Author Matt Davenport
My beloved graciously decided that my 40th birthday was a significant enough milestone to justify the purchase of a Nook, the Barnes & Noble e-reader. To be honest, I’d been somewhat resistant, in part because I’m one of those annoying people who will, often without any provocation whatsoever, wax eloquent on the pleasures of “real” books—the feel of the pages, the sibilant sound of one page slipping against another, the old-school technology that holds many a wonder without ever needing to be plugged in to an outlet.
The other reason I’d been resistant is because I review so many books, and the reviewing system is still very much driven by physical books. Even with the advent of NetGalley.com, a very small percentage of books are provided by publishers in an e-format. As a result, I was afraid I would be the proud owner of a Nook I never used.
I was explaining this concern to Matt Davenport, a.k.a. Matt the Nook Guy, at the Cedar Rapids Barnes & Noble. I didn’t see his response coming: “You’re a book reviewer? I’ve written a book.”
That’s how I came to possess a copy of Random Stranger (which Davenport provided as a physical book). The novel was the output of the 27-year-old author’s participation in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo—nanowrimo.org), which occurs annually in November and encourages aspiring authors to crank out a 50,000-word book in 30 days.
Davenport actually needed two NaNoWriMos to finish Random Stranger. He wrote a little better than half of the 52,000-word novel in November 2009; he finished the book in November 2010.
When the book was done, he had the same impulse experienced by many a writer: “I want to publish, I want to publish, I want to publish.” But as he told me in an interview in the Barnes & Noble Café, publishing via traditional means isn’t easy. He’d already had short stories rejected by “Asimov’s Science Fiction” and “Analog Science Fiction & Fact” and figured a novel would be even harder to sell. So, on December 29, 2010, he self-published Random Stranger via Lulu.com.
Davenport “was big into urban fantasy” when he was writing Random Stranger. He’s a huge fan, for example, of the Matthew Swift series written by Catherine Webb under the pseudonym Kate Griffin (kategriffin.net), calling it “the best series I’ve ever read.” He’s also a fan of Jim Butcher and Mike Carey.
But as I read Random Stranger, the writer who came to mind was Neil Gaiman. Davenport’s idea—that certain abstract concepts like “random stranger,” “true love,” “karma,” and “justice” have acquired personified reality via the strength of humans’ repeated thinking and talking about them—reminded me of the setup for Gaiman’s famed Sandman series of comics. It’s high concept, to be sure, and Davenport set himself a particularly difficult task by making his lead character, Randy Stranger, the very essence of randomness. Nevertheless, Davenport largely succeeds in telling a coherent story about his random protagonist.
Filled with action and frequently funny, the book, by and large, elicits the reaction Davenport told me he hoped it would. He wants people who read it to think, “It’s fun. It’s got plot, it’s got story, but you’re reading it because it’s fun.”
All of that said, however, the book suffers mightily from Davenport’s awkward prose style. His approach to editing is at least partly to blame. “I just went through and reread it a bunch of times . . . I didn’t ask many others to read it.” The few others he did ask to read it—he described them as “people I hang out with, friends, people I like to bounce ideas off of”—didn’t help him out much.
Here’s a sample sentence that’s emblematic of Davenport’s style: “As to shift gears mentally, in the middle of going reverse, and without hitting the breaks, as was her usual, Karma asked, ‘What are we really going to do about this guy trying to kill us Randy?’ ”
As one adapts to the linguistic knots Davenport ties, they become easier to untangle, allowing the cleverness and energy of his story to come to the fore, but they are nevertheless an ongoing distraction. Davenport told me that the trade paperback edition, which he published the day before our July interview, is a substantially re-edited version of the mass market version he gave me to read.
In addition to the print-on-demand paperback versions, Random Stranger is available for Nook and Kindle. Davenport plans to publish a short story about Cupid, who is known somewhat confusingly by several other names in Random Stranger, as well as two additional novels featuring the “Abstracts.”
It is possible that I’ll choose to keep up with the story via the e-versions Davenport will no doubt make available for my new Nook.