Sunday, April 28, 2019

Sunday Sentence: The Big Impossible by Edward J. Delaney

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Billy Collins’s success confounds them. “Billy Collins!” one shrieks, as one might shriek, “aerosol meatloaf!”

“Writer Party” from The Big Impossible by Edward J. Delaney

Saturday, April 27, 2019

1,000 Books: Don Quixote in Iraq

Don Quixote. In particular, this Modern Library edition, standing vigil today over my old battle-dress uniform. Oh, the memories of this book! Not necessarily the contents (though they are all well and good), but the experience of reading Don Quixote. Even now, nearly 15 years later, I can recall the stone-heavy feel of that sand-colored book in my hand. I remember the way it led my mind through the forest to the edge of an open meadow and said, “Run free!”

Like the day Reagan was shot and the morning the space shuttle exploded, I remember where I was when I met Don Quixote for the first time: in Iraq with the rattle-pop of gunfire less than two miles away.

It was the first of the major works of classic literature I set out to read during my year-long deployment to Iraq as an active-duty soldier in 2005. After my 14-hour work days in the public affairs office of Task Force Baghdad headquarters, I had nothing else to do but eat, sleep and read. This would be my “Desert Island Year” for books. I had brought an additional foot locker with me to Iraq, over and above my unit’s packing list. It was boulder-heavy with nothing but books. In one sense, I had loaded the canon.

All my life, Don Quixote had been one of those dauntingly-massive books I knew I should read, but never had—along with Ulysses, Proust and the Bible in toto. Frankly, in 2005, I found the expanse of desert and the expanse of time were the perfect marriage of conditions in which to crack open Cervantes. I revved into high gear and plowed (happily, happily) through the endless field of words. I made it to the windmills; I never made it to Bloomsday.

This morning, I recall my time spent with Cervantes in Baghdad as I continue my journey through James Mustich’s landmark volume of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Today’s featured book is, of course, the 1605 and 1615 novel by Cervantes (it was published in two parts) and it deservedly receives a full three-page treatment in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. I highly recommend what Mr. Mustich has to say about Cervantes (as well as Shakespeare and Montaigne) in this essay: “Cervantes made fiction itself a tool of inquiry, letting stories intersect, interrupt, and reimagine each other in the lives of his characters—much as they do, really, in the course of our lives. He uncovered a new world for human endeavor as surely as the seagoing stalwarts of his time explored new continents.”

Reading James Mustich on reading Don Quixote immediately sent me down Sentimental Street (which intersects Memory Lane at Epiphany Square), and this ultimately led me back to the raw pages of my wartime journal. A couple of times, my reading of Don Quixote pivoted into some interesting real-life scenes, so I thought I would share those with you. This first entry begins with Don Quixote and ends with a full-scale enemy attack on our Forward Operating Base. Along the way, a pope dies....

Not Cervantes. Dickens, I think.
But this is a nice view of my reading room (which was also my living room, dining room & bedroom)
April 2, 2005: We are stretched thin over here. So, every now and then, even as a senior non-commissioned officer, I have to do some extracurricular work (known as “pulling a detail”), since I’m so strapped for soldiers. Today, I’m sitting in the Internet Cafe, monitoring the computer users—making sure people are able to get on to the sites they need to and that if there’s a great demand for seats that people move along after they’ve been online for their allotted 30 minutes. There are 18 stations in the place but only 14 of them work. Every two hours, all the computers lock up and I must tell everyone to save what they’re working on, then go push a blue switch on the surge protector and re-set the server. No, not tough duty at all. It’s actually a nice break to be able to sit in here and surf the internet and read my book. Today, I’m starting Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It’s a huge undertaking and this deployment might be the only time I’ll actually be able to find time to read it. The first part of DQ, though, is boring. I scrape the edge of the remaining 900 pages with my fingernail, trying to loosen the dirt underneath. I tilt back in my metal folding chair and prop the book on my knee. I want everyone in the room to see what I’m reading. Yeah, proud to be a bookworm.

I was talking to a guy here today who was going on and on about how we were stuck here for 18 months, but he didn’t see the sense of it. “The Iraqi Army’s got, what, 14 battalions and an entire brigade! That’s more than we’ve got.”

“True,” I said, “but I think it’s the quality not the quantity that everyone’s concerned about.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “Once we leave here, what’s going to happen? They’re gonna try our little democracy experiment for a while and when that doesn’t work, they’ll go back to the way they always did business for the last 30,000 years. Eventually, it’s going to dissolve into a civil war and some dictator guy will rise to power and they’ll be right back where they started from.”

In the afternoon, three Iraqis come in to work on the computers. Two of the men are bandaged—one guy has both arms in slings (he must do everything with his elbows or grunt at his co-workers to push buttons), the other one has a bandage wrapped around his head like a turban. There is a nasty-looking peninsula of blood on his forehead descending from beneath the wrap. He keeps dabbing at it with a handkerchief.

The Iraqis hang around for three hours, loading software, reconfiguring the “down” computers and generally doing lots of unplugging and re-plugging of power cords in an effort to get everything working. Fifteen minutes after they leave, everyone starts rapidly clicking on their mice and banging on their keyboards and groaning at the fact that everything’s locked up again. So, I fix it with another push of the blue button.

The Pope dies this evening. Around that same time, 60 insurgents assault Abu Ghraib prison from several different directions, simultaneously ramming suicide car bombs at the front and rear gates, and firing rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s at the U.S. soldiers and Marines guarding the place.

The Internet Café shudders twice from the car bombs and it’s not until later that we realize it wasn’t a controlled detonation by one of our EOD teams. This is the real deal—a raging battle taking place right outside our gates (Abu Ghraib borders Camp Liberty). This was the Holy Shit! moment of my deployment.

A short while later, a soldier bursts into the trailer and tells everyone that the new uniform is flak vest and Kevlar helmet from now until 7 a.m. due to the heightened security. Later, after I close up the Internet Café and return to my trailer, I venture out for a shower. I feel silly wearing my tennis shoes, PT shirt and shorts and a flak vest and Kevlar, but at the same time I’m grateful this isn’t something we have to wear every day, like I’d been dreading before I arrived.

The next morning, the Pope is still dead and at Abu Ghraib the enemy insurgents have limped home, thoroughly defeated by the U.S. forces. We don’t know how many we killed, but we only sustained about 20 wounded, and only two or three of those were serious injuries. Still, it gives me pause to think about how well-coordinated the attack was. We can’t underestimate the enemy.

This is what Reuter’s reported the next day: Al Qaeda’s wing in Iraq said on Sunday seven suicide bombers spearheaded its brazen overnight raid on Abu Ghraib prison that wounded 44 U.S. soldiers. In a statement on Saturday’s raid on the notorious facility outside Baghdad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group said its fighters killed “dozens of Americans,” destroyed more than 15 vehicles and shot down an Apache helicopter, It said 57 fighters attacked watchtowers from four sides and “silenced them” as seven suicide bombers detonated vehicles laden with explosives around the facility, “Three martyrs were ... (killed) while infiltrating the infidels’ fortresses, and seven other martyrdom seekers went to heaven after they blew up the enemy...” said the statement posted on a Web site used by Islamists.

This, of course, was all bullshit.

They have doused most of the lights around camp now—for security reasons, I suppose—so it’s blind-black walking around the gravel and between the trailers. The moon is nothing but a toenail clipping. Tonight, walking back to my room in my PTs and flak vest, I heard a couple of unseen soldiers talking to each other while sitting at a picnic table in the dark.

One said: “You don’t think they’d ever try to attack this place, do you?”

Silence from the other guy.

“Well, do you?”

After a long pause, his companion answered, “Hard to say.”

June 6, 2005: Last night, while sitting on the edge of my bed reading Don Quixote, I suddenly felt the urge to start clearing my throat. Then I noticed it was getting harder to breathe, as if the air was thickening. I got up, opened my door, and was met with a wall of brown—pure brown air. It was a dust blizzard. I couldn’t even see the other trailers fifteen feet away from mine. At some point while I was deep in Cervantes, the wind had kicked up, stirring all the talcum-powder dirt around here. Now it was filtering through the vents in my air conditioning and laying a fine, powdery grit over everything in my room, starting with my nose and throat. I turned off my air conditioner and tried to go to sleep. But I woke up two hours later, burning up with the stifling heat of the heavy night air. I turned on the air conditioner, figuring I’d take my chances with the dust storm. In the morning, my throat was raspy and there was mucus flaking in the hollows of my eyes.

I hope this doesn’t last. It’s putting a damper on everything here on the Forward Operating Base. Everyone is going around clearing their throats and rubbing their eyes. Like we’re all grief-stricken and trying to hide it.

June 16, 2005: Yesterday, I turned the final, 1000th page of Don Quixote. What a journey it was, what a wonderful odyssey. Truth be told, the book only came along with me on this deployment because it got swept into the duffel bag along with a load of other classics. At the time, it was pretty far down on my list of priorities. But six weeks ago, as it sat there on my shelf, thick as a tree stump, something moved me to pick it up and crack it open. I was hooked from the start (....okay, after I got over the initial speed bump of the preface and royal certifications and printer’s edicts—the boring stuff). I don’t have the energy or the time here in this scribbled journal to delve into everything I loved about this book (I will say this: the sidekick Sancho Panza turns out to be infinitely more interesting than DQ). Suffice to say, it’s a buoyant narrative that also parodies writing and publishing. It’s must-reading for anyone serious about pursuing this lovely and damned profession of writing (and reading).

So, after DQ, I’m left somewhat bereft. What next? Knowing that nothing could begin to approach the thousand-page journey, I decided to pick up something new and light: the 128-page Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara. Very disappointing. If Don Quixote was a feast of prime rib and lobster, then this little book was a bag of Skittles. If you’re in the mood for a poorly-written and ultimately meaningless novel about sex, booze and body piercing in contemporary Japan, then by all means grab this little Zirconium diamond. Otherwise, re-read Don Quixote.

Now, it’s time to turn my attention back to Charles Dickens. American Notes is next.

*     *     *

You can read more about my wartime reading habits HERE

Friday, April 26, 2019

Friday Freebie: If the Ice Had Held by Wendy J. Fox

Congratulations to Lisa Murray, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the quartet of new novels for young readers: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, A Possibility of Whales by Karen Rivers, The Becket List by Adele Griffin, and The End of the World and Beyond by Avi.

This week’s giveaway is for the new novel by Wendy J. Fox, If the Ice Had Held. Here’s what Jillian Medoff, author of This Could Hurt, had to say about the book: “If the Ice Had Held is a stunning novel. From its very first pages, I was captivated by the vivid intimacy of Wendy J. Fox’s prose and her generous sense of character. Indelible, insightful, and deeply moving, If the Ice Had Held illustrates the complex bonds of family--the terrible ways we hurt one another, the sacrifices we make to save one other.” Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...

Melanie Henderson's life is a lie. The scandal of her birth and the identity of her true parents is kept from her family's small, conservative Colorado town. Not even she knows the truth: that her birth mother was just 14 and unmarried to her father, a local boy who drowned when he tried to take a shortcut across an icy river. Thirty-five years later, in Denver, Melanie dabbles in affairs with married men while clinging to a corporate job that gives her life order even as her tenuous relationships fall apart. She still hasn't learned that the woman who raised her is actually her aunt—or that her birth mother visits her almost every day. This fiercely-guarded secret bonds the two most important women in her life, who hatched a plan to trade places and give Melanie a life unmarred by shame. Yet, as a forest fire rages through the Rocky Mountains and a car accident shakes the family, Melanie finds herself at the center of an unraveling tangle of tragedy and heartbreak. If the Ice Had Held speaks with a natural lyricism, and presents a cast of characters who quietly struggle through complicated lives.

If you’d like a chance at winning If the Ice Had Held, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on May 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 3. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your e-mail address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Front Porch Books: April 2019 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.

The Big Impossible
by Edward J. Delaney
(Turtle Point Press)

Jacket Copy:  The short fiction in The Big Impossible explores guilt and redemption, aspiration and failure, and the stubbornness of modest hopes. The usual mileposts are fading, and choice is in the context of institutions and assumptions that are no longer holding steady. In “Clean,” a man waits for inevitable justice to come, as much as it will play against him. In “House of Sully,” a working-class family navigates the tumultuous year that 1968 was, as new perceptions shake long-held and dependable, if sometimes misguided, beliefs. Other stories examine the inner life of a school shooter, the comical posturing of writers at a literary party, a British veteran of The Great War living at a Florida retirement home but haunted by his losses, and a man’s bittersweet visits to past lives via Google Street View. In the sequence set in the West, an itinerant worker moves across the Great Plains, navigating stark landscapes, trying for foothold.

Opening Lines:  You think of that night endlessly from your imprisonment, the decisions made, the chain of mistakes. It had begun with your two buddies, a quart of cheap vodka and a half-gallon of orange juice; one of these friends had suggested the confrontation. Said this kid, Barry, was cutting in on your girl—well, she wasn’t even really your girl yet, the flirtation was just in its formative moments—was something that you, at sixteen, had no intention of allowing.
       He’d been walking home, at night. He worked at a burger place in that little scrub-oak town out near the Cape Cod Canal and, even drunk, you’d known a spot to intercept him. Again, at the suggestion of your friends. There he was, his backpack slung on his shoulder, looking at you as if not even sure who you were. You’d decided you would rough him up, and he decided to fight back, and you’d picked up a rock, and you’d swung it at his head. A minute later he was on the ground, dead.

Fall Back Down When I Die
by Joe Wilkins
(Little, Brown)

Jacket Copy:  Wendell Newman, a young ranch hand in Montana, has recently lost his mother, leaving him an orphan. His bank account holds less than a hundred dollars, and he owes back taxes on what remains of the land his parents owned, as well as money for the surgeries that failed to save his mother’s life. An unexpected deliverance arrives in the form of seven-year-old Rowdy Burns, the mute and traumatized son of Wendell’s incarcerated cousin. When Rowdy is put under his care, what begins as an ordeal for Wendell turns into a powerful bond, as he comes to love the boy more than he ever thought possible. That bond will be stretched to the breaking point during the first legal wolf hunt in Montana in more than thirty years, when a murder ignites a desperate chase. Caught on the wrong side of a disaffected fringe group, Wendell is determined both to protect Rowdy and to avoid the same violent fate that claimed his own father. A gripping story set in a fractured and misunderstood community, Fall Back Down When I Die is a haunting and unforgettable tale of sacrificial love.

Opening Lines:  As the neighbor girl’s SUV disappeared down the road, Wendell watched the tire-kicked dust bloom and sift through shades of gold, ocher, and high in the evening sky a pearling blue. Harvest light, late-August light—thin, slanted, granular. At his back the mountains already bruised and dark.
       Wendell stepped back into the trailer and the screen door banged shut behind him. He considered the boy, sitting on the front-room floor, scribbling in a spiral notebook, pencil marks so dark and hard as to sheen to silver. Of a sudden the boy closed his notebook, jammed his pencil into the whorled spine. He looked right at Wendell, the dark of his eyes the biggest thing about him.
       —Bet you’re hungry, Wendell said. Let’s get us something to eat.

Blurbworthiness:  “The poetry of this beautiful novel isn’t only in the language―and it’s certainly in that―but also in Joe Wilkins’ keen understanding of the Bull Mountains in eastern Montana, of the people who have left their mark on the land there, or tried to erase it, and of the mysterious complexities of the human heart that drive us to one side of the law or the other.”  (Elizabeth Crook, author of The Which Way Tree)

Note: This one didn’t actually land on my front porch; I picked it up at The Well-Read Moose in Couer d’Alene, Idaho on my drive to Portland, Oregon for the annual AWP conference. But I’m sure glad I went with my impulse to buy this book.

Rabbits for Food
by Binnie Kirshenbaum
(Soho Press)

Jacket Copy:  Master of razor-edged literary humor Binnie Kirshenbaum returns with her first novel in a decade, a devastating, laugh-out-loud funny story of a writer’s slide into depression and institutionalization. It’s New Year’s Eve, the holiday of forced fellowship, mandatory fun, and paper hats. While dining out with her husband and their friends, Kirshenbaum’s protagonist—an acerbic, mordantly witty, and clinically depressed writer—fully unravels. Her breakdown lands her in the psych ward of a prestigious New York hospital, where she refuses all modes of recommended treatment. Instead, she passes the time chronicling the lives of her fellow “lunatics” and writing a novel about what brought her there. Her story is a hilarious and harrowing deep dive into the disordered mind of a woman who sees the world all too clearly. Propelled by stand-up comic timing and rife with pinpoint insights, Kirshenbaum examines what it means to be unloved and loved, to succeed and fail, to be at once impervious and raw. Rabbits for Food shows how art can lead us out of—or into—the depths of disconsolate loneliness and piercing grief. A bravura literary performance from one of our most witty and indispensable writers.

Opening Lines:  The dog is late, and I’m wearing pajamas made from the same material as Handi Wipes, which is reason enough for me to wish I were dead.

Blurbworthiness:  “The female narrator I’ve been waiting for. Wickedly funny as well as seriously depressed, she waits while in the psychiatric hospital for the therapy dog that never shows up. Trying to read her face is like trying to figure out what a napkin is thinking. Her mania flies like a bat at night. A birthday card from her best friend Stella reads: You Put the Fun in Dysfunctional. Binnie Kirshenbaum, the great novelist of female neurosis, has given us, in Rabbits for Food, the only story that really matters—a troubled soul deciding if life is worth living or not.”  (Darcey Steinke, author of Flash Count Diary)

Red Birds
by Mohammed Hanif

Jacket Copy:  An American pilot crash lands in the desert and finds himself on the outskirts of the very camp he was supposed to bomb. After days spent wandering and hallucinating from dehydration, Major Ellie is rescued by one of the camp’s residents, a teenager named Momo, whose entrepreneurial money-making schemes are failing as his family is falling apart: His older brother, Ali, left for his first day of work at an American base and never returned; his parents are at each other’s throats; his dog, Mutt, is having a very bad day; and an earthy-crunchy aid worker has shown up wanting to research him for her book on the Teenage Muslim Mind. Amidst the madness, Momo sets out to search for his brother Ali, hoping his new Western acquaintances might be able to help find him. But as the truth of Ali’s whereabouts begin to unfold, the effects of American “aid” on this war-torn country are revealed to be increasingly pernicious.

Opening Lines:  On the third day, I find the plane. I’d been looking for something to eat or drink, anything of nutritional value really. I know that I can’t survive for long on the measly rations in my survival kit. A ripped parachute and regulation sunglasses were all I had found on my bruised ass when I came to. Roving Angels would be on their way to rescue me, but sometimes Angels can take their time and in order for this rescue to be successful I need to stay alive.
       I unzip my survival kit again to inspect its contents, the things that will keep me alive.
       Four energy bars.
       Two vitamin smoothies.
       A roll of surgical cotton.
       A roll of surgical gauze.
       Needle and thread.
     They give you a 65-million-dollar machine to fly, with the smartest bomb that some beam rider in Salt Lake City took years to design, you burn fuel at the rate of fifteen gallons per second and if you get screwed they expect you to survive on four energy bars and an organic smoothie. And look, a mini pack of After Eight. Somebody’s really spent a lot of time trying to provide the comforts of a three-star hotel. Here, have another towel. Now go die.

Blurbworthiness:  “Hanif has a talent for taking the most serious subjects…and, in a style indebted to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, emphasizing their fundamental absurdity through satire. Hanif’s authorial gifts are undeniable and Red Birds is written with ambition and powerful satirical anger.”  (Literary Review)

Deep River
by Karl Marlantes
(Atlantic Monthly Press)

Jacket Copy:  Karl Marlantes’s debut novel Matterhorn has been hailed as a modern classic of war literature. In his new novel, Deep River, Marlantes turns to another mode of storytelling—the family epic—to craft a stunningly expansive narrative of human suffering, courage, and reinvention. In the early 1900s, as the oppression of Russia’s imperial rule takes its toll on Finland, the three Koski siblings—Ilmari, Matti, and the politicized young Aino—are forced to flee to the United States. Not far from the majestic Columbia River, the siblings settle among other Finns in a logging community in southern Washington, where the first harvesting of the colossal old-growth forests begets rapid development, and radical labor movements begin to catch fire. The brothers face the excitement and danger of pioneering this frontier wilderness—climbing and felling trees one-hundred meters high—while Aino, foremost of the books many strong, independent women, devotes herself to organizing the industry’s first unions. As the Koski siblings strive to rebuild lives and families in an America in flux, they also try to hold fast to the traditions of a home they left behind. Layered with fascinating historical detail, this is a novel that breathes deeply of the sun-dappled forest and bears witness to the stump-ridden fields the loggers, and the first waves of modernity, leave behind. At its heart, Deep River is an ambitious and timely exploration of the place of the individual, and of the immigrant, in an America still in the process of defining its own identity.

Opening Lines:  A thread of light on the eastern horizon announced the dawning of full daylight and with it the end of a night the Koski family would never talk about and never forget.

Blurbworthiness:  “Karl Marlantes’ follow-up to Matterhorn does not disappoint. Deep River follows the lives of a family of Finnish immigrants who come to America in the late 1800s and tells the stories of the their friends and family from the beginning of the great American labor movements through the World Wars. Don’t be deterred by its door-stopping 800 pages. Deep River is a page-turner. It’s stunning, timely and all-consuming. The prose is exquisite. The characters are fierce and robust. And more than anything else, the novel is a history lesson and a warning, as its portrait of 1900s America is so startlingly similar to the present state of the country. Deep River is a revelation.” (Michelle Malonzo, Changing Hands Bookstore)

Bernard Pepperlin
by Cara Hoffman

Jacket Copy:  The drowsy Dormouse from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is transported to modern-day New York City for the adventure of a lifetime in this middle-grade novel that’s perfect for fans of Stuart Little and written by critically-acclaimed author Cara Hoffman. When a girl in a blue dress crashes the Mad Hatter’s eternal tea party, the sleepy Dormouse feels more awake than he has in a long time. He wishes he could follow her and be a part of her adventure. And as luck would have it, a surprising twist of fate sends the Dormouse on an adventure of his own, where he must not fall asleep. For he is destined to save a magical world outside Wonderland, and it will take all his courage—and a few new friends—to do it.

Opening Lines:  The Dormouse had been trying hard to stay awake. First he ate a sugar cube. Then he pinched himself. Then he tried climbing on top of the rickety table instead of sitting in his chair. The table was set for a tea party and the cups and plates clattered as he moved past them. Crusts of toast were scattered over the white cloth and in the center stood a blue china teapot decorated with a picture of three bridges and a winding river that let out into the sea.
       He stood on a package of biscuits to look around but couldn’t see her anymore. The curious girl with the long blond hair must have left the party when he’d nodded off.

Blurbworthiness:  “Bernard and his newfound friends—revolutionary rats, wise-cracking cats, and coffee-chugging squirrels, to name a few—will delight and inspire readers of all ages. New York City will never be the same again!”  (Erin Entrada Kelly, Newbery Medal-winning author of Hello Universe)

Note:  If you are on Instagram, you can follow Bernard and his adventures in the city here.

Chances Are...
by Richard Russo

Jacket Copy:  One beautiful September day, three sixty-six-year old men convene on Martha’s Vineyard, friends ever since meeting in college circa the sixties. They couldn’t have been more different then, or even today: Lincoln’s a commercial real estate broker, Teddy a tiny-press publisher, and Mickey a musician beyond his rockin’ age. But each man holds his own secrets, in addition to the monumental mystery that none of them has ever stopped puzzling over since a Memorial Day weekend right here on the Vineyard in 1971. Now, more than forty years later, as this new weekend unfolds, three lives and that of a significant other are displayed in their entirety while the distant past confounds the present like a relentless squall of surprise and discovery. Shot through with Richard Russo’s trademark comedy and humanity, Chances Are... also introduces a new level of suspense and menace that will quicken the reader’s heartbeat throughout this absorbing saga of how friendship’s bonds are every bit as constricting and rewarding as those of family or any other community.

Opening Lines:  The three old friends arrived on the island in reverse order, from farthest to nearest: Lincoln, a commercial real estate broker, practically cross-country from Las Vegas; Teddy, a small-press publisher, from Syracuse; Mickey, a musician and sound engineer, from nearby Cape Cod. All were sixty-six years old and had attended the same small liberal arts college in Connecticut where they’d slung hash at a campus sorority. The other hashers, invariably frat boys, claimed to be there by choice, because so many of the Thetas were hot, whereas Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were scholarship students doing the job out of varying degrees of economic necessity.

Blurbworthiness:  “No one understands men better than Russo, and no one is more eloquent in explaining how they think, suffer, and love.” (Kirkus)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Take Nothing For Granted: Kate Barnes on “The Knife’s Edge”

              When I woke up this morning
          I found I was writing a poem in my dream
          and the only line I could hold on to
          was: take nothing for granted.

          So I will write down that one line
          and go looking for the rest;
          I will take nothing for granted.
from “The Knife’s Edge” by Kate Barnes

For the past week, since the midpoint of our current National Poetry Month, I have been discovering, with joy, the stanzas of the late Kate Barnes, who served as Maine’s first official Poet Laureate from 1996 to 2000. I started reading Where the Deer Were, from which “The Knife’s Edge” is taken, and will go to Kneeling Orion later this year. I come to Barnes because of my newfound fondness for Maine (after visiting there too briefly a couple of years ago), but I stay for the crystal-clear imagery and plain-spoken language of her poetry.

This morning, “The Knife’s Edge” sings to me, calls to me. I, too, have had poems (and stories, and entire chapters of books) vanish from my head before I could commit their words to paper. I try to hold them in place, preserve their syllables and consonants, promise myself I’ll get to them later, only to find that Distraction and Interruption have burned them away like morning mist meeting the sunrise. Thought turns to vapor, vapor evaporates into nothing.

Only an hour after waking, I already feel the tug-and-shove of the encroaching day. The distracted busy-ness of phone calls, emails, and report-filing will greet me with open arms at work in an hour, but they can wait. For now, they can wait. I hold up my hands, on either side of my body, palms out like a traffic cop halting the flow of cars, like a modern Moses parting the sea of paperwork. For now, I am trying to be still in this moment, this short, warm moment where I can live inside a poem and listen to its refrain: take nothing for granted, take nothing for granted.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Trailer Tuesday: The Light Years by Chris Rush

I was eating acid three or four times a week, watching my own visions, watching those visions blur into the visions of my companions. I saw him speaking but I had no idea what he was saying because I was watching flowers grow out of his head. We were tripping, again. At thirteen, I took acid as often as possible. Taking acid was like entering a painting or a storybook, a glowing dream world, lush and lovely.

That’s from The Light Years by Chris Rush. It is not a novel, it is a memoir. Does knowing this make that one word, thirteen, all that much more shocking? Does it make you squirm in your seat and sit up a little straighter? I hope so.

Chris Rush was busy doing hard drugs at an age when I was still watching Gilligan’s Island on a regular basis and shaking out the contents of a new box of cereal into a large mixing bowl so I could find the small plastic toy inside before my brother did. I couldn’t even spell the word drugs at that age (okay, maybe I could spell it, but I certainly did not know what they tasted like). Granted, I led a sheltered life as the son of our small town’s Baptist minister, but even so, dealing drugs to my junior-high classmates was as alien as little green men from Mars (of which, I’m guessing, Rush saw his fair share during his weekly trips).

Rush is now an acclaimed artist and the drugs are just one aspect of his life, albeit an important one. Here’s more about The Light Years from the publisher:
Chris Rush was born into a prosperous, fiercely Roman Catholic, New Jersey family. But underneath the gleaming mid-century house, the flawless hostess mom, and the thriving businessman dad ran an unspoken tension that, amid the upheaval of the late 1960s, was destined to fracture their precarious facade. His older sister Donna introduces him to the charismatic Valentine, who places a tab of acid on twelve-year-old Rush’s tongue, proclaiming: “This is sacrament. You are one of us now.” After an unceremonious ejection from an experimental art school, Rush heads to Tucson to make a major drug purchase and, still barely a teenager, disappears into the nascent American counterculture. Stitching together a ragged assemblage of lowlifes, prophets, and fellow wanderers, he seeks kinship in the communes of the west. His adolescence is spent looking for knowledge, for the divine, for home. Given what Rush confronts on his travels—from ordinary heartbreak to unimaginable violence—it is a miracle he is still alive.
As this profile in Vice makes clear, Rush is indeed a survivor:
The book makes him seem otherworldly, but in it and in person, what’s more striking is that he seems to have no fear. He holds complete faith in his ability to survive, his protection by spiritual and otherworldly entities he seems to know personally; he actually seems like he may be one of the aliens whose existence he began pondering as a child. But instead of remaining an outsider, he has come out the other side hyper sane, even enlightened....Rush started selling psychedelics as an underclassman after being fronted a thousand capsules of “the pink LSD” by [drug dealer] Valentine, which he also takes almost daily and fearlessly, thinking of them as a sort of “brain vitamin.”
The trailer for The Light Years is beautiful and haunting and will make you think for the space of one minute, that you’ve just dry-swallowed a handful of brain vitamins. I love the striking, hallucinatory images which pivot off the book’s cover design; they tug and pull you right into your screen and fill you with a sense of otherworldly calmright down to the final words spoken in the trailer: Acid always told me everything would be okay.

Trailer Tuesday is a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

Monday, April 22, 2019

My First Time: Justin Olson

To All the Books I Wrote Before
by Justin Olson

This past Tuesday, April 16, was the end of a decade-long journey—one that began as a small glimmer of an idea. It was the day Earth to Charlie was officially released: my first novel is now out in the world. It’s been a long (looooong) ride. While it’s been nothing short of incredible to see my book make its way from an airy thought in my head to a physical object I can hold in my hands at bookstores across the country, the novel didn’t spring out of nowhere. It never existed in a vacuum. By that I mean, Earth to Charlie is the fifth novel I’ve written. I often think about all those past unpublished books and how they helped me get to this day. I figure it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due.

The following is a love letter to all the books I wrote before.

Twin brothers start a garage band and go on to win an audition to join a small regional traveling carnival. While on the road, each brother comes face to face with his own demons.

This novel began when I was young and inexperienced. Unfortunately, it was doomed from the start. For instance, I wasn’t ever entirely sure where this book took place. The South? I tried but didn’t have the experience to make it authentic. The Midwest? Sure. But, why? I learned that a fully fleshed out setting is a requisite when starting a novel. Actually, even more than that, I now allow my settings to inform my characters and story. They are, in my mind, inextricably linked.

I also learned that I get attached to character names as they become almost life-like to me. One of the brothers, for instance, originally had the name of Chaffin. People hated it. So I finally changed his name. But no matter how much I reworked the book with the new name, I felt like I had lost an essential part of the character. He was never the same.

I rewrote this novel so many times because I failed to have a strong idea of what it really was about when I started. I didn’t have an outline, so the writing became a way to figure out the story–but at the time, I didn’t have a great grasp of story structure.

Needless to say, Novel 1 is the book I learned the most from, and it is found in the notes between every novel that has come since. But it will forever stay tucked away in the proverbial drawer.

A high school germaphobe (who can’t even hold hands!) has to overcome his fears so he can date the girl of his dreams.

Overconfidence will kill every endeavor (eventually). I took the lessons learned from Novel 1 and thought I was set with Novel 2. But I was still in my early twenties, and my general outlook on life was through a Hollywood-movie-ending lens. Which is to say: pure fantasy. Before I started Novel 2, I had dreams of selling it for a lot of money and turning it into a movie (I actually wrote it as a screenplay first). I thought this book would make me financially secure and fulfill my dream of being a full-time writer.

I struggled with the plot of Novel 2. After I finished my Young Adult novel, I sent it out to agents. One agent suggested the voice was better suited for middle grade. So I begrudgingly revised it again, this time making it a middle-grade novel. Novel 2 turned into Novel 2.0. But then that agent passed on the manuscript anyway. Along with all the agents on both the Young Adult and middle-grade versions that I sent out.

I was left with a book that no longer felt like mine.

I learned that writing a book in the hopes of selling it for money is not the right way to go about doing things in this business. The right pursuit is to respect your characters and tell their story and tell it well. I also learned that I really love these characters because I have never–in a decade–given up on them.

The fear of germs might’ve ruined Denny Denton, but his story isn’t dead. In fact, a publishing company is interested in having me write Novel 3.0 of Denny. And I’m ready to finally do the characters and story justice.

Lonely and feeling like the life he’s living isn’t his own, college sophomore Roosevelt Arnold stops doing all the things he no longer wants to do. He follows his bliss, which brings him to the cold winter woods. But the forest has other plans for a teen who isn’t prepared.

What can I say about a novel that I wrote while trying to cope with my own depression in grad school? Novel 3 comes from the darker parts of my soul. In other words, it’s dreary and raw, much like the Montana winter weather outside my window as I wrote this book. But people don’t seem to respond to a character who dies from his own bad decisions due to depression.

Fiction is a mirror, yes, but sometimes it can be far too clear.

I learned that I love writing contemporary realistic fiction, but that hope should exist. I also learned that I should (though I often still fight the idea) have an audience figured out for my novels before I start writing them. Is Novel 3 a Young Adult? An Adult? That weird New Adult hybrid? I don’t really know. I like to think it’s for college students, but that hasn’t really appealed to any editors (as if they seem to think college students don’t read).

While The Probable Demise of Roosevelt Arnold is dormant for the time being, I have high expectations for a character who comes from my soul.

The fundamentalist Christians are announcing yet another end of the world date. According to Rex, a high school senior reeling from the death of his girlfriend, these fundamentalists must want the world to end. So after taking control of a cult church, he helps usher the end of the world through subversive means.

With this novel, I knew it was going to be solidly Young Adult. So, audience? Check. Setting? Check. I knew the location: my hometown. It was going to be something weird and unique to me.

I think it was too unique. (I mean, my characters raise a bunch of locusts!)

It took me three years to write this novel because I couldn’t figure out the ending. So the person I was when I started writing it was not the person who was writing the middle and he certainly wasn’t the person writing the end.

I learned I work best writing my first drafts as quickly as possible, even if they’re messy. When you write in a continuous rush, there’s a thread that feels organic to the entire novel as opposed to a patchwork quilt. I learned I should know my endings before starting (or at least have a real good sense of closure).

Convinced his mother has been abducted by aliens, Charlie Dickens spends his nights with an eye out for UFOs, hoping to join her. Charlie doesn’t have many reasons to stick around: he doesn’t get along well with his father, he’s constantly bullied at school and at work, and the only friend he has is his 600-pound neighbor and his three-legged dog. Then Charlie meets popular, easy-going Seth, who shows him what real friendship is all about. For once, he finds himself looking around at the life he’s built, rather than looking up. But Charlie has to make a decision: should he stay or should he go?

This is the one. The One. This is the novel I eventually sold. Funny, because when I started this novel I didn’t know the ending, I was in a fit of depression, and I wanted something weird and quirky. I was making all the same mistakes again.

But one thing I did with Charlie that I didn’t do with the other books was something called ‘dreamstorming’–a technique I learned from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler. It’s basically dreaming up short emotional or visual snippets of scenes that I wrote on notecards. After multiple weeks, I had a stack of notecards. I then arranged them into a sort of novel-like structure (tossing the notecards I didn’t think fit). While I loosely stuck to this outline, the main benefits of the notecards were in giving me an emotional core to various scenes and allowing me to draft the manuscript fairly quickly. I’m not saying this is why Charlie succeeded, but perhaps this notecard approach gave me the tools to think big while also writing small. In other words, seeing the novel’s whole picture while simultaneously delving into the details and heart of individual chapters.

I actually believe Charlie succeeded where the others failed because I never gave up on getting it published. (Though I did for a period of time–which is a story for another time.)

Here’s the thing: every novel I write feels like it’s the first time. I can’t seem to learn a lesson in writing to save my soul. I break all the rules–if I even know the rules in the first place. All of this, admittedly, has made my writing journey harder than it had to be.

But one thing is certain: I have learned a lot with every novel I have written. While my descriptions above were necessarily simplified, along the way I have asked myself What do I like to read? What do I like to write? I have learned more about character arcs, and the fine line between action and reflection. I have learned my own writing foibles to avoid. I have picked up tools, tried new tricks, and practiced new ways to tell complex and engaging stories.

I have learned.

So to THE NOTES BETWEEN, HOW THE FEAR OF GERMS RUINED DENNY DENTON, THE PROBABLE DEMISE OF ROOSEVELT ARNOLD, and THE REBEL & THE KING, I thank you for allowing me to tell your stories, and for helping me become the writer I am today.

None of you are dead, because you will live on in my heart, and in a way, through Charlie’s story. Besides, you never know, one day I might pull you from the drawer, blow off the dust, and breathe new life into you. Nothing is over until we say it’d over, because there’s no writer who doesn’t live on at least a little hope.

Earth to Charlie, Justin Olson’s debut novel, is now out from Simon & Schuster. A native of Butte, Montana, Justin taught high school English and theater in Helena, Montana before moving to Los Angeles. He continues to write novels and is an independent film and TV producer. He has a masters degree from the University of Montana and one from UCLA. You can find Justin on Twitter and Instagram. His website is

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday in Iraq: 2005

Every now and thenbut not too oftenI will look back at the journal I kept while I was deployed as an active-duty soldier with the 3rd Infantry Division to Baghdad for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, I turn the page to Easter Sunday. On my browser screen are also news reports of the bombings in Sri Lanka, reminding us that violence and conflict never rest, even on the holiest of days...

March 27, 2005:  Easter Sunday. The day dawned pink, clear, and hot. No rolled away stones, no miraculous resurrections. The morning was mercifully quiet and free from the thud of mortar detonations. The only excitement came around noon when there was a grass fire over near the Baghdad International Airport and thick, black smoke rose in a violent churning plume. For a moment, it looked like it was headed our way.

As always, though, there was the threat of man-made, man-propelled violence and it was enough to keep us on our toes, our eyes darting back and forth, scanning our own sectors of fire. The day began with a sunrise worship service on the shores of the 30-acre artificial lake which Saddam had built so he’d have a place to relax while hunting on the palace grounds (our headquarters area used to be a game preserve). About 250 of us gathered around the chaplain to listen to the sermons and sing the hymns. I was there to take photos for a press release (which my boss later decided NOT to release because of “cultural sensitivities”). In between snapping the shutter, I joined in singing the chorus of “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today,” my memory juices stirring from all those Easter Sundays in my Dad’s church back in Wyoming.

Originally, we’d planned to film the service and broadcast it live back to the Department of Defense’s video hub in Atlanta so the local TV stations could air it (at 10:30 p.m. Saturday their time). Fortunately, my boss—in a good moment—nixed that idea. “You know,” he said yesterday, “the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a bad idea. It would be just my luck that ol’ Haji would get lucky that day and drop a mortar smack dab in the middle of the church service and blow up the chaplain on live television.”

Lunch at the dining facility was also something of a religious experience today. The whole place was decorated with cardboard chicks and three-foot eggs like you buy at Wal-mart. On the tables, the centerpieces were these odd, tacky foil trees—shimmering purple, green and yellow. It’s like the Iraqis wanted to make it nice and homey for us, but they just didn’t know how. A couple of specialists who work at the dining facility greeted us at the door, thrusting chocolate bunnies into our hands and chirping in saccharine voices, “Happy Easter! Happy Easter!” The lines were long during lunch, but the wait was worth it. Fresh-carved turkey and ham, yams (as always, lay off the allspice, Mr. Contractor Chef!), corn on the cob, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, fresh-baked jalapeno-cheese rolls with a special herb-butter spread, sparkling grape cider, and desserts out the wazoo. I took a slice of coconut cream pie, but by the time I reached that course I was already at the bursting point. I took one, polite bite and pushed it aside. Easter dinner: done.

The afternoon at work was rather melancholy and I wasn’t sure why until Sergeant First Class Flores turned around in her chair and said, “You know, I think this is the first Easter I’ve ever had to work in my life.” She’s right—I thought back over my past 41 Easters and I can’t remember a time when I had to toil away on the Lord’s (Risen) Day. It wasn’t just the hard-work part that had me down, though; I was blue because I was really missing Jean and the kids. I missed the excitement of the traditional Easter morning basket hunt. Though it was always over in five minutes, it’s one of the traditions I enjoyed.

I swiveled back to my computer screen and scrolled through the latest reports from the brigades. I sighed. The kids, in their late teens but not too cool for old-school Easter tradition, would be hunting through the living room of our house in Georgia right about now, in each search of their basket with its nests of candy. But me, I have to spend my Easter Sunday here in Iraq trying not to be a basket case.

Sunday Sentence: November 22, 1963 by Adam Braver

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Jackie only looked up once, but when she did, she found herself on the back of the limo, and she doesn’t know what she was thinking, only that she might have believed herself dead. That her soul was climbing out of her body.

November 22, 1963 by Adam Braver

Friday, April 19, 2019

Friday Freebie: Four for Young Readers

Congratulations to Beverly Sizemore, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold.

This week’s giveaway is a quartet of new novels for young readers (and those readers who are still young at heart): The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, A Possibility of Whales by Karen Rivers, The Becket List by Adele Griffin, and The End of the World and Beyond by Avi. The first two are paperbacks, the others are hardcovers. One lucky reader will win all four books from our friends at Algonquin Books. Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest...

In the Newbery-Medal-winning The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an annual offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge—with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth’s surface. And the woman with the Tiger’s heart is on the prowl...

A Possibility of Whales is the story of a girl who learns the true meaning of family—thanks to her best friends near and far, a loving and quirky single dad, and an unexpected encounter with a whale. Twelve-year-old Natalia Rose Baleine Gallagher loves possibilities: the possibility that she’ll see whales on the beach near her new home, that the boy she just met will be her new best friend, that the photographers chasing her actor father won’t force Nat and her dad to move again. Most of all, Nat dreams of the possibility that her faraway mother misses and loves Nat—and is waiting for Nat to find her. The thing is, Nat doesn’t even know who her mother is. She left Nat as a baby, and Nat’s dad refuses to talk about it. Nat knows she shouldn’t need a mom, but she still feels like something is missing. In this heartfelt story about family, friendship, and growing up, Nat’s questions lead her on a journey of self-discovery that will change her life forever.

In The Becket List, everything is changing for Becket Branch. From subways to sidewalks to safety rules, she is a city kid born and raised. Now the Branch family is trading urban bustle for big green fields and moving to help their gran on Blackberry Farm, where Becket has to make sense of new routines, from feeding animals to baling hay. But Becket is ready! She even makes her own “Becket List” for How to Be a Country Kid. Things don’t always work out the way she planned, but whether it’s selling mouth-puckering lemonade, feeding hostile hens, or trying to make a new best friend, Becket is determined to use her city smarts to get a grip on country living. Get ready to yell “Beautiful Alert!” along with Becket as she mucks through the messy, exuberant experience of change she didn’t ask for, in a story that sparkles with quirky characters, cheerful humor, and unexpected adventures.

In The End of the World and Beyond, Oliver Cromwell Pitts is convicted of thievery and transported from England to America. He is shackled to his fellow prisoners, endures inedible food, filthy conditions, and deadly storms on his voyage across the Atlantic. But the hazardous shipboard journey is nothing compared to the peril that waits for him on the colonial shores. In Annapolis, Oliver’s indentured servitude is purchased by the foul, miserly Fitzhugh, who may have murdered another servant. On Fitzhugh’s isolated tobacco farm, Oliver’s only companion is an enslaved boy named Bara. Oliver and Bara become fast friends with one powerful goal: to escape Fitzhugh. Oliver hopes he can find his sister, Charity, brought somewhere in the colonies on a different ship. Bara dreams of reaching a community of free black people in the cypress swamp who may help him gain his liberty. But first the boys must flee Fitzhugh’s plantation and outrun their brutal pursuer and the dangers that lurk in the swamp.

If you’d like a chance at winning all four books, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on April 25, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 26. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your e-mail address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Grub Street Manuscript Editor

Have red pen, will edit.

I now offer manuscript consulting services through Grub Street and am eager to start working with new clients. If you need someone both tough and fair to look over your pages with an editorial eye, I’m here to help! As Grub Street notes on its website: “Whether you want to polish your work before an agent sees it, get one-on-one feedback on your first draft, or seek advice on furthering your writing career, our consultants are here to help.”

I specialize in short fiction, novels, memoirs, and personal essays, but really the sky’s the limit when it comes to the types of manuscripts I will work on. If you wrote it, I’ll edit it.

Here’s more from my profile on the Consultants page at Grub Street:

As a reader, I am drawn to vivid imagery, tight sentences, snappy dialogue, and quirky characters who stand out from the scenery. As your writing coach and editor, I give you the tools to help you pare down your sentences to just the right length and rhythm. I show you how to take a step back from the pages, look at the overall narrative and how each of its pieces fit into the bigger picture.

What I bring to the table: I'm the author of two published novels (Fobbit and Brave Deeds) and dozens of stories and essays in leading magazines, including Glimmer Train Stories, Esquire, Electric Literature, and many others. I have more than 30 years of professional editing at newspapers and magazines and nearly 10 years of blogging about the writing life at The Quivering Pen.

What you'll get from me: detailed editing (using Track Changes in Word) with comments in the margins, and availability for a video chat after you’ve had a chance to read through my notes and edits.

If you’re ready to get to work on your book, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and uncap the red pen. Go to the Consultants page at Grub Street and click on my name (David Abrams) for more information about what I offer and my hourly rate. If it all sounds good to you, drop me an email at with the subject line Grub Street Consultation, include a brief synopsis of your work (2-3 sentences for short stories, 1 paragraph for a full-length book), the number of pages, and if you are on any sort of deadline. I look forward to reading your work!

Monday, April 8, 2019

My First Time: David Hallock Sanders

The First Time I Lost My Novel

I’m a responsible person. Truly I am. I budget. I floss. I honor my promises and help my neighbors. I avoid risks when the downsides outweigh the ups. Sky diving, for example. Drag racing. Eating pufferfish. Not for me.

So it surprises me that, for years, I neglected to back up my computer. A computer that held the only complete draft of my novel.

Yet neglect I did, and my irresponsibility led to a horrible, if predictable, result: I lost my novel to a hard-drive crash.

That novel, Busara Road, is about a young American boy living at a Quaker mission in Kenya just after independence. It holds special significance for two very personal reasons. One, it was inspired by my own childhood living in Kenya. And two, I’d been working on it for more than a decade.

So the day I lost the novel, I nearly lost my mind.

There was nothing unusual about that particular day. It was October of 2011, and I was simply working at my computer when the hard drive made an odd sound. The screen flashed some odd symbols, then went blank. That was it. My computer was dead. Nothing was accessible. The novel was gone.

I tried everything I could to bring the computer back to life. Nothing. As realization set in I went into a kind of shock. I staggered downstairs to the kitchen where my wife was cooking. She immediately realized something was wrong–perhaps because I dropped to the floor and curled into a ball, weeping and repeating, “I fucked up! I fucked up! I fucked up!”

My wife had never seen me so out of control. She took immediate action. She grabbed a bottle of whiskey and poured me shot after shot until I stopped hyperventilating.

Looking back, I have to admit that my computer gave me fair warning. It had begun to refuse some simple commands and it had started whirring now and then with painful, laboring breaths. But I ignored all of the signs.

That’s why I accept that losing my novel was my own fault.

But what I didn’t realize then was that losing my novel was also, oddly, a gift.

Pico Ayer has famously written about losing his home and everything in it–including 15 years of notes and manuscripts–to a devastating fire. He ultimately described the experience as liberating, one that left him with a strange sense of freedom.

Although I strive for Mr. Ayer’s Zen presence of mind, I have not attained it. Still, I understand some of what he means.

I belong to a writer’s group that is supportive, challenging, and closely attuned to its members as both writers and people. When I shared the news that my novel, which they’d worked on with me for years, was gone, they reacted as though a close family member had died. In a way, that wasn’t far off.

I took the computer to a repair shop, and learned that the term “hard-drive crash” is a literal description. My hard drive had two motors, one that spun a platter at 7,200 revolutions per minute, and one that moved the read/write head about five nanometers, or less than 0.0000002 of an inch, above the spinning platter.

When the head happened to touch the platter, it was like a jet crashing into a runway and ripping up the surface. Whatever data was coded on the platter was gone.

My drive was so damaged that the technician was unable to salvage anything. He told me that, in its current state, the computer was less useful than a doorstop. My options were limited. He could send it to a sterile lab where they would examine the drive byte-by-byte to see if they could pull any particles of data from it. That would cost me a few thousand dollars and might not produce anything useful. Alternately, I could install a new drive into the old shell, which would cost me a few hundred dollars but would do nothing to recover the lost data. Or I could just give up and leave him the dead computer. In that case, he’d recondition it with a used drive he had on hand and donate it to a Philadelphia public school.

Easy decision. I left him the dead computer and went out to buy a new one. Learning from my mistakes, I also bought a stand-alone backup drive and established a regular backup schedule. In addition, I signed up for a perpetual cloud-based backup service.

And the novel?

I began a painful, lengthy process of reconstructive surgery. I asked my writer’s group to send any old chapters they may have saved. I dug through cardboard boxes for old printouts. I thumbed through file cabinets for old notes, and searched through old thumb drives for anything I’d saved during retreats and residencies. I reassembled all of this material the best I could, and took a cold-eyed look at what I had.

The whole thing was a mess. The novel’s narrative voice was all over the place. Scenes meandered with little focus. Characters behaved in inconsistent, unconvincing ways. Story arcs conflicted. Tenses battled–present in some drafts, past in others.

And these weren’t just the fault of the disjointed drafts. I now realized that the completed novel, the one that I’d loved and lost, had suffered from many of the same shortcomings.

That realization was my version of Mr. Ayer’s liberation.

So I started over, once again from the beginning. This time I plotted the book out in detail, chapter by chapter. This time I wrote out character bios and thematic threads in advance. This time I dispensed with the wandering prose that had diluted early drafts and focused on simply telling the story.

It took me two years to complete a new draft. The new version was much better than the old, but it still went through more drafts as I exposed it to more eyes. I sent the manuscript out in round after round to potential agents and publishers, then waited for months on each round just to get rejections that boiled down to variations on, as one agent wrote, “I love it, but not enough.”

Months turned into years. And more years. During one of those years I was diagnosed with nodular lymphocyte predominant Hodgins lymphoma, and during six months of chemotherapy, when I was often unable to sit upright for more than an hour at a time, I struggled through another rewrite and round of submissions. And still the rejections piled up.

But then, one day, the book finally got accepted.

With an April release from New Door Books, Busara Road now has a home.

This has been a long and trying journey. Losing my novel showed me how quickly and dramatically things can go wrong. Since then I’ve observed myself taking extra care to protect against other disasters. Religiously changing my smoke-alarm batteries, for example. Regularly reviewing my credit reports. Even buying a fire-escape ladder for my bedroom, which is only on the second floor.

In fact, I bought one of those little glass-cutting, window-smashing tools for my car. You know, just in case I happen to drive off the Ben Franklin Bridge, sink to the bottom of the Delaware River, and need to break a window to escape.

As I said, I’m a responsible person. Perhaps even a little paranoid. But with my novel finally published, a happy one as well.

David Hallock Sanders is the author of the novel Busara Road, which was shortlisted as a finalist for the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Prize for a novel-in-progress. He has published a range of short fiction and nonfiction, some of which has won awards. He lives in Philadelphia. Click here to visit his website.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Painting: At Eternity’s Gate, Vincent van Gogh (1890)