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September 14, 2013

Interview with John Sundman

John Sundman is a heck of an interesting person. He’s been around the technology circuit from the Old Days (we’re peers in the chronological sense) but he also writes damn good fiction, some of which (Cheap Complex Devices [my review][sf site][goodreads]) is pretty sublime.

So how does a talented writer make a living in the Webby world? He and I have a long conversation about that and many other things.

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June 20, 2012

Brad Abruzzi on NJ’s Famous Turnpike Witch

I’ve now finished Brad Abruzzi’s New Jersey’s Famous Turnpike Witch. It ends well, although not in the sense of tying up all the loose ends. But, then, it wouldn’t. Here’s my review. Here’s where you can download it. It’s awesome.

I sent Brad some questions. He responded:

Q: How long have you been writing fiction? What have you written before?

This is my second novel. I started the first in the summer after my college graduation. It was an effort to channel my postgraduate “what now?” angst into something constructive and interesting. I’d describe it as an anti-coming of age novel, framed as a typewritten manuscript sent to select media outlets by the notorious (and, as he explains, accidental) Rust Belt revolutionary fugitive title character, John “Cactus” Kelly. Cactus Kelly hopes to explain how he didn’t mean to start the Steeltown riots, that he has not endorsed the radicalized youth movement that has taken up his name, and that he was only trying to parry his father’s attempts, via armed “contractors,” to see him kicked out of the family home and flushed against his will into a productive life. And of course there’s a Gila monster that introduces all sorts of plot complications.

I burned through three literary agents with In Defense of Cactus Kelly, and though I got some very polite and encouraging rejections from editors, I never managed to place it. It probably didn’t help that “Cactus Kelly” was also the name of a prominent “foxy boxer” in Colorado. I had no idea there was such a thing as foxy boxing, or that anyone could be prominent in that trade.

Q: Do you have a particularly strong connection to the NJ Turnpike?

I do now. I actually grew up in Ohio. But I went to school in New Jersey, and I travel that road a heck of lot to visit in-laws in Virginia. As I look back, I’m not sure where all this came from, except that I’ve always thought it was awesome that New Jersey names its Turnpike Service Areas after its prominent native sons and daughters (no foxy boxers, as yet). I’m sure Walt Whitman and Alexander Hamilton would be thrilled to know that their names have been conscripted into service for the peddling of pizza-flavored Combos and Arizona Iced Tea. And for hosting those “drop the hook and win a prize” games that we know we can’t win, but for whatever reason we can’t resist taking a shot at them, when we’re on the road.

Q: Why didn’t you publish with a traditional publishing house?

Um, you’d have to ask them. Or you’d have to ask the agents, because I didn’t even clear that first barrier to publishing. I went the traditional publishing route with IDCK, and though I was ultimately unsuccessful with it, I had lots of interest, including the aforementioned three literary agents — so much so that when I started writing NJFTPW, I was (naively, presumptuously, wrongly, stupidly) thinking of it as a “second book,” such that I’d have more license to run wild with characters and plot. Turns out that was not the case, and it’s been a struggle even to get agents to read the manuscript. My third and last agent for IDCK left the business to study anthropology. He was my best (read, only) advocate with ties to the business, and I was pretty adrift when he told me he was quitting. He was looking at NJFTPW at the time, but he’d just had enough of the business. You’d have to ask him why he left, but it may have had something to do with the uphill battle he was having selling writers he liked.

I’ve been advised by professionals that the problems I’ve had selling NJFTPW is that it doesn’t fit easily into any particular fiction bucket. I don’t know if that means it’s just too whacked out, that it’s not susceptible to the genre labels (satire? humor? literary? po-mo?), or that it’s just not about vampires, Templar Knights, and/or the young woman trying to find love in the Big City. But in retrospect, I think I understand why. The truth is, I’d started this book in my first year of law school, and as best I can figure it, I was grappling with the meaning and consequences of having made the first practical decision — concession? — of my life. So I reserved a pocket of my life to be decidedly impractical, and at the same time I was studying Torts and Contracts, I sat down and wrote Chapter 1, about my disillusioned diva performance artist in traffic. And so now I’m paying for that impractical decision. And that’s fine, because I’m happy with this book.

Q: How has the reaction been?

Well, you know. There’s not exactly a marketing machine behind the book right now. And The Witch isn’t positioned at eye level on any bookstore’s New Fiction shelf. As someone who had a go at blogging and was able to use Google Analytics to track and identify the entirety of his readership in real time (“Hey: that’s my high school friend in Texas.” “Wait: who’s reading this in Florida? Oh, right, Mike’s on vacation.”), I didn’t carry into this the highest expectations of “going viral.” And writing and sending “buy my book” spam isn’t something I do well — I can write a query letter or blurb, fer shurr, but it’s not my strong suit. So I’ve tried to have fun with it. The Witch has a Facebook account, a Twitter account, and now and again she’ll surface to say a word or two about national affairs or pick a fight with her Creator. We have a lively back-and-forth, she and I, and it does absolutely nothing to improve my sales figures.

But I’ve got a couple strong reviews on Amazon, and I have your very flattering and thoughtful words, so onward and upward, little by little, I guess.

I do have this from my wife, who recently broke her pledge not to introduce complications in her marriage by reading my books: “You should go back to writing poetry.” I’m finding ways to take that as a compliment.

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June 18, 2012

The Famous NJ Turnpike Witch

Most fiction is crap. Often the plot is arbitrary or unsurprising. More often, the you can see the author’s plans behind the writing: The author needs a brainy nerd, a wisecracking minor character, a mysterious presence, someone with the key to the jalopy. Whatever. The characters, the plot, the entire mess feels constructed. Which is usually the opposite of art. (This is certainly true of my pathetic stabs at fiction.)

Then, of course, there are the magicians. John Updike could make you feel you were inhabiting a real person within a single paragraph. I’m reading Philip Roth’s Nemesis now, and while I often find Roth’s world unpleasant to live in, I find myself in that world without any sense of Roth standing between it and me.

So, meet Brad Abruzzi. Brad was a Berkman Fellow last year, and we hit it off. Brad was also a lawyer in Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel, and I got to know him in that capacity since he was a silent hero in the effort to negotiate the freedom of 12M+ bibliographic records from Harvard Library. He has since moved to MIT, which is too bad for Harvard. I like Brad a lot.

But I had no idea, none at all, that he is a fiction writer whose work is the opposite of crap. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but the guy can write. Of course, I don’t know what I would expect a good fiction writer to look like, short of a beret and a thick coat of pretension.

I downloaded Brad’s novel New Jersey’s Famous Turnpike Witch with trepidation, figuring I’d have to say something nice to him about it while technically salvaging my integrity through some clever, noncommital choice of words. But NJFTPW is just wonderful. I’m only 70% through, and I’ll let you know how the whole thing goes, but I’m loving it so far. Brad has created a skewed world in which the NJ Turnpike is its own realm, with its own culture, sociology, and politics. The fulcrum of the story is Alice, a performance artist who — implausibly, until you realize that this is not the NJ Turnpike you’re used to driving — is beloved by the long lines of cars she ties up with her antics. The story is brimming with characters, none stock, most somewhat over-the-top, each richly imagined and each with her or his own unexpected history — funny short stories on their own. Brad, it turns out, is endlessly inventive. You would never ever read back from this book and figure it was probably written by a Harvard-MIT lawyer.

This is a really good book. Once you give into its absurd premises, it follows a logic that makes sense as it unfolds. It’s funny, satiric, frequently hilarious, and full of sentences you’ll re-read because they’re that enjoyable.

Holy cow, Brad! Holy holy cow.

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March 24, 2012

Birthday Girl: The Story

My friend Evelyn Walsh’s short story “Birthday Girl” is the Story of the Week at Narrative Magazine. It’s a carefully observed little tale of norms and ethics embodied in a sleep-deprived suburban mom’s desire to do the right thing by everyone. From my point of view, it’s about how difficult it is to negotiate a community of acquaintances.

But I’m making it sound too heavy. It’s a fun, suspenseful read, and well worth the free registration at the site.

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September 16, 2011

Stories from stories

My sister-in-law’s new book is out: Re-visions: Stories from Stories, by Meredith Sue Willis. She re-tells classic stories from a different point of view. You can read a sample here, or buy it here.

I haven’t read it yet — I just ordered it — but I’m willing to bet it’s excellent. Sue (as we call her) has the fiction writer’s gift of bringing people and places to life. How does she do that?!

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June 7, 2009

My kid’s novel is now an e-book

My $100 Million Dollar Secret, my novel for young adults, is now available for free on your Kindle. In fact, it’s available in multiple e-book formats, thanks to ManyBooks. It’s available there because it went through ManyBooks’ rigorous vetting process, which consisted of me filling in a form that basically required me to say “Wanna list my book?” I submitted it in html format, and ManyBooks converted it to a dozen other formats. Thank you, ManyBooks! And, yes, at ManyBooks you’ll find many books worth reading.

You can also read it for free online, or download it in .Doc or .PDF formats free at its own site. You can also get a paper copy (and pay me a couple of bucks) at Lulu, where it has sold well into the low dozens of copies.

The book is about a kid who wins $100,000,000 in the state lottery, through a contrivance because his parents are philosophically against the idea of lotteries. Because he’s a good kid and gets along well with his parents, he decides he will not lie about having won it. But he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he (more or less inadvertently) bought a ticket. So, he has to hide the fact that he now is rich. The book is about him figuring out how to spend the money, and more importantly, what good money can do.

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