The Harper Perennial Lit Chick Invasion brought three authors – once strangers from Australia, Canada, and England – together for a book tour. I saw them read at New York’s KGB Bar, and I left with all three of their books, not knowing which to read first.
Want to know what they thought of each other, their Lit Chick title, and their American tour? Me, too. So welcome Emily Maguire, Heather O’Neill, and Sarah Hall!
When I was preparing for my first writers’ festival appearance a couple of years ago, I was warned that ’writers as a breed are self-obsessed’ and that ’novelists are particularly bitchy and jealous towards each other.’ Now, I had no personal experience of other writers and the advice-giver was a long-time publishing insider, but this really did not sound right to me. I mean, I was an author –albeit a shiny new untested one –and I wasn’t self-obsessed, jealous or bitchy. No more than any of the teachers, shop assistants or car mechanics I knew, anyway.
My experience at that festival and every multi-author event I’ve done since has affirmed my immediate reaction that the publishing old-timer was full of shit. The writers I’ve met have been no more unpleasant than the general population, and quite a few have been exceedingly warm and generous.
Still, when my publisher told me I’d be touring with two authors I’d never met, I was apprehensive. Not that I expected them to be the mythical self-obsessed, jealous bitches I’d been warned about, just that book tours can be crazy-making and I wasn’t sure that putting three strangers, all of whom were likely to implode by the end of the tour, together was such a great idea.
But then, I thought, the things that can make a writer lose the plot while on tour might be avoided or at least lessened by touring with other writers. I’m talking about the feeling of absolute worthlessness that comes from reading to five rows of empty chairs, the excruciating silences that follow a call for questions and – in the case of a smashingly successful event – the lack of debriefing and decompression afterwards.
It wasn’t until I was sitting (jet-lagged and disoriented after 26 hours of travelling) in a New York hotel lobby with my co-authors and a reporter that the most obvious question of all occurred to me: what the hell were we doing here? Or, in the words of the reporter: why were the three of us on tour together?
I had been so excited/anxious about being sent to the US on tour, and then so concerned/relieved at the thought of travelling with other authors that I never thought to ask why. I guess I was the only one. Without exception the people we met on the tour –bookstore owners, reporters, readers, media escorts and even cab drivers –wanted to know why we three were thrown together.
Now, the question is more complicated than it might first appear. Our publisher dubbed the tour the ’LitChick Tour’, an obvious reversal of and play on that much derided term ’chick-lit.’ This seemed fair enough. We are all young women who have written books about young women, but these books could not in any way be described as chick-lit.
Important Note: I do not use the term in a derogatory way although I’m aware many do. And, actually, after endless discussions that looped around and around and never got anywhere, I reckon that chick-lit has become a meaningless term because no one can say what it is.
Still though, it seems pretty obvious that certain books would not be considered by anyone, anywhere to fit into the many changing definitions and categories of chick-lit. Say, a book about the beauty and imagination of street-kids in Montreal’s skid-row district (Lullabies for Little Criminals). Or a lyrical, earthy, furious tale about the building of dam in 1930s Cumbria (Haweswater). Or a book about sexual violence and obsession in suburban Sydney (Taming the Beast).
So, okay we’re the non-chick-lit Lit Chicks and that’s why we were grouped together. Except, if that were the only criteria, half of the books on our publishers’ list should have been included on the tour.
It quickly became evident at our readings that there was something else we three had in common: accents. Now it would be beyond bizarre for a publisher to send authors on tour together just because their English (Sarah), Aussie (me) and Canadian (Heather) accents complimented each other, but the accent thing did highlight the fact that we were all foreigners. We had not only written about unconventional female characters but we had written about far-off (geographically, culturally or both) places.
There was also another, quite practical, commonality: our books were all debut novels released as paper-back originals within a month of each other. Obvious, then, to tour us together and attract publicity and reader attention to three new-releases at the one time.
So, over the course of two weeks of nightly readings, a handful of interviews and many airport/car/bar/hotel lobby chats these were the reasons we came up with: non-chick-lit chicks, foreign, debut paper-back originals.
And those selfish reasons I had first thought of turned out be good ones too. The inevitable soul-destroying reading at that cold suburban bookstore with a disinterested audience and a constantly churning coffee machine was slightly less horrendous thanks to Sarah’s bright, bossy taking charge of the moment. That pre-reading drink or two to calm the nerves felt social rather than medicinal, and the post-reading booze-up to commiserate/celebrate felt less pathetic when shared with others.
But the best, the most unexpected thing, about touring as a group had nothing to do with writerly anxieties and nothing to do with how much we or our work had in common. Quite the opposite, in fact: I think our audiences enjoyed the diversity of styles, voices and themes and the varied approaches we each have to our work.
Night after night as I listened to Heather and Sarah read I was struck by what incredible, and incredibly different, writers they both are. Worlds apart in terms of themes and writing styles, both books are original, poetic, tough and compassionate. I learnt from listening to them read and I learnt from hearing them answer questions about their writing process and I learnt from getting to know them over drinks and coffee and airport food.
Thanks, girls. I had a ball.
When I was fifteen, I ran away from home. I was headed first to Nevada to go to a festival, after which I intended to go live on the street in San Francisco. This seemed like an airtight plan to me. All I had to my name was a pair of jeans, my running shoes and a T-shirt. I didn’t even bring a pair of socks, but I was feeling pretty good because I was going West, wherever that was, to win my fortune. I was with my boyfriend who was twenty- two, wore police sunglasses and a fedora all the time, had black curly hair and owned a dog named Mushroom. He possessed skills like riding a ten-speed bike and smoking a joint at the same time. We were getting into his silver Camaro at a rest stop in Vermont, when a state trooper walked up and asked me if I was Heather O’Neill. As a teenager, I suffered from serious delusions of grandeur. I thought that I was famous and that everyone must have heard of me somehow. So I thought this police officer was a fan of my work, and wanted my autograph, so I said, “Why, yes, yes I am.” My boyfriend turned to me like he had just pissed his pants, and ten minutes later we found ourselves at the local jailhouse.
All this to say, I wish I had that same sort of confidence going into this book tour. It’s difficult as hell going out on a tour when your book has only been released for a matter of days. As we were travelling, the escorts and journalists complained to Emily, Sarah and I about established writers coming to town with their entourages and being difficult to handle and making absurd requests. I sighed to myself and thought, one day”¦ The only thing I insisted on is that they get me a podium so that I could hold my book down firmly. The Harper Perennial books are made on such a low grade of paper that they will lift off the podium and flutter about the bookstore like moths at the slightest breeze. I put a big rock on mine in the hotel room before I opened a window. I didn’t want it to escape.
Anyhow, I lost about ten pounds during the week leading up to the tour just by virtue of worrying insanely about rejection. I used to do readings in Montreal in my early twenties. They were mostly in bars and rock and roll type venues and the audiences were the rudest on earth. They would yell at authors to shut up and throw things on stage and they’d just keep talking and laughing, completely oblivious to the fact that someone was reading. So I quit reading for the opposite reason that the Beatles gave for ending their touring days: they simply couldn’t stand all the raucous adulation of their screaming fans. But when you write a book, reading it out loud seems to follow along, absurdly, afterwards. Even the best readings in the best venues make you feel weird about yourself. There’s something oddly disconcerting and shameless about standing in a brightly lit bookstore reading about how your underwear have superheroes and airplanes on them. The whole thing reeks of a perverse desire to be loved.
Admittedly, our audiences were, on the whole, very good and responsive and encouraging. Still, you start to feel unromantic about the whole endeavor at times. There are some other drawbacks to readings in bookstores. The audience is filled with people who’ve wandered over from the coffee shop and some are asleep before the reading even begins. In Ann Arbor we had to sign some teenagers’ papers to prove to their teacher they had actually attended a reading in order to earn their credit. In these moments, you are like a salesman from the 1950s, taking out the kitchen knives from your suitcase and showing how they can slice tomatoes expertly without squishing them. When you’re done with your presentation, you have to pack up your knives and head back to the hotel, worried about your mortgage payments, or whatever is was that salesmen worried about before the Great Death of 1000 Salesmen of 1957. That’s the way I felt some nights upon returning to my hotel room. There’s this existential down that you experience even after readings that have gone well. You burn so much adrenaline anticipating the reading and then finally performing, that you crash afterwards. You have to struggle hard to ignore the depression and self doubt that come flooding in.
Sarah and Emily have both had their books out in other countries for years and have written other novels. Although they informed me that reading never gets any easier, they had expertise in other more practical matters. I worried about signing my books with ink pens like Emily and Sarah were doing.
“Shouldn’t we be signing our books with ballpoint pens, what if the letters get wet and smudge?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sarah said. “No one reads underwater.”
It’s weird even being seen in public, because as a writer you’re always so invisible. This transparence of the physical self allows you to participate freely in exhibitionism in his highest form: penning the secrets of your soul. But at readings people come to see the actual person behind all the writing. So for those of you who missed the readings, here’s the form these novelists take: Emily Maguire looks like this Living Dead Doll that my daughter bought in New York last year, with straight black hair and a pale round face and cupid bow lips. She dresses like the doll too with cotton black dresses with striped sleeves. She has this great voice that sounds simultaneously evil and sweet, sort of like what you would imagine the Sparrow would sound like when confessing to the death of Cock Robin. Sarah Hall has big hazel eyes and wears A LOT of fancy clothes. She wears these jackets with embroidered sleeves and lovely beige high heels shoes. She dresses like we used to dress in high school when we were putting on Shakespeare plays. It’s odd to spend time with someone who’s genuinely from England. A lot of people in Canada fake having British accents that sound like wet dogs that have leapt out of the bathtub and have fallen flat on the bathroom floor. (Canada is a country filled with people who love being colonized, and who wish that our colonizers would boss us around just a little more). Sarah’s voice is subtle and kind, but commands instant respect. She has an excellent knack for throwing people out of their seats on planes so that we can sit next to each other.
My boyfriend has warned me never to talk about what I look like in writing. I love to exaggerate in that department. He used to edit my poems by putting a big strike through lines that described how good looking I was. “That’s absolutely gratuitous and ridiculous!” he’d scream. “Have you no shame?” Someone held up my book in San Francisco, examining the black and white profile shot on the back, “When was this picture taken!” he exclaimed. “1890! How can you still be alive!”
So, I finally made it to San Francisco, after all these years. There were plenty of eccentric street kids in purple platform running shoes waltzing down the streets, but I was too old to play with them now. Still, it was sweet to get there and I felt like the weight of an old dream had been lifted off my back. The weather was overwhelmingly wonderful too. I told the other girls that if they were planning to defect, the time was now. The idea was tempting as the mere thought of another winter in Montreal, where you have to put on two pairs of pants and a ski mask before leaving the house, was making me cringe. Dressing like a GI Joe storm trooper eats away at your humanity.
Signing, The Beauty Bar
I showed up at The Beauty Bar earlier than the other girls or anyone else for that matter. The door was locked, so I knocked on it for a minute before someone answered. The owner opened the door and peered out curiously at me.
“Are you one of the readers?” he asked. “No, wait, you can’t be. I was told that all the readers came from other countries.”
“Well, I’m from Canada.”
“What!” he laughed. “That’s not another country!”
The Beauty Bar had red twinkling walls and old beauty supplies like hair dryers and manicure tables pushed up against the walls.
“You should wait until ten o’clock to read,” the owner told me as we leaned against the bar, drinking. “That’s when the bar fills up with the regulars and the hard core drinkers.”
“No thanks,” I said, and then I yelled out to the others that it was time to read.
One of the most interesting parts about this tour for me was being in the company of two other writers. Usually I travel alone to readings and festivals, for years it’s been a solo enterprise, but I have always really enjoyed meeting other authors at events, especially if it’s arranged as a joint performance of some kind. When you are tugged out from behind your desk, like some wide-eyed twitching creature from a secluded crumpled-paper nest, and you’re placed in the wider literary zoo, you become acutely aware of the huge diversity within writing, but you also become aware of any potential relations. It’s always intriguing to see why arts administrators and organisers have paired you up with another author, why they think you’re a good match, and what the common or complimentary ground in your work might be.
The first thing that struck me about our tour grouping, after I’d read Lullabies For Little Criminals and Taming The Beast, was how different these debut novels are, not in calibre, both are excellent, but in style, form and content. And under our collective tour title of ’Lit-Chicks’, that to me was a really positive thing; the idea that while at first glance we were all perhaps united by gender, age and publication dates, the novels are original and versatile, and they demonstrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of trying to have female writers catalogued, labelled, and demarcated, which I think the industry and the reading public has a tendency to do, with whatever curious logic each is employing.
I think Heather, Emily and I do share literary ground. In these novels there are strong and surprising female protagonists, who challenge notions of traditional femininity, and who ultimately do their own thing, fulfill their own orthodoxy, however that manifests. It’s an almost absurd distillation of a single idea though, and an imprecise linkage to make, but if you’re positioned together, interviewed together, and you’re riding the trains, trams and planes together for two weeks, then you do have to begin to find ways of summarizing the similarities in your work for folk asking the questions. The most common shared aspect I guess is probably the general appeal of these books, the non-specified readership. They are not written for nor tailored towards a specific audience or a gender-based marketplace. Of course it’s a little odd to speak about writing on behalf of other writers, so I hope Heather and Emily will forgive any claims and generalizations I’m making here.
Far and away one of the greatest pleasures of this trip was to get to hear the work of these two authors being read out, with the confidence, grace and verve that each of their books contain. Writing takes on a new dimension when you hear it out loud. You can sit back and enjoy the show that you are also a participant in. That was the real bonus of these combined readings; as well as being required to entertain and engage a crowd with your own work, for two-thirds of the evening you are being entertained yourself. For my part I’m always amazed and intrigued by what human beings are able to produce creatively, simply with some strings of words and a few ideas. To be privy to it is baffling and wonderful. So, here were these lovely, reasonably ’normal’ girls, who it was possible to just shoot the breeze with day to day, but at night, on stage, out of their grey matter and out of their mouths, came this colour and this imaginative flair and this ability to conjure up riveting characters, original stories and whole others worlds. Wow.
I had the feeling that the audiences attending the readings really got lucky, in terms of the variety on offer at each event. And not just because of the accents. The books are set in various corners of the globe – Canada, Australia, England. The scope of subject matter is variable, formidable, and ambitious, and there was a range of tone and style. I mean it was like apples, bananas, and oranges for anyone coming along to the events. We certainly made for a mixed punnet of fruit.
It’s great to have company when you travel. I mean it’s odd to be hooked up with two strangers on the road, and then have to create a dynamic in order to best showcase your work. You worry that an anticipated or expected sense of literary holism or sorority will not come about. But it wasn’t too tough to figure things out, and I think the texts actually worked really well placed side by side. There are big advantages to having travelling colleagues. You can have a drink before a reading, or food after, take a look around a new city and comment on the wonders to behold there — glass flowers in the natural history museum at Harvard (’How in hell’s-knackers did they twirl those tendrils?’), full-moon over San Francisco (’Yep, it’s definitely bigger here, I’d say by an inch at least’), snow in Detroit (’That’s only the second time I’ve seen snow’). And you can figure out which reading passages are working well, figure out what not to obsess over, and even try and figure out the Big Literary Stuff with people who are in a similar position, and who have likely had, and are probably still having, comparable experiences within an industry that’s often as mad as a box of frogs. And, you know, stripping down to your skinnies every other day to go through airport security, well a certain kind of camaraderie develops there, I reckon.
There were some great venues for readings on the tour. I think my favourites included the KGB Bar in New York and The Beauty Bar in San Francisco. Both were slightly out of the ordinary. Both had very red walls. There’s something about red walls that does it for me –maybe it appeals to my English pub mentality or some weird Victorian parlour proclivity that I have. Occasionally you get really lucky with the acoustics in a reading room too –like at Newtonville Books, an independent on Walnut Street in Newton, MA. Next to the bookstore is a disused commandeered Firehouse, where authors are set up with a podium, and the brick walls and arches of the place really carry the voice well. The place lends itself so fantastically to oration. Even a whispered rendition of the novels could have been heard there. What a joy.
I think the success of the tour lay not only in the novelty value and the combined interest of having three Commonwealth lasses headlining together, but because of the inverse idea and result: That while women writers remain subject to groupings, pigeon-holes, and terms, and while ’chick’ and ’lit’ said in any order in the same breath carries all manner of preconceptions and problems, disservices and lop-sides, the reality is that when you actually put women writers in proximity, they are pretty damn different, unique and inspired. So, yes, there was a definite duality to the whole affair, and that was the beauty of it. There was strength in numbers, but I like to think we also proved that the richness and success of fiction, coincidentally written by women in this instance, comes from its many idiosyncratic parts. And I suppose America is a great location for such a tour, isn’t it. E pluribus unum, right?
Thanks to all three of you for being here!
Sarah Hall was born in 1974 in Cumbria, England. Her second novel, THE ELECTRIC MICHELANGELO, was a finalist for the 2004 Man Booker Prize. She divides her time between the north of England and North Carolina.
Emily Maguire was born in Canberra, Australia in 1976. She worked in various occupations and traveled extensively, before completing a Master of Arts (English) at the University of New England, Armidale. Emily now lives in Sydney’s inner-west where she divides her time between teaching English and writing non-fiction articles. TAMING THE BEAST is her first novel.
Heather O’Neill is a contributor to the radio program “This American Life,”
and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine. She lives in Montreal, Canada. This is her first novel. (And by the way, for those who didn’t hear the announcement on Monday, LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS is one of five books nominated for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads 2007!)