Last week, for the first time, I held in my hands a copy of my first book of fiction, A Field Guide to the North American Family. The experience is often likened to that of holding one’s firstborn child, and if the comparison seems hyperbolic in terms of intensity – this was more of a low-boiling excitement than a world-altering epiphany – it seems to capture the peculiarly unmixed nature of the emotion. In the words of Edith Piaf, Non, je ne regrette rien.
And now it’s time (as you’ve probably inferred), to promote this puppy, which should be hitting shelves in the early days of October. And what to do? The media industries are so saturated in advertising strategies that not to advertise has itself become an advertising strategy. It’s no longer possible to be Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo – at least, unselfconsciously. Jonathan Franzen learned this the hard way. At the other extreme, self-promotion stunts designed to land oneself on the gossip sites seem to rob authors of one of the few things that still separates them from Hollywood – their inherent dignity.
A complicating factor in my case is the unusual degree of collaboration involved in making the Field Guide. The book’s design is remarkable, and I had very little to do with it. I thus have a warm feeling not only toward the design team (Christopher D Salyers assisted by Eliane Lazzaris), and the press (Mark Batty Publisher) but to independent publishing as a whole. Richard Nash makes some good points about “the sausage factory” in his recent LBC post, but as his publication of Wayne Koestenbaum’s Hotel Theory shows, there are certain books that only the existence of the independents makes possible. Books that must be seen to be believed. And though I feel weird saying it, this is one of them.
And then there’s the photography. Over 100 established and emerging photographers submitted a total of 700 images for consideration to the Field Guide website, of which 63 were chosen to appear in the first edition, alongside the text of the novella. Tema Stauffer, Gus Powell, Brian Ulrich, Grant Willing (who shot the image above)… These photographers gave generously of themselves, free of charge, and they’re doing fascinating work independently of this book, in a field whose dynamics resemble those of publishing. I feel a bit like Duke Ellington, or Lyle Lovett with his large band. Or maybe like Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, at whose feet I learned that it’s best not to shove, and that reaching an audience on your own terms doesn’t have to mean selling out.
That is, I want not only to have you read my words, but also to call attention to the community that made it possible. So I think, in the coming weeks, I’ll try to use this space to direct your attention to the work of my collaborators, rather than to write too much about my own end of things. I’d like to start with Timothy Briner, a Chicago-based photographer who contributed the image for the chapter “Secret” in the Field Guide, and whose “Boonville, USA” project documents the death and life of America’s small towns, to moving effect. Take a gander at www.boonvilleusa.com. And thanks, in advance, for being part of the journey.