A Hardee’s restaurant.
Given that the United Kingdom and the United States are two great nations separated by a common language, I recognize Hardee’s may require some translation. The best way to put it might be that Hardee’s is like an unapologetic McDonalds. It’s a fast food restaurant that stubbornly defies modern trends in healthy eating and flatly refuses to acknowledge the invention of the salad.
Its signature item is called the ThickBurger. Its handmade biscuits are buttery heart-attacks-in-waiting, beloved across the American south for the grease stain they leave behind. Its motto—emblazoned across its planter-sized soda cups and ample french fry baskets—is: “Eat Like You Mean It.”
Hey, look, you can’t have an obesity epidemic if you’re not willing to work for it, okay?
Nevertheless, for the new novelist, the Hardee’s had a number of key features. It was far enough away from the house that I couldn’t hear my children screaming. It had free refills of Coke Zero, my caffeine-delivery mechanism of choice. And it lacked wireless internet access.
That last part was especially critical for me, an easily distracted scribbler whose sojourns online for one little thing often end in shark video marathons.
So I settled into the table in the corner, alongside a cadre of retirees there for the 64-cent senior coffee. It turned out we had a lot in common. We both spent four or five hours a day there without visibly accomplishing anything. I was writing about people who were dead. They were talking about people who were dead.
Their other favorite topics of conversation were the weather and what the weather used to be. So it was easy enough to tune them out and pour my concentration into the keyboard.
As the summer wore on, I found I was surprisingly productive there. Enough that when fall came, and it was time to put the children into daycare—leaving the house quiet enough to write in—I kept going to Hardee’s, where there were no dishes to do, floors to clean, or naps to take. All I did there was write.
When winter came and my little corner started getting chilly, I brought along tea bags and a teapot, which the staff was kind enough to fill with hot water for me.
“Aren’t you worried people are going to think you’re a little eccentric?” my wife asked.
“Honey,” I replied. “I’m sitting in the corner of the Hardee’s in rural Virginia, dreaming up creative ways to kill people. You think it’s the teapot that makes me eccentric?”
Once my first novel came out in the U.S., word got out what the guy in the corner with the teapot was actually doing there. The regulars turned out to be enthusiastic cheerleaders for my work.
“Hey, Brad,” a retired homebuilder named Roger liked to ask, “kill anyone yet today?”
The staff was also supportive. They knew that when I wandered around the parking lot talking to myself, it was just because I was stuck on a plot point or working through a rough patch of dialogue.
This turned out to be important one day when a Virginia State Policeman pulled into the parking lot and saw me in my typical state—unshowered, unshaven, wearing my ratty zip-up writing jacket, muttering in agitated fashion. He asked the lady working the drive through, “Ma’am, you have a deranged man in your parking lot. You want me to pick him up?”
“No,” she said. “That’s just our author.”
As time wore on, the names of Hardee’s staff members and customers started popping up in my novels. I always did it with permission, of course, which would lead to conversations like this being casually hollered across the restaurant:
AUTHOR: “Hey, Justin, mind if I shoot you in the neck?”
JUSTIN: “That would be awesome!”
Still, I’m not sure I realized how much of a fixture I had become at Hardee’s until a few years back, when I returned from a three-week hiatus spent researching my latest novel only to be upbraided by a woman for my absence.
“Where have you been?” she demanded. “I was so worried about you. I prayed for you. I did. I didn’t know your name so I said, ‘Lord, look over the guy in the corner at Hardee’s.’”
So, yeah, it’s definitely now A Thing. My agent worries constantly about the unknown effects of long-term second-hand grease inhalation. But there are also benefits: My publicists can safely claim I am the greatest living novelist working at Hardee’s. (Not sure about writers of the past. Did Dickens also have to seek refuge from shark videos?).
We recently moved within Virginia so our kids could attend a different school. Our new home is a small city with many more conventional options for an author—fancy coffee shops serviced by hipster baristas and filled with beautiful people supping organic fair trade skim mocha lattes. But I didn’t even give them a second glance on the way to the local Hardee’s.
By now, it’s home. Besides, I’d miss the grease too much.