Friday, August 29, 2014

Ace wants to see my full manuscript

We interrupt the tales of my travels through Southeast Asia to bring you a world-shaking update: 

As frequent followers of this blog are aware, I sent an e-mail query to Ace Science Fiction, America's oldest continuously operating sci-fi press (though it has since been acquired by and become an imprint of the Penguin Group, one of the "Big Six" of American publishing houses). I sent them a synopsis of my first novel, Revival, and the first ten pages of the manuscript copied and pasted into the body of the e-mail itself. Ace & Roc's website — which has since disappeared, I've noticed — made it clear that the reporting time for unsolicited, unagented queries was five months. I marked the calendar for June 29, 2014. 

That date came and went and I heard nothing. Undaunted and unsurprised, I sent the manuscript — the whole thing this time, as per instructions — off to Baen Books on June 30. Their reporting time, seeing as they accept manuscripts rather than mere queries, is a whopping 12 months. I settled in for a long wait and buckled down to enjoy my trip through Southeast Asia. 

Then the bombshell came whizzing in on Wednesday, August 27. An e-mail from Ace Science Fiction popped up in my inbox: 

Dear Mr. Post,
Thank you for submitting Revival to Ace/Roc. I apologize for the delayed response; as you may imagine we have many queries to go through and not much time to go through them. I enjoyed your sample and would be delighted to look at the full book. Could you please send me the full manuscript as a word document?
Thank you!
The Editorial Staff
Ace / Roc Science Fiction & Fantasy

I b
linked. The world seemed to be falling away from me. The rattling cicadas in the trees in the parking lot thirteen stories below died away into silence. The rattle and bang of trucks on the main road vanished. The screams and shouts of children on the playground turned into popping soap-bubbles. I called Miss H in from the other room so she could read the e-mail and assure me that I wasn't seeing things. Her face lit up like a sunrise in low orbit and she gave me a huge hug, words of love and encouragement dropping from her sweet lips. I just sort of sat there like a buffoon and soaked it all up. You may rest assured that my manuscript in its entirety was sent off within the next few minutes. 

Now it's a waiting game again. I have no idea how long it'll take Ace to read through all 571 pages and 114,500 words of my novel. They haven't accepted it, I know, but I'm still psyched beyond words. Just to have them express this amount of interest rather than issuing me a flat rejection is...tremendous. And Penguin Books, no less! I must have done something right, right? 

I can't help but hope that all those agonizing, soul-rending hours (years, really) that I spent crafting and editing this novel are finally paying off. I wasn't just monkeying around. Honest. 

Lise Gagne/iStockphoto
Wish me luck, folks. You'll be the first to know when I get the news...good or bad. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

aboard the Reunification Express

Let me introduce three people: 

1) Dong, the night clerk at the Hanoi Asia Star Hotel in Hanoi,

2) Ed, a fellow vacationer in Vietnam, and 

3) Mary, his girlfriend. 

That's a needless miniaturization of the actual characters involved, but what the hell. You get the idea. 

Dong—the clerk, the gallant host, the standard-bearer for Vietnamese hospitality, the All-Accommodating One. 

I was in a tricky position, you see. I'd paid for one night at the hotel, but I technically needed to store my luggage longer than the 12:00 p.m. checkout time, since I'd be taking the 11:00 p.m. Reunification Express to Saigon on the evening of July 14th. Dong, however, had me covered. On the morning of the 14th, he magnanimously offered to let me—and Ed and Mary, as it happened, 'cause we were all taking the same train. What a guy. We thanked him profusely, went about our separate tours of Hanoi, and thought no more about it.

...until we got back to the hotel that evening and Dong said we had to fork over another night's fee. 

I guess Ed, Mary and I somehow misunderstood that we could keep our stuff in our rooms past checkout time for a price. Twenty-six U.S. dollars, to be exact. 

Oh well. At least Dong was kind enough to call us a cab to the Hanoi Railway Station. 

Ed was extraordinarily tall and mildly tanned, with dirty-blonde hair and stubble that were refreshingly short. Mary was petite and blonde and fair-skinned. They were both from England. Like me, they'd come to Vietnam from China, having just finished a year of teaching in a remote mountain town in the vicinity of Kunming. All three of us were suffering from the climate. Lathered with sweat, we heaved our ponderous packs out of the green-and-white Hanoi cab and through the damp air into the beat-up station. The structure as a whole was built in 1902, but the central hall had been bombed flat in the war and rebuilt in a more modern style, leaving the station a grotesque Frankenstein of architectural styles, with French colonial wings and a lobby right out of the tacky 1970s:

We'd arrived in good time. Our train was idling on the track, but boarding wouldn't begin for another 30 minutes. The three of us had plenty of time to buy cookies, snack mix, and bottles of water at the shop. We wouldn't reach HCMC for two nights and a day, and though the Reunification Express had meal service, there were no vending machines or restaurant cars or snack bars. We wanted to be prepared. 

The waiting room's high ceiling and garish incandescent lights gave it the look of an ancient high school gymnasium, complete with the smells of sweaty bodies and cigarette smoke. Ed, Mary and I sat and talked as we waited for boarding to begin. They were only going as far as Da Nang, about two-thirds of the way down the country, and catching a bus thence to their final destination, Hoi An. I didn't know much it, but Ed and Mary described it as a "beachy, coupley sort of place."  They'd had their fill of Chinese bureaucracy and scholastic callousness in their mountain eyrie near Kunming, and were long due for an idyllic vacation. I hastened to assure them that matters weren't much better in Korea, depending on which school employed you. I detected something of the Geordie twang in Mary's accent, and I found that she had a paternal grandfather from Newcastle. Hanging out with all these English people seems to be paying dividends for this kid from California.

When the boarding call went out at 10:15, we said our goodbyes: Ed and Mary were in Car 10, and I in Car 11. I stowed my stuff on a convenient shelf above the door of my four-person berth while peppy, fatuous V-pop piped over the PA system. I was supposed to have the lower bunk, but my berth-mates were a young woman with a baby, another young woman I took to be her sister or close friend, and an old woman so shriveled and tiny that she looked like a sun-dried tomato animated by some kindly wizard and sent to wander the earth. Obviously it was down to me and the sister/friend to take the upper berths. 

Oh well. I didn't mind at first. I like to be up above things. It's why I'm a pilot. 

The train slid into motion at eleven o'clock on the nose, and I went to sleep soon after. There were a couple of foreigners in the berth next door and they were being noisy as hell, cooing and speaking baby-talk to two hyperactive Vietnamese toddlers. Thank goodness for earplugs. 

I slept passably well, though I woke up a few times, including our 4:00 a.m. stop at Vinh. I remember stumbling down the hall to the can at 5:30, misty jungle-clad hills rolling by the windows and startled water buffalo cantering away from the tracks. 

I got up for good at seven o'clock and ate some junk food until the breakfast cart arrived. The scenery was fantastic: the sun had burned off the mist and there were cloud-wreathed hills, sheer rock cliffs, and a muddy brown river winding by outside: 

I cracked a window in the companionway and did my best to get pictures, but the train was so well air-conditioned and the weather outside so damn muggy that the camera lenses fogged up something fierce. Sorry.

The breakfast cart came by at eight o'clock. I bought two hard-boiled eggs and something which looked and tasted like chicken inside a ball of sticky rice wrapped up in a lotus leaf, which I later discovered was called lo mai gai, a southern Chinese dish. (The whole meal was just 20,000 VND, less than a dollar at the time of this writing!) Wherever lo mai gai was from, it was superb, the most satisfying breakfast imaginable. Imagine, if you can, your humble correspondent sitting on the end of the old Vietnamese lady's bed (at her kindly insistence), mowing down on this sumptuous goodness, staring out of the berth's open door, across the narrow companionway, and into the languorous blue-and-green haze of the Vietnamese countryside.

After breakfast I went to the tenth car and peeked into Ed and Mary's compartment. They were still sound asleep, so I found a folding metal chair in the companionway and plunked myself down upon it to get some more pictures. I'm reasonably certain that I got a good shot of the Perfume River as we were rolling into Hue: 

By and by Ed and Mary woke up and came to the rear of the car for their morning ablutions, and we chatted some more. We happened to bump into some other foreigners from South Africa and bent their ears as well. We spent much of the day in this fashion, alternately talking, taking pictures, relaxing in our berths, reading (I was tearing up The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger), or staring outside at the rolling countryside, which was alternately sunny and monsoon-wracked. 

Then, not long after the rain clouds cleared, I looked out of the companionway windows and saw the South China Sea!

We were approaching Da Nang. I was desperately hungry and longing to sample some station food. I'd always read in Paul Theroux books about the enticing goodies you can find at stalls at train stations throughout Asia, and I'd heard that Vietnam possessed several rice dishes with interchangeable toppings. I thereupon hatched a daring plot to leap off the train at Da Nang (the city visible in the third-to-last photo above) and nab me some eats. 

And I done it. As the train squeaked to a halt at the platform, I bid a hasty goodbye to Ed and Marytheir bags on their backs, their hats on their heads, and smiles on their faces. Then I sprinted to the nearest stall, well hidden from the blasting tropical sun under the station's broad eaves, and cast an appraising eye over the goods. There were prawns, chicken, pan-seared fish, marinated beef strips, fried eggs, Chinese sausage, and the standard assortment of scallions and cabbage on the side. With frantic urgency I ordered a Styrofoam container of broken rice (cơm tấm) with prawns and fried eggs. The bearded gentleman behind the counter, his high and liver-spotted forehead wrinkled with gaiety, understood my hurry. He bid his slender, harried-looking female assistant (his daughter or niece, I'm guessing) to serve me up. As a final gesture of accommodation he hurriedly threw some chopsticks into the plastic bag and bid me bon voyage. I dashed back aboard the train well before it pulled away. I sat on my folding chair in the companionway and happily munched on my well-earned and delectable lunch as we left Da Nang, immune to the envious stares of my fellow travelers. 

And so the Reunification Express thundered southward in the golden evening light, away from the South China Sea and onto the southern flatland with its innumerable rice paddies and wallowing water buffaloes, under a balmy blue-and-orange sky dotted with cotton-ball clouds: 

The second night was rougher than the first. The baby was fussing and crying and whimpering for hours. The sister/friend buried herself in a complex routine, wherein she would dial a number on her cell phone, yell and scream and holler and harangue the person at the other end for some ten minutes at a stretch, hang up, kvetch to her sister on the bunk below her, and then repeat the process. The old lady below me, having spent most of the day rocking back and forth with her legs crossed and her gnarled hands and fingers in the lotus position, repeating mantras printed on a laminated card, was out like a light. I lay there and tried to block out the noise of the rattling train, the yammering sister/friend and the crying child, which somehow penetrated the inch of noise-deadening foam I'd crammed into my ears. 

Nonetheless, I was sound asleep when the announcement came over the PA system at 5:45 that we were pulling into Ho Chi Minh City...well past our scheduled arrival time of 3:00 a.m. 

But that means we've reached my first day in Saigon, and that's a story for another day.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hanoi's Old Quarter

Before I begin, here are the rules which governed—or initially governed—my trip through Southeast Asia. 

  1. No food selfies
  2. No foreign food (meaning Western or American)
  3. No getting suckered—bargain for everything
  4. Wherever possible, travel by train

As a result, I didn't take photos of any of the foods I ate in Hanoi, more's the pity. I'll just have to make do with other people's, I guess. Thank Gawd for the Internet. 

I had a lovely, full sleep the night of July 13th, after catching barely ninety minutes in 36 hours. I awoke at mid-morning, "had a good gap and a stretch," and peered out the window:

Anvil clouds were already piling up in every quarter of the bright blue sky. I made a mental note to buy an umbrella. The Hanoi Asia Star provided a free breakfast, so I sat in the tiny two-table dining room and had an omelet with a buff, broad-shouldered Singaporean fellow named Dylan. He and his sister were visiting Hanoi for a day before haring off to Ha Long Bay. As soon as I budged outside the air-conditioned oasis of my room I'd begun to sweat, but Dylan was dry as a bone. Upon hearing of my own travel plans, he cautioned me that Singapore would likely be even hotter and wetter than Hanoi, to which I reacted with some dismay. 

I went back up to my room, e-mailed my parents to let me know I'd arrived safely, updated my journals, and slathered on sunscreen. For some inexplicable reason, I decided not to pocket my rain poncho—figuring, perhaps, that it would be easy to find and buy a cheap bumbershoot at a convenience store somewhere.

I stopped in at the first store I saw to buy 1.5 liters of water. It cost 12,000 VND—about 75 cents at the time. No umbrellas though.

Next stop was Hoan Kiem Lake:


I wasn't hurrying. I was strolling. Even so, I was drenched. Great wet spots appeared on my linen shirt, the bandanna I'd stuck under my hat was already soaked through, and my thighs were as wet and squeaky as trained dolphins. My sweaty fingers smudged the postcards I bought and addressed and sent at the moldy, water-stained French colonial post office.

My luck ran out during the long walk from the post office to the Maison Centrale—better known as the "Hanoi Hilton." The skies broke. The clouds weltered up and burst. There was nothing gradual about this kind of rain: full in the grip of monsoon season, the Vietnamese skies vomited all their contents upon me with wanton abandon. One minute it was dry; the next minute the air was filled with drops of water that would have done that godawful third Matrix movie proud. I thought I'd been sopping with sweat earlier. Now I was truly soaked. Unwilling to appear unprepared or chagrined, I stood defiantly out in the open for a few moments; then I slunk under the eaves of a nearby government building with a few other feckless souls. We stood there for some 20 minutes, trying to wait the damn storm out. It was too wet to light up a smoke. None of us would meet each others' eyes. All of us felt the caustic shame of being caught without an umbrella or poncho during monsoon season. 

Presently, there was the wet slapping sound of flip-flops on rainy pavement. A pack of dripping young English and Irish women, their tank tops and shorts plastered enticingly to their bodies by the fruits of the monsoon, sprinted up to our hiding-place. They inquired of everyone present whether the Hanoi Hilton was nearby. Your humble correspondent, having faithfully memorized the route before leaving his hotel room, pointed these women in the right direction. Together we strode soggily around the corner to the Maison Centrale.

The original door—the one John McCain probably walked through, the putz.


This place was yet another letdown. Ninety-five percent of it was devoted to the cruel oppression of the French during the colonial era, and the bitter tortures and deprivations the noble Vietnamese resistance fighters endured at their captors' hands. One small room was devoted to the American fighter pilots who were incarcerated here during the Vietnam War, and even that was decorated with propaganda: staged photographs showing American P.O.W.s raising chickens, decorating Christmas trees, attending church services, and holding chess tournaments. The entire upper level of one building was devoted to giant, tacky brass plaques memorializing the glorious names of the Vietnamese heroes held by the French (second-to-last picture above). I was put off by the whole thing, frankly. I couldn't wait to get back outside into the sunny, drying streets and make my way to the Temple of Literature. 

Now, here's the funny part: remember way back in 2013 when I went to Japan, and I saw the famous Zōjō-ji temple in Tokyo? And I got the prayer etiquette all wrong? And all during my train trip through Japan I kept getting it wrong such that, if any Shinto deities actually heard my prayers, they'd have either laughed them off or put an eternal curse on me?

I kept up my streak at the Temple of Literature, a Confucian school to which the Lý dynasty sent their best and brightest youths. I forgot to take off my hat while donating a few dong and saying a brief prayer. May I be damned to ignorance forevermore.  

Does your washroom look this cool?

These four pillars carried an inscription in Chinese admonishing horsemen to dismount already, gosh dang it to heck. 

I caught a cab back to the hotel, hung up my wet things, and walked back to a likely neighborhood I'd seen north of Hoan Kiem Lake, which was packed with eateries. I found a tiny shop the precise size and shape of a scooter garage that sold bun cha, fried pork slices in broth with vermicelli, with as much minced garlic and sliced pepper as you'd care to add (and the omnipresent complimentary mint salad).

from Wikimedia Commons

I bolted the lot down, walked another block and stopped in at a foreigner's bar for some nem (Vietnamese sausage wrapped in rice paper) and two more 450-ml bottles of Bia Ha Noi. 

from Wikimedia Commons
Okay, I'm stopping there. I'll tell you about the rest of this evening, and boarding the express train to Saigon, in the next entry.