by Nick Mamatas
This is only my second column, and I was already stuck for ideas until this evening, mere hours before my deadline, when I nearly died. I made some delicious chicken yiouvetsi, and I did a very good job of it. The chicken thighs practically melted in my mouth. Practically, but not literally, as one too-big bite (It’s delicious, I tell you! Check out The Greek Slow Cooker by Eleni Vonissakou!) got lodged in my throat. It took many more seconds than was comfortable or even safe to rescue myself. I had one hand on my phone, ready to call 911 if I couldn’t pull the food from my throat.
While my brain was struggling with the sudden lack of oxygen, I found myself thinking at first, Ah well, this is it; I didn’t have much going on anyway. But then the images of my loved ones bubbled up from some desperate synapses and I managed to, on the fourth try, unclog my airway.
Then it was right back from the line of death I’d been toeing to my deadline here at The Bronzeville Bee. Not much going on anyway, was an oddly defeatist thing to think, especially as I have three books coming out this year. That sounds like a lot, though truly it isn’t.
Two of the books are reissues, and the third a brief collection a little larger than a chapbook. Still counts! my brain tells me when I’m not trying to extinguish it in the stupidest, if tastiest, way possible. My first novel, the Kerouac/Lovecraft mash-up Move Under Ground, originally published in 2004, is being brought back out by Dover Publications in June. Yes, the same Dover Publications that sold you a Charles Dickens or Jane Austen novel for three dollars when you were in college and had to read it, or that offered up books of paper dolls in historical dress in the gift shop of some museum you went to on a fourth grade field trip. How did that happen? Well, Move Under Ground is one of those books that didn’t sell very many copies, but almost everyone who bought one and read it eventually became a writer or editor. Sixteen years later, one of the little rascals got himself into a position of authority sufficient to bring it back into print.
The second book, due out in October, is the paperback release of my 2019 novel, Sabbath. That was a nightmare project I began in early 2016, that somehow involved eighteen months of waiting for a contract, and was then orphaned and delayed till the end of last year. It’s out now, to mostly positive but universally bemused reviews. For the paperback, I wrote to my new editor with the brilliant suggestion to change the cover to something more appropriate to the darkly comic content, but was rebuffed. The current cover image, of an overly ornate sword hilt surrounded by flames, is something fifteen-year-old boys will love! Perhaps, but fifteen-year-old boys don’t buy books.
The third book, The Planetbreaker’s Son, is part of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series. It includes the title novella, which is new, and which took six extra weeks to write because of a leg injury—I don’t type with my feet, but my brain dislikes pain immensely—and generalized psychological turmoil. The book was nearly cancelled, but when I got the piece in the editor liked it well enough to call it “brilliant and vastly original”, which is nice as “The Planetbreaker’s Son” isn’t even vast so far as novellas go. Rounding out the volume will be a few short stories reprinted from anthologies so obscure listing their titles here will just lead you to think I’m making them up, and an essay that I am also stuck for ideas with as of this writing. (Don’t email me suggestions.) It’ll be out in December, just in time to be buried under Christmas-themed books.
Not too bad! Indeed, when I talk to writers or journalists whose work or tastes run toward the literary, they often express surprise, and claim to be impressed with how prolific I am. I do like to publish at least one book a year, whether that book is a novel, an anthology I edit or co-edit, a short story collection, or a little novelty title of some sort. (Honestly, everything I do is a little novelty title of some sort, but if I say so too often an editor might notice.) It’s taken a while to get to this point, and most of the rewards are psychic rather than financial, but publishing some kind of book with some kind of real publisher that pays a bit of money up front isn’t all that difficult once you get on a roll. But I am not prolific, except by literary standards, which involve a near-performative schedule of endless revision and public sweating while reading one’s work in progress at tony literary conferences before finally birthing a book after a decade of trying. And then perhaps another four years later, or maybe it’ll take another ten. One must not rush one’s muse. A single short story or essay should take a few months of work as well.
By the standards of genre fiction—science fiction/fantasy, crime, romance, etc.—not only am I not prolific, I am practically retired. Reissues don’t count, anthologies, and even most of my novels, which I’ve been told are no such thing as “everyone knows” a novel must be at least 80,000 words (my longest is 75,000), don’t count. And the novel before Sabbath came out in 2016! Prolific genre writers might fire out two 100,000-word novels a year, and perhaps a comic book or at least one short story a month for the magazines or their Patreon subscribers, plus whatever they might be doing under a pen name, and every weekend is a different science fiction convention or other such event to attend and sell books at. Write a short story on your phone on the plane; get together with some online buddies and race to start and finish a novel in a weekend! Whee, lookie me, Imma writin’!
Books are fetishized and mystical, and this is foolish. Those who have books and no children will often express a sentiment along the lines of, “My books are my children!” Well, I put out a book six years ago, and I have a six-year-old boy. One of them I think about all the time, and one I’ve pretty much forgotten. One of them, as a thought, saved my life tonight. It definitely was not the book.