Monday, March 3, 2014

My First Time: Patrick Hicks

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Patrick Hicks, whose debut novel, The Commandant of Lubizec, will be released later this month.  He is the author of several other books, including the poetry collections This London and Finding the Gossamer.  Later this year, his next book of poems, Adoptable, will appear with Salmon Poetry and, in early 2015, his first collection of short stories, The Collector of Names, will be published by Schaffner Press.  His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and many others.  He has been nominated seven times for the Pushcart Prize, been a finalist for the Dzanc Short Story Collection Competition, as well as the Gival Press Novel Award.  He's won the Glimmer Train Fiction Award as well as a number of grants, including ones from the Bush Artist Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and also a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.  He lives in the Midwest with his wife and son.  Click here to visit his website.  And for those who missed the earlier Trailer Park Tuesday featuring The Commandant of Lubizec, click here to see the video.

My First Dizzy Ride

It all started when I found out my first novel was going to be published.  That alone was incredible, and mind-blowing, and it left me thunderstruck.  Like most other writers, I had allowed myself to imagine that moment when an offer—an offer!—was made on my work.  I always imagined I’d bounce around like I’d won the lottery or something, but I didn’t do that.  Instead, I just kept reading and re-reading the email from Steerforth Press because I was confused.  Was it saying what I thought it said?  Were my eyeballs working properly?  It wasn’t until a friend read it and yelled out words of congratulations that I allowed myself to believe that maybe, perhaps, possibly, I might have sold a novel.

Since then, it’s been a dizzy ride.  And I’ve enjoyed every damn second of it.

Before I go any further, I should mention one or two things.  I’ve published a number of poetry collections and I’m used to editing, giving input on book covers, promoting my work, and doing readings.  I’m used to all that stuff, so I thought I had my poop in a group.  Publishing a novel can’t be that much different.  Can it?

But it is different.  I mean, aside from the print run being exponentially higher, I’m just blown away by the marketing apparatus and the fact that I’ve got a publicist (really?), and that I’m getting invitations to read at places I’ve never read before.  Sometimes, I half-expect someone to knock on my door and tell me it’s all a big hoax.  I’m sure it’s like this for all first-time novelists.  How could it be otherwise?  We sweat over our books for years and then, voilà, it’s out there in the public.  I’m still astonished this document that's on my computer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is going to be in real bookstores with real readers.

Given all of this, it’s hard for me to pick a “first time” to write about—there have been many firsts this year.  However, I think I’ll write about the first time I was a “Featured Author” at a national conference.  That was weird.  And wonderful.  And it’s a moment where all of my firsts coalesced, at least for a day or two.

I had never heard of the American Booksellers Association or their “Winter Institute.”  I had also never been to Seattle, where the conference was being held, so when my publisher asked if I was available in late January to meet 500 booksellers and discuss my book, I immediately said “Yes.”  It sounded like a great opportunity to promote my work, and I could also watch fishmongers huck salmon at each other in Pike Place Fish Market.  Maybe I’d be able to see the Space Needle, too.

The conference started like any other—lots of nametags, a bag o’ swag, people sitting outside a grand ballroom—but it was odd to look down and see my name, which had the word AUTHOR next to it.  In spite of the fact that I was a “Featured Author,” I had no idea what that meant or what I’d actually be doing.  I tried to act cool even though eels were swimming around inside my gut.  What should I say about my first novel?  Did I need to prepare a speech?

Fortunately, I was meeting my publisher, Chip Fleischer, for dinner that night and he would explain everything.  Just relax, I told myself.  You’re used to standing in front of people.  Whatever you’ll be doing tomorrow at this Winter Institute will be easy-peasy, lemon squeezy.

Before I met Chip, I was determined to do one thing: not be a doofus.  I mean, this man changed the whole trajectory of my writing life, and goodness knows the financial investment for publishing a novel is steep.  I wanted him to know how grateful I was for the opportunity and that I was going to bust my hump when it came time for readings and interviews.

We met in the hotel lobby.  His wife was with him and, together, they could not have been more gracious or kind.  Dinner was at a wonderful Asian restaurant and we ordered warm saké.  As we talked about the book and what prompted me to write it, I realized it was the first time I’d had dinner with a publisher.  I’ve published a number of poetry collections, but it was only while I was eating Pad Thai that I realized I’d never broken bread with someone who was printing one of my books.

It was a great evening that meandered between talk of parenting, travel, cooking, and expectations for the Winter Institute.  I also realized Chip is amazing at what he does and that my book couldn’t possibly be in better hands.

After we said goodnight, and after I returned to my hotel room, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and said, “Congratulations for not being a doofus.”

And so, I began my first time as a featured author at a national conference the next day.  The highlight for me was sitting at a table and signing advanced reading copies of my book.  It was surreal having a poster with my photo on it next to me, and it was even more dreamlike that two of my literary heroes had given amazing blurbs for my work.  I’m still quietly shocked that Tim O’Brien and Robert Olen Butler not only read my first novel, but they liked it a lot.

I deeply enjoyed talking to booksellers and readers.  The conversation was somber because—let’s face it—I’ve written a novel about the Holocaust.  It was a hard book to write and the research I did at the former death camps in Poland was emotionally taxing on me.  This means discussion is necessarily heavy whenever I talk about The Commandant of Lubizec.  This is only appropriate, and I look forward to touring the book where I might be able to crack open conversations about Operation Reinhard.  Although the camp in my novel, Lubizec, is fictitious, it’s based upon the real life camps of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka.  I hope to remind people about what happened in these places during the war.  I want to nudge readers toward finding out more.

David Abrams once pointed out that I’m “book pregnant” and that my due date is March 25.  True enough.  It’s strange to think that this novel, which has been so much a part of my private life for the last two years, will be out in the public soon.  That experience will be something new for me—another “first time.”  And who knows, maybe that’s something for a future article....

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