I thought you might be ready for a change in subject matter. And I have been talking to myself about something new lately, so I’m not forcing a different conversation. I need your input. I want your opinion, maybe your permission, perhaps your forgiveness. This conversation that I’ve been having with myself is not unrelated to the events in the last year of my life, which I think will be obvious. But it is also not about sickness or death.
I have a book. It’s not a new book; it’s one I’ve been working on (off and on) for 20 years. I’ve mentioned it before, although not recently. It’s the memoir, with some fiction stirred in, of a certain summer in the middle of college. It’s a damn good book. I mean, really. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind. And it’s as finished as it’s going to get. Not perfect, but good enough, and done.
After “When the Roll Is Called a Pyonder” was published in 2014, I pulled this one out of the vault, and worked on it as hard as I could for …about 2 years. I poured my heart and soul into it. I paid real money for a writing to coach to help me. And then I started sending it to publishers.
Through 2015 and 2016, I sent this book to every small publisher that (a) publishes either fiction or memoir and (b) doesn’t charge a reading fee of more than 20$. I even pitched it to a bunch of literary agents. I have the loveliest collection of complimentary rejection letters you ever saw. Like I said, it’s a good book. But nobody wants to publish it. Nobody is convinced it will make them boatloads of money, which is what “the business” is about. What can I say? These people know their business. They’re probably right.
Then in January 2017, something amazing happened. A real literary agent in New York City wrote me back and said he loves my book, he thinks he can sell it to a big NYC publisher, and would I sign a contract? I was so happy I practically cried, and Pio was so proud of me. I almost splattered the great news all over Facebook, but then I didn’t. Because a contract with an agent does not equal a book deal. And how embarrassed would I be if he couldn’t sell it either?
Which is exactly what happened.
The feedback from The Big Boys is that I don’t have a big enough “platform”—meaning followers on my blog and on social media. In other words, it’s a good book, but I’m Nobody. And that my book is “too quiet.” I interpret that to mean there’s not enough, sex, drugs and violence. Well. Guilty as charged. First, I don’t really write about sex, drugs and violence. Why would I? After “Pulp Fiction,” what could I possibly add? Second, it’s a book about Mennonite kids, for the love of God! A little imagination? Anyone?
So, I can think of 3 possibilities for this book:
1. Give up.
2. Spend more years of my life sending this book to publishers and agents.
The problem with #1 is that I can’t do it. I’ve even tried, but I can’t.
The problem with #2 is that I have a limited number of free hours to spend on surfing/reading/writing/lying in my hammock looking at the stars/pestering the cats/drinking wine… doing anything that isn’t sleeping or working. And honestly? I have other things to write. I can either spend my free time on cover letters (like I did for 2 of the last 3 years) or I can get on with life and write something else. I would love that.
The problem with #3? It has 2 problems. On one hand, even though this may be bogus, self-publishing a really good book feels like a cop-out, like giving up. And maybe there are ways in which I am ready to do that. What the hell? Who am I kidding? What am I doing? Hold out for an imaginary audience of people I don’t know, when I have you and me to write for? Why? Are they better people or more worthy? I think not.
The other problem with self-publishing is a very deep very personal can of worms that I would rather not open. But if I self-publish this book, the worms are going to be all over the place, let me tell you. All over. And I might need a whole lot of moral support.
I would rather have introduced this book to the world with the support of a traditional publisher (no matter how small) behind me because this “too quiet” book is going to deeply upset/offend/dismay every single person in the state of Pennsylvania (and a few in upstate New York) who is a blood relative of mine. Each and every single one. I am choosing my words carefully as I write this. If you don’t get what I am saying, go back and read that again. Unless I somehow publish this book “in secret” (oxymoron?!), there are going to be painful personal conversations as a result. That I am not looking forward to. And I would just rather have had a publisher who thinks I’m awesome holding my hand, instead of having to stand here spitting into the wind all by myself. But I’m not sure I’m going to get my way this time. Sometimes, being a big girl sucks.
I’m 47 years old. It shouldn’t matter. I didn’t think it would at this point in my life. If I had known, at 17 and 27 and 37, that it would still matter this much, I would have been devastated. So now I know: it’s never going to go away. Never. Which ties directly, for me, to the reason you have to read this book—the reason it must get out of my computer. Because if I have a heart attack in my bed tonight and this book NEVER gets read by anyone, THAT will be the real and true failure. I will have failed to face something that has been waiting for me my whole life.
I actually believe this. It makes me shake in my shoes in the way that happens when you know a thing is true. …And it’s kind of also what the book is about.
So. What do you think? I’m asking.
Please know: There is nothing even remotely scandalous in this book for anyone who was born anywhere other than where/when I was.
(O, the ironies of knowing your “too quiet” book will shock the covering pins out of some people’s hair…)