What Questions should people ask/What questions are overlooked?How hard is it to get published?Is it better to do books or ebooks at this point/ Where does hardback and paperback come in?
When evaluating your work before submission, I’ve always thought it’s a good idea to ask yourself if sharing it with another person feels necessary. You often hear editors talk about wanting to “feel excited by” a manuscript, but that’s because the difference between the ones you publish and the ones you don’t is that elusive X factor of eagerness to push a story onto other readers.
It is difficult to get published, but that also depends on where and what you are trying to publish. The only reliable course you can take is working as hard as you can and reading as much as you can.
We publish both print and ebook versions of our novellas, so we believe it’s best to provide both kinds. Only publishing either print or digital media would ignore a large number of good readers out there.
If you’re going to do something, do it right. Had Papou been a robot, this would have been his prime directive. He repeated it at least once a week when I was a boy and until my early 30s I never questioned it. It possessed what seemed an unassailable moral quality. Righteousness was built into it like the helical groove in a gun barrel. I owe much of whatever professional and academic success I have achieved to the earnest exactitude stressed by this advice.
I first met Laura Van Den Berg in Chicago in 2009 during the annual AWP festival where I was manning the Publishing Genius Press table, desperately trying to sell books among thousands of others trying to desperately sell their books. At that moment, the scene was bleak. But when Laura came to the table she was smart, funny, and curious about each book she picked up. She seemed to care and pay attention to my rambling about the books on the table, and watching her move from table to table, she carried this curiosity with her amongst the thousands of shoulder-shruggers and the downright exhausted. She bought three books, including my own novel, from the table. We’ve stayed in contact ever since.
Laura’s curiosity (I imagine her as someone who could find anything, say, linguine, worth dissecting to find the interesting inside it) carries over into her fiction. Her new collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, mines the lives of men and women in revealing and microscopic ways. Her stories are incredibly sleek, intelligent, and well crafted. After a week of re-reading DeLillo and Lydia Davis, I moved right into The Isle of Youth without once being consciously aware that this is an author who is still in the early stages of her career.
I emailed Laura (who was on the train from Boston to New York where she was giving a reading to promote The Isle of Youth) to discuss gender, death, editing, and to find out how her first novel is going.
THE BELIEVER: The summary for The Isle of Youth is only 140 words but I was surprised at how aggressive the sell is that this is a book about women. It “explores the lives of women mired in secrecy and deception,” and, “the reader grows attached to the marginalized young women in these stories.” The stories highlighted in the summary are about “an inscrutable marriage” and a “magician mother.” At the end you’re referred to as a “sorceress.” Do you have any thoughts or reservations about this kind of gender pigeon-holing?
LAURA VAN DEN BERG: I don’t have reservations. All the stories in Isle are narrated by women and are very much about women—in that the male characters, when they appear, tend to be more peripheral, one piece in the puzzle that these women are struggling to assemble. I think I would feel differently if the stories weren’t so women-oriented—like, why would they just focus on this one aspect when I write about other things that have nothing to do with women? But I don’t. So that focus does not feel inaccurate or unfair to me.
My publisher, FSG, actually shied away from overusing the “woman angle” in some ways. An early cover had a woman on it; it was a cool cover but very literal and for sure emphasizing gender more. My editor nixed that one pretty quickly, and we ended up with a much more enigmatic, arguably less conveniently “marketable” cover. Also: it fucking sparkles.
But while we’re on the subject: do you know what’s been driving me crazy lately? People asking why I’m not smiling in my author’s photo, or knocking the photo because I look imposing and unapproachable, as opposed to “warm.” Do people ask you why you’re not smiling in your author’s photo? Or get requests for a different photo because you don’t look friendly enough? I get different versions of this a lot. As a result, I am pretty well determined to never smile in another photo ever again.
BLVR: The story about the cover seems very typical—a designer got the pitch and thought “I’m going with a woman on the cover for this one, done.” I like the cover they decided on. I just didn’t come away from The Isle of Youth thinking “this is a book about women” rather, “this is a book about humans who are all fucked in some sense.” Out in public, or say, on the train right now, do men ever tell you to smile? And no, I’ve never been asked why I’m not smiling or asked to send a different author photo. I’m a thin, white, heterosexual man.
LVDB: It was a cool cover, but we wanted something that would evoke the book in a more comprehensive way. In a funny/nice coincidence, the designer is a friend, so I was unworried because I already knew A. I dug her work and B. if we ran into issues, we could talk it out as needed. Otherwise I might have been a little worried about a palm tree making an appearance, which I really did not want.
And that has happened occasionally: men telling me to smile in public, as though a smile is something that I owe them. But most of the time I’m walking around with my iPod going at full volume, so if anyone is saying anything to me I’m probably missing it.
“But we never talked about age, gender, or nationality. I’m convinced that if you go with quality, what you’ll get is equality. You get diversity and gender balance. I think in those years when there hasn’t been that gender diversity, someone has had their thumbs on the scales.”—Confessions of a Booker Prize judge: Stuart Kelly on reading a book a day and what really goes on behind closed doors at the Booker.
Do you ever suggest checking in on a novella submission, after the four to six months time frame has passed?
We do not. We do our best to stay true to that time frame, and usually are, but we receive quite a lot of submissions and want to give each of them due attention, so sometimes we fall a bit behind. Rest assured that your submission will be given full consideration in as timely a manner as possible.