Born and Dying: My First Book’s First Year

cvrIt’s not like I had no idea what to expect. As a bookseller I assisted with author events both swanky and huge (Pat Conroy at a Connecticut yacht-club brunch) and tiny and spare (local writers at my used bookstore in Kingston, New York). As a book buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor, I bought everything from small press titles to kids books to some of the largest adult trade lines (all of which have since folded into Random Penguin–yes, I know they prefer the names reversed.) Book promotion is an enormous challenge at every level. Even backed by a corporate publisher’s PR machine, many books struggle to attract interest. Every year, thousands of excellent books are published and ignored. It’s an honor to reach any readers. And if you hear from a few who loved your book and got what you were trying to say–well, let that wash over you, because that connection is everything. You get used to the non-responses from places you’d hoped to appear. You get used to leaving readings with unsold books. To empty seats in the audience. To other books getting more attention and praise. You stay grateful throughout.

So, to celebrate Not On Fire, Only Dying‘s first year, a multimedia look back. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: thank you for hearing me.

Pics or it didn’t happen: proof it wasn’t a strange, beautiful dream with too much public speaking:

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Original music composed by Naomi Hamby for Not On Fire, Only Dying:

“Marko’s Theme” was used for the book trailer. Here it is accompanied by the previously unreleased “Lola’s Theme.”

Speaking of the trailer:

Maybe you’d like another listen to Marko’s mixtape?

Select blog posts written through acceptance, publication, and promotion. Short and honest:

Thank you for hearing me. (12/31/14)
Cats get in the way. (1/23/15)
No big deal, but…MY BOOK HAS A COVER. *swoon* (3/26/15)
Blurbs and Preorders and THANK YOU. (5/4/15)
Presenting my book trailer! And insecurities… (7/3/15)
Brooklyn, beginning. (9/5/15)
Have I mentioned I have a new book out? (9/29/15)
But is it art? On book reviews. (10/18/15)
More than chocolate? (2/4/16)`
What do you want? (5/11/16)

Thank you to everyone who read this book (and to those who have a copy and might yet get around to reading it–no worries. Trust me, I know how that goes. Maybe once in a while something small and unrelated will remind you of Not On Fire, Only Dying.

Happens to me all the time:

Talk Talk: news about interviews

I recently found myself in the completely new (to me) position of being interviewed while at the same time I interviewed someone else. Everyone involved is a writer: MaryAnne Kolton, who had wonderful things to say about Not On Fire, Only Dying, is conducting an interview with me. I hope to be able to share news of its publication soon. Her perceptive, thoughtful questions send me into deep memory and contemplation. I find it thrilling and terrifying. It’s a challenge for this introvert, stepping out from behind the veil of fiction.

Of course I am wildly grateful for the opportunity to discuss the book, which I always believed in, even when it seemed it would never find its home. I never expected it to have a huge audience, but I believed–and have since had it confirmed–that some fine people would read it and get it and love it hard.

At the same time I interviewed Grant Faulkner. He is a fascinating contradiction: co-founder of the journal 100 Word Story and author of Fissures, a collection of his own spare, exquisitely crafted 100-word stories. He’s also Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that month-long marathon in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel, however rough. This happens to be an exciting time in Grant’s emerging career. The interview was published at Necessary Fiction, where I serve as Reviews Editor.

All this Talk Talk-ing about myself reminds me of the 80s (honestly what doesn’t? I’ll use any excuse.) Gwen, you’re fierce and I love you, but you almost ruined this song for me. The antidote is listening to the original. And for a few minutes: no talk.

 

Let’s soar together in the New Year. Let’s roar.

According to shitty magazines, new mothers should get their bodies “back” roughly six weeks post-birth. After I had my son in 1998, it was almost a year before I recognized my body. Even then, weighing the same as it did before growing and delivering a healthy human child, it was different. I did not get my body “back” as it had been.

Publishing a book is often likened to childbirth. Both involve tremendous work before and after. The debut changes everything. Long before I knew Not On Fire, Only Dying would be published, changes in me were underway. Writing this book reframed my self-perception, forced me to deeply consider what I meant to say. The manuscript, my thumping heart, was thrust into disinterested hands until the word “No” became a background thrum. Like most writers, I had hopeless days.

And then—the euphoria of acceptance, but, with it, fresh challenges: asking for blurbs, for opportunities to read and promote, for reviews; not to mention traveling to bookstores, standing in front of audiences, fielding questions—none of it came easily to this introvert. Sometimes I was hugely uncomfortable. But I did it. Of course it changed me, summoning courage over and over. I became myself. Stronger. I began to speak my mind in ways I hadn’t always, reject old roles I used to play. Once again, the shape of me changed.

On September 15, 2015, Not On Fire, Only Dying was born. Now it exists in the world independently, like my child. Some people connect with it and say lovely things about it. Some people don’t care that I made a baby or a book. This year I learned that some (who knew me once but not recently) just want me to be quiet. Compliant. They want me to play along. But I can’t do that and be this person I’ve become. This person I am.

A writer must reject those who prefer her as she was before her book, just as she must reject the gossip rag shaming a new mom for looking different. As if for months she did not make room inside herself, withstanding exhaustion and discomfort and fear of the pain of birth, of the baby not being what people hoped, of it being her fault. As if she did not suffer as her body wrenched apart to push this baby from cozy uterus, through cervix and vagina, and into other people’s hands.

As if she did not survive it, and triumph.

2015 shook my foundation and sent me soaring. With any luck I’ll have another year just like it soon. And I wish you nothing less. Let’s soar together in the New Year. Let’s roar.

cow licking clean its just newborn red calf

It is necessary.

iStock_000009325754_LargeThis morning, Facebook — keeper of our collective if incomplete memories — informed me that exactly one year ago today I officially took the reins as Reviews Editor for Necessary Fiction. Back in 2012 they published my story The Worst Girl’s Best Day, followed by two book reviews. Editor Steve Himmer helped me sculpt my story into what I’d intended from the beginning. When Michelle Bailat-Jones decided to move from Reviews Editor to her current position as Translations Editor, I came on board. I’d enjoyed working with both of them and knew them to be nice people and excellent editors. I was thrilled and honored to join them.

Each Monday we publish a review of a recent book from an independent press. There are outstanding works of fiction included here: novels and novellas and collections and forms that defy easy categorization by authors from all over the world. They are inventive, risky, ambitious. They are obsessed with language or big questions or both. Every week of this past year I heard from publishers, publicists, and authors with news of books forthcoming. My own debut novel was published last month by a small press: Twisted Road Publications. It was a remarkable experience, preparing for my book’s publication (for the first time, seeing it from the inside), while editing reviews to help introduce other small press books. As someone who was once mostly concerned with “big pubs” and high-profile titles backed by national media campaigns (as a Book Buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor), what I saw and learned this year was enlightening and empowering.

If you’re like me, you try to be a good “literary citizen” but it never feels like enough. Sure, I give time to Necessary Fiction and the journal escarp. I buy small press books from the publisher (usually). I live way out in the Atlanta ‘burbs but I go into town for (some) readings. I’ve written reviews, not nearly enough. I try to share other writers’ good news on social media. But so much is missed. So much isn’t done. We have our own writing to nurture, after all, not to mention careers and families.

This morning, after the latest review went live at Necessary Fiction, I listened to Episode 3 of the Citizen Lit podcast, which states an intention to explore “what it means to be an active member of the writing world.” This week’s episode features poet and Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) founder Erin Elizabeth Smith. Host Jim Warner describes her as someone who “is a builder of community and epitomizes the term literary citizen.” A lot of you probably already know Erin but I just met her last month, when I read from Not On Fire, Only Dying as part of the SAFTA Reading Series. I knew of her involvement with Sundress and Firefly Farms but did not fully understand the number of irons she has in the literary fire. I enjoyed listening to her discuss, among other things, how she creates opportunities and spaces where writers can learn, get work done alone, or share it with others. Give the episode a listen and then subscribe to the Citizen Lit podcast. (In Episode 1, you’ll hear me read a small excerpt from my novel.) Consider donating to SAFTA’s “Jayne for President” campaign, raising funds needed for a barn at Firefly Farms.

As I celebrate one year as a slightly more active literary citizen, I’m reminded that there is always more we can do to support this community of upstarts and artists and writers who are readers. It’s not just the right thing to do, it is necessary.

“What do you do?” On working, not working, and the power of one question.

Ten years ago this month, I stopped working. By then I was a Senior Book Buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor. My coworkers were wonderful and I received an education in the art and science of book buying and selling. I watched publishing change and keep changing. I was a single mom working full time and, now, as a married mother who does not report into an office every day, I can tell you: those years were harder.

“What do you do?” That’s now my least favorite question. I no longer have a title. I don’t have an easy answer.
Well, I’m a mom.
I work at home.
I don’t work outside the home.
I’m a writer.
I’m trying to be a writer.

(“Stay At Home Mom” is like nails on a chalkboard for me. In my ears it is patronizing and inaccurate. I have yet to come up with anything better.)

I deliver whatever answer I can manage apologetically, uncomfortably. Then I’m sorry for that, too. I feel, each time, as if I must explain myself, my lack of a “real” job.

And yet a job is often the least interesting thing about a person. What I want to know is:
Who are you?
What’s important to you?
What do you pour your heart and sweat into, regardless of whether you’re paid?

In the last ten years, I raised a remarkable child. I worked hard to lay a good foundation, and I work still, even as my son assumes control of his own life. I always thought raising a good human being was a gift to the future, as important as any contribution. I’m glad I took the time I needed to do it right.

In those years I also wrote and published a variety of short fiction, creative nonfiction, reviews, and multimedia work. I discovered a vibrant and supportive online community and took on volunteer editorial positions. I wrote what became my novel Not On Fire, Only Dying. I scribbled sentences even as the school bus rounded the corner. I remained grateful for this gift, this privilege of time. I worked all day, and then my son came home from school and I worked some more. Like every mom does.

What do I do? I’m a writer. Only now, at 47, my son halfway through high school, and my debut novel forthcoming, do I feel entitled to claim that. Although I always knew it. In my gut, ears, eyes. My voice might lower when I say it, but I’m not apologizing. I’m not uncomfortable.

I’m trying not to be uncomfortable. That’s also what I do. Just ask.

 

NYC! Soon I will be in you.

NYC! Soon I will be in you, all too briefly. I’ll be reading with about 20 (!) other writers from Mom Egg Review in support of The Museum of Motherhood.

 

WHEN: Wed, May 6, 7-9 PM.

WHERE: Barnes & Noble – Upper West Side, 2289 Broadway at 82nd St.

WHY: Come on, you need to ask? Mothers and motherhood. Real talk. Gorgeous words. And ME!

 

It’s part of a week-long B&N Bookfair. Click HERE for more infoEven if you can’t attend the reading, you can benefit the MOM by using the special code while shopping at barnesandnoble.com.

 

I plan to read a tiny (really tiny) excerpt from my forthcoming novel Not on Fire, Only Dying. Lola is a mother who lost custody of 3 older children and now reports a newborn kidnapped. She has a long history of mental illness and self-medication, and no one’s seen or even heard of this baby, so people are suspicious and they have questions: Did Lola imagine this baby? Did she do something terrible? Even Lola herself and Marko, the man who loves her and her sole defender, aren’t sure.

 

Back in 2012, Mom Egg Review was kind enough to publish my flash nonfiction piece, Our Bloody Secrets, which addressed pregnancy loss. But as Lola says at one point: “There are lots of ways to lose a baby.”

 

Hope you can come (yes, all of you). I love and miss NYC and I’m thrilled that I’ll there, however briefly.

flyer_bn_final

“Hey, this is me.”

Yesterday’s mail brought something beautiful: Cobalt’s Volume 3, with its robin’s egg blue cover and pretty interior design and especially its content—oh, the words in there. You want this.

It includes my creative nonfiction piece, “Believe It, She’s Tried.” It’s about the novel I wrote and almost published, the years I didn’t write at all and how the words returned. It’s about celebrating the fact that we are writing and publishing, even if we receive few rewards beyond the relief of expression. Of saying out loud, as it were: “Hey, this is me.” It’s about divorce and why I hate the movie Forrest Gump.

“Believe It, She’s Tried” and its publication will always be especially important to me. Exactly two decades after the events described, I was able to confront disappointment and mistakes and finally, finally let them go. Writing this piece effected change, I truly believe that. It shifted the air.

Very shortly after Cobalt named it a finalist, I learned that my novel Not On Fire, Only Dying had been accepted for publication with Twisted Road. Just as I’d made genuine peace with the possibility that I might never have a novel published. And it would be okay. I would be okay. I’d keep going, which is all that any of us can do. Keep going, keep writing. Stay hopeful but flexible. Dreams adapt on their way to coming true. Forgive yourself. Celebrate other writers’ success. Celebrate your own. Be grateful. Breathe. Believe it.

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