Want a signed book?

MYsteriousPressCom_mediumI’ve just put two boxes in the mail, full of signed copies of World of Trouble and The Last Policeman, bound for New York City’s famed Mysterious Bookshop. So if you’re in New York and wanting a signed copy of one of my books, head down to Warren Street and get one. (I bet if you call over there they’ll even reserve one for you.)

While I’m at it, here are the other stores that (probably) still have signed Ben Winters stuff on hand, for in-store or mail order purchase

Me being grilled at Poisoned Pen in Arizona.

Me being grilled at Poisoned Pen in Arizona. See if you can zoom in and find the stain on my shirt.

* Mystery One Bookstore, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

* Maclean and Eakin, Petoskey, Michigan (Ask those guys, when you call, about their remarkably affordable shipping rates).

* Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, California.

* The Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, Arizona. (If you’re there, eat at the taco place across the street. I did, and got guacamole on my shirt right before my appearance at the store—because I’m a professional.)

* Murder by the Book, Houston, Texas.

AND OF COURSE

* IndyReads Books, in my adopted hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana.  The great thing about IndyReads, of course, is that every purchase goes to support the IndyReads literacy charity, so you can catch up on my work AND help people learn to read.

me and Katz

Me and Richard Katz at his store, Mystery One.

I think it’s worth noting— in the midst of our current controversy about the future of publishing, and in particular about book retailing—what the specific value is of privately owned, community-based local bookstores. Like, for example, they will have special events where they invite hustling authors to come do readings and meet fans and earn new ones; and like how, for example,  they will then have signed editions of books available.

So here’s an opportunity to take advantage of that value: buy one of my books—or one of anyone’s books—from one of the stores listed above.

 

Home again, home again

At some point I will post some sort of complete report on my World of Trouble book tour, which I kept forgetting to officially call the Trouble Man World Tour, and now it’s too late.

For now I’ll just say I met a lot of terrific people, including a lot of Detective Henry Palace fans, plus a lot of smart and enthusiastic booksellers (and librarians!), a healthy reminder of how important it is to have an active (and interactive) “book culture,” in which real humans recommend books to each other, drink wine together and talk about the books they loved, go see authors and ask them questions, and all of that great stuff.

I also had dinner with some librarians at a Ukrainian restaurant in Cleveland, and I just wanted to write that because originality is important to me, and I doubt anyone has ever written those words in that order before.

 

“All that outward friendliness could hide any number of secrets. ” Lori Rader-Day on the murderous Midwest

For most of my life I have lived in the eastern part of the country—most recently Boston, and before that Brooklyn, and before that Philly, and I was born in D.C. and grew up in Maryland. I did go to school in St. Louis, though, and I currently live in Indianapolis, which, like many thriving, cosmopolitan cities in the Midwest, is nevertheless a half hour drive in all directions from eerie fields of corn and dark midnight skies.

When people think of the Midwest they think of county fairs and kindness, not murder and mayhem, but in this installment of my Reverse Blog Tour, the very clever Chicagoan Lori Rader-Day (author of the brand new The Black Hour and the Vice President of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America) explains why they better think again.  

After enjoying her piece, you’ll want to go catch Lori TONIGHT (Friday, July 25) in Indianapolis, at the incomparable IndyReads Books.

***

Rader Day_Lori 2

Under the sweet Midwestern smile, Lori is plotting dark plots.

Do mystery novels make you think of Miss Marple, of Hercule Poirot, of nosy ladies in pearls and mustached men pulling all the suspects into the drawing room of an English manor to hash out a killer’s identity? Or maybe your heart belongs to the seedy underbelly of Chandler’s lonely Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett’s boozy New York?

But have you considered the darkness between the rows of a cornfield? Or a barren North Woods lake? If you’ve never been the lone figure walking hunched against the wind coming off a frozen Lake Michigan, you may not know that the Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread. Check out the bookshelves. The Midwest’s dim corners make for sinister reading: William Kent Krueger’s Boundary Waters, Minnesota. Steve Hamilton’s Upper Peninsula Michigan. Clare O’Donohue’s urban Chicago TV filming locations, down Lake Shore Drive from Sara Paretsky’s South Side stomping grounds. Don’t forget Michael Koryta’s Indiana landmarks. Gone Girl? Heard of it? Gillian Flynn’s small-town Missouri was as creepy as anything the New York Times bestseller list has seen in a while.

What makes the Midwest so mysterious? It’s not necessarily that Midwestern people are more criminal or that terrible things happen here more than other places. I think it’s only the Midwest’s varied landscapes contains so much potential for darkness. Serious potential. Acres and acres of potential. Sure, Chicago gives off whiffs of New York-style organized crime. St. Louis has a few bodies buried. Cleveland? Have you not heard what horrors Cleveland is capable of?

barn

This stock photo of a barn is probably not a meth lab. PROBABLY.

But in between these middle cities lies all that wide-open space, all those tidy small towns where everyone knows everyone else—and their business, you betcha. Look around: 4-H fair prizes, tractor-shaped mailboxes, flags flying from the porch. And smiles. Too good to be true, don’t you think? All that outward friendliness could belie any sort of emotion, any number of secrets. Those barns make excellent meth labs.

By all means, mystery writers, let middle America hand you a favor. A small town, population 380 or 1,500, creates a tidy closed community reminiscent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. And if you want tension and heightened circumstances? In Chicago, there were 40 murders last weekend. In a small town, a murder changes everything, and an unsolved murder means forging on with life knowing that one of the people you know—and you know them all—did the unthinkable. You might go to church with the killer. You certainly went to high school with him. Your children will continue to go to school with the murderer’s children.

I just gave you, like, five story ideas.

In short, mysteries are about seeking the truth when it’s being hidden. Where’s a better place to hide the truth but in all that empty space among all those reticent people?

As a writer, you’ll find the empty space is also a fine place to get your work done. The pace of life is just a little looser, a little more laid back. A lot fewer cocktail parties. A lot fewer bookstores. Spotty internet service.

It’s quiet out in the middle of nowhere. Have you ever heard the sound a breeze makes rustling the dried autumn husks of a cornfield?

 

Sometimes maybe a little too quiet.

Black Hour cover web***

Thank you, Lori! And thank you also for writing The Black Hour, which Publisher’s Weekly called “an exceptional debut…an irresistible combination of menace, betrayal, and self-discovery.”

While you’re at your favorite bookstore, pick up World of Troubletoo.

“Finding Them Early is NOT Enough” — Professor Joel Marks on Asteroid Detection

I’ve gotten a lot of nice emails from fans of the Last Policeman books, but most of them are not from people who have spent years studying the fascinating (and terrifying) real science of asteroids. I couldn’t resist asking Professor Joel Marks to contribute to my Reverse Blog Tour

Here’s his bio: 

“Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven, a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University, and an amateur astronomer. His Website is www.docsoc.com. He wishes to express his indebtedness to the GaiaShield Website athttp://gaiashield.com/two.htmlHe also notes that this is the twentieth anniversary of his having seen with his own eyeballs Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 striking the planet Jupiter.”

And now here’s the professor: 

***

UNH Faculty and Staff Portraits April 11, 2012Aside from being a page-turning thriller of detective and science fiction, Ben Winters’Last Policeman trilogy is a case study of a very real threat. What is that threat? It may seem obvious that I am referring to Armageddon by asteroid. But that is not quite what I have in mind. I think Winters’ tale points us to a crucial gap in humanity’s current preparations for planetary defense. For despite extraordinary gains in recent decades in our knowledge of what space rocks could do to us and of their near-Earth population, we are wedded to a strategy that guarantees failure sooner or later.

The strategy I am talking about is usually attributed to Donald Yeomans, NASA/JPL, to wit: “There are only three ways to increase our chances against an asteroid aimed at Earth: ‘Find it early; find it early; find it early’.”  The reasoning behind this seems straightforward enough, although it contains several components. One (alluded to in Winters’ books) is that just blowing up an incoming rock of sufficient size to do us serious damage is not likely to help matters; in place of one monster rock we might just end up with several humongous rocks, with total worldwide damage the same. Another part of the argument is that we would need to know the specifics of an incoming object – composition, speed, direction, etc. – in order to be able to counter it. But most important: Whatever known technologies we could employ would require a great deal of advance warning to apply to the threat at hand: not just months but years, decades, possibly even a century. The widely touted gravity tractor, for instance, could only nudge a Mount Everest size object a teeny bit per year into an orbit that would eventually bypass the Earth.

Nevertheless there is optimism in the planetary defense community because the vast majority of large near-Earth objects have already been discovered and none of them is on course to collide with the Earth in the next century. But here is where the reasoning becomes flawed: doubly so. First is that one of those small-minority-not-yet-discovered rocks could turn out to have our name on it. The other is that a completely different kind of threat could suddenly appear: a comet targeting Earth. (The doomsday object in Winters’ trilogy is really an amalgam of these two, as the 75-year orbit of his asteroid is more suggestive of a short-period comet. However, my main concern is long-period comets.)

220px-(253)_mathilde

The asteroid 253 Mathilde.

Yeomans and everyone else working to protect us know this. But they have reasons for acting as if these were not pressing concerns. As regards asteroids: Projects like B612’s Sentinel space telescope may soon reveal all of the current crop of NEOs. (Please donate to the B612 Foundation to help make this a reality.)  As regards comets: They are much rarer than asteroids in the inner solar system where we reside, and their early detection would require a far more extensive undertaking than anything contemplated or budgetarily feasible in the current political climate.

The problem with this reasoning, however, is that the apparition of a comet is a completely random event, and so its statistical rarity does not tell that the next one won’t happen for millions of years. It could happen tomorrow. And once a comet does appear and enter the domain of near-Earth objects, it will be too late to do anything about it, because, unlike asteroids, which have fairly circular orbits around the Sun, comets coming from beyond Neptune have highly eccentric orbits that assure a much quicker closing time with our planet. In his 2013 book Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them before They Find Us, Yeomans tells us that a comet discovered at the typical distance of Jupiter’s orbit could reach us in nine months. And as if called to order, Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), discovered only in January of last year and originally thought to be dinosaur-killer size, will narrowly miss colliding with Mars this coming October (on the 19th, not the 3rd!!). Had it been heading towards Earth instead, we could be living The Last Policeman.

Siding_Spring-Mars_JPL

Comet image from the Jet Propulsion Lab.

What to do? I see two implications: (1) “Find it early” needs to be reconceived to encompass comets as well as asteroids, thereby requiring a greatly enhanced detectioninfrastructure; and (2) “Find it early” needs to be understood as a necessary but not a sufficient means of planetary defense, since we must also begin development and deployment of a deflection infrastructure prior to detecting (“finding”) the next killer comet.But all of that will take money, which in turn will require political will, which in turn will require an informed electorate, and, in general, a greater sense of urgency about the threat. And surely one way to instill that urgency will be to encourage the widest possible circulation of books like the Last Policeman trilogy, for they show that “Find it early” is worse than useless advice if there is nothing you can do about “it” once you’ve found it!

***

Thank you so much, Professor Marks! I wholeheartedly agree, as I do with any scientific hypothesis that leads to more people reading my books. I also heartily second the suggestion to donate to the B612 Foundation; Rusty Schweickart, a former astronaut and one of the founders of that organization, was hugely helpful to me in writing The Last Policeman.

 

“Don’t Kill Your Darlings, Save Them.” Eric Smith’s trilogy of things he learned from working on my trilogy

The official title of Eric Smith at my publishing house, Quirk Books, is Social Media and Marketing Manager, but I just think of him as Internet Man. He spends his days tweeting, posting, blogging about Quirk authors—except when he’s writing his own books, like the hilarious (and handy) Geek’s Guide to Dating, pubbed by his Quirk colleagues, and the upcoming YA novel Inked, which’ll come out from Bloomsbury in the spring. 

Since I spend a lot of time writing blog posts that Eric tells me to, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make him do one for me.

Take it away, Mr. Eric Smith Rocks:

***

Eric Smith

This picture makes it look like Eric lives inside a video game, which he sort of does.

Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the online marketing for The Last Policeman, getting the series up on blogs, producing the book trailer, arguing over cover redesigns in meetings, running giveawas across countless websites… and just having a blast throughout all of it.

When I’m not talking to the Internet about books, sometimes I like to write. Looking back at the marketing campaign for Ben’s fantastic trilogy (which I’m very sad to see coming to an end), I realized there are a few fun things writers can take away from marketing a trilogy.

So, here’s a list, in trilogy format, of what you can learn from about writing from marketing a book trilogy.

Part I: Never Stop Looking for a New Story to Tell: The tricky thing about working on a series, is that after the first book hits and you’ve roped in lots of people to talk about it… there are still potential reviewers out there who might have missed out or passed the first time around.

Going back and reintroducing a series can be tough, so you have to think of fun new angles and new stories to make it enticing. What’s an angle I missed that could be touched on this time around? Should I talk more about the genre or the character? What thrilled the people who read it earlier? What can I do to bring new people in?

As a writer, this is an obvious tip, right? That you should never stop looking for that new story to tell. If you constantly stick to the same thing, you can get stale. Keep things fresh.

Part II: Read More Books: Whenever I find myself working on a book in genre I’ve never really explored, I try my best to really delve into that genre.

When I worked on Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series, I started reading more YA. The book Taft 2012, which was a bit of political satire? Picked up some Christopher Buckley. The Last Policeman? It was time to check out more books about detectives, from novels by Duane Swierczynski to spending time with Bigby Wolf in Fables.

Why? It helps me out when I’m building those marketing campaigns. I can’t stand it when someone who is marketing something tries to infiltrate a community without at least knowing something about them.  If you’re familiar with the genre, then you can actually talk to people about these kinds of books. You can be genuine. You can be real.

Same applies to writing. There’s a quote someplace from Stephen King, where he says if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot. True story.

Part III: Don’t Kill Your Darlings, Save Them: When a book is coming together, a lot of things go into it on the publishing side. The production, the design, the book trailers, the promotional materials… man, that list just goes on and on. And sometimes, something along the way gets cut. Maybe it’s a proposed cover you absolutely adored or some clips from a book trailer you thought were amazing.

Instead of dragging these things into the recycle bin, I always open up a folder, and save them for a rainy day. Those little extras can tell a brand new story. The covers that didn’t make it. The original ARC compared to the finished copy. Photo stills from the book trailer. These are all fun glimpses behind the scenes that real fans get a kick out of.

There’s a popular term in writing, a bit about killing your darlings. Don’t do it. Keep those bits of writing, and give them life somewhere else. Maybe those first two chapters that got cut can become a prequel short story. Or that character you really liked that didn’t quite fit… maybe he or she can appear in a new novel. Keep them in a folder, writers.

***

All excellent pieces of advice—thanks, Eric! For some more advice, this time from me, click here. To see me on my summer tour, click here. To read the last few installments of my 2014 Reverse Blog Tour , stay tuned!

“Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate category-one nerd.” Gabe Roth’s Totalizing Theory of Nerd Protagonists.

World of Trouble is out but my Reverse Blog Tour rolls on!

Gabriel Roth‘s debut novel, The Unknowns, got an amazing review from Janet Maslin in the New York Times, which probably sold a lot more copies than the cover blurb from me. But man, did I love this book. I also love Gabe, who I met through friends back when we both lived in Brooklyn and were young(er) and cool(er) than we are now. Now we are both novelists and both nerds, who write about nerdy characters. Read Gabe’s totally charming essay on the subject of nerdy heroes, and then read Exhibit A, his even more charming (and deeply devastating) novel on the subject

***

Ben asked me to write about creating a compelling nerd protagonist, which is the kind of question I really like because it allows me to do some retrospective theorizing. I could never in a million years sit down and say, “Now it’s time to create a compelling nerd protagonist — what would be a good approach to take?” But having spent a few years writing a book with a nerd for a protagonist, doing my best to make him interesting and sympathetic to readers, knowing that he’d have to carry the entire book on his shoulders, I am well positioned to make up a Totalizing Theory of Nerd Protagonists.

Gabe Roth

Funny — Gabe Roth doesn’t LOOK nerdish.

So here’s where we’ll start: There are two kinds of nerd.

Already I hear your complaints and challenges, and I sympathize with them: there are a billion kinds of nerd! Each nerd is a unique snowflake! For example, I like superhero comics and Doctor Who but I have never really gotten into Star Wars – what a fascinating man I am! Regardless, for the purposes of this discussion, I will be drawing an anayltical line between two kinds of nerd, and here’s where I’m drawing it: there is the nerd who is less sensitive than other people, and there is the nerd who is more sensitive than other people.

(We’re using male-nerd examples here, in part because female nerds have been neglected by literature and popular culture; I feel bad about exacerbating the problem in this discussion; really, if you want to create a compelling nerd protagonist you should make her a girl or woman because there’s a lot more fresh powder to ski on there.)

220px-Mark_Zuckerberg_at_the_37th_G8_Summit_in_Deauville_018_v1

The smile of a man who needn’t give a fuck.

Category one (less sensitive than others) is Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom don’t seem to give a fuck what other people think of them. (The punk pretends not to give a fuck what other people think of him, but the effort he puts into his unconventional appearance suggests otherwise. If you really don’t give a fuck what other people think of you, you’re a category-one nerd.) Nerds of this type have traits associated with Asperger syndrome: highly specialized interests, difficulty reading interpersonal cues. The famous-software-billionaire examples sometimes obscure the fact that this is actually a very difficult way to go through life.

The category-two nerd (more sensitive than others) is less likely to become famous, so it’s easier to think of fictional examples. Peter Parker is a nerd of this stripe, and so are the characters Anthony Michael Hall played in John Hughes movies. This kind of nerd is more likely to have an anxiety disorder than an autism-spectrum disorder. In movies he might have a crush on the head cheerleader, because movies are like that, but in real life he probably has a crush on a normal-looking girl who is kind to him, although he’s still too shy to tell her how he feels.

Both types of nerd are isolated — that’s what makes them nerds — but they’re isolated for different reasons. The category-one nerd doesn’t talk to people because he doesn’t care what they have to say. The category-two nerd doesn’t talk to people because he’s afraid that they’ll laugh at him.

For a writer, the category-one nerd makes a difficult protagonist. The things he wants are things it’s hard to make the reader care about. His quests are intellectual quests, they take place in the rarefied air of high abstraction, and no one, not even the reader, can really follow him. (There’s not a lot of suspense to be generated from “Can he fix the bug in his code?”) Whereas the things he’s oblivious to are the stuff of fiction: relationships, feelings, communication between people.

Rathbone as Holmes

Basil Rathbone as Literature’s Perfect Nerd.

An exception to this rule is the classic mystery story: Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate category-one nerd, and the fun of Conan Doyle’s stories lies in seeing how much smarter he is than we are. But in contemporary fiction, paradoxically, this kind of hyperintelligent character is typically dumb about the thigns that are important in stories, so, paradoxically, he makes readers feel like they’re smarter than him. This kind of nerd functions as an unreliable-narrator type, the kind of protagonist who makes the reader want to shout at him, “No, you idiot!” (That’s how Steven Moffat brings the Holmes stories up-to-date in the current BBC series: by making his Sherlock both impossibly clever and, “where it counts,” impossibly obtuse.)

The category-two nerd, on the other hand, is an ideal protagonist. He’s an underdog, so he automatically attracts a measure of readerly sympathy. He’s hypersensitive, which means that small emotional moments have a lot of weight for him and hence for the narrative. His experiences — humiliation, anxiety, fear of rejection — are universal; the only readers who can’t relate to them are the kind of people who are so frightened of their own feelings of weakness that they defensively refuse to identify with them in others.

It’s noteworthy, in the sense of “it provides evidence for my thesis,” that Aaron Sorkin, in writing about Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, had to change him from a category-one nerd into a category-two nerd. The real Zuckerberg seems to be chiefly interested in building systems and accumulating resources, which are difficult motivations to ask an audience to sign on for. So Sorkin invented a “Mark Zuckerberg” who built the world’s biggest website because he wanted to prove his worth to the girl who dumped him and the Ivy League snobs who wouldn’t invite him to their parties. And it made a pretty good movie, although it doesn’t tell us much about Facebook.

Because the narrator of my novel, The Unknowns, is an Internet millionaire, some people have assumed he’s a nerd in the Gates/Zuckerberg mold. In fact, he’s solidly a type-two nerd: desperate to make a connection with others, terrified that they’ll reject him. I hope readers find him convincing despite the fact that I am a confident, self-sufficient, athletic type to whom such feelings are entirely alien.

***

See, I told you Gabe could write, and I seriously can’t recommend The Unknowns highly enough. And if you want more thoughts on geeks in literature, you could read my blog post on the subject, from “Geeky Library” last week.

Release Day

Having a new book come out is an odd, odd sensation, because you’ve finished your work on it such a long time ago, and now here come all the people to check it out. It’s like opening night for a play that closed six months ago.

Wait, you sort of want to scream—from the present moment, where you’re working on something new, writing some short stories, focusing on your blog—THAT thing? You’re going to read THAT thing? But I haven’t been working on for months now! What if I want to change something? Nothing in particular, mind you, just…it doesn’t feel ready.

But it never feels ready, and yet there is nothing you can do about it now. Here it slips, from your hands into other people’s hands, and there’s no turning back.

So, anyway, what I’m saying is, if like me you’ve been waiting for World of Trouble to come out, here it is, and I’m really grateful.

“Whether it’s making a baby or a musical or a novel, we almost never do anything alone. ” — Kait Kerrigan on collaboration.

I don’t know how large the Venn diagram circle overlapping section is between lovers of crime literature and lovers of musicals, but it includes at least two people—myself, and Stephen Sondheim, who I include only because among his lesser accomplishments is co-writing the screenplay a mystery film, The Last of Sheila, in 1973. 

The first real writing I did, actually, was as a lyricist and librettist, and I had some mild successes, notably with a “jukebox musical” called Breaking Up is Hard To Do; a bunch of kids musicals; and one very adult musical called Slut (yes, that’s what it was called) which had a decent run Off Broadway, what now feels like a million years ago.

Among the many very smart people I met working in the world of musicals was Kait Kerrigan, who with her partner Brian Lowdermilk have written a half dozen musicals, that have produced all over the country; in fact, we recently got back in touch because my five-year-old son was taken on a field trip here in Indianapolis to what I later figured out was a Kerrigan & Lowdermilk show. They also have a legion of fans online, who watch their charming YouTube videos, buy their sheet music, and generally love them. 

I’ve thought a lot about how doing theater is different than doing fiction, but—as has been my strategy throughout the Reverse Blog Tour—I wanted someone smarter than me to actually write about it. Thus, here’s Kait:

***

 

K-L_Headshots_00000

Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan are so talented they don’t need any color on their walls.

Writing a musical is not like writing a play and, from what I can gather, it’s not like writing a novel. The closest corollary I can find is writing for a television show. In both cases, most of the writing process isn’t actually writing. It’s talking in a room until at least two people can find a shared vision.The major difference is that in writing a musical, no one else has your job. In narrative television, everyone’s coming from roughly the same vantage point: they eventually have to turn the idea into dialogue. With a musical, when you walk out of the room, you go back to your tiny desk and you are once again solely responsible for the music or the lyrics or the book. No one else will punch up your dialogue. 

Writing a musical is about collaboration, execution, and rewriting. I teach a libretto-writing class and I tell my students that one of the main differences between writing a musical and most other kinds of writing is that they’re expected to do their thinking outside their brains. If you write a play, you work through the idea from the beginning to the end of your idea alone. You overwrite, you meander, trying to find the story. Then when you have a draft, you bring in collaborators. They react to the draft. 

In a musical, you bring collaborators – composers, lyricists, directors, producers – into the process at the very start and you synthesize to accommodate a composite of ideas. 

In the best of worlds, it can create something much bigger and more ambitious than any one brain could have made. It can kick sand over the fact that it was made at all. When it’s finished, it can appear to have always existed – West Side Story, A Chorus Line – where does the written work end and the production begin? They’re inextricable. 

In the worst of worlds, it looks like a game of telephone where everyone enunciated very poorly and no one listened very well. 

One of my favorite moments that I have ever experienced in a theater happened during tech. I hate tech. I’m useless during tech. By now, the director and all the designers are  executing. If we all did our jobs well, this is when the magic happens, if we didn’t, this is when it all falls apart. But no matter what, they need time to execute but because of the nature of the beast, I’m allowed to sit in a dark room and watch them execute. Tech is like writing a writer write. It’s boring and it’s often ugly before it’s beautiful. 

But one day, I walked into tech and I saw two people I’d never met. One was the assistant to the costume designer and the other was part of the scenic team. As usual, I was feeling useless and bored and I listened in on their conversation. They were discussing a how a character’s outfit would interact with the set. The tenor of the conversation was getting heated. The costume designer’s assistant felt strongly that the costume needed to convey something specific to the audience and the set was getting in her way. The set designer had something he needed to accomplish in the exact same beat. It was a good argument. No one was right or wrong. The fight simply had to be negotiated out. 

Here’s the weird thing. I had made it up. The story? The character? The environment? None of it was real. But two grown adults were arguing their way towards collaboration on this entirely made up thing that had initially started in the brain of a composer, passed through me, and a director, and made its way into this argument during tech between two people I’d never spoken to. 
20130624-Party-Worth-Crashing
As I see it, there’s no world in which you can create anything without collaboration. People can’t do that. Whether it’s making a baby or a musical or even a novel, we almost never do anything completely alone. Recognizing that collaboration is the most likely road to creation makes it easier to collaboration. None of this means that you don’t fight. You do. You should. But you have to fight for the right reasons. 

Here are some things I think are true about making things through collaboration: 
1. If you feel strongly about something, you’re probably right. 
2. If someone else feels strongly about something, he or she is also right. 
3. This is true even when you adamantly disagree. 
4. It’s most important to understand why the other person is also right when you disagree because it allows you a path forward to making what matters to you work with what matters to them. 
5. If you don’t have a strong instinct, follow someone else’s instinct for a little while. 
6. Realize that the most likely possibility is that you misunderstood. 
7. When feeling stuck, change location. Seriously. Go outside. 
8. When feeling stuck, lower the stakes and try dumb.  
9. It’s easy to think that it’s the end of the world. It’s not. 
10. Do not use passive aggression. Ever. 

***
Thanks, Kate!
Speaking of this business we call show, I am going to be guest blogging at The National Alliance of Musical Theater on July 21, part of my ongoing blog tour  in support of World of Trouble

 

The Trouble Begins

I, for one, had a heck of a time at IndyReads Books today, where my World of Trouble book tour kicked off in grand style.

IMG_4748

Spieling.

The best part was NOT the fact that the book officially went on sale (at IndyReads only: the rest of the universe must wait till the pub. date on Tuesday); the best part was NOT that I gave out fake mustaches and Hank Palace Blend Coffee Beans (from White Mountain Gourmet Coffee in Concord, NH) to audience members who correctly answered Last Policeman trivia; the best part was DEFINITELY not my stumbling through “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” on my ukulele.

The best part was how many wonderful friends and fans came out, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, for a literary event, to celebrate books and bookstores and my book in particular. What a terrific way to start the tour. If you were with us today in Indianapolis, please send me your pictures so I can add them to these here (taken by my wife, Diana); if you know folks in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Petoskey, Michigan; or any of the other places I’ll be in the next couple weeks, please spread the word. I have many more mustaches and bags of coffee to give away!

IMG_4751

Signing.


“I mean, we saw this coming, right?” — Adam Sternbergh on dystopias, imagined and real.

I never really thought of The Last Policeman and its sequels as being “dystopian”, but they have been put in that category—just as they have been put in the science-fiction category,  though I never thought of them that way, either. The thing is, if you have a giant asteroid in your book, your book is sci-fi (like it or not), and if you have a slowly disintegrating government, your book is ipso facto dystopian.

Someone whose work perhaps fits more squarely into the genre is Adam Sternbergh, whose grim, riveting, and hysterical book Shovel Ready launched in hardcover this past January. (Although his book is also, like mine, a bit of a detective story—and, like mine, it’s in the first-person, present tense, a formal choice I find endlessly interesting…but that’s a whole other blog entry…) Adam is also a busy journalist, moving just now from a position at the New York Times Sunday magazine to one at New York Magazine

He’s well positioned, then, as both author and cultural observer, to inform and enlighten on the subject of dystopias, both literary and actual.

Mr. Sternbergh?

***

crocuses

These two crocuses are deeply dystopian.

I was originally going to hold forth on my love of crocuses (or croci), but then I realized Ben had already teased this post with the promise of something “creepy and dystopian.” And it’s true that I have a taste for all things postlapsarian, from Adam and Eve’s mishap with fruit to anything remotely zombie/virus/economic collapse/catastrophic weather event/dirty bomb-related, so here goes:

Imagine a story set in a world in which potentially irreversible climate change is threatening entire economies, coastlines, even countries. Now imagine a coastal city in that world that’s been ruled over by its single richest citizen for roughly the past 12 years. Imagine that this fabled city is increasingly split between the superrich and the also-rans — shiny new apartment towers rise, Babel-like, to unforeseen heights over the skyline, even as the city’s homelessness problem explodes down below in the streets, with some even taking to subterranean living in subway tunnels.

The other citizens of this city — those who subsist, barely, in the middle —make hardly any move to protest these developments; most of them either imagine they too will one day live in a glass penthouse, or they’re continually distracted by electronic devices that they carry on their persons at all times. These devices—which aren’t issued by the government, but which citizens purchase willingly at great expense—track their locations, their communications, their purchases, their preferences, their interests, their every whim. In exchange, the devices allow people to play a maddening game about grouchy fowl.

Thankfully, it’s not like the government is running secret programs that tracks all this ready information — oh wait, yes, it is. But it’s all done in the name of staving off a shadowy foreign enemy whose specter is evoked constantly. Meanwhile, native militias prepare — oh wait. I’m sorry. I got confused. The assignment was “creepy and dystopian,” not “creepy and non-fiction and now.”

As readers, we may be witnessing the advent of Peak Dystopia, at least as far as fiction is concerned — when my own quasi-dystopian* novel, SHOVEL READY, came out last January, it was released the very same day as another dystopian novel, SUCH A FULL SEA by Chang Rae Lee. (*I say quasi-dystopian because, on the Grand Dystopic Spectrum, it’s closer to, say, the bombed-out New York of “The Warriors” than it is to the baby-roasting wasteland of “The Road.”)

shoverl readyWe not only have an abundance of dystopian YA novels, but we have competing dystopian YA novels that are almost identical in their premises. (Future society in which people are split into clans and forced to choose champions to fight in massive gladiatorial spectacles.)

You might think all this reflects some rising tide in our collective anxiety — that we’re telling ourselves so many dystopian stories because we’re unprecedentedly grim about our future. But is it really safe to assume we’re more pessimistic, or reflexively neurotic, than, say, the world that lived under the rise of fascism? Or the post-atomic threat of nuclear catastrophe? Or in a country openly split by tensions over civil rights that spilled into frequent and ugly violence? If anything, our recent age has been marked, in some corners at least, by a relentless, even gleeful, optimism — a belief that, thanks to all the recent technological advances, the future will be nothing but better, faster, shinier, more. So why are we also in such a freaking bad mood about tomorrow?

AS

Adam Sternbergh, who can see the future. Also, the present.

Maybe the answer lies in that opening parable, above — the details of which, of course, are not drawn from a pastiche of current dystopian fantasies, but from today’s most discomfiting current events. People who grew up with a Jetsons’ vision of the future — all robot dogs and flying cars — are constantly trying to figure out why things didn’t turn out as promised. But people who grew up (as I did) with visions of a darker future — post-Blade Runner, let’s say, though we could date it back to 2001, or 1984, or, hell, Brave New World — are left to figure out why so many things have turned out just like we were warned that they would.

I mean, we saw this coming, right? The video billboards and full-body scanners and instructions given in a creepily cold computer voice and the whole 24/7 surveillance state?

We were warned, and yet we couldn’t be bothered to step out of the way?

Today’s fictive dystopias aren’t about cashing in on a hot trend, or even reflecting some new plague of pessimism. It’s about doing what fiction, at its best, has always done: Grappling with the here and now. Sometimes that comes in the form of a novel written 150 years ago, yet which still perfectly captures the heartbreak of being denied a life with the one you love most. And sometimes in comes in the form of a story about a society that’s awfully similar to our own, if perhaps maybe two degrees more dystopic. If we’ve learned anything over the past 30 years, it’s that today’s dystopia can quickly become tomorrow’s reality. Before you can bring yourself to believe it, it’s already here.

***

 

Adam Sternbergh, folks. Give him a hand! And more tangibly, buy his book. Also, mine.