things what I wrote
It doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been so crap about posting, given this. I’m not happy about it. But I’m not surprised.
And even this will not be a true ‘post,’ in the sense that it adds any content to the ambient contentverse. It’s just a haphazard aggregation of pre-existing content. But right now it’s all I got.
— I spent last weekend in Georgia. I went to DragonCon, the sheer scale of which was stunning — just the raw acreage of exposed cosplayer flesh alone was awe-inspiring — and the Decatur Book Festival, a really lovely event — the people were truly wonderful, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a better-organized books festival. And I addressed an audience from the pulpit of a Baptist church, thereby fulfilling a childhood ambition:
I also smoked a cigarette, thereby ruining an adulthood ambition. At least I didn’t do them at the same time.
The cover story in Time this week is by me. It’s a profile of Jonathan Franzen, a novelist who is of great interest to me.
The Corrections was kind of a totem for me while I was writing The Magicians. It was a transitional love object, like a teddy bear — I didn’t like to write without my copy of it handy.
That and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I put one on one side of my desk, one on the other, and wrote The Magicians in the weird magneto-literary field they generated between them.
Franzen has a new novel coming out, his first since The Corrections, which was in 2001. (Weirdly it came out practically on September 11th.) It’s called Freedom. It’s good. Franzen writes in a close-third-person style that basically to me is the state of the goddamned art for literary prose.
I went to Comic-Con.
While I was there I had to blog a bunch of times for Techland, to justify their paying for me to go, plus make a couple of appearances for The Magicians.
Then I was also cramming research for a Time story I’m writing now, and trying to write The Magician King. That was enough without blogging here. Though I would have liked to have been blogging here.
If you’re curious what I would have said, you can pretty much read it in the form of these Techland posts:
You might get from the titles of these posts that I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about Comic-Con. That is true.
I’ll be at San Diego Comic-Con this year. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, because 1) new baby, and 2) after last year I swore a mighty oath never to return, because I feel that Comic-Con contributes to the runaway commercialization and dilution of the nerd culture that is pretty much all I have by way of an ethnic identity.
Then they said, wanna be on a panel with Amber Benson? And I was all, sure.
Principles: I used to have them. But seriously, if you’re going to Comic-Con, come say hi. To Amber Benson. You can just nod at me in passing, I’ll understand.
Also: next week The Magicians moves up to number 10 on the Times bestseller list. Thank you everybody for making this happen. I could make a joke, but actually I can’t. I’m just so proud and happy.
It’s a question I get a lot. Not from people who actually want to know how I got published, but from people who want to know how they can get published.
I get that. It’s pretty understandable. If I were them I’d want to know how I could get published too.
Well do I remember how incomprehensible the whole New York publishing world looked when I was not “inside” it. It is a dark planet, emitting little detectable radiation on any wavelength. There isn’t much reliable information about its diabolical inhabitants. Accounts by travelers to that cursed orb rarely agree.
I can only give you mine. It’s not pretty.
Chapter 1. In which I don’t get published (1989-1993)
I saw short stories as the natural entry point. In college and shortly thereafter I wrote a lot of them. I would ballpark the number of my unpublished short stories at around 150. I stopped when I realized that a) I have no gift or real love for the short story as a form, and b) the market for short stories is a difficult and complicated and relatively conservative one. It helps to know people, and to have an MFA-type writing style. I didn’t.
Chapter 2. In which I write a novel (1993-1996)
It’s unlikely that, as a first-time novelist, you’ll be able to sell a project based on a partial manuscript. You will need a total manuscript. I wrote a novel in the early 1990’s, in the years right after I graduated college. I did this without an agent or connections or any particular encouragement. I was rejected from all the MFA programs, grant programs and writer’s colonies I applied to. But it’s the first thing I did right.
I’m in Scottsdale, AZ for a reading tonight at Changing Hands bookstore. Come if you can. I don’t know anybody here, so I’m hoping the fans will turn out!
The only other time I’ve ever been in Arizona was to meet Stephenie Meyer. This was when the Twilight thing was already mental, but had not yet gone completely bugfuck.
She lives in a town called Cave Creek, outside Phoenix, in a modern-looking house with a giant TV in it that was surrounded by saguaro cacti. I liked her. She was obviously smart, but otherwise almost aggressively normal and down-to-earth. The strangest thing about her was that she’s never seen an R-rated movie. I didn’t even have a marital crisis while I was talking to her.
The other day the New Yorker announced its list of the twenty best writers under forty.
Lists like this are of course totally bogus. But I like them. They treat literature like it was some kind of damn dog race, which is demeaning to both literature and dog racing (which is pretty horrible to begin with). I think they’re a unique artifact of late-20th-century popular criticism — as crass and lame as earlier eras of human civilization were, I can’t imagine critics of an earlier era being crass and lame in quite this exact way. It’s like some horrible amalgamation of all our obsessions with youth and media and penis-length, given list form.
And yet: they get some basic information out there, albeit in a crude and distorted form. I think some writers are good and other writers less good. You think other writers are good or less good too. Here are their names. Now we know.
When the New Yorker announced their list, I read it and immediately was all, no way, this sucks. In fact I was all like that publicly, on Twitter. So I feel like I should add something to that. Mostly caveats.
I have a thing about popular/genre fiction and literary fiction. I think and write about the difference/non-difference between them, and the history of that difference, a lot. For reasons I’ve explained way better elsewhere (see those links above) I happen to think the collapse/confusion/obsolescence of that difference is the most interesting thing going on in contemporary fiction. It’s how we’re finally metabolizing/moving on from Modernism, which had a lot to do with inventing that difference in the first place, toward a kind of writing that is new and exciting and uniquely of its time. Which is the job of every culture ever. This is our avant-garde.
So I was disappointed but not surprised when there weren’t any genre writers on the New Yorker‘s list. It seemed typical of that institution’s blindness and ossified-ness, which is only matched by its breathtaking insight (honestly, who else would have been smart/strong enough to start sticking Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stuff in front of a mass audience? That kicks ass.) (Being born in 1963, he was way too old and crumbly for the list.)
Now two caveats to that: one, numerous people have argued that some of the writers on the list are in fact genre writers. Chris Adrian, for example, and Karen Russell. And Rivka Galchen. Those people are right. Or about Adrian and Galchen anyway. I’ve never read Karen Russell. #criticfail!
Two, nowhere here am I dissing the writers who happen to be on this list. There are some writers on there who I actually have read and, regardless of where they’re shelved, I think are not just excellent, but particularly excellent. They are: Gary Shteyngart, Rivka Galchen, Josh Ferris and Wells Tower (whose Viking story “Everything Ravaged Everything Burned” isn’t urban fantasy, but it’s cool in the same way that urban fantasy is cool).
Oh, and here’s another caveat: the New Yorker put your book, The Magicians, on their end-of-year best-of list last year. So where do you get off saying they don’t respect genre fiction?
Answer, I don’t know where I get off. How could I? I dine out on that whenever I can. The moral of this story being that magazines (and by extension people) are almost always smarter and more thoughtful than you (meaning me) initially think they are.
But I still think they should have had a few straight-ahead genre people on there. I don’t know how old Paolo Bacigalupi is, but he doesn’t look 40 to me.
p.s. I would never suggest that there should be a comparable 40-and-up writers list. But I do think there should be a list of writers who are exactly 40. I would have a shot at that one. Me and Kelly Link (b. 1969). And John Scalzi (also b. 1969). David Anthony Durham. David Mitchell. Huh. Actually it’s pretty competitive.
(This post was posted from the cafe at Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC, where I am reading in three short hours.)
“Everything seemed to be going right. He was on top of the world.”
[Shot of writer on couch typing on laptop]
“But the pressure was mounting. His contract stated that he had to deliver a new book, even while he was still touring to promote the last one.”
[Shot of writer on couch typing on laptop]
“Something had to give.”
[Shot of writer on couch typing on laptop. Key grip’s hand in corner of frame, nudging beer toward writer.]
WRITER (annoyed): Jesus, what are you doing? It’s like 11 in the morning.
PRODUCER (out of shot): Oh forget it. Just make it look like he drank it.
“All day binges. Trashed hotel rooms.”
Camera goes all unsteady, starts dropping frames.
WRITER (looks up from typing): Jesus Christ, I folded those!
Shot is put through blue filter so everything looks freaky.
“He was losing his grip on reality.”
WRITER (punches back of couch): Fucking Twitter is down again.
PRODUCER (out of shot): Good. I like the anger.
WRITER: Hey, am I allowed to use the mini-bar?
“Coming up next: the greatest mind of his generation drinks a flavored espresso beverage … and gets a tummy ache.”
And scene. I want you to know I put a lot of thought into formatting that.
You might think going on tour would mean I spent less time on “social media.” How wrong you would be. Now that I’m traveling, away from my loved ones, social media are now my only friends.
Come here. Gimme a hug. That’s right. That’s the stuff.
That is all.
We had a lot of trouble doing a cover for The Magicians. Not without good reason. I don’t think Viking’s art department had done a lot of fantasy before. And I have the visual sensibility of an eyeless cave creature. So together we made a great team.
As a result we went through five or six ideas that were interesting and cool and totally wrong for The Magicians. I wish I had a framed poster-size version of each one of them. They were great. But there was no way I wanted them on my book.
(By the way, unless you’ve done a book yourself, you may not realize that it’s inherently extremely cool that they even discussed options with me, as usually publishers just put a cover on a book and the author can like it or lump it. Except actually they can’t even lump it.)
Then Viking’s art director sent me a link. This link. It’s to the website of a French artist named Didier Massard. What Massard does is just insane.
Massard is a photographer. But not the regular kind. I’ve heard what he does called constructed photography or fabricated photography or tabletop photography. He actually builds models of things, in his studio, and then photographs them as if they were real. So what you get are hyper-real, hyper-detailed images that look strangely fantastical for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. You think you’re looking at a painting, but you’re not. You’re looking at a real thing.
I flicked through a few different images on his site. Then I saw this:
It’s called Arbre en Automne. I picked up the phone to call my girlfriend, to whom I’d forwarded the link. Except my phone was already ringing. It was my girlfriend. We both said at the same time: I found it.
The Vikings liked it too. I actually became a bit obsessed with the image. I kept it on my desktop while I did my final revisions to the book. It was like he’d said in that one image everything I’d been trying to put in a whole novel (about 148,000 words). I wrote him a fan letter. He replied warmly, in charmingly broken English.
Then I called his gallery and tried to buy Arbre en Automne. In response I heard only the cold, plastic sound of my credit cards laughing at me.
But here’s the thing: now I’m writing the sequel to The Magicians, and I want to use another of Massard’s images. Partly to keep the look and feel consistent book to book, but mostly because his images rock. So I’m going to have to start planning now, to fit the book to the right image, and to lobby Massard for permission to use it.
So do me a favor. Head over to Massard’s site. Tell me what looks like a great cover to you. The cover of a book you’d want to read. I have a few ideas, but I want to know what you think.
[p.s. if you find Massard’s work interesting, check out the amazing making-of video under “Backstage.” Unfortunately featuring the worst video client ever.]