Let’s talk about cancer, and about moms, and about moms who have cancer. Specifically, let’s talk about my mom.
Last April, my mom started having some abdominal pains and bleeding, which might have been easy to explain if she hadn’t stopped that process a few years ago. (Ladies, if you notice anything weird going on with your lady-parts or lady-cycles, see a doctor. Better a false alarm than missing something. Actually, that goes for guys, too. True self-love is checking to make sure all your junk is healthy) A scan showed some shadows on an ovary and a mass behind the uterus. The cancer markers on her blood test were low, so there was a possibility that it was benign. If it was cancerous, they were pretty sure it was ovarian, slight chance it was uterine, and they were pretty sure they’d caught it early.
But, when they went in to remove the questionable bits, they found a very, very different story. They found cancer tissue across her ovaries and uterus, across her bowel, and through her lower abdominal cavity, including wrapping around a few blood vessels. They got out what they could, which necessitated losing some bowel, and sent it on to pathology. My mom’s surgery was near the end of the May; I spent the School Library Journal Day of Dialogue and most of my day at BEA waiting very impatiently for the path report. Not that I was going to be able to do anything from New York (or do anything, really), but not knowing was awful, because this was so clearly not what they were expecting. We’d been expecting the report for days, and every day that passed without a response just made it worse, because it had to mean that it was more complicated.
And it was. What they found was advanced cancer (Stage 4) originating in the appendix. Appendiceal cancer is rare; there have been less than two hundred documented cases since it was first diagnosed as a separate and distinct cancer in 1969. Because of its rarity, treatment options are…limited. Limited and still largely experimental, lobbing chemo agents at it and hoping it works. Chemo couldn’t start until she was fully recovered from surgery, which took a while, because it turns out when you lose portions of your bowel, it makes little things like eating a very chancy business.
My mom was, at this time, enrolled in an online graduate program to become a Nurse Practitioner. Grad school has been a dream near and dear to Mom’s heart for a long time. She was enrolled at UF when we first moved to Gainesville in 1990, but she got recalled to active duty during Desert Storm, and was gone for almost a year, and then becoming a single parent meant that grad school had to wait. And wait. And wait. When she finally got the chance to investigate online programs, we crossed our fingers. When she actually got to enroll, we were ecstatic. The program is hard. It’s meant to be done by professionals working full-time, but you would never know that based on the deluge of assignments and impossible class times. She worked herself to the bone while she was still working. Fortunately, she was eventually approved for a grant that allowed her to leave work and do school full-time. It meant things were tight, but it also meant school was doing well.
UNfortunately, once she started chemo, school got harder and harder to keep up. Chemotherapy essentially poisons your body; it’s why the side-effects are so terrible. You’re literally pumping toxic chemicals into your body in the hopes that it kills the cancer before it kills you. She grew extremely fatigued, couldn’t focus, got extreme sensitivity to cold from both taste and touch. She couldn’t walk barefoot in the kitchen without loosing sensation in her feet. She couldn’t pull things out of the fridge or freezer, couldn’t drink anything that was even cold, much less containing ice. Her potassium levels started tanking (which is, among other things, very bad for your heart). As tired as she was, she also suffered from insomnia. Nausea and vomiting came in waves, and the complications from the surgery meant she developed Short Gut Syndrome. She lost weight at a dangerous speed. And there were other side-effects. Eventually, it reached the point where she had to take a medical leave of absence from school, which was a devastating personal blow. She was later able to return to her old job, which was fortunately willing to be flexible with the hours and her needs, but school is such a deep and driving dream for her.
So why am I telling you this?
At the end of the month, my mom will be going into surgery again, a couple hours south of home. There’s a doc in DC that specializes in developing treatments for rare cancers. This protocol he’s developed, which other doctors also perform, is an aggressive combination of a long, intensive surgery and directly-applied chemotherapy. The side-effects of a direct-application chemo wash are significant, not to mention the incredible strain on the body that a long surgery produces. Provided all goes well, she’ll be in the Intensive Care Unit for several days, and then on the main surgical floor for two to three weeks (also provided all goes well). It’s an aggressive procedure, but it has a decent success rate, and if it does work, it has a significantly higher quality of life standard than continuing traditional chemo, which has thus far prevented new growth but not diminished old growth.
And we have no idea how much it’s going to cost.
Thank God, she has insurance through her job, but we don’t know how much it’s going to cover. We heard back from the office of the doc who’ll be doing the surgery, so we know things are covered on that end, but the hospital is a completely different story. Right now, her two-person household is a three-quarter income household, and once she goes down for surgery, she’s not going to be able to work until she’s fully recovered. She tried to make arrangements to work from home, and the doc was certainly willing to sign off on it, but the confidential nature of the work she does makes her employers unwilling to make the arrangements on their end. She has insurance, but no sick time. Some of her co-workers even tried to give her some of their sick time, but no dice. Her job will still be there when she gets back (and even that is a small miracle) but for the duration of her recovery, both in Daytona and here, there’ll be no income.
My mom was lucky enough to form an incredible study-group with some of her fellow Hoyas, and they support each other like you wouldn’t believe. Her phone is always going off with texts, and they moved from study-buddies into genuine friendships. When she had to take her medical leave, they kept her involved in classes by asking for her help editing papers, or helping them go over tests. When the rest of the group had to head to DC for an on-campus intensive for clinical skills, they printed out a picture of her from the previous OCI and Flat Stanley-ed her. They took ‘her’ along with them to clinicals, to meals, to drinks, to the hotel, out on walks, everywhere, and sent her pictures. They’ve committed themselves to helping her study when she comes back from medical leave, and if the procedure is successful and she’s able to join back in summer or fall semester, she’ll actually be able to walk at graduation with them next year.
And they’ve started a gofundme for her medical bills. Cancer is a debilitating disease–physically, mentally…and financially. It’s easy to say to ignore the money and focus on getting better, but that doesn’t work if the money ISN’T THERE. There’s only so much you can put on credit cards before you reach your limit, and all the well-wishes in the world don’t pay the rent.
I’m not really one to ask people for money, largely because I know better than most just how tight money can be. I live well below the poverty line, and am currently unemployed. The one advantage to that is that I can be down there with her at the hospital. But..I am asking. Politely, and with the complete understanding that money is tight, I am asking. If you can give anything to this fund to help my mother pay her medical bills and keep a roof over her head, even just a few dollars, THANK YOU. If you can’t give financially, you can still help by boosting the signal and sharing it with others, and THANK YOU. It’s funny, you’d think I’d be pretty good with words given the whole writing thing and all, but words really can’t express how grateful I will be for ANY help than can be given.
Again, here’s the link to help my mom hopefully kick cancer’s ass and still have her life to come back to when she recovers.
For any donation, for any share, for any signal boost, THANK YOU.
Tomorrow marks two weeks of unemployment for me. I’m not panicking yet- last time I couldn’t get a job, it stretched for a whole six months- but it’s led to a lot of thinking for me, in between the cleaning and procrastinating. Mostly, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about control.
Because realistically, I can’t control my employment. I can put out applications, I can search and interview and do my best, but I can’t control what actually happens. It’s led me to other things I can’t control.
I can write the best book I can write, but I can’t guarantee that the book will sell. It’s out of my hands, and in the hands of an editor who can decide that he or she wants to buy it. I can do my best, my fabulous agent can do her best, but in the end, it depends on a lot of factors, like what else is in the catalog, like what the current trends are, like the purely subjective likes and dislikes of an acquisitions board. A lot of factors, factors over which I have no control.
Once a book is out there, the way it’s perceived is entirely out of my control. Books become, to many readers, very personal things. The way we enjoy them, the way we react to them, says a lot about us. I can’t control what people think of my writing. Once it’s out there, I can’t argue with people that I think miss the point, can’t tell them what I meant to do. Hell, J.K. Rowling is a superstar and she can’t get away with it without a furor. And really, that’s as it should be. Once it’s in the hands of the reader, it’s open to interpretation, to personal perception. I can’t make anyone like my book. I can’t control whether or not someone enjoys it. Love it or hate it, it’s out of my hands.
Publishing is a crazy industry that attempts to balance art and business. It’s a juggernaut, really, that steams along to its own timeline. There are eight million numbers and considerations and factors and none of it is in my hands. I can make my contributions on one end or another, but I can’t control it. YA readers on Twitter the other day may have seen #TheArchivedNeedsaThirdBook. For some context, The Archived is an absolutely amazing book by Victoria Schwab. It’s creepy and atmospheric, exciting, heart-wrenching, unexpectedly funny, with the lyrical, gorgeous writing we’ve come to expect from Victoria. It’s sequel, The Unbound, came out at the end of January, and it is just as good. Where the first book was an external enemy, this book is largely internal; the main character is shattering and struggling to make everyone believe she’s okay. A very large part of this book is the realization that it’s okay to NOT be okay for a while after trauma. The story is such that things can end here; it’s the characters that need a third book, and there was originally supposed to be one, but as we know, in publishing, sometimes things happen. They’re not done intentionally, they’re not done to hurt anyone, but it is, at the end of the day, a business, and a business is about numbers and projects and yes, about passion. The hashtag was a fan movement to try to sway the publishers, but at the end of the day, a trending hashtag isn’t going to make a difference to the business. (It will, however, make a hell of a difference to an author to get that kind of outpouring of love and support). What makes a difference to the publisher is sales. Aside from the contribution of buying books from authors I love so they can hopefully make more of them, I can’t control other books. I can’t control other authors. I can’t control publishers, or timelines, or release dates. I can’t.
I’ll be honest, Other People as a collective tend to piss me off. Not in a “you’re awful” kind of way, but in an “I don’t want to be dealing with you” kind of way. I am an introvert; I prefer not to deal with people if I can possibly avoid it, because I’m awkward and self-conscious and I hate feeling like an idiot in social situations. But I learned a long time that I can’t control other people. I can’t control behavior, or statements, or preferences. I can take accountability for my own actions, but not for theirs. I can’t control luck or good fortune, or bad fortune, I can’t make other people live with compassion or mindfulness.
There are so many things out of our control it’s frankly a wonder we can convince ourselves anything IS in our control. There is so much about life that we don’t get to decide. We can’t choose the weather, or the climate (unless you choose to move, but even then, have you noticed how things have been recently?). We as individuals have a say in our government, but we don’t really choose it. We can’t control the jury summons or the illness or the falling in love. We can’t choose a lot of things, and where there is no choice, there is no control. It all seems rather a hopeless business, doesn’t it? But there’s something comforting, in a strange sort of way, about acknowledging how small we are, how generally powerless we are. Because when we admit to ourselves all the things we CAN’T control, we start to understand the things we CAN control.
I can’t control what happens with my writing, but I can control the writing itself. Yes, there are bad days, where every word is a struggle and I’ll probably end up deleting most of them the next time I sit down to work, but those are generally rare. More to the point, what I can control is sitting down and DOING IT. I can control the process of sitting my butt in the chair and WRITING. I can choose to open the file, the notebook, the book. I can choose to exercise my craft and expand my voice. Whatever comes after is out of my hands, but it is precisely in my hands to shape the story and spill it onto the page.
I’m not by nature a disciplined person, but I can change that. I can control that. I can make it better. Right now my apartment is slowly getting cleaner than any living space of mine has probably ever been, and it’s kind of creeping me out a little, because everything is getting organized and neat and in its place, and that’s just not normal for me. But I’m making the choice, here and now, to keep it that way. To start the good habits and maintain them. I’m usually someone who waits for the mood to write, or who waits for the day off, but I would very much like to get into the habit of writing at least five hundred words every day. Even if it’s not on my main project of the moment, just so I’m writing SOMETHING every single day. Starting good habits is hard. Maintaining good habits is REALLY hard. But- I can choose to have the self-discipline to enforce them, and right now, I choose that.
I’m not able to control what happens to my books, but I can choose to keep pursuing the goals I’ve set. I can control whether or not I give up. Determination, persistence, they’re hard, especially because they traverse so close to the border of delusional and trying too hard. Sometimes, no matter how badly we want something, no matter how hard we work for it, it just doesn’t happen, and we do have to accept that. Sometimes that means we have to shift our goals. It doesn’t mean we have to give up. Determination got me my first book deal. I can choose to continue that determination.
Okay, so this one is actually really difficult. Life has a way of throwing things at us, and it’s hard to control your outlook in trying times. But if I can’t control my emotions well enough to be optimistic, I can at least control them enough to not wallow in misery. I can choose to temper my outlook with a bit of joy and hope, or at least a really sick sense of humor. I can’t control the world, but I can control how I look at it, and I can control how I choose to move through it.
Because at the end of things, the only thing I can really control is myself. All those other factors, all those other things, that I can claim to control, all those really boil into one single thing: me. And as long as I can control myself, as long as I can choose to make myself better, to do better, I can get by.
And what that also made me realize is something else I can control.
I’ve been a bit squirrely for the past few months, and there were Reasons, but while I was in the midst of dealing with them on a daily basis, I found I couldn’t come home and explain it online, couldn’t talk about it more, but now I think it’s time for some explanations, largely because it’s also a form of goodbye. Not to you- I’m not leaving- but to my home for the past six years, and a large part of my life for twenty.
On 31st December, my Barnes and Noble closed its doors for the last time. This wasn’t an indication of how the company as a whole is doing, it wasn’t an indication of our store faltering or our local market not supporting us. Boiled down to its bones, our landlord didn’t renew our lease. There were details, of course, but to be honest, things got pretty messy after the announcements and it became a Big Thing, and in the interest of it not becoming a Legal Thing, I’m going to leave it at the lease.
Employees learned about it in September. Our District Manager was up (not unheard of) and she’d spent the day holed up in the office (not uncommon; even on store visits she still gets stuck on conference calls). What made it weird was the sudden appearance of our assistant store manager, who was supposed to be off that day and had been called in. Then the arrival of one of our merchandise managers, who was on vacation (but still in town). Eventually the other merch manager was called in, and then it was my turn, and by this point we were all wondering just what the hell what was going on. And the news was, we’d be closing at the end of the year.
When you hear something like that, there are any number of questions that bubble into your mind all at once, but damned if you can pull yourself together enough to ask them with any degree of intelligence. You want to ask about transfers, about severance, about eligibility for rehire, about insurance. But mostly HOW. Mostly WHY.
And once you get safely home and break down in private: What do I do now?
It was another month before we started telling customers, and even then we eased into a bit. There were a few of our regulars, people who are so much more to us than customers, that we told a few days early, but for the most part, we waited until the first clearance signs went up. We needed time to get used to it ourselves, we needed time to find out what we were allowed to say, how we were supposed to answer questions.
On October 27th, the first of the clearance sales went up. At that point, we had about 125,000 books and product in the store, and about a quarter of it went to clearance, all things that were unable to be returned to vendors. Unlike all of our previous clearance sales (because they happen about every two to three months), the dots marking the products were white, instead of red, and at every sale we had to warn people that these items could NOT be returned. I was actually somewhat shocked at how many people were utterly incurious as to why. But for most, this was where the questions began. The initial reactions were mostly shock and dismay. We were in our location for twenty and a half years, and a fair number of our customers have actually been with us the entire time. We used to have a hugely active preschool and elementary school community that partnered with us for events, and a lot of those kids who grew up in our store had started bringing their own kids in.
I never did the storytimes or the activities, but I was one of the kids who grew up in the store. I was there opening week with my mother, and it was the first time I’d ever told anyone that I wanted to published someday. I spent my allowance in this store, my birthday/Christmas/babysitting money. All of my original books were ruined in a house fire when I was 12, but three years later, I got to drop a couple hundred dollars in our Barnes and Noble (and trust me, I’d EARNED that babysitting money!) and finally got to buy my favorite books, the ones I’d checked out so often from the library that I could almost quote them. I still have almost all of those (some of the paperbacks have passed to friends as I’ve broken down and replaced them in hardcover), and sometimes it’s weird to look at the backs of the books and realize this was when mass markets were rarely higher than $4.99. Money wasn’t something we had a lot of, but when I had it, it tended to find its way to bookstore far more often than not. This store was a home for me, and as a child, I was awestruck by the idea that so much knowledge, so much wonder and imagination, could be contained within a single building.
There were tears from some of our customers, fury from others. There was a rather depressing indifference from some. But then, there were some reactions that utterly baffled us.
Like the man who said he wasn’t surprised we were closing, because we’d politely refused to place an order on Amazon for him because he didn’t want to bother with his computer.
Like the woman who sniffed and said it was about time, because we’d been unable to send someone to her home to diagnose her router issues.
Like the ones who said no one read anyway, or that books were dying, or that Amazon was a better place anyway. (And do you have any idea how difficult it is not to snap back that Amazon isn’t a place at all?)
But no matter how the conversation went, the fact was, the conversation happened. Again and again and again and again. So. Many. Times. A. Day. And it was exhausting. Because sometimes the conversation twisted around to “What are you going to do now?” and we didn’t know (many of us still don’t know) and it was terrifying and we really didn’t want to talk about the uncertainty of our future inability to pay our bills. And sometimes the conversation turned to “What am I going to do now?” and it was both strange and discomfiting that some people could be so incredibly selfish, when there are SO MANY avenues by which to acquire books. We’d have to explain that no, we weren’t simply moving locations, because those things take time and we didn’t have any. We’d explain again and again until finally we just wanted to hide in the breakroom and talk about ANYTHING ELSE because we could actually FEEL our brain cells dying. We’d get home and I know for myself, I could do nothing more than drop onto the couch and stare mindlessly at the TV. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t do anything that required actual thought, because I was just so mentally exhausted.
The news had come so out of the blue that most of our holiday orders were already locked in, so it took a while for our shelves to start to feel empty. But, slowly, the shipments slowed down. Gradually, our ability to restock the shelves was cut off, vendor by vendor, warehouse by warehouse. Eventually, our ability to order books for customers transitioned to only direct-ship. We had to shift constantly to condense those empty shelves, and as weeks passed, entire sections of the store were just bare shelves.
And as we got into December, the desperation ratcheted up. Our customers were desperate to believe that there was some kind of reprieve in store, that if they just wrote enough angry letters or made enough angry phone calls to our landlord, somehow everything would be okay. As employees, we were torn between wanting to believe that and wanting everyone else to stop believing it.
But, we found ways to entertain ourselves, in a thoroughly giddy, borderline-hysterical kind of way.
Thanksgiving weekend, our assistant store manager decided to gift-wrap the breakroom door. I helped, and then took it further, until all the interior doors save the bathrooms were bright and sparkly (but without glitter, because one of our merch managers freaks out at glitter).
We even found the polar bears because they make our store manager happy.
I have to admit, I kind of turned into a demented Christmas fairy, because it kept me busy. I made ornaments for everyone on staff. I made a wreath for our inner office. It kept me busy and kept me, a little bit, from fretting.
One night, one of my rare closing shifts, a couple of our cashiers decided to put out scrap pads (recycled page a day calendars) and asked customers to draw what they thought a whalien would look like. Sometimes they’d add a little explanation, but most of the time, they just would just say to draw what they thought it sounded like. I was astonished by how many ACTUALLY DID. We made a quilt of them. (I accidentally deleted that picture, but it was pretty awesome) It hung out at the cashwrap for that final week of business, and then the next couple of weeks of actually closing everything out, then moved to the fridge when we had to take those bays out.
For our final two days of business, our glitterphobe made us a playlist that included titles like “Final Countdown”, “Closing Time”, “End of the World (As We Know It)”, and other thematically appropriate (or inappropriate, all things considered) titles. The final day he included “Dance Magic” from Labyrinth, and “The Time Warp”, and we actually did dance the Time Warp in the cashwrap line. By the last day, we’d reached the point where we had to laugh like idiots because we just didn’t know what else to do and still function. (I’m told there’s video of that somewhere, but I haven’t seen it, so I’m pretending it doesn’t exist).
We closed on New Years Eve at 4 pm, because there really wasn’t much point in drawing it out, and we all trooped out across the parking lot to Ale House and started drinking. (Responsibly, but still, it was a drinking sort of evening).
For most of our staff, that was the end of it. As a store, we had over time transitioned into a staff made of disparate personalities that worked together really well. We didn’t have the big dramas that we’d had in some other incarnations of the staff, we didn’t have the fights. Were there issues? Sure. But we were also a staff that could talk through those problems, or take them to a manager for mediation without it being a tattle-tale situation. As a staff, we’d become very close-knit, family and friends. Saying goodbye that night was like a physical blow.
And yet, if I’m honest, I might be a little jealous of the people who go to leave when the store was about half full, because the actual process of closing out the store, seeing it disappear little by not so little every day, was heart-breaking. (And back-breaking) Day by day, we watched the store dwindle into nothingness.
We had to return all of the books that were left, which tallied up to about 65,000 units once the doors closed. We had to sort them by vendor, scan them, box them, try to get the box packed as efficiently as possible with a 50lbs weight limit in mind, label, them, and stack them. Then, either the guys in the evening, or I the next morning, would move them into the back room and stack them onto palettes. Over time, that equaled over 36,000 lbs. That’s right, over 18 TONS of books. One of those days included me packing up all of our copies of A Wounded Name. In a way, I was lucky- my book was in my store. My dream of seeing my book on the shelf of THIS Barnes & Noble, THIS store that I grew up in, came true, and I got to have my signing. But returning those books was shattering. We got an insane amount done each day, but…
..some days you just had to take a break…
…and if you sat too long in the wrong spot, you took the risk of becoming part of the furniture.
We had to figure out what was going to other stores, and how we could pack them, and tear down sections to load into the truck, and the information kept changing, constantly, so we never really had a full idea of what was going on. We had to figure out what we could donate to different organizations, what we were allowed to sell to other organizations. One of our poor guys spent about three days doing nothing but shredding, sitting huddled in our cold back room as it emptied around him, because the cold kept the silly machine from overheating quite as often.
When the demolition crew came in, I think what hit me hardest was the destruction of the theme wall and children’s octagon. Before moving to receiving, I was the Kids’ Lead, and I loved it. Kids books, from board book through YA, are my heart, and watching it get literally torn to pieces was devastating. The sequence was just..GAH.
This was before, and then there was this:
(Okay, yes, we sent our manager’s grandson down the wall mounting. Okay, FINE, I went down a few times too)
But even when we had moments to rest or laugh-
-things just kept going away.
Over the course of seventeen days, we saw a healthy store diminish into an empty space that suddenly, shockingly, seemed as tiny as we’d always sort of known it was. It’s only 12,000 square feet. In terms of bookstore space, that’s minimal. And yet, with the shelves and the books, with the vitality, it seemed so much bigger.
Friday was our very last day. We cleaned, we waited for our equipment to pick up, and then it was time to say goodbye. I worked at that store for six years, but it was a part of my life for more than twenty. And the truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing from here. I had some applications out, one of which got me very excited about taking new paths, but they didn’t pan out. There will be many more applications in the next few weeks. Hopefully something will work out, hopefully it will turn out to be a great thing, a good opportunity in something new, something exciting. But for right now, I don’t know.
It’s hard to go into the plaza and see that empty space. It’s hard to go to bed whenever and get up whenever, because I don’t have any particular place I have to be. My apartment is in the middle of getting cleaner and more organized than it has ever been (or might ever be again), and it’s kind of creeping me out, because I don’t stress clean. It’s also not done yet, but it’ll get there, and I have this awful feeling that I’ll get everything put perfectly in a place and I’ll still be unemployed. It’s hard to walk out of the grocery store and see nothing but this:
Things end, and sometimes it sucks, and sucks royally, and I’ll be honest, I’m not yet at the point where I can nod and accept that things might yet turn out for the better. I’m not at a point where I can be philosophical or hopeful about it. But, I think I might finally be at a point when I can ask a favor of all of you.
If you have a favorite bookstore, whether it’s chain or indie, let the employees know how much you love the store, how much you appreciate them. Make the decision that the buck or two extra, or the day or two extra, is worth shopping there to support them, rather than Amazon. Write, call, or e-mail the landlords to tell them how much you value the store. Support your local stores, and help them stay where they are, because seriously, while the internet is a wonderful community (most of the time) there’s just nothing that beats having a bookstore as a part of your experience. As much as it hurts now that my store is closed, I wouldn’t trade those years growing up in the store for anything. Bookstores and libraries were- and remain- my favorite places, and I know a lot of you are the same way.
So talk about your bookstores.
Tell the employees.
Tell other customers.
Tell the landlords.
Tell anyone you can think of that might listen.
Things are hard for bookstores right now, because online is so convenient, and usually cheaper, and sometimes faster. That isn’t what happened to us, but it could have been. A bookstore closing- for any reason- is never less than a tragedy.
I think this is a question authors get more than any other. Probably even more than “What’s it called?” or “What is it about?”, it’s “How’s the book doing?” And the thing is, and most people don’t realize this, it’s actually a super rude question.
I mean, think about it. When you ask someone how a book is selling, what you’re really doing is asking them how much money they’re making. It’s like going up to someone in a doctor’s office and asking them their salary. Most people who ask this aren’t intending to be rude or nosy. They just don’t think about it, about what they’re actually asking.
I get this question from friends, from family, from co-workers, from customers, even from complete strangers who happen to overhear part of a conversation where it comes up that I have a book. “Oh, how’s it selling?”
My usual answer is that I have no idea, and it’s true. I don’t. I haven’t asked, I don’t intend to ask. Perhaps it’s cowardly of me, but frankly, I don’t feel like knowing a number or a range is going to do anything productive. It’s not magically going to make sense or give me context. And the thing is, while it won’t do anything productive, it is very likely to do something catastrophic.
Okay, not catastrophic, precisely, but still uncomfortable and damaging.
Because there’s a transition between writer and author, where we suddenly have to confront the fact that we no longer write in a bubble. Before publication, there’s this…serenity, of a kind, in approaching a new project. It might be scary and overwhelming and more than we think we can handle, but the only pressure (and the only perceived pressure) is what we put on ourselves as artists. Within that bubble, it’s just us and the characters, and maybe critique partners. Maybe there’s a part of our brain dreaming of bestseller lists and foreign sales, but it’s a small part, and most of our attention is fully immersed with the store. Our expectation is on what happens next to our characters, to our world, and not on what happens next to the book.
I’m the first to admit I’m a quirky writer. I mull over a project for weeks or even months before I actually open the first document to start. What that means for me is that I tend to draft very quickly. The first draft of what became A Wounded Name took twenty-three days. That being the case, I tend to write three or four projects a year. Not all of these will go on to become anything (in fact I’d guess a good half of them never will, and I’m okay with some of those) but it’s a very strange year that I have less than three complete novels written.
In 2012, I signed with an agent and sold what became A Wounded Name, but the number of people who actually saw the manuscript was still pretty small. It wasn’t out in the world yet, there was no sense of expectation, so I wrote as I normally do and never really noticed a difference. There was maybe a new excitement, a new hope, but I was still in that bubble.
Then, in early 2013, the first ARCs came out. People were reading my book, the first reviews were coming online. And suddenly no matter what I sat down to write, I was suddenly wondering what other people would think. What would readers think of this character’s action? What would reviewers think of this twist?
AND IT’S CRIPPLING.
I wrote two things this year. TWO. One of which was a strong foundation but will need a complete rewrite, and the other was itself a rewrite. But seriously, just two. Which probably isn’t weird for anyone other than me. But I kept questioning myself as I was plotting, as I was drafting, and it made things choppy and awkward and most importantly, made me full of self-doubt. I couldn’t write like that, and as the year went on, as the other stresses added on, it made it impossible to write at all. And then the book actually came out. Suddenly The Question was coming a great deal more.
Because when someone asks The Question, it isn’t merely that there’s a person asking me about potential income. Because in the moment between The Question being asked and my managing a response, there’s a steady stream of “What if it doesn’t sell enough to earn out? What if the sales are so spectacularly bad that no publisher will ever want to buy any book I ever write ever again? What if this is the only thing I’ll ever publish? Oh God, this is all I’ve ever wanted to do and what if I never get to make a career out of this and–” and then I remember that I’ve just been asked The Question and I smile painfully and say that I don’t know.
The conversation moves on but my thought process doesn’t. Even hours later, I’m still stuck on this crippling fear that I’m not doing enough, and I get home and I try to write and nothing comes out. I stare at a blank page, a blank screen, and nothing happens because where dialogue and narrative and story should be, there’s only fear and doubt.
I know what I need to do. I need to find a way to reclaim the process, to make it just for me again, at least until a story is mature enough to send out into the world by one means or another. I need to forget about the expectations, about the pressure, about the possibilities, and write only for me. It’s the only way I’m going to manage anything productive. I made a good start on that, today actually, but I know I’m going to backslide, and a large part of that is people with perfectly sweet, supportive intentions asking me how the book is doing.
If you know an author with books out, please I am begging you don’t ask them how the book is selling. Ask them how their current project is going; this is always a safe inquiry, because even if they aren’t actively writing or editing something at the moment, they’re still mulling over something. Maybe it’s only in its larval stages, but every writer has a current project. Always. Ask them what comes next- not what book comes out next, what comes next. Maybe it’s a different kind of project, a different genre, a different tense, a different age group. Maybe it’s a book of poetry, or a self-help guide, or something completely unexpected. Hell, maybe it’s a vacation, or research.
But please don’t ask how their book is doing.
This is another one of those posts where I do a shameless plug for my workplace, but it also means good news for anyone in the area, because we have author Rick Yancey coming back to the Gainesville Barnes and Noble!
If you live anywhere near a Barnes and Noble, you might want to drop in this coming Friday, November 22nd. BN is kicking off the holiday season with Discovery Friday, a full day of activities, giveaways, contests, storytimes, and author events. You can even enter to win a $1000 shopping spree! You can check out the full array here, which will give you the listings for stores in your area.
Our location is thrilled to have Rick Yancey back with us for a talk and signing for The 5th Wave. We’ll also have the Monstrumologist and Alfred Kropp series books available. The talk will start at 7pm, followed by the signing.
If you can’t make it out? Well, we’ll miss you! But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out. Call the store any time between now and 645 pm on Friday, and you can order a personalized book over the phone, and we’ll get it shipped out to you. You can probably make it happen during the event itself, but be careful: you don’t want to call too late. We’ll have signed stock after the event, so you can still get signed (but not personalized) copies afterwards (HINT HINT: they make excellent gifts through the many approaching holidays).
If you have any questions, you can call the store, and keep an eye on the BN facebook page and the #BNDiscoveryFriday tag on Twitter for more updates and information on the giveaways and activities. (Or ask here, and I’ll answer what I can, remembering always that I am not an official spokesperson for Barnes and Noble and that my words do not represent the company, I’m getting so good at these disclaimers.)
Okay, so obviously, if you haven’t read Allegiant, DO NOT READ THIS POST. Unless you have absolutely no intention of reading it, in which case spoilers aren’t really going to affect you one way or the other. But seriously, pretty much the entire post is made of SPOILER.
How this is going to work: I want to evaluate the responses I got to the survey, but I also want to talk about my own responses to the book. So. The questions are going to be written in bold, the gathered responses will be discussed straight out, and my own responses are going to be italic. And just as a warning, this will be a very long post.
If you were living in the city, what faction (or lack of faction) would you choose?
Unsurprisingly, Dauntless won out by a large measure, almost twice as much as any other faction (40%). Next up, and fairly evenly matched, were Erudite (24%) and Amity (21%). Abnegation followed at 11%, and Candor came in last with 6%. There were a couple of fluke answers (again, the Star Wars, and one that thought I was asking if they’d choose to have factions or not), but I have to admit, I wasn’t shocked by Dauntless winning out. Part of that is our main characters coming from or choosing that faction- we naturally sympathize with our main characters, project our values or virtues onto them and vice versa, but we tend to cling to that even against honest assessments of our own characters. What did surprise me was that Abnegation came ahead of Candor. Selflessness is a difficult concept to live up to, and honesty-especially the frequently tactless sort of honesty Candor espouses- can seem a great deal easier.
I’d love to say I’m the type of person to choose Dauntless- not the cruelty, not the recently enforced and inescapable hierarchy of brutality, but the courage and the resourcefulness and the sense of protection that strength can offer to others, that appeals to me. More honestly, however, I’d have to say Erudite. There’s something very safe about knowledge. Even when we’re overwhelmed by how much we don’t know, even as our understanding of the world makes us feel very small and insignificant, knowledge and its pursuit is still a very safe place, like we can run from all the problems in the world so long as we can only find a way to research and produce an answer.
What is your favorite book of the trilogy?
The response was fairly overwhelmingly Divergent. The third book got several votes, and there was a lone call for the second one, but for the most part, it was decisively the first.
For me, it’s also the first one. The first one was something fresh and amazing. It introduced a distinct world with the factions, but also introduced an element of choice. Tris was a character who didn’t know her own strength, who would be forced by her own choice into a series of circumstances that would not only test that strength, but also force it to either grow or break. The language irritated me a little-it felt a little formal, a little (unintended pun) stiff, very much a product of an MFA program, if that makes any sense. That feeling intensified through the second book, and even more into the third book, and the sense of audience expectation, of strain, even of the stress of writing under a deadline, also manifested into something that felt like it needed a great deal more editing. Of the three, the first was by far the tightest in story and character.
From 1 to 5 stars, how would you rate this book?
Excluding the outliers, as an average across the gathered responses, it came to about 3.6, which is actually pretty on par with the larger spread. On Goodreads, for example, across 38,694 ratings, it has a 3.78 average. (By outliers, by the way I mean the Star Wars and the number with so many digits I’m not even sure I could read it out loud) From those nearly 40K ratings on GR, it splits out to: 13,223 5s (34%); 11,275 4s (29%); 8435 3s (21%); 3827 2s (10%); and 1924 1s (5%). (Compare this to the feedback on Amazon, with 2,395 ratings and an average of 2.8).
Also interesting to note is the difference between that and the average for the first book. Granted, Divergent has been out for two and a half years, so it’s had time to garner a lot more ratings, but on the whole, those rating are also a great deal more positive. On Goodreads, Divergent has 446,070 ratings and an average of 4.38 (5/231,618/52%; 4/122,488/27%; 3/43,715/10%; 2/10014/2%; 1/3792/less than 1%).
I find that interesting mostly because it supports the numbers of which book of the trilogy was each person’s favorite. I’m honestly not very good at the whole data analysis thing, one of many reasons psychology and sociology were struggles for me in school, but I like when the numbers don’t make me feel like a complete idiot.
My initial response was a 5, but that was mostly out of a knee-jerk reaction to the ending. After thinking through it a bit more, I would probably go for a 3.5 or a barely-4. It was a fairly scattered book, in my opinion, in need of much tighter editing, and the science felt specious and rushed. The characters felt rather inconsistent and there were a lot of things that were dropped. I think what it really comes down to is that I spent most of the book bored. For me, the ending is what saved it, both as a book and as a trilogy.
Who is your favorite character in the series?
Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the responses came back as Tris and Tobias together. They’re the main characters, after all, so it makes sense. Behind them, though, came a strong showing for Uriah. Christina and Caleb both got a couple of votes, and there were some strays for Johanna, Matthew, Zeke, Will, and Marlene.
Honestly I don’t think I have a favorite character, and there were a few of those in the responses as well. If I had to choose one, I’d probably choose Cara, for the way she adapts, the choices she makes, the way she can take the same overexposure to the outside world that shatters Peter and instead make it a new motivation for a larger life.
What was your favorite part of this book?
Fairly overwhelmingly, the answers all focused on Tris and Tobias, on their relationship. The actual moments varied- drinking soda for the first time, the picnic, the kissing, etc- but far and away the most common response had something to do with Tris and Tobias together. Following that were moments with Tris and Caleb, especially when they played Candor.
Somewhat surprising, though, was the number of responders that said they had no favorite part, and I can’t help but wonder if that would have been their response had they been stopped before the ending and asked that question. That is, did a general disappointment in the ending discolor the entire book? And looking across the line of responses, those who responded with none were in fact incredibly disappointed or even angry with the ending. There’s not enough to support a direct correlation, but it’s a theory I enjoy.
My favorite part was actually right at the very end, when Tobias went ziplining to spread Tris’ ashes. The fact that it took him so long to recover enough to have that sort of ceremony, the fact that he did it in such a way as to make it exceedingly appropriate for her even though it terrified him, that moment made a massive impact. It’s bittersweet, certainly, but it also has a sense of rightness that ripples back to the climb in the first book.
What was your least favorite part of the book?
This is another non-shocker: many of the responses were directly connected to Tris’ death, followed by Uriah’s death. What was interesting, though, was how many of the responses mentioned the writing. “The dual narratives were confusing at times”, “The middle info dump”, The shaky science”, “It felt rushed, the characters all felt like they’d lost their personalities”, as well as the inconsistencies in Tobias’ character. These things came up in the responses again and again. As far as the narration, one of the responses hit in right on: the voices weren’t distinct enough. They both had the polished, slightly over-formal feel that struck more of MFA than of Abnegation stiffness. The genetics came up frequently in the responses as being rushed and confusing, or as feeling incredibly out of place. A good fifteen to twenty percent of the response dealt with Tobias. “Tobias’ personality morphed a bit”, “Tris and Tobias spent the whole book fighting, showing no character growth”, “How weak Four seemed at times”, “Four seemed like a different person”.
I think part of the dissatisfaction with Tobias is that suddenly we’re inside his head. We’ve only ever seen him from Tris’ eyes before, and now we’re getting his thoughts, his doubts, in a way he wouldn’t necessarily have voiced to her before. We’re understanding him in a much closer way, so naturally our perception of him is going to shift. The science I completely agree with; it felt rushed and very gap-toothed, like the frequent repetition of something was going to suddenly let it make sense. The serums came into massive significance but they were also let loose rather without consequence. The actual plot felt rushed in order to give Tris and Tobias plenty of time to fight and make out. I think this is probably one of the very few books where I’ve ever thought “Oh God, they’re kissing again?” because it seemed less like tender moments between characters deeply connected than it did a constant, low-buzz distraction, like the fly going around the room. It dragged at the pacing. This is a big book, but it reads very slowly and with an effort. I felt like I was trudging through it, because the pay offs on the action were so few and far between and it felt like there was so much extraneous activity (like Four and Nita going off on their little trip- where was the payoff?).
Would you read this book again?
This was a solid mix of everything from OH MY GOD YES to HELL NO and everything in between. Many of the responses were actually split within themselves, some of them coming to “everything but the ending”. Of all the questions, this one had the strongest mix of responses, and while the yes answers were fairly straightforward, the nos were incredibly passionate (for example YES BUT NOT BECAUSE I HATE THE ENDING I AM NOT EMOTIONALLY STABLE, caps and all, NO WAY too heartbreaking, which came across more than once).
I will eventually, because in a few years I’ll want to read the trilogy as a complete entity, but the only one I’ll reread more than once will be the first one. That one I enjoy revisiting from time to time, but Insurgent and Allegiant both drag too much for me to want to read them at all frequently.
What are the biggest things you look for in the ending of a book?
There were two responses that came up more than any other, and nearly equal to each other: closure, and a happy ending. Nearly half the answers wanted a sense of closure, the resolution of characters and storylines, perhaps not answering every question down to the last detail but weaving together the important things. Nearly the other half wanted a happy ending, either veiled in a theory of redemption or just flat out stated as a happy ending, no strings, no conditions. Satisfaction and a sense of purpose came through, and there were frequent mentions of cliffhangers being evil. Also mentioned was the desire for cliffhangers for books that don’t end a series. I think my favorite response was “for me, a book needs to leave you feeling lost, or it hasn’t really done its job of making you feel a part of the story”.
The question was meant to be general- what are the things you look for in the ending of any/every book? But a fair number of the responses tailored specifically to this book and this series, or tailored to what they DON’T want in a book.
I have to agree with the first half of the answers: I want a satisfying resolution that makes sense within the story, characters, and world, something that wraps up the loose ends without leaving stray holes but also opens up an imagined future for the characters beyond the scope of the story. I don’t necessarily want to know what that future is. Seeds, perhaps, at most, but mostly I don’t want to pretend that the world stops when the story does. Part of that is the fanfic writer in me. I love the world beyond the story. But part of loving that world means loving the stories and their resolutions. Do I mourn when a character I love dies? Absolutely. But what I’m looking for is for that death to make sense within the story. I want that sense of completion.
What are the biggest things you look for in the ending of a trilogy/series?
For the most part, the answers here mirrored the responses above: closure or a happy ending, though happy ending made an even stronger showing here. What surprised me, though, was the number of people what wanted an epilogue. Something that shows the characters two, ten, twenty years down the line, a la Harry Potter or Hunger Games.
The same thing that many people were asking for- the epilogue later on- is the biggest thing I hope I won’t find in a series ending. For the most part I look for the same things as the end of a book, except on a larger scale. The individual threads, the ones new to the final installment, should be wrapped up, as should the threads of the series. It’s part of what makes the ending of a series so challenging, trying to wrap everything up and not let any of the balls drop. I want to believe that the characters’ stories continue after the story we’re told, but I don’t want to details of them. I want my imagination to be given to the greater possibilities.
Do you feel authors have a responsibility to provide their readers with a happy ending?
I kind of loved this set of responses, because it was fairly evenly split between yes and no, it was the way the answers were given that really just gave me a kick. There were a lot of nos that immediately complained about how the ending wasn’t happy. There were ones that said no but it’s a young adult book so it should have a happy ending. “No, but I feel they should have an emotional connection to their characters, and much more of that than the reader(s). Because of this, they should feel responsible for what happens throughout the book”- this is one of my favorite responses, largely because I really wonder at where the perceived irresponsibility comes from. Because Tris died? Because Roth pulled a strong emotional response from her audience?
Another very passionate answer “No. Authors are the creators/writers, and they can do anything they want. It’s fiction. BUT. As a reader, I expect SOMETHING. ALLEGIANT broke a trust I didn’t realize I had until I read the book. And that trust is that certain characters are safe and untouchable, and trust you that, in the long run, they may get seriously injured and all that, but they will LIVE. And ALLEGIANT broke that. Anyone can die, but I expect THE Main Character and THE Love Interest to live together forever, happily ever after, the end” So that is an expectation. It says no, but all the rest of the answer says yes, I’ve been betrayed by the lack of a happy ending. We can’t feel betrayed unless we feel someone else has gone against their responsibility. I’m not sure where we get the idea that main characters should always live, that everything after a certain point should be rainbows and unicorns.
Most of the no responses were conditional, and most of those conditions directly negated the fact of the no. I’d love to see a genuinely psychological survey and study on this, because it seems like no is the instinctive response, the “I”m a rational human being” response, but that the actual gut feeling is YES. We’re owed this for reading, for buying. We’re owed certain outcomes. But there were some that were incredibly emphatic no, such as “Hell no. That is a profoundly stupid idea”.
And, of course, there was a lot of YES. This idea that because we’re invested in a character or characters, because we’ve trucked along with them, cared about them, we’re owed a positive outcome. An author’s responsibility becomes our emotional well-being. They’ve asked us to care, and we care, and we’re owed some kind of reward for that.
I detest the idea that authors are responsible for anything more than producing a well-crafted book with compelling and consistent stories and characters. An author’s job is to serve the stories and character. Not the reader. It’s where the line between art and product blur. Because we put money into purchasing the book, because we put time into reading it, we think we’re entitled to a certain resolution. I think it’s BS.
My favorite books are rarely overall happy endings. They’re usually bittersweet at best, the happiness of the resolution shadowed by the consequences of the actions it took to get there, and the price that was paid for them. In other words, my favorite books are usually those whose patterns mirror the world in which we live. The ones that feel the most real. I find deliriously happy endings to be forced, usually a cop out, and a compromise of the high stakes of the rest of the story. And because those bittersweet or even tragic endings mirror our reality more closely, because they’re the ones that feel more real, they’re the ones we tend to remember. Shakespeare’s tragedies are far more well known than his comedies. People who don’t know Shakespeare all that well, people who haven’t studied him or read him for fun, can usually name the tragedies. A lot of them can’t name the comedies. But we remember Romeo and Juliet twined together lifelessly in the tomb, we remember Horatio sitting there surrounded by corpses as it falls to him to explain everything that’s happened, we remember MacDuff carrying MacBeth’s head back onstage on a pike, even as he knows that death won’t bring his wife and children back from death. We remember the endings that carry with them a high emotional toll, whereas happy endings tend to blur together.
The author’s only responsibility to the readers is to produce a GOOD BOOK. If a happy ending contradicts the story and the characters, if a happy ending cheats everything that’s been sacrificed and won and lost, it’s an author’s responsibility not to reach for the cop out. Even when it’s hard, even when it causes a backlash by people who cannot comfortably separate reader expectation from author responsibility.
Do you feel proprietary towards characters?
This was a fun one, because even though most of the specific responses were no, many of the responses across the lines said yes, very much so. Where people said no, some of them echoed that idea all across the line. No, an author isn’t responsible for a happy ending. No, they’re not enraged by Tris’ death. No, they wouldn’t change it. It’s a consistent answer. But a LOT of the answers to this question were no, even where there is a clearly proprietary rage and dismay across the individual’s other answers.
And this was, perhaps, the one question where people didn’t answer it. They sidestepped it, made a comment on something else, something that should have been different, should have been changed, and I wonder if it’s because they didn’t like the honest answer they came up with.
Because admitting that we feel proprietary about someone else’s characters feels an awful lot like stealing, right? We can take the half step back and remember that they don’t really belong to us. Except…when we get that emotionally invested, we can’t take that step away, we can’t get that little bit of distance, but there’s still that part of our brain that says no, this is not a rational way to behave. So rather than listen to that voice and confront the dissonance in behavior, we avoid it.
I’m not sure if this comes out of being a writer or a fanfic writer, but no, I don’t feel proprietary towards any characters other than my own, and even then half the time I have to admit that they’ve somehow moved beyond being mine at all. When writing (or reading) a fanfic, there’s a disclaimer at the top of every story, usually every chapter, reminding the reader that the writer is not claiming any of this as their own. They don’t own this. This is not theirs. You put the disclaimer up there for legal reasons, but it also serves as constant reinforcement that you’re playing in someone else’s world. This carries over to readership as well.
If your answer to the previous question was yes, do you feel the urge to lash out at the author?
Like the previous question, the single most common answer was “No but”, then some conditional reason why they really did want to lash out and yell at the author for This or That. Of these, the most common answer was that the respondee had no desire to read another Veronica Roth book in the future. Equally common was no, but I will make my displeasure known in a review/blog post/rant.
What I saw in a lot of these responses was a desire for an explanation. People wanted answers from Ms. Roth as to why she would do this, why would she hurt characters this way, why would she betray readers this way.
My first response would be not applicable, because I don’t feel proprietary towards the characters, but I’ll add to that by saying I don’t understand the impulse to lash out at authors. Get pissed at an author? Sure. I get that. But the lashing out, that I don’t get. When the ending to the last Sookie Stackhouse book was leaked, Charlaine Harris actually received death threats.Death threats. In what way does that make sense? Books can be an escape, books can be entire worlds unto themselves, but they’re not OUR world. To invest ourselves so heavily into fictional characters that we’re willing to offer harm to another REAL human being…I don’t understand that.
If your ‘ship doesn’t work out, does it automatically lower your overall rating of a book?
Given the incredibly passionate responses to the other questions, I was fairly surprised to see that this was mostly answered with no. There’s a scattering of yes, some “it depends”, but most were no. Favorite response? “Piss on shipping. What a stupid way to read.” Most of what I saw was “No, as long as it makes sense why it didn’t work out”. Again there was a request for an explanation, this idea of “It’s okay if it doesn’t work out as long as you tell me why”.
I tend to ‘ship less than anti-’ship, as strange as that sounds. I’m willing to accept the pairings as given as long as they make sense to me, make sense within the story. Where I tend to get a little ranty is when the pairing doesn’t really make sense. Like Hermione and Ron ending up together. That irritates me, mainly because their personalities, as given, are not conducive to a functional long term relationship. But it’s irritation, and I can ignore it if I focus on the story rather than what comes after. Because the thing about relationships is, even if we call it true love, most pairings wouldn’t actually last that long after the story is over. They’re puppy love, or high-adrenaline love, a relationship based on high stakes events and intense circumstances, where disparate personalities can do better together than in more restful times. Which, if I’m honest, is what I would have expected had Tris lived. If Tris and Tobias both lived and got to pursue their ever after, I don’t really imagine them staying together more than a few years. The friction we saw between them in this book wasn’t going to just disappear once this story finished; it just would have found different ways to manifest. Are there teenage relationships that last a lifetime? Absolutely. But they’re rare, which is why we tend to hear a lot about the ones that do work and last.
There were four more questions, but I’m going to save those for next week, because these are the ones where responses get very unique and I don’t want to gloss over them (and because this post is super long already). These are the questions that focus very specifically on the ending, and I’m definitely looking forward to sharing them with you.
Until next time~
Art, in any of its myriad mediums, has a schism most people don’t even realize exists. It’s a difficult idea, an oversight that’s somehow ingrained in our cultural consciousness. It’s surprisingly simple, too, when we look at it flat on a page.
The artist is not his or her art.
It seems obvious, right? Of course there’s a divide there, of course the artist is completely separate from the art he or she produces. Only, that’s not how we tend to think, or react. We walk out on this invisible bridge and never notice the transition from artist to art.
How we regard an artist very frequently colors how we look at his or her work. We make assumptions about people based on their performances or creations, but conversely, we also make assumptions about the work based on what we know of the artist.
Have you ever learned something totally awful about an actor, and when you go back to watch one of your favorite movies they happen to be in, you’re totally bummed because instead of enjoying the movie, all you can think about is how this really hot guy you previously admired as an actor just got arrested for drunk driving and smacking around his girlfriend?
Have you ever watched an interview with an actress that was so incredibly funny, where she came off as so real and down to earth and AWESOME that even though you didn’t like her movies much, you’ll still watch them, just because she’s cool?
We do it with books, too, which may seem odd to some. I mean, actors, they’re out there celebrities, right? They have no private lives because they belong to their audiences? Authors are more private, we think. Actors create art using their bodies, their voices, every part of them as the medium. Authors, we think, create something completely separate from them.
We think that, anyway. Truth is, what we think of an author REALLY colors our perception of the work.
My friend Shae has talked from time to time about author behavior and how authors behaving well can make her interested in a book she might otherwise not read. It’s a bottom line sort of thing–authors who behave well are more likely to get her money, whereas authors behaving badly–being nasty, arguing over reviews, attacking bloggers, etc–are very UNlikely to get her money.
I certainly think there’s something to that. When an author throws a public hissy fit pissing and moaning over a criticism someone dared to give their precious book-baby, it’s hard to take him or her seriously as an author. Rather than regarding him or her as an artist with a completely separate work of art, we think of a child throwing a tantrum. There’s nothing worthwhile in that. There’s nothing in that behavior worth investing in.
In some respects, it’s easy enough to separate. Author A is an ass, so we don’t read Author A. I’ll be honest, there are some people I do this with. I’ve never had a particular interest in reading Nicolas Sparks. What he writes isn’t really in my areas of interest. I’ve read the synopses and some of the major-publication reviews for his books (I work in a bookstore, so when he has a new release coming up, people ask me what it’s about), and I personally get bored with relaying the plots, because there’s a level of sameness to them that turns me off. Whatever. No author is going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
What I find personally repellent, though, and the reason I will probably never read a Nicolas Sparks book and will certainly never buy one, is his attitude, his unflagging belief that only men can write anything of true legitimacy and we poor women simply lack the emotional and intellectual depth to rise above mere chicklit. I’m not a huge fan of the term chick-lit, and to his partial credit, neither does Nicolas Sparks seem to be, though his distaste is usually in regards to the term being applied to his writing. But, for the sake of general perception, we’ll let the term go in favor of getting to the deeper reality: Nicolas Sparks is the king of chicklit.
His books are out-of-the-box bestsellers, he has movie deals panting on the heels of contract announcements, and the overwhelming majority of his readership is female. His books are love stories. Sometimes bittersweet, sometimes shadowed by Issues, but they’re enthusiastically devoured by women.
But Nicolas Sparks says his books aren’t chicklit. He says they’re “love tragedy”. (Anyone who can tell wtf love tragedy is as a genre is a much smarter person that I am)
Through interviews over the course of years, he’s expressed abhorrence at the thought of being grouped with writers such as Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Piccoult, or Sophie Kinsella- in other words, female authors who are generally dismissed as writing chicklit. Or for the slightly more PC term, women’s fiction, which is really just as limiting and only slightly less derogatory.
Reading his interviews any time he’s asked about genre or similar writers leaves me genuinely angry, because I come away feeling like if I were one of his readers, he’d be insulting me for giving him my money.
Now, I really don’t know anything about Nicolas Sparks beyond those interviews. Well, much of anything, and scuttlebutt from booksellers who’ve worked his signings probably doesn’t count to a holistic view of a person. He may be a really good person, a great husband, a great father, a genuine guy who most people would personally admire. I have no idea. But when I’m being honest with myself, which I try to be, I can admit that I generally assume him to be kind of a douchecanoe. And that is based purely off the public perception I have through his interviews and question/answer periods at signings.
Having never had a particular interest in his books anyway, my assumptions about him don’t particularly bother me as a consumer. I’m not torn by the divide between the artist and his art because I’m not interested in either.
But sometimes, it is so much harder.
Tessa Gratton already talked about this more eloquently than I ever could, but if you’re any kind of sci-fi nerd (or even if you’re not, and just pay a smidgeon of attention to the internet at large), then you’re aware that there’s a huge kerfuffle in the fandom of “Ender’s Game”.
It’s a cult book. It’s hard to take someone seriously as a sci-fi nerd if they haven’t read this book. Fans have been waiting for the movie for two decades.
But the author is, in a very public way, someone who devotes great time and energy to hating significant portions of the population. He is someone who actively pursues not just the limitation of certain rights that should be seen as innate, but actually wishes harm on those people and those who support them. It’s not just time and energy he puts to these endeavors, either–he also puts his money to it, money he earns through the sale of books like “Ender’s Game”.
So it leaves his fans with a choice: get more of the books they genuinely love, because whatever his personality and outlook, he’s a hell of a writer, or stand on principle and refuse to buy his products, thus reducing the amount of money he has to put into disenfranchisement and hate.
And it’s HARD, when you really love the work. I remember the first time I read “Ender’s Game”. I’d previously read “Enchantment”, and loved it, but then the summer between high school and college, I was working at a Boy Scout camp, and my friend Casey loaned me a stack of books to get me through the summer. I think they lasted me about a week. This stack included “Ender’s Game”, “Ender’s Shadow”, “Children of the Mind”, “Speaker for the Dead”, and “Xenocide.” I really liked Game. I LOVED Shadow. Children, Speaker, and Xeno gave me my first appreciation for what books could look like when they ran amuck from the author. (Honestly, I kind of thought the trilogy was a hot mess) But I reread Game and Shadow a lot, and the idea of a well-done movie was terribly appealing.
And from what I’ve seen of the movie publicity, it looks like this production might be just that: well-done.
And a movie isn’t a book. Yes, an author flourishes when a movie does well, but it’s a different creative vehicle. The movie belongs to the director, to the producers, to the screenwriters, to the actors, to all the crew and everyone who works on the film. Is it really fair to punish all of them because you dislike the author of the original text?
But if you’re contributing to the general well-being of someone whose views you find abhorrent, aren’t you helping to spread those views, albeit unintentionally?
I don’t know the answer. I know a lot of people have chosen to boycott the movie, boycott the books. Those fans who agree with Card’s views are likely, for equally passionate reasons, to see the movie multiple times, buy multiple copies of the books to balance out. But I also know I haven’t been able to read Game or Shadow since I learned of Card’s outspoken views. I’ve tried, because I genuinely do love those two books, but I find myself looking for his views in the text. It’s hard to separate what he wrote from what he professes.
I know I wouldn’t want anyone to blur that line in my own stories, in my book. I know I wouldn’t want anyone to look at Ophelia’s passive acceptance of a number of abuses and wrongs and think I in any way believe that to be how things should be. We create worlds separate from ourselves. We invest ourselves in them, certainly, but they’re not our manifestos. It’s easy to argue that we our book should buy judgments of us only as writers.
Easy to argue–a lot harder to live by.
Until next time~
If you’ve been awake on the internet any time since Tuesday, you probably know that the ending to Allegiant by Veronica Roth has been raising a HUGE storm. People are dividing very passionately on this subject, and (no spoilers here on the page yet, I promise) it’s raising some surprisingly vitriolic responses.
I’d like to talk about my responses to the ending, but not yet. For several reasons. First, I’d like to give people more time to read it for themselves. Spoilers and the internet being what they are, it’s almost impossible to avoid them, but that doesn’t mean I have to feed directly into it. Secondly, I’m still in the process of taking OH MY *^@(&(*$(#^T$( GOD into English. And, finally, I’d like your input.
In a fit of technological courage (seriously, I’m about as computer savvy as I have to be for basic life in the internet age, but there’s still a very large part of me that’s convinced it’s all mirrors and gremlins), I made a survey THAT ASKS SPECIFIC QUESTIONS ABOUT THE END OF THE BOOK. In other words, if you click the link below, there will be spoilers. There are seventeen questions, and the only answers I’m looking for are honest ones. If you loved it, hated it, are one of the few people who are ambivalent about it, I’m not looking to bias you one way or the other, nor will your answers bias mine. (I’ve been arguing in circles with a friend all day, so I really can promise that) What I’m looking for is a sampling.
If you can take the time to fill out the survey, I would be very grateful, and I’ll be assembling the data into a post in a few weeks, integrating the responses into my own reaction to the book, to the series, and to the way things ended.
And again, I’d just like to firmly impress upon you the fact that THE SURVEY QUESTIONS CONTAIN SPOILERS. If you have not yet finished the book, please do not click the link until you’ve done so, preferably once you’ve had some time to back away from the initial gut reactions and get a feel for what the lingering impressions are going to be. The survey will be accepting responses for a couple of weeks, so feel free to bookmark this page and come back to it once you’ve finished, and if you can help me spread the word, I’ll be even more grateful.
Thank you, in advance, for your help with this Allegiant Survey.
What I will also ask is that you please not post spoilers in the comments below. Love it or hate it, the gut reaction to a book is something amazing to experience, and I don’t want to rob anyone of that. When I put up the later post, you’ll be welcome to post your own comments (unless they’re just plain hateful or attack the author, me, or each other in any way, in which case they’ll be deleted), but please don’t post spoilers here.
Until next time~