Rob Hart vs. Bryon Quertermous: The Grudge Match Interview
If you read my Path to Publication column, you know my journey to bookshelves has been fraught with peril. Exhibit A, an imprint of Angry Robot, signed me to a two-book deal last year. Then, after six months of stringing me along, Exhibit A shut down. My contract was among several that were canceled. It was a dark time.
The story has a happy ending. Jason Pinter at Polis Books picked up New Yorked, and it's coming out in June, with a sequel to follow.
The acquiring editor at Exhibit A, Bryon Quertermous, lost his job when I lost my contract. He's an author himself, and his debut novel, Murder Boy, just came out—from Polis Books.
So we went from author-editor to imprint buddies. The dynamic of our relationship has certainly been... interesting. To mark the release of Murder Boy (which, okay, I'll admit, is a really good book), we thought it would be fun to work through some of our pent up emotions.
ROB: So, first question: Didn't our first in-person meeting seem to hold so much promise? What the hell happened?
BRYON: Yes, it did. We had a good breakfast and a good conversation. I felt good about publishing back then too. I'm sure it's your fault at some level, though I haven't figured out how exactly.
I was pretty positive it was your fault, but mostly because I didn't know anyone else [at Angry Robot] personally, and I needed someone to blame.
You raise an interesting point. Seriously though, I'm glad I can finally talk about this without complete bitterness, but I really did feel promise, and was probably just as pissed as you were when it went to shit. But I think that gives both of us a greater appreciation for what an amazing job Jason is doing with Polis.
It's like night and day. Because the problem I was having with Angry Robot is that I got a contract and all that excitement that came with it—and then they ignored me. Radio silence. For months. No edits, no cover, not even the advance check. Really, I should have seen it sooner. But Jason is so on point, it's incredible. And a nice change from my first experience (the terrible one, with you).
You had a lot of promotion ideas when we had out initial conversation, before the unpleasantness. Are you still planning to do all of that kind of stuff when the book finally comes out?
Most of the ideas I had carried over—that much was helpful, that some of the groundwork had already been laid. Plus I got some new ideas since. So it wasn't an unmitigated disaster. It's for the best. I know that. Though, still, even though we'd been cordial and friendly over e-mail, I was thinking of pretending to come after you at Bouchercon. Like I was going to kick your ass.
We all know it wouldn't have been pretending. Though I'm happy we had Alex Segura as a chaperone when we ate at that fish taco place for lunch.
I was much less likely to beat on you with a witness present, yes. So, was your deal with Jason in place already when you signed me? Or did that happen after?
No, it wasn't. And I can admit now how depressed that made me. I'd been submitting novels for almost a decade at that point without success. So on one hand I had a great job that paid me to read and work from home, but every time I signed an author and got to make their dreams come true, it stung quite a bit. Especially for someone like you, who is barely half the writer I am.
Right, Murder Boy really is an incredible book. It's the absolute perfect thickness to prop up my dining room table.
So, I wrote about this in a column previously, but Jason had actually offered to publish my book back when he was doing digital only. I passed—with a heavy heart, because he's a great dude. But I wanted my first novel available in print. You took the digital only offer, even though it eventually turned into a print deal. So you were okay with the initial offer of only an eBook?
I was, because Murder Boy is an odd book. First, it's really short at about 52,000 words, and it's also the least commercial thing I've ever written. It's a weird mix of violence and humor and dorky emotion. I thought it would work great as an eBook and I knew it wasn't going to be the only book I ever wrote, so I felt good with just getting it out into the world so people could read it. But, again, I can admit this now, I think I would have been incredibly disappointed at some point along the journey if it hadn't come out in print.
That must have been a hell of a nice surprise. Since you don't have an agent and had to handle negotiations yourself, how did that impact things?
It was. But I also realize how incredibly lucky I was. I signed on just at the right time as Jason was expanding his list and had a decade's worth of connections to draw upon for blurbs and book store events and pre-pub buzz. As far as the negotiations, I was lucky that having been an acquiring editor who negotiated a number of contracts with agents, I felt comfortable handling things myself because at the time I was thinking it was just an eBook deal. While Jason offered me a very fair deal, and I feel comfortable with the deal I signed, I have to say that now that I'm in print, I'll be looking for an agent to help me with negotiating the next contract.
Now, you've had an agent for a while who doesn't really conform to the traditional image of the New York City power agent. How did that come about? And since you work in publishing were you ever tempted to negotiate on your own?
I don't think it's necessary for literary agents to live in New York City anymore. This used to the center of the publishing universe. Now it's a hub for something that primarily exists online. Bree and I hooked up because she was familiar with me through LitReactor, asked to read the book, and that was that. We just clicked. As for negotiations, the publishing experience is a blessing and a curse. I know the balls that are in play, I know what to look for. But so does Bree, and I trust her to do that. I like to bug her a lot and have an insight on the process, but I try to stay out of the way on the larger points.
(I like to imagine Bree reading this and saying ‘Oh really, you huge pain the ass?')
She was certainly more pleasant to deal with than you were.
Hence the importance of having an agent. I'm surprised you even got a deal. It's like good cop/bad cop, without the good cop.
I assume it was some sort of agreement Jason had to make to get started. Like building a fancy high rise that has to include a few apartments for poor people.
I don't even know which one of us that applies to. Maybe both! So tell me a bit about the inspiration for Murder Boy. It's semi-autobiographical, correct? The narrator is a bad writer who's out of shape, has no game, is a huge dork, gets his ass beat on the regular...
I am not out of shape.
You have the muscle index of a ten-year-old girl.
Actually my daughter is five and she's got better upper body strength than most guys I know.
Apologies to your daughter for my sexist comment. I didn't mean to knock her superior strength and ability.
Anyway, the character is certainly modeled on the guy I was in my early 20s who, believe it or not, was more annoying than I am now. But the spirit of the book really is autobiographical in the way that most of my writing is. I'll never have to pay for a therapist because I end up working out all of my issues and struggles and problems through my writing.
Now what about you? Ash is a blunt object thug with some growing up to do and a violence problem. You were a political reporter and an editor and whatnot. Where's the crossover?
Ash is my id. He's that instinct I have for poor decision-making. Luckily I don't make the bad decisions that he does. But a lot of writing the book—and really, the driving force behind the whole series—is about me growing up and figuring shit out. When you're younger it's easy to have a very binary view of the world, and your 20s is basically a fucking nightmare of trying to figure out what kind of person you're going to be. So, part of this is me trying to grow up and be better. Exorcize those demons.
And now that you're a parent, do you see any of that seeping into your writing as well?
A little, for sure. The second book is about Ash trying to find a woman's missing daughter. So it's not Ash's kid, but he feels this compulsion to help someone who has a kid—it's me approaching that protective instinct a little. Honestly, though, the biggest thing parenthood has done is make me want to write stuff my daughter can read before she's 18. I've got a couple of YA and kids ideas kicking around, because I like the idea of writing stuff specifically for her.
When I was in Arizona on book tour I had my 10-year-old cousin riding in the car with me and he was reading through parts of Murder Boy, which I initially thought was hilarious until he started asking insightful but hard questions. He understood that I needed to use bad language to write about bad people but he couldn't understand why I wanted to write about bad people because he said I'm not a bad person (haha, little does he know). But you write about some awful people as well. Why do you do it? What draws you to darker fiction?
You don't get the true measure of a person until they're desperate and stupid. Plus, literary fiction is boring. It's all the same—sad families living in the suburbs and making poor, boring decisions.
Also, aren't bad people more fun to write about?
That too. You know, I was talking to Todd Robinson about this recently—it's funny how a lot of crime fiction writers are about as intimidating as the math league kids in high school. Todd being a rare exception, as he looks like he could really throw down. So I appreciate that your book was about a guy who's miles away from tough. Very true to your life.
I don't remember who it was, but somebody labeled my stuff nerd noir and I thought that was great, though it's really not noir and I kind of hate that title, but that's the only way I know how to write. For a long time I struggled with writing a big social crime novel with tough guy heroes and authentic violence and just kept failing at it because that's not how I live. I'm weird and dorky and averse to violence and just let all of that spill onto the page.
So why not use a pen name? Your last name is a nightmare.
Because I'm vain. I write as much for the comments and validation and I do for the personal achievement. I know it's awful to say, but it's true. Also, I think it looks cool on a book cover. It sticks in people's minds. They may not be able to pronounce it, but they'll remember it. And it's still better than Swierczynski.
I can proudly say that not only can I spell and pronounce your last name correctly, I've also convinced at least a dozen people it's pronounced "Quarter-mouse."
You have a pretty boring name. How do you make sure you stick out among what seems like more and more writers popping up every goddamn day?
My last name is an asset. People will want to look for me on Amazon and actually find my book.
Really? If they look for That Asshole I Can't Stand your book comes up? That's impressive.
I know some people at Amazon. I got that taken care of. So, this has been an odd path for the two of us, that we end up at the same party.
It has been. But I think odd is the new normal for publishing. There are still authors out there dreaming of The One True Way to publishing but there's so many opportunities out there right now, good and bad, that you just have to assess your work, figure out what your deal breakers are and get the fuck to work.
My deal breakers included not paying to be published and writing under my own name. I know format was a big one for you. What other deal breakers did you give Bree?
Six figures or bust. Two year term. Fifty percent royalty.
Way to aim low, sucker.
Dammit! So, given your experience with Exhibit A, are you done working in the publishing world?
Sort of. I think I'm done working as an in-house editor, but I still maintain a pretty robust freelance editing business and I hope to continue that for a long time. The extra cash is nice but it uses a different part of my brain and it really helps make me a better writer. I have a day job writing copy for healthcare websites and I really enjoy the stability and health benefits that brings and don't foresee giving that up anytime soon.
You have a day job as well, one in publishing for one of the most prominent names in the business. Do you see yourself sticking with that for a while or are you counting the days until you can write full time?
I'm in a weird spot. I'd love to write full time and not commute to work. But I also really like what I do. I also live in New York City and have a newborn. So I'll take whatever money I can get, for as long as I can get.
I lived for a while in New York City as well when I was in my 20s and it seems to be something most writers dream of doing at some point. This is a multi-part question. I hope your brain can handle that.
First, do you think living in NYC made you a better writer and second, do you ever think of getting the hell out of the city?
Maybe living here made me a better writer. I don't know. The city provides a lot of inspiration but I think you can be a good writer anywhere. You don't HAVE to live in New York or Paris or whatever. As for leaving: New Yorked was my way of working that out. I had been thinking of leaving and convinced myself that whatever Ash chose, I would do. It didn't work out that way, but still. That's another thing I was aiming for.
I'm disappointed this hasn't been as vulgar and mean as I'd expected. Is there something about talking about our books that mellows us out or is this feud really just a bunch of PR bullshit?
No, I legitimately don't like you. If we weren't at the same imprint I would never talk to you again. Maybe it's because this is early in the day, and both of us are sober.
Speak for yourself. I am hungry though, so I suspect that's playing into it as well. So let's get controversial for second. While I've been waiting for your stupid answers to show up I've been reading this article about Homicide: Life On The Streets. I'm firmly in the camp that it's a great show and even better than The Wire because it did all of the same things as The Wire but within the confines of network television which I find amazing. Thoughts?
I have not watched either show. I also don't like Star Wars, if you really want to go to a dark place on this.
I'll just ignore your ignorance and let the reader draw her own conclusion on what a moron you are, but Star Wars makes a great transition to the next question I was going to ask. I'm already thinking about what I want to write after I bring my series with Polis to a close and I'd really like to write a fantasy novel. I'm a big fan of the pulp writers who wrote across multiple genres and styles. You have plans to do something like that within your series with Ash (which, no matter how much I hate you, I have to admit is a cool hook) but what else are you looking to write. You've already written about zombies, ever see a return to that sort of thing?
I've got a ton of ideas, and actually plan to have a talk with my agent soon to see if I can narrow my focus. The zombie thing was a one-off. I liked the location but it's a little overcooked as a genre. I do have a killer horror idea that hit me recently and I want to explore, I'm just not sure how. I've got a fantasy idea I like, for a YA trilogy, and another idea that could be a YA series or a comic book. And then I've got something I'm working on right now that's sort of a dystopian-ish social commentary thing. It's this and the commute, why it would be nice to write full time. I can't find the time to get half my ideas down.
So I think we've gone on a little long. Any parting thoughts? How did you feel when you had to make that phone call to me, the one that felt like you were ruining my life?
It really sucked. It was the full swing of emotions from the high of telling you we were making your dreams come true. But the worst part was that I was losing my job too. I had another kid on the way, a wife having a difficult pregnancy and then bam, I was out of a job. So while making the phone calls sucked, you all still had jobs so I didn't have a whole lot of sympathy.
But in the end, I'm happy that you and [Patti Abbott] ended up with me at Polis, I found a job that I like even more and I'm not afraid of losing every week, and you and I can joke about hating each other instead of actually hating each other.
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