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Across the Universe: A Conversation about Home Was a Dream

In addition to being a working musician, history professor, husband and father, Peter McDade is the author of two superb novels in which music plays a central role: The Weight of Sound and Songs by Honeybird. Equally important in the current context, he is both a witty and perceptive raconteur, and a friend. Every author should be so lucky as to have a friend like Peter who is willing to sit down and shoot the breeze about their new book. The resulting conversation delves deep into the origins and architecture of Home Was a Dream, while also offering a probing examination of the craft of writing. Hope you have anywhere near as much fun reading as we did yakking.

PM: Congratulations on finishing another novel—it’s always a big moment. Home Was a Dream is the third in what has become a trilogy, so you’re up there with Tolkien and Dune and all the other great trilogies.

JW: Thank you! Although my mythology suddenly feels entirely inadequate. [laughter]

No, no. In fact, I’d like to begin with the mythology. The first book was Believe in Me. The second was Never Break the Chain and now we have Home Was a Dream. For readers who might be just stumbling upon this universe, looking for the map to where all the mountains are, let’s begin with the three generations: Tim, and his father Bernie, and Bernie’s father Max. When you sat down to write Believe in Me, did you know you were writing a trilogy?

I had no idea. I thought I was writing a standalone novel, and created a story that felt like it was pretty much self-contained. But I say “pretty much” because there was one thread of that initial story that I shoved to one side because I realized in the moment that if I were to follow that trail, it would blow up the book that I had planned. And that thread was Tim’s mother, who disappears from his life when he’s two months old.

When did you get the idea for Never Break the Chain?

When I finished Believe in Me, I had spent a long time with it. It went through a number of drafts and iterations. In the original iteration dating back to 2002, Jordan Lee, the rock star who Tim ends up working for, was actually going to run for governor of California. And then Arnold Schwarzenegger happened, and I put the whole thing aside for a few years… I was a little frustrated! [laughter]

But eventually I found the right path for that story, and finished telling it, and after having spent a long time inside that world, I found that I missed it. I missed writing those characters and I knew because of that thread that I had left unpulled in the first novel that there was at least one more story to tell. And once I figured out an approach to doing that, I realized it could be pretty compelling.

When you finished Never Break the Chain, did you think “That’s it. I’m done with that universe”? Did you consider doing something completely different or were you thinking there was at least one more book?

When I finished, I had in mind that there could be more, and this time I purposely left a thread hanging. I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t read Never Break the Chain, but the very last line of the book both finishes that story on a high note and sets up a new set of questions for Tim to grapple with. So I had in mind that there could be another one, but I wasn’t sure what that would look like.

I spent some time considering other stories that I might want to tell that didn’t necessarily center around Tim and that group of characters, but might take place in the same world, because I love that kind of interconnected-universe approach that writers like Scott Turow and Robert Crais and Michael Connelly do really well. I kicked around two or three story ideas and got a little ways on a couple of them, but none ever took off. I usually know within a couple of thousand words whether a story has legs, because it starts to pull me along. At first I’m pushing the rock up the hill and then after a certain point I’m riding on top of it, rolling down the other side.

Exactly. And if you push for too long, you realize that you’re never going to make it up that hill.


I think it’s a sign of how complete the universe is that you find yourself returning to it and seeing all the stories that are possible. And I think it’s really interesting that, if we read them in order, we continue to learn more about the past as we move forward in the trilogy. This third book winds up, for me, putting the first two books in a whole new light.

I want to start with the first line, which is so good: “We think we know our parents, but we’re wrong.” It’s almost like the whole trilogy encapsulated in one sentence. Was that always the first line? Did you have that line before you got started or did that line come to you at some point in the process?

That was literally the first line of the first draft of the manuscript. Before that I had made all sorts of notes about plot and characters and narrative structure, but once I had that opening line, I felt like I was ready to start the actual writing.

One of the challenges I recognized early on, as someone who stumbled into writing a series, is that you have to account for the possibility that this could be the first book in your series that a reader picks up. And so you need to start out doing two important things at the same time: setting up the stakes in this particular story, while also providing the essential pieces of character background for new readers. And that all needs to happen quickly, at the same time that you’re trying to get the reader engaged with the story.

I had a fairly complicated narrative structure in mind, but I knew it was going to start with Tim “talking to the camera” in first person and the reader getting to know him. That opening line grew out of the first two novels, but also grew out of the book that I wrote directly before this. The Remembering is an essay collection and memoir that I wrote after my mother and father passed away in 2018 and 19. I wrote about that and about my experience of grief.

One of the things I was doing during the pandemic, while everyone else was baking bread and cleaning out their closets, was sifting through my mother and father’s old photos and files and correspondence. I was looking through those things and realizing that, despite having known these two people my entire life, I was still learning new things about them. I reflected on that a lot, and that fed into that line.

What do you wish that your kids knew about you that they probably don’t?

Wow. Good question. I think it would be something about the process of writing and how meaningful it is to me and how much satisfaction it brings me. And how much I wish for each of them that they find something—not necessarily writing, but some form of creative work that brings them that kind of satisfaction and time for reflection.

I like that. So when you started the book, which way did you think about it—as the kids wanting to learn more about their parents, or the parents wishing their kids knew them better?

I’m laughing already because when my wife asks me an either/or question like that one, there’s a decent chance I will answer “Yes.” I’m sorry, honey… but sometimes that’s the answer! [laughter]

The way that this story unfolded in my mind is described in a recent blog post. Our mutual friend [and fellow novelist] Richard Fulco had said that the one thing he missed in Never Break the Chain was that he wanted more of Bernie, who had been a significant supporting character in Believe in Me. I spent a long time thinking about what a Bernie story might look like and what aspects of his life I would want to explore.

Music is the obvious one—it’s a theme of all three novels, it’s what Bernie devoted his life to as a music writer. But I started asking myself questions, beginning with “Why did Bernie become a music writer?” It was already established that Bernie was born in 1953; he’s a classic boomer. Most people in his generation got into rock and roll as a way of rebelling. That suggested the possibility that Bernie had a difficult relationship with his dad. And then that set off a whole new set of questions.

When you wrote Believe in Me and Never Break the Chain, had you thought through Bernie’s parentage?

I had absolutely no conception of what Bernie’s parents were like before I started thinking about this story. It was a completely clean slate. And in fact, I was grateful that I hadn’t referred to his parents at all in the first two books, so I could start from nothing and go anywhere I wanted.

The book focuses on three generations at once: Tim, Bernie, and Max. Let’s talk about the narrative structure. You have multiple time periods and multiple points of view, first person sections with Tim and then third person sections with Bernie and Max. Did you have the structure in mind when you sat down, or was it something that came to you? Did you resist it, and was it a challenge? It flows so well.

Thanks. I had the narrative structure worked out in my head pretty early. I knew it was going to have alternating segments focusing on Bernie and Max and that those were probably going to be about three chapters long each time. It’s an approach I’ve seen other authors do well, where you move back and forth between two or three different timelines; usually you spend a chunk of time in one before you move to another, which helps the reader to get fully oriented and invested in each.

In the beginning, the narrative structure was a big puzzle that I was trying to work out in my head. I like puzzles, and this one was difficult but also fun. I needed a mechanism for telling the story that would work with these different time periods, while also honoring the essence of the Tim Green stories, which is that almost all the time the reader is seeing the world through Tim’s eyes as he narrates events in the first person.

The catch this time around was that, in Tim’s present, both of the other two main characters we follow in this book are dead… so that’s a little bit of a problem! [laughter] What I realized early on in my thinking about this story was that there was a logical source for Tim to learn more about these two people from his family’s past—his Aunt Ruth, who is established in the first book as a minor supporting character, and then has a full scene with Tim in Never Break the Chain.

Home Was a Dream opens up with Tim in the first person, and then you go right into the first Bernie section with no mention of Ruth. I purposely did that just to give the reader a taste of that puzzle I had been working on. “Okay, it’s not Tim telling us what’s happening anymore. So how does this work? Who’s telling the story now?” And then you finish chapter three with Bernie in 1974 and you come back to Tim and he’s sitting there listening to Ruth as she tells him about Bernie. At that point you come to understand as the reader that the third-person voice in the chapters you’ve just finished is the voice inside Tim’s head interpreting and narrating the story that Ruth is telling him.

Those scenes with Ruth are so crucial to pulling this whole thing off, because as you said, she is the conduit. She’s the only character who knows all the players in the show. As I was reading the story again and trying to pick it apart as a writer, I thought that the scenes with Ruth would have been the trickiest thing to write, because they’re doing so much work in a little bit of space. If those dialogue scenes with Tim are not believable, the whole thing collapses.

Yeah. I’m glad they worked for you… phew! [laughter]

So when you started, you had the structure in mind. At that point, did you know everything you needed to know about Ruth? Or did some of that emerge as you worked through the book?

One thing I love as a writer is when a character surprises me while I’m writing them. Ruth turned out to be the big surprise for me in this book. As the plot was coming together in my mind I recognized that she was the linchpin, the key to telling the whole story. But I didn’t know her all that well after the first two books. What we know about Ruth before Home Was a Dream is that she has this very stoic, traditional, somewhat closed-off way of presenting herself to the world, and her faith is important to her, and she has a classic older-sibling dynamic with her younger brother Bernie where she’s always trying to steer him a little bit in another direction, in a loving way, but also a little bossy. You get a sense of her character and that sibling relationship from the first two books, but not much more than that initial impression.

So I wasn’t entirely sure as I started on the new book how things were going to play out between Tim and Ruth and what I might learn about her. One of the most enjoyable moments in the whole writing process was when I got to a scene in the middle of chapter one where I started writing Ruth as a 12-year-old, and all of a sudden she came alive and I understood much more fully who she was, the dynamic between her and Bernie, and how the dynamic at ages 12 and 9 would set the template for their relationship for the rest of their lives.

She became a lot of fun to write, because she does have this very stoic presentation, but after writing her as a child I understood that there was some playfulness underneath that façade that we just hadn’t had the opportunity to see before, and the scenes between Tim and an older Ruth provided the space to have that come out. I’ve seen this with people I know, where they start talking about their childhood and suddenly you can see a little bit of that child-self peeking out as they’re telling the story.

Yes, she’s fully developed. It’s interesting that you got a better handle on the adult Ruth as soon as you started writing her as a 12-year-old. For the Max timeline, which takes place mostly during World War II, did you have to do a lot of research?

Yes. As I was thinking about Bernie and his life growing up, I knew, based on Bernie’s birth year of 1953, that Max would likely have been a teenager—a Jewish teenager—during World War II. When I put that together with the other story element I had in mind, of Bernie getting into music as a form of rebellion against his overbearing father—the answer started to feel almost obvious; Max was a Holocaust survivor.

As much as it fit, though, it also made me uncomfortable. It presented a lot of storytelling possibilities, but the idea of writing about that era and some of those really notorious places and events was daunting. It felt for a while like maybe I was in over my head. And then as I thought about it, I realized I had actually been to one place that could serve as a setting for that part of the story.

In 2016, we went on a tour that included several days in the Czech Republic. On our way from Dresden to Prague, our tour stopped at a place called Terezín. It was an Austro-Hungarian fortress from the 1800s that the Nazis converted into a concentration camp during World War II. As the events of the Holocaust unfolded, the Nazis decided they needed a show camp they could point to in order to prove to the world that they were not mistreating the Jews. Terezín was the camp they chose to feature in their propaganda.

I thought it could work as a location for the story both because I had been there and felt like I could describe the place in an authentic way, and also because I thought it was an interesting and unique and not all that well known piece of the larger Holocaust story. In its own way, Terezín was just as diabolical as a place like Auschwitz, because it pretended not to be a death camp, when in fact it was really just an overcrowded holding pen. One survivor called it “the stable in front of the slaughterhouse.”

So I decided Max and his family would be sent to Terezín. And then I got through drafting those first three Bernie chapters and got to the first Max chapter, got maybe a thousand words into it and hit a brick wall. That was the moment when it sunk in that, in order to do justice to the story I wanted to tell, I needed to do a lot more research.

At that point I hit pause on the writing for several months and dug into the research. One important source I went back to was already on my bookshelf, a memoir by my graduate school professor Madeleine Albright, who went on after I knew her to become Secretary of State. She wrote a memoir [Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948] about her childhood in Czechoslovakia before and during the Nazi occupation that was incredibly helpful to this story.

There are also several books specifically about Terezín [known during the Nazi occupation by its German name of Theresienstadt]. One is a survivor’s chronicle, a huge, very detailed and exhaustive book by H.G. Adler. There is also a more recent scholarly history by Anna Hájková and a book by Joža Karas focused specifically on music in Terezín. One of the unique aspects about Terezín was that it was possible there for the prisoners to make music and stage performances.

Another source that was really important for this part of the story was Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. It’s just a tremendous piece of Holocaust literature and one that offered a lot of both details and observations about that experience, as well as an illustration of how that experience can send ripples through the generations that follow.

I’ve read Maus a couple of times—it’s up there with works of art. And as soon as you mentioned it, I thought, of course, because there’s a bit of the father from Maus in Max, that rough exterior which makes so much sense once you realize the things that person has been through in order to survive.

Exactly. Those sources provided all kinds of details that I was able to weave into the story. At a certain point I had to fight the urge to include all of the details I had made notes on, because I was writing a novel, not a history book.

One of my favorite moments writing the book has to do with something that turned up in my research. Almost every source I consulted about Terezín talked about the piano with no legs that the prisoners put up on crates and used for performances. It felt like a really concrete symbol of perseverance.

When I figured out how not just the piano, but the crates it sat on, could play into the story I was telling, it felt like puzzle pieces clicking into place. Those are some of my favorite moments in the writing process.

I wanted to ask about that—sometimes research can also be a bit of a trap in that we can wind up doing so much research that we feel like it all needs to go in there. It’s important to pick the stuff that means the most to the characters. I think you threaded that needle well. In your research, what was the most surprising thing you uncovered?

I was fascinated by the role that music and art played in Terezín because it was so unusual that the prisoners even had access to instruments. But in that one camp they did, and I was fascinated by that both because it was unexpected and because one of the themes that runs through all three Tim Green books is the role music plays in people’s lives and how it can draw people together, including Tim and his father, and now also his grandfather.

In terms of surprising things, as I was poking around on the internet, I found an article about a 1971 television special on CBS where an orchestra performed pieces written by composers who were imprisoned in Terezín. And I thought, that’s amazing, I’m so glad they did that. And then a few minutes later I learned from another news article that a recording of that performance had been preserved and placed in an archive at the Jewish Museum in New York… a museum that is located in what used to be my great-grandparents’ house, the home where my grandfather—who was a musician himself—grew up.

Even now, telling the story again, I’ve got goosebumps.

I’m glad you mentioned that—I know of that special. It feels like the music in Terezín was one of the things that helped people to survive that experience.

There’s a line in the book that was borrowed from one of those sources I mentioned. In the story, Max says that after one of the musical performances out in the street he overheard someone say it was “the first time in this place that I have felt human.”

About the role of music—when you began this book, did you know that music played a role in Max’s life too?

I had an idea from the beginning that music would be an element of the story—it’s a central part of each Tim Green story—but I didn’t fully understand yet how significant an element it would be in Max’s life. Once I dug into the research process and got a deeper understanding of the role that music and art played in Terezín, it just reinforced the choice to set most of that part of the story there.

And then I have to give credit to my brother Gerry, who is also a writer [and the namesake of our cello-playing grandfather]. We talk about writing a lot and when I shared those first four chapters with him and he understood the structure of the book and the different timelines, he had a suggestion. He said “There should be an object that reappears in each of the timelines and helps tie them together.” And as soon as he said that, I knew he was right, and that the object would be a musical instrument.

There you go. I think our discussion so far about the evolution of stories is a fascinating example of how, when we write, our brains sometimes know more than we do in that moment. Clearly, you left a lot of breadcrumbs for yourself starting back in the first book. And maybe you didn’t know when you started thinking about the story that Max was a Holocaust survivor, but of course he was, because of the timeline and his background, it makes sense and explains a bit of Bernie’s relationship with his father. It also explains a bit of the relationship Bernie had with Tim. It’s almost like, it’s all there in your brain, and your job as a writer is just to become perceptive enough to see it.

I’m going to go back to the puzzle analogy. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You can see that certain pieces fit with certain other pieces, but you don’t know what the whole picture looks like until you’re pretty far into the process of matching one piece to another.

Yeah. So, speaking of music, let’s talk about Bob Seger. I love the scene where Bernie has to go cover the Seger concert. I will say that I am on record as not being a huge fan, but I think this goes to how well you write about music. When you describe that concert, it almost made me a Bob Seger fan, which is a tall order. Did you always know it was a Seger concert that would play such a big role?

I don’t know if it’s breadcrumbs my brain was leaving me or just fate. Back when I made the first reference in Believe in Me to Bernie having met Tim’s mother at a Bob Seger concert, that was just me, the writer, getting to the next paragraph. I wasn’t thinking “Okay, two books from now, this is going to be a really important scene that I’ll write in much more detail.” No, it was just “Okay, Bernie is a music writer who goes to a concert and meets a girl. It’s New Year’s Eve 1979. Hmm, who’s big in 1979, and maybe has a song that fits the scenario?” I already knew I was going to be quoting from “Night Moves” in the story so… okay, Bob Seger it is. Cool. Next sentence…

Yeah. Would you read the paragraph that starts at the page of the bottom of page 122?

As ambivalent as he’d been about the assignment, Bernie felt his cynicism beginning to leach away as Seger moved through “Travelin’ Man,” “Beautiful Loser” and a smoldering “Turn the Page.” The man sang with an urgency and sincerity that couldn’t be faked, and the lyrics, the lyrics were decent when you stopped to listen to them. Songs about being a traveling musician that not only didn’t glorify that life, they exposed the loneliness and alienation at its heart while celebrating the instant community that was created when a band was on stage playing for a crowd. There was something vital here that Bernie had missed in his easy dismissal of Seger as a knockoff, a “heartland Springsteen.” In fact, the only thing Seger’s music seemed to have in common with Bruce’s was a fierce authenticity.

Excellent. What I love in that one paragraph is that you take someone I often dismiss because of later songs like “Against the Wind,” and you remind me that the man had this earlier period where he was an authentic working-class rock and roller.

He absolutely was. Funny story about that. When I shared the manuscript with one early reader—our mutual friend Mark Doyon—he had a similar reaction: “Does it have to be Bob Seger?” And I said “Well, yes, actually, it does, that’s canon from the first two books.” And then, as writers do, I thought: “Wait—I can use this.” So I gave Bernie that skepticism about Seger and that became an obstacle he has to overcome before he ends up dancing in the aisle with Tim’s mother.

Yep. I love that. I found that very satisfying and an example of how well you write about music. So now I want to move into craft and process. What do you normally start with—character? Setting? Theme? In general, what drives the start of a new project?

This might sound like a cop-out, but: a compelling story to tell. I need the kernel of a story that I can get really wrapped up in, both as a writer and a reader. There’s a nut I want to crack. There’s a puzzle I want to solve. And it offers the opportunity to explore things and ideas that I’m interested in exploring.

And what was the kernel of this story?

Well, at the microscopic stage, it was Richie’s comment about wanting to know more about Bernie. Then once I started thinking about Bernie, it was the idea of Bernie becoming a music writer as a way of rebelling and asserting his own identity. But ultimately it was the idea that gave birth to that opening line, that Bernie was alienated from his father without really knowing him, and after having made a lot of assumptions about who he was. I think humans do that a lot, make assumptions about people based on not enough evidence, but I think we probably especially do that about our parents. Because as I say in the opening, we only meet them as adults who are already responsible for taking care of us.

We might hear about the earlier years that shaped them into the people they are, but even then we’re hearing it through their filters or their siblings’ filters or their friends’ filters. We never get to witness those moments. And it also depends on what they choose to tell us, because we all edit ourselves, maybe especially around our children.

And also how we choose to hear it, because we come with those preconceptions. So even when our parents say something they think is being super revelatory, our own preconceptions can shut us down from being able to hear it.


Are you an outliner?

In general I am, but one of my favorite things that happens in the process is when I’m cruising along, working the outline, and suddenly I discover something better and go rogue. I’m an outliner who’s always on alert for a better solution and if I find it, I go for it.

Do you write in linear style, or do you jump around?

I’m going to answer that question “Yes.” [laughter]. And that’s the honest truth. I typically will try to go in a linear fashion, because that tends to work better for me. But with Never Break the Chain I got maybe a quarter of the way in and realized exactly how I wanted to play the key turning-point scene that hits two-thirds of the way through that book. And so I went and wrote that whole chapter, and then went back and picked up where I’d left off.

With Home Was a Dream, as I said, I got stuck after chapter 4 for a long time, did a bunch of research, figured a bunch of things out, worked through some of my imposter syndrome. And then I came back and wrote chapters 5 and 6, at which point it was time to go back to Bernie, because 4, 5, and 6 were about Max. And I thought, well, I could go back to Bernie or I could just keep writing about Max because I’m in a groove here.

And so that’s what I did. I wrote 1-2-3-4-5-6-10-11-12. And then I went back and wrote 7-8-9, the second set of Bernie chapters, and then the closing chapters, 13-14-15.

So your default is linear. I’m a pure chaotic. [nervous laughter] I jump around to whatever scene comes into my head. Which gets me to the question of revision. Which part do you enjoy the most? Are you a guy who loves that first draft and figuring out what it’s all about? Or do you enjoy even more trying to make it better?

I think it’s that initial burst I enjoy the most, especially when something happens that I’m not expecting. I was writing a key scene where Max and the boys in his barracks at Terezín realize that their group is about to be broken up and they don’t where they’re going to go or what’s going to happen to them. I knew the basics of what was going to happen in the scene, but I didn’t know how it was going to finish. And I won’t give any spoilers, but the end of that scene was something that just grew organically out of submerging myself in that moment and letting the characters tell me what they wanted to do.

Interesting. Alright, let’s go back to where we started: this universe you’ve created. The book before this one, as you said, was a non-fiction essay collection called The Remembering, where you were looking at what you learned after you parents had both passed. It almost feels like that was a book you had to write in order to write Home Was a Dream.

I’m smiling because you are one hundred percent correct. I absolutely had to write that before I could write Home Was a Dream. And in fact there’s a paragraph in the book about the nature of memory and how when people are sharing memories they self-edit and put them through filters, and that paragraph appears almost verbatim in both The Remembering and Home Was a Dream. The punchline being that I honestly can’t remember which book I originally wrote it for, because I started Home Was a Dream during a break between drafts of The Remembering.

I love that it fits so well in both. I think that shows how we’re writing even when we’re not writing, and how connected your writing is. That gets us to a quote you shared with me recently from our good friend Mark Doyon—the idea that we, as writers, have stories we tell, and then we have The Story—capital T, capital S—that we are telling. So have you thought about The Story that Jason Warburg is telling?

I think one of the real joys and rewards of the writing process is discovering what The Story is. I certainly didn’t know what it was when I started Believe in Me. I might be closer to knowing now, but I’m not sure if I ever will, or if I’ll just keep getting a little bit closer each time. One of the things I do appreciate about the process is that I feel like, while I’m producing something that hopefully readers will find entertaining or thought-provoking, I’m learning the whole time. And that learning process feels like a big part of the reward for me.

On that note: is there something you’re working on right now?

Like you said, there is always something I’m working on because once you get your brain into that groove of “Oh, I write books,” you’re always writing. Even if you’re not at a keyboard or with a pen in your hand, you’re always alert and ready to receive those ideas.

A couple of weeks ago I said to my wife “Yeah, I’m not going to try to do any writing for the next few weeks because I’m rolling out this new book, and I really need to focus on that.” And the very next morning I sat down and tapped out a full page of notes on a new book, so… [shrugs] [laughter]

And is it another Tim Green universe book?

It is. What prompted me was reflecting on what a difficult book Home Was a Dream was to write, the research I needed to do and just the weight that I placed on getting it right. That was really important to me for all kinds of reasons. And so my thought process the other day was “Okay, this one was kind of tough. What would be the most fun thing to write? Who would you most like to write more about?”

And I thought back to the first two books, and there were two characters—other than Tim, of course—who I thought I’d really enjoy writing more about. And then that became a puzzle to solve, because one character is much more present in book one and the other is much more present in book two, and there isn’t really an obvious, logical reason for their paths to cross. Until I come up with one, which I think I’m well on the way to doing.

One closing thought. When I re-read the book for our conversation today, I spent more time looking under the hood, thinking about how you pulled it off. A lot happens in 230 pages and the pacing and structure all just works. It’s the best Tim Green book yet.

Thank you. I really appreciate that. That’s the goal—to keep getting better each time.

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