Validation!

http://www.amazon.com/Goodness-Falls-Ty-Roth/dp/162287529X

My decision to break away from the traditional model and publish GOODNESS FALLS independently was further validated this past week, when I received a very complimentary letter from an agent who, clearly unaware that I had already moved on and despite praising the novel and my writing talents, had determined not to offer her representation. Her decision reflects the reality that quality is often not the prime determinant of whether a book makes it to market; rather, it is regularly trumped by novelty and trendiness. This is no revelation, but it is an argument for a writer who believes in the quality of his/her work to pursue an alternative course to publication. But what reinforced my choice was the length of time it took this agent to make the determination to reject the novel. It illustrates one of the reasons that many authors are moving away from the old model: it just takes too damn long. In a world that is constantly accelerating, the traditional publishing process continues to churn at its long-established glacial pace so that in addition to the months/years an author has already spent writing must be added what is typically an eighteen-month process of cover design, editing, copy editing, promotion, sales, etc. before, if it is lucky, it lands on a shelf in a bookstore.

The aforementioned agent is one for whom I have high regard and with whom I would love to work. She is, however, part of a monolithic structure that in its reluctance to evolve is inching slowly – ever so slowly – towards extinction. As a case in point, let’s trace my history with this agent. I originally contacted her early in 2013 with a standard query. Upon her request, I immediately provided a partial manuscript based upon which she requested a full manuscript. In September, she responded enthusiastically to the manuscript and offered some very insightful critiques and asked for a revised version. By Thanksgiving, I had rewritten the entire novel and returned it for her perusal. Then . . . nothing. I didn’t hear from her until last week. By which time (after only beginning the process in January of 2014), I had author’s copies of GOODNESS FALLS already in hand. Remember, even if her recent rejection had been an offer of representation, it would be some time in 2016 before the novel would be released. For some books, that may not be a problem. SO SHELLY, for example, did not require a rush to market because it is based on past events. Although GOODNESS FALLS addresses a number of timeless and universal themes, its plot is driven by the issue of sport-induced concussions, which is currently a hot topic in the zeitgeist. Right now, it has resonance. By 2016, however, the issue may be played out or, better yet, resolved. If I didn’t want to simply toss aside what has been years of work on this project and chalk it up as a near miss, I had little choice but to take the route of independent publishing. Other than a small percentage of superstar authors, legacy publishing fails to meet the needs/wants of its authors and, ultimately, readers.

Although, I have not ruled out a return to the traditional model for the right projects, it would be difficult to surrender the control and freedom I have discovered in the process of bringing GOODNESS FALLS to market. If I’m able to continue to carve out a niche and please my already-established readership, that will be more-than-enough to have made the experiment worth it.

“I Have Come to Disappoint You”


In a fashion similar to my writing of SO SHELLY, I chose the title for my second novel long before I wrote the story. GOODNESS FALLS, like SO SHELLY, was a phrase I used during a lecture in class. To be exact, the phrase I used in discussing a theme from Bertoldt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” was “goodness fails,” but I remember immediately thinking that Goodness Falls would be a cool title for a tragic novel as, in two words, it encapsulates the basic theme of all tragedies from “Oedipus Rex” to “Breaking Bad.” Later, I realized it could also be used as the name of the fictional village in which the story would be set – sort of like Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

When the time came to locate an appropriate epigraph for GOODNESS FALLS, I performed a Google search of the title. I was surprised to learn that GOODNESS FALLS had never before been used as a book title. To my glee, however, I discovered that “When Goodness Falls” had been used as the title of a song by a little known, Danish, pop-indie band named Northern Portrait. On the Matinee Recordings’ web page, Northern Portrait is described as “a band whose raison d etre [reason to be] is the making of sophisticated pop music. . . . [with] the sound of elegantly driving guitars [and] the energy of sometimes gently outrageous lyrics.” Margaret Reges at allmusic.com described the band as having “a sleek, reverb-slicked sound — headed up by Stefan Larsen’s melancholy caterwaul — that harked back to The Smiths.” Those two descriptions were enough to pique my interest and to send me scurrying to YouTube, where I found and fell in love with the song.

“When Goodness Falls” is a tune that ironically juxtaposes a jangly guitar sound, reminiscent of ‘80s pop bands, with dark-themed lyrics. The line that drew my attention and which I use as the epigraph is “I have come to disappoint you.” In the song, the line is spoken by person in a failing romantic relationship. For the purpose of my novel, however, the line refers to the character of Mr. Angel Mortis, who is Death personified in the form of a death metal guitarist/substitute English teacher. His arrival and stay in Goodness Falls runs concurrent with a spate of tragic deaths in the village. The link between Mr. Mortis and the line from the song comes in a conversation he has with T.J. Farrell, the novel’s protagonist: “There are no such things as ghosts.” Mr. Mortis says. “I wish there were, but there is only alive or dead. No in-between. No next world.” In other words, Mr. Mortis has come and disappointed T.J.’s hopes for and expectations of heaven.

If you haven’t already, check out the video above. I just love the incongruous irony of the gloomy lyrics against the happy sound of the music. But I’m weird that way.

Magic Realism in GOODNESS FALLS

Magic Realism
Gabriel Garcia Marquez died last week. Despite having won a Nobel Prize for Literature, his name usually fails to resonate with American readers due to a woeful disregard in our English classrooms for Latin and South American writers. He was, however, one of the most influential novelists of the past fifty years. Marquez is often noted for his role in advancing the narrative technique known as magic realism. Although he did not coin the term, and other South American writers, such as Juan Louis Borges, had already been dabbling with the device, it was Marquez’s stories that popularized magic realism.

Magic realism has been described as a storytelling device that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. According to Naomi Lindstrom in her text “Twentieth-Century Spanish American Literature,” “Magic realism fuses (1) lyrical and, at times, fantastic writing with (2) an examination of the character of human existence and (3) an implicit criticism of society . . . they accept events contrary to the usual operating laws of the universe as natural, even unremarkable.” For movie buffs, consider such films as “Donnie Darko,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “Big Fish,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” and “The Green Mile;” they each fit the definition. Marquez described his relationship with magic realism in this way: “My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic.”

In GOODNESS FALLS, I leave my comfort zone of realistic fiction and narrowly employ magic realism through the character of Angel Mortis, a death metal guitarist/substitute English teacher whose arrival in the village suspiciously aligns with a series of tragic events that he may or may not be responsible for. The technique fits my story’s attempt to draw attention to the blurry line that separates sanity from insanity, reality from illusion, good from evil, and ultimately, life from death.

In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Chaucer chides the Catholic Church for chasing all of the fairies and elves and much of folkloric fantasy from the world. Six centuries later, Marquez fought back, and the world of fiction, at least, is much richer and more real because of it.

From Room 106, Vol. 6, “Are We Good People?”

Today in World Literature, we discussed Tadeusz Borowski’s short story, “Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Gas Chamber.” As the title makes clear, it is a piece of Holocaust literature told from the point of view of a concentration camp prisoner, which Borowski was. As a youngish man of good strength, the narrator is kept alive in order to provide manual labor for the camp. One day, he is assigned to offload a series of incoming trains containing cattle cars full of prisoners destined for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. After his initial hesitancy and trepidation wears off, he loses himself and his sense of humanity in the repetition and routine of stripping the arriving prisoners of all of their worldly possessions and directing them to the trucks that will transport them to the death camps. Numerous scenes of callous disregard for human dignity and life follow that numb him with what Hannah Arndt described in her account of the Nuremberg Trials as the “banality of evil.” Eventually, he turns to a fellow prison worker and asks, “Are we good people?”

Throughout the story, the reader is confronted by the temptation to turn away from the disturbing atrocities recreated on the page, atrocities not born from a writer’s imagination but from history. It’s an ingenious ploy used by Borowski that fuses form and content by to creating in the reader the exact same response of the many of that time who knew of the horrors of the Nazi genocidal policies and practices yet turned away. His challenge is to dare the reader to confront the grim reality of man’s seemingly limitless potential for evil and to assume the burden of blame and shame we all earn whenever we look away and do nothing to combat the evil we encounter.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, To the Gas Chamber” does exactly what I believe all great art must do: it disturbs the reader’s understanding of his world and of himself. It also doesn’t do what I believe great art doesn’t do: it doesn’t act as a mere diversionary vehicle for escape from ugly truths. Rather, it forces the reader to confront reality with all of its banalities, blemishes, and brutalities. Borowski asks the fundamental question that great literature regularly asks of us: “Are We Good People?” Or, singly, “Am I a Good Person?”

Book Review: The Opposite of Loneliness

http://www.amazon.com/Opposite-Loneliness-Essays-Stories-ebook/dp/B00DPM7RHY/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397696365&sr=1-1&keywords=the+opposite+of+lonliness

Epigraph from THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS: ESSAYS AND STORIES:

Do you wanna leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything . . .
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.
– Marina Keegan, from the poem “Bygones”

I rarely post book reviews; however, after reading THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS: ESSAYS AND STORIES by Marina Keegan, I felt compelled to do so. Sadly, the sublimity of Keegan’s writing is nearly overshadowed by the tragic automobile accident that took her life at the age of 23. I say “nearly” because it would be a disservice to what was her emerging literary genius to focus on anything but her precocious talent. And I know that “genius” is a strong word to use for such a young writer who was only on the cusp of what promised to be not only an accomplished writing career but, based on her stories and essays, an extraordinary life well-examined, well-chronicled, and well-lived. I’m saddened to think of the keen observations of and insights into life Keegan would have provided us and posterity as she moved through her youth and into middle age and beyond, and I mourn for that loss as well.

Her bio identifies Keegan as “an award-winning author, journalist, playwright, poet, actress, and activist.” She had already interned at the Paris Review, been published in the New York Times, and was poised to begin a prestigious job at the New Yorker. For most, these would be crowning achievements, not resume builders. In my years as a high school literature and composition teacher, I’ve had fewer than a handful of students like Keegan, students whom, both I and they knew, were already better readers, thinkers, and writers than me and for whom the best I could do was not to get in their way, and the best they could do was to humor me. Keegan reminds me of those few students.

Although the quality of her stories and essays is uneven, not atypical of such a young writer, Keegan’s insights into human motivations and behaviors are poignantly spot on, whether the protagonist is college-aged, like the narrator of “Cold Pastoral” or an elderly widow as in “Reading Aloud.” In the former story, a college senior is considering breaking up with her boyfriend, Brian, who had only recently ended another long term relationship, when she receives news that he has died in a car accident. She is contacted by
Brian’s ex, who asks her to retrieve his diary from his room on-campus, fearful of what intimate and potentially-embarrassing details might fall into his parents’ hands should they recover it first. In this and her other stories, Keegan makes no attempt to gloss over the high frequency of sexual activity and substance abuse on college campuses. Awkwardly for the narrator, Brian’s parents, although they barely know her, request that she deliver one of the eulogies at his funeral. After she successfully smuggles the diary from Brian’s room, she reads from it only to learn that he had regrets over breaking up with his previous girlfriend and doubts as to the narrator’s worthiness, which only further complicates her feelings towards him, her self-image, and her role as eulogist. My favorite story of the collection is titled “Reading Aloud.” It’s the story of a widower who volunteers to read to the blind. She is assigned to young man who lives alone in an apartment and who mostly asks her to read utilitarian text which he would transpose onto his computer and into braille on his specialized printer for his later usage. The hook is that as she reads, she performs a deliberate striptease – one item of clothing at a time – until she is reading to him while entirely naked. In the presence of this young man, who is unable to see the effects that aging has wrought on her body, she feels sexy and alive again, just as she had felt when young and naked in the presence of her now deceased husband. It is a powerful story of longing and loss for both the blind man and the widow.

The essays reveal Keegan’s insatiable curiosity with seemingly all things and her remarkable breadth of interests and knowledge. The topics range from a hilarious and heartfelt recounting of her relationship with her first car in “Stability in Motion,” to a touching plea for compassion for all creatures, human and animal, in “Why We Care About Whales,” to a hilarious yet profoundly sad character sketch of a Chicago-based exterminator in “I Kill for Money.” In both her fiction and her essays, Keegan’s keen skills of observation and her ability to capture in words the nuances of being human in an all-too-often inhumane world is on full display. Her mastery of language, both literal and figurative, is apparent throughout, and her themes strike upon universal chords.

I highly recommend THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS for all ages of readers. The title betrays Keegan’s most wished for condition, which despite her clearly-privileged upbringing and any number of available opportunities to pursue careers that promised wealth and status, she had little-to-no interest in, for she knew that the opposite of loneliness was not to be found in either. She intuitively understood that both money and status were empty goals and false gods that, in the end, would have cost her soul, not nourished it. Unquestionably for the attainment of her own hopes and dreams, Marina Keegan died too young but not so young that she was unable to leave an indelible mark on the hearts, minds, and souls of those fortunate enough to discover this one collection of priceless insight into the precious gift that is life. Though not enough, it will have to do.

Zeitgeist and GOODNESS FALLS

Zeitgeist
One of the most difficult realities for writers is that much of a book’s potential for being picked up by a publisher and subsequently finding an audience has little to do with the quality of their writing. Countless are the writers who receive effusive praise from agents and editors alike who sing the praises of the author’s manuscript yet choose not to take it on, explaining that it just isn’t “the right fit.” It is a completely justifiable reason for rejection. After all, both agents and editors are in the book SELLING business; they are not merely munificent purveyors of art.

The vast majority of books lose money for their publisher. The ratio often quoted is somewhere around one in ten. The one that succeeds typically either mirrors or forces itself into the ever-fluid cultural zeitgeist. In other words, it fits. Zeitgeist. It’s a silly sounding German word that means “the spirit of the time.” I like to define is as “what’s on people’s minds” and/or “what people are talking about.” For example, zombies are entrenched in the current zeitgeist (The Walking Dead, World War Z, etc.), as are anti-heroes (Walter White, many of the heroes of Game of Thrones, the nerds of Big Bang Theory), and dystopian series (The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.). The zeitgeist, however, is fickle, transient, and quick-to-change. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to write to the zeitgeist. I may be making an unfair assumption here, but I believe it’s a little more doable in the music world, for example, to tap into the zeitgeist and respond in a timely fashion, as the process of conceiving of, writing, performing, producing, and distributing a three-minute song is much more compressed than writing a novel.

This reality was the most significant deciding factor for me in choosing to publish GOODNESS FALLS independently. I have no qualms with traditional publishing other than its glacial pace for moving a book from date of acquisition to its launch date. I had several agents interested in the novel, but it was clear that the rewrite, pitch, and publish process was going to be a long haul. For some books, that is no big deal, especially when they, like all of the best ones do, confront universal ideas that always have been, are currently, and always will be of interest and resonance to people of all places. Some books, however, are more time-sensitive than others, more responsive to and reflective of the current state of things, and in danger of irrelevance if not hurried to market. The best of these also have compelling plots and their themes aspire to universality, but the incidents/issues that the author utilizes to hook and engage readers are time sensitive and in need of immediate availability.

Such was the case with GOODNESS FALLS. The major issue of the story is repetitive traumatic brain injury, a condition suffered by the story’s main character, a high school football player. There are several youth sports (not just football) that I sincerely believe we, as a society, need to reexamine the value of and, at least, make a reasonable judgement on the side of safety regarding what risks with our children’s health we are willing to consider acceptable. I hope GOODNESS FALLS can help raise awareness of the devastating consequences of traumatic brain injury and bring people to the table to discuss what can be done to lessen its occurrence in youth sports. Due to several high profile cases in professional sports, the issue is currently in the zeitgeist, yet I fear that those with vested interests (typically financial) in maintaining the status quo will move to quell any outcry that threatens those interests, and the novel will be ignored.

I hope to reach a day when a story like GOODNESS FALLS will have little-to-no-relevance to the lives of young people and the adults who provide them care. Today, however, is no that day.

A Sneak Peek into Chapter 1 of GOODNESS FALLS

Sneak Peek
T.J. Farrell is the protagonist of GOODNESS FALLS. Unlike most of us, at a young age he finds his thing, that one thing that comes easy, that one thing at which he is very good, that one thing that gives his life purpose and meaning. Sadly, many of us never find that thing at all. But T.J. can read a defense and quarterback an offense like a mini Peyton Manning. But what future or real world value are those skills for a kid in his senior year of high school whose average build doesn’t quite fit him into the suit that Division I programs require? And how precious must every play be for that same kid whose history of football-related concussions means that even a glancing blow to the helmet could banish him to the sidelines prematurely and forever? At 18, his life is about to enter sudden death:

from Chapter 1

“Unlike pretty much everything else in life, football made sense to me. For some kids, it’s math or hip-hop or engines. For me, it had always been football. Since I was just a little kid playing pee wee ball, it was on the football field and during the manic eight seconds of an average play that I felt most comfortable and the most alive. Eight seconds a play multiplied by approximately sixty offensive plays a game over a ten-game season equaled eighty minutes of high-quality living a year. That doesn’t amount to much, but I bet it’s more than most people get. And if we scored on that final play, the game, the season, my life would be extended for at least another eight minutes into the playoffs.”

Butterflies in Reverse

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My favorite band, The Counting Crows, have a song called “Butterfly in Reverse.” The telling line in the song says, “Marianne, you’re better than the world.” This line and the song’s title remind me of so many of the seniors I teach and the young adult characters I create who are “better than the world” they’re about to enter.

Eighteen years earlier, they emerged beautiful and innocent into a world whose toxicity slowly dimmed their colors, tamed their natural flightiness, and turned them into “butterflies in reverse.” Despite good intentions, too many of us – meaning parents, teachers, coaches, churches, politicians, media – have failed so many of them. We’ve trapped them in nets and pinned them to boards by imposing on them our own limited visions of their potentialities, our own failed hopes and dreams, and our own ignorance and prejudices.

In my novels, I find myself repeatedly creating teenage characters who are victimized by the adults in their lives: parents who involve themselves too much or too little in their kids’ lives; teachers and coaches who use student/athletes for their own self-aggrandizement or worse; institutions and companies that profit off of the dreams and accomplishments of young people who are not fairly remunerated for their efforts; and the many of us who use them for our entertainment without proper consideration paid to their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Below, I’ve inserted a very cool recitation of the lyrics to “Butterfly in Reverse,” written by Adam Duritz and Ryan Adams, being performed over the music to the song “Fallen Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

I know that raising, teaching, and working with young adults isn’t easy. It’s what I’ve done nearly every day for the past twenty-nine years. I also know that we have no greater responsibility and that, as a whole, we can do better. At that age, they need adults who guide, foster, and facilitate rather than those who use, demand, and indoctrinate.

From Room 106, Vol. 5 – Goodness Fails and “Nice Guys Finish Last!”

Nice Guys Finish Last

I’m often asked about the genesis of the titles for my novels. I’ve been drafting my current work-in-progress for over two years, and I still don’t have a title I like. SO SHELLY and GOODNESS FALLS both came from notes I’d written to myself for classroom lectures; however, I didn’t even realize that was the case for GOODNESS FALLS until this past week when I opened my lecture notes for a Bertoldt Brecht play, “The Good Woman of Setzuan,” and there it was written in big capital letters: GOODNESS FAILS, not falls, fails. At some point, I had unconsciously co-opted that phrase and applied it to my novel.

“The Good Woman of Setzuan” is a brilliant piece of meta-theater layered with many themes. Any number of critical lenses can be utilized in explicating the play. As a feminist piece, it illustrates the disadvantages of being a woman in a male-centric world. Through a Marxist lens, the play portrays the constant state of conflict between the owner and working classes. Finally, from a religious perspective – as a Marxist himself, Brecht had atheistic leanings – the play suggests the worn out condition and impotence of religion in the modern world. For me, however, the most striking and unsettling element of “The Good Woman of Setzuan” is its theme that in the world as it is, goodness fails.

The protagonist of the play, Shen Te, is a young girl who had been forced into prostitution due to hard times. When she miraculously comes into a small fortune, she tries to go legitimate and open a small shop. Those who know of her past, however, refuse to let her forget it. Out of jealousy, many of her fellow peasants, who, like crabs in a bucket, do not want to see one of their own climb up to better things, undermine her at every turn and pull her back down. In turns out that Shen Te’s virtuous nature is a hindrance to her in the hyper-competitive business world. The only way for her to survive and succeed is to assume an alter ego as a man, Shui Ta, who is cruel, unforgiving, and hardhearted. A sad reality emerges from the text: goodness fails.

At some point, I applied that theme to my new novel but altered fails to falls and set the story in a town called Goodness Falls. The switch from fails to falls portrays my teenage protagonist, T.J Farrell, who suffers from repetitive head injuries as a result of years of playing football, as more of a victim of malevolent forces and choices beyond his control than as one, like Shen Te, who tried and failed. In either case, whether actively pursued or passively lived, goodness fails or falls.

My purpose (nor do I believe it was Brecht’s) is not to assume a fatalist’s or a defeatist’s pose with the telling of my story. To the contrary, the goal is to raise awareness of how so often we handicap the good by creating systems in which it is not only discouraged but even punished rather than rewarded. I think of how Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, made famous the saying, “Good guys finish last!” Instead of celebrating that motto, which many in our society do, we should be deriding that absurd notion and defending virtue in all fields of endeavor so that goodness triumphs rather than fails or falls.

BAM!

I learned this week that, upon its release in May, the local Books-A-Million will be shelving GOODNESS FALLS. I couldn’t be happier. First off, a surprisingly small percentage of the books published each year ever make it onto a bookstore shelf, and it’s especially difficult for novels from independent publishers to find room. Most independent authors must make due with Internet sales, but based on their sales of SO SHELLY, they were thrilled to make room for GOODNESS FALLS.

It’s undeniable that, due to the preponderance of eReaders and the popularity of online book sellers, the importance of a book’s presence in a brick-and-mortar store has greatly diminished. However, for many book lovers, it’s still the preferred option for browsing and reading, and for an author, there are still few experiences as satisfying as seeing your book on a shelf in an honest-to-goodness bookstore.

For GOODNESS FALLS, I’m especially excited for the company that she should be keeping among the alphabetically-ordered books on the shelf of the Young Adult or Teen section. Let’s see, T, Ty – U, no one’s name begins with a U – V, Veronica Roth and her Divergent series! If nothing else, the odds are good that at least one person will pick up my book by accident.