Monday, October 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Matthew Quick, on First Novels, Readings, and Those Questions Readers Ask

As is so often the case, I first "met" today's guest blogger Matthew Quick on the page, through an essay of his in The Sun, nearly two years ago. Then we both wound up with nonfiction work in the same issue of the literary journal Quay and discovered we were both writing and living in New Jersey – he closer to Philadelphia, me nearer to Manhattan. Later, I interviewed Matthew, who has an MFA from Goddard, for an article on Mediabistro. Then one morning at breakfast not long ago, I found him – or rather his terrific first novel, The Silver Linings Playbook (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) -- in the coveted Newly Released column in the weekday arts section of the New York Times, and heard it touted on NPR. I had to find out on my own, since Matthew doesn't mention it, that the film rights to his book have been optioned by The Weinstein Company. While I understand his pragmatic "anything can happen" reason for not shouting this last news from the rafters, I, on the other hand can whoop all I want for him.

Please welcome Matthew Quick.

Last month, I embarked on what I will loosely refer to as my debut ‘book tour’—a few readings, signings, and interviews in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

I was excited, hopeful, thrilled.

Four years before, I had left a tenured teaching position and sold my house to pursue fiction writing seriously. In that period I wrote three unpublished novels. My fourth, The Silver Linings Playbook, weathered more than 70 rejections from literary agents, and, once Doug Stewart began to represent me, the book endured many courtships with US publishing houses that were initially interested but ultimately passed. We actually sold rights in Europe before the US.

And then, suddenly, somehow, I was finally a published novelist with positive reviews, ready to greet my fans. One of my first appearances was during the opening of an architecture museum of sorts that has a bookstore attached. Feeling proud, sitting behind a big desk, pen in hand, with stacks of my novel prominently displayed throughout this hip new venue, I was approached by a man in a suit.

“Is this book about architecture?” he asked me.

“No, sir.”

“What’s it about?”

I gave him my one-minute pitch

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I’m signing books.”

“Were you asked to come?”


“Why? Your book has nothing to do with architecture.”

“But it’s set locally. And it did get nice write ups in
The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and in People too.”

He examined the cover of my book more closely. “May I read the first chapter?”

“Sure, please do,” I said, and then for the next five minutes I anxiously watched this potential reader sample my words.

When he finished, he snapped my book shut, placed it back on the table, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Nope,” popping the ‘p’ triumphantly. Then he walked away.

There was no one behind him, and so for a few moments, I just sat there, sort of stunned.

Now, I fully realized that not everyone would like my book, that some people would fall outside of my target audience, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for a face-to-face p-popping ‘Nope.’

Shortly afterward, a woman in a cocktail dress walked up to me and said, “There’s a football helmet on your cover. I’m a woman. I don’t like football. Why should I read your book?”

There was no smile on her face. She was demanding to know why I expected her to crack open my book—which, if you really think about it, is a perfectly legitimate question.

For a good five minutes I smiled at this potential reader, told her that my editor is a woman who does not particularly like football, nor does my agent,
Doug Stewart, and they both love the book. Plus, we were getting a really good response from women readers so far. I talked about how my novel really isn’t a football book at all, but a quirky love story, a book about family, hope, new beginnings, and finding promise in unlikely situations. By the end of my pitch, I had her smiling, but she moved on without buying my book, and I began to feel slightly exhausted, crestfallen, even though I would go on to sell a few copies that night.

Recently, I did a corporately sponsored event. It was the grand opening of a bank branch. There was a string quartet, free food and booze, and the sponsor had purchased 100 copies of my novel. Anyone who attended could have a signed copy—for FREE.

The sponsor had made beautiful posters of my novel’s jacket, and I had all of my positive reviews framed on the signing table. I thought surely I’d have all the free copies signed and moved in under an hour.

But early in the evening a man walked up to me and asked, “So why should I read your book?” Again, this was posed as a challenge—there was a confrontational edge to his question, as if he were insulted by the bank’s offering of a free novel.

In my mind I was thinking, These are FREE tonight. All you have to do is say your name and I sign your book and then you take it home. But it quickly dawned on me that this man wanted to know why he should carry my book around for the rest of the night, why he should even bother to lift it off the table. And so I gave him my pitch, smiling unceasingly, and he ended up shaking my hand and taking a signed copy home.

I would go on to sign many books and have dozens of genuinely pleasant conversations that night, but a long line never formed and, at times, I had to lure people away from the free drinks and food long enough to convince them to take a free copy of my novel.

Why should anyone read my book?

When I was writing The Silver Linings Playbook, like most writers, I was trying to craft a good story that would move people, something I thought readers would generally like, but I never really thought objectively—from a purely market-driven point of view—about why many people should bother to reach specifically for my book, especially considering that there are so many other equally entertaining, well-written books they could read. When you publish, you are absolutely asking people to choose your book—to pluck it off the shelf, pay money for it, and then devote hours to reading your words. It’s an incredible request. Going through the publishing process has really changed the way I now think about this reality.

I have always loved to read fiction. I taught my students that reading fiction makes you a more humane person. I respect anyone who takes the time to arrange words carefully and is brave enough to share stories with the rest of the world. And so the ‘sell-it-to-me’ attitude of many potential readers I met on ‘book tour’ was slightly disheartening, but extremely illuminating. And because I want people to read my books, because I love writing fiction and want to keep doing what I am doing full-time, I am adapting my pitch, becoming a better salesman, learning every day.

Note from Lisa: Read an excerpt of the novel
here. Though he's officially "on hiatus," Matthew will still answer occasional writing and publishing questions on his blog.


Unknown said...

Q, you're the man.

Michelle O'Neil said...

Wow. Great essay. People are really that obnoxious?