Saturday, September 19, 2015

Not Selling Anything But the Book--The Joy of Reading Lauren Groff's "Fates and Furies," With Yes, a Little Behind-The Scenes Stuff.

I have been doing a lot of event shilling for the past few days, and I need to remedy that. Our straightforward event listings do post on Mondays, though it's meant to be a little more personal and with more links than, say, our email newsletter. And I'll talk about events on other days, though mainly that's for books I'm really excited about that I've read, and once again, there should be a personal angle, a twist, that I can't do elsewhere.

But my antidote to all that is to talk about Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies. Back in May, when I was at Book Expo, I was able to participate in a program where booksellers could sit down with different publicists and pitch their programs. I was lucky enough to get a few moments with Jynne Martin, the director of publicity at Riverhead, who basically said, "I want to hear everything about your store, but first I want to tell you that you must read Fates and Furies, and then please have a donut." And crap, they are Doughnut Plant donuts, which is the one thing about New York that I think about all year, leading up to when I'm going to get a carrot cake donut, or a tres leches, or the chococloate chip. This woman knows her baked goods, and in my eyes, that is a window to the book lover's soul...except if their are gluten free issues.

So I made my pitch, took the galley, and moved on. And while you go through a lot of advance copies at Book Expo, the book stuck with me. You don't know how many great editors and publicists and marketing people come to booksellers and say, "I know you have a lot on your plate, but here's the book you have to read." And you have to know the formula - the priority is for event books, there's one in-store lit group book a year, and then there's everything else. And while some people think I'm a fast reader, I'm not. I'm generally at five books per month, which I think is slow for an active bookseller, and slow for me. I look back at my reading log for the eighties, when I had not too many responsibilities and at one point, no television, and I would read 15 books a month no problem. 15 turned to 12 to 9 and well, here we are today.

I loved the cover. I event loved the color of the cover. No people on it! No house! No street! If this was an important novel written by a woman, how did they prevent a certain retailer from making them create something more literal?  And I should note I particularly loved it together with several of the other Riverhead jackets, most notably Gold, Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins.

Lauren Groff made a splash with her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, but by the time Arcadia was released, the second novel in her contract, her publisher Hyperion (the trade imprint of Disney) had gone through many editors and incarnations and was in flux. Like many media conglomerates (Hearst, Newhouse, Time Warner), they were wondering what they were doing with books. and soon decided to jettison everything that did not mesh with their programming on ABC or Disney, and sold the backlist to Hachette.

In one sense, it didn't matter; Arcadia, a novel about a boy who grows up on a commune that I've discussed in this blog, still got great reviews and wound up showing up on several best-of lists. It turned out to be Ron Charles's favorite book of the year in The Washignton Post.You know Charles, I hope. I mention him all the time. That got it on our year-end best table. Hyperion had released the book early in paperback (after seven months) and that, along with us choosing the book for our book club promotions, led to some decent numbers for the paperback at least (since I'm the proprietor, I can tell you--30 books).

So somehow I was able to get the book to the top of my pile. And I read it. And here is my reaction.

"Did you ever read a book and have little to say but “Wow?” That was my response upon finishing the new novel from the author of The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia. It’s the story of a marriage, and for the first half of the book, it’s from the perspective Lancelot 'Lotto' Satterwhite, written off by his mother, the matriarch of a bottled water empire, when he impulsively marries Mathilde in college. Treading water as an actor, he finds his calling as a playwright, and fame too, with Mathilde hovering in the background. But that’s just half the story. When Mathilde’s voice takes over, everything we seem to know is wrong, or at least not quite right. It’s a rollercoaster of reversals and secrets, of loyalties kept and broken, of economic oppression and sexual politics – the stuff of high tragedy. All this and some fierce writing too. Wow." (Daniel Goldin)

Was there a tour? Yes. Did we get on it? No. Could we complain? Absolutely not! We already had several Riverhead authors coming, and for that, I was incredibly grateful. Plus could I guarantee 100 people? We really do have a good reputation for doing well with literary events, but I just felt that to beg, I needed to put together something amazing. In retrospect, this is the event for which I should have worked with a theater group, but even by July, our event schedule was so packed with programming, programming that would take up a lot of energy, that I just didn't do it. And honestly, I probably would have been told that the tour was full. Budgets are tight! Lots of authors don't tour at all anymore.

In a way, this book reminds me a lot of Station Eleven. First novels are fun, but it's even more fun to take an author that has a solid track record and explode them. Or think George Saunders' Tenth of December. And that was short stories! But there's something about someone paying their dues, and finally their work gets the attention it deserves that really gets to me.

And boy, has this book exploded. Early reviews are great. Mike Fischer reviews it in Sunday's Journal Sentinel. How about this line to make you melt?: "That passage (read the review for more) constitutes some of the best writing I've read this year, in a book filled with sentences that are not only drop-dead gorgeous, but also philosophical and existentially tough."

And yes, it has been already shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. There is a tour, though her Philadelphia event was postponed, due to the Pope's visit. And boy, I thought about how I could get to one of those cities, but well, with our own schedule, I just couldn't make it work, especially because Chicago wasn't on the tour. Now that the book has exploded, it's possible that they'll add more dates on. [We're getting Celeste Ng for Everything I Never Told You, right? Monday, September 28, 7 pm at Boswell or 2 pm at Steimke Hall on the Mount Mary campus. Please come - I love this book!]
OK, now I think I could aim for 100 people, but that's my 20/20 hindsight in action. I'm already quite positive that Fates and Furies will be on my favorite books of 2015 list. The only thing that can possibly push it off is if all the other booksellers wind up reading it and picking it as well, leaving me no choice but to pick an underdog. That is called the "pound puppy" theory of picking your favorite books of the year.

Congrats to Lauren Groff and the Riverhead team for hitting it out of the park. I'm not shilling anything here except a book I love. But hey, I'm a bookseller, right? That's what I do.

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