Monday, August 27, 2018



People say the word like it’s dirty. “He’s a lucky sumbitch.” “If it wasn’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all.” It’s as if anytime a person one feels is undeserving of any accomplishment, for any reason, he was lucky. It’s the favorite word of the envious and bitter.

Branch Rickey had it right. The legendary General Manager of the Cardinals and Dodgers (and not-so-legendary GM of the Pirates) famously said: “Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.” (Emphasis added.)

There are other ways to say it. “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” “The harder I work the luckier I get.” “You make your own luck.” All of those are true to some extent, but it cannot be argued that serendipitous good fortune plays a role in all success. The trick, said Jonathan Maberry at last year’s Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, is to do something with luck when it finds you.

How does one create luck? Mostly by getting off one’s ass. (Or sitting it in a chair to wrote; “Getting off one’s ass” is figurative.) Black Velvet whiskey used to run a magazine ad with a photograph of a drop-dead beautiful blonde wearing a black velvet dress (the fabric, not the booze) with this caption: “The woman of your dreams is out there, but you’re going to have to leave the house.” She’s not going to knock on the door, and, if she does, you’d be wise not to answer it in your underwear with three days’ stubble and a mustard stain on your wife beater.

Luck manifests itself in many ways. Reed Farrel Coleman worked at JFK airport and had thoughts of being a poet. He decided to take a class to fill a dead hour in his schedule and the only English class they had at the time was a survey of American detective fiction. That was three Shamus Awards ago. William Vacchiano played principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic for 38 years. If you hear a recording of Leonard Bernstein with the NYPO, it’s Vacchiano playing first trumpet. His father sent him to the music store for a clarinet and young Bill forgot on the way and cornet sounded close enough so he got one.

Even someone of my limited accomplishments has been uniquely lucky. Harper Collins ran a contest about fifteen years ago to win an ARC of Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid. I scored a copy and wrote a review I sent to the editor of the New Mystery Reader web site, Stephanie Padilla. She liked it enough to make me a regular reviewer, which led to doing interviews, which led to a friendship with Charlie Stella, the Godfather of Mob Fiction.* Charlie took a liking to my writing which led to my getting a contract with his publisher, which didn’t work out as well as I would have liked but also gave me the visibility to come to the attention of Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books which is a situation I could not be happier with. Eric might not have been as interested had I not had two Shamus nominations, which I would not have had were it not for the time and effort the late and sorely missed agent Pam Strickler invested in teaching me to self-edit. Sure, I busted my ass in between all those steps, but winning that stupid contest any reader could have won teed me up for it.

What I might like best when listening to highly successful crime fiction writers is how often they acknowledge the role luck has played for them. It’s not false modesty; they know they’re good. But they also never forget there was a time when they could have ended up in the mass of young writers who came along at the same time they did, and that talent is not always the determining factor in who gets ahead. It is the determining factor in who stays ahead, but a lot of other stuff can happen along the way.

On the other hand, few things are more off-putting than those for whom luck was largely a circumstance or birth or privilege, as these are often the least likely to admit its effects. It’s what I call the Ann Richards Syndrome, after her famous line about George H. W. Bush being “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” (The comment is a little unfair, considering his history of public service, but it’s still a great line. I like to think she was prescient enough to predict the current inhabitant of Bush 41’s former office.) These are people who forget the simplest effects of good fortune because they think it somehow makes them less admirable, failing to understand that what makes them less admirable is their refusal to credit anything but themselves for their “success.”

To paraphrase Churchill, I am a writer with much to be humble about. Beyond the unique good fortune mentioned above, I was born a white male in the richest country the world has ever known at a time when an affordable college education was considered to be a sign of national pride. With luck, I’ll never forget that, nor fail to act accordingly.

(*--Charlie says only I call him that, but I swear I read it somewhere.)

1 comment:

Les Edgerton said...

Nice comment by Ann Richards. I had the honor of being seated next to her in her wheelchair at the awards banquet at the First Annual Texas Book Festival. Directly across from me was Laura Bush, first lady of Texas, and also at the table were a bunch of other Texas writers. She was just totally delightful, with dozens of stories about Lyndon Johnson.