Lisa Morgan of WYPR’s The Signal chats with two Baltimore-based Shebooks authors, Jessica Anya Blau and Marion Winik, about Shebooks. This truly is the future of women’s e-reading…
Jenna McCarthy, author of the hilarious Shebook novelette Does This Boyfriend Make My Butt Look Big?, is a pretty cool lady. Here McCarthy shares her thoughts on curse words, weird fan mail, and the priceless things her kids say.
Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer?
I got one (what I thought was highly amusing) e-mail from an angry woman about my last book, If It Was Easy, They’d Call the Whole Damned Thing a Honeymoon. The woman went on and on about how she couldn’t believe the language I used, and how she kept having to flip the book over to the author photo on the back. How could such a beautiful young woman talk like that, she wanted to know? She ended her e-mail with “You are a beautiful woman, but certainly not a lady.” She called me beautiful! And young! Obviously, I loved her immediately. (You can read her whole note here.) I wrote back to her and explained that I went ahead and put a bad word right in the title, so really she shouldn’t have been that surprised. Flash-forward to just a few weeks ago, when a friend and I went to hear David Sedaris read. It was a packed 2,000-seat theater, and people were eating that shit up, and let me just say that David is one profane son of a bitch. I seriously doubt he got angry e-mails afterward telling him that “he’s an attractive guy, but certainly no gentleman.” I thought the same thing of The Book of Mormon writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone. How is it that men can get away with so much more than women can? I hope I am part of what ultimately changes that.
Are there any themes, characters or imagery you find recurring in your writing?
Every single thing I write is at least loosely based in my experience. My characters are usually a composite of several friends or acquaintances, and their stories are almost always exaggerated versions of things that have happened to me or someone I know. I keep notebooks filled with random vignettes, quotes, and images; these books are where I find my inspiration for new projects. Quasi-related aside: When my daughters were little, I promised myself I would keep meticulous baby books, as my own had about two entries in it, and I was always a little bit bitter about this. But as they were growing, I found myself looking for a place to write down all the priceless things that never stopped coming out of their mouths (“Mom, did you brush your teeth yet this morning? No? Good. Because if you did I was going to have to tell you that your toothpaste is not working.”). Eventually I looked at their fill-in-the-blank baby books and thought Who cares when they lost their first tooth or what crap I got at their baby showers? I went out and bought two beautiful blank notebooks and titled them “The Funny Things I Say” (by each child’s name). I have a children’s picture-book series coming out with HarperCollins next year (Lola Knows a Lot), and the dialogue is taken verbatim from these “funny books.”
Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
No… but I probably should! When I went on The Today Show to promote my marriage book, my three amazing sisters-in-law had a “viewing party” and invited my 80-year-old father-in-law to come over and watch. I cannot stress how much I adore and respect this man, or how conservative and old-school European he is. So obviously, I didn’t really want him to know that I’d written a very graphic book about his son (with lines like “please get your boner out of my ass crack” in it). My sisters-in-law just laughed. “Dad’s had sex, you know,” they insisted. I still cringed and hoped he wouldn’t ever actually read the thing—although the girls did, and it was their brother they were reading about, and they all claimed to love it. To this day I have no idea if my father-in-law ever read that one. We just don’t talk about it. He still sends me birthday cards and gifts and talks to me at holiday dinners, so I guess it’s all good.
Is there such a thing as “women’s writing”? Do you hate the term chick lit?
Oh, this one is probably going to get me in trouble, but I do believe there is such a thing as women’s writing. Maybe it’s reverse sexism, but I think that women love sex and violence and espionage in books as much as men, but that most (not all) men probably don’t want to read flowery bullshit about feelings and inner emotional turmoil. That said, I write always with a female reader in mind, and I still get tons of letters from men saying they love my books (and I am pretty sure they’re not all gay because they frequently reference their wives). I’m not at all offended when my books are labeled chick lit. To me, the term implies that a book probably will be funny and likely will have an emotional component and ultimately will make me laugh or cry or both and probably won’t have any gruesome beheading scenes or confusing sports analogies. What’s so bad about that?
What writing projects are you working on now?
I am a freak, let’s just get that right out in the open. I have another humorous memoir-style essay collection coming out this summer about the untold joys of midlife titled I’ve Still Got It, I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It: Awkwardly True Tales from the Far Side of Forty (Berkley Books). I also have a second children’s picture-book series in the pipes with Random House (Poppy Louise Is Not Afraid of Anything), and a middle-school fiction series (Maggie Malone and the Mostly Magical Boots) debuting this May with Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. Oh, and I’m finishing a new novel (the working title is It’s Not About You) that might be my favorite thing I’ve ever written. Stay tuned!
Do you have a quote, mantra or thought you’d like to end with?
This might be embarrassingly self-serving, but if you like a book you read, leave a fucking review. Authors work in a vacuum, and we live for feedback, especially if it’s positive. Sadly, people who hate your books—or are offended by the content or profanity or whatever it is—are much more likely to leave a review than people who loved them. Think about dining or travel: If your dinner is perfect and your flight is on time, and your hotel turns out to be pretty much what you expected from the website or brochure, you probably just go about your merry way. But if they serve you raw chicken, or make you sit in a steamy cabin on the tarmac for eight hours, or the nasty hotel mattress is crawling with bedbugs, you’d better believe you’re going to leave a detailed, scathing Yelp review. So I’ll repeat: If you like a book, take five minutes to log onto Amazon and tell other readers that you did. It really means the world to us (and it helps bury those hateful reviews, too!).
Check out Jenna McCarthy’s Shebook, Does This Boyfriend Make My Butt Look Big?
Best-selling author Ann Pearlman is out with a new mini memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, about a biracial couple’s “coming out (to her family and his) in the early 1960s. Here are some of Pearlman’s thoughts on luck, and death.
Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing?
Two themes recur in my writing, though neither one is apparent in His Eye Is on the Sparrow, except as harbingers of things to come. The first one is death. Many of my books, especially my fiction and memoirs, have a death as a significant turning point. The origin is in my life. About six weeks after the events of His Eye Is on the Sparrow occurred, my father died at 44 from a heart attack. I was with him when he died. Within the next decade, my grandmother and mother died. As well as two best friends: one from an allergic reaction to an anesthetic, and another was murdered. I was impacted by the knowledge that death strikes anywhere, at any time, without respect for age, or health.
The second is the sister of death, and that’s luck. Since I was a child, as soon as I understood the basics of reproduction, I wondered at the miraculous event of my existence. If my parents had made love a different day, if a different sperm fought its way to the ovum that was my other half, I would have been a different person. Maybe a boy. Maybe not loving art so much, or writing or dancing. I’ve always been grateful for the luck of my existence and my parents, who were able to nourish and encourage me.
But luck is a two-edged sword. Life is full of serendipitous events spinning into new directions. Some of the eventual outcomes cannot be predicted from the incident itself. For example, my divorce was a watershed event that I struggled to survive. But survive I did and later realized that my ex-husband had done me a huge favor.
How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?
My family is Jewish. But not only Jewish as my grandmother was German and had a sister who was pro-Nazi in the ’30s. As if containing these diverse elements in a family was not already complex enough, my Jewish grandfather supported my grandmother’s German parents who were visited in his house by their pro-Nazi daughter. As a child, I was chilled by the knowledge that in Europe during the ’40s, some of my relatives could have killed other relatives, unaware they were distantly related to each other. History impacts individuals, but individuals impact history by their personal decisions.
I am a woman who married a black man during the civil rights movement, and I’m the mother of biracial children; the effect of straddling two different worlds is visible in my work. W.E. B. Du Bois writes about the double-consciousness black people carry as they deal with the white attitudes toward them, along with a sense of themselves as African. I, too, straddle these worlds, but in a peculiar way. My family and grandchildren are black. Yet, when away from my family, I’m treated as “white.” And yes, even today, that treatment is different. Yes, even today, after the wonder of a biracial president and the subsequent billowing vitriol prove the intransigence of our racism.
Although the biography Inside the Crips was a collaboration with Colton Simpson, I could not have written it without an intimate knowledge of black people and sharing life with them. Both of my novels, The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for My Sister, deal with the formation of a biracial family and the continued racism the two sisters witness. I suspect that my grandmother’s straddling of her own German and Jewish identity, though not as visible, taught me comfort and skills without my realizing it.
His Eye Is on the Sparrow examines that point in my life when this dual identity was forged.
Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?
Of course. Women writers outnumber men writers, just like women readers outnumber male readers. Maybe our great numbers make us less seriously considered. This is similar to social work, where men have more cache, garner more attention, and are promoted more often than women. Yet, it is not just the rarity that we struggle against. Men’s thoughts, words, attitudes, very bodies, are taken more seriously. As a result, we try to get our work on a level playing field. Many women write under gender-nonspecific names or pen names ( George Sand, J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, etc.).
For women, there’s another issue: If we’re mothers, and working to financially support our children, the pressure of time and attention delays our writing. Yes, I wrote four books while I was still raising children, but dreamt of a time when I would no longer write while I was waiting for a child to finish soccer, football, rehearsals, saxophone lessons, etc., or would have to wake up so disgustingly early. I dreamt of a far-off “future” when my children were raised (or at least in high school). But there’s another discrimination that hits women harder than men: ageism. I have been told by an editor that they’d publish my novel, except that I’m now “too old” to build a career. Several others suggested that my characters were “too old.” I have even received a few snarky reviews about the age of my characters. Apparently publishers think readers are interested in young, fertile women; their lives still have significance. This seems to be more prevalent in the U.S. than in the U.K., where mature women are often the heroines of novels.
So women have two strikes against them, and it’s the same that we deal with throughout our lives: We’re women. And then we become postmenopausal women, and I guess, if we’re lucky, we’re supposed to simply drift away into grandmotherville.
Ironically, after The Christmas Cookie Club, I received a fan letter from a woman in her 20s who profusely thanked me. My book gave her hope for the future because she assumed her life would be boring by the time she was 40. My characters taught her life could be exciting and fun, even as you get older.
When did you first decide you were a writer?
I didn’t “decide” to be a writer. When I was in eighth grade, we were asked to write thank-you notes for a painting our school received. The painting was of two girls sitting on a beach; behind them the sea stretched to the horizon. While writing about the sea, I was transported into a sensation of taking dictation from the universe. The piece I wrote became a published poem. Re-experiencing that sensation propels my writing. I write because I love it; I write because I want that feeling again. I write to make sense of the world. Weeks later, when I’m editing, I cannot tell which prose was awe-inspired and which was written prosaically.
How do you define truth in memoir?
Truth when writing memoir is your truth. We now know memory distorts and shuffles things, especially for children who can be easily led into beliefs simply by the questions of adults. Yet, what we believe becomes our history, the narrative of our lives, establishing our worldview and propelling our actions.
When I write memoir, I try to check what I can. For example, in Infidelity, I related an incident that took place while my mother was giving a speech. I found supporting evidence on the Internet in a report of the speech, the venue, and her order in the program, all of which corroborated my teenage memory. Sometimes our memory is right on. However, during family discussions, it’s clear we each witness different aspects of events as a collage of stories that are created from our unique memories. All are right. All are pieces of the truth.
Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?
I have been a psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist in a private practice for several decades. I continue to see a few long-term patients.
As a social worker, I’ve had a number of fabulous, fascinating jobs: working with gangs, protective services, the poverty program, in schools, in a women’s prison, a child-guidance clinic. The craziest job I had was working in a science lab under a grant from NASA to ascertain if animals could grow in space conditions. When we started on the chameleons, I collected flies from the farms around Iowa City. Nonplussed and not curious, the farmers graciously escorted me to their pigpens, assuring me I could take all I wanted.
But it was not until I was a therapist in a women’s prison that I understood much about America. There you see the underbelly of our country and witness the failure of every institution in our society: justice system, schools, churches, families, and our economy. But in spite of the enormous trauma of many of [these women’s] lives, I was awestruck by the resilience, fortitude, hope, and desire to change. Prisons and our justice system are present in Inside the Crips, but also in Christmas Cookie Club and Gift for My Sister. Currently I’m working on a novel set in prison.
Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?
I resisted joining a book club because I didn’t want to “have to” read books others chose. A few friends wanted to start one and pestered me to join. Joining was a great decision. It’s scads of fun. I’m reminded how varied opinions and reactions are. My book club has helped me understand the reviews/comments I get from readers. How words are interpreted is only partly the writing, the other part is what the reader brings. Listening to fierce discussions and opposite opinions about the same book highlights the immense difference in tastes and interests.
My book club has also read my books and discussed them. The first time it was anxiety provoking. There was nothing anonymous about this discussion. Would my friends spare their criticism because of our friendships? But they didn’t, and I learned from that, too. They are intensely curious about how I develop my ideas to weave a story together, and they notice things about me or our city in the book.
Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?
Follow your bliss, but consider others.
Read Ann Pearlman’s nail-biting short memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, only at Shebooks!
I probably don’t have to tell any Shebooks readers that it’s harder than ever to publish a book through traditional corporate channels. And certain categories — like collections of essays — have become virtually extinct, a situation which affects me directly. When I started out telling personal stories as a commentator on NPR in the 1990s, there was a lot of interest in the essay — publishers were looking for the next David Sedaris. These days, though venues have opened up online for individual pieces, and we continue to see themed anthologies on various aspects of parenting, eating, divorce, travel, etc., it’s very rare to find a collection of essays between covers by anyone other than, well, David Sedaris.
This situation made me an eager recipient of last fall’s call for submissions from Shebooks — a new publisher of short e-books by and for women, designed to be read in under two hours. One of the categories they were looking for was collections of essays. Hooray! My first collection, Guesswork, eight essays circling the topics of memory and identity, was part of the launch group in December 2013, which also included books by Jessica Anya Blau, Hope Edelman, Suzanne Paola, and Shebooks co-founder Laura Fraser. Bestselling author of An Italian Affair, Laura’s Shebook is a collection of essays about Italian food called The Risotto Guru. Here’s our recent e-conversation.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell me how Shebooks came to be? Last I knew, you were a memoirist on the love-and-pasta beat.
As a writer, I’d been increasingly frustrated about how there are fewer venues for long-form journalism, it’s harder than ever to publish long books, and top-shelf magazines like the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic keep ignoring women writers (70% of their bylines are men!). I was speaking at a journalism conference with my long-time friend and editor, Peggy Northrop–we’d worked together at Vogue, Health, More, Organic Style, Real Simple, Glamour, and other places where she’s been a top editor–when there was a panel of guys discussing the opportunities for long-form journalism with the short e-book model. I turned to Peggy and whispered, “It’s the same guys.” She whispered back, “Someone should do this for women.” And the lightbulbs went on.
I couldn’t agree with you more about the difficulties in traditional publishing, particularly for collections of essays. But is the short e-book model catching on? I’ve heard of Amazon Singles — but that’s about it. How do we know readers want (or will accept) these mini-books? Are they even “books” in the standard sense?
What initially made us interested in the short e-book model was The Atavist, which publishes one short e-book per month, and developed the model for creating a platform for long-form journalism in a world where there are fewer and fewer places to publish at a satisfying 7000-10,000 word length– a deep dive into a subject.
There was a huge need for the short e-book. What happened in the publishing world is that magazines devalued themselves by charging only $9.99 a year, or something far below production costs, in order to boost circulation and sell the numbers to advertisers. Consumers got used to paying next to nothing for journalism. The Internet, of course, made that situation worse, with places like the Huffington Post that pay zero, nada to writers. So people are used to getting short content for free. Meantime, there are fewer and fewer places to publish long-from journalism–the feature wells in women’s magazines are shrinking, great magazines like Gourmet have been put out of business (because that $9.99 model was not sustainable in a recession, as advertisers fled), and then, of course, the top-shelf magazines publish 70% male writers.
However, people will still pay money for a book. So the short e-book is the way to sell long-form journalism, short fiction, novellas, and collections of essays. Plus, with more and more of us reading on mobile devices, it’s a satisfying length. We’re all so busy that it makes sense to read a short e-book sometimes, particularly on a mobile device. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to curl up in bed with a long novel, but it’s great to read short e-books when you have less time.
Also, as someone who teaches writing, I can say that many memoirs ought to be about 100,000 words shorter than they are. People have great stories from their lives, but not necessarily stories that are long enough to be published as books. So you get a lot of really padded memoirs. Why not trim them down to a fast-paced, great read?
I certainly agree with that. Often even very good memoirs are just too long! The Liars Club – too long! great, but too long! Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – you too!
Looking at the launch group of Shebooks, I believe I see five fiction and six memoir/essay collections — no long-form journalism yet, right? What can we look forward to here?
We have a few long-form journalism pieces in the works, but it takes more time to develop these stories. We’re hoping to partner with some groups that fund investigative stories on issues that affect women, and we are actively soliciting more pieces.
For now, Shebooks are selling for $2.99 each. How will it work once the subscription model kicks in, and when will that be? This part is just as revolutionary as the short books — can you tell us how you came to this idea?
We come from the magazine world, so we know subscriptions are a good business model. Women are used to subscriptions to all kinds of things, from Weight Watchers to Bacon of the Month, and it makes a lot of sense for books–you can always have as many as you like at your fingertips, to browse when you’re getting on a plane or looking for something to read before bed. Our subscription service will be up in spring.
How will Shebooks compete with regular books for bestseller status? Or will they?
We’re a completely different publishing model. It’s kind of like how is the artisanal ice cream company that sells organic fig ice cream with walnuts or salted dark chocolate ice cream with almonds going to compete with Haagen-Dazs vanilla? There’s room for both, but some customers are going to become addicted to Shebooks because they’re so darn good. We’re all about quality, and about commissioning the best women writers out there to write original stories that you can’t get anywhere else.
We’ll create a little boutique reading environment in our reading app where you can go, close your eyes, and pick a book that you know will be a good read. We have years and years of experience in knowing what women like to read, understanding quality writing, and we’re bringing that to readers who crave it and don’t have the time to go through everything on Oyster or Amazon or ScribD to find it. We’re also providing short reads that fit women’s busy lifestyles. If you’re boarding a plane and want something to read from Chicago to Cleveland, just turn on your device and you’ll have plenty of great reads to choose from, and you really can’t go wrong.
Thanks, Laura. It will be fascinating to watch all this unfold — and how cool to be part of the avant garde.
This interview originally appeared on TheNervousBreakdown.com http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/mwinik/2014/01/interview-with-shebooks-editor-laura-fraser/