Chain Your Muse

Matthew Palmer's Enemy of the Good explores 'values complexity' even as it provides the reader with an entertaining page-turner.I heard this gem last week, sound advice to anyone who bleeds ink: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

The man with the chain is Matthew Palmer, novelist and Foreign Service Officer, speaking at the American Foreign Service Association to promote his fourth book, Enemy of the Good.

His remarks at our diplomatic safe haven in Foggy Bottom were brief, funny, and informative. Best of all, they left me reassured that somebody’s out there telling the American people what it is we diplomats do for our country.

While his main objective as an author is to entertain, Palmer’s latest thriller also carries lessons in what he calls ‘values complexity.’ To paraphrase, the American diplomat’s job is more difficult for the fact that we stand for everything, that we must choose between morality and compromise, that the U.S. interest in, say, an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, may compel our diplomats to look past the human rights abuses of the local regime.

This isn’t cynical. It’s the job. We stand for a lot of things that get in the way of the other things we stand for.

Look inside Palmer’s work to see how it plays out. He’s an engaging writer and an entertaining speaker, happy to dole out tips when asked. On how he manages to write convincing female characters, he takes a page from George R.R. Martin: ‘I’ve always thought of women as people.’

Ask him why Enemy of the Good is dedicated to his wife.

Palmer doesn’t write to preach but to entertain. He takes Le Carre’s view that the reader doesn’t want reality but a facsimile of reality. This he gives. He gives the reader a story they care about not because of plot but because they care about the characters.

Writers, travelers, expats, overworked people everywhere who fancy themselves scribblers can sit up straight and get to work wherever they are, even in the last row of a 15-hour flight to Bishkek, toilets running over and two heavies parked beside them: I keep my muse on a chain. And when I get 20 minutes I yank on the chain and say, ‘C’mon, muse.’

Writing isn’t precious. Writing is writing. Chain your muse.

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