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.


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.