Friday, December 3, 2010

The Journal of The Mermaid Translation

The Journal of The Mermaid Translation

I have a box of the new novel, The Mermaid Translation.

I wasn’t going to write about this, but now it seems I am.

I’m not sure if it’s a diary, in order to keep my own

astounded observations, or simply a look at what happens

when you write. Anyway, let’s just call it a journal. And

it’s a good place to start, with this cardboard box full of


this cardboard box


On Saturday, I put it off as long as possible, until finally,

after 3 o’clock I pushed myself into action, grabbed a book

from the box, the car keys and family and out the door

we went. It was raining, dark—dreary is the word—but I

had to hope the weather was not a reflection of deeper

meaning. First stop was the public library. I parked and

left with Rustle in the back dancing to Elvis Presley.

These things take enormous nerve. I’m not fond of

doing this at all, but onward I charged.

The librarian had just finished talking up the books

on the new-release shelf and she turned to me with

a smile. I asked her about using one of the rooms

for a reading. She showed me the rental fee. I guess

that was enough for me. Part of the fantasy I have is

that people (I mean libraries and bookstores) would be

excited about having a local author read in their place.

It just isn’t like that. Unless I was J.K Rowling Jr.

They want the money. I went in the rain back to the car.

And on to the next stop.

J.K Rowling Jr.

My favorite bookstore in town sits on a slope with old

trolley tracks and the rain running down. Years ago, they

used to be on the corner of Harris Avenue, we used to go

there all the time when our daughter was a baby. Their

new store is beautiful orange wood, looking out over the

bay. Just before I went inside though, I swore and slammed

the car door. I had a premonition. My wife didn’t believe

they wouldn’t accept copies of my book to sell. After the

library and in fact years of doing this sort of thing, I know

better. Still, I held to a golden thread of hope that this

wonderful dreamy bookstore would be different. But I

told her I knew what they were going to say. And she scolded,

“See, you’re just going to make that happen.” My rude reply

was, “XXXX!” and “Just watch what happens...” So I fumed

out of the car with the new book tucked beneath my

sweater. Through the rain and yellow light, I got to the

counter and explained that I was a writer living in this

town and this is my new book. I’m trying to get it

reviewed in the local papers, I was hoping I could

mention that copies were for sale here. (There would

be hordes of people arriving after the glowing reviews.)

She soured immediately, “I’m afraid we have too much

overstock, our inventory couldn’t handle another book.”

Okay, okay, I said. I honestly didn’t expect it and I’m sure

it sounded bad when I softly told her it was my favorite

bookstore. But it isn’t anymore.

Outside, the family was moving on, ahead of me,

following the sidewalk to where it fell apart and turned

into gravel and weeds. I caught up at a puddle and we

went to the big bookstore rising over the street.

Voltage Books is the place everyone goes, the place

everyone thinks of first. Unfortunately they’ve become

notoriously heavy-handed when dealing with

small press books. To sell books here, the author

needs to provide the copies, any sold are subject

to a 60/40 split. So actually I’m losing money trying

to sell my books. On top of that, they charge the

author a ten dollar fee to give a reading. So, with

the library letting me down, and my ex-favorite

bookstore failing me, my confidence was at lowtide

as we went in. Right away I noticed Robert at the

cash register. I let the string of customers wind past,

then I said hello. He’s always been a good egg. I handed

him the new book and muttered I’d like to do a reading.

Robert flipped through it, “Oh, you should…” he said,

“You have to do a reading.” He called someone on the

intercom but she wasn’t around, so he wrote down

a couple of contact names. One of them I already wrote

to last week. I thanked him, I had become so flustered

I told him the book was for him. I even signed it.

At this point I didn’t know what I was doing anymore.

He seemed pleased with it though. As I left, he told

the woman next to him, “This is the third book of

poetry someone’s given me this week.” Yeah, I believe it.

We’re just throwing it to the wind.


Yesterday I mailed a copy of the book to another Robert.

My friend Rob is a musician who lives in Seattle.

He wants to record people reading it then drone the

results at an art gallery. It sounds fun. This weekend

we might try to meet at a studio. In the meantime,

a good review of sorts—my 5 year old niece in Ohio

got a hold of a copy of the book. Maya refuses to part

with it. When she isn’t carrying it with her, she keeps it

in a wooden box like a holy relic. Her mother had to

wait until Maya was asleep to slip it from her hands so

she could read it.

a good review


Naturally I wish this book could be such a sensation to

more people. I still wish I could make a living from writing.

Does it just take time? Think of those wandering poets of

China and Japan who wrote on cliffs and leaves and bark

hundreds of years ago. Now they’re translated, carried in

pockets, on subways and satellites. Today I’m going to

mail a book to my friend Michael. He would understand

what I’m talking about too. For years he’s run his own

small press. Many moons ago we worked together in a

warehouse, that’s where I got to know him. That’s when

he showed me a book that changed my life, a small novel

that was designed like a Big Little Book, with text on

one side and a drawing on the other. I carried that book

and read it everywhere until it was done and I returned it

to Michael. It immediately affected the magazine I

self-published (Pie in the Sky) and I kept it in the back of

my mind until I wrote The Heaven Antenna in Ohio

in 1998. In fact, the original book (which was later

published as The Ohio Trio) was handwritten with text

and drawings in honor of that book Michael showed me.

However, in the years that poured past, I had forgotten

the title of that magical book. I guess I figured it was a

one-of-a-kind underground flower. But I recently

contacted Michael again—he’s living on an island near

Oregon now. He reminded me: The Great Canadian

Sonnet, by David McFadden. So I gladly sent Michael

my new book—if it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know

how my writing would look.

The Great Canadian Sonnet
from The Heaven Antenna
from The Heaven Antenna
from The Heaven Antenna


Note from publisher:

“I think we agreed at $100 for all the set up and 20 copies.

Okay, could use it in the account right now, riding low.”

the set up


Just emailed two local newspapers, The Bellingham Herald

(which of course features in the book) and Cascadia Weekly,

asking if I could send them copies of the book to review.


The Herald responds:

“We don’t do book reviews, but we do publish

author events and occasionally interview an author

in conjunction with an event (usually at Voltage Books).

When you have a reading, let me know, and maybe

bring by a copy of your book for consideration.


No response from Cascadia Weekly.


This morning Paul Piper leaned out his window into

the rain to yell at me, “Hey Allen Frost, you’re famous!

I just ordered your book from Amazon!”


Every day do something to keep it in motion. Today

I printed out a 6 page list of all the libraries that own

copies of the other 4 books I have published. Next will

need to find the time to go over them, get addresses

and send them flyers for the new book.


Sent two emails. One to Rebecca, telling her I have a

book for her. One day she came up out of the blue and

told me she had my first book. She had been to my

reading at Voltage Books so many years ago when it

came out. A few weeks ago, she traded me a bag full of

homemade cookies for Bowl of Water, my second

book. Also, sent an email to Vowels bookstore in

Portland, Oregon, hoping to set up a reading there.

That would be wonderful—a chance to go back to

the city where I landed in 1995, barely on my feet,

worked as a dishwasher, met wife, a city of

memories and poems.


Trip to Seattle didn’t quite work out the way I hoped.

No recording done, but did get to hear Rob’s ideas for

his show—the Mermaid book would be heard as a

murmuring, coming from filing cabinets in a dark

room lit only by little bedside lamps. I like it.

Rob's ideas


Sunday, went to see the exhibition at the Seattle Center.

The lamposts wearing colorful banners leading to the

doors, a big line of people buying tickets, some fans

lucky enough to rent hand-held recorders narrated by

the author. Waiting to go in, waiting to see the original

props, accessories and wardrobes from the book.

“Marvel at all the handcrafted detail you will see

surrounding you,” promised the barker. Buzzing

in the line with adults, teens and children, finally

going in through the doors, shutting us inside a

black room with blue rippling wave lights projected

on the ceiling. A mermaid in a tank of water

announces, “Welcome everyone toThe Mermaid

Translation Exhibition!” After a burbling fanfare,

the curtains on the right of us parted to reveal a

green and blue light shining through a round

portholed door. All on its own, the door opened

wide into a gasping sight of a beautiful summer

meadow. “It’s Sanford’s yard!” someone yelped

and we all stepped in. Yes, behind the ropes

of our path was Sanford’s bathysphere.

Wildflowers cushioned it, you could almost

reach out and touch it. A huge model of an

elephant looms out, a red balloon sits in the

air and you can faintly hear the piano playing.

There’s the periwinkle shell of the mermaid’s

café, follow the crowd inside. All the cups hooked,

a stove with pots of tea and coffee in a copper urn,

the rippling moat the mermaid pushes through,

the wooden tables and chairs, the lighthouse pearl

turning, the jukebox with the record ‘How To Speak

Dolphin’ nested on it. Look over there! It’s the actual

tiger suit worn by Jenny! And standing next to it,

the elegant tuxedo and top hat ensemble of the

magician. Suddenly, on guide wires overhead, a

flock of yellow canaries flickers by. In a glass case

are Mr. Merrimac’s prop books, along with worn

telephone books and the torn-out page listing

Penny Certain Recordings. “Emily Dickinson’s

bread!” A phone booth, a dunking booth, the

Saturn Circus sign, with two skeletons guarding

the gate. The mood is calmer in the set of the

poet’s shack. The floorboards creak. Look out

the window, across the cattails and birdsongs,

see the sun reddening, going down.

The autoharp, candles and soup cooking in

a pot. On the wall of the hall leading to the next

exhibit are movie posters faded and colorful.

‘Octopus Attack’ and publicity stills and tattered

circus handbills. Walk through a shining gondola

car, in one door, out the other, into Mr. Dash’s

observatory. Standing amid tropical plants are

the clothes worn by the book’s characters.

People laugh and point at Denton Pine’s worn

tweed suit, posed as if on the run from the librarian.

Sanford’s little clothes hold a lantern in each hand.

Out from there, we follow a rocky mining tunnel

that drops us right into the gift shop.


Email from Vowels bookstore:

They forwarded my request for a reading on to

“our marketing team.”


2 emails from the publisher:

“I’m nominating The Mermaid Translation for a

Pushcart Prize. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone

win, but it’s great to be nominated.”


“I opened my email to find each of the

warehouses ordering The Mermaid Translation.

This is good. Some are ordering 6, some 2. About

20 in all. Whoopee! They had asked me for a ‘forecast’

list of publicity for the book, and I told them of ads to

come out and readings planned or in the works.

It works.”


Response from Voltage Books:

They have a new consignment agreement since the

last time I read there. It now costs $25 (up from $10)

because “consignment is very time-consuming to

manage.” Also, they want me to provide 5 copies of

the book. The only bright note: they referred to the

book as ‘Mermaid in Translation’ which is kind of


Response from Vowels bookstore:

“Thank you for your email. I appreciate your

willingness to present your new novel at one of

our stores, but I unfortunately don’t think we

would see the size audience or sales to support

an event and must decline.”


I realized something about The Mermaid

Translation. Not only is it a sort of cartoon,

like a Saturday morning one with an undersea

hero, it’s also like a dream the way it seems

so serious when you’re in it. Then, when you

awaken, even as it’s fading, you wonder what

was all the running and worry and story for?

November 15—November 24, 2010

part 1

drawings: allen frost

1 comment:

  1. Well, this is a real 'tell all' about the writing business...You have to persist in this, Allen. You need it and all do. There has to be this alternative way.