Monday, December 25, 2006

In the Name of the Father in Law

I guess having a bit of time off - kinda - these last few days has allowed me to get around to a few things I'd been meaning to do for a while. This installment sees me posting a wee bit of info on my father in law, to acknowledge one recent milestone in particular. So here it is...

My father in law, J. Laughton Johnston, is a great guy in a variety of ways. He's a naturalist, a poet and - most recently - a novelist. His context is particularly Scottish. For that matter, his focus is quite often on the Shetland Isles, where he resides with his wife, Patricia. They've got a crazy-picturesque cottage at the edge of northern seas, with views of cliffs and seals and killer whales, etc.. I've been there. It's lovely, in a brutal, windblown sort of way.

Anyway, he's written several books on natural history topics. They include the titles shown on this post, and also A Naturalist's Shetland.

You can find them at But of even more recent interest is his new novel, A Dream of Silver.

It's published by the Shetland Times and a bit harder to get in the US, but it's orderable at It's the story he was meant to write, really, partly a coming-of-age story and partly a coming-to-rest tale, with a healthy injection of Scottish lore thrown in, most notably in the figure of the pirate Long John Silver and with the looming presences of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott hanging over it all. It's an authentically Scottish rumination on literature and imagination, aging and childhood. Oh, and there's lighthouses in it, too.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Acacia ARCs

As an early Christmas present my editor, Gerry Howard, had a couple of copies of the advanced reading copies of Acacia dropped on my doorstep on Christmas Eve. Very nice surprise. These are essentially deluxe galleys of the book, meant to get distributed to booksellers, reviewers, people in the know. I like how they look, although the cover is only halfway there. The art people are still working on the real cover, so this one has some of the details, but has bracing words in the center instead of an image. You can click on them to get a better look.

The most incredible thing about this is just to see the novel in book form, to hold it in one hand and flip through the pages. It's a moment all novelists (and aspiring novelists) long for, and so far the experience hasn't gotten any less wonderful.

Oh, and one other thing. You may notice the subtitle at the bottom of the front cover. It's Book One: The War With the Mein. I think this is the first time I've said anything about this publicly. There it is. Book One, which can only mean that Book Two is meant to follow...

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Doubleday Summer 07 Catalog

Just became available online. Acacia: The War with the Mein has a nice two-page spread in it. Hopefully, it'll help convince a few booksellers to buy the book and get it on there shelves. They've used the old cover, though, so it's possible the book won't look as advertized at all. If you're interested in what the Publisher catalogs look like you could check it out here - Doubleday. It'll load in Adobe and take a few seconds, but it eventually pops up. Acacia is on page 40-41.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Three Amazon Milestones

Well, I noticed a few new things happened in Durham's Amazon life yesterday. One is that Pride of Carthage got it's 30th reader review! That's cool. Although, judging by the low star count, it wasn't a very nice one. But that leads to the second milestone...

For the first time ever I had no interest in reading the review. I noted it's existence and that was it. This is strange to me because I've always read all my reviews before - professional or amateur, good or bad. I didn't decide that I wasn't going to be as bothered about negative ones anymore. It just happened. I guess there have been enough good ones over the years that I finally reached a point of some equilibrium with the whole thing. The few bad reviews need not occupy my mental space anymore. Right? I've got too much work to do writing the next book, and then the next after that... That's what matters.

And the third thing is that somebody bought the first Amazon copy of Acacia! I know this because the book's sales ranking suddenly switched from None to #4,892,226. Yes, that means I'm almost five million slots away from the number one spot. But hey, the book is like six months away from publication. At least it's gotten a start. Thank you, whomever bought that first copy.

Oh, and if you click on that Acacia link anytime soon you may notice that the cover displayed isn't my book. I've been assured that'll change soon.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006


A swedish journalist named Niclas Karlsson was kind enough to alert me to a review he wrote of the Swedish version of Pride of Carthage (Hannibal Karthagos stolthet). It's published in Katrineholms-Kuriren. Of course, I can't read a word of it, but I'm hoping that he had kind things to say. You could check it out at the above link and if you know any Swedish fill me in on the details...

It includes an illustration of Hannibal. I think it's quite good.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Pen/Faulkner Gala - Lost and Found

I just came across a little essay I wrote for the Pen/Faulkner Foundation's Gala ceremony last year. They invite a bunch of writers to come and read individual three minute pieces written only with the title as inspiration. In 2005 the theme was "Lost and Found". The writers all had vastly different takes on this theme, which they should since it was such a diverse group. Here's what I wrote... (It's all true, by the way.)

I remember the first time I read 40 pages of a chapter book in a day. I was staying with my father in Trinidad, about twelve or so, and the book was The Hobbit. I also remember my pride and amazement the next day, when I read 90 pages. I hadn't known such feats of literary endurance were even possible. Then came the day that I read an entire book in one day. It was Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander. And, most memorable, the summer night at the old house Highland Beach when I stayed up all night reading CS Lewis' A Horse and His Boy, stretched out on an ancient bed before one of those industrial strength metal blade fans, the kind that could really take a finger off. I loved reading so much that by Eight Grade I'd filled a journal with short stories and declared within its pages that I was going to be a writer. Fourteen years old and I'd named my life's work.

Then, however, I began high school. Everything that I'd come to love about reading - the excitement of unbridled imaginative journeys - was strangled out of me. Part of this was the texts we had to read, part of it was the metaphor-by-numbers teaching approach. And part of it was that joy and excitement seemed to have no place in the reading experience anymore. It was neither fun, nor challenging.

There were a few moments when I was excited by reading during this time. Once, my mother gave me The Color Purple. From the first, hard hitting lines I was entranced, challenged, horrified. I read the book in blur and proposed it for a tenth grade book report project. My teacher, Mrs. White, (and yes, she was) shook her head. She said, as I remember it, "No, you can't do that. That's not a real book."

Disappointed and cynical, I grabbed up The Pearl by John Steinbeck - which I'd read the previous year. I skimmed it without enthusiasm and wrote just what Mrs. White wanted and expected from me - a C minus paper. Things went downhill from there. In the end I barely skated out of high school as a D student. My guidance councilor encouraged my mother to get me into some sort of vocational program, because I'd already shot my chances for getting into college. That seems crazy now, but there's truth in it insofar as I'd largely lost faith in education. I'd stopped reading and I certainly had forgotten my desire to be a writer. Four years of high school English, and I'd lost the life work I'd been able to name as an Eight grader.

So how did I end up here, before you? After a year or so of bumming around after graduation I signed up for a continuing studies writing course at Johns Hopkins. The very first paper I wrote was returned to me with a big F on it, and a cryptic note from the teacher - David, call me. I did, and I had a very difficult time with that conversation. Somehow, though, to her credit, I left it having been challenged. Essentially, I hung up the phone believing her to have said that I could think whatever I wanted. I could argued for whatever cause I wanted. I could disagree with her about everything in the world, if I wished. BUT... I had to write it well, convincingly. I had to write clearly. I had to support my claims with evidence. I had to strive, she told me, for a level of excellence never expected of me before. Simple. I rewrote that paper, handed it in and got it back with an A at the top instead of an F. The title of the paper was "America's Glorious Abundance". It transformed me from a D student to an A student, and set me back on the path I'd named earlier. I'd found my identity again.