Sunday, November 09, 2014

On...the book as artifact: Etsying our titles and our dancing hippos

When your publisher is a small independent, selling books becomes something of a game. You've exhausted all your friends, your students, your fellow writers. Your mum has handed out novels as Christmas presents for the past four years. What on earth do you do next to shift stock and generate new readers?

I've offered books here on the site, but I've not sold one so far. I think Amazon is just the easier "click" for many of us: we have our account set up, our credit card logged, and if we can add another book/expensive shampoo/joint tablets for the dog/chatreuse shoe polish to the order, we can even wangle free shipping.

The book isn't the only thing I tout for online sales. I have an Etsy store that allows me to believe my obsession with thrift stores and all things mid century is not a symptom of hoarding: it's stock adjustment. Etsy has three categories: craft supplies, vintage, and homemade. Most of my stuff goes in the "Vintage" section: all manner of silks, 70s clothing, even the odd Kreiss dancing hippo. And I have a few odds and ends in "Craft Supplies"--mainly vintage zippers and bindings. But nothing in "Homemade." That is, nothing until last week.

Last week, I posted my novel "Sticklebacks and Snow Globes" on the store under "HomeMade." It wasn't an "under-the-counter" or  renegade step. I contacted Etsy and put my case: I "made" the book in that its characters and settings came from my imagination and the words were produced by the action of my fingers on my keyboard; and I sign each one, so each "unit" is inscribed by hand. I was impressed by their reaction. "Of course," they said. "Post away!"

So Sticklebacks is now up with the hippo, some Don Draper ties and a kickin' suit from the 60s. I've sold one so far. I'm hoping to sell a few more. I'll let you know how it goes. Because if it flies, it might be the way to go for those of us with small independent publishers with not much marketing money. It might be of interest, too, to the self-publishers.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On...Decluttering: our homes, our lives...our writing?

Joshua Becker's article "Don't Just Declutter, De-Own" made me come over all virtuous. Last year, I moved from an 800sq ft home to a 1500 sq ft home, and it's still relatively clutter free. I haven't found myself desperate to fill every corner and each wall just because they're there.

I'm a thrift store junkie. And I don't say Junkie lightly. I know addiction. And it's sneaky. Whether it's alcohol, or prescription drugs, food, sex with strangers--or a strong desire to visit Goodwill each day just in case someone has dropped off something I think I need--the behavior is there because something in our lives is not there. We can stop the behavior, but unless we tackle the underlying issues of our addictions, the behavior pops up somewhere else. At different times during my recovery, the need has manifested in ice cream (butter pecan, eaten with a particular spoon while sitting in a particular chair),  then a spate of working out, and more recently, in extreme thrifting. I know this latest compulsion (there's a Goodwill pusher on every corner) is an addiction in the making. I could go cold turkey and stop, but today's not the day for that. But Becker might be proud of me: I keep a box on the basement steps and for every "thing" I bring in, I put something in the box to take out--to the tip, to a thrift store, or to a friend I think might like it. Addiction's forever. But so's the treatment.

Post Becker, I found myself wondering if addiction might work its way into my writing. Were there themes, characters, settings that came back in my work time after time? Did I find it hard to not write about, say, the working class life? I suppose the perpetual "I" might be a constant in my poetry, that the kid continually trying to make sense of life and its options might be another. Becker tells us that simply going through the stuff of our lives and finding better ways to store it isn't a solution to our clutter. He advocates amputation, not ointment, saying that getting rid of our possessions  forces us to question both our passions and our values.

Perhaps I'll put the "I" and the working class in a box on the stairs for a while and see what percolates in their absence. I don't think I'm up for the actual amputation just yet, but from what I've heard, the drugs they give you pre- and post-op are pretty good, and that, for an addict in recovery, could be reason enough to flirt with the idea of surgery even if I don't go as far as the knife.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On...the Mo and Kitty Story

Follow the link for an update to the Mo and Kitty story, where early April, the cruelest month, blooms with misunderstandings and hurt feelings...

Monday, August 11, 2014

On...cover artwork: nightmares and dreams

I can't say that I'm overjoyed at reading online. I do it and find the libraries' Overdrive software brilliant: there's never a reason to be without something good to read. But I'm still in love with the physical book. It doesn't have to be glossy and expensive--in fact, I'm not so keen on the coffee table book because it seems more mere object than reading experience. No, for me, the Dover Thrifts are just dandy. In fact, I like the way the cheap paper "gives" under my ballpoint pen's scratchings.

And unit price has (or should have) no bearing on the quality of covers. Take the Penguin series. My pal Kay had a whole stretch of these in her downstairs cloakroom, and I adored them, both in terms of their iconic beauty and for what was held between them. Who could resist the crayoned blurbs of To Kill a Mockingbird or the fiery phoenix of Lady Chatterley's Lover

What makes them gorgeous, for me at least, is their simplicity and their quality. Everything is sharp, sharp, sharp. There's no awful gilt or silver embossing, no shine, nothing unnecessary.

With my first novel, I loved the quality of the hard back with its glossy dust jacket and the purple flysheet. When it came out in paperback, I liked the folded front and back cover, the way the plot summary and the bio came as a little surprise when the reader opened the book. When Scribe published, I adored the new artwork and the way the designer had included little hand drawings of the street in which the story took place.

I wonder if the cover on an electronic book is as important. I don't tend to "run my finger" down the online spines as I do in the store. I tend to search on an author name or a title or a genre and grab whatever blurb sounds interesting. I suppose I do still avoid the bodice ripper and cute puppy covers. Perhaps the requirement for a great online cover is even higher though, since it costs no more to produce a great design than a crappy one.

Monday, August 04, 2014

On...If I Had Been a Mother, I Would Want to Have Been This Mother

I caught the train on Sunday from Hove Station on the South Coast up to London's Clapham Junction, first of three legs in a journey from my pal Kay Sexton's house back to my parents'. The train was pretty full, many of its inhabitants taking the short trip from Hove up to Gatwick Airport. In fact, I thought that was the destination of the woman and her daughter next to whom I sat since the first thing I watched the mother do was to hand her early teen daughter a sheet of paper and suggest she use one side of it for her "holiday list." The daughter wasn't overjoyed at her mother's idea of how to while away a train journey--the girl was busy watching a badly streamed episode of Eastenders on her iPhone. But she put the phone away, and her mother prompted her through a list of t-shirts (four), a bra, flip flops and "trainers," and two shirts. Her mother then suggested a trip to a surf shop to buy a sun top and maybe a pair of those "surfing shoes" for rock scrambling. As the girl wrote her list in a neat cursive hand, they discussed and debated each entry, both mother and daughter owing half the process each. There were no arguments--the mother danced backwards once or twice and then the daughter capitulated and then on another occasion pressed her point. It was an egalitarian list.

Then the mother requested ten minutes to read her magazine and the daughter grudgingly acquiesced. When nine minutes and 50 seconds had elapsed, the daughter pulled out the Holiday List again and, turning it over, drew the six hyphens that suggested hangman before asking her mother to choose a letter. Her mother checked her watch, smiled and said A, and then C and then E. She guessed GREECE before the gallows was halfway built. The daughter then drew another seven hyphens and the mother began again with an H and then a D. I wanted to shout "HOLIDAY" but that just goes to prove that I know nothing about being a great mother. The woman struggled on through some odd letters (a Q and an E, and F and a G) until the gallows was built and the hangee had both legs and arms before shouting, "HOLIDAY"  and grabbing the paper to draw some hyphens of her own. The daughter began at A and moved letter by letter through the alphabet until the mother objected and suggested the girl apply a little imagination. Her daughter whined a little and said she had no idea what the word might be. Her mother suggested she try a vowel or two and the girl said she didn't know what vowels were. Her mother laughed and started her off with an A and then an E...and the girl offered the "I" thereby averting imminent strangulation. The girl began to smile, to enjoy the game again and quickly finished off "TRAIN."

I had to get off at Clapham Junction and the pair were still giggling about holidays and drawing more hyphens and were obviously staying on the train until Victoria. And much had been accomplished:  a list of things to be procured and packed; t-shirts listed and counted; jelly shoes quantified and weighed against "surfer shoes"; word games played; a daughter challenged to imagine and to think; the giving and taking of a relationship.

I don't have kids. But if I had ended up with a daughter, I would have wanted to be that mother..

Friday, August 01, 2014

On...the Mo and Kitty Story

Follow the link for an update to the Mo and Kitty story, where Kitty goes all Henry Fielding with prose poetry and begs leave to retain just one or two of her Facebook lovers, and where Mo asks Kitty to move to London.

Monday, July 28, 2014

On...Helen Peppe's Maine memoir _Pigs Can't Swim_

Sometimes I review books. Especially if it's a book I think my friends might like. I think they'll like this one!

When I think of Helen Peppe, I think of her photography: her stunning horses …the staggering energy of them, their absolute beauty. So when I saw she had written a memoir, I knew its pages would somehow hold animals: and I was right;  there’s a working New England farmyard full: Molly the sheep, Tom the turkey, Mac the dog, Donny, the crazed horse, the pig of the title called Waterboro. And as ever, we learn the truth of this family’s story not through the tales the author tells us, but by the way she tells them. In contrast to these animals who are named and painted in glorious detail, the family is almost anonymous—composites of sorts—sketched with a fast and light hand.
Peppe shows us rugged Maine, not only rugged in terms of terrain but also in terms of family. And this family is vast, its members known by their characteristics, not by their names: the blustery-and-favored brother, the  sister-who-holds-a-grudge-longer-than-God, the hair-twirling-pretty-sister, the bullshit artist, the family-hanger-on.  Naming is a motif in this work: Peppe chooses not to name her family members…perhaps for privacy sake, but bear in mind that there is the mother who Peppe says, “called us the name of a different person she disliked in order to shame us….she played free with our identities as if, without her to give us a name, we were nothing.”

Peppe hands over this difficult family dynamic with the same staggering energy and grace with which she gives us those glorious horses.  It’s a rough kind of Maine love. Regardless of what’s going on and who has upset and disappointed whom, they keep on doing what is expected of them and—ultimately—that’s what keeps them together: Father fixes stuff and earns what he can; Mother does her best to keep her kids straight and the house from burning down; the sisters practice the steps of courtship, motherhood, and marriage perhaps so that when it falls upon them for real, they might get it right.

Peppe—the youngest—watches and listens and does her level best to make her life work. She describes her child self as “surviving on as little air as possible” as if even oxygen is in short supply. And yet there is love. There is the sister who seasons aggression with hugs so rare they become priceless. There is the brother, owner of Donny, who teaches Peppe—albeit in a break-neck, hands-off fashion—to ride.

We follow the author from those early days as a young girl on the farm, struggling with her love of animals and her meat-eating family, through the nightmares on the school bus, her witnessing of her sisters’ rough navigation of sex and identity, through to her own adolescent struggles…with the father of a child she babysits and ultimately with a boy with whom she falls in love. Tough and noisy times. The kind of times that build a person…that build a family. Of family, she says, “We all screamed—the kids, the in-laws, the farm animals and the parents—out of fear, frustration and fury.”
For me, Peppe seems to wish for her child self the love she lavishes on her animals. In the scene from which the memoir takes its title, she thinks about the family who might be mourning a lost pig she and her family have found. She imagines them driving down 202 and saying, “Remember, that’s where we lost our baby pig. I wonder whatever happened to him.” It’s hard not to think the author as this lost baby—sensitive and artistic—snatched up and raised with the Peppe children as if they were a “human version of crated puppies.”

This is a great book, but it’s not an easy book. As Peppe points out, “skin and vinyl stick together like memories to our brains. Sometimes they hurt when you peel them away, but you must to go on with your life, unstuck.” Pigs Can’t Swim can be read as a story of how we might unpeel ourselves from the memories that threaten to stick us to our pasts. Bravo, Helen Peppe, for daring to pull away.