Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace

This weekend was Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace workshop in Boston. I've never been before, but I'd always heard wonderful things about the program. I was not disappointed. My company, Kelley & Hall Book Publicity, was approached to be on the "Book Marketing and Promotion" panel. My sister Jocelyn did the Saturday panel and I was part of the Sunday panel. Not only did I hear how authors have taken their promotion into their own hands (Jenna Blum's story was very inspirational), but I also got the chance to connect with some amazing authors, editors, agents and people involved in the publishing industry.

The entire weekend was filled with parties and panels and networking with other writers and industry professionals. We were thrilled to spend time with some of the authors that we've worked with (Brunonia Barry and Lisa Genova), authors we would love to work with in the future (Trish Ryan, Julia Glass and Amy MacKinnon), and authors we've admired from afar and were excited to finally meet (Jonathan Franzen, Anita Shreve, Scott Heim, John Sedgwick and many, many others)!

As a debut author with a book coming out this summer, I was star struck most of the time. But as a publicist, I needed to remind myself that I was there as an industry professional. It's an unusual dichotomy.

It was hard not to gush when speaking to someone whose work I'd loved and read for years--I had to pinch myself when speaking with Anita Shreve and listening to her talk about the house that has served as a central character in her novels. It was surreal to be joking around with Jonathan Franzen about bird watching in Marblehead and my sister's liberal use of the word "literally" when she's nervous. (She literally said it more than ten times in the conversation.)

The thing that I loved most about the conference was that everyone was treated as a peer. We felt like we were all in this crazy world of publishing together. It wasn't like the intimidating behemoth of Book Expo America where you needed ten different forms of ID to get from room to room and a huge (invisible) barrier kept the authors shielded from the general public. Instead, everyone--from the struggling writer to the New York Times best-selling author--had come together to discuss the challenges of working in this industry, talking about our love of literature, regaling each other with anecdotes about mutual friends, and offering helpful tidbits on the business of writing and selling books.

The climax of the event was definitely the keynote speech by Jonathan Franzen, who encouraged us to continue to clink our silverware because he didn't want to deprive us of our nourishment during his reading (during the Q&A he pointed out that he wished that he had eaten beforehand as well). His reading from his brilliant memoir/essay collection, The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History, evoked both laughter and tears from the audience. (Interestingly enough, this was one day before he labeled Michiko Kakutani, the lead reviewer of the New York Times, as the "Stupidest Person in New York" during a speech at Harvard. I'm curious if he's attempting to alienate the figureheads of both the literary world (Kakutani) and the commercial literary world (Oprah), and still manage to make a living as a writer in spite of it. He doesn't seem to be concerned about ruffling any feathers. (Despite his love of birdwatching, as he'd mentioned the night before over very strong Mojito-type drinks and potato-spiraled shrimp.)

During his reading, he described his attempt as a college student at using German literature to help him with his writing and how it helped him to see his family more clearly, and therefore allowing him to write about them without the veil of childhood altering his views. He mentioned that he wrote in his college journal the German phrase which he thought meant "I have written." What he actually wrote was the phrase, "I am written." Then, of course, all the obligatory Oprah questions were asked of him. I even went so far as to ask him what writers he would include in his own book club. He first answered that he'd let the other members of the book club decide for themselves, and then went on to mention Alice Munro, Peter Carey and his friend David Means. But what I really wanted to ask him was that after all of his success, his five books, numerous essays and twenty-five years as a writer, if he felt that he had finally been "written." Was he successful in using language and the written word to help him discover the answers that he sought throughout his life and his writings? I suppose he'll tell us eventually through his work.

Just not on Oprah. Literally.



Jonathan Franzen is a mystery. When I chaired the National Book Award's Young People Literature jury in 2001, he took first prize in Fiction for Corrections. He struck me as a Super Man type — Clark Kent. i don't know why he's so intent on messing with authority, but then again: It hasn't hurt his career.

Take care,