We’re pleased to finally announce a publication date for our saudade anthology!

This project’s been gestating for several months now. We started late last year, at a time when we didn’t have a lot in the pipeline; it seemed a good way to get in touch with some new authors, put out new and exciting work from our past publishees, and bring some talented local author friends into the fold, at least for a while.

I’m thrilled by this project in no small part because I know firsthand how frustrating it can be to NOT have an outlet. When I first got involved in publishing on a very small scale, in 2010, I’d finished a few book-length manuscripts, and even self-published one, but that major publishing deal continued to elude me. What’s worse, I wasn’t having much luck with journals and story contests and what-not. I’d been spending the bulk of my time writing in isolation, hunched over the laptop in the coffee shop, and I simply hadn’t taken the time to meet the people and build the relationships that would send my words someplace other than the slush pile. The result: no clear outlet for anything I’d written.

Fortunately, it turned out my ex-girlfriend’s sister Liz was starting a little literary newspaper called the deadline. (No capitalization, always with a period, always underlined--which I can only attempt to do here by adding a hyperlink, which actually doesn't go to the paper because Liz, bless her heart, insisted on keeping it completely offline. To this day, I have no idea whether that was self-limiting self-sabotage, or a quirky and brilliant way to differentiate ourselves from the online masses.) I went to the launch party for the first issue, and submitted a poem for the next one, and before long, she'd graciously invited me to be a co-editor.

It's a wonderful feeling to be selected, especially as an author, especially nowadays; there’s such an abundance of material out there that when someone reads your writing and actually pays attention, it feels like a minor miracle. I can’t control whether or not I get that feeling; no matter how many revisions and tweaks I do, there’s no surefire way to grab someone else’s attention at a moment when they’re receptive. But thanks to a wonderful two years working on Liz’s paper, I learned that I can pay attention and give that feeling, and that’s possibly even more rewarding.

I did, belatedly, start meeting local authors through the deadline. And I realized it was time to start my own publishing venture, not just to get my own manuscripts out there, but to give people what had eluded me—that feeling of being chosen. For as much as the online prognosticators tell us to “build your brand,” unless you’re a household name, the only people likely to buy your work based on your name alone are the people in your household. But publishing under a brand tells everyone, “Hey, it’s OK to read this. It’s not some typo-riddled and unedited tract that someone printed at Kinko’s and started handing out on State Street. It’s been selected.”

So much of the fun in publishing, and in this anthology, comes from that: from actually reading submissions from strangers and telling them that their efforts have not been in vain, that in fact they’ve produced something worthwhile. It is truly a treat to get to meet people on the page, with their words and their stories untainted by any personal prejudices or past relationships, and I’m pleased that so many of these works came in that way.

Then there are the local authors we’ve admired from afar…

There’s a scene in Citizen Kane where title character looks longingly in a rival newspaper’s window at a photograph of their newsroom staff; flash forward, and the same newswriters are sitting for a recreation of that group portrait—only now, they’re all in Kane’s employ. “Six years ago, I looked at the picture of the world’s greatest newspapermen. I felt like a kid in front of a candy store,” Kane says. “Well tonight, six years later, I got my candy, all of it.” In a silly small-press sort of way, I feel like Charles Foster Kane today. Granted, my author friends have (and will continue to) put their work out elsewhere as well. But thanks to this anthology, many of the authors I’ve met on the pages of other publishers’ books are now at least part-time Tortoises.

Of course, none of this would make me entirely happy if the authors we’d published in the past weren’t eager to do business with us again. And that’s another point of pride in this collection—the chance to showcase new and exciting work from old friends.

So without further ado, here are the authors we’ve chosen for the saudade anthology:

Lily Mooney

Alfonso Mangione

Jennifer Schaefer

Darrin Doyle

Drew Buxton

Joseph G. Peterson

Rachel Slotnick

Alice Kaltman

Steve Karas

Gerald Brennan

Ben Tanzer

Matt Pine

Liz Yohemoore

Giano Cromley

Chris Reid

Traci Failla


We’re shooting for a launch party on Saturday, June 25th, here in Chicago. There’s plenty more to be done between now and then—I’ve learned over the past few years that, for as hard as it is to put out quality work, that effort pales in comparison to the work of marketing and finding an audience! (And we need to decide on a venue for our launch.) But a long road becomes dreary if you don’t stop once in a while to celebrate your progress, so it is time for a small pat on the back for ourselves, and a huge public thanks to everyone who’s joined us on the journey.


We’re thrilled to announce that we’ll be publishing Alice Kaltman’s Staggerwing collection in October of 2016!

I’ve made a decent effort to meet the various Tortoise Books authors face-to-face; it does help, if you’re going into business with someone, to sit down and have a meal with them as well. But I try to get to know them on the page first, because that’s the only way most of our readers will ever meet them. And that’s how I first met Alice, with a wonderful story suite she submitted to our saudade anthology, which is still slowly plodding its way towards publication.

They say growth happens outside your comfort zone, and that seems to be the case here: Alice and I have spent a decent amount of time corresponding and interacting online, but that’s it—after the manuscript, it’s been a pleasant series of smiling avatars and excited emails and scanned contracts, a mutual cascade of Facebook likes and retweets. And whatever my preferences, it may well stay that way for the foreseeable future.

She’s also the first one who’s working with us via an agent. Given my own experiences trying to go the traditional publishing route with Resistance, I definitely had some reservations about that. (I had one agent tell me it was one of the best manuscripts she’d read; she had me do a round of revisions, and then stopped communicating with me for no apparent reason. Then I got in touch with another agent; she seemed interested and asked for the full manuscript, then went incommunicado.) But Alice’s agent has been tremendously helpful, working with us to get a good solid author agreement in place, and always returning emails promptly and professionally. Indeed, she seems to be everything an agent’s supposed to be: active and involved and committed to the author’s success. And that certainly trumps any anti-agent biases I may have had—it’s tough enough to sell books that I’m willing to take allies wherever I can find them. (Also, over the past four years, I’ve probably done everything that’s ever annoyed me about the traditional industry at least once.)

Writing and publishing seem to be in an exciting but scary state of flux nowadays; everyone can publish, and everyone’s a critic, and everyone can interact with almost anyone directly online. There are conferences and fairs and festivals and writing workshops; some advice-givers suggest that one should network and tweet and “build one’s tribe” ahead of actually, you know, putting fingers to keyboard and turning out something great. Strangely enough, the people peddling such advice seem to be making more money from speaker fees and advice-book sales than they do from actually telling memorable stories. Indeed, the cynic in me says the industry’s turning into a big Ponzi scheme, with many people only earning a living by pulling more people in after them. (There’s certainly an overemphasis on inauthentic online interactions, on doing everything as a means to some other end: getting Twitter followers to prove you have a following, getting great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads to prove that your book’s worthwhile, reaching out to others just to secure publishing and representation. It’s all, to my mind, an attempt to substitute quantity for quality, as if a large enough followership and high enough average customer review can somehow take the risk out of publishing and guarantee that the best books will make money.)

Fortunately, there are still authors like Alice who seem to be writing for the sheer joy of telling stories that connect with people—authors who actually have something to say about the human condition, something that lingers after you turn the last page. Alice has a sharp eye and a soft heart, a talent for picking apart the foibles of post-Millenial America while still seeing the beautiful and vulnerable and timeless humanity that lies beneath. All our online interactions have been genuinely great, full of warmth and real feeling—like writing itself, the online world is but a tool for transmitting emotion, and like all tools, it can be put to whatever use the user sees fit. But even better than that, all of this is pointing us towards the launch of a really great collection of stories. For all the tweets and retweets, the momentary online buzz, the advice-listers and schemers will someday be a dim memory. And when that happens, only the writers will have left something behind.

The Fugue: Vision and Reality

Through a pleasant and unexpected turn of events, we’ve taken over publication duties for Gint Aras’ excellent The Fugue. Epic and yet right-sized, complicated but intensely readable, straightforward and yet emotionally impactful, this excellent novel fits in well with the body of work we’re proudly building at Tortoise Books.

Personally and professionally, this culminates a long strange trip of sorts; Gint and I have spent most of the past four years in one of those unreal 21st-century online-only friendships. When I was starting this imprint, a blogger friend (Shout out to Alicia Eler!) mentioned him; she’d heard about his novel Finding the Moon in Sugar and figured he might be worth contacting. I gave it a read and was pleasantly surprised; it featured a delightfully unique narrator, a small-time part-time student living at the edges of Chicago, and society. (“If you lost your beer gut,” he says early on, “probably someone in Berwyn picked it up and never even noticed.”) It takes a big-hearted and talented author to depict such a doofus of a character with both intelligence and humanity, in a way that you shake your head at his foibles while still falling in love a little.

Relatively soon, Gint and I were connected on Facebook and Twitter. He pitched me for a writing submission for The Good Men Project, and I wrote a piece about married life; we talked about meeting up to do a podcast, but somehow that never materialized. Soon we were moving in the same author circles, but somehow we still kept passing like the proverbial ships in the night; we’d each independently go to readings and book fairs and then realize after the fact, via social media, that we’d somehow been in the same room without meeting face-to-face. As with many of my long-term online-only friends (Shout out to Terra Dankowski!) I started to half-suspect that it was one of those matter-antimatter things that would somehow turn out very badly if we did come into contact.

Then in November, we did finally get a chance to talk, at Curbside Splendor’s Pop-Up Book Fair, where he was promoting a new novel. I made it a point to get to his book launch party at City Lit in December, a standing-room-only affair featuring that rarest of phenomena in indie publishing: random people outside the author’s immediate circle excitedly snapping up copies of a book, and even waiting in line to get their copies signed. In short order, I started seeing glowing critical notices about the book, and even seeing it pop up randomly on Reddit’s carousel o’ books, and I realized something was definitely happening. Authors and publishers have notoriously complicated feelings when other authors and publishers make sales and get noticed, and I will cop to a little jealousy in this timeframe. But dwarfing that (I hope) is my sense that something cool’s going on in Chicago, a lively indie scene that’s hopefully the literary equivalent of Seattle in, say, 1990, with loads of talented people on the brink of widespread recognition. And while I can’t be Eddie Vedder and don’t want to be Kurt Cobain, I’d definitely like to be somewhere in there—maybe Bruce Pavitt, or even Matt Cameron.

I will forgo all the gory details, but through an unfortunate chain of events (and no fault of his own), Gint and his previous publisher decided to part ways. He was eager to get back up and running with someone else, and while I tend to prefer tortoise-paced book launches (I’m a marathoner, not a sprinter), it’s good to cross-train once in a while. So after a frantic but thorough period of redesigning the book and the cover art (and a mere 20 days after he and his previous publisher parted ways), we got the second edition back up for sale.

(Incidentally, it turns out Gint and I have been crossing paths for far longer than either of us realized, for we were even in grad school in New York at the same time—both at Columbia University, him in the MFA program and me at the J-school, possibly walking past each other at Broadway and 116th, or bumping into one another on the Low Library steps, clueless to the fact that we’d be doing business 15 years later.)

In the big-picture sense, writing and publishing are about making imaginary things real: turning ethereal visions into printed words, and transforming those, in turn, into business relationships and physical products—and hopefully friendships as well. Gint has been working on this project since we were both blindly passing one another on the streets of New York; it’s been a joy turning our friendship from imaginary to real, and a true honor to help him keep his book that way as well.


I wanted to throw together some thoughts on David Bowie’s passing. I haven’t done so until now because I really don’t care about Bowie.

JUST KIDDING, PEOPLE. Actually, it’s just taken longer than expected. In the days after an untimely death, one often gets the snap judgments, first impressions that still often contain considerable merit and truth. Hopefully time offers deeper understanding.

I won’t pretend Bowie was my favorite musician—not that I have one, but I’ve never named a child in partial tribute (the way I did with Iggy Pop), or hoped to have one of his songs played at my hopefully still-distant funeral (the way I do with Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand”), or used his name frequently as an Internet password (the way I’ve done with…someone else). Still, he is one of the greats for me—someone I’ll binge on in phases, then take time away from a bit, then go back to renewed. And like all such greats, he’s soundtracked my life.

Many instances come to mind: getting “Space Oddity” stuck in my best friend’s head back in high school, or rocking out to “Heroes” to power me through bland mornings of cubicle work. But perhaps my favorite was a Saturday evening over a decade ago.

It was summer of 2002, back in my drinking days; I’m not sure if I didn’t have many friends at the time, or if I was just lonely. But I have a distinct memory of putting on Hunky Dory while home alone in my downtown Chicago studio apartment and giving it a good solid listen while polishing off a few bottles of High Life and cooking myself a spaghetti dinner. It wasn’t the first time I’d listened to the album, but it was one of those listens where I’d picked exactly the right bit of music to accompany my mood. I distinctly remember the golden beer buzz starting to settle in while wondering if any sequencing of tracks could top the segue from “Oh! You Pretty Things” to “Eight Line Poem.” I was drinking to warm up for another cold night as a lonely barfly. But I don’t recall meeting anyone else that night, and if I did, I remember Bowie more.

It is an illusion, of course, to imagine we really know anyone with whom we have such an asymmetrical relationship. But it does feel real. Other musicians may be casual acquaintances; Bowie’s more like an old friend, someone who’s dammed up such a reservoir of good feeling within you that you want to spend more time with them, either to relive the glory days, or to see what they’re up to these days. And when you do, you often find old lines that resonate with you in new ways.

Now it’s winter in downtown Chicago. I caught news of Bowie’s passing on a Monday morning through a quick status update from a Facebook friend, confirmed moments later by a visit to I read a great many think pieces and did a great deal of thinking; I marveled that someone so edgy could inspire warm words not only from Iggy Pop, but from the Vatican as well. And now I’ve been throwing down these words in an office cafeteria with expansive views, and on the rocking chilly Red Line.

The common refrain about Bowie is that he found mainstream success by being a weirdo; he made it OK for all of us freaks and nerds, everyone who’s felt a dork among the jocks, or a woman trapped in a man’s body, or an alien amidst the humans. And there’s certainly a lot of truth in that—disconnection and alienation found their voice in him, and his plasticity and artifice ended up feeling more real than many others’ realities.

In the time since, I’ve been revisiting Heroes and Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, seeing the truth in all the eulogies and finding the new meanings in the old words; I’m wondering if he’d still agree with what he said, that knowledge comes with death’s release. But I’ve made more memories, too. I bought Blackstar that first afternoon, and the disconnected observer in me marveled that he’d timed its release so well. Here was a master performer giving an epic performance, a changeling on the other side of the greatest change of all, a showman and a businessman who’d timed his exit perfectly after selling us his own eulogy. But as I listened, headphones on, walled off in my mellow grey cubicle, the music dissolved all judgments, and I felt something else: connected, touched, haunted and moved to tears by that voice so full of feeling, this superstar who was, for all the alienation, wonderfully and tragically human.

S.Y.S. (Send Your Saudade.)

We're seeking submissions for our very first anthology! The theme: saudade.

If you don't know what that means, don't worry. Saudade famously has no direct English translation; it’s a Portuguese word describing the nostalgic longing for something that may never return, or may not exist. This feeling can be strangely comforting; research (read: Google) leads us to a description from author Manuel de Mello (or de Melo, depending on the website), who calls it “A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” It permeates the music of Brazil, another nation steeped in slavery and sadness and the hope for a better life; one can easily hear it in the songs of João Gilberto or Antonio Carlos Jobim. (This NPR piece is a great primer for anyone interested in learning more about this emotion and its musical manifestations.) Yet this heartsick yearning’s already very familiar to those of us born and raised in North America; we often call it “the blues.” (B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” is a prime example; even if you couldn’t understand the words, every note of the guitar rings with desire and ache.)

We’d like to get your saudade down on paper.

Our crack Tortoise Books team is assembling a collection of pieces exemplifying this universal emotion. Poetry, stories, essays, drawings, you name it: we’re less concerned with form than with feeling, and as long as it fits the mood, we’d be glad to have it! (And probably also a little sad and wistful, once we read it.) We're collecting submissions through the end of the year; you can either submit a quick note about your work via the form on the "Why Tortoise Books" tab, or email a copy to editors at tortoisebooks dot com. (Sorry we can't put the proper email in...the robots are watching!) For any piece published, the author will receive $10 or three contributor copies.

We're looking forward to reading your work!

- The Tortoise Books Staff

This Podcast Will Change Your Life

The Ben Tanzer was gracious enough to sit down with me to record a podcast a few weeks back, and the results are now available online, for your listening enjoyment!  (I mean, I think it'll be enjoyable, but I also think I don't sound like a stoner, so what do I know?) Anyway, here goes:

Mad Men - On Style and Substance

I thought I’d be chock full of words once Mad Men’s last episode ran, burning to give my take on WHAT IT ALL MEANS; instead I’m oddly copacetic. I’m not disappointed (the way I was after Breaking Bad); I’m just at peace of sorts, probably not unlike Don Draper while he was doing yoga on that bucolic promontory overlooking the Pacific.

There are obvious common themes between Mad Men and Breaking Bad: new identities, and all the unexpected consequences that reinvention entails. Walter White and Dick Whitman are both nonentities—one a loser high school teacher stiffed by the world (the type of guy like The Simpsons’ Frank Grimes who does everything right and still somehow has it turn out wrong), the other a sad product of prostitution sent to die in Korea—while Heisenberg and Don Draper are larger-than-life. In a sense, they’re mirror images of one another; Heisenberg is vehicle for darkness, violence, and general badassery, whereas Don Draper’s a somewhat respectable front, Superman in a suit, embodying the notion that the business of America is business. But both are running from their authentic selves, so seduced by idol worship of their own outsized image and ego that they’re willing to do awful and hurtful things to the people who are attempting to love them, or to anyone who threatens their grandiose façade. (There are those, of course, who miss the point of both shows and think that the wish fulfillment is the point; some cheer Heisenberg’s successes and sneer at the Skylers who don’t buy the bullshit, and many ape Draper’s fetishization of style over substance, seeing only the respectable suit and not what it conceals: a hungry void where a heart should be.)

For as much as I loved Breaking Bad, its ending annoyed me because it allowed Walter White/Heisenberg to die on his own terms, a legend in his own mind—diminished, perhaps, but still unpunished, with his ego more than intact. Mad Men did something similar, but it ended interestingly enough that I’m oddly OK with it.

In the next-to-last episode, one senses Don Draper is indeed being punished for his sins, beaten by his fellow veterans after confiding in them. It seems cruel but relatively fair; he’s already blown multiple chances at reinvention, and he continues to truly avoid owning up to his actions. (Whereas the smarmy Pete Campbell at least seems to be attempting an honest transformation. Witness his conversation with his brother about his womanizing and adultery: “It feels good for a while. And then it doesn’t.”) And well into the last episode, I thought Don was going to come to some self-destructive end, alcoholism or suicide, perhaps drinking himself to death in a hotel room, perhaps leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge and at last becoming (as so many have speculated) the falling man from the title credits.

Instead, we get one more enigmatic reinvention, prompted by a moment of empathy in a hippie commune. A gray bland man (the quintessential anonymous consumer, perhaps) talks about a dream where he was a product on a refrigerator door, and everyone could see him, but nobody picked him. And Don hugs him and cries—why? Because as the rejected child of a prostitute, he understands the commoditization of people. He knows how it feels to be passed over, to be unwanted. He’s made it his life’s work to engineer desire in others, to create desire for products as a way to make himself desirable. And he’s been doing it so successfully, it’s become his identity. He sees his self-worth almost entirely in terms of his life’s work.

And this is the key to Don’s character. He wants that warm fuzzy feeling, the feeling of being wanted and loved—but if it’s not forthcoming on his terms, he’s willing to accept an inauthentic facsimile, or better yet (and somewhat more reliable), a chemical substitute—preferably alcohol, but not always.

It’s no accident that one of Don’s most damaging meltdowns occurs during a presentation for Hershey. It isn’t Chevy or Heinz—it’s the country’s largest and most recognizable candy manufacturer, and the one most willing to trade on those oh-too-similar neural pathways by which we enjoy both confections and affections. (This is the company, after all, that wraps chocolate in tinfoil and calls it a kiss.) Not only does Don tell a story from his deepest darkest childhood, he implies that the company doesn’t even need his services, that neither he nor anyone else could help them sell their product. So great is his veneration of their synthetic substitute for authentic feeling that he doesn’t feel worthy of working with them. He sabotages the meeting; in a sense, he rejects them before they can reject him.

The series finale ends up further developing these themes. Throughout Season 7, people attempt to get Don to swallow the distasteful McCann deal by sweetening it with Coca-Cola. Even when he’s at his absolute nadir, melting down on the phone with Peggy (perhaps the person he most wanted to impress, or at least the person who most wanted to be him), she mentions that all can be forgiven, that he can have the chance to come back and work on perhaps the most recognizable American brand, and the one with the greatest disparity between image and substance. He can still feel wanted. And at last, after hugging the crying man and doing some yoga, it’s implied that he does go back. Perhaps as a better person, perhaps one more whole, he presumably returns to New York, digs back in to the work, and gives us the iconic Coca-Cola ad with people from all over the world singing about sharing a Coke, giving the illusion of community and communion.

Is this a good thing? The cynic in me says no—the Don Draper that begins the decade peddling cancer ends it by peddling diabetes. And it implies that he’s inventing a certain type of marketing that’s perhaps even slicker than anything that came before, a type that feels very Jobsian—giving people the illusion of warmth and peace and interconnectedness in a way that glosses over the very real and continued rift between the haves who reap the benefits when the have-nots consume too expensively what other have-nots produce too cheaply.

Still, story-wise it feels right, and entirely appropriate—a damn-near perfect end to a damn-near-perfect series. (As I said about Breaking Bad, if I can get anyone talking and thinking about my writing the way I’ve been talking and thinking about this show, I’ll view that as a massive success.) We don’t have a clue as to whether Don ever really ditched talk for action, whether he started showing up for the truly important things—Betty’s funeral, or the ongoing lives of his children. We have no idea as to whether he’s actually willing to do the hard work to form a meaningful relationship that will generate real and lasting good feelings. But he’s more than willing to sell us on a sugary substitute. 

2015 Summer Internship Opportunities

Internship Candidates

Do you want to intern at a world-famous publishing venture? A place where your day-to-day responsibilities may be limited to opening mail, grabbing coffee, and maybe some time on Twitter, but where everyone you know wants to get published?

If so, then this is not the internship for you.

If, on the other hand, you want to be an empowered member of a small team, with real responsibility for budgeting, marketing, growing a business—and most importantly, producing and selling books—this might be what you’re looking for.

What’s more, there might be money in it for you. (Not a lot of money, because we’re not a big company yet—but money directly tied to your effectiveness and results.)

We’re looking for one or more summer interns to help with the following tasks:


-          Expand distribution of existing titles.

-          Develop a budgeted marketing plan to boost sales of existing titles through online advertising, reading groups, social media, and other methods as you see fit.

-          Execute the marketing plan.

-          Track the results of marketing, paying particular attention to the cost-effectiveness and time-effectiveness of various methods.

-          Tweet, but only as an absolute last resort.

-          Receive a cut of any increased revenue during the term of the internship.


-          Solicit new manuscripts in a variety of forms. (Novels, short story collections, novellas, poetry collections, short stories, long stories. We’ll consider most things, as long as they’re worthy of the Tortoise brand. And as long as they’re written—no albums, movies, or interpretive dance routines.)

-          Help determine which works to publish.

-          Receive a cut of any project you bring to Tortoise Books.

Business Development

-          Research and apply for publishing grants.

-          Investigate additional opportunities to grow the business.

Applicants must be in Chicago or its environs during the summer. Hours will be very flexible—we’re more focused on results than on time spent working. In fact, successful applicants are more than welcome to work elsewhere as well during the internship, but we will conduct weekly face-to-face meetings to review progress and plans.

If some (or all) of this interests you, please submit a brief cover letter using our submission form. (It’s on the bottom of the “WHY TORTOISE BOOKS” page.) Please touch on the following topics:

-          Introduction

-          What you’re reading now, and why

-          What books you love, and why

-          What’s overrated, and why

-          Your short-term goals in writing and/or publishing

-          Your long-term goals

Submissions will be open until April 25th. Solid prospects will be asked to email a resume and references. Interviews will be conducted by phone and/or in person until April 30th, with results announced May 1, and negotiation of final terms and timeframes shortly thereafter.


Hello, all:

We're having a book launch next month here in Chicago, and you're all invited! (Or rather, as many of you as the fire marshall will allow in the bookstore.) Details below:


Launch Party for The Dark Will End The Dark by Darrin Doyle

Tortoise Books is thrilled to announce the Chicago launch party for our newest project, Darrin Doyle’s The Dark Will End The Dark. We will be celebrating with a series of readings on Friday, March 13th at Powell’s Bookstore at UIC, 1218 S. Halsted, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. In addition to the featured author, we’ll be featuring a variety of local writers, including:

 -          Ben Tanzer, director of publicity for Curbside Splendor and author of My Father’s House, Orphans, and Lost in Space.

-          Joseph G. Peterson, author of Wanted: Elevator Man and Gideon’s Confession.

-          Rachel Slotnick, RHINO prize winner and Pushcart-nominated author of the forthcoming In Lieu of Flowers.

-          Giano Cromley, finalist for the High Plains Book Awards and author of The Last Good Halloween.

This is the first author we’ve recruited from outside Chicago, and the first one who’s already been traditionally published. It’s an important step in our slow and steady strategy to provide a viable and vibrant alternative to both the strictures of traditional publishing and the low-quality free-wheeling anarchy of the self-publishing marketplace—but more importantly, it’s a great chance to showcase an electrifying collection of stories from a tremendously talented writer. 

About the Book

Stunning and visceral in its emotional impact, The Dark Will End The Dark collects 14 stories by veteran author Darrin Doyle. Deftly mixing realism and fabulism, bleakness and hope, sparkling dialogue and unforgettable characters, these literary Midwestern Gothic tales remain in the reader’s mind long after the last page is turned.

"The human body, logic, and language are all rent apart and remade dazzlingly anew in these fourteen stories. With the droll fabulism of Nikolai Gogol and the moral heft of Shirley Jackson, Doyle’s characters face problems both surreal and all-too-real...Fantastical yet close to the bone, these stories are both wounding and wondrous."

- Monica McFawn, author of Bright Shards of Someplace Else, winner of the Flannery O’ Connor Award


"Doyle's stories are lamentations, demented fairy tales, and quests for enlightenment in which the author explores bodily dysfunction and ungainly lust while familial love hums in the background. In the manner of George Saunders, Doyle uses his smart, light language to lift readers above the darkness of shame and humiliation that brings so many of his characters to their knees."

- Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Once Upon a River and American Salvage, finalist for the National Book Award


"Darrin Doyle’s a mad scientist who has stitched together a hauntingly beautiful collection from tattered body parts and a strange, ragged heart. It is only after you’ve been defibrillated by the stories in The Dark Will End the Dark that you realize you’ve been dozing through the days. Doyle’s got his fingers on the pulse of our brave new American psyche and his writing blazes electric."

- Jason Ockert, author of Wasp Box and Neighbors of Nothing

About the Author

Darrin Doyle has lived in Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Cincinnati, Louisville, Osaka (Japan), and Manhattan (Kansas). He has worked as a paperboy, mover, janitor, telemarketer, pizza delivery driver, door-to-door salesman, copy consultant, porn store clerk, freelance writer, and technical writer, among other jobs. After graduating from Western Michigan University with an MFA in fiction, he taught English in Japan for a year. He then realized he wanted to pursue fiction writing and permanently stop doing jobs he didn’t love, so he earned his PhD from the University of Cincinnati.

 He is the author of the novels Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press) and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s), and the short story collection The Dark Will End the Dark (Tortoise Books). His short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Harpur Palate, Redivider, BULL, and Puerto del Sol, among others.

Currently he teaches at Central Michigan University and lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with his wife and two sons. His website is

Hercules or Sisyphus: Publishing’s False Dichotomy

As usual, I’ve been meaning to update the Tortoise Books blog. But I believe promotional writing should always take a backseat to paid writing, so I try to focus on work I’m planning to sell, be it mine or yours. Another of my maxims: When you don’t have anything new—or at least new-ish—to say, don’t publish. (That’s not to say you should stop writing, because sometimes it isn’t until after you sit down that you realize that you actually do have something to say—you can write a shitty first draft, make some revisions, and eventually publish something that makes you proud. Shout out to Anne Lamott for that wisdom.) My thinking runs contrary to popular blog wisdom, which dictates that you should keep posting at all times, at all costs. But I don’t want to waste anyone’s time; I haven’t had much new to say, until today.

I’ve been investigating various publishing opportunities, both for Tortoise Books and myself; as part of this, I recently emailed the hard-working people at Oyster, who are busy trying to do something new in publishing: to sell it as a subscription-based streaming service, a Netflix for books. I wanted to sound a little highfalutin’, and I was busy trying to decide whether Hercules or Sisyphus was most metaphorically similar to the post-postmodern author, when it occurred to me that both are apt, and flawed.

I’ve read many publishing blog discussions implying that today’s author must either go the traditional route—writer lands an agent, agent lands a publisher, publisher lands writer fame and fortune—or go their own way, self-publishing via eBook and publish-on-demand, trying to build their own brand but still toiling away in obscurity, indistinguishable (at least in the eyes of the public-at-large) from the typo-ridden tomes hastily put out by all those mediocre keyboard monkeys eager to check “Write a Book” off their bucket lists. Some discussions do at least suggest that an author might want to go both routes, publishing some projects traditionally and some on their own. But nobody admits it’s a false dichotomy.

Granted, getting published via traditional means can feel like the labors of Hercules. If you don’t recall the specifics, I’ll spare you the Wikipedia refresher: Hercules was given ten tasks thought to be well-nigh impossible. (Slaying the Hydra, seizing the Erymanthian Boar, cleaning the Augean stables in a day, etc.) And because of issues with two tasks, he was given two more, bringing the total number to twelve. (Source: Wikipedia.) Surely anyone who’s prevailed in traditional publishing (which I haven’t) or even attempted it (which I have) can relate to the moving finish line, and the difficulty of, say, getting published in a respectable source, or getting an agent to read and respond to a query letter, let alone landing a major deal. But there is at least a logical progression of events, with a beginning and an end. And just as Hercules wanted immortality for his efforts, many who go the traditional route seem hell-bent on various analogous publishing accomplishments: the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Times bestseller list, the major-newspaper review, or even the Barnes and Noble bookshelf.

For those who are (depending on your perspective) too untalented, too unlucky, or just too inept at publishing politics to accomplish any of the above, there is at least an alternative: self-publishing. And as one who’s labored in this field (and seen others do the same), I can verify that it seems like a Sisyphean ordeal. Much as Sisyphus was forced to endlessly roll a boulder up the side of a hill, only to watch it roll down the other side, the self-published author’s labors are eminently accomplishable, and endlessly repetitive: tweeting and retweeting, writing and rewriting, publishing and republishing. These are not Herculean feats, for there’s no glory to be had, and no end in sight. (Camus’ excellent The Myth of Sisyphus romanticizes the eternal struggle, suggesting that one can find meaning and identity even in perpetual futile efforts. But the origin myth itself isn’t quite so noble: Sisyphus was being punished, after all, for his deceitfulness—a trait not uncommon among self-published authors, with their parades of five-star sock puppet reviews, and their suspicious five-figure Twitter followerships. [Yes, that’s right. I’m calling you out, self-published author tweeps. If your FOLLOWING and FOLLOWERS numbers both end in a K, and I’ve never heard of you, I don’t believe you. I won’t publicly call bullshit on you and your robot army, but I don’t really have to. You know who you are.])

Fortunately it doesn’t have to be this way, on either end. Smaller and smarter publishers like yours truly (and others, though I won’t name names) are using publish-on-demand for many titles, and figuring out other inexpensive strategies to circumvent the traditional model. Plenty of challenges remain: discoverability, physical distribution to independent bookstores, figuring out exactly what percentage of the eggs to put in Amazon’s (admittedly large and comfy) basket. And it isn’t ideal, but it’s ideal for anyone who doesn’t feel it should be deal-or-ordeal. Instead of exhausting himself, Hercules can go to the gym every day, get pretty buff, and save some energy for tasks of his own choosing; Sisyphus can repent for his deceit, round up some friends, roll the rock to a higher hill, and get some help to make sure it stays there.

Occasional Poetry

Some time ago, I stumbled into a Wikipedia wormhole that led me to the story of David Shaw and his fatal cave dive in Bushman's Hole, South Africa. It was one of those haunting stories that left me possessed; over the next few days, I read everything I could about it, particularly this excellent piece from Outside Magazine. But I still couldn't stop thinking about it, so I wrote a poem.

This poem hasn't yet fit in any of my collections, although I am thinking of starting a new collection inspired by random shit I find on Wikipedia. In the meantime, I liked it and wanted to post it somewhere on the interwebs, so you're welcome to read it here.

Side Projects

The Next Best Book Blog recently featured me in their "Where Writer's Write" series; my piece (about the trials and tribulations of the train-bound author) is up here. 

This gets at one of the unfortunate realities of Tortoise Books--it is, for now, a side project. Still, I'm hoping to grow it into something larger, and I'm working and planning along those lines. And even side projects can be expertly executed. I'd write an awesome list of the key things to keep in mind when you're trying to have an excellent side project, but my friend Scott Smith (a.k.a. "Our Man in Chicago") beat me to it.

And in the hopes of turning this into something more than a side project, we're applying for a grant. I'll admit, it does feel kinda uncool to be asking for money. But to quote the immortal Lone Star from the epic Spaceballs, "We're not just doing this for money...we're doing it for a SHITLOAD of money." So if you'd like to help us out, you can vote very easily here.

Many thanks...onward!

Things We Should Have Reviewed Long Ago, Vol. I: Disraeli Gears

So we're hearing that one should post new blog content every week, which is tough, because there's also writing and editing work to do, and that must come first. (It's also tough because tortoise.) But in an effort to stay relatively active with the new content, while also staying true to our tortoise selves, we're starting a new semi-regular series: Things We Should Have Reviewed Long Ago.

First up: Cream's Disraeli Gears.

An Open Letter to Michael Pietsch on Amazon v. Hachette

Dear Mr. Pietsch:

As an Amazon KDP author and fledgling publisher, I recently received an email suggesting I send you my thoughts on the Amazon/Hachette dispute. It took me a while to get around to it, because tortoise. And I didn't want to spam you, because that'd be rude, and politeness is in such short supply on the interwebs. So here goes:

Please, please, please keep doing exactly what you’re doing. (Please!)

As a reader, I would greatly prefer that eBooks be less expensive. While I value, to some extent, the traditional industry’s role curating titles and authors, I’m also tremendously reluctant to shell out ten dollars or more for an eBook, and price is a major concern in my reading decisions. (Case in point: I was going to purchase Don DeLillo’s White Noise recently, because I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but it was at the upper end of the price spectrum, whereas Underworld, which I read when it came out, was briefly on sale for only $3.99. So I reread that instead.) The longer I live, the longer my reading list gets, and since I know I’ll never get to the end of it, I’d just as soon make the journey as economically as possible.

Now that I’m dipping my tortoise toes in the waters of independent—or rather, Amazon-dependent—publishing, though, I realize it’s to my great advantage for you to stay obstinate on this issue. Frankly, the slower you are to change, the better it is for me, and the more time I have to build my company as a viable alternative.

I’ll skip all the normal metaphors about publishing, about castles and gatekeepers and blah blah blah. From my experience, all of these are true to some extent, but they’ve grown a bit shopworn. And I prefer to think in terms of ecosystems.

We’ll call the traditional industry Normal Sea. And I’ve started thinking of this vast new body of publishing waters as the Indie-an Ocean. Where these bodies meet, one finds snark-infested waters—and for good reason. The latter’s a little chaotic, and frankly there are a lot of awful creations therein, ungodly abominations destined to sink without a trace. Whereas the former’s a little too obsessed with purity and homogeneity, despite its protestations to the contrary. Traditionally published books may be edgy, but they’re often edgy in similar ways, depending on the tastes of the particular moment.

As others far more astute than I have observed, two main streams feed the Normal Sea: NYC and MFA. And however one gets to the end of those streams, one must then (according to tradition) pass through a series of gratings to gain entrance to those hallowed waters. And any life form that doesn’t fit those narrowly defined openings gets shunted aside and discarded. (Case in point: the first outside novel I picked up, Giano Cromley’s excellent The Last Good Halloween. The main characters are teenagers, but it’s too good, too literary, and too mature to be lumped into a genre like “Young Adult.” And Giano had been working with agents, but none of them quite knew what to do with it. So I read it, and I found myself laughing out loud and enjoying the hell out of it, and I decided to help him get it out there. And I crowdsourced my second round of edits, and most of my readers told me they were laughing out loud, too—except for one or two, who might have been somewhat cranky because they're trying to squeeze through the gratings in the MFA stream. One of them said, “I don’t know how to read this. Is it YA, or what?” And I wanted to scream: “Who cares? Who the fuck cares, really? Did you read it? Do you like it? Do you think other people should read it?” That’s all that matters, really. If it’s good, it’ll sell eventually.)

As far as the Indie-an Ocean goes, it’s fed by a greater range of streams and rivers, and, of course, Amazon. (I know my metaphor is falling apart here and contravening basic geography, but bear with me for a minute.) Amazon is muddy and far too big to filter, except by cutting off bits at the source. And, of course, the Normal Sea also feeds it. (OK, my metaphor is definitely falling apart. I have no idea whether any of this is hydrologically possible. But you get my drift.) You, of course, have long had a preferred relationship as a source. Now, of course, that relationship’s under review, and I don't blame you or your authors for the positions you're taking; I'd probably do something similar if I were you. But I suspect the river hasn’t gotten noticeably smaller, and I doubt anything you do will change that. The balance of components in the ecosystem may change a bit, that’s all. And some of the readers fishing for their next meal may complain, but I suspect they won’t stay too hungry for too long. Advantage: tortoise. (I think. Wait, do I want to be eaten? Yes, as long as it’s by an actual person with good taste.)

Different people have different tastes, and obviously not everything in the sea matches everyone’s palate. (Oh wait. Crap. Crap, crap, crap, crap! According to Wikipedia, tortoises are land-based, so this metaphorical world has completely fallen apart, and has actually become self-defeating. We're not swimming at all! Maybe we're on the Galapagos Islands or something. Then again, those are on the wrong side of South America. Fuck it, if I don't get this blog post up this week, it'll be completely irrelevant.) ANYWAY, I do believe that you get a greater range of tastes by getting things out there and letting them evolve than you get by trying to control the ecosystem. Plus, tastes are also evolving. Plenty of my friends still wax rhapsodic about the physical book, and I used to, too. Someone actually had to buy me a Kindle to get me on the whole eBook thing. But once I actually started reading eBooks, my taste started changing. And taste, to me, calls to mind another good way to look at the industry—less like what it has been, and more like food service, with low barriers to entry, and a great range of tastes, and places, still, for those who want exclusivity and trendiness, but plenty more options for good cheap eats.

Is Amazon's KDP program as good as it possibly could be? No, of course not, and I do have a couple things I'd change. But it’s pretty damn good, and it's improving all the time. Do I have all the resources I want, or all the resources you do? Again, no. (Given the business trinity, the three things you can't have at the same time--fast, good, and cheap--I'll always be picking the last two, at least until my bank balance is over four figures.) But unless the regular industry suddenly offers me a life-changing amount of money or publicity—which, let’s be honest, is probably not going to happen—I’ll keep rooting for Amazon, as a reader and a writer and a publisher. For unlike the regular industry, Amazon’s giving me SOMETHING—a chance to age and mature and have some fun and be part of the ecosystem, not apart from it. A chance to swim, or trundle, or whatever it is that tortoises do--grow old, perhaps, or win the race, or just find our place.


Gerald Brennan

Founder, Tortoise Books

My Writing Process Blog Tour

A Quick Note from Jerry:

I recently contracted the My Writing Process Blog Tour virus from Giano Cromley. A major symptom of this disease is an intense desire to tell everyone what I'm working on right now, as well an uncontrollable urge to infect others.

All kidding aside, I'm actually pretty thrilled to be participating--somehow when I actually to try to be part of something like this, it doesn't happen, so it's kinda cool that I was just selected without having to do anything. Also, I know there are some great authors in this thread, which makes me all the more excited to be a part of it. Without further ado, here goes:

1)     What am I working on?

I’m about halfway done with a novella called Public Loneliness. It’s a first-person account narrated by Yuri Gagarin that describes a hypothetical Soviet mission around the moon in October of 1967. He’s a fascinating character—he was one of the few Soviets to achieve rockstar-like popularity, not only at home, but in Western Europe and elsewhere. He was also a flawed and troubled man, far more real and interesting than the regime made him out to be.

The story highlights those contradictions, and the tension inherent in trying to control other people’s perceptions, both on an individual and a national level. It’s part of a series called Altered Space. I’m looking to tell several what-if stories from the golden age of space exploration. One’s out already—a novella called Zero Phase that posits an alternate timeline for the Apollo 13 mission—and I’d like to write two or three more.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It’s historical fiction, but it’s also alternative history—and yet it’s more literary than most entries in those genres. (I hope!) A lot of authors write for purposes of ego gratification; they’re creating characters that are impossibly perfect, so as to live vicariously through them. It’s particularly prevalent in historical fiction; an author finds a historical figure with traits the author likes to think they also have, or one who’s done some big dramatic thing the author wishes they’d done. I’m more interested in really getting into someone else’s head, in seeing who they are and what makes them tick. Since I’m writing about real people, I do feel a natural obligation to be true and honest, but I’m more interested in bringing them back to life and fleshing them out than in building statues or monuments (in a literary sense) to honor their accomplishments. My guiding principle when writing fiction about non-fictional people is: “Respect, but not reverence.”

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Every time I sit down to write, it’s like a time travel vacation. And when I can come up with something realistic and entertaining, some line of dialogue that’s original but still rings true to what’s known about a character, I feel like I’ve accomplished something magical, and I feel great. And I want to share that. I think Bono from U2 once said something like: if this makes someone else feel even half as good as it makes me feel, I’ve got to keep doing it.

4)     How does your writing process work?

It’s a lot like my digestive process; I keep feeding stuff into one end until something starts coming out the other end. Or maybe that’s an unflattering analogy! I suppose I keep consuming until I’ve internalized whatever it is I’m consuming, until it gives me the energy to do something on my own. Right now I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about the Soviet space program; I’ve read two biographies of Gagarin, a biography of Sergei Korolev, part of Boris Chertok’s memoirs, and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov’s joint memoir with American astronaut Dave Scott. I’ve started on Asif Siddiqi’s massive two-volume history of the Soviet space program. I recently finished Boris Polevoi’s The Story of a Real Man (a piece of socialist realist propaganda that Gagarin claimed was his favorite book), and I’m probably going to re-read The Old Man and the Sea (which Alexei Leonov says was actually Gagarin’s favorite book). And somewhere in the midst of all that reading, I felt like I was starting to get to know Gagarin—as much as anyone can, for he was a man who was better than most at controlling what other people saw of him—and I started writing. There are still some unresolved contradictions, some points of contention among biographers and scholars and the public-at-large. And that’s dangerous in this type of writing—it’s tempting to look at someone like Gagarin and simply look for validation of one’s own political and religious views. But I’ve decided to embrace that and have some fun with it.

Next up will be three great authors I've encountered in my travels:

Jonathan Grant is the author of the novels Brambleman (winner of the IBPA's prestigious Benjamin Franklin Award) and Chain Gang Elementary. He is also the co-author and editor of the monumental history, The Way it Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia (UGA Press, 2001), named the state's nonfiction "Book of the Year" and Editor's Choice at AMERICAN HERITAGE magazine. His third novel, Party to a Crime, will be published by Thornbriar Press in 2014. He is currently at work on The Unhappy History of Higgston, Missouri, the sad tale of a drone strike on a small Midwestern town. He has also written a screenplay, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, based on the true story of Georgia's most famous escaped slaves, William and Ellen Craft. Grant grew up on a Missouri farm. came down South, and graduated from the University of Georgia. The former journalist, state government spokesman, PTA president, and soccer coach lives in Atlanta with his wife and two children. His entry will appear here.

Ilan Mochari's Pushcart-nominated debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2013), has earned rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. Boston's NPR station listed it as one of its ten "Good Reads for the Summer." The book was also featured in the Boston Globe's Word on the Street column. Ilan's short stories have appeared in KeyholeStymie, and Midway Journal. He is a Senior Writer for Inc magazine. In 1997, he earned a B.A. in English from Yale University. He used it to wait tables for nine years in the Boston area. His entry will appear on this blog.

Steve Karas lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Friend.Follow.Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline (Enfield & Wizenty, 2013), Necessary FictionjmwwPrick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. He’s currently working on a collection of shorts. He'll be blogging here.

Tom Clancy's Dead, and I Don't Feel So Good Myself

So I meant to write something after Tom Clancy’s passing, and I’m only getting around to it now, because Tortoise.

In fairness to me, there have been more pressing matters: launching The Last Good Halloween, and wrapping up Zero Phase, and Tweeting and Tortoise business and family time and what-not. (My holy trinity of the writer’s life consists of three activities, all of which must be done almost every day: write, read, promote your writing. Roughly in that order. Not that I always do them in that order.)

But in all seriousness, I need to write something, because Tom Clancy’s one of those people for whom I have complicated feelings for which (as a better writer than I once observed) only Germans have words.

I first read The Hunt for Red October in paperback in the summer of 1988, between 5th and 6th grades. I was a precocious kid, bespectacled, street dumb but book smart, and relying on the latter for my sense of identity. I’d read a lot of demanding technical books, partly out of burning curiosity to understand, say, lasers or space shuttles, but also to amass knowledge, which I equated with facts, and which seemed to me to be the end-all, be-all of human existence. And I read to escape, which was both healthy and unhealthy. Needless to say, my social skills were somewhat lacking. But I became an autodidact who could impress other grade schoolers by giving them facts about koala bears for their papers, or a reasonably accurate (if undetailed) description of how nuclear bombs worked.

And The Hunt for Red October may have been the first adult novel that I read, the first book with plot arcs that had to be followed from page to page and remembered from day to day. I’d been reading kids’ books, fiction wise, 4B Goes Wild and things of that sort, with main characters that were in virtually every scene. And here was something hefty, with multiple plot strands, and action that moved from one place to the next. I had to at least dig in and remember, say, who Marko Ramius was, and why he killed his zampolit, and why Jack Ryan was meeting with all these people in Langley.

For the next few years, I devoured techno-thriller after techno-thriller—Harold Coyle, Dale Brown, Stephen Coonts, etc. And I looked up to the characters, and I realized a lot of them had gone to West Point and/or the Naval Academy, institutions that were usually treated with a hushed reverence. I’d already read a bit about West Point, going through my Grandpa Brennan’s Civil War books, and reading various pocket biographies from various school libraries. But reading Tom Clancy and the authors that he led me to, coupled with a trip to (gasp) the Naval Academy with my Boy Scout troop in 1989 that bordered on a spiritual experience, got me hooked on the notion of a military career. This sort of thing impressed people, and I wanted to see if I measured up.

Then, somewhere in there, I read Ralph Peters’ Red Army. Here was a Trojan horse, a novel that appeared in the same section as the techno-thrillers but didn’t have any American characters, or good guys and bad guys—just people (who happened to be Soviet) going to war against other people. The technical specifications of their weapons were far less important than the vibrancy of their thoughts and feelings and fears. And somewhere in there I stumbled across Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, which led me to his earlier books, and some of the best and most nuanced thriller writing out there.

In fairness to Tom Clancy, his characters were getting at least somewhat more complicated. (There was a hint of suspicion in The Cardinal of the Kremlin that Jack Ryan, Clancy’s CIA analyst alter-ego, might be capable of wrongdoing. This turned out to be a red herring, but in the books after that there were at least bad Americans, and some marital difficulties (based entirely on misunderstanding) between Jack Ryan and his wife.)

Still, it became increasingly clear that his heroes were Irish Catholic Americans, and everyone else was basically good or bad based on whether they helped or hindered said heroes. Jack Ryan’s hints of impropriety never hardened into anything approaching real misbehavior, and John Clark (Ryan’s dark, edgy “operator” shadow) and his sidekick “Ding” Chavez, though far more willing to get their hands bloody, were still at least understood to be doing what needed to be done to some pretty bad people. They all seemed to be vehicles for Clancy’s ego gratification, ways for him to do vicariously on paper all the things he didn’t do, but perhaps wanted to, in real life.

The last Clancy book I read cover-to-cover was Debt of Honor. Its climax (a madman piloting a jumbo jet into a national landmark) proved oddly and sadly prescient many years later, but at the time I was just upset at what seemed a transparent deus ex machine to elevate Jack Ryan to the presidency. Clancy and his spawn—the franchise character that could do no wrong—were starting to feel deeply unsatisfying; their flights of quasi-literary fancy somewhat obviously disconnected from real-world behavior. I’d started checking out critical opinion before reading books; I got into Hemingway and Conrad.

And yet I’d also started writing, and some of Tom Clancy’s writing tips actually stuck with me. For the man actually gave some decent advice. “The only difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to make sense” was one observation I particularly enjoyed. And he had some good book recommendations: Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny appeared on some list of Clancy’s favorite war novels; I devoured it as a high school senior, and it remains a favorite of mine. (Wouk unfortunately started dealing in stock characters himself, with The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.)

Also, my dream of a military career hadn’t died. Somewhere in there, I got in touch with the West Point Admissions Department, and I realized that if I wanted to get in, I’d have to transform myself from a bookish and antisocial high school freshman to an athletic and involved high school junior. Like many of my generation, I became a sad little resume padder, throwing myself into activities I didn’t entirely enjoy because I wanted to impress a lot of people I’d never met, in order to earn a diploma and a commission that would impress still more people. (When Wes Anderson’s Rushmore came out, I identified; I felt like I’d been only marginally less hyper-involved than the comically over-extra-curriculared Max Fischer.) In retrospect, I think I wanted to look so good on paper that nobody would say no to me in the real world—to be a Jack Ryan of sorts, life imitating art. (Or rather, artifice.)

I did a good enough job that West Point took notice. I qualified in every area but physical fitness, and after my first failed Physical Aptitude Exam, I practiced my pullups and my kneeling basketball throws and my standing long jump until I finally qualified. I applied for a nomination through my congressman, Bill McCollum, and when his office called, my family threw a surprise party of sorts to celebrate.

My first thought was: “Oh, fuck, now I actually have to do this.”

June 29th, 1995, my first day as a new cadet, was a blur of yelling and screaming; as far as I could tell, I had the longest hair of any of my incoming classmates, and I remember staring at my reflection that night in the mirror of my second-floor room in Bradley Barracks, seeing a shaved stranger in a gray P.E. shirt and godawful glasses, and wondering: what the hell did I get myself into?

It soon became apparent that I was not a natural military man. I had plenty of classmates who were, who were as high-performing in real life as Jack Ryan and his ilk were on paper, and who were often likeable, funny, and genuinely decent people, to boot. As for me, I just hung in there. To quit would be to admit I’d made a mistake. And that seemed a fate worse than death. I’d staked everything—or my pride, which at least felt like everything—on measuring up, and I was not measuring up.

I also soon realized that West Point was a far more complicated place than I’d realized, or than any techno-thriller writer might have attempted to convey. The granite facades were real; some of the people behind them were equally impressive, but most were far more flawed and complicated and interesting. And I felt like I’d been lied to by a decade-plus of after-school specials and Just-Say-No-To-Drugs PSAs; I’d kept myself on the straight and narrow all through high school to get in there, and plenty of my classmates had been partying, drinking and smoking weed and even maybe experimenting with acid, and we’d all ended up in the same place.

I first got drunk in September of 1995, on a Cadet Catholic Choir field trip to Avalon, New Jersey. Magically, all the fear melted away; for the first time in a long time, I felt like everything was the way it was supposed to be in the world. Every guy was my friend, and every girl was someone I could hook up with. More experienced cadets kept an eye on me and made sure I didn’t overdo it, and I was able to get up and put on my uniform and sing the next morning without embarrassing anyone, even though I was still drunk. I didn’t get drunk again until the Army Navy Game that December. Some yearlings in my company threw a hotel party, and I got obliterated: drinking tumblers of imitation Wild Turkey, seeing in snapshots, puking on my Long Overcoat and on the floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Philadelphia.

Reading-wise, I’d left Tom Clancy behind; the Academy’s English Department didn’t really interest me (too much rote recitation and overanalysis of poems, no real creativity for coursework), so I became a bit of a literary autodidact, reading Faulkner and DeLillo and Joyce in the bathroom before lights-out, or in stolen snippets between coursework. (I was a European History major, and, because West Point hasn’t ever given up on being an engineering school, I took a 5-course Nuclear Engineering track.) And I’d write here and there; I won an English Department prize for prose for two of the four years I was there, and I ended up in a cadet-published literary magazine. Clancy did appear once at the cadet bookstore for a book signing, and I would have swung by, but I had some sort of summer training drill practice that day. My buddy Jubert Chavez did get to swing by the signing table; he said Clancy saw his name tag and asked him if his first name was Ding.

On leave, I was getting as drunk as possible pretty often; once in a blue moon, I’d do so on post as well—I remember one absurdly incomprehensible afternoon of football tailgating, and a house party at a colonel’s place a week before my 21st birthday where I didn’t even remember leaving or going back to the barracks—but very rarely, because people who did that sort of thing too often got kicked out, and I didn’t know who or what I’d be without a West Point class ring, something visible that the world could see to know I was important. I did want to be in the Army; I did want to do well. But the gap between how well I felt I was doing (decent academic grades, middling military and physical ones) and how well my ego wanted me to be doing (Macarthur-like performance) was so great that I was full of fear most of the time. Every once in a while—Christmas dinners with the Corps of Cadets, Taps ceremonies for deceased cadets—I’d remember that I was part of something really big and really cool that was much, much larger than me. But those moments were few and far between. Plenty of cadets got in serious trouble for drinking offenses over the course of my four years at the Academy; how I avoided disciplinary action entirely, I’ll never know. By all rights, I deserved to be kicked out. I thank God I wasn’t; it would have killed me.

What got me wasn’t drinking, but sleeping. I’d been nodding off in almost every class ever since junior year of high school; I did well enough on tests that my grades didn’t suffer, but at West Point it was much harder to skate by. Here and there instructors would throw chalk at me, or I’d get the dreaded admonition “You’re gonna get your whole platoon killed.” (One of those things that sounds over-the-top most of the time, but still nags at you when you know it’s an actual possibility.) I talked to the doctors about it during yearling (sophomore) year but didn’t follow up; I knew if they uncovered anything then they’d just kick me out. But as a firstie (senior), I felt a little more comfortable getting it looked at; I figured with all the money they’d invested in my education, they’d at least have an incentive to fix me up. I was wrong.

I went to Walter Reed in January of 1999 and had a sleep study done. Coincidentally enough, while I was killing time between naps (I had electrodes glued to my skull, and they made me nap at two-hour intervals to see how fast I went into REM sleep), I came across an issue of People magazine about Tom Clancy’s divorce from his first wife, Wanda. There were tidbits about his wife’s generous birthday gifts, and about his drinking and extramarital affairs. I was flabbergasted. And when the sleep study was done, the doctor told me I had narcolepsy and told me I’d probably be medically boarded out of the Army—I apparently could not only nap on demand (like a lot of cadets), but I also almost always went right into REM sleep right away, rather than following a normal sleep cycle, and I also had sleep bouts which were triggered by intense bursts of emotion. Again, I was flabbergasted.

West Point graciously decided to let me graduate without commissioning me. I got a free ride on the taxpayer’s dime and didn’t have to pay it back, which did wonders for my self-loathing. I eventually took the test to become a Foreign Service Officer, but I didn’t pass that, and later, still, I interviewed for an analyst position with the C.I.A.; they thanked me for my application but didn’t take me. (Memories are hazy, but I may have taken their online writing test while hung over, or at least the day after one of my standard weekend nights of blowout drinking, which probably didn’t help.)

It took me a while to do something about the drinking. I won’t get into all the gory details, but among other things, I learned I had to drop my own facades, and keep my insides matching my outsides—to concentrate less on impressing the world and cleaning up the outside, and more on cleaning up the inside, all the resentments and fears that kept me in collision with everyone and kept me getting into the same types of relationships over and over and over again. And I learned about another C.I.A., a nickname for a nebulous but common demographic within the secret societies of people in recovery. There, C.I.A. stands for Catholic Irish Alcoholics.

I did all this to myself, of course. I can’t blame anyone else. Not Tom Clancy (whom I once thought of as a father to my military ambitions), or my own father (whose considerable virtues I often overlooked because he wasn’t any kind of Clancy-esque hero, but rather a devoted and successful executive). There was a gap between how I saw me and how I wanted the world to see me. That gap—between fantasy and reality, or perhaps between fantasy and self-loathing—eventually felt insurmountable. I tried to fill it by ignoring my inner voice, and instead doing things I thought would impress the world. And when that didn’t do, I chose to fill it with alcohol.

I’m basically trying to be the anti-Tom Clancy now—to deal not in flawless stock characters, but in real and interesting ones, ones who actually tell us something about ourselves, rather than just telling us about the author. And publishing-wise, I’m trying to do something completely different. Clancy eventually epitomized the author-as-brand, the writer who could sell not only books, but also movies and miniseries’ and video games, solely because their name was on the cover in big clear letters, and regardless of the fact that they weren’t necessarily the one who created the contents, or the fact that the contents weren’t necessarily good. Whereas I’m aiming to put out memorable books, books that may not sell quickly, but that will be around for a long time. (Or, to put it in musical terms: we can’t all be the Beatles, but I’d rather be the Velvet Underground than the Dave Clark Five.)

Still, I have a lot of sympathy for Tom Clancy these days. When I read the article in People, I’d thought of him as a hypocrite and a blowhard. But when the obituaries started coming out, I read every one I could find, and a lot of other stuff he’d said. “The only way to do all the things you’d like to do is to read,” he said, and I found myself nodding my head. Also, “writing isn’t divinely inspired—it’s hard work.” And particularly this one: “Nothing is as real as a dream. The world can change around you, but your dream will not. Responsibilities need not erase it. Duties need not obscure it. Because the dream is within you, no one can take it away.” I’m sure that, whatever his faults, he was at least a more interesting and complicated person than his characters. I like to think he’d have read and enjoyed my books. And when I get beyond the particulars and look at the overarching similarities, I see in him what I still see in myself—another writer refusing to give up on the dream.

Thoughts on Gravity

It's hard to create a gripping and accurate space drama.

Obviously storytellers have to balance level of detail with narrative flow. And the constraints of space physics make many staples of conventional space movies difficult or impossible. You can’t do many things in space, but it often takes a while to explain why you can’t do them. And most important of all, something new has to happen. When everything goes according to plan, and it starts to seem like it’s all been done before, nobody cares. (Witness the public’s attention span when the real thing was first televised. During Apollo, for the first time in human history, exploration became a shared event while it was happening, and the telecasts of Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 were the most widely-watched ever. But viewership fell off rapidly after that; Apollo 13 became a global story only because it nearly ended in disaster. Which is unfortunate, science-wise. The latter missions were among the most adventurous explorations ever undertaken by man, and great advances for science, but they ended up feeling, to the public, like reruns.)

In short, space drama often seems to require space disaster. (Or, at least, near-disaster.)

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 got us excited without sacrificing too many facts; it faithfully depicted the fragile technology that took humans a quarter of a million miles away, and largely hewed to the true chronology of the accident and its aftermath. But it probably overplayed the arguments among the crew members, and the friction between them and their ground controllers. And it certainly played up the physical motions, turning a dramatic but slowly-unfolding crisis into a spectacle of speed.

But space is a stately place. Stanley Kubrick understood this, and 2001 took great pains to be realistic, black monoliths and failed AI predictions aside. (In some non-space ways, it was remarkably prescient, as other authors have already pointed out. The astronauts scanning their reading tablets during their meals certainly resemble the zombified specimens one sees staring at phones and Kindles in every public space, yours truly included.) The spacecraft don’t zoom or move quickly, they coast. It takes a long time for things to happen, and the tension comes in part from being so completely enslaved by the laws of physics and orbital mechanics.

Gravity’s a notch below both movies in terms of realism, Still, it owes a lot to the latter, and it’s a cut above most of what passes for a movie these days; as a moviegoer, I’m inclined to praise it just because we need to support directors who can hold a shot for longer than 3 seconds. The camera stares for an uncomfortably long time here, taking us inside the helmet to show us the confusion an astronaut would feel when tumbling through space, then stepping back to show the larger scale of things. We see how mute and impotent human life truly is, how it can only occupy the tiniest speck of that vast black canvas. And in all cases, the camera’s patient—not as sedately minimalist as Kubrick’s, which gave us sequences so slow they were only enjoyable because every frame was as beautiful as a painting, but far less active than was the case in Apollo 13. It trusts us to pay attention.

The screenwriters betray that trust, in the interests of good storytelling. The sequence of events that forms the story’s spine is laughable to anyone with a decent knowledge of orbital mechanics. The Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station orbit on different planes—their orbits are inclined at different angles relative to the center of earth. And (partial plot spoiler) a Chinese space station would surely be on a different plane as well. And movement between planes is tremendously difficult. (I read somewhere that moving from an orbit with, say, a 28-degree inclination—typical for something launched from Cape Canaveral—to an orbit around the equator would take as much energy as it takes to go to the moon.)

Does it matter? Most people won’t notice these things, and the movie’s good enough that those who do still end up swept along for the ride, holding tenuously on to our brains as our bodies embark on a viscerally thrilling cinematic ride. And even astronauts were inclined to not care. (Buzz Aldrin, for instance, extravagantly praised the movie. He’s long been calling for humanity to continue its evolution and become multi-planetary; he surely knows it won’t happen soon, but he seems glad that someone’s at least taking the time to imagine exciting things happening in outer space.)

Oddly enough, the movie’s message is the opposite of his. It depicts a chain reaction effect known as the Kessler syndrome, whereby debris from a destroyed satellite could destroy other satellites and cause still more debris. Some theorists (OK, people I read about on Wikipedia) contend that this could essentially close down space, rendering it unsafe for human habitation. Sandra Bullock’s character flees space in the wake of this disaster, choosing to return to earth rather than die in orbit.

And that’s perhaps the movie’s most true-to-life thought, its most accurate sentiment.

Most planners assumed Apollo would be the stepping stone to further exploration, but so far it’s been anything but; no human has gone beyond earth orbit since the crew of Apollo 17 returned to earth more than 40 years ago. For Apollo had unintended consequences, in that it showed us how fragile and unique our home is; as Gene Cernan said, “We went to explore the moon, but, in fact, we discovered the earth.” And the movie ends, perhaps, with us taking that one last ego-defeating step back home from space. Bullock’s character survives a perilous re-entry and accidental splashdown in a lake. She crawls ashore like she’s retracing eons of animal and human evolution—swim, crawl, walk. But more importantly, she does it with gratitude, rather than longing for more; she savors the feel of earth between her toes and fingers while above her, the last of humanity’s space outposts re-enter the atmosphere in a fiery blaze, a funeral pyre for our orbital dreams. So Gravity’s message, then, is the same as Apollo’s was. There may be billions of worlds out there, but we have no way of getting to one that has the ability to sustain us. It’s a harsh message, but in that sense, it makes the movie realistic; it’s the same message, in fact, as The Wizard of Oz. We’re already where we’re supposed to be. We have to make the most of it. There’s no place like home.

(Gerald Brennan is the author of the recently-released and even-more-realistic space drama Zero Phase. Despite everything printed in this article, he’d still go into space in a heartbeat, if given the chance.)

The Last Good Halloween

Our newest is up for sale here! And if you're in Chicago, you can come to the launch party on Saturday, November 9th from 7-9 pm at Uncharted Books, 2630 N. Milwaukee Ave. Hope to see you there!

Bad Meets Evil


Breaking Bad is one of the most compelling works I’ve come across in some time, in any medium. It creates a world that feels nearly as compelling and interesting as the real one, and it leaves me thinking about that world after I’ve left it. On those terms, the most important to me as an author, it’s a smashing success. (I’m reading two well-regarded books right nowThe Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun, and The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournellebut I totally ignored both during my morning CTA commute so I could read the procession of reviews of the series finale, “Felina.” So I’d rather read about Breaking Bad than experience something else firsthand.)

But I feel like the show pulled its punches in the final episode.

I don’t know if art needs to teach a moral lesson, or if it should have any goals other than its own excellence. Even the Vatican (not the ultimate arbiter on such matters, though it pretends to be) judges movies on their artistic merits, rather than on how closely they hew to the party line; their list of the best movies wouldn’t be out of line for most secular critics, featuring a lot of true classics like The Bicycle Thief and Citizen Kane and ignoring religious drivel like Jesus of Nazareth. But Breaking Bad clearly set itself up as a morality play; its very title contains a judgment. And it seemed on track to deliver a solid art-meets-morality message in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre vein, right up until the very end.

Its moral dynamic reminds me of Heat, another flawed-but-favorite work. (Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Heat. If I can create something that gets anyone else thinking and talking about it as much as I think and talk about either Heat or Breaking Bad, I’ll consider myself a massive success. I hope I’ve done so with Resistance, but obviously that’s not for me to judge. l digress.) Heat clearly suggests more similarities than differences between the good guy (Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna) and the bad guy (Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCauley). On one level, it isn’t even a crime movie, but a film about work, about how both characters’ relentless focus on on-the-job perfection destroys their personal lives, leaving them with no solace but to dig themselves deeper into their work. And yet it is obviously a crime movie, one that can only put the good guy and the bad guy on a similar moral level by contrasting the bad guy with someone who’s truly evil, a repulsive character named Waingro with a swastika tattoo and no redeeming moral qualities whatsoever. He murders innocents during a robbery; he kills hookers; unlike DeNiro’s character, Waingro never indicates even a remote awareness of anything resembling “good.”

Unlike Heat, Breaking Bad doesn’t go to any great lengths to put Walter White on a similar plane as his law enforcement nemesis. His relationship with brother-in-law DEA agent Hank Schraeder’s very unlike DeNiro’s with Pacino—they’re not strangers drawn together by respect for one another’s smarts and professionalism, but family members who end up repulsed by the moral chasm between them. And to Breaking Bad’s credit, it shows a substantial decay in Walt’s moral character over the show’s course, which sets him starkly at odds with DeNiro’s relatively unchanging Neil McCauley—the Platonic ideal of the master thief, cunning and talented and willful, but with his own moral code. He doesn’t compromise himself when Waingro (a new member of his robbery crew) unnecessarily guns down an armored truck crewman in the movies opening heist; he plans to kill Waingro and only fails at that juncture due to some bad timing. (He breaks his own rules near the end, killing Waingro when he knows he should just walk away, but it’s more a professional slip than an ethical one, and he’s essentially the same man at the end that he is at the beginning.)

At the end of Breaking Bad's “Dead Freight” episode, in a scene with echoes of Heat’s heist, Walter White watches a young Neo-Nazi affiliated crewmember named Todd gun down an innocent child. And yet Walt doesn’t kill his Waingro—he integrates him more fully into his criminal operation, perhaps knowing that someone more morally compromised than Jesse will be even more reliable in a criminal enterprise, less liable to turn snitch than anyone else in the operation. For me, this was one of the best parts about Breaking Bad—it went beyond its influences to show us something truly new. And it I let out a gasp when it was clear Todd was Walt’s new partner in crime.

A few episodes on, Walt recruits Todd’s uncle to arrange the murder of several informants. Like so many of the bad interactions in this show, this proves to be an unreliable and unstable bit of personal chemistry; a few episodes on, Uncle Jack ends up taking most of Walt’s money and killing brother-in-law Hank despite Walt’s pleas. Breaking Bad had as many high points as the Himalayas, and this episode, “Ozymandias,” was perhaps its Everest. (I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite so breathless, so physically and mentally exhausted, after a television episode.) Its end saw Walt exiled and alienated from his family, the very people he’d ostensibly turned to crime to help. The ending felt both tragic and inevitable and unforgettable; had the series ended here (or shortly afterwards, with Walt dying in exile in New Hampshire), I’d have had no complaints. (Or fewer complaints, at least—it did nag me that the caper at the end of the great “Live Free or Die” episode didn’t lead to too many long-term consequences for Walt et. al. They destroyed a police evidence room with a giant magnet, and while they ostensibly didn’t leave behind any fingerprints, THEY LEFT THE MAGNET! I’m sure most police departments would move heaven and earth to find the perpetrators of such a brazen crime, and even if the Albuquerque P.D. was particularly lazy, a cursory Googling of salvage companies and/or scrapyards might have provided them with a handy list of PEOPLE WHO OWNED GIANT MAGNETS. I digress.)

Again, Walt exiled and/or dying might have been perfect. But alas, the show’s creators opened with a flash forward showing Walt emerging from exile to buy an M-60 machine gun. And that was a loose end they obviously needed to tie securely. (Also, according to one of Chekov’s famous maxims, if you introduce a gun in Act One, you have to use the gun by Act Three.) Vince Gilligan admitted in an interview that they’d written that scene not knowing why Walt was buying the gun, or on whom he needed to use it. They'd contemplated having Walt use it against someone in law enforcement—perhaps in an attempt to break Jesse out of jail. But in the end, Walt ends up gunning down a room full of neo-Nazis, perhaps the only people in the Breaking Bad universe less honorable than him. Walt has met a second Waingro in the form of Uncle Jack, and he dispatches this one in much the same way that DeNiro dealt with the original—with pistol shots to the head and chest.

Given Vince Gilligan’s stated desire in Breaking Bad to see a character go from Mr. Chips to Scarface, to turn the character from protagonist to antagonist, it’s a shame. Walt worked with evil, and shook hands with evil, but at the end of the day he’s gunning evil down with a remote-controlled M-60, or standing at arm’s length and filling it with 9mm holes, creating a tiny bit of wiggle room between himself and evil, whereas perhaps none really existed. (There’s a great Bukowski quote: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Both Walter White and Neil McCauley might well have followed this advice, and both could have had the same eulogy: “He may have hurt the people he most loved, but he worked hard and was the best at what he did. And, hey, at least he wasn’t a Nazi.”) So Breaking Bad ends with a cathartic Taxi Driver-style bit of redemption through violence, something that probably works out a lot more reliably in the movies than it does in real life. (There are other echoes of Taxi Driver too, in Walt’s use of gadgetry, and in the final shots looking directly down on him as the police arrive.) Unlike the unsettling violence elsewhere in the show, this bloodbath leaves us comforted, for Todd and Uncle Jack have been portrayed without any humanity. They’re reduced to a symbol, a swastika, and it becomes easy to see them as less than human and therefore deserving of death. But even the worst villains in real life have some touch of humanity--Charles Manson wrote music, John Wayne Gacy painted clowns, and Hitler was great with animals. (All this isn't meant to imply that evil doesn't exist, or that there's some moral equivalency between good and evil. Rather, the unsettling thing, the thing Breaking Bad came close to showing but shied away from, is that there is no clear comfortable demarcation line with evil people on one side and the rest of us on the other. Even the executioners in the Holocaust were, in the words of Christopher Browning's devastating must-read on the subject, ordinary men.) Whatever Walt's flawed motives—revenge for the theft of most of his money, rather than justice for Jesse—we're still rooting for him in the end. And so Breaking Bad ends up indulging in a bit of the same moral relativism as its protagonist.

Perhaps some level of imperfection is necessary in a work this great, like in Japanese paintings where it’s OK for brushstrokes to be visible because flaws are part of the aesthetic. Treasure of the Sierra Madre was perfect, but I’ve never felt the need to watch it again. As for Heat, when I first saw it, I was annoyed by a scene where Pacino finds out that his stepdaughter has attempted suicide in his hotel room. I felt like there was no explanation as to how she’d gotten there—but eventually I just accepted it, for it helped lead to some of the great dramatic moments in the movie. And there are several scenes in the final episode of Breaking Bad that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss—Walt admitting to his wife that he’d done it all for himself, Jesse finally refusing Walt, Walt wandering into the meth lab and leaving bloody fingerprints on a gleaming silvery vessel. That may be a great metaphor for the show as a whole—we can get pretty close to perfection, but we usually mess it up. But in the end, the flaws are necessary, for they send us back for more viewings, to see if we missed anything; they’re what makes the experience human, and memorable.