When I was a teenager, I wanted to be like Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest, of course, was a slaveowner who went on to become a noted Confederate general. His troops massacred black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, and he went on to be one of the founding members of the KKK, but it wasn’t these facts that attracted me, per se. It was the knowledge that elsewhere he was indubitably an incredible soldier, the only man to start the Civil War as a private and end it as a general. You can certainly view him through the lens of history as a glaring example of white privilege; for me he seemed like a victory for meritocracy. (At Brice’s Crossroads, for instance, he pulled off one of the most stunning tactical victories in warfare, soundly defeating 8,100 Union troops with a force of only 3,500 Confederates.) In Ken Burns’ Civil War series, Shelby Foote said the war’s only two geniuses were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. One way or another, I wanted to be a genius.
While still in high school, I read Jack Hurst’s excellent biography of Forrest; I remember noticing that his birthday was July 13th. I was so enamored with the Forrest mythos that I was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t my birthday; it was a day that meant nothing to me. I noticed, too, that at the end of his days, after a lifetime of drinking and cussing and fighting, Forrest had converted to Christianity, and genuinely repented of his myriad sins.
After high school, I went to the military academy, but it soon became apparent that I was not a natural soldier; when I left the service, my enthusiasm for military matters waned, and I spent a good decade-plus without thinking much about Forrest. Eventually, I married a beautiful, smart, spunky woman—a woman who happens to be African-American. When she gave birth to our son, I remember looking at the date—July 13th. I pulled up Wikipedia to see if it held any special historical significance; when I realized it was Forrest’s birthday, I had to laugh at the irony. Some months later, in the course of moving some books, I came across the Hurst biography again. And in this racially-charged time of suspicion and mistrust, I’ve been thinking about Forrest, and what he means for us.
While his military prowess once impressed me, now I respect the fact that he had the courage to change, and to repent of his ways. Speaking to an audience of African-American Southerners in 1875, he said: “Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief,” and “When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together.”
After this speech, Nathan Bedford Forrest accepted a bouquet from an African-American woman, a former slave, who gave it in appreciation of his efforts towards harmony. For this, he was condemned by his peers, including at least one Confederate officers’ association, and roundly lambasted in Southern newspapers. He’d helped start an evil organization that lived on after his death, but in this day of political name-calling, when so many of us think we can judge someone’s heart based on the company they’ve kept, it bears noting that a man who played a key early role in the most virulent racist organization in American history ended his life preaching love, tolerance, and racial reconciliation.
* * *
I never much admired George Wallace. He started his political career as a relatively moderate populist, endorsed by the NAACP in a failed 1958 gubernatorial bid; after his loss, he became an ardent segregationalist. When asked about the switch, he said, "I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor." In the 1962 general election (at a time, of course, when many Alabama counties used poll taxes, racially disparate voter tests, or even outright violence to prevent African Americans from even registering to cast their ballots), he went on to win 96% of the vote.
At Wallace’s inauguration, in a speech written by Ku Klux Klan member Asa Earl Carter, he said: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” (It’s worth noting the Orwellian logic in this sentence, the perversion of reality—at a time when white Southerners were violently disenfranchising their black peers, and often killing their leaders, he viewed the federal government’s efforts towards racial justice as “tyranny.”) Wallace later went to Washington and met with President Johnson in March of 1965, in the wake of the “Bloody Sunday” Selma protests which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As a cadet at West Point, I wrote a paper about this process; I didn’t know much about it, and I wanted to learn. I read about how Wallace received the “Johnson treatment” during the course of their conversation. The president was willing to use crude language and talk as one Southerner to another. (“Now, George, why don’t you let those niggers vote?”) He also tried to puff up Wallace’s ego. (When Wallace claimed that it was the county registrars that were responsible for black disenfranchisement, Johnson said: “George, don’t you shit me as to who runs Alabama.”) And he appealed to Wallace’s larger sense of self, and every politician’s desire for a lasting and positive legacy. “George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1965; we should be thinking about 1985,” Johnson said. “Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama…a lot of people who need jobs, a lot of people who need a future. You could do a lot for them. Now, in 1985, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there along that harsh caliche soil that says ‘George Wallace: He Hated’?”
In the end, LBJ got the law he wanted, a law which opened up access to the polls for millions who had had no voice, the true victims of the true tyranny. But he got it with no help from Wallace, for his appeals to Wallace’s ego did not work. The Alabama governor left their meeting having been moved, but not converted. (“Hell, if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights,” he would later say.) He remained committed to his views, for a time; in 1968, he of course ran as a 3rd party candidate, the last to receive actual Electoral College votes. He was running even stronger in the 1972 primaries, picking up votes in northern states from voters who were angry at forced integration through school bussing—until a would-be assassin (apparently motivated by nothing more than a desire to be noteworthy) shot and paralyzed him.
During Wallace’s recuperation, he was visited in the hospital by many politicians—including Shirley Chisolm, a black congresswoman from Brooklyn who was mounting her own campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Johnson conversation seven years earlier had been, perhaps, a meeting of two massive egos; it changed neither person. But this was something else entirely—a kind act to a dangerous demagogue, a brave act by a woman who could have just as easily refused to act. For Shirley Chisolm knew she’d be criticized for the visit. As she later recalled, Wallace asked her: “What are your people going to say?” To which she responded: “I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” After she said this, George Wallace “cried and cried.”
Johnson was of course no longer alive in 1985, but Wallace was. Somewhere after Shirley Chisolm’s hospital visit, he’d become a voice of tolerance and compassion. For his last term in office, he’d selected a racially mixed cabinet, and appointed unprecedented numbers of African-Americans to statewide positions. While certainly not a model governor—both his earlier and later terms were marked by political cronyism—he met with civil rights leaders, including Representative John Lewis, who had been viciously beaten at Selma, and had suffered a fractured skull. Wallace repented of his ways, publicly admitted his wrongs, and asked forgiveness from those he had helped oppress.
Wallace, too, was willing to forgive the man who had grievously wounded him; in 1995, he wrote to Arthur Bremer. Although he acknowledged the 20-plus years of pain he’d endured, he also said, “I am a born-again Christian” and “I love you.”
* * *
The Reverend Martin Luther King, a man who experienced much hate, famously said: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Many of us like to think the answer to our social ills isn’t love, but knowledge. It’s a comforting way to dismiss racism and intolerance, to view their adherents as backwards, uneducated, stupid, and therefore worthy of contempt. But this is a dangerous assumption.
The dirty secret about racism and intolerance and hatred is that it isn’t always founded on ignorance. If mere knowledge were enough to make people get along, no marriages would end in divorce. And to my friends who act as if moving overseas and meeting other people of different backgrounds were enough to make people treat each other well, I’m fond of pointing out instances from the rise of modern Islamic terrorism where this was explicitly not the case. (Sayyid Qutb, a key early member of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the ideological forefathers of violent Islamism, lived in the United States and was horrified by much of what he saw, not only by the treatment of different races, but also by the free association of men and women in public; in the language of modern liberals, he was anti-racist but horribly sexist. Mohamed Atta, who of course piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, lived in Germany for years. And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the attacks, graduated from university in North Carolina.)
So it is not knowledge that will save us, because knowledge, driven by the wrong spirit, will exacerbate our differences. We filter our knowledge; it only reaches us once it’s been poured through our own experiences and identities—which are subjective, not objective, for each and every one of us. Knowledge can lead us to pick and choose which facts are most important, and to do so in a way that feeds our ravenous egos, rather than nourishing our quiet hunger for peace.
Leo Tolstoy, in his seminal pacifist work The Kingdom of God is Within You, identified three possible concepts of how to make sense of the world. There is, he says, the personal (or animal) concept, in which people primarily work to gratify themselves. Most societies rightly recognize that this is a recipe for strife and frustration; if everyone’s looking to sate themselves, we will inevitably wind up in conflict with one another, for our egos are insatiable. But it is Tolstoy’s second concept which is perhaps most intriguing; this is what he calls “the social, or the pagan.” In this, “man’s life is not contained in his personality alone, but in the aggregate and sequence of personalities—in the tribe, the family, the race, the state; the aim of life consists in the gratification of the will of this aggregate of personalities.” Such a person, Tolstoy says, “sacrifices his personal good” for the sake of the group. “The prime mover of his life is glory. His religion consists in the glorification of the heads of unions—of eponyms, ancestors, kings, and in the worship of gods, the exclusive protectors of his family, his race, his nation, his state.”
To me, this concept is the root of our present troubles; when we live this way, there is a tendency to conflate morality with what is good or bad for whatever identity we cherish most—our own nation, race, occupation, gender or religion. And there’s a tendency to cherry-pick facts, too, to play up items that feed our egos and look good for our group identity, while discounting those that don’t. Those whites who are truly racist can then decry the sad state of America’s inner cities, blaming blacks en masse for criminality and drug abuse and unemployment and the collapse of communities—all while ignoring the ongoing decline of so many of our small towns and rural communities from the ravages of heroin abuse and the decline in well-paying blue-collar jobs. Radical Islamists can harp on the collateral damage casualties caused by drone strikes, or the suffering of Palestinian refugees, while rationalizing and excusing and minimizing the thousands of people murdered on 9/11, or the Israelis killed by terrorist bombs. When we live by this concept, agitators on the fringes of the “Black Lives Matter” movement can tell themselves that other lives do not matter, and attack police; when we live by this concept, police can blithely dismiss the BLM protestors by saying “Blue Lives Matter,” as if choosing to put on a police uniform for part of the day (and getting a salary and a pension for it) was equivalent to wearing a skin not of your choosing for your entire life. When we live by this concept, Muslims who live in Western opulence can choose to become terrorists, and rationalize that choice because other Muslims that they’ve never met have suffered defeat and death and oppression in unjust wars. When we live by this concept, non-Catholic women can tell Catholic women that they should avoid their own preferences and vote for a woman who didn’t always seem to like Catholics. When we live by this concept, Catholics can call employer-provided birth control—birth control that nobody has to take—“persecution,” and then turn around and vote for a man who openly talked about restricting the freedom of movement of 1.6 billion Muslims.
But Tolstoy’s third life concept is rooted not in the individual identity, nor in the group identity. People who live by this concept are motivated by love, a love that knows no boundaries or borders, no distinctions of race or class or religion. This is, perhaps, a Christian love—but it’s an expansive love, completely unlike the so-called Christianity of, say, the KKK, or the Westboro Baptist “Church”; it’s a love that calls us to treat people well even when they don’t look or act like us, or even when they haven’t treated us well. It’s a love that follows Jesus’ admonition that “Whatsoever you have done to the least of my bretheren, you have done unto me.”
This kind of love is a true, active love. It’s not a blind love, but rather a love that sees the best in those around us, and sees the potential for better things, still, and calls forth those better things, not only in them, but in us. It’s this love (I would argue) that led Nathan Bedford Forrest to accept a bouquet of flowers from a black audience, and earn the condemnation of his fellow former Confederates; it’s this love that led Shirley Chisolm to George Wallace’s hospital room; it’s the love that allowed John Lewis to meet with the governor whose minions had fractured Lewis’ skull; it’s the love that let George Wallace reach out to the man who’d shot him five times.
* * *
For those of us who voted against Donald Trump, there are reasons to be profoundly concerned by his election, inauguration, and early presidency. His legacy is, to say the least, racially charged. He was sued for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans, and ordered to change his practices—and he resisted the settlement. After the arrest of five black and Hispanic youths in connection with the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989, he purchased a heated full-page ad decrying the crime and calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty—never mind the fact that the boys were innocent, and ended up being exonerated. When the city of New York paid settlement money to the now-grown exonerees, who’d spent a combined total of forty years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit, he blasted the deal. Trump has openly advocated policies that violate the First Amendment of the constitution, and done so in a way that seems designed to exacerbate racial tensions. There are legitimate concerns that Trump won the 2016 election, in part, because of voter ID laws that are, according to liberal activists, a resumption of the poll tax by other means—a partial reversal of the gains for which Martin Luther King and John Lewis and many others marched at Selma. Trump’s picked a chief strategist who’s been all too willing to seek support from belligerent white nationalists. And his selection of Ben Carson for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs certainly gives off an odor of both tokenism and racism; rather than giving a neurosurgeon a post related to his career (such as, say, leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services), it certainly seems like Trump’s giving a black man a post in charge of something he associates with blackness—urban affairs.
And yet, the key question isn’t “Is Donald Trump a racist?” It is “Can we respond to Donald Trump with love?” Only God knows Trump’s heart, or his motivations. (Besides, if my 39 years have taught me anything, it is that nobody responds well when you accuse them of bad motives. Even if they are, in fact, motivated by such negative emotions, they will never admit to it; they will come up with some other nobler-sounding reason for their actions, and they will probably believe it.) But we can certainly learn a lot from The Donald by looking at his actions, and if we temper that knowledge with a loving spirit, we might indeed learn something worthwhile.
Ben Franklin once said “Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.” And this may be part of the key to loving him—realizing that he is, in a way, showing us our truest selves. His career in real estate and reality TV, and his relentless Twitter usage, suggest that he is, perhaps, the quintessential Ugly American, the apotheosis of all we dislike about our country and ourselves. For who among us, in these days of relentless social media self-promotion and façade-building, has not engaged in the same behavior as Donald Trump, albeit on a smaller scale? Who among us does not get distracted from necessary work to get caught up in useless spats on social media? Who among us hasn’t been lured away from the real and thankless chores in front of us by the need to puff up our online egos, by these endless vain attempts to look bigger and more important and more successful than we really are? Trump is, perhaps, a funhouse mirror that distorts and exaggerates our worst traits as a country—our hunger for fame and money and power and success and, most crucially, attention.
There are those, of course, who refuse to see any part of themselves in Donald Trump, who choose to focus on the differences instead of the similarities—and that’s certainly their right. Many of these people have pointed out Donald Trump’s apparent emulation of Richard Nixon, a man who appealed to white fears of black crime, a man who was often described as an epic hater. Trump has certainly harped on similar themes; he even leaned on Roger Ailes, former head of Fox News and one-time media consultant to Nixon, for debate preparation help. It’s certainly worth remembering that Nixon’s hatred and paranoia led to resignation and disgrace, and a country temporarily united in dislike of him. And yet in the interests of love and positivity, we might do better to remember the nobler and more benevolent side of Nixon, the side that acted, as Trump might say, “bigly.” This was, after all, the man who presided over the first nuclear arms limitation talks with the Soviets; this was the man who opened diplomatic relations with China, an act that helped that country move away from the extremism and genocide of the Mao years. One hopes Trump, in between angry tweets about SNL cast members and recalcitrant judges, remembers that his occasionally-petty predecessor was willing to show true and lasting leadership in ways that really did make the world a better place.
But we might do better still to remember Nixon’s surprisingly warm and wise words upon his departure from the White House: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” If we respond to Trump’s actions with hatred, we will be ruining ourselves, while leaving him intact, and further set in his ways. For hatred tends to harden people’s hearts, rather than softening them, and a hardened heart will never change. But change is possible. And if it was possible for Forrest and Wallace, surely it’s possible for Trump, and for ourselves.
OK, it's time for the second installment of our Q&A with Martin Seay, author author of The Mirror Thief, which you should most definitely check out, if you have not already done so. (Click here for Part I.)
Q: In one interview, you said you were initially worried about finding enough material to connect the various Venices, and you eventually ended up with the opposite problem. It sounds like you ended up with a surplus of material. How much research did you end up doing after you started the book, versus before, and how did you balance the research and the writing?
A: I am fond of quoting (or more likely paraphrasing) something that I heard the novelist Kathryn Davis say once in a Q&A when asked a somewhat similar question: I do research when I’m stuck, she said, and when I’m not stuck anymore, I stop doing research.
It’s the second part of that remark that’s particularly awesome; lots of writers experience something that’s been called “research rapture,” when one gets so carried away with making connections through all sorts of disparate material that one forgets to, y’know, actually get back to writing. I suspect there’s also a danger of absorbing so much material that one finds oneself paralyzed, unable to sort signal from noise, or to locate the thread of a compelling narrative. I’ve been lucky; I’ve never been anywhere close to managing that degree of expertise in any subject.
Q: Did you ever feel like you’d fallen down the rabbit hole, research-wise?
A: This is a great question, and one that I’m going to try and answer in a way that’s more informative than boring.
Back in 2002, while taking Richard’s Experimental Fiction class, I wrote a 25-page fragment that gradually grew into The Mirror Thief. Richard’s class was generative: he had us write nine stories over the course of a semester (which is a lot) and we had to write them all to very specific and somewhat off-the-wall prompts. As a result, I had very little time to work on anything prior to turning it in. The prompt for my 25-page fragment was to “write a story in which someone tells a story in which someone tells a story.” I decided—quickly!—that I’d do something inspired by the emergence of the flat glass mirror as a consumer good in Venice circa 1500; in order to achieve the triple temporal displacement that Richard’s prompt demanded, I decided to set two of the three stories in “reflections” of Venice: Venice Beach (which was built in 1905 as an explicit imitation of the original) and a Venice-themed hotel and casino in Las Vegas. My research for that first 25 pages was limited to a Las Vegas travel guide, a cursory glance through The Mirror: A History by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, and a lot of frantic Googling.
Looking back now on those initial pages—something I hadn’t done in years prior to answering this question—I am struck by 1) how bad much of it is, and, despite that, 2) how much of it actually did make it into the published book, if in a very, very revised form. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the content from my original Page 2 is now on Page 7, Page 13 is now Page 84, Page 15 is now Page 341, etc.) Even given the half-assed—hundredth-assed—research I’d done to get started, I could see that I had hit on an idea that was worth pursuing; I begin reading more widely and attentively in a bunch of different directions, trying to make thematic connections and identify motifs that I could tease out into scenes, characters, a storyline. This wasn’t even research yet; I wasn’t looking to solve any specific problems or answer any particular questions. I was just thinking in very general terms of what the book would be about, and how it would work.
In 2003 I started my MFA program—the low-residency program at Queens University of Charlotte—with the 25 pages that I’d written for Richard and the intention of expanding them into a novel. The first teacher I worked with at Queens was the novelist Jane Alison; Jane immediately handed me my ass. She helped me realize that what I thought was the beginning of a novel was really a very sketchy outline and a few notes; its ostensible “characters” were just blatant mechanisms for getting to and from various conceptual set-pieces. Jane encouraged me to be respectful of my made-up people: to imaginatively inhabit their pasts, their fears and desires, their embodied experience of the situations that I’d chosen to put them in.
This was by far the most difficult and most rewarding aspect of writing the book. Much of this process was purely meditative: thinking hard, for example, about not only what taking a boat across the Venetian lagoon in the late spring of 1592 would have been like, but what it would have been like for a 35-year-old physician who’s working as a spy for the Ottoman Empire, who’s operating on no sleep, who has a slight cold, and who murdered somebody a few hours earlier. But a lot of it was research-driven, too. Some of my characters are professional gamblers, so I read a lot about blackjack card-counting. Some of my characters are glassmakers, so I studied up on how glass was manufactured circa 1600. Some of my characters are alchemists, so I learned about the Neo-Platonic intellectual tradition in which they partook. A lot of what I came to understand as the deep structure of the novel was concerned with technologies that people have adopted over the centuries in order to regard themselves—along with a bunch of metaphors that these technologies have encouraged—so I researched mirror-making, publishing, painting, poetry, architecture, film, etc. As I was reading, I’d stumble over specific details that would spark aspects of characters’ biographies, or give me ideas for scenes, or suggest lines of dialogue; pursuing these would generate more of the others in turn. The process was fairly accretionary. By this point the amount of actual writing I was doing had slowed to a trickle—not the best situation when one is enrolled in a writing program.
Once I had outlines of the plots of the three sections worked out well enough to really start writing, I tried to follow Davis’s advice and only research what I needed to get me from chapter to chapter. (Certain topics were bottomless: reading about alchemy, for instance, turned out to be a power-dive that I desperately needed to pull out of.) An important thing to keep in mind is that unlike an academic researcher—who’s trying to achieve comprehensive knowledge of a chosen subject—I was mostly just hunting for details to steal: evocative images and language that would shore up the authority of the book’s narration and induce readers to imagine their way into a vivid and transportive experience.
The only thing that I turned up in my research that I regret not being able to feature more prominently is the crazy story of of John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was also an avid practitioner of the occult: a follower of Aleister Crowley who was laying the foundations of the American space program during the workweek and collaborating on the weekends with a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard on rituals intended to summon the goddess Babalon. It was just too much, man. The story deserves its own novel. By someone other than me. (I did work some of this material into a short play I that wrote last year for the Chicago-based Runaways Lab Theatre.) [Editor's note: ZOMG! You should read about John Whiteside Parsons, for real. Like, just open the link and leave the browser window open and read it later in the bathroom, if you have to. You'll thank me]
Q: You mentioned in one interview that you’re more of an idea-based author than a character-based author. Did you have any big ideas or epiphanies during the final stages of publication, or post-publication, that you kind of wish had made it into the finished product?
Not yet! It could still happen, I suppose. The one thing that I did add at the last second was a slightly stronger evocation of the residential building boom in 2003 Las Vegas; that’s something that my original draft touched on, but that became somewhat more compelling after Vegas got clobbered in the housing crisis. I figured that folks who read the book without knowing that I finished it seven-odd years before it was actually published might wonder why I didn’t play that up more, so I played it up more. (It’s consistent with many of the book’s broader themes anyway.)
A thing that I tried to do—because novels that are obviously more interested in lecturing than storytelling are invariably terrible (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you)—is cover my conceptual tracks as much as possible. While I do have sincere and strongly-held convictions about the world and the project of living in it, I hope these aren’t ever stated baldly in the book. There’s plenty of theorizing and bloviating in there, but I think it’s only done by the characters, not the narrator—more specifically by characters who may be full of shit. What I really hoped to accomplish was to create a space and an occasion for readers to think about certain ideas and patterns without directly prompting them to do so; I tried to make my arguments elliptically, through the book’s structure and motifs.
Q: There’s certainly something Pynchon-esque about the book, particularly the parts set in old Venice, but the 2003 parts have a very noirish feel to them. Do you have any particular favorite influences (books or movies) when it comes to noir/detective fiction? Were there any other big influences that people haven’t really mentioned?
A: An obnoxious but honest thing that I feel obliged to say when I’m asked about influences is that the book was, to my way of thinking, definitely influenced by Pynchon—and by Umberto Eco—not despite but because of the fact that I’ve barely read anything by either of them. I keep picking up and putting down Foucault’s Pendulum, never getting more than a dozen pages in, and while I read and loved The Crying of Lot 49, I haven’t attempted anything else by Pynchon. But as I was writing The Mirror Thief, I thought often about what I imagine Pynchon’s and Eco’s novels to be like—or maybe more accurately what I wish they were like. (To be clear, I’m not remotely saying that my book is better; just that it’s closer to the sorts of things that I connect with as a reader.)
I pull a few metafictional stunts in the book—characters’ names very often refer to something outside the text, and there are quite a few unidentified and unattributed quotations scattered throughout—but I decided not to use them as distancing or alienating effects in the ways that Pynchon and Eco might. I wanted the book to play by (most of) the rules as a literary thriller, and for (most of) the metafictional elements to function as Easter eggs—as the gamer kids say—for readers who catch the references.
The three biggest influences on the book are probably 1) Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses (specifically the way that he smuggles a lot of his philosophical content into the reader’s head by way of his descriptions of landscape), 2) Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s book about the Sex Pistols (and Dada, and the Situationist International, and, um, everything else), and 3) The Optical Unconscious by Rosalind E. Krauss, a fairly theory-heavy book about visual art that really rearranged my thinking on a bunch of stuff. Moby-Dick was also something I was thinking about a lot; the hugeness of its conceptual universe was weirdly reassuring to me. I reread quite a bit of Shakespeare to figure out how to approach the language in the 1592 sections, and his rhythms and constructions crept in as a result. And a few days ago I was reminded—by the untimely death of its author, unfortunately—of how important Mark Fisher’s blog k-punk was to me while I was writing the book. Fisher always drew clear and surprising connections between culture, theory, and politics; his writing on ghosts, hauntings, and “the weird” definitely affected the tone and content of my book.
None of that is noir, or detective fiction, obviously. The portions of the novel that are the most directly influenced by that kind of material are actually the Los Angeles 1958 sections, even though those are the parts that fit least obviously in a genre box. In order to get the voice right for those sections I reread a bunch of Raymond Chandler, which is a dangerous thing to do (since he’s so easy to get carried away imitating) but a total pleasure: at least a couple of his novels are as good as anything by anybody. In order to figure out the baroque and paranoid atmosphere of the Venice 1592 sections, I read some of Alan Furst’s very stylish spy novels; although they’re set in Europe in the years during and around the second world war, not in the early-modern era, they were still very helpful. I’ve read quite a bit of Dennis Lehane’s stuff over the years, though not while I was writing the book; still, I’m sure it was influential, particularly on the Las Vegas 2003 sections.
I fairly recently harangued my buddy Logan Breitbart into watching one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, Angel Heart, Alan Parker’s noir nightmare from 1987, and he later asked me if it was an influence on my book. At the time I was like: “Not at all!” . . . but the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe that it was a huge influence. I probably shouldn’t spell that out any more than I already have.
Our novel The Fugue was recently a finalist for the Chicago Writers Association's 2016 Book of the Year Awards, alongside Christine Maul Rice's Swarm Theory and Martin Seay's The Mirror Thief. And while we were disappointed not to win, that feeling was tempered by the privilege of being in such great company, with two wonderful authors.
Martin's book is a big book that's still very light on its feet--a compelling and thought-provoking work that calls to mind both Thomas Pynchon and Raymond Chandler as it takes readers through three iterations of Venice: the original, in 1592; Venice Beach, in 1958; and Las Vegas' Venetian in 2003. He was gracious enough to answer some questions for us about his writing and research process, and we're publishing the first part of that interview here:
Q: Each version of Venice in the story is drawn very fully and (presumably) accurately, and I think in one interview you mentioned having visited the original Venice prior to having the idea for the book. How many times did you end up visiting each one?
A: I hope they’re accurate! In a few instances I intentionally departed from geography and/or the historical record a little—for the sake of the story, or to play up a motif, or to emphasize a point—but I tried to get it right as often as I could. It’s very difficult to make up details that are better (or weirder, or more surprising) than reality.
Prior to starting The Mirror Thief in 2002, I had been to Venice—the original Venice—once, for a couple of days, while doing the typical middle-class post-collegiate backpacking-through- Europe thing. I had been to Las Vegas a couple of times. I don’t think I had ever been to Venice Beach in LA, unless maybe for a minute during a long-ago family vacation. I didn’t visit any of the three while I was actually writing the book.
In the years since I finished it—it was pretty much done by the autumn of 2007, aside from minor revisions—Kathleen and I have been fortunate to travel to all three places, and fortunately I didn’t find anything that I had obviously screwed up.
Q: Your author bio is refreshingly devoid of some of the normal small publication credits one often sees in author bios, and even devoid of a normal author-type teaching job. Did you consciously decide to avoid working on and/or shopping smaller pieces while this was taking shape? Do you feel like writers write better with a non-writing day job? (T.S. Eliot being one prime example.)
A: I’m glad you like the bio! The credit for it goes entirely to the good folks at my publisher, Melville House, who in their wisdom decided that brevity was the best approach. Left to my own devices, I avoid brevity at all costs.
The bio on the book’s flap reads in its entirety “Martin Seay is the executive secretary of the village of Wheeling, Illinois. The Mirror Thief is his first novel.” I gather that the Melville House gang was charmed—and believed that readers would be charmed—by the notion of a big, weird, ornate literary thriller being penned by a mild-mannered civil servant, maybe in furtive and/or idle moments between processing liquor license applications or whatever. This picture isn’t quite accurate; I wrote almost all of The Mirror Thief before I started working my municipal gig, during my longtime employment at a national-chain book retailer, and also during an eight-month fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I’ve done a little writing while working for Wheeling, but it’s been nonfiction pieces: essays and reviews and whatnot.
Normally I do drop a few credits in my bios mentioning places that have published my stuff; I’m grateful to those folks for their encouragement. (I actually started writing The Mirror Thief in a class taught by Richard Peabody, who also took the first short story I ever published for his journal Gargoyle; it’s hard to overstate the debt I’ve accrued to Richard.) I can’t say that I consciously avoided submitting short fiction while the Mirror Thief manuscript was making the rounds; I’ve just written very, very few stories that I’m satisfied with, and by 2011 they had all been published.
I do think there’s a value to approaching creative writing from the perspective of someone who’s employed outside the world of books and letters, but I’m wary of overstating it. It seems to me that most writers need a certain quantity of time, brainspace, and security to produce what they want to produce; any place they can find those things is probably an okay place to be. The trouble is that such circumstances seem to have become increasingly difficult to achieve, both inside and outside the academy. The pace of the workday of an average insurance executive, for instance, is almost certainly more hectic now than it was when Wallace Stevens was vice-president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity; meanwhile, as universities rely more and more on adjunct faculty (who often have to teach a horrifying number of classes at a preposterous number of institutions to earn enough to make rent), academic careers have become less and less of a compelling option for writers. I’m very fortunate that my employer has been accommodating enough to let me restructure my job to part-time in order to get back to writing fiction again.
As someone who profoundly dreaded the prospect of a Trump presidency, and voted (albeit reluctantly) for Hillary, I wanted to write a concession of sorts. It may seem silly to do so, given that I wasn’t, you know, running for office myself, but some of my friends and fellow citizens seem unwilling to publicly acknowledge what’s happened, so I want to do my part for healing.
I wish Donald Trump well. I really do. Not in the sense that I want him to enact any of his more outlandish or unconstitutional proposals (which, frankly, still horrify me), but in the sense that we’re all Americans, and I want my home to be a nice place to live for my family and friends, and even for people with whom I disagree, and people I haven’t met yet. So I have to swallow my pride and wish him a presidency that is somehow good for America.
Having said that, America, you’ve got some ‘splainin to do—on both sides of the aisle.
For starters, Democrats. Why did you think Hillary would be a successful candidate? Why, why, why, why, why? All of these fantasies about her winning in a blowout were always just fantasies—plenty of Americans made their mind up about her 24 years ago, and nobody really likes to change their mind, especially when someone else tells them they have to. Like it or not, people decided long ago that they disliked her, and some of their reasons were, in fact, valid—the presidency is not a 2-for-1 deal, and someone who wasn’t elected or appointed by an elected official probably shouldn’t have been crafting public policy in secret on an issue like health care—so there’s been a bit of a ritual going-through-the-motions about all of her subsequent efforts in the public sphere, and all the investigations she’s faced. Nobody who disliked her ever got a truly convincing reason to change their mind. Unless she had literally made peace across the globe as secretary of state (and, let’s be honest, she did tend to rattle the sabre instead) she was always going to face an upper ceiling to her popularity—and that was the real glass ceiling in this election. Plus, you were faced with an adversary with huge and glaring problems in his personal behavior, but you’d nominated someone whose apparent tolerance of her own husband’s behavior left her ill-suited to really hammer him on these issues. That's like the Republicans nominating Romney to fight Obamacare. Another woman—say Elizabeth Warren—would have mopped the floor with the Donald’s toupee.
Because here’s the thing: voters crave candidates who, at the very least, appear authentic. We’ve reduced our political thinking to an absurdly simple right-left axis that’s literally a holdover from the French Revolution, and the pundits tell you that all you have to do is be left enough to win the primaries and center enough to win the general election, and it’s a load of horseshit. No politicians really win by doing that. When Michael Dukakis rode in the tank, it seemed fake; when John Kerry went skeet shooting, it seemed fake. Everyone knew they wouldn’t have been doing those things if it weren’t for the cameras, and the chance to appear to be doing them. And Hillary’s always come off as somewhat calculating, even by political standards—the type of person who thinks that if they check all the right boxes, and look good on paper, nobody will have a reason to oppose them. (I’ve tried to be that person, too, so I can relate, at least.) Politicians don’t win that way; they win by being themselves, by saying to the electorate “This is who I am, take it or leave it.” That’s why Bernie Sanders would’ve been a far superior candidate. That’s why Obama did better than Kerry or Gore, and better than Hillary—his name was a true political liability, but he never changed it to win an election, and he used it proudly to swear his Inaugural Oath.
Also, please tone down the identity politics already. (No, wait. Hear me out.) There is, particularly in certain Democratic circles, a tendency to see people first and foremost as the sum of their group identities: male or female or trans- or cis- or whatever else; person-of-color or white or what-have-you. The inevitable corollary of that is a tendency to assume that someone “should” vote a certain way based on their group identities, or that a candidate “should” automatically win a certain percentage of the vote based on same, that someone like Caitlyn Jenner or Omorosa “shouldn’t” ever vote Republican, as if you know better than them what their priorities should be, and what emotions should most move them. This is a cancer on the body politic. Yes, everyone notices these things about others, and yes, certain classes of people have been historically disadvantaged, but we want to get away from that! (I hope.) And the true test of our progress is how quickly we see each other as individuals, as unique human beings, and not as the sum total of their identities. (Although Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has been quoted ad nauseum, I have to bring it up here because it is the guiding star for behavior in this area: we have to work towards judging everyone solely by the content of their character. Yes, like all standards, it is impossible to reach, but we have to keep trying.)
We have to keep trying, for two reasons: 1) The inevitable corollary of minority identity politics is majority identity politics. If you don’t aspire to elections whose sole criteria of success is whether or not we elect the right person, if you are at all interested in breaking a historic precedent purely for the sake of breaking it (and then clapping yourselves on the back just for doing so), you are signaling to certain elements of society that you are hypocrites, that you do not in fact want people to be judged fairly: you just want to invert the prior power structures and create new ones that suit you. And by trying to do so in a democracy, you will have built your own glass ceiling, because there will always be more votes in the majority than there are in the minority. (I’ve worked in companies where my minority and female coworkers weren’t getting a fair shake based on those factors—but I’ve also worked in places where I, as a white male, wondered if I wasn’t getting opportunities for promotion because I wasn’t “diverse” enough. Neither situation was pleasant.) Also, 2) It leads you to assume the worst of whoever opposes you. There’s a smug comfort to saying someone else is racist/sexist/homophobic, etc., but when you assume the worst of someone, it always, always, always rubs them the wrong way. The best way to win isn’t by conquering enemies, or by de-friending them on Facebook when they don’t agree with your assessments. (This only turns yourself into the right’s caricature of you—an overly-sensitive person who can’t engage in public dialogue without “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”) The best way to win is by turning enemies into friends. To do that, you have to assume a certain amount of good faith on their part; you have to acknowledge that, if you were in their shoes, you may well have made the exact same decisions they made.
But I’d be more than remiss if I didn’t say something to the Republicans. Republicans, Republicans, Republicans. You, too, have condemned yourselves to squeaker elections, to late nights eyeing returns from Florida and Ohio, to elections where you win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote. Why? Because lately you have been far more interested in winning than you have been in actually, you know, governing.
By my estimation, the last Republican president who actually governed was Reagan. That is to say, he had a set of ideals that he thought were best, and he sought to win, but he also sought to be a little above the fray afterwards, because he knew he was the president of all Americans, not just of the ones who voted for him. He never would have shut down the government out of sheer spite.
Since Reagan, there’s been a bit of a tawdry triumphalism about the GOP, a sore loserdom and a sorer winnerdom, a “fuck ‘em—they didn’t vote for us” mentality that ignores cities and does indeed leave the losers thinking, “Well, he’s not my president.” You’re never going to have a Reagan-in-’84 steamroller of an election again so long as you have that mentality; you, too, are never going to turn enemies into friends.
What’s worse, you are so out-of-whack on the winning that you have no claim whatsoever to be a party of principle. It appears you have sold your soul to a man who can convincingly fake authenticity better than anyone out there, a man who’s spent a lifetime building facades, and then hiding behind them until they crumble, and rebuilding them elsewhere. You impeached a man for lying about consensual sex, only to go on and elect a man who may well be a sexual predator. You would be wise to at least pay a little more attention to identity politics; you cannot ignore or belittle or talk over minority concerns and ignore their very real pain and then wonder why they don’t vote for you. (Former provocateur and recently-woke pundit Glenn Beck seems to understand this, at least; he has learned that he can’t just talk, that he has to listen to people whose experiences he can never feel himself.) I’ve heard plenty of stories of minority friends who were treated unjustly by police; I’ve heard plenty of stories from women who have been victims of sexual assault and abuse, and are understandably uncomfortable when they see a man behave the way the Donald has, and then win election to the highest office in the land. You may not share someone else’s feelings, but you can’t blindly discount them and then expect them to listen to you. You can’t ignore the pain of the rape survivor, or the family member of a police shooting victim, and act all surprised when they say #NotMyPresident.
In short, Republicans, if you focus solely on winning arguments and elections, while ignoring the fact that you then have to govern the losers, you will end up destroying yourselves with your hollow victories. The only Republicans in the last few decades who’ve had any real constructive ideas about actually doing something once they got into power—something other than attempting to starve the government until it starts kicking and screaming—have been Herman Cain and Steve Forbes. Both of them sought fairer and more straightforward taxation—and both were shot down early. (Cain’s national sales tax is actually an idea that’s long, long, long overdue; it will be an immense good to the body politic if we can truly say that everyone pays for the government, and everyone benefits from it.)
And here’s the thing, Republicans—we do need government. Markets work well, to a point; personal responsibility is great, to a point. Because there will always, always, always be at least some people who are operating in bad faith, who are only too happy to use wealth and power and privilege simply to amass more wealth and power and privilege. There will always be bullies; the answer to bullying isn’t to fault the weak for their weakness, and their inability to protect themselves, but rather to protect the weak, and to give them a chance to grow strong. Because if we don’t—if we are only a government of, by, and for the strong and powerful and wealthy, we truly are no better than Nazi Germany, and we'll eventually end up that way.
Throughout his business career, and on the campaign trail, Donald Trump showed signs of being a bully. That can be seductive; if you don’t feel powerful (and many in America don’t), latching on to someone who seems to project power seems like the best option. If we have, in fact, elected a bully to the highest office in the land, our first best hope is for him to do whatever work he needs to do behind the façade to grow his heart, and have a change of heart, to realize, like Reagan, that he is in fact the president of all Americans, and that the best way to build a lasting legacy is to be a good winner, to shed the temporary trappings of shabby triumphalism and govern with the grace and magnanimity that converts enemies to friends. (If someone like George Wallace—perhaps the most presidential candidate in history—can have a change of heart, surely it’s possible for Trump.) To his credit, Trump showed signs of that in his victory speech; for as much as I dreaded seeing him up there, I had to admit he looked somewhat presidential.
We can’t truly know what’s in anyone’s heart, so as a backstop to hope, we need to trust laws, to trust government as being bigger than human whims and failings. The presidency, as Obama mentioned in his absolutely stellar remarks yesterday, is bigger than any person, and bigger than any ego. There are, certainly, reasons to be truly pessimistic about this election: we have yet another president who lost the popular vote; we have a president who, if not racist, does seem too comfortable with their support. And there are reasons to be cynical. (The cynic in me still says Trump’s a con man; the super cynic says the establishment is playing the long con, throwing him the presidency now so that, if we do go through a deep economic collapse, we can throw Trump to the wolves and put the presidency back in more familiar hands.) But there are reasons to be truly optimistic: we’ve had yet another peaceful transfer of power. Both of 2016’s attempted coronations—Jeb Bush’s, and Hillary Clinton’s—have failed, and we have a leader who was indubitably elected by the voters. And what’s more, Trump does seem like he could be a man who will not govern as he ran. We need to keep an eye on him, yes, but we must at least allow him a chance to grow into his role. We cannot afford to wait two years, or four years, to be happy—especially since we will then be paranoid about losing our gains in yet another two or four years. We need to learn to be happy now.
- Gerald Brennan
In case you haven't noticed, we've done a makeover of the ol' Tortoise store!
To make things easier for our friends who are running bookstores and such, all titles are on sale for 60% of list price. Shipping is free! There is a $5 order processing fee, because we're trying to sell wholesale and all, BUT if you order over $25 at a time, WE WILL WAIVE THE FEE! (Just enter promo code BULK at checkout.) And did we mention shipping's free? AND THERE ARE T-SHIRTS! LOTS OF T-SHIRTS IN LOTS OF COLORS! (With free shipping.)
As you may have seen from our excited and expletive-laden social media postings, Gint Aras' The Fugue is a finalist for the Chicago Writers Association's Book of the Year Award! Gint's book is set in 20th century Cicero; it's as intricate and psychologically compelling as a 19th century Russian novel, but it reads as briskly as anything you'll find in 21st century America. It's been quite an odyssey for Gint and his story; he was gracious enough to post some kind words for us on his blog.
We are, of course, thrilled to be nominated; there are many fine and noteworthy authors in the running, and it's nice to be in such company. It's nice as well to get some reassurance that we're doing what we set out to do--publish amazing authors and high-quality books that are as memorable and engaging as any in the industry.
Allow me, if you will, a few moments of self-pity.
Operation Anthropoid was supposed to be my story. I’ve been intrigued by the Heydrich assassination ever since Robert Harris mentioned it in the end notes of 1992’s Fatherland; I’ve been obsessed since I stumbled across Callum MacDonald’s history in the bargain pile a year or so later. I made my way to Prague in 1998 so I could get started on research; I returned in 2006 so I could write a screenplay. Hoping to sell said screenplay, I nearly moved to Hollywood that same year with nothing but a U-Haul and my ego. But because movies are big and collaborative, full of parts and difficult to assemble, I opted to novelize it instead; I was an underemployed waiter with plentiful free time, which I spent researching and writing, listening to Radiohead and Joanna Newsom in libraries and coffee shops as I crafted my opus, my way. I nearly went broke going to Prague a third time for still more research; I nearly went crazy trying to land an agent and a book deal. In 2012, facing imminent marriage and fatherhood, I Kickstarted the project out into the world. (Obligatory video link here—I’m told it’s funny.) I then watched in frustration as the English translation of Laurent Binet’s HHhH launched nearly simultaneously, and got all the attention I felt I deserved. (Obligatory slightly-bitchy and passive-aggressive Amazon review here.)
In short, I started Tortoise Books in no small part to launch Resistance. (Obligatory buy-my-book link here.)
So it was with some trepidation that I found that yet another person-who-wasn’t-me had lined up all the money and people to pull it off—all the movie gears that mush mesh to move an idea from paper to film. But I’m strangely pleased to say that Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid is a must-see. It’s easily the best English-language movie about the subject. (I still haven’t seen 1964’s Attentat, so I can’t forego the qualifiers, but it’s far more interesting and accurate than, say, Hangmen Also Die, or Operation Daybreak.) And it’s just a plain ol’ great movie. I might have been able to tell the story better—but not in two hours.
It’s a great movie, in part, because it gets at the reality of the people who conducted the most dramatic assassination of World War II. Anthropoid is an ugly code name for the killing of an ugly man; the word means man-like, or similar to a man, and anyone with a serious knowledge of the inhuman crimes perpetrated by Reinhard Heydrich knows it’s a fair descriptor. Part of the reason the story’s not more widely known, though, is because it’s disturbing. We want the killing of a bad man to be a good thing; we want to resist evil and feel good. But the movie gets at the uncomfortable truth behind all that—the people who do such things don’t always end up with parades and medals and happily-ever-after.
It’s certainly a less comforting message than you’ll see in most summer movies. Most people prefer the human-like to the human, not only in their villains, but in their protagonists. We want superheroes in suits of armor, flying and invulnerable, or maybe with one major flaw that they can overcome with hard work in a Joseph-Campbellesque hero’s quest; it excuses us, in a way, from doing anything too noteworthy ourselves.
Anthropoid focuses relentlessly, and almost claustrophobically, on the realness of its protagonists, on their doubts and fears and troubles; it focuses on them every bit as tightly as they focused on their mission. Some critics claim they’re not fully fleshed out, but I say that’s unfair. The history on Jan Kubiš and Joseph Gabčík is thin precisely because they succeeded. They accomplished their mission despite the odds, and in such catastrophic fashion, that neither they nor the people who knew them were able to tell their full story when it was all said and done. We know what they did; we only have the barest outlines of who they were. Is it right to tell a story about a real historical figure without knowing all that much about them? I think it’s wrong not to.
Critics also say the movie meanders, and this, too, isn’t fair—the real assassins took time carrying out their mission, dropping into occupied Czechoslovakia a few days after the winter solistice, and meeting their fate a few days shy of the summer one. (The movie gods will tell you it’s OK to turn British into Americans [a la U-571] or starved resistors into well-fed collaborators [as in Bridge on the River Kwai—which, I must admit, is one of my favorite movies ever], but if you attempt to tell a story honestly in a way that makes it potentially less lucrative, you’ve committed a serious sin.) If anything, Ellis punched up the drama of those months about as well as he could have without straying into grotesque historical inaccuracy. And for my money, Ellis found plenty of tension in that time by sticking to the important struggles. They say the interesting drama isn’t between good and evil, but good and good, and you get a lot of the latter here, especially in the arguments between the assassins and those who gave them shelter, about whether it was right to kill a butcher and thereby cause still more butchery. Unlike the comforting and easily-forgettable summer popcorn fare, this movie leans more towards the Saving Private Ryan territory (and even goes beyond) by asking an important and unanswerable question: what happens when you’re asked to give everything for a worthy cause, and you succeed—but you still have to lose everything?
Is it a different take on the story than mine? Yes—I saw it as an epic, a way to hit all the touchpoints of early 20th-century history. For me, this Second World War drama makes the most sense when you see how miraculously Czechoslovakia won its independence during the First; their first president accomplished something truly Promethean, and their second was cursed to have to try and recreate the feat. The man who set the mission into motion, Colonel František Moravec, was as complicated and full a person as you’d find in any Shakespearean tragedy; he was stuck being the quiet spymaster, anonymously orchestrating feats of resistance while, back home, a fellow army officer who shared his rank and last name became the public face of collaboration with the Nazis. A side episode to Operation Anthropoid—the attempted bombing of the Skoda Works—was as futile and bitterly comic as anything in Catch 22. I could go on and on—but that doesn’t work very well in a feature-length film. (If anybody wants to make a streaming series, on the other hand…I digress.) So Ellis was wise to focus on the thriller within the epic—in his hands, it’s a tense and gripping and tight story, and he makes it so in part by being so relentlessly focused that he skips the side plots that might have distracted a lesser director. It’s a story that deserves to be told, and there have been all too few willing to tell it; others may be happy with unending Marvel movies, or an infinite sequence of Spiderman reboots, but I’d much rather have a real human story.
We're pleased to announce the cover for Alice Kaltman's upcoming story collection, Staggerwing! It's a fun and whimsical piece by the very talented Long Island-based artist Alison Seiffer. Enjoy!
In case you missed it, our own Gint Aras recently appeared on WGN radio's "After Hours with Rick Kogan" to talk about The Fugue, and the trials and tribulations of shopping a 500-page novel that channels Dostoyevsky and Algren. It's a pretty great listen, but we're probably a little biased, because we're, you know, selling books and all. Still, check it out. And, because we're still pretty thrilled about the whole thing, The Fugue is on sale today for only 99 cents!
We’re pleased to finally announce a publication date for our saudade anthology!
This project’s been gestating for several months now. We started late last year, at a time when we didn’t have a lot in the pipeline; it seemed a good way to get in touch with some new authors, put out new and exciting work from our past publishees, and bring some talented local author friends into the fold, at least for a while.
I’m thrilled by this project in no small part because I know firsthand how frustrating it can be to NOT have an outlet. When I first got involved in publishing on a very small scale, in 2010, I’d finished a few book-length manuscripts, and even self-published one, but that major publishing deal continued to elude me. What’s worse, I wasn’t having much luck with journals and story contests and what-not. I’d been spending the bulk of my time writing in isolation, hunched over the laptop in the coffee shop, and I simply hadn’t taken the time to meet the people and build the relationships that would send my words someplace other than the slush pile. The result: no clear outlet for anything I’d written.
Fortunately, it turned out my ex-girlfriend’s sister Liz was starting a little literary newspaper called the deadline. (No capitalization, always with a period, always underlined--which I can only attempt to do here by adding a hyperlink, which actually doesn't go to the paper because Liz, bless her heart, insisted on keeping it completely offline. To this day, I have no idea whether that was self-limiting self-sabotage, or a quirky and brilliant way to differentiate ourselves from the online masses.) I went to the launch party for the first issue, and submitted a poem for the next one, and before long, she'd graciously invited me to be a co-editor.
It's a wonderful feeling to be selected, especially as an author, especially nowadays; there’s such an abundance of material out there that when someone reads your writing and actually pays attention, it feels like a minor miracle. I can’t control whether or not I get that feeling; no matter how many revisions and tweaks I do, there’s no surefire way to grab someone else’s attention at a moment when they’re receptive. But thanks to a wonderful two years working on Liz’s paper, I learned that I can pay attention and give that feeling, and that’s possibly even more rewarding.
I did, belatedly, start meeting local authors through the deadline. And I realized it was time to start my own publishing venture, not just to get my own manuscripts out there, but to give people what had eluded me—that feeling of being chosen. For as much as the online prognosticators tell us to “build your brand,” unless you’re a household name, the only people likely to buy your work based on your name alone are the people in your household. But publishing under a brand tells everyone, “Hey, it’s OK to read this. It’s not some typo-riddled and unedited tract that someone printed at Kinko’s and started handing out on State Street. It’s been selected.”
So much of the fun in publishing, and in this anthology, comes from that: from actually reading submissions from strangers and telling them that their efforts have not been in vain, that in fact they’ve produced something worthwhile. It is truly a treat to get to meet people on the page, with their words and their stories untainted by any personal prejudices or past relationships, and I’m pleased that so many of these works came in that way.
Then there are the local authors we’ve admired from afar…
There’s a scene in Citizen Kane where title character looks longingly in a rival newspaper’s window at a photograph of their newsroom staff; flash forward, and the same newswriters are sitting for a recreation of that group portrait—only now, they’re all in Kane’s employ. “Six years ago, I looked at the picture of the world’s greatest newspapermen. I felt like a kid in front of a candy store,” Kane says. “Well tonight, six years later, I got my candy, all of it.” In a silly small-press sort of way, I feel like Charles Foster Kane today. Granted, my author friends have (and will continue to) put their work out elsewhere as well. But thanks to this anthology, many of the authors I’ve met on the pages of other publishers’ books are now at least part-time Tortoises.
Of course, none of this would make me entirely happy if the authors we’d published in the past weren’t eager to do business with us again. And that’s another point of pride in this collection—the chance to showcase new and exciting work from old friends.
So without further ado, here are the authors we’ve chosen for the saudade anthology:
Joseph G. Peterson
We’re shooting for a launch party on Saturday, June 25th, here in Chicago. There’s plenty more to be done between now and then—I’ve learned over the past few years that, for as hard as it is to put out quality work, that effort pales in comparison to the work of marketing and finding an audience! (And we need to decide on a venue for our launch.) But a long road becomes dreary if you don’t stop once in a while to celebrate your progress, so it is time for a small pat on the back for ourselves, and a huge public thanks to everyone who’s joined us on the journey.
We’re thrilled to announce that we’ll be publishing Alice Kaltman’s Staggerwing collection in October of 2016!
I’ve made a decent effort to meet the various Tortoise Books authors face-to-face; it does help, if you’re going into business with someone, to sit down and have a meal with them as well. But I try to get to know them on the page first, because that’s the only way most of our readers will ever meet them. And that’s how I first met Alice, with a wonderful story suite she submitted to our saudade anthology, which is still slowly plodding its way towards publication.
They say growth happens outside your comfort zone, and that seems to be the case here: Alice and I have spent a decent amount of time corresponding and interacting online, but that’s it—after the manuscript, it’s been a pleasant series of smiling avatars and excited emails and scanned contracts, a mutual cascade of Facebook likes and retweets. And whatever my preferences, it may well stay that way for the foreseeable future.
She’s also the first one who’s working with us via an agent. Given my own experiences trying to go the traditional publishing route with Resistance, I definitely had some reservations about that. (I had one agent tell me it was one of the best manuscripts she’d read; she had me do a round of revisions, and then stopped communicating with me for no apparent reason. Then I got in touch with another agent; she seemed interested and asked for the full manuscript, then went incommunicado.) But Alice’s agent has been tremendously helpful, working with us to get a good solid author agreement in place, and always returning emails promptly and professionally. Indeed, she seems to be everything an agent’s supposed to be: active and involved and committed to the author’s success. And that certainly trumps any anti-agent biases I may have had—it’s tough enough to sell books that I’m willing to take allies wherever I can find them. (Also, over the past four years, I’ve probably done everything that’s ever annoyed me about the traditional industry at least once.)
Writing and publishing seem to be in an exciting but scary state of flux nowadays; everyone can publish, and everyone’s a critic, and everyone can interact with almost anyone directly online. There are conferences and fairs and festivals and writing workshops; some advice-givers suggest that one should network and tweet and “build one’s tribe” ahead of actually, you know, putting fingers to keyboard and turning out something great. Strangely enough, the people peddling such advice seem to be making more money from speaker fees and advice-book sales than they do from actually telling memorable stories. Indeed, the cynic in me says the industry’s turning into a big Ponzi scheme, with many people only earning a living by pulling more people in after them. (There’s certainly an overemphasis on inauthentic online interactions, on doing everything as a means to some other end: getting Twitter followers to prove you have a following, getting great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads to prove that your book’s worthwhile, reaching out to others just to secure publishing and representation. It’s all, to my mind, an attempt to substitute quantity for quality, as if a large enough followership and high enough average customer review can somehow take the risk out of publishing and guarantee that the best books will make money.)
Fortunately, there are still authors like Alice who seem to be writing for the sheer joy of telling stories that connect with people—authors who actually have something to say about the human condition, something that lingers after you turn the last page. Alice has a sharp eye and a soft heart, a talent for picking apart the foibles of post-Millenial America while still seeing the beautiful and vulnerable and timeless humanity that lies beneath. All our online interactions have been genuinely great, full of warmth and real feeling—like writing itself, the online world is but a tool for transmitting emotion, and like all tools, it can be put to whatever use the user sees fit. But even better than that, all of this is pointing us towards the launch of a really great collection of stories. For all the tweets and retweets, the momentary online buzz, the advice-listers and schemers will someday be a dim memory. And when that happens, only the writers will have left something behind.
Through a pleasant and unexpected turn of events, we’ve taken over publication duties for Gint Aras’ excellent The Fugue. Epic and yet right-sized, complicated but intensely readable, straightforward and yet emotionally impactful, this excellent novel fits in well with the body of work we’re proudly building at Tortoise Books.
Personally and professionally, this culminates a long strange trip of sorts; Gint and I have spent most of the past four years in one of those unreal 21st-century online-only friendships. When I was starting this imprint, a blogger friend (Shout out to Alicia Eler!) mentioned him; she’d heard about his novel Finding the Moon in Sugar and figured he might be worth contacting. I gave it a read and was pleasantly surprised; it featured a delightfully unique narrator, a small-time part-time student living at the edges of Chicago, and society. (“If you lost your beer gut,” he says early on, “probably someone in Berwyn picked it up and never even noticed.”) It takes a big-hearted and talented author to depict such a doofus of a character with both intelligence and humanity, in a way that you shake your head at his foibles while still falling in love a little.
Relatively soon, Gint and I were connected on Facebook and Twitter. He pitched me for a writing submission for The Good Men Project, and I wrote a piece about married life; we talked about meeting up to do a podcast, but somehow that never materialized. Soon we were moving in the same author circles, but somehow we still kept passing like the proverbial ships in the night; we’d each independently go to readings and book fairs and then realize after the fact, via social media, that we’d somehow been in the same room without meeting face-to-face. As with many of my long-term online-only friends (Shout out to Terra Dankowski!) I started to half-suspect that it was one of those matter-antimatter things that would somehow turn out very badly if we did come into contact.
Then in November, we did finally get a chance to talk, at Curbside Splendor’s Pop-Up Book Fair, where he was promoting a new novel. I made it a point to get to his book launch party at City Lit in December, a standing-room-only affair featuring that rarest of phenomena in indie publishing: random people outside the author’s immediate circle excitedly snapping up copies of a book, and even waiting in line to get their copies signed. In short order, I started seeing glowing critical notices about the book, and even seeing it pop up randomly on Reddit’s carousel o’ books, and I realized something was definitely happening. Authors and publishers have notoriously complicated feelings when other authors and publishers make sales and get noticed, and I will cop to a little jealousy in this timeframe. But dwarfing that (I hope) is my sense that something cool’s going on in Chicago, a lively indie scene that’s hopefully the literary equivalent of Seattle in, say, 1990, with loads of talented people on the brink of widespread recognition. And while I can’t be Eddie Vedder and don’t want to be Kurt Cobain, I’d definitely like to be somewhere in there—maybe Bruce Pavitt, or even Matt Cameron.
I will forgo all the gory details, but through an unfortunate chain of events (and no fault of his own), Gint and his previous publisher decided to part ways. He was eager to get back up and running with someone else, and while I tend to prefer tortoise-paced book launches (I’m a marathoner, not a sprinter), it’s good to cross-train once in a while. So after a frantic but thorough period of redesigning the book and the cover art (and a mere 20 days after he and his previous publisher parted ways), we got the second edition back up for sale.
(Incidentally, it turns out Gint and I have been crossing paths for far longer than either of us realized, for we were even in grad school in New York at the same time—both at Columbia University, him in the MFA program and me at the J-school, possibly walking past each other at Broadway and 116th, or bumping into one another on the Low Library steps, clueless to the fact that we’d be doing business 15 years later.)
In the big-picture sense, writing and publishing are about making imaginary things real: turning ethereal visions into printed words, and transforming those, in turn, into business relationships and physical products—and hopefully friendships as well. Gint has been working on this project since we were both blindly passing one another on the streets of New York; it’s been a joy turning our friendship from imaginary to real, and a true honor to help him keep his book that way as well.
I wanted to throw together some thoughts on David Bowie’s passing. I haven’t done so until now because I really don’t care about Bowie.
JUST KIDDING, PEOPLE. Actually, it’s just taken longer than expected. In the days after an untimely death, one often gets the snap judgments, first impressions that still often contain considerable merit and truth. Hopefully time offers deeper understanding.
I won’t pretend Bowie was my favorite musician—not that I have one, but I’ve never named a child in partial tribute (the way I did with Iggy Pop), or hoped to have one of his songs played at my hopefully still-distant funeral (the way I do with Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand”), or used his name frequently as an Internet password (the way I’ve done with…someone else). Still, he is one of the greats for me—someone I’ll binge on in phases, then take time away from a bit, then go back to renewed. And like all such greats, he’s soundtracked my life.
Many instances come to mind: getting “Space Oddity” stuck in my best friend’s head back in high school, or rocking out to “Heroes” to power me through bland mornings of cubicle work. But perhaps my favorite was a Saturday evening over a decade ago.
It was summer of 2002, back in my drinking days; I’m not sure if I didn’t have many friends at the time, or if I was just lonely. But I have a distinct memory of putting on Hunky Dory while home alone in my downtown Chicago studio apartment and giving it a good solid listen while polishing off a few bottles of High Life and cooking myself a spaghetti dinner. It wasn’t the first time I’d listened to the album, but it was one of those listens where I’d picked exactly the right bit of music to accompany my mood. I distinctly remember the golden beer buzz starting to settle in while wondering if any sequencing of tracks could top the segue from “Oh! You Pretty Things” to “Eight Line Poem.” I was drinking to warm up for another cold night as a lonely barfly. But I don’t recall meeting anyone else that night, and if I did, I remember Bowie more.
It is an illusion, of course, to imagine we really know anyone with whom we have such an asymmetrical relationship. But it does feel real. Other musicians may be casual acquaintances; Bowie’s more like an old friend, someone who’s dammed up such a reservoir of good feeling within you that you want to spend more time with them, either to relive the glory days, or to see what they’re up to these days. And when you do, you often find old lines that resonate with you in new ways.
Now it’s winter in downtown Chicago. I caught news of Bowie’s passing on a Monday morning through a quick status update from a Facebook friend, confirmed moments later by a visit to cnn.com. I read a great many think pieces and did a great deal of thinking; I marveled that someone so edgy could inspire warm words not only from Iggy Pop, but from the Vatican as well. And now I’ve been throwing down these words in an office cafeteria with expansive views, and on the rocking chilly Red Line.
The common refrain about Bowie is that he found mainstream success by being a weirdo; he made it OK for all of us freaks and nerds, everyone who’s felt a dork among the jocks, or a woman trapped in a man’s body, or an alien amidst the humans. And there’s certainly a lot of truth in that—disconnection and alienation found their voice in him, and his plasticity and artifice ended up feeling more real than many others’ realities.
In the time since, I’ve been revisiting Heroes and Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, seeing the truth in all the eulogies and finding the new meanings in the old words; I’m wondering if he’d still agree with what he said, that knowledge comes with death’s release. But I’ve made more memories, too. I bought Blackstar that first afternoon, and the disconnected observer in me marveled that he’d timed its release so well. Here was a master performer giving an epic performance, a changeling on the other side of the greatest change of all, a showman and a businessman who’d timed his exit perfectly after selling us his own eulogy. But as I listened, headphones on, walled off in my mellow grey cubicle, the music dissolved all judgments, and I felt something else: connected, touched, haunted and moved to tears by that voice so full of feeling, this superstar who was, for all the alienation, wonderfully and tragically human.
We're seeking submissions for our very first anthology! The theme: saudade.
If you don't know what that means, don't worry. Saudade famously has no direct English translation; it’s a Portuguese word describing the nostalgic longing for something that may never return, or may not exist. This feeling can be strangely comforting; research (read: Google) leads us to a description from author Manuel de Mello (or de Melo, depending on the website), who calls it “A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” It permeates the music of Brazil, another nation steeped in slavery and sadness and the hope for a better life; one can easily hear it in the songs of João Gilberto or Antonio Carlos Jobim. (This NPR piece is a great primer for anyone interested in learning more about this emotion and its musical manifestations.) Yet this heartsick yearning’s already very familiar to those of us born and raised in North America; we often call it “the blues.” (B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” is a prime example; even if you couldn’t understand the words, every note of the guitar rings with desire and ache.)
We’d like to get your saudade down on paper.
Our crack Tortoise Books team is assembling a collection of pieces exemplifying this universal emotion. Poetry, stories, essays, drawings, you name it: we’re less concerned with form than with feeling, and as long as it fits the mood, we’d be glad to have it! (And probably also a little sad and wistful, once we read it.) We're collecting submissions through the end of the year; you can either submit a quick note about your work via the form on the "Why Tortoise Books" tab, or email a copy to editors at tortoisebooks dot com. (Sorry we can't put the proper email in...the robots are watching!) For any piece published, the author will receive $10 or three contributor copies.
We're looking forward to reading your work!
- The Tortoise Books Staff
The Ben Tanzer was gracious enough to sit down with me to record a podcast a few weeks back, and the results are now available online, for your listening enjoyment! (I mean, I think it'll be enjoyable, but I also think I don't sound like a stoner, so what do I know?) Anyway, here goes:
I thought I’d be chock full of words once Mad Men’s last episode ran, burning to give my take on WHAT IT ALL MEANS; instead I’m oddly copacetic. I’m not disappointed (the way I was after Breaking Bad); I’m just at peace of sorts, probably not unlike Don Draper while he was doing yoga on that bucolic promontory overlooking the Pacific.
There are obvious common themes between Mad Men and Breaking Bad: new identities, and all the unexpected consequences that reinvention entails. Walter White and Dick Whitman are both nonentities—one a loser high school teacher stiffed by the world (the type of guy like The Simpsons’ Frank Grimes who does everything right and still somehow has it turn out wrong), the other a sad product of prostitution sent to die in Korea—while Heisenberg and Don Draper are larger-than-life. In a sense, they’re mirror images of one another; Heisenberg is vehicle for darkness, violence, and general badassery, whereas Don Draper’s a somewhat respectable front, Superman in a suit, embodying the notion that the business of America is business. But both are running from their authentic selves, so seduced by idol worship of their own outsized image and ego that they’re willing to do awful and hurtful things to the people who are attempting to love them, or to anyone who threatens their grandiose façade. (There are those, of course, who miss the point of both shows and think that the wish fulfillment is the point; some cheer Heisenberg’s successes and sneer at the Skylers who don’t buy the bullshit, and many ape Draper’s fetishization of style over substance, seeing only the respectable suit and not what it conceals: a hungry void where a heart should be.)
For as much as I loved Breaking Bad, its ending annoyed me because it allowed Walter White/Heisenberg to die on his own terms, a legend in his own mind—diminished, perhaps, but still unpunished, with his ego more than intact. Mad Men did something similar, but it ended interestingly enough that I’m oddly OK with it.
In the next-to-last episode, one senses Don Draper is indeed being punished for his sins, beaten by his fellow veterans after confiding in them. It seems cruel but relatively fair; he’s already blown multiple chances at reinvention, and he continues to truly avoid owning up to his actions. (Whereas the smarmy Pete Campbell at least seems to be attempting an honest transformation. Witness his conversation with his brother about his womanizing and adultery: “It feels good for a while. And then it doesn’t.”) And well into the last episode, I thought Don was going to come to some self-destructive end, alcoholism or suicide, perhaps drinking himself to death in a hotel room, perhaps leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge and at last becoming (as so many have speculated) the falling man from the title credits.
Instead, we get one more enigmatic reinvention, prompted by a moment of empathy in a hippie commune. A gray bland man (the quintessential anonymous consumer, perhaps) talks about a dream where he was a product on a refrigerator door, and everyone could see him, but nobody picked him. And Don hugs him and cries—why? Because as the rejected child of a prostitute, he understands the commoditization of people. He knows how it feels to be passed over, to be unwanted. He’s made it his life’s work to engineer desire in others, to create desire for products as a way to make himself desirable. And he’s been doing it so successfully, it’s become his identity. He sees his self-worth almost entirely in terms of his life’s work.
And this is the key to Don’s character. He wants that warm fuzzy feeling, the feeling of being wanted and loved—but if it’s not forthcoming on his terms, he’s willing to accept an inauthentic facsimile, or better yet (and somewhat more reliable), a chemical substitute—preferably alcohol, but not always.
It’s no accident that one of Don’s most damaging meltdowns occurs during a presentation for Hershey. It isn’t Chevy or Heinz—it’s the country’s largest and most recognizable candy manufacturer, and the one most willing to trade on those oh-too-similar neural pathways by which we enjoy both confections and affections. (This is the company, after all, that wraps chocolate in tinfoil and calls it a kiss.) Not only does Don tell a story from his deepest darkest childhood, he implies that the company doesn’t even need his services, that neither he nor anyone else could help them sell their product. So great is his veneration of their synthetic substitute for authentic feeling that he doesn’t feel worthy of working with them. He sabotages the meeting; in a sense, he rejects them before they can reject him.
The series finale ends up further developing these themes. Throughout Season 7, people attempt to get Don to swallow the distasteful McCann deal by sweetening it with Coca-Cola. Even when he’s at his absolute nadir, melting down on the phone with Peggy (perhaps the person he most wanted to impress, or at least the person who most wanted to be him), she mentions that all can be forgiven, that he can have the chance to come back and work on perhaps the most recognizable American brand, and the one with the greatest disparity between image and substance. He can still feel wanted. And at last, after hugging the crying man and doing some yoga, it’s implied that he does go back. Perhaps as a better person, perhaps one more whole, he presumably returns to New York, digs back in to the work, and gives us the iconic Coca-Cola ad with people from all over the world singing about sharing a Coke, giving the illusion of community and communion.
Is this a good thing? The cynic in me says no—the Don Draper that begins the decade peddling cancer ends it by peddling diabetes. And it implies that he’s inventing a certain type of marketing that’s perhaps even slicker than anything that came before, a type that feels very Jobsian—giving people the illusion of warmth and peace and interconnectedness in a way that glosses over the very real and continued rift between the haves who reap the benefits when the have-nots consume too expensively what other have-nots produce too cheaply.
Still, story-wise it feels right, and entirely appropriate—a damn-near perfect end to a damn-near-perfect series. (As I said about Breaking Bad, if I can get anyone talking and thinking about my writing the way I’ve been talking and thinking about this show, I’ll view that as a massive success.) We don’t have a clue as to whether Don ever really ditched talk for action, whether he started showing up for the truly important things—Betty’s funeral, or the ongoing lives of his children. We have no idea as to whether he’s actually willing to do the hard work to form a meaningful relationship that will generate real and lasting good feelings. But he’s more than willing to sell us on a sugary substitute.