Sorry about the several-day silence, campers — I’ve been trying to adjust to a new set-up. Since my car crash last July, I haven’t been able to write at a desk, so I had become accustomed to writing my blog posts on a laptop while reclining like an ancient Roman at a feast. When the docs told me this week to stop taking that whole laptop thing so literally, I had to figure out a new way to recline whilst typing. It turns out to be doable, but very, very slow.
What’s that you say? That the point of the advice may have been to stop me from typing altogether? I may not be hearing you correctly, what with my fingers stuck in my ears and all.
Besides, my will to communicate is just too strong. This does, however, seem like a dandy time to post another in what I hope will be a long and productive series of interviews with published authors about the craft of writing and the often rocky road to publication. After the rollicking success of February’s highly interesting discussion of literary fiction with debut novelist Heidi Durrow, I’ve been blandishing all kinds of authors into sitting down to chat about their first books.
Why first books, rather than just their most recent offerings? Well, frankly, I feel that there are already quite a few venues for the latter, but surprisingly few where authors, particularly those with recent debuts, are encouraged to talk about the day-to-day challenges, hurdles, and triumphs of writing, at least at the level of specificity we prefer here at Author! Author! I wanted to talk to writers with interesting voices about how they developed them. And to be blunt about it, I wanted to grill them on your behalf about how they went about landing their agents.
Today’s interview with literary fiction author Layne Maheu will cover all of that, of course. But as the second offering in this series, it seems particularly appropriate to be talking to an author positioned at what used to be universally acknowledged as a crucial point in his career: after having produced a well-received first novel, he is finishing up revisions on his second. We began the interview, not entirely surprisingly, by chatting about the inspiration for his first.
That Layne Maheu‘s debut novel, Song of the Crow (Unbridled Books, 2006), was hailed by critics is unquestionable, and with good reason. He’s precisely the sort of novelist that was known for most of the 20th century as small but serious: his lyrical first novel, a fresh spin on the well-worn story of Noah’s Ark, surprised and delighted readers of literary fiction; here, critics said, was a voice to watch.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about it at the time:
In a surprising take on the tale of Noah’s ark and the flood, Maheu’s beguiling debut unfolds from the perspective of a crow. The crow-narrator (named “I Am”) first spies Noah (the beastman) from his nest in a tree (the Giant) that Noah is trying to chop down. From the start, I Am does not trust or understand the Man who lives in the “underworld.” As I Am grows up, orphaned by his parents, his survival is a daily challenge: he flies to elude predators and rummage for food, often with another bird called Plum Black, sometimes consulting with elder Old Bone. I Am soon discovers that he can recognize the words of the God Crow, who speaks to Noah with zeal and commands him to continue building the ark. Suddenly, I Am realizes that he can also understand human speech, and eventually, just before the floods, he sneaks onto Noah’s ark…Maheuâ€™s fable works beautifully, probing the relationship between creatures of the heavens and those of the underworld..
Hands up, everyone who has dreamed for years of PM’s reviewing her first novel that well. If you really want to set your heart a-flutter, take a peek at what Library Journal had to say:
After reading this remarkable book, you will marvel at every crow you see along the side of the road and maybe even begin to listen to their songs. Highly recommended for all collections.
Heck, even the toughest critic I know gave it a glowing review:
Layne Maheu’s the kind of writer destined to make other writers of literary prose violently jealous, and deservedly so — and the story, the well-worn tale of Noah’s ark told from the point of view of a crow, is astonishingly compelling, considering that pretty much any adult reader in the Western world already knows what is going to happen. (Spoiler alert: the waters eventually recede.) But long before the protagonist crow’s prophesying aunt is shellacked onto the prow of the ark — I defy anyone who reads the book to dismiss that image quickly — the absolutely plausible sensual details had seduced me entirely into this crow’s world.
Quite an achievement, considering that it would be hard to find a darker story — not to ruin the plot for anyone, but God does wipe out virtually the entire population of the world in a not entirely explicable fit of pique. Watery graves, victims of violent predation, and resentfully crowded and confined beasts of the earth, air, and sea abound.
Yet this book has genuinely funny moments that do not feel at all forced. Our crow guide is a bit sardonic from time to time, and Noah’s sulkiness in the face of clearly unreasonable heavenly requirements is a joy to behold, but the humor is never light-hearted. This is the humor of, if not the grave, then very near it indeed.
Okay, so I wrote that one. And actually, I’m the second-toughest critic I know — but my mother liked this book, too.
I sense those of you in the throes of reworking your manuscripts shifting in your desk chairs, do I not? “Psst! Anne!” you whisper. “Ask him how many times he revised his book before getting it to that critic-pleasing degree of polish. At this point, I feel as though I’ve been reworking the same two or three scenes for eons! I want to start sending it out, already!”
An excellent question, faithful revisers. I asked him that very thing.
Some of you have had your hands in the air since practically the beginning of that conversation. “But Anne, why would an author whose first book met with such acclaim concentrate so hard on revising his next? Surely, he no longer needs to convince anyone that he can write!”
Actually, the very intensity of the applause for his first renders that level of scrutiny a sterling idea. Why? Well, there are a couple of ways to look at a chorus of praise this harmonious. Obviously, any author is pleased to see strong reviews, as is every publishing house. But the greater the initial applause, the higher the pressure on the next book. Will it live up to the promise of the author’s first?
That’s a much, much more serious question than it used to be, incidentally. Prior to the mid-1980s, it used to be quite common for publishing houses to nurse a promising literary novelist’s career along, publishing four or five small-but-serious books that did not necessarily sell well, but were a joy to read. If the critics liked his voice (and it was usually a him), the logic went, he would build up an audience. Or his next book might hit the big time.
Oh, that may seem like a long shot now, from the instant-celebrity perspective of today, but it used to be far from unheard-of for a small-but-serious author’s first books to sell only a few thousand copies — and then suddenly get rushed back into print after a later book hit the bestseller lists. John Irving’s earlier books enjoyed a considerable renaissance of popularity after THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP came out, for instance; Alice Walker had published several well-reviewed novels prior to THE COLOR PURPLE, and the dedicated readers who had followed Annie Proulx’s career for years was darned pleased when THE SHIPPING NEWS brought her to the attention of, well, everybody else.
Hey, there’s a reason that agents and editors have historically been so prone to asking writers they’ve just discovered, “So what is your next book about?” As distressing as the question could be to a writer who has just spent years refining that first book — and years tracking down an agent for it — it was a perfectly reasonable one. If the first book did well, either critically or financially, the writer would be under tremendous pressure to follow it up with another, and as soon as possible.
That pressure on the second-time author still exists (and so does the ubiquity of the question; be ready for the agent of your dreams to ask it), but the slow-built, lovingly-supported literary career has become something of a rarity. One does still hear of — and applaud for tenacity — overnight successes who have been polishing their craft for decades, but in the current tight literary market, it’s significantly harder for a publisher to find the resources to nurture the small-but-serious author.
And no, Virginia, that’s not because the people who decide what books get published have lost their love for good writing. Book sales matter more now, not only because publishers have to work with a more uncertain market, smaller profit margins, and an explosion in the actual number of books published every year in the U.S., but because computerized statistics make it possible for a bookstore to check how many copies of that small-but-serious author’s last book sold. If it appealed to only a small group of devoted readers, the bookstore’s management might be reluctant to give the next book much shelf space.
I bring all of this up not to depress those of you who had envisioned finding an editor who would nurse your small-but-serious career along, or even to encourage those of you who write for small niche markets to run, not walk to a good course on internet book marketing, but so we may understand just how many expectations hover around a well-reviewed debut novelist’s second book — and how they have been intensified in recent years.
Believe it or not, you will want to be in this position some day; it will mean that your first book did well. When that happy-but-nerve-wracking day arrives, however, you will want the advice of authors who have tread that precarious path before you.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You wanted to know how a writer can tell when it’s time to stop revising and send it out, already, right?
Speaking of sea changes in the publishing industry, it’s probably worth noting that back when Layne landed his agent (and, if I’m honest about it, back when I did), it used to be quite normal to get feedback from agents who rejected one’s manuscript. Not necessarily on a query — the form-letter rejection for those dates back to at least the 1950s — but if an agent asked to see pages and those pages showed promise, she would often take the time to give the writer a little encouraging advice.
These days, the sheer volume of submissions usually precludes that kind of individualized response. Indeed, some agencies have a policy of only contacting a submitter if the answer is yes. That means, in practice, that it’s much, much harder now for an aspiring writer to learn how to improve his manuscript; near-misses and wow-this-needs-a-lot-of-work submissions generally receive precisely the same rejection. Or, even less informative, the same silence.
It’s at least as important as it has ever been, however, for an agent and a book to be a good fit — and that fit is as vital for the agent as for the writer. Hard as it may be to believe from the aspiring writer’s side of the submission process, when a great agent commits to a book, it’s a serious commitment. Her time is, after all, limited, and selling even superlative books is hard. So while she might be attracted to a variety of voices, she can only devote herself to the few that she feels confident she can sell.
In a sense, first-time authors, too, have to be more committed to their books than writers of similar books in the past, and for precisely the reason I mentioned above: sales have a considerably greater impact upon the ability to interest a publisher in one’s next book. With publishing houses downsizing, the author is expected to take on a far more active role in promoting his book than ever before. This comes, as you might imagine, as a great big surprise to many first-time authors.
Here, as promised, is the link to Layne’s blog. It’s a good idea for aspiring writers to study established authors’ blogs, particularly those of first- and second-time authors, to start to form an idea of what you would like yours to be like. Not only cosmetically — although you may be surprised at how little aesthetic thought seemed to have been devoted to many sites — but in terms of how you would like to present yourself and your book to your reader.
Or, to turn it around, what will your ideal reader want to know about you? What will your book offer them that is unique, and how will it improve their lives? Once you’ve figured that out (and nobody’s saying it isn’t a tall order), how could your website reflect those qualities? What will bring your ideal reader back to it a second time?
Yes, yes, I realize that you’re a busy person who squeezes writing into an already busy schedule. You will also be a busy person who writes when the editor of your dreams says before the ink is dry on your publishing contract, “Great — I want these revisions, and you should start establishing an Internet presence. Have you ever considered blogging?”
You will be a far, far happier human being at that juncture if you have already devoted some serious thought to how you might reach your target reader online. Trust me on this one.
Do those bloodshot eyes and drooping shoulders mean that I have wearied you with enough talk of book promotion for one day? Fair enough. Let’s talk craft.
And because I always enjoy stumping established authors, let’s dive right into that perennial mystery: how do you define literary fiction?
I love how the question of what constitutes good writing gets fire flashing in the eyes of serious writers, published and as-yet-to-be-published both — and I wish we would talk about it more amongst ourselves. Oh, there’s plenty of discussion online about what will and won’t sell, or what agents and editors do and do not want to see, but it tends to be, well, a tad prosaic.
That’s a shame, I think, because we’re engaged in what is arguably the highest manifestation of the human spirit, intellect, and ingenuity. Unlike many other arts, writing begins with nothing, creating beauty, truth, and, yes, an entertaining plot out of pure mental energy. If it feels like a Herculean task, that’s because it is: the writer has chosen to compress complex reality to a few well-chosen words. How on earth could that be easy?
But it’s a noble pursuit, and a great one. Here’s to us for contributing so much to humanity.
And while we’re at it, here’s to readers as well. No everyone is alive to the delightful shock of discovering a marvelous new voice or worldview.
Ah, there’s the rub, right? In the conclusion of this interview, Layne and I shall be talking about the proverbial nuts and bolts of constructing a narrative solid enough to stand the test of time.
In the meantime, read widely, revise well, and keep up the good work!