Posts Tagged ‘book passage’

Bill Petrocelli -Bookseller and Novelist

November 11, 2013

circle of thirteenpetrocelliToday we are going to interview Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of the legendary Book Passage in Marin County. Bill has recently written a novel, The Circle of Thirteen that has just been released by Turner Publishing to rave reviews. Lisa See said of it: “In The Circle of Thirteen, Bill Petrocelli has created a story that flashes forward and backward through time, creating a futuristic world that bears some striking similarities to today. The Circle of Thirteen is a true celebration of the power of women in the face of great odds.”

 Andy: Bill, thanks for letting me interview you on “Ask the Agent.” We’ve been friends for a long time as booksellers. Probably more than 30 years. And we fought all the great fights together defending independent bookstores against the corporations. But you never told me that you wanted to write a book. When and why did you decide to write The Circle of Thirteen?

Bill: I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, more than anything else. Although I’ve been heavily involved in bookselling for many years, during that time I managed to write two non-fiction books as well as a lot of articles.  As to The Circle of Thirteen, I began thinking about that story six years ago. And once the idea formed in my head, I couldn’t let it go.

Andy: The novel is bold and unique in structure. It’s sort of a science fiction novel, but not really (even though it takes place in the future). You structure it with flashbacks, but both the “then” and the “now” take place in the future as well. I don’t see that very often.  It’s a political novel with a strong feminist message that addresses real issues of today. Weren’t you trying to keep a lot of balls in the air? It must have been pretty hard to shape the story.

Bill: It takes place in the future, but I don’t really consider it science fiction. Probably it should be called “future fiction” – or maybe even “speculative fiction.” The idea for the book was to look at the expanding role of women and the potential backlash against them. I decided to set the story a couple of decades into the future, because I thought that would give me the best setting – really, a better perspective on things.

The challenge was to find a time that was far enough removed from the present to get away from day to day politics but still be close enough to seem relevant to the present moment. I decided that I couldn’t write the story in the form of a saga – a story with just one event after another – because I needed to maintain the tension and keep the important elements of the story at the center of things. That’s why I decided on one main narrative line that occurs over a period of two weeks with a series of flashbacks that feed into that story.

Andy: And that  raises the question of how to write flashbacks in a future setting.

Bill: You’re right – that’s a big challenge. And you’re the one who first pointed that out to me several  years ago. After we talked, I went back and reworked the story to try to do two things. First, I wanted to make sure that all of the transition signals were clear – dates, places, and all that. Readers needed to know where they were at any given moment.

The second thing, I believe, was even more important. I had to be relentless in maintaining the point of view of the narrator at key points in the story. I re-wrote most of the book so that it was the first-person voice of my principal character, Julia Moro, who is the Security Director for the United Nations. So when the flashbacks occur, they are  mostly told through her recollection. That allowed the reader to listen to her re-counting of earlier parts of the story with just enough information to get the feel and texture of what happened.

Andy: When I left bookselling, I became an agent, and   started working at the other end of the publishing food chain. It was pretty eye opening for me. What have you learned from this experience? How has it made you view the process of publishing differently?

 Bill: I’ve learned all kinds of things that I hadn’t really focused on before. A lot of it has to do with timing. How much lead time do you need for submission? For editorial feedback? For book promotion? Each of these things operates on its own calendar, and they’re quite different than the calendar that booksellers follow.

Andy: Book Passage is probably the most marketing driven bookstore in America. You have events practically every night. You have classes being taught by famous writers, book fairs, writers conferences. It’s a real three ring circus (in the best sense). Now you have to market your own  book to bookstores. How has your own bookselling experience helped you do this?

Bill: My experience in the book business has helped a lot – there’s no way to deny that. Mainly, my years as a bookseller have given me an entrée into bookstores. It’s also made it easier for me to talk with the people who report on books and bookselling. The people at the blog: “Shelf Awareness”, for example, have been incredibly helpful.

But even with all that, I’ve had to do a lot of the same things that other authors have to do. I have a wonderful agent, Lisa Gallagher, who helped open a few doors at key moments. But I’ve had to create my own website, hire a publicist – and even work with a publicist who specializes in book blogs.

Andy: You’re also a legendary figure in retail bookselling. Is that helping you get the book into the stores? What are other booksellers saying about it?

Bill: Legendary? I don’t know about that. If anyone is legendary, it’s my wife, Elaine, who really understands bookselling as well as anyone in the country. But I do know other booksellers, and I’ve gotten a lot of nice support for the book from many of them.

Andy: When I first became an agent, I avoided representing fiction. Now I have dipped my toes in it. It’s really tough to sell. There are a lot of good writers out there who can’t find publishers. Publishers are making their acquisition decisions based on marketing, not aesthetics. And they will tell you that most of their fiction titles aren’t selling. Any thoughts why?

Bill: Now that I’ve been promoting my own novel, I have a better idea why it’s  so difficult. It’s different than promoting a non-fiction book. With  non-fiction  you can talk about your credentials on the subject, you can stress how important the book is, and you can focus your message to specialized audiences. But none of that is true with fiction. You can talk all you want about your book, but until someone reads it they don’t know how good it is. The real test is the quality of the writing.

Andy: Any thoughts about how to get these books to readers better?

Bill: I have no secret formula for making it easier. I think the only answer is to get as many advance reading copies in the hands of booksellers, other authors, and prominent people – anyone who can read it and give a positive blurb that can then be used in marketing.

Andy: Ok, Bill. Here’s the $64,000 question. I couldn’t help notice that your book is for sale at Big Bad Amazon and almost as Big and Bad Barnes and Noble. Want to share your discomfort with us?

Bill: I have no discomfort with that. I want the book sold through as many places as possible, but I haven’t done anything to encourage sales through Amazon or through the chains. I’m trying as hard as I can to get people to buy it through their local independent stores, In fact, if you go to my website at http://www.williampetrocelli.com, you will see that my buy-link goes directly to the websites of about forty independent bookstores. I’m hoping that more authors will pick up on this idea and link to the independent stores whose support for their books is so important.

Andy: Are you working on your next novel?

Bill: I am, but I put it aside while I’m been trying to promote The Circle of Thirteen. Every now and then I find those characters talking to me, though, asking me where I’ve been. I need to get back to it. It’s a different kind of story, but hopefully it will be just as provocative. One of the characters is a bookseller, so that should give us something to talk about next time.

Bill will be speaking and reading from The Circle of Thirteen at the following venues:

Tues. Nov. 12, 7 PM. Powell’s Books, Portland, Or.

Thurs. Nov. 14,  7 PM. Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Ca.

Sat. Nov. 19, 7 PM. R. J. Julia Books, Madison, Cn.

Wed. Nov. 20, 7 PM. McNally Jackson, New York, NY.

Sun. Nov. 24, 11 AM. Miami Book Fair, Miami, Fl.

Learning from Lee Child

August 13, 2012

A few weeks ago I was asked to do manuscript evaluations at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. After reading the first 20 pages of a few of these, I started noticing that the writers were having a difficult time getting the story going. Sometimes the author  started out with a long description of the weather. Sometimes he began with  a prologue that delayed the beginning of the real story in order to  frontload some backstory information into the text.  Sometimes he just seemed to be in love with his own vocabulary.  I realized that by the time I was 20 pages into these submissions, I  didn’t know much about what these stories were really about.

I decided that it might be useful to analyze the start of a crime novel by a really good writer. Here is the first 200 words of  The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Let’s read the complete text below and then go over it line by line and see exactly how much story Lee Child packs into these very few words.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

The diner was small, but bright and clean. Brand-new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Narrow, with a long lunch counter on one side and a kitchen bumped out back. Booths lining the opposite wall. A doorway where the center booth would be.

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a President I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time. Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

Now let’s take it one line at a time.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.

By the third word we know a very important piece of information,  that this is going to be a crime story.  The narrator and main character, Jack Reacher, is in a diner, not at his supper club.  This tells us that he is a guy who lacks pretension. He’s having eggs and coffee, not brioche and cappuccinos.

A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

He sets the scene. It’s  daytime. It’s raining. Lee Child isn’t spending much time giving the weather report. Just what you need to know. And he gets a lot of other information in as well. The fact that he is walking in the rain instead of driving tells you more about Reacher, that he is modest, that his tastes are simple. He didn’t drive up in a Ferrari or a Buick. He walked.  And he’s walking from the highway to the edge of town. He’s coming into the town, not going to the diner from his home. He’s an outsider.

The diner was small, but bright and clean. Brand-new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Narrow, with a long lunch counter on one side and a kitchen bumped out back. Booths lining the opposite wall. A doorway where the center booth would be.

Nice short description of the scene. Most people already know what a diner looks like. So he doesn’t need to embellish much.  He focuses on the big design. Bright and clean, resembles a railroad car, etc. Doesn’t bother to go into the details, what’s on the wall, color of the table tops.  The reader doesn’t need to know all these details, and Reacher, the narrator, wouldn’t be noticing them either. That isn’t what Reacher is all about.  The fact that it is a diner also  sends a kind of ineffable message. There’s a noir quality to the scene.

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a President I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time

Tells us more about the kind of guy Reacher is. He’s  cynical and worldly wise. Not sentimental and not  an idealist, not an intellectual. Doesn’t suffer fools.  (He’s reading a discarded newspaper, not a copy of Hegel’s philosophy.) And notice how he uses short choppy sentences, sometimes just phrases. The words are simple.  You wouldn’t find Reacher in a Henry James novel.

Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

Now the action begins.  It starts right out of the gate. Lee Child’s delivers. We are about 150 words into the book. And the police cars pull up with lights flashing and popping. The cops burst in armed to the teeth. Covering all the doors.  We already know they want Reacher.

Hey –  let’s turn the page!

More Letters Against the Department of Justice Anti-trust Action

June 26, 2012

Two very thorough, compelling,  and eloquent letters were sent to the Department of Justice today criticizing their lawsuit against Apple Computers and the book publishers. Hundreds of letters have been sent by people and organizations in the book business criticizing the DOJ for attacking the victims  in their misplaced efforts to oppose monopolistic practices in the industry. Letters have been prepared by trade associations, publishers, authors, agents,  and booksellers, all sending the same message: this lawsuit will do nothing but enhance the market power of the only entity that poses a monopolistic threat to the book business, Amazon.com. I suppose we owe a debt of gratitude to Amazon for bringing together parties who have historically been wary of one another. Chain and independent bookstores are united on this as are almost all publishers and, with few exceptions, authors and agents.

The Authors Guild, the major organization representing book authors, and Bill Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage (and a leader in the historic efforts by independent booksellers to stop anti-competitive practices) have made some new and telling points. Check out the complete texts of these. Bill Petrocelli’s letter  and The Authors Guild letter.

The Authors Guild reminds us of a practice by Amazon of pulling the “buy” buttons from print on demand books being published by iUniverse publishers and printed by  Lightningsource. Lightening Source was the first major company to offer this new technology for self-published books. When Amazon created its own service, Booksurge, to compete, they played hardball and temporarily refused to sell selected Lighteningsource titles. Here is what Authors Guild described:

“The Guild had launched Backinprint.com in the summer of 1999, allowing authors for the first time to republish their out-of-print books without incurring any set-up costs. (The Guild had negotiated an agreement with on-demand publisher iUniverse to prepare the books for on-demand printing.) The service was an immediate hit with members; within two years, more than 1,000 titles were available to readers again, including books by Mary McCarthy, Thornton Wilder, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Victor Navasky….

Sales of all on-demand books grew steadily in the early 2000s. By 2005, sales of on-demand books had reached a new high. Backinprint titles sold 41,000 units that year. Amazon, the storefront for most on-demand sales, took notice. It purchased BookSurge, an on-demand printer, to compete with Lightning Source, the industry-leading on-demand printing service run by Ingram.

Three years later, however, few on-demand publishers had moved their printing to BookSurge. Small wonder, since it charged more for its printing services than Lightning Source and had a reputation of offering lower quality service. So Amazon turned to aggressive tactics to win market share, reportedly removing the buy buttons from all iUniverse titles during the 2008 AWP conference. Author Solutions, which had acquired iUniverse, saw its sales plummet. It quickly agreed to use BookSurge for its Amazon sales, and Amazon restored access to its millions of customers. “

The Guild also pointed out some troubling practices by Amazon who recently purchased the rights to sell some very important titles and imprints that Amazon would be able to sell exclusively:

” With the launch of the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s drive to acquire exclusive rights to books, by acquiring publishers with substantial backlists and other arrangements, has taken on a new urgency.

In September 2011, Amazon’s acquired the exclusive digital rights to one hundred popular DC Comics graphic novels. If a customer wanted to read any of these on an e-device, it had to be on a Kindle Fire. Barnes & Noble, trying to break into the e-device market with its Nook, retaliated by pulling all print copies of DC Comics titles from its shelves. Books-a-Million, the third largest bookseller, followed suit. “As Amazon seeks over the next few years to expand its tablet line,” predicted the New York Times, “these collisions over content are likely to become routine.”

Amazon is moving quickly. In December, Amazon entered the children’s book market, acquiring more than 450 titles of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books. In April, Amazon announced it had acquired the exclusive North American rights to publish Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels — in both digital and print formats. Earlier this month, Amazon expanded its holdings of genre fiction, purchasing the publisher Avalon Books and the exclusive rights to its 3,000-title backlist of romance, mystery and Western fiction.

Balkanization of the literary market is something new and deeply troubling. “Bookstores used to pride themselves on never removing any book from their shelves,” reported the Times, “but that tradition—born in battles over censorship—is fading as competitive struggles increase.” Awful as it is for our literary culture, the balkanization of the book market is but a logical extension of Amazon’s no-prisoners approach to competition.”

Bill Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, put some historical perspective on the actions of the government:

” To put the issue in its starkest form, does a shaky claim of collusion under Section One of the Sherman Act take precedence over a clear violation of Section Two of that same act? I am aware that the DOJ has characterized the actions of the publishers as a per se violation, but the invocation of that label should not be a substitute for clear thinking. The creation of a monopoly in the book business is a far more serious offense than the claim of collusion alleged in this case, because it creates a permanent, anti-competitive situation that is extremely difficult to dislodge.

And this leads to the question of the role of the DOJ. What is the Justice Department doing in this case? Why – of all the potential cases it could be pursuing – did it decide to take this one? Amazon. com – the supposed aggrieved party in this case – is one of the largest, richest companies in America. It is perfectly capable of protecting its own interests and asserting any claims it might have in the courts. So why, then, has the Justice Department decided to align itself with this monopolist?

The actions of the DOJ are especially galling in light of the fact the Justice Department and its sister agency, The Federal Trade Commission, have turned a blind eye to anti-competitive activities in the book business over the last forty years. There has been substantial evidence of anti-competitive uncovered practices uncovered by lawsuits initiated by Northern California Booksellers Association and by the American Booksellers Association. There were two investigations conducted by the staff of the FTC, but in both cases the recommendations of the staff were turned down by the Commission itself. The Justice Department is certainly aware of these investigations, because Christine Varney, the immediate past head of the Anti-Trust division, was a Commissioner on the FTC at the time its investigation was curtailed.

So once again, why now? Why has the Department of Justice decided to ally itself with the interests of a monopolist? By placing the power and majesty of its office on the side of Amazon.com, the Justice Department is undermining that fabric of the book business and signaling to all future monopolists that concentrated, anticompetitive behavior will get a free pass from the government. “

Let Me See…What Should I Buy My Daughter? Curious George or a Biography of Heinrich Himmler

December 16, 2011

Today I went to work on the retail floor at Book Passage in Marin. I did it last year for several days during the  Christmas season. And I’m excited about doing it again. I spent 35 years in retail.  My favorite job was recommending books to my customers.  And when I took the time to do that, I got an amazing sense of what book lovers care about. I also had a chance to express my passion for my favorite titles and to try to share that passion with others. When customers came back and thanked me for a book I recommended, I felt pretty good. It made everything else worthwhile. Now that I’m a literary agent, sometimes I feel out of touch with the people who are really the  heart and soul of  the book world… the book lovers.   I think everyone in the book business ought to spend a few days helping customers in book stores. We could all learn a lot by doing it.

But that isn’t what this blog post is about. I wanted to share a very weird bookstore moment with you.  It happened today at Book Passage. One of the nice things about working on the floor is that I see books that grab my attention and I sort of thumb through them.  So anyway, I’m standing in the history section. I read a lot of history. I studied German history in graduate school. So I picked up this 1000 page brick of a book. Heinrich Himmler: A Life by Peter Longerich. It’s published by Oxford University Press. It is an important work of scholarship about a figure in history for whom most people have very little sentimental attachment.  One of the Book Passage employees came up to me and asked me if I was holding Curious George. I can only assume that the holiday frenzy had disturbed his mental equilibrium.

Well, gentle readers. I suppose I would like to say that whether you intend to put Curious George under the tree this holiday season, or perhaps Heinrich Himmler: A Life, I hope you have a very happy and peaceful holiday and get all the books you want on Christmas day.

Bookselling in the Eighties 1

May 8, 2011

me mid-1980sMost independent booksellers who have been in business for awhile will tell you that the 1980s was the golden age for the independent store. And it  most certainly was for the large independents that came to dominate the book business for a short period of time. There weren’t very many of us, and we came in many shapes and sizes. But the stores  had an immense influence on book publishing and  literary culture.  Along with Cody’s,  there was Powell’s Books in Portland and Tattered Cover in Denver. Both were huge stores even by today’s standards, each over 60,000 square feet. Closer to home, there was our sister store, Kepler’s in Silicon Valley, Bookshop Santa Cruz down the coast, and Book Passage in Marin.   

There were some smaller stores as well. Book Soup on the Sunset Strip in LA., Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City., Left Bank Books in St. Louis, City Lights in San Francisco, The Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, and Schwartz’s in Milwaukee (of all places).   It was difficult to pinpoint the qualities that made these stores so beloved and so important to our culture. They were all very different kinds of stores serving very different kinds of communities. That was, after all, what made independent stores so fascinating.  I suppose the only unifying principle that made these stores so important and such a pleasure to shop in was that they were all characterized by a kind of charismatic leadership by the  owners who had a passion for books. Somehow you just knew it when you walked in.

Book publishers like to classify their titles into “frontlist” and “backlist”. The frontlist is the expression used for new titles,  usually but not always in hardback, that have just been released. The backlist is what we call the  books that have been published for some time.  It is a little bit of a fuzzy line that determines when front list becomes backlist, but at some point, and certainly when it goes into paperback after a year,  the book becomes backlist.  Publishers love the backlist. Why shouldn’t they? Backlist books sell year after year with almost no cost to the publisher  for publicity and promotion. The editorial and acquisition costs have been fully amortized. The publisher need do no more than project sales into the future and schedule additional print runs. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is backlist. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is backlist. Mastering The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child is backlist. But when Knopf issued a new edition of the classic cookbook to coincide with the release of the movie, Julie and Julia, it became frontlist.

In 1980 the vast number of books that we sold were from the backlist. Not just the classics and the scholarly titles, but popular fiction, books by authors like:, Frank Herbert, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins,  and Isabel Allende were  evergreen titles that sold year after year.

Let’s look at the bestselling titles of 1980.

FICTION 

1. The Covenant, James A. Michener

2. The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum

3. Rage of Angels, Sidney Sheldon

4. Princess Daisy, Judith Krantz

5. Firestarter, Stephen King

6. The Key to Rebecca, Ken Follett

7. Random Winds, Belva Plain

8. The Devil’s Alternative, Frederick Forsyth

9. The Fifth Horseman, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

10. The Spike, Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss

N O N F I C T I O N

1. Crisis Investing, Douglas Casey

2. Cosmos, Carl Sagan

3. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, Milton and Rose Friedman

4. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins

5. Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese

6. The Sky’s the Limit, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

7. The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler

8. Craig Claiborne’s Gourmet Diet, Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey

9. Nothing Down, Robert Allen

10. Shelley: Also Known as Shirley, Shelley Winters

Compare this list to the one from 1972 [see my previous post. "How I Became a Bookseller."]  It seems to me that the titles on this list are a lot more commercial than they were back then. This coincides with new trends in publishing. Publishers were changing from cottage industries to big business.  Big publishers were buying up smaller publishers, and big  integrated media conglomerates were buying up big publishers. And books were increasingly being marketed by mass merchants to mass audiences.

 When I bought the store in 1977, there was  a small press table at the very front of store. The titles on the table were poetry and some literary broadsides  by lesser known or local writers.   Most of them  weren’t all that good or interesting and didn’t sell very well either. But Fred Cody had a sort of sentimental attachment to the idea.  In 1980 I  moved the display of the small presses  to the middle of the store closer to the poetry section. I thought of it as a practical decision. The table was pretty prominent real estate. And it just might make sense to display books that customers actually wanted to buy.  The local poets thought otherwise. They saw it as the opening salvo of the coming kulturkämpf, a kind of Manichean battle between the forces of culture vs. the forces of Mammon. (I guess I was Mammon.) It was argued that Fred Cody would have never eliminated the small press table. Whenever I did something at the store that some group didn’t like, I always accused of betraying the memory of Fred Cody.

I countered with my own broadside. I brought up   the words of T. S. Eliot to  attempt to shame the poets for using language like a sledge-hammer. I reminded them that “between the motion and the act, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow.”  This tempest in a teapot finally resolved itself in a meeting over some cappuccinos across the street at the Café Med. I’m not sure how it all sorted out, but I think there was some kind of compromise where I promised some displays in other areas.

The biggest book for us that year and one of the biggest books ever at the store was Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Sagan had hosted an incredibly successful PBS series on astronomy.  He was also easy to parody. People went around all year imitating him by blowing up their cheeks and then exhaling histrionically while saying : “BILLIONS of stars”. We knew that this spinoff was going to be a very big book.

I decided to take a few cues from the chains and make a huge pile of  Cosmos right at the front entrance. The chains loved these mountainous displays of a single title that seemed to mesmerize  customers as they  entered the stores. They called the merchandising principle: “pile ‘em high and watch  ‘em fly.”  The  Cody’s staff was  generally appalled by  the Cosmos  display and started bludgeoning me with Fred Cody again. (Fred saw the display and didn’t seem particularly concerned.)   Maybe the staff was right  though. The first day the display was up, a customer came in with his dog who promptly lifted up his leg and peed on the stack. When I tried to get the customer, a disabled man and a Cody’s regular, to tie the dog up outside, he cited chapter and verse of the legal code that gave disabled people the right to be accompanied by their dog. I lost the battle but won the war. We sold over 1000 copies of  Cosmos.

Literary Beginnings: An Interview with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

May 1, 2010

Today we are going to have a conversation with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga    on literary beginnings. Wendy is a novelist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut novel, Midori by Moonlight is available in paperback from St. Martins Press.  Her new novel, Love in Translation   was released last November and is also in paperback from St. Martin’s.

Wendy is giving a class at Book Passage called: Strong Beginnings: A Workshop for Novelists on Saturday, May 8 from 10 AM -4 PM.

Andy: Wendy, last week I did a blog entry having some snarky fun with literary first lines. But all the writers I know take the first lines very seriously. Why so?

Wendy: I enjoyed your fun take on literary first lines, but I have to say that I don’t obsess about them. If you can write a grab-worthy first line that everyone will quote from years to come, that’s great, but I don’t think it’s mandatory. What is mandatory is writing a compelling opening to your novel. As I’m sure you can attest, agents and editors will find any reason to toss a manuscript into the rejection pile as quickly as possible. So it’s crucial to make a good impression in a novel’s first five pages.

Andy: Is there any general advice you can give about how to manage the opening? Is there a single objective that needs to be met? Do you want to set the scene? Is it all about foreshadowing? Do you just want to grab the reader’s attention with something unexpected? Or is it more je ne sais quoi ?

 Wendy: Well, there’s a lot of je ne sais quoi that goes into writing a novel, that’s for sure. But I think that the one thing the opening must have is “profluence.” This is a term used by John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction,” which basically means to move forward. There has to be a forward momentum, an emotional energy and feeling of  “getting somewhere” that will compel a reader to want to continue reading. Another important factor is a strong “voice.” This includes the words the writer chooses (diction), how she arranges and groups the words (syntax), the order in how she presents events (structure) and the attitude toward the characters, subject and events of the book (tone).

Andy: What are the big mistakes with literary beginnings that you see repeatedly by other writers, both experienced and newbies?

Wendy: Common mistakes I’ve seen include starting the story in the wrong place (e.g starting at the very beginning of the story is not necessarily the best strategy); opening with a scene that is too mundane and thereby lacking tension (e.g. the character wakes up, has a cup of coffee and ponders the start of his day); loading the opening with too much backstory and extraneous details; and using an action scene that serves no purpose other than the mistaken assumption that any “exciting incident” will draw in the reader.

Andy: Your class at  Book Passage looks fascinating. What do you want the participants to get from it?

Wendy: We’ll be doing “close readings” of the openings of some recently published novels by analyzing the craft techniques these authors use to pull it all together and get us to keep reading. By looking at a variety of different styles and genres of novels I hope that students will come to see the value of learning from observing an author’s craft techniques without worrying about whether the book is one they would personally choose to read. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to “like” a book in order to learn things from the way it’s crafted that will help you improve your own writing. And, of course, the techniques we’ll discuss can be applied to the writing of the entire novel.

We’ll also analyze the first five pages of students’ novels to see what works and what needs improvement. Students whose work is not discussed in class will receive feedback from me via email if they wish.

The class is designed especially for students who have finished their novels and are considering querying agents or those who are searching for answers as to why their manuscripts have been rejected. Writers who have yet to finish their novels are also most welcome.

Andy: Wendy. One last thing. Can you describe some of your all time favorite literary beginnings?

Wendy: Here are some that I like from an eclectic selection of books:

Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864)

“I am a sick man. . .I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. However, I don’t know a fig about my sickness, and am not sure what it is that hurts me.”

The Stranger – Albert Camus (1942)

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”

Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion (1970)

“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

Story of My Life – Jay McInerney (1988)

“I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.”


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