I often wonder when I’m reading something what the writer was reading while she or he was writing it. Sometimes it’s because I suspect the influence of a certain earlier work, sometimes it’s because the period or procedural details suggest a lot of research.
So in case anyone gives a hoot, this is a list of things I read or re-read during the period I was writing Underground Airlines (divided into a few different categories and using some sort of vaguely correct-looking bibliography format.)
Category 1: history of racism and slavery
Baptist, Edward A. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
Coates, Ta-Nahisi. “The Case for Reparations,” from The Atlantic Monthly, June 2014
Cover, Robert. Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process
Farrow, Anne; Lang, Joel; & Frank, Jennifer. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery
Genovese, Eugene. The Political Economy of Slavery
Genovese, Eugene. Roll Jordan Roll: The World The Slaves Made
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death
Various. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938
I am very honored and very excited to announce that IndieBound, the national association of independent book shops, has picked Underground Airlines to be on their “Next List” of great reads for the month of July — and not just on the list, but the number one choice.
“Winters has managed to aim a giant magnifying glass at the problem of institutionalized racism in America in a way that has never been done before. This Orwellian allegory takes place in the present day but in a United States where Lincoln was assassinated before he ever became president, the Civil War never took place, and slavery still exists in four states, known as the Hard Four. In agile prose that manages to convey the darkest of humors, Winters tackles the most sensitive of issues such as the motivations of misguided white liberals involved in racial politics, the use of racial profiling, and the influence of racism on the very young. Underground Airlines is the most important book of the summer. Read it.” —Kelly Justice, The Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA
Late spring is the time of year when newspapers and magazines put out their lists of hot books to read over the summer, and I’m very pleased with how many have chosen to include my new alternate-history mystery, Underground Airlines.
Speaking of Publisher’s Weekly, they also gave the novel a starred review that (what the heck) I’ll just go ahead and reproduce in full below. I hope you’ll consider placing an advance order of Underground Airlines from your favorite local bookstore, and telling your friends.
From Publisher’s Weekly:
“Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man meets Blade Runner in this outstanding alternate history thriller from Edgar-winner Winters (The Last Policeman). Victor, an African-American bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals Service, possesses a supreme talent for tracking down runaway slaves in a world in which there was no Civil War and slavery still exists in four Southern states. He’s a master of disguise and dissembling. Victor tracks a runaway slave code-named Jackdaw to Indianapolis, Ind., where he ingratiates himself with Father Barton, a purported leader of an abolitionist organization called Underground Airlines, and succeeds in penetrating the group. But soon thereafter Victor impulsively befriends Martha Flowers, a down-on-her-luck white woman traveling with her young biracial son, Lionel, a kindness that soon jeopardizes Victor’s carefully constructed cover identity. The novel’s closing section contains several breathtaking reversals, a genuinely disturbing revelation, and an exhilarating final course of action for Victor.”
My new novel, Underground Airlines, won’t be in stores until the distant date of July 5, 2016, but I’m now allowed to show you what it will look like, courtesy of the good people at Mulholland Books/Little, Brown.
I started writing this novel late in 2013, while I was still wrapping up World of Trouble, the last book in the Last Policeman trilogy. So it’s been a good long time that this story and this world have existed in my head. Showing you the cover, though it is still many months until the actual book is released, feels like a kind of dividing line between the terrifying/exciting period of writing it and the exciting/terrifying period of sharing it with the world.
This beautiful cover was designed by Oliver Munday. The art director at Little, Brown is Keith Hayes.
You can read a bit more about Underground Airlineshere or here.
(Hey, I wrote this a couple years ago as a guest post on Pub Crawl) and lately I’ve been seeing a couple quotes from it posted around, so I’m reposting the whole thing so it can live here on my site).
I am not the kind of writer, in general, who goes around giving advice to other writers, because I feel like I have no idea and am making the whole thing up as I go along, every day. (It is my impression, by the way, that most writers to some degree feel this same sense of day-to-day fraudulence, which I call writer’s blech—as opposed to writer’s block—but I think a lot of other writers are better than I am at hiding it).
This might actually be terrible advice. There are writers who would say that working on two books at once—especially if one of them is poetry and one is prose, especially if one is for kids and one is for adults—will muddy the mind, slow your progress, and confuse your style.
But what I find, what I have found throughout my working life, is the opposite. I like to be doing two things at once. I sort of need to be. One thing in active motion and one in the starting gate, warming up, ready to come out swinging—something else I’ve started to play around with, to make notes on, maybe done a wild first pass on.
Because as any writer will tell you, an IDEA for a book is like falling in love, it’s all wild emotion and headlong rush, but the ACTUAL ACT of writing a book is like building a relationship: it is joyous, slow, fragile, frustrating, exhilarating, painstaking, exhausting, worth it. So when I get through the lovey-dovey stuff on Project A and I’m deep into the difficult and complicated part, it is sheer anticipatory pleasure to have Projecet B, still in the pure-joy IDEA phase—waiting, patient, a temptation to which I can look forward.
See what I’m getting at here?
(And yes, I recognize that if I extend the love/relationship metaphor much further, what I get is a new lover waiting for me to get done with the current one. That’s why I switch over to a new metaphor right about now).
I call this The Theory of Rotating Dessert. Because you do, no matter how excited you are about your book when you first set out, you reach a point where you feel like it’s murder, it’s killing you, you hate it and you wish you’d never started. But there! There in the distance, far but not too far, is this other project, your delicious dessert, and the sight of it, the knowledge of it, will keep you going, maintain your excitement and your inspiration and your diligence until you get to the end.
And then when that Project B is actually underway, when you’re deep into it, banging your head against the wall trying to conjure up clever ways to rhyme with “ghoul”, you know you’ve got a whole new detective novel waiting for you: the part of your writing life that was active is now in beautiful abeyance, gleaming under lights in the magic part of your mind, like a slice of diner pie in a rotating glass case.
Hopefully I haven’t mixed my metaphors too terribly. And hopefully the books themselves—which, let’s face it, are all that matters—are satisfying and delicious.
The last bit of writing a new book is like when you’re assembling a bookshelf or something, and they’ve been telling you throughout not to tighten the screws all the way, to get everything in the right place and make sure it’s all on correctly before going back, at last, and doing those last final irreversible turns.
I’m sure this is an in-apt analogy in a lot of ways, but I’ve been using most of my figurative-language crafting ability in writing my new book, which is why I haven’t been active on this space at all this year. I’m coming to the point now where I’ll soon have to tighten those final screws, step back, and see if it looks like a beautiful bookshelf or not (and then turn it over to my editors, who’ll have their own round of sanding and painting and packaging and so on). Promise I’ll try and blog more after it’s done.
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.
I want to do some blog entries around writing craft this month, in support of my writerly sisters and brothers immersed in NaNoWriMo, where you try and bang out a 50,000-word novel in a month. For this entry, forget all the fancy artistic stuff about plot and character and symbolism, and let’s focus instead on the French expression mise en place, which is a culinary term literally meaning “putting in place,” but which I translate as “being on top of your shit.”
If you’re a chef or a cook you know what mise en place is, and you live by it. It’s the range of careful work that is required before service begins: all the chopping of raw ingredients, all the checking and double-checking of prep lists, all the sharpening of knives and arranging of utensils so they are in easy reach. It’s the tons of mental and physical preparation required before the work itself can begin.
I don’t think I got to be any good as a writer until I learned to embrace the notion of mise en place.
So much of what happens during the writing day can’t be planned or controlled. You have a vague idea, or maybe even a good idea, of what is going to happen in the chapter or scene you’re working on, but you don’t know for sure. You discover as you go, and this uncertainty is thrilling but also terrifying and overwhelming—the idea of sitting down before the blank page ,or the page covered in your own scribbled notes, or the page covered in a first draft that you know isn’t working yet.
So to counter that sense of the unknown—which can lead to a feeling of helplessness, which can lead to going to check your email or whatever you do to throw time down the gutter—the counterweight to that weightlessness and wildness is controlling as much as can possibly be controlled.
Meaning, don’t just sit down and say “I’m going to write today. Here I go!” And then, what, you lean and loaf under a tree like Whitman and wait for the muse to start singing?
No way. You sit down with a goddamn plan.
“For 45 minutes today, from 9:15 to 10, I’m going to work on the first chapter. Then, from 10:05 to 11:30, I’m going to revise my outline. From 11:30 to 12 I am going to do some research on oil rigs, because I am writing a scene about a roustabout.”
That’s mise en place. Time is one of your ingredients, right? It’s your resource. Use it with intention.
And yes, of course, if at 10:00 there’s more you want to do on the first chapter, if you’ve caught the spark of the idea and your fingers are on fire, you keep going. That’s the beauty of being your own boss! But start with walls, and let the walls fall away when you hit them. That’s a lot better than spending 9:15 to 10:00 asking yourself where to start, trying to gin yourself up to get going, and then checking Facebook…and then checking Twitter…and then putting in a laundry…
Know, too, before you begin, all the nitty-gritty mundane details of the writing process. Where are you going to work tomorrow? Library? Home office? Starbucks? Is there an outlet there, or do you have enough battery power? Is there a bathroom you feel comfortable with? Do people talk too much there? Are you going to run into a friend who wants to (God forbid) settle in for a chat?
Make your plan. Start the day exactly where you want to be. That’s mise en place! Preparation. Intention. Control—control in this case of your physical environment. Know where you’re going to be, so that there will be no unwelcome distractions (which are really welcome distractions, because by trying to write in a bad place, you have probably purposefully sabotaged yourself so as not to do the hard thing, which is sit and actually write.)
It’s weird, but there is always a part of your brain, when you sit down to write, that wants to be doing something else. Something easier, emotionally and intellectually. Something you might get paid for, in some immediate logical salary-based way. One of your jobs as a writer—not as a fancy-pants artiste, but as a real serious day-to-day craftsperson Writer— is to find strategies to trick that shifty, nervous, terrified person and keep her at her desk.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on the logical explanation for something I know instinctually to be true, which is that coincidences, while so delightful in real life, are so obnoxious in fiction. (Not always, but almost always.)
My tentative conclusion is that our main job, as fiction writers, is to create an illusion of reality. (I’m talking just in general here, just with realistic fiction and its close cousins—so not, for example, meta-fiction, or even high-genre stuff like thrillers and romance, witch & wizard stuff. ) The basic requirement of the gig is to create and maintain what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls “the vivid and continuous dream,” to make the reader feel like they’re immersed not in the product of a writer’s imagination but in an actual time and place. To make the fictional world, in other words, feel like it is the real world.
Anything that makes the reader question the reality of the fictional world (consciously or unconsciously) must then be edited or excised. Gardner talks about this in the context of “infelicitous” or “lumpy” writing that distracts from seamless storytelling, or a narrative voice that is too clever or too constructed, where the story is not being treated with due seriousness.
On the same list, for me, is a storyline that is full of wild, improbable events, not related at all to the motivations or needs of the characters—long-lost lovers meeting by chance on a city bus, that sort of shit. The sorts of events that make a reader go “oh, come on,” break faith with the reality of the story, and throw her book against the wall.
This despite the fact that, reality being the infinite and infinitely interesting thing that it is, long-lost lovers must, from time to time, meet by chance on a city bus. Right? But when those things happen in real life, they make us say things like “I never would have guessed it!” Or “I never would have believed it, unless I had seen it with my own eyes!” That’s what coincidences are, right, they are events that don’t seem like they belong within the confines of normal existence.
Coincidences by their nature seem to be somehow off the playing field, occurring outside the “rules” of real life. They almost seem like cheating, like someone circumvented the natural ways things are supposed to go, in which our actions and circumstances lead us inexorably but unpredictably toward our life’s next events. Which is exactly why they stink in fiction, because they give us the feeling that the author is not playing fair—he’s moving pieces around on a chess board instead of letting what is inside his characters drive them through the story.
Crucially, when coincidences happen in life, they do not actually cause us to question the the realness of reality. There is no book to throw across the room, no vivid and continuous dream to be interrupted. Because we know that no one literally authored this unlikely event, our response is to go “that’s weird” and move on; in fiction, because we know that someone did literally author this event, we say “oh, come on” and throw the book across the wall.
Final note: There are a lot more elements that have the opposite property, i..e. they are good in fiction but bad in real life. Like, for example, terrible people. The obnoxious pretentious asshole at the dinner party is a nightmare if you’re actually have a dinner party, but if you’re writing about one, he’s a goldmine.
Final final note: I’m going to try and write about writing a lot in the next month, since we’re entering November, in which a lot of people participate in NaNoWriMo, where you try and write a whole novel in a month. Which some people dog on, saying it’s silly or whatever, but I say more power to ’em. Everybody who wants to write should write all the time, for any reason. Right?
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!)