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Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.
A few months prior to the release of my second novel, I filled out the standard Author Questionnaire listing any and all media connections who might pay attention and notable authors who might possibly deign to lend a blurb. On my author list, I included -- well, let's call her Hyanna Pedestal. I'd loved loved loved Hyanna's first novel, which had not been a NYT bestseller but had gotten rave reviews and made many regional lists, which led to a deal with a prestigious literary house for her second book, which had just been released and was getting a lot of buzz. My publisher's PR Hilde was thrilled to hear that I had a tenuous six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon sort of connection to Hyanna, who could in theory be listed as "bestselling author of Hungaunga Hungadunga" on the back of my forthcoming tome if she was willing to blurb it. I'd even chatted with her at a Book Expo party, though I was certain she wouldn't remember. An email was sent, reminding Hyanna of the party, mentioning the connecting thread, yodeling how great my book was, and offering a bound galley for her review.
"Sure, I'll read her book," the quick reply began, "if she'll come to my house and do my laundry for a week." The note went on to say (with a distinctly irritated edge) that she was "constantly inundated with requests from shirt-tail acquaintances" and didn't have time to read all the books she actually wanted to read, much less the ones (like mine, apparently) that didn't interest her. I felt about two inches tall. How could I have imagined it would be appropriate to set my puny peepings at the feet of this great author? I asked the PR Hilde if I should send a note apologizing for bothering her.
"Screw that," she scoffed. "Everybody asks everybody. That's how it works. You ask two dozen people and hope maybe three will respond. If she doesn't have time, that's fine, but to go all 'Don't you know who I think I am?' and snap my head off -- no. That's not the way we do. If she ever comes around asking one of my authors for a blurb, she can suck my dick."
Flash forward several years. World turns, Jell-O is set, potholes stepped in, hills and valleys traversed, so on, so forth. One day last year, I opened my email and was surprised to find a note from Hyanna Pedestal's PR Hilde, asking if I'd be willing to read and blurb Hyanna's forthcoming tome. She mentioned our tenuous connection, reminded me that I'd chatted with Hyanna at a BookExpo party once, though I probably wouldn't remember.
Several possible replies horse-raced through my head, and I won't lie -- "suck my dick" had the inside edge for a moment. I noted that Hyanna had migrated from the prestigious literary house that had picked up her second novel to a mid-level mainstream publisher. Several silent years had passed between her last book and this one. Well familiar with the vagaries of the publishing industry with all it's slings and arrows, I felt a rush of compassion. I was also stricken (for the thousandth time in my career) with what a small world publishing is, and I cringed at the thought of my own interpersonal missteps, of which there have been plenty.
I clicked "reply" and said of course I remembered Hyanna and thought she was a wonderful writer, and sure, send over the galley, I'd be happy to give it a read. In truth, I was bombastically over-extended at the time (as I am at pretty much any given moment -- that's how I roll) so I knew I'd be able to at best skim Hyanna's novel, but since I'd loved her first book, I could offer a blurb, declaring in all honesty what I admire about her writing.
Now, for some folks, this makes me Miss Congeniality, and for others, it makes me a big weenie push-over. I'm neither. I'm a hardworking writer who values the work of other hardworking writers. I want to see the cosmic body literati grow and be healthy, so if I have a chance to talk up good books -- particularly books by smart, talented women authors -- heck, yes, I'll do it. At the top of this blog, there's a mission statement that says we seek to encourage emerging authors and support books and authors we love. On a more pragmatic level, relationships are important in this biz; that particular PR Hilde has been terrific to me in the past. I'm happy to help her out if she asks.
Please understand that I'm not sharing this story to tweak Hyanna's nose. It sounds to me like she doesn't remember my ancient blurb request so she won't even know this is about her, but if she does recognize herself here, I hope she'll know that it's cool. Truth is, back when I thought she was a rock star, I was completely deluded about what a writing career is like. I thought once you had that golden ticket (book contract) in hand, well, you're in like Flynn, baby. You were on the side with the door handle and could open the magic portal for whomever you deemed worthy. I genuinely thought that this "famous" (Lord, how that word has been redefined for me!) author would read my small press paperback, get on the horn to her editor at Mega Mega Big Whoop in NYC, and I'd have an in, right?
It's disingenuous to say we're all in the same boat. At that time, she was on a commuter ferry and I was in a dingy. Now she's in a canoe and paddling hard; I'm on a fishing pontoon, but could fall overboard at any moment. Stephen King blows by on his aircraft carrier. To someone swimming in the slush pile, they all look like Carnival cruise ships. There's this idea that someone can toss you a line and pull you aboard, but that's just not how it works.
There are many lessons one might extrapolate from this tale of fantastical reversal, and some of it is nuts and bolts knowledge that may apply to your career. Tune in tomorrow; I'll post a bit about the etiquette of working one's connections. Meanwhile, perhaps the bottom line is that in this industry, as in life in general, there are two great misconceptions we must never fall prey to: One is thinking that you're somebody. The other is thinking that you're nobody.