Saturday, July 03, 2010


Ever sit at a table where little kids are coloring pictures and one of them will put his arm out like a fence (it’s usually a him) to protect his paper from prying eyes, because now he’s got a brilliant idea and is afraid someone might steal it or criticize it? That’s me writing a query. Nothing could be sillier, since the point of a query is to attract attention and even to get as much feedback as possible in order to improve it. But there’s something in querying a publisher that hints at a privileged, almost confessional, relationship. Maybe prayerful. Begging.

If all the queries I send out come back with acceptances (like if the economy ever improves!) I will be sunk because there are not enough hours in the day to get ‘er done. Let me tell you about two of them. One is for “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs,” where the problem is that it’s so innovative and outside what people expect that it’s hard to explain. This is the one written (and filmed) with Tim and he’s tried his own contacts, too, but it’s outside their experience as well. Or so they think.

It’s just a straightforward chronological conversation between the two of us over a period of a year, beginning when the older group of Cinemateque boys goes to Amsterdam, leaving the younger kids in what they think is safe Umbria, and ending after the Italian earthquakes force everyone to reunite in Paris. It’s about facing death, really -- that dark netherworld -- and yearning for the return of the beloved, so intense among those fighting HIV AIDS. But the crux of it is the dog, Navajo, dying of old age despite all efforts. Most of us know how dark a day that can be.

Online Tim has been posting quotes from the text and vids that are related. I’ve posted a few examples of how the text can have vids embedded in it. The publishers and agents scream and slam the door, even when it’s me who’s mailing it to them without even mentioning Barrus. It’s edgy -- which is supposed to be a plus -- it’s perfect for the iPad, Tim has built a “platform” of Asian boys that number in the thousands, and even my stodgy old-lady former-teacher friends are intrigued. This means nothing to editors and publishers. But we’re learning a lot and we’re getting a little more “out there” all the time. Now we’re beginning to see that the thing to do is to smash the box called “publishing” and just call it something else. Entrepreneurship or something. Rock n’ Roll promotion. “Capitalized narrative.”

The second book for which I’m querying is one I’ve had under my wing for a long time. It’s called “Circuit-Riding” and is about the three years I spent living in a van and serving the Unitarian Universalist fellowships in Missoula, Bozeman, Helena and Great Falls. (1982- 1985, all in Montana.) I was over forty, it was great fun, it damaged my health, there were no breakthroughs or miracles, and I was too tired to go on even if we hadn’t used up all the money the Universalists had carefully hidden from the Unitarians when the two denominations merged. (Russ Lockwood and Emil Gustafson knew where it was and thought this was the right use for it.) So I want to explore the differences among the groups that came from their ecologies and histories, a study of small domestic congregations.

At the same time I want to consider the great theological quandaries of human beings everywhere in all times: “Why do bad things happen? Where do I fit into all this and where are the others like me? What must I do to be safe? What is this ecstatic agony called life?” At night, after undressing by flashlight, I’d lie there in my little tin space-capsule parked somewhere under the wheeling sidereal skies of Montana and review my seminary education. At the end of the book I’ll sneak over to the rez and pull in a little Blackfeet grassroots stuff.

You may not recognize how dangerous this second manuscript might be. More explosive than the conversations between Tim and I. More controversial than sexuality, even that of teenaged boys. In fact, even Tim might be dubious about my theology. Even twenty-five years later, there will be sore spots and secrets to protect. There was the Great Fig Newton Confrontation that became a classroom research paper. There was the woman who while I was at a meeting helpfully emptied my suitcase, washed and ironed my clothes, perused my notebooks (with counseling notes on individuals) and reorganized everything. There was the night I had a cold so bad that I couldn’t breathe and left my parking space at 2AM to drive the hundred miles home to Helena in the long underwear I used for pajamas, so that when my hosts came out to wake me for breakfast, there was only a spot of leaked oil. The real scandal was that ministry was forever changed for me and I left it because it never again lived up to those three years of circuit-riding. There’s another scandal in the contraction of the mainline American denominations, not quite as bad as the collapse of publishing.

So how do I find a publisher for a religious book that is not Christian and isn't even optimistic? How do Tim and I find a publisher for a book about boys who die? Neither book has a precedent, both books have too much back story for a simple query, and neither book fits into any pigeonhole a publisher or agent might imagine.

Tim and I are too various. Tim wrote a ton of local free-lance stuff under pseudonyms, edited and wrote for scandalous porno mags, published three porno love-stories that would be called mere erotica these days (not enough violence), and then the three “scandalous” but highly praised Nasdijj books. I compose Blackfeet history references, tons of material on animal control, a book of prairie sermons, and two newspaper columns, one on the local reservation and one theatre reviews in Portland -- plus the biography of Bob Scriver, Western sculptor. In both cases there’s too much, it’s all too specialized, and too sophisticated even for the Wellesley grads who are rumored to read queries -- though now I think they’ve been replaced by sneering young men with arched eyebrows. What could anyone in Manhattan make of such a hodgepodge?

BUT the huge self-sorting world of readers out there in e-World who will open six sites at once and flip among them, jumping from porn to grizzly bear research to Paris architectural history to the contradictions of Christian theology, might have no problem at all. It’s only a matter of attracting their attention. Where do I send the query? To the screen you’re looking at?

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I've been wondering about blogging as self-publishing. Who reads my stuff? Who follows? Who cares? How do you do it more formally than to just give it away for free? I don't mind giving some of it away for free, but I'd also like to make more of my living from my creativity (I mean in general, from music and art, too).

I think your circuit-riding book is the more dangerous and subversive of the two proposals. By far. It follows in the mystical Jewish tradition's definition of a prophet being one who speaks the truth—and often one who speaks the truths no one wants to hear. So such prophets get stones, exiled, driven out of their villages. As you know.

What's new and scary to many about Orpheus is style and format, not so much contents; not to diminish the contents, but this is a new WAY of presenting the contents, a genuinely multimedia way. Some of the resistance is probably very much about resistance to multisensory media presentation, not to the challenges of the stories involved. At least that's my sense of it.

I've been struggling with similar multimedia solutions, making small films that incorporate music, photography, and poetry all into one unified piece. Words appear on the screen overwriting the scene they're talking about, and on the soundtrack something connected to the words also is heard. Making the experience genuinely immersive. At least that's the idea. I feel like a caveman who's just picked up a lightning-struck tree-branch and brought it back to the cave, not yet quite knowing what to DO with it.

I presented one of these films at the Robinson Jeffers Association conference in California this past winter. And while it was well-received, no one really knows what to DO with it. It's only just recently that we've had the technology that allows us to publish videos as part of a book.

More food for thought.