Don’t start thinking about the last pass you made through the new release section of ___________ (fill in the blank with your favourite box store).
Shelves of books by the likes of Tess Gerritsen, Harlan Coben, James Patterson.
Tepid mysteries and formulaic thrillers. No music to the prose, no originality, nothing to recommend them except their elementary school reading level. Forgettable and digestible; like fast food, only not nearly as good for you.
Comparisons are inevitable but you can’t start placing the intelligent, literate work you do alongside such mindless pap. That way lies madness. It will only inspire a blind, incoherent fury toward the “average reader”, which, these days, appears to be a euphemism for “hideously in-bred moron with the reasoning capacity of a plasmodial slimeworm” (see? it’s started already!).
A couple hundred thousand books published every year, God knows how many cable channels, the internet, social networking, “sexting”…it’s pretty hard for anyone to get noticed these days, at least for the right reasons. Behave badly, on the other hand, and the whole world seems to lap it up. Check out the latest wardrobe malfunction or celebrity meltdown; share it, like it, plug another quarter into some asshole’s ad revenue stream.
After all, it’s essential to keep up with the latest trends, highlighted by hashtags like #Kardashianweightgain or #femaleViagra. Absorbing the world in 140-character bites, possessing the attention span of a Jack Russell terrier.
Let’s face it, you’re not the kind of author who appeals to that sort. No media stroking or flame wars for you, right? You’d rather folks discover your work on their own, rather than hawking it about like an old style newspaper vendor. Or a whore. You’d like to believe there are still smart readers out there, looking for original, daring fiction. Looking for you.
But you’re fifty years old now, heading into the autumn of your life. You’ve got ten solid books to your credit, given everything you’ve got to Literature…and part of you is starting to seriously wonder about those discerning, thoughtful readers. If they really exist, why aren’t more of them finding you and singing your praises? Spreading the word. Providing for your retirement.
Maybe they don’t exist. Deep breath. Maybe the internet and connectivity has rewired brains to the extent that light entertainment and diversions are all people can handle these days. Dark, depressing visions like yours are out—bring on the mind candy! It explains the proliferation of rom-coms and the continued existence of “talents” like E.L. James, Jennifer Anniston and James Cameron.
Suddenly, it’s become clear to me. It’s the day after the zombie apocalypse.
Cripes, what a depressing post.
I warned you not to go there, didn’t I? And I’ll bet it’ll take a lot more than a Marx Brothers flick or a few old Looney Tunes cartoons to shake you out of it this time…
I’m a superstitious sod, rarely discussing works-in-progress, except obliquely (even with my wife). If I jabber about a book or story too much, part of me believes I’ll somehow “jinx” things and said offering will wither and die on the vine. So I play things close to the vest, wait until the project has achieved a highly polished state before I finally heave a sigh of relief and officially announce that something new is on the way.
And so it is with my latest novel, Disloyal Son.
Subtitle: A False Memoir.
This one took my wife by surprise. I spoke of it only in generalities, alluding to some of the history and background my research was turning up. When I finally handed her a finished draft the end of June (2014), she had a vague notion that the book had something to do with my father, the fibs he told us, family stories and rumors we heard as children about the mysterious deaths of two of his brothers…
But I think it’s safe to say Sherron was shocked when she opened the manuscript and discovered…a mystery novel. It took her awhile to adjust her thinking; she expected something much more personal and intimate, along the lines of my radio play “The First Room” (broadcast on CBC Radio some years ago).
The problem with treating the book as a memoir is that at some point I would have to make an appearance—and, frankly, I can’t think of a less interesting person to incorporate into my work. (In that sense, I differ from many writers I can name but, soft, let us move on from that contentious point…)
Nope, it was my determination right from the beginning to approach my father’s shameless falsehoods, his brothers’ deaths, as a fiction writer would, solving those aforementioned ancient mysteries with the tools and techniques of a storyteller. The central character is an author about my age but he’s more of an alter ego than a stand-in; a doppelganger living a parallel life, a “might have been”.
The whole book is a gigantic “what if?”.
But it’s something else too…because there are little truths and facts scattered throughout, bits of family lore my mother and sisters will get but no one else will. Despite my efforts, there’s perhaps more of me in this book than I intended.
What Disloyal Son is really about is the toxic effect secrets and sins can have on a family, people generations removed from the actual events but still feeling the ripples. The novel is a work of fiction but I think many out there will understand that the themes it addresses have a great deal of relevance to those who live in the shadow of childhood trauma or whose lives have been damaged by a legacy of lies and deceit.
Terrible things go on behind closed doors, many unpunished crimes, including assault, rape, even murder. Whispered about at family gatherings but, for the most part, swept under the carpet. Scarcely alluded to but not forgotten.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds and that’s why the narrator/central character of Disloyal Son is so determined, despite his family’s opposition, to deal with their dark past and uncover the truth about events that took place nearly four decades ago. His efforts lead him deeper and deeper, until he realizes there are actual skeletons in the family closet, the reality far grimmer than he imagined.
That’s all I’m prepared to say about the story line, at least for the moment—I really hate spoilers.
So…a “false memoir”.
First it was dark fantasy, horror, science fiction, poetry, mainstream literary, a tale set in the Old West…and now this. How the hell am I supposed to draw any kind of readership if I keep shedding skin like a fat snake? No wonder editors and agents shy away from me and even long time fans scratch their heads in confusion and dismay.
No apologies forthcoming from this end. Not a chance. Disloyal Son is a page-turner, a crime novel with the pacing of an Elmore Leonard yarn. Unputdownable. Featuring well-drawn characters, sudden twists and turns and a resolution you absolutely will not see coming. I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the way it turned out—talk about exceeding expectations.
Currently, Sherron is in the process of proofing the manuscript and we should be getting the cover and text files set by the first of April. May Day, 2015 is still our intended release date. I’ve done a couple of mockups for the cover design, which I’ll be passing on to my cover guy, the irreplaceable Chris Kent. And we’re welcoming aboard a new interior layout person, Jana Rade, who runs Impact Studios and comes with stellar recommendations. Hoping for a very smooth and glitch-free production this time around. C’mon, team!
I’ll be “leaking” the cover in mid-April and, meanwhile, devising a much more aggressive advertising and promotional campaign for Disloyal Son. Plugging my books has always been a problem for me—basically, once a book is done I seem to lose interest in it and the only thing I can think about is starting a NEW project, something to get the creative juices flowing again. But my writing deserves better than that and one of my resolutions this year was to devote more time and effort to raising my profile, letting people know I’ve got ten terrific books in print and that over the past thirty years as a professional author I have produced an intelligent and original body of work in a variety of genres. A literary therianthrope.
Watch for my latest offering, Disloyal Son, in a few short months.
It’s gonna rock your world.
No, it only seems that long since my last post.
And you know I haven’t been idle. Nossir, not this author.
Besides, judging by the surge in subscribers of late, apparently I don’t need to post regularly. All these new people signing up to my blog and I’ve hardly said a word since Christmas…d’you folks realize the mixed messages you’re sending?
I’ve been in heavy duty editing mode since mid-December, really bearing down on this new novel of mine. Definitely making encouraging progress but refusing to let up until my perfectionism and obsessive-compulsiveness cry “uncle!”.
Just about ready to talk in more detail about this latest project, which has been assigned an official release date, May 1, 2015. Gimme a couple more weeks and I’ll be answering some of the queries regarding the book friends and readers have been zipping my way almost from the moment I announced its existence.
I will tell you it’s yet another departure for me, a “genre” I haven’t tackled before. I like to keep my readers on their toes, doncha know.
During my thirty year career I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, horror, mainstream/literary, western/cowboy, poetry, radio drama, music lyrics…what’s left? You’ll find out in a few weeks.
A fun time over the Christmas holidays–our little family reunited and this hundred year old house literally rocking on its foundations. Made out like a bandit, in terms of Christmas gifts. My tastes are extremely weird and varied, I’m very hard to please but, somehow, folks around me manage. I doff my hat to them. My favorite book I received was Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary–fantastic tome, I “Tweeted” a number of quotes, gems of wisdom and experience. Imagine hoisting a few tall, cold ones with a posse that included Serge, Walter Benjamin, Karl Kraus and, say, Albert Camus. That would make for some memorable bon mots, methinks. And maybe a fistfight or three (Kraus was a notorious prick).
I managed to read 107 books in 2014 (the second year in a row I cracked a hundred). My favorite books in terms of fiction were David Gilbert’s & Sons, as well as a couple of short story collections, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (Brad Watson) and Emerald Light in the Air by the great Donald Antrim. My colleague Corey Redekop asked a number of authors to compile their reading lists for 2014 and here’s my contribution.
Movies I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of weeks: “Locke” (starring Tom Hardy) and “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix. The former was especially good–Hardy carries the film single-handedly, a virtuoso performance.
Music? Mark Lanegan, The Stooges, Wall of Voodoo, The Swans, Jacqueline Du Pre, Gene Autry…the usual mixed bag.
But I’ve taxed your patience long enough.
Before I go, I want to thank the folks who’ve purchased copies of my latest collection, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. The brisk sales have surprised me and I’ll likely have to put in a supplementary order to my printer before too long.
Keep those messages and questions coming (email@example.com) and watch this space for more exciting news in the days to come.
Regular visitors to this blog know that these days I rarely submit my work to outside publications (why should I when I can publish anything I want either here or through my imprint Black Dog Press?).
But this year I came up with a tale that was so good, I really wanted to see it featured in a respected magazine, one boasting a literate readership. So, in March, with some trepidation, I submitted “Restitution” to two of Canada’s premiere literary publications, The Malahat Review and Descant.
TMR got back to me last month with a form rejection slip upon which some arsehole editor had scrawled “Cool concept, try us again!”. You wanna know why CanLit sucks, look no further. The vast majority of editors in this country belong in a fucking head injury ward. And then yesterday, after almost nine months, I hear from Descant magazine. It was the proverbial good news/bad news scenario: my story had successfully navigated the vetting process but, unfortunately, Descant is closing its doors after its next issue (Winter, 2014).
Okay, that does it. Rather than wait around another year to see this fine tale in print, I’m posting it here and over on my Scribd page. To hell with it. “Restitution” is the best story from 0-2000 words you’re going to read this year. You don’t believe me? Fine, have a look for yourself. Afterward, I’ll be waiting around for your fulsome apologies:
This question has been much on my mind for the past while. I’ve been accused of being an “elitist” and what have you because I insist that if you write for the purpose of making money, seeking fame and fortune, you are little more than a whore. I have also been pretty clear that I have no interest in pursuing some big, fat publishing contract, nor do I give a tinker’s damn whether you’ve won a Hugo, an Edgar or the fucking Nobel Prize for that matter. Baubles and trinkets. Bullion and bullshit.
Kids, I’ve been offered the chance to write franchise novels (“Star Wars” or “Star Trek”) and told the agent involved to shove it. As far as I’m concerned, you do something like that, “sharecrop” someone else’s universe, you are off the artistic roll call. (Thanks, Bill, couldn’t have said it better myself.)
I don’t go to conventions, suck up to editors, try to flog my work to them like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.
I don’t shill myself by teaching writing workshops—such ventures help spread the abhorrent lie that good writers can be stamped out like fucking cookies. I’ve written about that in more detail here (the more delicate among you may have to avert your eyes at certain points in the essay).
Okay, so that’s what I don’t want…but what is my greatest aspiration as a writer?
To be the best. To push myself to the limit and produce work that breaks new ground, written in language so finely wrought it’s like reading through a score by one of the great classical musicians. Note perfect. I want to be held up there with the finest authors in the world and not be found wanting.
I have no interest in being average. A “decent” writer. Ugh. Better to be forgotten than instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up most of the books being released these days.
Because I have chosen to go the indie route, I have automatically rendered my writing suspect in many people’s eyes. If I’m acting as my own publisher and printer that must mean my stuff is no good, rejected by mainstream places because it fails to meet their exalted standards. Which automatically begs the question: have you been in a book store recently, seen the kind of shit the traditional publishers are spewing out like a drunk’s partially digested lunch?
I expend an incredible amount of time and effort revising and polishing my work—my novel So Dark the Night took over three years to write (not including the research that preceded it). And I’m a full time writer. Imagine that. Day in and day out for 3+ years. (Shudder) But I knew I had a wonderful book, was confident that once it was finished and released, people would love it. And I was right.
But, again, because I’m not a self-promoter, I think I’ve hurt sales of both my novels. I even resisted sending out review copies, partially because I knew that no matter how good the books were, how professionally executed and bound, there would still be the stigma of the indie/self-published label. This despite a professional writing career spanning over 25 years, many publication credits, anthology appearances, critical raves. I haven’t sent copies to some of the famous authors I’m acquainted with, seeking their praise and approbation. There’s just something within me that balks at the notion. I want my books discovered, not read because of some kind of viral ad campaign.
So Dark the Night and Of the Night are superb literary efforts. They are sprinkled with genre elements (mystery, horror/dark fantasy) but they are intended for an intelligent, discerning mainstream audience. They have enormous cross-over appeal thanks to winning characters, snappy dialogue and homages to film noir, pulp fiction, and cult cinema and TV. Fans of Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, Nicholas Christopher, David Mitchell, Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges will find a lot to like in both novels.
What they won’t find is the kind of incompetent, derivative, semi-literate drivel that is prevalent both in the self-published world and, as I’ve just related, on the traditional publishing scene as well. You wanna read the next Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown or J.A. Konrath? I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m a real writer, boys and girls, I seek to create ART. I want to destroy your preconceptions and offer you prose that is exciting, intoxicating and pitch perfect, right down to the placement of commas.
I want to be the best writer in the world.
There. I’ve said it.
It’s a pipe dream, of course, there’s no such thing. But for me, the bar is raised to the highest possible peg and I won’t lower my expectations for any market niche, slot on the bestseller list or dollar figure you can name. My literary heroes are men and women who slaved away tirelessly, selflessly, stubbornly, refusing to conform to the whims of agents, editors or readers. Iconoclasts and artisans, defending their work, their legacies, with the ferocity of pit bulls. Facing penury, enduring lives of desperation, anonymity, pain and hopelessness, yet never forsaking their vision or abandoning their ideals.
With role models like that, it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility of selling out.
My idols would never forgive me.
Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant. These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades. Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them. Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit. Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody. Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter. Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?
Never in hell. I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid. A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.
This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.
“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”
“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”
“Only the chapter I had to.”
“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”
“That was half decent.”
“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”
And so on. Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.
What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store? Waiting for the rain to subside? I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?
* * * * *
I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles. It’s getting scary. We’re running out of space. Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand. I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles? How much can she get for all these fucking books?
And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans. If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.
Or perhaps not. It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore. I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch. Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…
Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that, well, nuts?
It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.
I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder. When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.
Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that. The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess. That’s it.
Pitiful, ain’t it?
But, of course, it isn’t just books. I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it. I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending. Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.
No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control. Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals. Thanks, kids!
We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling. The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down? That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational. It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity. The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.
I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old. Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days. I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist. Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.
I’ve been a reader all my life. Forty years with my nose in books. Books have always offered me comfort and consolation. In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality. As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today. I would be one of them: mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.
All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.
A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage. Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.
New and old enthusiasms: Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice. It goes on and on…
When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)? How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words? Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?
Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.
How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years? Two hundred? Three hundred? The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…
I’m a sick man. Addicted to the printed word. Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically. Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy. How could I have missed them? Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.
The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.
Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there. Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant. A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.
Photos by Sherron Burns
Just hit book #50, halfway there and still (barely) maintaining the pace necessary to hit the century mark by the end of the year.
Four or five books of note in the latest batch of reading, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (#42) Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (#46), John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance & Survival (#49) and W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (#50).
The latter left me especially shaken.
What begins as an investigation into the dearth of postwar literature devoted to the suffering and deprivation endured by German civilians during World War II, gradually metamorphoses into a meditation on the limits of language. Sebald asks if mere words can do justice to the horror of an air raid, the obscenity represented by Auschwitz, the experience of being tortured. Do certain episodes defy and impoverish description and can any re-enactment, however well-crafted and best intentioned, achieve more than verisimilitude and clever artifice?
Sebald cites several artists—Gert Ledig, Jean Amery, Peter Weiss—who eschew decorum, ignore taboos, use their immense talents to conjure sentences that are impossible to ignore, that permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness. It is their authenticity that distinguishes them; these men are first person witnesses, their credentials impeccable. They have determined (sometimes after a long period of silence) that they are going to tell what they have seen without embellishment or elaboration. Their courage and honesty simply will not allow them to go into the darkness without making one last fruitless, valiant attempt to communicate to us things we would rather not know, that we’d rather see safely consigned to history’s back pages.
Ledig et al do their best but, even so, words often fail them and images, still shots of destruction, grotesque tableaux, are often substituted; these come in the form of vivid, descriptive passages, devoid of sentimentality, chillingly matter of fact. They bring to mind the stark, silent, black-and-white footage taken in the death camps. Amery chose the personal essay format to unflinchingly document what it means to be dispossessed, cast out and marked for death by fellow citizens. He refused to hide behind a fictional counterpart or allow a contrived plot line to dilute/adulterate his message.
In the end, Ledig/Amery’s efforts are doomed; even the most enlightened, imaginative reader is incapable of gaining more than an inkling of the physical and spiritual agony that can be inflicted by a well-trained torturer…or visualize what it’s like to enter a crammed air raid shelter after it has suffered a direct hit from a thousand pound bomb. We can only, thank God, experience these things vicariously, secondhand, from the safety of a comfortable arm chair. And, though it might pain bibliophiles to do so, we must acknowledge the paucity of language in the face of such incommunicable pain and loss.
Sometimes only a scream will suffice.
We know we can’t possibly understand what they’ve experienced but we feel, in the depths of what passes for our soul, that we owe it to the victims to at least try. Every single day.
The titles I tackled reveal the diversity of my tastes/interests: Michael Palin’s latest set of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, along with some readings on cinema (Dark Knights and Holy Fools), history, science fiction, theology, a novella by Roberto Bolano (Monsieur Pain)…
Yesterday I finished a collection of stories by one of the best English language writers on the contemporary scene, Jim Shepard.
Love & Hydrogen brings together close to two decades of Jim Shepard’s magnificent short fiction. Here’s the citation I wrote up for Love & Hydrogen in my book journal:
“Jim Shepard is a marvel. He and George Saunders and Ken Kalfus are the kind of writers who make you want to sweep everything off your desk and apply for a job as assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen. Aesthetically, they make no mistakes, the scope and diversity of their work dazzles.
Love & Hydrogen displays scope and diversity all right: in spades. The stories transit spans of time, the subject matter encompassing everything from the final flight of the Hindenberg to ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’. To my mind, any number of these tales could be included in an anthology of the finest writing of the past fifty years. I’ve read that Shepard’s research is meticulous and that is evident in historical reconstructions like the title story, ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’, ‘Krakatau’, ‘Batting Against Castro’, etc.
There’s a shiver of authenticity present in all of his fiction, an emotional honesty that defies sentiment and still manages to be heart-wrenching. No one in Jim Shepard’s universe is blameless, everyone complicit; perhaps it’s his version of original sin. We quickly recognize ourselves in Jim Shepard’s peerless short stories and novels and that (among numerous other things) is what makes him so great.”
* * * * * *
…and along with that reading I’ve been spending most nights of late snuggled up on the couch with Sherron, watching one or two episodes of the first season of “Mad Men” (a Christmas gift from my sons). Intriguing and addictive. A little bit more of Don Draper’s past swims into focus with each episode, some of the murkiness dissipating…and a very scary picture emerging.
Next month: the first season of “The Wire”.
After “The Wire”, my friend Gene assures me, everything else on television pales in comparison.
We shall see.
Each episode was six or eight minutes long—it was really just filler so you never knew what time it would run. Anywhere from 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning until the “Star Trek” theme music cut in at 10:00 sharp. It’s possible the show was produced out of the nearest TV station, which was in Yorkton, about seventy miles away (the only channel that came in clear). “Robot Boy” had that really home made look, the production values pretty shabby. But I didn’t care. I was an avid fan. Hated it when I missed an episode, just about inconsolable for the rest of the weekend. Yeah, even then I was a bit of a diva.
The premise was stupefyingly simple: Robot Boy (really just a cheap, windup toy) is insatiably curious and one day wanders away from the safety of the toy box to seek adventure in the great, wide world. But unfortunately he soon gets lost and embroiled in various unfamiliar situations, trying to logically decipher what’s happening with his tiny robot brain. Some of the conclusions he reaches are hilarious, way off the mark. He’s totally naive when it comes to things that go on in real life.
There are shots of Robot Boy shuffling slowly down the sidewalk, going about 50 feet an hour, gigantic human shoes stepping over him, nearly knocking him into the gutter, legs moving past in the background, everyone oblivious to the lost little robot creeping through their midst.
My favorite episodes, the two I have the clearest memories of: Robot Boy is menaced by a ferocious dog…but interprets its behavior as a warning and thanks it profusely while the dog strains to reach the tin figure, just an inch or two out of reach. And there’s the episode where Robot Boy gets accidentally locked in a supermarket overnight and wanders up and down the aisles, admiring all the “exhibits” in the “museum”.
I Googled “Robot Boy” and found a few bloggers who reference the show. There’s even a loose association of people who post on forums, swapping old news and rumors. The main problem is there were only ten or twelve episodes of “Robot Boy” that were ever aired and no copies in any form seem to exist. Which gives even more weight to my conjecture that the show was locally produced. Maybe at one time it was even shot on videotape. But those tapes are long gone or erased and reused. There are still photos, grainy, not entirely convincing, their provenance unclear. Forum members are divided, the rhetoric sometimes heated. People are touchy when it comes to nostalgia. Some have gone to all the effort of building scale models of Robot Boy, their attention to detail bordering on the obsessive.
I made mine out of cardboard boxes I found in the garage. I was seven years old and the ugly duckling of the family…but when I slipped inside my cardboard costume I became Robot Boy. My other life forgotten, my human existence shed like an itchy, constricting skin suit, too tight in the crotch. The boxes smelled of apples and old newspapers. I hung my arms out holes I cut in the sides. Hands instead of pincers and an aluminum pie plate taped to the front, the dial sketched in with black marker.
I kept it in the basement, away from prying eyes. In a cubbyhole by the furnace, where my sisters would never look. My alter ego and guardian angel. Big and blocky and comforting. Made of indestructible metal. Powered by atomic cells. An obedient, loyal friend, willing to endure anything for me, even long hours in the dark. I loved him and he loved me. We understood each other. And when “Robot Boy” was canceled, I grieved and felt a genuine sense of loss and betrayal. I went down and I kicked the hell out out those boxes, kicked them to pieces. They never showed re-runs and I wouldn’t have watched them anyway. Robot Boy was dead to me. That part of my life was over…
This is blog posting #150 and, well, I wanted to make it something special.
I trust you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.
Feel free to share your thoughts, on “Robot Boy” or other relevant matters. Here’s hoping for a great year ahead in 2011 for one and all.
Last night we had the official launch of my new novel Of the Night at the North Battleford Library.
A heartfelt thank you to Wendy and all the hardy souls who braved the first serious cold snap this winter to celebrate the birth of my latest literary offspring. Sherron and my two sons handled the lights and tech and made sure everything went off without a hitch. Thanks, guys!
Naturally, I over-prepared, endlessly rehearsing my introductory remarks and the three excerpts I had chosen to read. Ah, well. I think it went off well and the good vibes bubbled over into the book signing afterward.
Speaking of those remarks:
I’ve decided to post them, since they’re a good, concise description of my experiences over the past two decades as an independent author and publisher. I hope these words will inspire others while, at the same time, providing insights re: some of the difficulties and frustrations I’ve endured for choosing the less-travelled path (my essay “Solace of Fortitude” covers similar territory, albeit at greater length).
To all the indie authors out there, struggling to make themselves heard: write on!
* * * * * * * *
What do you do when you’ve written a good book and no one wants to publish it?
Twenty years ago, when faced with that dilemma, I made the somewhat irrational decision to go ahead and print it myself. I knew nothing about what went into producing a physical book but, to my mind, that was beside the point. Getting that book, that gruesome little book, into the hands of readers was paramount.
Because the alternative—giving up, throwing in the towel—means that a good book never even has a chance at finding a readership. It languishes in a box somewhere, years and perhaps even decades pass and it doesn’t see the light of day. It might be a lost classic…or a piece of garbage. We’ll never know. Book-lovers aren’t accorded the opportunity to render their verdict.
And let’s take a look at the recent track record of the folks who decide what gets published and what doesn’t. Hardly encouraging, to say the least. Sales figures are dropping precipitously, bookstores and chains all over the U.S. and Canada are closing or seeking bankruptcy protection; independent bookstores have almost entirely disappeared. Venerable publishing divisions have been lopped off or dramatically downsized, layoffs announced, the demise of the book predicted, onset of a post-literate culture looming—
Doesn’t sound like publishers and retailers have succeeded at capturing the contemporary zeitgeist, does it? Why have so many people, apparently, stopped reading or scaled back to the point where a substantial number of respondents in one poll indicated they hadn’t read a single work of fiction in the past year?
Could it be that the industry is printing and selling books that nobody wants to read? Perhaps in their efforts to meet the lowest common denominator, rehashing the same types of books over and over again, scraping the creosote off the bottom of the barrel, traditional publishers have alienated serious readers; worse yet, bored them with formulas, derivative prose, copycat covers and cookie cutter authors.
Publishing today has been debased by celebrity and dumbed down to attract people who normally wouldn’t tackle anything more demanding than the back of a cereal box. This mentality is abetted by greedhead agents looking to nab their 15% of the pie and corporate editors who know full well the suits upstairs want big numbers, bestsellers…and if they don’t deliver, they’ll lose that rent-controlled apartment, all those sweet perqs and per diems that make their lousy lives bearable. Shit, let’s face it, the markets take one more big dip, the guys in the boardroom start getting nervous and anyone could end up in the street. There are more than a few ex-CEOs and executive vice-presidents living behind 7-11’s, begging spare change so they can get their Blackberrys out of hock.
So let me ask you something: why should I, as an author, defer to anyone affiliated with an industry that publishes godawful tripe by the likes of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Sophie Kinsella and…well, feel free to fill in the blanks with your most detested hack of choice. Those inept scribblers aren’t better writers than I am: their prose has all the symmetry and grace of someone slipping on a wet floor with an arm-load of pots and pans. Understand, I don’t resent their big money contracts, but I sure as hell detest them for taking up valuable shelf space and making mince-meat out of the printed word.
I love good writing and revere authors who trust and respect their audience enough to break away from convention, fearlessly leading readers into strange, unknown terrain. But it’s getting harder and harder to find work that seems fresh and exciting. You have to look farther afield, to some of the small and micro-presses out there…because traditional publishing is a wasteland of zombies, vampires, tepid romance and poor-me memoirs. It’s enough to make a book-lover weep.
But there are alternatives. Those small presses I alluded to…and a growing number of independent authors who, taking a cue from their musical counterparts, have gone their own way, demanding total autonomy over their career and creations. Seizing control of the means of production, refusing to be exploited and humiliated by a system as ancient, obsolete and calcified as a dinosaur turd.
Independent authors…like me. Back in 1990 I knew I had a good book, a cool collection of short stories that counted among its fans none other than the great Timothy Findley. How could it fail? But that volume, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, was turned down by literally every press and publisher you can name. So I released it myself. We sold out the entire print run in 4 1/2 months…and I was hooked. I loved the sense of empowerment the process of self-publishing gave me, loved how every decision–from the selection of cover art to the choice of interior font–was left completely up to me.
This year, 2010, our imprint Black Dog Press is two decades old and it’s my 25th anniversary as a professional writer. Usually I’m not one who displays much interest in birthdays or anniversaries but I felt compelled, on this occasion, to do something I hadn’t done before, which is release two books in one year—just to prove my oddball micro-press is still alive, still kicking.
I think the books in question, So Dark the Night and Of the Night, are representative of the best of what independent presses are capable of producing. Thrilling, literate, original fiction; books for readers who still treasure a well-told story.
And aren’t they beautiful? For that, credit belongs to our long-suffering cover designer, Chris Kent, working his magic with lovely artwork created by Ado Ceric and Adrian Donoghue. I also want to say special thanks to Sherron, for the invaluable role she has played in the conception, creation and release of literally every single thing I’ve written for the past quarter century.
So…what do you do when you’ve written a good book and no one wants to publish it?
D.I.Y. Do it yourself. Use new technologies like print-on-demand and e-books and blogging to get your work out there. Let your readership decide if your prose is worthy…or not. Write as well as you can and edit your work carefully; do a better, more conscientious job than your traditionally published, over-paid counterparts. Help defeat the impression that the indie movement is nothing more than a haven for amateurs and never-will-bes. Most of all, don’t let anyone deny you a voice, your rightful place at the campfire. Your story is important. It’s part of a long tradition, a Great Narrative as timeless and enduring as the very fabric of Creation.
“In the beginning was the Word…”
And don’t you ever forget it.