latest entry for First Impressions is from Rienk Tychon
with his story of how he discovered Whittemore.
As a Dutch publisher of commercial fiction I thought I knew a bit about American letters, especially of the twentieth century, commercial and literary, bestsellers and cult novels. The operating word here is a bit. I had never even heard about Whittemore. I first read about him when our US scout sent me Paul Di Fillipo's article in The Washington Post. I was immediately intrigued and decided to do a background check. So I
found Jerusalem Dreaming - one of the best fan sites
I have ever seen - and became even more intrigued by
the wealth of information on offer, the people who endorsed
the books and the comparisons with authors and books
that I loved. It was clear that I had to read the books.
I probably could not publish them on my suspense and
fantasy list, but they sounded like just the thing I
So I found out which literary agent represented the
estate and asked their subagent to send me the books.
I received all five, and immediately started on QUIN'S
SHANGHAI CIRCUS. It blew me away. SINAI TAPESTRY
was even better, with wonderful sentences that you want
to memorize, a parade of funny and tragic characters
and scenes and an ending that literally moved me to
tears. It was unlike anything I had ever read and breathtakingly
That was when I
decided that no matter what, I would publish Whittemore.
Maybe the books did not fit the Luitingh list, but I
vowed that I would find a way to make them fit.
So I did some thinking
and decided to take a leap of faith and offer for the
full Jerusalem Quartet. Although Tom Wallace believed
that at least QSC was published in Holland, I have found
no trace in any bibliography or at our national library,
so I don't think Whittemore has ever been published
in Dutch. The agent accepted my offer and we were in
business. I offered for the Jerusalem Quartet because
it is more topical than ever, with the Middle East being
the powder keg that it is, the Israeli-Palestine conflict
harder to unravel than ever and our fascination with
Islam, fundamentalism, terrorism at an all time high.
For understanding how the Middle East became what it
is today, the books are more illuminating than a library
of non-fiction. In comparison QSC is less topical, reads
like a debut (a great one though) and is harder to pitch,
though when the Jerusalem Quartet finds a readership,
QSC can easily be published as 'the seed to the quartet'.
That is the rational part of how a publisher thinks.
part is thinking about this venture at all, as my boss
was quick to point out. How could I buy even one twenty-year
old book that had never been a bestseller anywhere.
Let alone four! And worse yet, they were genre-defying
books! (Luitingh, my list, was split off from Luitingh~Sijthoff
- Holland's biggest publisher of commercial fiction
- mainly to publish Big Books with more success). Had
I not stated that Luitingh was intended as a real genre
list of suspense, thrillers, horror, fantasy and science
fiction? Where did these books fit in? Was I mad? Had
I not considered the huge investment of the complex
and expensive four book translation? And apart from
that the author had passed away, so we could not even
get him over! And he was not even published by a big
All true, but to
me publishing is also about dedication, about pushing
the envelope and not always doing the same old thing.
Even in present times, when accounting and marketing
seem all powerful, it is still about idea's, about creativity
and transformation. The unprecedented and totally unexpected
rise of J.K. Rowling, Alice Sebold and Dan Brown in
the past years were cases in point - as were the declining
sales of 'brand name' authors who had become stuck in
a form, people like Grisham. In the end publishing is
about connecting with people, about transformation.
Which means that
even though some things may seem like a puzzle or even
a daunting undertaking, if you get excited and can get
other people excited then a process can start and you
can reach a tipping point in which books can become
a success. Which is not the same as 'let the force be
with you' or hope for a miracle, you have to think hard
and work at it - and even then you will have your share
of failures. I have not been able to find a big Dutch
audience for "Cryptonomicon", and that still
bugs me, because it is a great book - in the tradition
of Whittemore - and it also means that we can't publish
Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. So you do need a share of
luck too. With Whittemore, we have gotten that share
When thinking of
Whittemore, I considered that he truly was ahead of
his time. In Locus Gary K. Wolfe said that the 'crypto-historical
novel' has now almost grown into a genre by itself and
he was right. He mentioned Tim Powers, Christopher Priest
and Neal Stephenson, but Ian Pearse's "Instance
of the Fingerpost", Katherine Neville's "The
Eight", Don DeLillo's "Underworld" and
Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" also spring to
mind. Quite a few of those books have been quite successful.
and JERUSALEM POKER are also magical realism
and though much more influenced by the 1001 Nights,
they are comparable with Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "Hundred
Years of Solitude" or the work of John Nichols
or even Neil Gaiman, who is published by Luitingh.
And these are spy
novels as well - wacky and off the wall, satirizing
Whittemore's former profession - but nevertheless he
has rightfully been compared with John Le Carré and Graham Greene. Both published by Luitingh~Sijthoff
by the way.
So all in all there
were a wealth of ways to choose on how to go about it
all. Indeed, Luitingh is not a literary publisher, so
just tagging it as literature was barred for us, and
calling these books thrillers or even literary thrillers
has been compared to the description of "Ulysses" as a walk through Dublin (thank you, Gary K. Wolfe)
but when reaching for an audience, a publisher must
be pragmatic and try any way he can.
So I started by
calling the literary translator who is responsible for
the Dutch editions of John Le Carré's books:
Rob van Moppes. He promised to read and to consider
taking on this job - not just SINAI TAPESTRY,
but all four books, one a year. A couple of days later
he told me that he loved it and would consider it an
honor to work on it. While he was gearing up for Whittemore
the surprise arrival of a new Le Carré, "Absolute
Friends", had to take precedence, but even this
was lucky because the extra time gave him the opportunity
for more research and more tinkering with Whittemore's
unique tone of voice, so important in a translation.
During his work on SINAI TAPESTRY we were in
frequent contact and he has become more enthusiastic
while time has passed. He is now a convert, and considers
this project his magnum opus - the most challenging
but also the most interesting and invigorating books
he has ever worked on.
Meanwhile, I had
bought two books by an unknown American author. A young,
living thriller author - don't get me wrong. One of
these books had failed two years earlier and the other
was not even written yet. Apart from the US publisher,
only an English publisher had taken this author on,
and even there it had not worked. The author was Dan
Brown, and the still unwritten book was "The Da
Vinci Code". By now, everyone knows about the phenomenon,
and how it traveled. In Holland DVC became a big bestseller
for us and that in the first year of launching a new
list. A stroke of luck, plus some thinking and a lot
Quite some time
after my first discussion with the translator I talked
to one of the designers of our edition of "The
Da Vinci Code", Pete Teboskins. I gave him SINAI
TAPESTRY and information on the other books and
asked for a design that would also fit the other three
books. He liked what he read, but had a real hard time
with it. His head was spinning with images!
We had a look at
all the different covers on JERUSALEM DREAMING but could
not find a lead on what would work in Holland at this
time. In the end I told him that I wanted the feel of
the British covers of Instance of the Fingerpost and
Quicksilver and that it might be an idea to look at
Renaissance paintings of religious scenes, given all
the biblical connotations in SINAI TAPESTRY.
came up with the perfect fit: an angel delivering
revelations, combined with a hand that holds a quill,
with in the background a Koran cover. The lettering
of the tile is influenced by the Arabic script.
And after delivering this cover Peter asked if he
could keep the book a little longer, as he wanted
to finish it. In all the years that we work together
he had never asked that! By the time he returned
the book, Peter had become the third Dutch believer.
< Cover for Sinai Tapestry (click for a larger
The new type of
brochure that we used to drive home to press and booksellers
that "The Da Vinci Code" was a Very Big Book
Indeed, had been so well received that we wanted a similar
brochure for SINAI TAPESTRY. To complicate matters,
it should have a different feel because the strategy
for this book was to first generate lots of free publicity,
instead of heavy advertising as with DVC. Peter's brochure
was a big success with all my colleagues, who immediately
became much more interested in this mad venture. The
brochure had the title THE DISCOVERY OF EDWARD WHITTEMORE
- a wink to a well known bestseller of Holland's leading
literary lion, called "The Discovery of Heaven".
When that brochure
came in from the printers I was away, to visit London
ahead of the London Book Fair, which I did not attend
because of my daughter's first birthday. I had talked
to a couple of English editors about Whittemore and
had shared some copies of SINAI TAPESTRY with them,
hoping they would take to it as I had - because I am
convinced that it can get a different reception now
than before, especially in the UK. My colleagues gave
these people the brochure during the fair, so hopefully
something will come of it.
By then our sales
reps had received part of the translation (it still
is not completely ready) and they loved what they read,
which made them really confident in their talks with
the bookshops who of course had to order the book. They
tell me it was an easy sell, because when the bookshops
saw the brochure they said: 'Oh, this is for the Dan
Brown audience? Give me the same amount then.' Of course
Whittemore is just for part of the Dan Brown audience,
the part that is into conspiracies, religious truths
and fallacies and interesting historical, political
tidbits. But if we can reach even a tenth part of that
audience I will be a happy man.
This week, the
English thriller writer Mo Hayder was in Holland to
promote her great new thriller Tokyo, which among other
things is about the rape of Nanking. Of course I gave
her a copy of QSC and when I saw her the next day she
was hooked. And thrilled to have discovered such a great
writer. As am I. As I hope many people in Holland will
be. We publish in July 2004. Wish me luck!
- April 2004
With this rave,
Brandy Leigh inspired The Atlantic Online Forum Virtual
Reading Group to choose Sinai Tapestry as their book
for July 2003 . Thank you Brandy for allowing me
to reproduce it here.
I've got to leap
in here at the mention of Edward Whittemore, whose erudition
and perversity, passion and compassion and sheer idiosyncrasy
left their stamp on me twenty years ago. The novels
Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker are particularly
brilliant and strange. I think they entered my bloodstream
at the time I read them and nourished my personality
for years thereafter, since they simultaneously enlarged
and darkened my sense of the world. There are instances
scattered throughout the novels of moments that made
my eyes tear up and my hair stand on end, both at once.
There is so much magic and pleasure to be gotten out
of those books, such dark humor and grief for the human
condition. Oh, and let us not forget pure deadpan weirdness.
Good heavens, I'm raving. It's partly because no one
I know has ever mentioned or even heard of Edward Whittemore
before. He is so underappreciated that I can hardly
bear to think about it, and the fact that this is the
lot of most authors in their own lifetimes (and after)
doesn't help. There is also the impressionableness of
youth to take into account; I was very open to influence
when I first encountered his books, far more so than
now. Phew. Nothing like fanning the flame of an old
love to set me dancing on tabletops, brandishing the
torch. In public, no less.
Brandy Leigh, July 2003
Thanks to Jonathan
Briggs for the following contribution:
On his discussion
board at Night Shade Books, Jeff VanderMeer put together
a list of 60 essential works of fantasy (including three
Whittemore titles). I sampled a couple of Jeff's essentials
and found them to be excellent reads, so I've spent
the past month or so trying to track these books down.
Unfortunately, a handful of them have gone out of print,
so I decided to try my luck at a used bookstore. I was
searching through great piles of unorganized books with
a printout of Jeff's list in my hands. I didn't have
any success, but the owner noticed me and came over
to see whether she could help. She scanned my list and
spotted the Whittemore titles. "Wow," she
said, "Ed Whittemore. He was good. Almost too good.
Those've been out of print forever." "No,
they're back," I said. "A small press put
all of em back into print." I told her I was halfway
through "Quin's Shanghai Circus," and how
much I was enjoying my first taste of Whittemore. And
as we were talking, this guy wandered over from the
next row of bookshelves: "Excuse me, are you talking
about the guy who wrote 'Sinai Tapestry' and 'Jerusalem
Poker.' I loved those books and heard there were two
more, but I could never find them. Did he ever finish
the series?" So I pointed them both in the right
direction to revisit Whittemore and hopefully helped
sell a couple more books for the Old Earth folks.
8 April 2003
from Mike Simanoff
I came across Edward
Whittemore the prosaic way--a recommendation from one
of my favorite writers. I read Jeff VanderMeer's essay "In Pursuit of the Imagination: 9 Elusive Books" and couldn't resist:
books which make up The Jerusalem Quartet are among
the richest and most profound in imaginative literature...and
also among the most obscure, out of print for more than
I have to admit
that Whittemore's obscurity appealed to me almost as
much as the recommendation. I've always loved tracking
down hard-to-find books. I found Sinai Tapestry and
Jerusalem Poker online and waited patiently for the
Old Earth Books reprints, which I bought at Gotham Book
Mart in New York City, to complete my collection.
I read Whittemore
breathlessly, and I was transformed.
As someone who
grew up in three different countries, Whittemore's obsession
with rootlessness and exile appeal to me personally.
So does the art of his precise prose and cunning plots.
His characters are descended from Turgenev's Bazarov
and from other literary superfluous men and nihilists,
filtered through Nanking, Smyrna, and the whole dirty
history of modernity.
The books, I discovered,
could hardly be more relevant. Whittemore's warm-hearted
iconoclasts and rogues are linked to things real and
unreal, to each other, and to all of us.
Mike Simanoff, February 2003
from Carlos Cordeiro
A change in routine last night, caused me to wait for
my ride home at the local county public library. As
I rummaged in the discarded "for sale" books
on display there, I came across the unknown Mr Whittemore's
1979 Avon Books paperback edition of "Jerusalem
Poker." A quick reading of the back cover had me
hooked! And, for only 50 Us cents I became the proud
owner of what I now know to be a precious find. I started
reading it this morning on the bus on the way to work.
I was struck by the Pynchon-meets-Powers writing style:
a bit familiar yet somehow different. Needless to say,
I became "bewitched" by Mr Whittemore's wordsmithing...
Inevitably, I had to search the Net for more information
on this author and his work. And now, my appetite whetted,
I must embark on the hunt for his other works.
11 October 2002
David Cozy describes
his first encounter with Whittemore's books
Of course one wants to have located one's first Whittemore
novel in a venue appropriately exotic-a North-African
souk, say, or barring that in a dusty corner of a used-book
store run by an appropriately crusty proprietor and
cat. It's been years, however, since I've traveled in
North Africa, and I live an ocean away from appropriately
independent used-book mongers, so my recent first encounter
with Whittemore and his work came about in a fashion
much more mundane perhaps. I discovered Whittemore in
that modern-day souk, the one which contains, if one
can only locate them somewhere in its labyrinthine lanes,
the largest collection of used books in the world. I
refer, of course, to the Internet. But just as it is
all too easy to get oneself so lost in the souk in Fez
that the stall where one saw, only the day before, the
perfect djellabah, rug, or English novel is no longer
where one was certain it had been, so it will be all
but impossible for me to retrace exactly the route I
took to Whittemore. There are, however, a landmark or
two encountered along the way which remain lodged in
my all too random access memory.
Just as in used-book stores one discovers books which,
until they are discovered, one didn't know one wanted-needed-,
and just as these moments of serendipity are, in fact,
the greatest pleasure these bookstores can offer, so
it is with the Internet. With this in mind, finding
myself one day with time and a computer I began entering
phrases like "forgotten authors" and "neglected
writers" into my search-engine much as I might
once have dug through forgotten piles of neglected volumes
in used-book shops. I wanted to see what would turn
I recall passing
Lost Club Journal, a site which bills itself as
a "Journal of Literary Archeology" and which,
according to the home page, "focuses principally
on the unheralded and unsung, any authors and books
which lack bestseller status, and take readers' fancy." There are articles at the site about several unsung
scribblers but, alas, Whittemore is not among them.
(He should be; perhaps someone feels like writing an
essay and submitting it to them?) For those interested
in becoming acquainted with such authors, many of whom
are even less known than Whittemore, the Lost Club Journal
is located at: http://freepages.pavilion.net/users/tartarus/lost.html.
I may have also
wandered past the page that contains a nice article
by Rick Kleffel called "Midday
in Jerusalem: Weird Serial Fiction With Middle Eastern
Settings" and contains a perceptive few paragraphs
on Whittemore. Kleffel does a nice job of placing Whittemore's
books in a context which also includes works such as
Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. I can't swear
that this was the page that first made me aware of Whittemore,
but it might have been. Kleffel's article is at: http://trashotron.com/agony/columns/04-22-02.htm.
On the other hand,
maybe not. Rather, I think I somehow drifted into a
site containing well-known author and (I now realize)
Whittemore enthusiast Jeff VanderMeer's piece "In
Pursuit of the Imagination: An Overview of Nine Elusive
Books." Whittemore's were among these elusive
books, and it was in reading about them that, I am nearly
certain, I first heard of Whittemore and his oeuvre.
(The article-actually just the first half of it-is at:
once I'd become intrigued with Whittemore it wasn't
long, of course, before I washed up at this site, and
then moved on to various used-book emporiums where I
attempted to acquire copies of the texts. (I've still
only managed to find the first three of the five at
congenial prices, so I'm eagerly awaiting the republication
of Whittemore's complete works.)
I look forward
to reading the last two books of the quartet.
All the Best,
Chigasaki, Japan 2002
describes his first meeting with Edward Whittemore
I first met Edward Whittemore in a bar. It was 1993,
and I was in the third year of an increasingly aimless
pursuit of a master's degree at the University of Illinois.
Books were my life then, and I look back with great
fondness on a time when I was surrounded by a group
of people who believed that books and words and ideas
were important. That they mattered. So there I was,
sometime after midnight, chain-smoking and discussing
books with the impassioned earnestness reserved for
those who are either full-time students or who have
had too much to drink. I was, I recall, enthusing to
a friend about Thomas Pynchon's V., which I had just
finished reading. My colleague, however, was unimpressed. "Fuck Pynchon," he slurred. "Edward Whittemore."
Who the hell was Edward Whittemore?
In my mailbox a
few days later appeared a battered hardcover copy of
Quin's Shanghai Circus. I read it, put it aside
for a few days, then read it again. It was astounding.
I tracked down Sinai Tapestry and devoured it,
amazed to find it was an even more accomplished novel
than the first. I simply could not believe that here,
in these dog-eared books then 20 years old, I had evidence
of a masterful writer who had, for all intents and purposes,
vanished from literary memory. His obscurity was unfathomable.
This was genius-I was certain of it-but with a few exceptions,
no one I talked to had even heard of him.
I continued to
cherish Whittemore and his novels for the next nine
years, taking every opportunity to recommend his work
to anyone I thought would appreciate it. The difficulty,
of course, was in getting them the books-the physical
evidence to prove that my mad tale of a forgotten genius
languishing in obscurity was not just unjustified hyperbole.
I had, in fact,
begun to wonder about it myself until I saw Jeff VanderMeer's
column on Whittemore in Fantasy & Science Fiction
last year. Most of Whittemore's books had long since
vanished from the library stacks, but I did find ragged
copies of both Quin's Shanghai Circus and Sinai
Tapestry -the first two Whittemore novels I ever
read. Reading them again, I was delighted to find that
they remained as complex, as powerful, and as weirdly
beautiful as I remembered. I came to Whittemore by way
of Pynchon, and as I reread these novels, I was struck
by some points of similarity: the narrative complexity,
the easy mingling of the sacred and the profane, an
uncanny ability to mesh tragedy and farce. The comparisons,
however, obscure as much as they reveal, and Whittemore's
work remains sui generis. His novels might not possess
the scope of Pynchon's, but they are both more controlled
and more finely crafted. At his best, Whittemore is
as good as they come. He is, in my opinion, one of the
finest American writers of the last 50 years. His work
is a treasure, and he has not been forgotten.
- 6 September 2002
from Jeff VanderMeer
I discovered Edward Whittemore's fiction as a sophomore
in high school in Gainesville, Florida. I had a habit
in those days of reading the spine of every book of
fiction in every used bookstore. I trawled for books.
Usually, this completist approach yielded little in
the way of exotica, but one day, in the oldest used
bookstore in town, I came across a battered paperback
with the title JERUSALEM POKER. If not for that
title, I might have passed it by. But something about
the title JERUSALEM POKER held my attention.
To my teenage imagination, it meant something--something
important. Something exotic. Something rich. I pulled
the book out and the cover intrigued me enough to read
the description on the back cover. A 20-year poker game
for control of the holy city. A man who might or might
not be 7,000 years old. I knew I had found something
amazing. I was reading books like Gene Wolfe's The Fifth
Head of Cerberus at the time and I knew eccentric and
good when I saw it.
I bought the book, took it home, devoured it, and was
never the same again. Some books change you so you are
no longer who you were before. I knew I wasn't even
close to being able to write fiction like that--the
audacity of the way Whittemore played with time and
place!--but it sent literal chills down my spine to
realize that such a thing could be accomplished in fiction.
After that, I grimly tracked down Whittemore's other
fiction. I say grimly because it was already apparent
to me then that he was not a popular author. And given
the brilliance of what I had read, my amplified teenage
sense of justice said: This is not fair. Not fair at
When I'd read all
of his books, I went on a one-man salvage mission. Everywhere
I went, in every used bookstore, I sought out his books.
I bought every single copy I could find, usually for
a couple of dollars, even the hardcovers. I redistributed
them. I sent them to friends, to relatives. Anyone who
I thought would care as much as I cared about these
books. I thought doing so protected them, by delivering
them into libraries where they would be appreciated,
where they would be looked after.
I'm still doing
that today, although copies are harder to find. It makes
me very sad sometimes to think of such an amazing writer
being so difficult to track down. This is one reason
I am so happy about the reprints. Because it simply
isn't fair that such a talent isn't widely available
How I came to
discover Edward Whittemore
I first discovered the writings of Edward Whittemore
in 1979. The book was Sinai Tapestry, which I
fell in love with and read with amazement and delight.
I'd picked it up in a small basement book shop, which
I had the habit of frequenting because they had a good
collection of fiction and also got their new books earlier
than any of the other bookstores I regularly visited.
The book was the British paperback version; the cover
was rather uninspiring and had some ridiculous reference
to "The Lord of the Rings," so it was the
blurb on the back cover that drew me to the book. The
blurb said "An epic hashish dream
and moving". Just my cup of tea. I eagerly awaited
the appearance of Jerusalem Poker and snatched
it off the shelf as soon it was released in 1980, again
in a British paperback. I was certainly not disappointed
in this second foray into the mind of Edward Whittemore.
What I loved about the books were the quirky characters,
the Middle East setting , the rhythms of the prose and
the overall craziness of the story. I found out that
Quin's Shanghai Circus was still in print at
that time so I managed to acquire the book in a hard
cover edition. Also at this time a fellow worker found
the first two Jerusalem novels in hardcover on a remaindered
books table and purchased them for me for $2.00 each.
They remain treasured possessions, along with the letter
I received from Whittemore in 1981.
An extra effort was needed to find the last two books
of the Quartet, as they were never released in Britain,
which was where most Australian booksellers acquired
their stock. However, it was always possible to order
American novels from specialist bookshops of which there
were a few and so I eventually owned the full Quartet
in hard cover.
Twenty or so years later as it now is, I still love
the books as much as ever and have re-read them many
times with as much enjoyment as the first time. In fact
the books strike me as still being amazingly relevant
in the 21st Century with the Middle East being a global
hot spot again, as it was twenty years ago.
Now that all five
of Whittemore's books will be back print in the near
future, it is encouraging to think that they will be
read by more people, a whole new generation, and that
Edward Whittemore will be finally valued for the writing
genuis he undoubtedly was.
The first contribution
comes from Vladimir from Russia -
5 years ago I was in Israel and lived at my friend's
house. There was a small charity shop, where you could
buy any book for 1 shekel (25 cents). At that time their
bookshelf was very short. So I could look through every
book. And I bought several ones. And Jerusalem Poker
as well. I liked it very much.
I have some experiense as a translator (I published
my translation of Go To the Widowmaker
by James Jones). And I decided to translate Whittemore
2 years ago. But I couldn't published it in Russia.
And at that time I couldn't find anything about the
author and licensor. It's you who helped me very much.
As a matter of
fact I'd lost any hope. Now my Israeli friends found
small publishing house. And they want to publish it
in small edition. So I wrote to Israel that I can't
find licenser, so there's no hope to publish my translation.
I sent a fax and switch on Internet's Altavista. Your
site was 3rd or 4th. Yesterday I had a happy day. I
sent e-mail to Israel, and now I should wait. How much?
Who knows? I think it would depend on the price of a
I sent Wallace's
e-mail to my friends. It's a publishing house who should
negotiate with the licensor. Now my friends in Germany
will buy for me through Internet another 3 books. I'll
translate them independently of publishing of Jerusalem
Poker. Just for myself, my family and my friends. That's
the whole history. Quite in spirit of Jerusalem Poker.