Chicago author Jerry Brennan recently published his book “Resistance,” an epic WWII novel about the Czech assassination plot against the little known but pivotal Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. Brennan studied history at West Point and journalism at Columbia, and now works in telecommunications here in Chicago. He writes short stories and poetry as well as novels, occasionally under a pseudonym, working on projects and contributing to a literary review he co-edits with a friend when he’s not working his day job.
Like many other authors, Brennan found the traditional publishing industry somewhat less than receptive, so he took a practical approach: he started his own publishing company and put out the book himself. With $6,840 he raised on Kickstarter.com, Brennan financed the creation of Tortoise Books and the publishing of “Resistance,” which launched at the Printers Row Lit Fest last June. The Kickstarter video features Brennan and his pregnant fiancée engaged in a staged argument over how they’ll have enough money to finance the wedding and the baby—they take turns looking straight into the camera in ghostly deadpan, affirming that they would never use their pregnancy to wrangle sympathy donations.
Brennan spoke over email about Elliott Smith, literary gatekeeping, and how to start an indie publishing company.
You’ve had a diverse career so far—West Point, Columbia, food service, the corporate world, and more. How did you come to be a writer?
I’ve always been a brooding and introverted book lover, so I’ve had the writing personality for a lot longer than I’ve been a writer. And I’m not sure I wanted to be a writer, but I’ve always had story ideas that I can’t stop thinking about, ideas I needed to get down on paper and flesh out. As far as doing other things, if anything, I think I explored other career paths—the military, the corporate world, even waiting tables—in part so I’d have more things to write about than just being a writer. (A lot of writers say they don’t know how to do anything else—I wouldn’t say that, and I’ve made a decent living in other fields. In fact, I think the worst thing any writer can do is write in the hopes of escaping their life—T. S. Eliot wrote most of his best poems while holding down a job at a bank.) There’s a line in an Elliott Smith song that I can always relate to; he says, “The noise is coming out, and if it’s not out now, then tomorrow, tomorrow.” If I write a lot I feel very lonely and disconnected, but if I don’t do it, I feel like something’s not coming out that needs to come out. So I know how to do other things, but I don’t know how to not do this.
“Resistance” is full of painstaking, documentary-style detail. How did the idea to write it as a novel develop?
Very slowly, over the course of multiple decades! In 1992 or 1993, I read a book called “Fatherland,” an alternate history by Robert Harris where Nazi Germany had won World War II. Reinhard Heydrich was a major figure in the narrative, and Harris mentioned in the book’s postscript that, in real life, Heydrich had been assassinated in 1942. Now, I was a precocious kid—still in high school—but I thought I knew all there was to know about World War II. So I was surprised that there was this assassination of a major Nazi figure—one of his contemporaries called him “the hidden pivot” of Nazi Germany—that I hadn’t heard about. A few months later, I was browsing the bargain shelf at the mall and I came across a pretty definitive history of the assassination, a book by an English author named Callum MacDonald. I bought it and read it a few times, but I felt there was something missing. And I went to West Point and did some other stuff and then went off to grad school, and I wrote a lot of other things, but this assassination was always in the back of my mind, and here and there I’d pick up books that MacDonald had used as sources (particularly one called “Master of Spies,” by a Czech general named František Moravec), and the more I read about the assassination, the more I felt it was this tremendous Shakespearean story that hadn’t gotten its due.
Did you know the novel form would be the right one?
I had a few false starts—times when I almost got started but then chickened out and worked on other projects because I wasn’t sure I could write a realistic fiction set in that time. And in 2006, I had a chance to go back to Prague—I’d been there briefly as a cadet—and I was finally able to visit the spot where Heydrich was attacked, and the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, where the assassins holed up afterward. And I figured I’d write a screenplay about the story, and when I’d sat down to write it, I realized I’d started actually envisioning some of the scenes in the book. Not the major scenes, the assassination and so on, because those were relatively straightforward. But minor scenes, I started to envision them, and I started to think maybe I could pull off a convincing screenplay. So I threw one together, but then I went out to Hollywood for a screenwriting pitchfest and realized how tremendously difficult it is to write and sell a screenplay, and realized I had to write it as a novel. I figured it would take a few months. It ended up taking three years (and another longer trip to Prague), plus another three years of revising it and shopping it around.
What kind of responses have you gotten so far?
There was another book about the Heydrich assassination that came out this year, and it got a lot of critical attention, but plenty of readers hated it, and I posted my own review of it, and some of those readers found my book and loved it. So that’s a gratifying first step—to get unsolicited five-star reviews from strangers on Amazon. But reviews aren’t the only answer—there are plenty of bogus reviews out there, and people are paying for reviews or doing mutual you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours reviews, and it’s another problem for indie publishing, because it adds to the seedy used-car salesman vibe. We have gotten some reviews from friends and family, but I always ask people to identify themselves as such, and if they don’t, I’ll out them in the comments. Indie publishing needs to police itself if it wants to go anywhere. Cheerleaders are great, but if the cheers don’t match what’s happening on the field, eventually you stop paying attention.
Like many beginning authors, you first tried the traditional publishing route. What was that experience like?
The traditional publishing route was a soul-crushing horror. Back in 2007, I was waiting tables here in Chicago. And there was a literary agency in the same building as my restaurant. I’d written query letters and done all the standard “Writer’s Market” B.S. on a couple past projects, with no luck, but I figured the personal touch might help, so I went up there to introduce myself one day and told them I was working on this manuscript. They told me to query them when it was finished. It was another year or so before it was done, but I finished and polished the manuscript, then finished and polished the query letter, then went back to hand-deliver it so they’d remember me. The agent shook my hand and immediately used hand sanitizer on herself. That was on a Friday; I got their rejection letter in my mailbox the very next day. I’d never known mail could travel so fast!
Was it all that bad?
I polished my query letter some more and sent it around to some New York agencies, with no luck. Then a friend of mine mentioned that his friend had recently worked in a major New York agency—incidentally enough, the same one that represented Robert Harris, the author of “Fatherland.” I got in touch with them, and the woman who read my manuscript was very enthusiastic, and I figured I was all set. She gave me some helpful suggestions, and I did a round of revisions based on those suggestions, but after I got her a second draft, I stopped hearing from her. She stopped returning emails or answering phone calls. I was very depressed, but then I thought something I should have thought in the beginning: “Hey, I graduated from a decent grad school, and a couple of people I know have put out books. I should see if they can help.” And an acquaintance from grad school got me in touch with his agent, and I sent them sample chapters, and they asked for the whole manuscript, and I gave it to them, and somehow they, too, stopped responding to my emails. And I did another round of blind queries this past fall, and I wasn’t even getting rejection letters in most cases—the rule of thumb in the publishing industry seems to be no-response-means-no.
It sounds like that experience put you off the publishing industry.
I suspect most publishers and agents really mean well, but they want people to think they’re the gatekeepers preventing us from drowning in a sea of bad books, whereas the reality (I suspect) is that they’re barely keeping their own heads above water, looking for the major projects that will be their life rafts and keep them from drowning in a sea of query letters.
So you gave up on that path. Not only did you self-publish, though; you actually started your own publishing company to do it. What inspired you to start Tortoise Books?
Basically, it flowed from these other experiences, and from life in the corporate world. I’d self-published before, under a pen name, and I’d seen other people self-publish, and I realized that most self-published books are crap, and that most self-published authors think they’re better than they are, and if you have one of those companies as a brand name on your book, you might as well throw it in the garbage, because people aren’t going to take it seriously. The self-publishing industry has no incentive to police itself, because people are paying them up front for editing, promotion and other services. And if you’re paid up front, you have no stake in the future success of a book—you want to do as little as you can do to justify the fees you’ve charged. And that’s one thing the traditional publishing industry DID get right—if an agent only gets paid when you get a deal, and they get a percentage of that deal, they want to get you the best deal possible, and they want you to get more deals, because they have a stake in your success.
Anyway, I didn’t want to self-publish again, but nothing was happening going the traditional route. And I was trying to get poems and stories published, so I could have more stuff to put on the query letter, and that wasn’t happening. And I got involved in putting out a little literary newspaper with some friends—a thing my friend Liz started called “The Deadline.” And I remembered some quote I read about how, if you were having a hard time getting into literary journals, you needed to start your own literary journal. And I read something about book imprints, and I realized I could start my own, and build my own brand, and hopefully recruit some other authors as well, because that was something I really enjoyed about “The Deadline.” It’s great when you’re not just doing something for yourself, when you’re helping someone else hone their writing and you put together a work with some great original voices.
Unlike most self-published books out there, “Resistance” has a beautiful physical presence. The book itself is a very high quality, cloth-bound, traditional-looking hardcover. Was creating an attractive product a major goal?
That was absolutely an important goal, but one I didn’t think of right away. Back at West Point, I heard an officer say “If it looks good, it might be good, but if it looks bad, it is bad.” And that’s a good rule of thumb for books, too. It’s impossible to make a perfect book, but if the cover art looks like it was made by an eight-year-old, or if the book’s full of typos, the reader will get distracted and won’t get sucked in to the story. And my favorite books and movies are the ones where I forget I’m reading a book or watching a movie, so that’s what I want to put out there.
How did you make that happen?
I have a brother-in-law in the packaging industry, and somehow he mentioned that he’d been working with some companies that printed books, and he showed me some samples. And you realize there are features you just don’t get with self-publishing—glossy inserts, spot UV gloss, embossed covers. (I was particularly keen on glossy inserts because I somehow got the idea that I wanted this book to appear like a history book—with legitimate historical photos on glossy inserts.) So I got in touch with Edwards Brothers Malloy out in Ann Arbor, and they weren’t able to do all the cover features I would have liked, because I still wanted a small and economical early printing. But they were able to do silver foil on the hardcovers and glossy inserts.
Does Tortoise have a particular focus—thematic, genre, aesthetic—in terms of what it wants to put out?
Quality. Or more specifically, literary merit—books and poems that hold up to a second or third or fourth reading, that you’ll see something new in every time. A lot of authors write shit because their writing is just a tool for ego validation—they write characters that are better, smarter, more attractive versions of themselves, and you know nothing ever bad’s really going to happen to those characters, and they aren’t going to do anything really interesting. Tom Clancy’s not going to kill off Jack Ryan. Jack Ryan’s not going to fuck up big-time. I’m more drawn to Dostoyevsky, Camus, Koestler and the like because they wrote books that changed the way I think, books that blew me away, books that I want to keep going back to. I want to put out stuff that’ll be around in 500 years.
Are there other companies or people that have served as models for you in developing Tortoise?
Mostly indie rock labels. Indie rock has done something indie publishing hasn’t entirely done, which is to set itself up as an incubator for talent. Indie rock has several labels with a reputation for quality—when you see that a band’s on 4AD or Merge or Matador or Drag City, you know they’re not just your normal flash-in-the-pan top-forty B.S., but that they might actually have something interesting to say. Also rappers…I read something about the Notorious B.I.G. that basically said he rapped his way into the lifestyle he wanted to have. Not that I want to be rich and famous, per se, but if you put yourself out there in a way that gets attention, you get attention, and if you don’t, you don’t.
I’ve also learned a lot in the corporate world—in telecom, there are a lot of agents who arrange deals for selling bandwidth and connectivity to companies. And some of them are substantial operations, and some of them have gmail addresses, and when you type their postal address into Google street view, you see a house and not an office building, so you know they’re not that big of a deal. As Malcolm X said, in order to get something, you’ve gotta look like you’ve already got something.
Tortoise being as small-scale as it is, how do you market “Resistance,” and other books going forward?
I had a table at the Printers Row Lit Fest, which was great, because I was able to meet a lot of readers and sell a decent number of books. And I’ve been busy on Twitter and on GoodReads, but I might hire a publicist, because social media can only take you so far, and it’s very time-consuming. And I’ve been a relatively active Amazon reviewer for a while—I’m too much of a perfectionist to post enough reviews to really climb in the rankings, but it is a fun way to actually connect with people and influence their decision to buy something, and that’s something I really like doing, especially if there’s a book or an album that I love.
Does Tortoise have other manuscripts in the process of being published?
I tried to hit up some friends to see if they had anything worthwhile that they wanted to publish, but nobody came through with anything! And I threw up a query form on our website because I wanted to see if there were other people in my boat. To date, I’ve had one submission, and I rejected it because it wasn’t a good fit. I have a few more things of my own I’d like to get out there—some good poems. But I want to put out a collection that holds together thematically. I always like concept albums, and I’d like to do a concept poetry collection. And I would like to recruit some new talent and get some other people out there, and it’ll happen eventually, and that’s part of the brand—I do believe that slow and steady wins in the end. And I have a few more book ideas on the slow cooker, and a new manuscript that’s about a quarter done.