Monday November 23, 2009
That’s me, just minutes after I arrived in Cannes to the cover the International Advertising Festival in 2001. The advertising festival is like the Cannes Film Festival, except it’s about advertising—which is to say that it lacks everything that makes the former sexy and interesting. There’s no paparazzi, few celebrities, but still plenty of Americans. For that week, it feels like the place runs on Eastern Standard Time. Dinner at midnight. Drinks until dawn. Breakfast at noon. It’s fun but exhausting, especially if you have to file stories every night via (what was then) shabby European dial-up.
“The Arab Bank,” Cassingle’s final track, is based on two experiences from Cannes—I covered the festival for three years—and is the product of trying to turn them into one experience. On my first trip, I saw a mother/daughter team of panhandlers in the old quarter of town just like the team described in the story. The child—it might have been a boy—was blonde and theatrically pathetic, and his or her mother pushed a sad calliope. A few years later, I was hassled by a local tough when I returned late to the Hotel Majestic. He seemed to have the town by the balls, this guy. He was ripped from working out and he wore a Gold’s Gym t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His head was shaved and he wore a bandana (I think). He pulled his black Mercedes right up to the door, hopped out, and exchanged something with the concierge. On his way back to the car, he sized me up and snarled, “Where you from? New York?” I had the feeling he would have tried to sell me something if my answer had been different.
From the inside, the story became about imagining that this guy and the calliope kid were the same person—Marco, the story’s protagonist. Along the way, other things happened. There was a story in the New York Post about teams of organized thieves robbing celebrities’ hotel rooms in Cannes. (I wish I still had it. I kept it in a folder for years.) And I got more interested in the celebrity angle. Tourism is the ultimate example of information asymmetry—the engine that makes captialism go—since the local knows everything and the visitor knows nothing. I liked the idea that celebrities—the ultimate insiders in our culture—could be preyed upon like yokels.
The story originally appeared earlier this year as a serial that ran during the Cannes Film Festival. Incorporating Google Maps and Street View, it was my first attempt at online storytelling. I liked how it turned out, and I was pleased to find out that the form made me sharpen the story itself. Pouring it into this mold made it better. And I’d love to know what tourists think when they stumble upon the map of the story on Google Maps.
Download Cassingle: This concludes Cassingle Release Week. Thanks to everyone who has followed along. If you haven’t already, download Cassingle—which includes “The Arab Bank” and four other stories—and my previous e-book, 2006’s Single.
Sunday November 22, 2009
In any case, I know a lot of people still aren’t reading e-books, so I thought I’d offer a quick guide to downloading Cassingle and Single—and a lot of other e-books, if you insist—on your iPhone or iPod Touch. While dedicated e-readers are obviously important, the iPhone and the handsets it has inspired will perhaps be even more important to the future growth of e-books—plus I see a lot more of them on the F train.
So. Step 1: Get an iPhone or iPod Touch. I only recently gave in and got an iPhone myself. I had to face the fact that being a digital publishing devotee, a semi-pro Tweeter (I have a whole job, but only part of it involves social networking), and not having an iPhone constituted some sort of malpractice. I was like the disproportionate number of ad creatives I’ve met who don’t own televisions. I’m an Apple skeptic—and a loooong-time Windows Mobile user—but I have to admit I’m pretty impressed. And the e-book reading experience on the iPhone is great. Perfect for Thanksgiving travel. Here are the next steps.
Stanza is a great e-reader app. It’s so great, in fact, that Amazon had to buy it earlier this year because it was gaining so quickly on the Kindle. Search for it in the App Store and download it. It’s free.
OPEN THE ONLINE CATALOG
The rest of the steps are after the jump.
Stanza is integrated with a lot of online catalogs of free and for-purchase books, from Fictionwise to Project Gutenberg. Read all that later. For now, choose Feedbooks.
CHOOSE “ORIGINAL BOOKS”
Feedbooks also offers a lot of public domain books. Topping the charts at the moment? “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Come back for that. Right now you want “Original Books.”
CHOOSE “FEATURED BOOKS”
Top selection. We’re almost there. Promise.
There it is, about to become your first e-book.
And there you have it.
This is the first page of the “The Guest,” the first story in Cassingle. But as long you’re here …
MAKE SINGLE YOUR SECOND E-BOOK
Go back to the Cassingle download page and choose “Other books from this author.”
Just like you did with Cassingle. Hope you enjoy them both, and if not, you can surf Feedbooks and the rest of Stanza’s catalogs for other great (and often free) things to read.
Friday November 20, 2009
In the early fall of 2000, right before I moved to New York, I took a trip to San Francisco. I didn’t know I was moving when I made the arrangements, and I was happy the job I’d lucked into in New York didn’t start until October so I could keep my plans. I took the train the whole way—the City of New Orleans from Memphis to Chicago, then the California Zephyr from there to San Francisco. The trip took two days—48 hours spent loitering in the smoking car, watching plains and mountains roll by, and listening to my fellow passengers talk about life and death and cancer. It was wonderful.
I spent two weeks in San Francisco with my friends Dylan and Jennifer, and this was even better. We laughed and listened to records. We ate at El Farolito almost daily. Dylan and I went to a Giants game and drove down the PCH to L.A. It was probably the best vacation I ever had (although since I was unemployed, it was more of a vacation within a vacation), and I couldn’t wait to do it again.
A few years later, I did. I didn’t take the train, but I went to visit Dylan and Jennifer for a week. Anyone with experience being human can guess how a trip loaded with such expectations turned out. It was not the same. Not because of my hosts (I can’t stress this enough), but because of me. I was depressed. I slept all day while my friends were at work, and the damp Northern California chill sunk into my bones and my mood. In short, I am the guest in “The Guest”—the first story in Cassingle—who arrives and then never again emerges from the spare room. The apartment in the story is Dylan and Jennifer’s apartment, overlooking the Mission (they have since moved to Portland)—although the rest of the details are altered.
The story is depressing, I suppose, although I also think it’s funny. Since it appeared, I’ve come to appreciate how it’s really about a couple re-connecting, the angle my editor at Fence, Jamie Schwartz, helped me find and hone. All the couples I have ever hung out with figured into this story, and there have been many. I was single for a long time before Alexandra and I met, and for most of those years I relied on the kindness of couples to keep me occupied. (Alexandra did too. We joke about the couples we used to “date” before we met.) This story, in my mind, has become a tribute to them. They know who they are, but thanks, in order of appearance, to Pat and Chris, Chris and Charlotte, Dylan and Jennifer, and Deke and Susan. I’m glad your spare rooms were alway open.
Next week: How the greatest perk ever became “The Arab Bank,” Cassingle’s final track. Download Cassingle, which includes “The Guest” and four other stories, as a free e-book or pdf.
Thursday November 19, 2009
On September 19, 2003, my wife and I went on your first date. It was a marathon. In what will probably sound like a parody of New York dating circa 2003 twenty years from now, we went to see George Saunders read at The New Yorker Festival, then saw Lost in Translation. Somewhere in there we ate at a diner and drank bubble tea. But it didn’t go well. Let me clarify: I thought it went fine. I went home knowing that I would ask her out again. Alexandra, however, went home skeptical. I had talked too much and listened too little. I was nervous, I guess, and—I cannot lie—I like to talk. The date went well enough that she planned to grant me a second, she explains today, but she was concerned.
Our second date was two days later, September 21, 2003, but only because I accidentally trapped her socially—like something out of Curb Your Enthusiasm. After the questionable date of the 19th, I called and asked if she would like to go to the Book Country book festival the next day. She wasn’t so excited about seeing me again—and she was somewhat freaked out that the Talking Guy had called so soon—but she was already planning to go to Book Country. She couldn’t very well turn me down and risk seeing me there. (Thanks, Larry David.) So she agreed, but brought a friend as cover.
Something, however, had changed. Maybe I was rested or had had less coffee or was just a little more relaxed, but by the end of the day, she saw things my way. We shopped all day, she dismissed the friend, and we watched the Emmys. I asked when I could see her again and she gladly flipped open her calendar and booked me on the next available date. We’ve been together ever since.
Still, every year that two day window between September 19th and the 21st causes me low-grade dread. I think about how narrowly things worked out—and how easily they might not have. I don’t like to think about this for very long. As a joke (a nervous joke, perhaps), I started calling September 19 “Good Friday” and September 21 “Easter”, to be funny, just between us. “July 4: Easter”—track #2 of Cassingle, which originally appeared in the debut issue Twelve Stories—is based on this joke. I wrote it because it occurred to me after several years that this joke was so inside and idiosyncratic, a story based on it would be novel, if nothing else.
The similarities end there. (I hope.) The relationship described in “July 4: Easter” is not the least bit cute. Both the narrator and Karen (his girlfriend) are grotesque, and the enforcement of the Good Friday and Easter of their relationship is no joke. The story was fun to write, though. It involved scrutinizing an ecclesiastical calendar and rotating the dates the correct number of days. The whole project felt pleasingly Borgesian and a little ridiculous. That’s a good combo in my book—and I’m sure Alexandra will soon agree.
Tomorrow: “The Guest” and a tribute to all the couples I have dated over the years. (It’s not what you think.) Download Cassingle, which includes “July 4: Easter” and four other stories, as a free e-book or pdf.
Wednesday November 18, 2009
I was recently at an event where I happened to notice an acquaintance’s tattoo. I didn’t know him well—it’s no surprise I hadn’t noticed it before—but on his forearm was the phrase, “Sous les pavés la plage.”
I don’t speak French, but I recognized this as a slogan from the May 1968 Paris riots—France’s equivalent of that year’s Chicago Democratic Convention—when French students hurled cobblestones at police and proclaimed, “Beneath the cobblestones, the beach,” a sentiment so French it would make Rousseau blush. I heard it once at a lecture on Foucault (but of course) and have always rated it as one of the all-time great rallying cries. Still, it’s relatively obscure. I asked my acquaintance about it and announced that I knew what it meant—like I had just won a radio call-in contest. Has was not French. He had never even been to France. Instead, he had come across it by accident, like I had, and he said no one else had ever recognized it before. We were both pleased with ourselves. It was a small, beautiful moment.
This is the opposite of what happens to Jones, the protagonist of “The Adventures of Bad Badger”—track #4 of Cassingle—who gets a tattoo of a cartoon character who then disappears from the culture immediately and forever. Around the time this was published, my friend Charlotte drew Bad Badger based on the story’s specifications. As the story says:
The strip’s protagonist looked like you’d expect a cartoon badger to look. Imagine a mouse; then imagine Mickey Mouse. Note the mental processes in between, perform them on a badger (the crude etching in the deluxe color second edition of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary, or any comparable work, will serve), and you have the basic idea. Bad Badger was otherwise unremarkable. His dark glasses were reminiscent of Steve Dallas and his dangling cigarette was pure Andy Capp.
And here is her rendering.
This was my first published story. It appeared in McSweeney’s #3 a little more than 10 years ago. It was supposed to appear in McSweeney’s #2, but it got bumped, and I sent a lot of cutesy, McSweeneysish notes to Dave Eggers, trying to find out its fate. I would be embarrassed by them now. We spoke on the phone a couple of times, and he told me he was working on a book, which turned out to be a very big book a few months later. He encouraged me to expand the story—I did not—and he convinced me to change the last line. Originally that line was, “Do you want to see my tattoo?” I’ve never found anyone who didn’t think he was right.
Tomorrow: How my wife, who is lovely, inspired a story about someone who is awful. Don’t forget to download Cassingle—it’s free as an e-book or pdf—which includes “The Adventures of Bad Badger” and four other stories.
Tuesday November 17, 2009
To hear a VU-tinged spoken-word breakdown of “Nose”—track #3 from my new e-book Cassingle—head to Workbench Recordings. Listen, and also learn why I think short fiction is maybe getting a little too short.
The track you hear there and here—in this case, without my voice—and the illustration above were created by my friend James Beaudreau—a musician, designer, and critic with whom I’ve been having lots of inspiring talks about art and creativity and commerce. At about the same time—right now, more or less—James and I found ourselves in similar positions. He had toured with a well-known band and released two painstakingly-crafted CDs of solo guitar tracks to nice notices but few sales, while I had published fiction in small, well-respected places but failed to produce a book that could keep large, well-respected places interested. We weren’t quite poets or radio repairmen, but we were courting the same obsolescence.
As James was preparing his third album earlier this year, we started talking about a new way to release it. Forget CDs. Make it a track-a-week blog. Spread it out. Talk about process. Put it all out there and let the people, whoever they are, in. James’ writing about music is very good and his observations about what it’s like to make things are sharp. I relate to them, even though I can’t play a note. He put a lot of time into his site, just as I have—over the years—into mine, which is why (I think) we came to the same conclusion.
And that conclusion is this (forgive me if you had it yourself long ago): far from being a form of inexpensive marketing or a gambit on the way to some better deal, these tracks James was putting on the web and these stories I was giving away—and all the packaging and coding and planning that went into them—these weren’t devices for promoting our work. These were the work. We’d been so thoroughly raised on the idea of being “discovered” that we’d completely missed that we didn’t need to be discovered to do what we were doing. Getting discovered, we suddenly realized, would add nothing—particularly at this stage in top-down media’s decline. In my mind, the scales have tipped such that the benefits collected by the average holder of a book or record deal are so low, it’s not worth expending the effort to pursue either, at least not when this same effort could be spent building something. But James said it better at dinner a few weeks ago. He said if a record label offered him a deal tomorrow, but it would mean he’d have to take his website down, he wouldn’t do it. I don’t know if we’ve changed, or if it’s the media, but things are not the same.
I really like what James has done with the instrumental version of this track, by the way. It reminds me of the guitar scribbles on Bongwater’s cover of the Moody Blues’ “Ride My See-Saw.” I fucking love that song.
Tomorrow: Bad Badger revealed! And don’t forget to download Cassingle, which includes “Nose” and four other stories.
Monday November 16, 2009
I officially released my new e-book collection, Cassingle, today and it’s off to a great start. (Thanks to everyone who’s already downloaded it.) It’s available for free as an e-book or pdf (exclusively, for now) at Feedbooks.com. Here are the tracks, as it were, in order:
I’ll be writing more about each of these as Cassingle Release Week continues, and I have lots of interesting stuff planned. In addition to the stories behind the stories, I’ll be unveiling an audio version of “Nose” in collaboration with my friend James’ netlabel Workbench Recordings and an illustration of the imaginary character Bad Badger that my friend Charlotte drew when “The Adventures of Bad Badger” first appeared. Also, if you’ve got a Google Wave account and you haven’t been able to figure out what the hell to do with it, come hang out in the Cassingle Release Week wave and chat about fiction, digital publishing, or whatever.
On the topic of digital publishing—or whatever you’d like to call it—I learned something very important about it this spring when I serialized “The Arab Bank,” and that’s that digital publishing is more fun than traditional publishing. It’s more exciting, immediate, social, and rewarding. Lucrative? I leave that to those whose livelihoods depend on it. (Although from my point of view—I have made less than $200 on fiction in the last ten years—it could hardly be less lucrative than traditional publishing.) But I like it, and I’m going to keep doing it, hopefully by executing two projects a year. “The Arab Bank” was the first, this is the second, and I’ve got some ideas rolling around for the spring. Hope you like what’s happened so far. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow: A little “Nose” music and what happens when the sizzle becomes the steak?
Wednesday November 11, 2009
Whenever I hear about an e-book start-up, the first question that pops into my mind is, “Will the books have little rectangular covers that make them look like tiny paper books?” Almost all e-book sites represent titles this way. The literary world is adorable in its attachment to old forms, which is why (I think) the digital crisis took so long to fully arrive at publishing’s door. These little rectangles make a certain amount of sense from a marketing perspective, I suppose, as publishers assure wary customers (and themselves) that it’s just like a book, only digital. Still, native digital publishers will want to abandon this convention as soon as possible. The digital switch might have come late to publishing, but it is proceeding very, very quickly. What’s on the way is what the advertising business has for years now been calling “platform agnosticism.”
Lit snobs will turn their noses up at the mention of the ad racket—even as they bask in the sexy, retro cool of Mad Men—but the advertising business’s strengths and weakness are instructive mirror images of publishing’s. The good thing about the advertising business? It would jettison grandma in a second if her business model started to flag. The bad part? It thinks grandma (and everything else, for that matter) needs a business model to be worthwhile. Publishing, meanwhile, loves grandma maybe a little too much and is unwilling to let conventions change—thus these rectangular arrangements of pixels. But I could be biased.
I made the cover of my first e-book, Single, in the form of a 7” record because I thought it was funny. The music business was dying, so grafting something analog onto a digital product seemed right. I also liked how it evoked the DIY ethos that bands have always had, but which writers have often lacked. It was about hitting the road to find readers, and Single was the product I was giving away out of the back of the van.
So, for my new e-book—which I’m officially releasing on Monday—I’m continuing the metaphor.
I am a little concerned that this road I’ve gone down will cause people to think that my stories are more music-related than they actually are—they aren’t, really—but I’m willing to take the risk. For me, it still points to the fact that packaging in a platform agnostic world can be completely flexible—freed from physical constraints and conventional expectations. And I’m glad I can provide at least a little relief from those tiny little rectangles.
Thursday November 05, 2009
It’s been seven weeks since I first posted my unscientific findings about various e-book sites, gleaned from two and a half years of distributing Single. Now I have some updates, caveats, and one new experiment to relate. As mentioned before, I’ve been looking into this in order to determine where to release my new e-book, Cassingle, on November 16. It might also be useful to anyone else who is trying to choose among various sites when distributing their own work.
First of all, Single hasn’t generated many additional downloads on Manybooks or Wattpad in the last seven weeks. Wattpad had more, with 33 views (not downloads), so these two are out of the trials for good. Scribd, meanwhile, remains an odd animal. Its community is huge and if you put things there, people will see them. Single has tallied another 150 views in the last seven weeks, but I still think the best use of Scribd—for my purposes anyway—is as a public archive of freelance clips.
That leaves Feedbooks, Bookglutton, and Smashwords—a new (to me) contender. Single continues to rack up about 50 downloads a week on Feedbooks, certainly the fastest rate of any site I’ve used. Bookglutton, meanwhile, has delivered about 8 “viewloads” a week since then. I also found out from Travis Alber at Bookglutton that the book has been downloaded via the Stanza e-book reader 529 times, which brings the site’s total to 1348, close to Feedbooks’ total but over more time. Feedbooks has been averaging 170 downloads per month, and is accelerating, while Bookglutton has been averaging 100 or so per month, and has been slowing—in part because a recent redesign has given less prominence to the featured author section where my book is housed.
After my last round-up appeared, I also got a note from Mark Coker at Smashwords, who observed that I’d left his site off my unscientific list. I was aware of Smashwords, but I hadn’t gotten around to giving it a try. So, to give it at least a limited trial before making my decision about where to release Cassingle, I uploaded Single there last week. Ten days later, it’s been downloaded 25 times. Not a bad start, but I’ll have to see more to choose Smashwords over Feedbooks for the current project. (It’s worth noting that, while still very small, these numbers are astonishing compared to the non-activity Single was getting just a few years ago. If we are still in the single-digit days of e-book adoption, how steep this curve could get in the next five years is cause for excitement.)
So let’s make it official. I will release Cassingle—a collection of five stories that previously appeared in Fence, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere—on Feedbooks on Monday, November 16. I’ll also be blogging about the stories behind the stories, and I’ve got a fun collaboration planned with my friend James at Workbench Recordings. Stay tuned. (And if for some reason you’d like a copy a week or so in advance so you can write something about it, drop me a line.)
Sunday November 01, 2009
I resisted getting into writing for as long as I could. Literature, in particular, wasn’t of interest to me until it became a tool of procrastination in graduate school, when reading fiction became a way of avoiding other work.
Much earlier than that, I practically broke my mother’s heart when she presented me with a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I asked how long it would take me to read it. Evidently I had missed the point.
To this day, my writing is marred by such impatience. Having worked for a few handfuls of publications, I know that there are two kinds of writers: Those who turn pieces in long and those who turn pieces in short. I am of the latter type to such a degree that I find it difficult to imagine the look and feel inside the minds of the former. Are they gripped by such a flood of inspiration that they just keep running and running—like Forrest Gump—far past the finish line? I have no idea what that’s like. Writing has always been tortuous for me—and thus I’ve sought to keep my exposure to it to a minimum, despite the fact that I’ve been paid to do little else for the past 15 years.
I can vividly remember the horror of writing assignments when I was a kid. The weekend would arrive with a sense of doom and desperation. I would plan to get started on Saturday, but of course this would not happen. I would watch MTV until the videos started repeating and I would feel sick to my stomach. After dinner, I promised myself, I would become a whirling ninja of productivity and churn this baby out like a daisy wheel printer. But then we’d go over to my aunt’s and Love Boat would come on, then Fantasy Island, then Saturday Night Live. Then, ah well, tomorrow is another day.
Sunday morning: Bad sickness. Scheming sets in. Maybe I can get an extension. Maybe I can call-in sick tomorrow, or maybe I could just disappear. Not leave or die, just poof—cease to exist. I still get this feeling sometimes, and I always think of a line from “The Reflex” by Duran Duran.
Don’t want to be around when this gets out.
Imagine Simon Le Bon wearing a majorette costume in your mind. That’s what the fear of writing looks like to me.
So while I wish you all luck during National Novel Writing Month, I’m afraid I won’t be joining you. Simon just won’t let me.