Writers taking care of their backs (and other wonders we’d never thought we’d see in our lifetimes) by guest blogger Annemarie Monahan, chiropractor extraordinaire

Writing spine-1

Hello, campers —

No, the doc have no yet cleared me for post-crash keyboarding, one-handed or otherwise — so if any medical type should happen to ask you about it, ix-nay on the log-blay. (And if the first part of that statement seemed cryptic to you, you’ll find an explanation of last week’s festivities here.)

My left hand (i.e., the currently working one) could not resist volunteering to write a glowing intro for this very timely and magnificently useful guest blog by novelist, chiropractor, and Author! Author! community member Annemarie Monahan. After I hurt my back in April, Annemarie very kindly offered to give all of us writers some much-needed tips on how to set up our work spaces (hint: that foot-wide shelf between the oven and the refrigerator is not an adequate writing desk), how and when to take breaks during those long writing sessions (you know, the ones where you snarl at your SO in hour four, “I’ll just be a minute for dinner — I want to finish this paragraph,” and then are astonished when s/he comes back three hours later to inform you that it’s midnight), and generally take much, much better care of our backs than most of us do.

Although Annemarie is here today at Author! Author! wearing her chiropractor and general medical wise woman’s hats, I can’t resist telling you a bit about her women’s fiction work-in-progress, THREE. She describes it as “Think Jeanette Winterson meets Sliding Doors.” As we’ve discussed at such length in the past, it’s genuinely hard to pitch a multiple-protagonist novel well, so I’m delighted to show you her teaser:

Three women. Three strangers. Yet all were the same seventeen-year-old girl on a yellow April morning, wondering, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Three different answers sent one life in disparate directions. Now, at forty-one, their parallel lines are about to intersect again.

Ántonia searches the sea-horizon every evening. In the last light, she can glimpse it: a feminist Utopia built on an abandoned oil rig, led by her charismatic and bipolar lover. Her lost Eden made by Eves.

For Dr. Katherine North, the memory of two women chafes her like a hair shirt. After the death of one, she contacts the other — only to discover that she has been renounced in the name of God.

Kitty Trevelyan has been happily married twenty-three years. Happily enough. Until her professor asks her for coffee and kisses her.

Piques the interest, doesn’t it? To read more, check out Annemarie’s website.

And now, without further ado — hey, my left hand is new to all of these ks and ls — please join me welcoming Annemarie in her capacity as back care guru. Take it away, Annemarie!

Writing spine-1Writing spine-1Writing spine-1

Do you have a shelf of books about writing? I have a stack of them upstairs. So much good advice about the craft, the business… but so little on the physical process and its challenges. Our gracious hostess, Anne, has asked me to talk about writing and our low backs. It’s a subject dear to her… well, spine. Regular readers of this blog will remember that she recently had a bout of low back pain, like nearly half of working Americans any given year, one severe enough that she had to take some time away from amusing and educating us.

Whether we’ve never had low back pain or have a long history, we as writers are particularly susceptible because we sit. And sit, and sit. However, susceptible does not mean doomed. There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself. Let’s talk about a few.

Where do you write? In a home office? In a recliner? At your son’s cast-off kid’s desk? At a cafe? Probably like many of you here, I wrote most of my novel at my kitchen table. Not a bad choice, biomechanically.

Wherever you work, make sure you’re facing your screen or typewriter dead on when you’re relaxed. No twisting. The desk or table should be high enough to allow your chair to be pulled under it while you’re seated, and leave few inches of wriggle room above your thighs.

Now let’s take a closer look at your work space ergonomics. Sit down in your favorite writing position and take a look at your legs.

Do your heels rest on the floor? Or do they dangle in the air? Are you on tip toes? Your feet should reach the ground comfortably and fully. If they don’t, lower your chair or invest in a foot rest.

Next, look farther up. If you drew a line from the front crease of your thigh to your knee, would the line be flat, sloping down, or sloping up? You want either flat or sloping down a little. If the line slopes up, as it does when you sit in a recliner, you’re putting a lot of strain on your low back. Raise your seat (making sure your heels can still rest on the floor!) or add height to it with a firm cushion or support.

Are you writing sitting in bed, or on the couch, feet up? Stop that. Sure, it feels cushy at first, but the softness allows your behind to sink below the level of your knees. Sooner or later you’ll pay for that momentary pleasure as surely as the naïf in the old public health film who keeps questionable company.

Even if we have the perfect work station, our low backs take a beating. How many hours did you put into that first page alone? That first chapter? How many hours are you sitting at your laptop without getting up or even moving?

Writing is a long slog across rough terrain, not a frolic. A marathon, not a sprint.

The human body isn’t designed for marathons. As I say to my patients, look what happened to the guy who ran the first one. But we can strengthen ourselves to achieve feats of endurance, either active or sedentary.

Fortunately, training for the butt-in-chair marathon doesn’t have to take much time or effort. No yoga among the spandexed, no sweaty weight equipment at the Y. Just a few quiet moments at home between paragraphs.

In the over twenty years I’ve been in practice, I’ve learned that no-one– no-one!– will do a long or complicated back exercise program. It’s just not human nature. And it’s always smart to work with human nature rather than against it. With that in mind, please meet…

The Two-Minute Routine to Keep a Happy Low Back*

1. The Hamstring Stretch
Stand up. With one foot firmly supporting you, put the other heel up on the seat of your chair. You shouldn’t feel any pulling in the back of your leg at this point. If you do, use something lower and sturdy. Now rest both your hands on the knee of the leg you have up.

hamstring ready

Keep your knee completely straight — bending it ruins this stretch. Don’t worry about where your foot points: just relax. Lean over, nose towards those toes.

hamstring stretch

You’ll feel a stretch in the back of your thigh, near the knee. Don’t bounce, don’t yank. Right, in the days before the glaciers retreated, your gym teacher taught you to bounce when you stretch. Mine, too.

But don’t do it. It’s a great way to pull a muscle. Just lean gently and firmly. If there’s pain, back off.

Breathe. Count to ten leisurely.

Come out of the stretch gradually. Repeat for the other side. Don’t be surprised if one side is tighter than the other; that’s normal.

2. The Piriformis Stretch
Next, find a spot where you can lie down comfortably. On a pad or carpeted floor is fine, as is a firm bed if you have a hard time getting up and down.

Lie on your back with one leg bent at the knee, and one flat.

piriformis ready

Now, grab that bent knee with both hands. Pull it up and across your body, towards your opposite shoulder. Right, not straight up. Towards the opposite shoulder.

piriformis stretch

You’ll feel a deep stretch in the side of your behind. Pull gently but firmly, backing off if you experience pain other than that hurts-so-good feeling. Now, read your manuscript aloud in its entirety…

No, wait. Sorry. Breathe! Count to ten.

Again, come out of it gradually and repeat for the other side.

3. The Abdominal Crunch
I heard you whimper. Don’t fuss, these are not the sit-ups you dreaded as a kid.

Stay on your back after the piriformis stretches. Put both your feet on the floor, knees up. Cross your arms over your chest.

crunch ready

Take a breath. As you exhale, come up only about 30 degrees, enough to get your shoulder blades off the floor.

crunch!

There should be no pain in your low back or neck, only the sensation of muscles working in your belly. Hold for just one beat, then lie down again. Don’t flop. Repeat, making sure to breathe, breathe, breathe!

There’s no ideal number of these crunches, but I tell patients to do as many as they can comfortably, plus one. Always use good form; it’s better to do fewer than to use sloppy technique. This exercise should never hurt.

Don’t worry if you tire quickly. I have patients that can’t do a single crunch. If you can’t either, instead just flatten your low back against the floor by tightening your belly muscles.

Unlike writing your novel, this is process, not goal. You’ll get stronger bit by bit, page by page.

That’s it. It may not seem like much, but with daily small effort, your low back will stay strong and flexible as a well-bound book.

Here’s to your health and writing success!

*I’m sure my attorney would want me to mention this, so here goes: the information provided in this post, such as text and images, is for informational purposes only. It is not to be construed as medical care or medical advice and is not a replacement for medical care given by physicians or trained medical personnel.

Writing spine-1 Annemarie Monahan is still able to read the Latin of her diploma from Bryn Mawr College, a skill as practical as her degree in English. Belatedly realizing she had to eat, she earned her professional doctorate from Northwestern College of Chiropractic.

Dr. Monahan has been in private practice for twenty-one years. She writes in western Massachusetts, surrounded by chickens and stone walls.

Thoughts about Self-Publishing, by guest blogger James Brush

James Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard cover

Hello there, campers –

It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about the pros and cons of self-publishing in the rapidly-changing literary market…oh, wait: it was just yesterday. Because we raced over the topic so very quickly, I am more than delighted to bring you an insider’s look at the subject, generously provided by poet, blogger, and self-published first novelist James Brush.

And let me tell you, this post’s a lulu. I’m tickled to death to be bringing it to you — and to introduce the Author! Author! community to the multiply-talented James.

But first, a few words about how and why I periodically bring you this kind of behind-the-scenes-of-publishing account. As those of you who have been following this month’s Getting a Book Published Basics series are, I hope, already aware, I am deeply committed to making this blog as genuinely, practically helpful to writers at every step of their careers as humanly possible. To that end, I occasionally ask beg blandish published authors into coming here to Author! Author! and sharing their first-hand experience in the literary trenches. Their wit, wisdom, and, at times, deep-dyed cynicism is collected under the GUEST BLOGS AND INTERVIEWS category on the archive list at right.

Because I love you people, I am very, very selective in offering space here. Only authors kind and community-spirited enough to want to teach aspiring writers the ropes need apply.

So why, out of the dozens of successful self-published authors I know, was James the one I asked to be here now? Well, several reasons, actually. First, he’s not only written and self-published a darned good book; he’s written and self-published a darned good first novel.

As literary risk-taking goes, that’s a triple back-flip from the highest dive — and he’s pulled it off. Here’s the back jacket blurb:

James Brush postcard cover Paul Reynolds, a photographer who creates fake photos for tabloid magazines, wakes up with no idea where he is or how he got there. He can’t even recall his name. A strange man lurks nearby, breathing heavily and slowly flipping through a book. Paul hears the man’s breath, but he cannot see him. He realizes with mounting panic that his eyes no longer function.

He remembers racing down a desolate West Texas highway. He remembers a cop who pulled him over for speeding. He remembers a shotgun-brandishing cook chasing him out of a diner. And he remembers a life abandoned, but he cannot put together the jigsaw puzzle that brought him where he is: blind, wanted by the law, and in the company of this invisible stranger.

In the backcountry town of Armbister, Texas, where temperatures hover around a hellish 110 degrees, Paul’s memory, intangible as a heat mirage, lies just beyond his reach, and God may be a coyote.

Intriguing, eh? Not to mention being an awfully good elevator pitch. (Not sure why? Okay, let me ask you: did it immediately introduce you to an interesting protagonist in an intriguing situation? Did it contain unusual details instead of generalities? And if you’d heard 150 pitches in a day, wouldn’t you remember the one where God was a coyote? That’s a good pitch.)

I also thought James might be a good fit for this series because, like so many novelists, he found that A Place Without a Postcard did not fit neatly into a single book category. Something tells me that more than a few of you out there could identify with that maddening dilemma.

Since learning how to narrow down a complex book into the appropriate marketing category is an essential skill for any professional writer, here’s a pop quiz — given the description below and the pitch above, what category would you have picked for it?

A Place Without a Postcard is an unusual story about a man who gets lost. That’s about as simple as it can be put. It’s about more than that, though. It’s about friendship, redemption, belief, and self-discovery.

It is part science fiction and part murder mystery and part myth. It takes place in West Texas. Not so much the western part of Texas, but the mythical West Texas where one might run into a coyote named Mercury or a man who dreams of invisibility.

Stumped? Well, would it help or hinder you to know that the writing is quite literary? As one reviewer noted,

His descriptions of this landscape alone are well worth the read… In fact, this book is filled with sense-based ways of looking at ordinary things and, in so doing, Brush has created a unique story, full of mystery, suspense, and outright terror. He is quite good, however, in first creating a thread in the plot and then resolving it soon or later. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy mystery stories, as well as a good old-fashioned story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity.

Tell me: what did you pick? Literary or science fiction? Paranormal or Western mystery? Thriller or regional interest?

If you flung your hands over your eyes and shouted, “Stop! Stop! How on earth could I possibly answer this without having read at least a few pages of the book?” congratulations: that is precisely what a seasoned book category-chooser would say. (And should you be interested in doing so before I reveal James’ answer, you can check out the first few pages at the book’s Amazon page.)

So how was A Place Without a Postcard categorized? James made a simple, elegant, and most market-savvy decision: it’s simply categorized as Fiction (a.k.a. General Fiction, Fiction — Other, or Adult Fiction). That’s is both an accurate descriptor of the book and gave him the most marketing leeway. (For more insight into how and why he made that choice, check out this interview; as always, if you’re looking for direction in narrowing down your own book’s category, see the posts under the BOOK CATEGORY section of the archive list at right.)

Finally, I asked James to come here and talk to you because he is a smart author with a lot of experience promoting that most difficult of book types, a novel with regional appeal. He’s thought a lot about this, made good choices, and successfully survived what can be for many self-published authors a very intimidating experience.

Peruse very carefully what he has to say. And if you’ve ever wanted to ask questions about self-publishing, this would be an excellent time to do it.

Please join me in welcoming today’s very helpful guest blogger, James Brush. Take it away, James!

james-brush author photo

In 2003, I self-published my first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, using iUniverse. Self-publishing was a good experience for me and I learned a lot. In the interest of sharing some of what I learned, Anne invited me to write a guest post in which I thought I’d answer the questions I’m most frequently asked.

Are rescued racing greyhounds really such great pets?
Yes, they really are, but we’re talking about writing and self-publishing.

Oh, sorry. Should I self-publish my book?
That depends. The conventional wisdom is that nonfiction writers do better self-publishing than fiction writers. There isn’t a strong market for poetry, so many poets self-publish.
If you’ve got a fiction book, and you want readers, then you need to think about how you’re going to get people interested in your book.

These days, even authors published by the big houses are expected to do more and more of the promotional work themselves, but they have more tools at their disposal. Whether you self-publish or go the traditional route, your sales will depend largely on the work you are willing to do to market your book. More so for the self-published author.

Since your sales will likely depend on your effort, the writer who does self-publish and is willing and savvy enough to promote himself effectively and relentlessly stands to sell a lot of books and maybe even make some good money. But there is still one thing stacked against you: bookstores.

The big bookstore chains will rarely stock a self-published book. You may be able to convince your local Barnes & Noble or Borders to sell a few of your books on consignment, but to get your book in stores, you need to approach those indie booksellers who might be interested in quirky titles by local authors. That’s where I found the most luck.

Having said that, the big box stores will order your book for a customer who wants it, and it is likely to be available through that store’s website as well.

What you’ve got going for you, however, is the internet. In the years since I published A Place Without a Postcard, e-books have become viable. The internet has grown and blogs and social networking have gone mainstream. All of these things give writers, self-published or otherwise, even more ways to reach readers and promote themselves and their books.

The question then becomes, how hard do you want to work to find readers? As a self-published author, that will be entirely on you.

Ok, I’m going to do it. What should I do before I self-publish?
Don’t jump into it. Never publish your first, second or even third, fourth or fifth draft.

I had the advantage of working out the plot and dialog in grad school, where I received awesome and painfully honest critiques. Make sure your book is read by as many people–hopefully a few of them writers who will tell you the truth about your work–as you can find.

Have it edited. As an English teacher, I trust myself to do a solid proofread, but I’ll still miss a lot in my own work. You need to have someone else edit it.

Read the entire thing, out loud to yourself from a hard copy. I’ve seen Anne give this same advice here at Author! Author!, and she is absolutely correct. Do it. Much will be revealed.

In addition to making your manuscript the best you can possibly make it, you should develop a marketing plan of some kind prior to publishing, which brings us to…

What would you have done differently?
I would have spent more time thinking through marketing before I published.

When I published Postcard in 2003, blogs were not on my radar. The internet was something for tech savvy people. No one read e-books. Those were my perceptions, anyway.

I built my website, Coyote Mercury, in 2003, after publishing Postcard. In 2005, I rebuilt the site with a blog and fell in love with blogging. I also began building a larger audience for my writing. Now, most of the sales of my book come from people who have found my blog and enjoyed my writing there.

I suspect that a self-published author (or likely any author) will sell more books if she already has a readership, even a small one, prior to publication.

If I were self-publishing for the first time today, I would start a blog, maintain it, write regularly and build a readership before publishing the book. Maybe a year or two before publishing. Remember when I said don’t jump into it? Building a website and blogging are fun diversions for you while your manuscript cools before the next round of revisions. You might also be able to find an audience who will be as excited as you are the day your book hits the market.

I would also look around at other self-publishing options. I was happy with my experience with iUniverse, but there are more companies out there with different approaches and different ways of doing things. I would research those options.

Lulu intrigues me because they will allow you to publish your book in such a way that your own publishing company becomes the publisher of record. I like that and that would appeal to me if I were doing this again.

Do you plan to self-publish again?
I always intended A Place Without a Postcard to be something I would do on my own. It’s been a very rewarding experience, and I have no regrets.

I have a second novel now, A Short Time to Be There, that I’m shopping around to agents. I intend to do the traditional route for this book for a variety of reasons. I don’t have the same DIY desire for this book, though I know that when it is published, I will still have to do much of the marketing work myself and apply much of what I learned from A Place Without a Postcard.

I do write poetry, which I publish on my blog, and I’ve had some luck getting my poems published in various e-zines and journals. At some point, I will have a complete collection of poetry, and I may publish that myself.

Anything else?
I’ll say it again: make sure you’ve gotten other people to read and critique your work. Pay them if you must in dollars, chickens or eighteen-year-old Scotch because if you’re self-publishing, you’re going to have to accept the fact that some people consider all self-published books to be failures. This is simply not true, but you have a duty to make sure that you aren’t providing the world one more reason to categorically reject all self-published works.

Ultimately, you need to believe in your book, maybe even more so than when you submit to agents and editors. When you do that, you are looking for someone else to believe in your work and help you make it even better. You won’t have that when you self-publish. You’ll be on your own and you have to know down to your core that your book is good enough for you to look a stranger in the eye and tell him that your book is worth his time.

Mine is, but it took almost ten years to get it there.

Finally, the most important advice I know for anyone seeking to publish anything by any means:

Be patient and keep writing.

james-brush author photo James Brush is a writer and teacher living in Austin, TX with his wife, cat and two greyhounds. He teaches English in a juvenile correctional facility, and was once a James Michener Fellow at the Texas Center for Writers. He published his first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, in 2003. His writing has been published by qarrtsiluni, Thirteen Myna Birds, ouroboros review, Bolts of Silk, a handful of stones, The Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing and Good Gosh Almighty! He can be found online at Coyote Mercury.

A Challenge To The Mini Nation by guest blogger Mary Hutchings Reed

CKH_Cover Final
Hello, campers –

I’ve got an interesting guest post for you today, by FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Mary Hutchings Reed, as well as a challenge that I hope you’ll find intriguing.

First, the fascinating part: you know how I have been devoting recent posts to my embarrassingly high stack of as-yet-unanswered readers’ questions? Well, some of the questions that turn up most frequently are about the ins and outs of self-publishing, print-on-demand, how to promote a self-published book — and, perhaps most trenchant of all, whether having self-published a book will help a writer land an agent or get published down the line.

There is absolutely nobody currently treading the earth’s crust more qualified to address these questions, as a self-published author who is also represented by one of the best agencies on the West Coast. And she’s been most generous with her mighty storehouse of knowledge, too: as those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! may recall, not only did she weigh in to last spring’s Subtle Censorship series, guest-blogging on how to market an unusual story, but she also loaded aspiring self-publishers with info in our successfully self-publishing fiction, something the common wisdom in the publishing industry generally declares to be impossible, was especially eye-opening.

So I’m absolutely thrilled that she has given in to my blandishments and written this guest post. (Her timing’s great, too: I’m spending most of my time these days by my mother’s hospital bedside; not having to worry about this weekend’s post has been quite helpful. Mother’s on the mend, thanks.)

On to the challenge. I’m going to let Mary fill you in on this worthy cause, but to kick things off, I am hereby pledging to buy the first six copies in this special drive myself — one to give as a holiday gift (I already have a copy of my own), and five to donate to the hospital that’s been so kind to Mother (hospitals are always hurting for reading material for bed-bound patients, and gifts of books are usually tax-deductible in the US! Check with your tax advisor.)

And for the benefit of those not fortunate enough already to be familiar with Mary’s work, here’s the blurb for the book:

CKH_Cover FinalCourting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

Oh, and it’s a great read, too. And did I mention that a couple of pretty great causes near and dear to my heart are going to benefit directly from sales of this book, which is easily available both at Amazon and Mary’s website, as well as in Kindle version?

But I said I was going to let Mary tell you about it, didn’t I? Here’s to good karma for all, creating a publishing environment with a broader notion of a salable story, and, of course, keeping up the good work!

Take it away, Mary!

Reed_Mary Hutchings_Color_5x7

Thanks, Anne, for the opportunity to share with your readers. My agent (and how I love saying that!) just got back a first round of very positive rejections on a novel she submitted to them (my fifth), and two editors are willing to reread if I make a rather small technical change bringing the two key characters together earlier in the book. She plans to resubmit to some of the editors who “loved” my writing in January one of my other unpublished novels (probably #6.) (Yes, there are 7 novels in all, 1 memoir, and a couple stage plays.) To that end, she suggested that it would be “helpful” if I were to sell 8000 of my self-published novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan.

8000?

That’s what she said! So far, I’ve sold about 1500, mostly by hand and on Amazon.com, and while Anne tells me that’s about three times your normal self-published novel, it’s short of 8000 by 13 times the average sale.

In other words, I need to sell 6500 more copies, to try to prove that my fiction (for and about intelligent, working women) has traction.

Just a couple days after getting this friendly suggestion, I saw these stats for the National Book Award nominees, as reported by Publisher’s Deluxe on November 16, from outlets reporting to Nielsen BookScan (hardbound copies):

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, by Colum McCann 17,200 copies

LARK AND TERMITE, by Jayne Anne Phillips 15,250 copies

IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS, by Daniyal Mueenuddin 8,750 copies

FAR NORTH, by Marcel Theroux 1,275 copies

AMERICAN SALVAGE, by Bonnie Jo Campbell 1,100 copies

Wow. It doesn’t seem like very many for such acclaimed authors, does it? Those numbers with the help of major publishers!

I’m just a semi-retired lawyer and writer in Chicago whose first novel tells a story which encompasses the social history of women in large institutional law firms, covering the time when Hilary Clinton got out of law school to the time that Michelle Obama joined the law firm where I was practicing as my associate. My favorite review says:

“With its intelligent writing, fast pace, and brilliant humorous observations, Courting Kathleen Hannigan is as delightful as reading your favorite episode of Sex and the City. Honestly, I started this book and couldn’t (or more accurately wouldn’t) put it down until I was finished.”

I’ve only seen episodes of Sex and the City when I’ve been getting a pedicure, but if this sells books, more power to Wendy Thomas of bookpleasures.com (and thank you!). I know dozens of lawyers, paralegals and accountants who also told me they “couldn’t put it down.”

I know the Internet provides all kinds of ways to get the word out about a book but there is still so much out there, working it is time-consuming, and still to me it still feels like somewhat of a crapshoot as to whether you break through all the noise — the offers to lose weight, refinance, win a new car, earn extra thousands from home — to create a bigger, louder, more incessant buzz. But it happens, and there is no more worthy recommendation for a book than word of mouth.

So, here, thanks to Anne Mini’s diligence in creating this site, and her kindness in letting me guest, I’m going to try the direct approach to selling my book. With added benefits for Anne and for charity at the end.

The other day, Stephen Colbert took on sponsorship of U.S. Speedskating, hoping to raise (and, raising, I believe,) at least $300,000 in small on-line donations from the Colbert Nation. Gosh, I thought, could the MINI NATION do the same? You care about writing and reading, or you wouldn’t be reading Anne’s blog. Can we use our collective power to send a message to publishers about the kinds of books we want to read?

Could you buy Courting Kathleen Hannigan for a lawyer or professional woman on your Christmas list? As a stocking stuffer? Could your book club read it for Women’s History Month and discuss how far you think women have come (or not) in the professional world? We don’t need to raise $300,000, we only need to sell 6500 books (at less than $20 each on Amazon).

Why? Why should we do this?

To prove we can! To prove that women writers and readers support women writers, that there is a viable market for this kind of writing about real women in real situations. You can sample the book atAmazon or my website (where you can also download a book group guide under the “news” section.)

And to show that self-publishing, in today’s world, is a viable option for quality writing.

Plus, I’ll give $1.00 for every book sold between now and December 31, 2009 to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a volunteer organization here in Chicago providing pro bono legal services to emerging artists, including authors:

Lawyers for the Creative Arts assists emerging artists in all media and arts organizations by providing pro bono legal assistance through its network of volunteer lawyers who specialize in intellectual property, entertainment and arts law, and through educational efforts. In September, LCA offered PEN TO PRESS, a full day of educational seminars and exhibits on the legalities of self-publishing, including sessions on contracts, copyright and privacy. On the individual level, LCA attorneys have advised documentary film makers on defamation and other issues with respect to films about accused criminals, orphanages, school systems and the like. LCA has helped artists recover their paintings from galleries, negotiate loft leases, take options on literary properties for film and/or stage development. LCA attorneys also help recording artists sign with their first manager, their first label, and their first production company. Hundreds of arts organizations have gotten their start through LCA, and many, like Hubbard Street Dance, have grown to be the gems of Chicago’s vibrant cultural scene.

Plus, in honor of Anne Mini and her leadership of and support for women writers, $.50 to the Seattle YWCA for its GirlsFirst project:

The mission of GirlsFirst project YWCA GirlsFirstSM is to encourage leadership, instill confidence, develop skills, and provide opportunities to
girls of color. Our program includes a three-week Summer Leadership Academy, weekend overnight retreat at Seattle University, weekly afterschool sessions, and monthly Leadership in Action Days. Alumnae opportunities include mentoring, tutoring, and paid summer internships. YWCA GirlsFirst is open to all freshman girls in 9 high schools: Franklin, Garfield, Cleveland, Chief Sealth, West Seattle, Rainier Beach, Evergreen, Renton, and Hazen.

 

Tell your friends. Send a link to Anne Mini’s blog to your writing friends; post a link on your Facebook page. (Anne is a wealth of information, a wonderful teacher, and a superbly entertaining writer—every writer should be reading her!)

Let’s sell 6500 more copies of CKH! And then, let’s do the same for YOUR work!

PS: In case you’re wondering how I can afford to print more copies of Courting Kathleen Hannigan when I have 500 left, I don’t necessarily have to. CKH is now available on Kindle, and it’s also available to bookstores through Lightning Source. I saw a POD copy from Lightning Source the other day and couldn’t tell the difference between it and the original offset edition. The key, in my view, to a good-looking POD book is quality design work (interior as well as cover) in the first instance, and I was very grateful to my publisher, Ampersand, Inc., for its attention to the tell-tale details that distinguish a fully professional publication.

Anne here: I’m going to sweeten the incentive to pitch in a bit more. If this post manages to raise enough money for these good causes, I will happily consider helping authors — self-published and traditional published alike — by running this sort of multiple-beneficiary promotion on a regular basis. I just mention.

CKH_Cover FinalCKH_Cover FinalCKH_Cover FinalCKH_Cover FinalCKH_Cover Final

Mary Hutchings Reed is a Chicago attorney and the author of seven novels, a memoir and a musical about golf, Fairways. Her work has won praise from the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Novel Writing Competition and others. Her most recent publication was a short story appearing in ARS Medica.

The guest post so nice I ran it twice: if this is Tuesday, it must be Minneapolis, by Stan Trollip

Trollip, Rusoff, Sears

Hello, campers –

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m writing on a deadline this weekend — a perennial fact of life for a professional writer, incidentally — so I’m seizing the opportunity to re-run a guest post by FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) Stanley Trollip. Yes, some of you may have read it earlier in the summer, but readership always dips a bit as the summer winds down, and Stan’s post is on a subject upon which most aspiring writers are woefully misinformed: the respective roles the publisher and author play in promoting a novel.

Since this is literally the first time I have ever re-run a guest post in toto, you may judge for yourselves just how important I feel this information is to anyone planning a career as an author of books.

I must admit, though, that there’s another reason that I’ve chosen to slip it under your collective noses again today: Stan’s running a contest with a September 15th deadline, and I’d really, really like for one of my readers to win.

Details follow below, in my original intro to the post. Since the contest is a guessing game based upon a photo, I’ve enlarged it a bit above. (Hint: there’s a reason that I’ve given you a slightly closer look at the painting behind Stan, his writing partner Michael, and their agent, Marly Rusoff.)

If the honor of the Author! Author! team isn’t sufficient to prompt you to leap into the fray, here’s another incentive: the prize is a copy of a great book — and for those of us who love books, it’s a really grand thing that the big publishing houses are under the impression that this type of giveaway is good promotion, right? Believe it or not, the best way to keep this kind of promotional freebie flow going is to enter to win contests with book prizes.

So put on your literary history thinking caps. Oh, and enjoy Stan’s guest post.

For those of you who have joined the Author! Author! community only recently, Stan is best known as Michael Stanley, nom de plume of Stan Trollip and Michael Sears. It’s one of the great thriller collaborations of our time.

But don’t take my word for that: the Los Angeles Times named their last novel, A CARRION DEATH, as one of the top ten crime novels of 2008. It also raked in finalist honors for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

The flattering buzz has been even louder for their new novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for it, along with both the US cover and the cover and title you’d see if you happened to be browsing in a Canadian or UK-based bookstore:

seconddeath cover michael stanleydeadlytrade cover Michael StanleyHow can a man die twice?

That is the question facing Detective David “Kubu” Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in Northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analyzed, Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years earlier.

Kubu quickly realizes that nothing at the camp is as it seems. As the guests are picked off one by one, time to stop the murderer is running out. With rumors of horrifying war crimes, the scent of a drug-smuggling trail, and mounting pressure from his superiors to contend with, Kubu doesn’t notice there is one door still left unguarded – his own. And as he sets a trap to find the criminals, the hunters are closing on him…

Not a bad pitch, is it? Notice how those one-of-a-kind details just leap out at you? Out comes the broken record again: never, ever forget that even the most tedious chore in book description is an opportunity to show what a good storyteller you are.

I digress, however. I promised you goodies, and goodies you shall have.

A whole literary cornucopia of them, too: to keep things interesting, not only will Author! Author! be bringing you Stan’s insights today, but a newfangled high-tech treat and a good, old-fashioned contest. To avoid scaring any technophobes out there away from winning a copy of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU free, gratis, and entirely without encumbering your monetary worth even tangentially, allow me to fill you in about the contest first.

To prepare you to enter, please study this lovely photo of precisely the kind of literary event most aspiring writers would happily give their little toes to attend:

Seated at the round table are Stanley (left), Michael (right), with their agent, Marly Rusoff

Stan (left) and Michael at the round table with their agent, Marly Rusoff

To win a copy of Michael Stanley’s latest book, all you have to do is answer this question: where are Stan and Michael hobnobbing with their agent? (Hint: as public places in New York City go, it could hardly be more literary.)

Present-day Anne again here, unable to resist giving you another great big hint: in its heyday, you might have run into Harpo Marx there. Or Robert Benchley. Or one of my all-time favorite short story writers, a lady who happens to be depicted in the painting behind Stan and his friends.

The great thing was, there was always room at the their table for another talented writer; there as even a pretty good movie about the circle of friends who gathered around the very table where Stan et alia are seated.

Answers should be emailed to michaelstanley@detectivekubu.com with subject line “Author! Author! contest” before September 15th. Three lucky winners will be drawn randomly from all correct answerers shortly thereafter, and the results shall be announced here and on the Detective Kubu website.

So this is a chance for fame as well as (modest) fortune!

Okay, now on to the technofest. As it happens, it directly relates to what you might be winning.

HarperCollins is beta-testing a nifty promotional feature that not only enables potential readers to browse books on its website, but allows me to offer my readers that opportunity, too. It’s not the whole book, mind you, and it’s not printable, but this feature does allow you to see more than most readers skim in a bookstore before buying. Take a gander, and see what you think:

What do you think? Like it as a promotional device, or would you rather be turning pages in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Would you feel differently about it if it were your book being promoted this way — in other words, do you prefer it as a writer than as a reader, or vice-versa?

As if all that weren’t exciting enough for one post, we haven’t yet gotten to the watermelon at the heart of the cornucopia (oh, you had a better metaphor in mind?): Stan’s promised insights into the mysteries of book tours, working with publicists, and every author’s nightmare, what happens if no one shows up to a book signing.

So please join me in a big Author! Author! welcome for Stan Trollip! Take it away, Stan!

stan-trollip-at-book-signing

June 2nd saw the launch of our second Detective Kubu mystery — The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu — at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, and kicked off something of a whirlwind book tour of the US. We visited 12 cities and 20 bookstores over about six weeks, but most of the trip was concentrated over a three-week period. During that time, we were in New York, Minneapolis, Urbana-Champaign IL, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Houston, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Book signings were interspersed with radio and TV slots and online interviews, and surrounded by Book Expo, Thrillerfest, and the American Library Association convention.

We were fortunate to have strong support from HarperCollins, particularly from our in-house publicist Heather Drucker, and things went smoothly as a result. And external publicist Susan Schwartzman buzzed around getting media slots for us. It would be a big challenge to arrange this sort of tour without the support of such knowledgeable and energetic people.

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Many writers don’t understand the role of the publicist at a major house. So here is how we see it. Several months before the book is released, the in-house publicist sends out review copies of the book to influential reviewers in the various media. This list is often compiled in collaboration with the authors, who may have insights into niche areas. If you have a publisher like HarperCollins, this can amount to well over a hundred books.

Then the publicist works with the authors to map out a book-tour itinerary. The extent of this depends on the publisher’s budget, which was zero for our first book, A Carrion Death, and small but significant for the second book, as well as how much the author is willing to contribute. For both books, we chipped in a sizeable amount of our advance to fund our tours.

Then the publicist contacts the bookstores or other organizations, such as libraries, and coordinates everything with them, including providing publicity materials if available, ensuring they have enough books to sell, helping to publicize the event, and so on. The publicist also coordinates the travel and accommodation arrangements. We try to stay with friends whenever possible, not only because it reduces costs, but is also much more fun.

Finally, the in-house publicist works with the external publicist to ensure that their efforts are coordinated. For example, Heather from HarperCollins worked with Susan (an external publicist whom we hired) to support her efforts to find radio and TV spots. She did this by supplying additional review copies of the book, providing book reviews as they came out, and coordinating the sale of books if appropriate.

We have heard stories of the in-house and external publicists competing. This is not a good situation! Before you hire an external publicist, you should coordinate with your in-house publicist so that you are building a team not a pair of competitors. In our case, Heather and Susan worked together wonderfully.

So what is our perspective on our book tour, looking back two months later?

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

From the moment we launched The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, it was great fun. We talked to people who enjoy our books and had read both or intended to do so. We met booksellers who care about mystery books and have an intimidating knowledge of them and their authors. And we spent a lot of time together, enjoying the travel, sharing the experiences, and talking about our third book.

Second, we learned a lot. We discovered that people really care about the ongoing characters in the book, particularly our protagonist, Botswana police detective David Bengu (known as Kubu) and his family. Interestingly, few questions or comments related to Kubu himself, other than whether he was based on a real person (he isn’t). Perhaps people have already formed their own mental pictures of him and where he is going.

Readers really like his wife Joy and wonder what is happening with the relationship between Joy’s sister, Pleasant, and an occasional suitor, Bongani. We also heard a lot of positive comments about Kubu’s aging parents (Wilmon and Amantle). We were told they added to an understanding of the Botswana culture. This was very satisfying as we had decided early on in our writing to purposefully deal with the physical and cultural attributes of Botswana. We realized that doing so would slow the pace of the mystery a little, but hoped what it added would compensate. Our tour and the reviews we have received tell us that most readers like the style.

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers' reactions to A Carrion Death

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers’ reactions to A Carrion Death

Third, the tour was hard work. We did the Midwest, travelling by car from Chicago; there are long distances involved and the June weather was — to be polite — variable. We had plenty of good dinners with old friends, who turned out across the country to support us, but we had a few twists and turns along the way. One pit-stop restaurant we could only find sugared pop, other than tap water, and fried food. We were caught up in a demonstration in Los Angeles urging democracy in Iran. We were becalmed on the LA freeway. We had sessions with standing room only, and an event to which no one showed up.

We suspect that it is every writer’s nightmare to stand expectantly at the front of a room, and wait, and wait. Look at your watch. How long should we wait? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes. Feel embarrassed, awkward. Not sure what to say to the bookstore manager. She’s not sure what to say to you. It happened to us on a Sunday lunchtime on the city’s first nice summer day of the year. “Sundays are always busy,” she told us apologetically. But the first sight of the sun tempted even the most ardent readers and every chair was vacant.

In some ways, we were quite pleased it happened. We had got it out of the way — the nagging fear of an empty room. More importantly, we survived! And our egos were still intact. People on the street didn’t point at us surreptitiously and snigger. And it gave us something to write about in this blog.

All we can say is that it is going to happen. We are lucky to tour together, so at least we have each other to talk to. And maybe there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps new authors should consider doing events in tandem with another author. At least then, when there is no audience, you have a companion with whom to share the disappointment.

Stan making the most of a book signing

Stan making the most of a book signing

At a more practical level, one can ask what these book tours achieve. Certainly we find it of value to learn in person what readers think and feel about our writing, even though we get similar feedback by email and over our website. We think the readers enjoy the events and find them interesting. In addition, bookstore owners and managers now have a personal experience of us to link to the books when they sell them.

But our feeling is that this sort of discussion is irrelevant for most people in the publishing industry, especially in the current weak economic environment. Their question would be: does the time and money spent on a book tour improve book sales?

It’s a difficult question to answer. One publicist told us that they know that only half of their marketing has any impact on sales — they just don’t know which half.

The same goes for us. We are both scientists and have a constant discomfort that there are no data about the effectiveness of what we do for publicity. In reality, we believe that book tours and so on are valuable, but don’t ask us to prove it.

Then there is the 90:10 rule – ninety percent of the marketing budget goes on the ten percent of authors who are best known, best sellers, and who need marketing the least. Since we are not in that ten percent, we are grateful for the slice we got of the other ten percent. We work hard and spend a considerable amount of our advances on marketing and touring. It is reassuring that HarperCollins is willing to support us in this.

Book tours outside North America seem to be uncommon except for well-known authors. We have done no more than a few signings in other countries. Declining to organize a function in Johannesburg for our second book, our South African publicist told us that launches don’t sell books; publicity sells books. We pointed out that the launch of A Carrion Death in Johannesburg sold over a hundred copies and attracted at least twice that number of people. Her response was: “Yes, it was an excellent launch. You have a lot of friends in Johannesburg.” So we threw our own party to which 100 or so people came, and we sold seventy books.

Would the same number of books have been sold anyway? We don’t know.

So how would we sum up our feelings about the book tour? Let’s put it this way. If we’re asked to do one next year for our third book, we’ll dip into our pockets and start buying the plane tickets.

carrion-death-us-small.jpgcarrion-death-us-small.jpgcarrion-death-us-small.jpg
Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Pillory This, by guest blogger Flavia Alaya

under the rose alaya coverPhoto:  Ellen Denuto

Hello, campers –

Yes, I know: we’ve been trying to polish off our ongoing series on polishing up a query letter, but now that the holiday weekend is upon us, I thought we should pause, take a breath, and celebrate just how much work all of you have done throughout this series — or, depending upon your reading habits, give some of you time to catch up. Hey, query-writing is hard stuff.

Which is why I am so delighted to bring you my promised reward for virtue: a fascinating post on dealing with having one’s book reviewed by memoirist and nonfiction writer Flavia Alaya, author of the incredibly brave and revealing UNDER THE ROSE: A CONFESSION, among many, many other works. (Seriously, her bio will astound you — see the end of this post.) From the publisher’s blurb:

Beneath its “scandalous” surface, Flavia Alaya’s story goes to the heart of women’s struggles for independence, self-definition, and sexual agency. When she first met Father Harry Browne, Alaya was a vibrant but sheltered young woman on a Fulbright scholarship to Italy. When the attraction that began in a cafe in Perugia became too compelling to resist, they embarked on a love affair that violated some of the deepest taboos of society, the Church, and her Italian American family, yet endured for over two decades, through years of shared dedication to social activism and through the birth of three children.

Intriguing, no? From the slightly more revealing Library Journal review:

At 22 years of age, in a cafe in Italy, Alaya met fellow Fulbright recipient Harry Browne, 16 years her senior. Raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Browne was a social activist, a historian — and a Catholic priest. Their relationship endured for over 20 years, producing three children and seemingly sustaining both extraordinary parties quite well. Not a martyr to love, Alaya was able to hold onto independence and self-possession while experiencing a profoundly passionate attachment to a fascinating human being. Through the bonding of social activism, Browne and Alaya weathered many civil rights storms, the 1960s antiwar movement, and a grass-roots campaign against a New York real estate grab. Browne championed the poor and fought to better their housing situation; Alaya wrote scholarly articles on 19th-century literature. The relationship’s secrecy (it was hidden “under the rose”), its continual trials and stress, and the ousting of Browne as priest when it was discovered pull the reader along for the ride with elegiac style.

And the still more descriptive ForeWord review:

She was a twenty-two-year-old Fulbright scholar from New York fleeing her immigrant Italian family’s claustrophobic love, he was a thirty-eight year old Catholic priest from the city’s Irish tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, researching Church archives. They met in a Perugia café in 1957: a thunderbolt, opera’s grand coup de foudre of destiny.

Their affair, shamelessly shameful, was to be sub rosa, under Cupid’s rose of secrecy. In small rented rooms, in the fervid, emotive culture, Italy itself seemed to become their duenna and collaborator. They returned to New York, she to an apartment on the Upper West Side, he (as fate would have it) to a parish blocks away, the fiction of their friendship so carefully maintained that not even her own family knew the father of her children. Ironically, their private war against the Church’s conservative patriarchy augured the decade’s larger battles of civil disobedience and feminist freedom. With their own adopted neighborhood soon slated for massive urban renewal, which would displace so many working poor, Father Harry Browne moved quickly into political activism. (It was in Father Browne’s office that the FBI arrested Father Berrigan, notorious for burning Pentagon draft records to protest the Vietnam War.) Thus, as in opera as in life, love and politics are ever held close, one of the many paradoxes Alaya so lovingly, so wisely ponders in Under the Rose.

Those asking for theology or psychotherapy may be disappointed, but those asking for well-written honesty will be handsomely rewarded. In a poignant, lucid language that combines the pace of fiction with the intimacy of a love letter, her “memory-ghosts” bring private and social history to full circle, the story of an immigrant’s search for freedom of expression. Under the Rose is the very model of memoir writing, of a woman’s voice finally finding perfect pitch.

Why am I showing you three different plot summaries, you ask, rather than just the usual publisher’s blurb? For a couple of reasons, one pertaining to our series-in-progress, one to today’s topic.

First, did you notice anything about those three descriptions of the same book? The first two were of reasonable lengths to use as the summary paragraph of a query letter — 99 and 162 words, respectively. So what makes the first strong back jacket copy, but the second a better bet for a query or pitch?

If you immediately cried, “By gum, Anne, the vivid details in the second!” give yourself a gold star for the week: you’ve been paying attention. The specifics really make a difference in the storytelling department, don’t they, even in so short a piece?

If you also shouted, “The blurb reviews, while the second demonstrates why a reader might be interested in the book,” award yourself a second gold star. Heck, take yourself out for an ice cream sundae: that was an astute observation.

But wait; today’s pop quiz is not over yet. Since the first two descriptions illustrated my ongoing point so beautifully, any guesses about why I saw fit to include the third?

Hint: the answer lies in the word count.

Okay, I’ll just give you this one: at 302 words, it would make a pretty good 1-page synopsis. You know, the kind that agencies’ websites and agency guides’ listings keep asking writers of 350-page books to send with their queries and/or pages. True, the last paragraph is pure review, as is the last sentence of the second.

But it just goes to show you: it is indeed possible to give the contours of a story in that number of words without resorting to blurry generalities. No matter how many times you re-checked that requirement on the agent of your dreams’ website, hoping you had misread it, it’s actually not all that unreasonable a request.

The second reason to walk you through all of those reviews was even more straightforward: Flavia’s going to talk to us today about what it’s like to get a book reviewed. And not necessarily nicely.

One of the classic writerly fears, right? Flavia is going to tell us how to confront it straight-on, instead of running away screaming.

I’m very excited about this guest post, and not merely because, as those of you who have been dropping by Author! Author! for a while are no doubt already aware, I’m a huge fan of wrestling those big, bad writerly fears out into the open, examining them thoroughly, and talking about how to deal with them practically. There’s been a lot of talk on the conference circuit lately about career writers, the kind who have more than one book in ‘em.

Career writers’ work used to be considered the backbone of the publishing business, you know. A blockbuster may sell a million copies on a fluke, but authors whose established readerships kept returning for subsequent books provide publishers with consistent, relatively predictable income. With the decline of the multi-book contract, however, many agents in recent years had become less interested in hearing about a prospective clients’ other book ideas than in whether the manuscript in front of them might be the next breakout hit.

With the economic downturn, however, the phrase career writer has been turning up on more and more lips. It’s not even all that unusual these days for agents to ask newly-signed clients to come up with one-paragraph descriptions of their next three or four projects, just to have at the ready in case an editor impressed with a manuscript asks.

Don’t tense up; start brainstorming.

As this trend has been heating up in recent months, I’ve been eagerly blandishing career writers to come and share their insights with our little writing community. You want to know what a long-term career strategy looks like, don’t you?

So please join me in welcoming Flavia Alaya, career writer and memoirist extraordinaire. But before I hand you over to her, let me add: UNDER THE ROSE is available on Amazon and, of course, directly from the publisher. Oh, and that lovely photo of Flavia above was taken by Ellen Denuto.

Take it away, Flavia!

under the rose alaya covermilk-of-almonds-cover-alayareconciling-catholicism-coverunder-the-rose-alaya-cover-2

Under the Rose is memoir as collage—less in style than in process. When it began its manuscript life, the book was the relatively brief and tidy account (with a few flashbacks) of my first 13 or so years with Harry, in Italy, then in New York—essentially our secret life together…sub rosa, or “under the rose.” When the manuscript (which was sold three times over 16 years of writing and rewriting—long story!) was finally acquired by The Feminist Press and positioned for their Cross-cultural Memoir Series, publisher Florence Howe asked to see the core theme in the context of a “life.” This meant weaving two or three more complex narratives into the original—the back-stories (what was it in both our early lives made us able to tolerate, maybe even need, that kind of secrecy?) and the post- and post-post-scripts: how we both met the critical test of going public, and then how I faced life without him when he died.

A challenge. Many challenges. First, unpacking more hard truths about my family—and his—than I’d ever intended to. Then (harder) untangling the sticky weave of that final public decade together in the ‘70s, when we struggled to float the flimsy raft of a “liberated” partnership—with three small kids nailed to it—through virtual tsunamis of academic and ecclesiastical politics. Not only did I have to tear the book apart and reassemble it. I had to back off from it. I had to take the entire project (which had seemed so obvious and simple, once) more seriously…and myself less. Much less.

Which is one reason this review struck me as so baffling:

What is the point of her ‘confession’? That she’s a good and put-upon person? If so, it is better left to others to make the point for her; none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness.

A bite, a mere rebarbative nine-year-old mouthful of what used to be standard Barbara Grizzuti Harrison agita in The New York Times Book Review…except that it was directed at me and my memoir.

Baffling. Because if I’d had my way, Under the Rose would have been subtitled, with obvious irony: “A Life in Six Operas.” Even the present “Confession” has its edge—absolution was the last thing I was looking for! But here was the Press again, hoping a more salty subtitle might trump their off-putting imprint and win them some new readers. Inside, however, opera names still define the book’s six parts (Tosca, Gioconda, Traviata, etc.), and adjust the tone (or so I thought) in two self-satirical ways, denoting the spectacular Italian American family culture I grew up in, first, and then caricaturing the over-the-top romanticism I’d internalized with it. Maybe it was a complex way to suggest, as a part of the theme, why my inner diva took so very long to outgrow, and why it cost so much tearing of heart muscle. But I didn’t think it inaccessible, especially to a Times reviewer.

On the other hand…

Well, on the other hand, Harry was a very funny man. You couldn’t take him anywhere—not without pulling a crowd that would quickly be doubled over in bodily pain. No invidious comparisons with great Italian literature are intended, but maybe Under the Rose should come with a warning label: if clerical sex doesn’t make you laugh, close the book. Or burn it.

I girded myself to reread the review for this blog, but I was sure I could deal with it. I was way too sensitive then. And besides, she’s dead. And besides, nine years is long enough.

But no, the bloody thing still had its ghoulish way with me, like a Dracula lover. Be objective, I tell myself. And I am. Objectively, it must be one of the most venomous reviews of a memoir ever to appear in The New York Times Book Review. OK, limit the sample to ex-editor Charlie McGrath’s wrathful-God Book Review universe, where there were body-counts. The citation still stings.

Right now, you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking it would be really nice if you’d take my word for it, but I bet you feel double-dared to go and read it. Well, damn you, go ahead. But come back afterward, because that review never should have been the end of it—not for me, but not even for her.

Here it is.

OK. Agree with me on this, that what Harrison’s maundering few-hundred words are unleashing is disgust, a given, a natural response to the book’s basic and objectively revolting premise, that I actually had an underground career as a priest’s “wife.” Well, it is objectively revolting, isn’t it? For an Opus Dei sort like herself, of whom it could be said—and was—that the Curia was kindlier and less Roman? Please.

And now, seeing as Roman is the only form of Catholicism to demand a pretense of lifelong eunuchry in its priesthood, channel the fair-minded editor of the Book Review assigning the book to her: who could be more qualified to review a challenge to the ideal of Catholic celibacy? Let her rip! “Fortunately Alaya loves herself sufficiently, {sic} to relieve the reviewer of any obligation to protect her ego.”

Ah, what fortress faith, what crusading passion, to crush the nano-flash of pity that inspired that line. I still find it hard to get past it.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #1:
A brutal review goes straight to your voice. For a while it’s as if somebody has carved out your larynx with a bread-knife and you keep on trying to make the breath you still push through the replacement tube sound like you.

For years I’ve twitched whenever people said they’d come across that review on the web. Sure, I was onto Grizzuti’s rap-sheet as hitwoman, but what was I supposed to say? That she’d slashed the likes of Joan Didion and Spike Lee too, and look at the company I’m in?

There are some reviews you should never read twice, unless you have another larynx to turn. No, nine years are not enough. And now Google can serve up Grizzuti’s little murder, on demand, to me or anybody looking for me, almost always at the top of the hit-list. Maybe forever—all the forever that matters to a writer.

There’s a silly analogy to Keats’s urn in here somewhere. Instead of those lovers forever yearning toward each other to the sound of a silent flute, there’s this worthless writer forever pinioned by this bloody reviewer’s disgust, somehow never able to “love herself sufficiently” to get outside that shell of ego-protecting denial.

But…

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom # 2:
You don’t stop talking just because you get told to shut up. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that you don’t. And, yes, you probably shouldn’t.

Maybe stories like this don’t end till you really go silent. As self-writing goes, let’s just say I’m probably at the end of the middle of whatever story this is, where I gravitate to scholars of autobiography and reflect on their wisdom. Lauren Berlant is one. She says in pretty good academy-speak that to write the self is to try to create “a spectacular interiority worthy of public notice” (The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, 1997).

I love the compression of this. Right at the top it says that you’re making a spectacle of yourself, which I admit I have done, and still do.

But the “worthy of public notice” part? That’s the paradox for Berlant to unfold. If the interior self you’re exposing isn’t normative, if it’s different in a way not embraced by the larger culture, or if what you’re exposing—maybe a hidden truth or reality, an injustice—is something the majority culture (or somebody in its service) would rather not see exposed, then it’s difficult to make it “worthy” of public notice, isn’t it.

Except perhaps over time, and in this sense, to write the truly “spectacular” self is to write to the future. Because as you write it, in that time, it must be by definition unworthy, and by somebody’s standards even shameful, or better, shameless. Something to be pilloried, in service to the spectacle of your shamelessness.

Pillory this. Grizzuti and the Times did, bless ‘em, and I guess from that perspective there‘s an edge of flattery in it. Otherwise, why me? Under the Rose, my first non-academic book, had come out of CUNY’s Feminist Press, so minor and semi-academic a publishing house by Times standards that not one of its best books had yet had a single dedicated review within their pages. Mine should have been an equivalent non-event, yet they gave it a full-page that Sunday, with artwork, no less, page 9.

John Updike was there a week later.

Maybe BGH hated my book for good literary reasons, but I doubt it. Her deft surgical skills were simply at the service of a special version of the normative—hers, of course, but also the Times‘ then, before the scandals that made Catholic pretensions to purity fair game. You and I know that if it were true that “none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness,” there’d be a lot fewer book reviews than memoirs.

This is good to remember, to score up there on the wall (as one of my writer-friends does) with other great self-help mantras. It also self-helped (it still does) that Under the Rose went to press with the imprimaturs not just of Marilyn French but of Nuala O’Faolain and Sandra Gilbert, both brilliant memoirists, both sometime Catholics, and both household saints in my calendar. I wonder by my own litmus test whether I really was “writing to the future” if some pretty testy other reviewers said some pretty nice things about Under the Rose in some pretty good places.

But back then, of course, in the fresh wake of Grizzuti, it didn’t matter who liked it. Behind that thick bark of ego she gave me there was barely a trickle of self-love left for savoring praise. Only weeks before that review was published my father had died—the patriarch who’d figured so huge in my story that I’d once actually thought of calling it Father—and the very Sunday it appeared I was in flight to California to help empty his house.

For a while, I’d say his death probably silenced me more than Grizzuti. Remembering it now makes me wonder what else I lost, or had to lose? Well, some things I thought I wanted, like the respect of my academic colleagues, the more careerist of whom instantly smelled Times roadkill and cut me off. It took awhile for me to see that academic cachet was something I’d already begun to de-value—otherwise why write a memoir in the first place? Maybe they’d known that before I did.

Could be, then, whatever else I lost, whatever still hangs somewhere in that vague .alt universe, was some of the same stuff—stuff I only thought I wanted.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #3:
We have more than one life to live, and more than one voice to give.

I had a lot of possible voices from the beginning. So it could be that the right analogy for that review was not a laryngectomy but a stink-bomb. It emptied the building. But it didn’t take long to hear the riot of squatters rumbling up the stairs to fill the place. All those voices! They may have been attached to the same maimed name, but they had something, spectacular or not, still left in them to say.

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I was nearly immediately invited to contribute to two anthologies, one a group of Italian American women writing on food and culture (a short story, “Love Lettuce,” to The Milk of Almonds (Feminist Press, 2002); and an essay for a gathering of mostly Catholic feminists on their complicated attachments to the Church (“The Elephant is Slow to Mate” in Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism?, the University of Notre Dame Press, 2003, a publication that, by the way, merits a special little Grizzuti-star).

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But my favorite re-gift came from an Italian scholar with a passion for sex and the sacred, Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, who trumped the grimly silent Academy (and it must be my formidable ego that makes me LOVE to repeat this story) by making Under the Rose a cameo text at a conference session of the MLA’s annual meeting in New York. (Serena is a serious trip: see her own memoir, Eros: A Journey of Multiple Loves, 2006, and her website.)

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And then, as you know, the future—or one of the futures—I was writing to came maybe sooner than anybody expected, and what is fondly termed the Priestly Pedophilia Scandal burst on the culture scene.

Almost immediately, a Dublin publisher (New Island Press) contracted to do their own edition of Under the Rose.

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Whereupon the Irish—who live in such an intimately conflicted family relationship with the Church, bought it, read it, reviewed it (quite soberly and generously), eventually made a half-hour TV movie about it, and seemed generally delighted to deflect attention away from the boys, and in the direction of my consensual, heterosexual, and mostly cavorting relationship with an utterly charismatic, brilliantly political, and howlingly funny Irish-American person who was, as it happened, also a priest “to the bone.”

Still, I have never published another book. Those “squatter” voices, a half-dozen or so like this one, slip in and slip away. Some are quite true, not ringers, slowly reclaiming the place now that the furniture in the apartment is a bit ratty but less odiferous.

I keep telling myself I have to get some new furniture. Or a whole new apartment—my ever recidivist self-love certain that there’s an absolutely brilliant historical novel in me…or maybe a series of murder mysteries, a theme on which I’ve become more expert with time.

But I cannot tell a lie. I was probably never meant to tell anything but true stories, truly. I regret that I didn’t devote more craft to making my one big book three smaller and better ones. And now I’d love to pull together a collection of hilariously picaresque true tales about my rogue of a lover-husband on this, my second time around.

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FLAVIA ALAYA, who dubs herself “a writer of all work,” professed cultural history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and helped found its original School of Intercultural Studies. (Sub)versions of infamy and secrecy attract her: her first book, a Harvard Press biography of Anglo-Scot writer William Sharp, is the still-standard account of his masquerade as a female poet (“Fiona Macleod”). Later work pioneered a feminist revaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the disparaged English poet who was, of course, also a consummate (if more discreet) memoirist.

But a little like Elizabeth, Flavia has always been too love-struck for the perfect feminist, and when her partner, star labor and immigration historian—and Roman Catholic priest—Harry Browne, died of leukemia in 1980, the project of writing about him—about them—seemed a way to prolong their life together. The adventures detailed inside this memoir made for a rocky manuscript adventure outside it that didn’t end (as you’ll see) with its publication by the Feminist Press in 1999.

But the “writer of all work” scrubs on, maybe more in the kitchen than the front parlor. As a civil rights advocate post-9/11 she wrote immigration detention exposés (and recounted anti-detention street activism) for the online journal CounterPunch. But always under the spell of city life and culture, her skills have turned not just to preservation activism but to “scripting the (local) landscape” as a form of community resistance to change, a vaguely subversive culture underground. From New York’s West Side to Paterson, New Jersey, small books—hidden histories revealed—like Gaetano Federici: The Artist as Historian, Silk and Sandstone, and Bridge Street to Freedom (a multi-layered account of the landmarking of a station of the Underground Railroad) have become a favorite medium. In collaboration with a local sports maven, she recently unpacked the lively story of Paterson’s Depression-era Negro Leagues stadium into a successful National Register application and a website.

Two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation writing fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center helped complete her memoir and then carry forward a draft novel on the life and amazing disappeared career of Joseph McDonnell, once-flamboyant Fenian, cofounder of the First International, editor of the long-lived Paterson Labor Standard, and pioneer author of the first progressive labor legislation in New Jersey. She has paused in this unfinished business to script narratives of industrial, labor and women’s history into the landscape of Bridgeton, New Jersey, her new base, as well as home of the largest historic district in the state.

If this is Tuesday, it must be Minneapolis, by guest blogger Stanley Trollip

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Hello, campers –

Today, I’m giving us all a much-deserved respite from our rather taxing ongoing series on conference pitching to bring you all a reward for virtue — no, make that several rewards for virtue. Remember earlier this summer, when award-winning police procedural author and fab guy Stanley Trollip stopped by to give us his insights on publication contracts, promising to return to tell us all about his book tour for his second novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU?

Well, jump for joy, fans of thrillers and book signings: he has proven as good as his word.

For those of you who have joined the Author! Author! community only recently, Stan is best known as Michael Stanley, nom de plume of Stan Trollip and Michael Sears. It’s one of the great thriller collaborations of our time.

But don’t take my word for that: the Los Angeles Times named their last novel, A CARRION DEATH, as one of the top ten crime novels of 2008. It also raked in finalist honors for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

The flattering buzz has been even louder for their new novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for it, along with both the US cover and the cover and title you’d see if you happened to be browsing in a Canadian or UK-based bookstore:

seconddeath cover michael stanleydeadlytrade cover Michael StanleyHow can a man die twice?

That is the question facing Detective David “Kubu” Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in Northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analyzed, Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years earlier.

Kubu quickly realizes that nothing at the camp is as it seems. As the guests are picked off one by one, time to stop the murderer is running out. With rumors of horrifying war crimes, the scent of a drug-smuggling trail, and mounting pressure from his superiors to contend with, Kubu doesn’t notice there is one door still left unguarded – his own. And as he sets a trap to find the criminals, the hunters are closing on him…

Not a bad pitch, is it? Notice how those one-of-a-kind details just leap out at you? Out comes the broken record again: never, ever forget that even the most tedious chore in book description is an opportunity to show what a good storyteller you are.

I digress, however. I promised you goodies, and goodies you shall have.

A whole literary cornucopia of them, too: to keep things interesting, not only will Author! Author! be bringing you Stan’s insights today, but a newfangled high-tech treat and a good, old-fashioned contest. To avoid scaring any technophobes out there away from winning a copy of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU free, gratis, and entirely without encumbering your monetary worth even tangentially, allow me to fill you in about the contest first.

To prepare you to enter, please study this lovely photo of precisely the kind of literary event most aspiring writers would happily give their little toes to attend:

Seated at the round table are Stanley (left), Michael (right), with their agent, Marly Rusoff

Stan (left) and Michael at the round table with their agent, Marly Rusoff

To win a copy of Michael Stanley’s latest book, all you have to do is answer this question: where are Stan and Michael hobnobbing with their agent? (Hint: as public places in New York City go, it could hardly be more literary.)

Answers should be emailed to michaelstanley@detectivekubu.com with subject line “Author! Author! contest” before September 15th. Three lucky winners will be drawn randomly from all correct answerers shortly thereafter, and the results shall be announced here and on the Detective Kubu website.

So this is a chance for fame as well as (modest) fortune!

Okay, now on to the technofest. As it happens, it directly relates to what you might be winning.

HarperCollins is beta-testing a nifty promotional feature that not only enables potential readers to browse books on its website, but allows me to offer my readers that opportunity, too. It’s not the whole book, mind you, and it’s not printable, but this feature does allow you to see more than most readers skim in a bookstore before buying. Take a gander, and see what you think:

What do you think? Like it as a promotional device, or would you rather be turning pages in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Would you feel differently about it if it were your book being promoted this way — in other words, do you prefer it as a writer than as a reader, or vice-versa?

As if all that weren’t exciting enough for one post, we haven’t yet gotten to the watermelon at the heart of the cornucopia (oh, you had a better metaphor in mind?): Stan’s promised insights into the mysteries of book tours, working with publicists, and every author’s nightmare, what happens if no one shows up to a book signing.

So please join me in a big Author! Author! welcome for Stan Trollip! Take it away, Stan!

seconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanley

June 2nd saw the launch of our second Detective Kubu mystery — The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu — at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, and kicked off something of a whirlwind book tour of the US. We visited 12 cities and 20 bookstores over about six weeks, but most of the trip was concentrated over a three-week period. During that time, we were in New York, Minneapolis, Urbana-Champaign IL, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Houston, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Book signings were interspersed with radio and TV slots and online interviews, and surrounded by Book Expo, Thrillerfest, and the American Library Association convention.

We were fortunate to have strong support from HarperCollins, particularly from our in-house publicist Heather Drucker, and things went smoothly as a result. And external publicist Susan Schwartzman buzzed around getting media slots for us. It would be a big challenge to arrange this sort of tour without the support of such knowledgeable and energetic people.

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Many writers don’t understand the role of the publicist at a major house. So here is how we see it. Several months before the book is released, the in-house publicist sends out review copies of the book to influential reviewers in the various media. This list is often compiled in collaboration with the authors, who may have insights into niche areas. If you have a publisher like HarperCollins, this can amount to well over a hundred books.

Then the publicist works with the authors to map out a book-tour itinerary. The extent of this depends on the publisher’s budget, which was zero for our first book, A Carrion Death, and small but significant for the second book, as well as how much the author is willing to contribute. For both books, we chipped in a sizeable amount of our advance to fund our tours.

Then the publicist contacts the bookstores or other organizations, such as libraries, and coordinates everything with them, including providing publicity materials if available, ensuring they have enough books to sell, helping to publicize the event, and so on. The publicist also coordinates the travel and accommodation arrangements. We try to stay with friends whenever possible, not only because it reduces costs, but is also much more fun.

Finally, the in-house publicist works with the external publicist to ensure that their efforts are coordinated. For example, Heather from HarperCollins worked with Susan (an external publicist whom we hired) to support her efforts to find radio and TV spots. She did this by supplying additional review copies of the book, providing book reviews as they came out, and coordinating the sale of books if appropriate.

We have heard stories of the in-house and external publicists competing. This is not a good situation! Before you hire an external publicist, you should coordinate with your in-house publicist so that you are building a team not a pair of competitors. In our case, Heather and Susan worked together wonderfully.

So what is our perspective on our book tour, looking back two months later?

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

From the moment we launched The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, it was great fun. We talked to people who enjoy our books and had read both or intended to do so. We met booksellers who care about mystery books and have an intimidating knowledge of them and their authors. And we spent a lot of time together, enjoying the travel, sharing the experiences, and talking about our third book.

Second, we learned a lot. We discovered that people really care about the ongoing characters in the book, particularly our protagonist, Botswana police detective David Bengu (known as Kubu) and his family. Interestingly, few questions or comments related to Kubu himself, other than whether he was based on a real person (he isn’t). Perhaps people have already formed their own mental pictures of him and where he is going.

Readers really like his wife Joy and wonder what is happening with the relationship between Joy’s sister, Pleasant, and an occasional suitor, Bongani. We also heard a lot of positive comments about Kubu’s aging parents (Wilmon and Amantle). We were told they added to an understanding of the Botswana culture. This was very satisfying as we had decided early on in our writing to purposefully deal with the physical and cultural attributes of Botswana. We realized that doing so would slow the pace of the mystery a little, but hoped what it added would compensate. Our tour and the reviews we have received tell us that most readers like the style.

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers' reactions to A Carrion Death

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers’ reactions to A Carrion Death

Third, the tour was hard work. We did the Midwest, travelling by car from Chicago; there are long distances involved and the June weather was — to be polite — variable. We had plenty of good dinners with old friends, who turned out across the country to support us, but we had a few twists and turns along the way. One pit-stop restaurant we could only find sugared pop, other than tap water, and fried food. We were caught up in a demonstration in Los Angeles urging democracy in Iran. We were becalmed on the LA freeway. We had sessions with standing room only, and an event to which no one showed up.

We suspect that it is every writer’s nightmare to stand expectantly at the front of a room, and wait, and wait. Look at your watch. How long should we wait? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes. Feel embarrassed, awkward. Not sure what to say to the bookstore manager. She’s not sure what to say to you. It happened to us on a Sunday lunchtime on the city’s first nice summer day of the year. “Sundays are always busy,” she told us apologetically. But the first sight of the sun tempted even the most ardent readers and every chair was vacant.

In some ways, we were quite pleased it happened. We had got it out of the way — the nagging fear of an empty room. More importantly, we survived! And our egos were still intact. People on the street didn’t point at us surreptitiously and snigger. And it gave us something to write about in this blog.

All we can say is that it is going to happen. We are lucky to tour together, so at least we have each other to talk to. And maybe there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps new authors should consider doing events in tandem with another author. At least then, when there is no audience, you have a companion with whom to share the disappointment.

Stan making the most of a book signing

Stan making the most of a book signing

At a more practical level, one can ask what these book tours achieve. Certainly we find it of value to learn in person what readers think and feel about our writing, even though we get similar feedback by email and over our website. We think the readers enjoy the events and find them interesting. In addition, bookstore owners and managers now have a personal experience of us to link to the books when they sell them.

But our feeling is that this sort of discussion is irrelevant for most people in the publishing industry, especially in the current weak economic environment. Their question would be: does the time and money spent on a book tour improve book sales?

It’s a difficult question to answer. One publicist told us that they know that only half of their marketing has any impact on sales — they just don’t know which half.

The same goes for us. We are both scientists and have a constant discomfort that there are no data about the effectiveness of what we do for publicity. In reality, we believe that book tours and so on are valuable, but don’t ask us to prove it.

Then there is the 90:10 rule – ninety percent of the marketing budget goes on the ten percent of authors who are best known, best sellers, and who need marketing the least. Since we are not in that ten percent, we are grateful for the slice we got of the other ten percent. We work hard and spend a considerable amount of our advances on marketing and touring. It is reassuring that HarperCollins is willing to support us in this.

Book tours outside North America seem to be uncommon except for well-known authors. We have done no more than a few signings in other countries. Declining to organize a function in Johannesburg for our second book, our South African publicist told us that launches don’t sell books; publicity sells books. We pointed out that the launch of A Carrion Death in Johannesburg sold over a hundred copies and attracted at least twice that number of people. Her response was: “Yes, it was an excellent launch. You have a lot of friends in Johannesburg.” So we threw our own party to which 100 or so people came, and we sold seventy books.

Would the same number of books have been sold anyway? We don’t know.

So how would we sum up our feelings about the book tour? Let’s put it this way. If we’re asked to do one next year for our third book, we’ll dip into our pockets and start buying the plane tickets.

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Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Onion loaf, OCD, and other indispensable accoutrements of the comedy writer: an interview with AND HERE’S THE KICKER author Mike Sacks

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Hello, campers —

Since we’ve all been working so hard throughout this series on pitching, I have a treat for you today — or at any rate, I had planned a treat: an interview between Mike Sacks, author of the recently-released AND HERE’S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT and legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe.

I was excited about this, because the book is a good one, full of the kind of serious analysis the craft of comedy writing seldom receives, performed by writers who have spent years honing their craft.

By the time I was halfway through the book, I was even more excited, because quite a lot of the interviews speak very directly to our pet subject of the moment: AND HERE’S THE KICKER contains some amazing anecdotes about the difficulty of pitching comedy to the humorless — or to funny people who are just bad listeners.

Who among us couldn’t use some advice from the pros on that?

To render it even more useful for those of you out there who write comedy, the interviews are bookended with sections billed as Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer, on topics that should make aspiring writers’ hearts sing:

Getting Your Humor Piece Published in The New Yorker

Finding a Literary Agent for Your Humor Book Idea

Acquiring an Agent or Manager for Your Script

You’re starting to feel the excitement now, too, aren’t you?

Seriously, ever since I’ve had the book in the house, I’ve been picking it up every time I start to feel even the vaguest twinge of depression. Nothing cheers me up like learning something new about my art form, you see — and frankly, I’ve been pretty astonished at how much solid information about craft and marketing is crammed into these relatively brief interviews.

We often hear super-serious authors discussing the inspiration and difficulties underlying their craft, but comedy writing is usually treated like magic: all the audience really knows is whether the bit works. How it is done remains a mystery. Here, however, the pros actually do talk about the tricks o’ the trade, sometimes in quite extensive detail.

How much detail, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s always a good sign, I think, when I pick up a book aimed at aspiring writers and exclaim ten pages in, “Wow, why hasn’t someone written this before?”

I have to admit, though, that as a reader, much of what I’ve enjoyed about AND HERE’S THE KICKER has had little to do with insights into craft or illuminating marketing tips. I’ve been getting a big kick out of some of the behind-the-scenes peeks into pitch sessions and writers’ meetings.

Who’d have thought, for instance, that the catchphrase-based humor that took over skits at Saturday Night Live would annoy some former SNL writers as much as it does yours truly? (Catchphrases are antithetical to genuine humor, in my opinion: the laugh comes merely because the line is expected.) Or that an actor/director/writer whose work I’ve always felt was hugely overrated would strike me as similarly full of himself in the context of a serious interview about the far, far more talented artists with whom he’s had the good fortune to work?

Hey, I’m only human; I enjoy having my prejudices confirmed as much as the next person.

In short, I was pretty psyched at the prospect of bringing Mike here to Author! Author! to talk about his book. So, as I always do when I’m considering introducing an author of a new book to you fine people, I tracked down the publisher’s blurb:

Every great joke has a punch line, and every great humor writer has an arsenal of experiences, anecdotes, and obsessions that were the inspiration for that humor. In fact, those who make a career out of entertaining strangers with words are a notoriously intelligent and quirky lot. And boy, do they have some stories.

In this entertaining and inspirational book, you’ll hear from 21 top humor writers as they discuss the comedy-writing process, their influences, their likes and dislikes, and their experiences in the industry. You’ll also learn some less useful but equally amusing things, such as:

* How screenwriter Buck Henry came up with the famous “plastics” line for The Graduate.
* How many times the cops were called on co-writers Sacha Baron Cohen and Dan Mazer during the shooting of Borat.
* What David Sedaris thinks of his critics.
* What creator Paul Feig thinks would have happened to the Freaks & Geeks crew if the show had had another season.
* What Jack Handey considers his favorite “Deep Thoughts.”
* How Todd Hanson and the staff of The Onion managed to face the aftermath of 9/11 with the perfect dose of humor.
* How Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais created the original version of The Office.
* What it’s really like in the writers’ room at SNL.

Funny and informative, And Here’s the Kicker is a must-have resource – whether you’re an aspiring humor writer, a fan of the genre, or someone who just likes to laugh.

And that, my friends, is how a not-very-stirring pitch can undersell a marvelous book. Oh, it drops the relevant names well enough, but does that very mainstream list tell you that this book is filled with insights that will startle you? Or educate you as a comedy writer?

Did it, in short, stir in you excitement to rush out and read this book?

For me, it didn’t, and that’s a real shame — the interviews with Bob Odenkirk and Dick Cavett alone offer more genuine insight into figuring out what is and isn’t going to be funny to an audience than anything else I’ve seen on the subject in years.

Call me zany, but when a reader already in love with a book takes a gander at the blurb and thinks, “Wow, that certainly undersells what’s between the covers,” I suspect that it might not be doing its job as well as it should.

Ditto with a pitch, whether it is given verbally or in a query letter: if it doesn’t make the hearer or reader long to read the manuscript in question, it’s not an effective pitch, by definition. As we’ve just seen, simply listing a book’s attributes — a strategy embraced by many a pitcher — isn’t always the best means of grabbing potential readers.

So eschew the blurb above, which also, I notice from the book at my elbow, happens to be the back jacket copy. I suspect that the interview below will give you greater insight into why AND HERE’S THE KICKER might be the book for you. As would flipping through it in a bookstore — which, contrary to the dire moans we keep hearing from the general direction of the publishing industry, inveterate readers still do on a regular basis.

For those of you who prefer the new-fangled, less-browsable route, AND HERE’S THE KICKER is also available on Amazon, naturally. And for those of you who like to support independent bookstores but don’t happen to live near any, you can always pick it up at Powell’s.

As for me, I’ve depressed myself into a stupor, thinking about all of the great books out there that are languishing, under-pitched. I’m just going to have to read another interview to cheer myself up.

Enjoy!

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My name is Mike Sacks. I have a new book out this month from Writers Digest Press called “And Here’s the Kicker.” The book contains full-length interviews that I conducted over the past two years with 21 famous humor writers.

One of those writers is the great Merrill Markoe, who was a huge influence not only on me, but on my entire generation. Merrill was the first head-writer for Late Night with David Letterman, and she’s also published a ton of great articles and seven fantastic humor books that every comedy fan should own.

I asked Merrill if she’d be willing to talk with me about my book, exclusively for Author! Author!, and she said yes. Last month, in a private room in the Santa Monica Outback Steakhouse, over a giant onion loaf and two orders of sweet-glazed roast pork tenderloins, we sat down to talk about various subjects, including what it really takes to become a humor writer, beyond merely depression and OCD…

Hope you enjoy…

MERRILL: Mike, did you know I was a vegetarian when I agreed to do this interview with you?

SACKS: Onion loaf is a vegetable, is it not?

MERRILL: Moving on…What did you do at the Washington Post?

SACKS: I worked in the Washington Postsyndicate office. We edited and then sent out the work of various blow-hard columnists, such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, EJ Dionne, etc. I’m from the DC area originally, but I don’t miss the bowties, lawyers in suspenders, and self-important vice-presidents of do-nothing associations.

Can you tell I didn’t fit in?

MERRILL: What do you on the editorial staff at Vanity Fair?

SACKS: Mostly what I do is editorial, although I also write for the magazine. Also, and I’m not thrilled about this, I’m in charge of Dominick Dunne’s ever-changing hairdo.

MERRILL: You’ve freelanced for various magazines, such as The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Time, Radar and Vice. Were those freelance pieces that you submitted or did you contact them and pitch?

SACKS: Most of those pieces were the result of me coming up with an idea and sending it to someone on staff, usually someone I knew.

It’s up to you to make a pitch, and (this is important) you should never send your pitch to the editor-in-chief. They just don’t care. Send it to either someone you know or someone further down the editorial ladder, who might have time to read a query and help you through the process.

I’d say that most of the younger editorial staffers prefer email. So, make your pitch very short, no longer than four paragraphs. You can always add details later.

MERRILL: What did you want to be when you grew up?

SACKS: I wanted to be a pilot and then a brain surgeon, but I got dizzy easily and I nearly flunked high school biology. No joke.

Failing that, I really wanted to work in a record store in suburban Maryland, as a clerk making $5.65 an hour . . . and I did so, off and on, for the next ten years! A dream come true!

MERRILL: Where did the idea for doing the KICKER book begin? Were there things you wanted to know about the comedy writing process, or were you just aware that there wasn’t a book like this and you wanted to read one?

SACKS: Both, really. I could never find a contemporary book of interviews with today’s humor writers. The only books I found dealt with shows from the 50s through 70s, such as Your Show of Shows or Saturday Night Live. Those programs are great, but how much can you read about them already?

Another problem with a lot of humor books is that they tend to be written by people who have not made a living in comedy (at least at the highest level). I wanted to ask successful humor writers what to do and (just as importantly) what NOT to do.

For instance, if you want to get a humor piece published in a magazine, don’t try to be funny in the cover letter. It just annoys the editor.

Here’s another bit of advice from the pros: when you apply to become a writer at a late-night show, never include with your submission the funny T-shirt you created, or bumper sticker you printed up, or Rupert Pupkin–style tape you made of yourself telling jokes in your bedroom. I’m sure you can concur. It just doesn’t help your chances.

The book is filled with such advice that will hopefully help younger writers navigate the system to becoming a success.

MERRILL: When you interviewed me, you seemed to have a lot of information about things I’d done. Did you just Google people and read or what?

SACKS: I try to read as much as possible about each of the interviewees. It shows the interview subjects that you’ve done your homework and that you respect them enough to have done the hard work of preparation. Second, and most importantly, the interview will turn out better for it. It will be more comprehensive and, most likely, a lot more interesting.

MERRILL: How long did the book take to write?

SACKS: Two years, every night after work, and on every weekend. My wife just loved it.

MERRILL: Who turned out to be the least like you thought they would be?

SACKS: Truthfully, I did so much research for each interview (up to 30 hours) that I could basically predict how it was going to go. Of course, there are exceptions to that. I conducted a total of 40 interviews and I would say that three or four subjects were either very, very busy or very, very rude.

MERRILL: Did any interview turn out so badly that you didn’t end up using it? Does that happen much with interviews?

SACKS: Yes, sometimes my fault, sometimes theirs. And sometimes you think an interview has gone beautifully, but when you begin to edit the interview and put it together, you realize that it’s kind of weak. You can then perform follow-up interviews, but sometimes you just realize that you’re never going to get what you want no matter how many questions you ask. It might just be a bad fit between you and the interviewee.

MERRILL: A lot of writers like attention because writing is so damn solitary. But were there some who were reluctant? Hard to interview?

SACKS: Sure, there were many who didn’t want to be interviewed, and most of them were (for some strange reason) women. I asked about 15 top female humor writers, and all said no (or never got back to me). I don’t know why this was the case, although I’m guessing two reasons: one, a lack of ego, and two, there are so few top women humor writers that they are constantly being asked to give interviews and are tired of it already.

Do you find this to be the case, Ms. Top Woman Humor Writer?

MERRILL: No. That doesn’t make any sense to me and certainly doesn’t sound like a typical gender trait. Or I’m such an egomaniac that I can’t recognize it. Maybe between work and home life, they were all just too busy . Or maybe their OCD was kicked off by mere proximity to you and they had to wash their hands.

Who was the hardest one to get to agree that he/she would do the interview?

SACKS: No one was really too hard to pin down, but I found that the older generation (Larry Gelbart, Al Jaffee, Irv Brecher) was the easiest to get a hold of. I think it took Larry Gelbart five minutes to get back to me by email (and not from an assistant, mind you). All these senior guys were incredibly classy. I’m sure Al Jaffee had other things to be doing, and yet he could not have been more gracious and more of a sweetheart.

Irv Brecher was 93 when I interviewed him, and he spoke to me for hours. It was one of the last interviews he conducted before he died at the age of 94.

MERRILL: You mentioned a high incidence of OCD among comedy writers. I have never been especially aware of this among writers, although comedians are so insane that I don’t know if there is any mental disabilities that they DONT have. OCD stands for Original Comedian Disorder. But what indications did you have that the people you were interviewing had OCD?

SACKS: Well, for the simple reason that I came right out and asked. And I only asked because I, too, suffer from it. I would say that 70% of those I interviewed said they had it.

I emailed Dr. Oliver Sacks (no relation, minus the mental illness factor) and asked if there was a connection. He said he wasn’t aware of one. Maybe there isn’t, I don’t know.

I just found it all to be, at the very least, a strange coincidence.

MERRILL: Seventy percent is NO coincidence.

Are you comfortable talking about your OCD in this interview? What are your symptoms and do they keep you from writing or force you to write?

SACKS: I don’t mind talking about it, as long as I can talk about it for exactly three minutes and forty seconds. My symptoms are excessive thoughts, hand washing and the urge to kiss the homeless on the subway.

I would say that the OCD does absolutely help with the writing, if only because I literally think about the writing all day and most of the night. And I feel I have to get it perfect, even though that’s an impossible trick. If I don’t write every day, I get nervous.

MERRILL: Oh my God. I definitely do that. I also do it about going to the gym. Maybe I should give hand-washing a shot and see if it takes.

On an unrelated topic: whither The Freedonian?

SACKS: The Freedonian was a humor website that I ran with some friends in the early 2000s. We published a lot of writers who went on to have great careers, like Neal Pollack and a few writers for The Daily Show.

But we got burned out, and, truthfully, it was too difficult to consistently find good pieces. We were thinking of putting the best pieces out in a book compilation…

MERRILL: When you were Nerve’s Crush of the Week, did you get a lot of interest? Didn’t your wife freak out?

SACKS: My wife couldn’t have cared less, truthfully. She thought it was ridiculous. I did hear from some women, but they mostly wanted to talk about splitting infinitives. Dirty, dirty women writers…

MERRILL: Of the writers you talked to, what advice or approach did you come away thinking about? Did anyone have a method you hadn’t considered before?

SACKS: Larry Gelbart talked about how one’s writing style is formed by what you can’t write. I thought this was really interesting, and I think it’s a good lesson for beginning writers.

In other words, if you want to write comics, write comics. If you want to write short humor pieces, that’s fine, too. You should be content writing whatever works for you and whatever interests you. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t want (or can’t) write short stories like Hemingway. Not everyone has to do that; there are plenty of other niches to fill.

MERRILL: Was there a common denominator among the writers in terms of approach to writing?

SACKS: The common denominator was to just keep working, day after day, even though the writing may not be going well. Just keep at it. Everyone, even the writers at the top of their game, struggle from time to time. The trick is to remain consistent; sit yourexpletive deleted down and keep at it, day after day, week after week, year after year.

MERRILL: Was there any one thing besides OCD that these people all had in common?

SACKS: Just this inability to feel content. All of the writers, no matter how popular or famous, still want to achieve a lot more. They each have a tremendous hunger to keep going and to keep writing and to keep achieving.

MERRILL: Did anyone actually LIKE writing?

SACKS: It seems as if the great writers have no choice BUT to write, even if they don’t necessarily love the day-to-day process. But all seem to love having accomplished something that they’re proud of, even if getting there was brutally difficult.

MERRILL: Do you have a favorite quote? I shouldn’t ask this because you will piss off all the writers you overlook, but…what the hell. You don’t have to see them now, do you?

SACKS: I liked Harold Ramis’ quote: find the smartest person in the room, and if isn’t you, go stand next to them.

I think this is great advice. Find like-minded people with similar goals who are also talented and try to make it together. It’s very important to network and to have support, rather than making a go of it alone. It’s tough enough as it is…

Thank you, Merrill. Now let’s get back to our onion loaf, shall we?

MERRILL: Do you mind if we put a napkin over the dismembered pig carcasses?

SACKS: I do not. Pass the hot sauce.

sacks-pizza-coney-island-1Mike Sacks has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, Time, McSweeney’s, Radar, MAD, New York Observer, Premiere, Believer, Vice, Maxim, Women’s Health, and Salon. He has worked at The Washington Post, and is currently on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair.

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part V: alone time, communal festivities, and speaking the lingua franca

la-muse-signage

Today is the last installment of my multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. Kerry and John were kind enough — or foolish enough, depending upon how one chooses to regard the time commitment involved — to agree to sit down and answer all of the questions I thought my readers might have about the ins and outs of running an artists’ retreat.

As will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while, I did not suffer from an inability to come up with trenchant questions, or a whole lot of ‘em.

I did, however, forget to ask a rather important one until the interview was nearly over — an omission that I’m kind of surprised, frankly, none of you fine readers has left a comment pointing out. Let’s rejoin the conversation already in progress to see just how gracefully I covered for this little oversight.

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Anne: There’s one question that I know will have been preying on the minds of literally every English-speaking reader of my blog since I first mentioned that I was going to travel to France for a writing retreat: How much French would someone actually have to speak to get by at La Muse?

To be blunt about it, all of the travel guides say that this is the part of France where the fewest people speak the least English. do you think that someone who didn’t speak any French at all could do well here?

Kerry: No French is necessary. We are bilingual, so we can provide assistance there. And we do arrange for the French lessons for those who’d like to have the basics or improve more advanced French.

John: Hand gestures work well, too. The locals are very friendly and helpful.

Anne: That’s true, but in my limited experience, very few of them have English as a second language, even in Carcassonne (the nearest city). Traveling in packs helps; since there were a couple of my fellow residents who spoke no French at all, mine certainly improved by leaps and bounds while I was in residence.

One thing that seemed to bring villagers and retreatants together was the daily walk to get water at La Source.

Kerry: It’s a great daily outing, a natural ritual that makes people connected to the land and to the rhythm of this place.

Anne: For those of you who have never been to the village of Labastide Esparbaïrenque, La Source is a famous local mountain spring. (Sorry, campers; I seem to have neglected to take a photograph of it.) Many La Muse residents choose to take the not inconsiderable walk every day to obtain their drinking water from it, something that 21rst-century Westerners don’t do all that often. What’s the attraction, do you think?

Kerry: Charm, exercise and free spring water. It’s healthier, more economical and more environmentally sound than either tap water or bottled spring water. People have been getting drinking water from that spot for centuries, and come from miles around to fill up on water for the week. They claim it’s why there are so many old, old people here!

John: We encourage people to go to the source so that they can get out of the house and refresh themselves. That way. they can get more work done instead of staying in their rooms burning themselves out.

hallway-at-la-muse
Anne: Which is a genuine danger at a good artists’ retreat, I’ve noticed, especially for writers. A lot of us become so excited at the idea of having an entire 24 hours per day free to write that we actually try to spend every waking hour doing it. It’s important to establish reasonable expectations, so you don’t end up writing for three days straight, then collapsing for a week.

John: Everyone has a different process. Some writers are like Auden and get up at the crack of dawn and others are like Dostoyevsky, they write all night…

Anne: And some are like Graham Greene, and write 147 words per day until they get a book done.

John: We feel that whichever you are, you really need to get away from your laptop or canvass during the day, to have a ritual, that allows you to get out of your own head so that you can be even more lucid when you get back to your work.

Anne: Speaking of daily rituals, although e-mail and web surfing is now a constant part of most writers’ lives, artists’ retreats have been very slow to jump on the internet bandwagon. It’s still not all that uncommon to have to travel to the nearest town to get online. I can understand wanting to render too-easy access less of a temptation, since e-mail and the web can be so distracting and time-consuming, but I frequently meet writers — and other artists, for that matter — who say that being completely cut off is a deal-breaker on a long retreat. I hate to admit it, but as both a blogger and a freelance editor with ever-clamoring (charmingly, of course) clients, I wouldn’t have been able to stay as long at La Muse had the internet connection not been available.

You’ve recently expanded the internet connection, so it may be used all over the La Muse, rather than in a dedicated internet space. How has that been working out?

Kerry: We have WIFI. We used to not have any because we used dial-up — ADSL has only been possible in this village for two years.

John: People usually don’t use the Internet much at all. They just need to know it’s available to them. Bloggers use it a lot, obviously, but most of the time people use it after quiet hours because they are really into finishing or moving forward with their projects.

Anne: Since the walls are so thick (note: since it began life as a medieval structure, La Muse’s external walls are a meter deep; see next set of photos), I’m not sure there’s any way of knowing for sure who is doing what, or when, in the various rooms. The privacy level’s awfully high.

La Muse's kitchen window, as seen from without...

La Muse’s kitchen window, as seen from without…

...and from within.

…and from within.

Anne: What I was really asking was do you think that a retreat with easy internet access is different from one that doesn’t have it?

Kerry: It has changed the vibe. The monastic nature of a retreat is sort of interrupted by daily emails, the odd job offer, the business of swapping favorite music and movies, Skype… pop culture and the stress of life back home has more openings through which to seep into a person’s experience here and to interrupt their flow, which is too bad.

That said, many people use the Net for research, and we found it actually alleviated stress just to make it available for everyone. So, we remind people to try to stay focused on their projects, and I think they do.

Anne: Which leads me to a delicate subject, something that writers who have been on retreat talk about a lot amongst themselves, but retreat organizations tend to downplay as a possibility. Do you get writers or artists who come to La Muse and just don’t work?

Kerry: People who come here are just dying for the time to focus on their work. Sometimes we have people who read and research and unwind, and that’s fine. We just ask that they not interfere with other people’s work. If they do interfere, we have a talk. It has very rarely happened.

Anne: That’s encouraging to hear, since it’s such a common retreat phenomenon; it’s rare to meet a writer freshly back from any retreat, anywhere, who doesn’t complain about another resident’s loafing around, being a distraction. Not out of spite or anything, but just because the sole unoccupied person in the midst of a dozen with their noses to the grindstone is bound to stand out.

Maybe the fact that many of your attendees travel so far to get here minimizes the temptation to use the time for non-artistic pursuits. Or that so many of your residents are already professional artists of one sort or another, and thus already have good work habits.

John: Lots of established writers who come actually use the retreat to decompress from their writing life back home. They come here to read and eat good food. They come to be around other creative people but without the pressure of their home office. They are researching, but more importantly they are retreating from their lives back home so that they can think about their writing, so that they can be inspired about what they are working on.

As we say all the time, every one has their own process. Once that process is not getting in the way of other attendees. we are happy.

reading-retreater-at-la-muse

Anne: Okay, let’s flip the scenario around, then: do you get attendees who just disappear into their rooms and are never heard from again?

John: Like I just said, everyone has their own process. Everyone is at different stages of their projects, careers, and lives, so that affects what their process is. If someone needs to stay in their room all day, that’s their choice. We accept and respect a person’s process.

Kerry: If they want seclusion, that’s their call. We check on people when we haven’t seen them in awhile to make sure they’re okay, but that’s about it.

Anne: Retreats can be rather lonely experiences for a writer, especially the first time around. No matter how long one longs to be absolutely alone with one’s book, the actual fact of it can be a bit overwhelming.

John: The writing life is by its nature lonely. You sit in a room with four walls with the door closed. You do the same at La Muse, but without having to worry about the telephone ringing, changing nappies, answering the mail, going out.

Also, La Muse allows you to go through this with people on the same wavelength as you. How many times in your normal life can you be surrounded by other creative people all day for three weeks? Attendees really love this aspect of a retreat, being able to talk about what they’ve done at the end of a day over a glass of wine on the terrace.

Kerry: Basically, we gave the house a structure: a time to work and a time to eat. So most people eat together, which makes for structured social time.

writers-on-the-terrace-at-la-muse

Anne: I guess that brings us back to your earlier point: La Muse gives retreaters more options to personalize their retreat experiences than most artists’ colonies do. In my first cohort, for instance, most of the retreatants left after the originally-planned three-week session, but two of us were able to remain for another couple of weeks in order to complete our projects.

Kerry: We do accept shorter stays, but when possible we ask that people arrive on the first day of each retreat so everyone can settle in at the same time. There’s less upheaval in the house that way.

For 2010, we plan to have a different calendar that will offer two-week retreats, three week retreats – those who wish to stay for a month or more can come for two consecutive retreats.

Anne: That’s great. Much, much more flexible than the vast majority of retreats.

Kerry: We will also have two periods of the year (probably two months in the fall and two months in early spring) when people can come and go on whichever dates they please, to stay for however long. The calendar in 2011 will reflect how well that works.

Anne: So La Muse is still evolving.

John: We have been keeping notes on the genesis of La Muse and all the crazy things that have happened to us over the years in La France Profonde. An editor friend thinks it would make a great book and has told us we need to pitch a part of it to The New Yorker or somewhere like that, but we are pretty busy right now.

Anne: No kidding!

John: We have our attendees and kids and other writing to take care of first but would love to eventually get that book out there. There’d be a huge market for it.

Anne: I suspect it’s not an uncommon writerly fantasy: move someplace beautiful, peaceful, and exotic to write, with another space to be able to welcome other writers who want to do the same.

Not to mention doing it in the company of someone you love. How is collaborating on running a retreat different than working on any other kind of project together?

Kerry: It’s alive and 3-D. Much more multi-tasking involved.

John: It’s everything at the same time. To use the cliché, you wear many hats and a lot of them are funny ones.

Anne: But in the face of all that it takes to keep an artists’ retreat running — more than a full-time job, by anyone’s standards –how on earth do you have time to write yourselves?

Kerry: Late at night or in the wee hours… just like when we had full-time jobs in NYC.

John: I write a lot at the train station waiting for people to arrive or when I bring people down to Carcassonne for the weekly ride package. The collection of short stories I’ve been writing this year have been mostly written in cafes and in our old Chrysler Voyager. I usually type my stuff up in the dead of night.

Anne: I suppose this question should have topped the interview, but please tell us a bit about your backgrounds and what each of you writes. Kerry, why don’t you go first?

Kerry: I come from a military family, and lived in Europe for part of my childhood and it was probably back then that I fell in love with tiny old villages with their little stone houses with big gardens. I always wanted to be a writer, but these days I wish I were a painter. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and received a BA in Comparative Literature, and had a concentration in creative writing. My focus then was poetry.

During and after university, I lived in Paris for three years, where I did an internship at the French ELLE magazine, and the Paris office of 60 Minutes/CBS News. After that, I landed an editorial and news assistant job at the Paris bureau of The New York Times. When my visa ran out, I moved to NYC. There, I worked as the assistant to the Editorial Director of Conde Nast Publications, then went on to write and edit for various glossies and dailies, ghostwrite alternative health books, a coffee table book, and two screenplays. I am currently turning back to pitching article ideas, and have two novels in progress.

Anne: What about you, John?

John: I’m the eldest of seven kids. I was born in rural Ireland. My Dad worked in farming as an agricultural advisor for the Irish government. My jobs have included working on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse – my first paycheck – selling windows door to door, managing a bar in Camden Town in London, working in a coffee shop in New York’s East Village, writing marketing materials, travel guides and fact-checking. I most recently worked as a researcher/reporter for Vanity Fair in New York City.

I’m primarily a novelist, but I’ve written short stories, screenplays and plays. My master’s degree was in modern European Drama. My fourth novel, A Brave Man Dead, is currently being sent out by my agent, Angharad Kowal at Writers’ House in London, and my fifth, A Murder of Crows, is being read. I’m working on a collection of short stories right now based around the Stations of the Cross and I’m really enjoying the process.

picnic-in-montolieu

Anne: Okay, one last question, then I’ll let the two of you get back to running the retreat. If you could wave a magic wand and the perfect La Muse attendee would appear before you, what would that writer be like.

You’ll notice that I’m assuming it would be a writer!

Kerry: Either someone who loves everything we do, or someone who can tell us what they don’t love about what we do so we can do it better for that person.

Anne: I’ll let my readers guess into which category I tended to fall on any given day.

Kerry: Also, someone who refers La Muse to their peers, and who returns to La Muse with their peers, someone who respects the guidelines we provide, and someone with the patience to understand that in the South of France it can take awhile to fix something that’s broken.

Anne: Which can come as a surprise to a big city person born and bred.

John: Plumbers and electricians, etc., down here are as laid back as everyone else. They could give a dam about making money. They want their two-hour lunch breaks and they will not do overtime. It’s a joke to them. People need to understand that. Everything down here is very relaxed and very slow.

That’s why people choose to come here. To get away from the frenzy of life back home. So, attendees that can understand this way of life and that not only accept but fall in love with that relaxed ethos tend to be the ones that get the most out of a retreat at La Muse. They tend to be the attendees that get the most work done.

Anne: I would imagine that would be true with small retreats in general, wouldn’t it? I mean, a retreater who wanted something closer to a big-city atmosphere could always seek out one of the massive artists’ colonies like the Vermont Studio Center, where there are 50 people at every meal. When I was in residence, there were so many New Yorkers that a good third of my fellow retreaters met for brunch a month later in Brooklyn. It’s not really my idea of retreating, but it’s a lot of people’s proverbial cup of tea.

Since places like VSC do tend to boast about what their former residents have gone on to do, let me ask: how does retreating at La Muse seem to affect attendees’ careers?

John: We have many writers and artists that have acknowledged La Muse in their books and shows.

Anne: I guess that speaks for itself. I also noticed that you seem to have a much higher returning resident rate than most artists’ retreats, which also says something.

Okay, I lied: I have one more question. If you could tell potential attendees only one thing about La Muse before they got here, what would it be?

Kerry: That La Muse is a retreat. They are retreating from their lives back home so that they can finally get done what they need to get done. It’s as simple as that.

Anne: That’s a great place to end the interview, I think. Thanks, Kerry and John, for being generous enough to answer all of my questions and give writers out there curious about formal writing retreats so much insight into what they’re like behind the scenes.

And, as I always say to my readers, keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part IV: the most practical of practicalities

chambres-dhote

Welcome back to my ongoing multi-part interview with the proprietors of La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France, John Fanning and Kerry Eielson. For the last couple of posts, we’ve been talking about the financial aspects of getting to a writing retreat, so this time around, we’re going to get even more practical in our focus: what occurs at a formal retreat on a day-to-day basis?

We join the conversation already in progress.

Anne: Having been in residence at La Muse for two different three-week residency sessions, basically because I was being so productive that I refused to leave when the first one ended, I got to see first-hand the ENORMOUS amount of work involved in getting the retreat ready for new residents. Having arrived to find everything in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott liked to say, I was genuinely stunned at the flurry of activity.

Over and above intersession clean-up and prep, what’s actually involved in keeping a writing retreat going on a quotidian basis?

Kerry: Enough so that after all that dreaming, we work more hours here than we did in NYC and still have very little time to write!

Anne: What’s a day of running an artists’ retreat like?

Kerry: Processing applications takes about two hours a day. Once people are accepted and committed to coming, helping them get here can represent a lot of time. The barter residency has its application process and schedule; running barter projects underway takes three full days a week.

We are daily involved in marketing, advertising and outreach to get our name out there, including the blog, our website, our Facebook page, YouTube, MySpace, Shelfari, Good Reads, LinkedIn

Anne: Heavens.

Kerry: We host and enjoy current attendees at La Muse. We take care of people’s wishes and needs daily.

John: We offer a limited local transportation service, so there’s a lot of driving around.

Anne: That’s something that many first-time retreatants don’t consider, but artists’ retreat tend to be in the middle of nowhere. That’s part of their charm, of course, but if a writer doesn’t plan on bringing a car — which can drive up the cost of a retreat by quite a bit, if it’s a rental — getting around can be pretty problematic. I sprained my ankle fairly soon after I arrived, so I never made the hour-long trek down the mountain to the nearest village with a grocery store, but other residents did. So I, for one, was very grateful that you did offer a transportation service, so I could do my shopping while I wasn’t walking so well.

Kerry: Most months, we work on hosting an art show or some other cultural event for our attendees and our neighbors; in 2008, we hosted 8 events. We hope to host two this year, at least.

John: The house is 450 square meters on three levels with two gardens, the maintenance of which is a full-time job.

shutters-at-la-muse

Because at times we don’t have enough room in the house, we coordinate rentals of neighboring cottages to attendees, sometimesl who want to come with their families. When families come with their children, we arrange for childcare during their stay.

Kerry: And then, there’s all that cleaning… and gathering wood once a week from the forest for our four wood burning stoves which burn around the clock from October through April. So, we are busy.

John: You can say that again.

Anne: Not to mention organizing book swaps amongst the residents, taking us on the occasional field trip, and organizing other bits of occasional communal jollity.

I’m very interested in the practicalities, since the day-to-day business of getting fed, obtaining good sleep, and dealing with all of the million other concrete details involved in being comfortable can make an immense difference in how productive a writer is on retreat. A beautiful environment and/or adequate physical facilities are helpful, of course, but not always enough, in my experience.

But we’re talking about your experience here, not mine. What else is involved to encourage writers and other artists to be productive on retreat?

Kerry: There’s general maintenance (replacing blown light bulbs or the odd repairs or computer help, and doing what we can to help people be more comfortable and productive—whether they want to move their desk closer to the window or have a different chair.

Anne: I have distinct recollections of having made both requests. In fact, I’m relatively certain that I asked John to rearrange a fair amount of furniture.

John: Usually, in the first week, attendees have a lot of needs but after a couple of days, after the jet lag, they really start to settle in and then talk comes around to their projects and how they’re doing as opposed to blown light bulbs or where to get eggs from the locals.

Anne: Yes, let’s talk eggs for a moment, since I have some very pleasurable recollections of scrambling some of your neighbor’s freshly-laid duck eggs. Some retreats provide food for attendees, but La Muse does not. How do attendees feed themselves? How well does the communal kitchen work out?

Kerry: People cook and eat for themselves. 98% of people love it like that as it makes their retreat more of a communal one. Some people like other people to make food for them and some people like to do that for them, but again, we are not an institution.

Anne: I notice that you have a clothesline — which attendees also use. How on earth do you do all of the laundry between retreat sessions when the weather’s not nice?

Kerry: We have been very lucky to have mostly dry weather between stays and when it’s not nice, we drape sheets and towels over every radiator in the house. Worst case scenario, we use our dryer.

Anne: I was there in both spring and summer weather, and everyone got their laundry done just fine. But while we’re on the subject of weather, what’s it like at La Muse in the fall and winter?

Kerry: Fall is sunny and warm but with colder nights. Winter is mild but manages to feel cold. It never really goes below 7 degrees Celsius. That said, the weather has seemed totally unpredictable, so I hate to put anything out there in terms of expectations. I’ll just say we have four seasons, and it’s beautiful here no matter what, and the house is comfortable no matter what.

john-cutting-the-quiche

Anne: I’m sensing that I may have diverted the conversation before you finished telling me about a retreat-running day.

Kerry: We also have conversations with most attendees about their projects at least once during a retreat. Sometimes people have personal issues they struggle with, so we do what we can to provide support. We also meet with everyone socially at least once a week.

This daily interaction is one of our greatest pleasures. It can be very time-intensive, depending on the group. We try to arrange introductions with local artists when there may be the potential for an exchange of some kind. We arrange for French lessons, or just conversation exchange. Everyone needs something, most days.

Anne: Even in the face of that frankly daunting list of tasks you’ve just mentioned, my impression is that, if anything, you’ve been expanding your efforts on behalf of La Muse and the larger artists’ community over time. Is that accurate? How has your vision evolved in the years since you first opened the retreat?

Kerry: We’ve stayed very true to the original concept but have developed a community-based angle as well. We started our non-profit for local cultural activities, and to be able to create more fellowships — another development since the beginning.

Anne: That ties into the dream you were telling us about last time: trying to bring La Muse to the point where writers and artists can attend for free. It’s such a beautiful idea; I hope to see you realize it.

Tell us more about La Muse’s nonprofit. People can deduct contributions to it, right?

John: Basically, any donations made to the non-profit — it’s called “L’Association ‘La Muse’ pour la creation et la culture en Montagne Noire et Cabardes” — are completely tax deductable. An association in France functions much like a 501(c)(3) in the States. It’s due to a convention that was passed on the first of July all the way back in 1901, where two or more people operating a non-profit-making organization call themselves an “Association Loi 1901”.

Anne: You’ve got to hand it to the French when it comes to naming things straightforwardly. I was forever asking the locals what that group of crumbling medieval towers was called, and the name would turn out to be something like Las Tours.

las-tours-2
John: It took a lot of time to get it up and running due to all the paperwork, which is par for the course in La France, but we really foresee it having great benefits for La Muse, as ideally we would like every attendee that comes here to come for free. We haven’t employed a fundraiser yet but we are a member of the Alliance of Artists Communities in Rhode Island and are doing what we can to get our mission out there to potential donors so that we can make La Muse a free retreat, much like foundations like Yaddo.

Like I said earlier. ideally we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or residency attached to an institution or donor so they don’t feel weighed down by the financial weight of getting away. Our mission has always been to make a space for creative people and the best way to do that would to be to offer it for free. Also, it isn’t just now that we’re doing this. Students and graduates have been coming to us from Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States for years.

We want to grow that side of La Muse, but we need help to do so. We need the donations to get people here.

Kerry: We’re also reaching out more to our community not just because we love our neighbors and are grateful to have been welcomed by them, but also because many of them are artists and writers. Our attendees appreciate having a taste of local life, and we try to facilitate exchanges between our neighbors whenever possible, whether by inviting attendees to local events, or sending them to the neighbors for fresh eggs, or for a massage or a hiking guide—you name it.

Anne: We were talking about that earlier: although so many artists’ retreats are located in beautiful environments, they tend to be isolated enough from their neighbors that, other than the weather and the types of trees, spending a month at one might not be all that different than spending a month at another. Experienced retreaters compare amenities, of course, but as someone who has attended many retreats, a lot of them blur together in retrospect.

I find it rather hard to imagine that happening with La Muse, though. Where else, for instance, was I going to see the locals playing giant bagpipes made our of goats?

la-fete-de-ciba

Kerry: On an internal level, we’ve streamlined things since the beginning too, when it was more informal. We added the art studios. We are working on a new retreat calendar; rather than focus solely on longer retreats we’re trying to accommodate people who can only get away for two weeks.

Anne: Really? Not a lot of retreats offer stays that short; that would be helpful for working writers. Not to mention ones with kids!

Kerry: The 2010 calendar will have two-week retreats during months when there are university breaks, as well as our current three-week retreats. That way, people can come for two weeks, three weeks, two two-week retreats, a three-week retreat, etc. Some people stay for up to six months. In other words, people can tailor the length of their stay but keep to an arrival and departure schedule that won’t create a lot of upheaval for other attendees.

Anne: But the normal retreat time is three weeks, right? At many retreats, it’s a month. Why did you settle on three weeks?

Kerry: Our focus is to provide a place in which people can really crank on their projects, make some real progress. We believe that with the time it takes to settle in and with the inevitable socializing and days to read and relax, a person really needs about three weeks in order to get any real work done.

Anne: That’s true, but I know that in my case, it takes me a few days to settle in at the beginning, as well as a few days to get back to real-world mode at the end. So I had always assumed that most retreats arrange month-long (or longer) residencies, assuming that the three weeks you mentioned will fall somewhere in the middle of it.

Kerry: We used to have four-week retreats, and the last week seemed to be a listless one. As well, people often just can’t get away for four weeks. So we changed it to three.

John: Previous attendees told us three weeks would be better than four as they found it hard to get four weeks off from their day jobs or away from the kids or other responsibilities.

Anne: Speaking of time away from other responsibilities, I don’t want to run over-long, so let’s break here for the day.

Happy weekend, everyone, and keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part III: did someone mention fellowships?

library-door-at-la-muse

For the last week or so, I’ve been talking about the pros, cons, ins, outs, and finances of grabbing one’s manuscript, computer, and what Chaucer described for posterity as a bag of needments and trundling off to a formal writing retreat. You know, the impressive kind that they advertise in the back of Poets & Writers magazine: artists’ colonies where you have to write (or paint, or sculpt, or photograph) your way in; for the rest of your professional life, agents, editors, and other literati take a gander at your bio or query letter and exclaim, “Oh, you were at Retreat X?”

Oh, and one generally gets time to work on one’s manuscript, too.

Because both the decision to take time off work and the application process can be intimidating, confusing, or even downright scary, I have devoted the last couple of days to chatting about practicalities with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, owners, operators, and writers-in-residence at La Muse Artists’ Retreat in southwestern France. If you gaze carefully into the windows in the picture above, you’ll catch a glimpse of the magnificent view I enjoyed every time I cast my laptop from me last month and stared out the window, mulling over dialogue.

What — not enough detail in that image? Well, if you’re very nice, I’ll treat you to some clearer landscape photos throughout today’s post.

But wait, there’s more: as an additional treat, I’m also going to be continuing the extremely practical bent of yesterday’s post (an excellent behind-the-scenes glimpse into what a retreat application looks like from the other side of the submission desk) by sticking to the nitty-gritty. Specifically, to the financial nitty-gritty, to address the most pressing question on many would-be retreating writers’ minds:

How on earth do writers afford to stay at a retreat like this?

If a writer happens to be independently wealthy, obviously, the answer is simple: there are plenty of perfectly marvelous artists’ hideaways out there for thems as can pay for ‘em. Those of lesser means often save up for them, get a paper route, or blandish kith and kin into donating toward them as birthday presents, in much the same way as anyone else who wants something out of his price range.

However, the answer for most of us who do it on a semi-regular basis, as I mentioned on Monday, is to apply for fellowships, grants, and barter arrangements at the retreats whose facilities we covet.

Fair warning: very, very few formal retreats can afford to offer more than a small handful of fellowships; the vast majority of residents in even the top-flight retreats are paying their own way, at least in part. Not all artists’ colonies offer outright free stays — and remember when you’re budgeting, even those that do seldom offer assistance with travel to reach their often far-flung doorsteps — and those that do tend to see hundreds of applications for each available spot. Barter arrangements are sometimes possible, but rare.

The fact is, though, most retreats do offer a chance to win at least a break on the cost of residency, if not a free ride, to those willing to jump through a few extra hoops. Since you’re going to be submitting an application to a selective retreat, anyway, what are a few extra hoops? It never hurts to try.

Where might one start trying? Well, word of mouth is best; I’ve found some great grants, as well as some fabulous retreat spots, by the simple expedient of asking writers I admire where they go to get away from it all and who paid for it. You can also engage in a web search, but like anything else you shop for online, it’s prudent to double-check a granting foundation’s credibility before you put your John Hancock on a application fee check. Like literary contests, not all of the fellowship opportunities advertised are legit; like literary contests, sometimes the primary goal of a fellowship competition is apparently to collect all of those application fees, rather than to reward, say, compositional excellence. Many a retreat, like many a contest-running organization, depends heavily on funds raised from the fees of unsuccessful applicants.

Please tell me that none of that was news to you. Or that if it was, you haven’t been wildly sending off entries and application fees to every contest, fellowship, and grant program out there. Or that if you have, you will solemnly swear to set aside time to read through the CONTESTS THAT ARE WORTH YOUR TIME TO ENTER category on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Hey, I’m only trying to save you some money. And chagrin.

As is the case with so very many other aspects of getting started as a writer, it pays to do your homework before you actually pay for anything. A good place to start looking for fellowships that actually are what they appear to be is Poets & Writers magazine, whose staff tend to keep a sharp eye out for those out to scam writers.

Yes, yes, I heard that massive collective sigh: tracking down a fellowship and applying for it can be quite a bit of work, yet another demand upon your precious writing time, along with querying, going to conferences to pitch, going to conferences not to pitch, submitting, entering contests, attending classes, keeping up with the new releases in your chosen book category, and, oh yeah, writing your manuscript. But listen: while all of these efforts can result in some pretty happy outcomes for a writer, from landing an agent to learning how to present your work professionally to making some pretty terrific fellow writers, applying for a retreat fellowship or writing grant is one of the very few standard writerly activities that can actually give you more time to write.

All right, that’s enough cautionary preamble for one day. Let’s take a gander at another nice, soothing picture of a lovely landscape in France — and get back to our ongoing conversation with some folks who are, in part, in the fellowship- and barter-granting business. And had I mentioned that La Muse is one of the relatively few fellowship-offering retreats out there that doesn’t charge an application fee?

Labastide Esparbaïrenque on a heavy traffic day

Labastide Esparbaïrenque on a heavy traffic day

Anne: I hear that you offer fellowships to stay at La Muse, which must be awfully difficult to pull off in the current global economy. Since you could fill the retreat entirely with writers and other artists paying their own way, why offer fellowships?

Kerry: We want people to be able to come for free. We want everyone to be able to come. We need people’s help to make that happen though because we are only two people so far with amazing barter attendees nearly every second month but we need more.

Anne: I’ll want to get back to barter residencies in a bit, since that’s so unusual, but let’s stick with the fellowships for the moment. How many fellowships are you offering these days?

John: We have four fellowships a year with separate application procedures, and seek partnerships to extend that to at least twelve fellowships.

Anne: Meaning that you sponsor visiting writers and artists from a number of different institutions.

John: Ideally, we would like to invite every attendee to La Muse as a fellow or on a residency attached to a university, publishing house, organization, or patron so that writers and artists don’t feel burdened by the financial weight of getting time off from work without pay or worrying about the costs of flights, etc.

Anne: I would love to see more retreats run on that basis, but so few of them are. I’ve met literally thousands of writers just in the last five years to whom such a retreat opportunity would have made a phenomenal difference.

John: Our vision has always been to provide a space for creative people who need to get away from life back home to get a project going or finished so inevitably we would like to make that transition much easier and less costly, as even the bare minimum costs we charge to offset our operating costs, can stop people from coming.

view-from-la-muse-window
Anne: So is that how you see La Muse operating ten years from now?

John: In ten years, although we would really love to see it happening a lot sooner, we foresee everyone that comes as being a fellow. We’ve already started this process with Foras Feasa in Ireland and the writing programs of universities such as Iowa and University of Wisconsin-Madison in the States, over and above the Wildcard residency every year.

Anne: And everyone’s eligible for the Wildcard residency. I know that you subsidize the Wildcard residency yourselves, out of the goodness of your collective heart. Do the universities pay to send their fellows?

John: The Iowa and Madison fellowships are not underwritten by the universities.

Anne: Wow. So more goodness-of-your-heart stuff.

John: We donate them to the graduates there because we believe in those courses. The University of Iowa brought a load of students here a few years ago under the guidance of Robin Hemley and David Hamilton. We were really impressed by the caliber and professionalism of Robin and David, but more importantly by the students and their potential. That’s why we offer them two fellowships a year.

Anne: Iowa has a great writing program. Was the high quality of the writing programs what prompted you to offer fellowships to students from the other two as well?

John: Madison is where Kerry went to university so she had first-hand experience of how good their creative writing department was, and I went to Maynooth University. which is a member of Foras Feasa. It all felt organic. However, we would love to have fellows from every country, but this takes time and energy and help.

Kerry: And in the future we will have it. We’re definitely going to need another really big house, too (there’s one we love right here in Labastide). Or two. And a support staff. And a recording studio for musicians, a piano, a movie room for screenings and cinema nights, an oven for ceramicists, a big room with a wooden floor for dancers, a full-time on-site yoga instructor, a coop-type organic vegetable garden for attendees, and a sizable gift from a lover-of-the-arts that will have made it all possible without any more debt, plus enough funding for every artist to come to La Muse on a full fellowship.

Anne: From your mouth to Whomever’s ear.

Kerry: I envision nirvana. And an office, so we don’t have to run all of this from our kitchen anymore and John’s small office upstairs.

windows-at-la-muse
Anne: But even now, not all of your fellowships are devoted to people affiliated with specific programs, right?

John: True to our non-affiliated roots, we also offer a Wildcard Residency to a visual artist and a writer every November.

Anne: I imagine that the Wildcard is the one that will interest most of my readers. How does one apply for a fellowship to La Muse?

Kerry: Whether for the University of Wisconsin Creative Writing Fellowship, the University of Iowa Creative Non-fiction Fellowship, or our own unaffiliated Wildcard Fellowship, the process is the same as for a regular retreat stay:

a CV
2 references (one personal and one professional)
a description of the project one hopes to work on at La Muse,
and a sample of work

Anne: That’s unusual, not to require extra paperwork for fellowship applicants.

Kerry: The deadlines are on our website. Foras Feasa in Ireland elects their Fellow every year, in March.

We have also barters almost every month of the year. We would love to have a barter attendee here every month of the year, but the operating costs of La Muse don’t allow for it yet.

view-near-church

Anne: Okay, let’s talk about the barters. If I may quote from your website:

We welcome writers and artists to apply to come to La Muse as barters on work exchange stays. Writers and artists receive a complimentary room in exchange for approximately 3 days of work per week, that is, two days of work and one hour a day of daily tasks.

The kind of work depends on the season and the number of other guests at the house, but would include anything from building stone walls and gardening to home improvement, grant research for the owners, or organizational/administrative assistance.

Barter rooms are not available during the summer. We review applications one to two months in advance. Application

Anne: Your barter arrangements are unusually generous, I’ve noticed. Usually, the work exchange results in a discount for the retreater, but this is the room for an entire three-week session.

Kerry: We try to have barters for most of the year. They apply more or less the same way as other attendees, though it’s a good idea to highlight in the application any specific skills that could help us, such as grant-writing knowledge, fundraising or marketing or PR, or house-painting or construction or gardening experience. All barter projects are for La Muse improvements only, i.e., they don’t do our laundry!

Anne: I get it: the barter attendees are helping you two build the La Muse of ten years hence both physically and financially. That’s a great idea. If any of you readers out there are financial wizards, I hope you’ll think about going on a bartered retreat to help move La Muse toward the dream of an entirely subsidized artists’ community!

Before I get too carried away with the idea, I should ask: do barterers get to stay the same length of time as paying retreatants? How is their work/retreat time differentiated so both they and you can get the most out of both?

Kerry: Once barters arrive, they work for three days a week in exchange for their room. They arrive on the last day of the outgoing retreat so that they can help us get the house ready. Either they work on one intensive project for the whole stay, or they essentially help us on whatever comes up. It depends on the time of the year they come and what we happen to be working on. We work with them on most projects.

John: Barters get a lot out of their stays here, too, because they are really aware of their creative time apart from their barter time. They always get a lot of their own work done because they are really aware of how precious their time here is.

It’s great, because they love to get out of the house to clear their creative desktops. That way, they start fresh after three days. We love having barters and from what they’ve wrote to us over the years they love the experience, too.

Anne: While we’re on the subject of unusual arrangements for a formal retreat, you mentioned last time that sometimes your writer and artist residents collaborate on projects; during my stay, a fellow resident and I happened to be writing books set in the 1980s — she nonfiction, I fiction — so we had amazing brainstorming sessions. Perhaps as a result, I kept thinking while I was in residence, if I ever was working on a collaborative project with another writer, I’d definitely drag him/her/it to La Muse for some intensive co-work.

Which leads me to ask about other types of groups. Do couples ever come together to La Muse, or groups of friends? A writing group, perhaps? Could you accommodate a writer with children and/or a significant other in tow?

Kerry: Yes, all of the above. Spouses who want to come and stay in the house with an artist have to apply with a project proposal etc; if they’re coming to be a tourist, we recommend renting a cottage. Families stay in cottages.

Anne: That makes sense. That way, the family can have its own space, distinct from the other residents.

Kerry: We’ve had creativity/yoga retreats, workshop retreats. It’s all possible. We envision and would welcome proposals for cooking/writing retreats, art/well-being retreats, etc.

Anne: And academics, too, right? A couple of my fellow attendees were graduate students, which I found interesting, as academic writers tend not to go on retreat as much as I think they should. Is La Muse a good place to, say, write up a dissertation? Or, to put it another way, what might be the benefits for an academic to live and work amongst artists for a while?

Kerry: A creative approach to structure and voice would be marvelous for dissertations, and that often comes from the conversations we and other attendees have with Ph.D. attendees. They see structure and approach in a whole new light when they see it from a more commercial or creative standpoint.

Anne: That definitely seemed to happen in my retreat group. I can tell you from experience that few dissertation-writers ever get asked on a college campus, “So, what story are you telling in your book?”

John: Yes, it makes them see beyond the footnotes and cross analysis to where the story of what it is they are writing about lies. Where is the story of my subject? A lot of academics that have been here have found that really refreshing and inspiring.

Anne: John, I hear that you’re planning to go on a writing retreat yourself. What are you looking for in a retreat experience?

John: I’m looking for La Muse!

Anne: On that note, I’m going to sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John, for filling us in about fellowships and barters!

If some of you found today’s talk of finances a bit prosaic for your daydreaming-about-retreating-in-France pleasure, never fear: more mouth-watering details follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

An inside look at a formal writing retreat, part II: the application process

a-view-from-behind-the-writing-desk

Yesterday, I began an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, the brave souls responsible for running the remote writing retreat from which I have recently returned, La Muse. Since I utterly forgot to run a basic description of the place yesterday, here are the basics:

La Muse Writers’ and Artists’ retreat in Southern France is located in an ancient village perche called Labastide Esparbairenque, in the historic Aude department of Languedoc. We provide a space where artists and writers can work in a peaceful, isolated and inspiring setting. We have hosted poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, screenwriters, painters, visual artists, photographers, chefs, composers, directors, healers and more. Rooms are available to barters, recipients of fellowships and grants, and to individuals who apply directly through La Muse.

The house overlooks its own intimate valley and river. Enjoy magnificent views from every room as well as from our terrace and gardens. On breaks from work, go wine tasting, visit local markets, swim in the nearby lake or just enjoy nature. We are located in the midst of the French national walks system, where well-marked trails scribble the countryside.

What we offer is quite specific: time and space to create among peers, and access to nature, culture and good food. The retreats create a rewarding environment for attendees as well as our ever-growing artistic community. So come create and participate in a growing creative community, one that encourages artistic diversity as well as an exchange between cultures from all over the world.

Something I also neglected to mention yesterday: you’ll find the application here. Even if you are not in the market for a retreat experience, you might want to take a quick gander at the application requirements, as they are relevant to what I’ve been talking about for a week now — and speak very directly to our topic du jour, which is all about how people write their way into someplace like La Muse.

Why veer away from the daydream-worthy retreat experience to talk about something as practical as what makes a winning application? While I could post for weeks on what day-to-day life is like at La Muse and similar artists’ retreats — I could, for instance, have blogged about it on a daily basis while I was there — my first priority in this interview series is to glean as much practical information as possible for those of you who might be considering investing in some serious retreat time.

So for this part of the interview, I ruthlessly turned the conversation toward a topic we pursued a few days ago: residency applications, fellowships, and just how writers’ retreats decide who should and should not come.

Did I just hear a gasp of disbelief from those of you who have never tried to gain acceptance to a formal writers’ retreat? Almost universally, it’s not enough to show up on with the requisite fee, a burning desire to write, and the time to do it: very few artists’ colonies are willing to take everyone who applies. As I mentioned on Monday, serious retreats require an application packet that demonstrates not only the potential applicant’s willingness to retreat, but talent and professional acumen.

Knowing how I love you people, was I going to allow a rare opportunity to grill folks who evaluate writers’ retreat applications on a regular basis?

Of course not. Let’s join the conversation already in progress — and to humanize the potentially fearsome souls on the other side of the application envelope, here’s a snapshot I took of Kerry and John at a moment of retreat conviviality. (Those two homemade vegetable pizzas were fresh out of the oven, incidentally.)

john-and-kerry-serve-dinner-at-la-muse

Anne: Something I’ve noticed that we have in common is our strong belief that writers should help one another. Since you are so supportive of writers at every stage of their careers, why did you decide to establish an application process, rather than just accepting anyone who wanted to come?

John: People need to know what it is they are coming here for. It helps them and us to know exactly what they are going to be working on. Otherwise they get frustrated and annoyed with themselves for wasting their own time.

Kerry: We wanted to make sure people didn’t expect Club Med.

Anne: Oh, I know that kind of retreater: ostensibly getting away from everything to write, but outraged to learn that there isn’t round-the-clock room service and a shopping mall with a movie theatre next door to the retreat.

Kerry: We really want people who are going to benefit from La Muse in the way we intended, people who are coming to work on a creative project. We charge significantly less than a B&B of comparable quality. If we wanted people on vacation, we’d run a hotel.

We also want to make sure that interested writers and artists know that the house isn’t by aim social (though conviviality is a nice boon), and that everyone else here at any given time is here to be absorbed in a solitary, creative activity.

The best way to convey all that is to make it official, ask them why they’re coming, and help them get organized before they come.

Anne: I’m going to toss tact to the four winds and come right and ask what every writer who applies for a residency most wants to know: what do you like to see in an application? In general, what separates a strong packet from a weak one?

Kerry: First and foremost, I respond well to someone who is both professional and personable. I like a polite, formal but warm address, something respectful but not rigid—good attributes in a small community setting.

Anne: That makes a lot of sense; it’s the same note an aspiring writer should strike in a query letter or pitch. Since capturing that tone puzzles many writers, do you have any pointers on how to achieve that balance in a first approach or application?

Kerry: Write the email like a good old-fashioned cover letter. Answer the points and include the documents we request on the how-to-apply page of our website. Show us you’ve done some research, and have at least read the website.

Anne: I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard agents say precisely the same thing about querying. Queries, pitches, and applications that seem unsuited to the recipient tend not to go over well.
view-from-library-at-la-muse

Anne: Anything else?

Kerry: I love an application that doesn’t have any parts missing. That said, if something’s missing in an otherwise good application, I ask for it; I point out errors.

Anne: That’s incredibly nice of you, considering the volume of applications you must receive. I’m constantly regaling my readers with horror stories about how Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the contest judge just toss back queries, submissions, and entries that don’t follow the rules.

Kerry: I lost a great job due to an error on my resume; it was a good lesson that I can gently pass on by pointing their mistakes out to applicants. No matter how good the writing, I will not forward an application to John with typos.

John: Typos. That’s a good example! That gets me going. All right, with an artist I can understand this to an extent in an email, but a writer. That’s your job! As Stephen King would put it, it’s part of the toolbox you carry around with you everywhere.

Anne: They’re a pet peeve of mine, too, and most of us who read manuscripts for a living. Nothing says, “I didn’t bother to proofread this before I submitted it,” like a bouquet of typos.

John: Spell-check is not only important, I feel, but mandatory. If you can’t spell-check an application, then that’s a red flag.

Anne: Hear that, readers? Is this where I get to say I told you so?

John: An electrician doesn’t go to work without a screwdriver. Why would a writer go to work without a tool as simple as spell-check?

It’s the little things that tell you so much about an applicant. It’s just like with title pages for screenplays or books. You don’t do massive block capitals on a front page. It’s done a certain way and if you don’t do it that way then you get onto the slush pile with all the rest of the unprofessionally presented things. Like, you don’t say that a ms. is copy written, it’s just understood.

Anne: That’s a hard one to get writers brand-new to the biz to understand. They think that it looks more professional if a title page or footer contains © Neophyte McWriterly, but to the pros, it’s just the opposite.

John: You are a professional. You copy write everything before you even send it to a friend, never mind an agent or house. It works the same way with a retreat. Give what you’re asked for. Don’t give what you imagine someone wants and be professional about it.

artists-on-the-terrace-at-la-muse

Anne: What other kinds of things really turn you off in an application?

John: Actually, we don’t really get that many problematic applications and when we do, we see the red flags straight away. They are the type of application that draws attention to themselves very quickly.

Kerry: Honestly, unless it has something to do with the project (and in that instance it’s perfectly acceptable), I don’t want to know about someone’s political, religious, or sexual orientation in their introductory email or application—again, unless it’s related to their project.

Anne: That’s interesting — that’s another one I hear from agents and contest judges quite often. Aspiring writers often seem to assume that the person reading their applications, query letters, or entries will be exactly like them. The world’s just a whole lot more diverse than that.

Kerry: I like opinionated people, but in retreat settings it’s good to have people who are able to be discreet when in the company of other religions, political and sexual leanings, or in a professional exchange. It’s best for a person not to assume that everyone will jump aboard his or her bandwagon. I believe it’s best for that information to come out over dinner (where it always does, we can bash Bush till the sun rises) than in an application.

As well, I don’t want my opinion to get in the way of accepting a talented artist with a perfectly acceptable application. We’re fortunate to have very high quality applications most of the time.

Anne: Let me turn the question around: what would your dream applicant be like?

Kerry: Talented.

Anne: I like that. Is that orientation how you end up welcoming such a broad range of ages and levels of professional accomplishment? In the two groups of retreaters when I was in residence, I was struck by the diversity of personalities and ages: in my first cohort, there was 26-year-old and a 74-year-old. And both were indeed very talented writers.

John: The range of ages, cultures, the diversity, is what makes La Muse so great, I feel. The last retreat, we had an Irishman, an English couple, a South African who lives in Grenoble, a New Zealand couple, a Canadian who lives in California, and the previous retreat there were Americans and…it goes on. We love the diversity and so do the people that come here. It’s fun to find out about other cultures and ways of thinking and living and what they read and love. It informs and elaborates your experience here.

Anne: Was there something about our applications that told you that all of our personalities would mesh well?

Kerry: People usually get along. The odd time there is some kind of tension, people are grown-up about it. After all, they all came here for other reasons, anyway.

Anne: So applicants not good at dealing with others tend not to be looking for this kind of retreat? Or is it that the artists who are drawn to a place with a communal kitchen are expecting to make friends?

Kerry: People who come here have a lot in common, no matter their age or art form. They’re smart, interesting and creative. They like to travel. They like nature. They like France and its food, language, history and architecture. They’re serious about what they’re here for. They want to work alone in their room with the option to see a friendly face, ask for advice, to walk or cook with another person.

Anne: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I suspect that many gifted aspiring writers who might hugely enjoy a formal retreat are fearful of spending a great big chunk of time alone, staring at a computer screen. But I’ve met some of my best friends at retreats; if everyone is serious about working, it’s definitely possible to get a lot done and still have social contact. And that’s great, because retreaters tend to be such interesting people.

I also suspect that most aspiring writers don’t know that being admitted to a serious retreat is a respected professional credential, something to catch an editorial or agent’s eye in a bio or query letter.

John: It’s just another thing that says I take what I do seriously and am willing to commit time out of my life back home to that end.

Anne: Has it been your experience that Musers use having attended as a writing credential later on?

Kerry: Yes. They also use each other as references for jobs or other opportunities; they use each other as readers for manuscripts, and have collaborated with each other on all kinds of projects. We get a lot of writers who at La Muse find illustrators for their books!

John: Not only that, but we put new Musers in touch with previous ones. We’ll get people to send their work to other attendees that have been here before who are editors of reviews or heads of writing programs or to agents or editors at publishing houses. The most important thing that attendees get, though, is the reward of knowing that they’ve attended a retreat and because of that they will put it down on their CV/resume because to people like agents, editors, marketing departments, it shows a broader outreach of your potential readership or buyers.

Anne: I’ve noticed over the years that going on a formal retreat can do a great deal toward helping a writer think of herself as a professional — as in, “Hey, these people who screen residency applications all the time think I’m talented enough to take seriously; maybe I should be thinking of this as my life’s work.”

But since this is an interview, I suppose I should be asking questions, rather than making statements. So I’ll ask you: speaking as people who get to see many attendees grow and change over the course of their retreats, what seem to be the greatest benefits?

Kerry: It’s deep immersion, which makes room for inspiration. It’s genuinely exhilarating and puts people back in touch with why they became artists, why they do what they do. When in your real life do you really get a chance to have uninterrupted focus on your work?

John: Exactly, it’s a gift to yourself to go on a retreat. The vast majority of attendees leave La Muse revitalized and re-inspired.

Anne: That’s a good thought to leave my readers pondering, so I’m going to break here for today. Thanks, John and Kerry, for sharing your experience with all of us here at Author! Author!

I’d also like to throw the question to all of you out there: what is actually necessary for you to take your writing seriously as your art, rather than as just a hobby? Most of the successful authors of my acquaintance can point to a specific event, level of recognition, or decision on their part — what is it, or will it be, for you?

As always, keep up the good work!

An inside view of a formal writing retreat: an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse

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Since I had been contemplating quite a few posts on the joys, trials, and logistics of formal writing retreats for, well, the entirety of my most recent writing retreat, I have been busily jotting down questions I wanted to address for a couple of months now. After I returned, it occurred to me: instead of attacking the resulting raft of issues entirely from the retreater’s perspective — which, let’s face it, has been my approach every time I have blogged about retreats in the past — why not hand this excellent list to some kind people who actually RUN an artists’ retreat, so my readers could have the benefit of a less-often-heard perspective?

So although I am not much in the habit of packing up my troubles in my old kit bag and handing it to other people, I instantly got busy blandishing my favorite retreat organizers, Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse in Labastide Esparbaïrenque, in the remote Montagne Noir of southwestern France.

If that sounds pretty far off the beaten path, that’s because it is. La Muse is concealed in a miniscule village nestled onto a mountainside far, far away from both the madding crowd and anyplace that it would even occur for a tourist to visit, despite the fact that you can’t drive for fifteen minutes in any direction without stumbling upon some ruined castle so picturesque that I kept walking up to touch the stonework to reassure myself that it wasn’t just a painted backdrop for a romantic film about the Knights Templar.

It is, in other words, the material embodiment of the concept of getting away from it all. When my phone is ringing off the hook while I’m trying to polish off that last chapter of a novel, I automatically start looking for a place like La Muse.

So Kerry and John don’t just operate a retreat; they operate a retreat.

Who better, then, to ask to enlighten us on the ins and outs of serious writers’ retreats, or to answer my questions pertinent and impertinent? Or, to continue yesterday’s discussion, to enlighten us on what differentiates a successful fellowship application from an unsuccessful one.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are now or ever intend to apply for a residency, you’re going to want to take some notes on this extended interview.

Welcome, John and Kerry, to Author! Author!, and thanks so much for agreeing to share your insights with us!

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Anne: Let’s start with the basics. What made you want to open La Muse in the first place?

Kerry: The first reason we started La Muse was because WE needed a retreat to go to, as did other writers like us: young people with full-time jobs that didn’t allow much time for writing.

Anne: Oh, I know so many aspiring and established writers who fall into that category.

Kerry: We were not all that connected, not all that pedigreed, not established in the world of creative writing. We were “writers” working in stimulating and exciting jobs but without time or space for our own creative writing projects and ambitions. There was nothing out there in terms of retreats that was simple and affordable, that focused on the process of writing without lots of talks and readings and workshops, without the groupie-vibe of some conferences.

We just needed a place to go to be able to write: La Muse!

Anne: It’s astonishing how seldom time to write seems to be built into workshops. I often come away all excited about my writing, but too exhausted to do any of it for the foreseeable future.

But enough about me: why not pursue the standard great big institutional artist colony route?

Kerry: We also felt the Catch-22 of not being established writers, and so not being able to benefit from grant-funded institutions or retreats that are more accessible to established writers or writers in the MFA system or cottage industry. We weren’t on “the track” and, believe it or not, it is mighty difficult for two full-time staffers at relatively high-powered magazine jobs in NYC to get on it.

We were lucky to have great jobs, which we appreciated and took seriously, were working more than that great American standard of 60 hours a week. I got up at 4:30 AM to have two hours of my own writing, and time to jog every day. John did the opposite, staying up until about that time to get his writing done. We didn’t sleep, didn’t see each other and though we were happy, motivated and exhilarated, we knew we couldn’t keep it up forever.

We wanted to write. We wanted to have a family life with the kids we hoped to have some day, AND we wanted to own our home–not an option with our low publishing salaries in New York City.

Anne: I see; you wanted to write AND have a life.

Kerry: And so, two newly-weds, we were talking about how we could make it all work. We decided to leave NYC and in dreaming about where we might go from there, we went online and found La Muse, then a huge run-down old manor house for next-to-nothing. We started dreaming out loud, planning this hypothetical life and next thing we knew; it was ours!

Anne: Wait — you bought a retreat online?

John: Kerry pretty much summed it up there, except for the fact that we did it all on credit cards. We also stripped layers of wallpaper from the ceilings, threw out about ten truckloads of junk — I mean truck truckloads, not van loads. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff that was in here.

Anne: For the benefit of those who have not yet been there, I should point out that I’ve lived in towns with smaller courthouses than La Muse’s main building. Some of the rooms are immense. And didn’t you lay the stones of the patio yourselves?

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John: Let’s just say the renovation process was an experience.

Anne: Given how beautiful both the building and the locale are, I’m sure that it wasn’t easy at first to establish La Muse as an artists’ retreat, rather than just a gorgeous vacation spot. Just to nip in the bud any possible misconceptions, how is a residency at La Muse different from a vacation?

Kerry: The focus of a stay at a writers’ retreat is on writing, not tourism.

John: Exactly. A writer’s retreat is just that, a retreat. You retreat from all the bustle of telephone calls, email, appointments, work etc. to connect with whatever it is you need to connect with to get your project finished, started, researched.

Anne: That last is why La Muse has wireless internet access, presumably. As much as I love a get-away-from-everything retreat, I actually couldn’t have done the necessary research on my novel without the occasional web crawl.

Since you’re both writers yourselves, I understand the impetus to create a writers’ retreat. So why does La Muse welcome many kinds of artist, instead of just writers?

Kerry: We saw no reason to limit our attendee to one kind of artist, and it happened organically. Visual artists asked if they could come. I love painting and drawing, and this place, with its rich light, is a heaven to visual artists. In fact, I’m more often inspired to draw here than write.

Anne: Having run a mixed retreat for a while now, what do you think different kinds of artists get from retreating together? Or, perhaps more to the point for my readership, what do writers gain from sharing retreat time and space with other types of artist?

Kerry: There is a nice exchange between the visual artists, composers and writers; a lot of artists are multidisciplinary-talented and they come away from conversations with artists in other mediums feeling inspired.

John: Artists generally regard the world around them more than writers. They have to concentrate on the colors, the shapes, on the lines all around them, not the ones inside their heads, so both groups really add to each other’s process.

Anne: Is that why you have been expanding the studio space?

Kerry: The same kind of informal, small-scale retreat seemed to be missing for visual artists. So, we made a studio, and then another studio.

Anne: I suspect that most people have a pretty easy time picturing the kind of studio space that might appeal to a painter or a sculptor, but I’ve noticed that there isn’t really a strong cultural conception of what kind of space might be conducive to writing, other than a desk and a chair in someplace quiet. How do the facilities for writers differ from those for other kinds of artist at La Muse?

Kerry: Writers work in their own rooms. Artists working on drawing projects do, too. But artists working in oil paints or mediums that smell, make noise, stain or need lots of space use the studios.

John: Writers also use the library and artists will go out into the woods to paint or photograph a lot.

Anne: I know from personal experience that the weather also plays a role in where the residents choose to work. The weather was gorgeous for the last few weeks I was there, and there were hours at a time when I seemed to be the only one writing inside.

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Anne: But as tempting as it is to dwell on the physical environment, let’s talk about the less concrete part of the retreat — or at any rate, less of what is literally set in stone. What do you think writers retreating at La Muse find there that they couldn’t possibly discover anyplace else?

Kerry: It’s a serious yet familial setting. Attendees can’t help but to get to know each other and us, and that creates a great opportunity for exchange.

John: Yes. We’re not a huge institution like Yaddo or the Doris Duke Foundation. We are small and we like it that way. It’s what people always tell us they love about La Muse.

Kerry: We are accessible, affordable, multi-disciplinary and non-institutional but also professional about what we do.

Anne: Since most of my readership lives in North America, I suspect that some of them might be surprised to hear a retreat on a remote mountain in France described as accessible. What does that mean, precisely?

Kerry: The intimate, familial setting is unique. Normally, La Muse has between four to eight attendees of a wide range of ages, backgrounds, nationalities and artistic mediums, at different stages in their careers, and they have a lot to offer each other. The shared kitchen and meals allow for unique exchanges. People forge friendships and collaborations here. People help each other on their work, and support each other in other areas.

Former attendees have said that the fact La Muse is structured (due to the quiet hours) but not rigid (there’s no other structure in place) actually creates time, more time than at other retreats.

Anne: We should probably explain to everyone about the quiet hours. Technically, attendees are supposed to limit noise-making within the house — talking, playing music, Skyping — to a very limited number of hours per day, so that 9 am to noon, 1 to 5:30 pm, and 10 pm to 7 am are quiet times, designed for devotion to work or sleep.

I’ve never attended a retreat that didn’t maintain at least the pretense of quiet times or spaces, though; I don’t think they could attract writers otherwise. Because the claims are so similar — I mean, doesn’t every retreat’s website claim it’s the least distracting place on earth? — it’s really, really hard for writers honestly looking for uninterrupted writing time to tell them apart.

The difference to work time, it seems to me, usually lies less in whether such rules exist than in how they are enforced — and in how many other distractions there are. In a village like Labastide, where you might bump into perhaps three residents on a heavy traffic day, there’s not a whole lot of ambient noise or activity to interrupt one’s work. And I just loved that you didn’t clutter up residents’ weeks with a whole lot of structured events, as so many of the larger retreats do.

John: We leave people to do what it is they have come here to do as opposed to having workshops and classes, etc.

Anne: Personally, I found that very respectful of my decision to retreat in the first place. But you do occasionally host groups that come together for a workshop, right? (Note to readers: this was not an entirely fair question; I’ve been toying with the idea of teaching an intensive novel seminar there.)

John: Although we have hosted Study Abroad programs, such as Iowa University’s, we leave the teaching to the organization that comes to organize. We help set up guidelines and orientation, but most of the time we leave people to their own process.

Anne: Which can make for some pretty intriguing interactions, since every artists’ process is different. Is that why you accept writers at all stages of their careers, rather than just the established — as many of the ritzier artists’ colonies do — or only those starting out?

Kerry: We accept attendees based on the seriousness of their intent and the quality of their application. Period.

John: Yes, and it really works out well for both parties. One rubs off the other, just the way those of different disciplines help each other.

Anne: Not to mention making it more fun for everyone concerned. Although I spent the vast majority of my waking time at La Muse writing, I’ve noticed that when I talk about it now that I’m back home, I often dwell on the social aspects, the trips out into the countryside, the cherries that were in season while I was there, and the like. It’s definitely unusual for a writer’s retreat to offer as many cultural exchange opportunities for retreatants who want to take advantage of them.

Kerry: We arrange French lessons, art-hikes with a local watercolor artist. We introduce our attendees to local artists whose work may inform theirs. We bring attendees on a wine-tasting, and a visit to nearby towns. So maybe on a logistical level, too, the “extras” make us unique.

Anne: You took one of my groups (note: I was there for two retreat sessions) to a fabulous traditional book town called Montolieu, where practically every building housed a book shop, library, or museum devoted to some aspect of printing. I’ll have to do a post on that, so more traveling writers know about it; I never would have made it there as a tourist on my own.

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Kerry: There’s also an emphasis on well-being for those who are interested; we supply yoga mats, blocks, straps, and books, and arrange sessions for our attendees with a variety of therapists in the area.

Anne: Including massage and chiropractic for writers prone to repetitive strain injuries. Because I’m on my keyboard so much of the time on retreat — it’s not at all unusual for me to write 50 hours per week at an artists’ colony, although I think I averaged closer to 60 at La Muse — I always budget for some sort of bodywork.

It’s also kind of a fun way to meet the locals. Most of the villagers I met were very into the La Muse concept; a lot of them seemed to be artists themselves.

John: La Muse has a work ethos and a relaxed, community based structure that people have found very beneficial.

Anne: Since I’m guessing that most of my readers probably won’t have spent much time in 12th-century villages, let’s talk a bit more about Labastide Esparbaïrenque. What about it is conducive to retreating?

John: Labastide lends itself perfectly to a retreat because of its location off the main road – most villages have a main road going through them – as well as the fact that it hasn’t been tarnished by over modernization. The fact that it’s in a beautiful part of Southern France has got a lot to do with it, too.

Kerry: It’s a quiet village in a special place. The village is snuggled into a very curvy little valley, and there are no bars or cafés or boutiques to tempt people away from their work tables. With only 72 full-time habitants, there’s no noise except the elated screeching of diving swallows and a helpful rooster or two during the day and, at night, the muffled flow of the river and the rustling of leaves in the trees.

Anne: That’s such an evocative image that I’m going to leave it hanging in my readers’ minds and sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John!

Next time, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of what is actually involved in running a writers’ retreat like La Muse — and just what kind of application package it takes to land a spot in a retreat like this. Happy daydreaming, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Where our fiction really lives, by guest blogger Linda Gillard

Linda Gillard author photo II
Hello, all —
Under any circumstances, today’s guest blogger, award-winning romance novelist Linda Gillard, would require little introduction: the good folks who decide which of each year’s new fiction to honor with prizes have already seen to that. However, I have even less temptation to be long-winded this time around, because Linda has a genuinely astonishing story to share about her road to publication.

Even if romance isn’t your proverbial cup of tea, you’re going to want to read this, I suspect. So I’m just going to get out of the way and let her tell her story herself.

Except to say: for the benefit of those of you not already familiar with Linda’s writings — and so those of you new to writing blurbs for your own books may see how the pros pull it off — here is the publisher’s blurb for Linda’s EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY:

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallRose Leonard is on the run from her life. Taking refuge in a remote island community, she cocoons herself in work, silence and solitude in a house by the sea. But she is haunted by her past, by memories and desires she’d hoped were long dead. Rose must decide whether she has in fact chosen a new life or just a different kind of death. Life and love are offered by new friends, her lonely daughter, and most of all Calum, a fragile younger man who has his own demons to exorcise. But does Rose, with her tenuous hold on life and sanity, have the courage to say yes to life and put her past behind her?

Quite the grabber, eh? Here’s the blurb for her second, A LIFETIME BURNING:

A lifetime burning cover gillard‘I think I was damned from birth,’ Flora said, staring vacantly into space. ‘Damned by my birth.’

Greedy for experience but determined to be good, Flora Dunbar spends a lifetime seeking love, trying to build a future out of the wreckage of her past – an eccentric childhood spent in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brings her Theo, the son she cannot love; middle-age, when she finds brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin.

‘If you asked my sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, then tossed him onto the sizeable scrap-heap marked “Flora’s ex-lovers”. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory…’

That one sounds like a real barn-burner, doesn’t it? Here’s the blurb for STAR GAZING:

star-gazing-cover gillardBlind since birth, widowed in her twenties, now lonely in her forties, Marianne Fraser lives in Edinburgh in elegant, angry anonymity with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist. Marianne’s passionate nature finds solace and expression in music, a love she finds she shares with Keir, a man she encounters on her doorstep one winter’s night. Keir makes no concession to her condition. He is abrupt to the point of rudeness, and yet oddly kind. But can Marianne trust her feelings for this reclusive stranger who wants to take a blind woman to his island home on Skye, to ‘show’ her the stars?

It just goes to show you: even a short paragraph is enough room to tell a good story, as well as to show off one’s skills as a storyteller. Remember that, please, the next time you’re groaning over the task of compressing your 350-page plot into a two-minute pitch.

Oh, and before I sign off, those of you reading on this side of the pond might want to know that Linda’s books are available through the Book Depository in the UK. Why should that interest US and Canadian romance-lovers? Because the Book Depository ships worldwide for free.

I just mention.

So please make yourself comfortable in order to hear an interesting, informative, and dare I say it, inspirational story of one author’s climb from the Slough of Despair to successful publication. Take it away, Linda!

emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
When a disturbed pupil took a swing at me in the middle of a maths lesson, I saw the punch coming. I dodged and the blow landed on my shoulder. While the rest of the class waited, open-mouthed, to see what Miss would do — retaliate with a left hook? — I sent the boy out of the room, re-assembled the remnants of my shattered dignity and finished the lesson.

What I didn’t see coming was that the blow would signal the end of my teaching career and the beginning of a long mental illness. Nor could I ever have imagined that my illness would usher in a new career as a novelist.

I was teaching in a school that served a socially deprived area and I was already struggling to maintain my mental equilibrium. The kids were challenging, but lovable, despite the fact some of the boys (those who could write) would have listed their hobbies as martial arts and drug dealing. Gallows humour kept the teaching staff going, but we taught in a climate of fear — fear of verbal and physical abuse from pupils and their parents — and fear takes its toll.

My doctor signed me off sick, suffering from stress. Stress became profound depression. I was prescribed a series of anti-depressants, none of which seemed to help. My moods fluctuated wildly, from highs that took me on shopping sprees, to lows that had me planning the perfect suicide.

Teaching had been my vocation, but I was too ill to return to my old job or look for a new one. I was 47 and, as far as I was concerned, on the scrap heap. I sat at home, alternately doped and hyper, not getting any better. For some reason — the teacher in me, I suppose — I kept a chart of my mood swings, the black days and the better days. I became convinced there was a pattern and concluded that perhaps what I was suffering from was severe pre-menstrual syndrome, so I asked to be referred to a gynaecologist.

We were no more than ten minutes into the consultation when this wonderful man pronounced the words that would change my life (and possibly saved it.) He said, “You aren’t suffering from PMS. I think you’re suffering from bipolar affective disorder.”

Manic depression.

I knew nothing about this illness that wasn’t seriously bad news. I seemed to be the first person in my family to suffer from it (it runs in families) but as I learned more about the spectrum of behaviour, old tales of temperament and eccentricity took on a new perspective. And so did I. As I stood in a bookshop, poring over a medical textbook, I was appalled to see myself described in forensic detail. What I’d thought was my mercurial personality turned out to be a life-threatening illness. My world fell apart.

But I was a teacher. I’d also been a journalist, so I made it my business to educate myself on the subject of bipolar. I read psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, AN UNQUIET MIND. She’s bipolar herself and was the first person to alert me to the idea that there could actually be some positive aspects to the disease. (On my website. you’ll find a Mental Health section and a celebration of famous manic depressives: a long list of high-achieving people, dead and alive, many of them creative artists, some of them geniuses, all known or suspected to have been bipolar.)

My condition is mild and once on the correct medication, I stabilised. With the help of a supportive psychiatrist, I began to rebuild my life. Unemployed, technically disabled, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read a lot of books and sewed a lot of patchwork quilts.

I read all sorts of fiction but struggled to find any that reflected my life and experience. There was very little that featured women of my age. Romantic heroines over forty simply did not exist. Mature women appeared only as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and they never had sex, unless for comic effect. (The publishing world appears to think that, although most books are bought and read by women over 40, they actually like to read about women much younger and thinner than themselves.)

Then one day, when I was reading Louise DeSalvo’s WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING, I came upon a paragraph that changed my life:

I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing — and only through writing — all you need to know about your craft. And that while learning, you’re engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labour. I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

That was how I felt. Erased.

I laid the book aside and — as if in a trance — walked over to my PC, sat down and started to type. I wrote about “a woman alone in a light, white room”. I could see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see the woman and she was writing a letter, but I didn’t know who she was or who she was writing to. With no thought of publication or even of writing well, I just started typing the first page of what was to become my first novel, Emotional Geology.

emotional-geology cover 2 Gillard

I didn’t plan to become a novelist and I didn’t plan my first book. I was a sick woman. On bad days, compiling a shopping list was a challenge, so I just wrote.

To begin with, I wrote lots of short, self-contained pieces that could be read in any order. If they told a story, it would be cumulatively, as a sort of collage. As I wrote, I noticed two things. The pain stopped. All kinds of pain. Writing, it seemed, was morphia for the soul. (And, incidentally, just as addictive.) I also noticed that time passed. I looked up and it was lunchtime. I looked up again and it was midnight. Hooray! I was exhausted and could sleep.

The word count grew, but still I avoided planning. Ducking the issue, I wondered if I could I write a “book-in-a-box,” a non-linear novel that didn’t need to be bound because the pages could be read in any order. (As a teacher I’d been a big fan of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.)

That idea worked for a while, but in the end I realised it did matter — from a dramatic point of view — what order you read the pages in. A final running order had to be established so I had fun carpeting the floor with printed sheets of A4, “designing” my book in much the same way I arranged blocks when assembling my quilts.

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Emotional Geology wasn’t autobiography, nor was it fictionalised memoir. I managed to avoid some first novel pitfalls by wanting so very badly to escape. It was bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues.

I didn’t know it then, but what I was did was reject veracity in favour of emotional authenticity. Later, I realised this is an essential digestive process if the raw material of our lives is to be transformed into palatable fiction. Student writers often think a faithful, unflinching account of real-life events and feelings is enough to make something readable, possibly publishable. This is not the case.

As writers we have to accept the difference between something being true and something being convincing. Paradoxically, fiction can tell truer truths. If a reader is to believe (or suspend her disbelief), truth must be edited for fictional purposes and presented in the best form to do the job. This is what good fiction is: true lies.

If you find this idea difficult, think about raising money for charity and the photographs or news footage you might use in your campaign. You wouldn’t use material so upsetting that people would turn the page of the magazine or switch channels. You want to disturb, not repel, so unvarnished truth might not serve your purpose.

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s careful mediation. If we record “undigested” truth in our therapeutic writing, its therapeutic value exists for the author, not the reader. (To be sure, all writing is therapeutic to an extent and probably all writers begin writing therapeutically, but we need to move on from there if we’re to develop our skills, especially if we seek publication.)

When I wrote my first novel, what I wrote — instinctively and therapeutically — was an alternative autobiography, what my life might have been like under very different circumstances. I was married; my heroine was single. I quilted as a hobby; she was a professional textile artist. I lived in a Norwich suburb; she lived on the bleak and remote, Gaelic-speaking Hebridean island of North Uist, which I knew from family holidays on the west coast of Scotland.

I set out to write a thinking-woman’s love story that tackled real issues. I wanted to put a sensitive, creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind. I was able to write with passion and paint-stripper honesty because I knew my novel would never be published. (My mentally ill romantic heroine was 47, and so was I. A less commercial proposition would be hard to imagine.) Hooked on writing, in love with both my heroes, I was fascinated to the point of obsession by the technical challenges of my story.

Was it possible to make a bipolar heroine sympathetic?

How could I convey her bouts of “madness”?

Could I depict the dreadful toll manic depression took on carers?

Was it possible to explore the undisputed links between creativity and bipolar without glamorising a potentially lethal illness?

Could I make depression interesting?

Could I, in short, come up with some good news about living, loving and working with bipolar?

I hadn’t the faintest idea, but I needed to do these things if I was to make sense of my own life, so I set about my self-imposed tasks with a will. I was writing for my life. Gradually writing became my life.

Structure was a problem from the start. Emotional Geology is a book in which nothing much happens, but all sorts of tumultuous events have occurred in the past. What the characters are dealing with in the present is fall-out. My heroine, Rose, lives alone but is haunted by her past. At times she’s barely able to distinguish the new man in her life from the one who got away. And that was the point. There is no escape. (My teacher-hero quotes Milton to her: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”)

I tried to construct a book that was confused, but not confusing. (My working title was SCRAPBOOK.) I came up with a kaleidoscopic structure, moving backwards and forwards in time, sometimes writing in first person, sometimes third. As I wrote, I delved into the layers of Rose’s memory, all of which existed simultaneously, like an archaeological dig. Landscape and particularly geology became the book’s dominant metaphors and so I arrived at my final title: Emotional Geology.

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I wanted to take the reader inside my heroine’s troubled mind, so I opted to write in the present tense throughout, to create an “as it happens” feel for all events, past and present, since for Rose, the past was just as vivid as the present. (I discovered the present tense also stops you over-writing. It’s very exposing, like those bright, unforgiving lights in changing rooms. Verbal flab is spotlit.)

But how was I to convey Rose’s manic states? The problem with conveying mania from the inside (i.e. from Rose’s point of view) was that I had to portray a state of mind unfamiliar and alarming to most people. Was there a way to draw a reluctant reader in?

I’d noticed that at moments of drama or emotional stress my prose was straining toward a different, heightened style. Eventually I acknowledged — with considerable surprise — that what I was repressing was an urge to write poetry. (If I’d had any aspiration to publication, the introduction of poems as part of the narrative surely sounded the death knell for my literary hopes.)

The poems seemed to write themselves, even though I’d never written one before. This might have been because I wasn’t trying to write good poetry. (It’s wonderfully liberating when you stop trying to be “a good writer.” I recommend it. Aspiration can be artistically crippling. I never ask myself now if what I’ve written is any good, the question is rather, “Have I said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it?” If I have, then for me it’s good writing. How could it be better?)

Emotional Geology depicted an internal, dislocated world of shifting time and place. The present tense and the poems allowed the book to float in various limbos and the layout of the poems on the page drew useful boundaries: Rose occasionally went off the deep end. When she did, she broke out in poems.

Well, it all made perfect sense to me. That white room was both Rose’s island home and her “cell” in the mental hospital. It was also the deeply medicated blank space of her mind. There was a process going on and, in Zen-like fashion, I just needed to get out of its way.

Even now, working on my fifth novel, I find I don’t always understand what I’ve written, or rather why I’ve written it. I don’t actually think it’s necessary to understand. I do think you need to be able to trust what you’ve written, which means trusting in yourself as a writer. That’s hard.

It’s also hard to trust intelligent readers to complete the process; to bring, as co-creators, their own experience and understanding to your text. It wasn’t until I started getting feedback from readers that I realised a book isn’t just the words we write, it also exists in the spaces in between the words. As authors we have no control over those spaces, but we can (and should) create them. They are where our fiction really lives.

I wrote my first novel just as a treat for myself, but I had a change of heart and decided to try and publish it after I read the results of a Depression Alliance survey in the UK which said 26% of those questioned did not believe mental illness was a genuine illness.

That’s one in four. Clearly, there was work to be done.

Encouraged by my writers’ e-group, I sent my weird but now completed typescript to agents. To my astonishment, one took me on. (I think she fell in love with my hero. Or maybe it was the Hebrides.) Then we struck lucky. A new imprint, Transita, was looking for books written by, for and about mature women. (This is no longer the case, so please don’t send them unsolicited manuscripts.)

Transita bought Emotional Geology and published a wide variety of novels which were a hit with readers of all ages, but were dismissed by the UK media as “HRT Lit” (Anne here: that’s Brit-speak for hormone replacement therapy, i.e., menopause treatments), “Hag Lit” and “Romance for Wrinklies.”

Aged 53, with my first novel published, I concluded that my biggest “disability” as an author was not that I suffered from bipolar affective disorder, but that I was middle-aged, female and had had the temerity to write about a sexually active middle-aged female. (The ageism and misogyny of British culture beggars belief. But hey, they used to burn us as witches! Things are definitely looking up.)

Emotional Geology fared better than some of Transita’s lighter books, perhaps because it defies categorisation. It comforts and confronts. It has appealed to people who have no knowledge of, or particular interest in mental illness and was short-listed for the Waverton Good Read Award, given to the year’s best first British novel. Well received by the mental health press, Emotional Geology was also runner-up in Pure Passion a light-hearted library promotion of romantic reads.

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At author events readers complain to me in a good-natured way that they’ve been up till 2.00 am, unable to put the book down. But very little actually happens, so how can it be un-put-downable?

My theory is, since I write my books not knowing what happens next, nor even the final outcome, suspense and “hooks” for the reader are built in. Nobody wants to know what happens more than I do, so I’m writing as fast as I can, to find out. And that’s how readers like to read.

For this reason I’m anti-synopses. Publishers need them, but many writers don’t. Your subconscious — if you let it — will write a better and braver book than your conscious mind. After that, it’s all in the editing.

Planning a novel and writing a synopsis might encourage you to opt for the obvious in character and plot. You won’t arrive at your artistic decisions in an organic way. (E.M. Forster is supposed to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”) Would I have dared plan poems for Emotional Geology? The idea wouldn’t have occurred to me and, if it had, I would have dismissed it as pretentious. It was only in the writing of the book that poems presented themselves as the solution to a technical problem.

Faced unexpectedly with publication and the inevitable PR, I had to decide whether to be “out” about my own mental health history. Was I going to set myself up to be dismissed as a one-book wonder or an author of fictionalised memoir? (I didn’t realise then grounds for dismissal could just be middle age.)

I’d complicated matters by moving to Skye, another Scottish island, which made my novel look far more autobiographical than it was. (Be careful what you wish for… Writing my alternative life gave me the courage to go and live it.) A double bereavement and both our children leaving home had led to some domestic stock-taking. My husband and I decided to live our dream and move to a big house on a hillside, facing the spectacular Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye.

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So I did what I thought was the only honest thing. I’d written a book in which manic depression was just one aspect of my heroine and secondary to her creativity. That’s how it had to be for me too. So from the start I was “out” about my mental health history. Readers have come forward, in emails and in person, to thank me for the book and for standing up in public to demonstrate that there’s life after breakdown, after diagnosis; that it is never, ever too late to reinvent yourself.

I no longer live on Skye but I live a quiet, creative and productive life. I write, teach workshops and speak to groups about writing and mental health. My third novel, Star Gazing, set on Skye, was short-listed earlier this year for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

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This time, I created a romantic heroine whom most readers would regard as disabled. Marianne is middle-aged, widowed and congenitally blind. Much of Star Gazing is written in the first person, from Marianne’s blind point of view and this raised a number of technical problems. I learned a lot as I solved them — and not just about writing. I began the book thinking of blindness as a disability, but by the time I was halfway through, I was convinced the blind have other ways of “seeing”. (Or as the sighted hero, Keir says to Marianne, “You have perfectly good eyes, they’re just not in your sockets.”)

As writers we agonise about originality and commercial appeal. The more anxious among us fret about copyrighting our ideas. But Christopher Booker says there are only seven basic plots. (Did you know LORD OF THE RINGS incorporates all of them?)

But what is unique to each of us is our way of seeing the world. That is the commodity writers have to sell, the “story” we have to tell. When we discover our true voice, it’s as unique as our fingerprint. But it might take a long time — and a lot of writing — to find.

In the meantime, aim to say what you want to say, in the way you want to say it. That’s good writing.

How could it be better?
emotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillardstar-gazing-cover gillardemotional-geology cover Gillard smallA lifetime burning cover gillard
Linda Gillard author photo IILinda Gillard studied Drama and German at Bristol University, then trained as an actress at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Whilst under-employed at London’s National Theatre, Linda developed a sideline as a freelance journalist. She ran two careers concurrently for a while, then gave up acting to raise a family and write from home.

Twelve years later, she re-trained as a teacher and taught in Norfolk for some years. She moved to the Isle of Skye where she lived for six years in a house on a hill overlooking the Cuillin mountain range, featured in her first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY (short-listed for the 2006 Waverton Good Read Award.) Linda now lives near Glasgow.

Her second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING was published by Transita in 2006 and STAR GAZING, set partly on Skye, was published by Piatkus in 2008.

The Most Insidious Form of Censorship: The So-Called Market, by guest blogger Roland Tec

A railroad CEO conducts a sensitive business negotiation parked on a live railroad crossing in the Nebraska segment of We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States, 2001-2008.

A railroad CEO conducts a sensitive business negotiation parked on a live railroad crossing in the Nebraska segment of We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States, 2001-2008.

Hello, campers –

My writing retreat in France is drawing to a close, to coin a phrase — and yes, of course I’m going to tell you all about it, as well as giving you some tips on finding, applying for, and happily surviving a formal artists’ retreat. (None of which are the easiest things in the world, let me tell you.) So if you’ll kindly hold your proverbial horses for another few days, to permit me get back into my usual blogging rhythm, I’ll be overwhelming you with advice, insights, and low-level complaint about the writing life again soon.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled to introduce today’s guest in Author! Author!’s ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise, film and stage director, writer, and all-around stupendous human being, Roland Tec. He’s also the founding editor of the performing arts blog Extra Criticum, as well as serving as Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America.

He is a busy guy, in short.

Especially in the last six months, which saw the openings of both his most recent film as writer/director/actor, We Pedal Uphill, and his latest foray into producing, a film version of Nechama Tec’s, Defiance, directed by Edward Zwick. (While I’m at it, here’s a link to the book itself, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. And if you’re even vaguely interested in World War II, Nechama Tec’s Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust is quite literally the most interesting book I’ve ever read on the subject — and considering that I used to teach a university course on the subject, I believe that’s saying something.)

To say that I’ve been attempting to blandish Roland into sharing his thoughts on writing with the Author! Author! community since I first began the blog would not be entirely accurate. If memory serves, I have been trying to drag him in front of groups of aspiring writers for years before that.

Why? Well, for one thing, he’s a heck of a good playwright and screenwriter. You don’t have to take my word for that, either: his play BODILY FUNCTION won an Edward Albee Award in 2000 and was an O’Neill finalist in 2001. The Los Angeles Times called his first feature film, All the Rage, “one of the sharpest, sexiest and most amusing satires of gay life and values ever filmed.”

But none of that is why I’ve asked him to speak to us today.

Throughout this periodic series, our various guests have discussed many means by which good writing (and good writers) are discouraged, dissuaded, and in some cases flatly banned from presenting their artistic visions to the world. Yet as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while have no doubt already noticed, we talk a lot here about writing for a market.

Hmm, think the ever-changing demands of the market — real or perceived — affect who writes about what? Or whom agents decide to represent, and what kinds of books are published? And, in film, what kinds of stories the public is allowed to see?

Who better to enlighten us on the last, I ask rhetorically, than someone who has spent the last twenty years trying to stretch that particular envelope? None, I say.

So please join me in extending a great big Author! Author! welcome to film boundary-stretcher Roland Tec. Take it away, Roland!

Roland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal UphillRoland's film We Pedal Uphill

Something creepy and disturbing is afoot in the world of moviemaking and unless we face up to it, I’m afraid we may all be doomed to a lifetime diet of nothing more than pre-packaged market-tested promotional dross in our movie theatres.

There is a system in place now that includes major studios, their distributors and big theatre chains who are behaving more and more as though they were corporate divisions of studios and less and less like independent players. This model has more or less been in place since moviemaking took off in the early part of the last century, but what’s new is the degree to which the big guys have an airtight lock on the distribution channels out there.

It’s a dirty little secret of the film business that in the past couple years, ticket sales at the multiplex have soared, breaking records year after year, while attendance at the art houses has been dwindling. In fact art house attendance is down this year by 60% from last year’s numbers. Why?

One of the reasons, I think, is because one of the old reliable tools used by independent filmmakers and their distributors for grabbing the attention of their audience has all but disappeared.

I’m referring, of course, to printed newspapers. As their advertising revenue has evaporated, so have their column inches, particularly when it comes to Arts coverage. Not a week goes by when one doesn’t read about this or that favorite critic being shown the door.

This is purely anecdotal, of course, but my own experience reveals a marked shrinkage in actual space devoted to independent films in the past ten years. I’m in a unique position to observe this, having produced and directed two feature films which were released theatrically almost exactly ten years apart.

My film, All the Rage, was released in 1999 and We Pedal Uphill, my tapestry of post-911 American fear, just came out this March. Both films were made for less than one million dollars. Both were topical, smart and featured performers not unknown to theatre aficionados but without typical Hollywood Box Office cred.

What’s striking is that if you lay the reviews side by side, the amount of space allotted has shrunk by slightly more than 50%. A simple word count of both New York Times reviews illustrates the decline quite clearly. In 1999, the Times review of my little film which opened on one small screen at one theatre in the Village ran 454 words in length. Ten years later, my little film opening on another small screen in the same neighborhood garnered a review half the size, at 216 words.

Now, I know this is totally unscientific, but it is striking. Isn’t it? What is astonishing, of course, is that in the weeks leading up to the release of We Pedal Uphill, a Hollywood film called I Love You, Man (which opened on the same day as mine) received not only a half-page review but a huge feature story.

The reason for this discrepancy? I Love You, Man took out several full-page ads in the paper while our little film could only manage one two-incher.

What is perhaps most troubling about the scenario I describe is that many of you reading it will simply shake your head and say, “Well, duh!” The assumption that money talks (and should) is now so deeply ingrained out culture that no one questions it. And to do so invites ridicule and pity.

Do we want to live in a society where the culture available to us is decided by a bunch of suits in an air-conditioned conference room overlooking the 101 Freeway? I know it may be hard for some of you younger readers to fathom this, but there really was a time when an independent film with two people just sitting around talking for two hours could play to empty houses for weeks until, slowly but surely, word of mouth spread and the thing became a phenomenon.

(It was called My Dinner with Andre and it eventually grossed a respectable sum at the box office).

If we’re content to live in a world where that can’t happen, I say, we’re doomed. Doomed to live in the Dark Ages in which our likes and dislikes are determined for us by a bunch of guys in suits. In Medieval Europe the suits were the lavish drag of the Catholic Church. Today the suits may look different, but the cultural serfdom is much the same.

Roland Tec bio picRoland Tec is a writer, producer, composer and director. His film, All the Rage, released by Strand Releasing, was hailed as “one of the sharpest, sexiest and most amusing satires of gay life and values ever filmed” by the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times described his most recent picture, We Pedal Uphill, thusly: “Neither self-righteous nor bombastic, these wide-ranging mini-tales coast on a gently insistent tone of regret. Without pointing fingers or naming names, Mr. Tec reminds us that change does not happen overnight.”

Tec also served as a producer of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Edward Zwick’s Defiance. He has also had several plays produced Off-Broadway including: Bodily Function, Gratuitous Nudity and The Wreck Behind Us. Roland is the founding editor of the group performing arts blog, Extra Criticum, and he currently serves as Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America. For more info on his current projects, visit the Pinkplot website.

People do judge a book by its cover, by guest blogger Joel Derfner

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Hello again, campers –
This has been a star-studded month here at Author! Author!, hasn’t it, cram-packed with visits from illustrious literati? First, we heard from an exciting array of guest bloggers on the subject of censorship, up to and including my review of a new book on the subject by a bunch of Nobel Prize winners and short-listers. Earlier this week, award-winning mystery novelist Stan Trollip dropped by to give us a behind-the-scenes peek at how multi-book contracts work.

As if all that weren’t enough to fill our collective cup of joy to overflowing, memoirist Joel Derfner has arrived today to illuminate the opaque process by which book covers spring to life. Then, this weekend, you’re all going to send in your entries to the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence.

While I suppose I might take the cynical view that all of this is delightful because people other than me are doing most of the writing on the blog this week — not an inconsiderable boon, given that I’m still on retreat in France — I genuinely do enjoy alerting all of you when an author who deserves to make it big has a book coming out.

In case I’m being too subtle here: today’s guest blogger deserves to make it big.

In fact, speaking as a memoirist myself (and no matter what Amazon keeps telling people, my memoir is not in fact out of print — my publisher still has not released it, due to lawsuit threats), Joel’s current book, SWISH: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Happened Instead, represents some of the best memoir writing of the last decade.

For those of you not up on recent autobiography, the last decade has been a pretty great time for memoir.

So it was not by accident that Joel ended up as the last star to glitter in this month’s Milky Way, as it were. I’m really delighted to bring him to you today.

Am I still being too subtle? This is an author I genuinely admire, and one whose work I would very much like to see more widely known. Call me zany, but I think the book world could use more brilliance in these dark times.

All of you blog aficionados out there may already know Joel’s writing through his hilariously pointed blog, the Search for Love in Manhattan. Here at Author! Author!, he is better known as frequent commenter Faustus, MD. He’s also been generous enough to guest blog in the past on common mistakes writers make in contest entries — which might be worth a gander while you’re prepping for the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, since you’re going to enter, right? — and how authors obtain permission to use song lyrics in their books.

In answer to what lyric-lovers across the globe just thought: yes, you have to, even if you’ve used only a line, if the song is not yet in the public domain — and yes, in the United States, it’s typically the author’s responsibility to obtain permission for reprinted lyrics, not the publisher’s.

Hey, don’t take my word for it — ask Joel.

SWISH has had an honestly jaw-dropping publishing history — but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the publisher’s blurb; see if you can pick up the faint subtext in this marketing excerpt about whom they expect to be the primary audience for this book:

Joel Derfner is gayer than you.

Don’t feel too bad about it, though, because he has made being gayer than you his life’s work. At summer day camp, when he was six, Derfner tried to sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging, but the camp counselors wouldn’t let him, because, they said, those activities were for girls only. Derfner, just to be contrary, embarked that very day on a solemn and sacred quest: to become the gayest person ever. Along the way he has become a fierce knitter, an even fiercer musical theater composer, and so totally the fiercest step aerobics instructor (just ask him—he’ll tell you himself).

In Swish, Derfner takes his readers on a flamboyant adventure along the glitter-strewn road from fabulous to divine. Whether he’s confronting the demons of his past at a GLBT summer camp, using the Internet to “meet” “men” many, many men—or plunging headfirst (and nearly naked) into the shady world of go-go dancing, he reveals himself with every gayer-than-thou flourish to be not just a stylish explorer but also a fearless one. So fearless, in fact, that when he sneaks into a conference for people who want to cure themselves of their homosexuality, he turns the experience into one of the most fascinating, deeply moving chapters of the book. Derfner, like King Arthur, Christopher Columbus, and Indiana Jones—but with a better haircut and a much deeper commitment to fad diets—is a hero destined for legend.

Written with wicked humor and keen insight, Swish is at once a hilarious look at contemporary ideas about gay culture and a poignant exploration of identity that will speak to all readers—gay, straight, and in between.

Anyone manage to crack the code here? Would it help if I called your attention to a name that appears twice on the cover above to Joel’s once?

If you immediately exclaimed, “By gum, I strongly suspect that the target audience here is gay men and the people who like them,” give yourself a great big gold star for the day. Reading marketing blurbs is a magnificent exercise for an aspiring writer, as a means of learning how the publishing world thinks: for them, there is no such thing as a publishable book without a target readership.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, blurbs seldom leave much doubt about the type of reader they’re trying to reach. This lack of ambiguity tends to be reflected in reviews as well — or at least in how they’re placed. Take a gander at some of the reviews of Joel’s memoir:

“In a culture where we disguise vulnerability with physical perfection and material success, Derfner skewers heartache with Wildean wit . . . [Derfner is] the next Noël Coward.” —Out.com

“Searing.” —Washington Blade

“Derfner’s writing is perfect. . . . He’s your best friend. He’s your brother. He is you.” — EDGE Los Angeles

“Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, always clever, and unpredictable.” —Philadelphia Gay News

Again, seeing a pattern here? When SWISH first came out — it’s about to be re-released, for reasons that Joel will tell you all about below as soon as I stop yammering about book promotion and let him get on with it — the marketing focus was even tighter.

So if you responded by the pop quiz above by murmuring, “Hmm, it seems as though the target market here is people just like Joel,” you’re not far off; memoirs are very, very frequently marketed to the author’s own demographic — or demographics, as is often the case.

And while it’s not really fair to summarize SWISH’s first marketing campaign as aimed at humorous gay men with linguistics degrees from Harvard and graduate degrees in musical theatre, I do feel compelled to point out that even though I LOVED this book when it came out last year (if I hadn’t yet made that clear), I might not even have heard about it, because I did not fall into any of the targeted audiences.

Which is a little weird, frankly, as Joel and I have quite a bit in common, including an alma mater.

I’m bringing this up for a couple of reasons. First, first-time authors are frequently stunned at how specific book marketing tends to be, as well as how little say they have over it; while the writer is generally asked for input, the publisher’s marketing department makes the actual decisions about book promotion.

And about the cover, generally, and about the title. Give that some thought the next time you’re browsing in a bookstore.

Second, and more relevant to this particular author, having read SWISH, I feel very strongly that I was — and am — very much part of this memoir’s ideal readership, despite being straight, female, and some undefined number of years older than Joel. I think this book would speak to any woman, any person really, who has struggled with the paradox of attraction and desirability, or with the tension between wanting people to think you’re beautiful and wanting them to think you’re smart.

Which is to say: I think a huge part of this book’s audience is going to be intelligent women who love good writing — who, incidentally, tend to be major-league book-buyers.

So I’m going to be honest here: I was one of the naysayers Joel mentions below. Not only did I feel when the book came out that the original cover, while a lot of fun, was not an accurate representation of the book within; I felt very strongly that SWISH was being marketed to far too narrow an audience, pigeonholed because of its subject matter.

Yes, this memoir deals in what is euphemistically called gay subject matter, but at base, it’s a beautifully written, insightful memoir about working through a whole array of very human insecurities — about whether one is attractive enough, smart enough, lovable enough.

These are universal worries, and Joel’s memoir handles them in an unusually subtle manner. There are insights in this book that I’ve never even seen touched upon in print before — and believe me, people, I read a lot of books and manuscripts in any given year.

In short, it’s a great read, and I was pretty miffed that it wasn’t being marketed that way. SWISH should have been read by a broader range of people when it came out last year; it should have been nominated for awards.

Not being noted for reticence on such subjects, I believe I said so. About 500 times. As both Gore Vidal and I have been pointing out for quite some time now, there is no human problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise.

Imagine my delighted surprise, then, to learn that a new, improved, updated and retitled SWISH is coming out in June. I’ll let Joel tell you all about it. However, in an industry that’s not exactly notorious for second chances, I think this re-release is something worth celebrating.

As is, however belatedly, the chance to dance in the streets, shouting, “I told you so!”

So please join me in congratulating a great author whose writing is getting the second chance it so richly deserves, Joel Derfner. Take it away, Joel!

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When Broadway Books sent me the cover for my memoir, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever, I was thrilled, because it was hysterically funny:

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The ridiculous, over-the-top Spencerian quality of the script, the silhouettes of the posing bodybuilders, the pink thong — they were a perfect foil to the book itself, which started with ideas as shallow and stereotypical as these images and moved from there to (if I do say so myself) depth, insight, and humanity. So we both thought the cover was perfect. We suspected there might be some difficulty in navigating the marketing divide between humor and depth, but we figured that if we erred toward the side of humor we’d be okay, because, as I said to my editor, funny is always better.

So the book was released, perfect cover and all, and I was delighted, and then reviews started coming in, and I was even more delighted, because for the most part they were very good. But then I started to notice something, which was that almost every one said something along the lines of, “From the cover I thought this was going to be silly and annoying, but then I read it and I loved it.” Then people who had read the book started e-mailing me, and almost every one said something along the lines of, “From the cover I thought this was going to be silly and annoying, but then I read it and I loved it.”

And we started getting worried. If so many people who read the book had seen the cover and thought it was going to be silly and annoying, how many people saw the cover, thought the same thing—and didn’t pick up the book?

The answer, unfortunately, turned out to be “a lot.” The problem was that there’s a subgenre of gay literature that appears similar to my book on the outside—flashy, clever, shallow—and that is also flashy, clever, shallow on the inside (Behind Every Woman There’s a Fabulous Gay Man, for example, or How to Get Laid: The Gay Man’s Essential Guide to Hot Sex). Since I knew myself, and since my editor knew me, we got a kick out of the disjunct between the cotton-candy outside of my book and the rich center. Unfortunately, we forgot that the book-buying public did not know me. Seeing the unsubstantial outside, therefore, they assumed that book had an unsubstantial inside as well. It was awful.

The following things gradually became clear:

  1. Straight people thought the book would be interesting only to gay people, so they didn’t buy it.
  2. Gay people who liked good writing though the book would be interesting only to people who liked fluff, so they didn’t buy it.
  3. Gay people who liked fluff bought the book and then, quite often, got angry when it wasn’t fluffy. (Seriously. A couple reviews were like, what is this? Where’s the Cher? There are hunky guys on the cover, why is he telling us about his dead mother?)

(There’s also of course the possibility that the reason people didn’t buy the book is that it was bad. But in that case this post would be completely unhelpful, so let’s assume for the sake of discussion that this wasn’t so.)

During this time I also sent a few pieces around to magazines and newspapers, none of which expressed any interest. Again, it could be that what I sent was bad, or that it simply wasn’t what the people I sent it to were looking for, but I have to believe that when they saw the title of my book in a cover letter or e-mail it didn’t do me any favors.

My agent took me to lunch and told me that Broadway was planning to sell the paperback rights, which is very bad; it usually means that the publisher has given up on a book and wants to get out while they can still make some sort of profit. “This failure isn’t your fault,” she said.

“Failure?” I said, and wanted to die.

Then I got a phone call from Elton John.

He had read the book and loved it, he said; he also offered to blurb it or write a foreword or help in any way he could.

After I regained the power of speech—which, as you can imagine, took some time—I called my agent and told her, and after she regained the power of speech she called Broadway and told them, and somehow it didn’t seem quite as urgent that they sell the paperback rights.

After a long and undoubtedly agonizing negotiation (none of which I had anything to do with, thank God), Broadway decided that not only would they issue the paperback themselves, but they wanted to repackage the book entirely, with a new cover and a new subtitle. It took literally months to come up with them, but my editor’s assistant told me that I should see this as a good sign, because they wouldn’t spend so much energy on something they didn’t really believe in. (Then my editor got laid off, but her assistant stayed, so I felt I could still trust her advice.)

So the paperback is being released in a couple weeks. It’s called Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, it has a beautiful cover that matches the material inside, and it’s graced with a foreword by Elton John. Of course I hope it will become a smash hit, but mostly I’m just grateful that the book has gotten a second chance.

And I’ve learned a valuable lesson for next time, which is that if I’m not careful, my work won’t reach my intended audience because they just won’t pick it up in the first place. Or, more simply put, that people do judge a book by its cover.

swishcoverblogswish-covergay_haiku
joel_portraitSwish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and Gay Haiku author Joel Derfner is from South Carolina, where his great-grandmother had an affair with George Gershwin. After fleeing the south as soon as he possibly could, he got a B.A. in linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be completely wrong, as the word he had been translating as “who” turned out to be not a noun but a verb. Realizing that linguistics was not his métier, he moved to New York to get an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from the Tisch School of the Arts.

Musicals for which he has written the scores have been produced in London, New York, and various cities in between (going counterclockwise). In an attempt to become the gayest person ever, he joined Cheer New York, New York’s gay and lesbian cheerleading squad, but eventually he had to leave because he was too depressed. In desperation, he started knitting and teaching aerobics, though not at the same time. He hopes to come to a bad end.

Publishing – the good news, by guest blogger Stan Trollip, better known as half of the amazing writing team Michael Stanley

seconddeath cover michael stanley

Hello, campers —

Still on retreat in France, of course (and yes, the weather is precisely as gorgeous as you’re imagining, thank you very much), but I’m checking in quickly to introduce a long-anticipated treat: today, police procedural author and fab guy Stanley Trollip. Stan is best known as Michael Stanley, nom de plume of Stan Trollip and Michael Sears.

/stanley-trollip-small.jpgThose of you who were hanging around the Author! Author! virtual lounge may remember Stan from last year, when he was kind enough to visit with a very interesting guest post on collaboration, because who would know more about it than an author who has won some pretty hefty awards for doing just that?

What kind of awards, you ask? Well, the Los Angeles Times named their last novel, A CARRION DEATH, as one of the top ten crime novels of 2008 — a year that certainly wasn’t lacking in terrific crime novels, by the way. Some of the awards are yet to be decided, of course, but it’s currently a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Yeah, I know: impressive, to say the least. I don’t wheedle just anybody to come and share his insights with you, you know.

Their new book, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, will be coming out June 2, but it’s already available for presale on Amazon Canada. It’s already in bookstores everywhere else in the world as A DEADLY TRADE.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb for THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. While we’re at it, let’s take a gander at the cover (and title) you’d see if you happened to be browsing in a Canadian or UK bookstore:

deadlytrade cover Michael StanleyHow can a man die twice?

That is the question facing Detective David “Kubu” Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in Northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analyzed, Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years earlier.

Kubu quickly realizes that nothing at the camp is as it seems. As the guests are picked off one by one, time to stop the murderer is running out. With rumors of horrifying war crimes, the scent of a drug-smuggling trail, and mounting pressure from his superiors to contend with, Kubu doesn’t notice there is one door still left unguarded – his own. And as he sets a trap to find the criminals, the hunters are closing on him…

And that, boys and girls, is how to grab a reader in just a couple of paragraphs. Those of you embroiled in constructing summaries for your query letters and/or pitches might want to take note: see how the clever use of both telling details and a strong forward momentum makes you want to read this book? An agent is likely to react that way, too.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: never, ever forget that even the most tedious chore in book description is an opportunity to show what a good storyteller you are.

The Michael Stanley duo is extraordinarily talented at storytelling — but wait, you don’t have to take my word for that, do you? Here are some advance reviews from the most respected of industry sources:

Booklist, May 1, 2009
*Starred* Review! 
“ . . .. a brilliant sequel to last year’s Carrion Death… Stanley (the pseudonym for the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) is not content with a single plot line, effectively juggling the murders with cross-border drug smuggling and the circumstances surrounding an upcoming African Union meeting. Kubu, a dedicated gourmand, is just one of many fully fleshed and charmingly realistic characters. From slightly annoying sister-in-law Peasant to Kubu’s intense and acerbic boss Mabuku to Scottish pathologist MacGregor, each character is memorable and adds depth to this tense and involving police procedural. Suggest to fans of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, who will appreciate Kubu’s laid-back style and happy home life, and to Henning Mankell fans, who will respond to the complex plots and palpable sense of place.”

Library Journal Reviews, April 1, 2009
“Following his spectacular debut, A Carrion Death, Stanley comes roaring back with an even better tale. Bringing a love of Africa similar to Alexander McCall Smith’s popular “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, the author has created an excellent new venue for those who love to read about other cultures while enjoying a good mystery. Highly recommended.”

And that makes you curious about their multiple prize-winning first collaboration, doesn’t it, the one that the LA Times named as one of the top crime books of 2008? If so, then you’ll be pleased to hear that A CARRION DEATH is available Amazon, Amazon Canada, and Amazon UK.

I’m always delighted when I’m able to blandish an established working writer into sharing his views on the practicalities of the biz with you, dear readers, because the common writerly fantasies about what getting published and making a living as a writer entails tend to be, well, a bit fantastic. The write book/have agent show up on doorstep the next day/sell book to publisher in a week/quit day job immediately/appear on Oprah within a month scenario, while fun to think about, isn’t really the industry works.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: if you’re even vaguely considering trying to make money by writing books, do pay careful attention to what Stan says here about advances, publication contracts, and book promotion. (And for more insight on both, please feel free to consult the aptly-named ADVANCES, PUBLICATION CONTRACTS, and BOOK PROMOTION categories on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Without further ado, then, please join me in a big Author! Author! welcome for Stan Trollip! Take it away, Stan!

Michael Stanley smiling with cat

The publishing world is full of bad news. Editors being let go; contracts not being honored; staff being laid off; fewer manuscripts being bought; less money for publicity. The list goes on. Everyone in the industry is depressed.

Or nearly everyone. I’m not depressed. Nor is my writing partner, Michael Sears.
We are actually having a ball and are in the midst of a worldwide tour promoting our second Detective Kubu novel, which is titled THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in the States and A DEADLY TRADE in the rest of the world.

Despite the great distance to be traveled and living out of a suitcase, it is inspiring to meet people who sell books and people who read books. It is remarkable to see how passionate these people are about reading in general and about books specifically. And of course it is a thrill when we find a stack of our books in a bookstore or see people with one of our books in hand.

We are Stanley Trollip (that’s me) and Michael Sears. Collectively we write under the name of Michael Stanley. Six years ago, neither of us had any aspirations of being published authors. Today, our first novel, A CARRION DEATH, is published in the U.S.A., the U.K., Italy, and France (to be released in September). Our second novel is already out in the British Commonwealth and will be released in the States on June 2.

So what’s there to be depressed about?

Seriously, ours is a writer’s dream come true. We started writing for fun in mid-2003, fifteen years after we had an idea for a novel. In the mid-80s, I would load a small plane with friends and wine and head off to Botswana to watch game and birds. One day we watched a pack of hyenas demolish a wildebeest – bones and all.

Aha, we thought. If one wanted to get rid of a body, leaving it for the hyenas would be a great way of doing so. Fifteen years later we started writing our first novel, A CARRION DEATH, using the hyena idea as the opening. In the book, the hyena is interrupted in its meal, leaving the remnants of a corpse. The perfect murder wasn’t perfect anymore.

To our surprise, we found an outstanding agent in New York, who was able to get HarperCollins to make us a two-book offer for worldwide English rights. Not long after, they sold rest of the world English rights to Headline in the UK. Our agent,Marly Rusoff, then sold the manuscript to JC Lattes in France and Sonzogno in Italy. To us, the unbelievable had come true.

A CARRION DEATH has been critically well received, being shortlisted for three awards – two still to be decided – and being named as one of the Los Angeles Times top ten crime books of 2008.

Is A CARRION DEATH a best seller? No! Are we making money hand over fist? No! In fact, we still have a long way to go in paying back our initial advance. But we have had a great start, selling about 25,000 copies in various languages worldwide. More importantly, Michael and I have had an enormous amount of fun writing together even though we are often on different continents – Michael in Africa, and I in the States.

So how does it work having multi-book contracts and books being published in different languages? It is useful to understand some of the simple dynamics – something we knew nothing about when we started – in fact we knew so little that we didn’t realize that two people weren’t supposed to write fiction together.

Contractual stuff
I seldom read in blogs like Author! Author! how the contractual aspects of publishing work – let alone how an author deals with multiple publishers and multiple contracts. So I’m going to take a few paragraphs to describe, in simple, terms how this all works.

First, when you write something, you own all the rights (unless you have been commissioned to write the piece, and the person commissioning you retains the rights). So when we finished A CARRION DEATH, we owned all the associated rights.

We sold some of these (worldwide English rights) to HarperCollins in New York. They decided to retain only the English rights for North America, and sold the subsidiary English rights for the rest of the world to Headline in the UK. We then sold worldwide French rights to JC Lattes in France (due out in September 2009) and worldwide Italian rights to Sonzogno in Italy (published in October 2008).

We still hold all the other rights, including all other language rights, radio rights, and movie rights. (If you know anyone who wants to buy these, …!)

When we sold the worldwide English rights to HarperCollins, they bought them by offering us an advance against royalties – an amount of money, to be delivered in three parts (a third on signing, a third on acceptance of the manuscript, and a third on publication). An advance against royalties means that the publisher has advanced us the money, which we have to pay off through royalties on sales, etc.

From our point of view, the good news is that if our royalties don’t ever pay off the advance, we don’t have to fork out the difference. So the advance against royalties is the way a publisher acknowledges that writing is a slow process, and that writers need to live. They take a risk by paying these advances because they may never recover them.

So how do we pay off the advance? For each book sold we receive a royalty that ranges from 10% to 15% of the cover price. All these royalties start paying off the advance. Also, when HarperCollins sold the subsidiary rights to Headline, the amount they sold them for, less a commission, also went to pay off the advance.

Today the royalties earned by A CARRION DEATH sold anywhere in the world go to paying off our advance. And only when the advance is paid off will we see any more money.

In the same way, we received advances from our French and Italian publishers and are in process of paying them back through royalties from books sold.

In our case, it could be some time before we pay off the advances and see any further royalties. Indeed it is often the case that authors never see additional royalties. That may happen to us too.

Now we are about to release our second mystery, called THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in North America and A DEADLY TRADE in the rest of the English-speaking world. For this book, the whole financial process starts again. We receive an advance in three installments and pay it off through royalties and the sale of subsidiary rights.

If very successful, we may see additional royalties in the future. If not, we can keep the advance.

You may ask why the book has two titles. Good question. Our original title was THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, but Headline in the UK thought it sounded a bit too much like an Alexander McCall Smith novel and wanted something a bit snappier. After several weeks of brainstorming we came up with A DEADLY TRADE, which we like also.

Multiple editors
Another interesting issue that we didn’t anticipate was having multiple editors. We have a wonderful editor at HarperCollins – Claire Wachtel – who takes our manuscript and provides feedback such as “the pace falls off here,” or “move this chapter later to maintain tension,” or “take this character out – he doesn’t add anything.”

Despite the pain that we often feel when reading such comments, Claire is usually right, and we do what she says. It always improves the book. When she approves the changes, the manuscript goes to a copy editor who helps to improve language and often catches annoying discrepancies.

But what about the UK edition? Is it the same book?

For A CARRION DEATH, after the manuscript had been approved by HarperCollins, we translated it from American into English, then submitted it to our UK editor, Sherise Hobbs. Like Claire Wachtel, she read the manuscript and made suggestions, not as fundamental as Claire’s, but still extremely insightful and useful. After we finished addressing her concerns, the English manuscript was copy edited again, and only then went to printing.

So the US and UK editions are different, but only in minor ways, such as spelling, grammar, and some colloquialisms and culture-dependent references. For example a car has a bonnet and boot in English, and a hood and trunk in American. In English the past participles of lean and burn are leant and burnt. In American they are leaned and burned. American readers are more comfortable is dealing with distances in miles, yards, feet, and inches, while readers elsewhere typically use the metric equivalents of kilometers (spelled (spelt) kilometres outside north America), meters, centimeters and millimeters. The measurement of weight has similar differences.

From our point of view, we think we have two superb editors who improve our books immeasurably. Fortunately, they pull in the same direction, and we haven’t had to deal with any conflicts.

So far we have had little or no interaction with the editors of the French and Italian editions, mainly because neither Michael nor I have the language skills to make any meaningful input. However, we have been asked to comment on covers and titles. The Italian edition of A CARRION DEATH, for example, is titled IL DETECTIVE KUBU rather than a direct translation of the English title. The French title is still undecided.

To close
We have just started promoting A DEADLY TRADE and THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU and will come back to Author! Author! in a few weeks with a report on what it is like to launch a book in multiple countries.

THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU will have its worldwide launch on June 2, 2009 at the wonderful Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis. Please visit our website for up-to-date news and information about upcoming events. There you can also sign up for our newsletter which comes out four or five times a year.

Thanks, Stan — that was hugely informative! Best of luck with the new book, and we’re all looking forward to seeing you back here again soon!

Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Yeas and Nays in the Bard’s World, by guest blogger Sandi Dollinger

ethel-merman

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, heaven knows
Anything goes.

Back in 1934, when Broadway was belting out Cole Porter’s sassy lines, a new world was dawning, so it seemed. One where a playwright could saywhat she wanted without fear of reprisal.

When Porter penned his sassy lyrics for his soon-to-be Broadway hit, he did it with tongue in cheek, I’m sure. The twenties were over, dragging down with them that infamous cast of characters, which included bootleggers and those party-going recipients so willing to wallow in their booze, fling off their clothes and take baths in the bubbly while getting ready for the next round.

Yes, the Crash had sounded the death knell, a din which became louder and louder as gangsters like Legs Diamond got gunned down in the backs of boardinghouses. By 1933, it was curtains for Prohibition.

Americans had sobered up and just Anything did NOT go.

Porter certainly learned this lesson when he wanted a white woman cast as the call girl singing Love For Sale in 1930. He had to change the setting to Harlem and make the singer black, because of what the song was about. And again, in “Anything Goes,” he had to amend a number called I Get a Kick Out Of You. Remember that famous “Some get a kick out of cocaine” line?” When I got the script many many decades later, the line had become “Some get a kick out of champagne.”

But Porter was willing to do it.

It’s different when the essence of an entire script is challenged, however. And the challenge is subtle. What theatre calls the “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” syndrome.

I call it shunning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. When I was in my salad days, back in the sixties and seventies, I thought censorship existed only in totalitarian societies, societies such as Soviet Russia or the Franciscan Motherhouse, which was my address at the time. I remember, as a nun, so desperately wanting to study theatre.

I even mounted a production of A Man For All Seasons, using nuns as actors (nuns showing their hair and wearing costumes, God forbid!) Eventually, I was pulled aside by Reverend Mother, who wanted to know if I was willing to sacrifice my religious vocation for the work of the devil.

You can well imagine the breath of freedom that went through me when I traded in my nun’s serge habit for a pair of hip huggers and a used eggshell blue VW.

It was the time when Leonard Bernstein’s Candide had opened in New York, along with Equus and all those anti-establishment pieces of theatre. I was on a high. I got my Master’s in Speech and Theatre from Marquette University and drove myself to the Big City.

I had a taste of playwriting in Milwaukee, adapting children’s books such as Tom Sawyer and Heidi for the stage. I was pretty avant-garde, but no one seemed to mind. (Not like people in the late nineties, who questioned me on one of my adaptations of Mark Twain’s classic, asking me why I wanted to expose young people to the anarchy of the Wild West.)

But to return to the late seventies. When I got to New York, I found a job at Henri Bendel’s collection agency. A hundred dollars a week kept me in popcorn and Rice Krispies for dinner and afforded the privilege of studying under a Cuban refugee. Andres was great with the Stansilavsky Method, but he didn’t want his actors selling their wares elsewhere. I did comic roles for Chekhov, Ibsen, and Oscar Wilde plays and then I wanted to move on.

I auditioned for Actors Advent and got a role playing Miss Margarida of Roberto Athayde’s one-woman play, Miss Margarida’s Way. The role was a
reaction to the fascist leadership of Brazil. It was about a teacher who behaved the way church and civil authorities were behaving in South American countries at the time. Miss Margarida informs her class that “Happy are they who obey,” while telling them to give up fornication. Not even kissing is allowed, even if they would like to kiss Miss Margarida.

Miss Margarida’s Way was loudly heralded in the off-Broadway theatres. It was comedic, darkly so, but times were different. They hadn’t become Teflon-ized yet.

Today, My Name is Rachel Corrie has found great trouble making its way to the New York stages. This play about a young activist-journalist in Palestine has met with great resistance. It finally got a booking, but friends of mine have had a great deal of opposition getting it produced upstate.

After Miss Margarida, I set my sails on provocative theatre and began collaborating on such plays as Stage Hands Never Wear Hawaiian Shirts, about a woman with an eating disorder-caused by the social mileu of the early eighties. People were looking more inward by then, and my friend Jimmy Rossi and I wanted to tell a story about a woman overwhelmed by the food world of gourmet consumption. We had a huge phallic-looking croissant swinging across our set.

Our Brooklyn audience was very receptive.

At around this time I began to write full-length plays and moved to Albany, New York. My first play, The Emancipation of Mamie Stutz, told the story of an older woman obsessed with seven locks on her door. At the play’s end, all the locks are broken. She leaves her dwelling with everything she owns in paper bags to sit in front of a library in Bay Ridge.

The college and the psychiatric center where the play was produced gave me good feedback, but I found on sending it out that I was having my first real experience with “shunning.” I was told the play had difficulties because of the language and the ethnic stereotyping. I felt it was something much darker –perhaps an older woman having sex? I wasn’t sure.

I went on to write another full-length, my current play, “Yours Till Niagara Falls”. This play has virtually written itself. I didn’t rein in my characters, and this is the story that wanted to be told. It’s a play about an older woman, as my earlier play was, who has kept a dark secret inside of her.

When I think back, storefront plays like Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free, along with other outrageous plays (Dario Fo’s, for example) have made me fearless in being sure I will not back down in what I need to say.

First of all, every play is about love, on some level. What I said about love in my play is that I believe there is something deeper than physical love which binds the hearts of two human beings, though the physical can be an expression of it.

The characters in my current play come from my own background: grandchild of Eastern European immigrants, and also a second family which claimed me — an Italian family ( also an immigrant family). The protagonist, Rosie, came to Ellis Island from Warsaw with her little brother, Mouse. She had virtually raised her baby brother (he was ten years younger), and now she was being sent to America to get married and raise money to send back to her relatives. The time period was prior to World War I.

When the play opens, it’s already the 1950′s. Rosie’s Italian husband, Shrimpy, has just passed. Rosie is left with a teenage daughter to raise. She is beside herself for Shrimp has left her with nothing but debts. They own a religious supply store called Heavenly Merchandise, but Rosie refuses to open it, lest sleazy characters wander in, claiming they are owed lots and lots of money.

Finally a neighborhood friend, Bettina, recommends Rosie see the parish priest to help her. Bettina, the priest’s housekeeper, promises to go over with Rosie when a visitor comes through the door — Rosie’s long-estranged musician brother Mouse! Bettina is overjoyed and leaves, but not before she flirts a bit with Mouse. As soon as she is gone, Rosie tells Mouse he must leave. But he has no intention of doing that. He explains he has been kicked out once, by her husband, and will never leave again.

As the play moves forward, we come to realize it is Rosie who has had her husband throw Mouse out. She could not stand to be with him as he grew into a man. Now she sees her feelings have only deepened and it frightens her. In the final act, Rosie’s brother invites her and her daughter to return to Brooklyn with him. Rosie begs a sign from the Blessed Mother.

The final moments of the play are a showdown between Rosie and Mouse, when Rosie is finally able to say what she needs to the man she has always treasured. It remains for Mouse to speak. All happens in the final moments, and then the play is over. Outside. the snow begins to fall. A heavy snow, but a silencing one.

When I first had my reading of this new play last December, I was encouraged by an audience member who asked if she might have a copy to submit to an artistic directors who seeks plays with one set, few characters, and heart. I really was encouraged, because some people I have given this play to have looked on me as some kind of ogre, some wicked, shameful thing who has violated all manner of political correctness.

But they are allowed their thoughts. I need not censor them. I just need to be attuned to those who find something there, who may make minor requests. Most recently a man named Wally Truesdell asked me for two more scripts. He said my play reminded him of a Polish Awake and Sing. (Clifford Odets)

Bet your dupa, Wally! I had the scripts out to him in the next hour’s mail.

Second, those writers– edgy ones — who have gone before me have given me strength to write about older people as main characters. I get a lot of negative feedback about this. The character in my new play, Rosie, a Polish immigrant, is sixtyish. I have gotten feedback that young audiences don’t like to look at old people — especially old women. They want eye candy.

But in both my plays, my characters are older women. I will keep them there.

I think I want to be real and will forge ahead. When Yours Till Niagara Falls was shown in an Arts Center in Troy last year, I had a very unique experience. Someone asked me for the script! She said it was a play with heart — and she really likes the main character! I am now sending the play out to theatres who respect women and their issues. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge their inner strengths and beauty.

I also got negative feedback about presenting plays with eastern European immigrants. But these exist in our country. They are people and have a right to have a voice. They have gone through much hardship — and shunning.

I want to encourage you to treat you dramatic “child” well, also. We have enough Grendels to last another century! (Remember that character who terrorized everyone — until a Beowulf stood up to him, and spoke to him in a whisper?)

Oh, we know anything does Not Go. But once in a while, something does! Tell a story — a real story with lots of heart. Get your character to a boiling point, don’t let her or him off the hook — and see what happens!

Some may say “Nay.” I prefer to say “Yay!” Just tiptoe like a mouse around the
nay-sayers — there’s a piece of cheese waiting on the other end. In theatre, 98% is work, even grunt work, but, oh – – that two percent of applause is of another world!

Always remember: don’t bury your head (or your writing) in the sand. When the curtain rises, history begins!

So break legs, as they say in the trade, writers!

The Hilarity of Carnage, by guest blogger Jonathan Selwood

deadbunny

Hello again, all — Anne here. For those of you who have found the ongoing Author! Author! series on subtle censorship a trifle, well, depressing, I have a great treat in store for you today: a guest post by Jonathan Selwood, in my humble opinion one of the funniest dark comedy writers currently drawing breath within the continental United States.

Who better, then, to share his thoughts on dark comedy with all of us here at Author! Author! — or to talk about the risks a writer takes by walking the thin line between outrageously funny and just outrageous? Or, frankly, to lighten all of our moods whilst enlightening us?

How funny a writer is Jonathan, you ask? Well, while reading his first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (Harper Perennial), on an airplane, one paragraph started me laughing so hard that passengers in adjacent rows came tumbling out of their seats to come to my rescue, convinced that I was having some sort of fit that required immediate medical attention, if not actually turning the plane around. When I had caught my breath enough to apologize and read the relevant paragraph to my would-be helpers, their laughter kicked up such a din that two flight attendants came running. (They thought the passage was pretty funny, too.)

That’s right: parts of this novel are so subversively funny that they disrupt air travel. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

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For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

Would this be the right moment to tell you that THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE is available for sale at Powell’s, Amazon, and other purveyors of fine books? Or that if you want to read more of Jonathan’s words of wisdom on the writing of startling comedy, you could also check out his earlier guest post on this very site?

Or that he’s recently yielded to popular demand and started a blog, Terminal Alienation? He describes it as n exercise in Evangelical Absurdism. Its goal is not just to support the billions of terminally alienated people around the globe, but to help snuff out the last flicker of hope in those still holding a tenuous connection to the culture at large.

All of which is to say: I’m overjoyed that he has agreed to guest-post. I hope that those of you who are planning to push the proverbial envelope in your writing pay close attention and come up with good questions, because it honestly is rare to be able to glean insights from a comedy writer this talented.

So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to Jonathan Selwood. Take it away, Jonathan!

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“An amateur thinks it’s really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it’s got to be a real old lady.” — Groucho Marx

1992 was the year I first read the novel Lolita, first saw the movie Reservoir Dogs, and first decided to dedicate my life to writing. The connection? Dark Comedy.

As far as literary genres go, Dark Comedy is usually considered something of a bastard child. While it can certainly sell well, it rarely rakes in the staggering sums of mass market blockbusters like Da Vinci Wears Prada Traveling Pants. And yet, it’s precisely its lunatic fringe position within the culture that makes it — in my unbiased opinion — the greatest genre.

Tragedy, in simplest terms, is the story of a character who falls away from society and its rules and therefore suffers — think Oedipus. Comedy is the story of a character who is initially alienated from society and its rules, but happily rejoins in the end, traditionally with a wedding — think Elizabeth Bennet. (Yes, I know these are gross oversimplifications, but bear with me.) Dark Comedy combines elements of both Tragedy and Comedy to critique society itself–think Humbert Humbert.

By its very nature, Dark Comedy has to be the bastard child. A comedic novel with a sociopathic child molester for a protagonist (i.e., Lolita) is always going to upset the mainstream, because it’s supposed to upset the mainstream. It’s hands-down my favorite novel of all time, and it even upsets me — particularly now that I have a child of my own. But given the truly deplorable state of the economy, the environment, and just about everything else in the world right now, WE SHOULD BE UPSET!

Lolita is not some sick attempt on Nabokov’s part to make us sympathize with child molesters, it’s an absolutely genius attempt to make us reexamine American society as a whole. There will always be “mainstream” people trying to ban Dark Comedy — from Catch-22 to South Park–precisely because it’s a very real threat to society and the “mainstream” they hold so dear. At the end of a Dark Comedy, there’s no tragic lesson warning us not to break the rules, nor is there a society-reaffirming marriage. But if the work is successful, it can expose the flaws in society itself.

As if that wasn’t enough, where a regular comedy (or, to be more derisive, a “Light Comedy”) will make you laugh, a Dark Comedy will make you gasp. The most obvious example is when a standup comedian tells a joke that’s right on the line. If it goes over, it will likely be the funniest moment of the entire show and elicit that bizarre “Ahhhhhh…” sound that humans produce when the laughter center of their brains suffer petite mal seizures.

Of course, that’s a big IF the joke goes over. Not only is Dark Comedy the funniest form of humor (again, in my unbiased opinion), but it’s also the most likely to flop. And while a standup comedian can quickly move on to the next joke and at least have a chance of making the audience forget, a novelist is most likely going to get his book tossed onto the bedside table for good.

So, in addition to being the greatest and funniest literary genre, it’s also the most risky. But hey, if you were a coward, you never would have thrown your hat into the literary ring in the first place, would you?

Let’s face it, people don’t make a “rational” decision to become writers. It’s an inherently irrational pursuit, and in the years since I decided in 1992 to be a writer, it’s only become more irrational. (If you’re a writer and don’t know what I’m talking about, than I think it’s safe to assume you require immediate hospitalization.) So if the pursuit is irrational in the first place, and we’ve already established that you’re not a coward, why not go all the way?

I invite you all to join me on the Dark Side…

Oh, and if you live in the Northwest (or anywhere else, for that matter), pre-order a copy of Portland Noir. Not only do I have an (unbiased, yada yada yada) masterpiece in there, but it’s really a great collection.

portlandnoircover selwoodExplore the dark, rainy underbelly of one of America’s most beautiful but enigmatic cities through brand-new stories by Gigi Little, Justin Hocking, Chris A. Bolton, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich (illustrated by Joelle Jones), Dan DeWeese, Zoe Trope, Luciana Lopez, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Megan Kruse, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, and Jonathan Selwood.

From the downtown streets littered with strip clubs and gutter punks to the north side where gentrification and old school hip-hop collide, Portland, Oregon, is a place that seems straight out of a David Lynch movie. It’s a city full of police controversies, hippie artist houses, and overzealous liberals, where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.

Portland Noir is an encompassing literary journey where your tour guides take you to the Shanghai Tunnels, dog parks, dive bars, sex shops, Powell’s Books, Voodoo Doughnuts, suspiciously quiet neighborhoods, the pseudo-glitzy Pearl District, Oaks Amusement Park, and a strip club shaped like a jug. Violent crime, petty mischief, and personal tragedy run through these mysterious tales that careen through this cloudy, wet city.

Portland Noir is sure to both charm and frighten readers familiar with this northwest hub and intrigue those who have never traveled to this proudly weird city.

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selwood-1Jonathan Selwood is the author of The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse. He also enjoys talking very loudly when intoxicated, composting kitchen scraps, excessively rolling his Rs when ordering burrrrrritos… using ellipses…

Calling Out the Tyrant: The Voice You Save May be Your Own, by guest blogger Paula Neves

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Welcome back to our ongoing series of guest posts by interesting authors on the subject of censorship, subtle and otherwise. Not entirely coincidentally, as I hope all of you have noticed, this is also the topic for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, for which the deadline is a week hence. Join in the conversation, and make me proud with your entries, people!

After Tuesday’s rather downbeat post about the writing path of a gifted poet, I am delighted to be able to bring you a much happier tale today. I think today’s installment in our ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise, is going to speak very directly not just to poets (although many little birds have told me over the years that quite a few long-time Author! Author! readers do indeed write poetry), but to all of you writers who have either been submitting your work — and thus exposing it to the risk of rejection — or scared off from doing so by the sense that it might not be good enough.

Hmm…where have I heard that sentiment before?

Poet, writing coach, and blogger Paula Neves has some words of wisdom on the subject, ones that I hope you will take very, very seriously. Because contrary to what naysayers on the writers’ grapevine so constantly tell aspiring writers, literally the only writing that has NO possibility of getting published is the manuscript that’s never submitted.

Think about that, please, the next time you hesitate about entering your work in a literary contest or querying yet another agent. As we discussed yesterday, no force on earth so effectively prevents a piece of writing from reaching readers as its author’s not allowing it to see the light of day.

Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with choosing not to try to get one’s work published — I have enormous respect for the Emily Dickinsons of this world who elect to keep their brilliance to themselves, or limiting it to a select few readers, provided that it’s an active choice. There’s a certain nobility to deciding that the world at large is not one’s audience. As Aunt Emily herself wrote:

THE SOUL selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

Hard to argue with that, eh? But I’m jumping the gun here.

Please join me in welcoming a good poet who has been through the publication mill, has lived to tell the tale — and has been kind enough to share her experiences with all of us here at Author! Author! Many thanks, Paula, and take it away!
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When Anne first approached me to guest blog on Author! Author! about my unique take on censorship in poetry, my immediate reaction (after being flattered) was, no problem—I’ve got plenty of “take” on that. But not in the way you’d expect.

The fact is I haven’t experienced much in the way of censorship in my poetry—if for no other reason than I actually haven’t published much of it yet. How’s that for an admission from someone whose been writing the stuff since falling in love with Emily Dickinson and the glamour of her reclusiveness as an impressionable teen almost three decades (eegads!) ago? Ok, so maybe it is typical for someone who would fall in love with the Belle of Amherst’s hermit tendencies as much as her funky slant rhymes.

Regardless, I haven’t yet experienced the tyranny of editors/agents the way many of you have experienced with your work. But it’s not for lack of want. In short, censorship is something for which I secretly long if only because it means people are actually reading my work (or at least saying they are)!

Certainly, throughout my life, I have experienced censorship in ways related to other kinds of writing/thinking. In college, there was that politically correct academic type, the subtle or not-so-subtle expectation of classroom opinions and written critiques following in the tradition of the paradigm du jour. I recall a particular moment in my undergrad days when I took a course called Homosexuality and Society (taught by a fairly well-known lesbian feminist poet du jour with whom my then girlfriend had previously had a torrid affair, and who had a hand in getting said girlfriend’s thinly veiled verses published –echoes of Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons here—but that’s another story).

This was a course where all were expected to participate and actively relate their own experience to the material. For me as a young gay woman, this meant I was expected to “represent” and be a vocal lesbian feminist spitfire. I was 19, and, although American-born, a good sheltered girl from an insular Portuguese immigrant community far from home (i.e., 30 miles away) for the first time in my life and just coming out/Uhauling: what did I know about spitting fire? Both naturally shy and innately suspicious of “expectations,” I kept my mouth shut and passed the course with a C by the grace of the goddess.

Was it jealousy of the professor’s previous entanglement with my girlfriend that made me stubbornly refuse to “participate”? Was it that I didn’t actually believe in the homophobic origins of women’s oppression? Heck, no. Like I said, I was a young gay and sheltered Portuguese woman, the first in my immediate family to even go to college, never mind take a course like Homosexuality and Society. That alone was enough to keep me quiet and reflective.

Not long after this experience, two of my poems were published in fairly rapid succession. I had been writing poetry for nearly a decade at that point, but these pieces were the first I had sent out to legitimate (i.e., non-vanity) venues (with the exception of the time I was 17 and, after getting encouraging feedback from the editor at the Plains Poetry Journal, made the classic amateur’s mistake of overwhelming the poor soul for months with other examples of my “promise”). One of the poems was about sex and appeared in a Tee Corinne-edited anthology called (what a surprise) The Poetry of Sex, which became a Lambda Literary Award finalist; the other was about being the child of immigrants and ran in the (now defunct) The Portuguese Heritage Journal.

Although the yawping silence between these two major life themes was disconcerting, the response from the editors of these publications was surprisingly positive. The folks at The Portuguese Heritage Journal encouraged me to send more work and ended up publishing a couple of my articles, all I ever sent them before they folded the venture a few years later. Tee Corinne solicited work, a short fiction piece this time, which she ended up accepting and placing as the opening story, for her next anthology, The Body of Love. She also graciously accepted my request to interview her for one of the profiles I was writing for Uncommon Heroes, an anthology of queer role models. And she said to keep in touch. I never did.

Sure, I could chalk up some of this lack of follow-through to being young and dumb.

After college, out in the “real world,” I found work on the other side of the writing spectrum as a technical writer/editor and experienced the endemic censorship of office politics. You know, the kind where, no matter how much you write, rewrite and tighten sentences in a report, article or two-line ad copy, the boss always changes a semi-colon to a comma, active voice to passive, or adds a few more adjectives or prepositional phrases because

1. He’s older and went to a better school than you;

2. He’s a member of Mensa and of course knows grammar better anyone in the office; or

3. Because he’s the boss and can.

He then passes the masterpiece on to his boss and the process begins anew. You get the idea.

Despite these workplace entertainments, my personal writing and poetry remained fairly unaffected. Again, not for lack of being written (and rewritten) in hundreds of computer files, notebook pages, grocery receipts, envelopes, napkins (no scrap of tree pulp was safe), but for lack of being shown. During my nine years in the traditional 9-to-5 hitch, I sent poems to perhaps two-dozen outlets of various kinds. The results:

* two pieces appeared successively in a Princeton-based newspaper’s annual fiction and poetry issue, which paid an honorarium (miniscule, but still);

* I was accepted to do readings at three state-funded poetry/performance events—also paid;

* I did one-on-one critiques of high school student poems for a teen arts festival—also paid;

* various poems appeared in several issues of the literary magazine of the English department in the community college at which I worked;

* numerous poems have appeared in The Newark Metro, an online journal affiliated with my grad school; apart from the publication itself, this has resulted in my developing a good working relationship with the well-respected editor, a big fan of my work.

(On these latter two points, never underestimate the value of “small” or school-related publications: exposure is exposure and there are some incisive and often well-connected literary people behind these journals.)

Of course, I don’t mean this to sound like an ad for “You too can be published simply by submitting your work.” I’ve had plenty of rejections from publications, across genres. However, considering that I think of myself as a poet first and how relatively few poems I’ve actually sent out, my stats are in that area are pretty good. I’m also not saying this because I think I’m to Emily what Hart Crane wanted to be to Walt Whitman.

I’m saying it because my own worst editor/agent/critic has been…me.

Some of you may recognize this siren song of self-censorship. It sounds something like, “It’s not good enough”; “Maybe this isn’t really my genre”; “It’s going to get rejected anyway; it was already rejected several times”; “There would only be a limited audience for this anyway/This can get in local publications but not the really big ones” (one of my favorites); or variations thereof. Even for experienced writers these doubts can creep in and result in dejection, procrastination and missed opportunities.

Sure, maybe my early follow-through had to do with being young and inexperienced, but what was my excuse in my mid-thirties when, with reams of poems written, plenty of workshops, classes, and even encouragement under my belt, I brought nothing with me to a writer’s conference, and had nothing to show a small press publisher who was actively seeking new work and specifically asked to see some of my poems?

In my case, my failure to “show” had a lot to do with insecurity and trouble reconciling two integral parts of my identity. Since my poetry is, for the most part, confessional, my reticence to expose it was telling. Literally.

Eventually, I got that it was telling me to take the gamble, put the work out there. Not everyone will “get” it or like it, or understand what the big deal is/was about holding back. Maybe some of it still shows developmental tics.

Who cares? Take the risk.

Or risk missing other opportunities. At some point “it’s not good enough” has to be examined for whether it means the work or you.

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paulaheadshotPaula Neves has been writing across genres since she was a teen, but has always loved poetry, to which she keeps returning. Her poetry has appeared in The Newark Metro, The Princeton Packet’s US1 Summer Fiction and Poetry series, a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Sex-Lesbians-Write-Erotic/dp/0934411506″>The Poetry of Sex, and The Portuguese Heritage Journal. She has read all over the New York metropolitan area, most recently as the “sunrise poet” (a one-hour daybreak reading) at the Newark Museum’s Centennial Celebration. She has studied poetry and fiction under writers such as J. D. McClatchy, Rachel Hadas, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Alice Dark and was recently accepted into the MFA in Poetry program at Rutgers-Newark.

Paula is the founder of Technical Writing Service and blogs at Itinerant Muse.

Jon’s Jail Journal, by guest blogger Shaun Attwood

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Welcome again to our ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise. Fair warning: today’s is of the not-so-subtle variety, so as they say on television, viewer discretion is advised.

I’m quite serious: this is most emphatically not going to be a guest post for the queasy. It is, however, an important voice talking about often-taboo subjects — and, I think, a fairly stunning tale about a writer struggling against incredible odds to tell a story that desperately needed (and still needs) to be told.

Therefore, I’m delighted to be introducing today’s guest author, Shaun Attwood, blogger extraordinaire. Since 2004, he has been writing Jon’s Jail Journal — and yes, in response to what half of you just thought, it was not safe for him to write under his own name when he first began trying to expose the grim realities of prison life.

Inexplicably, the folks who ran the prison took exception to that. I imagine that the authorities in the Dreyfus case objected to Emile Zola’s writing about that, too.

As my parents liked to point approximately once every 42 seconds throughout my excruciatingly literary childhood, that’s precisely what good writers are supposed to do, isn’t it?

To give you a sense of the scope of the incredible story Shaun has to tell, here is a blurb for his memoir-in-progress — which I, for one, cannot wait to read — that he was kind enough to share with me:

Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail is an account of my journey through America’s most notorious jail system, a netherworld revolving around gang violence, drug use and racism. It provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of jail life and the men inside. It is also a story of my redemption, as incarceration leads to introspection, and a passion for literature, philosophy, and yoga. The book ends with me starting Jon’s Jail Journal, exposing the conditions in the jail.

Call me zany, but I suspect he knows more than most of the rest of us about institutional censorship. So I am positively overjoyed that he has agreed to share some of his thoughts on the subject with all of us here at Author! Author!

Those of you reading in the UK may already be familiar with Shaun’s writing, either through excerpts of his prison diary published in The Guardian or the numerous articles on his efforts to bring public attention to appalling conditions for prisoners. He also speaks to young people about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug use.

Even if prison memoir is not your proverbial cup of tea — even if memoir isn’t your usual reading material — please try not to turn away from the horrendous story Shaun is about to share with you. Read it, and read his bio, below. Consider visiting his blog to read what a talented writer has to say about being denied the right to share his writing with the world.

As writers, no one knows better than we the vital importance of self-expression to the human soul; this entire series has been about that, hasn’t it? After all, telling the truth, regardless of obstacles, is what good writers are supposed to do.

So please join me in welcoming a very brave and interesting writer, Shaun Attwood. Take it away, Shaun!

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Towards the end of my stay at the Madison Street jail in Phoenix, Arizona, I asked a guard how Sheriff Joe Arpaio got away with flagrantly violating federal law by maintaining such subhuman conditions.

“The world has no idea what really goes on in here,” he replied.

I decided that was about to change.

sheriff_joeSome of you may be familiar with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the star of the reality TV show, Smile…You’re Under Arrest! He’s the sheriff who feeds his prisoners green bologna, puts them to work on chain gangs, and makes them wear black-and-white bee stripes and pink underwear.

He has labelled himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” but he never mentions that he is the most sued sheriff in America due to the deaths, violence and medical negligence in a jail system subject to investigation by human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a maximum-security cell — about the size of a bus-stop shelter, with two steel bunks and a seatless toilet — I used a golf pencil sharpened on the cement-block wall to document the characters, cockroaches, suicide attempts, and deaths. Wearing only pink boxers, I wrote at the tiny stool and table bolted to the wall, trying to ignore the discomfort from my bleeding bedsores. Outdoor temperatures — that sometimes soared up to 120 °F — converted the cell into a concrete oven, making it difficult to write without the sweat from my hands and arms moistening the paper.

Here are the first few paragraphs I wrote:

19 Feb 04

The toilet I sleep next to is full of sewage. We’ve had no running water for three days. Yesterday, I knew we were in trouble when the mound in our steel throne peaked above sea level.

Inmates often display remarkable ingenuity during difficult occasions and this crisis has resulted in a number of my neighbours defecating in the plastic bags the mouldy breakfast bread is served in. For hours they kept those bags in their cells, then disposed of them downstairs when allowed out for showers. As I write, inmates brandishing plastic bags are going from cell door to door proudly displaying their accomplishments.

The whole building reeks like a giant Portaloo. Putting a towel over the toilet in our tiny cell offers little reprieve. My neighbour, Eduardo, is suffering diarrhoea from the rotten chow. I can’t imagine how bad his cell stinks.

I am hearing that the local Health Department has been contacted. Hopefully they will come to our rescue soon.

Fearing reprisals from guards notorious for murdering prisoners, I wrote under the pseudonym Jon. As the mail officer could inspect outgoing letters, posting my words was too risky. To get my words out undetected by the staff, I employed my aunt.

She visited every week, and I was allowed to release property to her, such as mail I’d received, legal papers, and books I’d read. The visitation staff’s chief concern was stopping incoming contraband such as drugs and tobacco, so they never thoroughly examined outgoing property.

I hid my words in the property I released to my aunt. She smuggled them out of the jail, typed them up and emailed them to my parents who posted them to the Internet. Considering the time involved in maintaining a blog, I was lucky to have such outside help.

That’s how Jon’s Jail Journal came about. It was one of the first prison blogs, and went on to attract international media attention after excerpts were published in The Guardian.

After serving almost six years for money laundering and drugs, I’m now a free man. I’ve kept Jon’s Jail Journal going, so the friends I made inside can share their stories.

Like most prisoners, those in Arizona do not have Internet access. To get their writing online, they need outside help. Unfortunately, most of them do not have family members willing to run a blog for them.

I started Jon’s Jail Journal unaware Arizona had been the first state to censor its prisoners from the Internet. This came about after the widow of a murder victim read an online pen-pal ad in which her husband’s murderer described himself as a kind-hearted lover of cats. A law passed in 2000 carried penalties for prisoners writing for the Internet. Privileges could be taken away, sentences lengthened.

The freedom to speak without censorship or limitation is guaranteed by the First Amendment, so the ACLU stepped in and challenged this law. In May 2003, Judge Earl Carroll declared the law unconstitutional. Since then, no other state has attempted to introduce such a law.

But even with that law repealed, any inmate writing openly about prison is running the risk of reprisals from the staff and the prisoners. The threat of being harmed or killed by your custodians or neighbours is a strong form of censorship.

I always got permission from the prisoners I wrote about. I hate to think of the consequences if I hadn’t. But even with that safeguard in place, I still ran into occasional problems.

I once wrote about how the prisoners made syringes from commissary items. A prisoner received a copy of that blog in the mail, and circulated it on the yard. Some of the older white gang members gave the order to have me smashed, claiming they were concerned the staff would read that blog and stop the inmate store from selling the items the prisoners needed to make the syringes.

Fortunately, I was writing stories about some well-established prisoners at the time. Like Two Tonys, a Mafia associate classified as a mass murderer. Frankie, a Mexican Mafia hitman. C-Ducc, a Crip with one of the toughest reputations on the yard. They intervened, pointing out that the staff were well aware of how the prisoners made syringes, and that I hadn’t divulged anything that the staff didn’t already know about. After a few tense days during which they instructed me not to walk the yard alone, the matter died down.

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To avoid conflict with the administration, I never used real staff or prisoner names. Using real names would have enabled the administration to classify me as a threat to the security of the institution. If you are deemed such a threat, the administration can invoke laws that strip you of your standard human rights. You can lose your privileges, be housed in the system’s darkest quarters, and if the staff really have it in for you, you may suddenly receive a gorilla-sized cellmate intent on using you as his plaything.

On that front, I must credit Shannon Clark — my friend in prison who writes the blog Persevering Prison Pages — for being a much braver man than I. He has sprinkled guards’ names liberally throughout his blog, and he’s not exactly praising them for their humanity. Shannon has a reputation for being fast to slap lawsuits on the staff, which I hope continues to protect him from major retaliation.

After my release in December 2007, I figured my censorship battles with the Arizona Department of Corrections were over. I was maintaining the blog mostly for the stories of the friends I’d made inside, stories they were mailing to me in England. But in August 2008, I stopped receiving mail from them. Then in September, I received a disturbing email:

I wanted to let you know that *** called me today with a message for you. I guess the prison spoke to all of the guys that write to you and told them they are not allowed to write to you anymore. He thinks it’s because they (the prison) don’t like what is being said on your blog. It is a free country isn’t it? Can they do that? It’s ridiculous!

Attempting to sabotage Jon’s Jail Journal, certain staff members had ordered the contributors to stop writing to me. If they continued to write to me, they would receive disciplinary sanctions such as losing their visits, phone calls, and commissary.

This violation of their freedom of speech earned me a nerve-racking live spot on Sky’s headline news. The publicity attracted a prisoners’-rights attorney, and the problem eventually went away.

With all of these obstacles, it’s unsurprising that so few prisoners are writing for the Internet.

Googling for prison bloggers, I immediately noticed the absence of women in this fledgling community. I found one writer, but she had been released. Hoping to bring the voices of women prisoners online, I wrote to two women — Renee, a lifer in America serving 60 years, and Andrea, a Scottish woman arrested for the attempted murder of her abusive boyfriend in England. I’m delighted that these two women are now regular contributors to Jon’s Jail Journal, giving their unique insights on what it’s like in women’s prisons.

To keep Jon’s Jail Journal going, I’ve had to overcome censorship from many angles, some foreseen, some unexpected. The blog has managed to survive these challenges, and to build up a loyal readership over the years. It has become a bridge to the outside world for my prisoner friends. They really enjoy the feedback from the public, and some of them receive pen pals from around the world. Through blogging, they are cultivating their own writing skills, and focusing on something positive in such a negative environment. Jon’s Jail Journal has come a long way since when I lived with the cockroaches.

shaun-attwoodShaun Attwood grew up in North West England where he was an early participant in the burgeoning rave scene that soon took over the whole country. Graduating from Liverpool University in 1991 with a business degree, he immigrated to Phoenix, Arizona to try his luck in the world of finance, and rose quickly through the ranks to become a top-producing stockbroker.

But it was not quite plain sailing. Shaun lost control of his life and finances in the mid-nineties, declared bankruptcy and quit his job.

The rave bug had never left him, and Shaun started to throw raves in Arizona while investing in technology stocks online. By 1999, he was living in a luxurious mountainside home in Tucson’s Sin Vacas, working as a day trader in the day and partying at night. It was the time of the dot-com bubble and he made over a million on paper, but the bubble was soon to burst and Shaun lost most of his fortune and moved back to Phoenix.

In May 2002, he was arrested in Scottsdale during a SWAT-team dawn raid, and alleged to be the head of an organisation involved in a club-drug conspiracy. The local media described him as “bigger than Sammy the Bull.” Facing a life sentence, he entered a lengthy legal battle.

In 2004, Shaun started the blog,Jon’s Jail Journal, documenting the inhumane conditions at the cockroach-infested Madison Street jail run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. After two years of being held on remand while three trial dates were cancelled, Shaun signed a plea bargain admitting guilt to money laundering and drug offences. He was sentenced to 9 ½ years, of which he served almost 6.

Shaun had only read finance books prior to his arrest. While incarcerated, he submerged himself in literature – reading 268 books in 2006 alone, including many literary classics. By reading original texts in philosophy and psychology he sought to better understand himself and his past behaviour. His sister sent him a book on yoga, which he still practices.

In September 2004, blog excerpts were published in The Guardian attracting further media attention, including several BBC news stories.

Shaun was released in December 2007, and has since kept Jon’s Jail Journal going by posting prison stories sent to him from the friends he made inside. In July 2008, Shaun won a first prize, a Koestler/Hamish Hamilton Award, for a short story, which he read to an audience at the Royal Festival Hall. In February 2009, Shaun moved to London to work for the McLellan Practice speaking to audiences of youths about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug taking. He is presently working on his memoir, Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail.