Saturday, March 8, 2008

Nonfiction memoirs. Do they exist?

A few years ago Susan Bono spoke in front of my writers club about the subject of memoir writing. She opened the discussion by asking the audience what they thought of when they heard the word memoir.

I gave the flippant reply that I thought the stories ought to be true.

Facetious or not, my remark actually led us off into a good discussion about how a writer needs to be careful when writing about other people's lives (especially living people) when you are writing about your own life.

Another meeting of my writers club had one of our members mentioned she was writing a "nonfiction memoir." I thought it was funny because of its redundancy.

However, I am now beginning to believe that perhaps it is a distinction that needs to be made.

A week or so ago I read about an author admitting that her memoir was fiction. That the supposed Holocaust survivor was not Jewish as she had contended and had not been raised by wolves.

The story of Misha, she said, "is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving."

I was disgusted that someone would take the real tragedy of the Holocaust and then try to profit off of it by making people believe in a faux reality.

Then a few days later I read another story of another author who fabricated a story and passed it off as truth.

She claimed to be half-white, half-Native American, being raised as a foster child in South-Central Los Angeles and growing up as a drug runner for gangs.

Margaret Seltzer's charade did not last very long because her sister saw a feature piece that ran in the New York Times and called the publisher to alert them of the truth.

After reading the newspaper article about Margaret Seltzer admitting to her fraud, I began ranting about ethics in publishing to those who were sitting next to me. They got an earful whether they wanted to or not.

I am sick of writers who lie to get ahead.

That is the heart of this issue when writers such as Margaret Seltzer and Monique de Wael devise elaborate stories and then pass them off as reality rather than fiction. They lied to their agents, they lied to their editors, they lied to reporters and everyone else in order to sell their books.

The question in my mind is: why would anyone do such a thing? Are they so delusional that they believe this alternate reality or did they just think it was an easier path to publication?

According to this article in the Register-Guard, Seltzer said publishers “didn’t want to buy it as fiction.”

That implies that she actually tried to sell her book as a novel first and then after being tired of rejection decided to pursue a different path to publication.

I doubt that is true because it would mean that her literary agent, Faye Bender, tried selling it as a novel and then colluded with her by repackaging work that Bender knew was fiction and sent it out again to different editors as a memoir. That would mean that Bender assisted in perpetrating a lie and I cannot see any reputable being willing to risk their career over the sale of one book.

That statement by Seltzer also contradicts a passage in the New York Times where it mentions how she got an agent:

Ms. Seltzer said she had been writing about her friends’ experiences for years in creative-writing classes and on her own before a professor asked her to speak with Inga Muscio, an author who was then working on a book about racism. Ms. Seltzer talked about what she portrayed as her experiences and Ms. Muscio used some of those accounts in her book. Ms. Muscio then referred Ms. Seltzer to her agent, Faye Bender, who read some pages that Ms. Seltzer had written and encouraged the young author to write more.

In April 2005, Ms. Bender submitted about 100 pages to four publishers. Ms. McGrath, then at Scribner, a unit of Simon & Schuster, agreed to a deal for what she said was less than $100,000. When Ms. McGrath moved to Riverhead in 2006, she moved Ms. Seltzer’s contract.
It does not sound like Seltzer quickly found an agent due to networking with other writers and that she never tried submitting her work in the fiction market before choosing to go down the road of serial lying. Instead it appears more likely that she is grasping at any convenient excuse to shift blame onto the publishing industry rather than accept responsibility for her actions.

Nathan Bransford asked his readers as to what we thought should be done with cases like these.

My first reaction as to what the industry should do with them deals with the dishonesty. If I were an agent, an editor, or a publisher I would have a hard time working with someone I realized had been lying to me. It would be difficult if not impossible to have a long-term relationship with someone you do not trust.

This is borne out by a quote from the editor at Riverhead who said,

“It’s very upsetting to us because we spent so much time with this person and we felt such sympathy for her and she would talk about how she didn’t have any money or any heat and we completely bought into that and thought we were doing something good by bringing her story to light,” Ms. McGrath said.

“There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one,” she said.

I doubt that either Seltzer or De Wael will have any future as writers since it is now well known that both women went to extensive lengths to fool people.

I would not mind seeing them sued for breach of contract (or for knowingly misrepresenting themselves) and for the publishers to try and recover damages. There may not be any real damages from the Misha book since it has been on the market for so long and has hopefully earned through its advance years ago.

That is definitely not the case with Love and Consequences which was just launched. Obviously any book that is published represents an investment in time, effort, resources, etc., by a publisher. Even if they were to recover their advance from Seltzer (reported at $100,000), I doubt it would cover all the other expenses incurred in its publication.

I do not think that the publisher should necessarily recall and destroy the books in question. I am assuming since Love and Consequences garnered positive reviews and even a profile in the New York Times that it was well written and "a story well told."

Is that not what we really want? A story well told?

The human race has been programmed from the beginning of time to listen to stories; some are history, some are parables, and some are just good yarns. We want to be entertained and to be moved emotionally whether or not it is based on true events.

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but readers want to know whether or not it is truth *or* fiction.

Most books that are published unfortunately have a short shelf life. They are published, distributed, shelved and after a few months will either earn their keep for repeat purchases by bookstores or be returned in order to make room for new titles.

I would have no problem with the publisher having a disclaimer slapped on the cover and ask that bookstores reassign the shelf designation to New Releases in Fiction. As long as the customer is aware of what they are buying, what is the harm in that?

It is not the first time that memoirs have been revealed to be false. Not just James Frey-styled exaggerations, but false in their entirety.

The Education of Little Tree was published as an autobiographical story, but was later revealed, after the death of its author, to be fictitious. The book garnered enough acclaim that it was repackaged as a novel. It is still in print and selling well. At this moment in time it is ranked #7,945 on Not bad for a book originally published over thirty years ago and has been the subject of public controversy.

There is now such a blurring of the lines between the literary techniques in novels and memoir that I feel sometimes it is not always the fault of the author when there is confusion. For example, last Christmas as I was browsing in a Barnes and Noble store I found Stephen Clarke's A Year in the Merde in the travel essay section. It was shelved near Peter Mayle's books on Provence and Rebecca Ramsey's French by Heart. So I thought Clarke's book was a light, humorous memoir similar to Mayle's and Ramsey's. It's not. Clarke's book is a novel, which incorporates his love/hate relationship with France based on his time living there.

My husband had no such confusion when he was reading the book because he just dove right in and enjoyed it. He knew instinctively that it was a novel, but I was still a bit confused because it was written in first person POV and well, it could have been a memoir and a blurb on the back cover from the New York Post calls it an "almost-true memoir."

It was only after reading the FAQ’s on Clarke's website that I really understood that it was a novel.

Q: How much of the books is true?
A: Because this question was being asked so often, I decided that I needed a definitive answer. So I asked for my novels to be analysed by France’s famous INSL (Institut National des Statistiques Littéraires). It took them several months, but they eventually came up with an answer, which was 64.3%. What this means is that any event in one of my books is likely to be 64.3% true – on average, of course. Some events might be 100% true, others zero.
Note: this compares to 75% for the average biography and 69% for an autobiography (which drops off to 47% for a politician, actor, sportsman or pop star).

Q: Have you ever owned a tea shop in Paris?
A: No. I did once toy with the idea, but gave up when I realized I didn’t want to spend my days listening to French people mispronounce “fruit cake”.

The question of how much of it was true was the first question on the page, so it proves that I am not the only one to be confused about whether or not his book was a novel. I blame my confusion on the shelving, but I realize that I might never have found the book if it was in the literature section. It was the publisher’s decision to list "Travel" as the category on the back cover rather than novel or humor, but it is not a travel essay book.

Regardless of any initial confusion on my part, the book is a damned good read and I am glad I bought it regardless of its genre.

Writing is such a difficult craft that the humanitarian in me feels that talented writers should be not be banned forever from this creative life, but should somehow be redirected to utilize their talents appropriately. I just don't know if it is possible in cases such as Seltzer and De Wael due to their serial lying in order to achieve success.

The real downside is that the book buying public might become averse to buying memoirs in the future because of these scandals. Publishers might also become hesitant in publishing memoirs.

I am not going to say that publishers should hire private investigators or have in-house fact checkers, but there are voices who are calling on the publishing industry to do just that. The reality is that it might just be too expensive for that.

Instead, I could envision new clauses being written into book contracts in response to these cases in the hopes of indemnifying the publishers should they unwittingly enter into another hoax memoir. Possibly asking for monetary damages if claims are shown to be false or fabricated in the future. I do not know if that will happen, but I would not be surprised if it did.

On a related ethical subject, I feel compelled to say that my good will does not extend to writers such as Cassie Edwards who have been exposed as plagiarists. I am puzzled as to why her publishers have not recalled the books which have been demonstrated to have many troublesome passages. To me it is just wrong to continue selling those tainted books.

Please weigh in on your thoughts as to whether or not you think that there is any truth to perception that publishers are more likely to accept stories such as Seltzer's, Frey's, De Wael's as memoirs than as novels. Also whether or not you agree with my thoughts about publishers reclassifying the genre of books in order to provide “good reads” for the public or if you feel they should just recall them and eat their losses.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

2008 San Francisco Writers Conference

Last year I wrote a post about why anyone should go to a writers conference as well as my experiences having volunteered at the 2007 San Francisco Writers Conference.

I volunteered again this year, and had an even better time than before.

I carpooled down to The City (which is what San Francisco is called by people in the Bay Area - NOT Frisco or San Fran) with my friend Cindy Pavlinac. I have known Cindy for several years and she holds the same position on the board of directors for the Marin branch of the California Writers Club as I do on the Redwood Writers branch.

Cindy and I arrived early Friday morning wanting to hear Kemble Scott speak at the opening session. That was important because we wanted to introduce ourselves to him since he will be our guest speaker at a joint meeting for our two clubs in April. He had been a speaker at Litquake last fall with my friend Erika Mailman talking about their experiences as newly published authors.

His session was great and he gave several anecdotes demonstrating his business savvy. His book is entitled SoMa which is a nickname for the gritty South of Market Street neighborhood of San Francisco. He made Youtube videos of the areas in his novel helping to publicize his book.

One thing he did not plan on was being attacked by a local online critic who hates everyone. At first Scott was taken aback, but then he realized that it was great publicity. People were learning about his new book and it increased sales.

His book has gone on to become a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. Not bad. Not bad at all.

He has many reviews listed on his website, but this one seems the most intriguing to me:

"I read the first page of SoMa and never put it down until I read the last page. Then my housemate took it from me and read it in a day. It flows through your hands like water, yet it shocks, awes, repulses, exposes trade secrets, and illuminates the deep motives for extreme behavior. I know people who are less real than these characters. I laughed out loud. Kemble Scott is one sick bastard."

— Joe Quirk, best-selling author of The Ultimate Rush and Sperm are from Men, Eggs are from Women.

I had a great time meeting and schmoozing with Kemble Scott. I think he's a great guy, even if Joe Quirk thinks he's "one sick bastard" from his novel. It was nice that Scott hung around the conference all three days, and not just there simply for his session and leaving afterward. I even was fortunate enough to go out to dinner with him, Yanina Gotsulsky and Ransom Stephens on Friday night. We had a great time laughing, telling tales, and enjoying each others company.

I haven't read Scott's book yet, but I shall make a point of doing so before his talk at our joint meeting.

At our arrival I ran into Bryce Holt and his brother Kyle. I had met Bryce the previous year and had corresponded with him a few times over the past year. It was nice to see him again and to hear about his progress to publication in the intervening time.

I was surprised when I looked up and saw someone who had been a member of my writers club, but had moved to Oregon. I was happy when I was able to immediately come up with his name. As it turns out it was his first writers conference and being greeted by an old friend at its onset helped set his mind at ease.

Here's a picture of me with J.S. McDaniel as well as the glamorous Yanina Gotsulsky.

On Saturday morning as I was on my way to the first session of the day I crossed paths with J.S. He was on his way downstairs to the lower conference rooms. I asked where he was going, and he told me the name of the session he was planning on attending. I shook my head and said, "No. You need to go hear about Pitchcraft. Trust me." Then I redirected him to attend the session by Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freyman Agency. J.S. had paid to participate in the Speed Dating for Agents on Sunday morning, so I knew he needed to hear what Sands had to say.

He did thank me, by the way.

I knew J.S. from the Redwood Writers meetings, and for some reason he always reminded me of Ransom Stephens. Here's a picture of Ransom and I mugging for the camera.

Yes, Ransom and J.S. are both white guys with black hair, about the same height and around the same age, and are both writers. However, Ransom has a dry, acerbic wit which is far different than J.S.'s style of humor.

I wanted to introduce them to each other because if for no other reason than they are both friends of mine. I had forgotten that both used spirituality in their novels. (Then again, I have only talked with them about their writing and without reading their stories, so I have an excuse for not recognizing that commonality.)

They hit it off with each other and I am hoping they will develop a correspondence and their own friendship.

That leads me to what I feel is most important aspect of the conferences. It is not the workshops, but it is interacting with the people there: the speakers, the organizers, and the attendees. It is in exchanging of ideas and expertise about various aspects of the craft of writing and the business of publishing that allows you to expand your circle of literary friends.

One of the best summaries I have ever read of how best to schmooze with others at a writers conference was written by Beth Proudfoot the past chair of the East of Eden Writers Conference.

She urges everyone to embrace any and all lines at conferences as opportunities to speak with people, exchange business cards, and establish friendships with people who share your interest in writing.

In my volunteer duties I saw myself as a roving ambassador to help answer questions about what to expect at the conference as well as offering tips for blogs, websites, etc.

I worked the Editors Roundtable session on Saturday afternoon. There were about ten editors participating and each sat at their own table with nine seats for participants to ask them questions. Each person had two minutes.

The volunteers had two minute egg timers to enforce the two minute rule.

Two minutes is not a lot of time to pitch your book and have an editor form an informed opinion about your book that you have spent years agonizing over each fine detail. We did not want individuals to try and monopolize time with the editors and cause others at their table to be given the short shrift. Overall, I think it ran pretty smooth.

The volunteers were allowed to choose which table they preferred working at and I picked Ten Speed Press. That is because of my time spent as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble and my being impressed with not only their titles but their organization as a whole. They are one of the largest independent publishers which produces about 150 titles each year. (That tidbit is from their website.)

I was impressed with the writers who pitched to the editor from Ten Speed because I think for the most part, they understood what that house published. The pitches were succinct and well received. I was surprised when Jo Ann Deck actually took sample pages, book proposals, etc., from writers. In the past I have seen most agents or editors refrain from taking anything, but instead handing out their business card to those people whose projects interested them.

She left that night with an armload of information and had made connections with a lot of writers who had promising sounding books.

And they did it in under two minutes. Incredible.

I was given another task which was to serve as a greeter at breakfast. Basically I was there with another woman to assure that those walking in for the coffee and pastries were paid conference attendees and not just people staying at the hotel who wandered downstairs and thought, "hey, free food!"

We greeted the bleary-eyed writers who were in desperate need of caffeine. I tried reading the badges for the home towns of the attendees as they walked by and saw that they were from all over the country. I remember seeing Florida, Virginia, New York, Nevada, Michigan and Hawaii. The one that surprised me the most was Zita Weber, a writer from Australia. She crossed seventeen time zones (!) to attend that conference.

Now that is commitment to your career.

On Sunday morning I not only worked as a breakfast greeter, but I worked the Speed Dating for Agents session. I was stationed outside in the hallway and did my best to answer questions of those who standing in line waiting to go inside.

Here I am trying to calm their jittery nerves.

If you squint you can see the logo for the California Writers Club on my tote bag. Yes, I was a walking advertisement for my writers club.

The one piece of advice that I tried to impart most often was to not immediately launch into a pitch upon sitting down in front of the agent, but instead to take a moment and make eye contact and smile. Make a human connection first before you start talking.

I also warned about complaining about anything, especially about not getting the full amount of time (three minutes) should the person in front of you not get out of the chair when they were supposed to.

You do not want to be perceived as a Client From Hell.

Agents are looking for professionals whose writing excites them and are a pleasure to work with. They do not want temperamental primadonnas.

I had read an agent's blog a year ago where an anecdote was related about two different writers at a Speed Dating session. The first writer grumbled and complained that they only got two and a half minutes and not the full three minutes (meanwhile wasting valuable seconds while whining.) The second writer sat down, cast a knowing glance behind them at their predecessor and then said something like, "wow, that must have been fun."

The agent was so grateful that s/he was far more likely to ask for a partial from the second writer even if it was not a subject s/he is normally interested in. Because the second writer treated him/her as a human being and not a magical gatekeeper lacking feelings.

After the conference I saw a post on Nathan Bransford's blog and contacted Joe Ramelo who mentioned he had attended the conference in his reply. I wrote to him, and as it turns out, Joe was one of many people I spoke with while waiting in line. He felt that I was an "encouraging presence" who dispensed good advice.

Yay. It is nice to know that my objectives were achieved.

One of the high points of the conference was having the opportunity to meet and talk with Tess Gerritsen. She is an amazing author as well as a warm, engaging and witty person. She gave a fabulous key note address on Sunday afternoon in which she talked about the idea of storytelling as an organic process that is difficult to define or predict.

She has given lectures to physicians who want to become novelists and she says that many of them are astounded when for the first time in their life they are not successful. They all want to know the secret. As if there was a mathematical equation which can be described and used to allow them to simply plug variables into an algorithm and get the desired result.

It is not that easy.

She gave as an example two people who might have had the same experience. "Uncle Harry" who when he begins a story causes everyone to yawn and check their watches and "Aunt Maude" who can tell the same story and have people hang on her every word.

It is not necessarily the events that are important, but it is the telling of the tale.

I was also blessed by chatting with Tess on Saturday night about medicine, wine, archaeology, and California along with my friend Cindy Pavlinac. At one point Tess looked at the two of us and remarked with a little surprise about how open we were about expressing our opinions. She now lives in Maine and people there are reserved.

We kind of shrugged at that. Cindy and I are both Midwestern gals who now live in Northern California and we do not hesitate in speaking our minds. It is part of who we are.

Here I am standing next to the lovely and talented Tess Gerritsen. I think she must have leaned down a little, because she is statuesque, whereas I am decidedly not.

I want to thank my good friend Cindy Pavlinac for taking these pictures and allowing me to share them on my blog. (My camera was being used in Yosemite while I was in San Francisco.)

All in all, I had a wonderful time at the San Francisco Writers Conference. It was some of the best weather I have ever experienced in The City, and I got the chance to schmooze with a lot of people.

For those who are interested in hearing any of the sessions from the conference, they are available on CD as well as downloadable MP3 at VW tapes. You can also find sessions from other writers conferences including the famous Maui Writers Conference at the same site.

By the way, after I returned home from the conference I was checking my overstuffed email box. I opened my spam folder and quickly scanned the contents seeing multiple notices for my winning overseas lotteries that I never entered, confidential communiques from people requesting my assistance in transferring large amounts of money from Nigeria, offers to lengthen anatomical body parts that I lack, and advertisements for horribly spelled pharmaceuticals. It was after I hit "delete all messages" that I noticed the letters SFWC in one of the message lines.

Too late. I did not notice the name of the sender and it was gone. Forever.

So if anyone reading this post tried sending me an email after meeting me at conference, and I did not respond to you -- I apologize and request that you write to me again.

Thanks and I hope everyone muse is treating them well!