When Reality Catches up to Fiction
I have a book coming out in about four months (July 19th, to be precise), and it's time for me to stop being reclusive and start promoting it with a little more effort. That means posting on social media, setting up public events, making noise, building hype, etc. Sounds fun, right? But drawing attention to myself is something I'm not completely comfortable with. Drawing attention to something I've created is equally discomforting. But it's necessary, and I've worked hard to get to a point where I can do this kind of stuff. That said, when it comes to promoting a book at this point in time, in the world as we know it, I have a slightly troubling issue.
I wrote a book about war.
Forget all the anxious-debut-author-self-doubt shit. Even if I was the most openly outgoing person in the world, I'd still be faced with the major fucking problem of: How do you promote a book about war when an actual war is happening? Should you promote a book about war when an actual war is happening? Is there a way to do it without coming across as exploitative or sleezy? I don't know. But I have thoughts, and if you bear with me, maybe we can figure something out.
I wrote the first draft of Wake of War in 2017, back when the idea of a second American civil war existed primarily in obscure internet forums and old sci-fi movie prologues. It was such an outlandish concept that I remember wondering if anyone would even buy into it. Was this future believable? Was it possible? No way. Couldn't be. This was America, the Greatest Country in the world and all that. We have (see also: had) rules. Laws. Systems of governance that would forever ensure the prosperity of our nation. But the reality is, we had problems. Had them for a long time. People started to get tired of acting like injustice was a part of life. And rightly so. A movement began.
Then I watched in horror as things began to escalate. Or decline. However you want to look at it. I watched, along with 330 million other Americans, as simmering anger turned to unbridled fury. Cities burned. Communities turned against themselves. Faceless armor-clad enforcers marched through the streets. There was a fucking autonomous zone. The country was on fire. Actually on fire.
It became undeniably clear that the fictional world I created in my book was dangerously close to becoming a reality. I struggled with that. Immensely. I had conversations with my agent about it. Should we go forward? Would it come across as exploitative? I mean, it's a heavy book. I didn't shy away from the hard parts because I wanted to make sure I was doing justice to the themes I was exploring in the pages. My goal with Wake of War was to write a book that really made the reader understand, at least to a degree, what it is to endure the hardships of war. To feel the weight of it. And that meant not looking away during the bad parts. No covering your eyes. I could've set it on a distant planet or used alien races as stand-ins for the Big Bads, but that would've made it too safe, and safe isn't enough. Some of the most impactful stories I've consumed have left me speechless at their conclusion. Uncomfortable. Even upset sometimes. But that only served to make the stories stronger, encouraged me to think about them and what they were trying to tell me long after they were over. With Wake of War, I made a deliberate choice to ground the story in the real because I wanted to write a book with that same impact, the same weight that gives the reader a new perspective, or, for some, a cathartic experience. Sometimes it hurts, but it's that pain that lets us know we're alive.
At its heart, Wake of War is a cautionary tale. It's a glimpse into a world no one wants to live in, and maybe, just maybe, people remember that the next time they feel like rattling sabers. I've written about my inspiration for this book in a previous post, but some of those inspirations bear mentioning again (though I'll keep it brief because, again, that's not the point of this one). Three major influences for Wake of War are as follows:
1) Generation Kill (both the book by Evan Wright and the HBO mini series). It follows the Marine Corps' 1st Recon Battalion during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was the most honest and believable telling of the war that I've ever seen or read. It was rough, infuriating, chaotic, sincere.
2) Waltz With Bashir, a 2008 film by director Ari Folman about his journey to recover his memory of the 1982 Lebanon War. The movie is a documentary filmed in an animated style that plays with the concept of memory, reality, and the extraordinary lengths the human mind will go to protect itself. It is one of the most brutal, heartfelt, and honest films I've ever seen.
3) Winter on Fire, a Netflix documentary about the deadly 2013-2014 protests in Ukraine. After former President Viktor Yanukovych, on the eve of joining the EU, backed out and sided with Russia, the Ukrainian people took to the streets in what is known as the Maidan Revolution where they clashed with Russian-backed government forces. I remember watching the documentary and thinking "my god, I'm so glad we don't live in a country that has to deal with things like that. But...what if we did?" It was insane how quickly things changed in Ukraine, and how horribly out of hand they got. I started thinking, what if it did happen here?
And so I wrote a book about war.
That was in 2017. The publishing process being what it is meant that the final version of the book isn't to hit shelves until summer of 2022. A-fucking-lot has happened in that time. A lot that's dreadfully close to the story I wrote. People openly discuss things like secession. Political loyalties supersede familial bonds. There's a pervasive mentality that 'you're either with us or against us,' completely, with less and less room for conversation or understanding. There are obviously serious issues with our country and a great deal of rot that needs to get carved away, but is war really what we want? Have we really thought about what that would mean? I'm talking about the reality of it, not the Walking Dead, Mad Max daydream of the apocalypse, but the nasty stuff. The stuff that people in certain corners of the world have to deal with every day in real life. It's not fucking fun and games. War is real. War is permanent.
Winter on Fire was hard to watch even just a few years ago but is unbearably difficult now. To see how desperately the people wanted change and how close they came to being freed from Russia's influence, and seeing what they're being forced to endure now is utterly heartbreaking. It's everywhere you look, but as much as I despise the sensational fear-mongering tactics of the media, this is the kind of thing that should occupy everyone's attention. It's awful. And it has world-changing implications.
And somehow, through all of this...I'm supposed to promote a book.
Straight-up, I have no idea how to successfully promote a book about war in the current climate. Honestly, this is my debut and I really have no idea how to promote a book at all, let alone one that touches on such a sensitive and timely topic. But maybe, therein lies the answer. I will tell you, right here and now, I am not comfortable with this. I do not want to capitalize on the horrible situation in Ukraine. But as I said earlier, Wake of War is a cautionary tale. A chance to look closely at what could be and maybe better understand what is happening now. I don't know. I'm by no means a geo-political expert or military tactician, I can’t predict the future. But I have been through some shit, and I know that I have something to say about it. What that will mean in the end, I've no idea.
Let's talk about the business of publishing for a second. I'm under contract with Tor/Forge to write three books. The first is written (Wake of War). The second is written and undergoing revision, and the third is loosely plotted. Usually three-book deals tend to be contracted as series. As for Wake I knew I wanted it to be a standalone. And that's how it's contracted. It's a war story. War stories are heavy, difficult to confront, and they don't always have happy endings. So I wrote the book, said what I needed to say, and that's that. I wasn't go to push it. I can't really say much about the second book just yet, but I will say that it's not a war story. It's still a Zac Topping book, which I understand has absolutely no meaning to you until you read my work, but what I'm saying is that I didn't change my style or try to be something I'm not as a writer. Just that the next book is purposely more escapist and fun and set apart from the world as we know it while still having the gritty realism that I enjoy writing and reading (Think Jack Reacher meets Metal Gear Solid. That's all I'll say about that).
The thing is, in order to be able to continue writing books, they need to sell. In order to sell, they need to be promoted, and in this industry, unless you're super-famous, you're going to have to do the promotion yourself. The fact that it's a book about war coming out in a time of incredible turmoil and actual war does nothing to help my already inherent discomfort with publicity. What can I say? What can I do to get people excited to read it? There's enough conflict thrown in everyone's faces on a daily basis, I don't really think they'll be clamoring for it in their fiction. But who knows.
What I do know is that I am incredibly proud of Wake of War. I feel confident that it does what I set out for it to do, which is give the reader a ground-level look at the toll war has on those it touches. The fact that the world is on fire is beyond my control. But perhaps now is a time for difficult stories. Perhaps through fiction, we not only get a glimpse of what might be, but a closer look at the intricacies of what is.
I wrote a book about war. And now there's an actual war happening. Maybe that makes it timely, or maybe it's just coincidence. Either way, there are lessons to be learned. As I’ve said, Wake of War is a cautionary tale, but it's also more than that. It's a story about people, about human beings caught in a terrible world that didn't have to be. And maybe, by reading about such a world, we can avoid creating one for ourselves.