When I thought about who first to feature on Pinch of Salt, I thought ‘Chad Pelley, of course.’ Pelley has quickly made quite the name for himself as a writer, critic and blogger. He’s won a bunch of awards, runs a popular book website, and is now a part of Book Madam’s Online Magazine. Oh, and he wrote an award winning novel (almost forgot).
2010 was quite the year for you. What were some highlights?
I find a lot of things satisfying for different reasons, but having my novel taught in a few university courses, and getting to talk with the students, might take the cake. I remember taking a Newfoundland Fiction course years ago at MUN and thinking: I want to be taught alongside Percy Janes too. And it happened. Winning the NLAC’s CBC Emerging Artists award, and getting shortlisted for my first national book awards was a purely professional vindication that only an artist can experience. Random emails from strangers mean you’ve really resonated with a reader, and that’s the real goal when I sit to write. But then there’s sharing venues with the writers I’ve admired and learned from for years, like Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, and Jessica Grant, who I’ve read with at a few festivals now. The Winterset in Summer Festival was pretty great, and during it, I had a lunch with Kevin Major, Jessica Grant, Michael Crummey and Atwood’s husband, Graeme Gibson, that actually sparked a novel idea for me. Right now? There is more than one film company interested in the movie rights to my novel. That’s more of a thrill-type excitement. Imagine someone willing to waste their time and money on, of all books, yours. Amazing.
Away from Everywhere has done very well. Did you expect this sort of reaction from it? Does your next novel broach similar themes?
Away from Everywhere has done far better than I imagined it would, but then, I’ve got an artistic creed: expect nothing, and then everything feels like a thrill. A funny motto for someone as intensely ambitious as myself.
My next novel, which is just about ready for my agent to start shopping around, is not as consistently stark as Away from Everywhere, but thematically, it isn’t far off. There’s actually some humour in this one, but there are some very heavy scenes too. And the underlying explorations of the flipside of love are there. I like exploring the complexities of love. I wasn’t done with that.
Summarize Second Hand Chances in three sentences or less.
Second Hand Chances explores how lives are shaped by only a handful of moments, and how two or three decisions become how we are. Cohen Davies and Allie Crosbie are brought together by a shocking tragedy, and then, one false move unites a sudden death, an inevitable affair, a sick child, and an unjust jail sentence.
Writers and musicians often straddle many forms of creative expression. Your creativity is expressed through writing, photography and music. How do you think having an understanding of different art forms influences your writing?
Oddly enough: they’re all united in that they are about capturing something in the most evocative way you can, so that someone else will bother taking a look/listen/read. With photography, most people just point their camera and click the shutter, whereas I’ve been on my belly in wet grass, or dangling over a cliff by one hand, trying my best to frame a shot in the most intriguing way. I take 100 different angles, because there are 100 ways of looking at something, and every photo evokes a different sentiment. It’s no different with wording a sentence. What is it I am trying to capture and show the reader? What’s the most effective way to frame that? So I write 100 sentences, until one is the winner, and delete the rest, like we do photos on a memory card.
As for songwriting, it’s done nothing to inform my fiction, but more than once, while writing a scene and not knowing where to go, I pick up a guitar, and strum my way through it. Sounds weird, but, it helps. I make a lot of decisions while keeled off on a couch strumming a guitar. Not just about my writing.
You are a blogger, novelist, essayist and creative writer for a marketing company. Describe these different voices of Chad Pelley.
It’s funny, actually, because they’re all different personas. I try and keep a consistent jovial tone on Salty Ink, because it’s about promotion, but I’m not exactly the guy I come off as on Salty Ink. So, by contrast, I might occasionally sound bland when I write for a newspaper or magazine, and that’s a different sort of thing, because an editor is often telling you exactly what they want, so, my name is attached to the article, but, my initial thoughts on the matter can be buried under a dozen pointed edits. In my fiction, I’ve always paid most attention to sentence-level writing: whether every sentences is evocative, and subject matter I myself am fascinated with, so that, in the end, to me, my fiction feels like a conversation with myself about, say, what is right and wrong in marriage or life or whatever scenario. Not a conversation so much as a raising of questions.
As for being a creative writer at a marketing company, that’s harder than writing a book. I don’t have 3 different people and a client telling me what, exactly, to do with my novel, and I am not aiming to please anyone but myself. In my fiction, I can spend months revising a single paragraph, but at my dayjob, I’m expected to write a radio ad for a car, a brochure for a bank, and someone’s biography by lunch. I’ve yet to see what effect this new dayjob will have on my fiction: I’m afraid my third novel will be all exclamation marks, alliteration, and puns. (Kidding.)
You have experience working from both sides of the publishing house as writer and employee. What are some of the biggest challenges for small publishers?
I think it is impossible to lump small publishers together. By definition, Anansi are small press, but they do everything right and exceed or at least give “The Toronto Big Six” a run for their money in media-reception and award wins. But to answer your question bluntly: many small publishers, even the ones with their hearts in the right places, simply do not have the canon needed to launch you into Canada’s reading conscience, and it’s not their fault. The national media — magazines, newspapers, and blogs — do not review books by many small publishers, likewise many awards and their jurors don’t take those books as seriously. Many small publishers have poor distribution, and limited means of marketing, or getting their authors into festivals and book tours. And, well, if no one is hearing about a book, or they can’t get the thing at their local bookstore, they can hardly buy it.
Also, there is a bogus assumption that if you aren’t published by, say, Random House or Penguin, then you aren’t good enough to be published by Random House or Penguin, so you got published by a small press. It’s not the case, but the sentiment exists and many people judge a book by the logo on the spine, or the placement in a bookstore, more than the writing or story. There is a perception, when you walk into a bookstore, that unless a book is on one of those powertables, like “New and Hot,” then it isn’t new and hot fiction, but what they don’t realize is that, often, a publisher pays for that space. And, of course, as a writer, I want to be published by a publisher who has the money and sway to get me on those powertables and into a spotlight.
The line between marketing yourself well and marketing yourself into oblivion is somewhat blurry. You’ve done very well staying on the successful side of marketing. How have you managed that and do you have any words of advice for new writers thinking about modeling your marketing tactics?
Yeah. I could give a 2-hour lecture on the matter.
Instead here’s one solid point: self-promotion is not running around with a bullhorn telling everyone you know that you have a book out. Your friends and family know that, and if they want your book, they’ve already bought it. Effective self-promotion is about establishing connections with people you don’t know. I live in St. John’s, so it is about accessing Saskatchewan from my home computer. It’s about getting your name out there, indirectly, and having people hearing your name on their own terms. For me, for example, being “that Salty Ink guy” has had a karmic bonus. Or, I did a soundtrack for my novel, and through it, reached readers I don’t know who were fans of the bands on the soundtrack. That’s what I mean about indirectly reaching new readers.
Also important: Put yourself out there. Say yes to bookclub invites, radioshow invites, book signings. I’ve noticed that the only thing that guarantees a reader will buy book A over book B, is that they have a direct connection to a writer, even something as tenuous as a Facebook friendship or that they liked what you said on a radio interview. A reader chooses to buy a book for many reasons, but it seems knowing the author has the biggest sway in what they read.
You said in a recent interview with CBC that national publishers tend to overlook the talent coming out of the Atlantic Provinces. Why do you think that is?
I don’t think publishers do. Hell, Anansi alone publish as many Newfoundlanders as any Newfoundland-based publisher. I meant the industry cares more about Toronto, and Toronto-based authors and publishers and events. Take any national scale newspaper or book magazine, adjust the figures to account for the volume of books coming out of any province, and it’s clear that to be amply reviewed and talked about, you best be published by a Toronto-based publisher, and, preferably, living there. In fairness, maybe that’s because these publications are based in Toronto, so they have their ear to the ground. But then, how hard is it to reach out to a person in Vancouver and a person in Halifax and a person in St. John’s, to have those scenes covered, instead of having all your contributors in Toronto? I mean, if you’re going to call your publication national, shouldn’t it be national in scope? Yet, really, anything published west and east of Toronto is largely not talked about, relative to Toronto-published books. Even if you adjust the stats to account for the fact Ontario publishes more books than any other province.