by Reed Farrel Colemen
In writing my latest and penultimate Moe Prager Mystery, Onion Street, one of my biggest challenges was to try to bring the ‘60s to life for my readers without getting kitschy or campy. It is too easy for artists to reduce a significant historical era to popular touchstones and icons and no era, I think, is more easily reduced to such things than the ‘60s. Whereas shows like Mad Men labor to get things just right and are very successful at doing so, I’ve found most books, TV shows, and movies not from that era tend to go for the clichés. All kids wear love beads, granny glasses, bell bottoms, and sandals. They all make the peace sign by putting their index and middle fingers into Vees or pump their fists and say, “Right on!” or “Power to the people!” or “Groovy.” or “Hey, man, you’re bringing me down.” or “Cool it. Here comes the Fuzz.” or “I had a bad trip, baby.” They only listen to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or the Doors. Their rooms are covered in Peter Max posters and the boys all burn their draft cards. Fathers always wear white shirts with skinny black ties. They have brush cuts and go to work at jobs in defense plants. Moms wear floral printed frocks, vacuum the house, smoke cigarettes, and drink too much. It’s all just silliness. If everyone burned their draft cards, how did we manage to get 55,000 American sons and daughters killed in Vietnam?
When I think back on it, I am almost breathless at how much turmoil occurred in such a brief period of time. In the first part of 1968 alone, there was the Pueblo incident, the Tet Offensive, Apollo missions 5 and 6, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. But as much as we would like to make those days all about the chaos, it’s my job as an artist to hold the mirror up to the reality of the times. The fact is that in spite of it all, my dad got up every morning and went to work. My big brothers went to college every day and I walked to PS 209. My mom cooked and cleaned, spoke on the phone to her sister. Life went on. That’s what I kept reminding myself as I wrote: life went on. Because as horrible or wonderful as all those events were, they didn’t happen in Brooklyn and they didn’t happen to me. The focus of the book was Moe’s world, how he dealt with things in his world. I tried very hard not to lapse into cliché. I hope I was successful.
It’s a good lesson for writers of all stripes. I think the best historical novels are those that focus on the little things, not the broad strokes. Focus on the people, on the characters, not on their trappings. I had a wonderful poetry professor at Brooklyn College named James Merritt. He taught classes in both Romantic and Victorian poetry. One of the things he said that I will never forget is that readers mustn’t ever devalue the feelings of people in the past. That cultures and technologies may change, but feelings are feelings. I always keep that in mind when I write about the past.