Jerry Ludwig is a multiple-Emmy Award–nominated writer for television. He has been nominated for the Golden Globe and the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for TV writing; he has also won the Writers Guild of America Award. Ludwig has written for Murder, She Wrote; MacGyver; Mission: Impossible; and Hawaii Five-O. Jerry Ludwig lives in Carmel, California.
The Poetics Project: Describe Blacklist in ten words or less.
Jerry Ludwig: “Romeo and Juliet” mystery set in the Hollywood Blacklist era.
TPP: What inspired you to write the book?
JL: In my years in Hollywood I’ve known many people on both sides of the political spectrum whose lives were torn apart by the Blacklist. I was particularly interested in the impact on the children of the Blacklist —my best friend’s parents were both Blacklisted and his mother killed herself (he found her body) and his father was forced to flee to Europe, along with his son, for ten years.
The House Un-American Activities had posed a devil’s choice: it wasn’t enough to confess to having once supported Leftist causes, you had to name names— of friends, relatives, associates —or be deprived of your livelihood. So I thought it would be interesting to explore a love story between two young lovers whose fathers had made opposite choices – and add in the FBI agent who had pursued the fathers and now the children when someone starts killing “friendly” witnesses.
TPP: What was the most difficult aspect about writing your novel?
JL: Bringing to vivid life events that took place in the Fifties. And writing a book that would make the reader feel the heat of those times.
TPP: How different was it writing a novel versus writing for the screen?
JL: After writing screenplays for so long, I find the novel form emancipating. Movies and TV have only two senses to tell a story. If you can’t hear it or see it, it’s not happening. But in a novel the writer can communicate inner thoughts and emotions with such ease. In the case of Blacklist I elected to tell the story from three viewpoints—in separate alternating chapters seen through the eyes and voices of each of the two young lovers and the FBI man dogging their lives. It provides the reader with a multiple view of various events and a greater understanding of what’s driving each of the three.
TPP: What do you want readers to take away from your novel?
JL: That unfortunately those events are not so different from now – when reputations and lives can be destroyed overnight by politicians and pundits. It can all happen again, and in fact too often it is happening.
TPP: What advice can you give aspiring authors? What advice do you wish you would’ve been given?
JL: The old familiar axiom is: write what you know about. It’s good advice, because each of us contains a unique body of experiences and thoughts. Draw upon those. That doesn’t mean every story has to be autobiographical. But it has to be grounded in real behavior. Add in flights of what-if imagination and you’re on the right track. I got that advice early, but it took years to learn to really rely on it.
TPP: Name 2-3 songs that would be on a playlist for Blacklist.
JL: “Beyond the Sea” (Bobby Darin). “Heartbreak Hotel” (Elvis Presley). “Dancing in the Dark” (Artie Shaw & His Orchestra)
Excerpt from Blacklist reprinted with the permission of Tor/Forge, a Macmillan imprint.
So I’m sprawled in a lounge chair next to the swimming pool at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood wondering where Teddy is. Theodore Weaver, my father, best friend, and mentor. A brilliant, witty, extraordinary screenwriter. He died in my arms in Rome four nights ago after he finished editing the movie he’d directed that was to be his comeback achievement. Heart attack at the brutally young age of forty-eight.
Despite the aching loss that permeated me and the feeling of being totally alone in a world where no one gives a damn about me, I somehow made the necessary arrangements to bring him back here for burial. Ending his political exile. But like a lost suitcase, the airlines have misplaced the casket. It went astray when we changed planes in New York. I came on to L.A. and they still don’t know where the hell Teddy went. That was three days ago. I feel like strangling someone.
Instead I lean back in the lounge chair and stare at my surroundings. It’s late afternoon in October 1959. The pool area is deserted. The sky is smoggy yellow-gray. The Chateau, as everyone calls this place, still looks the same as when I first saw it as a child. A multi-turreted, Mediterranean-style hotel with a carefully cultivated aura of shabby chic. The lobby features overstuffed sofas and languidly turning ceiling fans. It’s an oasis of what passes for civility in Hollywood, nestled a couple of hundred yards above the touristy Sunset Strip.
Panorama Studio put us up here for the first couple of weeks when they brought our two families—the Weavers and the Vardians—out from New York in 1937. It’s where the studios book the special VIPs until they get acclimated.
Teddy and Leo Vardian were already a red-hot radio writing team—Weaver & Vardian—spoken like a run-on word, two halves that made a dazzling whole. Physically they were a Mutt and Jeff team, bearlike Teddy and foxy little Leo. Two buddies from Brooklyn who had conquered the Big Apple and now were poised for success in Hollywood. All blue skies then.
I get out of the lounge chair and restlessly stroll around the pool, pausing at the deep end to gaze down at my reflection. First time I did this, it was chubby little three-year-old Davey Weaver looking back up at me, innocent happy guy. Now I’m twenty-four, six-two and lean as a long-distance runner, strong as the U.S. Army Ranger I used to be, and if it weren’t for my sunglasses I’d be seeing the angriest eyes in the Greater L.A. area. But the shimmering waters of the Chateau pool look the same.
Nothing’s changed. Everything’s changed. Question is: can things ever change back?
* * *
My heels make a hollow clicking sound as I walk across the tiled lobby of the Chateau. Before I reach the desk, the starchy, officious desk clerk I’ve been pestering shakes his head. No message from the airline.
So I’m still stuck in this surreal limbo. But I realize that much of my anxiety is at being back in the town that I grew up in. Weird, isn’t it? So many people dream of coming to Hollywood and I feel like a soldier home from the wars, wary as hell of the reception I’ll get.
I start for my room and a guy sitting alone behind a potted plant folds his newspaper and gets up. Tall, tan, lanky, late forties, dressed in a black sharkskin suit without a wrinkle in it. Carrying a gray snap-brim fedora, he’s looking more weathered than the last time I saw him. I go down the corridor; so does he. I force myself to stroll, but I’m tensed up by the sight of an old enemy.
I unlock my door and behind me he says:
“Mr. Weaver, my name is McKenna.” He flips open a small leather case, shows me a gold badge and an FBI identification card. As if I didn’t remember him. The number one figure on my Hollywood Hate Parade. “Can I speak to you for a moment?”
“Let’s go inside.”
“Do you have a warrant?”
“Oh, c’mon, kid. Don’t be like that.”
“I’m not a kid. That was last time.”
“Quite a few years. Surprised you remember.”
“Some things you never forget.”
The last time McKenna appeared on my doorstep was almost a decade ago, in 1951, at our house in upscale Brentwood near the top of Tigertail Road. Mom and Dad had ordered me to never open the door unless I knew who was knocking, but this one time I’d been playing with the dog and the bell rang and I forgot and I swung the door wide and there were two Slim Jims. McKenna did the talking.
“Your father home?”
“N-no,” I stammered. “Nobody’s home.” But they could hear the typing upstairs. They pushed past me and started for the staircase. Later on they signed a sworn affidavit that I invited them in.
“Teddyyyyyyyyyy!” I yelled. It was the first time I’d used his first name. The typing stopped. The two FBI men raced up the stairs. When they reached the second floor and disappeared down the hallway, I saw my father drop off the thick maple tree branch outside the window of his study down onto the lawn. He crouched, like a hunted beast, and looked over at me through the open front door.
I’ve never forgotten that look.
Then he ran off and they didn’t get him that day to serve the pink subpoena for the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The shame that coursed through me that day still remains. It is a frozen instant no son should ever have to experience—the sight of my father stripped of dignity and rendered powerless and all because of my careless blunder. Teddy never blamed me for opening that door, but I never stopped blaming myself.
* * *
And now here’s McKenna at the Chateau. I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Gone from Hollywood nearly ten years. Senator Joe McCarthy, who cowed even President Eisenhower, has died in disgrace. But the Cold War that McCarthy exploited still lives on. Apparently so does the Blacklist.
“What do you say, Mr. Weaver?” McKenna asks. “Can I come in?” So polite, this time. But why the hell should I let him? Then he adds, “I’ve got some news you’ll be interested in. About your father.”
“Tell me out here, Slim Jim. I don’t want to have to fumigate my room after you’re gone.”
“My name’s not Jim, it’s—”
“Brian. Brian McKenna. Says so on your ID, but to us you were all Slim Jim. Dark suits, dark glasses, snap-brim hats, skinny as bird dogs, good manners, bad news.”
I lean against the mustard-colored wall outside my closed door. Fold my arms, making myself elaborately comfortable. Bet I could take this asshole out now if I had to. McKenna pretends he’s not annoyed.
“Okay, we can do it out here.” Takes practice to make agreeing sound so threatening.
“Guess I should be flattered by your visit,” I gibe. “After all those years of being on my father’s case, now you’re keeping tabs on me.”
He probably knows about the screaming match verging on a fistfight that I got into at LAX when the airline people told me they’d lost Teddy.
“You’re not a subject of interest to us, Mr. Weaver.”
“So why are you here?”
“First of all, I wanted to give you an update. Your dad’s casket arrived. You can notify your mortuary to pick it up at the Air America cargo terminal.”
“You bastard!” My rage index skyrocketing. “You’re still haunting Teddy even after he’s dead. Fuckin’ body snatchers. Shanghaied his casket, moving him from city to city while you go through his pockets and the lining of his coffin, looking for what? An atom bomb? Haven’t you turds got any sense of decency?”
Someone clears his throat. “Everything all right, Mr. Weaver?” It’s the fussy desk clerk from the lobby. Standing at the end of the hallway.
“Everything’s fine,” McKenna says, without taking his eyes off me.
“Mr. Weaver?” the clerk repeats.
“Fine,” I mutter as I keep the staring contest going with McKenna.
“Just call if you need anything.” With a frown, he disappears. McKenna waits until he’s gone, then says in that infuriatingly unruffled voice they use, “The airline lost the casket, we helped find it. As a courtesy.”
“Yeah, you betcha.”
“Hey, I’m sorry for your loss. I understand he was a very nice man.”
“You mean, for a diabolical Commie menace to the republic, plotting to overthrow the government by force.”
“Look, Mr. Weaver—I just gather information. Follow orders. Other people decide how it fits together.”
“That’s what the war criminals said at Nuremberg.”
He ignores that. Just rolls on. “But after all the years of reviewing your father’s file, seems to me all he was guilty of was signing some checks and petitions for the wrong causes.”
“Are you saying that in an official capacity, Agent McKenna?”
“I’m not here in an official capacity.”
“So I asked you before—why are you here?”
“To deliver this.”
McKenna hands me a dark blue booklet. There’s one like it in my pocket. Been there since the bad times began; Teddy taught me that. Always have it with you so if you have to you can go straight to the airport.
It’s a U.S. passport.
I flip it open. Brand new. A photo of Teddy on the first page, taken years ago. Valid from 1959 through 1965.
“This is a joke, right?”
“Your dad applied to the embassy in Paris for a renewal.”
“Seven years ago. When they confiscated his old passport.”
“Well, it cleared a couple weeks ago,” McKenna says.
“Better late than never.” He ignores that one, too. So I step up the sarcasm.
“Here I thought I was sneaking him in under the radar. But turns out it’s all legit. He’s got a passport. He’s officially welcome again in his own country. With the FBI’s thoughtful assistance.”
“You’ve got a bad attitude, Mr. Weaver.”
“Gee, I wonder why.”
“Probably a problem with authority figures.”
“That’s what they told me in the Army.”
“I was thinking more recently—about your hassle at the L.A. airport.”
“No hassle. Only an energetic conversation with some incompetent idiots. Nobody got hurt.”
“But your temper scared a few people.”
“It’s a scary world, haven’t you noticed?”
He raises an eyebrow, maybe he’s wondering if he can still take me out. Then he gives a small fuck-you shrug and leaves. I enter my room to check for wounds: not only am I okay, I feel exhilarated. Got a little of our own back that time, Teddy. Then I begin to consider why McKenna came. He could have left a phone message about the casket and dropped the passport in the mail. Or even thrown it away. Despite his professed lack of interest in me, Slim Jim is still watching.
Copyright © 2014 by Jerry Ludwig