The Image Pill

Who’s that person in the mirror? What do they say about you as a human?

Do you like how you look? Really?

If so, awesome. More power to you. (Like it or not, the rest of us are more or less stuck with how we appear–if only to ourselves.)

I bring this up not to be so existential or deep–I’m more comedian (unpaid) than philosopher–but because it’s an issue that pops up in various forms for me (who isn’t too self-conscious) almost daily.

To wit: I just received the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (I didn’t think to decline it, though it holds little real content of interest). I don’t need to share the cover image. Suffice to say the cover model is attractive and is “wearing” less than what you could craft with a handful of bleached spaghetti noodles. She and her fellow subjects arguably represent the feminine ideal (sprawled in exotic locales, Photoshopped to blemish-free copper tones, un-apologetically sexualized to help market $400 bikinis).

Wait, dude, you’re a guy. Why do you care?

(There’s a lot of reasons to care–including the ongoing objectification of women–but I’ll get to those in another blog.)

Now, the flip side to the Swimsuit Issue’s arrival in my house is something I’ve noticed every time I walked through a bookstore or looked online. (I offer this simply as food for thought.) There must be a few million romance or historical romance novels on the market. In each and every one of them is a guy (usually bare-chested and rugged) who doesn’t look like me. I don’t ride horses or motorcycles. I’m not ripped (even 30 pounds lighter, you’d need a loaded gun to get me shirtless in public). And I’d look utterly stupid in a cowboy hat or sporting tattoos. My wife (who peruses romance novels) would agree.

Truth be told, I’m not unhappy with the way I look. Yes, I could be lighter/more fit. Yes, I could do without a droopy left eyelid (I have something in common with basketball star Dwyane Wade!!!). My face is, well, just a face-in-the-crowd mug. When I run or workout, I grimace. When I play soccer, I’m back to that comedian look. Writing in public (yes, I do that) I probably resemble Curious George trying to concentrate on a puzzle. In other words, there never has been (and never will be) a time in my life when someone’s approached me about being on a brochure or the cover of a novel. (The lone exception is that I “modeled” for part of the image for The Churning, as it was a hell-of-a-lot cheaper than paying someone else to stand in. I even joke about this on Twitter.)

The not-so-bitter pill to swallow here: “I yams what I yams,” as Popeye said. Stuck with me. How people see me is probably more “tired dad” than anything. C’est la vie.

Justin Edison in a silly pose.

The author, striking a silly pose his daughter requested.

(These book covers, of course, are equally guilty of pushing the ideal of a gorgeous, curvy and often compromised woman.)

So, rather than a boo-hoo epiphany for Ol’ Justin (knowing that untold tens of millions of women would rather look at a tall, strapping rake than myself) it begs a few questions. First, how much power of perception have we–the general public–handed over to various marketing departments? Conventional wisdom tells us that nobody in their right mind would put my face on the cover or in an advertisement for anything. Is eye candy the almighty gatekeeper for escapism?

Author Justin Edison after a run

Aren’t I a hot one? (Post-run and thrilled.)

Two, speaking of my fellow men, where are the other guys? A number of gentlemen I play soccer with are fitter and better-looking than me. They’re not making it onto glossy covers. And, clearly, you can forget about any of the local technology managers (actually in possession of power and prestige) who look like they couldn’t complete five real push-ups if their life depended on it. They’re not book-cover material, either.

Three, given the various identity crises and image problems we Americans clearly have (see recent election) isn’t it about time we, the general public, start paying a little more attention to who we are, rather than constantly run to a voluptuous or chiseled ideal for a hero/heroine? And what could it hurt to do so?

For the cover of Endgame, the book designer and I selected a woman’s eye rather than the whole “pretty” face. It works, as my heroine is, in fact, a sharpshooter. But it also kept me from having to add a concrete face to my main character. It should hardly matter what June Vereeth looks like (sparsely described as athletic and short-haired). (No, she doesn’t resemble model Kate Upton.) In public, she probably wouldn’t turn heads. But for the story, she’s level-headed, egalitarian and she’s got a sharp eye on the battlefield. She’s who I need her to be, and she gets three more novels to try and preserve her humanity in wartime. (Here, too, I’ve noticed that women on sci-fi covers often appear sack-ready voluptuous, as well as world-wise and confident.)

Escapism is wonderful. Obviously, I’m all for it. It’s what we writers do best. Sometimes, though, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if we could actually recognize some of ourselves in the escape. Plumbers and teachers and school administrators and server gurus can all be exciting heroes, too.


Another Lob

On Monday (10/10/16) I will once again cast a stone into the river. Another unveiling release, another Hail Mary pass, another lob. (Not another chuck, I would say, because I’m not trying to give anyone a black eye.) Can you hear me cringing or sighing or wincing or hoping? If so, you might be a writer, too. Voila, the rock gets its own arc and a landing of undetermined quality. Endgame.

Why do it? the voice asks.

In simplest terms, I have to. (More on that, soon.)

This time, I invite readers to board a shuttle with a sniper’s beam rifle secured under their seat. Rather than a view of the California coastline or the Danube, their window shows them space giving way to a wintry planet, then a mountain fortress. Everyone aboard is frightened, but there’s no option to turn back. The war is on and a rare fuel must be protected (or, at least, not relinquished to the enemy) and the stakes are very high.

Captain June Vereeth, our heroine, isn’t the only one who didn’t ask to be in this conflict or to raise a rifle on the inhospitable world of P-75. War lives up to its reputation for superceding everything else, however, and a blast that redefines ‘victory’ soon leaves Vereeth and four soldiers stranded alone on the planet. Without a ship, or a radio, some 50 million miles behind enemy lines. Dangerous wildlife start taking an interest, and the power-hungry enemies (Mitasterites) start returning to the surface by the hundreds. In galactic parlance, you might say, our heroes are utterly screwed.

In my last published novel, The Churning, I asked readers to live in the shoes of an egotistical Persian-American soccer star who finds himself as a hostage for crazed villains in a house. He learns some things about himself and his lifestyle. The story was a little dark.

For my first offer, Watching the World Fall, I gave readers a sane, disease-stricken father whose act of kidnapping a college football demigod is, he believes, a righteous gift for his son. (It was my first real novel, so it involved nine years of bumbling and mistakes, first.)

There’s also The Song of Jemma and other short stories with various worlds and predicaments. The list goes on.

All told, even with Booktrope’s marketing of the re-released “The Churning” and so forth, maybe 500 people have read my stuff. I don’t think it’s up to a thousand. The river where I lob these stones is wide and gushing. (If I really seek an exploratory adventure into crushing depression, I could calculate my hourly earnings as a writer.)

Why do it? the voice asks. Why take that penalty kick if you know the ball’s going over the bar?

Grumble. [Insert sarcastic cartoon depiction of writers as laptop-bearing Starbucks junkies here.]

Because I don’t know how to do anything else? No, that’s weak, and it’s far from the truth. I parent. I play and coach soccer. I (try to) fix websites. I cook. I lead kids, when asked. I chauffeur and cater and entertain and organize (mostly without being asked). I make repeated attempts at tidying/updating the house, often with laughable failure. I live.

Could it be that I don’t know how to do anything better than I write? My soccer buddies would be quick to point out that my on-field antics provide no competition. If I poured 1,500 hours (and excessive coffee consumption) into a meal, could my culinary creation be superior? That’s doubtful, too.

Why do it? the voice asks.

Could it be that a deeper compulsion is at work within me? That, for better or worse, a storyteller is what I am? Ed Viesturs was born to climb, Chuck Yeager to fly and Bobby Flay to cook.

Uh, Mister Edison, they’ve made successful careers out of their passions. You’ve made bupkis.

But, is that the point? Raking in dough? [This, by the way, is how all unsuccessful writers console themselves. It’s easy–just cling to the calling of art.] Is money the reason to rise in darkness, pace the kitchen (or out in the fog–even better!) and try to bring a little order to all the voices upstairs?

(I am lucky to be one of them. The ideas flow. Without exaggeration, I picture the creative side of my brain as a kind of Heathrow Airport. All those queues going in different directions, complete with scowls and polite smiles and laughter and lost luggage and fears about missed opportunities. Those multitudes aren’t quiet, either.)

The point I’m trying to make is, it’s not really a choice. Some of those outbound planes have to actually taxi and take off. Does an artist ever stop making art? Wouldn’t that make the world a little less lively or colorful? If I’m good enough to get positive response from the few people who do read my work, isn’t that good enough for a storyteller?

Chances are, it’s going to have to be. There’s no Knopf or Random House or New York Times printed anywhere near my name right now, and that may be true for all time. I accept that certain things are out of my hands.

Measuring the quality of consolation prizes, however, is a matter of perspective. Yesterday, a friend told me she couldn’t put this book down. I must’ve been pulling my hair and filling my ears with loud music for 7-8 months trying to come up with a satisfying way to tie the story together. Then, like an old song you long form, it arrived (and gives the tale a pro-environment twist). Bam, lucky.

And a year from now, if I’m standing ready to lob another stone knowing how Endgame didn’t make much of a splash, will I still throw?

It’s what I do.


Endgame cover by Greg Simanson Designs. Cover shows characters, rockets and a woman's eye against a green-ice background and twin suns, orange lettering. "The war begins" is added at the top.

Folding and Moving On

Friday afternoon, I got the news that Booktrope, my publisher, is folding. I said a few expletives in my car (reading the news on my phone) and collected my daughter from school. Life must go on.

There’s never a good time for bad news, right?

For those of us authors who were fortunate enough to be part of this process, now what? Do we ‘revert’ to self-pubbing our books through Amazon and other services? Do we toss our hats into the waiting game/dating game world of finding an agent and (even less likely) a new publisher?

Booktrope, a Seattle-based outfit, seemed like a noble experiment to me. Could a mid-sized publisher (with a marketing platform) exist outside of New York? Now that they’re closing up shop, does that necessarily mean a ‘no’ answer?

Time will tell.

Since I got the news, I’ve also been thinking about the small but key staff–the ones who are actually losing their jobs. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of cocktails had gone towards taking the edge off this development. Job loss stings, at the very least.

It’s Monday morning now. Time to rally the spirit and rally the troops. Heavy hearts or not, it’s time to move on.

Positive news

I hate the self-promoting thing, I really do. But it’s nice to share good news, that validation that us writers really need.

“The Churning” is getting positive reviews, averaging 4.9 stars on Amazon, wa-hoo! Maybe, after all these years of mistakes, blunders, self-fouls, etc., I know what I’m doing.

Or maybe it’s only because I listened to bright editors…

Check it out (cheaper than a latte, I should add).


quote and ball image from "The Churning"