The Hardest Part: Nick Mamatas on Bullettime

[Editor’s note: this debuts a new weekly Wednesday feature, “The Hardest Part”, where creators talk about the hardest part of putting together their most recent book or other work.]

Nick Mamatas is the Hugo-nominated editor of Haikasoru, an imprint of VIZ Media which brings Japanese science fiction and fantasy to “America and beyond”. He’s also the co-editor with Masumi Washington of the May-released anthology The Future is Japanese, the co-editor with Ellen Datlow of the 2010-released, Bram Stoker Award winning anthology Haunted Legends, and co-edited Clarkesworld Magazine from 2006-2008. He’s also a prolific writer of short fiction, including “O, Harvard Square!” in Bull Spec #4, non-fiction, including several reviews now for Bull Spec and his 2011 book Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life, and novel-length fiction, with four published novels since his well-received debut Move Under Ground in 2004 including Sensation (2011) and The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham (2011, co-written with Brian Keene). He writes with apparent disregard for genre categorization or market, and here talks about the hardest part of writing Bullettime, his August-released novel from ChiZine Publications.

THE HARDEST PART OF writing Bullettime was finishing it. That doesn’t mean that I struggled with the ending, or was experiencing writer’s block or anything like that; I was simply doing other things. For six years. Also, rampage killings.

After a writer publishes a novel, like say my 2004 debut Move Under Ground, there’s no real need to finish subsequent novels before selling them. That’s why we have agents, and write synopses, and when someone asks, “So, what are you working on now?” you often find yourself shrugging and stammering, and finally answer, “Uhm…things? Short stories. I dunno…” But there’s a problem with selling a novel based on a partial manuscript when the novel is about a touchy subject—say, school shootings—and has an unusual structure—for example, a first-person narrative from three alternative perspectives of the same character, one of which is trapped in the Ylem, a realm beyond space/time, from which he can observe all his possible existences. And maybe there’s also a third-person present-tense narrative threaded through the material, following the same character. Just like Bullettime. So it takes a while, and your agent can’t get any traction. And you move across the country, and start striking up conversations with independent publishers on your own. And one editor, from an outfit called M Press, is interested.

And then perhaps there are some school shootings, like the Amish school shooting in 2006. And then you don’t hear from M Press anymore, which is just as well as it folds soon after.

So you work on another book, instead. A simpler one, about a family that builds a nuclear device–the first chapter features step-by-step instructions using household items, and some mail-order uranium. And the structure is simpler too: just a memoir of the son, who also happens to be a powerful telepath who can read minds regardless of their distance from him. Call it first-person omniscient point of view. And this book sells! And is released! And ruined by a botched production job because the publisher has no money and has an underfed, overbearded intern lay out the book! Because its distributor goes bankrupt a few days before its release! That’s my book, Under My Roof, which at least found audiences in its German and Italian translations. Now we’re in 2007. And you decide to go back to school, so you can teach creative writing instead of just doing it. And you have to write a book to graduate.

And then perhaps there are some more school shootings, like say the horrifying Virginia Tech massacre, and the Bullettime partial is pulled from circulation entirely. So you don’t finish that book, you write another one, and it’s about the Internet, and anarchism, and told from the point of view of a collective of hyperintelligent spiders. Call that first-person plural omniscient point of view. And your agent is excited. And you are excited. And the book is called Sensation because that’s what you hope it will be. And then capitalism collapses and everyone in publishing is fired, so your agent doesn’t even get rejection letters, she gets “This editor is no longer employed here” letters (but he was fine yesterday!) and “This imprint no longer exists” letters.

So you move across the country again, back to California, and get a day job—a day job in publishing. You are the only person in the latter half of 2008 to actually get a decent job in publishing. And then, amazingly, there’s another stroke of good luck! You can sell a book on a partial—though it takes nearly a year to hammer out the details. And it’s a collaboration with Brian Keene, who is already famous, which certainly helps, and you only have to write half a book, and amusingly it sells to Dark Horse Books, the daughter program to the late M Press. And thanks to the blizzards of 2010 nobody can fly from California to the East Coast, least of all you, you get to sit home on the week between Christmas and New Years and finish the book. And it’s The Damned Highway, and it features a Hunter S. Thompsonesque character dealing with Lovecraftian Old Ones during the 1972 Presidential election. And the advance pays off the debts accrued from running around the country for the prior five years.

And Bullettime is still there, on your hard drive, and you don’t even look at it. Then the editors of a magazine in which you’ve had two stories appear start putting out books. And they’re in Canada, where school shootings are rare, but sadly not unknown (e.g., École Polytechnique, 1989). And in 2009, they had opened to submissions, and so you sent in your fifty pages and promptly forgot about it. And so did they. Until late 2010, when at the World Fantasy Convention you meet them in person, and perform a feat of strength—lifting John Langan off the ground—for them and they are impressed. Then one of them remembers your submission, and reads it, and wants it, and in mid-2011 you finally sell the book.

Now you finally have to finish it. But day jobs are busy, as it turns out, and you were working on all those short stories … and stuff, but the deadline is far far away, it seems. And Sensation comes out via PM Press, an anarchist press that is oddly immune to the vagaries of capitalism it was born to critique, and the novel is pilloried in the trade journals as an instantly obsolete collection of in-jokes about Internet activism. And then Occupy happens, almost exactly as you describe your political movement in the book, and you get involved in that and it’s like living in the book.  And The Damned Highway comes out, and people like it, and its vision of the 1972 election seems eerily predictive of the current Presidential election cycle. And you have to run around promoting that too, on top of the day job in publishing, on top of the short stories and whatnot. But the news is finally on your side! And the Bullettime deadline, January 2012, just sneaks up on you. And so, you spend Christmas alone again, because it worked so well last year, and you finish the book. And then two weeks before Bullettime is due to come out, there’s another mass shooting in Colorado, not far from the one that initially inspired the idea…

—-

Bullettime was published August 14 in print and ebook by ChiZine Publications. An audiobook edition is forthcoming from Audible.

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2 Comments on “The Hardest Part: Nick Mamatas on Bullettime”

  1. So when did things get tough, then…? ;)

  2. […] #6, of Cory Doctorow’s The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow and Context in issue #7) to even kicking off “The Hardest Part” a little over a year ago when writing about his previous novel, […]


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