Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My first Authorsday with Harry Ramble

Welcome Harry Ramble to my first Authorsday.Harry will be giving away a free book. All who comment are entered.

Hi, Chris! Thanks for shining your flattering blog spotlight on me.

I have to say to your readers, when I first saw who April Robins and RRW had matched me up with, I was pretty excited. I saw right away that Chris has a regularly appearing “Hot Hunk Friday” feature, and I thought, Hey, that’s a perfect fit! Just slap me in there! I lobbied persuasively for a HHF profile, but Chris has been forced to reject my request, based on the unfortunate fact that I am a) not a celebrity, and b) unattractive.

But, you know, I’m not picky. I would have happily settled for a prime placement in Chris’s “Word Wednesday” feature. Here, too, I was met with disappointment, as the word “ramble” has already been featured in the “Word Wednesday” entry for January 21, 2009.

And so, here we are, on Authorsday, with an interview instead. My novel is called Sex Offender Lives Here, and it’s available from Ebb Press. It’s a story of divorce, a particularly vicious child custody battle, and America’s obsession with sex crimes and predators. Or, as the media kit would have it, a “tale of love, loss, and terror in the house of mirrors that is our post-modern Information Age.” Those who wish to know more can visit me at

Okay, Chris, fire away!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Since the day I realized, at the age of 12, that I couldn’t hit a curve ball worth a damn. One day, you and all your little friends are having a grand old day on the diamond, dreaming of being Reggie Jackson. And then the next day one of your friends has a mustache, is a full foot taller than you, and has a 80-mile-an-hour breaking ball he didn’t have yesterday. And you? If you’re lucky, you realize you’re a writer.

2. What do you know now that you're published that you wish you knew when you started out?

I wish I had known that the publishing industry (think everything from Random House to Baker & Taylor to Barnes & Noble) would cease to exist in 2009. I could have saved myself about ten years of writing query letters. Not to mention all that money I spent on SASEs.

Oh, I know those companies will still “exist” at the end of this year. But the business function they’ve evolved to perform (the purchase of large quantities of wood pulp and ink, the printing and binding of sheets of paper, the truck transportation of pallets of bound volumes, the shelving of those volumes, the return and pulping of unsold inventory) no longer exists. Left to its own devices, the Kindle would have rolled up this entire world (with its massive overhead of pricey Manhattan office spaces, 7-figure advances to unpopular former US presidents, and lunch tabs at Le Bernardin) in two or three years. The recent appearance of iPhone reader apps, however, just shortened that grace period to zero.

In 2012, the biggest, most influential publishers in the world will be operations on the scale of two savvy recent college grads (one tech whiz, one marketing whiz), a pair of MacBook Air laptops, and a regular table at the back of a Panera Bread franchise.

3. What drew you to the subject of Sex Offender Lives Here?

The initial idea came from a news story I read a few years ago. A 20-year-old dishwasher from Canada used Maine’s official sex offender registry system to track down and kill convicted felons. He killed two people. One was a 57-year-old man who had been convicted of assaulting and raping a child younger than 14 years old. The second was a 24-year-old man who had been convicted, when he was 19, of having sex with his girlfriend who, at the time, had been two weeks short of her 16th birthday. Two very different people, obviously, but they were both sex offenders and they were both registered by name, address, and photo. The killer in this particular case was found in possession of the addresses of 32 more sex offenders.

The sex offender registry system, which now exists in all states, grew out of the entirely reasonable desire to protect children from sex criminals by notifying citizens when a convicted sex felon moves into their community. Of course, public knowledge is more public than ever in these days of Facebook, Google and 24-hour Twitter updates. So there’s definitely a potential for concerned citizens to take matters into their own hands. This is something that’s happening more and more frequently across the nation.

At the same time, there’s no consistent definition of what a sex offender is. Rapists, murderers, and predators certainly qualify. But what about the guy who has a fight with his girlfriend on a Friday night and is accused of pushing and shoving? What about a guy arrested for public urination? What about a person who’s computer is hacked by a virus and used by a third party as a transmitter of child pornography? What about—and this is the direction my own novel takes—a father who is accused of sexual crimes in the course of a very bitter child custody dispute?

Now I’m no expert. I’m just a novelist. But it doesn’t take an expert to recognize that there are inequities in the system and a tremendous potential for abuse. We have a very inflexible, one-size-fits-all system of monitoring and enforcement in place, and yet we don’t really have a coherent way of thinking about or talking about sex offenses.

Speaking just as a novelist, there’s a lot of dramatic potential there. The novel isn’t solely about these issues, of course. It’s also about a father’s responsibilities to his family, about what our obsessions reveal about us, about one very fallible man’s love for his son. But that’s where the story started.

4. What’s it like, marketing a book like Sex Offender Lives Here? Do you get odd reactions from people?

You’d be surprised at how many people respond by saying, “Really? Wow! That’s great! It’s not a memoir, is it?”

Actually, no, it’s not. It’s a novel. Once people grasp (with some relief) that the book is fiction, they often next assume that it’s a horror/thriller in the “serial killer” vein so popular in today’s fiction marketplace. In fact, Sex Offender Lives Here is a kind of “anti-serial-killer thriller.” It’s a story about real people and the very real consequences of choices made and influenced by love and fear and desire. There are no devils or saints in it, no soulless killing machines or brave heroes.

I should say that there is one very peripheral character in the novel, a stereotypical sex fiend who exists outside the narrative and is kind of influencing public opinion around some of the main characters. He is called the Balloon Man, and he functions as a kind of counterpoint to the very real people caught up in the clash of cultures delineated in the novel. And I can’t tell you how many people say to me, “Why don’t you write a book about that Balloon Man guy? Heck, I’d read that.” For some reason, a novel about sex offenders portrayed as real people is controversial, but a novel that exists as a means for readers to participate, vicariously, in a series of brutal killings, is considered mainstream. It just goes to show you what people are conditioned to expect from literature, I guess.

Marketing a book like Sex Offender Lives Here gives you opportunities to test easy assumptions. When laying out the Contact page on the website for the book, the web designer asked me, “How many people do you think will want to join the mailing list of an author they know only as the author of Sex Offender Lives Here? (A pretty good number, actually, although the increasing omnipresence of Facebook and MySpace is rendering 20th-century technologies like “mailing lists” obsolete.)

Other people wonder if I get hate mail from angry people. As it turns out, not much. I do get mail from people moved to share their own tales of travail as a consequence of their contact with the sex offender registry system. Some of these tales are pretty harrowing, and I never know quite what to say. I’m not a partisan when it comes to this issue. I tried to be as even-handed in the narrative as I could.

5. What’s the strangest thing you’ve had to do, as part of marketing Sex Offender Lives Here?

I had to paint hate grafitti on my own house. I hired a production team to create a “book trailer,” one of those little video shorts that everyone has for their books these days. And I just wasn’t happy with their first draft, which leaned very heavily on stock images of menacing guys peeking from the shadows, guys in handcuffs, that kind of thing. Just completely missing the sense of the book, which is, at its core, the story of a family under siege, a husband, wife, and child at the mercy of events that have spun out of their control.

So I said, look, I’ll provide the images, from photos I’ll create, and I’ll do my own voiceover, a kind of plea for understanding from father to son, that, together, will capture the spirit of the book. So that’s what I did. I mocked up protest signs, stuck them outside front doors, and photographed them. And I went to the local art store and bought myself some water-soluble paint in several colors.

On Halloween of last year, a bright and sunny morning, I went out and started painting messages of hate on my own house. I had never written a single word of grafitti in my life. Not even a picture on a school desk, that I can remember. I’ve included a couple of stills here, and you can view the trailer itself here, at MySpace:
It’s in some other places as well. Barnes & Noble has it up.

It’s an odd thing, expressing hatred and fear like that. Slashing your thoughts on a wall like that, in blood red and black. It would have been an interesting exercise to have tried before writing the book. I’m certainly glad that the paint proved to be as washable and removeable as advertised!

6. What was the best writing advice you received? Did you follow it? Conversely, what was the worst advice you’ve received?

To be honest, I don’t think any one person can tell any other person anything useful about writing a story. And I say that as someone who’s done the seminars, participated in writer’s circles, been fortunate enough to bounce my work off a successful author or two. I say that as someone who possesses an entirely useless degree in English Literature from Rutgers University. Sometimes, the less formal education you have, the better off you are. Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner didn’t have a year of college between them; they didn’t attend a single “Writer’s Boot Camp.”

If you could sit down all day with Martin Amis and really pick his brain, he could tell you a heck of a lot about how to write a serviceable Martin Amis book. Likewise, Jane Smiley is the world’s foremost expert at writing Jane Smiley books. That’s the way it is. It’s not transferable. It’s unique to you.

You have to learn the language of your heart and devise a way to express it. And that way you come up with, of expressing yourself, will only work for you. All the rest of it, the “showing, not telling,” the grammar, you can learn in a week or so.

So I guess that’s the advice. Go out into a field somewhere and sit down. Listen to your heart. Write it down. Keeping writing it down until some of it is true.

7. What was the name of the first manuscript you ever completed? Did you try to get it published?

Did I try to get it published? Do people write stories that they don’t try to get published? Not me. I like to believe there’s a market out there for anything I write, as long as it’s as good as I can make it. Novels. Screenplays. Shopping lists. Directions for the babysitter. Everything’s got a potential destination.

My first novel was called Zoo Monday. It was an enormous thing, almost 200,000 words long, written in the present tense from the viewpoints of half a dozen major characters. It was about a teenager who achieves a kind of notoriety for a murder he didn’t commit. And a kind of nihilistic death cult that grows up around him.

I wrote it in the late 80s and started shopping it around a few years later. It was a different world, then. You could send out twenty queries to reputable agents and get four requests for more material. It never quite got over the hump, though.

8. What’s your next book about?

It’s called The End Is Near, and it’s a comedy about one man’s childhood trauma, midlife crisis, and his attempt at gaining revenge, twenty-some years after the fact, via murder/suicide. Okay, it’s a dark comedy. With witchcraft, a farcical hostage situation, a highly combustible romantic triangle, and angelic interventions. In the largest sense, I guess, it’s about how our cherished grievances and justifications don’t ever quite match up correctly with the realities of our lives. The book will be out later this year, again from Ebb Press.

9. Give us one fact about yourself that very few people know.

I had a high-profile slot in “Happy News Monday” totally locked up until the article on Hippo Sweat knocked me out of the top spot on Sunday night. Chris assured me that it was nothing personal. It was a business decision based on SEO and keyword search rates and advertising revenues. And it’s okay. I’m fine with that.

About Harry Ramble

A marketing professional and advertising writer for more than two decades, Harry Ramble has learned the value of never using two words where one will do. He is the author of "Sex Offender Lives Here," a tragicomic tale of divorce, child custody battles, and America's obsession with sex crimes and predators, now available from Ebb Press ( Look for Harry's next novel, The End Is Near, a story of childhood trauma, derangement, vengeance, and angelic interventions, also from Ebb Press, in the autumn of 2009. Harry lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children.


Anonymous said...

Interesting read, thanks for sharing. I'm glad you chose washable paint :)

KM Fawcett said...

Great interview, Chris. Harry, I checked out your video trailer. Nicely done. I'm intrigued.

Kathy Otten said...

Great interview. I have a friend who's son was like your second victim, except he had just turned eighteen and he didn't get murdered. But because he had to register, it made me question the whole sex offender registry system. I agree, there is no clear definition to go with the label and everyone is wrongly lumped together. Thanks for raising that awareness. I'll be adding your book to my list.

Maryannwrites said...

Wonderful interview. I loved your advice to go sit in a field and write what is in your heart. You can only learn so much from classes and experienced writers, then it is up to each of us to see if we can get that book on paper. Or on the screen, or disc, or whatever. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi, folks! Thanks so much for taking the time to read some of my scattered thoughts about publishing, writing, and the issues related to my book. And thanks again to Chris for featuring me and my work.

The estimable Ms. Redding will be randomly drawing one name from those above, so that I might have the privilege of sending one of you a free book. Chris will inform the winner. Give her a mailing address and expect to find a copy of my book in the mail ASAP.

Anyone interested in my current release (or next book) can always find out more by friending me on facebook. Stop by and say hello!

Thanks again!

Harry Ramble

Melissa said...

Thanks Harry, for such a thought provoking interview! You definitely havea gift with words. I loved the advice you had to other writers and I intend on going to find my field. lol Thanks again for sharing and I will be going by your site soon!

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