“We are not farm teams”: Rebecca Rosenblum explains her decision to remain with Biblioasis for her second book

March 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of the 2008 collection Once. That book, published by the small Ontario-based press Biblioasis, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and received almost universally positive reviews. In the wake of her success with her debut, Rosenblum was in a perfect position to jump ship to a larger house. But, for her second book, the upcoming collection The Big Dream, the author decided to stay with Biblioasis. In its ongoing series inquiring into the gulf between large and small presses, TSR asked Rosenblum about her decision to remain with her originating publisher, and her feelings about how her association with Biblioasis has benefited her as an author.

Why did you choose to stay with Biblioasis for your second book?

1) Because I had a really good editorial relationship with John Metcalf – he pushed me, but only in the directions I wanted to go, and it was exciting to be challenged like that. I think the book is better than it would have been – much better – without that relationship.

2) Because I liked the “book-creation process,” for lack of a better term. I got to lay down a piece of art on a table with Dan (Wells, publisher) and John and say, can this be my cover? And the answer was yes. A lot of work was done to make sure I didn’t have to cut the book’s length at all. The copy edit was solid. I like the title page design. These things matter.

3) Because the promotion of Once exceeded my expectations. I was really thrilled with the review coverage Once got – more like shocked, really. I got to go to a few festivals, I got to be on the radio, do readings, do interviews. I am very much aware that not every unknown author of short stories gets to do this stuff. Some of it was luck, sure, but some of it was because Biblioasis worked really hard for me.

Did you ever consider the bigger payday you might have received from a larger house?

No. I mean, I should make it clear that I think I was paid decently for Once and will be for The Big Dream. My agent, Samantha Haywood, negotiated the latter deal and was very positive about it – she would never have let me sign anything inappropriate. Beyond that, no, money was not a factor.

What do you think small presses can provide an author that larger presses can’t?

I’m not really an expert on this, having only had the one experience, but I would think: flexibility – both in terms of what they publish and how they do it. I’m pretty sure that, without corporate oversight, independent houses have a lot more freedom to publish books that are outside the mainstream or controversial or just not super saleable. And they can fiddle with production timelines – my first book was out of my hands and onto store shelves in six months, which I think is unusual.

And, at least for me at Biblioasis, there is a sense of community. I admire a number of the other authors there, and it’s been cool for me to get to meet them and, in some cases, read with them. And of course, I like John a lot, I like Dan a lot, I like their wives, I like Dan’s kids. And all of those people have been kind to me, gone out of their way for me, given me hugs.

But I’m not sure what I’m talking about is a small-press experience; it may be just the experience that I have had at a small press. I know lots of writers who have really wonderful relationships, professionally and personally, with publishers both small and large. I certainly know editors at houses of all sizes who are warm, delightful people I would be thrilled to hang out with or work with. I also know writers who have had terrible, alienating experiences with houses of all sizes – there are a few people at every level of the industry who are jerks, or bad at their jobs, or both.

I think by making this a binary – big vs. small – the real issue is obscured. And that issue is, how can we create the best books and get them read by the most people? That question is being answered in different ways at different houses, with varying levels of success. I like the way Biblioasis does things, but not because they’re small – because they’re good.

By staying with Biblioasis, you were able to maintain a relationship with John Metcalf, your editor there. How important is the author/editor relationship in your experience?

I think I pretty much answered this above, but yes, for sure. He was really generous with support and encouragement, and considered it worth his time and long-distance telephone charges to make me feel better about things. Although I don’t doubt he was fully cognizant that I work more – and better – when I’m happy.

Aside from the personal relationship, the best editors offer their writers a kind of tacit promise: I will not let you fuck up, I will not let you chicken out, I will save you from your worst tendencies so that you are free to embrace your best ones. That’s worth its weight in gold, and John did, I think, do that for me.

31 Days of Stories, 2009: Day 21, “ContEd” by Rebecca Rosenblum

August 21, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Once.

blog324-081205074020Whenever I’m asked why I admire Rebecca Rosenblum’s writing so much, I point to the baklava moment in “ContEd.” Isobel, the story’s protagonist, works as a waitress at a Greek restaurant and is taking a continuing education night course in tax accounting. She has moved to Toronto from Montreal after breaking up with Riley, her long-term boyfriend. Eva and Mara, the owner and dinner-shift waitress at the restaurant, feel that Isobel needs a boyfriend, so they encourage her to ask her teacher, Barton Denby, on a date. To grease the wheels, Eva supplies Isobel with a box of mini-baklavas: “She says that desserts are slow, plus these are gonna go off before they sell, but sugar and nuts don’t spoil. Plus she winks.”

When Isobel presents Barton with the box of baklava after class, the embarrassing awkwardness of the moment is heightened by the fact that the box has got jarred in Isobel’s bag, and now “looks like something from the garbage.” Teacher and student exchange a few forced pleasantries, then part. “I don’t know where Barton is heading,” Isobel says, “but probably not in the same direction as me.”

There is more pathos in this one small incident than many writers are able to wring out of entire novels. Moreover, Isobel is the kind of character rarely seen in Canadian fiction: a young woman who works a tedious service job to make ends meet, fending off unwanted advances from customers at work, while spending a good portion of her meagre income to put herself through equally tedious night classes. “Eva begs me to work Thursday night,” Rosenblum writes. “I feel like I can’t say no. Besides, paying tuition has made me need the money more. I guess that’s ironic.” The economic catch-22 of many young Canadian urbanites, who want to better themselves if only they could find the financial means to do so, is something that Rosenblum clearly understands and empathizes with. In class during the final exam, Isobel looks around the room at the other students bent over their papers: “For a minute, I just watch heads, backs, arms, no faces. I wonder how everyone’s doing, how they feel. I wonder if their feet hurt.”

Isobel’s romantic dilemma is equally well drawn: the tentativeness and hesitancy with which she and Barton interact is almost palpable. There is a suggestion in the story that Isobel feels inadequate next to Barton, who went to law school before becoming a tax accountant. (“If you have to go to law school to be a real tax person,” Isobel thinks ruefully, “the ContEd catalogue should’ve said that.”) For her part, Isobel downplays her own abilities – when asked to say something about herself in the first class, she responds: “I’m Isobel. I used to be good at math.”

But the disparity between Isobel and Barton is largely illusory; it turns out that Barton flunked out of law school and the story indicates that he is more receptive to Isobel than she allows herself to believe. Still, Rosenblum is too subtle to settle for a simple story of mutual attraction or aversion; her two characters circle around one another, engaging in a nervous chess match of flirtation and dissuasion, until Isobel’s final epiphany at the story’s close. Significantly, this epiphany involves a realization, not a definitive action. The story opens itself up at the finish, rather than coming to a tidy, reductive resolution.

By the end of the story, it is the reader who feels most uncomfortable – “ContEd” is such an intimate tale that the reader’s experience comes perilously close to voyeurism. Rosenblum allows us to witness these characters in their most emotionally naked moments, which is an act of bravery for a writer, and something fabulously rare in the annals of CanLit.

Help spread some joy

July 7, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

shirt_book_correctJoyland: A Hub for Short Fiction is the brainchild of the estimable Emily Schultz and her husband, literary bad-boy Brian Joseph Davis. It’s an online repository of short fiction by writers such as Sean Dixon, Eva Moran, Lydia Millet, Stacey May Fowles, Nathan Sellyn, Jonathan Lethem, Lynn Coady, Rebecca Rosenblum and Sina Queyras. Last year, the CBC called Joyland “the go-to spot for readers seeking the best voices in short fiction” (which should be self-evident simply by the list of names preceding).

But this is Canada, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Canadian short-story endeavour must be in want of funding. Therefore, as part of the Scream Literary Festival, Schultz and Davis, “the world’s most incompetent capitalists” (their description, not mine), have organized a fundraiser that goes Wednesday evening at The Stealth Lounge here in Toronto. The Joyland Joy-a-thon offers a roster of high-calibre talent, prizes, and Joyland T-shirts (see left).

From the Scream site:

Break your mourning and throw off the black clothes for one evening as Joyland.ca and the Scream Literary Festival peddle eleven readers, raffle prizes, and, yes, T-shirts! Claudia Dey, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Stacey May Fowles read their own work from Joyland and Maggie MacDonald will perform a dramatic reading of a script by Bruce LaBruce. Helping out with cover readings are: Zoe Whittall, Kevin Connolly, Carl Wilson, Emily Holton, and Faye Guenther. And in a very special set, editors Lynn Henry and Michael Holmes read their own writers!

The event begins at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 8 at The Stealth Lounge (above the Pilot), 22 Cumberland Avenue. It’s PWYC, but there’s a $5 suggested cover. Yr. humble correspondent hopes to see you there.

Seen Reading goes national

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Julie Wilson, online content manager at House of Anansi Press and the brains behind the popular literary site Seen Reading, is expanding her blog’s focus to encompass the entire country. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past two-and-a-half years, Seen Reading is a locus for what Wilson calls “literary voyeurism.” Wilson makes a note of what she sees people reading on her travels, goes to a bookstore and copies a passage from the book, then creates a short imaginative piece based on the book and her impression of the individual reading it. For her troubles, she and her site have appeared everywhere from the CBC to the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and elsewhere.

Until now, Seen Reading has been pretty much a one-woman affair. Last year, Wilson instituted a “Readers Reading” section on her site, featuring podcasts of readers (including Rebecca Rosenblum, Mariko Tamaki, and Stacey May Fowles) reading short passages from some of their favourite books. But for the most part, the site has spotlighted readers Wilson noticed on her travels around her home city of Toronto.

Not anymore. Beginning this Victoria Day, Monday, May 18, Seen Reading is expanding its focus to include the entire country, from the East Coast to the West. Wilson has enlisted the help of three writers from different parts of Canada to provide installments for the site each week. The new national format will begin on Monday, with a post by Nova Scotia’s Ami McKay, author of The Birth House. Other new contributors to the site include Montreal’s Saleema Nawaz, author of the story collection Mother Superior, and Vancouver’s Monique Trottier, who runs Boxcar Marketing, an Internet consultancy firm.

Wilson initiated the idea of bringing other bloggers from around the country on board a few months ago:

It had been over two-and-a-half years of collecting sightings and responding to them, and I was unsure of the next step. I confided in Monique who, remarkably, offered to take care of Seen Reading if I wanted a break. Through Twitter, I had learned that Ami and Saleema were both supporters of the site. I simply took the plunge. I admire each of them as writers and their sense of community within the publishing industry. I had the utmost faith that they would be kind to the project, while offering a new perspective from different parts of the country.

The feeling of admiration is clearly mutual. McKay says that she’s been a fan of Seen Reading “from the start,” and was “thrilled” to be asked to participate. “I plan on bringing a quirky, curious, rural sensibility to my posts,” McKay says. “My sightings will largely be based in the day-to-day of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley: pee-wee baseball practices, doctor’s offices, small-town coffee shops, and grocery store parking lots.”

For her part, Trottier says that she has long admired Seen Reading. “The structured format was fun and flexible and as a fellow blogger I wished that I’d thought of something similar.” And Nawaz admits to a similar strain of blogger envy where Seen Reading was concerned: “Just about every weekday on my way to work, I’d notice somebody reading something fantastic and I would be thrown back into the same wishful reverie of a Montreal Seen Reading.” Nawaz wants to bring Montrealers’ love of reading out into the open: “Montreal readers are keen and passionate. I can’t wait to find out more about them. I’ll be the one on the back of the bus, in the park, in the café, furiously scribbling notes while trying to look invisible.”

Wilson herself plans to continue posting from Toronto, but says that she envisions a time when her role begins to resemble that of an acquisitions editor. “There’s no reason why Seen Reading couldn’t evolve into a true community,” she says. “It will take a larger team, and funds, but the possibilities are exciting.”

In the short term, Wilson plans a three-pronged approach to publicize the new, expanded Seen Reading. She is soliciting the assistance of litbloggers and booksellers to help get the word out, and has partnered with McNally Robinson in Toronto to give away two books per month on Twitter. “People are asked to submit 10 words to describe themselves. Using that biographical information, two winners a month will be picked to have their book needs met by Book Madam,” an alter ego Wilson created for the Twitter venture.

Secondly, Wilson wants to mount a charity event with an evening of readings by authors whose books have been “seen.” The proceeds would go to support a national literacy program.

And finally, Wilson is relying on word of mouth, through blogs (McKay’s Incidental Pieces, Trottier’s So Misguided, and Nawaz’s Metaphysical Conceit), as well as social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, to reach out to the online community. Calling this “connector publicity,” Trottier expects that the contributors’ various Web-based networks will form the “first line of promotion” for the beefed-up Seen Reading. “It’s very exciting to see how quickly interest in the project has surfaced.”

This focus on Web-based marketing is entirely appropriate for Seen Reading, of course, and each of the contributors to the site is a passionate advocate for the Internet’s potential to spur interest in, and discussion of, books. Says McKay:

Without a doubt, there’s a literary community out there [online] that is just as valid and valuable as the writing in publications such as The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement. Universal access is part of what makes the ‘Net such a brilliant place for sharing ideas. It makes room for conversation rather than striving to be the last word. I guess I’d say to the critics that I believe our words and our creative selves are like nature, they thrive on diversity.

Nawaz agrees, saying that “writers, readers, and publishers are generally delighted with the way the Internet can expand and enhance traditional coverage, as well as the opportunity it offers for bringing books to a wider audience.” And Trottier points to declining book coverage in traditional print media versus the volume of online coverage, which continues to grow. “Depending on whose numbers you cite,” she says, “60-80% of offline purchase decisions are made after online research or recommendations. In my mind, this signals a huge opportunity for literary blogs to reach an audience interested in books and reading.”

Wilson also points out the creative side of Seen Reading, and emphasizes its function as a repository of what could be termed “flash fiction”:

Seen Reading has most often been discussed as a project that notes reading habits, and less as an archive of creative writing. By bringing in more perspectives, and certainly authors such as Ami and Saleema, my hope is that the site will begin to function more visibly as a publisher, and that contributors will be viewed more apparently as writers.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN CORRECTED. Julie Wilson is no longer a publicist at House of Anansi, as was originally posted. Her current position is online content manager. TSR regrets the error.