by Tom Grimes, August 27, 2010 9:31 AM
Interviews are easy, blogging is hard. Interview questions are posed by someone who has read your book thoughtfully and then fashioned a specific line of inquiry. The purpose of a smart interview is to illuminate aspects of your book that readers may want to pay special attention to and to prompt writers to reflect on authorial strategies regarding his or her book that previously had been uninvestigated. But when you blog, you're alone.
Having blogged for Powell's for a week, I have no idea why anyone who isn't paid to do so would want to maintain a blog. If you don't hope to shape a brief essay from which a reader can take away an idea that prior to reading an essay hadn't been in his or her mind, why do it? Pure narcissism? To sate a desperate need to be paid attention to by virtually no one? A blogger imagines a vast audience awaiting his or her next missive the way a modestly reviewed author checks Amazon hoping to find his or her ranking near the top of the list. Blogging offers bloggers false hope; at a bookstore, reading to an audience of 50 empty chairs crushes an author's hope unmistakably and immediately. Like blogging, the author is alone, only this time he or she has to face it.
Now, I don't mean to end my pleasurable, if strenuous, week of blogging with a stern sermon. I simply want to offer, as a sign of respect to Powell's and to you, my few faithful readers, a contemplative blog. I want to conclude our experience intellectually rather than commercially. So, please, do not buy my book. Do not read it. Do not tell others about it. Let them find out on their own that it will be on sale at the Wordstock Festival, Saturday, October 9th, in Portland, Oregon, where as a reader I will entertain, and as a panelist enlighten, and hope to find more than 50 empty chairs as my
by Tom Grimes, August 26, 2010 10:43 AM
is the only memoir I've written. Since my wife and I have been together for 28 years, we've shared a great deal of what happens in the book. But memories vary; the same event may have more than one point of view or interpretation. So we made an agreement: if her recollections differed from mine, we wouldn't argue about the difference. Otherwise, the debatable minutia would have skewed the book. Once the memoir was finished, we found that nearly all of our recollections matched. But we argued extensively about one sentence. It described the plaque on our attorney's office door. He was giving up his law practice and "moving into the film business." Jody and I wrote purposely terrible scripts for his small production company. Hot Splash
went straight to video and late-night USA TV. We were supposed to write a "biker flicker." Then financing fell through. But our attorney/director's masterpiece was Snake Island
. In the memoir, I describe our involvement with these Ed Wood-like creations and say that the plaque on his office door read, "James Ingrassia, Snake Island Productions." Jody swore that the plaque read — well, I just asked her. She doesn't remember. But nine months ago, she was certain that it didn't say "Snake Island." Our debate lasted for a week. Finally, I couldn't decide if I remembered the sign correctly, or if I'd invented it for an unpublished novel I'd written. She was certain, I became less certain, and as we were editing the book, I said, "Fine, it's out." We agreed on "The brass plaque nailed to the wooden door read James Ingrassia, Attorney-at-Law."
Overall, our agreement worked. But, in the end, it's your memoir. Consequently, whatever you recall is "right" even if, occasionally, it's
by Tom Grimes, August 25, 2010 10:24 AM
It's official: I'm wasting my life checking my book's Amazon.com rankings. Even now, as you're reading this Powell's blog, I'm checking Mentor: A Memoir
's rankings to see if, after you've finished reading my entry, you've bought my book. I know you should buy my book from Powell's. After all, its editors are giving me this space to promote my book so I can... check my Amazon rankings. Now, I want to be a loyal Powell's customer, but Mentor
isn't on Powell's "Indiespensable"
books list, which tells me this: I'm dispensable! In Powell's eyes (thanks for allowing me to blog!), my memoir's paperback is literary Kleenex. So, I have to go back to Amazon which loves me and ranks my hardcover at... fuck!... 106,481. How is this possible? Twenty-two hours ago, it was #51,520. Have 55,000 people fallen out of love with me? Are they returning my book by the boatload? And my paperback ranking: #26,074! Eight days ago they were ranked, respectively, #1,458 and #4,747. The Kindle version: #625. Why did so many Amazon buyers love my book then? Okay, a NY Times
review helped. Ditto the Washington Post
. But the A- from Entertainment Weekly
two days ago? Nada. Niente.
One-point-eight million readers and maybe one of them — tops! — buys my book. But this morning I received mixed signals. My hardcover number had fallen dramatically because its delivery time is now "1 to 4 months." Its first printing sold out less than a week... on Amazon. But you can buy the hardcover from Powell's. I just checked. But there's only one copy left! Quick, stop reading, buy it! But, wait. Why isn't it discounted? First, I'm not "Indiespensable," now I'm not discounted? I'm blogging for you. You like me! You like my book! At least, you like the paperback edition. You have 25 copies at your "local" warehouse, and 17 at the "remote." And it's discounted! Thirty percent. Gracias. But, actually? I wish I didn't know this. Now I have to check how many paperback copies you have in stock in addition to checking my Amazon ranking, which — fuck me! — just fell to #28,776. This morning it was #8,311. My Kindle number sank, too. I wrote it off for dead at #11,116. But, wait! Two hours later, it's #5,126, #18 on the "Authors" list, and #94 on the "Memoirs" list! So, am I happy? Not really. Relieved, maybe. But, since Amazon updates its rankings hourly, I have to check again in 17 minutes.
For any author not at the top of the Times bestseller list, Amazon rankings are a drug. They're literary crack. Also semi-meaningless because Amazon doesn't disclose numbers: not how many Kindles it's sold, or if your ranking represents the number of books sold, the number of hits on your book's Amazon page, or a combination of both. But it's the only cheap high middling-selling authors can get on new grub street, although it leaves a terrible hangover when your rankings inevitably drop. So why do I do it? My book is still the book it was 20 minutes ago and someone, somewhere, may be reading it right now. A stranger. Someone a little lonely, maybe. Someone who could use a little bit of what my book has to offer. And, while I'm staying up half the night checking my rankings, this person has drifted off to sleep, perhaps a bit happier after reading my book, and planning to send me an email in the morning to tell me so. And if by then I haven't lost my perspective with regard to literature entirely, then the single email that turns up in my website's inbox tomorrow will make Amazon's rankings from number one to five million worthless because my book will have done what I'd hoped it would do: connect with someone whose embrace and understanding can't be ranked, and whose appreciation of my book can't ever be
by Tom Grimes, August 24, 2010 9:30 AM
I felt like Pavarotti and I probably did everything he did, short of wearing a silk scarf around my neck. I had agreed to read the audio version of my book for Audible.com, a subsidiary of Amazon, but I began to lose my voice a few days before I was scheduled to arrive at the studio. So I got a prescription for five Z-Pak tablets, which cleared up my laryngitis. Then I spoke as little as possible for five days. Meanwhile, I loaded up on Biotene Dry Mouth chewing gum, slippery elm lozenges, Ricola cough drops, an herbal, alcohol-free moisturizer called Singer's Throat Spray, and a transparent plastic bear filled with honey that, during the most trying moments of the sessions, I sucked directly out of the hole in the little yellow cap on the bear's head. The day before, I didn't talk at all. The following morning, armed with every vocal cord emollient I could find, I carried two bottles of water, my memoir's 245-page manuscript, and a plastic bag filled with my battalion of throat protectors into the recording studio. Andrew, the sound engineer, a tall, thin, red headed guy who smoked every moment he wasn't chained to the church-organ-sized control panel, led me into the small room I would live and talk in, relentlessly, for four days.
To prep, I had read my book three times, softly, mumbling every sentence as I tried out different inflections, pauses, and changes of pitch and pace. The first mistake a reader makes is reading too fast. I had to speak, I learned, 50% more slowly than I usually spoke. Also, I couldn't speak in a monotone. And I had to enunciate all 75,000 words perfectly.
The room's walls were covered with acoustic panels, the floor was carpeted, the armchair's upholstery tattered. Once I was seated, Andrew swung a black microphone shielded by thin black mesh toward me and placed it three inches from my mouth. My manuscript pages were propped up on a music stand 12 inches from my nose, and illuminated by a lamp fitted with a small, bright halogen bulb. Then Andrew left and closed the door behind him so no air moved inside my room. Through the padded headphones he'd clapped over my ears I heard him say, "Rolling whenever you're ready." I took a deep breath and began to read. Five seconds later he said, "Slow it down. You're reading a litttttttttle fast." I spoke more slowly. Ten seconds later: "You're getting a littttttttle froggy in there. Take a sip of water to clear your throat." Next, my T-shirt sleeved rubbed against the chair's upholstery. "I'm hearing a litttttttle fabric rustling." I pushed up my T-shirt's sleeve until only bare flesh touched the padded armchair. Then I took a breath, started, and my stomach gurgled. "Let's take it from the top," Andrew said. I did. A moment later he said, "I'm hearing some lip smacking. Wipe your lips." We started again. I read page one, then turned to page two. "Pause when you turn a page." There had to be complete silence. So, I had to keep my throat moist, my lips dry, my stomach silent, my eyes trained on pages I had to turn without making a sound, and do it all without moving for several hours straight. Finally, I began to read without being interrupted.
I found the cadence of my sentences quickly, but it took 10 minutes for my throat to warm up and my breathing to fall into a consistent tempo. Still, every 20 minutes or so I'd need to pause, chew moisturizing gum, swallow honey, suck on a lozenge, or cauterize my throat with herbal vocal cord spray. By the end of the first day, my throat felt like it had been scrubbed with a wire brush. I had to lie down with an ice pack pressed against each closed eyelid to numb my eyes, which I'd strained while trying to see every word clearly. I was exhausted, yet I hadn't moved a muscle other than the ones in my throat all day. I'd read 45 pages and had 200 to go.
I began to worry that I wouldn't be able to finish reading them and the project would collapse. Frustrated and anxious, the next day's taping went like this: "I saw him walk across stage wearing his wooden — fuck! I saw him walk across stage wearing his woolen blazer." Next, I'd reach the end of a long sentence and mispronounce its final word. "God dammit!" Then I'd misread a line. "Shit!" Of the 24 hours of raw material the studio in New York City received — I recorded the book in Santa Fe — my guess is that approximately one-quarter of it consists of me spouting profanities.
But, oddly, on the third day I fell into a groove. I knew when to stop and lube my throat. I turned the pages in complete silence. I read flawlessly and sailed through 90 pages. I'd adjusted to the cramped space, the light's glare, and the isolation and entered my own world. It was the text and me, nothing else, other than the fly that flew in through the open door during a break and had to be hunted down and chased out. "Only 30 pages left," Andrew said. "Want to go for it?" meaning, finish reading the book that day. I passed. I wanted enough energy to read the end cleanly and with appropriate force and emotion. I was tapped out. The next day, however, I returned, warmed up, bathed my vocal cords with honey, chewed gum, sipped water, and finished recording the final pages in a few hours. "Your book is done, man," Andrew shouted as I removed the headphones. Whipped, I was more relieved than exhilarated. As Andrew played passages of it, I stood beside his console and listened. The voice sounded like mine and, at the same time, it didn't. I'd become disembodied in that small room. All that had existed and now all that remained were the recorded words, spoken as if by a ghost. After the typing, printing, editing, copyediting, and proofreading, I'd changed the finished book, as if by magic, into air. And once I'm dead, I wonder which will seem more "real" to someone who happens upon the book — the words that he or she imagines the sound of or the voice I've left
by Tom Grimes, August 23, 2010 11:18 AM
I didn't plan to write Mentor: A Memoir
. This is what happened. Tin House
magazine publishes a feature called "Writers on Writers." Yiyun Li
wrote about William Trevor
's influence on her work. Anthony Doerr
wrote about Alice Munro
. One day, while I was talking with Tin House
Executive Editor Lee Montgomery
, she said, off the cuff, "You should write about Frank." She was referring to Frank Conroy
, whom I'd known since 1989 when I first entered the Iowa Writers Workshop. I said, "Okay, I'll send you three pages. If you like them, I'll keep going. If you don't, I'll stop." A day after I emailed the pages, Lee called and said, "This isn't what I meant, and this isn't what we'll publish in the magazine." I was supposed to have written about Frank's work, not about him. But within a few sentences, a comparison between my father and Frank had worked its way into the essay. Lee added, "But I don't think you should stop. You might have a book." Surprised, I said, "Okay, I'll write the essay separately and keep writing whatever I'd begun."
The essay was published in Tin House's 2009 Summer Reading Issue. By then I was 200 pages into what I called "the Frank book." I thought I was writing a memoir about him, not about him and me. I needed to cover 16 years, but I knew the book couldn't be long. I needed to compress as much as possible and chisel every sentence until only what was necessary remained. This saved me from self-absorption. Also, I was able to depict more events than I realized. When I finished, I had 75,000 words and nearly 200 scenes combined with expository narrative.
When I read the book's first draft, I thought it was okay. But, I told my friend Charles D'Ambrosio, I felt disappointed. Plus, I'd come across 30 pages in which Frank didn't appear. I thought, "That's odd." Once Charlie had read the draft, he said, "It's your story. Frank is simply a part of it. A large part, but not the only part." Acting on his advice, I found the book's central problem: I hadn't answered the rhetorical questions I'd posed. The toughest one was, "For 20 years, have I misunderstood my life?" The answer was yes. Once I answered this question I found the book's core, and my sense of failure was at the center of it.
If I'd consciously set out to write a memoir about my life as a writer, I likely would have produced a diligent but shallow piece of work — competent but not revelatory. But, by beginning the memoir by accident, I focused on discovery, rather than recollection. And, by luck, I stumbled onto a somewhat universal emotion, which is that in one way or another, most of us consider ourselves failures. Now that the book has been published, I've learned that many of us also have had a "mentor." So it was chance that led me where I needed to go, rather than where I would have gone, and that, I believe, made all the