Hello, readers —
Well, after spending all week writing about ways for writers to keep their spirits up while slogging their way through the long path to publication, I got a perfect opportunity today to put it into use. Surprise, surprise, once again, all is not well with my book on its meandering path to publication. Not because of the book itself this time, but how it is being marketed.
PLEASE NOTE: due to the many complex and contentious issues swirling around the publication of my memoir, I must tell you that the story that follows is ONLY HYPOTHETICAL. It is merely the type of thing that might happen to any memoirist with a book headed for publication, and thus of educational interest to my readership. Any similarities between this scenario and my actual life are purely coincidental, and should not be taken as indicative of the really very interesting behind-the-scenes story that I’m dying to tell you. Really.
Everybody got that straight? Okay, then, on with the story. Hypothetically:
Picture me this morning, groggily making tea after a late night spent working on the new novel. Yes, I already have a novel at my agent’s, ready to be sprung upon editors everywhere, but hey, I’m not one to allow grass to grow under my creative feet, as it were. I keep moving forward from project to project — thus staying up until 4 a.m. writing on the new project.
So there I am at 11 a.m., peacefully trying to decide between orange blossom oolong and lavender Earl Grey, when my phone rings. It’s my agent, asking me excitedly if I have received her e-mail. Well, no: I’ve just gotten up, but as East Coast people always seem astonished that folks out in our time zone aren’t up early enough to catch the sunrise and witness the opening of the NY Stock Exchange, I don’t admit that. I just tell her I was writing — she knows by now that writing time means I’m oblivious to the world around me, anyway.
Well, she says (hypothetically), she has bad news. After 6 full months of silence, the fine folks who spent the summer threatening to sue my publisher over my memoir have abruptly sent another letter. Still no list of what they want changed in the book, of course; instead, this threat complains about — brace yourselves, because this part really is going to read like utter fiction — the marketing blurb on my publisher’s website (which has appeared there in its current form since July, 2005, I believe, with scarce a hypothetical murmur from the current complainers) and a picture used on the cover (ditto).
I am beginning to wonder if I am still asleep. I gulp my ultra-hot tea with unwise haste, to try to wake myself up. “Wait,” I say with hypothetically scalded tongue, “I didn’t write the blurb, and I had absolutely no say over the jacket design. Why is this my problem?”
Alas, it is, my agent explains, because in the post-James Frey environment, even the hint of a problem with a memoir can send a publisher running for cover. Memoir sales in bookstores remain strong, but just try selling a memoir to an editor at a major publishing house these days. He’ll look at you as though you have asked him to stick his hand in a vise.
So once again, my project is, in theory, on hold. Picture my hypothetical anguish.
I’ve told you about my memoir, right? A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK was first supposed to come out this month, and then got pushed back to May, due to a threatened lawsuit. Hypothetically, the people who are suing, the estate of the late lamented gentleman of the title, have never specified what in the text they want changed; or rather, they did specify about a dozen minor changes they wanted, but immediately AFTER I had made them, they threatened to sue my publisher. Go figure.
To this day, I am (hypothetically) not sure what they hate so about the book, since up to the point when they started threatening (and thus we had no further direct contact), they had never breathed a word about not believing I was telling the truth. (If you would like a bit more background on this saga, check out the one and only interview I have given about it. If you want to hear the other side’s version, you could also go to the estate-owned fansite; hypothetically, I am told, one of the claims there is that I have given many interviews on the subject — and written extensively on this blog about it. You could also, in theory, see there the claim that this blog is not even vaguely useful to aspiring writers. Or so I am told.)
Like so many memoirs out there, mine for virtually the entirety of the writing process ostensibly had the full support of the very people who are trying to block it now. (Shortly after I sold the book, they sent me a lovely bouquet of hypothetical flowers, in fact.) I am writing about my own experiences with someone who is no longer living, so technically, I did not need anyone’s permission to write it, legally — especially as in this case, all of the still-living people concerned have been yakking their heads off to biographers and reporters for over two decades now. I’m actually the only one who has held her tongue to date. Hypothetically.
It’s not as though the prospective suers haven’t had a chance to tell their side of the story, or indeed, haven’t been telling it pretty industriously. If you’re giving interviews to national and international magazines, chances are that you are a public figure, and thus available for scrutiny by other writers. You can’t write a book about your relationship with a celebrity, or give extensive interviews on that relationship, or maintain a website that presents yourself as the public spokesperson for that celebrity, and then claim that your privacy has been violated if someone mentions your existence in passing. Or so I’m told by people who follow the law.
That’s part of what gives this situation its rich, ironic hypothetical undertones: to the best of my knowledge, the Philip-related part of my storyline has been written about in at least a dozen books, including ones by Philip himself AND a memoir by one of the currently complaining parties’ mothers. The continents positively ring with versions of stories about my kith and kin.
I guess I didn’t get the memo that said I was the only person on earth not entitled to write about it — or about my own life story. The funny thing is, hypothetically, I DID have permission from the two primary complaining parties to write this book. In writing. Which might be difficult for them to explain should this eventually come to court. (Of course, I speak only of theoretical possibilities here.)
Of course, anybody’s statements are open to interpretation. Let’s try a little exercise, to sharpen your wits for the practical application of the theory we have been discussing here. Hypothetically, let’s say after you had told some affected parties that you had a book contract, they sent you an e-mail that said something like:
…we both really appreciate your offer for our thoughts on “challenging embroideries in print” in your PKD bio. However, both of us feel that this should be your PKD story and that we should not influence your creative efforts in any way. We believe you need to be as free as your predecessor biographers to approach your project in your own way. That’s not to say that we don’t care because we do of course, but it wouldn’t be fair to you for us to in any way hobble your efforts.
(a) take this statement at its face value, and believe your book had the senders’ support?
(b) instantly stop writing the book, because a lawsuit is clearly imminent?
(c) thank the senders for the sentiment, but make many copies of the e-mail and cling to it like a leech, in case the senders later changed their minds about the value of freedom and creative efforts?
If you chose (c), you are better prepared than most to write nonfiction; alas, it is only in theory that such promises provide protection. It is a myth that releases from people mentioned in a book will protect the writer; they are only a deterrent as long as the signers believe them to be. There is absolutely no way that anyone can legitimately promise never to change his mind. Most of the sued memoirists of my acquaintance (and many published memoirs generate at least one lawsuit threat on their way to publication) had obtained such releases; the paper those releases were written upon later made useful handkerchiefs and kindling.
Hypothetically, more or less until the moment now-condemners started threatening my publisher, they were overtly supportive of the project — volunteering material for inclusion in it, even, and praising the only draft they ever read — but ultimately, all of that comradely vim did not make any difference in the long term. Because this is the post-James Frey environment, where anyone who wants to derail a book project need not produce any actual proof that the author is not telling the truth, or even any legally-demonstrable reason that the complainer would be harmed by the book’s being published. They need only threaten; they need only have money enough in their pockets to make that threat credible. And publishers quail.
Hypothetically, however, truth is an absolute defense against slander and libel. Hypothetically, any writer has the right to tell her own life story, the complete freedom — how did they put it? — “to approach the project in your own way.” And hypothetically, a publisher who has tangible proof that a writer is telling the truth will stand by her book.
I have no idea at this point how this theoretical tale of publishing stop-and-start will turn out. Maybe the hypothetical publishers will stand by the author; maybe the hypothetical complainers will remember that they sent the author a whole lot of e-mails, confirming the truth of quite a bit of what’s in the book. And maybe the author will turn the whole thing into a novel, where she can tell the absolute truth without fear of reprisals. That’s the trouble with hypothetical people: you never can predict to a certainty what they will do.
Oh, dear, I am looking forward to the non-hypothetical day when I can fill you in on what is really going on with my book. It really is quite a story; perhaps some day, I shall write about it.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini