Mark J. Ferrari
Mark J. Ferrari is illustrator-turn-novelist whose book came out--guess when!--last year. It was hot stuff going around the blog circles last year. I named Joby as my favorite male character in my yearly round-up. Mark and I struck up a correspondence in the spring, so of course I asked him for a post. Here are his thoughts.
When Tia asked me to write a “one year later” guest blog for her, my immediate dilemma was the same one any predator has when confronting a large herd of prey: how to isolate a target in this jumble. (Oh for heaven’s sake! The prey I’m talking about is themes and ideas - not you guys!)
It’s been a dizzying year – even without the four month ‘book tour’ I did last winter – at almost no point resembling anything I ever imagined beforehand about my first year as a published author. There have been both unanticipated disappointments, and unexpected pleasures. As I survey the herd of possible themes before me, it’s the pleasures that capture my attention most, for I’ve come to realize that they’re the only part of this past year which still matters to me now or is likely to matter to me in years to come.
The first pleasure that comes to mind is the simple knowledge that my book is actually ‘out there’ now, living a life entirely beyond my knowledge or control in places and in ways that I could never have imagined. It’s being read in cities, states, and countries I may never see, by people I will never imagine, much less meet.
These readers and their generous willingness to share so much of their experience with me were by far the greatest pleasures of this past year. They are out there recognizing things in my tale that I wondered if anyone would get, and getting things from it that I NEVER imagined were there to find. They are bringing things to my story I could not have intended, swirling that alchemical mix around and pulling out insights and solutions to all manner of issues in their own lives that I could not possibly have anticipated or attempted to address. It’s a kind of magic I have certainly experienced as a reader, but really never expected to see worked by something of my own making. This has left me feeling less like a genius than like the startled and unwitting, if very pleased, vector of some current that came less from me than through me from I know not where. I wish this particular astonishment on everyone at some point in their lifetimes.
Though you may be surprised to hear it, I never anticipated e-mail from readers. I have been an avid reader all my life, and read many books that genuinely changed the way I saw the world, or sometimes even the way I lived, but I am chagrined to admit now that it never once occurred to me to try writing an author to tell him so. I think I just assumed that authors were some separate species living on some alien plane I could no more reach out and touch than I could send birthday greetings to folks on Alpha Centauri. The first e-mail I received from a reader, about two weeks after the book’s release, surprised me immensely. Tor had sent me a copy of the book a few weeks earlier as it was being released, but I’d been working with them on the publication process for so long that when I got this latest version of our work, it didn’t really register in any visceral way that the book was really ‘out there’ until I got that first e-mail from a generous and appreciative stranger. ‘Oh my god!’ I thought. ‘Someone’s reading this!’ I sent her a grateful reply immediately to express my astonishment at her extraordinary gesture. A week later, I was getting several e-mails a day, and had no idea what planet I’d been moved to in my sleep.
Even now, well after the book’s presence in stores has peaked and diminished, I still get one or two e-mails from new readers a week, all of which I answer with undiminished appreciation, because it’s these e-mails, more than anything else, that help me see and experience my ‘first child’s’ unfolding life out there: where it’s traveled, how it got there, who it met and what passed between them. I want to convey my profound thanks to all the readers who have taken time to write and let me know what happened when they met my book. You have been my greatest satisfaction in this task, and it is most of all for you that I am now at work writing another novel.
Another valuable, if not always pleasant, gift of this past year has come to me from within ‘the industry.’ ‘Critical’ reaction to The Book of Joby has been literally all over the map. Days before its release, Publishers Weekly wrote The Book of Joby off as relentlessly grim tripe for the ‘Left Behind crowd’ – an assessment that still surprises and confuses me, and apparently most of my readers – while the National Association of Independent Booksellers selected it as a Booksense Pick that October, and Booklist included it in their Top Ten list for fantasy in 2008. (My sincere thanks to all you independent booksellers and to Booklist!) While Library Journal also felt it had little redeeming value, the same book made the short list of nominees for the annual National Library Association award. Locus so disliked the book that they refused to acknowledge it at all beyond reprinting the Publishers Weekly review, while, as I write this, The Book of Joby is one of five finalists for the Pacific Northwest’s Endeavor Award. (One of the other five finalists is “Powers” by Ursula Leguin. Needless to say, I am delighted and honored to be on ANY short list with ANYTHING by her!) A fan in Australia sent me three reviews from major papers in her area. I kid you not: the first called it incredibly well written and a tremendous pleasure to read, destined for greatness; the second said it worked better than it ought to considering it’s many flaws; and the third said it was a horribly written waste of paper, recommendable only to those with nothing else in the world to do, and huge amounts of time to fill. The entire spectrum – same book.
What has all this taught me? Many valuable things!
First, that reviews – good or bad – have far less to do with the book being reviewed than with the agenda of the reviewer. If you want to know about a book, I’m afraid you’ll have to read at least a portion of it yourself – but if you want to know about reviewers – by all means, read reviews.
Second, it has focused my attention as a writer on a very different set of issues than before. In 2006, as Tor worked toward the launch of my first novel, I cared very much about how ‘the industry’ would receive it, and how their reception would impact my potential for a ‘writing career.’ During this past year, what has turned out to matter far more to me is the wonderful, growing, and frankly unanticipated, relationship with so many readers that I discussed earlier. I understand now, as I did not one year ago, that what I most want to do as a writer is just get the stories whirling around inside me down on paper, and share them with whatever audience wants to read them. How many or few readers that turns out to be, or what label(s) those stories are published by, or how those stories are reviewed by ‘the industry,’ or even how much money I’m ever likely to make, have all become strikingly secondary concerns for me in such a short time compared to the writing task itself, and access to some receptive audience of whatever size. (Fortunately, I have a very nice day job – still – so far – economic crisis notwithstanding.)
The third and biggest thing I’ve learned in this regard is that once a book is ‘out there’ it’s travels and impacts are secret, and surprising, largely unknown to me or anyone else, and, once set in motion, largely unstoppable by me or ‘the industry’ or anyone else. For setting my book ‘in motion,’ I’ve had an agent, Linn Prentis, Tor in general, and Tom Dougherty and David Hartwell in specific to thank, and I will always feel grateful and unbelievably fortunate for their willingness to give a strange book such a great chance.
Here I must also thank an army of wonderful independent booksellers across the country, and those in the blogosphere, like Tia, who have been so supportive of me and my novel since its earliest days. I believe their support is the primary reason this novel has done as well as it has despite ‘the industry’s’ much more mixed and tepid assessments.
I am not sure how many copies of the book have sold around the world to date, but I have been given reason to believe it’s at least 16 or 17 thousand copies. Given the number of emails I’ve received from people who were given the book, or borrowed it, or found it at a library, I suspect at least three people have read it for every copy actually sold. Thus, I am pretty sure that in one year more people have read The Book of Joby than all the people who ever saw my fantasy art in the nearly 20 years of my earlier career as an illustrator. I am telling the stories inside me much faster and more completely in words than I was ever able to in pictures, and to a far larger audience, already. Am I stoked? Oh yes.
So there are the plusses, as I see them, of my first year as a published author. No matter how you slice it, I have been very lucky and very kindly treated by an amazing community of booksellers and readers out there. I have a lot more stories inside me, and a desire to tell them. Where or if they are published – to whom and with what success – is anybody’s guess, of course. But even if this one book turned out to be my sole break, it’s been well worth it – and so much more than ‘enough’ for me. It’s still out there, traveling around, talking to people, pleasing them, troubling them, making them think and respond. Who knew I’d ever get that kind of chance at all? I’m a lucky, lucky guy.
Tia has asked me to say a bit about where I am and what I’m working on now, so… I am back in Seattle’s colorful, energizing University District, doing reasonably interesting work at the Daily Planet by day, (or, in the interests of accuracy, perhaps for the same large entertainment software company I was working for before my ‘book tour’ last winter), and stepping into the random phone booth every Friday to doff my cleverly concealing glasses, and don my writer’s cape, (or … er, maybe that’s actually doff the cape and don the writer’s glasses, … in the interests of … well, accuracy). I keep meaning to try my hand at some kind of blogging on my website … any month now … as soon as … I outrun … this avalanche. Not this month though, I’m afraid. Check in every now and then. You never know.
Last December I finished work on the first draft of the first book in a ‘fantasy’ trilogy unrelated to The Book of Joby, which I submitted for consideration at Tor. This book has been alluded to in a number of online interviews during the past year, but unfortunately, it is no longer ‘in the cards’. A fantasy set in the future was perhaps not my brightest idea to date. There was a lot of confusion about whether it was supposed to function as fantasy or science fiction, and the consensus from numerous quarters was that it failed to function comfortably as either. Had this been a stand-alone novel, I would doubtless have shrugged and waded through the substantial revision process that seemed required to resolve the uncertainties of many veteran heads around me. But as this was the first book in a three book series I had still to write two thirds of, I was not comfortable committing contractually to five or six more years of work on something so many colleagues seemed so unsure about right out the gate. So, last spring, despite a contract offer for the trilogy from Tor, I withdrew the book from consideration, and started work on an entirely new fantasy which I’m having TREMENDOUS fun writing, and expect great things of.
The new book is a single volume, stand alone novel currently called ‘TWICE.’ It is a contemporary urban fantasy, also unrelated to The Book of Joby, about a young man who does and doesn’t get what he unwittingly wishes for after being beaten, possible to death, by a troll in a downtown alleyway one night, and what it takes to set things right – in a number of lives and places afterward. So far, I think it’s … GOOD! I hope to submit a finished first draft to Tor this spring. What will happen to it after that is anybody’s guess, of course, but I am confident it will get to readers in some form, under some title, via some venue, within the next few years, (That’s the publishing biz for ya). I hope they will enjoy it at least as much as so many have enjoyed my first modest tale. Thanks for asking, Tia, and for all your interest and support during this first year of my great adventure in publishing!