Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Being a Writer versus Being an Author

Joan Didion, by Jill Krementz, 1972.
Being an author is a full-time job, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. I'm making a distinction here between being a writer and being an author--that is, someone who has published a book. As a writer, I get to sit down with my morning coffee in my cozy little den and write. As an author, I have another job, which is to engage with readers (or more accurately, try in every way possible to get them to engage with ME). This morning, I am trying to decide whether to bid on an actual paying job as a writer for an online travel magazine. It's a job that I could do from my home in France—a dream come true! There's only one problem: I am a very slow writer. Slow like a salmon climbing Machu Picchu. So while the job is supposedly part-time, it could easily take over my life, leaving me with a smidgeon of time for writing my next book and a driblet for selling the current one. My dilemma du jour. Come back to see how it pans out. And if you have any advice, post it here.
   P.S. In the process of writing this post, which took most of an entire morning—that's how slow I am—I found the perfect person to commiserate with. Her name is Laura Bogart and she is the composer of an essay entitled The Price I Pay to Write, published by Dame magazine. ("The best thing that ever happened to my writing life," Laura's essay begins, "was breaking my ankle.") What's disturbing is that I have never before heard of either Laura Bogart or Dame magazine, which tells me that they, too, are laboring in obscurity. But wait—I eventually found them, didn't I? What led me to the discovery was my search for a photo of Joan Didion, one of my literary heroes, to accompany this posting. (The one above ran at the top of Laura's article.) Why Joan? Because she is the first person who ever told me that I would have to spend at least one full year "doing publicity" for my book after I finished writing it. Perhaps in my next post I will share the thank-you letter I wrote her a few months ago.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hans Silvester: A Photographer Whose Work I Love

For over half a century, Hans Silvester has been photographing our world. Google his name and see what pops up. I guarantee you will be amazed. The photograph above is from his book about the people of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, who have developed a tradition of body art that incorporates mineral-based face paint and elaborate floral headdresses. An artist in my hometown of Randolph, Vermont, introduced me to the book when Patrick and I owned a little art galley on Merchants Row. Today another Randolph artist posted a slideshow of Silvester's Omo Valley photographs on Facebook. It reminded me how much I love his work. Go ahead, google him. Please.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Beatrix Potter, Vladimir Nabokov, and Me

“Dear Sara: I have been reading your ms with interest and admiration. I think you are a splendid writer! Your prose is smart and tight and colorful and I am enjoying this project chapter by chapter. BUT—alas this is a big But—I am not clear on what is the premise of this book. . . .”
—email from Gail Hochman, literary agent, received yesterday

Just because I am a proud indie author doesn't mean I don't occasionally go knocking on agents' doors. This is the second book of mine that Gail Hochman has rejected. The first time around, my mother was on hand to issue a loud harrumph ("I don't think she knows what she's talking about" were her exact words). This time, I cheered myself by reading some of the editorial comments that have accompanied other writers' rejected manuscripts. Here are some of my favorites:

20  "I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years." (Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov)
19  "Nobody will want to read a book about a seagull." (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach)
18  "We feel that we don't know the central character well enough." (Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger)
17  "Undisciplined, rambling, and thoroughly amateurish writer." (Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann)
16  "The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling that would lift the book above a 'curiosity' level." (The Diary of Anne Frank)
15  "A long, dull novel about an artist." (Lust for Life, by Irving Stone)
14  "An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell." (Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame)
13  "An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull." (Lord of the Flies, by William Golding)
12  "Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature." (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum)
11  "Unsaleable and unpublishable." (The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand)
10  "Frenetic and scrambled prose." (On the Road, by Jack Kerouac)
9  "An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be 'Oh don't read that horrid book.' " (The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells)
8  "Our united opinion is entirely against the book. It is very long and rather old-fashioned." (Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville)
7  "I haven't the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny." (Catch-22, by Joseph Heller)
6  "We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell." (Carrie, by Stephen King)
5  "The American public is not interested in China." (The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck)
4  "It's Poland and the rich Jews again." (Satan in Goray, by Isaac Singer)
3  "This will set publishing back 25 years." (The Deer Park, by Norman Mailer)
2  "I wrack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep." (Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust)
1  "Anthologies don't sell." (Chicken Soup for the Soul)

Beatrix Potter's story about a bunny was rejected so many times, she finally decided to self-publish and printed 250 copies. The Tale of Peter Rabbit has now sold over 45 million copies.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Learning to Drive

Aunt Ruth and the car (an Austin) she drove as an itinerant music teacher in rural Vermont, late 1930s.
Last week I got an email from Mrs. Jane Currier of Randolph, Vermont. Mrs. Currier is the wife of Ken Currier, who taught me how to drive a car. She was writing to thank me for coming home to live with my mother in 2007; in passing, she mentioned that she thought she had ordered my new book online but she wasn’t 100 percent sure because she and Mr. Currier are 86 and the Internet is not in their DNA. My strongest memory of learning to drive involves the drivers-ed car coming to a sudden stop on Main Street, where the cars are parked at an angle to the curb, with their rear ends sticking out into the street. The stop took me by complete surprise, being the result of Mr. Currier’s foot coming down hard on the instructor’s brake as I blithely cruised within inches of somebody’s rear bumper—a bumper that was invisible to me until Mr. Currier calmly pointed it out as the drivers-ed car, now motionless, blocked all northbound Main Street traffic. In our family, we had two cars, a Chevy Malibu and a Volkswagen Beetle. I was terrified of the VW, which had an ill-tempered clutch and which used to stall every single time I tried to make it go up a small hill on Central Street, at the top of which was a stop sign. The Currier house was a few doors down from that intersection, and I used to imagine Mr. Currier standing at his front window and shaking his head as I drove by in the wrong gear, engine roaring, my mother white-knuckled in the passenger seat. My mother was a gifted teacher, but her effort to teach me to “drive stick” ended in failure. I was so traumatized by the whole experience that I moved to New York City and rode the subway for the next 12 years. Then I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, bought a Toyota Corolla with a stick shift, and learned to drive it in city traffic. I even had a stick shift in L.A., which is where I finally learned to parallel park—a skill that I, and the Vermont Motor Vehicles Department, thought I had already mastered. What I learned in L.A. was how to park a Honda Civic in a space the size of a toaster oven. In 2007 I moved back to Vermont, bought a Subaru with a stick shift, and became my mother’s chauffeur. Thanks in large part to Mr. Currier’s lessons in defensive driving, I have, at age 61, a spotless driving record, despite having lived for several years in Tanzania, where I drove on the left and shared the road with cows, lorries, wheelbarrows, and potholes the size of swimming pools.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Scary Thing About Writing

Dr. Ransom Tucker at Gifford Hospital, probably in the late 1940s.

It is an unsettling experience—humbling, even scary—to have your book read by the people who have inspired it, but this is unavoidable when you write the kind of books I do. I don’t fictionalize my stories; I tell the truth, as I see it. It’s the “as I see it” part that can be the sticking point. I am fortunate that my husband, who provides much of the entertainment in both Our House in Arusha and its sequel An Irruption of Owls, has so far made no objection to how I see him, even when I make fun of his accent (which I really shouldn’t do, as my French accent is way more comical than his American one). When I wrote Owls, I sent two crucial chapters to my son Thomas, now living in New Zealand, to make sure he was okay with them. I mailed off the pages ($25 flat rate) and waited. And waited. He hates them, I thought to myself. I’ve alienated him for life. I’ll have to buy a plane ticket to New Zealand, $2,000+ roundtrip, but worth every penny if it will allow me to repair the damage. Not sure, mind you, what I might have said that would cause distress, but you never know with kids. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that he drove his car off the road. But he did drive his car off the road, and it gave me one of the worst frights of my life. But I digress. When he finally called from New Zealand—weeks later!—he said that one of the chapters in particular “brought a tear to my eye.” (The right kind of tear. The other chapter got a passing grade.) My mother, another character in the same book, is no longer here to defend herself (much easier to write about the deceased than the living), but she comes off rather well, I think. Another “character” in Owls is my hometown of Randolph. Now, everyone who ever lived in Randolph has his or her own memories and impressions of that place, and they are obviously different from mine. One of the gratifying responses to the book so far has been the many people who say they remember my parents, particularly my father, who died when I was only seventeen. He was for many years the town’s only obstetrician during the postwar baby boom (talk about a demanding job), and I run into people all the time who remember him as the doctor who delivered every family member of their generation, or their children’s generation. In a private forum on Facebook where Randolph homies gather, the comments about my dad in response to the new book have been worth all the effort of writing it. My neighbors may agree or disagree with the way I portray their hometown. Either way, I hope they will continue to share their responses to the book, whether on Facebook, or here on my blog, or at the fish counter in the local supermarket. To be able to get a conversation going is a writer’s dream come true.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Now available for Kindle!

I am doing an absolutely LOUSY job of promoting my new book. Too many things on my plate. This is the personal memoir that I've been working on since I started this blog, and now it's done and I should be jumping for joy, but instead, I feel as wrung out as a pair of old leggings. The book is mostly set in my hometown of Randolph, Vermont, but Martha Stewart makes an appearance, as do a few other famous people. I have not decided yet whether to out the "movie star." (If I do, I will probably do it here.) To thumb through a few pages, go to the right, scroll down, and click on the cover, which will take you to Amazon for a "look inside." Whether you love the book or hate it or give it an "eh," please leave a review on Amazon and tell the world what you think. Love, Sadie.