Thursday, August 22, 2019

How I Found Missoula and More at the Montana Book Festival

View of Missoula, MT on a morning in 2017

Because my novel Hezada! I Miss You is to be published soon, I'll be participating in the 2019 Montana Book Festival, this September 12-15th. It will find me reading with Willow Springs, talking about the Fractured American Dream, the Fissured Family, and reading work with other queer writers. I am so grateful and glad to return to Missoula. So glad.

The first time I met Missoula, Montana was on a very hot July of 2011, closing in on the first anniversary of living in Spokane and of my sister's death. My spouse and I were trying to stay married, and had just left Spokane for the first time since moving there a year before. We were headed for a trip home to Texas where we'd met and lived for nearly a decade. Then the car broke in Montana.

I'd bought the car in 2003 with part of the fellowship money I'd been awarded to attend grad school in Texas. In July 2003, my best friend Alexa and I had driven in that car from Illinois to Texas to find an apartment for me to live in. By July 2011, I was living in Spokane, Alexa was dead, as was my sister, and now the car would soon show symptoms.

The trip to Texas stopped in Missoula. Well, it had started failing after we'd pulled off the interstate to discover a little art gallery. I've always wanted to be the sort of person to see a sign for a cool thing and impulsively turn off to see it. It was a summer in which I was searching for any other life but my own, so when I saw the sign, I pointed, and we exited. We both wanted to discover beautiful things. Maybe we debated stopping. We had a schedule, after all, as I'd plotted our trip across an atlas of KOA stops. I'd reserved them in advance. But we took the exit and drove away from the interstate toward the Hope of Something Good. 

Ohrmann Museum and Gallery, Montana 2011
I'm sure we argued about turning back or going forward. I'm not sure how I won. But on we went, and we found the Hope of Something Good, better known as the Ohrmann Museum and Gallery. And it was a good discovery. It's an art gallery surrounded by farmland and big sky. The artist's house is just up aways. Around the gallery are large metal sculptures. The gallery is built like a storage shed with a Western-style exterior and holds a warehouse of paintings by the same farmer who is the self-taught artist and sculptor.

To find the gallery, for something like that to exist in the middle of seemingly nowhere, and then to move through it, felt like the petal of a larger promise. To return the favor of that feeling, I bought a print we couldn't afford, and the artist's wife handed me the credit card receipt to sign. It was our vacation, we hadn't fought in the gallery, and for moments looking at the sculptures it seemed to me that we were together in the way we wanted to be.

Polar Bear Sculpture by Ohrmann
Polar Bear information board
Maybe we wouldn't remember the gallery or any of this without the troubles or without the pictures that I still have. But it was here at the gallery, print in hand and our shared delight at such a place, that when we climbed back in the car that the car started having troubles.

It was here that the reward for leaving the beaten track became the bad omen, the reason we should have kept driving, why we were the way we were, why this whole trip was ridiculous. There we sat, dogs panting at our shoulders, in the middle of art, yes, but also the middle of a lot more. Of course, the farmer-artist came out to try to help. I'm sure we followed the choreography of lifting the hood and examining the engine's labyrinth while the metal sculptures stood around us reflecting heat, and I simultaneously thought of polar bears in the wrong climate and the deadly garden sculptures in Stephen King's The Shining. 

When the car started, we left. It was a long road back to the interstate. The Hope of Something Good was gone. We stopped in the nearest village, but the mechanic was gone. Probably it was a Sunday. So we drove on, at slow speeds to the interstate and crawled on toward the next exit with signs of life not just signs for a faraway attraction. The next time we pulled off, the town was bigger, and we waited for a mechanic who never showed up. I remember how hot it was. No trees. We sat in the dugout of a park baseball field. We walked the dogs. We left. My husband stood on a pitcher's mound and showed me how he once pitched. He'd hated it. And now?

Once we gave up on that mechanic, we debated Missoula. Perhaps we'd driven past it, and now we had to return. However it was, Missoula is where we had to go, at minimum speeds, until we reached the KOA there. And there we stayed for two wonderful days.

KOA Missoula
Those two nights at the Missoula KOA were beautiful. Maybe they shouldn't have been. The cynicism of authenticity would bet against it. KOA is a franchise campground, after all. It thrives on sameness, from the hallmark triangle-roofed Kamping store that often houses family recreation activities (ping-pong) and laundromat services. The trademarked Kabins. The Missoula KOA held the same swimming pool that I'd swum in at every Alabama KOA and up through the North Carolina KOAs when I was on my first book tour in 2009. 

But nothing had ever gone wrong in my life at a KOA. My affection for KOAs is their 1970s decor. Their insistence on good days dovetailed with my disbelief in good days. The way each KOA owner plays her own variation on the KOA theme. Whether the putt-putt golf has new green felt or hasn't been used in thirty years, every KOA seems to agree both on the human attempt to have respite from life, which juxtaposes pleasingly with my belief that reality prevents respite and that the discordant sound of reality, or as it relates to KOAs, the nearby interstate, will never let us be free, fully, to be. Some people live year-round in KOAs. I've seen campers with miniature picket fences built around them. Flowerbeds. Street signs with the resident's name standing on poles that share bird feeders. Most people pass through. But the campgrounds are like tiny, pedicured planets outside of time.

I have never felt fear at a KOA like I have in standard hotels. I spend less time locking myself in a hotel room while imagining a maid finding my dead body the next morning, and more time walking the campground, waving at people in lawn chairs, following paths landscaped to resemble a more rugged and less reservations-only camping experience. 

That summer, though, I wanted the trademarked respite. More than anything I've wanted, probably, outside of resurrection of those I love. Those two July days at the Missoula KOA allowed for that wish. My life felt far away from the walls of the little cabin. My better life was allowed to live. The pancakes were free. Families camped around us. Workers zipped around in their golf karts, attending to whatever needs kampers have. My husband and I read aloud to each other the joyful and dire news of a town whose patterns did not affect us. We were voyeurs. We were, perhaps to the other campers, a young married couple, pre-children, pre-family packages of mosquito repellent. What did we look like to everyone else? Better than we were.

The result was I never wanted to return to Spokane. I begged to stay. And maybe these many years later, we would still be living in that cabin, bellies full of free pancakes, but when we tried to reserve the cabin for a third night, we learned that a motorcycle convention was coming to town. The cabin was booked. Every cabin was. The whole campground would become a constellation of shiny metal, leather, and the sound of engines kicked to start. So we had to leave and take our car, our dogs, and our lives with us. 

We'd return to Spokane, driving at the slowest speeds possible, through heat and the stink of new oil. All of Montana was under construction, it seemed. Or maybe it was Idaho. It was interstate. The car wouldn't drive in reverse. It had a hard time even shifting into first, much less second. Seems like we had to skip first to trick it into shifting at all. Sometimes shifting the car would lead to it shutting off. Sometimes it wouldn't start. For the next six months, we'd plot our parking strategically, avoiding flat lots and searching for spaces with a downward slant until, finally, our adjunct and graduate assistant paychecks could afford a mechanic and the almost assuredly bad news that would come from it.

Over the next seven years, our marriage would end, I'd fall in love with my current partner, I'd have a baby, we'd all learn how to co-parent a child of three parents without artifice or tension. I'd shuck my desire to become a tenured professor and start writing part-time while teaching children's tennis. My father, my sister, and my best friend would continue to be dead. I'd write a new book. In those years, if I thought of Missoula, I thought only of that KOA campground, and that was good. Two good days are worth remembering. Luckily, though, I would meet Missoula again in 2017, in better circumstances, and on a second book tour, this time stopping at the 2017 Montana Book Festival. 

Fact and Fiction Storefront
Missoula, MT 2017
During my book tour for The Whole World at Once, I applied to participate in festival, and they accepted. So in September 2017, I arrived in Missoula with my partner and three-year old. I was nervous to meet the writers I would share discussions with, cynical of any writer-related activity that involved more than sitting quietly to write, and so I bought the books of all the writers I'd been scheduled to share time with. My hope was that, by reading their work, should the writer ask about my day, I'd have more to offer than Good and a long, awkward pause. 

In short, the 2017 festival came at a time where life had become steadier so when I attended the festival, I could do so as a fully engaged participant. The result was that the festival ended up bringing me friends and deepening my connection to this region of the country. To hear a region's writers talk about that place is, to my mind, the best way to learn about where you are, the culture, the problems, and the positive. Who else, besides a region's artists, have spent so much time living, studying, and reflecting on it? Thus, after days of attending panel discussions and participating in them myself, I finally became connected to the Northwest and the writers who called it home, whether home was in Montana, Idaho, Washington, or other nearby states--the Northwest was what counted as our shared roof.

Fact and Fiction Books -
Book Display, MBF '17
There, I took part on a panel about fairy tales and reality, and met Wendy Oleson, Donna Miscolta, and Melissa Stephenson. We sat side by side at a table at the back of Fact and Fiction bookstore, talking narrative, tragedy, reality, and more. The audience was packed in the chairs, and we were all there together, thinking and talking and listening. It was like the best first day of school that you could imagine, if you already like school and harbor a deep wish that this year you'll meet real people, as opposed to book characters, who love the same things you do. There was the blip where a man asked us about being women writers, or something woman-related, and then interrupted Donna when she began to share her thoughts. More a confirmation than a blip. Of what it is to be, or happen to be, a woman with thoughts at the front of a room instead of in the audience. I've never forgotten it, though. More than a blip.

I found Melissa online before the festival, and our friendship grew quickly. We learned that we'd just missed each other at the same MFA program in Texas, that we thus shared an overlapping group of friends, that our siblings had both died by suicide, and that we both grew up in the Midwest. Usually, just finding another Midwestern writer is enough to secure a friendship, but to share in common so much more? That's how people say words like destiny. At the time, she was a year out from publication of her memoir but starting to enter the whirl of promotional activities like the panel at the festival. 

That her memoir revolves around her experiencing her brother's death while I was a book away from a novel revolving around the experience of my sister's has helped to strengthen our friendship and, thankfully, given me the ear and wisdom of someone who understands nearly exactly the worries or quandaries or after-effects of the same kind of grief, particularly as a writer carrying this grief. Later, she would come to Spokane to read from her memoir Driven, and I was lucky to be in the audience. 

Melissa and me at her event at Auntie's Bookstore
Summer 2018
I started reading Donna Miscolta's novel of stories, Hola and Goodbye at the festival, but the festival lasted a weekend, and her stories cover a century, so it took me a little longer to finish. It's a beautiful book, and reading it made my memories of our discussion at the festival that much more nuanced. Never one to let go of someone who helps me understand the world, I've kept up with Donna. And she has, thankfully, allowed for it, letting me interview her about the book and her writing. She also contributed essays to both the summer library series and to the Book Your Stocking holiday reading countdown. 
Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories
Donna Miscolta
A few weeks ago, she shared the great news that her newest book is coming out in 2020, and while we won't see each other at the Montana Book Festival this year, I have secret hopes that we'll meet several times in 2020, which will make the book tour for Hezada! I Miss You a more welcoming venture if it's to be more a reunion of writers and friends and less a tour of empty chairs and new spaces. Though strangers are good, too. 

I will get to reunite with Wendy Oleson at this year's festival. We're sharing a panel again, this time celebrating queer voices. She was the first queer writer I'd met as one myself, so her appearance in my life may resonate more in my memory than mine in hers. But even if she doesn't remember me, I'll have read her recent works and, should she ask me about my day, I'll have more to say than Good. 

A few months after we talked fairy tales at the festival, I checked my email and found that none other than Wendy Oleson had won the Gertrude Press prize. Because I'd read her chapbook Our Daughter and Other Stories to prepare for that panel, I saved that email announcement so I'd remember to purchase her next title: 

Gertrude Press
November 21, 2017
    Wendy Oleson * Reviews * $10 Off  
Wendy Oleson_THIS ONE

Our 2017 Fiction Chapbook Contest winner has been selected from a fantastic group of submissions: WENDY OLESON!

Her brilliant collection, PLEASE FIND US, was chosen by our guest judge, Robert Hill, and will be out early next year. * CONGRATS! *
Wendy Oleson is author of Our Daughter and Other Stories (Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award Series). Her stories, poems, and hybrid texts appear in [PANK]Crab Orchard ReviewThe Journal, and elsewhere. She has received fiction fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and serves as editorial staff for Fairy Tale Review and Memorious Magazine. Wendy teaches for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension and Washington State University at Tri-Cities. She lives with a hiccup-prone dog, Winston, and her wife in Walla Walla, Washington.

At the 2017 festival I participated in two events, the fairy tale panel, and a reading and Q and A. The reading was with Polly Buckingham, and this was probably the biggest affirmation for why regional book festivals are so important, not only for the readers who attend but also for the writers who find each other. Polly and I may have lived a mere twenty minutes away from each other, but Missoula brought us together. On the festival mornings leading up to our reading, I'd walk to the coffee shop Bernice's Bakery and, while my son and partner slept in, I'd read Polly's book of stories, The Expense of a View. 
Reading Polly Buckingham
Bernice's Bakery, Missoula, MT 2017
To read Polly's stories was to learn that the distant figure who walked the empty shores and fields of memory and grief was my kindred spirit. To realize that not only was she alive (my literary kindred spirits are often long dead), but that she also lived nearby felt like the purest of luck. It turned out that she would read my stories and find in me the same distant figure. 

We have since become fast friends, extending our friendship from writing into triathlon training. Most every weekend this summer we've worked on our front-stroke in the lake by her house. We will have done two triathlons together this summer. One in July, and our next is this weekend in Priest Lake. My first and second triathlon to her umpteeth. It's seems a strange route to thank the Montana Book Festival for my triathlon training, but it's because of it that when I take every third breath out of the water it's Polly's head and arms swimming ahead of me, it's her I follow to a favorite rock, into another lap, or back to the dock through green water that shows nothing but the women I imagine floating beneath us as we slip forward on the surface.

Polly and me after a training swim for the Valley Girl Tri
Summer 2019
Already with this next book, I'm having a new experience with book events than I did with my first and second books. This time around, I live in the same city I did when my last book came out, so I'm returning to a festival instead of arriving for the first time. The friends and fellow writers I found last time are with me now, too. I've stayed put, and the reward is continuity and return. I like it. I like looking forward without fear and wondering what new people and new books I'll find when I'm there. 

This is to say, now when I think of Missoula, the layers have multiplied. It's the Missoula carousel, watching my child photograph rain puddles on the sidewalk, meeting new friends, reading books that have clarified the world yet another time. It is refuge and real. Now, I can say that I know it's coming time for the Montana Book Festival. I can tell the way summer is falling away and the books of writers I've never met have begun arriving at our door. 

Missoula, Montana
The Sky in 2017

Friday, August 16, 2019

Novel Progress Countdown: Six Months to Publication

When I first announced the certain publication of my next book, Hezada! I Miss You, I imagined posting monthly updates about what was happening behind the scenes. Good idea, poor execution on my part. But I do have an update, even if it's already August and less than six months to publication.


Advanced Reader Copy: The advanced reader copy (ARC) has been created. The e-version is in the inboxes of writers who have agreed to blurb the novel. The print version is going out today. The readers will have approximately two months to read the novel and return their thoughts to Awst (the publisher).

You've likely run across an advanced reader copy of a book; it's the one that may not have the final cover on it, and probably says NOT FOR SALE, or something to this extent. I imagine that the copy is something like a cut of a film released to the rating agency but not to the public. But I know little of film. ARCs will be sent to reviewers and magazines as well. This is how publicity somehow miraculously happens before the public can reach the book. Buzz.

The Cover: The cover has been created, and it's stunning. LK James is the brilliance behind the cover. First, I received images she'd gathered on a Pinterest board that she thought might be up the alley of the book. I added some myself. Then she sent me three different sketches of how she imagined the cover. A little while later, she sent me a much more finished mock-up, and swore me to secrecy. I took her oath. But I can say that I absolutely love it. Love it. I love it so much that I've had internal debates about tattooing it on my shoulder. Is that silly? Is that pretentious? Does it matter what others think if I clearly love it? The cover will be revealed soon, soon, soon! The aim is the first of September. Start your anticipation.

The Book Trailers/Teasers: Phoebe Waldron has been working steadily on creating a book trailer for Hezada! as a way to get the word out about its existence and arrival. She started combing through vintage circus footage and transformed it into animation. She sent a few possibilities to me, which is how I know any of this. A few months later, she took the transformations onto another plane in how they looked, and by adding her voice in the background reading excerpts of the novel. She suggested that I could record excerpts, and she'd remove her voice and dub mine in, but I enjoyed the way that she read it, from her voice to how the words moved with the image. After all, she knew exactly how she wanted to sync what she said with the visuals she'd created. So, we're leaving her voice on the trailers. That pleases me greatly. The trailers will begin showing up on social media sometime in September.

Events: Even with the book half a year away, I've started scheduling events related to it, which means that my writer self will start appearing publicly again after a few years of hibernating after the release and book tour for The Whole World at Once. I have already two events this September and two in October. The first is the Montana Book Festival, September 12-15, which is my favorite book festival. Then, at the end of September, on the 28th, I'll help launch McSweeney's Indelible in the Hippocampus at Auntie's Bookstore. In October, I'll be on libraries on north and south Spokane. On October 5, I'm telling a story to children, ages 2+ as part of the South Hill Library Con, then at the end of October, on the 26th, I'll be leading two writing workshops as part of the Spokane Writer's Conference, one on writing with grief, and a shorter one on how to incorporate or use visual art as part of the writing process.

Pre-sales: Why a cover release? Why book trailers? Why events about a book no one in the audience has read? Because pre-sales. To sell a book, the book needs money behind it. Yes, the press may have some savings from past book profits, but often those "profits" are used to balance out the production of their last catalog of books, however big or small that catalog is. Ordering a book several months before it's published helps the book succeed; you're one of a team that every publisher and writer needs to help push the book uphill. The bigger the team pushing the book up the hill, the longer the book can glide down it without stopping or hitting a rock once it's published into the world.

Why pre-sales? Why such an emphasis on sales? Are you a capitalist? 
No. All of this, from the cover to the trailers to the events is, to my mind, how to move the book into the brains of the people I wrote it for. After years of working on the book, thinking about it, scribbling ideas down, writing it out, rewriting it five, ten, and so many times--after all the living, grieving, questioning I've done such that this novel is the result, now it's ready to be read. So, this is how to get it read. It's pretty beautiful that so many people take part in such an endeavor. By the end of the book's sales, maybe the publisher will break even. Maybe I will be able to cover the cost of gas and lodging at events with the sales from the book. Maybe not. Probably not. But all the people I will meet, the discussions I'll get to engage in, the new books and ideas I'll learn about, the readers who will discover my writing--all of it will be where the profit and value comes from.

Let's check in closer to February in regards to the publication process and where we are. How does December sound?

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