My inspiration for Escape Velocity comes from my own work as a lawyer. I graduated from Stanford law school and have spent most of my adult life practicing law here in Silicon Valley. I started out at a high-tech law firm, then did criminal defense at another law firm, and then was an in-house lawyer at several Silicon Valley high-tech companies.
I liked working in-house a lot, but I sometimes got frustrated that a few people who worked for the company – from accounts payable clerks to highly paid executives – seemed unable or uninterested in doing their jobs. Due to incompetence or egotism or out-and-out self-dealing, some people just seem to burrow into a company like ticks on a tormented dog, and no amount of damage they cause ever seems to dislodge them. When you get several thousand people in a company it’s like a little city: You’ve pretty much got one of everything. As the head in-house lawyer I was sort of the town constable, so I saw most of it. And I will tell you that after a couple of years in my job I realized it really is a miracle we put a man on the moon!
So I thought the malfeasance and nonfeasance (as we say in the law) were interesting, and even entertaining in a nice black kind of way. I thought other people might like to know about the chaos, or if they already knew about it, they might like to know that somebody else had experienced it, too. After all, as C.S. Lewis said, we read to know we are not alone.
But then I needed a main character, and along came Georgia Griffin. She is young, inexperienced and from a completely alien environment, so she experiences the wonder that is Silicon Valley high tech right along with the reader. She is also highly intuitive and a little bit tougher than people around her might expect. She is blessed with a job that makes people underestimate her. She badly needs the company to succeed in order to realize her personal goal of achieving escape velocity from the life she was born to, and she reluctantly decides to use her con artist training – sparingly – to help the company succeed.
The surprise to me was that Georgia’s moral and psychological complexities gradually became central to my story. Georgia wants to be a good person, but she does a few sketchy things. At one point I wrote out the fifteen points of Georgia’s moral code. She adheres strictly to her moral code, but it’s a little bit different from other people’s. (For example, “Point #13: Cause the least harm necessary to be effective.”) So I ended up being interested in the question of whether Georgia achieves escape velocity from the life she was born to. I don’t think that’s easy to do, and her success or failure is to me the ultimate theme of the book.
Georgia’s predicament arises because she has con artist talents that can solve critical problems for her company, but she has sworn to renounce those talents forever. Her struggle is between her desire to keep the company (and thus her hard-won job) afloat and her wish to renounce her con artist ways and live a more “consequential” and above-board life.
At least that’s how the predicament begins. What we realize as the story proceeds is that Georgia also finds it hard to renounce her con artist ways because she gets satisfaction and excitement out of using them successfully. By comparison, her respectable paralegal job can seem a little bit routine. So now her conflict becomes a psychological as well as a practical struggle. She admits this to herself at some point, and I think one of the main reasons the reader keeps reading is to find out how Georgia resolves that dilemma.
I was an executive at a number of different companies, and often felt myself to be a bit of a fish out of water. Most company executives seem to be pretty unconflicted about being there to succeed in order to make a lot of money. The amount of money they make is how they keep score. I respect people who want to make a lot of money, but those were never exactly my values. I took some pains to conceal that fact from those around me, and maybe that gave me a sense of having a secret second life. Georgia definitely has a secret second life that nobody else in the company can ever, ever find out about, which is lonely in a way, so maybe the book expresses a loneliness I sometimes felt as an executive.
My next novel is set in San Bernardino, California. San Bernardino was a working class town when I grew up in it, and is now the second poorest large city in the country (after Detroit.)
The story begins when my protagonist is at the vet for a routine visit with his cat. A woman brings in a cat that has been badly mistreated and then races out the door before anybody can ask her about it. The terror in the woman’s eyes triggers memories from the protagonist’s childhood, and he is convinced the person who hurt the cat is an imminent danger to people as well. He decides to atone for an old childhood wrong by finding the person who hurt the cat before it’s too late.
He manages to enlist the (somewhat skeptical) help of an animal control person and a forensics person in his unorthodox effort, because both of them also have strong personal reasons for becoming involved. At that point the story becomes a tale of four people (including the wrongdoer) who all badly want to succeed with conflicting goals in a race against the clock.
Georgia followed the bouncing ponytail into a silent conference room with an immense black table. She perched on the edge of a fancy leather chair, quietly sniffed the air, and followed the scent to a tray of food on a side table: rows of colorful ripe fruit, cheerful little pots of yogurt, a tray of meat and cheese alongside glistening rolls. They hadn’t mentioned it would be a lunch interview. She’d have to pace herself and not look greedy. Her empty stomach contracted in anticipation as she politely declined the offer of coffee.
“He’ll be with you in a moment,” the woman said. “Oh, sorry, let me get this out of here.”
She scooped up the food and carried it from the room, leaving only a scent of pineapple hovering in the air.
Well. Good riddance. The last thing Georgia needed was to get all gorged and sleepy right before an interview.
And this could be the interview. This could be the interview that landed the job that allowed her to bring Katie-Ann to California until her father got out of prison. Too bad her resume was sort of bare, but the economy was finally picking up and she only needed one solid foothold. It didn’t matter how many jobs she hadn’t gotten. What mattered was the one she did get, and this could be that one. So what if it had been more than three weeks since her last interview? That just meant she should make this one count.
As she moved her forearm slowly across the mahogany, she could see her pale skin reflected off the glistening finish. Sure was quiet in here. You couldn’t hear anything of the big company that was supposedly operating at breakneck speed just outside the walls. Fast-paced was what they called themselves. Self-starter is what she was supposed to be. Well, she was a self-starter. How else had she gotten here? All the way from Piney, Arkansas, to Silicon Valley on bald tires, a million miles from the sound of Mama’s sniffling, the acrid smell of her bright pink nail polish.
Georgia wasn’t wearing any makeup at all. The woman with the bobbing ponytail had on perfect makeup that made her skin look like a baby’s butt. Which was great if you also knew how to avoid making yourself a magnet for perverts, but Georgia hoped she could hold her own around here without makeup. Tall and lanky and fast-moving, like a colt, her father said. (He should know, he’d boarded enough of them.) She wasn’t an athlete, exactly, but definitely a runner. Dark pinstripe
pantsuit from the Now and Again shop up in Palo Alto, scratchy at the back of her neck. Blueberry-colored eyes against pale, freckled skin, shiny black hair in a blunt bob as even as her dull scissors could chew through it. A smile so wide it sometimes startled people, seemed to give the fleeting impression she was unhinged. Careful with the smile. Enthusiastic, but not alarming.
The guy coming to interview her was late. She could have peed after all. This big San Jose industrial park was confusing, with boxy cement buildings that all looked exactly alike. Set back from the street behind gigantic parking lots full of glinting cars so it was impossible to see any street numbers, making it clear they couldn’t care less whether a newcomer found her way. She’d ended up having to run in her heels just to get to the lobby on time.
Could she get to the john now? She squeezed her shoulder blades tightly and stretched the back of her neck away from the scratchy suit coat. The silence was making her jumpy. She left her resume on the polished table and opened the door just enough to look out.
The woman with the ponytail was nowhere to be seen. In fact, Georgia couldn’t see a living soul. She took a couple of tentative steps into the hall. What if the interviewer showed up before she got back? Screw it. With a last look around the vacant executive area, she darted down the hallway.
The hall opened abruptly into an area crammed with battle-gray, fabric cubicles that created a maze the size of a football field. Had she wandered into a different company? The only thing the two areas had in common was that here, too, it was quiet. People must really be concentrating. Either that, or they’d had a bomb scare and nobody had bothered to tell her.
She was relieved to see a bald head appear above the fabric wall a few cubes down like a Jurassic Park dinosaur. (Now, that was quite an image. Did she feel that out of place around here?) She heard a printer spitting out copies somewhere in the distance as she headed toward the dinosaur, rounded a corner and stopped cold.
An unattended donut was resting on the work surface just inside one of the cubes. Barely even inside the cube, less than a foot away, almost as if it had been set down and forgotten by some passerby.
The plate slapped down in a hurry, its edge sticking out precariously beyond the edge of the work surface. Yesterday’s donut, perhaps, abandoned, stale.
But no, the donut was still puffy and golden, with minuscule cracks in that shiny sugar glaze. A donut still wafting the faintest scent of the fat it had been fried in. She could almost feel her lips touching the tender surface as her teeth . . .
Had she whimpered out loud? She glanced both ways along the still-deserted hall and then returned her gaze to the donut resting on its lightly grease-stained white paper plate. Pretending to wonder if the cube was occupied, she leaned her head in and called a faint “hello?” resting her hand lightly on the work surface, a finger touching the paper plate. Staring straight ahead, she floated her fingers across the surface and up, until her palm was hovering just above the donut’s sticky surface. One quick grab . . .
“May I help you?” intoned a male voice.
Georgia snatched her hand back like the donut was a rattlesnake.
She turned and found herself face to face with the Jurassic Park dinosaur, who was looking distinctly human and downright suspicious. He looked past her and surveyed the vacant cube before resting his skeptical gaze on her most winsome smile.
“Oh, hi!” she said brightly. “I’m here for an interview, and I was hoping you could point me toward the restroom?”
“And you thought it might be in here?”
“Well no, but I thought a person . . .”
“Follow me, please.”
She heard her Arkansas twang vibrating the air between them as he led her down the hall a few yards, pointed a stern finger and said, “In there.” He crossed his arms, and she felt the heat of his disapproving gaze on her back as she pushed through the heavy door into the privacy on the other side.
Now, that was just downright mortifying. Caught in the act of stealing a donut? A donut?? If he told somebody . . . She cupped her palm over her closed eyes and dragged it slowly down until it covered her mouth.
Of course, she hadn’t actually taken the donut, so what precisely had the guy seen? A woman standing at the edge of an empty cube, leaning her head in politely to look for someone. He probably hadn’t noticed the donut, and even if he had he’d never imagine how desperately she wanted it. He’d probably had steak and gravy for breakfast, and thought a hungry person in Silicon Valley was as rare as a Jurassic Park dinosaur. If anything, he probably thought she was casing the empty cube for something valuable. Which was ridiculous, because what could a cube contain that was as valuable as a job?
But if he thought it was true, he might be waiting for her just outside the door with a security guard, planning to march her out of the building and away from this rare and essential person who could actually give her a job. Busted because of a donut.
The face that looked back from the mirror above the sink was staring at a firing squad as Georgia held her icy hands under the hot water.
But then the stare turned defiant.
She hadn’t driven all the way from Arkansas to live in her car and get this job interview just to become distracted at the critical moment by some prissy, no-account donut police. Who did he think he was? It wasn’t even his donut, and anyway, he wasn’t doing the hiring. Her only task at this moment was to deliver the interview of a lifetime and get this job.
She squared her shoulders, practiced her smile in the mirror two or three times and strode with her head erect back along the deserted corridor to the interview room.
The man who entered the conference room five minutes later had the stiff-backed posture and shorn hair of a military man. He was well over six feet tall, lean, in his late forties, wearing neatly rolled blue chambray shirtsleeves and a bright yellow bow tie. As he shook her hand and sat opposite her, she saw that his stubble of hair was red and his eyes were a muted green. Fellow Irishman, maybe. Could she forge some connection from that?
“I’m Ken Madigan, the General Counsel here. Are you Georgia Griffin?”
“Yes, sir, I am.” She offered her carefully calibrated, not-alarming smile.
“Appreciate you coming in today. Sorry to keep you waiting.” He tapped a green folder with her name on the tab. “I’ve read your resume, so I won’t ask you to repeat it. As you know, we have a key job to fill after quite a hiring freeze. Let’s start with what’s important to you in your next job.”
“Well, sir, I just got my paralegal certificate, and I’m looking for the opportunity to put my learning and judgment to use. I intend to prove that I can make a real difference to my company, and then I’d like to advance.”
His smile was encouraging. “Advance to what?”
This was a variant of the ‘five years’ question, and she answered confidently. “In five years I’d still like to be in the legal department, but I want to have learned everything there is to know about the other parts of the company, too. My goal is to become, well, indispensable.”
“Is anything else important?” Those gray-green eyes were watching her with mild interest. She decided to take a chance and expose a tiny bit of her peculiar background to personalize this interview.
“Well, sir, I’m eager to get started, because I need to make enough money to get my baby sister here just as soon as I can make a place for her.”
His raised his eyebrows slightly. “And how old is she?”
“Fifteen, sir, and needing a better future than the one she’s got. I need to move pretty fast on that one.”
“I see. Now tell me about your work experience.” Which was where these interviews generally died. She shoved her cold hands between her thighs and the chair.
“I don’t have a lot of glamorous experience, sir. I cleaned houses and worked as a waitress at the WhistleStop to get myself through school. And the whole time I was growing up I helped my father look after the horses he was boarding. In fact, he got so busy with his second job for a while that I just took over the horses myself. Horses are expensive, delicate animals, and things can go wrong in a heartbeat. With me in charge, our horses did fine.”
“Okay, great.” He ran his palm over his stubble of hair, considering. “Now tell me what kind of people you like to work with.” Not one follow-up question about her experience. Did he think there was nothing worth talking about? Just focus on the question.
“The main thing is I want to work with smart people who like to do things right the first time. And people who just, you know, have common sense.”
“I see. And what kind of people bug you?” This interviewer wasn’t talking much, which made it hard to tell what impression she was making. A bead of sweat trickled between her shoulder blades.
“Well, I don’t much like hypocrites.” Which unfortunately eliminated about half the human race, but she wouldn’t mention that. He waited. “And I don’t like people who can’t or won’t do their jobs.” She stopped there, in spite of his continued silence. No need to mention pedophiles, or that nasty prison guard who’d backed her against the wall on the catwalk. That probably wasn’t what Ken Madigan had in mind.
“Thank you.” He tapped his pen on her resume. “Now I’d like you to describe yourself with three adjectives.”
Was this guy jerking her chain? He didn’t much look like he’d jerk anybody’s chain, but what did adjectives have to do with job qualifications? Maybe he was politely passing the time because he’d already decided not to hire her.
“Well,” she said, glancing into the corner, “I guess I would say I’m effective. Quick at sizing up a situation.” She paused. “And then I’m trying to decide between ‘inventive’ and ‘tough.’”
“Okay, I’ll give you both. Inventive and tough. Tell me about a time you were quick at sizing up a situation.” This didn’t feel like the other interviews she’d done. Not only were the questions weird, but he seemed to be listening to her so closely. She couldn’t recall ever being listened to quite like this.
To her astonishment she said exactly what came into her head. “Well, like this one. I can already tell that you’re a kind person who cares about the people who work for you. I think you’re pretty smart, and you listen with a capital L. You might have a problem standing up to people who aren’t as smart or above board as you are, though. That could be holding you back some.”
Ken Madigan’s eyebrows were suddenly up near his hairline. Why on earth was she spilling her insights about him to him? Too many weeks of isolation? Was it hunger? She should have taken that coffee after all, if only to dump plenty of sugar in it. Or was it something about him, that earnest-looking bow tie maybe, that made her idiotically want to be understood? Whatever it was, she’d blown the interview. Good thing she wasn’t the sort of weakling who cried.
So move it along and get out of there. She dropped her forehead into her hand. “God, I can’t believe I just said all that. You probably don’t have any flaws at all, sir, and if you do it isn’t my place to notice them. I guess I need another adjective.”
“Which would be . . . ?”
He lowered one eyebrow slightly. “Let’s say ‘forthright.’ And I won’t need an example.”
“You know what, though?” There was nothing left to lose, really, and she was curious. “I’m not this ‘forthright’ with everybody. A lot of people must just talk to you.”
“They do,” he acknowledged with a single nod, his eyebrows resuming their natural location. “It’s an accident of birth. But they usually don’t say anything this interesting.” He sounded amused. Could she salvage this?
“Well, I’m completely embarrassed I got so personal.”
“You shouldn’t be. I’m impressed with your insight.”
“Really? Then maybe you see what I mean about being quick.”
He laughed. “I believe I do.”
“I mean, I can be quick about other things, too. Quick to see a problem starting up. Sometimes quick to see what’ll solve it. Like when my father had to go away and I saw we’d have to sell the stable to pay the taxes . . .” Blah blah blah, there she went again. She resisted clapping her hand over her mouth. Was she trying to lose this job?
The woman with the bouncy ponytail stuck her head in. “I’m so sorry, but Roy would like to see you in his office right away. And your next appointment is already downstairs.” She handed him another green folder. The tab said ‘Sarah Millchamp.’ “I’m going to lunch, but I’ll have Maggie go down for her in ten minutes. She’ll be in here whenever you’re ready.”
“Thanks, Nikki,” he said, turning back to Georgia. “Unfortunately, it looks like our time’s about up. Do you have a question for me before we stop?”
Sixty seconds left to make an impression. “I saw your stock’s been going up. Do you think it’s going up for the right reasons?”
There went his eyebrows again, and this time his mouth seemed to be restraining a smile. “Not entirely, no, as a matter of fact.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Do you have an opinion about improvements that would make your growth more sustainable?”
He allowed his smile to expand. “I have many opinions, and a small amount of real insight. Might be difficult to discuss right now . . .”
She held a hand up. “Oh, I understand. But do you think a paralegal could help make a difference?”
“A solid paralegal could make a big difference.”
“I’d like to know more about the issues, sir, but they’re probably confidential, and anyway, I know you have to leave.” She leaned forward, preparing to stand up.
“You’re a surprising person, Ms. Griffin, and an interesting one. I’ve enjoyed our conversation.”
Like he enjoyed a circus freak, probably. She made her smile humble. “Thank you.”
“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to have somebody from Human Resources give you a call in the next day or two.”
Was he serious? “That would be fine.”
“If we decide to work together, could you start pretty quickly?”
The goal now was to leave without saying anything else stupid. “I’m sure I can meet your requirements.”
As he walked her out to the elevator he lowered his voice. “You know, Ms. Griffin, you’re an intuitive person, and you might have some insights about the Human Resources people you’re about to meet . . .”
She held up her palm. “Don’t worry, sir. If I do, I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“Excellent. Great talking to you. Drive safely, now,” he called as the elevator door closed between them.
Thank God that interview was finished. In another five minutes she’d have told him anything, she’d have told him about Robbie. Drive safely? What a cornball. But she must have said something right. He gave her that tip about getting past the Human Resources people, which meant he must like her. Landing a first job with her resume was like trying to freeze fire, but this time at least she had a chance.
Her stomach cramped with hunger as she emerged into the lobby and saw a woman in her mid-thirties glancing through a magazine. Tailored suit, precision-cut blond hair, leather case laid neatly across her lap. Completely professional, and she had ten years’ experience on Georgia at least. No. No way. Georgia walked briskly over to the woman and stood between her and the receptionist.
“Ms. Millchamp?” she said quietly, extending her hand.
The woman stood up and smiled. “Sarah Millchamp. Nice to meet you. I know I’m early.”
“I’m Misty. So sorry to tell you this, but Mr. Madigan’s been called out of town unexpectedly. He’s headed for the airport now.”
“Oh!” The poised Ms. Millchamp quickly regained her composure. “That’s too bad. But of course I understand.”
“Thank you for being so understanding. This literally happened ten minutes ago, and I’m completely flustered. I know he wants to meet you. Are you parked out here? At least let me walk you to your car.”
She put a sisterly hand against Ms. Millchamp’s elbow and began steering her toward the exit. “Tell you what, can I call you to reschedule as soon as Mr. Madigan gets back? Maybe you two can have lunch. Just don’t take that job at Google in the meantime.”
“Now, don’t pretend you haven’t heard about the job at Google. In Brad Dormond’s department? They’re our worst nightmare when it comes to competing for good people.” The air in the parking lot mingled the spicy scent of eucalyptus with the smell of rancid engine grease, and her stomach lurched. “So, see over there? That’s the entrance to the freeway. Bye now. I’ll call you soon.”
Georgia waved as Sarah Millchamp backed her car out. Then she hurried back inside to the receptionist.
“Hi,” she said. “That lady, Ms. Millchamp? She just let me know she has a migraine and will call to reschedule. Will you let Maggie know?”
The receptionist nodded and picked up her phone. “That’s too bad.”
“Isn’t it, though?”
Done and dusted, as Gramma Griffin would say.
She still might not get the job, of course, she reminded herself as she pulled onto the freeway, nibbling a half-eaten dinner roll she’d squirreled away in the crack between her passenger seat cushions the night before. She’d gotten this far once before. And she didn’t have to get it. She had another dozen resumes out, and one of those might still lead to something. Her cousin at Apple had turned out to be more useless than a well dug in a river, but that didn’t mean she was desperate. If she continued sleeping in her car most nights her money could last for another five weeks. And Lumina Software might not be a great job, anyway. Ken Madigan probably just interviewed well. That’s probably all it was.
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