Fulfilling a Dream

Pythia Peay

Pythia Peay, with her books: American Icarus and America on the Couch

As a publisher, I’m often told by folks, “Oh, I’d like to write a book.” My immediate (internal) reaction is often Why? It’s an enormous amount of work—research, writing, editing—and the rewards (little money, no reviews, few readers) are almost always incommensurate with the effort spent in creating the work. Sure, there is the satisfaction of a job completed, a story told, a mental and/or psychological itch scratched. But it’s a rare person who doesn’t expect more from their writing than these. And yet, sometimes there are occasions such as these. . . .

I first met Pythia Peay twenty years ago when she was the book editor for the now defunct magazine Common Boundary. I was the publicist for Continuum Publishing Company at the time and I’d send her our books on psychology and spirituality for review. Pythia told me that she was working on a book, entitled America on the Couch, and when I began my new company, Lantern Books, in 1999, Pythia’s manuscript was one of the first I considered. It was enormous: 600 pages of interviews with leading psychologists about what ails America. For all its worth as a book, America on the Couch intimidated the hell out of this neophyte publisher, and I turned it down.

I usually don’t like to reject manuscripts tout court, and I told Pythia that I’d been taken with a couple of paragraphs in the Introduction, in which she’d talked about her father. Joe Carroll was an aviator who embodied the aspirational, charismatic, can-do, and optimistic America that burst into the world’s consciousness after the end of the Great War. Yet he was also a depressive and a drunk, who put his family through hell because in his metaphorical flight from himself he always psychologically crashed to the ground. This American Icarus, I wrote to Pythia, was the heart of her story. She should lock Couch in a drawer and tell her father’s tale. I averred that what wisdom she’d gleaned from the psychologists would make its way, as necessary, into the telling of his life, as it charted the highs and lows of the American century.

Pythia embraced the idea of her father’s memoir wholeheartedly. For years, she researched the archives, talked to experts, and visited locations—uncovering a personal and social history, full of fascinating details and fruitful investigations, that gave body and, more significantly, soul to the story of America. When she sent American Icarus to me again, I was astonished and delighted. I now had in hand a book that, I felt, could command a larger publisher’s attention: one able to do unto this book what had been done to Women Who Run with the Wolves and other such titles that appealed to the children of the Greatest Generation, or men and women at midlife, or those who’d had to deal with alcoholism in their family.

I suggested to Pythia that she get an agent, which she did. And another. And then another. For three fruitless years, she followed their advice in revising her manuscript so that the publishers could politely but firmly reject it. She needed a bigger platform, the editors told the agents; they couldn’t market the book, the sales force told the editors; we no longer take such risks on mid-list authors, the executives told everyone. As Pythia relayed these responses to me, I feared that Icarus—expressive, romantic, and expansive—was passé, out of the conceptual reach of the 30-something editors for whom the Battle of the Bulge was a fitness problem and who wanted prose as polished and unscarred as the kitchen countertop in a new Brooklyn condo.

Eventually, Pythia came back to us, defeated as so many authors are by the timidity and rigidity of mainstream publishing, and together we launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the title. By way of a perk, and in the spirit of Why the hell not?, we threw in the original book idea, America on the Couch—this time updated, with 40 interviews organized into six parts, each introduced with a mini-essay by Pythia. Here, too, Pythia worked with her customary dedication, honesty, and moral seriousness, and eighteen months after the launch of the campaign, she yesterday found herself  (as the picture above illustrates) sitting before a stack of both books, signing her name.

Neither Pythia nor myself know the future of these titles. They may, like many, disappear into silence; they may, like some, capture the imagination of their readers and through word of mouth pick up sales that will rebuke the agents and publishers who failed to see what I did: a rich, deeply felt, and very American story on family, land, and the ravages of time, and a remarkable collection of interviews over twenty years on these United States. Whatever happens, however, it’s vital that we acknowledge that what was only a dream or a hope twenty years ago has, through an enormous amount of work and dedication, as well as new technologies and the trust and commitment of friends and family in pre-ordering these books, come into being. While this is only the beginning, it is not just a beginning . . . and, for now, that should be a reward in itself.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing, Writing

On Whimsy and Lizards

Life, as we know, is rarely fair; and things, as we also know, are rarely equal. And, it would appear, never has life been less fair or more unequal than in the case of Rowe vs. Literary Estate of P. G. Wodehouse. As the more tenacious of readers to this blog may remember, some years ago I had the itch to write a literary parody of P. G. Wodehouse‘s immortal characters, involving Bertie Wooster and Jeeves and the gang in a bloody mash-up with zombie literature. The result was Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, a work that even its staunchest literary champions would admit posed absolutely no threat to Wodehouse’s standing as one of the titans of English comedic prose style.

Being the honest cove that I am, I approached the estate for permission to print or distribute—for free or with monies going to a charity of their choice—and was told never to disseminate this work in any way. Imagine, therefore, my surprise when one of the fans of BWLK emailed me with a link to a collection of parodies of Wodehouse currently for sale on Amazon, expressing the hope that its presence would encourage me to do the same. Entitled Whimsy & Soda, this book by Matthew David Brozik is not discernibly different in genre than mine (although probably a good deal funnier and better executed). Like mine, Mr. Brozik’s volume contains all sorts of disclaimers that it hasn’t been authorized and is a parody, and so forth. Why, one is tempted to ask, is this book OK, and mine not?

In fact, Mr. Brozik had contacted me in 2012 to find out how I’d coped with the Wodehouse Estate. He took things into his own hands, and has written about it (amusingly and fluently) it here (I’m the sad unfortunate whom MDB mentions!). In further correspondence today, he writes:

I entered into a written agreement with the Estate. After the Estate came down on me, my well-regarded IP [Intellectual Property] lawyer colleague/friend and I wrote the Estate’s counsel a letter explaining just why they were in the wrong, legally. They backed down on three conditions: 1. I couldn’t write any more than the 12 stories in my collection; 2. I had to change the title (I proposed, and the Estate agreed to, WHIMSY & SODA); and 3. I had to indicate in the book itself that the stories are parodic and not authorized. I considered the whole thing pretty much a win.

So, there you have it. I will have to consider my next steps.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Writing | Tagged , ,

How Do I Get Rid of Books?

Books decaying in Detroit

Books decaying in Detroit

Occasionally, a beleaguered bibliophile will ask me how to shift a bunch of books that they no longer need but don’t want to throw away. Books may be wonderful in many ways, but they are bad for the environment when they end up in a landfill, decomposing slowly and releasing methane—and who wants that to happen? Luckily, a number of options exist for those who want to tidy up an apartment. Here are a few of them:

  • Secondhand bookstores. I’m not just talking about The Strand (or your local equivalent), but Housing Works (or your local equivalent), Goodwill (ask beforehand if your local branches take books), and even your local library. You may not get a lot of money for them, but at least they’ll be in a place where other book-lovers congregate. These options are especially good if you have a lot of popular fiction or practical titles.
  • Freecycle. This amazing service allows people to give away (and pick up) stuff . . . for free. You’ll often find bookpeople on Freecycle. In Brooklyn, where I live, a guy runs an unofficial circulating library service for senior citizens throughout the borough.
  • Ebay or Amazon. You could set yourself up as a vendor of secondhand books, but that might be just too much effort, and you’re not really interested in the pennies you will make versus the amount of time and labor you’ll spend getting all those books up online. But it’s an option if you have a lot of time and patience.
  • Local schools. Schools too may need books: especially classics and hardy perennials, which can be given to needy students. Call them up and see if they’re interested. Here‘s an organization that does precisely that.
  • Overseas. Consider donating books overseas, where libraries may be scarce and the hunger for knowledge and information—especially practicing and learning English—may be great. Here is a website on that might help.
  • Books Through Bars. This organization takes books of special interest to prisoners and sends them, or takes donations of books and money. Consider helping this organization (or your local equivalent).
  • Stoop sales and a box outside your apartment/house. If you’re in a heavily trafficked area, just take a bunch of books outside and watch them disappear. Make sure to take the box in if it looks like rain or snow, or night is falling.

I’ve found that it really helps to sort the books you’re thinking of getting rid of into subject categories. Doing so makes your book collection more useable to potential collectors, and will certainly make them more attractive to people with special interests.

You may own some books of disputed worth to anyone—Fodor’s Hawaii (1975 edition), for instance. In which case, my advice is to get yourself a shredder and rip the book into segments. You can either put the paper pieces out for recycling, or use them as bedding for your worm-bin, or as absorptive material for the old paint you’re disposing of, or even stuffing for a pillow. Either way, you keep the books out of the landfill and free up a little more space to . . . yes, buy more books!

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing | Tagged , , ,

Animal Rights Fiction: A Solution?

The two questions I get asked most frequently at Lantern are: (1) “Do you publish fiction on animal advocacy?” (“No.”), and (2) “Do you know of any publishers that do?” I mention Ashland Creek Press (doing sterling work in this area), but then usually observe that, when it comes to fiction, it’s not so much the subject matter as the genre that counts (literary fiction, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). If your work is a good fit generically, then the subject matter fades in importance (although you hope that the editor/agent will be persuaded by the vividness of your prose to adopt your cause).

Options exist, of course, for self-publishing, and there now are a raft of e-book publishers offering varying degrees of access for readers or writers. Recently, however, I’ve been convinced that a much more exciting and viable route is opening up for animal advocates who love to read or write fiction . . . of whatever kind. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been placing my short stories on Wattpad, a popular site for free genre e-fiction that is regularly trawled by editors and agents looking for new talent. Another platform is Smashwords, where you can offer lots of different kinds of work for free or for money. Both platforms allow a reader and writer to define their genre and sub-genre. Here are Wattpad’s genres; here are Smashwords’s.

Notice anything unusual? No “Animals” section. (This is strange, since many genres include animals in some way—good-looking people turning into wolves or bats, for instance, appears to be popular.) What would happen if writers about animals—short stories or long-form, of whatever genre—took to these and other platforms to showcase their work? Naturally, writers might have to set aside the dream of monetary gain (no matter how fantastical that might be), but it’s my bet that most writers, given the choice, would prefer to be widely read than earn a few shillings for their labor. However, this need not be a zero-sum game, and the benefits would be considerable.

A body of work from multiple authors under its own genre-heading would (a) attract readers who are interested in animals but not necessarily aware of the issues that we advocates care about; (b) provide community, solidarity, and mutual education for animal advocates who write fiction; and (c) offer agents and publishers access to talented writers and a sense of whether folks are interested in reading them. This, in turn, might turn into (d) potential publishing contracts for the more successful of the collective, and further encourage writers, readers, and publishers to pay attention.

Writers (and publishers) have to go where their readers are. Increasingly, those readers are going online to join communities of likeminded fans to read and write fiction (of admittedly variable quality) that is immediately accessible. This is especially true of fiction and genre fiction in particular. It would be a shame if animal advocates missed out.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing, Writing | Tagged , , ,

Habeas Corpus: An Analysis

I’ve posted another short story on Wattpad, this one almost entirely lighthearted. It was my immediate response to learning the premise of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. “I can only imagine,” I said to myself, and “Habeas Corpus” was the result of that imagining. To my surprise, when I no longer needed to imagine and actually read Gilbert’s book, I found my story eerily prescient—both conceptually and thematically. “Habeas Corpus” is, as its title suggests, a reflection on what it means to have a body and to be subject to its desires. The story is about Carol, needy and impulsive, whose wish for a kind of transcendence is thwarted by her own choices and, more pointedly, by the preconceptions, judgments, and impulses of the men she encounters. It’s also a gentle satire on the language of self-help and personal growth. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you will have as much—or even more—fun reading it.

Posted in Short Stories, Writing

Norm Phelps (1939–2014)

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps—the author of four books (The Longest Struggle, The Great Compassion, The Dominion of Love, and Changing the Game), all of which were published by my company, Lantern Books—died on the last day of last year, less than a year after the passing of Rynn Berry: another writer,  independent scholar, and friend. I was proud to be Norm’s publisher and learned a huge amount from his work and his insights. He was an exceptional writer. Not only was his prose clear and passionate, but he presented his manuscripts with the highest degree of professionalism. They were accurately footnoted and properly formatted, which saved me a great deal of time and gave me extra confidence that Norm knew what he was talking about. He received my editorial suggestions gracefully and willingly, again demonstrating how good a writer he was. (In my judgment, those who accept editorial suggestions are usually the best writers; those who refuse to change a word are the worst!)

Most importantly, Norm had something to say—and he did so with compassion as well as passion. He struck me as a very reasonable man: someone not interested in the petty brouhahas that bubble up constantly in the animal advocacy movement. He took the long view and I very much appreciated that. In fact, I thought Changing the Game precisely encapsulated his thesis that animal advocacy needs to place itself within the long arc of social justice movements and not worry about immediate success when other movements took many decades to do so.

I will be forever grateful for Norm’s vocal and demonstrable support for the magazine that I co-founded, Satya, and for Lantern, which he championed at every opportunity. Norm truly appreciated independence of thought, and put his time and money where his mouth was. He took books seriously—including, to my surprise, mine. He kindly took the time and the energy to review The Polar Bear in the Zoo and The Elephants in the Room at length and with his customary acumen and generosity. It’s rare these days to find people who’ll not only read your writing but pay you the compliment of an honest review. He did both, and I was deeply touched by that generosity.

I recall I first heard Norm speaks at an outdoor rally back in the early 2000s, when he worked for The Fund for Animals. I believe he was speaking on why the animal advocacy movement should reach out to people of faith. I don’t remember much of the day, except that it rained and Norm talked with the perspective of someone who’d lived his beliefs and wasn’t just spouting bromides and scriptural quotations.

In recent years, illness had hampered Norm’s ability to attend conferences and meet his fans. I  regret that I didn’t get to know him better over the years. We don’t honor our elders in the movement very well, and that’s very much to be regretted. Our company, the movement, and the world are much enhanced with Norm having been a part of all of them.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing, The Elephants in the Room, The Polar Bear in the Zoo, Writing | Tagged , ,

The Squeeze: An Analysis

Stuart Wilde

Stuart Wilde

This is a brief description of the source and origin of “The Squeeze,” a short story I posted on Wattpad a few weeks ago.

Way back in 1991, I worked as the mail-order manager for the U.K. distributor of a large number of small U.S. independent publishers—most of them specializing in New Age spirituality or alternative modalities of living and breathing. I wrote catalog copy and handled the mailing list and awaited the owner of the company (who doubled as the catalog designer) to get around to finishing his work. It so happened that he came from Canvey Island.

One of the individuals distributed by the company, and about whom I had to compose a few words, was a personal growth guru by the name of Stuart Wilde. Through the inspiration of the photograph above, he became the genesis of Mickey Melon. Now I have absolutely no evidence that Stuart Wilde, who died in 2013, was anything other than an upstanding and thoughtful counselor of the human condition. “The Squeeze” is by no means a statement on Stuart Wilde’s work and thought, about which I have no comment. The photo above says more about 1980s fashion than it does about Stuart, who, judging by the encomia on his website, appears to have had a sense of humor, which is how I would have hoped he would have taken this story, had he lived to read it.

I’ve always been interested in gurus who are part flimflam artists and part genuinely insightful into the spiritual life. In some ways, that may be my very definition of the guru. One day, I plan to write a novel about a character based on Simon Magus, the charismatic fraud who taunts St. Paul in Acts of the Apostles to prove exactly what makes him different from (and inferior to) Jesus Christ. I admire such an individual’s self-confidence and frequently accompanying wit, and so it is with the hapless Ganesh and the rambunctious force of nature that is Mickey Melon. And, like Melon, I happen to have no problem with the placebo as a means of healing. If it works, why worry about how or why?

Posted in Short Stories, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged ,