Whenever I write, whether it’s a blog post, article, book or simple email to a friend, I’m thinking about what readers may make of my words – not only my words in a literal sense (especially when I use a term of art, a foreign name or a four-letter expression that starts with the letter F), but the points I aim to convey. As someone who was fortunate to have teachers who were strict about standards and liberal with criticism, I internalized the most challenging critiques that came my way, a practice that has served me well. Over the years I’ve augmented those critiques with thought-provoking comments from others, among them the kind of uncharitable characters who read everything with an arched brow and think they know the author’s mind better than she knows herself. (Really…just spare me.)
As the publication of “Shop Tails” nears,* I thought it would be helpful to answer a few questions from my inner
dragon Ava Hunting-Badcocke as a heads-up to those who may be interested in buying the book.
I just saw that you identified your medical diagnosis as “adenoma of the pancreas” in one of your early chapters. Don’t you even know that the name of your disease is adenocarcinoma, not to be confused with the rarer form of pancreatic cancer, the neuroendocrine variety that killed Steve Jobs? How can you expect anyone to grant you a shred of credibility after reading that appalling mistake?
I make my share of mistakes. I cannot tell you how many times I read the manuscript, not to mention how many articles in medical journals I have read about pancreatic adenocarcinoma. And still I missed this poop pile while cleaning the yard. So now I’m covered in it. We will forewarn readers with a note on the ordering page.
Most publishers look for consistency in a manuscript – consistency in voice and chapter length, as well as spelling and punctuation. Your manuscript reads more like a lorry packed with the assorted contents of a shuttered Oxfam shop that’s spilt its load all across the motorway, leaving a trail of tacky Beatles portraits on velour, melamine ashtrays with burnt spots, hand-knitted Shetland jumpers, crotchless knickers and worn plimsolls with missing laces. The first few animal stories read as though they were written by a child. The rest are what we expect from you. Some of the chapters are 30 pages long, while others are only four – or in one case, two! What is that, even? How can a chapter be two pages long? I can’t believe that your publisher agreed to invest in this farce. — Miss Ava Hunting-Badcocke, 1973
Consistency may be overrated. I wrote the first few chapters from the perspective I recall as a child, when I lived with the animals in question: Sidney and Phoebe (both dogs), Binky (a mouse), then David (a guinea pig). One pre-publication reader described these chapters as “sweet.” The sweetness vanishes with “Oscar”; he was my first dog as an adult, so the narrative voice reverts to that of the adult who wrote the first two introductory chapters.
My goal is to convey important information and entertaining stories, and sometimes introduce a reader to new perspectives on familiar subjects. I’m writing about real life, and at least in my experience, real life is more like the contents of that overturned lorry than the polished near-perfection of your sitting room-turned-
security– checkpoint-homework-checking station, with your line of girls and Gaston, your farting pug.**
I thought this was a book about animals and woodworking, but the first two chapters read like someone’s private cancer journal.
By the time Lost Art Press sent me a contract to publish this book, I’d been writing the stories about individual animals for about 15 years. My relationships with non-human animals have brought me comfort and joy (and the occasional heartbreak). They have also taught me important lessons about life and my relationships with my fellow human animals. What precipitated the contract was my diagnosis in November 2020, so as I began to work on the book as a project for publication, my mind went naturally to the circumstances that had prompted the opportunity.
When Christopher Schwarz was designing the book, I told him it would be fine with me if he wanted to excise the first two chapters, or parts thereof. I worried that there might be too much introspection and blow-by-blow accounting of what was going on in my head. He replied that he wanted to leave them in because they show how my mind works and add richness to the stories that follow. You can just skip those chapters and go straight to the animal tales if you’re so inclined. There will not be a test.
I see you’re trying to con us into believing that blurb from “Edith Sarra of Harvard and Indiana University” is legit. We know the two of you are friends, and we’re here to out you.
No one is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Edie is one of my dearest friends. We met in 2006, by which time I’d been hearing for years from my friend Ben Sturbaum that I just had to meet this woman who lives in his favorite house in the world because we would love each other. And love her I do. However, I didn’t ask her for what publishers call a “comment”; that blurb is an excerpt from a personal note she sent to me after she had read the manuscript of “Shop Tails” a few times. She’d been interested in the project for as long as she had known of it, because she, too, is a serious lover of animals (especially dogs, but don’t tell anyone). My friend Edie has delivered some world-class withering comments, sometimes by saying nothing, so I trust her not to be giving me an easier time than she would give most other people. She implicitly affirmed this by granting us permission to quote her remarks as a blurb for the book.
So, Lost Art Press gave you a contract because you had cancer?
Pardon me while I wipe the tears of laughter out of my eyes. I know… I’m not supposed to be laughing, right? Because I have an incurable life-threatening illness. But why go on living at all if I can’t keep laughing?
Seriously, though, I get your point. When I sent my pitch to Chris and told him that writing this book could provide the motivation I needed in order to face chemotherapy, I added that I was simply stating the truth, not inviting a pity party or being emotionally manipulative. Or something like that. I trusted that he would get where I was coming from, because he is a straight shooter. I was relieved that his response included something along the lines of Lost Art Press does not engage in pity publishing. So, yeah, no.
— Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think”
*It’s scheduled to ship from the printer in Tennessee about October 4. Orders should begin shipping about mid-October.
**You can read more about Miss Hunting-Badcocke in the chapter “A Thing Worth Making” in “Making Things Work.”