"Anything else?" the pawnbroker asked hopefully.
Alex pulled the knife from his pocket and held it out. "Genuine Swiss Army knife," he said, wondering if there even was a Swiss Army now in 1917. He let the question pass as he felt himself gripped by the goofy scene he was now playing. "Absolutely genuine, I doubt if there's another in all of Russia." A stab in the dark but probably very true nonetheless.
The pawnbroker took the knife and turned it in his hand. He looked up at Alex and then back to the knife. Alex took the knife back and opened one of the blades, then another. He paused for effect then opened up the tiny scissors, waited and with a small flourish, pulled out the ivory toothpick secreted in the handle. The pawnbroker's eyes widened as he took back the knife. "Faberge'?" he asked, watching Alex closely and at the same time staring at the wonder in his hand.
"L.L. Bean," Alex said . . . -- "Time After Time," Allen Appel
Allen Appel, the photographer-painter of dead birds and the raconteur of Adams- Morgan cafe's, can now be found in deepest Upper Marlboro. While awaiting the reviews of his first published novel, "Time After Time," he spends his days changing the baby's diapers and cooking supper.
American Library Association Booklist has said of the novel, "This stylish tale artfully interweaves history, suspense and fantasy to produce a riveting adventure replete with romance and drama." As a result, the 7,200-copy first printing (respectable, for a first novel) has already sold 5,800, with libraries ordering as many as 350 copies a week. All this before the official end-of-November publication date.
His editor-publisher, Kent Carroll, is happy. Bantam Books has bought the paperback and talks about buying a sequel. Appel's computer is paid for. The author has already spent the $2,000 or so he expects out of the paperback advance. He's furiously thinking up a theme for the next book as he makes paella (see recipe in the book) and minds his 1 1/2-year-old daughter Leah. And he may be the only novelist -- or artist -- to have an art gallery opening and a book-signing party on the same night -- Dec. 6, at Kramerbooks & afterwords and Kathleen Ewing Gallery.
Novelists tend to tell stories before they can write, and certainly before they can spell (if they ever learn). But Appel was 35 before he wrote his first, 40 when his novel was published. Before that about all he'd had published was an article on baking pies.
Appel was renowned in Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan as a storyteller and letter writer, but he never thought of himself as a writer. Still doesn't. He admits he started writing novels as some people might go into merchandising -- as a way to make a living to support his life as an artist.
He wrote several that never found publishers. "The Sheriff of Paradise" was "full of saloon love and whiskey breakfasts." The Viking Books editor said it fell apart in the middle. "Politics of Love" was written in collaboration, with alternate chapters by his wife, Sherry Conway, then a congressional press secretary. Silhouette Books liked his sex scenes, but wanted it rewritten. "Harry's Bug" was about a man who woke up floating above his own body to see the eyes full of bugs. "Cross" was about a woman anthropologist who mated with an ape, sort of a King Kong Consummated. The editors couldn't stop being horrified long enough to make an offer for that one, though some still mutter about it from time to time. But a Grove Press editor, Kent Carroll, who'd met Appel through one of his former girlfriends, liked Appel and the way he wrote.
Carroll, who had never read science fiction, gave Appel pages of notes of plot ideas for a book. Appel, who's read everything, including the backs of Tabasco bottles, recognized Carroll's idea as a variation on a hoary old time-travel plot: What if you could go back in time when your father met your mother? Would you change the world so you wouldn't be born? Steven Spielberg called that "Back to the Future."
Carroll, at the time, was thinking about where he'd like to go on vacation. He decided the Russian Revolution would be just the place. Appel, who could think of lots better places to go, was willing to go along for three chapters and an outline. He modeled his hero -- a VCR-playing Manhattan bachelor he called "The Past Master" -- after Carroll. Nobody bought the book until Carroll set up as half of Carroll & Graf Publishers.
Appel, who'd never been in Russia, read everything he could find on the Russian Revolution. He found it hopeless to try to figure out what money was worth then and now. He wrote some bits while looking at a photograph of St. Paul's Cathedral in Leningrad, then Petrograd. Next time Appel hopes he gets enough of an advance to go to see what he's writing about.
Two years and 750 pages later, thanks to a bargain computer bought on the $1,000 advance, Appel had a first draft of a novel about a man with a hereditary affliction -- he can't keep time anymore and slips into the past.
With Carroll's help, Appel cut it almost in half, rewriting chapters even when he had the final galleys. The result is a keep-you-up-all-night book, in the best tradition of a series novel -- it doesn't end, it pauses to let you catch your breath.
Writing novels is Appel's second path aimed at fame and fortune. In the 1970s, when people had environments instead of houses, and callings instead of careers, and grants instead of salaries, he would have settled for the fame. Back then he was a rather purple stripe on the edge of Washington's artistic rainbow.
Appel admits he can't draw, so he uses photographs as an almost invisible outline for soft overpainting. His last show, "Natur Morte," was made up of photo-paintings of dead birds and animals, looking as if they'd been found, hanging askew, on the walls of an elderly recluse's house. His new work is more optimistic -- the still-life pictures now include live flowers. The effect is vaguely in the Japanese taste beloved of Edwardian artists. The photographs sell for $250 to $500, enough to cover his expenses, but hardly his time. He teaches photography at Sidwell Friends School from time to time, to pay for his computer paper.
By his own admission, he hasn't had a "real" job in 10 to 12 years. After college, working for a while in a child welfare department, he decided the 9-to-5 life was not for him. The most money he earned in that decade or so was $10,000 the year he worked as a magazine cover illustrator, photographing his collages.
This way of life has not been conducive to domestic tranquility. He said the first time he married he was too young. The second time, his wife was too young. But the real problem was the classic conflict between artist and supporter.
"I'd do a job for a year and then quit and be an artist.
"It's hard being married to an artist," he explains. From the point of view of someone who gets up in the morning and goes to work, all an artist does "is play with nice materials. Stay out late and drink wine and smoke cigarettes." And once a year, when he has a show, "people pat me on the back and I get my name in the paper."
In 1973, he was one of the courtiers of Beverly Court, an Adams-Morgan, one-building-wide SoHo. He was the one with the piccolo, or whatever music maker was handy. With the coming of the 1980s, and five years ago, his marriage to Sherry Conway, he decided the time had come to find out what he was going to be when he grew up.
"I was tired of applying for grants," he said.
Conway, when they were married, was a congressional press secretary, a fast-laner of long hours and late nights. When they decided in favor of parenthood they agreed on a new arrangement. They forsook the Dupont Circle, Adams-Morgan scene in favor of a rented house in Upper Marlboro. Sherry Conway comes home earlier now that she's director of communications and public affairs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Appel, in the traditional suburban spouse role, takes Conway to and from the Metro. Conway couldn't imagine an hour commute 10 years ago. Now she's glad she has the peace and quiet to read.
When Appel was working on "Time After Time," Conway says, he started writing at 5:30 a.m. to have two hours before Leah woke. He'd establish Leah in her playpen on the second floor where he has his darkroom, study and studio. Then he'd write again when she took her nap. Like Anthony Trollope, Appel figures "you can only write four hours a day." The rest of the time, he works on his paintings.
That is, except for the inevitable phone calls suffered by householders in residence. "In Prince George's County, people are fascinated by a man answering the phone during working hours," he said. When they ask if they can speak to the woman of the house, Appel tells them: "I take care of the baby. I do all the cooking, every meal."
In the evening, while Appel cooks supper ("Veal aux Caprice du Chef," when they feel plush), Conway takes over Leah's care.
Now that Leah is walking, Appel, who calls himself "Captain Careful," spends a great deal of time putting things out of the way. And just recently, as he's worked frantically to put his Ewing show together, Leah has started going to a private day-care center for a few hours.
So when will Appel, househusband, doting father, great gumbo cook, become a bestselling novelist? Kent Carroll says in the publishing business you can only count on your own taste and your knowledge of the Market. "I believe the great writers of the centuries are the entertainers," he says. And he counts Appel in that company. But what does he know? He's only the hero of the book.