“If I Knew How to Sell Sh-t, I’d Be Selling Sh-t. I Wouldn’t Be Writing”

Reading between the lines.
July 12 2013 9:00 AM

Jincy Willett and Thomas Dunne

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

(Continued from Page 1)

Willett: But honestly, my sales pitch when I was a kid was, “You don’t want these Girl Scout cookies, do you?” If I had to push my own books, I’d stop writing. I hate the conflation of marketing and writing.

Dunne: I wish you’d go back to writing stories.

Willett: What?!

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Dunne: True, short-story collections don’t sell, and if I hadn’t been so new to the business in 1987, I probably wouldn’t have published Jenny and the Jaws of Life, but the stories are brilliant. And then David Sedaris dropped from the heavens and kicked your career back to life by citing Jenny as one of the great books of our time. It was like that deux ex scene in The Magic Flute. So we brought it back into print, and then it turned out you had an almost-completed novel in a drawer, which I got you to finish and to call Winner of the National Book Award, Rhode Island’s very own Gone With the Wind, and it got fantastic reviews everywhere. Stories are good luck for you. You need to write more stories.

Willett: So … you’re saying that the Internet age has not ruined everything for writers?

Dunne: You’re changing the subject.

Willett: Yes!

Dunne: No, I didn’t say that. There’s one profound problem, and it’s the death of the book review. It’s even worse than Borders going under. The loss of all but a couple of local reviews—look, when Jenny came out, there were all these newspapers with book review sections. The Detroit News, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Sacramento Bee—what a terrible loss, all of them. Jenny may not have sold like hotcakes, but you got at least 10 great reviews, which is probably why libraries bought the book, which made it possible for Sedaris to find it on a local shelf. Newspaper reviews are supposed to have been replaced by Internet stuff, but they really haven’t. People are supposed to flock to certain websites to find out what book to buy next, but so far, no flocking. And then there’s social media, which, so far, doesn’t seem to be making much of a dent. Maybe you really have to promote yourself. I didn’t used to push writers to do readings—

Willett: No. N-O. My readings, except for a great one in 2008 in a wonderful local independent, have been disastrous. You show up in Pasadena to a room full of people all excited because somebody screwed up and they think they’re going to meet Steve Martin. You come to B&N for a signing and find that somebody dropped the ball and nobody’s there. The ball always drops, and not in a good way.

Dunne: The saddest spectacle in the world! A distraught writer sitting at a table full of unsigned books.

Willett: Yes, but look: If you’re lucky enough to be able to write down what’s really in your head—not what you think should be there but what’s actually there, the essence of your own experience, and if you actually get it published, so that someone, somewhere, at some time can read you, you’re very, very lucky. It would be nice to be able support yourself that way, but it’s not necessary. 

Dunne: Have you ever considered motivational speaking?

Willett: I could hire myself out as a professional counterexample.

Dunne: And if your husband hadn’t died, and if you had not buried yourself in a San Diego suburb for 30 years, and if you did not refuse to fly and therefore promote your books … and if you were not so glacially slow a writer, you would be recognized by even the pettifogging blowhards in the academy as a national treasure. Maybe someday that will still come to pass. I sure hope so.

Willett: I’m not exactly the zeitgeist queen. We’re not talking about publishing any more, are we?

Dunne: Let’s end with Amy Falls Down. We are trying to, you should excuse the expression, sell it. One memorable line—out of many—is when she says, “Feelings are not news, but they are the rightful province of art … Fiction, when it’s done right, does in the daylight what dreams do at night: we leave the confines of our own experiences and go to common ground, where for a time we are not alone. Where we don’t have to ask how it feels, because we feel it for ourselves.” Is this what you mean by “writing what’s really in your head”?

Author Jincy Willett.
Author Jincy Willett.

Courtesy of Jincy Willett.

Willett: Yes, it means sifting through all the chatter and the rubble, seeing past the beckoning, seductive clichés, grasping the slippery truth, probably only for a moment, but for that moment, you’ve got it, and you can get it down. With this book I hope what I always hope—that readers will nod their heads (not constantly, you know, but at the odd juncture) and think, “Yes, that’s exactly right.” This is why we write, and this is why we read. It’s an act of communication, and if what you’re communicating is true—if you haven’t screwed it up (and there are so many ways to do that)—the response of your ideal reader isn’t “Wow! What a fabulous sentence!” or “Wow! I did not know that!” It’s “Yes. Exactly. I felt that too once, and I forgot it until now, and I thought I was the only one.”

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Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.

Thomas Dunne is the publisher of Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.

Jincy Willett is the author of Amy Falls Down.

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