Quote

Real-life bridge daughter

Reddit ScienceA friend of mine stumbled on a true-to-life bridge daughter. Recall the premise of my novel:

Hanna is a “bridge daughter,” born pregnant with her parents’ child. In a few months she will give birth and die, leaving her parents with their true daughter.

Compare it to this Redditor’s story (from /r/raisedbynarcissists):

The summer before I turned 16 my parents went to a fertility clinic in the city to see about having another kid. My mom had been sterilized after my sister was born because of complications during lil sis’ birth that made it obvious that trying for another kid wouldn’t be healthy. 10 years later, all of my mother’s kids are grown into at least preteens and she was without a baby.

Then [my parents] asked me, their 15 year old daughter, if I would allow 3 of my parent’s fertilized eggs to be planted in me when I turned 18. They wanted me to carry potentially 3 of my own siblings to term and give birth to them. Mom would take the next batch of 3, and the last egg would go to me.

The whole crazy story is here. Download a sample of a far saner version of this story at Amazon.

Kindle Unlimited Swap Meet

This month me and my fellow Kindle Press authors have organized a Kindle Unlimited Swap Meet. Over twenty authors, over twenty books, all free to read through the Kindle Unlimited program. If you’re not a Kindle Unlimited member, you can sign up for a month-long free trial and read as many books as you want. Even if you don’t want to give KU a go, many of the books in the Swap Meet are discounted this month.

Both Bridge Daughter and Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People are represented in the Swap Meet. I’d also like to point out a couple of other books you might be interested in:

Making Arrangements by Ferris RobinsonAuthor Ferris Robinson and I went through the Kindle Scout program together and were accepted by Kindle Press at about the same time, so I feel a sense of camaraderie with her. Her book Making Arrangements is a wonderful slice-of-life novel filled with memorable characters and unexpected discoveries. I highly recommend it.

Son of Justice by Steven L. HawkAnother Swap Meet book to look out for is Steven L. Hawk’s Son of Justice, a rousing science fiction military adventure about family lines and choosing between the easy road and one less traveled. Hawk is the author of The Peace Warrior trilogy which has received high acclaim as well.

The above books are free to read through Kindle Unlimited, and there’s plenty of deals to be had as well, so check out all the books in the Swap Meet. Some are up to 70% off, and the novels range from fantasy to mystery to contemporary literature.

And be sure to enter the Swap Meet’s $100 Amazon gift card giveaway! You win by helping to spread the word about these great Kindle Unlimited books.

BBC News on John Hersey’s Hiroshima 70 years later

Hiroshima by John HerseyLate last year I wrote about my love of front matter using John Hersey’s inestimable Hiroshima as an example of why the first pages of a book matter. To mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima‘s publication, BBC News published last week a fantastic article on the history of John Hersey’s masterpiece, detailing both the 1946 New Yorker article he penned as well as its reception when published in book form.

Not only does the BBC article reproduce some of the pages of the original “Reporter at Large” article—The New Yorker really hasn’t changed in 70 years—it includes a quick biography of Hersey and the circumstances leading to his assignment in postwar Japan. One literary tidbit worth mentioning:

[Hersey] expected to write, as others had done, a piece about the state of the shattered city, the buildings, the rebuilding, nine months on. …

On the voyage out he fell ill and was given a copy of Thornton Wilders’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Inspired by Wilder’s narrative of the five people who crossed the bridge as it collapsed he decided he would write about people not buildings. And it was that simple decision that marks Hiroshima out from other pieces of the time.

Wilders’ novel is an unapologetically Christian story scrabbling for meaning in the remains of a supposedly senseless tragedy. It’s an apt book to prepare one’s soul for writing about the tragedy at Hiroshima.

A war correspondent, Hersey would’ve had practical experience writing of attacks and military maneuvers as well as the journalist’s skill for getting the four W’s down on the page in economical, readable prose. Yet Hersey chose to write about civilians, each detached from the war, rather than the larger geopolitical context. This is why Hiroshima is sometimes seen as an early form of New Journalism, although unlike its later practitioners, Hersey maintains the traditional journalist’s distance from his subjects.

The BBC retrospective also has a nice gallery of Hiroshima‘s covers over the years, including the one I mentioned in my earlier post (and displayed above). Each complement Hersey’s writing in their own ways, although I remain partial to Wendell Minor’s cover for the reasons I explored before.

Most impressive for me is Hersey’s refusal to be interviewed by the BBC, or for most anyone. From a cabled response he sent to the BBC (probably mangled due to the quality of telegram transmission at the time):

Hersey gratefullest invitation and BBC interest and coverage Hiroshima but has throughout maintained policy let story speak for itself without additional words from himself or anybody.

Here’s to a time when authors believed their work should speak for itself, rather than the modern inclination to itch and claw for more book tours, more time in front of a microphone, and more publicity to burnish one’s credentials and sell more copies.

Rewatching Slacker

SlackerAlthough I can’t imagine any of the characters in the film Slacker being terribly nostalgic about anything, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Richard Linklater’s gem. Sanctified in The Onion A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” and topping numerous critics’ “best indie film of all-time” rankings, Slacker is an odd addition to any best-of list. After all, this is seemingly a film about not giving a shit.

At least, that’s the most immediate impression on first watching Slacker, that and its nontraditional film narrative. Slacker doesn’t follow a story arc of one or two characters, and it’s not a collection of marginally intertwined stories, like Altman’s Short Cuts or the animated Heavy Metal. In Slacker the camera lens floats from one set of people to another, lingering for a minute here or ten minutes there. The camera eavesdrops on a stream of unrelated interactions—in sum, a day in the life of Austin, Texas, circa 1991. Often these moments have no distinguishable beginning or ending, just slices of time in the company of cafe philosophers, conspiracy theorists, guys trying to get laid, and girls trying to be taken seriously.

Entirely linear, Slacker never flashes back or forward, always remaining in the moment, giving the film a kind of bald, unprotected sensation. The camera drops into discussions midstream, giving us the opportunity to watch and listen but leaving it entirely for us to surmise backstories and histories. Then, as one or two people in the group grow fidgety or distracted—or bored—they move on, as does the camera, floating to the next interaction. There’s no soundtrack to speak of, only the occasional background music from a radio or club band, but nothing more. The camera is the star of Slacker, although it took me years to realize it.

The film opens with a young man (director Linklater himself) arriving in Austin and launching into a chain of free-form ruminations while a disinterested taxi driver takes him into town. The film closes with a raucous group of friends driving a convertible up the mountains outside of town and, in a final pique, throwing the camera—the star of the movie—down a cliff. In between, the camera moves between perhaps fifty different vignettes, eavesdropping on everything from the inane and mundane to the fantastical and bizarre.

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Impossibly, each of these moments is wonderful in its own right. Some of the episodes reach father than the others. Everyone who’s watched the film remembers its most famous scene, the overly-familiar young woman (Teresa Taylor, drummer for the Butthole Surfers!) fencing a stolen jar containing Madonna’s pap smear, pubic hair and all. My personal favorite remains the inept burglar caught in the act in an elderly anarchist’s house, only to receive a gentle education on the history of anarchism in America. It’s the most complete and well-rounded episode in the film. It comes near the film’s midpoint, giving the audience a kind of narrative breather before the tour of Austin’s alt-underground bestiary continues.

Considering its unconventional narrative style, Slacker is refreshingly not self-conscious (or self-congratulatory) of its rule-breaking. (The opening with Linklater in the cab may be the only “meta” moment in the film.) For all the ground this self-financed film breaks, it’s comfortable and comforting viewing, the absolute opposite of the avant garde. That’s another reason Slacker sustains after twenty-five years. It’s hard to mock a film-school film and its no-name cast when it’s so relaxed in its own skin.

Any review or retrospective of Slacker is bound to name-drop “Generation X” and I won’t disappoint on that count. (After all, I’ve got some skin in the game.) Slacker is often called the definitive film of my generation. But when I think of the “great” movies of a generation—Easy Rider and The Big Chill for the Baby Boomers, The Social Network for the Millennials—I see aging, curling Polaroids losing their currency with each passing minute—movies of like-aged, like-minded, similarly-groomed people bellyaching they’ve not gotten their due. Slacker is not that film.

One observation critics sometimes make is that this is not truly a Generation X film because not every character is of that age. It’s true, but it’s also true the older non-Gen-X characters are treated differently than the rest. In films like Easy Rider and The Social Network, the older generation is treated with disdain and suspicion. In Slacker, those suspicions are reversed. An age-worn hitchhiker and the anarchist mentioned before are voices afforded the opportunity to air their wisdom to a welcome audience, while the specious logics of the younger characters are treated more as clever amusements. In the film’s final moments, an elderly man strolls down a street narrating into a tape recorder the quiet poetic wisdom of a long, full life—only to be interrupted by a young man, 20 or 21, driving a car with mounted loudspeakers, blaring into the microphone empty rage about guns and knives solving all political problems. It’s obvious where this film’s sympathies lie.

For the A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” review, Scott Tobias puts his finger on why Slacker is distinguished from other generation-defining movies:

It isn’t enough to think of Gen-Xers as merely jaded and sarcastic; indeed, there’s little of that attitude on display in Linklater’s film. But there is a sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. As one character puts it, “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.”

My personal introduction to Slacker was in 1992, not long after its release, watching the movie on VHS at a Saturday night pasta feed. Eight or nine of us were crowded into a duplex’s living room in San Luis Obispo, me and my college-aged friends, some I knew well, some I didn’t. In particular, the singer and rhythm guitarist of our band was there. (We were going to be big, but no one could understand what our music was doing.) We were feasting on plates of red-sauce spaghetti and hot garlic bread. One of the women had made her easy-bake Apple Brown Betty. Others brought red wine and six-packs of the local beer. Dinner and a movie, on the cheap.

We were young and about to grow old. The singer was engaged to marry one of women there, the Brown Betty baker who was a housemate of mine. I was becoming involved with another woman in the room, a second housemate of mine that I would go on to live with for thirteen years. There were most likely other sub-plots in that room I was unaware of.

We knew, collectively and subconsciously, we were about to be dropped on a high-speed conveyor belt and told to run as fast as we could to keep up. Some of the people in that room thought they could step out of the way and stay clear of the inevitable. The rest of us knew, it’s called “inevitable” for a reason. For us, “getting ahead” sounded an awful lot like “falling behind.” We were all resigned to what was coming, and resigned to it in our own ways.

That’s why Linklater’s cafe au lait Dostoevskys and conspiracy savants sustains twenty-five years later. The game for the viewer is not teasing apart thought-provoking insights or brilliant dissections of American culture. Most of the musings in Slacker are, in fact, well-adorned horseshit. The game is piecing together how reasonably-educated people would arrive at such philosophies—and everyone in this film has their own philosophy, make no mistake. There’s a postmodern dignity that comes with assembling a personal credo from piece-parts and staying true to it, no matter how whacked-out it is. And that’s what’s going on in this film, with zero irony and zero sarcasm.

Pre-Internet and pre-Seinfeld, Slacker might come across as a grungy sun-drenched film of a drearier, less-snarky age. I say Linklater offers blueprints for an examined life—not the examined life, but examples of them. This is an earnest film. With few exceptions, the characters in Slacker withhold judgment about each other. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even when it’s obvious one of them is babbling nonsense from out in the weeds—”We’ve been on the moon since the ’50s!”—the other characters give them their space. There’s a moment in the film where a character takes a swipe at Texas Libertarians, but it seems to me that Slacker‘s code of live-and-let-live stands not far off.

Most critics pick up on a line uttered late in the film: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” It’s often interpreted as the film announcing its own thesis statement (possibly the only other “meta” moment), but it’s worth taking a second look.

I don’t see a lot of disgust in Slacker. There’s a bit of it sprinkled around: the roustabout hitchhiker (“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it”), a mouthy “anti-artist” berating a hipster at two in the morning, an enraged polemicist in an old-fashioned electioneering sound truck. That may be about it in the disgust department, though.

Slacker 2011, a "re-imagining" produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Slacker 2011, a “re-imagining” produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Listening to Linklater’s director’s commentary (recorded for Slacker‘s 20th anniversary), I gather he’s not terribly interested in elevating emotions like disgust, rage, vengeance, or hatred. So many of his anecdotes about Slacker are soft recollections of easier times: a buddy who came through with film equipment, good times working in a T-shirt shop, a girlfriend-actor he’s still friends with, that sort of thing. Slacker is a compendium of this manner of life. Sleeping on couches, trips to dusty used-books stores, the quest for the best burrito in town: It’s not a universal way of life, but it’s a way of life mimeographed and stapled to telephone poles all across America. Any smallish city or town with a college or arts school has this scene. Slacker is its Platonic ideal.

Returning to that immortal line—”Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”—I don’t even think there’s much apathy in the film, at least in its purest destructive form. Shrugging off others’ pet theories or forgoing a work ethic is not apathy. Questioning whether ex-convicts should be denied the right to vote or wondering if the media used Smurfs to inculcate America’s youth—both voiced in the film—doesn’t strike me as apathetic either.

Withdrawal is the common filament of Slacker, the third rail powering the camera’s dolly as it journeys through Austin. The closest Slacker gets to engagement is a gung-ho “cultural terrorist” selling T-shirts on the street. Slacker‘s characters don’t merely question, they question the act of questioning.

What did E. M. Forster write in Howard’s End? “Only connect”? Slacker is “only connect” put to film.

Twenty-five years on, I’ve lost touch with all the folks in that room in San Luis Obispo watching Slacker and drinking red wine. Over the years I intersected with a few of them, connecting briefly before moving on.

I’ll be bold and surmise that, back then, laughing and marveling over Linklater’s creation, none of us wanted to leave San Luis Obispo, or even that room. After leaving, we never wanted to return either. Perhaps we never truly left it behind.

I suppose that’s why I rewatch Slacker every few years, just as I reread certain books which have deeply affected me at points in my life. Rewatching Slacker is reconnecting with a past and making it present for a moment. It keeps alive within me a little bit of that necessary withdrawal.

Status

Kindle Press to publish Bridge Daughter

An hour ago I learned Kindle Press has accepted Bridge Daughter for publication!

The news is still soaking in. I don’t have much else to say at the moment. I should have more details soon.

What a great Monday.

I don’t have a publication date yet, but you can still download and read the first chapters of Bridge Daughter at its Kindle Scout page.

Aside

Bridge Daughter on Kindle Scout: Week Four

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonThe lights went dim on the Bridge Daughter campaign Friday night around 9pm Pacific time (midnight on the East Coast). Did it end with a bang or a whimper? I would say it ended…on an up-note.

As I wrote last time, campaign activity dropped off after Week Two. What I didn’t realize when I wrote that post is how long the trough would sustain. Bridge Daughter had enjoyed a perch on the Kindle Scout Hot & Trending list for nearly two complete weeks, then fell off entirely, save for a few days when it resurfaced for a couple of hours. After reading other messages on the kboards Writers’ Cafe, I discovered I wasn’t alone—it appears Week Three of the campaign is a quiet stretch for more than a few nominees.

Fortunately, Bridge Daughter rebounded in Week Four and ended with a strong finish: four straight days on the Hot & Trending charts for 24 hours each day. It looks like the interest rekindles (no pun) when a book lands on the “Ending Soon” list, which gives it some prominence on the Kindle Scout home page. It also adds a little urgency to the readers, letting them know that if they want to see a book published, they need to vote now, and not put it off.

I’m out of energy to write more about Kindle Scout at the moment. It was fortunate the campaign concluded Friday evening. It’s nice to have a weekend to myself. I realized toward the end of Week Three that not a day had passed since the campaign started that I wasn’t fretting over it: writing emails, arranging advertising, social media, working on my blog…it adds up.

Now I wait for Amazon to evaluate the campaign results and my manuscript and return to me with a yea or a nay.

Bridge Daughter on Kindle Scout: Week Three

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonNow entering the home stretch, Bridge Daughter‘s campaign on Kindle Scout has five days left before the nomination process ends.

Week Three had a noticeable drop in energy over the prior two weeks. Out of the gate, Bridge Daughter was in the Hot & Trending list for over 20 hours a day for twelve days straight. That was a huge rush to see and, of course, invigorated my optimism.

That didn’t sustain, unfortunately, but I’m not certain that’s a liability for my chances of Bridge Daughter being accepted by Amazon. I’ve been following the Amazon Kindle Scout message list on kboards.com’s Writers’ Cafe (which I encourage all Kindle authors to join and follow) as well as reading blog posts from authors who’ve been published—and not published—via Kindle Scout. I don’t have any pearls of wisdom for guaranteed success with Kindle Scout, but I feel more positive than ever that it’s a mistake to view the program as a popularity contest.

What’s the magic formula?

Looking through the backlog of messages on kboards.com, one recurring question is What’s the magic formula for getting published on Kindle Scout? I don’t have an answer, but I’ve learned quite a bit over the past month. (And remember: I’m still in the middle of my first Kindle Scout campaign. Five days from now I might be changing my tune.)

Most of my information is second-hand, although a fair amount came from the authors themselves. (Martin Crosbie’s series on his Kindle Scout experience is a good read for anyone considering publishing this way.) It seems the following is true:

  • Some writers with books in the Hot & Trending list for 30 days straight were not selected.
  • Some writers who performed so-so in Hot & Trending were selected.
  • Writers who published multiple books through Kindle Scout in the past have been rejected even though their latest campaign performed reasonably well.

As I said in my first week’s post, I believe there’s a reason Amazon calls it “nominating” a book instead of “voting” for a book. It’s not a purely democratic process, where X nominations push a book across the finish line and Amazon will then (mechanically) start the publishing process.

I believe there to be a human component here, one or more Amazon editors who have some say over the approval process. How active they are in the editorial process after approval, I’m unsure. I’ve read blogs where authors were getting great edits before publication, and others where the book pretty much went to press as-is. We’re not even sure what algorithm Amazon uses to determine if a book is “Hot” at any moment in time (although it seems to be a combination of nominations and page views, i.e. clicks).

Part of me wonders if the Hot & Trending process is simply a baseline rather than the finish line—a way for Amazon to feel confident there’s sufficient interest in the book before using valuable editor time to read through it. Hot & Trending is also a gauge of how well the writer can spread the word and generate excitement (via social networks and the blogosphere), now considered by publishers a crucial part of author publicity, Amazon or otherwise.

I wish I could say Kindle Scout is a pure meritocracy, where great writing gets a publishing contract regardless of external factors. Then again, I wish I could say that about the traditional publishing world as well. I do feel I’ve received a tremendous positive reaction to Bridge Daughter thanks to Kindle Scout’s process, and that’s more valuable than I can describe.

Five days remaining to nominate Bridge Daughter for publication!