Barrelhouse // “First Book Reflections”

Tom McAllister over at Barrelhouse asked me to contribute to his feature on “First Book Reflections,” about the learning process that comes with publishing a book. He emailed three questions to a number of people. Here’s what I had to say.

What emotions were you feeling on the eve of your book’s release? What expectations did you have?

Before Extraordinary Renditions came out, I was scared to death. Not of failure (whatever that might have entailed), not of negative reviews (though that did worry me a bit), not even of learning that I accidentally plagiarized some obscure book I read fifteen year ago. I remember telling my mother that I would rather get negative reviews than get ignored entirely. What if I put all this work in, made all these sacrifices, piled up the student loan debt, and no one read it? That kept me up some nights. I mean, it’s a strange book: three novellas (of all anti-commerical monstrosities!) with some uncomfortable things to say about American imperialism. I remember the feeling of dread most of all.

Describe the promotional process for your book– did you have any noteworthy successes or failures? How active were you in trying to sell your work?

I’m very fortunate that the book got a tremendous amount of attention in large part, I imagine, because Coffee House Press did such a tremendous job. They hand-sold the bejesus out of the galleys at BEA. And the cover is so great—thank you, Linda Koutsky!—that it grabbed some attention and was a featured book of the week with a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, who later included it on their list of the year’s best books. In short, it got off to the best possible start. My publishers stepped up bigtime.

Promoting a book is an art form unto itself and every MFA program director in the country would be well served to introduce some basic marketing into their curricula if they want to see their people succeed. My promotional efforts for the book started with doing some readings, including at the Brooklyn Book Festival, but I’ll never be the kind of author who loves doing those; sometimes I’m OK with them, sometimes I loath them. I get nervous. I’m also pretty visible online, active on Facebook and Twitter, and I do quite a lot of freelance work so my name’s out there quite a bit. Maybe too much sometimes. I get sick of me.

It’s going to sound ridiculous, but the other thing that helped was my low-budget book trailer. It was actually a book trailer making fun of the whole book trailer phenomenon, but it got shortlisted for the first-ever Moby Awards. I found a website that allows users to add subtitles to old Bollywood movies. I ended up making four trailers and had a blast. They had nothing whatsoever to do with my book—most of the stuff I do is just to amuse myself. If other people like it too, that’s cool.

The best part of publishing Extraordinary Renditions was having a small release party at The Spiral Bookcase, my local bookshop here in Manayunk. Rodney Anonymous of the Dead Milkmen provided the entertainment. His rendition of Nick Cave’s “Honey Bee” on the hurdy-gurdy was sublime. There’s footage of it online somewhere. The poster for the event was made by the Dufala Brothers, who are responsible for some of the smartest visual and conceptual art of our time. Getting to collaborate in small ways with some artists I admire was a blast.

Now, a year (or longer) removed from the book’s release, do you feel any differently about the book or the whole first book experience?

My former MFA professor Richard Powers once said:

“I’ve always conceived of each new book as an answer to the previous one: a correction of its inadequacies or rejection of its excesses. And when you are working to form a new aesthetic, nothing is more of a blow to equanimity than to read what you once considered worth saying.”

I can’t argue with that. To some extent, I wish I could do it all over again with Extraordinary Renditions. I mean, I’m very proud of that book and humbled that it found its audience. I understand that it sold well enough to earn out my advance. But I’m also very ready to move on. I’m just finishing up my debut novel now. Or, I’m finishing it again, I should say—I made some mistakes along the way. The new book is a response to and improvement upon my first one, but it’s also a continuation of some of the themes I wanted to spend more time with. Everything I write is a learning experience; the trick is to forget what I’ve learned so that I can write the next thing.