If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you probably saw status updates like this last year: “Time to coffee-up and get to work on Chapter 22. It feels like I’m barreling toward the end now.” Chapter 22 of what, you may ask. Well, chapter 22 of my first novel, Midlife Mouse.
This process began two summers ago. While dealing with the worst personal financial crisis of my adult life, I began to post blog entries here and on Facebook about my struggles and how my faith in God was being reshaped in the process. In the meantime, I shared with an old friend from high school some of my pie-in-the-sky ideas for becoming a novelist – whenever my busy life would allow me to pursue that dream. That friend then started a Facebook group called “I think Wayne Franklin should write his novel now.” About a hundred or so friends joined. The pressure was on.
Last August, I began writing. Given that I had been thinking about the first chapter for nearly two years, I was able to knock it out in less than 24 hours. Chapter two took a little longer – about 2 days. Chapter three took a week. Chapter four I worked on in fits and starts over the next four or five months. With a small break in my schedule, I knocked out chapter five in early Spring.
With five chapters under my belt, I asked my TV agent if she could pass them along to someone who could provide feedback and let me know if I was simply wasting my time. I expected her to send it to an agent who specialized in the literary field as she specializes in national cable TV. Instead, she sent the pages to a friend who just happened to be a senior-level exec and publisher of an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
A few weeks passed with no word. My schedule was about to get crazy with two big commercial campaigns. I wanted to get a sense of where I stood before then. While awaiting feedback, I became convinced that if my agent emailed me the feedback, it would be negative. If she called, however, that would be a good sign. One Thursday afternoon in April, I was driving home after running some pre-production errands when I received a call. It was my agent. Good news? My heart raced as I answered.
She told me that she had just received an email from the publishing imprint. Uh-oh. A phone call about an email. I hadn’t accounted for this variable. She said the editor was very enthusiastic about the first five chapters and wanted to read the rest of the manuscript over the weekend to present to her editorial board the next week. I had to reluctantly explain that there was no “rest of the manuscript.” And I wouldn’t be able to start writing again for at least three weeks. The editor was very understanding and we have had a friendly dialogue in the intervening months.
Fortunately, my busy spring of commercial production opened up a summer of opportunity to work on the novel. For the full of last summer, I worked as a novelist. No, I haven’t gotten a check yet for my endeavors, but it was a full-time job. In fact, my days writing looked an awful lot like some of my days editing TV projects: long and longer. On my best days, I would knock out an average 12-page chapter in a single day. More typical were days when I would write 8-10 pages. The book finally came in at 27 chapters and roughly 96,000 words – most of which I wrote over a two-month period.
Since finishing the manuscript, I have not heard any more from the publishing imprint. In the meantime, my TV agent is helping me find the right lit agent to move this thing forward, with the plan being that the two reps would work together to market both publishing and film rights. But is it any good? Well, I’ve had a handful of people read it. Two in particular are good judges of the work (because they don’t bear my last name.) Once is a professor and published author. Another is a writer and former editor at a small publishing house. They both loved it.
Back to our original question: what exactly is a Midlife Mouse? To best answer that, here’s the treatment I sent the publisher:
Bill Durmer is in over his head. Staring headlong at 40, having lost his family business and blaming himself for the impending demise of his hometown, he finds himself bunkered in a darkened hotel room, surrounded by the Mickey-eared commandos of the Walt Disney World S.W.A.T. team. This is not how he expected to spend his summer vacation.
In a genre mash-up of satire, Southern lit and mystery from first-time novelist Wayne Franklin, Midlife Mouse follows under-achieving genius Bill Durmer on an absurd adventure through American pop culture. The simple life of running his family’s electronics store (a life for which he had given up a promising tech career) comes crashing down in one fateful day for his idyllic coastal hometown of Decent Chance, Alabama.
Sleep-deprived and depressed, Bill experiences a hyper-caffeinated epiphany while watching a constant loop of Beauty and the Beast: he wants to be “the baker with his tray like always.” After a lifetime of being told he was destined for greatness only to find his life squarely in the middle of the road of mediocrity, Bill gives up. He wants to be a simple character living in the background of a fantasy world. In the mother of all midlife crises, he does what any formerly levelheaded, upstanding father of three would do: he runs away to Walt Disney World…and he takes his nine-year-old daughter, Cleary, with him.
At the Happiest Place on Earth, Bill finds himself doing anything but blending into the background. An eccentric elderly couple carrying a “towel baby,” costumed characters with a penchant for kidnap, a retro spaceman, ghosts, pirates, Imagineers and suburban housewives battle for Bill’s allegiance in a prophecy-driven turf war that promises to alter his destiny. With the aid of a mysterious bus-driving mentor, Bill navigates the strange and twisty waters of Disney fandom. Opposing him, however, are unseen foes known to Bill only as The Powers. Their efforts to prevent Bill from fulfilling the prophecy know no bounds. Then there’s the little matter of that S.W.A.T. team.
Compounding matters even more is the overbearing presence of his sister, Nancy, a classist Southern Belle to the manner born. Bill’s every move is made in the shadow of a long and storied family history in Decent Chance — a legacy literally blackened in the wake of Bill’s leaving town — and in the even longer shadow of his sister’s disapproval. In the end, Bill must choose whether to accept his prophetic destiny, return home to save Decent Chance or pursue his ill-conceived dream of simply fading into the background.
Through a quirky, but absurdly real, cast of characters and a fantastic series of events, Midlife Mouse holds a satirical mirror up to modern American life, offering a story about midlife crisis, the search for meaning, the changing nature of fandom and the uneasy, hypocritical relationship between Americans and corporate brands. But at its heart, it is a complex portrait of a simple family struggling with the pressures of class, success, and societal identity that threaten to tear them apart.
Oh, and there’s a mouse in there, too.
So that’s it in a nutshell. For a closer peek at the process, here is a list of chapter titles:
Ch. 1: “Skulking in the Shadows of A Giant Spaceman’s Legs”
Ch. 2: “The Mystery of the Towel Baby Couple”
Ch. 3: “The Buffet Promise”
Ch. 4: “According to the Bus Driver”
Ch. 5: “Beware the Cartoon Future That Never Was”
Ch. 6: “All Because of a Yard Sign”
Ch. 7: “Everything’s Disposable”
Ch. 8: “One-Eyed Jack and All of His Trades”
Ch. 9: “The Night of the Black Jubilee”
Ch. 10: “There Goes the Baker”
Ch. 11: “The Hyper-Caffeinated Delusion”
Ch. 12: “A Case of Mistaken Affinity
Ch. 13: “It Take an Army to Fight a Closed-Head Injury”
Ch. 14: “All the Best Storytellers Have Their CDLs”
Ch. 15: “Duct Taped and Stuffed in a Pig”
Ch. 16: “It’s a Big Bus After All”
Ch. 17: “Keep the Home Fish Mounds Burning”
Ch. 18: “Nine Words of Nine Words”
Ch. 19: “Just Call Me Mommy”
Ch. 20: “The Return of the Fishbowl Pajamas”
Ch. 21: “A Melodious Menagerie of Purveyors of Musical Perfection”
Ch. 22: “A Kiss for the Ages”
Ch. 23: “Under the Watchful Gaze of Dwarfs”
Ch. 24: “Fate, as Determined by a Head in a Jar”
Ch. 25: “Ontological Issues Ignored by a Hack Writer”
Ch. 26: “The Last Drawing of Walt Disney”
Ch. 27: “Closing the Book on Bill Durmer”
I want to say a special “thank you” to all my friends, family and supporters who’ve been so encouraging through the course of writing this novel and the ongoing process of working to get it published. This chapter is my meager Christmas gift to you.
A little background on this chapter: Four years ago this week, my family and I visited Disney World. I hadn’t been to the parks in more than two decades, and the experience not only evoked memories of my own childhood, but also allowed me to see it through my then five-year-old daughter’s eyes. I know all the cynical thoughts people have about Disney World and their constant money grab, but I chose to ignore those aspects and simply immerse myself in the vaunted Disney “magic.”
In the following months, whenever life would get stressful, I found myself thinking how much I wished I could get back to the blissful innocence of that trip. It became and in-joke between my daughter and me that we were going to “run away to Disney World.” Not only that, I became obsessed with all things Disney and how much the world’s largest media conglomerate is the result of one man’s uncompromising vision. Meanwhile, I felt that my own vision was being squandered on simply making a living. The disillusionment of struggling to best use my God-given talents mixed with a wistful longing for the faux-finish idealism of Walt’s world to become the genesis of Midlife Mouse.
I thought about the book, its story and characters for the next couple of years, but never committed a word to the page. Once I did, for reasons you can read about here, this first chapter came out almost fully formed. Writing feverishly, trying desperately to make my unorthodox typing style keep up with the flow of words in my head, I finished the chapter in less than a day.
I hope you enjoy reading this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it. God bless and Merry Christmas!
“Skulking in the Shadows of a Giant Spaceman’s Legs”
“Hell of a thing.” As he peered through the fractional slit between the curtains of the darkened hotel room, Bill Durmer spoke a little too loudly. The situation demanded more of an under-the-breath delivery, but he made a habit of never speaking in a manner that could be described as a murmur. He knew it unlikely, but on the off chance that someone should ever write a book about him, he would find it utterly embarrassing to read the phrase “Durmer murmured.” Moreover, being a very empathetic man, (he could never bring himself to darken the doors of a karaoke bar without becoming physically ill) Bill could not bear the shame on behalf of the writer. Therefore, he always spoke loudly and distinctly out of an abundance of caution. He breathed deeply and tried to pierce the pitch to spot even the slightest hint of movement outside.
“Hell of a thing.” Bill cast a sideways glance toward the small figure crouching next to him in the dark. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have chided his daughter for repeating his mild profanity. After all, for most of her nine years, “stupid” and “shut up” were deemed the foulest of language. These, however, were clearly not ordinary circumstances. “I don’t think Mama’s going to be very happy with us.”
Bill sighed. “No, Cleary, I suspect she isn’t.” He half expected his wife to come busting through the door at any moment: first, to scold them both for their pie-eyed foolishness, and second, to save them from their current predicament. The more he considered the first half of that imagined scenario, the more he hoped he wouldn’t see her for quite some time — at least not until he had found a way to explain his actions of the previous two weeks. It wasn’t that Bill was afraid of his wife. She wasn’t shrewish or harsh in any manner. He simply hated to disappoint her. By his estimation, he had disappointed her in grand fashion at least seven times in their marriage. All of those missteps combined now paled in comparison to this most recent adventure. He wondered if she would ever forgive him. Could she? Could anyone? He thought it best to start the process of making amends with the closest of his victims. “I’m sorry I got you into this, Sweetie.”
“It’s okay, Daddy. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Bill could hear the bittersweet smile in her voice. It reminded him of the time she voluntarily gave up her spot in the party scene in the Decent Chance Ballet Company’s annual production of The Nutcracker. Although winning that role had been the proudest moment of her young life, she willingly, out of compassion and a preternatural selflessness, gave it up to her best friend, Dara Thompson.
Thompsons had been friends with Durmers for generations, dating back to the founding of Decent Chance, Alabama as a Utopian experiment in the mid-1800s. At least the families told it that way. In truth, the Thompsons and Durmers were bitter rivals for decades, feuding over the privilege to serve as the town’s official Jubilee Masters. The title was far more regal than the responsibility. In earlier generations, Jubilee Masters were little more than unpaid fishmongers, tasked with scooping up all the shrimp, blue crabs and fish that would mysteriously, spontaneously migrate into the shallows during a Jubilee and then distributing them to all the families in town. As the saying in Decent Chance went, “If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then fishy fingers are its rafters.” Bill often joked that the town’s poetic license was revoked before anyone could bother to define the metaphoric roof those pungent rafters supported.
It was only after 1900, when the city of Bay Minette stole the county seat under cover of darkness, that the rift was healed. Bay Minette’s men had affected the state-mandated move by staging a murder. The idea was to lure the sheriff and his deputies away from the old county seat of Daphne so the county files could be smuggled out while they were away. According to the murder yarn weaved by the Bay Minette leaders, a Durmer was the victim and a Thompson the perpetrator. When the patriarchs of the two families got wind of the hoax, informed by an embarrassed and very sleepy Sheriff wearing pink, one-piece pajamas and a Colt revolver, they resolved to put the feud behind them and unite in defense against a common enemy: everyone not from Decent Chance.
Always more prosperous than neighboring towns, Decent Chance had failed to realize its full potential due to the bitter acrimony of the feud. From that fateful night, however, with the two wealthiest and most powerful of the founding families united in common cause, the town resolved to convince the world what they had long held as fact themselves: that the people of Decent Chance were vastly superior to everyone else. Recent polling data shows that as many as 14 people outside the city actually believe them.
Bill had known Dara’s father, Kenny, since birth. They were best of friends, sharing the captainship of the country club tennis team for three years during junior high school, and once declaring themselves blood brothers after watching an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. They tried to recite the exact oath sworn by Andy and Opie, but could never get past the part about Boojum Snark. The name would send them into peals of laughter every time they said it, until they couldn’t utter more than “Boo” without rolling on the ground, convulsing together in fits of silent guffaws. Their friendship waned for a time in high school when Kenny joined the football team and Bill the marching band. Shortly after graduation, Bill left the state for college, but they picked up where they had left off when Bill moved back home. In the meantime, Kenny had married Bill’s sister.
Cousins and best friends, Cleary and Dara were born only 16 hours apart in adjacent birthing suites at Mobile Infirmary. They took their first steps on the same day. Always the more verbal of the two, Cleary spoke her first words several months prior to her friend, but her first word was “Dara.” It sounded like “Dada,” but Cleary made her meaning known by always patting her cousin on the head like a dog when she said it. In fact, she also said “Dada” when petting the family dog, but everyone wrote that off as coincidence. At three, the girls started pre-ballet classes under the tutelage of Nancy Durmer Thompson, Dara’s mother and Bill’s sister.
Nancy had taken the reins of the Decent Chance Ballet Company from her mother, who had founded it in the mid-60s. From the girls’ first lesson, it was clear to even the most casual observer that Nancy was grooming Dara for future stardom. Maybe it was the way she glided into the studio the first day of class, picked up her daughter, spun her around and announced to all the students and their mothers, “and I’m grooming this one for future stardom.” Nancy was renowned for her tact and subtlety.
Once the girls were old enough to audition for roles in the company’s productions, everyone assumed Nancy would simply wield her power to put Dara in a featured role. Then something unexpected happened. Dara froze up in her audition. Though she eventually danced well, her initial trepidation cast doubts in the minds of the casting committee. For the first two minutes of her allotted five, Dara simply walked in circles, chewing her nails and murmuring to herself. (As a Thompson freed from the curse of her mother’s maiden name, Dara was allowed to murmur with abandon.) The audition disaster put Nancy in an untenable position. If she allowed the committee to have their way, come Christmas her only daughter would be watching from the audience while, as Nancy described them to her husband, “fatties and the spawn of mechanics” stole the spotlight. On the other hand, casting Dara would throw Nancy’s judgment into question. If there was one thing less appealing to Nancy than her daughter’s humiliation, it was damage to her own reputation. So Nancy did the only thing a self-loving, image conscious Junior Leaguer could do: she resolved to treat her daughter as a pariah.
Mere hours after the cast list had been posted, Nancy sat on Bill’s deck high atop the bluff overlooking Mobile Bay, sipping a mint julep and making a show of her disappointment. She alternately cried and fumed and dramatically reassured her daughter that it was okay to be untalented. Plenty of unremarkable people have led fulfilling lives, she reminded her. For her part, Dara couldn’t fathom the sudden flip-flop of her mother’s affections. In all of her seven years, her mother had never said even the slightest disparaging word about her, forgiving mistakes and justifying failures with half-baked excuses and cleverly worded euphemisms, “she possesses so much beauty, it couldn’t be contained in a normal-sized head,” or “why should she use a potty when a planter is a more natural choice?” But this day, Nancy’s euphemisms were wearing thin and occasionally giving way to unshielded insults. Dara could bear it no more. She ran weeping into the house and hid under Cleary’s bed.
Cleary found her there, huddled up with a menagerie of bean-bag animals. She brushed her cousin’s hair back with her fingers and simply said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
Bill suspected something was up when he heard his daughter’s call for help. The tone of her cry didn’t quite ring true, but he ran for her nonetheless. He found her sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, clutching her ankle. He scooped her up and carried her to the sofa. “Katherine!” Calling his wife was unnecessary, as she had already handed off the baby to Kenny and was collecting ice cubes in a dish towel. Before she could reach the sofa with the cold compress, Nancy had identified the loophole that would restore her dignity.
“Dara, dear! You’re back in the show!” She called upstairs. “Isn’t that wonderful news?”
“Your niece is in pain here. Can’t you save your gloating for later?” Bill snapped at his sister.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” Nancy feigned concern for Cleary, shoving her brother aside and taking the girl’s hand with a well-rehearsed look of compassion. “But it’s really a blessing this happened now, because as clumsy as you are this was just as likely to happen on stage. But you can’t help it. You simply have too much of your mother in you.”
“I don’t think it’s that serious,” Katherine interrupted, ignoring the insult. She may have left nursing as a profession to focus on raising her children, but she had never really stopped being a nurse. “Cleary, are you sure you this hurts? I think this will heal up before you have to start rehearsals.”
Cleary let out a pitiful moan and squeezed out a few tears.
“I don’t think so, Mama.” She spied Dara sheepishly entering the room. “It’s okay. I would want Dara to take my place.” She smiled at her cousin. Real tears mixed with false ones.
Bill realized this was the first time he had thought about “The Nutcracker Business,” as it came to be known in the Durmer household, without his blood boiling. Perhaps the bizarre events of the past two weeks had brought him to a place of forgiveness toward his sister. Or maybe it was simply that the rush of adrenalin and the pounding of his pulse in his ears prevented him from feeling anything else.
“I can’t see a thing.” Cleary said, peeking under the curtain. “You think they’re still out there?”
“They’re still out there.”
“How do you know?” she asked with an incredulous tone.
“Because these situations never just end. They always come to a head.”
Cleary snickered, “And you’ve been in these situations how many times before?”
“Never,” Bill demurred. “But I watch a lot of TV. I am just a glorified TV repairman after all.”
“No, you’re not. You’re a genius.” Had Cleary been able to see her father’s reaction to her words, she would have seen a man humbled and grateful. At that moment, Bill felt at least one person in the world truly understood him. She didn’t offer her praise with conditions or with scorn as his sister often did, nor did she temper it with talk of contentment and acceptance of one’s circumstances, as would her mother. There was no talk of prophecies or destiny or “word bearers” – words he had heard all too often over the last two weeks. She stated it simply as fact. For that, Bill would be eternally grateful.
Suddenly, it began to rain the hard rain of a Central Florida summer thunderstorm. Now came the tink-tink-tink of tiny hailstones rapping on the window. Bill felt sorry for those outside in this mess, and for a moment considered inviting them inside to get dry. He knew that would be a mistake. A flash of lightning illuminated the courtyard. In that instant, Bill could make out the shapes of men crouching behind the alphabet blocks or skulking in the shadows of a giant spaceman’s legs. Thunder rumbled and shook the window so hard that both Bill and Cleary jumped back clear of the glass, just in case.
They slowly crept back to their vantage point. With each flash of lightning, Bill tried to discern if any of the figures on the roof were actual snipers or simply metal cutouts of toy soldiers. He saw one of the figures move slightly. Another flinched at a particularly bright flash of light. The lightning glinted off the front element of another’s rifle scope.
Cleary sighed, “Yep. They’re still out there.”
“Yep.” Bill tried to count them. Thanks to the lightning, he had made out at least two dozen, but he suspected many more. He and Cleary both started at the sound of footsteps from the roof above. Bill shifted his weight and collapsed back against the bed. They were surrounded. How had it come to this? All he wanted was a fresh start, to embrace a new dream. How had he let it spin so far out of control? He wanted to offer his daughter words of comfort. He wanted to reassure her that it would all be okay, but he couldn’t. When he tried to speak, the lies caught in his throat and would go no further.
All he could muster was this: “As God is my witness, I never knew Disney World had its own S.W.A.T. team.”
©2010, Wayne Franklin. All rights reserved.