Monday, July 14, 2014

Why we write together


[This post originated in my newish blog Payperazzi.  I crosslist it here on Creating Van Gogh, for the sake of CVG readers and also because I provide some news about my forthcoming book Island Fog, half of which is made up of historical fictions.]

In a recent commentary in The New York TimesBonnie Tsui discusses her lifelong difficulties writing around other people and her recent breakthroughs doing just that.  (Thanks, by the way, to Erika Dreifus for another great reading recommendation.)  Interestingly, one of Tsui's discoveries stems from the fact that when she is around other people she talks more than she writes.  But that, it turns out, is a good thing.  The talking lets her flesh out various possibilities in a piece and thus decide what it is a right path and what a false trail without wasting several hours of writing before coming to the same conclusion.  (I'm not sure if, for a fictionist, any writing is truly wasted--but that's a discussion for another day.)  More intriguing is Tsui's past reasons for resisting writing in groups and the fact that despite these reservations she finally found value in it.  Some of the reasons--e.g., fear that someone will steal one of her ideas--seem almost amateurishly overblown (nothing is more commonplace than an idea); other reasons--such as the fear of distraction--strike me as more realistic.  The bottom line, though, is that Tsui has discovered a generous, supportive community that not only gives her important feedback on her work but informs her about, and connects her to, many important aspects of the writing world that lay beyond her narrow personal focus: readings, conferences, classes, etc.  Tsui has discovered that writing is both solitary and social; that the two aspects can and do feed each other.

Since in just about every class I teach I make my students spend at least some in-class time generating new material, I was heartened by Tsui's essay.  I can't remember when I first started making my students produce original work in class--I was never made to do this myself as an undergrad or a grad--but it has come to seem essential to me.  This is especially so in a forms class, in which I lead the students through a series of specifc fictional or non-fictional or poetic forms, and I want to make sure that they actively try every form we cover.  But no matter what the class, I always set aside in-class writing time.  In my mind, it's as central to a creative writing class as workshopping.  After all, if one takes a class in painting or dancing or acting or playing the piano, one expects to paint, dance, act, or play the piano in class.  One would feel cheated if denied the chance to do so.  So why should it be any different for a writing class?  Just as with painting or dancing, it's a matter of working on one's craft.  A minute spent practicing writing is about the best minute a writer can hope for, and the minute in which the writer learns the most.  And if one does that writing in the company of others and then shares that work with others--or at least hears about it from others--one learns not only about his or her own work but about someone else's and about the genre at large.  The learning is multiplied.

I always write along with my students, and I look forward to those days more than any other on the schedule.  First, as anyone who has taken a creative writing class can tell you, doing nothing but workshopping each other's stories or essays or poems all semester long can wear you out and finally even sap your creativity (because you're exercising your analytical and not your creative self).  Meanwhile, doing nothing but reading the work of masters, while an extremely valuable activity, turns the class into a literature course.  Having the element of on-site creativity affords a crucial pedogogical element of pause, of rest, of reenergizing, of rediscovery.  And far from being "just crap"or "just writing," what my students generate in class often becomes what they work on for their formal assignments.  Often what I write in class leads to a finished and published story.  I can't tell you how valuable that time has been for my career.

Over the years, nearly all my students have appreciated this in-class writing time, even my graduate students (and never more than when I teach Novel Writing Workshop). But of course this is not always the case.  Most years there is a student or two who turn their noses up at the practice, as if they are too good to waste precious time wrting in the presence of plebes.  Yes, as you can tell from my description, these students don't simply not want to write in class but, almost to a man--and they are always men--believe that they are better than that.  They glance around the room, at the other students and me--our heads bent over notebooks or laptops--with a caustic smile on their face, as if we are all dupes, or beginners carrying out grade school games.  Their writing time, you see--unlike everybody else's apparently--is special, holy, inviolate.  It must be done entirely in priviate--like some cultic religious function--or it can't get done.  In fact, again, to a man, that's what they tell me when I question them about their in-class inactivity: I have to write alone.  I became so quickly tired of this attitude that years ago I installed in my syllabus a warning (yes, I felt I had to warn them) that--gasp--we would actually be writing in this writing course.  I would remind them that my department existed in a College of Fine Arts, an arm of the university where creativity was routinely expected in classroom settings (painting, playing, dancing, etc.) and no excuses were afforded.  Finally, I felt I obliged to add this sentence:  "Being writers, this prospect ought to excite not discourage you."  

And that's really what it comes down to for me.  Of course writing is a solitary activity.  And I am someone who typically tries to keep distractions to a minimum when I write.  I don't write to music (although the vast majority of my students do); I don't write with the television or talk radio on; I don't try to write and text at the same time; I even like to keep the internet out of the way, unless I need to quick research a point directly related to what I'm working on.  I am by nature quite the solitary person.  But I learned easily enough, as soon as I started asking my students to, to compose while in the company of twenty or more people.  You do that by not being so much into yourself and about yourself and your holy rituals as into and about the work at hand.  You let the work at hand take you away.  And that can happen anywhere, in any company, no matter how large or small in number.   Finally--finally--you need to get over yourself.  That's what it's about.  For the good of your own writing, your own development, you need to.  And that includes the attitude the you can't ever learn from the people sitting in class with you; and the attitude that you can never learn a new way of composing.   To me, the writer who can't summon the necessary power of concentration to be compose--and I mean compose meaningfully--in a group of others is not more of a writer but less of one.  He is not able to do what others clear can do, and even enjoy doing.  His proud resistance is revealed to be less that of a genius than that of a misanthrope.  And perhaps, for all his haught, an insecure one at that.  Fortunately, with every year I see fewer of these types of students.  Perhaps initiatives like NaNoWriMo, with its big fat group writing parties, has shown young people the value of writing together.  Or perhaps this generation of students has just been been better taught how to work in a collaborative fashion, or at least in group settings.  But so far there are still the tenacious holdouts.  God bless them, I hope for their own sakes they leave aside the tiresome role of lone wolf, roaming the woods at night in search of inspiration, and allow themselves a step into the sunshine of immediate generation.

Quick personal note: I had a wonderful vacation last week in South Dakota, specifically in Custer State Park in the middle of the Black Hills region.  I'd never been to the Black Hills, or even to the state, before.  And now I won't ever forget it.  (Trying to figure how we can import buffalo herds down here to Arkansas.)   

Follow-up to my book marketing post:  Several weeks ago I put up a post that highighted all the marketing and promotion work I'd taken on for the sake of my book of linked stories, called Island Fog, which will be out in October from Lavender Ink press.  The last few weeks, thanks to a great reference book my wife gave me, I've been researching hundreds of book bloggers, national and international.  (Yes, I am pleased to report, there are hundreds of them out there.)  As a result, I contacted 65 or so to ask if they wanted to read and review Island Fog.  To date, 25 of these bloggers have said yes!  This is better than I could have anticipated, and now I can't wait to see the results.  A few of them are ready to go right away and I have to tell them, "Wait, it's not available for sale until October!" So I talk them down to September. I'm so glad I'm doing this all in advance.  (And I have to thank my publisher for the timely kick in the pants to get going.)  Hopefully Island Fog will be blogged galore come fall.  I'll let you all know.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Requiem for Joanna


The University of Central Arkansas, and most especially its Writing Department, suffered a terribly keen loss last week with the passing of our colleague Dr. Joanna Castner-Post.  Joanna was way too young, way too energetic, and way too loved for us to believe she's gone, but there it is.  And Joanna wasn't only loved, she was needed.  If you spend a lot time in higher education, whether as a student or professor (or both), you come to recognize a certain kind of undying, mid-level hubris that exists there.  After all, you're talking about people who have been lionized their whole lives for being smart--and they usually are, and they have the degrees to prove it.  And they are determined to prove it.

Joanna wasn't like that.  She was a supportive and enthusiastic colleague, a colleague who tried to see the best in the people around her and encourage the best in those people.  She did not act out of any closeted agendas.  If she told she believed something, you knew it was so.  Instead of shooting down new ideas and explaining why they couldn't work, she exulted over them and encouraged us to try to make them work.  She was that rare human being in academia: someone you could trust completely.  Even rarer: She was an optimist.  And she worked really hard.  It was for these reasons that she was so incredibly beloved at UCA.  Not only by her colleagues, but by her students and by the many classes of tutors she helped train at the UCA Writing Center when she served as its director.  For a week before her death, Joanna was in the Critical Care Unit at Conway Regional Hospitial in a chemically induced coma.  You never saw such a steady stream of people visiting a patient.  There were literally lines of people waiting to see her, to offer her their prayers and encouragement, and, in the end, to say goodbye to her one last time.   Not a soul was there because they had to be, only because they wanted and needed to.  One young man, a former Writing Center tutor, flew in from Utah just to see Joanna and say goodbye.  He then proceeded to fly right back.  At one point seven of her former tutors surrounded her bed, not wanting, any of them, to leave.  Several of her former students visited as well, many in tears.  It was a very very difficult week, but also an astonishing one.  Astonishing for the amount of love and respect one person could engender.   But then again, we're talking about Joanna.  

I remember when we first hired her in the Writing Department.  For some reason, which now I can't fathom, we did not receive the usual excessive number of applications in response to our job ad.   Some of us were unhappy with the pool of candidates en masse.  We talked about how we should go about our next job search to make sure we got a bigger pool.  I'll never forget what our (then) department chair Dave Harvey said in response:  "Yes, it would have been nice to have a bigger pool of candidates, but the bottom line is that if you've hired Joanna Castner-Post, you just had a very successful job search."  Of course Dave was right.  Something Joanna kept showing and showing as the years went on.  In fact, it might have been our best job search ever.    
                                                                      *     *     *  

Within hours of her passing last Friday morning, some former tutors of UCA's Writing Center established a Heifer Project "Send a Girl to School" fund in Joanna's honor.  The goal of the fund was to raise $275, as this is the amount that guarantees that one otherwise underprivileged girl can go to school in the developing world.  As of this writing, only two days later,  the fund has raised several times that amount.  Indeed, it's headed toward $2000.  What a testament to Joanna.  She may end up sending five or six girls to school--maybe more!  I mention this only as an example of the great love Joanna inspired in the UCA Community and beyond, not to try to trick you into opening your wallet.  But if you think you'd like to donate to the fund, you can do so by following this link.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Who pays?


[This is a post I generated for my other blog Payperazzi, for which it's admittedly better suited, but I'm cross-posting it here in the hopes of hearing as many different stories as I can.]

It's been my experience, and it's also perfectly natural, that the majority of students who trek through a MFA in creative writing program--along with several students who study creative writing as undergraduates--hope to someday, in some capacity, work in higher education, preferably teaching writing and preferably full-time.  This isn't surprising, and I can tell them that on the whole I've been rather happy with my choice of profession.  Indeed, knowing myself, and looking back over my job history, it's hard for me to imagine I would have stayed satisified in the different careers I tried when I was younger.  That said, there are all sorts of practical details of a full-time higher education job that no one considers when they are in graduate school but probably they should be warned about.  For instance, there's that messy little business of job-mandated dinner appointments, appointments for which one is rarely if ever reimbursed.  All things considered this is a minor matter in one's life as a college professor, but it's a matter that comes up time and again, year after year, like a pebble buried in the heal of one's running shoe, as job candidate after job candidate comes to your university and you are simply required to pay up, out of your own pocket, in order to host them.

Sometimes one willingly and eagerly pays to help host a visitor.  For instance, when the creative writers  at my school invite a writer to campus I am often so happy to have the chance to break bread with the writer that I don't mind paying for the privilege.  Such meals aren't burdens but opportunities, opportunities that we creative writers gave ourselves when we decided to invite those specific people to our school.  But some dinner appointments are much less interesting while at the same time mandated.  This is typically the case when a job applicant come to town for an interview and you are on the hiring committee that reviewed his or her folder.  I understand that a school must feed a person who's on campus for a job interview.  What I don't understand is legislating that the meal is the only way the committee gets to interact with the job candidate (this does happen), meaning that not a soul on the committee has the option to skip the meal, even if his or her bank account has no funds with which to pay for it.   I don't imagine that when managers at Wal*Mart or IBM or Exxon or _______ (insert name of familiar corporation here) take a job candidate to dinner, those managers are paying for their own meals.  Perhaps they do, but I'd be surprised.  In higher education, faculty are required to do this all the time.

And one dirty little secret of academia is that there are drastic discrepancies in faculty pay.  I don't just mean from region to region, state to state, and university to university.  Those can almost be anticipated.  (And they make meaningless any figure cited as a "national average" for college professors.) But even within a given university, faculty of equal rank, seniority, and accomplishment often receive vastly different salaries.  By "vast" I mean vast.  By the way, did I say that discrepencies are vast?  They are.  They're vast.  This has nothing to do with the amount of hours one logs on the job, how well one is teaching one's students, what service work one is performing for one's college, how much one is publishing, or whether or not one has a national reputation in one's field.  It simply has to do with what discipline you're lucky, or unlucky, enough to excel at, and how highly the university regards that discipline.  In certain disciplines you're driving sports cars; in other disciplines you're wondering how you are going to make it to the end of the week.  But no matter what the discipline, if you're on a hiring committee you're expected to take the candidate to dinner and pay for your dinner yourself.

Like I said when I opened this post, this is a relatively minor aspect of one's day-to-day life as a higher education professional.  It's one of the down sides to a career choice that has many ups.  But it does grate.  It just seems to me that if the university is mandating that one attend a given dinner for the sake of university business, the university should foot the bill.  Obviously, a person who is not on the hiring committee, and therefore does not have to attend the dinner, should pay his or her own way if he or she chooses to dine.  But if you're made to be there, the body that is making you owes it to you to cover your expense.   This strikes me as only commonsensical.  But it's just another example of an unfortunate phenomenon I've noted in recent years.  Universities will often hail the virtues of the "corporate model" if doing so means they can spend less on and for faculty.  But those same universities will ignore the corporate model in situations where corporations are actually more generous  toward their employees than the university wants to be.  In certain universities one has the uncomfortable feeling that the administration would prefer to actually spend nothing at all on faculty, despite the obvious fact that gathering students and teaching them is the entire point of higher education.  It's the reason why the university exists at all.  It's why those pretty brick buildings were built.  It's why administrators have the jobs they do.

Oh well, if I get started down that road I could go on forever.  So, tell me, who pays at your university for mandated dinners?  Am I wrong about the corporate world?  Does anyone have a better system and a happier story?

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Van Gogh opportunity!


Several interesting items came to me in the past few days, via Facebook and emailWith this post I'd like to share them with you.

Van Gogh Talking Painting Movie Project: UCA Honors College student Taylor Lea Hicks sent me a curious link, one that I just have to share with Creating Van Gogh readers.  It's an opportunity from Kick Starter not only to find out about a fascinating Van Gogh-themed movie project but to get involved yourself as a minor investor.  The plan for the movie is to tell Van Gogh's life story by having his paintings and drawings "come alive" and talk to the viewer.  Cool!  If you click on this link and watch the short video, you'll see an example of what the producers mean. Sounds like an exciting and extremely innovative project.

The "Van Gogh" photograph.  Could it be real after all? Several months back I first started posting about a controversial photograph, one that the historian of photography Joseph Buberger is convinced depicts the adult Vincent Van Gogh.  In a previous post, I passed on some evidence that suggests pretty strongly that the photograph was taken in Quebec, Canada by a Canadian photographer, making it unlikely that the photograph's subject could be Van Gogh, who never traveled outside of Europe.  But Joseph is still convinced and still seeks evidence to support his claim.  Last week he sent me two emails containing curious links.  Click on this link to see a colorized version of the photograph.  Very compelling.  The second link takes you to an article about Van Gogh in which Joseph's photograph is used, without comment, to show the reader what Van Gogh looked like.  Joseph's photo, despite the questions that surround it, certainly manages to stay in circulation!

Shameless plug/free stuff opportunity: Redacted Story, a just released, pleasantly perverse anthology from publisher KY Story, can be downloaded to your Kindle for FREE if you do so soon.  Click on this link to get the free download.  The 5-day free download deal began last Friday, which means there are only two days left!  Act soon!  As you probably guessed, the anthology includes a story of mine: a comic--even silly--sci-fi story about dogs on Pluto.  Yeah, that's right.  

Less shameless plug: On my other blog, Payperazzi, I've been carrying out a discussion about the 5 star rating system that is so often used to rate books.  The discussion has generated some Facebook and Goodreads discussion.  Click on this link to see my first post from last week and this link to see my followup post, featuring comments from reader Doug Luman. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

The right way and the wrong way


[This is a post I originated for my other blog Payperazzi, but I think might be of interest to Creating Van Gogh readers as well.]

If you stay in the creative writing game long enough you accumulate plenty of quirky, sad, disheartening, and even enraging publication stories.  Maybe about things that happened to you; maybe about things that happened to your friends.  But they happened.  In the unfortunate if inevitable tussles between writers, agents, editors, and publishers (take any combination of those four) sometimes things just go wrong--or they don't go at all.   In a previous blog post I mentioned that once I'd had a short story accepted for a themed anthology planned by a press who specialized in such, but that five years after the acceptance I was still waiting for the book to appear--until it became 100% clear, rather than merely 99% clear, that the book was never coming out.  Then I deleted the "publication" from my resume.   I'm going through something similiar now, except that it's taken a lot less than 5 years.   In Oct. 2012 I had a story--actually a short chapter from my Van Gogh novel--accepted for an anthology called The Man-Date: 15 Bromances which was being assembled by Prime Mincer Press, publisher of Prime Mincer literary journal.  The bromance thing seemed like a cute, trendy idea, one that might catch a lot of attention, make for a series of fun promotional readings, and hopefully generate some sales.  Although my piece was fairly serious--a picture of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh living together in a Paris apartment that was never intended for occupaton by two single men--I envisioned a series of comedic but literary, and maybe even moving, buddy stories.  The acceptance email I got from Prime Mincer made it clear they were proud of what they'd put together, so I eagerly anticipated the book, scheduled for release in "early 2013."

Well, the busy fall semester ended and a few weeks later the busy spring semester started.  I received no further communication from Prime Mincer, although I had no particular reason to be concerned.  In fact, at the 2013 AWP conference in Boston (last March) I spied Prime Mincer's table in the great big conference bookfair room, so I went over to introduce myself as one of the contributors to their bromance anthology.  The guy at the table was reasonably friendly, shook my hand, and informed me there had been some delays with publishing the book but that it would come out "soon."  No problem, I told him, and walked away, not doubting that what he said was true.  Turns out that would be the very last time I would ever hear a single word from anyone associated with Prime Mincer Press.  

Spring turned to summer; I started teaching a summer class, and then I took a trip abroad with my brother and his family.  I got back home to Arkansas and started preparing for the fall semester.  Fall semester began and things got busy and . . . You get the picture.  It wasn't until several months after the March AWP conference that it occurred to me to wonder, So where is that bromance anthology, anyway? First thing I did was go to Amazon to see if maybe it had been released already and I just hadn't heard (not likely), or if there was a future release date listed.  Nope.  No mention of the book at all.  It did not exist, according to Amazon.  I went to the press's web site and was more concerned when all I found there was the original call for submissions, with the same old damning information that it would appear "in early 2013."  We were well into the second half of 2013--about a year since submissions to the book were closed and all the acceptance notifications sent--and they hadn't thought to pull down the call for submissions from their web site?  I immediately emailed the managing editor of the press, just asking after the latest news.  I thought (or at least hoped) I might get an apologetic reply, with an explanation that the publishing schedule had changed again and the book would have to be out in late 2013 or early 2014.  But what I got was nothing.  Total silence.  This, of course, was bad.  Having one's emails ignored by someone in a professional setting is never a good sign--it's also completely inexcusable and the sure sign of someone with no real notion of what being professional means.

You know the end of the story.  When the semester was over, and I had time to breathe again, I did some more research on the anthology and the press.  This time I found not more information but less.  Prime Mincer's web site, rather than showing outdated information, had been pulled down completely.  It was gone.  Evaporated.  Meanwhile, the Facebook page for Prime Mincer, which previously had featured regular and enthusiastic news about the book, had not been updated since October 2012, around the time I received my acceptance email.  The web site for Prime Mincer's literary journal still existed, but it was advertising the last 2012 issue, long out of date by this time.   With nothing to lose I emailed the managing editor again as well as a different person who at one time--and I hoped still was--associated with the journal.   "What's up?" I basically asked.  Neither person responded.

So this appears to be the situation: Prime Mincer Press closed its doors, scuttled its very public plans for an anthology--and then didn't tell anybody!  And to this day they still refuse to tell anybody.  That is exactly the wrong way to handle an unfortunate turn of events.  Everybody knows things happen with small presses.  While they do great work, and serve an overriding need in the publishing industry, it's a struggle for them to survive.  Sooner or later many of them go belly up.  That is no cause for shame.  What is cause for shame is ignoring the very writers who helped you assemble your books.  What is a cause for shame is acting as if they don't exist or aren't worth even a two-second email.  What is a cause for shame is not taking responsibility for the project that you started.   And by taking responsbility I mean explaining to all involved what is going on.  I would never expect, don't need, and don't deserve a detailed explanation of the troubles that brought your press down.  What I do expect and deserve is a statement clarifying that your press no longer exists, that your book is not coming out, and mabye you feel sorry about it.  That's all.

That's not asking too much. 

In fact, that's asking for the bare minimum.  And yet too many publishers, like Prime Mincer, don't even do that.  What people need to understand is that writers, while being naturally disappointed by such a message, will appreciate being told, will appreciate being valued enough to be told.  Being told nothing--in fact, having one's attempts at communication ignored--isn't just disappointing.  It's maddening; it's infuriating.  It's utterly unprofessional and it doesn't make the situation better for anyone; it makes the situation worse.   (I happen to know, from my net-wide scrambling for info, that several writers who'd been accepted into the anthology put up excited posts to their blogs and web sites.  It's not just me who is being ignored but at least a dozen contributors, some of them highly established authors.)

I'd love to hear that the behavior of Prime Mincer is the exception when it comes to a failed press handling its lingering responsibilities, but I'm pretty sure it's not.  I'm pretty sure most presses, to say nothing of most businesses, handle their various demises exactly the same way: that is, by tucking in their tails and running, instead of owning up to the mess they left behind.  If you have a heartwarming story of a small press going down with dignity and taking care of its own, please share it!  It would make me feel a lot better.  And don't get me wrong, I've had fantastic relationships with many small presses in the past.  A great small press--Lavender Ink/Dialogos in New Orleans--is bringing out my short story collection Island Fog this year, and I couldn't be more pleased with how things are going.  Another small press--KY Story in Kentucky--is soon bringing out an anthology called Redacted that features, among several other pleasantly perverse submissions, a sci-fi story of mine about dogs being discovered on Pluto.  I've had nothing but frequent and open communcation with Ashley Parker Owens, the founder and chief editor of KY Story.  She's running KY Story exactly the right way.  So while I adore small presses--they are usually run by writers and out of a devotion not to profit but to the word--it's a simple fact that sometimes a small press fails; and thus a ballyhooed book by that press won't ever appear.  That's a real life situation.  Then the question for the press becomes: Are you going to handle it the right way or the wrong way?  I wish the correct answer was as obvious to others as it is to me.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2013: Historical year for historical fiction


I've been thinking for several years now that we are living through a golden age for historical fiction.  Of course I realize that almost since novels have been written writers have played with the idea of setting their stories in earlier historical periods.  But I can't think of an era in which the ambition to do so is as widely embraced by solid, literary writers--even young literary writers--as it is now.  Again, I'm talking about literary historical fiction, not historical romance novels or historical mysteries, which have been popular for decades and will continue to be so.  I'm referring to literary fiction written by mainstream contemporary authors, authors who aspire to write serious, realistic books regardless of the era their books are set in, but who happen more and more to be setting their novels in the past.  And there may be no more evident proof for this trend than the awards-giving season just passed.  Four of the six books shortlisted for the 2013 Man-Booker Prize are historical fictions (including the eventual winner).  At least two of the five finalists for our own 2013 National Book Award are historical fictions (including the eventual winner).  And if you are of the ilk (as many are) to argue that historical fiction isn't just a matter of an author writing about a period of time before he or she was born but writing about an era of special historical interest (even if the author lived through it) or a period far enough in the past that it must be approached as an historical period not merely "the way we live now," then we should also count Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers (set in 70s New York) as historical fiction, bringing the total for National Book Award finalist up to 3 out of 5.  Furthermore, just last week I was listening to the radio show Here and Now on NPR while book reviewer Lynn Neary offered up her unranked recommendations for the best fictional reading of 2013.  Neary named seven books in all, six of which--that's right six out of seven--qualify as historical fictions.  And she didn't even include two of the more prominent historical novels from 2013: Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.   Both of those are quite accomplished books, with The Luminaries, in my opinion, ranking as completely spectacular, one of the most memorable reading experiences I've had in a long time.  (Soon to come on this blog will be my own proselytizing  review of the book.) 

So what's going on?  Accepting my premise that we're living through a golden age of literary historical fiction, naturally leads to the question of Why.  Why are so many literary writers, both the young and the established, turning to previous eras for inspiration?  One obvious reason is implicit encouragement from publishers.  Just as, in the years following the astonishing success of the Harry Potter series and then the Twilight series, many writers thought to try their hand at YA--and, by the way, in college writing programs these days it's not uncommon to meet student writers seeking to specialize exclusively in YA, an unknown trend when I was a student in  a college writing program--as publishers let go their prejudice against historical fiction as a merely a matter of pretty costumes and exotic houses, as more of these books get published and earn acclaim for their authors, up-and-coming authors become increasingly influenced by and enthusiastic about the genre.   This simply must be the core reason.   

But it's not the only reason.  One can be successful (or not) and earn acclaim (or not) with almost any kind of book.  I think just as important a compulsion is the sense that writing historical fiction marks one as a writer who likes to take on serious, ambitious, even lofty challenges.  Every good literary novel will be serious, of course, but there's something about a historical novel that strikes readers, rightly or wrongly, as especially serious, and writers can't help but be influenced by this realization.  Perhaps it's all the research that typically accompanies the writing of a historical novel; perhaps it's the challenge of using that research to credibly represent the past; perhaps it's the challenge of turning that research into story.  For whatever reason, writing a historical novel is a special pleasure for those who do so.  It touches on so many different parts of our imaginative and intellectual  and even academic selves.  Every fiction one writes is (or can be) a source of pleasure, but the satisfaction of composing a good, successful historical fiction is unique. 

And I think maybe this leads to a final reason for historical fiction's emergence, a reason that ties back to the first I mentioned.  In an era in which--as agents and publishers have been telling us for too many years--the reading of literary fiction is on the decline and the selling of literary fiction is as hard as it's ever been, having a historical premise for a story sets it apart, makes it seem unique, gives it a recognizable and extremely useful identity: to agents, to publishers, to marketers, to booksellers, and to readers.   Finally, it might just be that historical fiction not only is a unique satisfaction for the one who writes it but makes for a more unique,  sexy novel on the bookstore shelf.  As a lover of the genre, if this means an increase in the number of good, commercially viable literary historical novels, I'm all for it.  After all, it's lead us to this current Golden Age, and I couldn't be happier.  

Sidelight: In case anyone reading this blog is a fan of sonnets as well as of historical fiction, you should check out my other blog, Payperazzi, in which I am currently providing a report on last semester's Sonnet Writing Workshop class, including the e-anthology we put together.  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Circuitous Tale of a (finally) Successful Book (Part 2)


[Readers: This is a continuation of a post I started last week in which I tell the tale of how a short story collection was finally accepted by a publisher, something like twelve or thirteen years after it was begun.]

The hardest part of the writing life is not the writing itself.  Not that the writing is easy.  It certainly isn't, but it's also uniquely entertaining and deeply nourishing.  Writing really is its own reward--which is why so many people are called to do it, even in our supposedly post-literate society--even if it's not done perfectly well, but especially when it is done perfectly well.  No, the hardest part of the writing life is not the writing but all the infernal roadblocks between what you've written and the audience it might move.  The hardest part is knowing that what you've produced is solid, very solid, as solid as you are capable of making writing be, and yet you still hear a seeming unending series of "no"s from publishers, editors, and agents.  To be honest, often times, those "no"s end up being terrifically helpful.  They force you back to a project and make you reexamine a project, and as a result you realize weaknesses you just didn't see the first time around.  Now having seen them, you can properly address them.  Reexamining your work and making it better is almost always a valuable expenditure of time.  But then there are the occasions when you've already spent so much time on a project, months or years or even decades, when you've already reexamined it a hundred or a thousand times over, when you finally say to yourself: No, this is how the manuscript must be; this is how it should be published.

I reached that point with the manuscript of Island Fog a year ago.  An earlier version of the book (see my last post) I had circulated among small presses and entered into contests, all to no avail.  But now I knew why.  That earlier book was never the real book. This one was.  It had a lot going for it: Its stride spanned four different centuries of Nantucket history, realistically (I think) evoking those different periods; it had engaging dramas; and it contained some of the best writing I've ever produced, including my favorite piece of fiction I've ever written, the novella that is the title story of the collection.  That story is set on 21st century Nantucket and is introduced as a realistic story with a realistic setting, but it quickly spins into something else, something I won't call magical--because it isn't--but is certainly mysterious and probably indebted to John Fowles's spectacularly disorienting novel The Magus Its smoke and mirrors effects, its purposeful air of mystery, its thoroughly confused young protagonist, its borderline inexplicable and never exactly explained developments might remind one of Fowles's 1966 masterwork.  An editor at a magazine I once submitted it to wondered if the story was science fiction, which at the time astounded me because at no point during the creative process did I have science fiction in mind.  I guess she took literally a comment the narrator makes that the protagonist Doug had entered a kind of alternative Nantucket entirely cut off from the other, more familiar Nantucket he once knew, even more cut off from the familiar world of his college life and his family.  No, it's not sci-fi; it's just weird.

While still trying (and succeeding) to publish individual pieces of the collection, and reading from the stories at two different international writing conferences, I also tried to find a home for the book as a whole.  I got very serious at the last AWP, circulating among the tables rented by various small presses, describing the book and inquiring about their submission policies.  I also consulted some extremely helpful databases, the most helpful being the Poets & Writers database of small and alternative presses.  In that way, I educated myself on the small presses that publish fiction in this country, and I began to sort out which ones might be good fits for my book.  I submitted to several included in the P and W database as well as to a few that I learned about at AWP.   It's a great feeling to place your manuscript directly into the hands of someone who can make a decision about it, independent of an agent.  One frustration for the literary fiction writer, however, when dealing with small presses is that they tend to emphasize poetry and academic nonfiction, because these genres are largely ignored by mainstream publishers.  "You fiction writers always get those huge deals from the New York presses," I've had said to me by small press editors on several different occasions.  Huge deals?  Who are you talking about?  Most fiction writers are lucky if a person at a NYC press actually reads a single page of his book much less offers him a "huge deal."  No, the truth is that for many literary fiction writers the small press is just as much the inevitable fit as for poets and critics.  Because as with poetry and criticism, that's where the best, most daring work gets done.

I received many positive comments about the collection from various presses.  I got very very close with one, but finally they wanted the stories to be linked even more they are, linked in the manner of a novel-in-stories, which my book isn't and can't be.  With palpable regret they declined taking on the manuscript, but they did encourage me to try again another time with another book.  (I probably will.)  The positive responses I was getting told me I was on to something, that this new version of Island Fog was holding its own, bearing weight, if you will.  I just needed to keep trying.  One of the presses I tried at was Dialogos/Lavender Ink, run by Bill Lavender, a man I'd met two or three times at readings and at AWP, but no one I could say I actually knew.  I followed the same protocol everyone else must who submits to his press and I hoped for the best.

And then it happened.  Bill sent me a tidy little email one morning in late September, about six months after I'd submitted, inquiring if the book was still available.  Because his press was considering publishing it.  I responded immediately: Yes, it is still available; thank you for your interest.  Another month or two went by as I busied myself with all the usual activities of my writing and teaching and family life and tried not to wonder too much what Dialogos/Lavender Ink was thinking.  Finally, in mid-November I shot an email to Bill asking him if the press was still interested in my book.  I didn't expect an immediate reply.  And I had several errands to run just then. As it turned out, I didn't check back on my email until the next day.  When I did check I saw that Bill had replied within an hour of my emailing him.  His reply: Yes, we want it.  And in a followup message he had sent me a contractual agreement.  Just like that, early on a Saturday morning, sitting on my living room couch, the wait was over.  Island Fog the book was no longer an idea but an actuality--not a potential project anymore but a real one with an established publisher.

Afterword: At the moment I am seriously editing each of the stories in the collection.  (Bill needs the final version by February.)  This is crucial and very satisfying work.  You have no idea how good it feels just to worry about the writing itself and not selling the writing.  Of course, all that other kind of work awaits me when I put my next book on the market. : )