Part book review, part musings on writing

Recently Andrew Wheeler (former SFBC editor and now editor at John Wiley and Sons) sent me a copy of Extraordinary Circumstances by Cynthia Cooper. The book is non fiction and is about how Cooper helped blow the whistle on Worldcom and expose their financial shenanigans. I wanted to read this book when I heard about it for several reasons. The first was that I was interested in learning some more about what happened and how it could happen. I also am interested in people who are willing to step up and reveal wrong-doing, since so many face terrible consequences. Our culture does not value such honesty. And I wanted to read the book as fodder for my own writing.

The book is well written. It personalizes and humanizes each of the players and shows how perfectly ordinary and usually good people could suddenly turn “bad.” The jargon was kept to a minimum and frankly I started reading and couldn’t put it down. I was too caught up in the unfolding events. There are a few disappointing elements. One is that I wanted a little bit more of the tension and drama of the days when everything fell apart. The second one is that I wanted more from the ending. But the latter could never happen. That’s because while the culprits were tried and sent to jail, the real meat of the aftermath can’t be told. It lies in what happened to all those people who lost jobs and who lost their savings. And that isn’t all that trackable.

Ironically, Cynthia Cooper did not set out to expose the wrong doers. She was no crusader, no detective. She was an auditor. And she found oddities that she felt it necessary to pursue because that was her job and her passion. She loved the work. When she realized what was happening, she simply did her job again and reported it. To her, it wasn’t a question of heroism, so much as a simple matter of character. She knew she had to do it because it was the right and moral thing, and so she did.

What’s particularly interesting about this book for me is the fodder element. I am fascinated by Cooper and the other players. Some were larger than life, others truly average ordinary people. But all found them positioned with a choice. Some seemed small. And once that choice was made, they had almost committed to the wrong path and couldn’t get back. Or at least they believed. Because they had things to lose. The ironic thing is that they had the same things to lose at the end as at the beginning–all they did was postpone and add to the loss. It was never really going to end well. Worldcom was always going to go into bankruptcy–the delay only cost the culprits more personally in terms of jail and trials and public opinion than had they never done it. They lost homes and families and shortened their lives. All for nothing.

I’m really interested in that notion that once you step on the wrong path, you’re forever committed to it. That’s a major fantasy trope. That one little bit of evil leads to more–evil has a foothold and from there it can colonize you. More and more the characters I write about are terribly flawed. They have made bad choices. They have done horrible things. In The Cipher, I have a character who many readers cannot forgive (and have told me so). He does horrible things and costs other people in huge ways. But the world is not black and white and the other main character decides to forgive him and allow that he has changed. She forgives because she’s no angel either, and she understands how that black path can beckon and you can find yourself on it before you even know you took a step. And life must still be lived. People are redeemable in fantasy worlds–a fact that I like. But not everyone is redeemed. Not everyone chooses to try for the light path.

I think this is particularly what is interesting me these days as I write. Some choices seem very easy. A character thinks: I made this promise, therefore I must keep it. Except. When I made this promise, I hadn’t yet learned this. And now, do I keep the promise no matter what havoc it causes? Or do I go back on my word because of this new knowledge? Staying committed means hurting someone terribly. Breaking the promise is a sign of disloyalty and dishonor. The choice is no longer quite so simple, especially if that characters believes himself to be moral.

More and more I like to write my stories in the gray landscape of hard choices. There are still heroes, but the cost of heroism is often much higher than merely sacrificing your life. That’s easy. You don’t have to live with the consequences.

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    Interesting. I like idea that outsiders can see whistle blowing as heroic, but to the whistle blower it’s “just doing their job.”

    I also take your point about those who don’t blow the whistle because they can’t face the music even though they’re the ones who put the quarters in the jukebox. I think that’s what separates the players in any crisis. When faced with bad news, some folks will go to great lengths to put off facing the inevitable consequences. That all-too-human quality is what sows the seeds for a lot of tragedies. The crisis might vary—sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s a bad medical diagnosis or the breakup of a relationship—but the underlying inability to face up to bad news is the same.

    Maybe they just never quite finished growing up.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    The one that fascinates me is the notion that once you’ve crossed a line, you can’t go back. You get this in Huck Finn, when Huck decides to steal Jim back even though he’s convinced that’s a sin; he says to himself, “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” and then goes on about how he’ll do all these other awful things, too, because once he’s done that he might as well do anything.

    One of my professors talked about something similar, regarding the work he had done in Northern Ireland and the young men he’d seen there. They believed that “love thy neighbour” ultimately extended not just to their village or their country, but the British and indeed all of humanity, so that by fighting to defend their home they were violating that commandment from God and choosing to damn themselves. They knew that the world they were fighting for was not for them, that they had put themselves outside society. And having done so . . . well, they might as well do whatever it took to defend their homes, because one sin more or less wouldn’t make a difference for them.

    Viewed from the outside, it’s a judgmental attitude, that no one can be redeemed from evil. Viewed from inside, it’s a profound tragedy.

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Karen:

    I think it’s an interesting point. With whistleblowers, they often uncover something and then report it. I think there are probably a lot of people who would decide not to do it if they knew how awful the results would be personally and for their families. So those who come forward are brave, although perhaps naive.

    Di

  4. 4. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Marie: that’s fascinating about the Irish boys. I didn’t know that at all. What a tricky conundrum and really pulls at different loyalties. Worth thinking about . . .

    Di

  5. 5. Kate Elliott

    Di: I think you’re bringing up a really important point about how unrealistic that particular trope can be, and how damaging to how people approach life. Do you think more writers are exploring ambiguity these days?

    Marie: that’s really fascinating — and I agree with you that viewed from the inside it is a tragedy.

  6. 6. chrisweuve

    Marie: Your description of the irish boys could easily have been part of the dialog presented by The Operative in the movie _Serenity_:

    Mal: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?

    The Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.

    Mal: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?

    The Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm… I’m a monster.What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Chris — I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s an interesting parallel. Except that the Operative, unlike the Irish boys, doesn’t seem to carry the added perspective that, by doing the horrible things he does, he saves those he loves from having to do them.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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