Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Blog Tour: Mayhem

Today's Indie Spotlight comes to you as part of the blog tour for Elizabeth Harris' novel Mayhem

In her guest post, Elizabeth discusses what it was like taking the promotion of her book onto her shoulders... from the creation of her own personal blog, to giving interviews, to making a book trailer, she tackled each aspect with a fresh attitude and an open mind!

You can see past stops or visit future stops here

Unexpected Rewards of Book Promotion

Although promoting an indie book is a challenge for introverts, as other writers have said here, I  speak as one of them when I say it’s also brought me unexpected rewards. In his own “Spotlight” in August, Owen Thomas describes the ultimate reward, that priceless encounter with the reader who connects with the book. My first of those with my first book, was a revelation: yes, I do belong to a community formed around probably the dearest activity in my life, reading. But I did very little promotion of the book, a collection of stories published by a university press, pre-social-media, and I’ve regretted that.

So with my new book, Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, a novel from Gival Press, I’ve embraced promotions and, wowie zowie, have I learned a lot! New-to-me media on all sides. New things to think about, and myself differently. The experience has been revealing, even subtly life-changing—and some of it’s been flat-out fun. A list of highlights:

1. Developing a website and starting a blog of my own. The blog is developmentally delayed, because after my first post I had to stop and ask myself what, besides the news about my novel, might be worth putting out there about myself.

 My first post had come easily: an essay about what I learned from Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table and how it affected Mayhem. I’d become aware of that and was eager to put it together. But where to go with the blog from there? More recent promotions have led me to realize that—since I’ve learned most of what I know about writing from reading—my blog wants to be about the books I’ve learned from. This is intimate, exciting, a kind of self-revelation, though with borders around it, that I haven’t indulged in before.

2. Giving interviews, which scared me at first because I sometimes feel under questioning as if I’m being grilled by that antique Perry Mason Adversary, District Attorney Hamilton Burger. I eased into learning about author-interviews by going to a number of them in Austin, talking to the broadcaster who conducted one series, and noticing what made good answers. (Story-telling! Well, that’s familiar enough.)

And then, anti-climactically, my first interviews turned out to be in writing, which didn’t intimidate me at all. Still, I had to consider questions I’d never thought about before, or had dismissed with a laugh. The old chestnut of what book I would want on a desert island to keep me sane. (Seriously? The Oxford English Dictionary, the edition with all the word derivations.) How I would distinguish myself as a writer in a very few words. (Both of my books won national prizes?) And I had to think about familiar activities in new ways, such as where—for Mayhem which is set in rural Central Texas in 1917-1954—the sort of casual reading ended that I might do just because I’m interested in something and where research for a novel began.

I realized with a certain foreboding that I had embarked on a process of self-reflection in public.

3. It was punctuated by more discoveries of new-to-me media. After taping an audio interview for my website, I got to assist the Austin sound engineer Joel Block, edit it—and what a fascinating process that was! For a language-person like me to see my words represented at different magnifications as Joel cut out not only the uhs and repetitions and long pauses, but little clicks and smacks of lip and tongue that I could barely hear. I learned what I need—besides more discretion and a good night’s sleep—to keep me from sounding stupid: a script and a wonderful sound engineer.

What I did in that interview was sum myself up as a writer, which was disconcerting since I think of myself as a work in progress. I managed to describe my most recent efforts as novels with historical settings that also seek contemporary shape and tone.  (But what about the older one set in the 1980’s-2000 that I haul out and revise from time to time? Is that historical yet?) I felt a little like Dickens’ character Mrs. ‘Arris: how do I know what I think until I hear what I say?

In doing that, I recalled more novels that have been important to me, including  E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Russell Banks’s, Cloudsplitter, where I saw how historical settings and characters can be opportunities to reflect on present-time issues.  I had done that in Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, where the ordinary gender relations of rural Texas, 1936, explained a decisive error that I absolutely knew a character would make.  

But I somehow failed in that interview to say how much I love strong plots and what an influence on me detective fiction has been. I was talking about specific books that showed me how I could write novels from some of my interests and experiences. I did mention A. S. Byatt’s  Possession and Julian Barnes,’ Flaubert’s Parrot, both detective plots in their way.

And, apropos Mayhem, I remembered Ian McEwan’s, Atonement, which may have been my first inkling of the possibility for incorporating bits of memoir about the origins of a novel—the sort of thing readers ask writers—into the novel itself.

4. More new-to-me media. Making a book trailer, which appears at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEpNdZDY74w. Doing this required first thinking of a meta-fictional novel as a one-minute commercial, then writing a script—which, maybe uniquely among living writers, I never wanted to do—and progressively cutting it to about forty words. I followed the Austin photographer Robert Melton around hot pine woods saying, “Sure!” and “What about over there?” I recorded the voice over, which took me so long that by the time I had finished I had learned to call it a VO unselfconsciously. I can now imagine writing a film script.

5. And I shouldn’t forget to mention writing articles such as this, which reflect on different parts of my journey in writing. Am I creating a public self from which my ongoing self-in-progress will inevitably, repeatedly calve away like different summers’ pieces of a glacier? An article I wrote for a print magazine about the day I learned to read led me back in memory to my early childhood, as if promoting yourself in public might be a new way, stimulating if  unsettling, to discover what’s there. I’m in, I ante up.


Elizabeth Harris won the University of Iowa Press Award for her short story collection, The Ant Generator. Her literary novel, Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, released October 5, 2015.

Visit Elizabeth Harris at www.elizabethharriswriter.com.

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