Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Lack of Cohesion Below: From Travel, To Lessons, To Independent Bookstores

Barbara and Rick posted recently about the travel and research they do for their writing. Like Rick and Barbara, I realize the importance of atmospheric details in fiction, and I appreciate the need to travel in order to bring those details to my work. But I’m a simply guy who finds less sexy benefits to traveling.

I spent the past eight days in Louisville, KY. Louisville is a great city, and I had a wonderful time reading at Carmichael's Bookstore from THIS I BELIEVE: ON FATHERHOOD, which includes my essay "Hands at Rest." The reading was actually an afterthought. I was there to score Advanced Placement English essays, and I read nearly a 1,000 handwritten papers by students nationwide. Having taken part in this grading several times, I am always amazed by several things, the talent of many student writers among them. This year, in particular, I was also blown away by the pathos with which students wrote, and I left Louisville having gained great perspective.

A common topic on Type M is the recession and its impact on the fiction market and, in turn, on our respective writing careers. A shrinking marketplace means fewer major publishers buying novels, which has impacted midlist writers, of which I am one. Yet this week, I read hundreds of essays written by 16- and 17-year-old kids discussing their plights. Is a college education now the American Dream? When your father has been laid-off and your parents have told you the bank is taking your house, it probably is. I read many essays like that this last week. When I was 16—back in the 1980s—I didn’t face those problems. Similarly, now, at 41, my biggest headaches are wondering if my agent will be able to sell my latest novel. And my livelihood doesn’t depend on his being able to do that. Perspective is good for all of us mid-listers in this market. I’m thankful to have gained a little last week.

On a lighter note, I hope no one thinks I’m crazy, but one thing I love about traveling is spending time in airports. Two things appeal to me: No place can offer as much anonymity as a crowd. And I love to people-watch.

Saturday, I was stranded in the Louisville International Airport for nine hours. I had no distractions—only a view of a grey runway, in-coming and out-going air traffic, no Internet, and only one book to read. So I spent five hours rereading, tweaking, and finalizing my recently finished novel. (It went off to my agent Tuesday. Cross your fingers for me.) Then I watched a variety of stressed-out travelers, overhearing snippets of conversations, noting dialects, body language, and imagining people’s back-stories—all useful material for future characters.

Creepy? Hopefully not. After all, every character we create is a composite of its author and other people the author has met or observed.

One final aside: Carmichael’s Bookstore is in a unique situation. The Louisville Borders has closed, and this small independent store is reaping the benefits. I watched with interest before and after my reading at the constant line of people entering. I assume this is happening in many cities.

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