Saturday, August 28, 2010
This novel has a delightfully mid-century feel to it (even the font reminds me of an Iris Murdoch book), but has a lot to say about 2010: our rather embarrassing obsession with celebrity, rehab fascination, and even a take on the Oprah phenomenon. This book goes places you wouldn't expect, which is the best thing about it.
A British writer of obscure children’s books, Arthur Hayman, dies in the arms of an American tourist in London. The tourist, Laurie Clow, has a practically spiritual response to meeting Arthur and being with him at his death. She becomes an evangelist for his books, The Hayseed Chronicles, propelling them to Harry Potter-like popularity. As a result, the Hayman family, Luke, Rachel and their mother, Martha, reaps the rewards and challenges of being famous for doing nothing.
Elton has created some absolutely hysterical characters, particularly Lila, the obnoxious German illustrator of The Hayseed Chronicles who is like a mother bear protecting her cubs when it comes to the Chronicles.
Certainly books from blockbuster authors will sell hundreds of thousands of copies in hardcover. And clearly we should not mess with that winning formula. But what about literary fiction from debut authors? I say bring on the paperback originals, especially when they are as lovely as the books The Other Press has been putting out. Giving paperback originals extras like exquisite covers, deckled edges and French flaps has transformed plain old paperbacks into collectible pieces of book art.
The AAP numbers recently released for June lend support to this idea. Adult hardcover sales are down 13.9% and adult paperback sales are up 0.9%. Paperback sales aren't up by much, but if they're not down that seems like a success in today's physical book-selling climate. I think everyone in the industry agrees that big changes are needed. And I realize that the profit margin is higher with a hardcover, and that there is a lot about publishing I don't understand. I also realize that there is some stigma for authors whose books aren't released first in hardcover (though this seems totally lame to me--does the binding really matter? Aren't we concerned about what's between the covers?). But with some tweaking, and maybe a change in perception, is a combination of more paperback originals to hardcovers a formula that could work? I think the idea merits more research.
I'm looking forward to selling two of The Other Press' new books when they come out this fall, Mr. Toppit and The Wrong Blood. These will be easy hand sells, because they're great books and, to be perfectly honest, because they only cost $14.95.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
1. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
1. Three by Annie Dillard
This classic volume contains Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, and The Writing Life. Okay, sure, this is sort of cheating, but I'm using my 5 books wisely by bringing an omnibus! Annie Dillard is quite simply one of my top three favorite writers. In these books, I found paragraph after paragraph of the most fascinating, glittering prose I had ever read. Every blade of grass and star in the sky brings her wonder and joy. She lives her life in a way I could only hope to.
2. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Non-Fiction by Joan Didion
Again, I may be cheating here a little...but how could I choose between Joan Didion's wonderful essay collections? Slouching Towards Bethlehem was a watershed book for me. Reading it made me realize that the way words are hung together matters, that each individual sentence can be a whole world. I'll admit to heavy-handedly Didionizing my writing in college papers after discovering her, though of course I soon realized she's simply inimitable. I'll still pick this book up every once in a while when I just want to be quieted and moved by the written word.
3. A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving
My favorite Irving novel, and one of my favorite novels period, this wonderful book will always remind me of my family and my home. By the time I was in sixth grade, my parents and both of my brothers had already read it. The copy that was passed down to me is a bruised and battered paperback that I will never, ever upgrade.
4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
All of Faulkner's great novels are deep reservoirs of meaning and tradition, but Absalom, Absalom! for me surpasses all the others. Each page uncovers secrets and clues that could never be fully picked up in a single reading.
McDermott's lyrical prose will always comfort and calm me, and Charming Billy is my favorite of her novels. Her characters are universal figures--we know what they will do wrong before they do, we know how they love and lose, what they fight for and grieve for. Billy is a flawed and desperate character, and one that we cannot help but love. I've read this novel a half dozen times and never tire of it.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin and Paul Harding's Tinkers. I'm a year behind on my contemporary lit reading.
I write while my children are school, from about 8:30-2:30 Monday through Friday. No weekends. No holidays. I write the first draft of my novels by hand in lined spiral notebooks, then type them bit by bit into the computer. I wish I could write with music in the room but I can't at all, though sometimes if I go to the coffee shop, I can handle the music there if it's not too loud. I have one cup of tea, usually around eleven in the morning, which is the highlight of my day.
I loved to write all my life, but I don't think I allowed myself to believe I was a writer until my first short story was published in 1992. When I got a copy of that issue of Glimmer Train, I felt something shift.
4. What are you working on now?
I'm on my book tour now, and haven't been able to write for weeks, and I'm aching for my study and my cup of tea. When I can get back there, I'll continue working on a collection of short stories as well as a new novel I started when I was at an impasse with Father of the Rain.
5. Favorite recent find?
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
I thought I’d end this three-part series on book tours with some advice for readers who plan on attending an author’s appearances, as well as some advice for new authors preparing for their first book tour. But in the spirit of stories, one more story from my current tour.
Not all bookstores are alike. Some treat an author as a visiting dignitary, an emissary from the literary world. They meet and greet, they wine and dine, and provide introductions full of warm and loving adjectives. None of this is necessary, of course, nor is it even expected, but it’s nice when it happens.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was my recent appearance at a big box store. When I arrived at this particular store, I was greeted by a table about twenty feet from the doors, complete with a display of my books and a sign indicating that I would be “speaking and signing” at 2:00. It was 1:45.
After a five-minute search of the store, I eventually found a stock boy who used his walkie-talkie to contact the manager, who appeared five minutes later to greet me. She introduced herself, redirected me to the front of the store, and explained that she had set me up “right here.”
Right here was the same small table displaying my books that I had seen when I walked in. While there was a large space in the rear of the store for speaking engagements, the manager had inexplicably placed me in the shadow of the front doors, in the path of foot traffic.
While deciding how to handle this, I explained that I needed to use the restroom. When I returned a couple minutes later, the manager was gone and a group of a dozen readers had gathered around the table, waiting for me to speak. There were no seats for these people, nor was there any room for the seats either. I explained to my would-be audience that the manager would undoubtedly be back shortly and would arrange for some chairs or move our location entirely.
The manager never returned. At 2:00 a male voice came on the intercom to announce that I was in the store and would be speaking and signing in the front of the building.
The audience looked at me, I looked at the audience. And we all waited for about five more minutes, certain that the manager would return.
Finally, I gave up. At the behest of two impatient readers, we took charge. I turned the table around, moved two tables of books over, and commandeered a dozen chairs from the café. Audience members assisted in this reconfiguration, and by the time that we were done, we had carved out a suitable, though hardly ideal, space for the event.
Oddly enough, this worked out well. The forced teamwork and mutual disgust in the absence of assistance brought me and my audience together as one, all pulling on one chain to make this situation work, and I felt instantly accepted. I spoke for about thirty minutes and then answered questions for about forty-five minutes. And everyone bought a book.
The manager never returned. Not once. After the event was finished, people returned their chairs to the café and left. I saw the manager a couple times, hurrying this way and that, but she never approached me again.
I guess that once you use the restroom, you’re on your own.
Like I have said, you never know what to expect while on a book tour.
So in the spirit of preparing for the unexpected, allow me to offer some tips to readers and authors who might be attending or speaking at a book event soon.
First, for the readers:
1. Don’t be late. In fact, show up early and say hello. Authors are often asked to be 15-30 minutes early for an event, and there’s not much to do during that time. I’m always happy to chat with people prior to speaking, and it makes me feel good knowing that I have a new friend in the audience as I begin reading and telling stories.
2. Ask questions, and please don’t be afraid to ask questions unrelated to the book or even writing in general. As an author, I believe that anything and everything is fair game when it comes to the question-and-answer session, which is my favorite part of an author appearance. Want to know the name of my cat? Want to know what I routinely eat for breakfast? Want to know how my childhood plays a role in my fiction? All these questions are on the table, and a good speaker will be able to turn each of these questions into a story that will entertain the audience and provide a little more insight into the author as a person. Lately I’ve been giving away a prize for the oddest or most intriguing question asked, and I’ve gotten some whoppers!
3. Purchase a book, and if you’ve already bought a copy of the author’s book elsewhere, buy something else. Hosting an author event costs money, and more often than not, these events are free or the price of admission can be applied to a book. While authors are not generally paid for their appearance, bookstores incur marketing and promotional costs, expenses related to travel and lodging, and increased labor costs for the additional employee or employees who assist with the event. Make a purchase and support the store and its continued efforts to bring authors to your community. Hell, make three purchases. These are books that we’re talking about. If you’re attending an author event, you like to read.
And for authors who are just starting out:
1. Remain positive regardless of the circumstances. The story I opened with illustrates this point well. I stayed positive despite the bookstore’s failure to provide me with a suitable space (or even a few chairs), but a potential negative became a positive when the audience members and I joined forced to correct the problem. Whether you are speaking to an army of two hundred or a cluster of just four people, remember that everyone standing in front of you could be a reader for life, and they all deserve your best. And keep in mind that booksellers want to provide authors with large audiences, but sometimes it’s simply not possible. They do their best, so you must do yours, regardless of the circumstances.
2. Make an effort to bring people into the store by promoting the event as well. Use Twitter, Facebook, your website, an email blast or anything else to let potential readers know where you will be speaking. If you want an audience, do your part to ensure that one will be there to listen to you.
3. Bring a trusted friend to your first few appearances, and ask for honest feedback following the appearance. It’s extremely difficult to evaluate your own speaking performance, so having an observer who you trust is extremely beneficial, especially early on in your career.
4. Tell stories. As an author, I assume that you are a good storyteller, so use every opportunity available to you to tell a story. If I was asked about the name of my cat, I’d be sure to include the story about the time I accidentally started the dryer with him inside. If I was asked about what I routinely eat for breakfast, I’d be certain to tell an amusing story about my days of managing McDonald’s restaurants in addition to explaining that my breakfast of choice is an Egg McMuffin. Speak in stories whenever possible, and constantly seek ways of using audience members’ questions as an avenue into a story or personal anecdote.
5. Don’t spend too much time reading from your book. As one who frequently attends author appearances, I can assure you that most audience members are there to hear you talk about yourself and your book. Listening to you read a short, well chosen section of the text is great, but authors who spend even a third of their allotted time reading from their books are surely losing the attention of many audience members. Talk about the process by which you wrote the book. Talk about why you became an author in the first place. Talk about your most recent spat with your wife (provided that she is not in the audience as well). An author appearance is an opportunity for the reader to get to know you. If they like you, they will purchase your book and get to know your story on their own.
6. Tell more stories. I cannot emphasize this enough.
7. Don’t read your comments from a card or a sheet of paper. Speak naturally, make eye contact and smile. Relax. Take a public speaking class if necessary. No one wants to listen to you read a book report.
8. Self-deprecation is an undersold commodity in today’s world. Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself and let your audience know how stupid you can be. Nothing is more endearing and amusing than a speaker who is willing to be honest and sincere. You wrote a book, so everyone already knows that you are reasonably intelligent. Do not spend your time trying to prove how smart you are. Instead, make every effort to be yourself.
Unless, of course, you are a jackass. Then pretend that you are someone else.
Good luck, and I hope to see many of you on Saturday, August 21 at 6:00!
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
A weekend trip to my hometown last summer, while on my tour for SOMETHING MISSING, illustrates this well.
I had two appearances scheduled for this particular Saturday: The Blackstone Public Library in my hometown of Blackstone, MA and an indie bookstore down the road a bit in Uxbridge. I was also scheduled to appear at the public library in neighboring Millville later that evening, but when the Town Council reminded the head librarian, a former classmate, that events could not be scheduled simultaneously in their tiny town, I was bumped in favor of a pancake social.
Not so good for the authorial ego.
I was scheduled to appear with local author Stacy Juba, who was instrumental in setting up both events. Appearing alongside another author was something I did quite often last year and enjoyed a lot. Being a new author, I found that combining forces with fellow writer often provided for larger audiences and greater opportunities to make new friends in the writing community. I made a handful of new friends last year, and they have played important roles in my life as an author. Earlier this month, for example, I wrote a guest post on Stacy Juba’s blog to coincide with my own book launch, and the two blurbs on the back of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO are written by authors who appeared alongside me in Chester, Vermont earlier this year.
My wife often says that one of the unexpected blessings of my writing career has been the new and interesting friends who we have made along the way, and I couldn’t agree more.
The first appearance of the weekend, at the Blackstone Library, was full of notable highlights.
My high school English teacher, and the man who inspired me to become a writer, was the first to arrive at the library, and I was honored to be able to shake his hand and thank him for all that he did to change my life. He was joined by a handful of former classmates and friends, including my high school sweetheart, Laura, who I had not seen in years. When it came time to name Martin’s love interest in SOMETHING MISSING, I chose the name Laura as a nod to her, and so I was pleased to see that she was able to attend the appearance.
Wendy, the girl who I took to my sophomore semi-formal, also attended the event, and she came bearing a gift: a photograph of me from fourth grade, standing onstage and performing during our class’s end-of-year musical. This photograph was important for a couple of reasons:
First, I have very few photographs from my childhood, so every photo that I have is precious. To add even one image to the pile was very meaningful to me.
But this photo was especially important because it captured the moment leading up to my very first kiss, an onstage, choreographed peck on the cheek with Patti Catalano.
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. Weeks before the performance, our music teacher, Mrs. Carroll, had called upon me and Sean Trudel to perform a song and dance that would culminate with each of us dipping and kissing our dance partners. Mrs. Carroll claimed that she was choosing us for our high level of maturity, but Sean Trudel was the most poorly behaved kid in the class, so the maturity argument was nonsense and I knew it.
Just moments after this photograph was taken (I’m the one in the white shirt with the red bandana), I dipped and kissed Patti Catalano onstage in front of friends and family, much to my horror and probably the horror of poor Patti, who was on the receiving end of my amateurish offering.
My first kiss, courtesy of Mrs. Carroll and her inexplicable decision to cast me for the part. And her equally inexplicable decision to have nine-year olds kissing onstage.
And all this from a book tour stop.
From the library, we proceeded to an independent bookstore about twenty minutes away.
Sitting in the audience at this appearance was another familiar face: Mrs. Allen, my middle school social studies teacher. Mrs. Allen was the person who inspired me to install a stage in my classroom after I spent my middle school days in her similarly-equipped classroom. She was a magnificent teacher and I think about her often in terms of my own teaching career.
And once again, she came to my rescue.
I was asked during the question-and-answer session about how I choose the potion of my book to read aloud to audiences, and I explained that the decision was a difficult one for me, so I routinely asked my agent and editor to help me decide.
“What if you were to choose without any help?” the woman pressed. “What would you have picked?”
“The last chapter,” I said, trying to keep from smiling. “That way I could’ve spoiled the story for all of you.”
The audience failed to react, apparently finding my comment significantly less amusing than I had envisioned, but after a moment of awkward silence, Mrs. Allen spoke up from the rear of the room. “He hasn’t changed a bit!” she growled, bringing the room to laughter and letting me off the hook.
This is where the things took a sour turn. When it came time to sign books, a woman in her mid-thirties pulled up a chair beside me and began talking to me about her life as a writer. Her book, her writing process, and her repeated attempts to get published. After several minutes, it became readily apparent that she was not the kind of person who fully understood the concept of boundaries and the needs of those around her. As the line of readers grew longer and longer, each waiting patiently for m signature, she leaned in closer and closer, attempting to abscond with all of my time and attention.
Eventually I offered to read the first ten pages of her manuscript, as I do for any writer who asks, and she agreed to send them along and finally made room for the next person.
Whenever I offer to read a writer’s work, I always make sure that he or she understands that it can take me a while before I get to the piece, depending on my schedule. At the time of this appearance, my school year was in full swing, report cards and parent teacher conferences were approaching, and I had just begun working on the final revision of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO. With this in mind, I explained that it could be a month or two before she heard back from me.
She said that she understood.
A month later, she politely inquired as to my progress via email, and I responded by explaining that with Thanksgiving approaching, I was hoping to read her pages during my time off. Unfortunately, I did not get to the piece during my mini-vacation, but I managed to read and comment on the pages during the following weekend, in between football games. On Monday morning, just as I was putting the final touches on my comments, I received an email from her:
Dear Matthew, please delete the e-mailed chapters. I am developing a zero tolerance policy for hollow promises.
Like a fool, I attempted to play off her comment as an obvious joke, explaining that I had actually just finished reading her pages, had enjoyed them a lot and had some comments ready for her.
Dear Matthew...totally serious - and it has nothing to do with "read me, read me" mentality. It's the broken promises, from you and the long line of lip-servicers behind you. I am the type of person that can be taken at my word - and make every effort to fulfill a promise.. Please do not take the request to delete personally...I just no longer wish to expend expectation energy after the second (eighth, in some cases!) promise. You are a busy man. I understand completely that you didn't get to the chapters.
In addition to writing an interesting and humorous story, she is also apparently quite capable at delivering the passive-aggressive, backhanded compliment as well.
And yet I still gave her one more chance, explaining that publishing can be a difficult waiting game, and while I understood her frustration, the opportunity to receive a critique from a published author should not be disregarded. Even an author with as few credentials as me.
Dear Mr. Dicks...please delete the three chapters... I still feel that you are deflecting accountability for your early November e-mail to "read it next week."
Note the change in salutation.
And all of this from a simple book tour appearance.
But for every negative experience come dozens of positive ones. Last weekend I spoke at RJ Julia in Madison, CT and I was once again surprised, this time by my former Manchester Community College English professor, who also came bearing gifts:
Two recommendation letters that she had written for me in 1997 that helped me gain admission to Trinity College and be named a member of USA Today’s Academic All American team. I knew at the time that the letters had been written, but until this week, I had never seen them. They were very kind, and they brought back many, many memories of my community college days.
Like I said, you never know what to expect while on tour. Mostly good, some bad, but always interesting.
Matthew Dicks' new book Unexpectedly Milo is available now. He will be reading and signing at Water Street Bookstore on Saturday, August 21st at 6pm. In the meantime, check out his blog where he's been known to write about such things as wheeled luggage, around-the-table photographs, and Jerry Maguire.
These are books that I couldn't get into but don't want to give up on. And I'm not afraid to give up on books, trust me. I have chucked books across the room and left them there. That's not the issue. These are books that I know have potential to be great. They probably are great. But for some reason, they have not made it out of the Dreaded Started Book Pile. There are ARCs (publishing-speak for advanced reader copies) that I don't want to surreptitiously return to the bookstore (we have a policy that you aren't allowed to return ARCs...I guess they want to encourage us to read them, or they're worried that the place will collapse under the weight of them all. Either way.). There are new books I bought thinking I would absolutely love. There are books I've borrowed from the store to read and review (another perk of being an independent bookseller. It could also be seen as voluntary unpaid work. Either way.). There are books I started and actually liked but which, for whatever reason, got shuttled down the pile in favor of another book.
What does this precariously tall pile of books say about me? That I make bad snap judgments? That I take on way too much? That I lack the focus and sheer words-per-minute speed of the seasoned book reviewer? Or worse, that I just can't commit? Whichever reason it is, decisions need to be made. Some of these books will never be read by me. I just need to accept that. The pile must be winnowed down soon before it collapses like the leaning tower of books that it is and squashes my cat.
Monday, August 2, 2010
When I first sold SOMETHING MISSING, my friends and family asked if my publisher would be sending me on a book tour. I said yes, feeling like a big shot and assuming they would, and while this was true, it was tangentially true. Book tours mean many different things to many different authors. As a first time author, it didn’t mean a lot.
The first stop on my tour was an indie bookstore about an hour from my home. My wife, my infant daughter and I headed down the road, not sure what to expect. While I had visions of dozens, if not hundreds of people crowding the bookstore in order to hear me speak, the number ended up being closer to a dozen, and had two of my students and their families not been kind enough to make the trip, I would have been able to count the attendees on one hand. Still, it was a good start for me. We sat in plush chairs in a rough semi-circle and ate cookies while I discussed my book and answered questions.
Hoping for somewhere between two and twenty-five people for my next stop, I was shocked to arrive at a library on the Connecticut shore and find almost two hundred people waiting for me. One thing I learned rather quickly: libraries draw large audiences almost every time.
The book tour continued for almost a year, and even though there were times when I would drive two hours to speak to six people, there was never a visit that I regretted. I spoke at bookstores, libraries, churches, high schools and even a nursing home. I attended more than half a dozen book clubs throughout the year, and oftentimes these living room events drew larger audiences than some of my bookstore appearances. I had the pleasure of appearing with other authors on several occasions, and in January I had the honor of appearing in Misty Valley Books New Voices series with four other authors, all of whom I am proud to call my friends today. Two of them wrote blurbs for the back cover of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO.
I’ll be contributing a post a week for the next two weeks, prior to my visit to Water Street Books, and in the subsequent posts, I’ll share a few of these more memorable stories with you.
I hope to see you all on Saturday, August 21 at 6:00! I look forward to meeting you all, bizarre and otherwise, and perhaps creating a few new memorable moments in the process!