Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Snow ends, tour begins


Boy, has it been a weird winter.  Mid-January to early-February looked practically balmy here in Arkansas, and then we got slammed with three to four straights weeks of winter junk.  Nothing like the northeast got, of course, but enough that it put a significant hit on local schools and events, including an evening at the Big Rock Reading Series (in Little Rock) that I was dearly looking foward to participating in.  Two weeks later one day of our Arkatext Writers Festival had to be be canceled, the very day when a poet I was "in charge of" was supposed to speak.

The good news is that spring, at least in Arkansas, seems to have actually and truly arrived.  (As I type this, it's 72 degrees outside.)  And not a second too soon either, because starting this Thursday morning I'm heading eastward with my family in our minivan to visit relatives and do an Island Fog mini-tour.   One has to arrange these dates a ridiculous amount of time in advance, so I'm keeping my fingers severely crossed that in the northeast, even if it's colder than here, the snow and sleet and slush are done.   No more cancellations, please!

For anyone reading this blog who lives in or around upstate NY, here are the events I'm doing in the next ten days or so.  (I'm leaving off one date with a book club in Auburn, NY, because that's private!)

Saturday, March 21, 11a-1p: Book signing at Market Block Books in Troy, NY.  A lovely, old fashioned bookstore in an historic building in a charming city just outside of Albany.   [That's Market Block in the picture above.]  My father-in-law and his wife will be there, along with several of their friends.  Come join us!

Thursday, March 26, 7p: Reading and book signing at the River's End Bookstore in Oswego, NY.  I have heard nothing but rave reviews about this store from friends who live in and around the Syracuse area.  ("You have to go to River's End and read there!")  Well, after much scheduling and rescheduling it's finally happening.   [River's End is pictured on the right.]

Friday, March 27, 7p: Reading and book signing at the Downtown Writer's Center in Syracuse, NY.  This venue hosts an ambitious schedule of reading events every semester.  As a visitor from faraway Arkansas, I'm honored to be on the program.

One thing that's thrilling to think about is that people in upstate New York are surely more familiar with Nantucket, Massachusetts--the setting for every story in Island Fog--than are people in the south, even people in a sweet upscale college town like Conway.  So come on out, up-staters, and ask me whatever questions you can think of about that little island "away offshore."

Monday, January 12, 2015

What's a virtual book tour?


[I'm dual-listing this post with my other blog Payperazzi.  I wanted to post it here as a followup to a note about the blog tour that I added to my last Creating Van Gogh post.  But as it deals with the
   writing life generally I thought it was appropriate for Payperazzi too.]

When the publicist I hired in the fall suggested an organized online book tour, I must admit I hesitated.  Although I should have been, I wasn't aware of this phenomenon at the time.  Of course I knew about book blogs--in fact I'd contacted dozens of them last summer trying to line up reviews and mentions--but a coordinated tour through several of them was a new form of  marketing for me.  The publicist suggested a particular tour company she knew and respected: TLC Book Tours.  Looking over their web site I saw that I could choose between a 10-blog tour and 20-blog tour; I also could, if I wanted, among other services, pay for advertisements in a newsletter the company puts out to its book club.  All the different services offer by TLC seemed attractive and potentially valuable, but a 10-blog tour was what our budget allowed, so I went with that.

It took several weeks for the tour to get fully arranged--no way could I have coordinated this all on my own--and I must admit that there days when I wondered if TLC had forgotten about me.  Ideally the tour happens very close to the official release date of your book, but since I was late to commit, the tour  couldn't happen until my book Island Fog had been out for a couple months.  I had my choice of December or January, and Trish Collins at TLC strongly recommended January, explaining that everyone is too distracted in December to pay much attention to bloggers.  I took her word for it.

So--ta dah--January successfully (and coldly) arrived, and with it came the beginning of my blog tour.  So far so good!  I must admit that it's childishly thrilling to wake up and know that a given book blog is going to exclusively profile your that day.  Thrilling, but anxious too, because you have no way of knowing what they will say.  There's no contractual agreement that the blogs have to provide positive reviews.  No, you just send each blog a copy of your book, stand back, and then simply wait for the results.  I guess it's kind of like an actor in Broadway show who, the morning after the opening, rushes to look at his copy of the Times to see what the reviewer had to say, knowing how his day--to say nothing of the fate of the show--will hang on what's printed there.  That same breathless thrill--and that same anxiety.  Except that, weekends excluded, I get to experience it for ten days! (Actually eleven, as it turns out.)  It's been great, though.  Really fun.  It helps that every review so far has been positive, and a couple have been overwhelmingly so.  Ann Walters at Books on the Table so liked the book after she read it that she shot me a series of questions to answer so that she could expand her review with an author interview.  Very gladly!  Thank you!

To make the week even sweeter, a long-since-completed interview I conducted with my colleague Garry Craig Powell finally found its way into Fiction Writers Review on Thursday.   How's that for timing?  For the very attractive look of the interview I have to thank the kind attention, and conscientious editing, of FWR publisher Jeremy Chamberlin.  Click here to read it.

As I've mentioned to a few people already, and said in the Books on the Table interview, I feel like publishing this book has taught me what to do the next time I publish a book.  (Keeping my fingers crossed on that score.)  That has been the real benefit of all these various marketing activities.  And certainly one lesson is that a book blog tour is clearly worth it.  In sales?  I don't know yet.  Maybe yes; maybe no.  In exposure?  Yes, certainly.  In thrills?  Absolutely.  In fact, I would heartily recommend TLC to anyone who asked.  That said, if anyone reading this has had a particular bad or useless experience with a book blog tour I'd be happy to hear about it.  Below find links to the reviews that have been posted on the first five blogs on my tour.  And then below that, links to the upcoming six.  (TLC kindly arranged a lagniappe for me.)  Cheers, everyone.

Last week's stops on the Island Fog book blog tour:

Monday, January 5th: The Year in Books
Tuesday, January 6th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Wednesday, January 7th: Books on the Table
Thursday, January 8th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Friday, January 9th: The Book Binder’s Daughter

This week's stops:  

Monday, January 12th: The Discerning Reader
Tuesday, January 13th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, January 14th: Lit and Life
Friday, January 16th: Peeking Between the Pages

The last two stops:

Tuesday, January 20th: Bibliotica
Thursday, January 22nd: A Book Geek

Monday, January 5, 2015

A great Hands On experience


I've discovered a new conference!  And it's in a great city: New Orleans.  I traveled down there shortly after Christmas for what, I found out, was only the second running of the Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball.  It could not have been a more pleasant, more friendly, more genial event--aptly organized and warmly administered by New Orleans native Jennifer Stewart-Wallace--and I found it unusually nourishing.  First of all, because the conference is only in its second year, it's still a very manageable size.  Only two sessions to choose from for each time section, one being a craft talk and the other a reading, with plenty of time allowed, and occasions provided, for socializing and interacting with new colleagues.  And not so many of them that you run into them only once and hurriedly in the hallway of some enormous conference center, or that you can't remember their names.  No, no.  The Hands On Festival is a much cozier affair.  Many of the participants had past or present connections with either the University of New Orleans or  Louisiana State University; several of them knew each other already, which created a kind of lovely reunion atmosphere at the festival.  But by no means was it an exclusive / "no new faces wanted" kind of affair.  In fact, not only did I feel welcome, but I felt I made some important new professional friends.

I also heard some excellent presentations.  One in particular sticks in my memory and is relevant to this blog.   The theme of the session was "Using Research in Long Form Writing."  Not all of the comments related to historical fiction, but some of them did.  One participant, Lania Knight of Eastern Illinois University (pictured on the right), is currently working on a novel set one hundred years in the future, a period that in her novel has suffered through considerable ecological turmoil and vast social upheaval.  What I found most interesting about Lania's presentation, however, is that nearly all of her comments were about the past and how writers understand that.  One of Lania's credos is that if one is writing about the future it is supremely important "to get the past right."  She's found in her own reading of futuristic novels that the authors' visions of the future are often drastically different, a difference she claims stems from their very different views of the past.  It only makes sense that how one interprets the past will invariably affect how one perceives the future, but the thought had not crystalized for me until Lania said it during the session.   Some authors, for instance, Lania explained, perceive the past purely through a white, European, neocolonial gaze; others perceive the past more broadly. She has been attempting, as best she can, to perceive the past comprehensively and accurately.  So her research for the novel has not been only or even mostly a matter of reading a lot of futuristic science fiction (although she has done quite a bit of that) but reading nonfiction that explains the nature and history of the various ecological phenomena that play an important role in her novel.  She stressed repeatedly that she "wants to get the past right" in order to make her vision of the future credible.

One of the other presenters was Daniel Wallace (pictured on left), fiction writer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.   Daniel is working on a novel set in eighteenth-century Scotland.  He outlined many issues he was having with how best to use the research he has carried out for the novel.  But one concern seemed most pressing: that of spoken language.  Daniel explained that at the time three separate languages would have been commonly spoken in the country: a less-than- modern-sounding version of English; Scots, a Germanic language variety only distantly related to English and spoken in the Lowlands; and Scottish Gaelic, spoken in the Highlands.  If Daniel were to be completely faithful to the facts of history, his novel would need evidence speakers of all three types.  He's worried that this could be quite confusing to contemporary readers, especially when he begins to represent these different dialects on the page.  He was not at all happy about this prospect, yet he clearly did not feel entitled to ignore the facts of history.

Of course, here again we are faced with one of the questions I've asked repeatedly on this blog: When and where is it appropriate to ignore or even alter history when writing a novel supposedly drawn from history?  In regards to Daniel's case, other conference goers came to the same conclusion I did; i.e., unless he intends to market the novel solely to a society of linguists, Daniel cannot and should not attempt reproduce precisely how his characters in real life would have spoken.  Understanding one alien dialect can be confusing enough for a reader--along with the ever-present risk that the dialect will render the character a caricature, that the reader will see only a dialect and not a person.  But multipy that by three and you only have chaos.  One possibility, given that Daniel's intended audience is native English speakers, is that he aim for a neutral form of English, one that a) is readable, b) comes across as natural for the characters, and c) is stripped of any giveaway slang or anachronistic cultural references.   I remember years ago hearing Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, explain that this was her strategy for that novel.  She didn't try to imitate seventeenth-century English just because her novel was set in the seventeenth-century (in Holland, though, not England), but instead she aimed for a brand of English that sounded believable to the modern ear yet was free of obvious anachronisms.  Another possibility suggested to Daniel was that when he first introduce a character he suggest that character's language through a few choice phrases or words, thus putting the idea in the reader's mind that this character speaks in a given way, but then not to push it very much for the rest of the book.  This sounded like a different but workable solution to the problem, and one in which the underlying strategy is similar to what I usually suggest: When writing a novel, what your novel needs is paramount, not what history needs, because a reader won't care about your novel's accuracy to history if he or she can't read it--or doesn't want to.   Which is not to say--not at all--that history should always be jettisoned.  Often, one gets the best, sharpest ideas for a novel from the historical record itself.  But I've blogged about that fact in the past and I expect I will in the future too.  So we'll save that discussion for another time!

Just one example of the interesting talk that went on at last week's Hands On Literary Festival.  Can't wait to next year to go back.

                                                     *    *    *
Blog tour starts!  My new book of short stories, Island Fog, has already been featured on several book blogs and websites, but today marks the start of my officially arranged "blog tour." Over the next eleven days, not counting weekends, eleven blogs will publish reviews of my book, one per day.  It's an exciting and somewhat anxious prospect.  I have no way of knowing if they're going to like it!  But given that so far the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, I'm going to hope for the best.  In my next post, I'll provide an update on how the tour is going, with links to the individual blogs.

                                                    *    *    *
More thrills--my wife's book club!  Tomorrow night my wife's book club meets at our house to
discuss--you got it--my book.   Talk about pressure!  Wisely I think, the club likes to pick books if they know they have special access to the author and thus will be able to ask the author questions.  Sometimes they Skype with authors; in my case, I'll be sitting in the room with them.  Again, I can't know in advance if they liked the book or what their questions will be, but it's sure to be a memorable evening.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The students speak!


[As Creating Van Gogh readers may have noticed, for most of this semester I have been dual-posting  entries to CVG and my teaching-oriented blog Payperazzi.  This, of course, is because the Historical Fiction Workshop class I have been teaching relates to both blogs.  Today's entry represents my last report on that class.  (For now.)]

In recent semesters I've been moving away from asking for the standard end-of-semester reflective papers that typically accompany my students' final portfolios.  Now I ask for a paper the discusses a particular craft issue in a given genre, or analyzes a form within that genre.  While I expect and encourage the students to mention their own creative work in the discussion I also insist that they quote, take support from, or contend with the model stories and novels we read, or articles they encountered, over the course of the semester.  The point is to push the students toward end-of-the-semester pieces that are more academic in tone and, frankly, more probing.  I did this with Historical Fiction Workshop class and received some very interesting responses in return.

First, I'm happy to report that most of the students felt that exploring this form for a semester has helped their writing broadly.  I know one grad student, without planning to, started working on the novel that will become his MFA thesis.  Another grad student was able to make serious revisions on and new explorations into her (already first-drafted) historical novel.   A third grad student, who previously wrote mostly flash fiction and nonfiction, found herself churning out 15 page historical stories before the semester ended.  And that's a good thing, as she will be in my Novel Writing Workshop next semester!  Many of the undergraduates reported satisfaction with being able to imagine and research time periods [e.g., the slavery era in the United States] or world events [e.g., a major battle in World War One; the voyage of the Titanic] or figures out of history [e.g., Joan of Arc, Maria Monk, Vince Lombardi (pictured above)] that they've always been intrigued by.

But as I was hoping, the papers also raised many issues with and insights into historical fiction as a form; in some cases, issues and insights that had never come up despite a whole semester spent on the subject; issues and insights that I'm chagrined to say had never occurred to me.  So I'm glad they raised them!  For instance, two students--Isabella Evans and Rene Rains--discussed the issue of using historical fiction in an academic class in order to facilitate the understanding of an earlier period.  It had never occurred to me that a history teacher would want to do that, but, as Rene explains, some teachers believe that fiction makes the individual in history more real than any textbook can.  Fiction is much less likely to demonize or heroize an historical individual than to show that person as a rounded being.   On the other hand, Isabella points to a statement she found on the website of teachinghistory.org to show there are dangers in going to fiction for a clear picture of history: "When students read historical fiction, then, they are encouraged not to think of the past as just one thing after another but to look for patterns and sequences, for causes and consequences, for agents and their motivations."  In other words, fiction is overdetermined by its authors; whereas real history, at least we hope, is not determined at all but a complex web of barely associated actualities stemming from myriad possibilities.

TJ Heffers coined the term "fictional autobiography" in his paper and considered the nature of writing history altogether for explaining why, in detailing with certain family stories, fictionalizing them is not just preferred but impossible to avoid: "There is no recorded history of people like my great-grandparents, who worked unimportant jobs and were generally just average people. History books are written about the big people, the Lincolns and the Charlemagnes and the Ramseses who have been powerful enough to shape the rise and fall of nations. What records we have of little people tends to be things like census reports, birth certificates, and records from Ellis Island, which gives us dates but no personality, no conflict, and no day-to-day narrative. Stories based simply on dates would barely be stories at all, and even with large amounts of documented facts would honestly be boring without dramatic techniques applied to them." Indeed, not just TJ but other writers in class used historical fiction as a means of getting close to aspects of their family's history that have been lost to the unrecorded past.  [Pictured on right: immigrants arrive at Ellis Island.]

Lynne Landis surveyed how the different model authors we read over the course of the semester developed their characters, breaking with, or merely hiding from, history when necessary.  In historical ficton, Lynne asserts, the writer's attention needs to be focused on characterization almost to the exclusion of all other concerns.  Most people, she argues (I think rightly), assume that the big challenge of historical fiction is researching and representing the external realities of a past period.  But for Lynne it's the opposite: "If the characters are not special, somehow within and yet beyond their world, then all the facts in the world, all the detail and historical accuracy will not help you. Perhaps it’s simply because people are people, no matter the time or place, and that readers know and need that."

Audrey Carroll, among others in class, tried to get to the nature of what makes historical fiction a separate genre from fiction in general.  Audrey suggests that the case could be made for historical fiction being no different at all.  But she had more fun with exploring the notion of a distinction between literary historical fiction (also known as "high end historical fiction," according to student Stacey Margaret Jones)  and genre historical fiction.  Audrey quotes commentator Sarah Johnson to offer a very canny distinction: "Johnson, who writes specifically about literary historical fiction, claims that it's distinguished by 'fiction set in the past but which emphasizes themes that pertain back to the present' where the writer 'simply use[s] the past as a vehicle of making their plot more believable.'"  That's an important and eloquently rendered formation, I think.  I said repeatedly in class that historical fiction, at least when it's done seriously, says more about the time period in which it was written than it can about the period depicted--whether or not the author means to--and it sounds like Johnson is more or less in agreement.

Other students warmed my heart with their highly personal statements about the pleasure they took in developing their historical fictions.  The one and only Chris Hall, a history major, says with admirable succinctness that "I felt like I was writing in a Creative Nonfiction class with a kick" [pictured on left]; Rene Rains drew out an intriguing metaphor comparing historical fiction writers with rock stars (who both labor in their "studios" for long periods before their projects crash upon the world); while Courtney Ragland pointed to what might be the most entrancing thing about historical fiction for all of us: "There is no limit whatsoever to where it can go. As long as it is set in some time passed—anywhere from fifty years ago to The Beginning—it is historical fiction. No culture, no time period, no situation is off limits. The writer of historical fiction literally has the entirety of the world at his fingertips."  As one who writes in this genre regularly--and who's a committed mind explorer and time traveler from way back--I can only say Amen.

Students: Thanks to all of you for your insights and for your hard work.   And most of all for your wonderful, original stories.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Historical fiction violence!


We finished workshopping last week in my historical fiction workshop class.  This week I receive final portfolios that will include revisions of the creative work along with a paper on a particular aspect of the craft of historical fiction writing.  I'm very much looking forward to those, and seeing what about historical fiction the students find either the most intriguing or the most debatable.  In the meantime, though, I'm simply happy to report that in a very full semester, one in which I asked a lot of them and on top of that many of them--both grads and undergrads alike--were faced with various personal, professional, and departmental challenges,  they produced a considerable amount of intriguing and promising work.  With a few exceptions, none of the students had written historical fiction before; and, going in, just about none regarded it as a genre through which they eventually hoped to define themselves.   They were amateurs, gamely trying, thrusting themselves into into historical eras they had not personally seen but somehow had to make real on the page for a reader.  Not surprisingly, all but three of them chose twentieth-century subjects exclusively.  And two of those three split their stories between twentieth-century and nineteenth-century subject matter.  (The students were given a choice of writing three separate fictions or one long sustained fiction.)  Only one student wrote a story set deep in the past; in this case in biblical times.  And while I'm glad she did that, she was clearly motivated by a story she knew well (the standoff between Rachel, Leah, and Jacob) and that could provide her with several key details both for her plot and her setting.   It's not as if she chose that era on a whim.

Aside from the emphasis on twentieth-century stories, the most apparent thread between the stories was an emphasis on war or, more broadly, disaster.   And again, this should have come as no surprise to me, even though I hardly predicted it before the semester began.  After all, if one has only a cursory knowledge of a particular time period, the wars are what is likely to stand out.  More to the point, wars, disasters, and violent conflicts are innately dramatic and can come fully embedded with countless side stories to engage a fiction writer's imagination.  As I said half-jokingly to the class this semester, "Thank God for World War Two.  There are so many stories to be found within that big huge story that we'll never run out."  And I think that's true.  It's impossible to count the number of fine stories, novels, plays, memoirs, movies, and television series that have already come from that conflict.  And they keep coming!  It's worth noting too that one of the model short stories we read--"Delicate Edible Birds" by Lauren Groff--was a World War Two story, set against the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of France; one of the model novels we read-- The Good Lord Bird by James McBride--told the story of John Brown's violent exploits as he tried, years before the Civil War, to single-handedly free the slave population.  And another model novel--The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan--referenced in its enormity both world wars as well as, more importantly, the explosive social and political climate in mid-century India as that country struggled to throw off first British rule and then its own inherited tradition of caste hierarchy.  In other words, there was a lot of violence in what we read to stimulate violence in the students' own stories.

Here's the final tally on the war/disaster/violence front: one Vietnam story; four World War Two stories; two World War One stories;  a story featuring ritualized cult killings; a story featuring a physically and sexually abusive husband;  a story about a runaway teenager who almost certainly is dead (we don't know for sure); a story about a labor riot in the 30s; a story about the Titanic, a story about slavery; and a story about Joan of Arc and her call to arms.  That's a lot of violence!  And on the whole I'm quite impressed by the care the students took--given the short amount of time they had--to try to make sure the details of their stories historically accurate.  Their research efforts ranged from interviews with relatives, little known books, archival film footage, television specials, history volumes, and, of course, the ever trusty (or untrusty) internet.   

The most successful of their stories refrained from trying to portray events that are well known to the point of being overexposed, and instead approached their events from unexpected angles.  For instance, one of the World War Two stories is all about the struggles of the family back home after it has learned that their father and husband has died; another of the World War Two stories explores the long term effect of any incident that happened before the husband even left to go to the war; the Vietnam story shows that war through the exploits of a young Associated Press photographer who has recently landed in country.  The less successful stories replayed territory that felt very familiar already--e.g., the fall of Paris, the D-Day invasion, the sinking of the Titanic, the difficult lives of slaves in the American south prior to the Civil War.  But I'm satisfied that through the workshop experience the writers of those stories received suggestions for how to make those stories feel new again.  For instance, one student wisely counseled the writer of the Titanic story to begin her fiction, and not end it, with the ship sinking.  With the fact of James Cameron's movie still too large in the collective consciousness, it seems pointless to try all over again to make the sinking of that ship seem dramatic, unexpected, tragic.  The stories that have been told far less often are the stories of what came next.   I'm embarrassed to say it did not occur to me to offer this piece of rather obvious advice.  But someone in class did, so fortunately the lesson was transmitted.

For a class of newcomers to historical fiction, my group made several remarkable strides forward even if occasionally they descended into the cliched or outworn.  Best of all, having tried historical fiction once, they can, and I expect will, try it again--maybe soon--and only do it better. 

Next week: The students speak!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Finally seeing what we're up to


In historical fiction workshop class a couple weeks ago, one of my grad students expressed a lovely thought on his response paper to a novel we were reading (The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan).  Noting that in one chapter the protagonist of the novel was living through the same year of the 20th century as the protagonst of his own novella, the student had a flash of recognition in which he saw all the different characters of the different stories his classmates were working on as inhabiting different eras of the same world.  He said he couldn't wait to begin reading his classmates' stories to see which eras and which characters we'd all brought to life.  Too see what different kinds of people might have been co-existing, if oceans part, in our class's fictional universe.  (On the left, a hundred different fictional characters.)

It was a beautiful sentiment, and I was thrilled to read it, but for me, the teacher, it pointed to one (I think necessary) drawback in how I've formed the course this semester.  Heading into November, the students remained unaware of what each other was doing, except for the one or two other students in their peer groups.  Well, to be more exact, there is one person in class we knows what everyone is working on: me.  And that's only because I decided not to place myself in a peer group, as I often do for my Novel Writing Workshop class.  (Although I am working on my own historical piece too, currently up to 82 pages.)

Relying on peer groups rather than full-class workshops always feels to me like a tenuous arrangement.  After all, who's to say that the two or three other students in your group are ultimately the best readers, or even decent readers, of your work?  And what if one or more in your group simply decides to bail?  What if there is open acrimony in a group?  Full-class workshops provide students the richer response sample they need to ensure that at least a few readers get their story and can provide constructive and insightful feedback.  And any acrimony can be more easily navigated.  But since I was asking, as I usually do for a 4000 or higher level class, for three stories from each student, and there are fifteen students in the class, peer groups were the only way to ensure the students received feedback on each piece.  (Unless I wanted to do nothing but workshop all semester.) And they have; and it hasn't been the worst possible solution.  But as our legislated round of full-class workshops were set to begin, I recognized how late in the semester it was to for them to finally start reading each other's work.  The good news about all this, however, is that students who have taken the option of making their three pieces all part of the same same longer story are sharing the full story with the class.  They will be workshopped on their full story.  (Note: The writing workshop pictured above contains eight students and a teacher, close to a perfect arrangement.)

Fitting in sufficient amount of peer feedback has been only one of the pressing challenges I've encountered this semester.  Most challenging of all has been finding that golden balance between wrting, reading, and commenting on peer work: all crucial components of a rounded writing class experience.  Most historical fictions come in novel, rather than short story, form, so I've devoted a bit more time than usual (and maybe more than finally was practical) to pacing the class through two longish novels as well as two batches of stories.  But with historical fiction there is an addtional joker in the room: the need for a writer to conduct research. (When you carry out the research and how much are open questions, answered differently by different writers, but that you must do so is never really debated.)  I knew going in that my students would have to carry out research for the historical stories they committed themselves to.  And I built in a loose research component; i.e., everytime they turned in a story, they would also have to turn in a two page statement about the research they conducted for that story.   This, I figured, was better than no research requirement--and a few of my students have carried out quite original and quite extensive and very useful research--but one of the takeaways from the course has been the need, if I ever teach it again, to build in more "downtime" for student research.

Time.  Time.  Time.  Isn't that always the way, though, with any course?  How do we best utilize the limited number of sessions the semester provides us?  Thing is, though, there never is or can be a perfect system, a perfect solution.  Because the needs of every student are different.  So you set it up the best you can and let it go.  At least now we're getting to the semester's truly fun part.  

Just in time.

Monday, November 10, 2014

It's weird out there!


I've often heard that it's an education to be a writer with a book making the rounds, trying to garner a little attention in a very crowded field.  I'm going through that now with my new book of stories Island Fog, as I set up and then carry out various literary events.  Without a doubt, it's exciting work--especially because I believe in the book I'm bringing to the public--but the extent to which it's an uphill battle becomes more clear to me everyday.  I had a great launch here in Conway a couple weeks ago, reading to a large group of friends and allies who truly blessed me with their presence and their interest.  It was as successful as any book launch could be, and I still carry around so many good feelings from that night.  But a book launch is, in a way, an artificial environment.  You invite your best friends and other people you know well; you hold it at a convenient, welcoming spot; you create a festive celebratory atmosphere.  It can't help but go well.  The real lesson is when you start taking the book outside your own community and into others.  Since the launch, I've done two book signings in Little Rock, the nearest large city, as well as a book signing at a Hastings in Conway, and I've carried out a reading and signing at a bookstore in Fayetteville: three hours away and the home of the University of Arkansas.  Mixed results and odd reports!

The first Little Rock signing took place at WordsWorth Books, a legendary local store, a wonderful place to browse, check out the recommended readings, and visit with the staff.  WordsWorth has a deservedly warm reputation and a devoted following among West Little Rock bibliophiles.  And I have to say, I couldn't ask for easier people to work with.  Unfortunately, my signing took place on the same afternoon as an Arkansas Razorbacks football game; and not just any game, but a game held in Little Rock itself, a once-per-season happening.  As always happens on Little Rock game days, traffic throughout the downtown area was a mess, and foot traffic into Wordsworth was quite paltry.  For the first two hours, I sold two books, both to people who I know personally and who knew I would be at the store.  It was great of them to come, but only two books on the afternoon?  I was packing up to go when a young woman came into the store clearly just looking to browse.  Would you be interested in a short story collection? I asked her.  Turns out, she was!  And she even was familiar with Nantucket from reading historian Nathaniel Philbrick's wonderful In the Heart of the Sea, an account of the sinking of the whale ship Essex, the captain and much of the crew of which originated from Nantucket.   Indeed, she was reading In the Heart of the Sea that very day!  And, yes, she said, she'd love to buy my fiction collection about Nantucket.  So at the last minute I garnered a third sale and left the store feel a lot better about the afternoon, especially when the store's owner told me that my sales had significantly helped their daily total! 

The second signing in Little Rock, at a Barnes & Noble, was a little stranger.  Rather than sitting by myself near the front I was together with five other central Arkansas authors, all jammed together at a couple tables in a little alcove near the children's section.  Though the store was fairly busy that day, we didn't get a lot of traffic passing by our tables, and thus we authors spent most of the time just chatting among ourselves and learning about each other's books.  No complaints about that--they were all very nice people--but it wasn't exactly what I signed up for.  And after two hours sitting elbow to elbow I needed some air!  Again I sold three books, one of which to one of the other authors in the group, who as it turned out does a regular feature for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called "Arkansas' Postcard Past," a feature I've always enjoyed.   The other sale was to a family friend who saw a Facebook post by my wife announcing the signing.  The last sale was to a friend of my wife's who happened to be in the store that afternoon and heard my name announced on the loud speaker.

My Hastings signing was, weirdly enough, on the same day as the Barnes & Noble one, so I had to hustle back to Conway and get set up right away at the store.  This time I was alone at a table near the front door; so I saw lots of people coming through.  I sat there for three hours as afternoon became nighttime; and while I still sold just three books I have to say I really enjoyed the experience.  Only one sale was to a person I knew.   The other two came to strangers who wandered in and, seeing my display, felt like talking to me.  They both had their own interesting stories to tell, especially the guy who a year ago was clinically dead after a terrible fall and had to be resuscitated--and that was only the beginning of his troubles!  We chatted for a long time; he bought my book and asked me to sign it this way: "To a man who was dead and has come back to life."  Gladly.  Most people who entered tried not to catch my eye, but a few did, and those tended to come over, and they seemed to enjoy hearing about Island Fog, even if they didn't buy.   One fellow came in wearing a big  ostentatious cowboy hat.  "Not book buyer,"I thought and didn't even attempt to get his attention.  But sure enough, over he came.  He poked around at my table, asked me a lot of curious questions, and seemed right on the edge of purchasing a copy until we were interrupted by an enthusiastic friend of mine.  Then he smiled, waved, and headed off deeper into the store.  Ah well.  Such is sales.  I had an even longer, but equally pleasant, discussion with one young woman: a UCA student and a committed reader who was genuinely interested in finding out about how a person manages to get a book published these days.  So I told her my story.  A biology major, she nevertheless enjoys the idea of writing, so I encouraged her to take a class.  She grabbed one of my author postcards and said she would think about the class as well as the book.  I left wishing I had sold more copies, but I'm glad I gave over the three hours.  It was a lot of fun, at least when people came over to chat.

My most recent event, last Thursday, was the reading up in Fayetteville.  It was held at a famous independent bookstore, one that every Arkansas author reads at sooner or later.  I must say they did a great job of quickly getting a Facebook Event page established as soon as we finalized the date.  And, pretty quickly, 30 people indicated they were coming.  I was stoked!  One odd thing though: a few days after the Event page was established, featuring the cover image from my book, someone in charge adjusted the image so as to cover up my name as well as the enthusiastic blurb at the top of the cover written by my friend and colleague Garry Craig Powell.  The cover image was so doctored you could barely make out what it was.  Huh???  I can't begin to tell you why they did that.  And I guess I should have asked them.  Still, I was excited on the day of the reading.  I drove up to the Fayetteville area, specifically to the house of my brother Jerry, who lives in nearby Lowell.  With Jerry and his wife, we drove to the store, where I hoped to see 30 or more people eager for a reading.  We were early, so it didn't really bother me that in fact, except for us and a couple staff members, no one was there.  I was a little miffed that the owner of the store, with whom I'd carried out all the planning for the reading, was absent, as well as a guy I know who works at that store and who my department brought down as a visiting author last spring.  Hmmm.  Well, we waited.  We waited fifteen minutes past the announced start time of the reading, when we couldn't really wait any longer.  At that point we'd gathered an audience of about 10, including my brother and his wife, the guy who was set to play music once the reading was over, a friend of his who was there to hear him play, two friends of my brother's wife who she had encouraged to come, one oddly behaving man who turned out to be legendary Fayetteville schizophrenic who just happened to wander in, as well as two people who were really there just for the sake of my reading.  The reading went fine, the questions afterward were good, and I sold and signed five copies.  (No, the schizophrenic gentlemen did not buy one.)  While I'm glad I went, the whole night left an odd taste in my mouth.  Where were the 30 people who were "definitely going"?  Where were the store employees I actually knew?  And what the heck happened to that cover image on my Event page?  Questions, questions, questions.

Odd people, curious conversations, and as many disappointments as laughs and sales.  That's the life of an author on the road, I suppose.  Other authors have known it forever.  I'm just starting to find out.

But, trust me, I'd rather have all these experiences than none at all.

                                                       *   *   *

I'm so excited! Island Fog was named by Library Journal as one of the Top 15 Indie Fiction books for 2014!  What an unexpected honor.  I'm floored. You can check out the whole list here.