Sal Terranova and Camden Templeton are cousins separated by upbringing, the Atlantic Ocean, and a common language. Then fate (with help from a run of bad luck and a dead uncle) throws them together in the least likely of places: Texas. Exiled in this strange land, they must band together in order to save the family bookstore from financial ruin, from its own insane employees, and probably from themselves. This is the story of what happens when The Sopranos meets Fawlty a bookstore.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Happy Birthday Harry Potter!

I did not receive a letter from Hogwarts when I was 11 years old; sadly, I ended up in the normal Muggle 5th-grade class of Sister Bernice, a nun who in her youth may have been a Golden Gloves boxing champ and who could certainly have given Voldemort a run for his money. I also didn’t read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a preteen, having turned 30 the year before it was published. But I have read all of the books multiple times now, and want to share some thoughts about Harry and his creator today on their shared birthday.

The good versus evil storyline has existed since the beginning of time; in fact, it is ultimately the basis of most of the world's religions. Stories of magic have existed almost as long, and the story of the orphan who overcomes great odds was popularized by Charles Dickens more than 150 years ago. Yet J.K. Rowling took these very well-known elements and produced something both familiar and new at the same time.

Harry Potter himself could have easily been a one-dimensional character, the lone hero forced to confront the greatest evil the world has ever known. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is such a character, never really growing or maturing during the journey, simply putting one foot in front of the other. But Rowling did something with Harry and the rest of the young characters that hadn't been done before in children's literature: she let them grow up. Harry is 11 years old when we meet him, downtrodden by the Dursely's and unaware of his magical abilities. Over the next seven years he grows in the same way any child does, through trial and error, having goods days and bad (sometimes very, very bad), and discovering who he is as a person, a friend, and a reluctant hero.

Harry is the ultimate underdog, and people love an underdog. He is an orphan whose destiny will have him battle the most powerful dark wizard ever, which is daunting enough, but Rowling goes a step further and throws in enough obstacles to deter Hercules. Having most of the drama take place as Harry is going through puberty helps us relate even more; none of us have ever fought a mountain troll, but we've have fretted over asking someone to a high school dance. We love Harry and his friends first and foremost because they are us.

The other characters, particularly Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, also develop and grow throughout the series, and the romantic tension between them in the later books was yet another twist on "typical" children's literature. Rowling also makes the stories and characters real by having them deal with death in virtually every book. Death is a subject that rarely receives thoughtful consideration even in adult fiction, yet Rowling tackles it from the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The way Rowling portrays the adults in the Harry Potter series is yet another surprise. In most children's books, adults are either not present at all or are little more than bumbling idiots for the kids to outwit. The adults in the Harry Potter books are fully formed characters whose stories could stand alone if you removed the kids entirely. Rowling shows us the adults' strengths and flaws, glories and failures, and she does it from the perspective of the students in most cases; what they (and we) learn about Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Lupin, Snape, and others comes out in bits over the course of the narrative. And as in life, sometimes the kids seem more grown up than the adults and sometimes it's the other way around.

As adults, we love Harry Potter because the books (much more so than the films) have enabled many of us to both share a rare bond with our children and briefly relive childhood ourselves. Countless parents around the globe have either read the books to their children or waited patiently for the kids to finish so we could read them. Harry Potter has given us something in common with our children at a time when we might otherwise think they were from a different planet. And the books have transported many of us back to the days of our own childhood when we actually read during our free time rather than sitting in front of a computer or smart phone. They allow us to escape, however briefly, to a time when we had far fewer worries and responsibilities.

None of these things, however, would make the Potter books the best-selling series of all time (400 million copies in over 30 languages and still growing) if Rowling hadn't also written an amazingly compelling page-turner of a series. That it is both a great beach read and truly literature at the same time is all the more remarkable. She has woven the best parts of the hero-quest, magical fantasy, romance, Gothic suspense, social commentary, and even detective fiction into a tapestry that looks like nothing we'd ever seen before.

Furthermore, Rowling and her boy wizard did something many thought impossible: they made reading cool again, for adults as well as children. Prior to 1997, who would have imagined that millions of children would attempt to read an 800-page book in one sitting, or that their parents would be anxiously waiting for them to finish reading so they could start?

With the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling opened up a world of imagination to a generation of kids who thought for anything to be entertaining it had to have a plug, a screen, or an Internet connection. And these kids (and hopefully their parents as well) will keep reading, if only in the hope of finding another book or series that grabs them the way Harry Potter did. Even if Rowling had never written another word, people everywhere who love books would owe her a debt of gratitude for making reading a novel something we, and more importantly our children, look forward to again.

In the end, each person who has read the books loves Harry Potter for their own individual reasons, which is as it should be. But the reasons discussed above are the communal reasons, the things that draw us together as fans of the series. That shared experience in a disconnected and fractured world may be the best magic of all.

Happy Birthday Harry, and Happy Birthday Jo Rowling.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Short Q & A

The following is a short Q & A about me and my novel The Last Word.

Sum up "The Last Word" in one sentence.
It's the story of what happens when "The Sopranos" meets "Fawlty Towers" a bookstore.

Why did you write book?
Because I simply couldn't get away from it. It actually started as an idea my best friend and I had for a TV series, but that never got off the ground. Then it expanded into a screenplay, and finally became a novel. Sal is who I would be if I could be a fictional character from Jersey. If I could be a real person from Jersey, I'd be Springsteen.

What makes this book different from everything else coming out right now?
As one agent told me: "There are no zombie vampires seeking BDSM-love in a dystopian future society here! No one will buy this!" It's true: my novel has no sex-crazed zombies. Maybe I'll put some in the sequel.

Who are your favorite authors?
That's a hard one to narrow down. I'm particularly fond of Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series and John Dunning's "Bookman" series (I tend to like books about books, which is probably why I wrote one about a bookstore). But if pressed, my Top 5 today would be Ernest Hemingway, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Robert B. Parker, Jasper Fforde, and W. Somerset Maugham. And J.K. Rowling of course. She's a genius.

What is the capital of Slovenia?
Ljubljana (and you were probably looking for Wikipedia, by the way).

What am I working on?
At the moment I’m working on a series of interconnected short stories. I’ve also been writing scenes for the sequel to my novel The Last Word. Whichever character screams the loudest (in my head) is the one that gets attention on any particular day.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
According to the agents I’ve queried I don’t have a genre, which is a problem for them. Apparently the current acceptable genres are BDSM, Vampires, Zombies, Dystopian Future, Teens Hunting Each Other, and Paranormal Romance. My stuff tends to be more in the humorous vein, with the occasional magical realism thrown in.

Why do I write what I do?
I write the world as I see it, then spin it around a bit so it’s more like I want it to be. Either way, it’s a shade left of reality. A lot of the time I write what the voices tell me to, and I don’t mean voices in a serial killer or delusional prophet kind of way. These are good voices. Except when they’re pissed about something.

How does my writing process work?
Process? Man, I wish I had a process; life would be easier with a process. With a novel I like to set a 30-day goal and write like crazy during that 30 days; the pressure of a deadline seems to help. With short stories and flash fiction it’s less planned; when an idea presents itself I try to grab it before it goes away. My muse has a sense of humor though (she’s Scottish and listens to Russian Death Metal, of all things): my best writing time is 6 am to noon…which is when I’m at my day job. Muses can be mean.

What's the last book you read?
The last new book I read was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, an excellent novel I highly recommend, especially if you like books about books and bookstores as I do. I finished my most recent book (a re-read) this morning: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Somehow, in my overly strong devotion to the movie version, I had forgotten how much better the novel is. If you have never read it (especially if you are a guy born between, say, 1960 and 1970) stop reading this and go buy it now. Seriously, go now...I'll wait.