So You Want to Be a Writer? An Author Interview with Meg Elison

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Meg Elison, author of “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife”

About five months ago, I joined the marketing team at a startup company called Ripple, that’s making a huge splash in the financial services industry. I’m so lucky to work with such amazing colleagues — one of whom is Meg Elison, our social media goddess and an up-and-coming author!

I recently read her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, and it’s so crazy good that it’s the only book I’ve completed so far this year to receive a 5-star rating.

The novel has been re-released today by publisher 47North, so to celebrate, I asked Meg a few questions over much-deserved cocktails. As an avid reader and aspiring author myself, I just had to know how Meg became the legend that she is now.

Book Club Babe (BCB): Did you study creative writing at all in school? If so, how effective was it in launching your career?

Meg Elison (ME): I didn’t study creative writing formally. I majored in English at UC Berkeley and I got a lot of my early experience by writing for newspapers, both in high school and college. I had very good teachers teach me critical reading, and later how to analyze and imitate style.

I would read books and essays and have reactions to them, typically very strong feelings one way or the other. I seem incapable of apathy. My best teachers were the ones who made me walk backwards and tell them why I hated something, and how to form an argument against what I had read. Learning to do that with both form and content is the most important bit, I think. Creative writing classes might have done it sooner, but I don’t think they would have done it better.

BCB: Who are your literary role models?

ME: I have many, but for a lot of different reasons. I’ve always looked up to Stephen King, because of his work ethic and his productivity. Margaret Atwood is a hero to me because she’s the one who helped me see how few books there are in my genre that treat women like people. Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde both make me jealous enough to cry with their prose; I am always trying to measure up to one of them. Sherman Alexie is an incredible inspiration to writers who are trying to write about poverty, so is John Scalzi. Amy Tan taught me to look at a line of women and see that any woman’s story starts long before she’s born. I could go on for pages and pages about this. Even the writers I hate have taught me valuable things.

BCB: What inspired you to write The Book of the Unnamed Midwife?

ME: I love the post-apocalypse genre. I got a lot of lectures about the END OF DAYS from a succession of creepy churches as a kid, and it went from my nightmares to my waking thoughts. I would try to figure out how it would work, how cities could crumble and a one-world government could possibly function. Once I moved past dubious prophecy, I started to read other apocalypses. I read good ones and bad ones and made my way through hundreds of books.

After a while, and after reading Atwood’s anomalous The Handmaid’s Tale, I realized that almost none of them had any real women in them. Women in these stories did not get pregnant, or need tampons, and many meekly submitted to a state of affairs that returned them to chattel status. I loved the women on “The Walking Dead.” They dealt with difficult birth on the show, but they all still waxed their eyebrows and shaved their armpits. Once I became aware of the gap, it obsessed me. I started thinking not only about gender in the apocalypse, but an apocalypse of gender. The idea came to me at a time when the War on Women was hot on TV, and it all fused into a feminist lightning bolt of rage. That was it.

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Book One in “The Road to Nowhere” series (Image: Amazon)

BCB: Describe the writing process: Any particular writing habits? How long did it take from draft to final? When did you start pitching? Any unexpected obstacles along the way?

ME: Midwife happened uncharacteristically quickly. I wrote 13,000 words on the first day, and that’s a record I haven’t broken since. After that, it was a sprint all the way through. It was written in a few months and pitched in less than a year. I expected pitching to be difficult, but I encountered absolute silence. It was beyond discouraging. When I got an offer from my very small first publisher, I leaped on it. At the time, I had to ask myself some pretty hard questions about whether I was settling, but it was the right thing. I got my work out there, and I have no regrets.

BCB: Your lead is an unabashed feminist who has no qualms discussing controversial topics, like casual sex and abortion. Was it difficult getting published because of this, and did you have to tone anything down in the rewrites?

ME: My first publishers were remarkably relaxed about the content of the book, and welcomed the frankness of it. My new publishers (I’m grateful to say) have been as well. I don’t know that 100% of the reading public is ready for my protagonist, but the publishing world certainly is. I know I was.

BCB: In the movie adaptation, who would you cast as the midwife and why?

ME: I love this question! My first choice is Kristen Stewart, who I think is capable of much more than she’s been given and has a good, hard edge to her work on gritty characters. My next would be Jena Malone, who really shocked me with the depth of her portrayal of Johanna Mason in “The Hunger Games.” She had a feral bloodlust and the look of a survivor to her, whether Johanna was flirting or stealing morphine, that I just adored.

BCB: Any hints on what to expect in the sequel?

ME: So, the sequel, The Book of Etta, picks up in the frame tale of Midwife. It’s the same town, a hundred years later. There’s been some cultural drift, and some of it would make the Midwife pretty unhappy, but that’s what cultures do. They drift and shift to stay alive. Etta is another very tough main character and has a struggle ahead. It’s the same kind of adventure, that same pace, with some new ideas in the mix. I’m excited for people to read it next year!

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Book Two in “The Road to Nowhere” series (Image: Amazon)

BCB: We work in marketing, so how does marketing affect your work?

ME: I don’t think about marketing at all when I write. I think that’s a terrible idea. I don’t care what’s trendy or what I think will sell, I want to write my story and let what will happen just happen. However, working in marketing has given me a lot of insight into the work of promoting a book once it’s done. I’ve gotten sharper about pitching, both the book and myself as a speaker or a guest at an event. I’ve gotten more succinct and distilled in my professional correspondence, which I think is very hard for many writers to do. I’ve been able to look at pitching angles objectively, without getting all tangled up in what it means for my artistic identity. Yeah, I’m an artist and I’m sensitive and shit. But also I’d like to make a living. Marketing makes books turn into pizza and rent checks and gas. It keeps me pragmatic.

BCB: What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring authors?

ME: The best advice I can give that I haven’t heard a million times is that all writers should hate-read. I read for pleasure and to keep myself in touch with the market, but I also hate-read like a motherfucker. Wanting to be like Chuck Palahniuk gives me a style to imitate and a leader to follow, but nothing more. Knowing exactly where Stephenie Meyer makes her worst mistakes, or why I cannot get through a whole book by Don DeLillo provides me with lessons I will never forget; concrete directives that tell me I’m headed in the wrong direction. That stuff is priceless.

BCB: What’s your favorite book of all time, and what are you currently reading?

ME: The killer question! I could have a different answer every day of the week. Today, let’s say my favorite book of all time is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. And I’m currently reading The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemison, and I just finished Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. They’re both very, very good.

BCB: What are you working on now, and how can people learn more about you?

ME: I’m working on the third book in the Road to Nowhere series, as well as two other unrelated novels. This has been a very productive year for me. I’ve also published a handful of short stories and essays recently. The best place to track me down is on Twitter (@megelison), but I also have a Facebook author page and my own website. I’ve got events coming up around the launch of my book, so come see me in meat space!

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Supporting Small Businesses: An Interview with Alley Cat Books

All images taken by Book Club Babe

All images taken by Book Club Babe

One of my 2016 resolutions is to visit five new bookstores this year, in order to support small businesses and promote the hidden gems in the literary community. In March, I interviewed the owner of Recycle Bookstore in San Jose, Calif., and during my European vacation in May, I discovered Pocket 2000 in Rome.

I may not be purchasing any books this year (yet another goal of mine), but that doesn’t mean that I can’t give independent bookstores the shout-outs they so rightfully deserve!

Last week I interviewed Simon Crafts, bookseller and event coordinator at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco. Alley Cat opened in 2011 in the Mission District, known for its cultural diversity and emphasis on the arts.

A unique aspect about Alley Cat is that the store’s owner Kate Rosenberger is a painter and prides herself on featuring local artists in the gallery at the back of the shop. As its bilingual website demonstrates, Alley Cat is also dedicated to stocking a wide variety of new and used books in both English and Spanish.

Simon is one of four Alley Cat staff members, currently studying poetry and creative writing in his MFA program at San Francisco State University. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for Book Club Babe, so let’s jump into the Q&A!

Alley Cat bookseller Simon Crafts in front of the “screaming door” featuring Writer in Residence Paul Ebenkamp

“Book people are great. People who care about physical books are generally decent, interesting human beings.” ~ SC

Book Club Babe (BCB): What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of working at a bookstore?

Simon Crafts (SC): The most challenging aspect is paying the rent! This is challenging because it involves being the best possible small independent bookstore we can be and making people want to come and shop here, while trying to be as different from a thing like Amazon or Barnes and Noble as possible. We want this to feel like a more intimate and interesting space than that, and we don’t want to sell books like they are just a product.

To that end, I think we’ve settled on trying to make an argument with this place to the people who come in: that books and bookstores have a deeper and more profound value than money and convenience and that there is something intangible and beautiful about a room full of books and the people, ideas, and things you might encounter inside a space like that.

This is also the most rewarding thing about working here. It feels exciting to be a caretaker, and so intimately involved in a place that is so electric and creative, like a big strange antenna into the world of ideas. It’s almost a sanctuary for certain sorts of people (both old and young) in the digital age and you’re stewarding that sanctuary.

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Stewarding the Sanctuary

BCB: How has the digital age affected your business?

SC: The damage has already been done. People who shop on Amazon do that now and I don’t think there is as much intersection or competition between the two worlds as people think. In fact, I’ve seen more people coming in and trying to wean themselves off Amazon this year than ever before. I think the public opinion has turned (at least in San Francisco) and this thing that was thought of as a revolution of convenience at first has lost its charm because it’s been revealed to be capitalism as usual. There is a silver lining to Amazon and e-books in that they shut down or greatly damaged the viability of big chains. This has actually improved our business by getting rid of competition here on the ground or “IRL” as it’s known on Twitter.

BCB: How are you involved in the community, and what role, if any, does social media play in your business?

SC: We are very involved in the community here. We have a gallery and event space in the back of the store that hosts poetry readings, fundraisers, open mics, book releases, film nights, square dances, and occasional music. We promote through newsletters, social media, and print calendars and good old-fashioned word of mouth. We try to give priority to local artists and people in the neighborhood. We really feel an obligation to participate in a positive way in this neighborhood and its community given that it is being threatened by intense gentrification.

We’ve also recently joined with fellow 24th Street bookstores Modern Times and Adobe Books to form an organization called United Booksellers of San Francisco whose mission it is to try to protect San Francisco bookstores as cultural and literary resources. Rents are (seemingly always) climbing in San Francisco, and we are all in threat of being priced out.

BCB: What does your inventory look like, and how do you select which books to highlight in your store?

SC: We carry used, remainder, and new books. We buy used books over the counter every day. We don’t stock romance novels or textbooks, but we have a more extensive art, poetry, and queer/feminist/radical politics sections than most bookstores.

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“Read about more than straight white men” ~ SC

BCB: What trends are you seeing in the books that are purchased?

SC: So people are talking a lot about it being “the golden age of television” but I think it’s really the golden age of the essay. There’s this sort of “hybrid-essay” genre that has appeared. Books like Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies,” and just about anything by Rebecca Solnitt. They really blur the line between essay, poetry, memoir, and criticism. They’re also simultaneously tackling some of the hardest cultural discussions and problems of our age. I’ve been selling a lot of these kinds of books, and it gives me hope for the future because it means people are interested in what they’re saying and they’re carrying these ideas into their lives.

BCB: What are your favorite books/authors/genres, and why?

SC: Well, I write poetry, so my favorite books are generally poetry, which is not everybody’s cup of tea (though I wish it was!). Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” is a touchstone for me and a classic that I think even non-poets can enjoy.

As for fiction, anything by Eileen Myles (who is also a poet). Her novel Chelsea Girls was re-released last year, and I recommend it to everyone. She writes like she is speaking to you in the room with this really infectious, casual voice. It’s like the opposite of fussy overwrought MFA fiction. The stories are autobiographical and short, but they all fit together into a larger tapestry. It’s a really amazing and quietly experimental book that is totally enjoyable for almost everyone.

BCB: Our book club is all about wine. Which wines would you pair with your favorite books, and why?

SC: We’re not really wine drinkers here at Alley Cat, so I would be lying if I claimed to know about any kind of wine except two buck chuck! We’re mostly beer and whiskey folks. I think a moderate amount of alcohol pairs well with just about everything (read or otherwise), but too much alcohol and poetry can have you speaking in tongues. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your friends.

BCB: Anything else you think Book Club Babe readers should know?

SC: We’re sister store to Dog Eared Books and Dog Eared Books Castro (which opened in June)! They are amazing independent bookstores, each with a slightly different aesthetic than ours. You should check them out as well!

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“There is something intangible and beautiful about a room full of books.”

Supporting Small Businesses: An Interview with Recycle Bookstore

All images taken by me

All images taken by Book Club Babe

As I’ve explained in my blog post about my 2016 resolutions, one of my goals is to visit five new bookstores this year. Buying books online may be cheaper and easier, but nothing beats exploring a unique, independent bookstore in person. This is the first feature in my new blog series on supporting small businesses, in which I will be interviewing the owner of an indie bookstore to learn about their business and their own reading preferences.

Let’s get started with the first Q&A of this series, starring Eric Johnson, owner of Recycle Bookstore! Recycle Bookstore has been in business since 1967 and has been owned by Eric and his wife Cynthia since 1998. Recycle Bookstore stocks over 100,000 titles, buying, selling, and trading books at its two Bay Area locations in San Jose and Campbell, Calif.

Before Eric began operating Recycle Bookstore full-time, he worked at the San Jose Mercury News. He enjoys running the store with his wife, their 15 staff members, and the store’s two feline mascots, Emma and Ender.

“I’ve always loved the magic of entering into a bookstore…Each book is a door that I can pick up and enter.”

 

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Eric Johnson, owner of Recycle Bookstore in San Jose, Calif.

Book Club Babe (BCB): What inspired you to start your business? Have you always wanted to own a bookstore?

Eric Johnson (EJ): I’ve always loved the magic of entering into a bookstore. To me, going into a bookstore is like a window into a whole range of worlds. Each book is a door that I can pick up and enter. I work in a time machine, because [through reading] you can travel through time and space. There are lots of places you can go!

BCB: What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of owning this business?

EJ: The most challenging part about owning a bookstore is just the day-to-day effort it takes to actually make it work. There are a million little, tiny things—in any small business, but especially in a bookstore when you own over 100,000 books in it—that you have to be doing: clearing out sections, getting rid of older books, and paying attention to what sells and what doesn’t sell to convey that to the staff who also buys books. The most challenging part is what I call ‘being nibbled to death by ducks,’ because it’s all the tiny things that add up. Before you know it, your week is gone.

The most rewarding aspect is seeing the pure joy on people’s faces when they have a great browsing experience. Hearing the feedback from customers when they compliment us on the store…it‘s more than just a compliment: you know that this person has had a great experience. Another rewarding part is just working with the employees in an environment where people can have fun and make a little more money than the typical retail job offers. It really is a close family relationship, and we like to hang too.

BCB: And how about the cats? What do your customers think of them?

EJ: We’ve had Emma and Ender for four years now. We adopted them from the San Jose Animal Shelter at the same time. Everyone loves to interact with cats. Their personalities are perfectly suited for a bookstore. They’re calm; they’re relaxed for the most part. It encourages a hedonistic slowness. You have time to do whatever you want to.

The many faces of Emma

The many faces of Emma

BCB: How has the digital age affected your business?

EJ: It’s obvious that used bookstores have lost customers to electronic devices. The amount of books that we’ve sold in the stores has declined for a number of years, but there’s been a little bit of a bounceback. People usually do both, both electronic devices and buying books in store. And some people tried [e-readers], but never got used to them. If people are buying less physical books, then they’re not turning them into us to sell. That’s part of the ecosystem, so to speak.

BCB: How are you involved in the community, and what role, if any, does social media play in your business?

EJ: I’m very much focused on my own little world. You have more outreach when you’re a new bookstore. Essentially, I like to think of my audience as one that doesn’t necessarily need something splashy to get them to come in. The focus is solely on the books. We recently got on Twitter; someone does that for me, so we do have a presence on Twitter and Facebook. We have lot of interesting people on our feeds.

BCB: What does your inventory look like, and how do you select which books to highlight in your store?

EJ: The selection process is half-art, half-experience. Through the years, I think I’ve learned what to buy and not to buy by listening to people. It’s an interactive process with the community. We don’t get new books unless they bring them to us. Especially early on when I started, I’d ask people, “Why are you buying this?” You just create a mental database of these odd books that people keep asking for.

"Each book is a door" ~ EJ

“Each book is a door” ~ EJ

BCB: What trends are you seeing in the books that are purchased?

EJ: Some people might find this surprising, some people won’t, but a big part of our sales is our kids and young adult section. Kids love the tactile experience of having a book in their hands, and they also love the idea of being in a bookstore and pulling out books. I think our first instinct is to really interact with our environment in a real-time way, and kids naturally gravitate toward that.

You definitely notice certain trends when you’re looking at a section that isn’t selling. Things are shifting all the time. Like I said, our kids section is selling a lot more, so we expanded that section. And then we have to look at a section like Americana, which is frontier, history, and things like that. It used to be a great selling point. A whole bunch of older men come in and buy stuff, but then, either because they’ve retired and have no money or have passed on, that audience just shrunk. So you really have to pay attention to certain trends. We have what I call ‘institutional memory.’ It’s why we have one central work area to communicate with one another [regarding these trends].

BCB: What are your favorite books/authors/genres, and why?

EJ: I’ve found poetry to be both a practical and a spiritual base to go back to throughout my life. I love poetry, because it seems like poets try to distill this moment of truth in a language that’s both real and vibrant. If I feel like life’s getting away from me, I always go back to some of my favorite poets: Wendell Berry, who’s an actual working farmer and poet who writes about agricultural issues, and the classics like Walt Whitman and Theodore Roethke.

BCB: Our book club is all about wine. Which wines would you pair with your favorite books, and why?

EJ: For some reason, I always prefer heavy red wines when I read. My favorite winery is probably Yorkville Cellars near Anderson Valley. Their Cabernet Franc is usually very good.

BCB: Anything else you think Book Club Babe readers should know?

EJ: A small business is a very delicate operation, and you build it over the years, book by book, customer by customer. We’re always changing, making the stock more interesting and more attractive. You’re looking at each person who comes into the store and trying to enhance their experience and connect with them.

I had a Yelper that put the nail on the head, and he said, “It’s like a comfortable home that you’re visiting.” I read that and thought, either unconsciously or consciously, that’s what we do. I don’t like to have a hierarchical relationship with my employees. We all work together. We don’t have a real dress code. We don’t say you need to interact with customers in XYZ way. Pay attention to the people, and see what they want. That’s what’s unique about our store. It’s the atmosphere that’s welcoming.

“A small business is a very delicate operation, and you build it over the years, book by book, customer by customer.”