Every week it seems to me I hear about another one of my writing friends and colleagues whose book is being published. And it was especially sweet when Andrea Lewis announced that she had won a contest that included publication of her book, as I had followed along with her efforts to find a publisher which she reported monthly at the small group we both attend. Throughout that time I had never read a single one of her stories so my first exposure to her superb writing and her fascinating characters was at her book launch at Elliott Bay. And it was even more of a pleasure to read What My Last Man Did. Andrea’s stories have the beautiful, jewel-like quality of short stories (perfectly capable of standing on their own) and yet they offer the immersive experience of a world of inter-linked characters and thoroughly delineated settings that I love in novels. Because the stories are told out of chronological order, it has a collage-like effect, as one slowly puts together how the characters are linked. I believe I could read it over and over again, and enjoy it more with each reading.
Tell me the story of the book. Where did the spark come from? When did you realize it was a book?
For years, I happily wrote short stories, struggling to get them into magazines, and finally getting some acceptances. I wasn’t interested in writing a novel and had barely thought about a short story collection. When I published the story “Rancho Cielito” (which is now the second story in my book, What My Last Man Did), I became hooked on those characters, especially the two sisters Iris and Hannah Delgado. They were the first characters I wanted to carry forward. Meanwhile, I had another character-set going: Louis Paradiso and his unusual grandmother, Juliette. I guess the spark for the book came when I realized all those characters could be connected into a broader narrative. Instead of one-off stories, I started deliberately expanding the universe of those characters, their parents, grandparents, friends/lovers, and shared experiences. That was how I began consciously shaping a book of linked stories.
What helped you during the writing process?
The biggest help was being part of Priscilla Long’s Short Forms Seminar in Seattle, WA. Part of it was simply the discipline of being in a class with hard-working writers facing weekly deadlines. But the best part for me was working with Structure, as we did in the seminar –– also brilliantly described in Priscilla Long’s book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor. For example, one quarter we studied the structure called Turnaround. Based on that structure, I wrote the story “Family Cucurbita,” which is now the closing story of What My Last Man Did.
The seminar(s) also helped with learning to keep word lists, lexicons, scrapbooks, and other repositories for the vocabulary and research you need for your work. The book goes back in time to 1895 and hits every decade up to 1980. That’s a lot of digging around for correct details about time and place. I love doing research, so that’s no problem, but you need to keep it organized and accessible.
Tell me about how you found your publisher.
The book was published in March 2017 by Indiana University Press after winning the 2016 Blue Light Books Prize, sponsored by Indiana Review and judged by Michael Martone. But it took me at least three years of send-outs to get there.
From 2012 through 2015, I sent the book to competitions (such as the Drue Heinz Prize and the Mary McCarthy Short Fiction Prize) and to small press open readings (such as Autumn House and Milkweed). In total, about twenty-six submissions. In the early going, I tried different approaches, such as calling it a “novel in stories” and padding out some stories to make it more novel-like. Feedback seemed to indicate that wasn’t working. So I returned to my preferred structure (linked stories), and I kept refining and honing all along the way. I even added a story after the manuscript had gone out a few times. I was a runner-up in a few competitions (such as the Prairie Schooner Book Prize), so I had encouragement.
The Blue Light Books competition came along at the right time. In January 2016, it was a brand new prize for a short-story collection (and alternates each year now with poetry). Their guidelines called for a word count on the low side, and my manuscript was too long. I considered not entering, even though that competition otherwise seemed perfect for me. I realized I would have to cut not one but two stories to qualify. After I took out two of the deep history stories, I realized it was a better book, or at least a better balance of stories. So that is what I submitted. I found out in March 2016 that it was selected, and it was out a year later.
What happened when you started working with your publisher?
Because the competition was sponsored by Indiana Review, that journal’s Editor, Su Cho, and Associate Editor, Tessa Yang were the editors for my book. They are both brilliant and a complete joy to work with. The text did not change in any significant way, but the fixes, edits, and changes they suggested were all the subtle and elegant kind of wordsmithing that I love. They really understood what I was trying to do.
Meanwhile, over on the publishing side (Indiana University Press), I completed an extensive Cover Design Worksheet. I loved looking at book covers and images and telling them what I liked and why. I think all writers get a little nervous here, because we feel strongly about what images best represent our work. The Press paid close attention to my input, I believe, because the very first “pass” at the cover was perfect, and it never changed from there.
On the publicity side, the Press took all my input for where to send review copies, blog spots, etc. They brought me to Indiana University for a Craft Talk and a reading when the book was launched. While I thought I was prepared to “take it from there,” I think I’ve had trouble getting up to speed on promoting the book myself. I’m getting good advice from a group I meet with (four writers who share ideas on getting work out there), and I am still considering whether to consult with a marketing professional.
What has been the most surprising/exciting/challenging things about the published process?
I think many writers have the same challenge: switching from lone-writer-mode into now-I-have-a-book mode, where we must meet the world, answer questions, give readings, and promote ourselves. Yes, I would rather be in my office, making wordlists, but that is a good problem to have!
What comes next once the book is made? What will you be doing to let people know it exists?
I’ve already done a few readings and a couple of interviews, and I am trying to get better at using Twitter. I’m sending the book to university writing teachers and hoping to place some reviews in literary magazines. I’ll be visiting one book club that I know about so far, and hope to do more, as I like speaking personally with a small group. I’ve been asked to do some craft talks, and I hope to get some exposure for the book by using examples from it in the talks.
Probably the hardest part of the whole publication process is that it takes time away from writing! So for me, getting back to writing is the next big thing. I plan to keep working in the linked story (or linked novella) structure, as I find it a very satisfying form to work with.
Andrea Lewis’s stories, essays and prose poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Catamaran Literary Reader, Cutthroat and other literary journals. She lives with her husband on Vashon Island, Washington. She is one of the founders of Hugo House, the literary arts center in Seattle. You can read more of her writing and learn more about upcoming events at her web site.