Introducing my webmaster, whom I adore: Terry Bain.
How would you describe the two books you’ve published?
Well, when I think about them, I call them “the dog book” and “the cat book.” So maybe I can get everyone else to think of them this way too. So, you know, then there’s just one dog book (You Are a Dog) and one cat book (We Are the Cat) and when you’re looking for books to buy about dogs and cats (or cats and dogs) you only have those two options, you know?
But perhaps more honestly, I tried to think of the dog book as a dog “philosophy,” and the cat book as a cat “philosophy,” in a loosely-defined way. A kind of treatise, if you will, on being a dog or a cat. Not exactly a manifesto… but some kind of festo. Dogifesto? Catifesto? Yes, I am getting myself into serious trouble here in a nonsensical way. But that’s a bit of how I wrote them too. Seriously nonsensical.
So be it.
Would you tell the story of how you came to write about animals? Will we see non-animal books from you?
I don’t know exactly how it happened, except I was trying to convince some agents that they should represent my novel. A great number of the agents were replying very kindly with “this is quite good, but not quite good for me, quite.” This was becoming tedious, as you can probably imagine. So I started writing some other notions and ephemera for Sweet Fancy Moses… and they seemed to go well over there. I was doing most of them in a kind of pseudo-erudite, definitive-referenced kind of way… and one of those just happened to come to me as I was passing and heard my wife exclaim to the dog (who was in the way): “You are a dog.” My thought was… how is it that the dog defines itself? How is it that a dog thinks of itself–and the world–as a dog? It became a short piece for SFM, but I didn’t stop writing the stuff, and began to compose a query letter to the agents who had been less than mean to my novel. Jenny Bent was one of those agents, and asked to see the proposal (which I must admit I had not yet written, though I had started… and at which point I had to finish said proposal). After submitting said proposal, she enthusiastically demanded that she become my agent.
Okay, I said. Let’s do it.
And the cat? Well, I don’t think I ever really admitted to myself that I was writing a cat book until I was nearly finished. Or rather, I don’t think I admitted it to the cat, who I knew would be displeased.
What theme comes up in your writing the most?
The theme to Jaws, I think. Or Superman. Once in awhile, Star Wars. Though right now, I’m listening to a version of “Killing Me Softly” in Spanish, from the Rhythms del Mundo CD.
And if you’re talking about that other concept also known as “theme”? Most likely it’s food. Good coffee. Whatever I happen to have in my mouth at the moment.
Has your writing changed since you’ve had kids?
Also, I take myself far less seriously than I used to. I mean, I look at who I was ten years ago, and what sort of writing I was doing then, and I say to that self, “Hey, Jack. Lighten up a bit.”
This is confusing to my former self, as practically nobody has ever called me Jack. At least not to my face.
In any case, I used to think of myself as a “Literary Fiction” writer. I don’t think I could call myself that anymore with a straight face. It sounds so stuffy. Like a room in which the air has been replaced by Brillo pads and acrylic paint.
There’s nothing quite like a six-year-old girl to poke holes in a person’s inflated ego… and thank God. “My Papa’s not a famous writer. He’s just Papa.” She’s absolutely right, but I think my former self would have been offended. Bah on that guy. I’ll call him Jack whenever I like.
I’m also, perhaps strangely, much more “spiritual” of a writer now. I use the word rather carefully, and inside quotation marks, because I think it could be easily misunderstood. I was never a religious person until I had children, and I would still describe myself as a doubter, or a cynic, or a kind of Zen Christian. But even these words are likely going to be misunderstood. Fine enough. I’ll be misunderstood. Likely I’ll even misunderstand myself. And hopefully, if I’m lucky, I’ll have developed my personal theology ten minutes before I die. Too late to share it, of course… but that’s just the thing… a theology can’t truly be shared. Each person gets their own.
Okay. Have I wandered off track?
What have you learned from this business that you can pass along to others?
1. Don’t tell an agent that you have a proposal ready before you have a proposal ready. That was stupid of me. And I got lucky. I wouldn’t do it again.
2. Don’t assume that your writing will make you rich. It likely won’t. In fact, the odds are against it even making you comfortable. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for everything you can as far as attempting to make yourself comfortable, but it doesn’t help to get your nose out of joint every time the royalty check comes and it’s not quite what you expected it to be. Keep soldiering forward. It is possible to make a living at this thing. It just takes a lot of work and all those other things Ben Franklin thought were important.
3. It’s quite possible that once you land yourself a book deal, you will start to hear conflicting reports on your book, your publicity, your sales, and just about everything else that happens. Try to take it in stride. These people are under a lot of pressure to make your book successful, but the unfortunate fact of the business is that the most important people to making that happen are often underpaid and stretched too thin and simply don’t have the resources at their disposal to make it all happen. Be polite to those people, and offer help where you can. If you feel like you really need to be an asshole about something, it’s helpful to have a good agent who can be an asshole for you. They can get things done, and you still come off smelling like a rose. Or a petunia. Or some kind of attractive flower.
4. If you get to do readings, learn to read your book well. Read it out loud at home. Put some emotion into it, for crying out loud. This is your book. You are selling your book. Make it stand on its head. You are performing your book, people, hoping that someone will buy it. Why would they buy it if you speak in a monotone and never look at the audience. At the very least be quirky and interesting and fun to look at. Wear a ridiculous hat or a fluorescent shirt. Sell that book.
5. This is related to the previous point. Your book will not sell itself. There are simply too many people in the process that could make everything fall to pieces. Luckily, the most important person in that process is you. Maybe you don’t care about selling your book, but if you do, I recommend you take a “one person at a time” approach. Go into as many bookstores as you can (even if your publisher tells you not to–this is the worst advice I’ve ever been given, to not go into bookstores and meet the booksellers… bah!). Meet the booksellers and tell them about your book and see if you can sign their stock (if they have it). These are the folks on the front lines, and if they meet you and talk to you and you are kind and interesting and they remember your book, they’ll sell it. That’s what they do.
Who do you read?
I read whoever I can get my hands on and get into within three or four minutes, because I’m about to be interrupted. But right now I’m reading Jess Walter’s The Zero because he lives in Spokane and because I run into him now and then and because he was nominated for the National Book Award. Also because he signed my copy of his book “to my favorite Spokane author.” Yeah, I asked him to sign it that way. Because I thought it was funny.
Also reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Apparently there isn’t a talking lion in this book, so I’m unimpressed.
Who do you read to your kids?
Right now I’m reading Eldest to my son, by Mr. Paolini. The writing in both this book and Eragon drives me nuts, but the story itself is solid, and interesting, and it’s always more interesting when I read a book out loud. I’ve also read the entire Harry Potter series to him. Twice. And we read from Calvin & Hobbes books almost every night (I got the complete C&H for Christmas). Also Dinosaur’s Binkit and Do Hippos Hop?
The Improper, Ambush Interview, September, 2006.
My webmaster, who is most importantly my friend, is also one hell of a writer and editor.
A few years ago, he stayed here while he visited his New York agent. And when he went back to Spokane, he left a copy of the first few chapters of what would become this book:
And he wrote a note on it for my dog, Brian, who was dying at the time.
It’s a funny and tender little book you can even read to the kids because there are chapters where the dog explains why he drinks from the toilet and why he bites the vacuum cleaner.
Terry puts up with my vague but frequent ideas for fixing up my new blog. For example:
From: Susan Henderson
Subject: not the blue circle
Date: August 31, 2006 5:45:13 PM EDT
To: Terry Bain
You know when you type in a website in that blank line-thing at the very very top of the page, where the http is – you know where I’m talking about?
You know how usually there’s a little blue circle or something to the left of the http?
You know how really cool websites have a different picture there? Like Laila’s site has a little hand, and Google has a big G?
Can I get a writer or playground symbol up there? I know it’s not pressing but I really want one.
Okay, no more requests. Promise. Or, in fact, I’ll try very very hard. I hate to make promises.
From: Terry Bain
Subject: Re: not the blue circle
Date: September 1, 2006 1:48:28 PM EDT
To: Susan Henderson
I can do this, but it might be one of the last things I do.
He sounds pretty busy to me, but I love to pester him by sending emails when I know he’s trying to work.
I won’t tell him I’m interviewing him for my blog. Watch:
Just wanted to check. Have I been too difficult or demanding?
No. I, however, have been busy getting ready to leave for Flathead for the weekend.
Doesn’t that word look like you should pronounce it “flath” then “ead”… instead of “flat” then “head”.
[ . . .] Damn. It’s labor day weekend already. How did that happen?
Okay, I was going to pester you because you’re fun to pester, but Flathead Lake sounds way more fun. I’m going to plug your new book on my blog today. You can see when you get back.
WE ARE THE CAT was just released this week, and I hope you’ll pick up a copy and another for your best cat-loving friend.
Oh, woops. I just now (accidentally!!) deleted an entire file. I’ll wait till Terry’s back from vacation before I say anything. Have a great weekend, everyone! And come back Monday for your question of the week.