Angie Abdou’s first novel, The Bone Cage, was the inaugural One Book One Kootenay selection, a Canada Reads 2011 finalist, and the 2012 MacEwan Book of the Year. Her second novel, The Canterbury Trail, is a tragicomedy about mountain life, small-town identity politics, and our relationship with the environment. It won a 2012 IPPY gold medal for Canada West and was a finalist for the Banff Mountain Book of the Year. Angie’s newest novel, Between, forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press in September, is a satire about international nannies and hot yoga… which, as she explains in this guest post, might not be as scary as it sounds.
Pre-Publication Jitters and Frozen Vomit
My fourth book is about to be released, and something weird is happening: I am doing what my kids call “freaking out.” I wake up in the middle of the night having changed my mind about being a writer.
Maybe the impetus for this rush of nerves is that the material in my new book is riskier than in my previous ones. Maybe it is simply that four books into this nutty writing thing, I finally realize that I should be nervous. Weird—and sometimes unpleasant – things happen when one releases a book into the world.
For example, last fall Amanda Leduc visited my hometown library to talk about her novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men. It was the perfect event. Amanda was smart, honest, insightful, and charming, and the conversation was intelligent, intense, probing, and real. The audience was rapt. Amanda sold out of books.
Buzzing afterwards with the excitement of hosting a successful event for a deserving author, I reached towards a woman who was leaving. I recognized her from a book club talk I’d given years ago on my novel The Bone Cage. I touched her arm and said, “Thank you for coming, and thanks for reading Amanda’s book beforehand. You asked a great question. I’m glad you liked Amanda’s novel.”
That’s where things went horribly wrong. Instead of continuing out the door with a polite wave, she squared her shoulders to me, opened her eyes wide and said, “I liked hers, but I hated yours.”
I took a deep breath. The Canterbury Trail is about a fictional place called Coalton, a small mountain town not unlike Fernie, B.C., where I live. Some readers, though certainly not all, have taken exception to my portrayal of our home. Fine. I decided I would let this angry reader say her piece, and then I would carry on in my happy-book-loving-perfect-evening. I put a far-away look in my eyes and let her words roll over me.
Unfortunately, “her piece” was not what one would call succinct. She started by calling me disrespectful and nasty and saying that my portrayal of Fernie was hateful. She went on to say that her friends were characters in the book, and they had no opportunity for recourse. “What are they supposed to do??!!” There is a sheep farmer in Fernie and there is a sheep farmer in my novel, she complained; clearly, they must be the same person. (“Two sheep farmers,” I wanted to say. “What are the chances?!”).
She went on, at great length, about how my representation of mountain culture is completely misinformed. I braced myself, figuring that after this tirade, she would wind down. But no. “Now, after this awful book,” she snapped, “I don’t even want to read the books you review and recommend. I don’t trust your opinion about anything. When I saw your name in the acknowledgments of The Miracles of Ordinary Men, I didn’t even want to read it!”
Here my initial conviction that I could simply wait her out started to wane. So, I smiled – I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately, it calms me – and I spoke in as slow and even a voice as I could muster.
“You are hurting my feelings. Imagine if you made something, and then someone cornered you in public and said, ‘I hate the thing you made. It’s ugly. Not only do I hate that one specific thing, but I hate everything you do, and I no longer respect your professional opinion, which you worked very hard to develop.’ How would that make you feel?”
That gave her pause, for a moment. “Oh,” she said, looking as though it had struck her only then that there was a human being on the opposite end of her attack. “That would be awful. I’m an artist. It would be terrible if someone came into a gallery and told me they didn’t like my work. I can see I’ve made you sad. I’m afraid you don’t like me. I’ve made an enemy. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but it’s just… your book… I really despised your book…”
And then, she forgot about that human being and geared into Stage Two of her attack! (This one was about light and dark, and how I don’t know how to balance them. I should try, she suggested, to learn from writers like Amanda or Gordon Sombrowski, who manage to have dark but also light.)
This tutorial on how I should write my fiction went on much longer than I should have let it, but eventually I interrupted her and excused myself. “I’m not mad at you,” I said. “I don’t hate you. To be honest, I think I might cry, and I don’t want to cause a scene. I’m going to go in the backroom and get a Kleenex. Again, thank you for coming.” I touched her arm as I had in the first place, smiled, and left. (Thank you, Buddha.)
I scurried into the staff bathroom and bawled my eyes out. By the time I returned, everyone knew I’d been crying.
I didn’t cry because of what the woman said about my book. I don’t care what she thinks about my book (and that is very nearly almost completely true). Rather, I cried because I felt like I said, “Thank you for coming,” and she turned around and slugged me.
The unexpected assault disrupted the pleasant – if delusional – feeling I happened to be having just then: that the world is a nice place and that people are, for the most part, kind and generous and predictable.
Now I have a new book coming out. It’s bound to offend some people. After experiencing reader encounters like this one, I’m understandably freaking out.
I know all the right things to tell myself: a book that pleases everyone would not be very interesting; a novel that makes people uncomfortable and angry is a worthwhile one; written work is a success if it provokes any kind of reaction.
It’s all true, but the reality is this: the encounter sucked. It made me feel awful. I cried like a child, and I hope it never happens again. (It probably will.)
Surprisingly, though, the evening was not ruined. It was saved by one thing: the room was filled with good people.
First, my husband came to my rescue. When this typically mild-mannered man heard what happened, he referred to the woman with terrible, vulgar names that made me realize I wasn’t nearly as upset as all that. Next, Amanda, the librarians, and the other good book-loving friends in attendance rallied around me. They pretended not to notice I’d been crying. Someone handed me a mug of tea. Someone else laughed: “Nothing light?! Is she crazy?! Did she even read the book? WHAT could possibly be lighter than frozen vomit?!”
Exactly! Finally – a reader who understands!
Laughing is good. That is what writers can do: surround themselves with good, supportive people who “get” them and who know how to make them laugh when laughter is needed most. With my fourth publication, I finally promise myself that I will pay more attention to the readers who get me than to those who don’t. I like dark books that throw me off-kilter and make me uncomfortable. Sometimes I even like books that make me angry. I will keep trying to write those kinds of books. And when I meet a reader who doesn’t share that preference and who insists on delivering a monologue rather than engaging in a dialogue, I will smile and say, “I look forward to your book on the topic.”
Then, I will politely excuse myself to find a friend, and we will laugh.
Angie Abdou visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with John Degen, Michael Fraser and Veena Gokhale. Come early, too (6:30) for Veena’s talk, “Writers as Publicists: Saying Yes to Selling Your Book!”.
Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!