The pub date for my new memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, is September 1st. So why am I in a state of high anxiety? It’s not as though I’m a first time author. I’ve been publishing books since 1980, and I’ve just turned seventy. Why do I feel as if I’m going on a first date, and a blind date at that? It’s because like Rip Van Winkle I’ve woken up to discover that there has been the equivalent of the American Revolution since 2002 when I published my last book, But Enough About Me. Facebook has become a way of life, Twitter spreads news all over the world, and closer to home, Shewrites.com has come into existence—the last of these thanks to the genius of founder Kamy Wicoff, author of the witty report on the current state of American weddings, I Do But I Don’t. (Full disclosure: Kamy and I have been real, not Facebook, friends since 2003, and we co-host a Salon for Women Writers in New York, inspired by our mutual friend and mentor, the late Diane Middlebrook).
I guess I feel as though I’m going on a date because I’m publishing my new book in the era of social media. I have to admit that I’m not ready. I’d even say that I’m on the high end of the social media phobia spectrum. I’m as afraid of tweeting as I am of driving (I have an excuse: I’m a New Yorker and I grew up in Manhattan without a car). I accepted Kamy’s invitation to write this blog precisely because I’m not ready. Because I know that I need help and advice, and that She Writes is a good place to look for both.
Here’s what has happened thus far. My book has been reviewed, if that’s the right word, for the informative if somewhat cool summaries in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. It has also been selected by an editor at Library Journal as a university press book worthy of attention. My publisher, University of Nebraska, has put my book on their website and excerpted a chapter, along with the reviews.
(In the roller-coaster of emotions all She Writers will recognize, I swing from abject terror that my book will be eviscerated to sublime fantasies of ecstatic praise.)
I’m also working with a graduate student at the New Media Lab at the CUNY Graduate Center where I teach. My assistant—Claire Fontaine—is creating a website for the book, which is almost done. (Check out www.whattheysaved.com for a sneak preview!) Once a week I sit at the computer with Claire and ponder format, font, color. We look at the websites of other writers for inspiration, and freely borrow from the most beautiful ones. (Margalit Fox, an amazing obituary reporter at the New York Times has one for her book, Talking Hands, that I especially admire.)
On another front, having to do with book promotion, I’ve had an awe-inspiring half-hour phone strategy session with genius publicist Lauren Cerand thanks to a She Writes discount. And thanks to Lauren I’ve progressed in composing my “elevator speech” (a new expression for me: why is so hard to say what one’s book is about??), and I’ve started doing my homework as assigned: reading all the blogs about Jewish books (like Jewcy, and Tablet.) My book is particularly suited, as the subtitle suggests, for Jewish readers). After all, if I hope that my book will get some recognition, I should educate myself about what the climate and conversation are in my field—or should I be saying, less academically, more vulgarly, niche market? At the same time, I hope for a wider readership of those interested in family memoir as a genre.
On the up and downsides of being "tagged" by identity or niche in memoir, check out the She Writes Radio show: Genre, Gender and Race: A Panel Discussion.
Put another way, I’ve started the countdown by being a good student, or at least by trying to be. But if I were giving myself a grade, the most I could hope for at this point is a B, and I’ve never liked getting B’s. What’s keeping me from an A, even an A-? Fear.
Fear of trying because behind that fear is the fear of having failed, even before the book is out. For instance, when I received the emails from my very capable publicist at Nebraska containing the first responses, my heart was pounding: what if the reviews were negative bashes? I had a very cruel Kirkus review in 1996 that I still remember, or think I do! The condemnation went something like this: “Miller has combined the worst of two genres—literary criticism and memoir.” That was my first foray into memoir writing and my first attempt at appealing to a trade audience (the famous general reader academics long to reach), Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death. Please don’t check to see if I’ve remembered correctly. Take my word, for it—this was not the kind of review anyone would like to receive.
At one month before publication I’d love to learn some strategies for how to proceed in two domains: how to make myself practice (as I used to practice the piano when I was a child, hoping for a gold star from my piano teacher) using the tools of social media? And how to—maybe? one day? —enjoy them? My friend the writer and filmmaker Ellen Cassedy, who is publishing a family memoir next year with Nebraska—We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, has told me that I should look on all the work entailed in promoting a book as part of writing the book, not as something different and added as an extra burden, and even as fun! I’d like to believe her.