Thursday, March 22, 2018

Building Book Movements, Not Fires: a Follow-up Interview with Michael Noll


If 25 people buy the same book at the same time, it creates a blip on a sales chart.
If 250 people buy the same book at the same time, the blip grows.
If 2,500 people buy the same book at once—or 25,000—an industry starts paying attention.
If 250,000 people buy the same book, the writer becomes a major figure.
If we all buy books twice a month, every month, a movement is built.

Last year, after the presidential election, writer Michael Noll began a project to amplify minoritized voices, to help America see itself in literature (as its mission statement reads), and to diversify reading and publishing as a kind of push-back to a presidency that would negatively affect the people whose voices were/have been, made invisible, historically underrepresented, and/or discredited by louder majoritized voices.

To achieve this, Noll created a website named Books are not a Luxury; every month he featured at least two books along with book-discussion questions, an essay about the featured book, and an interview with the writer. Enough books, certainly, to create a year of book clubs, from selections to questions.  

Last year, I spoke with Michael about this project: Building Book Movements, Not Fires. This year, I wanted to check back in as a kind of year in review. And that is the interview you'll find below.


Q1. Books are Not a Luxury has celebrated its one-year anniversary. What have you found most rewarding or successful about the series?
MN. A teacher in Austin bought a copy of Mychal Denzel Smith's Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, and almost immediately one of his students, a young African-American woman, saw the book and grabbed it. Then, she wrote a short response to the book—on her own, not for an assignment, but because she was so excited by what she had read.

Q 2. Can readers expect any changes in the coming year?
MN. I'm taking a pause from the project for the moment. I had some family issues that I had to attend to. When the project returns, it will probably take a revised form. I started Books Are Not a Luxury after the election, when it seemed so clear that half of voters had completely disregarded Trump's racism and misogyny. I didn't have any illusions that promoting books by the groups targeted by Trump's rhetoric would change anyone's mind, but it did seem like there were a lot of people acutely interested in listening to people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. At the same time, writers from those groups often face significant obstacles in getting their books published and in front of readers. So it seemed like an opportunity to do essential work on two fronts. It's still important work, but if I think about Books Are Not a Luxury in the context of all that has happened in the past year (calling reps, marching, getting emotionally overwhelmed, getting a second and third wind), I want to find a way to support marginalized writers in they're doing right now. That means writing and publishing, of course, but it's also become clear to me that, at least in terms of the literary community, it has been writers from these groups taking the lead in political resistance. This has meant time away from their work. So I think it's possible that supporting writers may also mean supporting the political work that they're doing.

Q 3. Are there any Books are Not a Luxury book clubs? Could a person start one? 
MN. I don't know of any formal groups, but I know that several groups have read some of the books and individuals have informally suggested books from the project to their clubs. People can absolutely start one. And, if groups have read a book that really spoke to them, they can contact me to let me know. Or, and this might be even better, they should reach out to the writer. It seems small, but fan letters can mean a tremendous amount to a writer.

Q 4. Has the mission of the series deepened, or developed in this past year? 
MN. You know, reading books by non-white, non-cis writers shouldn't be a special project. It ought to be just par for the course. For many readers (and publishers and agents and publicists) it isn't. I do think it's important to make a concerted effort to correct the gaps in one's reading, but it's also important to turn it into a lifelong habit and not a special project. One of the things you see, politically speaking, is people who were part of a political counterculture decades ago now suddenly finding themselves unaware of current issues and ways of talking and thinking about race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and ableism. These are not static issues. You have to keep learning and engaging with them. You saw this with Hillary Clinton at a rally where a young Black Lives Matter protester confronted her about her "super predators" remark back in the 90s. Clinton got pretty condescending in her response. I think a lot of politicians have been surprised at the ways that these issues have changed around them. So, I'm trying to find ways to listen to people from different backgrounds in all possible ways: through books, radio, TV, film, social media, in-person, in politics, however I can.

Q 5. How has reading these books affected your space in the world? 
MN. It was humbling. I think it's pretty easy to start thinking, "Oh, I'm woke (whatever that means). I'm an evolved moral, ethical person." Then your certainty about your own righteousness runs into someone else's experience.

Q 6. This is an excellent series, and clearly takes a vast amount of work. Are you doing this all by yourself? Are others involved? 

MN. I had a lot of help. Bookstores, especially BookWoman in Austin, have always been on the forefront of promoting diverse authors and books, and they continued to do so with this project. I also wrote none of the text associated with the project. Instead, I found great writers who could speak to the experiences or content or background of a book and asked them to write an essay in response or interview the author. My role was mostly project management. 
Q 7. Could someone donate to the series, or become a member? Surely, there are costs. Or, maybe I should ask, how can someone support this series directly? Maybe the need isn't financial, but a need for additional energy?
MN. The best thing that people could do is start their own version of Books Are Not a Luxury--online or in person. The project was never intended to be any kind of permanent structure. It was part of a larger response by millions of people to the presidential election in particular and the generations of bigotry and injustice that led up to it. There are a lot of ways to learn about great books by writers from marginalized groups. Here's one place to look: VONA offers writing workshops for people of color. Their faculty are amazing, and people ought to read their books. Another is the annual Tournament of Books, which is a good place to find great books. 
In general, though, I've found that I find out about most books through word of mouth—and by word of mouth, I mean social media. I'm either friends with or follow a lot of writers on Facebook, and I pay attention when they talk up a book. Obviously, most readers aren't going to friend writers on Facebook, but I do think it's a great idea to follow their public profiles on any platform and pay attention to what they're reading. Writers talk about books and tend to know about them before the general population does. 
Then, read those books and discuss them with others. That's the magic of books. They lead to conversations, and we need better conversations about these issues.

Q 8. What's the feedback like that you've been receiving from readers or writers, or both?
MN. It's been overwhelmingly positive. in particular, I'm always struck by how much it means to writers for someone to reach out and say, "Your book was great. I'd love to talk to you about it." I wish everyone would write the authors whose books they love.

Q 9. Do you have the books planned out for this year, or how does the vetting work?
MN. Not yet. I'm also doing a lot of the same work over at Read to Write Stories, the blog where I post writing exercises based on published work. As a writer and teacher, I've been frustrated by the ways that books by writers of color, in particular, are often discussed differently than booksby white writers. David Treuer talked about this in his great book Native American Fiction: A User's Manual. He visited an art gallery with an exhibit of Native American art, and there was a sign posted telling people to view the art with their hearts, not their heads. He took offense to the sign as it suggests that Native art can't be held to the same standards as non-Native art. I think the same thing is true for books. When craft gets discussed in writing classes, the models are often by white writers. Non-white writers work is discussed as important, which it is, but it's also well-written and a model for other writers.

Q 10. What do you like about reading itself? You're a writer, an avid reader, a director of a large community/state-wide writing program. What is it about books, words, the act of reading that you've made it your life? (These may be two questions.)
MN. Most of it's natural, not really something I've chosen. I can make intellectual arguments about why reading is superior to watching movies or TV, but the truth is, I can pretty much take or leave any TV show or movie, but I love reading. There's something about being utterly immersed in good writing, in a story or argument, to the extent that you cease to be aware of your surroundings. At its best, those stories are engaging and entertaining and immerse you in complex worlds that make you aware of nuances that hadn't known about before. It's like when I first started wearing glasses as a kid and looked off of my parents porch toward a far-off pasture and said, "Hey, those are cows over there." Without the right lenses, I hadn't seen what there was to see. Books function the same way, I think. 


Michael Noll is the author of The Writer's Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction (2018, A Strange Object Press). He's also the editor of Read to Write Stories and Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas. His short stories have been published in American Short Fiction, Chattahoochee Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Indiana Review, and The New Territory, and been nominated for New Stories from the Midwest. His story, “The Tank Yard” was included in the 2016 Best American Mystery Stories anthology. He lives in Austin, TX, with his family. 

No comments: