My mad genius moment came when I had turned thirty. Let me paint the scene- my wife was in grad school; I was working a lousy evening temp job which made it so I only saw her one to two hours a day, if at all; my literary agent at the time was still uncertain how to represent my books, which I truly loved and thought should have been published yesterday; I was continuously hitting walls when I applied for creative writing positions on the college level; and I was turning thirty, which kept reminding me of how many writers and poets said the best work was created by people in their 20’s…. AHHHHH!!!
For any artist, feeling this level of burden and frustration, how could I not put the white lab coat on, mess up my hair and laugh loudly and evilly?
What came out of my mad genius moment is a book that will probably never be published. It is called Maxmillian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare.
God, I love this book. It might be my favorite of all of my creations.
Seriously, at its heart is the kind of book as a teenager I would have loved to have found covered in dust on a back shelf of a library. It needs a gothic and badly illustrated cover that gives off a hint of ridiculously terrifying images. It’s a fake pulp mystery/horror hiding within it some of the most experimental, post-modern literary tomfoolery I have ever done on paper. Every experiment, every idea I had ever had to play with in literature found its ways into those pages.
I know this book is my mad genius moment because I remember so little of its creation. When I think back on the work and writing it, usually I picture myself sitting at a coffee shop, hunched far too over a yellow notepad scribbling wildly, now and then laughing or clapping my hands because of a new idea. This book had to be written in hand, I couldn’t type it. I still have those notepads and they look like something you would see on the walls of an insane asylum in a movie. In the middle of the pad you will see the chapter I am working on (dialogue, descriptions, etc.), but on the margins you will see notes forming around other ideas in the book. It’s like I had two brains working at the same time, one writing the chapter, the other planning the next and the next. Many times, I can’t even read my own handwriting! Now and then I will have one word with an exclamation point, a point I am sure I understood then but is lost on me now.
So how crazy is this book? Maxmillian… is the fifth book in a now lost series. Yes, fifth (inspired by the fact that all books seem to be part of a series these days). The introduction to the novel actually walks the reader through the plots of the previous four books, many times including excerpts. Can you imagine what the publisher who releases this book would experience because of this? E-mails, calls, etc. asking where are the other four books??? But for me as the author, I adored this trick, because I could make references to past stories throughout the novel as if the audience knew what I was talking about, but in honesty, they didn’t…. See, mad genius.
Besides its very organized deconstruction plot (seriously, I break down reality and put it back together again; a few times actually), the book also had to include a fold-out poster… Not just any poster! No, it was an important and crucial moment in the story and it was part of the plot. At that moment in the narrative, the reader would turn a page and be told to unfold the page and the book will continue via the poster. I won’t say what was on the poster, but ideas like that spark my creativity, even though my logic tells me they are bad, bad ideas.
This is how I try to explain the book in letters and the like: Maxmillian Standforth is a playboy, aristocrat living in London in the 1860’s. He is a genius (there is that word again) with dangerous tastes and to pass the time solves deadly mysteries, the more diabolical and life threatening the better. The novels are narrated by his carriage hand, Bob, who also acts as his bodyguard. Bob is a lovelorn and sensitive bloke who spends his time worrying about Maxmillian while pining for his lovely maid. In this “fifth” adventure, Maxmillian takes a dare to stay for a week in the haunted McGregor castle. But there, the team discovers more than they had ever imagined; enough to destroy the very fabric of their reality.
Looking back, I should never have told my agent at the time I was working on this book, or sent it to her. That package might have been the beginning of the end of that relationship. I remember this moment vividly: I got a call from my agent’s new assistant at the time, whose name escapes me. This is what she roughly said to me, “You have great characters, a really fun genre style and universe, why couldn’t you have told a normal mystery story?”
The question, at the time, dumbfounded me. Most artists during their mad genius moments don’t realize they are in it, and it never occurred to me that others wouldn’t get what I was trying to do with the book. I’m sure I rambled on in my response, probably explaining that to rewrite the book as a normal gothic mystery would be to lose the point of the work. This book was groundbreaking, it was entertaining too! I tried to explain that English majors would eat this up and like at a brunch would keep going back for more helpings (since I filled it with nuggets to encourage later re-readings).
Explaining in today’s pop lit world that a book would be loved by English majors, is not a selling point for anyone. Maybe not even for English majors.
Yet, the story of Maxmillian… is not done yet. Even though my agent was putting it aside, once again reluctantly returning to representing my other books, I entered it in a novel competition. It was the first year of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards and Max made the semi-finals! If you do not know about this competition, it is not like normal book competitions out there. To be honest, I hate the structure of it and am not sure of the point of it, but I will do my best to explain it here. The competition begins with an entry of the first chapter of the book. If the judges like it, you are moved into the next round where your chapter is shared on amazon for all to see. Now here is where I question the point of the competition: to move on to the next round, you need to convince others to read your chapter and review it. The only people, besides friends, that will check out a book like that are other authors in the same fix believing that you will do the same for theirs, creating an environment of artistic mutual masturbation.
Yes, I just wrote that… let’s move on without thinking about it further.
Anyway, I had no desire to call my friendship card on people (realizing, early on, that seriously I would never convince enough people to put my book into the finals), and I didn’t want to do a bunch of bull crap positive reviews for books I didn’t like so that other authors would write a bull crap positive review of my book (which they might not really like either). God, I hate the premise of this competition… Now, in this first year of the award, Amazon convinced Publishers Weekly to review some of the books, not just the chapter, but the entire thing; and Publishers Weekly reviewed Max!
Did they love the fact that it was a book that was actually trying to do something new? Ah, no.
Did they take my book and my literary experiments instead personally and attack with guns blazing? The answer is yes.
You would think I burned down the reviewer’s grandmother’s house in their review. This was the wake up call to me that I had written a book that the publishing world was probably not ready for, and may not be ready for anytime soon.
My mad genius moment was over. I could take a breath, and see the universe I had created for what it was. A little bit of crazy on paper…
I still love the book, and it is, honestly, one of the few works of mine that I can go back and read and feel like I don’t have a dozen things to fix (I have a hard time letting go of my novels, most writers do). A part of me still holds out hope that if A Jane Austen Daydream or another work finds popularity, a publisher will work with me on getting it published (poster and all); but reality tells me that is still a long ways off, if at all. Maybe there is an audience out there that is bored with normal books and would like something very new, but in today’s ebook world I’m not sure if it can really even work in that format. (Maybe it would have to be a special ipad app?)
Whatever the case, that book was my mad genius moment. It was an awesome ride when I was on it. Maybe tomorrow I will share the first chapter from it… hmmmm…
I’m calm now, thank you for asking.