We all have our lists of writers we love, those writers that not everyone in the world knows about but should. Sometimes we keep these writers close to us and don’t tell anyone, because we want that special bond that we have (or, probably, imagine we have) between ourselves and the author and we don’t want to spoil it by telling everyone else about them. But the hell with all that. A great, talented writer deserves to be known to everyone, which is one reason why you should read the work of David Barringer.
David’s latest book is the novel American Home Life, which is described as a “comic novel about contemporary suburban fatherhood,” but it’s so much more, and it’s amazing. But his work goes
beyond novels. He also…well, all that will come out in the interview below. This entire week of PBJ entries will be an interview with David. He has a lot to say, and if you’re a writer or designer or do anything creative, you’re especially going to want to pay attention.
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
I’m a writer and designer, father of two, moved to North Carolina from Michigan three years ago. I can afford to be a self-employed writer and a full-time dad because my wife is a family doctor. I went to law school, but I never practiced; I just wanted the debt. I’ve written a novel about a family, a novel about a rooster, a few fiction collections, and a book of graphic-design criticism. I design books and magazines, like Opium Magazine, a literary journal, and I also have a few special projects I do now and then, like The Dead Bug Funeral Kit, which includes a book of eulogies written from kids to their deceased pets.
This is interesting to me, because it seems like you’ve made a career for yourself as a writer in a very healthy way. You have a “real” job, you have a family, you have kids, you have a life, and it doesn’t seem like you get caught up in the whole publishing game. You write what you want
and publish through small presses and your own company, and you don’t have an agent, but you’re still successful. That seems really healthy to me.
Yes, for a writer, a healthy life is terrible luck. All happy families are alike, as Tolstoy wrote, in that a writer can’t exploit them in print. The one thing that is worth emphasizing, though, is that I often was my own worst enemy in getting to this point. It took a while for me to surrender and say, “I’m a writer. Get writing.” In fact, it took law school. I finished law school five figures in debt and thought, “I’m a writer. Shit.” It’s hard to make a living as a writer because there is no track, no professional school that can spit you out into a cubicle and a retirement package. Writers stumble and stagger through their careers. I certainly have. I’ve never worked in a cubicle, never shown up at an office, never taught or gotten an MFA, but I’ve also never had perks, never had benefits, never had security. I just have the work. So what’s been healthy is that I’ve been able to marry someone who has a career that fits perfectly with my half of our working life, and together we’re able to be there for our kids and pay the mortgage. That’s a big deal, and in my writerly funks, I often need to smack myself in the head and say, “Appreciate this, you moron.”
The rest of the story is that I’ve worked outside the mainstream publishing world, even as I’ve written within the mainstream magazine world. I’ve learned a great deal about book design, printing, publishing, sales, and marketing by doing it this way, and the main thing I’ve learned is that I would love for someone else to worry about all of that crap. But of course today even the big publishers expect authors to exert all sorts of effort on sales and marketing in a way they never had to do before. So, again, I smack myself in the head and appreciate the power and control I am able to have over the final product, the book, and its dissemination. It’s really a pure and personal exercise of creative imagination, and I can say for most of my books, “I did that,” and mean it truly. I did it. All of it. The writing, the editing, the proofreading, the cover design, the typesetting, all of it. For better
or worse. The book stops here.
How do agents fit in with all of this, in your career? Is an agent necessary? Desired?
I have only two experiences. First, I sent the manuscript of my first novel out to tons of agents, and nada. Only one was interested (Donald Maass), and he did give me a great piece of advice, which I took (I cut my manuscript in half in one night). But he also asked how many short stories I’d published. The answer was none, mainly because I was already freelancing for national magazines, short stories paid diddly, and everyone kept telling me to write a novel and not fool around with short stories. The thing was, traditionally the publication of a short story in a major lit magazine like The New Yorker or Harper’s or The Atlantic went a long way in getting your name around (or so goes the theory); publishers really just wanted to know if you’d built a readership. So, I started writing stories. Hundreds of them. Published in journals and, mostly, ezines, which were just blossoming at that time, around 2000. And, of course, having published tons of short stories, I discovered that editors and agents would then ask, “Yes, but do you have a novel?” What they really meant, I think today, was: “Do you have a novel similar to the latest best-selling trend, whether it’s Grisham, Harry Potter, chick lit, or confessional memoir, something that will sell itself without us having to do much in the way of creative marketing for it?”
In other words, publishing a short story in a major lit magazine is a proxy for whether you have a readership. And writing a derivative novel is another proxy for whether a readership is going to buy that book. Both of these proxies are talismans against the financial risk of publishing any book. Publishers understand these proxies, even if they still don’t understand what readers are ultimately going to buy.
Second, for my second novel, I did indeed send it to another agent (Lilly Ghahrameni). She spent my $200 on photocopied manuscripts Fed-Exed to a variety of major publishers. No avail. She even sent me some of their responses, but I’ve never read them. I already knew what they would say (mainly about structure). Anyway, that’s it. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I think, basically, it’s a damn tough business, and no one really knows what they’re doing, business-wise. People in publishing obviously love books and they love writing, but they have no idea what sells. They are as shocked as anyone by the Harry Potter phenom and by the Da Vinci Code’s flash in the pan and by Oprah’s power. They never saw any of that coming. And, frankly, with the rise of Amazon and Barnes & Noble et al, the reactionary waves are still being felt by the industry, rolling through publishers (who have to deal with fewer but more powerful book buyers) and agents (whom editors pressure to do more to pre-market a book) and on to authors (whom agents pressure to do more to pre-market a book). A great deal of the work of thinking about marketing has been pushed all the way back onto the author, and everyone in the industry still just rides the coattails of the latest unpredictable best-seller.
So, refusing to be cynical, I quickly moved on to small presses and micropresses and people who are working hard to learn the business and get their work done. I treat writing in two ways: first, it’s a passion and an art, something that creates my personality even as I create it; second, it’s a job, a craft, and so I work at it, hammer and chisel, and keep moving. It’s both avocation and vocation, and I never mistake the limelight for the desk lamp.