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While it is good to be heard, it is even more wonderful to listen--attentively, curiously, sincerely. My favorite people are the ones to whom I love to listen. (Or--counterintuitively--the ones with whom I love to be quiet, both of us listening. To silence.) When I listen, I learn so much. (Maybe, then, listening is a form of greed!)
Even the people who are perhaps not my favorites--well, I always understand them better when I listen carefully. Their stories start to come together, make sense, explain their choices and actions which might otherwise seem unsympathetic, selfish, foolish, or harsh.
And in the classes I teach, I tend to listen much more than I talk.
Much as the page can be, listening might be the natural refuge of the shy (or, as I heard Willa Cather described in a lecture last week, the "reticent"). It's still social; it still participates in the exchange of ideas. But it's a quieter way to be present.
So for me, it's a little awkward to be the person who is listened to. Tomorrow Nora Comstock and I will talk live about Hell or High Water on a 7 p.m. CST teleconference with the Las Comadres National Latino Book Club--twenty different chapters across the country, all of which have read the novel. Mil gracias.
About the folks who register for the teleconference, I was told, "They'll be able to hear you, but you won't be able to hear them." Which seems logistically necessary but also profoundly strange to me--an organized form of eavesdropping, with no back-and-forth. I wish I could hear them. (If you're interested, you can register here, and you don't have to be a member to listen in.) It seems so generous of them to want to devote an hour of their time to listening. I'm grateful in advance.
When the teleconference ends, I'll hustle down to Crescent Moon here in Lincoln's Haymarket to give a reading at 8:30 p.m. All very cool. But that's a whole lot of my own voice in my ears. I'm grateful for the opportunities, as I should be, but they provoke some ontological unease--which is maybe just a fancy academic way of saying 'butterflies,' but I don't think so. I've wrestled with the butterflies before and figured out strategies for dealing with them. This is something a little different. A more objective probing of the issue.
I understand that anyone who wants to be an author today cannot be a hermit. (Look at all the flak even J.K. Rowling--who hardly needs publicity--is currently taking for her reclusive stance and her tight control of media interactions.)
I get the economic necessity of it. I get the role we're required to play in the publicizing of our work.
But I'm still intrigued and persuaded by what John le Carré, the famous writer of spy thrillers, has to say about his own role (or lack thereof, rather) as a public voice:
A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue. Some of you may wonder why I am reluctant to submit to interviews on television and radio and in the press. The answer is that nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.
And to a point I am flattered that my fabulations are taken so seriously. Yet I also despise myself in the fake role of guru, since it bears no relation to who I am or what I do. Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.
This perspective fascinates me; le Carré's critical phrasing ("reluctant to submit to interviews") fascinates me. (I think my publicists would pitch a fit if that were my own approach, but it does sound alluring.) Sometimes I wish that I'd come of age as a writer back in an era when that stance was acceptable, or that I'd already achieved a le Carréan level of success so that I could dictate my own reticent terms. So do many writers, I'm sure.
Maybe there's a happy medium between listening and speech, between holding still and holding forth. Maybe, with time and practice, I'll find it.
Maybe all of this is just something you get used to.
In class, we move on then to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, through which the strains of fairy tales echo, and to texts that followed, like The Yellow Wallpaper, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Bluest Eye, The House on Mango Street, and A Gate at the Stairs (which we're also reading this week in ENGL 852, in preparation for Lorrie Moore's visit here). Gothic echoes of fairy tales--with their frank acknowledgment of the reality of cruelty, the divisive role of beauty, and the structures of power at even the most intimate levels--waft through them all.
As Marina Warner argues in her excellent critical study From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, all those seemingly absurd (yet undeniably enchanting) stories of talking animals, people turning into birds, and frogs turning into princes alert us to a deep truth: the possibility of transformation. Our ethics and our actions can transform us. The world is alive--and possibly sentient--all around us. Our choices matter. We can change.
When I was fourteen, I ran away from a violent home, and I eventually helped my little brother, who was nine, to run away, too. Before we succeeded, however, we made one horrifying, aborted attempt, and I've written about it in my memoir The Truth Book. During that botched attempt, he dropped his little plant. The container broke open on the road, and soil spilled, and I told him to leave it behind, there was no time.
And then I forgot about it. For years. But as Nola says in Hell or High Water, "nothing that's buried can stay buried long."
This realization was devastating to me. Yet I could not have moved forward without its clarity. It transformed me.I am thirty-three when I wake choking from a dream of the little plant. A small green seedling, the one thing he wanted to take with him. Alone in the brightness of my room, I see how simple it would have been to have helped him scoop it up, to have held it in our hands together as we rushed to the revving car. How you can be saying to someone, "You are the most important person in the world to me," and yet be ignoring the small thing closest to his heart. How you can halo yourself as the hero and never match up the shards that say you're not. How quickly it all happens and then there is no way back. (The Truth Book)
On the new paperback edition of The Truth Book, which launches this week, the University of Nebraska Press honors this moment of realization with Annie Shahan's beautiful cover design:
Thank you, Annie Shahan. And thank you, Tom Swanson, Bison Books editor, for wanting this project to come back to life in a new form, and to the wonderful and amazing writer Dorothy Allison, for writing a foreword for this new edition. The book has always been dedicated to my brother. Now its cover shows this, and I am so grateful.
This Saturday, we'll be celebrating the launch of Island of Bones at Indigo Bridge Books from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. We'll have mojitos, food, and homemade flan from my grandmother's secret recipe. But we'll also be celebrating the transformation of The Truth Book into something new, something more lovely than it used to be.
Our ethics and actions can transform us, can make our lives magical. Our writing can make us have to change in painful, powerful, and beautiful ways. If you're in Lincoln, come celebrate.
Here's what I do, a trick you might try. When I think I'm really done, I type out the whole email to the editor in a flush of "I'm finished!" relief, explaining what I've done and haven't done in response to his/her editorial suggestions. I attach the document file of the revised manuscript to the email.
Then I get up and go do something--doesn't matter what. Wash the dishes, whatever.
And don't you know that before five minutes have passed, little details are gnawing at me--you should have changed x, could have fixed y, you know you're being lazy with z.
Sigh. So then I come back and delete the attached document from the email, open the bloody thing up again, and make those changes that my better angels know I ought to make. Grrr.
So if you're ever wondering if a piece is really, truly done and ready to send out, you might try that. It always works for me. Saves me from chagrin later on, and saves my editor time and labor.
Here's hoping that this new novel, which I was calling BAD SHOOT but which we're now calling NEARER HOME (a title that may sound cozy but, as an allusion to Robert Frost's "Desert Places," is actually psychologically chilling), will be actually, really, finally done by the 30th. Wish me luck!
In other news, a big shout-out of thanks goes to blogger Michelle Jackson, who reviews Hell or High Water here. You cannot imagine the relief in an author's heart when a review begins, "I do not even know where to express my absolute love of this book." I'm so glad Michelle loved it, and I'm tickled that she thought I was a native New Orleanian. I like what she says, too, about the novel's heroine, Nola:
She is wickedly smart and brave, yet puts herself in so many risky situations that you wonder what the hell is wrong with her. . . . The book is told from her voice, and what a voice it is.
Gratitude. It means so much when readers love a book.
In international news, the ink is dry on the contract, so I'm happy to be able to announce that Gallimard will publish a French translation of Hell or High Water in its historic Série Noire line. This is a huge honor and thrill for me, since that's the imprint that published two of my biggest mystery-writing heroes, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The editor at Gallimard called Hell or High Water "tricky and insidious"--and really, for a crime author, what compliment could be higher?
While the publishing industry convulses (mostly fearfully) about its uncertain future, Stadler offers some striking insights. Here are some choice passages:
The crisis in publishing is the collapse of the book as a commodity, as a nexus for shopping. That's it.
Reading can shape an economy. I call that practice publication, and I'm going to draw things in sharp contrast to clarify the practice. Publication is the creation of new publics through a culture of reading. Shopping, which is the prevailing culture of our time and which drives most of the choices now being made in publishing, corrodes or evacuates public. Real publication begins by quieting the noise of shopping.
Reading and shopping have never been a very good match.
For those of us who love reading, and who are sick and tired of shopping, this is a golden time indeed.
Publication is the creation of a public. It is an essentially political act.
Literary culture . . . is almost beyond the ken of those would like to manage it.
Literary culture and its economy have never been made better by convincing non-readers that they ought to buy books.
The quick changes, the premium on novelty, the need for a next debut novelist--once the last one has moved tiresomely on to their second novel--is not a happy companion to publication.
Publication is a political strategy.
It's interesting to me to come across Stadler's work at the precise moment that I've hired a publicist to make the most of my two forthcoming books' brief windows. My publicist is great, but her creative, clever ideas actually do link books to shopping. They're terrific ideas and have worked well for other clients. But there's something sort of surreal about them, too, because they have little to do with literature. They don't "quiet [ ] the noise of shopping" at all; they amplify it.
My experience thus far of publishing is that it's intensely dollar-driven. Which is not why I write, and probably not why you write. Yet I find myself getting caught up in the panicky logic of the machine: If this book doesn't sell well, no publisher will look at your next book. Short story collections sell poorly; write a novel. Your narrator's not likeable; no one will buy this. And so on.
How different from the truth and relief of a statement like this: "The crisis in publishing is the collapse of the book as a commodity, as a nexus for shopping. That's it."
Stadler's lecture is a bracing corrective. Have a look.
This year, she was kind enough to do it again. (Different students, different questions--different moment in publishing.)
I particularly like the Nelson Literary Agency because they offer an alternative to the notion that everything related to publishing happens in New York. In fact, plenty of strong presses, agencies, and publicity firms work in the West, Midwest, and other regions. (Though I have a New York agent, my terrific publicist works out of Arizona.)
I particularly like Anita Mumm (photo by Daniel Hirsh) because she's thoughtful, knowledgeable, smart, and honest. Here are her thoughts.
Caitie Liebman: What is the most common piece of advice, guidance, or command you give your clients?
One of the most common pieces of advice our agents give to clients is to keep writing. Even after you've succeeded in getting an agent and published one or more successful books, there is no guarantee about the success of future ones. The market is fickle, trends come and go, and dozens of factors determine the success or failure of a given title. So if your goal is to make a living as a writer, treat it like a job, not a hobby. Finish your book, celebrate, and start on the next one. Incidentally, that's the same advice we give to writers who are having no luck finding an agent. Maybe you're just not pitching the right book.
Another piece of advice: build your brand. In other words, get your name out as a writer on your website, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Self-marketing is a skill that is becoming increasingly vital for writers, whether they are self-pubbing or working with a major publishing house.
Nicole Greene: What (if there is one) is the typical training/experience of a literary agent? What is your own educational background or training, and how did that lead you to work with a literary agency?
Agents come from a variety of backgrounds, but some things they often have in common are an English or Literature degree, a publishing course (e.g. a Master's program or other intensive course), and experience at a publishing house or other business linked to the publishing industry. I should also note that many agents are also writers; these interests go hand in hand.
In our case, Kristin Nelson attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute and worked for another agent before starting Nelson Literary Agency. Sara Megibow (associate agent at NLA) focused on Women's Studies at Northwestern University before becoming a literary assistant and then an agent. My background is in linguistics, French, and teaching ESL. Plus a lifetime of hard-core reading experience and passion for language. . .
I'm pretty sure that was what got me the job. :)
Kathy Samuelson: How long does it usually take for an agent to accept a client--assuming that the agent likes a writer's work?
In general, if an agent is immediately taken with a writer's work and feels there will be competition for it, she will request samples or a full manuscript almost immediately. So, the period between submission of a query and signing by an agent can be as short as a couple of weeks to a month. However, if an agent is on the fence (because she loves a project but questions its commercial viability, for example), she may continue to think about it for a few months. Most projects fall somewhere in between.
Laurie Weber: Do you ever take on clients based on a partially written work (memoir or novel), or would you always recommend that an unpublished writer complete his/her project before soliciting an agent?
Unpublished writers should definitely complete their project before submitting. It is extremely rare for an agent to offer rep based on an unfinished novel/memoir unless the author has strong publishing experience or is famous.
Vanessa Languis: If the author writes in different genres, does the agent represent all of his/her work, or are there agents that only deal with one specific genre?
Agents can't represent every genre (they would spread themselves too thin), so they choose several to specialize in. Most authors prefer to work with one agent, so I strongly advise you to do your research when deciding which agents to approach with your project. If you write in multiple genres, target agents who handle all of them.
It sometimes happens, though, that authors decide to write in a new genre later in their career. If it's a genre the current agent doesn't handle, an author may need to look for a second agent, but it is important to be honest and up front with both agents during this process.
Gabriel Houck: Are you aware of non-contract agreements between agents and writers, and is this a prevalent practice in the industry? Also, is there a market for agents to represent writers whose work is primarily short and not book-length?
No, I'm not aware of any non-contract agreements, and in general, I would not advise writers (or agents) to undertake one.
Yes, there are agents who represent novellas and short stories (especially collections). Nelson Literary Agency is not one of them, but you can search www.agentquery.com for a list of agents who handle these forms.
Wendy Oleson: What are the advantages to being outside NYC? How did you make (and how do you maintain) your connections with NYC editors/houses?
No subway trains to miss! :)
While all of us here at the agency love New York, we prefer the more laid-back atmosphere of the West (and our weekends in the Rockies!). Email and other technology allow an increasing number of non-NY agents to communicate quickly and effectively from afar with editors and clients all over the world (we can even Skype if we want the "face to face" experience). In addition to this, Kristin usually spends at least a month in New York every summer, meeting with publishers and editors and other industry professionals, and our staff frequently travels around the country and abroad to meet colleagues and writers at conferences.
Anita signed off with these final comments:
"These were great questions, and I was delighted to answer them based on my experience at a literary agency. For more information on agents and publishing, a couple of good resources are www.agentquery.com, www.publishersmarketplace.com, and www.pred-ed.com. Happy writing!"
All of these unretouched photos were shot in natural light in the Creamery Building in the Haymarket in Lincoln. (Nicky enjoyed studying the author photos of the famous Marion Ettlinger in advance, though I'm afraid neither she nor I could pull off the gravitas of an Ettlinger.) If you know me personally, then you'll recognize the striped hoodie, which my son Grey left behind when he left for college--and which I'm wearing, in fact, right now as I type.
I sent all six photos to my agent, my editor, and the marketing manager at St. Martin's, so they could help choose the one that will be my public visual representation for the next couple of years or so. (Remember, this is a thriller they're trying to sell.)
Weirdly, all three industry experts--separately--chose exactly the same one.
Publishing mind-meld? Is there a platonic ideal of an authorial visage out there, such that they all simply selected the photo that came closest to it?
Which one would you choose? What do you think of the experts' choice?
If you're an author in the region and you like Nicky's work, shoot me an email and I'll put you in touch. I can't recommend her kindness, patience, good humor, and professionalism highly enough.
(The publishing experts chose the right-hand photo in the top row.)