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Q&A: Gwen Florio

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Newspaper people exist in a small world, which is how I felt as though I knew Gwen Florio even before I met her. We spent a number of years working for the same newspaper company. She was at the Missoulian, I was 350-some miles east at The Billings Gazette. She was a reporter. I spent most of my time on the copy desk, and editing her stories was how I grew familiar with her and her writing. When she chucked the newspaper career and became a full-time novelist, I can’t say I was surprised. I was doing the same thing.

Her first novel, MONTANA, let readers get to know Lola Wicks, a seasoned foreign correspondent who has been pulled back to the States against her wishes. Told to take some time off, she heads to Montana and lands in the middle of a murder mystery that is very personal to her.

Next up is DAKOTA, which puts Wicks back in the cross-hairs, this time in the booming Bakken oil formation. The new book releases March 21 from The Permanent Press.

In the midst of an active touring schedule, Florio was kind enough to answer a few questions …

dakotaQ: DAKOTA comes on the heels of MONTANA, a novel that has garnered fine reviews and introduced us to journalist Lola Wicks. What do you want people to know going into this one?

That Lola is back, and as bullheaded as ever. When she gets her teeth into a story, she can’t let go, even when specifically warned away. It takes place amid the social upheaval of North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, a situation I found absolutely fascinating.

Your protagonist is a female journalist. You, of course, were a longtime, award-winning newspaper reporter. The inevitable question: How much of Lola is you?

One of the great pleasures about writing fiction is that you can create a protagonist who shares some of your own characteristics, and then make her so much better! For instance, I was never a full-time foreign correspondent. I just “parachuted” into situations for a few weeks and then came home. Lola is the seasoned correspondent I wish I’d been. As I’ve often remarked, she’s also taller, thinner and younger, which annoys the heck out of me. Sometimes I think that’s why I put her in such awful situations.

Why do you think so many reporters make the successful transition to fiction? And what caused you to think, OK, it’s time for me to leave the beat behind and focus my energy on books?

Because they got tired of a regular paycheck and health benefits? Seriously, most reporters I know are avid fiction readers, so it makes sense that they’d like to write novels. And, because they write daily, the prospect of writing a novel is probably not as daunting to reporters as to other people. Finally, that crack about a paycheck and health insurance actually was part of the impetus to finally give fiction a full-time go: As the field of journalism became more and more tenuous, with near-daily reports of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures at newspapers, it seemed silly to hang on to a job I felt as though I inevitably were going to lose, anyway. I also waited until I had a two-book contract before I left, so the leap wasn’t completely quixotic.

You’ve been traveling a lot and meeting readers in support of your first book. What has been the best moment you’ve experienced? Did anything surprise you?

A couple of things: Traveling around Montana, something the day job left little time for. Giving readings and doing research is a great way to see the state. Last summer, we drove out to the Bakken for research on DAKOTA, and then back along the whole Hi-Line, something I’ve wanted to do ever since I moved to Montana. It was worth the wait. Even more, it’s been great to connect with people who love books, and with other writers. I’ve met people, like you, whose work I’ve admired from afar. That’s much fun. The biggest surprise? The fact that readings in the smallest towns sometimes attract the biggest and most engaged audiences. That makes it doubly fun for me, because the smaller towns are the places I most enjoy going.

What led you to writing as a career?

I’ve always loved to read. I grew up in a very rural area without a lot of other kids around, so I just read and read and read. I was an English major in college (more reading) and got into journalism when my dad not-so-subtly suggested that I might need to channel all of that reading and writing into a job.

OK, you’re at home, working on a manuscript. What does a day of work look like?

I’m at my laptop no later than 9 a.m., a big change from when I used to slide into work a minimum of 10 minutes late each day (we won’t talk about all the unpaid overtime each night). When I had the day job, I shot for 500 words a day. When I first started writing full time, I upped that to 1,000, and recently started working on 1,500 to 2,000 a day. A daily total is important to me—it harkens back to my daily journalism deadline, so feels familiar, and it also helps me get through the hell of a first draft. Afternoons are for blogging (not often enough), setting up readings, and keeping track of the surprising amount of minutiae that goes along with this business. One more thing: I have a rule about not writing in my jammies. I have to be showered and dressed, more or less presentably, before I start work. Finally, when I’m deep into revisions, I often work well into the night. I’m not much fun to be around then.

How do you hone a project? Do you have a critique group or trusted early readers?

I’ve been a member of two terrific writing groups (Rittenhouse Writers’ Group in Philadelphia and 406 Writers in Missoula) over the years, and they’re really helpful, especially with short stories. Novels are a different animal, and I’m still feeling my way with them. On the advice of my agent, I hired an outside editor for MONTANA (Judy Sternlight; can’t say enough good things about her) and turned to her again for DAKOTA, and hope to do so with subsequent novels. I’m also a member of an online group of four women formed after last year’s Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers convention in Denver. That’s really helpful.

What lies beyond DAKOTA? Can you give us a glimpse into your next project?

WYOMING! And then, ARIZONA and UTAH. Seriously, my publisher did me a favor when he named the book MONTANA by giving me a theme of sorts. As long as people, please God, are interested in following Lola around, I’m going to keep sending her from one state to the next. It’s fun trying to figure out a plot that’s thematic to each place.

If you’re not writing, what interests fill your time?

For many, many years, writing took up all my spare time. I’m still getting used to the fact that I actually have personal time on evenings and weekends now. For starters, I’ve gotten reacquainted with my sweetie, a huge benefit. He comes along on my book research trips, so we’ve had fun exploring remote parts of North Dakota and Wyoming. I started running a couple of years ago, completing one marathon and three half-marathons so far. If my knee cooperates, I’ll shoot for at least one half-marathon this year. The training gets me outdoors on trails around Missoula, something that—even in the worst of weather—I just love. And, I can’t spend too much time in Glacier. Oh, and reading. Lots of reading. Never enough time for that.

Gwen Florio’s website

Follow Gwen on Twitter

Gwen Florio’s Facebook page

 


100K

When it comes to the book business and how I comport myself, I’m a man of guiding principles:

1. Write what’s in my heart, not what I calculate to be the quickest route to sales, notoriety, etc.

2. Connect with readers, not other authors.

3. Don’t get in back-and-forths with critics. They have their role, I have mine.

4. Don’t yammer on about sales figures.

For much of my novel-writing career, still in its adolescence, No. 4 has been easy to honor. There wasn’t much to say. Beyond that, trumpeting one’s sales has generally struck me as unseemly, unless it’s for educational purposes (see J.A. Konrath, who has been transparent about how his life and career have been changed by self-publishing) or some truly remarkable threshold has been met.

I hope the latter is the case here, as I deviate from my self-imposed rigor.

Because of the vagaries of sales numbers—this month’s sales could be eroded by next month’s returns—I won’t know exactly when I cross this threshold, but sometime in the next week, I should reach 100,000 books sold since my first, 600 Hours of Edward, was originally released in October 2009.

In some significant ways, it’s no big deal. I haven’t spent a day on any of the big bestseller lists. My books aren’t released with big multimedia marketing campaigns. I haven’t managed to keep an entire publishing division afloat with any single title. And, hey, it took me four releases in almost four years to accumulate those numbers. (And that doesn’t even get into sales numbers being a poor arbiter of book quality. We’ve all known crap books that sold in crazy quantities and wonderful books that never found an audience.)

On the other hand …

Before 600 Hours came out, I never expected to sell one book, let alone 100,000. In the years since that first release, some remarkable things have happened. I’ve been able to write more books and leave my job, dedicating myself full-time to being a professional author. I find now, at 43 years old, that I am what I dreamed of being back in high school: a self-sustaining, satisfied, working-man author. That was the aim when I started. Not awards (although they’re definitely nice). Not being the toast of the tastemakers (not bloody likely, ever). I just wanted to be a guy who put in the work and made a living.

That’s the significance of the sales, that I’m there and can now dream bigger. More, that’s the significance of all the people who’ve been so kind to buy the books, read them and tell their friends. My gratitude is bottomless.

To mark the occasion and to say thank you, I’m doing some giveaways over at my author page on Facebook. Among the goodies:

  • The chance to lend your name to a character in the novel I’m currently writing and receive a signed first draft of it.
  • Signed copies of all four books.
  • A coffee date with me. (Obviously, if you don’t live in Billings, Montana, or Montana at large, I’ll probably just send you a coffee card, which is the better prize anyway).

Follow the link above and comment on the giveaway post on my Facebook page. That’s all it takes.

 


The Next Big Thing

“Fobbit” author David Abrams was kind enough to tag me in this ongoing string of posts. The idea is that you answer a standard set of questions about your current work in progress—or whatever is next in your pipeline—and then tag a few others. I’ll do that at the end of this post.

(By the way, “Fobbit” is great. Great! You should read it. And from the sound of things, you should look forward to reading “Dubble,” too.)

What is the working title of your book?

“Julep Street,” which follows “Evergreen,” the conceptual title. When I finished the thing—or, rather, when I finished it to the point that I was ready to send it to my agent—the manuscript bore little resemblance to the original idea I had. (These things happen, alas.) And thus, it also had little fealty to the title I picked out for it when I started. That’s one of my little idiosyncrasies. I can’t write the first word, much less the 70,000th, without a title. Even one I’m going to eventually drown in the tub.

“Julep Street” is the fictional name of the main thoroughfare in the fictional (and unnamed) Kentucky town I’ve conjured, and it’s the artery that supplies blood to most of the story, so it makes sense as a title. Still, I resisted it for a long time—mainly because “Julep Street” sounds a little like the title of a book a failed movie novelist (played by William Hurt) would write. But it’s the best I have, so it’ll have to do for now.

Though the town in “Julep Street” is fictional, it does have a real-life inspiration.

What genre does your book fall under?

On the list of Top Ten Reasons Craig Is Likely to Wallow in Relative Literary Anonymity, being unable to align with a genre has to rank pretty high. “Julep Street” has literary themes—everything I write does—but I don’t think I’d call my work “literary fiction” unless I were willing to kick my own ass for pretentiousness. On the other hand, with this book more than anything else I’ve written, I directly confront my fear of obsolescence and my uncertainties about God, all in 61,000 tidy words that generally buck my over-reliance on simple declarative sentences.

So, yeah, literary fiction, I guess.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Actually, now that I think of it, William Hurt is not a bad choice, especially if he’s still carrying around that extra weight from “A History of Violence.”

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

One lonely man is made a relic before his time—and proceeds to lose his shit.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Two months? Three? It’s hard to tell where first drafts end and the million tiny adjustments and major overhauls and sentence tinkerings begin. I started in the early summer of 2012 and turned it over to my agent last month.

I will say, for what it’s worth, that quick first drafts tend to be a good harbinger for me. I’m not suggesting here that the writing is easy. Goodness no. It’s not, ever. But when I’m connecting with the work and the characters and I feel myself slipping into the screen as I go along, only good things seem to happen on the other end.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t want to be difficult here, but I’m just not good at the compare-this-book-to-another-book game. Those comparisons usually end up being skin-deep anyway. Further, I tend to think cinematically when I’m writing and reading. On that note, I’d say that there’s a little “Falling Down” in this book, and maybe a little “Cast Away,” and perhaps even a little “B.J. and the Bear,” if you can picture “Bear” as an ancient yellow Lab rather than a cheeky chimp. No Sheriff Lobo, though. (God, yes, I am a child of the ’70s and ’80s.)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Several things:

1. I built a career as a newspaper journalist. Perhaps you’ve read about our industry’s struggles (on the Internet, no doubt). Further, I’m a newspaper production editor, a particularly endangered subspecies of journalist. Do you think I might have some questions about my long-term efficacy as a gainfully employed citizen? Maybe.

2. One of the things I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about is self-identity and the terminology we use to present ourselves to the rest of the world. When those words come from some external source (“I’m an engineer at General Dynamics,” “I cut the meat at Albertsons”), we give up power; someone else can render those definitions moot if the quarterly reports don’t look good. The main character in “Julep Street,” Carson McCullough (yeah, yeah), has spent his entire working life self-identifying as a newspaper editor. It is how he thinks of himself. It is the face he wears for others.

But what if, without warning, there were no more newspaper office to go to? Then what?

3. One of the less-than-complimentary reviews my second novel, “The Summer Son,” received on Amazon was from a thoughtful fellow who contended that the absence of any fulsome reference to or thoughts about God undermined its effectiveness. The subtext of this criticism was that I, the author, just didn’t have anything to say about God. That’s not true. I’ll admit that my thoughts tend to be muddled and searching, but they exist, and in Carson I found a vehicle for exploring them. (Sidenote: A Facebook friend once accused me of being hostile to God, which is both incorrect and silly. I’m hostile toward religion, mainly because the worldwide story of religion is told in hostilities. I’ve never been hostile toward God, even if I have profound questions about who (or what) he is and how he operates.)

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

It’s funny. I just got finished with a Q&A about my new novel, “Edward Adrift,” and in it I mentioned that I tried to avoid the usual road-trip tropes of a hitchhiker and an unforeseen destination. Well, “Julep Street” also has a road trip, and in the revision phase, I added a hitchhiker. One of my trusted early readers made that suggestion, saying that if Carson was going to go on a big, sloppy road trip, he should bathe in all its excesses.

On that note, an excerpt is probably in order:

The miles fall away in a soliloquy.

“See, the thing was, I knew when I met Sonya—that was my jezebel, I told you that, yes?—I knew I would fall. I am not a strong man, no sir, I am not, and when I met Sonya, I knew I was not strong enough to stay away from her. I tried, Lord yes, I tried. But I fell. I knew I would.”

The highway man gave his name as Jagur, which Carson figures to be the fakest name ever, but who cares? Carson introduced himself as Jerry Joe Ray Bob Dale—“honest to goodness,” he said—and faked out the faker. Now Jagur sits in the passenger seat and dangles a hand into the backseat of the car, stroking Hector’s undercoat and sending the dog into contented sleep.

“Wait,” Carson says. “ ‘Fell’? So you, what, boinked this Sonya chick?”

“An unnecessarily crude assessment, I rather think, but yes, that is what happened.”

“So what?”

“She was not mine to boink, as you colorfully put it. I am a married man. I have a daughter who is on the student council and the Honor Society. I should have no time for jezebels. It was a sin.”

“So what are you doing out here? Go home. Be with your family. Forget Sonya. A mistake.”

Jagur’s hand leaves Hector and palms the dashboard. The hand is massive, vascular. He sweeps it across the dash, leaving a grooved trail of dust behind.

“Are you married, Mr. Ray Bob Dale?”

“That’s Mr. Dale. The rest is my first name.”

“My apologies. Are you married?”

“No.”

“Ever married?”

“No.”

Jagur again massages Hector. “Forget Sonya, you say. I could sooner forget a knife plunged into my heart. God is testing me, Mr. Dale. When I told my wife—”

“You told your wife?”

“I am not a keeper of secrets, Mr. Dale. When I told my wife, she and God said that I should leave the house and venture into the world. The truth of the matter is that she said only that I should leave the house. It was God’s idea that I go into the world. My penance is out here. My test is out here. And when I have passed it, when I have satisfied God, I shall return again to my wife and to my daughter and to the world I am not presently fit to live in.” 

When and how will it be published?

We shall see, on both counts.

*****

Now, to keep this thing going, I’ll tag …

LynDee Walker, whose debut novel, “Front Page Fatality,” has turned into a big hit.

Stant Litore, who writes literary biblical tales of the voracious undead.

Elisa Lorello, the dazzling author of “Faking It” and “Ordinary World,” and quite possibly the most ardent Duran Duran fan alive.


Catching up

Some news and notes on various fronts. I’ve been really busy these past few weeks–with the promise of more busy-ness to come–and haven’t had time to get to this stuff until now:

600 HOURS OF EDWARD is out, and doing swimmingly. In just over a month since it’s re-release, it has garnered about 25 new, mostly glowing reviews on Amazon.com (about 50 if you count the enthusiastic response in the UK, and I do). I don’t like to talk about sales figures, but it’s safe to say that the reception has exceeded my hopes. I’m thrilled that the book seems to be finding its audience.

The audiobook version of THE SUMMER SON has been delayed a bit. It’s now scheduled to drop on Oct. 23. The audiobook of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD is already out.

The coming weeks will also bring my work into other languages. The French version of THE SUMMER SON (titled UNE SI LONGUE ABSENCE) will be released by Presses de la Cite on Oct. 12, and the German version of the novel (DER SOMMERSOHN) is scheduled for Nov. 13.

I also have a couple of upcoming events:

  • This Friday (Sept. 28), I’ll be in Great Falls, Montana, for the state’s General Federation of Women’s Clubs meeting. I’m speaking at the group’s dinner.
  • After a short vacation, I’ll be in Lewistown, Montana, on Oct. 17 for a presentation at the library. It’s called “Living With Your Character,” and it should be a lot of fun.
  • I’m reading from QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE during the High Plains BookFest in Billings, Montana, on Oct. 20, and that night I’ll find out if the book, a finalist for the short-stories award, is a winner. (To see all the fine books that are up for High Plains Book Awards, go here.)

Information on appearances is available here.

Thanks to the new 600 HOURS OF EDWARD and its bonus first chapter from the upcoming sequel, EDWARD ADRIFT, I get a lot of questions about when the new book is coming out. I don’t have an official release date yet, but Spring 2013 is a good bet. I can tell you that principal editing begins this week, so the process is moving along.

Finally, I’d urge you to check out this interview I did with Jonathan Evison to mark the release of his latest novel, THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. It’s my favorite book so far this year.


Introducing PRETTY MUCH TRUE…

I’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderfully talented folks with the little indie imprint I run, Missouri Breaks Press. Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice was a worthy successor to her Spur Award-winning debut, God’s Thunderbolt. Ed Kemmick’s collection of Montana yarns, The Big Sky, By and By, has found an enthusiastic audience and is a High Plains Book Award finalist. And today, I’m proud to welcome a new novel, Pretty Much True…, into the Missouri Breaks fold.

Kristen J. Tsetsi’s Iraq war novel, a penetrating look at the impact of the conflict on the homefront, both confirms and expands the Missouri Breaks mission. It is, first and foremost, an excellent work of high literary value. It also moves the imprint beyond the boundaries of the American West and into a wider, more universal, American experience. I’m so proud and thankful to be associated with it.

With that, I’m going to yield the floor to Kristen, so she can introduce you to her novel. Please consider purchasing a copy. Links are at the end.

*****

Kristen J. Tsetsi

I couldn’t be more excited, and more honored, to be published by Missouri Breaks Press. Pretty Much True… has had a few years of publishing struggles, with more than a couple “almosts,” and to finally land with Craig Lancaster’s indie press, to have someone of his judgment and experience want to publish this book I’ve believed in and continue to believe in, means more to me than I can say. I will be forever grateful.

Pretty Much True…, at its most surface level, is about a woman waiting for her lover to get back from war. Why this story?

For two reasons, really. First, I’m very attracted to, and captivated by, human drama and the truth that lies silently beneath the surface of almost every relationship conflict. Those very private, complex factors that build and steam.

Second, I believe love pain has to be the most intoxicating, distracting, passionate, discombobulating emotion we’re capable of experiencing, and it’s something I’ve always been compelled to write about. When I was in a marriage I no longer wanted to be in, that desire to escape appeared in my short fiction. Another time, when I recognized the difference between married love and real love, one of which I had and one of which I wanted, that became short fiction.

When the man I’d loved for a decade finally became mine only to deploy to Iraq three weeks later, I was thrust into the most torturous experience of my life, both emotionally and psychologically. The nature of the uncertainty has only been matched by the month my father spent in ICU with less than a 5% chance of living. Combine that kind of uncertainty with the romantic love of two people who have been, by all accounts, star-crossed for a decade. (Can there be a more complicated, messy love than one interrupted by war? Likely not.)

Once my husband—who was “just” my boyfriend, at the time—had been home for a year and I was able to release the after-effects and look at the experience from an artistic perspective, I knew it had to be a story. Not only because it had all of the elements that make the kind of story that would have me riveted if I were to read it, but because there was so much truth to explore, so much about a war story people had never been exposed to before in all of the soldier stories they’ve read or seen in theaters. It’s part of the larger war narrative that’s been largely absent and that is every bit as valid.

Pretty Much True… isn’t a Dear John love and war story. It’s not about missing someone, pining away, or sticking yellow ribbon magnets on a bumper. It’s about a state of not knowing, of losing control, of the friendships and love that form or fall away in a world that, to those who are closest to war’s effects, has become a funhouse mirror reflection of the world they knew before.

If Pretty Much True… were a movie, what cable channel would it play on?

The creator of Unfunnyme.com, Tera Marie, recently said of Pretty Much True…, “If books were people, Pretty Much True… would be the love child of The Bell Jar and The Things They Carried.” So, I’d have to say HBO. There’s a lot of intensity in the story, and HBO handles intensity amazingly well.

A cross between The Bell Jar and The Things They Carried. So, it’s character-driven?

Very much. There’s no “In a world when…” plot to speak of, but there are several character arcs launched from the springboard of the war, and each character has his or her own personal conflicts that are exacerbated by the war. They also have their unique ways of dealing with those conflicts, whether that means, for example, making a decision about a romantic relationship or coming to terms with nagging demons.

Some nasty politics surrounded the Iraq War. How political is Pretty Much True…?

Politics appear without making the book a political statement. It would have been impossible to ignore that aspect. When the person you love most is, as you see it at home, in constant danger of dying, and politicians and TV commentators are yammering on about the war like it’s a game of RISK, that has an impact. It’s just as much a part of the war story as bullets flying in a war zone.

Who is most likely, and least likely, to enjoy this book?

Early copies were read by readers whose interest has long been genre fiction, and they wrote to tell me that the story had captured them. Men have read advance copies and have expressed things to me in emails that led me to believe they enjoyed it as much as, if not more than, women. So, the two demographics I might have expected would be cool toward it have surprised me by becoming the most likely to enjoy it.

Those who may not enjoy it as much are certain military spouses who mistakenly think this is commentary on all military spouses or significant others. The protagonist’s behavior, a vehicle used to communicate a larger feeling, would probably not speak well of a group of people, were the character intended to represent them. But she isn’t. Just as Full Metal Jacket is one story about specific characters and their war experience, just as Casualties of War is another story about specific characters and their war experience-and not commentary on all soldiers of all wars–Pretty Much True… is a war story about very specific characters, and a certain set of war experiences. There are many, many war stories. This is just one of them.

How much of Pretty Much True… is true?

All of it is true, and none of it is true. (I’m not trying to be clever. It’s just true.)

Buy Pretty Much True… in paperback

Buy Pretty Much True… for your Kindle


David Allan Cates takes his own path

When I heard that Montana author David Allan Cates had a new novel, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, coming out and that he’d formed his own publishing company to release it, I knew that I had to talk to him about this. Truth be told, talking to David was long overdue. We share a state, know a lot of the same people, and I’ve been a big admirer of his writing since I read Freeman Walker, his fine 2008 novel from Unbridled Books. That he’d started a literary press (as I did a couple of years ago) and had decided to try self-publishing offered a sense of kinship long before I exchanged email with him. I’m happy to say that the subsequent electronic conversation made his journey all the more fascinating to me.

I asked David a lot of questions for an intended Q&A, but I’m just going to let his words find you as they found me. Enjoy!

****

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is a surrealistic homecoming story. A fifty year old Ben Armstrong, an engineer who lives in DC, is visited by his mother’s ghost and told that his brother forgives him and he should go home. Ben hasn’t been back to the farm since he was 25, when he fled in shame after carrying on a six year affair with his brother’s wife. Once back on the farm, Ben falls into a feverish dream that make for a night journey toward grace and self-forgiveness. Like all homecoming stories, this one is about coming back to self. And there are a lot of unpleasant things Ben must face during his night journey–about his own life, and the life of his family and their relationship to that piece of land that is their farm–in order to see himself fully, and then, of course, be able to accept himself. But only through this dark and daring journey will he be capable of loving and being loved again.

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home is the second novel in a Wisconsin Homecoming Trilogy that I’ve written. My first novel, Hunger in America, is a tragedy set in Alaska but the main character is a cab driver from a Wisconsin farm who wants to go home. The third in the trilogy is a novel I finished recently–probably to be published next year–about a recently widowed doctor from a Wisconsin farm who has holed up in a cabin on the Eastern Front of the Rockies with a stack of letters from an old lover and a bear outside It’s a mad grief story, and also a homecoming story.

I decided to publish Ben Armstrong myself because, well, frankly, it’s too strange for anybody else to publish. I’m simply not famous enough for a publishing house to have any faith that its salespeople could get this novel on bookstore shelves. The fact of the matter is that despite having had three previous novels published by three different publishing houses, from giant Simon & Schuster to tiny Steerforth Press, and having gathered many lovely reviews, I haven’t sold many books. I have had wonderful editors for my three previous books, and that collaboration made doing this book myself scary. But I was able to find people who helped me make Ben Armstrong as good as I could, and I’m proud of how it turned out. I’m an ambitious writer. In all of my books, I have stretched myself to the breaking point and arrived in territory I never could have imagined before. I’ve gotten to the stage of life where I want the results of this work to be available to anybody who is interested. That’s all. For whatever it’s worth. I am going to re-issue Hunger In America, my first book, and if my agent is unable to sell Eastern Front in the next six months or so, I’ll publish that as well. I also have a collection of short stories I’ll bring out.

I have done a lot of different things as a way of making a living and living cheap. My wife has been a great partner in this adventure. I suppose the variety of things I have done have helped me get glimpses into the human condition–what are human beings?–which I think is the only question I am interested in writing about. How do we find meaning and dignity when the only certainties are suffering and death? I’ve done very few things deliberately so I could then write about them. I’ve done things because I needed to or wanted to do them. I’ve lived my life according to my passions. What do I want? What do I need? That sounds selfish–but it doesn’t have to be. Because I want to love and I need to take care of the ones I love. I’ve never had another career besides writing. I’ve had lots and lots of jobs, but nothing that could get in the way of writing.

How do I manage my ideas? Most of my ideas I quietly and repeatedly flip off. I say, “Bugger off, please, I don’t want to be disturbed.” The books I have written–and the stories–are the ideas that just keep coming back, that do not go away. In that way, the ideas are not chosen by me–on the contrary, they seem to chose me. Writing is so hard that I am unable to do it unless the idea is terribly powerful and will not leave me alone.

Last week I read for the first time Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton and I re-read The Fall by Albert Camus. I’m going to read for the first time Stay Away Joe this week. My wife and I are going to Mexico for five months beginning in September, and I’m going to re-read The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace, and I’m going to read Proust for the first time and a couple Roberto Bolano novels for the first time. I am into reading and re-reading the classics. They never disappoint. They always blow open windows and doors in my mind that I didn’t know were there…..and they inspire me to write something as beautiful.

David Allan Cates’ website

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (paperback)

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (ebook)


Barry Eisler: Attacks on Amazon Don’t Stand Up to Facts, Logic

By Jim Thomsen

Amazon has become the piñata of the publishing world. Or, at least, of those who believe the opposite — that publishing has become the piñata of the world’s biggest online bookseller.

The New York Times and its top media writer, David Carr, went on the offensive just a few weeks ago, as did august authors like Richard Russo and Scott Turow. In Seattle, the backlash has been particularly bombastic. The Seattle Times recently took some whacks in a series of news stories that specifically zeroed in on Amazon’s perceived bad corporate citizenship: a lack of brand-name philanthropic activity, sweatshop conditions in book-packaging warehouses, bullying book distributors and publishers into terms that erase their margins. Paul Constant, book editor for The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly, has weighed in (“It’s never been this popular to be this critical about Amazon,” he wrote last week), and a recent column by Seattle bookseller and publisher Chad Haight tied together many of the critics’ concerns. And J.B. Dickey, owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, has made it clear that Amazon-published books won’t darken his Pioneer Square doorstep.

The simplest way to describe their distaste: these folks feel that Amazon’s heavy-handed discounting and distribution strategies put brick-and-mortar booksellers — and the “rich literary culture” they say these places foster — at a risk that many of us are not emotionally prepared to accept.

Amazon and its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, haven’t directly addressed the latest controversies over its perceived power-grabbing. The most recent: a Department of Justice finding that several top New York publishing houses colluded with Apple to fix prices on e-books — a finding that some suspect bears Amazon’s fingerprints.

Barry Eisler

But one person who is talking is an author who, a year before, fired what became known as “the shot heard ‘round the publishing world.” His message: There’s another side to the Amazon story. A side, he says, that benefits authors and readers — the people that he says matter most in the literary ecosystem.

Until March 2011, Barry Eisler was just another midlist genre author, publishing a well-selling, well-regarded series of international political thrillers based loosely on his years as a covert CIA operative in Tokyo. Then he catapulted to book-industry fame — or, more accurately, notoriety — when he turned down a half-million-dollar deal with St. Martin’s Press, electing to continue his John Rain series through self-publishing. Said respected industry analyst Mike Shatzkin at the time: “This is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk assessment.”

Eisler’s reasoning: he thought he could make more money and reach more readers on his own. It was a sentiment that many found unthinkable. How, they said, could Eisler spit on the system that put him on the New York Times bestseller list?

And scarcely had the echo of the reverberation from that announcement completed its global revolution than Eisler made another move that surprised many: he signed with Amazon’s mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer (one of five Amazon publishing imprints, it’s named for the streets that flank the company’s headquarters). Some accused Eisler of hypocrisy, but as he has made clear in numerous interviews and guest blogs, he’s a publishing agnostic, not an atheist or an apostate. He simply wanted the best deal as he defined it.

Last fall, Eisler published The Detachment, his first Thomas & Mercer novel. He’s also self-published a couple of Kindle singles and nonfiction books, and plans to keep a hand in self-pubbing. And he’s maintained his higher profile with dozens of interviews and guest blogs over the past year, sometimes lacing his commentary with incendiary language that sends the debates off the rails (some authors suffer from “Stockholm Syndrome” when it comes to their publishers, he’s said; and in one misstep for which he apologized, he used another writer’s words to say that some authors are “house slaves” for their publishing plantations).

Married to literary agent and author Laura Rennert, Eisler splits his time between homes in Menlo Park, Calif., and Japan. He’s also a regular on the writers’ conference circuit, and will be the keynote speaker this Saturday at the annual Field’s End Conference on Bainbridge Island, Washington (appearing alongside local literary luminaries Bruce Barcott, Jonathan Evison, David Guterson and Susan Wingate). The topic of his Field’s End talk: “The New World of Publishing: What’s Changed, What Hasn’t, and What It All Means for Us Writers.”

Eisler agreed to field some questions on that topic in advance:

You, along with your friend, author Joe Konrath, seem to have become the de facto spokesmen for independent-minded book publishing, if not independent publishing itself. Why you, and not any of a zillion other (often struggling) genre midlist authors out there?

I think turning down that half-million-dollar St. Martin’s Press two-book offer made for a powerful sound bite — “Author turns down $500,000 to self-publish instead!” — and the right sound bite can powerfully propagate a message.  Also, I think the news felt like some sort of milestone on the road to the digital publishing future (publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin said as much).  And I’ve been pretty vocal online and at conferences in sharing my thoughts about how the book world is changing and how those changes will affect readers, authors, bookstores, agents, and publishers—starting with a long dialogue with Joe announcing my decision to eschew the big advance in favor of self-publishing, instead.  No one has been more vocal (or, in my opinion, more insightful) than Joe about the new world of publishing, and he and I have done enough joint posts on his extremely popular blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing that I think some of his “spokesperson” status has rubbed off onto me.

I should add that although the flack is not insubstantial, the positive feedback I get from authors who’ve found my commentary useful far outweighs it, quantitatively and qualitatively.  It’s gratifying to know that along with authors like Bella Andre, Blake Crouch, Lee Goldberg, J.A. Konrath, M.J.  Rose, and many others, I’m helping to blaze a trail I believe will ultimately be a big boon to all authors.

 

Why was Amazon and its Thomas & Mercer imprint the right choice for you over self-publishing or a Big Six publisher?

When Amazon heard about my decision to self-publish, they got in touch and said they thought there was something interesting we could do together that would represent the best of both worlds, indie and legacy.  For more on that decision, I recommend a free, downloadable book I wrote with Joe Konrath called Be The Monkey: A Conversation About The New World Of Publishing. It’s based on that initial long online conversation Joe and I did announcing my self-publishing decision, incorporates two other long dialogues we did about publishing generally, and has chapter headings and links to make it a little easier to use as a reference. (Whatever you do, don’t click on the links to the monkey/frog videos, which many people find offensive!)

When I announced I was turning down the SMP offer, I gave three general reasons: 1) a better digital split than the 17.5 percent all legacy publishers currently offer in lockstep, with resulting increased long-term profits; 2) control over business decisions, including packaging and pricing; and 3) faster time to market for digital (that is, no more slaving the timing of the digital release to the timing of the paper). Those were my objectives, and I believed self-publishing was a better way to achieve them. But then Amazon approached me with what I judged to be an even better way to achieve those objectives, so I went with Amazon (and I have to say, my experience with Amazon has been overwhelmingly positive, both the process and the results; it hit #1 in the Kindle Store and #6 on both the Wall Street Journal digital list and combined list).

As a pragmatic businessperson, I thought the switch in tactics made perfect sense. As I’ve said many times, publishing for me is a business, not an ideology, and when I find better ways to achieve my objectives, I’ll use them. I should add that I now have four self-published works that are doing very well for me, so despite having published The Detachment with Amazon, I’m still self-published — just as I’m Amazon-published and legacy-published. Authors are not living in an either/or world, nor, in my opinion, should we be.

There’s also a more general reason Amazon made sense for me, and one I think it’s important that all authors understand — especially authors like me whose sales are booming in digital and shrinking in paper.

Unlike in paper, where an author needs a distribution partner to cost-effectively reach a mass market of readers, in digital a lone author has exactly the same ability to distribute as any New York-based, multi-million-dollar multinational conglomerate. This is a huge, foundational change in the publishing business, and, surprisingly, one I think is not yet adequately understood. For digital distribution, legacy publishers offer zero value (I’m not talking about editing, marketing, and other value-add services, only about distribution, which is the core value-add of legacy publishing). In digital, an author can distribute 100 percent as effectively alone as she can with a legacy publisher.

What all this means to me is that, in a digital world, the primary value a publisher can offer an author is direct-to-consumer marketing. And this is why Amazon is so strongly positioned to succeed in digital publishing: its book business is built on its ability to reach tens or even hundreds of millions of readers directly by e-mail. Amazon marketing is both exceptionally focused (book buyers) and exceptionally broad (tens or even hundreds of millions of customers).  Entities that can offer authors compelling direct-to-consumer marketing value will be in a good position to take a cut of the profits.

Interestingly, there’s one particular group of companies that lacks any meaningful direct-to-consumer marketing ability. That group is New York publishing. Draw your own conclusions.

 

Can you give an example or two of how dealing with your Amazon team has been a markedly different experience than dealing with a Big Six team?

Well, Amazon was comfortable with letting me decide on all packaging decisions—cover, title, jacket copy, everything. Not that we didn’t confer on all of it, and when we did, that was different, too, because the Amazon people added a lot of value to those conversations. And though price and format were up to Amazon, they consulted carefully with me on these, too, and their philosophy was refreshing. They wanted to go with the format (hardback, trade paper, whatever) and the price that would produce the greatest revenues overall, and there was no concern about “devaluing books” or protecting the primacy of paper by overpricing and holding back the digital release.

 

In a recent interview with novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde, you shared an anecdote about a high-powered literary agent approaching you at a writers’ conference and telling you that she and her fellow agents “hated” you. Being annoyed with you is one thing, but what do you think accounts for such a personal, visceral response?

Not just her fellow agents—the word she repeatedly used was “everyone!”

I think it’s just a classic “shoot the messenger” reflex. A lot of people in the industry react to my take on what’s happening in the industry the way a patient reacts to a doctor who’s just made a cancer diagnosis. That’s never welcome news, but here, it’s even worse, because many people feel on some level that my diagnosis is actually causing the cancer—as in, “If this guy would just shut up, everything would be fine!” If that’s how you feel, then of course my speaking out is going to feel intensely personal. It’s not logical, but it’s a human reaction and I get it.

 

Many of your biggest critics have been authors. It seems surprising that they would defend a business model that caps their earnings at 17.5% of every digital book sale, when you’ve labored hard to make clear that there are alternatives that allow them the opportunity to earn a lot more money. What is the psychology behind this reflexive protectionism?

It’s a great question and I talked about it in the interview with Catherine, too. For me, more choice is an inherently good thing.  It’s just intrinsic and axiomatic to my personality—I want choice because it gives me greater flexibility, increased power, and a better likelihood of achieving the outcomes I want. And my fundamental message to authors has been pretty simple:

“Hey, for the first time, we authors have real choices. We can stay with the legacy model, we can self-publish, and we can go with the Amazon hybrid or ‘new’ publishing paradigm, which is based more on direct-to-consumer marketing than it is on distribution.  We can publish some of our works via one route, and other works via another. We have more choice, and that’s giving us more power. Isn’t that awesome?”

But obviously not all authors share my take. Primarily I think this is because with choice comes responsibility, and many people are comfortable with a lack of choice precisely because that lack confers the luxury of avoiding the responsibility that comes with choice.  So when I say, “You have a choice!”, many authors hear, “Now you are going to be responsible for the outcome!” And they don’t like that.

Other authors who think they disagree with me might not understand what I’ve been saying.  Sometimes I get called a “cheerleader for Amazon” and things like that, but as I note above, I think it’s more accurate to say I’m a cheerleader for more author choice.  But passions run pretty high about these topics, and I think for some people it’s just easier and more comforting to dismiss me as an Amazon or self-publishing shill than it is to listen to and respond to what I’m actually saying.

 

One point that Authors Guild President Scott Turow and other defenders of traditional book publishing and bookselling keep coming back to is the idea that the status quo fiercely supports “rich literary culture.” What is “rich literary culture”?

What’s really going on is just a dodge. People like Turow and Richard Russo can’t deny that by offering lower prices, unmatched selection, and unparalleled convenience, Amazon is serving readers. And they can’t argue that by offering Amazon-published and self-published authors anywhere from a 35% to 70% digital split—meaning twice or even four times the 17.5% legacy publishers offer—Amazon is serving authors. They can’t argue these things, and so they try to change the subject. One way of changing the subject is to make bizarre claims such as “Amazon is destroying bookselling!” Another is to refer to amorphous but important-sounding concepts like Rich Literary Culture (because, come on, who could be against that, whatever it is) and to suggest that Amazon is destroying that, too.

As George Orwell said in his essay Politics and the English Language, “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” When people avoid real argument in favor of bloviatation about Rich Literary Culture and the like, I always see a spurting cuttlefish.

 

J.B. Dickey, owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, has been outspoken in his insistence that his store won’t stock titles from Amazon imprints like Thomas & Mercer. His position can be summarized as “Why should I stock books from a company that is hell-bent on destroying my business?” What would you say to him?

The first thing I’d say is, J.B., I miss you guys! The Seattle Mystery Bookshop is a great store and enjoyed all the signings I’ve done there. After that:

“J.B., I think the ‘hell-bent on destroying my business/bookselling generally/all bookstores/all publishers/all merchants/Rich Literary Culture/etc’ is a hyperbolic straw man that obscures what’s really going on. Which is actually pretty simple: the legacy publishing world of which you are a part is about preserving the position of paper through high prices and an inefficient system of heavily controlled distribution. The Amazon model is about lower prices and greater efficiency. Of course I have my opinions about which system better serves readers and authors overall, but that’s not the point. The point is, no one’s waging a vendetta. It’s just different players trying to implement different business strategies.

“Now, I get that you don’t like the Amazon model any more than a record store owner liked the advent of digitally delivered music. And while I don’t think it’s generally a good business move to boycott items your customers might otherwise want to buy from you, I also appreciate that not all decisions have to be financially sound. I get that you feel what’s going on in the book world has ethical and other dimensions that go beyond business, and I respect that you might be boycotting Amazon-published books in spite of the impact on your business because you feel ethically bound (however misguidedly, in my view) to do so.

“If you’re boycotting Amazon-published books knowing that doing so is bad for your business but believing doing so is correct ethically, I respect your decision even though I don’t agree with the basis for it. But if you think the boycott is a sensible business move, I wish you would reconsider. I like your store a lot and would like to see you roll with the changes.”

 

You’ve talked a lot about what traditional publishers need to do to survive this paradigm shift in their industry. Any thoughts as to what brick-and-mortar booksellers can and should do?

Almost a year ago, Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch wrote a five-point business plan for indie booksellers. They offered to sell their books direct to indies at low wholesale prices.  No one contacted them. It was an excellent plan and I wish someone had taken them up on it.

 

Also locally, Northwest “Book Lust” icon Nancy Pearl has been castigated by Seattle book-industry folk for making a deal with Amazon to revive out-of-print titles she touts as essential reading—even though every other publisher turned down her idea when she shopped it to them. The attitude seems to be: “It’s better to keep readers from seeing these books at all than to deliver those books to them through Amazon.” What do you think fuels that mindset?

Have you ever seen the cartoon of the mouse flipping off the swooping hawk in one last gesture of futile defiance?  I think there’s some of that going on.

But it’s also a consequence of the “Amazon is the devil” arguments people use in place of actual thought. Once you demonize an opponent, whether in business or in politics, you’re then bound by the human desire for consistency to never admit anything positive about the demon you’ve insisted on. Amazon’s low prices? Not a boon to readers but an insidious assault on other booksellers! Amazon’s higher royalties?  Empowering authors today only to set them up for emasculation tomorrow! Publishing books that everyone else had turned down and that therefore without Amazon never would have been as widely received? Perfidy!

Or something. Some of these arguments get a little hard to follow.

 

You’ve read The Seattle Times’ recent series of stories about Amazon. What did you make of those stories?

I found them incredibly tendentious and biased to the point of parody. To use just two examples—and there are many, many more — rather than praising Amazon for its support of Washington’s gay-marriage legislation, the reporters criticized the company because it wasn’t the very first to do so. I mean, everyone knows that corporate support for critical progressive legislation is rendered irrelevant if another company supported it before you. And without doubt, had Amazon failed to support this legislation at all or indeed had the company come out against it, the reporters would have praised Amazon for doing so (insert sarcasm emoticon here).  Also, weirdly (weirdly because, what’s the relevance?), she criticized Amazon for not placing its corporate name and logo on the buildings of its new downtown campus.  But does anyone doubt that had Amazon put up such signage, the reporters would have written an article chastising the company for arrogantly plastering its name around as though it owned Seattle, or something to that effect?

For related examples, check out Salon reporter Alexander Zaitchik and publisher Bryce Milligan, who rather than praising Amazon for its substantial underwriting of independent literary festivals and literary translations, suggest instead that Amazon is a ‘Trojan Horse” offering ‘“blood money’” intended to buy off critics.  But I don’t think there’s much doubt that if Amazon decided instead to withdraw its million-dollar annual support, Zaitchik, Milligan, et al would lambast Amazon for failing to support and in fact for attempting to destroy Rich Literary Culture. It’s so easy to imagine the lede: “Those Cheap Amazon Bastards, They Won’t Even Throw A Few Dollars to the Festivals?”

Why are these tendentious arguments worth noting?  Because they reveal a fundamentally meaningless position: in this case, Amazon is evil no matter what it does.  Anytime someone claims that opposing sets of data — indeed, all possible data — proves the same point, you know you’re dealing with someone who has reached her conclusions by other than logic, evidence, and relatively objective thought.  And it’s impossible to take someone like that seriously.

 

What’s your take on the recent finding by the Department of Justice that Big Six publishers colluded with Apple to fix the price of e-books?  If it’s a win for Amazon, does the action position Amazon to become its own monopoly in need of federal intervention, or will the free market sort itself out in a different way?

I’ve long been curious about why so many people are frightened of a potential future Amazon monopoly while simultaneously so sanguine about the real existing monopoly run by the Big Six. And it’s been interesting for me to see people try to explain away the clear evidence of blatant collusion between the CEOs of the major publishers as set forth in the Justice Department’s suit against these publishers and in the equivalent suit brought by sixteen states.  Have a look yourself, if you haven’t already, and imagine the reaction if these sorts of meetings and discussions were happening instead among, say, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, and Larry Page, or among the heads of Bank of America, CitiGroup, and Morgan Stanley. There would be a five-alarm conspiracy freak-out.

Of course, we shouldn’t rely on Justice Department allegations alone to conclude that legacy publishing is a cartel (after all, this is the same Justice Department that hasn’t prosecuted a single high-level US official for torture or a single banking executive for fraud, and that argues President Obama has the power to execute American citizens without recognizable due process).  We can also look to the results of the legacy model:  high book prices, most recently enforced via the so-called “agency” model; “windowing,” whereby consumers who want cheaper paperback or digital versions are forced to wait until long after the release of the high-margin hardback; digital rights management regimes that annoy consumers and do little to inhibit piracy; increasingly draconian rights lock-ups in publishing contracts; lockstep digital royalties of only 17.5% for authors.

If you ask legacy publishing’s defenders, “Which is the monopoly: the entity that charges high prices and pays low royalties, or the entity that charges low prices and pays high royalties?”, you’ll be told by those defenders (tortured logic to follow) that of course it’s the former.  If you’re a customer of Amazon, novelist Charlie Stross wants you to believe that in fact Amazon has you in a “death-grip.”  If you love books and like to buy them from Amazon, Authors Guild president Scott Turow argues that in doing so you and Amazon are “destroy[ing] book selling.”  Enjoy your Kindle?  More legacy insiders than I can count will accuse you of participating in the degradation of “literary culture,” an Orwellian euphemism for “current literary establishment of which I am a member and with which I identify.”

Now, will Amazon break up the current publishing cartel only to become a monopoly itself? I doubt it. The company’s DNA is all about serving customers, for one thing; for another, unlike in the analogue world, on the Internet the competitor who wants to eat your lunch is always just a mouse click away, and with competitors like Apple and Google, I expect Amazon will be forced to stay true to its customer-centric roots rather than attempting to rely on the kind of monopoly rents that have poisoned legacy publishing’s willingness and ability to compete.

In the meantime, the publishing establishment wants you to believe that in order to prevent Amazon from possibly one day charging higher book prices, the establishment has to charge you higher prices today. Or, to put it another way, “Hey, you might get robbed if you carry all that cash around, so I’ll just save you the trouble by taking your wallet right here.” This isn’t an argument; it’s a con job. Consumers ought to recognize it as such.

 

Jim Thomsen, a former newspaper reporter and editor, works as a freelance book manuscript editor. He lives in Seattle and can be reached at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


Another turn for Edward

In its more than three years of existence as a published novel—in one form or another—my debut, 600 Hours of Edward, has had quite the journey. NaNoWriMo experiment to self-published book to small-press-published book. And now, it’s about to have its fourth act.

In August, 600 Hours of Edward will be re-released as a trade paperback by AmazonEncore, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. This is the same outfit that published my second novel, The Summer Son, and did such a wonderful job with it. The new cover went live on the Amazon site this week, and it’s a beaut:

Here’s the part where I impose on your good graces: If you’ve been meaning to read 600 Hours of Edward, or been meaning to tell a friend to read it, please go ahead and pre-order the book in print or Kindle form. Just follow this link. Pre-orders are a huge factor in a book’s performance, and while I’d just as soon write and leave the marketing to others, it’s not the way of the world anymore. If you have friends who are authors, here’s what they’re dying to tell you about how important your early support of their work is.

If buying things online isn’t your deal, you can also go into your local bookstore the week of the release (Aug. 14) and ask the folks there to order a copy.

OK, end of arm-twisting. For now.

One last thing: I hope to have some news soon about the sequel, Edward Adrift.

Thanks for reading!


Gigs? Turns out I have gigs

Since I came home from the Montana Festival of the Book back in October, it’s been a quiet few months on the get-out-and-yak-about-books front, and that hasn’t been entirely unwelcome. For one thing, I managed to shove the short-story collection out the door. For another, I managed to move to a new house. For yet another, I managed to write another novel (or a draft of one, anyway). What I’m saying is, I haven’t wanted for things to do.

And still, I have things to do. Fun things, thankfully:

The Great Falls Public Library.

On March 29th, I’ll be at the Great Falls Public Library as part of The Great Falls Festival of the Book. I’ll be doing an event with my friend and colleague Ed Kemmick that is being billed as, wait for it, “An Evening With Ed Kemmick and Craig Lancaster.” This is my favorite kind of event, and it’s not even close. Being able to get together with people who truly love books and share stories with them … I can’t think of anything book-related that’s more fun. (Did I sufficiently hedge that statement?)

The Great Falls Public Library is at 301 2nd Ave. North, and the fun begins at 7 p.m.

With Country Bookshelf owner Ariana Paliobagis during one of my dashes across the state.

And then, on Tuesday, April 17th, I’ll be at one of the grandest independent bookstores you’d ever hope to find: The Country Bookshelf in Bozeman. I’ll be reading from Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, and I might even work in a selection from my current work in progress. Who knows?

The Country Bookshelf is at 28 W. Main Street in Bozeman. That event, too, begins at 7.

*****

Brandon Oldenburg, right, in a screengrab shamefully stolen from a classmate.

I was neck-deep in the day (er, night) job during the Oscars telecast, but I couldn’t miss the excitement as my Facebook feed burbled with the news about Brandon Oldenburg winning for his work on the short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”

Oldenburg is an alum of my high school. I didn’t know him — mine was a big-box high school — but I sure am proud of him. (And I loved the fact that he wore a tuxedo made by Dickies to the show.)


New writing digs

Things have been a bit quiet around here lately. I have a good excuse: We moved into a new house.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The house is old: 83 years old. But it’s new to us.

The move from a one-bedroom condo to a rambling old three-bedroom cottage has not been without its adjustments, all of them for the better. But for me, there was one sadness in leaving the old place: It’s where I wrote my first three books, in a little corner of the main room. The new house gave us the space to allow me my very own office (at the bottom of the stairs, in the basement), and I have every expectation that I’ll find this spot as conducive to writing as I did the old one. I’d better.

Here’s a quick tour:

Looking into the office from the outside hallway. That's my couch. For "resting."

 

This lovely old home features all kinds of cool built-ins, including these shelves along the entryway. And here is a snippet of my eclectic reading.

 

I chose a small wall for the writing awards. I'll be happier that way, I suspect.

 

The desk. In the pink bag: Some of my wife's perfume that ended up in a box that got unpacked down here. It just hasn't made its way upstairs yet.

 

The wallpaper that came with the place has a fish motif. Not really my preferred activity, but I like the look. I think it's gonna stay.

 

When I bought this behemoth in 1996, it was top of the line. Now it's playing out its days hooked up to an equally ancient VCR. I'm not really the Luddite type, but that damned VCR has outlived a half-dozen DVD players. Sometimes primitive technology is the hardiest.

 

And here are the ancient videos that go with the ancient TV and ancient VCR. Luckily, I could watch "Caddyshack" and "Animal House" daily for the rest of my life.

 

If Ernest Hemingway were alive today, he would have a Dallas Cowboys Snuggie. I'm certain of this.

 

One of my current projects is going through and marking up the first draft of my current manuscript. (Yes, this is the "Edward" sequel.)

 

The last writing space didn't have one of these!

 

Or one of these!

 

The full view of the office, from the bathroom doorway. Desk on the left, couch on the right, TV and archealogical VHS tapes across the room.

 


Read it. Absorb it. Live it.

I’ve been a professional novelist for nearly three years now. (Note that I said professional, in the sense that I get paid for my work. I’m still working on self-sustaining.) And if there’s anything I’ve learned in that time, other than the writing life seems to dole out pleasure and pain in equal measures, it’s this: I may have plans for what I write, but in the end, the story is in control, not me.

Terrible Minds

I’ll offer a good example of this, as I have one sitting handy: In mid-December, I was certain that I’d be taking the first half of the year off, if not longer. I’d written a novel, and then another novel, and then a collection of short stories in quick succession, and I was tired and even a little discouraged.

On December 28th, compelled to my writing desk by an idea I couldn’t and didn’t want to shake, I started a new manuscript. As I type these words, I’m more than 42,000 words into it, and I long ago passed the point of danger. Some manuscripts never make it; they’re either put aside or repurposed into something else. This one is going the distance. More than that, it’s good. That’s harder for me to say than you might imagine.

Concurrent to this abrupt change to my plans, I read this article: 25 Things Writers Should Start Doing (ASFP).

It’s aggressive and raw and in-your-face profane. And I fucking love every word of it.

Two of the 25 things, in particular, stand out for me:

7. Start Discovering What You Know

Ah, that old chestnut. “Write what you know.” Note the lack of the word only in there. We don’t write only what we know because if we did that we’d all be writing about writers, like Stephen King does. (Or, we’d be writing about sitting at our computers, checking Twitter in our underwear and smelling of cheap gin and despair.) The point is that we have experience. We’ve seen things, done things, learned things. Extract those from your life. Bleed them into your work. Don’t run from who you are. Bolt madly toward yourself. Then grab all that comprises who you are and body-slam it down on the page.

Abso-goddamn-lutely. The past two books I’ve written were dark slogs into the human heart. I don’t disavow them. That horrible muck we go through when we love somebody but can’t say it, or hate someone with nuclear intensity, or want to kill somebody and would if not for the grace of well-timed civility — all of that is in me, all of that informs who I am, and when I wrote those stories, I needed to purge it. I make no apologies.

But that’s not the whole of me. There’s a wickedly absurd sense of humor in there, too, and a subversiveness that undercuts with laughter rather than rage. I’ve been neglecting that too long. I’m gonna write some funny books and stories. (I already have, in fact. What I’m saying is, I’m gonna write some more.) There are plenty of people channeling Cormac McCarthy and casting our lives against bleak landscapes. Good on them. I’m gonna do something else.

11. Start Cultivating Your Sanity

You’re crazy. No, no, it’s okay. I’m crazy, too. We’re all a little bit unhinged. Hell, I’m one broken screen door away from drinking a fifth of antifreeze and driving off a highway overpass on a child’s tricycle. Writing is not a particularly stressful job — I mean, you’re not an air traffic controller or an astronaut or some shit. Just the same, it’s a weird job. We hunker down over our fiction like a bird with an egg and we sit there alone, day in and day out, just… making up awful stuff. People die and hearts are broken and children are stolen by van-driving goblins and all that comes pouring out of our diseased gourds. So: cultivate your sanity. Take some time to de-stress your skull-space. Take a walk. Take a vacation. Drink some chamomile tea and watch the sunset. Chillax. That’s the new thing the kids are saying, right? “Chillax?” Yeah. I’m up on my lingo. Chillaxin’ is the hella tits, Daddy-o!

I’ve written before about the crazy. All the bullshit that goes into publishing — the wretched egos and the inscrutable decisions and the rampant pettiness — can get your ass down in a hurry, and if you’re harboring some bit of bad brain chemistry when it does, you’re screwed in ways you never imagined.

It’s time to put that nonsense to rest. It’s a beautiful world, and I get to breathe air in it. You don’t like me? Too bad. You don’t like my book? Fine. Get another. I’m writing to please me, and all I can do is hope that it pleases others. As for the rest, I don’t even care. I got a momma and a daddy and a wife and two dogs who love me. That’s all I need.

Strike that: I also need the Dallas Cowboys to stop sucking. Amid all the pragmatic doing-for-my-own-self shit, a guy’s gotta dream.


Wrapping up 2011

"Dorky Smile" (self-portrait by author, 12/31/11)

And so 2011 ends, the third full year that I’ve been able, with varying degrees of credibility, to call myself an author.

In the past 365 days …

  • I’ve seen two books into the world. My novel The Summer Son released on January 25th, and my collection of short stories, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, came out December 6th. I’m really proud of both.
  • I’ve watched The Summer Son become a Utah Book Award finalist.
  • I’ve been proud to have two short stories, “Cruelty to Animals” and “Comfort and Joy,” appear in Montana Quarterly. Both stories are in Quantum Physics.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of working with my friend and colleague Ed Kemmick to bring his book, The Big Sky, By and By, out to an appreciative audience.
  • I’ve made some new friends in the book business and even repaired a couple of damaged friendships. I’m particularly thankful for the latter.
  • I’ve also struggled with occasional bouts of self-doubt and despair about the book business. Rejection and disappointment are frequent realities, and at least for me, they’ve become no easier to take than they were in the beginning. At least twice in the past year, I’ve intimated to a friend that I think I’m done. Both times, I’ve been wrong. The first because I’m not really a quitter (I just like to talk about being one, apparently) and the second because …
  • When I least expected it and, in fact, had resigned myself to taking 2012 off because the pump was dry, I was hit with an idea that is so mind-consuming that it propels me to the writing desk each day in a pique of wonder and joy.

I needed that.

So, in 2012, I resolve …

  • To see my new project to completion and find a publishing home for it.
  • To not take things quite so hard when they don’t go my way. By any reasonable measure, I’ve been extremely fortunate. It’s time for me to remember that.
  • To keep writing. No matter what.

Happy New Year.


Q&A: Jason Skipper

“Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history …”

Jason Skipper

When I first heard about Hustle, the debut novel from Jason Skipper, I was intrigued, to say the absolute least. Here’s a guy who’s from the same part of the world as I am (Texas), writing about fathers and sons (a common milieu for me) and the way those relationships, when they’re difficult, repel and attract, constantly drawing men who love and hate each other together, then driving them apart.

It’s my own weird combination of manic energy and peripatetic attention that has kept me from reading Hustle, but thanks to the connection of Facebook, I’ve been watching closely as Jason has embarked on a backbreaking schedule of travel to put this book in front of readers, and I knew he was someone I wanted to feature here. I shot him questions while he was on the road, he promised to get to them, and he turned out to be a man of his word. The interview exceeded my considerable expectations, and I can’t wait to read this book.

I bet you won’t be able to wait, either.

Give us the skinny on Hustle. Where did the idea come from, and how long did you work on it before you started looking for a publisher?

Hustle developed from short stories I wrote that stemmed from my life. Like the central character Chris, I grew up in Texas selling shrimp from a van on the side of the road for my con artist grandfather and my father. Those earlier pieces were closer to my personal experiences, like being taught how to hustle people, dealing with my grandfather’s alcoholism, and my family’s financial struggles. My childhood crush on Olivia Newton John and the movie Xanadu. But the characters began to speak and act on their own, and through revision I started writing toward the patterns and underlying ideas I saw emerging, like Chris’s development as an artist, concepts related to masculinity, and struggles with disease and illness, until eventually the events of these characters’ lives were pretty much their own. The first draft of Hustle, written as stories from multiple characters’ points of view, took four years. I revised for five more years, cutting some parts and expanding others, eventually weaving it into a first-person novel, which is the book as it now stands. I submitted it to agents off and on throughout that time, but eventually landed it with a publisher on my own. I had writer friends help me out – Kyle Minor, who directed me to Press 53, and Ann Pancake, who gave my editor, Robin Miura, and publisher, Kevin Watson, a slight nudge to read it. Then, after nine long years, came the magical call at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning.

The story centers on three generations of men and, according to your publisher’s website, is a “coming-of-age story (that) explores the ways people struggle to fulfill their wants and desires–and what they are willing to sacrifice to feel free.” What drew you to the family dynamics, and particularly the interplay among men, in this story?

I believe most stories are about the struggle for connection, and I am particularly drawn to dynamics between parents and children. People tend to believe that these relationships are inherent and the connection is, or should be, unconditional. So, particularly for the children, when that relationship is strained or nonexistent, it affects their sense of self worth, which manifests throughout their lives in many ways. Funny, heartbreaking, and destructive ways. With Hustle, I became interested in the blind devotion that many sons maintain for their difficult fathers. For example, when Wrendon is driving Chris to Florida to kidnap Buddy to rescue him from a drinking binge, Chris asks why they are going, since Wrendon hasn’t talked to his father in ten years. Wrendon responds by saying, “Because, what kind of son lets his father die like that?” and then he answers his own question: “No kind of son.” Wrendon feels this devotion, and he expects it from Chris. When Wrendon doesn’t get it later on in the book, he knows how to work Chris, to get it out of him – poking at his soft voice, his desire to be an artist, ways he doesn’t fit the portrait of a typical male kid. But I honestly don’t think this sort of manipulation is so unusual. We see it in families all the time, and it gets passed down from one generation to the next. These people just happen to also make a career of it.

On the other hand, in this book, you have Chris’s mother, who doesn’t hustle at all, and she tries – to an almost destructive degree – to be honest and to keep things together, which also affects and shapes the type of person Chris becomes. She is a counterpoint to Wrendon, a direct contradiction. I think we find ourselves within contradictions, so this is part of Chris’s development in discovering the type of person he will become, raised within all of this tension. As I’ve met more people who have read the book, this relationship between Emily and Chris comes up frequently, as well as his relationships with the many other people – “unreliable mentors,” as Charles Baxter called them – who come and go throughout Chris’s life.

Your biography notes that you’ve been a bartender, a snowboard instructor and a freelance journalist. How do those varied work experiences come to bear on your work as a fiction writer?

My favorite part about writing is getting to know the characters, and I tend to be a magnet for freaky people and weird situations. I think all of these jobs call for a desire to be out in the world and a sense of curiosity about the lives of others. They also often present challenging situations, requiring persistence to see them through. As a bartender, I dealt with people whose personalities would flip from introverted to outrageous without warning; as a snowboard instructor, I sometimes had these super-skinny kids or really big kids who thought it would be easy to learn to snowboard, like in a video game, who got frustrated and would not listen to directions and instead just tore down the hill, careening into everyone. It would start out kind of funny, then get not so funny, and I’d have to figure out that particular person in order to deal with the situation, because you can’t just walk away from them. As a journalist I have to really think about what people have interesting stories – teaching stories – and be willing to ask them questions, which can be intimidating. All of these traits – the curiosity, the willingness to ask questions, the empathy, and the persistence – have helped me out as a fiction writer. Plus, these jobs gave me all kinds of characters and situations to write about. Have I written about the actual jobs? Not quite yet. The people? Yes. Some are in Hustle.

You teach creative writing and literature at Pacific Lutheran University. How does teaching enhance your approach to your own writing?

I think that breaking apart a story or a poem to consider how it functions is the best way to learn to write. To teach the material, I have to know it inside and out, and I learn a good deal about craft when I prep. Then students – at least those who have read closely and with intent – come to workshop and they lay out their take, which is hopefully quite different from mine. Together we compare notes and figure out the ways that these writers have manipulated the fundamentals of craft in order to break our hearts or make us laugh or make us hungry, in every sense of the word. From teaching, I have learned that most stories have a similar blueprint made up of similar fundamentals, which is what makes them recognizable as a story; our goal then is to figure out the ways certain writers have manipulated those fundamentals toward a desired effect, then practice these approaches until we have them at our fingertips, or at least can say we’ve tried them. That’s just one way, but this is how teaching in general enhances my writing.

There’s a whole lot of your home terrain of Texas in Hustle. What was it like to tap your memories of that place now that you’ve escaped to the Pacific Northwest?

Texas was never so alive to me as after I moved away and while I was writing Hustle. You are correct to say I escaped; I left because of the heat and because I wanted to know more of the world. I got away as quickly as possible. I didn’t actually want to write a Texas book; in fact, I wanted to avoid writing a Texas book. But eventually I got steamrolled by the characters. In my day-to-day writing process, I draw heavily from setting, both to anchor myself in the narrative and to give the story tone. Writing Hustle, I found myself thinking a good deal about the weather in Texas, like those ground-shaking thunderstorms and their greenish-pink afterglow. That was essential in the chapter titled “Tangled in the Ropes,” where Buddy teaches Chris how to hustle people. There’s the summer heat and the rattle of the window a/c unit when the babysitter, Theresa, teaches Chris about sex. The cold weather and the snow toward the end of the novel, when Chris starts to harden. Writing the book, I also came to better understand the people of Texas. Something I noticed was a systemic underlying tension in the dual nature of many people I’ve known, both men and women – that strong sense of loyalty combined with wildness, and how this manifests as people grow older and get responsibilities. What happens when that wildness prevails and cannot be overcome? That was a question that kept coming up with the characters as I wrote.

You’ve done a lot of traveling in support of Hustle. What’s been your worst road experience? Your best?

This year I was away from home almost constantly between September 2nd and December 1st, visiting bookstores and universities, and doing house readings. Self-funded and self-organized, with advice I got from friends and my publicists. Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history (one room was so bad I slept fully clothed, wearing a hoodie); putting another $35.00 in the gas tank each morning (then getting lost several times while en route); passing all the dead raccoons on the roadside (gross but completely true!); eating salt-soaked fast food and growing rounder while learning the temperament of drivers in each new state (if you don’t go ninety in parts of Michigan, you get run over); the severity of introspection that comes with being alone in a car for hours (salvation comes from singing loudly to anthemic punk rock); that mild relief/panic before opening the door on another motel room (you know if the a/c is on full blast, it’s thinning out some smell); and hoping the reading would go smoothly (which it almost always does). At the same time all of this is quite beautiful, and it was great to stay with friends and family when I could. I knew it would be challenging, but, like most things I end up doing, I wanted the experience.

The events themselves are the best part. So no two readings are ever the same, I do something different each time: I’ve sung Dwight Yoakam as I read, and I’ve sung Wilco songs during Q&A’s as part of an answer. I’ve had audience members read with me. I’ve truly – above all else – enjoyed meeting the many people that I have met along the way. Bookstores owners and booksellers who are excited about Hustle. Other writers and teachers. Book clubs are great. People who have read the book and are nervous to talk about it. People who say they finished the book in a single plane ride or they couldn’t go to sleep because they couldn’t put it down, which really surprised me. People who want to tell me which actors should play which parts in the movie version, if there is a movie version. Someone said Gary Busey for the grandfather, and I thought that was a riot. Also I’ve been able to hand off books to Rhett Miller, the singer for the Old 97’s who appears in the novel at a crucial time in Chris’s life, and to Dorothy Allison, who is a hero of mine. Many times, over the nine years it took to write and publish the book, I thought it would never come out, and I still freak out when I see it on a shelf at a store. Now people are reading it, and I’m reading it to people, and to me that is amazing.

What’s your preferred way to work? A certain time of day or place?

I tend to write best in my office at night, usually starting around 11, especially when I’m writing initial drafts. I talk to my characters, and this seems to be the time when they’re most vocal. When I’m revising, I can work all day, every day. I am learning more to write away from my desk, to go for walks and drives and think through the scenes before trying to write them down.

What’s next from you?

As I’ve been traveling to support Hustle, I’ve also been doing research for my new book. I’m working on a nonfiction project about my father and stories he told me while I was growing up – his involvement with the suicide of his first wife at sixteen, his twin brother who was crushed beneath a car while they were working on it – and other tragic events wherein he situated himself as a sympathetic protagonist. Stories that I have since learned he reconstructed almost entirely. The events occurred, but his involvement was not as a he claimed; in fact, often he was in some ways to blame. The book is going to focus on the whole of his life and our relationship. I’ve been traveling to different places where he lived – the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts – to interview people and see where all he lived. The experience of coming to know him as a ten year old and as a twenty year old has been startling and amazing. It’s been a lot to take on, but I’m excited to see how all of these stories are starting to come together.


NaNoWriMo: I’m in! Kinda. Sorta.

As I write this, National Novel Writing Month — known by adherents as NaNoWriMo — is sixty-four minutes old. Hundreds of thousands of would-be, never-will-be and most-definitely-are novelists are taking to their keyboards and trying to pound out a minimum of 50,000 words over the next thirty days.

I already have the only NaNoWriMo badge of courage I need: I wrote the entirety of 600 Hours of Edward in November 2008 — nearly 80,000 words — and watched as that mania-fueled manuscript changed my life. I have no desire, and probably no ability, to relive that experience. And yet, the idea of setting aside thirty days to write with abandon, to dump the contents of the mind onto the table and see what possibilities are there, has a great deal of appeal. So I’m using NaNoWriMo 2011 in an unofficial way to jump-start a novel project I’ve been contemplating for weeks now. I started it several weeks ago, then set it aside for more brain seasoning. I think — think — it’s ready to go back in the cooker now, and I’ll be using my blog here as a way to keep myself accountable over the next month.

So, for those keeping tabs at home, here’s the scoreboard on a story I’m tentatively calling Rayfield:

  • Date: November 1
  • Number of words at the start of writing today: 2,668
  • Number of words at the conclusion of writing today: 3,738
  • Words written today: 1,070
  • Words written in November: 1,070
  • Chapters completed: 1

 *****

At long last, I have final copies of my new short-story collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, in hand. They’re sporting a couple of nice cover blurbs: one on the front from Craig Johnson, the bestselling author the Walt Longmire series of novels, and one on the back from one of my favorite people, Megan Ault Regnerus, the managing editor of Montana Quarterly, where a couple of these stories have been or will be published.

Here’s what these good folks have to say:

“Have you ever felt in your pocket and found a twenty you didn’t know you had; how ’bout a hundred dollar bill, or a Montecristo cigar or a twenty-four-karat diamond? That’s what reading Craig Lancaster’s Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure is like — close and discovered treasures.” — Craig Johnson, author of The Cold Dish and Hell Is Empty

“Craig Lancaster understands the human condition, all of it. The funny, the absurd and the fault-ridden awesomeness that is each and every one of us — or at least someone we know.” — Megan Ault Regnerus

The book will be in Montana bookstores soon, and if you’re a Kindle or Nook person, it’s available now for just $3.99.

Thanks for reading.


Awards and other jazz

Lots of great literary news from the weekend.

I’ll start with something not great but okay nonetheless: The Summer Son, which was up for the Utah Book Award in fiction, didn’t win. Congratulations to Gerald Elias, who took home the prize for Danse Macabre.

Here in Billings, the High Plains Book Awards were handed out at a ceremony Saturday. Some great books and authors were recognized:

Alyson Hagy won the fiction prize for her short-story collection Ghosts of Wyoming. I love this book and love the way Hagy writes. Her publisher, Graywolf, puts out a ton of great stuff, none better than Alyson’s work. Check it out.

Ruth McLaughlin, whose Bound Like Grass has already won the Montana Book Award, added another with the prize for best first book. I’ve already sung the praises of this book, but I’m happy to do so again. Get it.

The High Plains awards added a new category this year: art and photography. Dan Flores’ Visions of the Big Sky, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, was the winner.

In the nonfiction category, Rocky Mountain College professor Tim Lehman won for Bloodshed at Little Bighorn. I’ve seen Tim do readings from this book a couple of times, and his command of the history and narrative is just amazing. Last year, when 600 Hours of Edward won in the first-book category, I was told that I was the first Billings author to win a High Plains Book Award. I’m pleased that the club is no longer exclusive.

Henry Real Bird, whose tenure at Montana poet laureate just ended, was the winner for poetry with Horse Tracks. Henry’s an amazing storyteller and chronicler of his time and place. His book is well worth your time.

Finally, in the best woman writer category, Susan Kushner Resnick took the prize for Goodbye Wifes and Daughters, her account of the Beavercreek Smith Mining disaster. It’s a fine, fine book.

Congratulations to all!


Off to Missoula and other adventures

I told you I’d be back.

A few quick things …

The Montana Festival of the Book is this weekend in Missoula. Actually, it starts today, and in a cool collaboration, it’s being held in conjunction with the annual conference of the Western Literature Association, which means Missoula will be crawling with even more literary luminaries, if that’s even possible.

If you’re within driving distance of Missoula this weekend, I implore you to check out the incredible list of events and deliver yourself unto them. It’s going to be a great couple of days, and I’m proud to be able to join in the fun.

A few programming notes:

On Friday at 1 p.m., I’ll be at the Missoula Public Library with David Abrams (the forthcoming Fobbit), Keir Graff (The Price of Liberty) and Jenny Shank (The Ringer) to talk about literature blogs and how they’re influencing the lit world.

Saturday at 11, I’ll be back at the library for another panel — this time with Keir, publisher and poet David Ash, author and e-publisher Kathy Dunnehoff and publisher Dave Batchelder — to talk about the wild world of independent publishing and self-publishing. The bottom line, at least for me: Between the gold standard of the Big Six and the wasteland of poorly conceived, horribly written vanity projects, there’s a big, vibrant, thriving world of publishing. I can’t wait to chat with these folks about it.

After that, I’ll choke down some lunch and be back at Festival of the Book World Headquarters (aka, the Holiday Inn) for a reading from The Summer Son at 1 p.m.

****

Speaking of The Summer Son

It’s being featured this month as one of Amazon’s hot 100 reads priced at $3.99 or lower ($2.99, to be exact). So if you’ve been holding out or you just bought one of those snazzy new e-readers, now is a good time to jump.

****

Speaking of e-readers and e-books …

Just this week, I made a new e-book available for the Kindle and the Nook. It’s called Scenes of Suburban Mayhem, and it’s 17 very short stories that you might remember from The Word series here at the blog (which I’ve mostly taken down, now that many of them are compiled in this e-book). I originally wrote 21 of the pieces, but some of them just weren’t up to snuff. These 17, totaling about 16,000 words, are the ones that were best received here and other places I posted them.

For a cool $2.99 — less than a cup of designer coffee, and better for you — it’s yours.

To purchase for the Kindle, go here.

For the Nook, here.

See you next week!


Q&A: David Abrams

David Abrams

David Abrams’ The Quivering Pen blog is a friend to writers and readers everywhere, politely but persistently banging the drum for literary fiction, giving authors an outlet to write about their experiences and giving exposure to recently released and upcoming books (as well as the occasional tune).

Along the way, David has occasionally updated folks on the progress of his own novel, Fobbit. Earlier this month came the most welcome news of all: Fobbit has been acquired by Grove/Atlantic. Even in his happiest moment, David was plugging for others. Here’s a snippet of his e-mail announcing the acquisition of Fobbit: “All I can say is, I am honored and thrilled to have my manuscript accepted by the same publishing house who brought you A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent–all books I count among some of my favorites.”

David was gracious enough to answer some questions. Here we go …

Give us your 25-words-or-fewer elevator pitch for Fobbit.

Elevator Pitch #1: Two groups of soldiers muddle through the Iraq War: infantry “door-kickers” on patrol and cubicle-worker “Fobbits”–those who never leave the security of the Forward Operating Base.

Elevator Pitch #2 (if we were going up another couple of floors): It’s the love child of Catch-22 and The Office.

Where did the idea for the novel come from?

It’s an explanation which requires some backstory, so bear with me.  In January 2005, while serving on active duty with the 3rd Infantry Division, I deployed to Kuwait and then to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I was a sergeant first class with the division’s Public Affairs Office and would be working media relations in the task-force headquarters.  After being in the Army for 17 years, this was my first combat deployment and I had no idea what to expect.  Most of my co-workers had already been to Afghanistan or Bosnia-Herzegovina; some of them had felt the hot wind of bullets flying past their heads.  I felt inadequate, completely out of my element.  Here I was, a senior non-commissioned officer, and I was supposed to be a level-headed, decisive leader able to clearly see ahead to the next step and the next step after that.  Instead, I was a bundle of nerves.  On the plane ride into Baghdad, I was crammed into the hull of the C-130 with everyone else, the weight of the Kevlar helmet crushing my skull and the flak vest cracking my ribs, and thinking I might die–not from a terrorist’s rocket-propelled grenade but from a stress heart attack.  I won’t lie: I even let out a couple of nervous squirts of urine in my underwear.

By the time we landed and walked out into the hot Baghdad sunshine, I’d worked myself into a lather of anxiety.  But when I reported to work at the task force headquarters the next morning, I was surprised to find I was working in a cubicle jungle–something that resembled a call-center at any U.S. corporation’s customer service.  Replace the chatter about grid coordinates and roadside bombs, and we could easily have been working the Turkey Hotline at Butterball on Thanksgiving Day.  Here we were, supposedly in the white-hot center of war, and people were sitting around designing PowerPoint presentations, filling out spreadsheets with statistics from sniper attacks, and playing computer solitaire.  Off to my left, I swear I heard the hiss of an espresso machine at someone’s desk. My vision of war had suddenly turned into a farce.  Not that I was working with clowns and buffoons or that we weren’t deadly serious about the business of war–we were, believe me.  But there was so much comic potential to be mined here that I knew I had to capture it in words.

Fobbit started as a series of journal entries I kept during that year in Baghdad.  I was under the delusion that I’d be the Ernie Pyle of the Iraq War.  But instead of going out with soldiers on the business end of rifles–the GI Joes of Pyle’s world–I ended up staying back at the Forward Operating Base (the FOB) and it wasn’t long before I realized I was one of those despised “Fobbers” or, more popularly, “Fobbits”–rear-echelon Hobbit-like soldiers who rarely left the protective shire of the FOB.  Fobbits were a bit of a joke over there–one officer even went so far as to design a Fobbit “combat patch” (I can’t remember what it looked like, but it was probably a pair of crossed pens and a pillow set against a Twinkie-yellow background).  I went around telling myself, “I may be a Fobbit, but at least I’m not out there playing the Death Lottery every day.”

In truth, I was too busy working at my desk in headquarters to go “outside the wire.”  I worked 12-hour shifts 6-and-1/2 days a week and only had enough energy at the end of the day to go back to my hootch, type a new entry in my journal and read a couple of chapters in my Dickens novel.  Eventually, I had a good amount of material in my journal–enough for a book–but the problem was, it was boring.  I mean, who wants to read about a soldier whose greatest fear is getting a paper cut when he loads a ream of paper into the printer, or whose biggest daily challenge was deciding between the short-order line or the full-course option at the chow hall?  So I started to think of ways I could amp up the story of a Fobbit and soon the idea of a novel came into my head.  I could still use what happened to me over there, but I would embellish it.  Thus, I arrived at the “truthiness” of war.  When I got down to the business of writing the novel, I took much of what I had, but then I turned the volume up to 11.

How long did you work on the novel before you considered it ready to start submitting to agents?

I was incredibly lucky, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming kind of lucky.  An agent, Nat Sobel, contacted me while I was still over there in Baghdad.  He’d seen some of the journal entries I’d written which had been posted at The Emerging Writers Network website and he reached out to me through EWN’s proprietor, Dan Wickett.  Almost from the get-go, Nat encouraged me to view the war through the lens of fiction.  One of the most significant and meaningful emails he ever sent me went like this: “I’ve come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public.  And, only a modern day Yossarian can be that vehicle.  That’s you, buddy.”

I should note that while I appreciate Nat’s encouragement, I’m not worthy to touch the hem of Joseph Heller’s robe.  Even though the ghost of Catch-22 haunts the edges of Fobbit, and I toss it around as a comparison, I know I’m not even close to Heller’s mastery.  So, short answer to your question: I started working on Fobbit in 2005 and turned in what I’d hoped was a polished near-final draft to Nat in January 2011.  It went through several more revisions after that–Nat and I going back and forth via email–until I felt it was ready to send around to publishers.  Nat started shopping it around in late August.  Three weeks later, I had another of those pinch-me moments when Grove/Atlantic made an offer on the book.  I’m still living in the glow of that Cinderella moment–can’t quite believe it’s real.

What is your writing process like? Do you write at a certain time each day, strive for a word count, that sort of thing?

Before Fobbit came along, I was a very sporadic writer–thoroughly undisciplined.  If there’s a way to Not Write, I’ll find it.  But, somewhere in the third year of working on Fobbit, I decided this was getting me nowhere.  If I kept this up, one day I’d be sitting in the nursing home telling everyone about this novel I was “writing” but still hadn’t finished.  So, I hurdled some inner wall of procrastination, got my shit together, and established a daily routine for myself.  Now I set the alarm for 3:30 every morning, come downstairs and write.  For the last year-and-a-half, too much of that time has been taken up with the distraction of writing a blog, but in theory, this is the time I work on my novel and short stories.  I’ve been pretty good at sticking to that 3:30 to 7:30 am routine for about three years.  I never hold myself to a certain word count–it’s always a question of completing a “beat” in the narrative–you know, the natural rhythmic pauses in a story when I feel I’ve reached a stopping point for the day.

Do you have a group of “beta readers”? How do you find reliable feedback while you’re working?

Prior to Fobbit, I didn’t normally send my work to others–I’m too insecure about my writing to just “put it out there”–but after the second draft of the novel, I figured I should have one of my most-trusted Army buddies read it to make sure I didn’t completely fuck up the facts.  I was, after all, a Fobbit writing about infantry tactics, techniques and procedures.  That friend of mine read the manuscript and pointed out many glaring errors and places where I had no idea what I was talking about.  He saved my bacon on more than one occasion.  Which is not to say that I won’t still get it wrong in places–but if I do, I’ll just fall back in the safety net and say, “Hey, it’s fiction–what did you expect?”

I also had another trusted reader–a former editor at Narrative magazine–who offered to take a look at Fobbit.  She helped me see the ways I could make the story better by improving the narrative structure of the book.  I owe her big time for helping me see the possibilities of what Fobbit could be and where it was headed in the wrong direction.  I’ve also posted a few excerpts from the novel on my blog and readers have been very good about telling me what works and what doesn’t work–advice I cherish.  Now, I don’t think I’ll ever again send a book off to a publisher without having at least one other trustworthy reader run their eyes over the pages.  I live in relative literary isolation here in western Montana and I need that kind of feedback, that broader perspective.  Having a “beta reader” is a crumbling of pride, I suppose.

Like many of us, you’re a working stiff in addition to carving on novels, writing short stories, maintaining a blog, being married. How do you balance everything?

Caffeine and cocaine.  Okay, I’m kidding about one of those.  Having a very patient, understanding and supportive wife is also essential.  I’d advise it for every writer.  Then again, not everyone can be as lucky as me to be married to Jean (aka The Best Wife in the World).  She’s one-of-a-kind and is definitely the center of my balance.  She calls me on my bullshit, holds my feet to the fire, and greets me at the door every night after work wearing a sexy French maid’s outfit and holding a glass of wine.  Who could ask for anything more?

You’re an active book reviewer. In what ways has turning a critical eye to other’s work made your own better?

Turning that around, because I’m a novelist I hope I’m a more sympathetic critic.  I’m a firm believer in John Updike’s rules for reviewers–the first of which is “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”  This doesn’t mean I should only write positive reviews–it’s entirely a good thing to warn readers away from a bad book–but I always strive to see the author’s intent and then determine whether he or she fulfilled that intent.  As far as my own work is concerned, I think every book I read makes me a better writer–even the bad ones.  Lame-and-lazy novels make me mad (“If they can publish this junk, then why can’t mine be published?!”) and make me determined to write a better book, give me angry confidence to pole vault over these kind of literary turds.  By the same token, good novels hold the bar high and make me want to reach for excellence.  Reading just one excellently crafted sentence written by Raymond Carver, Richard Ford or Flannery O’Connor fills me with a little despair, yes, but it also makes me want to grab the pole vault and spring into the air to their heights.

Several months ago, you had your first public reading from “Fobbit,” at the University of Montana Western. What was that experience like?

Not only was it the first public reading of Fobbit, it was also one of the first public readings I ever gave in my career.  The only other time I publicly read my fiction was years ago as a graduate student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and all I can remember of that experience was a shaky voice and rivulets of sweat trickling down my back.  The reading at UMW was phenomenal.  The crowd was small but very appreciative.  I’d go back to Dillon for a reading in a heartbeat.

You’ve also had a few interviewing coups, notably Thomas McGuane, who sat in your kitchen while you pitched questions at him. What did you learn from talking to him?

Tom is a very gracious, down-to-earth individual, someone who makes you feel at ease from the first handshake.  He was kind enough to sit down with me at the start of his book tour for Driving on the Rim.  We talked for an hour or more and we had a wide-ranging conversation–everything from fly-tying to Don Quixote.  The thing I took away from him?  Never stop being a good, decent human being, no matter how many books you’ve published or awards you’ve put on your mantel.

Did you have an “aha!” moment that solidified your desire to become a writer? Where does the passion come from?

God, the answer to that is complicated and long-winded.  There have been so many “aha!” moments, I don’t know where to begin.  Okay, how about this?  My first moment as a writer was back in 1969.  I was in first grade and I had just published my first book, “The Lady and the Clock.”  It was a masterpiece of crayons and stapled paper.  I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe it involved a wealthy woman, an impoverished clockmaker and the tragedy of a broken spring.  I can still remember the satisfaction of making words which, when put together, told a story from Point A to Point B to Point C.  This was something I had cobbled together from sounds in my head!  Before I put crayon to paper, this story didn’t exist.  There’s a magic and mystery to that act of channeling stories onto the page, something I feel even today as I sit here typing.  Back in 1969 was the first time I felt the thrill of bringing something to life.  Years later, I would probably have said I felt a little like Frankenstein assembling his monster–making something from nothing.

What up-and-coming writers should the rest of us be reading, in your estimation?

If you haven’t read Alan Heathcock’s short-story collection Volt, then your reading life is incomplete.  Do it!  Do it now!  It’s simply some of the best fiction–short or otherwise–I’ve read in a long, long time.  Other new-ish writers who have impressed me include Shann Ray (American Masculine), Cara Hoffman (So Much Pretty), Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness), Lindsay Hunter (Daddy’s), Andrew Krivak (The Sojourn), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men are Gone), Justin Torres (We the Animals) and William Lychack (The Architect of Flowers).  And, even though she doesn’t need any more press, I’d have to recommend Tea Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife.  I’m also reading the much-hyped The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and am pleased to report that, so far, it’s living up to the buzz.  Among poets, everyone needs to read Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) who has produced some of the most important writing about the Iraq War–his poems burn inside you for months afterward.

A contrived question, but I don’t care: You’re going to be gone from home for a month and can pull only one author’s canon off the shelf and take it with you. Who’s it going to be and why?

Dickens for the endless delights.


Q&A: Kevin Morgan Watson

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m a bit of a fanboy about Press 53, a small publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. As one guy running a small publishing house in his living room, I’m always on the lookout for small presses that get it right, that stick to what they’re good at and toss off the conventions of the large-press approach of covering the world with books it may or may not want. The more I heard about Press 53 — from friends whose books have been published there and by others who, like me, admire it from afar — the more I realized that this an outfit that has a plan for survival in these turbulent publishing waters and the discipline to stick to it.

In other words, Press 53 is a role model.

So I was delighted when Kevin Morgan Watson, the leader of Press 53, agreed to field some questions. Let’s get to it …

Kevin Morgan Watson

First off, tell us a bit about Press 53. What is it? When was it established? Where is it based? What are you trying to do?

Press 53 is an independent publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction based in Winston-Salem, NC, that opened in October 2005. I started the press for a few reasons: I had lost my job in the airline industry and decided to try and do something I enjoyed; I wanted to learn how to design and layout books; and I wanted to find readers who liked the same writing as me and share my books with them. My basic business model is to ignore market trends, and I ask my series editors, Tom Lombardo (poetry) and Robin Miura (novel/memoir), to do the same. We find writing we love and then set out to find readers who agree with us. What I’m trying to build is a community of readers and writers who share similar tastes but aren’t afraid to sample something new from time to time.

What is your background? How did you come to this line of endeavor?

I grew up in Kansas City, MO, and was a bored student who excelled in photography, running, and daydreaming. I sold my saxophone in high school, bought a guitar and began writing songs. I moved to Nashville when I was 30 and spent 5 years actively writing and pitching songs, and the next five years transitioning from songwriting to short story writing. I found I preferred short stories over songs because people can’t mess with the stories without your permission, unlike songs where everything is open to interpretation and style. When the airline company I worked for at night closed their Nashville office, I transferred to Winston-Salem and began seriously writing short stories. I also decided to go to college to earn my BA in English, so I enrolled at the oldest all-women’s college in the nation, Salem College (est. 1772). While there, I noticed that I was finding fewer and fewer short stories that I liked; they all seemed too dark and hopeless and depressing. I got an idea and approached a New York City arts foundation, that had published one of my stories, and asked if they would be interested in publishing an anthology of short stories that held to some sense of hope, with characters trying to do something meaningful in a messed up world. The arts foundation approved the project so I spend all of 2000 reading every short story I could find that was published that year. In 2001, they published the Silver Rose Anthology. Since I worked for an airline, I was able to travel and attend readings I had set up for the authors, which included folks like Robert Olen Butler, Julie Orringer, George Singleton, Patry Francis, Sally Shivnan, and three authors who would be the first I signed to Press 53: Doug Frelke, Tom Sheehan, and Al Sim. That experience gave me the publishing bug and I decided that someday I would like to operate my own small press. When I lost my job at the airline in 2004, I jumped into publishing.

One of the things I’ve been struck by, being friends with some of your authors, is that you seem to have an organic community of writers, rather than the traditional write-acquire-publish model employed by larger publishers. What have been the advantages of this?

Besides a great manuscript, we look for writers who are active in the writing community, who are earning recognition through publication and awards, and who understand that a small press can offer a platform upon which to build a career. This gives us a family of writers who champion one another and support each other. We have a Facebook group that is only open to Press 53 authors and editors where we can all share ideas and concerns. When one of us succeeds, everyone benefits from the added publicity. The challenge for me is keeping up with all the successes and taking advantage of all the energy created by our writers.

Another tack you take: Unlike many publishers, you don’t do returns. What’s the thinking behind this?

I allow returns on books ordered directly from Press 53 because I am able to encourage a bookseller to order a reasonable number of books which reduces the number of returns. Returns kill small presses. Our authors are encouraged to always carry extra copies with for readings at bookstores, just in case they run short. Our books are distributed through Ingram, but they are nonreturnable to avoid returns that could bankrupt us. I made a few of our books returnable early on to accommodate a writer who was convinced his or her book could only be sold if it was returnable. In every instance, the author spent weeks and weeks traveling to bookstores for readings only to end up in the hole after returns. It’s a wasteful model and an expensive one, for the author and especially the press. I chose to no longer participate, and I only work with authors who agree to this. There are better ways today to operate than to shotgun books to bookstores and hope our readers find them. I love booksellers who embrace our authors and their books and will hand sell the book after the reading. Stores that order books for readings and them immediately return what didn’t sell at the event are not the stores for us. We’re looking for partners.

The publishing landscape these days, in many ways, seems almost dystopian. What are the opportunities for a small literary press in an era of blockbusters, e-books and newbies and midlisters alike testing the waters of self-publishing?

I don’t see it as dystopian. It is chaotic, but also full of opportunity. The Internet and new printing and publishing technologies now offer writers the opportunity to take back creative control and offer numerous ways to find their readers. I know exactly who our readers are at Press 53, I just don’t know where they all are. But thanks to the Internet, we are able to find our readers, rather than waiting for them to hopefully discover one of our books on a bookstore shelf. And thanks to ebooks, writers are able to put their work out there at no real cost and find their readers. Of course the result is a glut of material, good and bad, all mixed together. Our model is to create an oasis for readers via our website where they will return to discover new voices and experiences, and to use social media to encourage readers to seek out our authors wherever they buy their books.

Could you hazard a guess at what the future looks like for books and publishing?

The book will be around for a long time. Books will go out of style when blankets go out of style, and for the same reasons. They are comfortable and reliable and don’t need to be plugged in. Still, there is a place for ebooks and it’s a format that should not be ignored. Here is a glimpse at the future. I got an email recently from a bookstore manager in New England who will be hosting one of our authors. He wanted a couple of books to display in preparation for her visit. When I checked out his website, I noticed the store had an Espresso Book Machine. There are currently only 19 EBMs in the U.S., and this machine has over five million titles available on it using print-on-demand technology. The EBM can print, bind and trim a paperback, perfect-bound book on acid-free paper in three to five minutes. And since we exclusively use POD for our books (as do most larger publishers to some extent), this bookstore manager already had access to all of our titles. So he printed out a couple of copies for display and began selling them from his EBM. Now that is exciting! Imagine having a machine that takes up the space of an old IBM copy machine that can deliver, literally hot off the press, over five million titles to your customers. That solves a lot of problems and opens up whole new worlds of opportunities for readers, writers, and booksellers.

What do you look for in a submission? Can you quantify or describe what constitutes that moment of “I have to publish this book”?

I get a bit spiritual here, in that everything is energy, including the words on the page. And those words either connect with me or they don’t; they either flow freely or they stall and fizzle. I’ve read lots of manuscripts by some fine writers who have a very interesting story to tell, but after a few pages I find myself drifting, not connecting with the way the words flow. I know I’ve passed on some excellent pieces, but I have to trust myself to know what I like and what I want to share. And I ask my editors to do the same. What I like are stories and poems that have strong, natural, conversational voices that allow me to witness the story; writing that trusts me to get the subtleties and doesn’t explain everything. I want my senses engaged, and I want to be taken to new places. That’s probably why I’ve published a few more women than men.

What does Press 53 have cooking? We know about Anne Leigh Parrish’s book. What else is coming up?

I’m very excited about Anne’s story collection. We always have lots and lots of great things going on. To name a few, new poetry from Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Katie Chaple, Richard Krawiec, and John Thomas York. New short story collections from Okla Elliott, Darlin’ Neal, Steve Mitchell, Stefanie Freele, Kurt Rheinheimer, and Clifford Garstang. A publishing guide for writers by Kim Wright, Your Path to Publication, based on 30-plus years of her experience as a published author. A spunky memoir titled, My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson. Three novels for our Press 53 Classics editions: Lion on the Hearth, by John Ehle; The Scarlet Thread, by Doris Betts; and Molly Flanagan and the Holy Ghost, by Margaret Skinner. We’ve just launched our 5th annual writing contest, the Press 53 Open Awards, with five categories and three winners in each. Oh, Surreal South ’11, edited by Laura and Pinckney Benedict, that comes out every odd year on Halloween. Limited edition hardcovers (limited to 53) that are numbered and signed by the author, and a new program for our friends, “Press 53 Friends with Benefits,” with special offers and window stickers and pens and other fun stuff. I know I’ve probably forgotten something, but I have to stop. I’m suddenly feeling overwhelmed.

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Kevin.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my press and our authors with your readers.


Q&A: Anne Leigh Parrish

Anne Leigh Parrish

The next couple of days are going to be a real treat around here. Today, Anne Leigh Parrish, the author of the new short-story collection All The Roads That Lead From Home, is here to talk about her new book, literary fiction, breaking through into publication and where her stories come from.

Tomorrow, Anne’s publisher, Press 53 editor Kevin Morgan Watson, will chat about where fiction and publishing are going, and how his highly regarded press is getting from here to there.

First up: Anne Leigh Parrish. Anne writes the kind of fiction I really like to read: about everyday people and their struggle to get along with themselves and with each other, to find some direction in a world that often seems ready to swallow them whole. And Anne’s own story is one of persevering, of remaining committed to craft.

Here’s what C. Michael Curtis, the longtime fiction editor for The Atlantic, has to say about Parrish’s work: “Anne Leigh Parrish has written a collection of stories that deserve a place on the shelf next to Raymond Carver, Tom Boyle, Richard Bausch, and other investigators of lives gone wrong. Parrish writes with painful clarity about marriages turned sour, children at war with their parents, women drifting from one damaging relationship to another, and about unexpected acts of generosity—an impoverished woman giving her battered piano to a priest who had befriended her, a schoolgirl who bribes a boy to pretend an interest in an overweight classmate, then finds that her kindness has disastrous consequences. These are potent and artful stories, from a writer who warrants attentive reading.”

Your stories seem to be full of people who are not only not happy but also seem uncertain how they got into the circumstances that make them unhappy, and little idea of how to confront their pain and arrive at constructive resolutions. What draws you to such fundamentally broken people?

Well, at the risk of sounding glib, it makes dull reading to write about happy, healthy people.  And I’ve known my share of misfits and oddballs.

How did you find your writing voice? You have the craft and discipline and literary sensibility of the kind of short-story writers who hold MFAs, yet you haven’t been in an MFA program.

I take that as a fine compliment!  Writing takes practice, and I’ve practiced a lot. That said, I think the voice I have now isn’t far from the one I began with.  It’s something inherent in me, I guess, that all the years of hard work didn’t really change.  What has changed is the degree to which I feel comfortable managing all the things that make a piece of fiction work, and finding the confidence to go out on a limb now and then.  When I think of an MFA program, I think its highest value is to get feedback from people “in the business.”  I got that without enrolling in a single MFA class, from the editors I submitted my work to, and most notably from Mike Curtis at The Atlantic, who read my work for nearly eight years.

The agents and editors who approached you after you won some noteworthy fiction contests all said they didn’t want to consider a story collection, but a novel.  How did they explain that? And how have you chosen to deal with that?

Simply put, they didn’t feel they could successfully market a story collection to the larger commercial publishers.  I have to think that they know their business, so I take them at their word.  I put off writing a novel for a very long time.  I began one about two years ago, and let it sit, then worked on it, then let it sit.  Now it’s nearing completion, and I’m excited about that.  I actually feel that I could write another, which is far cry from the attitude I held for years and years.

The stories in your collection are all set in Dunston, which I take it is a fictional stand-in for Ithaca, New York. But you’ve painted a town that isn’t necessarily what most people would expect of the hometown of an Ivy League school. What is the real Ithaca, and what do your stories say about the divide between the perception of any given community and its everyday reality?

I was a part of that Ivy League world, by extension.  My parents were professors at Cornell.  Yet most of the kids I went to school with were from less exalted circumstances.  They were often poor, or lived out in the country, or in the “flats,” which was essentially the downtown area, not where the professors tended to be, in a neighborhood called Cayuga Heights.  To me the real Ithaca is part of northern Appalachia.  After my father moved out of the house, my mother invited a series of girls to live with us on a temporary basis.  They were from very bad family situations, and I guess we were providing informal foster care.  One of these girls and her sister lived in a trailer with no indoor plumbing.  They hauled their water from a nearby creek. My classmates were often farm kids.  I remember one boy coming to school with his rubber boots on.  When asked why he dressed like that, he explained that he was up at five-thirty in the morning to muck out the cow barn.  I’m not sure there’s a real divide between how the locals see Ithaca and how it really is.  Everyone who lives there knows what the surrounding country is like.  By the same token, they also know that Ithaca is either “town” or “gown,” (as in graduation gown), meaning either you’re a part of the university or you’re not.

Short fiction seems to have been increasingly marginalized in the literary community, with most collections not selling well and many periodicals no longer publishing short stories (or no longer paying for them). Should we be alarmed by this? What is the best argument you have for the need to read and support short fiction and help it find wider audiences?

Well, the story is the classic American literary form, and I don’t think it’s exactly languishing.  While it’s true that there a fewer print venues for short fiction today than there used to be, there’s been a surge in online publishing – literary journals of very high quality, such as PANK Magazine, Storyglossia, and Eclectica Magazine.  If you read their list of contributors, you see that they’re publishing some of the best and most successful short story writers around.  As for an argument to read stories, I’d say that they’re often more powerful than novels, simply because they have to present a world in a much smaller space.  I think readers can take a great deal away from a short story.

One of the recurring motifs in your stories is the inability of your characters to verbally communicate their unhappiness. They’ll edge up to it, or circumvent it, or use silence as a communication tool, or act out. In your experience and observation, why is it so hard for us to just talk to one another?

For a number of reasons.  Trust is a big one.  But we also often lack a proper vocabulary for what we feel, or are too timid to really confront what’s painful.  People act out their misery more often than they describe it in words, I think.

Despite the strained conversations and thick silences between characters in your stories, you impressively avoid sinking your characters into slogging interior dialogues. How do you communicate the unhappiness in prose that the characters themselves cannot communicate in dialogue?

By showing the reader what they’re focusing on, or what’s in the background.  Maybe the sky is grey and dreary.  Maybe a character is thinking about how ugly a sidewalk is.  He might be wearing a dirty shirt because he’s too upset to notice or to do better.  A college student who’s extremely stressed out comes to hate the sight of herself in the bathroom mirror, and attempts taking a shower in the dark, until a floor mate asks what she’s doing.  Things like that.

What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

I’m finishing the novel I referred to earlier, Pen’s Road.  It draws from one of the stories in my current collection,”Pinny and The Fat Girl.”  Then I’ll return to my second collection of stories, a linked group called Our Love Could Light The World.  This, too, draws from a piece in the collection by the same name.  I hope to find a publisher for both next year.

 

Thanks so much to Anne for taking the time. Remember to come back tomorrow to hear from her publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53.

Anne Leigh Parrish’s website: http://www.anneleighparrish.com/

Anne Leigh Parrish at Press 53: http://www.press53.com/BioParrish.html


What I’m Reading: ‘The Sourtoe Cocktail Club’

If I’ve triggered this damn thing to autopost at the proper time (8 a.m. Mountain, Wednesday, September 14th), I should, at this very moment, be sitting (or perhaps lying down) in a wonderful old hotel in Fort Benton, Montana, reading this extraordinary book by Ron Franscell:

I started The Sourtoe Cocktail Club about 10 days ago, but because of several factors — a vacation, my own projects, vast swaths of time lost to Facebook — I’ve been making incremental progress on it. But you know what? That’s good. Because this book, at least over the first 100 pages or so, is so damned good, so damned thought-provoking, so damned deeply felt that I really don’t want the experience to end.

The title is clever and on-point enough; Franscell and his son, Matt, set out for the Arctic a few years back in search of a bar where the drink specialty has a mummified human toe at the bottom of the glass. It’s the sort of title that is sure to attract attention, and that’s part of the game in bookselling. A big, hairy part of the game.

But you know what? The title doesn’t come close. This book should be called Life, The Whole Of It.

Franscell has written an unusually intimate, penetrating book about fathers and sons and how to get out in front of generations of screwed-up relationships. It’s a road book, a heart book, a deconstruction of many lives. It’s some of the most absorbing reading I’ve done in a long, long time.

Just read it.

You can whet your appetite here, with the book trailer:


Publishing: pleasure and pain

Welcome to Day 4 of Honesty Week.

Look, I don’t know how I feel about self-publishing. Back when I first did it, in those yonder days of early 2009, it was in the most rudimentary way possible. I uploaded my book to CreateSpace. I used one of that service’s horrible pre-fab templates for my cover. And then I tried to get people to notice I’d released a book, all the while slowly refining the book’s appearance.

When a Montana publishing house, Riverbend Publishing, came calling for the book in August 2009, I happily signed it over, and I’ve never regretted that decision.

With my second novel, The Summer Son, I cast my lot with Amazon Publishing, and I’ve been happy with those results, too. Despite the scraps of carping you’ve seen during Honesty Week, publishing has been very, very good to me. But it still sucks. More on that in a second.

In between those two books, I started writing a bunch of short stories. A couple of months ago, I pulled them into a collection. I wrote earlier this week that story collections are the red-headed stepchild of the publishing world. So rather than facing a protracted and frustrating period of pitching these stories to the handful of publishers who actually appreciate short fiction, I’ve opted to release them myself under the auspices of Missouri Breaks Press, a publishing house I founded a couple of years ago to release under-the-radar literary fiction and nonfiction that interests me. I’ve been pretty damned successful with it, too, if you don’t mind my saying so: My first release, Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice, was a Spur Award finalist. My most recent release, Ed Kemmick’s The Big Sky, By and By, is getting some grand notices. So, yeah, I’m self-publishing, but what I’m doing today bears almost no resemblance to what I did two and a half years ago.

With Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, I did it the right way. I engaged the services of a top-notch editor, one who is thorough and honest and hard-nosed. (Let me know if you want the name; I can’t recommend him highly enough.) I engaged the services of a good book designer (that’d be me, someone who has spent the bulk of his professional career as a designer of publications). The marketing piece, the toughest for any writer and one nearly every writer has to bear to one extent or another, will be mine, too.

So, am I now a dedicated self-publisher? Probably not. I always figured my career would be a patchwork of things: some traditionally published novels, some magazine pieces, some small-press stuff, some self-publishing. At the end of each project, I try to figure out the best route. Betting on my own publishing house seemed like the right choice for this one.

Now, about publishing: It sucks, except when it doesn’t. The economic model is a mess. Giving millions of dollars to vapid entertainers for their memoirs and novelty novels (Kardashian sisters, anyone?) while shunting workhorse midlist novelists to the sidelines is a dumb thing and bad for the culture. Returnability is a financial killer. Royalties really suck. A lot of people have figured out how to make a good living at self-publishing e-books, and now that distribution is no longer the sole province of the big publishers, more people will have that opportunity. The digitization of books has been a great equalizer. Some think this marks the end of the world. Others think the possibilities are just beginning. Count me in the latter group.

There are plenty of places you can go that will outline the whole self-publishing revolution for you. This guy, for instance, really knows his stuff. I won’t even attempt to explain all of that.

My assumption is that readers want good books. That’s what I’m trying to deliver, regardless of imprint. Which brings us to the interactive portion of today’s post:

How often, if at all, does the publisher of a book influence your decision to buy? Tell me in the comments.


Heartbreakers

Welcome to Day 3 of Honesty Week.

My friend Ron Franscell said something a couple of years ago, when I was just getting my legs under me, and it has stuck with me since: “You think when you’ve landed that publishing contract that the rejection is behind you. Unfortunately, a whole new group of people has lined up to reject you.”

I didn’t necessarily get what he was saying at the time. I’ve had a graduate course in his wisdom since.

Consider:

Bookstores: For every wonderfully helpful manager I’ve met at chain stores — and Billings, where I live, has been beyond lucky with Lorrie Niles at Barnes & Noble, Gustavo Bellotta at Hastings and Jacob Tuka at Borders (RIP) — I’ve dealt with three who didn’t return calls, who seemed uninterested (at best) about setting up a signing or a reading, who didn’t seem the least interested in, you know, selling books. That surprised me. I always figured my compact with bookstores worked like this: If the store was kind enough to stock my book, I would do my level best to come help move it into readers’ hands. And I put my money, literally, behind that view. I drove hundreds and hundreds of miles around this state with 600 Hours of Edward in an effort to sell that book. If I were to plot it on a straight P&L ledger, the numbers wouldn’t look very good for me. So it’s a little disheartening to say, essentially, “Hey, how about I spend $70 on gas and a day of my life to help you sell my book?” and to hear “Eh.”

The independent bookstores, by and large, have been much better experiences, because indies realize that they stand out in the book trade by being curators and experts, and part of that stems from their close relationships with authors. For as long as they’ll have me, I’ll always venture down the street to Thomas Books (Susan Thomas), to Bozeman’s The Country Bookshelf (Ariana Paliobagis), to Fact & Fiction in Missoula (Barbara Theroux), to Red Lodge Books (Gary Robson), to The Bookstore in Dillon (Debbie Sporich), to Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Wash. (the tireless Suzanne Droppert). These booksellers and the stores they run with care and love are essential to their communities.

Libraries: I hear this all the time: “Libraries are always in need of good programming for their patrons.” That’s fantastic. Here’s my response: “Call me. I will come.”

Fortunately for me, several have called. Big, big love to Parmly Billings Library, the Ronan City Library, the Stillwater County Library, the North Richland Hills (Texas) Public Library, the Chouteau County Library, and others.

But this post is about rejection, so here’s a little story: Back in the fall of 2009, right after Edward came out, I pitched a program to a Friends of the Library group here in Montana. A couple of weeks later, I received this curt reply:

“The Friends board met and decided not to sponsor a reading from your latest book.  I hope you can find a venue for your reading in the near future.”

Two months later, I’m at a ceremony where Edward is named a Montana Honor Book, and someone from that particular Friends of the Library board approaches me and says, “If we’d only known …” Indeed.

Look, I get it. Nobody can say yes to everybody. But a writer who’s just starting out needs breaks, needs someone to say yes. I badly needed that, and by the time we got to “If we’d only known …” I didn’t need it quite so much anymore. Further, this was a Montana library group, considering a book by a Montana author, released by a well-regarded Montana publisher. I’ve never asked a library for anything more than some time, a place and the opportunity to sell some books. This was not a difficult “yes,” and yet, it was still ”no.” Until, of course, it was “if we’d only known …”

So what I’m saying is, try “yes.” It won’t kill you.

This is my point.

Reviewers: Ha! The auspices of Honesty Week reach only so far. My personal ethic is that I’ll never get in a pissing war with a reviewer. So, I’ll say simply that in my dream world, reviewers would do three things:

1. Regard a book for what it attempts to be, not against some mythical measuring stick that has, say, Ulysses at the top and Breaking Dawn at the bottom.

2. Remove personal prejudices from the equation to whatever degree possible.

3. Present the good and the bad. I distrust any review that leaves out one of those.

Readers: Readers are kind and wonderful and have incredible taste.

You see, it’s also Smarm Week.


It’s Not Me. It’s Them.

Welcome to Day 2 of Honesty Week.

Today, I’m all in for the breakup. Not between you and me, dear reader. Between me and that shameless strumpet whose attentions I’ve been seeking the whole time we’ve been together.

The Other Writer.

See, that’s what happens in this game. If you fall in love with books to the extent that you’re actually willing to try to write your own — a task that is often akin to crawling through an Andy Dufresne-style river of feces — it’s probably because somebody wrote something so profound and moving that you want to know what it’s like to create something potentially magical. In other words, you want to be that writer you admired, or a reasonable facsimile. In further words, you buy into the fantasy.

So you write the book. And you beat the odds and someone actually wants to publish it. And now, if you haven’t done this already, you’re confronted with the challenge of impressing other authors who might praise your book, introduce you to their agent or their editor, drop your name at parties and all that other B.S. that informs the fantasy. And, hey, maybe that’ll happen for you. It’s certainly happened for others.

But it’s still B.S. I’ve yet to see reliable data suggesting that the endorsement of a well-known author spurs significant book sales. And yet I have significant personal experience suggesting that direct interaction with readers does sell books. Plus, groveling isn’t involved, for the most part.

Now, I have to backtrack a bit. Honesty Week has a tendency to send me rocketing down a strident path.

I’ve written two novels and a collection of short stories. They’ve been well-received (generally) if not bestsellers. I’m happy with them. Proud of the work. For better or worse, I think I have a self-imposed standard for my work that meets and/or exceeds the general standards of the industry, if the industry even has a general standard. And in the course of production of those two novels, I’ve eagerly tried to build friendships with other authors.

I won’t go dropping any names, but suffice to say, I’ve been fortunate to have met and become friendly with a good number of highly regarded and successful authors, people who have been really wonderful to me and who have been generous with their time, their expertise and their endorsements. Those people know who they are, and nothing I have to say here changes how I feel about them. They’ve given me a model for how to treat folks who might approach me in the way I’ve approached them.

I’ve also met some incredibly petty and punitive writers, too — enough that I was moved to observe the other day that, in twenty-plus years of journalism, I never dealt with a newspaper person (an edgy, hard-to-love lot) whom I despise nearly as much as I detest some of the authors I’ve met. But you know what? That’s cool. Book writing is a crazy, stupid, maddening business, and if some people lose their minds and become vicious bastards, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. By the end of Honesty Week, I may well be one of them.

My point, and I really do have one, is this: My proportions have been all wrong. Meeting and becoming friends with other authors is cool, and it’s something I’ll continue to do. Meeting and becoming friends with READERS — people who actually would like to read my books — is a far more worthy pursuit, and one that should get the vast preponderance of my time. That’s not to say I haven’t done it. I just haven’t done it enough.

One of the aims of Honesty Week is to change that.