Sunday, July 04, 2010

Larry Karp - Instant Success

Our Independence Day guest blogger is one of my favorite authors, Larry Karp. His latest book, Ragtime Fool, was just issued by Poisoned Pen Press in April of this year. Ragtime Fool is the final installment of the Ragtime Historical Mystery Trilogy, which covers the fascinating world of ragtime and the American music business from the early to mid-Twentieth Century. The book Larry describes in this blog, the one that was sprang forth overnight after fifty years of gestation, is First Do No Harm. It was worth waiting for. That's the book that made me a Karp fan. Enjoy.

I've heard many a wry and tart word about people who comment upon an author's 'instant success.' “How about the twenty (or thirty, or more) years I put in before this particular book got some attention?” is the author's usual grumble.

Much the same can be said about the growth and development of the books themselves. An idea that resonates in an authorly mind may sit there, bubbling and festering, for a mighty long stretch before the writer gets a handle on it. By way of example, I'll tell you about a book of mine which I justly could have titled “The Fifty-Year Itch.”

People ask me where I get my ideas, and where my characters come from. Well, back when I was ten years old and living in Paterson, a medium-sized city in New Jersey, I watched in awe for several months as a mansion went up in our neighborhood. When I found out the owner was a former junkman who'd made a fortune in black-market metal during World War II, my indignation knew no bounds. Kids had donated metal toys to the war effort; they'd gone out in the streets to collect aluminum foil from cigarette and candy wrappers. Why wasn't this crook looking out at the world between bars?

So I grabbed my mother's Royal manual typewriter, and tapped out a ten-year-old's account of a junkman gone wrong who came to a bad end. My parents told me it was good (they were lying, of course), but made sure I understood that if my magnum opus ever saw the light of day outside our house, I would myself come to a bad end.

As I grew up, I never forgot about the junkman and his mansion, but I couldn't figure out what to do with them. Every time I sat at my typewriter, that's all I did, sit. I had the character, I had the setting, I had the background. What I didn't have and couldn't find was a story. I talked the idea up at length with writer-friends, most of whom agreed it was a great idea, but potential remained as the story's only attribute.

Some forty years after the fact, with some writing experience under my belt, and having reduced my day-job workload to half-time, I sat myself down to write a mainstream novel about my junkman, how he came to make his bad decision, and what happened to him afterward. It was awful. A year after I'd started, I found myself with 200,000 words of unpublishable screed. But it wasn't a complete loss. In the process of writing the manuscript, I'd developed and delineated the junkman, Murray Fleischmann, and to my surprise, I found I actually had some sympathy for the poor slob. Complex character, Step One.

But for another ten years, there it sat. I left my day job altogether to write full-time, discovered that what came out of my head were crime novels (that's another story entirely), got my work published, and began to develop a small but select readership. And then came the millenium, both literally and figuratively.

In 1997, I was visiting a friend in Denver, and while he was at work one morning, I sat in his back yard and read that day's edition of USA Today. I lit on a story about an adoptee who was trying to find her biological parents. The trail led her to a small town, McCaysville, GA, on the Tennessee border, where, many years earlier, Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks provided a refuge of sorts for young Southern women who found themselves in the family way without having first established official co-head of family status. Assisted by Vera, one of his two mistresses, the doctor arranged housing for the mothers-to-be, delivered their babies, then sold the kids to infertile couples of sufficient means to pay him a good fee. Presumably, the young women went home after their deliveries to tell people they'd enjoyed their half-year in Europe, or something like that. Dr. Hicks kept no records, and a woman who brokered some of the adoptions and bought four babies herself refused to talk to any investigators, so the adoptee's search ended there.

I was more fortunate. I had my story. My own family doctor when I was a child was a legendary figure in Paterson, someone able to make diagnoses and effect cures where other, highly-specialized medicos had failed. He instantly fused in my mind with Dr. Hicks to become Dr. Samuel Firestone, a sorcerer-like physician with a serious character defect, one which made him a natural friend for Murray, the crooked junkman. I pulled out my pocket notebook and started scribbling; then, as soon as I got back home, I raced to the computer. Characters grounded in fifty years of my life experience emerged from the wings and jumped onto the screen: Murray's heartsick, infertile wife, Lily; Red Dexter, the cheesy hood who functioned as liaison for a local black-marketeering gang; George, the honest junkyard-worker drawn into Murray's and Red's scheme; Murray's father, Oscar, the uncouth, offensive immigrant who felt his social disadvantages justified any foul behavior; Rowena Firestone, Samuel's medically-addicted wife; Leo Firestone, Samuel's sixteen-year-old son; and Harmony Belmont, Leo's next-door girlfriend. (I've noticed that teenaged boys with more curiosity than common sense have played key roles in a number of my books. I'm not inclined to analyze that). And driven by the trio of Samuel, Murray, and young Leo, my story of the junkman became embedded into a much wider narrative of overweening and misguided ambition, and, as the PW reviewer put it, “of the frailty of love and human devotion.” First, Do No Harm was published in 2004, and I'm happy with the result of my work. So it took fifty-plus years? Who's keeping count?

Morals of the story: (1) It's never too early to start writing. (2) It's never too late to go on writing. (3) If you're patient and persistent, you just might live long enough to be an instant success.

Larry Karp's web address is


ajcap said...

Thank you, Mr. Karp. Very inspirational and I loved the last line.

Larry said...

Thank you, AJCAP. Believe it!

Robert Walker said...

Great story, Larry. One never knows what influences as a youth come back to haunt us in either good or bad Karma, but for a writer bottom line is we never say no to a good idea, and we never say die either. I have begun many a novel, put it away for years, only to find its proper time has come...certainly true with my work in progress.
Enjoyed your story; very inspiratonal; fits in with my blog on Jim Ingraham at Acme Authors. Got some pics of Jim up now.


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