Monday, September 29, 2008

Kidlit 08!

I can't even remember now how I found out about the 2008 Kidlit Bloggers Conference; but as soon as I did, I asked for that day off work so that I could attend. Because:
1) I've been thinking a lot over the past several months about how I can improve this blog--especially how to make it less random and more focused, and thus less like my actual brain tumbling out onto the internet, complete with dust bunnies and odd knick-knacks, like that tiny china box my best friend in 7th grade gave me for my birthday that's too small to put anything in and yet which I can't bring myself to throw Focus! *ahem* Carrying on:
2) It sounded like a great opportunity to meet children's lit bloggers in the actual world, instead of just reading and lurking in their online haunts, which is what I normally do; and:
3) It just so happened to take place in my hometown of Portland, OR.
So, bright and early Saturday morning, I joined several dozen folks in a hotel meeting room and settled in for what turned out to be a fabulous day of blogtalk and kidlit. I've attended a lot of conferences (both veterinary medicine and writing), and this was the one of the very few I've been to in which every presentation was both informative and entertaining. Not to mention, these folks are smart, funny, opinionated, and passionate about both children's literature and the art of spreading kidlit love in the online world, and consequently they're a kick and a half to spend time with.
Who are these passionate people? The Kidlit site has a list of attendees (with links to their conference blog posts, complete with photos!), but in general they're a delightful mix of children's literature book reviewers, librarians, book illustrators, and authors (both published and pre-published). Most wear more than one hat, some work in day jobs far removed from children's books, and for almost everyone, blogging about kidlit is a labor of love that pays back only in intangibles.
I'll post some specifics about what I learned a little later...but for now, major kudos to Laini Taylor and Jone Rush MacCulloch, the conference organizers, and to all the presenters. Next year's conference will be in Washington D.C...I'm already scheming ways to get there!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Summer of A Suitable Boy

I remember summers not so much by what I did, but by what I read. I read a ton, usually two or three novels going at a time...but almost always, when the summer is over, one will stand out in my memory. There's the summer of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. The summer of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. And then there was the summer I read hardly anything, because I was under a deadline, but every day when I reached the point of brain fry-age, when all original thought had been dredged up and consumed, I watched one of the “Making Of” videos on myLord of the Rings DVDs. There are a lot of them. Then, when I’d seen them all, I watched them again. For some reason, at that point in my life, listening to screenwriters and actors and directors and artists talk in endless detail about story and the creative process and setbacks and breakthroughs was both soothing and inspiring. (Especially since, of course, it was LotR, and you knew it was all going to turn out great in the end.)

This summer has been the summer of A Suitable Boy.

I plucked the book off a bookstore shelf in June. I hadn’t heard of it before, I didn’t know anybody else who’d read it. Entirely impulse. Skimmed the first two pages and was instantly entranced. So what if it had 1,472 more pages after those first two? What else is summer for?

A Suitable Boy is set in 1951 India, just a few years after the country won its independence from Britain. It's about a young woman, Lata, and her family's search to find her "a suitable boy" to marry. (Lata has ideas of her own, of course--and thereupon hangs the tale.) The novel follows four families, at least a dozen major characters, has I don’t even know how many plot threads...and yet the author, Vikram Seth, weaves it all together so beautifully that not once did I confuse characters or storylines. Almost every page is a marvel of storytelling. And, an even more amazing feat—Seth wrapped all those storylines into a beautiful, fitting, and entirely satisfying ending. A Suitable Boy is now one of my favorite all-time books. It’s made the desert-island list, and that’s the highest recommendation I can make. If you love a big, gorgeous family epic, a fictional world you can immerse yourself in for a long, thoroughly enjoyable time, then run do not walk to your nearest bookstore and get you a copy and take it home and dive in.
If you don't think A Suitable Boy will float your boat (hey, no judgement here--I'm one of two people in the entire country who didn't like Cold Mountain) then check out The Chick Manifesto's list of "Top Ten Hopefully Unfamiliar Books," parts one and two. Any list that contains both Rosemary's Baby and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has to have something for everyone. (Plus they included A Princess Bride, which is another personal desert island pick, and if the island has a DVD player, I'm bringing the movie, too, because this is seriously the best book-to-movie adaptation ever made. Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright (before she was Robin Wright-Penn), the best swordfight in all of moviedom, and the immortal line: "I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.")
Compelling characters. Fascinating worlds. Action. Passion. What's not to love?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Wop Bam Boom!

One of my best adventures in book promotion has been getting to know local booksellers. Now, Portland authors are lucky. Most places I’ve lived, there’s one national chain bookstore and (maybe) one used bookstore. Here, in addition to the usual suspects (Barnes & Noble, Borders), there are at least a dozen indies: St. Johns Booksellers, Broadway Books, Annie Bloom’s Books, Looking Glass Bookstore, In Other Words, and A Children's Place, Portland's indie bookstore just for kids. Not to mention we've got bragging rights to the biggest, baddest indie in the whole worldPowell’s Bookstore, which takes up an entire downtown city block in four-story, rambling, book-lovin' grandeur.

Everyone advises new authors to go out and build relationships with booksellers. When Tallulah Falls pubbed, I had no idea how to do this. My idea of shopping for anything--books, clothes, dog food--involves the least amount of interaction with actual people. I’m introverted, shy, and convinced that merely asking the location of something is inexcusably bothersome. In other words, I have a classic author’s temperament. Introduce myself? Couldn’t I just jump off a bridge and save everyone the trouble?

But to my relief—and delight—the booksellers I’ve met have been nothing but kind, encouraging, and supportive. At A Children's Place, Kira loads me up with recommended titles to expand my YA reading education. Roberta at Broadway Books hosted a Tallulah Falls reading for dogs and their owners which was a woofin’ good time. The good folks at Powell’s made both Tallulah Falls and Ten Cents a Dance recommended staff picks. And wonderful Nena and Liz at St. Johns Booksellers not only threw the launch party of my dreams for Ten Cents a Dance, but have continued to handsell the book to success; it’s now the #2 bestselling hardcover in the history of the store, second only to one of the Harry Potters. (Confound you, J.K. Rowling!)

The thing is, very few authors break out on the national scene. Most of us have to work just to become known locally; with luck, more books, and a lot more work, we hope to gain wider recognition and a wider audience. Good relationships with booksellers help. But that relationship is a two-way street, something we authors sometimes forget. Bookstores don’t exist to support our egos. They exist to sell books, bless ‘em, an increasingly difficult endeavor in the age of and videogames. I subscribe to 2 daily newsletters, one on the publishing industry and one on the bookselling business, and almost every week yet another independent bookstore gives notice that it’s closing its doors.

What's the best thing an author can do? Support his local brick-and-mortar store. Buy books there. Attend author events besides her own. Get to know the booksellers. Not just as a means to promote one’s own titles, but because booksellers are some of the coolest, sharpest, most knowledgeable folks you’ll ever meet. And they love books.

Authors and booksellers...we go together like rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga a dong, We're for each other like A wop ba-ba lu-mop and wop bam boom!