Monday, August 30, 2010

Goodbye, Mattie

We had to put our dog down this weekend. It was a surprise—she had never been exactly healthy, but over the last week or so, she'd been gasping for breath and looking disoriented and uncomfortable. So we took her to the vet, expecting to hear that she needed antibiotics for a chronic illness she's had since puppyhood. But then the vet called and told us she probably had cancer and we needed to make a decision right then. If we wanted to, we could bring her home for the afternoon to spend a few more hours with her. But that would be it.

So that's what we did.

Mattie was a really important part of our family, and the news was like a bomb going off in our midst. We were shocked and sad and everything you would expect. I was guilty for all the times I was a less-than-perfect dog owner (and there were lots of those). I missed her already, even before we had to take her in for her final appointment. But it was the cruelty that really struck me.

Mattie was technically my son's dog—we got her when we he was four years old, and we felt that he needed a playmate. He needed someone to mess up his world a little bit, to introduce a little delightful chaos in to his life. So she was his dog ... she slept in his room, she thought of him like her brother.

But she was also my dog because, in the pack, she clearly viewed me as the alpha dog. I was the one who could control her when no one else could, and I was the one she came to when something was wrong or hid from when she peed on the floor or got into the garbage. So when the vet called with this awful news, my wife and I made a decision that wasn't really a decision, and then we started the wheels turning toward her 2 p.m. appointment.

I'd never felt like such a heartless bastard. I knew she was dying no matter what we did, but once we decided to put her down, it was up to me to usher her toward that moment. She had trusted me her whole life because that's what dogs do. So when I clipped the leash on that final time, she trusted that wherever I was taking her was OK. When I walked her outside and helped her into the car, she looked scared, but she was watching me to make sure it was OK. When I walked her onto the grass and hugged her so she could see the sunlight and grass one more time, she must have thought that things would still be OK, because I was there.

Then I walked her into the vet's office and into the little room where the vet had spread out a blanket. My wife and I both wanted to be present for the event ... we felt strongly that we owed her that much. She deserved to die with the people who loved her. The vet had warned us it could be traumatic because of her illness, that it might be "hard to watch," so we had spent all day preparing ourselves anyway.

In the end, it was peaceful and fast. I had my arms wrapped around her body and my wife was holding her neck and head. I knew I was holding her in place so the vet could find a vein, but she wasn't scared because it was me, because it was us, holding her. She crumpled after the shot was given, and I felt her heart stop beating with the side of my face, and everyone in the room was sobbing. She died with her head in my lap, looking at my wife with her eyes open.

God, I miss that dog. It's only been a day, and I still think I can hear her nails on the terrazzo floors or hear her breathing on the rug behind me. A writer's life can be lonely, and lots of times, she was the only one around for the hours I spend staring at this screen.

I haven't stopped feeling like a bastard. My brain knows the truth, but my heart hasn't totally absorbed it. She trusted me with her life, so when we led her to her death, she went without question. She trusted us with her life, so I hope she knew that we made the best decision we could, that by leading her into that room, we were trying to stop her pain and free her from the disease that had riddled the inside of her body so quickly.

This has been a horrible weekend, and we're still all in shock. I didn't know if I was going to write about this—I was afraid to open myself to it again because there is this sense that life must go on. We still have school and work, and nothing else has changed. Except now there is a hole in our house, and there is silence where there wasn't any before, and there really isn't a bright side or a silver lining to it.

I'm just sad. Goodbye, Mattie. We loved you.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Five Years Later

I was thinking this morning about how much I've changed as a writer over the last five years and what it all means.

Five years ago, I was a mad outliner. I did these crazy outlines that might run 20 or 30 single-space pages where I mapped out everything that happened. Ultimately, I was after control. I like complicated books with lots of moving pieces; I like books with five or six plot lines that converge in the end to really pop. So I approached writing a bit like a chess player approaches the board—I wanted all my pieces in play, and I wanted to make it all fit together like a clock.

Five years later, I still like the same kind of books, but the way I'm trying to get there is dramatically different. For the book I'm working on now, I've done one page of notes for an outline. I did a few first-person character sketches so I could get the characters' voices right. And that's pretty much it.

The interesting thing about this book, as opposed to others I've worked on, is the element of surprise. I'm continually surprised by what's happening on the page. I go into scenes knowing what just happened, and sort of suspecting who will be involved, but then I'm frequently surprised by what comes next.

I think the real difference is that I've surrendered control over the book to the characters in the book. Over and over again, I've reached points when I thought, "Well, so-and-so would naturally do this, but I don't really want that to happen that way because I don't know what to do next." But then I go ahead and jump and write it anyway the way that's natural to the moment. So far, the amazing thing to me is that it's always managed to work out somehow.

The idea of surrendering to a story is new to me, and it couldn't be more different from where I started years ago. In a way, even though I know how this story ends, I'm just as curious as anyone to see how I'll get there.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I once wrote a newspaper profile about a guy who claimed to have personally imported about 80 percent of the species of tropical bamboo available in the United States. He was a hard fellow to reach, and once I finally got him to agree to an interview, I had to find his bamboo grove hidden in the subtropical scrub in South Florida. When I pulled up, the place looked deserted, but I figured I was in the right place because I was surrounded by towering stands of bamboo.

I honked a few times, and finally the man himself emerged from his octagonal house on stilts (no kidding). He reeked of weed and wore unlaced construction boots and a filthy white T-shirt. He talked about how his competitors had stolen all his best techniques for bamboo propagation, how he traveled through China and Asia, collecting rare tropical bamboo. He showed me where he had built his own USDA quarantine facility for newly introduced bamboo.

As we talked, he drove me around his property—and I was blown away. I fancy myself a little bit of a snob when it comes to tropical plants, but I'd never seen anything like this place. He had plants that weren't even named yet, in some cases, plants that were literally the only specimen of their kind in the Western Hemisphere. Giant green timber bamboos with stalks as thick as my leg. Glossy black bamboo with green pin striping. Blue bamboos. SIlvery green bamboos. Buddha bellies. Gold. Yellow.

One moment stood out. He had stopped his golf cart in front of a clump of rare black bamboos and was regarding the plants thoughtfully.

"I probably know as much about tropical bamboo as anyone in the United States," he said without a trace of arrogance. I got the feeling this wasn't something he bragged about. Rather, it was a piece of knowledge that he carried like a sack full of rocks. He was wistful and isolated all at once, because really, how could I have possibly understood?

Such is the nature of monomania, and I'm powerfully attracted to it.

There are two kind of monomania in books. Books about monomanical people, and books by monomaniacal people.

The first category is pretty much owned by Malcolm Gladwell nowadays, but Mary Roach makes some impressive forays into the land of the monomaniac, and Jon Krakauer has been circling that particular orb in pretty much every book. In his day, Herman Melville wrote perhaps the word's best novel about a monomaniac—in the process, penning my favorite book.

But I think the best books about monomania are the ones actually authored by the crazed lunatic who has devoted his or her life to an obscure mania. These books are like candy and I crave them. I have a book on artisan breadmaking that is so infused with the love of fresh, hand-made artisan loaves that flour virtually puffs from its pages. I have another on fern allies that could only have been written by a person who must be single and unfit for polite society. And I once spent months searching out a particular book on Szechuan cuisine because the book itself is a taste sensation to read, even if the dishes are beyond the reach of any Western cook.

It's no secret why I find myself so attracted to books about monomania—I envy people who have fully given themselves to their passions. I think it must be freeing to give yourself over completely to one corner of this wide world. It must be like a form of security.

One last story: when I was in seventh grade, I entered my butterfly collection in my school's science fair. Typical of seventh grade, I wasn't the only butterfly collection in the fair. But I'm not bragging to say there was no collection like mine. I had butterflies from thirty states. I had case upon case of carefully mounted and labeled butterflies. I'd pretty much lived with my net in hand every summer since fourth grade. I had devoured countless books and field guides on butterfly taxonomy and habitats. This was no throw-it-together on the weekend project—this was the organizing and stabilizing influence of my life at a time when things seemed unstable and disorganized.

Of course I won. Within a year, I'd hung up my net for good and moved onto other enthusiasms—each of which is reflected in my book collection to this day. In a very real sense, if you know my books, you know me.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: Numb: A Novel (Harper Perennial, 2010)

As far as opening gambits for novels go, here's a good one: a man with no memory and the inability to feel pain shows up in a small Texas town and goes to work for a two-bit carnival that barely puts twenty paying butts in the seat every night. The man, who has no idea how he showed up in Texas bloody and wearing a suit, starts an act where he shoots nails through his hands every night to the delighted, squeamish satisfaction of the growing crowds. He doesn't know his name, so they call him Numb.

Meet Numb: A Novel (written by Sean Ferrell, Harper Perennial, 2010).

As Numb quickly rises up in the circus to the main act, the other circus freaks have mixed opinions. One, a strongman known as The It, thinks that Numb is just spectacle. He's not a performer. He's a human pincushion who shoots himself full of nails.

It doesn't take long before Numb attracts a more sinister kind of opportunity to exploit his unique condition. A wealthy Texas oilman offers a large sum of money to see him wrestle a lion. Numb agrees, but he's not exactly sure why he's doing this.

Throughout his early adventures, Numb remains surprisingly rooted in the real world and feels very human ... despite the almost garish and painful subject matter. In the first half of the book, Numb loses so much blood, it’s like a horror flick. This poor guy at one point is nailed down, hands and feet, to a stinking bar while strangers pay $100 each for the privilege of driving another nail through his flesh.

Of course Numb is a metaphor—or at least it works like one. In Numb the man, people find a perfectly exploitable human being. Since he cannot feel, and since he is so very different, he is the ideal canvas on which others can paint their ambitions, cruelties and sick fascinations. It's true that the metaphor is carried a bit far; after relocating to New York City, Numb is recruiting by an agent who makes him famous. Yet aside from his freakish nature, it's hard to understand exactly what qualities or talents propel Numb to fame. A great deal of thematic energy is spent on the idea of Numb as an artist, but the exact nature of his art is harder to understand.

But still, I really liked this book—rather, I should say this book really stuck with me. Numb is so perfectly passive, so immune to the world, that when he does awaken, it’s especially sweet and heartfelt. The writing is clean and has moments of pure ambition and insight. And the central conceit—a man who is victimized by his own indifference and unique nature, then slowly awakens to the realization that he is the central actor in his life—is instantly recognizable.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cue Boredom

I think I was 18 when this happened. I'd just started college as a freshman, and I was taking a Sociology 101 class. During one of the first classes, the professor said something that I thought was pure bunk. This professor had made it clear he liked debate, so I raised my head and told him I thought it was bunk. He asked me where I was from. Then he completely demolished me in front of a lecture hall of people. The cool thing was, I didn't feel stupid or anything. It was a mind-expanding experience that I still remember clearly. This professor was armed with facts and data and perspective I'd literally never been exposed to in my small, somewhat insular hometown. For him, it must have been like an alpha lion batting around a cub for a while to show it who was boss. It's not an exaggeration to say he changed my mind forever that day.

On the scale of "You're an argumentative douche bag," I probably range between a 6 and a 9, with 10 being insufferable.

The thing is, I've gotten a lot less argumentative as I get older. I used to like debating people over just about anything. It was fun, and sometimes I'd switch sides just for the sport of the thing. Now it mostly feels boring and pointless. I want to say, "I pretty much know what you're gonna say, and you pretty much know what I'm gonna say, so why don't we just skip the whole thing and eat ribs?"

Which brings me to my point. I'm ex-haus-ted with the whole "end of traditional publishing stupid New York e-books will take over" debate. It's become a caricature of itself, and I don't even understand what people are arguing about. It seems to me that a very few people are doing very well with traditional print deals, and a very few people are doing very well with self-published Kindle books, and a very few people are doing very well with self-published POD print titles ... and the rest of us are just trying to write the best books we can.

I think it's useless to compare your own journey and goals to anybody else's. It's useless to criticize someone else's choices about how they want to write (really?). They won't change. You won't change. And the only thing that will come out of it is another pointless, long-winded argument about these huge issues over which none of us has any control.

Unless you're Markus Doyle or Jeff Bezos. In which case, call me.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Capricious Diety

I've been lousy about posting this week, but I have a pretty good reason—I've been completely, utterly involved in a project. And since I haven't really blogged about it before, I'm going to blog about it now. A little. But not too much.

Some history. I wrote a book earlier this year about dragons. After I finished it, I got a few crit opinions, and they pointed out some fairly major structural problems. I could have rewritten it. I will someday, I'm sure. But that happened to have been the second time I'd written this same story, and it was ugly to realize that I'd gotten it wrong yet again. I began to wonder if I wasn't a good enough writer to handle the story.

So I shelved it, which sucks. If you've ever shelved a book, you know what I mean. I shelved the book before I even thought about drafting a query.

'Cause in the background I had another project kicking around. It felt like a very commercial, very hooky idea, and I just loved the main character. It was the easiest idea pitch I'd ever worked on. The book is a walking elevator pitch.

I had about 5,000 words done on this thing, and I figured to heck with the complicated dragon mythology, I'm switching projects. Which brings me to this August.

About two weeks ago, I promised myself I'd write every day until the book was done. When you make a stupid promise like that, you've got two choices: either give it up in shame or keep it. So far, I've kept it, and the book has been rolling out. It's amazing how fast a book can happen when you sit down every freaking day and pound out 1,000 or 1,500 words. I'm coming up on 40,000 words today, and I expect I'll be done before Sept. 1.

I was telling my wife last night that I probably should be jaded by now. I'm doing at least a novel a year nowadays, which must make me one of the most prolific unpublished writers on the planet. (I believe there's another word for that and it rhymes with snidiot.) But I'm not jaded. Actually, I'm insanely excited about this book. It's been so easy so far, and even though I know there are major things I have fix (like oh by the way, I cut a main character in the middle of a chapter last week—just poof!), the whole architecture feels solid.

And all of this is leading up to a Revelation. See, I'm working like a dog lately. I mean, I still have a full-time job and kids, one of whom just had oral surgery, and an old dog who's been throwing up in her mouth for the last month or so despite the vet's best efforts to figure out what's wrong ... and then I decided to add another hour or two of daily writing on yet another book that, based on my recent past, is statistically doomed. I should quit, right?

But that was my revelation. I don't want to quit because I like this. I guess I'm writing now for the same reason I wrote when I was 12 and 15 and 22 and 31—because I just like to tell stories. It's what I do. There's a certain freedom in knowing that. There's a weightlessness in the knowledge.

I'm not saying I don't want to sell. I do. And I'm not saying I'm done improving. I'm not.

I don't know how people are chosen for their lots in life. I don't know what capricious god decided that I should only want to write my little stories, then make me spend decades first admitting it, then a few years realizing I sucked at it, then more years painstakingly learning to get better at it. Maybe these questions are beyond me anyway—when all that really matters is I'm two weeks away from finishing another draft, and I think that's pretty cool.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Free Steven Slater

Steven Slater is my new hero.

This man should have been a train robber in the olden days. He should have been a cocaine cowboy in the 1980s. A pit trader in the 1990s.

You know what sealed it for me? The beer.

Free Steven Slater.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Special Bottle

I think I have a problem. I think I'm addicted to Tabasco sauce. I've tried all the others, but it's always Tabasco that calls me back.

I was poking around in my refrigerator last night and realized I have THREE bottles of Tabasco. And two of them are the jumbo kind. First, I have my day-to-day bottle. Then I have a back-up bottle. And then I have the Special Bottle.

When I go to people's houses, I often find a reason to poke around their spice cabinet. "Do you have, um, any, ah, Mrs. Dash?" I might ask. "I love that stuff." (I hate it.) What I'm really looking for, of course, is their old bottle of Tabasco. The forgotten one, the one they bought when they first got a place of their own and figured they'd need a bottle of Tabasco, but personally they can't stand the stuff. So they opened it once, used it, then stuffed it in the back of a cabinet and forgot about it.

Tabasco is a deceptively simple little liquid. It's made from a mash of the Tabasco hot peppers, which used to be grown on Avery Island in Louisiana and are now mostly grown in South America. The mash is combined with vinegar and salt, then aged for 12 months in a white oak barrel. The juice that's strained out of this concoction is Tabasco.

And as good as this is, it's only the beginning of the heights Tabasco can really achieve. See, like many wines, Tabasco improves with age. It improves in the bottle for years. Prize bottles of Tabasco have turned a suspicious, vinergary-red and have gunk caked around the bottle opening. By this time, the Tabasco has acquired layers of flavor, depths of heat and complexity, that simply can't be faked.

If I find this bottle in your cabinet, I will ask you for it. If you say no, I will steal it. If I like you, I'll buy you a new bottle.

So this is my Special Bottle ... the one I bought a year ago, opened, and have let sit unmolested while other bottles rotate through my life, sprinkling their lives out over pizza, spaghetti, eggs, stews, Chinese food, pretty much everything.

I don't know when I'll finally use the Special Bottle (an anniversary? after finding out I have a terminal illness? during a night of weakness?). But when I do, I expect it will taste like victory, like spicy delayed gratification. In a way, that bottle is a measure of my adulthood—my younger self would have broken down by now.

And I hope there's a plate of lasagna involved.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Goodbye, Barnes & Noble

I'm a habitual news junkie—it's sort of an occupational liability. Last night before I went to bed, I read a story that Barnes & Noble was considering putting itself up for sale. "Just considering," I thought. "The board is floating the idea. Nothing to it."

But this morning, I woke up to find out that, indeed, it's true. And one other detail hopped out at me: Barnes & Noble's total market capitalization is less than $1 billion. Woah. That might still seem like a lot of money, but in the world of corporate America, for a company with such a recognizable brand and national reach, it's actually peanuts. I've worked for people who could write a check and buy Barnes & Noble. That's amazing.

Enter mixed feelings.

I know writers and readers wax poetic about bookstores, with good reason, but Barnes & Noble is sort of the Wal-Mart of the book industry, no? Isn't this the bookstore chain that was considered the rapacious villain not too long ago? I remember when local communities would PROTEST a Barnes & Noble going in. In my college town, we had a beloved independent bookstore that was driven out of business shortly after Barnes & Noble came to town. And didn't Barnes & Noble sort of perfect the art of extracting money from publishers for front table placement? And isn't Barnes & Noble the company that uses returns as a way to enhance cash flow at publisher's expense? Isn't there a sort of direct correlation between the trouble publishers are in and Barnes & Noble "wallpaper" strategy of stocking thousands and thousands of books it can't sell in giant stores, then returning them at full cost?

But B&N isn't exactly riding high these days. I looked it up this morning and saw that B&N's profitability has steadily declined over the past three years. I think profits last year were about one third what they were three years ago. Sure, a recession is just ending, but the latest round of corporate earnings reports was actually pretty stellar.

So I was a little conflicted, actually. When I grew up, going to bookstore either meant a Waldenbooks in the mall or a little independent store not too far from my house. I could walk there, and must have spent hundreds of hours in those four shelves of books. When B&N and Borders came along, I had no problem with it. I knew it was wiping out the independents, but hey, I figured, that's capitalism. Markets consolidate. Size achieves efficiency and clout. That's how the game works. And now, when B&N seems like it might get plowed under by market forces and technological innovation, it seems kind of hypocritical to work myself up into a lather.

Either way, this is a pretty amazing moment in publishing and the media world. I'm still getting notices from the bankruptcy court handling the Tribune's recent bankruptcy (they owed me money, so I got stuck in their arbitration pool). My biggest clients right now are either online or POD companies, and print is in third place. And while the money is still in print books, if the B&N tells me anything, it's that this won't be true for long. It feels like pretty soon Amazon will complete its transformation into Random House, HarperCollins, Barnes & Noble, and Borders all wrapped up in one package.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Standing on Shoulders

This story made me ... angry.

But not as angry as this one.

I can't believe we live in by far the richest country in the history of the world and there is any question at all about providing health care for people who need it. The idea that basic dental care is out of reach in America is just mind-boggling.

In case you didn't follow the first link, it was a story about a massive weekend-long free dental clinic that serves the people of Appalachia. Dentists from all over the region donate their time, set up a tent, and start pulling rotten teeth. In one weekend, they'll pull more than 2,000 teeth from people who can't afford any sort of dentistry. I think it's a great thing those dentists are doing, but one little detail jumped out at me. A couple is quoted in the story saying they grew up with excellent dental care ... their fathers were union miners, and the mining company provided full benefits. Those days are long gone.

The second story takes place in a Democratic representative's town hall meeting. He was challenged by an angry constituent who demanded to know if he thought that health care was a right. He made the mistake of saying yes. She lambasted him, the crowd cheered, and now the video has gone viral throughout the conservative Internet. The woman who denounced any sort of public health care has become a hero.

I don't get this on any level. I know I'm ranting, and I know this has nothing to do with writing, but sometimes I just can't believe what's going on. I strongly believe that you can tell what kind of society you're dealing with by how it treats the least among them. The rich aren't a measure of a country. Rather, it's how the rich treat the poor. The same is true of families, by the way. You can tell almost immediately what kind of person you're dealing with by how they treat their children.

In my book, this means the United States is measured by how we treat our criminals, our poor people and sick people, and kids. And I think we do a piss-poor job of it. Of course health care is a right. Whether you want to call it "providing for the general welfare" or the "pursuit of life," I think there's little question that an advanced, rich society should first see to its own health. It should make sure its people were able to meet a basic level of health. It shouldn't allow an epidemic of prison rape. It shouldn't allow mentally disabled people to live on the streets.

I get the conservative argument. I grew up a Young Reagan Republican, and I still read more right-wing media than I do left-wing media. When I argue with conservatives, I'm not really bragging to say that I often know their own arguments better than they do. But ultimately it comes down to a question of social justice for me, and I think anyone would be hard put to prove a link between providing social justice and the vibrancy of American business and innovation. In fact, the stronger the safety net has become, the greater our country has been. Being a good corporate citizen is not a competitive disadvantage. But being a bad one is ... just ask any Enron shareholders.

When I look at conservative thought, I'll be honest: I see mostly fear. I see a mindset that is consumed with the fear of loss. Loss of middle-class status; loss of economic well-being; loss of prestige; loss of national position; loss of security. This overwhelming fear threads through every argument—any measure is valid as long as it protects from this dreaded, panicky, ill-defined loss.

I get it. I'm worried too. I'll never have the kind of job my dad had. I might never have that kind of financial security or lifestyle, and I certainly won't enjoy those kinds of benefits. I don't know what kind of job market my kids will face. For that matter, I don't know what kind of job market I'll face in six months or a year. I don't know if China will grow beyond us (ironic, for a Communist country). I don't know if someone will figure out how to pack a nuclear bomb into a suitcase. But I never want to be crippled by this fear of not knowing. I can only hope that this fear will never eclipse my humanity so one day I'll find myself justifying why it's OK to sacrifice people who are less fortunate than me as long as I can stand on their shoulders.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bookstore Blues

I went to a bookstore this weekend, for the first time in a long time. And I realized I love bookstores, but they're also a little depressing.

Am I the only person who stands in a bookstore, looking at piles and piles of books and thinks, "Jeez. There're just too many books! How could I ever get any traction in a place like this, with the little books I'm working on?" Sometimes, I'll go through a shelf and read the first few pages of every single book, just to get a feel for what's out there. But every time I put the book back on the shelf, I imagine a chill running up some author's spine somewhere.

And holy first person! I write MG, so I must have looked at 60 MG books, and I literally found ONE new book that was written in third person. It was weird. What's the deal with all these first person books?

As always, I looked for all my published friends' books in their respective sections. Sadly, I didn't find any. Which was a bummer. I make it a habit to face out books written by people I know and hide their competitors. No such luck yesterday.

Finally, I found a book called the Billionaire's Curse in the middle grade section. Get this ... in the book, a kid inherits a billion dollars from his eccentric grandfather and is sent on a quest to find a diamond to save his family's reputation. This is EXACTLY the same plot of the book I shopped in 2008, except mine had the added wrinkle of time travel. I know it sounds like I'm obsessing, but I swear I rarely think about that whole episode anymore. Still, every so often, something happens and the whole thing comes whooshing back and smacks me in the face. This was one of those things.

I ended up not buying the book I went there to get. I don't know. I had it my hands, and just changed my mind. I was feeling a little rattled at this point. So instead I picked up a paperback and left, feeling altogether less wonderful than I usually feel when I leave a bookstore ...