The Five Greatest Books I’ve Ever Read: #2: DUNE

I was talking to my wife one day about this book list and she made the point that if I were to reread these titles today, they may not make the same impression on me. I cannot deny this. Art speaks to each person based on his or her experiences and change through time as our perspectives change. I have been moved to tears by some seemingly innocuous things I’ve read or seen due to my emotional landscape and the troubles I was dealing with at the time. But rather than make an argument based on some objective value (which is impossible anyway) I am going to delve into these critiques subjectively, since, what matters most to me about these books is how they have affected me.

Dune.

For most of my life, Frank Herbert’s magnum opus took the top spot on my favorites list. It has not fallen to no. #2 due to something greater coming along — it simply hasn’t aged as well as no. #1, which resonates with me more strongly. Still, Dune is the very definition of epic masterpiece—the kind of book that leaves a permanent impression on young minds (I was in high school). I was introduced to Dune by an older friend who insisted that it would change my life. At the time, I didn’t see how a book, any book, could have such an impact. I was wrong. For me, Dune was and is everything a great book should be. It not only holds multiple layers of meaning, from philosophy, religion, science, economics, and culture, but seamlessly integrates these qualities into an action packed adventure with heroes, villains, and a good ol’ fashioned good guy vs. bad guy plot line. Dune can be read by a twelve year old or a seventy year old and each would come away with a different yet equally moving experience.

In 1965, long before Star Wars or Star Trek defined the science fiction epic, Frank Herbert created a world just as splendorous. Unlike the giants of the genre, Asimov and Clarke, Herbert paved the road for science fiction and fantasy in creating not merely a glimpse of a distant future but a fully realized world set upon tens of thousands of years history. The result feels prophetic but exotically remote—as if Nostradamus looked so far forward into the future that any lingering trace of society as we know it becomes unrecognizable. There is brief mention of Earth, yet it holds the same significance as Babylon for us. There is still Catholicism (oddly enough) but no form of Catholicism anyone would understand. Of course there’s also giant (and I do mean giant) worms, travels through space by meditation, and the spice drug melange which gives the user glimpses into the future.

Frank Herbert wrote five sequels, but none managed to capture the magic of the original. Upon reading it, you might think the author used melange himself (LSD, perhaps?). It’s that convincing. A movie and a mini-series were both produced and both were epic failures. What Dune did successfully manage to produce, however, is a generation of imitators and a great deal of inspiration for writers (myself included). Even video games like Halo and (more recently) Mass Effect, with their complex back stories, species-related conflict, political intrigue and ethical quandaries owe much to Herbert and his successors.




 

The Five Greatest Books I’ve Ever Read: #3: The Grapes of Wrath

It has been said that by reading an author you can discover the types of books sitting on his or her shelf. The books we read, especially those from teenage and young adulthood, shape our definition of what a great story is and what qualities make those stories. Choosing just five books for my list of greats has been a challenge. After making my choices and beginning to write about them, it dawned on me how influential each has been to my work. Frankenstein has, albeit subconsciously, inspired Grimosse, the golem character in Age of Aenya. Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, has gone a long way to shape and inspire not only my writing but the way in which I relate to others, especially people of differing cultures and social strata. The image of the noble farmer and his family, struggling against starvation, has haunted me since high school. It has also served as inspiration for the agrarian and impoverished Ilmar, who feature more prominently in my revised novel than in Dark Age of Enya. 

The Grapes of Wrath was required reading for my 11th grade AP English. Many students elected for the Cliff’s Notes “version” and I can honestly say that I pity them for the experience they could have had. Steinbeck’s book takes place during the Great Depression and follows an Oklahoma family displaced after the infamous Dust Bowl famine which wiped out acres of crops and rendered thousands homeless. In these current economic times, Steinbeck’s masterpiece is more relevant and more urgent; watching CNN or reading the newspaper, all you seem to hear is statistics regarding unemployment, foreclosure and homelessness. But these numbers are utterly soulless, devoid of any humanity, incapable of giving these tragedies dimension or meaning. If someone has not experienced the uncertainty, guilt, fear and despair that comes with homelessness and extreme poverty, they cannot know it, and no newspaper article can do it justice. Truly great art, on the other hand, permits our perspectives to be shared with other human beings—and that is precisely what The Grapes of Wrath so effortlessly achieves, bringing the reader as close, emotionally, to that state of impoverishment. I have never been homeless, but nothing short of losing my home, I believe, could help me to understand what that means better than The Grapes of Wrath. As you follow the characters in Steinbeck’s book, you find yourself unwillingly part of the family, raging as they rage, weeping as they weep, despairing as they despair. And yet, despite the enormity of their suffering, The Grapes of Wrath never discourages the reader. Every page is suffused with hope for a better future. Steinbeck manages this feat by creating characters easy to feel compassion for; they are proud, as familiar as friends, and their struggle is as noble as any quest in any adventure. After reading The Grapes of Wrath, its emotional impact resonated with me for days, and my view on life was changed forever.

Years later, I came to realize the very charged political and social commentary that is Steinbeck’s book, and it would be dismissive to ignore the novel’s socialist leanings; but in every movement there are seeds of truth that cannot be ignored. I am not a socialist, but I realize there are inherent failures that all capitalist systems must face. While being familiar with The Grapes of Wrath need not make one a socialist, it no doubt serves as a reminder that inequalities exist throughout the world, and that often, even the most honest and hardworking among us—as we are now seeing daily in the newspapers—can befall the very worst.

The Five Greatest Books I’ve Ever Read: #4: Frankenstein

Ask any ten people if they know Frankenstein and you will undoubtedly get a YES. Such is the power of the mythos created by Marry Shelley, an early female novelist who, in 1818, at the remarkable age of 18, hid the fact of her sex to get her book published. It is a testament to her writing talents that after nearly a century, countless movies, books, games, toys, and even a Frankenberry cereal exists. So it strikes me as odd that most people probably couldn’t correctly answer who, or what, Frankenstein is (not the monster). Even Dr. Frankenstein, from whom the book’s title is derived, has been, over the years, misrepresented as a “mad scientist”. It’s probable the whole archetype originated with him due to the film by the same name. But the book portrays the doctor differently, as brilliant, compassionate, and conflicted by moral quandaries that, to this day, have great relevance. Debates on cloning and stem cell research uncannily mirror issues raised in Mary Shelley’s remarkably prescient masterwork.

What makes Frankenstein a great read, and number #4 on my list, is that it was, for its time, a truly original concept. That scientific discoveries can have terrible, unintended consequences has been popularized by countless movies, TV shows and novels, most notably by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, but long before the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima, Frankenstein raised the issue of tinkering with nature. Shelley’s novel is so much more than a cautionary tale, however; it can be read in multiple levels, as a drama, a love story, an adventure, a morality play, and a social commentary. Dr. Frankenstein creates “the monster” as an experiment to bring back those he loves from the dead, but upon seeing his creation flees in terror. In this way, his monster is “born” abandoned and alone. Society mistreats him for his hideousness. He is shunned by every single human being until befriending a blind man living in the woods. At first, the monster shows good will toward the blind man and his family, but when the others lay eyes on him, they show only disgust and hatred. From here the monster earns his namesake, going on a killing rampage. Even still, you cannot help but feel sympathy for him by book’s end (another cliche way ahead of its time) or for the doctor whose torment derives only from a desire to do good. Though in some ways conventional in today’s world, Frankenstein stands apart for its gripping narrative and heartfelt characters, and will continue to stand the test of time well into the future.

The Five Greatest Books I’ve Ever Read: #5: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Only when coming across a true masterpiece can one appreciate the power of the written word. Great books not only entertain but inform and enlighten. The very best books have the power to change your perspective forever. Unfortunately, it is just as hard to come upon a great read as finding something worthwhile on TV. There are literally millions of books out there and little time to search through them, so here are the top five greatest books ever read (by me):

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Phrases like “I couldn’t put it down” are tossed on book flaps all too often. Usually, when I try reading some of these unputdownables, I have no problems conjuring the power to stop reading them. And then I came across A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

I read this book after Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which was made into a terrible movie (so if you’re thinking of seeing it, don’t bother). After being moved by The Kite Runner, I had serious doubts about Hosseini’s second novel. Like many authors, I feared he was a one-trick pony, as the subject of his first was Afghanistan and he, as a native of that country, would have had little difficulty conjuring one good semi-autobiographical novel from a time and place so rife with drama. I was wrong. Hosseini proves incredibly gifted—and though, I am sure, being from Afghanistan helped bolster book sales, his talent and skill could have come from any place.

The story of Afghanistan’s women under Taliban control is a difficult story to tell without falling into the trap of melodramatic overkill. Extreme tragedy can be off-putting. But A Thousand Splendid Suns rises above meager conventions, unraveling an intricate plot and moving characters that could exist in any setting. Hosseini makes the reader feel at home in Afghanistan despite a culture far removed from ours. You can’t help but feel for the protagonists, two women terrorized by their husband in a society gone to the extreme end of sexism and religious zealotry. You might think you know how such a story will turn out or that you know something about the Taliban—but Hosseini never ceases to surprise. His Afghanistan is much richer than the media informs us, which only scratches at the surface of that country’s rich heritage. The women in his book are strong, intelligent, and heroic—true feminist role models for any society.

The title A Thousand Splendid Suns refers to a line of poetry from one of Afghanistan’s great poets. When most people think of Afghanistan, poetry does not come to mind. It is just the sort of thing that enlightens in Hosseini’s heart wrenching masterpiece. Four chapters to the end, and I called my wife to tell her I would be late from work. I then hit Starbucks and didn’t put it down until the last page.

Stay tuned for the next part in my 5 part series, greatest book #4.

The Secret Life of Nick Alimonos

My mom and I (Captain Nick)

Sometimes I think my life is that of a poorly developed character. It’s as if God couldn’t quite decide what to write about and just started making stuff up as he went along. I mean, in all seriousness, I’m the son of a Greek immigrant and a pizza restaurateur; I’ve been baptized Orthodox Christian, sent to a Baptist school and married Muslim; I’m a nudist but was married in the Kingdom of Morocco. But if there’s one thing I can be sure of, it’s that I am a writer.

This is an altogether different kind of story than I am used to telling; it’s the story of my long, winding and arduous journey toward publication. To understand it, you have to start with my father, who came to New York City as a Greek immigrant in 1952 to work as a dishwasher. His big dream was to own a restaurant, which he eventually achieved through blood, sweat, tears and every other hard-work cliché. He opened; he closed; he had no days off. As he likes to tell it: he never gets sick. My parents owned and operated restaurants from New Jersey to Connecticut to Massachusetts to back home in Athens, Greece. Throughout that time, they had three kids, which they sent to live with an aunt in the motherland since they were too busy making dough (both kinds) to be parents. By 1977, the whole family settled on little developed Clearwater, Florida, where my father opened his most successful and marginally famous pizza restaurant. I was born two years later; I was the surprise, the accident, the second of two boys (my brother was born 12 years earlier). My father was glad to have another male to inherit the family business.

Country Pizza Inn: The place I grew up

But I was never what my father wanted me to be. I was not “serious” enough for him. Real men are “serious”. They do not play with toys. They do not run around the restaurant possessed by imagination. I talked to myself a lot, staged and acted out the stories in my head, and everyone pretty much thought I was crazy. Not exactly management material. My 12 years older brother, on the other hand, could have his face used for an Easter Island travel brochure.

I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but I think I was about six when I became fixated with the idea that my stories had to be preserved so that future generations could benefit from my creativity. So I began stealing pink order tickets and demanding that the waitresses take dictation. When, eventually, I learned to write (not to spell or use punctuation, mind you) pink order tickets started piling up in my room. I made comics, short pieces of fiction (if you could call the jumble of letters I produced fiction) and advertisements with words like “Coming Soon” for future projects. Most of all, I just wrote, like an obsessed monk copying Bibles. Sometimes I tape recorded myself telling stories, since the ideas flowed too quickly to be put on paper. I would always end up asking people for cassettes. This continued until my tape recorder melted (yes, melted) in my sister’s car under the Florida heat. Oddly enough, I can’t remember what any of those stories were about. I remember metal eating termites. Also, a spy named C3PI, who, despite his Star Wars sounding name, was actually a James Bond knockoff. By age eight, I developed my first superhero, the Red Panther, who, long before Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, pretty much resembled the red guy from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. I also dabbled in swashbuckling fantasy with Thangar, inspired by those early black and white serials with guys like Errol-Flynn. Before a big duel, I always heard them saying thangar! though it was actually en garde! One day, I forgot my Thangar ring binder at the restaurant and this busboy, Charles Briceno, did a full edit. His dream, incidentally, was also to become a writer. He now works for the New York Times.

Muscles were all the rage in the 80’s

In school, I discovered that I was pretty bad at everything. I went to kindergarten summer school to learn to tell time (I still quietly panic whenever someone asks me what time it is) and math was an eternal mystery. On Track & Field Day, I was dead last in every single event, and I do mean dead last—even the girls were finished before I was halfway around the track. My conduct was no better. I was often accused of being “in another world” and if they had known about ADHD back then, I would certainly have been given Ritalin. I got detentions 3 to 4 times a week for forgetting my homework, my books, my pencils, how to get into my locker, how to tie my shoes, etc. And my butt got paddled often since I grew up in an age when hitting kids was OK. Then, lo and behold, my third grade Creative Writing teacher felt compelled to tell the class that I was the most talented student he had. Finally! I thought, I was good at something . . . Eventually, my imagination infected the whole school. Everybody wanted to copy everything I did, and so I became the leader of the Panthers, a team of superheroes based in my mind that all of the boys, and even some of the girls, wanted to be a part of. I was Red Panther, naturally, and my close friends were Blue Panther and Green Panther. Thanks to my teacher, I had decided what I wanted to do with my life, and it sure wasn’t in pizza.

When I was nine, I packed my Matchbox lunchbox stuffed with pink tickets and went with my father to New York City. Since we were there, I demanded we visit 666th Ave., the satanic sounding headquarters of DC Comics, which, though home to Batman, is just an eerie coincidence. Once there, I hoped to WOW the front desk receptionist with my awesome designs for the Panthers. She didn’t quite burst out laughing, but she was kind enough to direct me to some junior writing thingamajiggy. I was outraged! I wasn’t just some kid (even though I was just some kid) . . . but my outrage quickly subsided when I found the large bin of free comics. Free comics! I got a good one with Superman and Batman in the same issue and since I love crossovers it wasn’t a total loss.

For my 12th birthday, I asked my father for a typewriter. You see, I lived in the Dark Ages before computers, and if I was ever going to be a real writer, pink order tickets just wasn’t going to cut it. I needed a typewriter. His reaction? “Eh? What? A typewriter? For what? You’ll never use it.” I am sure he would have been happier had I asked for a dough mixer. But, I am proud to say, I did teach myself to type, and I used the typewriter for one long horrific novel called The Dark Temple, which is also, I believe, though I have not checked with Guinness, the world’s longest run-on sentence.

The only thing my parents ever cared about, with religious devotion, was going to Greece for the summer. We never missed a year. It was a great way to experience a different culture and the ancient ruins set my imagination ablaze. But by the time I hit pubescent boyhood, my fascination for crumbly statues gave way to an entirely different mystery. Girls. Or, to be more precise, naked girls. OK, this part gets a little embarrassing, so bear with me for a paragraph, please. My first experience with nudism was on a Greek island. At the time, my heart mutinied and tried to jump out of my bony rib cage, because I have always been a very shy person. I hated social situations and I hate being the center of attention. In school, I flat out refused to take showers with the boys, so I often came sopping wet and late to class following P.E. Now here I was on this beach, and this young girl, without a care in the world, was showering before me and my family and the thousands of other tourists on the beach, half of whom were just as obliviously missing bathing suits. This utter disregard for shame was exhilarating in ways beyond sex. The only way to describe my feelings: magical. It was like seeing a unicorn. I quickly became obsessed, not only with the female form, but with becoming au natural and with the fact that every Greek hero went naked in every museum we visited. As the summers passed, I became increasingly confused by my Puritanical American culture, by what I was taught at Lakeside Christian School, and my liberating experiences every July on the Cycladic islands. Hell, my parents had a bronze statue of a very frontally naked Poseidon in our house, but I Dream of Jeannie’s bellybutton was off-limits! The U.S. of A became a land of schizophrenia and it would take me decades to sort things out. When puberty went into full swing, I’d decided that life was better without clothes, even while doing algebra. When my family was away (which was often) the clothes came off, until I heard the car door slam when they came home. I even started to think of myself as a nudist even though this was before the Internet and I could only imagine what that term meant. While other boys were discovering masturbation, I was getting my kicks by going primitive in the living room, my father’s orange grove, even in the woods behind the restaurant. You can read more about my journey into nudism here: Least Likely to Become a Nudist.

Naturally, puberty and my emergent nudism would have a dramatic effect on my writing. I no longer cared for tights wearing superheroes like the Red Panther, but Greek demigods like my very own, almost always naked Dynotus (a precursor to my current heroes, Xandr and Thelana). What followed were numerous crimes against literature. Armed with my 500 Kilobyte Commodore Amiga, I gave birth to Dynotus Adventures I-IV, which I actually mailed to publishers, and after a brief affair with heavy metal music, The Metal God. And when I wasn’t writing fiction, I was making novel length, second-person adventures for my friends for Dungeons & Dragons

Dynotus was so popular in my head, he became the protagonist for another shelved novel, The Nomad. I wrote The Nomad in junior college from ’94 to ’97. It was a serious attempt at an epic tale of lost love in Ancient Greece. Only problem? I had never kissed a girl and really, what did I know about Ancient Greece aside from a few high school history courses? I also started working toward my fortune as manager at Country Pizza Inn. The best way to describe my feelings toward the business: utterly soul destroying. I mean, how many times in your life can you utter the words, “Country Pizza Inn, May I Help You?” before you start dying inside? All the while, my father pretended my writing didn’t exist. He treated it like he would have treated my homosexuality had I been homosexual. But, I figured, I was still young and my dreams of fame and glory were still within reach.

Dynotus!

During my college days at the University of South Florida, I decided it’d be a good idea to learn something about this writing business. But it was a bit schizophrenic since, in my literature courses, we learned how NOT to write by studying Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Melville and other dead writers nobody living wants to read (my writing still occasionally suffers from poetic license) and then in my fiction courses we studied intriguing anthology titles like American Masterpiece Classics, featuring stories too smart for anyone to understand, and Flash Fiction, with stories that went by so fast you couldn’t be certain they were any good. My professors seemed old and confused and discouraged and didn’t know how to dress. I often got the sense they were telling me, “Don’t ask me anything; if I knew anything about writing I wouldn’t be here. And why are you in this class, anyway? If you’re smart you’ll go down the hall and study business law.”

That was when I started my ugly off-again, on-again love affair with a little mistress I like to call the Internet. Finally, I thought, other people can read my work! It was terrifying. My first website, creatively enough, was called Nick’s Story Page and it featured The Nomad, which nobody cared to read because nobody knew who or what The Nomad was. That is how I quickly learned the evils of originality. I had to write something that people on the Internet already wanted to read, like Smurf porn or He-Man porn. I chose He-Man porn. After all, my secret desire was to have been the creator of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. For the first time in my life, people were excited to read my work. A decade and a half before 50 Shades of Grey made erotic fan-fiction a thing, my erotic fan-fiction was garnering fans. In an online poll, one of my stories won 1st place, another 2nd, and a third 3rd place. For several years I was head librarian in a little corner of the web called The Grayskull Library, where you could find your He-Rotica and your not so erotic He-Man adventure. To keep the site active, I welcomed works by other fans, and together we started a Community of People Desperate for Attention. All that desperation came to no good because, eventually, everybody ended up hating me. The site became too popular for its own good. Too many writers wanted their fiction posted, and I, with my infinite wisdom, decided that, instead of telling them I was just too busy or too lazy to add their fiction, that it would be a better idea to play critic. After all, I had a few college courses under my belt. I got flamed for my He-Porn, even though it was more like He-Rotica, as did my pen name, Jennifer Thomas (my kindergarten crush—yeah I know, it was wrong!) and I was flamed for being an egocentric jerk (guilty). My other site, Eldor’s Study, was also a flop. Even my good clean PG rated He-Man fiction got ignored since, as a rule of thumb, people only get on the Internet to find porn. If you could find Superman and Wonder Woman going at it at Barnes & Nobles, fan-fiction writers would have nothing to contribute.

There’s a library in there somewhere . . .

For a writer, praise is like a narcotic, and I’d just come off heroin. But even if I’d waited out the hate mail storm, I knew I could not rely on copyrighted material forever. To find my own fantasy series, I had to brave obscurity, go back to “my own little world.” Writing became a lonely process again. But I had made fans with my fan-fiction, and I sought to appeal to them by using the world of He-Man as inspiration for another novel nobody cared about, and in 1999 started work on what came to be The Dark Age of Enya.

My first novel

In my life, it seems, everything happens at once, which can sometimes be confusing, especially if you’re trying to write a memoir, like I’m doing now. If I could talk to God, I would say, “Hold on a bit, God, this story is moving too fast. Let it flow. Give it some pacing.” Of course, God didn’t much care for my critiquing either. And so, as it turned out, around the time of my falling out with the He-Man community and beginning The Dark Age of Enya, I met the girl who proved to me that Disneyesque happily-ever after stories need not be fiction. She was from Morocco of all places and her name was Hynde, which sounded to me like a collision of consonances, so I added a vowel and called her Hynda. After what seemed like an utterly surreal couple of years, we were married in Casablanca, where I was forced to wear strange ceremonial robes and was carried on a platter around a dance floor by four men in fez (fezes?).

In 2004, during my wife’s very difficult pregnancy, in which she had to go to the hospital three times, I did perhaps the most vile, heinous thing imaginable. Not quite Vietnamese mail order bride heinous, but judging by some of the e-mails and posts I’ve received, in the same ballpark. My crime was to experiment with self-publishing, known otherwise by its more nefarious sounding name, vanity publishing. I never quite understood what the vanity in vanity publishing is supposed to refer to. I imagine an author posing with book in hand and a big stupid grin like Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Anyway, I had read so many horror stories about publishing—about how it’s next to impossible to get published, about how you have to wait years to even be considered, about how they will want to change everything in your book and own the copyright to all your ideas and your brain and your soul—that I figured, why not try this new fangled vanity publishing thing? After all, companies were touting it like it was the next best thing since movable type. Even Barnes & Nobles had their own brand. And it’s not like I wouldn’t be making a stab at it the traditional way. So I had nothing to lose, right? Right? Oh, how little did I know . . .

Two new characters!

What they don’t tell you on those vanity publishing websites is that it’s a great way to get your book into print that nobody will ever read. Unless the most bored guy on Amazon.com manages to scroll all the way down to sales rank #1,300,987, you’re not going to get read by anyone but your wife and mother. The final proof arrived in a little box at my apartment on the same day that my wife was in the hospital to give birth (again, God rushing the pace). So for the first few months with our newborn, which woke us up three to four times a night, I eagerly checked my old mistress the Internet for news of sales. And, after months’ of royalties, I was able to purchase a mug at Starbucks.

This is the mug.

Ultimately, I had to get myself into the “shameless” promotion business. I sat proudly at my local Barnes & Nobles and sold nine books to kids who probably shouldn’t have been reading the book, but whose parents ignored my warnings of adult content and the naked girl on the cover riding the unicorn. I sold another nine at Caliente Clothing-Optional Resort, since The Dark Age of Enya featured the first naturist heroes in fantasy. I even got a few positive reviews in and H&E Magazine (magazines for nudists) but they were about as famous as the book I was writing, so sales didn’t jump much. Finally, I ended up in the strange nerdy world of fantasy fiction sites, innocent of the victims of vanity promotion who’d gone before me. The gist of my book review went like this: “It’s too cliché. Xandr has a magic sword (cliché) and goes to a city (cliché) and meets a girl (cliché) and together they find their destiny (cliché).” Really? Because that sums up every story I’ve ever read. Like, “Harry Potter meets Hagrid and finds his destiny” or “Luke Skywalker meets Ben Kenobi and together they find their destiny.” Never mind the recurring naturist-themes in the book or the fact that never before in the world of fantasy has there been a true naturist hero, the whole damn book was one big cliché. I had my suspicions that “finding your destiny” is another term for “I really didn’t care to read your book so here’s my generic one-size fits all review.” Which was fine with me. I cried on my wife’s shoulder and even contemplated suicide a bit. My parents, meanwhile, couldn’t figure out why I was so upset because they still couldn’t remember I was a writer.

I sold NINE books at Barnes & Nobles. They never paid me.

Eventually, I figured that failure could only make me a better writer. Like my dad always told me, I had to suck it up. Be a man. Be “serious.” Also, I figured, maybe I’ll just stick to good ol’ fashioned not-so vain publishing from now on. Unfortunately, things only went downhill, as the Nerd Patrol came out in force! I became the poster child for vanity publishing. If there was an encyclopedia entry for a guy who cannot get published the traditional way, they would have a geeky picture of me on it with the words: see Nick Alimonos. I inspired endless threads discussing the depths of my loserhood. Everyone had a good time and a good laugh. I even inspired comics, yes comics! about the evils of vanity publishing. My grammar was compared to a 5th grader by people who had never read my book. When I tried to explain myself, I was treated to such wonderfully original gems as, “you’re just beating a dead horse” and “you’re digging your own grave” and “defending your writing is like having your Mom defend you”—some accompanied by animated graphics (you know you’ve never been insulted until someone does it with a three-frame animated graphic). One guy was so scared not to be in the in-crowd that he vowed to never, ever vanity publish, even if his manuscript just sat there on his desk forever! And no matter what I said after that, I was henceforth a “troll.” Troll, I suppose, must mean someone who has a life, because after working night shifts at the restaurant and taking care of the baby in the afternoon, I quite honestly didn’t have the energy or desire to comment on my favorite characters from Song of Ice and Fire. But the thing that stuck with me came from a little web comic comparing vanity publishers to a guy who just watched The Lord of the Rings and decided, “Hey, I can write a book too! How hard can it be?” and then proceeds to pretty much copy Tolkien. Mentioning that my book has no elves or dwarves or anything resembling the many Tolkien clones currently in stores didn’t matter, that my writing is inspired more by Homer and Lovecraft and early pulp Sci-Fi/Fantasy was irrelevant. The nerds had their whipping boy and I was it. So I dropped out. I took my website down, Emmaxis.com, and stopped selling The Dark Age of Enya. Boxes of my books made shelving for our garage.

After that, my life seemed like an episode of the Twilight Zone, where the guy wakes up and nobody knows who he is. Everyone I knew kept referring to me as “the pizza guy.” People in the mall would say, “Hey, there’s the pizza guy! Hey pizza guy, what are you doing outside the restaurant?” I wanted to scream, “I’m not the pizza guy! I’m a writer! Leave me alone!” But everyone in the world was convinced, especially my father, who called me everyday at Barnes & Nobles (I like to be surrounded by portraits of Kafka and Steinbeck when I write) so we could have the same conversation,

“Nick? Where are you?”

“I’m at the bookstore, Dad.”

“Eh? What? What are you doing? Aren’t you going to work?”

“I work later Dad. I’m writing right now.”

Short pause. “Oh. OK.” CLICK.

After a while, I started to be convinced of it myself. Yes, sir . . . I was a pretty damn good pizza guy. But a small voice kept insisting, “No . . . you’re not a pizza guy . . .” Despite how others saw me, I knew I could not live without words, and I came to realize that it isn’t a talent or a gift I have; it’s a mental illness, a tumor of the brain if you will, a writer’s disease (see what I did there?). This tumor manifests itself in the form of a story, and if the story doesn’t get onto paper somehow, it’ll grow and grow until it kills me. This is why I had to keep writing, to save my life, Nerd Patrol be damned!

For several years, I fought to maintain my identity as a writer, but reality kept beating me down with everyday concerns. By 2008, the recession hit the restaurant business like a tsunami. My family and I watched as places closed around us one by one. Greek restaurateurs, many of whom had been in business for decades, were forced to shut their doors forever. As money for repairs and maintenance dried up, the restaurant my father built in 1977 slowly turned into a haunted mansion, with cobwebs and chipped paint and everything. Just as my dreams were dashed, so were his. The future he had planned for us (for my brother and sister and I) turned from us becoming pizza chain tycoons to personally running deliveries well into our eighties. I had given up my identity as a writer to wear an apron and to hoist bags of flour. If you’ve seen Restaurant Impossible you know how tough the business can be; the managers are always in tears. That was me. I was no longer working to make my father proud, but to stay employed, so that my wife would never rethink leaving Morocco, and my kids (two of them now!) could go to ballet. With less money, of course, there was less time for writing. Still, I spent every free moment mastering the craft. I picked up every author I could get my hands on, becoming a chain-reader, starting a new book as I burned through another. I even started this blog, The Writer’s Disease, to get my name and my voice out there. By 2011, every sentence in the The Dark Age of Enya was victim to the delete key. It was a shiny new novel now, Ages of Aenya, and I believed in the story and in the characters like nothing I’d written before. But the form letters kept coming. My wife helped by doing the dirty work, sending out queries and getting rejections so I wouldn’t have to. But at some point between the stress of the business and my existential angst, something went POP! in my head. The brain surgeon called it a pituitary tumor. I would have to take a little round pill for the rest of my life or the thing would swell up and make me go blind. My metaphor had become literal.

My naturist inspired heroine, Thelana

In 2013, I turned 38 and depression kicked me in the teeth like the ghost of John Kennedy Toole. I started thinking that talent and hard work and a teacher who once believed in me weren’t enough. It seemed you have to be somebody or kill somebody to get noticed in the publishing world. At the very least, I should have never worked for pizza. I should have left my father to his dreams and gone to New York City to rub elbows with like minded literary types. Do it now, you say? Not with two kids. All seemed hopeless. I could hardly remember that crazy kid running around the restaurant, lost in a world of his own imagining, stealing pink order tickets. Who the hell was that kid anyway? And I started to think that maybe my father was right all along. Big dreams bring nothing but big heartache.

After nine long years, waiting for the kids to grow up and the recession to end, I hit rock bottom, literally. That is, I was sick in bed with a fever, unable to move and with a copy of Walt Disney: An American Original in my sweaty hands. This was my Mid-Life crisis, when I realized I was either gonna be the pizza guy forever, or risk it all, like Walter (Disney, not White). And so in 2014, a new story, and a new heroine was born. Her name is Radia Noora of Tyrnael, and she is The Princess of Aenya.

 

Princess Radia Noora

Now the conclusion to this biography, my journey toward publication, has yet to be written. I would, of course, prefer to give it a happy ending, but like Frodo Baggins, I continue to ascend Mount Apathy, surrounded by naysayers, by people who do not believe I can succeed, or worse, Nazgul like my father who pretend I have no writing ambitions. But I remain hopeful, adamant even, because like Frodo I have my own Samwise Gamgee in David Pasco, and my own Lady Galadriel to lift me from my darkest moments in my wife, Hynde, and a growing legion of fans to see me to the top. Finding an agent isn’t the end. Publication isn’t the end. Someday, people will know me for who I am. They will know me in America and in Greece and in Morocco, and in China for some reason, even when my father never did.

One day, when I am long dead, someone will say, “Nick Alimonos? . . . Oh, isn’t he that writer guy, with that story about that girl in a tree? Oh, God, what a terrible movie!”

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