The Whirlwind, Ernest Hecht

A little while ago, I received news of the death of my publisher in Britain, Ernest Hecht. The news hit hard, even though I was always worried about his health. When I first met him, back when Souvenir Press released PC Bedtime Stories in the UK, he was overweight, in his late 60s, almost addicted to ice cream, and had that air of a man who thought he was immortal. Over time, I began to have the feeling he would outlive ME! Then, news came that he suffered a fall and never recovered from it.

Ernest was a fascinating man. Read his Times of London obit here to get a taste of his life.  (Also here, the obit from The Guardian.) He had a ferocious wit and kept conversations moving at such a pace that I felt like a clod next to him. When my wife and I visited London, he took us to his favorite restaurant, the White Castle, and pontificated and charmed in great amounts, with potato chip crumbs down the front of his shirt. It is one of my fondest memories.

He was a great publisher for me, managing to keep PC Bedtime Stories in print long, long after it had gone on the remainder piles in America. He also talked me up with many publishers on the continent, which led to contracts. What’s more, he would call me regularly to say that they had had steady sales all year, a few good article placements, new press runs, etc. That’s the kind of thing that’s good to hear in the long, lonely life of putting words on paper. My American publishers? Deposed, out of the business, burned out, deranged. Ernest was a rara avis in the UK as well, last of the dying breed of independent publishers, but he reveled in that. He knew no other way to be. His motto was that the publisher’s main responsibility to the writer was to make enough money to stay in business. He declined to publish many of my books, which was wise of him I guess, but he knew how to ride one of my winners for a long time. And his faith in me was always unshaken. I have huge regrets now that I didn’t make time to visit him in recent years. Good lord, the time does fly.

From a trade journalist in the UK, quoted in The Bookseller:  “No one would say he was easy, but being difficult was for Hecht a sport. Being with him, even in the last couple of tricky years, was never dull. He was truly unique, a Technicolor figure in a now-monochrome world. Publishing will never see his like again.”

Goodbye to a devoted fan of Arsenal football, ice cream, Brazil, and doing everything his own way. Ernest, you were an inspiration.

(Photo credit of his actual catastrophe of an office, The Time of London)

Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Inducts Ring Lardner

It was quite an honor to be asked to participate in the induction ceremony for Ring Lardner last night. Lardner was born in Niles, Michigan, and spent a good deal of his professional life in NYC, but his formative years were spent as a sportswriter at various papers around town, including the Chicago Tribune.

I spoke on and read from Lardner’s short stories (if you haven’t read any of these yet, grab yourself a copy of “Alibi Ike” or “Liberty Hall” pronto). Other speakers included journalist Ron Rappaport (whose new book is “The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner”), author Don DeGrazia (“What Lardner Means to Me as a Writer”), ESPN’s and GLAAD’s Christina Kahrl (“How Lardner Changed Journalism”), Cubs historian Brian Bernardoni (“The Chicago Lardner Knew”) and Lardner’s grandson James Lardner, a fine writer himself, who accepted the award for the family.

There is something so satisfying about rereading favorite writers and discovering how much they speak to my life. I love Lardner almost as much as I love Damon Runyan.

The Lardner induction ceremony, with Brian Bernardoni, two Lardner relatives, James Lardner, and Ron Rappaport.

Nice Amazon Review of “Honk Honk, My Darling”

honk-frontWas just putzing around on Amazon last night and came across the following recent review of Rex Koko’s first caper. As you might imagine, it made my night. This is one of the cool things about being a writer, that someone actually “gets” what I’m striving for, that there’s a kindred spirit out there somewhere who wants desperately to visit Top Town someday. (Of course, my lonely black-hole of an ego will certainly pay too much attention to these kind of reviews.)

“The writing is detailed and the dialogue is witty, and the setting itself is really fun and original. I’ve been recommending the book to everyone I know, so I figured a review encouraging others to check it out was in order. The author definitely deserves a pat on the back, for coming up with such an entertaining concept and carrying out the delivery so well.”

So take her point. Make sure to review the books you enjoy online at places like Amazon and Goodreads, or write tweets and blogs about them. It’s how we can continue to entertain you mooks.



Book Release Party for WET NOSE OF DANGER!

After a spring and summer of scrivening in the salt mines — how’s that for alliteration? — it was more than high time for a book release event. What good is writing a couple of books of clown noir if I can’t bring a little bit of circus excitement to my fans and readers? Is the writing life all practice and no spectacle? Emphatically NO!

Last July, I had just published Double Indignity and was busy working to finish The Wet Nose of Danger. I went to talk with Suzy Takacz, who owns my neighborhood store, the Book Cellar, about doing an event in the fall. She was interested.

“What do you think about having a couple of fire-eaters in the store?” I asked, just trying to get her attention.

Suzy thought about it. And thought and thought and thought, with the usual sparkle in her eye. (I think she had seen one too many boring, unattended signings where the writer droned on and on about his/her process.) Finally, she had to say no. Not because she was worried about torching her store, or filling it with chemical smells, or disrupting business. She said no because there are tenants living above the store, and she wouldn’t want to displace them if anything happened.

Lucky for me, The Book Cellar is across a quiet street from a city plaza, big enough to be useful for whatever I was thinking. I went through the city and the alderman’s office, as well as the chamber of commerce, to make sure everything would be ducky. The only warning I got came from the alderman’s office. “I’m going to have some music and circus acts,” I said. “Terrific,” spokesperson pol said, “just don’t do anything like fire-eaters or something.” “No worries,” I assured him.

With gypsy music from the fabulous Paprikash Brothers!

It was a beautiful night, and a good-sized crowd gathered for the ballyhoo.

Then we all marched across Lincoln Avenue, into the store for the reading. After being introduced by Suzy T, I read a passage from Double Indignity, the teeny car chase scene from Chapter 22.

Next it was time for a little vocabulary quiz, to see who was up on their circus “parlari”. I was frankly surprised that no one got the first question (a woman with an unnatural lust for clowns is, of course, a “joey jumper”), but most of the audience was fairly literate. I tossed out popcorn balls for prizes to the winners.

Then the audience asked me some questions about my writing process. A friend asked, “Where do you think these insane characters come from?” I gave her some long-winded answer — that some come to mind from a story of circus lore, some are inspired by an old photo, some are born of plot necessity — when really the only true response is, “If I knew, don’t you think I’d have taken care of it by now?”

Next, I read a rather lurid section from The Wet Nose of Danger, involving a “joey jumper” and Rex at a high-society fundraiser. “She had more arms than a spider-woman, and the sex drive of a hippo after Happy Hour.” Then, it was time for the signing, and the crowd didn’t disappoint. I also gave away a lot of free posters.

One of the best surprises of the evening was an old geezer sitting in the front row. During the signing, he came up balanced on his cane and introduced himself. He could’ve been 60 and he could’ve been 80, but he told me that since the age of 18, he had worked backstage with the big cats for the Cole Brothers Circus! He had retired about 10 years ago, but he said he had all the scars he needed to prove he’d been with the show.

“It was all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “The cats were just like housecats, with their routines and their need for attention, and their litter box. I’d never train monkeys. Monkeys were vicious, unpredictable. Big cats were always marvelous.”

I’m pretty certain he lives in my neighborhood, because he was pulling around a shopping cart from the local sausage shop. I apologized to him in advance for anything I might have gotten wrong in my story, but said all I was going for was entertainment. I’ve met a few other kinkers like this before. Circus people and veterans are out there among us. You never know when you’re going to meet one!

All in all, it was a spectacular night! One for the record books! A fitting launch for the latest and strangest “Rex Koko, Private Clown” caper!

(For more pictures of the evening, please check out the photo album I’ve created on Facebook.)

Writing Workshop — Culver Academy

Last month, I had the distinct pleasure to head down to Indiana to visit Culver Academy. The writing center at this private secondary school was having its annual Excellence in Writing Awards, and they asked me to come down and give a few words for the occasion. Don’t think I wasn’t a little intimidated at the prospect — they gave out awards for, among others, best original composition in Chinese and Latin and best mathematical writing. The students, like all teenagers, tried to be flip about the significance of the event, like “I write in Latin every day, but usually not in verse like this.” But somewhere down inside they were proud, and they had every reason to be.

The next day, I conducted writing workshops with the Freshmen, Sophomores and Juniors — around 175 all told. I was a little nervous to start, but each class ended up being a rousing time. In our short periods together, I wanted to give the students some pointers on making their writing more vivid and precise. We started out talking about warm-up exercises, then did some “quick writing” to show the importance of lively, precise verbs and vivid sensory information. I also included a few lessons from improvisational acting to give them hints to goose their writing along when things get bogged down. By the end of each class, I had the enviable problem of getting them to leave off their editing and let me give some closing remarks and helpful resources. Other teachers out there might doubt this, but my hand to Strunk & White, I swear it’s true.

And these weren’t just students interested in writing, mind you. There were all the kids from the Humanities classes, so a lot of them were probably expecting a blow-off class. It was very gratifying to deprive them of that.

I met students from all over the country and around the world, and they were attentive, articulate and just downright cool. They were all a pleasure to be around. A couple even gave me some of their personal writing to look over when I got back. I hope they enjoyed their time with me as much as I did with them.

Below are some pictures of their beautiful campus. Also, here’s a write-up of the workshop from the Culver Newsletter.

A New “Rex Koko” Story to Help the Red Cross

Well, really, it’s not exactly new, because I unleashed it on the world LAST Christmas, with a podcast and everything.

But this is NEW in the sense that it has a NEW cover, a NEW name for a character within it, and a NEW reason for you to actually click over to Amazon and buy a copy.

“Have Yourself a Monkey Little Christmas” is a heart-warming, poop-flinging tale about how Rex Koko uses a horde of misfit monkeys from Top Town’s infamous Monkey Hostel to help a sick friend out and give a come-uppance to a tight-fisted landlord who needs a little lesson in Christmas charity. It’s like “The Dirty Dozen”, only without the Nazis and the explosions and Jim Brown. Okay, it’s not very much like “The Dirty Dozen” but it IS entertaining.

And when you buy a copy of the story from Amazon, you’ll be helping out a good cause. I’ll take the proceeds and match them, then give the whole wad to the American Red Cross to help with Hurricane Sandy recovery and whatever else is headed this way in 2013.

Now, some of you might already have the story, but this time it’s for a good cause, and it’s only 99c, fer criminy pete’s sake. You can afford that, if only for the cover art. So clickety-click right here and buy it for yourselves and everyone you know:

Thanks for your support with this. I’m sorry the podcasts for “Honk Honk, My Darling” have gotten off-track, but they will begin again sometime in January.

UPDATE: To everyone who downloaded this story, thank you very much. I’m putting a check in the mail today, and taking down this story for the time being. No one should want to read Christmas stories except at Christmas, I think. If you’re good, it might come back next year. As Fats Waller once said, “One never knows, do one?”

Podcast Recording for “Was Jesus Married?”

For those of you out there who are “auditory learners” or want to fall asleep to my smooth-as-cocoa vocal stylings, here’s the audio recording of my essay from last week’s Paper Machete, posted by Kate Dries and the grand folks over at WBEZ.

To all my fondly remembered teachers at Catholic Central HS, I hope you take this as part of a constructive debate. You always tried to get us to think for ourselves, which may have been your undoing.

Was Jesus Married?

My contribution to the latest installment of The Paper Machete, Chicago’s live newsmagazine/reading series, which happened last Saturday:

Big news this week in the field of papyrology, that is, the study of ancient papyrus scrolls. (and when you ponder whether YOUR degree has gotten you very far, think of that.) A small piece of ancient papyrus, much smaller than a placemat from Pier One, was discovered to contain writing that could or could not shake the foundations of the Christian religion.

First, a little background. At the end of last year, a papyrus collector (and I should warn you, never get cornered at a party by a papyrus collector) brought the scrap to the Harvard Divinity school. Dr. Karen King, noted papyrologist, examined the scrap, showed it to colleagues at the secretive and exclusive Papyrus League Club, and determined that it was not a forgery. This week, Dr. King announced her findings would be published soon in US Weekly (really, the Harvard Theological Review).

The scrap, cut from a larger scroll, contained seven lines of sentence fragments. Among these were the words: “Jesus said, My wife.”

Now, I’d like to get address the elephant in the room and head straight for the Borscht Belt treatment: Jesus said, “My wife wants to take a vacation, spark up our LOVE life. Wants to go to the Dead Sea. I say, Why the Dead Sea? She says, it reminds me of our love life.”

And also: How can you tell that Jesus was married? He brings 5000 people over and then asks, “Hey, have we got any food?”

The headlines screamed the predictably sensational question, “Was Jesus married?” The expert from Harvard answered strongly that she had no idea. The sentence wasn’t complete, it had no context, the scrap had been cut from a larger papyrus we don’t have. It was written 150 years after the death of Jesus, who as you remember, was someone prone to speak a little cryptically. It could have been the start of a parable, analogy, mystical figurative allusion, or something else.

But I ask you, what’s more fun, scholarship or baseless conjecture? Then let’s get to it.

There is no clue as to the identity of the woman mentioned. Some traditions in the early Common Era have held that Jesus had a more-than-platonic relationship with Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned disciple. This was exploited for Biblical Broadway hotness in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and for the members of the Wal-Mart Book Society in The DaVinci Code. If Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife, at least she’d be travelling with him and not stuck back in Podunk-areth.

The idea that Jesus was married does more than make the New Testament more saleable as a Lifetime mini-series. (You know somewhere the concept has been pitched, and a producer has said, “I like the story, but this guy Jesus, he needs to be sexed up.”) If the scrap proves to be accurate, it might shake the foundations of the Christian church as we know it, at least until the church as we know it squelches it.

(The collector who owns the scrap, by the way, has chosen to remain anonymous. He says it’s because he doesn’t want to be flooded with requests to sell it. But we all know what he’s really afraid of: Vatican ninjas!)

Continue reading “Was Jesus Married?”

A Little Taste of ‘Tea Party Fairy Tales’

Time and attention spans are short, so for fans interested in what’s contained in my latest Kindle Single, Tea Party Fairy Tales, here are a couple of samples. To get your copy for the super low price of $1.99, click here:


Get out of bed! No more sleeping! It’s time to wake up, Storybookland!

Some years ago, my name somehow became attached to the leftist “politically correct” movement because my name was attached to a book — Politically Correct Bedtime Stories — that many liberals took to heart. In that volume, I argued we could forge a better world by rewriting familiar stories for our children. By eliminating violence, sexism and prejudice from favorite childhood tales, I thought we could create a better society.

Well, like all social engineering projects, that one failed miserably.

Now the scales have fallen from my eyes. Rising levels of socialism, anarchy and personal cholesterol have alarmed the 50-year-old me, to the point where I realize we need to recast society in a more fundamental way, one that defends liberty, encourages personal initiative and prevents the government from stealing any more of the money I made on my previous books.

The evidence still asserts (if you can believe what pointy-headed academics are saying) that impressionable children can be molded at an early age by their reading material. The crises of the coming decades will require brave, conservative young men and women if the American experiment (bolstered by divine providence, of course) is to survive. America is the greatest country ever, bar none, in the history of this or any other world. That’s why it’s in such mortal danger, from both within and without. That’s why we can’t risk having a younger generation shaped by anything less than true 100% American values, screamed from the highest rooftop and blasted through every media channel. Real truth is strong, incorruptible and eternal. That’s why it needs to be repeated at the top of our lungs, again and again, lest it perish…..


One morning two Sheep were deciding on the best destination for their grazing.

“I think we should go up the mountain,” said the First Sheep. “Not many other animals go there to graze, so there should be enough clover to eat. Besides, the view is very pretty.”

The Second Sheep said, “No, let’s go down near the river. The grass is very sweet and plentiful there, and we’ll be shaded from the sun and wind.”

“I don’t like that idea,” said the First.

“But I don’t like yours, either,” said the Second.

“Well then, let’s compromise. We can go to the broad plain that lies between the mountains and the river. It should have enough grass to eat, and the weather should be fine for both of us.”

“Agreed,” said the Second Sheep.

And as the Sheep set off down the road to the broad plain, they were both pounced upon by Hyenas and eaten.

Moral: Compromise equals death.


Once upon a time, when everything was as it should be, there lived a young girl named Red Riding Hood. Now, just because she was named Red and liked to skulk around in red clothing and hide her face with a hood doesn’t make her a secret Communist. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean we’ll be letting our guard down, either. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

One day, Red Riding Hood’s mother asked her to take a basket of goodies to her grandmother’s house. She also gave Red a Glock .45 automatic for protection. Old Grandma Hood was fiercely independent, you see, and was still living off the land at age 92. She was also a crack shot and an avid supporter of the NRA (Nonagenarian Rifle Association). At her trailer in her wooded compound, times had grown hard and supplies were getting scarce. And since Grandma’s medication was probably getting low, Red had to be armed and ready in case her beloved granny was getting a little cuckoo and thought Red was from FEMA.

So, free and fully armed, Red Riding Hood set off down the path, pushing her wheelbarrow full of powdered milk, jerky, dried beans and ammunition to Grandma’s compound. Her Grandma was a patriot, and Red Riding Hood loved her.

On the path in the woods, Red Riding Hood was accosted by a Wolf. “Yo, baby, what you got in the cart, huh?” he asked very rudely.

Red Riding Hood took out her Glock and shot him.

“An armed society is a polite society,” she said, and pushed her wheelbarrow along…..

New Kindle Single: Tea Party Fairy Tales!

Finally, some news on the publishing front. This Friday will the the publication of my first Kindle Single!

Tea Party Fairy Tales will be available exclusively in electronic form from Amazon, 48 pages of trenchant social analysis and juvenile humor for the low, low price of $1.99.

For those interested, the genesis of the book is as follows: Last year, in response to what I saw as screaming, spittle-flecked hostility on the part of the Tea Party conservatives, I was noodling around with more strange fairy tales. (Of course, there are Tea Party Republicans out there, but also many folks who think Republicans are just as complicit as Democrats, and equally worthy of tar and feathers, in a revival of a classic American artisan tradition.) First I played with Red Riding Hood a bit, and was happy with the results. Then I tried a few others, some of which worked, others not. I then tried some of Aesop’s Fables, which earlier had not withstood the PC treatment very well, but here lent themselves nicely to pithy, aggressive morals advising the reader to wise up or get eaten.

The humor wasn’t the long-winded, apologetic kind that propelled Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. “Kindness-impaired” and “outside the dominant beauty paradigm” wouldn’t work for this, and frankly I’m tapped out on that anyway. What this topic needed was a combination of paranoia, unshakeable faith in everything American, a soupcon of conspiracy, and lots of anger. I hope I’ve found the humor in Tea Bagger extremism (my editor and reading buddies say I did) just like I did for the PC crowd. What’s sauce for the goose is propa for the ganda.

A problem arose, however: it became clear early that I could not make this into a book as long as PCBS. Either I exhausted the material early, or it exhausted me, but the manuscript came out at around 14,000 words. (God-given, eternal truths don’t need a lot of explanation. They just need to be followed.) But that’s the beauty of Kindle Singles, and electronic publishing in general. A book can be as long as it needs to be, not a word more or less. So the new book treats topics without beating them into the ground, and the format allows me to use a light, surgical touch for a topic that could easily get out of hand.

Couple that with the marketing reach of Amazon, and I couldn’t be happier to publish with them. I really dig the whole e-publishing thing. I think it’s going to revive the age of pamphleteering and short fiction, and maybe already has. Rex Koko, Private Clown is finding its audience with it, I hope the same happens with Tea Party Fairy Tales.

To get your copy, click on the link below. I hope you all will like it.

Buy the Tea Party Fairy Tales Kindle Single here!

Seeing Brightly in a Dark Tunnel

I’m short-tempered and self-obsessed.

I’m addle-brained in some things, and at other times as efficient and focused as James Bond.

I’m sleeping deep and hard, except on those nights when I can’t get my brain from running loops of 60s pop songs.

I’m frightened and lethargic and giddy and morose and secretive and proud and happy to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, except when I’m not.

All that means: I’m trying to get a new novel started.

Of course, getting it started is something along the lines of Buster Keaton getting the house plans from Sears and then losing the directions. But there’s only one thing worse than pushing through the fog and chaos that comes with a story a-borning, and that’s staring at the walls without a single idea in the world about what I’m ever going to do with my life. So I’ll take this state of mind, as unnerving as it is. I just hope I don’t run someone over in the car while I gaze off into space.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have an idea of where this narrative is headed. Just look at the timeline below. This will actually help me to keep all the facts straight. I just have to fill in the right side of the curve with “stuff” (as we writers say).

As Bozo Might Say, We Now Have 3 Pulitzer “Almost Winners”

Those who follow the publishing world intently (which means basically, the people in publishing and journalism, and maybe a bookseller or two) already know that the Pulitzer prize for fiction was not awarded this year. The three-person jury passed their three nominated books to the Pulitzer board, who then failed to rally behind a single winner and opted not to give the award this year.

I like to imagine that the reason for their decision was really the fact that the whole committee had stayed up late reading Honk Honk, My Darling, and didn’t have time to plow through David Foster Wallace’s salute to the boredom in an IRS office. Such delusions keep me alive like Nick Fury and his Infinity Formula. Please don’t deny me my lifeblood!

So I spoke on the subject at the Paper Machete, my newest fave reading series in Chicago that tries to attack the big stories in the news every week. The MP3 for the performance is below. If you’d like to hear the entire show each week, you can subscribe to it at iTunes or catch individual performances at

Would You Read a Book that Was Almost a Pulitzer Winner?

Diving into Creative Swamps….

That queasy feeling in my stomach I’m presently feeling is only partially due to my head cold, and not at all due to our dinner last night of pork posole. (Mmmmm. Pork posole….) No, this feeling of vertigo and fuzzy focus and slight fearful paranoia means only one thing: I’m on the precipice of writing another book.

Oh, how I live for the writing life! I put up with this just so I can work in my slippers?

Dissecting where these feelings come from never does me much good. I know that the fear comes from a worry that I will neglect or let lapse some unspecified “important things” while I mesmerize myself into a strange state that brings the words on the page. While I’d like to state dogmatically that there’s nothing more important than my giving birth to another tome, I’ll leave that up to the bigger blowhards. I’m just not a big enough asshole to state that meditating in my little mental playground is more important than, for instance:

• Supporting my ever-lovin’ wife in her new and demanding job
• Helping Number One Son begin his college search, and arranging all the campus visits
• Helping the Urchin prepare herself for the arrival of high school
• Helping them both with homework, as I promised to do back in September, like every year.
• Keeping the household solvent and the college fund stocked
• Keeping the fires burning under my OTHER books and projects with other people that need tending. (Honk Honk, My Darling,, the PC Bedtime Stories e-book, the Rex podcast, two new comic book ideas, plus a new book that is now in the hands of my agent)

But this is my job, and I can be Joe Lunchpail if I try. People are already starting to bug me about writing a new adventure for Rex Koko. And since I now realize that The Wet Nose of Danger, which is almost completely finished, is really Book 3 in the series and not Book 2 as I had thought, many weeks now lay in front of me full of questions like, “Who is this character, and why the hell should anyone care about him/her?” Repeated through six or seven drafts.

So now it’s time to head into the creative hinterlands, armed with a few sketchy ideas, some characters that may or may not prove crucial to the plot, little baggies of gorp, and faith (not confidence) that I’ll be able to pull it off again. I can see a few spots on the landscape that I want to visit, if I can just build some bridges and/or drain some swamps to figure out how to get there. Drain enough of that swamp, and my little Shangri-La will emerge. (The swamp metaphor might push me to say “Disney World”, but there’s too much baggage attached to that.)

My brother once asked me about how I go about writing a longer story. To his way of thinking, everything from plot to characters would have to be laid out for him to even consider getting started. I tried to explain that that wouldn’t be writing, or that really it’s a PART of writing, but it can’t be the WHOLE part. When you want to build a fire, you make sure you have tinder, kindling and fuel, and that you can find an initial spark, but it’s foolish and pretty boring to predict HOW the fire will burn.

Fire or swamp? My metaphors are already starting to confuse me. Time to start scribbling, and Devil take the hindmost.

I’ve Got No “Woody Allen Problem” About Creative Awards

The setting last Saturday was my favorite bookstore in town, the Book Cellar. The event, the Book of the Year Awards for the Chicago Writers Association. When I got there, maybe six people were scattered around on folding chairs. I went to say hello to Randy Richardson, president of CWA, and his wife. I introduced myself to the other winners in the competition.

Before too long, I turned around and was shocked to see the bookstore completely packed. More than 100 people sat and stood, waiting for us to get the show on the road.

A face or two was familiar, but none were more important than those of my ever-lovin’ wife and two kids. My kids have never seen me read at a big event, because during the past decade, almost all of my readings have been in taverns. There were times 15 years ago when I could occasionally pull a crowd this big. I wanted to show them that their dad wasn’t just the creep who prowls the mezzanine, stocking his mancave with stage props and comic books.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had faced the panicky decision of what to read for the evening. Most of my books have lent themselves to easy excerpts for events like this, but Honk Honk, My Darling was fiction of a weird, rambling, immersive sort. Could I come up with 8-9 minutes that were exciting and coherent and gave a good taste of the book’s contents? I decided against reading the passage of the brawl at the clown bar (want to avoid HHMD being pigeonholed as a clown book) and chose a two-person scene that had a smattering of circus parlari but not too much. Oh, and one that ended in a theatrical killing.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous before a reading, certainly not recently. It’s been a long while, and the relaxed stage demeanor is only easy to fake when I’m in shape. And all false modesty aside, while HHMD was being given an award, it’s a very strange book, not suited to everyone’s taste. This would be an acting exercise, because the two characters in the passage were very different. In reality, this was going to be a short audition, in front of a packed house, in a familiar place (a fact that actually made things harder).

Randy introduced the program and the mission of the Chicago Writers Association. Then, first up to read was Krista August, who won the Nontraditional Nonfiction award for her catalog of the statues in Chicago’s Grant Park, Giants in the Park. She had also illustrated the book with her own watercolors, which I hadn’t realized. She brought along the whole box of them. She told the story of General William Sheridan, both his personal history and that of his statue. (She omitted the tale of what happens to the horse’s genitals on the statue whenever the Pittsburgh Pirates come to town, and she asked me to keep it to myself. Being a classy guy, I acquiesced.)

Next came Pamela Ferdinand reading from her memoir about three friends, late romance, and donor sperm, Three Wishes. Her passages were very funny and touching. Transplanted from the East Coast, she’ll be a good addition to the Chicago scene.

Then Randy introduced me, with way too much praise to make me comfortable. (He’s a huge fan of the HHMD podcast, and makes me feel guilty when I fall behind in production.) He handed me the lucite award, plus the gift card that came with winning. It felt dense yet incredibly delicate. I became afraid of dropping it, so I set it on a table quickly.

This was the first physical trophy I had won since high school, when I got a statue for staying in the Gabriel Richard Club for grade point average for four years. That one sits in my office, not ironically, but with pride and affection, because my father made sure the panel on the statue was engraved with all four years.

My intro describing the genesis of Rex Koko and this self-pubbed book seemed long and rambling, but my wife told me later it was spot-on. I then read a passage from Chapter 8, in which Rex confronts the daredevil Flying Fleming to find the woman he’s looking for. The most frightening part was how easily I slipped into those two characters. Recording the podcast had forced me to create their vocal profiles, but upon reading it started to become my own one-man show. Laughs were not numerous, but somehow the audience grew stone silent and hung on every word. A reflection on the writing? I guess, but it was the comfort with acting that was the most disconcerting. It all felt too natural. Does this mean I have to get out of my mezzanine command center and actually perform in front of people again? St. Genesius, please spare me that fate. I’m insufferable enough as it is.

The final reader of the night was the lovely Christine Sneed, who read from her book of short stories, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. She read a funny and perceptive passage about a creative writing teacher reacting to having a famous young actor in her class. Christine’s writing is strong and clear, and you’d do yourself a favor to check it out. (For profiles of all these winners, go to the Chicago Writers Association blog.)

Do I have any kind of problem with books being chosen for awards? Hell no. The word “appreciation” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel. After working on the Rex novels for more than 10 years, operating solely on faith and stubbornness, it’s almost unreal that other people believe in the book as much as I did. It’s like everyone recognizing your invisible, imaginary friend at a dinner party. I’m grateful but disoriented.

But now I can tout “Rex Koko, Private Clown” as an “award-winning” mystery series and not be lying (except for the idea that a book and a half constitute a “series”). Frankly, that’s going to help on those slow mornings when what I do seems like a ridiculous way to spend one’s life.

Woody Allen’s whole “don’t show up at the Oscars” schtick is a little rarefied and elitist for me. Furthermore, I think it’s a calculated move to cement his image, what with his clarinet gig that he simply won’t interrupt to schmooze in Hollywood. He won the statue for “Annie Hall”, and he can rest on that while avoiding the awkwardness of being nominated and not winning.

The arts are in no way a competition (except maybe for movies on Memorial Day, but even then, it’s not like a movie ultimately “loses”), even if the presenting of awards makes it seem like there are winners and losers. It’s human nature to want to find distinction among a group of peers. And because they are popular, awards are a good way for people to expand their reading rosters beyond their comfort zones. Anything that promotes more reading is good for writers earning a living, so I’m behind that.

But I’ll say it now: If I’d lost out on this award, I’d’ve been a pretty miserable prick to be around for a weekend or two.

UPDATE: Here are a few pictures from the event. The first two were taken by photographer Mark Thomas.

And here is me with Christine Sneed, who won the Traditional Fiction award for her book of stories, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. Photo by Mitsuko Richardson.