Readers often ask writers where we get ideas for our novels, as if there exists a mystical well that we visit secretly and return, plot in hand. If only. The inspiration for my latest novel, Death Watch, drove up in a late-model BMW sportscar, a smile on his elegantly weathered face, dyed black hair whipping in the wind. On his wrist he wore an old-school watch made by a company in Milan, which he had just purchased.
Months before, as a customer, I had blasted out a long email to this company, full of appreciation for its watches and unasked-for advice about how to fix their crappy website and shoddy marketing. That late-night email led to this initial meeting with the new owner. Let’s call him Leo.
We stepped into a nautical-themed bar in a tourist town north of Boston. A hard wind off the harbor rattled the faux portholes of the nearly empty bar where I sat day-drinking with my unlikely companion—and listened, for hours. He told me about the clever investing decisions that enabled him to retire and lead a life of travel with his latest girlfriend, fine dining, and a wine cellar full of Barolo, and a new life as an entrepreneur. He had acquired the Milanese watch company on a whim, attracted by the chance to reconnect with his native land—and the allure of turning around a company that had originated as the plaything of an Italian playboy who grew tired of the grinding work of running a small company.
But what Leo spoke most passionately about was how watches did much more than tell time, how they were little gems of workmanship and history, and how each watch carried within it complications that made it unique—as people do.
“Complications make the man,” said Leo, a world-weary bon vivant in a dim, off-season bar. In my mind, I felt a twinge as the seed of a novel starting to germinate.
Dizzied by potential, I shook Leo’s hand and signed on to help bring his slumbering brand back to life. Leo gave a wry smile, no doubt having sussed out that I had zero business sense, was given to irrational enthusiasm, and, like a crow, seemed fascinated by anything shiny.
Though we spoke for hours that afternoon, there had been no mention of a contract or salary, just the promise of partial ownership of the company, use of a company apartment in Milan, and watch shows in Geneva and Tokyo.
Leo had just found the perfect, naïve partner for his quixotic project.
To celebrate, Leo unfurled a thick roll of soft cloth stamped with the company logo to reveal dozens of glimmering watches. I was already wearing one myself, a gift from my wife that had inspired my over-enthusiastic email. It was beautiful—rose-gold case, silver face gleaming beneath a sapphire crystal, blaze-orange hands, precision movement, a tiny aperture that revealed the date, and a handmade leather band. Leo pointed out that the diameter of my watch was 39 millimeters, because 39 the international dialing code of Italy, one of its many whimsical features.
Unlike more upscale watches, they weren’t throat-slittingly expensive, just fantastic and quirky. Now we were going to create new, even more magical watches—and I was going to tell their story.
So the work began, and the complications.
All we had to do was design new watches, restart a factory in Italy, create a social media campaign from scratch, attract a nationwide network of retail stores, train sales reps, and come up with new branding that would help our watches stand out from the considerable competition. That, and sell a boatload of watches.
Leo had promised seed money to get us started, but only handed over that thick roll of watches, which I used as wampum to entice friends to join the project. I gave one to a young photographer to take evocative photos of our watches work by Brooklyn creatives. For a handful of watches, an artist I knew designed dozens of radiant new watch faces. I bartered with web designers and other nascent creative team members until the thick roll of watches grew thin.
We met with Leo every few weeks, always at bank branch offices that offered a free lunch buffet to its customers. “So the company bank account’s here?” I asked Leo once. He just gave a dismissive shiver. “An American bank in a shopping mall? I think not.”
From one angle, we were a feisty start-up, re-envisioning a consumer brand. From another, we were a delusional team of dreamers, led by a canny, entrepreneurial Pied Piper with a hankering for free lunches.
And free labor. When that roll of watches was empty, I sent Leo a budget for the work ahead—a complete website redesign, digital advertising, sponsored articles in watch magazines, and new prototype watches that we could use to generate attention from watch obsessives and influencers.
My considerable budget didn’t get a response. Nor did the dozens of my emails, texts, and calls that followed. The creative team began to drift, and with good reason. There’s only so much free work you can expect in exchange for a cool watch.
When I finally heard back from Leo there was some mumbo-jumbo about pursuing other opportunities in the Canadian cannabis trade. Then nothing.
Reader, the man ghosted me.
But Leo left me with something more valuable than money—the idea at the heart of Death Watch. What would be the ultimate complication in a watch? Not some intricate mechanism or innovative design. The ultimate complication would be a watch that could, at any moment, kill its owner. Who would create such a horrific device? Sell it? And most importantly, buy it?
These questions fuel the plot of Death Watch. And if I ever run into Leo—in Boston, Milan, or wherever his latest whim has led him—I’ll thank him for inspiring the book.
And ask for more watches.