Non-fiction musings from Allan Hunter
Allan Hunter, an author and avid blogger in the genderqueer community, joins me on the blog today.
We initially set up this interview to coincide with the release of Allan's coming out/coming of age memoir, but as most authors learn at some point in their career, publishing is a mercurial business. Things do not always go as planned.
The risk of creative differences between authors and agents or publishers is a real consideration when choosing with whom to work. A memoir, obviously, has intensely personal material for which the writer has emotional and psychological investment. Do you feel there is a limit to which an author should stand up for their vision of a project?
I think so, but it won't be the same limit for two different authors, and it won't necessarily be the same limit for the same author for two different books. There's always a tradeoff between the risk of never getting your book published and the risk that what you get published is no longer your book as you originally visualized it.
Back when I was in graduate school, one of the requirements for the degree program was to write one theory paper, one research project paper, and one review of existing literature paper. I dove right into the theory paper and crafted something I was proud of, an actual contribution to sociological and feminist theory, or so I thought of it. My primary advisor on the project took an active dislike for the things I was saying within it, though, and in addition to scribbling notes in the margins trying to argue me out of my positions, he raised a slew of objections to how I had structured the paper, objections to the writing and rhetorical techniques.
I kept revising it, trying to answer all of these concerns while still sticking to the original vision for the paper, for over two years. But after awhile I realized that my goal was to satisfy the degree program's requirements that I write a theory paper; I could refine and polish the paper I truly believed in for the next ten years but no one was going to read it except someone I wasn't going to convince, and he was never going to sign off on it. So I vastly scaled down the focus and made it a far less ambitious project, and eventually got his signature.
Meanwhile, I circulated the paper I still regarded as the "real" paper among feminist academics and made it available to anyone interested in reading it, and eventually it was even published in a theory anthology:
Readings in Feminist Theory : Thought and Types of Theory Perspectives on Feminism Behaviour
Now, in the case of the memoir I'm currently trying to get into print, I'm in a somewhat different situation. I don't have an additional competing motivation that's akin to needing the sociology department to accept my theory paper so I could go on with my degree program; the entire reason for writing the book and trying to get it published is to communicate what the experience was like. I don't have any compelling reason to Get A Book Published. I've never assumed I would make money on it and I don't have a box full of other book-ideas that are as important or more important to me than this one, where it would benefit me to compromise a lot so that I'd finally be a published author and could go on to the next book.
Still, to take things to the extreme, I'm almost 60 years old. I'm in good health and I'm stubborn, so it's possible that I could spend 50 more years trying to find a publisher for this book, but that's an outside limit. If a publisher (or a literary agent) said they'd work with me or publish my book if I made certain changes, if those changes didn't make me feel like it was no longer the "real" book and no longer explained what the experience of growing up genderqueer was like, I'd make changes that they insisted on even if I disagreed with them, even if I thought they made the book less good.
How is pitching a memoir project different from pitching a fiction piece?
Sometimes it's not, and sometimes it's very different, depending on who you are pitching it to. A memoir's an odd sort of critter, like a platypus, with a lot of characteristics of a work of fiction but technically a nonfiction creation, and some literary agents and publishers want a memoir pitched to them like any other nonfiction project: "Please submit a formal proposal with an outline of chapters, a review of competing literature, and one, two, or three sample chapters. Explain your credentials and provide a list of where you have lectured or presented or how you are regarded as an expert in your field. And a nonfiction author needs to have a platform, an existing audience of people already tuning in to what they produce, so please include an overview of your platform".
But other agents and publishers want a memoir pitched to them like a novel: "Please send a query letter with a good hook, give me a reason to want to read this book, make it like the blurb that you see on the back covers of paperback books, draw me in. Then give me a synopsis, explain the plot, I want to know what happens in your story, what the conflicts are, and their resolution. And I want to see the first 10 pages or 25 pages or first three chapters. And tell me about yourself and your prior publications".
An editor looking at your work is probably going to look at it a bit differently than if it were a fiction novel, even if they've asked that you query them for memoirs the same as if it were fiction. I mean, if they liked your characters and your setting but they thought the storyline was weak and really needed a more satisfying resolution to the conflict in the first third, if it was a work of fiction they could suggest changes that would make it a better story. But when it's a memoir, well, the story is what it is. Scenes can be brightened, bits of dialog can be inserted or sharpened, internal monologues can be clarified or trimmed, action descriptions can be made more vivid, but you're more limited on what you can do with the actual sequence of events, you know?
What advice would you give to aspiring writers regarding questions to ask prospective publishing partners and editors—especially authors in the LGBTQ and other marginalized communities?
I wish I thought I had a lot of useful advice to give. I mostly feel like someone in need of advice myself!
Let's see, what have I learned from the publishing companies I've interacted with so far?
Well… I don't know how universal this may be, but I myself suffer from a tendency to think that anyone who has read my book (or even some sample chapters) and then expressed interest is someone who "gets it", who understands the story I am trying to tell and that they like the same things about my book that I like about it myself. One thing I think I've learned is that this isn't necessarily so. And the next time I find myself in that situation, I think I'm going to ask the liaison person at the publishing company to talk with me or write to me a little about how they perceive my book, my story, how they'd describe it to the person at the next desk during lunch break. I think I would then continue that conversation by trying to explain how I viewed it myself and what I wanted to convey to my readers, how I would ideally want or expect people to think of the story.
I don’t know for sure, but if I had done that with [the last publisher] we might have had a more productive interaction and found common ground. And even if we hadn't, I would have had a better sense of what book they thought they were opting for.
Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog, Allan. Where can people interact with you on the internet?
My blog is here: http://ahunter3.livejournal.com Table of Contents of all blog posts is here: http://ahunter3.livejournal.com/25809.html
My email is public: email@example.com; if people want to contact me without it appearing to be associated with a specific blog post, that's probably best.