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The Shape of a Book

ImageThere are a lot of ways to write a book.  My shelves are filled with other people’s theories and lists.  There are a lot of good ideas in there, but they are other writers’ good ideas.  There is only one way to write a book – your way.  And each book has its own form, its own ideas, its own shape.  Today found me with the scissors and the Sharpies out, chopping apart my draft into chunks that I could hold, that I could see.  This is a big story.  Cutting it apart reminds me that I am in control of how the chunks work together, how the strands of story push and pull.  This pile of paper on the floor lets me see the shape of this second book, as well as what’s missing.

There is a cork board feature in my beloved Scrivener, but even I realise that a computer programme can’t do everything.  Sometimes, you have to get down on the floor on your hands and knees.

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A Dinner in LA

Or, to be more precise – A Dinner in Santa Monica – for LA is a mighty big place. I know it, as it’s my old home town and I’m grateful for every mile or rush hour minute spent to come to the final pre-sale book tour dinner at the very glam Ivy at the Shore. We gathered, booksellers from every corner of Southern California, fixed on food and intent on good book chat. In a private beach front and rose-bedecked room, conversations began with the nature of cults and swiftly moved through every theme of the book, dark and light: the charisma of religious leaders and how and why they lose their way; the responsibilities of mothers and whether it is ever acceptable to abandon a child; the mechanics and politics of polygamy; whether children are culpable for their behaviour; how utopian faiths give way to greed and ego and collapse, inevitably, pulling their faithful down.

There were personal stories about faith and scepticism, belief and disbelief. How is it possible, one bookseller asked, for anyone to seek, let alone believe in, the kinds of absolutes on offer from Zachariah, from the cult he grew? I am humbled by how readers’ real lives meet the lives of the characters in this book. There were sympathies for some characters, but less sympathy for Amaranth, the woman at the centre of the book, who left a world that had let her down and then let her daughters down, cloistering them from the world. As one bookseller said, “When you have a child, all bets are off.” Perhaps that is what I am exploring here, questioning and challenging all the assumptions we make about mothers and daughters, of how families are made and lost.

We also had some fantastic conversations about America’s place in the world: America’s youth vs. European world-weariness, America’s endless enthusiasm for reinvention of self, of place, of faith. America is a place that has never been invaded or conquered by outsiders (and has, indeed, often been the ‘conqueror’) a nation that has never had to compromise. We spoke of how America’s roots in religious radicalism have led to both fanaticism and utopian idealism, impulses that have led to these bright places of hope, these dark places of fear. It was a big and bold book chat, and I am so grateful for the thoughts and ideas so freely shared by all. Thank you to Hachette California sales rep Tom McIntyre for a lovely evening! And to Little, Brown for a lovely, lovely tour.

And here is a heartfelt thank you to these magnificent (mostly) independent booksellers of LA and Southern California! Three cheers for books!
Barnes & Noble
Book Soup
Chaucer’s Bookstore
Diesel, A Bookstore
Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore
Pages: A Bookstore
Skylight Books
Vroman’s Bookstore
Warwick’s Books

A Dinner in Seattle

The penultimate pre-sale book tour dinner arrived with the drizzle in Seattle. Upstairs in the Dickensian Tulio, there were coat hooks and the odd umbrella. Soon, the room filled with booksellers, librarians, venue programmers and writers – great readers, all. The chat came fast and easy – everyone knew everyone and they welcomed me as they would an old friend. It was, of course, Amity & Sorrow who were their old friends, but how lovely it is when some of that love rubs off on the writer. How thrilling it is, truly, when readers take characters to their hearts, able to speak about them as people – as the people they are for me. The readers of Seattle made the book feel so real – for them and for me. It is a feeling I will never forget.

From the start there was conflicting support for the characters, alongside discussions of their relationships and how the six primary characters of the book – the three women, the three men they find in Oklahoma – fit together in the story. There was quite a lot of love for Amity and for Amaranth, individually: poor Sorrow didn’t get a look in. Perhaps only I am left to love her. There was also a lot of affection for both Dust and the old man, which would greatly please both of them – even if they would each begrudge it of the other.

Perhaps unsurprising in a room filled with women, talk often centred on gender politics and the choices women make and have made to survive. For there are questions about the choices that Amaranth makes in the book, of course, of how much anyone can “save” anyone. The actions and choices of all the female characters, both daughters and all 50 wives (with particular love for Hope), were utmost on minds and in questions. There were also free-range discussions about local history and of the West and the Dust Bowl, how “true stories” merge with fiction, as well as lots of time to talk about writing process with other writers in the room. Throughout, there were discussions about the ending of the book, its tone and violence and the effect of a good editor, but I won’t discuss it: no spoilers here!

Thank you to Mike Heuer for his hospitality, to Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing Heather Fain for her care and keen eye, and, as ever, to Little, Brown and Hachette. I have lost count of how many booksellers and librarians have praised Little, Brown for their publishing, their great events with booksellers and book lovers, and for their author care. I could not agree more.

With grateful thanks to these fine booksellers of Seattle:
Liberty Bay Books
Secret Garden Bookshop
Third Place Books
University Book Store
Thank you to local distributers:
Partners West
And, a big thank you to librarians and venues:
King County Library
Seattle Public Library
Town Hall Seattle

A Dinner in San Francisco

I didn’t see much of San Francisco, despite all the great ideas offered up by Twitter friends, but what I did see I certainly liked. And that was, of course, because I was seeing booksellers – a room full of them at a long table in the swish private dining room of Absinthe. Neither traffic nor flu can keep a good bookseller down!

It was lovely to be back in my home state. After the warmest of hellos (and a big howdy from Twitter pal and fantastic blogger, Nick) we were straight in to Amity & Sorrow, with a spirited conversation about our shared California stories, particularly the rich history of California cults that have so influenced the creation of the dark faith at the heart of my novel. Zachariah’s faith, a fundamentalist, polygamous one made of his fifty wives, was created from scratch, in the great tradition of handmade American faiths, as well as drawn from my own 70s childhood, its darknesses and fears, of Charles Manson’s Family of shell-shocked hippies and the Reverend Jim Jones’ tragic Eden in the jungles of Guyana, of serial killers and child snatchers in this heaven-on-earth, this Golden State.

It was amazing to hear all these California perspectives on the doomed faiths I remember, the remnants of which are still found in San Francisco, a city where runaways still come in search of freedom and enlightenment, and are easy prey for charismatic leaders and their promises of salvation. As one bookseller quoted from a recent book on Jonestown, “No one joins a cult”. No, people join faiths to belong to something, convinced they can make new Edens and new families, even as every attempt ends in disaster. Our state’s, our nation’s history is filled with it, this awful hope.

But I won’t have you thinking it was a whole evening of massacres and horror. There was a lot of laughter (and quite a lot of gossip), as well as more detailed and technical conversations on structure in writing, how stories evolve, and my own transition from playwriting to fiction and where the two forms meet. I’d like to thank last night’s booksellers for their precision and enthusiasm, their passion for books, their time and attention. I do so hope we’ll have more opportunities for chats in the future! Many thanks to area sales rep Tom McIntyre for his hospitality, and to Little Brown and Hachette for organising these marvellous evenings that are all about books.

San Francisco and the Bay Area are chock-full of fantastic independent bookshops. On your next visit, do visit one of these fine stores – or find them online!
Books Inc.
Book Passage
The Booksmith
Copperfield’s Books
Kepler’s Books
And grateful thanks, also, to Pacifica Radio station KPFA for joining in on the fun!

A Dinner in Houston

After wearing Chicago’s cloak of snow, Houston wrapped its warm, sticky arms around me and pulled me close. A day off found me in the oak-sheltered museums around the glitzy Hotel ZaZa, where one is encouraged to wander down the hallway for tea of a morning, in one’s bathrobe. I’d still be in that bathrobe, if I didn’t think the pilot would mind.

Come Monday, a rare treat – time to visit three of the shops whose booksellers were coming to dinner! Brazos and Murder By the Book are just about across the street from one another, while River Oaks Bookstore is in the nearby and genteel neighbourhood of Wertheimer.
Brazos is an independent fiction reader’s dream – though they also stock a fine selection of art books, cookbooks, a children’s room, what have you, with excellent selection and layout. I told myself I would keep my hands in my pockets – my suitcase is filling up – but I was unable to resist the hand selling; another book went into my bag. Murder By the Books is so well stocked, with attention paid to writers’ backlists – essential in a mystery bookshop, especially where series are involved – and even import them from Britain when necessary. A visual delight with great pictures, posters, and memorabilia everywhere you turn; a warm mystery bookshop at the heart of their community. A short drive brought us to River Oaks Bookstore, where I was much taken with the hospitality and gracious welcome: platters of cookies, offers of tea or wine. Even a decanter of sherry awaits their customers, great readers all, encouraged to sit a spell and talk about recent reads, or to tuck into the piles of beautiful books all about them. Many thanks to Juan for a special little gift of a local book, published from a gas station, safe in my suitcase for a read once home.

The bookseller dinner was at Ouisie’s Table, tucked away in a secret little wine cellar, small enough to keep us all together in one great conversation. As ever, the booksellers had taken the time to read the ARC and had come prepared, armed with their thoughts, their questions and comments. Talk on faith and cults led to talks on the West, apt in Texas, where local knowledge put the book through its paces. In a place where so many have a relationship with Oklahoma and the Panhandle, it was a privilege to swap stories. When Danielle said she thought I’d ‘got the Panhandle just right’ my Angeleno heart soared. I even passed muster with Oklahoma-born sales rep, Ken Graham. Thanks for your hospitality, Ken! It was a great night.

If you’re in Houston, you are so well served by bookstores – more than the three I was able to stop by. If you’re not in Houston, do plan a visit – or find these great shops on-line – or on Twitter. Houston is the most switched-on city yet. And if that sounds like a gauntlet being thrown, you may be right.
Grateful thanks to the mighty bookshops of Houston!
Blue Willow Bookshop
Brazos Bookstore, Inc.
Katy Budget Books
Murder by the Book
River Oaks Bookstore

A Dinner in Chicago

Chicago’s winter takes no prisoners. It is cold here. Too cold to snow. And yet, a lovely upstairs room at MK quickly filled up with intrepid booksellers, out on a cold, cold night. Fortunately, they agreed with me that it was, indeed, cold. I tried not to whimper. The room was warm and the booksellers warmer. Again, I am struck by the openness and willingness of booksellers to engage with stories, to take books to their hearts. Yes, of course, their businesses are books, but these are the very best of readers, the people you want when you’re looking for a good read. And how lucky I am that we had gathered to discuss my book, Amity & Sorrow.

These booksellers engaged with the book on a number of personal levels and the conversations were quiet, intimate, intense. It is thrilling that each city is so separate, so in and of itself. There is a universality of the passion one must have to sell a book, of course, and then there is the specificity to each shop, each town, each city. I am heartened that different kinds of readers can find different ways to read the same book, different paths through it to follow, different strands to push and pull. The dinner in Chicago felt completely different to the other two, and that is the strength of a tour of this kind. It is a reminder that each reading and reaction will be different and individual, and rightly so. It is up to each reader to decide which character or which element of story they will follow most closely. Or, perhaps it is not even a choice. Perhaps we really read with our hearts.

I am grateful to the many booksellers and local journalists who came out of the cold and into the warmth of our dinner and book chat. Many thanks to sales rep, Steve Marz, for his hospitality. It is much appreciated.
When next in Chicago, do visit these fine, fine independent bookstores and booksellers:
57th Street Books
Barbara’s at Willis Towers
Book Cellar
Follett Higher Education Group
Forever Books
Lake Forest Books
Seminary Co-op Bookstore
The Book Stall
Unabridged Bookstore
And last, but certainly not least, Women & Children First

A Dinner in Lansing

We caught Lansing between snow storms. Rain had washed away what snow had fallen, but here, in the back room of the Troppo, we were warm. Warmer still was the welcome of booksellers from every corner of Michigan, carrying their ARCs and armed with questions. The depth and breadth of them astounded me, fascinating questions that sparked the conversations that lasted through the night. Again, I learn about my own book through the impressions of these very best of readers.

Over dinner, the table rang with raucous laughter, with great banter supplied by our host, national field sales director Mike Heuer, whom I am already looking forward to seeing again in Seattle. But the booksellers could match him, story for story, joke for joke. I left with another list of books that I ‘must read’. This chatting to booksellers is a dangerous habit, but I truly could have kept on talking and laughing, swapping stories and book chat, all night.

There was also heartfelt conversation, as the darker themes of the book emerged, and I am grateful for the honesty, clarity, and compassion of the booksellers present. It is terrifically humbling to find instances where the book has touched and is touching readers. And there were surprising moments of synchronicity. I found one bookseller, Bill Cusumano of Nicola’s, who had visited my family’s shop in South Pasadena. I even found a twin I did not know I had in Whitney, a girl whose interests and knowledge in cults surpasses even mine. I hope this is only the beginning of many new friendships.

If you should find yourself in Michigan in want of a book, you are in safe hands. Grateful thanks to these great independent bookstores in Michigan:
Schuler Books – with buyers and staff from all four stores: Thank you, Rhoda, Whitney, Jason, Tim, Kim, Mary Ellen, Carol and Emily!
Nicola’s – Thank you, Lynn and Bill!
And to local, independent book distributors:
Emery Pratt – Thank you, Kathi!
Partners – Thank you, Mick!

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