His novel, This Burns my Heart, was recently released in paperback and he has generously offered to give away a copy to one lucky blog reader. Isn’t it a gorgeous new cover? Even more evocative than the original.
Sam, I’m so happy to have you here!
Thank you so much for having me on your blog. I remember when my book became an Amazon Best of the Month, you were one of the first people to email me and congratulate me, and I really loved that.
Oh, well, I’m kinda nerdy that way. I get ridiculously excited when I see press about people I know. (See my blog post on Friday for proof!)
I don’t read a lot of books for grownups, but I have to tell you that I loved This Burns my Heart. There was one scene near the end, where they’re in the park listening to street musicians – omigosh, the longing, the covert thing with the hands – I don’t want to give away too much, but it was so beautifully written. Did it take a long time, getting the prose just the way you wanted it?
I think it's a tricky balance. On the one hand, you have to hold the reader's attention through beautiful language, almost like poetry. And I think this is particularly true nowadays, with all the competition from other mediums, and the availability of so much other (often free) entertainment--beautiful language is the only thing fiction can offer that other mediums can't. But I also believe that in order for the reading to become an immersive experience, the reader shouldn't even notice the language, and just become engulfed by the story.
I suppose in a way I just described the difference between literary and commercial fiction. The goal for me, then, is to find scenes where it feels organic to pause and engage in some beautiful language. Like the scene you're talking about--the descriptions of the musicians and the song involve lyrical language, but they're also embedded within the plot, since that's what the characters are listening to in that very moment. You look for moments where those two things can overlap, or where the fast moving plot can discreetly cede way, for a moment, for a beautiful reflection, or a metaphor.
English is not your native language, and yet you have a doctorate and you’re a professor of English. I know you decided as soon as you could read that you wanted to be a writer. What made you want to be a teacher?
I think it started when I was six years old and I would put mine and my sister's teddy bears and dolls in front of me and pretend that I was giving them a lecture. I don't remember what I would teach them, but it must've been pretty engrossing, since they would never move. Also, growing up, I always loved teachers. I was a classic teacher's pet, you know, the one the teacher would put in charge while she stepped out? In college, I would go to my professors' office hours and plant myself there. They could not get rid of me. I always liked teachers, partly because my first teacher, in many ways, was my mother, and I liked *her* a lot, too.
Have you had to autograph books after class? Do you have students asking for novel critiques and/or advice on being an author?
My students are starting to now, but for the most part they're much more interested in getting an extension for their papers, or figuring out how many points I take off for a late midterm. I teach art students, and they're very cagey, not at all the way I was back in college. (See answer above.)
Ah, the tunnel vision of youth :-)
You’ve also made a short film and then developed a novella based on that screenplay. Tell me how that came about.
Well, I was living in L.A. at that time, and when you live in L.A., you're practically obligated to write a screenplay. They won't give you a driver's license, unless you show proof of WGA copyright. So I wrote a screenplay based on a play and then a short film based on the screenplay and then a novella based on all that. And if you were able to follow that, you deserve an award. The novella was basically the screenplay, plus what I like to call "stage directions," which is what I call all that stuff that is not between quotations. It's very short, about 50,000 words.
Um, you're talking to someone who writes books for kids. 50K is an average sized novel around here!
Now that This Burns my Heart has been out for eight months, how has the experience of being a debut novelist changed from how you thought it would be?
|Signing books at Vroman's in Los Angeles|
There's a lot of doom and gloom out there so this is nice to hear.
I’ve heard people say that aside from editing, they have very little input once they turn their novel over to a publisher. Was that the case for you or did you have any involvement with the cover or the marketing?
You know, I had some input, yes, but here's what I'm gonna say about that: I don't think authors should have any input on book covers. You're just too close to the book, and you're too distracted by your own projections about what this Platonic ideal of this thing that you created should look like. You really need someone more objective, someone who actually saw what you created, rather than what you think you created, and can express that visually. I'm a big believer in expertise, so if an expert art designer thinks that this is what I should go with, then I'm happy to sign off. Having said that, I'm not shy about forwarding them suggestions before they come up with a cover and saying, "This is what I think might be a nice inspiration. This is what I imagine the world of the book to be." For the paperback of This Burns my Heart, I really wanted the book to have a very soft, feminine quality, and I was really happy with what the designers came up with.
How much support did you get from Simon & Schuster and what things did you have to do on your own?
They were/are incredible. I literally could not ask for more. What I admired about their handling of the book was that they always knew what was right for it, and at what point. They're incredibly smart about how to market books. They know how the business works, and knew who I should meet, and where our energies should go toward. And their focus was to just get the book in people's hands. They really thought that the book was going to sell itself, and they were right. The weird thing is that up to that point I was very much used to having to do things on my own. So I thought with the book, I'd have to do my own marketing, but instead they did everything for me. And they did it a thousand times better than I could, because they knew things that I, and most authors, don't know.
It had to be pretty surreal having one of the morning hosts talking about your book on the Today Show. And being chosen by Amazon and Kirkus as one of the best books of 2011. Were you surprised by how much praise your novel received?
That day I learned about the incredible power of television. And the way it unfolded was pretty surreal. I didn't know the endorsement was coming. I just noticed that day that my Amazon ranking (which I have to confess, I check way more than I should!) had shot up to #90 or something crazy like that. I thought, "Huh, something must've happened." And I went online and googled the book and found nothing unusual, or new. But then I noticed on twitter somebody thanking Hoda Kotb of the Today Show for her recommending This Burns my Heart. This light bulb went off on my head that said, "Oh wow, maybe she mentioned it on the show."
By then, I had already missed that morning's show, but fortunately, they put up clips of it right away on the Today show website. So lo and behold, I saw the clip from the show, and I found out that Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford have a segment called "Favorite Things." The book was Hoda's "Favorite Thing" for that week. And she gave it an amazing review, which I'm so thankful for. The book's sales really shot up--apparently it had gone up to #2 on Amazon that day. People tend to associate Oprah with endorsing books, but I think Hoda has an incredible fan base and an amazing ability to be a tastemaker.
Wow. I can't even imagine how amazing that must have been!
And you know, I wish I were cool enough to say "Oh, yeah, I totally expected all those best of 2011 picks!" But the truth is that I was totally surprised. That's kind of my personality: every time something good happens, it takes me completely by surprise and I'm totally grateful for. I didn't think I was going to get any of those shout-outs at the end of the year. I mean, this is the year so many incredible people had books out: Eugenides, Oondatje, Murakami, Tea Obreht, Geraldine Brooks, etc. So no, I wasn't expecting any of it--but once I did, I loved it!
I’ve heard rumors that you’re working on a novel based on mother-daughter relationships. What stage are you at with that? Do you feel like you’ll have as much time to develop it as you did with TBMH or are you feeling pressure to get it finished and turned in to your editor?
I'm going to plead the fifth on that one, before I get into trouble! I'm very superstitious about discussing books in progress. Actually, there's a really fascinating story about how this new book is coming together, but I'm going to wait to tell that story when the actual book eventually comes out. I have a tendency to spill the beans, and I need to hold myself back!
But to answer your question, I think everyone wants to know that you have something in the pipeline, but they'd rather you take longer and produce something great, than rush with a not-so-great book.
Okay, I'll accept that. For now :P
Anyway, thanks so much for having me on your blog! It's been a pleasure!
Thank YOU, Sam! And let me know when you're ready to talk about that new novel. I'm eager to see what you come up with next!
You can read more about Sam and This Burns my Heart by visiting his blog and website:
Watch his book trailer on YouTube.
If you'd like to win a copy of This Burns my Heart, let me know in the comments. This contest is only open to U.S. residents. Leave your comment before 9pm Pacific time on Tuesday, March 27. I'll announce the winner on Wednesday, March 28.