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 .


Flotsam and Jetsam

I feel a tad remiss here, but console myself by remembering I did alert that updates would slow as the marketing period for River of Stars wound down and I ramped up the research for the next book.

I used to do these Journals only during the marketing/release periods, then wrapped them up for two years until a new book was about to appear. But the online dynamic has changed so much, it felt (and still feels) good to have this as a venue for random (or sometimes less random) thoughts.

So, variously…

– I’ll have a piece next month in Hazlitt Magazine on ‘Breaking Bad’. Will alert when it appears, had a lot of fun writing it.

– Lions is out in Brazil now, and Tigana will appear (in two parts, which is not uncommon in translation editions) in November. I signed Indonesian contracts for Under Heaven and River of Stars this week. New market for me.

– My French publisher, L’Atalante, announced that Under Heaven  will be out in summer of next year. It is already available in French in Quebec, from Alire. (Have I mentioned how much I like my Quebec publishers? Jean and Louise are friends, as much as anything else, by now. They have done every one of my novels, and they are all kept in print.)

– An extraordinary amount of film/tv talk continues to happen, but I cannot (even for formal reasons) discuss anything here yet, and it is always possible that everything will peter out. It is a very, very odd business.

– Cover roughs for paperbacks of River of Stars are being prepared in the States, UK, Canada. They will all have a different look from one another, which has happened before.

– I will read and be interviewed in Toronto this Sunday at 1 PM, at Harbourfront, as part of the International Festival of Authors, then in Halifax on November 13th, at the Keshen Goodman Library, at 7 PM. No other public events I can think of until the new year.

– Amrut Fusion single malt is really, really good.


Just back from the Word on the Street book fair in Saskatoon. It was a terrific visit. The fair, in just its third year, is very much together already. I was interviewed on stage by the generous man and fine author (yes, people can be both) Arthur Slade. Had drinks and dinners with fellow authors, walked the riverside in  glorious end-of-summer sunshine, signed books for lots of readers and chatted with them. What’s not to enjoy?

One reader/volunteer threw me with a question after the on-stage event. ‘Why didn’t you talk more about Ysabel? That’s my favourite.’

People can move you and disconcert you simultaneously. I could have said, ‘Meet me halfway: ask about it!’ (There was a Q&A at the end.) But in fact I was touched and didn’t feel like joking. One of the things I have always liked is how it every one of the books is a favourite of some readers. Ysabel is tricky to talk about, actually. Need to avoid a major spoiler, and it requires some unpacking of my usual process to discuss how it is a mirror-image of many of the books that frame it. Instead of taking readers into a period of history, I brought the past into today, which allowed me to comment on some themes of history. (The different meaning of being ‘young’ through time, for example, or landscape, beauty, and violence.)

Here’s a picture Art had taken late on Sunday afternoon, of himself (on the right), me, and Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi, of course):


News arrived regarding French editions. L’Atalante, my publisher over there, announced that Under Heaven will be published next summer, and Alire, who publish me in Quebec sent a  copy of Quebec’s Book Club’s handsome edition of that book (I’ll upload an image when I get a jpeg). Elisabeth Vonarburg is to translate River of Stars for them, which makes me very happy. She’s a friend, a gifted author, and has done most of my work.

Various discussions in L.A. continue, but I still can’t relay any ‘real’ information. It is a bizarre place, you know. You do know that, don’t you?

Tomorrow I’m off to Italy for a short trip. Partly a fall getaway, but some work involved. I plan to get to Torcello in Venice’s lagoon, to see the mosaics there and lunch at the inn/restaurant where Hemingway hid in 1948 to write Across the River and Into the Trees.

September song

The title isn’t meant to be all that nuanced. I just love the song, and, well, it is the month.

I had coffee with my film agent, Jerry Kalajian, yesterday here in Toronto. He comes in for TIFF, our film festival, this time every year. Each time we sit down I am reminded of how staggeringly different the film world is from the book world. There aren’t really that many Harvey Weinsteins in publishing and the tone and style are rather more controlled. (The knives can be as sharp, mind you.) A salient aspect is that films are so expensive. The risk-factor is enormous, people get cautious and frightened, in direct proportion to that.

One of the amusing aspects of book to film, as Jerry keeps reminding me, is how incredibly hard it is to get Hollywood people to read things. The most common model is for a studio or producer to have a book ‘covered’, which is to say, pay someone to read it and write a précis. That is what gets read. To be covered by someone important is ‘a good thing’. Everyone now thinking double entrendre, just … calm down. It is early in the morning.

I’d share what is playing out except I still can’t and – as so often – it would be a tease, as many, many (many) discussions and explorations end up as no more than discussions and explorations. I will say that Danny deVito is (once more) not part of any process, despite all the endless cries for him to play Ammar, if Lions ever gets done.

Travel is shaping up more firmly for fall. I am in Saskatoon next week for their Word on the Street festival. I’ll be interviewed on the Sunday at 12 by the fine Saskatchewan author Arthur Slade. Another author friend, Derryl Murphy, who also lives there, has promised to give careful thought as to best bars and restaurants. Derryl is reliable in such matters. The other ‘Guy’, the truly excellent Guy Vanderhaeghe, will also be at the Festival, causing too many people to think of the same jokes, no doubt. The good bars may be rendered even more critical.

I’m in Italy later this month, mostly a short holiday, some work, but when you are in Italy the work is a holiday.

I have two events at the International Festival of Authors here at the end of October. IFOA is one of the great author festivals in the world, in fact (just as TIFF is for film). I’ll give fuller details nearer the day. Then, on November 12th I am doing a reading/talk/signing/juggling display (not) in Halifax. More details on that later, too.

Topic shift. Read something very good I want to share. The novelist Jim Crace, shortlisted for the Man Booker this year for Harvest, said in an interview that writing fiction for him involves turning his logs into donkeys.

What did he mean? Seems he was on a desert tour some time ago, woke in the morning and told his guide he’d slept like a log. The guide looked perplexed. Crace gazed around at sand and a distant thornbush and realized there were no logs thereabouts. He explained, the guide said he’d slept like a dead donkey. Crace came up with his point: we need language, metaphors, ways of thinking and seeing, that fit the setting in which we are working. Logs to donkeys. I think it is a terrific way to describe a central aspect of imaginative empathy in fiction.


On Not Giving Advice

I did a tweet yesterday morning that seems to have triggered an enthused response from a lot of people: “My Saturday morning writer’s advice for writers: try not to get hung up on writers’ advice for writers.”

I was being cute with the phrasing but am really serious about the point. It sometimes seems to me that next to Top Ten Lists, the internet breeds writer-advice more furiously than almost anything else. (Well, maybe cat pictures. Or Benedict Cumberbatch photos. Or … fine. We’ll leave it there.)

If you play pick-and-choose with the advice tossed out there is no ultimate harm done. Someone ‘famous’ says something that resonates for you, you have that to work with. Maybe you write that way anyhow? But if that famous person says something that runs utterly counter to your own work method, your creative approach, your life options (“Jog five miles every morning before sitting down to write.”), I find myself worrying about or irritated by what I’m seeing, depending on time of day and what I am drinking (coffee or scotch). “Drink three glasses of Highland Park each time you sit down to write.” (Expensive advice, that would be. Also a tad life-damaging.)

The creative process is deeply and profoundly individual. That applies to the Nobel laureate and the undergraduate poet and the person keeping a journal of his or her dreams and desires.

A writer I know asserted earlier this summer online: never rewrite until you have the whole story finished, then you can go back. I’d never have written a novel if I tried to work that way. A writer declared last week that for success in YA fiction, ‘never kill the dog’. Stop a bit right now and think about how many of the books that reached into us and have never gone away (and perhaps taught us how powerful fiction could be) we’d not have if those authors had followed that advice.

When people ask me about, say, outlining I give an honest answer: I don’t block everything out, I am discovering details as I go. But I add, that’s me. That is reporting something not suggesting a process to other writers. Dorothy Dunnett outlined the shape and arc of the entire six volumes of the Lymond Chronicles before she wrote the first book.

There is so much variation to the writing process, it feels wrong to be prescriptive – from where I sit. If my arm is twisted (hard) to solicit advice I’ll urge writers to travel if their life allows it, because travel does important things to us as people, and that affects us as writers. I try to steer younger writers to read outside their comfort zone, their favourite genres and styles, because we get stretched as people by doing that. But I try hard not to get drawn into technical advice.

‘What worked for them might work for you,’ Robert Frost once wrote in a very different, chilling, context. But equally, it might not. I think we all need to go slow on giving How To lectures … and reacting to them. (But everyone should read Frost’s brilliant ‘Provide, Provide’.)

Parking the soapbox behind the curtain for the night, I can report the NY meetings earlier this month were very good, extremely useful. I did not succeed in getting agent or editor to agree to write the next novel for me, but I wasn’t hugely optimistic when I went, so…

Oh, sharing: Vermeer’s ‘Head of a Young Girl’ (the Pearl Earring painting) is headed to the Frick in Manhattan in October. Just saying. In case that’s closer than The Hague.

In Toronto, we’re in the midst of cover discussions. To stay with the blue figure from the hardcover for the trade paperback next spring, or think about a new look, and if the latter … what? Covers do matter, and different formats can suggest a different look. Or not, if everyone feels the current one works. There is no science to it, this is part of the publisher’s art and, as I’ve said here before, I think, it can also be  different in different markets. I’ve been very well served by my English-language covers for River of Stars, I’m working with extremely good people. Not worried. Will report back when a decision is made.

I’m also hoping to have some breaking news to share soon. That’s a tease, but it is better than another bad pun, right? And if you really want writerly advice as a last note, I’ll suggest everyone go with what Schiller did. He kept rotten apples in his desk drawer. Sniffed when creativity flagged. Clearly the only possible way to get anything written.


On the road again

The second stage of touring/travel for a spring book usually kicks in during the autumn after. In Canada that’s an increasingly busy author’s festival season. It is also awards seaosn, but that’s a different matter.

Immediate trip is New York, for meetings with agents there (principal agent and the foreign rights department) and my splendid friend-and-editor Susan Allison. First discussions may take place about concepts for a new book. Maybe. Perhaps.

After emails and phone calls and juggling, I’ve worked it out through Penguin Canada that I’ll go to Saskatoon for their Word on the Street Book Fair on September 22nd. I’ll be interviewed on stage there by the very fine writer Arthur Slade, who is also a scholar and a gentleman of the first order. One other writer attending is the equally fine Lesley Livingstone, and I have a memory of the two of them (who have apparently never met) threatening/promising to have a sword fight. This may be even more fun than usual. (Lesley is tough, Art may be in trouble.)

I’m also going to do Toronto’s major literary event, the Harbourfront Author’s Festival, on Sunday November 3rd. Again a stage interview it appears (as of now); not sure whom I’ll have to fend off or make laugh. I’ve also agreed to do one of Harbourfront’s ‘outreach’ gigs, in Owen Sound. I really like the idea behind these, where smaller communities around Toronto can reap the benefits of the authors from all over the world coming into town for the main festival.

And finally (for now) grant funding came through to the Halifax library for their request to have me read and speak there, so I’ll be headed that way later in November. Not sure which dates yet, but it is a long way off, we are still in midsummer here, right? Campari on a terrace not single malt inside. (Though I’ll confess to having a Springbank this evening.)

Even with the long time-line to next spring, discussions have begun here as to a new cover for the Canadian paperback of River. Everyone loves the blue one we have on the hardback, but there are sometimes different mandates, different contexts for paperbacks (including different ones for mass market and the larger trade paperback format). Nicole Winstanley, (Penguin’s president and publisher, and my editor here) and I have begun exchanging image thoughts in emails – and it is increasingly clear to me that she has an idea. We shall see. They haven’t let me down yet, actually.

The envelope, please

A small discussion about honours and awards in literature was started over on Twitter this morning, when one of the coordinators of a good sf-focused website nominated Tigana as the ‘best fantasy ever’ in a competition on their site. (They are limiting it to books that can be read and fully-appreciated on their own, not only in a series.)

I did a Twitter-note on it, because it was a well-written appreciation, over and above the touching generosity. Alec and Elizabeth linked it to the Facebook page and a lovely number of people seemed to have given the idea a thumbs-up there in an hour or two.

All of this will obviously make any writer feel rewarded. I wrote something earlier this week trying to suggest that it is not just egotistical it is imbecilic for an author to take readers’ support for granted. For one thing, there will always be people who say ‘Meh!’ – or worse – about any book. (I do a good meh! myself.) For another, intelligent, thoughtful responses are golden, or oxygen, you pick your image. ‘You rock!’ is great (really great!), but I cited Randall Jarrell’s two long, brilliant, illuminating essays in appreciation of Robert Frost as what writers long for.

But I didn’t want to write here about Tigana, whether it is even my own best book or not. I wanted to use what this discussion started me thinking about as an opening to do my usual thing here regarding the nature of the book world today, to say a bit about awards, because they are absolutely a major part of the industry.

In the world of literary fiction it has become increasingly the case that come the ‘awards season’ publishers and authors get increasingly edgy and agitated, waiting for the nominations. Indeed, to push the publicity benefits even further, we tend to see longlists now, which are then trimmed to shortlists some time later, extending the attention window. In Canada, the Giller Prize (and to a lesser degree the Governor General’s), in England the Man Booker, in the US the National Book Award and the Pulitzer – there are others, and other countries have their own, various genres and categories (picture books, say) have theirs, too.

What’s happened is that for a certain kind of book, not obviously commercial, not by a known literary bestseller (say an Ian McEwan or a Hilary Mantel now), just about the only avenue to a ‘breakout’, short of Oprah, is one of the big awards.

I have known established writers and publishers hold a title back to get it into a different year from some literary star’s ‘feared’ book. (And of course the next year will almost always have its own star power.) Book people talk with a mix of hunger and chagrin, it sometimes seems, about awards. Recently the Pulitzer gave ‘no award’ in fiction and there was outrage, in part because that meant that no winner would reap the  boost the award gives. The feeling wasn’t that ‘all the other literary works will share’ it was a sense of a sales spike for one book utterly missed. (There were other elements to this story, too.) Being nominated is nice, but it is the prize-winner, in almost all cases, that gets the massive reprint and sales.

Some authors (this isn’t just a book issue, but I’ll keep it there for this post) lament the whole process or aspects of it. I am one of those, for example, uneasy with the idea of lobbying for reader-based awards, others are specific about the way internet voting and campaigning changes what is going on. Some take a Woody Allen approach and dislike awards applied to art, period. Others worry about the politicization of the process, one kind of politics or another – though there really is nothing new about that, either.

But in the publishing world, with the big awards the bottom line is the bottom line. It is harder and harder to sell books once you get past the Dan Browns and J.K. Rowlings, the established stars or the newest YA dystopia. Awards season means that what newspapers are left  run pieces on nominees (or even earlier articles on potential nominees). Websites debate and assess. Oddsmakers (especially in the UK) let you place bets. Books are in the news for a while. That is, everyone in the business agrees, a good thing.

Or, well, a few books are in the news. The downside becomes, of course, that those literary works that don’t show up on a major list, for reasons of merit or politics, trends or karma or the accident of who is on a jury in a given year, are likely locked in to their more limited, dispiriting sales. The winners get cheques and photos and reprints and a major offer for their next. The un-nominated go home to … write another book. This isn’t to say all such books deserve to make their authors household names, it is just to note that an award can make it happen, and missing the list means that door’s closed for another year.

Be prepared for a fair bit of ironic shrugging and blasé eyerolling among authors you know when the season comes. Be also aware there is often a duck-like churning of legs beneath the surface of the water, sometimes from these same people. A lot is at stake, in a crowded, diminishing duck pond.

It feels important, as in so many spheres, to try for balance and perspective, and these aren’t always easy. (‘That book won? Are they crazy?’) I remind myself when honours or simply praise come to one of my books that there are those who have hurled that same book, unfinished, against a wall, and blogged their disdain. Books can be in current fashion or out of it, while remaining exactly as ‘good’ as they are. I try to remember that obvious ‘campaigners’ are doing something to feed their children, and it has a long tradition in many different areas of endeavour.

And I try to hang on to the idea that if we are serious about our art and craft, we are working towards a longer horizon.

Other markets

I think I’ve said this before, but maybe not here. I am hugely interested in my foreign language editions. I have surmised it is partly being Canadian, an awareness that literary success demands readers outside my own country, purely because of numbers. But I admit it is also a straight curiosity: I’m genuinely intrigued by how different books are received in different countries and cultures. The similarities and the differences, both. I say this about history, the past, too: how astonishingly different and startlingly similar it can be.

The first review for River of Stars appeared in China this week. In a way it doesn’t count: this was an English-language review of the original English book. It ran in ‘That’s Beijing’ and ‘That’s Shanghai’ magazines, their July editions. The Chinese translations of both Under Heaven and River of Stars won’t appear till later this year or next (not sure yet), and that will be a different measure. But for now, this was lovely:

I’ve also been busy with my Portuguese/Brazilian publisher, Saida de Emergencia, this week. They are releasing Tigana in Brazil, and requested a version of my Afterword adapted to that market, and then sent over an email interview. Good questions, not hard to address. I also sent them, on request, jpegs of a couple of the newer ‘truth in advertising’ author photos, too. The one we’ve been using is several years old by now. Of course I look exactly the same. (Only the glasses have changed. Twice.)

Then the translator for Brazil showed up with some questions. I like when this happens, I always make sure publishers know the translators are absolutely allowed to check in with me. Most of his first set of queries had to do with some names and terms I invented for that book. Often translators want to double-check they aren’t an obscure real word in English that they don’t know. Khav would be a very good actual drink for first thing in the morning, I always say – but it was invented, alas.

Next Steps

I did promise to keep the Journal going this time around, I used to stop them around now, but this format (supported by Twitter and FB) is much easier to use, and the issues surrounding a book don’t stop just because touring has.

The immediate next step is the UK release of River on July 18th. There’s particular interest, over and above it being an important market (though one under great pressure at the retail store level, what they call ‘High Street shops’) because of the rebranding HarperCollins have done with this book. The very different (to me, very beautiful) cover and the change of imprint create an intriguing situation.

Beyond that, my agents are engaged in some fairly intense discussions as to film possibilities on different titles. I have called this process endless foreplay in the past but it matters – obviously – and demands a degree of attention through emails and phone calls and decision-making. Yes, of course, if anything specific emerges everyone will know, here and elsewhere.

This is also the stage when decisions start to be made about the paperback edition for next spring, even though it seems far away, with the hardcover just two months out. But the industry works on long lead times and a lot of considerations go into this. The major chains, for example, are often consulted as to format (trade paperback or mass market?) and cover design (stay with the same one, commission a new look?). Different covers are considered suitable for mass market than the ones judged best for a trade paperback. And different markets have very different looks, too.

The marketing teams have now assembled a ‘quote sheet’ which basically puts chosen excerpts from all the best revews in one place. I have to say, it looks pretty wonderful. River was very generously reviewed. These quotes are important. They end up being culled for the paperbacks, to go on front jacket (most important) back jacket (next most useful) and in the front pages of the book inside.

This is where jokes are often made about cheating. You know, the review says ‘A monumental piece of rubbish‘ and the jacket says ‘Monumental!’ The unexciting truth is that I really don’t know many instances of this happening in the professional book world. We do see it in the film business, though, along with, sometimes, ‘fake’ reviewers created to offer glowing praise to “I Know What You Had For Dinner VI” Hmm: ‘Tasty!’ Sasquatch Forks Scream and Gossip. (Yes, I liked using ‘forks’ here. You know why.)

The Scream and Gossip has never reviewed me, actually. An ongoing sorrow.