Home from World War II, my father became the production manager for a Goodyear tire plant, a job he held until retirement at 62. The plant did not make car and truck tires. His job was to keep the bicycle tires that were the factory’s main product rolling off the line, to make sure the inbound rubber was on hand as needed, and to slide around inside barrage balloons checking the quality of the work he oversaw. He was not a slave to fashion, not at work nor at home, so instead of standard issue dad slippers around the house, he wore special purpose, indestructible leather moccasins designed for the folks who walked around on the outside and inside of the balloons as they built them.
He was a clarinetist, a disciple of Benny Goodman, a member of a widely unknown dance band that entertained guests on small cruise ships. He was also an un-Lebowski-like social bowler, an avocation that I eventually concluded had an embittering, destructive effect on his marriage.
Unsurprisingly, I was only dimly aware in real time of this varied roster of his activities, all unrelated to raising his only child. They were puzzle pieces that I began to organize into a speculative family history, but only long after Father’s Day was no longer an occasion to celebrate with him. When he and my mother moved from the house they bought when the war ended, they did so unenthusiastically. The Vineyard, where they died, did not suit them.
I found in the bookcase beside his reading chair, the one he refused to relinquish even as the movers were packing away the furniture around him, one volume that was not like the others – not like the leather bound Shakespeare’s plays, Orwell, Ayn Rand, Jules Verne, Henry James, Dreiser, Forster, Conrad, and on and on. It was a dusty, cobwebby bookcase. Great books, in the historic sense, though seldom bothered about these days.
My father was a reader, though mysteriously and retrospectively worrisome to me, his taste diverged from classics when I was a kid to sci-fi and dystopian gothic as he got older and grumpier. But, readers often imagine themselves writers. If they are reading something that does not imprison their attention, their thoughts wander. They wonder, Could I do better? Could I be the next John Grisham, the next Dennis Lehane, the next Styron, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, or Katie Roiphe? If they are reading something exquisite in its soul capturing authority, when it’s done they wonder, Could I ever write something so riveting, so meaningful? Could my book make it to the top of the bestseller list? Of course, the answer is, Don’t be silly. Get back in that balloon.
Among my father’s legacy collection of nearly forgotten volumes the one I have in mind yielded a clue to who he was and what he dreamt of, none of which I had divined during eighteen years living at home. The mystery my sleuthing discovered that he had had a writing career in mind. The beginnings of his stories, along with letters from England where he served as a cryptographer in the Army Air Corps, he had secreted in a fragrant, red cedar box hidden in the back of a closet under the eaves in the bedroom he and my mother shared. He wrote in a swooping, stylish, graceful hand. The letters were finished, the stories were not. I guess the balloons got in the way.
It was the Plot Genie, with its faded maroon cover and occult embossed illustration, was the book that surprised me and illuminated my ancestral research. It was not fiction or nonfiction, not history or science, pseudo or genuine. It was a Depression era self-help reference my father had handled often. The Genie was a nuts and bolts guide to plotting the story you aimed to write, complete with a wheel you spun to move the composition along by matching a character with a location, a murder weapon, a motive, and a scene. To be sure, it left the writer to fill empty spaces with life or rather its fictional facsimile, but the Genie promised to give a desperate, untutored first-timer a leg up.
You might find the wheel unsettling. The thought of spinning a wheel to select among nine general categories of plots, say, using motive 27, with character 29, and scene 42 may suggest a self-help hoax or a board game, a Cards Against Humanity approach to writing fiction. The Plot Genie was copyrighted in 1931. It’s worth noting that it was copyrighted not written. Invented by Wycliffe A Hill, the copy my father kept was published by Ernest A. Gagnon in 1935. Mr. Hill explained that his book resulted from “sixteen years of effort to perfect a formula, and a means of its application, which would enable student writers to inject plots into their stories” – a sort of injection molding fiction technique. I’ve no idea whether my father took the Genie seriously and used it to organize the plots of his unfinished manuscripts. There is insufficient evidence to decide the question, but I am satisfied that he harbored ambitions beyond the rubber industry, even dreams.
Mr. Gagnon was not modest about the utility of The Plot Genie. “I sincerely share the opinion of other publishers who have expressed themselves as believing that this invention of The Plot Genie will have a definite bearing on the character of story plots around which much of our future fiction and drama will be built, to the end that stories in general will be improved in merit because they will be better plotted. I further feel that such a scientific system as is applied to the building of dramatic plots with this method is distinctly in line with the modern trend in all things toward efficiency and economy of effort.” Mercifully, Mr. Gagnon was dead wrong on all counts. The trend he saw coming in 1931 petered out quickly, efficiency and economy of effort giving way to shameless, extravagant, egocentric memoirist wallowing, and of course, now and again, some awfully good fiction in the gloriously fruitful post-war years.
If by now in this story you find yourself smirking, I must add that Mr. Hill developed his Plot Robot, as he called it, out of the most common stimulus known to would-be writers, to wit, a rejection notice. “Sixteen years ago,” he explains, “ I was started on a rampant search in an effort to track the thing called ‘Plot’ to its lair when the famous motion picture director and producer Cecil B. DeMille rejected one of my pet stories with the kindly criticism that ‘although an interesting narrative, it contains no dramatic plot.’”
Mr. Hill plotted his own revenge with The Plot Genie. Don’t think for a moment that the spinning wheel, decorated with the image of Aladdin himself, has only a few story ideas to suggest. In fact, Mr. Hill’s formula is amazingly exhaustive. It lists and classifies dozens and dozens of dramatic situations, describes plot building, and gives examples of plot outlines and a complete plotted story, developed with the mindless efficiency of the slide rule-like Genie. There are lists of locales, common and unusual male and female characters, fictional problems, obstacles to love, complications to thicken the stew, predicaments to challenge the characters, crises, climaxes, and surprise twists. It’s a feast for the novelist with a hobbled imagination.
You begin with three turns of the wheel on the Genie. That will yield a locale or atmosphere. Then, three more turns and the first character will be revealed, three more and the beloved appears. Each of the results is a number on the Genie’s wheel, and each number refers to a list in the pages of The Plot Genie. “The object,” Mr. Gagnon writes, “is to have the mechanical device select a series of nine numbers which call for the requisite plot elements, one from each of the nine lists in the book.” That’s it, you’re done.
A few revolutions of the Genie’s wheel could yield – as one example does – a story Mr. Hill says he sold to movie studios, but perhaps not to Mr. DeVille. The story is about Elwood Parker, the elderly publisher; Keith Durant, the wealthy sportsman; Zenda, an aging mystic; Pamela Wynne, the daughter of Zenda; George Barry, a moonshine mogul; Anna Meggs, a farmer’s wife; and Dulcy, the redbone girl. The collision of these characters creates a detective story, whose motivation is a $100,000 reward that the federal government is offering for information about bootlegging operations that market alcohol for sale in Chicago. The action takes place on a hunting trip, set in the hills of Kentucky.
Never seen the movie based on this plot? Neither have I. In the end Pamela and Keith get the reward and fall in love.
Examining The Plot Genie’s faded, mildewed pages, I made out on an endpaper the faint record of some notes. Dim as they were, they were certainly my father’s. Barely legible after so many years, I read a few lines. “The mystic’s daughter tells him that the publisher is a frequent visitor to the restaurant. She is overheard, and the gang leader attacks them. After a furious battle, he overcomes the enemy and delivers him to the police.”
There is nothing more.