I signed a contract today with Linda Leith Publishing of Montreal for the publication of my third novel in Spring 2018. LLP published my first two novels as well and I’m happy to be working with them again. We’re currently in the revision stage of the process and the title is part of what’s under revision so I’m not able to announce it yet. I can say that the book is set mostly in contemporary western Canada and looks into a family grappling with the absurdity of the normalcy of violence, tragedy and evil in human life after one of three siblings is killed in a domestic homicide. I love it and will bring it to you by Spring 2018.
Earlier this year, Sistering was awarded Best Novel by the Association for Mormon Letters, an international community that’s been very kind and supportive of my work. They sent one of their best and brightest, Michael Austin, to do an email interview with me–the most Mormon and, interestingly, the least gender role fixated one I’ve ever done. The link to read it is here.
This week, my second novel, Sistering, landed a good review in the American industry standard magazine Publishers Weekly. It’s not long but it does say things I can use in arguments with my loved ones like “Quist clearly knows family and sibling dynamics.” The best line is
This is a captivating story bound to resonate with readers who have sisters, and Quist’s sharp observations of human nature and sense for comedy will entertain a broader audience.
We’ve got a release date for Sistering, my upcoming novel.
Yes, “release date” can mean many things, especially in a family like mine where one of us works in the criminal justice system.
What I mean by it is the book will be available in print and ebook formats from Linda Leith Publishing, online bookstores, and on the shelves of fine bookstores beginning August 15, 2015.
That is, as long as I get off the Internet and get the latest revisions resubmitted on time. Fighting!
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.
I’m churchy, okay. I’m not even sorry.
I wrote a novel about people who quote the Bible at funerals, have a large family, and conspicuously don’t drink coffee. I wrote a book with the words “Joseph Smith” printed in it. In case anyone missed it, my characters are Mormons and so am I.
Like all writers, my goal is for everyone to read my book. Everyone includes my fellow Mormons. The Church is active throughout the world but its densest concentration of members is in the American state of Utah. By the time my book was released, I had only been to Utah once. It was when I was twelve years old and caught in one of my parents’ horrifically hot transcontinental summer road trips.
As a grownup author with a book to promote, I didn’t know how to begin to infiltrate the Utah market. I picked through the Internet until I discovered the Whitney Awards. They were invented to recognize fiction produced by Mormon writers. It was a longshot but a few months later, a panel of judges selected my book as a Whitney finalist – one of the top five in the general fiction category.
And that’s when I tripped down the rabbit-hole.
I’m still a novice when it comes to understanding fiction considered “Mormon.” I haven’t learned all its terminologies and talking points. Please forgive any rookie misconceptions here. As far as I can tell from outside the scene, “Mormon fiction” means several different things. It has to since the Church is large and varied enough to include all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes and reading and writing levels. Contrary to nasty, simple-minded fairy tales, there is no monolithic Mormon person. Insisting there is would be calling on a stereotype and it’s as unfair to apply a stereotype to a religious group as it is to apply it to any other bunch of humans.
Far from being a unified movement, the Mormon book-scene is multi-faceted. Within it there are writers who craft books intended solely for Mormon audiences. They produce mainly historical fiction, kissing-only romance, inside jokes, and heartwarming lessons.
There are also Mormon authors – big commercial names like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer – who write mass market speculative and young adult fiction.
When it comes to literary fiction, much of the book-length Mormon-y stuff is written from the negative perspectives of disaffected members – people who don’t like church anymore. Some of these writers – no one famous or influential enough for me to spontaneously remember their names – loudly reject the idea that there can be a “Great Mormon Novel” that combines good literary fiction with Mormon orthodoxy.
I didn’t know this a year ago, but I’ve heard there comes a time in most Utah-Mormon writers’ careers when they must ask themselves if they’re going to work within the Mormon niche or in the mass market. I have never asked myself this question. Until recently, the Mormon book-scene hasn’t been part of my consciousness. I’ve missed out on some good contacts and mentors because of that but I’ve also been spared some self-consciousness and second-guessing – the burden of a complicated, value-laden artistic and intellectual drama.
It was when my novel was named a Whitney finalist that it started to get traction in the Mormon book-scene. At first, it was received with enthusiasm. Kind reviews started to appear. People were happy to read my book. It unwittingly defied critics and filled a literary void in the 2013 Mormon publishing calendar.
What I didn’t understand was that all this goodwill was coming from just one corner of the book-scene. I hadn’t counted on the larger, sometimes more petulant corner that prefers to have its heart warmed, flipped over, warmed again, flipped over, warmed again… From that corner, literary work often seems risky and dangerous and pretentious.
I was about to learn this in an episode I’ll call “Off With Her Head.”
There’s a newspaper in Utah called Deseret News. It’s not run by the Church but it is owned by the Church. A freelance book reviewer assigned by Deseret News – a woman the same age as my mum — really, really hated my novel. I can’t find a way to say this that doesn’t sound like bragging so I’ll just blurt it out. I don’t have much experience with bad reviews. The fact that this reviewer didn’t like the book was strange and disappointing. But that wasn’t what made me sick about it.
The reviewer didn’t actually say much about the book – nothing that can be traced back to the text, anyways. Instead of offering an analysis of the story, she chose to denounce it via the lowest road there is: the one that ploughs through my quality as member of the Church. In this review, my book — and by extension myself — was pronounced “not the perspective of the Church.”
A complete stranger had called out my work in a Church-owned publication as bad Mormonism. I don’t know how other churches work but in my Church, book reviewers aren’t supposed to have the authority to say what or who is or is not doctrinally orthodox.
Now, the last thing a novelist should do upon getting a bad review is challenge the reviewer and her editors about it. Everyone knows that. We are aloof artistes. We ignore and move on. But the reviewer had raised issues outside my book. She’d attacked my integrity and fidelity. It was so far offside I blew the whistle.
I complained first to her immediate editors. They ignored me (though the reviewer showed some shocking hegemony when she wrote back telling me it is indeed her role to warn innocent readers when books “don’t match up” to good Mormon doctrine). Fuming, I wrote to the president of the newspaper. Within half an hour of sending that email, Deseret News apologized, took the offensive comments out of the review, and asked me to forward the email where the reviewer voiced her absurd self-appointed mandate to judge my orthodoxy.
My novel had become controversial and polarizing. When the controversy wasn’t terrible publicity, it was great publicity. In the days after the review, people defended my work. This included an old family friend who is actually an ecclesiastical leader in the Church. He likes the book, doesn’t find it doctrinally subversive, and when he read the review he wondered, “What book did she read?”
After all this, I decided to travel to Utah to attend the Whitney Award ceremony anyway. I’d been tumbling down the rabbit-hole of the Mormon book-scene long enough to start to examine my surroundings and the other objects falling with me. I was curious – perhaps morbidly so – and wanted to land in that world and move through it in the physical universe for a little while.
Once again, my parents were my traveling companions in Utah. We had the good fortune to be in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square during a quick, free concert played on the massive pipe organ inside the big church that puts the “Tabernacle” in the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir.” We all agreed this was the highlight of the trip. Instead of indulging himself with a fussy highbrow organ piece, the organist played accessible songs – organ pop-songs with swelling choruses and big finishes like sonic tsunamis. They were loud and fancy – songs meant to show us what the old pipe organ could do, sounds that vibrated through our chest cavities as if we were part of the instrument ourselves. The organist was playing to the hearts and souls of musical Philistines like my parents and me – and we loved it. It was exactly what we wanted. There are times and places to play to more subtle and discriminating tastes but this was not one of them.
Back at the Whitney Awards, things weren’t going so well. I’d brought books to sell and in an entire day, I’d sold one. Sure, it was to the fiction editor of Sunstone magazine but – come on. At the banquet I accidentally flung my tough cut of sirloin into the front of my dress and, of course, I did not win a Whitney Award. I’d been nominated alongside three romances and a buddy-road-trip novel. The best and most literary of the three romances won. For the overall best book award, another romance – self-described as Bronte inspired — was the winner. I was a little offended when, in her acceptance speech, the winner made comments that could have been construed as her claiming to have won because she had prayed harder over her book than the rest of us (again with the beside-the-point piety rankings) but other than that, the award made sense.
See, the final round of the Whitney competition is a popular vote. It’s like a free, quick concert on an ostentatious pipe organ. It’s got to be a crowd-pleaser, an easy, emotionally satisfying romp. That’s just what it is.
What I do appreciate is that someone in the previous selection round, one or more of the Whitney judges, had stuck their necks out and brought my novel – a literary piece, a critic-pleaser by an obscure foreigner – to the Mormon book-scene’s attention. The Whitneys aren’t really the time or the place to celebrate a novel like that – not yet, anyways. But someday they might be. This year, maybe they came a little closer. Maybe someday that mythical “Great Mormon Novel” will appear on the scene and by then even the most guarded reviewers in the Deseret News will have learned not to be angry and afraid of it.
Until then, take my novel, Mormon book-scene. Take it into your Wonderland and let it wear away some of the harshness of the hegemony still lurking there. Grind it up, add its few small grains to the foundation being built for something better than what’s there now.
I’ve booked my ticket and my cheap but not inexpensive hotel room and I’m all set to fly to Montreal in four weeks for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. It’ll be my first time in Montreal outside the airport or the freeway and my first visit to a literary festival in any capacity. In keeping with my out-of-step career path, at my first literary festival I’ll be appearing as an author with three spots on the programme. As always, I’m humble and happy to be included in such a great event — and glad everyone’s cool with me performing only in English.
Yes, this is me, asking you out.
Next Thursday, I’m having a party to launch my novel. Whoever you are — whether you know me in person or not, whether I can see your house from mine or not — consider yourself invited (unless you are a child who is old enough to walk but not old enough to keep your mitts out of the punch bowl and sit and listen to Auntie Jenny read stories about dead people).
If you can’t make it to the Lacombe launch party, I’ll be reading in Red Deer at Sunworks on Friday, September 27 at 7pm. And if you’re a big city type, I’ll be reading in Calgary at Pages Kensington as part of Filling Station’s Flywheel Series on Thursday, Sept 12 at 7:30.
Look, I’m delicate and socially awkward. Come see me.
There were cupcakes, pink tissue paper flowers bigger than my head, cupcakes, a sunny backyard full of people I love, and cupcakes. It was a family party – a birthday bash for one of my nieces.
Eventually, the conversation turned to the book I wrote that had been published exactly one week earlier. My sister-in-law, who hadn’t read a word of the novel yet, was not quite kidding when she asked me, “So, which character am I?”
I could answer with confidence. “None of them. None of the characters in the book is anyone here.” I glanced around the yard to make sure it was true. It was. None of the real people at this particular gathering cast any shadow on my fiction (except, I recall on rereading this, a few of my little sons).
“Doesn’t matter. When I’m reading it I’ll think one of them’s me anyway,” my sister-in-law warned, because she’s funny and she’s self-aware enough to know how hard it is not to see ourselves in everything.
The conversation jostled my latent social science senses awake. What would I find if I did a good old “content analysis” of my novel, chapter by chapter, looking for traces of real life?
Here’s what I found. The chapters of my book roughly fell into three categories of reality/unreality:
- Chapters almost completely ripped from real life: 7 out of 23
This proportion is smaller than I feared. These are the chapters where a few identifying features are changed, the sequence of events is streamlined, but most of the action and reaction unfold almost exactly like events from my personal and family histories.
2. Chapters I Made Up Almost Completely — Almost: 6 out of 23
Hey, there’s real fiction in here! What a relief! I was gratified when my mum’s BFF wanted to know who in our real lives a certain character from the book was and I could answer with a resounding, “He’s no one! I made him up!”
3. Chapters Made from Conglomerations of Fictional and Real Elements: 10 out of 23
Not surprisingly, this mixed category is the largest one. What’s odd about these chapters is that it’s the reality in them that strains the hardest against plausibility. If a reader ever looks up from the book and says, “Nah, I can’t buy that” he’s probably rejecting something I lifted from real life and then toned down with fiction to make it less jarring. An old lady who sleeps on a saw bench? No way. A cemetery called Butcher Hill? That’s too much. An exhumation? Get right out, that never really happens. It does. It did. As they say, I can’t make this stuff up. Maybe I don’t have the guts.
Since before I was born, it’s been a Beatles cliché that it’s hard for artists to come up with anything new. The world is old and full of people and stories. Part of the art-imitates-life problem is genuinely accidental, especially for people from large families like mine. The more people a writer knows with the intimacy of family, the more difficult it is for her to avoid treading on real life situations in her work.
For instance, I have an unpublished novel currently circulating with my agent about a group of five sisters. Not coincidentally, I am one of five sisters. When it came to writing sisterhood, a group of five was the size that made the most sense to me. I make no apologies for that. However, I started to squirm when I saw that, in order to advance the plot, I needed one of the sisters to have a professional medical background. Fine. But in my real sister-group, one of us works as a nursing instructor. Medicine is full of women and this alone could be dismissed as chance. But then the story needed one of the sisters to have a husband who’s adopted. One of my brothers-in-law fits this description. Another sister in the novel needed access to the justice system. That’s me. And the plot was going nowhere without a sister with lots of money – enter another fact from one of my sisters’ lives. I finished the novel, looked at all the parallels, and wondered what really happened. Did the plot arise first and demand all these real life details or did real life tumble around in my imagination until it formed into the plot? And was the same kind of thing happening in my published novel?
There’s a literary movement hatching out of this chicken-and-egg fiction conundrum. It questions whether recounting real life is actually a problem. It’s been called “post-fiction” and refers to writing that obscures boundaries between fiction and fact. As critic Michael H. Miller of New York Observer explains,
This writing represents a chiasmus between the real and the made-up, blurring the two into nonrecognition, confronting the reader with all those issues one is trained by the Western academy not to look for: namely, the author herself, hiding behind the words.
Recently, there’s been a spell of writers – like Sheila Heti and Tao Lin – producing novels with real people from their lives cast as characters. Those real people include themselves. Sometimes, not even the names are changed. These narratives have been called tedious by some critics. They state the obvious, deal in the mundane, they can be repetitive. Some readers dislike them. Some think they’re brilliant.
Whatever they are, they make me feel a little more confident in my own post-fiction inclinations. I’m so comfortable with it I’ve made this digital “scrapbook” where I collect images, quotations, and music that inspired or emulate my book. In true post-fiction style, I borrowed the idea from fellow writer, Rebecca Campbell. You can see it here:
Readers might be getting used to seeing the author standing in front of the lens, in the foreground. Maybe I’m cheating them if they don’t see me. And I’m hard not to recognize. Like me, the main female character in my novel is a mother of a group of sons, raising them under the influence of her solid marriage and her rather jaunty death fixation. She goes where I’ve gone and seen much of what I’ve seen. We have matching root canals in one of our teeth. We both said the same thing to our husbands when we saw they’d cut their throats shaving the morning before we married them. But even after all this, she is not really me. The very act of creating her made her different from me. She’s a story I tell.
And in the same way, regardless of any likenesses, I promise, none of the characters in my book is you.
Ever since I got my book deal last autumn, I’ve been fumbling with the inevitable, perfectly natural question of, “So what’s your book about?” Maybe I’m over-thinking it but I find this question difficult.
The first thing that makes my book hard to explain is the fact that it doesn’t fall neatly into a genre — and I’m not just saying that to try to sound cool and transcendent and stuff. If the book was about sorceresses with magic necklaces and metal undies I could say it was fantasy. If it was peopled with smoochy vampires it would be paranormal romance. If it was about stabby psychopaths I could call it a crime novel. If it prattled on about dating and shopping it would be chick-lit. But it’s none of those things. It’s kind of lovey-dovey, a bit creepy in parts. It’s a little otherworldly yet it’s realistic and earthy.
When I was still submitting the manuscript, still ticking boxes in search engines of databases listing publishers’ interests, the box that fit best was called “literary fiction.” And it’s the classification now stamped on the back cover of the book. However, it’s also a term that gets sneered at for its elitist implications. Who’s to say what’s of literary merit, and on and on and on… Still, if for no other reason than its acknowledgement that a flashy, racing story-line can come second to arty, thematic prose, literary fiction is the category that suits the novel best (she said, cringing, hoping not to sound elitist).
Another category fits simply because of my geography. It’s “Can-Lit” — Canadian literature. I am Canadian so, in some ways, I can’t help but write Canadian literature. I’ve fallen back on this description a few times. But Can-Lit has gained a character of its own over the years and when I offer it as an answer, I need to be prepared to embrace that character. I need to be able to wave my hand and believe myself when I say, “It’s CanLit — you know, bad weather and complicated relationships.”
Nothing I say is very precise or descriptive or satisfying for nice people asking about my book. So here’s a short Q&A with me about my novel. It appears in my publisher’s online literary mag, Salon .ll., and hopefully it will shed some light on what I’m writing and why someone might want to read it. Go ahead and click the link below.