It has been a few days since my last WIR post, but I promise that this is not because I was just playing video games and drinking beer in my Annex hobbit hole. In fact, I’ve been away at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo, a literary weekend organized by the folks at The New Quarterly (one of Canada’s best journals). It was the last event of the fall season for me, on the heels of my debut story collection, Debris (Biblioasis), and I thought it’d make some sense to post about my experiences so far, especially with regards to all of the work that goes in to promoting a first book.
If you can hang in there, a bit of patience can pay off...
A few years back I was at a real low point as far as my prospects as a writer. I originally had high hopes for a first novel, and had an agent who thought my work would get somewhere fast and that they would be able to find a publisher for it. But nothing came of it. I had success in that a story of mine was a finalist for the Journey Prize (To Have To Wait), and naively thought that this would make my writing more appealing to Canadian publishers. Not so. I came very close to publishing the second novel I’d written, and that all fell apart and ultimately never came to be. My agent quit the business, and, even though some people were now aware of my writing, I was no closer to a book then I had been in the beginning. I wondered if I’d ever be taken seriously by a Canadian publisher.
Luckily, I had the drive and the stubbornness to keep writing short fiction, and those stories started getting published (as mentioned in my first official WIR post). My editor, John Metcalf, read a story of mine in a journal and called me up, wrote me, and this led to my sending him the rest of my stories, and to getting my first book deal. That second novel, long stranded, will follow next year. Instead of being a twenty-seven year old, or thirty year old person with a first book, I am now a thirty-five year old with a first book, and those were some hard years in there that make me feel older than that. Things could’ve happened quicker, and it would’ve seemed great to get published earlier, but I am actually very glad that this didn’t happen.
Why am I glad? Well, because the book I put out, that took that much longer, ended up being written by a better and more prepared author, one who was actually ready to talk about the work and get out there to promote it and who knew that he had left everything out there on the page. I made connections and friends in those book-limbo years that gave me the confidence to think of this collection as a book that could stand up to any big, corporate publishing house title, and that could hold its own against the very best authors in the industry. Those hard years can make a decent book into a damn good book, and that slower rise can give readers and editors and critics the chance to find the work and engage with it at some point before it just showed up in catalogues or in stores. I think this is why, in recent reviews of the work, I didn’t read anyone who said that Debris was a good try for a new writer, or any who thought that there were stories in there that were straight out of a writing workshop, or that were filler. Had I got a book of stories a few years ago, it would not have been as developed or complete. This is not always the case for every writer, but, for me, those years that seemed so brutal and demoralizing, turned out to be a galvanizing period for the work, and made me ready to champion this book on a local and national scale.
It also might have twisted my soul up and made it more angry and bitter, but that is neither here nor there. The stories are pretty good, right? And, hey, that novel I couldn’t sell is going to exist also. So yes, a little bit of irreparable damage, but it all turned out great! ☺
Train, Hotel, Reading, Train, Reading, Train, Inn, Reading, Train, Reading, Bus, Reading, Bus, Festival, Hotel, Bus, Lie on floor of apartment…
One of the main things that you will learn if you have a book out, especially if it has any legs at all, is that you will be doing a lot of travelling and reading and promoting. You will do your launch, and you will go around the land to various bookstores and bars and whatnot, and read to perhaps a hundred people, or to one person, due to your event being waylaid by a stiff wind in that town that scares off people who otherwise might have gone to hear you yammer. The better your book does, or the more your publisher wants to and is capable of pushing your work, the more of this you will do. And, you should be doing every last goddamn thing you can do if you are at all able to do it.
I ended up in a sort of unusual position for a first book, in that the stories had a bit of a following, and there were people who were anticipating the collection somewhat on a local and sort of grassroots level. Again, that time waiting for it also extended to friends and family and supporters of my work, so that they were excited by the release. Nonetheless, a first book of stories in Canada is not going to blow up Kanye West’s twitter (or snapchat?). I was lucky to be included in a strong fall list from Biblioasis, with established Canadian and international writers like Anakana Schofield, Samuel Archibald, Larry Tremblay, and A.J. Somerset (not to mention Russell Smith from the spring list, Governor General winner for Poetry, Robyn Sarah, and globally respected writers like David Constantine and Mia Couto). This allowed me to have my home launch in Toronto strengthened by sharing the event with other more established authors, and jumping in to launches in places like Montreal, Quebec (where Archibald and Tremblay are legendary), and at the Biblioasis home launch in Windsor.
The success of my publisher has had a trickle down effect to some extent, and it has added some interest to my book from readers and publishing folks that might not have had it on their radar otherwise. This opens doors, but it also means, as the little dog in the pack, I had to bust my ass as well to stay relevant in all the talk of big prizes and “best” Canadian books, as determined by the big prizes.* I said yes to every interview and guest spot and profile and list and podcast and horoscope and dunk-tank opportunity that I was offered. All of that turns out to be quite a lot of work, and most of it is unpaid. However, saying yes and doing all of that while people actually give a crap enough to ask you, well, it struck me as something that I should really take advantage of. It is also great practice when you actually have to talk about your work on the fly, or to a room or people, and, hopefully, eventually, to the fancy people that are interested in the bigger dogs on your publisher’s list. This is a bit of a crazy time, and there are limitations to what you can do, as so many writers have day jobs and children and like to sleep and eat actual food and such. But, as I am free of most of those things (and the general life success that they signify), I tried to remember that there were never before, and may never again, be people interesting in you ranting at them about why your characters robbed a liquor store on a skidoo or take up their scatterguns. It seems to have paid off, and I’ve been told that people hear “buzz” about my book (though I’ve not confirmed such buzz). I’ve even been told I read at things where I did not read, and it is good if I have been doing so much crap that there are sightings of me reading in towns or events I was not at…
(*Not really how determining the “best” book actually works, just so we’re clear).
I was on my first panel. Hard to recall what I said, but I was there. I got proof…
Everything I’ve mentioned so far, and that I’ve experienced with my first book, sort of culminated in the panel that I was asked to speak on at the Wild Writers Festival, this past Saturday. This is a perfect example of the next level of things that might be coming for you if you get through your little tour readings and launches. Unless you are a big deal, or someone gave you a pile o’ money for your first book (often with hilarious results), it is hard to get into the festival scene in Canada, where established writers talk to actual fans of writing and literature, many of whom have paid to see those writers.
I managed to sneak into one…
It was a fairly fortuitous thing, in that the Wild Writers Festival was organized and run by The New Quarterly. Three of what many people think are the best stories in the book were accepted for publication by Pamela Mulloy, who is the head editor of TNQ, and the person responsible for booking writers for the various panels at WWF. I think that certainly helped, but I also think that another thing that helped, being a first timer to this, was that I have corresponded at length with the folks at TNQ, and have done pretty much any and all of their little promo ideas, like their feature on authors’ writing spaces, and another about what their contributors are reading. I’ve also written something for TNQ to put in their fundraising materials that speaks to how I had a lengthy story that they took a chance on, and that would have been scuttled by nearly anywhere else, but that Pamela accepted and worked with me to edit down and get the story right. That story is in the book (Hunted By Coyotes), and a number of readers have told me it was better than a kick in the junk.
So, by doing those little things, and being generally not a dick, I think that this led TNQ to believe that they could put a relatively unfancy writer on a panel with some established, seasoned vets. My panel was called Pushing Boundaries, and I shared the panel with literary heavyweights Russell Smith, Kathleen Winter, and Rhonda Douglas, and it was moderated by critically acclaimed author, KD Miller. As with readings, I was not truly nervous until I started to go loopy right before it began, at which point it is just plainly too late to run away. Though I don’t remember all of what I said or how much hoser came out in the speaking, I am told I did alright. Hilariously, I think that my being a little less likely to be there, and far less experienced, might have actually helped my case.
What I mean by that is, as somebody who took a funny route to get to a book, through some truly distressing territory at certain points over the last few years, and who is still new to it all, I was happy to talk to the room and share some of what I thought about that. Some of my opinions on writing diverged from the rest of the panel, but that is okay. Given that this was the day after the fest’s big opening panel discussion with Nino Ricci and Don Gilmour, about how much of the actual writer ends up in their book (mostly shot down by the veteran authors there), I was not bothered by telling everyone that a lot of real life goes into my work, and that I do feel like a lot of it is personal and autobiographical, bearing in mind that I do believe good fiction must be about the story before the truth behind it, and should not be limited by anything based in real life. I talked about how my family never had any money, and that the odds of making it to that first book and into that room were very long, and that it was all still a little weird to me. I had little of the polish and panel experience that some of the other authors did, and my answers were probably a lot rougher and had more cussing (no f-bombs though, that I recall). Perhaps that polish will come, but, in this instance, I think all of that inexperience and nervousness might have led to some useful rambling, and it seemed to play well to the room.
So, coming to the end of all of this commotion, for now, I think the past weekend was a good way to sew it all up. I’ve bashed my way through the last few years toward the book, and have had as much failure as success and still have just got started, still feel that there is much, much more to do before I’m satisfied with what I’ve got for a career. But, I thought it was important to take note of this all, and to share a little of it with you, the fine readers of Open Book Toronto. Of course, many of you will be in the same spot someday, and there are many of you that have been through this already or have seen something similar. As somebody who is dealing with it for the first time, all at once, after those hard years trying to get to it, I figured I'd throw in my two cents.
At some point in the panel discussion, it came up that I write for my family, and to cope with what goes on in my brain and what has happened to us in our lives. I mentioned that my mum would like me to “write some nice stories,” but that she has never tried to talk me out of telling stories that were complicated and heavy and close to home. Well, I was lucky that, whatever the challenges of getting to this point, I had support and the drive to keep working toward a career in writing fiction. I had that, and I had a little bit of talent, but it all would fall flat if you don’t try to maximize your chances of getting your work out there by readings or panels or the kind of thing I’m writing right now for Open Book. If you ever get some of the chances I did, and that I might yet have, I’d seize them as fast as you can.
Also, maybe lay off the whiskey and beer and go to bed a little earlier. And remember to bring toothpaste…
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.
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.
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 his short fiction has been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories 24 & 26, Best Canadian Stories 15, and Internazionale.
Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, was published by Biblioasis in 2015. Debris won the 2016 Trillium Book Award, the 2016 ReLit Award for Short Fiction, was runner-up for the 2016 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.