So for four months I was underground, digging away happily at the vein of ore in the mine. It was rich and productive, and I was fully immersed.
But now I’ve emerged, blinking, into the sunlight where all the complications of the world have waited patiently for my return.
The biggest problem that awaits the happy author of the completed manuscript is actually a mirrored pair of problems, a pushmi-pullyu that can’t successfully navigate in either direction. One head of the animal is finding readers. How can I get the book in front of people who might enjoy it? The world of literary agentry is the most fakakta enterprise ever invented, a community of connections for which you need pre-connections to get more than a desultory twenty-second review. Not their fault, of course; they’re looking for the love-at-first-sight moment, and using the equivalent of Tinder to do it. Swipe left… swipe left… swipe left…
I’m preparing to give copies of my books away to friends and their friends, but that means re-building my website, which means new plug-ins and new account levels and blah-de-blah-de-blah. I don’t need money, which means that I’m not all that attractive to the publishing world anyway, since words are currency over there. I’m actually looking forward to giving the work away for free, but that’s its own set of tasks.
But the other head of the creature is what might happen if I DID find readers. What are the book’s responsibilities in the world, and to whom? In particular, what do I owe Nora, my first and most steadfast reader? Can I publish things that she finds uncomfortable? Why would I introduce discomfort into the person I love most in the world?
I write lots of characters. I actually counted, in one book, that there were 84 specific, identifiable people who would have to be cast in the movie, not counting the anonymous crowds. Many of those characters are unlike me. In gender, in sexual orientation, in ethnicity, in age, in social class, in profession. I can research similar lives for months on end, but I can’t possibly “get them right,” because there IS no single right way to be female, to be Hindu, to be a corn farmer. All of those groups are wildly diverse within themselves, but lots of people are ready to be affronted if a writer’s expression of a community is different from their own. And I don’t mean to cause anyone else discomfort, either.
I’m not going to write about nothing but 63-year-old white guys who’ve moved to Vermont in the past ten years. That’s kind of a limited palette. (Although lots of memoirists have dug endlessly from a single mine. As David Chapin put it, they’ve become parasites on their own lives.) So what responsibility does my story bear to someone who might see herself “inaccurately” portrayed? And what responsibility does my story bear to people who ARE quite a lot like me, and might actually learn something about diversity (and about themselves) through the research I’ve conducted to bring my characters into being?
It’s dangerous above ground, right? Safer to duck back under and start another book!
One of the great things about my being married to a super-smart writer is that we have wonderful conversations. Nora and I actually went over a lot of these ideas this morning, while we were out digging potatoes and getting the garden ready for winter. We talked about what it meant to be novelists who were both trained as ethnographers, for whom the research can sometimes be more fun than the writing, for whom listening to characters has ethical importance. We talked about the limits of what must be known and what may be filled in with invention. We talked about what it’s meant that she’s read three of my novels in the past four months, and thus now knows all my tricks. “Oh, geez, that again?” Patterns you might miss if you dip into a writer’s work every couple of years become visible (and maybe annoying…) when you’ve seen them three times since summer. What of our repetition is our “voice,” and what of our repetition is just laziness? Or some authorial disability that limits our motion?
All that, plus we got potatoes.
Anyway, keep you eyes open for the web re-launch, and your opportunity to choose from among several new books that will be my gifts to any readers who ask.