“Enjoying the Short Story” even more

Lovely dress, grumpy model.
Lovely dress, grumpy model.  Wordpress won’t let me rotate photo.

Today, I set off to Denise’s class, called “Enjoying the Short Story,” with my baby in tow.  Actually, I was interested in hearing their stories.  I’d sent off the following e-mail:

Hi everyone,

I hope to see you all on March 25th, and not just because it’s worth 15% of your mark.  I think it’s great that you’re taking a course about enjoying the short story.  To quote from Dead Poets Society, “medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

This is a copy of my story, “Indian Time,” which I am giving to you for free on the condition that you do something in return for the arts, for native culture, or for both.  I don’t care what it is (writing a story, going to the Casino and looking at it with new eyes, whatever) as long as you do it and you come prepared to talk about it.


Matt, my husband, said, “Aw, they’re just going to go to the movies.”

I said, “I don’t care.  That’s art, too.”  But I thought they’d probably get more creative than that.

So today was D-day.

Right off the bat, and most importantly, several students offered to hold Anastasia.  Annie not only held her first and got her to drink a little, but she had researched native recipes and stewed some strawberries as her creative act.  Ten points!

Then I was absolutely blown away when Tesha said that she had designed and made a ribbon dress for Anastasia.  She used to make a lot of dresses for her own daughter, who is soon having her first birthday.  Happy birthday, little one (whose name means “bringer of the seeds,” if I remember correctly).  Tesha reluctantly appeared on the video (yup, they taped it) to say that she wanted to make something for my daughter because I had accurately portrayed her culture in my story.  I cannot think of a higher compliment.  I kind of wanted to cry and hug her, but that would have embarrassed everyone.

At home, Anastasia performs her debut concert in her new dress:

One student wrote a short story.  Another wrote a poem.  I look forward to reading them.

Quinn is hosting a Dream catchers workshop and a box lacrosse workshop next Wednesday, starting at 12:30, at St. Lawrence College.  I would really like to try both, but I’d need someone to hold Anastasia during the lacrosse.

Another student is writing a song that will incorporate some native themes, like hunting.  I think he said it was death metal.  Awesome.

In their honour, I have officially checked off a new category of writing goal:  Someone else makes something beautiful, inspired by my work.

As part of my enlightenment, I have a new take on the title of the course.  I realized that I hadn’t fully enjoyed my short story publications because they were “only” short stories, not novels.  That was dumb.

Of course I want my novels out there.  But the number of people reading and responding to this story–that’s as good as a reaction as I could ask for, no matter what the length is.  The one who was telling me I wasn’t good enough, that I wouldn’t be a real writer until I got those novels published–that was me.  And now I can laugh about it.

So for the writers out there, some of whom were in that class, please write.  And please don’t stop or undervalue yourself.  Just do it.

Thanks again to everyone, including Joel for asking lots of questions and Denise and Julie for inviting me.  Sorry if I got anyone’s names wrong.

Sarah Cortez Interview II: Creativity and Finances in Noir Publishing

Here Denise Callister Nielsen and I conclude our interview with the wonderful Sarah Cortez.  Again, my apologies for the substandard video quality, including the camera cutting out every ten minutes.

In this video, Sarah talks about editing Indian Country Noir in a tough economy.  They had to cut four stories in order to cut costs, which I found totally depressing.  On the upside, she points out that  Johnny Temple at Akashic Books has almost single-handedly resurrected the original mystery short story in book form, so we give him lots of props.

Sarah Cortez ICN & Akashic

Sarah defines Noir in two ways.  My fave is, “the main character starts out messed-up, goes into a downward spiral, and ends up even more messed up.”  There are also more X-rated versions.

We talk about Leonard Shonberg’s story, “Lame Elk.”

I ask, “Do you think that, with a recession and a war going on, people seek lighter fare?”

Denise talks about an underlying sense of unease in Noir.

Noir talk

Sarah talks about editing as a creative act and how she and Liz Martinez pitched Indian Country Noir to Akashic Books.

She also answers the $10,000 question, which boils down to, “Do you think it’s acceptable for a non-native writer to write from a native perspective?  Or is that appropriating voice?”

Creative editing & ? appropriating voice

I asked about the native spirituality inherent in the stories, starting right with the Helper in Joseph Bruchac’s story, carrying on with Grandpa and the heartbeat woman in Gerard Houarner’s story, and in fact, most of the contributors mentioned the spirit world.

We then touched on creativity in teaching, such as Denise incorporating this anthology into her classroom.

More on the voice controversy, plus spirituality & teaching

Why are so many Noir stories written by and about men instead of women?  In Indian Country Noir, only Jean Rae Baxter chose to wrote from a female point of view.  I think perhaps the gender of A.A. HedgeCoke’s narrator is deliberately ambiguous, in the vein of Jeannette Winterson’s Written on the Body.  The other women in the anthology (Mistina Bates, Liz Martìnez, Kimberly Roppolo and myself) chose to write from a male POV.

Sarah speaks on this and describes how she aims to read and write more female Noir this year.

Also, what makes an anthology a success?  Sarah talks about the pleasure of introducing “stunning writing” to a new audience, but also about the business of publishing.  A bare minimum budget for one of these publications is $10,000.

Women in Noir; the business of publishing

I slide in one of my #1 questions:  what did your parents think of you quitting your day job and becoming an artist?

Sarah and Denise were blessed with supportive parents, although she says, “You always have to be able to pay the freight to follow your dreams.”

Sarah really made me think about how writing has become such a discussion about dollars and cents, marketing, and strategy.  I’m glad she spoke at length about art and creativity as well.

Not to sound like a sycophant or anything, but this generous, thoughtful, talented woman inspires me.  I hope I’ll be like her when I grow up.

Sarah Cortez interview: From Cop to Indian Country Noir Editor

Tonight we had the honour to interview Sarah Cortez, co-editor of Indian Country Noir.  She used to be a full-time police officer, so of course I had to ask about that.  Then we moved on to her role as anthology editor, specifically for Indian Country Noir.  This is the first part of our video interview, with her answers to such questions as “What do you look for when you edit?” and “What percentage of stories did you accept?  Did you have any rewrite requests?”

Denise Callister Nielsen is an editor for Carina Press and a teacher at St. Lawrence College.  She included my Indian Country Noir story, “Indian Time,” as part of her course, “Enjoying the Short Story.  I’ll do a local author appearance at her class on March 25th (yay)!  She’s the blonde and I’m the brunette in the video.

Mucho apologies for the poor quality of the AV equipment, but Sarah couldn’t do webchat, so it’s us talking to a speakerphone and videoing ourselves in poor lighting with the camera shutting down every ten minutes.  Don’t worry about the kid noise in the background.  No children were harmed in the making of these videos.

Introduction & cop talk

Sarah speaking as a writer and editor

Indian Country Noir Book Launch II: The Library Variations

All aboard in Williamstown

All aboard in Williamstown

My book tour ended on an upswing.  First of all, my appearance was specially requested.

At the Williamstown Library, the librarian, Kathleen, beeped my card and said, “Melissa Yuan-Innes.  You’re the author?”

She had read about me in the Glengarry News, our local paper.  She had also met me at the hospital emergency room.  But it was one of the few times someone had recognized my name as an author, so I beamed and said, “Yes??”

“Would you be interested in doing a reading at the library in October?”

You betcha.

Secondly, new people arrived  (People I didn’t know and beg to come!)  One was a teacher who worked in Akwasasne and was friends with the librarian.  She had suggestions about where to sell and promote Indian Country Noir and the best place to eat on the reserve (The Bear’s Den).  Another was an assistant teacher who used to work with native people on Lake Manitoba.  She got a babysitter drove all the way from Morrisburg after she saw the event listed in the library brochure (!).  And for the first time, I got to welcome two nurses from the Cornwall emerg.  On my writing bucket list, my M.O. is to connect with people, places and things that excite me.  Done and done.

I drove in with my neighbour, author and Carina Press editor Denise Callister Nielsen, and my son, Max.  My husband showed up and started reading books to Max.  My friend and teacher Becky McKay, who worked with native students in Cornwall, pitched in too, along with my neighbour, Luc.

Thirdly, they made me think.  I read the opening of my story and Becky asked why the white mother-in-law was such an unsympathetic character.  When I finished reading the story, at their request, people basically wanted to know if I felt comfortable writing as a native person/appropriating a Mohawk voice.

The answer is:  I think it’s offensive to ape and mock someone else’s culture, so I did my best to write sincerely and accurately based on articles in the Indian Time newspaper written by Phil Preston.  Did I succeed?  I hope so.  Did I offend someone?  I hope not.  But I don’t know.  No easy answers.

Last but not least, my friends and the Williamstown library got to benefit too.  At least half the people there had never been to that library branch before and two subscribed to the South Glengarry library system for the first time.  “I’m saving money,” said Cynthia, after buying my books, “because there are all these books here I’ve never read.”

Win-win.  Love it.

The Littlest Book Launch

Sitting pretty for Indian Country Noir

“I’ve seen it all, over the years,” said Gale Bowser, the owner of Second Time Around Books.  “The quietest book launch I ever saw was [a local politician who’d been elected many times].  I thought, great.  I put up flyers everywhere.  She walked in with her husband and publicist and sat here for three hours.  Not one person came in.  Not one.”

Of course it was not a good sign that Gale was telling me this.  Last year, I had a quiet book launch in Cornwall and brisk business at this store in Alexandria.

This year, I was already concerned about this Saturday date.  “I’m working,” said what seemed like 70 percent of the nurses I worked with.  “That’s ACLS,” said another nurse, which meant that the resuscitation course would take priority over literature.  “We have tickets to Beau’s Oktoberfest,” said another two friends.  Others didn’t specify, but said, “Tuesday is better for me.”  My own son had Chinese school and when I asked my husband if he’d rather come to the book launch or Chinese school, he said, “Chinese school.”

I called my mother and said, “Mom, your job is to come here (from Ottawa)  on time and stay for two hours.  And could you bring food?”

In the end, I had a mini party with my mother, my neighbor Luc, and my two friends, Jessica Sarrazin and Genevieve Paquette and her daughter Megan.  We talked and ate Vietnamese spring rolls and chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies.   They all bought my books.  It was pleasant.  A few people did walk in. My mother would say “Hi!” and they’d mutter, “Hi” and make a beeline for the back of the store.

I just tried to enjoy the food and company and not worry about the money.

If I had to go by sales alone, though, I had pre-sold more books by word of mouth and Facebook than by this book launch.  And certainly I could make more money working in the emerg than by hawking books.  So why do it?

It reminded me of Steve Pressfield’s War of Art.  He wrote the screenplay for _King Kong Lives_.  Nobody came to see it.  One of the popcorn guys gave him the thumbs down.  “Miss it, man.  It sucks.”

So I didn’t make a million dollars launching my books.  In fact, I’m still waiting to break even because I have to get paid for a lot of them.  Maybe not as spectacular a failure as _King Kong Lives_.  Probably not a failure at all, since I expect I’ll clear a small profit.

So what is the point of a book launch?  Selling books, yes.  Making money, of course.  But also validation for the writer, makng you feel like a somebody.  I could either feel good that five people had come to celebrate with me or feel bad that no one else joined the party.

In the end, I decided it was somewhere in the middle.  If you’re going to write, if you’re going to risk putting your work out there again and again until an editor says, I’ll take it, if you’re going to fire up your pen or computer every morning, if you’re going to get in the ring, *&)&^()_&, as Guns ‘n’ Roses put it, then to quote Dr. Seuss, “This happens in war every now and again. /Sometimes
you are winners. Sometimes you are losers. / We never can win against so many Poozers…”

Winner?  Loser?  Poozer?

Mostly, I feel like a winner about my Alexandria book launch.

In any case, I got back in the ring for my launch three days later.