TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part 3: Passenger Etiquette

“Trans-Atlantic” by Hamish Spiers continues. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.

By Hamish Spiers

Part III. Passenger Etiquette


I found myself in an empty compartment with a hand around my collar.

“Let go!” I shouted, trying to tear myself loose. “I’ll call the guard!”

“Where are the designs?” one of the goons demanded.

I shoved him away. “Why can’t you get it into your thick heads that I’m not the guy you’re looking for?”

At this juncture, the door to the compartment slid open and a guard stepped in.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” I told him.

However, the guard didn’t reciprocate my feelings. “Are you the one making all that noise?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “You see…”

It was as if a switch had been flicked.

“All passengers are requested to refrain from unduly boisterous behavior,” the guard said, the words coming out like a recording, “or any other activities that may disturb fellow passengers.”

Then, coming back from whatever planet he’d gone to, he shook himself back into the there–and–then. “And you, sir, are creating a disturbance.”

“Yes,” I said. “I get that. But –”

I stopped and shook my head. The goons had taken this opportunity to pull a runner and I was alone with an insane employee of the Trans–Atlantic. And he was holding out a piece of paper.

“Consider this a warning,” said the man with the mind that could not be fathomed.

I took the paper and inspected it.

“You can pay it now or at the end of your journey,” he told me.

“That’s very generous,” I replied, eyeing the amount. “But I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here. Those men were threatening me.”

“What men?” the guard asked.

I gave up. I reached into my pocket and pulled out some credits. “Here. I’ll pay you now.”

The guard took the money. “Now, I need to see your ID and ticket.”

Rolling my eyes, I produced the documents. “Here. Maybe you can tell me if it says Jerry or Terry on those things.”

The guard inspected them. “Both.”

I scowled. “What do you mean, both?”

“Here,” the guard said, showing me. “It says Jerry Ferguson on your ID and Terry Ferguson on your ticket.”

“Well, it’s probably just a mistake.”

“If this isn’t your ticket, then you shouldn’t be on this train at all,” the guard said.

“What?” I asked. “Listen, I paid good money for that ticket. There’s clearly been a mix up. In fact, I think there’s someone else on this train with a very similar name to mine and they’ve probably got my ticket. Look, can’t you call Amsterdam or something?”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me,” the guard said.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll come with you. But can you get someone to call the station in Amsterdam and sort this nonsense out?”

“We have a manifest of everyone who’s supposed to be on the train,” the guard told me.

“Well, good!” I said. “Why don’t you go and check it?”

At this, the guard shook his head and pulled out another piece of paper.

My mouth dropped open. “Oh, come on.”

But it was too late. The guard had already gone to whatever dimension he went to when the voices took over.

“All passengers are requested to refrain from…”


At this point in the narrative, I’d had my last run in with the goons from Alliance Airways so it feels like an appropriate juncture to throw in some of the dirt I’ve since dug up on them.

The one capable of speech, if not sentient thought, was a guy called Ralph Carter, while his buddies were Mike Anderson and Jack Burns. Ralph Carter was a goon from way back when – probably kindergarten – and he used to work for a fellow named Thomas Hayes. Hayes was a dirty lawyer in the pocket of a tobacco giant. He argued that damage to the profit margins of his client was a sufficient cause to block measures for fighting tobacco epidemics in Asia. Kind of like how outlawing arson ticked off all the pyromaniacs out there.

The judge in that case, John Evans, had several million dollars worth of shares in Hayes’ client’s company. And he was a former employer of Mike Anderson, goon number two.

Now some would argue that having someone like that presiding over that case would represent a conflict of interest. Evans, that is, not Anderson. Having Anderson presiding over a court case would just be stupid. However, Evans got away with it because he was backed by Warren Crawford, who was president at the time. And Crawford backed Evans because Evans had thrown out a case involving Crawford’s now well–known vote tampering. And Crawford once employed Jack Burns, goon number three.

Then tragedy struck our three goons. Evans was jailed for manslaughter after drink driving with a trunk full of narcotics. Crawford was impeached for tax fraud and embezzlement – rigging the election would catch up with him later – and Hayes, in an act of bravado, legged it for the nearest tax shelter.

So Ralph Carter, Mike Anderson and Jack Burns found themselves out on the street with no transferable skills aside from their unpleasantness. And it was then that they caught the attention of the up and coming Alliance Airways, a company built entirely on a speculative industry.

Now you have to remember what traveling was like just after the oil–era ended. People could travel between continents on ships, sure. Sailing ships. Solar powered ships. Bio–fuel powered ships. And they got you where you wanted to go. And, of course, the tunnels were being dug out then too.

But what everyone really wanted was commercial air travel. Sure, they could get planes in the air easily enough but it was expensive or the things wouldn’t go far enough.

Emerging airlines banked everything on this. If they could get commercial air travel off the ground again, they’d have it made. They headhunted every expert on bio–fuel, wind powered propulsion, solar panels, you name it, and they stole each other’s ideas as well.

But for all these speculators, their financiers and their investors, there was only the dream. And that was whichever company first made commercial air travel a viable business again would have the world at their feet. Or several thousand feet under them. And there were people who would have done anything to be the first to succeed at this. I doubt Alliance Airways was alone in its dodgy practices.

However, interestingly enough, I later discovered that the CEO of Alliance Airways was a fellow called Lloyd Jenkins and his sister was Warren Crawford’s wife. And he was also a good friend of Thomas Hayes and John Evans. Small world.

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“Trans-Atlantic” by Hamish Spiers continues this week. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.


By Hamish Spiers

Part II. Bob

A few hours after setting off from Amsterdam, I went to the nearest dining car and had a steak sandwich for lunch. A luxury, I’ll admit. With land rates at a premium, the few remaining cattle farming conglomerates charge a hefty fee for meat. Then, as I was going back to my compartment, I was approached by three men who looked like trouble.

“Can I help you?” I asked them.

“Terry Ferguson?” one of the men asked, answering my question with one of his own.

“Um… it’s Jerry Ferguson,” I said. “But yes?”

“Terry Ferguson,” the man began.

“Jerry,” I corrected him.

“You don’t know us,” the man plowed on, knocking over all the barriers in his way. “But you know who we work for.”

“No, I don’t,” I said. “And my name’s Jerry.”

“Now, company loyalty is all well and good,” the man said, “but is it worth getting your legs broken?”

I thought of the job I’d just quit in Amsterdam. “Not really. No.”

The man smiled. “So we understand one another.”

“I think we’re talking at cross purposes.”

“Excellent,” the man said.

“You realize I have no idea what you’re talking about, right?”

The man gave me a conspiratorial wink. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’ll do this, as they say, off the record.”

“Do what?”

The man’s grin remained fixed. “Exactly.”

He thought we were being conspiratorial. I thought he was being an idiot.

“So,” I said, trying a new tact, “you want the…”

“The designs for the new bio–fuel engine prototype your company is working on.”

I nodded. “Of course. Well, if you and your mute pals here want to wait a minute, I’ll go and get them.”

The man stepped forward. “Oh, we’ll come with you.”

I smiled and tapped my nose. “Ah, but we don’t want anyone to know about this, do we? After all, this is going to be strictly… ‘off the record’?”

“It’ll still be off the record,” the man said. “We’re just old friends going to join you in your compartment for a drink.”

“Right,” I said. “I get it.” I turned to lead them back to my compartment, then whirled around, shoved the nearest one out of the way, and ran for it.

When I was out of sight, I ducked into a little doorway to an unfamiliar part of the carriage where I found myself in a somewhat cramped but, at the same time, rather cozy room where a single occupant was eating his evening meal.

A glance at this grey man with somewhat flattened features and, if you’ll excuse the description, ‘otherworldly eyes’ was all I needed to tell he wasn’t human. Sitting down a respectful distance to the alien’s right, I decided to break the ice.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

The alien sighed. “If I got a job with Trans–Atlantic, you could probably assume that. Wouldn’t you say?”

“Sorry, it’s just that you’re…”

“Not human? Well spotted.”

“I did say I’m sorry.” I then tried starting over. “I’m Jerry,” I told him, glancing at his name tag. “Um… Bob?”

“My actual name’s Xanafaeir,” he said. “But most people find Bob easier to remember.”

I nodded and looked around. “And what’s this place supposed to be?”

“Off limits to passengers,” Bob said. “It’s a staff lunch room.”

“Well, I’m sorry about barging in then,” I said. “I just had to find somewhere to hide. Some guys out there want to break my legs.”

Bob smiled. “And some guys who come in here might want to give you a fine. Still, why do these people want to break your legs?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Some rubbish about bio–fuel engines. They think I’m someone else.”

Bob shook his head. “I don’t understand human beings and their love of violence. Why do you want to maim? Why do you kill?”

“Well, I don’t make a habit of it,” I said, feeling a little taken aback.

“You don’t kill?”

“Of course not.”

“Didn’t I see you eating a steak sandwich in the dining car a few minutes ago?”

“Ah. I see what you mean,” I said. “But having a steak sandwich isn’t the same thing as killing a cow.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“All right. I see your point.”

Bob sighed. “That’s the problem with human beings. You’re all so… disconnected from everything. And you’re disconnected from your responsibilities. To yourselves, each other, future generations, and everything and everyone around you. It’s the reason for all your problems.”

“Because we’re disconnected?”

“Yes. You’re oblivious to how you affect the world around you. You chow down on steak sandwiches without a second thought for the cows. You melt your world’s ice caps and cause mass extinctions. You tear up the countryside and turn it into mines and roads. Do you want me to go on?”

“I wish you wouldn’t. But most people aren’t like that. Well, okay. I’ll give you the point about the steak sandwiches, but the other stuff… It’s the politicians. The CEOS. The industry lobbyists. They’re the ones tearing up the planet.”

“You’re the majority though,” Bob pointed out. “Why do you put up with it?”

“Look, I don’t know. I’m tired.”

“It’s because you’re all disconnected,” Bob said. “No one wants to speak out against the tiny little group that’s got you all under its sway because you think if you speak up, you’ll be alone. And you know why?”

I sighed. “Because we’re disconnected.”

“Now you’re getting it.”

I sighed. “Yeah. You want me to change the world and I don’t even know if I’m going to make it to New York with both my legs.”

Bob shrugged. “I was just making chit chat.”

“You’ve got a funny idea of chit chat. Anyway, it was nice meeting you but I think I might just go and stay somewhere nice and public instead.”

“Suit yourself,” Bob told me, “but you’ll miss out on all the fun when the chef drops by.”

“I’ll live.”

“All things being equal, of course.”

“Yes, thank you for that.”

“By the way,” Bob said, “it’s not really my concern because I really don’t care one way or the other what humans do amongst themselves… But if these guys are really trying to break your legs, why don’t you just tell a guard?”

“I will when I find one,” I replied. And then I stopped. “Hang on a second. If you don’t care one way or the other what we do amongst ourselves, isn’t that a bit… I don’t know… species–ist?”

“I guess it is,” Bob replied. “Tell that to a cow.”


I didn’t realize this at the time of course but it was something of a privilege running into this man before he was well–known. Since I met him, Bob has become well–known for his numerous designs for interstellar space faring vessels, every one of them patented to prevent members of the human race from possibly developing them at a later date.

When I first met him however, he wasn’t even on the public radar, although his people had made something of a media splash when he and several thousand of his kind stopped on Earth to repair their interstellar cruiser.

Unfortunately though, they couldn’t find any trydium here, whatever that is, and that’s why they decided to fill in their immigration forms and stay. Oddly though, the only people who paid any genuine attention were immigration officials and employers. And wtih Bob’s qualifications as an engineer who designed space vessels capable of traveling billions of light years in a matter of days, he found employment with very little difficulty, landing a cleaning job on that train.


Anyway, to get back to the story, I left Bob to his lunch and went to find a guard. And I actually made it five paces before I got mugged again.

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TRANS–ATLANTIC, Part I: Amsterdam

This week we begin our serialization of “Trans-Atlantic” written by the author of the Star Frontiers series, Hamish Spiers. We’ll be running a new installment each week through summer so be sure to pop back each week.


By Hamish Spiers

Part I: Amsterdam

I didn’t always live here in New York. When the oil dried up and the old airlines went belly up along with the petroleum industry, my grandparents on my father’s side were in the Netherlands and neither of them could afford a ticket on the next cruise ship home. So, because that’s where my father was raised and where he met my mother, that’s where I grew up too.

I was always intrigued by America since large tracts of it had been unaffected by the big freeze when melting Arctic ice choked up the Gulf Stream and another ice age hit Europe. Now, I wasn’t living in one of Amsterdam’s underground neighborhoods thankfully. I lived in one of the city’s climate controlled domes so I could see the sky and be warm at the same time. But the idea of not even having a dome overhead had its attractions.

Then eventually the oceanic tunnels had come into play and intercontinental travel was no longer a privilege exclusive to those rich enough to ride on the cruise ships. Regular people got interested in traveling again and I began to think about seeing America for myself. And then one bad day at the office decided the matter.

A new manager had joined the company, one of those guys who thought the whole point of management was to make changes and leave a mark. And nothing makes a more lasting impression than the widespread anarchy that follows a heap of useless and poorly thought–out departmental policies.

It was time to get out. And the next day I entered Amsterdam’s Trans–Atlantic station.

It was huge and going down all the escalators was a trip in itself. Growing up a European, I was no stranger to being underground. I knew a few friends who lived down below because they couldn’t get a place in a dome. But I had never been so far underground before. Still, the escalators did come to an end and I soon found the check–in desk.

After getting my ticket, I went down more escalators and through even more checkpoints before stepping into a cavern so large that its ceiling was lost in the dappled light of thousands of gigantic bulbs far above me. I was on the platform and stretching out before me was the train, the biggest I had ever seen.

The carriages were all bi–level, like the Dutch DD–ARs that were still in use back in the city, except twice as high and four times as wide. They all had restrooms, shower facilities and sleeper compartments and there were multiple dining cars. And apparently, somewhere amongst the massive line of cars and carriages that would be undergoing this six thousand kilometer trip were two cinema cars and three casino cars. I was impressed.

I then looked at the various fluorescent numbers shining out in the distance to guide passengers to the right carriages. I was in car thirteen.

I jumped on a travelator which took me most of the way to the edge of the platform and then it was a short walk to the doorway. An attendant checked my ticket and then I stepped into the carriage and looked for my compartment. I found it on the second level, a generous three by two meter room with a comfy couch that folded out into a bed.

There was also a drawer underneath it where I put my carry–on. And across the room, there was a power switch, along with a wash basin and a screen that doubled as a TV and a computer monitor. Underneath it was a small fold–out table with a pull–out tablet PC. All in all, it looked very comfortable.

I then looked out the window at the cavern outside. Then I wondered why there was a window. After a while, I got out a book. Then, a little a while after that, there was an announcement that we would be departing in forty minutes and that the journey would take approximately thirty hours, depending on power flow.

I pondered that for a moment. Then I flung aside my book and pulled out the passenger information manual in the magazine holder under the window. From a quick perusal of the leaflet, I learned that the tunnel trains traveled at an average speed of two hundred kilometers per hour. And while this was not as fast as some of the bullet trains on land were capable of reaching, it was still very fast. Especially for trains so large and heavy.

However, occasionally, there were power problems. These were an obvious risk with supply cables that stretched thousands of kilometers through tunnels under the ocean floor. And the solar powered generators they were hooked up to were based on land; there were no back–up generators in the middle of the ocean. However, the leaflet assured passengers that there were local back–up generators on board the trains. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about things like being trapped for weeks or the tunnel being flooded.

However, once the train pulled away, most of my misgivings subsided. And my initial impressions were quite good. Better than my initial feelings on my first plane trip two years later, when commercial flight got off the ground again. There was no business class and economy class division on the train, and all the passengers paid the same amount. It wasn’t cheap but it didn’t break the vault. And nobody got squashed up like sardines in a tin. You see, the train didn’t need to get off the ground – quite the contrary – so all that stuff about weight and space wasn’t an issue.

And it wasn’t pitch black outside as I’d expected. It was bright. For a while, I wondered why the tunnel was lit, just as I had wondered why a train traveling under the ocean floor had windows. The train was on a track, after all, so it wasn’t as though the driver could get lost. But I supposed if there were any obstructions, like fallen slabs of concrete or the rushing water of the Atlantic Ocean, it’d be a good idea if the driver could see them.

Then I noticed that there were maintenance roads running alongside the track as well. And then after a little while longer, I saw a maintenance station. A large self–sustaining underground bunker where a group of workers were sitting around drinking coffee. An hour later, I saw another one.

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This summer and the next BPO

This summer we’ve got a special treat lined up for you: Drugstore Books will be hosting a weekly serialization called “Trans-Atlantic” by the author of the Star Frontiers series (and much more) Hamish Spiers. We’ll be running a new installment every week so be sure to drop by regularly.

Also, don’t forget that the deadline for our next By Prescription Only: Themed Writing showcase is fast approaching. See below for the details and send us your stuff here:

  • Theme: Regret
  • Length: 1,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word or TextEdit file
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: (on the left) © Your Name 2015 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“regret”) with embedded single quotes (‘regret’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (e.g. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 07 July

Remember that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it.

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Browsing through boxes

One of my favorite ways to find new authors is by accident. It might even be my favorite way, come to think of it. I recently came across a real gem in this manner, and it got me thinking about browsing, both in the standard (for those over a certain age) way of picking things up and looking at them, and in the newer way (well, again, new only to those over a certain age) of digital browsing.

The book in question is Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation by Paolo Virno, which is a collection of three essays by the Italian philosopher translated into English and dealing with, especially the central main essay, linguistic praxis (primarily how language forms thought and thought norms, actions, etc.). Of particular interest was his look at applying Carl Schmitt’s ideas on decision to Wittgenstein’s writings on language games. I picked it up because I thought it would help with my own writing, and while it hasn’t done that it has got me thinking a lot and I’ve learned a lot about Wittgenstein in the process too. I suppose that I could have just cracked open my copy of Philosophical Investigations but that would only have been half the story that Virno provides. (My copy of PI, by the way, is the bilingual English-German one which I bought because I stupidly thought I’d start studying German. My reasoning, I guess, was that it would be useful and fun and after years of getting Japanese under my belt how hard could it be? I have no idea since I never found the time to even start. Alas, the clock and the calendar.)

Here’s how I happened upon it: I was in the foreign language books section of a pretty good bookstore here in Tokyo and found a couple of cardboard boxes on the end of one aisle with a mix of French and English stuff of all sorts of genres inside. This excited me because the only place I know in town with used foreign language books is this place called “Good Day Books” which after two terrible experiences I refuse to ever set foot in again (the woman who runs it is one of the rudest people I’ve ever come across). It was of course great fun digging around through the boxes and although my decision was hurried somewhat by my not-yet two year-old daughter it reminded me of the beauty of making space for serendipity in our lives.

Now I know that the same process can unfold digitally on any one of the many sites that feature large numbers of books (from Amazon to Goodreads to Smashwords to fill in the blank), but that process seems to me to miss out on a lot of the enjoyment of finding a book the way I did Virno’s. You can run across authors and titles you’ve never heard of by clicking around and following links (but there will be no links in this post), but what is mostly missing in that process is the holistically human element even if the randomness is preserved. When you go to a bookstore or a booksite you are setting yourself up to find something, even if you nevertheless come away with nothing. What you’re not getting with a booksite though are the tactile and aesthetic experiences you get from a bookstore. Yes, if you do find something you want to download you can then hold your Kindle or iPad or smartphone when you’re reading the ebook in question but you’re still interacting with a plastic screen-based device that displays words instead of being embodied by words. It’s clearly not the same and emotionally feels differently too as with a book you’ve got a device that is solely devoted to its contents whereas even with a Kindle (which unlike an iPad or smartphone is only for reading) you’ve got a device that is devoted to potentially thousands of titles at once. Where’s the love for that one book that has struck you so profoundly? As for the aesthetic element, think of how a book’s cover can absorb you when you first handle it, turning it over, checking the spine, noting the details, color balance and distribution, image placement and alignment with title and other textual elements. Some covers are works of art in their own right (and I’m most definitely not thinking of the movie poster wannabe covers that are smeared onto the latest mass market pulp). Even if you use the zoom in feature on a booksite how much can you really appreciate a cover when it’s a thumbnail on a page teeming with other images?

I realize that this is a bit like a medieval scribe bemoaning the advent of the printing press, and that the convenience of these devices shouldn’t be downplayed nor the significance of the fact that, despite all of the mind-sucking developments of the internet age, people are still reading, but I can’t shake the thought that experiences like the one I had with Virno’s work are an integral part of what it is to be a lover of books. When the written word just becomes one more excuse for avoiding the material world we inhabit I think we’ve lost something very precious. I hope that in a decade’s time my daughter is still able to find books that interest her on shelves and in cardboard boxes at the end of aisles.

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Pictures in the Pages (Part 2)

Last time I blogged about standalone illustrations in children’s and adult literature. This time I’ll explore illustrations that interact directly with the text.

As I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections earlier this year, I’ll take a quick look at a few of his visual tricks first. For those who haven’t read it, The Corrections focuses on an elderly Midwestern couple and their three grownup children who’ve all fled to the East Coast. It moves around in time from the 1950s to just before the turn of the millennium.

Before the reader arrives at the first real textual illustration, Franzen has already played around with typography. For example, embedded within the text there’s an excerpt from Chip’s (the youngest son) failed screenplay that’s formatted in movie script style, indented, double spaced and set off by the script’s page number (Picador version, p.27-28).

Chip is reviewing the screenplay (and why it failed) and the word breast is bolded throughout. It appears very frequently and allows the reader a wry smirk at male writers who drop women into a story merely as sex objects. It also shows us exactly how Chip writes drama (flatulently) and, more importantly, how he thinks (a lusty and unravelling ex-academic).

In a similar vein, Franzen uses a pair of pilcrows (¶) (p. 45) to bullet point Chip’s thoughts. As already stated, Chip is a likeable but rather pretentious ex-assistant professor and this device does a lot to characterise him without words. (After all, who thinks in pilcrows?) The lesson here is that you can play with typography (sparingly) to get a reader deeper into the story. Old Modernist tricks still work well.

The following illustration in The Corrections connects and intersects with four characters out of five. Chip is inspecting a prescription pill (street: “Mexican A”) on a short road trip (p. 55). He believes the drug is embossed with:


20150518_204801The pill may be real, but  the “Midland Pacific Lines” logo is purely a figment of his imagination. His father  spent his entire life working for that railroad company and this simple illustration implies so much about the fraught dynamic between father and (estranged) son. For the writer to take the necessary time and words to describe the pill (the logo is a sun, something like a bargain sticker in a dime store with Midland Pacific Lines set in the centre) would flip the reader out of the scene and therefore lose immediacy and impact. Furthermore, Chip’s already wasted so seeing it from his point of view without authorial comment is highly effective.

The drug (minus the Midland Pacific logo) reappears in the story when his mother visits a doctor on a cruise ship to combat her depression, and then once again when a pill ends up being placed inside an advent calendar on December 24th by his sister. Regarding the connection to his father, Midland Pacific Lines is never far from the old man’s thoughts as he is defined by his past work, hence his youngest son seeing his father’s now defunct employer embossed into a pill while stoned and immediately prior to copulating with one of his students. It’s enough to send anyone on a guilt trip.

Moving on, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and the Trystero (a muted post horn) is worth a mention as it jumped from being a reference between the pages to becoming the symbol of the book, not just with the designers of various editions but with fans themselves. The muted horn represents the Trystero/Tristero mail system, an organisation defeated by Thurn-und-Taxis Post (a real mail company, although German not American, this, after all, is Pynchon) before the organisation moved underground and began using waste bins as collection boxes (W.A.S.T.E. being an acronym for: We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire).

The protagonist sees the Trystero pop up everywhere on her travels, and this is rendered in illustration within the novel. Back in 2012, Penguin Press designed a hunt using stickers showing the novel’s Trystero and a URL that contained a coded clue. This would’ve been a lot more interesting if it’d been organised by fans rather than a corporate marketing campaign, but it does at least show how a simple illustration can take hold of the public imagination.

I’ve run out of time, but a very honourable mention must go to Kurt Vonnegut who not only used illustrations in many of his novels, Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five spring immediately to mind, but who actually penned the illustrations himself. This being Vonnegut his doodles were always crammed full of wit, and although he was a good sketch artist he prioritised getting his illustrations in character over good penmanship. Take a look.

If that fails to impress you then this might: In 1999, a newly-discovered minor planet was named “25399 Vonnegut“. It might only be an asteroid between Jupiter and Mars, but, some rather major physical discomforts aside, I imagine it to be an excellent place to light up a Pall Mall. I’d like to see a Ralph Steadman sketch of that.

Until next time.

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Sales, charts, and egos

As any writer who is not already famous can tell you – and I mean anyone, trad-pub or self-pub makes little difference here – marketing your book is probably the toughest nut to crack. If you’re going trad-pub you have to pre-market it to agents and/or the in-house gatekeepers before standing on street corners and going door to door with a suitcase full of signed copies, but at least the traddies will help you with the suitcase. If you’re going self-pub you can skip that step but then you’re on your own for absolutely everything else, and if you’re as bad-looking as the three of us are then you won’t find the going easy. What to do?

There are some options. To fill the niche that opened up when self-pubbing became the preferred way to go for a huge number of new and established authors companies that offer marketing services have sprouted and grown. Check out Smith Publicity for an example. Getting reviewed, making use of keywords, and thinking about how you present your book are ways you can help yourself; check our archives for posts on those topics and this page too may be useful for some general advice. There’s also the line of thought that marketing is a waste of time as it achieves so little for all the effort put in, explained here with the rebuttal that reviews, at least, are worth going to the trouble to get. (If you only click on one link in this post make it that one; it’s well worth reading.)

Then for those who still have money left to burn after hiring a marketing company there’s the other option of buying up lots of copies of your own book to give yourself a sales boost, make it into the top charts, and let the residual magic of being noticed do the rest. Kurt Vonnegut’s wife famously bought boxes of his books to help him get started, Brian Epstein less famously apparently bought 10,000 copies of “Love Me Do” to help out the young Beatles, and Sarah Palin used her SuperPac (called “SarahPac”) to donate at least $63,000 to HarperCollins to buy copies of her memoir.* Now, I have never read anything by Sarah Palin and given the content of her speeches and her public political persona I probably never will, but I like both Vonnegut and the Beatles. 2/3 ain’t bad, right?

Personally I’ve found that making my ebooks available for free through Smashwords and my personal site has been most helpful, but I know that Mark Porter has had a lot of success with, shall we say, guerrilla marketing techniques done locally via local connections. So what’s the answer? I don’t think there is any one way to go about this in the times we find ourselves living in – and that’s quite fitting, isn’t it?

*The Palin tidbit is from Deborah Friedell’s “Dialling for Dollars”, London Review of Books 37:6 (2015), 31-33. The link is here but you have to be a subscriber to read the article. The book under review in the piece (Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout) seems to make many of the points I did in Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies but without all the fancy extras that that book has. (And there’s some more marketing for you!)

Posted in Writing Craft & Self-Publishing | Tagged , , | 4 Responses

From My Reading List

In my last post I gave a brief summary of two main schools of thought in literature. The main focus of this discussion is novels and literary fiction. Not all works fit neatly into one of the two camps I mentioned, Beauty and Justice, and I grant that a great many books written with social or political objectives in mind can be filled with exquisite sentences and clever design. Likewise, a novel hailing from the School of Beauty can have a moral spine that makes the whole piece to hang together better than if it lacked one. One quick example for each: many readers admire the style and wizardry of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (written in Spanish and translated into many languages) but it wasn’t written in a political vacuum and arguably loses much if read in one. From the other school: Lolita loses everything if it’s read as the initial triumph and subsequent tragic loss suffered by an expatriate pedophile. Unbelievably, some people still read that novel as a kind of love story, missing the whole moral message.

To round out the discussion on these two schools I will pull from my May Reading List (not a “heavy reader”, I admittedly spend more time watching YouTube videos than I do reading these days). The first book is one that I read and left in storage when I moved to Seoul several years ago. It is the kind of book that one would gladly buy again and reread again through constant cycles of packing up, moving on, and settling in. The stories of Anton Chekhov are consistently cited as being the best in the business. In terms of influence, one encounters his name over and over again by the only group that truly matters, that is, other writers. Appreciative readers, while necessary, don’t really have a key role in keeping a tradition alive. Readers are like the rays of sunlight allowing the garden to grow: they are essential for growth but they don’t shape the things to come. The writer is the gardener. And one way to judge a garden’s quality is to look at its produce. Chekhov had some definite ideas on how to produce good literary fruit. Here is a quote from the Introduction to the Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

In a letter of May 10, 1886, to his older brother Alexander, who had taken up writing before him with only modest success, Chekhov, from his new position as a recognized author, set forth six principles that make for a good story: “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.” (Introduction p. IX)

If you want to write literature which fights social wrongs, these principles are worthless. On the other hand, if you want to create a beautiful short story, this to-do list might be the only way to go.

Before bringing up the second book, the foil to Chekhov in this discussion, I should confess a prejudice I have harbored for many years. In terms of literary taste, my preference has always been for the apolitical and the sublime. I want Literature to blow my mind, not tug on my heart strings. And so in the past I poo-pooed any fictional work that claimed to direct a spotlight on the “plight of women”, the workers, or any another subjugated class. My liberal political convictions already nodded in agreement that our social institutions were corrupted and badly needed reform. And yet something in me fought against any attempt to enlist the magic of fiction for any such cause. This struggle is called the Private/Public split, or the case of Incommensurate Goods. And a novel which tries to be good at one loses the presence of the other.

So here is a scene from a few weeks ago. I am in a bookstore and I’m full of a rejuvenated urge to read. Enough with the distractions of multimedia! Time to give the fleeting pleasures of mere entertainment a rest. Armed with the stories of Chekhov, I pause one moment in the stacks before heading to the checkout counter and see Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I think to myself: “I’m almost 44 years old. I have studied English literature and claim to like novels and American literary fiction. Yet here I am, and here I have been for years, ignorant of this famous novel and even in some ways resisting it! Why? Can there be any other explanation than prejudice?” I grab it off the shelf, buy it, and bring it home. Adamant that I’ll read it, I add it in a thick, heavy script to my May reading list. Then, at home, curious of its contents, I notice that the author himself has written the Introduction and decide to read it. This passage caught my eye:

So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden with the plight of one who was both black and American, and not only as a means of conveying my personal vision of possibility, but as a way of dealing with the sheer rhetorical challenge involved in communicating across our barriers of race and religion, class, color and region–barriers which consist of the many strategies of division that were designed, and still function, to prevent what would otherwise have been a more or less natural recognition of the reality of black and white fraternity. And to defeat this national tendency to deny the common humanity shared by my character and those who might happen to read of his experience, I would have to provide him with something of a worldview, give him a consciousness in which serious philosophical questions could be raised, provide him with a range of diction that could play upon the richness of our readily shared vernacular speech and construct a plot that would bring him in contact with a variety of American types as they operated on various levels of society. Most of all, I would have to approach racial stereotypes as a given fact of the social process and proceed, while gambling with the reader’s capacity for fictional truth, to reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal. (Introduction, p. XXII)

As you can see, the direct opposite of Chekhov’s working principles. Could the Invisible Man still be a great, timeless, beautiful work? There is only one way to find out. After reading, thinking and weighing, even if I don’t think it approaches the heights of other great novels, I could still see Invisible Man as a good work in its stated task: “dealing with the barriers [which prevent] black and white fraternity.” Despite my hesitations I repeat the mantra: read and keep an open mind; read and keep an open mind; read and keep an open mind.

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Hamish’s Blog

Drugstore reader and collaborator Hamish Spiers has republished his books and reopened his blog. You can enter Hamish World by following this link. Don’t forget to buy a book or two once inside.

Next week, Nick Cody wanders back south of the DMZ after a peaceful, if rather empty, weekend break in Propaganda Village




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William Blake, Job, and the pictures that haunt us

My comrades here at the Drugstore have just done two posts that lined up well and got me thinking about art, experimentation, and Writing that is not “writing”. If I wore a hat I’d take it off to you Nick and Paul, but I don’t so let me just say that I’m looking forward to the second parts of your series.

I know I waffle on about this a lot, but consider just what an era we’re living in as regards the writing life and the opportunities it provides. We are now able to do whatever we’d like, absolutely anything at all, and see it published without fear of censorship from both bean counters and overlords. This has not been the case for centuries, and even when it was previously the case it was typically only so for those of a certain socioeconomic class. I want also to talk about images here so let’s take William Blake as an example of what I mean. He was a 19th century figure who printed his books in his own home and then shipped them out himself (a true self-pubber); his was a labor of love and left him financially certainly no better off and probably a lot worse for his efforts. At the time and prior to it (and for some time after) the only people who were really able to afford to pursue writing were those with a stable outside income that provided them plenty of free time (e.g. landed gentry), or those who had curried the favor of people with enough money to be able to support would-be artists. There were exceptions of course, Blake being one (his father was a hosier), Shakespeare another (and one of such brilliance that the English-speaking world has yet to produce anyone even remotely close), but on the whole only if you didn’t have to work for your daily bread could you sit down to write a book.

This is no longer the case but does raise the important question of money which we’ll return to in a moment. Sticking with Blake, he produced books that were both visually and textually oriented. His engravings and paintings have been loved and loathed in our time, but in his they were mostly ignored. Likewise his poetry. To produce his images he seems to have employed a method whereby a print was taken from an outline and then watercolors added to that, allowing him to slightly alter each subsequent image, whether purposely or by accident. He combined these with his text in various ways and sometimes not at all, but what I want to focus on is that he did this in the way he thought would best allow the two to interact, to dance on the page together or in solo, staring at each other across the book’s binding with arms outstretched and gazes locked. We are now stunningly able to do the same, and without the need to take prints and break out the watercolors; yet such should not be ruled out and to that method many more of visual creativity can and should be added. But if we are so inclined, why bother?

Consider what an image adds to a work. Here is a sample from Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826) that has haunted me for weeks now since I came across it by chance, “Job and His Daughters” (Plate 20; you can click on it to really get a feel for the detail):


This one picture has completely reinvigorated Job’s story for me and sent me back to the original text, one of the best examples of the ancient Hebrew culture’s theo-literary genius. I also can’t get it out of my head, as I mentioned. In a similar way the art historian T.J. Clark was so taken by two paintings that he visited them day after day (if I’m not mistaken museum admission is free in the UK) and wrote a book on his developing relationship with and reactions to the pair called The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006). Clark is a well-known old guy in the academic world so places like Yale University Press put out his work, but what’s important for us is simply that he did it. And we can too.

Now to the money question. It is entirely reasonable to want to be financially compensated for the hundreds if not thousands of hours that you put into a book, and I do not mean to fault in any way those writers who choose to stick with mainstream formulas in the hopes of achieving a good sales record and steady (or anyway continuing) income from royalties. I just personally find that a bit boring. Now, thankfully and amazingly now, we are able to do so much more with our work and that is something that should be embraced. Put images in your text. Embed music into your ebooks. Make interactive graphics that alter the story that’s being told as the reader goes along. Or forgo all of that and just write, but write in a way that is daring and fresh and gives the reader something they’ve never encountered before. Don’t write, Write. And see the thing done.

Posted in Writing Craft & Self-Publishing | Tagged , , | 3 Responses
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