In FAQ’s I I’ve introduced you to the variables that are needed to nurture a writer’s creativity and my fourteen-year journey to write the definitive book about the Roslyn School Scandal. In FAQ’s IIA (questions 1-7) and IIB (questions 8-14) I offer you a desktop view of FOAL’s evolution. However, do not expect that I will overshare stories from the book. For those twice, perhaps even thrice told tales you will have to await the books reveal upon publication.
1. When and where did the idea of a book originate? What inspired you to write the book? Spoiler alert-cliché: Sometimes a story is found by a writer and sometimes a story finds the writer.
As the depth of the theft unfolded, the foundational fabric of both a book and a movie became apparent. The revelations of excessive spending, although not unfamiliar to an already jaded public after numerous non-stop financial and ethical scandals, lent itself to codification.
By 2007 the book began to take shape. I am in possession of hundreds of primary documents: newspaper articles, handwritten letters, emails, and court transcripts. Therefore, a logical book arc capturing the essence of the scandal had to be developed. I wanted to write a balanced book devoid of sensationalism, yet, dramatically educate and guide the reader through the morass of theft.
Although I have spent more than 10,000 hours editing students’ writings, enumerable speeches, travelogues, articles for local newsletters and university papers, I quickly learned that writing a full-length nonfiction book was a different kind of animal. Like our cast of characters, I was working with a piscatorial (fishlike) predator. Several years into the project, I started to feel like Jonah and the Whale.
It took an entire summer just to research the intricacies of the publishing industry and learn the how to’s of book construction. Once again, forgive the cliché, the devil was in the details.
2. Why write a book about a seemingly commonplace event? Momma Jeanie used to say, “there is nothing new under the sun.” The wisdom of mothers.
The first recorded financial fraud occurred in Greece in 300 B.C. It is the sad tale of the cunning merchant Hegestratos, involving a shipment of corn. It was nothing more than an insurance fraud. He had purchased a policy to cover the successful delivery of the cargo.
I have always compared the insurance industry to legalized gambling. You bet against the insurer and the insurer bets against you.
Hegestratos hedged his bet and planned to sink the ship after having removed the cargo for a later resale, defrauding the lender, the insurers. Unfortunately for Hegestratos, his plan did not end very well. When the crew and passengers (who would have gone down with the ship) discovered Hegestratos jumped ship and drowned. Contrary to my supposition, crime did not pay for Hegestratos.
Obviously, financial theft driven by ethical misconduct is not new under any geographically located sun.
3. How did you come up with a title? I had toyed with an equine theme since the Marly (Marly-le-Roi, the Horse Tamer) horse plays a major role in the village and school district’s history. Its decomposition and reconstruction are symbolic of the district’s return to grace.
Authors are always asked where the flames of inspiration are found. The answer is rather simple. Any and everywhere, and thus a title was born. However,with some reserve, I must admit that it was one of those Eureka! moments from which we like to veer since they too are cliché. You will be able to read the full explanation of the event in the book’s preface. However, to give you a heads up, that Eureka moment took place on a walk-through Newport’s Green Animal Topiary gardens.
The book is sprinkled with aquatic analogies. The only question that remains other than when am I going to complete and publish the book is will Fish on a Leash retain its title.
4. Why the Fish analogies? I freely admit that many analogies used throughout the book are cliched, I propose to you that several are quite esoteric. They were selected because they parallel the behavior and environment of the administrators, board and residents. Many times, we can visualize a scene when we have a known point of reference. Many times, we need a little prodding to make scenes visual to the mind’s eye. And many times, I employ these analogies as simile and metaphor for example: a big fish story, a red herring, fish stink from the head, if the fish had not opened its mouth, it would not have been caught, and hook, line and sinker, etc. The fish comparisons are even used to introduce characters, concepts as well as demonstrate the art of creative nonfiction…for example, the story about the rock pool jumping frillfin goby.
A reader’s challenge (obviously post-publication): if you are the first to locate the mention of and define the relationship between the goby and our story, you will receive a free first edition autographed copy.
5. Why the Dickens references? The Superintendent is a Dickens scholar whose doctoral dissertation intertwines Dickens’ position on education with the role of the Educational Administrator. Therefore, it was a natural progression to sprinkle references to Dickens’ works and characters throughout the book. The Sup also conducted a weekly adult class on Shakespeare and Dickens held at the William Cullen Bryant Library.
My first mass email to the community was entitled School for Scandal. Although the 1777 School for Scandal was written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and not Dickens, I took poetic license and wrote a literary mashup. Other than the title there is no mention of the play or its story. Rather, the email was interspersed with the appropriate Dickens characters who reflected the unfolding events.
A second reader’s challenge: In Chapter One Inspector Bucket is introduced. If you are the first to identify the import of Inspector Bucket’s role to a specific literary genre, how he plays into the telling of our story, and which Dickens novel he haunts, I will gladly bestow upon you a signed free first edition of the book upon publication.
6. How did you develop the structure/layout of the book? The book opens with the February 2004 whistle-blowers letter. Writing a copied take in the vein of a daily newspaper reportage or even the legalese of the NYS Comptroller’s comprehensive report was not in the offing. Narrative nonfiction obligates the writer to take you on a journey through a creative presentation of the story.
After years of shifting the focus and organizing the facts, a clear pattern emerged. The story had to be told chronologically, beginning with a flashback. The consequences of the fall 2002 event would lay the foundation for the full-blown exposé of 2004. Once I overcame the hump of the flashback, writing the story was straightforward. I had to integrate historical data, newspaper, articles, interviews, legal documents, emails, election materials, budgets, Board of Education minutes (2002-2006), rumor board commentary and personal anecdotal notes were taken at meetings and court proceedings into the story line.
FOAL is not a handbook on how to investigate and follow forensic accounting procedures, I leave that for the specialists. It offers neither a simplistic nor a formulaic analysis. Nor is it a pulp-fiction history rewrite of the scandal. FOAL makes no pretensions to explain the irrational behaviors exhibited by a highly educated Superintendent, other than the fact that the crime was a crime dictated by passion and propelled by greed.
Through a participatory lens, we learn how a community―residents, staff, government officials, even students eagerly fell prey to criminal rationalization and manipulation. The actions taken by a corrupt administration was always cloaked as doing good for the community and the system. This white-collar crime, albeit sporting a designer collar, has not been identified in any other book-length work.
FOAL addresses how over a decade and under ring leading facilitators, a contrived school culture thrived and embraced twenty-eight beneficiaries. Only six were indicted. and served the dutiful white-collar time, translated as a year below the minimum sentence plus a year on parole―a four-to-twelve sentence became a three-plus-one. The book closes with the fall 2006 sentencing of the king and queen pins.
7. FOAL has both a narrator’s voice and your own. How were you able to distinguish the two? Since this is neither a biography, nor a formal or semi-formal memoir, I had to walk the fine line of discretion. However, it was not difficult to determine tonality. You will be able to easily ascertain when and where I am an active participant in the story and when I don the invisible cloak of the observer.