The predicate for this web site is the publication of a novel, Hound, by Small Beer Press in the fall. I would not have attempted to establish this forum just now if the suggestion had not been made repeatedly that I needed to create some greater context for that book. Who was I after all, and why should anyone read yet another mystery by an unknown author?
The world has changed. Whale oil lamps and buggy whips are sold on eBay. The internet has become a billboard for advertisement. Finding an audience for a book before it is published might be done in a new way.
It is worth noting here that the Hound is the result of unintended consequences. I wanted a story about a bookseller that might offer a glimpse of a world I was familiar with, and in terms that might be interesting to others. I wanted to capture certain aspects of this business before they were lost to memory or had simply lost any relevance at all.
I have been aware for most of my life that the profession of bookselling was doomed. The world of business which was made out of the writing, publishing, and selling of books—a world born in the Sixteenth century, nursed in the Seventeenth, raised in the Eighteenth, which then flourished in the Nineteenth and Twentieth–was about to end. I was born too late to romp and wallow in the lush pages of printed literature with complete abandon.
And I did not intend at first to write a mystery. That came from wanting to reveal secrets in ways that might keep the interest of a reader—to entertain someone who might otherwise be doing their laundry or making love or more likely, something in-between.
With the mystery story, Edgar Allen Poe invented an infernal device for written entertainment that is hard to better. Matters of life and death are universal and offer more than just a flavoring to any story. Once introduced, they are difficult or impossible to ignore.
As we work through our days with the petty ordering and completion of the matters of consequence which occupy our lives, the repetition and detail tend to obscure larger and deeper meaning, like the forest lost in the trees. Introducing a matter of life and death puts an edge on things. It sets the time available. It eliminates the trivial. It focuses the mind, as one great wit has said.
Just like everyone else’s, a bookseller’s life is filled by the mundane detail. I was not about to entertain anyone with hair raising accounts of wily purchases, cunning research, and breathtaking sales. I have had all three but not in the same moment. Mr. Poe’s device was a perfect solution for someone like myself, who sees the waning importance of the book as a matter of the greatest concern.
I have been selling books for all of my adult life. The only thing I have been doing for longer than that is writing. When I attempted my first novel I cannot remember, but I completed one when I was fifteen. This effort was born upon a wave of great hubris brought on by the success of a story I wrote for Mrs. Menelli in my ninth grade English class. If she is still with us, I hope she has some idea of the trouble she caused.
I wrote half a dozen novels after that, and then quit in the great frustration of too many rejections and too little time that engulfs most lives. We do what we need to do. The details of my own experience in this regard are not so different from many others I know of.
When the profession of bookselling, which had supported me and my family for so many years, finally failed to meet the demands of my responsibilities, I took a look back at what I had done. It was not all for the worst, no matter the final result. My own mistakes were only part of a larger fabric. And I was happy with too much of my experience to simply throw it over as a total loss.
Well before the end, I knew what was coming and watched its approach like a farmer at the borderland observes the gathering of an enemy horde. Blame for the catastrophe might be placed on poor businessmen like myself, the mass marketing of publishers, the predatory techniques of the chain store, the short term values of authors, the misplaced priorities of the town librarian, the coming of the internet, or on the failure of a school system no longer competent to teach the importance of literature. There are many possible villains in this story.
I wanted to write about this and set about doing it in the best way I knew how. I borrowed Mr. Poe’s device and against that template I place a few of my own experiences which seemed to complement each other. In fact, I have physically observed the essential part of everything in this novel, or else it has actually happened to me. I have never been personally involved in a murder investigation, but I have witnessed the aftermath of death countless times.
It was in the realization that I had been a small part of so many larger stories, and with the thought that they might serve as the parts of some greater understanding of the death of the book, that I began to gain a measure of control over the story I wanted to tell.
For the protagonist, I chose a character younger than myself but not actually young because I know that when I began I was far too stupid to even observe many of the things I wanted now to describe. I decided to make him a book-hound rather than a book seller to avoid the obvious problem of having him stuck behind a sales counter for a large portion of every day. (That peculiar anti-adventure is still beyond my powers to describe with verve to anyone who has not survived it.)
After finishing the first draft of a novel, I realized that I had conjured a rather detailed back story to the characters, and given them a future that mattered to me. And still, I had not come close to touching on all the issues which seemed of importance. Almost immediately I began writing about what had happened to these people shortly before my first imaginings. The Hound is this earlier story.
If this story meets with some reasonable interest, the second novel may hopefully be published next year. In matter of fact, if my audience for Hound proves too small to support the costs of commercial publishing, I will present the second book in the series on this web site as I am now doing with Habits of the Heart. I would not want to frustrate even a few sympathetic readers.
Habits of the Heart, by contrast, is not a mystery at all, but a fictionalized memoir of my own foolishness which seems to have entertained me more to write than it has the editorial powers who have so far taken the time to read it.
Still, Habits of the Heart is the way I write. If it entertains you, perhaps you will want to buy a copy of the Hound when it appears this fall.