Back online, and coming soon to bookstores

Hi! Okay, it's been a while. Many years, in fact.

But I've been busy: writing a book. Called Darktown. And it's coming out in September!

By the time Darktown hits the stores, it will have been five years since my last book. I'm amazed by that, but hey, life happens. I have kids. Things work out, then they don't, then they totally do.

The other good news is that Darktown is the start of a series, and I'm very far into the second book, so the wait next time should be very brief indeed.

Darktown is the product of years of research and writing, of kicking ideas around (with myself and with friends), of trying something new, of creating a world that people will enjoy losing themselves in. I'm thrilled that it's been generating a lot of interest already--it's been named one of the Buzz Books at the upcoming Book Expo, the publishing industry's big conference, and the TV rights have been optioned by Pascal Pictures and Sony TV, with Jamie Foxx and Amy Pascal as co-executive producers. I can't wait to get it into people's hands.

In the meantime, I vow to become a more regular blogger, and Lord knows there's plenty of current events that eerily play into the themes of the book.

More coming soon...

My First Prison Book Club

Originally posted 1/4/11

Last December I flew to snowy Billings, MT, to visit Montana State University at Billings, which had wonderfully chosen The Last Town on Earth for their inaugural First-Year Experience program. It’s always a pleasure when a school reads my book, so I was looking forward to the class visits and hearing what sorts of comments and issues the students wanted to bring up. And I love to travel and was curious about Billings (the largest city in Montana! Population 500,000) -- I've been to Missoula and Glacier National Park but had never seen the eastern side of the state.

But what I was most looking forward to—and was also kind of freaked out about—was my appointment with a prison book club.

The backstory: one of the classes at MSUB that would be reading the book had also partnered up with a reading group at Passages, a "residential facility" for women offenders, as their Web site terms it. Billings is the home of the Washington State prison, and just down the road from the prison, in a former Howard Johnson’s hotel, some female inmates live at Passages, from which they are often being transitioned back into the community or into different programs, like substance abuse or mental health.

One of the professors at MSUB led a discussion group of women at Passages, who read the book and talked about its themes of community and ethics, applying it to their own life experiences. The professor thought it had gone very well, that it helped the women draw parallels to their own lives and see how individual actions can affect a larger society, and vice versa.

A few months before I flew to Billings, the professor asked if I would visit the group. I figured, sure, when was the last time I was invited to a women’s correctional facility?

So on Dec. 2 I was given a tour of the building, all the while tracked by a small film crew that was making a documentary for an MSUB communications class. On the walls were fliers reminding inmates that if they had a work assignment (like shoveling snow from the walkway) they had to sign out by a certain time, and informational leaflets about how to avoid abusive relationships. I met a couple of "graduates" of the program who had come by again just to meet me, which was flattering -- you'd think it would take a lot to make a former inmate willing to drop by and visit their old "home."

Then I was taken to "the secure second floor," where my guides and I sat on the floor of a small, furnitureless, former hotel room. The book club was already assembled: ten women in prison scrubs. On the walls around us were the artwork they'd made. Through the lone window we could see the gray and icy roads, and the two tall buildings that constitute the Billings skyline, and beyond them the snowcapped rimrock that surrounds the city like the walls of a crater. We went around and introduced ourselves.

The professor mostly led the discussion, asking the women what they thought of the book and how it echoed or perhaps added new meaning to things in their own lives. People would make reference to "what I did" or "mistakes I’ve made" or "the people I've hurt." The women ranged in age from early twenties to maybe mid-fifties. Everyone was so friendly and happy to be there – if you closed your eyes and just listened, it wouldn’t have sounded any different from the other clubs I’ve attended or telephoned into. But then you’d open your eyes and see the stark, furniture-less room, and the people sitting on the floor, and the prison scrubs.

Women at the facility aren’t allowed to have any possessions, including basic cosmetics, and many are only allowed brief, weekly phone calls with family (including, in many cases, their kids). I couldn’t help wondering how the book’s exploration of family tensions felt, if those elements of the book hit home or did they maybe seem hopelessly minor to people who were living with real-life dislocation.

This also gave new meaning to the phrase "captive audience." The book clubbers said they were thrilled to read the book, but one can't help wondering whether that has less to do with the book's merits and more to do with the sheer monotony of prison life -- they probably would have been happy to read anything, to have any distraction from what they were already enduring. For that reason alone, I'm glad they were able to read the book and I hope that it helped them, whether as simply as by making the hours pass more quickly, or something more profound and meaningful.

There were things I was afraid to ask, of course. It's always slightly awkward to lead a talk about your own book -- you don't want to look like you're fishing for compliments or stifling anyone's criticism. But at this talk more than any other I wondered about who I was speaking with, what their own stories were, whether the stresses and misadventures of my characters paled before what they themselves have lived through. But I left most of these questions unasked, not wanting to seem a voyeur or make anyone uncomfortable.

I have some experience visiting people in prisons, unfortunately. So I was thinking about that too, during the days leading up to the visit. I know very well that people who find themselves in tough spots are often far from our stereotypical visions of criminals and ne-er-do-wells. There are a thousand different combinations of misfortune and poor judgement that can lead someone to a place like Passages. This too I thought about bringing up, but I decided against it, thinking it would have seemed too touchy-feely or like I was desperate to make a connection.

Only later did I remember that an undercurrent in the novel is how all the fear and paranoia about the flu, and the treatment of the quarantined citizens, seems to turn the town itself into a large prison, where everyone is either a guard or the guarded. The word "prison" is used quite frequently. This didn’t come up in my talk with the group, but I can’t help but wonder if they were thinking about it.

People circulate in and out of the facility, as sentences end or people are processed to a different facility. They made reference to a few people who had been in the group but no longer were, and even now, seven weeks later, I wonder which of them are still there and which have moved on to hopefully better places. And whether reading fiction seems like some luxury for the leisured or will it become something to turn to when they're in need of guidance or escape. And how charged even the word "escape" is to someone in prison scrubs.

What Iron Chef Taught Me About Writing

Originally posted 7/14/2011

A few years ago I found myself flipping through a book about Iron Chef. I haven't seen the show in years, and the book was about the early Japanese version of the show that I used to watch with my wife and some friends about ten years ago (not the newer, less goofy American one with Alton Brown). The book had an interview with one of the chefs, Morimoto, the Japanese wizard behind the restaurant Nobu, and he made a point about cooking that applies equally well to writing.

For those of you not in the know: Iron Chef is a kitschy cooking face-off in which the contestant (a top-notch cook at some big-time restaurant) challenges one of the show's four "iron chefs" to see "whose cuisine reigns supreme." The show's host, a very scary Japanese man with an Elvis hairdo and a Sergeant Pepper wardrobe, chooses a special "mystery ingredient" for the day (could be sweet potatoes, or sea urchin roe, or conger eel -- did I mention the show was Japanese?), and then the contestant and the iron chef race to prepare six or seven different meals. Celebrity judges (the American version of the show, interestingly, often featured one of my favorite writers, Jay McInerney) then rate the dishes based on presentation, taste, and originality.

In the interview I read, Morimoto noted that although he loved being on the show, he found it incredibly stressful. We're judged based on both originality and taste, he said, but it's so hard to make something that's amazingly original AND yummy. People have been eating for millions of years, and the reason we've come to eat certain things together (like pork chops and apple sauce, or pasta and tomato sauce) is that they taste good together. The reason we don't throw hugely disparate ingredients together (chocolate and fish sauce! steak tartare and burnt caramel!) is that it would taste really, really bad. On the show, Morimoto was always trying to be original and push the envelope by conceiving weird and unheard-of combinations, but finding such alchemies that also happened to be delicious was tough.

I think about this a lot. Many of my favorite books, films, albums, and TV shows succeed so well because they combine odd elements in a unque way. Yiddish Policeman's Union told a tale that was equal parts hardboiled noir, Jewish identity narrative, and speculative history; The Wire combined novelistic scope with crime stories with soap operatic storylines with big-picture political scope; Odelay found the common ground between folk, hip-hop, dance, and pop. And there are even crazier mash-ups coming out every week, in bookstores and cinemas, combining comic books with adventure stories with mysteries, etc.

As a writer, I want to capture this level of fun and play, the zaniness of combining ingredients that aren't supposed to go together. But there's a certain boiling point beyond which the originality metabolizes but the taste begins to suffer. Because if you push the experimenting too far, you wind up with a nasty avante-garde entree that makes you want to vomit. We've all read books or seen films that took their little experiments too far, that strayed so outside the established norm of story that you couldn't follow the plot (or, the opposite, there was no plot), or whose experimentation felt forced or simply wrong in an indefinable, gut-level way. Which is the risk you take when you, say, add a dash of pepper to your ice cream, or add a time traveler to a book about the politics of post-9/11 America (as my forthcoming book The Revisionists does).

So, when I'm devising my stories and working out the kinks, I try to push boundaries and do new things, I try to have fun and show my readers something they've never seen before (hopefully something they've never even thought of before), but I always try to step back and ask myself, "Does it still taste good?"


On Risk

Originally posted 8/1/11

A while ago, a friend of mine made a comment about one of his formerly favorite bands, and it's stuck in my head for a while now. Honestly, it's been so long that I can't even remember which band he was talking about, but the bottom line is that he had previously worshipped the ground they played on, but then he got their new album and he really, really hated it. He said the new album was so incredibly bad (so unforgivably bad) "that it makes me reassess their earlier work." In other words, he was realizing that maybe those earlier albums, which he had once raved about, and which had been the very soundtrack of his life for a few years, were actually bad, simply because their new one was bad.


This was maybe a year after my first novel had been published, an experience which forever changes the way one feels about book reviews, movie reviews, the online reviews of kitchen products, blog posts about that one restaurant with the one waitress who was a total bitch that night because she forgot to put my salad dressing on the side, etc. So maybe I was feeling a tad over-vulnerable, and over-defensive about artists being knocked, and over-protective of my friend's formerly favorite band. (Whom I'd never really dug much, actually.)

But I started thinking: Even if the new album is the worst album my friend had ever heard, and even if he felt a sense of profound, even personal disappointment (as if he was let down not by some musicians he'd never met but by one of his own friends, or as if he'd been cheated on by his girlfriend), why does that have to alter his feelings about their earlier albums, which he'd always loved? Those albums haven't changed. They're still awesome (or at least, as awesome as he'd always thought of them as being). Why does he feel the sudden need to "reassess" them?

Because here's the thing: I think we want to think of our favorite bands, and writers, and directors, and athletes, as perfect. I still remember when I was in high school and I was in a big, big U2 phase, I liked them so much that I'd blow $12 on a UK import of one of their singles, just so I could get the one or two rare B-sides that came with it. These were tracks that they hadn't put on their album, or released in the US, but still I had to have them. And I listened to them, and ... they weren't very good. And I found my opinion of the cherished U2 lowering a bit. OK, the band was still great, but it's not like every time they plugged in their instruments they created perfection. Some of their songs were just ok. The lads were smart enough to keep those songs off their albums and use them as B-side fodder, yes, but still. Those inferior songs were proof to me that the band wasn't perfect. Which was disappointing to discover.

So it's all the worse when your favorite writer/artist/director tosses out a bad follow-up album/novel/movie. It proves to us that they are human. They make mistakes. But does it mean that their earlier successes weren't actually successes at all? Just because they aren't successful <em>all the time</em>?

The reason, I would submit, that a work of art succeeds is because the artist takes risks. My friend dug that band's first two albums because he'd never heard anything like it; they melded various sounds together in a new way, they took their listeners to a bold new place. I feel the same way when I crack open a great novel by a writer I've never read before, or an amazing film. We want our artists to take risks, to tread on new ground, to avoid playing it safe. We hate it when someone plays it safe and writes the same damn book over and over, or records the same album three times. Where's the sense of adventure, we ask? It all feels too ho-hum. We want another bold leap forward.

But risks, by their very definition, are incredibly likely to fail. Sometimes when the artist takes another risk, it works yet again (wow! even better than their first!) but sometimes, yikes, it's a risk that just doesn't pay off. It doesn't mean their earlier work was worse than we realized. It just means that the odds got them this time, and that our romanticized version of the artist as perfect is being replaced by this unfortunate glimpse into the sausage-making process of art, which ain't always pretty.

And am I thinking of this now because I'm about to publish a book that takes a lot of risks? That is in many ways quite different from my first two? That combines various elements that aren't normally placed in the same narrative? Perhaps. Of course, I happen to love the darn thing, and I think it's a lot closer to perfect than sausage. (Though I do like sausage.) No doubt someone else might feel differently, and they'll be so enraged by the new risks that they'll think maybe my first two books weren't as good as they thought. Well, maybe they weren't. But it's my job to test out that tightrope, so I'll continue to do so, one imperfect step at a time, hoping as usual that someone's holding the net.



My Toddler, The Copy Editor

Originally posted June 6, 2009 

I recently received the copyedited manuscript of my second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. A manuscript wearily proceeds to the copyeditor only after it has valiantly survived numerous rounds of edits and revisions at the hands of the editor; the editor and writer strike this metaphor, eliminate that repeated verb, compress this chapter or that paragraph, remove this unnecessary character, clarify that plot point, etc. By the time the writer has finished an umpteenth draft and the editor signs off on the manuscript, the writer is convinced the book is as perfect as it can be, that nothing more can possibly be done. But no. Then the even-yet-more-anal copyeditors come in, questioning every comma, every dash, every split infinitive or somewhat unusual verb construction or nonstandard usage of the English language. The author has a few options here -- he can accept the copyeditor's edits, figuring that this person is probably so well steeped in grammatical rules that she must be right; he can override all her edits, taking out his frustration at all those middle school English teachers he didn't like, insisting that he is the artist here, thank you very much, and that if he wants to bend some grammatical rules, then that's well within his rights; or he can obsess about each and every edit, questioning why he originally wrote it that way and wondering if it really is in fact better, or if that tiny violation is in fact ruining the book, and he should change it again.


Which brings me to my son, who turns three this summer. He is deeply, deeply into the Why? phase. He questions everything -- why this, why that. I had never imagined it possible to question so many things. Why is this truck blue? Why is this wheel round? Why this truck has four wheels and this truck has six wheels? Why this excavator has tracks and no wheels? Why this front-end loader has wheels and no tracks? I'm an intellectually curious person, but a toddler blows an artist away when it comes to an almost metaphysical sense of curiosity.


"Why this water cold?"

"Well, buddy, it's really hot out, so people like to drink cold water when it's hot out."

"Why people like cold water when it's hot out?"

"Because it cools them off."

"Why it cools them off?"


At which point, you can begin a complicated discussion of physics and biology, or you can make up a goofy answer, or you can try to distract him with an entirely new line of thought, such as, "Hey, buddy, wasn't that fire truck neat?" But this runs the risk of being countered with, "Why that fire truck neat?" Or why was it red, or why did have a light, or why did it go Wee-a-wee-a-wee-a instead of woo-woo-woo, etc.


Interestingly, this curiosity is directed not only at the outside world but also -- like any navel-gazing novelist -- at himself as well. Such as:

"Daddy, I just drew on the wall. Why I draw on the wall?"

"Um, I don't know, buddy. Why did you draw on the wall?"



"Daddy, why I like trucks?"

"Because trucks are awesome."

"Why I like fire trucks and excavators more than telephone line repair trucks?"

"I don't know, why do you like fire trucks and excavators more than telephone line repair trucks?"

"Because I'm a silly goose."


As I spent a week or so staring at and debating the various marks on my copyedited manuscript, I questioned the logic (or lack thereof) behind every literary decision I had made in the roughly two years of writing and revising the darn thing. Okay, the copyeditor wants me to insert a comma into this sentence, and this one, and this one. I guess I didn't like commas that much while writing this book. Why? Should I allow her to insert the commas? Or was I right to leave them out -- did their absence, despite going contrary to accepted grammatical etiquette, add something indefinable to the sentence, and therefore the book itself, or was it just a weird mannerism of mine that I should cut? Why did I do that? Was I subconsciously mimicking some other writer? In which case, is that bad? Or do I simply want a new, freer world unencumbered by so many commas? But will that bother readers? Why?


I could hear my son's high-pitched, ridiculously cute, Platonically inquisitive voice in my head: Why Daddy use a dash here instead of a semicolon? Why Daddy not use comma in this sentence? Didn't Daddy use semicolon in similarly constructed sentence on page 137? Daddy wants to be consistent here, doesn't he?


Which led to even more agonizing conversations:

"Why Daddy not use a comma in this sentence?"

"Well, I thought the sentence would kind of move better, would flow with the action or the revelation of the scene a bit more naturally without the comma in the middle there."

"Why Daddy not think action flows as well with commas?"

"Well, that's a good question actually. Huh. Why don't I?"

"Because Daddy's a silly goose."



"Why Daddy insist on keeping that long phrase in the middle of sentence here?"

"Well, I understand why the copyeditor wanted me to strike it, but see -- it's in the middle of a paragraph, and all the other sentences are these short, declarative sentences. If I strike that phrase, then I'll have a paragraph consisting of too many consecutive declarative sentences."

"Why Daddy not like too many consecutive declarative sentences?"

"Well, son, have I ever told you about a man named Raymond Carver?"


Etc, etc, for roughly 400 pages. Well, I did indeed complete my round of the copyedits, and I sent the manuscript back to my publisher, and the book even has a release date now (mark your calendars! January 26). I will of course continue to question myself when I read the galleys in a few weeks or months, and the advance copies after that. My son, by then age three, will no doubt still be questioning everything as well, and I'll continue making up answers and hoping they're right, or close enough.


My Swine Flu Dilemma, or Why You Shouldn’t Write A Novel About An Epidemic

originally posted May 12, 2009

I tell myself that I’m not really a hypochondriac.

Still, because my first novel dealt with a fictional town that tries to quarantine itself from the 1918 influenza epidemic, I’ve developed a bit of fatalism about the flu. Surely my book has tempted the gods, and the next flu pandemic (which most health experts agree is inevitable) will come looking for me in particular. I can already visualize the obituary headline: Writer of Flu Novel Dies from Flu in Ironic Tragedy.

A couple of weeks ago, with stories about swine flu being updated every hour, I had a dilemma. I was scheduled to fly from Atlanta to Los Angeles, along with wife, son, and two generations of my in-laws, for a family reunion. At the time, Southern California was one of the few parts of America in which swine flu had made an appearance.  I felt relatively safe here in Georgia, but LA seemed somewhat borderline.  And airports – particularly major, international hubs like Hartsfield-Jackson and LAX – are hardly the safest places to be when nasty viruses are looking for new hosts.

Only hours before our flight was scheduled to depart, Vice President Joe Biden went on TV and made his now infamous comment about how no family members of his would be getting on an airplane anytime soon.  This did not ease my psyche.  I still wasn’t quite sure what my family and I should do, as it remained unclear whether the swine flu was about to take the next step toward outright pandemic.  Indeed, our decision was particularly puzzling because the flu seemed to be in this odd in-between stage.  It didn’t seem to be The Big One yet, but it did seem to have the potential.  If it did turn out to be The Big One – with hundreds of critically ill people in a number of cities overwhelming our physicians, hospitals, and then morgues – at least we’d have known what to do: stay home, slowly go through our supplies of canned goods, watch CNN and hope for better news soon. We weren’t at that point, thank goodness. The death toll in Mexico was scary, yes, but the infection rate here in the States was hardly severe enough to make us all shut-ins. Right?

Part of the problem is that a typical flu can incubate inside its hosts for a few hours or days, allowing us to infect others unknowingly. By the time you realize it’s The Big One, you’ve probably already caught it from a subway ride (or cross-country flight) on which no one was even coughing yet.

As a self-employed writer, it would be relatively easy for me to become a shut-in without anyone noticing, if not for that pesky family reunion. But most people have to balance concerns for their health with fears of being fired for skipping work, or the need to show up at the office so they can afford to pay the mortgage on the house they might rather be hiding in.

In the fall of 1918, the pandemic was exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. government, distracted by the Great War and wanting to maintain a confident home front, refused to acknowledge the flu’s severity until it was too late. In Philadelphia, just as the virus was beginning to attack the city, thousands of people attended a pro-war parade, cheering and sneezing on each other. Surely our government wouldn’t make similar mistakes today. But here in 2009, it was disturbing to see international health experts bickering according to their national interests: first European politicians advised their citizens not to travel to America, then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention objected and said visitors have nothing to fear.

(Meanwhile, Russia and China, unhindered by messy things like Bills of Rights, a critical press, and due process, were already said to be considering quarantining foreign travelers.)

So what should I have done?  Fly to LA and chance it, or postpone the trip and be safe?

No one wants to look like Chicken Little. Telling your friends you can’t make it to the multiplex because you’d rather stay home and wait for the swine flu to vanish will cause your friends to think that you’re just avoiding them, or that you’re crazy. And blowing off a family reunion will lose major points with the in-laws.

During the period immediately after September 11, many of us were afraid to fly, but there was a certain patriotic machismo associated with heading back to the airport. Canceling our flights to Florida and avoiding public places would have been “letting the terrorists win.” But that logic doesn’t quite work when the villain is a virus. Avoiding LAX or a crowded theater when a dangerous illness lurks is hardly “letting the flu win.”

And so as Wolf Blitzer went on and on about the swine flu, most of us continued with our social and professional lives.  We simply hoped that our local grocery store clerk or the pizza delivery guy or our administrative assistant was not unknowingly harboring the virus.  What else could we do? Government advice to wash our hands frequently was little more than anyone’s mother would have recommended – and it was frighteningly similar to the advice handed down by our much less scientifically equipped experts in 1918.

The sad truth is that, despite a near-century of medical advancement, our attempts to conquer influenza remain somewhat blunted by the fact that it mutates so quickly; once virologists isolate the swine flu strain, they’ll need to create and then distribute a vaccine for it before the flu mutates once again.

The other sad truth is that, despite the myriad sociological lessons we can learn from the 1918 pandemic – about the need for strong and honest government leadership as well as individual civic responsibility – human nature hasn’t mutated much since then. Our interconnectedness, our belief in a free society in which citizens can come and go as they choose, our social instinct to appear blithe and unfazed rather than panicked and silly – these things continue to conspire against us.

Well, my family and I did fly to LA.  Despite having to deal with a somewhat cranky, jetlagged toddler who woke up at 4 AM every morning, all was well.  Much ado about nothing, I suppose, and two weeks later the swine flu stories have all but vanished from the press.  Maybe I was silly to worry, and am even sillier to admit it with this post.  It was hardly the same kind of dilemma as, say, standing guard with a rifle in front of a quarantined town and having to decide what to do about the possibly ill stranger walking toward you, but still, it felt weird.  And because bad influenzas that appear in the late spring have been known to lie dormant for a few months before returning with a vengeance in the fall (as happened in 1918), we all may find ourselves with similar dilemmas soon.

Not that I’m a hypochondriac or anything.