Category Archives: Reverse Blog Tour

“Git off my beach or I’ll shoot you.” — Ethan Gilsdorf on why you should set your novel in New Hampshire.

Much like the Bob Dylan world tour that began in July of 1988 and has continued ever since, my planned summer-long Reverse Blog Tour to support the release of World of Trouble is threatening to become a Never Ending Tour, unanchored from any specific purpose or unifying principal, much like the whole rest of the Internet. Well, so be it! Especially if it means I can keep soliciting entries from people like Ethan Gilsdorf, the Boston-area journalist and memoirist and cultural critic and goodhearted Somerville fella—who besides being all those things is a native of New Hampshire, where I set my Last Policeman books. 

People kept asking me why I set the trilogy in the Granite State, so I asked Ethan to please answer that for me, and here’s what he says: 



But Ethan! If you’re from New Hampshire, where’s your big bushy beard?

I began writing this postduring a visit to my former home state. The Granite State. The Mother of Rivers. The White Mountain State. The Switzerland of America.

Yes, I mean New Hampshire. Tax free, lawless, kooky, flinty, opinionated New Hampshire.

Land of no sales tax and no income tax. Land of no motorcycle helmet laws and no laws against selling fireworks. Land of cheap liquor. Land of the first presidential primary. Land of “Get your government out of my [insert latest Big Government tirade here].”

At least, that’s the popular image of New Hampshire.

The state’s inspiring and absurd slogan, “Live Free or Die,” certainly hasn’t helped change that perception. You’ll find that phrase imprinted onto the state license plate (presumably by inmates in the state’s penal system), just above an image of the now-crumbled Old Man of the Mountain. The Old Man used to be a granite cliff outcrop on top of Cannon Mountain in the White Mountains. Viewed from a certain location, the rocks formed a profile of a face that I always thought looked like Abe Lincoln (who was not from N.H.). The Old Man’s face collapsed in 2003, but that craggy dude has not died. Not only on the state’s license plate, he’s also emblazoned on the state route signs, the back of New Hampshire’s Statehood Quarter. I’m guessing he’s also tattooed on the backside of Lyndon LaRouche, the famous political moonbat and New Hampshire native.

Alas, my home state is no longer my residence. I live just over the border, in Massachusetts, aka “Taxachusetts.” From that healthy remove, I periodically gaze northward to my mother country. I cross its borders, too, to visit my family who still resides there. And I see that despite my years living away, my N.H. DNA remains strong. I cut my teeth as a writer here. Some of the first serious books I read were written by New Hampshire residents, who set their plots in the state’s small towns, bucolic boarding schools, and tangled woods and political backwaters.

What makes New Hampshire a great state for writers to set their stories?0

Think of the novels, plays, and poems that take place here (in addition to Ben’s Last Policeman trilogy). Probably the most famous is Peyton Place, the 1956 novel by Grace Metalious. There’s also Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover; several novels by John Irving, including The Hotel New HampshireA Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One YearA Separate Peace by John Knowles; Labor Day by Joyce Maynard; River Dogs by Robert Olmstead; Affliction and Continental Drift by Russell Banks; Before And After by Rosellen Brown; The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis; Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult; and Sea GlassThe Weight of Water, and The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. Don’t forget the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and two Newbury Award-winning kids books, A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32 by Joan Blos and Amos Fortune: Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. Not to mention, the many poems which take place here by Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, and Donald Hall. (Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in Vermont, but published it in a volume of poems calledNew Hampshire — take that, Vermont! — and the tome earned Frostie the first of his four Pulitzers.)

Among other books. I’m sure I’ve missed a few.

A Separate Peace was the first book I ever knowingly read that was set in my home state. In 1979, this novel was 8th grade required reading at Oyster River Middle School. I didn’t get that Knowles had modeled his Devon prep school after Phillips Exeter Academy, just down the road from where I lived. Still, the story of Gene and Finny’s macho-competitive friendship, their strange game of “blitzball,” and Gene having a hand in Finny’s death, rocked my world as a 12-year-old. (Partly because that same year, my own mother had become dangerously sick.)

So how does New Hampshire lure writers? I think New Hampshire’s appeal as literary place is partly due its contrasts. You can still find that craggy, iconoclastic, “Old Man” persona. Even if the state’s id has largely shifted from redneck-only, Libertarian-leaning right winger to Target-loving bedroom community for Boston (at least in the southern part of the state where I’m from), the state’s ego is still grumpy old man.

“We only got 13 miles of coastline, see?” The Old Man still grouses. “But that’s the way we like it. Now git off my beach or I’ll shoot you.”

Who is the Old Man telling to get of his property? The Massholes. The outsiders. The folks who dare to tread on me.

0This includes candidates for the highest office in the country. Presidential hopefuls must flock here, if they want to win. They must jibber-jabber with the locals at diners and VFW halls, and endure the sometimes frosty reception from locals, because all roads to the White House begin in the crucible of New Hampshire. We’re the underdog, but despite our obscurity and seeming insignificance, N.H. gets its say.

One of the earliest works set here is Coniston, a 1906 best-selling novel by American writer Winston Churchill (no relation), who was a state legislator in the 1900s and an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate. Naturally, Coniston is about N.H. politics. I have not read it.

The other reason I think N.H. appeals to writers is that it embodies conflict. You might say N.H. is the evil twin doppelganger of similarly-shaped Vermont, whose politics are about as polar opposite to N.H.’s as you can find. Within its borders, there’s always been a marked tension between New Hampshire’s rural, hardscrabble, working-class image and its use as a playground for prep school kids and tourists hitting the trails, lakes and ski lifts. In their novels, Irving and Knowles often tapped into the highfalutin “gown” side. Other writers delved into the townies.

Most kids who grow up in any small N.H. town learn to straddle that fence. My parents arrived in N.H. from the Midwest because my father got a job teaching at the University of New Hampshire. Half of my childhood pals in my tiny neighborhood had professional parents who lived in refurbished historical colonial homes; the other kids lived in dilapidated ranches and had parents who worked as mechanics, ran the general store, drove snow plows and hunted deer. Our leisure time vacillated between intellectual pursuits, like reading books, and redneck ones, like setting things afire in the sandpit.

As I’ve established, we don’t got much oceanfront property in New Hampshire, so don’t expect plots of novels to twist in the cool breezes of quaint seaside towns. Rather, stories tend to be set in small, isolated hamlets, miles from anywhere. Many novels take place in [insert name of fictional of small town here], N.H. In that town, you’ll find: general store, town hall, church, gas station, guy selling roses for $5 from beat-up van. Coniston takes place in the fictional small town of Coniston. Our Town is set in the made-up Grover’s Corners. Peyton Place’s imaginary “Peyton Place” is a supposedly a composite of several small towns: Gilmanton, Gilford, Laconia, Manchester and Plymouth.

One of my favorite story collections, Leah, New Hampshire: The Collected Stories of Thomas Williams, is set in the fictive “Leah,” just a letter away from my own hometown of Lee. Like my father, Williams taught at U.N.H, and his “Leah” some have compared to Masters’s Spoon River and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Williams, a Minnesota native, called New Hampshire, “a state that can be cruel, especially to its poor, or sick, or old. In its public, or collective stance, it can act as a skinflint and a buffoon among its neighbors.” But he also found that Granite Staters “can be decent and generous if, for a moment, they forget dogma, forget ‘conservatism,’ and sanctimony, and the myth of an imaginary history.”

Why this literary focus on the wee New Hampshire town? Perhaps it’s because events in N.H. towns, at least in the minds of novelists, occur in a time-space wormhole. Whatever happens in [insert fictional name of small N.H. town] stays in [insert fictional name of small N.H. town]. Our hamlets and villages and “corners” are trapped in amber. So, too, are our small town weirdos, who drive half-rotted pick-up trucks, shoot guns into the night, live in trailers, and go mad in the woods. They run well drilling companies out of their homes and mow cemeteries (one of my former jobs). They hold down two jobs. They yearn for upward mobility, while nursing their Bud Lites.

While the rest of the world has progressed, these characters are still hanging out at the store at the town crossroads, just as I did growing up. Growing up, I knew of a village store not far from where I was raised called “Liar’s Paradise.” It’s still there.

The small, isolated town died in the rest of America, but in New Hampshire, it survives.

That’s the myth, anyway. Of course, New Hampshire has been gentrified, and strip-mall-ified. These days, you can get decent organic produce at Hannaford’s or even the troubled Market Basket (once the strike is over). But for every Dartmouth or Exeter graduate, there’s a family living in a double-wide set on concrete blocks just a mile from some fairyland campus, and a working class kid who is struggling to get through community college, if that.

Embedded in that small N.H. town are enough conflicts between stock characters — the wizened Yankee farmer versus the button-down vacationer — to fuel the plotlines of a thousand stories.

Salinger literally about to punch an intruder.

Salinger, literally about to punch an intruder.

In a previous entry on this blog, Lori Rader-Day eloquently suggested that the “Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread” lurking behinds its friendly and smiling populace. New Hampshire has never pretended to be friendly. Outspoken and abrasive, sure, but cheery, never. We also don’t have those big open spaces. N.H. is claustrophobic. Sub in for the wide-open expanse of Iowa cornfields a truck stop by the rotary, or a freshly denuded house lot carved from a thicket of pine trees and poison ivy. Not necessarily creepy, but depressing and hermetic.

New Hampshire breeds this kind of existential loneliness, and it’s a force that many writers tap into. Great for poets who take walks in the woods. Great for novelists who dream of a better life. Great for writers to end their careers. New Hampshire is where J.D. Salinger went to disappear. Want to re-live his life? His former house is for sale. 

Maybe I’m wrong about all this. Perhaps New Hampshire is like a lot of small town America everywhere. But it’s my homeland, and my tax-free haven. In the minds of some writers, the New Hampshire small town will never change. Of course everything has changed. To paraphrase Robert Frost, and that has made all the difference.



To learn more about Ethan and the mangy things he knows about—he writes better on Dungeons & Dragons and nerd cultural topics than most anyone living—visit Ethan Gilsdorf on his website. (And while you’re there congratulate him on his recent engagement!) 

Keep checking back with me for more essays from more writers who I dragoon into contributing, and yes even the occasional blog post from me, the putative owner of this space.


“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?


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 He wishes to express his indebtedness to the GaiaShield Website at 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.)


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.


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.)


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.

“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?



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?


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.

“Mysteries…reinforce belief in the fundamental order” –Daniel Friedman on God and the crime novel

One of the best mystery novels I read last year — and, listen, I read a lot of mystery novels — was by a guy named Dan Friedman, who put it in my hands his own damn self in New York City one evening at a MWA event. That book was Don’t Ever Get Old: great title, great novel, about a super-old Jewish World War II veteran and ex-homicide cop named Baruch “Buck” Schatz who gets caught up in a late-life crime caper, looking for Nazi gold and—oh, you know. Revenge. There’s a sequel, out this month, called Don’t Ever Look Back, which I haven’t read yet, but early reviews indicate it’s equally terrific.

I’ve had this feeling since reading the first Schatz novel that Dan and I are sort of kindred spirits, not only because we’re both obsessed with the structure of the mystery novel (and how to mess around with it) but also because we’re both secular Jews, whose work in some way is informed by that background. Someday I will force myself to think hard about how my religious background functions in my own work; in the meantime, I made Dan do it for my Reverse Blog Tour.

Take it away, Dan Friedman: 


The arc of the archetypal mystery novel looks something like this: At the beginning, there is a crime, which disrupts the order of society. The business of the story is finding out why this happened, and rendering justice unto the perpetrator so that the orderly state that preceded the crime can be restored.


Daniel Friedman, with New York City behind him.

No matter how depraved the crimes they depict might tend to be, mysteries that follow this structure maintain and reinforce a belief in the integrity of this fundamental order. The crime being investigated is fundamentally aberrant, and it will be set right.

This plot structure, and the worldview that underpins it are intertwined with the key questions of Western religion. Mystery novels deal with many of the same problems that we ask in church or synagogue: Why do bad things happen to good people? How can justice coexist with so much suffering? And, at the same time, the conventions of the mystery novel strongly imply that God is working behind the scenes; assuring that every knotty conspiracy is matched with a dogged, patient sleuth who will unravel it, every devious killer is a little dumber than the cop or federal agent hunting for him, and within every sick or corrupt institution, there is someone with the backbone and standards to insist on doing things the right way.

The truth about crime and punishment is a lot less sunny: In New York City, where one of the largest, best funded and best trained police departments ever assembled patrols a city with a per-capita violent crime rate significantly below the national average, only two murderers out of three are caught and convicted. In smaller towns where violence is rare, resources are scarce, officers have little investigative experience and police officials are functionaries rather than detectives, homicides tend to have an even lower clearance rates.

If crime fiction reflected the truth about crime, it would be upsetting and demoralizing. Readers don’t want to see forensic tests take months to process and come back inconclusive. Readers don’t want to see serious crimes investigated by uninterested clock punchers. Readers don’t want to see bureaucratic breakdowns. Readers care who the killer is, and they want the hero to care as much as they do.

More ambitious crime writers will try to complicate the message a little bit: In my novels, my elderly detective’s triumphs over his adversaries does little to mollify his grief over the death of his son, and nothing to change his declining health. Ben’s novels, of course, place the criminal investigations in the shadow of a fast-approaching human extinction event that dwarfs the stakes of his hero’s main business. Both of us, I think are using impending, inevitable calamity to ask a question about whether anything we do matters when set in contrast with the inevitability of death

But they’re still mystery novels. Even in the shadow of a giant meteor poised to wipe out civilization, the readers will expect to know who did it, and why. The question of who did it has got to matter, and justice has got to be dispensed, even if you qualify the catharsis.  Mystery novels, as we understand them, don’t work unless they take place in a universe where there is a God.

almighty God

Thou shalt not neglect to craft satisfying character arcs.

I think readers know this subconsciously, even if they’ve never thought about it in these terms. Seeing mysteries unraveled feeds the same need we try to address by searching religious texts for answers to unanswerable questions. And the revelations are always more disappointing than you hope they’re going to be, because the authors generally aren’t in possession of any definitive answers to fundamental questions. At the end of most mystery novels, you usually find out that some asshole did it, for some asshole reason. And, if we’re being honest, the resolution can never really set right the initial wrong. Authors try to hide it with gunfights and car chases and explosions, but our catharses tend to be kind of anti-cathartic.

Religion in my books serves several purposes: It wedges my character in a history and a worldview. It makes him specific, rather than general, but I could have done that by making him the fourth son in a big Italian family, or the child of patrician WASPS, or just an old redneck.

But it also allows me to more directly explore the fundamental moral questions that are inextricable from the genre’s subject matter. In DON’T EVER GET OLD, Baruch can look at Christian notions of forgiveness and redemption with an outsider’s skepticism, because he is not a Christian. But his inability to forgive others suggests there are things in his past he can’t forgive himself for.

delbIn my second book, DON’T EVER LOOK BACK, neither Baruch, an American WW2 veteran nor his antagonist, an Auschwitz survivor, can put their trust in a deity as a result of their experiences. Each of them tries, in a sense, to become God, by taking control of his own narrative, and when the stories they are trying to live out cannot be reconciled, they have to clash.

I’m not particularly devout or observant, and I have serious reservations about the applicability of ancient texts to modern problems, but I don’t think you serve much of a purpose by avoiding reference to God in books that are concerned with questions of justice.



Thanks, Dan. You, like Buck Schatz, are a mensch. Stay tuned for more special guests, and don’t forget to pre-order World of Trouble. It comes out on July 15.

“SOMEONE STOLE YOUR PENCILS” YA novelist Suzanne LaFleur on what children care about

So, although I have written for kids, and I have a bunch of kids, I’m one of these weird adults who mostly reads fiction written for adults. I make an exception, however, for the novels of my old pal Suzanne LaFleur—her debut, Love, Aubrey, was so heartbreaking and good that I’ve read her two followups (Eight Keys and Listening For Lucca). Suzanne and I met a long time ago, when we were both working at the same elementary school for eccentric young geniuses, deep in the heart of the Upper West Side. 

She’s a shy and thoughtful kind of person, but I goaded her into participating in my Reverse Blog Tour by promising to ask easy questions. I lied, though, they’re all ready hard. 


OK, Suzy. Is there any difference in what kids books are supposed to do (comfort, challenge, scare, excite) as opposed to what adult literature is supposed to do? 


I would say the main purpose of both—and of literature in general—is to engage people with written language. Kids’ lit might need slightly different language or content to achieve that, but in terms of emotional investment, the criteria should be the same. People of any age will of course gravitate towards that which interests them, so there should be an equal variety of choices available for kids as for adults. Maybe not every kid wants to be scared, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be scary books for kids.


Suzanne LaFleur with her mysterious floating signature.

How does writing make you feel inside?

This question wins the award for “highest potential for an abstract answer.”

When writing isn’t going well, it feels really frustrating. I get up a lot, pace, do things around the house. I typically abandon it, and then at the end of the day, I feel bad because I didn’t produce anything. I gave up. But there’s no sense sitting to write if there’s nothing ready in your head.

When writing is going well, I go into a sort of trance, which can happen whether or not I’m physically writing or just walking around or swimming or something. When that happens, the story spins itself along and I observe, record, replay. I don’t notice the time passing. Sometimes it will be hours. I suppose that part feels good, because it’s kind of relaxing and the story unfolds very genuinely, but I’m definitely not aware enough to consider how it feels. I have recently put my awareness to the test a little bit, because in the past year I have become much more of a coffee-shop writer. At home, there are fewer signs of time passing in chunks around you, but at the coffee shop, I’ll realize I didn’t see people around me sit down or get up to leave their table; they will just suddenly seem to have appeared or vanished. Sometimes it’s scary, because—where have I been?

You’re probably thinking at the end of those days, living in the minds of my characters, I feel good, right? Nope. I feel bad then, too, because I can’t account for my time. Whole hours disappeared and I’m not even sure how I spent them. If you sit down to work after lunch and blink and realize it’s time to make dinner, it’s a bit disconcerting. Even if you’ve filled ten notebook pages. You should have noticed the day passing, right? Or filled the notebook pages and then moved on to something else? How do you hold yourself accountable for how you’ve spent your time when you literally make your living daydreaming?

If both kinds of days leave me feeling bad, why do I continue? I think my markers of accomplishment happen on a much larger scale. For example, I’ll scribble in my notebook for weeks, and then type it all up, and WOW, my document is fifty pages longer! That’s a day on which I feel like I’ve made progress. I can print it, read it—that feels good! Those days occur? Once every couple months. Even more rare: once every two-three years, I get to THE END of a draft. THE END. The elation of knowing you’ve reached the end—I can’t even explain it. It’s awesome. Then I get a letter from a nine-year-old reader: “your book [aka the result of all those hours of pacing as well as the ones that disappeared] has changed my life.” Changed a life! Hmm. Perhaps I wasn’t making a living daydreaming after all, but changing lives.

lifeguard chair

This lifeguard chair is in New Hampshire.

I’m reminded of something my dad said to me when I was a teenager. My first official job was as a lifeguard. I hated lifeguarding because it made me so nervous. But very little ever happened. Every time I came home from lifeguarding, my dad would ask, “Did you have to save anybody?” and I would say, “No,” feeling defeated, and then he would say, “Then you saved everybody.” I think writing is like that on some level. On most days, there’s not a big event. There may not be any sense of accomplishment after hours of sitting, watching and listening, and there may not be anything concrete to show for your work. Odds are you didn’t write a whole novel that day, so you would have to answer the question “did you write a novel today?” by saying “no.” But those hours still mattered. At the pool, my presence and advice prevented my patrons from needing someone to dive in after them—they’re not not changed. And their existence itself is actually quite concrete—without a dramatic event, they all walked away from my pool, to go home and have their dinners and live their lives. A million things that never happened actually add up to something positive, something whole and beautiful and maybe thoroughly unacknowledged by anyone. Writing, I sit and think for hours and hours, selecting a few words sometimes, and while nothing seems to be happening, a book emerges. I’m never not writing. One day, children will interact with my book for just a few hours of their lives, and walk away, perhaps declaring in a letter that they’ve been changed, the vast majority not noticing that anything’s different, but still, they’re not not changed.

So, after that, writing makes me feel good inside. The hours spent get forgotten; the words you’ve decided on stay, the impact you’ve had stays.

What did you learn from teaching little kids that has been valuable to you as writer, besides learning what sorts of stuff they’re interested in, content-wise?

I learned what they consider injustices and what they get excited about.


–Your friend plays with someone else and not with you.

–Your friend give away his/her candy to someone else and not to you.

–Your friend goes to someone else’s house—without you.

–Your parents are the only ones who don’t come to the classroom party.

–Your parents don’t let you have sleepovers on a school night. Even though someone else’s parents do.

–Your teacher seems to pick you to blame out of a group of people all doing the same bad thing.

–Your teacher gives you the previously-determined penalty for not doing your homework (I haven’t yet figured out why, but your teacher is always being unfair if you haven’t done your homework).


–Pizza lunch day is canceled with no warning. And it’s the only day you’re allowed school lunch and now it’s ruined. What will you EAT?

–You don’t get to finish eating in the allotted time. Even though you were able to draw three pictures, talk and laugh with your friends, and make fun of someone else, you definitely weren’t given enough time to eat and now you will be hungry and sad for the rest of the day.

–It rains. Unless you happen to prefer reading, rain interfering with recess is a terrible injustice.



–You don’t get to be Benjamin Franklin on biography day. Everyone knows that you love Benjamin Franklin the most. And that is why someone else claimed Benjamin Franklin first. On purpose. To be mean.


–Anything that disrupts the daily lessons routine in any way (unless gym is canceled—that’s an injustice)

–Parties. In school or out. Parties rule.

–Sugar. Sugar when combined with parties is particularly exciting. Too much sugar usually leads to additional events in the “injustices” category, but to start out with, sugar is great.

–Showing off a newborn sibling. Additionally, when asked to write a memoir about something important that happened in his or her life, a young child will most often write about the birth of a sibling, and each author will include what he or she ate for dinner that night. I checked this phenomenon against my own memory, and it’s true, I remember eating fried eggs for dinner the night one of my sisters was born, though I was four at the time.

–Riding on a school bus to anywhere (really doesn’t matter where).

–Anything with “land” in the name. Legoland. Disneyland.

–Singing. Everyone loves singing. Especially in rounds.

–A new friend coming over for the first time. Heightened by the fact that this event involves written record passed between parents and teachers, and must otherwise remain totally secret, so as not to create injustices for others.

–The return of anyone beloved. Even if the person was your student teacher for only a couple weeks. She comes back to visit, she is beloved.


Kids’ emotions are almost palpable: hot, invisible bubbles of anger or joy bursting from their chests in silent waves. I would bottle up all these feelings—the lunchboxes lovingly packed, the ones that weren’t; the girl ecstatic to head to grandma’s, the boy who’d never met his dad—and take them home with me, where they would filter into the emotions of my characters.


“Exeunt Omnes” — Ian Doescher works his Shakespearean magic on The Last Policeman

Ian Doescher is the guy who had the brilliantly simple idea of rewriting the entire Star Wars trilogy as Shakespearean tragedies—and not only did he have the idea, he’s executing it well, rendering all of Luke and Han’s dialog in flawless iambic pentameter. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars and The Empire Striketh Back were Times bestsellers, as I’m sure The Jedi Doth Return will be—it comes out tomorrow! 

Hereth is Ian: 


Ian Doescher, Poet Laureate of Dagobah.

When you work with a mid-sized publisher like Quirk Books, you hear a lot about the other books they publish.  While I was working on the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars trilogy, I heard about two other trilogies currently in the works with Quirk Books: Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children trilogy, and, of course, Ben’s Last Policeman trilogy.


When I heard about The Last Policeman in the fall of 2013, the concept was immediately attractive to me: a detective novel with just one element of reality tweaked—the impending end of the world.  I was fascinated by the concept and even more excited when I read The Last Policeman and Countdown City in quick succession.  Hank Palace was a hero unlike any I’d met before: dutiful, blundering, compassionate, thoughtful, and devoted to his craft (to a fault).  I looked forward to World of Trouble with excitement, and read it as soon as Quirk Books could send me an advance copy.  Now I know how it ends—but of course I’m not saying.  (How fun to write a trilogy and have your readers not know the ending!  Everyone knows how William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return is going to end up.)

Ben and I were virtually introduced back in November, and I couldn’t help but fan boy on him a little bit.  In the midst of our correspondence, I decided Hank Palace needed his own Shakespearean treatment.  So now, as we prepare for the final book in The Last Policeman trilogy, I humbly present the soliloquy Shakespeare might have penned had he been clever enough to invent Hank Palace:



What dismal age is mine in which to live—

An asteroid doth come to crush the Earth,


The new book, which I cravenly did not write in verse.

Humanity of future is bereft,

Each story now is fear and apathy

And, in the end, the hand of suicide.

Yet even in the midst of terror great

Some signs of hope still break upon my sight:

The college boys out rowing in their shells,

The skill’d forensic doctor plies her trade,

All people who maintain their excellence—

Forsooth, these things I like.  Aye, them I like.

In such an age we stand apart, alone,

E’en a policeman who doth battle crime

Though seemingly ‘tis pointless so to do.

Yet, I have little pride as I perform

My calling to enforcement of the law.

Aye, even as I spend my working days

In dutiful fulfillment of my job—

Good Farley and wise Leonard with me e’er—

There sometimes comes a nasty, creeping thought:

Belike my lawful life is meaningless.

Such naggings plague my soul, and shake my heart—

In these dark moments doubt creeps in, and then

Ne’er was a Palace emptier than I.

Yet e’en when these vile questions do arise,

I see my Concord with the eyes of hope.

For from the darkest moments grows within

A newfound confidence in ev’ry step:

I can the last days face with courage rare

E’en if I were the last policeman e’er.

[Exeunt omnes]

Congratulations, Ben.  Here’s to the next trilogy.


“They always assumed I was writing a children’s book” — Laura McHugh on writing while parenting

My fellow midwesterner Laura McHugh just published her debut novel, a wickedly dark murder novel called The Weight of BloodI thought she was a perfect person to invite on the Reverse Blog Tour to talk about something I think about all the time: how to reconcile the writing side of one’s life with the parenting side. Because you do, if you’re a dad or a mom and also a writer—especially a mystery writer—then you’ve got these two parts, the part that imagines bloody scenarios and broods over complicated crimes, and the part that changes diapers and carefully applies sunscreen. 

Here’s Laura:


Look at Laura McHugh’s enigmatic smile. Is she planning a playdate or a murder?

I didn’t tell many people that I was writing a book. I had recently lost my longtime job as a software developer and given birth to my second daughter, and I dreaded the pitying looks people would give me if I admitted that I spent every spare moment working on a novel that would probably never be published

At that point in my life, everyone saw me as a stay-at-home mom. Some of the other stay-at-home moms did not even know I’d had a full-time career writing software, and I was hesitant to tell them that my children were not my sole focus—that the moment my daughters fell asleep each night, I opened a seemingly innocuous Word document that began with the discovery of a girl’s dismembered body in a tree.

Once I let people in on my secret writing life, they almost always assumed that I was writing a children’s book. Oh, that’s great! Have you read it to your kids? (No, they’re not quite old enough for stories about backwoods human traffickers.)

I was surprised that everyone expected me to write stories for children. I wondered if I should be insulted that no one assumed I wrote werewolf erotica or biographies or hardboiled crime fiction. I mean, I did have children, and I read lots of kiddie books, but just because I spent every waking minute immersed in diapers and sippy cups and Barney songs didn’t mean that was all I thought about. Perhaps, on the surface, I didn’t appear to be the type of person who would write something so dark. What many of my acquaintances didn’t know was that I’ve always had a penchant for twisted tales. I grew up reading Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. Even when it comes to kids’ books, I tend to favor stories about monsters and ghosts and witches. I’ve read Goodnight Goon to my kids more times than Goodnight Moon.

This is not a sippy cup.

To my amazement, the book that I wrote while my children slept was published. It went out into the world, where anyone could read it. People saw that I hadn’t written a picture book. They knew that The Weight of Blood was dark, and unsettling, and that these dark, unsettling things had come out of me, the mother of two sweet little girls. There were a few awkward moments, like when you realize that your in-laws, your kids’ teachers and babysitters, and the priest at your church have all read a sex scene you wrote. I had to own it. Yes, this is me, this is the sort of thing that lurks in my head and demands to be put down on paper.

I can write about horrible crimes and still chat about potty training and playdates with all the other mommies.


Thanks, Laura!

I actually think this is a pretty gendered aspect of our profession; as cheerful and goofy a dad as I am, I doubt anyone is shocked, exactly, to discover that I write very dark stories—I think women, and especially moms, are just assumed by society to be cheerful and nurturing, inside and out.  

Interestingly, women have ALWAYS been notably proficient and successful at this business—I’m not an expert, but I bet there are more famous female names in mystery and crime fiction than other literary forms. (From Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to PD James and Patricia Highsmith to Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, right on down to Gillian Flynn.) 

I’d love thoughts on this from my fellow writers and parents, of all genders—meanwhile, get to know Laura McHugh, and come meet me on tour, starting in Indianapolis on July 12.