Baby Epiphany

No, I don’t know what this bush is, but I just love how the little cottony blossoms catch the light.

I’ve been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman lately. I finished American Gods and now I’m reading his short story collection, Fragile Things. I confess I’d only ever read Good Omens before. The truth is, I’ve gotten away from reading many male authors. I know that’s likely an unforgivable bias. (I almost said reverse-bias, then I wondered why is it reverse – just because it’s more usual for guys not to want to read female authors?) It wasn’t really a deliberate choice, though I found I tired of the “boyness” in many of the stories, particularly in science fiction and fantasy (SFF). The incidental female characters who have no discernible personalities, the gallivanting from one fight to the next. The reflexive sexism. I know that not all male writers do this and I think Ender’s Game is a brilliant novel. But I stopped reading Orson Scott Card because I couldn’t stomach his male-dominated society ideals any longer.

Neil does not do these things.

He writes stories that arise from myth and fairy tale. They include sex, sometimes between partners of the same gender. His female characters are interesting people, even the sexy ones. And it occurred to me that I write a lot of the same kind of thing.

I hope that doesn’t sound vain or arrogant, comparing my work to his. It felt like a bit of a homecoming for me, because so much of what I write seems to fall outside of the usual arenas. So, it’s comforting to find someone else writing in a similar vein. Also, one of the neat things that he does in both of my editions (Kindle, natch) is provide notes. Sometimes he talks about his process or the inspiration for a story, or editing. For some reason, an aside remark I read yesterday hit me, where he mentioned that he knew very early on that he wanted to write SFF.

It’s often the case that one person’s eye-opening moment is another person’s blank stare, but I had a bit of an epiphany (the sun broke through the clouds, gleamed on the puffy cottony flowered bush, angels hummed – it was just a baby epiphany). I realized that, though I have lots of sex and romance in my stories, that I really want to be a SFF writer.

(Yes, Mom – I’ll keep writing nonfiction, too.)

I think I fell into the idea that the sex and romance outweighed the rest and pushed me into romance. But now I’m all about, hey, if Neil can do it, I can do it. (Obviously the erotica is a whole different kettle of fish and I’m okay with that.)

So, this is likely a ho-hum revelation to you all. Feel free to stare blankly and then go about your business.

But I can still hear those angels humming.

Ho-Hum to OMG

This is an old picture, taken while I was doing some field work on Pinto Creek near Globe, Arizona.

Random choice, I know.

That’s kind of how life is, though; how people are. Some days a certain or image is in our minds and the next, something else. For a while I’ll be madly in love with a certain band and later I’ll think of them fondly, with a certain nostalgic affection. Celebrities are hot one moment and yesterday’s kitty litter the next. People spend time and money trying to track and, better, create these phenomena. They can’t. Our attention is riveted, then lost.

Yesterday I read a published author’s blog post about a conversation with her agent. They’d been discussing what she’d write next. They went over a number of ideas and the agent said, which one are you most excited about – except this one. Of course the idea the agent eliminated from discussion is the one the author was most excited about. But the market has been tepid for her books. She’s had a bad run and the publishing houses aren’t picking her up like they used to. She and her agent are trying to reposition her and it’s clear she’s feeling down about it. Like everyone, she frequently refers to the “changing publishing industry.” Things are just difficult right now, she says.

I also have a couple of friends who are querying their manuscripts and getting not much response. They’re not getting requests for even partials. These are good writers with good books. But people in the industry, in the top tiers, aren’t looking for that right now. They’re looking for hot and hip. They want the next phenomenon.

Earlier this month, I mentioned Oprah’s interview with JK Rowling. You can watch it on You Tube and it’s worth the time. The best moment, I thought, was when Oprah asked JK if she had ever imagined Harry Potter would become such a phenomenon. She said no and turned the question around. It was fascinating to hear these two vastly successful women, both of whom had once been in the poorest of circumstances, discuss the amazing serendipity of their successes. Especially now that both are at the end of their particular comet-rides. Oprah is ending her talk show and Rowling has ended the Harry Potter series.

Oprah asked Rowling if she’d try to do something like it again and Rowling instantly said no. She said, in fact, that people regularly warn her that she’ll never do anything that huge again. She’s promised herself that she’s not spending the rest of her life chasing the phenomenon, trying to top what she did with Harry Potter. Oprah said she finds herself thinking about how to do it with her new network, how to make it be the sensation like her show has been. She stops herself, too.

They both referenced a moment in an interview with one of Michael Jackson’s people. How no one had expected Thriller to become such a worldwide phenomenon. And how Michael Jackson then spent the rest of his career and his life chasing it, trying to make it happen again.

He is now, of course, the great cautionary tale for all creative types.

Ambition is a necessary thing. It’s what keeps us going in the face of adversity. In the face of people who just aren’t sufficiently enthusiastic about your work. But it’s the love of the work itself that’s truly meaningful. Neil Gaiman (my hero, you know) was featured in an episode of a children’s show, Arthur. It’s only something like 12 minutes long. I thought I’d only watch a minute or two, since my boy did the voice. Then I got so drawn in and, yes, even a little emotional, I watched the whole thing.

It’s about writing a story – a graphic novel, actually – and sticking to what you want to write, rather than what people like. (I admit I did grumpily mutter, when Neil tells the little girl that he wants a copy of her book when she gets it published, something along the lines of “easy for you to say, you’re Neil Fucking Gaiman.” But it was just a little spat – he still has my heart. He can be my inner Neil anytime.)

At any rate, I think those “lessons for children” are good lessons for all of us. You never know what people will like. And what made them say ho-hum yesterday might be OMG tomorrow.

I do know this: we need to love it first.

The Price of (Non-) Fame

I suppose we all know that the writers life is not glamorous.

Gone are the days of the glossy literati, if they were ever real. No Dorothy Parkers and Truman Capotes rule over social circles. If you want to be a rock star, well, you pretty much have to be a rock star.

Or a wealthy young woman with plenty of cash to spend on clothes and time to spend clubbing, but that’s neither here nor there.

We all also know the writers life is solitary, with long hours at our desks, in our heads, thinking about people who don’t really exist. And when our stories do go out in the world, they go without us. Maybe they have a little photograph of mom or dad, to show where they came from, but really, readers experience books without the authors. The author is incidental, in the end.

If any of us nurse ideas of being recognized, of red-carpet celebrity, we should give them up now.

Neil Gaiman, who is arguably closer to being a rock star than most authors, went to the Golden Globe ceremonies the other day, because he was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film for Coraline. Neil was accompanied by his fiancee, Amanda Palmer, who is actually a rock star.

(If you read this blog regularly, you know I’ve become recently attracted to this couple — don’t worry, I’m sure the crush will fade soon.)

The best part is, when posted the Red-Carpet photo of them, the caption said:

Musician Amanda Palmer (L) and guest arrive at NBC, Universal Pictures And Focus Features Golden Globes After Party held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 17, 2010 in Beverly Hills, California.

I actually didn’t post this link right away, because I thought they’d fix it, given the chorus of corrections showering them. But no.

So it goes.

At least we’ll never worry about the paparazzi.

Fantasies and Delusions

I was seized by a fantasy yesterday evening.

This happens to everyone, yes? That’s right, you’re reading or scanning Twitter or some such and this dream flies into your head of what might be.

Mine? That Neil Gaiman read my book and thought it was so great that I got to hang out with him and Amanda Palmer.

This is them on New Year’s Eve, from Amanda’s blog, from whence I obtained this great pic. I’ve been following Neil on Twitter and I feel like I like him so much. I started paying more attention to him around the time I wrote this post. He and Amanda have been publicly involved since midsummer. At one point, around this concert he tweeted something along the lines of “I’m making tea and Amanda is dancing in her scanties. we call this division of labor.”

I have a total crush on both of them.

I know, I know — it’s the false intimacy of the internet. In person they might be shallow and self-absorbed. Probably three days after I write this, we’ll hear some UK tabloid screaming that AFP has been dragged off to rehab and we’ll see a bedraggled Gaimain looking gaunt and haunted as he sorts out his finances.

But it was a bit of a revelation to me, because I’ve been sorting through why I want literary success so much. Forgive me for belaboring, since I suspect I’ve run through this particular soul-search on here before.

I count my blessings: I have a great life, a terrific loving relationship with a wonderful man; I have family and friends who love and support me; I have a career I enjoy, with fabulous colleagues and the best boss ever (and I’m not saying that just because I know she reads this) that pays me well enough for the man and I to have a lovely lifestyle; we have a gorgeous house in a beautiful place; I enjoy terrific health and I feel good about how I look. I want for nothing, really. I am happy. I see people struggling with dire health issues, with dysfunctional families, straining to make it economically and I count my blessings. I should be satisfied.

And yet, I’m not.

I have this wanting that claws at me. Sometimes it feels like it’s at the back of my throat, as if I’m longing to speak. Like spiders of yearning wiggling around in my chest.

I want that book contract.

It’s not validation as a writer that I need. I’ve got that with the essay collection, which makes me luckier than many writers. More money would be nice, but it’s not a huge consideration. Do I want fame, celebrity? I’ve never had much desire to be a rock star and I’m not hugely social, so I don’t think so.

I think I just want to get to hang with the cool kids. Maybe it always comes back to that.

Or maybe this is what it feels like when you’ve got the pyramid of needs handled. If I review my list of blessings, I’ve got the Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging and Esteem going. Now I should be all about the morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving….wait! This is the pinnacle? Acceptance of facts??? This is my reward for getting my shit together?

Hell, no wonder I just want to hang with Neil and Amanda!

Your Local Bookseller

I love bookstores. And libraries.

I suspect all writers do, because we all started out as readers. My mom would take me to the library every Wednesday afternoon where I was allowed to check out five books at a time. (My mother’s rule, not the library’s.) I would have to make those five books last all week. Wednesdays became my favorite day of the week.

Then I started getting an allowance and was old enough to go to the mall by myself and I discovered bookstores. When you could buy the book and keep it forever and read it as often as liked, at least until it fell into tatters. Not that I didn’t have lots of books, but now I could have the ones I picked out for myself.

Even better, the bookstore people were as smart as the librarians, but they could talk without whispering and could show you new authors you’d never heard of!

Everywhere I visited or lived, I would check out the local bookstore. It was part of the character of a place for me. I liked talking to bookstore people. When I began to write, and my own book was published, the independent bookstore people were the ones I turned to. My favorite local store sponsored my book launch party.

All of this is on my mind because Neil Gaiman referred to this blog post of his via Twitter.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ll want me to just tell you what it says so you don’t have to go read it. Though it’s an interesting read.

Basically an independent bookseller is castigating Gaiman for a free Harper-Collins download and accuses Gaiman of not caring about the survival of booksellers. Which Gaiman refutes. He also says, and this is what’s interesting to me:

My local bookshop (now deceased) was physically arranged so that finding a book and then buying it was harder than walking around around the shop and going back out again; the bookseller mostly sat at the cash register in the middle of the shop playing online chess, and he tended to be unhelpful, vaguely grumpy and to treat people who wanted to buy things as nuisances (he was nice to me, because I was me, but still); he didn’t stock paperback bestsellers because “people could always go to Wal-Mart for those” and when the she shop closed its doors the final time they put up a note on the door saying that it was that had driven them out of business, when it manifestly wasn’t — it seemed to me that they didn’t work to entice people into the bookshop (which is what those paperback bestsellers were for), and didn’t give them a pleasant experience when they were there…

I knew exactly what Gaiman’s referring to. David and I even spent time helping a young, enthusiastic manager of a local store rearrange the shelves to prevent this exact situation. The owner for time out of mind, put the shelves back the way they had always been.

The young, enthusiastic manager was terrific at selling books. She learned me and what I liked. She became like my crack dealer, luring me to the shop with books I couldn’t resist. She would call or email me and say “Such and so author has a new book out next week — I knew you’d want it, so I put it on order.” And, of course, I couldn’t resist. She passed me review copies of new books to read and give my opinion on. She asked customers who were fans of particular genres to set up recommended reads tables. When I did my taxes, I noticed that a huge chuck of my book purchases went to that store.

Of course she didn’t last. And now the owner has everything back the way it always was, the recommended reads are only “literary” ones and I stopped buying books there. Amazon was faster, easier and more fun.

What I’m thinking happened is this: back when I discovered bookstores, those were the only places to buy books. I was happy to get whatever they threw my way. Then came the BIG bookstores and they were like the candyland paradise in Charlie and Chocolate Factory — everywhere you stepped, you could simply pluck a wonderful book off the shelf. Then came Amazon, where you could access paradise without leaving your house.

I love bookstores. Always will. But the bookstores no longer always give me what I want. I don’t think the solution is for them to try to change me.