Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Anecdotes from a Former Bookseller

Meg Schmidt owned and operated The Corner Book Store in Winsted, Connecticut from 1985-2000. An enthusiastic reader and novice writer, she now resides with her husband in Quechee, Vermont. These are her memories:

The book reps arrived in my bookstore in impressive numbers, weighed down by totes and briefcases filled with binders, galleys and catalogues. The small clanging bell above the door announced their arrival, and soon they filled the store with their wares and expansive personalities. 

I loved that although the reps traveled hundreds of miles and gave the same sales pitch to each bookstore owner, when they sat down with me, it was as if they were giving it for the first time, as if there was no doubt I would order in great quantities. I loved that despite how busy they were they took time to teach someone who knew nothing about bookselling something about ordering books.

Who they were

Bob Brown from Random House was a big burly man, always wearing a rumpled white shirt, a colorful tie loosened at the neck, and a wrinkled sports jacket that he would immediately remove and carelessly place on the back of a chair. He’d been selling books for Random House for decades. I quickly discovered that beneath the rough exterior was a kind, gentle man, willing to guide me through the maze of ordering. I was shocked and saddened to hear of his unexpected death a year after first meeting him. 

Don Brock, self-assured, was all business. He stood no taller than I, and as if to compensate for his lack of height, he spoke in a reverberating voice that filled the store. He wore striped oxford buttoned-down shirts and neatly pleated tan chinos. And he loved to gossip. As we became better acquainted, he would often pause, look around, as if to ferret out any eavesdroppers, and give me inside information. “You know, “ he said once, “my wife worked for Martha Stewart. She lasted for three years and then quit. Martha expected too much.” He looked around again, and added, in a whisper, “Martha Stewart can be demanding.” Martha’s demanding personality aside, Don always strongly encouraged me to buy her books. “You won’t be disappointed,” he’d say with conviction. 

And then there was Foxhall Jones, an older man, always smart in an expensive jacket, a color coordinated shirt, and a tasteful bow tie that complemented both. With thinning reddish-blond hair and a perfectly trimmed mustache, Foxy was also a model gentleman, the ideal publisher’s representative, dapper, refined, intelligent. Suddenly, unannounced, Foxy stopped coming to us: we became, I suspect, a casualty of a reorganizational shuffle at Harper and Row. I later heard rumors that Foxy had left publishing⎯perhaps also a casualty of changes that made his style of selling books obsolete.

And finally there was Kennedy McConnell, a Scottish gentleman with a wicked sense of humor and an infectious laugh that echoed off the walls. Ken always told a joke or two, often bawdy, always funny, and laced with a distinct Scottish accent. Ken had an uncanny ability to put me into an altered state in which I foolishly and consistently ordered more from him than I would ever sell. My real downfall was the annual calendar-shopping spree Ken and I went on. Each year I vowed to buy modestly, and each year Ken offered incentives I couldn’t refuse. “Girl, I understand what you’re saying, but look at this. If you order twelve Trivia Page-A-Day calendars, you’ll receive two free! And, I can’t believe they’re doing this, but if your order totals one hundred and forty-four… you’ll get a fifty-five percent discount!”
“Oh, I don’t know, Ken. That’s a lot of Page-A-Day calendars. Too many, really.”
“No, Meg. No. These are going to fly out of the store. Trust me. I would even consider getting more: think about two-eight-eight. Fifty-five percent discount and free shipping. Workman might as well be giving these away!”
I was sunk.

Times Change

I miss bookselling, being surrounded by the books I love, our loyal, book-reading customers, and certainly those book reps. I wonder if they are still going from store to store with their totes filled with catalogues, always smiling, excited to tell you about the wonderful new titles that will soon fill your bookstore shelves. With all of the upheavals in bookselling and publishing, I doubt that they are. But maybe somewhere a bookseller hears the bell above the door clang and warmly greets one of them, ready to convinced and entertained.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven is a complex story. Some assembly is required. 

Mandel begins with a death. An actor, Arthur Leander, plays King Lear in an unusual staging of that play: three little girls (who will grow into the king’s quarreling daughters) sit on stage as the curtain rises. Leander falters, flubs a line, flails out a hand searching for support, and collapses, dead of a heart attack.

In the audience, sits Jeevan Chaudhary an aspiring paramedic, recently a member of the paparazzi. Jeevan leaps onto the stage and attempts, unsuccessfully, to revive Arthur, as Kirsten Raymonde, the girl playing Cordelia, looks on. In the ensuing melee, Jeevan leads little Kirsten off to find Tanya, the child’s “wrangler,” and then wanders off into a snowy Toronto night. The rest of the cast retires to a local bar to discuss the evening’s tragic event and provide the reader with some backstory: Arthur’s three divorces, his one son by his second wife. 

Mandel closes this chapter with: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He dies three weeks later on the road out of the city.” Unbeknownst to all, the highly contagious and lethal Georgia flu is quickly devouring the world’s population.

Mandel’s opening of Station Eleven is brilliant, and that brilliance continues throughout the book. Her take on a post-apocalyptic world is not as grim as might be feared. Station Eleven is as much about survival as it is about death and the end of civilization, as we know it. Still, Mandel provides plenty of opportunity for readers to ponder how they might fare in this new world order and the true value of what’s been lost.

Station Eleven moves back and forth in time and place and point of view, as Mandel slowly and carefully constructs her story and connects her multitude of quirky characters in a manner reminiscent of Dickens or possibly Shakespeare. 

We next meet Kirsten, “twenty years after the end of air travel” and follow her, now a member of a traveling Shakespeare company, as they drift from town to town, putting on shows in an often dangerous landscape, where those who survived the epidemic⎯and those who’ve been born since⎯encamp in abandoned box stores, hunt for food, and ransack empty houses for anything useful. They encounter other survivors along the way, including one self-proclaimed prophet.

Kirsten has only a vague memory of the time before, shadowy images of having been in a production of King Lear, for instance, and of the lead actor giving her several volumes of a comic book series called Station Eleven, which she now counts among her most prized possessions. Almost no one, including Kirsten, remembers who wrote the little booklets or why, and yet they begin to take on special significance and power as they make their way across this new land. 

Mandel’s observations about civilization, religion, Shakespeare, and relationships are astute and subtly rendered. The suspense builds slowly, in part because the narrative does not proceed in a straight line. The ending, therefore, doesn’t deliver the punch some readers might want. 

Then again, the final page of Station Eleven isn’t an ending. As Dr. Eleven asks in the comic book version, “What was it like for you, at the end?” The ghost of his mentor, Captain Lonergan, replies, “It was exactly like waking up from a dream.” 

The same might be said of Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel writes of a world that we will, with luck, never know⎯one that is dreamlike (no one keeps track of time, because there are no clocks) and from which readers may well find themselves strangely sorry to wake. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Taking Flight: the Wreluctant Wren

The second of two wrens that hatched in the little birdhouse hanging outside my office window finally fledged. I'd listened to their chatter for several weeks, watched mama and papa fly in with morsels of food and back out with the babies’ fecal sacs carefully clutched in their beaks. To avoid revealing the location of their brood, the parents never dropped the sacs below the nest. I’m curious about this practice: The hatchlings and nestlings almost never stopped twittering, and the parent wrens, while waiting for their eggs to hatch, sat in the lilac and belted out incessant, complicated, melodic trills. (Wrens are known as the little bird with the big voice.) A predator would not have needed any telltale fecal sacs to know where these babies were "hiding."

After the clutch hatched, one parent always hunkered nearby, clucking in response to their babies' ceaseless cheeping. Perhaps this reassured them. It certainly reassured me, as it let me know that the hatchlings were okay. Whenever a parent flew in with food, the babies' twittering rose in both volume and pitch, and I rushed to the window to watch. (A wonderful distraction from writing.)

The big day

Then, the first baby fledged. It left the nest and perched unsteadily on a nearby lilac branch, blinking at the enormity of the world it had just entered, but seemingly unafraid. I took heart from this open attitude: It’s easy to make assumptions about, and become intimidated by, the unknown. Number two wren remained resolutely in the nest-perhaps it was a few days younger-and peered out, maybe wondering where its nest-mate had gone, and why. The parents continued to tend to its needs.

Then, one day, the parents stopped coming. It was rainy and cool for August. The lone baby chirped. Its nest mate, still in the lilac, chirped back. Mom and dad remained silent and absent: no food deliveries. Apparently they'd decided it was time for number two to fledge. 

The wreluctant wren

The chatter between the siblings continued for several hours. Each time I checked on the reluctant fledgling, I saw it peering out through the doorway. Soon its body was halfway out. Come on, little one, I coached silently from my window, worried, though, that the day was too cold and wet for a successful fledging. Each time it ducked back into the safety of its house. Chirp, chirp, chirp beckoned its sib. Out came the little head, followed by half the body. Then a little more than half. Each time I was sure this was it! But each time the tiny bird slipped back inside. Over and over this process repeated itself.

Finally, the wren took the leap. And what a leap. The distance from house to lilac isn't far (perhaps two feet) but in wren terms, it was a long way over, and a long way down, considering that the little duffer had not yet discovered it had wings and could fly. 

This, I thought, is what a leap of faith looks like. The noisy chirper made it, and then hopped from branch to branch, fluttering its unfamiliar appendages as it climbed ever higher. It's sibling cheered the whole time. 

Soon, I heard the deeper chirps of the parent wrens. They'd been close by the whole time, knowing what had to happen. Knowing there was nothing they could do but wait.

How often have any of us stood on a threshold, wondering if it was safe to cross, unsure what lay “over there.” How often have we not made the leap, certain we didn’t have what it took, choosing instead to remain in the safety of the known. How much wiser wrens are, knowing that staying put, not changing, is not only not safer, it's not an option. Wrens seem to know, too, that such leaps are easier if we have faith that someone’s waiting for us on the other side.

Katharine Britton is the author of two novels, Her Sister's Shadow and Little Island

Monday, August 25, 2014

Is the Right Writer Writing?

(This post was originally published on the blog Live to Write, Write to Live.)

I tell people it took me between two and fifty years to write my first book, Her Sister's Shadow. The manuscript itself took two years, but I’d been gathering stories and getting to know my characters (the book was inspired by my mother and her sisters) for most of my life. What might it take to drive sisters apart, I mused, as I listened for years my mother talk about her childhood on the South Shore of Boston, in a weather-shingled house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. And what might it take to bring them back together? Her Sister’s Shadow was published in 2011.

Then it was time to write another manuscript. What, I wondered, as I sat, fingers tensed, staring at a blank computer screen, could I write about? “You’ve used up every one of your good stories,” I heard myself say. “You’ve exploited every single foible a character could possibly possess and exhausted every topic of interest to anyone. (And all the good lines, too.) And, by the way, you don’t have another fifty years to come up with more.”
My fingers began to cramp; the page remained blank. “It was all a big mistake, that first novel. Eventually someone will figure that out. Not a chance you can write another one.”                                                                                          

Who Asked You, Anyway?

This wasn’t writer’s b--ck (that which must not be named). It was that the wrong writer was trying to write the first draft. Every author needs an internal editor. This persona is as important to subsequent drafts as a copy editor is to the final one. Just don’t let her “help” with the first draft. They say that writing is revising. But first you’ve got to get something down on paper. It’s a bitch to revise a blank page.

Have Fun for Heaven’s Sake

For the first draft, you need to employ your generative side. Invite your kid-self to climb up on your lap and bang away at the keys. Give her plain white paper and colored markers and watch her mind-map her way to a plot. Supply her with colored index cards and see how quickly scenes present themselves. (Pink for romance, green for adventure, blue for drama. Why not?)
Strew your desktop and office with toys, open the windows and listen to birds, take her for a walk down a city street or out into nature (maybe in the rain, why not!) and see what she sees, take her out for ice cream or to a movie, and listen to what she hears. Let her mind roam free. Start transcribing.

Later you will be grateful when that voice says, “That “fabulous” metaphor that you forced into a sentence on page 212, and then shaped into that really awkward scene? Take it out. It doesn’t work. Yes, the whole thing. Out. It. Doesn’t. Work. (Any more than Aunt Betty’s old armoire belongs in the dining room, where it’s blocking half of one window, by the way. Get rid of that, too, while you’re at it.”)

But for now, ignore her. Instead, sail blissfully through your first draft, your mind as open as a summer day. Be a kid, have fun. There’ll be plenty of time to grow up later.

Katharine Britton’s second novel, Little Island, came out in 2013. She is having fun with her third. Visit her website www.katharinebritton.com

Monday, July 28, 2014

Fun Family Gatherings

Planning a family reunion this summer? Whether your group convenes at someone’s home, at a campsite in the Adirondacks or a dude ranch in Montana, a little planning will help ensure that far-flung friends and family member meet and greet, talk during the event, and remember the visit fondly long after it ends. 

Why leave food preparation to just a few? 
Divide the adults (and kids, too, depending on ages) into mixed, non-family groups and assign them each a meal, which they are responsible to plan, cook, serve, and clean up. This eases the workload and gives people a chance to mingle.

Rent a pizza oven for one meal, and have everyone make their own. Give prizes for tastiest, most creative, most unusual… (Try Fairy-ring Mushroom, Prosciutto, and Leek from Little Island.http://www.girlichef.com/2014/06/mush... )

Bake cupcakes and set out frosting, sprinkles, candies… and have people decorate their own. 

During meals it can help to have a few prompts to kick start conversation: 
Have everyone come up with two true statements about themselves and one falsehood. Guess which one is the lie. 

Ask people to get out one item from their wallet or purse and tell something about themselves based on it. 

Periodically ring a chime and have everyone answer one of the following: 
1. What was/is your dream job and why?
2. Which celebrity/famous person would you like to invite for dinner and why?
3. What is your dream vacation destination and why?
4. What is/was your favorite subject in school? Why?
5. If you were an animal, which animal would you be and why?
6. What is your favorite food / movie/ book / sport…?
7. What is the most important item you pack in your suitcase?
8. Name one modern convenience you couldn’t live without.

Some structured activities between meals will get people laughing and talking, rather than gazing at their tablets and smartphones.
Give everyone a sheet of paper and have them write down one or two things about themselves that others aren’t likely to know (and that they don’t mind others knowing, i.e., not that upcoming elective surgery.) Then have them fold the paper into an airplane. (Be forewarned, some folks will spend a long time on this.) Line up and launch the planes. Allow several tries and some time to refine designs. After the final flight, everyone retrieves someone else’s plane from those scattered about the lawn and tries to match the plane with the owner by what’s written inside. (You can award a prize for the plane that flies the farthest, most creative flight pattern, best design…) 

Organize games of sardines (a variation on hide and seek: when you find the person hiding, you hide with them); blob tag (each person who gets tagged attaches themselves to the person who’s “it,” and runs with them to tag the others). 
Plan a scavenger hunt.

Crafts are a great way to bring people together. 
Give everyone a sheet of paper, and ask them to make their coat of arms. Post these somewhere prominent. 

Have people paint t-shirts or faces. 

Ask each family to make a page for a family scrapbook. (Alert folks to bring photographs and items with them.) If you don’t have the materials for a scrapbook, make a photo exhibit.

If you have computer access, get people to post photos and entries into a family blog or Facebook page.

Other forms of entertainment:
Put together a family band and give a performance one evening. Have some noisemakers, drums, spoons… available for those with less skill and training, but who’d like to join the fun. 

Announce a book club. Have everyone read the book in advance (maybe Little Island; it’s about a family gathering, after all), and then discuss it in a fun setting like hiking up a mountain, or floating on rafts.

Make a video of the event.

Use Skype video to call those who couldn’t be there so they feel included.

Remember that absence makes the heart grow fonder and allow some solo time for walks, naps, and reading.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Turning Words into Conversations

All my life I’ve enjoyed stringing words together and watching what appears on the page. While, initially, the writing process is solitary, at some point you bring in readers. Some authors do this early on: members of their writing groups read ten to fifteen pages every few weeks throughout the gestation period. Others, like me, wait until the whole manuscript is finished before handing it off to a few trusted readers. We then wait, anxiously, for their feedback. It’s not unlike sending your child off to school for the first time. Will others like her? Will he behave? Is she as delightful and precocious as I think? (Yes, yes, and no.)

You ask for feedback and, guess what? Your readers give it. Thus begins the first of many conversations you, the author, will have about your manuscript. A manuscript that is no longer entirely yours once you open the door and invite others in. “I liked this part.” “I found this part (the same part) kind of boring.” “Loved the protagonist.” “I just couldn’t relate to the protagonist.”

And so you turn to the solitary task of revising, but the writing feels different now because others have read your words and been moved by them (for better or worse). A conversation that you previously had just with yourself now has other people listening in.

Then you send the manuscript to your agent (or an agent, or many agents) and the conversation grows. The agent sends it to an editor. The conversation grows even more. That editor buys the manuscript, and the conversation grows again, and now it’s no longer just about the story. It’s about marketing and cover art and blurbs and reviews and marketing.

Soon publicists become involved and managing editors and copy editors. And the marketing department is still weighing in via your editor. And then you’re talking to booksellers and bloggers and media people. Once the book is published you again hear from readers. These are not all family and friends (although some, maybe a lot, will be). They won’t all like your book. But, if you’re hearing from them, through email or reviews or in person, they were moved by your words and are now part of the conversation.

A whole little industry evolves around your manuscript. A manuscript that started with you, alone at your desk, coming up with an idea, writing down that first word, and then the 80,000 or so that followed.

Writing is a kind of alchemy. Authors assemble letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs… And, in doing so, create emotion and conversation. What an amazing process that I’m blessed to be part of.

With that, I hope you’ll leave a comment about this post, or books that moved you to contact an author or write a review, or any other topic that seems relevant.