A Madness

Cover design by Janet Edens.

Cover design by Janet Edens.

So here’s how this whole thing started.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was the editor in charge of the Sunday edition of the metro paper in Charleston, S.C.  This meant that other editors made out the schedules and wrote all the personnel evaluations and compiled the daily budgets twice a day. And I sat back and worked with reporters and photographers and designers  and helped them develop their best stuff for a weekend paper that — for a short, glorious time — we treated like a serious showcase.

And a year or two after the Rwanda genocide of 1994, our newspaper sent a couple reporters to Rwanda to write about the aftermath.

When those reporters returned, I wound up having a prolonged conversation in the cafeteria with one of them. One of those horrific but fascinating conversations where you’re fighting back all sorts of emotions, but learning so much that you’re afraid that someone is going to interrupt the person you’re talking to and break the spell.

Because the story of the Rwandan genocide is the story of colonialism.

Around that same time, the great American war correspondent John Sack took his last trip into a war zone, embedding himself with an American infantry platoon in Bosnia on assignment for Esquire (“The Dogs of Bosnia,” February 1997). Sack and I had struck up a correspondence after I reviewed his Iraq war book, Company C, and we spoke on the phone occasionally. In one of our conversions, Sack began describing the astounding brutality of the ethnic cleansing he’d witnessed in the former Yugoslavia. State-sponsored “para-militaries” that were often little more than armed bands of thugs, working through ancient tribal pathologies and centuries of hatred while giving the world the term “rape camp.”

Sack covered every American war in the second half of the 20th century and saw more shit than most of us can even imagine. But Bosnia? That fucked with him. I can’t remember when we last spoke, but he was in failing health at the time, and died of cancer at age 74 in 2004.

Not long after that last conversation about Bosnia, I had a dream in which I was a soldier again, only I was coming home from overseas to a place in a broad, beautiful and eerily silent valley. The fields were recently overgrown, the dirt roads I walked along littered with strange debris, and all the farm houses were empty. In the distance I could see smoke rising, and so headed that way.

Crossing a bridge over a stream, I paused to look down at the underwater grasses swaying in the current. It was only after staring at them for a moment that I realized that I was looking at the long hair of murdered women, their bodies jammed together behind an eddy.

On the other side of a bridge, I encountered a tinker — not someone from our village, but someone who would visit from time to time. He sat in the shade not far from the smoldering fire, which was, of course, the still-burning corpses of the slaughtered inhabitants of my village. At first he denied any knowledge of what had happened, and then, when I threatened him, he broke into tears, swore he’d been sent here by the people who had done the crime to clean up the evidence.  But when I turned my back on him he attacked me, and so I killed him without pity.

When I woke and told my wife, Janet immediately instructed me to write down what I remembered from the dream. And that was the beginning of the entire Darbas Cycle, an arc of time that now covers thousands of years and the rise and fall of entire civilizations. But at its heart, it was simply me, struggling with the mental pictures of genocide painted for me by reporters Eric Frazier and John Sack.

With Janet’s encouragement, I eventually started looking at that dream as the seed of a larger story. Initially it was nothing but the tale of  John Tera, a weary soldier returning to a shattered home, trying to sort out the circumstances of a mysterious campaign of carnage. But as the United States sank into its post-911 morass, it became a story about the promise and challenges of a diverse society.

I wrote the first draft in exactly six months. I started on Jan. 1, 2002, and pushed hard to complete the final chapter on June 30. I got up early every morning, wrote until about 9:30, then jumped in the shower and arrived at the newsroom by 10 a.m. to start a nine- or 10-hour workday. I’d write on weekends. I’d write on holidays. I loved every minute of it.

Dan Conover in 2003

Dan Conover in 2003

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the history of the manuscript wound up being rather convoluted. After an edit and a rewrite, I mailed the printed manuscript to a particular editor at Tor that a friend who was on their bestseller list had suggested to me. With his endorsement I expected at least the usual polite rejection, but I never received a single word from anyone at the publishing house, not even when I wrote months later to ask if they’d received the book. Eventually I gave up on Tor and offered the manuscript to an editor at Phobos who had asked me to send him a novel if I ever got around to writing one. Again, months passed with no reply. I tried emailing. I tried leaving polite voice mails.

Later, while working with another editor at Phobos, I learned that the editor I’d mailed that manuscript to had left the company long before — it’s just that the office staff never shut down his email account or erased his voice-mail message. But after that second editor read the book, he recommended it for publication. Needless to say, we were ecstatic.

But this is how things go. After about three years in business, Phobos had yet to turn a profit, and in 2004 — when my novel was proposed for the company’s next list — its investors staged a coup. Out went the old editors and a president who knew me and my work. In came a new editorial staff and a plan to publish novels out of the Star Trek universe. My novel, called The Key to Darbas at the time, died with the old order. The reconfigured company lasted a few more months, and then passed away, unnoticed and unmourned.

For years after that, I didn’t even like thinking about the experience. “What-ifs” haunted me. But I revised the original manuscript in 2009, and later decided to boost its chances by dividing it into two separate novels.

The first installment introduces the four point-of-view protagonists: Rialta, the Lady of Gwynyr; General Barney Alt, the Gheraldic commander of the 2nd Clydish Regimental Group, “Old Pete” Tuckard, the messenger of the Council of Darbas to the Gheraldic Court at Arnell; and John Tera, the long-suffering Clydish enlisted judge, a man suspended between many worlds. It’s a book about democracy and fanaticism, about magic and technology, about love and loathing and conscience and … well, it’s a good book. I hope you’ll read it, and I hope it entertains you.


November 2013



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