A number of months ago (my consciousness doesn’t have time for time), Michael Wilson, president of Permuted Press, invited any authors in his stable to come down to Nashville for Wizard World Comic Con in September. He would later confess he expected only a handful of us. He got about twenty-five.
Despite a substantial work conflict and some crazy guy in Aurora, Illinois, setting blaze to a regional air traffic control facility, I was determined to get there. So, when I got the robocall informing me that my Southwest Airlines flight had been canceled and good luck with that, I shrugged and decided to drive it. From Chicago, which is where I had to be due to the work conflict, Nashville is about a seven and a half hour drive.
Nine and a half hours later (thanks, Indiana DOT, for all the lane closures), it’s 3 a.m., and I arrive at the hotel. I feel a bit like Tom Hanks in Castaway when he returns to civilization and can’t talk to people.
It’s important you understand the context and my state of mind because this is the first time I meet and speak directly to Michael Wilson as well as Jacqueline Druga (author of The Flu and many other great novels) and Jeremiah Israel (author of March The Damned). The hotel lobby is small and empty at 3 a.m., and Michael, Jackie, and Jeremiah are standing there, having a conversation. I can’t sneak by and on up to my room. I have to wipe the drool from my face and introduce myself.
“Excuse me, Michael. I’m Tim Johnson.”
He accepts my handshake with a hearty smile. “You made it!”
I meet Jackie, whose work I’ve followed and admired for some time, and true to form as the “Apocolypse Nana,” she offers me a shot of bourbon. I turn it down because maintaining my balance is already difficult, but it wouldn’t be the last time she would make a generous offer.
I then get to meet Jeremiah, and it takes a moment, but then I realize his novel is the one with that bad-ass green cover. I file a mental note to talk to him about it later when both of us are in better form.
We chat for a few minutes, but soon, we all retreat to our slumber. Well, everyone except Jackie who claims she’s going to work. Yeah, right, but as it turns out, she just doesn’t sleep. That’s the secret. That’s how she’s able to put out so much great work. She has extra time in the day. What a cheater! I file the lesson away for later. Sleep is the enemy. Got it.
But I’ve been up since 6 a.m. I have to sleep.
In the morning, my wife, Heather, and I rush to return my rental car to the airport and make the shuttle that is picking up Jenn Loring, author of a forthcoming urban fantasy series. We’re late, but the shuttle is waiting for us. It isn’t because I’m a big deal. It’s because this is how Permuted rolls. Despite my insistence that, “No, it’s okay. I don’t want to be the cause of a delay, so we’ll figure something else out,” Permuted gives me the few extra minutes.
The shuttle is a big, black luxury RV complete with flat screen TVs, recliners, granite countertops, and the Permuted Press logo painted on the side exterior. They were carting us around in style. Although, Mikhail Lerma, whom I had yet to meet, later pointed out the shuttle would be insufficient for surviving an apocalyptic scenario because we would be unable to do number two in it.
I chat with Jenn on the shuttle back to the hotel to pick up the rest of Permuted. She is quiet and thoughtful, the kind of demeanor that indicates she doesn’t speak much but when she does, I better listen up because it will be profound.
When we arrive at the hotel, some people are standing outside the front doors. I recognize Felicia Sullivan, who edited Carrier and apparently lives just a few miles from me. How odd that I had to go to Nashville to meet a neighbor who is one of the first people to read my debut novel.
Authors pile out of the lobby. I am overwhelmed with faces I recognize from social media and various promotional headshots, and they are all talking among themselves as if they are best friends who have known each other for years. I feel out of place. But then steps in Derek Goodman, author of The Reanimation of Edward Schuett and the recently released sequel titled The Contamination of Sandra Wolfe. Somehow, be it by Facebook interaction or knowing I am the only one missing, he recognizes me and introduces himself.
Just like that, I’m one of them.
The shuttle to the convention is one of the loudest places I’ve been in a long time. The atmosphere is a little like a bar that’s moving at 60 miles per hour, and we’re drunk on the excitement. Heather and I meet Shane Gregory, author of the King of Clayfield series, and his wife Becky and realize we’re kindred spirits in a crowd as we listen to Tina Clark and David Salkin, author of the recently released Deep Black Sea and Hard Carbon, carry the conversation with legitimately hilarious stories and jokes. By the time we get to Nashville’s Music City Center, my face hurts from smiling.
Authors disperse. Heather and I follow the crowd into the convention center. Stairs. Stairs. Stairs. Moving stairs. We’re already seeing some terrific cosplay, and the convention center is bustling.
Entering the exhibition hall, I can already tell it isn’t a huge show, but there is some interesting stuff. Someone is selling props from films. There’s a wall of t-shirts to the ceiling. Gamers huddle around an Xbox truck.
But I don’t care about any of that. I want to find the Permuted booth. Lucky for me, Michael is wearing a bright red shirt, and I follow him through the crowd.
At the booth, I meet Katie Dornan, Ryne Driscoll, David Walker, and Holly Pisarchuk, who work at Permuted Press HQ. Let me tell you about these folks. When I was delayed getting out of Chicago, Heather was getting to Nashville ahead of me, and they took her to hang out and then made sure she got to the hotel safely. Now, Heather’s an adult and can take care of herself, but the point is they were friendly to her when she didn’t know anyone. They made sure she was comfortable.
At the convention, though, they are busy setting up for author signings and otherwise running the show. I ask Katie where on the table I can place some promo cards for Carrier. She tells me anywhere is fine. I put them toward the back of the table, out of the way. She pushes them toward the front where people will see them.
Heather and I then set out to see the show. We mosey around the floor for a while, and Heather tells me she is somewhat overwhelmed with all the nerd. It isn’t long until she spots someone and asks if he’s from something. I see the back of the guy’s head as he’s going into the bathroom, so I have no idea. She insists we wait for him to come out. Now who’s the nerd?
Turns out it’s Michael Trucco, most known for his role in the new Battlestar Galactica. He and Jamie Bamber are there signing autographs.
The convention is typical. Shatner is charging $80 per signature. Two teenage girls fawn over Michael Rooker, which is weird since John Bernthal is right next to him. Shannon Daugherty is desperately trying to remain relevant.
What isn’t typical is what I find when I return to the Permuted booth. James Crawford, author of the Blood Soaked & Contagious series, whom I had yet to meet, is filming an interview on the show floor. I lean against the wall, and when James is finished, he comes over to talk to me. It takes a moment, but I realize he doesn’t know who I am. When I introduce myself, nothing changes. He still talks to me like I’m a really good friend, and it isn’t long before I can see James’ giant heart thumping on his sleeve. We discover we’re essentially neighbors, the second if you’re keeping score. I know I’ll be seeing him again soon.
Jackie Druga, Apocalypse Nana, arrives. She has subs for everyone.
I feel terrible because this will be the second time I turn down Jackie’s generosity, but I have a hankering for barbecue. It’s Nashville after all. Later, I would find the subs were almost entirely eaten anyway, so it worked out.
Heather and I leave the convention center. On the way out, we stop by one of those brochure shelves and find a promo for a barbecue place. Heather comments that David Salkin had said something earlier about wanting to find a good barbecue place. We discuss grabbing the brochure but leave it. We’ll head over there and see if it’s any good, and if so, we’ll tell him about it.
We head toward Broadway, which is a really good place to go if you want to buy leather boots. As fortune would have it, we run into David Salkin along the way, and he is with Monique Happy. Monique is an editor from California, and she’s recently been charged with opening a new Permuted imprint, Winlock Press.
David is searching his phone for something. He has the intense focus and concentration of a man with an appetite. We say “hi” and learn that David is, in fact, looking for a good place to eat. We tell him we’re going to get barbecue, and just like that, we’re having lunch with David Salkin and Monique Happy.
During lunch, David jokes that Nashville is probably the Lipitor capital of the world, and I don’t doubt it. Everything on the menu is fried and spicy. Of course, there’s some kind of salad with grilled fish, but I figure it’s a trap.
We talk about Winlock Press a bit. We talk some football. Tennessee is playing Georgia, and there seems to be a very large Georgia contingent. We talk about David’s history of predicting world events in his fiction. Ask him about it. It’s pretty incredible. I think maybe he should write about the lottery.
With our stomachs on fire, we leave, and I look for the bowl of Lipitor and Tums. I guess we’re supposed to deal with the burn.
We head back to the convention center because David has a signing. James Crawford is still there. I strike up a conversation with Ryne Driscoll while she’s working the booth. Ryne has a very relaxed, cool persona. She is busy trying to sell books, but when people approach the table, James Crawford leaps at the chance to talk to fans about, well, anything. He starts selling David’s book because that’s how James is.
Having made a sale and seeing a break in the traffic, David stands and announces he’s going to get a beer. He asks if anyone else wants one. He brings one back for Ryne. Because that’s how David is.
One of my favorite parts of the day is standing next to the Permuted booth and having a conversation with Brad Munson, author of a forthcoming triptych that frankly sounds incredible. Brad tells me about his long career working in film and freelance writing. He has ghost written, and you can find him on IMDB attached to what he calls terrible movies. Brad is also working on a licensed novel franchise for WolfCop.
The afternoon slips away, and we all board the shuttle to be taken back to the hotel. Everyone is exhausted but excited about this evening, because we have an opportunity to see where our books are made. Permuted has invited us to the office.
I exchange my t-shirt for a button-up and am in the lobby an hour later. The shuttle whisks us away down the street. The Permuted Press building is modest, resembling any other corporate office park structure. We’re taken up the elevator, which someone notes has a capacity of six or eight and we’re clearly in violation, and the doors open onto a clean, white lobby with a large conference room straight ahead. We’re not sure where to go. The elevator had taken a load of people up ahead of us, and it seems they’ve disappeared.
Michael emerges from a magical door that hadn’t been there a moment ago. He explains that Permuted shares the building with other companies under the Premier umbrella. As luck would have it, Premier, which owns Permuted, also owns a shuttle company, which is where the shuttle for the weekend has come from.
We get the grand tour. Michael shows us their cozy workspace. He affectionately calls his office the “glass cathedral.” Ryne, Katie, and Holly work at desks not too far away.
Michael takes us to the next room, which is where some of their creative people work. The room is a darker, warmer space. A lamp full of Edison bulbs hangs over their workspace.
The party is on a deck that is off of the artist’s rooms. There is a cooler full of Dos Equis and Negro Modelo, and there is a taco bar. Katie, Ryne, David, and Holly are buzzing around, trying to make last-minute preparations. As they bring in cases of soda, I feel compelled to assist, but it’s clear they have everything under control.
When everyone has arrived, Michael and Anthony Ziccardi make welcoming speeches, but otherwise, the evening feels casual. Permuted’s home is open to us. We are welcome. Eat some tacos, and have fun.
After confessing I feel like I’m in the way no matter where I stand and Anthony telling me that’s because I am, I decide to grab some tacos and sit down at a table. Shane and Becky Gregory, Jenn Loring, Brad Munson, and Monique Happy join us. We talk about I don’t even remember what for the next hour and a half.
Michael informs us the party is over and the shuttle has to take us back to the hotel, but before we leave, we all cram into the conference room for a picture.
At the hotel, some of us turn in, but some of us go to the bar. This is when I meet Mikhail Lerma and his wife, Brooke, for the first time. We talk for a while, and we’re so engaged in conversation that we don’t realize everyone else has migrated outdoors. Someone pokes their head in and invites us to come out.
The hotel has an outdoor lounge area, and there’s about twelve permuted authors and personnel remaining. They’ve pulled chairs into a circle, and the atmosphere is like the final hours of a backyard party with a fire pit dwindling. Sans fire pit.
That’s when Jackie Druga offers us pizza. Seriously, woman! I had about eleven tacos, so I unfortunately have to decline her kindness for the third time.
The hour grows late. People trickle away. There’s a meeting in the morning, so we retreat to our rooms.
Morning comes far too early. Downstairs, Michael meets us in the lobby and informs us he has coffee, OJ, and bagels. He takes us to a small meeting room. There we discuss some business, and Michael takes questions and openly addresses anyone’s concerns. If there’s anything I can say about Michael, it’s that he’s honest, open, and transparent, and deliberately so.
The meeting turns into a melding of some of the authors who have been around for a while sharing advice and interesting information. The discussion is mostly about the business end of publishing and selling books, about which I’m tragically uneducated. Some authors talk about their trouble with sales. Others talk about what’s worked for them.
James Crawford speaks up, his heart thumping on his sleeve, and he confesses that, to him, what matters is he’s writing and Permuted gives him the opportunity to keep writing and getting his work into the world. What matters to him is the relationships he’s built with us through online interaction and meetings at conventions. Other authors speak up to the same effect. Despite the challenges and frustrations, outside of the business, we’re networking and making friends. We’re building a community. We’re having fun.
When I first decided I was going to go to Nashville, I had no idea what to expect. I had fears of the stereotypical dirty, lying, exploitative publisher and the intensely competitive, political authors vying for attention. I knew that’s not at all what I’d find, but I discovered a community tied together by passion for storytelling. Whether it was witnessing James Crawford selflessly hocking David Salkin’s newest novel, the willingness of Jackie Druga to share advice and mother us, or Michael Wilson’s complete transparency and honesty, I left Nashville feeling inspired. These people are allies. We aren’t just friends now that we’ve met. We were friends before we met. We just didn’t realize it.
Many of us write about the apocalypse, be it by zombies or another force. We’re all writing about terrible things with an immediate sense of conflict and tension. It’s us-versus-them mentality, and I wonder if our storytelling is analogous to the community we’ve built. Permuted is our sanctuary, and all are welcome. Maybe you’ll reside in the HQ shack on the hill where the elders meet, or the crumbling apartment building where the authors work, or the encampment in the field where our readers live. But there’s a place for everyone here.
After the meeting, many authors leave to catch flights out of town. Some of us return to the convention. That afternoon, Heather and I have to catch our own flight. The shuttle takes us to the airport, and Michael accompanies us. While he pounds on his laptop, working hard even on a Sunday afternoon, we chat casually and about business. Whether intentional or not, Michael, president of Permuted Press, is seeing us off. And it isn’t because I’m a big deal. It’s just how Permuted rolls.
Before I leave, Michael shakes my hand and pulls me in for a bro-hug. He whispers, “don’t tell Khail about this.”