Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Dog Who Saved Shadows

(Continued from "Who Cares About Your Book, Chicano?" the previous entry)

My novel and the shadows took him was about to die. No one was reading it. No one cared about it.

There was no author to promote it, to read from it, to tell people about it.

He was in Argentina talking to angels.

One night, I was walking along Avenida Santa Fe, one of the busiest streets in the city, people walking at all hours of night, a cafe at ever corner, when something flashed in my eye, some kind of sharp light.

I was crossing an intersection, and I looked away from the light and into the eyes of people crossing in the opposite direction.

I kept looking into people’s eyes as I stepped onto the sidewalk.
I looked into as many eyes as I could, people sitting in sidewalk cafes, people walking opposite me, people sitting on the ground begging, people looking into shop windows.

Suddenly I saw lights bursting out of their heads.

This is hard to describe, but I saw it.

Lights came from people’s heads and reached all the way to up into the sky. I looked up and saw the yellow glow that covers the city at night.

I could see light pouring from everybody's head, and sometimes, the light was strong, like on children pulling carts full of cardboard and some old ladies begging in front of the church steps, light shooting up from their heads like they were standing under the beam of a transporter. On other people the lights were more dull, as if the person from who it shot was barely alive, or maybe, people who had so much darkness within them that the light barely filtered through their heads and shot up to the heavens.

I knew I was seeing something beyond the veil, like the energy of God shooting in and out of all people, or maybe I was seeing some version of human auras. But I knew something was about to change in the way I see reality.

Nothing else happened that night, and unfortunately I would never see those lights again, not with the same intensity, because the next day I got an email from Elaine, the lady who was watching my dog during my year off.

Felix was in trouble, she wrote. He missed me so much that no fence or dog kennel could keep him in.

He destroyed everything and escaped, running across the city, across busy boulevards and big parking lots, until he found a spot that smelled familiar to him, the parks we used to walk in, the stores we used to shop at, the porch of the house where we used to live.

One time a friend of hers, who had had only seen Felix once, saw him standing outside of Walgreens, waiting at the door.

“Felix?” she asked, approaching the dog, who kept looking at the door of the store and all the people coming in and out.

She looked at his collar and saw that it was indeed Felix.

She called Elaine and told her where he was, and Elaine came and got him.

It was the Walgreen’s where we used to walk together, and I would tell Felix to stay, and I would go inside and get what I needed, while he waited by the door, certain his daddy was coming back.

“He misses you so much,” Elaine wrote.

She tired keeping him indoors, but he tried to get out and go look for me, and he destroyed her blinds, her door, and the alarm system by the door.

This had been going on for months, and bless her generous soul, she didn’t say anything to me, because she didn’t want to take my year abroad away from me. But now, Elaine was very ill and had to go to the hospital.

Another friend picked Felix up from Elaine’s, but when he started destroying her house too, trying to get out, she said she was sorry, but I had to come and get him.
Either I had to send Felix to a kennel, where he probably would have died of fear, or I had to give up my year in Buenos Aires.

I went home.

Felix was so excited to see me he jumped up and down and got on his back and cried for half an hour. We both cried.

Before I had left for Buenos Aires, I had sold my car, my furniture, and I had rented out my house. I had nowhere to go.

I took some money from the bank, a good chunk of what I had planned on living off of, and I bought a used Saturn.

Felix and I jumped in and drove across the country, to California, where we spent the next four months couch surfing. It was the happiest time of his life. We were together 24/7. We were on the road most of the time, stopping to run on beaches or on the banks of rivers or through city parks we had never seen before.
When I slept on someone’s couch, he slept right there on the floor next to me, occasionally touching my hand with his cold nose, just to make sure I was still there.

It wasn’t what I had planned to do for my year away from teaching, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me, to us, not only for the great time I spent on the couches of family and friends, to feel all their love, to get to know them better, but it kept my novel alive.

I had spent a lot of my money on the car, on gas, on food, so I needed to find a way to make some money.

That was when I set up readings for shadows. I visited several colleges and universities, and even some high school students, I did signings, I spoke with students about being a writer, and I did signings at bookstores. At one event, a Young Writer’s Conference in Fresno, I read to about a thousand people. I read from and the shadows took him. At the readings, people bought the book, a bunch of people, and some professors at those readings started using it in their classes. It went from one million on Amazon when I was in Buenos Aires to under a hundred thousand when I was home in California.

I know, that doesn't sound like much, almost a hundred thousand books selling at that time better than mine, but I didn't become a bestseller, I became a midlist writer.

A month later it came out in paperback.

I hate to say, Felix died this summer, a few years after our time in California.

It was very hard on us. He was a family member.

It’s funny to think that if he hadn’t been around, shadows wouldn’t be around.

It’s still used in a lot of Latino/a literature classes, thanks to my hooshker dooshker doo.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who Cares About Your New Book, Chicano?

There are over 170,000 books published each year in the United States.

That's about 465 books published each day.

Or 14, 166 books a month.

Or 19 books every hour.

That's a lot of books.

And these numbers do not include self-published books or vanity presses, which can be made available by the writers on, but books published by presses, companies that come out with books by authors.

Some of my students and ex-students, frustrated with the difficulty of getting published, have done it themselves, posted it on Amazon, got their friends to write reviews, as if to say Screw you! to the publishing companies. I just want a book.

The fact is, most people don't know the difference between presses, a book is a book, and if a mother can brag to her friends that her son or daughter wrote a book that's published and everything, why would it matter who published the book?

How much do self published books add to the 170,000 published each year, I don't know. I just know there's a lot of books.

And very few of them will ever make it on the shelves of bookstores.

I have three books out, four if you count the selected works I co-edited of Jose Antonio Burciaga's work.

Whenever I walk into a bookstore, I can't help it, I look for my books. I look for Chacon, but mostly I see Chabon or Chaon. Rarely do I see my own books, and when I do, I'm very happy. I take it up to the cashiers and tell them that I'm the author and can sign it if they'd like.

I do this because once signed, they cannot return it, they can add one of those stickers to it that says, "Signed by the author."

The fact is, it's hard to find my books in bookstores, and one of my books, my novel and the shadows took him, is published by one of the big New York companies.

When it came out, they sent me on a book tour, I flew first class for the first time, and I felt oh so important, like a real writer. Agents picked me up at the airports and drove me around the cities.

But in every city where I showed at a Barnes and Noble or Borders Books there were about three, sometimes four people who showed up for my reading and signing.

At one Borders bookstore in San Diego, nobody showed up.
Not a soul.

They had a stack of my books, a table for me to sit and sign, and they even gave me a bottle of Evian water, but I sat there alone, watching people walk by.

I ended up walking around the store with copies of my book and introduced myself to disinterested shoppers. They would hold the book and and say, Nice. Then they handed it back to me, smiled apologetically and walked away.

That's the reality of being a ....(gulp!. I'll admit it) a midlist writer.

What is a midlist writer?

Well, we're not bestsellers. Out of the 170,000 books published each year in this country, about 20 of them are read by everybody. Midlist books are not among that 20.

We midlisters write what might be called literature, and we are often published by independent or university presses, although I know many midlist writers who have New York trade presses that hope publishing them will someday pay off.

the reality of publishing in today's gluted market is a writer must go out and promote his or her book.

Unending Rooms, a collection of stories, is my new book.

It came out in November 2008, which was during a busy semester. Like many writers, I make my living teaching other writers in a university MFA program.

I didn't have time to go out and promote Unending Rooms, but this semester I'm doing a book tour.

(New Post 2-18-09)

First let me tell you a little about the new book, Unending Rooms.

But first, I need to back up.

When my first novel and the shadows took him came out, I made a big mistake.

I was naive about being a writer in a country where over 170,000 books are published each year, over 10,000 of them being books of fiction, where every hour a new book of fiction is published.

I made a stupid mistake.

See, I had a big New York company on my side, they sent me on a tour, they sent over three hundred review copies of the book to newspapers and magazines throughout the country, so maybe I thought I had arrived as a writer. After the reviews came out, after the tour, after the visits to colleges campuses where I would be introduced by a literature professor with patches on his sports coat elbows, I would be able to walk into any book store in the country and there it would be, Chabon, Chacon, Chaon.

Like a rhythm, Chabon, Chacon, Chaon.

Book tour fantasies took over, and I saw images like in the movies, or like that Sienfeld episode where Elaine's ex comes out with a book and sits in some busy Manhattan bookstore, hundreds of people in line waiting for him to sign their copy.

But that didn't happen.

At my first reading of the tour in San Antonio, two Chicano guys were the only ones in the audience, and they just happened to be there. When they saw another Chicano guy, and that he had a book, they said, Orale! and they stayed and listened to me read. Neither of them bought a copy.

You know how many reviews it got?


The El Paso Times (the city in which I live) and the San Antonio newspaper.

My readings were announced in the LA times, the New York Post, and some major magazines, but that was it, a few sentences with just the information.

And I was about to make one of my biggest blunders.

And if you have a book, don't make this mistake.

And if you already have a book or books, I'm sure your were smart enough not to make this mistake.

My mistake:

I took a year off from the university, without pay.

That doesn't sound so bad, and it wouldn't have been, had I used that year to promote the book.

But I fled to Buenos Aires, a place so far away, so much another part of the planet that water swirls the opposite way down the drain.

It was a great city.

I decided to spend a year there, just writing, reading, and enjoying the city.

I loved it.

I walked.

I rented an apartment in Palermo,

on Borges Street,

just a few blocks from his childhood home.

I ate empanadas and drank malbec.

I ate lunch at outdoor cafes near a plaza and watched the tango dancers perform for tips.

I worked every day on my new novel, waking up each morning and working so many hours that I not only lost track of time, but I often lost track of space. I didn't always know which landscape I was really in. I wasn't always sure if I was hungry or if my character was hungry, so I wasn't always sure if it was me getting on my coat and heading out of the building to the streets or if I was writing my character getting on his coat and heading out of the building to the streets.

And I read. I read Poe, Paul Auster, and Toni Morrison. I read Cortazar, Sabato, Neruda, Verlaine,Ruben Dario, and Baudelaire. And I read Borges, Borges after Borges,

poetry, fiction, non-fictions, and so many interviews, books and books of interviews with Borges, so much so that I could hear his voice sometimes when I thought of something, as if he were giving his opinion on my thoughts. And I read the books Borges led me to, fiction by Stevenson and Chesterson, three volumes of Swedenborg, Thomas Merton, and I started to read Kabbalah.

And at night, or on days when I only wrote for a few hours, I went out into the city and walked. Some days I walked for eight hours, sin rumbo, just walked, and I met people and talked. Sometimes I ended up at open mic readings or independent theaters, where the young actors had piercings and smelled like patouchi oil.

I lived a few blocks from the Botanical Gardens and the Zoologico, the same one where Borges became entranced with a tiger and the same zoo visited by Cortazar, where I imagined that he imagined for the first time the story that would become "Axolotl." From my apartment I could sometimes hear the elephants crying. It was there that I become entranced by the Elephant and realized how strongly I identified with that animal, that inside of me there was an elephant. I would stare at him for hours and imagined that he was staring back at me.

It was an amazing time for me.

But it was a disaster for the book.

Back home, with nobody around to promote shadows, nobody bought it.

I don't think it ever ranked less than one million on Amazon.

Do you know what this means?

When you go to you can see how a book is selling vis-a-vis other books.

Currently I'm reading Roberto Bolanos, 2006, which I love so much I'm thinking of using in a graduate class next semester.

Out of curiosity, I checked 2666 on Amazon and it was ranked 350 in book sales.

That means there are only 350 books in print (and there must be millions of books in print) that are selling better on Amazon than Bolano's book.

When I was walking the streets of Buenos Aires, I would sometimes step into an internet cafe and check my email, and sometimes I would see how my new novel was doing.

I expected it would at least be less than 10,000, maybe even less than a thousand, but it was always over one million.

That meant that over one million books were selling better than my new novel.

No one was reading it.

The book tour, the announcements in newspapers and magazines, the two reviews it got, were not enough to sell the book.

and the shadows took him was failing.

But then something happened, something out of nowhere that may have saved the life of my novel, which today, in paperback, is still in print.

(more later)