Size Does Matter: 3 Books that are HUGE, and better for it!

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted anything. Sorry. Working on two different projects. Here’s a blog post I wrote for the NPR’s 3 Books Blog. The topic is, well, any three books you wanna write about as long as it’s a common theme.

I’m a tennis pro as well as a writer, and I’ve always carried a tennis bag (that looks like a briefcase) with me to the club whenever I teach.  Among other things, I ALWAYS carry whatever book I’m reading inside my bag (it’s really a man purse), so that I can read during my free time.  I’m currently reading Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, and I love it, but it’s too big to fit inside my bag.  The hardcover is heavy (3.2 pounds, 939 pages).  And thick.  And bulky.  Trying to fit it inside the bag is like parallel parking a semi-truck in an alleyway.  So I sadly leave it at home and take a smaller, more normal-sized book instead, which forces me to have two books going at once.  As much as I want to quickly finish Follett’s wonderful novel, it’ got to be read at home, so as not to rip my tennis bag or strain a muscle lifting it.

Winter of the World won’t be the last WHOPPING book I ever read, and it certainly wasn’t my first.  I don’t let the massive bulk of a book deter me from buying it if I think I’ll like it, but a thousand page novel is a big commitment for a reader.  It’s a two-month commitment for me (before my kids were born maybe a month), but it’s something I have to mentally prepare myself for and I always sandwich the big books with smaller novels before and after.  So I limit myself to reading two, maybe three of these behemoths per year.  In honor of the ebook’s emergence, where the weight and size of a book doesn’t really matter anymore, I decided to pick my three favorite GARGANTUAN books of all time.  Books that wouldn’t fit in my tennis bag.  Books that I LOVED.  Books that helped shape my career as writer.  Books that would cause a train derailment if left on the tracks.  Books that could be used for bicep curls, squats, or as doorstops.

The 3 Requirements: 1) Must be over a thousand pages. 2) Must be hardcover. 3) Must weigh over three and a half pounds.  4) It has to be a novel I’ve read.

Yes, so that’s four requirements and I said three, but we’re in the season of supersizing so I went for more!  The heaviest novel I own is James Clavell’s Whirlwind (an even 4 pounds, 1147 pages) but I haven’t read it yet, so it doesn’t make the list.  I also haven’t yet read George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons (3 pounds 12 ounces, 1016 pages), but I know it would make the list because The Game of Thrones series is amazing.  Stephen King’s Under the Dome was a great book, and it qualifies (3 pounds 12 ounces, 1074 pages), but I didn’t want to have two out of the three books Stephen King.

So here we go, the 3 Best HUGE Books I own:

3: Tom Clancy, The Bear and The Dragon (3 pounds 12 ounces, 1028 pages):  All of Tom Clancy’s books put together could sink an ocean liner, and I own them all, which could explain why my wife thinks our house is sinking.  But Mr. Clancy is the undisputed master of world crisis, espionage, and intrigue, and this solid brick-of-a-book is worth every pound.  The team of Jack Ryan as President and John Clark (one of the best characters of all time) as an anti-terrorism specialist is unstoppable in my mind, as Russia and China would probably agree after this plot starts rolling.

2: Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth (3 pounds 12 ounces, 1014 pages):  This is the only book on the list I’ve read twice.  I love cathedrals, castles, monasteries, brutal history, and this story of cathedral building in twelfth century feudal England has it all, and more!  It’s one of the best-selling books of all time.  It’s one of the few books to which I can always recall the first line:  “The small boys came early to the hanging.”  Follett intertwines the lives of his characters so fluidly and with such emotion and suspense (yes, even about the building of cathedrals) that it reads like a thriller.  I, no doubt, will read this one again.  If I had to put an additional book on the list, the sequel, World Without End, would be on it as well!

1: Stephen King, The Stand (3 pounds 12 ounces 1153 pages):  Simply stated, reading this novel of post-apocalyptic horror in high school made me want to become a writer.  I was floored by the epic size and scope of the story, and to this day refer to any potential sickness as Captain Trips—the unofficial name of the super flu that was accidently released from a U.S. Army Base killing 99.4% of the world’s population.  The best story ever about good and evil, told in a way that only Stephen King could accomplish, with humor, passion, fear and suspense in equal parts.  It’s worth every page, every pound, and every ounce, proof that Mr. King is the best storyteller of all time!

The one constant all these novelists share is that they have earned the right to write novels this lengthy.  One day I hope to join them.

James Markert is the author of A White Wind Blew (a 1 pound 2 ounce debut novel about the power of music).

Where Do Your Ideas Come From?

Let’s start this off with an apology.  I didn’t post anything on my blog last week.  I’m new to the blog world and I’m already slacking.  The truth is…I’ve been working so hard finishing up a screenplay that I lost all track of my social media duties.  Even my Tweets have been lame over the last week.  I’ve been re-tweeting other people’s tweets so as to keep up the appearance that I’m still actively tweeting.  Or maybe I just didn’t have anything interesting to say.  But I’m back now.  The screenplay is finished.  So, to the handful of followers out there (and the spammers who keep sending me weird comments in odd truncated, quasi-English sentences from domain names that may or may not be from another solar system), I’m sorry.  Anyway, I thought I’d talk briefly about the most popular question for any writer, the question I get from every book club I’ve ever visited: Where do your ideas come from?

The short answer is, and I mean this most sincerely, my brain.  Sometimes they just pop in there and I can’t explain why.  The long answer is more complicated, but I’ll give it a shot.  First of all—and I didn’t come up with this, someone much more intelligent probably did—I don’t go looking for stories.  I stumble upon them.  They find me, in a way.  I do what any writer worth their salt should do—I observe and listen to PEOPLE—because without interesting characters there is no story.

Using the manuscripts and half-manuscripts in my office as examples—there’s several in there that I’ve finished and never tried to publish (yet), and a few more that I’ve started but never finished (yet)—and the ideas were born in many different ways.  One idea came from watching an episode of the Geraldo Rivera Show a hundred years ago about multiple personality disorders.  That spurred me to write a thriller I titled, Eyes in the DarknessUnseen Enemy, a thriller/suspense novel, came to me after seeing a framed photograph of a cabin in the woods, surrounded by snow.  One of the cabin’s windows was lit.  The premise started churning.  My movie, 2nd Serve, came to me from daily experiences inside various tennis clubs.  I came up with the idea for the book, Highway 62, on one of my many trips to Madison, IN several years ago, traveling that two-lane road.  I came up with The Book of Jonah after seeing a painting in a museum and then reading about the 1937 Louisville flood.  Savannah’s Burning popped into my head on one of our carriage tours of the unique city.  For The Strange Case of Isaac Crawley…I actually came up with the title first, and then decided to breathe life into the main character, Isaac Crawley.  The Book of Julia came to me after reading about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the buried city of Pompeii.  The idea for another screenplay, From Weed-2-Seed, came about over lunch with Gill Holland, discussing the topic of…food.  As far as A White Wind Blew, I’ve always been fascinated with Waverly Hills.  I visited the old tuberculosis sanatorium several years ago wanting to write something scary, because, at the time, that’s what the place was for me—a place about ghosts.  But when I got there, I was blown away by the size and architecture of the building, and knew right away that the story needed to be historical.  I owed that to the thousands of people who died there so many years ago from tuberculosis—the white death.  I stood on the fourth floor solarium porch, looking out over the woods and said to myself, “What if this place is haunted…and I am surrounded by ghosts…what is their story?”  I then heard the naked boughs of the trees clicking in a breeze that whistled around the angles of the boomerang-shaped building, and it sounded like a song.  I imagined the sound of a violin, and then a piano, and the story was born.  They lived in fear every time the white wind blew…

Used Books…and Why I Like’m!

Let’s get this straight.  Get it out in the open before I get this blog post rolling.  I love new books.  As a writer, I think everyone should go out and show their support by buying novels as soon as they come out in the stores.  Help those authors onto the Best-Seller lists, whether hardcover or softcover.  It’s an even better idea to visit your local store and get a copy of my novel, A White Wind Blew, on March 5th.  I even think Nooks and Kindles are cool, although I doubt I’ll ever own one, unless I get one to play big-screen Ninja Fruit.  I’m a traditionalist.  I need the actual book in my hands.  Pages to turn.  Covers to look at.  Something to collect and put on my shelves, which brings me to the main point of this post—used books.  As much as I like new books, if every book on the shelves at my house would have been purchased new, I wouldn’t have been able to afford my house.

I went into Half Price Books today to find some historical stuff for research and was reminded of how cool used books stores are—they’ve got EVERYTHING!  Everything a new bookstore would have but more, and it’s all cheaper.  People walk around pushing grocery carts and they fill them up like they’re attacking the chips and soda lane at Kroger.  Others walk in with ripped brown bags full of books to sell…and milk crates full of stuff, hoping to score a few bucks to use on another used book, or cash for lunch, which I’ve done before.  Barnes & Noble might have Starbucks, but the used books stores have metal thermoses labeled decaf and regular, and Styrofoam cups to boot.  I’m not a coffee drinker, but it even appeared that the coffee was inexpensive as well (dare I say, used), and it was just there for the taking.  So I settled for the ice water.

I found what I was looking for in the historical true crime section, and then some.  Found some books that I didn’t even know existed.  Perfect for my research.  And then it donned on me.  Nearly all of my favorite authors were discovered in used books stores.  New books have a shelf life.  If they don’t sell, they move on.  Used books circulate like crazy, some seem to reproduce, others move from this shelf to that shelf, go to this house and then back again.  They have a history.  They’re mysterious.  Some look weathered enough to have a story of their own—a story within a story.  Some people leave their names inside the front cover.  I often wonder what the previous owner looked like.  How many previous owners?  Did they ever take it into the restroom with them?  What’s that stain on page 157?  But those are all chances you take when you buy a book that’s been through the ringer.  And some of the used books even look new, with nice spines and pages that haven’t been swollen from a prolonged stay in a humid car.  But back to my favorite authors and I’ll wrap this up.  My first Greg Iles book, Spandau Phoenix, was a used book.  I bought A Widow for One Year by John Irving used, and then went on to buy the rest of his novels.  The same for Pat Conroy’s Beach Music.  Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind.  Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.  Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle.  Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.  Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.  Stephen King’s Four Past Midnight.  I loved these books so much that I had to start buying their newest one’s as soon as they were released.  So, for that reason, new book stores need used book stores as well, kind of like a farm system with baseball, as far as recruiting new readers for authors.  Used book stores are a staple of life…kind of like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Maybe that’s what the stain was on page 157.

I’ve still yet to see that used e-reader section though…

An Ode to Stephen King

Ok, so this isn’t actually an ode.  It’s not going to be a poem and it certainly won’t be lyrical, but I thought the title sounded cool, and so I dedicate this post to the man who made me want to become, not only a writer, but a novelist.  So this is my ode—that’s not really an ode—to Stephen King.  Up until my sophomore year of high school, I wasn’t much of a reader.  My sister would actually beg me to read, when all I really wanted to do was play tennis and basketball.  And then my English teacher at DeSales decided that we were going to read Stephen King all year, thinking that his books would actually get high school kids to read, which they most certainly did.  AND we even had great discussions about them…Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (which became a movie I believe everyone on the planet has seen, and one of my favorite all time movies), and The Body (which became a movie called Stand By Me).  Those were only two of the stories we read that year, but as soon as I started reading, I couldn’t stop.  After that year of school I went on to read, and devour, every Stephen King book he’d ever written.  They became more than just books to me.  My junior year, over Thanksgiving, we were on vacation in North Carolina and I came across an ad in a magazine to join the Stephen King Library.  In the middle of the ad was a red, hardcover, leather-bound copy of Pet Sematary, a Stephen King book that I had yet to read.  And I could order it for only $14.95!  It wasn’t just because I hadn’t red it yet.  The “red version” of the book jumped out to me and I HAD to have it.  All I had to do was send in a check, (thanks mom and dad, you get this one and I’ll take it from here) plus shipping and handling, which came out to $18 and change.  A few weeks later I had the red, leather-bound, hardcover book in my hands, and I felt like an eight-year-old at Christmas.  It was so much different than reading the regular version, although the words were all the same.  And the “red version” didn’t even have cover art.  But that only made it more magical.  The second book came a month later, The Shining.  I placed it on a shelf right next to Pet Sematary and the collection began.  The collection was a dream for me…for one day I wanted my own books to stand on a shelf, side-by-side, for someone else to collect.  The red books had a classic “look”, embossed as they were with gold lettering.  They had a smell of old books even though they were new.  And they traveled with me from my old home, to my first apartment, to my second apartment, to a house, then to my first house, and now to my second house.  The red books are always the first things that I unpack.  All of my other books, which I love, are on bookshelves either in the basement or in my office upstairs, but my Stephen King Library stands in the living room beside the fireplace, all by themselves, all 20-something of them (the last several years they stopped sending the red version and instead started replacing them with the regular novels, which I don’t include by the fireplace because they aren’t red, or leather-bound!).  Every time I look at those books, even still, I’m inspired to write.

It goes without saying that I didn’t want my young kids to touch my Stephen King Library.  It’s not that I had to tell them to stay away from them.  They just didn’t seem to care, or even notice them.  But lately, I’ve noticed them looking.  Sitting there and staring at them.  My son would occasionally sit on the small bench beside the book case and start flipping through one of them randomly, which I thought was cute.  It was as if something had drawn him to them as well.  And then a few weeks ago I was cooking in the kitchen.  I looked into the living room and my son and daughter had taken every red book from the shelf and stacked them in about four piles on that bench.  I started to say something but stopped myself.  They were being so careful, respectful, and they even put them back (not in the right order, but that’s okay).  My daughter, who is just learning to write her name, has even taken to sitting there and flipping through them.  Perhaps these books will play a part in my kids wanting to read.  Perhaps not.  But it’s interesting all the same.  And I’ll make them wait until high school to read them, if they ask to.  But thank you Stephen King for forging my writing career years ago, for planting the seeds to tell stories.  You are the only writer out there who can just obliterate genre lines with every novel.  It drives me crazy when people refer to Stephen King as a Horror novelist, which he certainly can be.  But he is so much more.  He’s what every writer strives to be.  Free of boundaries.  He’s a story teller, plain and true.

Why I’m blogging…

So I’ve got my own blog now.  My website launched over a week ago and I’ve yet to make that first post, until now…and I’m doing this without the help of an editor to fix my frequent grammatical errors, missspellings, and punctuation mistakes?  For days now I’ve been pondering two questions:  What to blog about?  I’m not totally sure.  And why do I even have a blog?  Because my publicist said I should.  So here I am, and I’m enjoying this already.  It’s fun to just write what’s in my head, which often times is a bunch of nothing (for example, my Tweets are sometimes boring and unoriginal, but you should follow me on Twitter anyway).  At first I started looking up other blogs to get an idea of what to do, but there were so many millions of them to pick from that I got intimidated.  Instead, I turned my computer off and watched an episode of Boardwalk Empire.  I don’t even know if there’s a word limit on each post.  Or if we’re allowed to curse when we blog—which would &%$# if we can’t—but I’ll live with it.  I did notice a lot of pictures that seem to accompany many of the bloggers’ posts, but I doubt I’ll attach a lot of pics because I’m simply not that talented.  There’s no way to predict if anyone will ever follow this “blog about nothing”, which is okay, because I went for about ten years where no one read my stuff anyway, except for those agents and publishers who volunteered their time to reject it.  But things are different now, hence the reason for this nice new website and rookie blog.

My senior year of high school I took one of those tests that supposedly sheds light on a possible career path.  My cousin’s test result said DOCTOR, and he became a doctor, which was cool because that’s what he wanted to be in the first place.  Mine said CUSTODIAL ENGINEER.  I turned and asked him, “What the %$#@ is that?”  And he said, “I think it’s the proper word for a janitor”…which was also cool because I worked as the school’s janitor to help pay my way through high school.  I took pride in how the floors shined.  I even had a gum-scraper we called “Excalibur.”  But that’s not what I wanted to be when I “grew up”.

At the time I didn’t know what I wanted to be.  I just knew it wasn’t going to be a custodial engineer.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I really enjoyed my years of cleaning floors and toilets.  Not really, but those years of hard work helped shape who I am today, and inspire the main character for my first attempt at a novel, which, now that I look back at it, only resembled a novel because it had a front cover, a back cover, and a lot of words in between.  But it was a start, and I still have about 300 copies in my closet.  So, after the results of that stupid high school test I began to think about what I could do when I grew up.  And then it hit me…what was I most passionate about?  There were girls, of course, but that’s not a career, not really (thank God I met Tracy).  I loved tennis, but I was already tired of playing competitively—so maybe that would be a backup plan, teaching tennis, and I went on to do that for 20 years and met some great people in the process.  I don’t regret a day of that.  And then it came to me before I even stepped on the University of Louisville campus at age 18.  BOOKS.  I loved BOOKS.  I loved READING.  In high school I devoured a book every week or two.  And I loved being creative.  I loved making up stories.  I could be a WRITER!!  My books could go out in bookstores all over the universe.  And I could sign them all, twice, and have fans across the country!  And beyond!  I can do this!

So I signed up to be a physical therapy major!  Makes sense, right?  No, it doesn’t.  It really didn’t make any sense.  But I’d heard that physical therapists made pretty good money, and that some of them got to work with athletes, which was cool.  But when we dissected that fetal pig I nearly puked.  During class I often found my mind drifting to possible story ideas for a book…about a janitor, no less.   And on the day we started in on a real cadaver I said, “I’m outta here.”  The next day I switched my major to History, and felt more at home there.  I didn’t love writing papers for the history classes, but at least I got to write.  And the Arts and Humanities classes were great conduits for creativity.  I got to read more for those classes and the more I read the more I wanted to write.  It was all finally making sense.  I would become a novelist.

Little did I know that being a novelist wasn’t something I could just sign up for.  My son speaks of playing pro baseball despite the fact that he’s not even on a team.  But that’s okay.  He’s a 3rd grader.  We enjoy pitching in the back yard, but I haven’t told him yet that professional sports aren’t something you just sign up for.  He also speaks of the NBA—he is on a basketball team—but I’m only 6 foot tall and my wife is five foot one.  But it’s great to dream.  I also knew that I couldn’t just sign up to be a novelist.  No matter how many hundreds of books I’d read, it still didn’t mean I had the skills to write.  I did a few creative writing classes in college, but I wasn’t digging the poems and short stories.  So I started writing a book, about a janitor, on a real typewriter, and the first draft was really not very good.  But I’d done it.  I’d written a book, despite the fact that I really didn’t know what I was doing.  And I’d loved every minute of writing it.  The next 15 years of my writing career, where I learned through trial and error how to write, could end up being truncated into several future blog posts, if anyone follows past this one.  But in resurrecting these past memories, I’ve come up with answers to the two above questions.  What to blog about?  Books, authors, writing in general, movies, and music will be the main points of the future blogs, along with some posts that may or may not be about anything.  And to the second question: Why do I even have a blog?  Because I love to write, however mundane my writing might sometimes be!  I love to write.

And for the next post…A Tribute to Stephen King!