Sometime after finishing my MFA, I came to realize that any published book opens a can of worms for its author. Once the final proof has been completed and the book released into the world, the author goes from having absolute control over his characters’ blood to virtually no control over anything. Readers have conversations in his absence. When an author is being interviewed, the interviewer’s interests naturally drive the discussion. You may have written a 95,000-word book that celebrates the achievements of Charles Darwin, but some interviewer will be hung up that you called a corner of Shrewsbury, Shropshire (Darwin’s birthplace) “dirty.” What right does an uncultured American from corrupt Chicago have to speak so horribly of civilized England? Unprepared, you hem and haw. The article is published and people conclude that you hate not only Shrewsbury but the whole of Great Britain. This happens without anyone bothering to read your acknowledgment: Thank you to Hyacinth-Felicity, my loving wife and her family, especially her great uncle, the MP of beautiful Shrewsbury whose financial support made my research possible. England in 2014!
Like anything else (and especially with the Internet), books are judged based on impressions, hearsay, and loose claims. Colleges teach our best minds to search for flaws from a book’s first word and long before any major lesson can be drawn. While at Columbia University, I personally took part in discussions about books when more than half the class had not read the assignment. You can go on Facebook to find arguments about laws few people have read, climate theories only scientists actually understand, and films people refuse to see, as they heard there might be scenes of tobacco use. It’s the worst kind of chaos, accidentally orchestrated by the blind and pushed forward by the “passionate,” their prose in ALL CAPS.
I knowingly self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar in this environment, actually making the decision to go this route before writing the book’s first word. Of the cans of worms on the shelf, I knew self-published books were the largest ones. There’s no reason to sugarcoat this: The majority of self-published books are bad, many of them atrocious, some flat-out unreadable. If I was lucky enough to land an interview, I’d be asked Why did you choose to self publish? Journalists in particular would be interested in this over the actual content of my book. Of course, I had prepared myself for it, as I had very clear goals in mind.
I looked at self-publishing not as a final concession to a long road of failures but as a way for an unknown writer (one with absolutely nothing to lose) to begin a career. Besides my primary goal—to engage my reader while asking questions of philosophical and social value—the goal behind Finding the Moon in Sugar was to begin growing an audience. I’d continue seeking publication in literary magazines, participating in events and conferences, blogging and maintaining an Internet presence, and I’d always be searching for the company of book lovers. In that way, my goals are virtually the same as they were when I was in fourth grade and decided that I wanted to be a writer.
In my view, writers have to realize what little we can control. One day a journalist might be upset about England, but another day a drunk inventory clerk at Walmart might accidentally order 10,000 copies of our book. This is only slightly different from the well-known critic at the influential newspaper who raves about our brilliant prose. We control neither the critic nor the clerk. In the end, all we can do is write our best work and prepare ourselves mentally when we hand it over to a world that will respond exactly as it wishes. If people call us names, we can log into Facebook to see what they are also saying about Charles Darwin or any other public figure.
Written in Fall 2010.
Gint Aras (Karolis Gintaras Zukauskas) was born in Cicero, Illinois to immigrants displaced by World War II. He attended the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign and earned his MFA from Columbia University. To support his writing, he has worked as a hearse driver, fast food guy, hotel houseman, pasta cook, actor, and delivery man. He currently teaches English and Humanities at Morton College and lives in Oak Park, Illinois.