Okay, let’s suppose for a minute that you’re not great with people. At school you were on your own a lot of the time, daydreaming, a step behind the others, stuck in a book. The other children laughed and pointed. You wiped your tearstained cheeks and ignored them. As an adult you’re not one to work the room at a party. You’re more frequently found in the corner pretending to be having a conversation on a kids’ toy mobile, or with a houseplant. You neglect your social life, your housework, and basic hygiene. Lichen grows thickly on your back and shoulders. You answer the door to charity collectors in your long underwear, wielding a shotgun, and your best friend is a banana peel.
Perfect! Success in writing will soon be yours!
Writing is a solitary business. In my experience you’ve got to be content to spend hours alone patiently chipping away at something you’re never sure the world will ever see. You have to be selfish enough to give yourself that time and demented enough to keep going even when it seems obvious that there’s no point. So if you are selfish, unsociable and demented, congratulations. The odds of finishing that book are in your favour.
Then it’s time to get out there and sell, sell sell!
Now the book is finished and ready to buy, and that scab-encrusted hermit must be dragged from her stinking cave layered with bat guano to emerge, blinking and terrified, into the light. It’s time to learn to be sociable, do something with your hair, use cutlery for purposes other than scratching those hard to reach places. Time to become the kind of person others feel they can maintain eye contact with without wanting to put on a sweater. Yes, you poor solitary ghoul, in today’s marketplace selling books is all about selling the writer as a personality, so you’d better be prepared to get one – a different one, if that’s what it takes. I remember this time last year I was on my way to meet with publishers and agents at the Novel Fair, and my husband gave me some last-minute advice. ‘Whatever you do,’ he said, ‘don’t be yourself.’ Words to live by.
Lately selling the writer as a personality is more than a trend, it’s often one of the only means of getting the word out. Yet this author-as-huggable-celebrity thing can backfire. You’d have to wonder about the wisdom of Jonathan Franzen’s publishers spending thousands sending him to Ireland to promote Freedom several years ago – from what I heard, he spent most of his time here sulking, throwing temper fits, refusing to sign books and giving grumpy, one-word answers during an onstage interview. When I finally got my hands on Freedom, my reaction was less ‘Really looking forward to this,’ and more ‘Okay, jerk. Let’s see what you got.’ It would have been better for the book if I’d received it with no name at all on the cover or the spine.
Actually I wouldn’t mind having a shelf full of no-name books. As a reader, I find thinking about the author gets in the way. If I’m watching a film, I don’t want to picture the actors in their trailers going over the lines. I want to be caught up in the story. The same holds true when I’m reading a novel. I’m not interested in the authors’ childhoods, about how their cars are running or whether they’re looking forward to Iron Man 3. Ideally, I’d prefer not to know if I’m dealing with a man or a woman. I’ve often been in the middle of a really great scene in a novel, utterly engrossed and in total suspense – then I might fumble with the book I’m holding and the pages will flip back to reveal the author photograph staring ferociously into my eyes. Go away! I’m trying to enjoy your book. And from a writing perspective, I want to be the last thing on readers’ minds if they pick up Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World. The narrator’s a teenage boy. Do I want people picturing a middle-aged woman waving Stephen around like a hand puppet and making him talk? No. I want them to listen to him.
So I must hate doing publicity myself, right? Well, this is funny, but no. I actually love it. It gets me out of the apartment, helps with the obsessive worrying, gives me an excuse to talk about the book. Sure I lose time I could have spent writing, but let’s face it: I would have found a way to waste that time anyway. (It’s called the internet.) And if I meet someone who’s read my novel and liked it, I’m overjoyed.
No, here’s what makes me uneasy about trying to sell myself in order to sell my book: all those fresh opportunities for rejection. We’re all used to it as writers – rejection of our work, our innermost thoughts, the best parts of ourselves. And it…um…doesn’t hurt at all. Of course not. But then we up the ante by throwing our life stories, personalities, physical appearance, and hometowns out there to be rated, ignored, or derided. Yesterday I received a Twitter message from a total stranger in Florida: ‘UR Canadian – low on my list. Irish – very high. Teacher – low. Writer – high.’ Part of me felt like tweeting back to tell him where he could shove his dumb old list. The other part was curious about my aggregate score. These days we’re used to presenting better versions of ourselves on Facebook, cavorting for ‘likes’ even among our families and friends. And we’ve all gotten blasé about seeing young humans given the thumbs-up or down on reality TV based on their looks and personalities. So all this should be no big deal.
But then suppose you’re doing your best to sell yourself and…nobody’s interested in buying. Now that would really mess with your confidence. Perhaps you’d crawl off to some fetid cave alone, stay there for weeks, muttering and hissing, getting used to the smell of bat guano, becoming an unsociable, self-obsessed freak.
Eventually you might even want to start writing a novel.
(c) Janet E Cameron
A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com