The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey
Richard Kadrey’s “Sandman Slim” series is one of my favorite sets of fantasy books from the last few years, so it’s a pleasure to bring Kadrey back to the Big Idea to talk about its latest installment, Aloha From Hell. This time around, and with a nod to his series’ main character, Kadrey’s here to talk about the value of persistence, even when by all indications you’ve been entirely left for dead.
Before I try to convince you that my new book, Aloha From Hell, is better than pizza or antibiotics I want to say something about writing and publishing: Remember that you’re not dead until you’re dead. What I mean is that unlike your actual rotting carcass, publishing death is largely a state of mind.
My career couldn’t have been deader than it was after the publication of my second novel, Kamikaze L’Amour, a science fictionish magical realist novel about California after it’s been swallowed by the Amazon rainforest. Critics hated it and readers ignored it. My publisher wasn’t pleased and I was wrist-slitting depressed. Kamikaze L’Amour wasn’t exactly the Hindenburg disaster but if a writing career could get food poisoning mine would have been lying on the floor, pale and puking, for the next several years. During that period I wrote one short book, Angel Scene, but it was largely an experiment in style and working methods. While it’s gained a small cult audience, it did less for my career than if I’d become an alligator wrestler.
I thought I’d try breaking into comics so I wrote a mini-series for Vertigo/DC. Accelerate came out to no acclaim and worse sales. Another failure. It took a few years of drinking, therapy and pills before I tried another book.
By the time I sat down to write Butcher Bird I had nothing left to lose. It’s the story of a San Francisco tattoo artist whose life is saved by a blind swordswoman whom he then reluctantly follows on a search for the ultimate magic book.
I wrote Butcher Bird with no thought to markets or readers and with no desire to please anyone but myself. I liked the book but no publisher in New York would buy it. After my friend John Berry designed a nice PDF, I gave away Butcher Bird online for free (It was better than letting it sit around getting dusty). This might sound like another failure but by giving the book away Night Shade Books saw it and ended up buying it. After one major rewrite Butcher Bird went on to become a modest success and continues to sell steadily.
However, I was still broke. I decided to take one last shot at novel writing. I wrote the first hundred pages of Sandman Slim, a violent and funny urban fantasy noir, and sent it to my agent telling her I wouldn’t write one more word unless it sold. If it didn’t I’d know my career was as dead and I’d stick to stories and journalism.
To my shock, the book ended up in a two-day bidding war. Okay, maybe not war. A two-day slap fight. When it was over the book had sold for more money than I expected. Since then we’ve sold a movie option and reprint rights all over the world. My original deal with Harper Collins was for three Sandman Slim books and since then I’ve signed a contract for at least three more.
Does that mean I’d suddenly become a genius? No. It means I kept working my ass off and that for once I had the right book at the right time and the right place. But I wouldn’t have had a book to get lucky with if I hadn’t kept working. That’s what I meant when I said in publishing, “…you’re not dead until you’re dead.” Success isn’t just a matter of talent. It’s a combination of desire, arrogance and a sense of “What the hell else am I supposed to do?” Every pro writer knows a better writer who started out at the same time but you’ve never heard of them. Why? Because they gave up when things got hard. And you know what? Fuck ‘em. They didn’t have the guts to stick it out. If you want to be professional writer get yourself a truckful of guts but a shot glass of ego and maybe you’ll make it. You’re not dead until you decide you’re dead. Look at me. I’m that guy you hear about sometimes. The 20-year overnight success.
Now back to shilling.
In Aloha From Hell James Stark, the magician sent to Hell by Mason Faim in Sandman Slim, finally has to return to Hell to clean up the mess he made by trapping Mason there. Instead of torturing him, Mason spent most of book two, Kill The Dead, recruiting Lucifer’s generals in a rebellion against both Lucifer and God.
Aloha From Hell opens with a magical mystery that turns out to be a deeper, darker mystery leading Stark to discover that Mason has kidnapped his dead girlfriend Alice’s soul and dragged it to Hell. Mason gives Stark three days to rescue her. Of course it’s a ploy to get Stark back Downstairs. Of course he goes. Of course everything goes wrong.
Stark isn’t a nice person. Terrible things happen to him and I’m responsible for that. But I have great affection for Stark no matter how hard I make things for him. It’s my job to drop pianos on his head so he can get up and keep going. And no matter how over the top the story becomes and his hyperbole gets, I take writing his stories very seriously.
I received a great reminder about the power of what writers write. I met a guy who’d tattooed a passage from Butcher Bird on his body. The fact it’s one of my favorite passages in the book doesn’t matter. What I wrote meant enough to him that he had the words etched into his skin forever. Talk about responsibility to your audience. When I learned what he did I finally understood in my bones the old art maxim: “Take the work, not yourself, seriously.”
It’s something I try to remember every day when I sit down to work.