literary fiction

Another Reason for Time

 In my new book, The Reason for Time, I quote Albert Einstein, who said: "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." A joke, with significance, and readers will learn that it is not the only justification for the title. But another reason for time is that it encourages reflection.

About eight weeks since the book was released by Allium Press of Chicago and introduced to readers in Gibsons, Vancouver, Toronto and Chicago. Reactions have been positive, enthusiastic. How a writer itches to hear, "I loved that book...," and readers I know, and don't know, as well as early reviews have outright said or indicated just that. At a book club group of young women readers in Chicago, I was particularly touched by how they related to the main character, Maeve, who lived 100 years ago yet had some of the same problems these 30-something's have today. It was also encouraging to meet readers at Chicago's Printer's Row Literary Festival whose ancestors had stories similar to Maeve, who even lived in her old (imagined) neighbourhood.

In this increasingly categorized world of books, I'm known as a writer of literary fiction. The Reason for Time is my first, and may be my only, novel that can also be described as historical. Inspired by the pure fluid voice of Fabian Bas in The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman, and the historical sweep and narrative invention of John Dos Passos, in his U.S.A Trilogy, I hope I've achieved the truth of my character Maeve Curragh, who lived through that one crazy week in Chicago that started with a dirigible crashing into a downtown bank building and ended with the worst of 25 race riots in the "Red Summer of 1919."

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"The dirigible fell that fast..."

(From, The Reason for Time, Allium Press of Chicago)

"The dirigible fell that fast gusts of pushed out air rustled my skirt around my ankles, and wasn’t I across Jackson Boulevard by then, not knowing whether to tilt back my head to look or duck for cover? First the spreading shadow, then the odd shout sprung up from here and there, bunching into a roar when that big silver egg dropped flaming from the sky right onto the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank. And one of the parachutes meant for escape? Didn’t that fall flaming too, a candle soon snuffed on the ground barely a block beyond. Others floated through the billows so thick you couldn’t see what was attached to them, but you hoped it was someone made it out alive. “Look!” But where to aim your eyes first? The Wingfoot Express. Looked so impressive on the ground, it had, over there at the Grant Park field, but knowing how flimsy it turned out to be had me wondering what fools’d wanted to go along for what the papers called a joy ride. No joy for them that day, maybe never again.

The screaming started with the plunging made it more terrifying. A great boiling soup of sound, roar of fire, shattering glass, clanging bells, keening voices, clattering metal. Then an unholy minute, sure not even as long as a minute after the explosion, when them gas tanks fuelled the airship went up and I might a been deaf. It was that still I thought I’d been killed, like all them in the bank and the fellows crashed into it. But I was not about to die then, no, not killed, only bleeding, and just a dab of blood it was on my neck, like something’d bit me."

After glom, gloom, gloaming?

It definitely isn't afterglow. Aftergloom might be overstating it. The few mornings since I submitted the revisions to my new novel have fallen instead like the twilight state known lyrically as gloaming. Or maybe the most appropriate gl word is glom, meaning to hang onto. Glom onto.

I can't say I wasn't ready to let it go. In my experience there comes a time when you have to stop. Despite having addressed some issues pointed out by a potential publisher--and done so with the exhilaration of having opened up the novel, learned or at least exposed things that had been waiting for me to discover them-- I was finding something every time my eyes scanned a page. Oh no, two consecutive sentences beginning with but? Are they justified? All the homilies sprang to mind: "If it's not broken, don't fix it. " On the other hand, there's this: "You just fix the brakes and find that the oil pan is leaking." Really, though, at some point you just have to stop.

The ripply blue space, like the image that shows up on monitors when there's something wrong with the feed? That's aftergloaming. I'm pretty sure it's that.

Out of the Closet

Fall, a new decade of life, and a novel, not new but on my mind and sitting in a closet, jammed into a big brown paper bag as a 550 page manuscript to reconsider.

What to do, what to do? Over 130,000 words, a big sad book; a serious subject -- death on the job -- hours and hours, days, weeks, months of research. What to do? Individual readers - not many; I've never been in the habit of widely circulating unpublished work - responded with enthusiasm, but publisher after publisher turned it down, until I decided to put it away.

And yet, it is one of the stories I want to have finished before I finish myself. Completion includes presenting it to readers, i.e. publishing, when it is ready.

All the changes in a writer's life. The move from handwriting to typewriting to using a computer. From fusty stacks in the library to easier on-line research with instant results.
Remembering my determination to become a good writer, making myself sit at my desk for at least three hours or 1000 words. The beginning of a discipline that came to be a daily necessity. Trying, trying again, amassing 100 typed pages I then pared down to a ten page story. Studying the words of writer/mentors like John Gardner. Reading Alice Munro, John Sayle's early short stories, all the writers... Sean O'Casey, Sean O'Faolain, Dostoyevsky - the humanity, the passion; so many great writers, too many to list, but those names jump up because I analyzed their work to learn from them: how did he make an unsympathetic character sympathetic? how did she achieve that structure and how did it serve the story, more than serve it, really create it? Thinking of language, aware of a tendency to repeat words (Avoid careless repetition, said John Gardner) Never thinking of potential readers, certainly not of book promotion unless someone else initiated it. Never selling enough books to become a hot property. Beginning to realize, and only rather recently (Yikes!), that that could/would be a problem for potential publishers.

Behind the curtain, at the place where I feel most at home, wondering if I should pull it back and peek out. Consider readers who like a little lift. Make it funny? Change my main p.o.v. character from a librarian to a stand-up comic or a marine biologist? A marine biologist could be funny. One publisher responded to the original manuscript by saying he was looking for something snappier. Would he like a sardonic marine biologist better than my slightly overweight Scots bibliophile? Perhaps now, after several years, I will find the manuscript itself overweight.

It used to seem that a novel, or story, once begun, was self-determining. That is, it became actual, an entity, with its own requirements to which the writer responded. Could be I have to listen more carefully to what this novel wants to tell me.

First step, open the closet.

How Can I Explain?

What do you do, the lady from the insurance company asked. Simple enough question. I'm a writer, I said. She was filling out an application for house insurance, a renewal actually, and, as she explained, the insurer needs to understand its potential liabilities.  Since there was nothing in my file that had  identified me as a writer before, she wanted to know what kind of writer I was, a journalist?  Someone who might be sued for libel? No, a writer of books and plays, mostly fiction. So you produce a book about once a year? Oh, no, it takes much longer for me. Perhaps an average of three years per book. Maybe longer. What kind of books? Literary fiction. And how would you describe that, she continued. Given that she was trying to imagine my writing "business," I used a comparison. If I were seriously in the business of writing, I would write romance novels, or inspirational books, or fantasy, because those genres are the most likely to find a paying readership. Literary fiction is something one writes for the sake of the work itself; art and craft values are more important than the work's commercial value.

Oh yes, I see, she went on. You used to be a teacher but now you're at a point in life where you want to do something for enjoyment.

Um, it's not exactly like that... I've been a writer my whole life, since well before teaching. That I had published books of short stories won me the teaching job in the first place. It's not so much for enjoyment that I write, though I do enjoy it in a complicated way; it's what I do, who I am.

I was tempted to invoke literary superstars whose names she might know, whose books she might have read. But of course it would be hubristic to put myself in the same category as Faulkner, or  Tennessee Williams, or Alice Munro, even if we all probably started from the same place.

Still, if you make any money at it - and I make some - it's a business, she concluded, despite my arguments about what I do being art more than business. Not that I would not like to earn more from what my tax form lists as a "story writing" business; not that some literary fiction writers do not do extremely well for themselves. In my case, though, it is more a life I have made than a living.

The issue has come up before, and I usually find myself depressed after trying to explain to a businessman (to whom I was applying for project support), or an accountant, or, now, the insurance company representative, why I would persist in something so obviously unprofitable. It's hardly a good business plan. The thing is, in my opinion, to make my "business" profitable I need a broader vision, sharper scene development, better sentences, more patience to wait for just the right word. These are the things that will make my writing better. Better writing might attract more attention, I might sell more books. In theory, the possibilities are boundless. Yet, if I could buy the qualities I need to invest in my work, and write them off as business expenses, would the insurance company cover me for losses... of concentration, originality, perseverance, brilliance? We all know the answer to that one. There are immensely valuable things that money can't buy and insurance can't cover, no matter how the corporate world tries to manipulate definitions.

Self-publishing = self-awareness

Having come to the print-on-demand stage of my first self-publishing project, I understand all the reasons I like conventional publishers. For one thing, they make up for my weaknesses, my tendency to overlook small details; my shortcomings in the formatting department; my reluctance to sell myself; my urgency to move onto new projects.

Not that conventional publishers don't have their own weaknesses. When I was going over the  already paper-published first novel, Shinny's Girls, of my trilogy, I noticed copy editing errors, things I had depended on someone else to point out. The already published-in-paper Flashing Yellow, the second in the trilogy, was cleaner but went virtually unpromoted. When I added the third novel, You Again, not yet published conventionally, to complete my eccentric family saga for epublication,  those responsibilities suddenly fell on me. So I paid a copy editor to go over the entire trilogy, including You Again, relied on Kindle and Lulu to guide me through formatting, got cover art from a talented and resoundingly generous artist friend, uploaded, waited, tried a few feeble things like sending out emails or FB or G+ posts advertising sales, i.e." Now reduced to only 6.99!" I've given a few talks and will give more, I will try to think of other ways of letting people know that the Trilogy is available, and that You Again is even available separately as an ebook and soon in paper.

Meantime I'm steeling myself to go back to the ecopies of two editions, Kindle and epub, and search for any inadvertent mistakes. Inadvertent, well what else would they be? I almost let a big error slip into the text for the print on demand edition. Lucky that my designer, a friend who is a graphic artist and a novelist herself, has a sharp eye. Because with all the file switching around for different versions, between two computers with different word processing programs, I had lost the italics required for certain titles, and to delineate correspondence between the characters. Soon I will have to think of copy for the back cover and then how to introduce and promote the new print book. What will I do?

It's much easier to leave these jobs to people who have the skills to do them. I'm a writer, not a publisher, with all that entails, and even when I get my "team" to support my work by supplying services, often gratis, I have to be the boss. If a conventional publisher had been willing to take on this project, in an expedient fashion, which was beginning to seem unlikely - especially the expedient part - I probably would not have self-published. While it is faster and I can earn more money in royalties, I have not yet earned enough to cover costs, and I wonder, considering my befuddlement or reluctance regarding promotion, if I ever will. I'm writing social realism when many readers find social realism, maybe reality itself, depressing. Literary fiction is a hard sell in any format and hard to describe. It's literary, but accessible; simple on the surface, but with themes I feel are important, such as identity, what makes us who we are. I consider myself a serious writer, serious about the craft, I mean; the actual novels have been described as fast-paced and funny, though the readers who want stories in which everything turns out well might not agree.

As far as publishing goes, I have learned skills I never expected to want to learn. I doubt I have mastered them, but I have also learned a lot about myself, about how far I am prepared to go, about why I do it in the first place. If  I have a book that is ready to present and there are no other options for making it available to readers,  no matter how many or few there may be, I can't say I won't self-publish again, because as John Cheever famously said, "I can't write without a reader. It's precisely like a kiss - you can't do it alone."

We'll see.