Party Central

I remember, some years ago, being at an utterly mobbed book launch event here in Toronto. It was for a writer friend who published a smallish book every few years. He was an older fellow, a professional as well as a writer, and a much-loved figure in several subsets of the community. When I say mobbed I mean it. Not only was the event thronged, it was almost a who’s-who gathering. Much media presence.

I joined a cluster around my friend before the event started, gave him my congratulations and murmured, ‘This is sensational, the place is packed!’ He looked at me and rasped (some people can get away with rasping), ‘Guy, you don’t get it! Tonight I am going to sell tho-thirds of my total book sales!’ He was exaggerating, but only to a degree. Essentially, by summoning everyone who knew and liked him, his publishers managed to get two or three copies per person bought by a lot of well-off people.

That’s one kind of book launch. Another is the straight ‘party time’ where the author and his or her friends just celebrate the arrival of an ideally non-bouncing baby book. ‘Friends’ can have a loose definition sometimes, of course. Jackie Mason, the great comedian, once joked about an event where his wife ‘kept it intimate, she just invited the immediate world’.

I get a little odd with launches. I’ve been upbraided (actually, harangued and aggressively shredded might be closer to the truth) by friends because I haven’t called to tell them a launch was happening. But my take has been, pretty much since I was lucky enough to start having actual readers, that launch events are for the people who have been waiting for the book. (I did alert some friends this time. Aggressive shredding with inventive profanity can have an impact.)

But tonight is about readers. I’ll do some thank you remarks off the top, because there are people to thank, and when I tell the audience I’m grateful to them, that’ll be very real. Enough people seem to want the fiction I deliver to allow me to research and work the books, and rework them, until they are ready – or as ready as I can get them. Should I make a bad joke about that old Paul Masson ad with Orson Welles and his gorgeous voice? ‘Will sell no wine before its time.’

(Actually – digression – that line always felt more an adman’s than a winemaker’s. There’s no upside to selling too soon. If the wine isn’t ready it tastes badly, you lose market share. And a good wine can be kept for a few years anyhow. Get me Don Draper, please.)

For the last few novels the first launch night for a book has been a hybrid evening. I do a short reading, but people seem to enjoy – and I know I prefer – a conversation with someone for at least part of the time. I get to be funny, or try.

There are people out there who are really good at helping on stage in this way. It is a skill, no question. And this format doesn’t always work. I attended an evening a few years back with David Cronenberg generously giving his time to interview Stephen King. It didn’t really take off. Maybe too much star-power up there, but more the discrepancy between David, who really is an intellectual, and King, who is very bright (obviously!) but just as obviously didn’t want to go that route.

Tonight I’m with Laurie Grassi, Books Editor of Chatelaine Magazine. Laurie has her own constituency and a real love of books in the widest sense. (Her all-time favourites list is online somewhere. It includes Bel Canto. Go read that.) She’s also funny. Through emails yesterday we made the shared executive decision not to tango on stage if the conversation flags. I doubt it will, just as I doubt a tango would have been especially edifying.

Event is at 7 tonight, cash bar beforehand at 6 PM. At least one bookworld acquaintance wrote me when he heard that and said, ‘No one told me! Now I’m there!’ No comment.

Free online tickets are a request from the library, which is hosting this at the main Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor, in their really gorgeous, very large atrium.

No tangos, unlikely to be any tangling (except maybe plot threads?), but it really is special, the night you bring a book to the world, or that segment of it that has been waiting.


The day before

Double meaning (what, me, a pun?). The day before today was quite predictably crazy, in an entirely good way, though with that feeling you get after one or two cups of coffee too many. There was a huge amount going on backstage, too (digression: anyone ever see “Noises Off” – brilliant comedy on the chaos backstage while a play is running out front.).

I am, obviously, really pleased with the response of reviewers so far. (Am I being set up for the humongous hammer of cataclysmic criticism soon?) I’m especially rewarded when people write well, and catch things. One reviewer noted a rivers starting small before becoming a torrent image I use, and linked it (perfectly) to the way the book begins.

A few things to note here, before they slip what remains of my mind.

The other meaning of ‘the day before’: the launch event in Toronto is tomorrow. It was a really good event three years ago, at the lovely Toronto Reference Library space, and I’m looking forward to this one, too. I always think of these as events for readers, not a party for friends, but I know a number of friends are planning to come. Cash bar works wonders.

The library wants tickets ordered (free) to help with figuring out how many chairs to set up. They have a lot of space, but come early if you want to be fairly close. Bar is from 6 PM, they tell me, we’ll start the gig at 7ish. Laurie Grassi, Books Editor of Chatelaine, is chatting on stage with me after a short reading (by me, not her, though she’d be great). Am picking the reading passage today. Laurie and I agreed not to plan or discuss anything. I know nothing (as Manuel says on “Fawlty Towers”).

Next, an early heads-up (will repeat nearer the day). I am doing another AMA on reddit on the evening of April 9th, after a fun evening a year ago with them. I followed, by one evening, Woody Harrelson (or his manager, some think) who managed to mess up prodigiously, and had warnings all day from every friend who knows reddit, but it was great fun, with good questions. I’m happy to go back.

The overall link, for now, is this:

and my evening is on the right sidebar (may be some other authors you want to diarize there, too). On the 9th, that sidebar link will be opened in the morning. You can go early and post questions or do it real time in the evening. I get there at 7:00 EDT and start typing as fast as I can.

What else? Martin Springett’s lovely “River of Stars Suite” inspired (obviously?) by the book, is available now as a CD, he tells me. It is at his website at and also under his name on iTunes and CD Baby for download. The CD, with signed artwork, too, is a bonus prize for the #riverofstars photo contest on Twitter.

And, the contest.Under fierce and unrelenting pressure (read: polite requests) we have extended the deadline for that from the 7th to the 10th. People have been worried their ordered copies might not arrive in time, which is a fair concern. Here’s the contest description from downscreen again, for those who missed it:

Go ahead, be creative, funny, adorable…

Release Day

I do something today, every release day, call it a tradition.

It is so easy to get caught up in the ‘process’ as a book nears publication and then appears. An author lucky enough to be in-demand to some degree shifts from being a creator to being a marketing person. The book shifts from being a book towards being ‘the product’.

I get it, it is entirely necessary, but I like to take release day to step back a bit, if only for part of the morning. I bring a coffee and close the study door and after this post is done I’m going to sit and read through parts of River of Stars.

I want to remember the moments when – over three years ago – I was starting to think about a book inspired by the Song Dynasty. Wondering if I could, or should, venture back into Chinese history, a completely different era. Aware of just how much research would be involved, conscious of how hugely different the arc of the Song was, compared to the earlier Tang Dynasty that gave rise to Under Heaven. Beginning to glimpse and be daunted by the nature of that challenge.

I’ll remember (I’m remembering now) the earliest reading, correspondence, note-taking,notes to myself, names, character ideas, motifs I wanted to be sure to use … the long quiet of research. Then the recurring, necessary nagging voice, a year or so later, pointing out in my head that research was all very well but …

So, starting to write, feeling my way in to characters and settings and voices. I recall telling my older son that at that early stage I felt like someone entering a forest holding a light that only illuminated a little way ahead. (Is that why Daiyan goes into the forest so early? Probably not: I’ve felt that way with every book. Not enough light, not as smart as I needed to be.)

Then, in every novel, for me, there’s a period, usually about halfway through or a little more, when I am so appallingly tired of the book. Aware I’ve been working on it for what feels forever -brood, write, revise, repeat – and there is still so far to go and it is probably no good, anyhow. I can conjure that feeling up again right now.

But on the flip side, there comes the sensation that emerges towards the end when, despite all the anxiety associated with trying to make the ending work (I feel very good about the ending of River of Stars) I have become aware, even if I don’t want to jinx myself by admitting it, that this particular book will get done and … maybe it is strong, after all.

And so this morning I’ll page through it, rereading some passages, remembering how many times I read and revised them, right through the proofreading stage (I wrote about that in this Journal, how much I rely on the tolerance of the production people!).

Basically, I try to turn it back into a book for part of a morning. Into, if you’ll forgive me, something I wanted to be a work of art, to the best of my own ability, to shape something that might have a chance to last. (I have written about this dream/wish/desire of all artists before, most directly in the Sarantine books.)

But the paradox enters, and it isn’t a bad thing, it is just … part of what is involved. In order to endure, to have a chance at that, a book needs to find readers. Only that way can enough people decide this is really good. And start talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it after closing the last page, giving it a chance at a longer life in a culture that gets rid of things fast.

So we come back to how much depends on the marketing and publicity people, their talent, commitment to the work (sometimes love for it), their ideas, and a writer needs to (or should, to my mind) support them, be part of that team.

After that, it is over to the readers. Which is where today comes in, as we begin.

River of Stars launches this morning. I hope you enjoy it. Actually, to confide, and be really honest, I hope for more than that. I hope it becomes important to you.

More on Reviews

Well, someone in a comment to the last post on Reviews wondered if the Washington Post would do one and … clearly he has the power. (My people would like to talk to your people!)

The Washington Post review of River went up late this afternoon (it’ll be in the print paper tomorrow). It is wonderful. Really is. Hugely positive and smart.

Here’s an additional reason why it is so good (same point applies to the Globe & Mail on Saturday): when major papers review a book right around publication date, that means that if they applaud the book they are doing so while copies are hitting stores and easier to find – with luck, displayed as new arrivals.

A strong review that runs a couple of months late will still be helpful (not just terms of making writers feel good) as it can be used for future editions or helping agents sell into foreign language markets, but a good review that is also timely is … golden. 

It is even a signal of sorts these days. Review space is shrinking in all papers and magazines, but there are still a lot of books appearing, and editors, publicists, authors shrieking variously for coverage. So for the Washington Post, which is a major, major book review source to cover any novel right on its publication date is hugely rewarding.

I’m not going to keep linking to reviews. All of what Elena has called Team River of Stars are doing alerts on Twitter, and the Bright Weavings FB page will have links to some of them. But this one felt worth noting here and making these points about, in part because of the timing.

It set up a good evening-before-official-on-sale day here.

I didn’t have a drink (yet). I celebrated in an even more shockingly decadent authorial way. Something so sybaritic, so flamboyantly self-indulgent I need you all not to tell anyone.

My mother’s chocolate chip cookies. And milk. Of course, milk.