Before I can write a book, I have to create a playlist. It’s part of my process.
When I was a youngster in Sarasota, Florida (former Spring Training home for the Chicago White Sox), before I developed my current musical taste, I obsessively listened to WKXY, the local top 40 AM station that played the same ten hits every hour.
Latch Key Kids, one of two planned prequels to my only semi-successful novel (Small Town Punk), takes place in the mid-1970’s. It features proto-punk Buzz Pepper and his prematurely world-weary sister Sissy Pepper. These two characters are based on me and my sister. Most of what happens in the book happened, in one form or another, in real life.
Why write a novel then? Why not write a memoir? Because, as we’ve all learned in 2020, real life makes zero narrative sense.
Most of the secondary characters in Latch Key Kids are composites of real life people. Most of the events in Latch Key Kids happened in real life. But they’re all rearranged and compressed into a coherent narrative.
We’re pleased to announce the release of John L. Sheppard’s new dark coming of age novel, Latch Key Kids. Released by Paragraph Line Books in September 2020 the book is already receiving rave reviews from readers and reviewers.
Latch Key Kids, the long-awaited follow-up to Small Town Punk, chronicles the enduring impact one life can have on another.
Resilience and the power of sibling friendship combine into a surprising, ingeniously layered comic novel about a boy inventing himself.
In Latch Key Kids, Sheppard strips the flesh from the bone. He makes you laugh by combining searing wit with keen social observation.
So we used to have this giant page of all the books we sell. It had pretty pictures and descriptions and reviews and links to amazon.
The thing is, this was driven by a WordPress plug-in. Their business model was that all the links to Amazon to buy the books were affiliate links, and they got a cut of each book sale. That’s fine I guess, because they wrote the plug-in, but of course it would be nice if we got a cut of that, or if we could just price the books cheaper. But that’s another story.
The problem with this plug-in is that, like many other WordPress plug-ins, it was a piece of garbage. And it was basically a vector for virus writers to hack sites, which happened multiple times. I finally had to give up and remove this plug-in, delete the list, and put at the bottom my to-do list of 768 items a note that I should someday fix this.
I have not come up with a good replacement yet. But I did just put up a list of all of our releases. It has links to the Amazon entries for each book. It doesn’t have pictures or descriptions or anything. Maybe I’ll get to that soon, but I’ve got a lot of other things brewing right now.
When I made this list the other day, what amazed me is that it’s been ten years since we officially started doing books for Paragraph Line. And if you include our next release, in that ten years, we’ve put out 23 books, which isn’t too shabby for two guys with full-time jobs.
About that 23rd release – more news soon. I’m up to my eyeballs in production work, so I should get back to it.
OK: so about a year ago, this site got hacked. One of our fine contributors had their password set to “password” and someone in a basement office in Asia figured it out. They edited several pages, adding links and keywords to various boner pills. And nobody noticed it, because nobody reads this site.
Some time later that Google’s webmaster tools thing sent me a nastygram saying our site was hacked. I reset passwords, edited pages, and submitted forms back to Google saying yes, we were hacked; yes it was under control. Weeks or months later, they replied, and all was well. But in the interim, any google search results on the site said we were hacked. (Ultimately not a big deal, because nobody reads this site, and definitely nobody is searching for it.)
A year went by. We published three books. We posted here four times. I think a total of seven people visited, five of them looking for boner pills. It was a banner year.
Then, yesterday, another stern warning for Google. Site hacked. Turns out one page still had some mentions to boner pills, buried away in an invisible frame no human could see, but that Google could. Edit, resubmit to Google, wait. Luckily, as I said, nobody reads this, no big deal.
WordPress is horrific. The back-end interface is ugly, outdated, impossible to use. When you ask WordPress experts about this, they will tell you that it’s fully extensible, you can get plugins to change anything. You then search, and find plugins written a dozen years ago that never work, and don’t really do what you want. You also find people more than willing to charge you thousands of dollars to write plugins that never work, and don’t really do what you want. Meanwhile, you get a site that looks like the pinnacle of technology in 2004.
The advantage to WordPress is that everyone uses it. This is also an advantage to people in Russia who spend all day hammering web sites looking for security holes. Once they find an exploit in a WordPress version, they can easily jump from site to site and crack them open like walnuts. And because WordPress was written by a bunch of volunteers and random teenagers, it’s full of security holes. They remedy this by issuing a stream of updates, which then constantly break plugins, or flat out don’t work, and lock up your site entirely. It becomes a full-time job updating WordPress. And yeah, if your full-time job is fucking around with WordPress, this is trivial. But my full-time job isn’t fucking around with WordPress. I have too many other full-time jobs to deal with adding another.
The best alternative to WordPress is something that nobody uses that is probably about to not be maintained anymore because its author is graduating college next year. Or, it’s something about to be bought by Google and shut down. And before anyone says “you should be using…” note that I have no interest in taking a month of my life schlepping over hundreds of posts and reconfiguring .htaccess files and answering emails from authors who haven’t talked to me since 2006 because the link to their story broke.
I don’t have time to do much with this site anymore. I want to do something with it, but I’m working, writing, and PL has been receiving no attention, other than maybe a monthly “I should do something on the PL site” and then… nothing. This isn’t some announcement that I’m closing the site. It will continue puttering along. It’s just an admission that I’m lazy and burned out.
I won’t even get into the futility of posting things here and hoping people buy books based on it. Or attracting new readers. Or getting people to write stuff here. Jesus, just thinking about this is depressing.
“He had been hurt doing everything he had ever done. He expected it, even wanted it. Nothing centered a man like pain. Nothing drove the irrelevant bullshit out of your mind like the taste of your own blood.”
— Harry Crews, All We Need of Hell
One of the best things that ever happened in my life was a motorcycle accident. My motorcycle accident. It happened in September 2014.
I was visiting an old Army buddy in Texas. He lent me his ancient BMW motorcycle, which was a mistake–a mistake by me, that is. I had no business being on a motorcycle, much less an honorable old gentleman of a motorcycle like that BMW. There was nothing modern about the BMW… nothing to help out a rider who was a rank amateur, and a slow learner.
We rode out into the Texas Hill Country. At some point, we stopped so I could drink a pop. It was hot, and I was wearing a leather jacket and helmet. So at least I had that much sense. Or rather: My Army buddy did.
Out in the hills, amongst the cattle, we rode. I enjoyed the countryside, another mistake. Following my buddy down a hill and across a bridge, I saw the deer much too late, braked, and flew over the handlebars, landing on my left shoulder and bashing the left side of my helmeted head on the road. I was stunned. As I flew over the handlebars, I thought, “So this is how I die.”
I didn’t. Die, that is. Didn’t even see a blue tunnel.
On the side of the road, I somehow was on the side of the road, my Army buddy unzipped the jacket he’d lent me. We saw part of my clavicle sticking up near my throat.
I don’t remember a lot. There was a woman behind us in a car who came to my aid. We somehow got the jacket off. The helmet had a large crease on one side. The BMW was not injured. It was an indestructible old gentleman.
I went to one hospital, was scanned, and then was sent to another hospital, where I was also scanned. My shirt had been cut off at some point. I was brimming with morphine, and blasé about my condition. My clavicle was shattered. They checked me into the hospital.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for a few days. Occasionally, I’d wake up while someone took my vitals, or encouraged me to eat. I was in the ICU, I realized. I woke up as other people screamed their lungs out. I was moved to a regular room, and was told that I could leave if I wanted, but first I had to stop clicking the little button that administered morphine to me via an IV. I had them remove the IV.
The clarifying pain
That’s when the pain set in. I think I stayed with my Army buddy a few more days. I can’t recall.
I took a flight back to Illinois, saw my doctor, who referred me to a surgeon.
A good friend, who had given me shelter when I left my wife, agreed to drive me to my surgery and then see me home afterward. The surgeon, with the help of a power drill, placed a plate and nine screws into my shoulder, reassembling my clavicle by force.
In a sane country, I would have stayed overnight in the hospital. But I don’t live in a sane country. I was sent home immediately after I woke up in the recovery room. My friend made sure I picked up my Tylenol 3, and made it home to my apartment. I slept that night like a dead man.
The next morning, and the next week, I wished I was dead.
My mother, while she was dying of the breast cancer that had reemerged out of remission and had metastasized into her bones, told me, “Bone pain is the worst pain.” While passing in and out of a sweaty stupor, I remembered her last days.
My mother is my role model in life. She taught me everything I know about being a human being, and I miss her tremendously every day, even more than my murdered sister, who had been my best friend before her death in 1992.
I wept thinking about my mother being in this kind of agony. “I’m sorry, Mom!” I shouted out, over and over. The pills, which barely cut some of the pain, ran out after three days. The whites of my eyes turned piss yellow.
Two years earlier, I’d left my wife and had gotten divorced. I was alone, and felt alone. Lonely. It was my own fault, the divorce. The doomed marriage was my fault, too. I’d met my wife around the same time that my mother’s cancer had come back. It was loneliness that had driven me to ask a work friend to marry me. It was her terrible marriage that caused her to say yes, I think. I was a drowning man, and then for a short while, I wasn’t. The marriage was a life preserver for a few years. So there I was, mostly underwater, but my head was above it. You’re okay, you tell yourself, knowing that it’s a lie. I think we were happy at first. I hope we were. But the thing was, I never opened myself fully to her, and she knew it. And I knew she knew it. We made some bad financial decisions together and ended up in a tiny condo with her sister, and after that I was never alone.
I need solitude. I need it to write, which is the one constant in my life. Married, I couldn’t write anymore. I tried. The writing was coming out shit. I became resentful.
I am my writing. I am my books. If you think you’re my friend, but you haven’t read my books, I have news for you, bucko: You’re not my friend.
So without anything like solitude, I felt more and more trapped, and more and more resentful. I stopped eating and lost 50 pounds. I broke in November 2011, and finally left her in January 2012, and we divorced in August that year. Our marriage lasted eight years. It was like someone had died all over again. I drank. I obsessed about it for two years. At times, my heart raced for no discernible reason. I’m told that’s called an anxiety attack.
I was a ten-car pile-up of a human being.
The summer I was ten my mother arranged for me to take swimming lessons at a community pool in Tampa via the American Red Cross. There were A, B, and C groups. You started out in C, in the shallow end of the pool, and worked your way up to A, in the deep end. I managed to make it up to A fairly quickly.
My first day in A, we received a lecture from the instructor about lifesaving techniques. The instructor said something along the lines of “Never try to save a drowning man without bringing along a life preserver.”
The idea was that instead of trying to pull the person out, you would throw him or her a life preserver attached to a rope and that person would cling to the life preserver instead of clinging to you. You then give that person a tow to shore.
A drowning man, in his desperation, will cling to you in such a way as to drown you as well.
I raised my hand. “What if you don’t have access to a life preserver? What do you do then?”
“Call the authorities and wait for them to arrive,” I believe the instructor said. “In other words, let them drown.”
By this time in my life, I liked to argue with instructors, probably to test the limits of their knowledge. More probably, because I liked to get a rise out of them. A person will show you his or her true self when angry.
This is why I got low marks in “Citizenship.”
Later on, at my Catholic high school, I also received low marks in “Moral Guidance,” which was a half-hour class in Catholic religious indoctrination. My line of questioning in that class implied that nearly everything that Catholics believe about life and life after death is half-baked nonsense, or worse.
The swim instructor threw the question back at me. “So are you saying that you’d swim out and drown?”
I said that anything would be preferable to watching someone die. I stopped arguing, got up and walked toward the shower area and promptly stepped on a pyramid-shaped chunk of brick, which, if it was a piece of candy, would have been called “fun-sized.” I stood on one foot, leaned against a wall, and looked at the bottom of my foot, which was bleeding nicely. I walked back out to the pool area on the side of my foot, showed the instructor, who, angry with me, suggested that I should go “rinse it off in the shower.” I did. I came back out leaving bloody footprints behind me on the pool curtain and showed the instructor again. This time, her anger having cooled, she ended up wrapping my foot in gauze and called my mother to come pick me up early.
I ended up having to take yet another trip to the emergency room (I was a frequent flyer as a child) and received a lecture from Mom during the drive to the hospital about being “a little jerk.” The instructor apparently gave her an earful.
Back to the clarifying pain
In the months of physical pain that followed my surgery, I found that I could finally put away the things in my life that I had unnecessarily carried with me. Who had asked me to carry these things around? Who said that I had an obligation to continue to tote around my guilt over my mother’s death, my sister’s murder, and the death of my marriage like it was a 70-pound rucksack?
It was me. I was the only one. I was making myself miserable. Physical pain taught me that I shouldn’t carry around any pain that I manufactured myself.
As anyone who has read my books since 2015 will tell you, my writing is now funnier than ever, and far more free-wheeling, too. I’m comfortable with being around myself for the first time since I was 12 years old, and it shows in the books I write.
I like being alone now. I love my solitude. When I come home, I’m relieved that there is no one here. I’m happy, which is something I haven’t been able to say until recently. I sit in silence sometimes. I listen to the clock tick, and smile.
On the minus side, I have had problems remembering things since the accident. Names, faces. At times, I wonder if someone actually spoke to me about something, or if it was a dream. I think it was the blow to the head. Or maybe it’s my age. Or carbonated beverages. Or allergy medication. Whatever.
I also found out that I have dry macular degeneration, so I’m going to go blind at some point, possibly. I take vitamins to try to stave it off.
Up until my 30’s, I was known as “Shep.” Outside of my family, people rarely called me “John.” I am an American Catholic, went to Catholic school, and was born in late December back in ’63. Every third boy I went to school with was named “John,” after President Kennedy, who’d been shot in the head about a month before I was born.
This was the beginning of the end of America, if you listen to a certain subset of Americans, and I missed witnessing it by a month. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I monitored it from the womb.
When my brother and I played Little League baseball on the same team in Tampa, we were known as “Big Shep” and “Little Shep.” Tom was a terrific catcher, and I was an incompetent occasional right fielder. The sponsor for our team was Village Inn Pancake House, and we had garish purple shirts and purple hats.
One time, when a kid from another team tried to run home on him, Tom blocked the plate. He was an immovable object. Tom got the out, and the kid was out-out. He was carried off the field on a stretcher. Tom was promoted to the senior level league after that.
I set a record for number of walks in that league because I was short and had adopted Pete Rose’s crouched-over batting stance. I rarely took a swing. On one occasion when I did, the ball dribbled along the third baseline, and I stood in the batter’s box frozen in shock. “Run, Little Shep! Run!” the kids chanted from the dugout. I did, and to my further shock, I stood on first base with a hit.
I pitched batting practice for the other kids. I had many books on baseball, and one of them featured various methods of gripping a baseball. So, at some point, I started using them and the kids on my team flailed. I’d made myself into a self-taught junk-ball pitcher, in other words.
The manager of my second team, Eastern Airlines, decided to use me in a game. The first time out, the other manager became upset enough that I was pulled. It was unfair that some kid was throwing knuckle-curves in a Little League game. There may have been rules against this. My second time out, I was shelled. That was the end of my pitching career.
I played Little League ball for a total of seven years. I was uncoordinated, half-blind, undersized and generally a bad ballplayer. I still love the game though. I was known as “Shep” throughout all of it.
In the Army, for four years of active duty and a couple more in the reserves, that was my name.
I think nicknames make you approachable.
I had a buddy in Germany who was in the same predicament that I’d been in when I’d first arrived. He was in possession of a college degree, but was enlisted. If there’s one thing an enlisted soldier hates, it’s another soldier putting on airs. Other soldiers rarely spoke to him. And then I nicknamed him “Slice.” After that, he was awash in buddies. Army buddies.
It’s an ephemeral thing, being an Army buddy. I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone from my unit in Germany in over two decades. Not that I have an itch to talk to any of them. I don’t have honey-colored memories of my time in the service. It was miserable, and about a third of the soldiers I served with were clearly psychopaths.
The first time I was called “John” outside of my family was when I was getting my MFA, shortly after getting out of the Army. “Good to meet you, John,” an affable fellow MFA-er said at a beginning-of-the-semester picnic. I looked around for this “John” and realized he was talking to me. “Oh,” I went, and shook his hand.
Later on that year, another MFA-er called me “Shep.” By that time, I’d grown used to being “John.” I gave him a look and went, “Shep?”
That guy ended up being a TV producer on shows like “Mad About You” and “The Goldbergs.” He’s probably the most successful MFA-er in human history. Most of us end up teaching college and writing books that sell about 4,000 copies.
After my MFA, I ended up writing nonsense for a junk mail firm in Pompano Beach, Florida. As I drove to work each morning, I’d pass by strip clubs, gun shops, pawn shops and eventually the Broward County Jail, where the live standup for “America’s Most Wanted” was filmed most weeks. I reverted to being “Shep” at that place. It was my last tour of duty being “Shep.” I didn’t last long there. I didn’t fit in.
I took a job in civil service working for the Navy about 20 years ago, and became “John” for some reason that I don’t fully comprehend, and have been “John” ever since.
Nobody’s seriously called me “Shep” for years and years. I miss it sometimes. There’s an easy familiarity in being “Shep.” A “Shep” is an affable dude. A “John” is a toilet, a book in the New Testament, a frequenter of prostitutes.
The thing is: People call you what they want to call you.
I can’t help thinking that something changed in my character in my 30’s for people not to want to call me “Shep” anymore. Perhaps there’s an iciness in me that was brought on by certain events in my life. I don’t know.
Could I ever be “Shep” again? I won’t insist on it, that’s for sure. It would have to come naturally. You can’t force being a “Shep,” after all.
We’re proud to announce our latest release from Paragraph Line Books: John Sheppard’s Sometimes Fatal Events Have Occurred.
In an alt-history 1990’s, an obscure artist on the brink of death is visited by an eccentric billionaire scientist, who saves his life. Part romance, part science fiction and all farce, Sometimes Fatal Events Have Occurred is a sequel to After the Jump (2015) and a prequel to Explosive Decompression (2016).