Never too late for sudden literary fame

Tom Kaufman joins the ranks of Takoma’s published authors

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photo by Julie Wiatt

by Howard Kohn

To enter the annual contest of the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) you must write a book that meets, at least loosely, the standards of Chandler and Hammett. But the book must be in draft form. This is a competition for unpublished novelists, typically young hard-chargers.

Tom Kaufman, who is 54 years old, entered the 2008 contest.  There is no entry fee so his only cost was for postage.  At the point Tom dropped his manuscript in the mail, though, he was fairly certain he had just spent a frivolous six dollars and change, not to mention the late evenings and early mornings siphoned from 14 years of a full life as an Emmy-winning cinema photographer, a happy-go-lucky jazz musician, a local political agitator, a soccer dad, and the husband to Katie, a semi-famous collage artist and teacher at the Corcoran College.

Tom had written the first tentative pages of his novel in 1994, not long after he and Katie moved into a house on Manor Circle and started a family that resulted in two current teenagers. It took Tom two years to finish the first draft. After writing a sequel he returned to the original and overhauled it.  Still not satisfied, he obliterated large sections and wrote a third draft.


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Tom Kaufman at his day job as cinematographer.

photo Courtesy Tom Kaufman

“I’m probably not someone who could support himself as a writer,” Tom
said the other day, seated at his kitchen table that at times has
served as a literary desk.  “People might even call me an interloper.”

Misgivings aside, he approached the genre with a rare diligence.  He
investigated the masters – “I started with Chandler, freshman year, USC
Film School. I was amazed, never read anything like it before.”  He
kept a journal of crime stories – “from talking to real cops over
lunch, fascinating stuff, things that got the ball rolling when I sat
down to write.”

It made all the difference that he was able to do his cop research
while at a day job with the Discovery Channel where he directed and
filmed such police-blotter dramas as “The FBI Files,” “The
Prosecutors,” and “New Detectives.”  From his TV work he took away a
central lesson – “no matter what the medium is, it’s all about the
story.”

Other parts of Tom’s public life found their way into this private
pursuit.  He set his novel in Washington with characters from locales
he frequents.  From the Hill came a congressman, far more nuanced,
quick-witted and crooked than Tom’s former client, presidential
candidate Bill Bradley, but clearly recognizable as a native.  From the
local wine-and-tofu hangout that used to be known as Savory, where he
played bass on Saturday evenings for TakomaZone, as well as from
smokier and funkier haunts in the District, where he still plays with a
Brazilian band and a jazz duo, came the book’s principal foil, a jazz
saxophonist.

Tom’s hero detective, too, is a nighttime archetype, riffing his way
through tough times, a style deliberately conceived.  “Private eyes
operate on instinct. That’s been the tradition, from Edgar Allen Poe on
down,” he said. “They belong to the same art form as jazz; it’s improv
thinking.”

Yet, as Tom readily conceded, in the portrayal of his lead character
and in his scatterings of repartee he at times had strayed from the
traditional. “My guy has a sense of humor. I have a sense of humor. Not
classic hard-boiler.”

That was hardly the least of it. If, say, a private eye had been asked
to assess just the facts, what would the assessment be of Tom’s whimsy
to send off his manuscript?  First, the PWA judges take their contest
very seriously. Second, an old, thrice-revised, slightly off-kilter
entry from an old, slightly fanciful neophyte was not in the most
serious of veins.  End of story.

In October of 2008, while on an assignment in Wisconsin, Tom’s cell
phone sang out. He was in the midst of a shoot, and he let the call go
to voice-mail. When he listened to the message, a couple hours later,
he heard the voice of Ruth Cavin, a New York editor of mystery novels
at St. Martin’s Press who, nearing her ninetieth birthday, is not one
to waste time on chats. “I have something wonderful to tell you,” she
had said with a strange coyness, “but you have to call me.”

Tom called, but it was late on a Friday, and St. Martin’s was closed. 
On Monday morning he called again, too early to reach Ms. Cavin.  By
now his curiosity had gotten the better of him, and he wheedled an
answer out of an editorial assistant. He then called his wife.

“I’m going to New York,” he said with glee.
“Why?”
“I want to make sure they have the right Tom Kaufman.”

The fact Tom had won first prize in the PWA contest–which, indeed, was
the wonderful news–meant he could never again be a contestant.  He
would no longer be an unpublished novelist.  St. Martin’s was
commissioning his book for publication.

Before Tom’s coming-out party could be scheduled, which it now has
been, for March 14, in the District, at the trend-setting bookstore
Politics and Prose (1-to-3 p. m.), his manuscript had to endure one
more round of editorial scrutiny during which it lost 50 pages but kept
his title, “Drink The Tea.”

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Soon after the local kickoff he will leave for a grand tour of pitchman
sites in New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Tucson and, close to where
he grew up, in Cleveland. 

In advance of the tour an industry publicist suggested, “You really
should leverage your platform,” to which Tom replied, “What does that
mean?”

“You have this cool job, and you’ve lived this cool life,” he was told.
“You should make sure you connect all of that when you’re talking about
your book.”

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