Tuesday, October 07, 2014

I'm on the New York Times Bestsellers List ...Seven Years Later.

A few months ago, when it was announced that the New York Times would be expanding their bestsellers lists to include monthly specialized lists including one for books about animals, I thought: "I wish they'd had that a few years ago." Because a few years ago I published several books--I'm a Good Dog in 2012 and The Dogs Who Found Me in 2006-- that did quite well, appeared on regional lists and certainly would have ended up on the new Times list if such a thing had existed. I also wondered at the factors that went into the decision to expand the lists: was it a way to market their lists to wider distribution, to encourage readers to find titles that might never make it onto the master lists? And I also wondered whether appearing on the list would make any difference beyond fulfilling an arbitrary childhood goal of becoming a "New York Times bestselling author."

The face of a bestseller
But none of this was on my mind late last night when something inspired me to go and look at the new list that had been posted for October. There, at #5, was...me. My book, Dogs I Have Met and the People They Found, was published in October of 2007--but here it was, the #5 animal title in October 2014. Naturally, I immediately posted the news on Facebook. Then I went back to check that I wasn't hallucinating or having some kind of dream.

How did I end up on the list seven years late? Last month, Amazon promoted the ebook edition of the title as a $1.99 deal for just one day. I found out about the offering when a number of Twitter handles began tweeting a link to the book and tagging me in the post, but the day was nearly over by the time I also began to spread the news. Still, the book rose into the top 100 in sales and stayed there, even after the price leapt back up to nine dollars and change. And thus, a bestseller was born.

Back in the 90s, when I worked in publishing, appearing on the list was big news. Champagne bottles were uncorked, bonuses were paid, followup deals were hastily offered. But this isn't the 90s. In fact, I have no connection to anyone working at the publishing house--Globe Pequot/Lyons Press--who published Dogs I Have Met. Everyone has been fired or moved on, and the company itself was sold to another distributor who, quite kindly, recently reached out to tell me that they owe me royalties. But Dogs I Have Met was the followup to my biggest selling book, my memoir, The Dogs Who Found Me. That book sold, I have to say, far more copies that many bestsellers rack up. After the first week on sale, they fired my editor. Then they scrambled to keep up with the unexpected demand, created, in part, because of grassroots support following Katrina, sincere passion of people who owned pit bulls as pets, and my having hired Meryl Moss to help with publicity. But while the book was popping onto regional lists as I toured, other parts of the country were without any copies at all, so it sold long and steady, but never all at once.

In spite of their blunders, and their firing my editor, it was decided that I should do a followup. I thought I followup
The horror!
wasn't a great idea. It was too soon. But I needed the money, which was very slight, so I agreed. The concept was this: I would share stories that I had heard from other people's experiences with stray dogs, gleaned from emails and conversations as I had traveled the country. The previous book had featured my pit bull Sula on the cover. Before I knew anything, they had created a cover for the new book with a birthday-card cute beagle puppy. I was mortified. The only beagle I had experience with was one that had bitten me in a park in NYC, so I immediately composed a chapter titled "The Beagle Who Bit Me." I sent a professional photo of Brando, my first dog, who had more fan mail that I did, and suggested they use it. Somehow they agreed, but later, when it was too late, they said that they had been unable to approach Barnes and Noble about carrying the book because they found the dog on the cover too terrifying. They brought me to BEA to sign galleys that year, and after a whirlwind 90 minutes of signing hundreds of copies for librarians and booksellers, I opened the galley for the first time to find that the formatting had run all of the chapters together without a break. It was gibberish. And the entire publication experience continued in that way, including the firing of my new editor just before publication. The new book sold about 20% of what the previous one had managed.

And now it is a New York Times bestseller.

Later today I'll go to work at Starbucks like any other day. I'll put on the green apron and black hat and try to get there early to ask my manager about the hours that were missing from my last paycheck and the hours that were dropped from my schedule. On my break I'll try to contact Verizon about my overdue cell phone bill and the parking garage about my pass. And when I get home exhausted after closing, I will feed the dogs and take them out and then maybe, if I don't fall asleep, I'll finish that proposal I've been almost done with, for a new book that maybe, I think now, someone might actually publish.

But I think what matters most to me is that Brando is on the cover of a New York Times Bestseller.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Check out these amazing shots from our Lilly the Deer project

This weekend I'll be working on the text for our Lilly the Deer book project, so I thought I'd send out these preview images from my project partner, photographer Traer Scott.  Lilly and her family are pretty private folks, so we weren't sure how things would work out once we got there.  Would she be camera shy?  Or bored? Lilly and Traer quickly bonded, and I was left on the sidelines.  Story of my life. But look at these great photos--just a hint at what was captured over a weekend last month.  (And if you'd like to own a limited edition signed archival print, they are available with a $250 donation to our project.)  

At one point, we decided to open a window and see what Lilly thought of looking out from the safety of her house: 

Lilly is gorgeous, and her story is moving.  I hope I can do it justice with my prose.  

We're still a little short of our budget as we get ready to go to press, so if you'd like to make a donation--even a small one--it will help us print up the complimentary copies we'll be distributing at the end of the month.  We also have some awesome rewards for donations, including an acknowledgement in the book if you donate by Monday October 6th via our Fundly page. 



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What the CDC Really Says About Dog Bites and Pit Bulls

The actual conclusion on the CDC's report on dog bite fatalities. 
Having a journalist for a father doesn't necessarily guarantee that you have the skills or the interest in being a journalist yourself.  For example, look at Charlotte Alter.  In recent piece for Time Magazine, Charlotte, desperate for traffic on a story with her byline, decided to write about pit bulls.  Her hook was the now disproven story of a family who was (but actually wasn't) refused service because of their child's scars from being bitten by her grandfather's dogs.  Charlotte's research included about five minutes on Google and no fact-checking at all.  Of course, there was a flurry of response from professionals in the animal welfare industry, but Charlotte scoffed at their claims (after all, what would vets and other professionals possibly know about animals?).  In fact, in spite of the fact the very premise of her story was proven to be false, she announced that she stood by her reporting.  

But lets take a look at just one of her claims: "A CDC report on dog-bite fatalities from 1978 to 1998 confirms that pit bulls are responsible for more deaths than any other breed."  But does it?  Here's what the CDC actually says about pit bulls:

"A CDC study on fatal dog bites lists the breeds involved in fatal attacks over 20 years (Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998). It does not identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is not appropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic. Each year, 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs. These bites result in approximately 16 fatalities; about 0.0002 percent of the total number of people bitten. These relatively few fatalities offer the only available information about breeds involved in dog bites. There is currently no accurate way to identify the number of dogs of a particular breed, and consequently no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill."

Reread that a few times.  Where is it that they confirm that pit bulls are responsible for more deaths than any other breed?  Alter bypasses the CDC's own statement on their study, which is itself more than a decade old.  But she does link to the paper itself, so maybe it says something different?  No, even the study offers this conclusion:  "Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates. Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog's breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues. Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs. Many practical alternatives to breed-specific ordinances exist and hold promise for prevention of dog bites."

Did Alter even read the report she linked to?  Probably not.  And the conclusions she claimed to draw from it are therefore not hers, but rather the crazy rantings of her other sources, including Merritt Clifton, a man who also claims that there is a corresponding relationship between hunting licenses and child abuse.  

So now Alter's grade-school level reporting is being used as a source itself, inspiring another writer desperate for attention to "write" a piece about pit bulls, culling all her information from Alter's band of looney experts.  Heather Wilhelm reports this: "Statistical reports from a wide range of sources—including the CDC, PETA, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Annals of Surgery, and a multi-decade, comprehensive report from the editor of Animal People (Merritt Clifton again) magazine—show one common theme: Pit bulls, like it or not, are far and away the most dangerous dog in America."  Again, any reader with even a tiny functioning brain must wonder--where is this CDC report that offers statistical proof that pit bulls are the "most dangerous dog in America."  It doesn't exist.  And we shouldn't trust the work of any reporter who claims that it does.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lilly the Deer: a collaboration with photographer Traer Scott

When I was a child growing up in rural Pennsylvania, it wasn't unusual to see a deer. Often they were in the woods just off the road. It was rare to see just one in those cases: there was usually a small group of them, startled as my own family whizzed past in a car. Or they might come wandering into our yard, looking for fruit, which they found on the trees of our neighbors. We had a huge picture window in our living room, and my mother would call me over: "Look what's in Mrs. Harvey's yard," she would say, adding "I hope they don't try to cross the street." It wasn't unusual to see them dead along the road, but our reaction never seemed as deep as it would be to see a dog along the road. Dogs belonged to the world of humans. Dogs could be missed. Deer were part of the landscape.

I thought of this as I drove from Detroit to Flint a few weeks ago to visit Lilly. I passed two dead deer along the road and gasped with sincere melodrama each time. At the site of the first, my hand actually left the steering wheel to cover my mouth. What had changed in those intervening years? Lilly had gotten me, along with her story. Our meeting, which would be our first, had been arranged through her lawyer; Lilly is a very well-represented deer. I first heard of her last summer, after the State of Michigan dropped by her house and told the humans that Lilly had to go. What fascinated me, initially, was the ethical gray area in which the case was lodged. I understood that people shouldn't have wildlife in their house; there were potential dangers to both the animals and the community. But Lilly had been living in this particular house all her life; her mother had given birth as she lay dying after being hit by a car. After five years, it didn't make any sense at this point to "return" her to a world she had never known and of which she had never been a part.

Lilly the deer's owners say she is just like the family dog. For more GMA, click here: http://gma.yahoo.com/

Don't worry, there is a happy ending. A compromise--a word we rarely seem to hear anymore. Lilly was allowed to stay if the family's house was licensed as a sanctuary. I immediately wanted to tell her story. My friend, the photographer Traer Scott, and I have been wanting to collaborate on a project and this seemed a natural. I had been successful writing about people and their relationships to dogs; Traer was well-known for her photography of both domesticated and wild animals. (Her upcoming book Nocturne is fantastic!) There was so much to tell in Lilly's story: it was about family, it was about love, and it was also, quite frankly, about the wonderfully surreal images we imagined Traer could capture of this modern sort of family: human parents surrounded by pet dogs, a cat and a deer.

But there is no "deer' section in the bookstore, and as we began speaking with potential publishers about "the Lilly project" we found their initial excitement and curiosity diminished after tossing it around the editorial department. They didn't know "where to put it." They didn't know who would read it. They weren't sure if it was for adults or children. One publisher even said that there wasn't any reason for readers to care what happened to a deer.

Excuse me? Although I wouldn't have said this more than a year ago...those are fighting words now. And I love to prove people wrong. So after a year of email correspondence with Lilly's "team" (my words, not theirs), we sat down around the patio with mom, lawyer, Lilly and the dogs to discuss other options. I was nervous, of course, about making a good impression. A good impression on Lilly. "What do you bring a deer on your first meeting?" I asked on Facebook. At the hotel breakfast bar, I hoarded apples, blueberries and raspberries and slipped them into my laptop bag. I probably needed have worried. The dogs and deer had just finished their morning frisbee game as I arrived, and they all greeted me at the door before setting in. (For the record, The Westin's apples are not up to Lilly's standards.)

I want to prove the publishers wrong, and I've done it before. My most successful books have always been the ones people thought would find no readers; my least successful have been the ones publishers thought were a great idea. On the way to Lilly's house, after passing those two poor dead deer, I thought: what if we found a way to do a version of this project on our own terms? It costs money, of course, to publish a book, particularly one with color images. Beyond that, the biggest hurdle is distribution. How do you get the finished product into readers hands? I figured for $10,000 we could get a small version of the book together. In the publishing business this might be considered a blad: a signature of pages shown as a sample of what an expensive-to-produce book will eventually look like. But we could print enough copies to distribute Lilly's story to the readers who might be most likely to respond to it: members of the animal welfare and humane education community. (Note: we also will include information on what to do if you find a wild animal in need of rescue (ie. don't bring it home with you!)

This is the scary part. Our Kickstarter has launched and now I have 28 days to find out whether I'm right or I'm wrong.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A return to the industry that I love...

When I was teaching full-time, and getting paid part-time, I used to joke that I could probably make more money working at Starbucks. Turns out it's not a joke. A few months ago, after eight months working at an at-home call center for AARP (which is a whole 'nother story), I applied to work at Starbucks and discovered that, between the tips, the health insurance, the retirement contributions and other benefits, I can, in fact, make more than I did when I was teaching. Not that that is saying much.

But I love coffee. I love the aroma of coffee, of the beans, and the drama of running out of caramel syrup. Really, it is like aromatherapy for me. A sense memory.

From 1993 through 1998, I worked entirely in the coffee service industry. I started in Portland at Coffee People on NW 23rd, and then moved to New Orleans, where I worked at PJ's in the Garden District, where Anne Rice was my first customer. Then I got sucked away to grad school in New York City and immediately began working at the Daily Cafe in the basement of the McGraw-Hill publishing building and then at the News Cafe downtown and then at the first Barnes and Noble Cafe on the Upper West Side. I even wrote a collection of stories in which most of the characters work(ed) in coffee shops while mistakenly thinking that they needed to move on.

But after grad school and publication, I, like my characters, mistakenly thought that I was destined to work a job that wasn't in service to other coffee drinkers. What a waste! It was such an unexpected joy to be back in the coffee world that I was reminded, remorsefully, of an acquaintance's Facebook post from a few years ago, when she announced that she had returned to the industry she loved and with a degree of horror I realized that the industry in question was self-tanning. Now I think: good for her! How foolish of me to not respect that.

Every morning I get up before the sunrise, get the dogs out and back in again, head downtown and get the best possible position for people watching: behind the register of the Starbucks at Canal Place. The parade includes Homeland Security, the Saks salesforce (and H&M and the movie theaters upstairs, Anthropologie, etc), lawyers from several firms, tourists from the attached hotel, and so on. By 1pm I'm done for the day and can head over to one of the French Quarter restaurants for a $9 lunch special or head straight home to the dogs. And to writing. I hope.

And to studying for my real estate exam.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A lesson for developers in what not to do

I was talking with some architects last week about the ongoing Perez APC debacle in the lower ninth ward.  I wish someone had been documenting this wreck from the beginning, because it would be a great teaching film for would-be developers: do not try any of the tactics you see here! And the professionals I was speaking too agreed--they had been forwarding coverage to their colleagues in other cities, in awe at the stubborn, clumsy disrespect Perez continues to demonstrate in a community they claim to aspire to be a part of.

More remarkable than their missteps is their refusal to backtrack when being called on their BS.  For example, after meeting with the community and learning that we have, historically, fought against development of the kind they were proposing, they announced that they had no intention of negotiating.  Then, when the community collaborated on three alternative plans with Tulane City Center, Perez complained that they hadn't been included, while refusing to incorporate any of the community's needs into their own plan.  The result: instead of having 800 people working to support their effort to develop the former Holy Cross school property, they have 800 people fighting against them.  When news coverage criticized the efforts made by Perez to bypass the community, they admitted that perhaps instead of a PR company they should have invested in community outreach; and then they continued to dismiss the community rather than reaching out to them.

Here are some of the highlights, or lowlights, of their failed campaign:

Here are the four testimonials that they featured in their glossy mailing to members of the affected community.  None of these four people live in the Lower Ninth Ward.  Two have been promised businesses in the development.  One has stated that she was manipulated into participating in the promotion.  Yet Perez continues to circulate their images and statements.

The benefits of height, according to Perez, is that it will solve common problems such as obesity.  Huh?  The same promotional mailing features a statement that the only people who have opposed the project are people who requested inappropriate "favors" from Angela O'Byrne.  This, of course, is an outright lie.  O'Byrne clearly has a different goal than the community, but it has nothing to do with favors, and it is a particularly clumsy claim to make when Perez itself has been offering favors in exchange for support.

This lead me to post this (I think) rather funny graphic on my Twitter feed:

The response?  Angela's daughter, a self-proclaimed "entertainer," began Tweeting and posting on Facebook calling me a troll who was trying to "stop her mother."

To be continued...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sentimentality in the East Village

Sunday afternoon I walked around the old neighborhood, much of which is unrecognizable, leaving me, and even some of my friends who still live there, to wonder what used to be in that spot.  "I think all of this just opened last week," my friend said of a strip of shops on Avenue B.  And she wasn't completely joking.  It was a relief to find some things still remain.

This the building I used to live in.  Apartment 3D.  I had a choice of 2D and 3D and even though it meant walking up an extra flight of stairs, it seemed worth it to be able to live in 3D.  I somehow managed to live there alone for four years before adopting Brando; now the only things I can remember involve him, stuffed alongside me in our tiny one room apartment and bounding out the front door.

 This little corner park is on C and 5th, I think.  I never noticed until Brando lead me there on a walk to check out the flock of chickens which, at night, slept in the trees.  I had no idea chickens could actually fly into trees and it seemed funny that I would have learned this while living in New York City.
 6th Street and Ave. C.  For the longest time this was a junk yard where a little Frenchman lived with his guard dog, a brindle pit mix named Tigre.  When I came by with Brando, Tigre would slip under the fence while his owner shouted to be careful, because he was coming to fight.  But he wasn't really coming to fight, he was coming to play.  Eventually the man was arrested and Tigre was adopted by a woman up the street.  They cleared out the lot and more than ten years later, all that is left is a crater.

7th and C.  Former bank converted into artist lofts with standard poodles.  The married artists who lived there often split their time in a place upstate, so they alternated one black standard poodle in the country with one in the city.  Brando would play with whichever one was in town.  And then, one day, they were both in town together and Brando freaked out at the sight of the two of them, ran and hid behind a park bench, refusing to come out.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

On Maggie, Money and the blogger tip jar

For the past few years I've been writing a lot about death.  And grief.  And it hasn't been by choice really, although as I get older it does seem, in a way, that that is what this world is all about: figuring out how to deal with the fact that people are going to die before us and before we are ready to let them go.  Last night, sitting in a bar with a friend I hadn't seen in ten years, we were talking about losing our parents, and how unprepared we are for it.  My friend said, "I wanted to call all my friends who had lost their parents and apologize to them for having thought I understood."

I was in New York for a memorial of my friend Maggie Estep who died in February.  It was, for everyone, the kind of loss that causes you to rethink your steps.  It was the kind of loss that feels distinctly personal, because Maggie was the kind of person who connected with a great number of people on a uniquely personal and individual level.  And so I've been wanting to write about it, but unable to write about it, a state that has contribute to some inconsistent blogging over the past five years.  Do I want to write again about the deaths of both of my parents, several dogs, several friends and, almost, myself as well?  Not really, but what else do I have to say?  So I keep hitting "pause."

Is there such a thing as a memorial that is not emotionally intense?  Probably not.  Yet, I have to say yesterday was intense.  It was intense because of Maggie, and everyone's love for her.  And it was intense because it brought us all back to the Nyorican Cafe.  And it was intense because we have all gotten shockingly older but at the same time haven't changed.  Yet what was most striking, in hearing people talk about Maggie, read from her work, and from work that she admired, is that we all knew the same person.  More than one person spoke about how Maggie had always been a pacer, the first to be on MTV, or go on tour or get a book deal.  But no one expected her to be the first at this.  She made us feel that we weren't quite doing as much as we should, not in a shameful way, but in way that gave us a good kick in the butt to get moving.

This is a big kick.

After we both left New York, we seemed to get closer in many ways, in particular over our love of dogs.  She genuinely thought my writing about dogs was an incredible accomplishment, and when she told me so it meant a lot, because she wasn't a bullshitter.  A compliment from her was gold.  She also was indignant at the fact that, even with my success, I had to work a crummy, ordinary day job to pay my bills.  She was far more upset by this than I was.  Last September, after I took a full-time phone bank job, she sent me this message on Facebook:

I was mortified to learn you have to have a day job. You shoudl not.  
If blow hard Jon Katz (I used to like him but he's a numbnuts about 
rescue and pits) can earn a healthy living preaching about labs and 
border collies, it is absurd that you are not rich. You have a LOT of 
FB followers, can't you do a daily blog the way Katz does and get 
paid subscribers? It's bad enough that I have to get a day job, but 
a total fucking indignity that you do.

So, here's the button Maggie wanted me to add to my blog posts.  Now I have some writing to do.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Perez land grab in Holy Cross

In the coming weeks, New Orleans City Council will be deciding on the fate of the former Holy Cross school site for which the neighborhood is named.  Perez APC has an agreement to purchase the property with the hopes of building a series of tall residential buildings along the river.  Their first proposal was for 13 stories, the latest is for 7.  Current zoning limits them to 40 feet, which is where the neighborhood would like to remain.  Working with Tulane City Center, the neighborhood came up with three alternate proposals to develop the property without the need for a change in zoning.  Perez is not interested.  

In spite of their lack of vision and funding, Perez has begun aggressively pushing for the zoning change, which would remain with the property even if they decided to sell it.  To gain "support," they have contracted with a number of questionable entities:

1.  Blair Boutte, a bail bondsman and convicted murderer, who offered them his services in identifying supportive "neighbors" in exchange for $30,000 plus expenses.

2.  Velocity, a new Orleans firm that has put together a sloppy social media campaign using fake Facebook profiles and testimonials from people who don't actually live in the neighborhood.  

3.  FDG Creative, a company that specializes in mobilizing support, "online and in person," to help create the appearance of community support for developer projects.  

The past two years has seen a remarkable surge in renovation and population of the Holy Cross neighborhood, where I have lived since 2007.  And the residents would love to see something happen on the site of the former school.  Abandoned my the Brothers of Holy Cross after Katrina, the school ground have sat unused since then, after an unusual deal in which the Brothers were able to get FEMA to fund a brand new campus, yet also retain their old, unused land.  They have been trying to maximize their profits ever since, with a series of development proposals that would, in earlier incarnations, rise as high as 13 stories or even create a gated community with its own neighborhood association within our neighborhood.  

Because of this history, Perez has realized it is vital to create the illusion of neighborhood support.  They have even launched a series of videos featuring testimonials from people you might assume are representatives of the neighborhood--yet they don't even live here.  Their astroturf grassroots website talks about inclusion and wanting to hear from people--yet they don't respond to emails and have banned many of us from asking questions on their Facebook page.  

Normally, in a situation like this, a community would be able to count on their councilperson to represent them. But our council member is James Gray, a lawyer and associate of Blair Boutte.  Gray is also now in the process of being disbarred.  And he only received 38% of the vote in the Lower Ninth Ward, winning his seat with support from New Orleans East.  He has already made it clear that he sides with the outside developer.  

The petition to support the neighborhood is here:

Here are some other reports to consider:

From The Atlantic

From The Lens

Neighbors speaking with Angela Hill on WWL Radio

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Why I republished my first collection of short stories fourteen years after the first edition

The Kind I'm Likely to Get, 1999
The Kind I'm Likely to Get, 2013

Last year I was able to put out an ebook edition of my story collection The Kind I'm Likely to Get. Here's an extended version of my author's note from the ebook edition, with some of the backstory on the original publication as well as the how and why of how it fell quickly out of print and why I wanted to put it back in circulation.  You can buy the ebook for 99 cents at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and iBooks.  

When I first published The Kind I’m Likely to Get, in 1999, it was after years of rejections.  During that time, I’d met with agents, including one who was puzzled by the idea that the stories should be read in order.  I hadn’t thought it was so revolutionary, or that agents didn’t read things in order.  Why couldn’t it be a novel, others asked.  But it wasn’t a novel, and it didn’t aspire to be one.  Eventually, after firing my agent, it was published as a paperback original by William Morrow.  Even then, part of the reason it was picked up was that they were introducing a line of paperback original fiction and had a slot to fill.  This is how publishing works. 

It was a relief when it began to get positive reviews from places like The New York Times.  Maybe I would have the chance to publish again!  But just as quickly, Morrow was sold to HarperCollins and when the second printing of The Kind I’m Likely to Get ran down, it was never reprinted.  But, technically, it was available as a print-on-demand title, so they could retain the rights.  So, readers could order the title, but bookstores couldn’t return unsold copies for credit, which meant they were unlikely to keep any copies on the shelf. 

But in 1999, when I was negotiating my contract, I managed to strike electronic rights without anyone batting an eye.  We still weren’t sure what electronic rights actually were, and I was a completely unknown writer, so no one really cared one way or another. 

More than a decade later, after writing a series of books about life with dogs, reissuing my stories seemed like a good idea.  In the intervening years, I would still occasionally hear from people who had been inspired by the book, and it seemed likely that there may be a few curious readings of my dog work who might find the stories interesting as a relic of my pre-canine life, if not for other reasons.  As I prepared the files, I realized that it would also be easy to add some extras—including commentary on each story, which you, the reader, can choose to read or ignore.  Revisiting some of these old stories was a joy, because there were sentences and paragraphs that I'd forgotten about which took my by surprise in a great way. What was I thinking when I wrote some of these things?  And there were certainly some stories that I recognized as noble attempts, even if they didn't quite succeed at what I may have been attempting.  

I’ve also added four newer stories, Stories About Animals.  While there are virtually no animals in The Kind I’m Likely to Get, they are unavoidable in my more recent work.  And, to me, the stories with animals are warmer, richer and more emotional than the shell-shocked characters of my original collection.  But I’ll let you be the final judge. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Charlotte's Web isn't a children's book

I'm getting ready to start teaching an online course on writing about animals and Charlotte's Web is at the top of the reading list.  It may seem strange to have a book we all remember from childhood on a reading list that is meant as an example of the complexity of our relations to animals.  Also on the list: the work of Vicki Hearne, essays from The New Yorker, My Dog Tulip, etc., all works that are ambiguous or even somewhat unsettling.  In other words, they are real.

But Charlotte's Web is real too, and a great example of how creative writing can take an idea, philosophy or problem and explore in an unexpected way.  In notes to his publisher's marketing department E.B. White said that he wrote the book after moving to the country and finding an unexpected ethical dilemma with life on the farm:  "A farm is a particular problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors."

I think our best writing comes from writing through things we don't yet understand.  Certainly, my own memoirs about my relationship with dogs comes from a place of "not knowing" rather than a place of expertise.  Part of the writing is solving the mystery of why this topic pulls at us so.  

For more information on the upcoming class, check out Writing about Animals on Ruzuku.  

Remembering Ellen Miller, still

My 20-year New Orleans anniversary got me thinking about other anniversaries, primarily this one: five years ago in December, my friend Ellen Miller died in a hospital in New York City.  A unidentified Jane Doe after collapsing in a bodega.  We had known each other for nearly twenty years.  We met, briefly, in a writing workshop in New York City, and I knew as soon as I saw her that she was a junkie.  Her skin was a yellow-gray and her demeanor so interior it surprised me when she called after the first class asking if I would take her spot on the workshop schedule.  I said yes, and then she kept me on the phone apologizing and explaining, vaguely, how she just couldn't make it to class that week and was so grateful that I was willing to make this switch for her.  It was a simple favor, but there was such a charged sense of drama to the call I felt there was a backstory that I would never know.  And I might not have ever known it, because she never returned to that class.  I forgot about her, left NYC for my own melodrama filled year on another coast, and then returned to the Westside Y for another class upon my return.

And there she was: sitting on the opposite side of the table, smiling at me like an old friend and looking like an entirely different, glowing version of herself.  At the end of the introductory session she said, "You probably don't remember me," and I said, "Actually I do."  We were friends immediately.  The next week she brought in a short story about a woman struggling with addiction who enters a sordid relationship with the plumber she calls to clear the toilet that has been clogged by the digestive troubles brought on by heroin.  But it wasn't a short story, it was mammoth, and the other students in the class, mostly older, proper Upper West and Upper East Siders were appalled, which left much of the conversation to be had between me and the teacher, novelist Dani Shapiro.

Years later, when her novel was published and then released in paperback, and my collection of stories was out, we toured the West Coast together, staying at one point, in the same Tenderloin motel as the boyband 98 Degrees.  Just after that tour, we had a falling out that was entirely mysterious and heartbreaking to me at the time.  In retrospect, I'm sure it had something to do with this:  her novel had received a small dismissive review in The New York Times and my stories had received a prominent, mostly positive review by the very same critic; it was foolish of me not to recognize this at the time.

Then things cooled off for both of us.  I got a dog.  Ellen and I were friends again, though it was increasingly difficult to get to see her, to get her out of her apartment.  And when I did hear from her, often it was when she called me in the midst of some crisis.  But when we did talk, we would talk and talk and talk.  One of our running conversations was a nonsense plan to put together a literary anthology called Fat and Bitter: Stories about People Who Are Fat and Bitter.

When I got an email in early January 2009 asking if it was true that Ellen was dead, I knew the answer was probably yes.  I called our old precinct in the East Village and said that I was calling about a friend who I was told had died on the street.  An hour later a detective called me back and let me know he had been assigned to the case.  "Did your friend have tattoos?" he asked.  I could barely get the two words out.  "Her pets," I said.  I must have been sobbing, because the detective wouldn't hang up until I told him I was going to be okay.

In February of that year, we held a memorial at NYU.  I flew up from New Orleans in the morning, and got a plane home as soon as the memorial was done so that I could be in bed with my dogs.  My mother had died the previous spring; my father would die a month later.  The dogs who comforted me have now passed on.  I still think of all of them--Ellen, my parents and my three original dogs--every day.  I don't think that will ever change.

Dani Shapiro recently shared her thoughts on Ellen Miller's work at her blog.  

Friday, January 24, 2014

New course: Writing About Animals

Everyone is doing it--but it is so easy to do badly!

My latest online course is all about Writing About Animals--and we'll be reading about animals, too.  When an editor first suggested that I write about my dog, I said no.  The only dog books I knew at the time were schmaltzy and sentimental and I couldn't imagine writing something like that.  But then I realized I could write something on my own terms--and also that sometimes schmaltz and sentiment aren't bad at all.

In my new online course, starting February 17th, we'll read some classic works such as Charlotte's Web and My Dog Tulip, and we'll also dip into some more contemporary work by Cathleen Schine and Lauren Scheuer.  While discussing these published works, students will work on their own essays, short fiction or memoir chapters for peer critique.

Find out more here:  https://ruzuku.com/courses/4035/about

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss

The final reading for my upcoming online essay course is the memoir The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison.  When The Kiss was published over 15 years ago, it was just the beginning of the industry's obsession with memoir, particularly memoirs about obsession.  Because of the subject matter, Kathryn Harrison's book had generated a lot of heat and outrage before publication, with the strongest opinions often coming from people who hadn't actually read the book.  I had hosted a reading or two with Harrison and really loved her writing and her manner, and was shocked only briefly when a friend who had read the manuscript earlier told me that her new book, The Kiss, was about an affair she had with her previously absent father when she turned eighteen.  The shock dissipated pretty quickly, because anyone who had read her earlier work--the novels Thicker Than Water and Exposure--couldn't really be surprised that elements of her own true story had been disguised in those.

At a party one night, I remember a group of writers respectfully expressed their disgust with The Kiss and declared that they would never write a memoir. Ever.  And yet, now most of them have.

What is brilliant about The Kiss, and makes it worth studying, is the way in which Harrison crafts this brief, incredibly personal story.  What makes it compelling is not the secrets she reveals about herself or her own family, but the understanding she generates from the reader.  It ultimately isn't so much about incest as it is about family, and the incredible trust we place in our own parents. You don't have to be a victim to understand her story; you need only have been a child.

The subject matter, obviously, turns many people off from the idea of reading this particular memoir.  But when they do, they inevitably tell me how deeply moved they were, and how beautifully written this tragedy is.

For more info on my essay course, go to Ruzuku.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

My mixed feelings about David Sedaris

David Sedaris is hugely popular, so why don't I like him so much?  And I why did I almost delete that sentence, because I felt like I was being mean to him?

I first encountered his work way, way back when all he had done was appear on NPR and publish a slim collection of essays, or, more accurately, pieces.  And perhaps the "piece" nature of his work is part of what makes me feel that I'm missing something.  Is he funny?  Hilarious.  But does his humor reveal something about us, or even about himself?  To me, the answer to that question is either "no" or "yes, but not anything we really want to know."

But people like him.  They like him because he is so funny that they don't really expect much more from him.  They might even like him, on some level, for the reason I really feel resistant to his supposed charms: his humor comes at the expense of other people.  It comes at the expense of literally everyone he encounters.  He works as an elf and the people he encounters are awful.  He goes to a nudist colony and the people he encounters are crude and ugly.  He takes a job picking apples and his co-workers are unworthy of his company.  Etc.  And while it seems clear that each of these situations are of his own doing, he never bothers to ask any hard questions of himself.  Perhaps that wouldn't be funny.

His work also is clearly, highly, embellished.  Yet somehow, like most humor, it is considered nonfiction.  What is it about the humor category that qualifies the experience as nonfiction?  I've never been able to figure that out.

And yet...we'll be discussing Sedaris's work in my upcoming essay course, because there must be something there, right?  And also because, his work has taken an interesting turn in recent years. The barrier of entertaining us has been dropped, and his work has taken on a deeper quality that I actually do...like.

Here's a recent piece of his from The New Yorker:  "Now We Are Five."

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Joseph Mitchell's Ear for New York

Essays should be personal, but what makes an essay personal is actually up for grabs.  Sometimes it is the subject matter itself, which is the case in most "personal essays," where the author recounts in meaningful detail, an encounter or series of events that changed their life.  For other writers, like Joan Didion or Luc Sante, it comes from their profound focus, which leaves readers feeling as if we have literally viewed the world through their eyes.  But then there are writers like Joseph Mitchell, who devote themselves to telling other people's experience.  Rather than projecting themselves onto the page, they seem to act as the conduit that another's experience passes through in order to reach the page.  And yet...one could argue, that just as with Didion and her crowd, remarkable writers like Joseph Mitchell are directing us in a most personal way through the characters they choose to introduce to the world.

Mitchell, therefore, makes a perfect companion to the other essayists included in my online essay course, starting January 13th.  For more on his work, including links, check out this recent New Yorker appreciation: "Joseph Mitchell's Ear for New York."

For more information on my course, and a $25 discount, email ken@kenfosterbooks.com

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Luc Sante: Kill All Your Darlings

I hadn't heard of Luc Sante until I began studying writing at Columbia that I heard of Luc Sante.  I
hadn't really heard of anyone at that point and was remarkably under-read considering I wanted to be a writer.  But he was teaching a seminar called "Evidence" that was supposed to be about writing as an act of presenting evidence, an expansion of his own book, Evidence, in which Sante paired old black and white crime photos with an essay on the nature of and interpretation of "evidence."  This sounded intriguing, so I tried to enroll in the seminar, but was turned away due to overcrowding. The next year, in a planning error, the school overenrolled their first year class and in an effort to solve the seat issue, decided that upper level students did not need to take a workshop.  Workshop, of course, was the reason we were enrolled, so after an uproar, I was offered a spot in Luc Sante's creative non-fiction workshop.  At this point, I was no longer intrigued, but was willing to settle. Naturally, it ended up being one of the best classes I've taken in my entire life.   Each week we were given a strange assignment that forced us to rethink the way we created narratives.  Tell a story and reveal a character through an inventory.  Retell the story of the three bears in the style of a contemporary magazine.  And so on.

In my upcoming essay course on Ruzuku, we'll spend a week reading and discussing some of Sante's work from the collection Kill All Your Darlings.  One of the things that really seems to distinguish his work, for me, is that nearly everything is expressed through a sense of the physical: objects, geography, place.  Much of this is evident in a piece he wrote for New York Magazine: My Dealing, Stealing, Squealing Neighbors.  He can also be genre-defying, as in the essay The Unknown Soldier, which seems closer to a poem yet clearly expresses the sense of history of the Lower East Side of New York in the form of a litany of all of the many people who have passed before us.  And that same sense of cataloging and collage can be found in  The Book Collection that Devoured My Life.

For more info on my online essay course, go to Ruzuku