Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Welcome to the Teeny-Tiny, Unlimited-Access Future of the Book: Marion Winik and Suzanne Antonetta Paola Chat About Shebooks

Small "boutique" publishers seem to be popping up everywhere these days (and by "these days," I mean something like, oh, the last 100 hundred years).  Scrappy, boisterous, and innovative, these companies scoff at the notion "books are dead" and plunge forward with a firm belief in literature's survival.  Though small presses come and go, the good ones hang on despite the odds (anyone else remember when Algonquin Books was a small press which specialized in Southern lit?).  I'm always happy to give some blog space to what Writer's Market used to call "literary and little," so when author Marion Winik approached me with news about a New Press on the Block, Shebooks, I said I'd be happy to help spread the word.  Here's Marion with some backstory and her conversation with fellow Shebooker Suzanne Antonetta Paola....

Marion Winik
Not long ago, the idea of a book publisher operating on a Netflix model sounded like a graduate program in philosophy operating on a McDonald's model. Well, perhaps the latter is not far away because the former is here. Shebooks, a publisher of short e-books by women, soft-launched with a list of eight books on December 19.  Shebooks is the brainchild of Peggy Northrop (former editor-in-chief of More and Reader’s Digest) and bestselling memoirist Laura Fraser; the latter has a collection of travel essays called The Risotto Guru in the soft launch. Their list includes fiction, essays, memoir, and long-form journalism; each runs 8-10,000 words, the length one might read before bed or on a short plane flight. They are available individually for $2.99; by this March, there will be an inaugural list of 30 titles, a subscription plan allowing unlimited access, and three new Shebooks coming each week. Subscriptions will run $7.99/month, and include book club guides, author Q&As, and other extras.

I'll take the Soren Kierkegaard Happy Meal with a medium drink, please.

My own Shebook is called Guesswork: Essays on Remembering and Forgetting Who We Are; it includes eight pieces on the theme of memory and identity. Below, I chatted with Suzanne Antonetta Paola, a poet and prose writer who lives in Washington state (though we are both from New Jersey.) Suzanne's Shebook, Stolen Moments, is a trilogy of short stories about women who end up, one way or another, with possessions that used to belong to others, and examines how that affects their behavior and experiences. Here's our conversation:

MW: The three stories in Stolen Moments seem perfectly fitted together. Were they conceived as a group? Did you write them especially for the Shebooks length?

Suzanne Antonetta Paola
SAP: Hey, Marion, lovely to be chatting with you like this! The genesis of these three stories is unusual: my first character buys a purse at a consignment store with lipstick tucked away in a zipped pocket, and she accidentally uses it. Though her story begins with lipstick, the series of small changes it brings about rock her entire sense of self, her life. I had read that frustrating interview with V. S. Naipaul, where he dismissed women’s writing as “feminine tosh,” and I wanted to see how far into the deepest levels of who we are I could get from a lipstick! But that incident happened to me—I bought a purse at a consignment store that had lipstick in the pocket, and I used it by accident. It didn’t change anything for me, but I wondered what would happen if it did.
      I realized quickly I wanted to write a series of interlocking stories, each woman making seemingly casual choices that affect the others. Another woman leaves shoes behind in a hotel room; a maid finds them, and the fact that she’s wearing those shoes changes her life.
      Actually, this is an episodic novel, which I’m still working on. There are four women’s stories; they wind up, then each begins again in a new place. They encounter each other and make choices that have huge effects—kind of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in fiction!
      Now for you: Guesswork is so full of formal experimentation: the Tim O’Brien style of “The Things They Googled,” the quiz format of “The Book of Job: A Quiz,” which I know was modeled after a children’s Bible. And it feels to me as if you engage not just with questions of remembering and forgetting, but how we sometimes make choices to do both. How does form follow function in this collection? How is forgetting not just something that happens, but an act of survival?

MW: Thanks for noticing the formal stuff. While I love the kind of memoir I think of as a "porch story"—a relatively simple narrative from life, with nothing more fancy than a flashback or two—I also enjoy the veer towards poetry, letting pre-defined structures and the rhythms of language shape the thoughts. I'm also a big fan of shorter essays, ones you can hold in your mind all at once.
      As I say in the final essay in the book, “Newfoundland,” I have the worst memory of any memoirist you could ever imagine. This is part of why I'm so obsessed with writing things down. I also sort of love the process of losing pieces of the past and re-finding them eventually, realizing that there's all this buried treasure in your brain if you can only get to it. I had been thinking for a long time about the way I tended to reshape past events in my head in ways that were flattering to me, or made more sense logically than the actual events, so I was really excited to read the book about memory I tell about in that essay that confirmed all that. So, I'll tell you something funny and don't take this the wrong way. I had the sense that the protagonists in your stories had smoked a little weed or something (and believe me, I liked this about them) because of the way they seemed just a little confused by or hyper-aware of certain basic, taken-for-granted things about life. "M often wondered if people around you shouldn’t know more or less what you were thinking, and she spent an enormous amount of mental energy trying to puzzle this out." "F thought: this is how people develop lives that work. They have good clothes and stand at elevators at nice hotels..." "There were always things to do, weren’t there? No matter what happened to people, they did things."
      Do you see what I mean? Feel free to tell me what drug I seem to be on in my writing.

SAP: First of all, your weed question cracked me up! I read it aloud to my husband and teenage son, who found it hilarious (my son because of course, like all teens, he thinks his mom’s a dork). I didn’t think about my characters smoking, though I suspect M would. I wrote these stories in the year my state legalized recreational marijuana. So it’s, er, in the air here, so to speak (often literally!). That obsessive awareness of things that are part of what we might call the human condition—how does it feel to be the embodied person you are? What is relationship? What are the implications of fully realizing others are as human as we are?—is something I share with my characters. Maybe that’s why, though I supported legalization, I don’t smoke!
      Though for my characters, unlike for tokers, this awareness becomes an anxiety, a part of the crisis of their lives. I loved the idea of getting to these deep places through things as simple as lipstick and shoes.
      Marion, whatever drug you’re on in your writing, I want some! I am fascinated by the nuance you, a memoirist, bring to memory itself, acknowledging its uncertainty but drawing out the implications of that uncertainty, as if memory becomes each of our self-narrations, even our art: “what we misremember is part of who we are, the gaps filled in artfully by a web of guesswork.” I love how, as you reminisce with your sister, you note “this is one of those brand-new, never-before-remembered memories I so enjoy.” There is a real accumulation to these essays, funny and individual as they are. Can you give us any composition stories? Did you write these pieces to be a sequence?

MW: Sounds like I'm tripping, seeing all those patterns! Anyway, most of the pieces were written for my column in the online publication, Baltimore Fishbowl. I've been writing a couple times a month for two and a half years now, something I never would have dreamed possible before I took it on. Around the time I wrote the pair of essays "What If You Were Right" and "What If You Were Wrong," I got the idea of doing a collection on the theme of memory. A couple of years earlier, I had heard the great writer Joseph Bathanti talk about the book The Seven Sins of Memory, by psychologist Daniel Schacter, and finally followed through on tracking it down and reading it. So much of what I had been musing about was scientifically explained there, and I put a summary of Schacter's taxonomy of misremembering into the essay "Newfoundland," which is where the lines you quoted come from. Then I saw that others fit in as well. When Shebooks came along, I was thrilled about the short length because while I loved the idea of a Guesswork collection, I already started to doubt that I could get 50,000-plus words out of it.
      My next collection for them is called The End of the World as We Know It, and it's about being a mother. Then I'm thinking of doing one with a travel theme. Do you have other Shebooks in the works?

SAP: I really look forward to working with Shebooks again, but I don’t have anything in the works for them at the moment. I have a memoir and research book on adoption, Make Me A Mother, forthcoming in February from Norton, with attendant publicity to do, and I am working on making these stories into a novel. I love this publishing form, though, and I’ll be imagining new works in this length when I have some time to think!


Here are all the Shebooks available at this time, with synopses from the publisher:

Boys Like That: Two Cautionary Tales of Love:  A memoir by best-selling author Hope Edelman (Motherless Daughters, Motherless Mothers) of finding solace in unexpected places when her mother is stricken with cancer.

Guesswork:  A collection of essays on love, memory, and things that last, by popular author and NPR commentator Marion Winik (author of Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled Through Single Life, and many other books).

His Eye Is on the Sparrow: An Engagement in Black and White:  Anne Pearlman’s memoir of the traumatic beginnings of her interracial marriage, set in 1962. Pearlman is the author of Infidelity, which was nominated for a National Book Award and made into a Lifetime movie.

Lady Problems: A Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide:  Faith Adiele’s insightful and hilarious account of a clash of health care cultures. Adiele is author of the PEN award-winning memoir Meeting Faith, about becoming the first black Buddhist nun in Thailand.

Alone in the Woods: Cheryl Strayed, My Daughter, and Me:  Micah Perks writes beautifully about mothering a wild child after growing up as one herself. Perks is a novelist (We Are Gathered Here) and memoirist (Pagan Time) and co-directs the creative writing program at University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Risotto Guru: Adventures in Eating Italian:  Laura Fraser journeys from the SpaghettiOs of her childhood to savor the best of Italian cuisine and the culture that cooked it up. Fraser is a magazine journalist and the author of the international best-selling memoir, An Italian Affair.

Owl in Darkness:  This hypnotic novella by Zoe Rosenfeld, about a writer on a retreat who cannot write a word, confronts us with our own cravings for change and movement. Rosenfeld is a poet, writer and editor and the recipient of a MacDowell fellowship for fiction.

Stolen Moments:  Interconnected short stories by Suzanne Paola about how found objects—from a forgotten tube of lipstick to a pair of shoes left in a hotel room—transform three women’s lives. Paola, a poet and essayist, is a Pushcart Prize and American Book Award winner.

Mating Calls by Jessica Anya Blau: Could a little yellow pill be responsible for landing Lexie James in the bed of her lover—and her lover’s wife? Whatever the reason for this charmingly reckless school counselor’s bad behavior, you’ve never been on a bender like this one. In No. Seven, Zandra runs into her seventh love—of 48—in a department store.

No comments:

Post a Comment