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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.

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Working blue

I woke up this morning to this online review of 600 Hours of Edward.

The salient bit:

If not for the swearing it would have received five stars and been one of the best books I’ve read lately hands down. As it is I don’t feel I can recommend it to my children or friends…unfortunate.

I don’t hear this often, but I do hear it. And I feel bad every time. First, it’s a missed opportunity to bring a reader fully into my work. More than that, I hate it when my own reading experiences pull me in two irreconcilable directions, so I have no wish to leave others with that feeling. It might have been more satisfying for this reader to have hated everything about the book. It certainly would have left things less muddled.

I have a policy about not responding directly to critics in an online forum, a stance that—so far—has kept me from gaining notoriety for all the wrong reasons.  That policy goes hand in hand with a general sense of gratitude I have toward those who spend time with what I’ve written and take the initiative to share their thoughts. This is walk-the-talk stuff. You can’t bask in the five-star reviews and take them as confirmation of your literary genius and then turn a blind eye to those who find flaws in your work and present their case in a coherent way.

So instead of rebutting this review—because it’s a well-presented, well-spoken opinion and thus needs no rebuttal—I’d like to instead talk about why blue language appears in my novels and why, even if I wanted to, I cannot keep it out.

The stories I write are given birth by my imagination, but the characters inhabiting them are dumped out into a world that’s very real to me. Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours of Edward and its followup, Edward Adrift, in particular inhabits a place I know well. He lives in Billings, Montana, where I live, and shops at the Albertsons on 13th and Grand, where I shop. His house is modeled on a dwelling I once lived in, and it’s situated at an address (a made-up number on a very real street) a block away.

And in this world, bad things happen and intemperate things are said. I have an intellectual responsibility, when I write of this place, to reflect it as I find it. This isn’t something I think about overtly—there’s not a message above my computer that says “remember your intellectual responsibility.” Instead, it’s an interior compass that guides me as I go, that assesses each paragraph and each quotation and asks this fundamental question: Is this true to the story? If it is, it stays.

And let me be clear: Even gratuitousness can be true. I once spoke to a library group about my second novel, The Summer Son, and was challenged on both the language and the violence in it. The reader asked why I felt compelled to present it in such a graphic way. That novel took place against the backdrop of another world I once knew well, that of oil rig workers and their itinerant lives. My response was that I presented that world as it presented itself to me. Impasses were addressed not with the high language of a diplomat but with the raw anger of hardened men. Where language wouldn’t do, fists would. I said I couldn’t see any other way to show it. And I can’t. And I won’t. This is where differing sensibilities have to be given respect. And sometimes, as in this case, the author and the reader simply can’t find a way across the street to one another.

One last thing: The balancing factors of ugliness and crudity are grace and elegance. Just as it would be irresponsible of me to present a world where no one curses or kills someone, so, too, would it be irresponsible to show a place where the light never gets in. I’m fundamentally a hopeful guy, and so the work I do bends toward that hope. In the end, I have to think that carries more weight in the work than the battered world in which the characters live.


Outtakes

Yesterday, the Kindle Post hosted an interview with me about the re-emergence of 600 Hours of Edward. It used three questions of a wider-ranging interview that my good friend Jim Thomsen, a freelance book editor and author, had conducted with me. Here, then, is the rest of the story …

Unlike Edward, you don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. But, like Edward, you’re a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, of the TV show Dragnet and of the band R.E.M., and you live where the book is set, in Billings, Montana. Talk about how you blended the factual and the fictional.

I get asked this a lot, and my sheepish answer is that I chose to incorporate all of those things into the narrative simply because I knew them well and could thus write about them with authority and great speed, a distinct requirement of the arena (National Novel Writing Month) in which I was working. Without that constraint, who knows what I would have chosen. And in subsequent works, I’ve begun to see the merits in putting fictional twists on real places. It opens up the imagination and allows me to more fully immerse myself in the little worlds I try to create. That said, I think a lot of people in Billings who’ve read the book have gotten a kick out of seeing, say, their Albertsons store represented in print. At one event I did in Texas, a boy with Asperger’s, the son of a high school friend, came up to me and said, “Is there really an Albertsons at the corner of 13th and Grand in Billings, Montana?” I was proud to tell him that, yes, there is. I shop there every week.

Billings, Montana, where Edward and I live.

How fine a line do you find there is between Asperger’s characteristics and just plain old human eccentricity? Edward is a slave to his routines — his constant logging of everything from wake-up times to weather to travel distances — but, to varying degrees, so are many of us who don’t have Asperger’s. How relatable do you think readers will find Edward to be?

What makes Edward work—for me as the author and for folks who read the book—is that he’s reflective of things that don’t know boundaries that are generational, ethnic, medical or educational—things like isolation, familial estrangement, the struggle to fit in and find one’s path, to make friends, to live life instead of letting the days pass by. That he has Asperger’s simply puts a different set of filters on how he experiences those everyday things.

600 Hours of Edward is such a lean, breezy read. Many literary authors tend to issue debuts full of dense prose and writerly devices — lots of metaphors and similes, exposition, backstory. Was it difficult to steer clear of that, or do you find your natural writer’s voice is an economical one?

I think the peculiarities of the story imposed some of that. 600 Hours is structured in a deceptively simple way. It starts with Edward’s waking up on a mid-October day and ends 25 days later. Everything proceeds in a straight line, and because the story is told in his voice, it’s naturally spare and devoid of rambling exposition. The few times he stops and speaks of past events, they always have a direct correlation—at least in his mind—with what’s happening in the moment. I do prefer spare to verbose, simple and clear to dense and poetic, and I think some of that can be attributed to my journalism background and some to my story sensibility. I put great faith in Hemingway’s idea of the iceberg’s dignity of movement, that you can write confidently and without adornments, and readers will fill in the details with their own minds. I like the idea that readers’ imaginations are active participants in the stories I write.

Another literary convention from which you steered clear was giving Edward an obvious love interest (though his disastrous evening with a woman he met on an online dating site is one of the funniest parts of 600 Hours of Edward). Did you wrestle with that as you wrote it, and did you have any misgivings about that based on the reactions of early readers who might have wanted to see Edward in love?

I never considered a love interest essential to this part of Edward’s story. What I knew about him is that he was straining against some of his self-imposed barriers, and his attempt at online dating is part of the way he challenges himself to connect with others. What I tell people who read the book and ask me what happens to this storyline or that storyline is to use their imaginations. This is a 25-day snapshot of a life in transition. After the window closes on Day 25, the story I told is over. But that doesn’t stop Edward, as a character living in readers’ minds, from going on.

600 Hours of Edward (paperback)

600 Hours of Edward (ebook)

600 Hours of Edward (audiobook)


Edward, again

I’ve been waiting for today for a long time.

My debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, is making its own debut, as a newly published paperback, Kindle edition and audiobook under the auspices of Amazon Publishing. For a long time now, I’ve been living with Edward Stanton, the middle-aged man from Billings, Montana, whom I created four years ago in twenty-four fevered days of writing, and he continually surprises me. Today is no different.

If you count the original self-published version of this novel, and I do, this marks the third iteration of his story, and this one leads to new horizons: at the end of the new book sits the first chapter from Edward Adrift, the sequel coming next year. I can’t wait to share where Edward’s story goes, but first, the challenge is to introduce him to a whole new audience. Amazon Publishing, which also put out my sophomore novel, The Summer Son, is primed to do this.

So today, I feel nothing but gratitude for this novel and this character, both of which have allowed me to chase my dreams as a novelist. It all seems amazing to me still that the story could begin as a lark and turn into the work I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m grateful for the people who’ve believed in Edward along the way–starting at home, with my wife, Angie, and extending out to Chris Cauble and the team at Riverbend Publishing, who gave my book a chance back in October 2009, to my editor, Alex Carr, and the team at Amazon who’ve been such cheerleaders for this book, to all the readers who’ve had so many nice things to say about the work (including one from Belfast, Northern Ireland, just this past week!) and the many writers I deeply admire who’ve shown me kindnesses along the way. I’m so thankful.

But this isn’t a valedictory, not by a long shot. With time and luck and hard work, there will be many, many books to come.

Thanks for reading.


Today’s Kindle Daily Deal: THE SUMMER SON

My second novel, THE SUMMER SON, is the subject of a cool promotion today: It’s the Kindle Daily Deal, priced to move at just 99 cents.

It’s a one-day-only thing, so if you’ve wanted to read the book but haven’t, you’ll probably never see a better price. And please, let your friends (Facebook or otherwise) and Twitter followers know. I’d really appreciate it.

Here’s what Booklist had to say about THE SUMMER SON when it was released in January 2011: “A classic western tale of rough lives and gruff, dangerous men, of innocence betrayed and long, stumbling journeys to love.”

*****

This is an odd bit of news to tag onto a post about a Kindle book, as it’s a casualty of the sea change marked by the emergence of e-readers like the Kindle: Thomas Books in Billings, Montana, where I live, is closing its doors in August.

It’s fair to say that I have mixed feelings about this. In the abstract, the closure saddens me greatly. I like Susan Thomas and her store, she’s always been a strong supporter of my books, and I hate like hell to see my town lose an independent bookstore. I’ve supported Susan’s store with my time and my money, and I would happily go on doing so. The same holds true for the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Fact & Fiction in Missoula, The Bookstore in Dillon, and on and on.

And yet, e-reading has changed everything for people who love books, and not necessarily in a way that’s a net loss. I’ve said before that buying a Kindle made me a better book consumer. I’ve gone on buying as many print books as I ever did (many of them at Thomas Books), and I’ve added dozens of electronic titles as well.

Obviously, that’s not true for everyone. As Susan notes in the story linked above, after building her revenue back up after the big-box bookstores came to town, she was swamped first by the recession and then by the incredible migration to electronic books.

(It’s also worth noting, as Susan does, that Borders (RIP) and Barnes & Noble were indie killers before Amazon came along, so it’s a little odd to see B&N now hailed in some quarters as the potential savior of bookstores.)

What’s really happening here is disruptive technology. And if you remove emotion from the equation–which, I’ll concede, is tough to do–you realize that this is a very old story. Disruptive technology is why you don’t see many horses and buggies clogging your downtown streets. Why your television set is an inch thick and weighs a tenth of what it did in 1975. Why nobody (except me) carries CDs anymore. Why there there are no record stores in shopping malls. Why newspapers, which once seemingly printed money, are being pared back to nothingness. The printing press that makes these wonderful books we all love — that, too, was disruptive technology. Rock carvers everywhere had to find a new line of work.

Disruptive technology sucks, especially in the moment when it’s being, well, disruptive.

It’s also the way we move from today to tomorrow.


An honor for ‘Quantum Physics’

I posted about this last week on Facebook (follow me here!) but wanted to wait for the official announcement before posting anything here. The press release went out Tuesday, so I guess it’s safe.

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, the short-story collection I released back in December, has won a gold medal from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. It was picked as the top fiction book in the West-Mountain region for 2012.

You can see the full list of winners here.

I’m obviously thrilled that this book, so personal to me, has been recognized in this way. I’m doubly proud because the book was put out under the auspices of my little publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press. By now, the instances of smart self-publishers releasing polished, accomplished books are legion, so it’s not as if I felt compelled to prove something by going it alone. For me, Missouri Breaks Press has always been much more about finding high-quality manuscripts that for whatever reason aren’t viewed as commercial enough for the major presses to take on. It’s about finding work and writers I admire. And, occasionally, it will be about exercising the unprecedented choices we have as writers these days to release and market our work. Going it alone with this book made sense to me, and this award offers some validation of that choice.

If you’d like to read QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, it’s available for Kindle, in paperback from Amazon.com and signed direct from me.

I hope you’ll check it out.


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.


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.

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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.)


A birthday gift

On the occasion of my 42nd birthday, this one’s from me, for delivery at a time to be announced later.


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.


How are you? It’s been a while …

Here’s what’s been going on:

Even my slimmed-down version of NaNoWriMo crashed and burned. I still love the story idea, still think about it a lot, still like what little progress I’ve made on it, but I won’t be finishing any time soon. It just needs some more cooking time in my head. The longer I do this — and I’m three books into it now — the more I realize that the words and stories come in their own time. I can’t be a crank-o-matic. Wouldn’t even want to be one.

I’ve kept busy with some freelance gigs, mostly of the editing variety. This brings up a good opportunity to do something I don’t do very often, and that’s to pitch my editorial services.  I have good, competitive rates, I turn the work around quickly, and I’m handing off good work to appreciative customers. Whether you’re prepping a manuscript for submission to agents and publishers or preparing to go it alone as a self-publisher, I can help you create a professional product.

Reading the story "Comfort and Joy" from "Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure" at Wild Purls. (Photo courtesy of Wild Purls)

Three years after 600 Hours of Edward was written, we continue to find appreciative audiences. One of my more interesting gigs was two hours with about twenty-five knitters at a local shop, Wild Purls. Check out this account of the evening on the store’s blog. I had so much fun. (And here’s a blatant tease for you: I expect to have some exciting news about 600 Hours in the near future.)

Finally …

E-readers and e-books should be all the rage this holiday season. If you’re lucky enough to get a fancy new toy, you might consider loading it up with my latest, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. The e-book price has been dropped to $1.99 through the New Year, which is a heck of a deal. Go here for the Kindle version. Go here if you have a Nook.

Happy holidays!


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.

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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.

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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: 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


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.