Tuesday, November 01, 2005

MANDATORY READ: The Laurie Notaro Interview

Today, you are about to read--without argument--the greatest POD story ever told. The rags to riches (or whatever) story that every POD-to-Random-House wannabe fantasizes about--right down to kissing that old day job goodbye. I'm talking about a climb from years of rejection and a POD title to the New York Times Bestseller list.

I'm talking about Laurie Notaro.

Laurie is the author of The Idiot Girls' Action Adventure Club, Autobiography of a Fat Bride (which has one of the greatest covers ever), I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies), We Thought You Would Be Prettier, and now--being released today!--An Idiot Girl's Christmas: True Tales from the Top of the Naughty List. I've bought them all, read them all, loved them all. And I just dropped Idiot Girl's Christmas in my Amazon shopping cart (actually three copies; two are Christmas gifts.)

And it couldn't have happened to a nicer gal. Check out this Q&A and you will quickly realize why her storytelling puts her in bestseller status--and learn a few things on the way.

Girl: Welcome, Laurie. It's great to have a New York Times bestselling writer in my house, if you get my point. First off, you've got a great name. Sounds like the lead guitarist for an all-girl metal band. Ever consider you might've missed your calling?

Laurie: Wow, what a compliment! I had a band once, for a day. I was the singer, and we played at a launch party for a magazine I was working for at the time. It was a great band, and I was wearing an old vintage velvet dress that had been stapled together because I didn't know how to sew and I ended up blowing both armholes out. At the end of the set my dress was just flapping everywhere from the collarbones down and I got all scratched up from the staples. I really wanted to be in Seven Year Bitch or Babes in Toyland, but the truth was, I can't sing for shit. But at least I did it once.

Girl: Hey, fear not--being a bad singer never prevented anyone from fronting a band. Kind of like being a bad writer never prevented anyone from being published. I've got 927 pieces of evidence in my garage. You, however, have got the talent, baby. And let me say that David Sedaris has nothing on you. I love all your books (I only like some of that other guy's.) What made you decide to put together THE IDIOT GIRLS' ACTION ADVENTURE CLUB in the first place?

Laurie: There were several reasons I put the book together—the main one was I just had no desire to get a job, frankly speaking, and if I could work at something that I liked, that took the suckiness out of having a job. Plus I always wanted to be a writer, and I had been a columnist at my university's newspaper for several years. I had enough material to put it together and make it look like a book, so that's what I did. This was in 1994. I put it together and sent it off. And then nobody wanted it.

Girl: Did you attempt to find a traditional publisher and/or agent?

Laurie: Oh, sure. Initially, I didn't understand the protocol of things, so I just sent off a letter and three sample chapters to every publisher with an address in the continental United States. I don't even know how many I sent out, but I got back about 70 rejection letters, which I still have. And I did that several years in a row. When it became clear to me that approach wasn't working, I got a hold of a list of agents and I did the same thing. Sent out the same package to every agent starting with the letter "A." When I got to the "G's" someone finally called me back, and that agent signed me as her client.

Girl: So why did you end up going POD?

Laurie: Well, that agent had a hard time getting anyone to look at the book, and I just don't think in hindsight that Idiot Girls' was the kind of material she usually dealt with. But I stayed with her for several years, hoping that after each revision of the book, we'd find a publisher, but it never happened. Finally, I moved onto Fat Bride, and started writing that in hopes that someone would publish that book, but again, no takers. After the last round we sent out was rejected again, I think this was 1999/2000, I saw an ad for a POD publisher and thought, "Well, it's not ideal…but …." I was still a humor columnist and had been the whole time for a variety of pubs in the Phoenix area, including the metro daily paper, The Arizona Republic, and I had a good following. I knew that if I had the chance, I could translate that into a national readership. I knew I could do that, but no publishers would bite. I didn't have a choice, and I was at the end of my rope. It was either give up or prove that I could really do it. And I'm, much to the chagrin of those closest to me, not one to walk away from a fight. And I considered it a fight. So I did it. It cost me a hundred bucks, a good friend of mine drew a wonderful illustration for the cover of two girls with booze, bras and cigarettes falling out of their purses and in a couple of months, I had a book.

Girl: Such is the glory of POD. So what was that experience like? It has been so horrible for so many, but we occasionally hear of the success stories--like yours.

Laurie: It was not bad at all. It was really great. I had a wonderful editor that I still keep in touch with to this day. She really moved the process along and did a wonderful job. I was really happy with the POD—it was exactly what I expected—but this was five years ago and the process I went through is not the process I see in place at POD's now. It's quite different. With my experience in working at the newspaper I also knew that marketing was going to be all of my responsibility, and that it would be expensive. I was ready for that, and I was willing to spend the money and max my credit cards out to finish this fight up. I had the benefit of working at the newspaper and seeing how many books came in a week for reviews and how brutal the competition was. I understood that just because I now had a book didn't mean that people would somehow find it and flock to buy it. I made sure I understood the POD process, so I think that's why it worked for me-- but this was five years ago, you can't get a book for 100 bucks anymore. Honestly, I often forget that I published the book myself initially; I just look at it as something I had to do along the way. It was just another step.

Girl: You are right about the price of POD publishing. The costs have gone way up, unless you hook up with Lulu and do it all yourself. And, in my experience, I'd say only one in 250 PODers really understands what it takes to bring success to a self-published title. Speaking of success, how did IGAAC end up with Villard?

Laurie: I was doing a lot of advertising on Amazon.com because the POD I used had a distribution deal with them, and Amazon at the time had a great program that enabled me to put a tiny ad for my book on the product pages of other, similar books. Like Jill Conner Browne's Sweet Potato Queens. I did this for almost a year. And one magic day, Jill Conner Browne's agent's husband saw my ad on Jill's page and called his wife, who called me and asked me to send her the book. A week later, she became my agent, and something was different about this one. I had a good feeling about it. I was really excited. We spent a month working on Idiot Girls', and then my agent sent it out on a Monday and by Wednesday, we had an offer from Villard for both books—Fat Bride and Idiot Girls'. I was really, really, really, REALLY lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. This was 2001. It took seven years for the book to get into the right hands, but once it did, it took two days to get a publisher. I have never been as happy as I was that day, and I doubt I will ever be that happy again. It was absolutely amazing.

Girl: And then on the New York Times Bestseller List. Wow. Did we quit our day job?!

Laurie: Second happiest day of my life. I cried that day. And I am not a crier. I was in no way expecting it. Those things just do not happen, or if they do, you have warning, you know? It was the first book on the list for me, my agent and my editor—none of us had had a book on the list before, we were all very happy, all the way around. But I didn't exactly quit my job—I had already been fired from my weekly column in the newspaper, the one that Idiot Girls' came from. I wrote about that in I Love Everybody—it was a really remarkable time in my life but it was also really miserable, too. It was more than miserable. It was awful, and I ended up getting so stressed I got sick. I loved my job, but there was an editor who hated me and was determined to ax my column, and that did indeed happen. And I was also writing a daily column on the web site for the paper, and that had been taken away, too, the week before Idiot Girls' came out, and I was told I was going to be moved to the calendar desk to post event information. So I had lost everything at my job already, and they wouldn't allow me a leave of absence for the book tour because it wasn't a "special circumstance." And I just looked at my boss, who had a habit of eating skin flakes off of his own face in meetings and I thought, I have lost everything I have loved with this job, you have taken it all. I don't give a shit if I have to sell hotdogs at the cart downstairs or eat out of trash cans to survive, I am worth more than this, and I will not give you the pleasure of watching me do something that I hate. So the day before my book tour began, I didn't go to work and I flew to New York instead.

Girl: Sweet! Takin' it to the man, baby. Or something like that. So then what--multiple book deals? I've got at least four books on my bookshelf with Notaro on the spine.

Laurie: Well, we had a two-book deal for Idiot Girls' and Fat Bride, then we did another one for I Love Everybody and We Thought You Would Be Prettier. I have a Christmas book coming out on Nov. 1, and I'm working on the next book after that.

Girl: So here's the question everyone (that reads this blog) wants to know: How much of an impact did POD play for you in getting your career launched? Ever feel like it might have happened anyway, or did POD play a pivotal role?

Laurie: Oh, I think it was pivotal. Actually, it was gargantuan. The POD company provided a place where I could get a product and prove that there was a readership for it, without that step, I would be selling hot dogs and eating out of trash cans. It was instrumental and an essential part of my career. No, I don' think it would have happened anyway, I really don't. I had tried for a long time to find the right person, the right agent, the right editor, but I couldn't get to them. Idiot Girls' had been sent to Villard, my publisher now, back in 1994. I still have the rejection letter. However, I also think it was vital that it did end up taking so long to get the book published—Maybe 1994 just wasn't the right time for it. Maybe I would have still been too drunk to meet essential deadlines, and too immature to deal with things professionally. I am really glad it took so long for things to happen the way they did, that fact alone makes me so grateful for what I have. I know what it means to me and I don't take it for granted. Or I try not to. I didn't deserve this, it wasn't handed to me; I worked for it. I know how lucky I am. I know how lucky I am to have a book in print, and that my name is on the spine of those books. That is still incredible to me, that I can earn a living doing something that I love to do. And that I get to work with nice, respectful people, like my editor Bruce Tracy and my agent. And that people at my old job still call me that when the boss who liked to eat his face sees my book on a table somewhere, he rolls his eyes. That rocks the house, Face Eater.

Girl: You are too funny. So what's next for the queen (princess?) of comedy? Is there a novel buried deep inside you just waiting to burst on to the scene?

Laurie: I am indeed venturing into unknown territory and am working on a novel, but not a novel novel, a fun novel. It will be very, very, very similar to my previous books, except that there will be longer story lines and I am able to incorporate little tiny funny details that would make no sense in my other books. I am having a great time putting it together, and that's a good sign for me. And I finally get to make stuff up!!!! I've always had this sick want to kill off a character, so people are going to die in this book, killed by squirrels!

Girl: Hey, there is nothing better than people dying by little furry creatures--except this interview, of course.

Thanks, Laurie. Everyone appreciates your insight. And I appreciate being able to communicate with a published writer that sells books beyond an initial print run, if you get my point--again.

Folks, I highly encourage you to pick up Idiot Girl's Christmas for yourself and other loved ones who possess a wicked sense of humor. You'll be credited with giving the best gift under the tree.