Another Terrifying Moment (And, in the Window-Sill Wars, Mulling the Mystery of Severed-Head Ken)

April 16, 2011

Image of a couple of pages from book, with cover in background

When a book at last becomes real

My first hardcover copies of In the Garden of Beasts arrived the other day via Federal Express (the book, however, does not go on sale until May 10). This is always an important moment, for it marks the point where a book is really, truly done–a terrifying moment, in a way. It’s my baby, and I need to make sure it has all its fingers and toes. Is my name spelled correctly? Is there some obvious flaw? Did the publisher use the right author photograph, or the one of me at age twelve?

Oh please, you say. Have some backbone. Man up. Eat barbecue. And yet, once, for a foreign edition of my books, my name was indeed spelled incorrectly. Actually, it was worse than that. My name was correct on the binding, wrong on the cover.

Happily, I can report that Beasts looks quite gorgeous and has all its fingers and toes. It has that lovely feel that a book should have: nice heft, a certain shininess. The interior pages are well-designed. Open, clean, easy on the eyes. I sometimes worry, as a writer, that I don’t really do anything all that worthwhile or productive, and certainly there are reviewers who feel that way, but then comes the book itself, and I realize, why yes, I do produce something. Okay, it may not be a car or stereo system or iPhone, but it certainly is a physical product. As my youngest daughter said when she hefted a copy, “you could throw this at someone and they’d know it.”

I personally am very pleased.


Speaking of iPhones: Last week I asked readers to weigh in on what I should do about upgrading my cellphone so that I can actually read and send emails during my upcoming book tour, which starts May 10. Should I get a Blackberry, an iPhone, or even one of the newest iPads? Well, the vote was unanimous: Get an iPhone. To those who weighed in, thank you.


Another bit of miscellaneous reportage: I’m a huge fan of detective fiction, especially of the dark Scandinavian variety. I include Stieg Larsson, of course, though in fact I far prefer the books of Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, the latter a Norwegian writer. But of late I’ve started reading a writer wholly new to me who hails from a slightly balmier clime: Ireland. I just finished City of Lost Girls, by Declan Hughes. It’s a terrific book. Suspenseful, atmospheric, but above all, one of the most beautifully written works of detective fiction that I’ve read in a very long time. (Note: I do not know Declan Hughes; he has not sent me a check to write this, though if he wants to at any point send me a check he is certainly welcome to do so.)

I am also reading, now, Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell. So far I find it a pretty magical work, with mighty prose of the kind you don’t come across all that often anymore. (Same disclaimer applies.)


The Window-Sill Wars IX: The Mystery of Severed-Head Ken

Severed-head Ken

As armies converge and the spies–Rat and Rubber Snake–continue bartering secrets, the mystery of Severed-Head Ken continues to intrigue observers. How did Ken lose the rest of himself? How did he make his way to Erik’s window sill? Can he possibly be as empty-headed and vapid as that smile suggests?

Theories have been put forth: One holds that Ken is like the obelisk in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, sent to the sill by some alien culture. Others endorse the idea that Ken jilted Barbie and in a jealous rage she tore his head off and dumped it from her Barbie Car before careening wildly off to find solace with her good friends, the artist models and their cat.

Artists' figurines consoling Barbie, looking haggard in red dress

Consoling Barbie

But the correspondents on the scene believe there is a deeper story here: That Ken, whatever his roots, is in fact a creature of high intellect and dignity—a Gandhi-esque character, without the diaper, or for that matter, the torso—and that he is merely waiting for his moment in history, to save the day. The Nunzillas think this theory is cracked, but they for the moment are keeping their opinion to themselves.

Vapid Ken with Nunzillas conferring in background

Ken looks on, as Nunzillas confer

Everyone agrees the forces at play are merely waiting for the Seattle rains to stop before launching the final battle for Erik’s window sill, though really this makes no sense because so far the rain has only fallen outside the house and the opposing armies are advancing inside. But in these strange and uneasy times, even this prospect of delay is a source of comfort, offering the hope that a peaceful solution may yet arise.

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Le Tour de ‘Beasts’ (And the Latest in the Window-Sill Wars, as More Forces Rise in Arms, or at Least Legs)

April 9, 2011

Image of a swan, photographed in Mendocino, CA

So I’m steeling myself now for the upcoming tour for my new book, In the Garden of Beasts. The tour begins May 10, when the book goes on sale, and will take me to Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Nashville, and other far-flung places. Cate Blanchett has agreed to accompany me for the entire journey. And Congress is going to abolish the income tax.

A book tour is a fairly grueling affair, a little like a miniature political campaign. What makes it especially trying for me is that I really don’t enjoy flying. I’m tallish—six-foot, two-inches—and people sitting in front of me generally don’t like it when I put my feet up on their shoulders. I tend to get claustrophobic on even short flights, especially in those little regional jets all the airlines now seem to favor.

I hasten to add that I don’t get scarily claustrophobic—as in whimpering in fetal position—but just enough to make me feel a little panicky. I prefer window seats, because I get to look outside at the vast expanse of sky and sun, provided of course that it’s daytime. Night flights only compound my angst. On the plus side, I have not yet lost my sense of amazement at the very fact of flight—that this tube of metal is flying at 40,000 feet at speeds in excess of 400 miles an hour through air so cold it would freeze your corneas in a nanosecond, and sometimes this metal is so old it fractures and provides a welcome gust of fresh air into the cabin.

My publicist, Penny Simon, secretly delights in arranging my periodic book tours, because she gets to make me do things I might otherwise not want to do, like fly. She loves to boss me around, and she doesn’t let me whine. I admit that I am reasonably adept at whining, especially when I have to get up at four a.m. to be at a TV station for a one-minute interview. Happily, at each city on the tour I get placed in the hands of an able media escort, someone who is far more charismatic than I and possesses a better car and, if necessary, can bail me out of jail. This has not been necessary yet, though I suspect it is only a matter of time.

Erik's antique cell phone

Primitive technology: What should Erik do?

I plan to file dispatches to this website from the tour at various intervals. Which raises a question. Right now all I possess by way of a cellphone is an ancient Nokia which is so old that when I pull it out I have to crank it to get it to make a call. In order to update my website, or even—oh lord, am I even saying this—or even to Tweet, I’ll need something with a good deal more data capacity. So, here is my question: Should I get an iPhone or a Blackberry, or even, as has been suggested to me, an iPad? If you’d like to waste a little time and weigh in on this question, please feel free to email me at
I’ll understand, of course, if you have better things to do.


The Window-Sill Wars VIII: No Country for All the Pretty Horses


Pretty painted Swedish horses on the march

The Swedish Horses advance

In any conflict, there are always those opportunistic souls who seek to capitalize on turmoil. The Swedish Horses, who ordinarily could be counted on to remain neutral, have now suddenly begun advancing toward Erik’s office window sill—taking advantage, clearly, of the momentary disarray of the Secret Red Rose Army, last spotted struggling to remove itself from a large cast-iron frying pan, to which it had been misdirected after an act of torture yielded false intelligence.

The Swedish Horses are a proud legion, whose brilliant war colors cast fear into all who see them pass. Their splendor is such that men look upon them with fear and awe, and termites watch with unquenchable desire.

But there is more: The most terrifying rumor of all has begun to circulate among the various forces converging on the sill. There is talk—dark talk indeed—that the dead have awakened and a force of zombies may now be marshalling in an adjacent room.

Two zombie figurines

Can it be?

These creatures are said to glow in the dark, though proof of this remains elusive as currently surveillance is restricted to daylight hours. It is this talk of a zombie resurgence that, more than any other rumor, has struck terror into the countryside, and into finger puppets everywhere.

A knited finger puppet clearly expressing terror


The spies continue their bleak watch. Rat has been awarded the much-coveted but rarely awarded double-R status for his role in planting the faulty intelligence that so effectively confounded the Secret Red Rose Army. The shadows, between a stand of files and a Rosetta Stone Italian Level 5 box, are where he is most at home.

Realistic rat, in shadows

Rat, gloating

Oh these are woeful times indeed! One day men will write of this (and so will swans–well, only one swan, actually)–how the mere addition of a wind-up Triceratops pencil-sharpener upset the balance of power on Erik’s office window sill, a landscape that for so long had known only peace.

Image of a swan, photographed in Mendocino, CA

To sing of brave deeds

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The Longhand Enigma (Plus, The Secret Army Learns a Hard Truth)

March 24, 2011

Image of scissors, pencil, rubber cement

My favorite tools

I’m often asked whether I write using a computer or some more traditional implement. In fact, I use both.

The best thing about my computer is that it lets me write quickly. I can trowel words onto a page with abandon, and remove them just as blithely; I can start the same paragraph over and over and over, and over, until I get the sentence just right. The machine truly comes into its own, however, during the revision phase, after editors, proofreaders and the FedEx lady have weighed in with their observations. In the old days, meaning the dark ages of the 1970s and 1980s when dinosaurs walked the earth and typewriters brooded on every desk, I hated the prospect of revisions, because inevitably I’d end up having to retype entire manuscripts multiple times. Now with my computer I just insert the necessary changes and, ta-dah, I’m done. It’s about as close to magic as anything can come.

But, I do find that there are times when old-fashioned methods work best. That’s when I bring out one of my yellow legal pads (the kind with reinforced backs, so they don’t flop around in your lap) and a couple of nice pointy Ticonderoga no. 2s—or to be more precise, the Dixon Ticonderoga 1388-2/HB SOFT.

I do this whenever I have an especially difficult passage to compose, for there is something about the labor involved in writing longhand that fosters creative thought. The operative force here is avoidance—there’s so much sheer effort involved in erasing and rewriting, crumpling and hurling paper, and writing anew, that a writer actually has to think before putting the first words on the page. I’m convinced that it’s that extra bit of advance thought that helps smooth the difficult narrative bumps.

I also find the computer to be very limited as a tool for the kind of broad-sweep editing that involves moving whole passages, even entire chapters, from one place to another. Suddenly the computer becomes a cramped place indeed, no matter how many windows you open at any one time.

In this phase, there is no substitute for the classic cut-and-paste approach. I use a big old scissors, a gift from my mother many years ago, and a jar of rubber cement. First I spread my entire manuscript over the floor of my bedroom. Needless to say this is not my wife’s favorite phase of the operation. I, however, love it. It’s a little like exposing film in a darkroom (dinosaur alert number two). At last you see what you’ve really got.

Next I get down on my knees and start cutting. If I’m trying to structure a single chapter, I’ll first chop it up into individual paragraphs, and pare away any obviously labored transitional sentences. I stack these paragraphs in a neat pile, then upend the pile so that all the paragraphs flutter to the ground. I shuffle them around until their original order is impossible to detect, and then stack them into a fresh pile. Now I begin rebuilding the chapter. I take the top paragraph and put it on the rug, then fumble through the rest to find something that might reasonably be expected to precede or follow it. I continue until all or most of the paragraphs are arranged on the floor.

The purpose of all this is to break apart the artificial structure of the initial draft. It is easy for a writer to fall victim to the illusion that his prose is so precious and perfect that it cannot be made better. This illusion grows stronger with each successive draft, until the writer has lost all capacity to examine his prose dispassionately. The scissors restores perspective. The initial structure disappears and is exposed for the flimsy, inertia-laden thing it invariably was, as a wholly new structure materializes on the floor. Often a few extra paragraphs will remain in the stack, proven to be unnecessary or suddenly revealed to be duplicates of material elsewhere in the work. A quick write-through now yields an infinitely improved chapter.

There are hazards in this approach. Once, our dear departed dog Molly trotted heavily across the entire manuscript of The Devil in the White City. When I tried to remove her, she of course decided that we were playing. I cannot tell whether the moment improved the manuscript or not, but it’s very likely that it did.


The Window-Sill Wars VII:  The Consequences of False Intelligence

I’ve been traveling for the last ten days, and returned to my office with no small degree of trepidation. I found a tense stand-off between opposing forces on my window sill. No one wants to be the first to blink. And in fact, neither side is actually able to blink, but neither wants the other to know it.

Nunzilla and Triceratops in face-to-face staredown

Nobody blink

The really important news is that the Secret Red Rose Army paid a dear price for its attempts to use “enhanced interrogation” techniques on a suspected spy within its ranks. For torture, as the Secret Army has now learned at great cost, often yields false information, especially when the tortured individual is in fact a trained agent taught to endure pain as long as possible in order to give his “confession” more credibility.

Recall that the Secret Army used an apple-corer to gain information from a recent recruit caught on camera holding a secret meeting with Rat, the spy. The army interrogated him until he broke.

Image of fractured pumpkin figurine

Broken by interrogation

It is now understood, however, that his apparent confession was part of a plan to mislead the commanders of the Secret Army and cause the army to march off course. The result is clear, captured in a recent surveillance photograph.

The Secret Army marooned in a frying pan

The fruits of torture

The Secret Army has lost precious time. Hostilities could break out at any moment. Innocent souls look on with wonder, astonished at how quickly the peaceful world of Erik’s window sill became transformed into a realm of jealousy, suspicion and fear.

Teddy figure showing anxiety

A portrait of anxiety

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