I’ve read and enjoyed all of MBH’s books. With her unique Canadian voice that’s gritty, unapologetic, and intelligent, she weaves provocative stories that are for anyone but the meek. Utterly delicious.
One of Canada’s most courageous and original literary voices, Michelle Butler Hallett writes axe-books — “you know, for that frozen sea inside us” — and refuses to apologize for violating genre and gender boundaries. Her works include the critically acclaimed novels Double-blind and Sky Waves, and the short story collection The shadow side of grace. Her next novel, deluded your sailors, will be published autumn 2011. She lives in St. John’s and blogs at aether punch, where some of her work is available for free under a Creative Commons license.
What’s considered a successful writing day in the life of MBH?
If I start comparing one day’s output to another’s, I’ll go mad. Well, madder. I aim to produce / draft/ revise / edit / outline something each day. Illness has slowed me down quite a bit over the last 18 months, but I am always creating on some level — I have no choice there.
There are lots of writers out there who are juggling parenthood, a full time job, and other interests and duties. What do you say to those people who just want to pack it in?
I’d say first, “Yep, some days I feel the same way.” I can’t go giving them advice or telling them what to do, though. I’ve seriously considered waiting til my children are grown, or til I’m retired, or til Some Perfect Time, but there is no perfect time. I’ve always felt stern pressure to write stories, even as a youngster. The muse won’t let me wait. Various illnesses and hospitalisations over the years spur me, too: how much time do I have? (Watch now, I’ll live to be 112.) No one said this would be easy — no one with half a brain at least, anyway. What keeps you going?
I literally have no choice. If circumstances prevent me from working, I become quite tense, irritable, and difficult to live with. I feel like a steam engine gone red-hot, with all valves blocked. I love to create. It’s deeply satisfying. And often a lot of fun. But make no mistake: it’s a fucking slog of hard, hard work. You produce high quality work quickly (a short story collection and two novels within three years). What’s your secret?
No secret. I just work on something nearly every day, if only for my own mental health, and that of those who love me. I worked in radio for many years, writing marketing material and ad copy, and that experience, with its money-charged deadlines and high demands, forged my sense of discipline. At the moment, I am writing full-time, without another full-time job, which is grand for the imagination but hard on the nerves, as I have very little income. I get up, dress and put on makeup and otherwise prepare to Go to Work. My office is my home study. But it’s an office, and I am at work. I balance my own writing with some freelance work, and I’m usually at my desk by 8.30 or 9. I break for tea, and sometimes to make lunch, and carry on til 3, breaking then to welcome my kids home from school, hear about their day, and make some plans for supper. Often I do a bit of work again in the evening, often doing a load or two of laundry at the same time, though by evenings I’m pretty fried. Some days my arthritis, which is systemic, gets too rough, leaving me unable to haul a full day. I do what I can each day. Usually 7 days a week. You have a tattoo for every book contract. Describe your tattoos and their symbolic significance.
The first is a fairly crude silhouette of a swallow in flight. That’s to mark my first book, The shadow side of grace, and to honour my Grandfather Francis, who served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He returned from combat with many scars, a war bride, and tattoos over both arms. My second tattoo, a winged and long-toothed ourobourous from a Renaissance alchemical text, marks Double-blind and reminds me of the spectrum of human experience and of the human condition — the mysterious intermingling of good and evil, love and hate. For Sky Waves, I got a raven and a crow, intelligent and compassionate death-eater birds I see a lot here in NL. They take better care of one another than humans often do. The artist suggested branches for them to perch on. That work is on my upper chest. Yes, all the tattoos hurt, especially the crow and raven. No, I don’t regret them for a second. I’ve wanted tattoos since I was very young, mostly because of my late Grandfather Francis, whom I admired very much, and deeply miss.
In a recent CBC interview you said that your books have been deemed “hard to sell.” Why do you think that is?
I really don’t know.
I wonder if some of it isn’t gender — nice girls don’t write harsh books. It’d be foolishess — Winter and Moore can gut you sharp and quick and look good in a dress while doing so. My work needs to improve, no question, but I don’t think I’m incompetent. I also wonder if my work needs more focused marketing and promotion. I know my work is neither easy nor comfortable.
Taste is a big deal. So is exposure. Laughable errors haven’t helped, either: my first novel, Double-blind, got a micro-review in the Globe and Mail as a crime novel. It’s not a crime novel, so it hardly fared well when being reviewed as one. Small presses don’t have a whole lot of promo money, but I also wonder if publishers in general haven’t been a little slow to examine and explore on-line marketing opportunities.
I suppose my work is also difficult to catergorize — and I play that up — because I fuse different traditions in my storytelling. I’m content to be labelled “literary fiction,” but here in Canada there seems to be an expectation that Serious LitFic (insert Sam the Eagle harrumph here) employ realism as a narrative strategy, and realism only. I don’t.
Chapters/Indigo gives me a hard time for shelf space. Because my books didn’t sell to a set minimum, the St. John’s Chapters has removed me from the shelves. How anyone is supposed to find my books in the local Chapters if my books aren’t on the shelves, I really don’t know. It certainly can’t help them sell. Our independent bookstore here in St. John’s, The Bookery, stocks all of my titles, which is reassuring. In our local Chapters, I see Chaulk, Crummey, Harvey, Hynes, Moore, Morgan, Morgan-Coles, Stringer, and Winter, to name a few, but no Butler Hallett. That galls. I can see the point that my last title published in 2008, so perhaps I am not sufficiently current, but plenty of other NL authors have their back titles stocked at Chapters. It totally makes me feel like I’m not good enough, not a “real” writer, just a deluded fraud. I actually avoid shopping for books at Chapters now, so I don’t get that poisonous stab of anxiety that crumbles my confidence.
It seems in the last few years with the popularity of blogging and social media writers are expected to put time into marketing themselves just as much if not more than the publishing company. How do you think this affects writer success? Do you think it’s gone too far in that publishers can now blame low sales on the writer’s marketing performance instead of their own in-house skills?
If a publisher blames the author for low sales, then the publisher needs to take a good long look in ye olde mirror. Plenty of dead authors, who can’t possibly tweet or give readings, sell just fine. (Then again, the first one who comes to mind when I say that is Mark Twain, and he did a lovely job of what we’d now call “branding,” going on speaking tours and supporting the striking and often difficult difference of his work. Twain’s tours were sparked by personal financial need. As far as I know, his publishers had nothing to do with them.) I can only speak to my own experience here. I’ve always been willing to travel to give readings, make recordings of readings, sign books, talk with readers — but, for various reasons, those opportunities have been scant. I don’t mind the idea of tapping into social media myself to draw attention to my books, but I really don’t think any author should be expected to do that if they do not so wish.
To turn around and blame an author for low sales is childish. If it’s the author’s fault, then does not the publisher look silly in having published the author in the first place?
What kinds of marketing challenges do publishers have to address in order to make “hard to sell” books like yours successful?
No one factor can make a book successful, whatever “succesful” means.
Perhaps if publishers focused not so much on what makes a particular title “good” (read: just like anything else you’d expect from this label), but what makes the title different and vital. Follow-up marketing is crucial. How many books get the big old send-off with a launch and review copies flung hither and yon, and are then left to sink? It’s always a gamble, but I have noticed that the presses, small and large, that seem to do best are those which steadily — not sporadically — promote their titles and authors. It must make for hard decisions: do we publish fewer titles and market them more, or do we publish 15 titles per imprint and dole out the promo budget?
One thing I want to make clear: Killick Press has always supported my unorthodox style.
Tell us a little about your next publication.
deluded your sailors: a chronic post-traumatic syndrome novel, weaves together early eighteenth century and early twenty-first century storylines, black comedy, stubborn pasts, defiant female protagonists, and a figure of weird authority whose diminishing memory affects everyone and everything around him. I’m writing about power, as usual, genders, identities, greed, grace and love. And about the beauty and insanity of living in NL, past and alt-present.