Nobody Knows Anything

In his highly amusing anecdotal book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter In his funny, anecdotal book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman (creator of such classic screenplays as “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” and “All The President’s Men”) famously said “Nobody knows anything”. He was referring to the fact that, despite decades of experience and the accumulated wisdom of thousands of studio executives, no one in the film business could accurately predict which films would be successful after they were released.

And, of course, he’s been proved right time after time – huge, epic movies costing a quarter of a billion dollars fail spectacularly (see “John Carter of Mars”… or perhaps don’t) while small, indie movies that even the film makers thought would find only small audiences, became huge blockbusters (“Blair Witch Project”, “Paranormal Activity”, “Napoleon Dynamite”).

Clearly, the same goes for fiction. Who foresaw the extraordinary success of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy? Who knew “Mommy-Porn” would be the Next Big Thing?

Back in the Eighties, before I published my first novel “Kissing Through A Pane Of Glass”, I was still trying to find my writing voice… and not having much luck.

Back then I wasn’t interested in writing anything that might be deemed “commercial” or “genre”- what I wanted was to write a Booker Prize winner and follow in the footsteps of my literary heroes Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie. I started (and abandoned) numerous supposed “literary” novels. I even wrote two hundred pages of a comic historical farce before it occurred to me that the only thing farcical about the project was that I was trying to write it.

At the same time, I had become fascinated with sub-atomic physics and quantum mechanics, and what it could tell us about the ultimate nature of reality.

Although I had an academic background in sciences, it wasn’t the “science” that interested me so much as the theory that the way the cosmos operated at the sub-atomic level was not only stranger than one might imagine, but stranger than one could imagine!

Many of the discoveries made by theoretical physicists in the 1920s and 30s bore a remarkable similarity to certain ancient teachings in Eastern religious thought: I remember being completely absorbed by a book called “The Tao of Physics”.

Before I knew it, I had an idea for a new novel. It would be called “The Uncertainty Principle” (after Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg’s famous proposition that it is impossible to measure simultaneously both the position and velocity of a sub-atomic particle with absolute accuracy or certainty.) The novel would take the form of a comic, surreal odyssey in which – over a few days, as he approaches his 30th birthday – our hapless hero Jonathan Muon tries to navigate a world which no longer operates in a way familiar to him, but as it might behave at the microscopic, sub-atomic level.

Yeah, I know: it sounds absurd, ridiculous… and impossible to pull off. But I was confident – or rather I was young, naive and had nothing to lose by giving it a go. I knew, even before I started, that the chances of a finding a publisher for a book like this was minimal. But that wasn’t the point. The point was: I really, really wanted to write it.

I can’t remember how long it took to write the book – a few weeks, maybe. Not long. It seemed to pour out of me with a rather beguiling “stream-of-consciousness” ease. When it was finished, I put it aside for a couple of weeks, and then when I felt enough time has passed, I read it through in one sitting.

When I got to the end I shook my head, smiled and thought: “What was I thinking?”

Oddly, the book was everything I had hoped it would be: it was surreal, it was funny (at least I thought so), it was thought-provoking… but I was pretty sure that it was also self-indulgent, confusing and just too weird to find a readership. When, years later, I found myself with a high-powered agent (who would later go on to represent no less a figure than J.K.Rowling) I didn’t even show it to him: by then I thought it an embarrassing experiment written by a neophyte writer who didn’t know what he was doing. The manuscript went into the drawer marked “Nice Try”, never to be seen again.


After many years of trying to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter, I decide it’s time to write a new novel. When the book (a thriller called “Implicated”) is finished, even though I still have my high-powered agent, I decide to self-publish (another story for another time). I enjoy the process so much that I get the rights to my previously published backlist (now out of print) and re-publish them all as ebooks. I achieve a modicum of success, both commercially and critically, and congratulate myself for taking the “indie” plunge.

And then, one day, I find “The Uncertainty Principle” sitting dusty and forlorn in a bottom drawer, and out of curiosity, I give it a read. And guess what? It’s still the same self-indulgent, confusing, weird book I recalled. Only, twenty-odd years on, I’m amazed to find that it’s still funny and still strangely thought-provoking too…

Well, you can guess what’s coming next. I give it a swift polish and release it into the wild. Only having neither the courage of my convictions nor the fortitude to withstand a slew of terrible reviews, I publish it as “Peter Michael Rosenberg WRITING AS Tyler Montreux”. I figure that, if there’s a shit-storm, I can always somehow blame it on Tyler…

All I hoped for was that maybe one person would read it and not think it sucked too badly.

The novel has been out for some months now. It has not achieved bestseller status – hell, it’s barely sold more than a few hundred copies so far. But here’s the thing: it’s garnered some of the best reviews I’ve ever received:

“The funniest book I’ve read in a long while. More than that, though. Intelligent and thought-provoking. In many ways insane. Most of all, a pleasure,” said one reader.

“Rosenberg makes existential angst fun in this surreal masterpiece! Hysterically funny and clever, there are too many brilliant insights to count!” said another.

“The craziness of Jonathan’s world immediately reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s works. I think this is the highest complement I could pay to an author. Don’t get me wrong, this most certainly isn’t a Vonnegut imitation. This is a very unique story told in a very entertaining way,” said a third.

These particular reviews gave me more pleasure than any that I’ve ever received. They not only justify the book’s existence but, in some small way, my own.

Perhaps I should have given it to my agent all those years ago? Perhaps it would have won me the Booker Prize? After all, as has never been clearer, when it comes to film, fiction, art or the economy: Nobody Knows Anything.

Especially me.

A Fortuitous Mistake…

Who, me?In the pre-internet days (and, for younger readers, we’re not talking about the Middle Ages) finding information on anything was a much harder proposition than it is today. For those of us, say, who wanted to learn about the art and craft of creative writing, about our only choice was to subscribe to one of the monthly magazines that promised to help aspiring authors climb the forbidding mountain that was “Publication”, albeit one rather precipitous step at a time.

These magazines – usually rather worthy and not very well designed –  were comprised mostly of “how-to” articles (of varying usefulness), the occasional author profile (sometimes helpful) and numerous advertisements for what was once known as Vanity Publishing (completely useless). Most of all, though, they peddled Hope: they made the seemingly impossible task of becoming a published author appear – if not easy – then at least possible.

And one way of getting published was to enter the short story competitions that were a staple of these magazines. The nominal cash awards that accompanied a successful win were far less important than the chance of seeing your story in print, knowing that dozens – who knows, perhaps even hundreds (!) – of other subscribers would be reading your (now) prize-winning work.

Each month there would be a theme of some kind – perhaps it was to write a story from the point of view of a dog, or alternatively, you’d be provided with an opening line and all you had to do was write the rest of the story. It was a long while ago, and I no longer remember all the details.

Except for one time. And it’s one I’ll never forget.

It was summer – July, I think – and that month’s issue arrived just as I was about to head off on vacation for a couple of weeks. I had been writing without a break for months on end and had already decided that this would also be a holiday from words: I could read other people’s fiction, but I was not going to write so much as a postcard home. However, as I was setting off, I couldn’t resist flicking through the magazine briefly and noted that this month’s competition was to write a 2000 word story in which the first line of dialogue was: “Why me?”. Hmmm. Not particularly inspiring, but then the remits rarely were.

I thought no more about it. Until…

On the remote Greek island where I was enjoying my so-called “break” from words, the short story competition kept creeping into my consciousness, despite my every attempt to keep it at bay. And then one morning, I awoke from a dream with an image so striking that I knew I had to write it down.

A man, alone in his home, is awakened by a noise downstairs and goes to investigate. As he reaches the bottom stair, a huge hand shoots out of the darkness and pins him to the wall – a gun is pressed to his head and a voice whispers menacingly “It’s your time to die”…

To which, of course, our innocent homeowner has only one retort:

“Why me?”.

This image so preoccupied me that despite my promises to myself, I spent the rest of the vacation roughing out the story. Who was the gunman? What did he want? What had the homeowner done to deserve this? Was he really as innocent as he protested?

It soon become evident that these questions alone required more than a mere 2000 words to answer satisfactorily. So when I returned home, I started work in earnest on what would ultimately become my third novel, “Because It Makes My Heart Beat Faster”, which was later published in hardback by Simon & Schuster in the mid-nineties (and which has recently been re-published as an ebook by Mojito Press).

The novel received some great reviews, including a thumbs-up from the book reviewer of the UK’s premier broadsheet newspaper, The Times (of London) and a year later it was published in paperback

But here’s the thing. A few months after finishing the book I came across the issue of the writing magazine that had started the whole thing, and turning to the competition page, I was astonished to see that I had completely mis-read the guidelines for the short story competition.

The opening line of dialogue was supposed to have been: “Who, me?”

I had to re-read it several times before the weight of this finally sunk in. “Who, me?” said nothing to me, suggested nothing of note… it was completely forgettable. The only thing it could be, I thought,  was a reply to the equally uninteresting locution: “Hey, you…”

But “Why me?” – now there was an expression that had launched an 80,000 word suspense novel…

Looking back, it’s impossible to know if things might have been different had I read the guidelines correctly, but in my heart I suspect that the question “Why me?” buried itself in my subconscious in a way that the rather more anodyne “Who, me?” could never have done. Consequently, had I been in less of a hurry, had the magazine arrived perhaps a few days or even hours earlier, had I chosen to take it with me to read on the journey… well, then there might never have been a “Because It Makes My Heart Beat Faster”.

Needless to say, I am, to this day, extremely grateful for having made such a fortuitous mistake…

The Sadness of a Life Swept Away

Ever watched “CSI” and wondered, “Why would anyone choose to become a pathologist?” Well, I used to feel the same way about crime scene cleaners (and proctologists, but let’s not go there…)

Isn’t it a creepy job, cleaning up the mess left behind when someone has been murdered, or committed suicide or just been left to die because no one knows they’re there? You’d have to be some sort of morbid freak to want to do a job like that, wouldn’t you?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is “no”. And it took the testimony of two people to help me understand why.

The first was a young Californian guy who pretty much “invented” the profession of crime scene cleaning. I met him a few years ago when I was researching his world for a screenplay I was writing. This guy intrigued me by saying that he had identified this unfilled niche in the “clean-up crew” marketplace because he had been looking for a job that fitted his personality. Initially he had thought about being a mortician…

“Ah-ha!” I hear you say. “He was a ghoul, a death-freak, some sort of whacked out necrophiliac…” In fact, he was none of these things: just a clean-cut guy in a sparkling white polo shirt (complete with corporate logo) and neatly-pressed chinos, with a charming smile and a dry wit… not the least bit what I was expecting. He was – by his own admission – a “neat-freak”: he didn’t like mess, he saw a gap in the market, and voila – an industry was born.

My second revelation came while I was watching a documentary about another crime scene cleaning pioneer. Her story was very different… and much more moving. Her brother-in-law had committed suicide, messily, and after the cops and the coroner had done their work and the body had been removed, she was horrified to discover that the mess and body fluids were left behind for her to clean up.

And it was while she was scrubbing her brother’s blood from the living room carpet and cleaning bits of his brain from the walls, that she had her own moment of truth: nobody should have to do this for a loved one. The next day, she started her own crime-scene cleaning business.

And that’s the thing that astonished me, that I’d never thought of: she was doing this job because she cared… cared that those left behind shouldn’t be further traumatized by the aftermath of a violent death. Cared enough, in fact, to dedicate her life to providing a service that would help ease the pain of those recently bereaved and return their world to some semblance of normality.

But what affected me most of all was when she revealed that, as the years passed, it wasn’t the murders or the suicides that really upset her: it was the “undiscovered deaths”.

It’s the work of the crime scene cleaner to sweep that life away, to not only scrub away the “decomp” left behind when someone dies unnoticed and unmissed, but also to shovel the detritus of their lives into so many bin liners and take it to the incinerator, their possessions unwanted, their passing unmourned by anyone.

And that’s what haunts Erdogan, a crime scene cleaner and the lonely hero of my thriller “Implicated”, a man who embodies the very reason why you might pick this seemingly grotesque profession: not because you care too little for your fellow human beings, but because you care too much.

A Dream Goes On Forever…

I became interested in my dreams – and the phenomenon of lucid dreaming in particular – when, as a much younger man, I lost someone very close to me. At first, I was just looking for a way to escape the pain of being awake and remembering; but as I started to pay more attention to my subconscious, I became fascinated by the possibility of something more.

And then, by chance (or higher design?) I happened upon a documentary about lucid dreaming. Has it ever happened to you? You suddenly become aware that you are dreaming while you’re still inside your dream and find that you can control what happens? Lucid dreamers have this down to a fine art. In this documentary, however, the researcher – who came across as a very down-to-earth woman – clearly believed that there was more to lucid dreaming than met the eye, and that dreams were more than merely a way for the mind to process the information from your waking day.

The possibility of escape to another world.

The researcher was not especially interested in Freud’s obsession with dreaming as an outlet for the machinations of one’s repressed sexual desires, and she went beyond Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious, to suggest that dreamer’s may be inventing world’s that in some strange way actually exist.

“Wow!”, was my first thought. “How?” was my second. However, it was with my third thought: “Why?” that my life changed, albeit for a short time. It happened like this.

At the crux of the lucid dreaming documentary was an experiment with three “guinea pigs” – men who all claimed they were all able to control their dreams and did so on a regular basis. Prior to the experiment, they had never met. And this is where it got weird…

The researcher introduced them to one another, then separated them and kept them in isolation in three individual bedrooms. She then gave the same task to each man. That night, while they slept, they were to meet up with one another. That was it. No further information was given, and the men were not allowed to have any further contact.

That night while they slept their brain activities were monitored and the periods of rapid eye movement (indicative of dreaming) recorded.

In the morning, the researcher interviewed each man individually and asked each to recall his dream. Man A had dreamt that he was walking through a huge, lush forest that seemed to go on without end. He wandered along aimlessly for some time before he remembered that he had to meet the two other men. Eventually he came to a large oak tree in a clearing and thought it a good meeting place, so he stopped walking and waited beneath the tree. After a while, man B appeared and came to stand beside him. They chatted and waited for man C to arrive, but man C did not appear. That was all.

Man B too had dreamt he was walking through a huge forest. He walked for a long time without meeting either of the other two men, and was just about to give up when he spied a large oak tree in a clearing in the distance. He walked towards it and there he found man A waiting peacefully. He joined man A and they talked for a while. They waited, he said, for man C to appear, but man C didn’t arrive.

Man C’s story was much simpler. He had found himself walking in a huge forest. He walked for hours and hours, but never saw another soul.

By this time the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end. But it was nothing to what happened next…

The researcher interviewed a pleasant middle-aged Englishman who had dropped out on the hippie trail in the late sixties and eventually wound up in Tibet, where he spent the next twenty years living with an arcane Buddhist sect. These particular Buddhists – some esoteric offshoot of Lamaism, a branch of the Mahayana stream of Buddhist thought – placed great emphasis on the importance of dreams. In fact, long periods were given over to teaching initiates how to dream properly, that is, how to take control of one’s dreams and fashion them.

This particular novice had spent half his life in a world where dreams were accorded equal status with waking experiences.In particular, the Lamas taught initiates how to return to a dream, how to re-enter it and how to pick up where they had left off. After fifteen years of training, most members of the sect had mastered this and experienced and enjoyed serial dreams which were internally consistent and in which they participated not as puppets, guided and moved by external forces, but as individuals, fully in charge of their thoughts, actions and movements.

By the time the disciple left Tibet, he no longer knew which of his two worlds – his dream world or his waking world – was the ‘real’ world: they were equally authentic.

For a long time, I agonised about whether I should follow in this man’s footsteps, but, in the end, what saved me from my intolerable pain was writing a novel which incorporated all of these ideas. I did create a new world from my waking dreams and, for a while, I was able to escape to it. And in so doing, I created my fourth novel, “Daniel’s Dream”…

PS The title of this post relates to the song of the same name, written and performed by the inimitable Todd Rundgren. If you’ve never heard it, search it out, for it is surely one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded.

So, Peter…where do you get your ideas?

Submerged ruined church

This is the question I’m most often asked when people find out I’m a novelist. And, as any writer will tell you, it’s a really difficult question to answer. For me it’s always been a bit of a mystery – ideas really do seem to pop-up out of nowhere. But every now and then, it’s possible to identify the exact time and place when an idea comes to you.

If you’ve read my latest novel IMPLICATED you’ll know it starts with the image of a man underwater, desperately trying to swim down to a ruined Greek church on the seabed. The man in question, Erdogan Denizli, is a crime scene cleaner in Ventura County, California, and, as you soon find out, he’s dreaming. Ah, you may wonder: why is a Californian crime-scene cleaner dreaming about a church beneath the sea?

If you’ve read the book you’ll know. But where did this opening image come from?

A few years go, I was travelling in Northern Cyprus. I stopped at a small hotel on a deserted rocky promontory, a long way from anywhere.

It wasn’t a very promising spot for a hotel – it was spread across both sides of the road and the “beach” was an uninviting rocky cove, accessed by a cement ramp: it resembled not so much a holiday resort as an abandoned quarry. And yet, there was something strangely appealing about the place. Was it the light? The remoteness of the location?

Or perhaps it was the erudite and charming Turkish Cypriot owner, Erdogan – a retired teacher from Istanbul – who made me feel so welcome.

I ended up staying for three weeks. During that time I got to know Erdogan reasonably well and one evening, asked him about how he came to build the hotel.

Years ago, he told me, he’d had a rather odd dream: he dreamt of a ruined church completely submerged beneath the sea. At the time he thought nothing of it.

On retirement, he was driving around Northern Cyprus looking for a place to build a hotel when he came to this rocky outcrop. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he knew at once that this was the place.

He built his hotel. The business thrived. Over the years he entertained visitors from all over the world including, on one occasion, a couple of Italian archaeologists.

One morning the Italians went diving and returned in a state of high excitement: just off the promontory, several metres below the surface, they had discovered the ruins of a Greek Orthodox church, completely submerged in the aquamarine sea…

Some years later I was watching a documentary about crime-scene cleaning. It was fascinating and I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of person would choose to do a job like this?

And for some strange reason the image of the church underwater came back to me, and I knew I had both a name for my protagonist and an opening scene for my new thriller…