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The Con Man Who Also Published Novels

Friday, November 09, 2012
Hey y'all.

Been a long time. Sorry about that.

Why so long? Partly because I've been writing other things, including this magazine feature. It's the amazingly true story about a novelist who also happened to be a con man.

Hope you enjoy it. Thanks to the fine people at Atlanta Magazine for providing guidance to myself, a fiction guy wading into nonfictional waters ("what do you mean I can't just make it up?").

I've been on the blog less, so if you're dying to know what I'm up to on a near daily basis, check out my Facebook page or Twitter feed.

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Townsend Prize, HuffPo rant, a piece of the moon, and other stuff from April

Monday, April 30, 2012
There are several problems with a writer having a blog. One is that the writer by definition is probably supposed to be writing something else right now. The other is that the line between posting something of genuine interest to readers and something that is cravenly self-promotional is a hard one to spot, and constantly moving, and perhaps even imaginary.

Also there's the irony that, when a lot of blog-worthy things are going on, that's a sign that I'm busy, and therefore having trouble making time to blog about those things that I've been busy with.

Hence my relative lack of blogging lately.

But, I'm back. Last week was a bit of a whirlwind, but a good and productive one, so I'm posting a few links below. If they seem annoyingly self-promotional, and if they seem to be coming from Thomas Mullen the brand rather than Thomas Mullen the writer, or even Thomas Mullen the person, my apologies. I do hope instead that the below is genuinely interesting.

1. Thursday night I was thrilled to learn that my second novel was named the winner of the Townsend Prize, which is awarded to the best work of book-length fiction by a Georgia author over the preceding two years. Past winners have included Ha Jin and Alice Walker, so it's wonderful company to be included in. Also, last year's winner was some book called The Help, so I have dramatically brought down the average sales figures of past winners. Oh well.

To see the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, click here.

It was a fun evening, at which I got to meet the other nine nominees (a few of whom I'd already met, including one whos literally my neighbor), as well as other writers, professors, booksellers, readers, and other assorted book people.

One of the cool things about being in Atlanta is that, while it's a major city with various dynamic things going on, it's unpretentious and laid back enough for writers to meet up randomly, have coffee, chat, etc. I've met a ton of other writers in my three years here and look forward to a long literary future in the ATL.

2. In less warm and sunny news: Discouraged and dismayed by the recent Department of Justice settlement with publishers over e-book prices, and just overall frazzled by the state of publishing in general, and the strange netherworld in which writers like myself find ourselves as we try to reach an audience and possibly be paid for our work at a time when Amazon and Apple are themselves minting money, I wrote a satirical op-ed piece. In it, I offer to turn myself in to the DOJ for the crime of writing for profit.

It was published in the Huffington Post, and has been reposted and tweeted a fair amount, for whatever that's worth.

If you're wondering whether I am aware of the irony of writing such an article and posting it on the Huffington Post, a web-only venue that does not pay its writers: yes, I am so aware. And deeper into the rabbit hole we go...

3. Last Tuesday I tripped down memory lane, sort of, by visiting Central Catholic High School to give a reading and meet with students. The 1,000-students-strong school and many parents had read my first novel, The Last Town on Earth. A number of colleges and universities have done this with their freshmen classes, but to my knowledge this was the first time an entire high school has tackled it this way.

As a Catholic high school alum myself, and someone who went to college in Ohio, it was a surprisingly nostalgic experience. Oh, and I got to add an awesome Toledo Mud Hens T-shirt to my now fairly extensive collection of minor league T's and hats. Score!

The other cool thing about CCHS: one of their alumns is NASA's Gene Krantz--Ed Harris played him, and won the Oscar for it, in Apollo 13. Krantz is a generous alum, and he donated to the school an actual piece of the moon. It's on display in a special "moon room" in their library, complete with blown-up B/W shots of the NASA control room and one of Krantz's senior year astronomy papers (grade: 97).

For a photo of the moon, which I orbited around, check out my Facebook fan page here.

4. I was very excited to learn that I'll have a short story in the next edition of the Grantland Quarterly. The lovechild of ESPN and McSweeney's, Grantland's web site offers excellent longform journalism about sports and culture, sometimes offered not by traditional journalists but by novelists like Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead, and John Brandon. They also publish a McSweeneys-ish quarterly book-type thingy, containing some of the best columns from the preceding few months, plus a few extras. My story will be one of the extras. Look for "The Art of a Basketball" in Vol. 3 in June, and/or order a subscription to the quarterly here.

As always, thanks for reading!

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The Exciting Life of the Writer: One Sample Day

Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Hi, Internet! Been a while.

This is my first blog post in about four months. I blame publication/publicity burnout. When my third book, The Revisionists, came out at the end of September, I was writing a lot of online essays and interviews and other random things for many other Web sites. This took a while, plus, honestly, one only has so much to say about oneself. I ran out of enthusiasm for Facebook and tweets and blogs and whatnot. Burnout caused me to turn my back on the blog for a month, which became two, and then three, etc.

Ok. I'm back now. I even have a twitter feed, if y'all are interested: check out @mullenwrites.

(There have been some bloggable things of late, interviews and reviews, including a talk I gave on NPR that guest-stars a certain recently retired Georgia-based rock band, so I'll put those links up soon. Promise.)

I've decided to kickstart the blog because, though most days in a writer's life just aren't all that interesting to recap, yesterday qualifies. A lot of people ask me what it is I do, how I do it, when I do what, etc, and the answer is usually so dull I feel compelled to make things up. Oz didn't seem so powerful when people peered behind his curtain, after all. I don't want to pierce your illusions by telling you, "well, I sit in a chair and stare at a screen and daydream, and some of these daydreams cause my fingers to twitch, striking the keys, and then at 4:00 I have a thousand words, on a good day." It would be more fascinating if I also fought bulls or hunted rhinos like Hemingway, or something.

BUT, back to yesterday.

The day began with the aforementioned sitting/staring/daydreaming/typing. Working on some freelance assignments, as well as an original screenplay. I've dabbled in screenplays before but this is the first time I've tried an original idea that is extremely close to completion, so that's exciting. And it's fun to write in such a new form, in a very visual medium. No telling if it's any good, but we shall see.

Then I drove to Atlanta's KIPP Charter School as part of their Writing Tutors program. Writer-types like me are paired with 5th-7th graders, who are trying to write a 3-5 page historical fiction story. My 5th grade student is crafting a dazzling, riveting tale set at Jacob's Pharmacy, the birthplace of Coca-Cola in downtown Atlanta. I don't want to give much away, but I will mention that aliens are going to invade the Pharmacy during our young hero's school field trip, and the aliens (who hate Coke) will arrive in a space ship emblazoned with a Pepsi logo. I'm not making this up. Serious battling is going to go down. The "historical" aspect of this story might have been slightly lost on my student, who, when reminded of this requirement, decided maybe we could set it in the 1990s. He's going to write a draft this weekend. I'm dying to see it.

Oh, and I found out that his mother went to the Rhode Island high school that was rivals with my RI high school. Small world.

Then, after our hero (me) swiftly raced home to pick up one of his sons from school, and quickly started cooking a dinner he himself would not have time to eat, and his awesome and awe-inspiring wife arrived home with Son #2, I changed into slightly-more-presentable-attire-than usual and got back in my car (lots of driving here in Atlanta) to race to Midtown to attend a book club of attorneys who had just read my new book.

I've done a lot of book club visits, but only one for my new book, and that was with my mother-in-law and her friends. Never done one with all lawyers. I've done all-students, all-teachers, all-retirees, all-public-health-workers, and even all-inmates-of-a-women's-correctional-facility, but this would be something new. Last night's was held at The Lawyer's Club of Atlanta (I swiped a nice cocktail napkin), a snazzy space on the 38th floor of one of ATL's signature skyscrapers, though I can't remember its name. (It's the pointy reddish one.) The fact that one of The Revisionists' main characters is an attorney, and there's some legal intrigue in the book, made me wonder if they'd nail me for getting some key legal issue wrong.

Luckily, they didn't. Everyone was friendly, even the ones who admitted they hadn't read it yet but came because this was the first time an author had crashed their proceedings. I sat beside a judge. A few folks were wearing "I voted!" stickers with GA peaches. Occasional political remarks were made, but not too many. Debate broke out as to whether in fact my main character was a shizophrenic living in a created mental universe to hide from his difficult reality, leading to debate as to whether I myself as a writer am schitzophrenic, hiding in my invented fictional worlds (my verdict: maybe). The board room in which we met had a fabulous view of the city, but I sat with my back to it.

And then, to top things off, I had dinner with Jimi Hendrix. (!!!) His health wasn't very good -- he had an oxygen tank with tubes leading into his right nostril, which he tried to conceal with some interestingly placed dreadlocks. And he coughed a lot. Still, it was great to talk to him and hear his take on contemporary bands like The Black Keys.

Actually, I dreamt that last part. Honestly, I did. But I felt the need to include it here because, a few hours agao while I was in fact dreaming, I even thought to myself, "wow, this is so amazing, a day that included tutoring a middle schooler about a space/soda story and then meeting a book club of lawyers is now ending with dinner beside Jimi freakin' Hendrix -- I have GOT to put this in my blog." So I am. Even though it didn't actually happen.

There you have it, a day in the life. Today, however, looks to be less interesting. But I started by writing a blog post, and in fact am typing it right now, like literally now, and you're reading it. Thanks! But I should go to work now.

Even though I'm already here.

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My take on the whole Q.R. Markham plagiarism thing

Monday, November 14, 2011
For those of you not in the know, the scenario is thus: a new spy novel called Assassin of Secrets was published two weeks ago, and less than a week later the publisher pulled it from the market upon realizing that large swaths of the book were stolen, verbatim, from earlier works. The plagiarized texts ranged from Ian Fleming's classic James Bond novels and newer spy thrillers to nonfiction books about the intelligence industry, like James Bamford's tomes about the National Security Agency.

A few things to note: Markham and I have the same publisher and, in fact, the very same editor. I feel badly for my editor, not only because he's had to deal with this mess but also because some people will doubtless use this as yet another example of the inferiority of "traditional, legacy" publishers in a digital world, evidence that the gatekeepers of the publishing world are incompetent, etc etc.

Here's the deal: if you really want to pull one over on an editor, it isn't that hard. Editors have only so much time, and they spend that time doing things other than, say, Googling random phrases of a manuscript to see if they turn up any matches. We should not expect editors or publishers to play the role of high school English teachers looking for cheaters, mainly because we should not expect writers to act like 13 year-olds.

Another thing: Any writer with a "traditional, legacy" publisher signs these boring, analog things called legal contracts. The contract explains your royalty rate, what will happen if someone sues you for libel, what happens when your book is remaindered, and other fascinating tidbits of Inside Publishing. There also is a clause in which you, the writer, do solemnly swear that the work is entirely yours and does not contain passages taken from other writers.

If a writer wants to pull a fast one, fine, but you're breaking your contract. You're being a fraud. It's clear that there was some weird element of performance art with Markham, who published under an alias and even used stolen lines in his interviews. Perhaps he was intending to make some grand statement about influence and appropriation, or the art of fiction and lying, or sneaky spies, or whatever. I'm just not all that impressed. Congrats, you got your name in lights for a brief moment, and you fooled people who trusted you. Hats off, old man.

Another random thing: My editor had asked me, a few months ago, if I would read Markham's book and, if I liked it, if I might contribute a blurb. (Like "an amazing work from a writer to watch," a line which someone once wrote about a first novel and which countless blurbers have appropriated.) I've actually never given a blurb, and I wasn't sure the book would be my thing, but I said I'd take a look. I read the first chapter, didn't like it. I read a few more, as a favor to my editor, hoping it would get better. It didn't. After maybe 50 pages, I gave up, and sent my editor my regrets.

Of course, now it's coming to light that the book was not so much a cohesive novel as a series of stolen lines, woven together into something approximating a narrative. Maybe this is why I didn't like it, though I'd be lying if I said I felt there was something suspicious afoot.

A few of the stories about Markham have playfully noted that Publishers Weekly and Kirkus gave the book starred reviews, delighting in the fact that the publishing empire (whatever that is) could be so easily fooled. Others have wondered how the editor could have failed to notice the thefts, as if he should have possessed instant recall of spy thrillers he might have read as a teenager (which is when I myself last read a few Ian Fleming books).

No doubt some voices are already calling Markham a genius, a sly jester whose theft (and whose very brief period of Getting Away With It) exposed the flaws of big publishing and shined a spotlight on the notoriously muddy concept of artistic inspiration. We all borrow from each other, such voices say, and we all rip each other off. Right?

Yawn. I think it just proves that if someone in today's world wants to get a lot of attention for something other than hard work or artistic prowess, it isn't all that difficult. The rest of us will trudge along using our own words, thanks.

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Send Me A Question on Goodreads!

Thursday, October 13, 2011
Hey folks-

Goodreads.com has set up an author interview page for readers to post questions to yours truly. Have any questions on the writing process, or where I get my ideas, or why I do what I do? Or what the deal is with a certain mysterious character in my new book, or anything at all about the previous two? Don't be shy. Go to this page and post a question for me. I've been posting answers all week, and I'll answer any new ones on Monday.

And would someone please tell the sun to come back to Atlanta? Some of us are much, much better writers when it's sunny out. Thanks.

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