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Dispatches From Smaragdine
A column by Jeff VanderMeer
March 2007

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Dispatches From Smaragdine columns.]

Installment #5

February: The Backwards Month
Nick Mamatas and Under My Roof
Changes to This Column
Next Time
Contact Information

February: The Backwards Month

Smaragdine's Beloved Dictator Flag
Due to the litigious nature of the government, this version of the flag may or may not be similar to that of Smaragdine's Beloved Dictator.
In Smaragdine, they call February the Backwards Month. About twenty years ago, Smaragdine had a mad, vainglorious dictator who would make decrees changing the names of days of the week to his own name and the names of his sons. This crackpot would also make up new holidays to celebrate himself, change the flag to include his image, and just in general stir things up in a crazytown kind of way.

One of his least inspired inventions, in my opinion, was designating February Backwards Month. Even less inspired? The people of Smaragdine holding onto the idea after the overthrow of Our Beloved Dictator. During Backwards Month, you are legally obligated to, more or less, do the opposite of what you normally would do work-wise. So, for example, if you're a lawyer you become a Franciscan monk giving alms to the poor. If you're a CEO of a major company, you become a garbage collector-and vice versa.

As you can imagine, this causes all kinds of changes. For one thing, garbage collection becomes sporadic and the streets take on a certain smell. Also, many Smaragdine companies tend to do much better in February than other months.

In January, a special February Bureau sends you a letter designating a series of possible positions that you can take during the month. You must then fill out a mountain of paperwork before February 1st and report to your new job. Doctors are exempt from this foolishness. Foreign nationals living in Smaragdine on visas are not.

Thus it was that my punishment to take a day job. As a full-time freelance writer, I was told to report to a software company and take an office position doing technical writing and editing. "The change in atmosphere and social conditions from your normal work month will be sufficient to fulfill the legal requirements of February," the letter read. Even Horia Ursu, who knows people who knows people, couldn't get me out of it.

Still, I entered the corporate workplace with a smile and a gleam in my eye. The people I worked with, Danya (my manager), Kray (fellow editor), and Loopin (fellow editor) seemed nice enough. Of course, like me, they had only just started their jobs and had no idea how to do them. In their cases, they had come from contrary positions not contrary situations. At least I knew how to edit and write, if not in the native language of Smaragdine. Danya had been the person who, at one of Smaragdine's old-fashioned printing companies, pushed bits of type into place on the presses. She had no idea of how to manage anyone, except to try to get them to fit into tiny little roles and to stay put. Kray had been a makeup consultant and Loopin had been what translated unintelligibly as "seed pusher." As one might expect, the whole situation was about as Through the Looking Glass as was possible.

By the tenth day, we had taken the specs from the programmers of some educational software and created a vast gibberish of English and Smaragdine. Sometimes in crayon. By the fifteenth day, Danya had taken to wearing a uniform and doing a variation on the goose-step. Loopin was crying uncontrollable by the twentieth day. Kray was unable to do more than stare at the reflection in the monitor by the twenty-fifth day. Me, I knew it would all be over by the twenty-eighth day and so I began to slip out of my supposed role and get some real writing done.

On the twenty-eighth day, by custom, the manager gathers the employees and ritualistically fires all of them. In my case, I found this oddly cathartic at the same time I experienced an illogical yet simmering resentment. Danya looked me right in the eye and, her voice quivering, said, "We have decided to terminate you from this company."

"Oh good, that's a relief," I replied. "Can I have some pencils from the drawer before I go?"

And that was February in Smaragdine.

Nick Mamatas and Under My Roof

Photo © Nick Mamatas Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is best described as a kind of literary hub for discussion, always probing, provoking, and analyzing the current scene through unflinchingly honest observations on his blog. His nonfiction has appeared in Razor and Village Voice, while his short fiction has appeared in Polyphony, Corpse Blossoms, Poe's Lighthouse, Before & After: Stories From New York, and many others.

Move Under Ground Mamatas' latest novel, Under My Roof, was recently published by Soft Skull Press, one of my favorite independent publishers. Under My Roof is completely different in focus and style than Mamatas' last novel Move Under Ground, which could only be described as a Lovecraftian Beat road trip.

Under My Roof, by contrast, is narrated by twelve-year-old Herbert Weinberg, whose father has implanted a nuclear device inside a garden gnome on their front lawn and declared independence from the United States. Satirical and often very funny, Under My Roof recently received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

I interviewed Mamatas via email in January of this year.

What sparked the concept of your latest novel?
The first war between the US and Iraq. That was the politicizing moment for me, and at the same time I was following a professor's advice: "Read everything. The classics and the crap. Start with Aeschylus and end with Zola," and I happened to be up to Aristophanes, whose work is rather preoccupied with war. The Acharnians was in my lap when the war was announced, and it never left my mind since then.

About twelve years later, my then girlfriend, said to me "You should write a kid's book." Also, the YA fantasy bandwagon had started up, to the point where the fellow who ran a local SF con even shut it down with the announcement that he was going to write a YA fantasy novel "while the getting was good." Never heard from him again, but it did remind me that I had a lot more people to make fun of out there, so I decided that I too would write a YA fantasy novel to tweak some noses.

Under My Roof

After reading Move Under Ground and some of your short stories, Under My Roof seems like a departure for you. Does it represent a move to a kinder, gentler Mamatas?
This book is a terrorist manual for children. So yes, a bit gentler.

Did you do much research for this novel?
Well Port Jameson is just Port Jefferson, my hometown, so that was easy. I did a bit of research on nuclear fission, but nothing too strenuous. I was pleased to see that in the same month that Under My Roof came out, the magazine Foreign Policy published an article on how terrorists within the US might build an even bigger bomb with $1.5 million. I'm the budget version of that!

You're in an MFA program right now. How is genre fiction received in such settings?
Generally, genre fiction is against the rule in MFA programs. Mine, however, is a bit different. Western Connecticut State University's MFA is in professional writing, not creative writing, so commercial fiction is surely tolerated. David Hartwell of Tor Books is on the board, so I figured that the profs wouldn't fly into a "genre panic" when I showed up. Indeed, one of the profs is Oscar De Los Santos, who is associated with the Science Fiction Research Association. Having said all that, there is sometimes a gap between theory and practice. During the last residency I attended, I whipped out Justina Robson's Natural History for a workshop on writing adaptations, and my precis of the book left people agog. Now, in one course, we're reading some horror fiction, including Salem's Lot and I'm one of two people who have actually read Stephen King before. One student even proudly announced that his old profs and writing colleagues warned him away from "popular crap" as reading it may damage his "literary potential." I'm pleased that my old prof, years ago, gave me much more expansive advice.

What are you working on now?
A novel about a school shooting, a short novel about a seventh son of a seventh son who works in a Greek diner, and elements of a collection for a small press to be named later.

Changes to This Column

Starting with the next installment of Dispatches, I will be doing something new. In addition to any reviews in the body of the column, I'll be doing a selective Books Received list. This will include capsule reviews of most of them.

Next Time

On the horizon I can see Elizabeth Hand, Solaris Publishing, and... is that Felix Gilman? Possibly.

Contact Information

If you would like to send me things for review, or even complaints, hints, suggestions, or other feedback, please do so via email at or via my U.S. snail mail address:

Jeff VanderMeer
c/o Smaragdine Dispatches
POB 4248
Tallahassee, FL 32315

There will be a delay of about a month from receipt at the post office box to the arrival of your missive in Smaragdine, but to send direct would be folly as my stint at the hostel runs out at the end of the month and I don't know where I will be after that.

Copyright © 2007 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF,, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.

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