The pleasures of writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been slinging words for a living, since my sophomore year of university.

I’ve never formally studied writing, except for a degree from a demanding faculty in English lit.

I originally wanted to be a radio DJ, but knew I wanted to write for a living from a very early age, maybe 12 or so. Over my career, I’ve worked as an editor for three magazines and a reporter for three major daily newspapers, all of which has helped me think more clearly and write (I hope!) better; my website, if you’re interested, has some of my work.

In 1998, I won a National Magazine Award in Canada for a humor essay about, (what else?) my divorce.

I’ve derived so many pleasures from writing, for decades, including:

You!

As Broadside heads into its eighth year, I’m grateful for everyone who makes the time to come by, to read, to comment, and to return, some year after year. I know you’ve got many other ways to spend your time and attention, so thank you!

I first posted here on July 1, 2009, terrified. I write for a living, but thought no one would ever bother to read my own private thoughts. But we’re now at 16,635 followers.

Broadside has also been chosen for Freshly Pressed six times, a real honor.

Civil, lively conversation

One of the main reasons I write this blog, and continue to enjoy producing it. While I do wish more people “liked” and commented, I really value those who make time to speak up.

The Internet is so full of verbal violence. Not here!

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions
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My second book, published in 2011

Ongoing readership for my two books

I grew up in Canada, which runs something called the Public Lending Rights program, essentially royalty payments made by Canadian libraries to books registered through their program. Every year they send me a check, usually about $450, based on how often my books are borrowed and read, which tells me readers are still reaching for my work and still finding value in it.

That’s why writers write: to find readers!

Here’s a link to Blown Away; and one to Malled if you have a book club that would like to read and discuss either of them (i.e. buying at least a dozen), I’ll Skype in for a Q and A.

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Friendships

I recently went out for lunch in Manhattan with a friend who’s 20 years my junior, a woman who now lives in London but who was working in Bahrain when I first spoke to her, as a source for a New York Times business story.

She seems to live in an airplane, but we share unlikely passions, like fragrance. It’s a rare thing, but sometimes a source becomes a pal, as have some fellow bloggers, as have many of my colleagues throughout the years, whether staff or freelance.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015.

Learning about the world

I get paid to learn.

It’s a real privilege to meet or speak to such a range of people, from a British female bank CEO to a female Admiral to Olympic athletes to convicted felons to a Prime Minister to a neurosurgeon to an FBI firearms instructor.

Journalism is no way to become wealthy, but the joy of encountering so many different people and hearing and sharing their stories is worth a lot to me.

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Me, a cover girl?!

Being of service

It’s not waitressing or working retail, but journalism really is in many ways a service industry — if what we produce isn’t useful or meaningful to our readers, viewers and listeners, it’s time to hang up those skates!

I’m delighted when I hear from readers that they’ve learned something new and useful from my work; one Canadian woman said a story of mine had saved her life, as I covered a weird side effect of a medication that doctors kept dismissing when patients complained. Her mother read my story and shared it with her daughter who pushed back harder on her physician.

Telling great stories

The world is simply brimming with hundreds of amazing, untold stories.

Some are deeply unsettling, and it’s our role as reporters to bear fearless and intimate witness to war, crime, natural disaster, social injustice, racism.

Others are lying inside people who have simply never before been asked to talk to a reporter. Their untold tales are powerful, bursting with the energy of something finally unleashed.

It’s a huge responsibility to try to carve story from the raw material of reality — choosing the right characters, setting scenes, evoking emotion, choosing just the right words, in the right order, at the right length.

It is never easy.

It never should be.

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Malled’s Chinese edition

Adventure!

Not every journalist can count on a life of adventure, but it’s there for the taking if you choose your jobs and assignments carefully.

For work, I’ve been to the Arctic circle, to visit a tiny Inuit village, spent eight days in a truck with a French trucker going from Perpignan to Istanbul, taken class with the Royal Danish Ballet, have climbed the rigging 100 feet up and worked on a foot-rope aboard a Tall Ship, taken the helm of a multi-million America’s Cup contender.

I’m grateful for all these paid adventures and hope to have a few more before I’m done.

Two NY weeks, 5 artists

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sometimes you’re lucky enough to witness artistic history.

That happened to us last week at Carnegie Hall, in a fully sold-out audience, listening to 71-year-old jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

That’s 2,804 people of all ages, listening for two-plus hours and three encores in rapt silence, as the show was being recorded, (so, eventually, you can hear it too!)

We were seated up in the nosebleeds, (aka the second-highest balcony); even those tickets were $70 apiece.

If you haven’t heard of him, or his music, you’re in for a treat.

From Wikipedia:

The studio albums are modestly successful entries in the Jarrett catalog, but in 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the popularity of these voluminous concert recordings that made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums released from these concerts were Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973), to which Time magazine gave its ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ award; The Köln Concert (1975), which became the best-selling piano recording in history;[15] and Sun Bear Concerts (1976) – a 10-LP (and later 6-CD) box set.

I was in college when the Koln Concert came out, and I was introduced to it by a boyfriend. I still have that album and still cherish it.

This week’s entire concert was improvised.

From Wikipedia:

Jarrett has commented that his best performances have been when he has had only the slightest notion of what he was going to play at the next moment. He also said that most people don’t know “what he does”, which relates to what Miles Davis said to him expressing bewilderment – as to how Jarrett could “play from nothing”. In the liner notes of the Bremen Lausanne album Jarrett states something to the effect that he is a conduit for the ‘Creator’, something his mother had apparently discussed with him.

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That was Wednesday night.

I barely had time to process what a magnificent evening it had been when a generous friend offered two free tickets to hear authors Colson Whitehead and George Saunders read and answer audience questions at the 92d Street Y, another Manhattan cultural institution.

Back into the city!

I had never read either of their works, but had read rapturous reviews of their new books — Lincoln in the Bardo and The Underground Railroad. Each read for 30 minutes and it was mesmerizing. Afterwards, answering audience questions written on note cards, they were funny, insightful and generous.

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It is one of the great pleasures of living in and near New York City — a place of stunning living costs — to be able to see and hear artists of this stature.

I’ve been writing for a living since college but this was Writing, fiction of such depth and emotional power it takes your breath away.

In a time of such political instability and anxiety, it was also healing to remember that art and culture connect us to one another and to history.

We escape. We muse. If we’re a fellow creative, we leave refreshed and inspired. We recharge our weary souls.

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On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On Saturday, we went to hear Bebel Gilberto, a Brazilian singer. Our suburban New York town has a fantastic music hall, built in 1885, where tickets are affordable and the variety of performances eclectic. Of all the shows we saw, this one was the only disappointment. The rest of the crowd loved it, but not us.

The week before, I heard director Kelly Reichardt being interviewed by fellow director Jonathan Demme after a screening of her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff at a local art film house, the Jacob Burns Film Center.

She’s directed five feature films in a decade — no big deal for a guy, maybe, but a very big deal for a woman; only 13 percent are female.

As someone who’s a huge fan of movies, and of her films, this was a huge thrill. She was tiny, low-key, down to earth.

As a creative woman, it’s such a delight to see and hear another woman who’s carved such a great path for herself.

I went up later to say hello and was a total fan-girl, and she was warm and gracious.

Do you love culture?

What have you seen or heard lately that knocked your socks off?

The glamorous author’s life…

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a piece that opens the kimono on one of the sadder moments in many author’s lives, from The New York Times Book Review:

I assumed the humiliations had ended. They began even before my book was published, when network morning shows that regularly had me on now refused my pleas for some airtime to promote it. Once the book came out in 2012, it only got worse…

Less than a year after publication, my publisher, Hachette, told me they were mulching the tens of thousands of remaining copies of my book, “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity,” and suggested I purchase copies while they still existed. I capitulated, sending a check to the very people who once paid me to write it…Perhaps the worst indignity is that Hachette sends me a statement each quarter listing my sales and charting my progress toward paying back my advance. Which is pointless unless Hachette pays royalties to authors’ great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren…

But after three years of suffering through my stupid quest to sell a book, I encountered an ignominy I didn’t even know existed. My 6-year-old son’s friend Livia came over for a play date, and her mom brought a copy of my book for me to sign… “Property of the Calgary Public Library.”

 

I’ve written two books published by major New York houses, and am delighted to have ticked the box on a life’s dream in so doing.

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

But, oy, it’s not what people think!

Authors are rich!

Hah. Some, yes, earn very great sums from their work, self-published or commercially-published. Often it’s not the books you’d think, but might be 100s of 1000s of copies of a self-help book, not just John Grisham or J.K. Rowling.

Those making serious bank see their work optioned for film and/or television and made into a major motion picture.

You get to choose your title and cover — of course!

Hah, again. Yes, if you’re someone they feel is important enough to their bottom line and whose prior sales offer proven clout. For the rest of us? Your contract offers only “consultation”, not “approval.” Luckily, in both instances, I absolutely loved the covers designed so thoughtfully by my publishers. The first title was mine and the second, (thanks!) came from the publisher.

You’d think every author knows exactly what to call their own book, right? Wrong.

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Books tours are amazing

Maybe for some. The Big Names are flown to multiple cities and even multiple countries, met in each place by someone assigned to be their chauffeur and chaperone. The rest of us? That’s where a huge network of well-placed and enthusiastic readers, bloggers, reviewers and media pals is essential. Most “tours” today are by Skype, email, blog “tours” or phone.

Writing books rewards the solitary genius

Nope.

Today, the first question every would-be author needs to answer is: ‘What’s your platform? How many Twitter/Facebook/Instagram followers do you have?”

Until or unless you can prove a potential audience of thousands — minimally 10s of thousands, millions even better — you’re likely to hit a wall.

Writing books helps you make money for years to come

Again, wildly variable.

Write a textbook used by thousands of students? Maybe. Literary fiction? Maybe not. Today’s “advances” — money paid to the author upon a publisher’s acquisition of the right to publish a book — are now typically paid out over years. My final payment (not unusual now) on Malled came a full year after publication.

Very, very writers ever “earn out” — i.e. sell enough copies to actually earn money  beyond your advance. First, you have to repay your advance. That $25 hardcover price? You, the author, see only a small percentage applied from each book’s sale — meaning it can take years, decades or never to earn out and receive a royalty.

There’s also the visceral terror of turning in a full manuscript to be told it’s simply deemed “unpublishable” — and being asked for the advance back. I know someone it happened to, and have heard of others. Brrrrrr!

“Malled” needed a lot of revisions, so many I thought it might be impossible to achieve. Luckily, I had a smart/tough editor and we got it done. (Some readers, of course, savaged it anyway.) Tant pis, mes chers!

 

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The one payment that makes me cry when it arrives, as it has for the past three years, is the royalty I get from the Canadian library system, basically a payment for library readership of my two books.

It’s deeply moving to me, and validating, to know my work is still finding readers years later.

Since a library book is bought once, (even multiple copies), it represents hundreds, if not thousands, of potentially lost sales and income.

Many nations offer this payment to registered authors — but of course not the United States.

Writing a book, especially of non-fiction, also establishes you as an expert; I was interviewed twice this past week, thanks to my books — by The Guardian (on retail) and The Christian Science Monitor, about women and gun use, thanks to Blown Away.

I really hope to write and sell a few more books. We’ll see.

Why read?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Isn’t this cover gorgeous? I LOVED this book, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

You’re doing it this very second. (Bless you!)

We’re all so time-starved,  between school and work and kids and aging parents and illness, (ours or others’) and income (getting, keeping, investing if lucky). Oh, and TV and movies and other places on the Internet.

Some days I picture libraries and bookstores as a piteous forest, arms reaching out entreatingly — read us!

In an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, (a phrase coined in the Dark Ages, back in 1998), our undivided attention is now a rarity.

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

Each weekend, I plow through the Saturday New York Times, Sunday New York Times and the weekend Financial Times; two of these include magazines also full of content and images.

As my husband asked recently, “How many words do you think that is?”

I read them in print, as much for the pleasure of its tactility as the satisfaction of tossing all the read sections on the floor.

Done! Progress!

I also read in print as an escape from the computer screen, to which I’m attached for so many hours every day — like you, I suspect!

My eyes get tired. I want a different medium.

In addition to these, I read the NYT and FT daily and, for work and pleasure, magazines ranging from Period Home (a British shelter mag) to Wired to Bloomberg Businessweek. (My husband subscribes to photo and golf magazines and Monocle and Foreign Affairs as well.)

I make a little time to consume digital stories, and some of them are terrific, (on Medium, Narratively and others.)

I follow 905 Twitter accounts, about 85 percent of which are news sources and, when read  en masse, can be deeply disorienting and confusing — I’ll see graphic news photos of the latest MidEast terrorist bombing followed immediately by a pastel Dorset living room from a design magazine.

 

And I still make time to read books, the most recent being “Answered Prayers”, a classic by the late Truman Capote, whose desperate indiscretion destroyed his glittering career. I found it odd, bitter, not enjoyable. I’m glad I’ve read it, but what a nasty little creature he was! (This, in case you forgot, is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later adapted to a legendary film.)

And another American classic, the 1937 “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I put it off for ages, then couldn’t put it down: great characters and plot, written in dialect.

I never leave home, (and have done this my whole life), without a book or magazine or newspaper, and often all of these at once.

These bookshelf photos are some shelfies — what’s on our bookshelves at home here in  New York…no, I haven’t (yet!) read all of them.

 

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As author of two well-reviewed works of non-fiction — “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (2011) — I also have a vested personal interest in how much readers care about books!

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My second book, published in 2011

Here’s an interesting new effort to actually figure out why people stop reading a book:

Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.

Jellybooks has run tests on nearly 200 books for seven publishers, one major American publisher, three British publishers and three German houses. Most of the publishers did not want to be identified, to avoid alarming their authors. The company typically gathers reading data from groups of 200 to 600 readers.

Mr. Rhomberg recently gave a workshop at Digital Book World, a publishing conference in New York, and some of his findings confirmed the worst fears of publishers and authors.

On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.

Some of the reasons I read:

Style

What words and phrases did the writer choose? Do they work? What emotions are they eliciting in me?

Do I love their choices or am I finding them irritating and distracting? Why?

Do I wish I could write as beautifully? (Read “H is for Hawk” for some exquisite use of language.)

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Information

Forever deeply curious about the world — history, politics, economics, nature, science, belief systems, psychology, business, music, art, antiques. There’s so much I don’t know! So much I want to understand.

Writing that clearly and compellingly teaches me?  Yes, please!

New worlds

Maybe it’s ancient Egypt or Edwardian-era London or Paris in the 16th. century or a rural town populated primarily, in an era of segregation, by African-Americans. I need to visit other worlds, literally and imaginatively.

Great writing takes us there.

Escape

It’s such a joy to escape into a great piece of writing, so that when you stop reading you look up, disoriented and a bit dazed.

Where were you? Where are you now?

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Characters

Love savoring characters so real you want to have lunch with them and miss them terribly when you’re done. I still miss the cast of “The Goldfinch”, a doorstop of a book given to me for my birthday two years ago. I wonder about the residents of the Paris apartment building in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”

I also wonder about the ongoing lives of so many of the people I read about in journalism and non-fiction, from soldiers to aid workers to choreographers

Inspiration

As someone who writes for a living, I need to read great work by other writers, whether a book review, an essay, an op-ed, a novel, even a great tweet. I want to see how other writers have chosen to structure a narrative, create suspense, choose and carry a theme, or several, to completion.

It can be non-fiction, journalism, an essay, from the 21st century or the 16th.

Artists in every genre look to the greats for inspiration. I do too.

Beauty

Jose and I have a collection of reference books — of photography, painting, decorative arts, antiques and home design. These include works on Inuit women artists, Gustav Klimt, elephants, jewelry, vintage textiles and a gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of global interior design.

On a cold wintry afternoon, paging through these glorious images is a lovely break.

 Emotional Connection

Depending on  genre — self-help, memoir, essay, religion, philosophy — what a writer chooses to share about their life and their intimate struggles can help readers facing the same or similar challenges.

 

Are you an avid reader?

 

 

 

“North of Normal”: Q and A with best-selling Canadian author Cea Person

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sometimes you read a book and think…how did the author survive this?

The best-selling Canadian memoir “North of Normal” was that book for me in late 2015. I immediately started following its author, Cea Person, on Twitter.

I told her how much I admired her memoir and her ability to survive a childhood spent living in tipis in the Canadian wilderness with a family with very few boundaries.

An only child, she also had few friends and very little contact with others beyond the chaotic and isolated world her family created.

Cea, whose book was optioned as a possible film, and whose next book, “Nearly Normal” will be published by Harper Collins in early 2017, very kindly agreed to do a Q and A with me for Broadside, which we conducted via email.

When did you first decide you would write this book?

I first decided in my teens that I would write it — one day. I knew I had a crazy story to tell, and I just trusted that the right time to write it would reveal itself. I was finally prompted to start writing it at age 37, when my mother was ill with cancer and my marriage was falling apart. I knew I had to look into my past to find answers to my present.

(Her book is somewhat similar in tone and experience to the American best-seller The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.)

Did Glass Castle strike you as a better/worse/wholly different sort of childhood than yours?

I think our childhoods were equally hard in that we had to struggle to have dignity and get our basic needs met every day, and to try to make our parents realize how misguided they were.

Jeanette had siblings, which in a way was probably both a comfort and added burden to her troubles, whereas I was on my own — so I think we were probably equally challenged. I would love to chat with her one day, but haven’t had the opportunity yet.

Was it hard to remember and to recreate your early life?

Yes, I had a hard time with some memories, my mother and family members helped me fill in a lot of details and straighten out the chronology before they died. I also used photos, but I didn’t keep journals. Also, I used storytelling devices to recreate some scene details and dialogue, as remembering every detail is of course impossible.

Did you ever study writing?

I did not take any writing classes — I just wrote and rewrote my book (about 25 times!) until I got it right! I would not recommend this method to others who want to write their memoir, however 😉

 What other books like that one were helpful in conceiving of and structuring your own narrative?

My structure and narrative came from many drafts of trial and error, trying many different voices and structures until I found the right one. I was a lot like a person feeling my way through the dark with no idea where I was going! But I must say that all that experimentation really benefitted me in the end, because I really know what does and doesn’t work for me now — and I was able to complete my second book in a fraction of the time it took me to write my first.

I remember being greatly inspired by Angelas Ashes, White Oleander and Shes Come Undone. As I read them, I dreamed that I could one day write a book that would move people as much as I’d been touched by them.

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 Can you describe the writing process — how did you decide what to include and what to exclude? It’s a tough job with memoir to know what’s (most) important to the reader as it may have felt most important to us, the writer.

For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up.

This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing.

I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book.

Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.

For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude.

 How did you find an agent?

I actually queried for agents four times over the six years it took me to write the book. On my second round of query letters I actually got one, but he wasn’t able to sell the book. I went back and rewrote it many times after that, and when I finally did get it right I had offers from five agents. After so much rejection, it was exhilarating! I got my dream agent, Jackie Kaiser, who has been the best thing to happen to my writing career.

 Was this a difficult book to sell?

As I mentioned, I had some false starts and difficult times when I wondered if I should just give up. The whole writing/querying/selling process was extremely hard to go through. But I always had this feeling that if I just stuck with it, I would find success.

When I finally got my agent, she sold it in Canada within 24 hours and then in the US in a bidding war between three publishers. So, I have experienced the full range of writer’s dismay and joy!

How long did you take to write it — and what were some of the toughest challenges in doing so?

Six years of writing, and besides the challenges mentioned above, there was the tough part of wondering how my family would react to it, reliving difficult memories, and mostly just finding the time to write at all.

When I started writing it I had a toddler, no childcare, and a business I ran from home, and when I finished writing it I had three small children and no childcare. I wrote the book in ten-minute increments and during stolen moments on the weekends when my husband would take the kids to the park for a few hours. I still think it’s amazing that I got it written at all!

 What sort of reader reaction did you get and do you still? Do you get personal emails from people with similar untold stories?

The reader reactions have been by far the most amazing and rewarding part of this whole experience. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who related to my story in one way or another—the mental illness, counterculture family, young single mother, little girl who never fit in—all of these are elements that people have related to.

I’ve also been shocked by the number of people out there who’ve told their own stories to me that are similar to mine. And I’ve been humbled by the friends and acquaintances I assumed had led “normal” lives who revealed their own troubled pasts to me after reading my book. It’s funny, because when my book first came out I was expecting some negativity, but it’s been completely positive. My readers were my inspiration for writing my second book.

 Were you at all concerned (many memoirists’ fear) how your own family would react? How did they?

Of course it was a concern to me. But I also knew that I had to tell my truth, and that if you tell the truth fully and show your characters as human, both good and bad, there isn’t much people can get upset about. I think that if we are upset about being written about, we should probably take a look at ourselves and the choices we’ve made and why.

In my case, because it took so long for my book to be written and published, most of my family had passed away by the time it came out. My father was the only family member who was in the book that was still alive and/or that I was in touch with, and he embraced it wholeheartedly after he got past his guilt. There have been a lot of people who knew me and my family when I was young, who stayed with us in the tipis or knew my grandfather in more recent years. I was afraid they would find my writing about my past too unvarnished, but they have come forward to tell me how well I captured the Persons in all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s been amazing.

 What were your happiest memories of that childhood?

Riding my stick horses through the meadows, close moments with my mother and grandparents when the rest of the world wasn’t yet a concern to me.

Your worst?

The constant instability I felt, never knowing what was coming next, fear of losing my mother to the cops or to her boyfriends, the open sex and drugs, feeling I didn’t fit in, feeling like a freak from the wilderness, knowing my mother and I were reliant on her boyfriends for our survival, wondering how I would ever escape and find the life I wanted.

 What strengths do you think it gave you long-term?

Definitely resiliency and courage.

I’m very proactive — if something isn’t working for me, I change it. I’m always striving for something better for myself and my family. And I have a deep appreciation and gratitude for the life I’ve created now — the stability, my wonderful husband and children and friends.

Wisdom can be slippery for me, because the little realizations I have don’t always stick with me long enough for me to change my habits, and I think a lot of my current happiness comes from the reality I’ve created for myself rather than the lessons I’ve learned from my past.

I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I know for sure, except that I value courage, strength and the ability to laugh at life and oneself perhaps more than anything else in people. I have learned that I can do anything if I want it badly enough — I wanted to have a normal life, to have a modeling career, a happy marriage and to write my book, and I achieved all that by being tenacious.

I have my grandfather to thank for that — he succeeded at the lifestyle he wanted against all odds, and though I wanted the exact opposite of him, it was his courage that inspired me. Also that we so often repeat the patterns of our family members despite our best efforts, and recognizing those patterns are key to changing them — but they are sneaky!

Thank you, Cea!

Your book is extraordinary and I’m so grateful you made time to talk with me for Broadside.

The tribe meets…

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events
The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!
Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book
My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.

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People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

Buy my books! (The gentle art of self-promotion)

By Caitlin Kelly

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Here’s an interesting discussion, from The New York Times Book Review, about whether or not authors should run around promoting themselves and their products books.

Here’s James Parker on why it’s such a bad idea:

She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.

Having written two non-fiction books, one before the age of social media — “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, published in 2004 — and Malled, in 2011, I’ve been around that block.

He’s right.

People who choose to write for a living generally prefer to withdraw into their own heads and work at their own pace.

If we were super-chatty extroverts, we would have gone into PR.

If we really loved having our photo taken or being witty in two-minute soundbites, we would have chosen a career in television. Trying to boil down nuance into seconds is difficult and scary as hell — and I’ve done a fair bit of television and radio promotion for my books, whether BBC radio and television, NPR or Al Jazeera America.

And “the public” can be brutal, (see: amazon “reviews”), ignorant and brutally ignorant of what it takes to even get a book commercially published. Authors often get asked to speak at someone’s lunch or alumni group or women’s club, unpaid.

Yet if your book sells poorly — fewer than 10,000 copies — your odds of an agent repping you, or any publisher touching  your next attempt shrivel very quickly.

So we feel compelled to sing and dance and do blog tours, even if that’s about as appealing as gum surgery.

Here’s Anna Holmes taking the opposite view:

Book promotion can offer a feeling of agency for authors trying to find their way in an industry that can seem otherwise fickle, opaque and unmeritocratic…

And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?

Holmes is being super-polite; “unmeritocratic” is Times-speak for:

How did that piece of shit ever find a publisher?!

I have two friends who head the publicity departments of two major American publishers. I love them as friends, but to hear their insiders’ view of this business is blood-chilling. One told me recently she read a proposal so incompetent she said, “Not a chance.”

Yet the house bought it for a lot of money, because the writer already has a huge following for her website — i.e. demand for her product.

I was intrigued when I started to follow writer Sarah Salway’s British blog, Writer in the Garden, and decided to follow her on Twitter — and read the bio’s of the many highly-accomplished UK writers she follows. Their self-presentation was almost uniformly witty and self-deprecating, a style I used to employ when I moved from Brit-inflected Canada to the U.S. — and to chest-thumping New York City, aka Braggarts ‘r us!

If you’re shy and quiet and reserved about your work here, hang it up kids, because you’re probably going to stay invisible and powerless.

In our noisy, crowded, you-only-get-six-seconds’-of-my-attention culture, introverts can have a tough time getting their books attention, reviews and sales.

I have to say, on balance, I side with Holmes. I’d rather initiate a convo with my readers than sit around waiting for someone to find my books.

Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you dream of becoming a published author — and some of you already are.

It’s a very cool accomplishment and one to be proud of.

I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books and I still love sharing them with audiences. I really enjoy public speaking and answering readers’ and would-be readers’ questions and hearing their comments.

malled cover HIGH

But, while it’s terrific to get out there and share your story, and that of your book, you’ll also get a pile ‘o invitations to speak for no money.

A new service (and I’m not A Big Enough Name for them to want me, sigh) is paying NYC-area authors $400 (and pocketing $350 of the $750 fee) for bringing authors to local book clubs.

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.

Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.

I make no money selling books

Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?

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Your audience is too small

Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.

The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.

Your audience isn’t my audience

Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues  I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.

It costs me time and money to do this for you

You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.

If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.

Your competitors pay!

I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up  by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.

If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.

Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?

I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance

I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.

malled china cover

I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

By Caitlin Kelly

A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.

It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.

malled cover HIGH

The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!

I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.

The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if  they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.

One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.

Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.

Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.

Not, sorry to say, the United States.

It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.

Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.

Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books  — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.

And another, focused on business books.

There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong.  A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.

Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.

That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue  — I knew that when I chose my subject.

My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.

Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?

Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.

Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?

Priceless.