Here’s the short version: My first book, The Iron Mountain, is now available on Audible and iTunes. I recorded the audiobook myself. There is sword-fighting, extortion, brutal torture, spiritual redemption, and bloody revenge. And it’s even a true story. (Basically).
Here’s the long version: In 2007, I discovered “Castle Isenberg,” a medieval fortress in the hills of western Germany. I was shocked, I was excited, and I booked a flight to Frankfurt.
The story of this journey became my first book-length manuscript, The Iron Mountain. Half the story is a travelogue about rural Germany, and the other half is a creative account of Friedrich von Isenberg, a 13th Century earl who accidentally assassinated the Archbishop of Cologne. No one knows whether I am actually descended from Friedrich’s line, but my family came from this part of Europe, and I loved that our unusual surnames matched.
A Publishing Fiasco
Before I continue, here is a painful truth: First-time authors are the worst. If you’ve always yearned to see your book in print, the desperation blinds you. You’ll do just about anything to see your name on a bookshelf. Successful authors are always deriding this behavior, insisting that a “true artist” doesn’t care about publication. Well, successful authors can shove it, because they’ve forgotten what that yearning is like. Without an editor’s validation, a committed author agonizes. You feel like your very soul is dying of starvation.
In 2009, a tiny company called Sabellapress accepted my manuscript and offered to publish it. I was excited, but also wary. The publisher was a man I’ll call Walter; he seemed like an eccentric guy, and the press was clearly very small. I was not yet aware that “Sabellapress” was really just Walter, a war veteran with PTSD so severe that he relied on a therapy dog to survive each day. He enjoyed busking, and he had performed a one-man show about George Washington. We had an upbeat correspondence, and he seemed decent enough, so I decided to proceed with publication.
Long story short, Walter’s life was more disastrous than I realized. Technically, he had been homeless for months. He said his computer crashed, delaying our efforts, but I wondered how he fed himself, much less repaired a desktop. Then, one night, Walter said that a Doberman attacked him during a walk in the park, and his service dog was severely wounded. Then Walter “forgot” to send me my 10 advance copies. Then he ended up in a treatment center. Then, he disappeared.
After a long silence, another Sabellapress author wrote me to ask about Walter. None of the press’ many authors had heard from him, but perhaps I had? I replied, saying that I’d heard nothing. Walter had vanished. He had edited my book, sent me 10 advance copies, and made the title available on Amazon, but he had never sent me a royalty payment, and all correspondence had ended. In December of 2009, I had sent him a pleasant year-end email, thanking him for his hard work and expressing well wishes. He had simply replied: “Thank you. Merry Christmas.” And that was the last I ever heard from him.
As a printed book, The Iron Mountain looked awful. Walter’s first mockup of the cover was horrifyingly bad, and I begged him to change it. The final cover was better, but also bland and ignorable. The interior was comically ugly; the font was big enough to accommodate seeing-impaired readers. The back matter misidentified the book as “historical fiction” (a genre I had painstakingly avoided), and Friedrich’s surname was misspelled “Eisenberg,” indicating that Walter had missed the entire point of the story. It was embarrassing to read this book aloud, much less watch people buy it. I was almost grateful that Walter had breached our contract in multiple ways, but it raised an important 21st Century question: Is it better to court a terrible publisher, knowing that at least someone else has assessed the quality of your manuscript, or should you just throw up your hands and publish the goddamn thing yourself? In the end, if the writing is good and reaches an audience, what is the difference?
In any event, the book is now out-of-print. Even the $2,475 copy no longer exists on Amazon. No ebook version exists. You can find much of the book online, but if you want a real paperback, forget about it. When Sabellapress tanked, so did The Iron Mountain’s future. Or so it seemed.
A Second Life
Half a decade later, I recorded The Iron Mountain as an audiobook. This is all part of a grander plan—to make all my small-press books and chapbooks available in audio form—but The Iron Mountain is by far the most ambitious project so far. At four hours, the book is longer, fuller, and more complex than any of my previous audiobook projects. It tells a single complete story, from beginning to end.
I enjoyed rereading the book, which now seems written during a previous lifetime. I am older now, no longer a zippy 27-year-old freelance writer renting an apartment in Pittsburgh, but rather a calmer 35-year-old staff writer renting a condo in Costa Rica. I am now married. We have a car. We have owned a house and plan to own one again. No longer desperate, I have published several books with established small presses. I have won awards for various things. I still have things to prove, but not the same things I sought to prove in 2007.
Yet I’m still very fond of The Iron Mountain. I love the story, bizarre as it is. I appreciate the book’s valiant attempts at eloquence. Many of my observations now seem quaint, but others surprised me. I had forgotten about the woman with the pitchfork. I had forgotten about the cigarette machine in the middle of someone’s yard. I had even forgotten about the teenagers playing dice in the Biergarten. Many years from now, I look forward to reading this book once more, to remember so many more things that I’ll have also forgotten.
I am still refining my recording skills, but The Iron Mountain is by far my best work so far. It is an imperfect audiobook, yet I am very happy overall. At last, The Iron Mountain has become the book it should always have been. As an auditory experience, it can never go out of print. I can tell the story directly to the listener, just as I told the story to my girlfriend and roommates when I first returned from Germany. The Iron Mountain has risen from the dead, and in a way, it’s more alive now than ever.