Is There a Book in You?

So many of us ask ourselves this question throughout our lives. And many of us try to get that book out, writing a few or many pages that often end up forgotten in a drawer or a computer file, never to be seen or read (unless you're Harper Lee).

Lawrence Levy is one person who won't have that happen. A few years ago, the former TV writer had an idea for a mystery based on a criminal case in 19th century New York City. Captivated by the real life story, he not only wrote a book -- he got a book agent, and his book was recently released by Random House, with a sequel coming in a few months.

What makes Levy's story extra inspiring is that he did this at 67, an age when most people step back, not forward.

I talked to him recently about his first novel, Second Street Station.

What made you decide to try writing a novel so late in life without any experience?

I felt it was the best medium for my idea. So I just jumped in. I had never imagined being able to write a novel. But over the years, I gained confidence. What it comes down to is: If you're really passionate about something, you do it. You can't contemplate what others might think or if you have the ability or if you can sell it. It's just something you have to get out.

What about this story and time period so captivated you?

I saw parallels between the late 19th century and today. There was a small middle class and a vast difference between the few who were extremely wealthy and the many poor who worked in sweatshops, etc. Our society today has a shrinking middle class and the gap between the 1% and the 99% continues to widen.

Mostly what drew me to the story was my heroine, Mary Handley. Women were struggling for equality back then and they still are. The idea of a bright woman struggling to achieve a goal that a male-dominated society told her was unattainable greatly appealed to me. Mary comes up against American icons like Thomas Edison, J.P. Morgan and many others who belittle her, and she has to prove them wrong.

How did you prepare for writing a historical novel?

Research is easier today with the Internet than it was years ago when you had to lock yourself up in a library. There was a lot of information available. Also, since Second Street Station is based on a real case, I was able to get a lot of information from the online Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, where I was able to pull actual news articles about the case and the people involved. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and I had to decide whether to include certain events. For instance, a fact I got out of the newspaper articles was that the Brooklyn Police Commissioners went to a séance in order to locate the killer. It sounds ridiculous, but given the time period, it made sense, and I decided to put it in.

I'm a big fan of William Goldman's writing. I've read almost everything he's written. I was always impressed by the way he wrote thrillers like Marathon Man. So, I re-read some of his works, but mostly I just tried to write the kind of book that I like to read, one that keeps the story moving and doesn't bog you down in unnecessary details. TV writing helped me. Really good TV writing sticks to the characters and the plot. Also, in most TV shows, the act break has a surprise or a story turn in order to get the audience to come back after the commercial. So whenever possible, I would end a chapter with a surprise or something of interest to keep the reader reading.

How was it for you to take this risk late in life?

I've always been a risk-taker. I come from a family of lawyers. No one went into the arts. But I love writing. And, I didn't want to look back years later and wonder what would have happened if I had not followed my heart.

Would you, or could you have done this when you were younger?

When I was younger, married with kids, I couldn't afford to write a novel on spec. In a way, getting to this age was the perfect storm. My kids are off on their own careers, and I don't have the responsibilities I used to have. The timing was right, and so was the story.

What would you say to other aspiring novelists of "advanced" age?

You're only as old as you allow yourself to be. If you say, "I'm too old to do that", it's just an excuse and you're selling yourself short (unless, of course, "that" is being a professional hockey player). I know plenty of people who are retired and enjoy playing golf and taking it easy after many years of hard work. That's perfectly fine if you're happy. I'm still at the stage where if I don't have something I'm working on, I feel antsy and unproductive. Maybe I'm the kind of person who they'll have to carry out of work in a box. Or, maybe I'll just stop someday and say, "That's enough." So far, that hasn't happened.

What's the biggest surprise from this experience?

I was out to dinner with my family the other night for my birthday. As we stepped outside after a wonderful meal, it hit me and I voiced it out loud. Of all the accomplishments I dreamed of in my life, I never thought I'd ever be a published author. And yet, here I am. It feels pretty fabulous.

I'll second that, having just published my first book.

Best of luck and congratulations to everyone who finds out that you have that book in you, no matter how many years it takes to bring it out.