Friday, November 21, 2014

Adventures in Publishing: Proof

A few weeks ago, I received a rather large packet in the mail:

My manuscript! But covered in strange markings, done in mauve pencil. This, my friends, was the copy edited copy of Still Life Las Vegas, ready for perusal.

A bit daunting at first glance, this document was nonetheless exhilarating to look at. After all, the publisher had cared enough about me and my project to pore over it and discover all the ways in which I might appear sadly ignorant of the basics tenets of English grammar. And thank God for that, I soon discovered. They were making it fit for public consumption.

The manuscript came with a SLLV style sheet, a little bible on the rules of the world of the novel, for the purpose of consistency. How did I use italics? Denote titles? Spell "Fudgsicle"? This was pretty cool to read, especially the list of proper nouns in the book. All the people and places I’d made up, written down just like they were real! 

I had no idea who some of these characters were—
Heinz Leipzig?
Onto the manuscript itself. This was my time to review all the marks and remarks left by the proof editor and decide if they were what I wanted: vet or stet (stet is a proofing term which means “Leave it as it is— I meant to transgress grammatical laws at this point.”) It was also my last chance to wipe away any wince-inducing passages, ungainly sentences, redundancies, and any other literary detritus I discovered on the way. 

Looking at all the minute edits and questions was like entering the the Merry Old Land of Oz/St. Martins, where my book was shampooed, manicured, re-stuffed, and buffed free of all errant spaces and double dashes.
Can you even change the tense to match my noun? Jolly good town!

My proofreader was listed as one Bethany Reis, with whom I felt intimately connected these past weeks. After all, she’d gone over my book more thoroughly and minutely than anyone else, including me (including I? Including myself? Bethany would know). She’d scrutinized every word, looked up every reference,
and had laid out her findings, a secret map for me in hieroglyphic code. As I went through the pages and her notes, I imagined her whispering in my ear. She would have a voice not unlike Scarlet Johansson. “Are you really sure you want to echo the word 'propelled,' as you’ve just used it in the previous paragraph?” she would ask huskily. I would brandish my purple pencil and slash out the word, scribble in “incited” instead. Magic! We twirled our way through the pages, this duet of STET’s and checkmarks. I may not have agreed with her every note, but I appreciated them all. I was lucky for her discretion; her gentle admonishments rarely made me feel like a total idiot. I’d love for her to read this post, but I’m afraid she’ll make me rewrite it. In fact, I’m sure she’d make me rewrite it. (“Did you mean to repeat the word “rewrite”? Is the repetition intentional?”)

My List of Most Oft-Used Mistakes
  • Constantly mixing up “farther” and “further.”
  • Adding the unnecessary word “of” to “off” (“He picked the bag off of  the floor.”)
  • Capitalizing the seasons (did we learn to capitalize seasons as children?)
  • Adding a “d” to “size,” as in “travel-sized.”
  • Playing fast and loose with using the Oxford comma (the final comma before “and” in a series of things).
  • Adding an “s” to the end of “upward,” “backward,” and most especially, ever and always, “toward.” 

Who knew? Bethany did. I wonder if she enjoyed the book. I wonder if you can enjoy a book you're proofing, because you're reading for such a different purpose. It might even be a conflict of interest. 

I finished reviewing the changes. It took a lot of time, but it was quite satisfying work. I added an acknowledgment page, a dedication, and shipped it off. Next up: bound galleys!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Adventures in Publishing: Please Judge My Book by Its Cover


When I first opened the email attachment that had the possible cover of "Still Life Las Vegas" in it, I gasped and slammed my computer shut. It was nothing that I expected: there was so many images, so much color, and it was oddly...


I've never met Young Lim, the designer at St. Martin's Press, but he seemed to take all the disparate ideas we had about the cover ("Could we maybe use both real images and drawn?" "Maybe an accordion on the side of the road?" "Could there be some sexy statue?"), pour them into the crucible of his own considerable talent and come up with a perfect encapsulation of what the book is all about: 

There's the graphic novel element (with the beautiful drawings by Sungyoon Choi), the whimsy, the melancholy. . . and Vegas, baby, Vegas!

I'd heard so many horror stories about authors hating their book jackets that I was prepared for the worst; it was such a gift to be presented with a prototype that looked almost exactly like this. A little tweaking, and we were good to go. Now, I don't know how much toil and back-and-forth went on in-house, but for me, it was like opening a present on Christmas day. 

It's so much more of a tangible thing now, you know? And the book's presence is starting to pop up unexpectedly online, like seedlings: a goodreads listing, and now one on Amazon! My friend Derek alerted me to the pre-order status of the book on Amazon, where I also found out that it's being released on August 11, four days earlier than I thought. Amazon settled its fight with Hachette and listed me for preorder on the same day? That Prime Membership must be kicking in!

Now, you know. . .  preorders are a way for the publisher to gauge buzz about the book, so if you have any curiosity about Still Life Las Vegas, this would be an excellent time to order it. Think of it as securing your end-of-the-summer-read now! You can strike it off your list!

Truly, though, I feel so happy. Such support and talent going on over at the Flatiron Building. I am extremely grateful. 

PS. See that photo of a balloon on the cover? I took that!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Songs in the Key of Grief

“I like a look of Agony, 
Because I know it’s true—
Men do not sham Convulsion
Nor simulate, a Throe—
The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish Strung.“ 
        Emily Dickinson

To say I was looking forward to reading Edward Hirsch’s new book Gabriel: A Poem is not quite apt, but it’s not far from the truth, either. It is, after all, an elegy to his son, who was found dead of an overdose at the age twenty-two. It is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes heartbreaking, look back at the life of a boy, from time of adoption to time of death. We watch him grow up, moment to moment, much like the movie “Boyhood,” except instead of ending with promise and possibility, we are left at a graveside. In propulsive three-line stanzas, Hirsch details a childhood gone awry, through the caprice of internal chemistry and behavioral disorders. There are moments of joy and much dark humor, but it is mostly a narrative of a troubled childhood that starts difficult and does not get easier. There is also, not surprisingly, quite a bit of tenderness. It pierces the heart. Throughout the poem are interspersed tales of other famous artists who have lost their children too soon, as if Hirsch is trying to make some sense of the death, give it some context, but in the end the universal cannot illuminate the specific. The poet is left alone to say goodbye to his singular son. 

               “I did not know the work of mourning
               Is a labor in the dark
               We carry deep inside ourselves

               Though sometimes when I sleep
               I am with him again
               And then I wake

               Poor Sisyphus grief
               I am not ready for your heaviness
               Cemented to my body

               Look closely and you will see
               Almost everyone carrying bags
               Of cement on their shoulders

               That’s why it takes courage
               To get out of bed in the morning
               And climb into the day”

               —Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: a Poem
It is beautifully written, insightful and lucid, but there are quite a few people who would not even open the book. “Why on earth would you want to go through that?” they ask. I suspect there are those reading this who feel the same. Not I. I gravitate towards the stuff. I am someone who could watch Emma Thompson die of cancer every year in “Wit.” 

Who has read, in quick succession, in hardback, the grief memoirs of both Joyce Carol Oates (A Widow’s Story), who lost her husband to a secondary infection at a hospital, and Joan Didion, who has had the great misfortune to have written two such memoirs, following the death not only of her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking) but of her daughter (Blue Nights).

I am not ghoulish. I don’t wallow in misery, exactly, but I do gravitate towards stories of loss, and grief. Those chords resonate within me. My upcoming novel, Still Life Las Vegas, is permeated with it, no matter how fantastical or whimsical the story gets. (It’s funny too! Promise!) I guess my Humor tends towards the Melancholic. I am someone who is ever waiting for the other shoe to fall, no matter how many of them have already rained down. Perhaps I read these type of books for the same reason I read travelogues: I’m going to be taking the same journey, sooner or later, and I’d like to check out the terrain. 

But it’s more than that. There is a clarity in devastation, a stark honesty that can present itself in times of loss. We are stripped of the trappings of our day-to-day and are asked to confront the deeper truths of life— its impermanence, its fragility, and its many overlooked small kindnesses. There is a strange beauty in it all, especially as refracted through the discerning eye of a skilled writer. We may not have the austere, piercing insight of Didion, or the caustic humor of Oates, or the anguished imagery of Hirsch, but in reading their words on loss, we are connected to them all, and to each other. We are all of us huddled in a cave, staring out into the impenetrable darkness, and the poet's lamentations illuminate our own coupled hands. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Am I Blue?

"It always starts with a blue Volvo, driving away." 
—Still Life Las Vegas

In some ways, my book must be a big pain in the ass for my publishers. I mean, they bought a novel, but it's not just a straight up novel. There's narrative art in it as well (the twenty-buck term for cartoons). Plus sketches. Plus color. Plus colored text. All those pluses add an expense to the printing, and for a debut novel, it takes an extra measure of faith. So, when my editor, Sara Goodman, wrote in July that she was waiting on approval for adding color, I wasn't holding my breath. 

I also took a preemptive dip into anxiety. I knew that Sungyoon Choi's amazing illustrations would certainly hold up on their own, but a POP! of color could add that much more to a reader's experience. It also served as a subtle but pervasive thematic element that wove several strands of narrative together. At least, this is the argument for color that I imagined myself giving as I threw myself on the conference room table of St. Martin's Press in a last ditch appeal for a CRUCIAL element, just as I was resigning myself to the idea of black-and-white art.

Two weeks ago Sara wrote me again. Color was in

She had just gotten approval for one other color, plus black (YAY Sara!). This color had to be derived from a single Pantone shade, not comprised of several colors together. We needed to send the colorized art files to the book's interior designer and the whole production process would begin.

The hunt for Blue was on. 

What followed was a ridiculous amount of emails propagated by me in the dark of night and hurled towards Choi, Sara and my agent, all about what shade of blue was the perfect shade of blue. Was this blue too gray? Was this blue serious enough? Didn't this one look like it came from a mimeograph machine?  (Only my agent got this reference.) And not only what shade, but where the blue was going to be used. Should this text be in blue? What was it saying if it wasn't blue? Or should it be a blue box? Could the blue of the hat match the blue of the car window?  I had a sudden appreciation for my husband's futile attempt to get me interested in the color of the dining room trim. 

Luckily, everyone humored my molehill preoccupations and gave sage, considered advice. Choi doled out color revision after color revision with the patience of a Baskin-Robbins scooper handing out samples. And the winner?:

It really is a lovely blue. And what Choi can do with one shade of blue is nothing short of miraculous.

Color does make a difference. A big difference. I am the luckiest guy in the world. Who has developed a sudden craving for panettone.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Billie Holiday, Augusten Burroughs, and Underwater Dogs: Business and Pleasure in New York

A week on the East Coast. One last hurrah before the blessed regularity of school kicks in.

Four moves in six days. Beds of varying comfort. Uniformly good showers (except the one at that hotel where the water was perpetually tepid). These are the ways older folks measure their vacations.
First stop: Rhinecliff, in upstate New York, where the Morton Library was showcasing my son Ben's photographic work. Ben has a series of underwater photos of our dog, Rowdy, who dives to the bottom of our pool in an obsessive quest for The Ball. This was Ben's first public viewing, the first time his photos have ever been by frames and red dots. The reception was a big success, well attended. As per the artist's request, Hawaiian punch and cheese puffs (both crunchy and puffy) were served. 

Could not. Be prouder.
His Auntie Sue arranged the whole event. We stayed at her beautiful home, ate from her garden and watched Swallowtail Caterpillars munching on her fennel. 

Back down to the City, where we stayed at our friends Denis & Hugo's most comfortable digs in Ft. Green, Brooklyn. I had some business of my own in Manhattan. Took the N train down to the Flatiron Building, where I had my first visit to St. Martin’s PressMy editor Sara was away on vacation (as almost everyone is in Manhattan during August) but I was warmly welcomed by her assistant, the young and impossibly refreshed-looking Alicia Adkins-Clancy, who looked as if she had just stepped from a meadow filled with daisies instead of from a tiny white office in the warren of St. Martin's in the heat of summer. 
I then enjoyed a lunch with Ivan Lett, the tall, poised Marketing Manager of “Team Still Life.” He gave me all manner of good advice (hint: it involves social media) and I left lunch armed and reassured. Did you know I now have a tumblr account? And a Facebook Author page? There's also tin cans connected by string dangling from my window so you can connect with me no matter where you are!

Ivan Lett, the man who will make me talk to people.
A quick stop to Eataly, Mario Batali’s food-court-on-steroids emporium of Italian gourmet food. It's like a Disneyland for foodies: Pastaland! Torroneville! Proscuitti of the Caribbean! I want to book a room and eat my way through every department. If you had seen the delicacies on display, you would not blame me for taking away a caprese panini even though I had JUST MOMENTS BEFORE eaten lunch. Mario must bring one to Los Angeles, we are a poorer town without one.

Lunch the next day with my agent, Christopher Schelling. It was our first meeting after more than a year of phone calls and email correspondences, and it had the possibility of becoming Momentous; luckily Mr. Schelling was as warm and friendly as his phone persona, and a good time was had by all.  He brought along Augusten Burroughs, the author ("Running with Scissors,” "Dry") with the piercing eyes and a mordant wit, whose perception of family hews close to mine own. I tried not to burble like the fanboy I am. 
I swear, I did not cripple Christopher. He came that way. 
The 9-11 Museum and Memorial: profound, and sensitively rendered. Also, intensely immersive. Fear not the commercialization and Disneyfication of the event, native New Yorkers—I think they got it right. 

Husband Doug also had a reason to be in New York: a long-awaited birthday present of seeing Audra McDonald in “Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill.” We saw it the night before we left, and spent most of the performance agape at Ms. McDonald's vocal transformation into Billie Holiday. A great capper to a whirlwind trip. 

A year 'til my book is out! The countdown begins!