Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Life of a Book

I’m not quite moving on, but I’m heading in that direction.

I’ve asked the experts (my friends) about the lifespan of a book, how long one has to capture the public imagination, become a trend, or to get mentioned by The Millions or Liberty or even the local paper. When is it hopeless? Do I have six months, a year? Should I still be looking into getting reviews? This is what I’ve learned: You Do Not Have Long.

In lieu of the Q & A blog post I was planning on doing, I thought I’d address the hot topics that keep coming up surrounding my plight, my move from traditional publishing to a less-orthodox dip into self-publishing. I offer minimal “answers.”

I might immediately offer up a caveat, and some starting points. I think that it’s likely that I’ll return to the Old School Ways. The self-publishing gig requires a business acumen that I simultaneously do not possess, nor like all that much. This feels like I’m hustling or something. I mean, I’m not pushing drugs—but I’m “working the crowd.” Poorly, I might add.

Can’t I just write?

So my caveat is that I hope this was a short-term project. I learned a ton—and I know now that there are gifted artists out there who have had to be Renaissance Men and Women, learning the ropes which are more like obstacle courses, and finding out in weird ways who will help them and who really won’t. I still keep saying the same thing, though: I believe in filters, in editors, in artistry. This—not the money—is the value of the “industry.” The filters, the editors, the artistry.

But a caveat on top of my caveat: I’ll do what it takes to get my work out there. I will. I do not regret this experience. I started Bosco’s Going Down Press LLC. I published my own book. It’s very good. I’ve solicited one other writer in an effort to pursue the artistry bit. I’ll identify her: Natasha Anderson. A former student of mine. I’d publish a collection of her stories. She thinks she’s not ready. I’ll tag her on this. Yes, I’ll be a real small press. I will turn BoGoDo Press into a real thing.

And now info for those interested in this odd endeavor. Here’s some reading to get you going!

Laraine Herring and I had a conversation on self-publishing for The Heavy Feather Review: go here. I appreciate that they published the whole thing, despite its length, because it’s pretty honest!

I also wrote this about my book tour: Cra-cra.

One extraordinary part of this endeavor (maybe the best part) was that I was made very much aware of the support of friends and family. Like my old college friends, childhood friends, mom-friends, friends from all parts of my life . . . they were there for me! I absolutely cannot complain. I was and continue to be supremely touched by this. I have heard TALL TALES (maybe?) about a secret Amazon algorithm that potentially kicks in if one gets fifty or more reviews—and I got the reviews (nothing happened). I do strongly believe that there is inherent value and artistic satisfaction in creating literature, even if it only touches a few. I am forever thankful for the Kates and Scotts and Jills who were genuinely moved by my work.

It actually is enough for me.  

Is it enough to “legitimate” my vocation? Is it enough to keep me writing? Is it enough to continue my philosophizing on Art and Literature?

Yes and yes and yes.

The challenge I’ve felt, then, really hasn’t been to muster up the support of my own community. One of my hardest challenges has been the question of how to move beyond my faithful friends. What do you do when you’ve exhausted your own group of people who read? How do you branch out to people YOU DON’T KNOW? That has been my biggest challenge.

I’m still clueless about that.

From the onset, I would insist on a few things that are absolutely necessary: PAY MONEY FOR GOOD EDITORS AND LOVE YOUR COVER. I have no regrets about editorial work or cover choices. I would stress to all interested writers that one must seek outside editorial help. I’m a freakin’ Grammar Nazi—and editors are still the best. If you’re going to do this right, get an editor and choose a cover that speaks to you and resonates with the content of your book.

Here are some things I’ve done to make this thing work. It’s been this DIY Extravaganza.

I spent the spring semester doing all these book-things I think I was supposed to do. ON CREDIT CARDS. (I reached financial ruin promptly in the middle of June.) The local indie bookstore was supportive (I gotta admit that my small measure of “street cred” from previous “real” books gave me a foot-in-the-door, so to speak, in a number of “desirable” arenas). I bought postcards to hand out. They’re pretty. I bought a poster that I schlepped around. It, too, is pretty. I made an audiobook in a very professional way. (This was pricy and I doubt I’ll ever see that monetary investment again—but I learned a ton from this process and I’m a fan of audiobooks.) I attended the Tucson Festival of Books, the Associated Writing Programs conference in Portland, and the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference in Tempe. Sometimes, I felt like I was sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving Dinner – like I was on the outskirts of the real stuff. I crashed poetry readings hosted by friends, faculty readings like a publicity whore, and book groups whenever possible. I started using Instagram, hashtagging indiscriminatingly (my kids tell me I do it wrong). I bought a Book Riot ad (they’re nice, but I’m not sure it helped). I bought Facebook Ads (nada?). I begged book-bloggers for reviews. I got great ones. Other people probably tacitly “blocked” me. Some famous people ignored me.

I devoted all of June, and most of July to a special kind of book-promo. A book-tour (which we made into a family vacation so it was a raging success). A Visiting Author gig at EKU’s Bluegrass Writers Studio. As a writer, this was valuable for several particular reasons: there was a community of writers and that community is really a necessary feature of the “writing life,” I spent time with old friends I personally love, and I think travel is good for writers!

A lot of this required money that I didn’t have. Self-publishing requires money. Much of the time since publication seemed like it detracted from what I actually do best, which is write. A lot of these activities brought out the worst in me. A lot of it brought out the best in me.

If you have questions for that unwritten Q & A post, let me know. I’ll try to answer them.
I’ll leave you with the story about MY VERY WORST READING ON MY BOOK TOUR. It was in Seattle. Seattle! Which was supposed to be my best reading! I have friends there! People drink coffee there! Grunge is from there! Kurt! Eddie!

I booked this cute café because the real bookstores in town wouldn’t have me (SELF-PUB ALERT!). I received gung-ho confirmation from café staff. I showed up on time WITH MY FRIENDS.

A table was reserved for me. There was a sign with my name on it.

And that was it. This was a cool café with people at tables, working on their laptops, chatting, drinking Americanos and mochas.

There was absolutely NO INDICATION that a reading by a writer was about to happen. Actually, the person who “booked” me was off that day, and those making the espresso behind the counter only knew about that table in the back. Were they expecting me? Did they know this was a reading? Was anyone warned?

I had to figure out what to do.

Was this my “book tour” or what?

Was I a quitter?

Should I succumb, be subject to public humiliation, just order a cup of coffee? Leave?

And so I told my husband and my friends to take a seat. I set up my books on the table with my name on it. I walked around to the café patrons, handed them a postcard, and told them that I was about to read. My friend asked the barista to turn off the music. The barista said, “In a minute.”

I stood up and announced to everyone present that, unbeknownst to them, they were inadvertently attending a fiction-reading.

And then I read from And So We Die, Having First Slept for fifteen minutes.

Everyone kept working on their laptops.

Actually, that’s not true. Two people looked up.

EVERYONE ELSE continued working.

I took questions from the audience. That lasted for about a second. I stopped and packed up my books. The barista turned Hootie and the Blowfish back on.

End of story.

What I am telling you is this: I still know very little about the Life of a Book. This experience was revelatory in many ways. I feel, now, ready for the next project. I do! I am not riddled with self-doubt about my writing abilities—though I feel a measure of grief over my business skills. I was confronted over and over again with the value of my friends and the value of making Art for the few. And that is enough. It truly is.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Bourbon, Bluegrass, and Boyd Crowder

Everything I know about Kentucky, I learned from Justified and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I wish I could tell you that I was joking, but I'm not. I don't drink though both "moonshine" and "bourbon" are pretty words, and my husband (who's from Massachusetts and went to college in Tennessee--so he's a bit of an expert) regularly refers to me as a Yankee.

So I was, in all seriousness, super excited to attend the Bluegrass Writers Studio Summer Residency at EKU in Richmond, Kentucky! (It's still going on, but I was a Visiting Author this past week.)

And here are the secrets and facts . . .

I seriously just gave a craft talk on intimacy in writing, so I should come clean. Get ready, Julie and Bob. Julie Hensley, Robert Johnson, and I go back. Like it's already been twenty years (that's insane!). We got our MFAs together, and--truthfully--Julie was my first real friend (this is all true) after I was in a super horrible car accident in 1998, and I sort of thought I'd live without real human contact for the rest of my life. That was when I entered my MFA program. And then I met Julie! In all honesty, I wasn't prepared to make friends (my car accident was that bad). Julie was disarming. And, further, Julie was genuinely my kind of person. I could go on and on, but I won't.

I do want to say this, though (lest you think Bob and Julie invited me to BGWS because we're old friends). Julie and I were in the same year, and Bob (who I loved too) was one year behind us. Though others are more equanimous, I immediately felt this pressure to be a fabulous writer among my peers. I wanted to stand out--due, probably, to other feelings of inadequacy. I was, like, If there's one thing I do well, it's write.  So what I'm saying is that I wanted to be the best.

But it was like this: I secretly thought, Uh, Julie's the best.

And she was sane, not pretentious, not competitive, and kind. WTF??????

Life went on. Bob and Julie married (I do know secrets). Did you know that Bob is allergic to cats, and Julie made him "get used to them"? I got married. We all got jobs. My books came out. Julie's books came out. Bob's books came out. Seriously! Were we all the best??????

I'm staying here???? I stayed at The Bennett House. I wanted to take a photo of the breakfasts, but there were other guests and I felt weird about it because they thought I was this big professor and famous writer-type.
Too pretty to actually shower in

Just because I got all crazy about Julie doesn't mean that I don't love Bob!!!!!

"G" is also a friend, and I'll be thanking her for her friendship in my next book. Welcome to stay at my house any time!

So here's EKU!

I gave a talk on intimacy in writing. It was actually a tad madcap. I think I actually over-planned, instead of focusing it. If I can talk to this AWESOME group of serious writers, I'd urge you all (y'all) to be readers of writers who have mastered the skills. Here, again, is an awesome reading list (and some films too):
Sherwood Anderson:  Winesburg, Ohio
Douglas Coupland:  Life After God
Dave Eggers:  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name
Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
Elena Ferrante: The Story of the Lost Child
Miscellaneous stories by Lorrie Moore
Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation
Philip Roth: The Plot Against America
Philip Roth: Sabbath’s Theater
J.D. Salinger:  The Catcher in the Rye
David Sedaris: Theft By Finding: Diaries 
Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Short Cuts
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
(maybe “The Office” on TV)
Future Famous People

I gave a reading here.

I ate insanely well on this trip. Indian with BGWS. I actually am inclined to pontificate on the virtues of a Low-Res MFA program, but my husband is literally breathing down my neck to do something today. One thing I will say: I like that people have outside lives. I think it's a virtue. 

This was one-lane, and it seriously made me think Boyd Crowder was waiting on the other end. 

Not flattering, but thank you for having me, BGWS!