Autumn in Bookland

I suppose the title here is another pun of sorts. Autumn, leading up to Christmas, is a major, often a defining season for publishers, booksellers and, obviously, authors. Seasons matter a bit less than they used to, many major titles appear in late winter or spring now (rarely midsummer, as media are on holiday too often, frivolous people that they are), but Christmas still matters a whole lot.

My other meaning, of course, is that the book business feels profoundly under siege these days, marginalized, anxious – autumnal, with fears of winter. Some of the literary fights that go on are a reflection of that. And that anxiety spills over in this season in particular, not just as a metaphor of autumn. Year-end sales are too critical.

This is one reason fall’s awards season looms so large. For literary fiction, often the only thing that will generate attention and sales is winning one of the major awards (Booker, Pulitzer, National Book Award, Giller…). Even a nomination is of only marginal sales benefit, usually. It isn’t unusual to see an added print run of 50,000 hardcovers for a major prize winner that had 3,000 (often less, in the UK) before the prize.

For spring books, the Christmas season can be a challenge. The October/November buzz has to be about new titles, and the nominees in the run-up to the major awards. There is nothing surprising about that. So how does an April book get attention or bookstore re-orders in November?

Well, one way is to appear on important Best of the Year lists. That brings a title back to people’s attention just in time for gift buying. And Christmas is usually the  last shot for a spring hardcover, since the paperback, whether trade paperback size, or mass market, will be coming in the spring. (Hardcovers generally get a year or so before the paperbacks appear; e-book prices often drop at that point, too.)

Which is all to say I am really pleased this weekend by some developments for River of Stars. It landed on a major list in all three of the major English-language markets. put it on their list of best books of the year, then The Globe & Mail in Canada did so in today’s paper, and I was just informed by a colleague in D.C. (she woke early with insomnia!) that it is also on the Washington Post ‘Notable Books of 2013’ list, online today, in the paper tomorrow. Too early for single malt, but I’ll have an extra latte.

I’ll also add something. For those writing seriously, this sort of thing goes way beyond possible book sale boosts. The Globe and the Washington Post are among the most respected book pages in today’s sadly diminished newspaper book coverage. We all write, if we’re ambitious, to have our work noted, recognized, ‘gotten’ in places like that. Strong, thoughtful reviews, such as those that came for River in the spring, are reinforced by year-end endorsements, and that matters internally, too, in the long process of crafting a novel.

In other words, a good morning.


A letter from Armenia

When I wrote Tigana I knew I was taking certain artistic risks. I have often told the story (in part meant for young artists pushing themselves and their fields) that when my very experienced, very enthused agent talked me into letting him send it out at the halfway mark he was shocked to find it unsellable. He’d expected a bidding war, and didn’t even get an offer.

That was a hard moment in my writing career. Kick in the teeth level, as I was still shaping and evolving a very ambitious book. The happy ending (for me) is that after I did suck it up and get back to finishing the novel over the year that followed, editors around the world were suddenly hugely excited. They didn’t have to guess that I could manage to pull this concept off. They had it in front of them and they judged that it worked. The bidding wars did happen, Tigana became my breakout book.

But it became something else, too. It seems to have acted for many people (including, Deborah Meghnagi, the splendid woman who created as a catalyst for some powerful personal feelings and life responses, and as a kind of marker of a trail for some younger writers over the years: fantasy can do and be more than it tends to be allowed.

For me, some of the most intense responses I get when I tour in other countries to read from my work or discuss literature as a whole, come when readers, writers, critics put up a hand in a crowded room or catch me at a signing after to ask, ‘When you wrote Tigana, were you writing about us?

I have experienced this in Croatia, Poland, Quebec. Had variations of the question asked from Korea and Mexico, among many others. The list is long. I’ve been asked about it in China, in the context of Mao’s cultural revolution. Tigana is about the relationship between identity and memory and culture, and what happens when attempts to erase the latter two are put in place. Of course I was writing about all these places, and more, it was an attempt, in part, to use the universalizing of the fantastic to make a point about the real.

And variants of the original comments and queries still come, almost a quarter of a century later. I’ve received permission to quote part of a birthday letter I just received from readers in Armenia, where the genre is just getting untracked, and where the memories of assaults on their identity and culture surely remain as raw as anywhere.

I am deeply touched (I think that is obvious) by their comments on Tigana and Lions, but even more moved by their personal eloquence and this evidence of the relationship between art that touches us, and the ways we can come to see hope in the world. It is a letter that gives me some hope, actually.

So my thanks go out to Frunz Harutyunyan, Eleonora Manandyan and their colleagues for this:

In fact, we all are constantly looking for happiness – in the dark recesses of the events and experiences, but sometimes you may open the book, and hear the boy screaming in the street – with love, with infinite devotion – “Tigana!”, and then become able to look at own homeland and love it again. Or having plunged into sadness of “Lions of Al-Rassan” suddenly realize that something constantly goes away, but with the Grief the memory of happiness remains, and it fills life with colors.
We perceive fantasy as not even a prisoner’s escape but just the ability to see over the roofs of skyscrapers and find the infinite sky, shining of stars and the radiance of sun, and then understand, realize and learn to appreciate the uniqueness of everything, learn to notice and wonder at the miracles around us – the wonders of love, devotion , compassion, and then begin to breathe, create worlds in the “image and likeness”.

Thank you for your support and hope your books bring to this world .