Archive for February, 2012

I questioned for a while whether to write about this on my blog. Would editors to whom I am, via my agent, submitting my manuscript be put off by my discussion of literary fiction and technology? By pondering aloud whether to pursue an e-book route or not would I be pushing potential publishers away?  But I think not. It is just a discussion. I have made no decisions. There are far too many factors and unknowns, and more than anything right now the question of how to get my story out into the world, given all the possible channels and structures, is more confusing than anything else.

Nathan Bransford, blogger and former literary agent, put up a thought provoking post a few days ago titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” He cites a number of literary writers’ comments—ranging from musings to rants—regarding ebooks, social media and the Internet. Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith are among those he mentions. His post elicited 69 (to date) responses, some of which are quite insightful and raise the notions of fear of change, academia, generational differences, mass culture, use of time, distraction, complacency and all kinds of other elements that may be contributing to the divide that seems to exist between writers of “literary” fiction and the adoption of new technologies.

I would love to see my book in print, a physical object, with a beautiful glossy cover and satisfyingly papery pages. Something I can bring to dance and writing events, pull out of my bag and leave in high traffic areas, sign and hand over to a friend or colleague or stranger. Something that a person can read on a subway and flip over to show the title to the person next to her who asked what she is reading. But I know this is not the only way to share my story, and I care immensely about getting it out to as many readers as possible. Thus I’ve been trying to educate myself on the various options that exist, the various publishing mechanisms that might be appropriate for distributing the story.

As a part of this effort, I attended a multi-hour session on ebooks, offered by Grub Street, the fantastic Boston-based center for creative writing. And while I entered the room with the notion that I could easily embrace the ebook thing, I left wondering if that is indeed the case. Two things happened to me during those hours: 1) I learned the nitty gritty of turning a manuscript into an ePub file, including the disheartening fact that one has to strip the manuscript of virtually all formatting, including any paragraph breaks not related to chapter breaks, any tabs or intendations, any centering of quotes or poems or other material not presented in simple paragraphs of prose. Talk about reducing the aesthetics of a book! Does this make me old-fashioned? I truly wonder.

The second thing was that I ran into a straight-talking, honest and successful agent who has been kind enough to read some of my chapters in the past, and when she found out which workshop I was attending, she said, verbatim: “Don’t do an ebook except as a last resort. Your book is too good. Your manuscript has only been on submission for 5 months? That’s nothing. Give it at least two years.” Wow. There is so much to parse out of that statement. I don’t even know where to begin.

One: an ebook as a last resort. This at a time when the blogosphere is rife with examples of writers, some of them already successfully published traditionally, who are choosing to go straight to ebooks for their next work. What to make of this?

Two: “Your book is too good.” Well, that is very flattering, for sure, but what does it mean? And what about trying to find a way to have an ebook AND a print book simultaneously? Surely that shouldn’t be a “last resort?” What was the agent really saying? Was she echoeing the phenomenon that Nathan Bransford was highlighting, of “literary” fiction—and presumably readers of such—not being aligned with technology?

Three: “Give it at least two years.” Well, this I can undersatnd. I’m willing to wait until I find what I feel is the right method to release my book. It took me eight years to complete, why should I rush now? And that gives me time to work on the next one, so there can be less of a gap between the publication of the two. (Yes, I’m ever the optimist.) This is the one part of the statement that resonates with me.

These are truly interesting times, my friends, in which to try to publish. And on an ending note: my mentor and one-time professor and employer, Paul Levy, most recently the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, put out his own book via CreateSpace just a few days ago. It’s a print book, not an ebook, but he has self-published it. In his words: “Entitled Goal Play! Leadership lessons from the Soccer Field, the book presents insights from sports, health care, business and government to help leaders get better outcomes.” Paul Levy is an unequaled leader with an illustrious career, including positions such as Director of the Arkansas Department of Energy, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and Executive Dean for Administration at the Harvard Medical School. One would think that he would easily get a deal from a traditional publishing house. He certainly has the proverbial “platform,” including a widely-read blog. (http://runningahospital.blogspot.com/) And yet, when asked why he didn’t choose that route, he says: “Publishers offer me nothing. They expect me to do all the publicity.  I have my own outreach arms.”

If this is true for non-fiction, why such a perceived difference for literary fiction?

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I last wrote about the book as object. Not so much the content of books, but their physical being, their presence in the landscape of one’s life. This week, after helping K with an assignment in which she had to use a little drawing and as the starting point for a whole story, and after struggling with another project of mine in which I need to weave a story out of some didactic principles, I have been thinking more about the contents of books, and effective storytelling. And before I go further, I have to share with you this trailer for Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes for a look at a fascinating experiment with the book form, and the creation of a story.

I came across this as I did what I should have done two years ago, which is post my own book trailer on YouTube. It’s been available since its creation in 2010 on Vimeo and the web site for Faint Promise of Rain, and on Facebook, but for some reason I hadn’t yet posted it on YouTube. As I did so, I wondered what the state of the Book Trailer is these days. Every six months or so, I take a look at what else is out there in this form, to see how other writers are using audio-visual media to entice readers. And I’m still struck by how the majority of book trailers out there use a fairly flat combination of still images (sometimes “animated” to float across the screen, or fade in and out, but nonetheless essentially still) with a soundtrack and some words on the screen (not necessarily taken from the book itself, which baffles me) and maybe an awkward appearance of the author him/herself being interviewed in a mock-improvised setting. Even those for books by successful and well-known authors, even trailers created by publishers, who presumably still have a (albeit dwindling) publicity budget for the books they put out.

And yet, the trailers that are the most enticing to me are the ones that are themselves artistic works of creativity, and which tell a story on their own. The story of why one must pick up the book and read it. The story of why one should care. There are purists out there, those who decry the use of video to promote a book, but why shouldn’t one do so? At the fingertips of writers now are so many means through which to communicate a story, to have it take root, take life, in someone else’s consciousness. Isn’t this the whole point of writing? To be able to say: Look, here is this story, it is gorgeous, it is magical, it will give you goose bumps, it will lighten your heart or wring it dry, it will make you laugh and make you cry, it will send you skipping in the sun, it will reduce you to a trembling heap when done, it will live with you always. Maybe it will change your life, maybe it will help you with a decision, maybe it will give you a necessary escape. Maybe you will see yourself in it, or your father, or your friend. Why not embrace all the possible ways of conveying it?

I will always put words first in my own storytelling. I love playing with them, the rhythms and cadences they create, mellifluous or staccato, susurrating or jagged. But in my efforts to share Faint Promise of Rain, I am looking forward to including images with the words, and not only images but movement in the form of dance and sound in the form of music. And if I could also add smells to the experience, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Have you seen any book trailers lately? Any particularly good ones? Does the term “trailer” put you off, or entice you? Do they seem like gimmicks, or a good way to draw in a potential reader?

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I am currently reading MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. Because it is close to 1,000 pages long, and because my reading time these days is relegated to the late evenings, when I’m so sleepy that sitting down to read inevitably leads to drooping eyes and a slipping book, “currently” has been going on for a while. The thick tome, with its cover curled upwards from being held open, has been an integral part of the living room landscape for weeks, alternately on the side table, the sofa, the kitchen counter, and the third step of the staircase up to the bedroom (the first two being within the reach of the pudgy paws of a one and a half year old).

During this time, I’ve had ample opportunity to remember seeing my own mother read the very same book, about 25 years ago. One image in particular stands out in mind: my mother in a low-slung, striped chaise longue on the rough and uneven terrace of a spare, stone house atop a hill in Corsica, France. Her hair is dark, her short sleeved top is brown, maybe reddish, she’s wearing cream-colored capris, and she’s sitting in the shade of the house near a the long wooden table at which we took most of our meals. The image is vivid because of all the other impressions associated with it. A long, timeless series of beach days stretching endlessly ahead of me in the way that summer days—back when they were blissfully unstructured—appeared to me as a child. The hot, dry aroma of thyme and rosemary growing wild on the scraggly Corsican hillsides. The moist coolness of the inside of the house with its sparse and rugged wooden furniture and occasional bats. The wild hogs and ambling donkeys who came to root about the house and knock at the shutters with their snouts and muzzles. The clammy-and-rough feeling of removing a one-piece, sand-filled bathing suit after the last dip of the day in the sea, and the way the bathing suit ends up all rolled up onto itself and inside out and unpleasantly cold against sun-warmed skin. The sparkling turquoise of the Mediterranean waters lapping at the strip of golden beach at the bottom of the hill. I knew nothing of the contents of The Far Pavilions at the time, and in fact they bear no relation to this setting since they take place in 19th century Northern India, but these are my memories of my mother reading this book.

Fast forward to now. Seven-year old K has noticed the book, given how long it’s been sitting around. She’s delighted in the fact that I am using a bookmark of her creation, a white and red laminated strip of paper with her name crookedly spelled out in crayon, affixed to which is a piece of twine strung with five brightly colored plastic beads. She’s asked me “So what is The Far Pavilions about anyway?” She’s noticed that the cover has become warped with use. We are not in a locale with a particularly striking set of sights or smells, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon seeing this same tome many years from now, she has a sudden memory of her sister at the age of 20 months, eagerly extending her chubby fingers to try to grasp at the beads that dangle so tantalizingly from the bookmark. Or if she recalls the peaceful quiet of Sunday afternoons with her father on his computer and her mother reading, spending companionable “quiet time” together while the baby naps, and then having tea time all together, with a proper set of china cups and of course some cookies.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing the whole thing, perhaps she won’t have a single memory of it, but there are other books from my past whose physicality brings me back to very specific times and places (for example my stained copy of Watership Down which I read at the age of 11 in a train cutting through the French countryside, and on which I spilled a bottle of apple juice), and because of this I suspect she’ll have similar memories.

But only for a while. For in the age of e-books, the collection of memories associated with a specific copy or edition of a specific title—not the memories of its contents but the memories of the time and place in which one read them, of the person one was at the time—will be moot. I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite here; I’m ready to embrace certain aspects of the whole e-book wave, and it’s entirely possible that my own book will come out as an e-publication. But no one can tell me there isn’t some nostalgia in which to indulge here.

What are some of your own memories associated with your reading of certain books? Do you still have those volumes on your shelves?

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