The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Yeah, okay, Greg Van Eekhout’s Big Idea piece for Voyage of the Dogs got me genuinely choked up. Read it and you’ll figure out why.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book.  Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.

Voyage of the Dogs is a middle-grade novel, meaning it’s marketed to readers aged seven to twelve. It’s about four dogs on a starship. When they wake up from cryosleep, they discover that the ship is badly damaged and the human crew has taken the escape pod and left them behind. The barkonauts struggle with dwindling supplies, cascading disasters, pack dynamics, and the feelings any uplifted, abandoned dog would grapple with. There’s adventure, there’s humor, there’s emotion. There’s also butt sniffing, because dogs.

So, that’s basically the pitch I’ll be using with most audiences, and if you stop reading here you’ll have a good idea what this book is about. But this is Scalzi’s blog, and I know you are a special and sophisticated audience, and I want to go a little deeper and tell you why I wrote this particular book at this particular time. I want to tell you why, after six previous novels, this was the only book I could write.

Life can be really hard sometimes. A few years ago, I went through one of those really hard times. My elderly parents’ health had been wobbly for a while, but it became clear that the wheels were really coming off the cart. If you’ve been through this rite of passage, you know what can be involved: ER visits. Fighting with doctors and insurance companies. Finding caregivers. Finding money to pay for said caregivers. Maintaining your own life while maintaining the lives of other adults. It’s a sad, stressful, laborious bunch of stuff. But I was lucky that I wasn’t alone in this. I had my wife. I had friends. And I had my dog.

Dozer is some kind of small terrier mix. He looks much like Lopside, the dog on the cover of the book. (That’s not an accident.) He eats poop and a few months ago he swallowed an entire dead ground squirrel. He’s obnoxious, scrappy, yearning, earnest, gross, and perfect. He is a very good boy. Petting him lowers my blood pressure. It calms my heart. It loosens my knots and releases the vice squeezing my brain. In fact, Dozer was so helpful during this time that we decided to get another dog, Amelia. Amelia is a mix of corgi, rat terrier, and whatever the heck. She’s yappy. She pees when she gets excited. She growls at me when I dance. She is kind of awful. And she is perfect. A couple of weeks before my mom died I took the dogs to her care facility and put Amelia in bed with her for a cuddle. At this point my mom was usually too weak to talk, but she managed the last words I ever heard her utter. “Sweet. Soft.”

On the day my mom finally passed away, the hospice coordinator asked if I needed anything. I told her I needed a dog, so she brought over the care facility’s house dog, a hairy little thing named Winston. Winston eats entire cups of sour cream, plastic and all. He likes to go into residents’ rooms and knock over their trash bins. I have a picture of me carrying Winston around less than an hour after I lost my mom, and there’s a genuinely happy smile on my face. Winston was my wingman that day.

So, skip ahead a few months. Both my parents are gone. During this whole period of care giving, I’d been working, writing, traveling to book events, fulfilling contractual obligations, but now I was out of contract, no books in the publishing pipeline, no books in any state of completion, and also without an agent because I’d parted ways with mine during all this stuff. I had to work.

I looked at my list of ideas, and I considered the headspace I’d have to occupy for months or more to turn one of those ideas into a completed book. They were all cool, chewy, fun ideas, but all of them dark. And I could not bear occupying a dark space. So, what then, could I bear to write? Something fun but not frivolous. Something hopeful but not packed with sweet lies. Something that could break a reader’s heart but also promised to mend it.

The answer was obvious. I could only write a book fueled by the strength and comfort given to me by Dozer and Amelia and Winston and all the dogs in my neighborhood and all the dogs on the Internet.

We often ask if people deserve dogs? The barkonauts in Voyage of the Dogs ask themselves the same question. I don’t have the answer. But I know I need dogs, and I needed to write this book. I could not have written a different one. I’m grateful for the chance to share it with you.

—-

Voyage of the Dogs: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Four: Books

Well, this one is simple. In 1998, I had no published books. In 2018 I have —

(counts fingers)

(counts toes)

(counts fingtoes)

thirty, depending on whether you count individually published novellas (I do), and that number will rise by the end of the year. This number doesn’t count books I didn’t write entirely but to which I have contributed, including short story anthologies, Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers and various textbooks which have published essays or stories of mine. If you include them, the number goes up past fifty. It also doesn’t count foreign editions of the novels. If those were counted as individual publications, I’d be well past a hundred by now, since Old Man’s War itself is in 25 or 26 languages, and most of the novels are in at least five to ten languages by this point. It’s a lot.

But in 1998, nothing. I had written my first novel, Agent to the Stars, the year before, but at the time all it was doing was sitting in a binder on my desk; I wouldn’t even put in on my Web site until 1999. I had an agent for non-fiction and he was pitching a few books out there in the world for me — a pop philosophy book, a book on astronomy, and a book of columns — but we weren’t getting serious nibbles, and it wouldn’t be until the next year when my agent would volunteer me to write a book on online finance (on the grounds that, as I was writing AOL finance newsletters at the time, I already knew this stuff, which, sure, why not). I wanted to write books; I wanted to have books published. But twenty years ago, what I had on the book front was bupkis.

I don’t recall being too anxious about this at the time, although I could be misremembering (it was twenty years ago). But if memory serves, I was less worried about writing books than I was by the fact that I was no longer writing opinion/humor columns, which was a thing that I’d been doing for a decade, and which I still thought would be the main thrust of my writing life. It’s why I started the Whatever, in point of fact; I wanted to keep sharp in the format.

I did want to write books, and be a published author, to be clear. But my philosophy of books at the time was that they would be a writing side dish rather than the whole meal. I would publish books — and at the time I was really focused on non-fiction books, as that’s where my experience and, I thought, my talents, were — and they would bolster my reputation as a freelance writer and a columnist. Writing books was part of an overall writing strategy, in other words. Not the focus.

Also, with regard to the author anxiety front, I was arrogant. It never occured to me that I wouldn’t eventually sell a book. I knew I could write; I knew my agent at the time had sold books before. It was just a matter of time. Looking back, it’s easy to pat the head of my former self and go “Oooooh, twenty-something Scalzi, you were adorable” with regard to this blithe and heedless confidence. But on the other hand, I wasn’t wrong. In 1999, my agent called me up and said, more or less, “Hey, I told Rough Guides that you could totally write a book on online finance. You can, right?” And I said “Sure.” And there it was.

Here’s how I wrote about getting that first book deal, in 1999:

As you might imagine, I’m very excited. Why? Well, most obviously: Hey, I get to write a book. A real book, which will be sold in real bookstores. For a writer, there is no validation like being able to walk into a bookstore and see your name on the cover of a book. Yes, newspapers, magazines and Websites are great too — I’ve been published in all of them, and believe me, I’ve never doubted that I was a writer. Be that as it may. When you write, books are where it’s at. Also, sometime next year, I’ll be able to sign on to Amazon and obsess about where my book is on the Amazon rankings. Will I be in the top 1000? Or languishing somewhere like number 29,453? So many new vistas for neuroticism. I can’t wait.

(Incidentally, the current Amazon ranking for that now-outdated and long out-of-print book? 5,682,830. As it should be. Seriously, don’t buy it, it’s ridiculously useless today.)

That first book, I will note, was a massive commercial failure. It came out in November of 2000, after the first Internet bubble collapsed and no one wanted anything to do with finances online, and my book tour, which was meant to include TV appearances, was swamped out by election news. I was scheduled for four stops on the tour; after two they told me to go home.

But! It was still a book! That I had written! And was published! I was still an author now, and no one could take that away from me. On the day it came out I went into the local bookstore and took pictures of it on the shelf. Also, the Rough Guides people seemed to grasp that the collapse of the Internet Bubble and the 2000 election were not my fault, and that I wrote to specification and to deadline, and signed me up for two more books, one on astronomy and one on science fiction film. Beyond that my work with the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader books convinced them to let me write two books for them as the sole author. So before I had a novel published, I was already the author of multiple books that were either out or in the pipeline.

Which made me happy, and also worked out pretty much as I had figured they would. They didn’t make me rich and they weren’t my primary focus as a writer, but they were largely fun for me to write, put a bit of money into my pocket and were a benefit on my resume — turns out financial services companies liked using a freelancer who had written a book on finance, for example. It assured them that I could handle the verbiage on their brochures for their mid-cap value funds. Everything was going to plan.

Then came the novels, which upended the plan a bit.

Here’s the thing about the novels: I honestly, truly never expected to make any real sort of money with them. Agent to the Stars was a “practice novel” which I never meant to sell, so I put it up here on the site in 1999 and told people to send me a dollar if they liked it. And while I did write Old Man’s War with the intent for it to be a novel I could sell, when it was done, the thought of trying to sell it exhausted me, since my agent was for non-fiction and I would have to either submit it into a slush pile or get a fiction agent, and uuuuuuuugh whyyyyy, so I did neither and just put it up here on the site as well. In both cases there was no plan to do anything else with the novels; I just assumed they would live here. And if I wrote any other novels after that, they would probably go on the site too. I mean, I was already an author, and I was already publishing books. My ego was satisfied in that respect. And I was lazy.

But then I got an offer anyway, from Tor, for Old Man’s War, when Patrick Nielsen Hayden wrote me and said (more or less) “I read your book online! Can I buy it?” and I said “Sure,” and then he asked if I had another book besides Agent to sell to him, and I didn’t, but I said yes anyway and then suddenly I had a two book deal. Then I got an agent by writing to Ethan Ellenberg and saying “Hey, I have a two book deal with Tor Books, wanna be my agent?” And he “sure.” And then Bill Schafer from Subterranean Press came around and said “Hey, can I buy Agent to the Stars?” and I said “Sure.” And suddenly I had sold every novel I ever wrote and had a third one in the pipe besides.

I distinctly remember, when I sold Old Man’s War, saying to Krissy, “Well, novels will be a nice little thing on the side.” Which was a reasonable thing to say, considering my previous experience in non-fiction, and because my advance on Old Man’s War was $6,500 and by that time I was already making more than $100,000 a year doing freelance and non-fiction writing. I was well versed in what the average advances for science fiction novels were (about $12k, then and now), and that most novels didn’t earn out their advances. I liked writing novels! And if someone was going to pay me to do that, that was even better. But it would have been foolish to expect to make any real money from them, or to prioritize them over other, more remunerative income sources.

It took me until 2010, when my advances had been substantially boosted, my royalties were a non-trivial stream of income and I was selling into international markets, that I finally recognized that it made sense to focus most of my writing efforts into novels. And it took until 2015, when I got That Deal, that I truly accepted that what I was actually doing, and what I would probably mostly be doing for the rest of my working life, was writing novels, with everything else as an add-on.

It’s a little weird to think about, even now, nearly two decades after my first book was published and more than a dozen after my first novel hit the shelves. I know, without doubt, that I got lucky. I’m good at what I do, and my personality and social skills are nicely tuned to be an author in the public eye. But the same could be said of a lot of other people. As much as I have an ego, I’m not so exceptional at what I do that others couldn’t and wouldn’t be where I am, save for my own good fortune and timing. I keep that in mind. I’m where I am largely by happy chance, and where I am was unexpected, and not in keeping with my own plan, where books were meant to be on the side.

And what if everything had gone to plan these last twenty years, and the books were still on the side? I like to think I would still be happy. Because: Books! Would I have as many of them or would they have done as well? Possibly not, but I don’t know that it would matter. When my first book was published and later my first novel was in the stores, here’s what I thought both times: no matter what, I have done this. I had written a book and a novel. I had become an author. In itself, it was enough. I want to believe it would still be enough in itself, no matter what else I was doing. I think it would be.

The Whatever Digest, 9/4/18

Good morning! Let’s get to this thing.

***

Steve Bannon and the New Yorker Well, this was predictable enough, to anyone who wasn’t David Remnick: The New Yorker announced that Bannon would be the headliner of its upcoming “festival,” in conversation with Remnick, who is the magazine’s editor-in-chief. That didn’t sit particularly well with much of the New Yorker’s staff, or, more importantly in this case, many other participants of the festival, who all started dropping out rather than share the program with Bannon. Between those drop outs, staff disapproval and a wholly predictable backlash on Twitter, Remnick bowed to the inevitable and dropped Bannon from the program with a somewhat defensive statement. Bannon, of course, was gleeful about this, calling Remnick “gutless,” which is what Remnick deserves for inviting that fascist piece of shit to his festival of ideas in the first place.

As a former journalist, I can understand Remnick’s thinking on this one: He’d been angling to interview Bannon for a while, and the idea of getting that festering lump of white “supremacy” on a public stage where he couldn’t equivocate or finesse his way out of his shitty racist ideas seemed like a good one. The problem was that Remnick was thinking with his journalist brain and not his event coordinator brain. The event coordinator brain should have realized that inviting Bannon to a New Yorker-branded “festival of ideas,” complete with travel expenses and honorarium, was in effect paying Bannon to take on the New Yorker imprimatur for his ideas. It’s not reportage; it’s the New Yorker saying “these ideas are important enough that we paid to get them on our stage.” And note well that Bannon was meant to be the headliner.

Which is of course the New Yorker’s, and Remnick’s, privilege — it’s perfectly within its rights to book a fascist piece of shit to its festival and hope people pay to see Remnick chat that fascist piece of shit up on a stage. But Remnick’s event coordinator brain should have probably realized there was going to be a backlash to that. It’s not just the New Yorker’s brand associating with shitty fascism up there on that stage; it’s the personal brand of everyone else on the program as well. Strangely enough, a fair number of other people didn’t want their brands smeared with shitty fascism, and they were perfectly within their rights not to participate for that reason. Remnick’s problem then, as an event coordinator, was realizing that soon his “festival of ideas” would be nothing but shitty fascism unless he dropped Bannon. Oh, and that his staff hated it. Oh, and that social media hated it too.

Remnick never saw the backlash coming, I suspect (and I fully admit that this is me being charitable to Remnick), because he never got out of his journalist brain. He saw someone he wanted to interview, saw the dynamic of the live stage as one where he was likely to get more truth out of Bannon than otherwise, and didn’t think of anything else about the situation until it was too late. And again as a former journalist, I can sympathize. Bannon’s a reasonable “get” for a story. But this wasn’t just an interview, or just journalism. It was a whole circus. Or a festival, which is close enough in this case.

***

Bringing things around to me, my commentary above brings up the question of whether I, had I been invited to the New Yorker Festival, would drop when Bannon was added to the program. I suspect yes, because I think he’s a fucking horrible person peddling fucking horrible ideas and I’d prefer not to be in the same state with him, much less in the same building, and also because I have the luxury of not needing a particular “festival of ideas” for publicity. I don’t need to tolerate the presence of an actual fascist white supremacist to sell books. I can nope right out of that. Bannon’s on my “don’t share the same air” list, along with Stephen Miller, Seb Gorka and indeed a fair share of the current administration, including of course Trump himself.

There are gradations to this philosophy. If, say, Ann Coulter was at the same book festival as I was, I wouldn’t share a stage or panel with her but I probably wouldn’t nope out of the festival entirely. I could probably be on a panel with Jonah Goldberg, although what panel that might be I have no idea. I’ve shared panels with people who were “sad puppy”-aligned in the past and probably would again, although I’d probably avoid any panels specifically about politics with them. There are people whose politics are emphatically not mine who I will gladly share a stage with on nearly any topic because they’re fun and interesting and give good panel. And so on.

(Other possible factors as examples of what else might go into the equation: Size of the festival — if someone I find objectionable is one of literally hundreds of guests, I can probably choose to avoid that one person without fuss — and also whether that person is a rank-and-file guest or a headliner/spotlight guest.)

On the flip side, I suspect my presence somewhere might earn a hard “nope” for some other people, which is of course fine as well. No one should be required to tolerate me, either. Science fiction conventions very often have a line in their programming surveys asking potential panelists who they don’t want to be on a panel with, and I think this is a very wise thing. Aside from politics, there are some people I don’t want to be on panels with because I dislike them, or I find them to be panel hogs, or because they can’t stop trying to make everything about their own work, or any other number of reasons. And again, vice versa; I’m sure there are people who don’t want to be on a panel with me for whatever reason. Good for them.

Does having a “don’t share the same air” list give me or anyone else a veto on an event’s other guests? I don’t think so. I’m not telling an event who they may invite, I’m simply saying who I choose not to associate with. I’m perfectly willing to remove myself rather than demand the event remove someone else. That seems the way to do things. And yes, certainly, if the presence of someone at an event causes too many other guest/performers to drop, then the event coordinators will have to do the calculus of whether that one person is worth keeping. But that’s a separate question from one’s own choice of whether to associate one’s person (or “brand”) with someone objectionable.

***

Speaking of choosing to associate or not, it appears that a proposed boycott of In-N-Out Burger (my favorite burger chain) has been called off, for reasons. People had proposed boycotting the chain because it recently donated $25,000 to the Californian Republican Party, and some folks had pinged me asking if I would support such a boycott due to the donation.

I was personally disinclined to support the boycott. One, I’ve known for a very long time that In-N-Out was owned by an evangelical family; I mean, come on, there are bible passages printed on their cups. That such a family or company might donate to the GOP is not exactly a surprise. Two, In-N-Out has also donated to the Democratic party in the past as well, so there’s that. Three, In-N-Out has always been good to its workers, paying substantially above the federal minimum wage and offering decent benefits. This is not a horrible company. Four, the California GOP is fairly hapless. I just couldn’t get worked up about it.

So, yes, I’ll be having a Double-Double the next time I’m in California. They are delicious.

***

And now, close out this first digest column of the month: Smudge.