Monday, September 19, 2011

Pre-pub jitters

Today I received this Facebook message from one of my most darling friends:

"So at what point in the next 8 days will you not be able to sleep out of the stress of your book release? I just want to know so I can text you at 2am if you're up anyway. :):-)"

Without batting an eye, I replied:

"It's sort of low-key, actually... I don't have a book-release party (which kind of bums me out, honestly), the radio interviews are at about a one-a-day rate, the next book is going well, etc. On the 27th the book will be released, and then poof, it will just be on shelves and I'll sit at my computer and obsessively monitor sales at Amazon's Author Central."

Unfortunately, I'm what you could call a "highly suggestible person." I once went on a six-month organic-food obsession, way back when you could buy such things only at specialized grocery stores for ghastly amounts of money, while I was completely broke, because a random woman at a child's playgroup shot me a scornful look for mentioning that I bought conventional. On another occasion of note, I joined the LDS Church after I saw a Mormon woman I respected reading "The Diaries of Sylvia Plath." Hey, I love Sylvia Plath too! Sign me up!

Maybe I'm simplifying that last one just a bit, but the story is still true. And so all my dear friend E. had to do was ask if I was feeling nervous at all, and after denying it with an honest heart, I went on to send my editor and agent separate anxiety-ridden emails about every aspect of my book's release.

Part of this is my own fault. Just last night I was telling another dear friend, L., that I would feel like I had won at life if I ever made the New York Times bestseller list and saw my book on the shelves at Target. C'mon, who wouldn't? I'm the self-aggrandizing bastard who posted the video for "Centerfield" on Facebook the day I (finally) got a literary agent. I suppose I was feeling scrappy after my reply to E., because I decided take a look at the NYT list of trade paperback fiction to size up the competition.

That wasn't my brightest move. This is the stuff of which a dozen John Hughes films are made-- the scrawny and awkward teenager peeking into the locker room, or the cafeteria, or the gym while Prom is in full swing, and blanching pure white at the sight of all those tanned, buff, beautiful people who have actually completed puberty and are clothed in designer labels. After reading down that list-- The Help, Room, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Water for Elephants, Little Bee, etc, etc-- I closed out the tab, shut my laptop, and retreated to the pantry to find the Mallomars my aunt sent me last week.

The book will be out in eight days. I have no idea whether I'll ever be a New York Times bestselling author, or a for-sale-at-Target author, but come what may, I'll be an author. It's already been a hell of a ride-- more amazing than I ever hoped for. I have so many stories left to write, and that's the point of it all-- not the sales numbers, not travel or recognition, but the opportunity to write stories and share them with lots and lots of people.

If you see me weeping at Target, pat me on the shoulder and remind me about that.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's cancer, not a football game

Recently one of my friends sent me a link to this article about the death of Jack Layton, Canadian Leader of the Opposition, from cancer. She knew the focus of the article is a subject close to my heart: the way our society is fond of describing cancer as a "battle" that we "fight" and hopefully "win" rather than "lose." I can't remember a time when I didn't hate this conceit with all my heart, and this week it's a subject that is especially dear to me.

In The Kingdom of Childhood, Judy is mourning the death of her best-- and perhaps only-- friend from cancer. At one point she visits Bobbie's grave, and recalls a time when her hospitalized friend is told she's putting up a great fight. I'm not fighting anything, Bobbie snaps. I'm not winning. I'm not losing. I just lie here and it fucks me up. It's cancer, not a football game.

That's not in the story by accident. When I was 14, I lost my 11-year-old sister to cancer. She had been sick for three years, and I always felt uneasy, and sometimes downright disgusted, with the language of war that was inflicted on the poor kid. Heidi didn't seem to mind, and I can't speak for her-- maybe she found it inspiring, I don't know. What I do know is that cancer is a disease of cell mutation, not an assessment of one's character. Sure, we want to keep people's spirits up. We don't want them to feel passive and helpless in dealing with a daunting illness. I get all that. But when we use battle language for a medical condition, telling kids (especially!) that they're strong enough to beat this thing, to fight it-- they're going to win! They're going to show cancer who's boss!-- it puts a tremendous burden on the children themselves. It gives the treatment plan an overtone of being about the child's own effort, their will to live, their character. God help anyone who tries to tell me my sister "lost her battle" with cancer. She didn't lose a damn thing. She died of a disease.

Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with people calling themselves "survivors" of cancer or anything else. It's perfectly rational to note that you have survived a circumstance that others did not; my sister, for example, is not a cancer survivor. And I don't get all scrappy over the low-level use of "fighting" to describe trying to get over an illness; it's a reasonable verb to describe what the immune system does. What I object to is the flogging of the metaphor.

Case in point: the "Fuck Cancer" car-window stickers I've been seeing lately. On the one hand it feels jerky for me to criticize, because I've never had cancer, thank goodness, so who am I to talk? But I spent three of my most formative years living alongside a cancer patient, sitting at her bedside through her death, and then mourning her for a very long time. My family, in many respects, was torn to pieces by the shock waves from her illness. I can speak with great authority on what that disease can do to a person and to a family. And I still don't think that entitles anyone to the "privilege" of putting the word "Fuck" on their car window for my children to read. We can honor victims, donate money for research, work to assist families in crisis. We don't have to anthropomorphize cancer to the point that we're calling it out in front of small children using high-level profanity. Let's contain the damage just a little, okay? Can we agree on that?

This past week, one of my favorite cousins-- I don't have many at all, and so she is particularly dear-- informed me that she has cancer. Her doctors are optimistic and so is she, but there's nothing minor about what she's facing. My heart goes out to her, and I wouldn't dare attempt to tell her how she should frame her own illness in her mind. She has the right to do that any way she wants. But I can tell you how I'll approach it--with optimism that she will get better, keeping my appeals to my deity to myself, and not burdening her with the idea that her inner strength will be proven by this trial.

A life is not a "win" or a "loss." A life is a life. Let's agree to use language that honors that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I put the "me" in meme


My husband loves three things: his family, running into burning buildings, and spoofs of motivational posters. For years he's been completely enamored of Demotivators, those fake motivational posters made up of, for example, a picture of a bear about to feast on a feisty salmon plucked from the water, with the caption, "AMBITION: A journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly." More recently he discovered this internet meme called Courage Wolf, which is very similar to its above imitation: Writer Leopard. He tracked down Writer Leopard just for me, and I love it as much as he guessed I would.

Speaking of not letting your family read your work, some people might be curious, upon reading "The Kingdom of Childhood," as to how I could write such a book when my parents might read it. "Kingdom" delves deep into one of the most singularly uncomfortable topics of all time: parental sexuality. To put it in layman's terms, both Zach and Judy are deeply skeeved out by their parents' adventures in being human. It's something they can talk about with each other-- a topic that transcends age, because we never reach an age when we decide it's not icky to think about anymore. Believe me, I didn't write about it because I'm more comfortable with it than the average person. Maybe I'm just traumatized to the point that I had to write about it.

But to get back to the subject of how to channel your hostilities toward your family into your fiction without alienating them, this is not a topic I know very much about. I've already succeeded in alienating most of my family without even needing to venture into fiction, so that makes it relatively simple to write whatever the hell I want without worrying about who I'll embarrass. I can see how it would be difficult otherwise. Really, I don't want to hurt any feelings, don't want anyone to suspect they inspired a character who is less than likable. But in general, if a writer tries to create a "thinly veiled" character based on a real person, it doesn't come out well. Her impressions, her subconscious, her hurts and loves, are what inspires the work. And if anyone were to feel hurt by what my subconscious coughs up, I'm like the Honey Badger: I just don't give a shit. It's mine.

If you'd like to see more Writer Leopards, go here. And if you'd like to listen to me babble some more on my therapist's couch, go here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Over the river and through the woods


Last night I attended Alma Katsu's book release party for The Taker, her debut novel that is not a vampire novel. I'd met Alma previously at Keith Donohue's signing for Centuries of June, and-- as you can probably infer from the above photo-- I think she's terrific. She's a wonderful writer, a warm and supportive person, and as down-to-earth as you could ever hope for. I hope her book does wonderfully well.

The signing was held at One More Page in Arlington, which is about an hour from where I live (currently-- see "101 Reasons"). It just so happens that I'll be signing here on October 15, so I considered this trip a dry run for my own visit. If you live anywhere on or near the Eastern seaboard, you may have noticed it's been a little wet outside lately. But I wasn't going to let a minor downpour get in the way of supporting Alma, and it didn't hurt that I also had plans to meet another friend at the French restaurant around the corner. So risking my life for books and wild mushroom crepes seemed quite reasonable and in line with my general philosophy toward living.

I hadn't quite anticipated that I would need to ford Route 50. Did you ever play "Oregon Trail" back in the '80s? You know, that computer game in which you pretend to be a westward pioneer and make your little pixelated prairie folk travel past Chimney Rock and Fort Boise, avoid snakebites and dysentery, and eventually give up their pretty mustangs for less attractive oxen? Yeah, prior to last night that was my closest experience with floating my wagon across a rushing river. I figured if the Honda Odyssey in front of me could manage the rapids, then the swagger wagon could too. It took two hours instead of one. But I managed it, scored my signed copy and my French grub, and made it home in one piece. Never have I been happier to click the lock button on my key fob, but it was a great evening.

So I'll be there myself on October 15 at 2pm, signing The Kingdom of Childhood. Come pay me a visit!