Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Navigating the Literary Landscape - Part 2

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Metcalf Loves the Ending

Hey. Thanks for coming back for Part 2 of this discussion about various aspects of navigating our literary scene. Good to see you again...

Engaging with the literary community – Social media

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’d not be anywhere near where I am today without the support of other writers and people in the literary community, especially those in Toronto. I developed relationships gradually over the past few years, and found that I met one new person each time I went out to a reading or an event. To be honest, I’m not very good at it, and would be just as likely to sit at home and not talk to another human for days at a time. However, now I look forward to going out amongst my peers and talking to them about writing, or what is going on with their work, or the Raptors, or UFC, or the life-changing magic of Friday Night Lights (Texas forever...). Of course, there is plenty going on in Toronto, and in some other cities around the land, but there are ways to connect even if you are live in the middle of nowhere like Andrew Forbes.*
*Upon further investigation, Forbes lives in an actual town. I erroneously thought he lived in a field, well outside of that town. On behalf of Open Book, and Kevin Hardcastle, I hereby apologize to Forbes and all of the towns and fields in which he has lived.

After my hilarious Journey Prize experience in 2012, my first set of major events in Toronto (and the single weirdest way to start off meeting people), I got back onto social media to talk about my work, and gave Twitter another go. I started with the people I’d just met through the Journey Prize, and soon I was talking to other writers and publishing people online. That is also where I was asked on the first of what I call writer “bro-dates,” where someone messaged me and said: “Hey dude, let’s grab a beer.” Not always advisable, but I knew a bit about the people who asked me to meet like humans used to, in person, and we are now friends outside of the Internet. More than that though, I’ve connected with writers all over the country, and in other countries, and have learned about who they are, what they write, and how their sense of humour works in 140 characters or less. If you’ve read someone’s work, and get a grasp of their tone online, you can actually get a pretty good handle of who they are and if you might not hate each other. My experiences have been mainly positive, and this is something to look into if you haven’t yet, but I think it is important to acknowledge that there is another side to it.

I am very aware that I am in position of privilege, both in real life and on the Internet, by simply being a white man, especially a two-hundred and ten pound one with a beard. People tend not to engage with me in an abusive way, and nobody has ever sent dick-pics, or said anything sexually offensive or threatening to me. The worst I’ve got is from the odd stranger who writes nonsense after reacting to a hashtagged tweet, or from my actual “friends” (F-you Ruthnum). If you are a woman, or a visible minority, it is a fairly reprehensible fact of life that you are far more likely to have this kind of rotten garbage thrown at you by some stranger, or even by some ignorant person in the actual community. I cannot truly understand what that feels like, but I know that it happens and it is something that good people have been dealing with all of their lives. The anonymity of the Internet, and the fact that keyboard warriors (or “tough guys on the internet,” as a friend calls them) can engage with your from afar, exasperates the situation further.

The closest I can get to understanding that feeling, is thinking back on when a group of people (from one township I will not mention) were actively physically after me as a younger man, after a "disagreement" with one of them. That is not a great feeling, to know that people are gunning for you, to be afraid and threatened. Though, even in that case, I actually could see and identify where that threat was coming from. And, however stupid and troublesome it was, and how out of hand it got, I’d certainly done some very specific things to blow this situation up.

Due to the actual smallness of the literary community, I know people have found support from their peers in these circumstances, just as they’ve been disturbed by other people brushing off these harmful interactions, or even actively enabling or encouraging it. This can all be very alienating after having other positive experiences online or in the community, and it is the reason a lot of people jack up the privacy settings on their social media, or leave it all alone entirely.

This cannot be ignored when you weigh the cost and benefit of being present and accessible online. It is a shame that so many people have to either fight this crap, or carefully decide on their privacy settings, but it is another personal choice you will have to make if you put yourself out there. In today’s climate, emerging artists are expected to maintain some kind of online presence and market themselves using social media, so this is an important thing to navigate. When in doubt, ask those you trust, read up on it. If you are concerned about what kind of risk there is, look to other women and people of colour who have gone through these experiences. There are some great people in the community who talk about their positive and negative experiences openly, much better than I can.

Also, the more successful you get, the more you are open to people trying to interact with you, for good or bad. Perhaps if you get all the money, then you can decide if you want to keep that line of communication fully open, or dial it back and let your work do all the talking for you. But, until then, this is part of what writers deal with in trying to engage with the online community. Be mindful of it.

And for those of you who, like me, experience privilege and are not as likely to be harassed online, do what you would do for your friends in actual life. Listen to them and believe what they are telling you, offer your support, and stand up for them, whatever that takes. These are the people that you will be communicating with and possibly working with throughout your career, people who you can learn from and who are your friends and who may be with you for years. Do right by them. Loyalty is a pretty goddamn important thing, in the literary community and in general life. Don’t dismiss these incidences as petty, and do not try to rationalize or trivialize the abuse and harassment that many people receive. It is a real problem, and needs to be acknowledged and addressed far better than it is right now.

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The benefits and challenges of signing with a small or large publishing house

In talking about having someone’s back, it seems like a good time to get into how I managed to work my way through my first publishing contract. A couple years ago, when I lost my agent and was still with the agency itself by default, I got some real help from my friends and colleagues in the writing community on where to go from there. In fact, I’d say that I got more help and made more actual progress from my ties to the literary community, and from being myself, than I did with representation. Friends I’ve made that are writers, editors, agents, and publishing professionals, were the ones that got me through the period where I decided to break from my agency and work directly with my future indie publisher, Biblioasis.

My experience in publishing is what it is because of the fact that I have ended up working with an independent publisher for my first two books. I knew enough to know that a short story collection is a very hard sell for a major publisher, and that there would be very little money in it. I also knew, from experience, that my novel did not sell to a major publisher because it needed some real editing, and for someone to take a chance on a writer that didn’t really do what most other successful Canadian writers do, and that didn’t write about what they write about. I knew that I would be able to sell the collection to Biblioasis on it’s own, and I knew that they had a strong editorial department, made exceptional books, and had a great US distributor and a good reputation in the US and internationally. I knew writers that had worked with them, and I learned right away that I could be straight up with both my editor, John Metcalf, and the publisher, Dan Wells. They were realistic about what a collection can usually do in this country, and they only wanted me to put out the best possible book and hustle for it, and then see if I’d be interested in working with them again (or if they’d be interested it working with me again).

Many independent publishers in Canada, such as Biblioasis, Coach House Books, Wolsak & Wynn, and Invisible Books, will put out a collection of stories or a first novel, and will work closely with the writer to put out a quality work of art. They will certainly make the best product possible, and bust their asses to get it read and reviewed, but they will be straight with you about the money involved (very little), and about what their expectations are. In a roundtable for 49th Shelf that I was part of, specifically talking about story collections, I brought up the fact that we should not be trying to apply what Penguin Random House or other major publishers consider a “success,” to what these excellent indie houses consider a success. For most of the small presses, their concerns are artistic and related to turning a small profit on the book, staying in business, strengthening their list, and finding new voices in Canada. Large houses are concerned with some of these things as well, but they are almost always very, very concerned with how much money your book can make them. When you have somebody saying that books need to make $100,000 to be considered a success, you have a massive disconnect between what they think is worth publishing and what our indies are willing to take a chance on.

But hey, it would be nice to eventually get to a point where you can put out a great book, and get it distributed and read more widely (given that the marketing machine and resources of the big house cannot be denied), and to make some real, keep-you-in-rent-and-peanut-butter money. There are also some great people working for the large houses, like Anita Chong at McClelland & Stewart/Random House, a fine, passionate editor that also runs the aforementioned Journey Prize, something that directly supports emerging writers, rewarding them for a single short story published that year. A lot of the writers that you see starting out with indies will eventually get after that big novel money, and I know a lot of emerging writers that are already going to the bigs with their next books (almost always a novel). There is nothing wrong with that, but when you get into that machine, you also have different expectations placed the performance of your work.

Had I, for example, sold my novel to a major publisher before the collection of stories, I would have shared an editor with a number of other big-name writers, and I would have been unlikely to get the same kind of attention from that editor, or the same amount of editing from that editor, unless they really believed that the novel was going to be a hit. There would have been considerable top-down pressure for the book to perform in that case, and, if it did not, my likelihood of getting the same attention the next time around (if they kept me around) would have dropped off significantly. If the book was a passion project of the editor, taken on for artistic reasons mostly, and did not draw the support of the whole machine, it would have been buried mid-list and marketed less enthusiastically, which of course makes it less likely to perform and again, less likely that I’d be given another book deal, no matter the quality of the work. With all of that money and marketing comes a lot of risk. This makes big publishers less adventurous in their acquisitions, and makes editors more likely to go with what they recognize and perceive as a sure thing. With the publishing industry as it is, even a great editor doesn’t want to lose their job taking a chance on an emerging author whose manuscript needs real work, or on one that is trying to push boundaries in craft or form. Or, anything that is simply not recognizable as popular CanLit.

What a lot of emerging writers will get with a big publishing house is the two-book deal. Almost always this is the case when the first book is a collection of stories. They will push the stories as best they can, and really hedge their bets on the novel to come. Some writers are fine with this. Some of them break under the pressure of it, and under the expectation that they MUST deliver on the novel. It is hard to think about two books at once, especially when you are trying to put your all into one book, as one individual project, and then move on to the next, unique work.

Going with an indie press for my stories was the best possible route for me at this stage in my career. It was very fortuitous that this publisher turned out to be Biblioasis, a press known for excellence in short fiction, and the editor John Metcalf, an editor known for being brutally honest and who cares not a stitch about money. It also worked out well in that, as a writer who does not really identify with a lot of CanLit writing, and who would like to see if they have a US market for their work, that Biblioasis has inroads to the US, based on where they are geographically, and how often they work across the border. All of these smaller presses will have their identities and particularities, and authors should be very careful in finding the one that suits their work, and that will maximize the potential of success even if it is on a smaller scale. Know who those publishers and editors are, and what they produce regularly. At the beginning, I would’ve thought any book deal at that scale is a good thing. Now I know that ending up at the wrong place would have resulted in a far worse, or at least less realized work than I ended up putting out as a first book.

Also, it should be noted that I do eventually want to try and get national and international exposure and readership for my work. And, all of these decisions are personal to the writer and their goals. I am influenced heavily by American writing, especially rural writers from the south, like Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell, and I don’t know that my writing is the kind that breaks on the Canadian literary market, as it stands anyway. If I could find a place for it with a larger publisher, in a larger market like the US, I would certainly look into how to navigate that scene as well. But, I would be mindful that you are an even smaller fish there, and that, if you start getting into that big money (and likely a US agent who will know the score), you better be ready to accept the pressures of that as well. I would always try to come back to John Metcalf and Biblioasis for short fiction, as that is not something that I will ever stop writing, and it is always hard to find the right publisher for it. Regardless, I’ll have two books out before that ever even becomes a possibility, and they will be the best I could write with the best publisher for both works. I have taken enough of my licks and have enough miles on me to deal with these things as they come, but, for those of you who are still new to it all, perhaps a bunch of this will be interesting as you try to figure out where you might publish a first book, and why.

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Keep your foot on the goddamn gas

Whatever you do, if you are good at this job and you have something to say, do not stop or let the business of it all squash you. For all of my surliness and ravings I am actually quite positive on the fact that good work still finds a way through if you are stubborn enough, and if you get the right people in your corner. Even if all of the things that I’ve talked about go sideways for you, you’ll still have chances to get good writing published and to reload and try again. There are many veteran writers in Canada that have hit rough patches in their career and have managed to regroup and make an impact again, sometimes with another publisher, or another form, or another new approach to the work.

If you get disillusioned, that is okay. The world and the world of writing turn out to be a series to disillusionments that you’ve got to be able to overcome. But, once you’ve dealt with the reality of it all, there is still great potential there and much love for the written word, for those who really bleed to get those words on the page.

So, do not let it keep you down for too long. If you quit or fail for lack of trying, there will be other, hungry young writers ready to take your spot at the table. Hell, I’d eat your breakfast if you left it there too long. Don’t let that happen. I might’ve already got my teeth sunk into too many things. And we need the weirdest and bravest of you to make it and keep us all honest.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kevin Hardcastle

Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. His work has been widely published in journals including The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Joyland, Shenandoah and The Walrus. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and has twice been published in the Journey Prize Stories anthology. Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, was published by Biblioasis in September 2015. His novel, In the Cage, will also be published by Biblioasis, likely in fall 2016.

You can contact Kevin throughout the month of November at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Kevin Hardcastle’s Author Page