Hey, are you doing NaNoWriMo? (If you don’t know what that is, you’re probably not—It’s National Novel Writing Month, a collective-inspiration program where people try to write a whole 50,000-word novel over the course of November.)
If you are doing it, if you are in the throes of it as we speak, and might even need a little extra kick in the butt, I’ve got an offer for you: I’d like to read your finished manuscript, and give a you a detailed critique.
All you have to do (besides finishing the thing!) is make a donation of $25 or more to my favorite charity, Doctors Without Borders, the international medical organization that as we speak is doing crucial and ridiculously brave work in West Africa, and all over the world.
TO ENTER: make a donation to Doctors Without Borders ($25 or more) before November 30, and forward the confirmation you get to email@example.com. (Feel free to redact your address & phone, if you want; their confirmation email does not include any credit card info).
THE PRIZE: I will randomly select ONE ENTRANT AS THE WINNER (out of all those received by the end of November). If you are that winner, then by December 31, author Ben H. Winters (uh, that’s me) will carefully read your NaNoWriMo manuscript, and offer a detailed written critique to help you get it from first to second draft.
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT THAT (you’re reading my blog, so you probably know who I am, but just in case someone forwarded this to you): I’m the author of eight novels, including the Last Policeman trilogy (which won both an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction), as well as The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, a novel for kids, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, a New York Times bestseller. I teach creative writing in the MFA program at Butler University, and I’ve taught novel writing (and mystery writing in particular) through the auspices of Boston’s marvelous Grub Street. I’ve also done plenty of one-on-one consultation with aspiring/emerging writers, and at least two of my clients have subsequently sold those novels to publishers.
Pictured here is the main entrance to the big public library in downtown Concord, NH, where the whole darn city is being encouraged (I hope not forced) to read The Last Policeman, by yours truly, for the 2015 Concord Reads program.
Wouldn’t it be fun if YOUR city, town, township, principality, or unincorporated territory all read my book together?
(Thanks to Andrew Winters, Our Man in Concord, for the pic!)
It probably goes without saying that I am super-excited about this news, not least because I’ve been working on this project for quite a while already—over a year at least, moving slowly from mulling to drafting to writing—and it’s a relief to arrive at a moment where it’s real, it’s happening, it’s going to actually be a book.
The big concept of Underground Airlines is that it’s a crime drama that takes place now, in present-day America, except the Civil War was never fought, and legal slavery still exists in pockets of the South. You can already tell, if you know the Last Policeman books, that there are some familiar elements: it’s speculative fiction, it’s a counterfactual, it’s the that world we know except for this one thing that changes everything.
But I can tell you that the hero of Underground Airlines is seriously about as different from Detective Palace as you can imagine, both as a person and as type of hero. And while the Policeman series was about the end of the world, about death and how we live with death, this book is about race and racism, it’s about grief, it’s about the horror of American slavery (and in particular the Constitutional nightmare of the Fugitive Slave Law), and it’s about compromise.
Well, I mean, I think that’s what this book is about—that’s what it’s about so far. I’m not done. It’s a big book—it’s going to be a big book—so I hope you’ll read it when it’s done and we can talk about it then.
P.S. The only blue note in this happy news is that Underground Airlines will not be published by Quirk Books, who did the Last Policeman trilogy and my earlier novels, too. A kinder and more hardworking group of humans you will never meet, in or out of the publishing business. You should buy their books—although if you’re one of the billions who read Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, or William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, you already have.
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.
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.”)
We 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?
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.
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.
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!
I keep drafting blog posts that start with “sorry I haven’t posted in so long,” but it always seems such an internet cliche to start a post like that, and as a writer I am professional antagonistic toward cliche.
Also, just vis a vis the internet, I can actually measure my success at getting real work done in inverse proportion to how much blogging/posting/updating I am doing, so a long stretch of no blogging, while perhaps detrimental to my hit count, I know also means I’ve been doing a ton of writing, which I actually have. The second half of the third Last Policeman book (as-yet-untitled) is to my editor, and I am pleased—and starting to get a bit of anticipatory sadness about being done, soon enough, with Hank and his world. That’s the business, I guess.
I’ve also completed the third book in the Literally Disturbed series (my scary poems for kids, with great illustrations by Adam Watkins; the first one is in stores now & the second one comes out in the spring, I think), and I’m working on a short story for an anthology I’m extremely excited about, though I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to talk about it yet.
But the reason I’m breaking blog silence is actually to note with sadness the death of Tom Clancy, who I commend to the ages on the strength of this quote:
“[Y]ou learn to write the same way you learn to play golf…You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work.”
I just took a few minutes to reorganize the pages of this site, to separate out my published works as kids stuff vs. adult stuff, as opposed to plays vs. books, which just seems like a more useful distinction. (Especially since my newest book, Literally Disturbed: Tales to Keep You Up at Night, is poetry.)
But anyway, sometimes I get uneasy about the fact that my career has progressed along two such different tracks—like, how weird it is that I’ve written (on the one hand) a horror novel about bedbugs, and (on the other hand), a jaunty musical about Paul Revere, including a song about the Boston Tea Party called “Something’s Brewing.” Then I remind myself of the careers of people like Roald Dahl, and Shel Silverstein, who found success (and did good work) in both milieus.
And most of all, I remember that when I was reading a ton of apocalyptic fiction to prepare for writing The LastPoliceman, my very favorite was a masterly and disturbing depiction of England, thousands of years after a devastating nuclear war leveled all civilization, a brutal adventure book written entirely in a sort of pidgin English, because the characters had reconstructed the language from the fragments of their ancestors.
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.