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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Full Finnish Circle

A quick update on my writing progress. With the holidays over (Christmas in Ireland pretty much runs for 30 days and requires another fortnight for me to recover and catch up), I am happily back at it. To my surprise, I have found myself suddenly making a pretty good start on a first draft of a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. After much idea-chewing over a long period of time, the story and the characters have at last settled into something I can get really interested in, and I’m now pretty movitated to put it all down on virtual paper. So, in answer to the question that I get most often about Max & Carly, yes, the next (actually third) book will be a sequel to the youthful exploits of Dallas Green. Of course, before I get too caught up in that writing project, I really need to go back to editing and polishing the second book (the sword and sorcery one). Anyway, this is definitely the time of year to try to get these things done.

During this seemingly interminable period between the actual publishing of books, I take vicarious satisfaction in the publishing being done by other people—like my friend Claes.

My acquaintance with Claes was born out of the moment I entered the Egyptian Theatre in Seattle in 1987 for one of 68 screenings I attended during the twelth Seattle International Film Festival. I didn’t actually meet Claes way back then. But I wrote something that would eventually find its way onto the world wide web (once the world wide web had finally been invented) and would consequently draw him to me. It was a three-hour Finnish war movie called Tuntematon Sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, in English), and I took on a typical (for me) tongue-in-cheek tone in reviewing it. Thirteen years after I had written that review, Claes emailed me to take me to task. And he was in a good position to do so because he wrote the book on Finland during World War II. And I mean that literally.

His 272-page hardcover book Hitler’s Nordic Ally?: Finland and the Total War 1939-1945 will be released on February 28 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. The book is in English, which is worth mentioning because Claes has written quite a few books (both fiction and non-fiction), and not all of them are in English. Some of them are in Danish. Two of his English-language books, which I have read and enjoyed, were fairly definitive biographies of two seminal 1960s English rock bands: The Zombies: Hung Up on a Dream and Procol Harum: Beyond The Pale. Something else he wrote in English was a very good radio drama called Sam and the Animal Man, which was aired two years ago on RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, and which can be streamed from RTÉ’s web site.

When Claes and I first began corresponding, he thought (logically enough) that I was in the U.S. and I assumed that he was in Denmark. Imagine our mutual surprise when we finally realized that we were both in Ireland and that fewer than 300 kilometers separated us.

It sounds as though I might get the chance to read and write about his book in advance of its release. (Stay tuned.) Already being familiar with Claes’s writing, I am sure it will be a good read. Moreover, it will bring my very glancing acquaintance with Finland’s World War II experience full circle—more 28 years after I wandered into a Seattle cinema to see a three-hour Finnish war movie.

Monday, December 14, 2015

All the way to eleven

It has been brought to my attention that Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead is, as of this writing anyway, tied for eleventh place on Goodreads’s list of Best 1970s Historical Fiction.

Goodreads, a preeminent web destination for serious book lovers, has lots of lists, which are voted on by its members. (I am one, and I have an author page there.) One could argue that 1970s historical fiction is a rather specific category, bolstered by the fact that there are only 53 books on the list. But 11 out of 53 is pretty good, eh?

While this placement certainly does my ego good, I’m not exactly letting it go to my head. If you check the vote totals, you will see that the numbers of votes are pretty low, so this doesn’t exactly represent widespread acclaim. Still, it’s flattering to be placed on a list that includes such well known works as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (numbers 1 and 2, respectively) and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (edging me out at number 10). The fact that I placed ahead of such better known books as Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (number 25), the late Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries (number 40) and Jerzy Kosinski’s Pinball actually makes me seriously question whether the list is valid at all. But clearly that is the wrong way to think. I should be arguing that I should have been in first place.

I guess that makes this a good excuse to do some huckstering and remind people that, if you are looking a great gift for that 1970s historical fiction aficionado on your list, Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead is still available from all fine internet bookstores. Just click on one of the links on this book blog.

As for the next book, editing/polishing/revising continues or, rather, it will once the holidays are over. I know better than to expect much work to get done on it during the last couple of weeks of December. So anticipate having a great choice next year for that sword-and-sorcery aficionado on your list.

Incidentally, if you are interested in my reviews of the screen adaptations of The Ice Storm (by Ang Lee) or The Buddha of Suburbia (by Roger Michell), you can check them out on my movie blog.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is the Future Already Over?

The news reports were more than a bit surprising. Sales of ebooks peaked in 2011? Who knew?

That’s four whole years ago—and only three years after ebooks even started taking off.

Everything I had been hearing for years suggested that, as far as books were concerned, print was dying and digital was the future. I had been surprised that it was happening so fast, but I wasn’t at all surprised that it was happening. Digital was inexorably supplanting analogue in every area. So it was only a matter of time until print disappeared completely or became a niche market, like vinyl records, right?

Then I read a week or two ago that The New York Times was reporting that, according to the Association of American Publishers, ebook sales were down by 10 percent in the first five months of 2015. Various hypotheses have been offered to try to explain this. The most interesting ones are economic. Is it because ebook prices went up after three of the biggest publishers got control of their own pricing in the wake of a deal reached with Amazon? Did the market just reach a natural peak? Is it possible that sales aren’t actually down and that a portion of ebook sales have simply shifted to small boutique or self-publishers, which wouldn’t be included in the AAP figures? Of course, self-publishers like me would prefer the latter explanation. And it could make sense, if consumers are finding ebooks from big publishers too pricy, as self-published ebooks tend to cost quite a bit less.

A report last month on National Public Radio quoted experts as suggesting that readers prefer different media for different books and for different times and that the publishing world was simply settling into an equilibrium that provided the various formats they wanted—from hardcover to paperback and digital and audio. AAP CEO Michael Cader noted that sales of hardcover books were also down in the same period this year and that it had more to do with a lack of big blockbuster books, like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey, which tend to drive big book sales.

It is the pseudonymous analyst (and author) Data Guy who is quoted by NPR as suggesting that the way the AAP reports sales now misses a whole lot of self-published books. His report, published with “self-publishing phenomenon” Hugh Howey, is called Author Earnings.

“According to Author Earnings,” said NPR’s Lynn Neary in the piece, “the ebook market is thriving, but traditional publishers’ share of it has slipped to about one-third. And Data Guy believes the ebook market will continue to grow well into the future.”

So we can be pretty sure that digital books are not some mere fad that will fade with time—and neither are paper books. Of course, we don’t know what new technological changes (digital receivers in eyeball lens implants, anyone?) might come along to confuse us all again and shake up things anew.

I just wish I had thought to give myself a really cool pseudonym like Data Guy.

Monday, October 12, 2015

That Dodgy Galwegian

This blog post will conclude the official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour.

To my friends in Ireland: I apologize for including a dodgy Irish character. I know you will pick apart the way he speaks and find him inauthentic. My excuse—and I’m sticking with it—is that we are seeing him only as he appears and sounds through the narrator’s young, inexperienced American eyes and ears.

It’s a funny story how the character called Séamus came to be part of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. Well, funny to me anyway.

I had always promised myself that I would never write a novel in the first person. Maybe I’m just lazy, but it always seemed like too much work to have to write constantly in the voice of a particular character for hundreds of pages. But as I finalized my ideas for my first novel, I realized that I wanted it to be—among other things—something of an homage to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And that meant that it really needed to be narrated by its main character in his own regional voice.

But, I figured, that would be a piece of cake because the story takes place in the time and place where I myself came of age, so this would be a voice that I should know well—or so I thought. When reading over what I had written, I kept finding usages that sounded more like 21st century Ireland than 1970s San Joaquin Valley. Even when I thought I had fixed all of them, my indispensable friend Dayle found more. We went around and around for a long time over the verb “to bring” versus “to take” when applied to a person (as in “he took her shopping”). It turns out “to bring” a person somewhere is a particularly Irish usage of English—and one that I had not even realized I had adopted wholeheartedly. In short, my use of English had been hopelessly affected by all of these years living on the Emerald Isle.

This made the writing a lot more work—and a lot more frustrating—than I had anticipated. So, to amuse myself, I decided to include an Irish character. This was an entirely plausible story detail because you cannot go anywhere in the world without meeting the Irish. They turn up everywhere—even, presumably, in 1970s Mexico. And, in my deluded thinking, I figured that the exercise of actually trying to make a character sound authentically Irish would somehow, by contrast, make it easier to maintain the American sound of my other characters. At least that was theory. In practice, however, it was even more work to make Séamus sound authentically Irish than to keep Dallas and his friend Lonnie sounding like they were from Kern County.

To make it worse, there was the added pressure from the fact that the Irish tend to be extemely critical of Irish characters who do not come off as authentic to them. Not only do American and English actors get roundly slated for bad Irish accents in movie and television roles, but my wife has been known to roast perfectly competent Dublin actors for doing inadequate Connacht accents. Fortunately, it wasn’t as though I had to somehow get vowel sounds just right. After all, you cannot actually hear the accent of a character who exists only on a printed page. But the usage and tone certainly have to be right.

After the book was published, I was on tenterhooks every time I heard from anyone who had read the book and who was Irish. Strangely, to date no one has actually said they found Séamus inauthentic as a globe-trotting Galwegian. To be clear, no one has praised the character as a masterful creation either. Irish readers, at least in my limited sampling, seem to have little reaction to him at all. I would be tempted to attribute this lack of criticism to politeness, but I have never known the Irish to be polite about this sort of thing in any other situation. Even my wife—who I expected to excoriate me over the character because, well, that’s just what she does—had virtually nothing to say about him.

Yes, I would prefer that lots of people were heartily congratulating my on getting the nuances of my Irish character exactly right. But, realistically, I am actually ecstatic to be hearing nothing at all. I have convinced myself that that is actually the highest praise of all.

To everyone I know: I apologize one more time for all the bad words. It won’t happen again.

Hmmm. I may have lied about that one. I really can’t promise I will never again have any sweary characters in anything I ever write again. But I can promise that there will be virtually no expletives in my next book of which, I am happy to note, the first draft was completed over the weekend! And yes, it is written in the third person. And no, there are no Irish characters (or American ones for that matter), although there are characters with Irish names.

And I do not plan to make any apologies about any of it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Still Aboard the Apology Train

The official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour continues.

To my friends in Seattle: I apologize for the misogyny, racism, homophobia, casual acceptance of economic inequality and irresponsible gun use. The characters are most definitely not meant to be role models. Please focus on their character growth, not on their myriad character flaws.

This particular apology was really tongue in cheek. After all, the offenses I enumerated above are, after all, well entrenched features of our popular entertainment. And yet…

I did regret that there are no great female characters in the book. Marisol features somewhat prominently, but mainly as an idealized fantasy in Dallas’s feverish teenage mind. The Pérez family includes some nice women, especially Mama Marta, but they are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. No, this is a guy story told by a guy and about guys. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up in my other writing.

Also, it did concern me that the two main characters’ attitudes toward Mexicans (not even bothering to distinguish between actual Mexicans and Mexican-Americans) could be offensive. But the attitude was true to the characters and to the time and place. And the whole point of the book is how the narrator Dallas has his world view enlarged by actually getting to know Mexicans and Mexican culture, so I’m not sure that an apology is really called for.

Then there is the question of gay characters.

I do not consider myself—or any author of fiction, for that matter—responsible for presenting balanced or positive portrayals of any demographic group. (That’s the job of non-fiction writers and propagandists.) Having said that, however, it did bother me that this particular story resulted in all its portrayals and/or references to gay people being associated with pedophilia. But frankly, in that time and place, that was the only context in which I—and other guys my age that I knew—had any awareness of homosexuality. In the end, I hope that Dallas’s growth on the issue—partly from learning more of the world and partly from dealing with his own instances of sexual confusion—mitigate the thin portrayals.

Anyway, if you want a more deeply diverse set of characters, just wait until I finish my epic novel about 1980s Seattle. None of them will be role models either, but at least they won’t all be seen through the prism of badly behaving rural teenage boys.

Actually, you may not have to wait that long. Now that the end of the first draft of my sword and sorcery tale is actually in sight, I have lately been leaning toward going ahead and taking on a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. For a long time all the ideas I worked on in my head for a sequel never seemed quite right. But then I literally had a dream about something I experienced while traveling around in my twenties, and something clicked. I have to believe it is fate because the dream involved a train. And it was a dream about a young woman on a train that inspired Dan Curtis to create the classic 1960s TV show Dark Shadows.

Part of the interest in the sequel for me—and hopefully the reader—will be to see how Dallas has grown and changed in the several years since the first book. One thing will be for sure. He will definitely meet and know a more diverse set of characters.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Grapes of Minor Irritation

When I first announced the publication of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead on my movie website, I made a point of issuing a trio of apologies to my friends in various geographical locations.

While the apologies were mostly tongue in cheek, there was an element of sincerity in all of them. And, in fact, it occurs to me that they could all do with a bit of elaboration. So with this post I hereby kick off the official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour.

To my friends in and from California: I apologize for the characters’ bad attitude toward the place where they live.

I actually did agonize over the fear that the book would make the southern San Joaquin Valley sound like a very grim place to live. After all, a lot of people there are still trying to get over the impression left by John Steinbeck when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. My home town got mentioned in that book twice. There is a famous photo, taken in 1939, of three men ceremonially burning a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in downtown Bakersfield. Two of the men are farmers from my local area.

Growing up, I remember hearing whispers about Steinbeck’s book and how it was “banned.” But the fact was that I had no trouble whatsoever finding a copy in the school library and checking it out and reading it. The book was never banned. Those three men in the photo (the third was an actual migrant farmworker) were burning a single copy as a protest. It was not an attempt to destroy every copy and to make the book unavailable for curious readers. But the act of burning a book carries unfortunate sinister resonances, and so it probably did not help the case they were trying to make—that farmers were victims of character assassination.

As a reader, I appreciated Steinbeck’s literary prowess and even his socio-political passion but, as someone who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, I did not recognize the picture he painted of the region. In particular, Tom Joad’s climactic speech (immortalized in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation by Henry Fonda: “wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there”) was stirring but I never saw any connection between it and where I grew up. I had definitely heard stories of tough times during the migrations of the Depression and the Dust Bowl era, but much more often than not those stories ended with people’s lives improving and even prospering. Between farming and oil drilling, a lot of people—at all levels of the economic ladder—made a lot of money in the years following the migrant influx.

In writing my own novel, I was very conscious of Kern County’s place in literary history, and I made a point of referring to it by having my narrator, Dallas Green, recall that his own parents and grandparents had migrated to California and now were doing so well that they had left the field work to newer migrants from Mexico.

Dallas complains a lot about where he lives but not so much because it is truly a terrible place but because he is a teenager. He does go on a lot about how hot it is in the summer, and that is definitely true. It is very hot there in the summer. And in those days a lot of us lived in homes that didn’t have adequate cooling. But, leaving the climate aside, there were a lot of good people. And I hope that comes through in my book—even though Dallas doesn’t particularly dwell on it.

What really doesn’t get reflected by the book—and, in fairness, it was meant to be a work of literature and not a chamber of commerce brochure—is the diversity of the area. Dallas and Lonnie are from a sort of redneck subset of the population, but my community also had people from all over the rest of America. My mother grew up as part of a German-speaking community of Mennonites. There was a well-established Mexican-American community that had lived in the area since the days of the Mexican Revolution. Other towns had their Italian-American community or their Armenian-American community or their African-American community. Out in the country there were families of Basque sheepherders.

Even though it has been many decades since I lived in the San Joaquin Valley, I have never ceased to think that it was a very good place to be from. In fact, the next Speaker of the House of Representatives could quite likely be from there as well. Kevin McCarthy started a business in Bakersfield at the age of 18 with the winnings from a lottery ticket he bought while visiting San Diego. As he recounted in a speech in February, “True story. $5,000 was the most money you could win. But if you put yourself back in 1984, you’re 18 years old, you just won $5,000 and you’re 10 minutes away from Tijuana, where would you end up?”

Sounds to me like Representative McCarthy just missed his chance to be the next generation’s Dallas Green.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mockingbird’s Song

By far the biggest book news to hit the world in recent times is the publication of a previously unknown novel by Harper Lee. It is the rare kind of literary event that not only gets discussed on arts programs but also on serious TV news programs. And it has been fascinating to hear all the various reactions.

On my movie web site, I like to say that a film review really tells us more about the reviewer than it does about the film. The same is almost certainly true about book reviews and book discussions. The appearance of Go Set a Watchman has been an interesting opportunity to hear many people on TV, radio and in print tell us what To Kill a Mockingbird has meant to them.

Clearly, for a lot of people over the past half-century it is a work that was huge in helping to form their literary, social and political consciousness. In hindsight, the book’s provenance and its reception seem like something magical. It was Lee’s first—and presumedly only—published work (at the age of 34), and it garnered all kinds of praise and awards. It was soon adapted into an award-winning motion picture that not only did justice to the book but further immortalized its story.

If all of that seems too fortunate to be true, what are the odds that 55 years later another novel would turn up and would overlap with the events and characters of the first? We soon learned that it was an earlier draft of Mockingbird but, because it was set years later, it turned out to be the sequel that many readers would have longed for—or thought they did. If this had been a sequel written by someone else, say, commissioned by the author’s estate like Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, which continued the story of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, it could be ignored or dismissed. But Watchman was written by Harper Lee herself and in her prime. On the other hand, it was a draft that was not originally accepted by her publisher.

From an academic point of view, it is great to have. We get a better picture of what was in Lee’s head in forming the story and that leads to a deeper understanding of her work. For sentimentalists, however, it disrupts the effect of Mockingbird. Just as the effect of a photograph is dramatically affected by the way it is cropped, a story such as that of Atticus Finch and his family is defined by where the storyteller begins and ends the narrative. Many people have been distressed to learn that, in the original version, Atticus aged into someone less noble and less admirable than the man so memorably portrayed by Gregory Peck. As Lee’s editor may have understood all those years ago, such a story may be more reflective of real life but it isn’t nearly as satisfying emotionally.

Strangely, my own words about Atticus, written just six months ago after having re-watched the movie, are out there now on my movie site haunting me: “No matter the effect this movie had on people’s feelings on race relations, it definitely made lots of people wish that Gregory Peck was their dad.”

Oddly, Atticus’s story may now parallel what has gone on in America over the past half-century. After all, the story of the Civil Rights movement is much more satisfying when the narrative stops with the triumphs of the 1960s.

As for me personally, the appearance of Lee’s long-delayed “sequel” has given me some food for thought as I continue to wrestle with the question of whether or when to do a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. The fact is that I am happy with the story as it is. Would it become richer if we learn what happens to Dallas Green in later life? Or would I regret not leaving things as they were?

Either way, the stakes are not nearly so high as with To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, I am the first to admit that Dallas Green is no Atticus Finch.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Next Book

When is the best time to start talking about the next book?

My own first response to that question would tend to be: the day it goes on sale.

But common sense—and everything I have read about publishing and marketing—says that an author should start talking about an upcoming book somewhat sooner than that. After all, how can readers build up interest in a book if they do not know that it is on its way?

Fair enough. So be advised that, even though I cannot tell you the exact date on which it will be published, my second novel will be released sometime in the hopefully not-too-awfully-distant future. Is that vague enough for you?

So what can I tell you about it? Well, I suppose the main thing to know is that, if you read and enjoyed my first book Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, well, the next book will be nothing like that.

I could list all the differences for you. For example, Max & Carly was written in the first person. The new book will be in the third person. The first book was set in a distinct real time and place in recent history. The new book is a fantasy tale in a completely made-up world. The first book had some (actually, a lot of) very bad language in it, not too mention some sex and drug use, and my own daughter is not allowed to read it until she has reached her fifteenth birthday. The new book is suitable for most ages, although it does have some incidences of kind of brutal fantasy world violence.

In other words, the two books are like chalk and cheese. Except that, in a strange way, they both actually kind of tell the same story. The fact is that both are about quests undertaken by lovesick male teenagers who come to experience some pretty strong male bonding. But if you were hoping for the further adventures of Dallas Green, well, sorry. (I’m still going back and forth in my head as to when or whether to write a sequel to Max & Carly.)

Underlining that comparison for you is probably not the best way to drum up interest in the new book. But then I think I have been pretty up-front all along that I am not really great at this marketing stuff. It probably also will not help to confess that I am looking forward very much to writing about something other than lovesick male teenagers on quests. Subsequent books—yes, I have them largely worked out in my head already—will be about the concerns of more mature individuals, and I cannot wait to get inside those heads instead.

Having now drastically lowered expectations for the second book, let me say that it is a story that is pretty close to my heart. I first conceived it when I was, yes, a lovesick male teenager. It was inspired by things I was reading and watching at the time, which strongly featured J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy, the TV series Dark Shadows and the full range of Marvel comic books. The first version was written in Spanish as a school assignment. To this day there are people I knew in high school who remember the story and occasionally mention it to me. In subsequent years, I rewrote it and expanded it once or twice it on my own time for my own self-entertainment. Then I put it away for many years—until I finally reworked it again, this time in English, as a bedtime story for my daughter.

Of course, in the new iteration I have accumulated additional influences since the days when I was a lovesick male teenager. For example, now I think I detect a dash of J.J. Abrams and George R.R. Martin in there as well. At least saying that should generate more interest than just saying it’s basically the same book I wrote before.

I am now in the final stretch of my first draft. Come back here—or better yet, subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed—for future occasional progress updates. There is a button to do this over to the right side of this page.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Through the Internet Rabbit Hole

One of the habits I have gotten into since Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead was released, is searching for my book on the web. I am clearly not alone in this. From what I gather, most working authors do it. Checking on one’s book’s web presence is part of the job of marketing and selling your work.

I have learned some interesting things from doing these searches. For one, I have found that my book can be ordered from any number of online book sellers in any number of countries around the world. It is kind of fun seeing your book (written in English) being listed on a site in, say, Sweden or Russia.

Sometimes the title shows up in a way that is totally a surprise—like when it was mentioned on the Spanish language Facebook page of a South American writer based in Paris. It turns out that he is an acquaintance of my friend Mañuco, one of the people to whom I dedicated the novel.

The strangest search result, however, was the one I came across a couple of weeks ago. The excerpt that Google highlighted read like this: “The typical story Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead of the Gingerbread Boy. Not everyone will love this modern version…” Whoa. Apparently, somebody was doing some interesting analysis of my little tale of wayward youth. Naturally, I had to read the whole thing.

But when I clicked through to the link, which was on a site called, I found a discussion board for comic books and ebooks. There was no mention of the Gingerbread Boy. Instead there was discussion, apparently among students, about an English assignment.

“I have to read 3 books over the summer for AP English,” wrote someone called Enmenre. “My parents can’t afford to buy them and they said I’ll have to read them online. Is there a website that I can download books from as documents? I want to read Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead by Scott R. Larson.”

My heart was all aflutter. Some young person had somehow heard of my book and wanted to read it! And it didn’t even seem to be a friend or relative. This was a great. Someone else responded to say that a great place to get it was a site called Booklibrary. Enmenre replied, “Guess what just happened? haha, I found the book I was looking for, all thanks to BookLibrary. YES! I’m so stocked right now, been looking like forever for this old book, and finally I found it! Loving it!”

Very cool that Enmenre was loving the novel. But “this old book”? Hey, give me a break. It was only released last June. Other commenters chimed in with feedback on the book. “This book is a fate,” said Rinbeydo (whatever that might mean). “Interesting and easy to read,” said Iculob, inserting a “WINNAH!!!” emoticon. “Don’t waste your time reading it. Nothing interesting,” wrote a spoilsport called Primourco.

I followed the link that had allegedly led the happy Enmenre to my book. It turned out to be something called, and it did list several servers around the world from which Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead could be purportedly downloaded. It even offered the choice of paperback, ebook and audio versions—which was interesting since, as far as I know (and, as the author, I should know) there is no audio version. Of course, before you could actually do any downloading, you had to “sign up.” I had come across sites like this before. They promise you all kinds of free digital stuff, i.e. games, movies, books, etc. In exchange, they want (at the least) your name and email address and maybe more personal information or even a credit card for the “membership fee.”

Did this site really have my book available for download? Something I had prepared myself for since uploading the Kindle version of Maximilian and Carlotta to Amazon was that at some point I might come across it on a pirate web site. Just about every book ever published seems to show up on these sites, as many authors will readily attest. In a strange and perverse way, the fact that someone would go to the trouble to pirate your book is actually some kind of a cockeyed compliment. At least it means that there is a demand for your work out there.

One of the strangest stories I have heard in this regard was in an interview on public radio’s On the Media program with Peter Mountford about his novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. I paid attention when the interview came on because I had read and enjoyed Mountford’s book. Set in Bolivia, it has a very passing similarity to mine in that it deals with a young American getting to know something of Latin American culture. Mountford recounted how he got an email out of the blue from a Russian asking him to explain the nuances of various passages in his book. In pursuing this, Mountford learned that his correspondent had been hired to do a Russian translation of the book—one that was in no way authorized. In the end, the author decided to help the Russian come up with the best translation possible. His reasoning was that, if there was going to be a pirated Russian version out there, he would prefer that it be of the best quality.

But back to my question. Did that site really have my book for download? My guess is that it didn’t. I would guess that the site is a scam looking to rip off naive and/or dishonest consumers of digital stuff. Strangely, when I went back to the original URL, it was no longer a comic book/ebook discussion. It was now a more literary site purporting to do book reviews, but still mentioning Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead in vaguely non-sequitur kinds of ways. As far as I could tell, the web page was dynamically taking my search query and intelligently weaving it into something that appeared like a real discussion—all with the aim of directing the gullible to the scam download site.

The internet is truly a strange and bizarre (and sometimes risky) place.

So Enmenre almost certainly doesn’t exist and didn’t hear about and want to read my “old” book. So were the owners of the domain part of the scam or were they victims as well? When I went back to the URL more recently (not through a Google search), it led me to a page that looked just as you would expect something called to look. “For A Labor party. For A Workers’ International,” it intones next to a clinched black fist in front of a red star. It gives every indication of legitimately being the web site of a leftist labor organization. Its only similarity to is that it too offers to take your payment details.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bad Buzz

A couple of posts ago I proudly announced that Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead had made the list of finalists in the historical fiction category of the Prize Writer Competition of When I submitted my novel, I had no illusions about my chances of making that list. So when I exceeded my own expectations, I was delighted. I had no expectation of actually getting a prize—especially since the process favored those who could best exploit legions of fans through social media. I’m the first to admit that the whole “social media” thing is not my strong suit. Thus, there was no real disappointment at not picking up a prize.

What I did get, though, was the entitlement to put a Prize Writer Competition 2015 Finalist sticker on my blog. What I did not expect was that I would also get a genuinely and intriguing story out of the experience. was one of a number of web sites I discovered in the inevitable process of marketing my book. I learned that there are numerous such sites out there—ranging from straightforward blogs, curated by writing and/or reading enthusiasts, to more elaborate web sites that are run as businesses and therefore aim to make money. What they all have in common is the purpose of being of mutual benefit to writers, readers and, not least, the web site proprietor. belonged to a subcategory of sites that essentially want to be a destination akin to the granddaddy of book web sites, Goodreads but with a more in-your-face approach about providing services for which they can charge. Fair enough. Everybody is entitled to make a buck if they can. The truth is, though, I didn’t really know much about aside from what I’ve just recounted and the fact that it is based in London.

I know more now. While I was visiting the U.S. over the recent Easter school break, an email landed in my inbox. It was from Conrad Murray,’s publisher, and it apparently went out to everyone on the site’s mailing list. It can also be read on the site’s home page, accompanied by a photo of a forlorn-looking Murray and his dog. That is how I learned that the writers who did get selected as winners in the site’s competition had not received their promised cash prizes. It turns out that has ceased to function—although the web site is still up with its many book listings, including my own. As explained by Murray, it had been a joint project with Susannah, his partner of a quarter-century, and it all went pear-shaped earlier this year when that relationship broke down. And here’s where it gets really interesting.

He blamed Susannah’s 39-year-old daughter Charlotte who, it turns out, is rather notorious in the British press. Murray linked to a Daily Mail article from a year-and-a-half ago that details Charlotte’s somewhat spotted history and her attempts to lay claim to the estate of her father, a Scottish baronet whose relationship with Susannah years ago was, as they say, without the benefit of clergy. While Sir Malcolm supported Charlotte financially through her childhood and beyond, he apparently drew the line when she began advertising herself to well-heeled clients on escort web sites under the name of Charlie Foxtrot.

More information is available on a very useful web site that I cannot believe I had not found earlier. It is called Writer Beware and is a volunteer service sponsored by various writers’ organizations. It provides advice and information for writers with the aim of shining a light on “the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls.” It reports that, not surprisingly, the competition winners are pretty unhappy about not receiving their prizes. It also provides additional background information on the web site and Conrad Murray. Clearly, many writers believe that the web site was a scam from start to finish.

Murray says that the business’s accounts “all were systematically emptied” by Susannah, but he has promised to eventually pay the prize winners from his own personal resources—after “legal complications” have been overcome. He says he hopes to have this completed by the end of April.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of it all. I don’t feel personally aggrieved since I never expected to get any money out of the experience. I will leave my Finalist sticker on this page for now—until such time as I become convinced that the honor is utterly bogus. But I am upset for the entrants who entered in good faith and then were promised prizes. Time will tell if Murray is some kind of con artist or just a very unfortunate businessman.

In the meantime, the best way to profit from the situation might be to write about it. The story has everything—mystery, money, aristocracy, bad behavior and more than a whiff of sex. Indeed, it has all the makings of a very interesting article—or even a book.