Introducing the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum

Start with a recap and end by announcing that I’ve possibly lost my mind—this might not be the best strategy for an essay regarding a work of fiction, but it will do for now. I wrote Zombie Lolita in August 2013 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and I edited the piece during a road trip with my brother to Hiroshima, Japan. Delusion is the name of the game, and it is the theme for Napoleon Trembles, the story collection that Zombie Lolita belongs to. Speaking of my own personal delusion, now three of the fifteen stories in Napoleon Trembles have been published, which means I am twelve steps closer to making a pretty good case as to why someone should actually publish a copy of the manuscript, but more on my own personal delusion later. Zombie Lolita. In the story, a man named Stuart Sulloway gets an e-mail from a Nigerian scam artist collecting short stories. The e-mail offers Sulloway publication in the New Yorker. Sulloway immediately throws away everything he has, from his family to his job, to move to Brooklyn and become a “real writer”. While in New York, he hopes to find a publisher for his manuscript, Zombie Lolita, which is a rework of Nabokov’s classic piece injected with zombies. Spoiler alert: Sulloway fails in his endeavors, and after sacrificing everything he has to pursue his dream, the story ends with Sulloway living in a one bedroom apartment looking at the fake acceptance letter. Zombie Lolita is a warning to pay heed to how far we will go to accomplish supposed fame; it also is a Robert Scott-worthy exploration of delusion, which I will examine further in this essay. Writing is like Indian food—it burns on the way in and on the way out (trust me, I’ve lived in India). Let me rephrase: the world doesn’t need Stuart Sulloway and the writers he represents, which in a way, is all of us. So the world doesn’t need us, at least for much longer, and this fact burns, a good melancholic burn every time we churn something out that no one cares about. We want that burn to stand out because after all, we need to sell our shit (if not for money, for self-esteem). We take chances—anything to augment our personal story with hopes of eventually selling a fabricated one. We need stories to sell our stories. To paraphrase: who wants to read about a writer who had everything handed to them on a silver platter and published their first novel after going to an Ivy League school and being trained by a Pulitzer Prize winning writer in the art of literary embellishment? Stuart Sulloway doesn’t, and Stuart Sulloway, the same fool who’s written a manuscript entitled Zombie Lolita, hopes to create his own narrative. He wants to radiate his trials and tribulations to the masses, his years of slaving away at a 9-5 job while a novel boiled madly in his skull; he needs a good laugh for his debut on The Daily Show, or his first interview on the New York Times Book Review Podcast; he needs a story to tell in order to tell his next story. To illustrate the level of delusion we are dealing with here, I give you the back cover biography Sulloway plans out after his wife has tried to burn their house down due to the fact he’s divorcing her:

Stuart Sulloway, a Portland-native who lives in New York City with his son Quinn, is the survivor of an arsonist attack by his pyromaniac ex-wife. His forthcoming novel, Zombie Lolita, will be followed by a collection of short stories entitled, The Dreams of Stuart Sulloway: An Exploration of Genius and Chance.

Beyond delusional, as most writers are. Now, before you think I’m calling you or anyone you know out, or placing judgment on the field we hold so dear to our little black hearts, let it be known that delusion isn’t necessarily a bad thing (skip to the end if you’d like to read about my level of delusion, which may shock you). And the skin separating delusion from its conjoined twin illusion isn’t as thick as we imagined. Delusion: a false belief that has been surrendered to and accepted in one’s mind as true. Illusion: a false impression that is entertained. The line between false belief and false impression is miniscule indeed. And while it’s clear that Sulloway has fallen to one side of the line of delusion, he’s looking to the other side as he moves further away from the truth, like walking backwards on a football field-sized treadmill. My delusional epiphany: Writing should be classified as a mild psychological disorder. This brings me into a new term I would like to introduce called the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum. Let’s examine the pirate novelist I worked with so many years ago. The man was convinced he would write the next pirate masterpiece (if there can be such a thing). As we cleaned the café together, he would elaborate on his pirate story, his plans for the future, the money he would make once he sold the movie rights, the little known parts of a pirate ship, the necessity for him to be drunk while writing because a pirate would do this and most importantly, why his protagonist was the most badass protagonist of them all, way cooler than Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Take another novelist I know who has poured his soul into a young adult book about the journey of four boys and how they eventually converge upon each other in a fictional world. He’s drawn huge elaborate maps of his world and its cities, speaks of his characters as if they are in the room and how his book will be a bestseller. He’s done years of research, planning and strategizing. Still the struggle continues, still the madness is maddening. Then there’s the quiet novelist, the one who doesn’t speak of her work but lets you know that she’s working on something only after you’ve met her a dozen times. She hides the fact that she’s writing and if discovered, she waves it off as if it’s just a hobby. The quiet novelist is just as dangerous as the boisterous one or the one who works too hard to no end—all of them have a place on the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum and are welcome here. There’s also the guy who keeps telling you about the novel he has running around his head and how he’s going to write it and how it’s going to be great. This guy doesn’t know anything about the industry, doesn’t read much (similar to Cormac McCarthy but without the clout), plans to knock his novel out at some point, if he can only find the time. This person is a staple on the Delusion Writers’ Spectrum. Don’t forget the method writer. The method writer goes to extreme lengths to recreate what his characters have gone through. This is the lady cutting her wrist to better describe the pain, or the guy starving himself to see what hunger pangs feel like—another welcome addition to the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum. So where does Stuart Sulloway fit into this? Sulloway is a throwaway writer who believes he is to be published by The New Yorker and plans to follow-up his success with a zombified remake of Lolita. He is the extreme version of all of us, from the guy boasting he’ll write a bestseller to the person inflicting personal pain to accomplish their writing goal.Sulloway is a caricature of all the people on the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum, and the opening line from The Beatle’s I Am the Walrus never felt so apropos. I am Stuart Sulloway. I am also just like the writers I’ve listed above. I’ve kept quiet for years about my writing and thrown away relationships in pursuit of my unremitting dream of novelling. I’ve traveled to India after saving up for a year to hole myself up in a small concrete hotel room (concrete floor, no bed, no bathroom) to write the grim portion of a novel that was never published. I’ve ventured to the westernmost ends of Mongolia on the border of Kazakhstan to write a book about shamanism for a book that was also never published. I tried self-publishing an e-book, and spent ten percent of my net worth to print fliers to hand out during South by South West in 2011, assuming it would be a bestseller. (All to no avail, of course. The book “sold” 200 free downloads…) At the request of another delusion writer, I helped write a Mongolian sitcom, spending six months of my life in translation hell and eventually, being cast as a lead actor and filming a YouTube video of me speaking in Mongolian (serious—YouTube: Lonely Rick, it’s the first one that will come up). It has never aired. Failures add up like exes. Then there’s my latest incursion into the writing industry. Along with two other men, I’ve founded a print and e-book publishing company with a focus on ESL books. Over the last six months, I’ve written or co-written no less than ten reader-sized novels which will be published this summer. I will be moving to Tokyo in June 2014, to hole myself up in an apartment to write a Young Adult sci-fi dystopian novel called 21 Years for the advanced ESL market and the North American market (holing myself up seems to be a theme in my personal narrative). All this to say: I might be one of the lucky ones. Yes, really. Good news: My delusion has reached a point where it’s now becoming a viable thing, a real possibility after nearly a decade of literary struggling. That or I’ve spiraled so far down into the pits of delusion that anything sounds possible now. (I hope this isn’t the case, but what is hope without delusion?) The point I’m trying to make is this: If you, as a writer, don’t register somewhere on the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum, maybe you should rethink what you are doing. After all, we are all crazy, even the ones who haven’t written anything at all. Stuart Sulloway very well may be normal compared to some of us. So, where do you fit on the Delusional Writers’ Spectrum?

Cooper Baltis hs published stories in the Sorin Oak Review, The Metric, Writing Tomorrow and will be published in the Garbanzo Literary Journal this summer. He was honorably mentioned in Glimmer Train’s 2013 Short Story Contest for New Writers, and he is halfway through my eighth full-length manuscript. He currently alternates between Tokyo, Japan and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where he has started an electronic publishing company. @cooperbaltis

Zombie Lolita

Who could have known that the Nigerians would be running a scam to collect short stories submitted to The New Yorker? And what were they planning to do with these short stories they stripped from the hearts and minds of hapless writers worldwide anyways?

Stuart rereads the acceptance letter he received so many months ago, the acceptance letter he thought would change his life for the better:


Dear Stuart Sulloway,

I wish to congratulate you on your short story, Through the Texts of Time: A Blatant Treaty on Remorse and Elongated Romance(s).

I am the son of the late Dr. Collins Keshi, and am interim editor at The New Yorker while Deborah Treisman is visiting the Galapagos Islands. Sitting at my desk in New York—where I live, I assure you—I was overcome with heartfelt emotion after finishing your story.

Who could have known that Tomás Brickfast would lose not only his leg, but his unmentionables and his left nipple in pursuit of the thing he loved the most? And what a trick ending! That last sentence of yours, And then he woke up from his dream—no one could have seen that one coming! Mr. Sulloway, I applaud you.

Attached to this e-mail is a letter of consent regarding future publication. Please sign the letter (note: pages 1-3 of the letter are in my possession and deal with typeface so you don’t need to see them), and mail it to this address:


Kassim Keshi c/o The New Yorker

PO BOX 1121

New York, NY, 10011-4668

I am excited to publish your piece in an upcoming issue! Please send the letter of consent at your earliest scheduled convenience.

            Sincerely yours,

            Kassim Keshi


After reading the e-mail, Stuart Sulloway did what any sane writer would do upon getting accepted in The New Yorker—he quit his day job. That same night, he gently tried to explain to his wife that while she’d been supportive during his formative years, his life had since taken a turn for the better and he would soon be seeking a divorce.

“Honey, I’ll always love you,” he said, thinking in the voice Tomás, the lead protagonist from his soon to be published story. It was just the start, really. First The New Yorker, then NPR or Oprah’s Book Club, then he’d be debating immigration policy with Bill O’Reilly, or getting comical jabs from Steve Colbert. And that was just the start. Soon he would unveil his magnum opus: Zombie Lolita.

“Always. Love. Me?” Becky sobbed. “You. Bastard.”

“Please, don’t talk like that.” He imagined her talking in those little word bubbles from comic books.

“I. Can’t. Believe. You.”

“Honey. I. Told. You. If. It. Ever. Came. To. This. I. Might. Leave. You.” he said, in a tone that was both mocking and sincere.

There was the problem of their son, Quinn, a suspiciously quiet eleven year old named after a character from Asimov’s I, Robot. That and their mortgage, but Stuart was pretty sure the book deal would come and the seven-figure advance alone would pay off the mortgage. Besides, Becky could raise Quinn on her own. They were always closer anyhow. Becky, of course, didn’t agree with this plan, but there comes a time in an artist’s life when he or she has to be selfish and for Stuart, that time had finally come.  

As he mailed the permission form the next morning, Stuart thought of Zombie Lolita, the book that would soon make him a household name. In his remake of the classic novel, he’d switch Humbert Humbert for a necrophiliac middle school teacher named Henrietta Henrietta who falls in love with her husband’s first child, a dead boy named Lionel, and their subsequent journey west. For some bizarre reason, everyone loved zombies, especially when they made their way into classic works of literature. Stuart was aware of this, and could feel success looming in the distance, its flesh rotting and its message pedo and cutting edge and guaranteed to make him millions. 

To Stuart, selling out simply meant selling in to a group of people who actually made money from their writings, enough money that he could light the Cuban cigars that he’d start smoking with flaming Benjamins. He imagined himself owning piles of the green stuff, which he’d keep taped inside the air conditioning in his bedroom or in a briefcase. He wondered how heavy a briefcase full of money would be, and could almost feel adrenaline from carrying such a valuable object in plain sight.

Maybe he’d start a writing serial about a homicide detective who was investigating people at the same time he was killing them, using a nom de plume of course. Or, maybe he’d join forces with another writer a la James Patterson and co-write airport thrillers. Who said the jump from literary to mainstream fiction wasn’t possible? What was the point of literary fiction anyway? Who really wanted to read about some nobody’s long struggle with existentialism; or some kid getting lost in a city and coming to grips with alienation; or some woman’s difficulty in finding her racial and/or cultural identity?

Not Stuart. Well, not anymore anyway. Now that he was fastly approaching a world he’d only imagined; now that he was so close to literary fame he could feel his hand aching from signing books; now that he was closer to literary stardom than many would get—Stuart was ready to do whatever it took to solidify his legacy. Knowing that he needed something that made him distinct, something that separated him from other writers, he decided to give himself a makeover.  

On his way home from mailing his letter of consent to The New Yorker, Stuart stopped in at a local tattoo shop and thirty minutes later, walked out with a sparkling stud in his left nostril. He figured a nose right would set him apart from other writers, and it would surely look great in a head shot.

 The next logical step would be a change of haircut. Something cutting edge, not quite Korean style, and he didn’t have the right length or consistency for corn rolls, but he could definitely do better than his current hairdo.

Stuart opted for a faux hawk, not because of its dude-bro underpinnings, but because it defined who he was becoming, someone who towed the line and walked the edge at the same time. A rebel with a cause, a writer with a message, a future literary goliath, a potential Dan Brown meets Salmon Rushdie meets Jamaica Kincaid meets Cormac McCarthy meets Anne Rice meets Michael Creighton meets George R. R. Martin meets Emily Bronson meets F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Stephen King at an exclusive dinner party jointly hosted by George Saunders and J. K. Rowling (using her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, of course).  

After paying the hairdresser, Stuart Solloway withdrew his savings—nine thousand hard-earned dollars that he’d secretly been stashing away for the last five years as an accountant for Portland’s largest legal firm—and returned home to pack his things and say goodbye to Becky and Quinn. He would disappear like Edward Snowden, but do so in his own country, without the NSA on his tail.

Cash in hand, rolled in a thick wad of hundreds like a drug dealer, Stuart suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of power. With a demented grin on his face, he paraded into the thrift store across the street and purchased a vintage Samsonite briefcase. He took his time thumbing through the cash in front of the store employee, watching as her eyes bulged and her mouth watered. I’ll be back for you, he thought, dropping the bills onto the counter. At the nod of an invisible hat to the cute woman, Stuart placed the rest of the money in the briefcase and returned to his car.

On his drive home, he thought of what lay next. He needed an agent, but figured he could manage his own affairs for the time being. Why go to them when they can come to you? Besides, as soon as his New Yorker piece was published, agents would be bending over backwards to represent him. They’d wait for him like paparazzi—falling from trees, jumping from bushes, or appearing like Oscar the Grouch from trashcans as he walked by. He’d manage his own bidding war, playing the agents off one another and likely being christened the Warren Buffet of the publishing industry after he’d made the cover of Time magazine.

He laughed as he pulled into his driveway, as he looked down at his briefcase brimming with cash. He just needed to grab a few things and begin the long drive to New York. After all, now that he was to be published in The New Yorker, it would help if his bio said he lived in Williamsburg or something.

He should’ve figured his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Becky, would complicate things, but he was so lost in his day dreams, that he didn’t anticipate her latching herself onto his leg as soon as he entered the house. Stuart didn’t anticipate her begging and crying and pleading. He didn’t anticipate her setting fire to his car via a piece of cloth in the gas tank as he packed his bags inside their home. He didn’t anticipate the nine thousand dollars in his briefcase going up in flames alongside his only means of transportation.

After the police showed up and Becky was arrested and charged with arson, Stuart was left with a shell of a car and a grief stricken son. Not to worry, he thought, credit cards were made for this very reason. In any event, it would make an interesting narrative, something he could include in his New Yorker bio:

Stuart Sulloway, a Portland-native who lives in New York City with his son Quinn, is the survivor of an arsonist attack by his pyromaniac ex-wife. His forthcoming novel, Zombie Lolita, will be followed by a collection of short stories entitled, The Dreams of Stuart Sulloway: An Exploration of Genius and Chance.

Quickly realizing what he must do, Stuart bought two Greyhound tickets that night for New York, and the next morning, he was off alongside his fretful son, Quinn, to The Big Apple. The trip was long and arduous—as any start to a future epic should be—and highlights of the three day bus ride include Barney, a retired truck driver sitting in front of them who constantly ate tamales and pork rinds; Stella, a former Vegas waitress with tattooed eyeliner, crocodile skin, and a lip ring (she kept saying something about Stuart’s nose ring, but he couldn’t tell if it was a compliment or not); and Enrique, a Columbian man fond of snoring and speaking Spanish in his sleep and hissing like a boa constrictor when he was awake.

It was in New York that Stuart realized he’d made a horrible mistake: in a hurry to catch the bus, he’d left his laptop sitting on the dining room table in Portland. Luckily, this was also what credit cards were for. After several attempts to make purchases using his cards—all of which were swiftly declined—Stuart called the credit card company, and discovered that Becky had maxed out both their cards paying her bail. She’d also canceled their shared debit card.

After kicking a trashcan, Stuart pulled himself together. With the remaining cash he had on him—eighty dollars plus Quinn’s emergency twenty—Stuart found a hotel room in Spanish Harlem. The two bunkered down for the night with a couple bags of potato chips and a king-sized Snickers bar.

Unable to sleep, Stuart obsessed over the only option that remained: he would arrive early at The New Yorker offices with his print-out of the e-mail from Kassim Keshi, and like any good interim editor, Kassim would give him an advance on the money he was owed for his piece. After he’d received the money, he would fly back to Portland to claim his laptop and subsequently Zombie Lolita, which he failed to back-up. His only hope was that Becky hadn’t destroyed it in a fit of rage.

Becky had indeed destroyed Stuart’s laptop in a fit of rage, thus deleting his rough draft of Zombie Lolita and all the short stories he’d written over the last year. Before the cathartic cleansing, Becky searched through Stuart’s inbox until she found the e-mail from The New Yorker. Needing someone to vent to, she placed a call to the fabled magazine. An intern named Terry picked up, and after she’d calmed down, Terry explained to Becky that the e-mail her soon-to-be-ex-husband had received was actually part of a Nigerian scam.

With this in mind, Becky drove the hammer down onto the laptop keyboard, deep into its mechanical guts.

After arriving at The New Yorker offices the following morning, Stuart quickly realized he’d made an even bigger mistake than leaving his laptop in Portland. As the intern Terry explained to him he should have questioned the spurious e-mail and that he had been duped by a Nigerian scam artist; as Terry explained that The New Yorker accepts .001% of short story submissions and that he had a better chance of jumping through a flaming Cheerio into a pool of Kanye West sexbots than getting published in the magazine; as Terry explained to him that his wife had called and boy was she angry; as Terry pat him on the shoulder and complimented his nose ring—all Stuart could think about was Zombie Lolita.

And he said this to Terry, Zombie Lolita, he kept mumbling, and Terry told him quite frankly that that was the stupidest idea for a novel he’d ever heard. And of course Stuart lashed out at him for this. He stood, grabbed the fake tree in the reception area, and hurled it at snobby bearded intern.

Security came faster than a room full of virgins and soon, Stuart was lying on a concrete sidewalk outside the magazine’s offices, bruised, sobbing, and cursing the sky as a pair of stray dogs sniffed at his ankles. Zombie Lolita, he thought, as he took the bus back to the hotel. Zombie Lolita, he thought as he made check-out time with Quinn. Zombie Lolita, he thought as he called Becky to apologize.

The acceptance letter is still pinned to Stuart’s refrigerator in his tiny, one bedroom apartment, a constant reminder of delusion and the lengths a man will go once he thinks his dreams have been realized.


Cooper_Baltis-Cooper_BaltisCooper Baltis is a Texas-born, former United States Fulbright Fellow living in and teaching English in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He has published stories in the Sorin Oak Review and The Metric, and Writing Tomorrow. He was recently honorably mentioned in Glimmer Train‘s 2013 Short Story Contest for New Writers. The following piece will appear in an upcoming collection of short stories he hopes to publish entitled NAPOLEON TREMBLES.