(from a Katrina prompt, The Path)
When I was 37, I started working at a business-to-business telemarketing office that has long since gone out of business. Because of that, and because I name no names, I feel I can write honestly about what went on there. Also, the owner got married, closed the business, and moved to a sunny retirement state twenty years ago. I’m out of her reach and she’s out of mine. Mostly.
Anyway, the office was located off Barbur Boulevard/Highway 99 on a sliver of land between 99 and I5 South, overlooking South Terwilliger. This is a hilly area. The building had a tall front entrance, but I would always walk around the building and scramble up a gravel path to the back entrance.
It’s hard to remember why I chose this route. I have a dim memory that this shortcut knocked off a set of stairs. I’m lazy about stairs and always have been, so this is possible. But it’s just as likely that I did this to avoid the smokers who congregated out front.
There was a man and two women who stood out there discussing “politics” and aggressively flirting with each other in ways that were downright graphic. The man liked to share details of his sex life, which was bad enough, but the women (one of them an ex-con, the other an ex-logger) both had unfortunate teeth and eating disorders. They were always angling to get their skinny limbs next to each other for size comparison.
You can see why I might bypass.
My preference for the back entrance prefigured my initial attitude towards working at this office. I quietly did my own thing, so it took some time for me to realize that the owner of this company yelled at her employees, especially one woman with a pronounced lisp. The owner would summon this employee into her office, close the door, and let that person have it over, I don’t know, like seven second pauses between calls, or too-frequent bathroom breaks, or two-minute conversations on company time. Once her bile was expelled, the door would open and disgorge a bile-covered, shuffling, often sniffling employee, who was then expected to go back to a desk and produce, produce, produce.
For some reason, she never yelled at me.
In addition to running her telemarketing business and berating her employees, the owner also offered business consulting services. I sat in on a few of her presentations to small business owners about how to improve their sales. Her answer was always the same: they needed to hire a business-to-business telemarketing agency. She just happened to own one of those.
Once she got the contract, skilled marketers like me (a single mother with a high school diploma who had not worked in an office since she was twenty) would deliver results. Leads. Sales. Signups. You name it, we’d give it the best effort that $8.00 an hour could buy.
It was grift at its finest.
First on the list was ease. The office itself was close to my home. The hours aligned with my kids’ school schedules. I was paid more than I earned at the mall. I wasn’t on my feet all day.
Second on the list was that I learned how to use a computer here. I had no idea how to do that when I started, none. I started on an old DOS based program. Within months, I almost Windows-literate. I was also learning the intricacies of business-to-business telemarketing—meeting with clients, writing scripts, assigning campaigns, analyzing data and then writing reports that blame the databases for the abject failure of all campaigns to achieve promised results—that stuff. For this, I received trifling raises and unofficial promotions.
Third, and perhaps most important to me, there were good people in this office. We had fun. Sometimes, when the boss was out on a sales call, we frisked and gamboled like giddy lambs, throwing Kush balls at each other and comparing Solitaire scores. Once, I wrote the office manager a check for a million dollars so he would mow my overgrown lawn (he mowed the lawn but never cashed it). One of our seasonal employees was incredibly intelligent (she’s one of two people I know who have been on Jeopardy). I became friends with another woman, enough to have her to my home off and on for a year. You can find her in the Gentry books (hint: she’s an English major).
So I stayed.
I’d been there just over a year when the owner called me into her office, sat me down, and offered me an exciting opportunity. She wanted me to join her in the consulting part of her endeavor. I’d be out there at her side, doing consultations and drumming up business. According to her, I’d be a natural.
In the six weeks between when I left this office and when I started school, I wrote the screenplay that became my first novel, which quickly led to my second, and so on. At the end of the first book, Gentry has failed everyone and God, and he hates himself for it. He would need to be punishing himself in the second book.
I had an idea what that punishment might look like.
I remember jotting down a page of notes about the second book, back when I was still trying to hide the fact that I was writing from everyone. Most new writers do this. You don’t want anyone to know about your new secret addiction, so you hide it and lie about it because what if someone found out that you were writing???
Anyway, as I made notes, I was cackling. It was fun to imagine how terrible an office would be for Gentry. An assault and an affront and a perfect way to punish himself for his self-perceived transgressions in Oregon.
His purgatorial workplace held a sad woman who lisped, a creepy guy who said gross things, and Fanny, of course. Gentry was a beleaguered IT guy who committed small acts of secret rebellion. My characters were constantly berated by the owner of the company, who summoned them one after another for a good cleansing yelling session about how useless they were. My favorite bit was when Gentry summarized the PTO/health insurance benefits offered by his employer.
How can I explain my benefit package to Mike? It’s a complicated arrangement of smoke and mirrors, designed to give the illusion of benefits. I have health leave as long as I never get sick. I lose all accrued personal time off if I ever take any. I’m paid by the hour if I work less than forty hours a week, switching immediately to salary the moment I put in an hour over that. “Mike, I’m told that I have benefits, but I have no retirement, no life insurance, no dental, no vision, and my health insurance covers no prescriptions, no physicals and no illnesses.”
This was absolutely accurate.
Were there parallels? Clearly, yes. But my fictional office was in Oklahoma, not Oregon. I assumed I was safe, even though much of what I used would be familiar to anyone who had worked there. I couldn’t help myself. And this book has been my favorite of all the Gentry books, right up until I finished the fifth one.
I wrote a lot of first drafts while finishing my degree at Portland State. I mistook them for finished novels, but thankfully I graduated with honors and went to work in a different type of business. One that creates products, as opposed to grift. My company offers employee benefits, as opposed to that stuff I described earlier. I’ve worked there for over twenty years.
My office is downtown. When I take the freeway home, I pass the old building where I learned about B2B telemarketing. It’s right there, and perpetually hung with “FOR LEASE” banners. How could I miss it?
But sometimes, I drive right past without a glance. I’m thinking about my day, or singing too loudly, and I don’t even see it. Other times, I look over toward that back entrance and I swear, I can see myself as I was back then. A much younger me, dressed in the office attire of the day. A pastel striped top. A pale pink skirt. White pumps with one-inch heels, and pantyhose, by god, I used to wear pantyhose. I look like Easter Sunday, 1998.
But those one-inch heels dig into the gravel as I scramble up that path, on my way to wherever it is I’m going.
Photo by @macro_sighted
The Gentry books are here! Yes, that’s right, the first three volumes of the Gentry books are available for purchase (paperback) the e-books are delivering, and readers are checking in with positive, encouraging feedback.
The Gentry books are thinly disguised autobiographical novels about my life as a young male orphaned Catholic alcoholic school teacher on the Oregon coast. That’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s one I’ve told so many times that I have no idea whether or not it’s funny.
One of the main characters in this book, Gentry, is young, male, orphaned, alcoholic, and intensely religious. Most of my friends have noted that I am none of these. But that’s okay, because these are novels, not memoirs. Do you remember the golden age of the memoir? When the only books publishers were interested in were memoirs, or highly autobiographical novels? That’s how James Frey got into trouble. My adored Augusten Burroughs even caught some flack because apparently his therapist’s family didn’t have an electroshock machine hidden under their stairs (that was one of my favorite parts of Running With Scissors). I believe it was a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner.
My point, in so much as I ever have one, is that the Gentry books are not memoir in any way.
The ideas and characters for this story have been kicking around in my psyche for a long, long time. The first novel’s genesis was a vivid dream I had when I was nineteen. You’d be hard-pressed to see the similarities, aside from the coastal setting, between what my fevered mind spit out that night, and what’s between the covers of the Gentry books. Somewhere, the original dream is written down. Somewhere else, there’s a long, laugably awful short story, written out on lined notebook paper. My children must find and burn these upon my death, but I hope that first, they will have a long read and a good laugh before striking the match.
False starts, bad first drafts and endless edits later, the book is one I’m proud of. Gentry is not the only central character in the first book, The Tempation of Gentry. The book explores the relationships between a mother and her daughters, and the relationship between two sisters. I think those are fascinating and important relationships. They merit as many novels as can be written about them.
Now, I did have a relationship with my mother, and I do have a relationship with my sister. But the relationships portrayed in my books are not those relationships. Everything I’ve ever experienced in my own life ends up in a book, in one way or another, but it’s put through a blender with all the other things I’ve observed. The result is quite a mixture.
Think of it in terms of the Big Bang. All the matter and energy in the universe was present at that moment, and will be present until the end of time. We are all just recombinations of it. That’s how I write fiction, with a big bang.
So someone is going to read about a hidden yellow doll in this book, and remember hiding her sister’s yellow doll. But the girl who owned that doll, and the girl who hid that doll? They are not the sisters in this book. There are houses in this book that are very like houses where I’ve spent time, but those are not the houses featured in this book. My book’s houses are fictional, as are my book’s characters.
I am a woman who was quite bitter after her divorce, and I have a mother who was quite bitter after her divorce, and I have friends who were also quite bitter after their divorces. I know so many women who are some combination of bitter and divorced. But the divorced mother in this book is not any of those women, though of course she is the result of observing all of them.
My main question with Kathryn was, what would happen if you never got over your anger? I had a lot of bile drainage to accomplish after my divorce and it wasn’t a pretty process, but it was a necessary process. What would have happened if I’d never done it? I became a little obsessed with this question, and Kathryn is one of the results. What would it feel like and look like to devote your life to how you’ve been hurt? What shape would that twist your life into? Where does bitterness go if you don’t let it leave you? And what would make you want to do better?
The Gentry books can be found here: CLICK ME
These three books will make you laugh and they will make you cry–big snotty gasping sobs, I hope. I mean, isn’t that the dream, to reduce your reader to a fountain of tears? You have to have a goal in life, and I guess that’s mine. I HOPE YOU LOVE THEM.
My novel is up at Amazon, and I’m THRILLED with my final cover.
Yes, the desperate housewife is out and ready to make you laugh. And, maybe, cry a little. I’m excited to have an author interview in here, and book group discussion questions, and I love my beautiful cover that shows Reba, the matriarch of Iris’s little clan of wiener dogs.
See it here: The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife
It’s time for a cover reveal for that book I was going on about; here it is! Well, a draft of it, anyway. This beautiful cover (featuring Reba, the Dachshund matriarch) was designed by the fantastic Mark Ferrari. The cover has me so excited!
The book will be live soon. Here is the synopsis, so you know what’s in store:
“I have five kids. I don’t have time to be happy.”
Each day, Iris Bourne runs a gauntlet in the California suburbs: dealing out meals with the ease of a professional card shark, scaling mountains of laundry, acting as judge and jury for sibling battles, negotiating bedtime with the skill of a career diplomat.
Iris has time for exactly one hobby—entering contests—and she’s just won a trip for two to Hawaii. She’s ready for a taste of Paradise, but her husband, Hart, keeps spoiling the mood by asking her if she’s happy. Happy? Iris has no time to be happy. When Hart announces that he is not, her life becomes even more complicated.
With nonstop humor and heartbreaking honesty, Iris navigates parenthood, loss, new romance and the burdens of caregiving. Most importantly, she learns the lessons and limits of forgiveness. Readers will laugh, cry, and cheer as Iris rallies friends and family to defend her glorious, messy, beautiful suburban life.
I’ll have an ordering link soon. Watch this space for further developments.
Yes, I’m going to make a book announcement about The Iris Files. Yes, it’s actually going to be called The Iris Files: Notes from a Desperate Housewife. Yes, I’ll talk more about that book in a minute. But first, I want to talk about…
I never wanted a yard, but I have one. I wanted a big house on a small lot, but my ex-husband wanted the reverse and he won. But then he left, and here I am on this junior acre, twenty years later. My yard is TERRIBLE. Various broken stragglers lean here and there like emaciated beggars in a third world city, begging to be pruned or moved or just dug up and put out of their misery. I’m not a yardwork person, and so this is just how it’s going to be until I give up and buy a condo.
As I mentioned, I still live in the house I bought with my ex-husband. He was my second husband, and I have this tendency to call him my ex-husband, instead of my second ex-husband. It’s embarrassing to have two of those, and since he is the father of my children, he’s the ex-husband who counts. So he is heretofore referred to as my ex-husband.
Back when we bought this house, it had minimal landscaping. It was basically Kentucky Bluegrass (a terrible choice for Oregon) bordered by long channels of red lava rock. Like a military base. The only flowers were bearded irises. MASSES of bearded irises, rising in a long line up the walkway. Yellow, purple, maroon, with a few of the purple and white, blooming madly and emitting their toothpaste smell as I went to my front door. They were not my kind of flower—I prefer the more delicate wild iris—but the bearded blooms have a certain acromegalic majesty. Our iris display was dramatic enough to draw commentary from passers by.
Over the six years that my ex and I shared this home, we tried valiantly to find plants and flowers that would thrive in the horrible clay soil of our yard. We added some rhodies, which still wither in the reflective heart of the driveway to this day. We tried roses, which have somehow survived the heinous neglect I have subjected them to. Neighbors gave us gorgeous white calla lily bulbs, which did fine for years. But of course, like irises, lilies must be unearthed and divided now and then. Guess who didn’t do that after her husband moved out? That’s right. The death of the irises is all my fault.
But not all the Irises have died!
Some years after my divorce, I wrote a book about a woman named Iris. It’s about a failing marriage, and I probably thought it was too personal to publish. No, my name is not Iris. I do not have five children, nor do I have four dogs. But in too many ways, it is the most personal book I will ever write. And it is going live soon.
The Iris Files is coming out for these reasons:
I will soon have a cover and a link for preorder and all the things one must have in order to make a book real. Until then, read something else and pray for my yard. Thanks.
My negative views on self-publishing were entrenched. They came from an expert source: the chat room where I hung out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Self-publishing was the punchline, and the lead-ins were all our countless stories, the myth-making we did around the dream of getting published. Of those who hung out there during those years, one of us got a big deal. One. The other 500 or so regulars consoled ourselves with the fact that at least we weren’t self-published, right? I was one of that 500.
We used to tell each other that if you just got an agent, you would sell a book. Well, I’ve had four agents. I’ve been shopped to all the big houses by agents who worked on my behalf. I have gone to committee, I’ve been this close, and I didn’t sell a book. Close, oh-so-close with one of them, but the house went with another book. That one was turned into a movie with Laura Dern. Mine went back in the trunk.
Some of it, I am sure, was timing. Books are products, and products are produced to tie in with trends. My books were not in sync with the literary trends of the day; memoirs and chick-lit. I will never write a memoir, and my poignant, odd literary novels featured no shopping, no expensive shoes, no urban locations of note. Absolutely no one worked at a magazine, in PR or in publishing. The closest I got to chick lit was a novel about a bunch of housewives. One of the editors who read it wrote to my agent, “This book is hilarious, but who wants to read about a bunch of housewives?”
This was three years before “Desperate Housewives” hit the air.
If I were devoted to the idea of being published, I suppose I’d have dusted off that novel and tried again once the TV show aired. But I was never writing to be published. I was writing to write, not to fit into a commercial category and get on the product offering of a publishing house. I liked my stories and I wanted to tell them, even if no one wanted to publish them. So I just wrote.
Somewhere in there, in the years when I was deliberately avoiding the hunt for another agent, the publishing world underwent a severe correction. Or maybe “bloodbath” is a better term. Houses closed, consolidated, pulled back. The mid-list author felt the pinch strongly. The best I could have ever have hoped for was mid-list, and those writers were starving.
So, I just went on with my life. Did I mention that as I wrote, I was also pursuing a career that I enjoy? A career with stability, benefits, a 401K, and vacation time?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I wanted to be a writer, a full-time real writer. My favorite thing in the world was waking up, making a pot of coffee while getting the kids out the door, then slumping to the computer in sweats and bathrobe, where I would ignore the world and write and drink coffee until my legs were bouncing madly under the desk, at which point my kids would get home from school and I’d realized that I hadn’t showered, dressed, eaten or even brushed my teeth.
That was my ideal day, and instead I had to get up, get dressed, go to work, and come home every day. Somehow, I survived. I paid my mortgage on time. I could afford new tires, the vet bills for the string of rescue dogs I adopted. I put three kids through college. I took vacations. I’d have loved to be a real writer. But my life was good, solid, and stable. So was my writing output. I had, complete in the trunk, seven fairly finished novels and two not-at-all-finished novels, along with many, many essays, short stories and poems.
My views on self-publishing were challenged when my father decided to use Amazon’s Createspace to publish my late mother’s mystery novel. Mom and Dad ran a B&B, and she wrote down everything she observed about her more colorful guests, then strung it together with a putative plot. It carries my mother’s voice, her humor, her keen eye and keener wit. My dad then published one of his books, which is full of action and humor in the familiar setting of my parents’ home island. The funny thing is, these books sold.
So, flash forward some years. Dad was bored, but not bored enough to write another book. He was grousing about this to me, and we tossed around the idea of my writing a sequel to Mom’s book (which I have started, by the way—it’s in the trunk). But I had all these unpublished novels, and I said, hey, let’s put one of mine out. Let’s just see how that goes. So I hired a cover artist, scoured the book for typos, hired a professional formatter because I’m not an IDIOT and I don’t know how to do that, and published a book. We went with the trailer park murder mystery, Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park.
Listen, even if you don’t want to be part of Createspace, use them to make your physical copies. Use them as your printing press. Amazon has made it as easy as possible to upload your files and turn them into a book. You can also order your own (reasonable) copies to give away to friends and family, sell at readings, sell to Powell’s so you’re shelved there (heh), tuck into micro-libraries all over town, and hide under your coffee table, to be produced with a flourish when a friend says she’s been meaning to order it.
Did I have any troubles? I had a funny reading level assignment, which I had to make some noise to have removed. Also, I have changed the cover, and the Amazon page shows the old cover. Details, details.
Actually, I have two important pieces of advice. The first and most important is this: hire a professional proofreader. I didn’t, because I thought between Dad and I, we would catch them all. We are such literate people, we probably don’t even make errors. No need to pay some proofreader’s fees!
Except…here’s the book, after it had sold many hundreds of copies, with all the errors marked.
Nice, right? Colorful! Like one of Asa Strug’s Bibles.
I’ve since republished it without all those errors, but the majority of the copies sold in that edition. And I know that we all learn best from our own mistakes, but if in this one instance you could just please learn from mine, I’d feel like my time here has not been wasted. Thanks.
My second piece of advice is, please don’t have any life crises right as your book is coming out. It will stand in the way of the requisite marketing efforts. My brother went into the hospital and was in and out over the next nine months, near death. I never did have that Amazon giveaway.
Many people will warn you with great sternness that you will have to do your own marketing if you self-publish. And that’s true. If you want to make a living at this, you will work your tail off. But there’s also a myth that publishing houses do all your work for you as far as marketing and PR. They might if they have high hopes for your book. If not, you’re stuck doing all this yourself anyway. I speak from knowing writers who are published through the big houses.
Still, I don’t like marketing my own work, and I do a really half-assed job of it. It would be nice to have a publishing house doing a half-assed job of it, rather than me doing my own half-assed job. Then I could complain about the publishing house, and perhaps even blame it, rather than looking in the mirror and saying to my reflection, “Karen, you can do better than this in your sleep, so market your book already.”
And the truth is, if you’re not trying to support yourself, you do not have to market. When you feel like marketing, you market. When you don’t, you don’t. The sky does not fall in if you ignore your book, or don’t post anything on your blog or author page on Facebook. You’re not expunged from Amazon or publicly shamed or put in stocks. You just don’t sell any books.
Surprisingly, if you’re too tired to market your self-published book, it still sells. People find your book according to how you have it tagged on Amazon, they read it, they leave reviews, and more people do or do not buy it. I compare my numbers to friends who have deals with houses and sometimes my numbers are actually better than theirs.
The only true difficulty for me is that everyone I work with seems to have bought my book. I find this excruciating. I guess I only want total strangers to read my work, and carefully chosen friends and fellow writers. I have a hard time with casual work acquaintances peering so deeply into my dark and twisted soul. It’s led to some uncomfortable interludes in the company break room, with me squirming and cringing as someone says nice things, and my preemptively blurting out that I know about all the typos in the first edition, and the like. For a person like me, this feeling of exposure is uncomfortable. But I’ve survived this and I’m grateful for the support.
So, if you’re wondering if I will do it again, yes. I have big plans for this year, probably over the summer. I’ve already paid for professional proofreading, too. My goal is to empty that damn trunk, to get it all out. I have so many words, and I want those words in the world, even though people at work will probably be reading it all.