Today I am honored to present you with two wonderful new guests. Author, teacher and book editor Elizabeth Bernstein will be interviewing author, teacher and performer Ericka Lutz about her debut novel The Edge of Maybe, which takes place right here in the East Bay of San Francisco.
Ericka Lutz is a writer, teacher, and performer. The author of seven previous books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting, her stories and essays have appeared in many literary magazines, journals, and anthologies. A long time columnist for Literary Mama magazine, she teaches writing and public speaking at UC Berkeley and performs her solo show A Widow’s To-Do List around the Bay Area. She lives in Oakland, the city from which she draws much of her inspiration. The Edge of Maybe is her first novel.
EB: You’ve written seven nonfiction books. What made you want to write a novel?
EL: I was writing novels before I began writing nonfiction books, and also while I was writing nonfiction books. I just didn’t have success getting them published. Short fiction, yes… but I have two slaved-over novels that I wrote before I wrote The Edge of Maybe that will never see light of day.
I wrote the nonfiction books as a “day job.” Once I started teaching (writing and speaking) at UC Berkeley, I was able to take down my “parenting author” placard. Happily. I enjoyed doing those books, and I’m proud of them, but they were never—to put a woo woo phrase on it—my “heart work.”
I long took solace in a story I once heard about Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News. Apparently, she wrote a huge number of gardening books before her novels started selling. So, I knew it was possible, at least theoretically, to transition from parenting books to novels.
EB: What drew you to this story?
EL: I started working on The Edge of Maybe by throwing together a lot of seemingly disparate elements that I was interested in and concerned by. I wanted to write about a family that felt familiar to my own… but wasn’t my own… and the Bay Area community of mostly-white, progressive, food-loving, yoga-practicing, lefty-liberal, self-satisfied Oaklanders. I wanted to write about how “we” live, and to poke some gentle satirical fun at them/us.
I also wanted to explore family and marriage. A number of friends have had maybe-members of their family arrive on the proverbial doorstep, and had to figure out big issues of responsibility and privacy. I was interested in writing about long-term marriage (as I was, at the time, in one), and how we damage each other and ourselves by sweeping the hard things under the rug. And I was interested in exploring how children are affected by what happens in their parents’ relationship.
And, there were issues of red state/blue state conflict, poisons in our food and atmosphere, and reproductive rights that I wanted to say something about. All subsumed within the context of a compelling story, of course. I wanted characters whose dilemmas the reader would care about.
When writing a novel, I never fully know what it’s going to be about until the first draft is done. I just throw in everything I’m concerned about and drawn to, and hang it on a preliminary structure, and go from there. It morphs. Many times.
EB: How did you research the book?
EL: A lot of the novel takes place in my own city and neighborhoods, so research for those parts largely consisted of going shopping, driving around town, and eating dinner out. A chunk happens at Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional retreat in Northern California. I used to go there a lot for writing retreats, so that was easy enough—I’d already done the research I needed.
For medical scenes, I relied on my own experiences, the experiences of my friends, and our friend Dr. Google. A number of important scenes take place in Elko, Nevada, so I got in my car and drove there, 500 miles from my home—taking copious notes and pictures. I spent four days on that research trip, met some buckaroos, stayed in the dive casino/hotel that Adam stays in, and had an amazing time. That trip really changed the shape of the book.
EB: You sold The Edge of Maybe directly to a small publisher without an agent. How did that come about?
EL: I’ve known Armand Inezian, Last Light’s publisher and editor-in-chief, since 2006 when he was running the Boston Fiction Festival and I submitted a short story and won. I went to Boston to read, and after that we stayed in touch. I finished the manuscript of The Edge of Maybe in summer 2008, and had just begun sending it out when, in December of 2008, my husband suddenly died. So, my life crashed around my ears, and that was the end of sending the book out. I had a hard copy of the manuscript riding around in the back of my car—and I rarely thought about it—until the summer of 2010 when Armand told me he had started Last Light Studio, and asked if I knew anybody with an appropriate novel to submit. I shyly admitted that I had one, and he read it and loved it and asked me if he could publish it.
EB: You’ve worked with big publishers and now a very small publisher. How has the experience been different?
EL: In my experience, there’s more money with the big publishers, but the writer is the smallest cog in a big machine, and I often felt lost and uncared about. I’m thrilled to be working with a tiny publisher of amazing books with more of a cooperative press model. I had huge input on every aspect of the process, and I loved that. And I have huge emotional support and respect from everybody at Last Light Studio. Of course, working with a small press means doing all my own promo, but that would likely happen anyway if I’d been with a big press. I mean, for my first book with a big publishing company, the PR intern misspelled my name in the press release.
EB: In promoting your book, you’re using some traditional methods, like readings in bookstores. But for your main book launch, you’ve rented a theater and are having a show, with musicians and comedians and other performers that you don’t typically see at book releases. What was your idea behind this?
EL: In general, the old publishing models are dead, dying, or at the least changing radically, which means the old promotional models also need to change, and authors need to get creative in order to get any attention at all. But, it was more than that. I’ve done a lot of solo performance and storytelling. I have a one-woman show called “A Widow’s To-Do List” that I’ve performed all over the Bay Area. Having a book launch that’s also a Cavalcade of Stars—musicians, authors, dancers, comedians, clowns (all of whom are friends of mine)—feels like a great way to marry my communities together and do something more original than a typical launch party in a bookstore.
EB: What other ways are you promoting your book?
EL: Lots of ways! Bookstore readings and talks (always with food); a private party where I’ll cook a dish from The Edge of Maybe, serve wine and talk about the book; several reading series in the Bay Area; Facebook, Twitter; giveaways on Goodreads and Redroom.com and through various blogs; interviews here and there.
I also have a kickass website for the novel, and I made two book trailers on my own just for fun and recorded a podcast of me reading an excerpt. And there’s more coming. I even have swag! You can buy coffee mugs that say “Serenitize your Multi-Tasking” and aprons that say “Life with Foodies: You’ll get used to it.” Those are both quotes from the book.
I wanted Edge of Maybe action figures, but that didn’t seem to happen. Maybe for the next book.
EB: You have hundreds of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. How long did it take you to cultivate that? Do you think that’s a requirement for authors these days? How have you tapped into the networks in ways that have paid off for you?
EL: Actually, I have thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I’m active on social media for my own sanity and entertainment (and have been for years). Yes, it’s nice to be able to access those people for book promotion purposes, and I think it’s helpful for authors to be involved in social media, but only if they aren’t just using it to promote. Because that gets old fast. I will hide or unfriend or unfollow somebody if they are obviously just there for the self-promotion. Social media has “paid off” really well for me, that said. I’ve developed many very real relationships through it, gotten some interesting opportunities… and now, perhaps, I’m selling a few books.
EB: Is your novel going to be available in electronic formats?
EL: Eventually, yes. We are concentrating on this paperback release, with the plan to go e-book in 4-6 months.
EB: How do you support yourself? Are you a full-time writer?
EL: I’m a full-time teacher. I’m a full-time mother and solo head of household. I’m a full-time writer and performer. Only the first full-time job supports me… financially. The other jobs support me emotionally and, to an extent, spiritually.
EB: You’ve gone a fairly nontraditional route to get where you are now. You didn’t get an MFA, yet you teach at the university level without one. You sold this book without an agent. Now you’re releasing it in this unusual way. Is this a path you recommend to up and coming writers? Is there anything you would have done differently, looking back?
EL: I think most of us take a nontraditional path in this profession, and in fact, I don’t know what a standard path would be. I guess the fantasy is that you get a BA in English from a great school and an MFA from a greater one where you are mentored by a master who introduces you to a top agent who sells your first novel for a gazillion dollar advance… and then, book awards, Oprah, film rights, and sycophants who peel you grapes while you lounge by the seaside and write the best novel of the century. That doesn’t happen that often, and I’m not sure that’s a path you can really plan. Or, if you plan it, you’re likely to be disappointed.
My path has involved a lot of working for free, taking strange digressions, believing myself to be a failure and living long enough to have that not matter—and to even, in some ways, stop believing in the concept of failure and success completely.
One of my big mottos has been: “Circumvent the gatekeepers.” I believe none of us knows much of anything, really, so if somebody says “no,” there’s probably a way around that “no.”
EB: What are you working on now?
EL: I’m working on promoting this book and teaching my Giant Schnoodle puppy not to nip people, even if you really love them. But, I also have another novel in the works—I’m about 1/3 of the way through the first draft, and I have most of an outline written. It, too, is about life in the Bay Area, and about family and responsibility. Characters include a new widow, her homeless aunt and two cousins who live in a car, and her long dead grandfather. Yes, this book has a ghost.
To win a signed copy of The Edge of Maybe, tell us in comments what you think of when you hear the phrase “The Edge of Maybe.” Ericka will pick her favorite answer on February 29, the release date of the book. If you don’t win, be sure to order a copy on The Edge of Maybe website to get a free inscription or at Laurel Bookstore in Oakland. To buy tickets for “A Night on the Edge,” Ericka’s February 29 launch party and performance, visit Brown Paper Tickets.