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A Manifesto of Imaginative Literature by Justin Allen

[This post first appeared in three parts at SF Signal, Debuts and Reviews, and Grasping for the Wind.]

For the Love of Pete, Don’t Mix Your Genres;
Or… The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, but I Don’t;
Or… Why Where Your Book Gets Shelved Determines Your Intelligence, Work-Ethic and Value to Society

That’s a longish title I’ll admit, and while I generally don’t go in for such larded vessels, in this case I’m willing to make an exception. Monstrous though it may seem (and most assuredly is), the above title sums up pretty much everything I have to say on the subjects of writing and publishing. The first line ought to be read as a word of warning to struggling writers. The second explains – in as much as an explanation of the unintelligible is even possible – why the publishing industry behaves as it does. And the third highlights our common enemy, which turns out to be ourselves.

Really – if I must say so myself – that title is a wonder of economy, precision and restraint. But maybe you’d like me to elaborate? Normally I’d refuse – principally on the grounds that my arguments tend to be weakened by exploration – but as I have been contracted to provide a minimum of fifteen minutes of reading diversion, I will betray myself and attempt to explain…

Why Where Your Book Gets Shelved Determines Your Intelligence, Work-Ethic and Value to Society.

You’ll excuse me if I start at the end. It’s an old habit of mine, which I have found serves to confuse readers, making them easier to hypnotize into subscribing to my particular point of view.

You may recall that I suggested, just moments ago, that we are our own common enemy. I am speaking of book readers, or more precisely, of book buyers. It took me a long time to realize this, but it was an awakening of life-altering proportions when I did. So here’s the argument.

You know how when you walk into a bookstore (let’s say Barnes & Noble, since we all know how those are laid out) there are signs directing you to particular shelves? Go to these five stacks if you want fantasy or science fiction, those ten if you want YA, the four on the other side of the aisle for history, those ten over there for literature and fiction, these five for romance, the two across from romance for horror, the back corner by the café for magazines and journals, and in the deepest recess of the store is the shelf marked ‘psychology,’ but which you know from experience will mostly consist of books filled with sexy pictures that make you feel like your grandmother is looking over your shoulder.

Anyway, have you ever noticed how, from the minute you walk into the store, your feet naturally take you right to a particular section? Sometimes I say, – “no, no feet, I don’t want to go to fantasy today, I’m looking for the new biography of Chief Joseph.” But you know what? My feet don’t give a hang for what I want. They know how to steer me. They know I don’t really want to be looking at romance or history. Heck no! I’m a fantasy reader and that’s all there is to it. In fact, I scarcely look at those other stacks as I make my way to the old reliable. And by the time I leave I’ll most likely be carrying a book with a black cover emblazoned with the image of a dragon or orc, or possibly some otherworldly wizard, standing over the prone body of a woman in a metal bikini – and poor Chief Joseph utterly forgotten.

But how do the books get placed in their appointed shelves anyway? Who decides which books get stuck in the fantasy section, and which go in literature and fiction? I happen to know the answer to that question. The store does. Or in the case of Barnes & Noble and its ilk, a faceless corporate suit makes that decision (and once that decision is made, god help the drones on the floor if they should determine that a book is more appropriate for some other audience). Publishers can give some instruction, but ultimately the store gets final say, no matter how capricious or arbitrary. And how do they make their decisions? My theory, developed from having lurked in stores over the years, is that they do it by cover design (you didn’t think you and I were the only ones who judged a book by its cover, did you? Those metal bikinis don’t get onto the books by accident, you know).

“So what,” you may ask? “I like fantasy novels. Why can’t I just head over to those stacks and be done with it?” You can… Jeez, no one’s trying to take anything from you. But what if the book that was going to change your life – and there are books that do, you know – isn’t shelved in fantasy? What then?

Let’s examine a couple of books and try to see where such problems might lie. Book One: “The Hobbit.” Yes, yes, we all know where to find “The Hobbit.” It’s in fantasy, right next to “Lord of the Rings.” And far be it from me to suggest differently. If a book is placed where everyone can find it, it is well placed! But why is it on the fantasy shelves? It’s a book for young people, is it not? And I for one would be more than happy to have it sit with “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in Literature (or is THAT in POETRY?). And what if “The Hobbit” was an only book, or a first book, or it required YOUR discovering it by chance? Would you? What if those darned feet of yours kept taking you to the fantasy shelves, but “The Hobbit” was in YA? Now that sounds bad!

Another case, just for fun. We all know that “Twilight” (yes, I am talking about “Twilight,” don’t be a snob!), can be found in YA. But what if it’d been shelved as horror? Would the horror fans have enjoyed discovering that book? Is it even horror? I KNOW it has vampires – simpering vampires who are stronger and faster than superman, but who are still, for no good reason I can figure, afraid of ‘humans’ – but are they the sort of vampires that fans of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” would enjoy? Rather than answer, I direct you to:

Now, the thing about both of these cases is that they actually turned out all right! The proper audiences found these books and the authors are making oodles of cash (be they dead or undead). But what books did things not turn out all right for? Which books – books you might have adored – have you missed out on because your feet – those damned zombie feet – carried you right past all the other sections in the store?

And don’t give me the whole computer answer. Of course you can find any book on the internet, providing you know to search for it. What books do we have not even the slightest idea exist?

Plus there’s that darned cover problem we alluded to earlier. What if the publisher gives it a bad cover? Or a misleading cover? Or what if the bookstore misjudges the cover and so sticks it on a shelf amongst books you’d never consider in a million years? I’ve written a bit about my own experiences with cover design (this is only partially on topic, but allows another neat link) here. But if you’d like to see how bad this problem really is, I direct you to an essay written by a young reader with whom I have conversed a bit of late. She is passionate in her hatred of the cover for an anthology of fantasy stories by Asian Writers, “The Dragon and the Stars.” Read her objection and ask yourself why the cover in question is so offensive to her, and why the publishers might have chosen the cover they did. Hint: It has to do with marketing to the fantasy readers like me, who the publishers and stores think are being led to the stacks by their zombie feet. Anyway, check it out. Did you click all the way through to the cover in question? Good. Then let me ask you, would you pick up THAT book? First, it’s purple! That’s strike one for me. It’s the worst sort of cartoonish! Strike two. And the cover features a reptile that is nothing whatever like an Asian Dragon (my suspicion is that the publishers chose a western dragon to appeal to greasy-haired, pimple-faced, white suburban kids who want “real” dragons. Those are the fools who haunt the fantasy stacks, right?) Strike three, and I for one don’t even pick it up off the shelf. Who knows if there is a life-changing story in there? Not me, because I won’t read it.

Last, though possibly most important, there’s the ego problem we all face. You know what I mean, right? Things like – ‘Romance is for horny old ladies;’ ‘History is for people without imagination;’ ‘Horror is for girls with two much eye make-up;’ and worst of them all is that dreck they refer to as ‘literary’ fiction. Am I right? Who’s with me?

‘Literary’ fiction is an sickness I’ve been suffering with on and off since my MFA days at Columbia (yes, I have an MFA. But I was just a kid. I didn’t KNOW!!). My personal moniker for what publicity types call ‘literary’ fiction is, “the fiction of breathless self-importance.” You know what I mean, books with out-of-focus pastel covers, an extreme avoidance of anything like plot or entertainment, full of writing in a tone that refuses to lift itself above the level of monotonous murmur, without the least passion, complex philosophical outlook, or sense that there might be something, ANYTHING, the least bit exciting in the world. Yes indeed, those books are, as a rule, truly awful. But you know what? As it turns out, those ‘literary’ knuckleheads have an opinion about us, too! Check this out: Now, I don’t mind saying that everything about Sonya Chung’s understanding of writing, publishing, reviewing and reading are dead wrong (she asserts, for instance, “With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction.” Does that sound anything like the ‘genre’ fiction you love?). But here’s the kicker. She actually believes that she is the intelligent, philosophical reader/writer with points to make, and we out in the imaginative world (a term I use passive-aggressively to suggest that maybe she has no imagination to speak of) are just hacks.

Does she have any points? Of course she does. Some of us are hacks! But what she absolutely refuses to admit is the fact that none of us WANTS to be a hack. We are all trying the best we can. Same as her! Most of what we in the imaginative world write will go into the toilet of time and obscurity. But so will most of what her side of the spectrum writes! Even those books raved about in the New York Times Book Review and its ilk will mostly fade into despairing nothing. And a great many books not so lauded will come to stand the test of time – the only real determination of literature, no matter its genre.

So what does all of this amount to? Simple. No matter our genre affiliations, we betray ourselves as readers by being positively choked with prejudice. It is a disease we have right from the bottoms of our zombie feet to the greasy hair atop our pimply faces. We foam at the mouth with prejudice against different genres, different cover designs, different backgrounds (I can’t give back my MFA now, can I?), and different paths toward readership.

But I didn’t set out to be this way, did you? Of course you didn’t. So how did this happen to us? The answer is somewhat surprising, but I assure you it’s true.

The fact is…

The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, But I Don’t.

We have just seen how we, the prejudiced book-buyers, are at least partially to blame for the state of the publishing industry. But why are we so prejudiced in the first place? Simple, we have been taught to be prejudiced! By whom, you may ask? Well, by everyone, of course. As readers we tell each other that the greatest strength of all, the most important thing to be, is critical – and by this we almost always mean deeply, embarrassingly prejudiced. I don’t know that we mean to do it. But we do. We take sides. EVERYONE takes sides – including both publishers and reviewers. I’m not sure why publishers do it. I have some theories, but nothing that makes sense from a business perspective. As for reviewers, they do it because they are human beings, and so labor under a host of imperatives and misconceptions that arise both as a result of the needs of their peculiar business and their prejudicial upbringing as readers.

Let’s start (and more or less end) with the BIG reviewers, publications like The New York Times Book Review (I choose that rag because it’s my hometown nest of vipers, and because it’s a good representative, not because they are the only such publication), henceforth to be called the NYTBR for laziness reasons. What a great many of us (maybe all of us) know is that the NYTBR is deeply conservative in their absolute fealty to that aforementioned monolith, ‘literary’ fiction. They throw a bone to the imaginative types every once in a while – likely to keep us from kicking their doors down – but at heart they are deeply prejudiced against fantasy, sci-fi, horror, YA, romance and all the rest of the so-called ‘genres.’

Don’t believe me? Just for fun, let’s see what the NYTBR thought of “The Name of the Wind,” a book that was all the buzz of the fantasy world just a couple years ago. It won awards, was almost universally praised by readers and online reviewers, and given all sorts of stars by pre-publication reviews like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. So what did the NYTBR think? Hmmm… You know, they don’t seem to have reviewed that book. It was on their best-seller list… but no review. Still, they can’t review EVERY book. Even good ones have to get left off once in a while. So let’s make it easier on the poor NYTBR. I know; I’ll link to their very best review for any book by Janny Wurts. She’s got so many books. Surely they’ve reviewed at least… What’s that? Not even one review? But she’s an almost universally admired fantasist! Obviously I’m being too tricky. Let’s try a really easy one. Let’s look for the NYTBR of the first Harry Potter novel. Hooray! We found a genre novel that the NYTBR seems to have found worthy of reviewing! I feel good about this. I really do. Maybe the NYTBR isn’t quite as prejudiced as I thought.

But wait, Harry Potter debuted in this country in October of 1998, and they didn’t review it until February of 1999, after it was already a huge success overseas, winning awards by the bushel, and vacuuming up piles of cash. You don’t think the old gray girl printed a review so that she wouldn’t seem totally out of touch? I mean really, how rare is it to have a book four months old getting reviewed by the NYTBR? It must happen all the time, right? No? But not never, surely. Only for books they somehow missed the first time around? But how in the name of Thor did they miss Harry? He was GREAT! Everyone knows that now. Even they know it NOW, it seems. So how did they miss it back in October of 1998?

The answer, of course, is that Harry Potter is a part of two genres that the NYTBR is prejudiced against, namely fantasy and YA. And the NYTBR is not alone. The simple fact is that ‘genre’ work is ghettoized by big print media. It’s not that there’s a lack of excellent science fiction, YA, romance, fantasy or horror being published – I think even the editors of the NYTBR would agree that there most assuredly is – its just that those types of works are not really eligible for those types of big national reviews. The exception, of course, being ‘genre’ works by established ‘literary’ stars like Cormac McCarthy. The NYTBR loved “The Road,” and well they should. I loved it myself. It was probably no worse than the fourth or fifth best post-apocalyptic novel I have read (none of the others won Pulitzers, however). But let’s face facts, it is a sci-fi novel as sure as anything.

So what’s wrong with big print media focusing on ‘literary’ fiction? Remember the accusations our friend Sonya Chung made? It’s so much easier to be a writer of ‘imaginative’ fiction, right? The ‘literary’ types need their big print reviews or else they’d dry up and blow away. Is this correct?

Let’s be honest, fantasy readers are not one whit more likely to pick up a fantasy novel by a writer they have never heard of than your ‘literary’ type is to pick up a novel by a writer she has never heard of, regardless of the quality of the book. But without a big voice backing them, the kind only big print media has, how exactly is the average reader supposed to hear about new books and new writers in the realm of imaginative fiction? The internet does huge service in that regard (thank god), but it’s a crapshoot at best. Even the most visited sites have only a fraction of the readership of the NYTBR, and are more often than not staffed by a tiny group of dedicated reviewers, nowhere near the numbers necessary to give each and every book a shot. The one way in which internet reviewers truly have it over big print media is that they for the most part do what they do for love, and so are not as irreparably bound in by prejudice as the NYTBR and its ilk. Sure they have specialties, but as they are more like Mom and Pop enterprises there are no corporate sponsors who will cry if they decide to go outside their normal milieu.

Well, now THAT is a horrendous accusation! Am I suggesting that big print media is somehow bought? That they are beholden to some faceless corporate sponsor? I am not. The corporate sponsors are anything but faceless. You need only get a copy of any of those big reviews and glance at the advertisers to get a taste for who really owns those publications. So who are these advertisers? I bet you already guessed it! The publishers themselves.

If you’re like me, the whole sickening nature of these big print reviews is starting to come into focus. But there is one more major player – as usual, the most major player – the identification of which will go that much farther toward explaining why the NYTBR hates You. And that is $$$$$$.

I am going to admit something which may surprise some of you. I used to work in publishing. I worked for an agent. It was a good job, with lots of free books, an inside view of the industry, and the opportunity to converse with loads of talented, dedicated people who all cared about the same sorts of things I cared about (and still do). But one of the things I learned while working at the agency is that book advances are not equal, and really confusing. And this is where the whole pot begins to bubble over.

You see, the bigger publishing houses pay huge advances to the ‘literary’ types. I can remember, all too often, high six-figure advances for first novels. FIRST NOVELS! Unless you’re hugely famous and a proven money-maker, you are not going to get that type of advance for any sort of ‘genre’ novel. But we don’t even need to use those huge six figure advances to see where the problem lies. Let’s imagine that our friend Sonya Chung (the ‘literary’ apologist we so enjoyed eviscerating above), got an advance of $20K for her forthcoming first novel (A lot of my genre friends are salivating, I know – and believe me, in the world of ‘literary’ fiction 20K is NOTHING). If she gets 10% (the standard royalty rate) of the sale price of every book sold at a cover price of $25, she would have to sell eight-thousand copies just to earn her advance (royalty rates do escalate as you sell more copies, but this is a good place to start). If we believe her rhetoric, that ‘literary’ books are so underappreciated and undersold, how in the name of heaven is she going to sell 8000 copies? And what if she has to sell enough to earn back $60K? Or more? How many books do those six figure advances have to sell? The mind boggles, and I think we can all agree that her publisher had better get busy making sure that we all hear about her book pronto!

Of course, that’s where the NYTBR comes in. They may not be willing to review books by relatively unknown fantasy writers like Patrick Rothfuss or Janny Wurts, but they review first novels by ‘literary’ types all the time! (A recent example: They have to! If they don’t constantly turn out a stream of information about the ‘literary’ newcomers, the publishers are going to go broke! And then who will buy ads in their publication?

The worst part about this is that, during the six years I spent working at the agency, there were only a handful of times when these ‘literary’ works actually managed to earn their advances. I won’t name names, but suffice to say that there are biggies in the field of ‘literary’ fiction who have likely never received a royalty check, and never expect to. Which means, undoubtedly, that the big ‘genre’ writers – folks like Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts and Dan Brown (the very writers Sonya Chung so damns) – as well as a whole army of struggling lesser-known imaginative writers, are in essence subsidizing the losses incurred by all those poor ‘literary’ types like Sonya Chung! And she has the gall to hate us?

You may ask yourself, why don’t the publishers simply stop giving out those huge advances to unknown, underperforming and underwhelming ‘literary’ writers? Then ‘literary’ fiction could take its rightful place as one genre among many; the NYTBR and its brethren could begin to review based on quality rather than prejudice; and as readers we could all hope that the cream of real literature might rise to the top, regardless of what color cow the milk came from. You know the strangest part? Holding back the huge advances would, in the long run, help the vast majority of the ‘literary’ writers as well, most of whom find themselves laboring under ever-growing records of low sales and losses, which even the publishers begin to see as odious (making future books that much more difficult to get published at all, regardless of quality. Remember this, oh hopeful writers, ALL failures are ultimately laid upon the head of the author!). It sounds so easy! So why don’t they just stop giving all those debilitating advances? Now that is a question I can not answer. In fact, no one can. No one knows the answer to that question. At any rate, don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Nor should you expect the NYTBR to begin to see the light of openness, impartiality or artistic achievement in the ‘genres.’

So let’s all give a big hand to our master-mixologists, John DeNardo, Tia Nevitt and John Ottinger, as well as to all of their fellow philosophers of the fantastic, fun and imaginative, for keeping some tiny spark of hope alive for the new ‘genre’ writer. Without them, frankly, our side would be sunk.

And just to finish this topic off completely, keep in mind that there are ‘genres’ where the problems of prejudice and publicity are even more acute. Fantasy does pretty well for itself, all things considered. Think what would have happened in the present climate to some of our classics? JD Salinger died the other day. What do you think would have happened to his classic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” if it came out tomorrow, labeled and shelved as YA? What would have become of our poor friend Huck Finn, if he’d been published last year? Would the NYTBR give either Holden or Huck the time of day? You can bet your life that it would NOT.

This brings me at long last to that bit of advice I promised for all the up and coming writers hoping to make a first sale. I offer no writing tricks, only a word of warning about what to write if you hope to get published and sell a big pile of books.

For the Love of Pete, Don’t Mix Your Genres

Or do, but recognize the risk you’re taking.

Tia Nevitt wrote an interesting piece a short while ago, in which she gave advice to aspiring writers. I suggest you read it.

You’ll note that she offers advice principally to those writers about to embark on the great journey of authorship. And much of what she suggests is spot on. You SHOULD try to ride the wave of whatever the new popular thing is, if you can see the wave building. Trying to find a new hook on an old but popular subject is a great idea. And absolutely avoid, if at all possible, starting a book on a dying theme. I know, sometimes you just can’t help yourself. But these are all things to keep in mind if you hope ever to get your imaginative fiction published. But I want to offer a caveat based on all that we have been talking about above. And that is the first line of this now overwrought and over-thought essay.

So why shouldn’t you mix your genres? After all, some of the greatest works of art come from taking disparate themes and finding ways in which they work together. Thesis – antithesis – synthesis, right? Hey, I’m on your side. If I have been praised for anything, it has been my willingness to combine seemingly unrelated genres, including historical, fantasy, western, YA and (shudder) ‘literary’. I dearly love books that blur the edges, that make you see the fantasy in a six-gun as much as in a sword. I can’t for the life of me understand why a book’s having young protagonists makes it YA. And I believe that a great many of the tools of my ‘literary’ education can and should be appropriated for an imaginative audience.

Besides, you may well say, there are all sorts of books that have stood between genres and done fantastically well! Twilight (horror and YA), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (‘literary’ and fantasy), “The Dark Tower (fantasy, western, horror, romance), and all of Neil Gaiman’s books. Right you are, as usual! But again, this is a list of books for which things turned out all right. What about those books – some of which might be just great – that stand between genres, but you never heard of them? What happened to those books?

The thing is, if you write between genres you are pressing the buttons of prejudice in not one group, but in many groups, and maybe in all groups! You take the chance that bookstores are going to shelve you in a place where the readers who might have loved your work will be unable to find it (their zombie feet having taken them to some other section of the store). You inflict cover problems on yourself and your publisher, making it difficult to know how exactly to attract the eye of potential buyers (should it have a fantasy cover – metal bikini and all – or a romance cover – shirtless man embracing lady love on beach? It can’t be everything!). Reviewers on all sides may object to the very heart of your project, because they dislike one aspect. Others might make the assumption that it was never meant for them, and so not give it the time of day. You may, to make a long story short, find yourself slipping between fan-bases, and so between the cracks.

And who will help you pull yourself out? Sorry, but the fact is, unless you are already successful beyond the dreams of avarice, or somehow got a HUGE advance – which means that you are almost surely one of those overpaid ‘literary’ types discussed previously – most publishers simply do not have the personnel or patience necessary to make a long-term commitment to a book. Big publishers will normally devote about two weeks to a book, at which point they expect the blasted thing to be selling left and right, no more publicity needed. Big print media either reviews a book within that short time frame or it won’t look at it at all (I have never understood that, have you? A book about Theodore Roosevelt is just the same, whether read now or a year from now. And it’s just as obtainable as well. But I guess there’s no reason to throw logic upon the NYTBR now, is there?). Worst of all, for we lovers of imaginative literature, is the investment most publishing houses are now making in the realm of internet publicity – namely, virtually none whatever. At a symposium I attended not so long ago, a group of publicists from some major houses told the writers and agents present that they would no longer take any part in online publicity, that all internet activity would be left entirely up to authors. But if you are not on the ‘literary’ side, there is virtually NO publicity that is NOT on-line publicity. So what happens to the wonderful book by the little old man who has absolutely no computer or internet savvy? I think we all know the answer. Nothing happens to that book. It sits on shelves for a month, maybe two, and then is gone just as surely as if it had never been. We don’t even get a chance to judge whether it was any good. We’ve never heard of it.

So do yourself a favor and stay right in the middle of the publishing industry’s wheel-house. Throw them a nice fat pitch they can hit over the center-field wall. Give them a book with an obvious cover and a story that is immediately recognizable; one that won’t offend liberal New England schoolmarms with its depictions of guns or violence, or conservative Southern aristocrats and Western individualists with any themes suggesting ecological conservation or multicultural understanding. If at all possible, make your book ‘literary.’ That will ensure you the chance of at least one big payday. And if you just can’t force yourself to do that, then sell it as the opening volume of some long-running and meandering series. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t write a book that blends western, fantasy, ’literary,’ YA, adventure, multi-cultural and historical fiction, like this one purports to do. It is just too much work convincing potential readers that there might be something in there that they would like.

Of course, maybe you’ll want to do that work. It is rewarding, believe me, to chase after that “synthesis” you thought of earlier. As a writer between genres you can be your own boss, ignoring and embracing the usual tropes and traditions of the movements in whose shadows you walk. You can work toward a uniquely American vision of fantasy, horror, or romance – casting off the shackles of the old world with a shout of “Live Free or Die!” Or you can damn America with your metaphor. You have the chance to write your way through uncharted territory, to say something ABOUT literature, both imaginative and ‘literary.’ At times you may even astonish yourself. And there is a great thrill whenever someone says to you – ‘I was so surprised by your novel. It wasn’t what I thought it would be at all.’

If you want to embark on such a journey, don’t say I didn’t warn you. And heck, you might wake up one morning and find yourself famous and rich beyond your wildest dreams. It COULD happen (probably won’t, but why not dream?). Should you decide that is your path, go forth with my best wishes for luck and happiness. And when your book comes out, send me a note. I will be the first in line to buy it!

By way of closing, let me say only that the above essay was written exclusively for the purposes of entertainment, and not as some call to take up arms in defense of the little guys of imaginative fiction. In no wise do I advocate the bloody overthrow of the New York Times Book Review, big publishing houses, chain bookstore executives, or reviewers of any denomination (Of course, if you have an army of robots and a secret lair from which you are ready to launch them, please let me know!).

I only advocate keeping your eyes and ears open and keeping your own prejudices in check as much as you possibly can. I shall certainly try to do so myself.

About the Author, Justin Allen

Year_ofthe_Horse_HRJustin was born in Boise, Idaho in 1974. He graduated from Boise State University with a degree in philosophy, and from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction. He is the author, most recently, of “Year of the Horse,” an all-ages fantasy-western that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Yen Tzu-lu, the child of Chinese immigrants and one of a band of treasure hunters brought together from every corner of the continent to recapture a stolen gold mine. Leading Tzu-Lu and his gang is the gunslinger Jack Straw, a figure who is as much legend as reality, as much magic as lead. Ultimately, this band of outsiders finds it must learn to live together, trust and care for one another. If they make it across a wild continent, they’ll be rich; if they don’t, they’ll surely be dead. Get your copy at Indiebound (why not support your local store?),, or

Justin is roughly six feet tall, weighs somewhere around 185 pounds (often more, to his chagrin), has dark-brown hair and eyes, and suffers from near-sightedness, motion-sickness, and a tendency to get angry at airport personnel. His wife, Day Mitchell, a licensed master social worker, is trying to help him overcome this last item, but finds the going hard.

He can be contacted via