When a publisher agrees to publish your book—or at least, when both of my publishers agreed to publish my two books—the author is presented with a questionnaire. If you don’t overthink it, the questions are pretty tactical: which media outlets might be interested in reviewing your book (to help the book sell), are you part of any alumni organizations/guilds/professional groups that this book might be relevant to (whose many members might buy lots of books), where could you go on a book tour (where you know lots and lots of people and could sell lots and lots of books), that sort of thing.
Some other questions, though, I overthought for days. What are the main themes? the questionnaire wanted to know. What are the key messages you’d want readers to take away from the book?
It was a little easier with my new collection, Nobody Looks That Young Here, because the stories are at least linked: same place, same characters, and something resembling an arc in the way the stories are ordered.
But for my first collection, Hamburger, I had no idea.
Rumours persist about short story collections—publishers don’t want to publish them, agents don’t want to represent them, readers don’t want to read them, nobody buys them, etc.—but I don’t think I understood why until I’d had a hand thinking up how to market the book and how it would ideally be talked about in any media coverage we might get.
What could be succinctly said about a group of stories that came together the way those in Hamburger did? The book includes the first story I ever wrote, “Aria di Gelato”, which was drafted in my sweaty attic apartment in the summer of 2006, late one night when I should have been sleeping before going to one of the two minimum-wage retail jobs I held at the time but was instead barfing out an account of something I’d seen at Dufferin Mall. It was my first to be accepted for publication, in 2010, and in 2013 I submitted it along with a few other stories to Thistledown Press’s special publishing program for first-time authors, New Leaf Editions, which gets you a 64-page book if your work is accepted. A year later, Thistledown said they’d rather publish a full book if I had more stories, which I sort of did; I asked them for six more months, signed the contract, then finished, wrote and rewrote the rest of stories that went into the book, which was published in early 2016.
Saying I spent a decade working on Hamburger would be an exaggeration. For one thing, I was simultaneously working on the stories for my second book and doing all this writing around my full-time job, but more importantly and more precisely, all I was doing during this time was simply developing as a writer: scrounging sometimes and flailing others, succeeding some of the time and failing the rest, always trying to find out just what I was trying to say.
It was all worthwhile, of course, because at the end of the journey I was holding my very own book in my hands (and had a contract signed to publish my second, too). But as concerns Hamburger, what came out the other side of the grinder (ha) were 23 stories. About half were flash pieces less than three pages in length, but one was a 33-page, three-part multigenerational family story. Some of the stories could be called “urban fiction”, others “travel fiction” and still others, I guess, just regular “fiction”. There were overt experiments—every sentence in “Pleasure Craft” is declarative and begins with the pronoun then the verb, a rewrite I initially undertook to figure out why the story wasn’t working and wound up liking, and one flash story was written for a contest that had a 250-word limit and was required to feature a beetle, a Volkswagen Beetle, or the Beatles—but there were also conventional stories only as experimental as the grander hypothesis: that I was capable of writing fiction someone else might like to read.
The publisher’s questionnaire needed to know, though, and its simple, directional asks implied the real questions.
What’s this book about?
What are you trying to say?
Thankfully, I finally remembered: theme isn’t necessarily supposed to be in the author’s mind while they write the book, it’s identified afterward by readers and high school English teachers (oh, and book publicists). Compiling a collection of stories based on theme is only one way to go about it; stories can just as easily be collected based on time or location of composition, length, the magazine(s) in which they were published or even the fact that no magazine or other collection has previously published them. For Hamburger, the publisher was smart to write catalogue copy that focused on the range of styles and themes in the collection, and when ordering the stories and faced with no clear thematic way to do it, I put them in three groups based on length: flash up front, regular-length stories in the middle, and the really long one at the end.
Declaring a theme, I eventually realized, wasn’t about pinning down the book or about locking out some readings, but rather, about providing a talking point—a way in for a potential reader. I read the stories again, and sure enough, a theme (not the theme, a theme!) presented itself: many of the characters were fairly young and were unfulfilled at work, so I owned that. I sometimes said it earnestly, or smirking or grumbling or sort of bashfully, but to anyone who asked, “What’s your book about?”, I still said it: “Young people who don’t like their jobs.”
Most surprisingly, after all the hand-wringing, the log line more or less worked. A festival and a website thought this theme (this one theme, not the one and only theme) was at least interesting enough that they could invite me to read and write with them, which is to say, to get my message out and help promote my book.
Which was, of course, all the publisher’s questionnaire wanted all along.
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.
Daniel Perry’s first short fiction collection, Hamburger, was published in 2016. His stories have been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize and appeared in publications in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and the Czech Republic. He has lived in Toronto since 2006. Nobody Looks That Young Here, a collection of linked stories, is his second book.