The other day a young woman asked me what I did for a living. What an interesting question. If I had to live off the money I make from writing, I’d be living in a garden shed. On the other hand, it is through writing that I live. So, in a very real sense, when I answer that question by saying, “I write for a living” I am telling a far deeper truth.
Then I asked her if she was a reader. “Oh, yes,” she replied.
“And what sort of books do you like?”
“I love James Patterson. His books are great.”
“Are they?” I asked.
“Just great. So entertaining. I don’t have to think about anything when I’m reading them.”
Later that same day, I bumped into a woman I know while grocery shopping. She was speaking to another woman and introduced me to her friend by saying I was a published writer.
“How wonderful,” said the friend. “I just finished reading the most glorious book!”
Assuming it wasn’t mine, I asked which one, fearing I would once again have to feign enthusiasm for a popular thriller. “Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin. Not a great deal happens, and yet I was riveted.”
“I’ve read that,” said my friend. “One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.”
Both women were now animated, hands flying, eyes bright. “how that man gets into the head of the young woman!” “How he makes us feel everything she feels, how she makes her come alive!” “I was utterly involved in her life; felt like I was experiencing her life as an immigrant.”
These are the very women I write for. Okay, it’s true that my books are a little different than Toibin’s, in that quite a lot generally happens, and there’s nothing wrong with folks who like thrillers (I love a good mystery myself, and am in awe of people who write them well), but My People are those readers who want to be immersed in a life not their own; people who want to be stretched, pulled out of their shells, rattled a little; people who want to empathize with a life very different, perhaps, than their own.
But how many people want to do that these days? How many people just want to read the same thing over and over…whatever vampire/thriller/time traveler/love story happens to be popular at the moment.
For better or worse, and I like to think for better, I don’t write those kind of books. I write books that will probably take you to a world you aren’t familiar with. I don’t know whether the publishing business wants that anymore, regardless of quality. Take this rejection letter concerning my recently-completed novel, set in the 7th c. (I haven’t edited the letter, except to take out the publisher’s name):
As a former archaeology minor who spent quite a bit of time studying this period in history, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to have this on submission. I dove right into it. And I cannot tell you what pleasure Davis’s book has brought me–she paces her story perfectly and her research lends the story both a backbone of fact and history, and intriguing details and twists in character and plot that I found fascinating…and compelling.
And yet, for as much fun as I had with this…and for as long as I know Aisling [the main character] will stick with me…I am just not sure how to position this on the ——- list to ensure that it finds the success and support it deserves.
And so the editor passes. Really? Huh. Breaks my heart, that does, to have a fine editor pass on a book she obviously like because of ‘positioning’ (read, ‘marketing’).
Well, if you happen to be an editor who enjoyed Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones, an editor like, oh, I don’t know, the one who took Tinkers, by Paul Harding, after so many others (20) had refused, or who pulled Harry Potter out of the slush pile, or Jack London’s final editor (after 600 rejections)… there are any number of such stories…perhaps you’d like to give my agent a call.
In the meantime, I’m working on my next book and keeping the fires of hope alive, fed by the knowledge there are wonderful readers out there who don’t necessarily want to read the same old thing and editors who are hoping to satisfy them.