Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Delightful Digressions of Sheldon Goldfarb

Sheldon Goldfarb, author of Remember, Remember, is a wonderful and most interesting interviewee. Here he supplies information about many things literary, historical, mysterious, and Canadian.

Sheldon, someone recently suggested that Canadian mystery authors don’t get any good P.R. in the U.S. As a Canadian writer, do you find PR to be a problem?
Actually, my problem has been less with PR than with distribution. My publisher is in England, and it’s been tough to get my book distributed in North America even after I do the promotion. (Oh, and of course I’ve had to do my own promotion, which I’ve grown to like actually: panel discussions, conferences, book signings, but I don’t do them on anything like the scale of, say, Troy Cook, who was on a panel with me at the Bloody Words conference in Toronto, and who called every bookstore in town even though he was just visiting.)That said, though I’m somehow on a website called Famous Canadians or something like that, I haven’t really made myself known. I mean, I have to go up to people and say, “Psst, I’m famous.”

Your book, Remember, Remember, is considered a young adult mystery. Aside from having a fourteen-year-old protagonist, what else makes the book “young adult” in classification?
When I was asked to write a YA novel, something I’d never done before, the publisher who was asking me (though not the publisher who ended up publishing the book) said a Young Adult novel is just like an adult novel, “except no sex.” I tried to keep to that. I assure you there is no sex in Remember, Remember, though a couple of reviewers professed to find a hint of youthful romance, which alarmed me--but if people are going to Remember, Remember in order to get, um, excited, I think they’re going to the wrong place, unless they want to be excited by a protagonist in danger and trying to figure out a puzzling mystery.

But if you’d like me to be serious for a moment, I remember hesitating when writing the first chapter over using the word “reverie.” Ten-year-olds won’t know what that means, I thought, so I wrote “daydream” instead. But the next time this came up (my protagonist being the daydreaming type, this came up often), I wrote “reverie” and thought, Oh, to hell with it. (Oh, sorry, no profanity in a YA novel either.)

Actually I wanted to write something adults could enjoy too, and was pleased with the reviewer who said adults could profit from reading it. Being rather modest, I thought perhaps I had constructed something like Alice in Wonderland, which I read when I was 7 and then when I was at university and a couple of times since. I guess I’m thinking that since I have only one book out there, fans will have to content themselves with reading it several times. I do have a second book, by the way, and it’s strictly for adults (so it does have sex in it, and even a word or two of profanity). It’s not out yet, though; in fact, it’s looking for a publisher, but I hope to hear back from it soon.

I did realize that the key really was the age of the protagonist. My fourteen-year-old protagonist in Remember, Remember dealt with issues a fourteen-year-old might encounter. In the new novel (tentatively titled Decentred), the protagonist is 31 years old, and so she has adult concerns, interests, romances, etc. (And female ones too, since I decided to switch genders for this one, though I didn’t make her old enough to have to deal with menopause, the topic someone on DorothyL was looking for the other day.)

Your novel is set in the Victorian era. Is this a time that particularly fascinates you?
Well, I have a PhD in English and specialized in Victorian literature, especially in William Makepeace Thackeray, whose writings get a cameo role in Remember, Remember. So yes, I guess you could say the time fascinates me, and I certainly enjoyed reading up on it as background for the novel.

Your website informs me that you have four degrees and one cat. Are there days when you wish you had four cats and only one degree?
Four cats! No, no, no. One is enough, thank you. I don’t want to turn into a “cat - ” ... well, I was going to say “cat lady,” but though I can adopt a female identity in fiction, it would be harder in real life, and yet there’s really no such thing as a “cat gentleman,” is there? It must say something about Martian-Venusian differences. Women can become cat ladies; men just watch football. Or something like that. Sorry, what was the question again?

Tell us about the adult mystery set in Saskatchewan. And while you’re at it, tell us a little about Saskatchewan.
Oh, Saskatchewan. A fine place, though I’ve never lived there. I follow the school of Graham Greene in this. I can never write about someplace I’m currently living or even someplace I lived for long in. He was, of course, British, but his novels are set in Africa, Haiti, Vietnam, Cuba, everywhere but England--except for the one he wrote while serving in British intelligence in West Africa during World War II. (Which is one of those rule-proving exceptions.)

So I’ve visited Saskatoon, for instance, and found it a lovely town or small city. It’s the largest city in Saskatchewan, which is one of Canada’s 10 provinces. One of the ones in the West, but towards the middle, one of our prairie provinces, just north of Minnesota, I think, or something like that, with similar weather. If you think cold when you think Canada, well, then Saskatchewan may be what you have in mind. Not Vancouver, where I currently live, which has weather much like Seattle’s, all wet and limp. (I prefer cold and snow, or think I do when I’m not in the middle of it.)

As to the adult mystery set there, well, it features an expatriate American university prof from California who really does find it cold in Saskatchewan (by the way, I never name province or city in the novel because I wanted to take a few liberties with geography and the like, so it’s an imaginary city and province which just happen to be located more or less where the real city and province are, but of course if I’ve gotten anything wrong, well, I wasn’t writing about those places).

Anyway, there’s Rachel, a 31-year-old English prof in her first year teaching at this Canadian university on the frozen prairie and feeling a little homesick and some culture shock, because Canada may seem just like America, but you know, really it isn’t. And there are even these currents of anti-Americanism around which my American friends find a bit disconcerting.

Anyway, here’s Rachel up in Canada feeling a little lost, and she goes to the local synagogue of all things, which is strange for her because though she’s Jewish she’s never been religious. But somehow she gets caught up in local synagogue politics and then--why, then there’s a murder. (You can hardly have a murder mystery without one.) And somehow from rabbis and synagogues she ends up mixed up with Hare Krishna types. So there you have it: rabbis, university profs, and Hare Krishnas on the Canadian prairie. I hope no one’s done it before.

I think you have a good chance of being unique.

In your YA book there is a murder on Guy Fawkes night. I have a vague sense that this somehow involves fireworks and someone’s treason. Or something like that. Remind us who Guy Fawkes is, and why he has a night.
Guy Fawkes, naughty man, tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605, though some people say it was a put up job and he was just the ultimate fall “guy.” In any event, Guy Fawkes Day became a national holiday in England, which is a bit odd, but it’s a celebration of the foiling of a terrorist attack, so I suppose it makes sense. Perhaps I should market the book that way, playing up the terrorist angle. Hmm.

Anyway, my book’s not really about the 1605 terrorist plot; it’s about a murder that happens on Guy Fawkes Night in 1872 during the fireworks that are set off every year to mark the occasion. They also burn effigies of “guys” and ask for money (little kids do, I mean; they say, “Penny for the guy?” and you’re supposed to give them one, a penny, I mean; they’re usually sitting there with an effigy of Guy).
By the way, if you’re wondering why Americans don’t get to celebrate this holiday, you can blame George Washington. Really. I’m not making this up. During your War of Independence, Washington was concerned about the anti-Catholic associations of the Guy Fawkes celebration.

Perhaps I should explain that Guy Fawkes and his group were disaffected Catholics who were upset by the increasingly Protestant direction England was taking; that’s why they wanted to blow up Parliament. Luckily, we live in a more civilized era in which religion never gets mixed up with terrorism.)

Anyway, Washington was hoping to win supporters for the American Revolutionary cause among French Catholics in Quebec, so he ordered the anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes celebrations stopped, and that’s why there isn’t any Guy Fawkes Day in North America. You have to make do with Halloween (so do we; we don’t have Guy Fawkes in Canada either). It’s on November 5th, by the way. Hence the rhyme for the day which goes, “Remember, remember the Fifth of November.” And that is where I got the title of my novel.

I fear this answer has gone on much too long.

No! Your “by the ways” are the most interesting parts.

You are a member of the Crime Writers of Canada. Is this the Canadian Equivalent of the MWA?

Well, to answer this question properly I would have to know more about the MWA. But the Crime Writers of Canada is an organization of Canadian writers of mystery fiction, other crime fiction, and even crime non-fiction. And membership is also open to non-writers (i.e., fans). The CWC sponsors the annual Arthur Ellis awards for best Canadian mystery novel, best first novel, best juvenile novel, etc. Modesty forbids me to mention that Remember, Remember was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis juvenile award for 2005--but I didn’t win (sob).

You have two graduate degrees in English. Was one not enough?

Wow, a lot of questions. I should have paced myself. Let’s see. Well, the sensible answer would be that the whole idea was to get a PhD so I could become an English prof (like Rachel in Decentred--which I suppose will have to be titled Decentered in the US, which I don’t mind: there was a discussion on DorothyL on the destruction of regionalisms in translating books into American, which I mostly agree with, but I don’t mind about spelling).

Anyway, where was I? You really should try cutting me off when I’m digressing like this. So the MA in English was just a waystation on the way to the PhD. But also I loved being a student, so would have done more degrees if I could. Well, in fact I did do more degrees. I did an archival studies degree after the PhD, but it was boring. I do continue to take various night courses just for fun.
(Oh, by the way, despite all the degrees, I never did become an English prof, though I did teach on a contract in temporary positions for a few years. That degree in archival studies, though boring, got me a job as an archivist/researcher, which I still have, and which pays the rent, since my income from Remember, Remember is in, let’s see, the low-minus figures.)

What sorts of things have you done to promote your book?

I managed to anticipate this question further up. I phoned up the local library and got them to let me give a reading. I took part in panel discussions, went to the crime writers’ conference, sent out book review copies. I even saw your call for interviewees and answered it. Absolutely shameless, I know.

Well, if my blog helps your career, we’ll both have a nice surprise.

When can readers expect your adult mystery, Decentered?

Okay, I see you’re calling it Decentered rather than Decentred. Probably the publisher will say I have to find a new title altogether. “Decentred?” he’ll say. “What does that mean?” Or if he’s American, “Decentered? What does that mean?” And he’ll be chewing on a cigar. (Cigars are banned in Canada, unless you’re Wayne Gretzky.)

Decentred is a term from post-modernist literary theory (the sort of thing Rachel my protagonist studies) and is often used in the phrase “decentred self,” meaning that, in the view of post-modernists, the self today has lost its central position and is more the passive reflection of various forces in society or of language than the active basis of personality.

Or it can just mean disoriented, off-centre, disconnected and not feeling centred (or even centered). Which is how Rachel feels at the beginning of the novel (part of the story is how she finds a centre, focus, or meaning in her life while at the same time solving the murder).

But I see the question was about when you can expect to see the novel. If it was up to me, tomorrow. But first I expect I need to find a publisher. If anyone has any ideas, let me know. The manuscript is out at one publisher now and also with an agent, but I am as they say waiting to hear.

Like almost everyone I’ve interviewed, you have a pet. Tell us about your animal companion.
Shadow, a six-year-old black and brown tabby, is an avid typist, actually. She’s often up on the keyboard. So I’ll let her say a few words herself:

w phgodxnbe[ y0gu

Okay, that’s enough, Shadow.

And I think that’s enough from me too.

(This is a re-print of a 2006 interview with Sheldon).


Sandra Ruttan said...

Interesting you mention distribution, Sheldon. I was lucky enough to have someone explain distribution to me before I signed - I think one of the things us newbies are often unaware of is how much of an impact distribution has.

I mean, I thought you wrote the book, someone published it, and all the stores got it. Yes, I was that naive.

As I understand it from independent bookstore owners I've talked to, the Canadian government has legal requirements around distributors used (I suppose like our radio content laws or something). Very important for authors to consider before signing with a publisher.

You could likely do a seminar on how to handle your own promotion - sounds like you've learned that side of the business well!

Julia Buckley said...

Go, Sheldon!

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