Meeting Dr. Moscovich

I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps someone tweedy? Rotund? With a pony tail? I had no idea, really.

Soon I would discover that Dr. Jim Moscovich, Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies at Western University of Ontario, was none of these.

Bret walking in Union Station.

Bret walking through the cathedral-like station.

About 15 minutes to noon on December 29th, Bret and I arrived at the Union Station downtown. Although a familiar sight to Bret, I’d never seen the station before. In fact, we’d never seen the people we were meeting before. I’d been corresponding via email with Dr. Jim Moscovich since I’d started adapting Mr. Wicker to novel back in 2004. He specialized in an area of ancient Rome crucial to the development of Mr. Wicker’s background story. He’d always been generous and supportive, ever the professor answering this student’s questions. I imagined he and his wife lived a quiet life somewhere wintery and pastoral.

Surprise Introductions

My imagination wasn’t too far from the truth. Jim and his wife Barbara were “wintering” in San Diego right now, and soon they’d return home to Vancouver Island. When they’d offered to come up to Los Angeles for lunch, we offered to meet them at the station and walk to lunch. Barbara told me we’d recognize them because she’d be wearing a particular type of jacket and that Jim would be “waving around your book.” I attached a picture of Trog sitting on Baudelaire’s grave, explaining that I’d be the redhead wearing Trog, and that Bret looked like a cross between Mikhail Baryshnikov and a young Robin Williams.


Union Station still wears its holiday finery.

We checked the Arrivals board every few minutes, looking for an update. Then, about 20 minutes after the arrival time, a new torrent of people flooded the great hall. In the distance, I saw a man holding a copy of Mr. Wicker with its unmistakable cover.

A white-bearded man wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt, that is. One of my favorite metal bands.

The first words out of my mouth were, “Could you BE any cooler?” To which his wife Barbara replied, indicating Mr. Wicker, “He got about six people on the train to buy it!”

Yes. Yes, he could.

Po Boy Revelations

Jim Moscovich playing Alice Cooper on electric guitar.

Rockin’ in Alice Cooper makeup.

After hugs and full introductions, we headed to The Little Jewel of New Orleans, where we ate delicious sandwiches longer than our arms. (I had the shrimp and oyster po boy. SO GOOD.) Jim gave me a newspaper clipping of him playing Alice Cooper in a rock band. In our emails, he’d always talked about golf and puzzles. I interpreted that to mean he was a bit retiring. I didn’t realize he was Jimmy Jazzing it up on an electric guitar!

He then asked me questions about Mr. Wicker, such as why I picked the Gauls for Mr. Wicker’s backstory. I gave him the short version of the tale that’s hidden in the puzzle trail at the end of my book trailer. However, I added something that I’ve told only a tiny handful of people — a revelation I had during the spooky experience that inspired the book. A lot of readers have wondered why I chose that time period. I could have chosen a totally different era, making things more seamless perhaps with the modern day, but I had to be true to that single revelation. It felt so key to who Mr. Wicker is that I couldn’t betray it for storytelling convenience.

Jim and Barbara Moskovich with author Maria Alexander

Jim, myself and Barbara on Olvera Street.

Bret quickly discovered he shared a passion with Jim and Barbara for cryptic crosswords. This I knew about, which is why I’d been keen to get them together. Jim and Barbara teach a six-week course every year about this puzzle type that’s quite popular. Jim whipped out a puzzle torn from a magazine that he was in the midst of solving, placing it on the table between himself and Bret.

They worked on it over chocolate bread pudding soaked in whiskey as Barbara and I continued to chat. I learned that she used to teach French, which thrilled me to no end. We didn’t parle en français, but we did share our thoughts on language and why French doesn’t lend itself to cryptic crosswords. As for that picture of Trog? It turns out Baudelaire is her favorite poet. “I somehow like you even more, if that’s possible,” I told her. Indeed, they already felt like old friends.

The Case of a Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose

Bret Shefter and Jim Moscovich work out a cryptic crossword clue while strolling Olvera Street.

Seriously. They were working on puzzles. Like this.

After lunch, as we strolled Olvera Street. Bret and Jim worked on cryptic crossword clues as they walked. I don’t know if they even noticed where they were. Bret was thoroughly tied up trying to solve “A pretty girl in crimson rose,” and he continued to obsess about the puzzle as we toured the adobe house. I had never seen Olvera Street during the day, which meant I was enthralled by the bright colors and fabulous Dia de Los Muertos dolls. I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara’s company as we continued to talk about language immersion. Once we’d exhausted the market, we listened to live flute music in the plaza.


We said vale in the train station, the traditional Roman parting. Bret took a photo of the crossword to solve the rest later.

Just as we pulled out of the parking lot, Bret exclaimed the answer* to the “crimson” puzzle.

I’m so happy to have finally met the man who guided me so well in the research of my first novel, and even happier to have two new friends. As time passes, I’m more deeply convinced that writing is as much about relationships as it is about solitude. We may spend lo those many years alone with ourselves toiling away at a manuscript, but those words invariably touch other people long before they’re published. Writing is about communication, the thing that brings together hearts and minds both online and in person.

















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