Illinoize, Arthur Meyer, and the Donald P. McMahon Project

In addition to the whole indie publishing thing, I dabble in music criticism. (Not music itself, of course, because I don’t have much talent beyond some so-so karaoke chops.) Generally I’ve stuck to Amazon reviews—which are easy to be snide about, even though they’re possibly the must consequential new writing form of the past few decades, in terms of influencing decisions, democratizing criticism, etc. But I’ve also had a few pieces published in Newcity, so I’m a professional of sorts. Also I was recently picked to write the album-of-the-week selection for a fun little email circle called the Donald P. McMahon Project, run by a guy named Arthur Meyer. The album I picked—Illinoize, a Sufjan Stevens/indie rap mashup—deserves to be a little more widely known, IMHO. (And I’ve been busy with Infinite Blues and slow to post new blog content lately.) Anyway, here goes:

It begins with dancing piano, the high familiar glistening sound of Sufjan Stevens on the keys. But then: a deep rap voice, Aesop Rock as a solid counterpoint to the airy ivory. By and large, this dynamic persists throughout the album: ballast for the balloon, the weight of the world and the lightness of flight. And I can’t get enough of it.

I’m a grown-ass man, forty now but with plenty of residual morals from the twelve-year-old Boy Scout I used to be; for much of my adulthood I was practically an RIAA posterboy, so averse to unpurchased music that I avoided mixtapes entirely. (The four years I spent at West Point certainly helped me along that path; my classmates and I were honor-code-bound to avoid anything that could be labeled theft, so while our civilian peers were gleefully burning CDs and then venturing out into the wild new terrain of Napster, I was stuck buying $17 CDs at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square.) I missed some of the landmarks of the genre, like Danger Mouse’s career-launching Grey Album. But fear of not hearing a noteworthy album softened my morals slightly over the years; it seemed silly to avoid taking something for free if it couldn’t be purchased anywhere, and if the artists themselves wanted people to check it out.

So eventually I set out on an exhaustive tour of the once-forbidden mixtape realm. I liked The Grey Album, but I also learned that Jay-Z had donor-fathered a ridiculous number of others; it seemed any DJ who got bored in the lab could take the a capella version of the Black Album, pour it in the test tube with some unwilling other partner, and release the resulting offspring into the world. (The Slack Album—Jay-Z vs. Pavement, The Black & Blue Album­—Jay-z vs. Weezer, and on and on ad nauseum. Too many to evaluate, but enough to make you tire of the concept and blasé about Danger Mouse’s genius. In fact, a quick Google search tells me there are far more of these orphan children than I’d remembered, way too many to ever get to know—although I will confess a certain curiosity about The Kenny Z Album—Jay-Z vs. Kenny G.) Wugazi’s 13 Chambers was more to my liking; the energy of the Wu-Tang Clan and the power of Fugazi came together like a one-two punch to the eardrums. But the mixtape I keep returning to, the one I can’t go more than a few months without hearing even after having it in my library for eight years, is Illinoize.

It’s an inspired, sly pairing—indie rock and indie rap—made all the more so by Tor’s willingness to cycle through different rappers and rap groups, some (like Outkast) more famous than Sufjan Stevens, and some (Brother Ali) less so. But every one’s impeccably chosen. And while many people beat their good ideas to death, Tor understands how often less is more; this collection clocks in at seven tracks and just a whisper over half an hour. There are certainly high points—for me, it’s tough to top the way the high piano falls into the vocals on “John Wayne Gacy Jr. / Specialize”, or the way the mournful horns make the vocals more melancholy on “The Tallest Man / I Like It”—but it all works wonderfully.

It made me curious enough to check out some of the rappers. (I love Outkast as much as, if not more than, the next guy, and as an indie-minded person I’m pretty much required to like Sufjan Stevens, but most of the other musicians here were new to me.) But it also still strikes me as better than the sum of its parts; I listen to this more than I listen to any of its components, certainly more than the Brother Ali album I picked up based on his amazing rap sample here, and more even than Outkast’s ATLiens or Stevens’ Illinois. (Granted, I don’t know if I like it quite as much as Aquemini or Stankonia, but that’s a damn high bar for any album to clear.) It might seem overwrought to say this, but even though Tor hails from Canada, he’s put together an album that feels like America itself at its Obama-era best: a coexistence of cultures, black and white feeding into and riffing off of one another, and more interesting in their interplay than either one is alone.

I still like to buy music, but I’m weird about it; I love this album enough to be more than a little curious about Tor’s other output, but I also love it so much that I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed by his original compositions. I know enough about the music business (and entertainment in general) to see how financially merciless it can be to anyone who’s not in the stratospheric top tier with Jay-Z and the like. One loose social-media-level friend of mine played and toured with an artist who had multiple albums that earned lofty high-sevens and low-eights from Pitchfork, and glowing New York Times writeups. That friend now has an MBA after his name on LinkedIn, and since he’s apparently retired to financially greener pastures, I can only assume Tor isn’t raking it in, either. (Which I can totally relate to, given that I write every day and have published a few books but still have to pay the bills with a nine-to-five—this is commiseration, not condemnation.) So I should buy something from Tor, given how happy he’s made me with something I got for free. Yes, I should. Yes, I should.


It is Saturday night after AWP18, and we are starting this blog post in a darkened aircraft ascending through clouds, with Tampa and memories fading behind.

By “we,” I mean I. (Jerry.) Or as the Dude said in The Big Lebowski, “You know, the royal ‘we,’ the editorial…” But it’s always been my vision that Tortoise would be a “we,” not one of those Nine-Inch-Nails-is-Trent-Reznor things, and for this, our first AWP, we also had Carlo Matos and Christine Sneed in physical attendance, plus many other tortoises attending in spirit. (And/or via Twitter.) And we are wrapping our tortoise heads around issues of quality and quantity, topics always near and dear to our tortoise hearts.

Publishing professionally (which we believe we’re doing) requires a diligent focus on the numbers, an attempt to quantify a great many things. We prepare monthly profit/loss statements for the business, we tally income and expenses, we pay authors and associates. And while the numbers are important, the business is about far more than the numbers—it’s about the feeling we get when we sell to a new customer, when we sign a new author, when we hear someone talking excitedly about something we’ve published. (And it must be said, it’s about knowing we’re treating everyone as fairly as possible. It’s not worth it to sell a million books if you’re not paying your authors what you owe them, or giving all you can for them—if you have to hide from them when you see them. There is no profit in gaining the whole world at the expense of your soul; nor is there a profit in selling enough to make a living if you have to treat people like shit to do so.) You cannot quantify quality, and all of these things exist in an analog plane, far above the world of numbers.

Is AWP worth it? The raw numbers would suggest not—after paying for a $650 table, we made $442 in sales, which of course does not factor into account travel expenses, parking fees, etc., etc., let alone the cost of the books themselves. (We also paid a bit of a stupidity tax by overloading our good ol’ suitcase-press checked-bag-full-o-books to the point that it tipped the scales at 66 pounds, necessitating a $100 heavy bag fee.) And yet there are things about the experience you cannot quantify—some at least not until year-end financials, and some possibly forever. What’s the value of speaking face-to-face with the president of Consortium Books (a distributor we’d frankly love to work with) when all your books are laid out on the table in front of you? Can you put a dollar sign on George Saunders’ excellent keynote address? How about rekindling an acquaintance with Bonnie Jo Campbell and chatting about gun violence and American politics? And what is it worth to sing karaoke in a private Asian-style booth with Midwestern Gothic’s Rob Russell and a host of other delightful people? (Reader, you should already know this experience is valuable beyond measure.)

We also crossed a sales milestone the first day of the fair and sold our 5000th book! (If you’re curious about a breakdown by title…well, we’ve never done this before, but here you go, dear reader. We trust you.)

Resistance, 2012: 1543 copies (221 physical, 1322 electronic. Launched back in the salad days of KDP discounts, which probably helped.)

Ninety-Seven to Three, 2013: 7 copies (7 electronic. Poetry is a tough racket.)

The Last Good Halloween, 2013: 377 copies (272 physical, 105 electronic. Not bad for our first outside author.)

Zero Phase, 2013: 688 copies (94 physical, 594 electronic. Space people like ebooks.)

Project Genesis, 2014: 15 copies (15 electronic. Again, poetry. Although, to be fair, we've never released a physical version.)

Public Loneliness, 2014: 318 copies (115 physical, 203 electronic.)

The Dark Will End The Dark, 2015: 172 copies (148 physical, 24 electronic.)

In Lieu of Flowers, 2015: 91 copies (89 physical, 2 electronic.)

The Fugue, 2016: 291 copies (235 physical, 56 electronic. Not bad for a second edition. And--as is the case with a few of our books--we've made money on it.)

The Pleasure You Suffer, 2016: 42 copies (38 physical, 4 electronic.)

Staggerwing, 2016: 242 copies (207 physical, 35 electronic.)

Island of Clouds, 2017: 140 copies (59 physical, 81 electronic. High returns, unfortunately, but the people who read it seem to REALLY love it.)

North and Central, 2017: 447 copies (329 physical, 118 electronic. Who said crime doesn't pay?)

Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock, 2017: 66 copies (63 physical, 3 electronic.)

Old Open, 2017: 171 copies (139 physical, 32 electronic. Getting some traction on Ingram, which is nice.)

What We Build Upon the Ruins, 2017: 161 copies (152 physical, 9 electronic.)

The Quitters, 2017: 41 copies (36 physical, 5 electronic.)

Gunmetal Blue, 2017: 199 copies (190 physical, 9 electronic. Also doing well on Ingram, even though it's only been out since December. It helps that Kirkus called Joe Peterson "one of the Windy City's best-kept secrets.") 

The Virginity of Famous Men, 2018: 50 copies  (All physical, because that's what we have the rights to.)

(Note the list is ordered by date, not number—we absolutely do not want to imply that these books should be ranked by numbers sold. Every one has its own unique charms; like children, you love them all in unique ways.)

So, yes, 5,000 books. And given that our profit margin is around two hundred dollars a book, we’ve actually been earning a pretty comfortable living over the past five years doing this publishing thing. (I kid, I kid. Wait, wrong voice. We kid, we kid.) Book publishing is a tremendously humbling business. Sales feel capricious and arbitrary, and the economics are simply not that great for the average traditionally published author, even the ones that have had the kind of successes (New York Times reviews, major chain sales, advances with commas in them) that make the rest of us salivate. (As one author friend tells her writing students: Unless you see an author’s books on sale at the drugstore or the airport, they’re probably doing something else to make a living.) And while we do our best to treat people better than the traditional publishers—to read submissions without charging a fee, and respond as quickly as possible with personalized feedback, and edit respectfully, and pay promptly—we have certainly fallen short of the mark here and there, at least on the reading-and-responding side. But we keep moving, tortoiseing damn near every day (minus breaks for Sundays and vacations), trusting we’ll win the race in the end.

What, then, constitutes victory? Is it numbers sold? For some, perhaps—although there are plenty of bestsellers that fall by the wayside in subsequent years. (This list of the bestselling books from 1913 to 2013, for instance, includes plenty of familiar titles, but more than a few books like Green Light that aren’t even available for sale any more.) Is it awards? We’ve won some, and Lord knows we’d love to win some more, but a trip through the list of, say, Pulitzer winners (or Academy-Award-winning films, or what have you) certainly reveals plenty of wait-that-other-one-should-have-won picks, and why-wasn’t-this-one-even-nominated moments. (Coincidentally we—and here I mean I—went to Columbia University, and had professors who sat on the Pulitzer committee. They certainly seemed very dedicated to a fair and honest prize process, but they also knew that not all prize winners were created equal; one professor, for instance, described Neil Sheehan’s excellent A Bright Shining Lie as “one of those rare books that enhances the Pulitzers, rather than the other way around.” Not that we wouldn’t absolutely shit ourselves if one of us won a Pulitzer, but you get the idea.)

In the music world, it’s been said of the Velvet Underground that they didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band. Was Lou Reed unsuccessful in 1970, when he was living in his parents’ house and working as a typist in his father’s accounting firm for $40 a week—after having already launched four of the most influential albums in music history? Was he unsuccessful when he released Transformer? We’d love to have it all—sales, prizes, and the enduring legacy of a much-discussed body of work—and we’d love to give it all to our authors, but sales and prizes aren’t entirely in our control; all we can do is put out quality books, and tell people about them, and trust that the rest will come in time. So success, perhaps, is to keep reaching readers, and keep learning and growing.

And on that level, AWP certainly was a success. We recently acquired paperback rights to Christine Sneed’s excellent short story collection, The Virginity of Famous Men, and we were able to sell it in public for the first time there; we also sold books by Alex Higley and Carlo Matos and Joe Peterson and Giano Cromley and Gint Aras and Alice Kaltman—not all of our roster, unfortunately, but certainly a healthy chunk. On the first day of the conference, we sold our 5,000th book to a young guy named Allen; on the third day, he reached out on Twitter to let us know he’d already finished (and thoroughly enjoyed) Zero Phase. We learned a few lessons that will come in handy for the next AWP—ship your bags if they’re going to be overweight, sign up early if you want a busy table space, make sure to visit Electric Literature and all the other people you love on Twitter, don’t freak out if second-day sales are slow because third-day is the big sales day, etc. And we made enough money to keep chugging along and doing the next things we need to do to get the next books out there.

I wish I could say I was finishing this blog post in some lofty literary office space; I’m actually writing it the way I write most things, with my laptop balanced precariously on my knees, aboard a morning CTA train headed for my 9-to-5 non-publishing day job. But we at Tortoise are thinking ahead, to Printers Row Lit Fest, and the Chicago Book Expo, and AWP19, and we’re looking forward to all of it.


July 4, 2017

I met a local author named Joe Peterson a few years ago at an author event here in Chicago. I remember feeling slightly put off; he gave off a vibe like he felt like he was an underappreciated local genius. Then I read his book Wanted: Elevator Man and realized he was, in fact, an underappreciated local genius.

Since then, Joe and I have become great friends, and we’ve had many wonderful conversations about writing and publishing. I did some advance reading for his great collection Twilight of the Idiots; I solicited a submission from him for a story anthology.

About a year ago, we met up for lunch, and he told me about the manuscript that would become Gunmetal Blue. He said it was about gun violence, and he told me about his personal connection to the topic, and I knew I wanted to be involved.


22 years ago, I arrived at West Point for R-day for the Class of 1999. It was, for most of us, an anxious day, as hazy apprehension about hazing and training materialized into sweaty reality—yelling upperclassmen, uncomfortable uniforms, strange new rituals of drill and ceremony. I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into. Just about the only thing I looked forward to was the weapons training, and the chance to fire an M-16 for the first time.

I’d grown up a bit of a gun nut. When we lived in Florida I got a rifle for my 10th birthday, and somewhere in there my dad purchased a 9mm pistol for my mom for self-defense, and we spent many Saturday afternoon out at the range amidst the palmettos and scrub pines, pumping round after round into paper targets. But for a true gun aficionado, all of these things are vaguely unsatisfying compared to the prospect of actually shooting true military hardware.

One of the things that impressed—and still impresses—me about the Army was the culture of respect and accountability and safety when it comes to firearms. We didn’t get to handle them for several weeks after R-day; there were many unpleasant days of shoe-shining and brass-polishing and close-order drill and room inspection in the meantime, many orders given and received between the first day the military issued me a uniform and the first day they handed me a rifle.

During my four years as a cadet, the number of days I spent at the range shooting live ammunition were relatively infrequent, but I took many opportunities to increase them—once Beast Barracks was over and the academic year had started, I spent some Saturdays at the range with the Infantry Tactics Club; during my last three years, I competed in the Sandhurst military skills competition, in no small part because it had a marksmanship component.

I was medically discharged from the Army after graduation (narcolepsy, if you’re curious), and unexpectedly found myself living with my parents back in the Chicago suburbs, but I kept up my gun enthusiasm for some time; I’d purchased a class pistol, a Colt .45, and I’d go shooting at the range with my brother and one of my drinking buddies. Soon afterwards, I moved to New York City for grad school; I was a pretty proud conservative, and I took a certain perverse pleasure in going to the bar, getting carded, and seeing the bouncer’s eyes widen when I’d pull out my Illinois Firearm Owner’s ID in lieu of a Driver’s License.

It took some years for my attachment to guns to fade; in some ways, Chicago itself was responsible. When I moved back after grad school, it wasn’t legal for residents to own handguns. I thought about defying the law, and even flirted with the idea of becoming an NRA test case, the Rosa Parks who stood up to what I believed were unjustly oppressive laws. (Yes. That does sound ridiculous to me now.) In the end, all of that seemed like too much hassle, so my guns remained in the suburbs at my parents’ house, and my trips to the range got fewer and farther between.

It was just as well, for I went through some dark times personally in the early 2000s—some blackout drinking, where I’d make it home with only a frame or two of imagery about the trip home from the bars, and a LOT of brownout drinking, where I’d remember where I’d been and who I’d seen and how I’d made it back home, but I’d have to reconstruct the details of the night with help from friends. There were plenty of good times in there, but the bad ones were really bad—some relationships that turned ugly and angry, and one incident where I got physically violent with a woman I loved. But all that negativity usually turned inward rather than outward, and it manifested itself in some very dark thoughts. In retrospect, I’m pretty glad I didn’t have easy access to a handgun in those years.

I eventually quit drinking, and started taking steps to stay sober. Among other things—meetings with other alcoholics, spiritual work, etc.—I did a lot of reading. In his Confessions, St. Augustine says to God, “…by my own sin Thou didst justly punish me. For Thou hast commanded, and so it is, that every inordinate affection should be its own punishment.” This statement seemed to perfectly fit my experience with alcoholism; I’d certainly loved alcohol over and above almost everything else in my life. (It was part of the reason I moved downtown, and therefore one of the things that separated from my guns; I moved downtown because it seemed like in the suburbs I ‘had’ to drink and drive, but in a city with abundant public transportation and many taxis, that wouldn’t be the case.) In a sense, I’d viewed alcohol as a god. It was an idol I looked to to solve my problems—to relieve my stress at the end of the workweek, to get me talking to women, to ease my feelings of alienation and angst. And it seemed clear in retrospect that alcohol had been its own punishment: using it to numb the pain only increased the pain, and left me with some ungodly hangovers, too.

It wasn’t until after the Newtown massacre that I started to see guns in similar terms—as something that many Americans have loved inordinately, to the point that they’ve become their own punishment. I wrote an op-ed about my own gun experiences for the Chicago Tribune, and I started to read a lot more on the topic, and it didn’t take much digging to find stories where the addiction model seemed to fit. Take that of Chris Kyle, a brave man who perhaps saw guns as the answer to too many questions, and ended up shot to death by a man he’d enlisted for “gun therapy.” Or the case of Philando Castile—a man who bought a gun for self-defense, behaved responsibly with it, but was shot to death by a panicked cop who made a snap decision he wouldn’t have needed to make in a country where guns are less prevalent. Or that of Curtis Reeves, the retired Tampa police captain who shot a fellow theatergoer to death in a confrontation over texting during the movie previews and then sought the protection of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” laws. And the hallmarks of addiction are there, too, in the national conversation about guns—in the voices of the gun addicts who deny or shift blame any time any tragedy happens which can be directly attributed to our nation’s lax gun laws, the voices which claim that the media is engaged in some sort of conspiracy to suppress “good” gun stories (homes defended, mass shootings prevented, etc.) and play up the bad ones. For an addict lives in such a state of denial that they refuse to believe the problem is a problem—in fact, they believe the problem is a solution. They will throw out major facts that don’t fit their narrative, and play up minor facts that do support it, until they are again comfortable that nothing’s going to interfere with their addictive behavior.

I’m writing this letter over the Fourth of July weekend. I made a family trip down to Kankakee to visit relatives, many of whom are longtime responsible gun owners. I have many classmates from the military whom I’d trust with 1 or 10 or 100 or 1,000 guns. I’m well aware that, for many people who live in the country, 911 response times are well into the double-digit minutes, and if anyone did break into their home, they would probably want to use a firearm for self-defense. I fully understand that guns are an integral part of our nation’s origin story, and that the right to own them is constitutionally protected. I’m not suggesting that anyone should pry any guns out of anyone’s fingers, cold and dead or otherwise.

But it would be nice to work towards laws and policies that are as healthy for city-dwellers as they are for people who live in the country, laws that pay as much attention to the “well-regulated militia” part of the Second Amendment as they pay to the “keep and bear arms” part—laws that put additional pressure on those who make and sell guns, to ensure that they’re only selling to responsible individuals, and to make it easier to sue them when they don’t. (When the government was allowed to study these things, back in the late ‘90s, they found that something like 2% of gun stores were responsible for the guns used in 50% of gun homicides.) When I was an active alcoholic, I remember going to an all-you-can-drink event at a bar, asking for a shot, and being told I’d have to pay for it. I got upset; I thought I’d paid for the right to drink anything in that bar, in whatever form I wanted, but the bartender explained to me that it was against the law to serve shots for free at an all-you-can-drink event. I remember thinking (before I proceeded to get brownout drunk) that it was a stupid law—and then realizing, years later, that yeah, it probably made sense. Nowadays I’m glad we don’t have alcoholics in charge of writing laws about alcohol; I’m hopeful for the day when we don’t have gun addicts in charge of our gun laws.

In the meantime, though, I’m happy just to contribute a different voice and a different perspective to the national discussion. The gun addicts tell us “an armed society is a polite society.” They are quick to point out countries like Switzerland where this seems to be the case, while ignoring the many many many more places where it isn’t. (Somalia in the 90s, say, or Iraq in the 00s, or Northern Ireland in the 70s, or Sicily in the 80s, or even our own Wild West, which—the gun addicts will never tell you—had a murder rate approximately ten times as great as present-day Chicago.) They are quick to badmouth Chicago, while ignoring the fact that the city’s murder rate (as opposed to raw number of murders) is below, say, Gary and Indianapolis in gun-friendly Indiana. They used to complain that Chicago was too violent because of our strict gun laws—but now that gun laws have changed in the wake of D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago, and the murder rate hasn’t gone down, they are busy looking for other gun solutions to our gun problems. The voices of the gun addicts should not be the only ones heard on this topic, even though they are often the loudest.


Getting back to Joe Peterson.

Joe and I live at opposite ends of Chicago. Ours is a city divided, half Manhattan and half Detroit. There are prosperous neighborhoods where one is likely to never hear a shot fired in anger; there are others where it’s a regular occurrence, where the responsible course of action is probably to sell one’s home and move somewhere where you’ll never hear gunshots in the night, or find spent 9mm casings in front of your building, or step over a murder victim’s blood on your way to work. (All of which have happened to me.) It’s a disempowering feeling, in part because so much of it is due to lax gun laws in other states—an estimated 60% of guns used in Chicago crimes were originally sold outside Illinois—and in part because carrying a gun oneself wouldn’t make any difference, as it’s not violence directed towards you. It’s the type of violence that the leaves the average law-abiding individual physically unharmed, while steadily undermining their community, hollowing it out through the steady outflow of internal refugees to the well-policed safe spaces of the suburbs. This type of violence depopulates vast swaths of city until the only people left are the ones comfortable with lawlessness, or actively engaged in it—or simply too poor to flee.

When Joe sent me this manuscript, it read—like many of his works—like a dreamy urban fable, a fanciful tale of male gun fantasies gone horribly wrong. A lot of his gun-related scenes were wrong, too; I knew we’d have to tweak them quite a bit just to make them remotely plausible. To help him rewrite things, I offered to end my longtime gun hiatus and take him to the range. For it is a full sensory experience, covering everything but taste—the look of a proper sight picture, the feeling of trigger-finger pressure chemically converted to the quick kick of recoil, the muffled-but-loud sound of each round, the smell of gun oil and the whiff of spent gunpowder, and the sight, at last, of lead-shredded paper targets. (That’s part of the allure, I think—part of the reason the gun addicts are so reluctant to look elsewhere for their happiness. It’s a fun activity that stimulates the senses.) It seemed best to have Joe experience it, so as to write about it convincingly.

Joe never took me up on the offer. I did a bunch of editing, and I tried to keep things semi-realistic while still retaining the dreamy qualities of Joe’s writing. Still, we never made it out to the range. Knowing his personal history, I understand why.

But you’ll have to read the book to find out.



Although Gunmetal Blue won’t officially be up for sale until December, we got a few production copies ready in time for the Chicago Book Expo on October 1. Interest was very high; we sold all of those books, and even one of the advance reader copies we’d brought along to give away to prospective reviewers. I went to bed content that we’d done something good; I woke horrified by yet another worst mass shooting in American history, a title that’s been claimed and reclaimed far too many times in the last decade.

The awful thing about shootings like this isn’t just that they happen—it’s that they’re the only time when there’s even a semblance of a conversation about possibly making the smallest and most incremental changes to our nation’s gun laws. We are not the only nation to grapple with violence; we are not the one with the worst murder rate—but we are the main source of firearms for the nations that ARE, the countries to the south of us that are riven by drug violence and American guns. (87% of the weapons seized by Mexican authorities originated in the United States, for instance, according to one survey by the U.S. GAO.) And we are the one where a substantial portion of the population acts like events like this are as inevitable as the weather. So all I can ask is: What kind of freedom is this, America?

But in my outrage and disgust, I can at least take comfort in putting another voice out there, a serious story that somehow manages to be whimsical as well. Gun addicts rightly point out that much of the entertainment put out by the so-called Hollywood liberal elites still glorifies gun violence. And they have a point; there is indeed an air of hypocrisy in someone like Matt Damon decrying guns while also fetishizing them in lucrative franchises like the Bourne movies.

This book is something else entirely, something that, for all its whimsy and unreality, still captures some essential truths about life on the gun range, about the fantasies of romantic violence that fuel so many people to spend millions at the range—all these middle-aged civilians fantasizing about being the next Chris Kyle, or stopping the next Omar Mateen. I do hope you’ll give it a read.


We’re thrilled to finally announce the publication dates for three awesome books—all of which will also be available at the Chicago Book Expo this Sunday! (And at the Heartland Fall Forum in Lombard on October 13th.)

First, from Canadian author Steve Passey, is Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock, an inimitable collection about beautiful losers plumbing the depths of the Great Recession. I always want to call it “literary sleaze,” because there’s an element of that to it—bullet wounds and nudie bars and El Caminos and such—but there’s also so much more, a set of flawed-but-intriguing people stumbling through their unforgettable lives. The book will be officially available November 1, but you can get it here.

Next comes Old Open, a tremendously entertaining absurdist road novel about an aging Phoenix widower who discovers his neighbor is an expert on a mysterious UFO phenomenon. It’s been earning comparisons to Denis Johnson and Don DeLillo, but as is the case with all awesome authors, there’s also something inimitable and unique about Alex Higley’s work. This book’s an absolute delight to read; we’re officially launching it on November 7th, but it’s available for preorder as well.

Last—but far from least—we’re thrilled to have Giano Cromley back for another round with his excellent collection What We Build Upon the Ruins. This elegant but hard-hitting set features a devastating triptych of stories about a family that’s been pierced by tragedy; it’s memorable and touching and honest and true, an unforgettable series about being blindsided by tragedy, and struggling to rebuild in the face of great sorrow. It officially launches on November 14th, but along with the other books, you can get it at Book Expo, or preorder it online here.

More announcements to come!


It’s been a busy month for Tortoise Books, but amidst all the hoopla, we wanted to officially (and somewhat belatedly) announce the publication of Bob Hartley’s North and Central!

This book’s a beautifully bleak literary crime novel set in a bar on Chicago’s West Side during the winter of ’78-’79, one of the most notoriously bitter seasons in Chicago history. The characters are caught up in the cold cynicism of corruption and cronyism—and yet there’s a warmth to this work, the beautiful amber glow of alcohol and nostalgia. False feelings, perhaps, but ones that feel real enough in the moment.

I grew up watching Cheers and wanting the life they sang about in that all-too-perfect theme song; I craved that place where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. In my 20s, I found a neighborhood bar that seemed to fit the bill. I made some true friendships, had a few fun flings, and even fell into one of the great loves of my life, but even on those nights when I did know everybody’s name and they were all glad I came, I was starting to feel antsy and agitated and profoundly lonely, an ache so deep no quantity of $2.75 High Lifes could soothe it. (At least, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a workable number; I usually lost count around 14 or so.) So for me, at least, bar life proved to be a beautiful lie.

And that’s why I fell in love with this manuscript. As I never tire of telling people, it’s an anti-Cheers, a story about a place where everybody knows your nickname, and they’re tired of you coming around because you’re a degenerate. The character dynamics line up well with what I saw of dive bars—the false fronts and phony posturing. And yet behind every façade, there was, and is, something true and real, something ugly, perhaps, but all the more interesting for being authentic.

I’m trying to write the story behind the story for every new author, and this one is (I think) as cool as any. Another local publisher sent Bob my way, all the way back in July of 2015. I’d gotten into publishing in no small part because of my own frustrations with people not reading what I’d sent, and here came an object lesson in how we eventually become what we hate: I thanked Bob for submitting and promptly forgot to read his work. But he graciously wrote me a full six months after our initial email exchange to see where I was at with it. I was horrified that I’d forgotten about it, and even more so when I cracked it open to see what I’d been missing. It was instantly engrossing; it sounded like the kind of thing Bukowski and Springsteen would have written if they’d collaborated. For me, writing’s less about style and more about authentic emotion, and the opening action (a bar owner hammering dents into quarters) had me hooked; it pulled me in to a delightfully cynical world of crime and kickbacks and crooked cops, and it made me want to spend time in that world.

There were issues with the initial manuscript—I wasn’t nuts about the original title (The Ceiling Falls), and the ending of Bob’s first draft didn’t quite work for me. But oddly enough, that actually helped make for a more satisfying publishing experience. For Bob was more than willing to keep honing the manuscript, to work together and turn it into the best possible version of itself. I suggested a few ideas for a new ending, and Bob considered them, and then came up with an amazing ending of his own, one that lingered in my head long after I’d finished reading. He came up with a new and better title, naming it after the intersection where the bar in question sat in a way that evoked the Midwest in general. During the editing process, Bob let me rework some things and add a line of dialogue here and there; he was both gracious enough to allow me to make some changes when I had a good idea, and resolute enough to stick to his guns when I had a bad one.

Of course, finishing the manuscript is only the first finish line in a long series of races. Bob and I both worked to find cover images and source them. (Finding cool pictures is relatively easy—tracking down the rights owners and getting an economical price for a picture can be much harder.) I came up with a cover concept that worked, but I couldn’t quite execute it as well as necessary—our intern, Jaime Harris, did some great work to bridge the gap between a good idea and a great finished product. And Bob and I have both been busy with pre- and post-publication work; it’s not enough to have a perfect product if nobody knows it exists.

A month in, we’re tremendously happy with both the story and with how it’s being received. Our blurbists saw in the finished product what I’d seen as potential in the manuscript—a new Chicago classic, worthy to sit on the shelf with the other great books we’ve published, and with past classics like The Man with the Golden Arm and Studs Lonigan. Kudos to Bob on a job well done!


We’re tickled pink to officially announce that we’ll be publishing Alex Higley’s Old Open this August!

This story centers on a widower in Arizona, a man living in an empty existential sun-baked suburb who realizes that his mysterious neighbor is an expert on a possible extraterrestrial phenomenon. An odd premise to read about in a query, perhaps—but any premise can be well-executed by the right author, and it turned out that Alex had the chops not only to pull it off, but to do so with panache. There are echoes of Don DeLillo and Radiohead—artists who eloquently speak to the loneliness and longing of modern life. And yet his work is more than the sum of its influences—there’s a heart and soul to it, a warm sensitivity to the plight of its protagonist, and to the quirks and foibles of the people he comes across along the way. What’s more, the book somehow manages to evoke these existential questions while also being laugh-out-loud funny. We’re grateful for the chance to publish it, and looking forward to sharing it with you!

Joseph G. Peterson

We're thrilled to announce that we'll be publishing Joseph G. Peterson's excellent Gunmetal Blue in November!

We (the royal we, you know, the editorial...) met Joe at Book Cellar's Local Authors Night way way back in 2014 or so, and we did the responsible good support-the-local-scene thing and checked out his book (albeit on Kindle), and we're glad we did, because he's a tremendous Chicago voice, a truly inimitable chronicler of the lovable ne'er-do-well. We've since read everything he's written, and picking favorites is tough, but for our money, the best of his published work is probably Wanted: Elevator Man. Still, there's a new contender waiting in the wings--and we get to coach this one along!

You should read his other stuff in the meantime. For real, though!


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.

Friends of the Tortoise - Martin Seay (Part 1)

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.

Election 2016 - A Concession

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 had a cool launch party on the 25th at Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park...and now the saudade anthology is up for sale! There's a range of neat pieces from a host of new authors, and we're very grateful to our editorial associate, Leanna Gruhn, for helping pull it all together. Check it out here.