Sunday, July 24, 2011

Leora Skolkin-Smith and Jessica Brilliant Keener talk about the brave new world of publishing and the Fiction Studio Imprint

Welcome to publishing not as usual!

The Fiction Studio Imprint is the brain child of New York Times bestselling author, former publisher of Avon Books and Berkley Books, Lou Aronica. An invitation only imprint, The Fiction Studio publishes books in paperback and e-book format and it represents a revolutionary new way of publishing. Aronica,created this new frontier, a gathering of “ambitious wildly creative writers.” To read the whole story, look here.

I have Lou coming on here later, but in the meantime, I wanted to talk to two of the writers who were invited to this imprint.

Leora Skolkin-Smith's first book The Fragile Mistress is about to launch as a feature film from Triboro Films and her second novel Hystera will be published by the Fiction Studio. The Fragile Mistress was nominated for the 2006 Pen/Faulkner Award and the Pen/Ernest Hemingway Award by Grace Paley. It was a National women Studies Association Conference Selection, A Bloomsbury Review Pick and a Jewish Book Council Selection.

 Jessica Keener's novel Night Swim will be published by the Fiction Studio. Jessica writes for The Boston Globe, and reads fiction for Agni. Her work has appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, Poets & Writers and more,  and her business memoir, Time to Make the Donuts, continues to sell. Jessica's fiction has been listed in the Pushcart Prize under "100 Outstanding Writers," and excerpts from Night Swim have been published in MiPoesias, Eclectica Magazine, Night Train and Wilderness House Literary Review, which awarded her with a Chekhov Prize for Excellence in Fiction. Another excerpt from Night Swim was awarded a Massachusetts  Cultural Council grant in fiction. 

Both are  extraordinary writers and both agreed to have a conversation about Fiction Studio for my blog.  Thank you, Leora and Jessica!

Jessica: So why the Fiction Studio for you?

Leora:  I think, for me, Lou's acceptance gave me a certain freedom, that is I could finally write and not have to hustle and please editors I knew I couldn't. It took the hopelessness away, all that anguished activity which had to with trying to fit into some a priori model in which I felt estranged.I didn't have to write to please, or be a writer for hire. I had some older European tradition in my soul. I honestly wanted to write find out who I was, what meaning I could bring to fiction. Pretentious, right?

Jessica: Leora-I'm there with you and your old, European soul. When I finally took this leap to go with Lou and publish Night Swim, I felt freed (at last), all my internal blocks pulverized. But it definitely took some time to get there. (How about years?) I continue to feel more joyous everyday. I love this sensation of regaining control. I love knowing that I can leap after wild marketing ideas and pursue them without waiting for so many layers of approval. Lou is super easy and responsive and has a steady demeanor.  Also, over the past decade, I've seen what's been happening to so many fantastic writers--writers whose stories  haunt, disturb and inspire--yet these writers were getting turned away (and still are).  It was more than just sad or disappointing for myself and for others, it started to feel wrong, like the balance--in the old Shakespearean sense--was out of whack. 

Suddenly, the world of fiction and literary arts is open again. There's a party and neighborhood for all kinds of writers and readers, and a way to bring variety back into books. This is what I find most exciting. Writers and readers can't all squeeze through one door.

Leora: Jessica, this is so reassuring, I think one of the things that happened to me was a sense of such utter alienation..and what's so great is people understanding, feeling the same way, self-affirmation but also a affirmation in a community. I'm happier, too, and able to write, just write. And yes, the taking back of control was crucial.

My experience with "regular publishing" was this internal sense of not being able to please, to be excluded among the "chosen", like a mark across the forehead, a curse of some devil phantom because at 59, I'm way past trying just to make an editor believe in my work, I had developed my own inner laboratory and did not want to just get "hired" to dazzle. I couldn't dazzle. I'm serious and my work is trying on the nervous system of a reader, and then (here's the fatal blow) I'm very" intellectual." I love literature as much as I love trying to write it and have learned so much when wonderful editors gave me the chance to write literary criticism...still, another part of me was self-lacerating when I couldn't "dazzle" and I started to internalize all the alienation, and I had to walk around with this armload of anger. Sometimes even rage. I began to feel hopeless in this era of publishing. Was my life as a writer reduced now to just making a young editor go "Wow, I love it!" I didn't want that, essentially, for myself or my work. It felt humiliating, a bit degrading, or at the very least, counter to my own desires as a writer.  Writing well was about taking the risk of being disturbing, not pleasing, shaking the world up a bit, exploring the dark and mysterious and yet it seemed the publishing business was so intent on this one-dimensional "Wow, I love it!" .Lou's acceptance was different. 

What attracted to me to Lou's imprint was Lou. He has a quiet and accepting manner and he's a real  businessman, a real publisher. It was fascinating to talk to him and hear his long experiences with publishing, how he saw the new world of e-books, how he viewed the whole world of publishing, a veteran was talking to me, a person of substantial experience. I got the feeling I was with the real thing in the sense of a real publisher in the old school way, an entrepreneur, excited about his business and what he could do in his field,  he made me feel as energetic and hopeful. 

Now, well, I'm feeling free. I started a new book and I don't feel the old demons tugging at me,( that is the demons of "I HAVE to make sales and show someone I can be a profit-earning player." ) I'm a writer again, my only demons are mine. I'm only haunted by my own images and stories. Whether I'm good or bad, is not as important as the simple fact that I AM.

Jessica: This is my debut novel, so this is a huge time for me, a breakthrough after years--dare I tell you it's been decades--of frustration. I've been represented by top agents at top agencies and earlier novels have made the rounds with no "luck" or whatever you want to call it, though I've gotten writing grants, awards, honors and all those good things.  So, the obvious answer is that my experience trying to get a novel published basically sucked. I co-published a business memoir and that went well, actually. I wrote a proposal and sold it in two weeks, then supported myself on the advance I got. I wrote that book in nine months. The book (Time to Make the Donuts) is still selling. The hardcover sold out and it's available now on Kindle. But, finding a publisher for my novel was a completely different, totally unrequited experience. 

I sent Lou Night Swim and a mere two weeks later I got and email saying he loved it and wanted to publish it. We talked on the phone the next day. I was thrilled, but a nagging part of me still hesitated, still holding out internally for the old way--the way of my other book. But, my dad had recently died, and everything felt intense. I saw time passing so quickly. It scared me. Still, I held off for almost four months. Yet, I liked Lou immensely.  He's easy to talk to. He's calm. He's a veteran. An editor and a writer. I feel I can be myself, and that, in my opinion, is golden. I also liked that he was particular about what gets published by Fiction Studio Books. This wasn't a free-for-all publication venture. Quality matters to Lou, and it matters to me. 

I'm a debut novelist, and right now everything feels wonderful,exciting and liberating. I'm going through copy edits.  Next up, is my book cover. Every step feels new and affirming. I find myself smiling a lot and when people congratulate me and share in my joy, it's a gracious sensation. I love that Lou wants to support what I love doing, and that I have this opportunity, at long last.


meg said...

I cannot wait to read Jessica Keener's forthcoming book!!!! And loved hearing the inside story of finding Leora and her dealings with the publishing world!!! Thank you for sharing your stories!!!

Jessica Keener said...

Meg, thank you. I count your amazing novel-in-stories, Domestic Apparition, one of those books that I'm grateful has found a home. Thanks to indie publishers.


This rocked my world. Brilliant and enticing women! I had no idea any of this was happening. God love you, Caroline.

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

I'm so touched! Thank you, Meg and Finnablog! Wow, this made me feel good (and much less alone)