How to survive a book tour

This thing that takes up your whole life, your whole body, your whole mind; it’s all your dreams, and then suddenly […] it’s going to be just one little tiny tile on iTunes, one little tiny click. It’s not gonna be this thing that’s my feeling of my entire insides and my whole soul shape. It’s just gonna be a little square that people can choose. And that’s a really awful feeling.

Jill Soloway on making Afternoon Delight. On Fresh Air

About a month before my book came out I wrote Soloway’s quote in my journal. I was hoping, I guess, to keep things in perspective. Publishing a book I’d been working on for eight years felt enormous, but I wanted to remember that it was also small. It was a tiny tile on Amazon. It was a set of bound pages that would, for a time, live on a bookshelf in a bookstore and then, eventually, be taken home to put on another shelf or, if it didn’t sell, sent back to the publisher’s warehouse. It would collect dust. It would get recycled. Yes, it might mean something to someone—if I was lucky, if I had done a good job, it might mean a lot to someone—but it would never mean as much to anyone as the writing of it had meant to me.

So I tried to prepare for this inevitable shift in perspective, for the moment the book would feel small. I waited for it. At the height of book tour chaos—when I was stuck in Detroit at midnight with no way to make it to Austin for the class I was supposed to teach the next morning—I even longed for it. I was sure that, even though it felt awful to Jill Soloway, it wouldn’t feel so bad to me. I was sure that seeing my book take its place amongst a zillion other books would be fine—because I was ready, already, to get started on a second book. There was work to do.

But before I could do that work, I had to write a bunch of articles and do a lot of interviews and go to a handful of cities and launch this thing that is in fact the shape of my soul into the world to live its own unpredictable life without me.

I’m not sure how anyone “keeps things in perspective” while talking about this part of her soul all day every day for three weeks straight. I don’t know what I was thinking. Or I do. I was thinking I could master my emotions. Because it’s easy to convince yourself that mastering your emotions is within your domain when you spend your days doing interviews about “choosing” to fall in love. Of course you can choose to glide right along, to believe that you will do the strange work of distilling years of reflection into four-minute local tv interviews and then return, focused and unharmed, to the daily work of being a writer.

There was, for the record, one perfect night at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. It was the official day of publication (June 27) and the room was full and the crowd asked interesting questions and they laughed at all of my jokes. I felt perfectly self-possessed and proud of the thing I had made—as if this one evening was the rightful culmination of years of work and study. My partner and my best friend and my agent and my editor and my whole team at Simon & Schuster all stood in the crowd, along with some old friends I hadn’t seen in years. At the end, folks lined up to have me sign their books—which I knew they would do (I’d bought a box of pens just for that purpose!) but still it felt surreal. I was scared of misspelling someone’s name, of talking to one person for too long or not long enough, of seeming anything other than completely grateful that someone wanted to pay for this thing that was shaped like my soul.

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I knew as soon as it was over that no event would ever go quite so perfectly, but that sense of possibility—that I was becoming the person I’d set out to be the day I first applied to do an MFA fifteen years ago—felt exciting. And this possibility is, I think, the central hope and promise of a book tour.

On the whole, the tour was equal parts fun and uncomfortable. Starting about two weeks before I left, I had a hard time sleeping. I could only make it partway through a meal without feeling nauseous. I eventually gave up and just ate and slept when I could and I was surprised to find that worked okay. Continue reading

on recording an audiobook (or the strange sound of your own voice in your ears)

I went to my first co-ed party when I was ten. The night ended in boy-girl slow dancing, which, I felt sure, was the most grown up thing I’d ever done. I danced with a boy who’d just transferred from another school and even though our unbent elbows kept our torsos at a comfortable distance, his hands on my hips felt tentative and electric and possessive. It felt just a little bit unchaste. The next week at school, he asked me to be his girlfriend.

A few days later, my mom and I were walking through the dewy grass outside our house one night when she asked, out of nowhere, if I had a boyfriend. Her friend Kathy had heard as much from her son, who was also in the fifth grade at a neighboring school. I can so easily remember the constriction in my chest, my total surprise that adults would notice or talk about the love lives of fifth graders.

“No,” I said instinctively. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

I immediately regretted this lie. Not merely because I hated lying to my parents but also because there seemed to be no way out of it. What was I going to do, casually bring up my new (first) boyfriend a few days later as if the whole conversation had never happened? I was embarrassed about having a boyfriend at all, and then—on top of that—I was embarrassed about being so embarrassed that I’d had to lie. This embarrassment inception could not be undone.

The new boy broke up with me a few days later, probably (almost certainly) because I was so weird and self-conscious around him after that.

I was so sad about being dumped, and sadder still that I couldn’t talk to my mom about it. But also, I felt relieved of the burden of my lie.

I don’t know why I was so self-conscious about having a boyfriend at age ten. Maybe because slow dancing was, to my mind, just a long slippery slope away from sex. Or maybe because desire itself felt like a kind of parental betrayal. A few years later, I would be equally embarrassed about not having a boyfriend. It seems my own desires—and desirability—have always sort of mortified me.

Sometimes I think I started writing about love precisely because there is nothing else I have spent so much time wanting—and so much time regretting. Continue reading

Love in a time of declining democracy (or how do you promote a book?)

Last semester was hectic. I was teaching two new classes (both on love!), so there was tons of reading to do, and daily prep work. Between bouts of marking papers, I was finishing the final rounds (rounds, plural–so many rounds!) of edits for my book. As I got dressed in the mornings, I listened to the news with a mix of hope and dread.

I spent some days feeling like a total boss who was doing cool things in a perfectly capable way and then finding myself overcome by the sudden onset of rage and despair. This despair typically emerged from listening to one of those news segments where journalists interviewed “real voters” on “the issues they care about” and I wondered–again and again–at the media’s willingness to let people make racist or xenophobic comments on air as if these were sensible concerns that deserved the same airtime as other voters’ fears about losing their healthcare.

I kept thinking, January will be better. In January the news cycle would die down. I’d be fully prepared for all my classes. The edits would be complete. In January I would sleep in more often. I’d get back to Wednesday nights at the climbing gym and the brewery. I’d read all the books that were stacking up on my kitchen table! 2017 was a beautiful utopic time when I’d write tons of blog posts!

You see where this is going.

But, as I wrote on Instagram, the end of 2016 had the useful effect of putting some things into perspective. Continue reading

An open letter to Carolyn Reidy, Simon & Schuster CEO

My publisher has been in the news lately, and the news is not good. Though I know many have argued that writing about Milo Yiannopolous gives him publicity and motivates more people to buy his book, I felt like my own silence on the issue was a form of complicity. And I wasn’t comfortable with that. So I wrote a letter to S&S President and CEO, Carolyn Reidy. I know I’m opening myself up to white supremacist trolling by posting this letter publicly, but on the eve of the inauguration, it feels especially important to be vocal, to do what I can to avoid normalizing hate and abuse disguised as “free speech.”

 

Dear Carolyn Reidy,

First, I’d like to thank you and everyone at Simon & Schuster—especially my amazing editor Marysue Rucci—for taking the risk of publishing a collection of essays by an unknown writer. When I got the call from my agent letting me know that Simon & Schuster had made an offer on How to Fall in Love with Anyone, I pulled over, got out of my car, and jumped up and down on the side of the road. I was so excited.

One of the things I liked about Simon & Schuster from the start was your obvious commitment to ideas that challenge the status quo and push the cultural discourse in progressive directions with book by authors like Rebecca Traister and Alain de Botton and Issa Rae and Justin Simien, just to name a few. I felt proud to be in such good company.

I read a summary of your end-of-year memo about resisting the censorship that looms on the political horizon and I felt proud again. As a publisher, you understand that ideas have power, that individual voices can change the landscape of our country, and that (as you point out) right now those voices matter more than ever.

Maybe you can imagine my disappointment in Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Milo Yiannopoulis’s forthcoming book. Many people in the media have conflated calls to boycott S&S over Yiannopoulis’s book deal with calls for censorship. But as you know Milo has a large platform and his ideas will continue to circulate without the company’s money and implicit endorsement. I’d love to see my publisher be the one who draws a line at hate speech, who acknowledges that online assault is often as destructive as physical assault, who continues to value the work of women writers, and people of color, and other marginalized voices, and who is bold enough to say no to people like Yiannopoulis who try to silence those voices with harassment.

I feel especially concerned for the writers without equally large platforms whose book sales will likely suffer as a result of widespread calls to boycott S&S. My friends and colleagues who have joined the boycott are the same people who prioritize buying books by women and writers of color. For these writers, the decision to publish Yiannopoulis is doubly destructive: S&S is promoting the work of someone who aims to undermine their basic rights, and enabling a boycott that may hurt their careers.

Personally, I find it difficult to argue with those who have decided not to buy or review my book when it is published later this year. I understand that now, more than any other time in my life, it’s important to act in ways that are in line with progressive values and in support of individual civil and human rights. I respect any thoughtful individual expression of those values, even if it impacts my career.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am hopeful that in the future Simon & Schuster can find a way to “stand unequivocally for freedom of speech”—as you say in your memo—without endorsing hate and assault.

Sincerely,

 

Mandy Len Catron

on listening as a political act

 

I will try to keep this short.

Friends, I am feeling the darkness. I first noticed it in the summer, the day the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling hit social media. After I got out of the shower, I stayed on my bed for hours, wrapped in a towel, scrolling endlessly on my phone, feeling paralyzed, powerless. In September, I couldn’t sleep well. I felt a vague, persistent sadness. One day I cry-chopped an entire dinner because I’d had a tiny argument with my partner over groceries. “I don’t feel like myself,” I told him later. “But I don’t know why.” Then I got canker sores and acne and a pain below my right shoulder blade that has not gone away.

I think a good name for this feeling is existential sadness.

This is certainly not the first time I’ve had the thought that goes: Oh, the world does not work the way my parents told me it did.* I get it: I recognize my privilege.

But also I don’t. I had–up until last week–the luxury of believing that despite the very real existence of hate, there were enough decent people and there was enough moral outrage that someone who embodied that hate could never win a presidential election.

And yet I was wrong.

I got this wrong because though I have witnessed hate (especially growing up in the South but also here in Vancouver in regular if more subtle ways) I have rarely been the target of that hate. I have allowed hate to be an abstraction in my life. Continue reading

Attending to the small

I’m not getting much writing done these days. Partly this is because I’m back to work and teaching can be demanding. But my classes are new—new material and new approaches and new conversations—and after a year spent sitting alone in front of a computer, I’m happy to turn my attention outward, away from myself and my preoccupations and toward a room full of young, thoughtful people. Students get a lot of flack these days but the think pieces I read about them almost never match up with my experiences in the classroom. And right now, I’m having a really good time there.

The other reason I’m struggling to write is that writing feels trivial compared to the ongoing injustices that are consuming all my attention. Writing itself isn’t trivial; it’s a necessary tool for speaking to and about those very injustices. But still, writing about love when all I can think about is systemic racism and police brutality feels disingenuous.

I’ve been thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement in particular and more broadly about who gets a voice in the world. Today I learned that two writers I really admire—Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson—were just awarded MacArthur genius grants! Rankine writes about race and Nelson writes about queer identity. Winning one of these grants means five years of generous funding to keep doing the work they do. Here is some progress, I think, some important voices being amplified. But the reality is that well-educated white writers (people like me) have a disproportionally large voice in the world.

Recently I told someone I love that I make an effort to ensure my students’ reading materials are diverse and represent of a wide range of writers.

“Well that’s fine as long as you’re still teaching good writing,” she said.

I got really defensive.

I was angry that she didn’t seem to think I could choose appropriate materials for students to read. And self-righteous about the implicit assumption that filling my course with women and queer writers and writers of color meant teaching lower quality writing. There I was taking such great pains to do my job well, and there she was implying that I was doing the opposite.

As I tried to point out the value of exposing students to all these different voices, I could see myself in her eyes: a caricature of an over-zealous liberal who sacrifices professionalism for ideology.

But I love this person, I thought.

And she’s right in a way: I am willing to cut something well-written from the list and replace it with something I like a little bit less. I have spent years thinking about the responsibilities of teaching and the value of any given reading assignment; she’d never thought about it until that moment. I shouldn’t expect her to just congratulate me for taking that Pulitzer winner off my syllabus. And I know feeling self-righteous can alienate me from the people I love—but sometimes I can’t resist. Continue reading

What’s mine, what’s ours: the fierce triumph of cohabitation

I thought I was two months behind on writing a blog post, but it turns out I’m three months behind. But I’m still here! Still writing. It’s just that most of the writing I’ve been doing has been elsewhere. Like over at The Walrus and an e-mail interview that wound up in this thoughtful article, but mostly in the giant, many-filed document that is my book manuscript. And now that manuscript is in editing purgatory and I am here, researching, reading, pizza-eating, and probing the depths of my own impatience. Waiting.

I have a lot of skills, but waiting for edits is not one of them.

So it’s a good time to write a blog post and the fact is that I have plenty to write about. Most significantly, the person I’ve been in a relationship with for the past year and a half now lives in my home. Our home. Ours. I’m working on that switch.

We first started talking about living together a year ago. My roommate was moving out and I was panicked. And he (my boyfriend) offered himself as a potential solution to the problem of the empty room. Then he wavered.

In the end he didn’t move in and, looking back, I’m glad about it. A year ago I had this incredible sense of intimacy. I had an idea of our closeness. But now I think: I barely knew him.

That process—the consideration of whether to live together and the decision not to, not right then at least—was the first real challenge of our relationship. I was anxious about finding a new roommate, and about whether or not I’d find someone to publish my book, but mostly about what it meant that my boyfriend wasn’t ready to live with me. We couldn’t commit to living together at the same time people were asking us for help making a tv show about using 36 questions to fall in love. The disparity between the idea of our relationship as a pop-science artifact and our own internal sense of doubt was strange, to say the least.

So this time around we gave the decision a lot of thought. I mean weeks and weeks of contemplation. There were late night conversations with long, uncomfortable pauses. Friends counseled that maybe we were taking our decision a little too seriously. Again and again we enumerated the pros and cons of cohabitation. Even after we’d made the decision to do it, we wanted to go into it will our best intentions, so we drew up a contract. This idea, which I borrowed from this smart book, turned out to be the thing that gave us a sense of control over the process of merging our lives. Our contract covers everything from cleaning to dog walking, expense-splitting and sex. It isn’t legally binding or particularly technical, but it’s intentional, it makes the nuances of sharing a life more explicit.  Continue reading