Thursday, September 3, 2020

Boswell video recap - Randall Kenan, plus other favorites from the spring summer - Maggie O'Farrell, Alex George, Steven Wright, Kelli Jo Ford...

 It seems weird now that it took a pandemic for us to start taping events for later viewing. It seems just as crazy that we didn't immediately pivot to virtual events when it became clear that our in-store appearances would be cancelled. When we finally figured out how to do a virtual event, we didn't tape it, and that's too bad, as our conversation between Emily St. John Mandel and Lauren Fox for The Glass Hotel was a good one. If you'd like to see Lauren Fox's interviewing skills at work, we were able to tape her conversation with Christina Clancy for The Second Home.

Clancy's launch event was particularly dear to us.  She'd been talking about reading at Boswell since she was in the graduate creative writing program at UWM. Like several other cancelled events, some of which were not scheduled for virtual, a lot of planning went into it. So it's great to see that folks responded to the book's release. One of my friends in Massachusetts, who received The Second Home as a gift, recently wrote to me and asked if I had more recommendations like Clancy's novel. High praise indeed!

Now our default is that we tape them unless the author is giving a talk that will be repeated or a kids author is doing a complete story time reading. The long reading not only has rights issues, but it can also be pretty static, which is why most events now are conversations. We've been keeping copies of most of our events on our virtual event page. We'll try to keep every event on the page for a good amount of time (to be determined), and then we'll look at viewing numbers to figure out which ones should stay longer. So far, if you look at our YouTube numbers, our top number of views are for Joyce Carol Oates for Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. with Bill Young. My sister Claudia is making her way through this 800 page novel and loving it!

I didn't realize what a gift these taped interviews would be. When Chris recommended I read If I Had Two Wings, the newly released story collection from Randall Kenan, he had no idea that I'd been waiting for this book for 28 years. I went home to my bookshelf and pulled out his first short story book, Let the Dead Bury the Dead, which has held its place on my bookshelf when many other titles had found other homes. (Translation - I got rid of them. Sigh).

We mentioned Kenan's book somewhere - I don't even remember the circumstances. And our friend Kim Suhr at Red Oak Writing mentioned that she was one of Kenan's former students and would love to do a conversation. We wrote a proposal to Kyle at Norton asking if we could put something together for If I Had Two Wings. And we wound up with a lovely evening celebrating a special book.

Less than a month later, Kenan had passed away. The initial notice did not have cause of death, but this Shelf Awareness piece noted he had heart issues and had suffered a stroke several years ago. Ed Southern noted: "He remained deeply rooted in North Carolina" while Daniel Wallace called him "a brilliant writer and a mentor to so many writers who came behind him - particularly young, Black gay writers who looked at him as a hero." I should note that highlighting Kenan's event was my original impetus for this post, which then took a life of its own. 

In addition to hosting writers who were unlikely to visit Milwaukee, pivoting to virtual events have allowed us to host authors who definitely weren't going to visit Milwaukee. After a lovely event with Gail Tsukiyama for The Color of Air, I asked Jane Hamilton who she'd like to speak with. The truth is that we weren't able to get the first event together, but when she started singing the praises of Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, everything fell into place. I forwarded the interview to one of my friends who I thought would like the book and author, and he wrote back saying, "I'm in love."

The thing about Hamnet is that it really is a good hand-sell for independent bookstore customers. I feel like anybody who read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and it's follow-ups is a natural target. That's right - I am shooting the literary arrow of enthusiasm at you, as well as folks that love Shakespeare Books, people who read Geraldine Brooks, and well, I can probably think of a few more comparisons.

Because Jane is now the official ambassador to Inklink Books in East Troy, it made sense to work together on this. I like coining series - this one, assuming we have another - is Ink/Well. We've got another series going on with Books & Company in Oconomowoc called Readings from Oconomowaukee. We've now had two of these, most recently for Peter Geye and Northernmost.

This was an example where publishers were thinking about the virtual tour exactly as they'd plan out an in-person one. Not unusual - we just hosted an author where the publisher kept every date on the original schedule. The problem for us is that by the time our event came up, even the locals had gone elsewhere and the author did not get the audience we thought they deserved. 

Dual interviewers can be a tricky thing, particularly in terms of flow. But I'm particularly happy about how this Peter Geye event with Lisa Baudoin came up. Lisa and I read the book in somewhat different ways and we each pulled different things out of the story, a tale that is one of three family sagas (the others are The Lighthouse Road and Wintering) about the Eide/Hansens of Norway and Minnesota. Northernmost is the both the beginning and the end of the story - Lisa had read all three books, while Northernmost was the first I had read to completion. To my thinking, they are more companion novels that a sequence, much like the Gilead novels of Marilynne Robinson.

With virtual events, we're able to turn the selection process on its head. We write lots of proposals, but for the most part, in-person events follow the formula, here is this author, do you want them? (I like that I can now use them as first-person singular without a warning from the grammar police). The problem is that you say yes and then realize there's no champion for the book in the store. I would love to read every book myself, but I'd also like to keep the store open.

But when I do read a book and I like it, I can pitch the idea of being in conversation with the author. I can also do the same for Chris. For him, we've written proposals for Emma Jane Unsworth's Grown Ups and Steven Wright's The Coyotes of Carthage.  In the case of Wright, Chris convinced me to read it and it is contention to be one of my top 10 books of the year.

This is certainly one of my top ten favorite interviews. Wright is such a great writer and his influences are so varied. And I love that he's teaching law and creative writing and is co-directing Wisconsin's Innocence Project. And I love that the book is a hybrid of several different kind of books. I don't understand why this book hasn't exploded. I'm hoping that come awards season, it will get some nominations. 

Chris also led the charge for us to interview Emma Jane Unsworth. This is one of those books that's had a few title changes, though I should note that Grown Ups, the American title, was the original title. In Great Britain, they worried that Marian Keyes's novel of the same name would be confusing, so they retitled it Adults. But in the USA, there were more titles incorporating "adults" making a wave, including Emma Straub's All Adults Here. So they changed it back. But the problem is that in the virtual world, there are no borders and having a book with two titles in English is very confusing. Here's a twist - Keyes novel Grown Ups hasn't had an American release, but Unsworth did. In the day, we used to sell her pretty well at Schwartz, so that's surprising. (Editor's note - our rep Jason noted that Keyes did have American distribution, through Doubleday Canada. I assumed when I saw that colophon that there were rights issues. It turns out we were offered it, we bought it, and we even sold one). But it didn't convince the American publisher to stick with the British title.

We've had four great reads on Grown Ups, which using the tools of market research, allows me to conclude that there are many potential fans out there. Unsworth's novel about a heroine twisted into anxiety by social media - you see "her brain explode on the page," as Unswroth notes. I also like when the author noted that "Twitter is like the worst karaoke bar in the world." If you like neurotic comedy, this book is for you

It's hard for me to pick a conversation that I loved to feature here, so what the heck - I'll write a little more and include a few. My nonfiction pick has got to be Miles Harvey's The King of Confidence. It's such great narrative nonfiction - perfect for Erik Larson fans. And it's grounded in localness. James Strang, the iconoclast who started a religious offshoot of the LDS church, first set up in Burlington, Wisconsin before he relocated to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.

Harvey is just a great interview subject, and I will recall that this is my first event where I learned how to share screen. It was also one of those events where we had some great celebrity attendees, something that rarely* happens at in-store events. And I should note that more often, the famous (to me) person registers, but winds up not attending. But Charles Baxter did attend Harvey's event and now we're hosting him for his new novel, The Sun Collective, on November 19.

Harvey actually converted from an in-person event, as he lives in the Chicago are, but for Kelli Jo Ford, I just reached out to the publicist, as she was definitely not expected to come to Milwaukee. We had hit it off at Winter Institute in Baltimore (forever known as the last time I took a plane before coronavirus) and while I was concerned that I wouldn't do Crooked Hallelujah justice, I took on the interview myself. This is where I note that my advice to all conversation partners that enthusiasm can cover a multitude of interviewing flaws.

After the event, I asked Ford if she would be amenable to an encore event, as we've been putting together programs for UWM ACCESS and this book fit the criteria for their program quite well. So on September 9, she'll have be part of a circle of women, with Deb Lyonsdove, Megan Anderson, and Elisabeth Lambert. 

One novel I'm championing for the holidays is The Paris Hours, by Alex George. George's third novel is set in 1927 and features four interwoven stories about characters searching for some lost object or person, with the most memorable strand being about Marcel Proust's housekeeper. Proust asked her to destroy his notebooks, but she secretly set one aside. Alas, her jealous husband sold it. Until the interview, I didn't know that George originally used the real housekeeper's name, but when he diverted enough from reality  that he decided to fictionalize her, much like Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.

Alex is super charming here, and I love the way the book ticks so many boxes, with so many interesting themes interwoven together to make a very powerful story. It's like The Illusion of Separateness crossed with The President's Hat, too books that were not huge successes on the national stage but were enormously popular with Boswell's customers. If you've liked Van Booy's work (we also did well with Father's Day), you'll see that my comparisons between George and Van Booy's writing style are fitting. I should also note that two of us have read Antoine Lauraine's new book and we're working on trying to put together a virtual event for The Readers Room.

One last interview! Quan Barry's We Ride Upon Sticks is sure to make at least one Boswell Top 5 list, which our buyer Jason annually puts together. Barry, like Steven Wright, teaches at UW-Madison, and was originally scheduled for an in-person event. Like Wright, it took me a while to reschedule. But I'm so glad I did. Talk about a pivot. Barry's first novel, She Weeps Each Time You're Born, is a beautiful and poetic book that I would recommend to readers of Ocean Vuang's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, and I know there are a lot of you. Our event with Barry was similarly serious and beautiful.

But We Ride Upon Sticks is such a different novel, and I was wondering how different the event would be. Our original marketing still didn't include an author photo, so we substituted a design of cross-hatched hockey and broom stick. But when we reproposed the event as something virtual, Barry allowed us to tape the event, and I'm so grateful - it continues to be one of my favorites. Unlike many of our spring and summer releases, Barry actually had a little bit of a tour before the March shutdowns, including a visit to Danvers, Massachusetts, where the book takes place. 

I am clearly never going to end this piece. I have something to say about just about all of our archived events. We also have links to purchase books. You can access all of the Boswell interview archive here. And you can find more about our upcoming events here.

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