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not me; the other me
On the Publishing Process, and Rereading My Older Work
A few years ago, I had all of my rights to my first two books, Poor Man’s Feast and Treyf, reverted.
In layman’s terms: I asked the publisher to release the rights back to me, so that my agent could sell them elsewhere. Why would I do such a thing? Without getting granular: first, if a publisher sits on an old backlist book and does nothing to support it — this is not pointing fingers or placing blame; most books have a six-week front list shelf-life and after that may disappear completely (I say this as a former publisher) — an author can request that the rights be returned to them if they can show cause. The downside to this: it puts the books out of print, and stops any sales until it comes back out again, either as a self-published book or with another publisher (which is hard to land because the book is now considered old).
For every bestseller — the books that come out into the world amidst a flurry of noise and lists and awards and film options and and and — there are far more books that simply do not get much attention, for whatever reason. The author, for their part, has done their job: they’ve written the best possible book they can, and delivered it when expected. The publishing process, however, can get complicated and sometimes sticky: acquiring editors leave or get fired (my second book, in the year after I delivered the manuscript, had five editors, three publicists, two publishing directors, and a change in imprint, meaning that by the time it came out, not one person in the office had read it or knew what it was about), or someone at a relatively high level in marketing or sales just plain doesn’t get it and other folks on staff are too nervous to be oppositional and support it, or someone somewhere is holding a grudge (it’s a tiny industry), or there’s some bizarre sloppiness (one of my books, I won’t say which one, was sent to long-dead members of media for review and when they didn’t respond — dead people aren’t known for their timely responses — I was told that maybe they just didn’t like it but were too polite to say (nope; dead). OR, it just didn’t hit, for whatever reason (zeitgeist, climate, timing, etc). OR the author — who is uncategorizable in a traditional sense (I write at the intersection of faith, food, family, nature) — cannot be summed up in a five minute sales pitch, which is about how long every book gets, if not less.
For every bestseller — the books that come out into the world amidst a flurry of noise and lists and awards and film options and and and — there are far more books that simply do not get much attention, for whatever reason.
Of my three books, two of them have fallen through the cracks; I’ve lost editors, I’ve lost entire support teams, I’ve had galleys sent to dead people, I’ve had agents leave the country. I’ve had books never sold overseas, even though a full thirty percent of my readers are in the UK. Conversely, I’ve had a book reviewed brilliantly by the New York Times and not even known about it until the paper landed at the end of my driveway on a Sunday morning. I’ve had other fabulous reviews; I’ve had meh reviews. I’ve had standing room only events at places like Prairie Lights and Brookline Booksmith and Rizzoli and Book Passage; I’ve had a lone man dressed in a hospital gown and yellow socks with those little rubber nubbles on the soles show up for my reading at a bookstore in Chicago, and, even though he was the only person in the audience, he expected the whole nine yards — a reading and a discussion and a q&a — and that is exactly what I gave him because what’s fair is fair.
It’s a completely crazy business; it’s not enough to just write a good book that you’ve spent three years, or ten years, pouring your soul into. Last weekend, I gave a craft talk at Roxane Gay’s Community Writer’s Workshop at Rutgers, and this was a much-discussed issue among the other writers in attendance; Deesha Philyaw, Courtney Maum, Matt Bell, Matthew Saleeses, Vanessa Martir, and Carmen Maria Machado.
I’ve had a lone man dressed in a hospital gown and yellow socks with those little rubber nubbles on the soles show up for my reading at a bookstore in Chicago.
Still: I have people write to me every day saying that they searched and searched, and bought my book(s) at a book sale, or through a used seller, or that they can’t find it in the library, at which point I send them a signed book plate, or (in the case of the person trying to find it at the library) I send them one from my own stash. Or I agree to talk to their book clubs, or their church groups or their synagogues or their schools. Because, without readers, authors would be absolutely nowhere, and I cannot possibly state that more strongly.
So: back to rights reversion. I had the rights reverted to my first two books, and my agent sold the digital rights for one of them (Poor Man’s Feast) and audio rights for both of them (Poor Man’s Feast and Treyf), which meant that I was going to have to revisit these two stories written long ago, at another time of my life, and spend a total of eighteen hours in a soundproof booth, recording them. (I just finished recording Treyf yesterday.) It probably doesn’t seem essay-worthy, but here’s the thing: most authors do not re-read their books once they’re published. We don’t want to look back, we don’t want to see where we’ve been; in some cases — with more difficult books — we don’t want to re-traumatize ourselves. We also don’t necessarily want to see how our writing has changed, which, for every one of us, it does. (I apparently was so fond of the word festooned that I used it in Treyf four times.)
I’ve lost editors, I’ve lost entire support teams, I’ve had galleys sent to dead people, I’ve had agents leave the country.
When I recorded the audio for Poor Man’s Feast, I was faced with the before-times; it’s a fairly innocuous love story between two people who happen to be women (I was in my thirties, my wife, in her forties), and the world in which we found each other against all odds. Much of it takes place in the kitchen, and focuses on our search for sustenance and nurturing despite complicated upbringings. What I was reminded of during the reading: the vagaries of coming out, the manipulative ex who wouldn’t leave us alone (in my workshops I might call her presence the counterpoint), and also, the fact that at the time of its writing, I still was very much connected to my family of origin, with whom I have, for the most part, been estranged since the book’s publication. It was difficult to read, to record, to remember who I had been before I knew that it would soon be over, and I’d be sliced out of the fold like a hot knife through butter.
I had written Treyf ten years ago in a shocky emotional blackout.
When I recorded the audio for Treyf — essentially the prequel to both Poor Man’s Feast and Motherland — the experience was far different; beyond my overuse of the word festooned, reading it was like taking a journey far back in time, like when Scrooge gets dragged through his childhood by the Ghost of Christmas Past, and he can clearly begin to see the roots of the trauma that will define him as an adult: emotional abandonment, parental cruelty, the loss of a sibling he adored. From the vantage point of older age, he sees the good and he sees the bad, and there’s nothing he can do about it because they’re all just shadows, alive in his memory but nowhere else, and he has to live with the pain, and the understanding of that pain and its derivation. Once he truly comprehends that he cannot run from or bury it under a morass of emotional violence, he begins to transform; the understanding is a widening crack in the hard shell of his self-protective brutality, and he can feel again.
In recording Treyf — reading it aloud for nine hours over three days, locked alone in a sealed glass booth with no one but Kyle Willoughby, my producer, listening — it came back to life. I had to re-experience all of it, all of the why behind where I am now: the moral obligation to care for a mentally ill parent who, in the book, isn’t actually recognized as mentally ill (she’s just wildly mean); gaslighting, and the cruelty of someone the narrator has been trained to trust; the earliest seeds of addictive behavior; the choosing of one’s friends both badly, and well. The truth-telling compulsion. I recalled none of this from my place in the sealed booth; I had written Treyf ten years ago in a shocky emotional blackout, shortly after losing my family. I didn’t realize that until this week.
After I recorded Treyf, it was all I could do to crawl back to the train every day and travel home to Connecticut, where I have lived now for nineteen years with my wife, our garden, our animals, our reasonable safety. Having the rights reverted on my first two books has afforded me the gift of memory, of context, of finally understanding exactly what I lived through, after so much time.