Saturday, August 24, 2013

Getting Published After Years of Writing Character Driven Fiction

You heard the story of the rock band that was discovered after touring the Midwest for six months.

"Man, we paid our dues," said the lead singer, complaining about the bad food and long nights.

Well try 25 years of perfecting your chops, man.

I finally managed to get a publisher interested in my work. When I was 25 I dropped out of film school after getting my funding for a short film axed in mid edit. I turned to my IBM word processor, (that's quaint, isn't it?) comforting myself with the notion that nobody could take that away from me, and quickly sent off my Raymond Carver inspired short story to an editor at Esquire magazine in the mail. I never saw it again. That black hole of obscurity was an experience that would be repeated over a 25 year period and three continents, as I made my way as a journalist, activist, and teacher, never losing my faith in the power of words to evoke the nugget of truth, the Flannery O'Connor epiphany, the New Yorker mood of revealed truth about the human condition through concise and intuitive writing.

This week I signed a contract with a small publisher, Harvard Square Editions, to bring out SAVIOR, a dystopian thriller, as an ebook. SAVIOR takes place in an alternative present time, with a stagnant America beset by a powerful and evil international narcotics trading organization intent on acquiring a lethal weapon of massive, destructive, civilization-ending capability. I had a lot of fun writing it, and it shows. My move away from a purely literary, introspective, character driven writing process is no accident. As a self-publisher, I have discovered first hand that the audience for today's works of fiction is not driven by the dictates of critics or mainstream publishers steeped in the teachings of our educational establishments. Instead, the proliferation of ebooks and new reading technologies like the Amazon Kindle are growing a mass reading audience that prefers, in the words of W.H. Auden, "entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and then replaced with a new dish." I won't pretend to pontificate on the merits of genre fiction as opposed to mainstream, "literary" fiction. I just finished reading Michael Chabon's excellent collection of essays on this subject, Maps and Legends, and I will quote from it here to give a feeling for where I think we are going:

"All literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction...Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving - amateurs - we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers, should we be lucky enough to find any, some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels. "

So I am plotting out a sequel, a Book Two of the Savior trilogy, and this will indeed take place in a future of the imagination. As the architect of this future world, I am delighted and can't wait to put it together and watch it blow apart. Writing was never this much fun.

Let's take it a step further, let's crowd source the vision. What are your favorite trends and technologies that you think will shape the world out to the year 2075? Send in your suggestions. Here's a partial list of my own.

1. Climate change driving an autocratic, benign world government behind the ethic of sustainability and geo-engineering.
2. Mood enhancing drugs individualized to DNA allowing massive public narcotization.
3. Virtual reality gaming as a relief valve and the major preoccupation of the potentially rebellious young
4. Public transport based on Elon Musk tubes connecting major hubs
5. Sanctioned, off the grid communes based on monastic, Christian and Buddhist denial of desires.
6. Personal communication devices with variable ability to detect movement inside buildings, moods, and thoughts, depending on a person's rank.

That'll give you a taste of what's coming. I'd share the plot points with you, but I'm still old-fashioned enough to believe that it's a writer's job to be on the job in the confines of his own head, for the most part.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Kaminski on Retreat

Author note: This is a story I wrote a few years ago, trying to imagine what it would be like to be a certain kind of writer, with ambitions but not totally out of touch with reality. The kind of person who could get swallowed up by the changes sweeping the publishing world, which at the time seemed minor and surmountable. Now I'm not so sure what I think of Kaminski. What do you think?

Kaminski on Retreat

                    The little birds, finches of some sort, came the closest, hopping along the sea wall to examine the pieces of bread Kaminski had set out. The gulls were prouder, not as efficient at close work, preferring to make watchful circles, dip down and catch the bread in the air. At the end of the promenade a troop of schoolchildren marched along the path through the palms, some running ahead and shattering the stillness with their cries and hand-clapping games.
Kaminski retreated under the veranda with his beer, leaving the rest of the chicken sandwich on the stonewall for the little birds.  From under the veranda the deep blue of the ocean was comfortingly   more distant, less immediately impinging on Kaminski’s feeble reserves of morale. The rest of the bar was empty, it being the off-season in the island resort of St. Barnabas.  He drank the rest of the beer from the glass with the air of a man determined to cadge any use from bitterness, put the glass down and pushed the chair back in order to rise. He hated the sound the metal legs made scraping across the tiles and determined to remember never to push the chair back again while still weighting it down with his corpulent frame. The voices in the kitchen ceased, and Kaminski could feel the pairs of eyes on him, watching his every move for cues as to the service he required.  It was disconcerting to be the hidden focus of    attention when all he wanted was to slide away into tropical anomie.  It was a little morbid, a little precious to have such preoccupations he knew, watching him with the habits of observation of a lifetime trained on a favorite subject.
His wife would have liked it here. The remnants of British rule would have amused her, the well-groomed hotel staff with the air of resentment bubbling away under the surface of their black faces, just like parts of England.
"Mesta Boodle J. Kaminski. Telephone for Mistah Bodley J. Kaminski."
Kaminski was purposefully stroking his beard, wandering in the lobby reading the historic maps and charts of the Antilles above the furniture, when he was thus paged. On the first morning in the hotel he had paused outside the doors by the oversized Grecian urns full of flowers where he’d overheard   the Northern English hotel manager exhorting the desk clerk, "For God’s sake, don’t leave out the J, man. He's a best-selling author."
And the poor man had taken the admonishment to heart ever since.
"I'll take it in my room," said Kaminski.
"Yes, suh, Mistah J," said the desk clerk.
It would be Gerald Cate, his agent, the only other person who knew where he was. He had purposely left the Blackberry in New York, but found him in the elevator looking forward to Gerald’s impertinent, sneaking requests, whatever they might be. In the room, he dallied by the balcony, overlooking fishermen in the bay pulling up their long dugouts on the sandy beach.
"Hello, yes?" said Kaminski, picking up the phone. He could hear Gerald’s voice crackling over the long-distance line, speaking to someone else.
"Yes?"  Gerald was unaware he was on the line. Just like him to be so distracted.
"Bodley?  Oh, hello. I didn't know you were on. How are you, Bodley?"
"I’m fine,” said Kaminski, hoping Gerald would hear the utter indifference in his voice.
"Bodley, I’ve got something here we think should interest you."
"Oh, no."
"Well, I know you'd like to see the sales figures improve, Bodley.  I'm sorry about your wife, by the way. I just heard the other day. I had no idea. We're all very sorry."
"Yeah, well."
"Bodley, The Chakra Report is languishing, just languishing. It would be a shame to let it just drop. After all the work you put in, we think it deserves a good shot. We've got to appeal to the broadest possible audience, Bodley."
"What is it, for God's sake?"
"Okay, okay. I'm just glancing through the brochure.  Bear with me."
They were getting sillier and sillier ideas. He didn’t know who was worse, Gerald or Lucretia Margarethe over at Illicit Press. Next they would have him dressing up in a Bozo suit and doing belly flops at conventions.  As if there was something sacred about the sales figures.  Kaminski didn’t like to think his books were token offerings to destiny designed to improve his standing in the here-after, so of course he was prepared to do what was required, just that it was so humiliating sometimes to have to actually perform.
"Okay.  Ann Stevens sent me this and asked if you might be interested in doing a book signing.  It’s a convention in Minneapolis, New Age sort of thing. They'd have some sort of stall."
Kaminski groaned into the mouthpiece.
"Gerald, I mean, how could you."
"Bodley, you don't have to go if you don't want to. It just happens that Minneapolis is a good place for your sort of books. The convention is the Third Annual North American Cosmobiological Conference.  Apparently they'll all be there, Uri Geller, Madame Bovary, you name it. Just a joke. Lighten up, Bodley."  
"Give me a few days, Gerald."
"Of course."
Kaminski lay on the bed, face towards the ceiling, listening to the chatter of the hotel maids as they worked their way down the hall with towels and sheets. He had not been this lonely in fourteen years. Sandra, if there was a heaven as conceived by the Episcopal church, with trim, green lawns and squash courts, would be engaged in joining the most interesting organizations, reforming the trickier, more Oriental customs that led to poor posture among the angels. She would have recommended activity, sea breezes, long walks, up on the balls of your toes, Bodley.
They’d hiked in Nepal the year before, and she'd been in fine health. It was the poor timing of her death that shook Kaminski. They had no children and had looked forward so much to spending the next few years traveling the world together now that his writing was getting him somewhere. Kaminski found he no longer wanted to keep up with interests they'd shared in common. He'd stopped doing the TM he'd been practicing for years. His stomach grumbled, and he regretted having left the rest of his chicken sandwich downstairs for the birds. He rose and checked his appearance in the bathroom. The sallow skin and bags under the eyes aroused deep-seated feelings of    regret. Maybe the lights were to blame. He should at least try to get some sun, he thought. He started out again for the beach, this time determined to actually set foot on the sand.  Kaminski the conqueror.  Away, timidity. In with the new Kaminski, the   positive thinking man for all seasons. Sandra would not have minded if he kept his eyes open for eligible female companionship. It was just the thing to vanquish the blues.
The sunglasses went on in the lobby and Kaminski perused the bulletin board, smiling ironically at the thought of limbo dancing entertainment during the night’s buffet provided by the Carries Carnival Society Dancers. But first he would take the cruise into Camries in the afternoon aboard the Jolly Roger. A family of what looked like Canadians was checking in at the desk. The husband consulted his diving watch and adjusted one of the bands. Perhaps he was decompressing, thought Kaminski   cruelly.  The wife was a thin, little woman with a startled expression, and her adolescent daughter   happily   exchanged appraising glances with the male hotel staff loitering between duties.
The beach was mostly empty of people except for the gathering of Rastafarian vendors under the first palm trees. They had given up approaching Kaminski. He was not interested in buying crafts or marijuana. They no longer paid any attention to him, laughing and gossiping among themselves in low, rasping voices as he took off his loafers and trudged across the sand to the plastic recliners set under frond-thatched shelters.  Kaminski sat under the palm fronds and stared out at the wavelets hitting on the shore, heaving deep sighs occasionally when his stomach grumbled.  He thought of Sandra in Nepal against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains and the apartment on Columbus Avenue she had loved. He was thinking of selling it and moving out of New York.  The city only depressed him now where before he’d taken pride in the rugged adaptability it required of its inhabitants. 
Restless, Kaminski decided to check the time the cruise was sailing to Camries to make sure he would not miss the boat.  He walked back to the hotel across the beach. The Canadian family was out on the veranda with some soft drinks, looking out at the    ocean with beatific looks on their faces.  The weather was  beautiful, every day a perfection of blazing sun and blue sky. But Kaminski had discovered he became nauseous if exposed to the sun for too long.
He checked the bulletin board. There was just enough time to go back to the room for a fresh shirt. He debated whether or not to bring a book along. He was rereading The Grapes Of Wrath, but decided against it when recalling the episode on the flight down.    The man next to him, a lawyer involved in some industrial dispute, had told a story about Steinbeck's widow in Japan asking at a bookstore for one of her husband’s books.  The man had thought it hilarious that the Japanese had called the book The Angry Raisins. It was pretty funny, but the trouble was he found the good-natured Joad family also made him nauseous.  Kaminski was heartsick with loss.  The goodness of common people was something he no longer put any faith in.  He kept hoping Tom Joad would reveal an incestuous longing for Rosasharon, which was no way to reread Steinbeck.
The jetty which served the village of Chastened was a short walk and around a minor headland down the beach. Village girls swam near the jetty with all their clothes on. In a clearing, fishermen repaired nets draped over their dugouts. The Jolly Roger was moored off the end of the jetty, rising up and down in the swells. A crowd of people stood by the gangplank.  Kaminski inquired whether he could go straight on.
"Jus go on her, mon," said someone amid a flurry of competing responses.
Kaminski proceeded up the gangplank unsteadily. He stopped once on deck, adjusting to the sensation of being water-borne, and then continued sensibly clutching the handrail.  He stood against the handrail in the stern as the boat began to fill with  people.  There was much jostling and socializing.  Many people seemed drunk. Kaminski began to wish he'd stayed on shore. He was the only white person on the boat and felt he stood out like a sore thumb. The sight of a little girl heaving over-board while her mother held her, afterwards wiping the debris from the front of her dress, put Kaminski on the verge of losing his lunch himself. 
The coastline unfolded, the rock face of ocean-battered land, green forest cover inland of the sugar cane plantations. The fishermen in the dugouts waved as the Jolly Roger passed, rocking their small craft in its wake. A man in a dashiki    clutching a bottle of rum yelled at someone he knew in a boat. Kaminski envied his easy smile. He turned and looked past Kaminski as if he were not there, chuckling. Kaminski smiled and looked out at the boat as if he shared in the knowledge of the fisherman’s picaresque ways.
The boat made its way into the harbor of Camries, a town with white-walled houses and bougainvillea in bursts of violet and pale yellow on its hillsides. A banana boat was moored at the dockside, and thin, disfigured men walked idly back and forth in    the shadow of its hull. Kaminski prepared to disembark along with the other passengers. Two young black women in tight pants moved ahead of him down the gangplank. Kaminski thought to stop them, invite them somewhere for a drink and a chat, but of course he did not.  Instead he wandered the dockside, amid the coarse-featured    countrywomen sitting in front of their taros, yams, melons and fruits, fishmongers and the daily catch of parrotfish, long blue kingfish and pink squid.
Kaminski moved through it all unperturbed, solemn, unmoved and oddly unscathed.  He would have bought something just for the human contact, but Sandra's illness had been expensive and The Chakra Report was not selling well and he did not feel like sailing back clutching a sack-full of breadfruit. He walked into a bar and sat on a stool drinking a beer, hoping in this way to find the inspiration in the flow, the improvised communion of life. But Sandra's absence had stung his heart.  He could feel his body failing in its functions, and he feared his gas would offend the two other men in the bar.  In the end, he nursed three or four beers until it was time for the Jolly Roger to make the return voyage. Kaminski motioned that he wanted to pay. The bartender paused in his work and moved down the bar to take his money. The two men in the corner of the bar continued to mumble in a thick-tongued drunken patois.  Kaminski said   goodbye.  The bartender looked up, as if shocked to hear a human voice addressing him.
The boat was preparing to leave when Kaminski walked up the jetty. There were more people on board now, but the two girls in tight pants were nowhere to be seen. He stood along the rail again.  The salt spray stung his eyes. People kept bumping into  him. The journey seemed twice as long as before. Kaminski finally gave up trying to move out of people’s ways, scowling at everyone, whereupon he felt the others accepted him as some sort of mildly amusing crank.
Back at the hotel, the desk clerk was busy trying to please the Canadians, all three of them, who had a problem with their lodgings. Kaminski felt better. He had come to St. Barnabas to get away from life but found instead he was in a place with complaining Canadians and feeling oddly the better for it.
After a shower, he sat out on the balcony reading The Grapes of Wrath. He flicked to the end, to the scene where Rosasharon breastfeeds the starving, old man. Kaminski had tried writing a book, his first attempt at a novel, called The Country of  Desire, about a family of Puerto Rican immigrants in Newark, New Jersey.  He had researched it for three years and written it in two, but that was before he'd met Sandra.
A few Rastafarians were down in the sand practicing their yoga. The sun was sinking and the hotel staff was preparing the buffet out on the veranda. The little birds, finches of some sort, hopped along the sea wall, looking for scraps of food.   Kaminski found he was hungry. Hungry and lonely.  Minneapolis suddenly  made sense. He checked the time.  Gerald usually worked late. Kaminski went inside, sat on  the bed and picked up the telephone.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Where's the Rage on Main Street?

One of the unforeseen consequences of global news access that we get with the Internet is American liberal envy of Third World street protests. As we watch Brazilians massing against government corruption and excess, and the power of popular outrage toppling authoritarian regimes like dominos in the Middle East, we can't help but wonder - where's the rage here at home on the American Main Street? The lies of the Bush years leading to at least one if not two failed wars of expeditionary adventurism, the meltdown of the casino economy of a deregulated Wall Street, and most recently, the revelations by Edward Snowden of a growing Big Brother-like apparatus of domestic surveillance, none of this has yet to spark any significant mass unrest. The Occupy Wall Street movement was a brief high point of spontaneous revolutionary zeal that quickly morphed into homelessness and ennui. While distrust of the government, especially among the young, is a bipartisan affectation, the move from paranoia to semi-organized action seems to be beyond us. While working as a reporter in my younger days covering anti-government riots in Latin America, I used to admire the bravado of the masked students throwing rocks and braving bullets, but at the same time knew that their recklessness was basically aimless and pointless, and as much a machismo rite of passage as political expression, although there were plenty of females also running those gauntlets. But what I've seen since then is that an evolution of governance seems to start with the political passion of a population that shows a willingness to storm the barricades to get it done. Governments across Latin America in the last years of the twentieth century shed sclerotic and corrupt political parties and adopted new and progressive leadership. You can argue about whether that leadership has taken Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, etc. to good or bad places respectively, but things were bad enough to move the political needle. And that needle would never have moved if dissatisfaction had not been expressed in the form of protests and other political action. The argument has always gone that we in the USA have an inherently stable and superior political system that allows for popular expression at the ballot box, but here we have Obama in his second term unable to implement any of the changes he was elected to pursue, whether it be in health care, the shuttering of Guantanamo, investment in infrastructure, the positioning of sustainable energy in a green economy, the list goes on. And what's most impressive if not surprising, is the passivity of the American people as if paralyzed by the changes sweeping over us. Here in the dog days of August it is hard to imagine anything changing, but something has to give and we can see some glimmers of life on the horizon. Here's my choice for most likely inheritors of the spirit of rebellion we haven't seen in this country since the summer of '68, the student led campus movements for selling off university holdings in the large oil companies that are blocking the fight against carbon pollution. Climate change activists feel the urgency particularly acutely, given that we've known about the problem of rising man-made CO2 emissions in the atmosphere for some fifty years and have yet to summon the political will to meet it.

Monday, August 5, 2013

August is a Dog Park

Point totals:

Family from Maine -- 10
New Puppy -- 10
Fake pirate accent -- 0

Once you get a dog, the whole world becomes a dog park. You ever notice that? It's similar to the way when I was building a house and I was doing the eaves, I'd notice the eaves on every house I drove past, something I'd never taken much notice of before. Only now, with a dog, you get the notice of all the other people with dogs everywhere you go, people who would never have paid more than a blip's worth of attention to you. There's a fraternity of people with similar interests to yours who become your tribe. We took the dog to the amusement park last weekend and if we could have taken money for every man, woman and child who came up and wanted to pet him we could have done something interesting with the cash. Instead we were left with the warm and fuzzy impression that the world has lots of wonderful people in it. It also made a very handy excuse not to ride on the SuperTwister roller coaster with my daughters because someone had to stay behind and take care of the dog. You know you've reached middle age when some of the more outlandish rides make you groan so loud the five year olds look at you like you're beyond belief. But a dog makes everything all right because they are all about love, and that's what life should be about. Who cares if the pimply teenager getting paid to be the voice of the mad pirate on the Haunted Ships of the Caribbean ride has the worst imitation pirate accent ever. "Have yee a good day. Raise yee hands above yee heads and walk yee plank." Because after the pirate ship a whole family from Maine will help you figure out how to get the puppy to drink from a spare plastic cup at the water fountain and three little Puerto Rican girls all called Mami will squeal in delight when the dog rolls in the puddle.
If only life was always as simple as a day in the park in August with a new dog.