Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Geraldine Brooks talks with Wetmachine about the future of publishing

Today Wetmachine talks with Geraldine Brooks, whose novel March won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006, about trends in publishing. She joins the roster of Wetmachine “Whither Publishing?” interviewees including Writer’s Digest impresaria Jane Friedman,  ebook pioneer Mark Coker of Smashwords.com, and book designer extraordinaire Joel Friedlander.

I met Geraldine Brooks when we were seated next to each other at a small dinner party about two months ago. (Geraldine and her husband Tony Horwitz (also a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize — his is for journalism) and I have many mutual friends, including my wife Betty, who directs the lecture series at the Vineyard Haven Public Library, where Tony has been a speaker and Geraldine is on the hook for a talk next year.)

At that dinner party Geraldine and I discovered that we had many similar interests, including a shared taste for dystopian science fiction novels — the very kind of book I write. I offered to drop off a few copies of my books at her house and she said, “Oh, please do.” So the next day I hoped on my bicycle and rode to the address she had given me, and that’s how I discovered where she lived and that I had met her young son Bizu some 9 months earlier, when the fire truck to which I’m assigned, T___ 651, was parked in front of their house during a routine “furnace backfire” call. When I got home from dropping off my books I sent Geraldine the write-up in my diary about that fire call, and she was thrilled to get it, saying “That’s fantastic.  Thank you so much for sending this. I remember that day quite vividly.  I thought, that’s a very nice man out there, letting Bizu ramble away at him..”

Since then Geraldine & I have become  pals. I think the moral of the story is, if you want to get on the good side of a famous writer and get her to answer questions for your insignificant little blog, let her observe you being nice to her child without having any idea who he is or that she’s observing you through the window.

I’ve attached that diary entry at the end of the interview.

Q: It’s a Wetmachine tradition that I start off interviews with publishing luminaries by asking “Dirk’s Question”, named for my friend the novelist Dirk VnN, who always tells me “Ask her what the fuck is going on.” Can you summarize trends you see in publishing?

For a long time it seemed to me that many publishers hadn’t really come to grips with the reality that they were, like, actually selling something.  They’d sort of embarrassedly toss a book out there and turn away, humming and looking at the sky.  Suddenly it’s sort of come to them that they’re in a business here.   You’re seeing hardball stuff like massive layoffs and enforced contracts.  But the business is changing so fast, and the business model is so unclear that I would hate to be a publishing executive right now.

Q: You and your husband Tony Horwitz both come from the world of (print) journalism; you both used to be reporters for the Wall Street Journal. Everybody knows how the newspaper industry has been transformed and in some ways decimated by the rise of the internet. Do you think something similar will happen to printed books? Will free ebooks and free content on the internet make novelists an endangered species like their cousins the newspaper reporters? Or contrariwise, will new untapped vistas of narrative form emerge to dazzle and delight us (& make us rich)? Or?

Ebooks have to happen, if only for environmental reasons.  And there are plenty of books that should be Ebooks.  I mean who wants to reread Bush’s memoir? (Who actually wants to read it even once, some might ask…)  But I have a shelf of mideast books that were crucial to me in the 1980s.  Only three of them I would say are enduring classic works–the rest cast light on things that were relevant in the 80s and are totally irrelevant now.  They would have made great ebooks. So what I hope will happen is that books and ebooks will cohabit in the way that film and DVD, radio and television, etc etc have managed to coexist.
I believe that the laborer is worthy of his hire and I don’t write for free. (Except for the Vineyard Gazette.)  I can see using a free ebook as an advertising or marketing device.  I think the ultimate destination of all of this might be authors selling direct to readers, like you do, but with some kind of more clear cut online marketing model.

Q: Your novel People of the Book (which I loved, by the way) tells the imagined five-hundred year history of an “illuminated” manuscript that has a special religious and cultural meaning to everyone who comes in touch with it. Your protagonist, Hannah, is a book conservator who believes that every wine stain and insect wing caught between the book’s pages has a story to tell and has now become, in a sense, part of the book itself. Do you feel that way about books that you own? In other words, how much of a book’s essence inheres to its physicality?

If I read a book and love it I immediately go looking to buy a nice edition, and if it’s a living author I’ll haul it around till I can get it signed somehow.  I love my library, I want books all around me, in every room.  I don’t see myself with an e reader just yet–until they make a waterproof one.  I like to read in the tub.

Q: Along the same lines, in People of the Book, Hanna says, “Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with.” Do you feel that way about your own books as objects? How do you feel about ebook and audiobook versions of your work?

I can’t bear listening to the audios of my book, no matter how fine the reader.  It just doesn’t sound the way it sounded in my head.  I have recently convinced my publisher to let me do the reading myself and that makes me happy.  As for the  e book editions–I’m just glad someone’s reading my book, I guess. . . I certainly don’t feel entitled to  tell people what format they need to be reading it in.

Q: I’m my own publisher, so I can easily see sales trends, which is why I can tell you that over the last two months I have sold more than 100 ebooks for every physical book I’ve sold. Do you have any insight into relative numbers of your books sold in their various formats that you would care to share with us?

It’s too early to tell.  I was a hold out on ebooks because I thought the proffered contract was an insult to writers and an affront to fairness.  We only recently came to terms I could accept.

Q: In her interview here on Wetmachine, Jane Friedman, head honcho emeritus of the Writer’s Digest empire, said that writers, whether established or just starting out, should apportion equal amounts of time and energy to writing and to marketing (including engaging their audience on Facebook, Twitter, and interviews on blogs like Wetmachine). As a literary nobody myself, I spend all kinds of time interacting with readers and potential readers, just trying to get noticed. But you’ve had international best-sellers and you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so I’m guessing that some of your marketing takes care of itself? How do you apportion your own time and energy to these aspects of being a novelist?

I basically do what I’m told, marketing-wise.  If my publishers are kind enough to send me around reading to nice people who care about books, it’s a no brainer–I’m there.  I have a website which I manage in a desultory fashion, and a Facebook page about which I’m ambivalent. (Especially after watching Social Network.) Twitter is, forgive me, for twits.  Unless you’re a poet or a Zen master, nothing worthwhile can be said in 124 characters–or whatever number it is. [Ed: hey, I resemble that remark! jrs]

Q: Changing tack here a bit: In both Year of Wonder and People of the Book the themes of birth and motherhood figure prominently. You’re a mother, and if I understand your resume, you changed careers from “globe-trotting war zone correspondent” to “novelist living in safe small town” about the time your first child came along. Was there a connection?

We actually made the small town move first.  Somehow we got the WSJ to go for this outrageous scheme where I covered the world from a rural hamlet of 250 souls.  It worked well for a while but eventually I found myself sitting on the stoop watching the sunset and letting the phone ring when I knew very well it was the foreign editor calling to tell me to go cover the latest catastrophe in Iraq…So it started to dawn on me that it was maybe time to pass the baton to someone more interested in being  out in the shit than at home shoveling compost.

Q: As recounted below, I met your young son (and future firefighter) Bizu before I met you. I’m kind of curious how he came to join your family. Would you like to share any of that story? (And feel free to brag about the rest of your family as well, of course).

I had my first child just before I turned 40 (Thanks to the Nigerian secret police who threw me in the slammer, where I was able to hear my biological clock loudly tick tick ticking.  When they deported me I came home and greeted my husband with more than usual enthusiasm and Nathaniel was born the following year.)  He wanted a brother.  When it didn’t happen in the usual way, we decided to adopt.

HERE ENDETH THE INTERVIEW

ADDENDUM  — How I met Geraldine Brook’s son Bizu

Fire call with mass cuteness

By johnny (Sun Feb 28, 2010 at 10:17:45 PM EST)

At a boring fire call this afternoon (a furnace backfired — no fire; we set up fans and blew the smoke out) my job was to stand by the truck with a radio & be ready in case I needed to do anything. I didn’t need to do anything.
It was pretty cold out–about freezing– and there was a nice young man there — about 5 years old — who was totally enthralled with fire trucks and firefighters. My truck Tisbury 651 was stationed in front of his house — the house with problem was across the street — and my young friend kept me company for about half an hour. Below, just how cute he was: warning: cuter than a puppy.

After I got my gear on and carried a negative pressure fan, the gas sniffer, and some cords & adapters to the back door of the house, I asked Captain for orders.

“Go get a radio and stand by the truck. Stay warm.”

The boy, who was wearing a winter coat but no hat, was beside himself with excitement at the two fire trucks in front of his house, with lights flashing. The lawn in front of his house was a few feet higher than the sidewalk & was retained by a stone wall about 2 feet high. So the child, standing on the wall, came up to my chest. He was a fairly dark-complexioned Black kid, with a nearly young-Michael-Jackson-worthy afro.

Understand that the trucks keep their diesel engines running, so it’s pretty loud at the scene, plus there’s some chatter on the radios. So I’m not sure I understood everything my new young friend told me. But much of what he said was probably meaningless; he was so excited that he was literally babbling.

First he asked me if I knew the chief, John S___. I said that yes, I knew the chief. He then informed me that the chief was his special friend; he was very good friends with the chief. (Turns out that the chief had visited the child’s first-grade class earlier this year.)

He then asked me if I as a real fireman (I was wearing full turnout gear, including helmet) and I said “yes” and then he said, “can I hug you?” So I said “sure” and we shared a manly hug.

Then I went to the truck and got him a little plastic kid’s helmet, of which we keep a supply on the truck for just such occasions, and he was thrilled. He said, “Do you want to see my real helmet?” and I said “Sure” and he ran to his house, and came back 2 minutes later wearing a little helmet, much sturdier than the one I had given him, that had a working visor. It was yellow, the color of rescue-company helmets. I thought, “this kid is hard-core”.

Then he asked me why my truck had the number 651 printed on the front bumper and I said that that was just the truck’s number, and he asked, “can I call it on the phone?”

I explained that it wasn’t for calling on the phone, only for calling on fireman radios. He looked at my radio and said “is that a walkie talkie”? and I said yes. He asked if he could use it to call the truck but I had to tell him no, my radio was only for firemans.

Then he said, “Is that a real ladder truck?” and I said “yes” and he said “do you want to see my ladder truck?” and I said “yes” and he ran inside and came back with a matchbox toy fire truck, a ladder truck with a working stick. He said, “here, you can have it,” and tried to give it to me.

But I declined, saying that I already had the big truck, so he should keep his little truck until he grew up, when he could become a fireman too. I asked him if he wanted to be a fireman when he grew up and he said “yes!” and spun around in circles until he got dizzy and fell over.

Then he asked if he could see the inside of the truck and I said, “Yes, but we have to wait until the fire is all over and the captain comes back.”

So he said “but there isn’t any fire.”

I said “you are right; there isn’t any fire, there is just smoke.”

And he said, “then why are there so many firemans?”

It was really hard for me to not burst out laughing then. The true answer, of course, was “so we can stand around and do nothing.” But I said, “we have to be ready in case the chief needs us!”

He was getting a little bored and put his helmet on backwards and asked me why that was the wrong way, and silly things like that.

About then everything was cool and we were done. Some guys brought the fans back to the truck & I helped secure them and put away the safety cones, etc–after getting a promise from my new young friend that he would not leave the sidewalk.

When the captain came back, I told him that my assistant wished to see the inside of the truck. So the captain lifted him up & put him on the driver’s seat. Next thing you know, we heard the siren go off. The kid was beside himself with joy.

R__ & P__ & I, who have all been on the truck for well more than a year, all immediately complained to the captain that it was not fair that this kid got to sound the siren, for WE have never been allowed to sound the siren, even as fully vested members of the company (we have a pretty strict “no unnecessary noise” policy). But Captain said that was tough luck.

We stowed our gear and drove 651 back to the Town Barn, where I wrote up the incident in the truck’s log (somebody else had already written up the incident report to be handed in to the chief.)

The fatal C____town fire a month ago was much more interesting from a firefighting point of view. But I would trade a “cute” fire for an “interesting” fire any day of the week & will count myself lucky if the rest of my career has nothing but calls like today’s.

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