2020: the good parts version

Weird year. On the one hand, 2020 has been the high point of my career—Thanks, HBO! Thanks, New York Times bestseller list!—but on the other hand, yeah, it was still 2o2o.

Despite social media’s constant attempts to convince me otherwise, not everything was terrible. Here are some of the things that gave me joy over the past twelve months:

* Star Trek: Discovery Other than Lovecraft Country, my favorite binge-watch of 2020 was this recent entry in the Star Trek franchise, currently wrapping up its third season. My wife, who loves Discovery as much as I do, initially wondered why we hadn’t heard more online buzz about the show. No doubt part of the explanation is that you need to sign up for CBS All Access to stream the series, but it probably also has something to do with the fact that Discovery presents a darker and more violent future than is typical for Star Trek. Mike Stoklasa and Rich Evans, reviewing the series over at Red Letter Media, suggested that Discovery‘s tone is more akin to Battlestar Galactica than the fun, wish-I-could-go-live-there pajama-clad future of traditional Trek, which I think is a fair point. But Lisa and I loved Battlestar Galactica, too, and we’re fine with grafting that sensibility onto the Trek universe, especially when it’s so well written and acted. Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh are particularly good in this, and Anson Mount made a great Christopher Pike.

Other bingeable series of note include Dracula, The Queen’s Gambit, Kingdom, Evil, The Mandelorian, The Crown, and Ugly Delicious.

* Island of the Sequined Love Nun, plus cookbooks — Despite the lockdown, I was too distracted to do much long-form reading this year. I started a lot of novels, but one of the few I managed to finish was this delightful comic adventure by my friend Christopher Moore. Set in Micronesia, it’s a Cargo Cult story that weaves in other plot elements most authors would never think to combine (sound familiar?). To say more would be spoiling it, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Though I didn’t read as much as I’d hoped, my book lust certainly hasn’t gone away. In particular, I spent a lot of money on cookbooks. My prize acquisition of 2020 is Peter P. Greweling’s Chocolates & Confections: Formula, Theory, and Technique for the Artisan Confectioner. Published by the Culinary Institute of America, this is a book for professionals that includes not only recipes and techniques, but tips on setting up a production line (with different equipment and space requirements depending on how many artisan truffles you want to make in a given day). I doubt I’ll ever use it, but it’s fun to leaf through it and salivate at the photographs.

Other new cookbooks (some of which I have actually cooked from) include Pieometry, The Tahini Table, The Complete One Pot, and Dumplings and Noodles: Bao, Gyoza, Biang Biang, Ramen—and Everything in Between. And next time I find myself up the hill at the Book Larder, I’ve got my eye on Pushpesh Pant’s India Cookbook.

* Messing about in virtual reality Unless your name is Barack Obama, this was not a good year to try to publicize a new book. One advantage I had with 88 Names is that the novel’s virtual reality theme readily lent itself to online promotion. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of my book tour, I already had a number of online events lined up (most notably the 88 Names podcast, for which I am indebted to Blake Collier, Darryl Armstrong, the Threaded Zebra Agency, and Rise Up Daily). Not only did this give me something to fall back on immediately, it meant I had all the hardware and software I needed to do additional remote interviews and appearances.

I ended up trying a lot of different online platforms. Zoom is ubiquitous for a reason, but the one that left the biggest impression on me was Sansar, the VR version of Second Life. The technology still has some issues, but my appearance on the Drax Files Radio Hour, and subsequent visits to the Second Life Book Club, gave me a real sense of what future publicity tours might look like. While I did miss meeting fans and booksellers in person, I was happy to skip the long plane flights.

Of course, I also used my Oculus headset to play games. My standout favorite was In Death, a first-person roguelike that casts you as an archer fighting your way across Purgatory. Other games and experiences I enjoyed include Beat Saber, Superhot VR, Space Engine, The Under Presents, and Manifest 99. And in the non-VR realm, the games I had the most fun with this year are Hearthstone, Marvel Puzzle Quest, Oxygen Not Included, and Titanfall 2.

* Feminine Chaos podcastSmart contrarian culture commentary by Phoebe Maltz Bovy and Kat Rosenfield, aka “Phoebe and Kat discuss that thing people have been ranting about online.” A nice antidote to the Twitter doomscrolling I did way too much of this year. In addition to their Patreon-supported main feed, they have a back catalog of episodes on Bloggingheads.TV, featuring occasional cameos by Rasputin the cat.

Bonus shoutout to my friends Tatiana King and DJ BenHaMeen at the For All Nerds podcast, who I had great fun visiting with back in September, and who were huge supporters of Lovecraft Country.

* Hacksmith Industries’ plasma lightsaber — Last, but definitely not least, the YouTube algorithm recently decided that I needed to see this video from Hacksmith Industries, a makers’ group who build real-life versions of sci-fi and fantasy tech:

There’s also a test video where they use the saber to cut through all kinds of stuff. A festively destructive note to end the year on.

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Alison Lurie (1926-2020)

My old friend and mentor Professor Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Foreign Affairs and The War Between the Tates, has died at the age of 94.

I met Alison in my junior year at Cornell, when I took her creative writing class. I’d just started writing Fool on the Hill, the novel that would serve as my senior thesis in Honors English. Alison liked my work and encouraged me to send the finished manuscript to her agent, Melanie Jackson. Melanie liked the book too, and sold Fool on the Hill to Atlantic Monthly Press just six months after I graduated. Without Alison’s generosity, the arc of my writing career would have been very different—if it had happened at all.

It had been many years since I’d seen Alison in person, but we emailed from time to time, most recently in September when we exchanged happy birthdays (we were born just five days—and several decades—apart). I’m very glad I took the opportunity to say thank you to her one more time.

Godspeed, Alison.

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Signed books for the holidays, 2020 edition

This is your 2020 reminder that signed copies of my novels make great holiday gifts.

The big book this year is obviously Lovecraft Country—ten weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (thanks, HBO!)—but back in March I published a new novel, 88 Names, that I also think is well worth your time. And if you’ve already read one or both of those and aren’t sure which Matt Ruff novel to try next, I’ve got a blog post to help you with that.

You can order signed and custom inscribed copies of any of my novels from Secret Garden Bookshop in Seattle (206-789-5006 / bookshop@secretgardenbooks.com). Tell them what you want and they’ll order it, get me to sign it, and ship it anywhere in the world, usually within a few days.

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So much for the Fourth Reich

Like many of you, I spent last week watching election returns and reading silly hot takes about What It All Means. (My favorite, so far, is Jonathan Chait’s assertion in New York Magazine that “America, by and large, never wanted Trump to be president,” which is an exceedingly odd statement given that 70 million people just voted to reelect him.) Silliness aside, it looks like Trump really is on his way out and the republic isn’t going to fall just yet. So that’s a relief.

In other news:

* Lovecraft Country is on the New York Times bestseller list for the tenth week. Now that the HBO series has finished its first season, I imagine this won’t last much longer, but it’s been a great run.

* The Italian edition of Lovecraft Country, translated by Luca Briasco, was published on October 27, and the Polish edition, translated by Marcin Mortka, was published on November 2. This brings the total number of translations to nine, with eight more—from China, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Romania, Serbia, South Korea, and Turkey—forthcoming.

* Meanwhile in Germany, FISCHER Tor’s German-language edition of 88 Names, translated by Alexandra Jordan, is available now in ebook format and will be published in print on November 25.

* I have two more online events this week: On Wednesday, November 11, at 3 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be a guest on the Vox Vomitus podcast, chatting with host and fellow author Jennifer Anne Gordon. And on Thursday, November 12, I’ll be appearing via Zoom at Magic City Books of Tulsa at 5 PM Pacific/7 PM Central.

* And finally, FYI:

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This weekend: Crypticon, Christopher Moore, and Lovecraft Country

I’ve got a bunch of online events scheduled this month (full list here), including two this weekend that I wanted to spotlight:

On Saturday, October 17 at 8 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be reading from and answering questions about Lovecraft Country as part of Crypticon Seattle’s 2020 online convention. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased here.

On Sunday, October 18 at 5 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be in conversation with my friend and fellow author Christopher Moore, as part of San Francisco’s 2020 Litquake. Admission to this event is free, but with a suggested donation of $5-10. You can sign up here.

And immediately after the Litquake event, I’ll be tuning into HBO for the season finale of the Lovecraft Country series. If you’ve got things you want to ask about the show or the book, and you can’t make it to any of my live events, I’m still taking questions over at Goodreads.

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Hello, India

Last month I did an interview with Rahul Gupta of the Indian pop culture site Filmi Baniya. We chatted about Lovecraft Country, which is currently streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar. You can watch this and other Filmi Baniya interviews on their YouTube channel and their Facebook page.

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Novel Nights starts this Friday

This Friday, October 2, at 5 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be making a remote appearance as part of Novel Nights, a fundraiser to support Seattle’s Hugo House. This is the first of six Novel Nights events that will be taking place over the next two weeks:

Tickets to individual events are $25 each, or $75 if you would like a signed copy of that author’s book. You can also get a full series pass to all six Novel Nights, with or without signed books.

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A quick and dirty guide to the Matt Ruff oeuvre, or, what to read after you’ve read Lovecraft Country

I’ve gotten a number of requests from readers who’ve finished Lovecraft Country and want to know which of my novels they should try next. Because my books are so different from one another, this is always a tough question to answer, so I thought it might be useful to post a quick rundown of the options. If you see something here that looks interesting, you can click through to the main page for that novel and learn more about it:

The Mirage mini coverThe Mirage — An alternate history novel that came out of the same TV pitch session that produced Lovecraft Country. The story is set in a reality where the U.S. and the Middle East have traded places. The United Arab States is the world’s last superpower, and the “11/9 attacks” involve Christian fundamentalists flying planes into towers in downtown Baghdad. It’s not just the geopolitical situation that’s turned on its head; so is the sense of who matters. The novel’s protagonists—a trio of Arab Homeland Security agents—and the principal villains—the gangster Saddam Hussein, and a corrupt senator named Osama bin Laden—are all Arab Muslims. The Americans in the story are mostly nameless third-worlders, with the exception of a few high-profile terrorists like Donald Rumsfeld.

If you’re looking for another mix of history, genre tropes, and moral/social commentary with a similar tone and style to Lovecraft Country, this is probably your best bet.

88 NamesMy most recent novel is a near-future cyberthriller/twisted romantic comedy. The protagonist, John Chu, is a paid guide to online role-playing games who suspects his latest client may be North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The first two-thirds of the novel are set entirely in virtual reality, and most of the characters Chu interacts with, including his coworkers and his ex-girlfriend, are people he’s never met in the flesh, so he’s constantly forced to question how well he really knows them.

This book also came out of the aforementioned TV pitch session, and as such it forms a loose trilogy with The Mirage and Lovecraft Country, but despite the North Korea angle it’s much lighter in tone. If you’re up for a fun masquerade with video games and cybersex, this could be your ticket.

Bad Monkeys mini cover

Bad MonkeysMurder suspect Jane Charlotte claims to belong to a mysterious organization that fights evil. Her division, the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons—Bad Monkeys for short—is an execution squad, though the man she’s accused of killing wasn’t on the official target list. The jailhouse psychiatrist assigned to Jane’s case gets her to tell the story of her career in Bad Monkeys: how she was recruited, what she did for the organization, and how it all went wrong.

I call this my Philip K. Dick novel. It’s a short, fast-moving mind-bender. Jane is the ultimate unreliable narrator: Catch her in an apparent lie or contradiction and she just throws another twist into the story, ratcheting up the weirdness while continuing to insist that it’s all true. If you like paranoid thrillers, you’ll probably like Bad Monkeys.

Set This House mini coverSet This House in Order: A Romance of Souls The story of a relationship between two people who both have multiple personalities. Andy Gage manages his unusual condition by means of an imaginary house in his head where his various “souls” all live together in relative harmony. He meets Penny Driver, an undiagnosed multiple who still struggles with periods of lost time; when some of Penny’s more self-aware souls ask Andy for help, they end up destabilizing his house and force him to confront personal demons from the past.

This was my first fully mature novel, and I still think it’s one of my best. If you liked the family and interpersonal drama from Lovecraft Country but weren’t so sure about the supernatural aspects of the story, this might be a good pick for you. Despite the wild premise, it’s a fairly grounded narrative with no overt fantasy elements.

Little SGE coverSewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works TrilogyA science-fiction satire of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, written in the 1990s and set in the distant future year of 2023.

Rather than try to summarize the plot of this novel, I will direct you to the description of how I came to write it. If you find this origin story intriguing, then Sewer, Gas & Electric may be your cup of tea; if you are puzzled or appalled, you should probably read something else.

Fool on the HillA comic fantasy set on the Cornell University campus circa 1987. The cast of characters includes a retired Greek god, a lovesick writer-in-residence, a dog and cat in search of heaven, a group of modern-day knights, a race of magical sprites at war with an army of sword-wielding rats, and a giant wood-and-canvas dragon that comes to life in the novel’s climax.

This was my first published novel, and I think it holds up pretty well, especially as a time capsule of the era and the place in which it was written. If you’re a Cornell alumnus, a nostalgic adult of a certain age, a current college student who doesn’t mind dated cultural references, or a Matt Ruff fan curious about how I got my start, this could be for you.

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For All Nerds

Last week I was a guest on the For All Nerds podcast with Tatiana King and DJ Benhameen, talking about Lovecraft Country (my appearance starts at the 33:30 mark). This was my second visit to the ‘cast—I was previously a guest back in 2017, when they were known as the Fan Bros Show—and just like last time, I really enjoyed myself. For more Lovecraft Country conversation, be sure and check out the weekly “Safe Negro Podcast” editions of For All Nerds, where they go in-depth on each episode of the HBO series (starting with “Sundown,” here).

In other news:

* I am still answering reader questions over at Goodreads.

* On October 2 at 5 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be making a remote appearance as part of Novel Nights, a fundraiser to support Seattle’s Hugo House. If you’d like to contribute, you can buy tickets to individual events—other featured authors are Erik Larsen, Pramila Jayapal, Jess Walter, Sharyn Skeeter, and Neal Bascomb—or get a full series pass to all six Novel Nights.

* As of today, Lovecraft Country is on the New York Times bestseller list for the fourth week in a row!

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I’m 55 today

It’s been a weird mess of a year, but on balance I’m a very happy boy.

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