A Funny Thing Happened at a Bookstore

Typically, I let a stranger’s rude behavior slide, but in this case, I’m thinking of options. I’m generally thinking of those bullying type personalities you find positioned before the public, and specifically, a certain independent bookstore owner I happened across yesterday. The question I’m turning over concerns calling this bookstore owner on his behavior, lest, in my negligence, he persists in his unseemly rapport with other authors. I’ll set the stage first then tell what transpired:

Because I am twenty-one days into evacuation, due to the fires in Malibu ( currently all power is off in my side of town), I have been staying in Santa Barbara, California. Never one to be completely deterred by unanticipated circumstances, and seeing as how it is a scant six months after the release of my 4X, award-winning novel, Mourning Dove, I decided to use my time wisely by visiting the Santa Barbara Public Library and all area bookstores in what was basically a cold call to introduce Mourning Dove. Authors do well in introducing themselves to bookstore owners if they’re prepared with their one-sheet; ISBN; book description; and distribution information. I’m happy to report I’ve had great luck in so doing. It’s led to scheduled events and my book on the shelves. After all, one hand shakes the other in the book business. We are nothing without each other. This is what I was thinking as I entered this particular bookstore, and discovered the owner standing behind the counter.

It was raining in Santa Barbara, which, in Southern California, is always a conversation starter, and which explained why my one-sheet was a bit damp. I told the owner I am a local, traditionally published author of three books, represented by Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Literary Agency. Having researched his bookstore online to discover he carries “new, used, and out-of-print books,” and that they carry books by local authors, I told him I wanted to introduce myself and Mourning Dove. For a few minutes, we discussed the weather, the fires in Malibu, the potential threat of mud-slides, then he cast his eyes on my one-sheet. “This book just won the Literary Classics Words on Wings Award for Book of the Year,” I added, to which he abruptly turned, squared his shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “I’ll stop you right here,” he barked. “I’m not going to buy your book.”

Now then, I’ll digress by mentioning I am a Southerner. We’re big on manners. To a Southerner, there is no more egregious sin than bad manners. And for some reason, I was so startled I reverted to my Southern upbringing and perfunctorily cushioned his blow, in an effort at not leaving on a bad note. “Perhaps I wasn’t clear on your bookstore’s policy,” I offered. “What kind of books do you carry?” His answer–and I’m paraphrasing, was along the lines of you better be Faulkner of a current NY Times bestseller. “You’ve explained yourself clearly,” I said. His reply? “I’ve been DEALING with authors for 40 years.”

I’m going to share a quote by Mya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’ve been thinking about this episode since it happened yesterday, wondering if I have the right take on it; if I’m too sensitive, judgemental, egoistic, and on and on, though I’m not one to second-guess myself. Plain and simple, when I left the bookstore, I felt diminished. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, had he not issued the closing remark of “… dealing with authors for 40 years.”  What this tells me is this bookstore owner thinks its okay to treat authors with such a sorry case of bed-side manners. So much for one hand shaking the other in the book business… In weighing all this, I’ve examined a list of what he could have said, and the whole thing would have happened differently: “Thank you for coming in, this doesn’t sound like something I carry,” this kind of thing.

Now I’m wondering how many authors this man has similarly treated. I’m wondering if any author has ” called him on his stuff,” and concluding probably not.” What occurs to me is that, when in such a quandary, we always have options. In this case, is it better to leave the man to his own devices, or ” call him on his stuff?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What Price an Author’s Politics?

 

I don’t believe I’m the only one disenchanted with the current state of affairs on FaceBook. Rather than launching a campaign in broad strokes of generalities from a supercilious pulpit, I will keep things simple and try my best to articulate where I’m coming from as an artist, for writing, to me, is a high art.

 

Like legions the world over, I joined FaceBook to stay connected with many people I’d lost touch with over the years. I grew up in Memphis, which means I’m a Southerner, and Southerners are raised in packs attendant to other packs. The domino effect of this reaches into the hundreds. And I care about all my pack members, so I considered the advent of FaceBook a gift that kept me connected, now that I’m a transplanted Southerner living in California.

 

And then I cultivated a writing career. I, like other writers, was therefore obligated to do my share of marketing and promotion for my books, and Facebook is, perhaps, the most viable avenue to do so. In short order, my list of “friends” grew longer, and I, wanting to help my fellow writers, turned around one day to discover I was connected to unfathomable numbers of authors I would have never known otherwise. And it thrilled me. I will always be fascinated by those who create, be they a writer, musician, dancer or painter. Give me your art, says I; it softens the blow of the human experience. In my opinion, there is such beauty in this world, and it is the artist’s God-given aptitude that points this out. It has been my pleasure and honor to help promote other authors, and there is safety in numbers in this business of living, if one is lucky enough to come across others of their ilk. Like begets like, or so it seemed to me, but lately I’ve become soul-sick and heart-confused while looking at FaceBook, and I’m trying to get to the bottom of why.

 

I feel hoodwinked, led into the miasma of a bait and switch. I came to Facebook because of friendship and art, but now it seems I’m being held prisoner for political ransom. I know the arguments: freedom of speech, a forum for “voice,” and all the other rights people stand up for. I’m not suggesting any of this is wrong, but I do question its appropriateness. Just because one can doesn’t mean one should, and the irony for an author is pontificating politically automatically polarizes their followers. There’s no sense in not admitting this, and those that don’t might be assuming their followers completely agree with their views, yet if this is the case, then why preach to the choir?

 

I think authors should seriously think through posting their political view on FaceBook, and weigh it for the potential ramifications to their career. After all, the way an author shows up in the world begins with deciding how they want to be perceived. I had this question posited to me recently, when my literary agent asked me to articulate “my brand.” It’s going to matter when my next two novels come out, and currently there is wisdom in establishing and investing in my base. I’m thinking the more streamlined and specific I can be, the better.

 

Readers align with us for stories. Reading stories gives many suspended quarter in a hectic world. Readers don’t necessarily need to know who the person is behind the story. If an author is doing it right, their stories will speak volumes to answer the question, without detracting from the author’s mystique.

 

I’m not saying I long to be seen as mysterious, only that I like the idea of my stories speaking for themselves. As for who I am, I’ll let the readers decide, and willingly leave politics to the political pundits.

 

 

 

The Pat Conroy Literary Festival

Because one has to follow what has resonance in life, I wound up on a plane, crossing the country from Los Angeles to Beaufort, South Carolina. I did this because the author Pat Conroy has always been my idea of the personification of what it means to be a writer. In life, he was the embodiment of language in its highest form. Pat Conroy took this business of being human, with all its frailties, heartbreaks, and nuances, and wrestled it into art. He was strong enough, brave enough, trusting enough to share his stories, and in so doing, he gave us all the gift of options by using writing as saving grace along life’s riddled path. That he wrote in the first person spoke to me, for I knew exactly to whom I was listening. I understood Pat Conroy, cared about him, identified with his human predicament, and applauded his uncanny ability to lift himself out of his own confusion by putting his tumultuous life into words.

And so I flew to South Carolina this past weekend to attend the inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival, in Conroy’s beautiful, lowcountry hometown. Just last year, I’d done the same to attend the celebration around his 70th birthday, which turned out to be the smartest move I made in 2015. Meeting Pat Conroy in person and watching him navigate the throngs of peers and readers humanized the diaphanous mystery of those lofty souls set upon this earth to interpret it for the rest of us. He walked among us, humble and smiling, posing for photographs and shaking hands like an overwhelmed child, grateful and surprised that so many had turned out for his party. His sincere, wide-eyed comportment shook me to my core and stayed with me long thereafter. I was well aware at the time that I was witnessing exactly what it means to be a celebrated writer and not have it go to your head.

I will digress here to say that In March of 2016, in a crisis that blindsided the literary world, Pat Conroy died of pancreatic cancer. It was such a profound loss, with baffled legions asking how this could possibly be that the outpouring of love continues to this day. My belief is it will go on forever, for Pat was so beloved that people will always be uneasy with the metal glare of letting him go.

 And so the town of Beaufort rebounded after Pat Conroy’s death. The fact that Hurricane Matthew blew through the region the week before deterred them not one iota. They assembled en masse to rise up and fuel the fire that Pat Conroy set. The inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival had the same tone and tenor of Pat Conroy’s 70th birthday; it carried on for him, because of him, in honor of his name. I had a feeling this would be the case, when the festival was announced, and did not hesitate to make arrangements to attend. To not have done so after being there last year seemed unthinkable; it would have flown in the face of all things Pat, and I wanted to uphold my end.

I’m going to go on and say it: It’s liberating to be a writer without personal agenda. Six years of promoting my books, myself, and everything all about me is exhausting, and frankly goes against my nature. This is why I took a big exhale when I got to The Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort. For four days, I was in witness of writers and readers assembled for all the right reasons: love of story. We all knew that Pat Conroy was the pivotal point, yet his absence did not overshadow the celebratory spirit of the weekend. The reason why is because Pat Conroy had shown us, the year before, how to dive right in and revel in the company of those who contribute to our chosen field. There seemed no hierarchy of value in those gathered for the weekend, just the impression that we are all on the same path; some ahead, others a few paces behind. For me, it was like visiting a foreign country and discovering that everybody spoke my first language. I sat in the audience of one panel discussion after another and was invigorated and informed by what the participating authors had to share. The thing about being a writer is there is no there to get to; there is only the process of personal growth, and what is invaluable to the momentum is allowing yourself to remain a student. This is what Pat Conroy did last year, and I say this because I could feel it. I’m pretty sure he was in the audience of every event of the Pat Conroy at 70 Festival, with his pen and paper in hand, for every time I turned around, I saw him, eyes focused on the stage with glee and rapt attention. I cannot adequately articulate what watching this world-renowned author taught me, except to say that it taught me everything. It has much to do with decency and camaraderie, and the willingness to celebrate those who create through the written word.

The Pat Conroy Literary Festival was like being in a bee-hive of literary heroes.  It was a four day celebration orchestrated “for the love of words and story,” which is a phrase Pat Conroy used, whenever he signed his books.  There was something so heartwarming and ceremonious about the entire weekend. It was a literary festival put on by those who loved Pat Conroy for those who loved Pat Conroy, and the overall feeling was that the celebration will never end.   

 

 

 

Art for Art’s Sake?

Lately, I’ve been given cause to seriously consider my writing career and to ask myself why I’m truly engaged in the pursuit. Though I am an optimist by nature, it does occur to me that as a universal rule, one can only work with a situation successfully as long as it works with them.  When it comes to most things in life, there is an art to meeting things half-way, to staying in the middle, to watching the dynamic of cause and effect in one’s life, to not over-extending oneself, nor taking things personally. It’s helpful for a writer to keep this in mind when it comes to the experience of rejection. This is not to say that it’s a bad thing to be goal oriented, only that there is folly in putting a time frame on the long range goal. Many writers want to see measurable progress according to their time-table, but this is where we’re best shown that we are not in control. I think the adage of showing up, doing the work, and being unattached to outcome is the aim, but how to seriously achieve this stance of nonattachment; this acceptance of our lack of control? Artists tend to be emotionally involved in their creations. We want to see the fruits of our labors manifest, elsewise, what’s it all for? But I’m going to take this to a soul level and say the soul only wants to create; it wants the experience of creation as its reality, and if one considers art from this premise, then it is enough to create. So the fundamental question for any artist to ask themselves is do you want the glory of the experience, or do you want to reap a reward? The world will tell you success looks a certain way at a particular end and therein lies your validation, but what attitude are we to assume until that fateful day? What price happiness, and how are we to manage within an arena whose premise is to contribute then relinquish control? The thing is, we have no control, and  assuming we do sets us up for all kinds of false premises, wherein frustration, self-doubt, victimization, and all the rest are given license. As a writer, I think art for art’s sake is the answer because we can’t control our reception. We may or may not gain riches and recognition, but if we engage the artistic flow as a way of being in the world and are in the right relationship with its unpredictability,  then I think we can say we’re living a successful life.  It’s not necessary to be the choreographer of the show, it’s only necessary that we are wise enough to dance.

Author’s note: This post is in response to Jason Howell’s  question of the week on his blog, Howlarium, of which I am an avid fan:

Q: How often are you able to create a desired result for yourself by sheer force of will, or by arranging circumstances? Do you ever feel as though the reason you aren’t far enough along is that you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough, even though you’ve worked very hard? In your writing life or otherwise—is control really all it’s cracked up to be? 

Check into Howlarium @ http://www.howlarium.com/

From a Writer’s Point of View

A writer’s life is a build, a constant state of becoming that begins with the secret, intuitive assumption that one must take a leap of faith and begin. There is no there to get to, only an unquenchable need that compels and drives on with inexplicable fervor. For me, it began with keeping a journal. I was young and fearful of admitting my internal mechanisms and uncertain of who would care to hear. But I felt the need to document my life in the hope that the singular act of private articulation would reveal to me who I was in the grand scheme of my self-involved adolescence. This is the prompting that leads a writer to the table; the need to explain oneself to oneself. Keeping a journal discredits all thoughts of life’s arbitrariness and puts the pendulum of cause and effect into clear perspective. One can keep current while they create a framework, then look back years later and chart the incremental construction of their personal history.
But what happens when one evolves from journal keeping to writing as a way of life? Certainly it’s an insular existence that cannot be shared. It’s like taking that running monologue we all have in our head and laying it down on purpose for no other reason than it seems the thing to do. The form of the dissertation is entirely incidental; some writers aim to inform, and others seek to enlighten or entertain. To me, it’s all the same thing: a way of communicating, and for this to happen, it takes time. And isolation. And commitment to following through no matter the length of the project.
I’ve heard it said that writers don’t write because they want to; they write because they must. What’s imperative for writers is the ability to write then throw caution to the wind. All that’s required is to say what you have to say, and then get out of the way to make room for the possibility that the devil may care after all.

The Road to Publication

Strangely enough, I wrote my second published novel, “Dancing to an Irish Reel” years before I wrote my first published book, “A Portal in Time.” My first written novel (which I call to this day “my Irish book”) was a labor of love inspired by the year I spent living on the western coast of Ireland, and the story took up residency in my soul, begging to be shared. Its road to publication was not a predictable one, but it taught me invaluable lessons concerning unwavering belief, the power of tenacity, and the willingness to learn and grow as a writer.

I’ve heard it said writers don’t write because they want to; they write because they must. That’s how I felt about my Irish book, and although I’d never attempted a novel, I was not deterred because I had so much enthusiasm for telling this particular story. I embarked upon the writing of the book with blind faith, thinking all I had to do was tell the story of a single American female who relocates to rural Ireland, and the mere novelty of the setting in this heart-and-soul, fish-out-of-water story would pave the way to certain publication. It didn’t occur to me that my first draft would be one of many, that my book had to be painstakingly crafted, or that the endless process of fine-tuning by rewrites is where the real work would lie.

Once I’d finished the first draft of my Irish book, I sent it to three friends who know their way around literature. To say their combined comments were legion would be an understatement, yet I was encouraged because all three loved the story. I took their suggestions into consideration while I fine-tuned the book then I went over my manuscript three times more until I was satisfied it was in its best shape possible. Next I reviewed the tips in “The Writer’s Market” that pertain to writing a query letter to a literary agent. I composed an introductory letter and over a six month period, I followed submission guidelines and wrote to ten agents hoping for the next step: a request for the entire manuscript. I waited on pins and needles only to receive incremental responses succinctly saying my manuscript didn’t “fit their list.” But with each rejection, I sent out another round of query letters, and eventually found myself in a cycle of protracted waiting, which stretched out for more than a year.

While I waited, I continued to write. I revised my manuscript once again and researched other authors’ road to publication, where I realized they all had one thing in common: they’d each come to the table with a body of work to recommend them. Spurred into action, I began submitting personal essays to magazines that accepted unsolicited material, and began to rack up publications. Next, what I can only describe as an unusual chain of events brought me to the attention of my hometown’s newspaper, where I was offered my own creative weekly column, entitled, “In First Person,” which amassed a local following. At the time I was encouraged by the good things in play, but I still hadn’t found a literary agent. Then it occurred to me that two irons in the fire were better than one.

I took a reprieve from my Irish book and tried my hand at writing another book in a different genre. My aim was to enjoy the process and write the story I would like to read. The result was my paranormal mystery entitled, “A Portal in Time.” When I was satisfied with the manuscript, I researched publishers who accepted un-agented material, with an eye towards those who published similar titles. The rest, I can gratefully say, is part of my career history, for “A Portal in Time” was published by Vinspire Publishing in November of 2013.

When I mentioned my willingness to grow as a writer, it was to say that my work didn’t end with the acceptance of my novel. I went through two rounds with an editor followed by a proof reader. The process was a crash course tutorial in how to shape a book, and once “A Portal in Time” was released, I took everything I’d learned from the process and went back to my Irish book.

Eight months later, I submitted the manuscript of my Irish book to my publisher, knowing there’d be no guarantee. But fate can be kind, and at the recommendation of my publisher’s acquisitions department, I was offered a contract for “Dancing to an Irish Reel.”

It occurs to me now that my first book took an unusual course to publication, but in hindsight, many elements had to align. Summarily, it wasn’t enough to know I had a good story; I had to have enough faith in the book to wait through its many revisions. But first and foremost, I had to be willing to learn and grow as a writer.

How Does One Become a Writer?

My mother was not a writer, but maybe she should have been. She was one of the most natural born story tellers I’ve ever had chance to come across, and she glowed under a willing audience, well aware when she had one in the palm of her hand. She was a product of what I now call the old south, raised in an era when ladies were cultured and charming. Her name was Shirley, and never was a woman more appropriately named. To me, the name tinkles like Champagne in cut glass: captivating and celebratory in its effervescence, happened upon only on rare occasions. Never have I seen a woman occupy a chair quite like Shirley, who could be found at the cocktail hour holding court in the card room in the house I grew up in with one feminine leg tucked beneath her and the other dangling freely at her seductive crossed knee. This was how she observed the end of the day, for in her mind, there was much to discuss. She was fascinated in the players who populated her extravagant world and had an uncanny ability to dissect their character down to the last nuance. I couldn’t say now if she was insightful or just plain observant, whether she was legitimately concerned or liked to gossip, but she had a way of telling a story that could turn a trip to the grocery store into the most enviable journey ever taken. I used to watch my mother—study her with adolescent awe, looking for clues on how to evolve from an inchoate girl into her replica. I could have come out and asked her, but I always knew she wasn’t the type to ever confess. She is nine long years in heaven now, but the reverberating shadow she cast keeps her never far from reach. I was asked just the other day how I became a writer; whether I studied it in college or took some other road. It’d be so convenient to say I have an accredited piece of paper granting me permission, but the truth is I have much more than that: I grew up under the tutelage of a southern shanachie, who showed me the seemingly ordinary in life is actually extraordinary; it all depends on how the story is told.