What Would Julia Ward Howe Do?

August 16, 2010

I became a reader because of an old series of biographies with orange bindings that collected dust on one of the library shelves of the girls’ school I attended. I don’t know who wrote the series or what it was called. The women whose lives were described there became my childhood inspirations: Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, Molly Pitcher. Among them was Julia Ward Howe so I didn’t have to Google her when Mrs. Somebody Somebody was chosen as a finalist for the Boston Author’s Club award named for her.

Mrs. Somebody Somebody, is made up of ten short stories which are linked in what I hope are unexpected ways. They take place in a small industrial American city that relies on immigrant labor.

The form of linked short stories with a geographical center has a long tradition. The modernists were my early influences, Faulkner’s Go Down Moses and Joyce’s Dubliners. Since then I’ve taken to heart Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me A Riddle, Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples, Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago and almost everything of Alice Munro’s, and Alice Mattison’s, and Alistair MacLeod’s, to name a few.

At first, I didn’t know that the stories I had begun to write were connected. One was set in Lowell because the mills seemed the perfect place for different sorts of women to get thrown together in an unlikely friendship, which was the core of that story. Another, about the ravages of infidelity was set in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I grew up. Since it takes me a long time to write a story, usually at least a year to get it right, I had the chance to meld situations before anything was set in stone. When Noe Hathaway needed a doctor (in what became the title story) it seemed only logical for Dr. Burroughs, from Cambridge, to tend to him. So I moved the Burroughs family to Lowell and discovered that the doctor’s father was a mill owner. Who knew?

When you connect short stories there can be a more definitive distance between them than the distance between chapters in a novel. A complete world closes down at the end of a story. And a new world opens at the start of the next. In Mrs. Somebody Somebody, I violated the reader’s expectation that each stood wholly alone, and I took advantage of the negative space between the stories to imply changes that took place over time. I have a weakness for innuendo, for implication rather than explication, and the form of connected stories encouraged me to experiment with implied changes in the characters’ lives and in the city where they live. The ten stories reach from 1947 to the present.

Linked short stories allow for complete freedom in the creation of viewpoint. None of these stories is told by the same person, but more often than not, the narrator of one will appear as a secondary character in another. The reader gets to know a character from inside that character’s head as well as through the eyes of other characters. I hope the experience is something like the way one gets to know mutual friends.

The reception for Mrs. Somebody Somebody has not been what I expected at all. Short stories collections are a hard sell to Americans — which is confusing to me since ADD seems to be a National diagnosis and short stories can reward a short attention span. But it is extremely difficult to place individual stories, to find an agent who will represent anything but non-fiction or novels, and finally to catch the attention of a publisher unless one “has” a novel also. I was convinced that by insisting on writing short stories, I was writing them only for myself and a few friends and that it was unlikely these stories would appear anywhere together.

If the reception of this book has a lesson to teach other writers it is to ignore conventional wisdom and make something that pleases you. That’s a rule Julia Ward Howe followed. It made a mess of her family and social life, but allowed her to accomplish great things.

Go ahead, Google her!

Read “to save your life”

June 15, 2010
Since I am giving several readings in the next little while, I’ve been thinking about how to gear up for being such a public person and to prepare for those times when no one will show up. So I share this with you, from my friend, the writer Michael DiLeo: “As an argument in favor of giving even the most sparsely attended readings, I present the tale of a Texas writer friend who gave a reading of her second book (a memoir) at a bookstore in Baltimore a few years ago. This reading was attended by only one person, a professor of literature from a college in Pennsylvania, who had driven a couple of hours to the reading because he loved the writer’s first book (also a memoir) so much. She told me it felt insanely awkward at first with only that one eager face in the audience, but after a bit she began to read to the man as if she were reading to a lover, and she thinks she gave the best reading she’d ever done. Afterward, they talked and he told her how much and exactly why he loved her first book and how excited he was to read her second. Obviously, she was charmed. He invited her to have dinner, but she realized her publisher had hired a limo and driver for her (this was back in the day when publishers had promotional budgets), so they drove around Baltimore all night, stopping to buy champagne at one point, not ever getting around to dinner. A few weeks later he flew to Texas, asked her to marry him, and now they have children and live in Pennsylvania.
Moral: if you have even one reader, read to him or her like a lover; or, as I tell my students sometimes (after we watch the movie “Slam” for inspiration), read as if you’re trying to save your life.

Dialogue with Robin Black

June 8, 2010

Today Mrs. Somebody Somebody is available in bookstores in paperback! Today The Daily Grommet features an interview with me on their blog. They are having a contest, and the winner will receive a signed copy of the book. http://blog.dailygrommet.com/

Today ANDREW’S BOOK CLUB posted a written conversation between Robin Black, author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (also available from Random House) and me. I learned a whole lot from Robin during our dialogue. (I always do!)


Today I heard that Mrs. Somebody Somebody is reviewed in the New in Paperback section of PEOPLE MAGAZINE’s June 14th issue.

Today there must be something in the stars.

Naked on 5th Ave Has New Meaning

June 3, 2010

When a writer promotes a book, there’s no place for shyness, or diffidence of any kind. In fact there’s no room for an addiction to solitude, a tongue with a default position of tied, nor the inclination when the doorbell rings, to hide — those very tendencies that contributed to my becoming a writer in the first place. Not one smidge of discomfort is allowed when tooting one’s own horn. But never mind. Overcoming my natural inclination to hunker below radar in the back row turns out to be the least of my problems.

In gearing up to promote my first book, Mrs. Somebody Somebody, — still oblivious to the problem I was about to come up against — I contacted my shyest published writer-friends for advice on how to go about it. They all insisted, “First thing, you have to have a website.” The thought of hiring someone to create a website featuring ME seemed as likely as my parading down 5th Avenue naked. But I Googled every living writer I could think of and found that having a website dedicated to self-promotion is what one has to do as the bare minimum (pun intended.)

I asked around and found a talented website designer with many writers’ websites to his credit. He advised me on the sort of information I needed to gather for him: the cover design, bookjacket copy, book tour details, (so far so good) blurbs, my contact information, a bio, a photo, (yipes!) and then he asked, “Have you gotten a domain name yet? If you haven’t, I’d recommend that you go with the most straightforward: tracywinn.com.”

There it was: my name was going to be a commercial site on the internet. It was enough to make me reach for my handy-dandy cloak of invisibility. Nevertheless, I set about claiming my “domain.” And here was the real problem: my name. Every possible spelling of my name, Tracy, Traci, Tracey, Winn, Wynn, Win, and every dot com, dot org, dot net had been claimed.

My father, an ad executive and actor, had an extrovert in mind when he chose my name: perfect for the stage, uncommon, short, easy to pronounce, and with a nice iambic lilt to it. The Tracy Winn he had in mind would have had an eponymous website just for the fun of it. She would, without a doubt, have loved tweeting, too.

There was a time when I longed for a more floral or mysterious name. When I was eight I wanted to be Rosalind. When I started writing, I was tempted to change the spelling so that it was ethnically less easily identifiable. Trais Uin seemed an alternative that might catch the eye of the slush-pile screeners. But over time, I’ve accepted my name as it is. When I discovered that all the domains for Tracy Winn had been spoken for, I Googled myself.

There were quite a few listings. More than three hundred twenty six thousand, actually. If you type in tracywinn.com, you will find that she is a porn star, and that “my” most recent feature-length films are entitled “Saturday Night Beaver” and “Toys for Twats.” Somewhere among those thousands of listings, XXX, DVD, and Sextraganza! Adult Film Database… you will find Tracy Winn Stories and see that to claim my own domain, I have had to compromise, comfortably remaining almost impossible to spot in the back row at: www.winnwriter.com.

Paperback Launch

June 1, 2010

In five days, Random House Trade Paperback’s issue of MRS. SOMEBODY SOMEBODY will be available in stores. The book is a Reader’s Circle Selection, which means someone other than me thinks it’s a good one for book clubs. Included in the back is an essay I wrote telling about the story behind the writing of the first story, as well as a reader’s guide to focus reading groups and get them talking about what they think.

The paperback has a jazzy new cover.  Susy Pilgrim Water’s illustrations grace the start of each story as they did SMU Press’s hardcover edition. If you found this blog by coming through my website, you’ve already seen some of Susy’s gorgeous, quirky work.

I’ll be updating this blog as the days count down. I hope to see you at a reading/signing soon.