Cape Horn: A Short Story

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Ibrahim shook his head and laughed. He was too smart for him. He would not take the dare. He was already three shots of rum in, and the fourth might be the end of him.

“No, it’s your turn, he said, “unless you’re afraid, that is.”

The Englishman glared at him. He could abide many things on a long voyage, but a snickering challenge from a Bahamian galley-slave was not one of them. He felt  his head swim—six shots of rum to Ibrahim’s three—but he was certain he could meet the challenge. Certain as a dead man could be.

“Give it here,” the Englishman snarled. He grabbed the half-empty bottle from Ibrahim’s hands. A cold, low stare rose in Ibrahim’s eyes as he watched the Englishman swallow the rest of the rum.

There were three weeks’ wages in the bargain if he could drink and walk—all the way to the end of the bowsprit and back. It was no mean feat. The seas around the horn were up that night—way up. Curling gray beards of foam spit at them from waves out in the darkness. Thirty feet high, the ocean rose, and thirty feet down, the ocean fell, with each rolling swell.

The wind screamed like a mad man, but there was no man on the water that night madder than the Englishman. The rest of the rum now in his gut, he took his balance on the bowsprit of that ship, heaving in the swells, and began to walk—unsteady at first, then with more confidence as he found his legs beneath him. Two steps . . . Five steps . . . Ten more and he would be all the way there—all the way to the end of […]

October 10th, 2014|

Money and the Muse’s Underwear

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I was at a writer’s conference in Charleston, recently, where I had the pleasure of paying a great deal of money to listen to another interminable speech about the ongoing revolution in the publishing industry. Book publishing, it seems, has been revolting and revolving so much for so long that it must surely be about to come full circle. When it does, I hope to climb back aboard.

My ears pricked up when the speaker started to ask the audience for a show of hands according to those who wrote in particular genres. A forest of arms, most of them quite lovely, shot up when the romance genre was mentioned. There was a nearly equal but hairier showing of science fiction writers, and there were small but enthusiastic contingents of authors who wrote for the young adult, adult contemporary, Christian, crime thriller, mystery, and historical fiction markets. Finally, in a moment reminiscent of a child being the last one picked for the dodge-ball team, the speaker mentioned literary fiction. I was about to raise my hand when some smart aleck across the room shouted, “Do they even recognize that as a genre, anymore?” Laughter erupted. Cowardly, I kept my hand at my side.

It’s true. Literary fiction has become the red-headed stepchild of an industry increasingly driven by sales rankings and competition to fill diminishing shelf space in brick-and-mortar bookstores with bestsellers. But the obscurity of literary fiction is also partly due to the fact that it does not lend itself so easily to definition. We know what romance and science fiction are, but doesn’t every author consider his fiction “literary”?

My own view is that, whereas genre fiction tells a story, literary fiction paints a picture. Genre fiction […]

October 1st, 2014|

The Coming Thermal Inversion in Publishing

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What will fundamentally change the publishing industry is not the rise of self-publishing or e-books but the rise of the non-reader.

One of my many useless theories about the future of mankind is that the publishing industry as we know it today won’t exist thirty years from now. Never mind for the moment that absolutely everyone, these days, is saying the same thing.  My theory is different.
First of all, I don’t keep quarter with those who believe Big Publishing will go the way of the buggy whip and the telephone booth.  On the contrary, companies like Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster are robustly profitable today, and the rise of e-books has only added to their largesse.  Profits are mostly up and will likely head higher in the near term. But there is a demographic flaw in their business model, and as with all demography, over time it will increasingly declare itself.  When (or more accurately, as) that happens, big publishers will have to adopt a vastly different model in order to survive. Rest assured they will do so.  Some have already started. The changes ahead will be more qualitative than quantitative.   Here’s what I mean, and why:
Publishing has historically had more in common with the auto industry than, say, the business of making great art or fine wine. You can’t go down to the local dealership and buy a new minivan made by a guy in his garage. The design, tooling, manufacture and distribution of automobiles are processes too complex and costly to be accomplished on anything but a grand scale. So it has been with books.
Until very recently, publishing a new book and bringing it to market meant a substantial investment in design, layout, typography, printing, […]

August 10th, 2014|

The Deal

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Over a crackly cell phone connection this afternoon in an Atlanta Bread Company cafe in Charleston, amid whirring blenders and grinding ice machines, I could hear just enough of the three-way conference call with producer Diane Isaacs and editor Kiffer Brown to know that we had come to terms. “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin'” as Billy Preston would say, and nothin’ but a dream is exactly what I’ve got at the moment. But when your dream is shared by people who are in the dream-making business, well, that’s really something.
Diane Sillan Isaacs is the Hollywood producer who has taken a shine to The Prodigal and today agreed to take on the job of bringing it to a movie theater near you.   She is the former head of Green Moon Productions in Santa Monica, the film company started by Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. Some of her notable producing credits include Imagining Argentina, starring Academy Award winning actress Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas, and Crazy in Alabama, starring Melanie Griffith, David Morse and Lucas Black.

Crazy in Alabama Theatrical Trailer.
Diane and Griffith were friends as children.  After film school at NYU and a stint with the David Letterman Show, Diane answered Don Johnson’s call to help out on Miami Vice, eventually becoming associate producer of the show that helped guest actors like Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis rise to stardom.
Today, Diane is out on her own and living in the Pacific Northwest, where she ran across Chanticleer Reviews editor Kiffer Brown at a cocktail party. Chanticleer just awarded The Prodigal the Somerset Prize for mainstream fiction. Diane asked Kiffer if she’d read any good books lately, and here we are.
Which is to say, really, in La-La Land.  I for one am refusing to be […]

July 16th, 2014|

Tinseltown Dreams

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Well, it’s officially unofficial.  The call from the west coast came today at 3:29 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time: The Prodigal is in play for a Hollywood movie deal and being shopped around by a Real Live Producer.
Of course, that little bit of news and $4.25 will get me a ridiculously overpriced cup of something at Starbucks (where I never go unless someone else is paying). Carly Simon would tell me that my movie dreams are just clouds in my coffee, and she would be right, but they certainly are cheaper, less fattening, and longer lasting than a salted caramel latte.
Why am I mentioning this now? Why trade on hypothetical, wannabe fame and not wait for my fifteen minutes of actual fame on the red carpet? Apart from the obvious answer—the relentless care and feeding of my enormous ego—the reason is statistics, my friend.
The good news: only one percent of all novels are ever optioned for film.  (Yay Prodigal!)  The bad news: only one percent of books optioned for film ever make it out of “development” onto the silver screen.  (Boo Hollywood!) Very likely the most I’ll get out of this whole flirtation is the fun I’m having telling you about it, right now.  If I’m lucky, maybe the buzz will sell an actual book or two and I’ll be able to afford my own salted caramel latte.
The details are super secret (of course), but what I learned just today from my “contact” (also secret) on the “west coast” (sounds cooler than the actual town) is that a producer with several feature films to her credit starring A-list actors YOU WOULD DEFINITELY KNOW has convinced a no-fooling, two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter who wrote  the scripts for several blockbuster movies YOU WOULD […]

July 8th, 2014|

17 Days Alone At Sea

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In May of this year, for a little diversion (and to deliver a new boat to my new home), I decided to sail to Bermuda. I set out from Annapolis and was headed ultimately to Charleston, a voyage of some 1500 miles.  I was alone aboard Prodigal, a thirty-foot ketch built in 1965 that I bought for less than the price of a rusted Ford Fairlane, unaware that the cost of fixing her up would come in somewhere north of a shiny new BMW (which explains why I am driving the cheapest Fiat I could find and coasting down hills).
As it turned out, I missed making landfall in Bermuda by forty-five miles.  After four days of sailing down Chesapeake Bay and six days out to sea, through nerve-wracking gales and insufferable calms, I came to the southwestern tip of the island. Right on cue, a nor’easter blowing out of St. George’s Harbor pushed me back out to sea and tore my timetable to shreds.  I could do nothing more than run before the storm in the direction of Charleston and the way home.   Before I came ashore at Masonboro Inlet in North Carolina (more about that unusual navigation, later), I had been at sea for seventeen days—thirteen out of sight of land. For many days at a time I saw no other ships nor a single, solitary thing created by the hand of man beyond the hull of my vessel.
I was of course disappointed not to come ashore in Bermuda—not because I pine for pink houses and brown beer, but because Bermuda is a long, long way from the East Coast and an even  longer way to come for no reason.  Except there was a reason and, as it turned out, a very worthwhile one.
Quite by the accident of weather, I got to […]

June 7th, 2014|

The Morning of Our Hope

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Today is Easter, the highest, holiest day of the church year. Across the world, hundreds of millions of Christians will enter a sanctuary and recite a profession of faith that begins with the words, “We believe.” This is the start of the creed named after the Council of Nicaea, first convened in the year 325 A.D., whose purpose was to find consensus within the fledgling church about just what, exactly, “we believe.” The Nicene Creed settled that question for the early church, and through all the controversy and conflict of the succeeding seventeen centuries, it has remained remarkably, substantially unchanged. Catholics and Protestants, for all their differences, are united in the belief in “one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”
That “maker of heaven and earth” part of the creed has always intrigued me. Notwithstanding the observable fact that species do adapt and evolve as nature selects the strong from the weak, few of us are intellectually satisfied with evolution as an explanation for the origin of things. The idea that the wondrously complex design of our physical world exploded into existence from a formless void and fell accidentally into a perfectly well-ordered whole, with the Earth settling into orbit at the perfect distance and angle from the sun and moon for the precisely correct gravity, temperature, pressure and atmosphere—and all this before the first tiny proteins mysteriously appeared and started rolling down the long, random path that would lead to Beethoven and Einstein—seems suspiciously unlikely. Most of us still leave the origin of things to faith—to God—because any rational attempt to answer the question of why we are here at all is too vastly improbable to accept. […]

April 20th, 2014|

The Night of Our Despair

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A curious figure of Anglican liturgy who has always caught my eye is the verger.  He is that somber fellow who comes into church ahead of the priest in the processional, dressed in black and carrying a rather severe looking baton capped with an equally unyielding, silver cross.  It is a weapon—a canonical billy club, for want of a better term.  The verger is the “heat,” the protector of the faithful, an historical remnant of what was once something like the priest’s Secret Service detail.  His ceremonial office derives from the not infrequent need in ancient Christianity for a stout man who would brook no nonsense from the crowd and use a stick carried in hand—a “verge”—to defend the priest against an unruly and unbelieving mob.
The verger entered the cathedral of Grace Episcopal Church here in Charleston for Maundy Thursday service, yesterday, carrying his staff firmly and confidently as usual.  But after the footwashing and Passion, in which the church annually remembers our Lord being led away to suffering and death and his disciples scattering in fear, the verger left the church empty-handed. The surrender of this weapon symbolizes those dark hours of hopelessness and danger for the followers of Christ, who had witnessed the  torture and death of their protector and feared the same fate for themselves.  Not for nothing did Peter deny Christ. None of them could yet imagine the power of the resurrection against the power of Rome.  All was lost. Their world had ended. Their shepherd was gone, and they were truly defenseless without him against the malevolent forces of the world.
So too today, Good Friday, the verger entered the darkened church carrying no weapon to defend us against those forces. […]

April 18th, 2014|

I Can Hear The Ocean

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It’s one month away, now.  By this time in May, I should be alone aboard Prodigal, a stalwart, thirty-foot ketch that was sailing the open ocean before I learned to ride a bike; before the Vietnam War really got going; before our hopes in Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were dashed; before the Orioles swept the Dodgers in four at the 1966 World Series. Yes, she is that old, and so am I. But thanks to the wizards in the shipyard at Ferry Point, she is new again. I am not, but there is no bolt or brace or sealing wax that can fix that.  No matter. In one month’s time we shall be finding our way together to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and heading, not south along the coast, but for the open ocean—seven hundred miles of it, to be more or less exact, between the mainland and St. George’s Harbor in Bermuda.

Why Bermuda? I don’t know.  Simple question, short answer. Maybe it’s just closer than Spain.  Maybe it’s just about as far as I can go for as long as I can go before having to return from that most real and elemental of worlds to the world of work and worry we have invented to fill our days. At sea I have a sure and simple heading.  On land I wander mostly lost.

I can hear the ocean already.  Imagining this voyage is starting to fill in and around my every idle moment, like a rising flood. I see myself alone on deck in a night sea, the dark waves rising all but unseen, the wind whispering its warnings. I shall shorten sail sooner, this time–easier to do with a ketch rig—and be damn sure to check the halyards for chafe.  I will make peace with […]

April 9th, 2014|

Farewell to the Old North State

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Well, today marks my last day as a full-time resident of the State of North Carolina. The movers come at 1 p.m.  I’m headed to the Holy City, where my bride has gone before me to take a fabulous job by which she intends to keep me in the style to which I have become accustomed—very likely to be necessary unless I start selling a great many more books.  In May, Lord willing, I will sail the thirty-foot, Allied Seawind ketch Prodigal solo from Chesapeake Bay to Charleston—perhaps by way of Bermuda if I can find my courage, this being my first foray into the blue mystery since the knockdown off Cuba.  When all is said and done and I’m home from sea and safe in port, new plans will percolate as ever they have, and new dreams will surely beckon.  In the meantime, I thought to collect in a photo album some fond memories of my days as a Tar Heel, lo these past twenty-two years.

March 6th, 2014|