One of the dilemmas of every writer, let alone publisher, is how creative to be when writing a book. If a writer jumps genre, or writes in a completely different subject or theme, he or she often has to build an audience from scratch. I’ve heard of so many mystery writers who long to end a series, but know that’s what pays the bills, but this is true as much for the well-known fantasy writer who publishes an epic, or the romantic suspense writer that tires of love and/or crime, or both.
This reminds me of my days obsessing over the Myers Briggs type indicator. One of the things I remember reading is about the two different types of people who make the best actors. Though I forget what they are, one was more like a Meryl Streep, who inhabited the part and became a different person in each movie. The other was more like a Sylvester Stallone, who pretty much played variations on his persona. The key on this is that the former needs critical accolades to become a success, while the latter can develop a commercial following that is review proof.
You can see the parallels in writing, can't you?
So many of the writers that do book talks and readings at Boswell subscribe to the challenge method of writing. I was thinking about Dean Bakopoulos and Patrick Somerville’s joint reading on July 11. Each of their new novels (My American Unhappiness, which I've gone on at length about This Bright River, which Shane adores) are different from their first ones (Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon and The Cradle). These writers are building a reputation on the quality of their work, not on the ability to repeat a satisfying customer experience.
And I chatted about this recently with Diana Abu-Jaber. Her early published work viewed life through the lens of Arab Americans. Her previous novel, Origin, was almost a literary thriller. But her most recent novel, Birds of Paradise, was a contemporary family drama, with the only clue to her earliest work being one childhood memory of Turkish coffee. When I asked her a bit about this, she noted, “Why would I want to do the same thing twice?”
Don Lee has also jumped from genre to genre in his work. After a collection of short stories, Yellow, he followed up with a thriller, a comic romp, and now a collegiate novel, The Collective, which not surprisingly, I love. Amusingly enough, Abu-Jaber and Lee drive the same editor crazy with their directional changes. Now if only the literary public used my method, which is to read anything that their editor, Alane Mason, acquires. Yes, that's a complete and unabashed suck up. But I still feel bad for messing up several appointments at Book Expo.
It’s not that this is so crazy—isn’t that why folks like Nan Talese and Reagan Arthur and Amy Einhorn have self-named imprints? Of course the trick is that they don’t actually acquire all the titles on their list, so a book might come from a junior editor with a different esthetic.
So now you’re wondering, is Daniel leading up to talk about an event (not that I already didn’t mention one) or this just a rambling blog post? It was actually inspired by the former, as I started meditating about this after reading The Bay of Foxes, the new novel by Sheila Kohler that arrives on Tuesday, June 26.
The new novel is a mysterious delight, clearly an homage to Patricia Highsmith. One of the characters, Enrico, even leaves one of Highsmith’s novels on the bed. The story is about Dawit, an Ethiopian émigré whose escaped from political prison (his family were muckety mucks; both were murdered during the violent Red Terror regime of Communist Mengistu Haile Mariam) to live on the streets of Paris.
Dawit meets M. at a café. A famous writer, akin to Marguerite Duras, I suppose. He’s read everything. She’s resting a bit on her laurels now. They start up a conversation and she invites him to stay with her. How could he say no?
It turns out that Dawit reminds her of a lover from her youth, and hopes that he’ll fill the bill. One gets the idea that this has happened before. But Dawit can’t even fake physical attraction for her, as his erotic urges are all male directed. That said, she believes he will change in time, and meanwhile gives him an allowance and keeps him on as a sort of personal assistant.
Well of course you know that this is not going to end well, and the appearance of Enrico, that sexually confused red-haired, married, Italian architect is not going to help. I don’t like to give too much away in suspense novels, but I can say that the story was both engaging and disturbing, completely different from the Ripley novels, but like them, a meditation on identity.
Booklist notes: “Kohler's ninth novel teems with deception, passion, and suspense, thanks to her finely realized characters, whose desires and flaws urge the sometimes predictable action forward.” Of course I wish I could remove the word predictable, but I agree that I was hoping for more of a twist in the ending. But that’s an issue with lots of novels—I’ve heard customers debating the ending of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as well.
Library Journals’s take: “In an elegant and sensual style, Kohler creates a sensational novel whose audience will include--but will not be limited to--gay readers.” Wow, I never even considered this limiting, and that’s interesting to me, because I could write another essay on how a book I read with gay themes could have opened up to a wider readership. But that’s for another day.
The thing about writers who change course with various books is that they mostly have underlying themes that continue throughout their work. I’ve read that Kohler is very interested in the violence that grows out of intimate relationships, and the devastating effects of brutal regimes. And that makes this far more than a novel cut from the Highsmith template.
Just to drive my point home about how different Kohler’s style can be, our official event for The Bay of Foxes is Monday, July 9, 7 pm, at Boswell, but we’re actually hosting a mini-discussion at 6 pm for a prior book by Kohler, Becoming Jane Eyre, at 6. Kohler’s novel about the Bronte sisters was called “A beautiful complement to Bronte's masterpiece” by Kirkus. And you may know that Jane helps organize the Cardinal Strich adult literature class and this session they’ve been reading Jane Eyre with Jo McReynolds. So we had to ask Kohler if she’d discuss her knowledge of the Brontes with the class, right?
So Becoming Jane Eyre at 6, The Bay of Foxes at 7, on Monday, July 9, at Boswell*. I’ve heard from one ofour customers, who did the Bennington creative writing MFA that Kohler is a fabulous speaker. I can’t always say this in advance, but I’m pretty positive all attendees are going to have a great time. No 45 minutes of straightforward reading, followed by questions about what room the author writes in this time!
To put it another way, Kohler is doing her own warmup act.
*Here are the rest of Kohler's readings.
Thursday, June 28, 7 pm
New York City
Tuesday, July 10, 7 pm
Left Bank Books
Wednesday, July 11, 7 pm
The Book Cellar
Thursday, July 12, 7 pm
Books and Company
Thursday, June 19, 7 pm
Watermark Books and Cafe