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Snyper and the Assassination

Spoiler Warning: This post discusses some plot points and details behind Snyper: A Matter of Caliber.

As I mentioned in the end notes of the book, the idea of tying Eros into the JFK assassination was the initial thought I had for the whole concept of the novel: Phil as the quintessential hit man, able to go anywhere and take out the most difficult targets. And as an immortal being with a godly nature, he’d naturally figure largely into the course of human history. So it made sense that if there were a gunman on the grassy knoll, Phil could easily have fit that role. Not to mention that it also blends together two different types of mythology, classical Greek with Eros and modern American with the second gunman, which is perhaps one of the most pervasive myths in our contemporary culture.

The big question when I revisited the idea, however, was if it would work as a starting point for the novel. And, perhaps more importantly, if I should even “go there.” After all, I’m a Gen-X guy who wasn’t even born when the assassination happened. But I’d lived through other national tragedies like Challenger and 9/11, and I understand that same “I remember exactly what I was doing” feeling everyone who was alive for JFK describes. I spent two months doing hard-core research on the assassination, and when I decided that I could fit Phil into the middle of Dealey Plaza with some sort of factual accuracy, I chose to approach the handling of it as straight as possible. I’d focus on the event, rather than the target, and incorporate as many facts and details as I could. For stylistic reasons and perhaps a slight bit of emotional distance, I wouldn’t mention Kennedy by name; he’s simply “the President”, which didn’t turn out as clunky or awkward as a choice as I expected.

Oswald, on the other hand, I kept fully referenced. But I also didn’t want to make him a default villain. Personally, I don’t know what to think about Oswald. It’s easier to accept him being a lone actor on a personal mission of some sort, but at the same time, none of the facts we know (or think we know) seem to add up. The Warren Commission wasn’t necessarily subject to our standard rules of law and evidentiary procedure, and Oswald’s guilt is based more on hearsay and conjecture rather than by objective evidence. Phil raises a lot of those questions in the novel because in some respects, Snyper is a book about victims. Phil’s one. Oswald is one. If you stop and count all of them, the list gets pretty long—which is why noir is such a good stylistic choice. Few people get out of noir unscathed.

The lead quote for the novel comes from Mark Lane’s book Rush to Judgment. Oswald’s mother hired Lane as a kind of defense attorney to help clear the family name, and while some of the postulations are now outdated from new information, the line about nobody apparently noticing Oswald because he was so average resonated deeply with who Phil is. That exact averageness is what allows him to blend into crowds via his perception magic. And if you want to follow the logic of it, if Phil were the gunman on the grassy knoll, his perception magic would actually explain why all the eyewitnesses were so inconsistent.

Writing Oswald was far more difficult than I expected. When I finally got to the interrogation scene, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what words to put in his mouth. So I cheated, if you’ll call it that, and didn’t. Nearly all of his dialogue is taken from recordings and transcripts of what he actually said, both while in police custody and during a pre-assassination radio interview I found. It makes for a weird, disjointed scene, but ultimately, I think the choice works.

The idea of presenting Dan as his grandson came after a series of what-ifs. Oswald had two little girls when he died, an infant and a toddler, which would mean by the time the book takes place, they would be middle-aged and likely parents. So I thought: What if the daughters moved on and decided not to tell their own kids their dark family secret? It seemed reasonable enough. And it gave me a convenient parallel for Phil as he’s dealing with his own identity and the struggle of living under the shadow of a murderous grandparent.

Little did I know until I was almost finished with the book, that’s close to what happened in real life. Oswald’s youngest daughter was an infant at the time, and when his widow remarried a couple of years later, the girl grew up under a different name, thought her stepfather was her real dad and all that. She gave an interview when the Oliver Stone movie came out in the ’90s and explained how she never knew the truth until she was playing in the attic one day and found a box of old letters and newspaper clippings left over from the assassination. She confronted her mother about them, and suddenly her entire life was upside down. Until then, Oswald had just been that bad guy she learned about in school; now he was her dad. So if Dan’s situation comes across as a bit contrived, he’s not that far off the mark. Or it’s proof that real life actually is stranger than fiction.

Stranger still is how Jackie Kennedy did go on to marry Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate immensely proud of his cultural heritage. It’s a small detail, perhaps insignificant, but in Phil’s world of gods interfering with mortal lives, it somehow makes perfect sense to have the owner of Olympic Airlines figure into the mix.

Whether it all works is up to the reader, of course. If you’re familiar with the assassination and some of the details and theories, hopefully I’ve provided enough facts to keep the story intriguing. And if you’re not familiar with that dark moment in American history, hopefully the story flows well without bogging down with unnecessary detail.

Shotguns vs. Rifles

I have a confession to make. I’m not a jealous person to begin with, but one thing I do suffer from is word-count envy.

Being a writer invariably means associating with other writers, for both mutual support and commiseration. There’s no way around it. Generally it’s a good thing. We help each other with plot problems and story ideas and struggle through crippling blocks together. But our measure of success (in theory) is the easily-quantifiable word count. Even when I’m not with other writers, the simple question is: “How much did you do today?” I’m asked it so often, usually daily, that I just give a standard answer of “a page and a half.”

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