Quotation of the Week: Adam Langer

In an interview occasioned by the recent publication of his latest book, The Thieves of Manhattan (on my tbr list), Adam Langer was asked the following:

“Did you meet with early success, in terms of getting your first novel accepted for publication, or was it a long, hard road for you?”

Langer’s response offers this week’s “Quotation of the Week”:

“If I pretended that my first published novel, Crossing California, was actually the first novel I wrote, I’d say that it was easy. I’d say, yup, I finished the book, got an agent, got a contract, and started work on Book #2. But in saying that, I’d be ignoring the fact that my first novel, Making Tracks, a teen detective story written when I was in high school, is still in a drawer. And so is my second novel, It Takes All Kinds, a 300-page long screed about my first week at Vassar. Also, my third novel, A Rogue in the Limelight, a picaresque journey modeled on Huck Finn and The Confederacy of Dunces, never found the right agent, even though some people (well, my mother) have called it my best novel. One of my earliest agents said that my fourth novel, Indie Jones, a slacker comedy set in Chicago’s independent film world, would easily find a home at Doubleday, but that didn’t happen. And I stopped looking for an agent for my fifth novel, an existential thriller called American Soil, when I realized there was too much personal shit in it and I really didn’t want to deal with having it published. But yeah, once I finished Book #6, it was smooth sailing.”

Source: The Huffington Post

(Hat tip to Josh Lambert for the interview link.)

Thursday’s Pre-Publication Post: "Real-Life" Characters in Fiction

One of my favorite themes in writing-about-writing resurfaced this week: real-life characters in fiction. A big thank you goes to the Hayden’s Ferry Review blog for leading me to Meg Rosoff’s blog post for the Guardian‘s Books Blog, “Tackling real-life characters in fiction is fine – as long as you do it well.”

Most of the writing on creating fictional characters from real-life personages focuses on recognizable people: historical figures, celebrities, and so on. (The tour guide who appears in my story “The Quiet American, Or How to Be a Good Guest,” may well be based on an actual tour guide, but I did not give too much thought to the implications of creating a fictional döppelganger in that case.) And it’s this traditional emphasis that continues in the Guardian post as well.

If that focus isn’t necessarily relevant in the context of the tour guide character, it’s much more applicable when viewed in the context of some other stories in Quiet Americans. “For Services Rendered,” which opens the book, includes as key characters Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and his second wife, Emmy. (For some background on what inspired this story, and the research that went into it, you can read the essay I wrote for the Scribblers on the Roof website awhile back.)

“Real-life characters” (not to mention events) appear elsewhere in Quiet Americans. For instance, Golda Meir makes a cameo in a story titled “Homecomings.” (Admittedly, one of the MFA classmates who critiqued an early version thought I’d invented Mrs. Meir. But the first female prime minister of Israel was, in fact, a “real-life” person.)

And anyone who reads “Floating” and recalls the brouhaha concerning a certain state poet laureate and a 9/11 poem will be able to identify the real-life inspiration behind a certain sub-plot, even without the use of the poet’s name. I’m still not certain why I chose not to name the poet in that story. One may be this major difference between the other characters and the poet: The poet is still alive.

As I continued to think about my stories this week in the context of the Guardian article, I realized something else: In a way that’s quite different from the situation with “For Services Rendered,” where everything that Hermann and Emmy Göring say and do has major repercussions on the rest of the story, the real-life characters within “Homecomings” and “Floating” are minor players, presences that help illuminate aspects other, major characters and events in each piece.

Or at least, that’s what I think. Come January, we’ll see if you agree.

Thursday’s Pre-Publication Post: On Attending (and Arranging) Readings

Living in New York City, one could easily attend a literary reading (make that multiple readings) every day. The city presents a true embarrassment of riches in that respect.

If you have the time and energy, that is.

Alas, time and energy are precious commodities for this practicing writer. Between a full-time office job, family life and friends, a revitalized commitment to visiting the gym at least a few days each week, and, lest we forget, a bit of writing (and reading, and blogging) here and there, boarding a subway or bus to attend a reading too often falls off my to-do list. Especially when it’s really hot outside. Or really cold.

This week, however, I persevered. After an especially intense workday and facing the oppressive heat and humidity that is also oh-so-characteristic of this lovely city (this time of year, anyway), I rallied. I was determined to attend what Ron Hogan had billed as “An Evening of All-American Fiction” midtown at the Center for Fiction, featuring the following authors and new books:

  • Pearl Abraham, American Taliban
  • David Goodwillie, American Subversive
  • Jane Mendelsohn, American Music
  • Hilary Thayer Hamann, Anthropology of an American Girl

American fiction. Get it?

Well, how could anyone with a forthcoming story collection titled Quiet Americans resist?

I sure couldn’t. And I’m very glad I went, not only because it is always good for me to get out and go to these events, see authors and hear new work read. But the event also got me thinking about readings in another respect.

Right now, I shouldn’t simply be attending readings. I should be arranging them, too.

I’ve already explained that Last Light Books, the publisher of Quiet Americans, is a small, new press. There is no money for me to go “touring” around the country, although a virtual book tour is definitely on the agenda.

So here I am, trying to figure out how to arrange readings in the New York area, Boston, and D.C. (I expect to be in D.C. in early February for the 2011 AWP conference, and I’m planning to get to Boston a few months later.)

And here are some of the questions I have:

  • Which reading series/venues do you go to? For my current purposes, the NYC-Washington corridor is most relevant, but why don’t we hear recommendations for other locations, so everyone can benefit from the comments? If there are links available for your favorite venues/series, please share those, too!
  • For those of you who have arranged your own readings (or for any publicists who have arranged readings for others), what’s the magic formula? How far in advance do you try to arrange a reading? What are the basic how-tos to arrange a reading? It strikes me as something a bit like inviting yourself to someone else’s house. Not exactly comfortable or intuitive. How does this whole thing work?
  • What else should I be thinking about (readings-wise) at this time, a little more than six months before Quiet Americans: Stories meets the world?

As always, thank you in advance for your comments and advice!

Thursday’s Pre-Publication Post: Come On Get Happy!

Earlier this week, the Fiction Writers Review blog spotlighted an essay by author Aryn Kyle. Titled “‘This Book Made Me Want To Die’ And Other Thoughts From Readers,” the essay engages with comments/reviews Kyle has received with a decided point of view: that maybe, she should try to write something a little “happier”:

“Mostly,” Kyle writes, “what I learned about my book is that it’s depressing. Not just depressing, but ‘pointlessly depressing’; ‘brutal’; ‘disturbing’; ‘unrelentingly bleak’; and ‘appalling’—just to touch on the tip of the critical iceberg. One reader claimed to be so disturbed by [Kyle’s novel] The God of Animals that, upon finishing it, she had to medicate herself with sleeping pills.”

But when people tell Kyle to write something “happy,” she can’t quite understand. “Happy like Anna Karenina? Happy like The Grapes of Wrath? Happy like Lolita or Catch-22 or Revolutionary Road? Happy like Hamlet?”

You get the idea.

Because the publication of my story collection, Quiet Americans, is still several months away, I don’t yet have access to a comparable trove of reader reaction. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t already identify with the essay and the points Kyle has raised.

In fact, while I was reading, I couldn’t help but recall one AWP conference, at which I finally met one of the TriQuarterly editors who had helped bring my story, “Matrilineal Descent,” to the reading public. I’d gone over to the journal’s Bookfair table to introduce myself. “Ah, yes,” the editor said. “Your story. It was a laugh a minute.” To which I responded—how else?—by laughing. (Attention, lucky readers! You, too, can enjoy the utter comedy that is “Matrilineal Descent” when the story reappears in Quiet Americans this winter.)

But Kyle’s essay also sent me straight to the shelf where the Purple Binder (pictured) rests.

The Purple Binder, my friends, contains all the many rejection letters and e-mail messages that I received from agents and publishers who considered my collection, in one variant or another, over a five-year period. (It should not be confused with the far thicker Red Binder, which contains rejections received for individual short stories.)

I was certain that I’d find some echoes of the comments that have come Kyle’s way within the Purple Binder’s pages. And guess what? My memory was right.

Dear Erika Dreifus,

Thank you for giving us a look at four stories from your collection, Former Title, which [Big-Time Agent] asked me to review. I’m sorry about the delay in getting back to you, and I wish I had better news. I very much admire your writing and found all four stories very strong, but I’m afraid that this collection would be difficult to sell. The cumulative effect of your stories, with themes ranging from the Holocaust, to fetal defects to racism, is too downbeat for the editors we deal with.

Nonetheless, I think you are a talented writer. If you are not too put off by these remarks and you begin a novel, we’d love to see the first 50 pages.

Associate at Big-Time Agent’s Agency

P.S. Let me know if you’d like me to return your pages.

Now, a few comments:

  • I’ve worked on the collection so long that it’s really not surprising that not all of the stories that went out to this agency–supposedly my “best” stories at the time–have ended up in the final book. Among the now-excluded stories is one that was, for a long time, intended to be the title story. Hence, the need for a new title. So if you’re thinking that you’ll actually find the Holocaust, fetal defects, and racism prominently displayed throughout the book, well, don’t get too excited, because not every happy theme I’ve ever dealt with in fiction has made the cut into the final collection.
  • Similarly, I’ve been working on these stories so long that this particular correspondence dates from George W. Bush’s first term, an era when it was still very common to send work via postal mail. Hence, the offer to return my pages. I guess I hadn’t included a SASE.
  • Here’s what may be most interesting. I hadn’t approached Big-Time Agent. Rather, Big-Time Agent had contacted me, based on a story that had appeared in a literary journal. And frankly, that story didn’t exactly present a thousand points of light. Admittedly, it did not feature fetal defects or racism. But, in a mere 2500 words, it did manage to encompass parental death, post-9/11 anthrax attacks, incapacitating depression, divorce, and—I know you’re waiting for this one—the Holocaust. Hence, my surprise that “downbeat” might present a problem for this particular agency.

(By the way, that part of the message about welcoming a novel didn’t surprise you short-story writers, did it?)

In truth, I’m trying not to think too much just yet about what people will say about Quiet Americans once it has been published (assuming that it receives any attention at all). But if the book is faulted for not being “happy” enough, at least I’ll be prepared. And in good company.