Late last year, I scored a gig writing for Story Terrace, a UK-based company that’s expanded into the US.
Story Terrace publishes memoirs and autobiographies ghostwritten by a stable of authors, who interview the subject at her home and then compose a finished book complete with photos and a professional layout. The company has gone through several rounds of investment, including a crowdfunding effort this past summer which raised more than £617,000.
So far I’ve written three books of varying lengths for Story Terrace: the first was a memoir of a successful lawyer about his years growing up in Queens in the 1930s and 40s, while the other two were biographies of an Italian-American couple and an Irish-American woman, all of them immigrants who left the poverty of their homelands and achieved the American dream. It’s fun and rewarding work — much more rewarding, in fact, than I had anticipated.
Initially I was reluctant to write about the gig publicly because the position was originally advertised as “ghostwriter.” Years ago, in addition to the bylined articles I wrote for them, I did some ghostwriting for Dig and Calliope, the children’s magazines about archaeology and history. That, I now realize, was ghostwriting of a very different stripe. The editor loathed having to deal with PhDs with their jargonized writing styles, outsized egos, and complete lack of respect for any form of deadline, so in a few cases she found it easier to assign the writing to me and then, after a cursory review by the academic in question, slap Professor Dumdum’s name on it. I didn’t particularly care about the byline — as long as the check clears, I’m good! — but I was also sworn to super-duper secrecy with cherries on top, lest the professor be unmasked as a fraud by his peers, ridiculed, and driven like a mangy dog from the ivy-covered halls. The editor took pains to stress how seriously I needed to keep my lips shut — because we all know how tolerant our colleges and universities are.
The work I do for Story Terrace is ghostwriting of a less stringent sort. It’s work-for-hire, so the copyright goes to the customer, but I get a small credit inside the front of the book so there’s no top-secret surreptitiousness involved.
Further, Your Most Obedient Servant actually receives a commission for referrals that lead to projects, so if anything, the company wants me blabbing about it nonstop (not to mention that they have my headshot on their front page). I’m happy to recommend them.
So — if you or someone you know has always said, “I should write a book,” but never has, Story Terrace may be able to help make it a reality. The company has three different standard packages you can buy or you can tailor a project specific to your needs. All of the projects I’ve worked on were commissioned by adult children for their parents to capture their memories and experiences before they were lost forever. If you’re interested, just drop Story Terrace a line and mention my name. If you’re local, we can even arrange for me to write the project.
Today marks the thirteen-month anniversary of the release of The Dead Ride Fast!1 To celebrate, I’ve cut the price over at Amazon to a low and loco $0.99 for the e-book.
If you haven’t already picked up my collection of six strange westerns, now’s the time. That’s less than 17¢ per story!
Why am I doing this after thirteen months? Simple — no number is scarier than thirteen! 2 Also, it’s Halloween season AND today is the release of the much anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2 — so if you like the taste of spoopy peanut butter mixed in with your western chocolate, you’ll love The Dead Ride Fast. 3
This special anniversary edition features improved formatting in the manuscript text 4 and a slightly altered cover, now at a skinny 1:1.6 size ratio.
So if you enjoy short stories about outlaws, Laplace’s demon, lost Native American civilizations, existential loneliness, haunted silver mines, being condemned to freedom, or just a dude who smokes ground-up mummies in his pipe, mosey on over to Amazon and grab a copy.
As always, if you liked the book please leave a review at Amazon or the social-media site of your choice, 5 and thank you for your support! 6
1 Technically, no. When I initially uploaded the mobi file to Amazon, I did it a week prior to the public announcement so I could stamp out any bugs first.
2 The timing is completely unintentional. I couldn’t get my shit together last month.
3 Again, I wish I was that organized. I learned about RDR2‘s release yesterday.
4 Mainly I eliminated the breaks between paragraphs. I’m so used to working with HTML that originally I thought the e-book text was too crowded and bunched up without them, but after a year’s reconsideration I decided to switch to a more conventional format.
5 A positive review at Goodreads would be helpful.
6 Did you know Bartles & Jaymes is still a thing? It is!
C.M. Muller’s fourth volume of Nightscript has hit the streets and it features a contribution of mine, “A Different Sunlight.” The story concerns a boy in northern England whose father attempts to develop a machine that can construct entire homes from scratch.
Randall’s father was proud of a particular innovation he developed. The new concrete ties were not prefabricated but rather poured into place by the machine using rebar and quick-drying cement. The possibilities of these materials soon seized the father’s imagination; he became distant and preoccupied at meals, given to odd remarks about what seemed to Randall as random news events or statements of fact: the Great Fire of Newcastle in ’54, or the lack of housing for the country’s exploding population, or of the cheapness and abundance of concrete itself. Then, after weeks of midnights spent at his drawing table surrounded by reams of tea-ringed paper, he emerged with plans for a machine even greater than the company’s steel snail chugging over the mountains.
Think of it, Randall, he said as he stabbed at various lines and shapes on the whiteprints, A machine that can build a house.
As might be expected, events turn out unexpectedly.
What’s funny is that when I wrote the story, I believed I had concocted the idea of one-piece cement houses from my imagination alone — I fancied a giant steampunk 3D printer, maybe scuttling around on mechanical spider legs, printing houses with concrete. Turns out that none other than Thomas Edison was way ahead of me, and while his houses weren’t created by a single machine, his motives were very similar to those of Randall’s father:
During this period, Edison also came up with the idea for building homes out of cast-in-place concrete. … In theory, this would result in a whole new kind of home with various benefits: fireproof, insect-proof, easy to clean, and at a very affordable $1,200 per house. Edison saw this as a potential solution for cities with housing shortages, allowing people to move from slums to cheap new residential areas of poured concrete houses.
Great minds, am i rite?
Nightscript, Volume 4 features stories by 20 other authors as well, including terrific writers like Steve Rasnic Tem and V.H. Leslie (who also appeared with me in issue 31 of Black Static, way back in 2012). It’s available at Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.
Most economists agree that while raising minimum wages benefits a majority of workers, some jobs are lost no matter how small the increase. A paper by a DC think tank duplicated the methodology of a similar Congressional Budget Office study and found that those job losses affect young, unskilled entry-level workers, thereby disproportionately hitting the workforce in already struggling cities like Bridgeport and Hartford. The study suggests that governments can aid low-income workers without jeopardizing any jobs by instead expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. I didn’t know this when I wrote the piece, but in 2011 Connecticut cut the state EITC to 25 percent of the federal credit, down from 30 percent.
Just last week I wrote about how CT’s Department of Labor mandates that employers report all new hires to the state within 20 days. The state even has a website telling you how to do it: just print out a form and either mail or fax it in. That’s right, unless you’re willing to use the state’s hyper-complicated FTP format, there’s no way to send the information online because the website hasn’t worked for at least three years. Instead you must send a piece of paper to Hartford, where presumably somebody manually punches it into a database. Connecticut — the land of tomorrow!
But my favorite so far has been a piece of investigative journalism in which I reported the state gave $5 million to a Wall Street company to move from White Plains to Stamford. You see, with companies like Aetna and General Electric routinely abandoning Connecticut for more salubrious shores, Malloy’s Department of Economic and Community Development has been throwing corporate welfare at anybody with more than two house elves on the payroll if they’ll move to CT or just simply stay put. In this case, the DECD handed out a $1 million grant and a $4 million loan to a company called FSC CT, of which only $1 million had to be paid back.
Except it turns out the guy running FSC CT, Leonard Tannenbaum, was a crook:
In October 2014, Tannenbaum went public with an IPO for Fifth Street Asset Management, a company which in turn invested in two other publicly traded companies he also started, Fifth Street Finance (FSC) and Fifth Street Floating Rate Corp. (FSFR). Both FSC and FSFR were business development companies (BDCs), financial instruments that offer loans to small and mid-sized businesses.
On the eve of the IPO, Tannenbaum owned 94 percent of FSAM, raising the value of his shares to $684 million once it went public.
Yet not long after the IPO, FSC revealed that many of its loans to businesses were considered nonaccrual loans, meaning they couldn’t generate interest because the borrowers hadn’t been paying them back and were in danger of default. On top of that, FSC had been overpaying fees to FSAM.
A bunch of lawsuits and one SEC investigation later, the whole pyramid collapsed, burying at least $2 million of the loan irretrievably. The state will probably never see the $1 million grant again either.
There’s more of my work to come at the Yankee Institute. In the meantime, Yay, Connecticut!
Last month, my oldest son and I spent a week in Puerto Rico volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service.
I first heard about MDS in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I subsequently learned they have a strong reputation within the disaster-relief world, largely due to the fact that they draw upon the Mennonite community for volunteers, many of whom have hard construction skills. At the time we had a newborn so running off for a week without my family was unfeasible, but I bookmarked MDS in the back of my mind.
Fast forward to 2018, where a combination of headlines, my son turning 16 (the minimum age for MDS work), and my dad’s passing inspired me to sign up. There was something else too. Looking at the world around me I notice the two commodities in scarcest supply are health and wealth, and it’s dawned on me that maybe I need to do more to help those who don’t possess what I take for granted. A common game to play with kids is, If you could have any superpower what would it be? The usual answer is the ability to fly or turn invisible. But lately I’ve wondered if maybe some of us wake up with powers every morning but don’t even realize it.
MDS has ongoing projects in Aibonito and Utuado, both in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, and Ponce, on the southern coast. I had been very concerned about the heat — real-feel temperatures in Ponce can break 100 — but as luck would have it we were assigned to Aibonito, which is nicknamed “the Fridge of Puerto Rico” for its cool climate. We arrived on a Saturday and, after waiting a few hours in San Juan for the rest of our party to arrive, drove into the mountains to Aibonito, 2,400 feet above sea level.
I soon learned Aibonito is home to a substantial Mennonite community, which includes a parochial school and a hospital. Our hosts, Harry and Linda, had restored what was once the hacienda on an old sugar plantation. Linda’s father had been a leading figure in town and she had grown up in the casa. Years later, she returned to the island to learn the house had fallen into bad disrepair; one thing led to another, and the couple stayed to renovate it. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving — I guessed we might be sleeping on bunk beds in a trailer — so to me staying in a historic early 20th-century plantation house was five-star accommodations.
Last year, as a result of its ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico closed 167 schools and another 265 are scheduled to be shut down soon. According to the PR education secretary, enrollment is declining by 20,000 students every year and more than half of the island’s schools have less than a 60-percent occupancy rate. We saw three different shuttered schools in the seven days we were on the island.
Because my son and I were the only ones to bring rain gear, we volunteered to work outside on Monday, which is when “hurricane remnant” Beryl hit the island. Hurricane Maria had torn the roof off the largest building at the Academia Menonita Betania, the local parochial school. Getting the Academia into functioning condition before the fall was a priority, and our project leader John was staring at a hard Tuesday deadline for a pump truck and cement mixer to arrive and pour concrete for the footing of the new roof. Unfortunately, the forms — the molds for the concrete — hadn’t been completed, so the three of us worked in Beryl’s downpour, climbing and hammering on second-floor scaffolds. We finished the following sunny morning and the concrete was poured successfully. Steel trusses will arrive in August with the roof following afterward.
The rest of the week we worked with the others in our group (there were five of us, along with John) to complete work at one house — paneling with T1-11, doing finish trim, hanging doors — and install the metal roofing on another. This second house, located in the bush far west of town, was the highlight for me as I’d always wanted to install a steel roof.
Blue roofs are an ubiquitous sight on the island; FEMA has distributed 126,000 blue tarps and the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary roofing on almost 60,000 homes, though neither FEMA nor anyone else can give specific numbers on how many roofs need replacement. Bear in mind that neither FEMA nor the Corps has actually replaced any roofs — that’s been left to either homeowners or volunteers.
Because building codes aren’t well enforced on the island, MDS has its own engineer-designed protocols for rebuilding, many of which echo Fortified techniques. Studs are anchored to the foundation and beams are strapped to the studs; plywood is screwed (not nailed) to the beams and joists, and a weatherproof sheeting is laid over the plywood before the steel roof is screwed down with more than a thousand screws. Overkill for sure, but meant to survive any future Cat 5 storm that blows off the sea.
The homeowner was living temporarily in his parents’ house across the street, taking care of both his elderly father and his brother, who is wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. He and his wife cooked lunch for us everyday — following it with some of the best café con leche I’ve ever tasted — and they couldn’t have been more gracious. They struck me as good, honest people who’d been dealt some bad cards, and all of us were grateful that providence — or maybe Providence — had aligned the teeth of our cosmic gears.
Strange as it might sound, by the end of the week I felt energized and refreshed, almost as if I had been on vacation and not making forms or screwing down roofing. And, in fact, one of the best ways to help Puerto Rico is for tourists simply to return. While damage from Maria is prevalent, PR is far from any sort of post-apocalyptic setting — one night, my son and I ate at the McDonalds in Aibonito — and unemployment on the island is 9.3 percent, still staggeringly high by US standards but the lowest rate for PR since 2000. MDS isn’t the only relief group active on the island; at the airport we saw Mormon volunteers as well as gaggles of teenagers belonging to various groups, and there are many opportunities for voluntourism as well.
For once I’m too humbled to have any grand takeaways about the experience, though it warmed this shaggy steppenwolf’s heart to be surrounded by folks acting upon their faith to help others in very tangible ways. I truly believe you make the world you live in — if thoughts become actions, then our shared reality is an expression of our individual minds. The implications of this can be both disturbing and hopeful, and while I’m by nature inclined to dwell upon the former, I make it a point to focus on the good.
There’s a fine line between a pirate and a privateer — and it’s as thin as a piece of paper issued by the government. Come hear how such Fairfield luminaries as Thaddeus Burr, Samuel Smedley, and Caleb Brewster as well as many other “gentlemen of fortune” banded together to attack the British on the high seas during the Revolutionary War.
I’ll talk about the differences between privateers, pirates, and traditional navies; how the booty from captured ships was divided not only between the owners and the crew but between the officers and sailors themselves (a scheme that relates back to the Golden Age of Piracy); and how many of the privateers in Black Rock didn’t sail aboard large ships but rather hunted in wolf packs of armed whaleboats.