About my first novel
Prologue: In 1991 my wife of 15 years decided that she had enough of me and we divorced. As a direct result my engineering career lost its focus. I lost all promotional drive. All I could really do was act through the motions like I gave a shit (when I really didn’t). I still managed to have a few career successes but my heart was clearly not in the corporate game anymore. All my previous promotions and advances prior to the divorce were all about building a future with my wife and providing for my daughter. But when that was gone so was the drive to succeed. It took me a lot of years to figure that out, but that’s the truth as I’ve come to see it.
As unsurprisingly as the divorce changed my life, my goals changed as well. And as I mentioned a minute ago, career was no longer a driving force. I remember sometime shortly thereafter writing down a list of ten things that I wanted to accomplish before I died. Morbid? No. The list was an attempt to articulate meaning and introduce some structure into my new life. And the four most relevant list items to you, gentle reader are: my daughter (priority #1), learning a second language, more travel, and writing a complete novel.
So in ’97 after I had passed my 7 year anniversary with Intel and was finally eligible for a 2 month sabbatical, I combined it with my vacation time and took my 9th trip to South America. However, that time it wasn’t going to be a one or two week business trip but instead was going to be a blowout – itinerary free – twelve week backpacking trip.
I did zero planning. I purchased a roundtrip ticket to Santiago, Chile with no other real destination in mind as I expected to feel my way around the continent.
At some point I headed south into Patagonia and then found my way to the very end of South America where one quite literally runs out of road. I headed north following a different road, traveling up through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. And those travel journals that I kept – along with others – ended up being the basis for my first novel.
‘Journey to La Paz’ takes place in three locations: Asia, Washington, DC and South America. The story has four main characters: Paul, a somewhat jaded semi-retired structural engineer. Michael, a friend from his high school days and Paul’s French buddy, Simon who he had met while working in Asia. And last, the landscape; the vastness of the South American wilderness which was the character single most responsible for claiming the story’s one and only victim.
The story opens in Washington, DC with Simon flying in from Singapore to visit his retired diplomat uncle who lives in Georgetown. And to kill two birds with one stone, visit his good friend, Paul who lives nearby in an old townhouse near DuPont Circle.
Paul was working for a large architectural firm but was in the process of slowly disengaging. He had recently exercised a good chunk of his stock options, and was consequently sitting on a large pile of money wondering what to do next when he gets an email from his old buddy, Michael who invites him down to South America to join in a backpacking trip.
Michael arrived in South America first. By the time Paul arrived at the rendezvous point in La Paz, Michael had disappeared. Paul looks for him and eventually Simon flies down to join him in the search. But they find nothing but the increasing mystery of his disappearance.
A side note is needed at this point: to backpack in South America is to discover what is referred to by cognoscenti as ‘the gringo trail.’ The mythical trail starts in Quito, Ecuador and runs all the way south to Ushuaia, Argentina. The trail passes through all the usual places like Lima, the Isla Del Sol, La Paz, Cusco, and Puerto Montt.
One of the interesting things about the gringo trail is if you spend enough time on it and traverse all of it then you will find yourself running into some of the same people over and over. Maybe that doesn’t happen to everybody but it certainly happened to me.
The singular literary element that I wanted to employ in my story was that of human miscommunication. Taken at the most fundamental level it can be generally considered a fact that listening to someone’s every last word does not necessarily make for a complete knowledge transfer. Culture, race, sex, age, religion, socio-economic status, life experience level, and education all work to compound the noise in our daily human miscommunications. As Anais Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
I tried to weave an aspect of that into my tale. As I wrote, midway into the story it turns out that Paul and Simon were searching for a dead man; yet nowhere in the subsequent story does anyone ever figure that out. Why? Because Paul repeatedly gets emails from fellow backpackers who say they just saw Michael. ‘We had dinner with him last night in Cusco.’ Or ‘I saw the guy you were asking about at a hostel two days ago in Quito.’ Or ‘You just missed him.’
Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that we all have less than perfect powers of observation. For example, to some people – tall, blond, good looking men of a certain age look more or less alike. And that’s all fine, at least right up until there’s a crime scene (or the suspicious absence of one).
And because every story needs a proper villain I decided to model my bad guy after a German orthopedic surgeon that I had the misfortune to spend two weeks traveling with in Bolivia on my trip in ’97. And as the story has it, he’s the only guy who knows most of the truth of what happened to Michael.
Ultimately my story was written about friendship, betrayal, and human error. Michael’s fate was intrinsically bound to a series of small misjudgments that so often come to affect people who cross the operational boundaries from a low risk environment to a high risk environment.
And people do disappear all the time. And I would guess that more times than not, no one ever discovers the complete truth of what really happened. Sure, sometimes the body is found or there is some cookie crumb trail that leads to some particular plausible outcome. But some of that evidence is at best conjecture.
But the way I wanted to tell my story was from the perspective of zero residual evidence; Michael just simply vanished to be buried in a shallow unmarked grave next to a river in the Bolivian jungle. And sometimes our demise, given the right circumstances, can be as simple as just that. I’ve learned first hand that small human errors have a tendency to compound themselves in high risk environments.
PS – And I got to write a death scene. I can’t begin to tell you how challenging that was. It was a lot work to create a death that was both original and contextually relevant.