Matters of Discretion, or, One Way Writing is Like Dating

Along with my IRL friends, my kids’ friends, and my enormous family, I’m accumulating a growing number of writers on my social network feeds. I like it a lot. One of the newest additions to my Facebook friends list is American novelist Sarah Dunster. I’ve met her only once, but through her online voice I’ve grown to admire the heck out of her as a human being.

She’s currently pitching manuscripts to major literary agencies. I learned about it through her fascinating practice of reporting the responses she’s been getting to her queries. It only takes one positive response – one agent willing to take on a book project – to end the pitching process. Sarah hasn’t received that one response yet so the replies she’s been reporting have been what dour folks like me would call rejection letters.

That’s not what Sarah calls them — at least, not all of them. She seems to prefer the term “polite letters.” She announces them and will sometimes share excerpts of them – anything positive or personalized. Perhaps it’s a way of celebrating warmth, encouragement, and humanity in a process that usually ends in dismissive dead silence. It’s one of the loveliest, most surprising acts of making lemonade out of lemons I’ve seen in a working writer.

When a “polite letter” arrives at my house, I log it, shred or delete it, don’t mention it to anyone but my husband, and only after I refuse to cook and insist he go out to dinner with me.

Maybe I lack the sweetness to make lemonade. I, the girl who, thanks to my parents, went to eleven different schools before I graduated, learned to cope with disappointment by moving on, starting over. When it comes to something like a book proposal, there’s nothing wrong with that strategy. The sooner a rejection is obliterated, the better for me and everyone around me. Get on with it!

I’m convinced both Sarah’s way and my way are fine approaches to rejection. As long as we go on writing and improving our writing, it doesn’t matter how we handle setbacks. Into the shredder or onto Facebook – either one is fine. Looking for the bright side or the blank slate — there’s no wrong choice.

Sarah’s sharing of her rejections on a social network is, by definition, social. My choice to not share mine isn’t meant to be social – but it is.

When an acceptance letter, an award nomination, a good review, or any helpful press coverage comes my way, I tell everyone. I hit Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and this blog to let everybody know my good news. And then I refuse to cook and insist we go out for dinner.

Sarah shares her good news too. It’s on her Facebook feed right along with her “polite” letters. Every writer does this. It’s 2015. The world is chock-full of books and if writers won’t talk about our own work, no one else will.

It’s especially true for writers working with small presses with constrained marketing resources. There are publishing companies (not mine, thank goodness) that require authors to prepare “marketing plans” and submit them along with manuscripts when there’s still no publishing agreement in sight.

My small publisher makes a little go a long way. Thanks to their efforts, I had good publicity for my novel’s debut. Still, my personal contributions of time and online platform-space were indispensable in promoting the book. That’s how this industry works. We may cloak it in humblebrags and earnestly sheepish modesty but writers cannot opt out of our own buzz and expect it to continue.

Buzzing really bugs some people. And not everyone caught in my social network puts up with me by choice. Many are connected to me by birth or other kinds of social superglue. They’d have a hard time tuning out my book promotion racket if they found it annoying. I know it. I’m sorry. And if I want to keep working in this field, I have to subject them to it anyway.

This is where not sharing my rejection becomes social after all. If I was more like Sarah — reporting setbacks with frank optimism, not fishing for compliments — maybe my good news would be easier for onlookers to stomach when it finally comes along. Talking about it would seem more balanced, less like a double standard. I wouldn’t be a humblebragger. I’d be simply humbled. Maybe it’s selfish — even dishonest — of me to advance only good news.

Here’s some honesty. I’m not yet emotionally equipped to post my rejections. I probably never will be. While doing so may be useful for writers like Sarah, and satisfying for a few fed-up readers, it has no value for me. It hurts. I won’t do it.

It’d be like publicly posting something about asking someone to love me and having them turn me down. Marketing writing is actually a lot like dating. Some people want to chronicle every detail of the chase, every high and low; some don’t. In my dating days I was never one to announce I liked a guy until he’d already made a very clear first move. It’s not that I never pined for anyone. It’s just that I didn’t talk about it. That’s how I write too – never announcing my submissions until a successful deal is struck. Neither approach to dating or to writing makes anyone selfish or bad. It’s a matter of discretion, not a character flaw.

I’ll always have more to lose, more to suffer, in flaunting my failures than anyone will have to gain in inspecting them. I still just need to move on. This is a tough business. Trust me: I do get bad news, plenty of it. In lieu of public rejection letters, let’s let this post stand as the official, general acknowledgement of all my bad news, past, present, and in perpetuity. It will remain here for easy reference any time my good news feed gets insufferable.

“Love Letters…” Live on Calgary Radio

Last winter, I traveled to Calgary to do a live radio interview at CJSW about my debut novel. My hosts were Paul Kennett and Emily Ursuliak, a lady deservedly known as one of the most generous and hardest working people in the Calgary literary scene.

Since it was live, I didn’t get to hear the interview anywhere but in my headphones and I was pleased this week when Emily sent me a link to a podcast of our talk.

Here I am talking about the Catholic Church, my bff, and commenting on technical elements of the book that I’d never had a chance to speak about in public until this smart interviewer raised them.

Jenn Quist on CJSW, right here.

Me on the CBC

It’s finally happened: the Canadian Broadcast Corporation is covering my debut novel. It’s starting with this feature on the CBC Canada Writes website composed of parts of the transcript from a bit of radio we recorded. The audio itself should eventually air on the programme that might be the gold standard of literary journalism in this country, CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter.

Things got a bit weird when they asked me what music I was listening to while writing the book. But let’s face it: weird, odd, strange, peculiar have been our watchwords all along this journey.

Read it here.

Love Letters of the Angels of Death Goes Global with the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Long-list

I’m so pleased to announce my debut novel has been included on the long-list of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards.

Of all the books written in or translated into English in 2013, 142 are contending for this award. They come from 39 different countries. Eleven of them are from my home country of Canada. I’m the only name in the Q section, coming right after Thomas Pynchon because — wow. Only ten (or so) books will make it onto the short-list, announced next spring.

It bears repeating that I’m very happy and grateful to the wonderful Edmonton Public Library for nominating the book.

And get a load of this tweet where I’m called a “star” for the first time ever.

Laugh Track at the Beauty School

This is not a picture of my four sisters and me; neither is my next novel.

I am one of five sisters. I was born first and in exchange for having the best memories of our parents when they were young and cool, I missed out on adventures my sisters had together after I swore off women for a life with my husband and sons. Different combinations of my sisters have traveled to Disneyland, New York City, Winnipeg, Amsterdam, the Northwest Territories, and the old gravel pit in Prince George all without me.

This year, for the first time, I made it to one of their “girls’ trips.” I met the three of my sisters who aren’t currently breastfeeding (see, someone’s always left out – it’s not personal) in Calgary to spend a weekend together.

I am terrible at ordering and it was over a bowl of thick green sauce at dinner that I taught the girls a new word: sistering. It’s like mothering only just between us. And then I warned them about my second novel. It’s about a group of five sisters.

No, it’s not about us.

If it’s not a tribute to our family why stretch the cast over five main characters? Well, because it’s not a stretch. There were five Spice Girls, five Go-Gos, five Miss Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, five Dionne quintuplets. My mind isn’t the only place where a group of five girls is the only size that makes sense.

It was impossible to write the book-sisters without invoking bits of my real sisters. I used some of our quirks and experiences as inspiration, like any writer would have done. To add to the tangle, our family is large. On my side alone there are seven siblings, seven spouses, one ex-spouse, and twenty-one nieces and nephews. It’s hard to create characters and situations that don’t overlap in some way with people I know very well simply because I know so many people so very well. When we’re primed to look, even general coincidences can seem like deliberate rip-offs. For instance, one of the sisters is the book is a nurse, just like Amy. One is divorced, like Sara. One is married to a man who’s adopted, like Mary’s husband. These elements aren’t uncommon inside or outside literature. Moreover, my book’s story wouldn’t work without them. And the story definitely wouldn’t work without the intimate understanding of sisterhood we sisters have given each other.

None of this is the same thing as writing a story about my sisters.

Still, I submitted to the girls teasing me about the book for the rest of the weekend. Mary even offered to bring her husband to the book launch so readers could meet “the real guy” in person. They let me have it, with that sharp sweetness of theirs and lots of laughter.

The next day Amy had planned girlie activities for us. We spent the morning shopping. That was easy. The afternoon was more difficult. The other girls wanted to go to a spa together. The only place that could book all four of us at the same time was not exactly a spa but a beauty school. I don’t want to use its real name so let’s just call it – oh, I don’t know – Carvel Mollege.

I’d had a facial only once before. It seemed like witchcraft – a superstitious ritual in smearing stuff on my face and wiping it off, a cycle of application and removal. The key to a successful facial is to end it immediately after finishing a thorough removal.

I was about to learn this.

If I’d been a more experienced exploiter of the pink ghetto that is esthetics, I would have realized how strangely my facial was unfolding and made some kind of protest. As it was I laid under a towel that smelled like someone else while a college girl let facial goops drip into my hairline, while she failed to rinse the cocktail of creams and toners and tonics off my skin.

At some arbitrarily determined point she said we were done. My skin felt tight and tacky as I stood up and looked for a mirror. There was only one in the room, mounted too high for me to see much of my face in it. All I could see was a dark, oily perimeter where my hair had soaked up the skin treatments.

Not a good sign.

The supervising instructor was waved out of a classroom to inspect my student’s work. “How do you feel?” she asked me.

“Pretty sticky.”

“From the moisturizer,” she finished for me.

I went downstairs, fingering the gummy surface of my face. In the lobby, my three little sisters were sitting in a love seat meant for two. They looked great. But when they saw me, they looked concerned – and amused. That’s when I knew for sure something wasn’t right. While the receptionist ran my card through the machine, I flexed my sticky face until it cracked. I stood in the lobby and peeled a sheet of – something – off my face.

Across the room, my sisters were cackling. “Why’d it have to be Jenny?”

Between my fingers I held a transparent mask of most of my face. It reminded me of a bored habit I had in grade four, pouring white glue into my hand and letting it dry before trying to peel it off in one piece. This glue mask was a good one. Every hair of my left eyebrow was perfectly visible.

I rolled the film into a ball between my fingers. “I’m not paying for this.”

My sisters kept laughing.

“I understand they’re just students,” I told the receptionist. “But look at my sisters: they’re not down here peeling their faces off.”

No one argued about refunding my money. Maybe they should have. My sisters and I had spun the barrel in a game of college student esthetician roulette and on our fourth shot, my shot, the game fired its inevitable concluding round.

We got in my minivan and drove away, off to a dinner where I would order another plate of food I wouldn’t like. Mary told me how radiant I looked. Amy lent me some makeup. And we never stopped laughing. That’s my sisters: the laugh track of my life, calming me down, cheering me up, convincing me this drama is much more fun than any amount of reason says it should be.

When my new book appears next year (please read it) don’t skip the dedication page. But just in case, let me reveal now how it will read:

For Amy, Sara, Mary, and Emily

All of whom inspired, none of whom is depicted in this book

Announcing Book #2

pubagreementToday I signed and mailed away the publishing agreement for my second novel. Once again, I’m working with Linda Leith Publishing in Montreal and the novel is a blackly comic literary treatment of family life. Our projected release date is Fall 2015. And I still can’t believe this is really my life.

Watch this space for more and more and more details to come.

Enough Envy for Everybody

Big stage for big literary celebrity

Maybe there comes a time in every writing career when quiet, solitary writer-person gets curious about the literary world’s version of hype — popular, public, celebrity hype.

It’s true for me, anyways. So before they were sold out, I bought a ticket to see a celebrity author passing through my city. He’s a Canadian now living in the United States who appeared before a crowd of 500 people a few blocks from my house.

The author and I are strangers. I haven’t read his books. I didn’t go to see him as a fan or as a friend. Maybe I was falling back into my social science habits – acting the clinical outsider, coolly observing the phenomenon of celebrity enacted literary-style. There’s something nobly aloof about telling it that way. It lifts my delicate, fretting artist’s heart out of the story.

I arrived at the theatre just as “please find your seats” was announced. Arriving late at a sold-out event means making a rough, rude spectacle, crawling over people to lone seats in the centres of rows. I hadn’t dressed up and I arrived smelling like the onion I’d diced making dinner. That was me — rude, sloppy, late-coming, envious spectacle.

Goodwill and admiration don’t negate envy. Envy, my dad taught me, is different from jealousy. Envy is simply wanting the same thing other people have. Jealousy is wanting to get it by taking it away from them. Jealousy is hating them for having it. Those were the semantics I was raised on.

I knew sitting in a crowd gawking at a celebrity author wouldn’t get all the people who read and talk about his books to read and talk about my book too. Still, reading seems to work on a positive feedback cycle (social science!). The more people read, the more they keep reading. Reading is always good for writers.We lose nothing in supporting our colleagues — even when we’re just a tiny, anonymous faces on the far side of the footlights. There’s something slightly less noble about telling it that way.

Onstage, he read from his latest work. It was masterful and when I applauded, I felt like I meant it more than anyone else in the theatre. Then he talked. He talked about choices he’d made in his career that I wish I’d known to make in mine. He talked about disadvantages I don’t have that make his work rich and stirring and advantages I don’t have that make his work rich and stirring. He has more sisters than me. That stung. He must’ve mentioned his sisters three times — just like I would have.

Near the end, a book club leader from the audience asked him what he’s been reading lately. This isn’t the kind of amazing story where he answers, “Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist. Check it out.”

That’s not what he said. He answered he doesn’t read other writers’ fiction very often. Especially when talking to a book club member, it’s a claim that demands defending. The author explained, “You read it and it’s like, ‘ah, they’re so good, why do I even bother?’”

That’s what a celebrity author looks like, lit onstage with his delicate, fretting artist’s heart. He looks a lot like the rest of us – rough and envious, unsure. I hadn’t known when I left my house that night, but this was what I’d come hoping to see for myself. There might not be much that’s noble about telling it this way.