On Virtual Proximity and Self-Promotion

“The distance between writers and readers has vanished.”

By Aga Maksimowska

When I was a kid growing up in communist Poland, my mother used to read Astrid Lindgren’s The Bullerbyn Children books to me. I was obsessed with the brothers Lasse and Bosse from the time I could say little more than their names to the time I invented my own stories set in the tiny Swedish village.

Imagine if I had had a computer, and if the Internet existed. And if my literary hero had a Facebook account, or her own web site. Imagine also that the eight-year-old me, in my Gdańsk apartment, sent a personal message outlining my love and appreciation of Lindgren’s work, and that very e-mail was opened moments later by the 78-year-old in her Stockholm apartment: well, that would be unreal.

Writers used to be a mystery to readers. They were revered, as many are nowadays, but revered from afar. Today, the distance between writers and readers has vanished. Writers are available to their devotees for closer inspection on social media pages, open for e-mail exchanges or book club discussions via Skype.

Is this virtual closeness better, or worse? Would Astrid Lindgren hold the same firm place in my imagination if I were able to follow her on Twitter?

I don’t know whether I’ve arrived at an answer. I’m not sure I want to.

In my experience, both as a reader and a writer, this virtual closeness has thrilled me, but it has also disappointed me. Literary idols have replied to e-mails and made my day; others have ignored compliments and declined requests to visit my classroom. I’ve cringed over comments about my own writing, and cherished feedback from readers who were moved by my work.

When my debut novel, Giant, came out, I reluctantly started a blog. Shouldn’t I be writing flash fiction, I lamented to my husband, instead of flash journalism? I was apprehensive of using social media to promote the book. It feels icky, I told him. Shouldn’t someone else be doing this? Isn’t this a publicist’s job?

As it turns out, my ever-encouraging husband said, it’s this writer’s job.

He was right. In this ever-changing publishing landscape, with the modest resources of an independent publisher behind me, promoting my book on the Internet and social media is my job. If I don’t believe in Giant, why should others?

I can’t lie: the icky feeling hasn’t completely gone away. Sometimes I long to trade the time I spend doing publicity work with writing my next book.

I look forward to discussing our new reality with my fellow debut novelists at the IFOA roundtable entitled Novelists for a New Age. When that job is done, I will listen to some of my literary idols read from their works. I will gush as they autograph my copies of their novels before returning home to place the books on the shelf beside Astrid Lindgren’s stories.

Maksimowska will appear at IFOA on October 21 at 4pm, alongside fellow debut novelists Matt Lennox, Stacey Madden, Grace O’Connell and Tanis Rideout. For more about Giant, visit maksimowska.com.

IFOA begins with Rohinton Mistry’s music

By Janet Somerville

For many years the PEN Canada Benefit has had the privilege of the opening night slot at IFOA. Its essential work defending writers, promoting literature and preserving freedom of expression makes it a natural partnership. This year the Empty Chair on every IFOA stage is filled by Eritrean journalist and playwright Dawit Isaak, imprisoned since Fall 2001.

© readings.org

Thursday night’s event found a robust crowd filling the Fleck Dance Theatre eager to spend an evening in the rare company of Giller Prize-winner Rohinton Mistry, a longtime supporter of PEN Canada and its mission. Billed as an evening of words and music, I wondered if the notoriously shy Mistry would break into song, accompanying himself on a ukelele.

There were no stringed instruments on the stage, but Mistry’s warm buttery baritone filled the room as he read from a new piece grounded in his father’s gramophone records and he sang in Gene Autry’s voice “Don’t Fence Me In”—”Oh give me land, lots of land, under sunny skies above, don’t fence me in.” Utterly charming.

Musing “where did it begin for me the journey from there to here,” Mistry suggested that his “long and winding road from Bombay to Toronto” started with the shellacked discs of 45s, 78s and 33s his father spun on his gramophone—that magical machine that “shouldered the weight of his dreams.” As a boy, he pressed his cheek against the polished wood and “could imagine the music becoming a part of me.” And, it has.

If you were lucky enough to share in the joy and diversion of the songs that tripped wondrously off of Mistry’s storytelling tongue, you’ll understand why he referred to himself during his conversation with Eleanor Wachtel as “the vocal Zelig.” Next time Mistry appears on stage I hope he brings his guitar and harmonica and performs Dylan AS Dylan. That’d be really something.

© readings.org

When asked what he misses from India, Mistry paused, then declared, “you can be homesick for the past. I miss the monsoon. It’s a grand spectacle. The breeze of the Arabian Sea, like silk upon the skin. Remembering brings with it a benediction. It brings understanding.” I know what he means.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

Five Questions with… Stacey Madden

Stacey Madden, author of Poison Shy, will participate in a Sunday, October 21 round table discussion called Novelists for a New Age.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Madden: I just finished reading The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, which is a brilliant novel. I keep hearing that the Australian television miniseries is excellent as well, but I have this silly rule in which I refuse to watch anything adapted for the screen if I really enjoyed the book.

IFOA: What do you and your Poison Shy protagonist Brandon Galloway have in common? In what ways are you different?

Madden: Brandon and I have two things in common — our ages (he’s 29, I’m 30), and our solitary natures. We differ in a number of ways. Brandon dropped out of university and ended up working in pest control; I spent seven years completing two degrees and I work part-time at a book shop. Brandon’s mother is schizophrenic; my mother is very much sane. Brandon is an only child; I’m the eldest of four. Brandon is a bit of a loser, and I’m. . .well, I guess we have that in common too.

IFOA: What’s one thing you wish someone had told you five years ago?

Madden: Don’t sunbathe naked in the hot Dominican sun.

IFOA: If you could time travel, where and when would you go, and why?

Madden: I would put my time machine in storage, wait until my first cardiac arrest (which hopefully doesn’t kill me), then use it to travel back to my early twenties so I can be young and reckless all over again.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The Internet is…

Madden: …both a useful promotional tool, and an assault to the very existence of privacy.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Madden: Full-bodied.

Robin Sloan on Google, dragons and his favourite bookstores

Robin Sloan, debut author of the enchanting novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, took the time for a Twitter chat with us in advance of his appearance at IFOA.

© Helena Price

Our favourite quote?

“I’d say @Penumbra’s Google is one-third fact, and then the rest is playful extrapolation—or maybe satirical inflation…”

For more, check out the highlights via Storify.  Come see Sloan at the Festival on October 24 and 27.

The Rookie

By Arno Kopecky

Rookie! Rookie! Rookie!

Probably no one’s going to say it out loud but no doubt they’ll be running it over their tongues, this cutthroat confederacy of Litfest vets whose shark tank I’m about to enter.

Was on a sailboat when word came. Day 43, everything going fine. Blue skies over the coast of British Columbia, humpback whales bubble-netting some kind of finger-sized fish all around us. Using their breath as a net. You’re invited to Toronto. Come read out loud. Juno, Jian, M.G. (what do the initials stand for anyway—right, I should know. Rookie.), Alice, Adrienne, Louise—all kinds of grand dukes and duchesses. All gonna be there. Big network. I’ll fit right in, was my first thought. Well not actually. When in doubt of your capacity to measure up, vilify. Yes they seem wise, compassionate, clever and fun as hell to be around, on paper. It’s called Voice. In person they maintain a permanent mental crouch, are constantly prepared to pounce on an upstart Rookie at his very first um with a devastating loquacity that can only be meant to expose its lack in others. How did it come to this?

Started writing poems when I was eight. Bad poems! Parents called them wonderful, kept writing. Got tired of poems and starting writing stories. Bad stories! Teachers called them wonderful, kept writing. Got tired of stories, tried to write a novel. Bad novel! Kept it to myself, kept writing. Got tired of making things up and tried journalism. Mediocre journalism. Better than previous genres. Kept writing. Tried traveling, too. Editors became parents and teachers. Went to South America, wrote a— travelogue, mostly. Just hit the shelves. Who knows what they’ll say. Probably something like, keep writing.

For more about Kopecky at IFOA, click here.
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