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.


All Over the Map

This is always a strange time for me. I joke that agents and editors get into ‘What have you done for me lately?’ mode, but in fact I am maligning them when I say that. It is pretty much all internal, my own increasing feeling that I need to figure out a next book.

I’m reading widely. If I say ‘all over the map’ that is pretty much the truth. I actually try not to narrow to times and places yet, I don’t want to, even subliminally, close myself off to being struck by a sudden idea. (I’m the same way when I actually start writing, I hate talking about ‘what this is about’ too early, because what it is about is still taking shape. The more I describe it, the more a new book risks coalescing around the way I talk about it. I am one of the worst ‘proposal writers’ on earth. Or, putting it another way, my editors know not to take anything too seriously, by now.)

I’m also still monitoring events as we head towards the launch of River of Stars in the UK a month from now. We’ve had a ‘soft’ rollout already, with the e-book available there since April when the US and Canadian editions appeared, but their hardcover (and audio) editions have not yet been launched. One advantage my publishers in the UK have is that they are able to use the reviews and coverage that started accumulating in the spring (River has been really generously received). Even on the book itself they have quotes – and normally, with a worldwide simultaneous release you can’t do that till the paperback. Here’s the full UK cover. As part of my ‘inside news about how books get made’, have a look at the number of positions that are to sign off (in theory) on a cover.

River of Stars UK cover

Last note. As I’ve mentioned before, I take real pleasure in new countries acquiring rights to the books. I wonder if it is partly because I’m Canadian: that sense that the wider world matters more. In any case, I happily signed contracts for Macedonia (the Mosaic pair) and agreed to terms with an Indonesian house for Under Heaven and River of Stars last week. Time to give a shout-out to the foreign rights team at Trident Media, who handle all of this.

Wrong turnings

A clever friend noted that Twitter loves aphorisms, if retweets are any measure. I think it is true, but I think aphorisms ‘work’ in all contexts not just online. They offer a hint of life-solving. Rules. The short summary sells.

That is by way of preamble to something that has bemused me for awhile. By far the most commonly quoted line of mine online seems to be one from Tigana: “There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” And the attribution (usually!)– Guy Gavriel Kay.

So, let’s put it in context. The line occurs as a thought to a sexually and emotionally worn-out young man in the middle of a night in a castle he doesn’t know, as he tries to find his way back to his room in blackness – and realizes he’s lost.

He can’t source his memory of the line for a bit, then it comes to him again and he recalls that it was said to him by a priest when he was very young. I do something a bit sly with the line and the scene, because the young man, taking turns in corridors, somehow ends up in the darkness outside the door of someone else he knows … and enters.

At risk of saddening some people – I don’t believe the line is true. It isn’t how I understand the world. I believe we can and do makes mistakes, take wrong turnings. I’m not especially a believer in predestination that way. (“Meant to take.”) In River of Stars I wrote a little about randomness, how it unsettles us, but how it can and does have such an impact on events. That, I believe.

It is a character in a book who says and believes the line about no wrong turnings (off-stage). I have written, and every novelist I know has written, many things that are not their own beliefs. If you think about it, how else would we create unpleasant figures (assuming, please, that we are not unpleasant figures!), or simply characters who voice different sides of a moral or intellectual argument (say, the debate about art and power – Crispin and Leontes – in the Mosaic, where I try to give value to two sides of a dispute)?

There is nothing startling or wrong about this quoting process. In the course of writing that dispute on art and power, perhaps I might create a phrase that resonates for someone who comes down on one side of that dispute. Perhaps a phrase on the other side works for someone else. What gives me pause is if and when such a line becomes seen or understood as the personal, real life belief of the author who created those characters.

I’m writing about this because it strikes me as another good example of how easily the work and the author can be blurred today, even more so with authors (including me) increasingly ‘present’ in the online world. I do post passages to Twitter, for example, that I like and find worth thinking about. (A Salman Rushdie quote earlier this week, as an example.)

But when lines are taken from the books, it is better (to my mind) if they are understood in context. Sometimes they might legitimately be read as the thoughts of the author, or thoughts the author would stand behind. There are many such in my novels. Others, though, need the setting and framework.

What gets interesting for me in all this is that the way we meant something to resonate or operate in a work of fiction (ironically, critically, contested, embodying a very specific worldview?) is not necessarily how it goes wide. By now, no wrong turnings has a life well beyond Tigana and the painfully confused night in which my character remembers a priest saying it to him as a child. My attitude to the predestination sentiment, or even Devin’s in the book, become irrelevant.

Makes me wonder how many phrases attributed to various novelists from their books are not their own views of the world, but are located in a very specific setting, belonging to created characters in a book we might have never read.

Interesting? I find it so. You can quote me!



I go away for four days and Toronto’s Mayor gets in more trouble (more and major) and there’s an earthquake. Data is being compiled as to possible connections…

Calgary and Kamloops hosted smooth, very nicely organized events and I enjoyed the audiences and the questions both times. I also got a chance to go south into the Okanagan’s fruit-and-wine country on Friday, and that was a treat. Not hard to see why people love it so much. Here’s the view from where we had lunch:



This sortie west is probably the end of the spring touring, though there are usually one-off events that come up and I have to sit down with the publicists and choose which festivals to accept for autumn. Feels a long way off, but they do need to firm up their guest lists, so can’t take too long on this, in fairness.

River is still on the Maclean’s list, back up to #5 last week. One website says six weeks, another says seven, I’ve lost track (is that bad of me?).

More recent good news came from Prague, where my Czech Republic editor Martin Süst (at Argo Publishers) just informed me that on Saturday Under Heaven was awarded Best Fantasy of the Year at the awards ceremony at the annual Book Fair, “Book World Prague”. His note reads, in part,

Academy is the group of authors, magazine and web editors, booksellers etc. So it´s a professional award. This was the 18th year of this award and it is the best known genre award in our country.

The translator, Richard Podany, was separately nominated in that category, and I’m very glad of that. For obvious reasons, all authors are hugely dependent on their translators into any other language: they become our ‘voice’; any honour we receive is properly to be shared with them.

One more photo for this holiday Monday. A friend sent me a snapshot of the display of some of my books at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg. You may appreciate why I like that bookstore! His (funny) caption was, ‘I lit a candle.’


What Have You Done For Me Lately?

I wish I could remember which ’50s American author told the sorry of his publication day, walking around midtown Manhattan and being dismayed to realize that most of the people around him were oblivious to the utter importance of the fact that it was … his publication day!

I’ve never suffered from that degree of disconnect. Might be just me (or him), might be not being in New York, or living and writing in an age where unless you write Fifty Shades of Da Vinci, any sane writer knows that a hardcover fiction release is going to engage only a small subset of the culture.

But there is a variant of the feeling that kicks in around now, a month after release. It has to do with the frenzy of the period from a month before to a month after a book comes out, within that relatively small world. It is easy to get a distorted view of what one is or does during the marketing phase for a book receiving promotional energy.

And now, as it winds down, as River of Stars moves form being the next new thing to joining all other titles waiting for the next newer thing, a shifting of mental gears starts for me.

For one thing, absent any offers from Major League Baseball, I need to start thinking about another book. (To write, not to read!) We’re exploring scripting possibilities, but my ‘accustomed toil’, in Yeats’s phrase, is still, for better or worse, writing novels, and that’s where I’ll almost surely go.

The touring isn’t over. I leave next week for Calgary and Kamloops, and for the fall I need to sit down and choose among a number of invitations in North America and overseas, from various festivals and conventions. But that stage has an extremely different feel to it, compared to the overheated mood of being ‘just out’ with a book after three years. (I wonder how different it is for the very prolific.)

The publishers are still waiting on some major reviews, and they often do come later – last time the wonderful Washington Post review by Michael Dirda ran on Father’s Day for an April release of Under Heaven. And the UK release for River of Stars is in July. I won’t be touring for it, but there will be marketing and publicity there as they explore the effect of the rebranding I’ve discussed here (in the post with the new UK cover). New editions are always being sold to and appearing in various foreign language editions, but that counts as a chronic condition, not a launch period.

In other words, I have a sense this spring morning of a phase winding down and the need to start shaping the next one. River of Stars is still on the national bestseller list at Macleans, at #6 today after 5 or 6 weeks (I’ve lost count!), with new titles by Rutherford and Le Carre near the top, and with Dan Brown and Khaled Hosseini ticketed for later this month. By the beginning of August the fall titles are starting to roll out.

Spring books do continue to sell, and publishers push their bigger titles hard at selected times of the year. Mother’s Day this week for some, Father’s Day for others, obviously a big campaign for Christmas. Soon we’ll move into another ‘next stage’ and start deciding on a cover for the paperback. The Americans have already elected to stay with the blue cover of the hardback – everyone loves it there. Canada is still to make their call: last time they went from the green horse to the black cover with silk and sword (both US and Canada used that). There are different vibes and mandates as between hardcover and paperback. (And different again later here, when Penguin Canada do their third edition, the trade paperback.)

But that, too, is something that pulls me forward to thinking about next.

Next is good. This marketing phase is, fundamentally, a strange period for any writer. It is a part of his or her ‘job’ but can too easily come to be seen as the real job, and it isn’t.

Historical Fiction

Someone had a comment on the last post, and I thought it better to reply in a full post here.

The Ottawa reading and interview were absolutely worth the drive up from Mtl, so thank you again. I should have asked this question that night, but couldn’t formulate it right. I have had a few days to percolate and would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you reconcile your…need (is that the right word?) for using the “quarter turn” due to your preference for not assuming you (we) know what an Emperor and his wife are discussing in their bedroom in Byzantium with your love of the Dunnett books. I don’t mean to imply that one must override the other. I’m just interested in your take on the subject.

I’ve talked and written a lot about this. A few points…

My preference as a writer is not identical to my taste as a reader. When I discuss the co-opting of real lives in fiction and my concerns with it, I always note that the books I am about to name as examples will be books I admire! (It is lame and distracting to go after weak titles and authors.)

Dunnett is not the best example, actually, because with a few exceptions over many books she tends to follow the Sir Walter Scott notion (one I agree with) that in historical fiction the real figures should serve as backdrops for the playing out of the story of the author’s invented point of view ones. In particular, that means not going ‘into their heads’ (my usual ‘favourite position in bed for Henry VIII’ comment). Dunnett does do it at times (Richard Chancellor in Ringed Castle comes to mind, and she happily makes Margaret Lennox (buried in Westminster Abbey near Elizabeth I) a supreme villain, but for the most part she’s in Scott space.

Other writers I admire greatly go much, much further in giving us invented inner lives of real people. George Garrett (Death of the Fox, about Ralegh), Hilary Mantel (obviously, today), the brilliant The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, many more.

Many other authors share my concern here. A.S. Byatt, Antony Beevor, Jonathan Dee, just for starters, have written about it. There’s a trend to note here, tangled up with a sense of entitlement culture, and it tends not to be acknowledged, or to be defended as connected with ‘total artistic freedom’.

But, to directly answer Tasha’s question, I have always argued that we can hold two propositions at once (more, if we’re good!): this is a really well-done novel, and it gives me some ethical concerns. Think about “Birth of a Nation” or “Triumph of Will” in film, to take my point here.

I gave Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies the best review I think I have ever given a book in print, and do have issues along these lines (I mentioned them).

Homeward, Bond!

Back at my desk. Home for a bit.

I earned the much-coveted ‘Warrior Poet’ designation from the NY publicists after that crazy Friday dash to Seattle and the PBS studios. That, of course is far, far higher up the Secret Service echelons than a mere Road Warrior. It even gives up a license to make really bad puns in your headers. (Like I needed one…)

The PBS interview out there was a surprise, and I told the host, Terry Tazioli as much. Usually television is a fast 4-6 minutes on a morning show. (I’m in town, I wrote a book, I’m reading here tonight, I can tell a bad joke.) But we went close to 20 minutes of pretty lively conversation. Terry explained (and it was an explanation, that his own background is in print.) The show, ‘Well Read’ is broadening its outreach significantly this spring, beyond the Seattle (and Vancouver) area. It will be distributed to PBS stations nationwide, about 80 of them. A coup for them, and obviously useful for getting word out on River of Stars when the episode airs in May. Was worth gunning the Aston Martin through traffic from the airport to get there.

The evening at U of W bookstore Friday was – as I had anticipated – lovely. Could have gone longer but they wanted to close the bookstore for some reason (something about, er, staff wanting to get home, y’know). Nancy is so generally and generously enthused about books (and about mine) it is hard not to be on one’s game on a stage with her. The sequestered reading/events space was filled, with people standing at the back and it was a fun audience. (That means, in part, they decided I was funny when I was trying to be.)

It may be my imagination, but it seems to me after Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, that there may be an increase in Fionavar fans as I head for the coast. Interesting. The west coast is home ground for a lot of Tolkien fans, hence, maybe, traditional fantasy… probably a random sampling error, but had quite a few questions about the trilogy when I reached the Pacific.

Tomorrow morning is another favourite interview, every book. I’ll be in CBC studios here in Toronto, to be interviewed on the air by the wonderful Shelagh Rogers (who’ll be in Montreal this time, though we are both in Ottawa for their Writer’s Festival on the weekend). Shelagh is one of the best in the business, seriously smart, terrific sense of humour. She has already tweeted about putting on a ‘pun muzzle’ tomorrow. (Like that’ll help.)

Home… and away

It is a challenge to do proper Journal posts on the road, though it is a part of the whole idea of the journal, so I shouldn’t wimp out right?

Yesterday was a complex day. On the local level, a snowstorm hit here in Winnipeg. I joked on tv and radio interviews it was clearly a ‘welcome home’ message for me, and I was duly appreciative.

Midway through a day careening about town in snow with Rorie Bruce, publicist here, we learned at CBC radio, waiting to do an interview, about the Boston bombing. I ended up making reference to it at the outset of my booktalk at the splendid McNally Robinson event last night. Would have felt wrong not to. I made that my (small) point: how the larger events of the world are, and always have been, backdrops to the traumas and joys of our own lives. In the Sarantium books I am probably most explicit about this in my writing, The death of an emperor less important to the couple having their first child, or the farm family that loses a crucial labourer to a broken leg just before harvest time.

The evening itself was warm and even nurturing, which is part of returning home sometimes – if we are lucky. I talked for awhile about the underlying motifs of the two main characters in the novel, then read from chapter two, introducing Shan, the female protagonist. There was a really good-sized crowd for what turned out to be a mild enough night after a miserable day.

Really good reviews and some further interviews are continuing to pop up online. One thing I like: it actually looks as if some reviewers are trying to raise their own language game as they address River of Stars. I feel touched by that, too, to be honest. But I want to write something sometime about book reviewers who describe a story then add or discuss language separately. For me, the way I write a book, the language used, is completely part of the story you are hearing, or reading. It isn’t icing on top of some cake. And that applies to how I read other writers, too.

Vancouver, later today. Am assuming (relying upon?) better weather. Event is tomorrow night, reading in tandem with Ruth Ozeki, at the main library. Free tickets needed, same as was the case in Toronto. That’s a library thing, it seems.