The Bookshop is Open

If you spend any time on book Twitter, you may have noticed a recent upswing in chatter about Bookshop.org, “an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores.” Here’s just one of many recent articles on the Bookshop phenomenon, and how this scrappy little website found an unexpected toehold during coronavirus. You can find a more in-depth profile of the project here.

This is such an encouraging development for the publishing industry, and it’s so heartening to see the reading community embrace an alternative to Amazon which puts books and the people who love them first. If you need something new to read during quarantine, I hope you’ll consider buying directly from your local bookstores or from Bookshop (which has made it possible for many local bookshops to stay in business by taking over distribution during social distancing).

If you’re not sure what you want to read next, you can find a few recommended reading lists on my Bookshop affiliate page. (I’m hoping to make more in the next few weeks so if you have any suggestions for lists you’d like to see, please send them my way.) Using Bookshop affiliate links also pays their author-owners an additional 10% with each sale, so by using an affiliate link, you’re not only supporting independent bookstores broadly, but supporting individual artists directly!

From just one artist, thank you–and happy reading.

Xx M

It Takes a Village to Write a Book

Writing is, in many ways, a solitary activity. Unlike music or dance or acting and other forms of art which necessitate collaboration, most writers work alone. The people and places and plots you create as a writer have to live in your head for a long time before anybody else can encounter them, and before they do there are many long days and nights spent putting one word in front of another in what often feels like a futile attempt to translate these vivid but intimate imaginings into prose. Easier said than done (and it wasn’t even that easy to say; I rewrote that sentence ten times).

I touched on this in a previous post, but living so much in your own head can make you feel (1) isolated, (2) like most of your friends are imaginary, and (3) stone cold crazy. Writing is a strange job. There’s a reason writers tend to be strange people. But the stereotype of the isolated, tortured artistic genius does more harm than good in the long run, from tricking would-be writers into relying on divine inspiration rather than revision to treating substance abuse as a key to creativity. It also conveniently forgets the fact that few writers could function without the support of other people.

If you flip to the back of any given book, you’ll likely find a list of names in the author’s “Acknowledgments” which includes publishing personnel like agents and editors as well as friends and family and sometimes other folks like fact-checkers and beta readers who test-drove the text before it went to press. Occasionally you’ll even find a “Select Bibliography” if it’s a work of non-fiction or something else requiring a lot of research. However, in my experience there are a lot of other people who contribute to the writing of a book whose names you don’t often see, and who may not even be aware of their own contribution.

The coronavirus pandemic has gotten me thinking a lot about those people. Unless you live under a rock, over the last few weeks you’ve probably watched a lot of local businesses close their doors, either due to state lockdowns or simply because the sudden drop in business made it impossible for them to keep up with operating costs. Many of these closures feel personal, not only because I miss my old haunts, but because the loss of them has highlighted just how important they are to my writing process. So in a fit of mixed sadness and gratitude and determination to do something to make this whole situation suck less, I spent last week throwing every dollar I could spare at the small businesses which have helped me write for the last five years. Helping helps me not feel helpless, even if it is in such a limited capacity.

On the off chance you would like to do the same, I’ve written the following list of local businesses without whom my writing would not happen; chances are you have hometown equivalents who need help just as badly, and I hope you’ll consider buying or donating there. This is a very small attempt to pay it back, pay it forward, and call attention to the unsung heroes of the creative process.

  1. Independent bookstores. By now you surely don’t need me to explain how corporate leviathans like Amazon hurt the book business. But since Amazon announced it’s de-prioritizing book sales for the duration, you really have nothing to lose and everything to gain by buying from an indie, and many of them have been working hard to move their operations online. A few of my favorites in DC are East City Books, who hosted my paperback launch, Kramerbooks, whose employees have talked up my book on social media, Capitol Hill Books, whose Twitter feed alone is worth a $20 book buy, and Loyalty Books, whose new location in downtown Silver Spring did not get the opening quarter it deserved. Another beloved bookstore of mine is Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, who hosted the biggest event of my very small book tour, and kept me knee-deep in good reads while I was a student at UNC and working on the first draft of Villains. Besides all that, any writer will tell you that there is no writing without reading. I owe these establishments a lot. Chances are you have indie bookstores nearby who would love to deliver or ship your next read right to your door. Not sure? Check their websites or try Bookshop and IndieBound. Bonus tip: many bookstores carry a lot of things besides books which might be handy to have around while sheltering-in-place, like puzzles and board games or three famed portraits of David Bowie.
  2. Independent record stores and labels. I don’t have a TV but I have 800 records in my living room and music has always been one of the most important ingredients in my writing process. Musicians have been suffering for a long time due to streaming services’ shameful refusal to adequately compensate them for their work. (If you’re interested in facts and figures, check out this article by Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski, from all the way back in 2012. This has been a problem for a while. Krukowski’s book, The New Analog, would also be a great read in the time of covid-19.) With concerts cancelled and brick-and-mortar record stores shutting their doors, musicians–particularly the ones who weren’t selling out stadium tours back when that was a thing we could still do–need album sales now more than ever. I know it’s old-fashioned, but what better way to revive the tradition of the listening party than by supporting the artists who made the soundtrack for your quarantine and the record stores fighting to keep the music industry focused on the music? My favorite local spot is the Record Exchange, but you probably have record store near you, too, and they’re probably willing to ship! Not sure? You can use the Vinyl District’s record locator app to find one. No turntable at your place? No problem. Most record stores also stock CDs, books, movies, video games, and more.
  3. Bars and restaurants. I’ve literally never written a book that didn’t feature a bar. Drunk drama fueled so much of Villains that I sometimes feel a portion of my royalties (if I ever make any) should go the good people who put up with me and all my actor friends while I was working on the book. The next best thing is donating to support the staff of my beloved college bar, Linda’s, where I spent many good nights and a few bad ones, read books and wrote scenes and staged plays and drowned my sorrows when writing wasn’t going my way. If you’re lucky, some of your favorite local haunts may have adapted for delivery. (If you’re in the DMV, I would highly recommend throwing a few dollars at Quarry House Tavern, whose Whiskey Wednesday specials have gotten me through some tough times, and whose burgers might be some of the best in the region.) If you do order delivery, please tip well! Food service workers live on tips and they’re not making many right now.
  4. Performance companies and venues. Guess who’s not making money right now? Artists whose art requires an audience. Unsurprisingly, live theatre is a big part of my creative process. Many theatres who have closed their doors are now wondering how they’re going to keep their actors, directors, designers, and other staff on the payroll, and it’s that much harder to do when everybody and their mom is asking for refunds for cancelled events. If you can, consider donating the price of your tickets or anything else you can spare to the people who put on shows for you when we’re not all staying home. Consider paying a little more than you normally might to stream new movies or watch the live performances theatres all over the world are putting up online. The livelihoods of the people who made them–and their ability to make art–are probably more precarious than ever before.
  5. Animal shelters. If you’ve been following me on any social media platform for any length of time, you have probably seen pictures of my dog, Marlowe. I adopted him from Operation Kindness, a no-kill Dallas shelter, in 2017. Since then his presence in my house and my life has done a lot to keep me off the ledge. Many animals shelters operate with very narrow margins, and chances are they’ll take any help they can get right now. And if you wanted to take a step beyond a monetary donation, there’s no better time to bring a pet who needs a home into your life. You don’t need to distance yourself from dogs or cats, and when are you next going to be home all day every day to help introduce a new pet? Don’t make any snap decisions, but if you’ve been looking for a sign from the universe that now’s the time to rescue your new best friend, consider this it.

Writing may be a solitary activity much of the time, but that doesn’t mean it happens in a vacuum. All art, I would argue, is collaborative: it is influenced and inspired and supported by so many different people in so many different ways that listing a few names under “Acknowledgements” feels insufficient. These are just a few examples of the people who have helped me make art. Apart from directly supporting artists in times of crisis, one way to support the creators you care about is to contribute to the institutions in your community which foster creativity. It may not seem like a lot, but in a time like this every little bit helps–and if enough people do a little bit, the little bits add up to something much bigger.

Stay safe, stay well, stay home, stay hopeful, and stay engaged with the people and places that enrich the life of your community if you want to see them on the other side.

M

Kurt Vonnegut, Coronavirus, and the Reasons We Write

This week we learned that UMD, the university where we work, is prohibiting all non-essential travel for the next 60 days. Sensible, given the circumstances. But we also learned that they’re not going to reimburse anyone who’s already paid for the travel they approved and then prohibited. If you’re a tenured professor, that might not matter much to you. But if you’re in a grad student or contingent tax bracket, $800 is an awful lot to lose. (Most grad students here make about $20k a year. The cost of living in the DMV can be 40% more than the national average. I teach English for a reason, so I’ll let you do the math.)

While all this is happening on the East Coast, on the West Coast graduate students at UC Santa Cruz have been on a wildcat strike for a cost-of-living adjustment. The university’s response to their demands for fairer wages was to fire 80 of them. (You can learn more–and lend some support–here.) But as Rebekkah Dilts and Dylan Davis put it in the Washington Post article linked above,

…the exploitation of graduate-student labor is endemic to higher education. We teach for poverty-level wages only to enter a dismal job market: Some 60 percent of university teaching jobs are off the tenure track, meaning they are typically part-time and lack benefits — yet still highly competitive. That’s why innumerable adjuncts are fighting here, too.

The reality for many graduate students is that they will spend five or more years struggling to make ends meet, and when they graduate their odds of landing a job with a greater degree of security are, in a word, long. So the cancellation, without reimbursement, of conference travel not only means that we’re losing money we desperately need, but that we’re also losing a professionalization opportunity we need just as badly for our CVs. Insult, meet injury.

If you’ve heard absolutely nothing about this, don’t feel bad. It’s a niche concern in the greater scheme of things. But you probably have heard similar stories from different sectors about the coronavirus outbreak and how it’s creating new problems and compounding others which already existed (not to mention disproportionately affecting people at the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain). Between the pandemic, the never-ending 2020 election nightmare, regular mass shootings, a permanent state of constitutional crisis, and the ever-present threat of ecological collapse, it’s starting to feel like The End is indeed Nigh. Personally I’ve been flirting with a nervous breakdown for the entire month of March. However, there are two small fibers of optimism (fiber-optimism?) which have kept my last thread of sanity from snapping, and they both have to do with writing.

As you can probably imagine, Book Twitter is a bit of a mess right now. While some are lamenting the financial impact of cancelled book tours on indie and midlist authors who can’t afford to lose that publicity, others are drawing attention to the ugly irony of the publishing industry insisting that remote work is impossible and then proving the opposite by telling everyone who can afford to live and work in New York to go ahead and work from home. Really, right now you’re just better off avoiding Twitter like, uh, the plague. Or touching your face.

Still, in the midst of this madness I’ve seen quite a few writers step up to offer tips and tricks and resources for staying sane and staying on task while working from home–something most of us have a lot of experience with. (My tip: buy yourself a big dishwasher-safe water bottle and keep it in reach at all times. Hydration is easy and improves your quality of life in a lot of ways.) It may not sound like much, but for someone who’s never had to manage their own time in their own space when the kids and the neighbors and the dogs and 25 household chores are all vying for their attention, it might just be a lifesaver. It’s reassuring to see people offering what little they can in a time of crisis. And it doesn’t surprise me that this is an impulse many writers seem to share.

pity the readerThis week I also happen to be reading a book devoted to Kurt Vonnegut’s wisdom on the craft of writing, compiled by his onetime student and longtime friend Suzanne McConnell. It’s an anecdotal, idiosyncratic book likely to appeal to people who enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s anecdotal, idiosyncratic style. My favorite nugget of wisdom so far appears in surprisingly early chapters–seven to twelve, to be exact. They’re short, like most of Vonnegut’s own chapters, and, like most of Vonnegut’s work, they prove that length is not necessarily proportional to importance, as these things go.

The overarching thread of these four chapters is what the point of writing (and art more broadly) is. It’s perhaps best summed up by the title of Chapter 12: “Agents of Change.” In Vonnegut’s philosophy, the prime mover of the artist is care. When asked in an interview after the runaway success of Slaughterhouse-Five, “Why do you write?” he answered,

My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve…. Writers are specialized cells in the social organism. They are evolutionary cells. Mankind is trying to become something else; it’s experimenting with new ideas all the time. And writers are a means of introducing new ideas into the society, and also a means of responding symbolically to life…

…We’re expressions of the entire society… And when a society is in great danger, we’re likely to sound the alarms. I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts.

McConnell goes on to quote a different interview:

I would not be interested in writing if I didn’t feel that what I wrote was an act of good citizenship or an attempt, at any rate, to be a good citizen. What brought my ancestors over here from Germany was not oppression over there, but simply the attractiveness of the United States Constitution, and the dream of brotherhood here. And also plenty of land. They were attracted materially too. I was raised to be bughouse about the Constitution, and to be very excited about the United States of America as a Utopia. It still seems utterly workable to me and I keep thinking of ways to fix it, to see what the hell went wrong, to see if we can get the thing to really run right.

Vonnegut undoubtedly succeeded, if not in achieving an American Utopia, then certainly in inspiring his readers to become Agents of Change. McConnell mentions one who followed his example by majoring in anthropology and then went on to work in international conflict resolution, helping to provide shelter and safety for people displaced by civil wars, borders disputes, and natural disasters. But this is also true on a much smaller scale.

Last semester I had the happy accident of teaching a class on 20th century science fiction. As an early modernist, this was way out of my wheelhouse and a result of the usual vicissitudes of course assignments at a large university. However, because I’d been working on a book set in the age of New Wave sci fi for the better part of two years, I’d been reading a lot classics in the genre and felt up to the task. Cat’s Cradle was one of the first things I put on the syllabus.

catscradleI knew it would provoke interesting conversation, but I didn’t fully consider the impact it would have on a group of students who (mostly) hadn’t encountered Vonnegut before. Being (mostly) STEM majors, many of them had never even taken a literature class, and signed up for this one because it seemed like the least painful way to satisfy their (meager) humanities requirements. Many of them freely admitted that it had been years since they read a book. Just as many told me, when the semester drew to a close, that they wanted to read more. This is the best outcome you can ask for as an English teacher.

Much of what I know about being an Agent of Change I learned from Vonnegut. The same might also be said of those 24 students. Cat’s Cradle not only introduced them to a bizarre and darkly funny genre (our first day of discussion was more an hour-long collective outburst of confusion and delight) but also forced them to confront some big questions they’d never considered. For instance: When does a tool become a weapon? Does it depend on the intention of the creator, or the tool’s potential use? A shovel is a weapon in the wrong hands, but we don’t place the blame for murder by trowel on the man who made the trowel. Should the same ethics apply to something like ice-nine? The science that enables biological warfare? The atomic bomb? What are scientists’ ethical responsibilities to the world they live in? How would the world be different if we considered all the possibilities of new technology–not only the desired outcome and intended use?

When I first posed these questions, nobody answered. Usually, silence is last thing you want in the classroom. Usually, it means they’re bored, or not paying attention. But not always–sometimes it means they’re thinking. 

This is only one example of the the Big Questions Vonnegut got my students thinking about. It might not seem like much, but knowing how bright they are and what else they’re learning, I’m not so sure that’s true. What of Vonnegut’s reader who went on to save lives around the world? Last semester a class of 24 had a strange encounter with Cat’s Cradle and, hopefully, they’ll take the lessons they learned with them into their careers in chemistry and biology and engineering. If our later conversations about Jurassic Park were any indication, in a few short weeks their awareness of the importance of ethics in scientific inquiry had already been raised. I didn’t need to ask these kinds of questions anymore: they asked them on their own. Thanks to Kurt, they know that none of the work they’ll do after the classroom will be uncomplicated or apolitical–and if they take that knowledge with them into the workforce, the ripple effect could be significant. That’s change, baby.

Now imagine the same thing, but multiply by the millions of people who have read Cat’s Cradle outside my class. The potential impact of a work of literature is huge. That is, make no mistake, a huge responsibility. Thank God Kurt Vonnegut had a conscience as well as a sense of humor and wove the two together so wonderfully. Of course, none of the rest of us inkslingers are ever going to be Kurt Vonnegut. But we may as well do our best to make him proud by making art that really matters. This is not to say that every work of fiction needs to be a social crusade. It’s simply to reiterate what Vonnegut said already: we write because we care.

Here’s the added bonus: your writing is going to be a lot better when you write about stuff you care about, whether it’s graduate students on strike or nuclear war or just the strange experience of a young Shakespearean actor (hi). Art is how we process things–as creators and consumers. Stories are how we make sense of the world.

Even more importantly, literature is a bridge to empathy. Really–we’ve got the science to prove it. “Controlled experiments,” McConnell writes, “prove Vonnegut right on this most important count:

Our brains do know reading is good for us. Especially literary fiction. That’s what the scientific journals NeuroImage, Brain and Language, and the Annual Review of Psychology report.

One study found that ‘after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.’ Literary fiction improves social skills. Why? Because it leaves more to the imagination, activating inferences about characters and sensitivity ‘to emotional nuance and complexity.’

Researchers discovered other particulars.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

Fiction–with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions–offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality…: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.*

(153)

Not such small potatoes after all. In a time when our political leaders are refusing to take the necessary measures to keep people safe and refusing to take responsibility for the gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, and when the situation is being exacerbated by individuals who are hoarding supplies they don’t need which won’t reach the people who do need them or putting others at risk by not taking appropriate precautions, it sure seems like we could all use a little empathy.

So this is why we write. And this is, I think, what’s going to keep us writing even though the world feels like it’s on fire. We’re going to keep writing because the world is on fire, because literature literally makes us better people, and because better people are more likely to help put fires out. Sitting down to type or even just to read might seem useless and futile when disease is spreading and people are dying, but just because you’re a writer or a reader instead of an epidemiologist doesn’t mean that what you’re doing doesn’t matter. Write on.

M


*From Annie Murphy Paul’s piece “Your Brain on Fiction,” published in the New York Times on March 17, 2012.