An Interview with Joel Peckham: Part III Afterwards

Joel's sons, Cyrus and Darius, shortly before Cyrus was killed in an auto accident.
Joel’s sons, Cyrus and Darius, shortly before Cyrus was killed in an auto accident.

Question 16: There it is. It’s done. You’ve assembled the previously published essays and some new material into book form and it’s sitting on your computer as a depressingly small file. What did you do next?

Probably a million wrong things.  I’ve been a poet my entire writing career so what do I know.  I put together a cover letter, sent it to a few contests, sent queries to a few agents and sent some manuscripts to presses that were looking at unsolicited manuscripts.  It was all very scattershot. Sometimes I wonder if there wasn’t a part of me that didn’t want the book to come out, or if it did, if I really wanted anyone to read it.  I had a great deal of anxiety about putting that book out into the world.

Question 17: Eventually, though, a publisher did say “yes.” What happened and how did it feel?

I was driving my son to a baseball game.  He was pitching that night and I had just picked another player up who needed a ride.  I wasn’t expecting a call.  I had given up on the manuscript for the time being.  It had been a finalist for a couple of contests, but didn’t win them.   The few agencies I had sent it to had either not replied or turned me down.  I had forgotten I had even sent the manuscript to Academy Chicago.  And I had turned my attention to a collection of poems.

Anyway the call was from a Chicago number and I figured it was a telemarketer or something.  But I have a brother-in-law in Chicago so I answered just in case.  It was Jordan Miller calling to tell me he wanted the book and asking if it was still available. I almost drove the car off the road.  I didn’t even think about it. Just blurted out a bunch of thank you’s. It was pretty surreal. The next thing I knew I was trying to explain to a couple of 10-year olds that I had just placed a book.

They were very impressed.

Question 18: Describe the transition from that feeling of elation to the realization that all that intimate, challenging, and sometimes divisive material was now going to be “out there.” Did it happen before the book was actually published or afterwards?

I’d say the feelings of elation and trepidation came pretty much simultaneously.  I knew the book would anger some people.  And, honestly, I felt they had a perfect right to that anger.  There was also a good bit of embarrassment.  I reveal things about myself and my life that are very private and quite a bit that I am ashamed of.

I am naturally a shy person, believe it or not.  People tend to make me nervous and I let very few into my life or into my confidence.  It felt as if I had potentially opened the door to the entire world.  That was scary.  Then there was the prospect of promoting the book and doing readings.  There was a very large part of me that wanted nothing to do with that part of things at all. I am not a talented self-promoter.

Question 19: I understand that the book was published as “self-help.” What is the story behind that, and what are your feelings about it?

That was a decision made by the publisher who I believe was trying to tap into a market to take the book beyond literary circles.  At the time, the idea made sense to me. The problem is that the “grief and healing” market is absolutely flooded with self-published books and pop psychology readers that view grief as a process one can navigate by following a series of steps. And I think that most of those books are purchased by friends and family as tokens of concern for the aggrieved.  They are gifts passed on in the hope of bringing those who are suffering back into the world of the living, the “normal”.  I can’t imagine anyone buying my book for that purpose.

Resisting Elegy is a tough book–it offers no 12-step program, potential cure, or false hope. Which is to say that it is a work of literature and therefore more interested in telling the truth than in saving people.  Still,  I actually think it could help people in the way that literature can help us–by making us feel less alone..  Offering the truth to someone IS a gift in that respect but it doesn’t always feel like one.  And people have to be ready for it.  I should say that by “the truth” I mean the truth of my experience and the underlying truth that my experience implies–that grief is messy, intimate, individual, even beautiful at times and bound up in the psychology and history of the aggrieved and the relationships they had with those they’ve lost.

The largest cost of the “Self-help” tag was that it seemed to suppress reviews.  The book was never reviewed by publisher’s weekly or Kirkus for example.  And I really had to hustle to get it the attention it did get.  It got a beautiful review at Rain Taxi, for example, but I had to convince the editor that the book was indeed, literature, before he would even assign it to a reader.

I do think Academy Chicago did a beautiful job with the book and I’m very grateful to them for taking a chance on it.  It wasn’t like publishers or agents were bashing down the door to get it.  This book was a hard-sell and continues to be a hard-sell.  I can only hope that attention like this can help to bring the book to the attention of those who might appreciate it.

Question 20: I’ve been asked whether I think anyone will read my books in 100 years. And for me, and the answer is easy. “Yes, absolutely,” I say. They are always shocked as it seems to suggest a certain ego, but the fact is, I’m certain that my grand children or great grandchildren will read my books. I’m certain of this because, as family, it is part of their history and their identify. I could imagine you feeling that way about your book. It seems to me as though it will carry through time — hopefully for an ever-wider audience — but certainly for your family. With these thoughts in mind, do you have any hopes or aspirations for this book from a family perspective, given that, in the end, it is about you and your family?

This is a hard question for me to answer. I’m not much of a future-thinker. I try very hard to be in the moment I’m in and I don’t worry much about what my legacy will be–other than my hope that I do more good than harm as a father and husband and that both my wife and our son outlive me by many years. The book is it’s own thing and I hope it has a long life.

Though I’ve never encouraged it,  I believe that my son has already read it on his own. I saw a copy on his Ipad.  And he has dropped a comment here or there about how much he likes my writing.  I hope he feels the book is something worth passing on to his children and I hope it answers some questions for him. I hope he sees it as an act of love.

My hope for the book is that it finds the people who need it. If only a couple of hundred people ever read it, but it moves those people, makes a difference in their lives, allows them to feel a bit more connected to their worlds, brings those worlds just a little bit more alive for them, then maybe that’s enough.  There is something astonishing to me about how my book reached you, how it moved you.  That was incredibly gratifying. I’m lucky to have written a few words that might make a difference in a few lives.  That’s not a bad legacy.

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