Adrienne Rich and the power of language

“I can’t write a poem that transcends my own limits, though poetry has often pushed me beyond old horizons, and writing a poem has shown me how far out a part of me was walking beyond the rest.” –Adrienne Rich, Someone is Writing a Poem

As a student, I fell hard for the poetry of Adrienne Rich.  I went to college assuming I would study to be a pre-school teacher, graduate, and move back home to be near my parents, the shores of Lake Huron, and Michigan horse country where I had spent so many wonderful years as teenager.  But then I experienced the sort of awakening I now know is a cliché of the college experience: I took a Narrative Theory class my freshman year and suddenly the turmoil of my identity was illuminated, and given a name.  Books–the very same vehicles that delivered me from the loneliness of middle school into the worlds of magic, secret gardens, and first love—were revealed to be elusive and powerful equations, weapons of revolution, tools by which we could bring equality to the world and fully inhabit our humanity.  I dug into those tough theories and was dazzled by the words I could suddenly understand.  I had never been great at math, but unlocking these dense, layered texts gave me some clue of how empowering it might feel to solve a calculus problem.  The trouble with narrative theory, though, is that it doesn’t go over in day-to-day conversation well.  Once you start talking about gender as “performative” or about society’s obsession with “heteronormative narratives,” your Dad kind of tunes you out.

And that’s where Adrienne Rich is a genius: her work communicates a complex, progressive set of ideals in plain, resonant language.  To the casual reader, she paints lucid pictures of New York, of nature, of love.  To the ardent feminist, she articulates an agenda of change that’s often too hard to put into words, especially words that anyone who isn’t already bound to the cause might be interested in reading.  I didn’t become a pre-school teacher, but went into publishing instead, hoping to find and bring into print work that does what Adrienne Rich taught me was possible.  Stories and language that connect our struggles to understand the self, and the subversive politics of our history, with the problems and joys of ordinary life.  With falling in love, with the lights of Times Square, the window looking out at the Verrazano, the rituals of housekeeping, the work of building a doorframe.  A good book can deliver unexpected revelation to the most resistant reader, or build a bridge between people who may believe they have nothing in common.

I hope I honor the memory of Adrienne Rich by advocating for books: work which seeks to liberate us from our limits not through legal jargon or impenetrable academic rhetoric, but through clean, simple, personal, and moving human stories.  She never lost touch with the immediacy of joy and sorrow that words could communicate, and I hope I don’t, either.

He makes our heart sing

We had a very fun night celebrating the publication of Josh Bazell’s Wild Thing. Here he is at The Strand, in conversation with Malcolm Jones of Newsweek/The Daily Beast, where, among other things, he discussed his childhood love of 75-cent paperbacks, why he found a serial killer’s x-ray a hopeful sign for humanity, and the enduring appeal of the Loch Ness monster.

If you’ve ever met Josh, you know this is only the tip of the iceberg that is his enormous, encyclopedic mind, where fun, fascinating, occasionally disgusting facts are always within reach. (For further proof, check out “Sorry You Asked,” where he answers questions about flesh-eating bacteria, cockroach-ear infestations – and more!

At a festive dinner later, Josh’s family and friends toasted his success. Here are two key members of Team Josh, agent Markus Hoffman and publicist Sabrina Callahan.

And Larry Kramer was there, too! #thrilling

So Far Away meets Summerland on Stowe Mountain!

We weren’t aware of it, but it seems there was a mini-Reagan Arthur Books reunion going on at a certain Vermont ski lodge last weekend.  Our beloveds Elin Hilderbrand and Meg Moore ran into each other between hot cocoas and sent us this lovely evidence of their encounter.  Look at those smiles!  Next time we’re ditching our email and heading to the bunny hill to join in the fun.

Eowyn Ivey can let you into the city of Palmer, Alaska. Because she has the key.

We were sorry we couldn’t make it to Alaska for Eowyn Ivey’s publication party. Luckily, she filed this report:

Like many people I know, I dreamed of escaping my hometown when I was a younger. I grew up in Palmer, Alaska, and I always felt like I knew every person around every street corner.

This week I came to an entirely new appreciation of this small town.

In celebration of the release of my debut novel, The Snow Child, I planned a party with Fireside Books where I work. We held it at the Colony Inn, one of the most historic buildings in town. Decorated with antiques and a fireplace, it seemed like the perfect place. I expected a couple dozen close friends and favorite customers from the bookstore to show up. I would visit with them, sign a few books, and have a glass or two of wine.

My expectations were blown out of the water. More than 200 people showed up, including my third grade teacher, family friends I haven’t seen in years, artists, writers and politicians, former classmates, and people I had never met before. One lifelong friend brought a Snow Child doll she had handcrafted for me. Another dear friend gave me several art images of the snow maiden, including a print I will get framed.

In the midst of signing books and hugging lots of friends, I suddenly found the mayor of the City of Palmer standing beside me with a microphone. She read a proclamation, declaring it Eowyn Ivey Day. To be honest, I was incredibly embarrassed and would have said the honor was too much. But then she presented me with a small box tied with a ribbon. Inside I found a golden key to the city. I wouldn’t give up that key for anything, even a little embarrassment.

By the end of the night, we had broken the sales record for Fireside Books, previously held by Harry Potter. As I helped the bookstore owner and my co-workers pack up empty boxes, we joked that we should go out on the town, since we theoretically now had access to the library, the government offices, and all the bars on main street.

There is so much about that night that leaves me grateful, but most of all the love and support of my small town. I never guessed it would mean this much to me.

On the Road with Eowyn Ivey

Last weekend I went to Denver for a fantastic event that Tattered Cover hosts once a year: Writers Respond to Readers.  The program brings four writers together for a day of readings, book discussions, and general merriment, with an audience of seriously dedicated book fans.  This audience!  I could talk about them for days.  They were so well-read and engaged, the questions that they asked were unbelievably interesting, and the spirit of the event was one of kindness and welcoming.  I sat in the back, like the lurker I am, and watched them as they closed their eyes during the readings, nodding along, and watched them again when they opened those eyes to take notes on the authors’ talks.  Charles Stillwagon, one of the hardest-working and loveliest event coordinators out there, had invited J. Courtney Sullivan (Maine), Thrity Umrigar (The World We Found), Karen Essex (Dracula in Love) and our own Eowyn Ivey (The Snow Child).  They were just wonderful, each very different from the others.

Our Eowyn killed it.  I don’t think she’ll mind if I tell you that she was a little nervous beforehand—she was the only debut novelist there and the other speakers were fantastic.  When she said it was her first reading, the audience cheered her on.  When she announced that The Snow Child is #1 in Norway, even more applause.  And during the long, lively Q&A, a woman stood up and said “You said you were nervous, but you didn’t seem to be to me.  It was a very good reading.”  Cue still more cheering. Because it was a very good reading.

Eowyn jokingly called me “mom” a few times and I’m not sure why.  But maybe it was the following deluge of photographs I forced her to pose for as if it was her first day at school:

Eowyn, talking it up like the pro she is

Look at that line!

Eowyn with Tattered Cover's (delightful) Charles Stillwagon

Here's the one where I make her stand next to a sign

And here's the one where I make her stand next to all those pretty books!

Eowyn Ivey warns us about the bears, and yet we want to move to Alaska anyhow

Check out the great piece that ran this weekend in The Observer by our very own Eowyn Ivey, author of the delightful debut novel The Snow Child which goes on sale this week (more evidence of Ivey’s superstardom tk in the next post).  Maybe next time she takes to the Colorado River we can swap our city slicker high-heels (haha…it’s publishing…I obviously mean our flats from Eileen Fisher via the Garnet Hill website) for kayaking duds.  One can dream!

What it is all about: a great writer’s great new novel

It’s publication day for George Pelecanos’s newest thriller, WHAT IT WAS, and we couldn’t be more excited. You can read Janet Maslin’s terrific review here, and you can also read (if you subscribe) this Wall Street Journal article about the novel’s unconventional three formats and prices. Or you can check out George himself, via our friends at Mulholland Books, discussing his favorite Italian movies, and showing you some of the places where WHAT IT WAS takes place, in his own D.C. back yard.

Pitches and Noes

My press kit for Eowyn Ivey's THE SNOW CHILD

There is no shortage of reports on how bad book publicists are. The thrust of most of these essays is this: in-house publicists will do a crappy job on your book.  They won’t take your call for more than a few weeks, they don’t have the time or inclination to listen to your ideas, and they use the same media lists for every book, over and over.  Whenever I read one of these, my dander is up, my feathers ruffled, my other idiom to make it three is roused.  Are there bad book publicists out there?  I am sure there are.  In fact, I hope there are just so the torrent of negativity towards my profession has a basis.

This brings me to the latest hit piece written about in-house publicists: this essay, posted on Publishing Perspectives. Read it for yourself, I’ll wait.  I will give the author his due: this is an entirely new and creative angle on the chestnut “your publicist sucks.” In an oversimplified nutshell: a blogger didn’t like how large the press kit was for a lead list title by an author on the brink of enormous literary success.  I haven’t seen the kit, but I’ve made a few that sound similar to it: Q&As, praise sheets, a release, some reviews singled out, and all in a pretty folder.  Sure, more people are talking about the Auslander book now that this has run and never us mind that it received a smashing New York Times daily and NYTBR,  Apparently Janet Maslin and Steve Stern were unaware that they were being “intellectually bullied,” so please do not tell them.

I ask you, dear reader (I assume there is one and her name rhymes with Bay-gin): how do we win?  We don’t do enough or we do too much.  We are lazy or we are bullying.  It feels like we need to cater to what each particular contact prefers or we have failed miserably.  Of course, this is unreasonable. We send books and follow-up with hundreds of people and for every person that hates a large press kit and tosses it, I have two asking me for talking points.  Reviewers get an absurd amount of mail- have you ever seen those book rooms?  I fled from Publishers Weekly’s  once; it was overwhelming to see just how much competition there is for space.  Let’s not even get in to what we are up against when pitching the morning shows or radio (Santorum, sinking cruise ships, and frakking come to mind).  Is it a crime to try to give the media all the information they could possibly need to decide if this particular book is the one they should crack?  I don’t think it is.  In fact, I’m fairly sure that is exactly my job.  And I’m also pretty certain (please, correct me if I’m wrong @lenabitts) that most authors would rather have the publicist who was overly passionate over one who is getting a mani-pedi during the workday (I’ve never actually met that type, but I’ve read enough to know they must exist!).

I would like to take a small moment here, on this cozy soapbox, to mention one other point.  We did not go to Publicity University, where you learn diabolical lying, anti-ethics101, and small dog maintenance. We are not people who passed up working in Hollywood for the high-paying and prestigious publishing racket.  We are book people who, for one reason or another, are just better suited to talking with strangers about literature than we are talking to the text itself.  But we are on your side.  We sleep with our phones under our pillows, often give up weekends to travel with authors, have several work night events to attend, and take your call, lovely writer and researching journalist, at 9pm when we should be halfway through a bottle of wine while watching Downton Abbey, like everyone else.  It’s not working in a mine and I know that, and these are not complaints.  Because I have a truly fantastic job where I get to work with some of the best writers working today.  If I get a little zealous about making sure you know it, too, I hope that you’ll forgive me.   But it’s hard out here for a pitch.

When mothers and daughters leave each other

I try not to be too bossy, but I’m going to have to insist that you read this beautiful and moving excerpt from Caitlin Flanagan’s GIRL LAND, which ran in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. As mothers have been saying since time began: You’ll thank me later.

What I Read Over Winter Vacation

I always dreaded that back-to-school essay we had to write about What We Did Over Summer Vacation. Like most kids, I didn’t have a lot of control over my summer activities (I pretty much just went to swim team practice).  If it were up to me, I’d have spent the summer before 4th grade training for the Iditarod, and the summer before 7th grade ranching and sauntering around in dusty chaps.  A more revealing essay topic would have been: What I Read Over Summer Vacation (in which case the teacher would have learned that I read Dog Song by Gary Paulsen before 4th grade, and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty before 7th grade).  I may never have had full say in where I spend my vacations, but I’ve always enjoyed complete autonomy when it comes to my reading list.

My in-laws live in North Texas.  I can just hear what you’re thinking.  At least it’s warm, and there’s BBQ!  Wrong, my friends.  In North Texas, near the Oklahoma border, it’s cold, flat, and windy.  The upside of our annual visit (besides getting to play Scrabble on the Official Scrabble table, where the tiles are 24 karat gold-plated–really) is that reading time passes completely uninterrupted.  Feel free to recline on your husband’s childhood bed, alternately reading, napping, and eating the gummi bears your mother-in-law brings to you.  Because you’re not missing anything!  I highly recommend their home as a holiday destination.

And so, here is my answer to the question I always wished my teachers had asked after vacation – What I Read:

Before we even left home, I finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.  I started this at my mother’s suggestion over the summer, and I swear I didn’t finish it until holiday break because I just didn’t want my relationship with the characters to end.

Next I read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, a short novel that won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.  Immediately, the tone of the book reminded me of the anecdotes a dear friend of mine tells me about his youth.  He was born in the late 1930s and his stories are alien to me both because they revolve around actual key moments in our cultural history (like stumbling into a Cream concert by accident, or listening to early Miles Davis albums as they are released) and because he’s lived with his memories long enough that the telling of each story is more important than how he feels about what happened.  Like the protagonist in Barnes’s novel, my friend has the patience to wait for events to run their course, he accepts who he is, he’s not blinded by pride or vanity, and yet the truth behind his memories still has the capacity to surprise him.

Then I read In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, and what a delight it was.  It’s like Judy Blume for grown-ups, conveying all of the humor and intensity of adolescence with the depth of theme and strong, potent writing of the best literary novels.  Beard completely captures what it’s like to be a teenage girl.  The novel opens with a scene in which two 14-year-old babysitters hesitate to call the fire department because…it’s embarrassing.  It’s funny because it’s true, people.

I re-read and forced my husband (he was more than game!) to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.  For my money, this is one of the greatest books of our time.  It’s intense, harrowing, funny, provocative, and chock-full of knowledge bombs.  My last order of business before leaving for the holidays was to acquire a graphic novel by Isabel Greenberg, who just won The Observer Cape Graphic Short Story award.  As Isabel sets off on the mission to turn that short story into a brilliant novel of her own, I wanted to remind myself of the transformative, unique power that a graphic novel can wield.

I was lucky enough to read an upcoming novel about the Iraq War called The Yellow Birds by Kevin PowersMichael Pietsch acquired it late last year, and Little, Brown will publish it later in 2012. Someone at the office compared it to The Hurt Locker but I think it’s far more powerful, and the writing—about the deserts of Iraq and the farmland of Virginia—is beautiful and lyrical.  The juxtaposition between the war and home, and the details Powers chooses from each landscape, are small facets of this novel’s brilliance.  I know it’s one that is going to generate a huge amount of attention and discussion upon its publication; it’s the sort of novel that’s an honor to read.

I ended the vacation with The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson.  The book has been recommended to me by everyone from Julie Barer, Wilson’s agent who snagged me an ARC, to Time Magazine, who included it as a pick for the Best Fiction of 2011.  Think From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr.  A wild, fun book about art, family, and chaos, it was a perfect reminder of what a privilege it is to work in publishing.  I am lucky enough to have early and ready access to what’s long been my favorite thing: good books.

Cheers to a new year, friends!

P.S. One of my resolutions for 2012 is to read more nonfiction.  If you know a book that will catch a novel lover’s full attention, feel free to point me in that direction in the comments section below.