Okay, that might be off-putting. Perhaps a better title would be recycling. Repurposing. Reusing. Renewing. Resuscitating.
But I like the word cannibalism because it brings to mind a survivalist mindset – They cannibalized the wrecked vehicles for parts and were able to get one working. Kind of that whole Flight of the Phoenix sort of thing.
I’m talking here of course about literary cannibalism. Not the kind where you ingest, say, something by Stephen King, and the parts that don’t stay down are used for something of your own creation. No, I’m talking about where you take parts out of something you’ve already created and recycle, repurpose, resuscitate it for use in a new project. Yeah, self-cannibalism. Ewww.1
Part of this comes from the admonishment for writers that I make from time to time, namely never throw anything you write away. True, that novel you started and got 140 pages on before you realized it was, alas, misbegotten2 may never get finished and see the light of day, but there may be something in it – a character, a scene, technology, some bit of great writing – that would have a great life in a future project. You just never know what it might be until you get there.
For example, when I was writing The Company Man, I came to a scene where Andy Birch walked into a greasy spoon and started to chat up the waitress there. I stopped with my fingers on the keys, staring at the screen, and had an epiphany: I’ve already written this scene. And with that I dug out an old, dead pre-Desperate Measures3 unfinished manuscript provisionally titled Book of Dreams and there, 25 manuscript pages in, was the scene I needed. So I put the pages next to my computer and typed them in (the manuscript being from my typewriter days), changing the names on the fly, and there it was.
There are riskier forms of cannibalism. I once came to a point when writing the Pembroke Hall novels where I started to strip The Mushroom Shift for parts. It was an easy decision to make – at that point in the mid-1990s, Mushroom had exhausted the possibilities of where it could go. Editors were shaking their heads over what they could do with it, and my then-agent wasn’t as enamored of the book as I was. It looked at the time like it was one of those novels that would forever remain in the closet under the bowling shoes, so I put it up on blocks and started taking out parts.
Fortunately, I didn’t strip it completely. One of the conceits in Mushroom was two characters with the first name of Steve, both on the same shift. In the we-band-of-brothers mentality of law enforcement, they became one unit, the Steve Brothers. I pulled this out and translated it into Pembroke Hall-ese to show something similar – not the bonds of camaraderie, but how a bunch of creatives treat their own when left to their own devices. In a company where everyone is known only by their last name (and, occasionally, the department in which they work), two employees, Upchurch and Churchill, get branded as… ah, but you’re already of me. This didn’t cause a problem because nobody had read Mushroom, and at the time I thought nobody would. But now I’ve published it myself and run the risk. It’s okay, though, because I’m confessing now… and because not that many people read the Pembroke Hall books.4 And speaking of that…
There is such a thing as cannibalizing yourself a bit too much. I’m thinking of John Irving, whom I discovered as a college student via that made-for-college-student novel, The World According to Garp. I loved the book at the time, and sought to familiarize myself with Irving’s earlier work. I was disappointed to find that each one was the same combination of writers, wrestling, bears, unicycles, and motorcycles, all pillaged from Irving’s personal life5, all of which made Garp so much fun, all of which now seemed so… derivative. It was like this for novel after novel, even into his first post-Garp book, The Hotel New Hampshire, and it felt to me like Irving had just recycled the same elements over and over and over until he hit the lottery.
Now I have to come clean and admit that I have done this myself. And I actually got caught at it. See, the Pembroke Hall novels rolled over and played dead on their release, so badly so that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print the same month that Boddekker’s Demons was released. In the ensuing years when I was working on Drawing Down the Moon, it occurred to me that I needed to throw readers a curve about a character’s sexual orientation. I knew I had done the same exact thing in the PH books, but I figured – hey, nobody has read them… I can get away with it.
Except I didn’t. See, one of my first readers of Moon had gotten her hands on the PH novels and read them, and so it wasn’t long before I got an email back from her on the former saying, “Do you have a ‘thing’ for lesbians? Just asking since one has featured in both novels (wink, wink)“6
Mousetrap, meet fingers.
All said, there’s a fine line to tread when pillaging your literary past for parts. If you use them enough times they can become a trope, and then a cliche within your writing, like Irving’s writer wrestler bears (although I think he has since left these behind), Dean Koontz’s noble dogs, and Janet Evanovich’s wrecked cars. And while some people might find these recurrences comforting signposts, I personally think it’s lazy writing. But then, I’m not a bestselling writer. Take from that what you will.
Meantime, no more similarly named co-workers or surprise lesbians from me. At least, not until I hit the charts.
1 Now you know why I chose Stephen King as an example.
2 In my case, a little thing called Bellvue Seven, which withered and died between A Death of Honor and The Company Man.
3 Desperate Measures being the novel I wrote before A Death of Honor. The order of publication was, of course, different.
4 Outside of Russia, that is.
5 But we all do that, which is fodder for another essay.
6 Paraphrased to make more funny.
Sometime in 1989, Kurt Busiek, who had up until recently been my agent, called me from his new position at Marvel Comics. They were planning on taking another crack at a Science Fiction comic book, and they were going to put two twists on the genre. First, it was going to be written by real, professional, established Science Fiction writers. Second, it was going to be a shared universe – where all of the writers got to basically play in the same sandbox.
And he wanted me to write the opening story for the series.
Why me?“Because you’re extraordinarily good at near futures,” he told me. And the near future is where Open Space, as the comic would come to be known, began.
By that point in my career I had published A Death of Honor and The Company Man, both of which posited rather gloomy near futures and skated near the thin ice that could plunge one into cyberpunk (although I never considered them that, many readers did – after I thought about it, I suppose they were pre-cyberpunk in a way).
So over the ensuing years, you might wonder how some of my near-future predictions came out, seeing as how we just passed the 25th anniversary of the publication of Honor. Answer is, there were some things here and there in both books that kind of hit near some marks if you stretched it a bit.
But nothing like what has been happening in the past few months with the Pembroke Hall novels.
It all started in December, when an article appeared in Forbes online, accompanied by a couple of remarkable videos. The title was “Nanotechnology May Lead To The End Of Laundry“, and I’m certain that a lot of people thought it was gosh-wow — except for the people who had read Ferman’s Devils and/or Boddekker’s Demons during the fifteen minutes they were in print.
One of the conceits in those novels was a laundry soap that used nanotechnology to not just ultra-clean clothing, but actually repaired it as well. It seems that by the time the author was writing those novels in the mid-1990s, he had seen a lot of preachifying about how nanotech was going to save the world by disassembling toxic chemicals at the molecular level and save lives by repairing heart valves without surgery, and so on. He realized these things were noble indeed, but that somebody was going to figure out how to make big bucks with the technology by making it do something mundane. And here we are:
Now I had a friend who really needed a new heart valve a couple of years ago, and when local hospitals gave him the kiss off because he was self-insured, he went to India to have the retread work done. And I was left wondering, where was his nano-laced pill that would take care of that? Hmmm, seems the nano folks got to the making a buck part of the program before nobility could rear its head.
But I digress.
Back to the point. That was pretty strange, to see something like that happen, nearly a dozen years after the book came out. But then something else caught my eye yesterday – a story from the London Telegraph saying that Paul McCartney’s son James is mulling over putting a band together with the sons of the other Beatles. Hey, I can’t make this stuff up.Except that I did. It was kind of a running joke in the Pembroke Hall novels, a band constantly referred to as “The SOB’s” – and then you find out halfway through that it stands for “Sons of Beatles”, and that the band is made up of… yeah, you got it.
Was I trying to wishfully think when I wrote that into the novel? No. I was making fun of our popular culture. It was, after all, the beginning of an era when artists began keeping their moribund careers alive by releasing sequels to hit albums of the past (the latest? Ian Anderson’s Thick as a Brick 2. Seriously.). Maybe in retrospect I shouldn’t have done it. Pop culture is just too easy of a target. I don’t know.
Whether Beatles 2.0 comes off or not remains to be seen, but these things have made for a weird couple of months for me. Before you go calling me Nostradamus or anything like that, remember that there’s lots of other stuff in those two novels that hasn’t happened, like thugs becoming media stars. Everyone knows that commercial actors aren’t thugs. Those are all found in the NFL and NBA.
Seriously again, I don’t know what to make of this. They say things happen in threes, so maybe I will ignore this trend until one more thing like this pops up – when and if. So I guess I’ll try not to be too unnerved until the other other shoe drops.
Meantime, if you want to catch up on this tale, I’m scheduled to have the Author’s Intended Version of Ferman’s Devils – ready for release just over a year from now. Maybe sooner if I can get those pesky Angel’s Luck books out of the way. If you want to check them out sooner, check the used section of Amazon or on eBay.
And for you few who read the book, here’s something that may keep you up at night: According to my calculations, Boddekker is now an eight year-old.
I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.
It’s a really good book.
Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.
Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.
Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?
Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.
The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.
The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.
Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.
Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.
There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.
Need more proof?
Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly…
People love ’em.
Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.
I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.
I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.
But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.
Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.
- Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
- That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
- And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.
Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).
If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.
One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.
This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.
Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”
Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.
My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).
While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.
Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).
Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.
For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.
Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.
And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.
Having recently scanned and coded the forthcoming ebook issue of A Death of Honor, I can see the genius of this move. Why bother scanning when there’s someone out there who may have already done it? Or somebody who can be bribed with autographed books, a mention in the appropriate ebook edition, or perhaps even small amounts of cash to produce a new scan?1
So if any of you ace searchers out there can point me to a torrent where any of my titles (except A Death of Honor – done already) can be downloaded, let me know. Or if anyone out there is willing to do an OCR scan of one or more of my titles (preferably into html format), get in touch also.2
As I said, bribes are definitely in order. Although baked goods might be a bit hard to ship.
- Hey, we are in a recession, folks. If I were Stephen King, I’d be more generous. But then, if I were King, I wouldn’t have this issue.
- To answer an obvious question – I do have electronic copies of all my novels except Honor (which was written and edited entirely on an old device called a typewriter). The problem with these is twofold – one, they are all stored on 5 1/4″ floppies. Two, they are not the edited version as produced by the publishers.
Okay, it’s finally time to say something because it’s all getting close.
I’m in for a writing career reboot here, and it’ll likely all start happening by the end of the month. The retooling of this web site some months ago was the first step, but now there are others. I’ve slowly been putting things into motion, but it looks like they’re all going to converge at once.
So I have not one, but two major announcements — and a minor one.
First, my new novel, …and that’s the end of the news, is almost done. I mean it for sure this time. After 10 years, a long hiatus to take care of my mother (during which time I tried to re-imagine myself as a songwriter and learned that I hated performing live) and four drafts, I’ve gotten the book where I want it, where it should be. So it’s soon to be going out in search of an agent and/or publisher.
This book has been with me for so long that it’s hard for me to look at it as “the new book”, but it’ll be new to the 99.99% of you who haven’t had some kind of preview or were pressed into service as an early reader. Anyway, once and/news goes out into the marketplace, it will be time to start what really will feel like a new novel. This will likely be the project that I have discreetly code-named “The UFO Novel.”
Which brings me to the minor announcement. Just for grins, I thought I would post very short excerpts from The UFO Novel as status updates on my Facebook Fan Page. There’ll be one excerpt from each chapter as I finish writing it, and there will be lots of chapters. It should be fun. Or not. Tantalizing, perhaps? That’s the idea. So become a fan now and get miniscule glimpses of a book in progress (or be tormented by them – your choice).
So now it’s time for Major Announcement number two. If you’re one of the lot who has been to my Facebook Fan Page, you may have seen the fanciful logo for an outfit called Thief Media (you can see it now in the upper right hand section of this page). That’s the imprint that I have started to release my old, out-of-print novels for the Amazon Kindle and in epub format for all the others. This will begin with my first published novel, A Death of Honor – which I hope to have out by early March – to include all 7 novels over the course of the next year or so.
(Actually, they will appear as only 6 novels – Ferman’s Devils and Boddekker’s Demons will be issued as one novel, which was my original intent.)All of the novels will have new cover art, and all except for the Angel’s Luck trilogy will have some kind of bonus material included. A Death of Honor will feature the original epilog that I cut from the book before publication. The Company Man and Ferman’s Devils will feature short stories that overlap into the respective book’s universe.
In addition to my out-of-print titles, Thief Media will also be releasing two previously unpublished JCF novels. The Mushroom Shift is a profane and darkly funny novel about police work that was written between Honor and Company and will be released between them. Trust is a political thriller written in hopes of being published in time for the 1996 election. It will be released before Ferman’s Devils.
To celebrate this in a small way, I have changed the graphic in the banner above to a section of corrected page from the third draft of …and that’s the end of the news. There may or may not be other surprises and releases, but I’m going to leave things at this for the time being. After all, I have a lot of work to do right now.
So… as I said recently, the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world get advances in the tens of millions of dollars, and their publishers don’t make their money back on the deal. But they have a star to hang in their firmament.
And the mid-listers – the ones you see on the bestseller lists and don’t recognize, or the ones you don’t see, but who have enough of a following to hit sell-through on their novels – they are the publishers’ bread and butter.
But for everyone who is making it as a writer of novels, there are thousands like you and me at the bottom of the pyramid, still writing, still striving. Why do we do it? Some of us are still reaching for the brass ring, some because we can’t help ourselves. And for some of us… both.
What of our bread and butter?
For those of us who haven’t made it yet, we have two choices. We can either spend our time writing under the largesse of some kind of money stockpile – something we’ve saved, a government grant we managed to cadge, a working spouse, or a little nest egg from a rich relative.
Those of us who can do one of these things are the lucky ones (although not quite as lucky as the ones who can live off of their novel earnings). I know a writer who tried to make it while living on an inherited nest egg. Unfortunately, his growth as a writer didn’t move fast enough and the money didn’t hold out. In spite of a couple of journeyman novels published by a small press, he ended up having to resort to other means, – although later he was picked up by a major publisher, but he didn’t hit the midlist heights.
I got to do the thing with the working spouse for a time, and I blessed her every day for it. I didn’t hit the midlist during that time, either, although according to my agent, I was “a solid midlist author” – but that may have been typical agent hyperbole. Anyway, my wife’s gestational capability kicked in, and I voluntarily said I would resort to other means.
And those other means? A day job, of course.
It’s a time-honored thing. Somehow we think less of those folks who wrote brilliantly from high school on and wrote their breakout novel in college. Or the pampered wife of the moneyed husband, who turned to writing to ease the boredom of her soul, and mirabile dictu! She turned out a bestseller!
No, the stories we like are Stephen King, finishing Carrie in the closet of a mobile home after his wife fished the manuscript out of the garbage. John Grisham, tied to a soul-crushing law firm, writing A Time To Kill on legal pads in stolen moments. J.K. Rowling, taking her last few pounds and pence to buy time at a coffee shop where, for the price of a tea, had a table available to scribble out the adventures of a boy wizard.
When I started shooting for a day job, I aimed at advertising. Why? Because first, it was something interesting to me. Second, I always planned to make my living as a writer, and this seemed a good place to start – even if my plans were to make my living writing novels. Third, I had done a lot of research on advertising in high school, and I saw a lot of interviews with copywriters who said they had basically taken that job so they could make a living until their novel was done.
Those poor, poor fools. And what about me, the poor lad they led astray?
One day when I was working on the college paper, the editor and I were talking about our futures. The editor, a wise sage and good friend, made the suggestion that I should get a day job that did not involve any writing or creativity at all. His theory was that, after a day of being creative on demand, I would be drained and too emptied out to work on a novel. I thought that was a great theory, although I didn’t particularly relish the thought of being a plumber.
That might be the case for others – certainly, it’s something you want to think about – but it never did seem to effect me that way. It’s like there was a two-way switch in the Writing Box in my brain, and it allowed me to easily toggle from DAY JOB to MY NOVEL. And, during the time I worked at The Place Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, I found a third setting – MY NOVEL (OVERDRIVE) – because I was determined to write my way out of that place.1 Maybe you’re that way, too. There’s only one way to find out.
I have actually had more interference from everyday life than the stringent requirements of a job. My writing life looks more like Mr. Holland’s Opus than any of the other movies I’ve seen about writers. And I’ve always defaulted to family in matters of time, because it just wouldn’t be worth becoming a Fabulous, Bestselling Author (TM) if my mother, my wife, and my kids all ended up writing books about what a creep I was in real life.
So if you have to have a day job to support your writing jones, take heart. For one, look at it as a rich source of material. When I worked at a Sheriff’s Office, I was occasionally asked by Deputies when I would write my Big Novel about life in Law Enforcement. “Never,” I would joke. “When I leave here to become a bestselling author, I am going to forget all of you.” Of course, the first novel I wrote after I left was The Mushroom Shift.
There’s one other benefit, too. Haven’t you ever looked at the author’s biography and seen stuff like, Dirk Manly has been a salmon fisherman, a Disney tour guide, a Manhattan taxi driver, a hotel detective, and sailed around the world on a tramp steamer. This is his 150th novel. Didn’t you feel a little twinge, like you should be doing all of that to build up your writer’s cred?
Guess what, my friend? You are. You are.
Remember that next time you’re forced to say, “Would you like fries with that?”
- And it worked. My agent sold Ferman’s Devils which got me a contract to write the other half (which became Boddekker’s Demons), and my boss used that sale as one of many bogus charges to get me fired because she thought all writers made Stephen King’s money.
On the top, the cover of the Russian paperback release of Ferman’s Devils. Looks a lot like the hardcover. In fact, it’s pretty much identical to the hardcover.
On the bottom, the same book, same format, with a different cover. Released at the same time as the one on the left.
Marketing, that’s what. The Russian translation of the Pembroke Hall books were released under the “Alternative” imprint of publisher AST. That’s the one they use for experimental and off-the-wall types of books. Tom Robbins books get these covers, as did Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.
But the other cover. This is from a separate imprint. It’s called “Classical and Modern Prose.”
Further investigation of this imprint on the AST web site led me to titles by Swift, Remarque, Pasternak, and Chekhov – along with Robin Cook, Arthur Hailey, and yes, Tom Robbins, whose work is undergoing the same kind of odd cross-pollenation.
Naturally, I’m wondering about all of this. Is it because of the critical review the books are getting there? There are a couple of other books about the advertising industry that were written by native writers, both of which seem to be oft-mentioned as minor classics – one of them, Generation P by Victor Pelevin (released in English as Babylon, I’m currently reading. And it seems that the Pembroke Hall duology precedes these books by at least four years (counting from Ferman’s Devils).
Perhaps the gurus at AST want to make sure that the book reaches out to the same audience that made Pelevin one of the most read authors in Russia. It could just be canny marketing, too. Two covers for two different audiences, both of whom would find something to amuse in the books. I’ve had experience in this area in a different way in the form of the oddly innocuous cover that the Science Fiction Book Club edition of A Death of Honor was given. I found out later that the book was crossed over to SFBC’s sister company, the Mystery Book Club. Had it been given a more SF-ish cover, it might not have sold in the latter venue.
There’s one more factor that might figure into all of this. Once upon a time, when I was busy filling out forms to pay for part of my son’s college education, I had to have my agent write a letter explaining that the sales I’d just made to Russia were a one-shot deal, and that he’d never, ever seen a Russian book deal that resulted in any income beyond the initial advance.
Well, a couple of months ago I got a check from my agent for over $100. A couple of dollars were residuals that had trickled in from sales of the e-book version of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. The rest was Russian money.
It wasn’t much, but it told me something important, especially in light of what’s going on with the books now – that the translation of Ferman’s Devils somehow got a toe-hold over there and made back its advance – and then some.
(Yeah, I realize it could be that the trilogy earned out a few bucks and they’re just really late in getting it to me – but with the timing of everything that’s happening with the Pembroke Hall books, this isn’t my preferred explanation.)
So if you’ve got a book that’s made some money for you, it’s getting good critical reviews, it pre-dates some native classics about the same subject – why not market it as a piece of… well, not Classical, but certainly Modern prose? And pushing it with two different covers appeal to the literati and those who like their fiction a little more experimental?
Hmmm. It’s a shame that my publishers here didn’t think of that.
Now I can make a confession: besides wanting the Pembroke Hall saga to be a single volume, I had always intended it to be a modern novel as opposed to an sf novel. It was to be set in current times, but because I was seeing some limited success in the SF arena, I filled it with SF tropes (many of which, a decade later, don’t seem so tropish) and passed it off on my agent and the public as an sf satire. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d followed my original vision – but on the other hand, if I had, I wouldn’t have given the world NanoKleen, which is one of my best ever SF ideas.
Perhaps it’s a good thing I wrote it the way that I did. As I said in an earlier post, the Russians got it – all the way around. They’ve got a long history of seeing SF as a special genre – it allowed criticism of the Soviet system that one couldn’t get away with in conventional literature (although the Russian reviews have yet to mention it as a piece of SF). They really seem to hit on the mentions of Russia that I make in the Pembroke Hall books, with all that talk about the Union of Mongol States and all of that. And they appear to have really connected with the whole concept of consumerism gone amok – something they certainly see first hand as a new, struggling capitalist nation.
Here the real irony. I grew up with the Russians as The Enemy. I even channeled those childhood fears into the nightmare scenario of A Death of Honor, where they were a few steps short of realizing their goal of a Communist world. But, as the years have gone by and the world has changed, I seem to have written something that is the perfect contemporary Russian novel.
What’s that sound? Do you hear it? Can it be that… God… is… laughing?
Listening: Eels, “Restraining Order Blues” (via iPod Shuffle)
I just received an e-mail from a reader who tells me he has read through the Angel’s Luck trilogy about ten times (!). I don’t think I’ve been through those books that many times counting writing, rewriting, editing, proofreading, and correcting the galleys (I never read the books after they come out). In his letter, he asks me, “Do you have anything on the horizon?”
This put me in the position of telling him that, with the exception of one SF novel that I really want to finish, I’m not really writing Science Fiction anymore.
Part of this is by choice – I realized a couple of years ago that there were other genres where I could do quite well that have larger audiences than SF, and my agent agrees.
But there are also some factors at work that I don’t have much control over. For one, I think a Joe Clifford Faust SF novel would be a tough sell right now. I was dropped by Del Rey for disappointing sales – never mind that there was zero advertising or promotion, other than the fact that they were fired up over the book and pushed a copy into the hands of anyone who came into their office (this is how I ended up getting my first agent, which is a lengthy story for another post – if I haven’t already told it). When I asked about advertising before A Death of Honor came out, I was told “Our novels sell themselves.” Guess what, folks?
A few years later the Pembroke Hall novels landed at Bantam. They did advertise them, in Locus, the magazine of the SF trade. When I told them I had an idea for a promotion involving putting copies in the hands of the people most likely to appreciate the book – ad folk – I was given another line about how they knew how to sell their own books. Guess what, folks?
The month that Boddekker’s Demons came out was the same month that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print. I got a call from Bantam asking, “Do you still have that marketing plan of yours?” I did a mental debate about the wisdom of marketing a book that was the second half of a duology, especially when the first one had been taken off of the shelves, but shrugged and sent it to them anyway. I don’t know if they did anything with it. Likely not. The two books were my two worst sellers of all time – the two books combined sold fewer copies than my previous underachiever, The Essence of Evil.
It’s not a cry in my beer kind of story, and I’m not looking for sympathy. It happens a lot to authors. Musicians, too. Ask Stan Ridgway why he didn’t stay with Geffen Records. The bright side is that, because of the movie deal that went nowhere, the Pembroke Hall novels were also my biggest moneymakers, making more for me than what I made on the other five novels combined.
However, editors don’t look at what books make for authors. If a new Faust SF novel lands on an editor’s desk, he’s going to look at what previous titles did for Bantam and Del Rey. And that sales record sticks to authors like a bad credit rating. Thus, that one SF novel I really want to finish will be a hard sell if and when it gets to that point.
Another factor is that SF just ain’t what it used to be. It’s been beaten back into a corner by Fantasy, and what’s left of the genre has been co-opted by franchises, the largest offenders being the Star Trek/Star Wars axis.
There are still SF authors publishing SF novels, but try to find them. Just try. Without going to a specialty store. If you go into a drugstore or grocery store and find any speculative fiction at all, you’ll find a couple of classic novels by old masters (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke), a couple of StarWarsTrek novels, and the rest are fantasy. Go into a Waldenbooks or other mall store, and you’ll get the same mix, only more of them. If you’re lucky you might find an old William Gibson (whose current works are now considered mainstream) or, if the planets are aligned just right, a Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s even getting tougher to find new and proper SF at Borders. But maybe that’s because the titles sell out because it’s the only place where they can be found.
Why has all of this occurred? A couple of reasons. As far as the dominance of franchises goes, it’s because, heaven help us all, they sell. Slap “Wars” or “Trek” on the cover of a book and you’re guaranteed that your carefully calculated print run will more or less fly out the door. Publishers, not being stupid, put before the public what sells, and it’s not necessarily what is good for them.
(This brings to mind the notion of another unwanted government agency coming up with an ever-changing, increasingly incomprehensible chart of Daily Intellectual Nutrition Requirements – “Sorry, you’ve had enough Piers Anthony – time for some Phillip K. Dick!”)
The rise of fantasy is something else altogether. Around the time the Lord of the Rings film frenzy was in full swing, one of the Mainstream Media newsmags ran a sidebar article on why SF had been supplanted by Fantasy as the escapist literature of choice. Their theory – and to be honest, I can’t disagree with their thinking – is that science has let us down.
I love to look at magazines like Popular Science from the ’50’s and’60’s. You get visions of personal flying automobiles, undersea highways – that whole sense of optimism captured by Donald Fagen in his song I.G.Y.: On that train all graphite and glitter / Undersea by rail / Ninety minutes from New York to Paris / Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K.
Well, we might have the equivalent of Dick Tracy’s two way wrist radio now, but I still don’t have my own personal Gyrocopter. The underseaways and zeppelin routes never materialized. We did get longer life spans, but the antibiotics that did it for us are now creating superbugs that eat them (and us) for lunch. We used to go around in a peaceful oblivion, not knowing that a well-placed asteroid could End It All for us – now we’re setting up telescopes and satellite networks to warn us of things that we won’t have a chance to save ourselves from. We avoided the nuclear war bullet, but the waste management is another thing. We’re close to all being wired, and what does it bring us? Ads for Teen Slut web sites and prescription drugs without a prescription.
Sheesh. Compared to that, facing down a Balrog in a deep, dank mine, armed with nothing but a little mithril and a sword that glows when orcs are around is a picnic. A picnic, I tell you!
If SF is no longer the escapist literature it once was, it’s because science, in all actuality, is in the business of raising more questions than it answers. And, as I have alluded to before when writing about how to craft the genre, one thing you have to look out for is that An Answer science gives us always has some kind of unforeseen side effect. Nuclear power, si! Nuclear waste, nuclear weapons, hmmm…
There’s one last factor I suppose I should mention. I started out wanting to write mainstream thrillers to begin with. My big influence at the time was Michael Crichton, who had just blown me (and everyone else) away with The Andromeda Strain. Those were the kind of books I wanted to write. Adventures with cutting edge science. That I ended up in SF can, as well-chronicled elsewhere in these pages, be attributed to the fact that I got mononucleosis at an inopportune time in my college career and ended up writing what would become Desperate Measures just to prove a point.
So that’s where SF is, and where I’m not, and why. It makes me a little wistful thinking about it – it’s like leaving your small hometown and coming back to find they’ve built an Applebees. I will always like and respect the genre, but I don’t know that it’s home anymore.
Not to worry. My love of science is going with me. There are some science moments in and that’s the end of the news…, albeit in a more Crichtonesque vein. If you look at it that way, then perhaps I’m not so much leaving home as coming home.
Listening: Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless” (via iPod Shuffle)
In an off moment I decided to do a little experimentation and figured out how to surf Google Russia using (what else?) Russian. I went to one of the Russian web sites that mentions my books, copied my name to the clipboard, and since I installed Cyrillic on my Mac as a system font, it was able to paste the right characters into the search pane at Google.ru.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, or even if I was expecting anything at all. I’m a realist at heart, and I frequently recall Wesley’s admonition from The Princess Bride: “Get used to disappointment.”
So I clicked the Russian equivalent of Search and got a whole bunch of hits. Clicked on the first one, expecting a book store listing.
Well, this is interesting, I thought. So I tried another one. Another review. And another. Before long, I’d collected half a dozen reviews for one or the other Pembroke Hall books, all from news or literature web sites. This was, I should note, more than I saw ten years ago when the books were coming out in my native tongue (and while I’m at it, let me add to that – I’ve also gotten more response from Russian readers about these books than from English-speaking readers).
Not all of the reviews were positive – at least from what I could tell given the torturous translations that Babelfish and/or Paralink put them through (the former seemed to be the most understandable, but crashed more – the latter was more reliable, but missed more words).
Here’s some of what I found, with highlights:
“And No Happy Ending!” Critic Anna Andersen delights in Boddekker’s Demons, and in the comments section a fake Joe Clifford Faust writes in and offers to write a new novel for her. So I put in a comment saying that I was much nicer than the impostor made me out to be. This one came out the clearest in all of the translations, which speaks volumes for Anna’s writing ability.
“Their urine, reptiles!” The Bookshop Window, which previously gave a nice nod to Ferman, tackles Boddekker, saying it was as if the two books were part of the same story (!). The strange headline (“Their urine, reptiles!”) is repeated at the end of the review along with some words that didn’t make the trip into English. I suspect it was a Russian idiomatic version of one of the parodistic catch phrases in the novel.
“The given novel is a fertile field” is a reader’s review that concludes that Ferman is a “desirable read” with something for everyone.
“one calorie for the mind” This was the most difficult to understand of all the articles, again, probably because of the original source. It isn’t a positive review, but it didn’t seem to be blisteringly negative, either. I don’t think. I’m not sure.
“Who is Guilty?” This is a scholarly article about two recently published books with similar themes: Ferman and a British novel called Popcorn by Ben Elton. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Mr. Elton is a writer best known (in my frame of reference, anyway), for his work with Rowan Atkinson on Mr. Bean and the Blackadder series. Which thrills me to death.
What’s fascinating about this is that every review digs down into the book. The English language reviews I got talked about superficial things in the books, but these dig down into themes and influences and meanings. Since the Devils live in a demolished church building, they are in essence fallen angels. People flock to buy the products they advertise, but the irony is that they’re not an authentic street gang, not really – only Ferman could be considered a true street kid. As an author I applied the “pamphlets of my religion” to ad culture… the list goes on.
This whole thing thrilled my daughter. She’s fresh into literary novel awareness after being forced to endure Beloved by Toni Morrison, so she was grilling me about some of this last night: “Did you put that meaning into the book?” “No” “See! It’s a literary novel!” She couldn’t wait to get to school this morning so she could tell her English teacher that her Father was a literary figure in Russia (and she’s ready to pack her bags and go over).
My wife and I discussed this a bit last night. Part of it might be the whole “prophet without honor” thing, wherein I had to find an audience outside of my native tongue to be appreciated. That it happened in Russia is delicious. They’re new to the whole concept of capitalism, and from what we’ve gathered from talking to some natives we know, they admittedly have a streak in them that celebrates, or perhaps is simply fascinated by, suffering (for example, in Moscow On The Hudson, Robin Williams gives a brilliant little speech about how they embrace their misery and keep it as their own).
Whatever the reason, I’m still trying to keep this all in proper perspective. It’s nice to have the books appreciated and what I was understood – it’s like finally, someone “gets it.” Yeah, I know that no doubt there are people here who “got it.” But these folks are writing about it.
My wife said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Russians ended up being the ones who make the books into a movie?”
Funny, yes. Ironic, yes. And fitting somehow, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it has something to do with the reptile urine.
And to Anna Andersen, who responded to my impostor-debunking comment, I say: I love you as a cat sour cream, too.
Listening: Ben Folds Five, “Don’t Change Your Plans” (via iTunes shuffle play)