Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Fray Over Frey

Most of us writing nonfiction face the challenge of seeking truth by way of recollection.

Oh, my. Oprah’s brought James Frey back for his Day of Reckoning.

This afternoon, I caught the last 30 minutes of Frey’s second appearance on the American confessional icon's talk show. Memoir’s newest bad boy projected the image of a man who became a better man because he’s admitted to millions of viewers that he lied. He probably wouldn’t have made the admission, or returned for his DOR had it not been for the Internet site The Smoking Gun.

Either way, sales are booming. As I write this column, his controversial book is ranked #5 at His second, the one that picks up where the first left off, is ranked #16. Lying is profitable. So what else is new?

I haven’t read Frey’s book. Didn’t want to. I have loved two substance abusers in my lifetime, serious substance abusers. Both of them died young. Both of them left a trail of sad memories and grief because all who loved them hoped against hope that addiction could be overcome.

I figured if James Frey did happen to be straight while he was doing the book thing, it wouldn’t last long. Forgive me if I have little faith. Being burned on a regular basis tends to make a skeptic of those of us who have wiped up actual vomit, cleaned up bloody wounds from fights, and dealt with a drunk or a druggie when he was going through withdrawal.

I do, however, understand the challenges in finding truth by probing memory and recalling painful events. When I wrote my own memoir about our troubled move to Jacksonville and the bog that formed when our 12-year-old had an illness doctors couldn’t figure out, the quest for truth kept me anxious for the (roughly) 16-month period it took to finish the manuscript. A sub-theme in my book involved the death of my youngest brother when he was a baby.

I recall one afternoon in particular. I remembered parts of the day my brother had died, but I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. The only person who could help me was my mother. My surviving brother was younger than I was when the events occurred. I put off asking Mom about it day after day. I knew this would cause her great sadness, to recall losing a son. But finally I had to ask her questions. She might be over seventy years old, but she’s still very sharp. She answered all my questions, and her responses awakened images long forgotten in my mind. For some reason, as we talked, I could envision the window on the back door she and my dad came through the night the youngest member of our family died suddenly. Before I hung up, my mother and I were lost in a sea of very painful memories, but I had the facts much straighter than before I phoned her.

I checked other information by referring to my personal journal, to the notebook I kept once our daughter’s illness got into full swing, to the daily agenda I’ve kept in my office for over 20 years, to the radiology reports and lab results. I reviewed real estate documents, school records, every scrap of paper I could find from that time in our lives. The documents I used fill two large boxes in my supply closet. I interviewed both my daughters, quizzing them at length. I wrote and phoned our daughter’s doctors. I checked every single statement I made. In the interest of truth.

Over a period of a year, my publisher read and questioned some of what I wrote. We re-drafted about six times, if memory serves me properly. He’s a small press owner, but he happens to believe in accuracy.

Compared to Doubleday, my publisher’s resources are minuscule. But he took the time, a lot of it actually, to be sure that the book we hoped to sell to readers was as accurate as a human being could make it. After all, he was categorizing the book as nonfiction because I told him it was true.

I felt good about the book when it was completed. I had great hopes that it would help someone going through the same ordeal. I had great hopes, and still do, that if even one person is spared an emergency surgery because of the information in my book, then I did a good thing.

When you journey through a dark period in your life, if you survive it, you come to fully understand the meaning of the word redemption in a very personal way. I’ve received a number of emails from readers who’ve thanked me for writing the book.

My book will probably never be #5, or even #16 on I have no plans to sit on the dais with Oprah. To be able to do that, I’d have to change my whole attitude and method of writing.

To be able to do that, I’d have to be published through a press that could buy end-caps in book stores, a press that could schmooze bookstore owners and send a fleet of publicists forth to woo media, a press that could purchase co-op advertising, and do all the other things that make a bestseller zoom its way to the nightstands in millions of bedrooms. At the very least, I’d have to sensationalize some of the bitterest parts of my life.

It’s sad how some writers and publishers just don’t care about integrity. It’s all about the bottom line.

It’s inspiring how some writers and publishers do care. As for profits, small presses and their authors just hope for a bottom line, period.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sometimes a poet’s just gotta’ have fun

I often team up with fellow author Dorothy Fletcher for special events. Last year we conceived the idea of a writers’ retreat—we decided we wanted to go beyond the typical workshop and create an experience that would do more than simply inspire writers. We wanted a true writing experience, one that allowed time to go below the surface—a writers’ gathering that a 1 ½ hour time frame would never allow.

We had no idea what to expect. We found a place in Jacksonville’s historic Riverside area. The Riverdale Inn perfectly matched the vision we had for a setting—atmosphere, gardens, a genteel attitude. We spent months planning our format. Limiting the number of writers seemed to be a good idea. We wanted an intimate, individualized experience. We crossed our fingers, hoping other writers would like our idea.

Both of us are excited about our Wordstream writing retreat. Several teachers have signed up; several other writers have come on board. We wanted a group of 10; it looks like we’ll come very close to our goal. An independent bookstore, The Book Nook near San Marco, donated some very nice totes, and Starbucks Coffee Company donated gift cards for each of our writers. I picked up issues of The Writer to include in the bags; Dorothy found some creatively rendered notebooks. We have lots of handouts and information pieces for the bags too.

While we were planning this, we came up with another idea, one just for fun. We were trying to come up with an author event for our favorite Starbucks Coffee, the one in Lakewood Plaza. We do an ongoing “Authors at Starbucks” event there. With Valentine’s Day in mind, we decided to hold a “Love Poem Clinic.” We both laughed as we came up with this idea. I realized this would be something that would be just plain fun. We organized the “clinic” as a resource for others who want to write their lover a poem for Valentine’s Day. We pledged to assist them in rewriting their poems, hopefully taking the craftsmanship up a notch or two.

I’ve received dozens of love poems in email over the years, all of them from aspiring poets. Most of the poems are completely personal; only the person’s significant other would appreciate such a poem. A poet who’s into technique and form usually groans at the sight of such a poem. But when I think about it, anyone who even tries to write a poem for his or her lover is giving a genuine gift from the heart.

Other than those endeavors, I’m juggling a project for The Writer (will announce it February 1), beginning a really fascinating corporate freelance project, and prepping for the SC Book Festival. Making plans for speaking at a writers’ festival in Rockledge. Poetry Month is coming up and I’m trying to figure out how to make room for all the activities associated with that. Coming up with an overview for the 80th anniversary of my National League of American Pen Women branch—we’re holding an arts showcase in May.

My work is featured in this month’s issue of the Florida Council of Teachers of English journal. Considering the other poets they’ve featured, I am humbled by the company I’m in, and I’m very grateful to the organization for supporting my work.

Still hammering on the novel, have an essay in the hopper, and trying to build up my site. Still slogging through research and information about the felony murder rule for my nonfiction book. And of course, as always, writing poetry, the latest a blank verse sonnet.

Had a late lunch with my daughters today. We ate at Cross Creek so we could catch the first part of the Steelers’ game. The weather here was sunny with a temperate breeze. Like spring. Returned to the house and we watched the first half of the Seahawks/Panthers game. Every time one of us yelled, “Catch the football” the beagle hound raced to get his football, baying and pleading for one of us to pass it to him.

When I sat down at my desk tonight, I looked around me and savored the fact that some days, life is better than I ever thought it could be. Considering the first part of my life, most days I’m pretty sure I’ve been handed a miracle.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bookstore Angst

Over the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores. I signed in a number of cities with A Poetry Break (2004) and Killing Earl (2005). I’ve spent enough time in both chain and independent stores to realize that the bookstore we once knew and loved no longer exists.

The busiest bookstores where I’ve signed function as community centers. These stores have extended operating hours and a café that usually stays open until 11 p.m. They are always located in areas where there is a lot of pedestrian traffic. They also sell a lot more than books—everything from gift items like bookends to coffee beans. Most of them stock the same titles up front, and most of those titles have enough orders in to be classified as best-sellers. Most of those titles, in hardcover, anyway, will be heavily discounted within weeks of being displayed.

What’s missing from almost every store where I’ve signed is the long-term employee who loves books. I don’t mean to disparage the employees who work in bookstores now. But the day of the truly diversified book lover is, I fear, long behind us.

For one thing, all bookstores depend on major publishers to spur sales. Harry Potter makes the register sing. Mysteries drive the market. You will rarely see a truly famous author signing books in person, although ex-presidents, rock stars, and politicians will do so, and tickets are usually required for the purchaser to meet these media personalities.

What you will also see, in droves, is the mid-list author, or perhaps a local author. Tickets will not be required, and this type of author will spend no small amount of time single-handedly recruiting warm bodies—any warm bodies—to come in to purchase a book. Once this author leaves the store, his or her book will likely be banished to a back shelf and forgotten, at least by the bookstore.

That same mid-list or local author will do scores of book events outside the bookstore realm, and will likely sell more copies at book festivals, independent gift and coffee shops, and speaking events than the author ever sold in a bookstore environment.

Bookstores as centers of literacy and literature are scarce. They have become places where study groups do homework in the café, and where you are likely to see an upfront display of the latest yoga DVD rather than the latest poetry collection by a Pulitzer prize winning poet. The book business in America, like almost everything else, manifests as an extension of the entertainment world.

I miss the bookstore of my youth, the store where I meandered through hallowed aisles of books by all sorts of authors, where books were still produced as a quality product rather than rushed into print as a print-on-demand title, something even traditional, large publishers now do. I miss the employee who could actually name five living poets, the employee who could talk with me at length about authors like Carson McCullers or James Joyce. I miss the employee who could think for herself, rather than follow the mandates set out by management to push the latest alpha-titled-series mystery.

What’s really missing from the American bookstore and the American literary scene is the independent reader, one who can think for herself and who will browse aisles looking for something that the New York Times hasn’t stamped with approval.

I miss the reader who wouldn’t have been duped by James Frey despite his television infomercials portrayed as talk shows. The first thing I asked, when a friend mentioned Frey's “great book” was how come he’s walking around free if he’s wanted in three states? How many felons can hide after center staging themselves on Oprah?

The reader that bookstores knew and loved is missing, compliments of the international marketing conglomerate that determines a handful of publishers comprise the world’s reading list. The conglomerate, though it's made up of different corporations, functions single-mindedly.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Back to the keyboard

It’s like raindrops plopping from an awning onto the back of your neck, that return to the office after a nice long break. I took the first real vacation in 2 years, and it felt good. I made a resolution to do it again soon. We spent a week in Carolina, staying at my brother’s house on a lake in a really small town. Very tranquil.

Within minutes of checking my email and messages when I came home to Florida, I realized Christmas was definitely over. About 550 messages waited in two email accounts. I’m still slogging.

Accepted some new assignments—one is a neat project I’ll announce shortly. It involves a poetry project for a national magazine. So stay tuned.

Back on the newspaper beat, and trying to cover my bases on speaking arrangements. I spoke to the Woman’s Club of Jacksonville yesterday, and it was a very rewarding experience. The members are intelligent and well-read. A poet’s dream. We had a great time together—I think they enjoyed my anecdotes about the freelance life. I signed both books.

Met with my publisher today to cook up ideas for the coming year. I have to admire owners of small presses. We were in one of the major chain stores, and my eye wandered. Aisle after aisle of impulse purchases, cook books by unique personalities, get-thin books by already thin people, discounted Christmas decorations—all scattered against a backdrop of coffee machine groans from the café. Where, I wonder, did the bookstore of my youth go?

The year ahead looks promising. Dorothy Fletcher and I are working hard on Wordstream, the writers’ retreat we’re holding at Riverdale Inn. The inn is one of those places that oozes history and charm. I think this will be one of the most enjoyable projects I’ll be part of this year.

Creative projects include editing my young adult novel, completing my new poetry collection, and working on a book about the felony murder rule.

I’m also fleshing out my writer-reader resource site I'll have an announcement soon about a new associate editor for that site.

Never a dull moment.

Happy New Year to all!
Kay Day