William Hammett is the author of four novels, including his latest, John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café. He spent most of his life teaching writing at colleges and universities, and spent nine years ghostwriting for celebrities, Hollywood directors and producers, athletes, and professionals from all works of life. His work has been favorably reviewed in Publishers Weekly and has been published in both hardcover and paperback editions. Hammett has also published poetry in dozens of literary journals around the country. He was born in New Orleans, where he lived for forty-one years before moving to the country, north of Lake Ponchartrain. He survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, returning to his residence after a twelve-day evacuation. Hammett is currently working on a screenplay for Arcane Avenue Productions/Lost Horizon Entertainment. The following interview was conducted by Lisa Kenney of the literary blog Eudaemonia.
When did you start writing?
When I was seven. I read a Perry Mason novel – don't ask me why – and loved it. I wrote a three page, single-spaced Mason mystery and sent it to Mason's creator, Erle Stanley Gardener. He was kind enough to send me a letter acknowledging my story and urging me to keep at it. He said that I might one day give him some competition in the bookstores. Heady stuff for a kid. I never stopped writing after that. Ironically, many years later I would ghostwrite a memoir for a good friend of Gardener.
Why did you write John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café?
I always wanted to write a "feel good" novel, one that would make people believe in faith, hope, and the miraculous. Having loved the Beatles since 1963, I thought Lennon would make the ideal protagonist for such a project. He was a flawed man, and I therefore saw the possibility for dramatic tension in the novel, but Lennon also embodied a desire for peace and harmony. I saw the book as a rock-and-roll Field of Dreams. I opened the book by putting Lennon, unaware that he'd been assassinated, in Grand Central Station. With Lennon on the loose, a lot of plot possibilities opened up.
The novel is filled with the supernatural and magical happenings. Do you believe in such things?
Yes, though I don't call it magic per se. Theologian Carl Rahner said that miracles, for example, are not violations of nature – not a question of God waving a magic wand but rather nature opening itself up to its highest potential. That's also what quantum physics is now telling us. The position of the observer can actually change the reality of subatomic particles. In short, I think what we call magic and miracles is built into the fabric of the space-time continuum, or what we call the physical universe. Belief, conscious or unconscious, has more than a little to do with what reality plays out in our lives or how our bodies handle illness. Call it faith or the power of intention – it's powerful stuff.
Have you ever experienced any of this magic yourself?
I think everyone does, but most people aren't looking for it, and so it goes unnoticed. In the opening chapter of this novel, ad executive Amy Parisi encounters Mercy Street in Greenwich Village, thinking to herself that there is a Mercer Street in the Village, but not a Mercy Street. After finishing the chapter one afternoon, the phone rang. It was a wrong number from someone in Mercerville, New Jersey. (The similarity between "Mercy" and "Mercer" was also a bit strange.) Counting land lines, cell phones, and corporate telephone lines, it is estimated that there are anywhere from three billion to five billion telephone lines in the United States. Pretty slim odds, I would say, that I would get a wrong number from Mercerville.
Months later, a copy of Writer's Digest Poet's Market fell on the floor. I picked it up, and the book was open to a listing for Mercerville Community College in Mercerville, New Jersey. At the bottom of the page was a paragraph for a publication that had published poetry by John Kinsella, a character in Field of Dreams, by W. P. Kinsella. Very weird. I also wrote a scene in which Lennon recounts the Beatles' meeting with Fats Domino when they came to New Orleans in 1964 and how they marveled at his huge diamond watch. Not long after, I was sitting in a doctor's exam room and glanced down at the magazines in my little cubicle. A three-year-old People magazine was open to a page that pictured the Beatles talking with Fats Domino in New Orleans in 1964, with Fats holding up his diamond watch. These kinds of things happened hundreds of times over the next year and a half. I also saw many a great deal of "magic" while raising my son. Wordsworth was right – children have a special insight into the world when they are born. My son's a great kid (and an excellent guitarist), and I've learned a lot about the tremendous power of love from him.
What is the significance, in your opinion?
I'm still waiting to find out. Maybe the book has something in it that somebody is supposed to read. Only time will tell.
What was it like to write from Lennon's perspective?
I don't think anyone really can. I tried for an approximation, a generic Lennon, if that's possible. I largely ignored the accent and mannerisms because people have tried that with him and it comes off as artificial. In terms of content, Lennon was a complex man, someone who went through many phases in a short time and meant many different things to different people. That having been said, he was cocky, witty, angry, gloomy, enthusiastic – these are personality traits I tried to incorporate into his character.
But surely you can't ignore the fact that he was a Beatle.
That would be equally impossible. I have many sections in the book that digress very briefly from the narrative to discuss some aspect of Lennon's life as a Beatle or the Beatles' musical influences when it is germane to the plot. I think these sections make the book a lot of fun and are quite interesting, if I say so myself.
How does this book differ from your last one, The Erotic Manifesto?
The Erotic Manifesto was more satirical and had more intentional humor. Though this book uses the same basic prose style – a bit offbeat – it has more straight-ahead plotting. Manifesto was more of a "think piece," while Mercy Street Café is an odyssey of sorts in more ways than one.
Can you explain that last statement?
Lennon goes on a very long road trip and encounters the supernatural – synchronicity and reality shifts – in a dozen different ways, but he's also voyaging through his internal life and trying to make sense of the inner demons that plagued his life. It's a genre called "magical realism," which incorporates elements of historical events and real people with fictional characters and a smattering of that which cannot be explained.
Any last words?
Yes. Buy the book.