The Not So Mysterious Mystery Of Creativity
I’m continually asked how did you come up with this? Where do I get the ideas for my stories? People genuinely seem confounded by it. I think the key thing is to be open to the world and the possibilities around you. Most people aren’t; they lumber through life mostly seeing what they expect to see, missing what’s right under their noses. What makes a great artist, thinker, or leader in any medium or endeavor—a Picasso or a Steve Jobs, or a Bobby Kennedy in politics—is learning to actually look. Or as Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
I once had the immense good fortune to be a newspaper reviewer and feature writer. Amazingly, I got paid to see and write about some of the world’s greatest artists—groups like the New York City Ballet, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and many others. The catch was I had to write these reviews to a harrowing deadline. I would leave the venue for the office at 10 p.m. and had to have twelve to fourteen inches in by midnight. There was tremendous pressure, of course, but also exhilaration— halfway through the review, the massive presses in the basement would start printing the sports section with a tremendous accelerating rumble, and the whole building would start to shake like a ship in heavy seas.
Afterward, the reporters and I would flop back and wait for the pages to be locked so that we could go home. We would shoot the breeze, listening to the noise from the nightclubs across the street. They would tell me stories about what was really going on in town, and sometimes they would get around to the old days in Saratoga Springs: the gambling, the bootlegging, and the so-called Lake Houses, elaborate casinos on the edge of town that were the prototype for Las Vegas. One shuttered Lake House remained: Riley’s.
Well, this fascinated me. I had to see and I tracked down where it was. As I went up the hill, I was astounded to see a sprawling Art Deco complex, a design masterpiece equal to the Chrysler Building. When I looked through the tall plate-glass door in its ascending ziggurat entrance, I saw a gazelle inlaid in black onyx in the floor of the marble lobby and a Lalique chandelier overhead. It was hardly what I expected—some sleazy gambling dive. This was an elite, high-class operation. I was hooked.
At the same moment, I was also aware that Ian Fleming set one of his James Bond novels just north of town. Decades had passed since the end of the Second World War, and a series of revelations on the secret history of the war had begun, for instance, the British breaking the German Enigma code machine. These disclosures also included an operation that Britain set up in Rockefeller Center called British Security Coordination. It initially had two goals: first, to run resistance inside Occupied Britain if it fell to the Nazis—a real possibility in the summer and autumn of 1940; second, if Britain survived the Battle of Britain, BSC would fight Nazi subversion and espionage in the U.S.
At one point, Ian Fleming was part of British Security Coordination. I instantly realized that Fleming had to have gone through Saratoga and up State Route 9 to Canada, and that Riley’s and the Saratoga Lake Houses probably inspired some of the Bond stories.
I have also always been a very political person. I was a local Howard Dean coordinator and over the years I also became a professional political campaign manager, including campaigns for the New York State Legislature. Actually having to run a major campaign like that forced me to take a hard look at conservatives, what they thought, why they were so often successful and, in my area, entrenched for so long. Why did we have this kind of extremism in the U.S. when they did not in Europe? It was baffling. I became interested in the history of the U.S. before WWII, and how powerful the right-wing America Firsters were. I realized there was a far greater continuity to conservative politics than was widely assumed.
Oddly enough, Pearl Harbor saved the American right wing because afterward, political differences were deliberately buried in the interest of winning the war, even though the actions of some Americans before the war—like Charles Lindbergh’s— were regarded as at least potentially treasonous. By comparison, the far right in Europe never really recovered from Nazism and fascism; most so-called European conservatives would be at least centrists in the U.S.
All this came together in my mind in a flash and I realized I was looking at a great story. I had a fit of creativity or genius, call it what you will, as I made the connections. A few years later, historians working in the captured Nazi archives, among other sources, dug up the fact that the Nazis tried to rig the 1940 Presidential election. At that point, I was really off to the races, and New York Station is the result.
Being open to the possibilities around you, of course, is far easier said than done, and there is a real danger of distraction, of constantly flitting from one thing to another. This is one of the problems with today’s social media feeds and the emphasis on constant stimulation. That continual need for a fix of the new is another form of being trapped in one’s expectations. Sometimes we have to silence the voices in our heads to hear what is going on around us. When we do, the results can seem magical, even to ourselves, but they are the moments all writers and all artists live for.