"THE VANISHING OF ARCHIE GRAY"
This book is a stand-alone companion novel to The Audrey Green Chronicles, a three-book trilogy that's been available for a while. In 2003, the books seemed to really take off, resulting in some good press, a lot of public attention, and about two-dozen serious reads from New York publishers and agents. However, around Christmas that year, the buzz stalled. The New York folks were really complimentary of the books, but the bottom line was that it was an enormous risk to take on a moderately known author with a 300,000 word series about people connected by tunnels. They all wanted a simple, single book that was exactly like all the other simple, single books in the world.
Well, I could kind of see that coming. Late 2003, I had already finished "Four Seasons In One Day," a more commercial piece. Since it's a long process to shop a book, I decided I'd start on something else while "Four Seasons" circulated, a book called "The Vanishing of Archie Gray." The intention was to use this spin-off to re-interest the prior contacts in Audrey. As fate would have it, NYC agency Dystel & Goderich heard about the Audrey books and ended up signing me over Audrey in 2004. Hurray! In the meantime, I was halfway through the spin-off, so I plowed on.
"The Vanishing of Archie Gray" takes place in New York, Christmas of 1960. There are only a dozen or so characters this time out, not 200 as in the trilogy. The story is about three competing magicians about to kick off a North American tour. One discovers the secret of invisibility and the other two attempt to reveal him as a fake. All this is seen through the eyes of photographer Archie Gray, a twenty-something society loner with a bad case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why invisibility? How is that related to Audrey Green, you ask?
In those books, I had put a strange, recurring pattern, one of many that make that series interesting. This pattern was so subtle only a handful of people noticed it. Throughout the narratives, characters refer to themselves as being invisible. People will be standing right next to each other and not be noticed. There's a scene in Burnby Hospital where Dr. Rollo and John Falliher get bumped in the shoulders, but no one is there. There are also sudden switches to a first person point of view, just for a sentence, occurring about a dozen times in each book (that really threw the editor.) So, when you put all the evidence together you come to a very weird conclusion: there are invisible people running around, having a completely separate story. Totally high. I don't know why I put all that in there, but it amused the hell out of me. And those devices became the basis for "Archie Gray." Rather than show the English invisible people and their doings, however, I decided to switch the locale to New York. I had used New York for "Water Pressure," which is partially set in 1959, so I wanted to mine that same research. I was kind of burnt out writing stories set in England.
I probably went into this book too fast, without enough preparation. I was trying to capitalize on the interest shown in Audrey. I had decided, rather than dumb down the trilogy, or edit until it was a single 100,000 word book (both terrible ideas that had been thrown my way,) that I would instead write a "Hobbit"-like fourth book that dealt with some of the same themes, structures, and styles. If I could interest a publisher or agent in the spin-off, and even better if it was a hit, I could go back to them and say, "Ya know...there are really three more books if you want them."
Because of diving in too soon, and really wishing people noticed the trilogy first, this book probably isn't exactly what I had intended. Sure, it's shorter, and simpler, and echoes some of the same ideas of Audrey. A few characters from that series make appearances and there are plenty of in-jokes for the readership. The writing is in the same lyrical / literary style of the first three books, which was difficult to get back into after a year of mining a more economical style (a style inspired by translated Japanese fiction and used lots in "Blind In One Eye.") Plus, I was trying to write the ultimate "invisible man" story. Anytime you try to write the "ultimate" anything, it's bound to fall short of the original intentions.
I like the concept of invisibility, how it's done. This is a very unique take on it. I like the basic idea of magicians trying to out-do each other. I like the section set on the ship. But is it a brilliant masterpiece? Verdict is still out. It's interesting, but maybe not as resonant as the first three books. I wanted it to be more commercial, but it might have ended up being a little fluff. I wrestled with the tone quite a bit. I wanted the plot to be as involving as Audrey, but not as complex. I'm not sure if I rode that line as I should have. I'm second-guessing everything. Maybe in a few years I'll think of this book as I do "6 The Rise" - an experiment, one that grows in my estimation the further I am from it. We'll see. Time will tell. Still, it's better than a finger in your eye, as Dick Van Dyke would say.
PS - Yes, there is a code-cracking scene. I wrote it, like, last January and then nine months later read the very mediocre Da Vinci Code. I am not, repeat, not trying to cash in. It's just a coincidence.