Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jay Lake, The City Imperishable, and Me.

So this was hard to write. I've been putting it off for a while.  A lot of people have written a lot of stirring obituaries and remembrances of Jay Lake.  That's not really what this is though. This is more about me. And it seemed pretty crass to write about myself in immediate wake of someone else's personal tragedy. So I waited, and I thought a lot  about stuff.  And then I ran into this picture online, and felt that I had to write  something. Amanda Downum took this picture at Wiscon 30. Thank you Amanda. You photo  helped get off my ass and down to the business of writing and remembering.

Jay lake started out as a colleague, and writer who I was hearing a  lot  about. And then a distant but regular convention friend.  And then he became an author that I published.  And then  he became a disappointed and frustrated author that I published. It was the first time that I had really failed as a publisher.  Sure, I had books that had done worse, but there were lower expectations for those books.  This was a book by Jay Lake... the shiny, up-and-coming-super-star short-story-writer that everyone was talking about. This was supposed to be his amazing commercial debut.  He  was going to be the next China Mieville. And it didn't happen.  And this was the first time I could point to a specific mistake I made that directly impacted the sales in a negative way.
One of the reasons Jay went with Night Shade was because we always put out really good looking books.  But Trial of Flowers had a disaster of a cover, and it was my fault. We were ramping up our schedule  and trying  to more books sooner, but our proccess hadn't changed, and we were still producing them the same way we had always done them. There were time pressures and new  artists to work with, and I was in charge of  it  all. And I failed him. It  was a simply adequate piece of art  with a mediocre to  solid cover design, but what really sunk it was somewhere in the communication between the Artist, the Cover  Designer  and Me, the color  profile of the artwork's tiff file got changed to something that wasn't CMYK, and it got sent  to the printer. And when it  came back, the color had shifted and looked terrible.  And  we didn't catch it until we had 5K copies in the distributors warehouse.

Jay never out-right confronted me  about it, but I knew  he wondered why his book looked so bad, while most of  the other Night Shade titles looked substantially better.  And I tried to make  it up to him by publishing a sequel to the book... with the hopes that  I could  turn the sales of the two books around some how. And Madness of  Flowers got  a pretty good looking cover that I was proud of. But I never got the series to take off. And due to some miscommunications  between me and my business partner (and conversatiosn between my businesses partner and a third party) Jay had an even worse experience with Night Shade the second time around.

I had asked to see an early draft of Madness of Flowers, because I wanted to give Jay a hands  on edit. I loved Trial, and was eager to try and make Madness the best it could be.  My partner Jason didn't know this was an early draft, and was complaining to someone about the bloated manuscript Jay had  turned  in. I think the word Unprofessional was used.  This  got  back to Jay who was understandably pissed off about the characterization. If there was one thing Jay was, it was utterly professional.  I had some tense  words with my partner, and I contacted Jay and apologized profusely, but the damage was already done.

We were never close after this incident, and I failed to find a bigger audience for the two City Imperishable  novels.  Jay moved up to a bigger publisher, and over the years he was cordial and professional towards me, but I never felt like I could make it up to him. I let him down. He was the first author who I felt I had failed... utterly failed.

For me, Trail of Flowers was the next Perdido Street  Station.   It was a smart, funny, baroque to the point of grotesque epic novel, filled to the brim with ideas, all executed  flawlessly. The characters were a diverse cast of hilarious over and under achievers.  I  loved that book, AND its sequel. There are passages from it that still haunt  me. There could  only be ONE reason why that book didn't take  off  and become a huge hit, and that  was because of  THE COVER, WHICH I HAD SCREWED UP...  Except....

I  remember having conversations with a reader at  Borderlands. He didn't know of  my connection to the book. We were just two fans talking about fantasy novels. And he said, "yeah... I kind of liked it, but it was just TOO MUCH...  to dark and graphic."

"Really?" I asked. "How  so?"

"Well, the book  starts off  with a dwarf masturbating  to all tall person getting murdered and tortured for his gratification. Later that dwarf  is anally raped  in graphic detail, and the author spends  a lot  of time describing the injuries and sutures the dwarf  needs in his ass.   Then there's the main character.. the one raised and abused by the dwarf? He gets off by torturing people  in his  S&M Dungeon beneath his office...."

"I guess, when you list all those things back to back like that..." I said, trailing off.  Trail  of Flowers  was  a dark book.  It was filled with all kinds of  nastiness.  But I felt it was filled with a lot  of other stuff too, and the Nastiness  sort  of  mirrored the world I was living in...
US run Torture camps in Iraq  were on the news  every night...  So all the nastiness in the book seemed kind of  minor compared  to the atrocities that were happening every day.

In retrospect, I have to think that the horrors that were going on in the world around Jay as he was writing them had a direct impact on The City Imperishable books.  The the setting for those two books was the last remaining shell of a former imperial empire... the city was and its inhabitants were living in a past where they were the center of the world, while the rest of the world had moved on. It  was the crumbling remanent of a failed empire, filled by myopic and self important  citizens who didn't realize their  time had passed. It's  possible these books were attempts to make sense of the America that Jay was living in. I don't think they were ever evaluated in that context, and I didn't promote them or push them in that way either.  When you are in the middle of something, It's sometimes easy to miss the obvious.

And as the publisher, I didn't see the obvious... the obvious fact that while I loved the books, they were a bit far from the fantasy mainstream. Sure, the benchmarks were being moved to the dark and grim side of things... And since them, "Grim Dark fantasy" has become the new black.  But there are STILL a lot of readers for whom China Mieville is just too gross and icky.  The City Imperishable books are a bit further down the icky spectrum. They were too in your face, and gross and dark for a lot of fantasy readers at the time they were published. And that right there is another perfectly legitimate reason why the books didn't find a wider audience.  But the cover... man. That was on me.  I'm sorry Jay.

I ran into Jay at San Diego Comicon last year.  I had heard he was going to be there. We exchanged pleasantries, and I idiotically said "I'll see you later" when we parted, even though I knew I wouldn't.  When Jay first came down with cancer, it terrified me, because Jay was my age.  And he had a beautiful young daughter who needed him. He was a living breathing example of just how cruel and uncaring the universe is. Every time Jay won another battle, and pushed off cancer for another week, or month or year, I cheered for him. I quietly kept up with his battles via the internet. He generously shared his experiences with the world, and I was one of those folks who watched from afar.  I sent him a letter once... a long detailed letter that was filled with my fears of my own mortality. I told him what an inspiration he was. But it was a letter about my own insecurities, so I'm not surprised I didn't hear back from him.

When my own daughter was born, I  thought of Jay's daughter... who I had met once at a Night Shade launch party for Doug Lain's collection. She seemed like such an incredible little girl. Smart, articulate, filled with confidence and wonder. Even during that short time that I met, I could tell that one of the best things Jay helped create was his daughter.  And she was always at the center of Jay's life. Once again, Jay was an inspiration... in this case, he showed me what happens when you work hard at being the best father you can be.

Speaking of inspirations... There is an embedded little Easter egg... an anecdote about The City Imperishable books.  Jay never admitted it, but I'm pretty sure the character  "Jason The Factor" was based in part on my business partner Jason. The Jason in the book was an accountant and money changer and lender... Jason real life  handled  all  the accounting  and sent out all the checks for Night Shade.  Jason in the book had a kinky S&M  torture dungeon below  his office,.  Jason in real  life... well... maybe its too much information... but yeah. Jason liked it rough and kinky, and he had  been known to over share now and again, so I'm pretty sure Jay new about this side of Jason. Was the name "Jason" just a coincidence? Maybe. But I think Jay was a funny, savvy irreverent writer who packed a lot of different things into his prose.

Jay was one of the first friends I lost because I was his publisher. He wouldn't be the last.  And my experience  with Trail... and the reception it received  from some  readers and reviewers... That was an important lesson... about being honest with one's self, editorially. Aesthetic blinders can cause you to misread the marketplace, and make sales predictions and promises that you just can  meet.  But that experience  with the cover.... That  was  the one that really haunted  me.  For  a while  it didn't help... it caused  me to freeze up, put things off  and ignore obvious problems. Being the one guy, ultimately in charge  of and responsible for everything... It was pretty overwhelming at times. Its  one of the reasons Night Shade started hiring staff, and paying people  to be responsible for stuff.  Which led to new sets of problems and stresses.

But there  were many instances...  where, at the last minute, I shit -canned art that just wasn't right, and found something else... or  I didn't settle on a mediocre design... or I just kept working it over and over until the right combination of artist, and concept and design appeared.  I  didn't want to be the guy who destroyed someone's career  with a bad  cover... Because I had felt I had  already done that once, and once  was enough.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Drop by Dennis Lehain

The Drop by Dennis Lehain is an interesting cultural artifact. It seems to be a novel, but its a pretty short one. It seems to be the basis for a movie that Lehain wrote.  The packaging on the galley trumpet a movie tie in cover for the book.   Is this book a novelization of the script? Or was the script based on this novel?  A little bit of digging reveals that the script was based on a Lehain short story, and the novel is a novelization of the script, combined with bits and pieces of an earlier novel that Lehain started and stopped.

Ultimately, the books bastard parentage doesn't really matter. Its a gripping, focused little narrative that packs a lot of punch.  There is an efficancy of prose and plotting, with lots of embedded hints and foreshadowings. The characters are drawn well, and often in sharp contrast to one another. Even a couple of throw away thugs have nicely detailed physical and psychological characteristics (The brothers "10").

Like a lot of successfull crime writing, the drop is about broken people living their lives as best they can. Some are trying to make their lives better... and sometimes these journeys of redemption are kicked off by random happenstance.

Making hard choices, and Making choices you have to live with, but sometimes can't.  This seems to be the thematic Core of The Drop. Lehain's gripping, yet starkly drawn character sketches fill out a modest plot that is less concerned with who done it and more concerned with putting humpty back together again. So yes... that does make it the perfect little crime novel... a novel that would not seem out of place on the dime store racks, next early 20th century crime noir masters like Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis.

My only complaint is that this book will have a movie tie in cover, instead of some retro-pulpy-noir piece of awesome, the way Hardcase Crime does... Maybe the limited edition hard cover will feature some throwback artwork? Hopefully?  One can dream...

A Goat In White Van

I first discovered the work of John Darnielle via his band, The Mountain Goats; Specifically, their album Heretic Pride. That album combined a mix of literary and pulpy pop-cultural influences that immediately spoke to me, and suggested that John Darnielle and I were, if not kindred sprits, then at least drinking deeply from the same cultural wells. I spent the month after hearing this album trying to tell everyone I knew about this "new" band I had discovered, only to learn that 1) everyone had already heard of them, 2) their two upcoming shows in San Francisco were already sold out*, and 3) John Darnielle was so damn cool that he was in a video by one of my favorite hip hop artists... Damn, even Aesop Rock had already heard of John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats..

So when i discovered that John Darnielle had a novel coming out, I moved heaven and earth to get an advanced copy. Actually, I just asked the manager at the bookstore I work at to ask for a copy from the publishers sales rep, but that doesn't properly convey the level of anticipation, or frantic desire on my part, so lets just stick with "moved heaven and earth." I was finally going to be out in front of the John Darnielle cultural curve. Finally!

The galley of  Wolf in White Van has one of those designed covers that is positively blinding. I get what they are trying to do... but I don't think it does the book any favors. It's clever in a way that established best sellers can have clever covers, but IMO, this is not the cover you want on a debut novel. I hope I'm wrong in this regard, because this novel is brilliant, and deserves to find a very large group of readers.

The novel is a slow, stately reveal of a character, Sean Phillips who has suffered a horrible disfigurement.  As we move forward through the narrative, Darnielle reveals more and more of how and why the chacrater ended up the way he is. There is a complex flesh back structure combined with a meta-narrative of sorts that is related to a mysterious game called Trace Italian. This game, and various bits of the characters past emphasize yet again that Darnielle and I have been drinking the same cultural kool-aid for a some time.

The character, and settings spoke to me as painfully real, in ways that remind of of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I recognized the painfully awkward and lonely protagonists of Wolf in White Van, and the interior worlds they inhabit. I recognized the flat surfaces of the external wold they try to live in, and the tentative joy when those exterior worlds sometimes take on three dimensions.

There is nothing overwrought or purple about Darnielle's style, and nothing twee about his plots and characters. There is a simple intensity, and a playful reveal of details that engenders the feelings of a burgeoning romance and courtship. We the reader are slowly finding out more about Sean Phillips and the world he inhabits... and like many romances, there are no guarantees we are going to like Phillips when we finally learn all of his secrets, but the journey is memorable and exciting.

I was very impressed by the narrative's continuous parade of MacGuffins and solutions to the core mystery of the novel. There was an intensity to the novel's slow reveal that belied the skeletal plot. And the meta story telling embedded in the Trace Italian game expertly interwove and suggested relationships between character motivation and author intentionality, and served as a possible Rosetta Stone to some of the novels questions. The culmination and final reveal of the novel exploded with an emotional inensity equal to that of some of Darnielle's best songs.

This is a character driven novel, with a minimal plot. And as I suggested, the tension in the novel isn't about what is going to happen, but a slow reveal of what has happened, and why.  Frankly this is a tough type of narrative to pull off, but I think Darnielle manages it expertly. Given that the frisson of this work involves organically discovering the mysteries embedded in the character's life, I would urge readers to dive right in, and avoid reading summaries and plot descriptions. Its an amazing novel, and I hope Darnielle continues to prose writing. His earlier effort in meta-textual prose/rock criticisms, Master of Reality is on my to read pile, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Wolf in White Van comes out in hardcover in September of this year.

*Six months later, the Mountain Goats returned to San Francisco and played the Filmore. I got tickets the day they went on sale. The funny thing about this concert was that they played almost exclusively from Heretic Pride.  The audience kept calling out for songs from their extensive back catalog, and the Mountain Goats kept playing tracks from the new album... it felt like the show was just for me, because I didn't know any of the older material... but I knew every track on the new album by heart.