Prizes to be won include signed bookplates, amazing fan art by Joseph Laney, and the official “Hank Palace Survival Kit,” which has to be seen to be believed, but which definitely includes a big bag of coffee beans.
Big joy for me in Seattle on Friday night, where I had the great honor of winning the Philip K. Dick Award for science fiction for 2013, for my novel Countdown City.
As I said, or tried haltingly to say, in accepting the award, I am especially grateful that the Last Policeman series has won this particular laurel, because A) I so love and admire Dick’s whole idiosyncratic, impossible oeuvre, and because B) I didn’t set out to write science-fiction, it just ended up that way.
What I wanted was a way to tell a classic detective story in a surprising way, maybe to fold some new ideas into that genre—the mystery genre—and so I came to the world-ending asteroid business, and (as I’ve noted in the past) once you’ve got a world-ending asteroid in your book, it’s science fiction whether you like it or not.
Let me be clear: I like it. I like the novels being labeled sci-fi, and I certainly like winning an award in the category. I hope it’s not too cliche to observe that what successful science-fiction novels do (like those of, for example, Philip K. Dick), is similar to what successful mystery novels do, which is to use the conventions of genre as a lens through which to examine the ideas, the morality, the received wisdom, of the world we actually live in.
Anyway. Here on YouTube you can see me reading a selection from Countdown City at the award ceremony, and if you keep watching you can see me accept the award, after my new friend, the Japanese novelist Toh EnJoe, accepts the Special Citation for his insane multipart experimental novel The Self-Reference ENGINE.
(Side note: I have to ruefully acknowledge that in this clip I am wearing a short-sleeve salmon colored button-up shirt with my light-blue suit. This sartorial nightmare was occasioned by Mr. Fancypants Award-Winning Writer having forgotten to pack a dress shirt for the ceremony. I would have felt more self-conscious in the moment, except this award was given out at NorWesCon, a sci-fi/fantasy convention, so there were literally people there dressed as orcs.)
It is hard to overstate how excited I am about being nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award for Countdown City, the second book in the Last Policeman trilogy. As I’ve probably said here before, when I set out to write these books I wasn’t really thinking of them as science fiction, per se–although when you’ve got a giant asteroid in your story, that story is probably automatically a science-fiction story.
What I always said was, “well, if anything they’re speculative fiction, ” and if people said “what is speculative fiction?” I would refer them, first, to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (which is actually probably the most clear influence, given that it is not only speculative fiction, but a speculative-fiction detective story), and then to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. If you don’t know it, it’s about an imagined version of post-war America, in which the Allies lost World War II, and the Western part of the United States is now a Japanese protectorate. Like (almost) all of Dick’s work, it’s twisty and bizarre and strangely moving; these are qualities I have aspired to in The Last Policeman and Countdown City…
…and also the third and final book in the series, World of Trouble, which is now in that nebulous, painful state between first and final draft, which means that I, myself, am in that nebulous, painful state between thinking myself an inventive, ambitious writer and hating myself for being such a miserable talentless fraud. (Which is why it’s nice, on this particular day, to be nominated for an award.) Now, off the internet and back to work!
(Although I will be back on the internet, if not before, then in mid-March, when I’ll be a featured author in the 2014 #TwitterFiction Festival)
The Countdown City book tour, just concluded, was my first time doing a book tour of any sort, and I found the experience to be exhilarating, exhausting, ego-boosting, mortifying, boring, joyful, all sorts of different things. It was definitely mostly a positive experience, and even the negative aspects—I’m not the best traveler, for one thing, and not all of the events were jam-packed, which can be anxiety-provoking—even with those negatives, it’s the sort of life experience (much like publishing a book in the first place) that for such a long time seemed completely unattainable, that I’d be a fool to dwell on the negatives. A book tour! Holy moly! You dig what I’m saying?
Highlights include watching the Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn movie The Watch, late at night in my Portland hotel room, abiding by the universal law that demands that one must watch a shitty comedy that one would not normally watch, when alone in a hotel room late at night. Although, you know what? It wasn’t half bad—although not nearly as good as the cup of Stumptown coffee I had the next morning, at 5:45, when I woke up and wandered around the city, taking advantage of being on East Coast time, internally, to get an eyeful of a beautiful place.
Most of the highlights, though, are from the bookstores, themselves; which, just by the way, all seem to be doing amazingly. Powell’s in Portland was packed with shoppers. Eliot Bay, in Seattle, has this gorgeous space in a super hip and bustling neighborhood, where I ate artisanal ice cream served by hipsters, and briefly fantasized that I had moved back to Brooklyn. Gibson’s, in my beloved Concord, New Hampshire, is in the process of expanding to a bigger space.
So, all of which is to say that the death of independent booksellers, at least in my very limited sample, has been greatly exaggerated. And thank you to all the super-nice store owners and store clerks…especially at Anderson’s, in Naperville, where store policy is to give one free book to every visiting author—a policy I ruthlessly exploited by getting the new fourth volume in Robert Caro’s massive, and expensive, multivolume biography of LBJ.
While I’m thanking people: thank you, Patrick, the kid in Cincinnati to whom I hand sold a copy of The Last Policeman while he was getting coffee and I was working on book three in the trilogy at the Joseph-Beth cafe before my reading. Good luck at college, Patrick, and I think things will work out with your girlfriend, even though she lives in Texas.
Thanks to the family of five who came to see me in Seattle because mom liked Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, but who ended up buying copies of Policeman and Countdown City AND my middle-grade mysteries for their charming nine year old. Dig it, big sister.
Thanks to basically everybody in the city of Concord, New Hampshire, where I got to read at the great Gibson’s, eat at the Corner View Restaurant (the model for the Somerset Diner, in the books), and talk on the radio with Brady Carlson at the local public radio station, who plays with his little boy in West Park, the playground where McConnell chases down the smirking kid and yells “stop, motherfucker” in The Last Policeman.
And yes, I did go to the McDonald’s and use the bathroom where Peter Zell’s body was found. I didn’t intend to, I just had to go and I remembered it was there.
But now I’m home, where my family is, and where I have a lot of work left to do on The Last Policeman book III (as yet untitled, so don’t ask—seriously, don’t, I’m really anxious about it.). This fall I’m going to be popping up here and there here at home in Indianapolis—at the fall book festival, at a Butler University charity event called the Harvest of Writers, and a couple other things. So if you’re in Indy, come say hi. If you’re not, hope to see you next summer.
If you’ve ever wondered what a fella looks like reading to an audience, after driving the 4.5 hours from Indianapolis to St. Louis, contemplating the 4.5-hour drive home later that evening, he looks like this:
Thanks to my old friend Dave Guest for the picture — one of the benefits to doing a book tour, besides the main fact that the whole thing is really incredibly fun, is getting to see lots of old friends. I went to college in St. Louis, so it yielded a small bonanza of old friends. Your next chance to see me standing awkwardly at a podium will be in Boston, on July 31, when I will be at the Harvard Coop.
The following night, I will be in Concord, NH, returning to the scene of the crime — Gibson’s Bookstore is a stone’s throw from the McDonald’s where Peter Zell’s body was found, in Chapter One of The Last Policeman. Hope you New Hampshire types can join me.
When you write a book like The Last Policeman, about how everyone behaves when the world is going to end in half a year, people start to ask what you would do. Every time I’m asked that, the question fills me with anxiety. Would I remain on the job, like my hero, Detective Henry Palace, staying true to my moral compass? Or would I choose one of the less gallant paths pursued by a myriad of my other characters—those who run away from their spouses, commit suicide, or get drunk and stay that way?
Most likely I’d be like the kid that Detective Palace brushes against midway through Countdown City, the second book in the trilogy. Palace’s search for a missing man has taken him to the campus of the University of New Hampshire, which has been transformed into a radical communitarian encampment called the Free Republic of New Hampshire:
I see a pale boy hunched over the desk in a carrel, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, surrounded by books, reading. His face is gaunt and his hair a greasy mass. On the ground beside him is a clotted leaking pile of discarded teabags, and beside that a bucket that I realize with horror is full of urine.There’s a tall stack of books on one side of him and a taller stack on the other: out pile, in pile. I stand for a second watching this guy, frozen in place but alive with small action: muttering to himself as he reads, almost humming like an electric motor, his hands twitching at the edges of the pages until, with a sudden flash of motion, he turns the page, flings it over, like he can’t consume the words fast enough.
I’d be that guy, the guy trying to cram as many books into my brain hole as possible before sundown. But Detective Palace spends most of his time trying to ignore the fact of the asteroid’s imminence, or work around it, solving what small problems he can, rather than flailing in the face of the massive problem he can’t.
So what, if anything, does he read in the meantime?
The Constitution of the United States of America by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, et al
Palace is a by-the-book kind of cop, and since the book he mostly frequently mentions in the novels (Farley and Leonard’s Criminal Investigation) is entirely my own invention, I’ll give him the oldest text of American law.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
In a first draft of Countdown City, I had Palace carrying around a paperback of Decline and Fall, because I thought its heft and immersive quality would appeal to him in quiet moments between subject interviews. But then I thought the whole “world falling apart” thing was maybe just a wee bit heavy-handed.
Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan
Detective Palace and I share a fascination with the great Bobby D., in particular the late-1970s period when the Jew from Minnesota found Jesus and got good and weird for a while. (The original title for The Last Policeman, as a matter of fact, was “Slow Train Coming,” after the Dylan song and album of the same name.)
Watchmen by Alan Moore
When someone asks Henry what his favorite book is, he cites the landmark 1980s graphic novel. I suspect he likes the book’s complicated questions about heroism and moral compromise. Personally, I like the portrait of a familiar-yet-unfamiliar world on the brink of disaster. Along with Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, it was a major influence on me in creating this series.
You learn things about characters as you write them, and one thing I’ve learned about Henry is that he has deeply ambiguous feelings about religion. But the world he must navigate to do his job is supercharged with questions about God. Specifically these: is this asteroid coming because there’s no God? Or is it coming because there is a God, and He is pissed?
For more on Detective Palace and Countdown City, watch our video Q&A with author Ben H. Winters.
I’m always telling budding writers to avoid cliches, and it’s one of the cliches of internet writing to update one’s blog by saying “…sorry I haven’t updated this in a while…” . For the record, I do wrestle all the time with how much to devote to maintaining my online “presence”; it takes so much effort, after all, to maintain one’s real-life, actual presence, not to mention whatever effort it takes to create the fictional realities we call novels.
So, anyhoo, I’m sorry I haven’t updated this in a while. And when I last wrote I promised a wrap-up on the Edgar Awards, beyond my perfunctory report that I won, a fact that still astonishes and delights me to no end.
I don’t remember much about the moment, other than nearly tripping and mouthing the words “oh my fucking God” over and over on the way to the stage; the Mystery Writers of America , however, recorded my subsequent speech and here it is on YouTube. (The woman who speaks first, by the way, and who you see seated behind me while I ramble, is Charlaine Harris, incoming president of the Mystery Writers and the creator of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, from whence True Blood.)
In the speech somewhere I note how amazing the other book nominated were, and are, and you should read them: Complication, by Isaac Adamson, is an extremely clever, extremely twisty-turny intellectual thriller set in Prague; Blessed are the Dead by Malla Nunn is one in her series of melancholy detective novels set in South Africa in the 50s; Bloodland by Alan Glynn is aninternational thriller, an intricate multiple perspective page-turner; and Whiplash River by Lou Berney, which is not only a great action-packed clue hunt, but fucking hilarious. Read all those books.
The other thing about being in NYC for the Edgars was it reminded me how in love I am, and probably always will be, with that city; luckily I get to go back, on June 1, to sign books and hang out a little at Book Expo America. (And YES, just regular non-book-industry people can go to that, for that one day, but you have to do a special signup thing). So if you’re going to be there, please let me know, and/or come to the Quirk Books Booth at 10:00 on Saturday, June 1.
And then I’ll be “on the road,” a bit over the summer, reading at bookstores from Countdown City, the Last Policeman sequel. I think it’s 10 cities all together; you can check out the appearances page for the info. If I’m not coming to your city, please yell at me via the contact page or just arrange for me to Skype in to your book club. I’ve been doing a bunch of that, and it’s fun.
More soon. Or maybe not. I don’t know.
I was a good two hours early for my appearance on Saturday at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, or C2E2, because of the mid-air collision of two facts: A) my new hometown of Indianapolis is (for mysterious reasons) on Eastern rather than Central time, despite being essentially due south of Chicago, and B) I am a moron.
Because though I call it “my new hometown,” I’ve lived here for almost a year, which is to say long enough to, you know, find out what time it is. The point is, I got my wife and kids up and out of the house in time to bust it up to Chicago in four hours flat (it’s a three-hour drive, but anyone with small children will recognize the travel-time inflation that goes on), drop them off at the Field Museum, park the car at the Convention Center, race across the seemingly endless parking lot, weave my way through throngs of people dressed like Batman or Gandalf or the dude from Walking Dead with the crossbow…only to have my friends Nicole and Eric from Quirk Books wonder what I was doing there a full hour ahead of schedule.
But once I mopped the sweat off my brow, I had a great time. I sat on a panel about mystery writing with this guy, who writes paranormal mysteries, and this lady, who writes an online comic about an evil sorority. As usual, I rambled uncontrollably, but I think I said something true about how writing a mystery is like writing two books at once: you’re writing from the front, figuring out how your hero is navigating his way along, and meanwhile you’re also working from the back, constructing the “what happened” part, deepening your understanding of the backstory. The two books interact with each other as you go, and as you make discoveries in the frontways book they inform the backways book, and vice versa.
Also at C2E2 I got to meet artist and author Eric Hudspeth, who wrote the forthcoming The Resurrectionist, and who continued the streak of Quirk authors—like Seth Grahame-Smith and Steve Hockensmith and Ransom Riggs—who are extremely nice guys. (Women also write for Quirk, like the two women who wrote Tiny Food Party! and who are obviously geniuses, but I haven’t met any of them yet). And best of all I met a whole slew of people who have read and liked The Last Policeman—and other people who I personally talked into buying The Last Policeman, right there on the spot.
We also gave away many copies of the sequel, Countdown City, although it was the “advanced readers copy”, so I felt the need to awkwardly apologize to each recipient about any errors they might find.
If you were at C2E2, and I shook your hand through your big fake Wolverine-claws glove or something, it was nice to meet you! If you weren’t there, please come see me smiling awkwardly some other time, like this Wednesday at the Edgar Awards Symposium in New York, or later in the summer at one of the bookstores listed on my new APPEARANCES page—the Countdown City book tour begins July 16 right here at Big Hat Books in Indianapolis.
I don’t know what time that event is yet, but I am sure I will be an hour early.
I am in a very strange place this week, as someone who is writing a trilogy. And I sort of wonder if other people who have embarked on this kind of multi-project project have experienced this. (George Lucas? George R.R. Martin? You guys around to discuss?)
Because while I am busily trying to get folks to buy and read Book One (The Last Policeman, which b/t/w is available right now for the teaser price of $2.99 ), I am also starting to get nervous and excited because review copies are now being shipped for Book Two (Countdown City, which b/t/w is being given away right now on Goodreads). And meanwhile, I have started writing Book Three (as yet untitled, and if you do get a giveaway copy, send it to me, because I’d love to know what happens).
It all makes me glad I’m writing them straight through—as opposed to taking gaps of years between volumes, as for example Patricia Highsmith did with her five beautiful Tom Ripley books—and also makes me realize how very sad I’ll be when it’s all done.
Good news today today for those who have been holding off on reading of the exploits of Detective Hank Palace until they appeared in Turkish. The folks at my indefatigable publisher, Quirk Books, have let me know that deals have been struck for foreign-language editions of The Last Policeman in French, Czech, Korean, Japanese, German, and yes, Turkish.
If you are interested in the publisher details, let me know; and if you are interested in seeing The Last Policeman in a language not listed above, let me know that too, and I can pass it along.
Meanwhile I have seen advance proofs of the cover art, both for Countdown City: The Last Policeman Book II, and the new edition of The Last Policeman, and I am truly super excited about both. I will share them here as soon as I am allowed, so stay in touch.