[Read the back of Meanwhile, Elsewhere]
[Something about how the back of this book felt like one of those stupid things you’d say or suggest at a party like “What if a book did THIS” except this one time I had this experience of just, like, doing that and it ruled. Those ideas you have with your stupid friends at a stupid party or by yourself laughing to yourself in your room, those are real, and sometimes you can make them be reality, and the things you like in books and movies and TV and whatever, lots of them started like that. The link between “This is a cool idea I have” and “this is a thing I think is cool that shows up in books or movies” there’s no process in the brain that’s different about those things.]
Hi everyone. I really appreciate you taking your time out of your day to come listen to me. Thank you to Western for hosting me, thank you so much to Aaron Schneider for inviting me.
I just want you all to know—when I was a student and I went to lectures like these, I had such a hard time paying attention. I’d go see someone speak and I’d think like wow, I’m really interested in what this person is saying—and then I just couldn’t stay focused and I’d forget it all. I saw Jennifer Egan speak when I was in grad school and I was like wow, that was fascinating, a week later, I couldn’t remember a fuckin’ word she said. Anyway, the point is, I’ll be posting the notes of this talk up on my blog later, so if that’s useful to you, there it’ll be, it’s just caseyplett.com
So I used to work at this big bookstore in New York City called The Strand. It’s the second-largest bookstore in the United States and most of their books are used. It being downtown Manhattan, they bought an enormous number of books from people coming in off the street daily. Hundreds of books a day, probably topped a thousand on Saturdays.
During this time, I was working really feverishly on what I thought would be my first book. And I was really attached to this idea of a book as a permanent thing, a thing that existed for a long period of time, as a solid thing that could change people and minds and the world. Of course books can do that very thing, but I was fiercely and romantically attached to the idea that my books and the booked I love might be able to achieve such lofty goals.
At the Strand, I worked on the floor, shelving and helping customers. One day I was shelving in the history section. American history. And I was dawdling, flipping through a book from the ‘50s, a book I’d never heard of, and that I since can’t remember. And I just thought like fuck, all the hopes I have for my own work, and all the praise I assign to contemporary writers that I love so dearly—by law of averages, we’ll almost certainly all be forgotten in 50 to 60 years. The books we love and that we may write are all going to end up in a bookshelf like this as curiosities with only traces of people who remember them and talk about them. That’s if we’re lucky.
But the physical weight of being surrounded by such a large left-over quantity of hopes and dreams was really powerful, the tangibility of being in a room with thousands and thousands of books of which only a small percentage someone my age might’ve recognized. It was moving because I knew that decades ago they had probably done so much before they came to rest here. What I’m saying is I really felt something truthful in my bones about the ephemerality of literature, and how, perhaps, I could be a part of that, even if time would likely sweep it away, perhaps long before I leave the earth.
I was on a panel with my friend Kai Cheng Thom, who’s written incredible books. Check out Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars and A Place Called No Homeland. And Kai Cheng mentioned something about how writing is still worthwhile even if it’s just your friends reading it and liking it. Which is an experience I would say I’ve had as well, there were many years where I was just pounding away at my blog or doing readings at bars for strangers before my books came out, etc…and those were powerful experiences. I know it’s a little hypocritical of me to say this, having been lucky enough to be a published author for so long, but I sometimes think we as writers and readers hold up this idea of being published as being real, as if it means you’ve been granted permanence, when my experience all as a writer and bookseller and someone who works in publishing would say that isn’t quite the whole truth. And I’ve been thinking more about ephemerality, and how that can maybe be a liberating concept for us as writers and readers.
I think about permanence too, and I gave a talk this March about how I loved the permanence of books so I certainly don’t have this all squared and figured out, but the ephemerality of our writing is something I’ve been thinking about more often, and that I think is kind of beautiful.
Read from ASGtL: 5 min from “Portland, Oregon” (Some mish-mash of between pages 93 and 102)
I chose this story to read from because in some ways it’s my favourite story from this collection for a lot of reasons, and it’s also a story that over the years always surprises me to have touched people in a way I wouldn’t have imagined. In the story (sorry, spoilers) the girl Adrienne works all the time but she’s still always broke, so she starts a job driving escorts at night. And it makes her money but the nature of the work and her lack of sleep and her increasing addiction issues start kind of loosening her grip on reality, and this is all seen through the eyes of her cat, Glenn. (Sidebar: You may be able to cut this a bit depending on what you read)
I started writing this story when I was 19 years old, in my second year of university. I wrote it for a class, and I’m still kind of amazed by the fact that eight years after that class, that story ended up in a book and people liked it. It felt like I got to introduce the world to some old friends. Though I majorly revised that story a lot over the years, to be sure.
What got me started writing that story was two things. The first thing was Adrienne’s apartment. When I was a kid, my dad was pretty poor and he moved around a lot, but there was this one apartment we lived in when I was like four five years old when he as on welfare. It was a basement apartment. It was shitty and messy and gross. And even though as I grew up my mom moved up the class ladder and we got out of there, that fucking apartment just has always stayed in my mind, the images of what it was like to sleep there, and eat there, and especially how my dad was both trying to make the best of things and also kind of sinking into his own sadness…those images of that apartment in particular just like, still lives in my fucking brain. And when I started writing this story 12 years ago, it was powered by those images.
I bring all this up just to make this point: That the odd soup that lives in your head, that you don’t see reflected anywhere in your real life, that soup is usually something to follow.
The other thing I want to mention about this book, as it was my first book, is that at the time I started writing it, I hadn’t meant to write a book of short stories, I’d meant to write a memoir. But I was working on that fucking memoir and I just lost steam half-way through and I just started hating that project, I don’t know, I just like, I stopped working on it because I couldn’t stand it. And the weird lizard part of my brain, when I sat down to write, was interested in these short little vignette stories. I guess I just say this to underline that like, sometimes you have a plan and sometimes you don’t have a plan. For this book (Little Fish) I had a plan, but for this book (Safe Girl) I had no fucking plan at all, I just kept sitting down and working.
Reading from Little Fish – 8 minutes (Scene with the four of them at Cousin’s, maybe the first scene? And then them getting ready for the party?))
I definitely like realist fiction for my own stuff, but I love daydreaming within it too. In Little Fish, there are similarities between Wendy and myself but two big things Wendy has that I’ve never experienced, one being living in one town her entire life, two is having a circle of trans women friends who kind of act as a cadre. I actually think that’s a really uncommon experience for trans women—to have the kind of four-girls-always-meeting-up-in-a-bar, almost like in a Cheers sort of way—but I liked to imagine it. I had a few friends like that in Winnipeg, though they’re not like any of the girls in the book, and we almost all never hung out together in masse like they do. So even though this book is a mish-mashed reflection of a lot of shit from real life, there was also daydreaming and wishfulness involved, there were pockets of wishes in here for things I didn’t see around me and hoped could be real.
I think sometimes there’s this idea as fiction writers that you’re supposed to make shit bad for your characters all the time, you know, like: Nabokov has this quote that’s like “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” And I just think like nooo! I don’t buy that at all! Like obviously conflict is necessary in fiction but I think it’s important to give your characters joy, and good things, and sometimes the powerful engines of our imaginations can be given fuel by imagining better things that aren’t in the world that you get to live in. I really believe that.
And to go back to my first book (Safe Girl) for a second, the part of me that wrote Glenn’s character as a cat, to me, honestly doesn’t feel that different from the part of me that wrote this gaggle of girlfriends in this book (Little Fish).
Glenn—a talking cat—came about because when I was younger I was obsessed with writing these dialogue-heavy scenes between a guy and a girl who were platonic best friends. But I was also drawn to following this girl around who was isolated and living by herself and really lonely. And writing Glenn as a cat all of a suddenly let me live in a story with both of those realities. And you know, who hasn’t owned a cat and kind of wished the cat would talk with you, or feel like the cat understands you in a way.
I’ve never lived with a talking cat, but I’ve also never lived with the tight-knit group of women friends who get together in a room or a bar every week. One can exist in this reality and another can’t, but they both came from the same place of desire, and wonder.
Ok so everything I’ve said so far has been about craft. But as someone who’s worked on the business side of the book industry for some years, I’d like to talk about the capital-B Business side of writing too, because I know it’s a murky weird thing and it’s opaque and I think also a lot of authors who’ve been successful in getting books out don’t always like to talk about it?
Certainly I know that like…you know, when I was in a writing program, me and my classmates would often ask our professors the Big Question, which was “How do I get a book published?” and we wouldn’t really get concrete answers. And in some ways, it’s not a question with neat or easy answers. On the other hand, they were are teachers, and this drove us crazy! Today, I work at Biblioasis publishing house, and I’m a publicist. Now, Biblioasis doesn’t publish my books, and I don’t acquire books or edit them, I just promote what other people acquire and edit. But I do have a window into how people get their manuscripts turned into books, both how it happens at my job and how it’s happened for my own work. So I’ll try to shed some light on a very weird process and I also definitely want to leave room for questions at the end.
First, the slush pile. Maybe some of you in here know what a slush pile is? Basically it’s the pile of unsolicited manuscripts that a publishing house receives. “slush pile” is the technical term for it, and in part this name comes from the idea that the number of manuscripts is so large, that in the days when they would arrive in physical form, there’d be enough of them that you could wade through them like slush. And the really unfortunate truth is, that the slush pile in most publishing houses has a very deep backlog, and very few books are considered that arrive that way. It’s not a fact I think people in publishing are proud of, but it is the truth.
Now I’ll tell you how both of my books got published.
[Talk about how you got your books published]
Both of those came about because I was going out and going to readings, trading work with people, involved in a community of other people who were making work, and that eventually led to me being able to put my work in front of someone who was willing to publish it in a book.
Now, I realize what all of this sounds like is. It sounds like “Oh, so it’s all who you know.”
And in a big sense that’s true and it’s hard to get around that. The thing that I have just described to you, there’s no way of separating it from nepotism. There’s a Venn Diagram between community and nepotism that has a lot of overlap.
A funny story, when I submitted this book to Topside Press, I did it through their submission manager, and Tom the publisher was like “You were the only one of our friends who actually used the Submission portal.” He was like “You’re so frickin’ polite you Canadian weirdo.” Which is kind of funny, but also kind of a sad comment about how this all tends to work.
Because of my job and because I’ve had success with this book, whenever I write my next book, I can almost certainly figure out a way to get it in front of any editor in Canada. That’s nice for me, and of course it’s also really not fair. Most editors in Canada are white, most of ‘em are straight, most of them are nowhere near either your age nor mine. And that has an effect on what editors look for and publish, it does. And besides even that, I mean, if you’re fortunate enough that your best friend or your spouse suddenly gets a job in publishing, well, that’s going to make it easier for you.
I do have an optimistic thing I have to say on that front though, which is that publishing has always been like that. And that there have always been marginalized writers, and writers who don’t necessarily have “Connections” who’ve managed to work their ass off hard enough to get past that and get noticed and get their work out there.
Which brings me back to what Kai Cheng said about how even just writing for your friends who see things is meaningful. I believe the biggest bulwark that writers have when it comes to the hustle, is finding like-minded people and, whether that’s doing readings, whether that’s submitting to literary magazines (who are, by the way, much more able to look more thoroughly at their slush piles, and at Biblioasis I know our fiction editor reads such magazines regularly), whether it’s putting together your own zine and doing fairs and shows, whether it’s reviewing books, whether it’s joining up with a bunch of people on the Internet into the same strange things you are. Community can be a loaded term in my experience, and it’s often not easy, but that’s what I’m getting at.