Sunday, March 1, 2009

Yiyun Li Appears at Shorewood for "The Vagrants" and I Finished Just in Time

Back when all I cared about was buying, I'd ask an event coordinator at our stores what they were reading, and most likely they would tell me they were anxiously trying to finish the book of the author who was appearing the next day. I'd counter that when you read the book so close to the deadline, there's little you can do to sell it. Read earlier, I'd whine. That's when you can really make the difference in the event's success.

In my pseudo-helpful way, I'd offer advice. Don't read the author's book at the last minute. Fake it. You can quote some reviews, some catalog copy, or my favorite:

"And now we're honored to present to you, an author who needs no introduction, Author X."

At least once when I attended an event, this was shortened to...

"I give you...Author Y."

There's definitely an art to how long an intro should be. Too short and it seems like you don't care. Too long and you step on the author's toes. You also could be taking up time from his or her event. We don't usually get too much warning about whether an author likes to read for 15 minutes or 45 (either way the author will probably say 30) and of course we don't know if there'll be one question or dozens. And for most folks, the audience gets pretty antsy if you don't wrap it up in an hour.

Advice to folks who know they need to leave early: sit or stand towards the back.

I say that as I have just finished Yiyun Li's first novel, The Vagrants, with only days to spare before her event at the Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood. The event is this Wednesday, March 4th, at 7 PM.

Li comes into this novel with much acclaim for her first story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. To quote from her web site, the collection "won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction; it was also shortlisted for Kiriyama Prize and Orange Prize for New Writers." Wow!

What you can gather from her acknowledgements speaks volumes. Her author is likely Kate Medina, her agent Andrew Wylie, both heavy hitters. Medina alone has edited Elizabeth Berg, Amy Bloom, Tracy Kidder, Alan Furst, and for quite a number of books now, John Irving. In addition, it looks like Li also studied under the great short story master William Trevor. You really can learn a lot about an author from their acknowledgements.

Her first novel takes place shortly after Mao's death in a small city called Muddy River. The characters include the Huas, an elderly couple who took in abandoned girls, a young boy Tong and his dog, a deformed girl Nini, the simple man Bashi who takes an interest in her, and a news announcer Kai in a loveless but well-connected marriage.

At the center of it all is Teacher Gu and his wife, awaiting the execution of their daughter Shan, a date moved up mysteriously. A protest mounts, politicians joust for power. Each of the stories play out, according to the vagaries of the power-play, with those supporting the democracy wall erected to support Gu Shan, against the rest; either result's victory could put lives in jeopardy. The reprecussions scatter like skipping stones (my only Chinese cliched image in this entire post!)

Li, however, weaves together the stories like a fine tapestry. One could imagine Li could have also unraveled the threads and told each character's story sequentially. Then we would have had something more akin to interconnected stories. Li's choice of structure is smart; publishers would always prefer a novel.

So how do we tell people about the event? Of course we go to our target audience of voracious readers, the writing and English departments, and so forth. It's always amazing to meet a great writer towards the beginning of their career. The quotes are amazing, coming from Ann Patchett, Colum McCann, Peter Ho Davies, and Amy Bloom (and if you've been reading carefully, now you know how she probably got her copy).

Having only left China in 1996, Li probably has some interesting things to say about her experience and both the publisher's publicist and our marketing folks certainly played to that. We've sent notices out to the Chinese language programs, some professors who specialize in Chinese art and history, the MPS Chinese immersion school, and the local Chinese historical society, recently responsible for the Chinese Milwaukee book.

We'll see how successful that was. We should also get extra folks who want a last great Shorewood event experience. If any one of those targets is you, here are the details on the event from our web site.

1 comment:

Daniel Goldin said...

Three years later, and one of our readers found an obvious typo. I wrote that Kate Medina was the author of Yiyun Lee's novel. Of course I meant she was the editor.