Suppose all a man has left is his imagination, then what?
I had no thought that I would be writing another Darby novel. Then something happened. I was pushing 70 years old, already planning a retirement, and all of a sudden I began thinking about my mortality. My muse, which until now had been advising me about what to do with imaginary people, was now talking directly to me: "Ernie, eventually, your body is going to wither way, your brain is going to turn to mush, and you are going to pass toothless and slack-jawed into oblivion, unless of course a stroke or a heart attack or a falling tree that you cut for firewood, you idiot, doesn't kill you first."
Which led me to thinking about my legacy as a writer. It was obvious that my reputation, such as it was, no doubt would rest primarily on the six books I'd already published around the imaginary town of Darby, New Hampshire The books were scattered all over the place. One of the books, Whisper My Name, had gone out of print. Two of the books, A Little More Than Kin and The Passion of Estelle Jordan, were in one volume and were about to go out of print. How to bring all the Darby books together? I certainly could not boast a track record in sales to persuade a publisher to invest the resources for reprints of my books.
Around this same time period Amazon came along with the Kindle. Suddenly, I saw a way to bring the Darby Six-Pack (my name for the Darby novels in those days) under one banner. I envisioned a digital set. How to go about doing this? I had a lot of ideas, but they were the ideas of a spacey fiction writer. I wanted advice from a smarter, more practical-minded person. I immediately thought of Chip Fleischer, founder of Steerforth Press, and a former student of mine who as a graduate student was in the first advanced creative writing class that I taught at Dartmouth College back in 1987 or maybe it was '88.
We met for lunch at the Canoe Club Restaurant in Hanover, New Hampshire. I told Chip my desire to bring the Darby novels together and to call attention to the series. He offered one bit of advice. "Ernie," he said, "you'll have to write another Darby book." By the time we'd left the restaurant I had the story that would become Howard Elman's Farewell in my mind. Apparently, the idea had been there all along. It just needed Chip Fleischer to dislodge out of the unconscious.
I knew immediately that I had to write a keystone novel for the Darby books and that the protagonist had to be Howard Elman, since he was the protagonist of the first Darby novel and the only major character who appears in all the Darby novels. I did some quick math. If I was going to stick to my process of setting the Darby books in the same general time period that I was writing them Howard would be in his middle to late 80s. I envisioned a geriatric coming of (old) age novel.
I thrilled to the idea of writing from Howard's perspective. For reasons mysterious to me, when I inhabit Howard Elman's persona my muse loosens all her restrictions and I write with great freedom and joy. I was just born to write about this irascible, dyslexic working man. Howard Elman is my King Lear and Ralph Kramden rolled into one.
One of my first thoughts was that if I was writing about Howard Elman I had to include Cooty Patterson, another of my favorite characters. But Cooty was even older than Howard. He'd likely be dead or pushing a hundred. Chapter One would be Cooty's funeral procession. "No way," my muse said. "How about starting with Cooty's hundredth birthday party?" In this way, Howard Elman's Farewell got written–and surprisingly fast. It usually takes me three years or more, writing multiple drafts, to write a novel. Howard Elman's Farewell came together in less than a year. In fact the publication process took longer than the writing.
Though I submitted the book for publication, with the insistence that it be published in companionable editions of the other six Darby novels, I was resigned to self-publishing the series as ebooks on the Kindle, because I couldn't see how my financial publication track record would justify a real publisher taking chance on me. But the University Press of New England did just that. To my editor Michael Burton and the other good people at UPNE, I have two words: Thank you.
My first working title for the book was Howard's End, which was the same working title I had for The Dogs of March. Howard's End is taken from a novel of the same name by E.M. Forster, one of my literary heroes. Calling the book Howard's End seemed like a hokey idea so I abandoned it. The next working title was Darby Doomsday after a video game devised by Howard's grandson, Birch Latour. I liked the way that phrase resonated, and the video game along with Birch and his computer start-up company, Geek Chorus Software, do play a big role in the novel. However, it's Howard Elman's book and I wanted his name in the title.
I tried Howard Elman's Goodbye, a nod toward what I thought was the title of a book I admired by James Crumley, The Last Goodbye. However, thanks to the Internet, I've since learned that The Last Goodbye (which I have not read) was written by Raymond Chandler. The Crumley book that I had in mind and that I enjoyed immensely was The Last Good Kiss, which some people have compared to The Last Goodbye. No doubt I read that fact someplace and, as Howard Elman would say, miscombobulated the info. Perhaps I should have called my book Howard Elman's Last Good Kiss. Anyway I was more or less satisfied (partly, as I have tried to demonstrate, for the wrong reasons) with Howard Elman's Goodbye as a title for the seventh Darby volume. In the end it was my acquisitions editor at the University Press of New England, Michael Burton, who suggested Howard Elman's Farewell for a title. I liked it. It fit the story, and I liked the way the words sounded together. Thanks, Mike.
Since you can't copyright a title, I've never felt proprietary toward my book titles. For example, one of the Darby books is called Whisper My Name, which is also the title of a romance novel by Fern Michaels and Emily Durante. I was in a huff when I ran across this paperback with my title until I saw that the copyright was before my own book with the same name. Mike also came up with a name for the series, The Darby Chronicles. I liked my own title, The Darby Six-Pack, but the Darby Seven-Pack didn't make any sense, so The Darby Chronicles it is.
So what is this novel written by a newbie Septuagenarian about? Here's what I wrote for my publisher. "Howard Elman was a fifty-something workingman when he burst onto the literary scene in The Dogs of March, in what would become the first novel of the Darby Chronicles. Now in this, the seventh, Darby Constable Howard Elman is an eighty-something widower who wants to do "a great thing" before he motors off into his sunset. Maybe he does do a great thing, but he gets there in strange, wonderful and dangerous ways, aided, abetted, hindered, and befuddled by his hermit friend Cooty Patterson, age 100, by his living middle-aged children, by a voice in his head, and by the person he loves most, his grandson, Birch Latour, 24. Birch has returned to Darby with his friends to take over the stewardship of the Salmon Trust and to launch a video game, Darby Doomsday. At stake is the fate of Darby. And the world? Maybe."