Hello, DTRs. Unfinished Business, Ali # 16, goes on sale in paperback on June 28. Yes, it’s an Ali book, but before you readers who only like J.P. Beaumont go rushing off in a snit, hold her there a minute, partner. Remember the good old days when there were real variety shows on TV? Yes, Dinah Shore, Garry Moore, and Carol Burnett were the hosting mainstays, but each week guest artists would show up as well—Dean Martin, Jim Nabors, Glen Campbell. It’s the same case here. It’s an Ali book all right, but when the people in Sedona require the services of a cold case guy in Washington State, guess who they call for help? Yup, none other than J.P. Beaumont who shows up in all his first-person curmudgeonly glory. So just in case you missed that the first time around, here’s a second crack at it.
For those of you who pay attention to subject lines, that was the NOTICE. What follows is the NOTE:
If you were to poll authors of all kinds and ask them which is their LEAST FAVORITE fan question, I’m pretty sure this one would top the list: Where do you get your ideas?
The wide-eyed innocents who ask that question, often people sitting in the front rows of live events, make it sound as though ideas are everywhere, flapping around in the great outdoors. It implies that if writers happen to have the proper kind of butterfly net, they can dash out there, capture a few, and put then add them into whatever book happens to be underway at the time.
For me personally, that is definitely not the case. Due to separate inquiries in the last few weeks, I thought I’d share the story of how one such idea-turned-character came into being.
I grew up in a family of seven kids. We did our homework at the kitchen table while our mother made dinner. When it was time to set table, you can bet the homework was done or, as Evie would say, we’d all have “another think coming.” All these decades later in my writerly world that means can work with a fair amount of distraction. I do not write at a desk. I have a laptop and, as it happens, a perfect laptop lap since I also have exceptionally long thighs. While working I sit in my writing chair—sometimes in the family room or sometimes, as now, out on the back porch. In the family room, Bill’s TV chair is adjacent to my writing chair—as in hand-holding adjacent with no intervening end table.
One day, as I sat in my writing chair preparing to write the next Ali book, Bill said to me, “You know AIs are pretty interesting. You should write a book with an artificial intelligence in it.”
I’m a liberal arts major. He’s a retired electronics engineer, so I looked at him in some astonishment and asked, “Are you talking to me?”
Over the course of the next several weeks, Bill began handing me articles he’d plucked from various scientific journals, all of them dealing with AI, and I dutifully read through them one by one. My husband maintains that there’s a Waring Blender hiding inside my head. Information comes into my head through my various senses and then goes through the blending process. Later, when that same information leaks out through my fingertips into my keyboard, it is fundamentally changed. And that’s exactly what happened. The scientific stuff Bill provided went into my storyteller’s head and came out as a character—Stu Ramey’s pet AI, Frigg. As for the book? It turned out to be Man Overboard. Once I figured out who the bad guy was–a wannabe serial, Frigg turned out to be the AI had had created and trained to function as his partner in crime.
My favorite thing about Frigg is that she’s very like Joe Friday in that she’s all about the facts, ma’am, with a very limited understanding of idiomatic English. One day, when Stu demands in exasperation, “What does that have to do with the price of peanuts?” Frigg immediately launches off into reciting that day’s peanut futures.
By the end of the first draft and with the bad guy out of commission, control of Frigg is handed over to Stu. Aware of the possible dangers a killer-trained AI might pose, Stu decides to pull the plug on her. In the manuscript I submitted to New York, when the story ended, Frigg was dead as a doornail.
Once I finished writing the book, I liked it, but I was uneasy. At the time I submitted it, I was dealing with a new editor who was and remains to this day your basic technophobe. I worried that when she hit the AI part of the story, she would announce “This is terrible!” toss the manuscript over her shoulder, and then demand the publisher’s advance back. Since I’d already spent the advance money, the idea of having to return it was very concerning.
As it turns out, all that worry was for naught. When the editor finished the book, she called me and said, “You can’t kill Frigg.” And so I didn’t. I rewrote the ending of Man Overboard, and in the published version Frigg is no longer a goner. You’ll find that in Unfinished Business as well as in my upcoming Collateral Damage, Frigg, like the Big Lebowski, still abides.
Happy reading and happy summer!