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.