“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: 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Trouble Begins

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

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Spieling.

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

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

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Signing.


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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!

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Announcing the 2014 Reverse Blog Tour

This new headshot was taken a couple weeks ago by Indianapolis photographer Mallory Talty.

As frequent readers of this blog will know, they do not exist, because there are no frequent readers of this blog. I like to keep my fans and friends up to date, but I’ve never really become a blogger, in the classical sense (although, can a medium two decades old have classical senses associated with it?), never having had the patience or the excess of articulable opinions necessary to keep up with the whole thing.

(I’ll tell you who is good at it though, and that is my aunt Ann.)

Good thing then that starting next Friday, June 20, this space will become a lot more exciting, at least for a month or two. To celebrate the launch of World of Trouble, the third and final book in the Last Policeman series, I have invited some of my favorite authors and human beings to contribute guest posts about topics of mutual interest.

Among those stopping by will be best-selling authors like Hugh Howey and Adam Sternbergh, plus old friends like Suzanne LaFleur and Gabe Roth and Ransom Riggs (all of whom also happen to be best-selling authors). I’ve invited sci-fi writers, mystery writers, composer/lyricists, journalists, professors—all manner of interesting folks. The current list of contributors is below, and I’ll maybe add the dates as I finalize things , if I ever finalize things. (I’m bad at finalizing things, just in general). I’ll probably add more people, too, if I can find more arms to twist. I’m calling the whole thing my 2014 Reverse Blog Tour, because a Blog Tour in the classical sense (cf earlier parenthetical question) is where an author visits a bunch of other people’s blogs, and here I’m doing the opposite—a bunch of other authors are coming here to play in my sandbox.

THIS new headshot was taken by my wife. Just try and guess what mountain is behind me.

Oh…AND I’ll be doing an actual blog tour starting July 7, and will soon have more info on that!

AND AND I’ll be doing an actual, real live, human in-the-flesh tour , starting July 12 here in Indianapolis, at Indy Reads Books on Mass Ave! Check the APPEARANCES page to see where else the official World of Trouble double-wide emblazoned megabus will be taking me. (Nota been: There is no such bus).

Here is the list of folks whose bylines you can look for on this site between June 20 and mid-August: Hugh HoweyLaura McHugh , Daniel Friedman, Abby Sher, Noah BerlatskyRansom RiggsAdam Sternbergh, the songwriters Kerrigan and LowdermilkSuzanne LaFleurEthan Gilsdorf, Eric Smith, Gabriel Roth (not the one who plays bass in the Dap-Kings), Ian “Shakespeare’s Star Wars” Doescher, and Professor Joel Marks of the University of New Haven, an honest-to-goodness expert in the ethics of asteroid prevention.

It sounds like a fun party, right? Stay tuned.

 

 

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Mystery writing / writing is a mystery

This is a very short blog entry that is really just to share one thing with you.

I’ve been doing research on the author Richard Price because on Thursday night I’m teaching his book (masterpiece, if you ask me) Clockers for my mystery fiction class at Butler.

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I found this quote in an interview with him and it just about knocked my head off. One of the great true things I’ve heard said about writing…

“I have to be a little intimidated by what I’m writing about. I have to feel a little bit like I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can master this, I don’t think I can get under the skin of this, because when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table because you’re not sure you can do it unless you bust your balls and really, really get into it. Terror keeps you slender. I need a sense of awe.”

That’s probably true of all art forms, and maybe all things that require effort to yield something complex and complete: “when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table.”

In other words, when it’s hard you know you’re doing it right.

Can you tell I’m working out the idea for a new book? Can you tell it’s making me feel various complicated emotions, ranging from joy to terror?

The other thing that happened today was that I had a call with the marketing department at Quirk Books (or as I like to call her, Nicole) to discuss this summer’s little book tour in support of World of Trouble: The Last Policeman Book III. We’ll be announcing all the dates soon.

 

 

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The End is Nigh (in more ways than one)

The_End_is_NighOn March 1 you’ll be able to read The End is Nigh, the first in a series of apocalypse-themed short story collections, edited by John Joseph Adams, who publishes Lightspeed Magazine, and Hugh Howey , who wrote Wool and a bunch of other hugely popular sci-fi books. I love the story I wrote for this first volume– it’s called BRING HER TO ME (the all-caps is part of the title)—and the best part is that there are two more volumes to come, so I’ll get to continue the tale with two more stories. You can preorder The End Is Nigh, which also features contributions from Robin Wasserman, Jake Kerr, and a ton of other science-fiction authors, at this page.

And speaking of completing trilogies…World of Trouble, the third and final book in the Last Policeman series, is approaching the point of no return: it is being copyedited by the good folks at Quirk Books, while I do my final pass, which I call the “read the whole thing out loud to my cat” pass. (You can actually see said cat, and all my other writing accoutrements, in this picture). That book will be available on July 15 but you can order it now. Thanks to everyone who kept  asking me how it was going. Like all books, it was going real bad, then for a while it was great, then it was TERRIBLE, and now I think it’s pretty good. Ask me again next week, OK?

I’ll have a cover mockup to show you one of these days.

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