George Saunders: Under Pressure

By Flora Stadler

UPDATE: When I received George Sauders’ response to my question, I reached out again to ask him if he could tell me about a new pressure-relief method he’d learned for his novel. I didn’t expect to hear back, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t. But then a holiday miracle happened and he responded! Scroll down to his original response and see what else he had to say. 

In a piece for The Guardian last year, author George Saunders described the obsessive grind of his writing process: “My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I’ve been a Saunders fan-girl ever since I read his short story collection, In Persuasion Nation. So when his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, came out, I was excited to walk around inside a novel-sized version of his brain.

In that same Guardian article, Saunders wrote about his transition to novel-writing, which he thought would require lots of hidden meanings and more complicated plans than his short stories. He eventually realized that wasn’t the case.

But I could see his point. The two kinds of writing seem to exercise different muscles. A short story is a sprint through an idea, but to hold onto that idea for hundreds of pages can feel like a marathon. If a short story is the work of a quick mind, a novel is an expression of its stamina. So when I somehow got George Saunders to agree to sprint through a question with me, I asked:

Was there something in the writing process for Lincoln in the Bardo that your previous work hadn’t prepared you for? And if so, how did you overcome it (if you feel you did)?

“I suppose it was the earnestness of the narration. In my stories (and because of the contemporary voice I use) I can narrate serious stuff with a constant option to toggle momentarily over into the comic. This functions as a sort of pressure relief valve. The subject matter of this book (the 19th century death of a child and his father’s grief) complicated that — I found myself needing to do longer stretches of narrative the purpose of which was not overtly comedic. So this was a good thing—it taught me other ways to do that pressure-relief work.

Essentially what happened was that, by bearing down on what ‘the comic’ meant, I found out that it is more than just ‘being funny’ but can also include ‘paying closer attention to what you’ve already said.’ In this case, there was a moment when, in the midst of some earnest expositional stuff, I recalled: ‘Hey, that one ghost — you’ve said he has a huge and permanent erection. And that other one — he’s supposed to have thousands of eyes and ears.’ So then, without any change of tone, just by ‘recalling’ those things and writing them calmly into the text, the tone shifted — it wasn’t ‘funny’ exactly, but it wasn’t boring historical exposition, either.”

George Saunders is a professor, author and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and everywhere. His writing has won countless awards, including the National Magazine Award for fiction (1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004), a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the PEN/Malamud Award in 2013, and most recently, the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo. His many books can be purchased or ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: What’s the deal with children’s books?

By Ruta Rimas

When people think of children’s books, the first type that usually pops into mind is picture books, the often large-trimmed delights of young childhood, sometimes (but not always) read at bedtime. Most adult readers can fondly look back upon their youth and recall a few favorites books, the ones that transformed them into the readers they are today.

There are the classics: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, anything by Dr. Seuss, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (which has countless spinoffs!) by Laura Numeroff. But if you don’t have a toddler, an elementary-aged kid or teenager, you may not know that the children’s book industry is so much more than picture books, and so much more expansive than the classics. For instance, my employer produces over six hundred new children’s books every year.

WildThings
A classic picture book.

Children’s books often get lumped into one giant box, but this segment of the publishing industry is robust, diverse, innovative, and vast. The books published in this category span 0-18 years of age, and that includes:

A board book is short and simple, made from thick cardboard for little hands that like to pull and little mouths that like to bite. Generally, children’s publishers either repurpose content for board books or write board books in-house.

Picture books are usually geared for readers aged four to eight, and contain both a text-based narrative and a visual one. Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt are modern picture book successes.

For young readers who are eager to begin exploring stories on their own (or perhaps with a reading partner) there are chapter books. These tend to run between 10-12,000 words, sometimes have spot art, and are gobbled up by kids six to nine years old. A great example of a chapter book is the Clementine Series by Sara Pennypacker

There are also middle-grade novels, usually for readers who are eight to twelve. These tend to be longer and offer more complex and sophisticated stories. Diary of Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is middle grade, as is Wonder by RJ Palacio.

Finally, children’s publishing also encompasses the thriving young adult category. These are books published for teenagers, though there is a significant adult readership, too. Recent YA successes include To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

THUG
A modern YA bestseller

The business wasn’t always this way: The world of children’s publishing fundamentally shifted about twenty years ago and we have a young wizard to thank for that. The Harry Potter series changed everything for this part of the publishing business, and created a shift from a primarily back-list driven industry (i.e., books that have been published many years prior) to a front-list driven one (i.e., new books). This type of model is much more in line with how the traditional adult book market functions. The Harry Potter series is also responsible for the invention of a children’s New York Times Bestseller list, too, because when those books published, they ate up the slots on the regular bestseller list.

Children’s books. It’s where it’s at.

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).

BinnacleLogo
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.