Posts Tagged ‘Faint Promise of Rain’

In the lead up to the book launch, I’ve had the opportunity to write some pieces for various sites. Some are long interviews, some shorter, such as this one in Shelf Awareness, others are essays (yet to be released) and still others are little snippets, such as this one on From Left to Write. They’ve been fun to draft.

Faint Promise of Rain at Harvard Bookstore

Faint Promise of Rain at Harvard Bookstore

In the meantime, the book itself seems to have jumped the gun. Although Amazon still shows its publication date as October 7, friends who have ordered it report that it has been delivered. And, best of all, an acquaintance sent an excited email to my husband over a week ago saying she’d spotted the book on prominent display at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA. I hurried over there the very next day, and will admit to feeling misty-eyed as I came across my little baby sitting there on the shelf, next to a collection of O. Henry prize stories. It was holding its own, looking colorful and so real, absolutely sure of its place. I lingered for a while, casting glances at the other people browsing, hoping someone would pick it up, wondering if I’d speak up and say anything. “I recommend that book. It’s wonderful.” But no one did, not right then.

Finally, I picked one up and brought it to the check-out counter. The young woman at the cash register made a motion to ring up the purchase, asking the perfunctory “Are you all set?” And I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too loudly, “No!” She was taken aback. I softened my manner and smiled. “I wrote this, and I’d like to sign it.” She broke into smiles herself. “Oh, wonderful.” Next thing I knew, she’d brought out the whole stock, and offered me a “nice pen.” But I had a nicer one, because I have a whole drawer of special pens, and I’d selected a bronze Sharpie to match the color scheme of the cover and the story. What fun to scrawl my name on the title page!

 

 

 

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I’ve signed a book contract for FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN. This is a fabulous, dance-a-jig worthy event for me, after years (and years) of work. And yet, there is also a part of me that has gone into a panic. A panic about actually sending the book out into the world for people–real, live people–to read. And possibly not like. And possibly post devastating reviews about. I remind myself of all the wonderful and complimentary comments I’ve received on the manuscript by well-established editors (who nonetheless declined to publish it), but still.

It has been a decades-long and enriching journey to get to this point of showing my work, my writing, to others. But it remains, nonetheless, terrifying.

Imagine this scene: 9th grade, English class. Our teacher, Mrs. Fournier, gave us a writing assignment. It was a single word: Solitude. In classic French fashion (for this was taking place in France) she told us to take that one word, and fill 4-6 pages. I remember the feeling that came over me as I wrote it. I was giddy with joy at the assignment, and worried that someone would notice. The assignment took very little conscious thought. The words flowed, I loved the feeling of the fountain pen sliding on the smooth paper. I turned it in, feeling confident I had done solid work. But I was not expecting what came next.

The teacher handed back the papers, but not mine. I wondered if it had gotten lost. Then she said that one student’s writing had stood out, and she wanted to read it aloud. All eyes turned toward me, and I wondered how they knew. I felt my cheeks flush. It was the proverbial want-the-floor-to-open-and-swallow-me moment. She read the piece, and as the words came out of her mouth I pictured the story again, the old man in his dim home, at the Formica table stained with coffee rings, the memories of his wife lurking in the corner with the dust bunnies. It was more Loneliness than Solitude, but it worked. The line between the two is blurry. At the end, Mrs. Fournier put the paper down, and there was silence. A roomful of fourteen year olds was silent. Then she said: “Very few 9th graders can write like this.” I felt proud, embarrassed, unworthy all at once. And also awed by the effect that words could have on people, and that I could put these words together myself.

Solitude_Essay
It was a long time before my writing was shared again with anyone other than teachers. I preferred it that way. Besides, I didn’t actually do much creative writing. Some poetry, written in my journal, in my room, then stashed away under layers of clothing in a drawer. That type of thing. I wrote, of course, for college courses, an honors thesis, my work in economic development consulting, my graduate studies in urban planning, my Master’s thesis, and people said lovely things about my writing, but I left it at that.

Then, at the age of 30, moved by my recent travels to Rajasthan, India, and by my classes in kathak dance, I started scribbling again. An image that I found in, of all places, a travel guidebook, sparked it. I researched the background of the image, began recreating a place and time. The faintest outlines of a story started taking shape. It was months before I realized I was writing a book.

I had three chapters drafted when I found out I was expecting a child. I knew I needed to get more on the page so that the body of work accomplished would be large enough, important enough, to call me back once I had given birth to the baby and ensured that she was healthy and thriving. I also knew I needed to acknowledge out loud, to my family and my friends, that I was writing a book, in order to make it real. Not real for them, but real for me.

The baby, K, was born. I worked during her naps. The manuscript crawled along. Finally, I had a full draft. It was summer, the child was three, I headed to France with her to visit my parents, and I left a copy of the manuscript with my husband, J, for him to read for the first time. I couldn’t bear to be around while he was reading it, so I asked him to do it before he joined us in France. He read it on the flight, and on the train down to La Ciotat in the South.

It was a sparkling sunny day on the Mediterranean coast. K and I wore flouncy skirts that danced around our legs as we waited for the high speed train on the quay. It arrived, slowed, stopped. The doors opened in unison, and I scanned the flow of passengers disembarking, blinking at the bright sun, clutching their suitcases. J appeared and we ran toward him, but something made me stop short. He bore a strange expression. We hugged, but he felt distant. What’s wrong, I asked. I was reading your book, he said. My chest tightened. He hated it. My book was awful. I had wasted hours and hours, years. He was disappointed in me. “No, it’s really good,” he said. “It’s just, I was at that really intense and kind of disturbing part.” And I smiled. There it was again. What I’d written had altered someone, at least temporarily. As it had in that 9th grade classroom. “Come,” I said, taking his free hand. “My father’s opened the rosé for lunch.”

Later that summer, I enrolled in a 10-week workshop, Novel in Progress, at Grub Street Writers. It was my first time sharing my writing with strangers, with people who knew nothing about me, probably little about India (where my book is set), even less about sixteenth century northern India. Presumably, they would be candid, unconcerned about hurting my feelings. I was exhilarated, and tremendously nervous. There were twelve of us, adults working on our (for the most part) first novels. On the first day, three students were to read out loud from their work. I was one of those first three. I was happy to get it over with at the beginning, but wished I could hear a few of my fellow students’ work first to know what I was up against. Not that it was a competition, of course.

One person went before me. I recall being generally impressed with the writing without being bowled over. This was good, promising. I felt I was in good company. (And in fact, I was.) These other writers were solid, dedicated. When my turn came, my lips went dry, my voice felt wobbly. I read for my allotted five minutes, acutely aware of how unpracticed I was at reading out loud, wishing I’d thought to put a cup of water in front of me. When I finished, the room was quiet. I avoided everyone’s eyes. Part of me feared they were all simply trying to mask their horror, to think of something kind to say. But part of me knew that was not true. Finally, one of them spoke. “Wow.” That one word broke the ice, and others started commenting as well.

For me, that one word told me that I would be alright. Over the course of the 10 weeks, and then over the course of the years of revisions and rewrites, the dozens of rejections from agents and then from editors, the moments of self-doubt, the times my friends, my writing group and others told me that things weren’t working, that the voice was too distant, the plot twist unbelievable, the character arc missing, I held onto that moment when I got goosebumps reading my own few pages, when a roomful of strangers was reduced to a single “wow.” That is why I write, for those moments, however few and far between. And they cannot happen if I do not show my work.

 

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Raja Ravi Varma, Goddess Saraswati

The recent and horrific gang rape of a young woman in Delhi who subsequently died from the injuries inflicted during her ordeal has catapulted India’s women into the headlines of media around the world. Someone recently asked me what I thought of this. Is this good for India or bad, she asked. She went on to say that she assumes it will be terrible for tourism. She, for one, would hesitate to go now.

I found myself having several concurrent and conflicting responses. There are so many things to think, it’s difficult to untangle them. As a person of Indian heritage, I felt my hackles rise in defense of a country that has so much culture, tradition, integrity, beauty and richness. Specifically as a woman of Indian heritage, I wanted to remind my friend that India, unlike many more “developed” nations, has in the past elected female prime ministers. As a practical, realistic person, I wanted to point out that this type of thing surely happens in India, and in other countries, much more than one wants to imagine. As a woman traveler, having felt the eyes and hands of strange men in buses and crowded streets in foreign (and not so foreign) countries, I understood her visceral fear.

Indians are trying hard to make the recent tragedy count for something. To that end, the extensive media coverage is a good thing. Public scrutiny, foreign scrutiny, internal scrutiny, these are what can really shake up the status quo. Add to that powerful awareness-building movements such as last week’s Feb 14th One Billion Rising and you have a recipe for change.

But how does one untangle India’s deep, long history of treating women as both sacred and profane? Of venerating female deities—among them Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science whose annual celebration, Saraswati Puja, was just two days ago—while denying some female children education? Of worshiping one’s own mother while copping a feel at someone else’s in the street? Of viewing female temple dancers as auspicious vessels of the divine, yet paying those temples for their more carnal services, as experienced by the central character in Faint Promise of Rain?

Perhaps one doesn’t untangle. One just acts. One takes what is good, and beautiful, and strong, and just, and one spreads it as best one can until it pushes out the rest. In a reversal of the last juxtaposition mentioned above, the New Light Foundation in Kolkata is working with (among others) the children of sex workers to empower them to find opportunities for themselves beyond the world their mothers have inhabited, and has included kathak dance classes as a means toward this empowerment. Kathak, the very dance that originated in those Hindu temples many hundreds of years ago. Pandit Chitresh Das, master kathak dancer and teacher, and the Kolkata branch of his school, has been involved with New Light:

Five years after this clip was shot, another was made with girls from New Light dancing, on the occasion of One Billion Rising. (Thanks to my mother Sara Mitter, author of Dharma’s Daughters who has worked with the New Light founder, Urmi Basu, for calling this to my attention.)

The videos speak for themselves. There are changes to be made. There are changes being made. So yes, I say to my friend. Absolutely. Go to India.

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Ancient Jain temple inside Jaisalmer. Photo by Sangeeta Dhanuka (Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Jain temple inside Jaisalmer. Photo by Sangeeta Dhanuka (Wikimedia Commons)

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. For centuries, the monsoons have been elusive, and it was no different when I was young. So it is understandable that when I was born during the first rainstorm in so long, some considered me special. In the royal palace of the citadel not far from our home, the walls of children’s rooms were, and are still, trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so when the gods finally did send rain, the little ones would not be afraid. But for others such as my brothers and sister, who grew up looking at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, the day of their first rain can mean an intensity of both fear and hope.

I have no doubt that I now possess an unusual gift, but it came late in my life. I began as all children do, accepting of my lot for it was the only one I knew, and living by the decisions my father made for me. When I was old enough, I began to understand that I could shape my own path. And although I struggled greatly along the way, the gods must have approved of what I chose to do with it, for many, many years later they gave me this gift. I am not sure why they acted as they did, or how they chose what knowledge to grant me and what to keep concealed. Was it a moment of selfishness on their part? Was it for our dance? For humankind? Or, possibly, just for me? Whatever the reason, knowing now the minds and hearts of some of those close to me when I was a child allows me to tell this story. It is not the story of me alone, but mine alone to tell.

www.faintpromiseofrain.com

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Our table last night, with the Commune.

Our table last night, in full Commune effect, with two two year olds slurping at oysters.

I don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions. The New Year is too fraught with expectations, other people’s lofty announcements, the ineluctable disintegration of many of these and their accompanying disappointments, the underlying knowledge that it’s just a day, a week, a month like any other, with as high a likelihood of happy events and terrible events, wise decisions and uninformed ones, as any other day or week or month.

That said, if any day is a good one to try to better oneself, or the world, then why not choose that day, sometimes, to be January first? It doesn’t make sense to avoid January 1st as though it carried the plague.

There are many changes in my habits, my behaviors that occur to me throughout the year, and so this day, my only resolution per se is to try a bit harder to make some progress within that realm. (You see how I’m setting myself up for almost certain success? It’s all in the metrics.) To manage to incorporate at least one new good habit into my life, or to shed one bad one. To be able to say, a year from now, hey, that was a good change, I’m so glad I stuck to it.

Oh. I guess there is one actual resolution in the commonly-accepted sense of the word that I am making, and that is to get my book out there in 2013. Next July marks both the ten year anniversary of my first scribblings on Faint Promise of Rain, before I even knew I was writing a book, and a certain supposedly significant birthday of mine. Those seem like good reasons to make a resolution of this kind.

But the other things, they are smaller, more intimate, more day-to-day. Significant only in their accumulation. Drink more water. Consume more calcium. Correct my posture more often. Allow myself to read more. Write more. Be patient with my two year old who is growing up too fast. Guard my creative time. Observe with words. Send some actual paper letters or cards. Remember to say no sometimes. Not worry too much about whether a certain blog post fits my “author brand,” whatever that is. And sure, why not, exercise more. Cliché, but always valid.

So here’s to 2013, incremental improvement, steps taken one at a time, little drops of water, little grains of sand. And that book of mine, the product of this approach.

How about you?

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What kind of sales should I expect of my debut novel if I go the indie route? This is what I am asking myself these days, today in particular as I draw up a balance sheet of estimated expenses and revenues, to help me decide whether or not to launch into independently publishing Faint Promise of Rain. Of course, part of me feels like it would be the natural thing to do, in keeping with the whole being-the-people thing, but I still need to understand the nitty gritty of it all.

With enough poking around, I was able to obtain some concrete numbers on the expenses side such as the per copy cost of printing if I do a short-print run, the shipping costs for online sales, the standard retailer wholesale discount (which I was shocked to learn is 55%) and other such data points. For other expenses, the Internet is providing me with enough examples for me to make some informed guesses, such as how much to spend on a publicist, and what editorial services should cost for a manuscript which, my agent tells me, is in good shape.

But when it came to what to expect for revenue, the Internet became my enemy . Not only because I cannot find much in the way of concrete examples of debut literary fiction sales figures, but because I am finding posting after posting filled with depressing predictions. Apparently, if I am to believe what the doom-and-gloom folks out there are saying under the guise of bracing indie hopefuls such as myself for misery, I would be lucky to sell 5,000 copies of my book. In total. Not in one year. Not in five years. EVER.

And this is where turning to the Internet can be so destructive. It’s like allowing yourself to drown in a sea of information regarding an illness, and all its possible horrible ramifications, and how it could, it just might, ruin your life, and how in some cases it will cripple you, and how there are support groups to help you cope because otherwise you might just want to end it all now. You read the discussion forums of those who are suffering and while your heart goes out the them, you quake at the prospect of ending up like them. Ok, perhaps this is an exaggeration, but I see it this way: I could choose to throw in the towel and declare that there’s no point for just 5,000 copies, or I could stand tall and say: 5,000 is nothing to sneeze at, and in any case, I can easily beat that. (And the illness metaphor is not totally gratuitous, as I’ve had some experience in that realm.) The darn thing is, I do believe I can beat that. Five thousand copies? That seems like nothing to me! I think of the connections I have in the dance world, in the Indian community, all the people I know who revel in literary fiction, the fact that India is, for good reason, a popular setting and topic in fiction, I think of all the people who have told me my manuscript is beautiful (thank you!), the fun ideas I have for promotion, and 5,000 seems more than feasible.

And yet. Those glum predictions hang over my head, because now that I have read them, I can’t un-read them. Despite feeling confident in my manuscript and my marketing ideas, there is a voice in the back of my head asking me why I have the hubris to dismiss the cautions of people who purport to know more than I do about the ins and outs of publishing. But then, in the nick of time, the Internet comes to my rescue. Because therein is the beauty of the Internet: it can, in one day, in one hour, mete out despair and hope in equal measure. One of my go-to sites for realistic, supportive advice and ideas regarding publishing, Grub Street, posted this entry just today by Terri Giuliano Long entitled “Indie success: hold on to your dreams.” In it this writer takes us back to when she was, essentially, in my shoes, believing 5,000 copies would be her ideal, through her indie publishing experience, and her sales of 120,000 copies in the past twelve months. And that is when I knew to stop trawling the web for information. I’d found what I wanted.

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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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