are in the throes of it as we speak, and might even need a little extra kick in the butt, I’ve got an offer for you: I’d like to read your finished manuscript, and give a you a detailed critique.
All you have to do (besides finishing the thing!) is make a donation of $25 or more to my favorite charity, Doctors Without Borders, the international medical organization that as we speak is doing crucial and ridiculously brave work in West Africa, and all over the world.
TO ENTER: make a donation to Doctors Without Borders ($25 or more) before November 30, and forward the confirmation you get to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Feel free to redact your address & phone, if you want; their confirmation email does not include any credit card info).
THE PRIZE: I will randomly select ONE ENTRANT AS THE WINNER (out of all those received by the end of November). If you are that winner, then by December 31, author Ben H. Winters (uh, that’s me) will carefully read your NaNoWriMo manuscript, and offer a detailed written critique to help you get it from first to second draft.
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT THAT (you’re reading my blog, so you probably know who I am, but just in case someone forwarded this to you): I’m the author of eight novels, including the Last Policeman trilogy (which won both an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction), as well as The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, a novel for kids, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, a New York Times bestseller. I teach creative writing in the MFA program at Butler University, and I’ve taught novel writing (and mystery writing in particular) through the auspices of Boston’s marvelous Grub Street. I’ve also done plenty of one-on-one consultation with aspiring/emerging writers, and at least two of my clients have subsequently sold those novels to publishers.
I want to do some blog entries around writing craft this month, in support of my writerly sisters and brothers immersed in NaNoWriMo, where you try and bang out a 50,000-word novel in a month. For this entry, forget all the fancy artistic stuff about plot and character and symbolism, and let’s focus instead on the French expression mise en place, which is a culinary term literally meaning “putting in place,” but which I translate as “being on top of your shit.”
If you’re a chef or a cook you know what mise en place is, and you live by it. It’s the range of careful work that is required before service begins: all the chopping of raw ingredients, all the checking and double-checking of prep lists, all the sharpening of knives and arranging of utensils so they are in easy reach. It’s the tons of mental and physical preparation required before the work itself can begin.
I don’t think I got to be any good as a writer until I learned to embrace the notion of mise en place.
So much of what happens during the writing day can’t be planned or controlled. You have a vague idea, or maybe even a good idea, of what is going to happen in the chapter or scene you’re working on, but you don’t know for sure. You discover as you go, and this uncertainty is thrilling but also terrifying and overwhelming—the idea of sitting down before the blank page ,or the page covered in your own scribbled notes, or the page covered in a first draft that you know isn’t working yet.
So to counter that sense of the unknown—which can lead to a feeling of helplessness, which can lead to going to check your email or whatever you do to throw time down the gutter—the counterweight to that weightlessness and wildness is controlling as much as can possibly be controlled.
Meaning, don’t just sit down and say “I’m going to write today. Here I go!” And then, what, you lean and loaf under a tree like Whitman and wait for the muse to start singing?
No way. You sit down with a goddamn plan.
“For 45 minutes today, from 9:15 to 10, I’m going to work on the first chapter. Then, from 10:05 to 11:30, I’m going to revise my outline. From 11:30 to 12 I am going to do some research on oil rigs, because I am writing a scene about a roustabout.”
That’s mise en place. Time is one of your ingredients, right? It’s your resource. Use it with intention.
And yes, of course, if at 10:00 there’s more you want to do on the first chapter, if you’ve caught the spark of the idea and your fingers are on fire, you keep going. That’s the beauty of being your own boss! But start with walls, and let the walls fall away when you hit them. That’s a lot better than spending 9:15 to 10:00 asking yourself where to start, trying to gin yourself up to get going, and then checking Facebook…and then checking Twitter…and then putting in a laundry…
Know, too, before you begin, all the nitty-gritty mundane details of the writing process. Where are you going to work tomorrow? Library? Home office? Starbucks? Is there an outlet there, or do you have enough battery power? Is there a bathroom you feel comfortable with? Do people talk too much there? Are you going to run into a friend who wants to (God forbid) settle in for a chat?
Make your plan. Start the day exactly where you want to be. That’s mise en place! Preparation. Intention. Control—control in this case of your physical environment. Know where you’re going to be, so that there will be no unwelcome distractions (which are really welcome distractions, because by trying to write in a bad place, you have probably purposefully sabotaged yourself so as not to do the hard thing, which is sit and actually write.)
It’s weird, but there is always a part of your brain, when you sit down to write, that wants to be doing something else. Something easier, emotionally and intellectually. Something you might get paid for, in some immediate logical salary-based way. One of your jobs as a writer—not as a fancy-pants artiste, but as a real serious day-to-day craftsperson Writer— is to find strategies to trick that shifty, nervous, terrified person and keep her at her desk.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on the logical explanation for something I know instinctually to be true, which is that coincidences, while so delightful in real life, are so obnoxious in fiction. (Not always, but almost always.)
My tentative conclusion is that our main job, as fiction writers, is to create an illusion of reality. (I’m talking just in general here, just with realistic fiction and its close cousins—so not, for example, meta-fiction, or even high-genre stuff like thrillers and romance, witch & wizard stuff. ) The basic requirement of the gig is to create and maintain what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls “the vivid and continuous dream,” to make the reader feel like they’re immersed not in the product of a writer’s imagination but in an actual time and place. To make the fictional world, in other words, feel like it is the real world.
Anything that makes the reader question the reality of the fictional world (consciously or unconsciously) must then be edited or excised. Gardner talks about this in the context of “infelicitous” or “lumpy” writing that distracts from seamless storytelling, or a narrative voice that is too clever or too constructed, where the story is not being treated with due seriousness.
On the same list, for me, is a storyline that is full of wild, improbable events, not related at all to the motivations or needs of the characters—long-lost lovers meeting by chance on a city bus, that sort of shit. The sorts of events that make a reader go “oh, come on,” break faith with the reality of the story, and throw her book against the wall.
This despite the fact that, reality being the infinite and infinitely interesting thing that it is, long-lost lovers must, from time to time, meet by chance on a city bus. Right? But when those things happen in real life, they make us say things like “I never would have guessed it!” Or “I never would have believed it, unless I had seen it with my own eyes!” That’s what coincidences are, right, they are events that don’t seem like they belong within the confines of normal existence.
Coincidences by their nature seem to be somehow off the playing field, occurring outside the “rules” of real life. They almost seem like cheating, like someone circumvented the natural ways things are supposed to go, in which our actions and circumstances lead us inexorably but unpredictably toward our life’s next events. Which is exactly why they stink in fiction, because they give us the feeling that the author is not playing fair—he’s moving pieces around on a chess board instead of letting what is inside his characters drive them through the story.
Crucially, when coincidences happen in life, they do not actually cause us to question the the realness of reality. There is no book to throw across the room, no vivid and continuous dream to be interrupted. Because we know that no one literally authored this unlikely event, our response is to go “that’s weird” and move on; in fiction, because we know that someone did literally author this event, we say “oh, come on” and throw the book across the wall.
Final note: There are a lot more elements that have the opposite property, i..e. they are good in fiction but bad in real life. Like, for example, terrible people. The obnoxious pretentious asshole at the dinner party is a nightmare if you’re actually have a dinner party, but if you’re writing about one, he’s a goldmine.
Final final note: I’m going to try and write about writing a lot in the next month, since we’re entering November, in which a lot of people participate in NaNoWriMo, where you try and write a whole novel in a month. Which some people dog on, saying it’s silly or whatever, but I say more power to ’em. Everybody who wants to write should write all the time, for any reason. Right?
Pictured here is the main entrance to the big public library in downtown Concord, NH, where the whole darn city is being encouraged (I hope not forced) to read The Last Policeman, by yours truly, for the 2015 Concord Reads program.
Wouldn’t it be fun if YOUR city, town, township, principality, or unincorporated territory all read my book together?
(Thanks to Andrew Winters, Our Man in Concord, for the pic!)
…I am appearing as a “celebrity chef” here in Indianapolis, on September 17, to support a great, great cause: the Arc of Indiana, which provides support and resources to people with intellectual and developmental handicaps.
So IF you live in Central Indiana, you should pony up for a ticket and come hang out, drive race-car simulators, and sample food by people who are much much better at cooking than I am….
Much like the Bob Dylan world tour that began in July of 1988 and has continued ever since, my planned summer-long Reverse Blog Tour to support the release of World of Trouble is threatening to become a Never Ending Tour, unanchored from any specific purpose or unifying principal, much like the whole rest of the Internet. Well, so be it! Especially if it means I can keep soliciting entries from people like Ethan Gilsdorf, the Boston-area journalist and memoirist and cultural critic and goodhearted Somerville fella—who besides being all those things is a native of New Hampshire, where I set my Last Policeman books.
People kept asking me why I set the trilogy in the Granite State, so I asked Ethan to please answer that for me, and here’s what he says:
I began writing this postduring a visit to my former home state. The Granite State. The Mother of Rivers. The White Mountain State. The Switzerland of America.
Yes, I mean New Hampshire. Tax free, lawless, kooky, flinty, opinionated New Hampshire.
Land of no sales tax and no income tax. Land of no motorcycle helmet laws and no laws against selling fireworks. Land of cheap liquor. Land of the first presidential primary. Land of “Get your government out of my [insert latest Big Government tirade here].”
At least, that’s the popular image of New Hampshire.
The state’s inspiring and absurd slogan, “Live Free or Die,” certainly hasn’t helped change that perception. You’ll find that phrase imprinted onto the state license plate (presumably by inmates in the state’s penal system), just above an image of the now-crumbled Old Man of the Mountain. The Old Man used to be a granite cliff outcrop on top of Cannon Mountain in the White Mountains. Viewed from a certain location, the rocks formed a profile of a face that I always thought looked like Abe Lincoln (who was not from N.H.). The Old Man’s face collapsed in 2003, but that craggy dude has not died. Not only on the state’s license plate, he’s also emblazoned on the state route signs, the back of New Hampshire’s Statehood Quarter. I’m guessing he’s also tattooed on the backside of Lyndon LaRouche, the famous political moonbat and New Hampshire native.
Alas, my home state is no longer my residence. I live just over the border, in Massachusetts, aka “Taxachusetts.” From that healthy remove, I periodically gaze northward to my mother country. I cross its borders, too, to visit my family who still resides there. And I see that despite my years living away, my N.H. DNA remains strong. I cut my teeth as a writer here. Some of the first serious books I read were written by New Hampshire residents, who set their plots in the state’s small towns, bucolic boarding schools, and tangled woods and political backwaters.
What makes New Hampshire a great state for writers to set their stories?
Think of the novels, plays, and poems that take place here (in addition to Ben’s Last Policeman trilogy). Probably the most famous is Peyton Place, the 1956 novel by Grace Metalious. There’s also Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover; several novels by John Irving, including The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One Year; A Separate Peace by John Knowles; Labor Day by Joyce Maynard; River Dogs by Robert Olmstead; Affliction and Continental Drift by Russell Banks; Before And After by Rosellen Brown; The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis; Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult; and Sea Glass, The Weight of Water, and The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. Don’t forget the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and two Newbury Award-winning kids books, A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32 by Joan Blos and Amos Fortune: Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. Not to mention, the many poems which take place here by Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, and Donald Hall. (Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in Vermont, but published it in a volume of poems calledNew Hampshire — take that, Vermont! — and the tome earned Frostie the first of his four Pulitzers.)
Among other books. I’m sure I’ve missed a few.
A Separate Peace was the first book I ever knowingly read that was set in my home state. In 1979, this novel was 8th grade required reading at Oyster River Middle School. I didn’t get that Knowles had modeled his Devon prep school after Phillips Exeter Academy, just down the road from where I lived. Still, the story of Gene and Finny’s macho-competitive friendship, their strange game of “blitzball,” and Gene having a hand in Finny’s death, rocked my world as a 12-year-old. (Partly because that same year, my own mother had become dangerously sick.)
So how does New Hampshire lure writers? I think New Hampshire’s appeal as literary place is partly due its contrasts. You can still find that craggy, iconoclastic, “Old Man” persona. Even if the state’s id has largely shifted from redneck-only, Libertarian-leaning right winger to Target-loving bedroom community for Boston (at least in the southern part of the state where I’m from), the state’s ego is still grumpy old man.
“We only got 13 miles of coastline, see?” The Old Man still grouses. “But that’s the way we like it. Now git off my beach or I’ll shoot you.”
Who is the Old Man telling to get of his property? The Massholes. The outsiders. The folks who dare to tread on me.
This includes candidates for the highest office in the country. Presidential hopefuls must flock here, if they want to win. They must jibber-jabber with the locals at diners and VFW halls, and endure the sometimes frosty reception from locals, because all roads to the White House begin in the crucible of New Hampshire. We’re the underdog, but despite our obscurity and seeming insignificance, N.H. gets its say.
One of the earliest works set here is Coniston, a 1906 best-selling novel by American writer Winston Churchill (no relation), who was a state legislator in the 1900s and an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate. Naturally, Coniston is about N.H. politics. I have not read it.
The other reason I think N.H. appeals to writers is that it embodies conflict. You might say N.H. is the evil twin doppelganger of similarly-shaped Vermont, whose politics are about as polar opposite to N.H.’s as you can find. Within its borders, there’s always been a marked tension between New Hampshire’s rural, hardscrabble, working-class image and its use as a playground for prep school kids and tourists hitting the trails, lakes and ski lifts. In their novels, Irving and Knowles often tapped into the highfalutin “gown” side. Other writers delved into the townies.
Most kids who grow up in any small N.H. town learn to straddle that fence. My parents arrived in N.H. from the Midwest because my father got a job teaching at the University of New Hampshire. Half of my childhood pals in my tiny neighborhood had professional parents who lived in refurbished historical colonial homes; the other kids lived in dilapidated ranches and had parents who worked as mechanics, ran the general store, drove snow plows and hunted deer. Our leisure time vacillated between intellectual pursuits, like reading books, and redneck ones, like setting things afire in the sandpit.
As I’ve established, we don’t got much oceanfront property in New Hampshire, so don’t expect plots of novels to twist in the cool breezes of quaint seaside towns. Rather, stories tend to be set in small, isolated hamlets, miles from anywhere. Many novels take place in [insert name of fictional of small town here], N.H. In that town, you’ll find: general store, town hall, church, gas station, guy selling roses for $5 from beat-up van. Coniston takes place in the fictional small town of Coniston. Our Town is set in the made-up Grover’s Corners. Peyton Place’s imaginary “Peyton Place” is a supposedly a composite of several small towns: Gilmanton, Gilford, Laconia, Manchester and Plymouth.
One of my favorite story collections, Leah, New Hampshire: The Collected Stories of Thomas Williams, is set in the fictive “Leah,” just a letter away from my own hometown of Lee. Like my father, Williams taught at U.N.H, and his “Leah” some have compared to Masters’s Spoon River and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Williams, a Minnesota native, called New Hampshire, “a state that can be cruel, especially to its poor, or sick, or old. In its public, or collective stance, it can act as a skinflint and a buffoon among its neighbors.” But he also found that Granite Staters “can be decent and generous if, for a moment, they forget dogma, forget ‘conservatism,’ and sanctimony, and the myth of an imaginary history.”
Why this literary focus on the wee New Hampshire town? Perhaps it’s because events in N.H. towns, at least in the minds of novelists, occur in a time-space wormhole. Whatever happens in [insert fictional name of small N.H. town] stays in [insert fictional name of small N.H. town]. Our hamlets and villages and “corners” are trapped in amber. So, too, are our small town weirdos, who drive half-rotted pick-up trucks, shoot guns into the night, live in trailers, and go mad in the woods. They run well drilling companies out of their homes and mow cemeteries (one of my former jobs). They hold down two jobs. They yearn for upward mobility, while nursing their Bud Lites.
While the rest of the world has progressed, these characters are still hanging out at the store at the town crossroads, just as I did growing up. Growing up, I knew of a village store not far from where I was raised called “Liar’s Paradise.” It’s still there.
The small, isolated town died in the rest of America, but in New Hampshire, it survives.
That’s the myth, anyway. Of course, New Hampshire has been gentrified, and strip-mall-ified. These days, you can get decent organic produce at Hannaford’s or even the troubled Market Basket (once the strike is over). But for every Dartmouth or Exeter graduate, there’s a family living in a double-wide set on concrete blocks just a mile from some fairyland campus, and a working class kid who is struggling to get through community college, if that.
Embedded in that small N.H. town are enough conflicts between stock characters — the wizened Yankee farmer versus the button-down vacationer — to fuel the plotlines of a thousand stories.
In a previous entry on this blog, Lori Rader-Day eloquently suggested that the “Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread” lurking behinds its friendly and smiling populace. New Hampshire has never pretended to be friendly. Outspoken and abrasive, sure, but cheery, never. We also don’t have those big open spaces. N.H. is claustrophobic. Sub in for the wide-open expanse of Iowa cornfields a truck stop by the rotary, or a freshly denuded house lot carved from a thicket of pine trees and poison ivy. Not necessarily creepy, but depressing and hermetic.
New Hampshire breeds this kind of existential loneliness, and it’s a force that many writers tap into. Great for poets who take walks in the woods. Great for novelists who dream of a better life. Great for writers to end their careers. New Hampshire is where J.D. Salinger went to disappear. Want to re-live his life? His former house is for sale.
Maybe I’m wrong about all this. Perhaps New Hampshire is like a lot of small town America everywhere. But it’s my homeland, and my tax-free haven. In the minds of some writers, the New Hampshire small town will never change. Of course everything has changed. To paraphrase Robert Frost, and that has made all the difference.
To learn more about Ethan and the mangy things he knows about—he writes better on Dungeons & Dragons and nerd cultural topics than most anyone living—visit Ethan Gilsdorf on his website. (And while you’re there congratulate him on his recent engagement!)
Keep checking back with me for more essays from more writers who I dragoon into contributing, and yes even the occasional blog post from me, the putative owner of this space.
I’ve just put two boxes in the mail, full of signed copies of World of Trouble and The Last Policeman, bound for New York City’s famed Mysterious Bookshop. So if you’re in New York and wanting a signed copy of one of my books, head down to Warren Street and get one. (I bet if you call over there they’ll even reserve one for you.)
While I’m at it, here are the other stores that (probably) still have signed Ben Winters stuff on hand, for in-store or mail order purchase:
* The Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, Arizona. (If you’re there, eat at the taco place across the street. I did, and got guacamole on my shirt right before my appearance at the store—because I’m a professional.)
* IndyReads Books, in my adopted hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. The great thing about IndyReads, of course, is that every purchase goes to support the IndyReads literacy charity, so you can catch up on my work AND help people learn to read.
I think it’s worth noting— in the midst of our current controversy about the future of publishing, and in particular about book retailing—what the specific value is of privately owned, community-based local bookstores. Like, for example, they will have special events where they invite hustling authors to come do readings and meet fans and earn new ones; and like how, for example, they will then have signed editions of books available.
So here’s an opportunity to take advantage of that value: buy one of my books—or one of anyone’s books—from one of the stores listed above.
For most of my life I have lived in the eastern part of the country—most recently Boston, and before that Brooklyn, and before that Philly, and I was born in D.C. and grew up in Maryland. I did go to school in St. Louis, though, and I currently live in Indianapolis, which, like many thriving, cosmopolitan cities in the Midwest, is nevertheless a half hour drive in all directions from eerie fields of corn and dark midnight skies.
When people think of the Midwest they think of county fairs and kindness, not murder and mayhem, but in this installment of my Reverse Blog Tour, the very clever Chicagoan Lori Rader-Day (author of the brand new The Black Hour and the Vice President of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America) explains why they better think again.
After enjoying her piece, you’ll want to go catch Lori TONIGHT (Friday, July 25) in Indianapolis, at the incomparable IndyReads Books.
Do mystery novels make you think of Miss Marple, of Hercule Poirot, of nosy ladies in pearls and mustached men pulling all the suspects into the drawing room of an English manor to hash out a killer’s identity? Or maybe your heart belongs to the seedy underbelly of Chandler’s lonely Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett’s boozy New York?
But have you considered the darkness between the rows of a cornfield? Or a barren North Woods lake? If you’ve never been the lone figure walking hunched against the wind coming off a frozen Lake Michigan, you may not know that the Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread. Check out the bookshelves. The Midwest’s dim corners make for sinister reading: William Kent Krueger’s Boundary Waters, Minnesota. Steve Hamilton’s Upper Peninsula Michigan. Clare O’Donohue’s urban Chicago TV filming locations, down Lake Shore Drive from Sara Paretsky’s South Side stomping grounds. Don’t forget Michael Koryta’s Indiana landmarks. Gone Girl? Heard of it? Gillian Flynn’s small-town Missouri was as creepy as anything the New York Times bestseller list has seen in a while.
What makes the Midwest so mysterious? It’s not necessarily that Midwestern people are more criminal or that terrible things happen here more than other places. I think it’s only the Midwest’s varied landscapes contains so much potential for darkness. Serious potential. Acres and acres of potential. Sure, Chicago gives off whiffs of New York-style organized crime. St. Louis has a few bodies buried. Cleveland? Have you not heard what horrors Cleveland is capable of?
But in between these middle cities lies all that wide-open space, all those tidy small towns where everyone knows everyone else—and their business, you betcha. Look around: 4-H fair prizes, tractor-shaped mailboxes, flags flying from the porch. And smiles. Too good to be true, don’t you think? All that outward friendliness could belie any sort of emotion, any number of secrets. Those barns make excellent meth labs.
By all means, mystery writers, let middle America hand you a favor. A small town, population 380 or 1,500, creates a tidy closed community reminiscent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. And if you want tension and heightened circumstances? In Chicago, there were 40 murders last weekend. In a small town, a murder changes everything, and an unsolved murder means forging on with life knowing that one of the people you know—and you know them all—did the unthinkable. You might go to church with the killer. You certainly went to high school with him. Your children will continue to go to school with the murderer’s children.
I just gave you, like, five story ideas.
In short, mysteries are about seeking the truth when it’s being hidden. Where’s a better place to hide the truth but in all that empty space among all those reticent people?
As a writer, you’ll find the empty space is also a fine place to get your work done. The pace of life is just a little looser, a little more laid back. A lot fewer cocktail parties. A lot fewer bookstores. Spotty internet service.
It’s quiet out in the middle of nowhere. Have you ever heard the sound a breeze makes rustling the dried autumn husks of a cornfield?
Sometimes maybe a little too quiet.
Thank you, Lori! And thank you also for writing The Black Hour, which Publisher’s Weekly called “an exceptional debut…an irresistible combination of menace, betrayal, and self-discovery.”
I’ve gotten a lot of nice emails from fans of the Last Policeman books, but most of them are not from people who have spent years studying the fascinating (and terrifying) real science of asteroids. I couldn’t resist asking Professor Joel Marks to contribute to my Reverse Blog Tour.
Here’s his bio:
“Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven, a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University, and an amateur astronomer. His Website is www.docsoc.com. He wishes to express his indebtedness to the GaiaShield Website athttp://gaiashield.com/two.html. He also notes that this is the twentieth anniversary of his having seen with his own eyeballs Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 striking the planet Jupiter.”
And now here’s the professor:
Aside from being a page-turning thriller of detective and science fiction, Ben Winters’Last Policeman trilogy is a case study of a very real threat. What is that threat? It may seem obvious that I am referring to Armageddon by asteroid. But that is not quite what I have in mind. I think Winters’ tale points us to a crucial gap in humanity’s current preparations for planetary defense. For despite extraordinary gains in recent decades in our knowledge of what space rocks could do to us and of their near-Earth population, we are wedded to a strategy that guarantees failure sooner or later.
The strategy I am talking about is usually attributed to Donald Yeomans, NASA/JPL, to wit: “There are only three ways to increase our chances against an asteroid aimed at Earth: ‘Find it early; find it early; find it early’.” The reasoning behind this seems straightforward enough, although it contains several components. One (alluded to in Winters’ books) is that just blowing up an incoming rock of sufficient size to do us serious damage is not likely to help matters; in place of one monster rock we might just end up with several humongous rocks, with total worldwide damage the same. Another part of the argument is that we would need to know the specifics of an incoming object – composition, speed, direction, etc. – in order to be able to counter it. But most important: Whatever known technologies we could employ would require a great deal of advance warning to apply to the threat at hand: not just months but years, decades, possibly even a century. The widely touted gravity tractor, for instance, could only nudge a Mount Everest size object a teeny bit per year into an orbit that would eventually bypass the Earth.
Nevertheless there is optimism in the planetary defense community because the vast majority of large near-Earth objects have already been discovered and none of them is on course to collide with the Earth in the next century. But here is where the reasoning becomes flawed: doubly so. First is that one of those small-minority-not-yet-discovered rocks could turn out to have our name on it. The other is that a completely different kind of threat could suddenly appear: a comet targeting Earth. (The doomsday object in Winters’ trilogy is really an amalgam of these two, as the 75-year orbit of his asteroid is more suggestive of a short-period comet. However, my main concern is long-period comets.)
Yeomans and everyone else working to protect us know this. But they have reasons for acting as if these were not pressing concerns. As regards asteroids: Projects like B612’s Sentinel space telescope may soon reveal all of the current crop of NEOs. (Please donate to the B612 Foundation to help make this a reality.) As regards comets: They are much rarer than asteroids in the inner solar system where we reside, and their early detection would require a far more extensive undertaking than anything contemplated or budgetarily feasible in the current political climate.
The problem with this reasoning, however, is that the apparition of a comet is a completely random event, and so its statistical rarity does not tell that the next one won’t happen for millions of years. It could happen tomorrow. And once a comet does appear and enter the domain of near-Earth objects, it will be too late to do anything about it, because, unlike asteroids, which have fairly circular orbits around the Sun, comets coming from beyond Neptune have highly eccentric orbits that assure a much quicker closing time with our planet. In his 2013 book Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them before They Find Us, Yeomans tells us that a comet discovered at the typical distance of Jupiter’s orbit could reach us in nine months. And as if called to order, Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), discovered only in January of last year and originally thought to be dinosaur-killer size, will narrowly miss colliding with Mars this coming October (on the 19th, not the 3rd!!). Had it been heading towards Earth instead, we could be living The Last Policeman.
What to do? I see two implications: (1) “Find it early” needs to be reconceived to encompass comets as well as asteroids, thereby requiring a greatly enhanced detectioninfrastructure; and (2) “Find it early” needs to be understood as a necessary but not a sufficient means of planetary defense, since we must also begin development and deployment of a deflection infrastructure prior to detecting (“finding”) the next killer comet.But all of that will take money, which in turn will require political will, which in turn will require an informed electorate, and, in general, a greater sense of urgency about the threat. And surely one way to instill that urgency will be to encourage the widest possible circulation of books like the Last Policeman trilogy, for they show that “Find it early” is worse than useless advice if there is nothing you can do about “it” once you’ve found it!
Thank you so much, Professor Marks! I wholeheartedly agree, as I do with any scientific hypothesis that leads to more people reading my books. I also heartily second the suggestion to donate to the B612 Foundation; Rusty Schweickart, a former astronaut and one of the founders of that organization, was hugely helpful to me in writing The Last Policeman.