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Cara Hoffman’s SO MUCH PRETTY has everything I long for in a good book. For starters, the writing was so good I read the first two chapters out loud just for the pure pleasure of the rhythm and the prose. The story itself is about a chilling crime that happens in a small, rural town. But it’s the issues the book wrestled with that haunted me for weeks after I’d read it: the closed nature of small-town communities, the economic and environmental realities of industrialized farms, and the battle between truth and denial when a crime hits close to home.
I hope you’ll welcome Cara to The Nervous Breakdown, and I dare you to read the first chapter of her book and not keep going.
Talk to me about outsiders in this town. What is so threatening to the locals about them, and why don’t they let the new person feel a part of their community? And the flipside… what do you think the outsiders’ arrogance is about? What is about small towns that seems to create this dynamic?
Small town provincialism is truly repugnant stuff and Haeden is emblematic of this kind of provincialism. I think places that have been heavily impacted by the brain drain and economic shifts have it hard, have a lot of compensating to do. The old families in towns like these are actually the ones that exhibit the most arrogance. Outsiders often come in, like Gene and Claire Piper do in the novel, with high hopes thinking that they’ll be able to integrate or change things. But for all their sophistication they’re missing a bigger picture that is not lost on the locals, especially the poor locals. Each side sees the other as naïve and ignorant. This kind of antagonism has deep roots.
Denial seems to be a way of bringing stability back to the town following Wendy’s disappearance. But denial also creates a seething distrust and rage beneath the surface. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this culture of denial.
I don’t think denial brings stability back to Haeden after Wendy’s disappearance. I don’t really believe denial can in any way create stability. American political culture is steeped in this kind of denial, particularly in regard to environmental issues, gender, class and race. In many ways Haeden is a typical American small town and the things that happened there happen every day in America.
Two young women in the novel put a ripple in this culture when they take the courageous and dangerous step to confront it. Do you think speaking up and confronting denial changes anything?
I do! I think it’s really valuable, as I say in the novel, to pay attention to the obvious. Self-delusion is a dangerous and insidious thing. While I’m generally pessimistic about the possibility of broad political changes, I do think there’s been incredible progress when it comes to gender issues. And that a huge part of that progress is because of people confronting the pervasive culture of misogyny and the denial of violence and brutality that keeps that culture going.
As much as this book is about a mystery unfolding, it’s also about friendship and the creativity that can be born of boredom. I’m thinking of the Bigger/Better game, children braiding their hair together so they’re connected, and the wonderful, Wind in the Willows-inspired afternoons. That aspect of the book seems to get lost in the reviews, but to me it’s at the core of the book, and brings a measure of hope to this story.
I am so glad you mention this because it’s close to my heart and I do think it’s one of the foundations of the novel that can get overshadowed. So Much Pretty is about the life of the mind and a lot of it is brutal. But it’s also about how that life, that inner world, feeds us, how play that is rich and strange can make us smart and brave.
I’d like to end by saying how much I appreciate the poetry and the cadence of your writing. Which authors helped to train your ear?
Thank you. I’ve been influenced by a number of writers. Paul Bowles, David Wojnarowicz, Oscar Wilde. But as far as writing lyrically I think the thing that most trained my ear was my mother reading to me when I was a kid. She read me the entire Norton Anthology, James Joyce, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald. All kinds of crazy stuff you’d never read to a 10 year old. And I’m glad she did it.
Ellen Meister is one of the most generous, energized writers I know; and even as she lovingly attends to her friends, she still manages to write a new book every year. Her newest, THE OTHER LIFE, has a high concept plot that’s so good, HBO has optioned it for a TV series. Here’s that plot in a nutshell: A woman who is pregnant with an extremely deformed child has the option to escape this life for one consisting of the other choices she could have made, including time with someone she longs to see again. The New York Journal of Books calls THE OTHER LIFE “mesmerizing,” and I’m so glad to bring Ellen here today to talk about her novel.
Let’s talk about high concept plots because you’re awfully good at coming up with them. First, let’s hear your definition of high-concept. And second, how do you find them? I want to get right inside your creative process.
Thank you, Sue! That’s an especially gratifying compliment since I really struggle with my storylines. For some writers it comes easily, but I find it the most vexing part of the process.
But okay, my definition of a high concept novel is one with a hook that’s so strong it can be conveyed in one dynamic sentence. Often, people know what a high concept novel is about even if they haven’t read it. Lovely Bones is a perfect example.
If I may move from the sublime to the ridiculous, consider all those wacky TV shows from the 1960s. My Mother the Car wasn’t exactly high art, but it was so high concept the whole premise was encapsulated in the title.
As far as how I get my ideas, I think it’s really just a matter of paying attention to the stray thoughts that ramble through my consciousness. For instance, one day while I was thinking about the way I escape into my fiction, I was wondering what would happen if a suburban woman like me had the ultimate escape … the ability to cross over into the life she would have had if she never got married and had children.
If I hadn’t been on the lookout, the thought would have vaporized. But I stopped and examined it and wondered if there might be a book in that idea. Then I had to ask some questions. What would be traumatic enough to make the woman want to cross from her happy life to her alternate reality? And what could she find on the other side that would create enough of an emotional pull to threaten her family?
It took a long time, but when I finally realized that my character’s mother was alive in one life and not in the other, I knew I had a book.
What I love so much about THE OTHER LIFE is it engages the reader’s own moral code. While you attach to these particular characters, you’re also forced to question how you’d handle a similar situation. What I learned from reading your book is that the idea of having an escape hatch in your life may sound wonderful—imagine not having to live with the consequences of your choices—but it’s really a terrible burden.
I actually learned the same thing from writing it! When I first got the idea, it sounded like an exhilarating opportunity. She gets to leave! When her husband and son aren’t home, she gets to slip through to her other life! Yippee!
But once I got inside the character, I understood how emotionally fraught the decision really was. And suddenly, I found myself faced with all kinds of moral issues I had never intended to explore. At another point in my life, this might have caused me to abandon the book. But real life had just thrown such frightening problems my way (a very sick kid, a massive financial crisis), that I was determined to dig in and find my courage.
Along the way I discovered that when we’re deeply connected by love, the mixed emotions of sorrow, joy, longing, regret and hope are so intertwined they simply can’t be separated. So when you leave one behind, you leave it all behind.
As far as engaging the reader’s own moral code, it wasn’t something I was conscious of while writing THE OTHER LIFE. But I’m starting to hear from early readers of book, and they’re sharing so much of their own struggles that I’m seeing how personally people relate to these issues.
One of my favorite parts of the book are the Quinn Deconstructed scenes—the series of paintings in which Quinn’s mother is trying to work through a puzzle in their relationship. Tell me how you came up with this idea.
I was probably about halfway through the book when I realized that Nan, Quinn’s mother, was simply too distant from the reader. I needed to bring her—and her relationship with Quinn—right out front. Since the last conversation between mother and daughter involved a composition Nan had painted to communicate a complex aspect of their relationship, I thought it was natural to show her trying to understand her daughter by capturing her on canvas in a series of portraits.
I liked the idea of Nan taking a systematic approach to the project by starting with Quinn as an adult and going back in time to paint her at various stages of her life. This also served to point the reader back in time toward Quinn’s birth, the pivotal point in which her life split in two.
I want to talk about the humor in this book. The thread that runs through all of your novels, regardless of how serious the topic might be is this fiercely witty dialogue. You really have an ear for comedic timing, and I know your cousin, Lisa Kudrow, has this gift as well. Tell me where this funny gene comes from. Is there a person or an event in the family tree that would explain this outlook on life?
Fiercely witty—I like that. Thanks! I also like being compared to my cousin Lisa, whom I consider brilliant.
My family would probably agree that I got my skinny legs from my mom and my sense of humor from my dad. Lisa is related on that side, so maybe there really is a genetic funny bone.
And I grew up in a funny house—Dad’s stories often had us laughing till we cried—so there’s both nature and nurture at play. But as far as my writing, there’s a third factor—intent. I believe a novelist has a responsibility to entertain the reader, and to me, including humor goes a long way toward achieving that.
So, to write this book, you had to stand in the middle of unresolved conflict, and frequently you had to walk directly toward fear. What did you learn about yourself through this process? Did any part of you become stronger or more tender because of it?
Frankly, if I was any more tender I’d need to be on Thorazine. So, thankfully, I emerged just as much of a mush as I was going in.
What I learned from THE OTHER LIFE relates to the sacrifices a mother is willing to make for her children. I’ve understood that on a visceral level since the day I gave birth to my first baby. But by examining it from all sides, I got to appreciate the wonder and miracle of it. So now, I’m not only grateful for my children, but for the power of my love for them … a gift that fills me every day.
I was going to write a long introduction about the author Summer Wood so you would know something of her heart and her poetic touch with language, but her answers in this interview do just that. You’ll see! So let me tell you, instead, about her novel, WRECKER, set in California, where a young boy with a short fuse and a reckless nature needs a home after his mother is sent to prison. It’s a story about the aftershocks of abandonment, the hunger for connection, and the surprise in store for the untraditional family who dares to take him in.
Please welcome Summer, and if you like, you can make her book launch special by leaving her a note at the end.
Photo Credit: Miriam Berkley
I’m interested in your background as a foster parent. How did you come to taking children into your home? How are you different for it, and how did you let them go again?
Well, we were living in a small village in northern New Mexico, and we knew a lot of kids who, for one reason or another, were in and out of the foster care system. Our own three sons were not quite in their teens, and we had a little extra space. We figured that, if a kid in our area needed a home for a night or a weekend—a temporary refuge from a family crisis, or a night away from their foster family—we could offer that.
It didn’t really turn out the way we’d planned, though! Our first call came from a social worker who asked if we’d consider taking four small brothers. Indefinitely. The oldest was four. If we couldn’t take them, she said, they’d be split up and sent to different homes.
We hemmed and hawed and then we said yes, and embarked on one of the most harrowing and rewarding experiences of my life. I fell in love with them. We all did. And it wrecked our home life. Seven boys in the house, the oldest almost 13, the youngest 8 months— we weren’t prepared at all. But I guess, more than that, we weren’t prepared for the feelings, the deep bond that developed between us all. And the terrible sense that, in spite of doing everything that you can, sometimes it still is not enough.
When they left—well. We rooted for the parents. God knows we wanted them to succeed. We became friends with them and a kind of kin to the kids, and we helped out whenever they asked. But in spite of their best intentions the parents couldn’t hold it together, and the boys were adopted out to separate families.
Let go? I haven’t let go. I wrote WRECKER because I guess I can’t let go. You never really let go of the people you love, do you? You send them off, you wish them well, you let them be, but you go on carrying some part of them with you until the day you die.
One of the emotions you really explore in WRECKER is hesitance. The hesitance to trust. The hesitance to commit. What did your characters learn, and what did you learn through them, as they risked being vulnerable and being in roles they didn’t expect to play?
I don’t like getting hurt. Right? Who does? You lose people you love, it’s a terrible feeling. Why do we go in for this love thing at all, when it could backfire so badly?
For me, the touchstone character in the book—the single one I could rely on when things went south—was Ruthie. She knows everything there is to know about love and loss, and she doesn’t blink an eye before diving in to love Wrecker. She knows where the relationship is likely headed. The boy is there temporarily, and she has no claim on him. But she dives in anyway.
The rest of the characters wear their injuries front and center. They know a dangerous situation when they see one. They know it’s safer not to trust, not to get involved. But—and this is what I love about human beings—slowly, with varying degrees of hesitance, they let themselves love, anyway. They can’t help it. Even Willow, the most self-protective of the bunch, can’t help herself. And, loving, it’s one step, one action, after another toward committing.
Did I learn from this? I’m not sure. I do know this: never go to the pound unless you intend to come home with a puppy. The heart leads, the feet follow, and the head is left way back in the hinterlands trying to make sense of what just happened.
Raising someone who’s been dealt a blow but whose background is largely a mystery is a real task for his new family. What qualities do you think they had that allowed Wrecker to begin to settle in?
Well, first of all, they had the advantage of living in a magical place, out there amid the tall trees, the gorgeous wild backcountry of Humboldt County. And although Bow Farm isn’t exactly utopian—they’re too lazy for that—socially, they sure didn’t buy into the status quo. Each of them allows the others considerable privacy and latitude regarding their former lives. I think it was natural that Wrecker would be accorded that, too—that they would, more or less, take him as he was.
But, even more than that—and I’d never thought of it this way before, so thank you!—I think each of the characters has a kind of natural curiosity about Wrecker, that develops into a unique personal affinity. They aren’t sorry for him so much as they’re interested in him. They see him as one of their own: odd and damaged and unpredictable, but their boy.
So much of what makes parenting of any variety so difficult is the mighty internal-external choir of disapproval. At Bow Farm, there wasn’t anyone there to tell them they were doing it wrong. They had to make it up, by trial and error.
Well. Hardly anybody.
Wrecker’s mother has a small but crucial role in this book. I think you’ve given her the weight that a real birth mother might have in a child’s life—she’s decidedly absent, and yet very emotionally present—almost a ghost, a phantom limb in the family. What were your feelings about this mother as you were creating her?
Mixed is not the word. I loved her fiercely, and I was furious with her for failing to protect her son, and I feared for her every step of the way, and, for some reason, I could not let her catch one single break. Her life is the story of bad choices and worse luck, and she is one of the most beautiful women I think I’ve ever known. Is it fair to say that about a fictional character? It’s true, though; that’s how I feel.
I’ve been amazed to find how many readers write her off as a bad mother. I felt she was a really good mother, who, through her own actions and some terrible luck, had her son taken from her. The pain of that—just imagining it blinds me. And I stand in awe of the courage it takes to survive that.
But the great thing about fiction is how amply it accommodates different readings. I kind of love it that other people feel differently about the characters and the situations and the outcomes than I do. It reminds me that a story is a live thing, and that the author’s responsibility is to write it, not to interpret it.
I think my favorite part of your book was that none of the adults that ended up taking in Wrecker had sought out being a parent, so we’re watching them learn how to do it. We’re seeing them almost reluctantly falling in love. I want to go back to your own experience with parenting again and ask you to tell a story where you stepped outside of your comfort zone or known strengths—and how that turned out.
Oh, wow! Well, that’s still happening, all the time. Parenting is the best way I know to make a fool of yourself. Our boys have grown into men, now—gorgeous, amazing human beings—and I still say dumb things, worry too much, bug them unnecessarily, embarrass them—but they’re very generous about it all.
I can actually remember when I learned that it was okay—no, it was necessary—to apologize to them when I messed up. Just a straightforward, Look, I overreacted. Or—I shouldn’t have done that. Or—I was wrong. No big deal attached to it. And how astonished I was that they said, oh. Okay.
Just like that. No big deal.
But what a weight off my shoulders! Because, if you have to pretend you’re perfect or infallible or whatever, or you pretend that your bad behavior never happened, then you miss the chance to relate to them as you are. You prevent them from knowing you, and knowing what matters to you. They may not forgive you entirely, then or ever—and maybe they shouldn’t. But they know that you’re saying, That’s not the way the world should be. It’s not the way I intend it to be.
But you’re still their mom. And you’re still there. Flawed and funky and listening to the same bad music in the car, over and over.
Caroline Leavitt is the author of nine novels and a book reviewer for People magazine and the Boston Globe. In her latest book, PICTURES OF YOU, she has created a wise and intimate story of what happens to the survivors of a car crash that leaves one woman dead. She explores grief, guilt, secrets, and disappointments in a cast of sympathetic characters who become so entangled, it’s not clear to anyone what decisions are the right ones to make. I highly recommend this book, which feels like an easy read and yet works profoundly on the soul.
In our interview today, Caroline talks about forgiveness, closure, and a childhood hurt that snuck into this novel against her will. She also talks about her experience of publishing nine novels, and what a difference an attentive publisher makes. I hope you’ll welcome Caroline and leave her a comment.
I think both of our books deal with the question of how you forgive what seems to be unforgivable. What did you learn as you explored this on the page, and did the answer you arrived at change you at all?
What a great question! When I started the novel with this question, I was pretty sure that the answer was that yes, although it might be difficult, you could forgive. I personally wanted to be that person who could always forgive, who had a heart that open. But when I finished the novel, I realized that forgiveness isn’t that easy. Without giving plot away, I’ll say that I understood April and felt compassion for her. I wished her well, but I couldn’t quite forgive her. For me, she stepped over a line. I could have had a relationship with her, but it would always have to be a wary one. I’d never completely open up to her because of that. And that surprised me.
I could feel this in your writing, actually—that you were open to the complexity of emotions and to being surprised by where the characters took you.
Nine-year-old Sam was such a compelling character to me as he struggled with his grief and his sense of guilt and the widening disconnect from his classmates at school. But it was how all of this was displayed through his asthma that really helped to explain the physical nature of fear and helplessness. I would love to hear about the writing process behind the creation of this little boy.
Originally, Sam was just a little boy, but suddenly his asthma came on the page. I had had severe asthma as a child, something that made me deeply ashamed and traumatized, and I hid it from the world. I told people I had pleurisy or even TB rather than asthma because it sounded less embarrassing. I hid my inhalers or deliberately lost them and I never let anyone see me use them. I would rather get a root canal without anesthesia than write about my asthma! Asthmatic Sam kept cropping up in my writing, and I kept deleting the asthma. I knew, though, that sometimes what you want to write about isn’t necessarily what you need to write about, and I finally gave in and wrote about Sam’s life with asthma.
Asthma also became a great way to show how separate he felt from everyone, which made his yearning for connection all the more palpable for me.
What’s astonishing is that the whole four years I was writing the novel, my own asthma, which is very, very mild, seemed to vanish—right up until the day I turned the novel in! Of course, I didn’t cure myself, but by giving Sam so much compassion and love (and I do adore him), I was able to heal myself of my shame and grief about my own sickly childhood.
I love how that piece of your childhood demanded to be heard. In some ways, that’s the best part of writing—how you can heal old wounds and come to new understandings.
So I noticed that each of your main characters struggles with a fear of getting close, a fear of not being loved. Would you talk about this theme a little bit?
Being loved is being seen—really seen—and that’s terrifying for my characters, especially since their sense of self is more than a little wobbly because of what they all go through. The pictures they present to the world of themselves are not the complete ones. Sam hides his asthma. Charlie works to be the “perfect” husband and father. April struggles to be a great mother to Sam. They all harbor secrets. It’s threatening to love because what happens if you show your deepest weakness and you are rejected? Or what happens if you allow yourself to get close to someone and then things ruin for you? Charlie’s mother accuses him of seeing only what he wants to see, and it isn’t until he’s forced to come to grips with that that he’s really able to open himself up, but by then, it’s a little late. Both Isabelle and Sam also struggle with enormous pressures of guilt surrounding the car crash. Can someone culpable be loved? Should they be? And for April, being fully known is simply too dangerous.
I want to talk about your ending without giving it away. I found it both unexpected and deeply satisfying, and I think part of what was so satisfying was that it felt real. Your characters seem to reach (or at least reach for) a sense of closure, but while some wounds close, others remain tender. Can you talk to me, in general, about how you bring your stories to a close?
I love the whole idea of what I call the never-ending story. For me, this means that when the last page is turned, you still have a feeling that the story is going on. You’re still imagining what this person is going to do next. There’s still suspense pulling you forward. That keeps the characters alive. It makes me crazy when novels end with all the loose ends tied up neatly. I always say that I like to really damage my characters’ lives, but I don’t want to ruin them. In a Rolling Stones’ sort of way, I like them to not get what they want, but sometimes (and only sometimes) do they get what they need.
You’ve written several novels and seen them go out into the world. Tell me something of the process of watching reviews and sales and marketing for each book, of having hopes and expectations meet reality. What have you learned about the word success and your own identity as a writer, having lived through this process so many times?
Another great question. Two things are very different for me with this book. The first is that I now think that so much about how a book does has to do with the publisher—at least for me. I’ve had 9 books published and for the first 8, I’ve had publishers that went out of business a month before my novel was due out. I’ve had editors fired and then been assigned to overextended editors. And truthfully, I’ve had publishers who ignored or humiliated me, and they rarely did any sort of promotion, which meant I had to scramble around and try to do it all for myself, which is exhausting and demoralizing. Pictures of You was actually turned down by my former publisher. I was completely devastated, but my agent sold it to Algonquin in weeks. It’s been a completely different process for me! I feel like Santa Claus is real!
Everyone at Algonquin works on every book and you get to know them all. I’ve got a brilliant editor and the uber-creative promotion department works outside the box. Six months before Pictures of You came out, they were sending me to BEA, to Miami Book Fair, to booksellers conventions, and putting out ads, and they’re sending me on a 16 city tour! There is constant contact and the support and devotion to their authors is just incredible. I’m always sending them Godiva because I am so overwhelmingly grateful! I’ve seen firsthand what their efforts do. I’m not sure this is a better book than any of my other books, but it’s doing a hundred times better than any of my others, and I’m convinced it’s because of Algonquin. This one went into three printings before it even was published. They made the decision to put it into a paperback original, which worried me because I was unsure whether it would get reviews, but it’s already received reviews from O, Vanity Fair and Elle—things I never was able to get before. And I know that’s because of Algonquin.
The second change is that with this book, I’m now a book critic for The Boston Globe and People, so I have a different take on reviews now. I know that sometimes things don’t get reviewed because of space, not because of merit. I know, too, that sometimes a review is simply a personal opinion and you can’t want to slash your wrists over a bad review (or think too highly or yourself because of a good one!).
Of course, I am still a nervous wreck about publication. You never know how a book is going to do. You really have no control over success, but I think what matters is word of mouth. You want people reading and loving a book and telling their friends, and their friends telling their friends. Ultimately, our job as writers is simply to write, to send our babies out into the world, and hope they thrive, and then to get back to our desks, tune the world out, and write some more. Because really, even if you couldn’t publish your novels, wouldn’t you still feel compelled to keep writing them?
Caroline, it’s such a thrill for me to see that you and this beautiful book are being treated so well. You’ve deserved it all along.
I had the great pleasure of attending the Squaw Valley workshop with Renée Thompson, where I fell in love with her writing. Today we talk about the relationship between character and plot, small press, and making sure your writing is bold enough that it offends someone.
Renée’s first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE (Tres Picos Press), is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in 1890’s Idaho. The book tells the story of July Caldwell, the daughter of a sheepman, and Rory Morrow, the son of a cattleman, and their fathers’ desire to control the rangeland and their children. Renée expertly crafts a protagonist willing to oppose her Mormon father by falling in love with a Gentile, exposing a world where trouble comes not from the head, but the heart. Ultimately, July learns that women trapped by fate or circumstance have a choice, but with choice comes consequence.
I love that you’ve created a story in which the choices the characters face are so often fraught with peril—their struggles to make the right decisions create this marvelous tension, and that tension deftly moves the plot forward. How challenging was it to balance character with plot?
It wasn’t as difficult in BRIDGE as it was in my second novel, probably because I had the structure of Romeo and Juliet to guide me. Maybe this is the case with all writers, but the plot often informed the characters, and vice versa. I wrote the last scene first, because I knew I wanted July to emerge as more mature, more determined, and once I had the ending, I knew I could then comfortably start at the beginning, trusting the plot would build character, both literally and figuratively.
Although you used Romeo and Juliet as a template, the story quickly becomes your own. Did you know when you started writing that you’d divert fairly radically from Shakespeare’s path to follow your own?
I knew I wanted, at minimum, the Juliet, Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris characters (July, Rory, Tom, Mads, and Preston, respectively), but I didn’t want them to embody Shakespeare’s creations so much as suggest them – I wanted them to be my people, and I think that determination served me well. I also created characters based on my grandmother’s siblings, because I had so many fabulous details to draw from—some of their more mischievous deeds made their way into the novel.
Did you talk to your grandmother about her history—take notes, maybe, on what it was like to live in Idaho at the turn of the 19th century?
No, she died long before I started writing BRIDGE. But she was a terrific storyteller and a Mormon, which means she recorded her family’s history in a Book of Remembrance—a Mormon journal of sorts. So I had access to names, photographs, and lots of rich details about the family farm. Too, she included her father’s recollections of hostilities on the range; there was one incident where a cattleman named Alex Durty shot and killed a sheepman named Tom Nook. The shooting made it into my book, but I reversed it, so that the cattleman died instead. I was a little worried my cattlemen friends might come after me for that, but they’ve been really good sports about it (laughing).
Are you Mormon, too?
I was baptized when I was eight, as are all children in the LDS (Latter-day Saints) church, and was devout for many years. But I fell in love with and married a non-member—my high-school sweetheart—at age 20, and gradually fell away from the Church.
So how are Mormons reacting to your book?
So far, three for, one against (more laughing). I actually haven’t heard from too many Mormons, but I will say that some of July’s history is naturally my own, because I wrote from my own perspective—which a history professor at BYU encouraged me to do. On a side note, I’ll mention that I was living in Atlanta when Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer for THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY. I went to his reading at the Jewish Community Center, and afterward a young man asked how writers should handle their fear they’ll offend someone with their writing. Michael said, “If you haven’t offended someone, somewhere, you’re probably not doing your job.” So while I never set out to offend Mormons, I didn’t worry too much about it, either. Michael’s remark was always at the back of my mind, and I’m sure it gave me the courage I needed to tell my own truth. Having said that, it would be nice if Mormons didn’t hate the book.
In the end, you sold BRIDGE to Tres Picos, a small press in California. I’m really fascinated by the whole blurb process, and am wondering how a small publisher landed that great blurb from Larry McMurtry, who called your book “very original and very appealing.” Do they have a relationship?
I actually got the blurb on my own. I’ve been a fan for years, and I wrote him a letter telling him how much I loved LONESOME DOVE, and how I hoped to one day write characters that moved my readers as much as his characters moved me. I sent the first chapter, asking if he’d provide a blurb, and offered to send the rest of the book, if he liked it. He did like it, and wrote back about 10 days later to say “send it!” I did, and then my husband and I went camping. I thought I’d die of anxiety while we hiked the Warner Mountains, wondering if a letter had come, and if so, what he’d said about my book. The letter was there when I got home, typewritten, his signature in blue ink. I’ve since framed it, and it’s hanging not in my office but in my bedroom. I know it’s weird, but my husband Steve understands.
So. How does it feel to be a published novelist?
Pretty darned good. And very surreal. The day of my launch, I told Steve that when I sat down to sign books, I had something of an out-of-body experience; it very much felt as though I were standing at a distance, watching myself do this thing that until that day I had only dreamed about. After so many setbacks and so many struggles, I just couldn’t believe my novel had finally come into the world. It was a day I’ll remember for a long time. I’m very happy.
Renée Thompson’s short stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine and Chiron Review, and have placed in competitions sponsored by Glimmer Train and Writer’s Digest magazine. Her writing has received praise from Pulitzer-Prize winning authors Larry McMurtry and Robert Olen Butler. She has attended the Sirenland, Squaw Valley, and Tomales Bay workshops, working with award-winning writers such as Ron Carlson, Carol Edgarian, Lynn Freed, Michael Jaime-Beccera, and Howard Norman. THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE is her first novel.
You can hear Renée on the radio by clicking here: Enjoy!
As many of you know, I had a long, uphill battle to get my book published, and whenever I started to sink into despair, my guest today helped me turn my thoughts around. Shawn Anderson is an unbelievably positive and generous person, and I wanted to share him with you, particularly those of you who are struggling to stay in this game.
Here’s a little bit about Shawn’s latest book via his press release:
Extra Mile America is the empowering story of one man’s quest to remind us all that great things happen in life when we go the extra mile. In 2009 in order to symbolize the power of the go the extra mile message, Shawn Anderson pedaled a bicycle ocean-to-ocean… solo. Along the 4,000 mile journey, he interviewed over 200 inspirational Americans who had demonstrated a remarkable ability to go the extra mile, overcome personal setback and accomplish something extraordinary.
“Times are tough for many people… no doubt. But I wanted to give people an alternative to just throwing their arms in the air and say ‘I give up,’” Anderson says. “They can dig deep… go the extra mile… and effect practically every area of their life in a positive way. I wanted to show people that each of us still have the ability to control our own destiny. We just have to remember that simple law of success ‘that if you want more in life’…you have to go the extra mile.” Anderson continues, “Life will just happen to us if we let it… but if we take greater action… more action… positive momentum builds and change takes place. That’s what my new book is about.”
“I wanted to interview people who had experienced walking life’s hot coals… and who had come across to the other side determined to make a real life difference,” Anderson says. “Some of the 200+ people I interviewed had been fired. Others had experienced serious health challenges or relationship heartbreaks. Still others had lost a person very close to them. But they all came out stronger… and each with a more determined approach to making a difference with their individual life. I spent time with people who overcame tragedy…and created something great. I spent time with others who built extraordinary organizations based on their passion alone.”
Please welcome Shawn, leave him a comment, if you like, and let his positive energy make your day a little brighter.
Talk to me about your bike marathon and some of the stories you’ve heard along the way.
A few of the people highlighted in the book include a blind woman who climbed one of the world’s tallest mountains… a tri-athlete who was born a congenital amputee… a 95-year-old who has been volunteering at the same hospital for 49 years… a wife who started an organization to help violent teens after her husband was killed by a 14-year-old… a race-car driving, business executive who has fought through breast cancer twice… a corporate executive who gives away 82% of his company’s profits… and a woman whose high school son died suddenly and is now a leading spokesperson for organ donation.
What’s it like for you to hear so many stories of others suffering? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by it?
On the Extra Mile America I Tour (2009), we focused solely on stories of people who had overcome personal defeat, loss and tragedy… or people who had the amazing discipline and fortitude to chase amazing dreams. On the Extra Mile America II Tour (2010), I have traveled around the country speaking over 100 times regarding the go the extra mile. The people whom I met after hearing me speak this year certainly shared dramatic stories… but I was inspired by the resilience of the human spirit.
I am never overwhelmed by all the stories of frustration or loss I hear because I know that is just life. We will all experience the feelings of frustration, loss, and even despair numerous times before we reach life’s finish line. What I do feel each time, though, is an individual’s pain. I am moved by their emotions and what they are experiencing. I use that moment, however, to do my very best in simply listening… and then adding hope. As long as hope continues to live in the human spirit, there will always be power to get up the next day. All of my conversations end with the feeling of hope, and that sort of positive ending invigorates me to continue to talk… and listen
Is there anything you’ve learned from people who are able to triumph over adversity? What are their secrets?
Those that are able to overcome adversity seem to hang in there a bit longer than those who don’t. They persevere. And they take action.
Instead of waving the white flag and feeling sorry for themselves, they keep believing in themselves and the fact that events can get better. They actively do the things that would cause the status quo to change. They go the extra mile… even when they don’t feel like it. Often, their actions affect their thoughts, which in turn affect their feelings. They reverse the negative momentum snowball that had been created.
So many writers I know find the process of trying to get published frustrating, and even dispiriting. Any words of encouragement for them? And what do you say to people who are not completely in control of the success they want—because extra effort and a positive attitude is not always enough to break into the publishing business, not to mention overcoming something like cancer?
Rejection is simply a part of the process for every worthy goal we may have. Even the greatest of writers have felt the despair of another’s rejecting pen in critiquing his or her work. When Walt Whitman tried to get his most famous book, Leaves of Grass, published, critics clobbered him with their words. One detractor called his work “nonsense.” Another said: “We can conceive of no better reward than the lash.” At that point, Whitman even questioned his own talent.
Then, a note arrived. A seemingly insignificant piece of paper carried a message that changed Walt Whitman’s attitude… and inevitably his world. Ralph Waldo Emerson dropped Whitman a simple forty-three word note: Dear Sir: I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift, Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that an American has yet contributed. I greet you at the beginning of a great career.
Explore every option, contact every person possible, believe in your material… and never, never give up. My first book? 83 rejection letters. If I had quit, I would never have had the faith to write the four that have followed… and this feeling of having generated over 65,000 in total sales.
A while ago, I offered you help in finding an agent and publisher for this project, and you chose to publish it yourself. Tell me about that choice.
My 2nd book, SOAR to the Top, sold 45,000 copies through a traditional publisher. Additionally, the editing changes in my book were not necessarily ones I liked, and the publishing process took 1 1/2 years to complete. I was paid 11% royalty.
I believed I could do better on all levels.
I believed in my message, and wanted to make sure it was MY message and not that of a publisher. I also desired to generate more revenue than what a normal royalty fee would pay. So, I started my own publishing company. I had the business background to make it happen, and believed I could sell books. I hired the best editors, layout artists and cover designers possible. And today, Goldmind Press has now published three books.
Would you share something personal from your own life that made you so interested in human resiliency and the idea of turning your life around?
Being a guy with big goals, I have felt the sting of loss in falling short of a goal. I know what the fleeting thought of I want to quit feels like. BUT I also know what it feels like to keep believing… and eventually win.
Few of us have the support of others who encourage us to keep going, and when we are forced to rely on ourselves, it’s a challenge. I want to be the encourager for other people in a world that often lacks encouragers.
Life is short… and we only get only one. My juice in life is to plant or water seeds that encourage others to simply go for it and create the life in which they desire. (Note: My life mission is to “empower 1,000,000 people to lead a more positive and purposeful existence.”)
How are you different for having taken this journey and written about it?
Hmmm… I don’t know if this journey has really changed me as a person, but it has reinforced in me the Walt Disney adage “If I can dream it… I can do it!” Having the sort of confidence that makes me unafraid to listen to that small voice inside and the knowledge that I have the strength to keep going despite setbacks, provides me with great personal power to live the life I choose.
A pleasure to have you here, Shawn!
Today I want to talk about mistakes. I’ll share one of mine. There are many to choose from – and this story certainly isn’t the worst of them – but it’s the earliest mistake I can remember, and one that led me, for decades afterward, to view myself as the villain in my story.
When I was a kid, our cat Rosebud had a litter every spring. This, I believed, made our family very popular in the neighborhood because we were the givers of free kittens. But Rosie’s last litter (the one that convinced us to have her fixed) was born in a cardboard box that was tipped on its side, sitting on the porch. It rained for days, and the litter was washed into the woodpile.
I remembered there had been five kittens, but we only found four. My dad pulled them from the wood, saying things like, “Oh, little fella.” There was only one I could reach. It was so bony, I thought it would break if I pulled hard enough to dislodge it. Dad moved the log above it, and I took its fragile body in my hands, watching the tiny pulse of its heart and the fleas milling over its thin fur.
Dad set the kittens beside Rosie to see if they would nurse, but Rosie only growled and walked away. Sadly, this is not the worst part of the story. The worst part is always when I enter the scene and make some sort of decision. And here, the trouble came when I believed I could feed the kitten condensed milk if only I could pry open its mouth.
I won’t go into the gore or the reason I decided I needed to use a screwdriver. The short of it is that I had desperately wanted to save the kitten, who was likely not savable. But my way of saving the kitten created such a disastrous scene, what could I do in the end but bring the limp kitten back to its mother? Rosie carried it off and left it under a bush.
This was the beginning of a long lesson on the difference between what I wanted to believe about myself and what I actually was. Later that day, my dad packed the other three in the cardboard box. I found my kitten under the bush and held it because it was still warm and almost lovely. I tried to think of a name for it before Dad took it from me. I was still trying when he drove off with the whole box of them.
Sometimes friends heal your old wounds without realizing it. My friend Brian, who knows this awful story, did just that when he drew this picture for me.
How about you? What’s your story? And you don’t have to share it here. I just think this is at the heart of what writers do. You often turn to the most uncomfortable emotions, and you let yourself stay there a while. Think on that, and then go write.
One way to jumpstart your writing is to participate in a writer’s retreat. There are a bunch out there—Yaddo, Bennington, MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf. I chose the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.
Let me briefly describe what happens at Squaw, for those who aren’t familiar with it. For one week, you live in the Olympic Village, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. (That was the view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.)
Everyone’s divided into a workshop group of about 12 people; and for three hours every morning—always with an established writer, editor, or agent as the leader—you workshop each other’s stories and chapters. The rest of the day is filled with panels, staff readings, and one-on-one manuscript evaluations. The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well. I remember a writer, who had just placed an order for one of the cheap bagged lunches, telling me, “I signed up for the roast beef sandwich, and so did Ron Carlson!”
Ron Carlson and Andy Dugas:
Some writer advice (not necessarily direct quotes) from the only day I took notes:
Ask yourself what, specifically, does your character want right now? Then, have the story conspire to keep her from getting it. (Carol Edgarian)
Don’t give your characters time for the problem at hand. Each of them had to stop what they were doing to deal with it. (Ron Carlson)
A novel is like a symphony or opera. If you have a day scene, you’ll want a night scene. If there’s a solo, it’s time for a trio. Fast song, slow song. Inside, outside. Internal scene, crowd scene. But also remember the importance of repeating earlier musical pieces, taking a thread and picking it up again. (Janet Fitch)
Take the story out of the head and into the body. (Ron Carlson)
Dialogue should read like a sword fight: One thrusts, the other reacts. (Carol Edgarian)
End with a sense that you know what the character’s trajectory is. (Carol Edgarian)
Don’t end with the narrator in a confused or philosophical state. (Ron Carlson)
Only focus on one day’s work, not on something so daunting as “a book.” (Amy Tan)
Leave the editor at the door. Don’t worry if it’s good enough. Just write the next substandard sentence. Let your spelling and tense go to hell, and keep going. (Ron Carlson)
What’s it like to get all of this advice from your heroes and peers? To have 12 pairs of eyes on your work? To hear hours upon hours of do’s and don’ts from every corner of the business? It’s inspiring. Humbling. Overwhelming. It helps very much if you’ve made some good friends who will laugh and cry with you.
My Squaw Valley roommate, Wayetu Moore, and my gossip buddy, Frank DiPalermo—I adore them both:
If you ask me what was the most valuable thing I learned at Squaw, the answer is easy, and it’s not about craft but about the heart of the writer.
Every day, I write for hours in my little camouflaged office, writing and crumpling up papers and writing some more. I dream of communicating something important and then hate myself for falling short. There are always reasons to give up: It takes so much work to get it right; what looks right one day often looks horrible the next; there’s rarely any pay; it’s hard to keep the momentum; I don’t have the toughness for rejection. And yet, I can’t stop myself.
So guess what the superstars at Squaw Valley spent most of their time talking about? This very thing: The struggle with the blank page, with chaotic first drafts, with self-doubt, with deadlines they fear they won’t meet.
Some more talented writers—Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora:
Learning that my writing heroes struggle in this same way renewed my energy and courage for editing my novel. Once I was back in New York, writing in my little camouflaged office, I didn’t feel so alone. I didn’t feel like a failure. Because writers with bestsellers and movie deals were doing what I was doing: thinking, typing, crumpling, and just committing to finding the story and the best way to tell it.
Before I go, let me get back to Ron Carlson of the roast beef sandwich bagged lunch. He talked to us a lot (and me, specifically) about how it is the writer’s responsibility not to spread herself too thin. This is a matter I have to think on—how much of my time I spend on blogging, and the cost of that to my writing. I happen to value dialogue and a connection to a writing community quite a lot, so there’s no easy answer here, but I (and probably you, too) ought to periodically revisit this question.
Finally, some shout-outs to some really lovely, talented people at Squaw Valley, who either led my workshops or lent me things when my suitcase got lost (Remember the LaGuardia bomb threat evacuation?) or flew back to NY with me, or gave some crucial piece of help on my book, or wowed me in some way or another: Sands Hall, Louis B. Jones, Lisa Alvarez, Andrew Tonkovich, Janet Fitch, Mark Childress, Michael Pietsch, Susan Golomb, Peter Steinberg, Rick Kleffel, and Glen David Gold.
Have a good one, and see you in the comments section!
In her memoir, BLOWS TO THE HEAD: HOW BOXING CHANGED MY MIND, Binnie Klein describes her journey, at age 55, from sedentary psychotherapist to boxer. It’s a story of body image, suppressed rage, growing confidence, and coming to terms with aging. It’s funny, thoughtful, and takes a look at the fascinating history of Jewish boxers.
As many of you who are my friends on FaceBook know, tonight I learned I lost every single bit of data on my computer–my memoir, my next two novels, years of photos, my address book, and so on. The only thing I worked on recovering in my shell-shocked state was this interview. Something about losing six years of writing reminded me how very important it is to trumpet a book you love, especially within that small window of time when books must gain the attention of potential readers if they’re to survive. I really do love this book and the immediate impact it’s had on my life, and I hope it wins a large readership.
So enjoy and please feel free to say hello to Binnie and to join the conversation
You mention the surprise people have when you tell them you box. Talk to me about people’s misperceptions about you and boxing—why they can’t put the two of you together.
People see a middle-aged, well-educated professional woman and don’t immediately think, “Hey, she must like to put on boxing gloves and hit as hard as she can! I’ll bet she’s even held a spit bucket for a young fighter!” They are more apt to imagine me curled up with a good book or giving a lecture. I think my profession as a psychotherapist also evokes images of calm and quiet conversation conducted in a pleasant room (not a noisy ring) by two people who never even touch, let alone spar with each other. It’s all words, it’s all brainy, and one likes to think of their shrink as a gentle and compassionate healer, not a tough boxer. I’m both. It’s funny; patients sometimes can’t imagine you at all outside of the therapy room. It’s as if you live in the chair.
I’m hardly a jock. Before boxing, I was at most a stroll-through-the-woods-with-my dogs-type and novice kayaker. Still, I’m always struck by just how surprised people are, since my secret self is a superhero in a cool black leather jacket, always sporting the hippest haircut, not ethnically identifiable in anyway, taller, and perpetually sixteen years old. Somewhere there is a portrait of me aging in a closet, but I’ve never seen it. I think one always has a few blind spots. I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanism of denial. Sometimes it is a sad business, the refusal to admit or see the truth about things, and the crustiest defenses, which have outlived their usefulness, have to be confronted so that we can grow. Other times, denial is the lubricant that smoothes the way for us to face this curious life and death enterprise, this “mortal coil.” Where would we be without it? Figuring out which denials to confront and which to leave alone – that’s the trick.
I just try to breathe out the energy and vitality of myself as a much younger person. I recommend it!
We’ve all seen movies of poor kids from tough neighborhoods who take up boxing to release a sense of rage or helplessness. You took up boxing to rehab an injury, and this quote describes you kind of waking up to the physical you: “It’s a surprise to feel so exhilarated by my own body and its abilities. My body. What a drag it’s been—what a disappointment! Sometimes it just seemed like a necessary oversized backpack for my brain” (p. 8). Tell me more about your connection to your body before and after boxing.
You don’t want to bore people with your physical ailments, and there is always someone who has been dealt a worse hand, but for one reason or another, and none particularly life-threatening, I have lived with life-long chronic pain starting in my twenties. I had to take a long break before graduating college. I had to quit my first full-time job. I was somewhat de-railed. I was emotionally unprepared to be an adult, like a lot of us floundering around in the 1960s, but I remember thinking, “This pain will help me when I get older; it’s preparing me for dealing with limitations.” To some extent that has been true. When the bar is set lower, you don’t expect perfection. I watch people experience bodily limitations and feel shattered by the change in their self-image. Coping with “less-than-optimal” conditions is what life is all about, and that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for tons of joy and happiness.
For a video project in college, I taped myself taking off my clothes and discussing my naked body. That’s the kind of stuff we did in those days. (It was fun to watch the professor’s reaction – I think I got an “A.”) I admired certain personal attributes, but I was obsessed with the fantasy that my entire life would have been different if I’d had long slender legs. I imagined strutting around in heels, and then creating a pretzel-like sculpture when I sat, legs crossed and hooked around petite ankles. I associated my heavy legs with my Slavic peasant ancestry, and it wasn’t a positive connection until I wrote this book. As a feminist, I struggled mightily to help myself and other women to re-frame such negative beliefs, but we all have occasional skirmishes with these battles. I know that I am not alone in this.
When I boxed I felt strong. Really strong. I could make my body move. I could avoid a punch. I could throw a punch. I could feel everything working together, the excitement and exhilaration of being completely in the moment. Now I’ll catch a glimpse of a bicep in the mirror and like what I see. It’s easier to see my body as powerful now, but mostly it’s the sound….the hard, resounding thwack!!! of my punches against the leather mitts that is most gratifying. It’s not about anything superficial or visual; it’s about inhabiting the inside, the moment, the speed, the focus. It’s bigger than my individual body. When I’m boxing, who cares what I look like?
I might have felt some of this as a child if I’d participated in sports, and I’m thrilled to see my 11 year old niece Cassie sampling horseback riding, basketball, baseball, swimming, and gymnastics, like many kids today. She’s proud of what she can do, and I hope she will always have that feeling. My boxing adventures have taught me the value of sports, being part of a team, pushing the boundaries, realizing goals – I’d underplayed the meaning of these activities. Now was that a denial that served me or not? See what I mean?
I love how you speak so honestly about aging and about envying the youth in your college town. Women have so much pressure on them to relate their self-worth to physical attractiveness, which, in the media, is always equated with youth. What about boxing has helped you settle some of that envy?
The other day someone asked me if I “still” boxed. It was like, “Hey, you know with every year you’re getting older – are you still doing this crazy thing?” I hope always to be boxing, at the very least working with punch mitts and sparring with my coach. When I wrote Blows I was closer to that bad patch of envy you mention than I have been in a long time. It seemed for a while like the willowy girls with their whole lives ahead of them were everywhere, leaning into breezes, light and free. I don’t see them that way anymore. I have re-trained my brain not to focus on that. It’s just not productive, and it makes one feel bad. Instead I’m aware of my own special talents, my knowledge, my experience – now there’s always a nice percussive beat in the background, a sequence and rhythm that is distinctly mine. I’m not so interested in watching what others do and have; I just want the opportunity to keep writing. I’ve got more projects in me.
It’s not just boxing that has settled some of the envy. It’s writing this book, publishing this book, promoting this book, experiencing peoples’ reactions to this book, hearing that it has affected them in a positive way. The life of the mind, which I had to balance with the life of the body, reliably transcends youth. We will always be somewhat fascinated with the young; it’s probably biological – they are the future, they are the procreators. Then there are those that keep us eternally young. When Blows came out, I heard from an old friend of my sisters in Newark, who was older than me. “How can you possibly write a memoir?” he asked. “Aren’t you just twelve years old?” I loved him for that! We house the archives of each other.
You continue this theme about the body in your discussion of your Jewish roots and how Jews have been perceived throughout history as victims. Can you say more?
Jews have often been seen as the pale scholars, heads buried in books and not outdoorsy. The value placed on learning and study has a very real and serious beginning, in the shtetls and villages where Jews attempted to protect their knowledge and practices against an unrelenting saga of bias and oppression. The victimization of Jews is not just a perception, it’s a reality. As with other oppressed groups, the problem is blaming victims for some inherent weakness, and the weakness is the perception. In the relative safety of the post-World War II era, Woody Allen and other leading Jewish comedians of the era began to evoke an old archetype, one of physical vulnerability, hysteria, and meekness. Philip Roth’s characters often yearned after the gentile athletes with longing and curiosity. Like all stereotypes, it’s complicated, and one can cite many exceptions. While many in my generation and neighborhood shared this non-athletic Jew perception, I’ve talked with Jews in their twenties and thirties who grew up very active and athletic. This is an immensely nuanced issue, too complex to do justice to here. Fortunately, there are some amazing scholars, like Jack Kugelmass, Sander Gilman, Paul Breines, and others, who delve deeply into this subject.
And you discovered a whole history of Jewish boxers. Talk about a couple of them, if you would. And what it was about discovering this history that had such an impact on you?
My discovery of the amazing history of Jewish boxers played havoc with my own long-held beliefs about physical limitations for Jews, and their non-participation in sports. Between 1910 and 1940 there were 26 Jewish champions in boxing, so many that boxing was once thought of as a Jewish sport. Despite the consternation of the mothers who worried for their sons’ safety and reputations, Jewish boxers excelled and made more money boxing than in the sweatshops. Because I had been so alienated from my own roots, the stories of the Jewish boxers filled me an undeniable ethnic pride, the kind the boxers wore like a flag when they stepped into the ring, Jewish stars embroidered on their shorts, and I began to research their lives. In Blows, I imagine conversations with three of the most influential Jewish boxers, Daniel Mendoza, Benny Leonard, and Barney Ross. I wanted to see what we might have in common and what we might say to each other.
Barney Ross lived in a tenement flat on top of a fish market in Chicago, and his father had hopes that Barney would become a Hebrew teacher. Ross was fourteen when he saw his father, who ran a grocery store, shot down by hoods, and shortly afterwards his mother broke down. Barney was determined to get his some of his family out of the orphanage where they landed after the tragedy. It made him a more determined fighter. He liked betting on the ponies, like my father. He was a jaunty guy who dressed well, and was a champion from 1933 to 1938. Ross witnessed anti-Semitism in the streets of Chicago, and eleven days before a big fight at Madison Square Garden, twenty-thousand people wearing swastikas goose-stepped outside in big black boots, shouting “Sieg Heil!” “I felt like I was fighting for all my people,” Ross said.
Okay, so you’ve been training on the punching bag and learning some moves when, finally, you’re invited to spar. Your coach puts on the head gear, buckles it under your chin. “It’s not attractive,” you write. “I look like a chubby devotee of S&M” (p. 139). And you take this body you’ve never considered to be strong, a body others have had to defend on your behalf, and now you giving and taking punches. What’s that like?
What’s that like? It’s thrilling. From the moment my coach deemed me “ready” to spar, and strapped on the intimidating black leather headgear, I felt, “Okay, let’s do it, I can do this. I’m going to go for it.” There’s no time to hesitate when you spar. The pressure is on, to move, to throw punches, and most of them don’t land, especially if you are working with an experienced coach who isn’t about to be hit. I couldn’t believe how much I truly wanted to hit John, my coach. It sounds odd, but it felt pure and right, especially since he was essentially asking me to hit him. It was as if he was giving me permission, especially as a woman, to let it all go, to send that inner force out into the universe, to not worry about how I looked. I felt transformed by the experience. I cried. We both celebrated my courage. Maybe it wasn’t much to the outside world, but it meant a lot to me.
Being hit was surprisingly….clarifying (and I hope I don’t sound too much like Tyler Durden of Fight Club) – it was direct, crisp, awakening me to the sharp reality of a physical feeling everyone dreads. Just to be slapped around a bit on my arms and body. It wasn’t so bad. It woke me up. I wanted even more to fight back, and that’s the most important part.
There’s a really lovely thread throughout the book about pools—how important it was to go to motels with pools, though you didn’t know how to swim. And later in the book, there’s a dead-on description of a panic attack that happens in the water. I don’t want to spoil the story by telling too much, but it leads to a really profound moment near the end of the book where you talk about how boxing teaches you to get your head out of the way. Would you say more about that?
I didn’t swim as a child. My parents didn’t swim. But I loved being in the water, and just walking into the waves at Atlantic City, holding into the ropes and shrieking with delight. When my father, a traveling candy salesman, took us on the road with him, I begged for a motel with a pool, even though no one swam! It was absurd on the face of it, but as necessary to me as breathing. “Please daddy, go to the next one!” I begged. It represented a chance, a bright light, an opportunity to shed the old fears, maybe the fears of generations. I’d splash around in an inner tube, giddy and laughing. I so longed to be able to propel myself through water, to crash through nature confidently. Phobia and anxiety come from a surfeit of consciousness. Things that usually exist in a natural, rather thoughtless state, become highlighted in the frisson of panic – in sharp relief….time slows down, simple movements are obsessively examined in split-seconds, and pleasure disappears. Then one dreads a repeat of that awful feeling. I’ve overcome so much in my life, and knowing how a panic attack can bring a strong man to his knees brings me even greater empathy for people who suffer this way.
I’m often been too much in my head, introspective and dreamy. When John teaches me to slip, weave, block and move, I am literally getting my head out of the way! I enter another state, free of ambiguity, all things immediate and with consequences. I can recommend it heartily to anyone who is feeling trapped in their head, inhibited, afraid, ineffective, or uncertain about their own personal power.
Let’s end with your father. You described him as “a tragically unfulfilled man” (p. 45)—a Willy Loman type—who probably would have benefited from boxing. I’d like to know how you think it might have helped him. I also got the feeling that your own journey in boxing helped you come to terms with the man he was.
My father, like a lot of men of his generation, hemmed in by the Depression and World War II, strove to provide for his family and “do the right thing.” His own dreams of being a journalist were sacrificed, and he began to exhibit signs of a malignant depression that haunted him most of his adult life. He was an extremely bright and intuitive man, and although not college-educated, could recite long passages of poetry by heart. He loved books and wanted his daughters to be writers. The long, arduous hours on the road as a salesman, family difficulties within the candy company, and the loss (albeit often self-imposed) of a support network, took its toll. His frustrations often exploded as rages within the family, and we were often frightened of him. Boxing is an excellent way to express rage in a contained environment. It would have helped him. I wish he’d had the benefits of Prozac, too!
You’re right, Susan. Before my journey into boxing and writing this book, my summation about my father would have been much more bitter. I changed through the process of Blows. I could identify with my father’s anger and frustrations, and by learning more about the immigrant struggles, the eras in which the Jewish boxers flourished, and the tragic loss of community which we all suffered, I did begin to feel differently towards him. I was no longer just the child/victim of his unhappiness; I was stronger, happier, and ultimately more forgiving. I think that’s how it all works, doesn’t it?
I think it does. Thank you for this fascinating talk and for writing this book.
If you need more convincing, take a look at this book trailer. Want to hear Binnie in person? On August 4th from 7-9pm, she’ll be at the McNally Jackson Bookstore, NYC, reading in the fine company of Susan Shapiro, David Goodwillie and Jennifer Belle. Cupcakes are promised!
Say your book is scheduled for publication and your editor sends you a note that it’s time to seek out blurbs. “Come up with your dream list,” she says.
How cool is this?! You start a list that begins with Oprah and goes on to include your literary heroes. You list bestselling authors whose books seem to tap the same themes, and hopefully the same audience, as yours. Then you pass the list back to your editor and cc your agent, feeling like a pampered celebrity.
In a little while, carefully-worded, enthusiasm-suppressing emails come back to clarify what is really meant by “dream list”. “Are you friends with Oprah?” “Do you have connections to this person and that person?” “Are you comfortable contacting them?”
Sometimes you are a slow learner, and what is only beginning to sink in is that the publishing house doesn’t actually get these blurbs for you. You’re expected to find Oprah’s email and ask her yourself. You: the writer who’s still a nobody, the person who hates to ask anyone for anything.
You look at the list again and cross off Oprah, Harper Lee, Ellen Gilchrist. And you build a new list consisting mostly of friends-of-friends—writers who are still stellar but not yet unlisted.
Staring at this new list is no less intimidating. You feel like a nuisance—a telemarketer about to make a call. And how do you even ask for a blurb?
You say something like this… “Um, hi. Sorry to bother you. You don’t even know who I am and I’m going to be asking you to do me a favor which will take up a lot of your time. It’s for my book, the one you’ve never heard of. If I’m bothering you, please just tell me to go away and I will do it this instant. In fact, I’m already going.”
Perhaps you asked so pathetically that you made it easy for the writers to say no. Still, you wait. You wait as you did in the center of the cafeteria, holding your lunch tray and hoping for a seat. You wait as you did at the edge of the gymnasium, hoping someone might walk over and invite you to dance. And in the world of begging for blurbs, rejections sound like this: “I’m sorry, I have a no-blurb policy.” “Hello, I am so-and-so’s assistant and while he’s flattered, he just can’t respond to these kinds of requests.” Sometimes a writer says he doesn’t have the time, though you see him horsing around all day long on Twitter and Facebook. And some say no with such guilt and so many reasons why they can’t do it that you realize even your question has burdened them, just as you feared.
But some people, bless them, will say yes. Quotes begin to trickle in from one author at a time, and it strikes you: This person read my book. She really got it. And she said this beautiful thing about it. How amazing is that? And this one somehow distilled the essence of my book into a single sentence. It’s a generosity that brings you to tears. You love these people! You feel an almost fierce desire to make sure something really good comes their way.
And then you learn another truth about blurbs. Some writers, particularly those extraordinarily talented writers from groundbreaking indie presses, aren’t always valued by your publisher, despite their glorious and generous words about your book. And the same is true for writers who have a track record of poor sales, even if those poor sales were not the fault of their writing. And these blurbs, these kind offerings, are simply cast aside. It’s a business decision, one you have no control over that leaves you feeling rotten.
Soon, many things will be out of your control—what reviewers think of your work, what bloggers post about it online, whether your book rises up the bestseller charts or falls away into obscurity. So you commit to things that will always be in your control—working hard on your craft, remaining grateful for those who came through for you, and keeping an eye out for opportunities to send good their way.
Have an opinion about blurbs? Jump on in!
July 09, 2010
Getting your book published is a big deal, regardless of the advance or the publisher.
Why? Look at the hoops you’ve jumped through! You finished the book, you found an agent, you interested an editor at a publishing house. That editor then shared your manuscript with colleagues, who also gave it a read. After that, he took your manuscript to a meeting where others on staff debated its merits and marketability. The meeting was full of other editors fighting for their own manuscripts, and when a writer tells you his manuscript had a close call it means it survived until this part of the process.
Yours made it! Congratulations!
So what happens next? In all likelihood, the editor who chose your manuscript will call you to say hello and to discuss any changes he imagines the manuscript will need.
About a month later, your editor will send you more detailed thoughts for revision, perhaps a several page letter talking about any of the bigger changes he’d like to see—for example, he may have ideas for making the book clearer, faster-paced, or more marketable. If no big changes are needed, you’ll simply get line-edits, meaning the editor’s ideas of how to correct, tighten or clarify specific sentences.
Once the final edits are in, things get very, very busy—emails will be flying with potential book cover designs, style sheets (sample pages of the font they’ll use inside the book), the infamous author questionnaire (a loooong form which is vital for those who will be helping to sell your book), and requests for a dedication (who you’re dedicating your book to), acknowledgments (a chance to thank all of the people who helped make the book happen), and blurbs (those happy little comments from well-known authors that are listed on the front and back cover). The publisher will print up uncorrected proofs of your book known as “galleys” (see the photo below) and send them to reviewers, book bloggers, and anyone who might blurb the book. You’ll be assigned a publicist, and you may receive an invitation to attend a marketing meeting, where everyone brainstorms about the best ways to get the word out about your book.
As all this is happening, you’ll get two more chances to make corrections to your book, which is now with the copy editor. First-pass is your chance to read the manuscript with its new, pretty font in order to catch any errors. If you have a patient editor, you might even be able to slip in a few more compulsive changes that go beyond actual errors. Second-pass is your very final chance to catch typos. The next time you see your words, you’ll be holding the real book!
So this was my experience of the editing process, and if yours is different or if you have questions, feel free to jump in. Soon, I’ll talk more specifically about blurbs, marketing, reviews, and book tours….
Today, I’d like you to meet Ann Kingman, a book lover, blogger, and District Sales Manager for one of the major publishing houses. We’ll be talking about what she does with your books in that window of time between turning in your final edits and seeing your book for sale. She’ll also share her opinion about the current crisis in the publishing industry and the important role of independent bookstores. And by the way, as they say on NPR: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the subject and not of her employer or its affiliates. 🙂
I hope you enjoy our conversation and find Ann as lovely as I do. And after the interview, be sure to check out her two blogs: Books on the Nightstand, a blog and podcast about books and reading that she does with her colleague, Michael Kindness. And Booksellsers Blog, where she shares what she learns about social media and online marketing with independent bookstores.
First, tell me about you as a reader, and how you happened to make your career about books.
Like so many of us, I can’t ever remember not reading. Both of my parents were readers and that must be where I picked it up. One of my earliest memories is my mother banging on the bathroom door to check if I was all right. I guess I had been in there a long time. I was fine, I was just really enjoying the biography of Juliet Low (founder of The Girl Scouts) and some peace and quiet.
I definitely took refuge in reading in the years up to and after my parents’ divorce, when I was 9. Reading is what got me through those times. I don’t think it’s a particularly unique story, which is why I believe so strongly in the power of literature to inspire, to comfort and to heal.
I was a Magazine Journalism major in college (among other things), and my dream job was to work as a features editor at a well-known magazine. But magazine jobs were very difficult to find, and when I did get an offer, the pay was not enough to live on, especially in New York City. I was working with an employment agency, who sent me on yet another interview, this time to Dell Publishing. I knew them primarily from their puzzle magazines, and I wasn’t all that excited, but I went on the interview anyway. I still remember the feeling when I stepped into the Personnel Office: on the wall was a poster celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dell Yearling Books. And pictured on the poster were many, many of my favorite books from childhood — the ones that got me through so many bad times. I knew at that moment that I just had to work there, even if it meant sweeping floors. Luckily, it was an administrative job in the sales department, and it paid quite well because I was one of the few people who had computer skills at the time. I didn’t know anything about how books were sold, but I was willing to learn. My plan was to move to the editorial side of the company after awhile, but I soon fell in love with the sales side of the process, and that’s where I’ve stayed. Twenty-two years and four mergers later, I’m still basically with the same company, though it has changed in name and location many times since I was hired.
What exactly does a bookseller do? What are the best and most difficult parts of this kind of work?
My actual job is really that of Sales Representative. We think of “booksellers” as the people who work in the bookstores putting books into customers’ hands. My role is that of liaison between the publisher and the bookstore. I work with approximately 30 independent bookstores in New England. I meet with them several times a year to share with them the books that we will be publishing in the coming seasons—we usually work about 6 months ahead. For instance, it is now February and I am talking to them about books that will be published in July and August. I work with the buyer at the bookstore to decide which books they should stock, and how many copies of each they should buy. Much of my advice is based on my knowledge of the store, what their customers buy, and what their booksellers like to read. One of my favorite parts of the job is talking to the booksellers who work on the sales floor. I try to get to know them and know what they like to read, so that I can give them Advanced Readers Copies—these are “preview” copies of books that we will be publishing in the future. I try to get the booksellers to read them early and tell me what they think about them. Our hope is that they will love the books I give them and recommend them to their customers once the books are in the store.
The most difficult part of my job is really remembering what time of year it is! As I said earlier, I am currently selling the books that we will be publishing in the summer. However, I am also working with my bookstores to make sure that they have enough copies of the books that are out right now—the books that are selling, getting review attention, and getting good word of mouth from booksellers and readers. In addition, I am now starting to read manuscripts that will be published in the Fall. I’m always working at 3 points in time, and trying to keep it all in the air without dropping any of the balls is a feat that challenges me on many occasions. It’s not exactly difficult, but there is definitely the feeling that our work is never done. We work the books throughout their whole life cycle to make sure that every book finds its readership.
So, walk me through the process, if you would. An author finds out, Yay, Big Publishing House bought my manuscript! When do you come in?
The timeline differs at each publisher, but the general process goes something like this: Author gets contract, and the book gets put on the publishing schedule (so far out in the future that the author likely believes that they will not live to see the publication, but the long process is a whole ‘nother story). About 6 months before the publication date, the editorial, marketing and publicity departments present the title to the sales reps at a meeting formally known as the “Sales Conference.” These conferences happen 3 times per year. There is a marketing and publicity plan mostly in place, and the cover may or not be finalized.
Prior to the Sales Conference, the reps have received manuscripts or manuscript excerpts, and information about each book on that season’s schedule. At the Sales Conference, the reps talk about the books with the publisher, editor, marketing and publicity departments, learn more about the content of the book, the marketing plans, etc. Then we reps go out and sell the list to our bookstores.
On our sales calls, we talk with the buyers about titles that might be comparable to the books we are selling, we look at previous books by the author and how they’ve sold, and we spend a lot of time figuring out who at the bookstore is the right reader for each book. We also talk about how the store will promote the books they are most excited about: in their newsletter, by putting a stack at the front of the store on a table, a window display, etc.
We know that not every bookstore can carry every book, so we work with the store to determine which ones their customers will most want to buy. The staff at most of our independent bookstores know their clientele extremely well, and with the help of computerized inventory systems can determine which books are the best for them to bring in. Often a bookstore will start with a small quantity, just 1 or 2 copies, but if a bookseller on staff reads and loves the book, they will order more. Many bookstores are so passionate about the books that the staff loves that they can sell hundreds of copies of a favorite book simply by recommending it to their customers.
Fascinating! Over the years, I’ve gathered bits and pieces of this process, but, finally, I have a coherent picture. And I never knew bookstore owners gave their customers so much consideration.
With your more than 20 years in the publishing business, you’ve seen companies grow and buckle and merge before. Does this current publishing crisis feel different to you? And would you call it a crisis?
I’ve been through many “crises” and though it’s a cliché, it’s true that in publishing, the only constant is change. That being said, we are definitely in a time where there are many challenges to keep us all on our toes. During my career, the challenges have previously come basically one at a time, with most of them being a new outlet for book sales threatening the survival of existing channels. This time we have that, of course, with online bookselling, but we also have the rise of the e-book, print on demand, various formats, a recession… and they are all happening at the same time.
Is it a crisis? I don’t think I’d label it as such. This feels more like an evolution. Certainly things will change, and the uncertainty makes people uneasy. It’s a personal crisis to those who have devoted their lives to the industry and find themselves out of work with few opportunities to stay in publishing. But as an industry, publishing will always exist.
I’m such a fan of your bookseller’s blog because I think it’s really at the forefront of trying to rethink how publishers and booksellers might adapt to the changing habits of readers. Talk to me about the types of changes you’re making (or thinking about making) to stay competitive.
I think we all have to change our definition of “customer.” As publishers, our customers are not only the retailers and wholesalers who pay us directly, but the booksellers on the front lines, and the consumer who purchases a book at retail. The industry is great at speaking with their retail and wholesale customers, but not so good at talking with the others. This needs to change. Booksellers have to get up to speed on the technology, and probably make some significant investments in their websites and e-commerce systems.
A website is no longer “nice to have,” and a robust e-commerce system will allow them to stay competitive. We are in a time when the idea of supporting local businesses is nearing a groundswell, and local bookstores stand to benefit if they can keep the customer experience at the top of mind. Many customers will happily support a local business, and even pay a bit more, if it is convenient for them to do so. Booksellers need to make sure that ease of use is there, as well as continue to educate the public about the benefits of shopping locally. They also need to work with other local businesses to help drive that message home. And it’s more important than ever that booksellers create relationships with their customers to better serve their market.
As publishing becomes easier and less expensive, the number of books will increase. And I think that there will be an even more important role for people to act as curators for the volume of content that will come. When faced with an infinite number of choices, we will still need someone to put a book in our hands (or the virtual equivalent) and say, “Read this, it’s fantastic.”
Last question. How could you convince a chronic Amazon user like me to buy from one of your independent bookstores instead? Here’s my reason for using Amazon: They already have my credit card, I always find what I’m looking for, and I can shop impulsively—the moment I hear of a book I want, I’m seconds away from placing an order.
Yes, let’s talk about bookstores.
I think people should feel free to shop at whatever business best meets their needs. When you shop at a locally-owned and operated business, $68 of every $100 will stay in the local community. Shopping at a business that is part of chain will retain $43 in the local community. As the economy continues to falter and more of my friends and neighbors are losing their jobs, this has become even more important to me. I want to keep local businesses vital in my community, as they are what keep my community vital.
The second reason to support independent bookstores is one that should be of supreme importance to writers. There are more than 2,000 independent bookstores listed on Indiebound.org. Each of those bookstores determine for themselves what books will be sold in each of their stores. Pretend that there are no more independent bookstores. Imagine you are an author. What if the Romance Buyer at the big chain store decides that he does not want to carry your book in their stores? Now your book is not in any physical bookstore location. Worse yet, it’s possible that the publisher will not be able to proceed with the publication of your book. This is, admittedly, an extreme example, as I always think that there will be some thriving independent bookstores. However, leaving the decision of what will or will not be published in the hands of just a few is a dangerous path to take.
But let’s talk about you, the customer, for a minute. There’s no arguing the convenience factor of Amazon. Independent bookstores are working diligently to get up to speed with technology, and some stores have done brilliantly. Powells.com is the most well-known because they were there early. I do believe that independent booksellers need to make it easy for their customers to support them. So I would ask this: if you, the customer, want to support your local bookseller, but there are specific reasons why you don’t or can’t, have a conversation with the bookstore owner. Let them know what they could do to get your business. I know that it’s not always price that causes readers to choose another option. Often there is no price difference, or it’s just $2-$3.
This conversation will of course work better if it’s constructive and not just a litany of complaints. The bookseller may not be able to accommodate your wishes, or move as quickly as you’d like, but it’s important for them to know. In my experience, I’ve found that most bookstore owners love to talk with customers about what they can do better. A healthy independent bookstore is more than just a place to buy books—it’s a community center, a gathering place, and often an important anchor to a town’s retail center.
Ultimately, you should feel free to shop wherever you choose. Seeing the larger picture and understanding the ramifications is important, and may influence your choice of where to spend your money, but in the end, it’s all about choice.
One more thought: I cannot imagine a world where children cannot experience the joy of wandering around a bookstore, taking in all of the colors and pictures, touching everything, and pulling out a few dollars to buy a book that they picked out themselves. I witnessed this scenario in a bookstore yesterday, and it made me smile the rest of the day.
You’re lovely, Ann. Thanks for being here!
June 04, 2010
Belle Yang has created a story that is both personal and multigenerational in her illustrated memoir, FORGET SORROW. We’ll talk about her story of fleeing abuse, of seeking shelter with her Old World Chinese parents, and the dedication required to see this book to publication. Please welcome Belle and feel free to join the conversation in the comments section.
Belle, your graphic memoir is stunning, and I know it took quite a long time to create. Talk to me about the process, and I’m curious about your endurance—the faith and the patience you needed to see this project through to the end.
I was a good sprinter but not a long distance runner. In my writing/painting, I’ve always told myself I have to run an emotional marathon. Forget Sorrow took 14 years to finish. And, yes, I worked 14 years, beginning the year 1996, because each time I received rejection and revision notes from my agent, I reworked the entire book, originally meant to be a prose novel with full color illustrations. My agent, who has a very strong personality—god bless her—the very person who gave me a chance at publishing nearly 20 years ago, became problematic, sending me off to find the holy chalice. Every time I received a NO from the world, I’d pass out on my bed for a day or two and then rose to begin the task of revision all over again. I was also ill for a couple years, from 1998 through 2000, but all the while I was in the hospital or at home in bed, I did not give up on this project. On the night I returned from the hospital, my great grandfather came in a dream as if to say, You have no excuse to be in bed. You have not sent my story out into the world. So, I got better and began rewriting the manuscript for the umpteenth time. Ultimately, I had to leave my agent and went to the East West Agency. I contacted my first editor, Alane Mason, who is now at WW Norton, and she suggested I turn the prose manuscript into a graphic novel. I spent a year drawing the first few chapters. Norton gave me a contract in the fall of 2007, and I finished the bulk of the work by the fall of 2009. And here we are, less than a week to the official pub date. I must say my former agent was very gracious. When she saw the starred Kirkus Review, she emailed me her congratulations.
Another aspect of my process was the boiling down of the prose into near-poetry, and I refer to poetry in words and pictures. I thought I’d lose a lot in the transformation, but what I learned was that the more I condensed, the more powerful the story became.
How is it to write a memoir? Because I know it’s one thing to reveal personal things about yourself, but a memoir requires you to also reveal personal things about family. Did you feel free to write whatever you wanted, or did you feel a duty to protect those you were writing about?
I had no trouble revealing family warts, because my father is ultra critical of his own family, especially of his dad. And then most of the people of his father’s and grandfather’s generation are long dead. As for me, tragedy plus time equals humor. The fights I used to have with my father have become family comedy, so I played on that in my graphic memoir. My father is currently reading my book with a Sharpie to make annotations. He is setting down his feelings about re-encountering the past.
So your story begins when, at nearly age 30, you must flee from an abusive relationship and find yourself living with your parents again. They are living a pretty traditional Chinese lifestyle, and you are westernized, used to your independence, and potentially trapped in this role of being the child again. But what I think is so unusual about your memoir is that it very quickly becomes a multigenerational story. Your story becomes an extension of a family fighting oppression and trying to weigh personal desire against family duty.
We forget that being staunchly independent is a particularly American phenomenon. Even in Italy, adult men live with their parents until marriage. In Eastern cultures, this is the prevalent way of life for men and women. I loved my independence, but returning after 3 years living with an increasingly cruel man, who expected me to run his business, be his gofer, truck building material throughout LA, move him out of his apartment, be his cleaner, washer woman and cook–boy oh boy–did becoming a child again feel like I’d died and gone to nirvana. Now I am parent to my father and mother. The roles have switched considerably over the course of 20 years. I am glad I am growing older right alongside of them. There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from elders through listening to old stories. I’ve learned to take a good care of myself, emotionally and physically, and how to intuit dangerous situations.
I was particularly moved by the story of Grandfather. Can you talk about what the label of “Capitalist” did to him and the family?
The label, in my great grandfather’s instance, was a sentence of death by ostracism. No one wanted contact with a former Capitalist. My great grandfather was evicted from his estate, the home he had built from decades of hard work, rising from the lowly position as an apprentice to the owner of his own grain brokerage (really, a bank of yore). Strangers and neighbors took over the units of his estate and abused him verbally and physically. Some stood up for him, recalling he was generous to the poor and the unfortunate. He was allowed to roam a beggar, but where was he to live when the populace at large depended wholly on the State for food and shelter. He sought warmth and a roof over his head with his spoiled Fourth Son and wife, but they rejected him time and time again. His favorite Third Son had been sent to a labor camp and had subsequently died for ill use. My great grandfather finally ended up at the doorsteps of his estranged First Son, my grandfather. He came feverish by train, and the railway workers pushed him to my grandfather’s house in a wheelbarrow. He was wanted here, taken in by all and comforted by my grandmother. But my great grandfather died within a week from hunger and disease.
Your story moves almost effortlessly between the stories your Baba tells of his ancestors and your relationship as you share this house together. And sometimes his actions are loving—planting prickly pear around the yard to keep Rotten Egg (the abuser) from coming close. And other times, he’s critical. We see him looking at your first attempts to write down this story and he says, “Here, illogical. This wrong, too.” Tell me about that tension and how it was to write about it.
By the time I was writing and drawing the graphic memoir, my father and I had become comrades-in-arms, best buddies. We’ve been “talking” stories for twenty years, so we had left the fighting far behind us. In fact, when I was typing up the script and then drawing the comic panel, I was often giggling, and impatient for my dad to see how I depicted him, depicted us. I was laughing, because I know he’d see the sense of humor in the steam blasting out of our ears. Dad recently asked for his very own copy of “Forget Sorrow” in which he could make annotations in pen. He laughs when he comes to the scenes of our flare ups. He’ll tease me about my immaturity and bad temper in my teen and twenties, and I’ll tease him about the things he would rather “tear off his head” than do, like turning one spare room into my studio. I am sitting in that very studio as I type.
There’s such detail and texture to this book. Some moments are as brief as a single drawing panel but stayed with me to the end: the children poking the swallow’s nests, the cut down maple trees, the short life of Little Autumn, the coat burned with cigarette ash, the husband putting up his wife’s hair after she sprains her wrist, and the young son whose duty it is to direct his mother’s soul to nirvana. Would you choose a single panel that is particularly important to you and tell the story behind it?
The panel I would choose is the entirety of Page 11, where Rotten Egg is peeping into our house, while my parents and I are paralyzed and trapped inside. When my friend, the journalist Fred Hernandez, told me the image of the stalker looks like a big fat baby, I realize that I had indeed drawn the stalker as a baby. It was a moment of enlightenment: After 25 years, I had finally seen through this person, who once seemed much older, worldlier, and more powerful than me. In retrospect, I see that he was a big, bawling baby. When business went sour, when he was having trouble in the world, he’d take out his anger on me with his fists. Isn’t that what some misbehaving children do? They take it out on their mother? I think Rotten Egg was a big fat baby who needed a mother and a spanking.
You write in the book that you have tried to heal your father’s pain by telling this story. How so?
If you have ever been wronged—and I think all of us have—the telling of the pain and suffering is vastly therapeutic. It is a bringing of evil to justice. My father has nightmares. He mumbles. Sometimes I can make out words like “Execution!” or “You ate the best and gave us only sorghum.” I hope his nightmares have decreased, but I know he still has bad dreams about cruelty suffered as a neglected but a sensitive and intelligent child in a huge family. And there was the war he walked through and out of as a young man at the age of 17-18.
You managed to heal something in yourself, as well. How are you different from that time you spent in hiding? How has telling your story healed you?
I am wondering if other published authors feel the same empowerment I experienced in being able to send my words into the world. I feel protected by words, by my ability to cry out for help through the written language, to cry out against unfairness in society. I EXIST through my words and stories, whereas in the time of hiding, I was made so very small. Through the experience of writing to the sheriff, to the D.A, about my plight, then in getting proper responses from the world through the writing, I acquired a sense of my own solidity. I am gentle, polite, helpful, but if you are going to mess with me, I am someone who will surprise you in my strength to take the fight back to you.
I do understand about the empowerment, and even the sense that the words somehow mean that you exist. Thank you for being here, Belle. Xie xie.
I promised to answer your publishing questions so here are some thoughts about agents.
The first step to getting your book published is finding a literary agent. Why do you need one? Because agents know how to judge if your manuscript is ready to send out, and they know the editors and the publishing houses that are the best match for your work. Most of the big houses won’t even consider looking at a manuscript that does not come via an agent, so this is the place to begin.
So how do you find an agent?
The first thing you do is find the books (hopefully successful ones) that are most like the manuscript you’re trying to sell. Are you writing humorous essays ala David Sedaris? Are you writing literary fiction with Jewish themes ala Nicole Krauss? Are you writing teen vampire stories ala Heather Brewer? Once you find a stack of books that are most similar to your manuscript (i.e. you think you would share readers with that author), then turn to the Acknowledgments page. Sometimes it’s at the front of the book and sometimes it’s in the very back. This is where the author very likely thanked his agent for all of her help. Write down the name of the book, the author and the agent. And keep doing this until you have a list of 5 to 15 names.
Another way to develop this list of potential agents is to join PublishersMarketplace. I think it costs $20 a month, and that fee is definitely worth it at this stage in the game. Once you sign in, you can look up any author you want and find out which agent represents them. You can also see who else that agent represents and what they’ve sold.
Okay. You have your list of potential agents, so now what?
Now you send them a very short letter that gets them excited about your book and about you. Think about how you’d describe your book in a single sentence. And if asked for more detail, how would you describe it in, say, four sentences?
Here’s an example of a letter:
Dear Ms. Agent X,
I thought you might be interested in my newest manuscript because my writing has often been compared to your client, Christopher Marlowe.
I’ve just finished a tragedy called ROMEO AND JULIET about two teenagers who fall in love despite the fact that their families hate each other.
Set in Verona, Italy, young Romeo and Juliet fall in love against their family’s wishes and are secretly married by Friar Lawrence. Later, Romeo interferes in a fight between the warring families and ends up killing Juliet’s cousin, which results in his banishment. Friar Lawrence sets up a plot for them to get back together by helping Juliet fake her own death. Romeo thinks she’s died and kills himself. Juliet wakes up and sees that he’s died and kills herself as well. Their deaths unite the feuding families.
I run a theatre group. I have strong interests in ghosts and sword fighting. And I’ve published my poems in the local newspaper.
Thank you so much for your time, and I hope you’ll allow me to send you my manuscript.
Is it the best letter ever? No. In fact, it’s all off the top of my head, and I should sit with this for a week or two until I get it right. But it’s short and to the point, and it contains the elements that an agent needs to make a decision.
If you’re really good at these pitch letters, you’ll be able to capture your writing style in the letter. Someone trying to sell satire should have a punchier letter. If you’re trying to sell a horror story and manage to write a summary that gives the agent chills and makes her turn around to see if something is stalking her from behind, then you’ve done well. If you’re like most writers and your letter undersells your manuscript, then include the first two pages of the book in the letter. It won’t hurt, since it may be the poetry and the iambic pentameter that brings the agent to her knees.
And that’s it. You send out these letters, and see what happens. If agents start asking for partials (the first 50 pages), then you know your letter is working. If after reading the partials, you are asked for the entire manuscript or you get detailed rejections, you’re on the right track. If you hear nothing or you get form rejections, that’s a sign that either your letter or your manuscript (or both) need some more work before you continue.
Want to know more about agents? I interviewed mine here. Want to add to the discussion? Jump in!