M. William Phelps is the New York Times best-selling author of 45 books and winner of the Excellence in (Investigative) Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
THE DEAD SOUL is his first novel. It's an engrossing, image-forward investigative thriller.
It started with seeing this young girl on a class field trip to the Boston (Massachusetts) Tea Party Ship and Museum. I saw her and several classmates walking along the bow of the ship as the tour guide explained the history of the Tea Party and start of the Revolutionary War. Of course, she had her eyes glued to the screen of her iPhone, tapping out a text, her mind entirely out of touch with the actual experience going on around her. Typical teenager, right?
This scene, which had just popped into my head one day about ten years ago, demonstrates the life of a writer: We walk around tormented by this other world spinning in our heads, constantly nagging at us to sit and put it on paper.
Here’s an expert of writing borne from that Tea Party ship image:
Angela and her two friends stood below the front mast of the [Tea Party] ship. It was the only section of the boat you couldn’t see getting on. Angela looked up instinctively, hoping to see the source of the red droplet on her screen. As she did, her mind didn’t quite register at first what her eyes focused on.
From that scene, I began to build a novel, a serial killer thriller, and made the decision—because the image was so vivid and the voices so clear—to write the book as if it were a film and you, the reader, were watching it.
This is how a piece of fiction starts for me. An image. A situation. A scene. Maybe a character talking to another character. Comes out of nowhere. And when you’re a writer, at least in my situation, if it’s an idea with any lasting value, that one image leads to another and another, and they don’t stop. Once the spicket is turned on, the water flows—and sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s as if a neighborhood smartass kid popped a fire hydrant open.
Once the kernel of that idea has been written down, the obsession with telling the story at hand has begun for me. And it doesn’t stop. I can forget about sleep. I can forget about thinking of much else. It’s at this point that I give myself over to the writing. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s exhausting and can overtake my life. I have a hard time turning off the spicket. To put how profound this is into context, I’ve published 44 nonfiction books, and with my journalism, my nonfiction, I can easily turn that work on every morning and shut it off at the end of every workday. Not so much when it comes to fiction.
And so, with that image of the young girl aboard the Tea Party ship knocking around inside the old noggin, THE DEAD SOUL, a novel Wild Blue Press is graciously re-issuing for me after a new edit and update, began to grow.
After seeing Angela react to the blood on the screen of her iPhone, a series of new images and ideas now flowing, I developed additional characters and situations. I set the entire story along the Freedom Trail, a popular Revolutionary War-era historic spot in Boston I am familiar with. I might add that the title of the book pays homage to one of my favorite novels, Deal Souls, by Gogol (although, they are very different books).
In THE DEAD SOUL, a serial killer begins leaving bodies along Boston’s Freedom Trail. Gruesome crime scenes shock and stupefy law enforcement. My main detective, Jake Cooper, an embattled, broken man who has been given one more chance to resurrect a stained and imploding career, is assigned to investigate. What this serial killer, dubbed “the Optimist” by the media, does to his victims begins to reveal the plotline and creates the suspense driving the book.
The Museum of Science plays as a setting near the end of the novel. That detail is specifically added because I recall going there on a class field trip when I was in fifth grade—yes, a long time ago. It is a memory that has stuck with me all these years. We visited the Planetarium. It mesmerized me. I was in awe at the immensity of the building itself and what took place when the lights went out. Of course, this was a time when simple things in life gave us the biggest thrill. We played with Matchbox cars in the dirt for hours. Had weekly Monopoly games. Built tree forts. Walked to school with metal lunch boxes. I sound like an old guy, perhaps, but nostalgia comforts and warms the soul. That’s why we see all those cozy reruns of “Bonanza,” “Happy Days,” “Bewitched,” “Columbo” and the like on an endless number of retro streaming channels.
Today, that same Planetarium, however many technical and computerized updates they’ve added, would not be as awe-inspiring, which is why I have never gone back. After all, we have the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas now. Elon “Super Villain” Musk’s Starlink. The bar keeps rising. How far we have come in such a short period of time. Our threshold for entertainment and stimulation and being awed has grown beyond comprehension. Those simple things I mentioned don’t seem to do much for anyone today—a product, I am certain, not of innovation and invention, but a culture of excess and addiction to technology with which we now live.
Nothing is enough.
Which brings me back to the magic of sitting down and reading a book and the art of writing an idea generated by a simple human thought. We can speculate that technology (AI) will take over writing, too. This seems to be the fear today in the industry. I’m unimpressed, however. AI can replace a lot of things, make life easier, change the game of medicine, drive a car for us while we talk and text on our iPhones; but it can never replace the act of an image spinning into an idea and the passion for putting pen to paper. Writing is an obsession for me. It’s the one thing in my life I can do where time ceases to exist, the world around me disappears, and whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, I feel the most comfortable, at ease and calm in the world.
I’m grateful for words, prose, literature, and the tropey novels we impulse buy at airports—but especially for those random images that come around every now and then and spark an idea into a fire; for the opportunity to write for a living; and, beyond all of it, for books. I don’t know what I’d do without being able to read and write every day.
I’d like to say thank you to anyone who’s read this essay, and especially those who go on and purchase THE DEAD SOUL. I hope the book can do the same for you as writing it did for me and perhaps even take you out of this upside-down world, with seemingly so much hatred, anger, and polarization. My hope is that the book allows you to become lost in the story, and you can escape the world, if only for the time it takes to read it.