Novel experience: Portland authors reflect on releasing work in the time of COVID-19

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March 24 was going to be a big day for Jessica Anthony. To celebrate the release day of her new novel, “Enter the Aardvark,” she was going to be reading from and discussing the book at Book Passage, in the San Francisco Ferry Building, with Amanda Uhle, executive director and publisher of McSweeney’s.

For many authors, that’s a dream come true. 

But on March 17, San Francisco issued its “shelter in place order.” Anthony saw it coming.

Portland author Jessica Anthony has had to promote her new book, “Enter the Aardvark,” through a series of virtual appearances. (Matt Cosby photo)

“I contacted my editor,” she said, from her current place of shelter on Spring Street in Portland, “and said, ‘maybe we should rethink the California trip.’ And even if we went, we probably wouldn’t have anyone who wants to risk their lives to come to a literary reading. Which is perfectly fair.” 

It’s a weird time to be an author.

Anthony, who wowed readers with her first novel, the surreal exploration of ugly’s beauty that is “The Convalescent,” was able to successfully pivot to a virtual book tour. It mostly concluded with a homecoming event April 15, hosted by the Portland Public Library – though it wasn’t quite the culmination it might have been had it concluded a criss-crossing of the country. Anthony never left her home. 

“By and large, writers are not really public people,” she said, “so there’s a part of me that’s relieved not to have to be a show pony.”

Similarly, Alex Irvine, whose “Anthropocene Rag” (say it “An-THROP-o-cene”) came out March 31, is relatively sanguine about releasing something he’s been working on for about 15 years during a global pandemic. It’s his seventh literary novel, in addition to the 20-plus movie novelizations and licensed books he’s written about the likes of Captain American and Iron Man.

“My parade has been rained on,” Irvine said, from the South Portland house he shares with his wife and three kids. “But you almost hate to complain about it because of how awful it is for everyone else. Obviously, none of the celebrations you had planned can happen. I just kind of woke up on the day my book came out and said, ‘Hey, my book came out.’”

That release party at Print on Congress Street? Nope. An event down in Massachusetts? Not happening. And setting up virtual replacements?

Alex Irvine worked on “Anthropocene Rag” for about 15 years. It was published just as the coronavirus pandemic was changing the way the world does business.

“Everybody’s schedules are trashed,” Irvine said. “All your rhythms are gone. Trying to add something new to your schedule is Herculean … but it probably would be good for the book.” 

There’s also that change in how books are received nowadays. What happens when the world starts to look more dystopian than the dystopian fiction you’ve penned? What’s worse, a future dominated by feral nano-machines that constantly re-make reality or Trump’s America? 

“All dystopia is about our political system and trying to get us to look at it in a different way,” Irvine said. “And those stories can shine in these times because we’re sensitive to them. … The better types of those stories are about the actual human experience of living through crisis and what people do with and for and to each other.” 

What are people doing with and for and to each other right now? Maybe we can relate even more to Anthony’s featured character, a closeted gay Republican congressman with a loose relationship with the truth? Maybe explorations of the patriarchy can better help us understand what is happening with the American response to the coronavirus? 

Ultimately, there are few artistic endeavors more targeted at understanding the human experience than literature.

“It’s the thing that makes life worth living,” Anthony said. “But, obviously, you need to be alive first.”

She worries about the doctors and nurses on the front lines, those who might be suffering domestic abuse while sheltered in place, the homeless and the newly jobless, as she acknowledges it could be a lot worse for her personally. 

Anthony, however, also pushes back against any idea that maybe the arts are frivolous right now.

“I think there’s a lot of mythology surrounding what it means to be a working artist,” she said, “as opposed to this other thing that’s ‘serious and important.’ … That labor is just as important as anyone else’s, it seems to me. It’s always been my position that if you’re not alive to create something, then what are you alive for?”

And, sometimes, a book kind of works for itself. It takes on a life of its own, said Irvine, as readers engage and absorb it and tell people about it.

“I’m in about as privileged a position as I could possibly be in this coronavirus situation,” he said. “So to be complaining is kind of dumb. But, on the other hand, I put a lot into this book and I want people to love it and read it and I hope they do. Readers find books. Here’s hoping they find this one.”

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at sam@westgraycreative.com.

Jessica Anthony’s “Enter the Aardvark” is published by Little, Brown in the U.S. Alex Irvine’s “Anthropocene Rag” is published by Tor.com

Co-owners Josh Christie, left, and Emily Russo outside Print: A Bookstore on Congress Street in Portland. “Through social media and the old-fashioned phone call,” Russo said, “we’re finding ways to recommend books to our customers.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The essential task of selling books

Last Wednesday, Portland’s book stores were in a quandary: They knew they were “non-essential,” but they thought they could at least ship books to customers.

Then a city-issued FAQ explicitly said they couldn’t. And an uproar caused the city to reconsider on Friday.

Regardless, it’s anything but business as usual.

“How do you keep people positive,” wondered Ari Gersen, who runs Longfellow Books, Portland’s oldest new-books bookstore, “when overnight their jobs went form being booksellers in a social environment to sitting at a terminal 8-10 feet from anyone else, and processing web orders and taking phone calls, and packing up boxes?”

Longfellow Books on Monument Square is Portland’s oldest seller of new books. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Gersen took over for his father, Stu, who died in 2015 and was the store’s co-founder. 

“It’s not what they signed up for,” Gersen said, even though he’s happy to be able to continue to pay full salaries and maintain everyone’s health insurance. “It’s a challenge to keep that level of intellectual curiosity in the air, and I can’t say I’ve figured out the best way to do it. Mostly it’s with stupid jokes or something.”

Emily Russo, co-owner of Print on Congress Street, agreed that the lack of face-to-face interaction has been “by far, the most difficult part of being closed to the public … but I wouldn’t say that the customer experience has disappeared entirely. Through social media and the old-fashioned phone call, we’re finding ways to recommend books to our customers.”

Print has also embraced the virtual book discussion by helping debut Portlander Phuc Tran’s new memoir “Sigh, Gone,” and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “Good Boy” with virtual events on April 21 and 22, respectively.

Russo said it’s been “an eye-opening experience in how we can conduct different kinds of events once the pandemic is over.”

And they’re teaming with the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, which is partnering with Print and other Maine stores to allow readers to buy MWPA books directly from local stores and have the books shipped to their homes. 

Gersen and Longfellow have been less eager to dive into the virtual world.  “I don’t feel like technology is our strong suit,” he said.

Plus, there’s uncertainty about whether publishers will have the books available and whether warehouses will be open to ship them.

So, like many of us, Gersen is taking it one day at a time. 

“I think we have to remember that this is temporary, and the universe throws pretty awful things at you sometimes,” he said. “But that’s kind of the Longfellow approach over the years. You just have to believe that a better day will come, and it might take a lot of work, and it might suck for a while, but there’s a better day on the other side of it.

“That was always my dad’s approach and that’s why Longfellow has been able to survive. At the end of the day we’re smart, and we’re creative, and we care about the community and the community cares about us. And that means it will be OK.”

— Sam Pfeifle