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

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.

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.