Virginia natives Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason met at a friend's birthday party when they were eight years old, and they've been co-authors ever since, working up from class plays and commencement speeches to their blockbuster of a debut novel, The Rule of Four.
"We were college seniors who, in a bubble of post-graduation optimism, thought we could write and sell a manuscript in the three months before Dusty went to medical school and Ian went to work at a dot-com company," Caldwell and Thomason explained in a Barnes & Noble interview.
The duo picked out a genre and subject: inspired by Caldwell's seminar at Princeton on "Renaissance Art, Science and Magic," they planned to concoct an intellectual thriller about a mysterious 15th-century text, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (a real book). But the path from first draft to publication was rockier than they anticipated.
"We slaved over the manuscript a good fifty hours a week that entire summer, and at the end of it all we had... nothing," they confessed.
Nothing, that is, but the beginnings of a manuscript that would take nearly six years to write, rewrite and revise before it would be published.
When The Rule of Four finally made it into print, it met with all the success two first-time authors could hope for -- including glowing reviews and chart-topping sales. "Think Dan Brown by way of Donna Tartt and Umberto Eco ," suggested Publishers Weekly.
The same comparisons were repeated by other book reviewers. Like Brown's The DaVinci Code (which hadn't been published when Caldwell and Thomason were writing their novel), The Rule of Four deals with an explosive secret encoded in ancient texts; like Tartt's The Secret History, it takes place at an elite school where scholarly obsessions turn deadly; like Eco's The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, it is packed with historical and literary arcana, "an extremely erudite thriller," as Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times.
Also in the mix are the authors' observations about love, friendship and undergraduate life at Princeton, Caldwell's alma mater. (Thomason graduated from Harvard, and went on to earn his M.D at Columbia University.)
Though comparisons to The DaVinci Code were inevitable, many critics deemed The Rule of Four "better, more difficult and more rewarding" (The Miami Herald). The San Francisco Chronicle called it "As much a blazing good yarn as it is an exceptional piece of scholarship... A smart, swift, multitextured tale that both entertains and informs."
With their first big success under their belts, Caldwell and Thomason have cheerfully abandoned their other possible career paths in order to focus on writing full-time.
"We're working on our next co-written book," they said in an interview on their publisher's Web site. "Now that we're both able to focus completely on our writing, we look forward to finishing it in a lot less time than The Rule of Four took!"
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In our interview, the authors shared some fun and fascinating facts with us:
"Dusty and I first met at a friend's birthday party in third grade. Twenty years later, that same friend, Olivier Delfosse, took the author photo that appears on the back cover of The Rule of Four."
"Dusty and I co-wrote the speech he gave at our high school graduation. The last line was: ‘With that, I thank you all for a wonderful four years, wish you Godspeed, and hope to see you in another 40.' And that was one of the good parts."
"Dusty and I were the left halfback/left wing combination on our travel soccer team in high school. The only ‘move' we ever rehearsed involved Dusty jogging backward, seemingly to receive a short throw-in from me, then suddenly turning back and bolting up the field, leaving the defender in his tracks, in order to receive a much longer throw. It sounds more complicated than it was, and it rarely worked."
"Dusty finds this endlessly amusing, but my fiancée and I, after spending four years in southwestern Virginia during her veterinary training and my work on The Rule of Four, are devoted fans of Virginia Tech college football. We've moved east since then, but everything in our household -- even writing -- still comes to a stop when the Hokies take the field."
"Ian and I have been writing together since we were kids. In the seventh grade, we co-wrote a spoofy musical number for a teacher's retirement party. I had done a Roger Daltrey turn at that year's talent show (our algebra teacher was a Who fanatic with a garage band but needed a singer), so for the retirement party, I sang and Ian was the piano man. No videotapes exist of this incident."
"I used to be a competitive gymnast, and I was terrified of the high bar."
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In the summer of 2004, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason took some time out to talk with us about some of their favorite books, authors, and interests.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
This reminds me of an old joke: someone asks a pragmatist which ten books he would bring to a cold, deserted island. The pragmatist thinks it over, then answers, "One book of matches and nine copies of War and Peace." I assume if you're reading this Q&A, you're not a pragmatist, at least as far as books are concerned. Since I think the spirit of this question is really to find out what someone values in books, I'm going to divide my answer into categories rather than just titles. And by tweaking the rules that way, I'll get to list more than ten books, which was my hidden agenda all along.
Sentimental Favorites: These are the books I love because they're milestones in my reading life. First is Who's in Rabbit's House, a children's picture book my mother used to read to me, which lent the written word some imaginative enchantment before television could get its hooks in me. A few years later, Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia were my introduction to the intimate emotional power of books; they're the first ones I remember reading by myself that really reached me. That period was followed by the Dark Ages (which a lot of children must go through, and some probably never recover from), in which I don't remember reading a single book that wasn't forced down my throat for a book report or a Pizza Hut-sponsored reading contest. TV, movies, and the world outside of literature suddenly seemed much bigger, sexier, and more effortless.
The book that broke the drought, and showed me that reading could still be riveting, was Stephen King's Salem's Lot, which I was somehow allowed to read for a book report in tenth-grade English class. The dirty pleasures of Salem's Lot, which I still love, single-handedly opened my mind to the experience of reading A Tale of Two Cities later that year, and The Grapes of Wrath the next. (Even Stephen King couldn't make The Scarlet Letter any better, though.) Finally, everything I learned about reading after high school is probably summed up in the experience of tackling Dante's Divine Comedy in college: moving slowly, wrestling with the text, not expecting instant gratification, and coming to understand a book on its own terms, like visiting a church as a pilgrim. Each of these books represents a kind of reading I'd like to keep practicing as an adult.
"Elements of Style" Favorites: During our six years of creating and editing The Rule of Four, Dusty and I had plenty of time to dissect fiction into rough categories according to our own skewed outlook on writing. If a sports fan can build a fantasy quarterback from Michael Vick's speed, Joe Montana's touch, and Brett Favre's grit, why can't art follow football? (A rhetorical question appearing for the first time in the English language in this questionnaire.) Here goes:
For relentless, breathtaking plot development, The Alienist is the closest thing I've encountered to a true page-turner. Mastering structure and scene presentation is the thriller-writer's stock in trade, and there are plenty of "literary" writers out there who could take a lesson from Caleb Carr. Plotters are rarely stylists, though, so I was thrilled when I came across the spare but careful prose in Thomas Harris's plot masterpieces, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs.
Still, if plotting is a craft, then writing is an art. Everybody has a different idea of what good writing looks like, and the kid in me still loves a brassy, sparkling style better than anything with a conservative matte finish. Give me books like The Corrections, or David Copperfield: "He swore a dreadful oath that we would be ‘gormed' if he didn't cut and run for good, if it was ever mentioned again. It appeared in answer to my enquiries, that nobody had the least idea of the etymology of this terrible verb passive to be gormed; but that they all regarded it as constituting a most solemn imprecation." In the same vein, any writer has to feel awed and humbled by the pyrotechnics (even by Shakespearean standards) of Love's Labour's Lost. I wish Shakespeare hadn't loved puns as much as he did, and lines like "Light seeking light doth light of light beguile" seem too clever by half to this dim reader, but reading Shakespeare's plays is still the only literary experience I've encountered that feels like watching God create the world from nothingness, a creative power shedding new forms of life with no more effort than a dog shaking off water after a bath.
On the other hand, choosing favorite books is like choosing friends or pets or slippers. At the end of the day most of us are looking for something solid, uncomplicated, and companionable. For yarns I'd follow anywhere, it's hard to beat The Count of Monte Cristo (or anything else by Dumas), Herodotus' History, Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, and the veterinary stories of James Herriot. And though Pope's translation of the Iliad feels a little dated today, the first line of its preface still rings true: "Homer is universally allowed to have had the greatest invention of any writer whatever." Apologies to other claimants, but I think the Iliad is the greatest story every told.
For spot-on dialogue, that touchy business of stealing the words perfectly out of someone else's mouth, Charles Dickens, Elmore Leonard, and Mark Twain come to mind. Any writer who says he doesn't wish he'd written the opening lines of Huck Finn is either lying or heartless, and those same lines serve as an apology for all fiction: "You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another..." These days, when it's harder and harder to distinguish a man by his pronunciation (as Henry Higgins does in My Fair Lady), there's something wonderful about watching a writer do it well.
The only thing harder than dialogue to pull off well is humor. Some of the funniest books I've ever read have been by (yes, again) Dickens. Most authors go a lifetime without writing a single incident as funny as Betsey Trotwood raging against donkeys or Mr. Dick laboring at his Memorial, yet David Copperfield seems to have something that funny in every chapter. But there are as many funny books as there are senses of humor. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy murdered me the first time I read it, and somewhere in my bedroom there are well-worn paperbacks by Dave Barry and Lewis Grizzard. The secret pedant in every reader could love some of Gibbon's footnotes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or at least Samuel Johnson's definitions in his Dictionary of the English Language ("Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"). But my two favorite gems of the recent past are Chip's misadventures in The Corrections and Alex Perchov's battle royal with the English language in Everything Is Illuminated (" ‘How much does a cup of coffee cost in America?' ‘Oh, it depends. Maybe one dollar.' ‘One dollar! This is for free! In Ukraine one cup of coffee is five dollars!' ‘Oh, well, I didn't mention cappuccinos. They can be as much as five or six dollars.' ‘Cappuccinos,' I said, elevating my hands above my head, ‘there is no maximum!' ").
Finally, there are books that puzzle and enchant. A lot of the time, novels seem hidebound by naturalism (art isn't even allowed to be as strange as life), but some books let our imaginations wander where our bodies can't follow. I've never been a faithful reader of science fiction or fantasy, but the book on my nightstand right now, Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, reminds me of the eye-opening experiences of reading A Wrinkle in Time and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I'm a great fan of historical fiction, which often uses the unfamiliar past as a source of romance and awe, but even the best historical novels pale in comparison to the wonder a reader feels when Lyra, the child protagonist of The Golden Compass, discusses the mysteries of the aurora borealis with a polar bear.
One last addition before moving on: reviewers sometimes call Dusty and me "young writers," and there seems to be a wave of authors fitting this description lately, from Zadie Smith to Jonathan Safran Foer. But there is one definitive novel by a "young writer" that I think puts all the others to shame (and this time it's not Dickens, though Pickwick comes close): Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The Divine Comedy may be the book I learned most from in college, but Frankenstein is probably the one I loved best. In The Rule of Four, Dusty and I give it a humble nod by making Mary Shelley the subject of Tom's senior thesis.
Again, hard to choose "favorites" but here are some of the many books that inspire me:
Empire Falls by Richard Russo -- The funniest novel I've ever read. Russo's ability to
entertain even as he creates powerful characters with a deep connection to place is unparalleled.
The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in Empire is astonishing.
The Cider House Rules by John Irving -- Cider House makes my list both
because of Irving's amazing ability to create characters and story, and because of my connection to medicine. If I were to write a novel about the practice of medicine (what little I know about it) I'd want it to turn out like this one.
Different Seasons by Stephen King -- No list of mine would be complete without
Stephen King, certainly my favorite when I was growing up. Different Seasons is the collection of novellas that introduced us to Andy Dufresne and Red (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption) and Gordie, Chris, Teddie and Vern, the foursome featured in The Body, which was turned into the film Stand by Me.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides -- I adore Eugenides' writing, and his ability to tap into the underbelly of suburban life is amazing. Middlesex is a novel that succeeds in so many ways: as social commentary, as riveting prose and as a tasty slice of post-modern
American immigrant life.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth -- Roth needs no introduction, and I think that AP is his best. The book has more wisdom than I could ever dream of, and more sorrow than I have ever seen put on paper.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham -- If there were prizes for the best short novels ever, The Hours would have to be up there right next to The Great Gatsby. Cunningham's ability to weave such an intricate and touching story into so few pages is dazzling.
The Plague by Albert Camus -- Another riveting doctor story, this one that gets to the soul of what it feels like to be part of a increasingly desperate world. Camus so often captures in few words what I wish I could in a lifetime of writing: "Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business.' Naturally they don't eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, sea-bathing, going to the pictures."
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Dusty and I grew up on movies every bit as much as we did on books, so we've had this conversation a lot since starting The Rule of Four. I can already hear him making gagging noises as I start my list with The Usual Suspects, whose ending inspired early versions of the last chapters of The Rule of Four. Two other movies whose presence can be felt in The Rule of Four are Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, both of which feature the bittersweetness of friendship and time's passage. I also love Amadeus, Chariots of Fire, My Cousin Vinny, The Princess Bride, Ghostbusters, The Godfather, The Big Lebowski Seven (though it didn't stand up well to a second viewing), and Casablanca.
Thomason:The Shawshank Redemption -- The best structured movie since Chinatown, and the one that gets you every time. The dialogue is so touching and the friendship between Red and Andy so real, that it makes Shawshank impossible not to love. Ian and I talked about this film so often
while writing The Rule of Four, you'd have thought we were writing the novelization.
The Natural -- As a kid I was very devoted to sports, and I wanted so badly to be "the
best there ever was to play the game," in every sport I played. And yet as an adult I've come to
realize that The Natural is about so much more: the disappointment of a promising youth, the
struggle of a man to find his way in the world, and most of all, the parallels with King Arthur ("Roy"
Hobbs plays for the Knights, has magic bat (sword), and is nearly destroyed down by an "evil"
Stand By Me -- Stephen King's second best story from the collection Different Seasons (see "favorite books"), which delves deepest and most powerfully into childhood, and into the special relationships that kids form with their childhood friends. The film (with River Phoenix at his best) proved once again that with love and ingenuity, you can make a great story into an even
When Harry Met Sally -- Hands down the funniest movie ever written. Hardly anything
happens in this movie; it sustains from beginning to end simply on its hilarious and irreverent
The Princess Bride -- William Goldman's best, and one of the most amazing satires ever written. I think I must be partial to writers. The film combines action with humor with a love story with wonderful characters and crisp dialogue to boot. (Inigo: "I hate waiting. I could give you my word as a Spaniard." Man in Black: "No good. I've known too many Spaniards." Inigo: "Isn't
there any way you trust me?" Man in Black: "Nothing comes to mind." Inigo:"I swear on the soul of my father, Domingo Montoya, you will reach the top alive." Man in Black: "Throw me the
Magnolia -- Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece. The best combination of
intertwined character stories I know of, and the most masterfully shot. Every frame is pitch
perfect, and Aimee Mann's soundtrack is stunning. Plus, every time I've heard Ricky Jay's voice since, I've gotten chills. ("In the New York Herald, November 26, year 1911...")
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I can't listen to music while working, or the tone and tempo of the music rub off on the writing. When I'm forced to play music during work hours (usually to drown out the sound of the house being built next door), I'll find an appropriate song for the timbre of what's being written, and I'll keep it cycling continuously until the scene or chapter is done. In college this habit drove dorm neighbors crazy, particularly while I was writing a 100-page thesis on French politics in the 1930s (Van Halen, Meatloaf, and Beethoven).
Rock, alternative, jazz. I'll listen to a variety of rock and alternative while I'm writing, especially if I think a song will help put me in a particular mood that I'm trying to evoke. Favorites include Jeff Buckley, Mana, Yoav, U2, Eminem, Oasis, Noam Weinstein, Green Day, Coldplay, and Radiohead.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Usually I let other people choose the readings. When I got acquainted with a Christian missionary a few years ago, we created a two-person book group focusing on Kierkegaard and Aquinas (strangely, no one else wanted to join our group). More recently, I've had friends and family members in makeshift book groups assign readings from Updike, Chekhov, Jhumpa Lahiri, Harry Potter, The Golden Compass (mentioned earlier), and Flashman, all of which I've enjoyed, but might not have read on my own.
If I had to choose the books for my club, though, I would force everyone to fess up to novels they were supposed to have read, but hadn't, or claimed to understand, but didn't, and draw the list from those. In my case, the first reading would be Moby-Dick, which confounds all my expectations every time I try to finish it. Usually my problems begin around Chapter 40, when the novel starts reading like the libretto of a musical ("Sicilian Sailor: Aye; girls and a green! -- then I'll hop with ye; yea, turn grasshopper!"), which for some reason is a feature of the book we never discussed in class. As The Rule of Four's preoccupation with the Hypnerotomachia probably suggests, I'm fascinated by unreadable books.
Frankenstein. The perfect book for a book club: full of intrigue and excitement, layered with meaning, and an edge of your seat thriller all in one. And the background of how Mary Shelley wrote the novel is nearly as interesting as the novel itself: what an incredible book from a nineteen year old!
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Posters in bookshops sometimes show Erasmus hunched over a reading table, with a line of text beneath him to the effect that he would take what little money he had, buy his books first, then buy his food with whatever remained. I enjoy food too much to behave like that, but since book and movie titles are the mainstays on all of my birthday and Christmas lists, I'm not too picky. I've just cracked a biography of J. P. Morgan I got for Christmas last year, with one of Goethe in queue; my fiancée gave me two Alton Brown cookbooks for my birthday; and the local university library recently gifted me (in exchange for painfully high replacement fees) a pair of books on painting restoration and ancient sculpture. I know better than to think most people are equally undiscriminating, so I try to give gifts that are fitting under the circumstances, or that are tailored to taste. For instance, Dusty finished medical school around the time we finished editing The Rule of Four, so I gave him a first edition of Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (that other book about Princeton). Unfortunately, it was so ragged that he seemed to think I was foisting my rubbish on him.
Last holiday season, I got a few of Richard Russo's "other" books: Mohawk,Straight Man, Nobody's Fool, and The Whore's Child. It was the first time I'd read so many of one author's books in a row, and I think it made an great gift because it gave me a chance to really go inside of Russo's mind all at once. I think in the future, I'm going to give collections of books by a single author, so that my friends and family can have that same amazing experience.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have no rituals. What I have on my desk when I write is a welter of whatever books and credit card bills I haven't gotten to in a while. In the center of said welter is a laptop (PC, not Mac, since some readers seem very curious about that distinction), which keeps me in constant touch with Dusty over email, since he's in New York and I'm in Virginia. There's also a phone here somewhere, but I don't really like using it, so I try to bury it beneath the books and credit card bills, and pretend I can't hear it when it rings.
I like to keep my desk as clean as possible: only my keyboard, mouse, and monitor actually live on top of it. Beside the desk I keep research materials, books, CDs, outlines, and an ample supply of ice tea. I usually leave my door open because I get lonely, and I don't have any trouble working with some ambient noise. As for rituals, I like to call Ian and bother him even if we don't have anything in particular to talk about. He especially likes it when I call late at night, and on the weekends.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Caldwell & Thomason:
How long do you have? We've been at this nonstop since 1998. We were college seniors who, in a bubble of post-graduation optimism, thought we could write and sell a manuscript in the three months before Dusty went to medical school and Ian went to work at a dot-com company (which in those days was not a discredited form of employment). We slaved over the manuscript a good fifty hours a week that entire summer, and at the end of it all we had... nothing. Well, we had most of a manuscript, but we could tell it was pretty bad, and we knew enough not to hang a shingle over a lousy shop.
So Dusty went north to New York, and Ian started commuting to his job near Washington, D.C. By night, we discussed revisions and new ideas on the phone; by day Ian took long lunches at work, scribbling furiously in notebooks he brought to the restaurant, and Dusty found time to develop a stream of new ideas between anatomy lectures and pharmacology tests. After a year of working that way, Ian decided to quit his job at the dot-com to see if we could incorporate all of this fresh thinking into a viable draft. Convinced that we could write a working manuscript in six months, Ian moved to rural southwest Virginia with his fiancée, who was attending veterinary school there, and in an apartment just a stone's throw from a cow pasture, he started typing.
Mind you, this was just as the technology boom was beginning. Around the same time we realized the book would take much longer than six months to write, Ian's old dot-com company was enjoying a 1500% rise in its stock price, and the hundreds of stock options he'd surrendered by quitting were only the latest confirmation of his parents' nagging fear that he was ruining his life. Luckily, Dusty continued to find huge swaths of his day that he could devote to the book, and we marched on. By early 2001, we finished a manuscript we felt comfortable submitting to agents -- and at long last, we found a few who were interested. Our luck being what it was, however, editors at publishing houses didn't feel the same way. We received rejection after rejection, but with one consolation: an editor at The Dial Press, a Bantam Dell/Random House imprint, thought the book showed promise, and was willing to talk to us about ways to fix it. After our meeting with her, we went back to the drawing board.
So began the most miserable period of the entire process. We'd been plugging away at the book for three years, with nothing but an agent to show for it. Dusty was reaching the hardest part of medical school, and Ian was now teaching SAT and GRE classes to make ends meet. We knew that in order to make the changes the editor had suggested, we would have to rewrite the book almost from scratch. To abbreviate the trials and tribulations of a very unhappy ten months into four small words: it almost killed us.
We emerged with a new manuscript only to learn that our literary agent had retired. But when finding a new agent proved much easier than expected, we realized we'd turned an important corner. We were finally sitting on a hot property. Almost immediately we got tugs of interest from readers at publishing houses. One of them was Susan Kamil, the editor at The Dial Press who'd met with us a year earlier. When we were lucky enough to choose among different offers, we saw some poetic justice in choosing Susan, who'd had faith before anyone else. Eighteen months of revision later, here we are.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Maybe this is a copout answer, but I'll make a plug for a fellow Virginia writer: I wish readers would rediscover the mystery stories of Edgar Allan Poe. As a child, I got to know Poe as the writer of bizarre tales of the macabre that, to me at least, were overwrought and emotionally inaccessible. But Poe's Dupin mysteries, possibly because they're a little less (to use Poe's word) outré, feel more atmospheric. They also reveal the logical side of Poe's mind that gets obscured by the caricature of the death-haunted drunkard who died in the Baltimore gutters.
If that answer gets disqualified on the basis of Poe's not being a "new" writer, then my runners-up would be Davin Quinn, a Boston writer who's finishing a novel he started at a creative writing program in Ireland, and Rivka Galchen, a New York writer finishing a short-story collection at Columbia's writing program. Fears and prejudices kept me away from creative writing seminars in college, but these two are the real thing. Brace yourselves.
(And to answer the perennial question of how writers get healthcare, Davin and Rivka are both, like Dusty and Tobias Smollett, doctors. I seem to have missed the boat on that one.)
Sam Shaw, who's graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop this year. Sam's evocative prose, attention to character and intricate storytelling make for an wonderful reading experience. I also love John Lester's writing, and his amazing ability to effectively satirize just about anything, including himself.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I think the line is, "Endeavor to persevere." Anyone looking for a silver bullet or a quick fix is in the wrong business. The only thing we can offer from our own experience is that no one in the publishing world wants to talk to a first-time author until he or she (or they, in our case) has a manuscript that is both complete and good. A fancy pedigree, a friend who knows a friend, even a clever idea imperfectly executed -- those things don't matter. You've got to have a manuscript that sells itself.
If you believe in the project you're working on, continue revising until you're blue in the face. It took many, many drafts of The Rule of Four before anyone was willing to publish it!
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