I’m still pondering James Wood’s rather unenthusiastic review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.
I read the review about an hour ago and now that I’ve had a chance to shower and clear my head, I’d like to get some thoughts down, try to sum up why I think Mr. Wood—and a number of other critics—have missed the point. Let me make clear, I have nothing against Wood, I think he’s a thoughtful, articulate reviewer, a smart man…I just don’t always agree with him.
There’s a taint, if I can put it like that, to his review, a whiff of innuendo. Mitchell’s a good storyteller, he allows, and The Bone Clocks is admittedly “entertaining”, but…
Well, apparently, The Bone Clocks lacks coherence, there’s a dearth of human significance and, then, near the conclusion of his critique, Mr. Wood finally lets the mask slip and his biases show:
“Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ skepticism.”
I’m not sure how much fantastic fiction Mr. Wood has read but he must be aware of some of its noble practitioners, Kafka and Borges, Maupassant and Poe. While Mr. Wood opines that “supernatural” skullduggery detracts from the human story, I wonder if he would say the same thing if he was reading a novel or short story by one of the authors I just cited.
What I like most about Mr. Mitchell’s work is that it refuses to acknowledge genre constraints; he delights in playing with tropes and is fearless about introducing SFnal elements to his narratives, creating a vast and varied universe that astonishes literally at every turn.
Mr. Wood’s final assertion, that The Bone Clocks is a “theological allegory”, reflecting a “bleak Gnosticism” must have made the author laugh out loud.
Really, Mr. Wood?
I suspect David Mitchell’s bookshelves are extensive and a good deal more eclectic than James Wood’s. He (Mitchell) is also of a generation whose childhood was enlivened by tales of the mysterious and macabre, whether in books, movies or on TV. From “Dan Dare” to “Dr. Who”; Lord of the Rings to the magic of Ray Harryhausen. All of those influences going into the creative hopper…and what emerges is a mashup that doesn’t discriminate between “literary” and “genre” fiction, employing elements of both, worshipping at the altar of neither.
Maybe that’s why a number of science fiction scribes I know are less than approving of Mr. Mitchell’s body of work. They think he’s nicking their best material without giving due credit, while some of literary crowd (like James Wood) would accuse him of slumming every time he goes off reservation and presents them with a “bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won”.
I’ll admit, initially I found the supernatural elements in The Bone Clocks a bit off-putting. I’d read no reviews or advance articles on the novel, not wanting to risk spoilers (and you won’t find any in this piece, I promise). The book startled me, intrigued me, then absolutely drew me in. Imagine a collaboration between Jonathan Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, both operating at the top of their form. There are conspiracies and mazes and secret societies and psychic shootouts…but, sorry, I swore I wouldn’t ruin the fun for you.
If The Bone Clocks was a song, it would have “crossover hit” written on it in big, block letters. The novel defies mere description and resists being slotted into any safe, comfortable niche.
Like its author, it is ambitious, ridiculously intelligent, culturally attuned, charming, witty and serenely confident.
David Mitchell is a marvel.
He’s managed to surprise us, yet again.
What a guy.
But according to the forecast, the temps will hover around -6 or -8 for most of the coming week. Balmy weather, compared to what we’ve been enduring up ’til now. Frankly, I always feel better once the first of March rolls around—I can practically hear the crocuses stirring, even under four feet of packed snow.
A flurry of e-mails and communications after my last post and I guess I should have known better. Even by alluding to my novel-in-progress I was opening a can of worms. Now everybody wants to know details about the plot, genre, etc.
Now, you folks ought to know me better than that. I know some writers talk about their on-going projects, post excerpts, furnish plot details and teasers, seeking feedback from fans and readers.
How not Cliff.
Kids, not even my wife knows more than the absolute bare bones of my current project. I keep my books, stories, poems under wraps until I’m ready to release them to the world. I want her to be surprised, amazed at my audacity (or, just as likely, dubious of my sanity). I seek no editorial input until a project is very near completion…then I’ll pass it on to Sherron and let her pick at it for errors, oversights or continuity problems. As much as I respect my small cadre of dedicated readers, they have no say in any aspect of my work…nor will I make adjustments to a book or story with the aim of pleasing them (or anyone). I don’t write “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, y’know?
Here’s what I will tell you:
My novel is tentatively titled Based on a True Story and it will clock in at around 220 pages (60,000 words). About the same length as my western, The Last Hunt. Genre? Mainstream, crime fiction (of sorts), an old mystery coming to the surface. No fantastic elements whatsoever.
Let’s see, what other questions have people been asking…
Is it a personal project?
Huh? All of my work employs my odd, personal take on things. And while much of it might contain incidents from life, very little of my writing is strictly autobiographical. Characters and situations entirely the product of my fertile and perverse imagination. You wanna write about yourself? Start a fucking diary…
Is it another case for Zinnea & Nightstalk?
Will there eventually be another Zinnea and-–
Yes. When it’s time and I clear some of the other stuff off my desk.
Other projects? Like what? Can you give me an example?
Aha. Good for you. Not a chance.
Why do you take so long to release your books?
Because I want to get them right.
Why are each of your books so different?
I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Look, my own tastes are wide-ranging and eclectic and I want to see that reflected in my literary efforts. I disdain writers who author the same book over and over again or explore the same universe in a ridiculously long and convoluted series, milking their invented world for all it’s worth. That’s why I’m not pounding out one Zinnea & Nightstalk mystery after another, even though, God knows, that would delight many people out there. I’m not a hack, I’m a creative artist who wants to challenge himself, push the limits of a very finite and modest-sized talent. That’s the way I’ve approached literature for the past thirty (30) years and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Is this latest book cinematic like the others? Your stuff always seems like it could easily be adapted into movies.
Hmm. Yes, definitely. I see what you mean. And a number of my efforts have been optioned…but it never seems to go anywhere. Last month a film-maker contacted me about one of my novellas and it ended badly. I wrote about it over on my RedRoom blog. It isn’t pretty. Hope it serves as an object lesson to other writers out there who might be going through the same thing. Stand up for yourself and remember: until you sign that contract, you hold all the power. Do your homework and work your ass off to get the best possible deal. Don’t get screwed because you’re humble, shy and/or dislike confrontation. People like that get eaten alive.
That’s it for now. Still have a full day of editing ahead of me. Should be finished this latest run-through (draft #3) in the next three or four days. Then some time off (it’s been 32 days straight of 10-12 hour writing sessions), do some background reading and research and then…on to draft #4.
My son, Sam, finally overcame all sorts of technical glitches and released his latest cinematic effort, a short film titled “Snoop”. It’s already garnered a good number of “hits” and positive comments from folks who’ve seen it. I know I’m prejudiced, but I’m just amazed how well it’s framed and cut; the kid’s visual eye is nothing short of amazing. Be sure to head over to YouTube and take in an eye-catching caper film.
Last weekend, I checked another item off my “bucket list” and participated in a sweat lodge out at the Sweetgrass Reserve. My gratitude to Joseph Naytowhow and my wife, Sherron, for making the arrangements, and to elder Fred Paskimin for a once in a lifetime experience. It’s going to take awhile to assimilate the power and intensity of that afternoon. A lot of spiritual energy surging and buzzing around that cramped, sweltering interior…
A few of you have been pestering me for an update re: my “100 Book Challenge”. All I can say is that I’m holding my own. I just finished book #82 but I confess progress has definitely slowed over the past couple of months. I’m going to have to pick up my game if I expect to make the cut. Recent reads include Knockemstiff, a superb collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock, and The New Space Opera 2, a so-so anthology of SF tales that featured a couple of genuinely solid efforts, including “The Island” by Peter Watts, which was the high point of the book.
Spending too much time over at Jukesy, arranging playlists of strange, ambient tunes and discovering new groups to add to my personal soundtrack: A Place to Bury Strangers, The Vandelles, The Radio Department, Hank Williams III…
Still researching my western novel, arranging my notes for the next draft, which should commence soon. But there are distractions, including pricing out a new roof for our house (which turned 100 this year), tons of yardwork, a pressing need for all-season tires for the Toyota—
And, of course, my upcoming reading at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon (Wednesday, October 12th). In case you missed my previous plug, here’s the official invite, drawn up by my pal Alicia at M-R:
Hope to see you there.
The date: Wednesday, October 12th
The time: 7:30 p.m.
Alicia Horner, the affable and hard-working Events Coordinator at McNally Robinson, has put together a promo page which provides all the relevant details.
Copies of both books will be available for purchase and, natch, I’ll be happy to sign them for you.
Don’t get to do stuff like this often enough and I miss it. My readings are very performance oriented (so to speak); I hate a boring author/reader and feel a genuine sense of accomplishment when I’ve entertained a live crowd and won over some new fans. Always seem to find a receptive audience whenever I read in Saskatoon—yet another reason why that city figures prominently on the list of my favorite places on Earth.
Jot “October 12th” down on your calendar (see how much advance notice I’m giving you?) and, if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by and hang out with us for awhile. And, afterward, browse the store, buy some books, keep the sputtering flame of literacy alive.
Hope to see you in October and I look forward to introducing you to a couple of terrific page-turners.
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.
Every year my birthday rolls around and I do my level best to ignore it, dismissing its significance. This drives my wife crazy (that awful epithet “fun-killer” fired at me like a curare-tipped dart) but, on the other hand, it definitely simplifies gift-buying.
“Anything you want?”
And so forth. But this year, okay, I have to admit, there’s a lot to be thankful for. We had a health scare in our family recently and that really put things in perspective. My daily mantra of “health, happiness and wisdom” assumed new relevance…and poignancy. Fortunately, it turned out to be a false alarm and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. But we had a renewed appreciation for the frailties of the flesh and the bonds of family.
Then there are the two books I’ve released this year—yeah, sure, the e-books had been bouncing about for awhile, but to walk into a bookstore and see my work sitting there, waiting for some curious reader to happen along…well. Sends a shiver through me just thinking about it.
Yeah, it’s official. We’ve cleared the proof and Of the Night is good to go. For sale as of…NOW. You’ll find pricing and shipping info in my Bookstore. Click on the book cover (above) and ogle the artwork, browse the jacket copy. If you order your copy from me, I’ll be happy to sign it. Otherwise, you can get it through your local bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
I love this book–it’s a fitting companion piece to So Dark the Night. Scary, darkly humorous, a short novel you’ll zip through in one or two sittings.
To accompany the release of Of the Night, providing a kind of fanfare, is a CD worth of new instrumental/ambient music I’d added to my Audio page. I call this selection of musical oddities Language With No Vocabulary and I’m making it available to you free—play it, download it to your heart’s content.
Here’s a sample cut, a luvly little number I call:
(Photo by Jason Minshull)
God bless the people at Lightning Source (our printer), they turn out a fine product, the look and binding of the volumes they produce of consistently high quality. But the hoops you have to go to to make your text and cover files conform to their rigid parameters will, eventually, drive a teetotaller to drink and a man of faith into the arms of the Great Dissembler hisself. We had similar problems with our first book with LS, So Dark the Night, and it seems experience hasn’t made us any wiser. I give Sherron credit for not throwing up her arms in frustration on at least a dozen occasions…her patience is one of her greatest virtues.
We’ve submitted the interior (text) files twice now and, thanks to the Columbus Day holiday, we’ll have to wait until Tuesday (October 12th) to find out if we got the formatting right this time around.
Still hoping to have the proof in my hands and ready for approval in 10 days. Is that merely the errant wish of a terminal fool? We shall see.
In the meantime, I checked out prices with my chum Les at the local Canada Post outlet and got some figures re: shipping costs for Of the Night.
If you’ll recall, the book retails for $11.00 (USA & Canada) and postage is as follows:
Canada: $3.00 USA: $7.00 Europe/Overseas: $14.00
First Class airmail. From my door to yours in the time it takes you to say “UPS”. And, natch, there will also be Kindle and e-book versions available, likely for around $3.99. Yesterday I posted an excerpt from Of the Night on my Novels page, the first 30 pages or so, just to sink the hook in. Those who read the previous incarnation of this book (I posted it as a free e-book until a few days ago) will notice the improvements I’ve made. It’s a leaner, meaner effort.
Feel kind of bad leaving things so up in the air in terms of the book’s release date and availability. I’m already getting inquiries…hang in there, folks, it’s coming. In the meantime, here’s another one of my Garageband efforts, an instrumental number I’ve dubbed “Uncertainty”. Give it a spin: