Yesterday, I did something that, ten years ago, I wouldn’t even have thought was possible. I walked into a North American bookstore, and asked if they had a copy of my book, TRACER.
As it happened, they didn’t – not because I’m super-obscure, or because of some oversight by the publisher, but simply because they were a small outpost of a big chain and hadn’t yet received copies from their warehouse. That’s kind of how this shit works. In any case, I wasn’t too bummed out: their system showed that the book was available at plenty of their other stores. It was also on the shelves of their rivals, both major and independent, across the entirety of the United States (and Canada – I know I shouldn’t conflate the countries, especially since I live there now, but I’m going to do so for the duration. Sorry.)
Man, this tripped me out.
It shouldn’t, really. My book has been available across the world for about a year now. I was in the UK when it debuted in 2015, visited multiple bookshops, saw dozens of copies stacked up at Forbidden Planet in London. I’ve had people tweet me photos of copies bought from airport bookstores in Australia and hole-in-the-wall places in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The damn thing has been translated into German. It’s an audiobook. America and Canada should have just been another stop on the tour.
But for some reason, it felt different.
Before I get into why, I need to explain that this isn’t a congratulatory post. I may have written the thing, but I am not entirely or even mostly responsible for its dissemination. A whole chain of people, from my agent to my editor to the promotions and marketing folk to the booksellers themselves, have all conspired to get me in front of the reading public with something that didn’t read like an orang-utan had been banging on a broken typewriter. I really can’t emphasise enough that none of it would have happened without them.
That doesn’t stop the fact that someone I’ve never heard of from Peoria, Iowa or London, Ontario or Tulsa, Oklahoma could walk into a bookstore and pick up something I wrote. To some extent, no matter how normal most of it is, despite the fact that I’ve actually visited around 28 states and three Canadian provinces, despite Trump and his ilk doing their best to shit all over it, America (and Canada to a large extent) still have some magic.
AA Gill, the British travel journalist, once wrote about Los Angeles that it is the most important non-capital city in the world, a place where “up to 90% all the world’s culture comes from: movies, television, recorded music, pornography, and all their myriad spinoff industries.” I’d extend that to the entire continent. Whether we like it or not, all of us have, in some way, been influenced by this part of the world.
If you’re a scifi reader, as I am, then America and Canada are even more important. These are countries that spawned Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Robert J Sawyer, John Scalzi, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K LeGuin. (And by the way, seeing my name next to Bradbury’s on the shelf is enough to make me dizzy – mostly because we shouldn’t even be on the same planet, let alone under the same letter of the alphabet. I’m many things, but the next Ray Bradbury is not one of them).
Believe me, being a part of that culture, even a small part, means something. For any writer lucky enough to be published in the US, you’re both part of a great tradition, and in for the toughest fight of your life. This is still, in many ways, the hardest market to crack. I’ve just started throwing punches, and I need to land quite a few before I break this bad boy wide open.
The dedication at the front of TRACER reads: To M.O.R. It comes from my grandfather, Ralph, who was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up there in the 1920s and 30s, driving a cab to make money. He spent his childhood surrounded by early mob figures, and he told me that they referred to each other by various terms, including Man Of Honor and Man Of Respect. It became our in-joke: I was M.O.H, and he was M.O.R.
My grandfather’s life was long, chaotic, and wonderful. He served as a commander in the U.S. Navy, received an Order of the British Empire – one of only four Americans to do so – and ran a sizeable media company in Johannesburg. He always, always encouraged me to write, was absolutely delighted when I took up journalism, enthusiastically critiqued my early efforts. He died in 2007, and now, there’s a copy of my book in the town when he was born.
I’d give anything, literally anything, to walk into a Newark bookstore, buy a copy of TRACER, and hand it to him.
For one thing, he would have told me to shove my current bout of Imposter Syndrome right up my ass. This is a well-known state of mind among writers – among most professionals, actually. Briefly, it’s when you think: I shouldn’t be here, I’m going to get found out, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m a skinny Jewish kid from Joburg with an overactive imagination, and I have absolutely no business being anywhere on that shelf. Again, this is absolutely not meant to sound self-congratulatory, even though it probably will, but when I moved to London after university, my first job was picking cigarettes off the floor of a pub.
Back then, although I believed otherwise, I couldn’t write worth a damn. At least at that time, I hadn’t yet decided to write a novel. There is, thank gods, no tatty manuscript in my past which is too terrible to find a publisher. I wasn’t really concerned about that. All I wanted was get a job that didn’t involve saying “Excuse me,” and then having someone slop beer on the back of my neck.
I’m not going to talk about how I got from that pub to here. It would bore me, let alone you. But I do want to say how grateful I am. Grateful to all the editors who gave me a chance to exercise my writing muscles over the years. Grateful to the publishing folk who took a chance on me. Grateful to the friends who put up with my bad first drafts, and my followers on Twitter and Facebook who tolerate my garbled attempts at self-promotion. Grateful, most of all, to anybody who reads what I write. Whether you love it, or hate it: thank you for reading it.
The crazy thing is, because of the way American retail works, the two sequels to TRACER will release in July and August. By the time Labour Day rolls around, I will have a full, completed trilogy on the shelves. I’m told by People Who Know Things that a full series is easier to shift than an uncompleted one, so I’m looking forward to that immensely. I’m looking forward to people discovering the world that I put together, to living in it like I lived in it. I have no idea what the outcome of all of this is going to be. I just know that I’m extremely happy to be here.
Hey America. I’m Rob. I’ve got a story to tell you.
Still need to read TRACER? (Amazon / B&N / Indigo Chapters)
Our planet is in ruins. Three hundred miles above its scarred surface orbits Outer Earth: a space station with a million souls on board. They are all that remain of the human race.
Darnell is the head of the station’s biotech lab. He’s also a man with dark secrets. And he has ambitions for Outer Earth that no one will see coming.
Prakesh is a scientist, and he has no idea what his boss Darnell is capable of. He’ll have to move fast if he doesn’t want to end up dead.
And then there’s Riley. She’s a tracer – a courier. For her, speed is everything. But with her latest cargo, she’s taken on more than she bargained for.
A chilling conspiracy connects them all. The countdown has begun for Outer Earth – and for mankind.