Arts & Culture

What I Didn’t Learn in Author School

The first thing they don’t teach you in author school is that the learning curve after your first book is published is pretty steep. You’ve never done this sort of thing before, and everyone you’re working with (agent, editor, publicist, … Read More

By / December 2, 2008

The first thing they don’t teach you in author school is that the learning curve after your first book is published is pretty steep. You’ve never done this sort of thing before, and everyone you’re working with (agent, editor, publicist, etc.) have done it so many times that it’s easy for them to forget that you’re essentially clueless. And because you don’t know how clueless you are, you can’t really ask for information. It makes sense if you think about it, but as a new author I’ve tried to do as little thinking as possible. So maybe you’ve thought about writing a book? Most people have, and I thought I’d spend today’s post filling you in on some of the little items I figured out along the way. 

Item Number One: Everyone sees something different in the book and the author’s intentions or opinions regarding said work are completely irrelevant. Moreover, they’re a nuisance.

I would be lying if I told you that this hasn’t worked in my favor. For instance, a journalist writing for The Forward drew a comparison between a story my grandfather tells me in Dumbfounded and what happened to me later in the book. In the story, a boy throws his name down a well and can’t ever get it back. But, argues Beth Schwartzapfel, "Unlike the boy from Chelm, whose name would likely have faded into obscurity whether or not it was lost down a hole, little Matthew was an heir to New York’s branch of the Rothschild clan, the international banking and finance dynasty: His name was no small thing to lose." I don’t have to tell you that I didn’t include my grandfather’s folktale in order to craft a metaphor, but I will most certainly take credit for it.

Of course there are the opinions you may not like as much. Recently Modern Tonic, a pop culture website, compared my book to a scene out of Gossip Girl,  "He lived in a 19-roomapartment on Fifth Avenue, where he had a driver and a housekeeper. He attended posh prep schools while his mother gallivanted around Europe collecting husbands." It’s an apt comparison, and it was meant as a compliment, but I kept wondering what my grandmother would have said. She hated the whole pack that became the inspiration for shows like Gossip Girl, and she made it her mission to save me from being eaten by a sea of Paris wannabees. Once again, it wasn’t my intention for anyone to draw that comparison, but I’m no fool: I know it sells books. Sorry, Grandma, but I’m taking credit for this, too.

Item Number Two: You have to know how to talk about the book.

I don’t think I realized this initially, but Dumbfounded is a tricky book to discuss. One reason is because it’s about so many things (identity, class and race, religion, rejection, sexuality, care for the elderly, etc.) that it’s hard to home in on one issue in particular. But I did realize that because of my name and subject matter I would have to work double-time to ensure that people didn’t get the wrong idea and think my memoir was a "Poor little rich boy" story, a "Oh, I’m so sad and so rich. Boo hoo hoo. Pity me and all my woes that I brought upon myself because I’m so rich and so sad!" It happened anyway, and every time I see that kind of reference in a review or an article, I think, "You totally missed the point of the book."

But what was the point? Do books like mine even have points?

"What’s your book about?" people would ask.

"Uh… me?" I answered the first few times. Now as anyone with an ounce of common sense could predict, this answer wasn’t usually enough.

"So I guess you’ve had an interesting life?" they ventured. 

I’d shrug. "I guess." It wasn’t until experiencing Item Number Three that I learned how to answer this question.

Item Number Three: The author is responsible for selling the book.

On the publishing side, I have a wonderful publicist who has gotten me fantastic media coverage and gigs like this one at Jewcy. She’s arranged lots of interviews with newspapers and magazines and radio, etc., and she coordinates my book signings. So when I go to bookstores to do readings, generally people have heard of the book and show up to listen. But that’s where my publicist’s job ends and mine begins: I’m the only one who can sell this book. (It’s a job I take very seriously, as I like to eat, and the more books I sell, the more I get to eat.) A mediocre reading or poor body language can eliminate any potential buyers in the audience. The author needs to schmooze it up with the crowd, shake some hands, tell some jokes, smile until his face cracks, and then smile even harder.

And when it becomes obvious that your introducer hasn’t read the book, nor does she seem inclined to even read aloud from the dust jacket (I once had a woman who spoke for roughly five minutes about the specific shade of blue on my book’s cover but nothing else), it’s up to the author to bring the audience back with the stump speech. This is where having mastered Item Number Two from above comes in handy. I suggest rehearsing as I did.  "Dumbfounded is the true story of what happens after my strikingly beautiful but emotionally unavailable mother abandons me at three days old to her Jewish parents, a couple I’ve seen best described as ‘Fiddler on the Roof meets Auntie Mame.’"

Now for the most important thing I learned… drum roll…

Item Number Four: Put your pride away because it’s got no place in the publishing industry! (Besides, if you really cared about your pride then you shouldn’t have written a memoir.)

As a new writer, selling a book can be especially difficult. You have no built-in audience, or even folks who think they heard your name mentioned once at a bar, or on that clever website Stuff White People Like. So when someone requests an interview or an appearance, even if the signing is in the middle of Kansas, take it. JetBlue or Southwest your little tuchas out there, and tell them how much you love Kansas. Open with, "Have I mentioned how much I love living under the imminent threat of tornadoes? It’s so great to meet other folks who feel the same way!"

The only time my pride reared its ugly head was during my very first radio interview, when I was  asked, "So what did your grandparents think about the book?" I don’t mean to spoil Dumbfounded’s plot here, but both of my grandparents have passed away, and their deaths are discussed in great detail in the book. My grandfather dies maybe halfway through? My grandmother dies at the end. This gives you an indication of how far this interviewer had read. Because I am the person who I am, and because nobody told me I had to abandon my pride, I had to goad the man. "Oh they loved it," I said. "They thought it was the funniest thing they’ve ever read. They were rolling in their caskets." He didn’t think that was terribly funny, and I must admit that I had to work very hard not to preface all answers to remaining questions with, "Well anyone who’s read the book might think…"

Matt Rothschild, author of Dumbfounded, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week. Stay tuned.