A Setback Circa 2004

I was paging through an old journal recently, and I found the following entry:

August 14, 2004: Well, it’s beginning to look like I’ll have to publish The Grievers on my own. We came home today after house-sitting for my uncle, and there were eleven or twelve rejections in the mail. These were the results of my 3rd round of queries, and they always say the same thing — it isn’t that the agents don’t like my writing, it’s that the market is so tight… Oh well. One heartening thing, though: We were watching the bonus disk that goes with the Office DVD, and someone commented that the show’s characters were unsympathetic — which is exactly what one agent said was the problem with my book. And The Office is one of my favorite shows!

For me, it was interesting to stumble upon this entry for a couple of reasons. The biggest is that I’d actually forgotten how close I was to self-publishing The Grievers. If not for the fact that Chuck Palahniuk convinced me not to, I probably would have published the novel on my own, and it probably would have gone nowhere.

I say this, of course, with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, I thought The Grievers was as good as it was going to be. But since I decided not to publish it on my own, I was unknowingly giving myself some much needed distance from the project and, in turn, giving it a bit of breathing room. As a result, I was able to be much more objective in my approach to the project when I returned to it a couple of years later.

All of this is to say that getting the novel rejected when I did was probably good for the novel and good for me as a writer. It forced me to start a new project (The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl), and the experience of getting that novel published in two very different editions taught me a lot not only about editing but about the book industry in general.

When I eventually returned to The Grievers, I understood things like pacing, plot, and character development a bit more solidly, and that allowed me to make some major improvement to the novel. Perhaps more significantly, I had a better understanding of some of the realities of the “market,” which helped me to understand why agents were rejecting the book.

To wit, The Grievers probably wasn’t going to be a “blockbuster” in the Harry Potter or Twilight sense of the word, so even if agents did “like” my writing, they weren’t really going to get much money out of any deal they could get for me. Like Wonder Mom, it’s probably more suited to a small press that appreciates my quirky and admittedly dark sense of humor than to a big press that wants the next Da Vinci Code.

Needless to say, finding the right small press was no cakewalk. I had to do a lot of research — by which I mean reading a lot of books from a lot of different presses — before finding one that matched what I was doing. But this work eventually payed off in a lot of ways. It made me realize that writing isn’t a solitary venture, and that writers need to figure out where they fit into the bigger picture of the publishing landscape if they want to find the right publisher.

Additionally, all of that reading helped me look at my own work from a new perspective. I wouldn’t say that I specifically wrote The Grievers to suit the needs of a particular publisher, but it is fair to say that reading works by certain authors I admired helped me to understand how I might do a better job of making it the kind of book I wanted it to be.

Yet while rejection was ultimately good for The Grievers, there was no way for me to know that at the time. It still stung, and I still feel a bit of a sting any time something I’ve written gets rejected or a bad review. But that brings me to the second point that struck me when I read my journal entry from 2004: I wasn’t willing to give up, and I wasn’t going to write a more marketable brand of fiction just because agents were having trouble figuring out how to sell my work.

Based on that journal entry, I’m guessing that the most specific feedback I got from any agents at the time was that my characters were unsympathetic. A rational human being probably would have responded to this criticism by making sure the characters in his or her next novel were highly sympathetic. But the decision to write fiction isn’t exactly the mark of a rational human being, and my next novel was about a drug dealing soccer mom who gets high around her children and frequently puts them in danger. Characters don’t get much less sympathetic than that.

Which isn’t to say that Wonder Mom isn’t engaging (at least by my standards), and it also isn’t to say that my protagonist isn’t an interesting if highly flawed character. It’s just to say that she does a lot of things that the average person would disapprove of. But my comment about The Office tells me that that’s the kind of story I like.

David Brent is as flawed as an office manager can be (apologies to Michael Scott!), and that’s why I’m drawn to him. And I’m drawn to flawed characters in every medium. Max Fischer in Rushmore. Grady Trip in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Lear in King Lear. Bill Clinton throughout his tenure in the White House. As Elvis Costello once said, “If the failure is great, then it tends to fascinate.”

The lesson, if there is one in all of this, is that I didn’t need to abandon my fascination. I just needed to find a publisher — and an audience — who shared it. And that probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d jumped into the fray and published The Grievers on my own in 2004.

Chuck Palahniuk: Nice Guy At Large

I’ve been a Chuck Palahniuk fan for a while now. Like many of his followers, I came to the author’s work via Fight Club (the movie first, and then the book), and I’ve also enjoyed his other works for their unique (some might say “twisted”) take on the trappings of contemporary culture. Consumerism, celebrity, pornography, and religion are just a few of the topics he’s examined throughout his oeuvre, and he’s done so in a way that I’d describe as unflinching.

Yet because Palahniuk is so unflinching in his approach to all of the issues he examines in his fiction and nonfiction, a lot of readers don’t like his work. This, of course, is fine. Everyone has a right to their own opinions, and I personally remember feeling kind of grossed out when I read Snuff, his “porn” novel, on a long flight from Philadelphia to Albuquerque.

Even though I can see how some readers might not like Palahniuk’s books, I have to take exception to people who say they don’t like him. I don’t mean to say this as a prissy English professor distinguishing between the author and his work, as I make this distinction frequently enough in the courses I teach. What I mean is that, as a rule, you can’t not like Chuck Palahniuk. He’s just too nice of a guy.

My first inkling that Palahniuk was a nice guy came in 2004 when someone mentioned that he had set aside some time for fans to write to him and that he’d respond personally to all of the mail he received. So I sent him a note explaining how much I enjoyed his work, that I used Fight Club in my American Literature class, and that I was thinking about self-publishing my first novel.

I was a graduate student at the time. I was working on my dissertation and clueless about what the world would hold for me once I completed my degree. In addition to that, a friend of mine had recently committed suicide. I mentioned all of this in my letter; I think I just wanted someone to tell me that everything would work out — or at least to suggest that hope wasn’t a ridiculous thing to hold on to. The response I got from Palahniuk was everything I needed.

He didn’t just respond with a letter. He responded with a package. Enclosed in the package were the following: a rubber duck, a Christmas stocking, a packet of forget-me-not seeds, an autographed copy of Fight Club, a Whitman sampler, a Beanie Baby koala (which the author referred to as my “power koala”), and a necklace made of semiprecious stones and lettered beads that spelled out TO MARC SCHUSTER FROM CHUCKY P.

As if that weren’t enough, Palahniuk also wrote a thoughtful letter in which he suggested that I rethink self-publishing my novel. “Consider NOT self publishing, but putting your energy and frustration into the next work,” he wrote. “The reality of a career is that you’ll always be writing a Next Book.”

He also wrote of the book in question, “Your idea for The Grievers sounds wonderful: dark and funny. That’s something our culture will be needing big-time for the next four years. Anything that combines grief and humor and shows survival. I have to think that will be the new ‘comfort’ literature.”

It was the shot in the arm I needed. And the advice he gave me next turned out to be perfect: “Please get started on your next book. That one will be stronger, and you might always re-work The Grievers a bit and sell it as your second book.” Which, it turns out, is exactly what happened. A revised (and revised, and revised again) version of The Grievers will be available from The Permanent Press next May, and it’s a follow-up to my first novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl.

So, yeah, I was predisposed to thinking of Palahniuk as a nice guy when I went to see him read in support of his latest novel, Damned, at the Free Library of Philadelphia this past weekend. I was not disappointed in the least.

One of the first things the author asked was for a show of hands to see how many people in the audience had never been to a reading before. At least half of the audience raised their hands — which in itself says something about Palahniuk’s drawing power. He’s the kind of writer who gets people who wouldn’t normally go to “literary” events to go to literary events.

He then went on to explain that there’d be a round of games, followed by a reading, followed by some Q&A, and capped off with another round of games.

He wasn’t kidding.

Before he sat down to read, Palahniuk and a couple of assistants tossed inflatable plastic brains to the audience. He then told us that the first two people to fully inflate their brains would win copies of books he’d recently read and enjoyed. (I wish I could remember their titles!) The auditorium then filled with the hissing sound of air rushing from lungs into pinkish plastic brains — a somewhat “gross” (when you think about it) detail that would feel right at home in any of his books.

After two winners were selected, Palahniuk went on to read a story titled “Romance,” which he’d written specifically for his current book tour. He then went on, as promised, to take questions from the audience. My impression as the Q&A session went on was that he was truly interested in what his audience had to say and the questions they had to ask. The reason I point this out is that I’ve been to plenty of readings at various venues in which the authors barely concealed their contempt for the audience. But not Palahniuk. He listened. He took some time to formulate a response. He gave an honest answer.

Finally, when the Q&A was over, he held another contest in which he tossed inflatable skeletons and hearts out to the audience and gave prizes for the first people to inflate each. Talk about engaging your audience! The guy turned a wet, cold, rainy Saturday into a literary extravaganza, all in the space of about an hour. He came across as charming and gracious, and did everything he could to make it clear to his audience that he appreciated both that they came to hear him read and that they’ve continued to buy and read his books.

So say what you want about Palahniuk’s subject matter. (It’s gross! It’s disgusting! It’s weird! It’s disturbing! Yeah. You’re right on all counts, and it’s all by design.) Whatever you do, though, don’t say you don’t like the author himself. I know of at least an auditorium full of people who will beg to differ.

An inflatable brain makes a great prop for your Zombie Prom King costume.

Writers Are Cool

I feel very fortunate to live in a region with a vibrant community of people who love to read and write. One of the great things about living in this kind of community is that I get a chance to see a lot of authors read and discuss their work. Last week alone, I had the opportunity to see Steve Almond read from his latest collection, God Bless America, at Germantown Academy, Robin Black and a handful of other writers speak on the subject of contemporary fiction at Bryn Mawr College, Beth Kephart read from her haunting new novel, You Are My Only, at the Radnor Library, and Chuck Palahniuk — well, it’s hard to describe what he did, but it involved inflatable brains, and it was wonderful — at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Obviously, this is a wide range of writers, each with different styles and interests, but what struck me about all of them is how really kind and thoughtful they all are. They’re just really nice people. At the end of each reading, the authors generally took time to answer questions from the audience, and when they did this, I got the sense that they were really listening to the questions and answering from the heart. I also got the sense that these authors not only love writing, but they love that people read their work as well — and thus feel indebted to their readers to some extent. To put it another way, I got the feeling that the respect between the readers and the authors was mutual.