About Tess Fragoulis Books

Tess Fragoulis is the author of Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp), which was nominated for the QWF First Book Prize; Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown), which was long-listed for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award; and is the editor of Musings (Vehicule), an anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature. Her latest novel, The Goodtime Girl, is published by Cormorant Books in Canada, and will be published in Greek by Psichogios Publications, Athens, in Fall 2012. She also edits and writes for arts organizations, and teaches writing part-time at Concordia University.

No Cure for Ignorance (or Writing)

Most of the major projects I have undertaken in my writing life have been preceded, if not encouraged, by a sort of blissful ignorance. When I wrote my first book, Stories to Hide from Your Mother, for instance, I had no idea how difficult it would be to create and perfect 14 self-contained worlds, let alone how difficult it would be to sell a collection of stories to a publisher. With Ariadne’s Dream, my second book, I was happily unaware of the gargantuan task of keeping all of a novel’s details, characters and subplots straight, let alone the sheer laboriousness of reviewing 400 pages at every stage of the publishing process.

Having written and survived one novel, I felt primed to take on another one. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that twaddle… But instead of sticking even a little bit closely to what I had just taught myself to do, I chose to burden myself with an extra layer of difficulty without truly understanding what was I was doing. No, I didn’t write and entire novel without using the letter “e”– I mean, isn’t it challenging enough to tell a great story in beautiful language without excluding five of the last ten words, Monsieur Perec?

Due to that pesky thing called inspiration, which we all know is only 1/10 of the work involved in writing, so it can afford to be charming and frivolous, I decided to take on a historical novel, set in a time I knew almost nothing about, and about which there wasn’t much written in English. My third book, The Goodtime Girl, which is set in Greece and Asia Minor during the 1920s, took about ten years to complete. It’s safe to assume that had I known I would spend a decade working on one book, I would have chosen to do something, almost anything, else, like go to med school. In fact, I used to make fun of my novelist friends and their ten year prison sentences, as I called them. But I’d heard a song from the period that intrigued me, and the next thing you know I was researching music, fashion, drug culture and war, then writing character sketches and preliminary chapters, and by the time I realized what I’d gotten myself into, it was too late to bail (I tried, I’ll admit, but the story wouldn’t let me. It warned it would haunt me FOREVER!).

Don’t get me wrong, I love all my books like parents love their children, even after the teenaged years. I have no regrets. But I have to wonder, had I known how tough the process after inspiration and before publication would be, would I have persisted?

Possibly.
Probably.
Yes.

There really isn’t a choice when you have a story in your head that must be told, that takes over both your waking and dream worlds, that suggests lines to you when you are about to fall asleep and makes you turn on a light and pick up a notebook, all the while cursing, but also feeling a little exhilarated when the words appear, as if channeled, on the page.

No one ever said literature was easy–it’s just worked on until it looks that way. But there’s no use thinking about writing as a never-ending and unavoidable chore–like dusting. In the end, a bit of ignorance, willful or pure, is indeed bliss, and perhaps vital to my creative development. It allowed me to write three books, each one different and more ambitious than its predecessor, and a fourth (yes, difficult-to-sell short stories) is almost finished. As for the fifth, though I have sworn up and down over the last decade that I will NEVER EVER write another historical novel, the other day a reader asked me whether I was going to write a sequel to The Goodtime Girl, set in another place, another time. I have to admit I’m considering it.

It has to be easier the second time around, right?

Cross-posted at 49th Shelf

Other People’s Secrets: The Stories I Won’t Tell

Once a week I volunteer at an active listening center, where I lend an ear to people in distress. In my eight months there I have spoken to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, with schizophrenia, with bipolar disorder, with borderline personality disorder, with depression, anxiety and paranoia. There also have been closet cross-dressers, frustrated poets, and at least one female masturbator, who kept me on the phone for 45 minutes–until she was done, I guess. Far from being depressing, I find it fascinating to talk to and listen to these people. I am a person addicted to stories, and their stories are more surprising, have more depth, pathos, strangeness and humor than most of the things I read. In other words, these people are the perfect characters, who willingly reveal themselves to me. But I am sworn to secrecy (one regular caller ends every conversation by asking me if our talk is confidential).

It is said that Dostoevsky stole the epitaph from his mother’s grave for a story. I have used incidents from my life, along with versions of the characters that have populated it for my stories and novels, and I have been called on it more than once. I have even abandoned a story more than once because it would probably get me into trouble. Dostoevsky’s mother was already dead, so he had nothing to answer for. As for the characters in my stories who recognize themselves, they are there because I am–my story couldn’t be told without them. But these anonymous callers are just passersby in my life, though I speak to a few of them at least once a week, know their first names in some cases, have heard the details of their life-altering story–the one that sent them to the hospital, that keeps them up at night, that no one else believes–more than once.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that every character has a secret that motivates or hinders him/her, and whether the writer reveals the secret in the story or not, he/she must always be aware of it. It is the secret that makes the character interesting, and the way it manifests that makes the story unique. My callers are dying to get their secret off their chests, to have it understood, untangled, justified, and most importantly, to not be judged for it. At the end of a good call, they will thank me profusely, bless me, tell me they love me or even adore me for the simple reason that I listened, responded, took interest, and possibly even helped them–at least in the moment. A bad phone call will end pretty much in the absolutely opposite manner, but luckily I don’t have too many of those. Unless someone is being pushy and disrespectful, I respect them enough to believe their distress, even if its cause is transparent to me. Carl Jung taught me long ago that psychological reality is that person’s reality. We all count on our brains to tell us what is real and how to react to it, and this is as true for person whose brain is not absolutely reliable.

When I teach literature, I give my students a list of hints that a character is unreliable, including explicit contradictions and other discrepancies in the narrative, contradictions between the narrator’s account of events and his/her explanations and interpretations of the same, and a high level of emotional involvement, including exclamations and repetitions. Many of my callers meet the criteria for unreliability, but that makes their stories no less fascinating. They are not stories, however, that I will be stealing for my own writerly purposes, not whole hog anyway. It would feel like I was stealing their souls. Perhaps a detail will eventually work itself into something I write, divorced from the person and his/her whole narrative. I do think the masturbator is fair game since she already used me for her own selfish purposes. But everyone else is too vulnerable, too beaten down and used by their families, their mental illness, the health system, by the world at large. Though some of their stories are heartbreaking, poignant, hilarious, I cannot become one more person who betrays them for my own benefit.

So they remain ephemeral, like the charming songs children make up while they are playing, to be felt, enjoyed in the moment, then forgotten. I do enjoy them immensely as they unfold over the line, and though I won’t forget them, I won’t repeat them either. They have nothing to do with me. They are not my stories to tell.

The Trouble with E-books

Though I am a longtime fan and consumer of independent films and music, I am not so convinced that indie is the way to go when it comes to books. I realize that by championing the old guard, the gatekeepers, the money-grubbers, I am A) going to piss quite a few people off, and B) will likely have to eat my words in the future–or possibly the pages of a book like the lover in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. But in watching the e-book r/evolution from the sidelines, I have come to the conclusion that the traditional route to publication and distribution is still the best route for literary fiction.

Make no mistake, my journey to publication has been a rocky one at the best of times, but there are many things I appreciate about my publishers and what they have done for me. First of all, a dedicated group of professionals selected my manuscript out of the thousands they receive each year, and deemed it appropriate for their list. This is truly a vote of confidence. It may seem to many people that these middlemen and women are the only thing standing in their way of love and accolades from the masses, but the truth of the matter is that each publishing house that takes on a book knows who its audience is, what they might like to read, and puts its money where its mouth is. Publishing houses take huge risks with every book they publish and very rarely get a return on their investment–this is equally true of small and large houses.

Each house that has published me has invested in me,  putting together and paying a team of editors, proofreaders, designers, and publicity people to help my book make a splash once it is out. An objective editorial eye is imperative to any writer, no matter how advanced or accomplished he/she is. We all have blind spots, especially after we’ve spent years staring at the same pages. Even if the editorial changes are minor, they are invaluable on the road to perfecting a manuscript for the ease and pleasure of a reader. In addition, with my latest novel, I have been more involved in its p.r. than ever, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be to get it noticed without the constant work and support of my publicist. Generating publicity is time-consuming and an art form in itself, which I’d really rather leave to the experts.  That way I have more time to do what I do best: write the damn books.

I am also a book lover: here I’m talking about the book as object–not only my own books, but also those written by others. When there was delay after delay in the release of my last novel, the idea was floated by my agent that we might just publish it electronically, with a print on demand option. In my depths of despair, I considered it because wasn’t it better to have a book out there rather than a manuscript collecting dust under my bed? What stopped me was a real sense of loss. Not having a tangible book to hold in my hands, to put on my shelf next to my first two, and next to favorite volumes by beloved writers depressed me almost as much as not publishing it at all.

Why all the doom and gloom when Kindle and Kobo are taking over the reading world? Well, I may just be a late adopter, but I have yet to take the plunge into a e-reading device. I have the Kindle app on my iPad, a device that I am literally addicted to, and I have downloaded a bunch of books to it, but I rarely read them. Some might say that this has to do with e-ink and back-lighting and such, but I think it has more to do with my preference for holding onto the real cover of a real book and flipping real pages. Somehow, it gives me a more sensory and substantial experience. I know this may be entirely subjective, but when it comes to my own books, I think I’m allowed to have an opinion as to the format. You have to be totally behind what you are selling. I believe the Oncler loved thneeds. I don’t love e-books. The Goodtime Girl is available for Kobo and Kindle for those who do love their e-readers, but as an alternate option, not as the only format.

And let’s face it, most stand-alone e-books are not getting the same attention as traditionally published books in magazines and newspapers, which still have more clout and reach than the best-curated blog, and definitely more clout than reader reviews on Amazon (though I appreciate them folks, I really, truly do.) Why are serious book-reviewers not jumping on the e-book bandwagon, except to make a point about some grand success story that usually comes to someone who has self-published genre fiction online? It may very well be because they too, professional readers that they are, find the “interface” of a real book easier to read. Even the bloggers I’ve contacted about my book prefer to receive a hard copy when given the choice. But, more likely, it is a combination of format, prejudgment, and time.

We watch indie films in more or less the same manner we would a blockbuster, and we listen to music through the same devices whether it was recorded at EMI or on someone’s computer (though many would rightly argue that mp3s lack the sound quality of vinyl). We  also dedicate a limited amount of time to them. A film may be two hours long, an album forty-five minutes. A novel takes hours and hours to read and then hours to write about. It’s a much larger investment for a reader/reviewer, and for the time being, the team approach of the publishing house assures some sort of juried pre-selection and quality control for both reader and reviewer. There is also the issue of what it takes to produce a film or an album vs what it takes to publish a book these days. Perhaps it is true that everyone has a book in them, but not everyone can actually write one worth reading. As the writer Stuart Dybek stated, we write novels and stories in the same language we order pizza, but it is not used in the same way. There may be fabulously written and perfectly edited self-published e-books out there, but there are hundreds of thousands of books out there, period, and a reviewer will likely go for something, from someone, from somewhere that already has a track record of offering the best reading experience.

It’s hard being a writer, it’s hard getting published and recognized for your work. It always has been and it’s not getting any easier, despite the wild frontier of e-books and self-publishing, which used to be called vanity publishing once upon a time and, valid or not, was generally dismissed as the second-rate work of the unpublishable. There is probably a way for e-books to escape this, perhaps, unfair taint of vanity, to produce and package themselves with the same professionalism as books taken on by publishing houses, to gain the credibility they need. But I believe it will take a long time to get there, and there will be many casualties along the way in the form of dashed dreams, and money and time spent for little satisfaction.

In the meanwhile, I’ll keep writing and reading on paper, browsing covers in bookstores, and occasionally buying a book I can slip into my purse.

Because at the moment the medium is still the message.

Writing as Fortune-telling (starring Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

I was truly saddened to read yesterday that my absolute favorite author (in fact, I often refer to him as my literary god), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has succumbed to dementia and can no longer write.  I never met him, but his books and stories have been my best friends for many years, and when I was writing my first novel, Ariadne’s Dream, I dreamt he chased me down the street trying to give me a pint of beer. I took this as a good omen. If every writer has a great mentor on his/her shoulder, guiding his/her hand, raising the bar to vault over, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been mine.  His style, his literary magic and magnificence gave me something to admire, to envy, to emulate and, most importantly, something to aim for in my own work.

I’ve lost count of how may times I’ve read 100 Years of Solitude, and The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World can still bring me to tears.  Love and Other Demons, a slim novel that not a lot of people know, remains one of my favorites with its tragedy and passion between a young girl bitten by a rabid dog and the priest who comes to exorcise her of demons.  When I was in grad school, I opted to do as much work as possible on Garcia Marquez, and I’m happy to report that academe did nothing to spoil his fabulous tales for me.  They are so finely woven they resisted being unravelled and studied except in small sections–the whole is elusive–which makes them even more magical.

I’ve already used the word magic twice, and the label magical realist has long been applied to Garcia Marquez, though he always insisted that he had no imagination and invented nothing in his books, but simply recorded his observations and his grandmother’s stories.  I’ve always wanted to visit Colombia because if he truly recorded daily life as it existed, it must really be the most fantastical place on earth, where, no doubt, the handsomest drowned man would land.  Of course, seen through the eyes of Gabo, processed through his mind and his pen, it was certainly transformed in the manner only great art can achieve.  Though everything in his books may have been real, it was his reality, shared generously with us.

As a bit of a magical realist myself, not only have I never been that concerned with the boundaries between the real and the fantastical (it is all a matter of perception and expression), but I have always suspected that we create our reality as we write it.  More than once, something I have written has come to pass, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.  When I was first researching and writing my second novel The Goodtime Girl, whose central event is the destruction of the city of Smyrna in 1922 through fire, I visited the village of Zipolite in Mexico. On my last full day there, a large swath of the village burned to the ground after a kitchen explosion in one of its restaurants.  Like the citizens of Smyrna, the inhabitants of Zipolite ran towards the water, and we all watched helplessly as black smoke clouded the sky.  Now, I am not saying that my writing caused the fire in Zipolite, but it is quite odd to have just recently written about a cataclysmic and (thankfully) uncommon event, and then to witness a facsimile of it.

There are other examples of less dramatic events that have also manifested after being imagined and written. This has made me consider trying to write happy endings to some of my stories, so perhaps I could eventually experience one, too.  But my mind is as dark and complicated as some of my fictions, which probably accounts for why they mirror each other or are prescient–burning cities and villages notwithstanding. We are what we write and we write what we are.  It is a sort of fate, with an often predictable outcome.

Buddhists (and cognitive psychologists) believe that our thoughts create our reality; in The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde argued that life imitated art and not the other way around; and in his sunset years Gabriel Garcia Marquez has turned into one of his own characters: patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia from 100 Years of Solitude, who became so mad he had to be tied to a tree in his own yard for his own (and everyone else’s) sake. Gabo has fared better so far.  Jaime Garcia Marquez has stated that dementia runs in the family, but that, luckily, his brother ” still has the humor, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had.”

But there will be no more books from his brilliant mind, which saw what was to come a long time ago,  based on history and the spells conjured as he wrote. Those marvelous visions will be forevermore reserved for his own enjoyment.

How do I procrastinate writing? Let me count the ways…

I’ve given myself quite a simple, straight-forward task.  Every Wednesday, write something about anything and post it almost immediately.  The theory is that this will be a freeing exercise, which will rescue me from being too anal about my writing, and from taking myself and the whole pursuit of writing too seriously.  I’ve already written a very serious novel, which took me  upwards of a decade, and let me tell you, after the first 4 years, freedom’s just another word for everything left to lose or toss off a bridge. There’s got to be fun and freedom in writing, right?  Otherwise, who in his/her right mind would keep doing it?

Nonetheless, this self-imposed directive is not as easy-peasy as I’d imagined (isn’t it always the case that life never lives up to the imagined?).  It is almost 2pm and these few words are the only ones I have managed to put down.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to convince myself to just do it. I have made several very attractive bargains with myself:

  1. Write out in the backyard in a little notebook–that way it won’t seem like work.  Excuse: It’s hot in the backyard, and transcribing is a drag, which will indeed turn the exercise into work.
  2. Write after lunch. Who can write when her stomach is grumbling?  Excuse: But who can write on a full stomach, which is sure to make me groggy, in the middle of the afternoon.
  3. Take a nap and then write.  But no napping longer than 20 minutes, or the whole bargain is off according to science.
  4. Recycle an old post from an old blog.  No one has seen those, right? But that’s not writing is it?  That’s copying and pasting. Or self-plagiarizing–a word being thrown around a lot these days, what with the Jonah Lehrer/Bob Dylan/New Yorker scandal.  My view: If I can’t plagiarize myself, who can I plagiarize? I’ve opted to eschew the self-plagiarizing for the moment, however.
  5. Write whatever comes to mind–it will be fine.  But will it, really? If you’ve read this far, you are in a better position to judge the fruits of that bargain than I.  I am a true believer of the magical first draft, and I also know that it is a rarity which comes from writing continuously, daily, passionately.  Under these circumstances–not so much.

Apart from the bargains, I found  a number of other small tasks to complete, before beginning to write, that could not wait another minute:

I wish this was a woman, but the same principle applies…

  1. I removed an old, non-functional doorbell that has not been bothering anyone for the past 4 years.  This involved a lot of thought, then a lot of traipsing from basement to first floor, to second floor to look for proper tools, back to first floor, where the job was accomplished not with the myriad of screwdrivers I’d collected in my travels, but with a hammer, a butter-knife and pliers.  I cut the old, sticking-out wires with at least 80% certainty that I wouldn’t be electrocuted. (Who can write after electrocution?) Really, that doorbell was bugging me.  Quite a feat since it makes no sound. It’s now gone to the doorbell junk-heap at the dump. R.I.P.
  2. I watched 6 minutes of Drop Dead Diva.  It’s not a highly intellectual show, but I like it because there is almost always a happy ending. There was also a part of me that felt it would be a nice accompaniment to lunch and a precursor to the nap, after which all my glorious writing juices would be flowing. As long as I did not oversleep, that is. But why only 6 minutes? Because the doorbell was calling me to take it out of its useless misery. And I probably keenly felt my own useless misery in those 6 minutes.  Watching tv in the middle of the day when I should be writing.  For shame.
  3. I checked my WordPress account, my Facebook, my Twitter to see if anyone was talking about me.  Seriously, there is no better time-waster than social media.  A few people are talking about me, by the way, which is encouraging, but besides the point to  actually sitting-on-my-butt and writing.
  4. I’ve also toyed with the idea of framing and hanging 3 very large prints in my office. I have the frames; I have the prints.  They have been sitting undisturbed by anything but dust since last Christmas, if not the one before. I really can’t remember.  I suppose they would make my office a more colorful and inspiring place, which is why I bought them.  But it’s not my office’s fault that I have nothing of import to write about, is it?

If I had to do it all again (and I will, next Wednesday, if not sooner), I would get up, have a cup of tea and a bite to eat, turn off the phone, the internet, put the do not disturb sign on my door, and hunker down to write something, anything other than a piece about having nothing to write about.  There’s nothing new in that, is there?  Why should anyone care? It happens to all of us, more often than we’d like to admit. Well I’m admitting it.  So there. Sue me.

I’m off to take that nap now.

He is my nap guard, and will also wake me up after 20 minutes.

Fiction vs Non-fiction (with cameos by Jim Jarmusch, James Frey & Truman Capote)

Over the years I’ve had more than one person announce “I don’t read fiction” upon hearing that I’m a writer of stories and novels.  When asked why, these people told me that it was because fiction is not true.  These same people, when asked whether they went to the movies or just took in the latest “very serious” documentary on war or obesity or the disappearing naked tribes of the Amazon (who are very lean, by the way), replied that of course they went to the movies.  Perhaps they even identified with a character, shed a tear, or decided to leave their families and find themselves in Alaska or the Andes or Timbuktu. Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law convinced me that life could not go on if I didn’t take a swamp boat through Louisiana’s Bayou.  Perhaps a guide to alligator hunting would have had the same result, or the latest spate of reality shows like Cajun Justice and Swamp People, but probably not.

When I teach creative writing, I dedicate one class to a discussion on the difference between fiction and non-fiction.  The different expectations  a reader has when approaching an autobiography vs a novel comes up, and inevitably we end up talking about A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, who was publicly spanked by Oprah for giving into the impulse to make his memoir more exciting by fudging the facts a bit.  No one batted an eye when Truman Capote embellished In Cold Blood in what he called his “non-fiction novel,” but those were other times, and I guess he didn’t embarrass the queen of daytime t.v.  It was when his fiction read too much like non-fiction that the ladies who lunch hung him out to dry.  Uncomfortable bedfellows, fiction and non-fiction, although they have much in common.

Anything you read includes certain things and excludes others.  All writers have a point of view and a story they want to get across.  I once gave a talk at a college where my first book was being studied, and a young woman raised her hand and asked me why I was so unfair to Greeks in one story, why I didn’t also talk about all the good things about them. I replied that I was a writer of fiction, not a sociologist, and thus was not responsible for a fair portrayal, but for telling the story I needed to tell completely.  (I take this opportunity to share my favorite Marguerite Yourcenar quote: “Everything that any one of us can do to help or hinder his fellow-man has been done, at least once, by a Greek.”)

When I teach essay-writing and rhetoric, I also point out that although it gives you credibility to tip your hat towards your opposition, your argument should focus on the points that will persuade your reader of your superiority.  So it is with most works of non-fiction.  You don’t get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a slice of it.  In that sense, fiction can actually give you a more expansive view of a world, a time, or the dynamics between people, between past and present.  Unlike history, it is not necessarily written by the victors.

That said, I’ve been wanting to cross over from literary fiction into non-fiction for a while now.  This is not simply because non-fiction writers seem to get large advances even before the whole damn book is written: we are living through troubled times where literal truth is valued more than figurative truth, and people need information that will help them make sense of things. I must confess that many of my favorite books in recent years have been works of non-fiction: travel writing, biographies, psychological studies and spiritual explorations which have touched me as much as a good novel with their voice, their depth, their strangeness and their honesty. Also, some ideas lend themselves to fiction, others to poetry or drama, and others to essays or the newfangled name for Capote’s non-fiction novel: creative non-fiction.  I’ve had  a few ideas bouncing around in my head for a while that are clearly not meant to be novels or short stories.  They need a more direct form, a more direct voice–my voice perhaps, whatever that may be.

Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, or as I like to say, there is shit you can’t make up, but I am stopped by an ironic dilemma.  I am actually more honest in my fiction than in my non-fiction.  My voice is more genuinely my own, and I feel free to tell things like they are (or were), to share my most perverse and dastardly thoughts, to expose my very soul from behind fiction’s veil.  You get more of me through my characters than you would ever get if I chose to write a memoir.  I am far too private to hang out all my dirty laundry, and would really only be able to give you my side of the story, and a sanitized one at that.  (Here I recall Lauren Bacall‘s autobiography, each chapter ending with this chirpy capper: “Oh, we had such fun!”) It is safer to speak through a narrator and through all my characters than as myself. I feel less implicated, less accountable.

I am speaking as myself here, but it is a compromised version because I am loath to confess my prejudices, weaknesses, fears and insecurities, and I am sticking to the subject, as much as I can anyway. I completely understand how James Frey blundered over the lines and got into so much trouble. He let his imagination go in order to create the essence of the experience of drug addiction for the reader, to  produce a visceral feeling rather than simply providing information.  The fallback position of some of my creative writing students, when they are told that their story is cliche or plodding or one-dimensional, is “but that’s how it happened.”  So what?   Frey’s book was touted for its honest portrayal of an addict’s life, for its ability to shed light on addiction and recovery.  Maybe he should have called it a non-fiction novel, but it apparently helped a lot of people nonetheless.

How is that not the truth?

Not everything is important (even though it is mine…)

The road trip is a standard literary conceit. Tales from the road are forward moving, full of details, imagery, odd characters, surprises, both good and bad, wonderment and disappointment. You barely need to have any real skill other than being a weariless chronicler, who hopefully has a taste for the unusual. The ability to write a full sentence probably also comes in handy, though in our world of tweeting, texting and emailing may not be as imperative as it once was.

The question remains whether there is anything of interest left to chronicle, now that the world is so known to us, our maps devoid of mysterious and vast continents where dragons were once assumed to reside. With the ever-increasing number of people who believe their adventures to be singular and of interest to an audience of admirers, and with the obsessive/compulsive photographing, recording and posting of updates of their every move, the meaningfulness, the uniqueness of any experience has been drained.

When I was younger, I felt a large disconnect between being and feeling. I would go to a concert or a party, or to some wonderful place like the Grand Canyon or Echo Rock in New Mexico, and I couldn’t say for sure whether I’d enjoyed myself. It wasn’t until I put my thoughts on paper, until the words were found to properly describe and contain the experience that I could answer the question “did you have a good time?” By remaining the observer, I was using the experience as a means to an end–something that would give me material to share with others in order to get their approval, their admiration, their envy– thus depriving myself of the joy of being there, of seeing, of feeling all at once. My life was passing me by, and the attention for my writing didn’t make up for it.

I have managed to cure myself of this disconnect, but I see it reaching epic proportions all around me. I have seen concertgoers wave their iPhones instead of lighters, trying to capture an image, some distorted sound, rather than allowing themselves to be swept away, to be enveloped and invaded by the music. At plays, I have seen people tweeting quips, making plans for their next engagement rather than allowing themselves to be fully drawn into the depths of the story and characters. At a reading I recently gave, I was told that a few audience members were texting, hiding their phones in their purses, while I spoke. If I were prone to flattering myself, I might say that they were letting all their friends know how fabulous my novel is and that they should all run out and get a copy right away. But I believe that they were suffering from the disease of absence, of distraction, of recording for others rather than being present in the moment for their own enjoyment.

It is seductive to believe that everything we observe, think, pronounce has merit, originality, import. It reminds me of teenagers on the bus having over-loud conversations in order to let the world know they exist, who believe that everything is important because it is coming from them. So it is in our world of constant self-promotion, self-aggrandizing and exposure, which creates so much noise it is hard to know what to pay attention to, and in the end cheapens everything.

What does this have to do with road trips? I spent the last week in the Adirondacks. I was about to say that I’ve resisted taking notes, but the truth is that I haven’t felt like it at all, despite acknowledging that my memory is not what it used to be. Instead I’ve been swimming in lakes, hiking up mountains, exchanging bon mots with colorful, small-town characters, and eating gargantuan servings of fried food. In fact, I have been so perfectly content staring at mountains and water that putting anything at all down in writing seems like an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from the glory of just being here. I’ve remembered to take a few photos, but not always of the right things at the right time. I haven’t recorded anything either, though in retrospect I somewhat regret not having footage of the immense crows gliding past me at eye level on the summit of Whiteface Mountain. I certainly haven’t tweeted anything or updated my Facebook status. Because at the moment, this experience is finally, totally for me.

Perhaps later on when it has all sunk in, I will be able to turn some of its parts into a greater whole–a story perhaps, or an essay–something more meaningful than just a grocery list of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. Those things already exist out there: google Adirondacks, Ticonderoga, Lake Placid, Whiteface Mountain, Bolton Landing, Hague and you’ll get all the information and images you could ever hope for. Until I have something more than that to offer, I will keep it all to myself.

Time to go back to staring at the lake now.

Reviews Ain’t What They Used To Be

It’s true that it had been a while since I’d published a book.  My first book came out in 1997, my second in 2001, and here I am eleven years later facing a whole new reality when it comes to my new novel, The Goodtime Girl, getting publicity.

Newspapers have cut their book sections to a mere page or two on weekends, Montreal has lost its two alternative weeklies, The Mirror and The Hour, and what reviews do appear are shared amongst various papers under the same corporate umbrella, so the variety of voices and views is very much diminished.

Social networks are supposed to fill in the gaps, give the author more control of his/her marketing, and readers more of a voice in terms of their likes and dislikes.  This is not a bad thing.  A study by Heritage Canada states that the top two reasons people buy/read a book is because a friend recommended it, or because they received it as a gift.  Reviews came in third in terms of book buying, which is probably a good thing at a time when fewer and fewer books are being formally reviewed, but more and more are appearing thanks to wild frontier of e-publishing.  Rankings and reader reviews on Amazon,Likes on Facebook pages, recommendations on Goodreads, not to mention the plethora of other sites dedicated to books, book clubs, etc. are certainly valid sources of information, and I value the time and effort any reader puts into expressing an opinion on my books. In fact, I encourage it.

But it’s a lot of work for an author to maintain a presence on all of these different sites, to remain in the virtual spotlight, to get the word out to others who will in turn get the word out, and so on, and so on…  There are experts who recommend the number of Tweets a day an author should send out, how many contacts he or she needs to make on a daily basis, how many freebies to give away in order to hopefully sell a few other copies of the book.  Granted, this freebie-to-sales ratio is probably no different than when publishing houses send out review copies in order to generate a review and subsequently sales.  So here we are again: reviews let people know your book is out there, and whether they are favorable or not, they start the ball rolling.  Even a lousy review will give at least a bit of plot summary and context for a reader to go by.

But opinions on any form of art are, to some degree, going to be subjective.  I know that when I look up restaurant reviews on Yelp or Urban Spoon, I am not sure who to believe.  The person who deemed the lobster thermidor sandwich the best on the continent or the one who swears the lobster was actually mock crab? And when I check out the reviews after I’ve visited one of these places, I see how my experience  varied wildly from some of these self-appointed food critics.  The problem is familiarity–or lack thereof.  When you get to know reviewers you can gauge your taste against theirs, you can recognize their peeves and their agendas.  If you read a Manohla Dargis review in the New York Times, you know what you’re getting, and from whom.  She is a known quantity, love her or hate her.

One might say that if you follow a certain blogger who reviews books, you also get to know his or her taste, and once again you can make an intelligent decision about whether you want to read a book. This is, no doubt, true, but those stellar reviewers can be hard to find, and if there’s one thing you can say about the more conventional (some might say old-fashioned) venues for reviews, it is that there was oversight, quality control, and consistency. Not to mention that it can be daunting for a reader to wade through the various blogs, opinions, profiles, etc.  I’m an obsessive reader, and I find it difficult.

We used to have common sources, which gave us some common ground for information, for debate.  They were not always inclusive or fair (there are still more men being reviewed by the major publications, and most of the reviewers are also men, which raises the question about the kind of information they are delivering about certain types of books by female authors, but that’s a whole other blog post for another time).  With the internet, we no longer watch the same t.v. shows, listen to the same music, read the same books–we are, in a sense, on our own, both as artists and consumers.  There is definitely more variety, but it is harder to find, and most importantly,  harder to trust.

Welcome to the Queendom of Odd

After a good amount of procrastination and general stuck-in-the-mudness, I have finally begun the process of creating a centralized, on-stop-shopping hub for all that has to to with my books, events, and writing in general.  The site is still under construction, but be sure to pop in now and again, follow me here or on twitter or through my facebook page, and remain in the loop of all the exciting and strange things to come.

Cheers!

Tess