Sometimes I think my life is that of a poorly developed character. It’s as if God couldn’t quite decide what to write 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 was baptized Orthodox Christian, spent eight years at a Baptist school, but married into a Muslim household. Oh, and did I mention that I’m a card carrying nudist? More than anything else, though, I knew by age six I was meant for one thing, and one thing only.
This is an altogether different kind of story than I am used to telling. It’s the tale of my long, winding and arduous journey toward publication. To fully appreciate my journey, I have to start with my father, who came to New York City as a Greek immigrant in 1952 to work as a dishwasher. His dream was to own a restaurant, which he eventually achieved through blood, sweat and tears, and every other hard-work cliché. He opened. He closed. He had no days off. As he likes to tell it, he never once got 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, 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.
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 a crazy kid. Not exactly management material. My 12 years older brother, on the other hand, could have had 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 greatness. 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, as ideas flowed too quickly to be put on paper. I’d always end up asking people for cassettes. This continued until my tape recorder melted (yes, melted) in my sister’s car under the Florida sun. 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 came up with 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 adventure with Thangar, inspired by those early black and white serials with Errol-Flynn. Before a big duel, I always heard him saying thangar! which was actually just en garde! One day, I forgot my Thangar ring binder at the restaurant and a busboy, Charles Briceno, did a full edit. His dream, incidentally, was also to become a writer. He now works for the New York Times.
When I was nine, I packed my Matchbox lunchbox stuffed with pink order 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 receptionist with my awesome Panther designs. 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.
At 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 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 three to four 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 at 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 ever 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 was certain what I wanted to do with my life, and it sure wasn’t in pizza.
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 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.
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.
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 this writing business 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 marketing.”
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, in 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 better 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.
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 into “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.
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 with 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 of 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 . . .
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 giving 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 for news of sales. And, after months’ of royalties, I was able to purchase a mug at Starbucks.
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 N 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, my philosophical musings on the loss of humanity due to civilizations’ excesses, 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 didn’t know I was a writer.
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 even 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 GIF). 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 considered a “troll.” Troll, I supposed at the time, must mean someone with 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 character 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 copy The Lord of the Rings. 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 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 place my father built in 1977 slowly turned into a haunted mansion, with chipped paint and cobwebs and the ghosts of dead customers. Just as my dreams were dashed, so were his. The future he had envisioned for my brother and sister and I, turned from us becoming pizza chain tycoons to personally scrubbing floors well into our eighties. I had given up my identity as a writer to wear an apron and hoist bags of flour. If you’ve seen Restaurant Impossible, you know how brutal the business can be. The managers are always in tears. That was me, 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 and Tae-Kwon-Do. That’s right, another character had joined our party, a kickass female green belt, who can do “no-handed” cartwheels. I am pretty sure the nurse got our babies mixed up at the hospital, but I sure never complained.
With less money, of course, I had less time for writing. Still, I spent every free moment mastering the craft, picking up every author I could get my hands on, becoming a chain-reader, starting a new book after burning 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, becoming a shiny new novel, Ages of Aenya, and I believed in the story and in the characters like nothing I’d written before. But the form letters just, kept, coming. My wife helped 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.
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.
Being a dad is pretty awesome, I have to admit. But as you start to hit the last of life’s milestones, you start to realize how short, and how precious, it all is. If something remarkable was going to happen to me, if a lifetime of mastering the literary arts was going to pay off, it had to be soon. And yet 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 had been 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. 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. 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.
Since starting out on this journey, nearly three decades ago, the literary landscape has changed. My dream of dropping a manilla envelope at the post office, to have a cigar-smoking editor in New York scream with delight at having found the next great author, is just that, a dream. We are living in a time when bookstores are shutting down and publishers are going broke. People have more addictive things to do these days, like staring at their phones and Netflix. We may be living in the last days of the novel, before it goes the way of the play. I am well aware that the demands of the writer are greater than ever. On the other hand, the stigma associated with self-promotion is quickly fading. This is largely due to things like Kickstarter and YouTube. We are fast discovering that not only can independent creators entertain us, but that they can often be more humorous and more sincere. The advent of e-books has become a double-edged sword, delivering a lot of pulp but also, some pretty great out-of-the-box writing we might never have otherwise seen.
In 2016, I met a wonderful editor, Ava Coibion, and by the following year we hammered Ages of Aenya into a thing of beauty. As she told me,
There are a thousand praises I could sing here. The prose is intelligent, poetic, but often nicely spare/concise, and full of emotion. A true pleasure, and even if you don’t take me on for Books 2 and 3, I will read forward on my own because I simply must know what happens next . . .
FINALLY, in 2017, I made my triumphant return to self-publishing with a new author site, http://www.nickalimonos.com. Again, the world of Aenya became available to the public, but this time, the trolls were drowned out by a bevy of dedicated fans.
My literary journey does not end here. There are limitless stories for me to tell, and new readers hungry for exciting worlds to explore. No matter what the future brings, I know one thing with certainty. I will be writing. Because storytelling is in me. It’s all I’ve ever known.