Empathy for the Reader

by Kristen Holt Browning

I’ve never been a fan of the “books are good for you” school of thought. Books are not broccoli, and poems won’t make you virtuous.

Plenty of social scientists disagree with me. Recent studies found that readers of literary fiction do better at recognizing, understanding, and inferring others’ feelings and emotions, while children who read a lot display higher levels of emotional intelligence, and increased empathy (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377; https://readingpartners.org/blog/reading-improves-kids-emotional-intelligence-increases-empathy/).

This is all good news, but literature shouldn’t be the vegetable of the arts. Must everything improve us? Can’t a novel, or a short story, or a poem simply be enjoyed, absorbed, and lingered over? Isn’t it enough to notice and admire the suspenseful plot, the gorgeous language, the finely depicted protagonist?

Then I read Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, and it convinced me that there might be something to this books-make-you-a-better-person thing.

Half of the chapters take place in Chicago in 1985, and feature Yale, Nico, Richard, and the rest of their group of friends, all young gay men, as well as Fiona, Nico’s sister. Nearly all of these men are struggling with or affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. It was a sad shock to read The Great Believers and be reminded of how common, and commonly devastating, death was for this cohort just a few decades ago.

downloadFiona plays the central role in the alternating chapters. She is searching for her estranged daughter, Claire, in Paris in 2015. As we flash back and forth between young Fiona in the 80s—standing by her dying brother even as their family disowns him, nursing her friends throughout their illnesses—and contemporary Fiona, we gradually understand  the trauma of being the one left alive, and left behind. How do you live in a world populated by ghosts?

Makkai’s language isn’t particularly elevated or notable. It’s a fairly long book, and at first I didn’t want to read it: another overstuffed, earnest, well-meaning novel.

But as I read over the course of several days, I felt myself expanding, in my pity and despair and tenderness for these people. I  started to open to the terrible possibility of living during a plague, of dying pointlessly—or, of trying to make a life in the aftermath of devastation. I slid into the lives of these suffering, loving, laughing, crying people. In other words, I empathized with them.

So, while I distrust empathy as a reason to read, I value it as a side effect of reading. If a book can entertain us and bring us into the world of another, that’s only all to the good. At a time like this, marked by so much rage and distrust, anything that grows empathy is necessary, and welcome. We could all use a little more broccoli on our plates.

Tony Earley: Writing Past the Sucker Punch

By Flora Stadler


Most writers I know would say their relationship to writing is complicated. Periods of inspiration make the world feel as if it’s unfolding just for you. But inspiration comes when it wants, a lot like sadness. Tony Earley, author of the beautiful novel Jim the Boy, and its equally dazzling sequel The Blue Star, spoke with me about his own relationship to inspiration and sadness. Our conversation was more than a single question-and-answer, but the fundamental question was:

How does depression affect your writing process?

“What it’s turning out to be, if you look at my work, there’s usually a big gap in books and that’s due primarily to depressive episodes. So I’ll go through two to three years at a time and write very little. My writing is through windows of lucidity between bouts of depression. It feels exhilarating—’Wow, I’ve forgotten how much fun this is!’—and I remember why I started doing it.

My stories tend to be about wistful, sad people… I guess my characters are often kind of emotionally me, if not recognizably autobiographically me. I think when I first started writing about Jim, I just killed the father off—because my father wasn’t a great father and it wasn’t easy growing up in his house. But I replaced the father with the three really kind uncles. What I think I did was I wrote the childhood that I wished I’d had.

[The depression] always kind of sucker punches me, because when I come out of it and I’m writing and the writing’s going so well, I think, ‘OK, this time it’s going to last.’ It’s kind of sudden, but also it’s not something I realized that happened until I looked back at it in retrospect and thought, ‘Oh I’m starting to feel better.’ Until suddenly one day, I’m starting to write and my head is filled with ideas.

There’s this sort of narrow band of good level-ness, and whenever I can get into that band, that’s when I write. I tend not to write after I’ve published because I’m just so giddy, and I tend not to write when I’m depressed. I’ve come to accept that that’s just part of the deal, and at this point I don’t see any new deal coming, so I’m learning to accept that this is just the process. And if it means publishing a book every eight years instead of every three or four years, that’s just how it’s going to be. I wrote a story in July and it was the first fiction I’d written at all in two years. And during that two years, I still teach and I’m still a husband and a father, but I’m not an artist.

I sort of like talking about this in that if there’s a possibility that hearing my story might help somebody else—if there is a benefit to this, that’s the benefit. If there’s anyone who, for whatever ungodly reason, romanticizes depression in artists—that really hits me wrong. But I have good radar for fellow travelers, particularly students, and I’ll pull them aside and initiate a conversation and maybe help somebody else get farther down the road.”

Tony Earley is the Samuel Milton Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and the author of several books, including the story collections, Here We Are in Paradise and Mr. Tall, as well as the novels Jim the Boy and The Blue Star. His books can be ordered from Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: From start to finish, how does a book end up on a bookstore shelf?

By Ruta Rimas

As a publishing professional, I’m often asked about the process of book-making, how a Word document is transformed into a beautiful, typeset, bound, physical object that one can purchase.

The answer seems obvious —  write, send off the files to the printer et voilà! Book! — but many are surprised by how complicated and time-consuming the creation of a book can be. The general process outlined below can take between one to two years, though it can vary depending on the needs of the book and what is selling in the marketplace (e.g., a publisher will “crash” a book and speed up this process if they think a book needs to hit the shelves sooner).

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How does a book go from your brain to Binnacle?

Many different people have a hand in book creation; once the book is written, it’s touched by agents, acquiring editors, assistants, managing editors, production editors, designers, marketers, publicists, sales reps, warehouse staff, and more. Writing is solitary but book creation is a team effort.

How a Book Is Made

  1. Manuscript is written. This step is the most obvious. There is no book without words strung together by a writer.
  2. Agent offers to represent writer. Posts 1 and 2 address agents.
  3. Editor acquires book Check out post 3 for an overview of that process.
  4. Editor edits. Working as a one-on-one creative writing workshop, the acquiring editor will often send a letter and notes on the manuscript to the author, making revision suggestion on aspects like plot, characters, arcs, continuity issues.
  5. Manuscript is finished. After a few rounds of revision, the manuscript is sent into managing editorial and the managing editor begins copyediting and proofreading. At the same time, the Book cover is designed. The book cover is generated fairly early in the process as it is the first material that the sales teams shares with their accounts, like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Independent Book Stores, etc.
  6. Author addresses copyeditors questions. Working from a master Word file created from the copyeditor, the author will go through the pages and address any outstanding issues, including grammar. Most publishers use the track changes function in Word for this step.
  7. Manuscript is sent to design. This step is a fun one: the interiors of the book, the galley pages, are laid out.
  8. Advance Readers Copies are created. These are early bound galleys, sometimes referred to as ARCs, and they look like paperback books. Publicity, marketing, and the author are able to send ARCs to reviewers and to others to generate early buzz. Generally, these are available 6-8 months before a book is on sale.
    ARC image2
    This is an ARC of a book that publishes as a hardcover in December 2018. Note that the back has a section dedicated to list the marketing campaign.
  9. The production editor schedules the book at the printer. Working closely with editorial, design, and managing editorial, contacts the printer to set up the printing schedule for ARCs, jacket proofs, and final books. Many publishers work with international printers, usually in China or India. Some books are printed domestically, depending on how quickly they are needed. This scheduling can become complicated during certain times of year, like Chinese New Year, when overseas printers close for a few weeks.
  10. The books ship from the printer and are warehoused. The printer will place books on ocean liners to arrive at US ports. Trucks will pick up the boxes and drive them to publisher warehouses. From the warehouse, the books ship to booksellers, distribution centers, and other facilities.
  11. Books are delivered to the store, shelved by staff, and ready to buy!

This list addresses the physical production of the book but it doesn’t outline everything that is happening simultaneously with nearly every step: Sales meetings! Marketing and publicity discussions! Licensing opportunities! That will be the subject of a future post in the Burning Questions about Book Publishing series.

If you have any additional questions about book publishing, please ask in the comments and those questions may become the topic of another post in this series, too.

A Unique Burden: Interview with Writer Leland Cheuk

by Julie Chibbaro

Some writers, even though they’re so different from you, make you want to be just like them. I think of Leland Cheuk, whom I met over fifteen years ago at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, as one of those writers—despite our differences, I admire him so much.

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At Squaw Valley, Leland and I were at the same place in our careers: unpublished, with stars in our eyes. We stayed in touch and shared our work, trying to help one another. As I’ve read his stories over the years, I’ve found myself consistently impressed by his wry, biting humor, the (seeming) ease with which he deals with his difficult family, the way he straddles literary fiction and social commentary. He has also come through the tremendous experience of surviving leukemia, which he has written about for Salon. I’ve invited him to come talk to us at Get Lit Beacon in November, which he has graciously agreed to do. Before his visit, I grabbed him for a few questions about his formation as a writer:

GLB: A fierce awareness of identity comes through in so much of your work (sometimes satirically). Where does this awareness come from?

LC: If I could choose to be unaware of the questions of identity, I would! But it’s a unique burden artists of color carry. When I was doing standup comedy, I quickly found out that my first joke had to address the audience’s first impression, which was that I was of Asian descent. If I didn’t address it, the audience would be distracted, wondering why I didn’t address it. A white comic can just walk on the stage and the first thing people see is gender and age. It’s sadly the same thing for writers. That’s why I find all the back and forth about cultural appropriation amusing. When authors like Lionel Shriver bridle against being limited as an artist, I feel like shouting: try being an author of color for a day!

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If I didn’t have to write about identity to feed the expectations of readers, I wouldn’t. I’d just write weird George Saunders-inspired stories satirizing capitalism and social media all day. In some ways we’ve progressed, and in others we haven’t. Given these unfortunate limitations for authors of color, I just try to find original ways to approach identity issues.

GLB: You’ve started your own indie press. What inspired that?

LC: A little over four years ago, I had cancer and needed a lifesaving stem cell transplant. I’d been trying for almost two decades to publish my first book, and I was thinking: man, if this transplant doesn’t go well, I’ve really wasted my life. On the day the transplant engrafted (July 13), I got an acceptance email from an indie press for my first novel. Two years later on the same date, I got an acceptance email from an indie press for my story collection. If it wasn’t for the help of strangers like my donor and these indie press-runners, I wouldn’t be alive and I wouldn’t be an author. So I felt compelled to give back and start my own press: 7.13 Books, which publishes only first books of fiction.

GLB: You’ve had some heath issues in recent years. How did you manage to keep focused on writing, even while dealing with such intense pain and recovery?

LC: At first it was difficult. I had trouble sitting in front of a screen for more than thirty minutes without getting tired. But over time, it’s become a blessing. I’m lucky. I have a very supportive wife. Having a serious illness helps you focus on what’s important to your day. I kind of liken it to an aging athlete having to do all these extra things to prepare their body to play the game longer. I have to do all these things to make me feel good physically so I can focus and play the game of writing for a few hours each day.

Leland’s bio: A MacDowell Colony fellow, Leland Cheuk authored THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP, 2015), a novel, and LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS (Thought Catalog, 2016), stories. His next book, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, a novel, is forthcoming in 2019 from C&R Press. His work has been covered in VICE, Electric Literature, The Millions, and The Rumpus, and appears or is forthcoming in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is the fiction editor at Newfound Journal and the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and reach him at leland.cheuk at gmail.com.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

By Ruta Rimas

Thank you to those of you who submitted questions about book publishing. My two previous posts address the most common question – agents and what they do! (Post 1 here, Post 2 here)

The next question I was asked delves into the business of book publishing:

What are editors thinking about when they want to buy a manuscript?

(For the purposes of this post, assume that I am speaking about the big New York City houses that publish fiction and nonfiction, like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.)

As readers, we know that a book is a wonderful and complex piece of art, cherished and held on high. Every person who works in book publishing feels this same way – it’s an industry of book nerds, basically.

Book nerds work at the above publishers.

Books tend to be held to different standards, and are oftentimes considered more dignified than other forms of art or entertainment. As writers, we need to remember that though this is a creative industry, publishing houses are also profit-driven entertainment businesses, and many are part of a larger media conglomerate. A book is also a product. It’s consumed. It’s for sale, a piece of merchandise created to generate money.

So, what are things that editors might consider? There’s a multitude of factors, including but not limited to:

  • The overall idea: Is this manuscript compelling and fresh? What comparative titles are out there already and how will yours stand out?
  • The type of writing and the publisher’s aesthetic: What is the writing quality? Is the writing literary, beautiful, contemplative, meandering? Is the writing more commercial, accessible, easy-to-digest? A pop-culture imprint may be great for a biography about Beyoncé, but not the place for your Civil War-era romance, for example.
  • The marketplace: Do we see this book as making a huge commercial splash, is this book an award-winner, is this book quiet and niche? Who are the readers, where do we see this shelved at our accounts? Is this book regionally focused? How are other books like this one selling? How can we use those book sales to our advantage?
  • Sales expectations: How many copies do we think we can sell in hardcover? In paperback? In ebook? Are there subsidiary rights that we think we can exploit, like a sale into the UK or other foreign territories?
  • The advance: How do we balance our market-expectations with what we think we can afford to pay the writer? If we overpay, that’s bad for us and very bad for the author – it can kill their career if their book doesn’t earn out its advance. Are multiple houses interested? If so, how can we be competitive with our offer?
  • Marketing and publicity: Will this book require a significant investment in marketing and publicity? Does the author have a pre-existing platform or network that we can leverage in this regard?

This list of factors is not all inclusive but will give you a good idea of what editors are thinking about when they want to buy your manuscript. At the end of the day, for the big publishers, the best type of book balances the beauty of words and ideas with commercial success and wide appeal. For a book to be both literary and commercial is an editor’s dream.