Next week, Iâ€™m taking my dog and heading to northern Michigan, a chilly land of tall pine trees, cottages by the water, and tall friendly people, or as I like to think of it: Sweden II. Iâ€™ll be spending three weeks cut off from the world in a rustic cabin, feeding the stove with wood and getting started on my next novel, Kingdom. Solitude, dark woods, morning mist on the lakeâ€¦ it will be oh-so â€œwriterly,â€ in a Hollywood sort of way.
Iâ€™m especially looking forward to the quiet, because one of my favorite places to work in DCâ€”the second floor of the local Starbucks, a lofted space in a beautifully restored old buildingâ€”has become almost unusable over the past few monthsâ€¦ ever since the â€œcrazy guyâ€ arrived. Iâ€™ll call him Bob. Bob arrives at Starbucks as soon as it opens and stays until it is closed. He is there seven days a week. And to be clear, Bob is not crazy like the â€œwild and crazy guyâ€ played by Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live. Bob appears to suffer from schizophrenia. Like John Forbes Nash, Jr. (the subject of A Beautiful Mind), Bob sees people who are not really there, and he carries on lengthy, very loud conversations with them. These conversations mostly consist of angry, profanity-laden attacks on the wide variety of people and institutions who have conspired to ruin his life: the government that first refused to let him kill the people he knew needed to be killed (Bob was, or believes he was, a contract killer for the CIA) and then betrayed him and left him to die in a foreign country; the companiesâ€”Microsoft and Apple most prominentlyâ€”that stole his patents; the bookstores that refused to carry the book he wrote; even the Obama administration, which refuses to heed his sage advice. A sample: Bob flips open the paper and sees a story about bin Laden. His eyes widen. He shouts: â€œThey should have killed that fucker! They should have let me kill that fucker when I had the chance.â€ (Waits for a response from invisible friend.) â€œNo! I told you! I told you! I had him in the crosshairs. I could have taken bin Laden down.â€ (Waits for another response.) â€œLook, itâ€™s all in my book. Didnâ€™t you read the book?â€ If I were a character from one of my novels (all set in the Middle Ages), I would probably think that Bob was either possessed by or communicating with devilish spirits.
However, I like to think of myself as (if only slightly) more enlightened than that. I realize that Bob is suffering from a mental disorder, and I donâ€™t want to make him seem like a bad guy. Heâ€™s actually rather congenial when heâ€™s not talking to invisible people. And heâ€™s smart. In his rants he displays an impressive knowledge of politics, world events, and business. That said, he is more than a little distracting. All his talk of murders and conspiracies can make it hard to focus on the murders and conspiracies Iâ€™m trying to write about in my novels.
So Iâ€™ve been faced with something of a moral dilemma. On the one hand, every time I go to Starbucksâ€”which is less and less often of lateâ€”I sincerely hope that Bob will not be there, that he will have found some other place to haunt. On the other hand, I canâ€™t bring myself to complain about Bob to the management. After all, he needs the Starbucks a lot more than I do. There are other coffee shops where I can write, but how many places welcome a schizophrenic guy who carries on a non-stop, profanity-laced dialogue with an invisible friend? Iâ€™m just glad that Bob found a welcoming place where he can get out of the weather and get some coffee. On the rare occasions when he stops talking and curls up into a chair to sleep, Bob looks downright happy. I wouldnâ€™t want to take that away from him.
And so Iâ€™m off to Michigan, to fulfill another stereotype by writing in a lakeside cabin in the woods. I know itâ€™s trite, but what can I say? Itâ€™s a good place to write. And the only crazy person I have to deal with there is me.
Next week: Californication (on what itâ€™s really like to be a novelist)