Thursday, January 19, 2017

Things That Get Bumped in the Night

Years ago Jimmy Kimmel began a running gag on his talk show about Matt Damon. It started when Kimmel was wrapping up what he felt had been a very lame show (“I think my guests were a ventriloquist and a guy in a monkey suit”) and at the last minute, in an inspired fit of show business gallows humor, he threw out the line, “My apologies to Matt Damon; we ran out of time.” Thereafter he frequently repeated the line, much to occasional viewer Damon’s confusion—so much so that the actor eventually cornered Kimmel to get the explanation.

I think TV chat shows nowadays are generally too carefully scripted and produced for this to happen much any more, but I remember many occasions of getting all the way to the end of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and hearing him apologize to some hapless unseen comedian or singer about running out of time. I imagine it was the dread of any rising newcomer who finally got his or her big shot at the coveted late night television audience.

That very thing happened last Friday night to my wife’s cousin once removed. An accomplished musician and performer, she was scheduled to play her harp on RTÉ’s Late Late Show in order to promote Dublin’s upcoming TradFest festival. She was even featured in televised teasers earlier in the evening. All of us friends and family were huddled around the telly in anticipation—except for certain ones, including her parents and her nearly-90-year-old grandmother, who were actually in the front rows of the studio audience. We waited and waited for her appearance. We waited through a moving tribute to Ireland’s seaborne rescue services, a chat with a couple of veteran actors and an interminable on-stage performance of a botox procedure. Then, after literally hours, host Ryan Tubridy said the dreaded words. He apologized to Lisa and said they would have her back on a future telecast. Sigh.

Strangely, I myself could emphathize quite sincerely with her. As it happens, I was bounced from a potential spot on the airwaves just a few days before Christmas. The saga began a few weeks earlier when the wife alerted me to the fact that Joe Duffy was soliciting self-published books. If you do not listen to Irish radio and do not know who Joe Duffy is, well, it is kind of hard to explain. Basically, he is a sympathetic ear in the afternoon. While any current event, whether international or local, can be up for call-in discussion, most of his shows seem to involve listeners ringing in with stories about personal problems, travails and frustrations. Whether it is a problem with an incalcitrant bank or government red tape, Joe—a plainspoken presenter with a classic Dublin accent—can reliably be heard to utter audible sounds of sympathy and concern. Usually on Fridays the show is a forum for a panel of codgers to bring out their corny jokes.

On the day of the winter solstice, however, the topic was to be self-published books. The idea was to chat with some of the authors, and the collected books would be donated. I dropped my two in an envelope, sent them off to RTÉ and then forgot all about it—all the way up until a couple of hours before the program was to air. The phone rang, and it was Richie, a nice researcher from Joe’s show, wanting to do a pre-interview with me. He had lots of questions, mainly about Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, and I was happy to answer all of them. It was gratifying that Richie had spent enough time with the books to be familiar with them. He took my mobile phone number and asked if I would be available if they rang me during the show. Of course, I was. When the show began at 1:45 we listened intently, keeping an ear out all the time for a phone call, knowing the radio would have to be shut off before answering it. We continued listening until the program ended at three o’clock. It turned out that they had more—way more—authors lined up than they had time for, which of course is the prudent thing to do.

The vast majority of authors interviewed had written memoirs. A lot of Richie’s questions had been about how much of Max & Carly had been based on my own experiences. I suppose it was natural for an inveterate people person like Joe Duffy to be most comfortable talking to authors about their own lives rather than their creative process. Also, in contrast to the books that got featured, neither of my books has very much to do with Ireland. One had a single secondary Irish character, and the other had characters with Irish names but were not Irish. In any event, it provided a few hours of excitement in the house to break the usual daytime routine.

As it happens, that was not the first time I had been approached about going on the air only to be cut when it came down to the wire. A few years ago a producer for an RTÉ afternoon TV show got in contact with me. It was a few days before the annual Academy Awards telecast. He had spotted my movie blog and wondered if I would be interested in participating in a panel discussion the day after the Oscars. I may not have sounded overly enthusiastic since it would have meant a three-hour drive to Dublin after little or no sleep since the Oscar telecast typically ends around six in the morning in this time zone. Besides, I had the distinct impression that I was being lined up as a contingency in case the person they really wanted could not make it. In any event, I was subsequently informed that I need not trouble myself.

I guess when it comes to Ireland’s state broadcaster, I am just its answer to Matt Damon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

You Might Also Like...

I am fascinated by book-selling web sites that use an algorithm to suggest books that may also be of interest to you, presumably based on titles you have previously searched for or links that you have clicked on.

So it was particularly exciting for me when I was able to start searching for my very own first published book and see what sorts of books got suggested for people who had searched for it. Here is a typical result.


I have to say that at least the software deduced the historical reference fairly logically.

More interesting was the result from an Australian web site.



Stephen King? Art Spiegelman? Kate Grenville? Now that’s one eclectic reading list. At least this time the algorithm was smart enough to also suggest my other book as well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Happy Birthday, Dallas

Today marks the 64th birthday of my fictional protagonist, Dallas Green. I have no idea where he is today or how he is doing at this mature age. I have only figured out the trajectory of his life through the end of his 28th year.

I did not know his exact birthday until I began my current writing project. In Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead I had established that he and his friend Lonnie were both born in December 1952. This was necessary for the plot of the book since they both had to be born with that month-long window which would result in both their graduating from high school and being included in the draft lottery in the year 1971. I myself was born that same month, but I did not want either character to have the same birthday as me. That might be fine for wildly successfully authors like J.K. Rowling, but I want to have a bit of distance between me and my fictional creations. As it is, enough people have accused Dallas of being a thinly veiled version of myself. Hopefully, by the time readers have finished the upcoming book, the ones who actually know me will realize that Dallas is a very different person from myself. If they still persist in thinking Dallas and I are one and the same, then I will have to question how well they actually know me—or else how well I know myself.

In the new book I needed to specify the exact day that Dallas would turn 28, so I picked the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It seemed as good a day as any and, as it happened, it kind of fit in thematically with what would be going on in his head at the time.

I have reached a midpoint in the first draft of the new book. Dallas has found himself generally at home with his new life in San Francisco but, as in the first book, events conspire to send him fleeing out of the country. The story this time is more complicated, and more characters come and go in and out of Dallas’s life. Plotting from this point onward becomes more challenging because Dallas’s story interweaves with various things that were happening in various parts of the world at the time. The more I have revisited the year 1980, the more appreciative I have become of what an event-filled tumultuous year it was. For one thing, not unlike the current year we are living through, the end of the year marked a distinct turning point in what the American government looked and acted like.

So if you are imbibing anything nice this evening, try to remember to say a little toast to Mr. Dallas Green, originally of Kern County, California. Wherever he is out there, let us hope that the sometimes ill-advised adventures of his youth were prologue to a satisfactory and happy later life.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dallas - Part Deux

Here is some poetic justice for you.

As someone who has talked about movies nearly my whole life and who has blogged about them for a couple of decades, I have skewered more than my share of sequels—up to and including the questioning of whether there is any point to sequels at all. So what do I find myself doing these days? Yes, I am writing a sequel.

Let us be clear. There is nothing inherently bad about a sequel. After all a sequel is nothing more than a story not unlike any other story. It is only a sequel because it happens to take place in the same world and uses some or all of the same characters as a previously existing story. That should not necessarily disqualify it from being as good as any other story.

So why do sequels have such a bad reputation with critics and other film snobs? Mainly because sequels to very successful works too often give the impression of having been conceived only as a way to extract more money from people who enjoyed the original book or movie or whatever it was. Readers of my movie blog should be well familiar with the long established role of the sequel. It is to satisfy the fan’s desire to relive the enjoyment of the original (i.e. re-tell the same story) while simultaneously satisfying the fan’s desire to get something brand new (i.e. pretend to tell a different story). Here is another take on the purpose of sequels: to do the same thing over again but bigger and better. This mainly applies to movies, as studios tend to be rather risk averse. They greenlight sequels—and remakes and reboots and spinoffs and thinly disguised plagiarism—because they seem safer, having stories, characters and worlds that have already proven themselves with audiences.

So the fact that I am writing a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead means that I am shamlessly cashing in, right? Well, hardly. There is no reason to believe that my third novel—even if it is a sequel—will shift my tax bracket any more than the first two did. So why I am writing it? Mainly because a surprising number of people told me that they really wanted to know what happened next to Dallas Green. I thought I might hear the same thing after The Three Towers of Afranor, but so far I have not had anywhere near the same interest in a follow-up. That kind of surprises me since the second book was really left more open-ended with possibilities for more stories.

To be clear, I really did conceive of Max & Carly (as I am wont to refer to it when rushed) as a one-off self-contained story that needed no further elaboration. I thought Dallas’s trajectory was left pretty clear. It had originally been that of someone who would pretty much follow the same life as his father and who would likely not stray too far from his home town. By the end of the book that trajectory had been changed by his trip to Mexico and his exposure to a wider world and more people and places. He was now going to pursue more education as well as his budding interests in photography and the Spanish language. That seemed a satisfying conclusion to me. Readers, however, still wanted to know what else would happen to him? Would he ever meet Marisol again? Would he ever find out what happened to Antonio? Would he have liver problems from all the drinking he did? Okay, no one actually asked that last question.

As it turned out, the more I got asked about this and the more I thought about it, the more curious I myself got about what life held for Dallas. As a consequence I am now ten chapters and about eighty pages into the first draft of another book about him. I had thought I had had enough of him once I finished the first book, but after a break I am finding him good company again—especially since he is now older and a bit—but only a bit—more mature. For one thing, he does not swear nearly so much. For another, he has gotten somewhat more modern in his thinking.

I will share a secret with you. Some readers guessed a few of the literary influences behind Max & Carly. (Huckleberry Finn was a big one.) But no one guessed one of the main ones. It was Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Sure, the friendship of two young rednecks in rural 1970s America may not seem to have much in common with a tale of posh English lads at Oxford during the reign of George V but, hey, male bonding is male bonding. The tip-off should have been the way Dallas’s growing interest in Antonio’s Catholicism paralleled the role that religion played with the family of young Lord Sebastian Flyte. I bring this up because Dallas’s story now faces a problem similar to that of Waugh’s protagonist Charles Ryder. Once the flamoybant and magnetic Sebastian left the scene, the story lost something. Charles on his own was not necessarily the most interesting character.

Similarly, practically everybody who has read Max & Carly has told me that their favorite character is either Lonnie or Antonio. Unfortunately for them, neither of those two are in the frame of the sequel—at least not in the early going. Will the new characters in Dallas’s life be able to fill the gap adequately?

More importantly, will it really just be the same story again—only bigger and better?

When the time comes, you can decide.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Poet and the Figment

I am still catching up from everything that accumulated while I was in the holidaying/non-routine/non-scheduled mode of late summer. (And, yes, I know it is now October and that it has not been late summer for some time now.) It seems as though I spend a lot of my time catching up on blogs that get neglected and feeling guilty about not spending more time on promoting The Three Towers of Afranor. Now, however, it is time to put all that aside (well, most of that aside) and get focused on the next book, the one that continues the story of young Dallas Green, which began in Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead.

Something else that distracts me from getting more writing done is the fact that I always want to do more reading. So many books and so little time.

I did finish reading a book just lately, and it was quite an intriguing read. Penned by Juan Gómez Bárcena, a thirtysomething Spaniard, it takes its title, The Sky Over Lima, from an early 20th century poem written by the Nobel Prize-winning Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. He had a long and prolific career until his death in 1958, but a fascinating footnote is that in his twenties he fell victim to an epistolary hoax. He received a letter from a Georgina Hübner in Lima, Peru, praising his poetry and asking him if he might send her some of his books. He complied, and the two carried on a correspondence that led Ramón Jiménez to become infatuated with his long-distance pen pal to the point that he actually made plans to travel 6,000 miles to visit her.

It turned out, however, that Georgina never existed. She was the creation of two young men whose initial aim was to acquire the poet’s books, which were not available in Peru. When they saw that Ramón Jiménez was smitten with her, they carried on the charade.

Gómez Bárcena tells the story from the point of view of the two young Limeños, José and (mainly) Carlos. He explores the social and artistic milieu of the time and what may have been going through their minds as they carried on their deception. In his telling, these aspiring but artistically hopeless poets find themselves in the improbable position of forming an actual work of art, i.e. a compelling narrative, out of reality. They have done nothing less than create a virtual novel in which both their imaginary Limeña and the real-life poet are characters. As Gómez Bárcena describes the reality within his book becoming a novel, his own narration becomes a commentary on itself. It’s all very meta.

As someone who has written my own book about young male friends getting into trouble while negotiating the treacherous shoals of adulthood (and who has carried on my own long-distance correspondence with a beloved Limeño), I found the book great fun. Not only is it about getting caught up in one’s own youthful fantasies, but it is also about the inexorable process of maturing and submitting to banal reality.

Because I am lazy, I did not read the book in Spanish. So I must give kudos to Andrea Rosenberg for her artful English translation. Her interpretation felt very faithful and reliable.

Now that I am properly inspired by someone else’s writing, it is high time to get back to my own authoring.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Bearing Fruit

If the only thing keeping you from reading The Three Towers of Afranor has been the fact that you absolutely had to read it on an Apple iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), then I have great news for you!

My second novel is now available in digital form on Apple’s iBooks Store. If happen to be reading this with an iOS device, then you can find it online, read a sample and/or purchase the whole book by clicking on this here link right here. There is also a link over on the right side of this page, if you prefer to click over there for some reason.

And my first book Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead continues to be on sale on the iBooks Store. There is still a link for that over in the right-hand column. Or you can click here on this string of words, if that is easier for you.

I should note that the links on this page are for the iBooks Store for the United States. If your iTunes account is for a different country, hopefully the app on your device will forward you to the right place without too much fuss. If not, just do a search on the titles. Both titles are pretty unique search-wise. Since the books are on sale in iBooks Stores for 51 different countries, so it would be a bit unwieldy to try to list all of them for you.

You might wonder why The Three Towers of Afranor is only now showing up in the iBooks Store when it has been available on Amazon, B&N Nook, Google Play and Kobo for well over three months. Well, that is quite a story—if you want to stick around and read it.

A lot of authors use aggregators (third-party businesses) to get their digital books to the various online sellers. I don’t. I prefer to upload them myself. On the whole, this is surprisingly easy—at least compared to the writing, editing, formatting and press prep that has to be done before you get to that point. Once you have all your work done, you just go to a web site and click a few buttons and fill in a bit of information and—presto—your e-book is magically published. The exception is the iBooks Store. You cannot upload your book to Apple via your browser. You have to use an app called iTunes Producer, which is available only for Mac computers. I don’t happen to have a Mac, and it’s not really worth it to me to buy one just to upload a few files every year or two or whenever I have a new book. My neighbor Brendan, who does have a Mac, bailed me out with Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, which was really nice of him, but it wasn’t exactly ideal. I don’t want to have to bother him every time I need to make a correction or an update.

Then recently I discovered that there is another tool for uploading files to iBooks. It can be run on non-Apple computers but only by using a command line console. (Kids, ask your grandparents about MS-DOS.) This was good news because command line stuff is not a problem for someone like me who cut his teeth on UNIX in the 1980s. It did, however, require that I install Java, a programming language that I had banished from my computer sometime ago. Not only that, but it had to be an outdated version of Java, which meant registering as a software developer with Oracle to be able to download the old Java. Then followed a whole lot of trial and error since the available documentation was not the most user-friendly. Particularly tricky was creating an XML (Extensible Markup Language) file with all the book’s info, including some things I hadn’t heard about in decades, like checksums.

To make a long story slightly less long, I eventually figured it all out and got The Three Towers of Afranor uploaded successfully and on sale in 51 countries. And, if I need to make any changes or updates (or if I ever finish another book), I am all set up to handle them from my very own laptop. For me this is huge.

So if you have any interest in reading my humble little book on your iPhone or your iPad, I heartily encourage you to go to the iBooks Store right now and download it. And tell all your iOS-using friends to go download it too. Don’t just do it for me. Do it for Tim Cook and the gang at Apple. They need the money. As you may have heard, they have a pretty hefty back tax bill to pay to Ireland.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Roiling the Market

At a family event on Saturday, my wife’s Scottish brother-in-law cut to the chase.

“How many of those books have you actually sold?” he wanted to know.

I actually didn’t have a clue. I am not very good at keeping track of what’s happening with all the various sellers who carry my two titles. Their web pages are equipped to generate whatever reports I might like about books sales, whenever I might like them, but I always seem to have more pressing things to do. Counting up my sales always feels like time I should be spending on marketing my books. Marketing my books always feels like time I should be spending on writing the next book. It’s an endless cycle.

I wish I was as good at marketing my books as Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams is at marketing his. He has had a book out for the past twenty months or so called How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. He also has a blog, where he posts something just about everyday. These days he usually blogs about Donald Trump. I do not blog as often as he does but, on the positive side, I put my comments about Donald Trump on my other blog because I like to think that people interested in my books already know as much (or more) as they want to about Donald Trump or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton.

The clever thing that Adams does is that, at the end of every blog post, no matter what he happens to be writing about, he always adds a random-sounding non-sequitur line pitching his book. They are usually quite humorous, like this one: “Everyone is talking about my book. I hope we don’t run out of Kindle versions before you get yours.”

That is funny because I don’t think anyone has ever ordered a Kindle book from Amazon only to get an email saying, “This title is temporarily out of stock. We will ship your Kindle book as soon as it becomes available.” Adams’s line about the Kindle book made me smile because it reminded me of one of the reasons I like e-books. If they are for sale, they are in stock—always.

Another reason I like Kindle books is that is the format apparently preferred by most of my readers. No less than 68 percent of my books’ sales revenues are through the U.S. Kindle store. (After my weekend conversation, I went home and checked.) Another 12.5 percent are from Kindle sales through Amazon’s non-U.S. sites. Four percent are from other e-book formats. The remaining 15.5 percent come from books distributed on good old-fashioned paper.

I wonder if that is typical. I have no idea and, apparently, it is difficult to count e-book sales as compared to paper book sales. Earlier this year an article in The Guardian estimated that 26 percent of e-books sold on Amazon in the UK were by self-published authors. By comparison 31 percent were sold by the UK’s five biggest publishers (Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster). So my guess is that my statistics may not be atypical for many independent authors.

Many self-published authors sell exclusively through the Kindle store and do not even bother with paper books. When I first started, I was not sure if I would release paperback versions of my books. Now I would not consider doing a book release that did not include a paperback version. People who prefer that format really do prefer it. And, if nothing else, paperback books make handy birthday and Christmas gifts for my relatives.

Okay, now’s the time to try a clever Scott Adams-style kicker. Here goes. If you like eating sushi in September, then you might like my book. It has no Japanese words.