Monday, September 11, 2017

My First Time: Jarret Middleton

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 Jarret Middleton, author of the new novel Darkansas (now out from Dzanc Books!) and the novella, An Dantomine Eerly. He was the founding editor of Dark Coast Press and the classics library Pharos Editions, an imprint of Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press. His fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Shelf Awareness, The Quarterly Conversation, The Weeklings, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Collagist, SmokeLong Quarterly, and HTMLGIANT, as well as appearing in the print anthologies The Breadline Anthology; Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices; and In Heaven, Everything is Fine: Fiction Inspired by David Lynch. He lives in Seattle with his wife.

My First Book Tour

My novel Darkansas hit shelves last month. On the cusp of a calendar of wonderful bookstore appearances, I got to thinking back on humble beginnings, paid dues, and the fun and absurdity of it all.

Back in 2010, I put out a little experimental novella called, An Dantomine Eerly. I was a young author and editor active in Seattle’s bustling literary community. I was used to doing events and reading series, but I had never toured on the strength of a published book before. With a blue-collar work ethic and a not-at-all-characteristic sense of enthusiasm, I set out on a string of dates outside of my areas of influence into the great unknown.

I read at any bookstore that have would me. In food courts, strip malls, and airports, I didn’t care. I packed up my car once and drove five hours to a tiny bookstore halfway up the road to Mt. Hood in Oregon, only to read to the bookseller and her cat. We had a lovely dinner next door before I drove the five hours back home. A few weeks later, I read to rows of empty chairs at a small community bookstore outside a major city in California. After I slogged through the minimum amount of pages required for it to be considered a reading, one of the booksellers took pity on me and bought me a beer. I wallowed in my pity beer and had a great conversation with the bookseller about my crazy little book, which it turns out he had read, and other weird, experimental, surrealist literature we both admired.

Truth be told, I may have developed thicker skin than usual by being the editor of a small press that received over 2,000 fiction submissions per year. With the help of interns and an assistant editor, we read every query and sample, if not the full manuscript. I had put 8-10 fiction titles into print each year for a couple of years up until that point. When you handle that many manuscripts from authors of every stripe, you tend to see every possible mistake made over and over again on the page. In effect, I developed my chops as an editor, yes, but it also made me a better writer, and part of being a better writer is taking things in stride, whether on the page or out there in the world.

So when the crowds for my live in-person events somehow went missing, I went through the normal gut reactions: a wallowing pit in your stomach, a creeping sense of self-loathing, that you would literally rather be anywhere else doing anything else at that very moment, but you continue and show the character required to get through it. Whether or not anybody noticed or cared didn’t matter, what mattered was that I went out there and did what I said I was going to do.

All these years later, I don’t really recall the dread, constant worry, depression, the late nights, or the endless list of logistical details that got me from point A to point B. What I do remember is this: the quicker I was able to shake off the sting of it, the less power it had over me. Even though I couldn’t control any of the circumstances, I could control how I reacted to them. It wasn’t a reflection of my self-worth, or even the quality of my writing. The efficacy of that sort of writing in the larger book market? Sure. Maybe give the book a title in English next time? Got it. But good business-sense is something that can be learned and improved upon over time as you and your work inevitably grow and get better.

Fast forward to the end of that tour, I read to a standing-room-only crowd at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, wired with a cordless mic for a spot with a video team. Some friends, some colleagues, and a whole lot of readers I had never met (and didn’t know how they had heard of me or the reading) showed up, bought books, and stayed to get them signed and then talk over drinks. It was one of the first experiences I had where I knew for certain the reading had not only gone well but exceeded my wildest expectations. The smile and glow took an extra long time to fade, and I woke up on a friend’s couch in Brooklyn the next loud and bright summer morning wondering if any of it had happened or if I had dreamt it.

Looking back now, the moral of the story is one of perspective. If you can train yourself early on to handle failure and success in stride you’ll be better off for it. If you are interested in writing full-time or building anything resembling a career you can be sure the highest highs and the lowest lows are in store for you. You are not in control of when they come or how they unfold, but you are in control of how you respond, so respond in kind. Don’t let the highs take you too high and don’t let the struggles get you too low. Be the pier that stays grounded as the motion of the waves swell and rush by.

Get out there and be vulnerable, take chances, communicate honestly. Forge relationships with other authors, building a network of support is essential for the long run and it makes you a better human. Introduce yourself to booksellers, they’re smart as hell and they’re the lifeblood of the industry. Get to know readers, they can choose to read anyone and for a brief moment, if you’re lucky, they’ll choose you. Whether or not they do is inconsequential, so treat people the same way regardless, with kindness and humility, day in, day out. Training myself to stay grounded and mindful has helped me a great deal, especially during the toughest of times. Whether I’m out there reading to empty seats or a packed house, I remind myself that I am glad that I even get the opportunity to do this at all.

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