Tuesday, July 28, 2015

THINKING ABOUT SANDRA BLAND - A WHITE WOMAN'S VIEW

I cannot wrap my mind around the injustice of Sandra Bland's death.  And one of the reasons I can't wrap my mind around it, is because but for the grace of -  I'd say GOD - but I think it's less about God and more about skin color - there but for the grace of my white freckled skin, go I.

The Washington Post  reported today that according to the FBI, 50 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2014.  But 544 civilians have been killed in encounters with the police.  THINK ABOUT IT~  Look what those statistics say about civilian encounters with police officers.

A few years ago, I too was pulled over by cops, for no apparent reason.  I am a white woman living in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, but my encounter with the cops left me shaken. It left me wondering what sort of of a county I lived in -and how this was possible in America the beautiful - the land of the free - the greatest country in the world - as our politicians  love to remind us.

I'd had a kir earlier that evening.  Even beginning my paragraph about a police encounter like this sounds twee.... Are you for REAL, Amanda?  Yes - my friends - I had had a kir ---- (a glass of white wine with creme de kassis) -   and then my son Elliot asked me if I would drive him to a friend's pool party.  I said I would.

We got in the car and drove up the road... and as we approached its far end, we noticed that the street was lined with cars.  We commented that it seemed strange, but continued on, and as I drove down the gauntlet of cars, a flashlight was shined in my windscreen.  I didn't know who had shined the light, but I continued the 100 yards to the end of our street and in due course, turned left and continued on the 15 minute ride, to my son's friend's house.

I dropped him off and drove back home.

But as I came back down my street - a street which has a posted 25 mph limit, I was stopped by cops.

I wound down my window. "Maam," the officer  barked at me.  He was a boy of about the age of my eldest son. "Do you remember that I shined a light in your window a few minutes back? Do you realize you were driving to endanger?"

Driving to endanger?  I had no such recollection. I was driving down my own street, a street I had driven thousands of times before.  Why would I be driving to endanger?

"Have you been drinking?"

"Well, I had a kir," I said. Big mistake.

"A WHAT?"

"A kir," I repeated.

The cop commanded that I get out of my car. "This is my street..." I told him. "I live just a few doors down..."  

Nothing I said made a difference.  He proceeded to put me through my paces. He took my license and registration.  He made me recite the alphabet from L to Z.

"Hold your arms out straight, MA'AM," he said. "When I call RIGHT or LEFT - I want you to place your index finger on the tip of your nose.  I don't want it ABOVE the nose. I don't want it BELOW the nose.  But ON the TIP of the NOSE."

Then we went through a drill, with some of my neighbors looking on in shock. "Right, left, right, left. Left, Right, Right. Left," he shouted - while I complied. My wirehaired dachshund sat in the back of my PT Cruiser, waiting. 

He asked what my highest  level of education was.

"Graduate school," I told him.

"GRADUATE SCHOOL?!?!" he repeated mockingly.

He asked me if I was wearing heels.  I told him I was.

He told me I had been speeding. "It's a 20 mph limit here."  I corrected him. I said it was 25.

He then told me he would let me go. "BUT..." he warned, "I don't want to see you out on the road again. Because if I DO - I will arrest you for driving to endanger. Do you understand me?"  I said I did.  I then drove 200 yards up the road to my home.

What had happened? I had been treated like a criminal on my own street - and WHY? For NOTHING..  

Later I found out, that the cops had been called to that house up the road for a domestic abuse case.  They must have been pumped up.  They must have come out of the house with a lot of aggression inside them - and needed someone to take it out on.

A couple of people I've talked to about Sandra Bland suggest that she should have got out of the car.  They cannot believe she talked BACK to the cop.  That she didn't put out her cigarette. 

But, I remind them, she was annoyed. They were pulling her over for NOTHING  and she knew it.  She hadn't signaled, no - but all she had done was try to pull over and let the cops behind her pass.

She was also vulnerable.  She'd had a miscarriage.  She was in a strange and alien city and about to start a new job.  The cop pulled her over and treated her like she wasn't deserving of respect - didn't deserve to have emotions about the affront of being pulled over.  Then she was left in a jail cell for three days.  She must have thought she had crossed to the dark side. That this was how it was going to be, from now on.

My heart goes out to her. She was young.  She was trying to start a new life.  I have been there too.

When I think of the way the cops responded to her - I am also reminded of El Salvador - when walking the streets without an ID could get you killed.  It's a sliding scale.  How far along that scale is our society prepared to go?




Thursday, July 23, 2015

BOOKSELLING: MY NEW VIEW ON THE LIFE CYCLE OF BOOKS

My book, not, I might add, for sale at Politics and Prose
I've been working as a bookseller at Politics and Prose in DC for the last couple of months, and the experience has given me a whole new view on the life cycle of books.   As a novelist, I had always imagined that once you got a book into print, it would be smooth sailing.  In fact, I had thought that once you got an agent, it would be smooth sailing.

But friends and fellow writers, this is not the case.  I got an agent.  I got my book into print. But in fact, these milestones are merely doors in a series of many doors, which pass into new opportunities. As in the Monopoly game,  you pass GO and collect two hundred dollars.  But is it a win? Not in the least.

Let me explain.  So you've got yourself an agent and the agent has got you a book deal. You have passed GO twice. You've collected your  first four hundred dollars.

But NEXT you have to market your book. Who is going to buy it?  Your publisher is responsible for getting the book out there. But more and more, it is also up to you, the author.  So you must blog about your book, you must drum up reviews. You must send the manuscript to book bloggers, reviewers, friends, Romans, countrymen. You must go on Twitter and Linked In. You must do your utmost to make your book stand out.

Let's say your publisher then gets a few bites.  Bookstores show some interest. They buy maybe two, maybe four copies of your novel.  Then they try to sell it.

They put them on display.  I once thought that "face outs" were the best way to get your book sold. That is, when your book is displayed on the shelf - not spine out - but FACE out, you will sell more copies. However....books are not usually faced out unless they are bought in quantity - and thus, would ordinarily take up more space on the shelf. Success begets success.

Usually, three copies of your paperback book will be put on display in a bookstore. In hardcover, two copies might be displayed.  Mind you, a book that starts its life in hardcover is unlikely to go into paper for at least a year.  This depends on sales. A huge best seller like Anthony Doerr's  ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE remains in hardcover simply because sales continue to climb.

But even if your book is put on the NEIGHBORHOOD FAVORITES table, at a bookstore like Politics and Prose, this does not guarantee success.  It must earn its place on that table. If it doesn't sell, it will likely soon be taken off.  It will then be allotted to mere section shelving.

I made a case for one book recently. I had reviewed Angela Flournoy's debut novel THE TURNER HOUSE. It wasn't selling as well as the bookstore hoped - so I suggested they  place it on a different table. I also wrote a 'staff pick'.  Staff picks  boost sales. But by how much? It's hard to tell. We shall see!

In other news, down in the receiving room last night, I saw a pile of books on their way out. They were being shipped back to the publishers and were written by an acquaintance of mine.  I had been to his well attended reading only two months earlier.

But this is the book biz, folks - generous to a fault for a time, but cut throat in the end.  Before working as a bookseller, I often wandered the stacks in agony. WHY ISN'T MY BOOK IN HERE - I used to think to myself.  WHY.  WHY.

Now I feel a bit differently.  Now I am actually amazed that my novel found its way into print at all.  I am thankful to my publisher and to my agent. I am even grateful to Amazon - arch enemy of the independent bookseller.  They are getting my novel out there, after all, and I owe them a debt of gratitude.

I also realize, when I see the sales of other more successful authors, ones I had envied and revered in the past, that success is not always what it seems.  Not every book of value sells - even if it is well placed by publishers and booksellers.  I feel confident that my own novel is selling just as well as some of those I most admire.

Also, there are often shelves and shelves devoted to a single author - to Daniel Silva for instance, to Alexander McCall Smith or PG Wodehouse.  At the same time, there are extraordinary authors, like Andrea Barrett for instance, whose writing to me seems luminous, exemplary and deeply moving.  Hers are books I have given to friends as gifts.  But they might have just a single title on the shelves.

My library.  How books arrived here is nothing short of a miracle.
This is the independent bookstore world, my friends.  A world that reveres serious books.  A world of people who live for the best writing. Thousands and thousands of titles are produced each year - so many books that deserve to be read. It is the best place to spend your days and a beautiful place to work. And yet it is also a business. Even here, the best books sometimes fall right through the cracks.