Monday, August 26, 2013

The Printing

Given the declining market for print and the pressures of the digital age it is remarkable for a writer to yet experience the thrill, the first whiff of paper fresh off the press.  In recent weeks I have had a first printing hand-delivered to me while sitting in the publisher's office--an orchestrated and finely-tuned event whittled down to the minute, no doubt, with help from the UPS delivery boy--and the promise of yet other books that I could hold in my hand.

The book experience, varied between paper and digital, is a remarkable one . . . and I lament the passing of the actual pages from the sensation of having produced some final product.  Books are difficult to produce--from initial concept to shelved commodity--and the time and structure needed for the long haul do not seem as weighty for a digital product, as cover, typeface, dust jacket, and sales and marketing is reduced to mere internet exposure or the celebrity of the author.

Back in 1999, at the invitation of the publisher, I traveled first-class to Boca Raton, Florida to witness the printing of my second book--a trade paperback that, after being fed into the hopper of a giant electronic press--was spit out the end of the line, a fully-formed product, with my photo on the back cover.  The experience itself was a bit surreal, thinking that all those people--from press operators to paper-feeders to packing boys--were somehow employed, in part, by my role at the head of the creative effort.

I did have a shipment of books that arrived last week--my "author's copies"--two heavy and adorable boxes stuffed to the brim with soon-to-be-delivered product.  I opened one box, but the other shall be relegated to the dark and dingy corner of a closet, perhaps never opened, or, in some dim and distant future after my demise, opened at last by grand-children or great-grand children who will proclaim:  "What are these strange objects?"

"Books," may come the answer.

They might remember me then.  My name, I assume, will still be on the cover. 


Thursday, August 22, 2013

English Books

I had completely forgotton about writing a short story for Structo magazine, an English periodical, until my contributor copy arrived in the mail.  As one of 3-4 U.S. writers in this issue (the others being British, Irish or Scandanavian, including one poet translating from Icelandic to Shetlandic) I wrote perhaps the most "American" of stories:  an organized crime tale about a truck driver who works for a mysterious Miami syndicate. 

But thanks, Euan and Keir, for including me in this issue and for publishing an artistic and well-conceived magazine of fiction and poetry.

Every time I see another of my stories in print I get the bug to begin collecting the lot into a book.

Excluding science fiction and literary works, I now have enough published mystery/crime stories to form a decent collection, I think.  Stories about:

A priest who believes he hears God's voice instructing him to kill . . .
A teenager waiting in the rain to rob a convenience store, but finds love instead . . .
A tale about a palm reader . . .
A college professor who writes dark secrets into his scholarly works . . .
A man who travels to Mexico to find a new drug that may save his wife . . .
A returning Vietnam vet who discovers that he cannot leave the war behind . . .
And others.

Until then, I'm grateful for my English editors.  They make me feel so international.  Even when I writing purely American tales.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Life of Pi

Yes, I read the novel by Yann Martel . . . and was surprised that it was adapted onto the screen, and decently I might add.  Good screenplay.  Excellent cinematography.  And, underneath the layers of the story, some decent theology.

At the heart of Life of Pi are some very significant questions:

How do people cope with suffering?
What are the stories we tell to make sense of our suffering and give our life purpose?
How is God present in the midst of suffering?
What do we make of God's silence?
And . . . given the narratives we have to choose from, which story do we tell to others?

The latter question, in particular, is how both novel and movie end.  Which story about life and God and redemption do we choose to believe?

Every person is telling a story.  We have our family histories, our traditions, our culturally-shared narratives that we recount:  some as fact, some as myth, some as metaphor, some as conversation about deeper questions.  Life of Pi recounts this very well . . . and can cause us to think about the stories we choose to be the primary narratives of our lives.

I know I have several narratives that have shaped my life, ones I'm still adapting and adopting.  Some of these narratives are centered on Jesus.  Others are an amalgam of things I've learned.  Some are based on experiences.  I also have family narratives.  Personal ones.  And some of the wildest stories, the most-far fetched, have become truth to me and are stories I recount time and again.

I've never survived at sea with a Bengal tiger on board . . . but I do have stories about family, beloved dogs, weird situations, circumstances, places I've been, miracles I've seen, God's wild and woolly presence.  We all do.

If you read Life of Pi (or watch it) you'll be thinking about these things.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Summer With Cheever

My reading patterns--particularly with novelists and fiction writers--is to consume an author in toto over a period of months:  read all the stories, read all the novels, read the interviews, the essays, the works . . . .

This summer my project turned out to be John Cheever.

In case you don't know Cheever . . . and you probably don't . . . he was likely the quintessential American short story writer of the second half of the twentieth century.  Cheever did win awards for his novels, too (The Wapshot Chronicle & Falconer) but his bailiwick, much like John Updike later, would be publishing short fiction in The New Yorker during the years that William Shawn was at the helm.

Cheever's "claim to fame" however would come after his death, when, in a fit of financial distress and desire to purge the family of Cheever's collected, but unpublished journals and letters, Ben Cheever (the son) settled a large contract to have both released to the public.  Although the media quickly fastened upon the entries detailing Cheever's many sexual exploits, both the journals and letters are of great interest to writers, particularly.  They reveal, in essence, the interior thought-processes and relationships of a writer at work.

Cheever was so New Yorker, in fact, that there is a Seinfeld episode devoted to the discovery of his sexual letters . . . and if you haven't seen it, or simply don't catch all of the subtextual and anecdotal New Yorker elements in Seinfeld, it's the episode entitled "The Cabin". 

Also of particular interest to me were the many interviews that Cheever granted over the years.  Both journalists and the new wave of TV broadcasters had their crack at him and Cheever seemed always willing to oblige a discussion about the art of creation. 

Finally, reading Unpublishing Cheever--a lengthy and protracted legal account of an attempt to publish Cheever's uncollected stories after his death--I was left with the sense that Cheever was a man (as was his family) of many faces, insecurities and doubts.  Over time, particularly when a writer achieves some level of fame, there is the question of trust . . . and that seemed to be in short supply among all parties once the estate was settled.

I did enjoy my summer with Cheever.  At home.  At the beach.  In the car.  But I've unpacked him enough for now.  I have all of the books and they will go back on my shelf or into a box with the exception, perhaps, of The Stories of John Cheever.  Which, as they say, is a classic . . . and a volume I'm sure to read through the interstices of my own writing schedule.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Who's Your Daddy?

A common question heard by writers is:  "Who's your publisher?"  But for many writers--myself included--this is a difficult question to answer.

In recent weeks one of "my" publishers was purchased by another publisher, a massive multi-imprint, international publisher . . . so I am now a writer who has written for the largest publisher in history.  On the side of the scale I have also written for regional publishers. I also work with specialty publishers and small houses.

So . . . who's my publisher? 

Being a mid-list writer, a guy who has never had a best-seller (or even a book that has had a whiff of bestsellerdom), I have to write for the sake of writing; I write to produce more writing; I write for whomever will say "yes" to my vision, my projects, my voice.

Many writers, especially novelists, stick with one publisher their entire careers.  Name any major or well-known novelist and chances are I can tell you who his or her publisher is.  I might even be able to tell you the name of his/her editor. 

But as for me and my house . . . I have to write like a man whose hair is on fire.  There's always the hope--often distant and blurred--that somebody out there will say "yes" to another book proposal.  Perhaps one of my publishers.  Or another. Or another. 

But I am grateful to everyone in my publishing family.  The publishers.  The editors.  The line-editors.  The artists.  The publicists.  The book sellers. 

Thanks.  All.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Looking Out the Windows

Most folks might think that I'm making up the following statement, but it's true:  I still write on Microsoft Windows 97.  It is also true that I am still writing some essays and books on a Compaq computer circa. 1997 . . . a computer with two fans, a tiny screen, and a short-circuit which can, at times, remind me of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "God's Grandeur", where the poet writes:

It shall flame up
Like shining from shook foil.

Well, you get the picture.  Fortunately, my computer has those two fans to keep things cool, at least long enough for me to blow out the flame and continue writing.  So far I haven't lost any material on this computer . . . it's that dependable in the digital department. And, as my momma said, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Speed?  Slow as molasses.
Screen size?  Minuscule.
Drives?  Hard drive and floppy port.

Whenever I want to transfer material from my Compaq 97 and from Windows 97, I plug a floppy reader into one of the three new-fangled laptops we have lying around the house, the ones that will burn up and be landfill fodder in a couple of years.  I transfer the Windows 97 material from floppy to one of these hard-drives.  I file it in a marked folder.  I still send this stuff to editors.  They are still publishing it.  Many of them have no idea what Windows 97 is . . . it was designed before they were born or while they were still cutting their teeth on Playdough.

My wife wants me to get rid of this 97 Compaq computer.  She tells me it looks horrible--hunched there in the corner of my office with hundreds of floppy discs littering the landscape.  I remind her that I hunch in that corner, too . . . and that Windows 97 has been good to me, that I have published over 25 books on that computer, and probably written close to 100 books, unpublished, on its keyboard . . . which still works like a charm, by the way.

I have no intention of divorcing this machine.  We made a covenant back in '97 that we would be faithful to one another . . . that she would keep working for me even if I pressed her buttons for 24-consecutive hours.   And I promised to admire her narrow-waisted screen and her big bottom, all those slots where I could insert a fresh package of floppies purchased over the internet from a discount warehouse that deals in obsolete products. 

Well . . . but you don't want to hear about my love life. Or . . . maybe you do.

I'll get to work on that essay right away.  On Windows 97.  Surely there's an editor out there who will still accept a submission via floppy.  Some old broad, probably, who's as old as I am.

Her computer, no doubt, is hot too!   


Monday, August 12, 2013

Now Read This!

It began back in January:  compiling the long list of books I would read this year for research.  It has continued through the inter-library loan system, through piles of dusty tomes in used bookstores, and even via the internet through fantastic collection of books long since out-of-print but kept alive as PDF files.  But I've lost count. 

Reading all of these books--or more accurately, portions of them--has also pressed me to keep pace with the books I receive each month from publishers for review. It is safe to say that these books often keep me up late at night and cause me to rise extremely early in the morning.  So many pages.  So little time.  And none of it can be done during normal daylight or working hours.  Too much to do, too many people to see, too many places to go.

By year's end I do hope to have the bulk of the reading behind me, however.  My wife will love me for it as I will then be able to shed, literally, hundreds of pounds.  These enormous piles of books that are stacked in my office like piles of wood.  My reading material.  So many footnotes clipped and dog-eared and marked.  But we need to say good-bye.  We need to part ways.  

Save for a few books of poetry and, perhaps, one or two short-story collections and the ever-present magazine essay . . . little of my reading this year has been enjoyable.  It has been a labor.  A labor of love, perhaps, but hellish work nonetheless.

A few weeks back, after I had received yet another shipment of books for review, I countered a sticky-note which read:  "For review: when you have the time" with "I always have the time . . . as long as I can stay awake."

Rather like that these days.  I'm reading tired.  Writing tired.  Working the long pull of a week on fumes ignited by the insatiable thirst for coffee and handfuls of vitamins and hour-long sessions at the gym.  But at fifty-two, I know I have miles to go before I sleep.  

It's a dirty job . . . reading all of these books.  But somebody has got to do it.  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Matter

John Updike once noted that, among the author's various responsibilities along the book publishing trail, he enjoyed those that involved the creation of the final product.  Included in these tasks are, but not exclusive to, selecting a book's cover copy and style, the book's type, the cover color, and even writing the back cover copy. 

I am at present embroiled in these final steps--and when the author is invited to weigh in on them, or even create them, there is a flush of exhilaration that one doesn't always feel during the arduous weeks (or even months) when one is actually writing the book.  These final selections do create a flutter in the heart, though they are now to me--or to any writer who has authored 30+ books--familiar territory.

Still, the invitation to be involved in the book's appearance (especially as we are talking about paper and ink now) awakens the sense that a writer is, somehow, connecting to his flesh-and-blood readers.  There is the knowledge that a reader will soon be holding the book, or turning crisp pages, or--if even subconsciously--interfacing with an item that will offer some type of an experience, either pleasing or helpful or frustrating.  A writer hopes that the book's appearance will not, from the outset, be a turn-off, but that the reader will encounter a type that is readable, paragraphs that are well-positioned and centered on a bright page, and a firm binding that will not only make a lasting impression, but will itself last.

The final selections--and especially writing the back cover copy for the book--is a reminder that the journey is nearly complete.  The writer must let go of his commodity and release it into the world, for better or for worse.  Let the critics have it.  

Well, so it begins.  Or, perhaps, ends.  

And if the author is not an author (but a writer, like me) then he knows that with the completion of every book there is another waiting in the wings for a beginning.

And tomorrow is that day.  He shall begin another.  And another after that.

Gloria Patri

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Following our recent vacation in Michigan, I returned home to write a series of articles for an outdoor magazine.  (I was forbidden by my wife to write while on vacation this year--she had to have all of me--and hence the need to abstain from writing until I was safely at home hunkered under my twenty-five watt bulb.)

But earlier this week I submitted the first of my articles . . . and an accompanying series of photos which I thought would illustrate the writing.  Now the editor has written back and asked for me to provide captions for the photos.  This is a first for me . . . article & caption.  Holy cow!  I'm becoming a writer, Auntie Em!

Although the photos below are not for the pieces I'm writing, I thought I'd try my hand at caption-writing as practice.  This is a new venture for me, but perhaps I can cut my teeth on some of the photos I've snapped in the past few weeks.

Caption:  Sunset at South Haven: shot taken from the upstairs balcony of the over-priced rental where the wife asked each evening, "Would you like to take a walk on the beach?" (which the author learned later was a code phrase for a sexual invitation . . . but how could he possibly know this when the word "beach" is included and, you know . . . he's actually ON THE BEACH!)

Caption:  The Tall Ship (Friends Good Will) rigged by the author's wife and daughter and other family (which also helps to explain why the author doesn't understand "beach" references when there's a full house and he is not actually alone in the beach rental).

Caption:  The kitchen renovation, pre-vacation . . . and a sure-fire way to go broke in less than three weeks.

Caption:  The writer (fifteen pounds heavier pre-vacation) and his adoring woman.  (Wife is located in background, far right . . . w a y b a c k t h e r e.)  NOTE:  Author's gut courtesy of The Gap, Men's Warehouse, and Pizza Hut.

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Commercial Enterprise

Several people of late have asked, "Is that you sitting in a wheelchair in that hospital commercial?"  Answer:  Yes.  But it's a long story and we won't go into that here.

I will say, however, that I am now heavily embroiled in creating some info-mercials that the publisher will air on YouTube and other web sites, and I am also reviewing photographs for back book covers and author pages.  But I've come to the conclusion that my life would be so much easier if I could just use the persona of the World's Most Boring Man.  This would, of course, be an accurate assessment of a writer's life and my family wouldn't argue.

One upcoming Info-mercial may well involve my wife.  We'll have to film this thing together.  Naturally, I'm not optimistic about our ability to work together on screen.  In truth, I hate being on camera, hate interviews--TV, Skype, doesn't matter.  So I'm perfectly willing to give her the leading role.  She can hog the film.

But I have to write the scripts.  This is the tough part.  What lines do I give to my wife?  Here are a few that I'm working on . . . .

Me:  Hello, my name is Todd and I endorse this message.
WifeEndorse?  When have you ever endorsed anything?

Me:  I don't always write at 3 a.m., but when I do, I drink lots of coffee.
Wife:  So what are you working on now?  Don't tell me it's another book that will sell twenty copies.  You might as well be writing on toilet paper.

Me:  Keep writing, my friends.
Wife:  Friends?  Who are you talking to?  You had friends in grade school but they dumped you after discovering you picked your nose. 

I have a feeling that these Info-mercials may not be the best thing for a marriage.  And I think I need a younger co-star.  Just sayin' . . . .