Last summer, Baltimore writer Justin Sirois was mentally and physically exhausted, and his work was to blame.
The 34-year-old's debut novel, 2012's "Falcons on the Floor," attempted to humanize Fallujah's bloody war scene. "The Last Book of Baghdad," the completed "Falcons" follow-up now being edited, deals with complicated relationships in Baghdad during the Iraq War. His immersion in these subjects led to Sirois "being depressed all the time," he said.
"I remember sitting down with a friend, and I was like, 'I just want to write something fun for once. It doesn't have to mean anything. It doesn't have to be political or have some sort of experimental bend in it,' " Sirois said recently. "I just wanted to have fun."
Within three months, Sirois — who graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2001 with a printmaking degree — had a detailed outline for "So Say the Waiters," a self-published serial tale of Henry and Dani, two very different characters whose lives become entangled through kidnapping and smartphone technology.
With easy accessibility through Kindle, Nook, iBooks and other online outlets, Book 1 of "So Say the Waiters" has found fans as far away as Australia,and a follow-up is due in September. "Waiters" was also picked up for a TV pilot option by an independent producer who worked on "The Wire," according to Sirois, who declined to give the producer's name because contracts were still being negotiated. Sirois and his partner plan to write the pilot together this year, then shop it to networks and Netflix.
In the evolving publishing world, Sirois could have shopped the book to major companies, but instead took a gamble by self-publishing it. He realizes the method comes with a stigma, but he looks at Hugh Howey (who self-published the novel "Wool" and now "gets a check from Amazon for six figures every month," Sirois says) as an example of self-publishing working for an author.
"It's really hard for mainstream people and older audiences to give credit to people without publishers. I understand that," Sirois said. "Anyone can write a 'book,' and slap it up. But anyone can do that with a song or movie now, or a YouTube video. Those definitions are definitely changing."
"Waiters" is a Baltimore story through and through. Scenes take place at The Talking Head Club and The Windup Space amid references to Station North's The Hour Haus and the Copycat Building. The twists and turns of "Waiters" make it a page-turner by nature, but it's Sirois' vivid descriptions of the city that make the story easy for Baltimoreans to love.
"As soon as I began reading, I picked out details — places that were thinly veiled locations that I frequented in the last 10, 12 years as an adult," said Matthew Porterfield, the Baltimore film director. "It's rich. It's evocative. It paints this portrait of Baltimore that any local would recognize."
"Waiters" was the third-best-selling fiction novel at Hampden's Atomic Books last year despite being on shelves for only November and December. The store is currently sold out of the book.
A native of Massachusetts, Sirois says it took him nearly 15 years of living in Baltimore to feel comfortable enough to write about his adopted home. In that time, he lived two very different lives.
From 2002 to 2006, Sirois was a founding member of Taxidermy Lodge — or TaxLo, for short — the weekly party-throwing collective that came to define Sonar and The Talking Head Club. Many of his friends left Maryland after graduation, but Sirois stuck around as TaxLo gained popularity in the city.
"They all went to Williamsburg [in Brooklyn, N.Y.,] or L.A.," Sirois said. "But it was TaxLo that kept me here, which is really funny because I was just having a blast."
In 2004, the party slowed down for Sirois when he took an office job. The daily grind wore Sirois down enough to leave TaxLo for good in 2006. He walked away with the memories and stories that would eventually inspire settings in "Waiters." When it was time to write in 2012, Sirois was finally ready to paint two worlds in the same city.
"Having those two, really dramatic, different perspectives and then blending them together really made sense for me now," he said. "I can relate."
These days, Sirois works at his government job from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each weekday, then retreats to the wooden cabin in his Gwynn Oak backyard, where he works on "Waiters" from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
In that cabin, Sirois conceptualized kidnApp, the fictional app and social network that provides customers with "private kidnappings from 1 to 72 hours long." In the novel, straight-laced Henry is a struggling new hire for the company, while Dani, a hip bartender, is one of the first kidnApp users in Baltimore. Sirois says he gravitated toward the app concept because of its timeliness, but also because of the possibilities it could bring to the narrative.
"Once you apply the kidnApp app to a story, you can even bend really cliche tropes just a little bit and, all of a sudden, they're exciting," he said.
The story of Dani, Henry and the kidnApp corporation will continue this fall when the second book debuts online, Sirois says. It will consist of episodes 6 to 9, and will pick up where the first book ended. The third book, which Sirois says he hopes to complete by next September, will end on either episode 11 or 12 "with the opportunity to keep going," he said.
"I just don't want to paint myself in a corner in case I get sick of it or people lose interest," Sirois said. "There should be enough satisfaction where you're like, 'These people have traveled together far enough to learn something from each other.' That's a fine ending for me."
He called the TV pilot's chances of getting picked up for a full series a "long shot," but Sirois can't help but talk excitedly about its potential. What began as an escape from draining, serious topics has become Sirois' most successful and best-received work to date. Success was unexpected, but now that Sirois has gotten a taste of it, he wants to see where "Waiters" can take him, and where he can take "Waiters."
"[Book 3] is basically outlined, but I want to make it as crazy as possible," Sirois said with a laugh. "I've never had the opportunity to go in that direction. I've always been really constrained with poetry and with 'Falcons.' With this, I can break it if I want to ... in a good way."