All of my books are packed in boxes stacked in a container sitting on a cargo ship enroute to New Zealand. I’ve been pining for a good read and can’t stand the idea of staring at my iPad screen reading reformatted Kindle pages. I stopped today at Borderlands, the sci-fi and fantasy book store in San Francisco that has enjoyed the sort of niche success that The Stars Our Destination enjoyed so many years ago in Chicago.
I went looking for some Lovecraft, although I probably own more duplicate works of his, in numerous gorgeous editions, than I should. When I walked in, I saw a man sitting at a small table with two small stacks of new books. I heard him say to a patron, “Hi, I’m a local author and I have a new book that might interest you.”
Strangely, I veered into a nearby aisle of books to avoid him. I’m not sure why. I am, after all, a local author and should have been thrilled to meet another like myself who dabbles in the realms of fantasy and speculative fiction.
There was something strange about the tone of his voice. The tone of a man who had been coached to attract attention — to deliver his pitch in a way that would stop nearby patrons and compel them to listen, even if they had no interest in talking to him. I was embarrassed for him, I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps I was simply ashamed that I don’t have that sort of public tenacity. I have never been the type of guy who can march into a book store and say, “Hi, I’m a local author and I’d like to arrange a reading, to perhaps sell some of my books.”
I remembered the thrill of my very first book signing, back in the early ’90s, at the aforementioned The Stars Our Destination in Chicago’s north side. I remember sitting with three of my good friends, fellow writers, all of us having appeared together in an anthology called “Year’s Best Horror Stories.” I remember how pleased the proprietor was to have four of us in the store to help her move some books. Friends and colleagues showed up to buy my book. I remember that look on their faces — admiration, really, for someone they knew who had reached a coveted plateau of modest commercial recognition.
Feeling foolish in my evasiveness, I rounded a corner of fantasy books and stepped up to the author, who was sitting by himself with his books. He was ready for me. He was friendly enough, but he was also penetrating — a little charmless — in his spiel. He had news clippings, little ads from some book authority, quotes from writers I had never heard of. He explained his book series — dystopian, post-apocalyptic, stuff having to do with the weather. I knew what I was hearing, and I felt bad that I had no interest in reading his book. But I was polite, and I asked him to sign a copy for me. Why? Because he had worked hard to get that book done and believed he deserved my money. I responded more to his business acumen than to his appeal as a writer.
After that, I got around to the Lovecraft shelves. Borderlands, happily, has a terrific if small collection of older and rare Lovecraft editions, including — much to my utter and barely concealed delight — two of the five Arkham House publications of his selected letters.
I have read every single letter in those 5 volumes, but it’s been almost 20 years since I did so. I no longer own my copies (lost in a move? who knows?). Perhaps only the letters of Antonio Gramsci have given me such pleasure, such intense insight into the workings of a complex and variegated intellect.
I snatched up the two volumes (vols. IV and V) and my copy of the local author’s novel, and then headed out into the crowded city streets.
Later, at Sushi Time, I cracked open volume IV and began reading. I hadn’t gotten to the fourth letter in the volume (epistle #520 in the complete set) before I ran into a shocking reminder of why I have always felt such a strong kinship with Lovecraft.
“…You must remember that it is only the creation of art which is important. What becomes of it after it is evolved is of relatively little significance–& I’m sure I never expect to see my junk in collected form……….”
Oh, how that simple sentiment — certainly not unique to Lovecraft — rings inside me. My very work on The Adventures of Darwin & Dr Watson has been further testimony to the fact that I just don’t care about riches as they pertain to my writing. It is the act of producing a vision and hoping that readers receive that vision intact, as I intended it, that compels me. It’s freeing, really. Never once thinking about commercial considerations, but instead writing stories that I would enjoy reading. Stories that I don’t find lying around in book stores.
The irony of it all. Lovecraft was right — he would never live to see his “junk” in collected form. But here we are, 74 years after his death, when his name is practically a household term among anyone who has dipped a toe into the black waters of cosmic horror. Where nearly every bookstore in the world with a sci-fi/fantasy section will carry collections of his awesome and otherworldly…junk.
Every writer uninterested in bestseller lists should take joy in that.