“Not Comin’ Home to You was the third and last book I published under the pen name of Paul Kavanagh. The first, Such Men Are Dangerous, was purportedly narrated by its author, a burnt-out CIA operative–turned-recluse; the second, The Triumph of Evil, was a third-person novel of political suspense featuring a Central European assassin. Not Comin’ Home to You is a work of fiction inspired by, but not too closely patterned after, a real-life murder spree that took place some fifteen years earlier in Nebraska.
“It’s hard to see what Paul Kavanagh’s three works have in common, aside from fitting under the broad canopy of crime fiction. I’ve speculated in the afterword for The Triumph of Evil as to what my reasons may have been for writing under pen names, so I’ll spare you a reprise of that; suffice it to say that the three Kavanagh novels, at the time of their writing, were the books I viewed as my most serious attempts.
“Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate killed a batch of Nebraskans, including her family, in 1958. About ten years later I thought of making something out of it, and I saw it as source material not for a novel but for a film. At the time the only screenwriting I’d done had been a draft for a producer who’d optioned one of my Tanner books. Nothing had ever come of that, but I discussed my new idea with my agent and wrote a treatment (essentially an outline) for the proposed film. I sent it to my agent, and he shopped it around, and nobody cared. I had other things to do and I did them.
“I had written the screen treatment in the attic of a house in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and I didn’t think about it again until we’d spent a couple of years in a farmhouse near Lambertville. I realized that what hadn’t gone anywhere as a screenplay could be a novel, and as I recall I wrote it in a couple of weeks of fairly intense effort. I’d been in the habit of writing my books in New York, in one of a series of pieds-à-terre I kept for that purpose, but toward the end of my time in that house I finally started doing some writing there.
“I didn’t have a den or study but there was a splendid Jacobean refectory table in our dining room, and I wrote Not Comin’ Home to You at that table, starting work late at night when the rest of the family was asleep. I suspect the fallow years since I’d written the treatment had been useful ones; my unconscious had had plenty of time to figure out what to make of the story, and it was very real for me as I wrote it.
“I deliberately set the story in present time—the early seventies—and deliberately avoided the facts of the case and the actual life histories and personalities of the real-life killers. I figured the hell with all that. This was a novel and needed to be reimagined altogether.
“I showed it to my agent, and he showed it to Clyde Taylor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons publishing. I’d called it Just a Couple of Kids. Clyde didn’t care for that and suggested I use the title of a song I’d written for the book. I went along with it because he was the editor and I wanted to keep him happy. But I don’t think it was the right title. Kids would have been better. Or Just Kids. Or, I dunno, something.
“Both Clyde and I were optimistic about the book’s possibilities, not only in bookstores but on the screen. Then, shortly before book publication, Terrence Malick’s film Badlands was released, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as Starkweather and Fugate. That killed any chance of a film sale.
“When I saw the movie, I fell ill-used. I certainly didn’t have any proprietary hold on the source material and it wasn’t unlikely that someone else would be similarly inspired, but my screen treatment had been shown around a couple of years before the movie was made and there was a scene in my treatment that I’d invented out of whole cloth.
“In my treatment, and again in Not Comin’ Home to You, the two killers take refuge in a vacant farmhouse, and have a little domestic interlude during which they are decent, nonviolent people who even take pains to leave the premises in good condition before they move on to resume their killing spree. Now this never happened and nothing like it ever happened, but I thought it would be a nice dramatic touch.
“And so did Terrence Malick, evidently; there’s a similar interlude in Badlands, in which the two build a sort of tree house complex, lashing poles together. (They construct in a couple of hours what would take anybody else two or three weeks, but that’s Hollywood.) At the time, I was certain whoever was responsible for that scene had read my treatment and plucked the idea out of it, and I had fantasies of being introduced to Malick at a party, say, and decking the sonofabitch.
“I never did run into the man, but if I ever do, I have to say he’s safe from my wrath. He probably thought up the scene the same way I did, recognizing that it would work dramatically and that the storyline called for that sort of a break.
“Irish Alzheimer’s is what they call it when you find yourself forgetting resentments. I would appear to be in its early stages.
“A word or two about the song. I wrote it for the book and then used it as an epigraph. While the book was “by Paul Kavanagh,” the song was credited to me, Lawrence Block.
“When I finished the book, my wife read it—she didn’t read everything I wrote, but she read this. I’d decided I was going to dedicate it to my three daughters, but she made an uncharacteristic request: Would I dedicate this one to her? That seemed reasonable enough, and I amended the dedication accordingly:
To my daughters
Amy, Jill, and Alison
and to their mother…
“The marriage, which had almost ended six years earlier, crashed permanently in the summer of 1973. I moved back to the city and my agent Henry Morrison placed the book with Clyde Taylor. I kept Clyde happy by agreeing to his title. And so a book called Not Comin’ Home to You bore the dedication quoted earlier.
“And then about a year after the book came out, a fellow got in touch with me. He was a pianist and composer and voice coach who he lived on the Upper West Side, and his first name was Mack. (I’ll be damned if I can remember his last name, and Google seems incapable of helping me out. I last heard from him in 1977; he was playing piano for a Broadway show, and we met for a drink in the upstairs bar at Sardi’s. An awfully nice fellow, and I’m sorry we lost touch.)
“He contacted me in the first place because he had a young singer he was coaching. He’d picked up my novel, read the lyric, and thought it would be a great song for her. He’d actually written a tune for it, and she’d been working on it and wanted to include it on a demo album, but for all he knew it already had a melody, and might even be recorded, and—
“Well, it wasn’t and it hadn’t, and it was all fine with me. I met him and met her and even went to the recording session. I’d written it as a country song, and his was more of a rock version, but it sounded OK.
“Nothing ever came of it. I’ve long since forgotten her name, and I don’t know if she ever had a career, but if she did, my song’s not what got her started.
“Strange where things lead you, and where they don’t. If this rings a bell with any of y’all out there in ebook country, let me know about it. I don’t really expect to hear from Mack at this late date, or from the singer (an attractive girl, with a good voice), but it could happen. Stranger things do, all the time.”
Note: This reminiscence appears in Afterthoughts, a collection of around fifty similar strolls down Memory Lane in aid of various backlist titles of mine. Afterthoughts is on special 365 days a year, available for a mere 99¢ at the eTailer of your choice—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever eBooks are sold.