A Season of Nostalgia

August 28, 2007

This has been a season of nostalgia, as I attended a family reunion and a school reunion and worked on my memoirs, The Wild and Holy Child, (you can see its progress at www.WildandHolyChild.blogspot.com).

Summer began with my purchase, at Jennie Pederson’s Darvill’s Bookstore in Eastsound, of Lincoln’s Sword – as in “the pen is mightier than.” As a journalist and author as well as publisher, I was inspired to read that Lincoln could return immediately to his train of thought after being interruptedWeeding out interruptions is for most of us a vital part of writing discipline, but it’s both reassuring and inspiring to know that as masterful a writer as Lincoln could, either naturally or by training, turn back to the task at hand after being interrupted. (He also apparently was a comma addict.) I can never learn enough about Lincoln, and it always arouses new admiration for him.

For me, this has been a summer to revel in the power and beauty of words married to music. The women in my family went together to see the Seattle production of “West Side Story” in June. My sister and I cried unabashedly as the emotions stirred up by the music overcame us. I think — even more than our response to the Sharks and the Jets and Tony and Maria; and to the wistful and soaringly beautiful songs intermingled with the sarcastic, jagged, and witty ones — we were remembering ourselves 40 years ago and all the passion and romance and belonging that we thought lay ahead of us. Later in the summer, I woke up from a late nap and literally ran to the local theater to see “Hairspray” and again was blown away by memories, as the conformity and separatist attitudes of the early 60’s were challenged by civil rights and the awareness that people that don’t fit in, whether because of race or body type, deserve respect for their dreams, and for the challenge that their “differences” present to those that do meet the “ideal.” The abandon with which the mother John Travolta (in drag) dances is filled with a longing and exultation that the perfect, up-tight mother Michelle Pfeiffer can never know. (But if you want to see Michelle Pfeiffer in a perceptive movie about racial attitudes in the 60s, watch the film, “Love Field” with Danny Glover). Back to “Hairspray,” the clever songs with their witty lyrics were stunning in their ability to recall the varied sentiments of the times. The beautiful modern spiritual “I Know Where I’ve Been,” sung by Queen Latifah as the leader of a civil rights movement, saddened me to recall the pain our people have visited on each other, and to remember days when people still felt that by gathering together and marching to state their case, they would be heard.

Maybe I was more sensitive to the struggles of Black Americans after having read Home By Dark by another island resident, Tish Knapp. She has written an eloquent and suspenseful portrayal of Mississippi sharecroppers in the 1950s, the place and time coincident with Knapp’s own upbringing, a time between Jim Crow and civil rights. Knapp’s storytelling is infused with a ‘magically realistic’ depiction of the Conjure Woman, Deedove, and her influence on the heroine, Jubilee. The story conveys the warmth and loyalty of the Black community, and the desire for love and acceptance, not just between husband and wife, but among the oppressed and defensive oppressors in the Southern community as well. Home by Dark is a story of character: where it comes from and how it answers the unbearable burden of racism. And Knapp’s ending satisfies with an integrity to the story that every writer and storyteller should aspire to. The highest praise I can give a book is when I buy multiple copies to give to friends and family. I bought four copies of Home by Dark to give to the women in my family, one a fourth-generation Southern woman who also loved the book. My only complaint is the title – it doesn’t say enough. I think Jubilee’s Conjure Love would better describe the story, and also intrigue readers with a more specific taste of the story. Knapp is well on her way to an epilogue to Home by Dark.

A second favorite read this summer was Wendy Werris’ An Alphabetical Life: Living It Up in the World of Books. When I picked it up, my first cynical thought was, ‘oh great, a celebrity-seeking author groupie,’ but I was wrong. Werris has such an a self-aware, matter-of-fact way of describing the curve of her life’s work — selling books as a publisher’s rep to bookstores — that her sensitive depiction of such personal events as panic attacks, kidney donation, and even physical violation are told with an intimacy that make her ultimately approachable and inspiring. This was a woman who knew herself, paid attention and took charge of her life when she could, who delivered her services while still in great distress, and who was not too proud or aloof to ask for help or be struck dumb by life’s twists. Plus, An Alphabetical Life offers insight into another alley in the mysterious maze of publishing – the publisher’s rep. She gives insight into what kind of books most contribute to bookstore survival and success (the reliable backlist title, ordered repeatedly in small quantities over time, that doesn’t spend much time on the bookstore’s shelf), and also describes the decline and death of many independent bookstores in the face of chain bookstores that demand and get deep discounts from publishers to retail their books.

This development affects the small, independent publisher as well as the giants, but the practice of discounts is one of the ‘dirty little secrets’ that I was referring to at my June 17th talk to Book Publishers NW (BPNW), a local affiliate of Publishers Marketing Association (PMA). Discounting is the practice that giants like Amazon can make full use of, practically giving books like the Harry Potter series away, because it drives bookbuyers to their market. On the BPNW website, www.bpnw.org, member Tom Blaschko wrote about a recent Supreme Court decision , on June 28, that “manufacturers could adopt and enforce “resale price maintenance agreements.” Blaschko, Publisher at Idyll Arbor maintains that the decision means “that in some cases a manufacturer can forbid discounting.” Blaschko invites responses to his comments at www.bpnw.org.

Also in the legal as well as publishing news this summer was the trial and judgment against Laura Albert, aka JT Leroy, author of Sarah, “a novel of poverty and sexual abuse set among the grease-stained highway rest stops of West Virginia.” (Alan Feuer, “NY Times,” June 15, 2007.) There is no JT Leroy (just as there was no Mark Twain or George Eliot, only Samuel Clemens and Mary Ann Evans), and the real author of Sarah described a life that she had never lived. The issue of pseudonym or fraud came down to Albert’s refusal to grant the publisher rights to make a film adaptation of Sarah. Albert ultimately was ordered to pay the film production company $350,000 in legal fees. As reported in the “NY Times,” the case ultimately evoked sympathy in me for a woman who posed, or had someone else pose, as the child of a truck stop prostitute, but who really was a socially-dysfunctional and manipulative recluse with both the imagination and nerve to publish as an entirely different persona. What’s the difference between Arnold and James Frey, disgraced author of A Million Little Pieces, a fictive memoir of drug abuse and rehabilitation? Well, it appears that Arnold’s work was totally imaginative, whereas Frey mixed fact and impression pretty loosely, under the guise of memoir. In Frey’s case, he described two hours in the local jail as months in prison, and painted a recognizable rehabilitation facility in words that simply don’t fit their standard mode of operation – and his publisher had been made aware of the discrepancies, although not by Frey. So for me, the lesson is about trust between author and publisher, and then between the publisher and the market. The controversy has made me become a student of disclaimers, and I like Werris’ “This memoir is a product of the author’s recollections and is thus rendered as a subjective accounting of events that occurred in his/her life.” But the best disclaimer, at once vague and definitive, comes from British author Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole and the Weapons for Mass Destruction. Yes, he’s back, that self-important and hilarious little twit. The book’s disclaimer reads: “The moral right of the author has been asserted.”

The book life, for all its effort, plans, struggle and disappointments, is a good life. How much I appreciate being a part of it and sharing it with others!

An all-day conference on Saturday, Sept. 8, Business of Books: 2007 And Beyond. still has openings ; the cost is $129 for the day. This conference is modeled after the highly-successful and sold-out November 2005 PMA “Mini-Publishing University” in Seattle, where PMA board members helped authors, publishers, and others in the book business sort through topics such as genre, production, marketing, distribution – and the Internet! A preliminary schedule for the day has been posted at www.bpnw.org. The conference will be held in the new downtown campus of Discover U, 2901 Third Avenue, Seattle, in Belltown, close to the Seattle Center and numerous restaurants. The Business of Books: 2007 And Beyond is sponsored by Book Publishers Northwest, Bang Printing, and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Registration is being handled by Discover U, 206-365-0400 or Discover U secure web registration.

Calendar: September 8 “Memoirs” Panelist at Book Publishers Northwest (BPNW) Business of Books see www.bpnw.org September 19 Speaker at Whatcom Communications Association meeting at Pastazza restaurant Bellingham. www.whatcomma.org September 20-21 Pacific NW Booksellers Association Tradeshow, Meydenbauer Center, Bellevue WA, at BPNW table www.pnba.org September 28 – 30 La Conner Quilt Show, Maple Leaf Hall, La Conner WA October 6 Panelist at “Write on the Sound” conference in Edmonds, WA, 4:15 – 5:30 p.m. Self-publishing

If you’d like a copy of first volume of Port Gamble Publishing Newsletter September 2005-September 2006, which has all the first year’s newsletters together in one comb-bound book, please order by email or send $18. which includes tax and shipping, to Port Gamble Publishing, PO Box 582, Eastsound WA 98245.