Telling the Truth
Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Welcome to my revamped author site! First, thank you to Airoz Digital Media, who crushed it. They were recommended to me by a colleague and friend from the way back days of New York City government. Life feels like time travel sometimes, and I love it.
I had hoped to go live with the news that I, too, am crushing it. I mean, I did survive my first ambulance jaunt recently! I discovered a few new things in that loud hospital bus. First, herbal supplements don't play. Second, when people talk about being drawn into a warm yellow glow because they are crossing over to the other side, it's definitely the benzodiazepine drip. One point to the atheists.
I wrote a novel during the shutdown. This was crushing-ish because it was my first attempt, and it poured out of me like a song, and I fell madly in love with writing the fiction, and everyone who has read it -- that total is up to five or six now -- thinks it's a great story, and I have started research for another novel because in addition to the covid virus, I got the fiction bug, too. All of these statements are factually true.
What is truth, though? I think it is more than a set of factual statements. It's more like a skinny bundle of reality + sincerity + vulnerability. I am all about truth right now. Living it, loving it, living it, loving it. To me, this means accepting things about myself that I would prefer didn't exist. And approaching hardships with curiosity rather than fear. And speaking out on my struggles rather than tiptoeing down a shame spiral and trying to disappear myself before anyone notices I messed up.
The pandemic gave me this feature. Prior to the year twenty-twenty, I had been writing comedic yarns. I'll get back there with this new project, I hope. I strongly believe that humor is a wonderful way to deal with human frailty -- until you feel so frail, that nothing seems funny, and jokes sound wicked, and how dare you make light of unspeakable tragedy. Our four-year national political crisis -- with all its wrath and wrongness and wreckage -- stripped away certain of my social façades. It trained my full attention on human frailty. Including my own. And it exposed dramatic fault lines in society, into which many of us -- thinking people, anyway -- are all still gazing. In 2020, especially, I took refuge in truth.
In fact, the overt assault on civil rights and the general backsliding of humanity made me feel that I had to say something... serious. I have a serious personal backstory: My PhD field was white supremacy culture in the post-Reconstruction American South. Here it all was in Drumpf's America, rushing back to the future, to haunt our civic life like Banquo's Ghost. No, it was never gone. But Trumpism looks specifically so much like White Redemption (historical term) at the turn of the century that at one point, I emailed my PhD advisor and said, "I should have published my dissertation." You should, he said. Sorry, Robin, I didn't. But I did pull my research from the cobwebbed basement file cabinet, and whip up a work of historical fiction, based on real events and people.
Spoiler: The subjects of my dissertation were very rich, global businessmen. They were also rabid and violent and dangerous white supremacists. Statutes of them, paeans to the alleged progress they brought to America, still stand all across the southland.
My novel is a story for this time, I think. It is timely and poignant. So, why am I not crushing it?
The easiest explanation is that my work is timely, poignant trash, and everyone, including my own mother, has been lying to me.
A more self-serving and systemic explanation is that the publishing biz is in a free fall. People have been saying this for decades, of course, but nobody really knows what's happening in there because it's all so cryptic and opaque, so we can keep saying it. It doesn't bode well for timely and poignant history lessons that unless you're a celebrity, a famous politician, an infamous lout, a previously-bestselling author, and/or someone with enough money to hire a private PR firm to promote yourself -- yes, it does happen -- it's just very hard to get an agent, and a book deal. I only got an agent in the first place because some television people needed a cheap nobody to funny up their book. Counterfactual: Really good books by other nobodies do get published. So it's good to ask questions like: Who are the gatekeepers in this business? What gates are being kept? For what reasons? But I don't know if profit problems really explain anything.
Part of the problem might also be that I'm white.
White people aren't really crushing it, in general, if you haven't noticed. This is a hard conversation. So much potential for harm and hurt. But I raise it because several conversations with agents who shall remain nameless, convos which I hoped would be about the quality of grammar and quantity of adverbs and the progress of narrative -- very quickly devolved into conversations about race and politics. People invoked the marketing debacle of American Dirt, and the concomitant elevation of discussions about equity in publishing. One person promised I would get "skewered." Another suggested that perhaps I should tell the story from the perspective of the white child. So, I should take the voice and power away from the Black women characters in order to neutralize potential criticism? Ok, so, whitewashing the story is my best option for getting published?
To be frank, I see it this way: The publishing world is very white. Privileged white writers writing not-their-identity characters are maybe getting some extra scrutiny in the wake of no longer being able to pay lip service to identity. At the same time, it is white agents who largely make these decisions, and as with profits and markets, it's really hard to know what's happening behind the scenes. Identity and writing are not simple matters. Reasonable people disagree wildly about this topic. There are so many exceptions to the rule -- whatever that rule is -- that you can't even say anything has tangibly or permanently shifted because what was it before? All we can say for sure is that we are living through some important social reckonings right now and if I have to take longer to figure it out, fine. Needs to happen.
Personally, I feel that writing historical fiction, with a PhD in history, puts me in a unique identity-writing category. Yet I can imagine that even expressing this viewpoint, and continuing this discussion, may sound Karen-adjacent to some people. Publish my book, I'm a white lady with a PhD. I think that Tru-Karens complain from a subjectivity of entitlement. I don't mean to complain here. I'm trying to be about reflecting on a changing creative landscape, recording my limited experience, and exposing myself to honest criticism. Mostly, I'm trying to understand how I can share my story, and if I can not be part of the problem, and whether I can contribute to any enlightenment in this world.
Before writing about this, I talked to many other people, in an open, soul-searching way. A close historian friend of mine who still teaches in my field pointed out that really, no amount of publishing world Sturm und Drang could even come close to how academics drag each other. I laughed because it's so painfully true. Ha! Ha! But for real, we are trained through critique and evaluation. We're used to participating in uncomfortable debates. I would rather be criticized than coddled. In that spirit, I ultimately decided that I would rather not publish the book than whitewash it or walk on eggshells while paying lip service to justice while other white people try to figure out how to market me in a "sensitive" way. Truth bomb: Literary agents have helped me make this decision by not returning my pitches at a rate of 100%. Crushing. It.
It's hard to write things that people don't read. But rather than feel despair or defensiveness or embrace some baseless buck wild white grievance, in the absence of facts, I've chosen another path. First, I did a lot of reading and (with the help of my Gen Z teenager) YouTubing about race and identity in fiction. There's a lot of great stuff out there. See this excellent piece for example. Subsequently, I reached out to several freelance Black women writers, for their opinions. I have the privilege of being able to pay people to critique my work. Through my creative networks, I found two writers who agreed to read my work (for hire) and give me honest feedback. The industry typically calls this a "sensitivity read." I think of it more as "cultural accuracy." Whatever you want to call it, I got invaluable feedback from these editors. And most of it, I am happy to say, was quite positive. "This story needs to be told," one editor wrote. It was "well told from multiple characters' point of view," wrote another; she praised the agency of the Black women characters, in particular. I learned so much from these editors. I'm so grateful for their insights. One of these connections may turn into a longer-term collaboration. Stay tuned.
I'd like to continue exploring this issue, on this blog. I will be dropping snippets of the novel, to get feedback. Things for you to consider: Is it trash? Is it unsellable? Am I white? Et cetera and so forth and so on. I look forward to having some real conversations. I really want to share this book with the world, but more than anything, I want to tell the truth.
Here's the title page... Stay tuned for more!