[TW: fictional book burning]
If a ticking bomb under the table propels a plot forward, so too will a deadline on the wall spur the creation of literary excellence, Keith Highfield thought as he signed the death warrant of the Highfield Library. The intricate interplay between danger and creativity is a delicate balancing act.
After The Hobbit was published, J. R. R. Tolkien spent 15 years writing the Lord of the Rings. Keith would give himself the same amount of time to complete his own novel, High Tower. At the offices of his family’s legal firm, Levi & Strauss, Keith signed the contract on the bottom line:
If no member of the Highfield Literary Association has published a New York Times Bestselling book by November 30th, 2023, The Highfield Library will be dissolved.
The next day at the library, he peered into the antique mirror hanging next to the notice. He saw rapidly graying eyebrows, and a once handsome jawline sagging into the jowls of middle-age.
“What’s that sign?” a young woman asked. In her bare feet she walked across the room’s thick carpet and studied the document. “2023?” she asked as if the date was so far into the future as to be science fiction.
“A deadline, perhaps farther away than your age, Cassie.”
She returned to slumping in a chair on the other side of the library, pulling out a thick paperback.
Cassie was the only teen who visited this private library, the daughter of a professor who held family membership. Her father taught at the business school, which explained her interest in YA fantasy—an escape from the pressures at home. Everything about business was about achieving 'success'. Keith abhorred the field. If he could draw one of them into the arts, that would be a glorious victory.
The sound of his book closed resonated through the room. “All good things must come to an end,” he announced. The title was proudly displayed: The Children of Húrin.
Cassie lifted her eyes from the pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
“A writer must immerse themselves in works of greatness,” Keith said, his bushy eyebrows bouncing with joy. “Turambar just emerged victorious over the mighty dragon Glaurung...”
Cassie looked perplexed.
“The book is part of the Lord of the Rings..” Keith explained.
“I think I’ve heard of that.”.
“You should delve into it, starting from The Hobbit.”
“Is it similar to Harry Potter?”
“Harry Potter? A jejune book for children, or for adults who don’t read.”
Cassie pondered her own age. Her mother regarded her as a child, despite the fact she didn’t feel that way herself.
“But a writer must stay current.” Keith said. A teacher must stay positive to hold the attention of youth, a lesson he learned from years of lecturing. “The weighty prose of Tolkien would not sell today. The trick is to write with short sentences, as Raymond Carver taught us.”
Cassie winced at the mention of Raymond Carver. The night before, at Writers Sharing Session, she read an excerpt of her short story, as she said the final sentence, “The orthodontist smiled,” from the back of the room Keith blurted out “Copyright infringement!”
He claimed Raymond Carver used that sentence in his book Cathedral, written back in 1981. Now Cassie wondered how she could write anything at all with many sentences already copyrighted.
Keith gave a talk of his own. He stood before the eight members of the Highfield Literary Society, and said, “In Raymond Carver’s novel Cathedral, the motif of the cathedral serves as a metaphorical sanctuary, symbolic of…”
(Cassie’s mind wandered away, until she heard the unmistakable rise in pitch of a speaker nearing their conclusion)
“...serving as a guidepost on our collective journey, reminding us to embrace the transformative power of human connection and understanding.”
The room clapped politely. A ten-minute time limit and free drinks meant they were mostly still awake.
That year, after learning about Raymond Carver, Keith had spent three months rewriting High Tower, transforming lengthy literary allegories into short declarative statements.
He forged ahead and wrote another twenty chapters, plotting out character backgrounds, family trees and personal ambitions of the 13 point-of-view characters, one from each kingdom.
At the same time, a New York based children's writer, recently employed on the staff of Clifford’s Puppy Days, an animated series aimed at toddlers, busied herself writing on her days off.
In the distant future, a hundred American teenagers who speak as if they grew up in modern day West Virginia have a battle to the death in a reality TV program. A TV program remarkably similar to Survivor, except for a larger downside for the losers.
On a spring afternoon at the Highfield Library, Keith Highfield looked up from Gravity’s Rainbow. With a successful year of writing under his belt, he wore an expression of pure contentment.
“My book has been progressing well since I started using short sentences!”
Cassie looked up from her book. “You mean like the Hunger Games?”
“No. like the magnificent prose of Raymond Carver.”
“The book you told us about last year? “ Cassie asked. “The only thing I remember is someone going to the orthodontist.”
“-and I learned to eliminate every adverb, like Raymond Carver did.”
“Adverbs? What exactly are those?” Cassie asked, winking. “Perfection is overrated. The Hunger Games is on the New York Times Bestseller List, you should take a look at it, Professor Highfield. 100 children fight to the death. What a plot!”
Keith studied the book cover. Keith had 14 years left to write. Plenty of time to adapt to new trends. Once he jotted down the title, Cassie returned to reading this barn burner.
In secret, Keith read the Hunger Games in the span of two hours and came to understand the allure of fast pacing.
He soon found himself laboriously rewriting all thirty chapters of High Tower.
Intricate stories of court banquets and jousts were rewritten into relatable stories of hunting foxes and cooking rabbits.
Descriptions of kingdoms, political systems, and ancient lore became awkward conversations between characters who had no apparent reason to discuss such things. It was a masterpiece.
Erika, an administrative assistant at a small British university in a distant suburb of London, was enamored with the characters of Twilight. Despite having never written before, she began to pen a romance based on the characters. She wanted to continue the excitement of the story, and perhaps entertain a handful of readers on a Twilight fan fiction site.
Her story quickly spread in popularity through word of mouth. A publisher got into contact and made an offer. Due to copyright issues, she needed to change the characters’ names. Erika opened her word processor, and performed a find and replace. There were now 1,503 mentions of Anastasia Steele, and 3,734 of Christian Grey.
Erika also had a fondness for writing with adverbs.
“Christian Grey is very, very handsome…” Cassie said aloud in the Highfield Library, paraphrasing the book.
“Excuse me?” Keith looked up from his John Updike novel.
“Nervously, she tucks her hair behind her ear as she—“
“Enough,” Keith interrupted. Recollecting his composure, he studied the book’s cover. “50 shades of grey? That’s an odd title. Not very colorful.”
Cassie ignored that and returned to reading her book.
Keith thought it must be yet another cliche page turner marketed toward young women preoccupied with romance.
That weekend, while browsing at Labyrinth Books, Keith noticed many young women buying books, but very few old men.
He soon found himself reshaping the lead protagonist of High Tower, Mandolf, from being a kindly Professor of Magical Spells at Humshorn University, into being a younger sexually aggressive wizard (one who might have legal problems in future decades).
High Tower’s plot structure also shifted from being a Hero’s Journey into that of being a Totally Unnecessary Moral Quandary.
Keith watched Cassie walk across the thic carpet of the Highfield Library toward her usual chair. She was wearing shoes. She had become aware of the dust mites and microbes that lurk in old libraries. Yet, the library was still preferable to being at home with her parents, who constantly asked her about KPI and EBITDA and other meaningless acronyms of business school.
As she took a book out of her bag, Keith asked, “What are you reading?”
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
“What is it about?”
“It’s from Sweden.”
“Is it?” Sweden is a country, not a plot.
“And the author is dead,” Cassie added.
“Hmm…” Keith thought about how to use this information.
Despite his role as a Professor of Classics, he embraced adaptability. He could assume a Scandanvian pen name, one with diacritical dots above certain vöwels. However, he was unwilling to die to thrust his work into the esteed canon of literary history. He decided to let this trend pass him by.
2012 - 2021
During the next nine years of his residency at the Highfield Library, Keith would fully rewrite High Tower five times.
Inspired by The Fault in Our Stars, he reworked his novel to have Eldenon, the young protégé of Mandolf, die at the halfway point. This involved cutting 170 pages, altering the result of three wars, and leaving a dozen plot threads hanging at the end of the book.
He then took High Tower a step further, incorporating the plot devices of The Girl on the Train. Utilizing the opportunities given by an unreliable narrator, he added a final twist exposing Mandolf to have been unconnected to the main events of the novel, and to have been at home at his castle nursing a hangover during the important battles that determined the fate of Logarosia.
After coming to know of the breakout success of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Keith introduced a multi-ethnic cast into his Precambrian high fantasy world. And then, perusing Where the Crawdads Sing, he infused it with a rural American slang and sensibility.
Finally, after a reluctant, belated reading of The Song of Ice and Fire—forced onto him by incessant chatter about the HBO miniseries (he didn’t watch television) — he became a vocal advocate of George RR Martin.
Keith tore up all the new revisions of High Tower he wrote after 2009, and returned to the original draft of his epic fantasy novel. A story told through multi-character third-person perspective, famly trees, weighty prose, rock solid world building, and the extensive branching of royal family trees.
After finishing the last line of his edit, he sent a completed version to Harper Collins and awaited their response:.
Keith looked out the window of the Highfield Library. From their sanctuary’s 2nd floor windows, Keith, Cassie, and the other members of the Highfield Literary Society had watched the events of the previous 14 years move past below them.
Fashion trends came and went, selfie sticks appeared and disappeared; the sounds of domestic conflict, of faraway gunfire, the protest marches of the BLM movement, occasionally reverberated through the library’s reading room, but nothing touched the lives of those who sat there.
A slight pain Keith felt in his toes, a pain he felt most acutely when he sat in the quiet library, gradually spread to the other joints of his body. A doctor introduced by the university clinic told him these were the symptoms of arthritis. He soon found himself needing to rely on medication to sleep through the night.
After seeing that Keith Highfield was showing signs of depression, the university health system introduced him to, coerced him into joining perhaps more accurately, the Living With Pain (age 50+) support group.
Keith hadn’t heard back from Harper Collins, and with his current health struggles, didn’t know if he had the energy to do a rewrite all over again.
He looked up on the wall, “If no member of the Highfield Literary Association has published….by November 30th, 2023”.
It felt as if life had moved on around him and left him in the same spot.
Keith Highfield set up a meeting with Levi & Strauss to discuss the plan to dissolve the Highfield Library next year.
Keith had sent the final draft of High Tower to twelve publishing houses. None had replied. He sat pondering his future, and the action he was planning to do that day.
Cassie looked up from her trade paperback novel. The lines of her face were beaming with youthful mock disgust.
“This new book by Colleen Hoover has wooden characters, flat dialogue, and cliche stereotypes. It’s sad how low the standards have dropped in fiction writing.”
“Do I hear jealousy, that green-eyed monster which doth mock us?” Keith asked her.
“To thine own self be true.” Cassie had learned a basket of Shakespeare quotes over the years from the odd characters who inhabited the library.
“So true,” Keith said. “But I’m afraid the trends in literature are moving too fast for this old man. I haven’t had any responses to my book.”
“Trends change,” Cassie said. “The only constant is change” Cassie also found herself quoting meaningless truisms as old people do. Maybe she had also given up on finding truly original thoughts, and found it easier to use someone’s else’s.
“I haven’t been able to write for months,” Keith lamented. Being a teacher, he had never showed vulnerability to his students all these years.
“Write what you know,” Cassie said encouragingly.
“Thank you for your suggestion, but,” Keith pointed toward the 15-year-old notice on the wall: (If no member of the Highfield Literary Association has published…) “I hope the foreshadowing was sufficient.”
Cassie got up and looked at the old notice. The date on it was today.
Keith pulled himself from his chair, went over to the nearest bookshelf, and pulled a volume off the shelf. A cloud of dust swirled into the air.
Inspired by Fahrenheit 451, Keith had intended to burn down the library, but fire safety regulations had shifted over the last fifteen years. The lawyers also cautioned him about the intricacies of the family trust structure. Keith had found a loophole.
“There’s no better time…” Keith said. With renewed vigor, he grabbed an armful of books and rushed downstairs.
Cassie rushed after him.
Keith stood in front of the tributary of the Millstone River that ran behind the building, a small canal really, and proclaimed, “by the power invested in me, I declare the Highfield Library dissolved.” He threw the books in his arms into the canal.
Keith had done his research. The books were biodegradable and would dissolve rapidly.
“Are you allowed to do that?” Cassie asked.
“Yes. It’s in my contract.”
“Ok then.” Cassie watched him go up and down to the library, throwing armful after armful of books into the canal. After a while, she went back upstairs herself, sat in her usual spot, and opened Lessons in Chemistry on her Kindle.
The other members of the library that day were also reading e-books.
As Keith hurried taking arms full of dusty old books down the stairs, the receptionist smiled at Cassie. “It’s a good thing we’ve converted out inventory to ebooks.”
When the last book was gone, Keith departed from the library without saying another word.
The lawyers had told him, from the wording of the contract, he had the legal right to “dissolve” the books, but the property that housed the library itself, and its use as a gathering spot for readers, was guaranteed in perpetuity by the Highfield family trust,
After Keith’s meltdown, life went on at the Highfield Library pretty much as it did before, minus the dusty books on the shelves, and the presence of Keith Highfield.
Cassie felt a sense of growing loneliness. With fewer members visiting the library that year, to push aside the deathly quiet, she began writing. There was an idea she always had in the back of her mind.
After releasing a successful teaser on WattPad, she received an advance from a publisher. It was to complete Genders of the Galaxy: a cozy SciFi harem romance set in a speculative Bangladesh, with seven genders competing for the attention of one General. Cassie’s novel appeared on the New York Times list of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2024, described as cheeky yet compassionate, and ‘the shape of SciFi to come’.
After dissolving the library, Keith Highfield had given up writing and turned his attention elsewhere. He became more active as a member of the Living With Pain support group and soon found himself curating the fake news streaming into their social media forum. Of the alternative therapies he had tried, only one had shown any effectiveness. He decided to put together a guidebook for the group, and after interviewing several of its members, finished it two weeks after he began. Having spent 15 years working on an epic fantasy novel, writing non-fiction came easily.
Despite not having discussed the guidebook with anyone outside his support group, a publisher came into contact, and the next year, Higher Education - The Medical Marijuana Revolution at Princeton (with a foreword by Cassie Chowdhury), was published to critical acclaim and reached #1 on the New York Times non-fiction list, a spot it held for sixteen weeks.
About the Creator
Born and raised in Milwaukee WI, living in Hong Kong. Hoping to share some of my experiences w short story & non-fiction writing. Have a few shortlisted on Reedsy: