All posts in The Last Policeman

“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?

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crocuses

These two crocuses are deeply dystopian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

Order my new book! Win fabulous prizes!

Last Policeman_Joseph Laney Illustration

These illustrated panels of The Last Policeman by Joseph Laney are objectively incredible.

The team at Quirk Books have announced an official “pre-order campaign” for World of Trouble, the concluding volume in the Last Policeman trilogy.

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.

See all the details here!

Nominated for Philip K. Dick award

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.

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Philip K. Dick

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)

Clancy and the muse

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.”

Hard work. Yes. Off to write more.

 

Bread & Jam for the Apocalypse

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.)51Qxcz2+qOL._SY346_

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 Last9780253212344Policeman, 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.

It’s called Riddley Walker, and I got to be obsessed with that book—and the fact that the author, Russell Hoban, is (much) better known for writing Bread and Jam For Frances and its sequels.

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I learned that fact and said fantastic and tucked it away to hold in my palm like a diamond. It’s like a ticket that says, basically, “oh, just write it.”

Countdown Cities

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?

 

images-1Highlights 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.

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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.

Gibson's

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.

Our tour thus far

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:

readinginSTL

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Would Detective Palace Read?

[written originally for the good folks at Amazon.com]

 

16046748When 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.images

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 Beachit was a major influence on me in creating this series.

The Bible
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 Citywatch our video Q&A with author Ben H. Winters.

Edgar round up, and moving on

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: Complicationby 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.

 

Report from C2E2

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.

Finally I did some interviews with journalists, one of whom took this picture of me smiling awkwardly posed in front of the new Policeman cover. atC2E2wposter

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.