During the Great Depression an editor for the NY Times wrote: “We do have to convince millions of our young people that we have not yet come to a social doomsday, and that there is something better for them to do than jump off the deep end ” Well, that was written not in 2020, but in 1936, but it still seems quite applicable for our times.
Jason Boog is the author of a new book published by OR books called The Deep End, and I spoke with him about radical poets and novelists of the 30s, and what we can learn from them in an age of pandemic.
You can listen to my interview with Jason Boog as broadcast today on the Arts Express program on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, WBAI.org, and Pacifica stations across the country by clicking on the triangle or mp3 link above to listen.
So, I was having my weekly freak out about what will happen if I die tomorrow—not that I have any indication that that is going to occur—and I realized that what I was worried about the most, besides my family, was my writing.
Specifically, what about the novel that I’ve been working on for the last five years, the one that’s still sitting on my computer? My nightmare is that it just stays there with no one even knowing that it’s there. Oh, my family knows I’ve been working on it all this time—how could they not with all the agita around it?—but they don’t know what file it is, or what version is the latest, and probably they’ll have other things to think of when I drop dead, so what am I going to do? It’s strange: we finally got around to making a will, so my family is okay; but I worry about my characters. I’m worried that they will not have a chance to live. It’s a crazy feeling, but it’s a real one. I want them to have a home if they don’t find one before I’m gone. I wonder if other writers experience this. Like Pirandello’s characters, my modest creations want to have a chance to play out their stories, too.
I mean, I have been doing due diligence, sending out my manuscript and query letters, but who knows if anyone will bite? A few close calls, but still nothing. But I believe in this book and these characters, and while I know the book is not going to appeal to everyone, I say immodestly that it is good and deserves to be read by those who would enjoy it.
So I finally figured out a way to lessen my anxiety around this whole thing. I decided that I would self-publish one copy, one copy that I could leave behind, so that when I go, at least there will be some tangible evidence of what I’ve been doing these last few years. It’s kind of amazing to me the effort it takes to write a novel, good or bad. At least, the effort it took me. I don’t claim it to be anything great, but I don’t want it just to disappear.
I went onto a popular online self-publishing site, Lulu.com, having no experience at all how this was going to play out. I assumed that I would have to order a hundred or more copies to get this done. It’s not really what I wanted to do, but I figured, okay, if I have a stack of these left in my office when I kick the bucket, they can give them out at my funeral or something. When I actually went to the website, though, I was pleasantly surprised. You don’t have to order a hundred copies. You could order fifty, or fifteen, or for goodness sake, you could just order one. Yes, one’s the ticket: that’s just what I wanted. Just one to document that I was here, that somewhere in my life I did this thing, and here it is.
The whole process was not too difficult to navigate. There’s a bit of a learning curve but if you follow the directions on the website, you can create your book without too much trouble. The first thing you do is choose the format for your published book: hardbound, softbound, paper quality, different sizes, and so on. I chose a 6×9 perfect bound paperback. If you eventually decide that you want to publish the book commercially, they recommend you ask for the premium paper. This option also provides you with an ISBN number should you ever decide to go commercial with the book. Next, you download a Word template from the website and import the Word document of your manuscript into it. You then upload that file back to Lulu, and they return a pdf that shows exactly how the manuscript will look when published.
When you’re happy with what you see, then it’s time to choose a cover. There is a very easy and flexible Cover Wizard which allows you to choose from a number of attractive looking cover themes. If you like, you can add photos to your front cover; also, on the back cover, you can add an author’s photo and any text you wish. In addition, the book automatically prints with the title of the book and the author’s name on the spine. Since I am not interested right now in publishing, I did not opt for any photos or even back cover text, so I just chose an abstract cover design that I thought was attractive.
At this point you can order your masterpiece, any amount from one proof copy to hundreds. There is a discount in the price per book as the quantity goes up, but I was amazed at how inexpensive it was, even for the one proof copy I wished to purchase. For a 250 page softcover, premium paper, with a designed cover, it only cost $6, plus $5 for shipping. In other words, it cost less than a paperback at the local book store, even with shipping.
I sent off my order and the book arrived about 10 days later. It was very exciting ripping open the package, and seeing the book. It looked and felt great—it was not just a cheap knock off. It was commercial grade paper, cover, and binding. I was very pleased with that. And when I read through my book, I was ready to weep, because the story actually worked as a book. It’s one thing to read a manuscript as a file on your computer, or a collection of printed out loose papers, but when you read it as a bound book, it is a whole different experience. I kept turning the pages, and kept feeling like I had done it. Of course, what I also found were typos and pages mis-formatted, even after literally dozens and dozens of revisions. My biggest mistake was something I thought I had accurately accounted for, but I was wrong—not all of the major chapter sections and title pages started on a right hand page. But I wasn’t too worried, because the cost of re-doing a proof was cheap enough that I didn’t mind just correcting the file, re-uploading it, and ordering a new proof. That’s what I did, and ten days later I was greeted by the new corrected copy.
I have to say this whole experience really helped me to put my mind to rest. Even if you’re not as neurotic as I am, preparing to keel over at any moment, I think that if you are shopping around a manuscript you would benefit from ordering a proof copy of your work. You will see mistakes and typos in a way that you may well have missed in electronic or loose manuscript form. If you do get an agent and a publisher, wonderful; but if not, you have the option of either buying copies from Lulu and selling them yourself, or you can have the book advertised on Lulu’s website. They will do print on demand if you wish, so that they only print the number of books that are actually ordered; Lulu, of course, takes a substantial cut of the cover price that way. You also have the option of listing the book on Amazon in a similar print on demand deal, but in that case, Amazon takes such a large cut, that it hardly pays for the author.
So, if my family is reading this, now you know what that book is that’s sitting next to my will…but I sure hope you get to read it before then.
The same, only different. That’s what the people want, so they say. But how same and how different? That no one can tell you.
I’m working on the manuscript of Novel #2. Presently, there is much good in it, and much that is not so good in it. The way the book is presently constructed, it has a frame story that takes place in the present, and a mystery of sorts leads one of the characters back in time to previous events. So a substantial amount of the book takes place in the past. And as I was going through the manuscript this time through, it became very clear to me: the parts that were not so good were mostly in the frame-story portion, the portion of the novel set in the present.
I tried to understand why this was so. It seemed to me that the characters in the frame story had less dimension, spoke more stiltedly, and seemed overall less real to me. When I first had the impetus to write this book, the incidents in the past are what propelled me to start writing. I grafted on the frame story, because I thought I could make a clever plot connection between the events in the present and the events in the past. And that is where I made my mistake. Because clever is very different from true. And what I’m learning now, for my taste at least, is that truth beats clever every time.
Not that there is no place for cleverness in a novel. But it can’t be the sole reason for its existence, unless it’s a genre-specific item, like a sci-fi story or a mystery. As an extreme example of this, I recently read a mystery called The Tokyo Murder Mysteries, recommended on one of the magic forums. It’s an extraordinarily clever locked-room style multiple murder mystery whose answer is literally the same as the method to a very clever close-up magic trick involving dollar bills. Now I enjoy this kind of book, it has a great power to amuse and entertain me, but on the other hand it has little power to move me. And if a piece of literary fiction doesn’t move the reader in one way or another, then for me, it hasn’t done its job.
So what then should literary fiction do, at a minimum? The formulation I came up for myself was that the kind of book I’m interested in reading and writing must speak a recognizable unspoken truth about the human condition. However, that stipulation is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t keep saying the same thing in the same way as other books. So I amend it to, “To speak a recognizable unspoken truth—in a novel way.”
In a novel way. Oh my goodness, I never—stupid me—never made the connection between the two meanings of the word. A novel is something that talks about life in a novel way. There must be surprise and unpredictability. The same, only different. How much same and how much different? In a genre novel, very likely much of it is the same as others in its genre; if any of the rigid conventions of the genre are broken, it’s quite possible that the reader will feel badly disappointed. On the other hand, the need for surprise somewhere in the book is even greater, because of the necessity of distinguishing itself from the rest of its similar genre-soaked companions. So a genre book depends heavily on one twist, usually at the end, that does all the heavy lifting. If that twist doesn’t work, then the book has little value. To take the murder mystery example above, if the reader doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity of the solution to the multiple murder mystery, then as far as the reader is concerned, the time spent reading has been wasted.
But in literary fiction, the balance is different, there’s much more unpredictability. As a writer I am most happy when I surprise myself as I go along, because I know that if I am happily surprised as I am writing, then perhaps the reader will be pleasantly surprised as well. A tale full of sound and fury that’s been told before in the same way? Well, that signifies nothing.
The balance of those two imperatives—truth and novelty—is something that I must continually weigh as I continue to revise my manuscript. I can’t allow myself to be seduced by one side to the exclusion of the other. There must be both throughout the manuscript.
A novel should speak the recognizable unspoken truth in a novel way.