May 29th, 2007


The Long Scary Post About Writing

Late on the night of my fortieth birthday, Chris and I sat on the levee looking out over the beach and the dark Gulf waters, and we talked about the new life we're starting to build, and about what we hope our future might hold. One thing I'm not sure mine holds, at least for a while, is making a living as a writer.

I've written nothing to speak of since mid-November of 2006. To go so long without writing is unusual for me, and what's even more unusual is the fact that I don't miss it. I miss spending time with my characters, but I don't feel the writing urge itself. I don't know if I am taking stock of my life or getting my house in order or retiring or what. I do know that I'm not sure I can continue working with big publishing houses. The business is filthy and cannibalistic. They build careers for a few fortunate (and frequently talented) writers and shove the rest of us through the grinder like cheap hamburger. Editors and authors alike jump from house to house. There's no continuity. Our editors are as overworked and underpaid and frequently unmotivated as we are.

What happened was this:

In September '06 I turned in a proposal for the next two Liquor novels, tentatively titled Hurricane Stew and Double Shot. The first was the post-Katrina novel, the story of Liquor and the rest of the New Orleans restaurant community rebuilding. The second focused primarily on Lenny, who's always been a popular character. It was a good proposal, but I had a bad feeling about it; the publicity for Prime had been completely botched, and Three Rivers hadn't done much better with Soul Kitchen. All the great things we'd achieved with Liquor had basically been thrown away, and the sales figures had gone down with each book.

In mid-November, I heard from my agent that Three Rivers didn't want the two novels, or any more Liquor novels. A few days later I received the following letter from my editor. Posting it here is not the most professional thing I have ever done, but I think it's worth showing what condescending, insulting dreck we put up with from people who are practically half our age, who don't know our work other than the books they themselves have edited, who have no interest in the arc of our career or the obsessions that drive us.

Dear Poppy,

I trust that this finds you well. First of all, I want to congratulate you on the great attention you’ve received for SOUL KITCHEN. It seems that this book struck a stronger chord with readers than PRIME, and the positive review coverage certainly didn’t hurt. It seems that you, [assistant editor], and [publicist] made a good team, and I hope we’ll see similar results for the next installment, DEAD SHRIMP BLUES.

I am writing in regards to the next two books you propose, synopses for which [agent] passed along to me. While I appreciate the shift you envision for HURRICANE STEW and DOUBLE SHOT, I’m afraid that I cannot see extending this series beyond the four books we currently have under contract. This was certainly a hard decision for me to come to—I love these characters and the atmospheric stories they inhabit. I had high hopes for this series when I acquired the first two books, and faith enough to extend the deal to four books. Sadly, the books just haven’t caught fire the way I envisioned they would.

In regards to your desire to write about post-Katrina New Orleans, I can truly say that you are better equipped than any writer to do this in fiction, and to do it right. I’d love to see you write the definitive Katrina novel, but for that novel to have any chance of breaking out, I really do believe that you’ve got to think outside of the Rickey and G-Man world and create a new tableau, a new venue to work in. You’ve been working with these characters for quite some time, and while readers of the series certainly love them, I also think that there is a wider audience out there waiting for this kind of book who probably doesn’t know Rickey and G. Plus, I believe there is much more to be added to the story that comes from outside of the restaurant world, a story that you have lived through and can capture like no other writer. If this is something you are willing to consider, I hope you’ll consider working through ideas with me.

I think we’ve suffered because there isn’t a single target audience for the series, but several smaller ones, and we’ve tried to get to all of them, to varying degrees of success. We have not been able to tap into the core mystery market, due to content that slants somewhat outside what is the norm for this genre, but also your apprehension on this front. The gay market has responded, but only in the somewhat expected minimal way, and the “foodie fiction” reader we have tried to grab seems to be as elusive as a good bagel in my home town. Even Tony Bourdain’s forays into this genre have been met with so-so sales. Honestly, I think we’ve cast the net too wide and pulled in a small catch in the process.

This leads me to my next concern. The two plots you propose fall even farther outside of the mystery genre, a conscious decision on your part but one I feel will limit our reach that much more. I appreciate that you wish to develop the post-Katrina story, and the character of Lenny Duveteaux, but I worry that we’ll see increasingly diminishing returns with a decided shift from what you call the “murder-mystery-type plot.”

I know this is not the answer you were hoping for regarding HURRICANE STEW and DOUBLE SHOT, but I hope you will take this to heart—you are a writer with many fans out there, and I have truly valued being your publisher. Our decision to not move forward with this series will in now way affect our commitment to publishing DEAD SHRIMP BLUES well, and with enthusiasm for you and for the cap of our series. I’d very much like to continue our relationship, and take it into a different direction that will hopefully carry appeal for a far wider readership, leading to better results for both you and Crown.

I thought of trying to explain how offensive it is to suggest writing "the definitive Katrina novel" (since every writer affected by the failure of the federal levee system will have his or her own definitive Katrina novel, and I already knew what mine had to be), or to believe I'd want to "work through ideas" with someone who hasn't visited New Orleans in years, who didn't bother to contact me for months after the storm, who knows nothing about life here now. I decided it wasn't worth it, because she wouldn't get it and she wouldn't care; it isn't her job to care; she's forced to be about the bottom line and nothing but, and it doesn't matter that Three Rivers buried the books: their perceived failure is still my fault. Maybe you're beginning to see why this is a business I'm thinking I want out of. Instead, I bought my way out of my Random House contract; if and when Dead Shrimp Blues is published, it won't be by Three Rivers. I had completed about a third of the novel, but the rejection -- and especially that awful letter -- on top of the fifteen months I'd just been through took the last of the heart out of me. I felt as if all that had been keeping me afloat was the knowledge that I still could make a living writing about these characters I loved, working through the tragedy with them. I stopped working on the book and fell deeper into an already fairly serious depression, which you saw chronicled here if you've been reading for a while. It wasn't just a bad time for me; it was a dangerous time. Things only seemed to start getting better when we bought the new house, because now I had something to do other than sit around not-writing. Right now I'm dedicating myself to improving my health and creating a new home and life for us. Chris is making pretty good money, and I've supported him through enough lean times that I don't mind letting him support me for a while; I also have a small royalty income from my first five novels and short story collections, and Liquor, at least, will probably earn out soon ... if they bother to keep it in print.

I've never had these problems working with the small press, and if I could afford to, I'd work solely with them. But that assumes I have books to write. I don't know if I do. I'd like to at least finish Dead Shrimp Blues, because it's a story I really want to tell, but I feel no urge to actually write it. I've been approached about doing a biography that intrigues me, but when I think about it, I feel simultaneously intimidated and exhausted. I've always said I don't write for any reader but myself, and that's true, but I do value my readers. Many, many readers have been incredibly kind to me, and I want to keep my part of the bargain by giving them the best work I'm capable of ... but I can't do it when I don't have to do it. That's the way I have always been, and that's where I am now. Peter Straub says on the subject -- and I hope he won't mind my quoting him here, because it made me feel proud and comforted, which mot much does these days where writing is concerned -- "Nobody who writes like you can ever be defeated forever by depression. Something wriggling, living, shiny, mysterious will eventually pull you out. Your life did blow apart, you were torn in six different directions, and you need a long time to sort yourself out." I hope he's right. I hope that, if and when I do start writing again, people still care. It's an ephemeral business, and if you don't publish a book a year, people start asking if you've died or something.

Anyway, I felt the need to talk about this because people have been asking about Dead Shrimp Blues and other future books, and all I can say is, "I don't know." I try to avoid talking about it. I'd prefer not to answer a lot of questions on the subject. When I stopped doing public events in February, it really was because my back problems had made them nearly impossible, but it was also becoming harder and harder to smile and say thanks when people told me they couldn't wait for the next book; I felt like a bum and a fraud. I'm terrified to post this, but I know I will go on feeling like a bum and a fraud until I've owned up to what is (and isn't) going on in my life, writing-wise. I expect there will be some snarky fallout, but that kind of stuff doesn't seem to matter much anymore, and I hope most of you will understand.