Ask Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman - peoplewhowrite

Neil Gaiman

If you’re on Tumblr, you can ask author Neil Gaiman for writing advice. (Gaiman wrote Coraline which was adapted into a film, among many other titles.)

In a recent plea for counsel, one writer shares, “I’m now 70 pages into writing my first book and suddenly I’ve been overtaken by this huge fear that I am nowhere near good enough a writer to do this story justice… Any advice?” Gaiman assures him his anxiety is perfectly normal, adding “Finish writing the book.”

The "We Just Wrote An Awesome Scene" Dance


what writers do after writing an awesome scene, according to Buzzfeed

An editor friend posted author Lydia Kang‘s Buzzfeed post “18 Weird Things That Authors Do” on Facebook. According to Kang, writers are a coffee-swilling, eavesdropping, insecure, manic depressive bunch. Minus the coffee, I fully cop to her .gif-laden analysis. Click over and enjoy. May we all do the Carlton Banks dance (#7 on the list) and the #9 too.

On Shame

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, author of Set Me Free, The Effects of Light, and Bittersweet - peoplewhowrite

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore has written a powerful and honest piece on the shame of poor book sales. In a post announcing the launch of her third novel Bittersweet, she shares:

Shortly after I signed my book deal with Crown back in February, I received a long document of questions from my editor, running from the mundane (name, address) to the philosophical (“What is your book about?”) to everything in between. When I double-clicked, I was filled with the same dread I remembered feeling back in 2003 when I encountered my first Author Questionnaire… What I felt, as I began to think about the Questionnaire this time around, despite my joy at having sold Bittersweet, despite a renewed belief in my career, was deep shame. The bad sales of my second book, Set Me Free, especially, had been (and still was) such a heartbreak…

Then she gets to the root of the shame:

I realized that most of why I’d been feeling so much shame about the last time I did all this is that I love it so much that I was terrified I would never get to do it again. Until I sold Bittersweet, I had believed that my career was, in fact, over.

I can relate! My first book Powder Necklace came out in 2010 and, in many ways, I’m at square one again: looking for an agent and a publisher for my second novel. I’m writing on faith right now.

As writers, we invest so much heart trying to get work published, frozen with fear that the thing we were meant to do will never be done or acknowledged. Then, if we are so blessed to be published, we lay our hearts beating on physical and virtual book shelves and on book tables at festivals, palpitating at the very real possibility we’ll never be published again if our work doesn’t perform.

Beverly-Whittemore says she had to remind herself to dissociate the performance of her book from the impressive fact of her other performance–completing a second novel. “I’d completely forgotten to be proud of the fact that I’d written and published two books in the first place.”

The irony is, the fear and shame don’t go away even when you perform on both levels.

At Elizabeth Gilbert’s Google Hangout, the multi-million copy selling author of Eat, Pray, Love pointed out to a downcast aspirant, “Even when you do get published, then you… have to have people say that you’re washed up”–another threat to being able to do it again.

J.K. Rowling offers a strong case for relishing the making of quality work more than sales performance.  With zillions of book sales and endless tie-ins associated with the Harry Potter franchise she created, pretty much any book with Rowling’s name on it will become a bestseller, yet she dared to give that up by releasing her latest book under a fake name–Robert Galbraith.

“I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre,” she wrote in the FAQs section of the Robert Galbraith website, “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback.”

The double irony is that great sales don’t guarantee great reception, and vice versa. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey almost singlehandedly rescued Random House from the red in 2012, yet the writer gets no love for her writing ability. Conversely, book award winners don’t necessarily break sales records.

Gilbert told her audience, “You must have another reason to do the work besides the result. You must do the work because of love, because of devotion, because of passion. Because there’s something that you feel  you were put here to do that you would like to accomplish before you die, something that if you don’t do, part of your soul will be injured. That’s the reason that you do it.”

If you’ve been writing, and trying to get published for a while now, you’ve likely heard this all before. In your beating, breaking heart, you know this. But as you field yet another rejection letter, another fellowship or residency you didn’t get, it helps to hear it again.

Eleanor Catton wins the Man Booker Prize

Eleanor Catton has won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. - peoplewhowrite

Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries has won the Man Booker Prize worth £50,000.

The Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker-Bowles presented the prize in England’s Guildhall tonight. Jim Crace, author of Harvest and the oldest of the contending authors was widely believed to be the favorite (at least that was the impression many expressed on Twitter) though the Twitterverse could not say enough about Catton, the youngest on the shortlist. The social media network was a nail biting nerve center in the minutes and seconds before the announcement as the #ManBookerPrize hashtag reported mood swings of anxiety and soccer hooligan-like passion.

151 titles were originally in consideration before Man Booker Judges Robert MacFarlaneMartha KearneyStuart Kelly,Natalie Haynes, and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst edited down to the 13 authors on the  Longlist in July. In September, the judges cut the list in half to six novels:

We Need New Names NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus)
The Luminaries Eleanor Catton (Granta)
Harvest Jim Crace (Picador)
The Lowland Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
A Tale for the Time Being Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
The Testament of Mary Colm Tóibín (Viking)
Catton’s win could signal increased support for debut and young talent amongst the literary establishment which often pays lip service in support of new writers while nurturing back lists and investing in past successes.

Alice Munro Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature

Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature - peoplewhowrite

Alice Munro

Alice Munro, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, an award worth eight million kronor (more than $1 million). The Swedish jury that decided the winner called the Canadian author a “master of the contemporary short story” and said she is a “fantastic portrayer of human beings.”

Munro, the 13th woman to win, admitted to the Canadian press, “I knew I was in the running, yes, but I never thought I would win.”

The writer of the much acclaimed 2012 novel Dear Life is no stranger to prizes. She won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, and counts the National Book Critics Circle Prize, the Governor General’s prize (three times), and The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize among her literary trophies. Prior to her writing career, she was a housewife.

The Best Quotes from Agent Andrew Wylie's New Republic Interview

Andrew Wylie - peoplewhowrite

Andrew Wylie

Could veteran agent Andrew Wylie (he represents Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Vladimir Nabokov’s backlist among other elite literary clients) be the literary world’s Kanye West? Wylie gave the New Republic a much-shared interview full of quotables. Here are my favorites:

On the first time he saw a Kindle
“I was in Rome, in the back of a taxi, and I couldn’t see it. So I thought, fuck this.”

On the motive behind Amazon’s entry into print publishing
“I believe that Amazon has its print publishing business so that their behavior as a distributor of digital content can be misperceived by the Department of Justice and the publishing industry in a way that is convenient for Amazon’s bottom line.”

On selling one of his clients’ books to Amazon
“If one of my children were kidnapped and they were threatening to throw a child off a bridge and I believed them, I might.”

On his youthful understanding of representing authors of literary fiction
“The image I had was, if you represented writers who are good, they and you were doomed to a life of poverty and madness and alcoholism and suicide. Dying spider plants and grimy windows on the Lower East Side. On the other side of my family, there were bankers. So I wanted to put the two together.”

On young writers
“Young writers, when they see me, it’s like meeting Ronald Reagan. Sometimes I go in to pay my respects. Everyone is perfectly polite, but you can tell they’d be a lot comfier if I’d just get the fuck out. So I do.”

Isn’t the "Global Novel" Human Too?

Pankaj Mishra on the global novel - peoplewhowrite

Pankaj Mishra

There’s a provocative piece on called “Beyond the Global Novel.” In it, the writer Pankaj Mishra lays out the complexity / irony of the titular subject. Interchanging “global” with “postcolonial”–and challenging American literature’s right to be considered among global novels (on the heels of the Man Booker announcement they would open prize contention to American authors too)–Mishra takes up the argument of novelist Philip Hensher that the diversity of  literature emerging from African and Asian authors is only skin deep.

Hensher specifically asserts the Man Booker shortlist panders to North American sensibilities, writing, “Curiously, all these novels, effectively written by American-based authors about exotic places, were unable to do so without placing the exotic places in the reassuring context of an American suburb.” Mishra paraphrases Hensher’s assertion (and calls it an exaggeration): “every writer of non-western origin seems to be vending a consumable–rather than a challenging–cultural otherness.”

Mishra adds in counterpoint, “it would be untenable to deny that there are diverse reckonings with issues of class, race, religion and gender, and a bracingly ambivalent relationship with nationalism and global capitalism, in the work of Nadeem Aslam, Teju Cole, Hisham Matar, Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, Damon Galgut, Tahmima Anam, Zoë Wicomb, Laila Lalami, Helon Habila, Aminatta Forna and Pettina Gappah.”

The arguments are at once familiar and surprising.

Familiar in that both assert authority on what the African=Asian=global=postcolonial scribe is supposed to write , and surprising because there is, in 2013, still so much paternalistic concern about what said authors choose to document or imagine. Both Mishra and Hensher fear the bully power they believe the ugly Americans will introduce in next year’s Man Booker race, even as they put their own dukes up, strong arming the idea of what constitutes “meaningful” literature from the postcolonial world.

Mishra and Hensher essentially agree that global literature means something when it “focus[es] public attention on social, economic and political ills”; when it is nationally and historically specific; when it defies the myths and legends supplied by the imperialist power signing the prize check. To follow this strand, literature that is not deemed to perform this function is meaningless.

One of the most frustrating things about being a person–let alone a culture creator and bearer–that does not trace her or his roots to the once sunset-less British empire or “The West” in general is being trapped within a discourse you did not start whose resolution nevertheless has high stakes for your well-being. The patronizing pattern of imperialism is endlessly repeated as the fate of the children of the colonized is decided by bickering superpower parents or their proxies.

Mishra and Hensher mean well. Both aim to protect the children from the parents as it were, but they are patronizing all the same and leave little room for the subversion that emerges from the “apolitical and borderless cosmos.”

Here’s where I get paternalistic and insert my own strand into the discourse.

Subversion takes on many forms and by virtue of its definition requires some stealth. Some African-Americans enslaved in the antebellum United States, for example, broke their tools to undermine productivity on the plantations they were forced to work.  Likewise, the novel that does not explicitly (or implicitly) address the “terror of war and the horror of peace” is in effect subverting expectations, daring to preoccupy itself with matters meaningful to itself, challenging Western readers to inhabit a universe that is not familiarly foreign, if that makes sense. Like readers that originate outside of Europe or the US, Western consumers of African=Asian=global=postcolonial literature must endeavor to enter a world that challenges preconceptions, or confirms them. They must exercise the muscle of their imagination and do the work of researching strange phrases and idioms.  They must (gasp) separate the baggage of history and politics from the humanity, and put themselves in the characters’ shoes. After all, isn’t the “global novel”  a human novel too?

Of course, humanity is never immune from the forces–political, social, economic, religious, et al–that surround it. These factors impart explicit and inadvertent influence and whether the author leads with them or not, they come out. Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, for example, is on its face about a family’s undoing in the wake of the patriarch’s abrupt abandonment, but the context of that abandonment necessitates an understanding of so many immigrant and first-generation experiences including the model minority conundrum, the complex relationship between Africans and African-Americans and immigrants in general, and the pressure to make the sacrifice of emigration “worth it” by attaining financial and professional success.

Likewise, Catherine E. McKinley’s memoir Indigo about her search for the fabric across West Africa, powerfully addresses the tension between the dollar-wielding tourist and the citizens she encounters. What does the visitor owe the strangers that show generous hospitality? What are the paternalistic implications of studying a people and their culture?

Because every work of literature can only offer a sliver of the global story through the prism of the author’s worldview, I would argue that no novel is, in and of itself, “global.” Rather, each work of literature exists within a community of works that collectively presents a global human story from multiple perspectives.  But the current discourse is too provincial for that.

Cover Love: Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane"

The Italian cover of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane - peoplewhowrite

The Italian cover of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The American cover of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is also striking–a photograph of a little girl in an almost dancer’s pose under water–but as an illustration for the Italian cover, the book seems far more compelling because it’s imagined. The literal photo almost says too much.

The perspective is important too. Instead of a wide shot, we’re closer and under the assumed protagonist. Don’t you want to surge up to the surface and see what that floating boy/girl, and even the ducks look like?

For his part, Gaiman first saw the cover on Tumblr. He wrote in a reblog: “I spy an Italian cover. How cool… (Nope, I hadn’t seen it before. I seem to mostly find out about these things from Tumblr.)”

Love more covers here.

Listen to Excerpts of the Man Booker Shortlist on iTunes

Man Booker Prize Shortlist on iTunes_peoplewhowrite

Now, free audio readings of the Man Booker Prize shortlist are available on iTunes along with author interviews. The dramatic performances take pains (sometimes with painful accents) to express the authors’ respective voices, and the interviews do a great job of piquing interest in the books. If only Man Booker/iTunes had included “Buy” buttons for full audio versions of the books! (If there aren’t audio versions, there should be and they should have been timed with the release of this podcast.) Another missed opportunity.

Check out the Man Booker Prize podcasts here.