Why My Next Novel Will Be Self-Published

31 Jul

With one small press book to my name, I now have a taste for publishing. And the part of publishing I love isn’t the wheelbarrow full of money that my assistant brings back from the bank every evening.  I like having readers. Finding that people read my work and think about it and notice how much craft I put into it, that breaks my heart. That’s the part of publishing I L-U-V. More than the wheelbarrows full of money. But I’m also a father now, which I wasn’t when I was sending out Solomon the Peacemaker to every small publisher still accepting submissions. At present, my time to write and publish is more limited.

So before the summer began, I decided that my next project would be a self-published serial story.

My four reasons:

1. The particular story I wanted to work on was one that begged to be serialized. So much so that about a decade ago I wrote the first draft as a comic book script. I have a world of characters I want to include in the story, so an open-ended format suits it best.

2. The five-part self-published serial novel seems to be a rising literary form. (Note that neither Homer nor Dickens fought against the ascendant literary form of the time.)

3. I liked the idea of having something completed at the end of the summer. I work an academic schedule now, so serialization seems ideal. I’m hoping to finish the first two parts this summer and then others as time allows.

4. I enjoy writing fiction more than I like reading submission guidelines, gathering documents, and hanging out at the post office.

But there was also a big, more monstrous reason lingering—in truth, photobombing—the background of this whole scene: I’d been thinking about quitting writing. Because of the exorbitant opportunity costs. Because of my own shifting priorities. Because I know more about publishing now than I once did and it makes me less excited about my own prospects.

Yet before I could ever quit writing, there are a few stories I know have to write. These are stories that I’ve thought about so much that they now seem independent from me. So much so that I feel an obligation to tell them.

I’m aware that feeling obligated to a fictional story probably sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but please trust me. These are stories that would eat at me if I didn’t explore them. They buzz with their own potential.

This spring, I figured out that at the rate I write, I would need about a decade to finish these stories: the serial story, the logging camp story, the immortality story. So self-publication is for me, in part, a way to finish the writing that I feel I must do a little bit sooner. Without spending any more time at the post office.

Then maybe I can shake this curse and get on with my life.

Of course, in ten years, I’ll probably have three more story ideas keeping me awake at night.

Curses.

What I’m Reading: Pimp by Iceberg Slim

1 Feb

I was introduced to Pimp, the ur-text of Urban Fiction by Ice-T and his recent film, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp.  Urban Fiction is gritty fiction set in a cityscape, often written by black Americans for a black American audience.  The only previous brush I’d had with Urban Fiction was through the writing teacher, Clarence Nero, author of Three Sides to Every Story.

Iceberg Slim belongs to a class of writer who does not exist anymore—the natural storyteller who has lived a life worth telling about.  Though I’m sure there are others, the only other writer I know of in this class is Jim Corbett, the Anglo-Indian hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards.  Both men’s stories are inherently interesting and have a refinement that comes from retelling.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this type of writer exists anymore.  Most personal memoir-type books nowadays are either written by MFA students in their twenties or what I call stunt books.

A modern stunt book contract stipulates that the writer will do something for a year and then write about it.  See The Year of Living Biblically, Living Oprah, A Year Without “Made in China”, or Eat, Pray, Love.

That the writer of a stunt book will have an interesting and redemptive experience is a foregone conclusion.  That the writer will be a humane and loveable character is also a given.  But this isn’t true with natural storytellers like Iceberg Slim or Jim Corbett.  Each man lived a damn interesting life and then wrote about it.

There are still people today who have experiences first, without a book contract in their back pockets.  See No Easy Day, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, or I Am Malala. I have nothing against this type of book, but I don’t think they belong in the same category as Pimp or Man-Eaters of the Kumaon.  Because they have nothing to do with the storyteller’s art—they’re about the minutiae and meaning of one remarkable experience.

The books of the natural storyteller have percolated.  Often the writer has to quit his interesting activities before picking up the pen. Corbett gave up hunting for sport. Iceberg Slim gave up pimping.

Pimp is fascinating.  There’s an overarching story of redemption pasted over the scenes of assaulting women and forcing them into prostitution, but this redemption song rings false from the start. Iceberg Slim may have been reformed, but no one reads his book because it’s in the mold of a nineteenth century spiritual autobiography. We want to know what it’s like to be a pimp.

Turns out, it sucks.  Slim tells about how he was hooked on drugs—first cocaine, then heroin—and served hard time.  He becomes a paranoid freak, then an old man before he’s even forty.

The genius of this book is how Slim somehow keeps the reader on his side. At every turn, he is a horrible human being, yet he never ceases to be the hero of his story.  I marveled at this. I tried to figure out why I was rooting for him when he was only trying to gain market share from other, equally amoral pimps.

After considering it for some time, I think it has to do with the way he begins his tale.  He starts with what Holden Caulfield would call “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”, so we learn right away that he had a rough childhood and suffered for the sins of his parents.

He also tells us very little about the women who worked for him.  If he’d allowed us to empathize—even a little—with the women he coaxed into prostitution and used up, he would certainly have fewer readers.

What I’m Reading: Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

6 Jan

Reading this book of essays, I fell in love with Zadie Smith’s style.  She’s so personable and reasonable, that it’s impossible not to feel some sort of affinity toward her voice.  But I had a moment when I felt a connection I don’t feel with a writer only because her style is impeccable.

This kind of connection is the pinnacle of the reading experience.  I remember feeling it for the first time, when, as a boy, I read a passage in a novel in which the protagonist turned over her pillow to fall sleep on the cool side, something I, a hot-headed child, did every night.  I turned over and looked around to make sure the author wasn’t somewhere in my bedroom, watching me read.  Was it possible, that the author had had the same experience as me? That was the only explanation. Even in my innermost thoughts I was not alone. Thank God.

This time, I felt such a connection as I was reading Smith’s “At the Multiplex, 2006”, a series of movie reviews that were otherwise unremarkable.  In her review of Transamerica—a movie I still have yet to see—Smith writes that the film’s audience wasn’t “allowed even momentarily to consider the possibility” that sex reassignment surgery “is anything other than a necessary and correct procedure.”

After someone I knew with Gender Identity Disorder decided to switch genders, I spent way too much time thinking about the uneasiness I felt at the existence of such a procedure. But when I told a group of friends about all the deep thinking I’d been doing, they didn’t want to discuss the ethics of sex reassignment surgery.  In fact, their responses made me consider the possibility that I was a minor bigot for questioning whether such a surgery was a complete and utter good.

So, when I came to a passage in which Smith questions the wisdom of our modern society, I shouted inside.  My friends may consider me a minor bigot, but Zadie Smith has thought my same thoughts.  And she went to Cambridge. She writes, “For what did ‘women trapped in a male body’ do 300 years ago? Maybe they expanded the social category of what it is to be male so that it was expansive enough to include the ‘female’ traits they longed for.”

That was my favorite passage from the book, but my favorite essay was Smith’s dissection of David Foster Wallace’s work, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace”.  I loved this essay in part because Smith focuses on the short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, my favorite Wallace short story collection.  She asks a question, which she is obviously concerned with herself—is it okay for a writer to ask a reader to work?

For a big portion of the essay, Smith focuses on “Forever Overhead”, probably the best story ever written about puberty. Smith pulls out things I’d never even considered, but she doesn’t talk it to death, which I found refreshing. Reading her essay was the most fun I’d ever had reading literary criticism, in part because I’d read all the stories she was writing about, but mainly because she was neither arcane or fawning, which is usually the case with smart criticism of contemporary literature.

As a final aside, I have a recommendation for consuming David Foster Wallace’s collection. Do it the way that I did. Listen to it. My friend Brooks borrowed the tapes from the library, while we were both studying English. This was my introduction to David Foster Wallace, a writer whose name our professors never uttered. Though abridged, Wallace reads the stories himself.  And, not surprisingly, he knows just how to read them. His voice is familiar and Midwestern, simultaneously wry and earnest. After college, I went out and bought the tapes and listened to the whole thing many times, often playing them—without irony—for the girls I was trying to seduce.

Hunt’s 2013 Book Picks

31 Dec

For better or worse, I mentally divide my reading into fiction and nonfiction.  This is, in part, to keep up my fiction reading. A few years ago, I found I was reading almost exclusively nonfiction and that scared me. I didn’t want to become a non-reader of fiction.  So I’m picking two favorite books from my reading this year.

Fiction Pick: The Round House by Louise Erdich

Erdich’s books are always well reviewed nationwide and well read in Minnesota, which is where I live.  I loved The Round House because it was so evocative of a Gen X childhood.  The fact that Erdich did not herself grow up in the 1980s and 1990s makes me that much more jealous of her powers as a writer.  And she is amazing.  She tells a damn good story and she perfectly captures the most important tension in a teenager’s life—the tension between the desire to effect the newly understood world and feeling powerless to do so.

I feel old to say that I liked this book because it brought me back, but it really did that.  The allusions to Star Trek: The Next Generation brought to mind the sound of a knife clacking against the lip of a blackened popcorn pan.  My dad always melted a cube of butter, which he would then pour over the giant stainless steel bowl of popcorn that we would eat by the handful as we watched TV.

The way that the protagonist and the other kids in The Round House talked about church camp and Star Trek: The Next Generation was so true to life and so funny that I almost cried in places. Too often, the pop culture references in books work like winking—they’re for the in-crowd and like a wink, they drive away all sense of majesty—but that wasn’t the case with Erdich’s references to Lieutenant Worf.  These references only made the book more evocative of life at the end of the Twentieth Century.

Nonfiction Pick: Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

I don’t think I would have enjoyed Pilgrim’s Wilderness as much if I had already known the story of Papa Pilgrim and his family.  But because I didn’t, the plot twists surprised me and I was hooked.

I think I was lucky to be ignorant of the story beforehand, because it’s a fairly recent one, which received some national news coverage.  A back-to-the-bible eccentric, self-christened Papa Pilgrim, buys several acres within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska and, after moving his wife and fourteen children onto the land, begins a battle with the National Park Service.  Pilgrim has a troubled and fascinating past and Tom Kizzia, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, unspools it like a novelist.

The book is great because its lead character is so unique—and, in his way, compelling—but also because Kizzia makes the story about more than just the Pilgrim family.  He explores the meaning of Alaska, a liminal place where government and wilderness meet and the rules break down.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s breakout book, Into the Wild. And though some might bristle at even mentioning the name of Christopher McCandless in the same breathe as Papa Pilgrim, the two men both showed that the idea of Alaska is still a powerful force in the imaginative lives of many. Unfortunately, that imaginary Alaska is different from real Alaska in important and sometimes costly ways.

The Most Visited Grave in Swan Point Cemetery

21 Dec

Ladd Observatory

Ladd Observatory, where Lovecraft looked into deep space. 
We stumbled upon it while on our walk to the cemetery.

 

I’ve always had mixed feelings about H.P. Lovecraft, the pulp horror writer, whose grave I visited recently. He was a racist and his prose is sometimes as scary as his imagination. But talking to the security guard at Swan Point Cemetery helped me clarify my thoughts about the great pulp horror writer.

We heard the guard before we saw him.

“No pictures!” he called to Lizzy and me from further down the hill. I’d been walking toward the modest headstone, phone in hand. The red-haired guard walked toward us with a quick, wide gait. He explained that the cemetery was private and didn’t allow photographs of the monuments.

I put my phone back in my pocket. I’m ambivalent about images, anyway, so I didn’t feel robbed. There was a strange mix of objects on the grave – seashells, small stones, hand-written poems, and a key.

“Once the plot is clean, it stays clean for weeks,” the guard said. “And then someone puts something new on it and stuff starts to pile up.”

“Why is there a key?” Lizzy asks.

“I don’t know why people leave keys,” he said. “One person left a key and now everyone leaves keys.”

“What are those notes?”

“I don’t know. You can read them if you want.”

Lizzy leaned over and looked at the crumpled paper held in place by a stone.

“That’s a strange thing to be carrying.” The guard nodded at Lizzy’s left hand, which, curled nonchalantly under her right hand, held a can of green beans.

Years ago, while I was reading systematically through all of Lovecraft’s stories, I also read the final volume of his Selected Letters. At the end of his life, Lovecraft was very poor and virtually every meal he mentioned eating came out of a can. In many cultures, it’s common to leave food on a grave and I thought a can of food would be most appropriate.

“We were going to leave it,” Lizzy said.

“That’s fine,” he said. “But it’ll just be cleaned off later.”

He said this as if he expected us to be disappointed that Lovecraft wouldn’t wake up that night and chow down.

Lizzy set the can on the grass next to one of the hand-written notes.

The guard said the can was a fitting offering for a man who had contemplated cat food as a viable food source. There were people who left baggies of marijuana, he said, people who obviously knew nothing about how Lovecraft felt about intoxicants. And there were people who left heavy metal CDs, which he doubted very much that Lovecraft would have liked.

We spoke for a while longer and he told us more about his job and the visitors to the gravesite. Lovecraft’s grave was the most visited grave in all of beautiful Swan Point Cemetery, where governors and Civil War generals were buried.

On our walk back to downtown Providence, I wondered why that was.

I personally don’t look up to him as I do some writers. I look back on him as I look back on my younger self, admiring his fidelity to some vague artistic ideal completely separate from the market, his cosmic worldview, and his dogged desire to live as much as possible in his head. But obviously, not everyone visits his grave for the same reason I did.

I think part of it is his posthumous popularity – a common nerd fantasy. His fanbase is made up of writers, artists, horror aficionados, and misanthropes – “losers, no offense” as the guard termed us. We are people who feel some disconnect with the world, but still dream of adulation.

Not that Lovecraft’s fans are a cohesive mass. There’s something incredible about a writer who can appeal equally to black-clad metalheads, potheads, English majors, Stephen King, the French writer Michel Huoellebecq, and a mysterious German man – described by the guard – who flew in on Lovecraft’s birthday and stood by the grave in a three-piece suit for a half-hour before flying straight back.

Lovecraft’s all-things-to-all-men quality is due, in part, to the grand, cosmic scale of his stories and, in part, to the way he shied from society.

Reading Lovecraft’s letters I was reminded of Adam Gopnik’s essay, “Van Gogh’s Ear,” which describes Van Gogh’s final months in an asylum and connects this to the incredible prices which Van Gogh’s paintings now fetch. That essay concludes by contrasting the difference between art collectors who bet huge sums of money on paintings they hope will appreciate and the artist who “bets his life.”

That’s my answer to why his grave is still visited. Lovecraft bet his life.

The security guard told us that the time you consider cat food as a viable food source is the time you put down your pen and get a job at a factory. That’s the way most of us think. Certainly, all the governors and generals buried in Swan Point would have been so practical.

But not Lovecraft.

 

Note: This post first appeared on the Innsmouth Free Press website.

What I’m Reading: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

26 Oct

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I listen to more books than I read these days.  I listen when I run.  I listen while I drive.  I listen while I garden. NPR is great and it’s great to feel like an informed citizen, but I never look forward to the radio, like I do audio books.

I’ve been on a serious science fiction kick as of late.  About a year ago, I listened to Michael D.C. Drought’s audio course, From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction Literature, which left me with a long list of science fiction novels to consume.

One of these was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a fun romp of a book, which has already started to seem dated, though its only twenty years old.  The action seems to be set in the early twenty-first century, roughly now.  The reason it seems dated is because it’s so quintessentially 90s, reminding me of how much I was influenced by all the cultural touchstones of Generation X.  (Would I be a great success now, I wonder, if I hadn’t idolized Nirvana and watched Clerks?) There’s the 90s slacker-hacker protagonist, the grand conspiracy worthy of The X-Files, and the evil CEO mastermind who is in every way the opposite of the protagonist.

The protagonist of the novel is cutely named Hiro Protagonist, a pizza delivery person when the book opens.  He carries around a pair of samurai swords in real life and in the metaverse, an online world that is way cooler than the crappy internet we have here in the real future.

Y.T., the other strong character, is a teenage girl with a delivery job.  She gets around the city by pooning—latching onto cars with a magnetic harpoon.  In the real future, this is also not as glamorous—skitching, as real-world pooning is known, has led to a few deaths.

The humor in the book stems from the setting—a libertarian dream, which is, in truth, a nightmare.  Everything is privatized, including the police the Library of Congress and the CIA.  No one is safe. Nothing works.  And the Italian Mafia are the good guys.  There’s obvious social commentary here.  The descriptions of the burbclaves—suburbs hidden behind razorwire and defended by watchmen—are all too real.

The Brilliance Audio production, read by Jonathan Davis, is the most highly produced audio book I’ve ever listened to—which wasn’t a bad thing.  The chapter breaks are marked with strange noises—nonsensical babbling and radio noise—that take on meaning as the novel progresses.  Davis understands the tone of the novel and the fact that he never takes it too seriously helped me to enjoy it.

The ARC of Solomon

14 Oct

I have to say, I’m trying to play the cool cucumber, but this looks frickin’ awesome.  The good folks at Cowcatcher Press sent this over today, which reminded me that I’d promised to blog.

Picture of Book

ARC, for those who don’t know, is the acronym for Advanced Review Copy.  All part of the publicity for the book.