Today, I’d like to welcome fellow Seventh Street Books author Gordon McAlpine, for a guest post about his new release, Woman With a Blue Pencil (Seventh Street Books). Welcome, Gordon!
Woman with a Blue Pencil: Making the Invisible Visible
By Gordon McAlpine
My recently published novel, Woman with a Blue Pencil, features an unusual turn: the main character never actually appears in the book.
The novel opens in the present day with the discovery of a dusty lockbox in the attic of a house in Garden Grove, California. Inside the box are three items. The first is a pulp spy thriller published in 1945 under the pen name William Thorne. The second is a sheaf of letters from the book’s editor, primarily addressed to its author, dating from 1941-1944. The last is an unpublished novella handwritten by the same author on 102 sheets of WWII era, GI issue writing paper, mud-splattered and bloodied in some spots. It is signed with the author’s real name, Takumi Sato, and is titled “The Revised”.
The book, the letters, and the novella each tell a story.
But, taken together, they convey a life otherwise marginalized to the point of invisibility.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, 22 year-old, aspiring author Takumi Sato must, for commercial and political reasons, radically revise the working manuscript of his novel about Sam Sumida, a Japanese-American academic turned detective. The new, publishable, version of Sato’s novel becomes a jingoistic tale of American heroism in which Sumida is replaced by a Korean agent of the O.S.S. and all Japanese characters are depicted as villains – this is The Orchid and the Secret Agent, the pulp thriller published in 1945. But the excised character, Sumida, continues to exist in the handwritten novella, which serves as Sato’s secret counterpoint to the published book. In this novella, “The Revised”, the character Sumida finds himself suddenly unrecognizable to a world that has been altered to exclude him; he never comprehends that he is a character cut from a work of fiction. So he moves through his strange new reality. What else can he do? Between chapters of these two diverse works, we observe through letters the manipulative injunctions of Maxine Wakefield, Sato’s editor (the woman with the blue pencil), as she urges him toward the writing of his pulp thriller, first insisting he excise Sumida and then any critiques of America, even as Sato himself, a second-generation Japanese immigrant, is forced to an internment camp.
Three documents found in the dusty lockbox – a published thriller, a novella, a sheaf of letters…
Together they constitute a kind of archeological relic of an otherwise unknown young writer’s life. More than seventy years past now, the challenges that Takumi Sato faced remain contemporary. What can we say we know of such a character?
First, there is his youthful ambition, which serves as the entry point through which Maxine Wakefield can convince Sato that, despite the social ravages of the war, he may yet realize his dream of being a novelist – that is, if he is willing to make a few “minor” changes to his work. She offers the Siren’s call of commerce and political expediency in the guise of “being realistic”. Much of the writing advice she offers is good, which further muddies the morality of the young writer’s choices.
Second, there is embedded in young Sato’s character the common companion to unfettered ambition — a propensity to rationalization. Maxine appeals to his love of family, even as she suggests he demonize his entire race. She argues that if he achieves commercial success the fruits of America’s bounty will be enjoyed by all those he loves (of course, this bounty must occur behind the barbed wire of the Manzanar Detention Center). A different kind of femme fatale, she offers family loyalty as a cover for their shared ambition.
Yet, ultimately, the relics in the dusty lockbox indicate that, despite the temptations to which Takumi Sato succumbs in his one pseudonymously published novel, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, he nonetheless retains a viable sense of self and even integrity – indeed, it may be that his ultimate understanding of enforced dislocation, isolation, and of being perceived as the wrong kind of man — an understanding that he exhibits in his novella, “The Revised (written after he sends off the final draft of his jingoistic pulp thriller) — might never have found voice without his having previously penned his politically and commercially expedient abomination. Could it be that, having betrayed himself and his people, he comes to understand betrayal…to recognize it…ultimately, to loathe and condemn it? Also contained in the lockbox is evidence of Sato’s death in 1944 (no spoilers here with further details), leaving us to wonder at what he might have accomplished as a writer had he lived longer. It is doubtful he’d have written any more potboilers. Judging from the evidence in the box, his life, as we can know it, proves to be one of self-discovery — invisibility overcome, first by acknowledging it and then by making it visible, despite everything.
Of course, this is all a fiction. And, even in the actual fiction, Woman with a Blue Pencil, Takumi Sato never appears. He is the moving force behind the action; nonetheless, he remains the phantom of a phantom. Still, in a soon-to-be torn down house, someplace, sometime, mightn’t therebe such a lockbox that contains such things by such a young person? Or, mightn’t we all contain such a lockbox — replete with our shame, our worst influences, and our triumphs — forgotten or hidden someplace deep within ourselves?
As there is no real Takumi Sato the remaining questions are as follows: Am I Sato? Are you?
Gordon McAlpine is the author of Hammett Unwritten and numerous other novels, as well as a middle-grade trilogy, The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe. Additionally, he is coauthor of the nonfiction book The Way of Baseball, Finding Stillness at 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A., and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in Southern California.