Discover more from From My Island to Yours: Andromeda's Adventures in Authoring
Reverse shoplifting: a story about my forthcoming thriller, The Deepest Lake
Bad experiences can lead to good stories. Plus: Cover reveal!!!
It is spring 2019, and I’m in a small Guatemalan village on the shore of Lake Atitlan, trying to find a way to respectfully dispose of a beautiful table runner, created and sold by an Indigenous women’s art collective. I love the runner and its many shades of red, orange, and purple. I spent hours traveling to the village, chatting with the weavers in Spanish, attending a workshop about natural dyes, and haggling (but not too much!), and then making my selection.
But now I don’t want to bring it home. I can’t travel across the big lake again to return it to the collective, and how would I explain wanting to give back something so well-made, something so lovely? I don’t want to just leave it in my dark cabin like a piece of garbage.
So I walk around town, trying to find a local artisanal shop with items that look like the beautiful handicraft I already own.
I pass several sidewalk stands with blankets, wall hangings, and woven clothing items on display, but there are too many eyes on me. I don’t want to be seen. I don’t want to explain.
Finally, I spot a large, mostly open-air shop, tended by a man who is seated in the shadows, looking groggy, like he ate a big lunch and could fall asleep any moment. My heart is beating fast. I’m sure I look shifty. I am transported back to my younger self, the eleven-year-old who shoplifted mascara and eye shadow from K-Mart, alongside my sister, both of us resentful and pining for the things that other, better-off teens could afford.
On this day, I’m not shoplifting. I am—I realize it only now—reverse shoplifting. For some reason, it gives me the same queasy, confusing rush.
Finally, I spot my chance. The sleepy store owner isn’t watching. There is a horizontal pole just outside the shop, in the bright sun, and various textiles are hung there, with just enough space between them. I remove my table runner from my shoulder bag. I glance around. And there. I hang it on the pole, and I walk away fast.
I enjoy imagining what the owner will think when someone comes to buy it. How the heck did this get here? Or: Manna from heaven! I don’t recognize the pattern but it’s one more textile to sell.
Later that day, I tell my cabin roommate. I explain that I’d bought the runner as a visual representation of complicated stories and how they’re woven together, but days after the purchase, I’m no longer feeling optimistic about stories. Not mine, and not anyone else’s, either. I don’t want to carry that feeling home with me, and I’m so hyper-associational that I know every time I look at the runner, I’ll remember that loss of optimism. And worse things, too.
My roommate smiles and laughs at the reverse shoplifting escapade, but she doesn’t understand. Her interpretation of the last five or so days we’ve spent together, at a women’s writing retreat on the shores of Lake Atitlan, is different. But some of us have been talking. Some of us will keep talking.
I don’t know how much of this I’m allowed to tell you. What’s the difference between “inspired by” and “informed by”? When are authors allowed to call something a “roman à clef?” When did books and movies about things that really happened start using that “all persons fictitious” disclaimer?
Asking for a friend.
Not all of my experiences during my trip to that Guatemala writing workshop were bad.
I met new buddies. We spent hours upon hours laughing and listening, drilling down deeply into our stories, our projects, our lives. We got as excited about solving someone else’s story problems as we were about solving our own. The wine flowed and the food was abundant. The bonding was fast.
Well, that’s the “informed by” part.
But… on a daily basis, I witnessed incidents and behaviors that greatly concerned me.
(Incidents. Behaviors. That’s vague, unconvincing language. It’s vague for a reason.)
Let’s pull back now, into that larger world of creative writing workshops, which I have attended for over twenty years, in both university and private settings. Let me say that I have observed, even at workshops I enjoyed, led by writers I greatly admired, things that were definitely not okay.
Not pedagogically, not ethically, not psychologically, not in any way okay.
Especially when I liked the writer, especially when the writer seemed to like me, I tried to make excuses for him. (It was usually, though not always, a him.)
I accepted as a given that “good writer” does not equal “good teacher.” I made time to talk to the participants who cried after class or stopped attending—because there were plenty of both—the ones who were told their stories didn’t matter, their diseases were too common, their heartbreaks or travels or childhoods weren’t dramatic or interesting enough, their fiction wasn’t inventive enough, they weren’t good or smart enough, they’d never publish, they “just didn’t have it” or this person “was a bad mom” (yep) or that one was “a bad person” (yep), as their writing clearly showed.
After a while, I started seeing the patterns—patterns as tightly braided as the threads in that abandoned textile. Writers who have experienced trauma are vulnerable. Heck, nearly all writers are vulnerable. Power does things to people, and make no mistake, there is power within a workshop or any other intimate setting in which people share their secrets and their hopes. Most teachers and retreat leaders (and some gurus) have good intentions. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I kept attending workshops, despite unease about what I was seeing, because once in a while, you hit a great one, and it blows your mind open. Also, because the yearning for community is strong.
But my concern for what was happening to the women I met in Guatemala—to them and their stories, and how this paralleled what I’d seen in other settings over many years—recharged my batteries, in a sense. I felt stirred up. I knew I’d write something as a response, most likely an essay that might be published in some esoteric literary journal.
I never imagined I would write an entire novel.
I never imagined it would be a thriller!
If I’d known, would I have kept the table runner? Because its symbolism would have come full circle, from hope to disappointment and unease, back to hope again?
I’ll settle for this pretty book cover, instead.
A request. Actually, a bunch of requests!
One of the characters in my novel, the memoirist Eva Marshall, is savvy about book sales, and here’s what she told me:
Pre-orders are extremely important. They help send a signal to the publisher and can affect print orders and marketing campaigns. (They also help launch a book to bestsellerdom; but even if a book isn’t headed for the NYT list, pre-orders matter.) Buying a book early helps writers a lot. Pre-ordering a book from your local favorite indie bookstore helps, too!
Reviewing a book early helps. Did you know that if you post reviews frequently, you can sign up for free advance digital copies on NetGalley? The Deepest Lake is already listed. Request it! You can also post an early review on Goodreads or, when the book is published, on Amazon. Reviews do not have to be long, with tons of summary. Even a simple rating (# of stars) matters. Prior to reviewing, you can add a book to your “Want to Read” shelf. That’s another signal. Plus it helps publishers coordinate giveaways.
Rate and review! Add it to your Goodreads shelf!
Are you inclined to write a formal review or interview? Contact me and I’ll help put you in touch with my publicist.
I’ll be brainstorming pre-order campaigns. What would convince you to pre-order a book—mine or anyone else’s? Let me know!
I have one spot open this fall for full manuscript developmental editing. I am the author of five novels published in eleven languages as well as a dozen smaller nonfiction books. I’ve taught fiction in an MFA program and I love working one-on-one with writers. My services are selective; the coaching process begins with a review of a writing sample and an exchange of emails to see if we are a good fit for each other. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
The answer is 1932, after Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia successfully sued MGM for their movie depicting her rape by the Russian mystic Rasputin. The film began with a claim attesting, "This concerns the destruction of an empire … A few of the characters are still alive—the rest met death by violence." A judge in the case told MGM they should have used precisely the opposite claim, attesting the work was pure fiction. (Even though it…wasn’t?”) Studios took note. (I am not well-versed in law or Hollywood lore. I just went to Wikipedia.)