"The Posthumous Father" by Robert Pope

Updated: Apr 3

When I originally wrote this story and sent it to a magazine I thought might be interested, I got it back with the note they rejected it solely on the basis of its being about a writer. Further, this editor said, his readers deserved better than to have to read stories about writers. I knew then he had not read further than the first paragraph or two before returning it, as he did not also note that while it is true Sparks May wrote two mystery novels before his twenty-fifth birthday, he was primarily a musician who never picked up a pen again.

This editor said nothing about the love story or the ghost story which are of first importance in a tale that has the added value of absolute truth. If you do not believe in love or in ghosts, that won’t matter to the story; if you don’t believe in writers, I don’t know what to say to you. I would like to note the irony that this periodical had issued a call for stories from none other than writers.

I have, for twenty years, since I was the age of Sparks when he wrote his first novel, had a constant concern for the lives of writers; my main complaint of Sparks is that he stopped writing and spent every moment since the productive years playing saxophone with the Sparks May Quintet. So, my dear sir, this story is not about a writer but about a man who shed his writing as easily as some men lose their hair—including this editor of whom I speak, whose photograph reveals a pate so shiny I needed sunglasses for a closer look.

Had he read any further, this competent crank, he would have known this without my having to tell him in this brief preface. Now, I have always disliked a preface—get to the action I tell my writers—but I have always cared about those writers in whose lives I became involved; I assure you that they are as human as anyone else. Dismissing a story on the basis that the main character once wrote two novels is a travesty of editorship. As an editor, I know this to be true.

So, this true story I am telling you now is not only a love story of sorts and a ghost story of sorts, but also the story of a bond between a father and his son, descendants of Armenian immigrants, and about a young man with more talents than he knew what to do with. I am appalled at the ignorance of an editor who would not read on because the subject had actually produced two of the finest mystery novels I have had the pleasure and privilege to publish. Though it makes me peevish to read his note, I do so on a regular basis, just to remember what it is an editor should and should not care about.

How, you might well ask, does it come to pass that a person who writes two excellent novels, available in bookstores and online at any reputable bookseller, can walk away from such a prodigious talent without looking back? It does not now surprise me his first novel, Imagining the Dead, simply leapt from his fingers fully formed, a gift from the genre gods, or that the second faltered almost from inception. I have no doubt he would have been a one-book author had his father not intervened with an ingenious idea for a combination love and ghost story to weave into a plot not strong enough to carry a second novel, Deadly Imaginings. But the unusual element here is that his father died before offering his fortuitous critique, and this alone is the reason I am writing to tell anyone interested about how this occurred. As odd as this might seem to the stranger, to the family of the writer it has become commonplace.

I met with Sparks a few times to refine Imagining the Dead but stayed with his family for many lengthy discussions on the course of his second novel when it became clear he had difficulty completing the book, in part due to pressure for which I may be responsible. Early on, I recommended that he complete the book swiftly to capitalize on the previous success, however moderate. In my defense, Sparks felt as much pressure from himself for many reasons, not least among them his fear that Imagining the Dead had been more flash-in-the-pan than tour-de-force.

With the modest goal of five hundred pages, he had produced a thousand at his father’s initial death, of which eight hundred had to be discarded. When I speak of pages, I mean page after page in tight, spikey handwriting; he wrote using a fountain pen and college-ruled notebook paper, so the lower edge of his left hand always had a blue discoloration. As he wrote his first novel, he enjoyed full support from his father and his mother. Even cousin Klaus did not yet object to his writing, since it had not interfered with his participation in their little combo in any serious way.

During his initial period of joyful creation, Sparks took time out to play with The Kraus Boys and had become the primary draw of the group. Sparks grew his signature chin beard at the behest of Klaus, a cousin from the German side of the family who played keyboard, xylophone, and accordion. At our first meeting, Klaus informed me his last name meant curly-haired, a fact he found humorous because he had not a hair on his head—or his chin, for that matter. He wore a faded orange newsboy cap when he played, about which he was superstitious. One story had it that when the cap went missing before a performance, his brother Hans found Klaus shivering in the bathroom, whispering, “Nein, mutter, nein,” and he would not come out until Hans returned the hat he took as a prank.

Once Sparks began working on his second book, the Kraus brothers alternated calling on him to join on a gig, Klaus promising that if he agreed to come back full time, they would add a percussionist and change the name to The Sparks May Quintet. Hans threw up his hands at last, but Klaus insisted his refusal was destroying the group and any possibility they had to make their living as musicians. Klaus Kraus’s initial distaste for me, partly due to my Italian heritage, grew into full-bloomed hatred at my insinuation into the life of the saxophonist he came to see as his personal salvation, even threatening to shoot me in my sleep.

In Klaus’s sense that I had blocked his path to greater musical success, he was not much deceived. I had taken Sparks’ hand-written manuscript, sent in over the transom, turned it into a marketable script, and seen it into print. At the time, I had no interest in anything but ingenious and masterful mystery or crime novels, and in Sparks I believed I had found a cash cow. Thus, I had stepped into a space Klaus imagined reserved for himself.

During this period, Klaus pursued his mania for body decoration. Beyond the piercings, including the hideous white loops inserted in his ear lobes that looked like nothing so much as hangers for a shower curtain, he sported tattoos of musical instruments and famous musicians on his right arm, up to his neck, and had begun on his torso, often going without a shirt to show them. I did find some merit in the massive accordion on his back framed as a jigsaw puzzle with spaces between individual pieces to show how they fit together. His bare left arm looked quite pale by contrast, as he had promised it to Sparks, having shown him a design of his own likeness on soprano sax if only Sparks would return.

Spark’s father’s belief in his son’s writing came in the form of financial and emotional support right from the moment he graduated from Ohio State until his own sudden death when Sparks was a year into the faltering second book. One rumor I will dispel here is that Taniel had been angered by his son’s adoption of a pen name. Taniel had the belief that no one would read a novel by someone named August Vardanyan, and they spent one leisurely afternoon arriving at a pen