Ants Are Invading Our Book Covers

Sometimes people ask me about the cover for my third novel The War Bug. They say things like, “Biff…there’s a giant ant on the cover. I signed the book out of the Freddie Beach Library so that I could read about ants in space.”

I know where this is going, so I try to fake things like a heart attack, memory loss, mistaken identity…but nothing works. I’m there. The person who read the book is there and the issue looms in the air over us.

“Biff, there’s no ant in the book. Nowhere. No ant. I wanted a giant ant and all you gave me was some stupid computer virus.”

What can I say? What can I do? Nothing…except maybe scream and bang my head against the nearest wall. Sometimes that works, sometimes not. Sometimes I have to throw the nearest heavy object at my persecutor.

But it’s true. There’s a giant ant on the cover but no ant in the book, not even a small one that looks like a person milling about an airport as you’re taking off. And for the record, there are no June bugs, lady bugs, bees or dust mites in the book.

Here’s the cover…

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I guess…when you think ‘war bug’ the first thing that comes to mind is a walloping big army ant. That was obviously the first thing the graphic artist thought. But the War Bug isn’t a giant ant; it’s a computer virus that ignites a war between online city states 200 years in the future.  This is not a book about ants in space.

It puzzled me that the book sold only one and a half copies but I received hundreds of complaints from readers who wanted to read about the adventures of a giant space ant. How do you respond to the disillusionment of ant lovers? How do you address their grief? Some said they would never read my books again. Some said they would never read anyone’s books again. Some made death threats if I didn’t re-write the book and include at least one big-ass ant.

But I had a better idea.

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I was invited by the notorious J. Richard Jacobs to contribute stories for the first Twisted Tails anthology. I wrote four…one of them about a graphic artist who receives a work order to produce cover art for a book about a war bug. He glances quickly at the text for the back cover and produces his life’s masterpiece: a beautifully rendered giant termite sort of floating on a mystery plane of existence somewhere in space.

There’s something compelling, almost hypnotic, about the termite that dives deep into the artist’s being. He starts reading the actual book and realizes that the War Bug is actually a computer virus, but he keeps this to himself and passes the work on. Since no one actually reads the book with the exception of the editor who never sees the cover, the book is published with a giant termite staring down the most adventurous and daring of readers.

And the book goes on to become a world-wide bestseller because the cover art is somehow magical. No one ever reads the book. Not even the alcoholic author who lives in a cave with the ghost of his former feral cat. For talking points, people read the blurb on the back cover, which is bland enough that no one realizes the truth. The book wins oodles of global awards for cover design. It even wins literary awards based on the blurb and the termite.

In the end, the graphic artist stares at the original artwork and…

Eyes

OK…so this isn’t exactly what he saw but…

Nobody ever  heard from him again.

 

Write for Your Life, Biff Mitchell, Write for Your Life

I’ve lost track of the days. It feels like that time I blinked and missed it all, it seems like re-reading Atlas Shrugged and forgetting what page I’m on – over and over. A kind of existential medium is the message. I’ve lost track of my mind. I’m staring at ice patterns on the window.

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Stephanie is watching me, waiting for me to do something the doctor told me not to do, waiting for me to make a dash for the window and the fire escape, waiting for me to breathe too deeply. She takes the doctor’s orders seriously.

She just found Monte Python’s Life of Brian on Netflix and she’s going to play it. She can quote every word from Life of Brian and Search for the Holy Grail. I’ve seen her do it. It takes true talent and a good memory to memorize an entire movie and recite it convincingly, being all the characters at any moment in all their moods and all their little fears and fantasies.

And she can do this for two movies.

Before she put the movie on, she made a strange request. She said, “I want you to write a story.”

I said, “A story?”

She said, “Yes, Biff, and when you finish writing the story…I want you to write another story. And then another story, and another.”

“But the doctor said…”

“The doctor wants you to write stories, Biff. One story after another. Only through writing stories will you heal.”

Suddenly, I was suspicious. Something wasn’t right here. Something was awry. It was like everything in my world had shifted almost imperceptibly a few pixels to the left. It reminded me of a story I’d written a few years ago for one of the Twisted Tails anthologies called The Man Who Was a Few Pixels Out.

And that’s when it hit me. Twisted Tails. The insidious soul-eating J Richard Jacobs was somehow involved in all this. J Richard Jacobs, scourer of the perverse literary horizon and nemesis of all things sane and merciful in the dank corridors of writers’ hearts and minds. J Richard Jacobs, EDITOR, was on the loose again and the game was on.

Somehow he’d taken over Stephanie’s mind and this was going to bode ill for me, the lowly writer. I screamed: “Steph! J has taken over your mind!”

Her eyes were devoid of humanity and caring as she stared into my eyes and said, “No, Biff, I’m doing this all on my own. You will follow the doctor’s orders or I will kill you. It’s all for your own good.” She patted me on the head and went into the kitchen to make graffiti salad and somehow the world seemed to be a safer place to live.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the drugs I’m on to carry me safely and sanely through the recovery.

Winter and My Dead Money Tree

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OK…I think I’ve established that I hate winter. I hate the snow, the cold…et al…infinitely. All of that…the cold, the lack of smell, the lack of abundant color…the things you can physically see, smell and feel…are just one bottomless crater in my feelings about winter.

“So, Biff,” said the fox, “what else chills you about winter?”

“Good, one, fox,” said J, the notorious blood-sucking editor, as he laughed.

Oh shit. They’re back. I can’t even wallow in self pity by myself. And the fox was wearing a fox fur coat. “Oh, come on, fox,” I said. “You’re definitely related to that coat on some level.”

“I like to keep my ancestors close,” said the fox through a terrifying smile. If you’ve never seen a fox smile…don’t.

So, Biff,” said J, “I’m working on another anthology.”

Shit, I thought, more sleepless nights. More calls in the dead of the darkness: “Write, Biff, write. Need stories. Need your pain. Need your suffering.”

This is how editors talk to writers…even the editors that write.

“A…another…anthology?” I mumbled, lips quaking, sweat rolling.

“Yep,” said J. “It’s going to be a Twisted Tails anthology. I’m calling it Twisted Tails: The Ultimate Pain.”

“I like it,” said the fox. “It has a pizzazz ring to it. Does Biff get to suffer?”

“He sure does,” said J. “But that’s OK. Biff likes to suffer. It gives him an excuse to wallow in self pity. Right, Biff?”

I felt like a fly caught between a steaming pile of shit and a Snickers bar. But I wasn’t going to let the sinister editor get the best of me. “I wallow…therefore I am!” I blurted. Wondering as the words came out of my mouth…wtf.

The fox and J laughed for hours. And hours. Into days and nights and weeks. They laughed for weeks as I wallowed. “You guys almost finished?” I said.

They immediately stopped laughing and stared at me, straight-faced. “You don’t like the sound of laughter?” said J.

“You hate laughter?” said the fox.

I wasn’t taking any more of this shit. “CAN WE GET BACK TO WINTER?” I suggested.

The fox and J looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and said together, “OK, Biff, winter.”

I took a deep breath, composed myself, took another deep breath, composed myself some more and said, “It’s like death.”

Simultaneously, the fox and J yawned.

“C’mon guys,” I said. “Look around! Everything’s covered in a shroud of snow. A shroud! There’s no smell, no warmth…nobody’s wearing shorts and t-shirts. No sandals. The beaches are closed. The swimming pools are empty. The outdoor patios for every bar and coffee shop in town are closed. As far as I can see, there’s not a single happy blade of grass. Winter is death and death is winter and all I want to do is wallow in self pity and cry for every blade of grass buried under a shroud of snow. And I want to put on shorts and sandals and a t-shirt, curl up under my bed and wait for spring.”

“Whoa,” said J. “That was good wallow,  Biff. Are those tears in your eyes?

“Yep,” said the fox. “Biff’s crying. Ah…Biff…did we make you cry?”

They laughed again. For days and weeks. Laughed as a tsunami of tears washed over my face. “And my money tree died,” I said.

The fox and J looked at my dead money tree, browned with death and wondering, “Wtf?” And they laughed some more.