Zen for Ten 18: Rubber meets Road

(Note: the blog will be on break next week.)

A couple of weeks ago, my novel reached a new milestone on its road to release. At the same time that the Kindle pre-order went live on Amazon, the e-version also went up on the online service NetGalley, where you can download a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

For small presses, like my indie Blue Moon Publishers, NetGalley is an essential resource. The traditional way to get reviews is to mail advance copies (ARCs) to potentially interested readers, and hope for a good response, but small presses usually don’t have the money for too many copies. Reviews are important to get buzz started about a new book, especially one by an unknown writer.

I knew this was going to be an important step. I had a handful of early reviews, all good, all written by people who know me and have a stake in the book (a couple of them are big reasons why Stranger exists at all). It’s wonderful to get support from the people who have watched you develop as a writer. It’s a different step, though, to get feedback from someone who has no previous familiarity with you or your book, who takes it at face value, and who can say exactly what they think with no fear of hurt feelings (or, for that matter, mature responses like, Oh yeah? Well, just wait ’til you want a review from ME, pal! 🙂 ).

To be honest, I was terrified about how new people, outsiders, would respond to Stranger. I thought a lot about how we’re getting to the point where the rubber meets the road: where my publisher finds out if their investment in me will pay off; where I find out what the upshot of the years of work and love, tears and joy, is going to be. There’s my book, that huge piece of myself, out on display for anyone to look at.

Complicating this, there’s the issue so many of us artists deal with: shaky self-image. Sometimes, especially when I’m deep in a new project, or when I’m at the piano, I feel like my feet are firmly planted. I know who I am, and I like that person. The problem is, though, that it seems like the world is always there, ready to hold up a mirror showing me how I ought to be instead. We all take in a barrage of messages, every day, about how we should dress, eat, look, and act; how we should spend our time; how we should spend our money. I’m not too worried about appearances, but the “what is your worth?” question is a big one for me. How do I measure it? If my life was a balance sheet (which I’d rather it wasn’t, but it’s an easy trap to fall into), what would the total look like? Would it be respectable, or would I be found wanting?

Holding onto self-confidence often feels, for me, like trying to listen to a song on a badly-tuned radio. The signal cuts in and out. Sometimes it’s clear and strong: that’s when I’m firmly planted in myself. Other times, a lot more often than I’d like, the signal fades or turns into static.

As we’re moving toward the actual release of Stranger, it’s been more and more important to me to think about its roots. What got me started with this book. Why, for so many years, it was so important. What drove me to dive into – and stick with – a project when I had no idea how to do it, how long it would take, or how hard it would be.

One thing I’ve loved doing over the past year or so, ever since I signed the contract with Blue Moon, has been going back to some of the music I listened to when I started Stranger. Novels, of course, change while we’re writing them, and the novel in my head at the beginning wasn’t the one that ultimately ended up on the page. When I started mine, I thought it was going to be set in a different decade than the one it ended up in (it changed by a solid fifteen or twenty years), and because I hadn’t actually lived through my target decade, I thought the best way to get a feel for the time was to listen to its music.

That was how I first learned about Bob Dylan. You can say a lot of things about him: about his voice, his harmonica playing, his chameleon musicianship and the styles he experimented with over the years, his lyrics. At first, I couldn’t understand anything I listened to. I didn’t like his voice, couldn’t follow the words, couldn’t get into the free-form style of his early folk music, where phrases change length at random and seem to wander around at will. I didn’t understand why this man had become an icon.

It took a while, but somewhere along the line, something reached me. I first noticed it when I watched footage of Dylan singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. This fresh-faced young man, with his guitar and harmonica, sang a song which – even if I couldn’t really follow it – haunted me somehow. Forget about today until tomorrow: I liked that. I watched him, and the audience that his music enthralled, and started to see how he had become the voice of a generation. His music let me reach into the past and touch a time very different from my own. For a little while, I felt as if I had been there too.

Then there was the album Blood on the Tracks. During the first few months when I was writing the book that became Stranger – months in which I still hadn’t realized that I didn’t have the first clue how to write a book – I practically wore out that CD. My favorite track on it was “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” I’d hoped to find a video of Dylan performing that song, to include in this post, but all I could find was covers. So here are the lyrics:

I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before
Never been so easy or so slow
I’ve been shooting in the dark too long
When somethin’s not right it’s wrong
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Purple clover, Queen Anne lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much, love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever
And never realize the time

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’
Stayin’ far behind without you
You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to

I’ll look for you in old Honolul-a
San Francisco, Ashtabula
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

This particular track hit me in the gut. By that point, in trying to plot my novel, I knew my main character was going to lose someone he cared about very much, someone who had been an anchor in his life, because of a choice he later regretted profoundly. I listened to this song many times, and that relationship fleshed itself out for me. I heard it not from my main character’s perspective, but from the perspective of his loved one, the one “left behind.” It was so real that I remember driving home from work one afternoon and sobbing as I listened to the track. I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love…

A lot of my first ideas changed as I wrote the book (and rewrote it, and rewrote it), but that particular relationship stayed. That song stayed in my head too, and was one of my anchors over the years of work. It reminded me why I had started working. That particular piece of the story was so clear and so moving to me; a driving force.

Which brings me back to the question of reviews, especially reviews from people who don’t know any of Stranger‘s history. When I started working, I imagined a book that would move other people as deeply as my image of it had moved me, something that might even change the way people thought and felt. I imagined reviews that would have words like “searing” and “breathtaking.”

It turned out that my style tends more toward the “quiet” and “gentle,” something I couldn’t change even though I tried. But when my first NetGalley review did come in last week, and my publisher sent it along to me even though I was afraid to see it, I learned that wasn’t necessarily a problem.

Reviewer Sara Marsden gave Stranger five out of five stars. When I read the first line of her response, my jaw dropped. An incredibly moving and beautiful piece of literature. A couple of lines further down: A lyrical masterpiece that punches you right in the gut. And finally, I look forward to future work from Faatz.

The book didn’t turn out the way I’d initially expected, or necessarily hoped, but this was the kind of review I imagined ten years ago. I don’t know how other people will feel about Stranger, if they’ll agree with Ms. Marsden or wonder what on earth she saw in my work, but her words give me a huge piece of encouragement. I did at least some of what I set out to do.

If you’ve never listened to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, give it a try. It’s an incredible album. Meanwhile, this is the video of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that first inspired me.

If you’d like to pre-order the print version of Stranger, and also help support the Human Rights Campaign, please visit the 10 x 10 x 10 Society page. As always, thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time.

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