Thursday, September 27, 2012


Nigel Sellars, author of the Japanese epic fantasy Ukishima, discusses the mythology and research behind his novel, as well as his own inspirations. Find him on Facebook.

What does "Ukishima" mean?

It roughly means "The Floating World,"  which is another term used to describe Japan.  The first drafts were actually titled "The Floating World," but I changed the title about three years ago. Don't know why I didn't do it sooner.

Ukishima takes place in an alternate, fantastical version of Japan. What inspired you to choose this setting? What kind of research did you do in order to depict the culture and the lore?

I chose Japan for a number of reasons, one being that I happen to enjoy samurai films, and I’d read a lot about the history of samurai.  I also wanted to do something different.  I’m hardly a fan of high fantasy, but it seemed to me that increasingly fantasy writers were so heavily engaged with medieval, Western, Celtic and Christian lore, and its annoying absolutes regarding good and evil, as well as with trying to write either the next “Lord of Sha-na-na-nah” pastiche of Tolkein or the umpteenth version of Conan and other barbarians that the field seemed void of any hope and in danger of being terminally cloying.

I can’t tell you how many times I was sick of seeing or reading about unicorns and heroic little people with hairy feet.  So I decided to shake things up and do something different, with a different set of morality and values  of good and evil, and of less familiar and even alien mythologies.  In retrospect, I guess it was a bit arrogant on my part, but  then again I’ve always been something of a contrarian.
What I did do was decided to research the subject intensely. It helped that I was already a journalist and was working toward a doctorate in history—although not Japanese history—and the University of Oklahoma, where I studied, had a terrific historian of Japan, the late Sidney V. Brown, with whom I took a direct reading course and whom I thank in the dedication.  He was a fantastic teacher and scholar who had actually been honored by the Japanese government for his work.  He recommended some incredible material on the shogunate, especially the Tokugawa, or Edo, Period, which ended in the mid-1800s. That supplement my own research on the 12th century Minamoto Period and on ninjitsu.

The protagonist, Ichiro, is a man out of time and an honorable hero. What was it like developing his character?

Actually, Ichiro was a pleasure to create.  I don’t think I’ve ever had an easier time developing a protagonist.  He was a synthesis of Yoshitsune, the Minamoto warrior whose part of Japanese folklore and legend, and the 20th century Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima.  Mishima, who publicly committed seppukku, provided some of the background material for Ichiro’s personal history.  Then again, Mishima’s personality also heavily colors the character of my villain, Lord Taira.

Ichiro faces off with adversary after adversary, most of which are supernatural beasts and demons. How did you come up with so many creatures? How many were based on Japanese mythology, and how many were your own?

Actually, nearly all the adversaries are directly from Japanese mythology, from the dragons, to the tengu, and even the Ainu bear goddess.  What are probably my own creations are the demon in the rancid pool and the undead samurai.  Everything else is Japanese, even the segment about the gigantic spider, which is directly from a traditional folktale.  Another folk tale forms the basis for the ghost  episode toward the end where the young monk is protected by prayers painted on his body, except for his ears.  Even the part where the characters hide in the “honeypots” is taken from an event in the life of a famed ninja.  Oddly, I think I had more fun with that scene than with most others.

One aspect of Ukishima that stood out to me was that there are a handful of scenes discussing the blend between male and female. What inspired you to write about this subject?

Well, the idea of sexual or gender identity has long fascinated me, and it naturally fit right into the Japanese idea of futa, as exemplified in the transgendered hentai—Japanese pornographic cartoons—known as futanari, which feature hermaphrodite or transexual characters known as dick-girls.  This blend of the sexes is also at the core of  In and Yo, the Japanese version of Yin and Yang, which have definite masculine and femine attributes but must be balance for stability.  It’s not limited to the Japanese, as that fascination with the transgendered certainoly dates at least as far back as the Romans.

Another reason for this comes from the biographical material on Mishima I used in Ichiro’s back story, and from the fact that homosexuality among males is actually referenced, if a little obliquely, in bushido, the samurai warrior’s code.  It also shows up in early imperial Japanese poetry, so to ignore it would hardly have been true to the background of my novel.

Were there any parts of Ukishima that you especially enjoyed writing? Any that you found particularly difficult?

I enjoyed some of the earliest scenes, sent in World War II, where I got to write about the kamikaze pilots and the strange blend of bravery, loyalty, devotion, naivete, cold-blooded calculation and stupidity they displayed, although I suspect most warriors in most societies share that in greater or lesser degrees. 

I actually wrote those quite a while back, when I briefly thought I wanted a degree in psychology and had a chance to work with chimps.  I volunteered to spend one night watching a pregnant chimp and alerting the staff when she began to deliver.  It was incredibly boring, so I used to time to just start writing.  Needless to say the chimp didn’t have her baby until several hours after my shift ended.  
What I wrote became the start of the novel and part of the first 200 pages I submitted in a novel writing class I took.  I got an “A” in part because I’d gotten a lot written before I took the class.

And, as I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed writing the honey pot scene, which is part of the episode in which Ichiro and his cadre rescue the young emperor.  That was fun in part because the oafish, thick-headed, bumbling oni who guarded the emperor were just hilarious to make.

The most difficult sections I wrote during the time my first wife and I were getting divorced.  She was an American, well-versed in philosophy and a practicing Buddhist who spent time as a nun so she could tell me a lot about monastic life.  She was a wonderful person but unfortunately she was also extremely bipolar and finally I couldn’t live that anymore.  So I’d go to a local coffee shop near the OU campus in Norman and spend three or four hours writing in longhand in a journal, usually only finishing when the place closed.  I actually met a number of people who ended up as characters in my young  adult novel Chris and the Vampire, which came out in 2010.  Even the coffee shop itself makes an appearance.

If the god Hachiman whisked you away from Virginia and told you that you had to live in the Japan of Ukishima but could choose any lifestyle you wanted—samurai, monk, ninja, etc.—what would you choose?

Probably a scholar or teacher.  I’m essentially a non-violent person, so I’d make a terrible warrior. I dislike religion and love sex too much to be a monk, and I’m certainly not agile enough to be a ninja.

What influences your writing? Authors you particularly admire? Subjects you enjoy studying? Places that inspire you?

Surprisingly, I’m not influenced much by mythology, legend, lore, or religion.  My work usually reflects my interests in popular culture, twentieth century America, labor and social history, and, of late, the history of crime and violence.  My current non-fiction project involves a serial poisoner, bigamist, confidence man in early 20th century Chicago.  He was definitely not somebody anyone would find believable if he were a character in a novel.

I’m fairly eclectic as to writers who influence me.  My favorite writers include William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Ursula K. LeGuin, and the late James Blish, whose A Case of Conscience remains one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.  I also like Kathy Reich’s forensic thrillers and the overall wonderful nuttiness and hilarity of Daniel Pinkwater.  Non-fiction writers who inspire me include Erik Larsen (Devil in the White City) and Harold Schechter (The Devil’s Gentleman, and, Deranged), who writes historical true crime works and a series of novels with Edgar Allan Poe as the detective.

Are you working on anything new?

I’m just working out the characters and overall plot elements for an as yet untitled novel that I hope might become a series rather like Jim Butcher’s “Harry Dresden” novels, which I really enjoy but know I could never emulate, although I has inspired me.  The main character is a police detective who also happens to be a vampire (yeah, I know it sounds cliché) but he investigates horrific murders.  The novels are set in Oklahoma City, where I grew up, and the first book uses several real, very grisly murders that remain unsolved but may be the work of a serial killer.

I want to make these sort a noir, horror, and science fiction synthesis that makes Oklahoma City as sinister as any other city—which is actually not that big a stretch as it might seem.

Ukishima is available at: Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book)

Monday, September 24, 2012

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Tal Boldo (Dew Pellucid)

Tal Boldo, who authored the children's fantasy The Sound and the Echoes under the pen name Dew Pellucid, discusses the origins, inspirations, and philosophies behind her novel. Visit her website  or Read her blog or Like her on Facebook or Follow her on Twitter.

The premise of The Sound and the Echoes begins with the idea that each time a person is born, an otherworldly twin—an Echo—comes into existence as well. What inspired this idea?

I am a strong believer in free will. We each have a choice about our actions, no matter how limited our options seem. But what would happen, I wondered, if choice was taken away from us in the most fundamental way? What if at any moment life itself could be snatched away from us or the people we love?

This idea floated in my head almost simultaneously with another. I was thinking of Plato’s Realm of the Forms. As an early Greek philosopher, Plato was concerned with where our ideas of concepts originated. After all, we never see a cat in its abstract form, only many different versions of cats. So, the Ancient Greeks wondered, how do we come up with the idea of cat-ness.

Plato concluded that we are born with Innate ideas, a memory of these perfect “Forms”. The Forms exist on a higher plain, and we are merely imperfect reflections of that place.

From this to imagining a reflection world, an Echo to our Sounds, was a short leap of the imagination.

The majority of The Sound and the Echoes takes place in the icy fantasyland the Echoes live in. How did you go about developing the history and magic system of this fanciful universe?

As with human history, the basic customs of the Echoes developed from their ideas. If the Law of Death sentences every Echo to die when his Sound dies, it is logical that Echoes will start to hope fervently for good luck. “Please, please don’t let it be my son the Fortune Tellers come to kill.” Hence, I created a superstitious culture that, over generations, began to worship Fortune.

And what better symbol for Fortune than a crystal ball? Hence crystal balls appear in Echo architecture, Echo sayings, customs and celebrations. And since the moon looks like a crystal ball, supremely superstitious Echoes may even worship the moon.

Other elements in the story were purely inspirational. I had an idea of a frozen lake with gems strawn under the ice. When I had to explain how the gems came to be there, I came up with the hauntingly beautiful Lake of Eternal Ice with the frozen faces trapped inside, peering through the ice as through a window.

Much of the glistening, sparkling atmosphere was inserted after the core of the story was in place. I created a list of adjectives with which I wanted to describe the Echo realm. Then, like a plasterer that comes into a building to cover bare walls, I inserted adjectives in the text—and with them the atmosphere I wanted.

The Crystillery, which I consider to be the pivotal object on which the plot spins, was created by pure imagination for the purpose of moving the story along from the outset. Then due to my technique of always reusing ideas I have come up with (because that lends realism to a world), I kept tasking the Crystillery with more fundamental plot pivots.

Finally, one of the last rewrite of the novel resulted in Abednego’s Eyes, Cyrano de Bergerac, and the Christmas atmosphere at the Orphanage of Castaway children. Only when the world of the Echoes became real to me could I truly add to its complexity in a believable manner. It was really like dressing a doll in many outfits. Before the doll existed, the outfits didn’t match and were missing a sleeve or a button. But once the doll was there, I could see how I should clothe her. 

The Echo culture is highly supersticious, so much so that in order to honor Fortune, they execute Echoes whose human counterparts have died. Why did you choose to make the Echo realm, in essence, an extremist theocracy?

Every man has a right to his own life. That is the theme of The Sound and the Echoes. I set about proving why it is important that this percept be maintained by showing what happens to human epistemology when life can be snatched away at random.

When a man can no longer rely on his reason to sustain his life, give him happiness and achieve his values— When his highest value, his life, can be destroyed at a moment’s notice, without reference to himself—that man will start hoping for death to never visit his door. Hope will turn to superstition when the knock will sound on his neighbor’s door instead of his own. And superstition will turn into Fortune worship when buying a crystal ball trinket will grant him peace of mind.

Are there any stories behind the naming of certain characters?

The hero, Will Cleary, was named Will because he expresses a boy with a will of iron. He never flinches from facing facts, no mater how painful they may be. Nor does he flinch from taking action based on these facts, no matter how frightening.

All other names were picked with a reference to their meaning or origin, as revealed in the website Behind the Name. And just a few fun names were picked by my best friend.

What was the very first idea you had for The Sound and the Echoes? How did the book evolve as you wrote it?

There is one visual idea I saw very early on: A small girl riding a giant white bird fearlessly. As a child I read the novel, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, who was turned into a dwarf and traveled on the back of a giant white bird. I must have seen myself as Nils back then, and I wanted to relive the feeling in my story.

As to how the story evolved, I crafted the plot over many months. It was an intellectual (rather than inspirational) exercise. Many a migraine resulted from it. In short, it was mind-bendingly hard.

I used several plot development tools. Like most authors, I asked questions. What if? Which led to more and more what ifs. I kept a story tree (like a family tree) on my office wall for months, tracking the growing world. Later, I created a value chart, in which every character was represented with his main value. Every chapter had to either include a reference to this value or have a good reason for its exclusion. These are some of the techniques I used to weave the plot.

Many writers (myself included) say that the book they ended up with is different from the book they intended to write because the characters took the story in a different direction. Did this happen with The Sound and the Echoes?

My characters took me farther than I thought I had the talent to go—or farther than the talent/knowledge I had at the outset, because I had to discover a whole system of storytelling to write this book. But we were always heading in the same direction.

Do you have a favorite moment or scene from The Sound and the Echoes?

Yes, the end. When Will solves the murder mystery underlying the story. That moment was inspired by renowned mystery writer, Agatha Christie.

What do you think your Echo is up to?

Delightful question. I think she sings to the moon at night. I think there are woman in the Echo realm with the voice of an angel. Passersby pay them to serenade the moon with a plea for long life.

Why did you choose to write as the character Dew Pellucid?

Writing the opening of The Sound and the Echoes was excruciatingly difficult. A novel is only as good as its beginning. After rejections by literary agents started piling up, I decided to plunge the reader into the Echo realm at once.

At first, I wrote a scene in the palace. But that took me outside the third-person-limited perspective. So I opted to write a letter from the author. Because I am a very private person, the idea of having a pen name, a public persona was too wonderful to resist.

Initially I named the author Lucid Pellucid, but when I saw that someone had already registered a website in that name (what a coincidence), I had to think of another watery (Echo) name. My best friend suggested Dew, because Tal means Dew in Hebrew. The act of translating between Hebrew and English relates to one layer of mystery hidden in the novel.

What was it like going the self-publishing route?

I’ve only started, but I can see already how hard it will be. At the Orphanage of Castaway Children there are over a million books. Well, it feels as if just as many are published each year in the Sound realm.

So many books by indie authors aren’t ready to be published. By association, anyone who is an indie author is guilty until proven innocent. But I tried the conventional publishing route and was rejected by over 180 literary agents. So, I had nothing to lose. I wanted to share the Echo realm with readers, and every time a review comes in I delight in knowing that another creative spirit visited my glistening realm and found it, at the very least, to be unique.

I hope you’ll visit to discover my different book sites.

The Sound and the Echoes is available at: Amazon US (paperback), Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (paperback), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Barnes & Noble (paperback)


Sunday, September 23, 2012

REVIEW: The Sound and the Echoes / Dew Pellucid

TITLE: The Sound and the Echoes
AUTHOR: Dew Pellucid
PUBLISHER: Self-Published
AVAILABILITY: Amazon US (paperback), Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (paperback), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Barnes & Noble (paperback)

Recommended for fans of stories that take place in fantastical realms, such as the Harry Potter series.


The Sound and the Echoes follows 12-year-old Will from his ordinary life in Alaska to the fantastical realm of the Echoes. The Echo realm is a glittering winter wonderland, full of magic and mystery. Familiar territory for fans of contemporary, otherworldly fantasies. While very different in plot and concept, the enchanted atmosphere is reminiscent of the Harry Potter books in all the right ways.

The Sound and the Echoes moves along at a fairly steady pace, advancing the plot while taking the time to illustrate the fantastical world it takes place in. The mystery and intrigue make it easy to keep turning the pages.

Third person limited. The story is told from Will’s point of view and follows him through his adventures.

In Dew Pellucid’s fanciful tale, every time a person is born, a second being—an Echo—comes into existence at the same time. These Echoes live in a winter wonderland beneath the Arctic, unbeknownst to their ordinary counterparts, called Sounds. Subjects of a superstitious monarchy, the Echoes believe their lives are bound to those of their Sounds. Therefore, when a Sound dies, his or her Echo is executed, in accordance with the Law of Death.

Will Cleary’s ordinary life turns upside down when he learns of the Echoes—and that his is the Echo realm’s prince. The prince’s uncle, a false king who seized the throne following the former king’s death, has sent ghostly Fate Sealers to kill him, forcing the prince to die and making his grip on power permanent. Will travels to the Echo realm in hopes of saving himself and the Echo monarchy from evil. Hiding out in the Orphanage for Castaway Children, he finds himself at the center of ancient mysteries and political intrigue. His disguise can only last so long before the Fate Sealers patrolling the Orphanage discover his true identity.

Brave and loyal, Will is the kind of protagonist who’s easy to root for. His self-deprecating sense of humor and stubborn disposition make him believable as a character, one who is admirable and imperfect in all the right ways. He thinks for himself, in spite of all the people telling him what to do—the Echo guardians who have watched over him since he was a toddler, the teacher at his Alaska school who has traveled to the Echo realm, the royal advisor whose motivations are unclear. In his adventures, Will is accompanied by a somewhat odd magician wannabe called Peter Patrick Peterson, a boy whose funky mannerisms and alliterative name are indicative of the kind of quirks Pellucid likes to throw into this story.

The dichotomy of Sounds versus Echoes creates an interesting theme, one akin to race relations. The Law of Death makes it clear that Echoes view their ignorant Sounds as superior beings. Even the labels they give themselves indicate this—the Echoes are merely shadows of the “real” people who populate the Earth. And yet they are conscious beings with their own lives and souls. They have the same looks and personalities as their Sounds, but, like twins who share DNA, are independent individuals.

The prince wishes to abolish the Law of Death, which will effectively put the Fate Sealers and the executioners—called Fortune Tellers—out of business. And thus, Will and the prince have more than just the false king to worry about. In its characters, The Sound and the Echoes is a story of friendship and loyalty, of noble intentions and bravery in spite the face danger. The messages it carries are encouraging examples of the best of human nature.

In The Sound and the Echoes, Pellucid has demonstrated an amazing knack for world-building. The atmosphere glows ice blue, sparkling with charm and whimsy. It’s easy to visualize the many wonderful, otherworldly objects and places in the Echo realm, all of which follow carefully laid-out rules. Crystal balls, glowing see-through beings, smoky specters, ice-like coins… these are some of the things that glitter within the story. From back-stories to the mechanics of the magic, Pellucid has covered every aspect of this world, making for a fully immersive reading experience.

The Sound and the Echoes is a brilliantly imagined fantasy, the kind that’s exciting to read and leave you smiling. Pellucid has created something truly magical, with descriptions that will carry you into this frozen fantasyland and make you never want to leave.

I saw a teeny-tiny, barely perceptible number of typos, but the author told me she found and corrected a handful since sending me the edition I read, so the typos may have already been zapped.

Like all fantasies, this book contains some violence, but nothing gory or gruesome. Its content is suitable for young readers.

This book contains a number of computer-rendered illustrations by Andy Simmons.

Dew Pellucid is the pen name of Tal Boldo. “Dew Pellucid” is a character in The Sound and the Echoes; he is an old Echo who recorded the events of the story.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Seth Kaufman, author of The King of Pain, a satire about reality television, discusses his novel's themes, characters, and inspirations. Visit his website.

The King of Pain satirizes the world of reality television. Why did you choose to write about this subject? 

There were a number of reasons.  First off, the backstory: I had been kicking around the idea of a Hollywood bigwig getting stuck under his entertainment system for a while. It was a fitting, comic visual metaphor about the role of media in our lives. But I wasn’t sure who, exactly, this trapped character was. I also knew I wanted to write about prisons. I had this title, “A History of Prisons,” in my head.  And so the two ideas just bounced around, literally for years.  But it wasn’t until the post-9/11 world, when the whole debate about water-boarding suspected terrorists surfaced, and the whole “is it torture?” question arose, that the book came together.  Reality TV and American Idol and Survivor were all red-hot, and all of sudden it became obvious to me that the man stuck under his monsterous wall unit reading “A History of Prisons” should be a guy with a hit TV show about torture.  And so I wrote the first draft in about 10 months, mostly on the subway going back and forth to work, alternating between the Rick Salter/TV story and the short stories. It sounds funny to say, but  I honestly don’t know if this book could have been written without Dick Cheney.

Now, the other thing about my background, is I know TV and I know celebrity culture. And even though I was once a TV reporter and a gossip reporter—or maybe because of those jobs—I’m pretty critical of TV and the cult of celebrity that powers it.  And so, reality TV is a ripe target, but it was also just a perfect setting for the guy stuck under the entertainment system.

One more thing about reality TV. It’s the most popular genre in America, and maybe in the world for all I know. The other day my nephew complained that kids in his high school only talk about reality TV and cell phones. That was pretty depressing statement, especially if you think about these shows, as Rick Salter sometimes does,  subjecting people to torture. Are we what we watch?  I don’t know the answer to that. But contestants in these shows often seem imprisoned to me, and if you are addicted to a show aren’t you, maybe, a little imprisoned too?  So Reality TV is a very thought-provoking form of entertainment. I though I could have fun exploring it.

How did you come up with the colorful line-up of contestants for the torture reality show, “The King of Pain”? Why did you choose a nun as one of the most prominent characters?

One of the joys of writing a novel is you get to be your own casting director, whether you are writing about TV or speculative fiction or historical romance. You get to decide what “types” you want.  So I guess I asked myself, what would Rick Salter do? I’ve watched enough Project Runway and Survivor to know that these shows want to appeal to a wide swath of demographics, but they also want friction and personality clashes. So that was easy.

As for inventing Sister Rosemarie, I’m not sure where she came from. I was thinking, who would be the most unlikely character for the show and came up with her. For the purposes of The King of Pain, she’s an interesting moral barometer for the whole show. She’s doing it for God. She’s about love. She hates torture. Good for her.

Ironically, after I finished writing The King of Pain, a book came into my office called Race to Grace. And it was about this real-life “Iron Nun” who runs triathalons.  Which shows that, as crazy as my book may be, it’s not that crazy at all. Pretty much everything in it was within the realm of possibility.

Rick Salter, the main character and  mastermind behind “The King of Pain,” is a Hollywood jerk. But ultimately, he’s not a wicked person, and one cannot help sympathizing with him. How did you go about developing his character?

Thank you for that perspective. I have grown very fond of Rick Salter, obviously.  I suppose he’s a composite of Hollywood characters that I’ve written and read about over the years.  Guys who love movies and love the business, but whose moral compass can go haywire at times. There are plenty of  lines and observations that Rick makes and recalls—say, about the constant supply of teens and tweens, or his screenwriter friend who says “that’s not the movie I wrote”—that are things I’ve heard in Hollywood.  The tricky thing about creating an anti-hero is trying to balance him, so he doesn’t completely alienate some readers.  Rick says a lot of insightful things. But the fate of the loudmouth—even a loveable loudmouth—is to offend some of the people some of the time.  And Rick does that. I do think he has many redeeming qualities.

You name yourself as the author of the book-within-a-book, A History of Prisons, which Rick comments on and sometimes criticizes. What was it like looking at your own writing from a character’s eyes?

It was fun. As you noted in your review, part of the book is about the joy of reading and the power of telling stories. I relished having Rick desplay some great  strong analytic skills one minute and then totally miss the point—my point—the next.

I also really enjoyed thinking about how you, the reader, are reading a book about a guy reading a book, who is doing exactly what the you the reader are doing: thinking about the stories, wondering who the author is, wondering where this book came from and what inspired it.  And then, in one of the stories in “A History of Prisons,” it goes a level deeper: you are reading a book about a guy reading a book that has a story (“The Gizless Days of Thomas Binder”) about a kid who reads a “physical” book for the first time.

Among the stories in the book-within-a-book A History of Prisons, do you have a favorite?

Yes, I have a favorite. And let me just say that it is the one story that NOBODY has told me they like. So far, the stories seem to resonate the most with readers are  “The Stocks,” “The Gizless Days of Thomas Binder,” and “The Gift,” I like them all, of course.  But I really love “The Translator.”  I feel like it’s  a story that really gets to the transcendent power of story telling . I think that it’s also the most outrageous of the stories, at least with the crazy plot lines and insane sex scenes that entertain the inmates. But I love the craziness of it. And I love how it resurfaces into Rick’s life later in the book.

How did you come up with the idea to tie the frenzied, shameless media culture to prison stories?

When I was writing, I thought of the prison stories as tied to Rick and his situation. But you make a good point.  After the first draft was done, I ended up shifting stories around, trying to also match them against the events of the show so they resonated as they sort of rub up against each other.

But about the prison stories: My grandfather was a political prisoner in Poland between the wars. He did two stints of 4 year prison sentences. He basically rotted in jail in his 20s. I interviewed him a couple of times, and he talked very frankly about his time there. The converstations inspired two stories, “Longman” and “The Gift,” and a number of the themes that surface in of “A History of Prisons.”

Were there any scenes you particularly enjoyed writing? Any you found particularly challenging?

I loved writing the out-of-control moments of “The Translator.” I guess there’s something liberating about literary perversity, about being outrageous.

The most challenging part was documenting Rick’s big moment with  Amanda and making it believable and vulnerable. That might be my favorite writing in the book, with Rick at his most vulnerable, and the way the interlude ends.

Writing the whole ending was tricky. Endings, for me, are the hardest thing about writing.  That and proofreading, which I am terrible at.

What kind of research did you conduct in order to write The King of Pain?

I didn’t do much, actually. The web helped me with “The Daquiri Case” with regard to the town of Daquiri and the lay out of Gitmo. I have to say that that story was created solely on the fact that the two places, both of which capture your imagination (or mine, anyway), are basically right next to each other, like heaven and hell being neighbors. In “Baxter Blood,” the web helped me  with mathmatical terms and confirmed that yes, prisoners do make license plates. But I knew, or thought I knew, quite a bit about the TV world.

Reality shows offer their participants more than cash prizes—many people use them as springboards to success and fame. Would you ever consider participating in one?

Ha! No.  Well, maybe if it involved writing or song writing.

A lot of writers live in New York City. Do you interact with them often?

Brooklyn is a huge place. It has pockets filled with writers, journalists, critics, editors, agents and media types. And so yes, I have a bunch friends and acquaintances who inhabit the literary world in one way or another. But except for parties and a monthly poker game, I don’t see them all that much. There is no Algonquin round table scene that I know about with, say, Jumpha Lahiri, Martin Amis, Jennifer Egan, and Jonathan Safan Foer all drinking Brooklyn Lager together.   I think they are all writing. And me, I have my day job and a family and a band, so I don’t have a huge amount of time to schmooze.

What’s your band like?
The Fancy Shapes are a fun, horn-flavored 7-piece party band. We play lots of island and funk flavored grooves. And I play a lot of african-influenced guitar lines and write most of the songs.  We usually play once or twice a month.  You can hear our CD (before we added horns) on Facebook or at

I saw on your website that your next book will be about gambling. Can you tell us anything more?

Uh-oh, I have to change that. I have a different book coming out in early November. It’s an illustrated parody and cautionary tale of a very successful children’s book. Our book is called If You Give an Architect a Contract. It is a traum-com. (Traumatic Comedy?) about the nightmare of home ownership and renovation. I’ll send you a copy when it’s out.

I am very excited about the gambling novel, which is called The Vig.  It should be ready by the spring. It’s about a nice, upper middle class bookie and a nice Carribean police officer who both wind up in Las Vegas on their own bizarre investigations, while I kind of use their missions to compare the world of gambling with the so-called “legitimate” world of business.  It’s sort of a slightly warped thriller.  It’s not as outrageous as The King of Pain, but is pointed and funny, too.  I hope.

The King of Pain is available at: Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon US (paperback), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (paperback), Barnes & Noble (Nook e-book), Barnes & Noble (paperback), The Copia (e-book)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

REVIEW: The King of Pain / Seth Kaufman

TITLE: The King of Pain
AUTHOR: Seth Kaufman
PUBLISHER: Sukuma Books
AVAILABILITY: Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon US (paperback), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (paperback), Barnes & Noble (Nook e-book), Barnes & Noble (paperback), The Copia (e-book)

Recommended for fans of satire and dark comedies, as well as fans of reality television.


The King of Pain satirizes the colorful and absurd world of reality television through the eyes of Rick Salter, one of Hollywood’s biggest players. It also presents a number of fable-like short stories about prisons via the book-within-a-book that Salter reads, A History of Prisons. These stories are self-contained vignettes depicting various prison experiences from around the world.

While not a page-turner in the plot-driven, action-after-action sense, The King of Pain maintains a fast pace through its smooth and efficient writing style. In addition, the drama of the reality show Rick produces, which he describes in summarizes bit by bit in his narrative, leaves a reader wanting know what happens next much like a television show would. I sped through this one in less than two days and was a little sad when it was over.

Rick’s chapters are told from his first person present point of view. He tells the story as it happens. The reader learns about his reality show through his flashbacks and memories. The short stories he reads in A History of Prisons are written in third person limited except for one first person narrative.

Rick “the Prick” Salter is not a very nice man. So when he wakes up alone in his big, empty mansion trapped under his hefty home entertainment system, the only person he can count on to rescue him is his housekeeper—who won’t arrive for at least 48 hours. With no clue as to how he ended up in this predicament, all Rick can do is reflect on his recent dealings with his reality show, “The King of Pain,” and read a book that’s fallen near him, A History of Prisons by one Seth Kaufman.

Through Rick’s story, Kaufman skewers the world of reality television. “The King of Pain” puts its contestants through torturous trials—starvation, sleep deprivation, physical pain—and scores them based on their endurance and audience votes. Essentially, Rick—or Kaufman—has dreamed up a show in which all pretenses are abandoned and reality programming is distilled into its most basic element: drama through human suffering. Rick is well aware that humans have always held a perverse fascination with witnessing the travails of other people.

The stand-alone short stories that make up the book-within-a-book A History of Prisons read like fables, each painting a short but sweet vignette of one person’s prison experience and highlighting elements such as karma, kismet, and irony. The Chinese dissident who writes letters for an illiterate cellmate. The protestor who goes on hunger strike. The African prison guard who finds the tables turned on him.

Meanwhile, in the “real” world, Rick has found the tables turned on him. Through his reality show, he has become a master of torture, putting the show’s contestants through hell in order to captivate an audience. Now he’s the one in hell, immobilized, dehydrated, and helpless, and we, the readers, are the audience. The image of Rick trapped under the weight of his own home entertainment system is a powerful symbol of how consumerism and the media imprisons us all. There’s an element of the metaphysical in this book—we, the readers, are in a way the audience of “The King of Pain” show. As Rick outlines each episode, one cannot help wondering how each contestant will fare. It’s easy to be disgusted by the show’s shamelessness, and yet impossible to avoid being pulled in.

While The King of Pain is primarily a dark roasting of the media, it’s also an ode to books. A History of Prisons keeps Rick sane through his predicament by transporting him to other worlds, subtly stirring up his thoughts and making him reflect, and bringing him company through the characters’ and author’s voices. One particularly powerful story within A History of Prisons depicts a futuristic culture in which everyone is absorbed in digital devices and the entertainment industry has been killed by pirating. Two kids, deprived of their devices, discover the lasting joys of reading and appreciate books for their timelessness. As one of the characters points out, gadgets die and digital entertainment is “less than air,” but all you need to read a book is a source of light.

The King of Pain is a book with messages, wrapped in stories and sprinkled with wit, bound together by the themes of imprisonment and human endurance. It’s essentially two books in one: Rick’s story and the book he reads to pass the time while waiting for rescue. Rick is trapped physically, emotionally, and morally. When we meet him, he’s an arrogant, full-of-himself media king who’s willing to do anything and everything to advance his ambitions. He ignores the voices of reason that tell him that he’s going to far, unable to see past his show’s high ratings and what that means for revenue. But his amorality has left him lonely, and he repeatedly expresses his regret for having allowed Amanda, the woman who gave him the History of Prisons book, to walk out of his life.

Eventually, unable to do anything but think, Rick gains perspective and becomes aware of the perverse world he lives in. Although he is undoubtedly a jerk, one cannot help but sympathize with him as a character. His sharp first person narration brings him to life, and the obtuseness with which he expresses himself shows that he isn’t an evil or cruel person, simply one who has been morally compromised and distorted by the madness of Hollywood that surrounds him. It’s easy to judge him for his brashness, and at the same time, easy to see why he acted the way he did. Who wouldn’t want to be the mastermind behind a hit show like “The King of Pain,” or, for that matter, “The Biggest Loser,” “Fear Factor,” or “Survivor?”

In The King of Pain, Kaufman has created a brilliant satire that entertains as it sends its message. It’s unique, original, and innovative, presenting commentary on modern culture while being darkly entertaining. I was so drawn into this book that I flew through it in less than two days, unable to put it down.

There are a teeny, tiny, barely perceptible number of typos.

This book contains adult language. There are a few violent scenes, but these are described quickly and in relatively vague detail, leaving out the gruesome parts. There are a handful of scenes depicting sexual situations, but nothing explicit.

Seth Kaufman resides in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. He was the Editorial Director of TV Guide Online, and has also been a Page Six reporter for the New York Post. For the last 14 years he has been an eCommerce executive. He has written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Daily News, Vibe, Star, The Globe and many other publications. The King of Pain is his first novel.