The Story Behind the Novel ‘Hell City’

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was my debut thriller, “Hell City.” The Rap Sheet just published the story behind the novel. It’s all about how a boy with a car made of kitchen chairs drove around the world in his mind, then took his imagination on the road of life, steering it through stints as a poet, a newspaper reporter, a musician and, finally, a novelist.

“…half cows, men with blood-smeared aprons…”

Let’s go back to the era when this author was 5 years old, standing on a rooftop in West Harlem, marveling at the hard dark and light of the Meatpacking District while on a trip to my father’s bookkeeping office–trucks with half cows, men with blood-smeared aprons, crows wheeling under the vaulted girders of the West Side Highway viaduct. Then came the poems, during my college days and beyond. Poems that refracted the chiaroscuro of the city’s façades, the dolor of her teeming but lonely streets. Poems that found their way into many a small-press magazine, into chapbooks. Poems that caused Library Journal to cite my work for its “startling imagery.”

Along the way, I worked in the city’s warehouses, drove her cabs, wrote for her newspapers, and sang in her nightclubs. Her underbelly was my beat, forging a gritty, cinematic prose style.

Note: as part of a special promotion, my novel, “Hell City” can be downloaded free from the Kindle Store on Nov. 14 and 15 only.

My Novel Will Be Free for a Day — Oct. 17

Hell City” is part of a special Amazon Kindle program that allows me to offer some free days, when you can go to the thriller’s Kindle page and download it free of charge. You heard right. Should I say: “an offer you can’t refuse.”

The date is Oct. 17. Just visit the page anytime that day and click. And if you don’t have a Kindle, no problemo. Amazon offers a free reader app you can download for your PC or Mac. You can also read it on an iPad, an iPhone or a Droid.

In “Hell City,” you’ll encounter unforgettable characters, an unlikely love affair and a race against devastation. “I was mesmerized,” writes one Amazon reviewer, who goes on:

I couldn’t put this down. I totally got into the characters, Jack and Annette. If this is his first novel, definitely can’t wait for his second.

Has Al-Qaida Been Reinvigorated?

In the lead story in today’s New York Times, senior terrorism correspondent Eric Schmitt — who recently wished me luck with my 9/11-launched novel “Hell City” — writes:

The attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens has set off a new debate here and across the Middle East about whether Al Qaeda has been reinvigorated amid the chaos of the Arab Spring or instead merely lives on as a kind of useful boogeyman, scapegoat or foil.

There’s a great debate going on in Washington and the Middle East over whether al-Qaida (I use the AP-style spelling) is operational or whether newer insurgent groups are simply deploying its terrifying brand. That’s kind of where the term al-Qaida 2.0 comes from.

One thing is certain: there is no shortage of entrenched, sophisticated insurgent groups, the Haqqani clan in the Af-Pak region being one of the most dangerous. They have been responsible for most of the attacks on embassies in the region and many attacks on our troupes. It’s possible they are behind the recent deadly bombing in Kabul, another protestation over the Youtube-posted film under the name of “Innocence of Muslims,” although so far a branch of the insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami has claimed responsibility.

Consider this: it was the Kabul bombing, taken together with the other attacks across some 40 cities in the Middle East and North Africa, that led the U.S-led coalition to curtail operations with Afghan security forces, the very core of what remains of our mission in Afghanistan. Talk about decimation. Man, what do we have left?

Image

So, the idea that organized, sophisticated insurgency, jihad, has somehow been defanged in the Middle East and beyond is simply nuts. The entire region is on fire and is coming apart at the seams.

Which brings me to the plot of “Hell City.” As the protagonist, counterterrorism commander Jack Oldham, believes: “Al-Qaida isn’t dead — yet!” What Jack believes is that we can’t go to sleep on the “new gen” al-Qaida as he and his comrades call it, which is why they track American-born insurgents and their connections to various groups in Af-Pak and Yemen. Among them, by the way, is a fictionalized version of the Haqqani tribe. Can the reconstituted Qaida pull off another “big one” in New York? Well, that’s what reading (click for Kindle page) is all about.

New Terrorist Group at Center of Thriller

A fictionalized version of the Haqqani tribe, a Pakistan-based organization the U.S. State Department just added to its list of terrorist groups, is at the center my thriller, “Hell City.”

The novel casts the group as part of a metastasizing al-Qaida that is bent on pulling off another “big one” in New York.

Fiction aside, the thriller is a wake-up call on the true threat of al-Qaida and its affiliates in the post-bin Laden world.

A Haqqani fighter.
Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for the Guardian

Think organized crime. You cripple the New York Mafia and the Russians, the Jheri Curls (Dominican), the Latin Kings and other, fiercer groups, take over the town.

The Haqqanis are entrenched, widespread, connected and virulent. They’ve been behind many of the recent attacks on our troops and diplomats in the Af-Pak region.

Let’s face it. The guy on the subway figures al-Qaida is broken, and he can’t keep up with the parade of threats and new groups. So he turns off, goes to sleep.

To Jack Oldham, the protagonist of “Hell City,” sleep is the enemy. The vigilant commander on New York’s Joint Terrorism Task Force never forgot how the country went into hibernation soon after the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993.

The novel’s narrator makes the case:

But the city had come a long way. In her own rugged fashion, she had gone from Trade Center trauma to annoyed indifference, her alligator skin shielded against the seemingly endless terror alerts and aborted plots of the new-gen jihad of the day. The first attack on the towers rocked the city to its core, but it was soon seen as a botched plot by militants who couldn’t shoot straight. They were viewed through the short-range, next-quarter glasses of the West — What? A blind cleric operating out of some storefront mosque in Jersey? Boneheads with names so long they blurred comprehension. What’s this? The Three Stooges? You gotta be kidding me.

Now, with bin-Laden — and other al-Qaida leaders — dead, our country is lulled into thinking that all the insurgents can manage stateside is the one-off, the lone-wolf attack. The airline bomber over Detroit. The Times Square bomber.

But they’re not looking deeper into the landscape of insurgency. Yemen and other African nations have become hotbeds of development for insurgent groups. And then there are the Haqqanis. They’ve been operating with impunity, deep and wide and under the radar — for a generation.

My Debut Thriller — About al-Qaida 2.0 — to be Released on 9/11

Yes, it’s fiction, but my first novel, the thriller “Hell City,” just may foreshadow al-Qaida’s ability to pull off another “big one.” The book just might sound a wake-up call for a city (New York) and a country that largely has gone to sleep on the issue?

“A striking read that will leave you looking around the corner in fear,” writes Kirkus Reviews in a review of the novel.

A news release, announcing the 9/11 release date, went out yesterday nationwide.

Terrifying as today’s headlines, “Hell City” tumbles Gotham toward devastation yet again as it tracks the newest breed of jihadists bent on a major attack.

Beginning on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, the e-book edition of the novel will be available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. For now, I’m pricing the e-book at $0.99, to encourage new readers.

I will post regularly here on the novel — its backstory, its genesis, its characters. You can also “like” me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter for the latest news.

Honeyboy’s Grammy: A Moment for a Great American Voice

The legendary bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards received a lifetime achievement award at last night’s Grammy Awards ceremonies. One of the last of the first generation bluesmen, Honeyboy was a close pal of Robert Johnson and a contemporary of Charley Patton and other blues pioneers.

The 94-year-old Honeyboy was instrumental in establishing a unique American voice, one that was born of slavery and struggle, spirit and magic. It’s a rich history that begat rock and roll and even rap. Artists from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Jay Z emanate from those underpinnings, and many more contemporary artists have paid homage to this field of music from which they came.

If the blues seems like a quaint, dusty, irrelevant music genre, give a listen to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Johnson and Honeyboy. Listen long in the dark with your eyes closed and go on a journey to the center of the American music universe. And when you turn the lights on, read a copy of the late Robert Palmer’s “Deep Blues,” a thorough primer on the music and its handprints on American culture.

Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards, left, and Allen Shadow.

I got a chance to talk with Honeyboy after one of the many blues concerts I’ve promoted over the years that have included the likes of Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, James Cotton, Earl King, Little Milton, Odetta, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Honeyboy was as charming as he was informative, happy to tell stories of Johnson and the early days. I considered it an honor and was pleased to see this giant of American music recognized last night.
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Breakthroughs, Bitterness and Biopics

Music biographies mesmerized me when I was a kid. Whether it was Glenn Miller or Elvis Presley, it was always the same fascinating formula: talent and tenacity leading to the precipice of success, with the artist always searching for that one elusive element to define his signature sound, to breakthrough. With Miller it was the addition of trombones. The proceedings always put me on the edge of my seat and the breakthroughs set me reeling. I guess it was in my blood.

It persists. The other night I watched two great documentary-style biopics on TV, one on Johnny Cash, another on Willie Nelson. Willie, as many of his fans may not realize, was actually a Nashville songwriter penning such classics as “Crazy,” which Patsy Cline etched into the music lexicon. Despite his preeminent status as a writer, Willie couldn’t get arrested as an artist in Music City. His quirky phrasing was way too off-beat for the 60s sound, which was infused with sweet strings and pop arrangements.

At the age of 40, Willie returned home to Texas. Such a move would have meant a life sentence selling insurance had history not intervened. As fate would have it, Woodstock Nation had opened the doors to multiple music movements by the early 70s, and Willie realized that such hippie hangouts as Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters were ready for a new kind of country artist. He enlisted his buddy Waylon Jennings, among others, and set about launching a novel sound to a new audience. His ultimate success turned country music, and the music establishment at large, on its head. Ultimately, he was responsible for redefining music, establishing its “outlaw” class and creating the Austin revolution as well as worldwide social activism that persists to this day.

Despite his huge outsider success, Nashville rejected this giant yet again. By the 1980s, you couldn’t find a Willie song on mainstream country radio, and forget about a major label deal.

Okay, let’s get right down to the hard part. Cash was just another music god to be tumbled unceremoniously from Olympus. By the 80s, he, too, was cast out like so much trash. His popularity was dwindling, and he was struggling to find an audience and make a living.

So these outlaw outcasts banded together, literally, forming the country supergroup The Highwaymen, along with Waylon and Kris Kristofferson. Talk about a Mount Rushmore of talent. They had taken fate into their own hands and, once again, set out to redefine the music scene, outside the establishment, all on their own.

A Bronx boy, I was still getting my country legs under me, when I hit Nashville in the late 80s. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the likes of Willie and Johnny weren’t getting mainstream air play, why I could eat lunch with Emmylou Harris but couldn’t hear her songs on country radio, why Nanci Griffith was considered a darling in all the clubs, to all the execs, but couldn’t get the chart toppers and eventually carped about it in interviews.

I was just getting introduced to the hard truth of the music industry: bitterness. Griffith was bitter, my friend Artie Traum (from back home in Woodstock) — one of the sweetest guys to ever grace the business — was expressing a degree of bitterness, too, in interviews of the day. I was just learning.

The songwriting trade in Nashville was rough. By year two, I was saying you had to learn to live on a diet of stones. Rejection was the blue-plate special everyday. It took me two years to get my first major song contract and more to get my first staff writing job and my first cut. Everyone who stuck with it had war stories: the song on hold that never happened, the artist cut that got dropped by the label or never got released as a single or didn’t make it above 20 on the charts. But, despite eventual successes and even industry support, I left after a decade to pursue a career as an artist, packing scars and wisdom, love and hate.

But back to Johnny Cash. One of the greatest artists to “walk the line,” he faced the pure pain of artistry more deeply, more movingly than anyone before him. Late in his career, with the help of producer Rick Rubin, Johnny faced his inner darkness, his demons, his truth, his soul. With such albums as “American Recordings” and “Unchained,” he found a vast and vital new audience, just years before his death. His new material was so raw that family members had a tough time listening. They told him it sounded like he was saying goodbye. He told them he was.

Pure Johnny Cash

In the Cash bio, artists such as Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp and Vince Gill expressed the true painful tumble that all artists must face. Mellencamp himself recently penned a telling if rambling article on the biz in HuffPost, a blog post that established a wellspring of conversation in the social media sector.

So, this little Bronx boy, who reeled from the Glenn Miller story and cut and broke his teeth on Music Row, finally came to understand bitterness and the role it plays in any music career. No one is exempt. It may be (excuse me) a bitter pill to swallow, but I recommend downing it to develop a good artist-immune system. Another words, one has to learn to deal with it, embrace it, pain and all, and find a way to move on. Carry it on your back, in your suitcase, in your heart, on your skin — the rose tattoo of the music artist.

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