Daniel Friedman was one of six 2013 Edgar nominees for Best First Novel. His desire to write “Don’t Ever Get Old” was based on an issue that he sees affecting virtually every family in America—aging.
“DON’T EVER GET OLD is certainly a book that deals with issues related to the problems of aging in contemporary America,” said Friedman. “We have a lot of people around today who are living with chronic health problems that used to kill people off, and there really isn’t a lot of art that explores what life is like for these people. I think, to some extent, old and sick people become kind of invisible in our pop culture. There’s something terrifying about imagining what it must be like to be 80, and to know that your quality of life is going to decline precipitously over the course of a couple of years, and that you’re going to have to make a series of compromises and give up a lot of dignity to keep going.”
Friedman connected to the issue of aging through Buck Schatz, an elderly WWII veteran and retired Memphis cop who goes hunting for a Nazi fugitive. “This guy was a conservative during a period where the establishment was very clearly on the wrong side of history, and he was a cop during an era when the police force was used as a weapon to suppress a popular movement that was protesting entrenched structural injustices. At the same time, as a Jew, he’s conflicted about availing himself of the privileges of American whiteness, after such privileges were denied to his relatives in Europe, and he’s concerned that those privileges could be revoked at any time.”
The issue of aging is important to Friedman because it’s very personal. He said, “I’ve got three elderly grandparents who are dealing with many of the problems Buck faces, and I had a great aunt who suffered with Alzheimer’s until her death in 2010, so a lot of these issues were bouncing around in my head before I ever wrote the book.
“I started out with one scene involving an elderly man whose wife makes him go to a funeral when he wants to stay home and watch Fox News, so he misbehaves to spite her. And then I decided that it might as well be a Jewish man attending a memorial service at a church, because I’m Jewish, and I thought I could sort of work in the strangeness of being in somebody else’s place of worship.
“Once I had that set-up, it was easy to imagine him getting in a fight with the minister and giving a terrible eulogy. That ended up being the fourth chapter of the book. I built the rest of the story out from there.”
The protagonist in “Don’t Ever Get Old” faces the issues so common to the elderly. Friedman said, “At 87 years old, this character has had many of the things that once defined him stripped away. His career is ancient history. His health has taken a downward turn, and he’s become very frail. His son has died. And he’s displaying the early symptoms of dementia, so he’s facing the loss of his mind and his past.
“And when you take all those very essential things away from him, you start to see who he really is, especially when he’s forced to struggle with difficult problems that are compounded by his physical limitations. . .One of my main concerns in ‘Don’t Ever Get Old’ was anchoring the reader in Buck’s current circumstances. For him, advanced age is a kind of prison.”
The plot of “Don’t Ever Get Old” follows Buck as he hunts down an old adversary who may have escaped Germany with a fortune in stolen gold. Buck’s investigation quickly attracts the attention of others who are after the treasure and determined to claim it for themselves.
Dealing with an issue as serious as aging in a mystery—and writing that mystery to a level that qualifies it for an Edgar nomination—would be tricky business indeed. Friedman said, “I was very careful to streamline all of the machinery of the mystery plot, so the book would feel fast and tense.” He added, “I think I’m in a situation where doing the same thing again isn’t going to be good enough. My protagonist has a very specific set of problems and a distinct voice, and, while readers enjoyed that the first time around, it might get old as I try to stretch the concept over multiple books. So my goal with the new book is to stay true to the character without repeating myself.”
Friedman said that the award nomination is an honor, but also creates a new challenge. “I have not managed to turn myself into the kind of unstoppable sales juggernaut that can withstand a critical backlash. [Therefore,] I’m in a somewhat vulnerable position right now, because I might have a target painted on my back and I’m not sure my career can withstand a barrage. I don’t think I have the option of putting out a mediocre second book.”
In defining what drives him as a writer, Friedman said, “I guess the shadow that sort of hangs over all my writing is my father’s death. He was a lawyer in Memphis, and he was shot and killed in the parking garage of his office building by a delusional former client when I was a junior in college. A lot of what I do in my fiction is breaking down my emotional response to that event and reassembling the pieces in different ways. Grief and rage are closely connected for me, and that’s a theme that manifests in different ways in ‘Don’t Ever Get Old,’ the upcoming sequel ‘Don’t Ever Look Back,’ which comes out next year, and my standalone historical novel ‘Riot Most Uncouth,’ which is either going to be a Fall 2014 or a Winter 2015 title.”
In addition to his columns on Examiner.com, Terry Ambrose (themysterywriter.com) also writes mysteries and suspense. The San Francisco Book Review said of his latest novel, “On all levels License to Lie justifiably earned this five-star rating!”