Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gayle Brandeis on expecting brilliance, NaNoWriMo, ebooks and more

My friend Gayle Brandeis began her novel-writing career with fireworks—she won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize in 2002 for THE BOOK OF DEAD BIRDS. Three more of her novels were traditionally published after that. Now Gayle is stepping into the self-published, ebook arena like many other authors.
I interview her here on why and how she chose that route for the sequel to Dead Birds, THE BOOK OF LIVE WIRES.
Before we start the Q&A, I want to share a sample of Gayle’s poetic, riveting style. Here’s the Live Wires opening:
It was the way she moved her arms. It was the way the four year old
moved her arms as he lifted his own arm to swing his axe. It was like they were dancing together, his arm, her arms, as he sliced through her mother’s stomach, her father’s chest. It was the way she moved her arms that convinced him to spare her.
They rose up from her shoulders like tendrils of smoke, like steam from a fresh wound. The tendons were so beautiful, streams running down her triceps, he almost cried. Her wrists turned as if oiled. Her fingers waved like wild grasses. He held his axe over his head and watched this girl’s blood-spattered arms undulate as she tossed her head back and screamed and screamed. He had never seen anything so lovely in his life. He lowered his axe, let it drop to the floor. He held out his hand.

You can currently order the ebook for $2.99 from Amazon or Smashwords. Here’s my interview with Gayle, in which she is simply awesome.

Me: When you wrote The Book of Dead Birds were you already imagining a sequel? How did The Book of Live Wires evolve? Is there a theme connecting the two?

Gayle: I definitely wasn’t envisioning a sequel as I wrote The Book of Dead Birds. The sequel came about through National Novel Writing Month in 2002. The Book of Dead Birds had won the Bellwether Prize earlier that year, judged by Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, and Maxine Hong Kingston, the three writers I most admire in the world, and while this was so deeply thrilling and affirming, I found I could no longer write. I suddenly felt as if those three amazing women were looking over my shoulder as I wrote, expecting brilliance, and I didn’t feel I could live up to those self-imposed expectations. When I heard about NaNoWriMo, I realized it could help me break through the creative blocks I had set up for myself--writing that quickly, there isn’t time to worry about whether you’re going to please your favorite writers.

I think I wrote a sequel that month because I had been curious about what my characters had been up to since I had finished the first book--I always had the sense that they were off living their lives, but I couldn’t access them until I started to write about them again. Live Wires is narrated by Darryl Sternberg, Ava’s love interest from Dead Birds and now her husband and the father of their baby. A couple of readers had told me that they couldn’t quite get a grasp on Darryl in the first book, that he seemed like too good a guy, and this was my opportunity to get under his skin more deeply. Just as Dead Birds alternates between Ava’s and her mother’s stories, this book alternates between Darryl’s and his grandmother’s stories (he is having her journals translated from Russian, French and Yiddish.) Along with characters in common, I’d say the theme that ties the two books together is the need to heal one’s past in order to move freely into the future.

Me: After four traditionally published novels why did you decide to e-publish The Book of Live Wires? Did other authors influence your decision?

Gayle: Over the years, I’ve mentioned the sequel at various book events, and readers have always been interested in the book, but I never thought I would share it--it was so hastily written, and I felt as if it was something that I had written for myself, not for a wider audience. After more people asked about it recently, though, I decided to revisit it and was surprised to find there was more life inside of it than I had imagined.

I decided to bring it out as an ebook because I want to embrace the shifting sands in the publishing industry rather than run away from them. I thought it would be fun to do an experiment with this book in particular because I have enough detachment from it, having written it so many years ago--it feels like I have nothing to lose.

A couple of writer friends have recently put out ebooks--Rebecca O’Connor’s Rise (a companion to her memoir, Lift) and Tod Goldberg, who released a short collection of stories. I had already thought about doing this experiment when I heard about their own, but watching them forge ahead into this new territory definitely inspired me on my own path.

Me: How do you feel about the rapid changes in publishing? Things that excite you or worry you?

Gayle: Change is both exciting and scary, and it has been a very conscious effort for me to shift my thinking to focus more on the excitement of this time of transition. How lucky we are to be able to watch history unfold, to be part of a changing landscape!

I won’t deny that I do worry about my ability to continue to make a living as a writer, however. My publisher had the right of first refusal on The Book of Live Wires, so my agent had to show it to them before I put it out as an ebook--it was a very funny feeling to be hoping for a rejection so I could move forward with my e-publishing experiment! I never imagined being in that position before. When the rejection did come, it was both better and worse than I could have imagined--the editor said that she loved the book and in a “kinder, gentler time” would have published it, but the larger editorial board wasn’t willing to take a risk on me because my earlier books don’t have the numbers they’re looking for. Of course now I worry that when I want to publish future books--and I do hope to continue to publish traditionally--publishers will turn me away because of my stubbornly midlist status.

It’s good to know that if need be, I can always take publishing into my own hands. I think that in many ways, this is a more empowering time for writers than ever.

Me: What was your experience with Smashwords? Any advice to other writers who are considering e-publishing? How many hats did you have to wear?

Gayle: I published with both Smashwords and Kindle--that seemed to be the way to reach the most varieties of ereaders. I am also working right now to get the book up on Google Books, because a large number of independent bookstores are now offering Google Books to customers through their brick and mortar stores, and I really do want to continue to support indies (that was one of the only things that made me hesitate about this experiment--I don’t want to contribute to the decline of beloved bookstores.)

This process has required the wearing of many hats--I think I have permanent hat hair from the constant shifting between being my own editor, proofreader, art department, typesetter, and tech person (although thankfully I have in house IT and graphic design backup from my husband Michael, and my friend Laraine Herring helped greatly with the editing). Smashwords offers a style guide to help with the formatting, but it can be a bit confusing anyway--I found this little video particularly helpful in clarifying some of the necessary formatting steps:

One other bit of advice--Flickr is your friend. There are lots of wonderful images that are available under creative commons that you can use for your book cover, and you can often negotiate with the artist to use an image when some rights are reserved (the photographer whose image I used just asked that I pay for a year of his professional flickr account, which was about $25.)

Me: How are you approaching marketing?

Gayle: I hired a professional publicist, just to get some extra muscle behind the book, and am excited by the potential contacts she’s making. I haven’t yet fully launched my own marketing campaign, but plan to use social media (Twitter and Facebook) along with emails to friends and family and colleagues, to get the word out. I’ll probably visit some other blogs, as well, and plan to write some essays connected with the book that will hopefully drum up interest.

I released the book when I did to celebrate National Novel Writing Month, and also the forthcoming 10th anniversary of the Bellwether Prize in January (when my friend Naomi Benaron’s amazing and much buzzed novel, Running the Rift, will be released. I helped her edit the book, and am hoping that our connection and this new ebook will keep my name alive in the Bellwether conversation.)

Me: What's next for you?

Gayle: I am in the throes of National Novel Writing Month right now, focusing on a YA novel that is currently making the rounds of publishers as a proposal (I had only written a couple of sample chapters). I am having so much fun fleshing out this idea that I’ve carried around in me for so long and am excited to try to blast out a draft in a month. I have a couple of other projects in the works--a new novel for adults and a memoir about my mom--but they are on the backburner while I give Seed Bombs my full attention.



By the way, Gayle has kindly stopped by in the past to answer questions posed in the comments. So if you want to ask something go ahead and she’ll answer if she can around her crazy-busy schedule.


Julie Dao said...

Great interview! It's really nice to learn more about the self-publication process and what it takes. Sounds very rewarding and motivating! Thank you both :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Julie: Thank you! I'm kind of amazed how many writers are trying it. The writing world is changing so rapidly.

Marcia said...

Excellent interview. I'm always interested in people's indie/e-pubbing experiences.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Marcia: Thanks for stopping by. I love the way Gayle explained the process, too.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Great interview! Thanks. Always fascinating to hear about authors choices when it comes to self-publishing.

Wen Baragrey said...

Really interesting interview, thank you! I loved that excerpt as well. I think I'll have to check it out.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lisa: There are so many more choices now, aren't there? My head spins.

Wen: Her writing is always layered, textured, as well as looking unblinkingly at some pretty tough stuff (hence the Bellwether prize for social responsibility).

gayle said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments, and thank you, Tricia, for having me back on your wonderful blog--such a treat to be here again! I'm happy to answer any specific questions if anyone has them (and I'm also happy to offer a coupon for readers of Tricia's blog who would like to check out my book; if you enter DP32X when you order the book at, you can get it for $1.00 instead of $2.99. Enjoy!)

All the very best,

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Wow, Gayle, thank you for making that offer to everyone! so cool. :)

Maria Cisneros Toth Blog said...

I loved this interview, Pat & Gayle! Just bought your book Gayle. My first Smashbook purchase. Woo-hoo! Thank you for the generous coupon!!! I can hardly wait to start reading it on my iPad! I'm really starting to like ebooks. :-)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Maria! Thank you so much for the lovely comment and for buying the book. :)

LynNerdKelley said...

Best of luck with the self-publishing, Gayle. I think you're going to be very happy with this decision. The royalties will never stop. With your prior success and awards, I think you're going to do very well. It's a very exciting time in publishing, isn't it! Thank you for your generous offer of using the coupon to buy your book.

Nice interview, Pat!

dolorah said...

This was interesting and informative. I worry that as an author in todays writing word; I'll need to spend more time self promoting/marketing my books than I do writing. And, I worry I'm not up to the challenge.

Gayle; you're doing a marvelous job with your novels. Good luck in your publishing adventures :)


Talli Roland said...

Fantastic interview. Good luck, Gayle!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lynn: The royalties certainly are a perk of doing it yourself. Nonetheless, it's a daunting undertaking (as I know you know)

Donna: I know what you mean about that challenge. It does sound overwhelming. In a perfect world, all I'd do is write stories.

Talli: Thanks so much, my dear. If anyone knows about promoting, you do! I'm still in awe of your chart rush.

Lydia Kang said...

What a gripping opening. Thanks for sharing your experiences with both traditional and epubbing!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lydia: i know! That opening gave me shivers.

Robyn Campbell said...

The world, she is a-changin'! So many writers are going into self-publish mode. I just ain't there yet, myself. But I applaud those who are doing it.

This was a great interview, Pat!

And the beginning is one that make a writer wish she/he would have written it.


Kathryn Magendie said...

Thanks for stopping by my place this morning, Tricia.

And what an interesting interview - from an author's perspective, I'm curious about those who "go it alone" after the "traditional publishing" route. Good Luck, Gayle!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Robyn: all these publishing changes give me that wobbly feeling of stepping on the deck of boat. We'll get our sea legs, I'm sure. (and thank you!)

Kathryn: Gayle gives such thoughtful interviews, it's always a pleasure. Like you, I'll be watching what happens as so many authors try this new path.

Golden Eagle said...

Great interview!

It was interesting to get her take on the process of self-publishing.

That's a chilling excerpt--in a good way, of course. :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Eagle: Quite chilling, I agree, and thanks so much for the comment!

Angela Ackerman said...

Becca and I will be SP soon, so this is very, very helpful--thanks!

Angela@ The Bookshelf Muse

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Angela! I didn't know you have a self-pub project in the works. I have to check that out!

cleemckenzie said...

Lots of good thoughts about self-publishing here. Very interesting.

Loved the excerpt of Gayle's writing. Excellent.