Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Indie Spotlight: Mark Polanzak

It's that age old question... you wrote a book? What's it about?! As an author, it's important to polish up your elevator pitch. A two sentence, 40 second, all encompassing summary that will do the book justice and entice others to have-to-have-it. 

But how do you describe your book if it breaks the genre- boundary? Author Mark Polanzak attempts to do just that in today's Indie Spotlight. 

Check out he he handles the dreaded question:

Oh, you have a book coming out? What’s it about?

I should have the answer to this question down by now. I am getting better. But many times, it’s as if I’ve just now realized, Oh, shit, right, I have to articulate what the thing’s about because you, person here at the bar, don’t live in my head.

But the best answer for what the book is about is not one set in stone, perfect for any and all circumstances in which I’m asked. Giving a satisfying answer involves some on-the-fly literary psychology, some instant bookish mind-melding. I size up the question-asker and the current situation to give the person-and-scenario-appropriate summary of what the book is about.

Here are some case studies in how I’ve answered the question: Oh, what’s your book about?

First up, here’s the answer I gave the publisher of the book back when seeking publication:

POP! is a memoir often told through fictional stories. If you reread that sentence, I understand your confusion (and so do the editors at virtually every major publishing house). When I was seventeen, my father left the house for his weekly tennis date and spontaneously combusted on the court, vanishing forever. This is how POP! begins. But, of course, no one spontaneously combusts, and the various characters and multiple narrative voices and perspectives acknowledge that this is not possible. Throughout the book, stories are told and then broken down by the narrators, who explain that the stories are fake but are born of real events. This is how the manuscript is ultimately nonfiction, ultimately a memoir, because I never lie about what isn’t true in the story.”

That’s about as professional and comprehensive a description as I can muster with my book. I agonized over the word choice. The balance between technical details and philosophy. It’s accurate but measured and tailored specifically for someone who is not only deciding whether to read and publish a manuscript but also whether they want to work with the person who wrote it. This answer comes off as component with a dash of headiness.

Next up: My wife calls a group of her friends to attention over drinks at a bar, and announces that “Mark’s book is getting published!” These people are vaguely aware I write but likely think of it as a hobby. And then, the question comes, and I’m staring at five beaming faces.
“It’s basically a 200-page car chase,” I say. A couple expressions change, indicating, Really? Are you an idiot? Many continue beaming. My wife protests. And, now that I’ve disarmed the situation, I get more accurate but light: “It’s about me and my mom and my brother after my dad died. It’s funny.” I don’t want to scare anyone off with a too serious death-downer at the bar. Don’t get into grief memoirs at the bar.

Next: A colleague at the college, first week back after summer break, asks.

“It’s about how I used fiction to deal with loss. It’s about a week in my life before talking at a bereavement group meeting, thinking through and analyzing all my short stories. It’s made up of short stories, and then a sort of meta read of them, seeing them as all related to grief and loss.” I am typically intimidated by my colleagues. So, I involuntarily use words like “analyze” and “meta” and generally make the book sound intellectual, more than emotional. I’m trying to grow into the colleague that is cool enough to not feel pressure to always present as impressive or intellectual, but I’m young for the office, so...

A student asks.

“Well, what do you mean by ‘what is the book about’?” Such a teacher move. So, do you want to know what happens in the book, or what it is about? “Do you want the abstraction—the internal struggle—or the concrete observable story—the external struggle?” The student wants to know what happens in the book. “When I was seventeen, a couple years younger than you, my dad died suddenly. Ten years later I had to speak to a group of teens who had a parent die. It’s about everything I thought about during that week.” When students are energetic and curious, I don’t want to bring them down. Students see me as an enthusiastic guy, into very strange surreal literature, so when I get real with them like this, they typically fumble for the proper facial expression, recognizing that I am a human being with a history. But students respect that quick emotional pivot. Young people are sensitive and nice, have you noticed? Like more than before. Am I crazy?

A stranger at a bar, with whom, perhaps drunkenly, the fact of my book’s publication comes up, he asks.

“It’s about how every relationship I’ve had with basically everyone in my life has been affected by the death of my father. It’s real, but it’s also made up.” Yeah, man, know what I mean, man?

My boss wants to know.

“It’s a memoir of the events that followed my father’s death when I was seventeen.” The loss is news to her. Leave this one elliptical. I don’t want my boss reading the book, seeing the embarrassing and unprofessional parts of the thing. She’s hopefully too busy to read it. My boss can’t know certain things about me.

An old friend asks.

“It’s about my dad.” They get it.

An old professor.

“It’s about writing fiction, but nonfiction.” They get it.

My therapist.

“It’s about how I never ever talked about my grief and instead hid everything in stories. It helped me so much.” My therapist loves this kind of insight.

A mime.

“It’s about how I don’t talk to communicate.” Sometimes, I gotta spin it to my given audience. Sell some books.

A bartender.

“About how there’s no actual proper grief process. You can’t do it wrong.” Here, I want to give the mood of the book, not the finer points.

A stranger at a party who has learned through a mutual friend, and who tells me she’s a writer, too.

“That’s such a hard question.” She apologizes. We move on to what she writes and what we’re both reading.

Myself asks.

“You wrote it. You tell me.” When in doubt, play dumb.

Mark Polanzak's stories have appeared in Third CoastThe Southern Review, and The American Scholar, among others. His fiction won second place in the 2014 Italo Calvino Prize. His hybrid memoir, POP!, is out March 22, 2016 from Stillhouse Press. He is a founding editor of draft: the journal of process, and teaches English at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

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